Posted on July 7, 2011
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.
Posted on July 9, 2010
The excellent music/lit blog Largeheartedboy allowed me to create a Currency play list for their Book Notes feature. I’ve always seen western music as playing an important part of Piv’s identity, and it certainly has been an important part of mine, so this was a fun assignment. For one of the entries, the song “Made in Thailand” by the Thai band Carabao, I found I had a lot to say. I edited it down for the play list, but I’m reposting the full thing here, because it gets at a lot that’s important to me—the super-vivid memories I still have of my long-ago trip, the differences between the wifi present and the analog past, and the tension between east and west that I tended to see everywhere, whether or not it was unambiguously present.
When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn’t expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there’d often be a segment where they sang Thai songs and the foreigners just listened. It was a relief, in a way—a relief not to have to strive for the universal, not to feel the taint of cultural imperialism in the fact that universal meant John Denver. And I thought I detected relief in the Thai voices as well, surer singing in a native language. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contained an English phrase, “Made in Thailand,” and it listed the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya, which gave me a thrill. I could recognize them! I’d been there! I liked the song’s sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask the Thais around the campfire about the lyrics’ meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lyrics that were telling my kind to sod off.
The way I heard it sung, “Made in Thailand” was the antithesis of the warbling synth pop that was commonly heard in shops and restaurants and busses, and it became my mission to find a recording of it, to add a local band to my trip’s soundtrack, which otherwise consisted of the three tapes I carried in my backpack to play on my Walkman on long bus rides: PM Dawn, Freakwater, and Pavement. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San, backpackers’ row, didn’t have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a series of little streets filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. Just being there made me feel hipper myself, and the tapes and CDs were sold in an air-conditioned shop, not a market stall. With the sales clerk’s help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.
Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see they’re not an admonishment of tourists; the song could care less about tourists, and my belief that Carabao was singing about me reveals the narcissism that’s a frequent companion to liberal guilt. They lyrics are more an admonishment to Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. He wants to master foreign ways, to win over foreign women, that’s where he sees his fortune rising, the arena in which his dreams will come true. The Thais are known for being such nice people. Pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there’s a knowingness, as well. I liked this song because it captured that.
Posted on May 17, 2010
First off, let me say that Currency officially hits the streets right about now. Dear visitor, I beg you not to judge this book on the absence of a dedicated web site. It is a hundred times better than its web presence, and although there’s little excuse for that in this day and age, isn’t it preferable to the reverse? Currency is exciting yet thoughtful, sexy yet serious. Yet fun! For real, you will want to take this book with you on vacation. But don’t take my word for it, you can read this review, or this advance praise. Or watch this book trailer. Etc. The following blog post was brought to you by the above shameless self-promotion!
Speaking of: I’ve done a few promotional interviews recently (one with myself, up at The Nervous Breakdown), and in them I’ve talked for the first time about the liaisons I had with Thai guys when I was traveling, and how they influenced the book. Up until now, although I’ve written about how loaded can be the attraction of tourists for local people in much poorer countries and about my awakening to the charms of Thai men, I’ve kept pretty quiet about my actual affairs.
There are lots of reasons for this reticence, I think. For one thing, I was involved with someone back home at the time; we had not promised monogamy, but still. Then I met the man I would marry, and it no longer seemed cool to go on about past lusts. But I think the crux is that I was embarrassed by these relationships. I was embarrassed that there was more than one, that they started to become a pattern. I was embarrassed by the disapproving looks that came from many quarters—from people who had seen the pattern play out, or who thought someone was taking advantage, or who simply found the combination of the two of us unsavory for any number of reasons. I could imagine quite a number of reasons. Now, trying to sort through stuff, I wonder if these embarrassments weren’t sharper because they reminded me of a racially-charged situation in my junior high years, and also because my attraction to Asian men might have a connection to something even further back, and sticker. I could probably write a whole memoir unpacking this stuff like a set of old dishes, wondering over the continued, solid existence of things I haven’t seen for so long and reading the newspaper the items were wrapped in, amazed by the prices of years gone by, or by the wars that waged then, and so absorbed in the past that I wouldn’t notice my hands pricking from the dust until they were on fire.
