Writing calls on the light of my soul, and keeps me human...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sleepino Hobos in Seoul







So I'm back home now in freezing cold Berkeley, where it feels like winter. Writing this from the Berkeley public library-- and it feels like a dream. Funny, how you perceive a place so differently after you've left it for a while for the wide world. Berkeley feels comfortable and friendly and wacky.... and wintery.

Anyway, I want to re-cap our layover in Seoul, because it was so special. Only eight hours, and my mom and I dragged ourselves like crazy ladies into the city after an overnight 6 hour sleepless flight from Bangkok. We couldn't miss seeing Korea, even if it would be a whirlwind visit. After waiting in a VERY long immigration line (we chose the absolute slowest one-- my mom kept referring to the immigration officer as "Kim Jong Il the Second" because he must've been incredibly strict, taking about 20 minutes with each person wanting to pass into his country), we got on a bus into downtown Seoul. We both slept the entire way, missing the scenery completely, until we were jarred awake by the bus driver announcing "Ansuk! Ansuk!" We rubbed our sleepy eyes, realizing we were the only ones left on the bus and he was politely but forcefully trying to get us hooligans to get off his vehicle so he could carry on his way. We stumbled exhaustedly down the stairs, and into a tiny alleyway in the neighborhood of Insedon, which I had read about online as a #1 place to visit for a one day visit to Seoul.

One problem: it was 8 AM Sunday morning and we were running on less than an hour of sleep each. We REALLY wanted to go to "sleepino" (see Bangkok post for the reference to this term) but we also wanted to see some of our ancestral land. We wandered through the quaint (and still sleepy) alleyways of Insedon, searching for both culture and a park bench to get a few minutes of shuteye, not sure which we wanted to come first. Turns out, my mom wanted to prioritize sleeping, and she led us determinedly into a quiet alley where she proceeded to plant herself INSIDE a planter box on the outside wall of a small traditional teahouse restaurant and fall asleep with her face half-hidden by a delicate Korean bush. I was in hysterics, laughing, not sure whether to laugh or cry because I was so tired and amused by this scene. I found my own planter box to post up in, but couldn't sleep from embarassment. Old Korean men taking their morning walks stopped puzzledly to stare at my mom asleep against a restaurant wall, and young giggling couples passing by the small shops paused to ponder this strange scene of two foreigners (though both Korean in our own right) napping in a seemingly insignificant alleyway.

Anyhow, I'd had enough and arose my mother. We wandered down the street a bit more, until a youngish woman stopped us and asked if we needed help. (Yes, we did, but we weren't sure what kind). She explained that though she was originally from Seoul and currently teaching Set Design at a local university, she had been living in New York up until a year ago, and thus spoke perfect English. When she heard we had come on an overnight flight and were looking for caffeine and somewhere to relax, she laughed and led us into an adorable cafe featuring traditional Korean rice sweets and tea. We thanked her blearily, bought some dok (Korean version of mochi, not sure who originated it...) and fell asleep at the corner cafe table we staked out for its inobtrustiveness. Luckily, were were the only ones in the cafe and thus nobody was there to be bothered by our hobo-like appearance. I didn't really sleep, mostly just giggled exhaustedly while my mom got her shut eye. A bit later, we arose and decided to visit the palace the woman had told us was only a 15 minute walk away.

We were so glad we did. The palace was beautiful, in a simple and seemingly Mongolian style. Imposing but not flashy like the Bangkok palaces. The grounds were huge and the day was quickly warming, and we were still exhausted, but we were pulled on by our curiosity and the tingling sense of familiarity. We could sense our ancestral presence there on those grounds, as my great grandfather Ham Ho Young was a very learned scholar and important religious man in politics before he was forced to flee Korea with his wife and two young sons by a Japanese invasion. My mom and I decided we want to return to Korea for a longer trip with the rest of the Ham/Rosen women, perhaps next spring... There is just so much, and the country seems so beautiful with its stark but simple mountainous landscape background, and its pleasant but rascally people :)

Anyway, I really liked Seoul, but when we returned to the airport we halfway regretted leaving it for the city... because we discovered a lovely Resting Area where you could shower, get massages, and sleep in comfortable lounge chairs! In fact, we may end up returning to Korea just to re-experience Incheon Airport!

Overall, the experience was like a dream. Being back home is also like a dream, though I am quickly returning to my normal self, eating big meals and walking around without fainting or becoming lightheaded. Just passed a really pleasant afternoon, having lunch with Eliza and Evan downtown, shopping at the used bookstore, and seeing "Inception" on my own in the theatre. Now back at the public library, trying to center my thoughts, document my experiences, put my affairs in order, and plan for the next year all at once. Oof.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bangkok

Well, I'm out of the hospital. They released me on Tuesday, and my mom and I are staying in a nice hotel (though we keep lamenting how the food isn't as good as the hospital food...) with a rooftop pool. Everything in our room is for sale, as detailed by the hotel manual. If you want to buy the sheets, they cost 700 bhat. If you want the coffee spoon, that costs 30. The telephone costs 1,000 and if you want the water heater, that will go for 20,000. The sofa is also 20,000, but the bed skirt is a bargain at 1,000. They'll throw in your pillow for 300. We tried for a while to figure out if this is an attempt to prevent people from stealing or a joke, but we are still confused. Also, my mom and I have learned not to dawdle when taking the elevator-- that elevator MEANS BUSINESS. It almost slammed my face off once, when I dragged my post-fever self too slowly in the door on the ground level-- leaving me bruised, and then a day later it got my mom when she got distracted by the ancient artwork displayed in a glass case outside our 7th floor. We now race to get into the elevator, since it doesn't seem to have that sensor that stops western elevators from crushing unsuspecting victims into pancakes. My mom says it's our exercise. Another funny thing is the laundry next to our hotel, that offers to wash your "sleepino suit" (pajamas?) or your "hanukerchiefs"... I might take them up on that one :)

