Monday, February 15, 2010

The End of the Road

I am the penultimate procrastinator. I can't get anything done without a deadline. Well, the deadline is imminent. I start work tomorrow, and the end of this nine-month Funemployment stint has finally come to end. It is truly bittersweet. I've become accustomed to not setting an alarm, making home-cooked lunches and putting off a shower until around 3:00 p.m. But I am also eager to wipe the cobwebs from my brain and start thinking about things that don't appear in my Facebook newsfeed. It's time to get back to the real world, at least for a little while.

It's impossible to summarize the effect of my time off in any single post. And I think that's why I've had such a hard time writing since I've returned from my jaunt through the South Pacific and SE Asia. But it's time to put pen to paper, or in this case fingers to keyboard, and conclude this amazing adventure with one final post.

I have learned so much about myself and the world in these past months that I feel like I should earn a degree in life lessons. So with that in mind, I want to share with you the top 10 things I learned while Funemployed:

1. Toilet seats are not overrated. I appreciate them more now than ever before. And if there is hand soap and paper towels in a restroom, well then I take a moment and say a silent thank you to the bathroom gods. It really is the little things!

2. People are inherently kind. There are times when some act violently or maliciously, but it is only fear and ignorance that causes this. And one small act of kindness is far more powerful than any evil.

3. If you don't set expectations, you will never be disappointed. When I open myself up fully to new experiences and embrace the unpredictable, I am content.

4. The universe provides exactly what you need, when you need it. Many a time I found myself in situations where I couldn't imagine what to do next, when all of a sudden something would steer my course in the right direction. I remember being stranded in Malaysia without a single cent of local currency and no idea where I was, when I met a woman from San Francisco who offered to take me to my hostel. This "luck" followed me everywhere at exactly the moments I needed it most.

5. When you travel alone, you are only as lonely as you want to be. If you need a friend, make a friend. There are people everywhere who would love to hear your story and share theirs over a glass of cold beer and a bowl of fried cashew nuts (yum!).

6. Don't be afraid to cross the street. It may seem like absolute chaos at times, but once you start walking, people will sense your next move and get out of your way. This is true in Asia, and also in life. When you move forward with intention, your path will clear and your destination will lay in wait.

7. Fear is the enemy of freedom. Once you let go of your fear, anything is possible.

8. Eat good food.

9. Be the stronger version of yourself. It is only when you challenge yourself to do the unimaginable that you give yourself the opportunity to do it.

10. Life is short. Don't spend too much of it on the other side of a computer screen.

When the alarm clock goes off at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m., funemployment officially ends and a new adventure begins. I'm excited to get back to the working world, partially for the paychecks that will be direct deposited into my sadly depleted bank account. But also because of the people I will meet, the ideas I will brainstorm and the perks I have so longingly missed (think spa treatments and five-star meals).

I can't promise Employment will be quite as captivating as Funemployment, so I'm probably not going to write the sequel to this blog. But I will say that writing this has been an incredible journey in-and-of itself and I'm grateful to all (5 or 6) of you that have followed along. I've loved hearing your comments and support and hope you've enjoyed reading just as much. So with that, I bid you adieu... I pray we all see the world with excitement in our eyes, eagerness in our hearts and seats on our toilets!

Oh and p.s., I am actually participating in a new blog along with a group of my friends, which has nothing to do with working, not working or traveling... really it's just about eating!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Losing the War in VIETSCAM

You know that old adage... If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Well, that's the main reason for my silence about Vietnam. It's not that I don't have anything nice to say. It's just that for every good experience here, I've had about 20 bad ones to follow.

I came to this country with the same earnest and excitement with which I entered the 7 countries that preceded it. I had heard great stories. I wanted to love Vietnam. But every time I started to warm to it, something incredibly annoying, insulting or underhanded occured.

A few examples...

