An American Abroad

My Travel Essays & Articles

In the last two years, I’ve had various articles and essays published by the Village Voice of Ottawa Hills, my hometown’s monthly newspaper. They have graciously permitted me to repost those pieces here.

Your Miserable Life Will Soon Be Over

Mom-and-Pop Businesses and BMWs

Where English is a Pose

High Standards and Student Rights

Elephant Unemployment in Northern Laos

Taking the Road to Fuxian Lake

Expatriate Year

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Tunisia: A New Democracy is Born

When American Values Collide with Tunisian Society

Copyright Village Voice of Ottawa Hills. Used by permission.

Nicaragua 2008: The Buses of San Carlos

After a remarkable visit to El Castillo, Spencer and I caught another riverboat, this one going upriver back to San Carlos. We went directly to the bus station and bought tickets for Managua. While we waited, we drank sodas and watched ancient, brightly-painted buses wheeze into the station and pick up or discharge their human cargoes.

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This bus, below, undoubtedly sported the best motto. “Solo Dios Sabe Se Volvere” means “only God knows if we will return” in Nicaraguan Spanish. That slogan seems far more honest than most travel company taglines.

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When it came time for us to embark, I was disappointed that our bus didn’t sport a wild Latin American paint job. Instead, we were directed toward an elderly Bluebird school bus that had been painted (appropriately enough) a washed-out blue.

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We headed around the northern coast of Lake Nicaragua, riding over roads that had enormous ruts and potholes in them. The Bluebird’s shocks and springs had long ago been exhausted, so we felt every one of those bumps right in our kidneys. Sleep was made impossible by the bus’s audio/visual entertainment system, which shrieked out Latin American music videos at a volume its poor little speakers were never meant to handle. It was only marginally less uncomfortable than our ferry ride to San Carlos had been. And yet we both acknowledged that we were having a good time.

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Over nine hours and 292 kilometers (181 miles) after leaving San Carlos, we finally arrived in Managua and checked into the Crowne Plaza, the pyramid-shaped hotel where Howard Hughes lived in the early 1970s. This was the last stop on our Nicaragua itinerary. We were here:

Nicaragua 2008: The Tributaries of the Rio San Juan

Continuing my reminiscences of a journey my son and I took to Granada and El Castillo in 2008 . . .

In El Castillo, Spencer and I inquired around town and found a native-born naturalist with a canoe who agreed to take us deeper into the jungle on the tributaries of the Rio San Juan. We were interested in seeing some of the animals (other than the domesticated species) that inhabit the jungle near the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border. We took two excursions with him, one by day and one by night.

Ironically, the first and most numerous animals I saw during the daylight hours were actually nocturnal. There were short-tailed bats (possibly of the genus Carollia) clinging to the sides of trees along the riverbanks, presumably sleeping and awaiting the evening hours.

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We also spied some bright green iguanas along the riverbank, though they blended in so well with the foliage we had to be lucky to see one contrasted against a darker background.

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As we meandered through the streams and tributaries, we caught glimpses of some primate species high in the trees above. They were so far off the ground — and I had such an inadequate little point-and-shoot digital camera — that I wasn’t able to get any good pictures of them. But we certainly heard them chattering as we approached. But we did get close enough to some of the river birds to get their pictures. This anhinga (whose name means snake bird or devil bird) was out fishing on a rock in the middle of the stream

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When we weren’t focused on animals, my son and I relaxed under the hot, clear skies. Occasionally we’d look at each other and say something like “Holy shit — we’re in Nicaragua.”


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During our nighttime excursion, our guide used a searchlight to locate some of the river animals, whom we saw first by their eyes glowing weirdly as the light swept over them. This juvenile alligator freaked me out a little. It was so primitive-looking. Looking at it at night in the middle of the Central American jungle made feel like I’d been transported back in time 10,000 years or more. He belonged there. I didn’t.

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In contrast, this mourning dove seemed almost out of place in the jungle; I wondered why he wasn’t back at home in a big city.

