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.
Weee! A beach! A warm beach! Without jellyfish, sharks, or boiling outdoor temperatures! The Greek islands were calling me while I was still preparing for the trip in America. Every island the ferry passed was a tease until we finally slowed and reversed into the port for Paros. Oh, sweet breezes and salty air! We made it to our relaxation portion of this year's internship, a much needed moment for sun-worshipping and getting rid of my wicked farmer's tan. Paros marked the first destination on a tour of three islands in the Aegean Sea, and she met almost every expectation. White buildings with strong blue accents made up the entire landscape, and windmills stood poised over the harbor. Restaurants lined the boardwalk, and the wind made my hair dance into happy knots. Maybe the only thing that strayed from my pre-conceived images of the Greek islands were the appearance of the beaches, not sugar white but more in line with their volcanic births.
The tour itinerary was something along the lines of "choose one or more of the following: eat, walk, shop, rest, beach, pool, tan, read, rent scooters, drink, enjoy your beautiful surroundings" and so on. Well, okay. That sounds darn near perfect. And the next day, when it came to a full day of experiencing Paros, our tour guide had something in store if we had no inspiration on our own. I took part in the optional day tour and found myself wandering picturesque fishing towns, running across wave-breaking walls, and at a lovely beach playing newly invented ball games with new friends and a very hospitable sun.
Nightfall in Paros had me dancing on a table. How'd I get up there? Oh, I know. Two days of soul-pleasing leisure and a Red Bull. And it did not take any convincing to get the other tour participants up on the tables with me. Flashing lights pulsed and free group drinks flowed to make smiles spread across our newly tanned faces. This was only the beginning. We all had energy. And to be in Greece during the high season when ferries overflow and funnel in mass amounts of tourists, we were there hassle-free, our only responsibility being to enjoy new company and atmospheres.
Paros left a good taste in my mouth. Made me long for even sleepier islands and the breathtaking beauty of an uncommercial destination. Greece could be a painter's dream, soul-quenching...but our next stop being Mykonos, we were about to have our soul's disgorged via thumping music and innumerable cocktails. Which sounds better?
There's such a thing as a hostess bar in Cambodia. It's an establishment that offers libations, snacks, and the most salient feature of spry, young Cambodian women, available for modest companionship and eye candy. With such a gag-evoking reality of child prostitution and sex tourism in this country already scarred with unfathomable [recent] history, I was very careful to approach the idea of nightlife in Phnom Penh. It had been a long time since I participated in after hour activities, especially with anyone resembling a travel buddy or friend, and with two weeks in this relative hub of excitement, I thought it was a necessary experience. I also had to see what this hostess situation was about. Evan understood and shared my outlook on Cambodian nightlife and offered to introduce me to this unique experience. The ride to the bar occurred after an incredible downpour that flooded the streets to levels beyond my comprehension. Our tuk-tuk driver had to get off his seat and push his vehicle (with us still in the back, lifting our legs from the incoming water, because he wouldn't allow us to get out and push with him) until he passed through a thigh-high water situation at the intersection of two roads.
I was stunned this amount of water could puddle together with buildings and storefronts lining the streets, as if the water level displayed the correct ground level and the driver walked in some sort of quicksand below. Evan kept his feet elevated, hoping any minor cuts wouldn't get infected as one had the previous week (which he had to keep soaked in bright purple iodine). The moment was surreal and simply hilarious. I'm disappointed the lighting didn't lend to some telling pictures.
I was already quite sauced before we entered the first watering hole, a hostess bar that was vouched for and legitimate by standards unbeknownst to me. I said "yay" to a Long Island Iced Tea and sat at a U-shaped couched where Evan and I were soon thronged by women of high school age or older.
With daily gigs of encouraging consumption and making witty conversation with travelers, these hostesses were skilled in language. They understood the complexities of humor, based in languages and cultures foreign to them (a laudable skill, as I learned in Italy). I guess in a sense they were the Cambodian equivalent of geishas.
The awkward feeling in my gut led me to act oblivious and just start ordering food while throwing out jokes and anecdotes to anyone listening. Eventually I loosened up and began chatting with the girl next to me (who was only nearby because she, along with the others, was enamored with Evan and his care for the Palm Tree kids).
