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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Years 2011: South Vietnam - Jenny

Phu Quoc Island

I think we both looked forward to meeting up with Lisa, my girlfriend from Denver, who fit us in to the beginning of her month-long vacation in Vietnam. We needed a fresh breath of air, some new ideas, and some nurturing from a well-rested and enthusiastic traveler and friend. We got just that. She and another friend, Penny, had made us a care package with all kinds of things from back home such as bacon-chocolate, good toothpaste, ginger candies, and sparkly fingernail polish. We spent days soaking in the sun and getting $5 massages on the beach, played sand volleyball pick-up games, did yoga and Lisa's bootcamp (ouch...couldn't walk for 3 days!). We spent an evening walking the market, which ended in a smorgasboard of all kinds of unrecognisable seafood that came from the prettiest shells we could find. (Note: pretty doesn't equal tasty). We felt a bit guilty after eating at the market, realizing that this area is so obviously overfished. The three of us rented motor scooters and rode down a squirrely gravel road to a gorgeous wide white-sand beach where we played in the water like kids. We spent a day scuba diving, which, although was a fun endeavor in-and-of itself, was pretty disappointing from a quality standpoint. The water was murky, and we saw very little in the way of creatures. Unless floating plastic bags count. Still, we got some good Lisa time. More yoga, deep conversations and beach massages. We met Bogue, a fun and intense dude from back home in Colorado, who was vacationing with his mid-western family. See ya back in CO!

Needless to say, the southern sun and Lisa's sunny disposition made us very happy.

Around this time I started having some "female problems" that warranted a trip back to a bigger city for a check-up. We left Lisa and Phu Quoc hoping to catch up again, but unfortunately I had to stay in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) for a few more days and we never got to say our real goodbyes to Lise. The medical care was AMAZING. More efficient, and as professional as anything at home. Things were fine after the doctor visit, so we spent a few days walking around HCM (Saigon, as many of the Vietnamese prefer). We met a friend of Brett's and his wife, Chris and Lucy Graham, for a great traditional Vietnamese dinner. We had a suit custom made for Brett. We found a hot little Vietnamese rock singer who played short 30-minute sets every night at an outdoor venue, singing "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and other chick rock songs. Mui Ne was our last stop on the Asian tour. It is a small coastal town filled with Russian tourists and high winds, making it a mecca for kite-surfing. We thought about learning to kite surf, but the water was choppy and the wind was relentless...and we only had two days. Not enough to do more than get dragged around the beach doing face plants in the sand with a kite while learning how to control the sail. So we went out for a surf lesson instead, which was also mediocre at best. And one of our bike helmets got stolen. I think Mui Ne was the perfect reminder that we were ready to get to Australia. Our sheets were dirty, the bus was 2 hours late, the hotel staff were rude to us, and we were tired of playing tourist with the locals who just wanted our money. When you are indundated with sensory overload, beggars, liars, pollution, crowds, dust, fear, it becomes more and more difficult to be objective, to separate the individual from the group/mass mentality, and not to feel a stirring of dislike for Vietnam, Asia, Mankind. What kind of curse is it that human beings share such characteristics as love, and yet somehow have divisive characteristics such as racism, clashing habits and values, and misunderstandings born of language and culture differences? I know that the "tourist track" puts one in a position to be at the mercy of others and the conditions of the road. This is only compounded by having little personal space, no freedom of transport according to one's own will, a limited budget and few creature comforts. Did I mention I have not seen a hairdryer for 8 months, my only shoes are smelly trail runners and cheap flip-flops, and my make-up consists of chapstick? I'm no diva, but what I would give right now to slip on some nice jeans, a cute top and some strappy sandles. We both say we know we will look back on much of our time in Asia with fondness and gratuity. But for now, we are pretty burned out.

When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. -FDR

December: Cambodia - Jenny

Notice: Contains graphic content!

