Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back Home: Trinidad and Tobago Edition

This is a regular series where I go to the farthest reaches of the globe, walk around, observe daily life, eat some food, maybe take some photos, and say “wow, that shit would not fly back home.

It sounds elitist and dismissive, but it’s quite the opposite. If I haven’t expressed some sort of disbelief with what I have experienced while traveling, I simply haven’t explored deeply enough. This is why I keep reaching for my passport and, this time, it was to go to Trinidad and Tobago.

It was my second time to a Caribbean island in less than a year. I saw some great birds but I also experienced another beautiful country. I wasn’t disappointed.

 

English is the Official Spoken Language, Kind Of

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_TRINIDAD_3905Trinidad is a former British colony and thus, English is the official language and nearly everyone in the tourism industry speaks it flawlessly. Go off the beaten path or listen when your hosts speak to one another, however, and it’ll become clear that what you hear is a slowed down and tidied up version of their own English-based Creole. In a linguistic system one part efficient and two parts indifferent, Creole strips its predecessor of many elements our ears have grown to appreciate, like “s” sounds and the breathy pauses between words. Numerous times I found myself concentrating intently on peoples’ mouths in an uncomfortable space where I both recognized my own language yet had no grasp on what was being communicated. And squinting harder didn’t help. Any glimmer of recognizable English was quickly dashed by a perplexing juggernaut of consonants and vowels. Even the phrases I understood were used in unfamiliar contexts: “Good Night” is an evening greeting in Trinidad, not the intimate farewell one says just before going to sleep. The pace of the language thankfully is formed by the tropical climate; phrases mellifluously follow one another off the tongue like a slowly poured rum punch. It was fun to drink in.

 

Rental Car Switcharoo

I booked a car on Travelocity through “Fox Rental Car” for our arrival in Trinidad. When we landed – at around 9pm after a full day of travel – we couldn’t find the Fox Rental Car kiosk. Avis, Alamo, Budget, and Thrifty were all present; Fox was nowhere to be seen. Even the tourist information center was closed. Thankfully, the gentleman at the cab stand agreed to use his personal phone to call the number on our email reservation. An enthusiastic voice on the other line said that he’d be there within 20 minutes. Nearly an hour later, a young man clad in blue jeans, a black shirt and flip-flops showed up with a laptop case and clipboard—none of it branded “Fox.” I passed a glance at the paperwork and noticed a different name entirely: “Xtra Car Lease.” The logo looked to be a product of Microsoft Clipart to my incredulous eyes. After some cautious prodding—but before he ran my credit card on his portable reader—we learned that Fox contracts with his company to provide cars in countries where they don’t have offices. Most Americans would be unsettled by this lack of transparency, but my need for a pillow overruled my skepticism. We swiped my credit card, checked for damage, shook hands and took off for the mountains in our dramatically underpowered Nissan.

 

Zip-tied Hubcaps

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_TRINIDAD_3932Let me be perfectly clear: there aren’t many problems in life that can’t be solved with duct tape, zip-ties, SuperGlue or a combination of all three. I had just never seen Zip-Ties used so blatantly on a car. Personally, I appreciate the ingenuity of using plastic fasteners to keep the hub caps attached to the vehicle. Americans, who aren’t used to driving on the other side of the road, may be unwittingly prone to clip curbs, thus liberating the car of any disk-shaped pieces of plastic located at the point of contact (ask my dad about Australia in 1998). It does, however, raise concerns about how issues with other, perhaps more important, parts of the car were fixed. For me, it was a nice accent piece. And damned if we didn’t return the car with all four hubcaps still attached.

 

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Seriously, it was the best image. But when I looked for it, (poof) it was gone.

Sleeping with wires

I awoke on our first morning in our guesthouse on Tobago to find exposed wires protruding from the wall and laying on my bed at about thigh level. While I seriously doubt they were live, if they had been, and if my leg had brushed them up during my normal sleep behavior (read: spirited, bordering on violent), I would have awoken in a manner somewhere between “rude as hell” and “sorry, you can’t have kids.” The ambient temperature hovered in the low 90’s all night, with humidity to match. Sweat-soaked skin doesn’t act as an efficient conductor of electricity, does it? I am still debating whether the sizzle or the (pop!) would awoken me first.

 

“When will we know if the 4:25 flight is delayed?”

After spending two beautiful days exploring Tobago, Trinidad’s accompanying island to the north, we arrived back at the capital city, Scarlborough, for our return flight. The airport is small but there are flights between the two islands every thirty minutes. We were informed upon our arrival that our flight, which left in about an hour and a half, would likely be delayed. Apparently a mechanical issue earlier in the day had had a cascading effect on all scheduled flights. But the Caribbean Airlines employee suggested that we stay nearby because they may be back on track by the time our flight was scheduled.

