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Charbroiled delights at a small village festival in a winery heavy area and the basement of one such windery

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2012 08 25 021 001

“The decision to return came suddenly. Or maybe not. Maybe I’d planned it all along –subconsciously waiting for the right moment.” (with apologies to Mr. Thompson)

The end of the European leg of this trip was to be the point of reckoning for The Girlfriend and I, the time to choose where to put down roots and begin our new, exciting international life separate from the extensive travel we’d engaged in off and on for years. Circumstances unfolded in other, messier ways and I’m working through the process of this decision alone. No single consideration holds for every possible destination, but my focus is mainly within reasonable flight time of family in The Midwestern US. I’m not sure why, I have serious doubts about whether my family would ever visit me outside of The US and I suspect they’d be miserable if they did, but to provide this analysis with some focus lets start there.

This is the case against my expatriation to Central America. This is not an accurate depiction of life beyond borders, but an accurate description of only the personal considerations that make me less inclined to pursue it. This is negative by design.

I’m an outsider. I’m often told that as a straight white man I can’t possibly know what systemic oppression feels like, but I’ve explained regularly that living as a gringo in Central America provides me with more insight than you might assume. I’m a racial minority who is singled out by the police for increased scrutiny, harassment and illegal abuses of power within a system that tolerates it openly. I’m the outsider against whom the local community often conspires and discriminates. If you live in these countries long enough, you will eventually be told point blank that you’re being charged more for something ‘because you’re white’. You will be the target of crime, often violent crime like robbery, because you are perceived as having more (you probably do) and while the community will not condone those crimes against you, it may be somewhat more accepting of them. In The US we get really caught up in identifying instances of racism and intolerance, but in most of the rest of the world, including Western Europe, ‘racism’ is an accepted part of the human condition. Intolerance crosses the line and only an irritatingly vocal fringe support it, but most people accept that different groups will have some negative opinions about each other at the group level and leave it at that. Even in my favorite places I will never be part of the in group.

Heinous violent crime often finds expats based on rumor alone; I’ve heard firsthand stories from people involved in draw downs and shootouts that occurred during home invasions motivated by the false belief that there was a significant pile of cash in the house. This was often based on nothing more than rumors that the victims were planning to make some significant purchase; perhaps they’d asked a neighbor if they’d be interested in selling some land or a vehicle and someone overheard.

Originally it was the indications of community that charmed me in these places, and it still does. Seeing neighbors bring chairs out and line the streets when the sun goes down, talking and joking and playing music from their boom boxes still enamors me of these towns. But no matter how welcoming the community is, I risk always being a guest in rather than a member of it. I’m far too verbal to be comfortable only ever being partially understood.

I don’t want to look like luggage, nor do I want to do what it takes to not look like luggage. The sun is pretty much the worst enemy you can pick and every time I’m in a warmer clime I see lots of people whose conditions remind me that living in a lower UV, higher latitude home has dermatological advantages. I don’t want to deal with constant applications of sunscreen; the greasy, clothes ruining chemical slather that gets in my eyes and pores and sheets and sometimes eats plastic it comes in contact with. I don’t want to clothe every inch of flesh, like habitual nuns, the gloved/sleeved/masked women on motorcyles in Vietnam or balaclava clad boat captains in The Honduran Bay Islands. The locals here in Siem Reap are wearing flannel in literal 100 degree heat to cover their arms from the sun. And those people are genetically pigment adapted to the local level of solar energy. I face it openly in defiance of God’s own will. I end up spending a lot of my time hiding from the sun, putting off activities until its less potent and finding fruitless ways to bide the meantime. I’ve spent to much of my time biding already.

My drinking habits have changed as we (or maybe it’s just me?) have learned more about the detrimental effects. I used to think as long as you avoided cirrhosis and managed to wake up the next morning, you were doing fine. That’s not my guiding principal anymore. I really enjoy drinking and I’ve always been up front about it with my doctors and they always said my intake was fine, but the metrics were unclear to say the least. Looking at current guidelines I’m even less sure that my past habits were well advised. Its always hard to find good info without digging right into the primary research, which is difficult because the meaningful studies are meta-studies, but I think we can safely say that expat scenes generally center on unhealthy (and otherwise awesome) levels of alcohol consumption. More power to them, its one of the things I’ve enjoyed about them for the 15 or so years I’ve been regularly intermingling in them. But its not where I’m at nor where I see myself in the next 20 years. I don’t intend to live forever, but I don’t have much interest in actively undermining my health to that degree.

I’m old, if only a little. The excitement of cramped chicken buses, loud motorcycles (and cars, for that matter), loud neighbors and all night ear shattering firework eruptions wore off a while ago. The trash bothers me more now than it used to, as does the dirt, the heat, the traffic and the aggressive vendors. The more extreme of the bugs always bothered me. It feels less festive than it used to, when palm trees, sand and jungle blotted out everything else in my mind, when I observed that ‘the rhythm of a steel drum really spruces up squalor’.

