My favorite shitholes

My favorite shitholes

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

Many years ago, I and a few other expats were hanging out in someone’s apartment in Erdenet, Mongolia, playing a game of “Why it sucks” with an inflatable globe our hostess had lying around. The gist of the game was that we’d toss the globe up and catch it, and wherever the catcher’s finger landed (I think we went with the right-hand index finger) we all had to say why that place sucks. It was usually pretty easy—I remember landing on Somalia, for examplebut sometimes we had to be creative, especially when our fingers landed on some of our favorite places. It wasn’t fair to say, “Hey, I like it there!” We had to provide a convincing reason for why that particular place was, basically, a shithole.

It wasn’t lost on us that Erdenet, the city we were in, could be described by some people as a shithole. Small, poor, and isolated, it basically is a shithole, at least by most measures. If Erdenet was a shithole, though, it was our shithole, and we loved it.

A Soviet-built cement smudge on an otherwise barren stretch of hills, Erdenet exists entirely because of its copper mine, one of the largest in the world, and the mine’s slag heap looms over the southern side of the city. It’s prettier than it sounds, though.


I don’t know, I find this Main Street attractive in a Miami-of-the-Steppe kind of way.
This was always my favorite street to walk on.


See, the slag heap is kind of pretty.

I spent a year in Erdenet, and spent a good part of my very expensive Internet connection regaling my friends back home with stories of my more most off-the-wall encounters. Like the time my friend’s cows starting grazing in front of City Hall and got sent off to cow jail. Or how I’d go to a restaurant and instead of asking for the menu I’d ask, “What food is there today?” and oftentimes the answer would be “None.” Or how my neighbor’s car would stall whenever it stopped, so instead of stopping he would just slow down as he approached intersections. I described how in the summer the ground was scorched, dry and crunchy, and in winter everything was covered in a thick layer of ice, and spring and fall didn’t really exist except that in April giant sandstorms would sweep up from the Gobi desert.

And when my contract was up, and I had to return home, my friends and family were shocked that I immediately started making plans to return. “That place sounds like a real shithole.”

Which it was. But fifteen or so years later, all of us who were there playing “Why it sucks” that day have all found reasons to go back, at least to visit.

My students were middle schoolers then, and are now all grown up. I follow them on Facebook, and occasionally we exchange emails. For kids that were growing up in a very isolated mining town on the edge of Siberia, they have done remarkably well for themselves. A few are doctors now, and there are some lawyers in the mix, too. One got a degree from the London School of Economics, worked in Singapore, and then returned to Mongolia to forge a small business empire. Another has apparently become a very successful fashion model.

My brightest student that year was the math teacher’s daughter. Her dad was a driver, which was a euphemism for “unemployed,” and they didn’t have much in the way of money, but it was a loving household and this girl was one of the most innately talented people I’ve ever met. It boggles my mind to imagine what she could have become had she grown up in an environment worthy of her abilities, exposed to all the best things the world has to offer, instead of, you know, a shithole.

She’s done quite well with herself, though. Now almost thirty, she lives in Seoul with her husband, where they operate (and possibly own—my language skills are weak) a boutique hotel. I catch glimpses of her life on Facebook, on vacation in Paris, at a family reunion in Ulaanbaatar, remodeling her kitchen, or gushing over her young son and his wacky baby adventures. Judging from what i can understand on the comments on her posts, I am not the only one who is proud and a little jealous of the life she’s made for herself.

She came to America once, about ten years ago when she still wasn’t sure which direction she would go in. She spent the summer working at a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She didn’t say as much to me because she knew how much I love my industrial northeast, but clearly America was disappointing. Before she arrived she had talked about quitting her job early and spending a week or two exploring America; in the end, though, she finished her contract, pocketed her money and went home, and has never mentioned going back to the States.

She wouldn’t be the first to call New Jersey a shithole.

I like New Jersey, though. Not all of it, but it’s my kind of shithole. Then again, I’m a big fan of the Bronx, which is considered a world-class shithole. And my only complaint about Brooklyn is that it isn’t shitty enough anymore.

Come to think of it, many of my favorite places are, at least to some eyes, shitholes. I love Tajikistan, for example. I had a great time in a city called Qurghonteppa, even though my hotel was freezing cold in summer and the restaurant’s “continental breakfast” was a half a roll of store-bought cream-filled cookies arranged on a plate with a dry cucumber slice on the side (there was a much nicer restaurant across the street, which is probably why they didn’t bother preparing breakfast). I strolled through town with a local high school teacher who had been born there but grew up in East Germany, and returned home when he heard that his old school had so few teachers that it was going to close.

