Chiang Mai and the road to Pai

Read about the start of my journey through Southeast Asia, here, with a stint in Bangkok.

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Pai Canyon

We woke up on the night train outside of Chiang Mai on Wednesday morning, just as the sun was started to pierce through from behind the mountains and illuminate the valleys below.

After some lukewarm coffee in our unmade seats, we arrived around 8:30 a.m. to much milder temperatures than Bangkok, and super aggressive tuk tuk drivers who immediately swarmed us and followed us out of the train station and into the streets until we begrudgingly got in one with our bags.

We checked into our hostel — Brick House, which was really cool, except for the bathrooms — and then went to meet up with our new travel mate/ adopted daughter/ new favorite person in the world, Cat, a 19-year-old from London who we had met at our Bangkok hostel. Cat had taken an earlier night train the same evening and had been wandering around the city since 4:30 that morning. We connected with her at a cafe next to Wat Chedi Luang and together explored the temple and perused some shops around the bustling but much smaller city.

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Mel and I at a cafe in Chiang Mai

When I first began talking to people about traveling to Southeast Asia, everyone I spoke with raved about Chiang Mai. But no one could really tell me why, exactly. The 15.5-mile community is packed with stunning temples, often perched next to drug stores and coffee shops, like a McDonald’s might be. The land itself is beautiful, with mountains towering over the town. And it’s alive with stores sporting chiseled wooden goods, handmade jewelry and vintage clothing (Sweet & Lowdown on Thapae Road instantly became one of my favorite international stores) and street markets overflowing with fruits and noodles and fired grates releasing ribbons of smoke into the air.

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But here, too, tourism overwhelms. One really has to search for a restaurant that doesn’t include pictures of every dish on the menu (my personal policy is to avoid any restaurant that feels the need to offer pictures) and promise burgers and Caesar salad and spaghetti as options. The only really good food we found here was on the streets, as we walked.

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Chiang Mai market

It was still a treat for a couple of nights, just to see the markets and a few other sights. That evening, we took an hour tuk tuk up a hill to Doi Suthep, almost running out of time, but scrambling up the 309 steps — panting heavily — in time to watch the lazy sun dip below the tree line and paint the sky in yellow and pink.

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View from Doi Suthet

That night, we bought ringside tickets at Thaphae Stadium, along with a bottle of whiskey and a bucket of ice and exercised the capacity of our vocal chords through each of the five fights, some of which included the tiniest, youngest of fighters. (Seriously, we’re talking like 7-year-olds here) The highlight? A round of blind boxing in which a dozen or so fighters were blindfolded and stumbled around the ring, swinging wildly and occasionally flattening those in the wrong place at the wrong time or nearly falling through the ropes themselves.

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We found, though, that the true allure of Chiang Mai might be getting out of it, considering its attractive location to Thailand’s natural resources. And the next day, we did.

We had initially planned to stay for two nights in Chiang Mai, but on this trip, we’ve booked everything as we’ve gone along so as to stay as flexible as possible, and we decided to cut out the next day and jaunt up to Pai. Cat, whom we totally fell in love with the previous day, came along as did an Italian named Lorenzo, whom we met at our Chiang Mai hostel. This became our new crew, and over the course of a couple days we became illogically close.

When traveling abroad, hours become days and friendships garnered in the shortest of moments often connect you for a lifetime. I can’t explain by what witchcraft this is true, but I know that it is.

Many people who travel to Pai from Chiang Mai do so by moped. But Cat doesn’t have a license and Mel and I aren’t very proficient moped drivers, so the thought of doing so — one of us with Cat on the back, both of us with serious bags — up the steep cliffs on the road to Pai sounded like a bad idea. So instead, we rented a car for about $35 a day.

I was the de facto drvier, charged with getting the four of us up the razorblade cliffs without killing everyone — meaning the four of us, everyone else on the road and any wildlife in sight.

The early goings were a little shaky. In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car. I figured it would take some time to get used to making turns the right way, etc., and cope with the insane traffic and motorcycles always snaking around you, sometimes from both sides, but it was actually the driving on the right side of the car that was the bigger problem. I nearly took off the left-side doors on a concrete wall. Then I almost smashed into a couple of parked cars — my passengers were yelping by this point. Finally, I realized that subconsciously my mind wasn’t accounting for the extra space to the left of me. When I drive in the U.S., I don’t even think about the fact that I allow for more space on the right side of the car, but obviously I do, as anyone does.

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Mel at the Bua Tong waterfalls

After about 15 minutes of white-knuckling, though, we’d passed through the worst traffic, I had learned to keep looking out of the corner of my left eye and we were on the open road.

It started out as a “travel day.” But it was one of those days where everything we did was so new and our friendships felt so old and the sun was hitting all the right angles and it already felt like a photograph, when you look back and are wistful. But we were still living it.

An hour into our drive, we stopped at the Bua Tong waterfalls, which Cat had heard about from someone. We found a tumbling waterfall that dropped in sheets and gentle slopes, about 320 feet in height over two levels — a lovely, off-the-tourist-path sight, with a twist: The rocks along the current were coated with a mineral deposit, which forms a sort of hardened sponge-like surface that is easy to grip, even on steep plunges, with your hands and feet. Therefore it’s known as the sticky waterfall — a striking feature that you can actually climb up and almost surely not fall to your death while doing so.

