CURRENY is Traveling. I’m Staying Home.

This spring, we went back to Isla Mujeres for our second time as a family and my third time overall. I left a copy of Currency at PocNa, the hostel where I stayed when I visited the island as a backpacker round about 1995. In the book, I pasted the same note that I have in the other copies I’ve sent out into the world:

As the author of this novel, it’s one of my great hopes for Currency that people will discover it while on the road. To that end, I’ve given some copies to traveler-types and asked them to leave the books, when they’re through, where other travelers can find them. If you’ve left or found Currency, I would love it if you’d leave a comment at https://zoezolbrod.com/the-traveling-book/. Happy travels!

I think there are about ten or twelve books that are floating around the globe right now, with most of them, fittingly, in Southeast Asia.  I’ve received only one note from a stranger who has picked up a copy completely by chance, but the story that woman told, in the comments here, was worth way more than a box full of books; it put me on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok and then on route to Nepal. O World! I miss you! And Piv and Robin, I miss you too. When the two of them come alive for other people, it helps ease the sting—or maybe it just makes it more exquisite, which is perhaps the better goal. If anyone reading this is about to go on a trip and wants a copy of Currency to read and leave behind for someone else, let me know, and I’ll send you a copy

I felt sort of like a spy in PocNa, wandering around looking for the lending library I knew they’d have, wondering at the way things change and they don’t, checking out the tanned faces bent over glowing netbooks in the shade of the main courtyard.  (So many netbooks.) I inferred that a lot of hostelers were using the cushion of Isla and PocNa to recover from more strenuous travels, maybe staying on longer than they’d planned at a place with good wi-fi and a little night life. In 1995, still pretty fresh from the pristine beaches of Ko Chang, each of which could only be reached by boat, none of which featured accommodation other than thatched huts, Isla Mujeres felt urban to me, and almost unbearably commercial. I had never seen yachts and pleasure craft docked near a pier, and I had never had to pass by so many hulking hotels to get to a guesthouse.

But there were recognizable sorts at the hostel, and I quickly made the recognizable alliances, and with them I ended up smoking pot and traversing the more local side of the island for late-night conch and cheap snorkeling. Having found the bookshelf for freebies and slipped Currency among the offered titles—with the endless stream of wi-fi and the portable screens, how many fewer books do travelers read?—I headed back to the street, and I took great pleasure in standing in the entryway remembering the humiliation of having to be rescued from a communication problem at check-out by a know-it-all who’d annoyed me on these jaunts and who spoke Spanish. Mmmmmm nostalgia. I’m hooked on it. The then-and-now simultaneity is sometimes so physical it gives me vertigo, and I put my hand on the cement wall to steady myself. Meanwhile, Mark was waiting in the golf cart outside, dealing with the squabbling kids so I could have my moment. It was on the same island two years ago that he helped me come up for the name of this blog, The Next Youth Hostel. Get it? The journey, the journey. Still on it, in our way.

I haven’t been updating this blog much because my world keeps turning. Currency‘s been out over a year, so I’m not promoting it. I never intended the blog as a place to give personal updates, but to the extent that I did, now I use Facebook more than ever. And when I feel the call to write an essay, I write for The Nervous Breakdown because I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant in my bucolic town, and my challenges with time.

I am quite time-challenged. I’m working on a new project—a memoirish type exploration that I’m vexed by and drawn toward—and every day I feel its hungry rumble for hours I don’t have. A fair number of those I need just to sit chin in hand and stare off into the past. What can I say? Pondering formative experiences is so attractive to me. This time the setting is closer to home. There’s a lot about sex and childhood and gender issues, those perennial favorites.

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CURRENCY news

With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.)  And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!

Here’s the jacket copy:

Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely  match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand,  and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl

White Chicks Shouldn’t

[Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams]

Most of my Facebook friends I know personally, but a couple of them are just vague internet acquaintances, if even that. It was one of these, a guy, who posted a link titled “White Chicks Shouldn’t,” and because this phrase caught my eye, I clicked. The link was to a three-minute video clip taken at an outdoor Jamaican dancehall.

The first shot shows a thick white woman—green shirt, denim mini, red skin—grabbing her ankles while a (presumably) Jamaican man grinds into her ass, his hand on her back, his leg eventually up over her shoulder, pressing her down deeper. They’re doing some seriously dirty dancing. It takes me aback, since those moves would definitely violate my safety-zone, especially if I were so visibly an outsider somewhere. But it looks like they’re both into it. The video quality isn’t good, but it looks like they’re having fun. The woman makes some theatrical faces, thrusts her butt rhythmically. The man takes her hat off her head, cocks it sideway it on his own, caps it back on her.

The next shot shows the woman dancing alone at the edge of the circle. She’s a good dancer, doing a sexy little booty dance, and the deejay invites her, orders her almost, to the middle of the floor. Now we see a different man approach, and the two become a dancing pair. I am transfixed, at this point, and I suddenly get the appeal of these live action clips, because there’s a sticky energy that comes from being off script, that comes from not being sure what you’re watching. I’m like: damn—suddenly they’re on the dusty ground, the man’s boots up by the woman’s face; he’s humping her in a sort of 69 position—does she WANT to be doing this? Now she’s face first on the ground. Is that a dance move she’s doing, sort of swimming with her arms, or is she trying to get away? It becomes clear, as clear as it can be in a grainy, quick-cut video: She’s trying to get him off of her. I start to feel queasy. She manages to stand up, but the guy is at her again. She pushes him, angry. They’re shoving each other up against the speakers. She turns to walk away again, and the first guy lunges at her, gets his hands around her waist from behind. She’s back on the ground, and he’s humping her. The crowd is watching indifferently—men, women, a couple kids. The video cuts. Now a few men are holding her; there’s a guy on each leg pulling her spread eagled. Another guy is jumping off the speakers to land between her legs. He has something white in his mouth. Is it her underwear? Cut. The video shows the guy leaping onto her again. Cut. Again. Cut. Again. Then we see the woman shaking herself off, red-faced, departing. Some jumbled footage of men speaking indecipherably. Cut. The end.

What the hell? What did I just see? Why was this posted on my Facebook newsfeed with nothing but a couple benign ha ha comments posted after it?

I turned to the internet for answers and found that indeed, as one commenter noted, annoyed that the clip was being presented as a new diversion, the video is all over the place. It’s from 2008, and it’s frequently titled “Dance Hall Tourist” and described as “tourist girl getting wild to dancehall.” Is that what I saw? A tourist girl getting wild? I’m a white chick myself, a white girl, or I used to be one. Now I’m a white middle-aged mom, and I’ve never spent much time in the recesses of the internet where the side bars are stacked with thumbnails for Pole Dance Fail and the World’s Boob Slapping Contest. I had forgotten. I had forgotten, if I’d ever exactly known, how common this perspective was, and I felt a muddled disbelief. But then I found a description for the video that I thought was accurate: “Dance hall tourist gets raped publicly.” Yes, that described what I thought I saw. I scrolled through dozens of comments on various sites to see how people were responding. Typically, they reacted as if to a funny joke: “hahahah.” “THAT WAS HILARIOUS.” “Ha. They ain’t got shit on me. I’m talking jumping outta planes and landing in the punanny.” “White girl got SCHOOLED. Did you see her face hahaha.”

There were also a few critical comments. One guy said he knew where he wouldn’t be spending his tourist dollars. Someone asked: “Why would they do that to her? Racism? Or was she rude?”

This is the stew I must have smelled in the title “White Chicks Shouldn’t”: the simmering mix of race, gender, tourist, local, sex, power, payback, dollars. The man who posted on the link on Facebook is from a poor, tropical country. Should I just ignore it? For a night, I tossed and turned on all the things it brought up for me as a white female, a former tourist chick, an author of a book about a white girl-brown boy romance. I commented on the link in my mind, wondering if I should say something like:

Maybe this clip should be titled “Jamaican dudes shouldn’t.”
or
“Black dudes shouldn’t”
or
“Guys shouldn’t”

“Men shoudn’t”

“People shouldn’t”

Or, the title being what it is, I wondered if I should pose some questions, like:

White girls shouldn’t what, exactly?

Dance in foreign countries?

Dance sexy?

Dance without a husband or male relative standing by?

Expect to move through the world unmolested?

Leave the all-inclusives?

Forget themselves? Forget for one minute that though they’re white, yes—and so might have some feelings of entitlement, might have some cash—they’re also female, and they can be raped.

In any case, when I next logged on to Facebook, the link had been taken down. Maybe someone else had given the poster a nudge. But since then, I’ve been walking around with the question in my mind: White chicks shouldn’t what? When I was traveling by myself, I probably asked myself some version of this everyday.

Girls shouldn’t what, and how much can they not do and still have autonomy, still have a full range of human responses, still travel, still live? I have a ramble about this half written out, but it will have to wait to be posted.

In the meantime, not long after I stumbled upon the Dancehall Tourist Facebook post, I read about the Richmond High School gang rape on Jezebel. (The story about a fifteen year-old girl who, upon leaving her home-coming dance, was gang-raped and beaten by a number of men for over two hours while a crowd of men and boys watched wasn’t covered widely by national msm.)

I don’t know with certainty the ethnicity of the survivor, but given the school’s demographic and the last names of family members, I assume she’s not white. White girls, of course, not being the only ones who shouldn’t. Whiteness, of course, being just one of a thousand perceived provocations.

It was another Facebook post (Danica’s) that alerted me to the conversation about the event on the SFGate web site, where commenters widely decried the act but where some also decried the proclivities of various races and the stupidity of a girl who would go into a darkened courtyard to drink with a boy she knew. One commenter, Lilypod, responded sharply to the implication that the girl could have saved herself if she’d been smarter, and Danica posted her excellent note, which I’m excerpting here:

“What do people seriously think women do every single day of their lives anyway? In various ways, to varying extents: they limit their movements and impose curfews on themselves; in subtle ways, often without realising, they rearrange their lives around the possibility of avoiding an attack; they avoid going places alone and curtail their independence; they come home earlier than they wish to; they have their keys ready in their hands when they’re walking up to their front doors; they double-check doors at night; they take taxis for short distances even if they’d rather walk and even if the expense is one they can ill afford; they walk the long route home rather than take a more convenient shortcut; they text each other to let it be known they’ve gotten home safely; they anxiously await friends’ texts for the same confirmation; they avoid jobs that finish late; they avoid certain jobs entirely; they pass up accommodation they might otherwise take because of poor street lighting.

“they avoid traveling alone; they change their jogging routes or stick to a treadmill indoors. Women take these attempts at avoiding attacks completely for granted and so does everybody else: it’s seen as completely normal, not as a sign of a damaged society. So what are we going to teach young girls from now on? To look around at the boys in their classes and see all their male schoolmates as potential rapists; to expect rape everywhere?”

That query hit a raw nerve for me, as it probably does for any woman who wants to move through the world independently, for any woman who has a daughter she hopes will be able to do the same.

Men shouldn’t. Boys shouldn’t. People shouldn’t.

But we know they sometimes, some of them, do.

How to know it and still live fully?