Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blog history

Just a quick explanation that the last few blogs were originally published on my Facebook page, but I have posted them here to finish out the somewhat abandoned AsiaManda blog.

A note on being back (July 6, 2008)

I am confident returning to one’s own country after a long trip is much harder than leaving it and adventuring to a foreign land. Things never look the same. People seem a little different. Normal is now odd. The pace of life seems off. Average is too big, too slow. All you thought you understood now comes under question.
- Why do people here seem so stressed-out and unhappy?
- Why is every meal so big?
- Why isn’t there a better train system?
- Why are cars so big and slow?
- Why do people have big front yards they never use?

And my hearing is hyper-sensitive. In crowded restaurants, I cant help but overhear ten distinct conversations in English (plus a few in Spanish), perhaps like a dog must feel when they encounter a park full of new smells. It’s overwhelming and alarming. And interesting. I catch myself just staring at people a lot. And eavesdropping.

I keep trying to make sense of the world, of all I learned and saw and the differences among cultures and countries and societies and ways of life. But I cant figure it out. Maybe there’s no easy answer.

But for all my frustrations with this country, there are some great things, too. Like how diverse it is (especially on the West Coast). In this one country I can walk down the street and see faces from Mexico, Cambodia and China. I can eat Thai food with Thai waiters, I can get my nails done in an all-Vietnamese salon, and I can buy Indian clothes from an Indian Saree store. And everyone seems to get along (for the most part), which is pretty amazing.

And there is beautiful nature here. The Pacific ocean is breathtaking. And all the green and trees and plants in the Northwest. And soon I’ll see my beloved Rockies again. In the wide open spaces. Space is a nice thing.

Memorable moments (June 14, 2008)

Now that I am ending my trip, I find myself contemplating the experience memory by memory. I have traveled from some of the highest mountains in the world (about 7000 meters, over 20,000 feet), the start of the Himalayas in China, down to the ocean and 30m (about 90 feet) under the sea in Thailand. I have had to wear hat and gloves to bed with a heated blanket and lived for weeks in a bikini. I have met and befriended people from every corner of the world - from Iceland to Argentina, Holland to Australia, China to Italy, Canada to Vietnam, and so much more. I have laughed really hard, cried a little, drank too much (once or twice), and learned to eat healthy (when not stuffing my face with delicious, strange street food). I have lived with just one small rollypack, grown accustomed to cold showers and squat toilets, and have lived through several rounds of attacks of killer invisible sea/sand fleas (to which I have an apparent allergy). I have so much I want to write and remember, but of course there are some places and events that stand out more than others. This list is my completely biased opinion from my own experiences.

Best City - Hong Kong - the only big city in Asia I would honestly love to live in - it’s like NY on steroids, but clean and ridiculously well-organized. impossible to get lost and 10 minutes from amazing nature.

Best village - the Khamu village about 5 hours walk from Luang Namtha, Laos. Entirely removed from civilization, filled with children playing, old people sitting on porches, animals, a simple school, pretty little river, surrounded by jungle and rice fields, complete with 3 shamans and a village chief.

Most surprising place - China. Surpassed all my expectations ... well, I was expecting more like India and found a country (seemingly) more developed than the US. Certainly cleaner, more organized and much safer than Latin America. It’s true, the Chinese are not so great at English, but they are much more friendly than I ever imagined.

Most picturesque hike - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China - imagine a raging river slicing through two mountains that go up to 18,000 feet on either side. Hiking along green fields with small Tibetan-inspired wooden guest houses along the 3-day trek. Breathtaking.