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_TRINIDAD_3945One look to the flight status board stated that the 4:25 flight was on time, so we went across the street to seek much-needed air-conditioning in the airport café. Flight updates were projected over the café’s loudspeaker, but if there’s anything that can make English-based creole less intelligible to American ears, it’s amplifying it through a speaker beaten down by time, salty air and humidity.

At about 3:50, less than thirty minutes before our flight was to take off, I left the cool confines of the café to check the flight status: “ON TIME.”

To verify, I waited in the growing queue to speak to a representative.

“Excuse me, is the 4:25pm flight still delayed?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“OK, when will you know?”
“4:26.”

I scanned her face, waiting for a hint of humor. No, she was serious: the flight won’t officially be delayed until after it was scheduled to take off. I thanked Captain Obvious and walked back to the café.

In the end, our twenty-minute flight was delayed over two hours. We were late again to pick up our rental car from Xtra Car Lease.

 

Dangling Power Lines

Even if these were well insulated as to not cause any harm from electrocution, there are very few instances where one has to navigate around powerlines during a normal day. If you do, you have bigger issues to worry about.

 

Radio Announcer TMI

While driving on Trinidad, we heard a radio announcer state very matter-of-factly that he had used the previous break to go to the bathroom and smoke a cigarette out back. I appreciated his candor, though it approached “too much information” for the airwaves. That being said, it’s still better than the explosions and loud voices we hear back home.

 

Road Conditions, No Bull

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_TRINIDAD_2976There are some beautiful windy mountain roads on both Trinidad and Tobago: lush foliage, isolated streams and impressive vistas. Due to the conditions of the road, however, the passenger was the only one who could enjoy them. Massive potholes, large piles of gravel, stopped cars, and veering oncoming traffic—all in a country with the lowest “warning sign to blind corner” ratio I’ve ever encountered—meant that the driver couldn’t ever take their eyes off the road. And sometimes the eyes of both the driver and passenger are affixed on the road, specifically on the massive bull in the compact pick-up truck ahead of them.

 

The “No Wave”

Most who know me know that I am fairly even-tempered. But one thing that gets me really fired up is when drivers do not wave when you obviously took precious time out of your day to let them pass. Clearly, the ten seconds it takes me to back up my car is worth the 0.000015 calories required for you to lift your finger off the steering wheel to show your appreciation. Interestingly, Trinidadians do not wave to one another while driving, or at least not to us. Perhaps it’s a national referendum to save energy considering the number of blind corners and narrow passages exist in this country; drivers’ hands would spend too much time away from the wheel.

 

“Chicken Lane”

Just outside of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, we encountered a five-lane road where the center lane was dedicated to whomever was using it. It didn’t matter which direction you were going: if you were there, it was yours. It wasn’t a turn lane. People were driving down at the same speed of traffic, and the direction of cars on this lane changed from block to block.

 

Customer Service

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_TRINIDAD_2897It could be us, but we never really encountered any “service with a smile” while in Trinidad and Tobago. We certainly don’t have high expectations and while I’m “lactose unpleasant” and Toby has a wheat allergy, we are generally low maintenance and affable. We certainly never found any bubbly personalities in the service sector. Transactions were helpful but very, um… transactional. While it was approaching closing time, Toby’s request for a piña colada at a restaurant was met with an overt eye-roll from our waitress as she walked away, to the extent where we didn’t actually know if she’d return with the drink (she did, it was delicious). She wasn’t exactly overjoyed with my request for a double rum, neat; a drink, need I remind you, that is the simplest to prepare (tilt bottle over glass) and offers the highest profit margin of anything in the restaurant. It was a challenge for us to break our waiters and waitresses with our charm and wit, and it was one we accepted with aplomb. As for our piña colada waitress, we had to wait until the following day to break her. She was way on the other side of the street but we would’ve see that precious smile a mile away.

But as long as the interaction – no matter how warm or cold – results with a rum drink in my hand, I won’t complain.

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: Cuba Edition

I love to travel. Sure, I like trying new foods and immersing myself in cities already centuries old when my native Seattle was just unexplored frontier. But the main reason I keep reaching for my passport is to find experiences that stand in stark contrast with my normal day-to-day life back home, like puppets having sex on prime time TV or “edible” beetle larvae.

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_1023Sometimes you have to really look for these experiences (overly positive news anchors in Canada); other times they smack you in the face just as you step off the plane (India). Even though it lies only 90 miles from the US shoreline, I suspected that Cuba, as a country in many ways stuck in the middle of the 20th century, was replete with opportunities for me to be baffled, stunned and amazed.

I couldn’t wait.

