Witness to the Wonder

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Witness to the Wonder

Words to live by when traveling with your significant other.

By Beau Flemister

There’s something thrilling about watching someone you love watch a place. Watching them walk through a city, through a valley, down a trail—into the woods. There’s something shared there, something intimate, when a place moves the both of you through geographic black magic. 

There’s something about watching a place reveal itself to you and your companion. Watching a place disrobe. There’s chemical reaction. When you’re rounding a corner on the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat rental, and Positano—a town of pastels that practically drips off a cliff into the sea—flashes you from across the bend, and just takes your breath away. There’s something in the air when that happens. A quickening. A vibration. A love at first sight. And you realize, undeniably, that an experience is better when shared. That traveling is even more fantastic with a companion. When you can watch that other person’s eyes widen as much as yours at the sight of it. You have a witness to the wonder, someone to pinch you—it was real.

I spent the better part of my 20s obsessed with world travel. I’ve had a few co-pilots over the years, but the story kind of went like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My pal in Nepal: much too firm. My pal in Brazil: a bit too soft. But my wife, traveling around the world: just right. She approaches each place with newborn eyes, like yesterday was erased. She says things like, “I’m 27 and a half” without a hint of irony. She literally dances through life (she’s an ex-ballet dancer) and pirouettes at crosswalks, in lines, in kitchens all over the world. She’ll come back to the room with coffee in the morning and exclaim, practically glowing, “Today is going to be magical because a butterfly flew in front of me.” And she believes it. She believes in the hope of each day and, moreover, the infinite potential of a new place. It’s why she’s the perfect travel companion. And perhaps that’s what marriage is: an unyielding belief in the potential of a life with somebody.  

May of last year, we embarked on a trip around the world. She quit the job she’d had for the last six years. I kept mine by promising to work remotely from the road—the only way we’ve been able to keep this gig going. We’re halfway through a malleable itinerary that started in Indonesia and has taken us through Burma and Thailand, up into Mongolia, over into Russia, along the Trans-Siberian railway across half of Asia, through Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean, back into Europe, and down to South Africa. As of December, Cuba’s on deck.

A friend of ours recently told us that if you can survive travelling around the world with your spouse for a few months, you can survive anything. He’s divorced. But honestly, it hasn’t been that hard. I owe that to a few things we’ve learned very quickly along the way. Sure, there have been speed bumps. There was a creepy Balinese guy that gave us a ride on his motorbike one night that certainly shook us up, but we probably shouldn’t have been hitchhiking at night, nor taken a ride from a drunk pervert. I take full blame for that one. 

On a venture like this one, attempting to cram the whole world into a year of travel, you begin to develop a syndrome I like to call AFC.” It’s a sensory overload disorder where new places appear merely as AFC. Like, here’s “another fucking country,” “another fucking city,” “another fucking cathedral.” It means you’re seeing too much too fast. You must slow down. There’s a story about an Amazonian tribe that migrates each year with the rainy season. The way the tribe travels is by walking hard for two or three days, then resting, stationary for one. Then, they walk hard for another few days, rest for another, and so on and so forth. When asked why they travel this way—with that day of rest—they explained that it was to let their souls catch up. We’ve learned this as well. Stop for a couple weeks and let your souls catch up. Because the journey can surely wear on you. 

On that note, forget that regurgitated old travel adage, “The journey is the destination.” If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the destination is the destination, and the journey can be grueling. For instance, on our last day in Mongolia, we woke up at 4 a.m. to drive halfway across the country in the freezing rain to cross the border into Russia. Fourteen hours in a van, four hours at the border, and two strip-searches later, we were whisked to a “guest house” over the border that resembled more of a Russian halfway house. Imagine an American halfway house; now imagine one in Siberia. The guy that appeared to be in charge at the house—a Russian male in a white tracksuit with a white doo-rag—greeted us from a filthy sofa with a white poodle on his lap. He looked like a Russian movie villain, and the four other men around him looked loaded on heroin, one of which was not so covertly filming us from his cell phone. We didn’t get to the hostel (our destination), until 4 a.m. the following morning. In other words, the destination was Ulan-Ude, Russia and the journey was a fucking nightmare.

We’ve also learned that you’ve gotta flip the script from time to time. Rigid itineraries are for fogies. If you want to travel around the world, it’s imperative that your partner is flexible. This is crucial because sometimes you’ve got a week blocked out for Rome, but you then get to Rome and find out that Rome kind of blows. Plus, spontaneity is life’s most potent, natural aphrodisiac.  

Traveling with your spouse, or any companion in such close quarters for that matter, you’re attached at the hip, which is why you should never take score. Everyone’s got their buttons, and if you don’t already know what your partner’s are, get a clue. Sometimes one of us just wakes up on the wrong side of the Airbnb bed, and the way she smacks her lips in the morning, or how I never put the toilet seat back down, is enough to start a war. How many times I’ve left the seat up or how often I find her hair in the sink is unimportant. Life’s too short and the trip’s too long to keep tally. Never discuss the score, never keep score; resentment kills all. 

Often, I’m the one who’s easily jaded. The one to come down with AFC first. But a team can’t have two cynics. Two cynics are repulsive, ask anyone. There should only be two types of travelers: drivers or passengers. Two passengers, and you’re going nowhere. Two drivers, and you’re yanking on one wheel. When traveling with a companion, pick a role, but be OK with switching them. 

Here’s another gem: Get your head out of your ass. By that, I mean compromise. No couple wants to do or see or visit the exact same sights, and that’s only natural, if not healthy. She probably wants to stick it out under a mosquito net waiting for that perfect wave in Sumatra as much as you want to sip Darjeeling in a tearoom in Old Bordeaux. But if she made it, then so can you.  

Keep looking around that corner. Gather no moss. Your time out there—together—is an emulsion of life and dream. Your time out there is a mixture driven by the centrifugal force of curiosity and wonderment; keep them continuously mixing, suspended, spinning. Don’t let the latter of life-and-dream settle to the bottom of the cup. Keep the two blurred in fantastic, sentient suspension. 

Hold her hand while you’re at it. Don’t make her beg. If she’s had a couple glasses, and you can see it in her eyes, rise with her and dance. At a bar. In the kitchen. Even at a stoplight in Paris. Especially at a stoplight in Paris.

as seen in the Companion issue of FLUX Magazine Hawaii

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Cuba Cowabunga

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Cuba Cowabunga

“You came here from Los Angeles?” asks Arnan between a lull in the sets. “I have a cousin that works at a cheese factory in Santa Monica.”

Arnan is one of the better surfers around Havana — which pretty much means all of Cuba, too. There’s not a whole lot of regulars. For just 25 years old, however, he looks gaunt and fragile as I’d come learn that he’s just recovered from a very recent battle with cancer. He’s wearing a wetsuit that fits loosely over his slight frame to fight the wind-chill but smiles wildly just to be out in the water again. Or probably, just to be alive.

I’m still stuck on the cheese factory in Santa Monica-thing, though. I’d been living in Venice and I was unaware a place existed on the other side of Rose. 

“The Cheesecake Factory?” I probe.

“Yes! That one!” he beams, turning for a chest-high right, working it into the shallow inside reef.

Arnan is one of two-dozen or so consistent surfers here at this peaky little right off the city known as Calle 70. The break is so close to the shore that a few of his friends who’ve pulled up on motorbikes hoot and heckle him, maintaining lively conversations from just 50 yards away on the exposed lowtide reef. Behind us in the distance, the bizarre Russian Embassy observes our every move like some kind of giant, concrete, post-modern watchtower. 

Rachel and I found my way to Calle 70 via the de facto president of the Cuban Surfing Association, Yuniel Valderrama Martinez. I say de facto because the Cuban government doesn’t really recognize surfing as, well…a thing. Recreational? Maybe. But [officially] athletic? Nah. To the government, boxing and baseball — those are athletic. Surfing, however, is a bit too akin to floating on an unauthorized watercraft in the sea a little too far from shore. Yuniel explained that to the government, surfing is a bit too close to, well…fleeing.

Coincidentally, Yuniel looks like he could be a professional baseball player. Broad shoulders, fit as a fiddle, home-run biceps and a head shaved bald with a thick dark beard below the cheeks. Yuniel is also walking, talking, grinning charisma and when not handling affairs for the quasi-official C.S.A., he makes a living as a tour guide/driver for a company hired by ultra rich Saudi princes. And famous New York fashion designers. And Silicon Valley tech-dudes. And British sitcom actors. He shows me a picture on his phone of some actual princesses — the European wives of the princes — frolicking in a waterfall he’d driven them to. He shakes his head and chuckles to himself, “That one ate way too much — how do you say it — marijuana-chocolate?”

Hours earlier, Yuniel picked us up in a white 1960s VW bug with surf racks on top and en route Calle 70, it felt like driving through a dream. 

Barely in second-gear, we zip past a giant billboard with an army of uniformed youth staring out bravely into the future with huge font hovering over them that reads: The Revolution is Invincible. All around us, bygone era Chevys and Fords and Soviet Moskvitches sputter about, stopping for anyone they can cram into the backseat, farting thick black soot in their wakes. 