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This adolescent green iguana was very friendly; he would have come home with us if we’d wanted.

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When he grows up, he’ll look something like this.

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We caught frogs and caught glimpses of other birds that night. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t come across any larger animals.


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So ended my first (and so far only) trip into a tropical jungle. That brief excursion birthed a number of dreams that I’ve not yet realized. I still stare at maps of the Amazon and the Congo and hope that someday I’ll be able to tackle those far more forbidding riverine environments.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 3

The authors of the books featured this week have distinctive voices, the kind you can identify from a single paragraph.

There’s the amphetamine-fueled Beat Generation prose of Jack Kerouac. The media-drenched flat affect of Alex Garland. The compassionate and erudite tut-tutting of Theodore Dalrymple. The dreamlike unreliable narration of James Salter. The sardonically twinned Thai and western perspectives of John Burdett’s Thai/American police detective. These voices speak to me still.


Yes, that’s me in the photo. I’ve been a reader since I was a kid.

Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you’re interested in other books I’ve enjoyed, check out Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, or go to my buy page.

On the Road
Jack Kerouac
This classic beat novel never really grabbed me and shook me, but it has become something more like an casual friend -- the kind of guy you're never intimately close to, but who shows up in your life from time to time with stories of interesting adventures and then disappears again for months or years at a time. Kerouac's prose is as relentless as his characters' peregrinations across the US, their late-night bull sessions, and their thirst for the sensate. As his protagonist and stand-in, Sal Paradise, says, "[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
The Beach
Alex Garland
Comparing this book to, say, Michener's The Drifters,
one can see how much youth culture has changed in fifty years. The Beach is a fusion of video games, movies, violence, dark politics, and -- oh yeah, travel. There are drugs, too, but whereas in earlier travel books drugs are seen as routes to spiritual bonding, here they lead generally to bad trips of both the figurative and literal type. Garland also offers a sharp critique of hipper-than-thou western travelers who glom onto a beautiful "undiscovered" spot somewhere in the developing world and ultimately wind up ruining the things that made it so special.
Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple
(Available for Kindle only)
Theodore Dalrymple's real name is Anthony Daniels. He has been quoted as saying he chose his nom de plume because he wanted "a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world." This is to say that he is a man of conservative mien and mind. But whereas many conservatives who travel (the awful P.J. O'Rourke comes to mind) put on a sneer and leave compassion at home, Dalrymple seems truly to care about the poor people of Africa he encounters in his overland journey from Zanzibar to Timbuktu. There is compassion for the impoverished, the criminal, and the crazy. And damn, the man can write.
A Sport and a Pastime
James Salter
By telling his tale of an affair between a ne'er-do-well American college kid and a rather ordinary French shopgirl through the voice of a man who knew them only peripherally, Salter was able to give his prose a shimmering, dream-like quality. Our narrator frankly admits he is embellishing, filling in details, adding things he couldn't possibly know. His descriptions of the couple's sweetly transgressive sodomy, for instance, tell us more about what's really going on in the narrator's head than what's going on in the couple's bed. The flashy, expensive, but decaying car the couple borrow and drive around France feels like something out of The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, the reader never doubts that Salter's couple is racing toward its demise, but we are only too glad to go along for the ride. One of the most neglected and underrated prose stylists of the mid-twentieth century, Salter has written a book that illuminates the almost inherently doomed nature of even the most torrid expatriate seductions.
The Royal Thai Detective Novels
John Burdett
Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

Bangkok Tattoo: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (2)

Bangkok Haunts: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (3)

The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4)

Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (5)

I'm cheating with my counting here, since there are five books (to date) in this series about police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former gangster, former Buddhist monk, and current member of the Bangkok police force. The books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu, and Vulture Peak) hang together well, with story arcs that go from volume to volume. I first read Bangkok 8 on a trip to Thailand at Christmas time, 2013. I concluded then that it was a far better and deeper guide to the city than Lonely Planet.

As a whole, the series is about corruption: of the flesh, of the political process, of law enforcement, of daily life. But these books are no jeremiads. Indeed, they go out of their way to explain how what we in the west view as corruption has a rational basis in the Thai mentality. Along the way, Burdett explores the conflicts between farang (foreign) and Thai culture, Thai attitudes toward sex, drugs, and popular culture, and between powerful factions in Thai society. The protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, narrates all five books in the first person and frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, often in a way that challenges foreign assumptions about Thailand and its people.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 2

This week’s entry in my series about books that made me a traveler is all over the map. Literally. Iran, the Caribbean, Congo, the road from Istanbul to India, and South America are all represented in these selections. What these books have in common are stories about overcoming fears and overcoming odds. I read some of these while I was dreaming of travel and others while I was on the road in China and Tunisia.

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Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you are interested in other books I’ve read recently, check out Part 1 of this series, or go to my buy page.

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker's Adventures in the New Iran
Jamie Maslin
One of the best things a travel book can do is to de-cartoonify a country and its people. Many of my countrymen have a cartoon image of Iran as a place of joyless religious fanatics moving in ignorant lockstep to the edicts of stern ayatollahs and their murderous henchmen. Maslin's book humanizes the Iranians, especially the young people of that country who delight in finding ways around the no-sex no-drugs no-fun mores of the Islamic Republic. The author of this raucous but informative book goes to private parties in people's homes that, in their touching awkwardness, reminded me of high school dances. He rides in fast cars. He listens to ridiculous European bands no one outside Iran has ever heard of. He and his newfound Iranian friends watch porn and do drugs. The very things that make Western culture so superficial and alluring become revolutionary aspirations for an oppressed people.
Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe
If you can lay aside the heavy doses of Christian religiosity that sidetrack the narrative every twenty pages or so, what's left is a good story about self-reliance in an alien environment. Crusoe is a 17th century MacGyver, solving the practical problems of living on a deserted island with a series of clever improvisations. He meets and befriends both natives and other westerners. I read this classic while I lived in China and found it to be a pretty good metaphor for expat living.
Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo
Vanessa Woods
Bonobos are the primates whose genetic makeup is closest to that of homo sapiens, sharing 98.7% of our DNA. They live in matriarchal troupes, engage in frequent and imaginative sex as a way of defusing social tensions, and are generally more peaceful than other primate species. This makes them very interesting to primate scientists. Two such scientists (the author and her boyfriend) move to a bonobo preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo to conduct primate research. There they discover much about the animals, the Congo, and themselves. Woods subtly and humorously compares her boyfriend's behavior to bonobo behavior, and it's not always clear who comes out better.
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India
Rory MacLean
Back in the 1960s, there were these people called hippies who came from North America and West Europe. They grew their hair long and took drugs and traveled overland through western Asia all the way to the promised land, which turned out to be India. Along the way, they invented a whole genre of travel and had a significant impact on the economic and social lives of many of the south Asian communities they visited. This book does a neat job of showing how that generation's ideals and imagination helped to create modern travel -- and how the remnants of that generation are keeping those ideals alive today.
Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey
Glen Heggstad
If I had to point to just one book that formed my ideas about travel, this would be it. It's an account of how the author, a former Hell's Angel and current martial arts instructor, decides to motorcycle from California to the southern tip of South America and back. He rides alone, but with a woman on his mind. He is disciplined, but takes risks. He's tough, but compassionate. He's got a code, but he's not an ideologue. All goes well until he is kidnapped by a guerrilla army in Colombia and held captive for five grueling weeks. Once released, he is forcefully told by the U.S. Embassy in Bogota that he should leave the country as soon as he recovers his strength. He refuses. Instead, friends back home ship him a new motorcycle and he continues his ride and completes it. Along the way he is robbed, almost frozen, and suffers mechanical and personal breakdowns. And yet he perseveres.

Nicaragua 2008: The Dogs of El Castillo (Plus a Couple of Horses)

Caution: dangerous generalization ahead.

When I was in the jungle town of El Castillo, Nicaragua in 2008, I was surprised to see so many dogs. I noted with pleasure and approval that the dogs generally looked cared for, well-fed, and to belong to individual households. I don’t recall seeing a single stray there.

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The dangerous generalization is that you can tell something about the general happiness of a town and its citizens by how happy their dogs look.

There were no cars in El Castillo and no roads where you could drive one if you wanted to. I did see men coming into town on horseback, though — something else I didn’t expect in the jungle.

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Nicaragua 2008: The Town of El Castillo

(This is a continuation of my narrative of a trip I took to Nicaragua seven years ago.)

We awoke the morning after our journey down the Rio San Juan to find ourselves in the Victoria Hotel. Since the power had been out when we arrived the night before, we hadn’t had the chance to check out out accommodations. Now we took advantage of the daylight to discover a simple but friendly place which served us a good breakfast. We then set out to explore the town we had traveled so far to see.

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El Castillo is a small settlement on the northern bank of the Rio San Juan, near the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The town is sited on a hill by a river bend where the usually-calm waters turn to rapids. This geography made the location the ideal spot to build a fort to defend the river, which is just what the Spanish did in 1673. The bend in the river would force hostile craft coming along the rover to stay within cannon range for a longer period of time than a straightaway would. The rapids would make it difficult for an enemy ship to hold its position long enough to direct cannon fire back at the town. The hill would give the town’s defenders a superior tactical position. Over the centuries, various naval battles took place here as the Spanish fought both pirate ships and the British Navy. In one such battle, the British forces were commanded by a then-22 year old Lord Nelson. The river is still vital to the town; even at the time our our 2008 visit, it was the only practical way in and out of El Castillo.

We found a mellow, slow-going town which seemed to have escaped the extreme poverty we saw as we passed other settlements on the river. There were a couple of restaurants which, during our time in El Castillo, served only chicken as a main course.

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I got my first-ever look inside a restaurant kitchen in the developing world and was struck by its small size, its use of every available space, and its thoughtful organization.

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There were also some small stores in town where water, bug dope, cigarettes and beer could be purchased.

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One institution I was surprised to find in such a small, isolated outpost was Alcoholics Anonymous (“Unity, Service, Recovery”).

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The signs of other paths to redemption were evident too.

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I didn’t know if the name written on the wall was the name of the bird who always sat on his perch in front of it, but I took to calling him Marvin nonetheless.

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Housing was simple but well-kept.

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I had never been anyplace like El Castillo before, a town that was so self-contained, so cut off from the rest of the region. It felt peaceful and quietly prosperous. The animals there were well-fed. The school uniforms on the children walking to class were clean and tidy. The buildings were simple but pleasing to the eye. My son and I seemed to be the only foreigners in town, but our presence was taken in stride by the locals who neither ignored us nor swarmed over us, but were more than willing to talk with us. Our interactions with them furthered my impression of the Nicaraguan people as generally reserved and friendly.

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 1

Literature and travel are tightly linked with me. Back when I graduated from college, bought a Eurail Pass, and backpacked through western Europe, I learned to love the racks of Penguin and Pelican paperbacks that seemed to be stationed in every convenience store. I read my way through train rides, solo meals, and rainy days. The books I bought added noticeably to the weight of my pack, until I finally, reluctantly, and for the first time in my life began leaving books behind after reading them.

Later in life, I was a founding member of a book group that reads only literature in translation. Our group traveled the world through literature. We also made a point to serve the food and spirits native to the country that produced whatever book we were reading. Through that, I learned to appreciate the literature of the non-English speaking world and added a number of must-sees to my travel list.

Still later, when I was going through a difficult emotional time, one fraught with many losses, I turned to travel books to enable my imagination to roam the world and to help me forget my woes. During one six-month period, I brought a book — usually a travel book — to a biker/bikini bar four or five nights a week, camped out on a barstool, and read while chaos roared behind me.

More recently, books have been an essential part of my expat life. As wonderful as living in another culture can be, it also has its share of lonely stretches. Reading gets me through those. After weeks and months of immersion in another language, it’s a delight to become reacquainted with English.

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The books I enjoyed most were those about travel adventure. “Adventure,” though, is a much-overused word. Many folks apply it to some mildly exciting trip that goes according to plan. Not me. I think of adventure as what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Ziplining in Mexico? Not an adventure. Being interrogated by the police in Tunisia on suspicion of fornication? Definitely an adventure.

Then there are other books that aren’t specifically about travel, but take place in foreign locations and/or involve expatriates. Graham Greene is the gold standard here; I learned about much of the world through his stories of weary British expats living in the developing world.

Here, then, is the first installment of the forty books that made me a traveler. You can read Part 2 here or visit my buy page. I’ll put up a new installment every week or so. Each of these books is hyperlinked to Amazon. Buying a book through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy exploring this literature — and please let me know what you think of my selections.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene
I had a prejudice against this book for a long time after I read it due to its title. The titular American isn't any quieter than any other character. At one point, Greene simply tells us that he was, as if that settles things. But that cavil aside, this is a fine -- perhaps definitive -- portrait of expat life during the 1950s. It warns against the hubris of ideologically-driven westerners who come to tropical lands full of theories to test on the natives. On a more powerfully emotional level, though, this is a book about the strange and unequal relationships between expats and their native lovers, the way they romanticize each other, and the grief they often come to.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
Paul Theroux
Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux took a train trip from Boston to Patagonia. He loved putting his hand on the Red Line tracks in Boston and being connected to Argentina by a ribbon of steel. It wasn't literally true, of course, but the image stayed with me and made me a fan of train travel throughout the world. And the fact that I read substantial portions of it while actually riding the Red Line made adventure travel seem all the more possible. He took books with him as he traveled, like I do, and blended what he was reading at the time with what he was seeing as he rode the rails.
South: The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
My favorite definition of "adventure" is what happens when things don't go according to plan. By that standard, Shackleton and his crew had adventures up the wazoo. Heading for Antarctica, they were shipwrecked and then made a daring, if not crazy, journey across the southern ocean in an open boat to reach an island where they might stand some hope of being rescued. There's a lot of technical, nautical and meteorological data to wade through, but Shackleton's leadership skills shine through the jargon. And the bravery and stalwartness of his crew convinced me that he couldn't have chosen a finer posse to accompany him to the ends of the earth. The fact that every last man survived the ordeal is an incredible testament to human strength and perseverance in the face of the most daunting odds.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Robert Pirsig
I first read this classic when I was in my teens and it didn't do much for me. Almost four decades later, though, I reread it and it made a great deal more sense. Pirsig was brilliant yet mentally ill and went to pieces in a way that destroyed his marriage and terrified his young son. The motorcycle trip he took from Minnesota to California was his attempt to reassemble his very self. It's also about his obsession with the metaphysics of quality, a theory he developed to connect the objective with the subjective. When I became a motorcyclist myself, I identified completely with the contemplative states Pirsig entered into while rolling through Montana. This is a book that satisfies dramatically, intellectually, and spiritually. I was surprised and gratified earlier this year when I spotted two twenty-something women reading it at a hostel in Sri Lanka. The book has stood the test of time.
The Royal Road to Romance
Richard Halliburton
This is a -- no, the -- classic wanderlust book. In the 1920s, Richard Halliburton, a small-town merchant's son from Tennessee, was more famous than Amelia Earhart. The Royal Road to Romance, an account of his travels from the Alps to Andorra to India to Panama, served as the basis for his profitable work on the American lecture circuit. He continued to travel and have adventures all over the world until he was lost at sea in 1939 while attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk. He traveled with a insouciant attitude toward money, convention, and officialdom. This led to him being jailed as a spy in Gibraltar, spending the night at the Taj Mahal, evading fares on various trains, and climbing the Matterhorn despite being utterly ignorant of mountain climbing and woefully under-equipped. Though they may not know it, every backpacker who has set off for a foreign land with a light wallet and no firm plans is following in Halliburton's footsteps.

Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

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On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

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Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

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Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

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The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

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