I left Cambodia with two sisters, Gill and Amanda, who I've been traveling with for the last few weeks. We hopped on a bus from Phnom Penh at silly-o-clock in the morning to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known as Saigon. We arrived completely knackered, so instead of trying to figure out where we were on the map, we simply hopped in the first taxi we saw. When we told the driver the name of our hotel, he looked at us in complete bewilderment, drove around the corner, then told us to get out of the car. He pointed to the exact spot where we flagged him down and he showed us that we were standing directly in front of it before he picked us up. He then had the nerve to charge us 9,000 Vietnamese Dong for the mishap. Our belongings were locked in his trunk, so we figured the only way to get of the situation was to pay him his $0.50 and get on with it. Since we were fresh off the bus and had just procured some cash from the nearest ATM, the smallest note we had was 100,000 Dong. We handed him the bill and waited for our change. But instead of giving us the 91,000 we were owed, he handed us 10,000. Gill looked at me and said, "Should we just forget it?" accepting defeat. But I adamantly said, "NO!" and proceeded to have a 5 minute argument with the shady taxi driver in which I whipped out my calculator and did the math for him, demanding the rest of our change. At long last, he handed over the other 80,000 and cursed us under his breath as he got back into the car.

Not exactly the warm welcome we were expecting! Considering this an isolated incident, we tried to have a positive outlook and forget about it. But the scams were only beginning.

In Sapa, we booked a 3 hour tour of the countryside. After driving a mere 6 miles out of town, stopping at a couple villages where we were harassed to buy cheap handicrafts, the driver informed us that our tour was actually over and he would need to take us back to town after a mere 45 minutes. I demanded to get the booking agent on the phone to clear up the discrepancy, but he informed us that the tour only takes 3 hours if we spend quite a bit of time in the villages. Considering that we had no interest in spending our afternoon selecting which annoying lady to purchase a tacky embroidered handbag from, we decided to head back to town. The tour operator suggested we ask around town about the same tour, and if we were able to find another company to offer the same tour for less money, he would refund our money. So we headed straight to the first company we saw, got a quote for a lower cost, and marched right back to his office. When we provided him with the information, he refused to hand over our money. After a heated argument and the realization that he was not ever going to refund a cent, I determined the only course of action was to park myself in front of his office and tell every passing tourist that they should avoid this liar and cheat at all costs. I would have preferred a refund, but causing him a loss of business was nearly as satisfying.

When we arrived in Hanoi, we decided we would avoid tours of any kind and take a walk to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. It turns out his body had been sent to Russia for re-embalment, so there wasn't really anything to see. Gill's feet were aching, so she suggested grabbing a taxi back to town. There are only a couple of legitimate taxi companies in Hanoi, but after about 15 minutes of trying to track one down to no avail we finally gave up and grabbed the next one we saw. BIG MISTAKE!!! After about 10 blocks, I glanced at the meter and saw that the cost was skyrocketing at rate of about $1.00 per second! I started screaming, "Stop the car!" "Pull over!" "STOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!" The driver rounded the corner, pulled over and asked us to pay the equivalent of $9 US dollars for the 2 minute taxi ride. When we refused, he got very angry and started screaming at us to pay. Trying to open the doors and roll down the windows, we realized that he had locked us in the car and was holding us hostage. The girls got scared and whipped out a 100,000 Dong bill (about $6) and handed it to him, but this wasn't enough. "$50,000 more!" he screamed. He then began fidgeting with the window lock and accidentally switched it off. In that split second, I managed to get the window down and began screaming, "HELP! HELP! POLICE!" at the top of my lungs. I guess we found his weak spot, and the doors miraculously unlocked. We scooted out of the car faster than bats out of hell. I said goodbye with a few of my favorite 4-letter words and kicked the door as hard as I could, denting it only for a moment before the ingenuity of Japanese engineering popped the metal back into place.

It was then that I realized how strongly I hate this country. After 3 weeks of being given unfavorable exchange rates by hotels, being overcharged at restaurants for food or drinks never ordered, and just generally feeling like a walking ATM, I've reached my max on being swindled. The bank of Miranda is closed. Operating hours are over. This ATM is out of service!