This is the only picture in Qurghonteppa proper.

I was in Jaffna just a few months after the government of Sri Lanka began allowing tourists back in. I can see from pictures that the city has since been cleaned up and restored to at least some of its former glory, but when I was there it was a postwar shithole haunted by hollowed-out bullet-scarred houses. In the middle of the street not far from my hotel soldiers dug out a covered foxhole from which they pointed machine guns out onto whoever was walking up and down that street. I had dinner at the home of a friend of a friend, a human rights advocate who sent his family to Colombo and then London but stayed there himself to speak up for others. His house was quite spare, even by Sri Lankan standards, and he described some of the hardships he faced in his line of work; but it was one of the most elegant dinners I’ve ever had, and the deviled cuttlefish was hands-down the best meal I had in Sri Lanka. Jaffna itself, wounded as it was, remained a beguiling and beautiful place, and I kept thinking to myself that this without much work this could become one of the world’s most celebrated beach towns.


Without much imagination, this could be a very lovely resort town.

IMG_3682 copy.jpgThe world is a beautiful place. Just about all of it. Beaches are beautiful, whether they are sandy or rocky, or if the water is blue or gray. Forests are beautiful, tropical or otherwise. Rivers, lakes, wide open fields, rolling hills, endless plains—it’s all quite beautiful. The austere beauty of deserts have been celebrated, and even raw wastelands in remote areas. It’s all beautiful. Cities, too, whether they are ancient or ultramodern, enormous or dinky.

So what makes one place great and another a shithole? I suppose it’s the eye of the beholder; my father, for example, once turned down a trip to Venice because he saw a picture of laundry hanging from a window and decided that made it a “ghetto,” which is my dad’s preferred version of shithole. I love New York, but I know a bunch of people who dismiss the entire city and wonder how anyone could live there. Personally, I find those sprawling anonymous suburbs to be shitholes, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from moving there. I’ve heard people badmouth Prague, Japan, and all of southeast Asia. And they weren’t just playing a drinking game with friends and an inflatable globe.

So, again, what makes one place great and another awful? I think at the end of the day it’s the people. When I look back on all the places I’ve been, the ones that pull on me the most were the ones where I made the greatest friends. And honestly, if you aren’t making friends, maybe you are the shithole. I think about my genius Mongolian student, who took a hard pass on America and is now enriching South Korea, both with her money and her beautiful family. And my friends who took their skills away from Germany and London and brought their talent and greatness to some very difficult places.

I’ve been lucky to go to all these shitholes and learn that no matter where we come from, at the end of the day we are all people, for better or worse. But mostly for better. Some of us are shitty, and some are pretty awesome, and most fall somewhere in between. We laugh, love, suffer, and deserve respect, pretty much all the same. We are all trying our best. I’ve been very lucky, indeed, and I need to remind myself from time to time that not everybody has been so blessed, and while I can judge or be upset, at the end of the day I get my best revenge by planning another trip to another shithole, and making my world that much bigger and more beautiful in the process.



To the ends of the world

To the ends of the world

I was waiting for a coffee in the cafeteria and the TV was tuned to a news channel of the sort that I only ever only watch under duress or while waiting for an exceptionally slow barista to remember what exactly goes into a black americano. My thoughts drifted all around as they so often do—should I order pizza for dinner? is this room getting darker or is it just me? if I had three wishes, should I wish to be able to get away with murder, or should I wish to never think about murder to begin with?—when a long infomercial for Mauritius came on and I was transfixed.

I have never been to Mauritius, or even considered going there, and until a few minutes after that commercial ended I don’t think I even knew where Mauritius was (somewhere in the Indian Ocean, sure, but close to what?). However, I stayed on and watched even though my coffee had finally come and I did, officially at least, have things I needed to do. The commercial was all soft-focus and wide-angle and featured beautiful people doing all sorts of things that I would never do under even the best of circumstances, like attending a folk dance (because remember, folk dancing is stupid—or so I learned at 13 and it has, unfortunately, prejudiced my views for life), or hanging out in a bar late at night with potential sex partners (okay, the commercial didn’t exactly say that would happen, but it was implied; however, I don’t like staying up late and I don’t like crowds, so bars aren’t really for me).

