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.