Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Massage, Museum, and Mekong

Day One – A few days ago we touched down in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, but still referred to as Saigon by most people here) in Vietnam. We easily found our hostel, centrally located with the friendliest staff imaginable. After putting down our packs and consulting a map, we headed out in search of a particular massage clinic. After navigating around several blocks worth of muddy puddles, broken sidewalk, fruit rinds, and staying clear of the motorbikes careening on and off the walkway, we found the building. The Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Institute offers hour-long massages for a mere $2.50, but what is even more significant, is that all the masseurs are blind. If I’m being honest, initially I was a little uncomfortable upon entering and being hand-led to the massage table. My female attendant instructed me to undress and exited through a curtain. Despite the obvious fact that this was unnecessary on her part, I suppose that to do so is just proper masseuse etiquette. My discomfort quickly subsided once the massage began. She was proficient with a definite no-nonsense quality, as she quickly dabbed menthol oil from a jar in her pocket and swiftly rubbed it in, before going to work on my muscles with some (very) strong kneading. As she worked, I listened to the lively chatter and the sound of palms rapidly pounding away through the curtains. While different from the tranquility and zen-like atmosphere that spas attempt to create (in the few times I have been in a spa), I enjoyed it. Plus there was something eerily comfortable knowing that my body wasn’t being visually scrutinized. We left feeling relaxed and with a feeling that it was money well spent.

Day 2 in Ho Chi Minh was spent walking around the city and visiting the War Remnants Museum. After our free breakfast at the hostel, we walked toward the museum. As we navigated the city streets, I tried to prepare myself for exactly what it was that were going to see. No amount of mental prep would make taking in the exhibits any easier. It was heartbreaking. What I came away with was that regardless of politics and beliefs, to see the war through the eyes of the country where it all took place was horrifying. The pictures were hard to look at, but I forced myself to look at each and every one, to read each and every name. Some may argue that the museum does not provide a balanced view of the war-that it is weighted with propaganda, and maybe that’s true. But to be fair, maybe that’s justified, given that the museum is housed within their homeland. Although Vietnam as a country is recovering, many of its people are still reeling and the effects of the war continue to be felt and seen everyday. I walked through several exhibits with a lump in my throat, and at times the tears spilled over. As I learned more about the personal stories of the war, I couldn’t help but feel what we all know as fact-that in war there are no winners. It’s one of those simple truths that we all take as a given, but at this moment I actually felt it to my core. In this museum, the way it was portrayed, my heart broke for the people of Vietnam, but also for the Americans, the French, the Laotians, Japanese, Australians, and everyone else, military and civilian alike, who had no choice but to see and experience what no one should have to-the consequences of war. One of the most touching pieces was a recent addition to the photo exhibition, an enlarged copy of a letter written by a young Vietnamese man to President Barack Obama. In his well-penned letter, he commends our current president for his beliefs, and his hopes for his children to live in a world of peace. He also asks for assistance for victims of Agent Orange, including the author himself. Despite the best of intentions, I had a heavy feeling of hopelessness, knowing that in all reality his pleas may not be answered, at least not in his lifetime. The museum closed for an hour, just as the afternoon deluge began. But we bought ourselves ponchos, had a pensive lunch, and went back to the museum to see the rest.

Exhibit in War Remnants Museum

Exhibit in War Remnants Museum

Day 3-4 were spent not in Ho Chi Minh, but instead on a tour of the Mekong Delta. I feel a bit hypocritical after the stance we’ve taken on tours, but sometimes they are truly unavoidable. Plus this two-day tour was $20 including transportation, hotel, and most meals. The first day was worth-while and included a boat ride to several smaller islands, a canoe ride through the delta, a trip to a bee farm and candy and wine making factory where we sampled the wares and Jeff drank snake wine.

Snake wine

Snake wine

We enjoyed some live local music and dancing, and took a bike ride through one of the villages. The best part of the bike ride other than hopping off, was that I didn’t crash into anything, since it has been well over a decade since I’ve ridden on one of those things. That night we stayed at a hotel in Can Tho where we tried snake for dinner (chewy), and woke up at 6 in the morning to go to the famous floating market, Cai Be. It was slightly underwhelming, compared to what I had conjured up in my head, but nice seeing the fruit and vegetable-laden boats floating around selling their wares. What was less fun was the two-hour boat ride after to the ferry, and the five-hour bus ride back to HCMC to end the day. The one-day trip would have been the better option. We had a great cheap dinner at the night market in Ben Tranh (my favorite meal so far) to wrap up our stay in HCMC. Now it’s off to Mui Ne to get away and back to beach life.

Yummm....snake

Yummm....snake

Posted: October 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I Choose Ignorance

So far there seems to be a continuing theme and breach of Western etiquette when it comes to nose-picking. As in Kenya, here in our first few Asian countries, the act of picking ones nose in public does not elicit the same response as it would at home. Believe it or not, a person can actually be having a conversation with you while simultaneously fishing for something in his/her nostril. Without a tissue. I am having a hard time with this. It would be all fine and dandy, except that it is so commonplace, and with both men and women, that I have had to convince myself that none of those ladies whom I have witnessed with finger(s) in nose, have ever prepared or handled any of the food I’ve eaten. Yet another case where ignorance is bliss.

Posted: September 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Paradise Found

We made it.! We finally made it. Assuming you’ve read Jeff’s last blog, then you know what it took to get here. To get to the remote speck of an island that is Derawan, you truly have to want to. And probably for this very reason, it remains virtually untouched. If all the Balis, Cancuns, Bahamas, and Oahus of the world have all become (or are on their way to becoming) paradises lost, then Derawan is still paradise without all the hype and “extras”. There are no resorts on the island. Well, actually there is one-a dive resort. But it is the furthest thing from a Hyatt or Four Seasons as possible-just a bunch of nice bungalows on stilts over the water, with flush toilets in the bathrooms. For $970, one can enjoy 5-nights accomodation with 3 dives per day. Instead, Jeff and I are staying within striking distance from the resort, also over the water at a charming little guesthouse. Our room is $8 per night, with free breakfast, a clean shared bathroom and squat toilet.

After arriving and having our Oreos, we wondered what exactly we were going to do to occupy our days here. A walk around the perimeter of the entire island took half an hour. The only electricity comes from generators that power up from 6 pm to 6 am daily. Aside from a few warungs and restaurants that operate out of homes, the only forms entertainment seem to be an outdoor volleyball court and stage area, an indoor badminton court, and a concrete mini-golf course (of all things). And 360 degrees of ocean. The snorkeling is out of this world–we see new creatures each time. There are coconut, banana, and palm trees dotting the white sand, and of course the water is a crystal clear aqua blue that fades to a bright royal blue at the drop offs. But what makes it paradise, is that it doesn’t try to create authenticity. There’s just no need. We spend hours just watching island life going on around us. Men fish, do repairs, smoke in the shade. Women sit in small groups after completing their many chores. The children are some of the friendliest, funniest bunch we’ve come across. They are everywhere! They ask us our names over and over. We watch them as they climb trees (or anything climbable), sing Indonesian pop songs at the top of their lungs, play games with whatever has washed up on shore, and get a good scolding or two. The calm is periodically broken by the sound of their voices, a motor boat, a falling coconut.

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

It may be tiny. It may be quiet. But we have experienced highlight after highlight, and moments that take our breath away everyday. Now, here we are seven days later and trying to figure out a way to stay just a few more days.

The one and only day trip we have gone on was an excursion to “jellyfish lake” as we like to call it, as I don’t know if the lagoon has an actual name. This might be a good thing because it is one of those secret places that you want to keep all to yourself (although it was one of the major reasons we came to Indonesia and something Jeff has been talking about for the past seven months now). As our speed boat approached the island, I silently hoped it wouldn’t disappoint. Here’s the deal with “jellyfish lake”. At some point way back in time, there was a shifting of the tectonic plates that resulted in the creation of a lake in the middle of this island. Without any predators, the jellyfish that remained in the lake multiplied as well as evolved, losing their ability to sting. The island setting itself is picturesque, both from the outside as well as from within. The lake was larger than we expected and surrounded by mangroves. We wasted no time putting on our snorkels and fins and jumped right in. What can I possibly write that might capture the experience of swimming in turquoise waters among thousands of jellyfish? At worst, it was still magical. At best, it was practically spiritual. And if nothing else, it was therapeutic. As I moved slowly through the first few clusters of jellyfish, all I could do was try to stay at a safe distance (because who knows, what if they can sting afterall?), and stare. But within minutes, I was (gently, of course) poking, pushing, and holding each of the four species of jellyfish that inhabit the lake. Some areas of the lake were so chock full of them that I could feel them bumping into my shoulders and arms and sliding down my stomach and legs as I tried to swim through. It was like being inside a jellyfish screensaver. We stayed for hours. We stayed until the “crowds” (consisting only of a few other small families and groups) left, and we were the only two people on the lake. On the way back to Derawan, our boat driver let us out for a snorkel on the outside of the island–clear with beautiful reefs and a huge drop-off, which would have been a treat in itself, except that we had just snorkeled with jellyfish!!

Anyway, we’ve developed a basic routine for the rest of our days on Derawan. Wake up whenever it starts to get hot. Have tea and eat breakfast. Sit around, chat, take it all in. Swim with the sea turtles that come to shore daily. Snorkel. Have lunch. Snorkel. Lay out in the sun/shade. Read. Snorkel. Walk around the beach, look for seashells, other wildlife, or try to catch the sunset. Have dinner. Sit around on porch, hang out and chat with fellow guests. Take bucket shower. Go to bed. Repeat.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Kindness of (Turkish) Strangers

Everyone I know who has visited Turkey has returned with glowing reports, so expectations of Turkey were high to begin with. The problem with expectations, as we all know, is that they are rarely met with reality. However, I am happy to report that thus far, our experience in Turkey has been nothing short of sublime-so much so that I can not understand why we haven’t run into more American tourists or vacationers. As popular as it seems to have become with Aussies and Europeans, and Russians in particular, we have encountered very few travelers from the states. Must be a well kept secret, but as far as I’m concerned, this is a must visit for so many reasons, but today I will start with the people.

The Locals
I do not presume to make sweeping generalizations about an entire population of people, and at the same time, as always, there are exceptions. That being said, the Turkish people we have encountered have been polite, friendly, and truly wonderful. I can’t even keep track anymore of how many people have stood up to give us their seats, offered us tea, given us directions, or just wanted to chat or share a laugh, all without expecting anything in return. Really. After traveling for four plus months, this has come as a bit of a shock. Initially, we were suspicious, waving away offers for help and dismissing those we assumed were touts with curt replies. But here we have found that most of these advances are genuine and even the touts back off quickly and politely once they know you aren’t interested. And we have made friends with a few strangers, despite the language barrier.

Our first encounter upon arriving in Istanbul, was with two young men who wanted to practice their English. After ignoring their multiple attempts to say hello, we finally stopped and made guarded small talk and declined when they offered us a smoke, until it became clear that they had no other objective other than to talk to the Americans. As they walked off, after pointing us to the bus station, I frantically checked all my pockets and backpack, and felt only slightly ashamed of doing so.

That night we took the overnight bus to Izmir. Not only was this our first overnight bus, it was also our first major bus ride outside of Central America. It is hard to compare the two, because there is little comparison to be made. In fact, it may not be quite fair to do so, since Central America’s “chicken busses” are so named because the locals can bring aboard live animals, including live chicken. Anyway, we found our assigned seats on this large clean fancy new-looking bus, and settled in. The guy seated across the aisle saw us looking at the controls, TV monitors, and refrigerator like country bumpkins and showed us how to work the armrest. As we have learned, busses in Turkey have a “helper”, just like in Central America. In Central America the helper collects the fare, yells the stops out the window, and opens and closes the door. In Turkey, the helper is more or less like a butler. This being our first ride, we tried to figure out what was happening as he swiftly made his way down the aisle, carrying a small bottle and splashing some of its contents in the hands of those who indicated for him to do so. On the second round several hours later we thought we’d try it out and found that it was hand sanitizer. This in addition to him spraying down the carpet with something like Febreze between stops, the washing of the bus at rest stops, as well the individually packaged handi-wipes that came with our choice of drinks and snacks, was our first introduction to the cleanliness standards here. At one point, our friend across the aisle, asked us something in Turkish, and through pantomime we determined that he was asking us if we wanted water. As we stared back, trying to figure out how to ask if it was free, he got up and returned with three cups of water, handing us two with a nod. After the bus drove onto a ferry, we were allowed to get out and walk around the boat. During this point, I made friends with a very sweet Turkish lady, using nothing but gestures, as we waited in line for the bathroom. By the time we made it to the front of the line, we were sharing a laugh and she was pinching my cheeks and patting my face. When we re-boarded the bus, the very same guy had bought us a packet of snacks, which he tossed to Jeff with a smile. We just sat there smiling gratefully, wishing we knew how to say “thank you” in Turkish. It’s a good thing we soon learned how, because with the way we continue to be treated by the people here, we say it a lot.

In our short time here, we have been the recipients of random acts of kindness. There were the semi-truck drivers who saw us walking a long road in the mid-day sun who gave us a lift (to our destination, and another ride back). There were the guys at the market selling olives, of which we taste-tested several varieties before deciding what to buy, but when I handed them the money, they insisted I keep it and enjoy the olives. And there was the guy at some tourist trap who gave me one of the necklaces he was selling for free “as a gift”…just like the bag of mixed Turkish Delights I was given today (yum!). They say that nothing in life is free, but our friends here are proving that wrong everyday with their kindness.

The awesome olive guys

The awesome olive guys

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Asian American in Central America

I had wondered what it was going to be like, not only being Asian, but Asian American, during our travels. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but so far, it has been a mix of moments that have either been humorous, cultural, and educational, with only a few incidents based on the ignorance or curiosity that stems from lack of exposure to people like us. In general, if we don’t happen to be having a conversation, most locals tend to assume we are from mainland China (or Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai, usually in that order), and therefore we are greeted in some fashion in any one, or a mix of, these languages. If we are overheard speaking English, I’m sure it is assumed that we are from the United States (aided by our Western looking travel duds). This usually elicits the following reactions: 1) nonchalance, in areas where Western tourists are fairly common, 2) solicitations to purchase something, 3) unabashed open stares or 4) calls of “Chino!” (pronounced “chee-no”) or “China/chinita!” (pronounced “chee-na” or “chin-ee-ta”), meaning something close to “Chinese guy/girl”.

In Nicaragua, we were told by our friend, Mark, whom we stayed with, as well as later by several of our teachers that “chino” and “china” are not meant to be offensive terms-that culturally they are simply descriptive words, used the same as “skinny guy” or “tall girl”. One of our grammar teachers even went as far as to say that these terms are actually terms of endearment and affection, which initially I was a little (really, a lot) skeptical about. We often overheard mainly children, but also plenty of adults calling out “China” or “Chino” as we passed or over their shoulders, in what wasn’t always necessarily in a friendly, nor “affectionate” way. However, my skepticism decreased somewhat over time. For instance, we were on a night tour of some caves with a large group from the Spanish school, during which the tour guide had taken some pictures with my camera. After which, I had found myself at the back of the group when she called out, “Where is the Chinese girl?” This drew some awkward looks from many of the socially conscious, politically correct fellow Americans, but to me it was a kind of proof that my ethnicity (aside from the fact I am not Chinese) is simply a visible fact, at least it is here. That Asian is asian (or simply “Chinese”) to most people in Latin America-that it’s not meant to be derogatory, the way it would likely be taken in the United States, where by now, it is assumed that people are aware that there are different ethnicities and cultures within the broad classification of Asian Americans. The equivalent of this would be how people might say “Mexican” in regards to anyone who appears to have ethnic roots in Latin America, regardless of whether they are Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Panamanian, Chilean, Argentinean, etc. Another example that comes to mind is one of the staff members at our school, a local Nicaraguan whom Jeff befriended. As a daily greeting he would shake Jeff’s hand and say, “Tranquilo, chino!” (the rough translation being, “It’s cool, Chinese dude”), with the same amount of respect and affection of a typical friendly greeting. Our teacher even told us that everyone in the town refers to his 4-year old as “chino” because “his eyes are on the small”, so to speak. The local gas station attendant is greeted as “Chino” (although he is clearly not), simply for the same reason, as well as the fact that no one knows his name. We also spent part of a lesson learning popular jokes in Spanish, where the punchline is a Spanish phrase made up of a combination of “asian” sounding phonemes. This may be totally politically incorrect, but given the circumstances, I just had to laugh.

For me so far the lowlights have occurred during times where we have been walking through markets or towns and locals, most likely as I mentioned before out of ignorance or mere lack of exposure, have started spewing what can only be described as “asian word salad”. They start shouting out any and every word related to anything that might be considered “asian”. For example, on my way through some stalls at the market in Managua, I was followed in one instance with shouts of, “Ni hau…..Konichiwa?…..Chow mein?……Ho Chi Minh!!”, none of which I bothered to acknowledge. While heading out of a tiny town in Honduras, in the back of a pickup, Jeff and I were treated to a some martial arts moves, complete with sound effects including “ching-chong, ching-chong” and a hand-on-crotch pelvic thrust in our direction by a couple of young boys. Jeff, at this point, was ready to sling something back, but refrained. As I said, lowlights.

Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that what really matters, at least here and for now, is the spirit in which things are done and words are used. It is different from what I am used to and how we are groomed to think, and the way we perceive similar behavior at home, but I am learning to accept, and in some instances embrace, these cultural differences for what they are-differences and cultural realities.

Posted: April 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Belize | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »