Unhygienic travel stories


It’s lucky that most of us do our heavy-duty adventure traveling while we’re young. We’re more resilient, and can take it in stride, more or less, when strange things happen. (And we know that it’ll make a kick-ass story when we get back home.)

For example: my student assistant Jennifer told me that, in China, you can use a dirty public toilet for free, but you have to pay to use a clean one.

But that’s nothing.

How about the time I chased a rat down the hallway in Morocco, until I saw it jump into the toilet and disappear?

How about the time I was having kamounia at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tunis, and found weevils cooked in with the couscous? (I just picked them out and put them on the side of the plate. I didn’t complain. I’d just paid twenty-five cents for dinner; I certainly didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.)

How about those kvass dispensers in the USSR back in 1978? (Kvass is a light beer, very refreshing, and I wish they sold it here. I think they make it by soaking bread in water and fermenting the result.)  It was sold in drink machines, just like soft drinks and coffee in the US, except that everybody used the same glass. (There was a little water-spout you were supposed to use to wash the glass out when you were done.)

But the best story of all belongs to my friend Mike, back in Morocco, as follows:

He moved into a simple house in El-Jadida, a beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast. The house had no toilet; you had to use a privy out in the garden.

His first night there, he went out in the dark to use the privy. As he sat, he could hear an odd rustling around him. This gave him the creeps, so he finished his business, went in the house for a flashlight, and came back out to see what the noise was.

It was bugs. The walls and ceiling of the privy were alive with insects, mostly huge flying cockroaches, more than he’d ever seen.

He shrieked, ran back in the house, grabbed the insect spray (which, in Morocco in 1984, was probably straight DDT), and ran back to the privy to kill the bugs.

Do you see the flaw in his reasoning?

He went into the privy and started spraying, and they all started dying. And as they died, they fell, by the dozens and the hundreds, all over him.

I still twitch whenever I think of that story.

I dare you to top it.

Things that might happen in world politics

things that might happen

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” there is a character who is writing a book called “Things That Might Happen In European Politics.” He writes very comprehensively about a particular thing that might happen, but – invariably – before he’s done – the thing happens. And he has to discard what he’s written, and start writing his book all over again.

It’s Zeno’s Paradox, in a sense: you can never reach the end of your journey, because it keeps moving farther away, faster and faster, before you can get there.

It is for this peculiar reason that I like reading outdated history and political-science books.

I prowl the second floor of the Providence Public Library looking for them. I can tell them by their old leathery bindings and their stamped printing and their quaint titles. I have read WILL CHINA SURVIVE? (1936). And STALIN MUST HAVE PEACE! (1946). And AN AMERICAN IN THE RIF (1921). And many others.

A few observations:

–         Yes, China will survive. The 1936 book was written at a time when China was riven between Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime (which later went to Taiwan), and the Communists, and the Japanese (who had taken a big chunk of the north). The author was prescient enough to see that, if China survived the Japanese occupation (which it did), it would almost certainly go Communist. Ten points for accuracy!

–         Stalin had peace, but not for the reasons the author (the famous journalist Edgar Snow) assumed. His premise (which he maintained for 200 pages) was that the Second World War left Stalin too weak to struggle against the USA and Europe, and that Stalin would be no threat to anyone for at least five to ten years. He underestimated Stalin’s paranoia and power. The USSR had the atomic bomb by 1949, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh, well. Zero points.

–         An older book about Morocco, written in the 1920s, was fascinating. Abdelkrim, the Napoleon of North Africa, the founder of the Rif Republic, who led a rebellion against Spain, was described as “passionate, but not a genius.” And so he proved to be; his Rif Republic collapsed soon after. The author also met Raisuli, the pirate king of Asilah, who captured the American diplomat Perdicaris at the turn of the century. The author described Raisuli (I paraphrase) as a “swollen hulk” near the end of his life, being carried around in a litter, palsied, dropsical, unable to speak, looking sadly and angrily at everyone around him.

It’s difficult to predict the future accurately. And even if you succeed, you seldom live to see yourself vindicated.

But it doesn’t stop anyone from trying.



I read the most delightful article a while back in a publication called “ChinaWatch,” which seems to be a sort of Chinese Chamber of Commerce thing.  It’s full of cheerful articles about Chinese industry and the Chinese economy, always upbeat, never negative.  I have the latest issue right here, and let’s see, we have articles about the Chinese lavender industry, the local market for jade, a pass between China and Kazakhstan which has become very internationalized, green energy in China, solar energy in China, soccer teams in China –



But here.  Just wait.



Here’s an article about a nice young Irishman named Manus McMahon, who set up a Western-style bar in Urumqi, one of the larger cities in the Xinjiang region of western China.  They serve imported beers and pizza, and are (according to the article) very successful, although (inexplicably) the building is being torn down, and Mister McMahon is moving on to Central America to establish another Irish-style pub.  (You think that’s strange?  So do I.)



Anyway, the Urumqi bar is named “Fubar.”



“Fu,” in Chinese, denotes fortune and good luck.  “Fu Bar,” get it?



Well, no.



Seriously.  Do you know what “fubar” means in Standard English?  (See here if you don’t.)



So: someone was having a nice little joke when they named the place.



(Postscript: I mentioned this to one of my student employees, Jennifer, who has studied and worked in China over the past few years.  She looked startled.  “I’ve been to that bar!” she said.  “Not in Urumqi, but in Beijing!”)



(“They had pizza?” I asked numbly?)



(“Yeah,” she said.  “Pizza and beer.)



(Omigod.  It’s a franchise operation.)



(Oh, kids, how small the world is.)


Movie review: “55 Days at Peking”


When nothing else on television will do – when there’s no RuPaul or Graham Norton or Cupcake Wars – I switch over to Turner Classic Movies.  I will accept almost anything that Robert Osborne, in his eternal wisdom, chooses to give me.



The other night it was something unidentifiable: Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston, wearing vaguely Victorian-looking clothing, entering a Chinese temple and dancing to unheard music.






Ah.  “55 Days at Peking,” a Hollywoodization of the Boxer Rebellion.



First of all, kids, I do not recommend it, unless you are a student of Chinese history, or historiography, or bad movies.  It is a horrible botch in just about every regard.  Dramatically, no one seems very engaged; there’s a nice cast – David Niven’s in it too, along with Ava and Chuck – but they all appear to be thinking about dinner, or the weekend, or their failing marriages.



At heart it is a Western.  The foreigners in Peking – David (of course) represents the British, Chuck the Americans, Ava the Russians (?) – are attacked by Chinese Boxer rebels.  We are supposed to sympathize with the Europeans and Americans, who – hm – have been claiming “territorial concessions” in China.   The Empress Dowager, a stern old lady with orchids (or possibly hydrangeas) in her hair, is not-so-secretly siding with the Boxers.  Prince Tuan, who is quite evidently evil because he has long fingernails and a constipated expression, is not-so-secretly leading the Boxers from within the Forbidden City.



From the point of view of history (and logic), the Chinese were of course in the right; they were trying to protect themselves from arrogant and often violent foreign intervention.



But we cheer as Chuck shoots down the Chinese!  He’s not happy about it, of course, but he does it, just as he’d (mopily) shoot down Indians in some other picture.    And he looks splendidly sunburnt and muscular in his nice Teddy Roosevelt-style garb, as do all the American soldiers.  (I assume this is the way American soldiers dressed in 1900.  It’s possible, anyway.)



Let us also mention that the three leading Chinese roles – the Empress Dowager, Prince Tuan, and the Imperial General – are all played by Caucasians.  I think most of the Chinese in the mob scenes are played by Chinese, but then again, you never know.



Ah, but wait!  We also have a brave young Japanese soldier (played by actual Japanese actor Juzo Itami) fighting alongside Chuck Heston.  Remember, this movie was made less than 20 years after World War II.  How’s that for diversity and tolerance?



Here’s a thought experiment: substitute the Native Americans for the Chinese.  The same “territorial concessions” (on a grand scale), the same sense that the side opposing the Americans is noble but wrong . . .



Creepy, isn’t it?



Maybe I recommend this movie after all.  It is an object lesson in the creative uses of history.



Sunday blog: Spring in Xinjiang


From time to time we need a change of pace.




Here’s an Uighur ensemble playing “Spring in Xinjiang.”




I like the tune, and the instruments that look like intergalactic bottle openers, and (most especially) those cunning little hats they’re all wearing.







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