Posts Tagged '1998'

Existential World Tour: the Complete Series!

Back in 1998, after I graduated from U of Michigan with a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies that I knew would prove to be worthless, I panicked. I wanted to go back to Japan, but I really did not want to teach English again. I taught it for two years between 1994 and ’96 and I felt my brain softening a little more with each day I worked there. The few job leads that I had in Japan fell through and suddenly I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. The future looked confusing and uncertain and I was overwhelmed. So I did what any red-blooded lad hailing from the stout state of Ohio might: I sold my car and traveled around the world. Along the way, I wrote a series of mass emails detailing my adventures with included climbing Himalayas, getting chased by a Rhino and getting naked with a room full of Russians. I thought of them as a sort of proto-blog though blogs were at that point a good five years away. So now, ten years later, I finally have these missives in a blog format. You can read the first entry here.

I also have pictures from my Existential World Tour to Taiwan, Nepal, Russia, and Berlin.

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Existential World Tour Part 13: Berlin and Back in Ann Arbor

Well, its the end of the road for me. I went West until it was East and I kept goin’ until I ended up back where I started. In short, I’m back in Ann Arbor, back with a vengeance.

I’ve been lying low in Prague for the past two weeks. I spent my time walking around, looking at Prague’s stunning, spooky and occasionally bizarre architecture, and of course drinking beer, which is literally cheaper than water and damn good to boot.

Last weekend, I went to Berlin. On Halloween night, I happened upon a bombed out (as in from WWII) department store that had been turned into a artist commune. The bottom floor was a disco and a welders studio, the second floor was a bar and movie theater (showing From Dusk till Dawn) and the rest of the building was either gallery space and/or other discos. The whole place was covered with graffiti art and the apocalyptic look of Blade Runner or a Duran Duran video. Across the courtyard in another bombed out building (there were lot in this neighbor of East Berlin, even though it was only blocks from Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg gate) somebody placed a giant neon sign in puffy rainbow letters reading “Cry me a River.” I loved the place immediately. I started talking to some Anglo backpackers and soon we were doing Tequila shots. Later I found myself discussing Japanese film with a couple intense Belgians well into the morning. Anyway, I realized that after a liter and a half of beer and five shots of Tequila I felt stone sober. I think its time to go home now, I thought.

Soon checking into Betty Ford

Existential Panic World Tour Part 12: New Russians not Nude Russians

Howdy all, I’ve safety navigated myself out of Russia and now aside from some minor liver damage, I’m relaxing comfortably in Prague.

Current Russian joke: A guy walks into a bank and says to the teller, “Hello, I have $10,000 and I’m interested in opening an account. Who should I talk to about this?” The teller responds, “a psychiatrist.”

Anyhow, last week in our waning few days in Yoshkar-Ola, my mom threw a party for her friend and my banya-buddy Andrey. He invited many of Mari-El republic’s high-rollers and held the fest at Onar, the hoidiest toidiest joint in the region. The interior of Onar looked like a bottom rung casino from Ratpack-era Vegas. The walls were painted a ridiculous color of purple with frescos of obese cherubs painted in pastels on the ceiling. Elsewhere were bushels of fake ivy, stone wall covering and lots and lots of mirrors. Robert Ventura would have had a field day here. The place was clearly designed to impress, and hence has become a place known throughout the town as being a meeting place for a ecently emerging tribe of post-communists called “New Russians.”

Back in the Halcyon days of the early 90s, a New Russian was synonymous with ‘yuppie’–a newly affluent individual who wore Reeboks and Swatchs, drove foreign cars and enjoyed pizza. Now as Ruble drops like a stone, and as the prospect of simply getting a paycheck on time is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence here, the New Russians have been coded as if not out and out ‘mafia’ then the ugly rich. While several of the people my mother interviewed have not been paid in four or five months, apartment buildings are being thrown up along the river with enough garish opulence to embarrass a Romanov. One New Russian that we rented our apartment from (a really big apartment by Russian standards though without the Romanesque arches and onion domes of those newer models), was a short balding guy named Victor who bore a passing resemblance to Lenin. Though he’s a ‘sexologist’ (shudder) by trade, he seems to have number of side ventures which neither of us really wanted to know about. Last year when my mother was researching in Yoshkar-Ola, Victor offered her a plastic handgun. “For your protection’ he said. Another New Russian is a good friend of Andrey’s and one of my banya-comrades–a squat guy with a flat top and a Stalinesque mustache named Volodya, or as everyone calls him, Volodya the Sausage King, because, as his name would suggest, he made his fortune by stuffing ground pig parts into intestines.