She had a son who suffered from elephantitis of the testicles. He was roughly two or three years of age. She flashed a picture out from her pocket and showed me his face and worn frame. This woman had no reason to tell me this sad truth of her life, as she knew I wasn't there for special companionship or to buy her drinks. She wasn't even the one who brought the topic into conversation.
Looking around at the other tables in the bar, I realized we were monopolizing about 80% of the hostesses on duty. They flocked to our table in hopes of hearing Evan's attempt at speaking in Khmer and chatting as friends. The rest of the tables were occupied by twos, one traveler to one woman, and the game at play was flirting. It was like we made it to the backstage party and bypassed the controversial showing of "You Like Me. You Buy Drink."
Approaching this outing like a foreigner made it easy to judge, but I then took my own understanding of nightlife in College Town, USA and applied the same eye. Aside from the drink incentives and hourly wages paid by the bars, the social scene in both countries seemed eerily similar. Girls go to bars. Boys go to bars to find girls. Girls try to get guys to buy them drinks. Guys buy girls drinks to encourage further conversation and companionship. And at the end of the night, if two people like each other, they can choose to exchange numbers and stay in contact with one another. And some day, when feelings blossom, who knows?
The next morning I awoke in an empty hotel room, shivering from the billowing AC and listening to the MTV channel I had fallen asleep to. Since we weren't planning to be back from our night out before 9pm or after 5am (when the gate would be locked), we rented a $10 room each with all the essentials (TV, AC, personal bathrooms and soap). Lying in that bed, I listened to the newest works by Keane and Lil Jon and began to anticipate the boat loads of new music I would encounter once back stateside.
Evan and I waltzed back to the orphanage in time for a double fried egg lunch with the kids, and their looks of confusion as to why we were just returning from the evening were refreshing. Luckily, the Palm Tree kids are among the few in Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) who see the world with fairly innocent eyes. Most were never exposed to the professions of the night and had trouble understanding why we went out on the town the night before. Even though our evening activities weren't scandalous and were for the pursuit a unique cultural experience, it made me happy to know they were protected from the burdens of their demographic.
Except for one new girl.
Srey Nith arrived at Palm Tree only a few days before I had, and her patchy English and mysterious personality made it difficult to see where her mind would lead her actions. Word on the playground was she had been taken from the despicable child sex tourism game. Her brown eyes and toothy smile conjured mischief, and I wished terribly that we could speak a common language. But instead we spent many minutes and hours drawing pictures and saying simple English and Khmer phrases to enable some better communication.
She often mentioned her boyfriend or a boy she liked, pointing off to a group of older guys and saying a name I wasn't familiar with. I'd question what she meant and upon hearing her insinuate actions and thoughts above her maturity, I immediately shut them down with friendly disapproval. I wanted her to know, if she was saying those things for acceptance, it wouldn't work for me. Instead, I showed enthusiasm with each new statement she learned in English, and her constant quizzing of Khmer phrases helped my skills immensely. She sang for me with English lyrics she didn't understand, and I wrote them out on a whiteboard, during an impromptu tutoring lesson, so she could realize what she was indeed singing about.
She had a do-good heart hidden in a battered shell, and I found her to be one of my most intriguing friends at the orphanage. It pained me to hear when trouble went down by her doing. With the "physical education" and mature lectures she received in her short lifetime thus far, I can imagine her thoughts of entering a new place filled with men she had to seek approval from. And seek it she did, but in a way neither she nor the young boys she touched were aware and ready for.
The next week, five boys at the orphanage were a bit quieter; one of which was my self-proclaimed "little brother" who used to climb up my torso like a tree to hug and kiss me on the cheek but now shied from my taps on the shoulder. I spent the next days slowing building the boys' trust back in females and solidifying their beliefs that I was there to do no harm or embarrassment to them. It was a slow process, but thankfully, I got the smiles and the hugs once more.
For all the good we do or think we do in the United States, I hope citizens are aware of, thoroughly disgusted by, and prepared to flog any of the Americans that makes up the quarter of the child sex tourism industry around the world (and 40% of Cambodia's red-light market).