During our six day tour of the country – primarily in Havana, with a couple days in Viñales – we encountered a nice list of “shit that just wouldn’t fly back home.” None of these observations are right nor wrong, just different. My tone, at times, can be a bit snarky, but most of it is directed at my own culture, and not that of my hosts.

 

“Slick’r than Snot” Tile Floors

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My tile patio, waiting for its next victim.

Cuba is a tropical island, therefore it rains. About four feet annually, in fact. So it’s reasonable to assume that people will enter homes or establishments with less-than-dry shoes, where they will almost certainly encounter tile floors. I have nothing against tile: they are great for repelling water and mud—easy to clean, to boot. When wet, however, tile floors provide as much traction as a lunch tray on an icy hillside. This would never “slide” in the U.S., where our cultural clumsiness is matched only by our propensity to sue the crap out of each other. If there’s a spill in Aisle 5 of a grocery store, managers will quarantine aisles 1 through 10 using CDC Level 5 protocols.

Our Cuban-owned hotel in Viñales apparently even waxed the tiles on our outdoor patios, perhaps so when traction is lost, the enhanced momentum would carry the victim past the single step – and its sharp, neck-breaking edge – to land on the soft grass beyond. In the event of a fall, I maintained an optimized “blood-to-rum” ratio to soften the impact.

No “Yellow Line”

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_0283
Apparently there’s enough room on the bus for this guy and his backpack.

If you taken the bus in the US, you’ve been yelled at for not standing behind the yellow line. It’s a fact of life. In Cuba, that space could easily fit a dozen people. In downtown Havana, I watched with amazement as a man – in order to fit behind a closing door – contorted himself and his backpack into positions not yet discovered by Bikram Choudhury. The door attempted to close, then was obstructed by the mans arm. He shifted then it was obstructed by his backpack. Shifted again only to be foiled by his foot. His other arm. His foot again. It took thirty seconds for the creaking doors of the Russian-made bus to finally close, wedging the commuter against the person next to him with enough vigor to warrant a restraining order in the U.S. At least the bus offered the same temperature and humidity of a Bikram yoga studio, for a fraction of the cost.

Lack of Emission Standards

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_1114
A dedicated car owner, in the rain, laying on a metal plate kept in the trunk.

I’m a passionate environmentalist but I also love classic Detroit cars: vestiges of an era and culture not known for efficiency, even when properly maintained. Car owners in Cuba have been denied ready access to spare parts since the embargo, thus their cars are maintained with a fruitful mix of grit and ingenuity. The result is simply beautiful, and consumed most of my memory cards. Thankfully, they don’t have emission standards in Cuba, which would’ve removed these beautiful relics from the streets years ago.

The weekends and summer vacations of my childhood were spent in my parents 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, watching the roadside of the western United States whiz by my backseat window. Many of my dad’s weekends, however, were spent underneath the van, especially as the annual emissions test drew near. (And, most likely, a few weekends following the first, failed test). In Japan, if absolutely anything on your car is not performing optimally, it must be fixed or replaced before it is allowed on the street for another year.

Stand on a corner in downtown Havana and it’ll become quite clear, to your eyes and nose, that these restrictions have not penetrated Cuba’s borders. But one look at a Fairlane or Edsel and you simply won’t care.

Hitchhiking

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_1194
A hitchhiker on the interstate, from the front of our bus.

In the US, the legality of hitchhiking varies from state to state. It is, however, illegal to hitchhike on an interstate highway. While we drove down the impressively smooth Autopista Este-Oeste highway from Havana to Viñales, I was blown away by the number of people blatantly waiting for rides. Literally on the highway. Our bus driver would often have to swerve into the fast lane to avoid hitting people, who lurked in the shadows of overpasses to avoid the sun. It’s an efficient way to get places in a country that lacks transportation infrastructure and where owning a car is expensive. It just wouldn’t fly in the US, where you can’t even park on the shoulder without being pestered by highway patrol within minutes.

Gas Prices

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_0849
A gas station in Havana, near the U.S. Special Interests Section.

Venezuela is Cuba’s largest provider of oil, supplying 60% of the island’s demand (Cuba, in exchange, sent 30,000 doctors to Venezuela – source). Venezuela is also famous for having the cheapest gas in the world: $0.06/gallon (source). The fact that Venezuela supplies such cheap oil to Cuba almost guarantees that these Detroit relics would enjoy subsidized gas prices.

Nope. Gas is nearly $6/gallon in Cuba. If you even find a car available for sale in Cuba, and can afford the asking price (think supply/demand curve), you then have to be able afford to fill it up.

And, courtesy of restrictions put in place by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, this isn’t exactly an island of Priuses.