But the thing is, there is always a silver lining. Despite the stress and frustration that this country has caused, I have found an amazing group of cohorts to share the pain with. Last night for the final dinner of this journey, I enjoyed the company of 6 friends, a couple bottles of good wine, and many laughs about the underhanded schemes of the Vietnamese. We licked our wounds and bonded over war stories. Truth be told, it really does feel like I've been through my own version of a Vietnam War, only I've more aptly named this one the Viet-SCAM War. And like the War waged 50 years ago, the Americans have lost again. Only this time, the casualties aren't human lives, but bank accounts, credit cards and sheer dignity.

I'm headed to the airport in about 30 minutes, and I have never looked forward to a 17 1/2 hour journey with such relief and enthusiasm. I am more ready to go home than I ever could have imagined just a few short weeks ago. Pinkberry, Annie the cat, and playing cards with my family are just a few of the simple pleasures that await. Clean laundry, dry toilet seats and the ability to walk down the street without being solicited to buy a moto taxi ride, photocopied book, or bruised bananas will be a little slice of heaven. There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.

And because I can't end on a completely sour note, I'll leave you with this video clip that should provide a chuckle or 2. The sense of accomplishment of crossing the road in Saigon was equivalent to what I imagine Michael Phelps felt after winning his 11 gold medal. Check it out!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Complexity of Cambodia

Cambodia seems at once part of, and removed from, the rest of SE Asia. It borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, yet seems worlds away from them all. I was warned that the people would be aggressive and to hold on to my purse tightly. And although Cambodia is incredibly impoverished, it is also a country of immense beauty. Its history is both glorious and tragic, mesmerizing and bewildering, noble and shameful. Cambodia is perhaps the most complex country I have visited, and one that takes more than a few days to comprehend.

I started in Siem Reap. From here, I spent two days touring the temples of Angkor, the ancient city built in the 12th century. There are 72 temples within the Angkor region. Walking amongst these stone towers, decorated with intricate carvings of both Buddhist and Hindu gods, one begins to imagine what this place must have been like 850 years ago. Monks would spend their days praying, while the king and royal court would watch dance performances within the grand palace. Villagers would hold market and sell their wares, while flute music floated through the air.

I toured about a dozen of the temples in this region, with the crowning jewel being Angkor Wat itself. The temple is considered one of the best examples of of Khmer architecture, with stone towers soaring high above the once-crocodile-filled moats below. Bas reliefs adorn the walls, depicting Hindu stories of battles won and lost amongst ancient gods. One cannot help but marvel at the strength of these buildings to withstand centuries and the timeless artistry within their walls.

Though Angkor is the pride of Cambodia, it is only a piece of Cambodia's real identity. There is a story of unbelievable horror and tragedy that lives alongside Angkor's glory... the story of genocide under Pol Pot's regime from 1975-1979. Today I visited the killing fields of Choung Ek, a place where thousands of Cambodians were executed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. A stupa has been erected to house the 8,000+ skulls excavated after the genocide ended. I stood there, looking at the stacks of skulls of men, women and children, and an overwhelming feeling of grief washed over me. I choked back tears and forced myself to wander through the grounds and try to gain some understanding of what exactly transpired in this field where over 100 Cambodians were executed daily during the nightmare.

The executions were part of a "purge," that sought to rid the country of any resistance to the communist party. Any person seen as intelligent or suspected of resistance would be interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed. Their family members would be executed as well in order to avoid any future revenge. The methods of the torture and killing were unthinkably brutal. Electrocution, strangling, and bludgeoning to death were only a few methods used in the "extermination" of these innocent people.

After almost 4 years of genocide, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead... one-quarter of the entire population.

It is impossible to understand how or why something like this could have happened. How can millions of people be systematically murdered under the nose of agencies like the UN and nothing be done to stop it? How can young boys be brainwashed into murdering their families? How can someone hold a baby by its legs and smash its head against a tree?

And why does the dark side of human nature rear itself so horrifically in a place of such deep-seated faith in Buddha and his tenants of love and kindness?

Herein lays the complexity of Cambodia and the contradictions that trouble these people. At first glance, Cambodians are happy and proud of their country. School children on bicycles wave to Westerners in tuk-tuks. Waiters recommend the local Angkor beer. Hotel staff say goodbye as if you are their distant relatives and they hope for the day when you return again to say hello. But underneath their cheerful veneer is the sadness of loss and the pain of unending grief. Most people have a friend or a relative who they lost during this dark period. Some people, including the current king, lost their entire family.

How does a country heal in the aftermath of such atrocity?

Although I will leave Cambodia tomorrow with more questions than answers, I will also leave with inspiration. To see a people face their days smiling in the shadow of such a tragedy proves that their resolve to move forward is perhaps even stronger than the stone that built Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Experience: Thailand to Laos

Some take the road less traveled; I choose to take the river less traveled instead. Opting out of a bus or a plane, I cruised for 2 very long days down the Mekong River via a slow boat from Thailand into Laos. About 20 minutes into the journey on day 1, another boat blew its gearshift and the 50 passengers on board that one climbed onto ours. All of a sudden an already crowded boat became absolutely packed. I was lucky enough to have a seat on one of the very luxurious wooden benches. Most of the crowd from the broken boat were forced to sit on the floor in the center aisle, preventing anyone from being able to move about the boat without stepping over arms, legs or weary heads. The alternative for the shipwrecked passengers was to find a spot amongst the luggage, where the comfort of sitting on the soft packs was marred by the diesel fumes and loud grumble of the engine. The reality was that no seat was particularly comfortable after 3 hours, or 5, or especially 7. My butt became sore, my joints ached and my head grew tired.

But there is something really unique about entering a country via a river… to see the nature before you see an airport or a bus station. The landscape is beautiful and serene: steep cliffs covered in thick jungle, the murky brown Mekong giving bath to young children, and long fishing boats docked to the shore of tiny bamboo villages. Dragonflies skim the surface of the water and birds soar aimlessly in the clear blue sky.

Being amongst 100 travelers, held captive on the boat with no television, cell service or wifi, we are forced to find another means of entertainment. We exchange tips and itineraries, share a Beer Lao and a baguette, and get to know each other. There are certainly faster ways to travel from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, but there is something special about taking the long way. For lack of a better word, it is an Experience.

I’ve realized that gaining new Experiences is what this trip is all about for me. Doing things I normally wouldn’t or couldn’t in the good ol’ U-S-of-A is the essence of my intention. Therefore I’ve packed as many Experiences into a short amount of time as possible. Since I last blogged, I’ve zip-lined through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Imagine being rigged to a wire and flying through the trees like a monkey on crack. Better yet, watch!

I also jumped off a 12-foot high waterfall into silver-blue water near Luang Prabang. After eying a couple of Laos kids jump, I was the first “farang” (i.e. white person) brave enough to break the ice, and thankfully not break a leg. And then, I spent an entire day bar hopping along a river in Vang Vieng via an inner tube. Each bar had a different style of music playing and some sort of contraption that you could probably kill yourself jumping off of, but I somehow managed to survive both the buckets of whiskey and red bull and the strong river current with only a few minor cuts and bruises (though I did say goodbye to my favorite pair of Haviana flip flops as they sailed downstream faster than I could swim… a small price to pay for a day of lascivious debauchery).

I read a traveler quote recently that struck a chord, “I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.” I have tried to capture the most poignant moments, people and places in this blog. I have focused on the major events, the Experiences with a capital “E”. But there are so many experiences with a lowercase “e” that fill in the gaps of my days. And I wonder how time will play a role in defining which experiences become Big and little in importance. In the end, what will I take away from it all… the echo of my scream as I soar through the trees or the smile of the little Laos boy on the road as I wave to him from the back of a tuk-tuk? The rush of excitement as I jump from the waterfall and plunge into the cool water below or the pride of negotiating the cost of a taxi ride down by 75%? Getting into a mud fight along the river in Vang Vieng or getting off a 4-hour bus ride and replacing the cramp in my leg with the surge of excitement that a new destination awaits me? I hope, in the end, that I will not only remember the Experiences with a capital “E”, but that I will be able to conjure the smallest moments as well. Because this journey is not defined by one Event or single Experience, but it is the sum of it all: big, little, easy, hard, good, bad and beautiful.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Will the Real Thailand Please Stand Up?

In a tiny village 2 hours north of Chiang Mai, a fellow tourist turned to me and said, “Now this is the Real Thailand.” The thought struck me as odd. What does that mean about the rest of Thailand? That it’s not real?

But I got her gist. She meant that because this village is removed from busy city life, it is more authentic in some way. That old traditions are slower to vanish high in the hills. That the way of life of villagers is a glimpse into Thailand’s past.

I agree to an extent, but I don’t think it’s quite that clear or simple to define what is “real.” Outside a straw hut, with pigs roaming in the yard and rice growing in the fields, there was a satellite dish. MTV and CNN now flash before the villagers’ eyes nightly. Call it modernization, Westernization or globalization… they all indicate the same phenomenon: influence of the new on the old. Although the old women of the village still dress in the traditional costume, the young people wear Adidas and Levis.

In a former life at Reed College, I read many versions of this same story. Anthopologists tend to seek out the most remote, isolated, “authentic” cultures. There is a desire to understand ways of life so completely foreign and removed from mainstream society. But there are very few places in the world where MTV and Levis don’t exist. And I sort of find the whole thing a little ironic. It’s as if Westerners are searching for the most remote and removed people to get a glimpse into the “real” way of life, and the people who live in these places are longing for Western influence to understand what’s current and cool. It’s a viscous cycle, because once the isolated village is discovered, it is no longer isolated.

I’ll stop with the academics for a minute and get to the point. I think the “real” Thailand is everywhere, not just tucked away on a dirt road up in the jungle. The real Thailand for me is the kindness of the people, the way they greet you with sincerity. It’s removing your shoes when you walk into a store or covering your shoulders when you enter a temple to signify respect. The real Thailand is the women parked in front of their massage parlors, hollering “Massage for yoooouuu, I give you good price” in their nasally English. It’s the chaotic markets and street food vendors displaying their dried squid like badges of honor. It’s everything and everywhere.

After 25 days in this amazing country, I will say goodbye tomorrow. I will head north and spend one last night on the edge of Thailand before entering Laos and cruising on a slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prapang. Thailand is beautiful country and I hope someday I can return to uncover more of its magic. But until then, I just want to say thanks Thailand… for keeping it real.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Plight of the Domesticated Elephant in Thailand

Once upon a time in a land called Thailand, there was a beautiful young elephant named Jokia. She roamed freely through the jungle with her mother, grazing on grass, bananas, watermelon or whatever she could get her trunk around. She loved to bathe in the river, especially on hot days.

Then one day she was taken captive by humans and sold to a logging outpost. Her future became bleak, and the long days spent in the river were gone. She never saw her mother again.

The loggers wanted to use her to haul huge logs out of the jungle, but first they had to train her. Training meant locking her in a very small cage and stabbing her with a stick that has a nail attached to the end. This was repeated daily for weeks until her soul had been "broken" and she would obey human command.

By the time Jokia was broken and put to work, she was pregnant. When she went into labor while pulling a log up a hill, the loggers wouldn't let her stop working to give birth, so the baby rolled down a cliff to its death. Jokia sat down and refused to move, stricken with grief. Her keeper then stabbed her in one eye and partially blinded her in order to get her back to work. When she refused to work again another day, her keeper stabbed her other eye and blinded her completely for life.

Logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1989 and suddenly Jokia found herself blind and out of work. Eating about 300-400 lbs of food a day, she became an unwanted expense. But she couldn't return to the jungle, as she had no herd and her domestication left her without the proper tools to fend for herself.

If only this were a fairy tale... But don't fret, there is a happy ending to this story, at least for Jokia.

One day Jokia met a woman named Lek, who would change Jokia's luck for the better. Lek rescues domesticated elephants and brings them to her sanctuary north of Chiang Mai, where she sees that they have proper medical care, nourishment and the freedom to become wild again. It is a magical place. Jokia found happiness, and even got pregnant again at Lek's sanctuary, something that would not have happened if she still felt threatened and scared.