But Mauritius looked beautiful, and I rushed back to my desk and starting researching trips there. Because, apparently, all I want to do is travel.

I know I complained about booking a trip to Jinja just a few days after returning from Amsterdam, but it turns out that the only pause I need between trips is a few days. I’ve already booked a trip to Murchison Falls next month, and rented a beach house on Cape Cod for the summer, and found a place to stay in Amsterdam on my way there (having seen it in winter, I now want to see it in summer). I have tentative plans to go to Ethiopia in April, London in October, and I feel like I’ve put off going to Zanzibar for long enough.

Can I afford all this? Strictly speaking, yes. Is it a responsible way to use my money? Probably not. That couple from Up spent their whole lives saving up for one trip and never took it, and yet here I am complaining that I’ve been cooped in my home (which is, by the way, in some exotic locale that I have no business living in) for almost two entire weeks now.

But I can’t help myself. I like my home life, and my job, and I have plenty of hobbies. It’s not like I have a lot of time to fill. I barely sleep, and my stack of books to read is almost overwhelming (though I have made some progress this week, in keeping with my non-new-year’s resolution). I came dangerously close to getting a puppy last week—while I was trying and failing to have an honest conversation with myself about whether or not I could be a responsible dog owner, I noticed that all the plants I bought at the Flower Expo last month are dead now, even the succulents and the bamboo, which really isn’t supposed to happen (so no puppy for me).

And I have long-term goals, too, that I need to save up for. And yet, here I am, figuring out yet another trip. It doesn’t have to be Mauritius. I would love to take a road trip across Europe, from Lisbon maybe to somewhere obscure in the east. I’ve never been to Japan. I am convinced that it is my destiny to start a Puerto Rican restaurant in Australia (or perhaps New Zealand; my friends here from both countries make a strong case, and if it’s possible to get a decent mofongo in either place my friends haven’t found it yet), but I’ve never been to either place so I figure I should go and decide for myself. And of course there are the wonders of Africa that I am well-positioned to explore. It’s just…I have to see it all.

Do I? Is it something wrong with me? And why the urge to go to such remote places? Why not Vegas? I wonder if all the doomsday predictions on the news have convinced me on some reptilian level that I need to go far, far away and ride out the storm.

Or maybe that coffee just took way too long.

I resolve to be more resolute

I resolve to be more resolute

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, because when I was young somebody told me that they never work, and when you’re young you’re very impressionable. For example, I once heard one of the robots on Mystery Science Theater declare, “No matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid,” and that has been my attitude to that ever since.

I do periodically challenge/force myself to improve myself, or at least address some of my shortcomings. Like one time I resolved to turn myself into a Roxy Music fan. Another time I took up yoga. Because I can now touch my toes and sing all the words to “All I Want is You,” I would say that these challenges I give myself are generally worth the effort.

But they aren’t new year’s resolutions, because I learned when I was six that those never work. It just so happens that when I looked in the mirror and decided that I needed to fix some issues, it was New Year’s Eve. Totally unrelated, though. I would have made these resolutions in October if I’d felt lousy enough then.

First and foremost, I need to read something. After getting off to a great start in January (Moby Dick and The Goldfinch—loved the first, gradually came to hate the second) I didn’t really do much over the rest of the year. A few short novels, mostly read during the summer, and none of them especially memorable; two books on Russian history (a package deal on eBay); and some Shakespeare that I really should have read a long time ago: that was it. Oh, and I only made it through one of those Russian books because I was the only person in the office and there was literally nothing else to do.

So I need to fix that.

I also need to write more. I was doing an amazing (for me) job at the start of the year (that whole a-short-story-and-a personal-essay-every-week thing), but then work—my actual job, that is—finally got going and I didn’t have time to spend twenty hours a week writing. I understand that there are limits, of course, but the fact is that I could do a lot more than I’ve been doing. I could spend less time on Reddit, for example, or just staring at my chickens. Sometimes I just walk around in circles thinking about how I don’t have time to do anything except walk around in circles.

Oh, and in the fall I developed a weird obsession with a game called Fire Emblem, because it let me send a bunch of warriors into battle, and they could fall in love and have children, and those children were also warriors, and so I could send a whole warrior family into battle, which was violent but still kind of sweet. Somehow this was appealing to me, and consumed most of my evenings. And no, it doesn’t make any more sense if you actually play it. It’s just weird. And time-consuming. (And, yes, fun, but whatever.)

