Another Sex Altogether

In Morocco, traditionally, and in the Muslim desert cultures of the Sahara, the men and women eat separately. A visiting Western man would eat with the men, who never know what to do with visiting Western women. She’s an honored foreign guest, but she’s also a woman.

In Indonesia, my friend Rachel lived in a house with other girls, Indonesian and foreign students. Every guy in the neighborhood tried to get in their collective pants. Rachel could and once did allow this. The Indonesian girls would have been shunned by their mothers, and these same men.

In Thailand, there are no gay men. There are plenty of lady-boys, who are more or less accepted and known as kathoey. The kathoey are sometimes also transexual. The straight tourists are shocked by this; the gay tourists offend the locals. 

Our differences expose us.

The 2009 Writer’s Travel Scholarship


Write something, win a round-trip ticket to anywhere. Really. The 2009 Writer’s Travel Scholarship is now accepting submissions at This short-form writing contest, now in its fifth year, is open to all writers and aspiring writers. Entries must be 10,000 words or less and can be fiction or non-fiction on any topic — we’re not looking specifically for travel writing.

Submissions accepted through April 30th. Full details here.

I think everyone needs to get out and see the world, especially those who are inclined, for whatever reason, to tell someone else about it later. Write, and go forth!

Kathmandu Questions

4 April 2008, to Jenafir

Children in Kathmandu

I’m in Kathmandu and thinking of you. I visited the Swayambhunath temple this afternoon, up on its hill overlooking the valley. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and it opened me up in the way only real beauty can, cut through all the jaded traveler in me. I haven’t been home since we worked together a year ago – you know that. It will be time for me to return to San Francisco soon. But what I wanted to talk to you about today is the two little boys that accompanied me to the temple and back.

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Identity Card

Discriminatory rooming ad in Dubai

There are four official languages in Singapore: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. This reflects the four major peoples who came to populate the city-state: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and colonial British. Every citizen of Singapore is issued a piece of government ID (the National Registration Identity Card) which has one of these races printed on it.

Does this discourage people from having mixed-race children?

Singapore twists the Asian brain.  Just about every other Asian country is uni-cultural, at least according to the mainstream narrative. The Japanese people live in Japan and speak Japanese. The Vietnamese live in Vietnam and speak Vietanamese. The Thai people live in Thailand and speak Thai. Etc. This makes identity really easy — except if you live in Singapore, and there’s no Singaporean race, no Singaporean language, no ancient and venerable Singaporean hertitage. Blood and place and language and culture used to be inextricable, but we can no longer use any of these things to define one another. Fortunately, it says what you are right there on the card. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea.

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A Dozen Things You Notice About The Developing World

It’s very hard to understand the world in the abstract, without walking its cracked pavement or trying to have a conversation with someone impossibly different from you. Wikipedia defines a “developing country” as a nation “that has not reached Western-style standards of democratic government, free market economy, industrialization, social programs, and human rights guarantees for their citizens.” But this glossy language never prepared me for the things I saw almost immediately that first time I landed somewhere poor. This list is a primer for those who have not yet had the mind-blowing experience of stepping outside the castle walls.

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The Sexual Revolution was not Global

In my travels through the developing world, one thing that consistently struck me was the way that men stereotype women sexually. Countries such as Morocco, Ethiopia, Oman and India are still very socially conservative by Western standards. Typically, there is a double standard, where men are allowed or expected to be sexual and women are not.

I had a long conversation with a young man on the train from Chennai to Calcutta. He’s a college student, studying for his BCom like so many others, so that he can start a business. We, two young men with 40 hours to kill, got to talking about women. He told me with a lopsided grin that he’d had a number of girlfriends. But he wouldn’t marry any of them. They weren’t the marrying type. His wife would be a virgin.

To this man, and many others I spoke to, women basically fell into two categories: sexual and reputable. It’s the old dichotomy: Madonna/whore, wife/slut, good girl, bad girl. Of course, the bad girls are more sexually desirable. And I’ve just discovered some careful research that confirms my perception of their perceptions.

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