It’s Okay To Suck At Bike Riding

And other lessons I learned from Haruki Murakami


It’s not often that I have a special experience surrounding a book I read.  This one involves the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and what was probably the worst bike ride of my entire life.

September of last year Yun and I planned a do or die trip to Jeju Island, the so-called “Hawaii” of South Korea. We were leaving Korea soon and it didn’t seem right to do so before we paid a visit.   Why not go all out, we thought, and turn it into an epic bike trip. So with some thought we planned our itinerary, where we would stay, and how we would pack.

We didn’t exercise as much thought when it came to the weather.

About two days before the trip it occurred to me to check the weather status on Jeju Island. “Constant rain,” the Internet told me. All three days we would be there. All day long.

We shrugged it off. What’s a bit of rain, anyway? We figured. Isn’t that part of the adventure? A raincoat each and we’d be set. How bad could it be? (Here I take a moment to pause and exhale ever so slightly…)

When we arrived in Jeju City the rain was fairly mild. See, this is nothing! My psyche made a valiant attempt to see the glass half full. We hopped on a bus headed south and crashed that night at a “pension” (something like a Korean B&B, minus the breakfast part). We had ordered our rental bikes to be dropped off the next morning. And then the next morning came.

Rain. Frenzied, relentless, pell mell. Half filled with dread, half mortified I couldn’t look Yun in the eye. The rental bike guy came with our bikes to the hotel lobby at around 9 am. Seeing our hesitation he asked, “You know how to use these…?”


It’s not that we didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Rather it was at this moment we realized the second critical error we had made.

The bikes we had rented were…how to describe them?  Professional bikes. Bike enthusiast bikes.

The kind of bike with the hand bars one foot lower than the seat so that you’re bent forward like a yogi. The kind of hand bars that have little horns you have to grip on top so that it’s almost impossible to pull the brake without killing the muscles in your pointer finger. These were bikes meant for true athletes, meant for aerodynamic cruising around hairpin turns. They didn’t even have kickstands. My idea of a bike was (and still is) a low-rider with a fat, cushy seat and a big basket in front for carrying a thermos of lemonade. We both stared for a moment in silence.

The bike rental guy showed us how to adjust our seats (even the lowest setting still put us in the leaning yogi position) and with a brusque, I-don’t-have-time-for-this kind of attitude sauntered back out into the rain and drove off in his rental van.

The hotel manager watched us from behind the counter and said, “Are you guys really going to ride those things out there?” I don’t understand Korean all too well, but I can’t imagine what else he could’ve said. I’m pretty sure at that moment both Yun and I reconsidered what we were doing, but we had checked out of the room, paid for the bikes, and the ship had sailed.   We donned our helmets and our pitiful rain ponchos we’d bought at a convenience store and headed out.

Something to note about riding in the rain: there’s riding in the rain on a level surface. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill in the wrong clothes.   And then there’s all of those factors, in addition to riding on a bike you have absolutely no experience with.

I did okay until it got to the uphill part. I tried to think of it as a whimsical sort of misadventure I could sort of laugh my way through. That’s when my thighs started to die.

I was wearing jeans – probably the worst thing you could wear in a rainstorm – and they were soaked to the core in seconds. Along with my muscles they resisted the upward pull of my legs as I pedaled. I was thoroughly out of humor by the time I reached the uphill peak, and my exchanges with Yun were few and terse.

Downhill, however, was a nightmare.   As you recall, the position of the bike forced me into a leaning forward position. This meant that in order to look up, my neck and shoulders experienced a terrific strain. But if I looked down I couldn’t see my path ahead, and in rainy conditions this was nothing short of suicide. In addition to that, the brake was near impossible to pull and I almost wiped out at one point. After a few moments of primal, childlike crying from shock I remounted and changed the position of my hands. I was now able to reach the brake easier, but at the cost of my hands and wrists being uncomfortable.

Over the few hours biking on the road along the south coast of Jeju Island we experienced little variation and a lot of monotony. When uphill became too painful for us we stopped to rest under a bus stop – otherwise we kept moving. When downhill became too painful we got off and walked. Any time delaying at a restaurant or store just meant more time until we reached our destination. Almost every second of riding the bike was miserable, but the anticipation of getting back on the bike was even worse. So we just kept going.

I have two distinct memories of that epically disastrous ride. The first was when we passed the “Health and Sex” museum that happened to be next to the road. I’m not sure why, but we stopped and took a photo. The museum name was too long to get in the shot, so in the photo is Yun, standing in a field, in his helmet and poncho, next to the giant letters “S-E-X.”

The second memory was another time I nearly wiped out, although I managed this time not to hyperventilate. The front end of my bike swerved this way and that, and I had just enough presence of mind to steer it and pull on the brakes before crashing into a fence. When I finally stopped and looked up there was a giant, brown cow standing a few yards in front of me.   Its huge, unblinking eyes directly met mine. The sight of me had probably stopped it in the middle of chewing its cud. Normally I find cows to be less than intelligent animals, but this one regarded me with an unmistakable expression of both wonderment and disgust. I quickly backed up and rode off, ashamed.

Through some sort of miracle we made it all the way to Seogwi-po City, the only largish town on the southern coast. To add insult to injury the first two hotels had no vacancy. Finally we found a decent place with a friendly and sympathetic clerk. We peeled off our clothes, showered, found a Laundromat, ate a dinner of pork barbecue and called the bike rental guys to come pick our bikes up early. They said they would be happy to, but it would take a while because they had to pick up some other bikes that their other clients had quit using. Gee, go figure.


The next day of our Jeju Trip Yun and I were walking and riding in cabs instead of biking, but the memory of the day before still stung. After seeing a couple of waterfalls we found a coffee shop. It was another cold, wet day and we needed something warm, but we didn’t intend to stay long.

Unlike Seoul, the people of Jeju Island are rather friendly and casual. When I rattled off a stock-memorized sentence in Korean (“Do you happen to have hot chocolate?”) the barista became delighted and tried to start a conversation.

Oh dear.

I tried to muddle my way through her questions, grasping at any words I recognized and answering her as best as I could understand. Of course, I denied that I could speak Korean well, but this seemed to have no effect on her. She said something else I couldn’t understand, and came back a few moments later with a book in her hand. An English book. It was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s one of my only English books, so you can read it,” she said, in essence. “This is a very special book to me.”

Gratefully I plopped down into a chair with my hot chocolate mug and it didn’t take me long to realize that Mr. Murakami’s book was strangely apropos to my whole Jeju misadventure. I lost track of time and soon had read the whole thing.

For the record, I have not read any Murakami novels. I am aware that he is a both a bestseller and a sort of darling of the critics, and maybe for that reason I felt a bias and didn’t bother. Illogical, I know. I guess I imagined he was someone pretentious and boring. And for all I know, his novels are that. But his memoir, Running (I’ll call it that for short) is anything but pretentious. And certainly anything but boring.

In a modest but riveting 127 pages Murakami matter-of-factly explains why he enjoys running long distances and how the self-discipline and enjoyment of it help him write novels. He shares pieces and glimpses of his life and his beginnings as both a writer and as a runner. I can’t tell if the self-effacing way he talks about his flaws and foibles is a Japanese cultural thing, personal modesty, subtle humor or all three – whatever it is, it’s delightful. His attitude is either genuine and honest, or so brilliantly contrived that it doesn’t matter if it’s not. He gives you the straight talk on marathons he’s run and the leg cramps, dehydration, crappy weather and other ignominies he’s suffered along the way.

The ecstatic moment for me on that rainy day in the coffee shop, though, was when he began to share his triathlon experiences. Guess which is his least favorite part in the triathlon. One lucky guess.

Murakami seems to feel almost as awkward on a bicycle as yours truly. I think I laughed out loud when he described the hunched leaning position as “a praying mantis with a raised head.”   “It’s next to impossible,” he tells us, and goes on to say that:

Sometimes it [cycling] strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

 If a worldwide bestselling Japanese novelist and triathlete feels like cycling is “torture,” I guess I’m not quite such a baby after all. Not quite, anyway.

But Running is a memoir filled with so many more witty and straightforward insights than cycling. After all, it is mainly about running. And about inspiration. Above all, it is personal – he never claims to have found the ultimate answer to anything, but rather, shares his own experiences as an artist and as a runner, for what they’re worth.

One thing (among many) that I think Murakami hits on the head is the concept of pain – and by extension, effort we put into anything we do. That could also include writing a novel. Or overcoming the discomforts of traveling to a new destination:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.

The glorious cliffs of Jusangjeolli.  Was it worth it?

I felt cranky, tired, dirty, soiled and grimy on that long bike ride. I felt pain both physical and figurative. And yet I certainly felt alive. It was the pursuit of that aliveness that gave me the mad impulse to go out in the rain anyway, even though the hotel manager and Yun and I knew it was folly. And while I will never get on one of those lousy praying mantis bikes again I can’t deny that there was a sort of triumph of overcoming.   Yun and I first felt a spark of that triumph when we managed to get our bikes all the way to the cliffs of Jusangjeolli and forget our misery for a few serene moments as we stared at those ranging waves rising towards the sky like something out of a 19th century Romantic painting.

Sometimes pain is worth it. And even when it’s not, it can make for a great story later.

The barista was kind enough to let me read Murakami’s memoir till the end, but she did rather anxiously let me know that I needed to give it back when I was finished. It was one of her few English language books, after all, and other patrons needed a chance to read it. Maybe some day another poor unfortunate soul on a praying mantis bike would stumble in and need some validation. Or not. Either way, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book that goes wonderfully with hot chocolate, and it just might change your life.










What I (think I) learned this past year

Almost exactly one year ago I was sitting in my apartment in Seongnam, South Korea and realized I was going to turn 29 soon.  And then somehow I decided that it would be a great idea to start a blog and read 29 books within a year.

Getting older is a mixed bag, emotionally speaking.  On the one hand, dreams fade and doors close (or slam) as you realize you no longer have enough time left on earth to do all the cool things you had hoped.   With growing alarm you realize that even some of the basic things – like buying a house, setting up car insurance or investing in some sort of savvy retirement plan – you’ve yet to accomplish.  Not only are your dreams of being a prodigy dashed, you suddenly find that you are “average,” or even below average compared to your peers in 21st century Americana.

On the other hand, you gain confidence.  You’ve boughten plane tickets, opened bank accounts, had successful job interviews, moved multiple cardboard boxes of stuff multiple times to multiple homes and set up shop and somehow made it work.  And where else does such confidence come from but sheer experience?   Perhaps confidence is a misleading word because it suggests some sort of proactive, can-do attitude that conjures up an image of an attractive person in a pantsuit making lots of important phone calls.  To me, that’s not confidence.  Sure, some people are natural networkers and go-getters (not me), but I’ve experienced that confidence is simply this: the inevitable result of willingly doing boring, demanding “grown up” stuff on your own over a period of time.  Not only do you survive and not screw up or blow your credit to hell – you do just fine.

So yes, as I get older I realize there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done alright, and that makes me feel good.  There’s still other stuff I haven’t done, but that’s okay.  Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.

2016 was a good year for me as far as, “doing stuff alright.”  The biggest highlights include the travel I did (mostly with Yun) and actually finishing my goal to read 29 books.   Predictably, some of the books were better or more enjoyable than others.  The predictable question I suppose, is, “what did you learn from it all?”  Or better yet, “did you learn anything at all?”

The short answer: Yes.  The long answer requires putting words crafted in an original enough way that I hope can stick with you, instead of evaporating like a trite meme on Facebook.  But how to do that?  And how to condense the foggy but powerful impressions I experienced?  Is there anything profound or true that I gained, or was it a lot of emotions and aesthetics?

Here is the best way I can sum up what I (think I) learned in 2016:

1. Anywhere can be boring.

The most interesting thing I realized while traveling this past year was that anywhere you go, you are on someone’s mundane and familiar home turf.  “Exotic” and “exciting” are completely relative terms.   Diving with sea turtles may be the experience of a lifetime for you, but for your dive guide, it’s her bread and butter.  Mind-blowing jungle landscapes in Malaysia had me slack-jawed, while the holiday makers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were mainly interested in strawberry markets.  Strawberries, for crying out loud. Because to them, the European imports are that much more interesting than rafflesia flowers and pitcher plants.  Things that are familiar become boring.  In the worst case, you may not even care about preserving or understanding them (a problem for the jungles in Malaysia, anyway, according to our guide Joe).

But there’s something very good here.  If anywhere can be boring, simply invert that and you discover that anywhere can also be really exciting.

It’s all perspective.  Now, of course Yun and I paid with our hard-earned savings to travel to these different places because we wanted to experience something “different,” and we did just that.  But the more time we spent talking to guides and other locals, the more we realized that the beauty and excitement in something has to do with how you associate it.  Do you see elephants as a commodity, or do you see them as otherworldly creatures that bring you joy and and inspiration?  A lot of that would have to do with how and where you grew up.  A Thai elephant trainer and a middle class American woman are going to see that one very differently.

The cool thing, though, is that perspectives can change based on enough experiences (or just a touch of wisdom and sense).  After living in South Korea for almost five years I returned to my hometown in Arizona and found it absolutely surreal.  As I sat in my dad’s truck listening to him tell stories about the Lost Dutchman and ore mines in the mountains it almost seemed like I was on another tour of a new and faraway land.  Except this time it was my birthplace.

My dad knows a thing or two about this subject.  He used to work at a hotel, sometimes arranging tours for guests who came from as far away as Japan and Germany.

“Early in a morning a jeep would pick them up and drive them far out north, out towards the mountains like we’re heading now.  They would see a rattlesnake in the wild and have a chance to fire powdered bullets out of a pistol.  Later they’d build a big fire and have a steak dinner and the guide would pull out a guitar and start playing cowboy songs.  And they loved it.  One lady came to us in tears the next day and said it was the best experience of her life.”

A few years ago I would have just laughed at that.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I get it now.  And the Phoenix valley no longer looks boring to me.  It’s exhilarating and sublime, in fact.  I even have an interest now in the history of the miners and the Native tribes and the Mexican settlers.  And the ironic part is that it’s thanks to spending enough time on the other side of the Pacific ocean, in places where rain forests, Buddhist temples and tuk-tuks were “normal” and “boring.”

2.  I can’t believe that I only read British and American novels for so many years

How to explain.  How to not sound hoity-toity.  The truth is, it really was eye-opening this year to read so many books written in other countries.  I still read a lot of British and American novels, mainly because my options were limited due to geographical reasons, but the international books I was able to read (mainly Asian) added so much color and fun to my traditional diet of “classics.”  Of course, traveling to a lot of those countries solidified it – but I don’t think travel is necessary to enjoy a book.

Until last year, I didn’t even realize the Philippines had a national literary hero who almost single-handedly inspired a revolution.  I read his novel (Noli Mi Tangere), and it was fascinating.  Until last year I’d never read a Korean novel, so I found a few of those and gave them a try.  I even ventured into the kind of books that would normally appear on post-colonial reading requirements for a college course (Things Fall Apart, anyone?), but I actually enjoyed them – probably because I didn’t read them as a requirement, but instead out of my own curiosity.

The bottom line is, it’s fun to learn about different places where different cultural values and customs are the norm.  Frankly, it helps you understand your own norms.  Learning about the rigidity of Korean family roles I realized the things I take for granted in my life – such as not even addressing my aunt and uncle by their titles.  Reading a post-colonial Indonesian novel (This Earth of Mankind) in which the author himself admits that in spite of the cruelty of the Dutch, the Europeans overall treat their women better than the locals suddenly presents interesting ethical food for thought.  And sometimes, the most surprising things of all are when you discover that characters, for example in 1920’s Japan, are all too relatable to people you meet today.

