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

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 :)