Which one of these two women represents the real China?

In response to someone who told me I hadn’t been to the real China because I didn’t visit a hutong:

People like to say that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing these days don’t represent the real China, with their modern skyscrapers, ubiquitous Starbuckses, and global influence. The real China is rice paddies and opium dens, Little Red Books and old ladies with bound feet, straw hats and bicycles and dragon lanterns, right?

When people who fancy themselves “travelers, not tourists,” visit foreign countries for the first time, they often verbalize their desire to see the real place. The real Paris. The real Brazil. The real Australian Outback. (Though, I concede to not hearing very many people expressing a yen for the real Orlando.) In my opinion, this quest for authenticity is as romantically futile as it is superficial – places, like people, are multidimensional entities that embody contradictions and eschew easy categorizations.

In the present, more than at any other time in history, the emergence of a global urban culture has transformed, if not usurped to some degree, the local “authentic” culture of cities. And while that global culture is indeed dominated, somewhat shamefully, by American hegemony, it is still the local incarnation of global culture that visitors to the world’s largest cities encounter – homegrown fast-food chains next door to McDonald’s, hip hop artists rhyming in Yoruba or Finnish or Bahasa Indonesia, jeans and sneakers and hoodies everywhere – evidence that anything can become tradition, given time.

True, once-unique locales have begun homogenizing, morphing into glass-and-steel clones of New York or – gasp – Dubai, with air conditioned shopping malls housing branches of the same mid-range-to-luxury goods purveyor found in commercial centers the world over.

But this is the world we live in now. Yuppies in Beijing use smart phones to order Thai takeout to watch in front of their flat-screen TVs. Students in São Paulo organize anti-corruption protests via Facebook, likening themselves to anti-corruption protesters half a world away in Turkey. It’s the technology that’s connecting us as well as conditioning us into a state of global citizenship (with its concomitant dark side, global consumerism).

Nonetheless, are these places any less real because the people who live there utilize products and services that may not be homegrown, or that many more people in a given country live in abject poverty? Is New York any less American, Paris any less French, or Bangkok any less Thai because of globalization? And does a visitor to the U.S. need to spend a night in the hood or a trailer park to experience the real America? I think far too many people conflate realness in travel with slumming, or at the very least, with what the “average” [insert nationality here] person does or doesn’t do. Every place on the planet is comprised of conflicting realities, one no less real than the other.

What I experience when I travel is as real as it gets, be it an hours-long conversation at a Krispy Kreme in Seoul or comparing dance moves in front of a chaiwala in Mumbai. It’s through genuine human interaction and an openness to learning that I get to know the real place, the real people. And that means first letting go of my own preconceived notions of realness and authenticity.

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Image sources: Lauren Nelson & Eightfish

Great Wall of China by Francisco Diez via Flickr

I’ll be heading off to China for the next ten days – Beijing and Shanghai – and I’m not sure what the restrictions on websites and Internet usage will be. Meanwhile, check out this trailer for the upcoming documentary Gringo Trails, which looks at the impact of mass tourism around the globe. You just might spot a familiar face. 😉

Great Wall of China image by Francisco Diez via Flickr

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The first thing I did upon arriving in Singapore was look for people jaywalking, littering, and chewing gum, the trifecta of must-not-do’s in many a guidebook to the city. And despite assurances that the local government frowns severely upon these trespasses, people were doing all three. In fact, the idea that Singapore is a soulless, sterile conurbation obsessed with cleanliness and making money just smacks of lazy thinking. Singapore may not have the hedonistic chaos of Bangkok or the dramatic setting of Hong Kong, but it’s got a palpable sense of drive and a reverent appreciation for its surprising cultural diversity.