In hindsight, it’s like I was seeing through a small crack – whereas now that crack has broadened into a small hole.  The more countries and cultures I learned about, the more familiar, less strange and intimidating, and more interesting they became.  I can’t say whether the similarities or differences between such cultures and ours are more important, because both are crucial to get the full picture.

3. Dream big, but plan small – for now

It’s kind of a miracle I actually managed to read 29 books in a year.  Not that it’s hard to do so.  I actually have a dear friend who managed to finish about triple that in the same space of time.   I’m just lousy at keeping goals.

But the difference this time was that I kept it modest, and I kept it specific.  If I had strived for anything over 30, I would have choked in the dust.  My curse is that I am interested in too many things at a time, and tend to browse superficially through them – or focus too hard and then burn out soon afterwards.   Even worse, I am something of a perfectionist and dislike doing something if I feel I can’t do it just right.  That often comes into play when writing blog entries.  It almost drives me nuts that I can’t replicate the quality in my own stuff that I recognize so readily in other people’s.  But a lot of that boils down to pride, the most major pitfall of all.

I obviously didn’t go viral this year and get rich this year, nor did I even write nearly as much content as I’d hoped.  But I did keep going, kept reading, kept writing, and I’m still here.  And I don’t intend to go away.

This year is going to look very different from last, now that Yun and I live in Arizona rather than South Korea.  There are no big international trips on the horizon, and may not be for a while.  But if I am to practice what I preach, then any place can be exciting and interesting, with the right perspective.  And not being able to physically travel far away gives me all the more reason to travel and discover new stuff and ideas in the form of books.  Happy 2017 and happy reading, everyone!

The Completed List of 29 Books for the year of 2016:

1. Please Take Care of Mom, Shin Sook Kyung

2. Middlemarch, George Eliot

3. Love’s Executioner, Irving Yalom

4. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

5. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

6. Naomi, Junichiro Tanizaki

7. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

8. 198: How I Ran Out of Countries, Gunnar Garfors

9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim

10. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

11. The Vegetarian, Han Kang

12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns

13. The Lost Executioner, Nic Dunlop

14. First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung

15. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

17. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

18. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

19. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

20. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

21. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

22. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

23. Noli Mi Tangere, Jose Rizal

24. The Beach, Alex Garland

25. Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap

26. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig

27. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, Shamini Flint

28. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

29. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

There’s no such thing as the “real” Japan

The Mrs. Moore vs. Adela Quested Way to Travel

For some reason I keep going back to Japan.

I first visited Kyoto two years ago and found it disarmingly quiet and serene. The mute, modest brown and gray homes with bonsai plants in the courtyards, the bicycles on every street corner oozed some sort of otherworldly charm.  Osaka and Tokyo followed, and they proved that the big cities were equally enchanting in their own reserved way – light years apart from the commercialized feel of Seoul. When I sat on the old, worn seat cushions on the Tokyo metro I wondered if I’d actually gone back in time. Quaint and retro aren’t quite the right words, but something was in the atmosphere and I couldn’t put a finger on it and it began to drive me crazy.

The craziness got the better of me. I returned to Kyoto and Osaka last month, determined to become more intimate with Japan. This time I wanted to put a dent in the surface. I wanted to meet Japanese people. If I could sum it up as a question, I guess it would be: “What makes Japan Japan?”

In so doing I almost fell into the same trap as Adela Quested, the heroine of A Passage To India.

The first thing out of Adela’s mouth when we meet her is, “I want to see the real India.” Her tone is almost plaintive. She has just arrived on Indian soil and been quickly ushered into the local bubble of expat British society. Her fiancé’s friends and colleagues are watching a play called “Cousin Kate“ – it’s already played back in England and as you can imagine, it’s about the most un-Indian way to spend an evening possible. A contemporary example would be arriving in Agra for your first time ever, primed to hit the Taj Mahal and maybe watch an traditional dance performance when your expat friend grabs your arm and says, “Hey, the newest Avengers movie just hit theaters here. Let’s go!”

To this you might rightfully respond: “Come on, Jake. I can see the Avengers anytime. I want to see the real India.”

“As opposed to the ‘fake’ India?” Jake retorts. “What exactly do you mean by the ‘real’ India?” Admit it, Jake has a point.

I had already seen red torii gates, shrines, neon lights and zen gardens. This time around I wanted to drink in the same rich scenery, it’s true, but I knew I would always have a one-dimensional view of Japan if I didn’t actually meet some people and have more interactive experiences. I feared I would feel like Adela who, “would see India [or rather Japan] always as a frieze, never as a spirit, and she assumed that it was a spirit of which Mrs. Moore had had a glimpse.”

If Adela Quested is any example of the wrong traveling attitude, her friend Mrs. Moore is a great example of having the right attitude. I’m still currently in the process of trying to be more like Mrs. Moore. Maybe one day when I’m as old as her.

Like Adela, Mrs. Moore is not exactly excited about watching “Cousin Kate.” But instead of complaining that it’s not the “real” India she goes and does something. She goes on a walk and explores a mosque. And that’s where she runs into the one-of-a-kind Dr. Aziz. The two of them – unlike in every outward way you can imagine – unexpectedly hit it off and achieve a sort of cross-cultural understanding. Adela is excited and envious to hear the story, and she too wants to meet “real” Indian people and (to her credit) get outside the artificial confines of the expat community.

Adela does get to meet her share of Indian people. But unlike Mrs. Moore she is unable to really get close to any of them.   She is so conscious of their identity as “Indian,” and in trying to study and understand them as such that she altogether fails to see them as regular people and appreciate them for their own sakes. She even does this to Mrs. Moore’s friend Aziz – “In her ignorance, she regarded him as ‘India,’ and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.”

When I last went to Japan, I knew better than to expect that Japan could be put into a box. Yet I couldn’t help but hope for a “glimpse of the spirit” of something deeper within Japan – within the culture. I wanted to do something less touristy and more “authentic” to try to get that glimpse.

Meeting Japanese people spontaneously among the ruins the way Mrs. Moore met Aziz is not quite feasible. It’s a nation full of introverts who usually stick to busy schedules. With that as an excuse, I sought out the company of Japanese people ahead of time, through a program called Nagomi Visit. My first host was Chise, a longtime resident of Kyoto.

Chise met me on a Sunday evening at Fushimi-Inarii Station in the middle of a typhoon.   We tried to make small talk, but the storm was too loud. We laughed instead. As soon as we staggered into her apartment, more than a little wet, a surreal feeling hit me. Maybe it was just because I was in her home, but I felt like I was in the company of a friend– not a Japanese person per se, or a Chinese person, or an English person or an American person, for that matter. We were just two people, in an apartment that could have been in Berlin, Los Angeles, Cape Town or anywhere.

The conversation came easily.   Somehow fifteen minutes into it Chise mentioned she has a friend who lives in Utah.

“Are you serious? I have a friend who lives in Utah, too.”

To which Chise laughed one of her beautiful, open laughs,teeth exposed, the complete opposite of how stereotypical Japanese women are assumed to laugh – except her way still had its own feminine gracefulness.

“Ah, really? That’s great!”

We didn’t keep track of time, except when it came to the soup. Chise was following a family recipe. As she showed me how to prepare the broth using the dried bonnet fish and seaweed I reminded myself: I’m in Japan, in a Japanese person’s home. And yes, you are halfway across the world with someone you have never met before, but the beauty of it is not how different and foreign it is, but how familiar and universal it is. And after a while you start to wonder what exactly is the difference. That is the really wondrous part.

Chise making Udon soup.

