Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip. Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.
I spent three years traveling. Backpacking. And I did it with my best friend and life partner. We got hitched right after I handed in my doctoral dissertation. Of course, like all newlyweds, we honeymooned in Hawaii but, unlike others, we began our married lives, quite literally, as homeless people: camping in beach parks, hitchhiking from spot to spot, depending upon the kindness of strangers.
It was the most fun I ever had.
We bought our expensive tent from the wilderness store—the one that the Hollywood executives frequented–with the rows of gleaming BMW’s parked out front. “At least this way, folks will know the difference between us and the homeless people.” I was just trying to take away the sting from the sticker shock of buying so much expensive gear. In one visit, we spent several thousand dollars. We only got top of the line stuff.
It was just a lame joke but this would prove prophetic: the indigent in Hawaii abound in the many beach parks, which boast the very best, the choicest land; that is why so many homeless flock to these parks–that and the fact that the Hawaiian rangers have a hard time finding it in their hearts to dislodge those already displaced. The upshot: beach parks are filled with people who are making the most of their situation.
If it weren’t for a few signal differences, it would have been easy for us to be mistaken as one of our peers who were down on their luck. And we made a number of great friends–John from Alaska who had been through such a terrible divorce it caused him to bicycle from Alaska to California to Hawaii; Steve who was getting over his bipolar disorder by enjoying all the island’s rainbows.
What was the essential difference between us and them? Well, the homeless have terrible gear: Coleman tents—domed numbers that can turn into kites with a brisk wind. Alaska John’s tent caught on fire one night. He probably shouldn’t have been cooking in it.
After a year, traveling gets tedious—at least the conventional way of schlepping about: moving quickly; covering as much ground as humanly possible; crossing off all the sites; visiting temple-after-temple. It takes a toll. So, we developed a pattern of settling in one place for a month and then—zoom—taking off for another month of extended travel. Like birds of passage at a watering hole, we hunkered down for a spell and got to really know an area.
And this is how I’ve done it ever since—even after the three years of constant traveling came to a close. A month-long stay is conducive to a writer’s life. It also allows you to get to know a neighborhood. You favor a certain bar and café. You frequent certain shops. People get to know your face and, sometimes, even your name. You become a regular—incorporated into the life of a neighborhood: a welcome sight–you become part of the world of the expected.
The secret of doing this well—the secret to getting some great writing done in the process—is a bit counter-intuitive and flies against the typical advice that young, budget travelers bandy about: don’t cheap out on your digs; splurge on your accommodations. Spend every spare nickel and dime on a pad you can spend a lot of time in. If you’re a true writer, you will no doubt fritter the better part of the day inside. So, try for an ocean view. Go for the doorman building. Get air conditioning. Make sure you have tasteful art. High class appliances are a must. You can economize in other ways.
Secure an apartment in a truly nice neighborhood. I loved my little piso in Palermo Viejo—the upper middle class section of Buenos Aires with its many boutiques and restaurants and bars. It was right off a plaza with views of a cathedral. During my jog, the little private school kids would be let out for lunch and they would swarm in a swirl of uniforms; it was just like swimming through schools of fish–the sort you might see among the coral reefs of Hawaii. Afterwards, I ate empanadas at the corner bakery: three for a dollar.
Paying the most that you can for accommodation often runs counter to the code of the budget traveler, which states that accommodation is the lowest priority–simply a place to sleep. Within this worldview, you should spend as little money on your bed. That way you can buy booze and go parasailing and pick up an especially nice sombrero.
But to a writer, an apartment is more than simply a place to lay one’s head. It’s ground zero: headquarters–the tent in the vast terra incognita in which you plan campaigns that will take you into the heart of darkness. I have a lot of fond memories of my old neighborhoods. The apartments live forever in my memory. All the people–the butcher, bartender, grocer–have become characters, if not in my fiction, than in my imagination. I hardly remember my visits to the National Museum and I do not cherish all those sombreros sitting in my closet, taking up space, ready to go to Goodwill.
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