Tiny school girls wearing bright white shirts and blue plaid skirts wear their blue-black hair in tight pig-tails protruding from the sides of their head. They swing down a dirt path touching shoulders and toting backpacks , oblivious of and accustomed to the white bull lazing a few feet away in the sprawling dusty field. Arriving in Cambodia and meeting our smiling and friendly tuk tuk driver in Siam Riep, we let out a deep breath of air from our stale lungs. Cambodia would be a different place from Northern Vietnam. We hit Siam Riep around Christmas time. Despite our non-Christian status, we longed for a little Christmas caroling and baby Jesus. Well, we found Cambodian massage therapists with Santa Claus hats, and a Christmas dinner that was complete with mashed potatoes, chicken and cranberry sauce. And an Angelina Jolie cocktail. We spent an afternoon touring a silk farm which proved to be another one of those mysteries solved. The silk worm may die at the hands of man, but their short 37-day lives are immortalized in beauty, some of which will be in the form of throw pillows on our couch. Brett loves throw pillows. Especially on beds. When he gets to arrange them as part of making the bed every day. We rented clunker bikes and took a day riding around Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom, best known to Americans as the place where the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider was filmed. These 1,000 year old stone temples are the remains of a city that was built over centuries by the Kmher Buddhists and Hindus, changing hands depending on the Jayavarman (J) ruler and religion of the day. The best evidence of this was the absolute lack of heads on all Buddha statues, which had been chopped off by the Hindu J VIII. Many of the ruins have all but been reclaimed by the surrounding jungles, sporting Banyan trees whose serpentine roots and trunks grow atop and throughout the crumbling rock structures.

On to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and with a reputation as the prettiest city in Southeast Asia. We couchsurfed with Sam, a Cambodian native who studied development work in New Zealand and returned to Cambodia to apply his skills. He is well-spoken and driven. He is openly gay and is creating social and mentoring programs for gay men and HIV+ people in Phnom Penh. Sam is a force of nature. When asked what others can do to best help people in developing countries, he suggested to ask them what they want to do, and just support them in meeting their goals. Ideally, mentoring is best done by those with similar cultural values and backgrounds. Any help or change must be grounded in the recipient's own culture and social structure.

While in Phnom Penh we visited the horrific killing fields and Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as the S-21 torture site. The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed 20,000 of the Cambodian Khmers at this site. (The estimated total number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge is around 1.4 million, whether by murder or starvation.) Standing in the grassy center of an old high school building cum prison, one can imagine the sticky blood running across the floors and down the outside walls of the torture rooms, smell the stench of skin burning and bodies decaying, hear the cries of mothers as they watched their children being thrown against tree trunks or thrown up in the air and shot, and the shrieks and cries of the tortured falling deaf upon the empty city. The Khmer killed anyone with an education. Anyone who wore spectacles was fair game. First they were tortured, each and every one of them, so that their family members could be identified and also killed. They were forced to eat feces, recieve electric shocks, hang in painful positions, have their livers cut out while they were alive. They were seldom shot, but usually hit with blunt instruments or cut with razor-like palm fronds so as to save bullets. To this day when the area gets a lot of rain, remnants float to the top of the shallow, teeth, bones. The most frightening thing about genocide of this kind is how so many human minds can be influenced to PARTICIPATE in the torture and killing. What makes ordinary men mass murderers? Is it ground in fear, cowardess, peer pressure? Is human sense of morality that fragile, that easily manipulated and changed? And it is so widespread...Ottaman Empire, Russia, Germany, Rwanda, China, Cambodia, Borneo, East Timor...all in the last century.

Nonviolence means not only avoiding external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. -Martin Luther King Jr.

We spent our last evening in Phnom Penh at a gay bar drinking coctails, where I met a Cambodian pharmacy student who had just finished a lecture in bioethics. Pharmaceutical ethics! The issues they studied were assuring knowledge and licensure of both modern pharmaceuticals and traditional practices, as well as avoiding the huge black market of counterfeit drugs. We said goodbye to Sam, and headed to the small coastal town of Kep, where we spent a few days eating freshly caught peppered crab, drinking wine, and watching the sun set over our next destination...the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam.