Chise and I had an informal Q & A discussion about our respective cultures. Some of the things Chise told me about Japan resonated with what I’d heard before (young people are reluctant to marry), others were quite similar to Korea (many social expectations), yet others were not all too different from the US (fewer young people are planning practically for the future). Of course, Chise herself had to be unusual in some ways from a lot of her fellow Japanese. She spoke English quite well and already had friends from other countries.

 She seems so unique and free-spirited – are many other Japanese people like her? Is she really Japanese? There was the Adela Quested coming out in me! Yet again I was comparing reality to an expectation, to an idea. It distracted from the moment, but it was there all the same.

As I walked with Chise from a pharmacy (where she helped me find cold medicine) back to my guesthouse I couldn’t shake my sense of déjà vu. “I feel like I’ve known you a long time,” I told her, as we stood outside saying goodbye.

“I have that feeling too.” She smiled. It wasn’t anything sentimental or wishful. It was just a fact.   My heart felt light when we parted because I had a feeling I would see her again. Just not sure which country or continent, and it honestly didn’t matter.

“Paul” Fukuyama was different in many ways from Chise, besides the fact he was a man. He was older and he had a family of his own. His cobalt blue shorts and Hello Kitty car seat covers spoke to a fashion and style that to my western imagination must be more “typically” Japanese. I think he was just as pleased yet anxious about meeting me as I was meeting him, so both of us were sort of studying the other at first. It was certainly no soul mate connection like Mrs. Moore and Aziz at the mosque. But it was still pleasant.

“So, where you want to go first?” He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and eagerly raised the other hand upwards in a cupping shape, as though it were holding the question. He smiled but didn’t look directly at me.

“Well, let’s see…”

“You been to Golden Temple?”

“Yes, but we can go there again. I don’t mind!”

“Okay, Golden Temple – let’s go.”

Like a lot of people, Paul played music while driving, even though our chatter was almost continuous. The Adela Quested in me half hoped and half expected it would be some sort of classical Japanese folk or rock music that he could expound upon. Instead it was a collection of Paul McCartney hits – one of my childhood favorite artists. Weird déjà vu feelings once again.

“Woah, you like Paul McCartney?”

“Of course! I saw his concert before – in Osaka! It was amazing. I tried to see his concert one more time, in Yokohama. But that time it was too expensive.”

The typhoon clouds were lowering once again when we arrived at the Golden Temple but that’s not the reason why Paul wanted to stay in the car.

“I wait for you here. I seen this place too many times. Not interesting to me.”   He waved his hand back and forth, as though to dismiss the Golden Temple from his presence. “You have a good time.”

The irony when you meet people from other countries is that the thing you find novel and exciting about where they live is often dull or mundane to them, and vice versa. I went to Antelope Canyon four years ago and was shocked at all the Korean and Chinese tourists. Perhaps they were there to see the “real” Arizona. They might have been just as puzzled to meet me and the tape of K-pop songs blasting from my Toyota RAV4.

The folly of thinking that there is a “real” version of any place is that it all goes back to an expectation that may have some credibility, but can never match the complexity of real life. A Victorian B&B is still as “real” as a ryokan, even if both are in Hokkaido. A TJI Friday’s in New Delhi may not be as traditional as a curry masala restaurant, but it’s still in India so at least in some scientific and philosophical sense it has to be “real”. You could argue that what makes a place real and authentic is the people. The thing is, people are more complex than anything else. They are also more important than anything else.

It’s harmless enough to say that you want to eat sushi and not hamburgers in Japan because sushi is real Japanese food. Same for TJI Fridays and curry. But to say that you want to meet “real” people from a place who “represent” the place and the feeling of it underscores the fact that no two people are alike, even when cultural patterns may occur. The bigger the area the more obvious this is. That’s why it is such folly for Adela Quested to assume that Dr. Aziz represents all of India. It would be just as crazy if I thought that Chise and Paul represented all Japanese people.

In A Passage to India the characters talk a lot about India being a “mystery.” So is every country, in its way. I went to Japan hoping to learn and understand it better – and in some ways I did – but part of me now is content to leave it be a mystery. A beautiful and intriguing mystery, just out of reach. I’m pretty sure that Mrs. More was content to leave mysteries alone and just enjoy things in the moment, for their own sake (Adela, on the other hand, “hates mysteries”). Maybe by the time I’m seventy I’ll be almost as mature and wise as she was. There is hope yet.

Is It Okay To Be “Just” a Tourist?

I read a lot of travel blogs.

Sometimes I even skip the commentary just to salivate at the photos. These blogs are vicarious travel for me. Thanks to others who have been, I can visit remote, un-trafficked places like Easter Island, Bhutan or Turkmenistan.   I read because I itch with curiosity to know what these places are like.

Some of these blogs are meant purely to inform. They are run by faceless groups of people who spare you the details of their personal lives and focus on giving you the “low down” of each destination. Wanna find out how much a Big Mac costs in Kuala Lumpur? Interested in knowing the characteristics of the different regions in Spain? Look no further.

Many of these blogs, on the other hand, have a personal twist to them. Usually they have a cute name (“Battered Passports,” “The Eternally Wandering Guy”, something like that) and are run solely by a hip and inspired individual greeting you from the sidebar in a photo with sunglasses and a bandana.

I’ll call the people behind these blogs the Enlightened Vagabonds – the EVs.

Here is a fairly typical example of a profile description from an EV’s homepage:

“Hey there! I’m Denise and in 2012 I quit my secure job as a financial consultant to backpack through Vietnam and Thailand for three months. Little did I know it would turn into the love affair of a lifetime. Four years and three continents later I’m still on the road, going strong. I have an insatiable passion for Earl Gray, incense, and making new friends on long train rides.”

Other profiles may or may not be a little lighter on the whimsy, but you get the main idea. These people are living the dream.

Who wouldn’t envy them? I do sometimes, anyway. I would love to impulse-buy a last minute plane ticket to Madagascar and stroll amongst the baobab trees the very next day. Or make a Trans-Siberian journey from Beijing to Saint Petersburg. Or traverse the deserts of Namibia, catch a cargo ship to Saint Helena and wend my way up to Rio and thence on to the Amazon. Sounds enthralling.

EVs emphasize the importance of “slow travel,” and being able to go “off the beaten path” in order to make more meaningful connections with locals. In fact, considering how many years out of their lives EVs spend traveling, they haven’t covered as much territory as you might think. But what they have covered, they’ve often done in depth. With no job or family commitments back home, they have that freedom – provided their Internet livelihood earns enough money (How cool would it be to support yourself on the road by playing the stock market?).

EV lives, like ours are not perfect. They get sick and pay hospital bills, too. They have bad hair days. But the fact remains: Eternal Vagabonds lead an existence that most of us would consider “epic.”

Not all EVs are alike, either. Some – most, actually – are humble and helpful and informative. Others can be a bit high-minded and blasé about all their worldly experience. But there has been one thing in common that I’ve noticed. In all my months and months of reading their travel blogs, I have yet to come across a single Eternal Vagabond who said, “A life of travel isn’t for everybody.” I have yet to find a person who has said, “A nomadic lifestyle isn’t better or worse than others – it’s just what works for me.” (Watch, since I said this now, I’ll probably stumble across someone’s blog tomorrow that features that exact sentiment. Jinx.).

On the other hand, what EVs do say, to varying degrees is: “This was the best decision of my life. It can be your life, too.”

 EVs rarely describe themselves as “tourists.” If they use any term, it’s “traveler,” “nomad,” “wanderer,” “backpacker,” or something else a bit more cultured sounding. There is a tacit understanding that the word “tourist” has a sort of tacky ring to it.   An EV blogger may use the word “tourist” this way:

My time in Florence was lovely for the most part, but there were unfortunately hordes of Chinese/Japanese/American tourists who arrived near the end of my stay, talking very loudly in the Uffizi gallery and generally spoiling the serene atmosphere.