It's raining now, but so far Bangkok has been HOT. We went on a half-day tour to the Grand Palace yesterday, which featured dazzling gold temples, but I was on tottering hospital-bed legs, and kept getting dizzy from the heat and the walking. Alice, our guide, self-named after "Alice in Wonderland" was very nice and worried, and kept fanning me and making me sit down in the shade. For dinner last night, we went to a Korean BBQ restaurant after having a not so great culinary experience at a restaurant called, I kid you not, "Cabbages and Condoms." We went for the name, but it turns out the restaurant is a project of the Thailand Population and Community Development Association, which amongst other things-- raises awareness about AIDS and the need for safe sex and.... condoms. We're not sure where "Cabbage" came from, probably just alliteration. Anyway, the food wasn't very good though the setting was beautiful-- outdoor patio under banyan trees lit up by lanterns made from condoms. Very cool, too bad about the food. Super spicy. Tomorrow, we're going on another half day tour (this one hopefully involves more shade and sitting) of the river temples-- we'll be on a boat. Then, we're going to check out the Thai Transvestite Cabaret-- we are very intrigued! So far we have noticed a lot of effeminate Thai men, my mom now has a theory that Thai men have less testosterone than the rest of the world. Hmmm.... I'm excited to see the trannies though!

Then, on a less exciting note, we bought tickets to return home. There was a while where I wanted to continue on to China, but given my weakened physical state it seems better than I go home to rest and recover. Especially since it's so hard to find food that is nourishing and does not make me sick, and especially since the heat has made it really hard for me to get my strength back by walking around. And I need to work out my finances with the insurance company. But I still haven't totally gotten on board with going home, since I really wanted to go to China and never made it.... but as my mom says, better to regroup and then go back out-- once I know if I can afford it health-wise and money-wise. So, Game Over Asia. At least for Round One. I'll be flying home (through Seoul! At least I'll set foot in the motherland Korea!) on Saturday, and will arrive in San Francisco Sunday morning. Hopefully, it won't take more than a couple weeks to get my strength back and in the meantime, I can write on here about a potential program in Israel I discovered....

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dengue Detour

Most of you know already, but the reason I dropped off the blogosphere for a while is because I came down with Dengue Fever, a disease unheard of to me before my trip, but apparently very common in Southeast Asia. Anyway, I'll try to come back later and write the gory details, but for right now I can only muster enough energy to tell the basics.

Two days after Adam left, I had a panic attack. It was very out of nowhere, since I hadn't had one since my junior year of college, but in retrospect I think it was my body telling me something was not right. By Friday morning, I had a high fever and a terrible headache, and so I went to the International Clinic where they checked me over and told me I should do a blood test to see if I had dengue. I declined, upon seeing how expensive the test was, and since I didn't have the "rash" that dengue is associated with. I put myself to bed with a cold compress and hoped I could sweat it out.

Two days later, when I wasn't any better-- in fact, I was worse-- I went back to the clinic and had the bloodwork done. It came back negative: no dengue. Meanwhile, I was worsening-- I had fever, chills, the worst body ache you can imagine, no appetite, and exhaustion. All I could do was sleep. I also was becoming weak from not eating, and began blacking out everytime I left my bed. And I STILL didn't know what was wrong with me. I started to feel like I was going crazy in my tiny matchbox of a room, all alone in the dark, sweating. Eventually, I went BACK to the clinic while I had a very high fever and told them I wasn't getting better. The doctor called me back in the morning, but when I went downstairs in my hostel to talk to him on the phone, I fainted on the floor. Luckily, there was a very very nice Australian woman staying in the hostel who saw this and fanned me back to life, throwing cold water on my face and demanding to know if I had taken any pills. I think they thought I was a crazy partier or something. Anyway, after she revived me and figured out that I had been sick for five days, she and her husband escorted me to the doctor, where they repeated the dengue test. Ding Ding Ding! Dengue Fever.

I was kept overnight in the clinic so they could keep me on an IV of fluids to rehydrate me, and monitor my temperature. They then realized, from a blood test, that my blood platelet level was falling. It fell for two days before the doctor decided I would be better off in the hospital in Bangkok. So all of a sudden, I was being wheeled into an ambulance (bumpiest ride of my life), escorted by Doctor Toucan-- a really nice Vietnamese doctor. The whole trip to Bangkok, my feet didn't touch the ground-- I was carted from wheelchair to stretcher to wheelchair to business class seat, to wheelchair, to private bus, to wheelchair, to another stretcher, and right into Bumrungrad Hospital in the middle of Bangkok. My hospital room is like a 5 star hotel suite, and my mom flew out and met me here in the middle of the night. After two nights here, my blood platelet level is back to normal, and though my liver enzyme count is through the roof, and the Dengue rash finally reared its ugly head-- all over my legs and arms, the doctor tells me I'm getting better.

I'll try to write more another time, the nurse is here to check my blood pressure.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Imperial Discount


Signs in English are everywhere in Vietnam, as if everything here were produced for us visitors. But from experience, I don't think most of the merchants sitting under these neon banners even know enough English to read the letters of their own advertising. Of course, it's on us to learn Vietnamese if we truly want to communicate respectfully, but it also seems that they've invested lots of time and effort in setting up an infrastructure that will draw in Western purchasing power. It can be confusing, thus, especially at restaurants when we foreigners are handed a menu that quotes higher prices for the same items listed at a discount on the "Vietnamese" menu. Then, the question becomes, to buy or not to buy:

Probably about 90% of everything I own at home, I got at a reduced price-- the imperial discount. I'm buying things directly here in Vietnam that I would buy at home for more because of middlemen and corporate commission. Part of my conscience tells me that I probably should accept to pay higher prices (than locals) during international travel to make up for the water, electricity, wood, information, poetry, and fashion I co-opt or steal from them by participating complacently in the corporate American economy that we all know to be blatantly extractive and exploitative.

On the other hand, I didn't personally screw them, and so I owe them nothing. But on the third hand, my country did screw them, and I am reaping the benefits and putting them toward travel within this country. We had a couple debates over this issue, Adam and I, with him annoyed that he can't get anyone to quote him a fair price up front, and me delighted that my inner-Jewish-woman can finally tell people out loud what I think every item is really worth. But haggling, though it can be fun and useful at times, does get tiring and I start to wonder how one can determine the true price of anything with so much global and environmental history mixed in. And so I keep coming back to the question of what do I owe them, and what do they owe me... In the end, don't do we really just owe each other basic respect and decency?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rolling Blackouts in Hanoi, and Flying Solo






















Hanoi, the Capital-- July 8, 2010
First Day on my Own, Adam flew home last night

So I got my ass kicked by Monkey Island. It's a long story, but basically it includes traveler's diarrhea, several flesh wounds, and a jellyfish. Anyhow, not to worry anybody because I only feel stronger for emerging from the jungle in one piece. Halong Bay was beautiful, and I finally got to do some hiking-- though I don't know that I'd want to repeat the steep climb we did in CatBa National Park to a panoramic view tower, because frankly it was hotter than hell and I was preceded on the descent by oversized bullets of my own sweat. Highlights of the trip included stargazing on the deck of our boat with no light pollution, a Willie Nelson lookalike who played Jason Mraz on guitar during the long and crowded bus ride, trekking from a white sandy beach through the jungle to our bungalow overnight on Monkey Island (whose gates are guarded by a very relaxed, yet well-endowed, monkey), and a beautiful kayak excursion in and out of the lush, humming green cliffs of Cat Ba Island. I also met a really "lovely" engaged couple named Mark and Denise (!) who are from England and Ireland, respectfully, and I'm meeting them tonight for a movie in the air-conditioned "Megaplex" cinema... the first movie theatre I've heard of in Vietnam.

I hadn't planned to stay in Hanoi at all, let alone spend four nights here, but I couldn't get a ticket on the overnight train to Lao Cai (the border crossing for China) until Saturday night. The lodging here is more expensive than the rest of the country, especially for a single travler, and so my room is the size of a matchbox. There have been rolling blackouts since I arrived which is really unpleasant given that air conditioning is my lifeblood here, even more so than water. I've also developed a pretty strong aversion to Vietnamese cities for their smog, traffic, and swarms of tourists all being carted through the manufactured Vietnamese trail, complete with identical trips to Halong Bay and Sapa and late night binge drinking sessions at the local Irish pub. I hate feeling like I am one of many, but I know that it's silly to think I'm any different from the rest-- just because I walk around the tourist destinations with a conscience doesn't mean that I'm not walking around tourist destinations.

But Hanoi is the capital city, and therefore holds a wealth of history and culture if you're willing to brave the heat during the day to visit museums and stroll through the backstreets of the Old Quarter. I went to the amazing Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts today, and was-- I kid you not-- the ONLY person in the whole museum. The funny thing is, right next door was the Temple of Literature where HOARDS of white people were snapping photographs rudely inside the Confucian temple whilst religious Vietnamese who had come to pray seemed miraculously undisturbed by the flashes and jostling backpacks. The Temple was somewhat nice looking and the gardens were mostly shaded, but I didn't really see the appeal-- thus my surprise that the Art Museum (which featured handcrafted ceramics, traditional folk crafts, clothing, jewelry, and paintings from all different periods of Vietnamese history) was totally deserted. I meandered through, taking my time, and softly singing Arirang to fend off the loneliness of exploring the more deserted parts of a city on my own. Again, not to worry anyone, I've met plenty of nice people here-- it's just that somehow being AROUND people is not the same as being WITH them. And I do miss all my friends and family from home.

I ate lunch in a progressive, comfortable, and excellent restaurant called Koto, which somehow gave me a sense of comfort because the food superiority reminded me of Oliveto and the food world I accidentally became a part of in the Bay Area this past year. I ordered the Coconut fish salad, and closed my eyes while I ate it because it was so good. It's rare to find a healthy meal here, unless you're willing to pay top dollar, but again-- Koto is progressive and known for its commitment to recycling all its proceeds into its own rigorous hospitality/culinary training program for underprivileged youth from the city streets. All the service staff, as well as the cooks themselves, are themselves students in the program, and the restaurant as a 100% job placement rate after graduation. In the end, I actually felt really good about splurging, which allowed me to relish my layered dark chocolate mousse cake in complete and utter bliss.

Tomorrow, I hope to visit the Women's Museum, the History Museum, the Revolutionary Museum, and the temples within Hoan Kien lake. On my last couple days I'll visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and museum, because I have a weird fascination with the dude. He was very charismatic, and eloquent, from what I've read, but he's also the symbol of communism in Vietnam and was obviously a very controversial figure in his immense power. I'm eager to get to China and the cool weather, but I am also captivated by this country I stumbled blindly into. I actually like wading/j-walking through traffic (it feeds my anarchist fire), and riding half terrified/half exhilirated on the back of random guys' motorbikes through the city, narrowly missing other drivers by only centimeters. In a weird way, I feel sort of accomplished sweating gallons every minute, especially since the Bia Hoi (fresh beer on tap-- inspired by the Czech) is very abundant and incredibly refreshing, and I had never until this point experienced getting a tan within a city. I like waking up early, despite feeling exhausted all day, and I even kind of like the lonely solitude of navigating the streets, and puffing on my inhaler each morning to combat the smog. This traveling thing: I think it's growing on me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Development


Hoi An, Vietnam July 2010

DEVELOPMENT
It's fascinating to look at economic development in a country where wireless internet comes before toilet paper. In the hotels and restaurants we have frequented so far, I've noticed how disparate, conflicting, dissonant the state of affairs seem to be. I often find myself trying to guess at the wealth of an establishment, or a family, but it's almost impossible. This is because a restaurant's seating area will be plush and luxurious, while its kitchen will look like something out of Fast Food Nation. Which is not to mention its bathroom, which may look like something out of a grotesque Diane Arbus photo. Another example is the country house I stopped at to answer to the call of nature on the delapidated road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne Beach. The female proprietor our driver spoke to was very gracious, and led me proudly through her carpeted living room, complete with flatscreen TV, DVD player, and comfortable looking easy chairs, straight through to the "bathroom" where she pushed the door open and pointed at the ground. My eyes searchingly followed her finger... but I couldn't even find so much as a hole in the ground. After desperately scanning the room, looking for ANYTHING that might resemble even the most primitive toilet, I realized she was instructing me to pee in a small red bucket that I had previously seen employed merely as a child's innocent toy in a sandbox or at the beach of Lake Anza. Aha. Well, here goes the violation of everything innocent...

But in all seriousness, it seems that the way development is happening here is somewhat reflective of a national mentality that strives to achieve Western-style capitalist luxury (air conditioning, motorbikes, wireless internet, sparkly shoes and jewelry) yet refuses to give in to the uniformity and gentrification of Westernized health and safety standards (street vendors, black markets, brand knockoffs, foodborne illness, occupational risk, dirty diesel fuel, etc.)... It all comes down to different priorities, one might think, which could help to explain why international negotiations can often be so difficult, and often fruitless. We're trying to trade apples for oranges, when what they really want is DVDs. And for all of us, no matter our nationality, escape can sometimes seem better than looking our problems in the face, and we turn again and again to our televisions to transport us to the greener side of the hill.

But historically speaking, there may be another explanation for this warped picture of priorities. In "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places," a quintessential read for understanding the Vietnam War through a woman's perspective, Le Ly Hayslip explains that "the rubble and refugees were not the only byproducts of our war. Hundreds of thousands of tons of rice and countless motorbikes, luxury cars, TVs, stereos, refrigerators, air conditioners, and crates of cigarettes, liquir, and cosmetics were imported for the Vietnamese elite and the Americans who supported them." Like in any culture, once the wealthy achieve material success, they immediately set the bar for others to strive for. Apparently, the war created "a new class of privileged people-- wealthy young officers, officials, aned war profiteers-- who supplanted the elderly as objects of veneration." In fact, much of the current class system of wealth and ownership may be a nonsensical yet irreversible remnant from a war that turned an entire country on its head.

However, I haven't really noticed a visible upper class, though I'm sure it must exist. So far, most of the people we've come in contact with are either extremely poor, or middle of the road merchants-- literally. Granted, we're backpackers and thus relying solely on budget accommodation, food, and transport. Perhaps the rich folks are remaining hidden in their private cars and centers of trade in the financial districts we haven't bothered to seek out. Or, perhaps, we haven't noticed them because, in fact, they look like us-- with our expensive REI backpacks, ipods, and loaded coinpurses. Perhaps we are blind to manifestations of wealth and privilege because we are always looking out, rather than in.

In many ways, "They" are us, and "We" are them. Our interlocked histories make it a zero-sum game, yet we all win some and lose some. Money, and richness, I think, are entirely subjective and relative. Are we Americans as rich as they Vietnamese in culture, family, work ethic, spirit and simplicity? Are they as rich as we in choices, freedom and flexibility, formal education, and technologies? And of course, there is an endless spectrum of class diversity within both of our so-called societies.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hygiene Vs Cleanly Spirit


My grandma Elizabeth once told me to keep a pen and a little notebook by my bed. As an insomniac and a writer, she always knows too well the obstacles I am facing. "No matter how tired you are," she pleaded, "no matter how much you don't want to drag yourself out of bed for the hundredth time that night, when you have an idea or some thought that comes to your mind fully formed...perfect.... write it down!" And so, I'm writing it down.

Hygiene vs Cleanliness of Spirit
When you're covered in sweat, and dirt, and piss, and bugs
And when there's a dried layer of sweat over all of it.
When you've been dusted with diesel, and given up on makeup and bug spray weeks ago,
And when salty rivulets of sunscreen drip mercilessly into your bloodshot eyes...
You can really start to feel the shine from within.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Overnight Sleeper Bus

Nha Trang to Hoi An, 10 PM June 29

So I'm writing this from my cramped spot on the back of my first ever overnight sleeper bus, which is exactly like a five star hotel, only your hotel runs on diesel and you're wearing a seatbelt. And the person sleeping next to you is wearing a SARS mask and hacking. Your window is dripping rain onto your blanket (which is sort of like 800 thread count Egyptian sheets, only it's made from flannel and smells like it's never been washed), which is fine except that a smell is wafting around that you vaguely recognize as Chinese foot fungus ointment, and the driver is chain-smoking cigarettes. You'd think you're at the Four Seasons, except you're a little nauseous from the bumpy uphill road and there's a person sleeping in the aisle blocking you from getting to your five star restroom, which has no toilet paper and is Vietnamese sized-- which basically means it's the size of your big toe: because you are the largest person in Asia. Which means your bare feet are sticking awkwardly into the face of the person sleeping in front of you.

It's just like the Wynn Las Vegas, except that you stop at tollbooths and honk at motorcycles. The "concierge" handed you a plastic watter bottle and a barf bag in place of a pina colada and a room key, but you're guaranteed a twleve-hour, five-star sleep except in the rare chance you can't fall asleep because there's lightning and thunder and you're an insomniac. You're also pretty sure the last time you booked the Sands Regency suite, you slept on a pillow rather than a pair of shoes wrapped in a smelly sweatshirt. And there wasn't quite as much sand in your bed...

But you're too busy giggling at the situation through your bleary exhaustion. And staring at the full moon as it wanes over the iridescent Pacific ocean from your five-star midget sized window. You'd read, but your overhead light has been torn away and only wires are left. And you know that Paris Hilton would be jealous, because her daddy ain't got shit on the Hanh Cafe Sleeper Bus Deluxe.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vietnam


VIETNAM

I'm behind on my blogging because of our fast-paced, travel-intensive schedule, but I'm going to try to briefly run through the places Adam and I have been since meeting up about a week ago...because this country's long and winding story (and even longer landscape-- Vietnam is over ONE THOUSAND miles long top to bottom) deserves to be told.

HO CHI MINH- The City
...or Saigon, was amazing in its millions of food
stands, motor-bikes, and bars. We couchsurfed with some English-teachers who
took us to a Vietnamese
feast and an awesome hip-hop show at a local bar, and we made
friends with some other couchsurfers from San Francisco. The city was amazing and stimulating, the food smelly but delicious, the streets
jam-packed and the air diesel-filled, but the atmosphere rich with history and the night-life casual and fun. I pretty quickly got tired of the smog.

We visited the CuChi tunnels used by the VietCong to escape and counter-attack American and its Southern Vietnamese puppet government armies, and it became quickly apparent how unfamiliar home-soil fighting and guerilla warfare is to Americans of my generation. The intimacy with which they knew their land, and the overexaggerated communist nationalism that the Viet Cong developed as a reaction to the country's history of Western imperialism , felt foreign yet also important to understand as an American. Though Adam and I have had a few serious conversations since then about how Vietnam, as compared to other countries we've visited, feels hostile in some ways-- the people and cities seeming to coldly return our curious smiles... life as a tourist is very problematic, frustrating, and embarassing, even as it yields cultural understanding and historical context for our own existence as international citizens within the globalized world paradigm. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a whole other can of worms... most upsetting to me were the photos of the children of victims of Agent Orange and the replicated torture cells, while the most uplifting were the photographs of anti-war protests in soliarity with Vietnam from all around the world.

MUI NE- the Beach

It rained in Mui Ne, the lazy little beach town Adam and I arrived at late at night. So far, Vietnam had been hectic, polluted, and exhausting, so it was really nice to alight somewhere that has yet to be touched by the traffic and smog of development...though the tourist economy associated with any resort-destination brought up a lot of internal strife for us, as did having a personal driver who spoke no English. Our first day, we paid one dollar each for breakfast (well, I paid three because I ordered two huge plates of food), and four dollars to lounge around by the pool at an oceanfront hotel. We swam in the waves too, and the ocean was warm like Hawaii! Our vast air-conditioned room (with TV, wireless, a spacious bathroom, and two beds) cost us $10/night and was right across the street from the beach. Enormous cocktails at the restaurant we had dinner at cost $1 each. It blows my mind each time I convert the Vietnamese price in dong to dollars, and I arrive at a stunningly low number. Yet Adam and I were the only customers in the restaurant, which we sat in four hours because we were trapped by a tropical downpour, and we had a personal service staff of about twelve people!

The next day, we paid some teenage boys to guide us in dune-sliding, like sledding-- only on sand, and sent our "personal driver" on his way because of our discomfort and conflicted feelings about the dynamic of having what essentially felt like a paid servant. Our final night we wandered down the beach and had dinner watching sunset, drinking a bottle of local Dalat wine and discussing love, life, travel, family, academia, food, and Judaism.



DALAT- the Highlands

Most Westerners don't make it up to the Dalat highlands, but I am beyond ecstatic that we did. It is gorgeous up here, cool weather that feels delicious in this hot South-East Asian summer, and greenery for miles and miles and miles surrounding the town, which has French influence screaming out of every piece of architecture and plate of local cuisine. The bus-ride here was my favorite part of the trip thus far. I sat in my cramped seat next to the open window grinning like a maniac as we pummeled our way through the countryside, with the Grateful Dead blasting in my ears and my shirt tied around my head middle-Eastern style to block out the scorching morning sun. As I watched the sights fly by, they watched me back. Men, women, and children, babies, old folks, and dogs-- they all seem to make up a country of watchers... whose daily lives pretty much exist as a fluid dance between backbreaking work in the fields and lazy porch-dwelling from their roadside houses. Everything in Vietnam seems to be right up on the road, so that nobody will miss anything, and nothing will remain hidden: Privacy doesn't seem to be a primary concern here the way it is in the U.S. As our bus jolted and careened around corners, up the bumpy, muddy, pothole-ridden road to Dalat, honking at motorbikes and zooming dangerously close to bicyclers, I felt my heart lift at every passing sight. Low-land swamps hosted by blazing neon fields and backed by faroff forest-green mountains, cows/ducks/chickens/goats roaming free and happy (my existence here as a meat-eater is far less guilty than it is at home), the oxen-pulled carts and neatly hoed roes of cabbage, the banana trees and fresh air, the road to higher ground put me in an elevated mood for the rest of the day.

Until nighttime. I sat in our hotel room, queasy, alone, feeling aimless/useless/homesick and like an intruder. What was I doing here, and why? I've never believed in tourism as a good thing of its own accord-- yet here I was, with nothing to give-- just taking.
Adam came back at my lowest point, and I thank God for his companionship because we had a great conversation about the merits and demerits of visiting a foreign country (too detailed to go into here), and ended up laughing and promising to try harder not to speak English quite so doggedly at our confused Vietnamese counterparts... "If we can't communicate what we want in THEIR language, then we starve!" This, in response to my realization of how unsettling it would be to have a Vietnamese tourist come into Oliveto and self-servingly expect me, as the host, to accurately interpret his or her unintelligible foreign babble, stubbornly accompanied by bizarre hand motions.

I want to write about our motorbike ride through the countryside today with the Easy Riders, older Vietnamese men who know endless information about the history and economy of the Dalat region, but I've already written too much here. I'll post more pictures soon. Mom/Dad/Nanny: I think your hearts would stop to see me flying in and out of traffic on the back of a sputtering Honda motorcycle up the winding hills of Dalat wearing only a helmet and an insane smile for safety, but I'll just say that it's been one of the highlights of my 22 years of life so far.


video

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wtf, China




Somehow, between the crowded buses, the jetlag, and the air-conditioner next to the head of my hostel bed, I caught a cold. Luckily, I brought airborne (hi Bob!) and cough drops, so I'm one step ahead of the game-- though of course Causeway Bay has a medicine shop on every corner so I would've been fine either way. I had soup noodles and tea for breakfast and am chugging bottles of Bonaqua (made by coca-cola), which claims to be the "Official Water for 2010 FIFA World Cup" in hopes of squashing the sickness before I leave for Vietnam tomorrow night. It's mostly just annoying because I'm cooped up in my room during my 2nd to last day here! Speaking of the World Cup, I haven't been watching any of the soccer games, but they're all broadcast from this gigantic TV on the World Trade Center building where I had dinner last night at an awesome Korean restaurant with twelve of Ian's friends (hi Ian!)

Had my first WTF, China, moment yesterday on the bus back from Repulse Bay (a beautiful tropical looking beach where I was the only female in the water... and also the palest/largest person on the beach). The bus-ride back was SO SLOW-- it took about half an hour alone just to board the bus, and then we sat in stand-still traffic that would rival LA in its worst rush-hour of history. I sat next to a really nice Italian architect in the back of the bus where the exhaust pipe seemed to be blowing backward (as in, INTO the bus rather than OUT) and the air conditioner was no match for the body-heat of a hundred sweaty beachgoers crammed together into one vehicle. The architect and I entertained each other by pretending to pull the emergency exit lever every time the lane next to us moved forward a few inches, and feigning suicide when the sleeping man across from us gurgled or snorted in his sleep.

Anyway, eventually I made it back to downtown and had dinner, and dropped by the supermarket to grab a bottle of water on my way back to the hostel. It was then that I experienced WTF, China, Part II. The lines for the checkout were each about three thousand people long-- at eleven-thirty at night, and I stood in it with my ONE measley bottle of water for a full fifteen minutes before realizing I hadn't moved so much as one step. I don't know if the cashiers are just really slow (weird, for a culture that in other ways seems so efficient), or if God just really hated me yesterday, but either way I ended up ditching the line, and my purchase, only to find that there was no exit from the store other than proceeding through the checkout. Tourist fail! When I recounted this whole story to roommate Jane, she laughed at me and told me "wait til you get to mainland China." Apparently I'm in for a real culture shock. She says that things there can feel so frustrating and difficult that everytime she so much as breaks a pen, she shakes her head and tsks,... "Ch-ch-ch-China."
In all seriousness, I can't wait.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hong Kong Island




I've done and seen so much in the past day and a half, I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to recount it all. So I won't. Instead, I'll just say that Hong Kong is HOT and FAST. When I arrived by the Airport Express to the Central MTR Station, I had to jog (with my extremely heavy and bulky backpack) to keep up with the commuter rush. I was awed and how quietly and quickly these folks walked from train to train, with their
shiny black heels clicking and their smart outfits pressed and perfect. I felt like I was in some other world... some alien world a million miles from Berkeley, where no two people ever match each other. Since then, I've found that Hong Kong-ers DO talk, but I was right about the fast walking.

Today I went to Lantau Island with my hostel roomates (Jane and Nula) to see the big Buddha, and every minute was incredible. I couldn't soak in all the amazing maritime scenery fast enough, as our ferry sped through the bay away from the skyscraper-crowded skyline. The bus ride was even more scenic, we wound our way from the ferry dock bus station up through lush green tropical rainforest, past secluded white sand beaches, past cows and bulls, past little huts and stores on the side of the road. On our breezy bus ride, we ran into some British guys I had met last night dancing in Lan Kwai Fong... it's a small world in the tourist places. The Buddha was incredible. Mystical. Fog swirling around his head and feet, and the mist so thick it at times concealed him completely... only to drift by moments later revealing his majestic figure. We climbed the stairs to the base of the statue, and our voices seemed to shatter the silence of the Great Buddha. And I'm told that it's not even the biggest-- there's one in China whose head alone is the size of Lantau Island's.

Yesterday, my first day, was a blur. It's amazing how quickly you can learn a city and how to get around it in just one day, but when I first arrived I couldn't tell up from down or right from left. I got severely lost and flustered trying to find the hostel, and when I arrived the front doorman held up a sign in English saying "I cannot help you." Uhhh.... great. I didn't know which floor the hostel was on, and there were signs everywhere claiming that the hostel was run illegally and that the building owners were not responsible for any trouble a traveler like myself might have with the hostel. Sketchy! As I'm pacing the front hallway, sweating bullets and feeling desperate, a casually dressed woman in a long ponytail comes out of the lift and says, "Hong Kong Hostel?" in a thick accent. I nod, and she beckons me into the breadbox sized elevator... I had no idea whether or not to trust her. In the end, the hostel room is clean (like Lonely Planet promised), and I have 2 awesome roommates who I already feel like I've known for weeks. But it is not glamorous, and I had to stop myself from giving into my princess side and renting a hotel room with a private bathroom and a swimming pool for 200 some odd bucks a night.

Even so, living on a budget here does not mean not spending money. It seems like all there is to do here in Hong Kong Island is shop. Even though there are thousands and thousands of stores (everything from a Cartier on every block to the tiny herb stores that smell familiar only because of running errands with my mom the acupuncturist), none of them seem to be struggling from the competition. People teem in and out of every doorway as if their life depended on exercising their capitalist rights-- as non-mainland Chinese. I haven't bought much yet except a few postcards and a small coin-purse, but my eyes get bigger and bigger at every jewelry booth and watch-boutique I pass by. Not to mention the food-- you could eat every five steps here, it seems. Today, we had an elaborate dim-sum meal in a beautiful air-conditioned room compete with chandeliers for close to $10 US... Everything here seems to be cheap except real estate. Last night, though, I did drink a pricey daiquiri at a bar in SoHo, but it was worth it as the strawberries were fresh, the glass was the size of my head, and the rim was dipped in chocolate and frozen :) Yum.
Tomorrow I may head to Macau with Jane, but I also feel like there's so much here to do! I haven't been to Stanley Market (though maybe that's better... I don't really want to buy anything I'll have to lug around in Vietnam) or a million other places here on HK Island-- and I haven't even set foot in Kowloon yet! Might just go to the beach to relax and fight the jet lag. My god, for a place so small, there sure is a lot to do... and so many people!!!!! Riding the tram up Victoria Peak yesterday was also awesome, and unfortunately I don't have pictures because I didn't intend to end up there... I just kinda wandered into it when I ran into another girl staying at my hostel on her way up from Hong Kong Park (which is very pretty). Stunning view, from the top, I got vertigo it was so high. And the tram ride up is almost a 90 degree angle, I felt like I was on a roller coaster!
More to come...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

En Route


So I'm sitting here in Vancouver International airport, drinking a decaf coffee and soaking in the serenity of what seems to be a cross between an airport shopping center and a 5-star spa retreat. The bubbling of a native-american themed fountain and the soft croonings of the latest Usher album are the only sounds to accompany the typing of my keys. What a nice change from the typical airport scene that usually interrupts your half-hearted 4 hour layover slumber with shockingly loud announcements about airport security regulations and every flight that isn't yours, "now boarding."

Here, everything is in both French and English. Getting off the plane, I overheard some Belgian businessmen discussing whether or not they should invite "la fille mignonne" (me) to join them on tomorrow's boat ride they have planned here in British Columbia. Little do they know that a) I am continuing on to Hong Kong, and b) I understand French.

The peaceful ambience here, complete with a slow-moving aquarium and diaramas of indigenous peoples rowing down streams that meander under voluptuously carved bridges in their woodwork canoes, may be partially responsible for my remarkably low level of anxiety at the starting of my big adventure, but there also seems to be something internal that has transpired. This morning, I woke up feeling excited-- not apprehensive or stressed as I thought I might. The hazy vision of my trip (which has at times appears to me in nightmares as a small, lost, anxious girl paralyzed with confusion and fear in the middle of an impersonal and bustling Chinese city-- hot, lonely, and miserable) is now becoming clearer as I remember the seemingly difficult to grasp concept that in every place in the world there is familiarity and pockets of calm. To plant one's feet on the ground of another country is very, well, grounding... it helps to dissipate the media-driven fear that "foreign" means "dangerous, unfriendly, and other."

In fact, I remember feeling the very same way while spending a semester in Israel and Palestine: what may from the lens of Fox News or the New York Times appear as a war-torn battleground, replete with suicide bombers and desert explosions, is also a home to millions of regular people just like us. Who shop, who relax, who party, who have loving relationships.

So now, I am challenging myself to envision my trip one step at a time. Hong Kong is not ALL TERRIFYING ASIA!!!!!, rather it is Hong Kong, where I will eat dinners and explore neighborhoods, and shop in air conditioned buildings. Vietnam is not MOSQUITOS MALARIA OH MY!, but rather a place where I'll rendez-vous with Adam and dwell in the abode of a generous couchsurfer named Steven, and see beautiful sights, eat cheap delicious food, and visit ancient temples. Though now, as I document this mental exercise, I can see myself slipping into the ever-so-alluring tourist trap-- which allows one to exchange all the discomforts and political realities (colonialism.sexism.racism.disease.poverty.psychological trauma) for capitalist escape (voyeurism.exploitation.exotification.consumption.privilege.whiteguilt), I hope that I can find a balance-- between tourist and victim of culture shock. And I hope to experience a deep sensation of unity through the equalizing vision of humanity that travel can yield if you keep your eyes open in the right way.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two days til Takeoff




Curiosity killed the cat.... or not?

I'm flying to Hong Kong on Tuesday. I feel overwhelmed, as if my decision is rushing forward like a speeding van, and I'm that poor unfortunate person who is half-in half-out, jogging along side and wondering if I should leap in or just give up and let it go ahead to its destination without me.

It looks like I'm leaping. I took leave from my job at Oliveto, I have everything I need, along with a fortuitous arrival-date that falls during the Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong, and plans to meet Adam in Ho Chi Minh City on the 21st. Why am I still apprehensive? Because I love my life here in Berkeley so much. The moment I decided to take the plunge is likely the very same moment I began to feel settled here in my sedentary existence in the Bay Area. For so long I felt constrained by being "at home" rather than out there in the world, and despite people's warnings that "it takes time" to put down roots in someplace new, I was antsy for escape and impatient with my slowly growing social life and my lacking sense of belonging and meaning. How life does love irony. I never would have thought that within one year, I would have made such a radical transformation from restlessness/frustration to contentment/peace/comfort.

Now that I've put the wheels in motion, though, there's no turning back. And maybe it's for the best! There are moments in the day, in between travel errands and the hustle/bustle of trying to soak up friends and family, when the enormity of my adventure hits me-- I'm about to see parts of the world I haven't so much as dreamed of. Attempt to learn a language that sounds more foreign than the clicking of ciccadas... and meet people I will never in a million years encounter, even in a place as diverse as Bezerkeley, California. At these moments, I can envision the views I'll stumble upon, the photos I'll take, and the foods I'll taste... and I feel excited beyond belief!

And then there are those moments where I feel like "what the hell am I doing??" As a coworker said to me yesterday, "it's going to be hard... you're going to cry and you're going to feel lonely... but be strong." And I just have to remind myself that this is, after all, what I was seeking in the first place-- an uprooting that will put me to the test and challenge my own notions about who I am and what I am capable of.

To all who are reading this blog, thank you for your support... and stay tuned.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Decision Time

So I got an email about a week ago from a program called the Aston Language Center about an opening to participate in a summer language exchange in Wuhu, Anhui province. I'm interviewing tonight but am so torn! Wuhu is much smaller than Kunming, much more humid/hot, and has a lot less travelers/folks in my boat it seems. It starts June 29th which could possibly preclude my trip to Laos. Of course the program offers exactly what I was looking for-- free housing and food, airport pickup, cell-phone, peace of mind, and a seemingly equal and non-colonial-istic language EXCHANGE as opposed to one-way English unto the "other."

I am one week and two days away from my departure, and still don't know what city I will be living in! Aaaaah! Part of me still wants to wing it and just show up in Kunming, stay at a hostel, take courses at Yunnan University and use networking through other travelers and ex-pats to build a life there, but part of me is terrified that I don't even speak enough Chinese to get myself TO Kunming-- let alone apartment hunt, enroll in a university, etc.

What to do, what to do. Meanwhile, life hurtles by in Berkeley as the weather gets gorgeous and all my friends want to play :)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Potential Itinerary

June 17th (early early in the morn!) - June 20th
Hong Kong, where I will spend a few days exploring, and possibly be shown around town by one of Ian's close friends.

June 21-July 7
Backpacking with Adam
(What's more patriotic for American Independence than backpacking around SE Asia with little direction and no obligations??)
- Laos
- Vietnam
- Borneo?? It's a little out of the way, but my friend Adam who I will be traveling with has heard great things, and apparently there's a fascinating history of land management....

July 8-Aug 5
Volunteering and studying Mandarin in Kunming, details to come

Aug5-Onward
??????????????

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ni Hao!

For several reasons I still don't understand, I've decided to go to China. As they say, some folks look for answers/ others look for fights/some folks up in treetops, just look to see the sights ;)

June 15th, I'll fly into Hong Kong to spend a few days, and then I'll go from there. Likely first destinations include Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, which I've heard really good things about in terms of tourism, but my ultimate goal is to experience parts of East Asia through the eyes of a volunteer/nomad. So, I will begin in Kunming in the Yunnan province in China and see where it takes me.

In short, it feels good to keep on moving.