Over the years, to feed or understand my fascination, I’ve sought out fiction about cross-cultural relationships, ones that include a difference in race and privilege. There’s The Lover, of course, and The Quiet American—I love The Quiet American. Less well known is When Mountains Walked, by Kate Wheeler, about a woman who has an affair with a revolutionary in Peru. I highly recommend it. And The River Sweet, by Patricia Henley—she writes so well about guilt-ridden Americans and other countries.
But the best book on the topic I think I’ve read is The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. That novel just dissects—so lyrically, so incisively; well, she’s Nadine Gordimer—the currents between a well-off South African white women and the Arab man she takes up with, an illegal immigrant. The needs of both, the hungers of both, the anger, the role of family and future and sex. It’s pre-9/11 but it presages 9/11. It’s one of those books I can read again and again, just in wonder that anyone could know all that, and say it so perfectly.
Posted on April 17, 2010
A year ago today the four of us were returning from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Lilli had just turned one and Tillio was about to turn eight. It was a low-budget, low-key jaunt to a pretty commonplace destination, but it was a great, great trip. We got off the ferry to the cheerful, semi-grimy tourist hustle that you’d expect from a bargain beach destination, the air smelling archetypally of salt, diesel, and sweet marine rot. We hadn’t changed money yet, we hadn’t accustomed to the heat, we didn’t know how best to get to our lodging at the other side of the island, and we were loaded down with a baby, a stroller, a pack-n-play, but I felt light as a feather. Mark sat with the kids by a curb next to a woman selling mangoes while I got to dart across the street to assess the combio situation and the lay of the land. There I was, dashing around someplace fun and new, and there was my family; we were together. It was the first time I’d left the country since having kids. I felt so happy. I felt like I was coming home.
When Mark and I met, we both fancied ourselves traveler-types. The desire to go was something we shared. And as a couple, we took a couple extended trips—to Thailand, to Guatemala and Honduras. In Tela, Honduras, there was a young hippie family staying at our hotel—a couple and their infant. They didn’t seem to do much besides hang laundry and fuss over the baby, and Mark and I noticed this, commented on it, but as years passed and we planned a life together I’m sure we thought—assumed—that we’d continue to travel, and meaningfully, once we had kids. We’d go to Costa Rica, we said, getting ready to be responsible: You can drink the water there.
Having kids. Traveling. I recently came across an old journal that I kept in Nepal. My thoughts were starting to turn homeward, and I had written a list of goals for myself. I’m too embarrassed to write them all here, but there was a lot of verbiage about the places I still wanted to go, about yoga, about establishing some kind of professional skill set that would lead me out of the service industry, about writing. And kids. Plural. Mid-list. Just the one word for that entry, no elaboration.
I had no fucking idea.
I know there are families who travel widely, kids in tow. I read about them on the internet. I get their twitter feeds. I know some of them personally, including a single mom who packed up her two little ones to Ecuador, hosteling it and giving the lie to my notion that it’s always money that’s the determining factor. Yes, these things are possible. But for us, they’ve been harder than we imagined. So much less time, such a different relationship to money and to work, two sets of grandparents we have to fly to see. And Tillio was such a tough nut, at the beginning there.
But he outgrew that. He’s actually a great traveler, and while we haven’t been abroad, he’s gotten around this country quite a bit. And traveling anywhere with a kid is more like Traveling. A few years ago, Mark went to Italy with his dad and brother, and Tillio and I took our first trip alone for pleasure, not to visit family. We went to New York, and we flew into Islip, which I’d never done. I remember that airport as being bathed in light and sky and quiet. It seemed impossibly far from the city, and, in fact, it would be something like two and a half more hours and three more kinds of transportation before we got to Brooklyn. Standing outside the airport, a clutch of print-outs in hand, I was trying to figure out whether to take the bus or the shuttle when I met a dad doing the same with his three kids. We paired up as seamlessly as if we were the backpackers thrown together in a songthaew, comparing notes, presenting ourselves as a family to get the better fare from the shuttle, watching each other’s bags and kids when it made things easier.
That was another great, great trip. It was the first time Tillio saw the sea, the first time I went to Coney Island. We visited some of our best and oldest friends. On the Staten Island ferry we passed the Statue of Liberty and more types of boats than we could count.
That same summer he and I went to Seattle, and as a side trip, Valeria and I took three kids to San Juan Island. We arrived at the ferry station just as the rain stopped, and the kids and I explored tidal pools while Valeria propped her feet on our luggage and read the paper in the waiting room. We got off the ferry and made our way to a hostel I had found online. Again, I was so giddily happy as we walked out of town, each kid pulling his or her own bag toward the unknown, an adventure.
It was the feeling of being my old self with my son. There were chickens in the yard of the hostel. There were men in the communal kitchen who shared their beer with Valeria and me. Tillio and I slept in a cabin formed from a little boat, and I stayed up half the night writing. The next day, we got up and went out to watch whales. And that evening we left. It was just one night, but it’s burned into my mind as indelibly as my first night in Thailand was, and I’ve vowed to bring the whole family back for a longer stay.
This would be a great year to do it, when I’m going to Seattle anyway for CURRENCY (July 31!). But the book tour is taking so many of my limited days off, and Mark’s time is going to be pressed with me gone so much, and there are the grandparents to visit, and the cost of airfares for four. The San Juans might have to stay on the list for awhile longer, just like Costa Rica will, just like Italy all together, and France to see Valeria and Valen, and Thailand, which has caught Tillio’s interest because of all the talk about the book.
I try to keep the grand hopes for family travel alive without falling into despondency over the difference between the hopes and the reality. I try to recognize the dream when I live it—a couple hours here, a week there, the sun parting clouds over the Puget Sound. Or, for that matter, over Lake Michigan, the drama and calm and magical hazy glow of which can be found just a mile due east from our home. I try. There’s so much to want to do.
Posted on March 22, 2010
In terms of my ever-lengthening life, I didn’t spend much time in Southeast Asia. Not much time in Thailand, not much time in Vietnam, barely any time in Laos. And the time I spent there was so long ago. But once I returned, I had such a craving for those places, such an urge to understand more, to experience more, to revisit and linger. One way to do that is by writing. So I wrote stories, and essays, and then, endlessly, a novel set in Thailand. Another way to learn and to visit, of course, is by reading. Here are a few of my favorite books that have taken me back to Thailand and its borders regions. I recommend them to anyone gearing up to go or anyone who wants to remember.
A great read for anyone interested in Northern Thailand, this story within a story explores the tensions between a hill tribe based on the Lisu, an anthropologist who sets up permanent residence with them, and missionaries who have worked in the golden triangle region for generations. There’s a murder mystery and a mysterious cross-cultural romance, a dysfunctional-family back story and an expatriot’s-dilemma frame story, and through it all, Berlinski demonstrates a depth of knowledge about multitudes of different worlds with a grace that left me awe-struck. I’m fascinated by Southeast Asia’s cultural complexity and America’s recentish involvement in it, and I’m aware that my fascination—or any outsider’s—raises issues of its own. He gets at all that, wraps it around a riveting plot, and makes you feel like you’re there. Man, I want to go read this book again right now.
If you, like me, enjoy reading about people who are as brave, cool, and morally pure as you are in your dreams, well, Edith Mirante is just such a person. She’s written a book that should be of interest to any intrepid traveler with a conscious, and especially those who’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border region and have wondered about what they saw. Mirante is a real-life “human-rights pirate” who visited Thailand as an artist in the 80s and became radicalized when she learned how the Burmese were suffering under their oppressive government. She took huge personal risks to document the situation of the hill tribes living close to the Thai-Burmese border, sneaking between countries, traveling deep into the jungle, and visiting dangerous characters in an attempt to get at a truth that she could share, even when people didn’t want to hear it. (She implicates the U.S. to some degree.) Since she did her work around the time that much of Fieldwork takes place, this is a good nonfiction counterpart to that novel. It’s also a thrilling book on its own, and it’s a tonic to read about someone who managed to take dramatic action in the face of the kinds of entrenched misery that can make many travelers feel hopeless.