Obviously, the tourists in the above example are what most would call “package tourists”: people who travel through a tour group that prearranges everything and shuttles them around on a coach with the result that they have minimal interaction with local people and culture.

If you look up the word “tourist” in the dictionary, you’ll find it really just means “one who travels for pleasure and sightseeing.” That’s obviously a lot broader.

Yet in the Internet subculture of these travel junkies aka Enlightened Vagabonds there seems to be a taboo in using this word. It’s as though anyone who takes travel seriously is one who hits the road for weeks at a time, while a “tourist” is someone who hangs out by the swimming pool and takes selfies in front of iconic monuments. The vibe I get from some of these EV bloggers is that the “higher” life is one of adventure and defying convention, while “tourists” are amateurs who merely dabble in travel and sometimes make a mess of it.

I’m sure when asked most EVs would quickly agree that traveling only a little bit is much better then not traveling at all. But my question is this:

 Is it okay to be “just” a tourist, instead of a full-blown rolling stone? Can I be just as tolerant, open-minded, informed, fulfilled and happy an individual if I keep my desk job and only travel during my 2 week vacation period – or is it necessary that I quit my job, dump my boyfriend, sell my house, give my dog away and travel for the long haul if I’m to achieve all those qualities fully?

Many of these Eternal Vagabonds promote their lifestyle as an alternative to the materialistic, consumerist humdrum that many of us refer to as “the Rat Race.” Who cares about wealth, status, convention and all that jazz? You only live once, after all. The EV’s message is one of enlightenment: “Leave everything you know behind and come and find out what life is really all about when you see the rest of the world.”

Yet even the lifestyle of the EVs and their message can become self-defeating as soon as it turns into an obsession. Just as one can never have enough wide-screen TVs, upgraded smartphones and plastic surgery, one may also never have seen enough countries, taken enough photographs, had enough random experiences with charming strangers, or checked off enough bucket list items. Any virtue can become a vice – even, I’m convinced, world travel.

Don’t know if I’m preaching to the choir here, but I have myself in mind more than anyone when I think about falling into the potential EV pitfall. Not that all of them are obsessive and dissatisfied. On the contrary, I believe most of them are not. But just as it seems the couples who brag about each other and upload kissy pictures (gross) the most on Facebook are often the ones who are the most unhappy in reality, I can’t help but wonder if just maybe some of these hardcore travelers are not in fact as happy as they claim to be. And perhaps I could fall into the same trap were I to gallivant off into the wild blue yonder tomorrow.

“Ah, but Brenna, are you just trying to justify your point of view because you can’t make a living by traveling the world? Do I detect sour grapes, here?”

I won’t lie and say that I don’t like the idea of being a vagabond myself. You do only live once. So why the heck not take off for a month in Mongolia and ride a horse across the steppes? Why not ride a motorcycle in Che Guevara’s footsteps (tire tracks?) across South America? Why not join that camel caravan you’ve always dreamed of across the Saharan Desert?

For the same reason I will probably never try to watch every film, listen to every indie band, start up every hobby and read every award-winning novel: there’s no end to it. There’s simply too much to experience on this earth to squeeze into a lifetime, even if you narrow it down to a single subject. Needs may be limited, but wants and “what ifs” and dreams will never have a limit. And that’s okay.

So going back to the original question: is it okay to be “just” a tourist? Do I even need to answer this? Ultimately, I would say it’s all about your motives.

If you genuinely want to get out and see some new scenery, but you also want to keep your job as an accountant because you like living in your hometown and your clients then a two-week trip once a year may be right up your alley. Thanks to state-of-the art photography and filmmaking, armchair travel is also more doable than ever.

If you have a bit more time to travel, but don’t necessarily want to go on an intrepid adventure collecting fodder for a story to tell others, that’s fine, too. It’s even okay to ride in a coach and take selfies all day, as long as you act respectful – I’m not one to judge.

I strongly agree with many that travel is a good thing, and a great way to broaden your worldview. It can liberate and change you for the better. The question of “how much” travel, and in what manner depends on each individual.

And Enlightened Vagabonds: no one is questioning or contesting the life you’ve chosen. You often blaze the trail for the rest of us – thanks for that. But some of us like living in a house and eating 24-hour drive-through Mexican food. Some of us don’t want to give up our pet parakeet or our swimming pool.  If we are truly happy with this arrangement, who is to judge? Maybe no one is judging – I just need the reminder for myself from time to time.



















Cambodia: Tourist Survivor Guilt 101

I returned from Siem Reap two days ago and I’m still trying to reconcile the amazing time I had there with the acutely depressing experience of reading Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father” on the plane ride home.

Book Number 14 is too depressing for a regular entry.  I need to interject more personal feelings and allow myself more freedom to write about it.  Even now I’m sort of dreading it.  So I’ll start with my own experience in Cambodia.

Think about that soft-spoken, kind and beautiful neighbor of yours who always wears a smile when you see her.  She’s charming, she’s genuine and likable.  Then one day, you somehow learn that your neighbor survived a nightmarish history of abduction and rape in her teens.  In hindsight, you realize there was a kind of sadness and reserve about her that you had failed to detect.  You only noticed her kind smile.

Your neighbor is the nation of Cambodia.

If I wasn’t already aware of the country’s tragic history when I arrived, I might not ever have guessed that Cambodia has something brewing beneath the surface.  Siem Reap was a sleepy town with pleasant tuk tuk drivers, generous hospitality workers, and people on farms and in rice fields who would smile and wave as you rode by.   It was sort of picture perfect.

But I knew it had to be far from perfect underneath.  On our last day, we rode horses in the village area outside the main part of the city.  Our guide, “Johnny,” was quick with a joke and obviously had a repertoire.  He called Yun “Cowboy,” and humored him by spouting off words in Korean.  We talked about the different people he’s met from different countries, and the superficial banter began to die down as Johnny told us that he has never been outside Cambodia.  He doesn’t have a passport – he can’t afford one.

“People who come to Cambodia only see a nice picture, you know.  A few days of beautiful sights.  Everything looks so nice.  But actually, we have a lot of problems.  Our situation is not good…you know?”

“Yes, I know.”

Well, I did know.  But I couldn’t truly understand.  And that’s where the guilt began.

Here the three of us – a Korean guy, an American girl, and a native Cambodian guide – were trekking on horseback through the “undiscovered” parts of Siem Reap.  At every corner were stray dogs, chickens, skinny cows with loose folds of skin, and tiny naked children running up to say hello.  No one begged or put on a show.  The whole place was genuine, if a bit used to seeing other horse-riding, helmet-wearing tourists coming through on their turf.  But the difference is that to me the scenery was quaint and exotic, whereas to Johnny it was normal and mundane.  Perhaps he’d rather be somewhere else.  Maybe he was bored – how many other tourists must he have made the same joke with about that random shack on the water buffalo farm being the “VIP guesthouse”?  Perhaps he really did think it was funny.  I’ll never know for sure.  But I’ll also never forget the sad, deflated look on his face after we got back to the ranch and said our goodbyes.

Perhaps I can’t ever understand or fully see the “real” Cambodia – but at least I could catch a glimpse of it, from Johnny’s point of view.  I try to shake the feeling of guilt that I can come and go freely, while he is “stuck” in Cambodia.  Oh wait, but is that patronizing?  Must not have arrogant preconceptions towards the local people.  These are the joys of ethics debates when you’re traveling Southeast Asia.