No one’s wearing much in the clothing department and the women practically burst out of their skin-tight jeans and tops that cling on to them for dear life. There’s not a supermarket in sight, but there’s a line of Cubans snaking around the block — and then another — for what seems like a mile-long and I ask Yuniel what that’s all about and he says, “Egg day.”

“Egg…day?”

“Jes, the eggs come today,” he replies matter-of-factly.

And the buildings…God, the buildings. Brilliant, columned colonial mansions, sea-worn and mildewed in every color of the spectrum. Beautiful fading, pastel ruins.Yuniel sees us gawking at the homes and explains how after a rain storm, you have to be careful walking the streets because the sun dries the buildings and pieces of them break off and drop to the ground before your very eyes. We pass another giant billboard, this one of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nelson Mandela standing side-by-side, smiling about something profound with words above them that read: Big Men Believe. 

Then suddenly, we round a corner and the streets start singing. A old man with a mic in one hand, dragging along a dolly with a mounted speaker in the other, croons old Cuban songs to anyone that’ll listen. A couple dances an intricate salsa beneath a storefront awning. A random dude blows a kiss to Rachel from his bicycle. The malecon seawall beside us explodes intermittently with crashing waves like foamy, white fireworks. 

We rub our eyes, snap out of the daydream and moments later we’re hopping into the Strait of Florida, trading wind-blown, rampy peaks, America somewhere out there, just over the horizon. Chatting about cheese factories in Santa Monica. And how not that long ago — due to the absence of any surf shop in the nation — Yuniel and Arnan were making surfboards out of foam pulled from old refrigerators, hand-glassed with marine-grade boat resin. Or leashes fashioned from jump rope cords and bookbag buckles. And how some Cuban surfers are still making equipment today like that, out on the far less-visited wave-rich southeast corner of the country. 

And yet. 

Regardless of the sport’s not-so-official-status in Cuba, nor the association’s recognition by the government, Yuniel and the few dozen other surfers are doing their best to change that. They want to be able to travel and compete. They’ve had a few contests in the last five-odd years, but American surf brands sponsoring them…is still touchy territory. 

But after over half a century, there’s flights out of Miami (with other cities to come) to Cuba now. Still, it’s difficult-to-impossible for many Cuban surfers to leave. Because there is definitely some talent and there are some waves, but there are also still “egg days,” with surely even longer queues to get a passport. Yuniel and Arnan hope surfing will be a way for the younger generation to leave and see the world. A way to drift away on watercraft that isn’t mistaken for escaping. Plus, there is cheese to taste in a factory somewhere in Santa Monica.

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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He Didn’t Say Much

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He Didn’t Say Much

He Didn’t Say Much: A Short Story from Cuba

Ernest Hemingway sat alone in a bar in Havana, Cuba with a stiff drink in front of him, two sips from being empty. Maybe, just one. It could have been his sixth or seventh drink that night but who was counting? He came to this bar often, they called him Papa, he seemed to be in deep thought and above a handsome sun-faded utility shirt, he wore an ambiguous expression that was something between a grin and a smile. But far sadder. His beard covered his wrinkles so it was hard to tell exactly how old he was, but he was indeed aging well. Like most men in Cuba.

A cool, damp wind that blew in off the Strait of Florida wandered into the bar with the opening of a door. A woman followed the breeze and coincidentally sat down beside Ernest Hemingway, telling the bartender, I’ll have what he’s having. It probably wasn’t a coincidence. Ernest looked at the woman with the same expression, his face a little glazed now by the sea mist. A man with a scar on his face sitting in the far corner of the bar strummed a guitar, more to himself, really, than to anyone else in the room. The woman stirred her drink and mumbled something nervously about the weather. She was not sure if Ernest replied with a shrug—or not—but clearly she could tell that he didn’t say much. And perhaps that’s precisely what she wanted. A man who listened. 

She inched closer to him, careful not to give him the eye just yet. His shirt smelled of rum and cigar smoke and the sea. The woman wondered if the great Hemingway could dance. Specifically, salsa. More specifically, with her. Perfect scenario: Upon the concrete seawall that lined the malecon—at dusk—with waves crashing intermittently against it, exploding like fireworks with each spin that Ernest twirled her.

She took another sip and swallowed, audibly. Perhaps he liked to drive. And the two of them would hit the road, floating across the Cuban countryside in his ’55 Fairlane convertible, her hair ablaze in the wind all the way to Trinidad on the southern coast. An old pirate town where the streets sing with accordions and rooster crows and trade-winds rustling the giant palms. In the woman’s mind, the color of his car matched the brilliant bluebird skies. 

Again, Ernest grinned. Or smiled. She couldn’t tell. But perhaps he liked to walk, she thought. Away from the tourists like herself in Old Town, and through the leafy, colonial barrio of Vedado. Perhaps they’d walk together down those streets and they’d pass the dilapidated mansions, glowing with color but crumbling at the touch, and he’d point out which flat he’d composed his masterpiece in. Maybe he’d even take her up to that very room and recite a line of it to her and—

She took another sip, recklessly, and glared at him through the corners of her eyes. It was now or never, she decided and slid her trembling, free hand on to his. It was impossibly cold. Startled, she looked into his eyes and they were vacant, dead. The woman stared at him, slack-jawed, and pulled her hand away, suddenly embarrassed. The man was a statue, but then again, she had always been quite fond of statuesque men. Specifically, ones that listened. 

She stirred her drink again. She had big plans for him and her, big plans. And yet, there was still something about that smile—or was it a grin—that hinted at some kind of sentient spark within him. Somewhere in there.

COMING SOON TO FREENOTE

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Great White Hype

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Great White Hype

So apparently, we went viral. Like, just right under our noses. No idea. The Internet happened THAT fast. A couple of days after your typical run of the mill South African cage dive with Great Whites off Gansbaai in Shark Alley (as seen on Discovery’s “Shark Week!”) — the texts and emails started flooding in. 

“Have you guys seen this?!” dominated most of the subject lines. An American couple on their honeymoon that was on one of the dives was nearly chomped when one of the G-Whites wedged its 5-rows of razor-sharp-death into the cage’s horizontal viewing space. Don’t ask me why that space seems to be stock issue on all the cages. Just is.

Anyway, friends and family sent us the links. 30-second “Get a load of this close-call”-style news-filler brought to you by MSNBC, Good Morning America, The Telegraph and more, detailing how traumatizing the experience was. Like here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po4WFxkOS3s

Thing is, we were on that same boat. On that same tour. IN that same cage at that exact same moment that Great White peeked its gnashing, pointy head into our collective personal horizontal viewing space. Check out one of those two angles on the vids that went viral. The one smiling, giving a thumbs up? That’s Rachel. With no idea how “close” the call was. And not that we’re staunch shark-cage-diving advocates, but that American couple who sold the clip to whatever content pusher you sell clips like this (or of pandas sneezing)….kinda blew the whole thing out of proportion. Hell, we even snuck in a couple wine tastings in the region’s vineyards on the way home to really maximize the day. South African pinots are fiyah! Meanwhile, a bidding war for 20-seconds of danger was ensuing…

Ironically, the proximity of Great Whites and/or apex predators with sharp-ass teeth became a bit of a running theme. We’d decided to road trip the Rainbow Nation, thus rented the most high performance vehicle kayak.com could provide for such an excursion: The formidable Hyundai 5-speed hatchback i10. Not long before going viral we’d embarked from Cape Town to Jo’Burg. 

So we trekked down the Cape of Good Hope to where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans grope each other like long-lost lovers. We fed overweight alpha male seals, with the help of a local guide (meth head), fish parts from our mouths; our newest party trick! We watched the sun set at the bottom of the world from the Hout Bay dunes with champagne-filled flutes.  And I braved the icy waters of Llandudno for a surf with a friend of a friend that I’m hoping accepts my offer as a best friend. Fingers crossed.

We continued on to Jeffery’s Bay, home of the world’s best righthander for a freak out-of-season swell that was to arrive…on my f—king birthday!

Earlier this year, however, at this same perfect right pointbreak, 3X surfing world champion Mick Fanning was bucked off his surfboard in the final heat of a major surf contest. The situation actually aired via webcast to millions of viewers. Then of course went viral and is probably the scariest thing to have witnessed in surf competition history. Mick was OK, he actually punched the shark on the snout, but the odds of something like that happening is like a quarterback getting struck by lightening at the Super Bowl. 

But it was gonna be my birthday and Great Whites can’t stop ageing, plus every American knows you can’t let the terrorists win by being terrified, so we got to J-Bay and I surfed for a few days unscathed with no shark-sightings...that I was aware of. A pod of a few dozen dolphins did swim right past me and I swear one winked and blew me a kiss. Jeffery’s Bay is a special place like that.

We continued on in our high-octane Korean vehicle and safari’d through Addo National Park, getting within an unregulated and probably unsafe distance of three lions and many, many elephants. We stayed in Hobbit-style shire-cabins in JRR Tolkein’s boyhood village. We repelled down a waterfall and kissed a rainbow on the way down. Bucket list shit.

And eventually, after nearly being flipped by a freak storm on the final stretch to Jo’Burg, we arrived safe and sound and then left this beautiful country to spend the holidays with the fam. Hopefully next time we’ll realized we’re viral as it happens…but I could also see it going right over our heads again.

*Tune in for the next Planes, Trains, Ball and Chains blog where things get spicy and illegal in CUBA!

AS SEEN ON FJALLRAVEN.COM

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Club Med

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Club Med

AirBnb is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. Hotels were cheap as hell in Southeast Asia, but on our budget, that wasn’t going to last. So we tried hostel-life for a brief stint in Russia before remembering we weren’t 19 year olds again. But now, as a pleasant median between the two disparate classes, we’ve become AirBnb aficionados so to speak. Indeed, we’ve had some duds (from the project-housing in St. Petersburg to the second-hand-smoke-den in the Basque Country) but more often than not, we’ve had amazing encounters. Especially round the Med.

Sure, in the back of your mind you’re always wondering if you’re gonna be the first guests to end up in the papers as the latest victims of the “AirBnb Killer,” if such a killer exists…I don’t see why one wouldn’t. But in our experience, a complete stranger’s house becomes a home undoubtedly because of the host. 

On the island of Zakynthos, for instance, our host Stratos (yes, Stratos, the Greekest of all names) seemed shady at first. After we booked with him, he immediately messaged Rachel and propositioned if we’d rather pay upon arrival, off the books, as to evade the fees that AirBnb takes on bookings. Cheaper for us we figured, so, what the hell?

As suspect as his first impression was, Stratos was legendary. A firefighter by trade, possible gigolo on his off-days, he once passed us his phone to show us photos of a certain beach he’d recommended and three consecutive women randomly buzzed in, sending him photos of themselves. Stratos, however, went above and beyond, giving us impromptu tours of the city and spot-on local tips. He’d say amazing things out of the blue without a hint of irony in a thick Greek accent like, “Sorry if I look tired, I’ve been fighting fires all night to save the city.”  

On the island of Corfu we were hosted by a Greek couple (the Vergas’) who could’ve been our own parents — and treated us like their own flesh and blood. This included folding our laundry, making sure we drank our milk and practically tucking us in at night. The mom, Renee, would print us out a daily suggested-itinerary on her custom letterhead stationary(she loooved that printer) and she’d do this adorable thing where she’d ask permission to ask us a question. “If you will permit me, but can I please propose something for you?”

When we left, the Vergas’ gave us a parting gift of a box of Turkish delights and an Old Irish travel blessing (printed, of course). It is for this reason that Greece will stay forever golden in our memories.

It’s also for this reason that we saw and experienced half the shit we did too. Sure, there’s guidebooks and online forums, but nothing beats local knowledge. From the best cliff-jumping rocks to the juiciest pita gyros to secret electric-blue beaches to deals on a four-wheeler, our guardian angel hosts gave us the inside-line to all of it. 

And seriously, an inside-tip on the greasiest pita gyro in town might be priceless. Definitely worth more than 2 euros.

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As featured on Fjallraven.com

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How a Pink and White Bus is Protecting Sex Workers in Paris

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How a Pink and White Bus is Protecting Sex Workers in Paris

By Beau Flemister (As Seen on VICE.com)

In the spring of 2007 *Lovely Osaro left Sokoto, Nigeria with a group other migrants to make the long and dangerous overland journey through the Sahara Desert into Libya, where they would cross the Mediterranean toward Italy. Lovely was 22 years old then, from a poor farming family and was supposed to be married to a much older man. In the region where Lovely comes from, many women must be circumcised at marriage and she did not want this. A woman had approached her in the local market and offered to be her “sponsor” to bring her to Europe in order to escape this fate. Lovely agreed, and so she, and 24 others, were smuggled in a truck transporting goats and cattle to Niger. 

“I didn’t really have a plan,” Lovely told me, in a crowded café where we’d met in Paris’ 20th District. We’d gotten a few looks from the table next to us. “I just figured that if I got to any place in Europe, I would be fine. It didn’t matter which country.”

Shortly before the Nigeria-Niger border, the truck broke down and they walked all night into Niger. After three days at a safe house, they were hidden in another truck carrying bags of rice. By the time they got to an outpost in northern Niger called Duruku, two of her friends had died of unknown sickness. There were no doctors around to help them. 

“One had a previous heart condition and died of chest pains. The other one had stomach pains. I’m still not sure exactly what is was that killed them,” she explained to me.

From Duruku it took them 11 days and 11 nights, some by truck, some on foot, to cross the Sahara into Libya. There wasn’t nearly enough food and water for everyone and Lovely recalls people fainting as well as passing the bodies of others who had attempted the same journey, lying dead on the side of the road. The ground was so hot, that it burned their feet through the soles of their shoes.

By the time they got to Libya, there were 20 of them. They eventually got to the coastal town of Zuwara and from there, Lovely boarded an inflatable Zodiac with a small outboard motor. 

The seas were so rough that two people fell overboard (but were saved by those that could swim) and the Zodiac began to deflate. Three days passed and they had drifted into Italian sea territory and were rescued by the Red Cross off of Lampedusa Island. None of the migrants had any papers whatsoever and they were transferred to a reception center on mainland Italy, where she left a month later. Within a year, Lovely would eventually make it Paris where she would become a prostitute to pay for the debt that she owed her sponsor.

Lovely’s story is not an uncommon one and Penelope Giacardy of the Paris NGO, L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes, has written it many times for many different women.

* * *

Inside the office of L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (ABDF), everything is pink or various shades thereof. The tabletops, the wallpaper, the waiting room sofas and seat cushions, the wastebasket and even the foam ceiling tiles like you’d see in drab office buildings—all pink. The décor looks like the inside of a kitschy love motel minus the king-size Magic Fingers bed.

L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes is an organization that was established in 1990 to fight for the rights of sex workers around Paris, primarily, to get them medical attention during the AIDS epidemic. With the help of the World Health 

Organization, they became an NGO in 1994—the first of its kind—that now, follows and supports over 1,500 women every year in Paris, while also fighting against human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Specializing in women, ABDF was started by prostitutes for prostitutes and half the staff are still active sex workers.  

Today, ABDF provides sex workers with anything they might need from medical support, legal representation, social workers, French language classes, health care insurance to legal workshops, HIV/STD screening, prophylactics, housing, and of course—a bus that meets them sex-workers in the trenches. 

The bus, or ABDF’s refurbished mobile-unit that roams the streets of Paris and its more nefarious outskirts, is both where Penelope got her start in the organization and where Lovely made contact with ABDF.

“We found Lovely when she was working in the 18th district of Paris, which is an area where there is a lot of foreign-workers,” said Penelope. Penelope is even-toned, no-bullshit, has tired eyes but is quick to smile. “Lovely had a big medical problem. 

She had badly broken her arm in a car accident about a year and a half before she left Nigeria. She had no money, so she didn’t even see a doctor there. She actually suffered a compound fracture and her arm was basically broken in three places. It was so painful that she couldn’t use it and the muscles were beginning to shrink.”

The bus found Lovely on the street and Lovely decided to come into the office. There, she met with Penelope who escorted her to a hospital in Paris where they managed to perform a series of operations on her arm, actually requiring bone reconstruction to fix it. But in the end, the procedure was a success. 

For the three months while Lovely was healing from the operation, ABDF paid her bills and fed her. Penelope also wrote her asylum letter, which details her escape from female-circumcision, a letter that is being processed right now. 

“This is a perfect example of how our organization helps women because Lovely thought that because she didn’t have documentation, she couldn’t go to a doctor to receive medical care. This, however, is a right for anyone in France and that is what we try to teach these women—to know their rights.”  

Penelope works on staff at ABDF and has helped hundreds of women like Lovely. Unlike her boss and fellow co-workers, however, Penelope was never a sex-worker, which made it rare that she was accepted into this world.

Eight years ago, Penelope was writing her Masters thesis on the “Consequences of Repression on Foreign Sex Workers” and was permitted to come on the bus for six months to observe and help for her research. Also very rare as, to this day, while ABDF has allowed some researchers like Penelope, they do not allow journalists, photographers, film crews or media of any kind on the bus. Mainly, so that the women can feel safe and not distressed by new faces.

Although spending more time in the office now, Penelope still works on the bus four times a week, which hits the streets eight times each week, day and night, for five hours or more at a time. Half of the staff on board are active, working prostitutes with specific medical training. They make the same rounds each time so women working the streets know where and when to find them—and they always go out to the woods. 

The woods, or Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, are two large public parks on the edge of Paris city where much of the prostitution has shifted to ever since the 2003 Law for Internal Security passed, effectively criminalizing sex workers. The law did this in that: While prostitution is not illegal in France, active and passive solicitation is. 

It is in these large parks—more or less forests—where women meet clients in the woods and perform their business there, literally behind trees or in vehicles parked beside the parks. The bus passes through these woods every time, though, and has now added two other circuits to the largely more remote and dangerous Foret de Fontainebleau and Foret de St. Germain en Laye forests, 50 km outside of Paris.

“Most nights we see anywhere from 50-120 people and usually help 500 people every week in some way. Women, transgender or men; but mostly women. Some come quickly and don’t want to talk. They might take some condoms and lubricant and leave. But some come and want to talk for a half an hour. It’s also like a break from their work. After talking, we always ask them if they want to come to our office for more help since we have social workers, lawyers, a French school, medical help—anything they need, we have it.”

The bus also gives out a free handbook that Penelope and a co-worker wrote and created called Hustlers: Health and Freedom. Focusing mainly on Nigerian prostitutes (but for any woman) the book answers all the common FAQs that a street worker new to Paris might have, half of it detailing basic health issues, the other half detailing legal and protection rights in laymen’s terms. All of the information in Hustlers: Health and Freedom was also chosen and decided upon by Nigerian women and members of ABDF. Penelope stressed that it this group-process which is integral in every decision the organization makes.

Penelope explained that many times they are the only people that the women can talk to about their jobs. Many women have hidden this career from their families for decades. ABDF even lets their members use their mailing address for sensitive documents regarding their jobs. In essence, Penelope and the organization also help them protect their identities—their covert other-lives.

“It’s a really interesting job because I feel like I’m deep in something very secret. And it’s also very difficult to gain these people’s trust because normally they don’t talk to people that aren’t prostitutes like them because they are afraid of the judgment and stigma. But after eight years, I know them well and they know me.”  

The shift to the woods has made the situation complicated. Because most sex workers are basically hiding from police in the forest, (to evade arrest for solicitation) everything has become much more clandestine than it was pre-2003. This gives the more violent clients, pimps/madams and human traffickers more power than they used to have previously, when sex workers could work in the city. 

Like Lovely once did, the majority of new sex workers also don’t know their rights in France, and many of their madams and “sponsors” take advantage of this fact. The women are warned not to talk about their jobs, to learn French or get an education, to go to the police, and also not to talk with ABDF. This is perhaps the biggest problem that Penelope and the organization face: Informing the women.

In the office, Penelope introduced me to *Gloria, another young Nigerian woman who came to Paris through a sponsor that told her she would be working for a wealthy family as a nanny. When she arrived, she was met by a madam who informed her that, no, this was not the job she’d come for.

Gloria, just like Lovely and many other women whose “passage” to Europe was arranged by a sponsor have to pay for this passage, a price that’s grown to 50-70,000 Euros and is, usually, impossible to payoff. Trapped in a system of debt bondage, the women give all of their earnings to a madam, as Gloria once did before she went to the police and consequently, hid from her abusive madam.

Many of the girls that agree to this price also have no idea how much 50,000 Euros actually is, and the madams/sponsors know this. Most of these girls have no concept of the exchange rate and think the price is similar to the Nigerian Naira. And 50,000 Naira amounts to 220 Euros (a price that seems doable).

“A lot of women are scared and don’t want to come to ABDF,” said Gloria. “They’re scared of the madams who warn them not to learn French or speak to anyone. The madams know that if we go to school we’ll discover that other opportunities exist and they don’t want that. They’ve sent men to find and hurt me for going to French school and they’ve even threatened my family in Nigeria. But mostly, they’re scared of the Juju.”

About the Juju—Juju is the ritual ceremony that most Nigerian women make with the madam to keep the promise of paying back the “journey fee.” In this Juju ritual, head and pubic hair, nail clippings, and even menstrual blood are taken from the girls and kept by the madam. If the girls fail to hold up their end of the bargain, these effects are used in a ceremony to cast a bad spell on them—a belief that most of these women take very seriously.

Gloria assured me that she could talk to me now because she never actually made a promise with her old madam, thus was safe from the Juju.

“Many of these women are victims of human trafficking and don’t even know it,” said Penelope. “They don’t see the problem, but eventually they have a breaking point where they realize they can’t pay the money they owe and that’s when they realize they’re part of an unfair system. Until then, they believe that they owed their madam that huge amount of money when it really only costs the sponsor around 3,000 Euros, if that to coordinate it all. This is something I have to explain to them because usually the girls think that their sponsor—who a lot of times works in a team with the madam—is actually helping them. They don’t see the connection, and how it’s a big business.”

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Not all the prostitutes that Penelope encounters, both on the bus or in the office, are victims of human trafficking and debt bondage. Many of the organization’s founding and present members fight for the right to choose sex-work. 

“There are a lot of older women that are members in the organization that really like their job,” said Penelope. “I know a woman that’s still active at 82. They believe in the choice that they have to do this work and believe that it’s a useful service. Some of their clients could only have sex by paying and people like that need to have some kind of contact with humans—if they have to pay, then so be it.”

“They also provide some sort of sexual education too, because there are young people that come to them and think that it’s okay to be violent or insulting to women, but these sex workers teach them that you can’t treat women that way. They call the shots, not the men. So I really actually think that many of them are feminists in a way. They are strong women that face men and are not afraid.” 

* * *

Lovely and Gloria are still prostitutes, but their lives look a whole lot different than they did shortly before they hopped on the bus.

After healing from the operation, Penelope helped Lovely get schooling to learn French. Penelope also wrote Lovely’s asylum letter, which is getting processed by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless (OFPRA) right now. If, however, Lovely is not granted asylum, she can make an appeal, but if that’s rejected, she will be asked to leave the country.

While Lovely waits for these papers, she works in the street, but at least she gets to keep most of her money instead of paying an impossible debt—a huge change for her.

“I’m so happy now,” said Gloria in the office of ABDF, shaking her head. “I don’t have to work on the streets as much. Sometimes on the weekends I still do to pay my rent, but now I have options. I receive 500 Euros each month, [a French social benefit from the Revenu de solidarité active (RSA)] much of which I send to my mom in Africa. What makes me happy, though is that I have hope now. I’m finally confident that very soon I’m leaving the streets. But now, even if the police approaches me, I don’t have to run because I have documents. This is the biggest change.”   

Penelope has informed the two women that they could speak up and complain about being victims of trafficking, but both do not want to. They still fear the consequences of talking too much, whether from the juju, or a past madam.

The bus finds new women in Paris that have traveled lengths as far as Lovely and Gloria, every week. The age range shrinks every year, and some of the women are now bringing over younger girls to pay for their own debts when they arrive.

But thankfully there’s a route where those journeys can hopefully collide. A place where newcomers and old can hop on and rest their feet, get some protection, learn about their rights, or even discover a way out.

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Kind Viking

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Kind Viking

We follow our friend Anders up a hill that overlooks the southern coast of Norway for a “good view,” as he suggested. As if we needed another one — everywhere you look in this country is an are-you-fucking-kidding-me-vista. I’m beginning to think it’s so expensive here because there’s a dangerous surplus of gorgeousness…but I’m no economist. Regardless, we shadow our host and take it all in. To our left, neon-green pastures framed by ancient stone-fencing. To our right, small cabins with roofs sprouting lush grass — homes in need of haircuts. The air smells like the sea made love with the rain.

Anders cuts through the serenity and says, “This is the view I take a girl to if I’m trying to get laid. I mean…not at the top of the hill…but, usually they’re keen later. Like when we get home.”

“Yeah, we get it, Anders.” 

Anders doesn’t stop talking. This was also a very Anders-thing to say. He is brutally honest, a real character. We actually met Anders (for a total of two hours) a few months ago at a random bar in Bali. Probably, in a drunken “You guys should tooootally come to Norway this year!”…we totally did. Never offer us to visit your home if you don’t mean it: We will ALWAYS call your bluff. 

But Anders meant it; he’s just that type of human. And after a week-long road trip through the country with a couple friends from home — exploring lonely fjords, gawking at colossal waterfalls with rainbows shooting out their butts, and hiking the devilish Trolltunga trek — here we are. Following Anders to the viewpoint where commonly closes the deal.

A few more things about Anders. Like most Scandinavians, his English is incredible and he uses American idioms better than most Americans. He thinks out loud a lot and says random, amazing things like, “I’ve always wanted to try corndogs. They don’t have those in Norway, but I think I’d love them.” He’s obsessed with the San Francisco 49ers (even though American football isn’t a thing in Norway) and even has NFL Game Pass so he doesn’t miss the action. He has more than one story about getting roofied, then going into a psychotic coma and nearly getting deported from the US. As if one roofie-story wasn’t enough.

But indeed, the view is stunning. And if Rachel wasn’t already my wife and it wasn’t already in the bag, I think I’d put my money on getting laid later, too. 

Surely rivaling this country’s epic panoramas are its people, though. Like Anders. Or like the old woman we rented an AirBnB from a week ago who immediately invited us to a party on the upper level of her barn. She fed the (then) four of us and kept the homemade cider running and, for lack of better words, treated us like family — without even knowing us. Or like Ander’s friend from the other night that would NOT let us pay for one drink while out on the town in Stavanger. Or like Ander’s roommate Sindre, who took a day off from work to hike Preikestolen with us, who actually went with us every step of the way to make sure we got there. The list goes on, but in short, Norway — the place and its people — are extremely impressive.