December 2010: Northern Vietnam- Jenny

To what avail the plow or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail? -Ralph Waldo Emerson Hanoi. To us it felt crowded, grey and dreary, the mood matching the overcast, drizzly and humid weather. Infrastructure was poor. Decomposition gases bubbled to the green filmy surface of the lakes. Sidewalks were congested and dirty, aggressive motorbikers flooded the streets in chaotic rows 7 to 8 astride, and the gloomy people were impervious to our smiles, questions and overall presence. They seem to exist in a state of survival. Meanwhile, the ocassional $100,000 car would drive by, squeezing through a narrow street as if they placed no value on the lives of the motorbikers and pedestrians walking there. It just felt dark. We had arranged to couchsurf with John, or Jack (still not sure) Jones. Jack was living temporarily in a 4th story apartment in Hanoi while he awaited a job constructing a multi-million dollar vacation resort. Jack is from England originally, and still keeps his girlfriend from Germany, who he met while couchsurfing! Having been unemployed by choice for some number of months, he was trying to motivate himself (he loves beer!) and find some mojo to rediscover his passion for his work. Jack was very gracious, and kept us for 3 days while we explored the city. One night Jack had arranged for us to go out to eat at his favorite neighborhood spot. We walked into a crowded joint and sat down low around a table on the child-size plastic colored chairs (I think all of Vietnam got “special price” on these). A plate of thinly chopped raw meat and veggies was brought to us to cook “fondue” style. We cooked our own meat in a splattering frying pan at the table. It was delicious! But something didn't seem right. The meat didn't quite taste like beef. On the way out we asked using hand gestures (few northern Vietnamese seemed to speak any English), what kind of meat was this? When the lady pointed to a dog walking by, we stood in a state of disbelief...we had just eaten A DOG. Jack said with some amount of shock, “So I have been eating DOG for the last 3 weeks?!” My only comfort in this fiasco is the fact that most dogs in Vietnam seemed to be stray, undomesticated, and fairly aggressive and slinky. Ugh. Being in a communist country, Brett and I struggled to find evidence of its impact. While in Hanoi we visited two museums, which when juxtaposed, only added to the confusion of our understanding of communism in Vietnam; these were the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Hanoi Hilton. Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is affectionately referred, seemed to be a great man with pure ideas about equality, community and education. His museum displays beautiful quotes next to historic photographs of Uncle Ho sitting “with the people”, a working man's man. It walks through his life as a young social activist fighting for Vietnamese civil rights and follows his life through his leadership of the Viet Cong to the end of his life. We unfortunately (or fortunately) visited the museum on a day the mausoleum was closed, where we could have viewed the actual preserved body of the small aged Ho Chi Minh himself. If we weren't sure that the Vietnamese were capable of propaganda, no-- historical revisionism-- in the most blatant of ways, we were convinced by the time we experienced the museum at the old Hanoi Hilton prison site. The prison was used originally by the French during the colonization days to jail uncooperative Vietnamese. But what we are more familiar with is the building's use during the Vietnam War to imprison the American POWs, specifically downed and captured fighter pilots. John McCain's uniform was displayed, as was a picture of Vietnamese swimming out to rescue McCain where he crashed in Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. Along with this, photos displayed U.S. POWs playing games, raising their own chickens, even practicing their own religion! One wall boasted the line, “The POWs were lucky to have Vietnamese as their captors”, stating explicitly how well they were treated. This flies in the face of all historical accounts we have read of the cruelty endured by the American military in the Hanoi Hilton. History is always told through the lens of the storyteller. But this is more than a slight inconsistency. Needing a respite, we took a bus out of Hanoi and headed for Halong Bay to jump aboard “Indochina Sails” for a 3 day sail around the area. The boat was a replica of the old wooden junks with 3-4 large sails. It was a beautiful boat. Thanks Aunt Debbie for the lead! The food was great and the room was probably one of the nicest rooms we had stayed in to date. Despite the fact that the bay was a bit crowded and the cruise felt a bit canned, it was nevertheless a gorgeous place, with bald white limestone peaks emerging vertically like gumdrops from the jellyfish-loving water. We did a little kayaking, cave exploring, and yoga on the deck of Indochina Sails. We were excited to try our hand at squid fishing which turned into something more like bobbing a fishing rod in the water with a big light shining down on, well, water. Brett swears he saw one squid under the boat. I am not so sure. The most memorable side trip was a visit to the Halong Bay Pearl Farm where cultured pearls are created. The oysters are actually implanted with mantle tissue from another mollusk to select for pearl color. A small rounded hollow shell is placed in the oyster, and they are left to do their work for 2 years. The pearl pops out perfectly, with no need for polishing or treating. I bought a pair of beautiful pearl earrings while Brett played on the blow-up water park features. A Quick Rant on the State of Things in my Head Yes, traveling creates undulating emotions. But it was in Northern Vietnam that I felt the culmination of the darkness we had witnessed around Asia. Reading a book called “The Girl in the Picture”, I felt the despair of a bright girl growing up in a war-torn, oppressed, impoverished country. Kim Phuc was shamed by her mother, told she would never find love in her injured state as a nepalm strike victim, and grew up without much compassion or empathy from others. Any semblance of a carefree joyous life was drained out of her. Combined with the worn faces of the Vietnamese I was looking at presently, I realized that life isn't just better with beauty, freedom, and the luxury of is life. I stopped feeling guilty that I had these things and others didn't...and began to appreciate them in a way I never have before. How can you lift the darkness from others? En masse? I think of the voluminous human lives throughout history spent in survival mode, experiencing little freedom, joy and pleasure in their lifetimes. I felt a gripping emotion again in the Hanoi Hilton. As I peered into the eyes of pictures of young American men, something visceral hit me. It might have been as simple as facial recognition, but a deep love swept over me. In those faces I could see the reliability of someone's word. The ability to read facial expressions and intentions. The Truth as I have come to know it. I love Americans. I miss home. Being away, I no longer subject the U.S. to the microscope the way I once did. I can readily see what we have in contrast to other countries. My internal radar about people is as functional in Asia as the plug outlets. I am tired of getting wine milkshakes, catching the 1:00 bus at 3:00, the inability to tell the massage therapist something more subtle and kind than “Ow”. When I wave am I being rude? Is my shirt exposing too much skin? When I smile am I making others suspicious, uncomfortable, or am I inviting unwarranted advances? Why do men always talk to Brett when I am speaking to them? There exists a constant feeling of acute awareness and guardedness. I want to feel a love and caring for all people. But the reality is, it is not easy to love others. People can be difficult, loud, distrusting, pushy, and manipulative. Life can lead people to prioritize survival over relationships and grace. I have such a regret when I feel angry at yet another tout being aggressive. It drives me to ignore someone, a fellow human being, when my conscience dictates that this is rude and inhumane. Kindness means nothing to certain humans, believe me I've tried. It all comes down to survival. You play a different game here. As I sit on long bus rides with plenty of reflection time, I realize I miss my bro. He makes me laugh. I've known him all my living days. Tears well when I think of him, and how he has been a constant in my life. And my parents. Have I taken them for granted? I hear Abba through my earphones and, again, tears well for my friend Karen. I miss camping, climbing, biking, skiing with good friends. I look forward to being a big part of our nephew-to-be Baltazar's life (now we know he is actually a she and will be Nora Landin). I just feel so heavy.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Laos: by Brett

