Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are We Safe Here? Travels in Communist Vietnam


      While planning this trip across the world I was, of course, conscious of safety. My friend and I would be traveling alone; that is, no men would be with us. Just two 20 something American females. I worried about being a target. What would people think of us and how would they respond? Would we be targets for theft? We were white and women- meaning there was no getting around it, we stood out. I bought one of those money holders that you stash inside your bra to keep large bill close to you. I vowed to hold my purse tight, to not look like a tourist (as much as possible), to be smart, to look like I  knew where I was, where I was going and what I was doing. Most of all, I vowed to follow my instinct, my intuition, my gut, call it what you will- I was going to follow it. The only way to be safe from sketchy situations was to trust myself.
      I researched the safety of the countries we were visiting and the only real threat seemed to be the possibility of monetary theft. Lindsay's parents were concerned about the safety of North Vietnam, which was natural seeing as how they grew up during the war. I assured her I had done some research and it seemed to be safe, but to be doubly sure I did more research and came across an article listing the top 10 safest countries for women who were traveling alone. Vietnam ranked #5, with good old home sweet home (sadly) ranking 10.
       We were as prepared as we could be. We had registered with the embassies and had multiple copies of our passports- and copies of each other's passports. It's a good thing, too. Having a copy of my passport was a small comfort in Vietnam, where it is common for the hotel staff to take your passport upon arrival and "keep" it overnight. The first time we were asked for our passports and then told we could get them the next day was in Sapa. I was quickly defensive. "You need to keep our passports?" I asked incredulously. Who did this guy think he was? Did I look stupid? It was something they did regularly- everyone did it, it would be okay, the hotel guy tried to reassure me.  "No, no, I don't think so" I said, eyeing Lindsay to get her take on it. Then the hotel guy says it will probably be back by 9. "Back? You mean it is leaving the hotel?" I ask, really worried now. What the hell was going on here? Yes, the hotel man said. They would just take the passports over there for a little check at the local government and then bring them back here. "oh, no, I don't like this" I say. At this point I am told it is required to stay in the town. The hotel man is holding our passports in his hand and I am afraid to have them leave my sight, although he seems like an okay guy, I'm pretty sure I've read you should not hand your passport over to a strange foreigner in a foreigner country- or any country for that matter and even if I had not read it, it seemed like common sense to me. I turn to Lindsay, who seems slightly less concerned. She goes out the french doors to the terra cotta porch covered with potted plants to finds our Vietnamese guide, who is sitting hunched on the steps smoking a cigaret.
       I could picture myself standing at the US Embassy telling them my story; I was stuck and couldn't get home because I gave my passport to some dude at the hotel. The embassy agent questions me; What guy? Did you know him? Do you know his name? They chuckle as I answer no to every question. So some guy you don't know just asks you for your passport, tells you he's going to keep it and you just hand it over?
     I really don't like this and reason out what other information one could gain access to about my life by simply having my passport. Lindsay comes in with our guide, Nam, and I explain to him what is happening. "Yes" he says to me and looks at the hotel man who is smiling awkwardly. The early morning sunlight filters through the glass doors and to the back of the otherwise windowless lobby. The passport man has a key in his hand. I am still confused. Nam speaks to the hotel man in Vietnamese. The hotel man smiles and laughs. Nam tells me it is okay, everyone must do this and promises I will get it back. I have one small condition before I allow our passports to be locked in a drawer behind the desk and that is that Nam must bring me to the embassy and provide all translation needed to get me a new one if I never get it back. He laughs at me "Is oakaay." He reassures me. I decide to trust, not so much our guide himself, but the face that he works for a worldwide agency that I know I can contact in case he proves to be wrong. My hidden copy is a huge comfort. I am suddenly grateful I hail from a land full of xerox machines.
      We did get out passports back and a lesson on certain Vietnamese situations in the car the next day on our way to the Bac Ha market. Apparently the border towns take tourist passports because they are worried about people coming to speak to the Hmong and incite them to rebel against the government. The Hmong have millions of tribe members living across the boarder in China. During our talk, which was conducted in a "safe" place, away from the tourist police, we learned about the delicacy of speaking in public- a lesson us Americans have never had to have (and hopefully never will). The tourist police, you see, are not there to help tourists, as one might assume, but to monitor those people who work in tourism. If a tourist police officer heard a guide speaking in a manner which he or she deemed unfavorable, that guide would be arrested and have his license taken away. It was best to not ask any questions about the government in public. All questions from tourists to their guide about the government would be answered with "Oh, it is best to not discuss this now."
      Suddenly I felt a little trapped. Here I was feeling free traveling around the world yet I was in a country where I or, anyone, could be arrested at the drop of a hat. Good thing I crossed the street when that government official waved me away from taking a picture of the government house in Hanoi! Good call on foregoing the photo op! I had really wanted to photograph the men and their government building. Then my mild feeling of being trapped escalated a little when I realized I had been posting blogs about my trip on computers all over Vietnam.  Shit! What was I thinking? Were they already watching me? Then again, I hadn't written anything bad- but who knew what was considered bad? As an American I had the comfort of the first amendment- even if our government has been becoming bigger and bigger and increasingly controlling.
      It was no problem, Nam said. All the tourist hotels used American servers. This is why I was able to use Facebook while there. Apparently all the tech savvy people did this, so it was no problem. Anyway it was not me who would get in trouble, it is the Vietnamese citizen who had to worry.  
      The irony of the situation was not lost on me. The whole conversation occurred while driving through the lush green rice paddies of the mountains bordering China. There was nothing but mother nature to be seen for miles and miles. I could step outside the van and never be seen again- I could simply disappear into the trees. It was nothing but land up here. Lush, rolling, effervescent vegetation covering the mammoth mountains which seemed insurmountable to any human and most animals. Yes, I was free, really, despite what anyone else might say or do- I was free because I still had my will. Free will- no one can take that away. Not even the hotel's front desk man.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ohhh Bangkok.

Bangkok from an elevated walkway
      After 2 days of travel and living in airports our welcome to southeast Asia was both hurried and hectic. We were supposed to spend one day and night  in Bangkok, but due to delays caused by a tropical storm we had about 3 hours to explore Bangkok before heading to bed to get up at 4am for our flight to Hanoi. After a traffic laden and expensive cab ride we dropped our bags in our tiny and funky smelling room with a view of the garbage storage area and set out on foot to discover what the city had to offer.
      We started on an elevated walkway above the street, stopping for pictures and to take in the city scape. The moment my Tevas met the pavement it hit me all at once. The dense, foreign crowds, the wonder of how I would communicate, the noise of the motorbikes and taxis, the putrid smell of feces, fish and rotting garbage, the fact that I had not slept in a bed or even a flat position for over 24 hours- shit, I hardly knew what day it was! I hadn't showered in just as long. The fact that I was hungry and thirsty but the horrific smell of the city, bolstered by the temperature and awful humidity was making me truly nauseous. Lindsay was asking me what I wanted to eat but I could not make this decision- I could not eat, I told her. "It's the smell, the smell I cannot eat food; I feel sick." Memories of my friends telling me they 'hated Bangkok," or 'didn't go there' or saying 'I avoid it' were swimming through my brain. Uggg why were we here? The thought of the hotel room was no comfort either.
      Then there was the culture shock of Thailand's famous sexuality and the sexual tourists. Ladyboy hookers were hanging on the street. Old, disgusting, fat, sweaty, white men lacking any oral hygiene what so ever were walking around with young Thai hookers.  Vendors made the small sidewalk even more narrow and walking down them was like wandering through some type of strange bazaar. Walking in a straight line was not an option. We were weaving through the madness, walking by tables and overhangs filled with sellers who were yelling to us to buy their T shirts, knock off Polos,  purses, fruit; stepping around kids and strollers,  watching my feet to avoid the strange wet spots that were a milky grey color and smelled like mold and garbage.  Sexual items and pornogrophy were sold next to kid's clothing. Small groups of women in thick, long, black Burqas, children at their legs were haggling with vendors in loud foreign voices, fruit sellers stood slicing their wares with long, thin, wooden handled machetes.
       No one seemed to think it was odd that there were so many women in Burqas. It was weird to see so many women dressed like this. My brother  in law's voice popped into my head "they could be hiding anything under there." Should I be nervous about this? Was I nervous about this? I had to separate my experiences as the wife of a Marine sent to a combat zone with the actual experience I was having now. I realized I was the odd one here. My light skin and eyes marking me as a foreigner. My red baggy v neck t shirt and tight capri yoga pants didn't help me blend in, they only served to further mark me as a westerner. 

      A million sounds, smells and sights forced themselves upon me at every instant. Lindsay was forging on quickly ahead of me, the experience of having lived in New York City for the last 6 years, and of having much more travel opportunities then I, providing her a more sure footing and narrowness of vision then me.  I was tired and the nausea was overcoming me. Lindsay was asking me what I wanted to do. "I don't know, I cannot think straight" I admitted, a hotel security guard's shrill and methodic whistle pounding into my slow and nearly numb brain as a motorbike whizzed by my foot much too close for comfort. Someone in a Mercedes was aggressively inching into the pedestrian traffic. I was practically standing in some hotel's evergreen bushes to avoid the street. We had stopped walking now. I looked up at the elevated sky train and the dusky darkness that was battling with the yellow lights of the city. A sex tourist walked by smiling, a prostitute on his arm. We  might just be standing in the pervert capitol of the world. Fingering my wedding band and glancing down at it, I imagined it was some sort of protection. I was glad I had it. We had left my small engagement ring, along with Lindsay's meteor sized one her diamond laden wedding band back in her Manhattan apartment because they were too showy.  My thumb grazed the band. It was like a proclamation to the world- a bit of safety (or at least I fancied it that way) in this new place.
Our hotel, the S Sukhumvit Suites, with entrance to the sky train 
       We decided to eat at our hotel for two reasons. 1. I could not make a decision about where else to go and 2. it had free wifi. I had a bit of vegetarian comfort food, tofu, and was able to get my bearings again. Food, water, air-conditioning and no crowds helping a great deal. From our view of the lobby we saw a sex tourist walk in with a prostitute, and then another, and head upstairs and I speculated (hoped is more like it) this was why the hotel had 'upgraded' us to a suite on our arrival- to keep us away from the creepy old men and their goings on in the night.
      The crowded and traffic ridden streets were clear the next morning as the doorman hailed us a cab to the airport. The cab driver scammed us by telling us, when Lindsay asked him to turn on the meter, that the trip to the airport was paid for by the hotel, then reneging when we arrived there so he could name his price.
      I was glad to be gone out of Bangkok, but to be fair our second stop there was not so bad- although I had tried to talk us out of it.  We took the sky train to the China town area which was just as crowded but not as smelly, and I was used to a foreign, third world city by then. I must say, however that I am now among those travelers who can confidently say, Yes, I've been to Bangkok and no, I wouldn't spend time there again. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Universal Language

      One of the first things people asked me when I told them I was going to Southeast Asia was if I knew the language, or, more specifically, the three languages. Ummm.....no. I wish I was one of those brilliant brains who knew multiple languages fluently. Unfortunately, I have no such gift and know three languages, but two of them only very slightly.  The subsequent question was of course about how I was going to communicate with Vietnamese, Cambodians and Thais. Since my powers of telepathy have not been sufficiently exercised my plan was to just wing it. Was I worried about this? Not really, this trip was an adventure, after all! A few google queries revealed that in the touristy areas I would find a ready supply of English speakers to suit my travel needs and learning a few key phrases would help; namely hello, thank you, goodbye, how much and toilet. Good news- toilet seems to be the same in all languages!   No need for embarrassing bathroom- like gestures to communicate your most urgent needs. Simply saying "toilet" in a discreet and inquiring tone will suffice.
      I made a small list of important phrases including how to say 'cashew nut'  and 'no' in various languages because I am deathly allergic to them. And, although this turned out to be unnecessary, I went so far as to laminate a picture of a cashew (both in the shell and out) and draw a large red circle with a slash through the middle on top, in case it was necessary to whip the card out and wave it around a restaurant. I wasn't sure this would be needed since I had vowed to eat NO nuts at all just to be safe, but one never knew where the stray and unassuming nut could be hidden and I was not taking any chances. Being on the verge of death by cashew is bad enough, but having to trust in a third world hospital in a land which did not speak my language? I was stocked with epi-pens and benadryl.  Also, this would easily communicate to any doctor what the emergency was in case I did eat one, no words necessary. Luckily, while the cashew nut (or as they say in Vietnam, the "hot dieu") while readily available in the markets, did not feature in many dishes.
      It was surprisingly easy to get by with those few phrases, and in Thailand, even less. By the time we got there we had already been to Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia so learning to say more than 'hello' and 'thank you' was just not in the cards. Once you have thrust yourself in a foreign country and communication becomes necessary, making yourself understood regardless of the language barrier is imperative and it quickly becomes natural to use gestures and body language to convey meaning. We, however, were certainly not discovering the America's here- this is a global world, so we, to some extent, speak a global language. Just say the word "facebook" to any young hip Vietnamese with a smart phone. "Mark Zuckerberg he love Vietnam! He come with wife. Spend long time here." It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that any young, hip, Vietnamese with a smart phone also knows a decent amount of English- and how to use an American server to get around their communist country's ban on facebook.
     While a decent amount of people in Hanoi speak English, body language was still king, especially since some people had a hard time understanding our accent as they were used to Australians, not Americans. Lindsay was already familiar with some body language and gestures I was not as she had traveled before. I watched her signal to the waiter that we wanted our check by holding her left hand like a tablet and writing on it with her right finger. I mused at how simple this was, but how I would never do it at home.
      I would have to do a lot of thinking to come up with gestures to convey meaning. In the end though, I didn't- they seemed to come naturally after a while and I did them without thinking. Asking how much something costs is done by rubbing your thumb across your other four fingers. Asking how to get back to your hotel is done by pointing to a street sign then producing a map and pointing to your hotel's location.  Food is easy- bring your fingers to your mouth. Numbers 1 through 10 are shown on your hand. If you are confused about money the Vietnamese will show you the bill they are looking for and it has been my experience that they are very honest (my money trick is simple- know what $10 is and you know what the rest of the bills are worth).  Asking about your room is done by holding your two hands together and placing your head on them as if on a pillow. This last one, though can have another, more sinister meaning.
      We were on the now infamous Fasipan Express overnight train to Sapa; the one where we ended up in a four person sleeper with not 2 but 3 Vietnamese. After the whole banana ordeal, where one of the men in our car thought it would be funny to make sexual jokes with a banana, Lindsay and I climbed into our top bunks to get ready for bed. On my way out to the bathroom I found our car attendant laying on a beach chair at the end of the car in front of the bathroom. Apparently he was going to sleep while on the job. I found out later that if you needed something you simply woke him up. Why don't we do this in America? Whatever- I knew going into this I would have to go with the flow if I wanted to be a happy camper- or locomotiver- while on this trip. I simply climbed over the guy; he was awake but he didn't seem to mind.
      When I came back Lindsay went out ( we didn't feel safe leaving our precious 25 pounds of gear unattended with the banana guy). She came back in visibly annoyed. "I guess that guy is just going to sleep out there" She said.
        "I guess so- maybe because it's the overnight train."
         "He's gross. Why does he have to be by our car?"
         "He does seem strange. I'd rather have shared a car with our guide" I agreed.
         "Where is our guide? That guy out there, he asked me if I wanted to sleep with him!"
          "What?"
           "He pointed to him, then to me then went like this (made the sleeping gesture) then pointed to our door!" I have to admit I thought this was a little funny. Lindsay did not. The women in Vietnam are very modest- but we were quickly learning the men were not. "Oh my god I hate this train! And when I was stepping over him he patted my butt." Poor Lindsay. Ewww. Luckily I came away unscathed.  He was not interested in me. I tried to reassure her- the man was clearly what we in the education world call 'on the spectrum' or, in layman's terms, mentally challenged.  Lindsay could not get to sleep that night and even asked me share her bunk with her. I was flattered. I had been working out, and she thought I was strong enough to keep him at bay in case he tried to come into our car and find her in the night. How sweet. Or...wait a minute.... maybe she thought I could act as a human shield to her and he would not know the difference in the dark- or care- and get me first. Whatever her thought the beds were far too small for two people, despite the fact that a man and a woman were sharing one right below me-the Vietnamese are small people. While visiting there I knew what it must feel like to be my 6 foot 4 husband; oh the joys of being tall. I felt so small when we landed at JFK.
       Anyway, the door was locked and we did walk to a different bathroom after that. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to communicate 'ewe, gross, no- stay away from me!' in body language. Our communication back up plan- just speaking English (because let's face it, English is the closest thing we have to a universal language) was not going to work either- this guy did not know any English, I can assure you. The attendant did not bother us again. Lindsay must have gotten her message across somehow. Perhaps it was her disgusted face, the fact that she quickly moved away from him, her slamming the door and locking it and her avoidance of him after that which kept him at bay. I guess there is body language for 'eww, gross, no- stay away from me!' after all.

Our ticket to the crazy train- the Fanxipan Express

The train- and this is the expensive one!

Me enjoying a cashew free meal

Many nuts for sale- none for me please. Don't make me take out the card. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Time, A Fickle Misconception

   June 27, 2012. We awake early, (yet again) for our departure to the ferry in Chau Doc, Vietnam which will take us to Phnom Phen, the capital city of Cambodia.  The Vietnamese rise early, their typical day starting between 5 and 6 am. It's no wonder by 9pm everything is closed except for bars that cater to westerners (a term used for all white people regardless of where they actually come from).
    We were supposed to catch the Hang Chau 2 speed boat which would take us up the Mekong at 8am, however the boat company had called our guide to inform her that the boat would be departing at 7:10 instead so we must be there on time. When we arrived at the boat, with the words "Hang Chau" gracing the side. We saw there were only a few other people on it and we departed straightway. We traveled to another two docks to pick up more passengers before beginning what we had confirmed three times to be a 5 hour journey. This five hours would include the time needed to make two boarder stops- one in Vietnam and one in Cambodia.
    The scenery was beautiful. Flat dirt roads bordered the river with corn fields lining them. Handmade tin and bamboo houses nestled themselves in the corn. There were a few house boats and small fishing vessels piloted by locals. There were floating tin homes and stick built pilings on which haphazard tin homes gingerly rested. I marveled at how much of this would be lost if there were a flood. Even the roads were precariously close and could be lost easily -some already had evidence of a washout, although we had been told the Mekong "rarley floods"
     Lindsay and I discussed our plans for Phnom Phen, we would have two hours to explore the city. We planned on hiring a tuk tuk to drive us around the city to see the sights then take us to the airport. At our designated arrival time we were still on the water and still moving at the boat's full speed. We looked out both sides and saw no city in sight.
      Two hours later we pulled up to the dock and raced to get our belongings. We spoke with the one and only taxi driver at the dock and a tuk tuk driver, telling them our plans. We had 40 minutes to make our flight and the airport was only 9km away. The cab would be the fastest way to get to the airport but, the driver informed us, "it too late- I think you flight it going to leave without you." But, he had said it was only 9km. Yes, but you had to be there two hours ahead of time to check in, the drivers said.  We asked how long it took to drive to the airpot and were told 40 minutes. Why so long, you must be wondering? Traffic- the dreaded Asian traffic which is slow and congested and nearly constant. There is hardly a time in an asia city, it seems, that there is not traffic.  The drivers insisted we were not going to make it and maybe they should drive us to a hotel instead. I insisted we go to the airport and Lindsay haggled the price of the cab fare. It would be more, of course if we wanted him to get us there in time and he promised to try his best.
     The trip was long and stressful. We were pissed about that boat ride too. The tour company put us on it, as if it were a great way to get to Cambodia when really we could have seen the Mekong on a short drive from Ho Chi Minh then returned there to catch an evening flight. Instead we drove a short drive form Ho Chi Minh to see the Mekong then got in a private car for a 4 hour drive to Chau Doc to spend the night in a creepy hotel (with numerous signs indicating that you'd better make sure you lock the doors and windows and do not let strangers into your room. We also got a lengthy lesson on how to appropriately lock the door from the front desk staff all while listing to the children's fair across the street play American children's songs like it's a small world sung in Vietnamese) and then board a boat in the early morning which took us another 7 and a half hours to Phnom Phen  for a 45 minute flight, which we were about to miss!
     Lindsay, in traditional New Yorker style, proceeded to goad the driver into driving faster. Nor was he driving aggressively enough, she pointed out when another vehicle cut  us off. "Taxis in New York know how to step on it! Why is that car passing us- you're not going to let him in, are you?" This went on for some time. Admittedly, this was making me a little nervous. I wanted to make it on time too, but who knows who this guy is? He might decide to teach us a lesson and drive aggressively only to end up in an accident or worse if we pissed him off. Maybe he wouldn't bring us to the airport at all. We were in a strange country with a strange cab driver who spoke a strange language  and were stuck in his car. No one know where we were or who we were with, no one would miss us for at least 48 hours, probably more.  He spoke good English and I tried to smooth things over by telling the driver not to worry about Lindsay since she doesn't actually drive, anyway. "He'll get us there safe and on time" I suggested. Right? Right? hehe oh dear god-get us there safe and on time. Please. Luckily he seemed good humored about this, giggling and saying "ok ok I will get you to airport." Lindsay made him promise and verified the time left to travel there.
     When we arrived at the airport we ran to the check in counter. No one else seemed to be rushing at all and we got a few curious looks. The check in counter was still open and allowed us to check our bags which I took as a good sign. We had 20 minutes before take off. We were the only people in the security line so that went quickly. We rushed to the gate to find that no one was there. No gate agent, no other passengers, not even a sign with our flight number or destination. We followed the gate to the asphalt outside only to find the doors locked and no plane is sight. We had missed it. We ran back up stairs and found an airport employee. "Oh, Siem Reap?" he verified "No, no boarding yet. You can wait here" he said pointing to a cafe. Somehow, miraculously, we had made it on time.  Time seemed to appear out of no where. A time warp again. It seemed a sure thing that we would miss the flight only 40 minutes ago. It time to take off but, somehow, we were actually early! I gave a quick thank you to the powers that be for getting us here safe and on time. Now for the most highly anticipated part of the trip, Angkor Wat. Sometimes, time is on your side.
Vietnamese house boats

Cambodian boarder passport check

Crew member of the Hang Chau

Vietnamese floating houses

Cambodian house, farm, and dock

All of us in the back napped at some point

Me

Lindsy hanging on the Hang
   

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thai Time

      The culmination of our trip would be Thailand. Specifically, the beaches of Thailand, some of the most famous beaches in the world. In fact while we were travelling I got an email from Trip advisor, or some such traveler's web site, listing Thailand's beaches in the world's top ten.  You can imagine our anticipation- pristine white sand beaches, tourqoise blue water, all in an Earthly paradise. We were looking forward to relaxing ocean side after our conquests in Vietnam and Cambodia.
      We arrived at the tiny Siem Reap airport in high spirits. We had spend a decent amount of money to fly from this small, local airport because it was the only way to get from where we were, Northern Cambodia, to Phuket in less than 24 hours.
      When it was time to board we walked outside our gate and to a small plane decorated with the sea and fish; an indication of our ultimate destination. It was what I like to think of as an "oh shit" plane. I get motion sickness on planes; so for me, the bigger the better. Whenever I see a place of this size- the three steps leading to the door, the propellers, the shadow cast by the much larger jets next to it- I think to myself "oh, shit." I don't like these planes. I've never had a great experience on a plane this small, and they are always old. And the airline always conspires to have me sit next to the propeller which is loud and scary; the metal blades taunting me with the thought of what would happen if one of them came loose. I saw one of these propellers being safety checked once while on this trip. A man with a flashlight and a yellow vest stood on the ground and spun the propeller, shining his flashlight on the blades while doing it. In the dark. That's it. That was the extent of it. No wonder Lindsay was so concerned with flying reputable airlines while in a third world country.
      The flight was much as I expected. Turbulent but not worrisome. We had a layover in Bangkok and that's when it happened. We were no longer on the world agreed upon time table, we were on Thai time. I know, I know there has been a lot of talk about the concept of time in these blogs- it's a  mystery I can't quite explain but it fascinates me none the less. I never find extra days in New York (or as the Japanese say, "New Yolk") or wormholes which take you back in time and I certainly cannot simply ignore the clock.
      Luckily I spotted Bangkok Airlines passenger lounge which had a sign out front inviting all passengers in. It was great. There was free unlimited wifi, food and drinks. We had only 15 minutes before our flight boarded so we stocked up on popcorn and drinks and surfed the precious web one last time. When our boarding call came we started to pack up but realized it was not a boarding call, it was an announcement letting us know our flight was delayed by 10 minutes. Fine, no big deal, we got back on the web. Then an announcement came saying it was 15 minutes delayed, then 30, then 40 then 80.
      It didn't end there. When we finally got in to the Phuket airport we decided to save money by taking a mini bus to our hotel rather than a private cab. Mistake. We not only waited for the van to be filled with other passengers, we then waited for the driver to stop chatting with his friend, before we stopped at a tour place.  Then the driver drove by our hotel...I think I've told this one before.
     The next day we explored the dumpy town that is Patong Beach and made reservations for a boat tour of the islands. We had to be up at 7am for the 7:30 am pick up. At 8:30 we had the hotel's front desk receptionist call the company to inquire about the location of the bus, thinking they had forgotten us. At 8:45 we left and then drove around town picking up more passengers. We arrived at an overly crowded dock to spend another 15 minutes waiting to board.  Then follows the infamous Russian boat incident, see my other blog post "Twilight Zone".
     The next day we were leaving for the 5 hour trip from our hotel to the ferry which would take us on the hour ride to the island of Samui, and, the day was virtually the same as before. We got up early as instructed, only to wait around and then have to pick up more passengers. When we arrived at the 'transfer station' we got our stickers and waited another hour for, yet again, more passengers.  Side note- Thailand loves both transfer stations and stickers. You cannot go to anyplace directly, there is always a stop where, most often, you get a sticker placed on your shirt with some kind of secret color code. No one tells you what the sticker is for or why you need to wear it, or that it is even important at all. Don't let the nonchalance fool you, the sticker is of the utmost importance. Do not succumb to pride or embarrassment and rip it off because it is hot pink and no one else has one, or everyone else has a cool blue. You will need that sticker, my friend. Your passage depends upon it, for when you arrive at the next transfer station there is one question and one question only- "sticker?" I shudder to think what might happen to the unfortunate soul who does not have his sticker. My best guess is that you will get yet another sticker and a transport back to another transfer station where you will receive your lost sticker again; after waiting for more passengers to arrive, that is.
      We boarded a hot pink party bus by means of a staircase for the transport to the ferry station. We nicknamed this bus the pink N'Sync bus. N'Sync and other various boy bands must be popular because the driver opened the door which led to his cabin several times to listen to the music and adjust the sound.  Lindsay and I sang along to the melodious sound of Justin Timberlake's voice, reliving the summer of our mid teen years when this CD was our soundtrack, about 13 years ago. I'm fairly sure Lindsay, Francesca and I each owned a copy of this legendary and all too soon forgotten band. Another N'sync song came on. Wait, or was that Backstreet Boys?
      The ride on the hot pink N'sync bus was actually pleasant. We arrived at the ferry dock where our stickers were confiscated and we were given new, more brightly colored stickers. Then we waited. For more passengers. For an hour.
       We spent 5 days at Koh Samui so we were on our time, not Thai time. Our flight from Koh Samui to Bangkok was only delayed by 10 minutes. Our last experience with Thai time was on our final flight, from Bangkok to Tokyo. It seemed to be off to a good start. We boarded on time and then waited, on the plane, for an hour- for more passengers.  The adage my husband used to use to describe the Marine Corps is applicable to Thailand as well; "hurry up and wait." If you are planning a trip to Thailand, keep in mind nothing is ever on time, it's on Thai time.
An "oh shit" plane
The pink N'Sync bus

Door to the driver's cab

Rock'n out

Had to go with some Adele after a while

Ferry dock.  Sticker?

After nearly 12 hours of travel, Koh Samui is in sight. A total travel time of 12 hours was logged between Phuket and our final destination. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stargate

      It was hot and humid in Hanoi, the kind of humid that is wet the moment you step outside. The kind of humid that makes everything go in slow motion. Hazy, oppressive, hot humidity where dehydration is a real concern. We were exploring the city on foot. The previous day we had seen pretty much all of the old quarter. Our hotel had given us a map that  highlighted "walking streets," of which we had walked all and then some.
     Feeling confident from yesterday's  safe and friendly exploration of Hanoi and the fact that so many Vietnamese there could speak English, we just went with it, walking wherever we pleased. We simply walked, following whatever was interesting. We followed meandering roads, where the streets became narrower and narrower. Each street is named for the good it sells and all of the sellers of that particular good are located on that Hang (street). We went down the woodworker's hang, the toy hang, candy hang, lantern hang, instant noodle hang, until we found ourselves on fruit hang. We continued to follow the ever narrowing non linear paths deeper and deeper into the heart of the city.
      At potato hang we simultaneously  realized something had changed from 15 minutes ago. We weren't in Kansas any more. The street was so narrow and crooked a car could not fit through it, and thinking of it- I hadn't seen any in a while. There were potato vendors everywhere, their traditional baskets filled to the brim with sweet potato, red potatoes and many others. How could their carrying stick take the weight of all those potatoes? The vendors were squatting on the ground, their pointy straw hats covering their heads and flimsy flip flops on their feet, if any shoes at all. And no one was calling to us; no one asking if we wanted to look in their shop, no one offering us food; no one speaking English.
       Time slowed. Chickens were running around. Some of the squatting vendors noticed us with a quizzical look. The haze made it all so surreal. If ever we were foreigners, it was now. People clearly noticed us as out of place, their upturned glances lingering until they registered what was different about today's scene. Had we entered a worm hole? The world was different now, it had all changed. Time was slow, the picture hazy. Where were we? What year was this? Things were haphazard- it was hard to even move in all the chaos. Chickens, people, potatoes, baskets. If the motorbikes had been bicycles I might have been convinced we had slipped through a stargate and had transported back in time.
     "Where are we?" Lindsay turned to ask.
      "I don't know- we are in the real Vietnam, I guess." There were no street signs. We looked around for a hint of modern civilization- anything that would point us back to the year 2012; cars, ATM's a mini mart. In the distance, a steady stream of cars. "That way" Lindsay instructed- she had taken on the role of map keeper. When we got there, after carefully weaving through the baskets of potato vendors we were perplexed to see only a highway. We had to turn around and slip back through the stargate to get out. We followed potato hang a little ways back until we again saw signs of modern life- cars. We followed the cars until they brought us to a street with a sign and we located it on the map. We hadn't actually gone that far- our hotel was a short walk away, yet we had,we had gone far- to the other side of the Earth. A place where two white American women rarely went; through the stargate to the real Vietnam.
  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Imagine