Most relaxed place - this is a tie between Luang Prabang, Laos and Koh Phangan, Thailand. Both Buddhist, filled with naturally growing flowers and tropical trees, hot weather and smiling locals. Though Luang Prabang has some rivers and no ocean, and the Thais on the islands are Rastafarian hippies. (same-same, but different)

My personal paradise - Tah Toh Lagoon bungalows on Koh Tao, Thailand. (see Paradise blog for more details)

Best experience on a moving vehicle - the “Slow Boat” ride down the Mekong in Laos. Imagine 50 young, interesting travelers, one big boat, 2 10-hour days with a strange, small village stop in-between. As a social butterfly, this was like a big garden filled with strange new flowers to meet, floating slowly down the muddy river surrounded by green jungle

Best friend - while I have made so many great friends, this is a shout-out to Helena, my favorite travel buddy - from jungle treks to beach bungalows, rivers to oceans, breakfast to dinner ... and dessert! Miss ya already.

Best ruins - Well, this has to go to Angkor, in Cambodia, but I also want to give honorable mention to the Great Wall of China. Two completely cannot-miss sights - but with conditions. You MUST bicycle around Angkor to avoid the groups and hear the buzz of the jungle surrounding the sunlit ruins in the early morning and evening light. It is magical.
And the Great Wall must be explored via a long hike at Jinshaling-Simatai, about 4-5 hours from Beijing.

Most romantic spot - a chinese-style wooden tea-house set somewhere up in the hills, among a forest with softly falling rain, sitting on silk pillows with doll-seized teacups and exotic, sweet tea ...

Most thrilling experience - cruising through the jungle over 60 meters above the ground on zip wires in the Gibbon Experience. Sleeping in isolated tree houses high up in the canopy and hearing the eerie sound of gibbons singing in the dawn hours after hiking through the dark

Best Coffee Shop - (what? in Asia? you ask ... yes, the French did colonize the area for many years and left a few of their refined habits behind) Joma Cafe and Bakery, in Luang Prabang and Vientene, Laos. Delicious, cozy, classy, clean and refreshing.

Best food - I ate great food everywhere. but to name a single country, I have to say China. Really all over had great food - from street-food to fancy restaurants (okay, I didn’t go to too many of those, but I can imagine), the food was incredible, inventive, with so many flavors and spices you just want to eat your fingers, only you cant, because you are too full. (I think I gained 10 pounds.)

Best fruit shakes - the islands in Thailand - which I had to live off of (no sugar, please!) to lose those China pounds, that and swimming an hour everyday

Best travel group - my Yunnan travel buddies - cant remember laughing so hard and eating so well! (and hiking and cursing so much)

Best motorcycle ride - Seam Reap, Cambodia, getting covered in dust and lost with my young guide telling me “dirt get in my eye, no can see!” just as I am thanking the lord I don’t have to keep my eyes open because I am not driving.

Best - and worst - bike ride - Dali, China - seeing the most amazing villages filled with cute chinese kids shouting hello, fields filled with workers toiling away by hand, surrounded by a sparkling lake and snow-capped mountains. And worst because the seat hurt from the moment I sat down, and I had to sacrifice a page out of my new book to sit on to give my poor bruised bum some rest. painful.

Best lesson learned - complaining does no good. (some of you might find this amusing coming from me, I know ... ) When traveling alone, there is no one to complain to. And no one to help better or change the situation but yourself. I have learned that if I am unhappy, I have to help myself get happy again, because it really sucks being stuck with an unhappy me. (my painful bike ride was a perfect example ... grin and bear it, baby.)

Thing I missed most - dancing and good music. I am pretty sure all foreigners traveling in Asia will concur ... this part of the world is NOT known for their music or their dancing. I have never heard such awful music as I have been subjected to for hours on buses and restaurants. And I have never seen such pitiful excuses for dancing. I am sorry, but even the “traditional dance performances” that I actually paid money to see in every country I visited were pretty pathetic. I think Latin American and Africa win out on this one.