You can see Singapore’s legacy as a trading center in the vigorous commercial sector of the city-state, where Chinese dried goods warehouses, knock-off electronics emporiums, and multistory Louis Vuitton boutiques all vie for access to disposable incomes. In fact, the subway during evening rush hour is like a fashion show flash mob, as office denizens make their way home in the haughtiest of haute couture. Beyond the brands, however, Singapore’s got a notable mix of inexpensive food options—from Chinese chicken rice to Indonesian barbecue to Indian curries, all for under $2 a meal!—plus neighborhoods like Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street that speak to the city’s diversity in sights, sounds, and flavors. Exhibitions on food, film, clothing, and traditions at the National Museum of Singapore follow these cultural pathways as they weave themselves into the fabric of modern Singapore, and the almost side-by-side Chinese and Indian temples embody the interplay and mutual influence among the city’s constituent communities.

Granted, the heat can be hellish, prices astronomical, and fun shut down by 2am. And the city really is clean and efficient. But for a quick peek at a prosperous, multicultural society with hidden deals and more than a few charms, make sure you spend a couple of days in Sin City.

And don’t forget to pronounce it the British way—Singa-POUR. It sounds sexier.

(Sorry about the paltry number of photos…I had 50 images of the city go missing mysteriously from my computer. 🙁 Guess that makes for another reason to return!)

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Deciding to hang out in Singapore at the last minute can be costly, with accommodations being pretty expensive. Luxury hotels weren’t in the budget and the city seemed short on reasonably-priced mid-range options. Hostels normally aren’t my thing, but in a pinch, I’ll try anything once. Bunc, a sleek new 233-bed backpackers in Little India, came to the rescue and offered us a couple nights’ lodging in exchange for a review, and I was more than happy to oblige.

Located in a restored shophouse originally built in 1926, Bunc is bright and spacious, with high ceilings, ample common areas, and cloud-like beds so soft, you drop off to sleep in no time. The grid-like partitions separating the beds offer a decent amount of privacy when the private rooms themselves aren’t available, and the upscale design and ambiance encourages a respectful atmosphere among the guests. Above all, the place is clean, with a top-notch cleaning staff, bug-resistant linens, and a deliciously fragrant organic air freshening system.

Other amenities include double beds for couples, a movie/games room with plush cushions, a tremendously handy washer/dryer combo, a separate ladies-only floor with its own lounge, a kitchen, complimentary Continental breakfast every morning, and free wifi. There’s also that oh-so-welcome A/C to cool you down after a day of sightseeing in hot-and-muggy Singapore. Bunc is perched between two subway stations, close to a rack of cheap Chinese and Indian eateries, and walking distance to major touristic sites like the Goddess of Mercy temple and Arab Street. And for those into the group thing, Bunc hosts tours, activities, and events every night of the week.

I’ve never been a fan of hostels, but Bunc duly impressed me with its design, cleanliness, and the amazing friendliness of its staff—managers Adrian and Winnie rocked! It’s not the cheapest hostel you can dig up, but it’s without question one of the best.

Bunc Hostel
15 Upper Weld Road
Little India, Singapore
+65 6262 2862
Single beds from US$32, private rooms from US$97

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The wheels on the bus go round and round, unless the bus is stuck in traffic on Eid.

Dateline: Malaysia. I’m traveling with a good buddy from Germany, and we’re on the bus from the colonial port city of Malacca en route to a European-style chalet in the verdant Cameron Highlands to meet up with the birthday gang from Bali. Suddenly, I get the bright idea to backtrack south to Singapore and get in a little city life after our Highlands adventure and before beaching it up in the Perhentian Islands.

So, we get to the chalet and do a little internet research. The flights to Singapore from Penang, the town with the nearest commercial airport, are more than what we were willing to pay and scheduled train departures were all full. What we hadn’t counted on was Eid (the end of Ramadan) taking place in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world that very weekend, during which thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people would be traveling around the country, making merry for themselves and making hell for all the luckless foreigners who hadn’t checked to see there was a holiday that weekend.

At the bus station in the Highlands, the ticket agents all warn that buses back to Kuala Lumpur are filling up and that buying tickets the next day would be virtually impossible. One company sold tickets from the Highlands to Singapore with a stop in KL, but at a steep holiday markup. Being cheap, we decide we’d pay the regular fare to KL, then get tickets on to Singapore from there. Oh, why in all the Creator’s great green hills and valleys did we do that?

We get to what used to be KL’s main bus terminal and it’s jammed with holiday travelers—mostly young men off from their construction jobs in the capital and heading somewhere else in the country to see their families. By the time we arrive, we’ve missed the few departures for Singapore and the remaining buses are either completely full or not leaving for another 9 or 10 hours. We take the metro (also jammed) to the new and improved bus terminal, from which almost all buses to the south of the country depart, and find out the few remaining seats to Singapore are on luxury buses and cost three times the normal fare. Figures.

What to do, what to do? Eureka: take the bus to Johor Bahru—the southernmost city in Malaysia, just across the causeway from Singapore—then take the commuter route into Sin City! There was a bus leaving within the hour and it cost not even half the price of the luxury bus. We snag a can of MSG-loaded Pringles knock-offs and a pack of bean-paste rolls (num!) from the 7-11 and we’re off to JB.

Along the way, however, we hit Spring-Break-in-Florida-style traffic as everybody, their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother, their grandkids, their dog, their neighbor, and their play-cousin Roscoe decides to take to the highway for the holiday. Soon, we realize that we’re in a race against time as the buses that cross the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore stop running just before midnight. With no contingency plan should we get stuck in JB, we chew our nails to the quick hoping the bus can sprout wings. And lo, we make it to the crowded, ramshackle bus terminal in enough time to run real, real fast across the parking lot just to wait in a long, long line of Malaysians, Singaporeans, and a sprinkling of cheap-ass Westerners (who didn’t want to ante up for the luxury bus) aiming to cross the border before it closes.

After two or three buses fill up and head off, we finally crowd onto one along with the daily commuters, packed and sealed tightly in a lumbering proletarian transporter with the a/c set on Arctic. First stop: the Malaysian customs and immigration office. We peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped out of Malaysia, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier. We cross the causeway separating Peninsular Malaysia from the island of Singapore, but I don’t see much because it’s dark outside and my face is pressed into the back of someone’s head anyway. Sing’s customs and immigration office is next, and we peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped into Singapore, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier.

The time is almost 1am and we’re tired and hungry and though we reach our destination safely and physically unharmed, we’re emotionally scarred by the figurative crush of holiday travel and the literal crush of some dude’s scalp pressed against my nose on a bus. Please be sure to remind me of this the next time I get one of my last-minute bright ideas. And make sure you know the date of Eid before traveling by bus in Malaysia.

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As evidenced by the Dutch-built Stadthuys, the over 230-year-old Hindu temple, and the Chinese-inflected Kampung Kling Mosque, Malaysia’s multicultural colonial port of Malacca has been fought over and ruled by a succession of Asian and European powers since it was first established over 600 years ago. Offering safe harbor during the ferocious monsoon season for trading ships threading between China and India—a virtual crossroads of the world—the city pulled in abundant riches and a pallet of cultures.

Tossed like a hot potato between the Malays, the Javanese, the Vietnamese, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English, Malacca is home to architecture, food, religion, music, and other traditions that reflect the various flags flown over the city, and which influence the dominant cultures (Malay, Chinese, Indian, mixes of the three) that populate it today. Malacca’s tangled history and relaxed, Caribbean-like atmosphere make it a popular stop on the backpacker trail, but there are still a few secluded corners that occasionally go tourist-free. Here are a few of Malacca’s beauty spots.

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Verdant hills, foggy dells, infinity pools, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met in life summed up my brief 2-day excursion to the tropical isle of Bali. The only majority-Hindu island in the mostly Muslim archipelago of Indonesia, Bali has been a major tourism destination–especially among Europeans and Australians–for decades. Pristine beaches, alluring culture, and cheap prices keep surfers and yoga devotees and retired hippies and honeymooners and even affluent young parents coming back. My friends and I tried to avoid all of those people and headed for the hills, far away from the Florida-style hubbub around overbuilt Denpasar and deep into the quiet, calming countryside.

To infinity…and beyond!

My buddies Mike and Ana are a crazy/cool California couple with back-to-back birthdays, which they wanted to celebrate with friends on Bali. Mike found an amazing 3-bedroom vacation villa hidden from the tourist throngs and close to the artistic and cultural center of the island, Ubud. The villa came with stunning views of a solemn valley, a refreshing infinity pool, and a terrific staff who hung out discreetly on-site and whipped up omelets on demand. If it weren’t for the lack of promised internet access, we wouldn’t have left the premises. We did eventually head into Ubud for a little Balinese food and culture, capped off by a fiery performance of the polyrhythmic Kecak dance:

Just a few hundred feet away from the villa sat a secluded Hindu temple, tended by rice farmers from the surrounding villages. But before we knew it, our very quick breather was over and it was time to move on to not-so-green pastures–Mike, Ana, and friends to Kuta and Lombok while I hopped a flight to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

My most exotic luggage tag yet!

A few more images from the villa and the temple:

Mike + Ana
Soul Glow

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Between July and December 2012, I’ve got five specific destinations on my to-do list. Being on the list doesn’t mean that I’ll actually make it there by the end of the year, but I’m going to try my darnedest. All of these destinations are new for me and I’m definitely hyped about discovering each one for myself!

Bangkok, Thailand
The Bangkok ticket is already purchased and part of my upcoming Whirlwind Southeast Asia Grand Tour 2012. Though I’ve been to the region before, I’ve never been to Thailand and I’m looking forward to dipping my toes into the exhilarating chaos that is Bangkok. I love Thai food, so there’s a start right there!

Copenhagen, Denmark
The Danish capital has been calling me for a while, and since one of my very good friends from Brasília will be moving there for graduate school, I’ve got no reason to postpone a trip any longer. I have indeed spent a couple of hours changing planes at the cozy-yet-bustling airport and I’m eager to see how the city measures up to my favorite Scandinavian capital, Stockholm.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I have only heard amazing things about Addis from my friends that have been there, and I’m definitely looking forward to snagging one of the under-500 euro airfares to Ethiopia during the second half of the year. As my Ghana trip recently fell through, this would then be my first sub-Saharan African destination. I’m stoked just thinking about the ridiculous music scene there.

Toronto, Canada
Oh, Canada. Despite knowing mad-cool peeps who hail from within your borders, I’ve never visited you. It is time. I’ll be swinging through “Tron-O” in a few weeks to meet up with a good buddy of mine from my Colombia days who’s since gone corporate and has a couple of rugrats. My girl Oneika the Traveller says the T is off the heezy…only time will tell.

Esmeraldas, Ecuador
As part of a lengthy writing excursion to Ecuador, I’ll be popping over to the Pacific Coast and the verdant region of Esmeraldas (literally, Emeralds). Not only does the place lay claim to black sand beaches and a breathtaking coastline, but Esmeraldas is also the center of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorian community. Yes, it’s where most of the brothers on the Ecuadorian soccer team come from.

Make sure you stay tuned to and get lifted with me.

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Images by: mr. Wood, hoangnt, Irene2005, Hanover Phist, and crocodile gena.

This summer, I’ll be joining a group of friends in Southeast Asia to celebrate our buddy Mike‘s birthday. Mike is on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in rural Malaysia, but we all plan on bouncing through several countries in the region throughout the month of August, coming together at various points along the way.

A few weeks ago, I found a decent (i.e. less than $1500) round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia, arriving at Singapore and departing from Bangkok. This week, I’ve been buying tickets between cities in the area, connecting the dots of the trip and stirring up a little bit of excitement for what will be my second visit to the region, but my first time in three countries: Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Low-cost carrier Air Asia will be shuttling me first between Singapore and Bali ($80), where I’ll be joining Mike and crew for the birthday bash; then I’ll hop aboard a bus, ferry, and train to get to Jakarta (thanks to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for all the excellent in-depth info about rail journeys in Indonesia), followed by an Air Asia hop to Bangkok ($102), Lufthansa flight to and from Kuala Lumpur ($104!!!), and bus travel around the Cameron Highlands and coastal islands of Malaysia. The purchase of plane tickets is truly one of the significant pleasures in my life.

So stay tuned to Fly Brother for developments on the upcoming Whirlwind SE Asia Tour 2012 and other travel tidbits and commentary. And don’t forget, you’re always welcome to tag along!

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