Month: February 2013

RANT FROM THE BEACH

“I have the soul of a poet, not a Gila monster.”

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The late, great Bill Hicks was referring to douchebaggy LA types when he said this–you know, the kind of guy who calls you in New York on Christmas and brags how he spent the day poolside in 80 degree weather.  As an angsty Pacific Northwest artist nutcake, I’ve always identified with this mantra. After all, I came of age in the 1980’s, when surfer and vapid beach culture was shoved down our throats as some sort of national cultural ideal, and even then I hated that shit. Let us not forget that these were the Miami Vice years: Hang loose, bro.  Or worse yet: Life’s a beach!  If such watered down psuedo-surfer pablum weren’t horrible enough, I remember a disturbing high school trend in which a certain subset of preppy asshats took to wearing aquasocks as acceptable suburban footwear. Aquasocks.

For the love of all things decent and good.

I very much like, even adore the ocean, along with most all of the delicious creatures it contains: It’s just the beach part that does my head head in. I’ve always, in both the back, corners, and front of my mind, considered sunny beaches to be giant salt licks for assholes and idiots.  And guess what? After spending three hellish years in Los Angeles, my hunch was confirmed with hard scientific certainty.  On any hot weekend in Venice you could just feel the collective IQ drool into the double digits.

Since that time I’ve turned into a real scooter ridin’, guesthouse sleepin’, squatter shittin’, banana-pancake eatin’ traveler type, but I’ve amazingly managed to avoid really long stints of just hangin’ at the beach; when I have gone, it’s usually involved constant activity–snorkeling and diving–none of this laying around catching melanoma for me.  I just can’t bask like the others. First of all, my skin just turns bright red and feels like it was attacked by angry ants. More importantly, I just get too hot. Five minutes and my engine is steaming. I feel like a seventies station wagon conked out at Death Valley’s only service station. And later I look like this guy, sans handprint:

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I’ve managed to change my beach attitude a bit, in that I told myself, before setting off on this little adventure, that it was okay to do nothing (well, not really nothing, because even during periods of extreme inactivity I’m usually chipping away at a book or crossword). And that I did. Nearly nothing.  We just spent six days on outer Otres Beach in Sihanoukville, where swimming and laying were the main pursuits.

Like most everywhere else on this trip, I’d been to Sihanoukville some years earlier: seven to be precise. And yes, it has changed. The sleepy little main backpacker’s beach (dopily called Serendipity)  has now been built up with concrete and bars that open late into the night. The area around it is now a hub of activity with tourists of all ages and passport possessions walking its now paved streets. Sihanoukville was much more ghetto, and yes, sleepier, when I stayed those years back. Serendipity Beach was lined with crude hut bars that offered free marijuana to anyone willing to buy drinks there. Hell, some of the places offered a free bed as long as you promised to spend your chintzy gap year cash exclusively at their clapboard establishment.  If you were young and broke and wanted and endless beach party, Sihanoukeville was the place.

That supreme beach bum culture still exists, but like anything fringe, it has been forced further out of town, to Otres Beach–which is actually two settlements–we stayed at the one quieter and further out. The aroma of ganja still floats freely on the breeze, and there are plenty of tanned white dudes with ass-length dreadlocks who look as if they haven’t worn shoes in tens of months.

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Sihanoukeville attracts these perma-beach bums and has a system in place to maintain their survival. Many of the bars and guesthouses are foreign-owned (usually a wrinkly old dude and his Khmer workhorse wife, though there seem to be more young guys these days…) and openly advertise for Western, English-speaking staff.  The young Western workers are paid in food, drink, and bed, and manage to party their asses off the whole time.  Hell, if I were twenty three and on a grand tour of the region, I just may be tempted to do so myself.

There are some interesting folks down there. We grabbed most of our dinners at a place with an American young chef working the kitchen. His pasta dishes were just terrific, and the barman, Andrew, was a tattooed dude from Northern Ireland who maybe doesn’t even own a shirt. He had long blond surfer’s hair and was the spitting image of Sammy Hagar with an Ulster brogue. Craig was an emaciated American (yes it is possible) who had taught English in China for six years before washing up in Burnoutville. He did a little website work in exchange for shelter and his one meal a day, but seemed very content just to “curl up on a bench” on the beach of any accommodating owner. I think the tropical sun turned the guy’s brain into a kind of rank curry, and he was obviously in the late stages of a classic Asia Fail.

We’re now in Kampot, a crumbling yet charming town on the banks of a wide river, under the shadow of Bokor Mountain. It’s a couple days break from the beach until we head back to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island (which, strangely, is closer to Cambodia than Vietnam) for another week of the same.  Let’s hope I can still write afterwards; Hemingway got the “Old Man and the Sea” from his time in Cuba, so the beach can’t be all THAT bad.

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ONE MORE FIX

Last week I was sitting at a table in our resort room in Mui Ne, Vietnam, relaxing in my t-shirt and shorts as the sun crept down the horizon. The doors to the expansive terrace were open, and from my seat I could see palm trees, the roofs of the seaside village’s many hotels and guesthouses, and just beyond that, the wind-whipped sea. The setting was idyllic and I sipped from a glass of 333 Beer with a fresh lime squeezed and floating inside. My wife lay on the bed next to me, attempting to master the latest game on her smart phone (something about ordering servants to grow corn and water your magic mushrooms), and the ocean air blew through the white walled space, making everything smell salty, clean, and good. At that particular moment, I was a content man.

What was most amazing, however, was the scene unfolding on the laptop screen in front of me (I’ve turned my smart phone off for this particular trip, but am still not immune to the allure of sexy technology when on the road in the tropics). I was chatting on a certain social media site with several friends of mine: Two were in Korea, one was in Miami, I was in Vietnam, and the other was floating on a riverboat, somewhere in that great muddy delta that makes up much of the nation of Bangladesh. That’s right: BanglaFUCKINGdesh.

Even so, rather than use the amazing power of this technology to improve the world and our lives as a result, we instead seized the opportunity to insult each other and make dick jokes.  Hooray for the modern age.

My friend who was chatting from his berth on a Bengali riverboat was my old travel companion (before I got married and had to fire him)—the guy who I had come to Vietnam with the first time some eight years before.  Back then we chose Vietnam because it seemed pretty cool, off-the-path and hard, compared to overvisited Thailand, at least.  But things had changed. He described his time in Bangladesh up that point, using words like “insane”, “full-on”, and “mental”. His companions and he were going up river, straight into the heart of darkness in a country that sees almost zero tourism. I am told that the country is so bereft of visitors that it’s impossible to even buy a post card.  I read on with a bit of traveler’s envy as I tasted the real adventure that he was embarking on. And here I was, in a beautiful room, cold drink in hand, feeling very pampered, soft, and ordinary. Vietnam, once so exotic, now seemed old hat.  I may as well been on Waikiki beach in Oahu, sipping a Blue Hawaiian and watching the hula show.

Now this trip is my honeymoon, and I would never have traded places to be sweating on a mosquito-infested riverboat with severe dysentery being a very likely fate somewhere along the trip. I was with my gorgeous wife and happy to be where I was, but I felt my pulse quicken as I read my friend’s reports and felt my traveler’s dick shrivel a bit.

Travel is often compared to a drug, and though doing so risks sounding clichéd, the analogy is a strong one. Traveling, like mind or mood altering substances, is often exhilarating, gives you a rush, and can be absolutely addictive. And like drugs, the more you do, the bigger dose you require to hit that special receptor in the brain—the place that felt so good the first time.

Your first big travel experience is kind of a gateway trip, and often you feel like you have to outdo yourself in subsequent adventures. Maybe you bust your cherry by touring Europe. After that you try Thailand, and then decide to get crazier with Indonesia. Then it’s India, and Nepal, and then you go harder—into the ‘Stans of Central Asia—until that’s not enough, so you head to Africa, hitchhiking your way from Cairo to the Cape. What may seem like an alien world to some back home is now just routine, and you chase out the less-visited, the more dangerous, the more extreme. That is why my friend is in Bangladesh right now, and I get it completely.

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As for me? I’m on my honeymoon and loving it, though I hope to think that we’ve chosen a bit more adventurous route than some. After all, we are currently in Cambodia, and even in relatively genteel Siem Reap, if we stray from the path at any time we could step on a landmine and be blown apart. Thrilling, isn’t it?

Barring that, I think we’ll hit Syria next trip, but only if the civil war is still on.