Stage 1: the nadir

One  of the things I most looked forward to traveling again was getting back to what I think is the ‘essential me’. Yeah, pretty pompous. All the same, I’ve always felt comfortable on the road with a pack on my back. It’s always felt as if a lot of the pretensions you pick along the way living and working in the city – sourcing the choicest latte, hitting the latest bar, checking out the latest fashions, even chatting up some pretty girl n- fall away from you. There you are, a three day growth on your face, the same shirt today as yesterday, a confusion of languages, customs and culture, unaccustomed demands coming from every direction. It’s an foreign environment, which is why you do it, and though it may technically be outside your comfort zone (another attraction) it’s more true that it is an unfamiliar zone without familiar safety nets or touch points. Things get reduced to the basic and essential; it feels real, and somewhere in that you feel more real yourself.

I’m good at this. I like change, I welcome variety, I like having to deal, respond and react to different situations. I’m curious and like to learn, enjoy being tested. I like speaking to people in their language, or trying to, eating their food, observing their customs. I like to find my own way – I’ll often reject help – because that’s part of the great allure of traveling. You travel into the world and, if you do it right, within yourself.

So that’s the highbrow concept and true in the past. I’ve had some rugged journey’s, and felt better for it. Though this China trip had it’s challenges, and I did it entirely solo and managing it all myself, it was not on the challenging end of the scale. I did it relatively comfortably – on the surface anyway.

I’m smart enough to know that a great part of my enjoyment of travel is the persona I feel I adopt – individual and independent, capable, good humoured, resilient, resourceful. It’s an archetype as Jung would have, but one that fits me well because I fit it well. I am those things, but here in the murk of daily life much of that gets lost in general noise and muck of living. I travel and the noise becomes muted, the muck is left behind. The ‘I’, as I have always felt, emerges.

All very well, but times change, so do people. The truth is that in travels about the place I’ve happily shared many pleasurable hours with women I could barely communicate with beyond the physical. That was fine, and part of the experience. I won’t say I’ve wenched myself around the world, but I’ve been active, and sought to be active. It’s just another aspect of the experience – and another aspect of the archetype.

So off that long run-up I’ll get to the nitty gritty. In Shanghai in my second week in China I went to one of the slick bars they have there, had a drink or two, chatted a bit, and ended up returning to my hotel room with an attractive Chinese woman. We had sex, but that’s where the rot set in.

In the first instance I came within a couple of minutes, which is very, very unusual for me. I was embarassed by that, a little shocked. That’s not how I like to do things, but then it’s something that can be rectified, no? No. The woman get out of bed with a smile, had a quick shower, then returned to the bedroom dressed and asking for money from me.

If I was shocked before I was now astounded. I looked at her pretty face and easy smile and something inside me told me I should have known. For days in Shanghai I’d walk down the street with touts trying to entice me to have a massage with pretty girls, with sauna and sex. No thanks. From the moment I’d arrived in China I’d been approached by women wanting to ‘practice their English’ with me, or have a drink. One suggested we could go back to my hotel room where she would massage me and stay the night. I said no to all of her entreaties, which almost had stamping her feet in frustration. So, I had warning.

I gave her some money. She put her hand out and I felt something sink in me. I felt almost defeated. I picked up a couple of 100 RMB notes – about 30 bucks – and gave them to her without looking. I wanted her gone.

She left and I faced up to the reality: I’d just paid for sex. For the first time in my life I’d crossed that line. It was unintentional, unwitting almost, but there it was. I felt so low, so sad, so undone. So much shit has been happening and then this to cap it all off. I felt old and so very mortal – that archetype was hiding somewhere under the bed. I came to question myself as if I was one of those cliched and forlorn western males who come to Asia for the ready availability of willing women. Is this what I’ve been reduced too – that I must pay for it?

This was the nadir I thought. This was the low-point of my life. Mark the date I told myself, this is when I hit rock bottom. It was not a pretty thought, but then after a moment I found something liberating in it. If this the worst it’s going to get then I’m doing well. And if this is the low point then the only way is up. I picked up with that realisation: the worst is passed, start climbing.

When in China

National emblem of the People's Republic of China

Image via Wikipedia

I have a holiday booked for China next year, a trip I’ve been quietly anticipating up until I read a David Sedaris article on his trip there.

Now David Sedaris is a humourist, and a very funny one at that, so you have to factor in some artistic exaggeration. It’s not going to be as bad as all that you figure, besides, I’m the intrepid traveller right, the robust Aussie go-anywhere kind of dude, not an aging, albeit funny, American east-coaster? So it goes. And yet amid the quiet chuckles evinced as I read his piece the thought crossed my mind that exaggerated or not there must be some skerrick of truth in this.

One of the main reasons I travel is to experience different things. To find places and situations different to what I know, to whit, to travel outside the upholstered familiarity of my comfort zone. By and large this is a very positive experience. More often than not what you find is pretty good to great in terms of food. culture, people, geography, and so on. There’s no guarantee of that though. There’s no small print that that claims that everything outside of your comfort zone is going to be positive. Hell, you’d have to be a dolt to believe that. That’s why you have a comfort zone, you put all the things you like inside it and leave everything don’t out of it. Sometimes you’ll go on your excursions from it to see what you can learn and what you can bring back with you, but no amount of broadmindedness is going to convince me that I want to try dog face say, or book a vacation in downtown Kabul. They’re outside of my comfort zone, and they can stay there.

Now China doesn’t fall into that category, not at first glance anyway. I’ve travelled to many more rugged places than that and had a hoot. I don’t mind roughing it within limits, I love to try different things generally, and my ambition almost always is to immerse myself in the other culture. That’s why I’m there after all, not to take happy snaps and send postcards, but to to experience, learn, feel and enjoy.

China, you would think, would fall well inside that criteria: a fascinating culture with a long history; an emerging, still slightly mysterious economy; some great destinations, from the Great Wall to Shanghai; even, theoretically, a classic cuisine – though we’ll come to that later. All that is true perhaps, but David Sedaris also described something different which, in my slightly squeamish way, I share an aversion to.

Slag and turds. Slag everywhere as the locals hawk in unison and deposit the contents of their lungs and their nostrils upon every available surface like, as Sedaris puts it, freshly shucked oysters. A cacophony of slagging is how me makes it sound, as if it where the universal pastime of the billions of native Chinese. Then there’s the turds. Not just animal turds as we may inadvertently discover in any pet loving country (though surprisingly rare), but also human turds, deposited as convenience demands.

Truth to be told I’ve come across both these situations previously, and neither have featured as a highlight – though they do occasionally make for an interesting story. I recall particularly when I travelled in Egypt the girls utter disgust at the holes in the ground that acted as toilets, and the generally erring aim of previous visitors. Fortunately my bladder is famously capacious, and my bowels well regimented, so my visits to these dark chutes leading directly to an abject hell where few and far between. Many of the girls, however, were deeply scarred by the experience.

That was the same throughout much of the region, where the occasional slag would also occur. In Asia also, in the backblocks you’ll often find things best left unfound. Still, you turn away and give thanks to armitage shanks, modern technology and being born an Aussie to enjoy them. Through it all you also gain an unlikely perspective, reinforced as you travel. You recall how lucky you are to have what you do and promise never to take it for granted; and you appreciate the difference, the hardship if that is what it is, that other cultures must deal with. The surprise at first is how well they seem to thrive without the comforts you crave, and how cheerful and generous they are. Somewhere in all of that is a lesson, but a lesson I’m happy to forgo if it means I live without my porcelain.

Food is different. For someone like me food is one of the great delights of travel. It remains a cultural as well as culinary experience though. God knows how many times I’ve had a meal purchased from roadside vendor. Unsurprisingly I once copped a dose of giardia travelling in India and ignoring the advice of the locals. I don’t regret it. Otherwise I’ve had no problems despite the rudimentary to primitive cooking and … standards. I’ve had bowls of wonderful Thai food while around the corner there’s a stinking canal with dead dog in it. I’ve eaten amongst the entrails and left over bits of the beast I’m now consuming. I’ve eaten with my fingers more times than I can count, had familiar dishes served up in unfamiliar ways in almost every place I’ve been too.

The point I’m making I guess, is that though the food is generally great you have to leave behind your western expectations. We’re lucky, everything is easy, everything is nicely packaged, regulated and presented. We’d be shocked if it wasn’t, because that’s our world. It’s different when we venture into the world of others where the rules, when they exist, are different, just as the expectations are. It’s great to learn and experience that, and to go with it – which is why I had my roadside snack in Delhi when common sense told me I shouldn’t. I’m here, do it.

Which brings us to Chinese food. Sedaris admits from the start that he’s never had a great love of Chinese food, and I’m the same. Much of the reason for that would be the bland representation we get stuck with in our western societies, an average standard pegged somewhere around the lowest common denominator. For me Chinese food is an occasional pleasure, and, by my experience, just about the least of the Asian cuisines – but I’m happy to learn different. I do like spicy Szechuan stuff though.

A few years back I was in Hong Kong, where I had a very mixed culinary experience. Now I’m allergic to seafood so I’m behind the eight ball right from the start. I missed on a lot that looked utterly delicious as a result of that, and what I had was either great or somehow disappointing. I anticipate finding a much greater range of food on the mainland, but Sedaris comments on his eating experiences don’t do much for my confidence.

Fact is that China is a vast country with myriad cuisines, many of which never see the light of day in western society. I’m certain there will be much to make me blanch and shake my head. I’ll try much too, even some of the things I might be warned against. No point going to China and eating Maccas and beef with black bean sauce.

Wait a few months folks and I’ll give you my first hand reports from the food to the incidents of slags and turds. I’ll take on board Sedaris wry warnings, but in the end I’ve got to live it myself.

Chinese day

Just for the record, ended up at Duck, Duck, Goose for dinner last night with Becky-la. Was pretty indifferent I thought. It was a cold Melbourne night and it took a while for the place to approach full, but even then there wasn’t great ambience. It’s elegant and pretty, but a little chill to my tastes. The food was good without being great. It was the dumplings that drew me, but, though good, I prefer the sexy dumplings of Hutong with their syrupy hot chilli sauces (the dumplings at DDG come nude) and general ambience of social good fun. Prices are reasonable, but it’s not a place I’ll be hurrying back to. Had a good night with Becky however, who has become a bit of a saucy minx (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use, though very apt), and enjoyed an excellent Irish whisky (Redbreast) earlier at Match Bar.

And if there is a theme of Chinese in this post then let me confirm it further with the news that I booked a holiday to China for April next year. Fong sent me an email from Beijing, where she is teaching English, advising me of the ridiculously cheap fares on offer. Had two hours to book, but managed to snare a $149 flight there and $111 return as base prices. I booked an exit row either way which bumped up the price a smidge, but well worth it as the return flight particularly goes via the North Pole or something, and is 25 hours in duration – guess prices like these come with a catch. I need to be able to stretch out my long legs.

Nice to have a holiday planned again; good to be heading to China – near the top of my list and a must-see destination; and fine I think to be catching up with Fong, whose prickliness I’ve missed just a little. And I bet the dumplings are better there too.