The other big “aha” moment I had while in Siem Reap was probably when I went to the bookstore.  I scoured the Cambodia section, hoping to find a novel or a memoir to catch my interest.  Something like a travelogue, or maybe historical fiction from Angkor times.  But there was nothing of that nature.  Instead, it was all books about the Cambodian genocide.  Title after title, anything you could want: “The Gate,” “When Broken Glass Floats,” “Voices from S-21,” “Brother Number One,” all the ones that circulate in your Amazon feed of “suggested reading” when you type in “Cambodia.”  I didn’t have luck earlier looking online, so why was I surprised at the bookstore?  Perhaps it was just seeing the long row of books lined up, in the flesh, one after the other.  So many different accounts of suffering, torture and anguish under the one, same hideous event.  It was all but impossible to not read a book about the genocide if I was going to read a Cambodian book at all.  So I buckled down and went for one of the most popular titles.

We picked up First They Killed My Father from a vendor outside one of the Angkor temples.  Yes, that’s how inescapable the genocide is: along with scarves and bracelets, the vendors will bring it straight to you if you’re too lazy to buy it yourself.  Plus, it’s hard saying “no” to your duty of being historically informed when the price has been halved.  Plus, I already knew a bit about the genocide.  How disturbing could it possibly be?

Oh gosh.  What did I know?

I was sensible enough to save it for the end of the Siem Reap trip.  While sitting, bored, in the airport terminal in the bright morning light I felt confident.  This will be an interesting book.  This will be an insightful book.  And it was.  For the first eighteen pages, it was exactly that.

First They Killed My Father is an absolutely devastating memoir.  As one reviewer aptly put it, “it burns like a firebrand.”  I’ll tell you why.  It’s not written from the point of view of an adult woman looking back on what happened.  It’s written from the point of view of a child, because the author was a child when the events happened.  She relives it in present tense, lending a mood of immediacy, suspension and dread.  Seeing and experiencing the horrors through a child’s eyes seems beyond the pale, but that’s exactly what her story is.

Loung Ung, up until age five, has lived a charmed life in a middle class family in Phnom Penh.  She recalls fondling going for cyclo rides with her mother at the market, and her father’s loving acceptance of her unruly personality.  She had six siblings to play and mess around with.  Then one day, she comes home to her mother hurriedly packing and telling everyone else to get ready to leave their home.  Ignorant of what’s happening, five-year-old Loung repeatedly asks, “But, why?”  So might the reader who also fails to grasps the brutal absurdity that was the Khmer Rouge.  “Why?”  becomes a fairly central question in this book.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many answers.

You know a book is going to be a tough read with a title like this, especially with the adverb “first” at the beginning.  It suggests that there will also be a “then,” “next,” “after that,” and a “finally” – the family member body count is up to your imagination (I will say this much: not everyone dies!)  Even though Loung’s dad is marked for obliteration from the cover page, you can’t help but love and revere him as he wisely guides his family through the terrors for the first half of the book.  When he dies, it almost feels like your own dad has died.  When Luoung looks up at the night sky, hoping her father is watching her from the stars as she cries out, “Pa, I miss you,” every painful cathartic memory of watching The Lion King rushed back from my childhood.  The cruel senselessness of the killings and the destruction as witnessed from a child’s point of view was honestly hard for me to handle.

Luong isn’t exactly your normal five-year-old, though.  She is amazingly resilient and strong-willed, to the point that I had to wonder at times if the author was being 100% honest about her younger self’s mental abilities.  Her fighting spirit ultimately lands her in a training camp for child soldiers.  Even as she is indoctrinated with Khmer Rogue propaganda she continues to nurse her hatred for these same people who caused her family’s suffering.  Her hatred is what keeps her alive.

My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness.  Sadness makes me want to die inside.  Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life.  Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.  

Perhaps one of the darkest moments in the book are not the tragedies that befall Luong and those around her, but a scene soon after the Vietnam invasion in which a Khmer Rogue soldier has been captured and tied up before an angry mob.  Demanding justice, the crowd declares he should die a long, painful death.  Finally, two women come forward asking to do the deed.  Both of them recognize the solider as a murderer of their families, and they want revenge.  Luong watches as the women hack the solider to death.

The frightening thing is, at this point in the narrative you feel nothing but sympathy towards the victims and wholehearted approval of as much bloody vengeance as possible.  The hatred and rage is palpable.  Absent here are any notions of forgiveness or grace from God – there are no Corrie Ten Booms nor are there repentant soldiers.  Instead of a sublime afterlife is the belief in karma: “What goes around comes around.”  It’s bleak, but it oddly makes sense because you are inside the child Luong’s head.  Considering where she’s come from and what she’s been through, anyone would hesitate to cast a stone.  Yet she does not fancy herself a hero, either.  She simply tells things as she experiences them.  The lack of pretense, of sermonizing or over-reflecting is one of the most powerful points of the book.

In the Author’s Note at the beginning, Ung informs the reader: “Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians.  If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

Don’t know that I can argue with that.  So that leads to the thought: “Wow, thank goodness I wasn’t living in Cambodia at that time.”  And right after that comes a smidgin of a feeling some call Survivor’s Guilt.  “Well, why wasn’t I around at that time?  Why was I spared?”

Logically I understand that I am not guilty.  There is nothing I could have done to atone or to change the situation.  The Cambodian genocide happened before I was born, in fact.  I think the guilt pops up when I ride in the back of a tuk tuk around Siem Reap, surveying the beautiful scenery and having a wonderful time when the people living here, all around me, are part of this tragic legacy that they are continuing to deal with.  The entire nation of Cambodia is essentially still suffering from PTSD, and it’s reflected in the economy and in the culture.  PTSD doesn’t go away after one generation, especially when it’s killed 2 million people.  And there are even more real kinds of aftermath in Cambodia, like land mines that continue to claim lives every year.

So is it a bad thing that I have a great and fun time while I’m in Cambodia?  Or do I need to mortify myself with history books and interviews lest I act irreverent while on holiday?  I suppose it’s a balance – there’s nothing wrong with being happy and enjoying yourself.  It’s how us humans naturally want to feel.  But it’s important to be informed of the sober realities as well.  It’s all part of the package.  And don’t forget to smile, lest you take life too seriously.  It’s how the Cambodians seem get through life these days, and they do a great job of it.

Of Pringles and Perpetrators: Two Worthwhile Books on Genocide

Ever since May my mind consistently has returned to the same question: “Why do human beings do such awful things to each other, and on such a great scale?”

It’s a fascinating and baffling question. I say “since May” because that’s when Yun and I paid a visit to the House of Sharing ­– a museum as well as shelter for the few surviving “Comfort Women” who were enslaved by the Japanese. That particular episode is another story for another time.   But let’s just say, while there I became very disturbed by the nature of the things I learned about. And I wanted answers.

These two books (both non-fiction, written by journalists) cover two different parts of history. They differ in geographical scope as well as political context. I originally did not even intend to read them with the same focus. The first one I picked because a friend recommended it, and the location (Congo) intrigued me. The second one I chose because I needed supplementary reading for Cambodia. Yet both books delve into the dark side of humanity and offer insight as to why people sometimes justify doing the brutal things they do. I’m not talking about psychopaths and serial killers with mental perversions, but rather ordinary, “normal” people who commit extraordinary atrocities in extraordinary situations.

Book #12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. By Jason K Stearns

You hear the name “Congo” and you well may think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The name perhaps evokes the idea of a mythical or colonial sort Africa from days gone by. But the Congo (The Democratic Republic of the Congo, to be exact) is a contemporary place with a brutal recent history. So brutal, in fact, that it has become the bloodiest human conflict in the world since World War II, with over 5 million dead.

I was not aware of that, by the way, until I picked up this book.

Stearns makes it emphatically clear at the beginning that he does not have “a Unified Theory of the Congo War, because it does not exist.” This is arguably the reason that most of the world has largely ignored the Congo Wars: it’s chaotic, complex and hard to wrap your head around. There is no singular charismatic villain in the same strain as Hitler or Mao. The players are confused, with various ethnicities within Congo fighting even as a total of nine other African nations surrounding Congo get directly involved. The Congo Wars have in fact been called “Africa’s World War.”