Coming to an End (June 12, 2008)

I am officially in my last week of travel in Asia. (Just had to extend my visa 1 week in Thailand until my departure date of June 19th.) It’s sad, but I am happy to say that I feel ready to go back to the West. (Not that I am bored of the beach, though I have spent over a month just lazing about trying to decide if I should have a banana or mango shake and if I should swim in the morning or afternoon and which of my 4 bikinis I should wear and if I should have a Thai massage or foot massage ... life is tough on the islands!) But I feel more relaxed and calm than I ever have - or at least than I can remember. I highly highly recommend a long trip far away from work and the life you know. It is so good for the mind, body and soul. I still have no clue where I will live or what I will do, but I no longer feel stressed or worried. Things will work out. They always do. Now I have the evidence to prove it. I started my trip with no plan and not really a clue as to what to do, and it has all worked out better than I could ever have imagined.

Probably the best part of my trip has been the people I have met. (I’m guessing half of my friends on facebook are from this trip!) I have made so many good friends, had so many laughs, shared great food and cheap hotel rooms (that sounds dirty, but it’s really innocent!), had deep, touching conversations, and reconfirmed my belief that most people are really good at heart. I have encountered many angels who have helped me along the way. Just yesterday I found myself standing alone, backpack by my side, with no reservation, and no idea where to go, when a nice woman came by, gathered me and my things, drove me to a pretty place and made sure I was settled in before leaving. And this has happened to me on every part of my trip. Just when I start to feel a little lost and lonely, I meet someone so nice and caring who helps me and shows me unconditional kindness. It is a great lesson. Life is easier when you are nice to others, and can accept others kindness to you. No matter where you are in the world. Some things surpass cultural differences.

So, I am feeling sad to end my trip but grateful for all the amazing experiences I have had and all the wonderful people I have met. And I know it’s not really over ... the adventures will continue!

What’s next, then? My immediate plan is to go to the US, attend my good friend’s wedding, then travel around the US for a couple months visiting friends and family until my brother’s wedding, then head back to Mexico. And then we’ll see ...

Life in Paradise (May 27, 2008)

What do you do when you’ve found paradise? I ask myself. Is it possible to leave? But if you stay too long, does it stop being paradise? I hope to answer these questions someday.

Until then, I will remain in Paradise ... sleeping in until the sun warms my private cabana, waking up just enough to pull the door open and stare that the shimmering sea, a cool breeze sifting through the palm trees. I get up and move to my hammok on the porch, overlooking the most beautiful blue bay and sandy beach. I can practically see the fish swimming through the corals from my bungalow. I put on some music with my ipod and little speakers, relaxing in the morning sun. First item of order is slathering on sun-screen (the key is application BEFORE leaving the bungalow), tie on one of my suits (these kind have a little less material and are a bit more free than the office type), and walk to my swimming spot. The water is too shallow near my bungalow, so I go over the ridge to the beach on the other side, for a nice, deep area. Lap swimming has never been so fun - warm water, so salty you cant help but float, with a live aquarium of coral and fishies to keep me entertained as I breath, kick-kick, crawl, kick-kick. After my swim I lay out and soak up the sun, then go for a banana-yoghurt shake. delish.

The afternoon is filled with more sun, more swimming, some reading, some shade, a little fruit and we arrive at sunset-time. I am always sure to get back to my bungalow - take a cool, refreshing shower, then plant myself in my hammock to watch the sun set over the bay and palm trees. I really am in heaven.

Then I go for a massage. Why not? It’s only $8 for an hour. oh, and my paradise bungalow - $13. I really might just stay here forever.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Village Children

PS - I hate internet connections! ... sorry about the no photos! I am trying again.

I had the most amazing trip to a town untouched by money, consumer goods, vehicles, stress, traffic, pollution, greed, and all the other negative things we encounter in everyday life. (Granted, they also didn't have all the nice "creature comforts" we have come to depend on ... like a comfy bed and pillows, chocolate, milk and cookies, TV, internet, phones ... )

Later I will write more about my life-changing experience stepping back 100 years to a small subsistance farming community ... but for now share some photos of the kids. So happy, playing and laughing, going to school in their little village, eating with extended families, playing without fear, sharing with all the other kids, in one big happy "family."

(They still werent used to photos, so didnt smile much, but you can see how beautiful they were!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The simple life

I just might move to Laos. It is so beautiful here, with miles and miles of green jungle, rolling hills, winding cool rivers and hot sunshine. And life is simple - the biggest city is barely 1 million, and there are less people per square mile than any other Asian country. Most people live in small villages in wooden huts with thatched roofs. They eat sticky rice, veggies they grow, a spicy, gingery minced meat dish, and lots of fresh fruit. They smile a lot, talk softly, never wear shoes indoors, have parties to celebrate everything - even the anniversary of a death - and relax. It is a nice life. Simple. ... okay, perhaps a bit too simple and rural for me, I should admit!

I just got back to "civilization" after about 4 days traveling by boat up a small river - the Nam Ou - in NE Laos, staying in small villages. To give you an idea of what I mean by "small village" - it's important to mention that these towns ONLY had electricity from 6-9pm at night! I am not sure if you understand what not having electricity throughout the day and night means.... In the entire town (not camping, but town where people live all the time!), there are no lights - in a dark bathroom at 5pm, midnight, or noon, there is no radio or music, no TV (which I personally dont mind), no hot water from the hot water heater - only shower from 6-9!, no blender for making shakes (fruit shakes are a popular tourist drink here!), no electricity for cooking ... only old-fashioned fire! None for restaurants or stores ... it is crazy. So, that is life in a small town here. Some small towns do have non-stop electricity, but it is a luxury that we take for granted in the West, that is really not so common around the world.

So, my trip started with a 4 hour bus ride with my new friend Helena, a nice girl from Italy via England, then we arrived at Nong Kieu, a little village on the banks of the Nam Ou river, surrounded by hilly, green jungle. We had a nice nap in the shade of our little bungalows overlooking the river. Then we went for a hike and swim in our own private beach on the riverbank! beautiful! And ended the night with a delicious dinner with some fun British people we met at the bungalows.
The next day we took a boat 1 hour up to the next town - Mong Kiuow. This little village is accessible only by boat, set above the river, amid stunning high hills and cliffs covered with green jungle. We explored the town - with one main street, a pretty temple, and a few little outdoor restaurants for the tourists. It takes 10 minutes to walk from end of town to the other! And we found another, nicer private beach on the river to sunbathe and swim. I did a couple widths of the river to get some exercise. That evening we had a candle-lit dinner and saw the celebration of a new house - all the villagers were getting drunk on Lao Lao - a local rice wine that tastes rather like vodka.
The next day we did a little more adventurous hike. After about an hour walk inland, we passed by beautiful green rice paddies with water buffalo grazing and came to another tiny village with wood and thatched roof buildings. We found the only "restaurant" in town, an open-air cafe with simple tables. We had to laugh when we ordered from the menu - they only had about 20% of the items listed, and still my "vegetable soup" was noodle soup with not one veggie - just some lemongrass! And Helena's "veggies with noodles" were noodles with some cabbage! That evening we encountered the same food shortages back in the main village - only cabbage for veggies, no meat, plenty of rice, and only bananas for fruit! that's the other side of the simple life - you eat only what is currently growing and in-season.

That evening we had dinner and Lao Beer with a big group of "single" travelers - 9 of us in total, all traveling alone! - we met in the town. It was fun to talk to people from South Africa, Scotland, Australia, England, Switzerland and Spain! Pretty big mix, all in a tiny village in Northeastern Laos. crazy.

And then we grouped together 7 to share a boat 4 hours upriver, an exciting ride through small rapids on a long, low, wooden boat, stopping at other villages to pick up locals along the way. And had another flashlight night in a bigger town that also had limited electricity.

And today we took 2 buses for a total of 7 hours to Luang Namtha, in the NW corner of the country. Tomorrow Helena and I will do a 2-day trekking trip in the jungle here!