By Darren McLeod
Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Darren McLeod
This is a travel book, but it’s not a travel narrative. I do not begin at the beginning and finish at the end, nor do I pull a Quentin Tarantino by telling one story where I manipulate the timeline and jump around the trip in whatever order I please. If I did that, it would like read like a Coles Notes version of the Lonely Planet: simply summarizing locations that you could read about on Wikipedia. No, that’s not what this book is about – this book is even more boring than that.
This book is a collection of essays based on thoughts that I had while I was travelling around Asia for two and a half months with my wife from April to June 2017. Most of these thoughts are fairly short – a few pages at most – and there is little rhyme or reason as to why I wrote about certain topics. Usually, I just sort of thought something was funny. In any event, something about the place or the incident possessed me to write about it on trains, or planes, or in hotel rooms or hostels. After I had finished writing a bunch of essays, I figured I might as well compile them all into one spot so that people could choose not to read a single large document, rather than choose not to read a bunch of small documents.
If you’ve made it through this introduction, then I applaud you: it only goes downhill from here.
Traveling as a vegetarian in Japan is a lot like exploration must have been for hunter-gatherer societies: you do not know when your next meal will come, so whenever you find food, you have to gorge yourself until you are absolutely, positively so full that it is uncomfortable to move. Bears do this in winter to hibernate, vegetarians do this in Japan in case they have to skip dinner that night because all of the tofu dishes contain pork, fish sauce, or pork marinated in fish sauce.
That’s not to say all other countries are perfect – my first meal in Hong Kong was boiled cabbage that I dipped in soy sauce for flavour – but Japan is without a doubt the worst country I’ve been to for vegetarian food (and I’ve been to Scotland).
There is a word for vegetarian in Japanese – I kid you not, it’s “begetarian”, your first hint that the concept is absolutely foreign to them. When I tell a restaurant server I’m vegetarian (“begetarian”), they typically start to laugh. Perhaps it’s an old joke here?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
I had heard that Japan was not particularly vegetarian friendly, but I was skeptical. After all, the Japanese restaurants run by Koreans in Vancouver that I go to all have vegetarian options. Japan also has a long history of Buddhism, typically the religion that is a vegetarian’s best friend. But it appears that Japan’s Buddhism doesn’t extend to vegetarianism, much like Boston’s Catholicism doesn’t extend to the Bible’s cautions against drunkenness.
There's a bit of Darwinism to existing as a vegetarian in Japan -- you have to adapt to the environment in order to survive. Over the past few weeks, I've learned a few secrets which have helped me to live off the land here:
1. If the entire menu is soup (ramen, udon, etc.), do not ask if the broth contains meat. It definitely does, but as long as you don’t ask the question, you can always convince yourself that it’s possible you found the one restaurant in Japan with vegetarian broth. Once you’ve asked the question, you’ve removed all doubt.
2. You might as well skip the entree portion of the menu and just order a few side dishes. If you’re very lucky, you might be able to order a bowl of rice with a raw egg cracked on top, a bowl of edamame, and some raw cabbage. For added fun, if you find three side dishes you can eat, yell “Bingo!”
3. When all else fails, go to a convenience store and get an egg salad sandwich. This is the only vegetarian sandwich widely available in Japan, and I’ve probably had six since I’ve been here. Prior to this, I’d only had one in my life and had not made plans to have another.
I have undoubtedly eaten some fish broth since being here, which I have not enjoyed but is something that comes with traveling. I am on foreign soil, on Japanese soil, and I have to respect that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in this region has produced a palette that demands the taste of fish, beef, chicken or pork with every dish. I also have to respect that they have no respect for begetarians, which simply proves what has been increasingly obvious during this trip: our cultures aren’t so different after all.
I am not qualified to critique fashion. I only buy clothes that are heavily discounted from chain retail stores, and I dress exclusively in shades of grey and navy blue. Shirts remain in my wardrobe for years, pilling and dulling in colour until they would be refused if I tried to bring them to the local Salvation Army.
Yet despite my general inability to dress myself, I still remained one of the better dressed travelers in Southeast Asia.
I do not know what it is about Southeast Asia that persuades white people to abandon all sensible clothing choices — I would say it’s something in the water, but nobody drinks the water in Southeast Asia, so that can’t be the answer.
It is as if people decide to throw everything they’ve learned about appropriate attire in their life out the window and start from scratch. Instead of wearing the clothing they brought from home, they purchase outlandish new items that would get them laughed out of any store in North America that doesn’t have the word Organic in its name.
Actually, it’s as if white travelers are aliens who landed in Southeast Asia, and to imitate humans they simply looked at the only other white person they could see, and then dressed accordingly.
For women, this means pyjama pants with prints of elephants on them. I have never seen a Thai or Indonesian woman wear these pants, yet every white woman in Thailand and Indonesia seems to have several pairs. Apparently, they can be worn with any top and at any location, whether it’s a hostel, a beach, or a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The only time I have seen elephant pants worn in North America is at an international airport when the young woman is returning from Southeast Asia. She undoubtedly looks at her pants, sees that nobody else in the building is wearing loose fitting purple tie-dyed pants with elephants on them, and quickly puts those in the bottom of her closet next to the ukulele she also picked up on the trip but never learned how to play.
Men are no better. Men in Southeast Asia are apparently mandated, upon arrival, to pick up a white tank top with the logo of the cheapest local beer company on it. In Thailand, this means you wear a Chang Beer singlet. In Indonesia, it’s a Bintang Beer singlet. The item is ubiquitous — it is sold in virtually every single clothing stall you pass, even outside sacred temples or shrines.
My complaint isn’t so much that the shirt being worn is a singlet, despite it being one of the worst looks a man can sport. I appreciate that men are doing it for comfort or to avoid a farmer’s tan, although I’m not sure a tank top tan on a man is any more appealing. The real issue is why men are compelled to have a shirt with a local cheap beer logo. Wouldn’t you find it odd if Asian tourists in the United States were always sporting Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirts? Thailand and Indonesia have all sorts of fun and unique things about their countries and cultures that would make for better shirts, but no, white guys have settled on cheap beer logos. It’s a shame.