At this fest, Comrade Sausage Czar was there along with his bitter, stricken-looking wife who spent the night drinking heavily and rebuffing her husband’s clumsy attempts at cuddling. Also there were a couple of other guys I had previously seen nekkid at the banya, and a number of teachers at the local university. The vodka flowed, the champaign was guzzled and the food just kept coming and coming and coming. Around 8 o’clock two guys and a synthesizer came out and struck up a tune. I was about to comment on how bad the music (it sounded like bad karaoke) when Andrey leaned over to me and said, “These musicians are good friends of mine. You like?” I nodded and held my tongue. At the end of the first set, the lead singer said (translated through Andrey) “And now a song dedicated to our new American friends.” He gesticulated vaguely at us and then began a really tinny version of Lionel Richie’s early 80s mega-hit “Hello.” Several older men with their suspiciously young spandex clad dates began slow dancing at the center of the hall. Later, after much more vodka and champaignski, the dancing girls came out clad in ostrich feathers, thongs and little else and gyrated.

Sadly, I had to miss much of this cultural performance, I had an appointment to go out dancing at another New Russian haunt called “Holiday.” My comrades-in-boogie were three of the five ex-pat Americans living in Mari-El: Donna, a very tall very blond English teacher; David, a garrulous lawyer also teaching there; and Jennifer, his astonishingly young blushing bride. David, in particular, has a murky mysterious past. Judging from what he told me in his long yarns about himself, he was at various points in his life–a film student, a bouncer, an army cadet, a tai-chi master, a CIA agent and worst of all, a lawyer. His Russian was, apparently, perfect. Upon arriving at the club, David directed my attention to the pair of armed guards standing at the door and noted that the nightsticks they were carrying had a hard plastic casing with a core of cork and a steel spring. “They’re leg-breakers, man,” he said with a certain lusty enthusiasm. He also reminded me that the club’s entry fee was equivalent to one fifth of the average workers monthly salary. (That is when and if they get paid.)

The club was relatively crowded, very smokey and decorated with a lot of chain-link fencing. The music was largely cheesy but cloyingly catchy Euro techno with the occasional Elton John song thrown in. Once they played the “Laura Palmer Theme” from Twin Peaks. Leather definitely seems to be the material of choice for women’s fashion–leather minis, tight leather pants, high leather boots. Most of the guys wore either leather jackets or ill-fitting suits. I danced some and drank a lot more. Again, Russia is a macho culture. If someone places a glass of vodka in your hands and says “Drink up friend,” you drink or suffer a reputation of being a wimp.

As the night wore on, some of the people from the Onar party drifted into the night club including Andrey, who looked completely out of his element. Though the man can drink Yeltsin under the table, he dances like the Twin Peaks’ dream dwarf. Volodya the Sausage King also showed up, but instead of his embittered wife, he was there with a blond balloon-breasted, er, companion who spent the evening sitting on his lap, giggling and playing with his mustache.

I staggered home around four thirty in the morning, with a group of Russians and Donna and I promptly crashed.

The next day, I managed to crawl out of bed and go to the market with my mom in spite of a killer headache. There I saw, in sharp contrast to decadence of the night before, an old woman with gnarled hands selling a half dozen beets spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk for the equivalent of a nickel. Further on I saw a guy in his 30s selling plastic sheeting. I was told that many factories are so far behind in their paychecks that they have started paying workers in the wares the factories produce. I was also told that the major bank in Yoshkar-Ola has frozen all accounts due to the instability of the Ruble. I really have no idea how the average Russian makes ends meet. I also wonder why there hasn’t yet been blood in the streets or what might happen in Russia’s increasingly murky future. When my mom asked one of the people she’s interviewing, someone who hasn’t been paid for six months, he shrugged said, “I am optimistic for the future, I have to be.” Meanwhile Victor, the plastic pistol packing sexologist is thinking about buying a flat at one of the new New Russian complexes for $200,000.