    Yesterday I went to the daily meditation available at the Spa.  There were four of us plus the teacher. It was relaxing and of course better than no meditation, but very secular.We were relaxing, imagining ourselves on a beach..but why not go to the beach, then? It's right there- I can see it from where I am sitting.
     Today I went again, determined to take advantage of daily meditations in the paradise like setting overlooking the beach. I would get something out of it even if it was not the style of mediation I prefer.
     To my surprise it was a new teacher, a stocky white man with glasses and a four inch long white beard in the ancient Chinese style, that is, long and pointy.  He greeted me warmly and invited me to lay out my mat which ever way I felt comfortable. While we waited for the others he began to chat with me. Since I was the first person there, I got to choose a  lucky number. Guess what I chose? 7, of course. Common, I know but it is my birthday so it is truly lucky for me, I didn't choose it for gambling reasons. The teacher would read the seventh story in Moon by the Window later.
      "Change starts within you. If you want the world to change you must change yourself, that is it. When you do that the world shifts and a slight change occurs. A change can be as simple as not watching tv. If you are a peaceful person, one who does not like violence, does not practice it, does not watch violent or disturbing movies than you can turn off your tv and a shift in the world has occurred" Each of us in interconnected in more than one way; physically perhaps, but spiritually as well. We are all one choosing to take this life journey together in our individual roles. We cannot change the external world without changing our internal world. When we change our internal world, that is, ourselves we shift our reality, shift our focus and instantly, the world changes because our world view changes. If I no longer subscribe to something, say violence, than I refuse to partake, refuse to watch it, practice it, than it is not a part of my world.
      I found this man and his conversation interesting. Obviously I had found my non- secular meditation guy, although he was careful to claim that this session was of no particular faith, that all faiths were welcome here.It was spiritual none the less. He went even further in his examples of nonviolence. "If you are against violence than you should not take any part, don't practice it, don't watch it on TV, and this includes our animals, they are spiritual beings as well. Animal slaughter houses, they are violent. So if you say you are against violence, please think of the animals as well."
      Wow, I was into this. It's like this guy was here for me. The universe felt my wish for a more spiritual meditation and gave me more than I could have hoped for. It was soon 7:30am and it was clear no one else was coming so we began the hour long session. Wow! A private mediation session overlooking the beach! The universe was looking out for me. The teacher had a gong like bowl which he rung and the session started with some breathing techniques to facilitate the meditation and then a bow, with hands in prayer position to give thanks for meditation and to recognize all the other mediators around the world, many of whom are meditating with us now, at this very moment, somewhere in the world.
      After there was a reading, the message of which was  this- as the sun shines through the clouds and breaks them free, this will come to you as well. Soon all the sunshine you have been seeking will come down on you all at once. All has been prepared and readied for you it is time to let your sunshine bring what it will.
      We then meditated for a little before another reading of several quotes from who other than Lao Tzu and Ralph Waldo Emerson. If you know me well, truly well, then you know that Emerson is one of my favorite authors- a man well ahead of his time, maybe even ahead of ours. His words are enlightened and enlightening.
       More meditation and more relevant quotes continued for the remainder of our session. There was a good one about seeking approval and how doing so takes our power away. I am only accountable to me and seeking approval from outside of myself gives power to another and they can hold that power over me. We should not seek to be the best in someone else's eyes, only our own.
      At one point we put one hand on our stomach and one on our hearts. Doing so, you can feel your breath moving in and out and your heart beating. These are the two things that give us life in these bodies; the heart and the breath. The teacher instructed to "feel your heart beat. It is the power of your body." Perhaps this is the explanation to the 'echo chamber' at Angkor Wat. When we were there I found it curious, but powerful. What was this room for? It was a small room with a high ceiling and and two tall doorways on either side. When you stood against one of the two walls and thumped on your heart with your fist the echo was amazing. It was a drum beating and reverberating through space and time, deep and pounding like the beat of an ancient war drum. "It is an echo of your heart" the guide explained.
      The chamber, like what we were doing now, was a reminder. A reminder that although we are currently in this body we are only an echo of something much larger. Yes, we have this life here on planet Earth, but we have more in the beyond we are bigger than we realize.
      The teacher closed the session with another prayer of thanks for the gift of meditation in this world and a prayer for people to realize a shift only has to occur within them for a shift to occur within the world. "It's like John Lennon's song, imagine world where people realize we are one and begin living that way" and I remembered something he had said at the beginning of the session- If you feel love, sincere love and express your love or gratitude in that exact moment that you feel it, you have changed the world in that moment. Indeed, if everyone did this- imagine.