Stearns is no history prof and never claims to be – what he does do is break down the First and Second Congo Wars into sizable chunks of explanation interlaced with fascinating interviews with politicians and fighters he’s met along the way.

While he meets both perpetrators and victims, in the interest of better understanding the why and the how for the atrocities committed he focuses on the point of view of the perpetrators.

His subjects include a Tutsi fighter who helped carry out acts of revenge against Hutus. In response to the question “Why?” the Tutsi fighter replies, “It was an order.” In response to “Why was it an order?” the interviewee merely shrugs. It’s as though the soldier involved in such brutal acts feels absolved of responsibility since he is merely carrying out instructions.  It’s not unlike Adolf Eichmann’s famous example of the “banality of evil” – Stearns brings up the similarity.

Conversely, another interviewed subject is a Hutu general who claims that his subordinates carried out massacres against his orders. When pressed further on why the atrocities happened the way they did he defends using practical excuses:

‘Don’t forget this was a war,’ the avuncular general repeated. ‘If I had deserted, I could have been killed by my own commanders or by the RPF.’ He paused and fiddled with his watch. ‘The genocide was terrible, of course,’ he said. ‘I thought it was a huge mistake.’ He saw the killing out of his office window, as it were, disagreed with it, and got on with his work.

 From the point of view of an outsider, genocide is horrific and blatantly evil. And from the point of view of a Westerner especially, it’s hard not to compare other genocides with the cold, calculating and systematic nature of the Holocaust.  That’s not to say genocide is not evil (do I have to even say that?), or that there is normally no premeditation involved, but in the case of Rwanda and the Congo it can be seen as a struggle against an enemy that’s spun out of control and unfortunately sort of just “turned into” a genocide.   Stearns’ strength is that he shows all sides (Hutu, Tutsi, Rwandan, Congolese et al) and makes no attempt to reduce the situation a black-and-white one – although he does make it more accessible and understandable to a reader who is ignorant.

By examining up close larger-than-life characters like the failed Marxist scholar-turned-politician Wamba Dia Wamba to the decadent dictator Laurent Kabila, Stearns does a great job of rendering the last twenty-odd years of Congolese history into an upbeat account that you can actually follow (providing you keep the political party acronym guide handy). At times it can even be darkly humorous in the stark observation of Congolese themselves.

A Congolese friend once described the curse of the Congolese politics as “the reverse Midas effect.” “Anything touched by politics in the Congo turns to shit,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter if the Holy Father himself decides to run for president, he will inevitably come out corrupt, power-hungry, and guilty of breaking all ten of the holy commandments.”

 Now it would be false to say that the author is without hope for the future of the Congo. Hope he certainly has – at least in the spirit of the Congolese people. In the meantime, though, this book is a great insight not only of a troubled nation in particular, but on the potential great darkness within human nature itself.

Book #13   The Lost Executioner. By Nic Dunlop.

Not unlike the Congo, Cambodia is a luscious green country with a deadly history. Author Nic Dunlop guiltily confesses that he would sometimes take in the beautiful and quiet scenery around him, only to realize suddenly what horrors had occurred there just a few years earlier.

For me, Cambodia had become shorthand for all that was wrong in the world. I wanted to understand how a movement that laid claim to a vision of a better world could instead turn people into instruments of overwhelming evil…

 The Lost Executioner can be considered a historical source (again, not overly academic) on the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath, but what sets it apart from other books is that the author is originally a photographer who set out to find one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious figures, Commander Duch – and against all odds, succeeded. While having a bit of a thriller element, Dunlop never exaggerates or dramatizes his achievements. Like Stearns, he focuses on his interviews with the survivors (victim and perpetrator alike) of the genocide in an attempt to better understand what happened.

Again we find people in authority attempting to absolve themselves of personal responsibility because they are not the final authority.  Unsurprisingly, Dunlop also uses Adolf Eichmann as an example for comparison (maybe we’re onto something).  The following is from an interview of Dunlop’s with Khmer Rouge member In Sopheap.

As someone who had stayed in the Khmer Rogue right until the end and was still a supporter, did he feel in any way responsible for the millions who had died, I asked.

 ‘During my work as an ambassador I never defended the killing.’

 ‘But you didn’t condemn it, either.’

 ‘I didn’t have all the elements to judge. Concretely, what evidence do I have?’

 ….It was a game he would not or could not see beyond. Instead he chose to see the excesses of the Khmer Rouge period in the abstract, as though what had happened had nothing to do with him. And this is what enabled the Khmer Rouge to murder and kill without conscience. They could hide behind a piece of machinery, deaf to the screams of the people caught up in its grinding cogs.

 The world of the Khmer Rouge was one of kill-or-be-killed. Arguably, people in positions of power, like Duch and In Sopheap had no choice but to come down forcibly on those who were “suspect”, lest the regime become corrupt and overthrown. The paranoia reached such a height that prisoners were eventually slaughtered without trial – anyone could be next. To understand the madness requires understanding a deep rooted fear and distrust of one’s fellowmen, as well as a bleak outlook of life.

What is especially sad about the Khmer Rouge is that it wasn’t even a genocide of one nation against another. It was Cambodians killing other Cambodians. Dunlop argues that the Khmer Rouge was not unprecedented – he compares the modern regime’s brutality to the ancient kings of Angkor and points to the fact that Cambodian culture itself helped create the setting that allowed the Khmer Rouge to exist. One particular example he uses is a collection of traditional folktales called the Gatiloke.

 In the Gatiloke…people rarely lived happily ever after. It reinforced a deeply rooted belief in a preordained life, a time-honoured acceptance of the status quo, which provided a useful means of social control to numerous regimes – including, ultimately, the Khmer Rouge.

Certainly there was also major influence from other countries and their instability (Vietnam), and colonialism and western intervention had their parts to play as well. Both Dunlop and Stearns discuss the damage wrought by the US carpet-bombing and the Belgian administration, respectively. One simple factor never accounts for everything and the explanation is head-bashingly complex. But what’s really hard to understand is the state of mind of the genocidal killers themselves.

It would be natural to assume that these people are completely alien and unrelated to us in every way, as we find their actions inhuman and reprehensible. But they are in fact human beings with human appetites and interests like the rest of us, which realization makes them somehow even more disturbing, creepy and paradoxically unknowable.

Previously, when Pol Pot had given one of his last interviews, it was not his predictable denials of mass murder that had intrigued me. It had been a tube of Pringles which sat on the table before the interview. The evil that the Khmer Rouge had come to represent in our collective minds was not at the end of some malarial river deep in a dark primordial jungle. Mass murderers enjoy Pringles, too. These details don’t bring us closer to them. They bring them closer to us.

 The descriptions of “malarial river” and a “dark primordial jungle” are references bringing us right back to the Congo and the same stereotypes that pervade there. Genocide doesn’t only happen in faraway lands. Distance is relative, anyway. As difficult as they may be to understand, there are lessons in both the Congo and the Cambodian genocides for the rest of us when it comes to human nature and what we are capable of, given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances. I’m still trying to comprehend it. Perhaps I never truly can, unless I was in the situation.  God forbid.

But I will say this – I will never look at a can of Pringles the same way again.

198 Yammerings: How I Ran Out of Patience With Gunnar Garfors

198: How I Ran Out of Countries, by Gunnar Garfors, is a sloppy afterthought of a travel memoir.

Before I say anything just take a good look at the cover design of this book. Yes, you are indeed looking at a photo of a guy slam-dunking a “globe” into a basketball hoop. The background design raises some questions as well. What’s up with the breezy-looking cocktail and the sexy reclining woman? Is that…King Kong on top of the Empire State Building? Not sure if the author and staff were just giddy late at night after one too many Red Bulls but if I happened to be a random guest perusing the bookstore aisles I would have mistaken this for a bar guide rather than a travelogue.

So how the heck did this book end up on my list of “29” this year?