This Tree

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A hazardous tree, shot with an iPhone at night.

This tree would not fly back home. Someone would run into it while texting and someone else would get sued.

Glacial Internet

The internet in Cuba is tightly controlled to prevent the free exchange of ideas. But it isn’t just expensive, it’s based on infrastructure that’s decades old.

Terms like “dial-up” and “56k” don’t resonate with today’s youth. They can’t relate to the rhythmic, robotic sound of a computer dialing a god-damned phone number and, after waiting 15 seconds for a connection, which often failed, only to watch it struggle to pull down text emails so slowly that you’d watch, with great anticipation, visual bars that tracked its progress.

Remember that? That’s Internet access in Cuba. And even that isn’t readily accessible.

Journalists get 120 hours of free internet access a month. Many sell a portion of their access on the black market to help supplement their monthly salaries. I met a gentlemen who purchases 40-60 hours of internet access a month, for 3 CUC/hour* (about US$3.39). This monthly transaction was the equivalent to six months salary for the average government worker.

Thus, internet access is very much a luxury. And don’t forget it’s slow, like “frozen molasses” slow: loading Facebook takes 25 minutes on his computer and a one megabyte file – roughly half the size of a picture taken with an iPhone – takes two hours to download. In the U.S., where a frozen Facebook video is grounds to throw your $600 smartphone against a wall, this would simply not fly.

Internet is available to tourists in nicer hotels, and the situation will only improve. Just two months after our trip, President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. Within weeks, NetFlix and AirBnB announced their plans to enter the thawing market.

I used our six-day trip as an excuse to unplug; it was delightful.

Immigration Coffee Break

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_2524
“Hello? Hellloooo…”

No one ever has a pleasant time going through immigrations and passport control. If you do, you have some sort of weird “I enjoy skeptical stares from strangers” fetish. I think my best experiences in immigration could be described as “frosty.” (This is especially the case returning to the U.S.). But, like removing one’s shoes in security, it just becomes a part of the adventure of travel.

I had an easy time entering Cuba. But, on our exit, our experience was a little different: the lines at passport control suddenly stopped moving. The doors closed. Officials moved briskly in front of the closed doors, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the twenty or so people still waiting in line. It took fifteen minutes for the lines to open again, as inexplicably as they’d closed. Apparently, the agents simply went on break.

If this had happened in the U.S. – where the stresses of travel reduce Americans into monsters with the self-entitlement of a toddler, the patience of a New York cabbie in rush hour, and the moral depravity of J. Dahlmer – these agents would’ve returned to a crime scene: a landscape strewn with torches, torn tropical shirts, and warring factions whose faces were smeared with the blood of their victims.

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Benji, on his first day of work at Amazon.

Homeless Dogs and Cats with Name-tags

We ran across several dogs in old Havana donning name tags that advertises that they are owned and cared for, which apparently prevents them from getting swept up by animal control. We have this in the U.S., obviously, but you got to admit that it’s pretty damn cute. It almost looks like he has a handmade keycard lanyard and works at Amazon.

Handicapped-Accessible Bathroom in a Basement Dance Club Only Accessible By Stairs.

I’ll let that one sink in for a minute.

Beer Desert

Shit_that_wouldnt_fly_CUBA_2387
“Bucanero,” one of two beers most commonly available in Cuba.

I only saw two types of beer during our six day tour of the island, both of which were comparable to American macrobrew in look and taste (though, after a long day in the sun, any liquid under 98.6º is refreshing). If a restaurant in Seattle even attempted to open with only two beers on draught – and macrobrews at that – the establishment would be torched by an hirsute, flannel-clad cadre of lumbersexuals before the first pint was poured.

After my second mojito or Cuba Libre, however, I no longer cared.

Entering through the ass-end of the plane

I’ve flown a lot, but entering an airplane through stairs in the very back of the plane was new. (Envision a plane that has just crapped a staircase). It would’ve been unremarkable were it not for the fact that a line had formed … directly behind the idling engines. I wouldn’t describe either the 100+ decibel whine of a turbine engine or the accompanying exhaust as “delicate on the senses.” And I always enjoy boarding a flight already with a feeling of nausea deeply-seated in my gut.

 

* – “Convertible Cuban Pesos” (pronounced “kooks”) is one of two currencies in Cuba, created specifically for the tourism industry. The exchange rate is officially 1 CUC = US$1, but tourists endure a penalty and tax when exchanging, thus 0.87 CUC = US$1.

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: China edition

If you’ve been out of the country, you’ve had this experience. Maybe it was a smell, sight, sound, or perhaps a taste—something caused you to stop and think to yourself “man, that sh*t would not fly back home.” Some travelers may cast judgement on the offending odor, taste, or action, while others acknowledge that a new culture comes with new norms. Either way, it’s why we travel.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1332
Stewed rabbit heads. Yup, you eat the brain.

My wife and I lived in Paris for a year, and after the umpteenth time murmuring this phrase in disbelief, I finally decided to write some of them down. It was fun exercise, one I promised to continue.

Then I booked a trip to China.

Most Westerners don’t need to travel here to know this country will challenge most sensibilities. It seems Western media can’t mention China without showing smog-obscured skyscrapers or street vendors serving stir-fried crickets. It was my third trip to this country so I was ready for the onslaught.

I nearly ate “Man’s Best Friend” in the process. Nearly. And I can’t wait to go back.

 

“Let Me Clear My Throat”

Once you land in China, it likely won’t take long for you to hear someone violently clear the contents of their bronchial tubes—a sound about as pleasant D.J. Kool’s 1996 release “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Most often the sidewalk will be the end recipient of these mucous expulsions, but handkerchiefs, paper brochures, garbage bins, and planters are all likely receptacles. But, if I had to hazard a guess, the floor of an elevator, restaurant, bus, or plane may test most Western sensibilities.

Brace your ears for the vulgar sound and be sure to check the surface before you set anything down, including your derrière. On a positive note, if the notoriously poor air quality of China negatively affects your lungs, don’t be shy.

 

Wide Boulevards to Nowhere

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-8175We spent a week in Dandong near the Chinese border with North Korea, an area that has seen massive development in recent years. According to commercials on the English language channel from Chinese Central Television (CCTV), this location is poised to be the next major port to northeast Asia. Large patches of grasslands and mudflats were reclaimed to house factories and office buildings with massive six-lane arterials to connect them all. Unfortunately, the hive of commerce has yet to materialize—buildings lie dormant and the massive arterials remain unused save the periodic scooter. Meridians have become overgrown with weeds and, courtesy of extreme winters, potholes are numerous.

 

Sharing Plates

When you eat out in a Chinese restaurant, expect that your meal will include a starch (i.e. rice, noodles, or dumplings), a meat dish, and a vegetable dish.  Our Chinese hosts made sure every meal maintained this balance, even though most meat dishes contained vegetables, most vegetable dishes contained meat, and starch dishes included both meat and vegetables. Also expect that aside from a personal bowl of rice, your meal will be served family style without serving utensils. That’s right: everyone eats directly from shared plates with their chopsticks making repeated trips to and from attendee’s mouths.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1146As an only child, it was obvious to me that the Chinese – a country of mostly only children courtesy of the One Child Policy – are remarkably good sharers.

In the United States, it’s considered rude if a diner so much as reaches over someone else’s plate in case a microscopic skin flake should fall from their arm. And if the same tortilla chip makes two trips to the same bowl of salsa – i.e. “double dipping” – you might as well lick your hand and slap it across the face of your host.

Despite the apparent lawlessness that permits this reckless exchange of germs, there are rules that should be followed when sharing plates in China:

  1. If you grasped a morsel with your chopsticks, you’re committed and can’t leave it on the plate, despite the notoriously waxy surfaces of Chinese chopsticks between bumbling American fingers.
  2. If a tablemate is clearly moving towards a specific morsel, it’s been claimed: sticks off.
  3. If you think that a grasped morsel has too much sauce on it, you can gently rub it off on the side of the platter or dip it in your personal bowl of rice but do not shake it off over the plate.

No matter where you fall on communal dining, the large rotating tabletop (“Lazy Susan”) that was born from it is great fun. But be mindful of the poised chopsticks of your tablemates before spinning and, for the sake of glasses of tea and beer, keep an eye on overhanging plates.

 

Babies with Assless Chaps

I don’t have a picture of this, but you have to take my word for it: it’s commonplace to see babies who, instead of diapers, sport crotchless pants. I applaud the reduction of disposable diapers in our landfills, but it does beg the question, where does a baby “go” when the time comes? It’s hardly a large sample size, but I’ve seen a mother hold her baby over a planter, and another lay out newspaper on the floor of a department store.

 

All sorts of animals for food

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1101If it has legs, fins, or wings and a pulse, chances are good that it has graced a Chinese dinner plate at one point or another. Cat, dog, turtle, jellyfish, snake, silkworm pupae—the list is darn-near infinite.

Americans prefer our protein choices to be simple: beef, chicken, pork, fish, or seafood. But we don’t like to be reminded of the repercussions of our dining choices (that’s why we don’t call it “pig” and “cow”). Sure, we understand that the animal we just consumed had eyes, but we prefer preparations that keep our blissful ignorance intact. But in China the heads of animals are blatantly served as their own course – eyes and all – with nothing more than a white plate and a pair of chopsticks (I now know the different techniques to crack open the duck and rabbit skulls with one’s teeth).

In fact, it’s difficult to walk into a restaurant in China without looking your potential dinner straight in the face, whether it be a pufferfish, octopus, turtle, or crab. A friend found a civet and two species of heron in the kitchen of a small restaurant in southern China.

I pride myself on being an adventurous eater. Some of the Chinese dining choices may test American palettes and sensibilities, but I recognize that some of my choices are equally offensive to other cultures, e.g. beef to Hindus and pork to Muslims and Jews. If I’m presented with an opportunity to try a new type of meat, and the species isn’t endangered, chances are good that it will wind up in my mouth.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1098Silkworm pupae were offered at many restaurants in northeastern China. “I am definitely trying that at some point,” I casually mentioned to our guide, having decided that it would be a noteworthy stamp in my culinary passport.

“Okay,” he responded, and handed me two of the kumquat-sized brown larvae straight from the refrigerator. I’d expected that they’d be prepared with some flavorful sauce and, well, not served so … raw. But I no longer had an option: the exchange had attracted the attention of the restaurant proprietor and an adjacent table of customers already intrigued by the presence of westerners.

As soon as the cold exoskeleton hit my tongue, I knew that my expectations for how the meal should have been prepared no longer mattered. I positioned it between molars and braced myself; the inevitable “pop” brought forth a rush of cold fluid the viscosity of expired milk. Despite being a consistency that would find most palettes heaving, aside from a slight saltiness, it was quite bland.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1152I gave a “thumbs up” to all the expectant, and now slightly disappointed, onlookers in the room and gave myself a pat on the back for not dousing my tablemates with the contents of my stomach. I finished the second one before my taste buds had the opportunity recover from the shock of the first. Fragments of the exoskeleton remained between my teeth as a reminder of the experience.

The menu at the restaurant in our five-star hotel filled the entire wall with beautiful images of potential entrees, very helpful for the non-literate. I selected a dish that looked similar to pulled pork and, almost immediately, our Chinese guide suggested that I find an alternative.

“You won’t like that,” he presumed. “It’s duck.”

“Oh, really? I love duck,” I replied, slightly offended. I take great pride in being able to enjoy any and all foods around the world, and I’ve enjoyed Peking Duck in both Beijing and Seattle.

“No, dock,” he insisted, in his thickly-accented English. It took a second for it to hit me: “Ohhhh, DOG.”

And that’s when I found my line in the sand.

 

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-7972Rules of the Road

This title is misleading because, to Western eyes, there appears to be no rules that guide traffic on the road. It’s not that any of our experiences were particularly chaotic (India takes the dubious “life in hands of driver” trophy for me) but if I had to hazard a guess, I think that whoever honks first, loudest, and most assertively is provided with the right of way. Even on lightly trafficked roads, maneuvers that would’ve prosecutable in the U.S. were as diverse as they were numerous: crossing a double yellow line, cutting off fellow motorists, driving directly between two lanes, driving into oncoming traffic (while honking to alert that they should move out of the way), running a red light, and driving down the wrong side of an arterial, to name a few.

My favorite maneuver was taking a free left from one two-way street to another by going down the wrong side of the street and dodging oncoming traffic one lane at a time, eventually getting to the correct side of the street by, of course, crossing a double yellow line.

 

Finishing Touches

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1183I don’t consider myself to be very picky when it comes to accommodations but I found some of the finishing touches on our hotels to be a bit surprising. If I pay $10 a night for a hotel, I don’t necessarily expect my pillow to be garnished with a mint every night. Unfinished electrical outlets and a broken shower stall floor that drains straight to the bathroom floor are one thing (my room had both). But I do find it unsettling to have a wall adorned with dried saliva stains, something that could be quickly remedied in two minutes with a damp sponge.

Even the absolutely immaculate rooms in our five-star hotel were accessible via a dark, dank hallway with peeling wallpaper and stained carpets. Just different priorities, I’d assume.

 

Waiting in Queues

If you are waiting in line, fully expect that someone is going to nonchalantly sneak in front of you. In the U.S., even if people are standing several feet away and facing the opposite direction, most people will ask politely if you are in line. Be assertive, keep close to the people in front of you, and you’ll be fine. Feel free to “mean mug” the back of their heads if it helps you feel better.

 

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1088Room-temp Beer

When you order a beer, you should expect that it will be served at room temperature. And if they don’t have cold beer available (some restaurants do) you can take solace in the fact that all beer is cheaper than water. Seriously, stop complaining.

 

Public Urination

Aside from watching where I step or site wherever horizontal and vertical surfaces meet, as a man I find this social norm to be a relief (literally). I never had to hold it. Sure, others might find it appalling but I imagine that most men could behind this. Especially considering the ubiquity and cheapness of Chinese beer.

 

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1091
Big night.
Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1202
Flatworms. A decent meal for a shorebird. Or a possibility for dinner in a restaurant down the street.

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: Paris edition

Tasting unfamiliar foods, taking wild forms of transportation, or immersing yourself in an incomprehensible language are the types of experiences that drive most to travel. Some are locked away in travel journals, others are fodder at cocktail parties, but it’s those rare experiences that challenge a persons fervent beliefs of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s normal, and what’s just plain weird.

Like sweet mayonnaise and canned corn on pizza (Japan); like a young teenager using his finger to plug the barrel of his aging Kalashnikov assault rifle as he boards your bus (Laos); like hearing someone loudly clear their throat on an airplane, and expel the contents on the carpeted floor (China). I like to categorize such experiences as “sh*t that wouldn’t fly back home.” While they can be mystifying, or even infuriating, at moment of exposure, I’d argue that they keep the soles of our walking shoes thin and our frequent flier portfolios plump.

Here’s my first installment: Shit That Wouldn’t Fly Back Home – Paris Edition. Neither wrong, nor right—just different.

 

Parking

As with most densely populated metropolises, parking in Paris is at a premium. Subterranean garages exist largely for day-tripping tourists, so if residents don’t want to pay $350 a month to park the cars, they need to duke it out on the streets to find a rare vacant piece of curbside real estate. And some are forced to get creative. A Smart Car, one of the smallest vehicles on the road, can wedge its sub-nine foot chassis nearly anywhere. But what if the parking spot is even smaller than that? How about backing your car up perpendicularly to the curb and gunning it?

Smart Car on curb

Sidewalks are saved from parked cars through ample use of metal pillars, which are spaced close enough to both each other and the curb to dissuade even the smallest vehicles from blocking the pedestrian thoroughfare. But this “out-of-the-box” thinker found a solution: just park on the actual sidewalk.

On a recent walk near the Eiffel Tower, I watched a new Audi park at the apex of a corner, throw on his emergency flashers, get out to admire the fact that he was effectively obstructing both crosswalks, and tucked into a local café for dinner. These brazen infarctions are startling for a Seattleite who received a $75 ticket when six inches of his bumper was hanging over a yellow curb (thank you City of Bellevue).

 

Dog Sh*t on Street

I’ve explored this topic in another post ad naseum (literally, I almost threw up) but this ranks high in the “shit that wouldn’t fly back home.” I am well aware that plenty of dog excrement isn’t picked up in the U.S. but few owners would have the audacity to encourage it in broad daylight, on a sidewalk, in the direct line of sight—and smell—of numerous passerby. Fines for such infarctions may be relatively light in the U.S., but public scorn is strong enough to keep such activities in dark alleys and secluded parks.

 

The speed with which cars approach pedestrian crosswalks

Rules for pedestrians across the planet are generally the same: wait for the little red guy on the other side to turn green. Seems simple right? Well, wait until you are in the middle of a crosswalk and a car approaches your side at 80 miles an hour. The confidence that you are in the right-of-way will crack as quickly as your fibula when it meets the bumper of a Renault. French drivers don’t appear to be crazy, but place an occupied crosswalk in front of one and they suddenly turn into Michael Schumaker approaching his pit crew. The driver, of course, will stop but not until it is very clear to all parties that he or she decided to spare your life. To save face, reduce the size of your eyes, complete your crossing, and go find a clean pair of underwear.

 

Dogs, Cigarette Smoke, and $75 steaks

Fortunately for the few people who don’t regularly suck cigarettes in Paris, smoking isn’t allowed inside restaurants. Outside spaces, however, are free game, even if said space is the enclosed atrium of a five star hotel. Pardon my stubbornness, but if I purchased a $75 steak prepared by a culinary artist, it’s hard for my taste buds to appreciate the harmony of ground pepper and cumin when my nose is battling the Marlboro to my left, and Virginia Slim to my right. If any smoke is to be obscuring the view of my meal, especially an expensive one, it better be hickory.

But the dog sitting in the chair next to me, he can stay. Assuming he doesn’t growl and snip at anyone that passes the table, like the little shi-tzu (pun intended) pictured below.

 

Visa paperworks, a gluestick, and 738 euros in stamps

The long and arduous process to obtain French work visas is worthy of its own post (perhaps its own blog) but one step struck me as particularly absurd.

Kristi was instructed by her office to go buy stamps. Not postage stamps mind, but “fiscal stamps.” The reason for purchase was unclear, but she was given instructions to buy them from a Tabac, a bar that sells cigarettes (our local tabac also functions as a off-track betting facility to equally serve all vices). Handing over 738 euros, Kristi received a small stack of stamps of varying denominations, held together with a paper clip. I’ve never been so underwhelmed with what $1000 can buy you.

Fast forward a week until we were seated in front of a French bureaucrat, one meeting away from finally receiving our cartes sejours (French ID cards) and the freedom of being able to come and go from France as we pleased (our tourist visas were about to expire). When prompted, we handed over our stamps. He flipped over a piece of paper and took out an Elmer’s glue stick—the first I’d seen since the 1st grade. With a heavy hand, he applied three vertical lines of glue and neatly placed each stamp one over the other. It took several minutes for him to create a grid with all eighteen stamps before my incredulous eyes. Once they were all neatly in place, he took his large and shiny date stamper and cancelled each stamp. The definitive, rhythmic sound … ka-chunk ka-chunk … must be auditory porn to a bureaucrat.

In the day when technology allows you to deposit a check with your phone, it’s mystifying that any payment process, let alone one as important as a visa approval process, would still require a mediocre adhesive.

 

Closing business for entire month

Most Parisian shops are closed in August, some for a week or two, others for the whole month. An entrepreneurial mind would realize the opportunity to stay open and steal customers from their closed competitors but this urge is either suppressed or overridden by the healthy need for time off. If you need anything from a small neighborhood store better get it in July or you’ll have to wait until September. Most Parisians take vacation during this month as well, which may or may not be related to the fact that their local bakery is closed for several weeks (Lonely Planet states that 80% of Parisians eat bread three times a day).

Requiring three months notice to fire someone

I am not experienced in any sort of labor law (let alone French) but it is commonly understood that holders of certain work permits, especially civil servants, are impossible to fire. If your employer is somehow able to circumnavigate the quagmire that is Human Relations, they can give you no less than three months notice. While three months notice is certainly more humane than making an employee pack a box on the spot and be escorted out by security, I can’t imagine that said employee would be terribly effective at their job; the term “dead man walking” comes to mind. Similarly, if an employee wants to quit, they must give three months notice, six times the standard two weeks given in the states.

 

Getting hit on by your doctor

The penultimate step in our visa process was a perfunctory medical checkup. The efficient process took place in a corridor lined with doors. Chairs down the middle allowed applicants to wait, facing out, for their names to be called. Kristi got called up first and, because the chairs were only a couple feet away from the doors, I could hear most of her conversation with the middle-aged, male doctor.

“Wow, you are very beautiful. Why did you come to France?”
“My company moved my husband and me to Paris.”
“You are married? Oh, that’s too bad…” 

His tone conveyed true disappointment, but neither her marital status, nor the fact that her husband was sitting within earshot, dissuaded him from continuing to flatter my wife. After a few minutes, their time was brought to a close and he was legally obligated to call my name. For some reason, he didn’t display half of the warmth during our interaction, but thankfully he didn’t refuse to stamp my paperwork or subject me to invasive tests out of disdain. He was a sweet soft-spoken man so the situation was more comical than anything, but I couldn’t help but think which of his statements to Kristi would be more indemnifying in front of a North American review board.

 

Moving your dinner table to sit down at a restaurant

Space is at a premium in Paris and fashionable eateries can be as tightly packed as a box of madelines. If a North American approaches a packed café, they may be dissuaded by the possible lengthy wait. But if you are a small party of two, you may be surprised at how quickly you’re waved forward: just expect to move some furniture. When we visited the popular Entrecote restaurant (which serves all you can eat steak and fries), the maître d simply gestured us to our table, as depicted by the illustration below, and walked away.

It was physically impossible for anyone to sit down on the other side of the table, save a Russian gymnast or the little Chinese guy from Oceans 11. Used to this now, Kristi and I moved the chair and the small table into the narrow aisle, moving it back once Kristi was seated. American eateries need to have aisles of a width mandated by the ADA and no one ever expects to move more than a chair, and in nice restaurants those are moved for you.

No stars at Thai restaurant

French people don’t like spicy food. Our first indication should have been when the waitress made no mention of stars when taking our order at a well-regarded Thai restaurant in Paris. Asking for sauce piquant (spicy sauce) at our local Korean restaurant yielded a small dish of garlic-infused ketchup. Unfortunately, the bill is the only thing that makes my brow sweat when visiting any Asian restaurants in Paris.

 

 

Resources

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_Fortwo
  • http://www.parkingsdeparis.com/EN/reservation-car-parking-space-parking-Pyramides.html
  • http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0727/p17s01-lifo.html
  • http://www.expatica.com/fr/essentials_moving_to/country_facts/Public-holidays-in-France-2012_15286.html