There’s so much dirt (and litter). I don’t understand it, but there’s so much actual dirt all over the place. I grew up surrounded by farms and travel has made me acutely aware of the difference between dirt and soil. Soil, like everything that comes from my home town, is less likely to travel. Dirt? It’s fucking everywhere. It’s like sand. In fact, often it’s indistinguishable sand. Some of it probably is sand. It’s airborne and in a gust, say from a passing truck, it coats your face and forces your eyes shut. Leon (Nicaragua) was where I first became irritated by this. So much about the city was fantastic, but nearly all of it was set against a small scale dust bowl reenactment.

Everything I said about dirt goes for bugs as well, though I find most of them less irritating than the dirt. Living somewhere with a hard freeze at least once a year really culls the herd.

Originally I wanted to expatriate to get away from American work culture. I hated my situation and hatched a plan to escape. The more I investigated, often on-the-ground, the more I found to love. But I was comparing life away from work in Central and South America to my working life in The US, and that gave The US an insurmountable disadvantage. For several years I’ve been trying to comprehend and/or articulate why it felt like I was seeking out ‘backdrops’ rather than destinations; why my concept of the places I visited always felt a little 2 dimensional, even after living there for months. Now I know it’s because I was ‘trying on’ an idyll lifestyle when I tried on the towns. We’d make some inquiries and get some idea of what could be done to fill the time, but for me I only ever arrived in these towns because they didn’t require me to do anything. No cooking, hire a cleaner, no job, have a few beers each afternoon with the guys at the bar or some rum punch with The Girlfriend listening to music around the casita and enjoy the colors as the sun went down. They offered the opposite of the working life I hated so much, so it was easy to assume it was the life I wanted. I used to despise my work so much that I viewed every dollar in terms of what it would cost me in time to replace it and would make just about any sacrifice that meant I could earn fewer of them, gradually making my own world smaller and smaller (my friends are saints for having tolerated this, BTW, thank you all) even as I explored more and more of what the larger world has to offer. The low cost of The Developing World gave these towns an automatic, perhaps outsized allure that allowed me to downplay a lot of the drawbacks or, more significantly, ignore other lifestyle options in The US.

Recently I spent 5 largely unemployed years in a Midwestern college town and then 6 months observing a similarly responsibility-lite lifestyle in several European cities, giving me the most direct comparisons (Latin America, US, Europe, all without work or meaningful time commitments) and most useful data yet. And seeing everything on a more level playing field, one where the US wasn’t drug down by necessary associations with its work culture, further shook many of my established but eroding beliefs.

You’re right to observe that most (if not all) of the things I’ve brought up can be mitigated in one way or another, often easily and in totality. If my choice was a 40+ hour/week work culture that I despise or a simple apartment in Boquete (where there’s soil instead of dirt, long sleeves are comfortable and the expat community isn’t especially big on drinking), I’d choose Boquete before you finished the question. But that isn’t what I’m facing. The difference in costs between the developing world and some desirable smaller towns in The US with climates I enjoy could easily be offset by 20 hours/week of low impact side hustle, which would also absorb some of the ludicrously large pool of free time I’ve been maintaining for years. In fact, by the numbers, that would set me up quite well.

Besides, Mackenzie’s Dad bought a bitching new lake house. The whole gang’s going to be there and I know where her dad keeps the good scotch.

The first two shots are from our walking tour, the third from our wine/valentine holiday tour.

Price of a beer in a bar: US$0.50 for a glass of local draft, unknown quantity. Cambodia is kind of famous for US$0.50 draft.

Song currently stuck in the head: Lola (The Kinks)

Sing it with me:

You arrived in Kampot about an hour ago
on a bus that was not the same as the ticket they sold ya
S-O-L-D SOLD YA
Well you step out the van and you’re getting harassed
by tuck tuck drivers who ask “Where you stay in Cambodia?”
C-A-M-B ODIA, CAM-CAM-CAM CAMBODIA…

Cambodia’s lazy pace is a welcome respite after the utter chaos of Vietnam. We booked transport from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam to Kampot, Cambodia, a riverside agricultural hub turned tourist destination owing to its French Colonial architecture and adjacent national park. We bought a package deal, meaning we were more or less concierged (in the lowest rent way possible) from our Phu Quoc Hotel to the ferry, then to a van, then through immigration and the border, then through a stop in Kep and onward. Its not the first time a driver in the developing world has held up a piece of paper with my name misspelled in marker, but every time feels special.

Kampot was an unusual scene of older expat guys and 20 something backpacker girls that do not intermingle. The guys are mostly paired off with younger Cambodian women, the girls seem to be enjoying a rest from being around guys. My guess is a lot of the girls are pursuing volunteer opportunities, which would explain the gender imbalance. After a couple of days drinking ‘happy’ avocado shakes and lounging around the hotel pool, we booked a couple of beach side tents at Coconutbeach Bungalows, over on a quite, wave lapped side of Koh Rong Island. The tents had good airflow, a proper mattress and a supplementary tarp roof to hold back the heat and rain… all in for $10/night. I think that price holds even if you put more than one person in these, which most people did. The crowd was a diverse mix; everything from vacationing families of 4, cadres of free range backpackers and personal growth types who talk about their women’s only nude empowerment and emotional nourishment retreats.

