2017 was probably my most intense year of travel ever: it started in Laos and Cambodia, and was followed by visits to Detroit and Texas, Portugal, Romania, Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, Florida, and Vietnam. Whew. Here’s an entry on a year of irreconcilable impressions.
January: Laos and Cambodia
Laos and Cambodia: I hardly believed the beauty of some of the things I saw there. Wooden slow boats on the Mekong, hidden waterfalls; ancient temples ensnared in roots and stone softened by moss; French colonial ruins and illicit mountaintop fortresses; cities stirring. Life goes on at a meditative pace.
But there were also brutal confrontations with the history of European colonialism and the US military intervention, which ultimately rendered Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world and contributed to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. I met people who had lost limbs during the Secret War (the Vietnam War’s extension into Laos) and survived the Cambodian genocide.
In both countries, virtually everyone over the age of 45 had a personal story of this history. Surrounded by survivors, I often wondered what passersby on the street still carried with them from that time. The way I sometimes wonder about old Germans when I see them on the train, or lined up at the grocery store. What happened to you? Worse yet, what did you do?
The morning we spent at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the sky filled with thousands of tiny butterflies.
America’s hands were far from clean in all of this, and there remains much to be answered for. The day we flew back from Cambodia to Germany, Trump was inaugurated, ending any hope of that. And other hopes, too.
God, Detroit has changed since I was last there a few years ago. There’s a Whole Foods, gourmet chocolate shops, hipster bric-a-brac outlets and pop-up ethnic street restaurants reclaiming long-abandoned storefronts, settling the urban prairies. It’s not the Detroit of my childhood, the foreign country down the highway from where I grew up.
The “New Detroit” is gentrifying rapidly, and like everything else in America, all of this “progress” and newfound “success” feels like it’s being made at someone else’s expense.
It’s a different time, to be sure, in Detroit. Eating at inventive farm-to-table restaurants. Perusing luxury, Detroit-made Shinola watches. Valet parking and a tram service down Woodward Ave. Even though I’m enjoying all of this, I can’t help but feel like the New Detroit is being made for everyone other than the people who never left.
Tent cities of homeless people pitched under the labyrinthine concrete overpasses of Dallas highways. Deep in Trump country east of Dallas, a tornado sliced through the piney forests. Tree stumps sticking out of the ground like shorn hairs standing on end. A mansion severed at its glass atrium, parking lots a jumble of metal.
Unseasonable rains, and the lake my parents live on straining not to overflow. Adults who believe that biblical giants slayed the dinosaurs 5,000 years ago. A slip in the bathroom and a $2,000 medical bill later.
A respite in a blessedly beautiful country and culture. Codfish and Port wine and long conversations on the terrace and the notes of the cavaquino guitar. Adjacent to our happiness, a disaster unfolded. The worst wildfire in recent history claimed dozens of lives just a valley or two from the palace where we were staying. For days, the smoke hung in the air like grief.
A newly married couple, surrounded on their wedding day with the love of everyone they’ve ever known.
Later, oppressive heat and relentless flies. A mentally ill woman wandering the streets, drinking out of a puddle. A lightning storm across the vast plains, set off in quick succession like rattling nerves.
September: The Philippines
A bumpy ride. Unharnessed urban traffic, American fast food joints, a stop and frisk and bribe paid to a policeman, and a rental car breakdown in torrential rain. The undercarriage just fell out, protesting noisily that it couldn’t go on. Dominik rigged a solution to hold up the engine cover with my shoe laces. He’s developing a knack for MacGuyver-ing us out of sticky situations.
Admitting defeat, we returned the car to Manila and uncharacteristically took refuge at a five-star hotel, where bomb-sniffing dogs inspect all incoming vehicles and guests undergo a pat-down on arrival.
Manila is gleaming malls and slums where residents peel buckets of garlic for a dollar a day. A colonial old town and a national hero named Rizal. The nicest people in the world. Thousands of people living in the cemetery. A city that exists on two sides of a metal detector.
October: Hong Kong
An impossibly tight fit. A city subdued by unimaginable sums of money. In other world cities like Athens or New York or Bangkok or Mumbai, I often wonder how the city can possibly be big enough to accommodate the dreams of everyone who lives there. In Hong Kong, there’s only one dream and it’s close enough to know it’s real.
There’s a dream in China, too. It’s got an undeniable mass and growing momentum. Commanding and inevitable as a physical law, it pulls you into its subtly electrified orbit.
To be in China is to be part of something bigger than yourself. And not just on account of the logarithmic dimensions of things here. You get swept up in it as you walk with thousands of people over the busiest border in the world from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. This must be how it felt to arrive in New York City a century ago. This is the place where the future is being built.
Shenzhen is the most modern city in the world and it was summoned into existence from a humble fishing village in less than two decades. While the rest of the world is talking about building electric cars, China’s already done it. There’s no doubt that the 21st century will be Chinese. It already is. We just don’t know it yet.
November: Naples, Florida
Perfect weather. People in a good mood at the beach, but aggression and sadness elsewhere. An old white man seething at a Hispanic kid at Sam’s Club, telling him to get the fuck out of the way. Others reaching out bravely from their loneliness, trying to start a conversation. No one’s from here.
Along the streets in our neighborhood, piles of debris leftover from Hurricane Irma, the threat of climate change already swept out to the curb. As soon as Irma is cleaned up, the construction will begin again.
Unknowingly flying into a typhoon on a tropical island and former penal colony. Unknowingly carrying novels from both Vietnamese and American writers banned by the Vietnamese government. Museums where the dialogue of history has turned monologue. Dank prisons with tiny cells called tiger cages. Fetuses eternally floating in green embalming fluid, dispalying the birth defects of Agent Orange.
But also wooden bridges, entire families riding on scooters and friends meeting over cups of coffee. Steaming bowls of noodle soup in the morning, and at night, the glow of lanterns in the sky.
On New Year’s Eve in Hanoi, we wandered with the rest of the city past music stages and street vendors. Dozens of young brides and grooms posed for photos in the streets. Marrying on New Year’s is said to bring an extra dose of good luck.
Even as they age, the way they looked that night, in these pictures, will be the way each still sees the other.
And so, despite and because of everything, we too carry on optimistically into 2018.