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Me at the Bua Tong waterfalls

We hiked to the bottom and then over the course of about an hour climbed the various peaks and ledges, the quick-flowing water passing over our feet and ankles while we kept moving steadily upward. The steeper parts included ropes that you could grab onto and hoist yourself up. The sun was warm but not hot and the air was perfect, the water was cool but not frigid, and around us, a jungle bulged. It gave me the feeling of living in the sharpest way possible. With our packs thrown in the car, moving around hectically, living life on the road out of a suitcase and among friends met that quickly become more like family, I wanted to do it forever. As long as I am able to walk and hear and feel and see, I want to stay on the move and in the moment and feel like this.

We drove another hour, our shorts still wet, before stopping at a roadside cafe in the middle of corn fields. The hut was open aired, without walls, a thatched roof blocking the sun, bamboo mats hung like window shades and small operation at the front — a wood fire and grate, a mortar and pestle for making pastes, baskets of tomatoes and limes and banana chips and various containers and coolers holding other items. From picture-less menus written on re-purposed DVD cases, we ordered pad Thais and one of my favorite dishes I’ve eaten — green papaya salad with dried shrimp. The owners taught us some Thai and took pictures of us petting their dog and asked us where we were going, telling us our time was not enough.

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Mel and Lorenzo

We all had duties. I, of course, was the driver. Cat was the navigator after Mel had her privileges taken away for getting us briefly lost. Mel then handled our bookings — as we’re planning as we go, we are constantly in the process of booking things: hostels, trains, busses, planes, boats. It’s hectic.

Mel found a place for us in Chiang Mai and also booked our flight out, to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which we had decided on the night before while talking to a British guy at our hostel. She was also charged with dealing with the chaos. I lost my debit card, for example, and had to acquire a password to get cash from a credit card, and we had to reorder our pocket wifi, which would not work for Cambodia. Then, we had to figure out how much things should cost and what we wanted to do in a particular place.

Lorenzo, meanwhile, was responsible for researching cool places we should stop along our drive. We did stop twice more for a coffee at a beautiful out-of-town hut-like hotel, and then at an overhang for photo shoots. There were many beautiful fruit stands in micro villages along the way as well, but those stops got vetoed as it was getting late. By the time we had made it to the outskirts of Pai, the sun was sinking rapidly, and Cat suggested we stop at the Pai Canyon which was also on our list (and also thanks to Cat).

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Pai Canyon

We couldn’t have caught it at a more ideal time. We hiked to where the dusty cliffs dropped and split into many sections, creating thin, dramatic ridges that one could walk along, connecting to larger pieces of land. The sun simmered just on top of the rolling, layered hills and then dropped altogether and the sky was overtaken by a gray-pink haze.

 

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By the time we got into town, it was dark and Mel, having completed the bookings, was acting as navigator again. It was her phone that led us directly into a walking street market. We turned onto Rungsiyanon Rd., which was fine at first but inch by inch the people and stalls and motorcycles multiplied and surrounded us. We definitely weren’t meant to be driving on the street, but we certainly couldn’t turn around and so the only way was forward. Mel started filming, of course, and was so close to the vendors she could have bought a mango as we passed. Then it got a little wild with one British woman getting bumped (and acting like we killed her) and a guy yelling “IT’S A WALKING STREET” and everyone staring at the obnoxious tourists who were plowing through this night market crowd. Eventually we made it to our hut-like resort and all changed clothes so hopefully no one would recognize us.

We got our dinner on the street as we wandered: various meats and vegetables on sticks with sauces, coconut and tapioca flour balls filled with cream, rotee wrapped around mango and sticky rice (Mel said she’s going to start a religion based on the deliciousness) and airlike mini pancakes. We stopped every block or so (there’s a lot of stuff in one block,OK?) for cocktails at the half-indoor, half-outdoor bars. Our favorite sported trees growing through the roof and an acoustic guitar player nailing classic American covers.

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Pai street markets
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Pai bar
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Cat, housing noodles like a champ in the street

The next day we lounged at our luxurious pool area hanging over the river and really relaxed for the first time on the trip, then drove to another waterfall (this one far more disappointing) and had lunch before getting back on the road, later than we’d expected.

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Mel at our first cushy digs of the trip
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Lorenzo making a splash at our cushy Pai digs

That meant I had to make the same hairpin turn-laden drive, but downhill (imminently more nerve-wracking) and in the dark. We saw a bad crash that had happened shortly before we arrived, where one car had been turned upside down and then rested on its nose. We didn’t know the injuries of those involved, but as cringe-inducing as it was, it felt lucky that the car had spun to the mountain side and not plunged into the expanse beneath its cliff counterpart.

We didn’t stop anywhere this time and we managed to make our way back to Chiang Mai, safely, keeping slow and me insisting that no one but me was allowed to comment my pace.

 

Chiang Mai and the road to Pai

Hot Nights in Bangkok

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Quick story about my travel partner, Mel.