On the final night on Coconut Beach the bioluminescent plankton were firing, thick neon green tracers peeling off of your motion in small arches and fading away on a near moonless night an hour’s boat ride from any city lights. Someone on the beach likened it to being ‘in the matrix’ and I can’t argue. In the remote darkness the night sky was equally impressive, if more familiar, and fireflies performed as a middle act.

All of the mattresses in Asia are way out on the further reaches of firm. I love it and will try to find a similar support slab when I reach where ever I’m going. Out on the beach I was sleeping on about ~12 inches of uniformly dense foam and waking up refreshed. I’ve seen locals sleep on wood platforms by choice, so their preference for a less yielding pad is no surprise.

I also find the food in Cambodia highly agreeable. I have the girl at the shake cart making me avocado and green tea (matcha) smoothies and the place on the corner does a durian shake. I’ve never tried durian, so I’m about to. I haven’t tried amok yet, but will soon. The cuisine is heavily Indian, so red and green curries abound, as does ginger, lemongrass and a million flavors I can’t begin to identify. This is the first dish I had when I crossed the border, and it was delicious:

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A ferry and a sleeper bus put us in Siem Reap just in time for Kmer New Year. Options were slim, so  we went moderately upscale and booked 3 nights at The Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful property with a pool and loads of charm. Someone has put a lot of love into this place. It cost us US$20/pp/night to share a room, which is a steal but about twice what our higher end hotel costs have been thus far.

Kmer New Year is an interesting backdrop, but pushing to Siem Reap for it may have been a miscalculation. Little places that I’d love to visit, like Miss Wong and The Little Red Fox Espresso, are closed for the week. In exchange, though, I get a festival atmosphere and a chance to take in the spontaneous melees of waterguns and baby powder that Kmer New Year is famous for. Its odd to see pickup trucks overfilled with menacing teenage boys carrying huge guns and then a beat later grok that the guns are bright plastic and bulbous.

Hover to see descriptions, click to enlarge:

 

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Cost of a beer in a bar: US$2-3 for 500ml

Song currently stuck in my head: Six Feet Under (Marcu Rares Edit) (Billie Eilish)

In Bulgaria St. Valentine’s Day coincides with The Day of St. Trifon Zarezan, during which they cut back the old grape vines to allow for new growth. Its consistent with every other Spring Renewal Fertility Celebration, like our Easter with its rising dead, its high-fecundity rabbit imagery, eggs and lilies, but also particularly Bulgarian and rustic. This is wine country; most of my neighbors have elaborate trellises wrapped in vines and covering their drive ways, patios and yards. High quality wineries are well represented, but fermenting garage grape hooch is a widely practiced amateur past time too. Families take a lot of pride in their product, though the local practice among home vintners is to add powdered sugar to kick up the fermentation. I don’t know if it all ferments off or if they all come out tasting like desert wines. I bought a liter of ‘Bulk Red Wine’ at one of my local groceries, sold via a tap where you can bring your own vessel or use one of their plastic bottles, for US$0.90 (about US$0.13/glass). It didn’t taste overly sweet and it certainly wasn’t terrible, though it wasn’t quite as good as the carafe of ‘house wine’ (made by the owner) we had with our pizza the first night in Mostar or any of the mavrud I’ve had here.

We took a free tour around town with a local outfit, Slow Tours Bulgaria, and we were so happy with it we started shopping their other offerings immediately. We landed on a St. Trifon Zarezan special trip to a nearby village called Brestovitsa to cut some vines, witness some rites, tour a few wineries and hit up the village’s modest festival in their central square, all in for ~US$19. The drizzle did nothing to dampen our spirits. The grilled meat was amazing.

On another note, I finished the locally appropriate ‘Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe’ by Kapka Kassabova this week and it was fantastic. I’m not sure if this qualifies as magical realism, because I don’t really understand what that is, but this book will be my reference point until someone corrects me. I have prolonged train travel coming up that I was holding the bulk of it for, but it was too good to put down. I’ll have to lean on Sunday Night Noir to keep me entertained instead.

I have few reasons to leave my neighborhood here in Plovdiv. I’m interested in some whiskey, BBQ and Mexican food, all of which will require some travel, but otherwise this location has all my bases covered. The pharmacy around the corner was happy to give me a course of antibiotics to overcome some tonsil and/or throat thing that might finally be in check after I ignored it for weeks. The grocery just beyond that continues to delight me with strangeness from their hot bar. Cafes, as always, abound as do coffee machines. I’m well provisioned in this cosy little nook of The City.

Double Vendi

04.13.18

Afore mentioned coffee machines (these are at either end of my block, more or less, placed about how you would hope public mailboxes would be in The States) and Central Perk, a Friend’s themed cafe in The Old Town, next to The Cat and Mouse.

Around Plovdiv

04.11.18

Plovdiv, ladies and gentlemen.