PS LATE BREAKING NEWS: It’s official. My global romp will be ending on Nov. 6. The tickets have been bought, and limo and dancing girls hired.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men

I’m realizing that this trip to Russia not really much of a tourist excursion. For one thing, there ain’t a whole lot to see here in the hinterland. Instead, this is an exercise in Russian cultural immersion. This became particularly evident on the car ride from Kazan to Yoshkar-Ola, when our burly contact here, Andrey, turned to me and asked in his thickly accented English if I’d ever been to a Russian Banya. “A Russian Barnyard?” I asked. A Banya is basically a sauna but its social significance is much more. The Banya is apparently one of the social lubricants that makes society flow. Like Japanese after-work drinking secession or the American tailgate party, it is a time when men are allowed to cast aside their societal roles and carouse like equals with their brethren.

When I mentioned to other Russians and the handful of American ex-pats living here that I was scheduled for such a banya, inevitability their reaction insinuated that I was really going to be in for something. On Monday, Andrey and a driver (Andrey refuses to learn to drive for some reason) picked me up, picked up an armful of alcohol, and then drove to a soccer field. The banya was a small wooden shack built on the edge of the grounds. Apparently, Andrey and a bunch of his buddies from Mari State University gather at this unremarkable hut and “relax.” Andrey pounded on the metal door for sometime before a squat naked man with a remarkably hairy back answered the door. Inside about a dozen middle-aged men were stripping naked, all of them looked like David Crosby or Wilfred Brimley. It was not a pretty sight. Andrey asked me if I wanted a beer before the sauna. I promptly said yes. After the beer and after I stripped, Andrey lead me to the sauna. Upon opening the door I was confronted with the sight of two naked very sweaty men flogging themselves with birch-branches. “It is kind of Russian massage” Andrey said to me. Ok, I thought. I sat in the sauna, allowed myself to slow cook in the intense heat of the room and followed suit with everyone else and began flogging myself with said foliage. (It feels like getting molested by a shrub.) The manly thing to do is to sit there swatting yourself until you have been so cooked your ears begin to curl. I was never quite that gung-ho. Then, with ears curled, the next thing you do to test your macho metal is to plunge into an icy cold pool of water in the next room. It’s kind of like daring your cardiovascular system to have a heart attack. Another variation is to leap, buck naked, into a snow drift and roll around while. Though it’s blasted cold out, there is, as of yet, nary a snow drift. So my banya-comrades made do with standing outside, naked, smoking cigarettes. We would sit around, make crude jokes, slap backs and make statements like “In Russia, men are men and women are women.” Yes, this was male bonding at its most raw and naked (literally). All that was absent was the drums and the Robert Bly books.

After continuing with the grueling sauna, ice water, exposure rotation, I was already feeling a bit buzzed. But no Russian adventure would be complete without the vodka. We all gathered around a buffet of sorts that a couple of the boys had set up. Handing me a glass of vodka (shots are for wimps) Andrey leaned over to me and said, “Russian proverb…After banya you can sell your pants but you must drink.” I asked him to repeat it, just to make sure I heard that right. I have no idea what this pearl of folk widsom actually means (especially considering no one in the room was wearing pants) but I took it as a subtle hint that I should be prepared for some serious drinking. After a toast, they knocked the entire contents of the glass back, as did I. Then another toast and another half glass. There was an impress array of food on the table before me, sauerkraut, bread, honey, olives and of course a big plate of lard. My banya-mates were somewhat perplexed why I wasn’t partaking in what they considered a staple food, but in my mind a line needed to be drawn. I would get naked, I would be happy to parboil and then freeze myself, and I’d be happy to suck down as excessive about of alcohol, but dammit I was not going to eat a chunk of lard. Moreover, seeing Andrey naked and hairy gnawing on a huge chunk of fat will be one of those traumatic images (if only on an aesethetic level) that will stay with me for a long, long time.

As weird as the experience was, though, I found myself actually having fun. And after two more half-glasses of vodka, I found that I was having a whiz-bang of a time. The final toast was to me, for being the sole intrepid American in this uniquely Russian experience. I counter-toasted them for making my banya-going something I won’t soon forget. And then I knocked back all the vodka in one gulp. Andrey said to me in a grave earnest tone, “you drink like a Russian.” I took that as a compliment.

Of course, after four glasses of vodka and three beers I wasn’t merely drunk, sloshed or plastered. I was out of my tiny head. When I arrived home, mom in true Russian tradition was making Borsch. She was also entertaining Donna, a very tall very blonde college student teaching English here and Shirley, the peevish wife of a missionary computer-programmer. (His life project is to make an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations. Yes, clearly what Russia need more than a viable political system, improved health care and a functional infrastructure is an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations.) I staggered into the kitchen, said something unintelligible I’m sure, and then promptly passed out in my bedroom. It wasn’t yet 6 O’clock at night. Later that night, Andrey called. When mom informed him that I was in a vodka coma, we replied with surprise saying, “But we didn’t drink that much.”

That night I felt like I had seen though the stereotypes to glimpse at the real Russia. And perhaps I saw more than I wanted to.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 10: Kazan

I’m in Yoshkar-ola in deepest darkest Russia. We took off for Russia from Frankfurt on Thursday. When we boarded our plane bound for Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, but were airily informed that the Kazan airport was mysteriously closed and that we might have to land in Perm at the base of the Ural mountains. That’s a bit like boarding a plane bound for Detroit and having it land in St. Louis. Fortunately, about 30 minutes before we did land we were told that the Kazan airport had re-opened. As we descended, my first impression of Russia was that it looked like a massive unrelenting expanse of Ohio. This place is crushingly, overwhelming flat. The horizon seems to exert a strange gravity upon the architecture which no matter how tall seems squat and insignificant in comparison with the flatness of the land.

We were met at Kazan by some one named Sveltlana. Through her job, my mother has made a number of connections throughout the country. Most feel a certain degree of obligation to her, after all, it was her job to recruit Russian scholars and once in Bowling Green Ohio acquaint them to American life by finding them an apartment, securing grant money etc. Thus Sveltlana, a kind, well-meaning but naive person, met us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at the home of a Russian family for the night.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Russia remains an empire of sorts. Within its vast expanses lies numerous “autonomous republics.” where specific ethnic groups reside. The most famous and troubled one is Chechnya. Fortunately, Tartarstan and the Mari-El Republic (where Yoshkar-Ola is) is less eager to spurn Russian control and start a bloody guerrilla war. Nonetheless, I found people, particularly in Tartarstan, were much more eager to identify themselves as Tartars than as Russians. The identification is with one’s ethnicity rather than with one’s nationality.

The next day we walked around the center of Kazan see the sights. Unfortunately, it were was a fierce wind along with some snow. Before I left the States, we packed several boxes full of winter clothes to Prague. The boxes, of course, did actually arrive until the day after my mother and I left for here. Fortunately I had enough sense to buy a $6 thick wool sweater in Nepal along with a $9 “North Face” jacket that was probably lovingly crafted by slave labor in Northern India. Kazan seemed to be in the midst of a building frenzy. Much of the construction seems to be directed towards undoing what the Soviets did, like reconstructing churches that were either actively destroyed by the Communists or through willful neglect. They are even reconstructing a large Mosque that was burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible. I was somewhat disappointed with Kazan because a) most of the sights were in the process of reconstruction and b) in all of Tartarstan I saw nary a fishstick.

The next day, Andrey–mom’s primary contact here in Yoshka-Ola–picked us up in a shiny black Russia car, the kind you see KGB agents drive in the movies. To further the image, he was wearing a black leather trench coat. Andrey is a massive individual, with a thick ZZ Top style beard, a large gut and hands the size of hub caps. He looks like, if the situation required it, he could strangle a horse.

This afternoon I’m supposed to go to a Russia Banya with him as my mother continues her research. A Banya is a Russia spa, which I’m told entails lots of Vodka, birch branches, saunas and lots of nudity. Stay tuned…

Existential Panic World Tour Part 9: Off to Russia

This is going to be a regrettably short entry. In about six hours I’m heading off to airport for Russia and I haven’t really started packing. The primary object of this potentially wild and woolly trip is to aid my mother with her PhD dissertation research. Basically for carrying some bags and taking a few notes I get a free trip to exciting Russia. Of course, Russia seems to be getting more exciting by the day. The exchange rate there is fluctuating so rapidly that the State department is advising travelers not to change money into Rubles unless one plans make a purchase within the hour of the transaction. Moreover, a general nation wide strike is scheduled for October 7th. Yup, this is indeed going to be an interesting trip.

First we land in Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan, and stay there for two nights. Then Andrey, our burly contact, will meet us and drive us to Yoshkar-ola the capital of the Mari-El Republic (which is about 1000 miles north of Iran) where we will spend most of our time. Then on the 13th we’re off for Moscow on an 18 hour train. With luck, I’ll be back on the 16th to recount my experiences.

Anyhow, stay tuned.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 8: Prague-o-rama

Well, I’m in Prague. I must say former Eastern Bloc country or not, after Kathmandu this place seems positively luxurious.

I’m staying with my parents in the outside of the city, but near a metro station. Our landlord, a kindly guy with flamboyant facial hair named Mr. Rippl, took it upon himself to redecorate the place in a style befitting the new rapidly Westernizing Prague. He hired a decorator and spared no expense. The result is an odd combination between the cool modernist sensibility of Ikea and a bordello. The door is covered padded leather, there are at least ten large mirrors in this four room apartment, and there is more gold and pink in the master bedroom than in the Trump tower. Nonetheless, there is a TV with CNN and MTV, a shower with actual water pressure and a refrigerator filled with beer and there is nary a lentil in sight.

Our apartment is in a Le Corbusian soviet-style nightmare development. Soulless blocks of flats, each seemingly designed to outdo the next in sheer modernist brutality, extend into the horizon in almost every direction. The Czech have tried some half-hearted attempts at landscape design, but most seem to have weeded over. Nonetheless, there are no stinking mounds of garbage, no ill-tempered, leech-bitten cows wandering in the streets, no ten year-olds hawking hash nor are there any microcephalic children begging for change. Yup, it’s all very quiet here. Of course there are no snake charmers, Tibetan monks or Himalayas either. Can’t have everything.

Anyhow, I spent my final hours in Kathmandu doing some last minute shopping. I bought a sweater, a book on Yetis, and a handful of T-shirts. In virtually every shop they sold calenders with Buddhist imagery printed on handmade paper. I debated buying one but then thought better of it. I left for Kathmandu airport (among one of the most dangerous in the world because the country’s too damned poor to afford radar) on a cab blasting Elton John’s “Goodbye English Rose.” It was an oddly melodramatic moment. I spent several hours languishing in the absolute chaos of the Dehli airport until I boarded my Austrian Air flight. There everything was jarringly clean and orderly. Oopah music was wafting over the PA and the stewardess in their smart fraulein outfits offered everyone bread, cheese and a drink of their choice. I arrived in Prague after about 12 hours total traveling time and with little in the way of a good night’s sleep. I deposited my bags and headed into town. As I sauntered among the beerhalls, the gingerbread architecture, the Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds, and the legions of tourists, I happened upon a small boutique that specialized in Asian knick-knacks. There hanging next
to a pile of Tibetan incense was the EXACT same calendar with the Buddhist imagery that I almost bought in Kathmandu. Suddenly, my lack of sleep caught with me. For one terrifying moment I really wasn’t sure where the hell I was. Was I Nepal? Czechland? Ann Arbor? Fortunately, at that instance my mom slapped me on my back and said, “Let’s go get a beer.” I complied. I needed one.

Anyway, on Thursday I’m off for deepest darkest Russia, which should prove to be at least as wild and woolly as my Nepal escapades.


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