It would not be an understatement to say I’m obsessed with travel. I have travel dreams and goals ranging from Mozambique to Greenland, and travel is a big part of the reason I ended up in South Korea four years ago. I spend a lot of time reading travelogues, blogs and websites online – so it was only a matter of time before I ran into the infamous Gunnar Garfors.

Garfors has risen to Internet-fame after being allegedly the youngest hobby traveler to visit every country in the world. He has his own blog and a host of followers and fans – he’s even broken a few other world records. I read this book of his as a supplement to my other travel “studies.”

The book is rather loosely organized. Garfors has a chapter on every single country, but that’s about it for continuity. For the most part it is not organized chronologically, alphabetically, geographically or culturally. Rather, it’s organized into sections based on themes, with titles like, “I Don’t Relax Like You Do,” or “Here Comes Trouble.” Throughout his narratives he continually introduces new people and refers back to old ones, jumping around in something close to 20 years’ of traveling history, such that it’s impossible to ever get a clear chronology of his life. Not that that’s the point, but it’s just one more factor in why this book is something of a hot mess.

Garfors does introduce his odyssey with a bit of a backstory that starts with a bet made in a beer joint. Then he explains his criteria for 198 countries:

I count all 193 UN countries. I also count the 2 observer states, the Vatican and Palestine. Yet another 3 countries are acknowledged by a number of the 195 above. I do therefore also count Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan.

 193 + 2 + 3 = 198. So there you have it. But what exactly counts as having visited a country? Garfors explains this as well.

A lot of people ask me how I count a country. The answer is short, I must have done something there and have a story to tell. And no, I do not count transit stops in airports. It should also be needless to say that I prefer to stay awhile. To have time to explore, to meet people.

 Fair enough. And while I think his criteria is sound and good, the disappointment is in how rushed, vague and even random his descriptions of each country are. I understand that documenting 198 countries is a daunting task, but even so, Garfors has no consistent structure for how he introduces each country. He promises to include a “story”, but this ranges from an actual narrative with dialogue to a slapdash one-sentence description.

For example, his entry on Iran chronicles the progression of his flirtatious relationship with a rich girl and her loyal bodyguard. It’s written like a memoir. Yet in his entry on Thailand, he merely gives a bit of trivia on the history of Bangkok, and mentions that he got a fish pedicure. Other entries are somewhere in the middle: a mixture of vignettes and musings, usually with a couple of obligatory facts about the country thrown in for reference. It’s the travelogue version of a grab bag – with each entry you have no idea what you’re going to get.

It goes without saying that some of his chapters are better than others. Some of his entire sections are even better than others. His section “TIA: This Is Africa,” gives some really interesting insight into a lot of the sub-Saharan African countries, including with the AIDS epidemic and the failure of traditional aid.

There is a lot that doesn’t work in Africa. We know that. But we don’t do anything about it except for donating money when we see offensive footage on our TV screens…But traditional aid is one of the main problems that the continent struggles with, or so my brother claims, who has see the misery up close when he lived in Malawi.

 A mixture of narrative and insight, with distinct characters such as Garfors does in his chapter on Malawi, and in much of his “TIA” section, is how I wish the entire book could have been.   There are a few other entries in this book that have such a quality. Among the better ones are his entry on North Korea (he outwits and out jogs his guard), Afghanistan (explaining to the baffled consulate staff that he’s really just a tourist), and Papua New Guinea (an impromptu visit to a parent-teacher conference). In these few entries are the substance of actual adventure, of experiences truly unique to that destination, or just unique in general.

Sadly, a gross majority of the rest of Garfors’ stories seem to be limited to two settings: a bar, or a bar-like restaurant. Garfors has an uncomfortably strong obsession with alcohol, and uses his Norwegian heritage as a defense (“We aren’t rude, really. Only shy. Alcohol is the social glue…”). I’m not one to blink at someone who enjoys a buzz here and there, but when the majority of the plots follow the same scenario of tracking down an establishment and bonding with a “local” over several drinks until they nightmarishly blend into one never-ending saga of bar hopping and raunchy stories it’s hard not to mentally check out.  But if there’s one thing even more obnoxious that Garfors keeps referring to throughout his idylls than drinking it’s women. Let’s just say wanderlust isn’t the only kind of “lust” he suffers from.

Throughout the book he throws around the terms “young and beautiful girls,” “beautiful women,” and “gorgeous girls,” with the almost creeping air of the sex tourists he so happens to look down upon. His beef with Qatar is its gender imbalance – apparently he can’t be celibate even for a few days. And to be sure, there are loads of stories about both his brief dallies and his more serious relationships. There’s a term for such a thing, actually. It’s called TMI.

Being a progressive from Scandinavia, Garfors doesn’t fit the stereotypical chauvinist mold, but perhaps rather the horny, free love one. I hope he forgives me if I am mistaken, but I’m not sure what else to think when his entry on Croatia is reduced simply to an encounter with a stranger that begins with a hostile interrogation and ends in the best and wildest sex of his life. The hook up vignettes are the least of it. When Garfors mentions his ex girlfriends he seems to get a thrill out of describing the raunchiest thing they almost managed to get away with, even if they break the laws of the land (Laos), or disturb the neighbors (Taiwan). His most bizarre experience of all, though (Canada) has to be a sex favor for his 29-year-old Muslim friend who wants to lose her virginity before she turns 30. Remind me once more what any of this has to do with world travel.

Sex and drinking aside, Garfors also enjoys emphasizing his rule-free, guidebook-free, tour-free way of traveling. “Easy is boring” is his favorite mantra and he repeats it like propaganda. He looks down on others who join tour groups and go the beaten path. He revels in living on the edge. He describes several close encounters to death yet insists that he never felt truly scared in any of the countries he visited. That’s great for a young single dude high on adrenaline. Not so relatable for the rest of us.

Finally, considering how well traveled and well rounded a person he promotes himself, Garfors refers to fellow travelers/people from other countries in oddly judgmental ways. “Typically African,” “definitely British,” “typical expat” – these are among the descriptions and phrases that he spouts along the way. At one point he says he’d rather count the grains of sand on a beach than talk to a “stereotypical American” wearing “mandatory white tennis shoes.” Ouch. Oh, and I have no doubt the Belgians would appreciate his opening sentence about their country: “Seriously, who has anything good to say about Belgium, without thinking about it?”

To give him the benefit of the doubt, it could be a cultural Norwegian tongue-and-cheek thing that goes way over my head. Or a language barrier. But man, even if that’s the case his editors needed to tear themselves away from the water cooler and nip this crap in the bud.

What could have been a delightful and inspirational pastiche of travel stories is actually an obnoxious, egomaniacal train wreck of a memoir. Throughout it Garfors shoves his now-cliché travel wisdom at his readers:

Travelers have learned that arrogance is their worst enemy and that being humble goes a long way. Only by acknowledging that people you meet are your equals can you understand and appreciate the world genuinely and truthfully.

 Or this:

Planning everything is not possible. And if you plan too much you will only annoy your fellow travelers. Because things rarely go as planned.

 The sad thing is that you can get most all his advice and insight easily from Wikitravel or any of the viral travel blogs people flock to these days. It’s only his hit-and-miss misadventures that are unique to this book. He certainly is a colorful character, and you have to wonder how self aware he is – assuming that he has been made more so by traveling as conventional wisdom suggests. At the beginning of his narrative Garfors tells us:

To travel to every country in the world may seem like the ultimate ego trip. And it is. But it isn’t arrogant or decadent.

Not necessarily.

 That post-script last sentence is an interesting provision– it hints that Garfors may realize that a world trip can indeed become an ego trip in the worst sense without the right steps. And the sad thing is, if Garfors is any example then maybe I’m better off having only traveled to a half dozen countries instead of all 198. “Easy is boring,” but so is an insecure, hypocritical, arrogant egomaniac who can’t wait to tell you all about it.