I met so many elephants and heard so many heartbreaking stories, that I could fill a novel with their darkest moments. Lek has 32 rescued elephants: some that stepped on land mines, some that were orphaned, some whose tusks had been poorly poached leaving them with deep infections, and many who were used for tourism and are too old and run down to work any longer. The stories of their plight and rescue are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

There are approximately 2,500 domesticated elephants in Thailand. Some beg for money with their keepers on the streets of Thailand. They drink polluted water and don't get enough vegetation to eat, nevermind the ill effects of the city sounds and lights. Some are used for trekking tourists through the jungle. Others are used for elephant shows, where they play music and paint. All of these trades utilize the same training methods used on Jokia.

But there is no easy solution. Domesticated elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough jungle for them to survive within given the extensive logging practices pre-1989. So unless there is a serious shift in tourism and people are educated about the conditions, tourists will continue to fund their torture. Lek cannot solve this problem single-handedly. Until there are more elephant sanctuaries and fewer elephant shows, the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand will persist.

If any of my faithful readers ever visit Chiang Mai, I strongly urge you to spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park and soak up its beauty. I spent the day feeding the elephants, bathing them and admiring their majestic grace. They are amazing creatures and my reverence of them has grown infinitely deeper after this experience. They are enormous, yet docile. Playful and mischievous. Wise, yet innocent. Their love of Lek and the mahouts who care for them is both visible and enduring.

I have lived so many incredible experiences during this journey, but only a handful have given me the sort of inspiration that will touch me forever. This is one of them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calm Gets Calmer in Chiang Mai

Thailand in 3 parts… First came paradise in the islands. Then came controlled chaos in Bangkok. Now, it's peace in the jungle. It’s easy to understand why so many Europeans and Australians settle permanently in Chiang Mai. It is both lively enough to be engaging, but calm enough to be peaceful. The old city is a mile-wide square block of narrow cobblestone streets that randomly curve into each other. Each turn of a corner brings a new set of guesthouses, massage parlors, and fresh juice bars. It is a city where the number of bookstores outweighs the number of 7-11’s. It is a city where an entire day can pass without notice.

I wasn’t planning to update my blog until I had experienced a few of the incredible excursions I have planned over the next few days. But then I realized that the way I’ve spent the last few days in Chiang Mai perhaps better exemplifies life here than any of the adventures slated later this week.

Sitting next to an infinity pool as still as glass, eating fresh pineapple and listening to the silence, I have officially settled into the northern way of life. Clouds fill the sky and a thunderous rain quenches the earth for an hour or so each night. Shopkeepers nap in their plastic lawn furniture, unsure whether a customer is worth the waking. Vanilla-scented incense wafts slowly out of windows. Tuk-tuk drivers recline with a cigarette and watch the market-goers stroll by, more content to people-watch than keen on securing a fare. I enjoy my sweet, Thai iced coffee each morning and languidly linger with a book. When it's time for a change of scenery, I find the next cafe and repeat the process. The weather is warm, but not sweat-through-your-t-shirt-by-9:00-in-the-morning-hot like the islands. The people are kind, not like the where-are-you-going-do-you-want-to-buy-some-fake-jems-overbearing people in Bangkok. The food is spicy and the massages are cheap. At $8 a night for accommodation, $3 for a used book and $1 for a cold beer, it's probably less expensive for me to stay than to leave. Except, of course, I may run into a problem with my Visa eventually expiring. Details.

Today I took a cooking class. Tomorrow I will visit an elephant sanctuary. The day after, I will tour the secluded hill tribe villages. Perhaps I’ll find a day to mimic the monkeys and zipline through the jungle. So much activity may come as a rude awakening to my blissed out being. But I may invest in a few extra days here just to breathe in the calm and savor the silence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Chiang Mai so far, it’s that slow and steady would win the race, if there were a race, but there’s not… so just relax.