So where am I supposed to be now? On my way to Prague. This backtracking is exhausting, and, frankly, it feels like the sort of anti-introspective writing that is not the mission of this adventure. I guess at some point I will want to remember what I did in Prague and honor my time spent there. Isn't that why most people write about their travels? Or maybe I feel I just need to document where I place my feet for those not walking alongside me. Maybe it's because all of these destinations are blurring together, not just in hindsight, and the most intriguing afterthought of the Eurotrip is finding out how I don't like to experience the world. With that said, why don't I just stick to the highlights. Sorry to anyone who was really looking forward to an elaborate account of this very old, and actually very cool, city.
1. Meeting our own personal local resource. On our twelve hour bus ride, a fellow American/EU resident sought out our company, and we instantly found a guide for the city's best local bar, the cheapest local transportation, and a place to stay upon our late arrival time. Matt was recovering from an emotionally rough week, and we offered him some company/drinking buddies in this city of prime beer quality. 2. Hany Bany, aka Hunny Bunny: our local bar of choice and the setting for two multi-hour sessions of relaxation and observation of the Prague youth. 3. The architecture...it wasn't half bad. One might say thrilling. 4. Nights of cheap groceries, home cooking, cheap beers and soccer viewing at our neighborhood pub. You could say we were a little shocked at the server uniforms for the ladies and their lack of...modesty. This was no raunchy bar, but I guess the frequent clientele like a little spice at their regular watering hole. We averted our eyes often.
Now follow me along to Berlin. Feel the breeze inside the, once-again, well-kept and modern train cars. Wander along with us as we find the metro stop "Senefelderplatz" (hey, that's like Seinfeld...yes, that's what we thought!) and find a super cool hostel in an old brewery. Oh, what fun weare having altogether in the beer garden, watching the Spain and Sweden Euro Cup game. Darn that Euro and its massive inflation of beer prices. Can't you feel your wallet emptying?
Alright, enough of that. Here's what I remember from Berlin. It's 4:30am, and I wake up to two Kiwis in my room, telling me it was time to go to the zoo. I fall back in bed, confused, and arise once more a few minutes later. I was fully dressed to go out and experience the Berliner nightlife, make-up smeared on the pillow...and a roommate not in sight. I pulled a Ricky Ricardo and stomped out of the room to hear some much needed " 'splaining." As I step out, a guy staying across the hall emerges from his room and says, "Are you looking for Alexis?" "What on earth is going on." "You fell asleep."
iiiiiiIIIIIIIIIIII FELL ASLEEP?!?!?! Ooooooh boy, the anger pot is a-boiling now.
Four hours earlier, Alexis and I were chit-chatting like school girls and playing cards on the floor, but after I returned from a restroom break, I found her asleep on the floor, unmotivated (after gentle questioning) to go out on the town. We have yet to go out on this trip, and I was anticipating a nice change of pace that night. However, we mutually agreed to go to bed.
AH! But alas! My trusty partner-in-crime ventured off during my subconscious adventures to befriend three guys across the hall and join them at the bars. There she was...sitting outside in the courtyard with her new friends. I gave her an ear and a fist full. APPARENTLY, the story goes that she got up to use the restroom and forgot her key. I was unresponsive to her door pounding, but the guys across the hall sure were. Socializing ensued...for her. What a friend. Lumberjacks, you can't trust 'em. Regardless of my dramatic interpretation, we ended up having a fun morning with these new friends and the rising sun.
Touring Berlin the next day had its perks, but the highlight of the day was the wild celebration we witnessed and joined at the public viewing of Turkey's last minute dramatic victory over Czech Republic. The beer garden was bleeding with Turkish flags, faces and apparel sporting the moon and star emblem. Those brave few with a Czech flag were given a hard time in that crowd. Our three new friends laughed, cheered and photographed while I hopped on Alexis' back to stream through the mosh pit of screaming Turks. We fled the scene with the mob, hoping to land on a lively after party, but amazingly hundreds of Turkey fans vanished in front of our eyes and reappeared streaming across the night sky, all squeezed into one overground metro car. We missed the party, but, man, what a night.