I am trying to grow a beard. It’s not as easy as it looks. I have always wanted to grow a beard. There are two reasons for this:
1. Until my hairline started receding, I perpetually looked like a young boy; and
2. I now look like a young boy with a receding hairline.
A beard will change this. A beard will make me look my age (31) and, accordingly, command me the respect I feel I deserve. Beards are also considered a very rugged feature on men, which would bring the total number of rugged features I have to a more respectable number: one.
Having a beard is not as simple as wishing for one, though. I cannot simply walk into a beard store, hand my money to the clerk, and walk out with a fresh new beard. Like aging a fine wine or watching a professional baseball game, growing a beard takes a ridiculous amount of time. The process of growing a beard is why I have waited until now to grow one. Given the terrible genes passed on to me by my parents, I was incapable of growing a beard at any point during my twenties. I did not bother trying, but if I had tried, you would not have noticed -- my five-week beard growth would have looked like another man's five o'clock shadow. But that was when I was a young lad in my twenties, and I'm now an old man in his thirties, roughly entering my middle-aged period if you assume I die much younger than statistics say I will.
But even though I presently feel like growing a beard is a real possibility, I need ample time for it. I cannot go to work with four days of beard growth -- I would look unfinished, like a man going to work wearing only pants but no shirt. Facial hair is a bit of a binary operation -- you either have a completed beard or moustache, or you have none at all. Anywhere in between is awkward, unattractive, and unpleasant for those who are forced to look at your face.
The beard-to-be is promising. Typically, I shave every other day, and so now that I've gone three days without shaving it, a whole new world of facial hair is opening up before me. Mathematically, my whiskers are about three times longer than I typically let them grow, which is a dramatic increase. Think about if your height increased threefold -- you'd be over fifteen feet tall! This was exactly like that, except with facial hair.
“Only a few more days until I have a beard, I reckon,” I told my wife. I feel like men with beards are the type of folk who say reckon, and as I am well on my way to joining their exclusive club, I am diving headfirst into their preferred parlance.
Vocabulary isn't the only thing that men with beards do differently in my mind -- it's almost a completely different world. They wear vests or suspenders over dress shirts and smell vaguely of wood; they carry a handkerchief in their back pocket in case food or drink gets caught in the tangles of their beard; their bathrooms contain grooming products I would not be able to find on sale at a Shopper's Drug Mart.
On day three I had felt I was halfway toward being the man I was hoping to become, but at this point it’s clear it was all an illusion. The hairs from day three have gotten longer, sure, but the follicles are still far too spread out, lacking the density I am hoping for. The hairs on my face are sprawled out like a Canadian suburb, whereas I needed them to be packed together tightly like the Japanese cities I am presently visiting.
There are whole parts of prime beard growing real estate that remain disturbingly vacant, bereft of even a single hair. Unfortunately, this real estate comprises much of my cheeks, leaving me with the dreaded moustache and neck beard combination favoured by the young adults who are on a first name basis with board game store employees. There is a gap between moustache and beard that could fit any multitude of small objects (pocket change, Hot Wheels cars, another moustache).
Despite these early struggles, I will press on. After all, I have not packed a razor, and entering a store to purchase one to shave the limited growth on my face would be akin to surrendering. As I am now becoming steeped in Japanese culture, I feel like this surrender would be dishonourable. I came on this journey with a goal to grow a beard, and it will take more than one week of sad results before I abandon it.
Is it possible I have less beard than a week ago? My wife and I chatted with her sister on FaceTime and she asked me when I started growing a chinstrap beard.
I hate chinstrap beards.
Unfortunately, I have not yet grown a beard. I am perpetually in the state of growing it. I feel like a film director who has completed all of the filming for his next movie, but has been tinkering with the editing for years, unable to ever be satisfied. Eventually, the film director dies and/or gives up, and the studio hires a non-union editor to quickly scrape something together so they can at least put out a direct-to-DVD release and get some money for their efforts.
At this time, that's all I'm hoping for -- something for my efforts, but it seems unlikely. There is no part of my beard that is ready for prime time. I thought at least by this point I'd have a decent ironic moustache that I could sport, making me look like all of my uncles looked circa 1970 to 2007. However, even the moustache is still a bit too wispy, a bit too much like the moustache on that tall kid every neighbouring town had on their grade nine basketball team.
I should probably give up, but then I look at my neck, where the beard is thick, lush, impressive. If I could just find a way to will the rest of my face to grow a beard like my neck, I'd be in great shape. Actually, I'm in Japan, land of incredible technologies unavailable in North America -- maybe they do beard transplants? Perhaps there's a way to take the untamed jungle that is my neck and place it on my smooth, childlike cheeks?
I should have brought scissors that I could trim my moustache with, as it’s starting to invade my mouth. That’s not the problem – the problem is that every five minutes I feel compelled to use two fingers to brush my moustache out of my mouth and I look like a serial killer when I do it.
After two months, the beard has not improved. I feel like a sports team that spends several years losing the majority of their games while promising fans that things will get better in the future, which sounds promising enough until you realize they’ve been saying it for six years.
There is no more improvement coming. The beard has reached its maximum potential, and at this point the only option is to tear it all down and rebuild, although by rebuild I mean to never attempt to grow a beard again for as long as I shall live.
I go to an Indonesian barber and ask for a haircut and a beard shave. I can tell she’s relieved that I’m getting rid of the thing and didn’t just ask her to clean up the beard. As she begins to cut my hair, I hear a white female patron giving another hairdresser hell because, in washing the customer’s hair, the hairdresser used a shampoo containing sulfates. Or maybe it was sulfites. I don’t know. I don’t care.
The barber has moved onto shaving my beard, beginning with the tangled mess on my chin. Suddenly, I am inspired and ask her to leave the moustache “as a joke – my wife will hate it!” She leaves the moustache, but I’m the one who hates it. I look sort of like one of my uncles, but only if he had been smoking crystal meth for three months straight. I ask the barber to shave off the moustache, and I can tell it’s the best decision I’ve made all day, possibly all month.
The first thing I do when I get to a foreign country never changes: I buy a local SIM card and pop it into my phone. With a local SIM card, I have access to the internet, and with access to the internet, I am invincible. I can accomplish just about everything: I have access to maps so that I never get lost in winding streets without names, I have translation services and Wikipedia so I can know exactly what I’m eating, and I can book hostels or hotels, days or weeks ahead, with a few clicks while I’m commuting on a train.
Smartphones make traveling easier than ever, avoiding the lost-in-translation-pitfalls that are a distant memory of 20th century travel, but not a real concern in modern times. Without a smartphone, it’s likely that a risk-adverse person would generally forgo traveling to many places altogether, unconvinced that the reward of travel could outweigh the possible risks of being lost in a foreign land.
For everything that technology has added to travel -- and the list is nearly endless -- it has also detracted from travel in a number of ways as well.
First, technology seems to have made travelers unusually antisocial. While visiting hostels in Malaysia, my wife and I sat at a communal table for every breakfast and every evening before bed in hopes of meeting other travelers to chat with. Unfortunately, other solo travelers seemed more interested in Skyping with friends back home or crushing Netflix on their phone than joining us for a conversation. In hindsight, maybe this says more about how unappealing my wife and I are to other people – they’d rather suffer through lag-filled, choppy Skype calls with someone ten time zones away than chat with us over a beer in real time.
As technology has made it easier for us to find our way through foreign cities with ease, the motivation to learn phrases from foreign languages has also dwindled considerably. In the Lonely Planet book I purchased for Malaysia and Singapore, I didn't bother to learn a single sentence from its recommended guide of phrases. Why would I need to ask how to get to the train station? My phone can do that for me -- I don't need to bother a local with my dumb question.
I am sure I miss out on lots of experiences because of this reliance on my phone. A friend of mine relishes in learning foreign languages whenever he travels, and his commitment amazes and humbles me. He does not simply learn the standard phrases that travel guides recommend (“I need a hotel room”, “Where is the washroom?”, “I’ve never seen a toilet like this in my life, can you please draw a picture to explain how I am supposed to poop in that?”). Instead, he has developed his own list of phrases that he has found are useful and memorizes them in the foreign language ahead of time. They range from the obvious (“I am 33 years old,” “I am a lawyer”) to ones that are specifically fitted to the questions he receives from locals, such as questions about why he’s Canadian but is not white (“I was born in Canada, but my parents were born in China”). While this undoubtedly requires a lot of work up front, I have no doubt that he reaps considerable rewards from putting in this effort.
Being bothered by dumb tourists is one of life’s great treats, whether you’re the tourist or you’re the local. In Canada, I’ve helped to guide Germans to our hockey arena or pointed Koreans to my favourite restaurants. The people I’ve met were grateful for the recommendations and it was fun to feature as a moment in their trip, however brief it was.
Additionally, when you rely solely on the internet for suggestions for travelling, you are likely simply relying on one of the first results that came up on Google, which is what everyone else who is traveling is doing. This means you’ll end up in places that are far more popular than you want, and surrounded by other tourists. By using locals as your guide instead of websites, you can usually find hidden gems or places that have not yet been overtaken by tourists due to a #1 TripAdvisor rating. The best restaurants my wife and I ate at on our trip were ones locals recommended to us or, in a more unique case, a restaurant we stumbled into because it looked cool, along with a second restaurant that we went to because it had a cute business card that we found in the first restaurant. Both restaurants were new and hidden off main streets, and I had not read about either in a guidebook or on the internet.
That’s not to suggest that I’m a Luddite when it comes to the use of technology, as nothing could be further from the truth. I am a slave to Google Maps, without which I would be perpetually lost, and I frequently trust hotel and restaurant reviews to ensure I avoid too many bad experiences (accepting that some bad experiences are bound to happen, and that as long as they are kept to a minimum, generally make for a great story). The trick is simply to balance the use of technology when traveling with ensuring that that your head is not looking down at a screen when it could be taking in some of the sights and smells that are passing you by. In the infinite wisdom of Ferris Bueller: life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.
Japan might be the cleanest country I’ve ever travelled to, but I haven’t figured out how they manage to do it. The most difficult part of this mystery to unravel is how they keep the place so spotless when there are no goddamn garbage cans anywhere in the entire country.
In North America, there are garbage cans everywhere, but the streets are still covered in gum, cigarette butts, and litter. In less-developed Asian cities, there are some garbage cans, but the most popular garbage can is the side of the street, where plastic bottles and rain ponchos line the streets like people observing a parade. Japan, always going to the beat of its own drum, has pretty much no trash cans and yet its streets are somehow always spotless.
It’s difficult to understand why Japan has so few garbage cans, especially when you consider that everything in the country has about three times as much packaging as in North America. When you buy a bun from a baker, they will put a small plastic bag over the bun, then put that plastic bag into a larger plastic bag in which they’ve given you a moist towelette (also in its own plastic wrap).
You accumulate garbage at a remarkable pace in Japan, and yet you are forced to carry it on you for hours at a time until you find the rare garbage can shimmering the distance like an oasis. Once you’ve found the garbage can, you then have to check all of your bags for garbage, trying to unload the dozens of plastic wrappers you have somehow inherited during the past few hours.
How Japan manages to stay so clean with so few garbage cans was never quite clear to me. Although I would occasionally see men dressed in a collared shirt, tie and dress pants using a small tool to pick up litter on the street, I rarely saw anyone picking up litter. This was likely due to the lack of litter on the streets, which brings up a bit of a chicken and egg situation -- are the Japanese cleaning their streets really well or is there simply no litter being thrown around to be picked up?
As time went on, it appeared that the answer is that people simply don’t litter or dump garbage in Japan like we do in North America. The difference in littering appears to partially relate to some sort of overarching rules around garbage (the “Garbage Law”, as I called it) that was frequently alluded to around Japan. Occasionally we would see what was clearly a garbage bin, try to put our garbage in there, only to have a local resident politely look at us, point to the garbage, then shake their head “no”, until we would retrieve the garbage and they would smile and thank us. Additionally, In every AirBNB unit we stayed at during our time in Japan, the owner’s email contained extraordinary cautions not to take the garbage outside the unit even if it was full, instead recommending that you call them so they could deal with it. One contained a bolded warning with five exclamation points: “GARBAGE RULE IN JAPAN IS VERY STRICT!!!!!”