In the summer of 2014, I met her in Barcelona during a sun-washed jaunt around Europe. Over the two-plus days we spent together, we beached, coffee housed, marketed, took a gondola up a hill, got tattoos, ate lots of tapas, drank lots of sangria, and at the end, when she left for Marseilles and I, for Rome we vowed to have a reunion sometime, maybe in Southeast Asia.

That time is now! We’re doing it all over, with perhaps the exception of the tattoos, which my travel doctor strictly forbade. (Well, maybe.) After my quick stopover in Tokyo, I flew to Bangkok and met Mel — who was flying in from her home country of Belgium — at the airport. The next 48 hours were a haze of temples and street food, river ferries and motorcycle cabs (or tuk tuks) and criss-crossing the city in sweltering temperatures, stopping to cool ourselves with icy gin and tonics on fan-laden, shaded patios.

We stayed at Nappark, a hostel near backpacking-central Khao San Road — the beer-pounding, eardrum-crushing paradise or hell, depending on your perspective. (It’s hell, OK?) Thanks to the location, our hostel nights each featured drunk westerners singing loudly and puking in the wee hours of the morning. I’m probably too old for this — I’m sure these people will start calling me ‘Mama’ any day now — but the reality is if you want to travel a lot, you learn to sometimes do it on the cheap. With my flights paid for with miles, our lodging averaging between $5 and $15 a night and drinks and meals landing between $2-$8, frankly I couldn’t afford not to take this trip! For sure I’d be spending more money in Minneapolis right now. Which is further proof that if you do it right — you maximize reward and loyalty options, wait for deals, stay flexible with timing and destination and visit less expensive locations — travel can be quite affordable for most people.

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Pad Thai on a roof top

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View from a water taxi

Bangkok is another overwhelming city with neighborhoods that couldn’t feel much different. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely touristy. Khao San presents some terrifying mix of an Asian-speaking New Orlean’s Bourbon Street, the Las Vegas strip and Satan’s lair, with peddlers hawking hits of laughing gas and candied scorpions on sticks and American music blasting at max from every bar, creating a tornado of sound and smells and far too many white faces. The city’s center, especially around Siam Square, is a concrete jungle filled with American chains and designer stores — in jutting contrast with streets covered in trash and canopied with drooping tangles of power cables. Too many restaurants tout burgers and American breakfasts and the taxi and tuk tuk drivers have been trained to squeeze as high a price as possible from these often bumbling foreigners.

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Yes, we are white bumbling tourists ourselves, but we also couldn’t help but wonder what the old Thailand was like, before it hit every travel guide in western civilization, before we all flew over by the truckload to ride elephants and gawk at the beaches and add our trash to streets that struggles to handle its own. In many ways, it seems Thailand has adapted, negatively, to tourism, and it feels like we’re not really seeing the full thing. I’m so glad I got to go — but there were many times I felt ten years too late.

After walking around the first evening — eating our first pad Thai, sweating on a roof top, drinking gin by the river — and exploring the next day, we started to unfold the city’s edges a little bit and there was a lot to like, too. The temples, enough impetus for an entire trip for some, were as astounding as one could hope. Thai massage, which we indulged in our second day, is like wonderfully passive yoga where the instructor puts you in the positions upside down (be prepared to be swung around like a rag doll). The food, while inconsistent (you have to try hard to escape the tourist areas) was cheap and the drinks were too. And we discovered our love for tuk tuks, the motorcycle cart taxis that swarm the chaotic streets and whip riders through the sticky heat.

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Wat Pho

The city is fairly spread out and huge, so we spent a lot of time criss-crossing back and forth for one thing or another, although we failed in a few areas — to find a couple temples, to see Thai boxing (it was crazy expensive for Thailand) and to make it to the lady boy show. A lady boy show is about what you’d think — trans women performing burlesque; Thailand is known for being a leader in sex change surgery. But we were three minutes late and they wouldn’t let us in.

By Tuesday, we’d found our nook — a neighborhood Southeast of the center, called Silom, which is one of the city’s major gay areas and filled with hidden markets, closet-sized bars and adorable cafes and some of the best restaurant food we had in the city — particularly at Bitterman, a sprawling plant-filled fusion eatery.

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Mel and I at Bitterman

 

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Food and cocktails at Bitterman

Lumpini, the city’s central park, is just a short walk away and after lunch we strolled over to see if we could find the huge lizards we’d heard about. Sure enough, three of them about the size of small dogs, were lounging in a swampy moat around the exterior, flicking their blue tongues at us as their snake-like tails writhed in the water.

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Golden Mount

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Hidden market
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Cafe des Stagiares in Silom
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The bar at Seven Spoons

That evening, after taking in Wat Pho, we headed to Chinatown, which was abuzz with motorcycles and street vendors selling lanterns and trinkets and charred sausages and dumplings and bao buns.

Earlier in the day, we had dropped our bags at Bangkok’s main train station, so we picked them up then boarded our night train to Chiang Mai — the only other plan on a trip meant to be open-ended. The train was arranged in sets of two seats along either side with large compartments overhead and a table top which could be inserted between hiding in the floor. We left at 7:30 and ate the fruit and spicy rice that we’d brought on board and then one of the attendants came and converted each of the sets of seats into a single bed, dressing it with a fitted sheet, a pillow and a thin blanket. The large compartments above pulled down into top bunks, which he also dressed. Each makeshift bed had a blue curtain that could be pulled over, creating a small, private bed. It was a bare bones train otherwise: dinner was available to order to have at your seats, but we had been advised against it. The bathroom consisted only of a hole in the floor, which went directly through onto the tracks. And later we realized our attendant was sleeping on the floor, in a corner by the bathroom, a sheet thrown over his head.

(We’re a long ways here from Tokyo, where the toilets included about 15 buttons that offered sound effects — waterfalls, crickets — as well as several spraying, cleaning, scent and flushing options. Most toilets here require squatting over a hole and toting around your own tissue.)

With Mel on the top bunk and me underneath, we shut our curtains and slept eight hours for the first time in days, rocked to sleep by the rock of the train and the glow of the moon over the emerging mountains.

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Chinatown

 

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Hot Nights in Bangkok

Quick spin through crazy Tokyo

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Seventeen hours into Asia, I have eaten cry-worthy sushi, plucked from a conveyor belt, have lost my iPhone in a cab and somehow navigated it back, have seen robots dance (and fight), have slept VERY LITTLE and am feeling pretty fortunate to be on track.

After getting about five hours of sleep after staying awake for 28, I packed up and headed for the airport.

This is no small feat in Tokyo and the process for a 10 a.m. flight needs to begin around 6. First there is a walk to the train station, halfway through throwing yourself in the only taxi you’ve seen on the oddly deserted morning streets. Then, you have to FIGURE OUT the train system, which is not well-marked in English. Very few people here even speak English it seems, so that’s another barrier, although everyone seems genuinely interested in trying to help you. I’m actually surprised at how nice people are in a city as big as this and that they actually stop what they’re doing to help a frantic backpacker who is great at near-missing everything.

The train station this morning was mostly filled with tipsy, ravishingly dressed young people who were clearly making their way home. One couple — despite literally speaking only one word of English between them, “went,” which wasn’t actually helpful for our conversation — stopped and really tried to figure this thing out with me. Of course, they were drunk and they gave me completely incorrect information but being not drunk and only hungover myself, I assessed that sitch, said thanks and walked away. When I found the appropriate counter with a woman who did actually speak a little English, she sold me the ticket to Narita and then said “You won’t make this train. You can’t make this train.”

The train was eight minutes away and I thought that was ridiculous but it turns out getting there required a maze of stairs and more people trying to drunkenly help me and suddenly I was sprinting with my pack on and hyperventilating and then finally finding the correct platform and literally FALLING ONTO IT as the train arrived. Missing it, you see, would mean either missing my flight or paying $300 to get to Narita in time.

So, I leave Tokyo for now, this wonderful, maddening place that is wonderful and maddening for many of the same reasons.

Also I would possibly murder someone for a bottle of water right now.

I landed yesterday at 2 p.m., after 13 hours of trying to entertain myself while hopelessly awake on a flying pillbox. I had a pretty hefty stack of plans, but again logistics are not simple in this city. I took a bus from the closer Haneda airport, but still didn’t arrive at my Shibuya apartment until almost 5.

I shed my pack and wearing the same clothes (It’s cold here. It’s warm everywhere else I’m going), I made my first stop, navigating through the Time Square-like Shibuya Crossing and to Katsu, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, aka, my new vision of what heaven must be like. After about four people helped me find it — in Tokyo, you often have to look vertically for your destination — one man ushered me to the weaving line of chairs around the outside of the restaurant. Every three minutes or so, one of the men working would run out and snatch the two or three people seated next in the cue. Then everyone would shuffle over two or three seats. And again three minutes later.

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When finally I was at the front of the cue, they brought me in and sat me at the large, square bar. In the middle of the bar were sushi chefs, yelling and chanting and singing. There was a pottery cup and dishes for ginger — which was housed in a box every three seats or so — and for soy. Matcha powder for making tea was in a small canister with a spoon. When you put a little in your cup, you could then fill it with hot water from the spout that aligned with your seat. Chopsticks were in a small drawer. Oh, and then you were ready for the sushi. The conveyor belt rolled along, topped with everything from fish to fried foods to drinks to fruit. The only white person in the joint — a win! — I must have looked like a kid discovering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory as I snatched a trio of slightly singed nigiri cuts. Oh my god, they were butter. One bite in, I plucked a bottle of sake. Then most fish, shrimp, another sake, fish, fish, fish. Each item sauntered past on a colorful plate — each design of which had a price understanding (I didn’t know and I didn’t care what it was) and at the end, the staff would look at your stack of plates and determine how much you owed. From what I understand, this is the sushi of the people. Not supposed to be especially outstanding or anything. It’s basically in a mall for pete’s sakes. And yet it pretty much smashed everything I’ve had up to this point (Sugarfish in Santa Monica, while way more expensive, is up there.) could have stayed there all day. All. Damn. Day. But I forced myself out to see a little more of the city.

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And what a city it is. Like New York, everyone here is so beautiful and immaculately dressed and I’m just in love with everyone. Except they’re actually nice, too. I was overwhelmed by my lack of time and the largeness and the glamour and the wackiness of it all. I resigned myself to accepting that I would only see a small part — and another small part on the way back — and hopped around a few bars and stores before meeting a pair of gay guys I befriended on my flight at their hotel, the Park Hyatt, for a cocktail on the 52nd floor, the New York bar, a Prohibition-inspired nook with live jazz and stellar views of the city. One quick bit of hilarity: there was a drink on the menu that needed a qualifier. The Old Fashioned could be served either “classic style” or “US style.” Since I’m pretty certain the US invented the classic style, I had to ask our waitress what the difference was. “Classic style is stronger, she said, and US style is fruitier,” a declaration that drew quick hoots from the table. I think we should all be very insulted by whatever that means!

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The main event last night was the Robot Restaurant, a bizarre bar/show combo that one of my new Tokyo friends, Blaine, had discovered on his apparent travel bible, Atlas Obscura — essentially a guide for the weird and wacky in cities across the world. The show, a collection of colorfully wigged, outlandishly dressed and scantily clad women dancing and performing about war alongside robots, and floats that trounced around in seeming chaos. I think our mouths hung open the entire two hours. It was awesome, except that it was totally Westernized and pretty much everyone there was a tourist. We were imagining what the creators tell the staff before each outing. “Just bang the drums. You know they like that. They’ll believe whatever you do is authentic so just take it over the top, OK?” Definitely more sake was needed than was had.

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An aside, to demonstrate how kind and precise people here seem to be: on the way to the Robot bar, we took a cab and in the chaos that comes with three people demanding to be the one to pay, I left my iPhone in it. Pat, Blaine’s partner (they were both just so wonderful) immediately announced that he felt strongly that I would get it back. He told me later he’s into putting positive vibes out into the universe. I was considering it gone and mourning my photos, but we decided to call the hotel to ask if they might what who the cab company we had used was. It was a starting place. None of us remembered the color of the cab or anything else about it. When Pat called, the manager he spoke to remembered who we were and that we had taken two cabs — Pat’s adorable parents were also traveling with them and they also came along — and asked whether the phone had been left in the cab on the right or the left when they lined up at the hotel to pick us up. When we said it was the left cab, he knew precisely which company it was and said he’d research it. Fifteen minutes later, he called and told us he had the phone at the front desk. When we returned to pick it up after the robot show, I gave him all the money I had. Wow.

Today, I’m headed to Bangkok with a connection in Hanoi, which of course makes me think “WHY THE HELL DID I NOT SCHEDULE A STAYOVER IN HANOI?!?!”

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Quick spin through crazy Tokyo

Figuring out, leaving Cuba

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I had an epiphany yesterday.

While I was consuming my rum that was meant to be a gift back in the U.S. and feeling sorry for myself for again running out of money, the German girls we had met the previous night showed up at our rooftop hotel pool. The Germans are medical students on internships, working at Havana’s main hospital, and have been living in Cuba for about five months. Oh, and they speak flawless Spanish. This is important currency in Cuba.

I made them rum drinks too, and we sat for a while, chatting by the water. A German guy who is in Cuba studying economics was there too. I told them I was out of money. They said $16 was definitely not out of money, and if I was hungry we should go get some food. They knew the area very well, and around 6 we walked about 20 minutes into the true heart of central Havana, where the streets became very residential and poorer, and many street peddlers sell onions and pineapples and golf-ball sized lemons, and people sit on plastic stools outside their open doors smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny coffees.

We stopped at a cafeteria they had been to before – a square hole cut into a worn building with a small counter, and a handful of plastic tables, and graffiti that covered the walls. I ordered a chicken leg with a tangy, tomato-y sauce that came with rice and cucumbers and mashed plantains cooked with garlic and onions until they were almost like mashed potatoes. We all had bean soups and mango juices to drink, too, and when we were done and paid, I owed the equivalent of $1.70 for my share.

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A cafeteria near the one where we ate
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The view from the Germans’ apartments.
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Night markets in central Havana

And it was delicious. I asked one of the girls what the place was called.

“I have no idea,” she said. “There are cafeterias like this everywhere, they don’t really have names, they just have food.”

She told me that the best food in Cuba comes from places like these, and from people’s houses. When they traveled to Santiago recently, when they were hungry they would stop by an open door with wafts of cooking meat drifting onto the street and ask if they could eat. That, apparently, is fairly normal. The owner of the house would then make them a plate of whatever she or he was fixing and they would in turn give her 1 CUC (a dollar).

“Cuba is complicated,” one of them told me. “It takes several weeks just to figure out.”

There is the fact that as many have told me, there are two official pricings for everything in the country: one for Cubans, and one for tourists. Cubans buy books for pennies and go to the theatre for 2 CUCs, while tourists see the same shows for often $200 or $300. Cubans take short taxis for 50 cents while tourists pay $5 or $10 and long taxis for $15 while tourists pay $100 or $200. That inside affordability in some ways accounts for Cuba being incredibly cultured. Even a street sweeper can have a conversation about literature and art. Food is the same in terms of the different pricing and drinks are the same. And to add to the confusion, tourists are given CUCs while Cubans used CUPs – about 25 of which are worth a dollar, I believe, and the CUP price is often not listed if it’s a place where many tourists go. It’s almost as if you need to know the words that act as passwords for entry into the secret world of cheap living.

Then there is the culture of bartering and haggling. If you take someone at their word, you can go ahead and assume you’re getting ripped off.

“Rule No. 1,” Luy told me in Santa Clara, “is ever accept the first price.”

Then there is the urge to pay a fair wage to people who badly need the money. The average Cuban makes less than 70 CUCs (dollars) a month – not enough to live on.  They receive a booklet from the government at the beginning of the month which subsidizes staples like milk and meat and coffee and bread and rice. But it will last only maybe ten days, people have told me. The rest of the month, they have to scrap.

“No es facile” – it’s not easy – is a common phrase in Cuba, whether it refers to unavailability, dysfunction or simply not having enough money.

Still, the divide between the haves and have nots in a supposedly socialist state is growing, and rapidly. Those who are in the tourism business can make hundreds of CUCs a day. And with the surge in Americans bringing only cash, the obligation to report their income is released.

It’s hard to know how to help Cuba and how to be in Cuba and how to know Cuba.

After dinner, we stopped by a street vendor and split a bottle of $5 rum and went to the Germans’ apartment where they made us tiny coffees with sugar and then rum with limes. Tired from the long night the previous night, I left for my hotel when they prepared to go dancing.

One of the German girls put me in a cab, yelled at the taxi driver for a while and instructed me to only pay 10 pesos – the equivalent of about 40 cents. I’d had a pretty great day, and I’d spent less than $5. Maybe Cuba is as cheap as dirt after all. Maybe I’ve finally figured it out.

And of course, I’m leaving.

This morning, as last night, half the lights in our room – including the bathroom – decided to stop working. So I showered and packed in the dark and then went downstairs to catch the cab that David, our Cuban friend, had set up for me so that I would pay about $20 for the 45-minute trip to the airport and not $50. But after 15 minutes of waiting, he still wasn’t there. Another taxi pulled up, beckoning, and I asked him how much. Sixty, he said. I shook my head and told him he was loco. Fifty he said. I turned and walked away. “Mira, mira, mira,” he said. “Que quieres a pagare?” – What do you want to pay?

Twenty-five, I said, having been loaned exactly that much from Lindsey – poor soul, who is still puking her guts out. He nodded, and I got in.

At the airport, I spent $4.50 on another bottle of rum and $5 on two small bags of Cuban coffee, and then stood in line for 40 minutes for a café con leche with the last of my CUCs. When I boarded my plane, I was greeted with a glass of sparkling wine, suddenly rich again.

Figuring out, leaving Cuba

Broke again and now Lindsey has food poisoning in Havana

Well, I’m out of money again, so to everyone who told me Cuba is dirt cheap: thanks for nothing.

Yes, it is relatively inexpensive in a lot of ways, but it’s also unexpectedly pricey for transportation, Cubans expect you to foot their bill all the time and you get ripped off right and left if you’re blond and your English isn’t perfect. Also I’m slightly concerned about getting robbed after one of the fellow tourists we were hanging out with in Havana last night went into the park to make a call and had his iPhone stolen at knife point.

It’s a bizarre feeling to have money and not be able to access it. We asked the hotel – which we’re paying $500 American dollars a night for … NOT CHEAP – if we could put food and drinks and maybe a taxi on the room since they obviously have our credit card number on file. No can do, missy. Then I was going to go the Western Union route again, but for some reason all of them are closed today. (Holiday? No se.)

 

I’ve got $16 left and Lindsey is super low too. BUT after breakfast, she took her turn at food poisoning and now is writhing in bed, so maybe I’ll get her meal money tonight!

Yesterday was our first day here in Havana. I guess what we’re really paying for at this hotel is the wifi, which is actually hotel-wide! Seriously, you can get it in your room and everything. I almost don’t know what to do with myself and I’ve maybe been cured of my obsessive Instagram-checking for life.

After sipping a few mojitos upstairs at the rooftop pool, we asked the door men where we could find an awesome meal in a place that wasn’t full of white people. The guy – his name is Papi – told us it was very hard to find a place that isn’t full of white people in Havana these days, but directed us to a spot called Canonaso, which was probably five or six kilometers out of the center. It was a pretty cool spot – all brick and courtyard-like with extremely fluffy chickens running loose and a pretty talented band playing. Some guy from Oregon who had for some reason traveled with his saxophone and then for some reason brought it to the restaurant, got up there and played with them and we were pretty convinced he was in some way famous until our waitress asked him and he said flat out that he wasn’t. Sure, that’s what all the celebrities say.

Afterward, we met up with Ellen, a client of Lindsey’s, who is a Norway citizen but has been spending the last year in Cuba. We went to a house party in Vedado. Nothing cool is in central Havana, I’m learning. There, we met some Germans who are living here and some more Cubans. I asked one of them – David – what was hard to get here, and he added condoms and chewing gum to the list. I had a half a pack of chicklet-style gum in my bag, so I gave it to him. Of course, I regret it now because I’m told I could have bartered it to get into a club or for a potato or something. Together, we all went to Chorrera, this castle-style bar and club on the beach with a huge roof top and lots of rum.

This morning, before she starting chucking, we went on a tour across Havana this morning in a bright purple 1958 Ford. There are even more of the old cars in Havana than I’ve seen other places. David told us last night that most of them have been in families for decades. No one really buys them because they’re quite expensive here – about $10,000. And of course, they’re constantly replacing parts and the engine, but it’s still pretty amazing that they’re all still running.

After the tour, the guy tried to take us for $70 even though we had agreed on $35 beforehand, and normally we might have given in, but considering we’re REALLY BROKE, we refused and just handed him $35 and walked away. He followed us into the hotel and later a manager came to try to get the money, but we managed to keep it and we haven’t been arrested yet. Anyway, I hear when you get in trouble in Cuba, the punishment is a police escort to the airport, so considering taxis are pretty pricey, that might be a net gain.

I haven’t eaten again today, but I went to a market and bought some cola and got some limes and ice from the bar and have been mixing it all with the rum I bought in Santa Clara and sitting at the pool, which is at least gorgeous.

Broke again and now Lindsey has food poisoning in Havana

Boats, baseball and belated taxis in Matanzas

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Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of my Cuban adventure.

Yesterday after downing some coffee and fruit from my hosts, I waited for my gal Lindsey, who was set to arrive in Havana at 11, then take the hour and a half journey by taxi to Matanzas.

Except by 4:30 p.m., she still hadn’t arrived.

By this point, being completely out of money – my last two pesos went to water, and I’d had no lunch – I was getting a little panicky. GOOD NEWS: I found out that while you can’t get money wired to you in Cuba as a U.S. citizen, Americans CAN send funds to a Cuban who can then think about giving it to you. I walked down to a nearby Western Union, where this was communicated, and then one of my hosts was preparing to walk back with me to receive some funds that my dear worried mother was going to send when Lindsey called.

Turns out, her taxi driver had misread the directions and taken her two hours out of the way. So, cool. She got swindled too.

Since neither of us had eaten that day, we immediately went to get food and mojitos and then more food.

Then today, after breakfast, we had planned to go on a boat owned by one of my host’s friends. A pair of tourists also staying at our hostel – a mother and son from Sweden – came along, too. When she dropped us off at the dock, there was, for reasons that were never clear, a tribal performance featuring mostly naked Cubans in body paint ensued. Then, they threw us the keys to the boat – without any concern for our mastery of boat driving, reliability or, frankly, safety. There were no life jackets. We buzzed along the river, which was pretty awesome, and then had fresh langoustine (massive and so cheap) and more mojitos at the dock hut.

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Lindsey dancing with the tribe after I sacrificed her.

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Afterward, we caught the middle innings of the morning baseball game – featuring the No. 2 Matanzas Crocadillos. Also pretty fantastic. The crowd was small (it started at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday after all), but those in attendance ruthlessly heckled the opposing players. One man picked up a trash can and threatened to dump it on the guy in the on deck circle. And the opposing players yelled right back and occasionally walked over to shake someone’s hand over the fence to show it was all in good fun.

Matanzas feels like a pretty big city with a lot of different dynamics. It also has a lot more texture than anywhere I’ve been here so far. As we zipped down the river, the hills grew higher and steep rock cliffs lined the shores.

Now, as we’re en route to Havana, it’s very lush and mountainous just on the city’s outer edges, with the ocean laying just beyond. We just passed a rum factory – the air smelled sweet and syrupy as we rolled past, windows down – and before that a mountaintop restaurant that sat on an overhang, jutting out above the deep green valleys. It seemed to be calling our names for another mojito situation, but Lindsey is hyperventilating about getting to Havana.

Boats, baseball and belated taxis in Matanzas

Mountain views, motorcycle side cars and salsa in Matanzas

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The only way to get around in Cuba as a tourist is to meet people. Otherwise, you will get swindled right and left.

And, as it is becoming clear to me, the only way to exist in Cuba as a native is to know a lot of people. Because no one place or one person can access everything. Things are just too rare.

Yesterday, one of my hostesses, Sara, took me with her to go around the commercial center in Matanzas – essentially the shopping district, where all of the stores are. I think they are all in one place because many are needed to complete a shopping list.

Each store is very limited and unreliable in what they’ll have on any given day. At the grocery we first went to, there were frozen meats (chicken, hamburger, steaks, shrimp, lobsters), beer, rum, wine, juice, oil, mayonnaise, candy and chips, dry pasta, canned sardines, peppers and tomatoes, jarred olives, onions and garlic, cigarettes, protein powder, beans, cornmeal, rice, non-refrigerated yogurts, hot dogs, ice cream, toilet paper, baby food, salt in large bags, cleaning supplies, ironing boards and pots and pans. Today there were no eggs, though, and no milk at this particular store.

“Sometimes yes,” Sara said, “sometimes no.”

There are other stores that have milk at a particular time, but maybe no meat. Or bread.

When stores do have something, for the most part, there is only one brand for everything – one main kind of toilet paper, one main kind of soap (which explains why everyone and every casa smells of the same scent), one main kind of juice, etc.

Produce is sold in separate storefronts, which are closed on Mondays. However, Sara prefers to shop for produce on the streets, where it’s fresher, she said. She picked up some long beans from a man selling out of a wheelbarrow and a bin tied across the handles of a bicycle, and I bought an avocado the size of my face.

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Sara, my hostess, in the striped shirt, photobombed by a stank-eyed Cuban woman

There are other stores for electronics, soaps and lotions and home goods, although most stores are a mashup of all of the above, sometimes with food as well.  In one store we walked into, at the counter were bundles of plastic cutlery, toothbrushes and socks, all in a row.  At most of the stores, there is a man at the door who will inspect what bags you have on you, and upon your departure, inspect your bags again as well as your receipt. Some stores require women to check their purses in cubbies before entering.

And there are all kinds of other “stalls” on the street, too. Sara stopped at one point to buy a steel scrubbing pad from a man sitting on a stoop selling a handful of them as well as cheap disposable razors and batteries out of a suitcase.

In general, she has to visit six or seven stores, she said, to get what she needs, plus street stalls. For everything else, neighbors and friends help each other out. As I mentioned previously, Sara and her family are very well off in Cuban standards. Sara is an engineer and her daughter, Edelys is a dermatologist. They dress nicely and have a gorgeous house and wine that tastes like wine and not something that came out of a litter box. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to scrap, too. Last night, Edely’s husband, Armando, who is a bartender, told me that she makes only $60 a month. He asked me how much money she would make in the U.S. and I almost felt sick telling him. Then I told him he could make almost six figures as a bartender in the U.S., too, at the right place.

“OK,” he said, and paused before smiling. “We will come with you in your suitcase.”

When I left Sara in the morning, I wandered around and then sat in the Parque Liberdad for a while. Since this is the only place in the city to access wifi (which you pay for by the hour, at a nearby hotel), the park is very lively and the benches are almost always full. It’s a beautiful park with a stage in the middle although I haven’t seen any performances . At sunset, birds descend on the many trees and form a loud squawking symphony.

While I was in the park, I made a new friend – Ariel.

Now, I know it sounds like I’m meeting a lot of dudes here and that is true, but Cuban women seem to hate me instantly. And the guys I’m meeting seem genuinely interested in showing me their city and their country without expectations. (OK so two of them may have professed their love after a couple of days — whatever.)

Anyway, going around with a Cuban is infinitely easier. (“There are two prices in Cuba,” Ariel said. “One for Cubans and one for tourists.” It seems like there are two sets of rules for everything in Cuba.) When you’re with someone, people stop whistling at you and taxis don’t try to swindle you and you know where the hell you’re going.

I was on my way to a former 1800’s era French pharmacy which has been converted into a museum, and so Ariel came along and acted as translator. Then, he took me to a restaurant near the university Camilo Cienfuegos where we drank mojitos and had the best fish I’ve eaten here – grilled simply with salt – with plantain chips and lime. The food here overall seems to be much better than it was in Santa Clara, but you do pay for the better quality AND I AM ALMOST OUT OF MONEY.

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After the museum, he took me to some artist studios along the river.  My hosts had told me to walk by the river because it is “very beautiful and natural,” but in reality, the shorelines are piled with trash and the opposite end from the city is lined with shacks. From there, we went up to Monsarate – the mountain top – in the afternoon, where we had more mojitos and an absolutely incredible view of pastures of horses and the ocean beyond. The best part, though, might have been the journey there and back in the side car of a motorcycle taxi (Ariel got on the back of the motorcycle). The driver had helmets for us and he just took off down these pedestrian-crowded streets, weaving around running people and dogs and all of the many potholes in the streets.

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I had dinner and napped for a while and then met up with Ariel and a bunch of his friends – including two Cuban women that didn’t hate me – and we all went to a different discotheque that was definitely better than the first one I went to and definitely more fun and safer feeling with a group of people.

I got my salsa on! But for the people there, the most popular songs were probably the American songs, which were bad club songs from 15 years ago. It’s pretty hilarious. Also, I had asked Ariel earlier in the day what was good to wear to the club and he said “normal” – so I showed up in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. They, meanwhile, were wearing starched shirts  — but they seemed to think I had dressed the nicest of anyone. The girls fawned over my jeans like they were something special. It’s strange. I really think people here are just entranced by Americans, one way or another.

Most of the others didn’t speak any Spanish at all but we communicated with my Spanglish, and every half hour or so one of the guys would look at me, yell out “HEY LADY! WHAT’S HAPPENING?” in English and crack up laughing.

After paying for my cab last night, I have a grand total of $2.50 to my name, just enough for water for today. My friend from California has supposedly landed and is going to be bringing me more cash, but her phone isn’t working. She better get here or I am going to be dying in this place.

Also: SO excited to speak English.

Mountain views, motorcycle side cars and salsa in Matanzas