So I’ve put away Fire Emblem and taken books off my shelf and put them in a neat little stack so they can taunt me whenever I’m in my living room, and I’ve ordered a bunch of fresh books so I can have something new to look forward to. I can’t tell you what they are, because I’ve already forgotten, but tonight I’m going to start reading either a book of Chinese poetry that I found at a book market in Amsterdam, or a history of Mediterranean pirates that I’ve been lugging around for way too long. I’ll decide over a glass of wine.

And this morning I woke up at three-thirty for reasons that I cannot understand, and instead of poking around on the Internet until sunrise I poured myself some coffee and did a bit of writing. Only three hundred words, but three hundred good ones, I think. I am pleased.

Of course I should also work on being healthier, kinder and more generous, and maybe getting my car’s oil changed more regularly. But right now, learning again how to read and write seem like admirable enough goals, new year be damned.

My tiny reading nook

My tiny reading nook

My living room is a dark cave, which is how I like it, but I recognize this isn’t necessarily healthy and is definitely off-putting to visitors. A couple of weeks ago there was a plant and flower expo in town, so I went and refused to let myself leave until I had bought enough green things to give the room some life.

And because I am basically a ridiculous person, I immediately purchased tiny decor to turn the plant in my reading nook into another, tinier reading nook.

Backyard adventures

Backyard adventures

I didn’t actually grow up in an apartment in the city, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had access to personal green space and so my instinct is to stay indoors when I’m at home. My house sits on a very nice piece of a land, though, so on Saturday, after an hour or so of trying and failing to find something to do in the living room, I decided to grab my camera and go outside.

My pair of backyard ibises have been joined by a new couple, so there are now four of these goofy birds that roam my yard looking for grubs, and I heard them honking noisily so I thought I’d get the group in action. By the time I came out, though, they were gone. Since I was already outside, though, I decided to make the best of it. After a few weeks of rain my gardens are looking quite lush. I don’t know squat about flowers, so if anybody can identify any of these species, let me know.

Palm trees always make me think of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now.
These grow high up on a tree that spills over onto my neighbor’s yard. When the flowers aren’t in bloom the tree is quite scraggly.
I can’t imagine the evolutionary advantage to growing tiny flowers in the middle of the stem, but they do look lovely. Maybe plants prize beauty over practicality as much as any oter species.
This is actually a potted plant on my balcony. I’m sure they guy who sold it to me told me what it was, but I either wasn’t paying attention or forgot. The flowers only bloom in the morning. When I brought it home I didn’t even realize it had flowers.
I like the ant crawling on this thing.

Earlier this year I bought some chickens for a downtown chicken factory. They were adorable and I loved them, but in one brutal weekend they all caught bird flu and died.  In September I got around to buying new chicks, these from a farm a little more connected to nature. “Local chickens,” as they are known, are hardier than factory chickens, and I couldn’t have a second chicken plague sweep through my property in a year.

My local chickens, though, weren’t sexed, so instead of six hens I got three roosters and three hens. They’re young enough that they all still get along, but the Internet warns me that probably two of the roosters will have to go away eventually.

Anyway, my local chickens (all of them have names and personalities, by the way) are much more curious than the factory chickens, and explore all over the yard. This time I found them as far from their coop as they could go, hanging out under that purple-flower tree. I took some chicken glamor shots of them. If they were ever in a band, these could be their publicity stills.


Left to right: Lemon Drop (vocals), Stripe (bass), P.B. (lead guitar), Chain Mail (rhythm guitar), Strawberry Shortcake (keyboards), Slimer (piano), Hey-Hey (dancer)


I learned this summer (or rather, someone who knows about this stuff pointed out to me) that I have four coffee trees growing in my backyard. Apparently, if I really wanted to, I could harvest them, dry them, roast them, and make a cup of coffee or something. It probably wouldn’t take good, since I am doing nothing to maintain or nourish the trees.

A palm tree grows beside my coffee plants. From far away palm trees look nice, but up close I find them, or at least their bases, a bit gross. See:


I always appreciate an inviting walkway, and I found a couple not far from the coffee trees.


Before retreating back into my living room (so much time in the sun! it’s scary out there!) I came across this little shoot growing near yet another palm, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a good shot of it. This is the best I could come up with.




Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”

My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.

However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.

So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.

I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.

Continue reading “Home”

Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

Continue reading “Old photos”