I am curious about this garbage rule. What is the rule? Is garbage only allowed to be taken out on certain days? Are foreigners not allowed to put the garbage into a communal garbage can in an apartment building for fear that we are are depositing toxic foreign goods? More importantly, what is the punishment? Are you grounded from having any garbage temporarily, forced to live a zero-waste existence for a year?
The details of the rule are likely irrelevant; the mere existence of a rule in Japan is all that really matters. This is a country of (mostly) law abiding citizens, a culture where jaywalking was so rare I began to assume that all those who did it were ex-cons.
And since people in Japan were following the no littering/no dumping rule, the lack of garbage cans makes a lot of sense. After all, having fewer garbage cans around ultimately means there are fewer garbage cans to empty, making it more efficient for a city to empty its few bins each day, rather than having more bins to empty than it can address each day.
Given the lesser resources required to empty the fewer garbage cans, it seems like this would require fewer tax dollars. I began to wonder if this sort of system could work in North America, perhaps becoming popular with those who advocate for small government. The slogans pretty much write themselves: “ARE YOUR TAX DOLLARS GOING TO WASTE?”, “HAVING MORE TRASH CANS IS GARBAGE,” etc. The idea seems like it should be easy enough to implement: the primary tool in garbage management in Japan appears to be a simple rule of not littering. This is the exact same rule we were all taught as children and generally followed religiously until some point when we abandoned it.
But the abandoning of the no-littering rule by most North Americans is likely why we are not suited to this garbage policy. North Americans generally are opposed to any sort of inconvenience in our lives, and holding onto garbage for more than twenty steps is undoubtedly an inconvenience. Furthermore, it would require total buy-in from the majority of the population, because when you really think about it, everyone’s change in perception of littering occurs at around age 13, when we replace our moral compass of “Follow All Rules” with the much easier “Everyone Else Is Doing It”.
Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. It turns out he maybe underestimated that figure, as today I was famous for two hours. Well, I wasn't exactly famous -- nobody knew who I was -- yet it felt as if I was famous because there were swarms of people trying to take a photo with me. For two hours, I was like an uglier Brad Pitt, except without the money or charisma.
My fame occurred not through any achievement of mine, but through the simple fact that I am white. While being white has certainly afforded me numerous privileges in the past, never before has it made people stop in their tracks and lower their sunglasses to gawk at me.
I should back up a bit. Today, I was at Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist Temple made of countless stone tablets with intricate carvings. It is one of Indonesia’s greatest treasures and appropriately considered one of the wonders of the world. Given its fame and reputation, I suspected it would be like most major tourist attractions and filled to the brim with other white people.
That was not the case.
The place was packed with an enormous crowd of people, but almost all of them were Indonesian tourists, primarily elementary and high school classes taking field trips. The discrepancy in local versus foreign tourists was made most noticeable by the separate entrances for each, a tactic used to charge foreigners about five times as much as they charge locals (which, given our income disparities, seems more than fair).
Once we started climbing one of the temple’s many staircases it became noticeable that for some of the children, I was maybe a more unusual sight than the grand temple around them. Children would start whispering to each other as my wife and I passed, and eventually a young girl asked if she could take a photo with us. We happily obliged, and suddenly we were swarmed by a large group of girls, some taking selfies and some taking photos of the group from a distance.
At first I assumed it would just be a one-off, and that this brave young lady had a particular fascination for foreigners, but I was wrong. As we slowly made our way around the temple, my wife and I (but especially I) were stopped frequently with requests for photos. And it wasn't just young girls -- I had mothers come up to me and ask if I would pose in a photo with her family, and so somewhere, there's a photo of me with mom, dad, grandma, and three young children. There's also a selfie of me with an eighteen year old boy who wore a bandana over the front of his face while he took the selfie, which was slightly disconcerting. At least nine different school classes have photos with me, each of those classes having the photo on about six different cameras. Once you agreed to pose with one person, you had to be prepared to stand for about 10 minutes while others would run up and take a photo. Some people just randomly took photos of me without permission, perhaps karma for all of those other white people on Instagram who take photos of Indonesian villagers when they travel.
The families and school groups were all very gracious for our time, particularly one group that was studying English and each took turns asking questions about why I was travelling through Indonesia. They invited me to come to their town, and seemed genuinely sad when I told them it would not fit into my itinerary.
As I looked around the temple, I could see the dozen or so other white people being asked for photos -- some strangely refused (either because they were exhausted from other photos, or perhaps they are just assholes), while most were happy to indulge in the fleeting bit of fame.
And while I wasn't actually famous -- only the group studying English even knows my name -- this was as close as I will ever get to understanding what it is like to be a celebrity. As much fun as the attention was (and it was incredibly fun -- I highly recommend it), I started to see how much of an intrusion fame would be if it happened consistently over a long period of time. While my wife laughed at first, by the end it was clearly an annoyance that we'd be walking together and then I would disappear in the crowd as I stopped to pose for photographs. Touring the temple took about three times as long as it should have as the stops were so regular and so long.
It's also strange to know that there are now probably close to a hundred photos of me on cellphones and cameras in Indonesia that I will never see. Are they going to be uploaded to Facebook or Instagram? Are people going to be clicking "Like" and congratulating their friends on getting a photo with a white guy, and then recall the few chance encounters they themselves had with white guys? I don't really know what will happen with the photos -- the most likely answer is that they'll simply be forgotten and deleted.
Being famous like that was exhausting. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through that every time I went to a grocery store, or saw a movie, or used a urinal at a public restroom. There would be days where I would be dressed poorly and wouldn’t want to have my photo taken, lest the world see me wearing some ridiculous outfit. There would be days where I’d be in a rush to get somewhere and face the no-win situation: stop to take a photo and be late for an appointment, or refuse to stop and be considered an asshole.
I am happy to have experienced this fame, but I’m even happier that it was fleeting.
Some people are afraid of heights or spiders, and pretty much everyone is afraid of death. Me? My biggest fear is gettin’ hosed.
In North America, everything generally has a fixed price, and so gettin’ hosed is less of a concern (unless you’re dealing with cars, where we’ve for some reason decided to forego certainty for a nerve wracking game of The Price Is Right when it comes to that new Toyota).
My fear of gettin’ hosed often makes traveling uncomfortable, as most of the places I’ve traveled to seem to treat hosin’ tourists as a national pastime, the sort of thing that might feature on their nation’s flags if they were allowed to include something other than stripes and/or stars.
I don't know why I dislike gettin' hosed so much. It's not about the money -- when a southeast Asian taxi driver pulls a fast one on me, he's usually only making away with one Canadian dollar more than he's entitled to. The money itself is generally inconsequential to me.
There are several real issues at play that make me uncomfortable. The first is that I simply have no frame of reference I can work with, which makes me feel stupid. The second is that I practice law and yet frequently end up on the losing end of these negotiations, which makes me feel stupid. The third is that I know I’m devoting way too much mental energy to such a trivial issue, which makes me feel stupid. I wish there was a common thread here, but I’m not seeing one.
I am always on high alert for gettin’ hosed, which sometimes makes me a bit of a jerk when I travel. People stop me to offer me things I might need (water, transportation, food), and I instinctively tell them THAT I’M FINE, SERIOUSLY, I’M JUST GOING TO WALK ON THE SIDE OF THIS BUMPER TO BUMPER TRAFFIC WHILE INHALING THE SMELL OF BURNING GARBAGE AND EXHAUST FUMES BECAUSE I FEEL YOU’RE LIKELY OVERCHARGING ME FOR THE RIDE THAT COSTS LESS THAN A BAG OF M&M’S IN CANADA.
My favourite scam from this trip was the day I went looking for a canoe to paddle Lake Batur, a crater lake next to a volcano that happens to be Bali’s largest lake. I looked at renting a canoe at nearby resorts and tour groups, but the prices were insane: about $45 Canadian per person for two hours, when I can rent a canoe in Canada for about $50 for a day. My rule of thumb for Indonesia is that nothing should cost more than it does in Canada, except possibly things exported from Canada (and even that’s not a hard-and-fast rule).
I eventually found a local who hung around at our hotel (despite not working there) whose uncle lived on the lake and who would rent me the canoe for $15 Canadian for two hours. While this still seemed very steep by local standards -- it's about $5 Canadian to rent a scooter for a day -- it was still significantly cheaper than the hotels and tour companies, so I decided that given the principles of supply and demand, it was likely a fair offer.
The man gave us a ride to his uncle’s place on the lake, where we were greeted by a family who seemed at all times to be on the verge of laughter. After exchanging the money, we realized why: the canoe was a traditional dugout canoe that was probably close to fifty years old. There was only one paddle and no seats, so my wife and I had to sit back-to-back while I paddled. The Voyageurs likely had it better when they paddled through Canada.
Still, we thought it would be fine -- the water looked calm, and went right from this man's backyard through a very small forest and into the large lake.
Even in the calm cove, the dugout canoe was the least stable watercraft I've ever set foot in, and I began to have a terrible feeling that without great care and attention, this boat could tip at any moment. Nevertheless, I paddled onward with our single oar, going past the forest and toward the lake. We passed (and lightly bumped into) another small canoe carrying a young man who was stunned to see us there, and as we made it through the trees we realized why: this was not a standard entry to the lake, but an entry to a fish farm at the edge of the lake. We had about 60 square metres of calm water to paddle in. Logs and rope blocked the path from going any further, but the rope was unnecessary -- the actual lake was extremely choppy and we would have been fools to go past it in such an unstable vessel. We were already going to be laughed at when we returned to shore after only a few minutes, it'd be even worse if we showed up soaking wet.
After about 20 minutes of going in very small circles (we decided fifteen minutes was too short, but thirty minutes would have been too long), we returned back to land, to find the man looking very serious.
HIM: “It’s too bad the waves are very bad right now. You probably could not go very far.”
ME: “You’re right. We only went for twenty minutes. Any chance of a small refund?”
HIM: *blank stare*
At that point, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d given him my money, and technically, I’d gotten exactly what I asked for: use of a canoe on the lake for up to two hours. I didn’t specify the quality of canoe, and I didn’t specify the breadth of area I expected to paddle, and he decided it wasn’t his job to tell it to me, not when I was ready to give him my money.
In any event, there are worse things in life than gettin’ hosed. There are serious dangers that I should be concerned about, like foreign illnesses and pickpockets and criminals, and yet my guard isn’t up for those things at all: I’m only worried about gettin’ hosed, while neglecting everything else.
This became evident when my wife and I used Uber to hail a ride outside of a train station in Surabaya, Indonesia. After some confusion finding the car we had booked, we eventually found it, went into the back seat, and then the driver handed me a phone and told me to speak to his boss.
Being handed a phone in a stranger’s car and being told to speak to his boss is not a good thing. This is the sort of thing that only happens if you are Liam Neeson and your daughter has been taken, and then you spend the next hour and forty-five minutes kicking ass so that your daughter can be untaken.
The strangeness of the situation was at the back of my mind when I answered the phone, at which point the boss politely asked if I would be paying cash or credit.
If you've ever ridden in an Uber, you know why this is a strange question -- the app is connected to your credit card, so once the ride completes your money goes to Uber, and then Uber gives money to the driver. Cash never enters into the transaction, so it's kind of a dumb question to be asking.
I spent a solid five minutes explaining this on a cell phone to the boss, describing how Uber’s payment system worked and he seemed genuinely surprised by the fact that the app would make a direct payment to him. I did not understand how he was a boss in this enterprise, given his lack of understanding of the very platform he was using, and I briefly wondered if I should be pursuing a career with Uber’s marketing people.
But the bigger question is this -- who the hell is this entrepreneur who is acting as the boss for other Uber drivers? How is this even a thing? That ride cost me 14,500 IDR, which is about $1.50 Canadian. After paying for gas and the use of the vehicle, what's left for the driver and the boss to split? Is it like McDonald's, where it's strictly about sales volume, and he has hundreds of drivers under his watch? If so, why the hell didn't he know about the payment system?
The ten-minute drive (yes, $1.50 for ten minutes) gave me plenty of time to think on these questions. When the driver had finally escorted us to our hotel, I tried to quickly grab my bags and leave when he said loudly “Wait, sir, you need to give me—” and I was just waiting for him to request more money when he finished with “—five stars. Please give me the five stars!”
Given the ridiculous phone call with the boss, there was no way I was going to give this guy five stars. I did what any normal person would do: I waited until I saw his car leave the parking lot, then opened up the Uber app and gave him his rating: four stars.
Was I supposed to give him less? He knew where I was staying!
1. These Japanese Beers All Taste The Same, But I’m Pretending I Like Kirin the Best
2. I Am Having Trouble Sleeping on this Airplane
3. I Just Want To Go To a Place That Other Tourists Don’t Go To That Has Good Public Transportation and the Locals Speak English
4. Boy, I Really Hoped This Hamstring Injury Would’ve Healed by Now
5. Boy, These Japanese Baseball Players Sure Like To Bunt
6. This Place Was Probably a Whole Lot Better Before Assholes Like Me Started Coming Here
7. Pretty Sure I Accidentally Ate Fish Today
8. My Wife Keeps Telling Me How Attractive Japanese Men Are, But I’m Taking the High Road and Not Telling Her How Attractive the Japanese Women Are
9 Yes, I Am Now Very Sure It Was Fish
10. I Really Don’t Think This Pharmacist Understands the Nature of My Illness
11. Are All of These People Wearing Masks on the Subway Sick? If So, There Might Be Some Sort Of Epidemic
12. This AirBNB Looked a Lot Bigger In the Photos Online
13. Where Did Every Single Restaurant In Town Find the Same CD of Instrumental Versions of Love Ballads from the Films of 1997?
14. I Don’t Think The Price This Man Is Telling Me Reflects The Actual Value Of Those Goods
15. I’m Trying Not To Think About Poverty Without Ignoring It Completely
16. I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This, But This Restaurant Has Too Much Staff
17. Seriously, This Restaurant Employs Two Different Guys To Stand Outside The Restaurant To Try To Coax People Inside
18. I Don’t Think It’s Any Cooler In The Shade
19. Do Australians Behave Like This In Their Own Country?
20. I Have A Tummy Ache
One of the greatest features of Japan is the prevalence of naturally occurring hot springs, known as onsens. Onsens vary in temperature, size, and smell, but the consistent feature of all of them is it feels so goddamn good to sit in one for an extended period of time.
Oh, and you have to go in naked.
The naked part kind of threw me off the first time I went to one. Like most North Americans, I have a healthy fear of my own body, covering it up at all times and even trying to limit its exposure in places where nudity is acceptable, such as locker rooms or when getting intimate with a woman.
The Japanese, however, are comfortable enough with their bodies to have a whole onsen culture, along with a very strict set of rules regarding how you participate.
You begin by going to your gender-specific change room and getting naked, which will determine whether you can participate at all: people with tattoos are banned from most onsens, making that tattoo you got when you were 18 years old an even bigger mistake than it already was.
You then go to a shower room, where you sit on a small plastic stool and wash your body using soap and a portable shower head to make sure you clean your entire body. This appears to be some people's favourite part -- I swear there was a guy who was there for about thirty minutes at one point (I washed, went into the onsen, took a cool rinse, went back into the onsen, and then returned and the guy was still lathering up his stomach).
You finally go to the onsen, which is typically segregated by gender as well. The trick here is that they give you a tiny towel for covering your private area until you are in the water. This works fairly well for men as we only have the one private area (as far as I know), but for women it's a bit more of a decision. After all, the bottom half is likely more private, but it's the top half that will likely attract the most attention if anyone's looking. Yet for a culture with a very large sex toy and pornography industry, there appeared to be no leering going on at the onsens -- women and men kept their attention to their own pools and allowed everyone to relax and be comfortable.
Of course, the modesty towel is only useful while out of the water, as you are not supposed to dunk the towel in the onsen when you go in. Accordingly, once I slowly lowered my body into the hot water, there was little I could do to block my private area from being visible for everyone else to see.
At first, this was extremely uncomfortable for me, as I had never been naked in a public pool in my life. I started to overthink how I was supposed to position my crotch area, much like a person sometimes overthinks where their hands are for a photo. My initial instinct was to kind of put my legs up and let my manhood fall between them, creating a bit of a visual barrier, but this only made it look like I had no penis, which I decided was not ideal. I then shifted my body so that it rested on my legs, but then it appeared as though I was a displaying it a bit too proudly.
And now I realize that I’m creating a bit too much of a visual of my naked body for the reader, for which I apologize profusely.
Ultimately, by the second onsen, I had found a previously unknown comfort with my body such that I could sit comfortably without thinking of what was or was not on display. I began to simply enjoy the heat, the deep conversations with my friend (as it was one of the rare moments we had away from our partners), and the way the minerals made my skin feel ridiculously soft at the end of it.
I have not yet attained the comfort of Japanese men -- we went to some outdoor onsens where the men would just be out on rocks, naked, soaping themselves without fear of the foreign men and women inevitably poking their heads in -- but I did get comfortable enough to go to a public outdoor onsen (albeit with nobody else in it, and with my modesty towel close at hand).
I love hot tubs and hot baths, so the fact that I loved sitting in an onsen is not a mystery to me at all. The greater mystery is why I’m so happy to go to onsens in Japan and sit naked in a tub full of men I don’t know, but likely would not do the same thing if it was available back home. I can’t figure out exactly why this is, other than that traveling to a different country makes me do things I wouldn’t do at home. I take off my shoes almost everywhere in Japan. I purposefully go to Buddhist temples or shrines to check them out. I wake up early and spend my day trying to peel back layers of this country to reveal some greater understanding of the history, the culture, and the people. Part of that process in Japan is getting naked in a tub full of men I don’t know.
There were a lot of different things I expected to do when I was in Indonesia. Going to a hardcore punk show wasn’t one of them, but when the opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no.
I asked my wife if she wanted to join me, but it was mostly a rhetorical question: I knew there was no way she wanted to see a bunch of 17 year old Indonesian kids pounding their instruments and screaming at the top of their lungs. On the other hand, I couldn’t wait.
I scouted out the venue ahead of time – it was called Gimme Shelter and the first thing I read about it was a comment on Facebook was from a middle-aged women condemning the place for selling liquor to minors. Good name and they like to party? Count me in!
The crudely drawn posters for the show told me all I needed to know to get excited: the show was free and all ages (despite being at a bar), there would be three local Indonesian hardcore bands, and one Australian hardcore band. I went to each band’s website to listen to their music, and it all sounded the exact same: like a bunch of people playing their instruments as fast as they could with vocals that sounded like a child throwing a temper tantrum. I would never go to this show in Vancouver, I would never listen to this music on my iPhone, but hey, it was free.
The poster said that the doors would start at 9:00pm, but I decided to be fashionably late and show up at 10:00pm, as I assumed it would let me skip the first two bands, who were likely the weakest.
I arrived at the bar and found it three quarters empty. No bands were playing.
“Hey, isn’t there supposed to be a show tonight?” I asked the bartender.
“Yeah, in a while. You want to buy a drink?” he replied.
I ordered a beer and waited for the show to begin, and began to soak in my surroundings. The first thing I noticed was a number of young Indonesian kids between 12 and 17 who were smoking and drinking beer. This was presumably illegal, but the Indonesian youth had developed a very complex scheme to give it an air of legitimacy. First, the beers would be purchased by either someone who was of legal age or simply the oldest looking youth. Then, the kids would all stand near someone who was of legal age and put their beers near that person. Finally, they would discretely grab the bottle and take a sip, and immediately put it back on the table. I assume this was so that if the cops showed up, the kids could all plead innocence, and just chalk it up to the one guy of legal age who decided to take sips from six different bottles of beer despite all of them being the exact same type of beer.
Each time someone stepped into the venue, I became more and more delighted to see another Indonesian punk make his or her (but mostly his) way into the venue. In North America, punk shows are arguably the most homogenous type of concert you can go to: they are filled with white guys between the ages of 15 and 25, as well as a few dudes in their mid-40s who still think they can pull off a denim vest with sewn on patches on the back. It’s rare to see more than a couple people of colour at a punk show in Vancouver, and so to see an entire room filled with Indonesian punks was a unique experience. That’s not to say I was the only white guy, though. There was also the Australian hardcore band, who were unsurprisingly white. But that’s about it.
The music started playing, so I put in earplugs. Believe it or not, I was the only person in that room using hearing protection.
The show was full of highlights, and it’s hard to determine what I liked best. At first, I thought it was the energetic performances by the bands themselves. Then, it was the way that Indonesian youth would literally run up their friends’ backs and then jump off said back and into the crowd. But eventually, I decided the ultimate highlight was the way the white Australian hardcore band members decided they needed to be the dominant presence in the room, living up to their name of All In.
First, one of their members started a circular mosh pit in the centre of the bar when others were just enjoying the music. I’ve seen this before at lots of hardcore shows so I didn’t think much of it. Then, a member jumped on stage when it was not his band’s set and pulled the Indonesian singer’s microphone toward his own mouth so that his voice overpowered the Indonesian singer. Again, this is something I’d seen at lots of hardcore shows, so I wasn’t that surprised, but I couldn’t help but notice that it was only the white guys that were initiating this. Then, in what they probably saw as an act of generosity or teamwork, they had planned out in advance songs that their singer would sing with the Indonesians as their backing band. To me, this was simply a perfect allegory for all of the Australian fronted businesses in Indonesia that rely on the labour of Indonesians behind the scenes.
I ended up leaving before the Australians hit the stage – I figured I’d heard enough from them already.
In writing this series of essays inspired by my travels, I have resisted the urge to turn this into a dumb narrative about the places I traveled to: I don’t want this to end up reading like the blog of a nineteen year old kid’s first backpacking trip.
That being said, there needs to be some discussion of the places I went on this journey, even if it’s brief, which is why I will present a short ranked list of every place we visited. While some will probably scoff at the idea of a foreigner providing a subjective ranked list of cities that implies superiority of one city (or culture) above another, fuck it: people love rankings. Whenever I talk to someone returning from a trip, my first question is always which place was their favourite. I look at rankings to decide which hotel to stay in or even dumb stuff like what headphones to buy. The internet is essentially just a bunch of lists about Ten Things You’ll Only Understand If You’re a 90’s Kid.
One more list can’t hurt.
This is the second largest city in Indonesia, and yet I have never heard anyone recommend that someone should go here. You should not go here.
It took us about two hours to get through immigration at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the city only got worse from there. Would not recommend.
The main praise that travel books give to Cameron Highlands is that it provides a break from the heat of the rest of Malaysia. That’s an accurate description, but it’s too bad there’s not more than that.
Ao Nang has three things going for it -- an enormous sidewalk on the side of its main street, dirt cheap Thai massages, and boat access to much better places.
Bingin Beach features enormous waves and beautiful cliffs that are very spread out, which makes it an unfortunate place to house the most ruthless and overpriced taxi cartel in all of Bali.
Seminyak is the prototypical Bali city: it has a never ending strip of beaches, great food, and a bunch of stores selling ugly, overpriced clothing.
Kyoto is a city where Chinese girls pay money to dress in Japanese kimonos and I wonder if this is cultural appropriation or just a brilliant money-making scheme by the Japanese (it’s probably both).
Hong Kong has all the chaos of other Asian cities but with the prices of North America. However, it makes up for that by having good food and gorgeous hikes just minutes out of the city.
Beautiful and serene small island, but also kind of boring unless your two greatest passions in life are scuba diving and going to reggae music bars.
