Friday, April 22, 2011

Confessions Of A Traveling Clinton-Phile

I count a number of conservatives and Republicans (and perhaps even Tea-Partiers?) among my biggest blog fans, so it is with some hesitation that I write this post, for fear of alienating my base. But this is a blog, not politics, so I feel I must my write my truth and hope that the fans stick with me.  

And the truth is this:  I positively adore former President Bill Clinton, otherwise affectionately known as The Big Dog, The Comeback Kid, The Man From Hope, Bubba.  Most recently President Clinton’s been dubbed “President of the World,” and from what I’ve experienced, that’s actually not too far off base.  Out here he's considered an international political rock star, and from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Kasane, Botswana to—last week—Pristina, Kosovo, I’ve joyfully ridden President Clinton’s political-star coattails during my own journeys around the globe.

I started on President Clinton’s trail back in June 2007 during a visit to Vietnam.  I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that President Clinton had visited a certain traditional Vietnamese pho restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, Saigon) near the city’s main outdoor market.  After the visit, the owner renamed the restaurant Pho 2000:  Pho for the President.  Of course I high-tailed it down there at the first opportunity.
As an American, I felt funny traveling through Vietnam.  I didn’t quite know how I would be received considering historical events.  I was happy when I entered Pho 2000 and saw professionally framed pictures of Bill and Chelsea Clinton gracing every wall.

I spent time inspecting the photographs, and then ran across a framed Saigon Times article describing the President’s visit.  It said that President Clinton had, among other things, the pho ga, or chicken.  I sat down at a table and told my waiter:  “I’ll have what President Clinton had,” while pointing to it on the menu.  Bill also had fresh papaya juice, the article said, so I ordered that too.  Soon I was served a humungous bowl of the most flavorful Vietnamese pho I’d ever tasted, along with fresh papaya juice served from a coconut shell and straw.  It was thrilling.

What President Clinton had.
Later I would learn that President Clinton significantly contributed to normalizing relations with Vietnam.   In fact, Clinton was the first U.S. head of state to visit Vietnam since the end of the war. During his tenure, the economic embargo against Vietnam was lifted, diplomatic relations were restored, and the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement.

Months later, on a visit to Kasane, Botswana, I learned that both Bill and Hillary had stayed in the Mowana Safari Lodge on a state visit in March 1998.  I was staying in cheaper digs—a campground on the outskirts of town—a couple kilometers' walk from the Mowana.  Of course, as soon as I dropped my pack in my tent, I started down the long, dusty road in the direction of the now-famous-for-the-Clintons'-visit lodge.  

In the lobby I found framed photographs depicting scenes from the Clintons’ visit to Kasane and the nearby Chobe Game Reserve (where I was headed too).  I went to the bar, whose veranda overlooked the peaceful Chobe River, and sipped a diet coke while the barman and I talked politics—both African and American.  I confessed my fondness for the Clintons, and asked where I might find the room in which they had stayed.  He walked me across the property and showed it to me.

On the door was a gold plaque that read:  “The Clinton Suite:  To commemorate President Clinton and The First Lady’s State Visit to Botswana, 30 March 1998.”  I snapped a picture.

The Mowana Safari Lodge.
The barman.
The Chobe River.
I enjoyed shooting the breeze with the barman, so each day I would stop into the Mowana for some more chat and relaxation by the river.  On my last day, the barman offered to ask the manager if I could go inside the Clinton Suite, and of course I jumped at the chance.  Together we walked to the opposite side of the lodge where a young woman met us with a key to the room.  I went in and sat on the bed where the President and First Lady slept.  Next I stepped inside the bathroom where I imagined Bill standing before the mirror shaving, or Hillary putting on some lipstick.

Where the Clintons slept.

Where the Clintons ???

I should pause here and add some context, so you don’t think I’m the biggest Clinton-phile freak on the planet.  The thing is, when I traveled around the globe in 2007, I was met with a barrage of anti-American sentiment from fellow travelers, the international media, and other forms of art and graffiti on the street. 

I remember feeling sad as I stood on the famous Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, taking in a mural depicting President George W. Bush as “America’s Greatest Failure,” while other tourists stood nearby bashing America.  I didn’t like to see the words “Fuck America” spray-painted on the side of Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia.  Even in Israel—America’s supposed BFF—someone had spray painted “Yankees Go Home” next to a hammer-and-sickle on a wall near the American Embassy. 

The Falls Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Anti-American graffiti in Croatia.

Near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.
From these experiences and others I learned that, regardless of which political party has my loyalty, or with what government policies I agree, in general, America-bashing always stings, especially for an American traveling alone in the world.

Fast forward to Kosovo 2011.  I had heard from others that a major street in Pristina had been renamed after Bill Clinton, and also a statue was erected there in his honor.  There was also a rumor circulating that certain discounts around town could be had for people carrying American passports.  Of course I needed to experience this.

I rolled into Pristina and asked around the bus station how I could find Bill Clinton Avenue.  People smiled at hearing his name through my American accent, and helped me find the way.  Soon I was on a major boulevard where, ahead in the distance, I could see a huge billboard of President Clinton’s face smiling down at me.

I continued to climb up Bill Clinton (the street) and soon I was standing next to his statue, close to which an American flag was flying.  This is how I was welcomed to Kosovo.  I couldn’t have been more excited.  I spent almost a week in Kosovo basking in the nonstop America-lovefest which blossomed from certain decisions made during the Clinton Administration.  I loved every minute of it.  Just like Bill, I love to be loved.

So, yes, it’s a nice contrast to see, in foreign lands, a statue of an American president, people excited about a state visit, and presidential memoirs for sale in bookshops halfway around the world.  The fact is, in some places, Bill Clinton’s role as a respected past leader and current humanitarian has sometimes made things more pleasant for me as an American traveler.  And in the end, isn't politics all about what someone can do for me?  I'm sure that's what The Big Dog would say.

Clinton memoirs in a Hanoi, Vietnam bookstore.

Clinton memoirs on street in Kosovo.