We breathe in the crisp, North Sea air and Anders takes a look at his watch and says it’s time to head back. “I gotta drop you guys off at my house before I pick up my girlfriend flying in from Oslo. I wanna make sure there’s enough time to swing by here after the airport,” he says, with a devilish grin. “You know, so I can show her the view and—”

“Yeah, we get it, Anders.”

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THE MONGOLIAN DIARIES

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THE MONGOLIAN DIARIES

Day 1: Key Lime Hills

In the short morning flight from the capital Ulaanbaatar to Murun in Northwestern Mongolia, we set goals for the following week-long excursion. We called them mon-goals. Rachel and I, by the way, were met by three friends of ours from L.A. — three brave souls who wanted some adventure in one of the last wild frontiers on earth. Indeed our mon-goals were varied, but all five of us buzzed with anticipation as we looked out the windows upon the infinite landscapes below.

Top mon-goals included but were not limited to: holding a bird of prey on an arm. Riding a yak. Hugging a reindeer. Pushing a reindeer’s nose (to see if it glows). Riding a white horse into the sunset. Riding a horse naked without a saddle (aka bareback-bareback). Surf the top of our vehicle. Somehow, it all seemed possible. Everything in Mongolia suddenly seemed new and invigorating. We would be nomads for a time in this ancient nomadic nation.

Our driver, Olga, and guide, Inke, met us on the ground with our ride: a 4WD Russian combi-van. It was like a VW bus on steroids. Inke is an amazon of a woman with fire in her eyes and although she doesn’t say much, I feel like with a campfire and couple of vodka shots, she’ll break out of that big shell soon enough.

After barely 30 kilometers of paved road, Olga suddenly took a random turn off the asphalt and drove the remainder of the day on dirt tracks through dense coniferous forests, vast valleys, over alpine streams and shallow river beds. We bounced around within the van but the lifted Russian combi handled like a tank on cocaine. Along the way, we rode through every shade of green in the book and when the dirt track faded into the grass, we just charged through the steppe toward the falling sun.

We set up camp and started a fire with dried wood and yak dung, climbed up the nearest hill, drank vodka at an 11pm sunset and invented seven more mon-goals.

Day 2: Over the River and Through the Woods

We continued on toward the village of Tsagaan Nuur where we would eventually find our horses for the trek to the remote Tsaatan reindeer tribe. Along the way, the Mongolian countryside continued to bug our eyes out and we’d stop every so often to run with herds of dreadlocked yaks, or to watch wild Bactrian camels wander across the steppe, or to help random Mongolian families push their beat-up Honda civics out of the mud.

I swear there were three different occasions when our savage van-pilot, Olga, used the golden yellow sash off his coat as a rope to tie our van to the designated car in distress. Which worked brilliantly every time. This unconventional tool became known as The Magic Sash.

Above us, the entire way, eagles and falcons soared and dipped, swooping prey and looking typically badass. At each vista and hilltop, we’d see wicked looking “ovoo,”  ancient shamanistic offerings to the sky gods. The road was still bumpier than ever and made us feel like we were already galloping.

We finally made it to Tsagaan Nuur with a few hours of light left, lugged our gear into the yurts, grabbed towels and bathed in the cool lake behind the property. Indeed, the only difference between Tsagaan Nuur and a “one horse town” is that this town has, like, 400 horses, yet sleepy as it was, we found a shop with cold tall-boys, took them to a mechanic garage-turned pool hall and played 8-ball until the sun went down. Tomorrow we would ride.

Day 3: Suddenly, Tepees in the Distance

The horses were a lot gassier than we’d anticipated. As in, every step up that trail through forest, mountain, taiga and plain: major flatulence. With nearly a dozen horses in our caravan, we were trotting to an utter symphony of farts. Who knew?

It took a full 10 hours of riding to reach the fabled Darkhad Depression, a vast valley near the Russian Siberian borderland only accessible by horse or foot, the legendary summer-grounds of the nomadic Tsaatan reindeer herding tribes of north Mongolia.

We walked those 10 hours through dense alpine woods, through knee-deep rivers, over rocky passes and under a sweltering sun before we saw the first signs of them. We gave our steeds custom-monikers — mine was Cosmic Dangerback — and we listened to one of our cowboy guides whistle a native song that sounded uncannily like the X-Files intro. And then suddenly…tepees in the distance.

Yes, easily collapsible for folk on the move like the Tsaatan tribe, spread out on the golden valley were various settlements of tepees. The Tsaatan greeted us and gave us permission to stay in their guest tepee. After introductions and courtesies — and some ballin-ass timing on our part — the tribe’s herd of a hundred reindeers galloped in, corralled by half-wolf dogs, to rest after their day of grazing. We mingled with these fairytale-like beasts, touched their furry antlers and even checked off a mon-goal with a reindeer-ride. But the sound of those reindeer herds running, that deep, clicking rumble of hooves, there is nothing like that sound on earth.

The hours before dusk were a dream. We collected potable water in a fresh water spring in the valley below their camp then came up and played volleyball with the tribe. The sun was at that exquisite, far angle again, making the reindeer’s fuzzy horns look like they were gilded and glowing. We fell asleep in the tepee smelling like smoke with our minds blown from this place that seemed out of a children’s book.

Day 4: Cosmic Dangerback is Under the Weather

We awoke with intentions to leave the Tsaatan tribe but one of our horses (mine, actually) was apparently ill, or had a hurt foot, or maybe it was a fever; it was hard to tell with the language barrier. Regardless, the guides said we’d have to feel it out after lunch, which made the return to the bottom of the mountain seem like an impossibility, as it took a full-day to get there.

Not that we were bummed or anything, as life with the Tsaatan was surreal and made you feel like a kid at Christmas again. After more reindeer games, we followed two of the village boys to a river to fish with them. Not many on tap, but it was still cute watching one of them interact with a little girl crossing the river by reindeer-back to her teepee across the way. The little boy slapped the reindeer on the butt, a 10 year old boy’s version of flirting.

After lunch, Cosmic D. was apparently well enough to ride halfway, so we trudged those 5 hours and set up camp at another magical little valley along the base of a flowing stream. We all agreed that it was the most gorgeous campsite we’d ever slept at and after we ate, we played with the light that made everything and everyone seem outlined in gold.

Day 5: Sun Up to Sun Down

Day 5 was brutal and never-ending. Awaking an hour before first-light, we packed up the horses halfway from the reindeer tribe and made our descent. Going downhill was surprisingly harder for the horses than up, their hooves slipping on the loose rocks, making them noticeably frustrated by the harsh trail. On one difficult trail my horse faltered and fell to its side. Somehow I dismounted by jumping off Cosmic D just in time before he may have crushed me. Falling off a horse was not a mon-goal of ours by any means.

But the handsome cowboy kept whistling his eerie tune and four hours later, we got to the bottom of the mountain, barely able to stand by the end of it. What followed was a 10-hour van ride to Lake Khovsgul, nearly all of it on dirt roads that rattled the bones within our bodies. Far too bumpy to remotely enjoy the cold beers we had purchased to congratulate ourselves for making it down the mountain. We got to the lake by sunset (still 11pm), and took a short speedboat to our yurt camp, collapsing in a pile on the shores of the lake.

Days 6-7: Bar Harbor, Mongolia

Okay so maybe there were a few less amenities than Bar Harbor, but Lake Khovsgol looks like Acadia National Park in coastal Maine. Thick, dark pine forests surrounding glistening meadows with sparkeling lake coves and beaches around every turn. In a way our yurt camp reminded us of summer camp, or maybe Camp Anawanna from “Salute Your Shorts,” but was still a slice of heaven after that 20-hour death-haul from yesterday.

After a couple days of lounging by the lake, playing tag with baby yaks, and healing our ride-wounds, we took a speedboat into town to explore the joint. The ferry zone looked like it didn’t know that the USSR had collapsed and vendors sold exotic handicrafts like bear claw necklaces and pouches of Mongolia’s national game, (a fortune-telling dice game made of sheep ankle bones). We treated ourselves to pizza at a cafe called Garage 24, an absolute delicacy after a week of exhausting every combination of potatoes and mutton you could come up with.

Before getting back on the speedboat to camp, we finally discovered where everyone was getting their ice cream from and invaded an old Mongolian woman’s house by the lake, (that doubled as an ice cream parlor) pretty much wiping out her entire supply. She thanked us graciously with a toothless grin as we sped off across the water. Luckily, on our last night we discovered that the yurt camp had a sauna so we fired up the coals and sweat off the ‘cream in the wee hours of the morning, dashing into the freezing lake between sessions beneath a million blinking stars.

CLICK HERE TO SEE OUR MONGOLIAN GALLERY 1 AND

Photos courtesy of the amazing Jennie Ross.

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THERE'S A MASSAGE PARLOR IN THAILAND THAT ONLY EMPLOYS WOMEN EX-CONS

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THERE'S A MASSAGE PARLOR IN THAILAND THAT ONLY EMPLOYS WOMEN EX-CONS

Kae was in for five years and two months. Toi was in for one and a half. Wun was in for four, and Nok was in for 13 whole years and four months. In fact, every woman in this place has done hard-time and that’s precisely why they’re here. The Chiang Mai Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners was a program started by a prison guard that saw how hard it was for ex-cons to find jobs after prison. Now, with three branches in operation, the program is proving successful. It’s also reputably one of the best massages in the city. 

At first glance, though, the sign looks like a gimmick: “Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners.” But this is Thailand, where most places of business have comically literal names like: OK, Just This Once Bar, or The Food Is Hot Café. Chiang Mai Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners is no exception. Because even if Chiang Mai is basically the Portland of Thailand—grey skies, craft coffee—the Thais aren’t normally ironic.

I pass two sofas with foot sinks sitting in the outside foyer and enter the unassuming establishment. There are a few Asian and European couples reading Lonely Planet travel guides in the waiting room. I approach reception and a woman with a ledger hands me the menu, asking what I’ll have and when. It’s pretty much foot, full-body or both, each for 200 Baht, or $5, an hour. I point to full-body and ask about the “ex-prisoner thing.”

The receptionist’s name is Kae and she explains quite matter-of-factly that every woman in this massage center is an ex-prisoner of the nearby Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility. This establishment is the result of a program started by a prison guard named Thunyanun Yajom, or, Jinny, to help Thai women released from prison reintegrate back into society and find a job.  

“Everyone here…?” I ask, looking her in the eyes.

“Yes, everyone,” she smirks, shaking her head.

Kae pencils me in for a full-body. Today is almost fully-booked, she explains, but thinks I can get a time-slot within a couple of hours. Kae’s been here since the joint opened over a year and a half ago. Prior to that, she’d been in prison for five years and two months for selling methamphetamines…for her ex-boyfriend, she adds. She proudly recalls how she was one of Jinny’s first employees.

I ask Kae where I can meet this Jinny and Kae immediately rings her on FaceTime (a practice I’ve seen a lot of in Thailand). She points Jinny’s face on the screen at me and Jinny takes a look, sizing me up. She tells Kae to send me over. 

Jinny is at the government-funded Chiang Mai Womens Prison Massage Shop, the site where this program was conceived 13 years ago. The original prison has since relocated 10km out of town, but the massage shop still stands where actual prisoners bus in each day from the prison to practice on customers in order to gain hours for when they are eventually freed. They bus back to prison when the day is done.

Kae points me down the street toward the Prison Massage Shop and says she’ll ringJinny when my masseuse is ready. 100 meters later, Jinny greets me at the shop’s entrance in a dapper, prison guard’s uniform.

But Jinny isn't your average prison guard. At least not like what you see in the movies. As far prison officers go, she’s definitely more Hanks in Green Mile than Warden Norton in Shawshank. She is even-toned, sweet and seems to genuinely care about the ex-prisoners’ wellbeing. She calls them “her girls.” Jinny is also hip enough to suggest a few hot-spots for my wife and I to hit up later without me even asking.

Jinny, who’s worked within Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility as a prison officer for 15 years now, explains that she started this program to train the women. Vocational training was available in the prison, but she wanted them to learn something other than laundry or cooking when they were eventually released.

“The ladies would tell me that it was very difficult to find jobs after prison,” says Jinny. “There’s a stigma. People don’t want to hire ex-convicts, they don’t trust them and they’re scared of them. Basically, employers don’t want to have to worry about these ladies once they’re hired.”

“The ex-prisoner massage centers make things easier for the women because after being in prison for so many years, interacting with people that haven’t been inside can be difficult for them.”

In these ex-prisoner-only centers, Jinny finds that the women are a lot more comfortable and relaxed around other women who’ve shared the same experience. They’re seeing the same people from the same prison—outside of prison. 

Getting certified to become a masseuse at one of Jinny’s centers isn’t a breeze though. Firstly, the women need two certificates of 180 hours each. Then they need 100 clients under their belts, followed by another three months of training. Most of this training goes down within the women’s prison, and the 100 clients are customers at the Chiang Mai Women Prison Massage Shop, where we’re standing now. 

I imagine the inside of the Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility and the image resembles hundreds of women getting free Thai massages. I tell Jinny about this vision and she nods, humoring me. 

“The women that are still prisoners practice and earn their hours here at the Prison Massage Shop,” she continues. “But once they are freed, they are on their own which is why I’ve opened three centers for ex-prisoners-only so that they can make money.”

And the money’s not bad…for Thailand. Women in the centers make an average wage of 10,000 Baht (285 USD) a month, depending on how many hours they put in a day/week. They earn more in the high season (up to 12-15,000 Baht per month) 

Jinny started the first branch—the one where I met Kae—one year and seven months ago. Then another three months later, and one more five months after that. She started with a staff of just three ex-prisoners, and today, employs 30 women in all three centers, the only program for ex-prisoners like it in the entire country. She plans to open two more massage centers in Chiang Mai, perhaps even implementing the program further afield in Bangkok and Phuket. She makes it clear to me, though that while she started the program, she received the funding from her European boyfriend. 

I ask Jinny what most of the women working in her centers were imprisoned for. Jinny claims that over 80 percent of the women were in for drug-related convictions (selling, using, possession), and almost always methamphetamines. There’s also varying degrees of larceny, forgery, debt evasion, and even some for cutting down trees for wood in forests where it’s illegal to cut.  

She explains that a lot of the women get sucked into selling meth through bad boyfriends, just as Kae had mentioned. That many of these girls got pregnant too early, and in a Buddhist country where abortion is outlawed, felt that selling drugs was their only option to feed their family. Drugs, usually always meaning: meth.

Methamphetamines are actually 95 percent of all drug-related convictions for women in Thailand. Meth, or ya-ba, as it’s called in Thailand, (methamphetamines mixed with caffeine in pill-form) is cheap and easy to buy, unlike heroin. One can commonly buy ya-ba from a supplier for 80 Baht a pill (2.25 USD) and sell it for over double that price on the street at 200 Baht a pill (5.50 USD). That supplier is usually Myanmar (Burma).

Jinny explains that because Chiang Mai is geographically so close to the Burmese border—well within the notorious traffic-heavy Golden Triangle—the women are getting meth produced in nearby Myanmar and then selling it here in Thailand. 

I ask Jinny if any women working in the massage centers have been convicted of murder.

“Not in the centers,” she says. “But there are a few in the prison. Very few, though. Violent crimes are rare among women in Thailand.” 

Indeed, violent crimes such as “bodily harm” and “offense against life” are actually less than 2% of all convictions for women in Thailand. Regardless, due to all of the drug (meth) convictions, Thailand imprisons more women than any other country in Asia, after China. It ranks fourth highest in the world for female imprisonment.  

After fumbling with the phrasing, I awkwardly ask about the sex thing. It is Thailand. Does anyone come into her centers looking for favors?

“Yes, sometimes,” she says. “But Thai massage doesn’t mean sex. Some places have this, of course, but we don’t do that. I’ve made the room a big open-space like you’ve seen to discourage this. I tell the ladies that if someone asks, to tell them to leave. I didn’t start this program only to provide a good service like massage, but primarily to help these women start new lives and employ them after prison. It goes hand in hand because we opened this place to help ladies and the ladies are helping others through massage. The traditional Thai massage that they are trained in is very medicinal.” 

Jinny’s phone suddenly reverberates with that awkward FaceTime ring. It’s Kae—my masseuse is ready. Jinny sends me off and says she’ll stop by the branch a little later with some restaurant recommendations. She asks if I’m getting full-body or foot. I tell her full-body and she grins ambiguously. 

Walking into the waiting room, a small woman pops out behind Kae and ushers me over. She is spunky with lively eyes and a confident gait, leading the way toward a changing room. She hands me a salmon-colored smock-and-pants that look uncannily like prison scrubs, and then leads me down the hall into a large room with a dozen massage-beds and a few sofas. 

I was picturing partitioned massage tables but this scene is more like a small-scale, albeit extremely soothing refugee-camp tent. The lights are dimmed, the A/C is on full-blast, flute-heavy traditional Thai music where every song inexplicably sounds like “My Heart Will Go On” loops softy in the background. 

I count about ten women in the room with clients and as we enter, they all look up and start rousting my masseuse. She fires back loudly in Thai and grins proudly. She points me to a bed and tells me to lie on my back, then gets right to it, working from the heel up.

My masseuse, Meaw, goes easy on me for the first ten minutes, focusing more on circulation than the deep tissue-stuff. Then she sits across from me, cross-legged, working my feet and lower calves. In the politest way possible, I ask her what she went to prison for, prior to working here. 

“Drug,” she replies in a thick Thai accent, planting her right foot on my left shoulder for leverage while simultaneously pulling my ankle into her chest to stretch a hip-flexor. It looks like a jiu jitsu submission move, but feels fucking fantastic. Meaw clarifies that she got caught for selling methamphetamines and was locked up for five years and three months.

“And her?” I ask, gesturing to the woman with her elbow in a patient’s neck on the table beside us. 

“Drug.” 

As was the masseuse beside her, and the one beside her, and the two across the room. In fact, nearly all the women in the room had gone to prison for meth—for selling, possession and/or use, but mostly for selling. And usually for their boyfriends, the women also add. Meaw explains that one of the other masseuses, Nok, was in prison for 13 years and four months for selling ya-ba.

My massage concludes with me upon my belly, hands behind my back, and Meaw mounted on my rump grabbing both arms and pulling my back into an ungodly arch. I let out a feeble squeal and Meaw laughs, looking over to her girls, saying something in Thai that I can only presume is, “Can you believe this pussy?” 

I walk back to reception, refreshingly limber, and chat with Kae, the only woman in the place wearing makeup, and who seems a little higher up on the totem than the other girls on the floor. 

I ask her what life is like in the Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility, the prison where each one of these women has served time.

“Before going in, we all thought that prison was going to be really bad,” says Kae. 

“We saw all the American movies and we thought that when you arrive, you get beaten up or maybe raped. But Thai prison for women isn’t really like that. Maybe the men’s prisons are a lot worse, but the women’s prisons are not so bad. There are not many fights or even gangs. There are no drugs, either. There are a lot of programs available to help us once we’re out, too. There is even school inside the prisons.”

I tell her that I know people who have been to prison in America and that even in America: Prison is bad. Frightening, really. Very violent at times.

She tells me again—she’s seen the movies.

The remainder of tourist-couples waiting for their massages is finally beginning to taper off and Jinny appears in the foyer smiling, saying hi to all of her girls walking out customers.

I ask Jinny about the rate of recidivism among the women working at all three branches of Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners and she explains that it’s pretty low. Just two women so far out of her 30 employees have fallen back into drugs.

“It’s not easy,” admits Jinny. “We have to constantly check the ladies to make sure they’re not on drugs again or selling. But we’re like a big family and the women check on each other. It’s also not easy because some women that have been in prison for 15 years get out…and it’s like another world. It’s difficult for them to cross over. In ways, prison life is easier because you’re given everything.”  

“Some of our women have gone on to bigger spas where they can make better money, but they’ve said it’s harder for them. Once everybody finds out that they’re an ex-con…they’re treated differently. The women can get depressed there, so most will settle for less money working here—but they’re more comfortable.”

Before I leave the shop, Jinny repeats the names of a couple bars that she’s sure my wife and I will love. There’s about an hour left of sunlight though and apparently the foot massages at the second branch of Chiang Mai Womens Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners are the best in the city. And that’s not just Trip Advisor talking. Plus, my back’s never felt better thanks to Meaw. And, five bucks? C’mon.

As seen on VICE

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LOST KINGDOMS, EX-CONS AND BABY ELEPHANTS

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LOST KINGDOMS, EX-CONS AND BABY ELEPHANTS

Maybe I thought that Burma would be a little sunnier. Or that the Sea Gypsies inThailand would be a little more pirate-like. Or that the ladies in the “Chiang Mai Womens Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners” would be a little more Orange is the New Black-er. But I couldn’t have imagined a better look on my wife’s face than when she played with her very first baby elephant. The last few weeks have been a fantastic blur…

Indeed, when they say it’s monsoon season in Myanmar (Burma) late-July…they’re not joking. But the steamy, afternoon showers just made those brief windows of light that much more delicious when the sun did decide to peak it’s little head out. And after a hellish (to say the least) overnight long-distance bus-ride, we arrived at the ancient empire of Bagan. 

Described by Marco Polo back in the 13th Century as “one of the finest sights in the world,” the lost city of Bagan remains a Serengeti-like expanse, teeming with hundreds of Buddhist stone-temples. The place is like a Game of Thrones set but, like, 100 degrees with 110% humidity. And even though an e-bike is somewhere between Crocs and e-cigarettes on the international Scale of Coolness…we explored the joint by e-bike. Worth it. 

Before we knew it, we were out of Burma and down south in Thailand. I had heard of the Sea Gypsy clans before this trip. The Moken or Urak Lawoi people are an ancient minority in Southeast Asia that, once nomadic, still lives virtually on or around the sea. They gained global notoriety shortly after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (which took over 200,000 lives) for escaping without a scratch. According to the Sea Gypsies, they had seen the tsunami coming and headed for high ground. Sensationalist new outlets swarmed them after this and purported that their young learns to swim before they can walk, and that their underwater vision is better than most people’s regular vision. 

There was a Sea Gypsy village not far from where we were staying in Thailand, and we decided to pay them a visit. After minimal schmoozing, they took us out on their boat during their daily catch and we got to observe them in their element. We watched a couple of the men dive down to dizzying depths with no fins. Men that were hooked up to ghetto compressed air contraptions, gathering all the fish caught in the traps that they’d set a week prior. Indeed, a dangerous-ass way to making a living if I’d ever seen. They were kind and welcoming, though, and in the end, they gave us a parrot fish parting-gift.

Having moved north to Chiang Mai and not far from our hotel, we passed a peculiar sign that read: “Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners.” Naturally, we had to see what THAT was about. Cause who doesn't want a Thai full-body-rub by an ex-con at least once in their life? And for 200 Baht ($5) — c’mon! Thus, the receptionist penciled us in, and sure-enough, this establishment — a program started by a prison guard to help ex-cons get employed after prison — was entirely run by ex-prisoners out of the nearby women’s correctional facility. Rachel said her massage was amazing, but honestly, I think my gal was going too easy on me.

And the elephants? How can I put this…The feeling you get when playing with baby elephants is like hearing Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” for the first time after a life of only ever listening to elevator music. A rebirth of sorts. We took a trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, a reserve nestled in a lush mountain valley 60km from Chiang Mai city in Northern Thailand — and got reborn. The place is an ecological refuge where Asian elephants are protected from ivory poachers and tours involving elephant-rides…but they were not safe from swooning. And yeah, Rachel’s expression interacting with those special beasts: priceless. 

as seen on Fjallraven.com

*Stay tuned for the next Planes, Trains, Ball and Chains: The Mongolian DiariesIt’s gonna be a pisser!

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INDEPENDENCE DAY

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INDEPENDENCE DAY

“Meet at 7. Bring swim trunks for the boat trip and a jacket for the volcano. We’ll buy beer, dogs and burgers on the way and I’ll supply the gas-masks. I have 11 of them.”

This was the WhatsApp text we received from our half-Javanese, half-American comrade named Chris the night before the Fourth of July in Bali, Indonesia. Raised both in Texas and Jakarta (with some schooling in Santa Barbara) Chris looks quite Indonesian but sounds a little-to-a-lot like Owen Wilson. He’s also a real pill too, and while the Fourth of July should mean absolutely nothing within the Islamic Republic of Indonesia — Chris was out to change that.

We’ll get to the gas-masks…

The following morning Chris (pretty much our trip ring-leader) shows up to the meeting spot with his girlfriend an hour late and severely hung-over from the night before. A few other couples show up too — mostly young Americans living in Bali that wanted a piece of this patriot-party — plus a Russian girl…and Chris’s mom (also a real firecracker, no pun intended.)

After driving four hours across the island to the other side of Bali, we arrive at a boat (Chris’s mom’s boat), hop in and do the Fourth of July-abroad proper. It is a proven scientific fact that a successful Fourth requires a boat, a body of water and a BBQ and we had all of the above, plus another couple from Texas (the most ‘Merican of Americans) who had the audacity (genius) to start an authentic Texas-style smokehouse BBQ restaurant here in Bali which is killing it, by the way.

So we motor into a small island between Bali and Java, turn up some American tunes at a culturally-respectful level (definitely no louder than the Muslim call-to-prayers blaring from the Java-side), fire up the grill, start crushing beers, do a couple backflips off the boat and stuff our face with hot dogs until we feel sick.

That evening, we dock at a hotel on the edge of East Java at the foot of Mt. Ijen volcano and Chris orders us all to be up and ready to trek by 3am. And that, again, he had ample gas-masks for all.

“Why…3am, Chris?” I ask.

“So we can see the blue-flame in the crater,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“And why…gas-masks?” I also ask.

“Because of the sulfuric gas,” he says even more matter-of-factly.

It wasn’t easy but we hit the trail at the designated (psychotic) pre-dawn-hour, and march up a path at the base of the semi-active Mt. Ijen volcano. Other volcanoes rumble violently in the distance, one of which (to this day) is diverting, delaying, and plain cancelling flights on Bali. Something about volcanic ash in the air that can suck into planes’ jet-engines and convert into molten glass.

After a grueling couple of hours, all up-hill, the sun-rises quicker than we’d anticipated, thus glimpsing that ubiquitous “blue flame” in the crater was out of the question. We opt to take the trail down toward it anyway to see the magnificent, electric blue crater-lake up close. Suddenly, the wind shifts and yellow sulfuric-smoke billowing from one corner of the crater consumes us. This was what the gas-masks were for and we slip them on like it’s a Cuban-missile-crisis-era bomb-drill.

And then we see a sight that has us dumbfounded. Trudging through the yellow gas, dozens and dozens of small, wiry local men lug buckets of sulfur rock from the crater, the weight bending the bamboo that counterbalances each pail on their shoulders. They’re literally heaving these rocks up the slippery volcanic trails, through the thick sulfuric smoke and then all the way down the volcano to the base — mask-less. It’s a humbling spectacle, especially since 10 hours earlier we were literally booze-cruising a few miles from this slice of human suffering. The wind shifts, the smoke clears, and we gladly leave our 11 gas-masks and goggles with gracious new owners.

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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MONKEY BUSINESS

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MONKEY BUSINESS

“Should we be worried about the volcano?” I ask our guide Ren, reaching down to give Rachel a hand as we climb up a slippery mountain trail. Texts and emails had been flooding our inboxes with subject lines like, “R U OK??” or “Sumatra Volcano??” Apparently it’s been all over the world news, with tens of thousands of Sumatran residents being evacuated from their homes. Falling ash, impending doom, death from above…with no one round here saying a word about it. 

Ren looks back at me blankly like, “Which volcano, again?” 

“Mt. Cinnabun,” I say, informatively.”

“Oh, Mt. Sinabung?” he corrects. He mulls it over for a second and shrugs it off like, “What-evs.” Then he puts his finger to his mouth to quiet us and glares up at the rainforest’s canopy. “I think Julie is here,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “…but I hope not Mina.” The twinkle vanishes.

We are hiking through the thick and steamy Gunung Leuser National Park near Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra tracking wild orangutans, by the way, and only a couple hours in. We follow narrow, sometimes unrecognizable footpaths that weave through the lush rainforest, loud and alive with cliché-like jungle sounds. Apparently there are even Sumatran tiger sightings now and then, a critically endangered predator on the verge of extinction. Our guide, Ren, and his young son sandwich Rachel and I, pausing every so often, both to catch their own breaths and to listen to the trees that might shake with a heavy, redheaded primate.

Ren looooves orangutans. Ren’s also the kinda guy that eats his fried rice lunch with his fingers, then snaps a photo of you with his ipad and seconds later, smugly says, “Already uploaded to Facebook,” with a look on his face like, how easy was that? He licks the remaining sauce off his fingers. Ren has also named quite a few of the orangutans we’re tracking too. He speaks fondly of Julie and Sandy, smiles and shakes his head when talking about Jackie and her child, but Mina — not so much.“Mina is mean. Very aggressive,” he says with a frown. “I hope we don’t see her…Mina bite.”

“Like, Mina bites often?” we ask, a little concerned. 

“Maybe once a month, once a week in high-season,” Ren says, scanning the forest cautiously. “She has bitten me before.” He rolls down his sock and shows us a nasty scar. So, it’s personal. Also I’m pretty sure it’s the high-season.

Suddenly there’s a rumble directly above us. We crane our necks straight up and an orange-haired mass descends toward us at an alarming pace. There’s a tense moment where I can tell Ren is glaring at the creature in the tree to get an I.D. and then bursts into a smile, “It’s…Sandy! With her baby!” He glows, proudly. He reaches into his backpack and hands Rachel a banana. “Share with them.” 

Rachel takes a piece of the fruit, moves a couple of steps forward and the two women reach out to one another, Sandy with a small child clinging to her chest. The orangutan’s hand grazes Rachel’s softly, taking the banana. One of those beautifully wild and pure moments in life. 

We continue on for a few more hours and eventually see Jackie, a nameless large alpha male, a man getting attacked by a swarm of bees, and, luckily, not Mina. We also find out that Mt. Cinnabun is less than 50 miles away from the park. C’mon, Ren!?

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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ILLUMINATI COWABUNGA!

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ILLUMINATI COWABUNGA!

A total of eight guests at a time cycle through the joint over here at the Telo Island Lodge in 10-day stints and we were told that the next group would be eight Kiwis (New Zealanders). We were not told, however, that the Kiwis would be eight 50-year-old, highly successful family men of poor-to-novice surfing ability on their yearly let-it-all-hang-out Boys Trip blowout. Both the group and the surf before them was a lot tamer, to say the least. It was like these men literally stirred up a swell as they drifted into the lagoon, already 24-Bintangs-deep in the speedboat.

They called themselves “The Muppets” and god dammit, the Muppets came in HOT. An Aussie surf guide at the lodge whispered to us disbelievingly, “I can’t believe they call themselves that — being called a ‘muppet’ in Australia or NZ is worse than being called a f--king idiot!” The Muppets, however, gave zero shits about that. In fact, they reveled in the self-deprecation — which for a group of self-made millionaires (and billionaires) is pretty amazing. And the Muppets are full-on. Like G-6 owning, lunch with pro-rugby coaches, private island-owning, investment banker-type dudes. New Zealand’s Illuminati. OK…maybe not that influential, but the Muppets sure had some stories and over the next week, we’d get to know each other quite well.

For instance, one Muppet is NZ’s leading real estate lawyer. Another is rumored to have made his fortune selling arms in Africa and commonly hunts big game there by crossbow. Another is an avid fisherman who’s been to Marlon Brando’s lost Tahitian island and fished, surfed and partied with Brando’s deranged half-Polynesian son, the sole resident in the overgrown, defunct resort there. That same Muppet came in from fishing the other day doing the haka (Maori warrior dance) on the top of the moving boat because of a successful catch and, well, eight Bintangs.

 

Indeed the Muppets give it hell. Each night they turn up The Who or The Rolling Stones or 3 Dog Night and dance and rage the night away. Rachel and I partake in the revelry, too, of course. It’d be disrespectful not to. Plus, when one of the Muppets breaks their indecipherable code of ethics, punishment is a gang beating called “Kick the Dog,” where the transgressor gets (thrown) on the ground and kicked in the fetal position for 5-10 seconds. This has happened a few times and they’ve made it clear to us that Americans aren’t exempt.

Out in the water they call their surfing performances “carnage.” There’s boards flying everywhere, Muppets getting sucked over the falls and every day they come in from sessions bloody from a new run-in with the reef. Which is actually kinda great for me and the guides because we can pretty much get any wave we want. I will say their level’s gotten increasingly better with each day. Just warming up, I suppose.

Our last day at the lodge is tomorrow though before we head to Bali and apparently they’re planning a themed night of debauchery (that they do every annual Muppet’s Trip) called Pirate Night. Every one of the Muppets is an A-plus human being and are practically family now; we will miss them dearly, that’s for sure. Thus, we will burn this f--king place down with them tomorrow. And hopefully…miss the plane out.

As seen on Fjallraven.com

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HUNK PILOTS

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HUNK PILOTS

The aircraft’s nose tips forward and suddenly we descend toward the Telo Islands off North Sumatra, Indonesia. The sky is a lovely pale blue and through the small windows cartoon-like desert islands litter a turquoise sea, but at the moment I’m kinda wondering: Who farted?

We’re in a 12-seater prop jet — a bold move, I must say — and I turn to Rachel, holding my nose and ask, “Baby, was that you?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head quickly like, of course not.

I look toward the cockpit suspiciously. Two handsome studs of the Bavarian stock. A couple of hunk pilots. It had to have been one of them. They boarded all 12 of us so smugly they didn’t even read us the in-case-of-emergency directions, which frankly had me wondering if that just meant, If something goes wrong, don’t worry, you’re f--ked. Rachel expressed that she was worried our bags were too heavy. “I don’t want another Aaliyah-situation,” she told me, the night prior. Surely one of those hunks must’ve let one slip. The co-pilot has been texting pretty much the entire flight from Sumatra. I wonder if he was on a group-chat like I am with my friends. Or, if he was just texting the pilot beside him. Had Mexican last nite, these passengers r bummedddd, LOLZ. I swear one them winked at Rachel as she climbed up the plane’s stairwell.

I will say they’ve gotten us to Telo island soundly where upon an Australian named Dave intercepted us, zipping us out to Telo Island Lodge, a short boat ride away. We drift into a lagoon framed by two pinnacle-like rocks and before us, the lodge sits on a sleepy patch of beach front paradise. In front of the lagoon, a perfect righthander peels with the dropping tide and apparently there’s half a dozen other amazing surf breaks not far from here.

Immediately three local boys swarm us smelling fresh meat. “Hello mis-tah! You buy shell? Neck-lace? Carving?” I tell them maybe but the leader of the pack, Adam, is a savvy young businessman and wants verbal confirmation in the form of a definitive “yes.” Adam is a true closer and I respect that but I tell Adam, “we’ll see.” Adam pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head, annoyed, and starts to work on Rachel. Adam and I might be off to a bad start but the boys are shooed away by the bartender/resident D.J. (Freddie) who hands us two Bintangs…at 10 o’clock in the morning. I suppose that does make it 8pm yesterday in California, though. We cheers beers and settle into lodge life.

As seen on Fjallraven.com


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