We stayed at a boutique hostel where the owner constantly played Oasis and made a point of mentioning that tourists from all countries like Oasis. In the morning, I asked him to make me a coffee and he watched Youtube videos to make sure he did every step of a pour over coffee correctly. I don’t remember the city itself, but that guy was the best.
This was where I learned how to ride a scooter. The scooter was uninsured and I almost killed myself running over a dog. The dog did not jump in front of the scooter – it was sleeping, but I went off the road and almost hit it. The beaches were nice, though!
Nara has a huge park that’s filled with the ugliest, most disgusting deer you’ve ever seen. That park is also home to a huge temple with a giant Buddha statue. Accordingly, the city’s mascot is a weird half-deer, half-Buddha anime character, because of course it is.
The area around Mount Batur is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, with an enormous crater lake that is a breathtaking sight to behold when you first see it. Unfortunately, the towns around the volcano and lake are lacking in just about every amenity possible, making it a bizarre place that is filled with people from 3:00am to 8:00am for sunrise hikes, but empty the rest of the day.
Sidemen offers trekking through gorgeous rice fields, where tour guides tell you how they are very happy that they are a tour guide instead of someone who actually works in the rice field.
Malaysia’s largest and oldest national park was home to a hotel where it sounded like there were monkeys inside our room. They weren’t in our room, but damn, it sounded like it.
For most people visiting the so-called spiritual centre of Bali, the highlights here are the food, the yoga, and the art. But for me, it was probably when I was a part of a crowd of people gathered around watching one monkey licking another monkey’s butt. Can you imagine?
I expected Hiroshima to be solemn and tragic -- which it was -- but it's also a thriving, beautiful city (with crazy baseball fans).
It’s hard to complain when you spend five nights in a place with nothing to do but drink fruit shakes and alternate swimming in the ocean with swimming in a pool.
If you took any hipster street in North America, moved it to a beach town in Indonesia, and then filled it with Austrlians, you would have Canggu. While that doesn’t sound all that great in theory, it kind of was: great surfing, delicious food, and great happy hour specials, including one spot where happy hour on Tuesdays meant free tattoos (!!).
A small secluded island full of public modern art pieces. It wasn’t as good as Naoshima.
A small secluded island full of public modern art pieces. It was better than Teshima.
Holy shit, Hong Kong has a Disneyland? Wheeeeee!
Penang has beautiful architecture and great food. Every meal I had there was, to that point, the best meal of the trip, until it was beaten by the next meal I ate there. It also featured a lot of street art, allowing me to drop a classic “Hm, I wonder if that’s a Banksy” at each one.
Singapore is like Penang in the future. Like, Penang is the first Back to the Future movie, but Singapore is the second one, which takes place in the future. I realize that this metaphor is broken because the first Back to the Future is better than the second one, and I have just said that Singapore is better than Penang, but that's okay -- it's a dumb metaphor anyways.
This is cheating a bit because it’s actually a collection of several small villages and the hiking trail that links them, but I can’t remember the name of all the towns. In any event, the hike was beautiful, and I was rewarded each night with a terrific (naked) hot spring bath.
We saw a lot of temples, shrines, and mosques on this trip, and while many were quite nice, there are none that I would label as must-sees in that country. Borobudur is the exception: its mere existence is an absolutely remarkable human achievement and one of the most awe-inspiring manmade objects I’ve ever seen.
I generally don’t like large cities, and I pretty much couldn’t eat in Tokyo because being vegetarian is against the law there, but it’s still one of the greatest cities I’ve ever been to. I could spend every day for a year walking without seeing the same sight and never being bored.
Bromo is an active volcano surrounded by an immense crater filled with volcanic ash. As you approach the volcano, you feel you are on the moon given the lack of plants and the soft grey dust that surrounds you. At dawn, the town has an incredible viewpoint where locals sell hot chocolate or tea while you take in the most beautiful sunrise of your life.
This beautiful island in the south of Japan had an unfair advantage over every other place we visited: we rented a camper van here which allowed us to drive quickly from place to place on our own schedule, without relying on public transportation schedules. But beyond the fun of driving (and sleeping!) wherever we wanted, Yakushima was a place unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, from the mossy forest hikes, to ocean-view hot spring baths, to a quiet beach where we saw a sea turtle laying eggs. It was hands down my favourite place of the trip.
First and foremost, thank you An for encouraging us to go on this adventure and being my companion for most of it (except when I went to the Sacred Monkey Forest and you realized you are afraid of monkeys).
Thank you to Kei for translating my dietary restrictions into Japanese even though it was a hopeless endeavour.
Thank you to Kim for putting up with my idiocy in Japan.
Thank you to the Japanese lady on the Kumano Kodo who pointed at me and said “SO HANDSOME” and then laughed, suggesting her comment was ironic.
Thank you to the Japanese camper van rental guy who yelled “DARREN-SAN!” when he saw me.
Thank you to the drunk Aussie guy in Canggu who yelled “FABIO!” when he saw me.
Thank you to Benny in Mount Batur, Indonesia who faked having a volleyball injury so he could avoid driving us to the next town as we had previously agreed upon.
Goddamn you half Japanese girls, you do it to me every time. Oh the redhead says you shred the cello, and I’m Jello baby.
Thank you to the Bintang and Chang beer corporations for mass-producing affordable yet safe alcohol.
Thank you to Andrew and Alex for recommending that we check out the Japanese art show where you go to a pitch black room only to find out 5 minutes later when your eyes adjust that it’s NOT pitch black, just really dim ass light.
Thank you to the Japanese man in Yakushima who yelled at us and made us think we’d done something wrong until we realized he was just trying to show us a sea turtle was on the shore.
Thank you to Japan for having heated toilet seats that played music to hide the sound of my acquaintances poos.
Born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero (now in Oak Park), Illinois, Darren McLeod served in World War I and worked in journalism before publishing his story collection In Our Time. He was renowned for novels like The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, which won the 1953 Pulitzer. In 1954, McLeod won the Nobel Prize. He passed away on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho.