Lost my Face

China is a shame based society. This I know. Being driven by the possibility of being shamed still wears on Chinese Americans. It’s engrained somewhere deep, untouchable; unlike so much else that has eroded away with the generations of American lineage. So even though China is 8 months and 16 countries into our trip, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that in the build up to it I felt different. It felt so…loaded. I was as anxious landing in Beijing as I had been when we first left for Mexico in January. I don’t speak a lick of mandarin, and fare barely better in Cantonese. But I should, right? I mean, if I’m Chinese, I must be able to speak it…Your parents/grandparents didn’t speak it to you growing up? What a shame…However, I was also excited for the opportunity to reconcile the China I’ve always pictured in my mind, to maybe even learn what it is to be Chinese and in turn understand what is still distinctly Chinese about me.
Beijing has been the perfect intro period for me into China. Beijing is the capital. Beijing is the Great Wall of China. Beijing is the Forbidden City…is great food…is stifled democracy…is where the servers are housed that censor the internet…It is…it is…it is…Everything that is good and bad with China revolves around this city. And with the crests and valleys of Beijing rode my own pride and shame.
Mari and I had decided before we had our first meal in Beijing that we were going to splurge and try the Peking duck. It’s one of our favorite meals back at home, and we couldn’t pass up having it in its namesake. We arrived at the famous roasted duck restaurant, nicknamed Old Duck, to a hive of activity. 5:20 pm and all of the tables and halls were already full. Two waiting areas were filling up and the hostesses were being swamped. Mari and I, still a little slow in giving up the concepts of a queue or personal space, made our way to the hostess to get a number. After 4 people pushed pass us, we accomplished our mission.
As we sat in the waiting area, other people admired the artifacts along the wall, played with their children, talked with one another. We stared at our number and tried to figure out how to recognize when they called us. We tried to remember the groups who were in front of us. We made regular eye contact with the hostess and gave her our confused looks. Finally, we noticed that the hostess had said something over the loudspeaker, and subsequently her looking around was going unanswered. And right when we were wondering whether to check if she had called us, “84” was shouted into the microphone. In English. Just for us.
Our table was in the middle of the lively restaurant, letting us see the chefs carve the ducks at nearby tables and feast on the culinary smells around us. We ordered (again in English) to our waiter, who did his best to communicate with us, even explaining that the sauce and scallions were part of the dish. When our Peking duck arrived we were practically salivating. Our waiter, placed the dish on the table, then offered to show me how it is eaten by making me my first one. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary…that I knew how to eat my favorite meal…that of course I knew how to eat it—I’m Chinese! But then, why can’t you speak Chinese?
Instead, I smiled as he manipulated my chopsticks and spoon to make me my little sandwich and weakly told him “xie xie.” Surrounding tables looked at me, giving me their confused looks. And I had nothing to offer them in return. No answers, knowledge, or way of making them understand that despite my looking like them, I was clearly not. Somewhere, over the generations, something had been lost.

waiter showing me how to eat

waiter showing me how to eat

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

Intro to Indonesia

So we spent yet another night in an airport-this time in Jakarta. I dare say we are getting quite good at this. Even though contrary to prior online research, we were told that no waiting lounge existed, and therefore we would have to sleep in the baggage claim area, we settled in (or on) for the night across from a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk. The wooden benches in addition to being flat and backless also had perpendicular armrest bars cutting each slab in thirds and making it impossible to lie down. The humidity set in and the mosquito slapping began, but we took it all in stride. A mere few months ago and this would have been bad. Now we just make ourselves as comfortable as possible and plan to sleep in shifts. However, it would seem that I have become relaxed enough in our travels that about eight minutes into my watch, I caught myself and my eyes flew open to see Jeff staring at me with a mixture of exasperation and irritation. Whoops. Even though I assured him that he could get some sleep and I was perfectly capable of staying awake, Jeff was the one who kept vigil until morning.
We took the public bus into Jalan Jaksa as planned, found lodging right away, and slept through the entire rest of the morning and afternoon. We ended up staying in Jakarta for what ended up to be about a week, taking care of some travel business matters, in the form of applying for more passport pages at the American Embassy, and subsequently obtaining tourist visas at the Chinese Embassy. During our free days, we mainly explored different parts of Jakarta. The electronics mall was a highlight (more so for Jeff) with eight floors of every possible model of camera, camcorder, video game, computer, TV, DVD, with phone and iPod accessories and more imaginable. Taman Mini Indonesia (what I can only liken to an Indonesian Disneyland in the 1950’s) was underwhelming, yet interesting. Our decision to go there had not been based on much research, and I had thought it was simply some large park. I don’t recall “theme park” being written anywhere in the description. Our nights in Jakarta were spent becoming regulars at a local restaurant and wifi hotspot across from our hostel.
A couple of overnight trains got us to Yogyakarta and back, although had time permitted, we both agreed that we could have spent more time there. The Lonely Planet has not gotten much right in regards to Indonesia; however they managed to in regards to Yogya, which is described as “an uneasy truce between the old ways of life and the trappings of modernity”. We took our first bekak ride (a covered seat powered by a guy on a bicycle), bargained at the craft stalls and strolled around the bird market, which had flying foxes, komodo dragons, monkeys, rabbits, and owls for sale, and declined an offer to watch the prize cock in his next cockfight in the morning.
“Yogya” as it’s commonly called, while a major tourist destination in its own right due to its proximity to Borobudur had a certain charm. We went to see why Borobudur is the number one tourist site in Indonesia, and it did not disappoint. The temple was built from two million stone blocks and wrapped around a hill to form a stupa. There are terraces and stairways leading to the top tier where Buddhas sit inside individual latticed stupas. The walls of the corridors are covered with intricate carvings depicting Javanese life and Buddhist scriptures. And despite all the tourists, there was a feeling of calm and peace.

We took a short flight out of Jakarta and into Bali earlier this week. It feels like an entirely different place and it is. We had a hard time choosing where to stay on the island, but chose Sanur as our home base. When we first arrived in the late afternoon, we dropped our bags off in our room and headed straight for the beach, less than five minutes away on foot. When we got there it appeared we had made the wrong decision. The “beach” was a long stretch of sand with boats haphazardly moored here and there. There was no crashing of waves. There were no waves at all. Instead, there was a grayish-white film covering kelp and debris a few inches deep resting on the shore that gradually became the dark gray-blue of the ocean. Down the length of the beach was resort after resort, each marked by their signature lounge chairs and pools which were deserted. The staff were getting ready for dinner, and despite the fact that it was sunset, we saw only a couple of tourists wandering around and all the dining areas were empty. This was supposed to be high season. We each made our guesses as to what was the matter. The economic crisis. The recent bombings in Jakarta. The less recent bombings on Bali. Whatever the case, we were bummed. This was not the Bali we had envisioned.
Yesterday we took a taxi to Kuta, the next beach town over. It was as touristy-beachy as anything we’ve seen. Surf shops and flip-flop stores fought for space with designer sunglass and clothing boutiques. The restaurants with outdoor seating had their misters on and the mist floated at regular intervals over their customers and towards the crowds at Starbucks. I was tempted to stop in at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for my favorite drink, but had to remind myself that I am still supposed to be in “Travel Mari” mode, and something like an English Breakfast Tea Latte will have to wait until I’m home. We made our way to Kuta Beach and breathed a sigh of relief, wishing we had chosen to stay there. There were waves and surfers catching them, soft sand, couples snorkeling, sunbathers, and lots of people but not enough to call it “crowded”.
But on our way to catch a taxi back we had second thoughts, as the streets were just a little too packed with everything we had been trying to escape.

Today, we gave Sanur beach one more shot and were quite happy to discover that it was a perfectly pleasant little beach, now that it was high tide. It was transformed. Sanur was the calm version of Kuta. The waves were not as big, but the quiet was both relaxing and invigorating. There was enough of a breeze to pull the kite surfers and windsurfers trying out their skills, and the only noise was snippets of conversation of beach-goers and the occasional roar of a jet ski. This is more like it. And a yummy dinner at a little warung cost us a total of $1.70. I like this Bali.

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

The Friendly Skies

It’s an odd thing to be on a long overnight flight and enjoy it. It’s even odder still to be looking forward to spending the next nine hours on yet another flight, after a six hour stopover. Believe it or not, that’s how we felt flying with Emirates Airlines. Our first flight left at 6 o’clock in the evening from Cape Town, arriving in Dubai around 5 a.m. the next morning. After boarding and finding our seats, we had more options than we knew what to do with in regards to entertainment. I had grabbed one of the several selections of free newspapers on the way onboard, but this found a new home in the seat pocket in front of me for the entire flight. I immediately dove into the packet of in flight magazines, while Jeff began to navigate through the selection and information on the touch screen in front of him. After skimming through a few articles, I became curious as to what the excitement was about, and found to my delight that each of our individual screens provided us with the opportunity to choose between a selection of hundreds of movies, TV shows, radio stations, video games and (for a fee) had phone and internet capabilities. Better yet, it was all on demand, and passenger controlled. No waiting for the airline to show the predetermined in flight movie, whilst craning your neck to view the nearest screen. It was awesome. While we were busy flipping through the selections with our individual remote controls, flight attendants began passing out steaming hot towels (which is standard depending on which airlines you fly and where), but the second time they passed through the cabin, they were handing out mini overnight toiletry kits complete with toothbrush, tooth paste, socks, and an eye mask. Yay! Free stuff! When meal times came around, we were given menus from which to make our dinner and breakfast selections of what were basically four-course meals (and tasty ones at that). Unlike when we flew Royal Jordanian Airlines, I decided to take advantage this time of the free alcohol and ordered a small bottle of red wine before, and then figured what-the-heck and ordered a second with my dinner. It goes to show how rarely we drink during our travels, because one glass in to my second bottle, I discovered I was drunk. The clue was when I noticed that I was crying during a scene of “Bride Wars” (and then snorted with laughter over my curry dinner during the next scene). I poked Jeff, who was in the middle his dinner and movie choice of Watchmen, and whispered, “I think I’m drunk”. He took one look at me and burst out laughing, almost choking on a piece of cauliflower.

That was when I decided to forego watching a third movie, just enjoy my chocolate truffle cake, and polish it off with my wine, crackers, cheese, and single piece of dark chocolate, and try to sleep it all off. I reclined my chair and was surprised to see that the roof of the cabin had been artificially darkened and there were twinkling stars and constellations overhead. A little too Disneyland-ish for me, but a cute touch. The rest of the flight was quick; breakfast equally impressive. We landed at five in the morning in Dubai and had six hours to kill before our next flight. We spent half of it walking the airport in awe. It felt like being in Vegas, but taken to another level (as if that was even possible). Even though it was just the airport, it had the vibrancy, name-brands, and feel of a place where the world’s wealthiest come to play. And although it was barely six in the morning, it could have been any time of day. Amongst all the fancily attired people (who dresses up to be at an airport anyway?), and their jewelry, watches, sunglasses (again, indoors…at daybreak??), and roll-away luggage, we looked distinctly out of place with our backpacks, wrinkled and slightly dirty clothes, and my static-charged travel hair. Oh well. After attempting to sleep on a bench made of rock overlooking the blue lagoon in the zen garden, we found a more comfortable spot in the reclining chairs nearer to our gate. That’s when we realized we were actually looking forward to getting on the plane. Jeff had already picked out which movies he was to watch ahead of time.

All in all, the flight was just like the first (except no toiletry kits, and no wine for me). Including our first flight, Jeff watched six movies, three episodes of Chuck, and two of My Name Is Earl. I watched a total of four movies and a couple of NCIS episodes. As I enjoyed my lunch (spicy beef strips with ginger and onion sauce over rice, with an appetizer of salmon pate and shrimp, and chocolate brownie with boysenberry and crème fraiche soufflé), propped up with my pillow and covered with a blanket in the climate controlled environment, I wondered just how different it would be once we were on the ground in Indonesia. I had made the executive decision to sleep at the airport upon landing, as opposed to finding a hostel in the middle of the night. The plan was to take the earliest airport bus straight to downtown Jakarta in the morning and find a place to stay. I spent the last hour of the flight enjoying the safety and luxury of the plane and wondering whether or not this was the right play. You just never know.

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Itinerary | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

This is Kenya

From Egypt we were scheduled to take a 3:20am flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flight however was delayed till about 5:30am, which made Mari and me miss our connecting flight, stranding us in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a day. But we ate well and slept in a decent hotel courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines as we geared up for Kenya.
We arrived in Nairobi at noon, but our Kenyan experience really didn’t feel like it began till that night’s dinner. We ventured into a local restaurant (with butcher shop attached), picked out a little over a kilo of goat’s meat hanging in the window and asked for it to be prepared as Nyama Choma (roasted goat). About an hour and a half later, our waiter brought to the table a pitcher of hot water, and a wash bowl with soap and we dutifully washed our hands. After that he brought a large wooden cutting board out with our Nyama Choma laid out on top of it. And that’s it. No knives or forks. No napkins. No plates. So we “when in Rome”-‘d it and dug in. I was chewing on a rib when I looked at Mari and saw her tearing the meat off a bone with her teeth. The piles of bones on the table were growing in front of us both. I heard her growl, but she denies it now. The meal was fun and made me feel like if you’re going to eat meat—this is how it should always be done. It only lacked the stuffy air of western “sophistication…” and maybe a side of spinach. After the meal, Mari asked me whether we were supposed to get vegetables or a staple dish, to which I replied that maybe this is how they do it in Kenya. My heart hurt a little bit, but my stomach seemed happy.
We spent the following days visiting Kenya’s game parks. We were greeted about 3 minutes into our first game drive by a zebra in the distance. I shouted to the driver to stop, as if I had been the first to discover the animal. We took some crappy photos of it in the distance, wanting to make sure we had proof of our first sighting, especially in case it was our last. But as we drove on we passed another zebra, and another, and another. We passed Thompson gazelles, warthogs and Impalas by the dozen. There were buffalo, monkeys and baboons eating, drinking and for the most part, ignoring us as we gawked at them.
Lake Nakuru continued the animal voyeurism. As we drove towards the water it unfolded as a bed of blue and pink from the thousands of flamingoes that stand there. They fly in long lines, accentuating their profiles. The sheer number of the birds made it a unique spectacle. We eventually tore ourselves away from the flamingoes to go up to Baboon Cliff. I almost asked our driver if we would see any of the animals the cliff was named after when my question was answered. About 25 baboons greeted us in our car running away from people and towards others. I heard a growl and turned to see an adult baboon grabbing a schoolboy’s shirt. The boy escaped as an aggressive man nearby threw a rock at the aggressive baboon to teach him a lesson. The baboons eventually blocked our return to the car as three were sitting on it. Mari tried to show dominance and banged on the roof of the car and told them to get off. The adult male baboon charged Mari and growled something to the effect of “dominance, schmominance.” Mari retreated.
The Masai Mara offered us almost completely different animals to wander across, as well as the main reason we came to Kenya. There were elephant herds, cheetahs, lions, ostriches, hippos and giraffes. And of course there were the wildebeests. The wildebeest migration is referred to as the largest animal migration and their abundance was evident everywhere. At times hills looked as brown from the wildebeests as they were green from the grass. At other times the wildebeests appeared British in heritage as they lined up in long queues, patient and orderly, following each other across the landscape. We drove past them by the thousands. I remarked to Mari, “Wow, this is Kenya.”
After the game drives we spent a final day back in Nairobi. We were on our way to dinner, when a cop pulled us over. The driver, Mari and I hurriedly put on our seatbelts. The cop asked us all a couple of questions, but in the end it was evident he wanted only one thing. We paid him a thousand shillings as a bribe and he left us to be on our way. We were saddened by the blatant corruption, but our driver told us not to worry about it. He said he was glad we saw it and simply stated, “This is Kenya.”

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Kenya | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Istanbul–Revisited

Serving up the raki--Jeff not feeling it

Serving up the raki--Jeff not feeling it

In tandem with my last blog about what we were able to see and do in Istanbul on our own, I feel it is equally if not more important to recount our last few days in one of the world’s great cities as shared through the generosity of our friend in Turkey. Our meeting started out simply as an email exchange with a friend of our friends who is from Turkey and happens to live in Istanbul. The result was an unforgettable experience in the “real” Istanbul in addition to us making a friend of our own.

We stayed with our host, Kerem, in his apartment with a beautiful panoramic view of the Bosphorus Sea and surrounding districts. Aside from the many creature comforts that come with being lucky enough to stay in an actual home (fresh towels and linens, a washing machine, not having to wear flip flops while showering, sitting down on a couch…the list goes on), we had the privilege of meeting and getting to know our host, who freely gave up a few days to take us out and about and show us Istanbul in a way we never would have been able to see on our own. We enjoyed a complete Turkish breakfast along the waterfront. In addition to the mix of olives, cheeses, breads, tomato, cucumber, and tea that we have grown accustomed to and love, we also got to try some meat-filled pastry, honey and cheese, and Turkish omelet (soooooo good). Let me tell you, I could have kept on going and out-eaten both of those boys, but since they were stuffed (as was I), I decided to check it as well. After breakfast, we drove up to see views of the Bosphorus leading to the Black Sea with Europe and Russia far out towards one side and Anatolia (the Asian side) off to our right. As happens time and time again during our travels, I once again had the feeling of being so very small (hold your comments everyone!). We also went to and through Taksim Square and spent the afternoon walking through Beyoglu, where I had my first Turkish coffee and not-so-first puffs from the nargile, which the guys also enjoyed with a couple of beers at one of the many outdoor cafes, while watching the crowds go by. It was both relaxing and invigorating at the same time to chat and sip and puff (sorry mom, you know I don’t smoke, but when in Rome…), while watching Istanbul’s young and old literally working and playing in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the area. There were a handful of tourists sprinkled in among the locals, some doing as we were, business men in suits walking past, a group of trendily dressed young women chatting over tea, a couple playing what seems to be the national game of backgammon, and vendors darting about selling their wares. We had dinner (mezzes, seafood, and our first taste of the Turkish liquour, Raki) at another outdoor restaurant in an alley awash with similar restaurants, Raki-fueled customers dancing between the tables to the music along with the clapping and shouting of the other patrons. It was like nothing we have in the states. We had heard that if you haven’t been to Beyoglu, then you haven’t been to Istanbul. And now we know why. We had wanted to come on our own and had been unable to get here, but in the end it was much better to experience it with our generous host and friend, and go out with a bang. Once again, thanks Kerem!!! Serefe.

Posted: June 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Getting Carried Away

Double fisting at the dessert buffet

Double fisting at the dessert buffet

We spent the past 12 days crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship in order to get to Europe. It is amazing how easy it has been to fall back into old habits. After over three months of adjusting to a backpacker lifestyle, I experienced a moderate degree of culture shock upon boarding. At first I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I enthusiastically commented on everything–the hot water that came out in an even stream with adequate pressure in a spotless shower, the fluffy bleached white towels that were changed twice daily, and of course the fabulously ridiculous excess of the buffet, among many other of the ship’s amenities. I am ashamed to say that a mere few days into the cruise, these luxuries quickly became expected. We joked about how “deprived” we had been, and I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself that no matter what our travel style or budget, we have not been and are no where near deprived, especially compared to people we have encountered during our travels-people who would justifiably take offense as being described as such, as many are just living simply and within their means.

Cruising is just a completely different reality. However, what made this cruise meaningful and worthwhile, was the fact that my parents were able to join us on the cruise and for a few days in Barcelona. They also brought us replenishment in the form of new toiletries, clothing, and other odds and ends that we had requested from home sweet home. So as embarrassing as it is to admit to doing “the cruise thing”, and as much as it diminishes our street cred as backpackers, it was more than worth it for me to be able to spend so much time with my mom and dad.

Now that the luxury portion of the trip is over, the next challenge for me is to make the conscious readjustment back to living like a traveler.

Posted: May 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: cruise | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Spice of Life

3/27/09
Guatemala was never on our original itinerary, but things change. Talking with travelers along the way convinced us to do a “highlight” tour of Guatemala. According to the travel websites, guides, travelers, and even a few locals, these are the places you visit if you are in Guatemala: Flores/Tikal, Antigua, Semuc Champey and the Lanquin caves, the villages of Lago de Atitlan (there are more of course, but these are the big ones). So we have managed to get to all, with the exception of Semuc/Lanquin, which we opted not to do since we’ve had our monthly fill of water and caves.

Right now we are in one of the lakeside villages of Lago de Atitlan, called Panajachel (also known as “Gringotenango”, 1) because of all the tourists and 2) the fact that many of the nearby towns end in something “-tenango”. After arriving and looking around for a place to stay (wow…have I reached the point of not having to have reservations?? Stay tuned.), we settled on the third option, Villa Lupita, slightly off the main drag. First option-too expensive; second option-too grungy (the shared bathroom was gag-reflex inducing). At this point, I have developed travel standards. They are that the room be relatively clean (spotless is not something you get at the places we are staying), and in a relatively secure area or building. TV, internet, soft pillows, clean towels, mirrors, and additional furniture other than bed and occasional shelving unit are serious luxuries. I have learned that there is no such thing as a mattress pad, which is why I love my sleep sack, and that “hot water” means that at least sometimes there is hot water.

Aside from the dual bouts of food poisoning, we have been lucky so far with food. Very few places we’ve been to have had anything extraordinary, but when you’re aiming for under $4 per person per meal, you don’t expect it. My problem is that I love food and living in San Francisco has spoiled me beyond belief when it comes to variety and cuisine. We found a little place here in Pana that serves dinner; a piece of chicken, coleslaw, rice, tortillas, and beverage for 10 quetzales (roughly $1.25 USD). It’s nothing fancy, but filling and a decent meal for an unbeatable price. Jeff said he could easily eat there every night of our six day stay (and in all seriousness, he really could). I wanted to say “Me too!” It’s not that it’s a bad meal, but after our third night in a row, and looking at all the other menu items that are available, not to mention the row of restaurants across the street, it’s the lack of variety that gets to me. But I remind myself that I am in “Travel Mari mode” now, so I will suck it up and enjoy the especial de la semana (“weekly special”).

Posted: March 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »