The Reason for Red Bull: Day 59

A whole lotta hedonism going on here

The word "Mykonos" causes some people to involuntarily pump their fist and bite their lip with anticipation, knee jerk reactions to the thoughts of staying up until brunch time having cocktails while dancing on flashing platforms in your weekend best. My grandma body sighed at the sound of "Mykonos" knowing fully well it could not handle the pressure to party all night long...but it has to because that's the job. Go, grandma, go! Pump those fists!Our hotel sat about thirty seconds by foot from a curving beach covered in buff bodies. Face to face with the island's ways, it was quite obvious what a person does around here: wakes up for a late lunch, lounges by the beach or pool to perfect that bronze god/goddess sheen, and prepares for a full night amidst overpriced drinks and jazzed up bodies. I decided to give this lifestyle a chance and took my spot in the sun, occasionally taking a dip in the ocean and opening my eyes to watch several young Italian men rub oil on their friends.

Night fell. I emptied my camera bag and refilled it with water bottles and two Red Bulls. I threw a new dress over my head, blew my hair dry, and gave my mirror image a thumbs-up. Let's do this, grandma! Note to all: camera bags insulate nicely, so energy drinks stay nice and cool. Following some dude on stilts through downtown Mykonos Town, we eventually found our way to a big, ol', throbbing club that offered us VIP passes to avoid a hefty cover charge.

It took two hours, but the party started. Bodies filed in and ordered Red Bull and vodkas like fresh robots off the assembly line. Girls with feathers strapped to their glutes swung on poles and fanned themselves to the pulse of the techno. I couldn't help but bring that hand up in a fist and thrust it into the open, flashing air. The music carried me across expanses of time, even though my Red Bulls ran dry and sandals dug into my feet. And at every climax of the beats, the bartenders stood on top of us all and threw handfuls of napkins into beams of light. They scattered on sweaty crowds and mopped up every spilled drink on the ground.

My care pack served me well, and I lasted amongst the most dedicated night-dwellers until 5:30am, when I walked outside to a sunrise...and very afflicted eardrums. Getting back to the hotel at 7am, I passed a runner in my outfit from the night before. Couldn't help but giggle and started jogging myself. I wouldn't do it again for ages, but I truly enjoyed bouncing to ridiculous beats and the repeated scream of "My-Ko-Nos" for that one night only. Grandma pulled it together. And so can you.

Nairobi at Night

I tried one more time. Nairobi at night. This time with the help of two GAP guides, one being my future leader across Tanzania and the game reserves. They escorted me back to Ranalo Foods to educated this rusty mind on eating with your hands in East Africa. Grabbing ugali (corn flour and water boiled down to a squishy solid) by the fingertips, they molded a wad to fit the width of their hands, ending in a spoon-like shape near the thumb. Then, they went for the meat or greens, pinching the food together to the ugali and taking it all in with a large, meaty bite. It took me a few attempts to look as thought I eat like this all the time. Of course, I still got some stares and was probably looking quite silly, but having those guys accompany me gave me the confidence I, for some reason, lacked the night before.

And then we went out for drinks. People were pumped to get on the dance floor, but most of the time, it was a floor full of gyrating men.  The guys explained most men are pretty afraid of girls because the majority of the women surrounding us were quite obviously "ladies of the night." They danced with an eye behind them, seeing who was watching and hoping to entice someone.

The bathroom was for refueling, to smoke and primp among the puddles. Standing in my simple, modest attire, the ladies and I had a moment of pausing to observe the other. All faucets were covered with bags, so a massive tank of water took up the majority of the open space, and a small bucket bobbled in hopes someone would want to be clean. A woman in front of me couldn’t stop moving to the music outside and gyrated by the toilet stalls. I loved it. I wanted to join her. The other woman next to me, one of the few ladies that wasn’t working that night, handed me some toilet paper. I was much obliged.

The curtains by the dance floor parted on a band led by a great Congolese singer, and immediately the place exploded with energy. The music pulsed to a heartbeat or a quick breath, to the natural bounce of the joints, all about the hips, shoulders, and head, which usually looked down to see how the rest of the bod’ was doing.

At one point, a man collapsed "dead" on floor in a game to get money. He rose after the efforts of a few very dedicated and drunken men (giving money and pleading to the gods) and came alive…alive enough to strip down to basically a full spandex onesie and about twelve pairs of colorful or slinky underwear. Once he got down to nothing but a G string over his black shiny get-up, he proceeded to do a headstand fit with impressive hip gyrations.  A couple audience members were quite enthusiastic to have me contribute to his medical school fees or whatever he was dancing for, but my boys had my back and gave me a backbone in the vulnerable situation.

The dancing king of the night, a.k.a. the Masai Matisyahu of sorts, told me to get up and dance. I mimicked the popular moves and fit in nicely. Then he asked me to be at home (that's nice) and feel free (oh ok...) to make another Obama if I felt like it (since I’m an American woman…in Kenya...wait, WHAT?). It was the second time someone said this to me in two days. At first it struck me as hilarious. Then I realized with the inauguration of our new president, the entire country of Kenya had a fresh new joke for the tourists that they all found as comical as they did the first time.

Bottom line: Get a local perspective on Nairobi nightlife, and you'll walk away pleased...and possibly swervin'.

Move. Just Do It: Day 34

I hit up a local joint in Nairobi on my first night: Ranalo Foods. The night involved my failed attempts at eating without utensils and a staring problem aimed at all the moving bodies on the dance floor. This is what I observed. “The body is constantly swerving into different 'S' curve forms, snaking and rolling and making dance a public display of their private spirits. Moving like they're underwater, yet unable to abandon the rhythm. The smaller the moves, the better; slow, deliberate gyrations all with the smooth coat of style. It's 'own world dancing'...no one is self-conscious. And it's all in the joints with hips gliding, shoulders throbbing, and all eyes looking down to the work being done by themselves and the handsome one nearby.”

I rarely am intimidated by the dance floor, and even if I'm in a new country, I usually take the stance that if I make a fool of myself, I'll see none of these people again in the future. But, I didn't dance this time. I wanted to so badly, to test my skills at mimicking this underwater, snaking, gyrating dance of East Africa. I thought I could break the barrier between myself and the rest of the crowd on that Saturday night. Oh, but I was alone, and I didn't want to be a spectacle.

I added this first night at Ranalo Foods to the list of moments I regret. I could have given a nearby soul my camera to record whatever failed or successful attempts I made to assimilate into the dance culture. I could have smiled and gotten so far, making new friends who would dictate the way I should move.

And why am I writing about that one time when I didn't dance at a restaurant in Kenya? Because it could have enriched my Nairobi experience to unknown heights, and I'd rather you not make the mistakes in your journeys that lead you thinking later..."That would have been really cool if I had been ballsy enough to do that." I didn't show those boys in the bar in Cambodia the Soulja Boy dance, and I didn't swerve to the music of East Africa. I still remember the things I missed. They're small, but they could make all the difference.

Last Day with Second Families: Day 10

Daro Danisi

Our final day in the Fijian village had quite a build up. I must have answered the question "What day are you leaving Fiji and the village" about twenty times during my entire stay, unsure as to why they were so anxious to know my departure date. I believe they were just gearing themselves up for the big day when we say our goodbyes and experience one final jolt of the "True Fiji" culture. I took it fairly easy during the day with a writing session and a swim at the waterfall, and when lunchtime finished, I leaned to my side and suddenly passed out cold, as if I had really done any real labor that day. I awoke to a bunch of ladies weaving fern mats around me and giggling as little Pio, my host cousin, took photos of my groggy state.

During my waterfall adventure and delicious nap, my host parents constructed a lovo, or underground oven with firewood, stones to be heated, coconut shells holding various foods, and banana leaves to cover the entire situation. The grub finished with an aromatic uncovering in the dark of evening. Fane dressed me in one of her grand sulus and a flowery lei, and we all walked with food in hands to the party down the path at Chris' house.

A tablecloth stretched the length of the room on the floor, with plates scattered at intervals of various noodles, taro, and lovo goodies. We joined the men watching rugby on the TV (Chris' house was pretty set up) until Moji announced our turn to thank the village formally for the entire week.

"I just want to thank all of you for being a part of this experience. I want to thank my lei and my nau and my new friend and sister, Bui, for their hospitality. I had so much fun doing everything and nothing with you. From the kava sessions to just hanging out, it was incredibly fulfilling. I know you all just be aware of how lucky you are, to live amidst such a wonderful landscape and among such wonderful people. I have to make it back here, THIS YEAR!"

That was the gist of my announcement. Words of appreciation and love exchanged among everyone and clapping commenced after everyone's speeches. And then we went to business on the food for a couple hours.

With two dollars in my hand, I walked in the dark behind Fane to a private area in the village, an open air building where fundraising dances took place. As the pop/island music blasted into the quiet night, we shimmied our leis and sulus, kicking up the dusty soil into a fog. Chris would spontaneously whip out his Ace Ventura dance moves, while I would be challenged by the village ladies to ask multiple men to dance (using my new line "Au nakwati e koko daro danisi" or "I want you to dance with me"). Traveler Tom had moves that would stop Michael Jackson in his tracks, and the entire house was shaking with laughter and hilarity.

Most of the men sat on one side of the building drinking kava and occasionally looked to see what all the fuss was about on the dance floor. It resembled a middle school dance in a sense. My feet were the color of milk chocolate by the dance's end and my body limp from exhaustion. The next morning we would leave, and I couldn't have imagined a better way to bid it adieu...dancing to Akon.

Soulja Boy in Cambodi'ya: Day 180

I sat watching a Champions League soccer game on the restaurant's TV, dangling my flip flop from a shaking foot and hoping a Cambodian beer was in my immediate future. No one waited on me, and I look around to see that every frat boy backpacker had been served and content for seemingly hours. After waiting about five minutes, the slate of my mind was wiped clean, and I stood up rather robot-like and walked towards the street, much like Forrest Gump before his cross-country running spree. I said to myself, "I sure hope this city is safe."

I walked with a notebook in hand, clasping it nonchalantly, yet tight enough to keep my dollar bills and Cambodian riel lodged within the pages. Taking a left, I passed by some roadside eateries still blazing their lamps for business. I held my pant legs above my ankles to avoid the slowly disappearing rain rivers that earlier washed a layer of sand across the pavement. I couldn't get over the purity of the air. I felt comfortable, instantly at home.

Walking by many restaurants and bars, I found an illuminated chalk sign that said: Happy Hour 5pm - 10pm. My kind of business. I barely looked both ways to cross the street and landed in the doorway of my new favorite establishment. I quickly ordered a pint of Angkor for less than a dollar, and the ecstatic young barkeep ran across the street to fetch the brew. I guess this bar wasn't stocked with the local beer of choice. Odd.

When I first walked in, the young man at the counter smiled without hesitation and showed me to the closest chair to the street for public viewing. He muted the Arsenal game and turned on his mix CD of popular American hip-hop. Soulja Boy's unmistakable "YOUUUUU" resonated throughout the bar. One look at his face, and you knew he was deejaying to impress. I felt incredibly compelled to stand up and teach him the dance, a bit of a cultural exchange, if you will; however, something compelled me to stay seated and continue to laugh to myself, writing down the things I was experiencing while sipping on the frosty mug.

The restaurant across the street closed up, and workers flocked to the sounds of Usher and Lil Wayne coming from our watering hole. A young woman sat alone on a barstool, sipping her drink with a smile plastered on her face. Being in Cambodia as a newbie, I immediately believed she was there to get free drinks, make a new friend, and cash out in the morning after making a load from a local or foreign businessman. Chances are she was a neighborhood teenager in need of a wet whistle, and I'll stick with that interpretation until I reach cold cut proof of the other.

I bade my new friends adieu and returned to my $10 a night luxury suite for some light-hearted merriment. Cambodian TV is an insomniac's paradise. Never have I laughed so hard at the tube than when I delighted in the fashion, karaoke, and Thai soap opera channels at the Green Lantern Guesthouse. There is great fascination in those parts with watching uneventful music videos about a boy and a girl longing for each other and singing along to it, karaoke-style. It's entertainment for the worldwide masses. I burst into laughter (audible from two rooms away, at least) at the melodrama of the soap operas I couldn't even understand. And fashion TV transported me from my guesthouse in Cambodia to a sorority common room or a Californian cocktail bar.

Lying there on my stomach with a pillow propping my gaze and a remote poised, the experience seemed a somewhat lazy, albeit fulfilling, approach to the act of cultural osmosis. The programs' hilarity and fuzzy reception were constant reminders that values, geography, technology, tastes, and desires can and do space worlds apart, meanwhile giving travelers a reason to keep going. What is mainstream at home is a delightful import elsewhere, and those treasured pastimes of distant lands are our special windows to other worlds with a dash of foreign charm.

Anyone coming to the United States looking for culture will either be smacked by it or have to whip out a magnifying glass to find it, but as a techno-centric society, all a traveler would have to do to see our values and humor would be to turn on the TV. Does that mean my experience in a different country could be enlightened by observing their local tube offerings? And at a time when so much is accessible from a simple hotel room or a satellite receiver, the question of why one should go and spend and weather and endure on location never ceases to probe.

As evident by my ramble, it can be very hard to describe even the most subtle realities of traveling abroad to those who are back in the solid mindset of home and the familiar. The nomad's world is an academic one, and with every hour comes a challenge to the things already known or believed. There is no rest for the mind and its running list of values, which is why one becomes wiser and fulfilled but less happy and wearier while wandering without fail for months on end.

I fell asleep to the sounds of a downpour outside my open window. The world was being flushed clean. Cambodia was a clean pipe when I awoke the next morning.