An American Abroad

By Scooter from Willemstad to Westpunt

On Saturday, I picked up a little no-name Vespa-style scooter from NR1 Scooter Rental to bomb around on for a few days.

And so on Sunday, I took advantage of being mobile to get out of Willemstad and see more of Curaçao. I planned a trip to Westpunt, a place locally known for its sea turtles and its laid-back atmosphere. My hotelier told me that it was quite the hippie hangout back in the day. It sounded like my kind of place.

Curaçao is shaped like a bent, misshapen cigar that’s angled northwest to southeast. Willemstad is in the southeastern fifth, while Westpunt is (as its name suggests) at the extreme northwestern end, a distance of about 48 kilometers.

I had traveled about a third of that distance before it started to rain. I’d been in Curaçao for 13 days and hadn’t seen a drop of rain before then. But now the roadway was wet and I was anxiously trying to keep the scooter off the oil stripe that marked the center of my lane.

By the time I got to Westpunt, the front of my shirt and pants was thoroughly soaked. I locked the scooter to a signpost and headed toward a beach called Playa Grandi (big beach) by the mapmakers and Playa Piscado (fish beach) by the locals. I was here:

I followed the sign and walked through some tropical woods toward the sea.

As I approached, I heard jazz echoing from the beach, standards like “Satin Doll” and “One Note Samba.” Until this point, my experience of the Curaçao beach scene was limited to Mambo Beach, a man-made stretch of sand and restaurants about four kilometers east of my hostel in Willemstad. They don’t play jazz there. It’s a very nice place, with lots of mid- to upscale eateries and bars, a Starbucks and a Subway, and little shops selling higher end T-shirts and clothing.

Playa Piscado, however, was not only about as far from Mambo Beach geographically as one can get on Curaçao, but was also as different in terms of atmosphere as one could imagine. It isn’t a beach where the Beautiful People go to see and be seen. It’s a local place, definitely down-home. I fell in love with it immediately.

The big attraction on Playa Piscado are the sea turtles, which swim in the clear waters just a few meters offshore. I walked out on the dock and took a look.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, I saw my first-ever sea turtle in the wild. My girlfriend Lori Seubert, my go-to with all questions about plants and animals, identified it via photos I sent her as a Green Sea Turtle.

I wasn’t the only one looking for turtles.

Then as I was scanning the waters, this unusual bird alighted on the dock beside me. Lori thinks it’s a juvenile Green Heron.

The turtles and the birds are attracted by the bits of fish guts the fishermen throw into the water after cleaning their day’s catch.

Playa Piscado isn’t very sandy; it’s a bed of coral fragments. And there are no fancy restaurants, just local hole-in-the-wall places. Literally: this place was recessed into a shallow cave.

The Beautiful People don’t hang out here. The people who were there on that rainy Sunday came to see the animals and just hang out. That was just fine by me.

Everything I saw–the boats on the clear sea, the relatively modest houses lining the cliffs by the beach, and the chickens bustling about the wreck of an old wooden boat–spoke to me of a calm, unpretentious life here on the less-traveled end of a relatively obscure southern Caribbean island.

By the time my clothes had dried out, it was time to head home. I walked the path back to my scooter, noting the rather alarming signs along the way.

Where the trail joins the road, I was greeted by this installation. Perhaps a remnant of the beach’s hippie heritage?

Since the rain had stopped, more cars were pulling off the road to park. An ice cream truck was just pulling up. I caught a glimpse of its dashboard and decided it would take an entire team of semioticians and pop culture historians at least a decade to work out all the references there.

My scooter was just where I’d left it–and hard to miss with the big blue and white arrow pointing it out.

I hopped on and rode back to Willemstad, singing jazz standards into my helmet as I drove.

Every Moto Tells A Story, Don’t It?

Some of the battered motos of Santo Domingo have been stripped naked of all fairings and upholstery and now are little more than frames with 50cc motors and wheels. Some have suffered the indignity of serving as pack mules. And some still wear their manufacturer’s clothes, even if they’re going thin at the knees and elbows.

It’s tempting to shoot for a big metaphor here, and if I knew the Dominican people better, I might try. But only three days in the DR doesn’t give me much ground to stand on. So I’ll only say that for each bike, there is a story to be told about what it was like when it was new, who all its owners have been, and what its unique circumstances are.

Old Weird French Cars

I shot most of these in Sousse, Tunisia.










Cambodia: Siem Reap

Siem Reap was a pleasant surprise. Since it’s the town closest to Angkor, I expected a ticky-tacky tourist town, just a place for people to stay en route to the ruins. It is a tourist town, but as the genre goes, it’s a nice one. It’s here:

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The first thing I did upon getting to town was to get a haircut at the Fine Day Barber Shop. There is a certain frisson about not being able to communicate well with your barber.

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And as he put the straight razor to my neck, I wondered if the tens of thousands of tons of bombs that America “secretly” dropped on his country 45 years ago killed many of his relatives.


I also found that the Angkor National Museum does a good job of showcasing and explaining Angkor civilization and putting the area’s ruins in historical context.

The town has a lovely and well-tended park that runs along the Siem Reap River, which cuts through the middle of the town.

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For those whose tastes run more toward the vehicular, Cambodia’s climate does a good job of preserving the classics.

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There are many shops, ranging from the tony to the homespun — and even the latter are neat and tidy.

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After living in Yuxi for ten months, I found myself craving non-Chinese food. Especially enjoyed the beef stew at Molly Malone’s, an Irish pub run by a half-French half-Cameroonian man and his Irish wife. I swapped lies with him while holding down the Bullshit Corner at the bar.

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On another night, as I wandered around town, I caught sight of Boston Red Sox posters hanging above the bar at Belmiro’s Pizza & Subs. Being a former Bostonian, I wandered in for the first pizza I’ve had since Christmas. It’s a great establishment, run by Belmiro Barros, a self-described “kid from Marion, Massachusetts” who got sick of a career in international finance and decided to open a restaurant in Siem Reap. Pizza and conversation were both very good.

There were posters up in the coffee shops and guesthouses advertising jazz concerts, dance recitals, a circus, and art gallery openings. After a few days there, I left thinking that even if Angkor was not just a tuk tuk ride away, Siem Reap would be a fine place to visit or to live.

Surprising Message on a Chevrolet

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Three-Wheeled Addendum

When I was describing the three-wheeled vehicles of Yuxi recently, I forgot about this beauty:
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Wheels: Two and Three

Half the vehicles on the roads of Yuxi have two or three wheels. The vast majority of the two-wheeled variety are scooters and small motorcycles. Bicycles may have reigned supreme on Chinese streets forty years ago, but they are a tiny minority today in Yuxi.

Most of the scooters are electric. They whir by so quietly that they often take me by surprise.
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By law, motorcycles can have an engine displacement of no more than 150cc. That’s tiny. The first photo below is of a mototaxi. They hang out at almost every intersection in town and will take you wherever you want to go in town for ¥5 (about $0.80). Note the two helmets: one for the driver, one for his passenger.
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The most interesting and unusual vehicles here are the three-wheeled mini-trucks. These have a motorcycle front end and engine married to a flatbed. Some of them are electric. The carry everything from furniture to flowers. Some have coal-fired cookstoves on their backs and function as food carts.
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There are still some of their pedal-powered forebears on the roads. They’re built to last. Note the three downtubes on this first one.
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