Yet another overnight bus ride with 14 passengers begging the driver to slow down while various other passengers retched their guts out in plastic bags, everyone squeezing their eyes shut in sheer terror as we careened around corners and passed three-abreast at high speed through blind curves and small villages. But daybreak brought peace and our first view of the mighty Mekong river. This winding, misty waterway mirrors the swirling confusion in my own brain surrounding the history of this beautiful land. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. All related in my mind to the “Vietnam War”, but how do the pieces fit together? Did you know that in the 60's and 70's America dropped more bombs on Laos than all the Allied forces combined dropped during all of World War II? On Laos? Was there a war in Laos? Did you know that on your last birthday, on this past Christmas day, last week, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and every day for the next hundred years, one person in Laos was or will be killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance - bombs that we (America) dropped over 40 years ago but never exploded. Thirty-seven years after our last official combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the legacy of war still haunts the farmers and children of Laos. And the same story is true in Cambodia. For two countries that were never acknowledged to the American public as being part of “the Vietnam war”, the remnants of American involvement here are everywhere. We crossed the river from Thailand into Laos and boarded one more bus to Luang Nam Tha in the very northwestern corner of the country near the border with Burma. Our goal was to trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and meet some of the local tribes in this unspoiled part of the country. The Karens, the Hmong, the Khmu, and the Akha would be our hosts and our guides through this remote region. But before we could leave on our three-day trek we discovered something. The Lao people smile even more than the Thai people do – if that's possible. Over the next two weeks we would find that the 20th poorest country in the world has the happiest, nicest people we have ever met. Please remind me of the definition of poverty, again? Rumor has it that Laos is a dream for motorcycles with twisty mountain roads, good pavement, and no traffic. And so it is. After meeting the amazing Martina and Sahi (our travel soul-mate couple), we set out from the capital (Vientiane) for five days of exploring, living off the bikes, and staying wherever we ended up come sunset. And it was sublime. Jenny rode like a pro on her Honda Tracker and Brett kicked the street bike habit for the workhorse Honda Baja enduro. Maybe it was just being surrounded by such nice people, but you would be hard pressed to have found two more happy souls in all of Laos. There's nothing like being on a motorcycle to make a land come alive. The countryside unrolls beneath you in sights and sounds and smells and sensations that you never get from a bus or a plane. Side roads beckon and you engage with the locals on a truly personal level. Using hand signals to borrow a tool from the town mechanic. Taking a picture by a river surrounded by a group of shy, laughing, smiling children. Having lunch with members of a hill tribe that you've only read about in books. Happening upon a local funeral procession and watching as they burn the body by the side of the road. On busses we tend to bury ourselves in books or pass away the hours of boredom with sleep. Our companions are other (usually western) travelers and our meals are pre-planned stops at uninteresting restaurants whose sole purpose is to get a busload of passengers in and out in 20 minutes. On the road, with the wind in our hair, we are wide-awake with all senses on high alert. The greens are greener, the smells sharper, and the mist penetrating our jackets makes us feel like a part of the land. The sun soaking into our necks and even the dust that cakes our faces become a part of us. We didn't want it to end. But the seed has been planted and ideas for South America have begun to churn. Could we ride motos from Patagonia to Colombia? The lure of the wide open road beckons and part of our heart will always remain in the rolling, misty hills of Laos. But all good things must come to an end (do we really believe that?) and eventually we arrive once again at the banks of the Mekong River and the cute French colonial town of Luang Prabang. After reading about the “secret war” in Laos (a book called the Ravens) we sought out the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum, a very well done documentary on the continuing cost of the American war over 35 years later, and the men and women who still work on a daily basis to remove, defuse, or explode the millions of bombs still littering the Lao countryside. Sobering to say the least. But it wasn't all serious as we sought out waterfalls and swimming holes, explored the winding roads outside of town (one last day on the bikes), visited the Asian sun bear sanctuary, and took an amazing cooking class (where we learned to cook with, among other things, whole dried squirrel – teeth, fingernails and all). But the highlight of Luang Prabang had to be the “Adventure Meal” at a local restaurant called Tamarind run by a British expat and her Lao husband Joy. We were able to choose our “level of adventure” and we decided to go all the way. The first course was a fairly tame tour of local forest products and basic fishy things (cooked and raw). But the second platter was quite the challenge. A three month old egg (salty), pig brains (uhh, yeah...), buffalo lung (spongy), fried crickets (crunchy, and the bits get stuck in your teeth), pickled whole fish (salty), fried cicaidas (crunchy on the outside, absolutely revolting on the inside), fermented fish broth (six months – what a stench!), and whole frogs (again). We were both not feeling so hot by the end, but we managed to eat at least a few bites of everything. The film of Jenny and the frog is priceless. :) But our time in Laos was drawing to a close and soon it was time to pack up and move on. We have a very fond place in our heart for this beautiful country and the warm, friendly Lao people who made us feel so welcome.