The suffering of hill tribe groups seems to know no bounds. In this artful and heart-wrenching memoir, Yang tells the story of her Hmong family, who escaped Laos to find themselves in a series of refugee camps in Thailand before eventually moving to the United States. Yang depicts clearly and tenderly life in Hmong villages before, during, and after the Vietnam war; life in the refugee camps where she spent her first seven years; and life as an immigrant. The description of her family crossing the Mae Kong river was particularly harrowing for me. I read it while nursing my infant daughter, and when they made the crossing, Yang’s sister was newborn and sick, and her mother was nursing and infected. I remember sitting on the banks of that same river very near where they crossed, drinking beer and admiring the romantic view. I remember riding down that river in an inner tube, laughing, playing on a mud bank. How little most Americans know about Hmong involvement in the Vietnam war, and what a high price those involved have paid for it. But Yang’s book is about so much more than this. I can almost guarantee that anyone would love it.
Well, Thailand is not all hill tribes and jungle trails. This novel about a gay Thai expatriot who returns to Bangkok to heal from a heartbreak and becomes enthralled with a male prostitute is both stylistically sophisticated and as drug-strew, dimly lid, and lurid as you’d expect a novel about Bangkok nightlife and sex-selling to be. And it hits the themes close to my heart: the grey areas around cultural imperialism, the economic subtext of so much, the complexity of sexual transactions, and the intersection of the personal and political. Not everyone’s idea of beach-reading because of its challenging prose and bleak world-view, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Bangkok.
Posted on March 4, 2010
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
Posted on February 24, 2010
Does anyone remember back in the 90s, when life was not nearly so photographed as it is now? When people might go whole weeks without snapping a picture, whole months even, and then once they did, they’d have to wait until the film was developed before knowing if anyone had blinked, or if everything was in shadow? Well, even by the standards of those times, I was a lazy, lousy photographer. I traveled from east coast to west coast and didn’t take a single picture. I have maybe a dozen from my travels in Europe, whole countries not represented. I have several rolls from my big trip to Southeast Asia, but not one photo that captures the experience I had there. Here is an example of a particularly bad shot of much-oogled guy on Ko Chan.
The next time I went to Thailand, I was with Mark, my photographer husband, so you’d think the situation would be different. But he’s not the sort of shutterbug who’s always shooting. Quite the opposite. I have to beg him to take snapshots of our cute kids. His thing is to capture a few enigmatic images and make them special by working them over in the darkroom and in his studio. The results are beautiful, but they’re not the kind of photos you pass around to friends to help them understand the details of a place.
Now, this might come as a shock to anyone born after 1980, but back in the day, my lack of personal photo documentation didn’t matter much. Writers weren’t expected to be producers of eye candy, for one thing. Hey, if I was photographing, I wouldn’t be present in the moment to make my writerly observations, right? Once home and writing my novel, my few roles of faded snapshots and a couple coffee-table books on Thailand provided enough visual fodder. For research, I leaned most heavily on my voluminous journals and on old fashioned books that contained only print in black and white.
But oh, how things have changed since. Now I find myself in this here internet age, and in a culture so visually oriented that even wordsmiths are supposed to be able to tell stories with images and sell books with trailers. The pressure to augment a blog, even a wordy blog like mine, with images is one of the things that scared me away for so long.
Luckily, our friend Lisa Meehan Williams went to Thailand last year, and not only is she a photographer of vision and skill, she is generous. She’s allowed me the use of the hundreds of gorgeous shots she took. Mark combined two to make the cover for CURRENCY, and more have illustrated my posts here. More still will appear in the book trailer that is hopefully forthcoming, lulling YouTube readers by the score that words might actually be worth reading. [Update: it’s here! I love it! Book trailers, a brilliant idea.] I’ve gotten so much pleasure—sometimes the hurting kind, full of nostalgia and a little exquisite regret—out of studying her images, noticing what’s still the same about the places we visited many years apart, appreciating the lushness, the information conveyed, the intelligence. These photos make me wish . . .
I thought I’d share a few here.
Whoops! That last isn’t a picture of Thailand! As are many of the photos that document our family life, it was taken by Tillio. He’s almost nine now, but he’s been taking pictures since he was three or four. Like Lilli, he probably wasn’t even two when he started asking for the digital camera, wanting to see himself in the display but mostly wanting to point and shoot at everything around him. It’s second nature to him. What does it mean for the way he’ll experience life? I’m still a print person, big on ideas, suspicious that images masquerade, that they shortchange thought or direct encounters. I worry those those born with cameras implanted in their eyes and ears and fingers might be missing out on something. But I guess they’re also lucky.