Thursday, April 14, 2011

So Long, Southeast Asia

I write this post from the lobby of the Phnom Penh airport, preparing to get on a plane and go home after the experience of a lifetime. I’m not sure if this is a post that I will publish, or if this is just something to get my thoughts in order. Regardless, writing my thoughts is and has always been therapeutic, so I’ll just go with it.
The past two and a half months have been nothing short of awe inspiring. In it I have grown, changed, evolved, challenged myself, lost friendships, gained friendships, loved, and most of all, found a part of myself that I never knew existed until I travelled like this. This experience has been vastly different from my experience in Georgia, and I feel much of that difference in my difficulty leaving and my fear of returning home. My departure from Georgia was easy—I was all too ready to leave the country and return home. It’s not that I had a bad time—it was amazing—but by the end I was ready. This experience, however, has totally turned everything around. I haven’t dragged my feet into the ground this much since I graduated from high school. I haven’t stopped crying in the past twenty four hours. I made Olly feel terribly uncomfortable from my emotional whims, as he tried to pat my back and pass me off to Dewi. It’s not that I don’t want to go home. It’s just that I don’t want to leave Southeast Asia. Georgie cried with me, but she left two days ago. It's been emotional, to say the least. This part of the world holds such rich beauty, such room for adventures and growth and good old fashioned fun….I just don’t feel like I’m ready to leave this. I know that all good things must come to an end. The gang split up—Scuba Steve left first, and then there were four—then we were joined by Georgie’s cousin Eve, and then Eve and Georgie left ten days after that (two days ago). Olly and Dewi are headed out to Singapore and then Australia on the 16th. So no matter how much I wish I could keep going, I know that my experience would change because the people have changed. It was as amazing as it was because of the people I was able to share it with. While I could certainly hop over to Bali on my own—it would be a different kind of experience, a different trip, and what I am craving is a continuance of this experience, the one where I laugh every day with four Brits, get made fun of for my American idiosyncrasies, and feel as though I have lost all conception of day and time in the sweet lull of casual and comfortable banter, constant eye openings, and feelings of love and friendship. Any other experience—though it would surely be great—just wouldn’t be the same. I have to keep telling myself that as I sit at this airport, crying and looking foolish as the stoic Cambodians walk by.
In the past two and a half months I have eaten frog. I have ridden elephants bareback. I have meditated in Angkor Wat. I have ridden a motorbike. I’ve gone white water rafting, bamboo rafting, boating through an ancient cave and have gone drunk tubing down a river in Laos. I’ve realized that I’m not devoid of the capacity to love, a fear I'd grappled with before I left. I’ve also realized that time heals all wounds, no matter how gaping and incomprehensible they may seem. I’ve killed cockroaches and sang to others, been blessed by a monk and found a growing love of nomadic life. I’ve communicated with local hill tribes through a common human desire for interpersonal connection, took a slowboat down the Mekong, and have tried every kind of fruit known to Southeast Asia. I’ve learned how to say thank you in four languages and how best to compliment a person from this part of the world. I’ve laughed harder, cried more, and felt more intensely than ever before.

I've also realized that the title for this blog has been quite appropriate, as the more time I spend travelling, the more I realize that there is never any plan. I left thinking I would spend three months here, working/volunteering for three week stints on various farms and schools throughout S.E.Asia. I was distraught when the first placement fell through and felt like I had no purpose. The longer I stayed (and this really hit me when I met my travel group), the more I started to embrace my planlessness, to love it. I loved waking up every morning, eating breakfast and thinking about what we would do that day, where we wanted to go. There was never any planning or foresight--just like I couldn't have planned to have met these amazing people and to have had the experience I had with them. Nothing on this trip worked out the way I thought it would--and it was so much better because of it. I've realized that having a plan is--(gasp)--unnecessary...that life is spontaneous and that itcan be most enjoyed when we live extemporaneously, making decisions as we go. As much as I am worried about what will happen when I get home--where or if I'll get a job, where I'll live, what I'll do in the fall--I am trusting more that things will work out as they should, just like this experience has. Everything will fall into place. I love this new way of thinking.
I will never, for as long as I live, forget this experience. It has become a part of me, a part of my blood, its own Mekong running through my veins. To Georgie,Sophie, Scuby, Dewi, Olly, and Eve—sinkaman, au kon, kap jai la lai, kap cum kah. For everything. You have made this trip exponentially more amazing than I ever thought it could be.
I’m going to take a brief hiatus from my blog writing (though I have been doing that already in my negligence in updating this thing!) as my travels are coming to a halt until I go to Israel in June. But rest assured I will update them from the holy land, as I’m sure to have more stories to share, more love to give and receive, more growth to experience. Here’s to the journey.
Until next time,

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cambodia, Cambodia

Greetings from Phnom Penh, everyone!

I am writing this post from beside the pool at our georgeous guesthouse, which is costing us an unbelievable five dollars a night. i could really learn to live like this, i think. we got here yesterday morning, after spending four days in saigon (technically called ho chi minh, but no one there calls it that). saigon was incredible--i absolutely loved it. we were very cultural, and spent more of our time in museums, visiting galleries, and walking about, exploring the cities. soem of the highlight from saigon:
-the cu chi tunnels, which were built by the viet cong during the vietnam war as places to take refuge from the American and southern Vietnamese army. These caves are TINY....and they pop up in places near fellow rabbit holes (basically just a hole in the ground that a tiny Vietnamese person would sit in for hours at a time). We saw some of the methods of torture that teh Viet Cong had in place--trap doors that opened up to razor sharp spears of varying length and bodily aim. We went IN the tunnel, but not the tourist tunnel that they had enlarged--no no, we went in the LOCAL tunnel. the tunnel for teeny tiny Viet Cong. It was the scariest 25 meters of my life. I literally had visions of being trapped in there...claustrophobia majorly kicked in and i got out before the rest of the group did. still, though, i was quite impressed with myself!
-war museum--interesting and horrifically saddening. yes, there was a lot of anti-american propaganda in the galleries. but the most horrifying exhibit was that about agent orange. the realization of the effect that the toxic chemicals (sprayed by the US as basically experiments) had on the people there and the children of the people there was a dark one indeed. Physical deformations about, and there has been nothing done, barely much recognition by the US government of the deleterious effects of agent orange. Deformed fetuses, pictures of horrifically enlarged body parts, of people born without arms and legs due to exposure to these chemicaly--it was a rough exhibit.
-the first subway in vietnam, where i ate not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES. my friends have named my alter ego Josie--they say that inside me is an obsese girl that needs to be fed all the time (which is pretty much true). With subway subs right aruond the corner, I got a little nostalgic for Western food chains and indulged in some tuna on honey oat. It tasted pretty delicious after two months of rice and noodles.
We stayed at a lovely hostel where the owners were this older couple, totally dedicated to providing us with the best service. They all hugged us goodbye, gave Georgie (who was sick as a dog) medicated tea, and walked us to our bus to wave us off. Just lovely. You meet the sweetest people traveling.

We arrived in Phnom Pehn yeserday afternoon and spend the day relaxing. This morning we went to the royal palace which was stunning, and then the famed silver pagoda that had a life-size gold statue of the buddha with 2,086 diamonds. I drooled a little bit. Then it was on to the history museum, where we saw hundreds of years of statues of the Hindu and then Buddhist gods. It was beautiful.

Tomorrow we are off to see the Killing Fields, where thousands of innocent people were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge. A modern day Auschwitz, the Killing Fields are a potent reminder to us of the devastated past of Cambodia--of a massive genocide that happened only thirty or forty years ago, that wiped out an entire generation of people. From the Killing fields, its on to s-21, the prison in which cambodians were brutally tortured for Khmer enjoyment. It's going to be a rough, but very necessary, day.

My time here is slowly coming to an end. I leave to go back to the states on april 14th, which is way too soon. I have had the most unbelievable time here--have had so many transformative and memorable experiences. I can't believe that two and a half months will have elapsed since I left home. I feel like I'll be returning a new person, enlightened and alive after seeing a part of the world nothing like my own. But I still have almost two weeks left--with good friends, good food, and good sights, it doesn't get much better than this.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clouds in Nha Trang

So I am coming to realize that I am truly horrific at updating this blog. There is just so much happening, I keep forgetting! Here is a brief synopsis since my last update:
-I am now traveling with a wonderful, fun, and loving group of people that I met in Chiang Mai, and with whom I've been traveling for about a month. Three guys and two girls make for amazing adventures, laughs, and a total and complete unawareness of time and place. I have literally no conception of what day it is, what time it is, because I'm so wrapped up in the present and what I'm doing with these wonderful people. I've never been this presently-focused. It's amazing.
-VIETNAM. It's amazing and beautiful. We arrived in Hanoi on the 15th (I think...?) after a tumultuous night bus that was 26 hours and had no bathroom. Can you say uncomfortable? Hanoi was lovely, but freezing, and none of us had the right clothes for the rain and cold. We were pretty uncomfortable and thought that maybe it was just Hanoi that was cold! So after a few days we set down for Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage sight and the place where they filmed some James Bond (or so the boys said). It was absolutely stunning and reminded me a lot of Krabi in Thailand, with the rocks jutting out of aqua blue waters. It was, however, still freezing and cold and we were all wet and wearing the same clothes that we'd been wearing for four days. We stayed in this crappy little hotel and all snuggled to try to conserve body heat, but to no avail. We left Halong Bay the next day, literally running away from the cold towards warmer weather and sun. We couldn't get there fast enough.
-We got to Hue, a beautiful little town right smack dab in the middle of Vietnam. It was lovely; we stayed in this beautiful hotel with a balcony overlooking the city. Several western bars and pool tables made the boys very happy, and the sun and picturesque views of the water made Georgie and I happy little clams.We did some touristy things--a river cruise, tours of two tombs of emperors that were stunning, a nationally famous pagoda, etc. and wrapped up our stint in Hue after about two days.
-After Hue, we took a van to Hoi An, which was my favorite city thus far. Situated about three hours south of Hue, it is a tiny, quaint ,town covered in multi-colored lanterns that light up the skyline at night. We rented bicycles, spent a day at the beach, biked around the city, ate lots of food from the best bakery in southeast asia, and went to My Son--another UNESCO sight famed for its 4th century ruins that were once the central feature of the Champa people. I got some amazing pictures (trying to upload them now...the Champa people were Hindu and thus there were some beautiful figures of the Hindu gods dotting the lush green hills that lined the various brick temples). I don't know whether My Son was the highlight of the third day or if the motorcycles we rented were, but either way, it was definitely one of the best experiences I've had on this trip. I hired a driver because I was too scared to motorbike myself (the drivers in Vietnam are CRAZY), and had a blast.
-After three nights in Hoi An (I could have stayed forever), we are now in Nha Trang, a beach town on the coast that is famed in Vietnam for its sunbathing and surfing. It's again been cloudy and rainy (Georgie is convinced she brings the rain), but we've made the most of it and haven't let the weather cloud our fun. Our friend Steve had his birthday yesterday, which culminated in a cake throwing fight and massive buckets of alcohol.

Thats it for now--I'm off to grab dinner before steve and sophie have to head off again, and then it'll be the four of us (Georgie, Dewi, Olly, and me) until georgie's cousin meets us in a week in Cambodia. I will hopefully write more before then!

Sending lots of love from Vietnam,

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Quick Update

Sabaidee, everyone!

This post is going to have to be short and to the point, as I have to order some food and visit the travel man before getting on a bus, because tonight we are going to Vietnam! We're taking a sleeper bus (should be interesting) that leaves at 6:30 tonight and gets into Hanoi at the same time tomorrow.

I promise to write a much longer post when I get the chance. But here is a quick recap from my last entry:

-Luang Prabang, Laos. Unbelievable. I felt like we were going back in time, in this slow, lazy town on the Mekong. We spent about four days there, and the highlight was going to Elephant Village, this conservation organization that rescues female elephants that were abused in the logging industry. The Village works with the elephants and helps domesticate them while ensuring their health and physical activity. We did a two day elephant adventure program at the Village, where we rode elephants bareback through a river and washed them in the water. It was such a special experience...I didn't think I would ever have been as comfortable riding on the head of an elephant, my knees wedged between her wiggling ears (which means she was happy). I felt so in my element, so at ease washing her in the water, being totally submerged and wet as she filled her trunk and sprayed water everywhere. It was unbelievable and was an experience I'll never forget.

-Vang Vieng, aka the home of extreme tubing, Laos edition. Picture a river lined with bars, where you tube down, totally drunk, and hold your hand out for ropes that the Lao people throw to you to reel you in to the bars. We had two full days of tubing before I had to stop because my liver physically hurt. So many dance parties, mud wrestling, and floating down a river in the unchartered, mountainous country of Laos. It was incredible.

-Kong Loh Cave. We took a six hour bus ride down into the southern part of Laos for what was an unbelivable special experience, being in a part of the country that was totally untouched by tourism. We were literally the only white people in the village; every time we walked by the local people, we would get a chorus of would run up to us, touch us, take pictures. We went into this massive cave that went for what felt like a good mile and a half, full of huge stalactites and stalagmites. We sat in a longboat, immersed in total darkness--the only light came from our headlamps. It was actually like a descent into Hades, and being the dork that I am, I half imagined scenes from the Inferno happening above me. It was so creepy and so, so cool. I've never seen anything like it in my life.

-Vientiene. It's a crap town, really, and we've been here for one too many days. But we are leaving tonight, and I couldn't be more excited. So much more to write, but I have to go order a bread bowl so I can get moving. I'll write more when I have the chance, I promise.

Much love to all. xo

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Land of A Million Elephants

Hello from Laos, everyone!
What an unbelievable last week it has been. I feel like so much has happened in just a couple of days, it’s hard to keep track of everything we’ve done, of all the people we’ve met. Here are some of the highlights:
-A day trip of elephant riding. AMAZING. We even got to see a baby elephant, who was just three weeks old! Cutest thing in the world. I wanted to steal him, but his mother was hovering very protectively. We rode the adult elephants for about an hour, sitting on the little chair that most of these touristy places provide. It was amazing, but I hate how the elephants are shackled and chained up. I think we are actually going to go on a two day elephant-camping trek, in which we learn to bathe and ride the elephants ourselves, bareback. I might have a small panic attack mounting one of the huge guys, but they are so gentle and loving, I think maybe I can try to connect with them. When our elephant let us off, I thanked him and he raised his trunk to my hand. It was lovely.
-We then went on a hike up a mountain , swam in a waterfall, and then went white water rafting. The problem with the rafting and waterfall bit was that Thailand is in its dry season now, so the water levels were super low. Thus, there was a lot of “RIGHT!” “LEFT” and such directions being yelled at us by our guide, and I energetically was hurling my body in every direction, trying to get the boat to move. My rafting mates were not as zealous as I was, but they got a kick out of my energy. It was a great time, and then we went on a bamboo cruise (which was more like being dragged through a dirty river because this guy from Canada was driving…just kidding Ryan J). The day was one of the best I’ve had here. We returned to our hostel (which we loved and through which we met our newest travel companions). Two days later, seven of us (the original four, plus our friends Dewi, Georgie, and Olly) headed out on a long boat to Laos. Picture a house on a boat, with leather seats, and that’s exactly what it looked like. It was an amazing experience, cruising down the Mekong River, the heart of Southeast Asia, watching the mountains looming in the distance and occasionally fishermen setting out their nets in rocky coves. It was like a trip down a different decade, a different century. We arrived in Luang Pra Bang, Laos this evening, and checked into a lovely hostel/hotel where we’ll be staying for the next two nights. Friday we are hopefully going on the elephant trek, which will go into Saturday. From there, who knows?
Every day here I feel like I’m conquering some new challenge, some new issue. My first week or two were plagued by the fear that I didn’t have a plan and what could someone like me do with that? And I have come to beautifully accept this plan-lessness and have really started to embrace it. Hygiene has gone out the window, as has any desire to make myself look appealing. It’s Laos and it’s hot and I’m perpetually covered in sunscreen and bugspray. And I’m totally okay with it. Last night I discovered a party of cockroaches in the bathroom. My new tactic is to flash a lot of lights at them and sing to them, and then do my business after they scurry away. I think this is called growth.
Sitting in my seat on our houseboat, watching the mist clear from the palm tree-covered mountains, watching the fishermen cast their nets and the Laotian children play in the muddied water, I smiled, shook my head at the craziness of this all, and became overpowered with the feeling that this was all just so right.   

Friday, February 25, 2011

Reincarnation and Really Big Moths

Today was such an unbelievably weird day I really just had to sit down and write about it. I mean, really weird and kind of amazing!
Logistics first. We are in Chiang Mai now, this beautiful little chill city. There are amazing restaurants on every corner, and I think that here is where I wil begin the process of becoming a rotund little ball. Everything tastes SO AMAZING. today I got this chicken curry with egg was so hot I was sweating and just about crying, but my god, did it taste good. I've been eating loads of rice, tons of noodles, and even vegetables (crazy, I know). I've also gotten into tofu with all these weird vegetarians around (just kidding, elana!) and am starting to branch out on new foods now that my stomach has calmed down and I feel healthy again.
We stayed at this really fun hostel upon our arrival in Chiang Mai, which was exactly like a hostel should be. Tons of backpackers, all just chilling out. It was so nice to be in that kind of an environment again, because for the past three weeks, we really haven't been in anything like that! All of the places we'd been staying at were for couples (something we didn't mean to do at all...we just sort of found ourselves in these type of places. Weird, as we're a group of single women.) Regardless, we made lots of new friends from all over the world. Last night we went to this barbeque, which was strange as we made our own food on personal grills. I got nervous and just ate a lot of spring rolls. Then we went bowling, and even though I protested, I secretly loved every minute of it. With my five bowling trophies from second to sixth grade, I felt pretty confident in my abilities and even thought I might have a chance at the much coveted prize of one free night at the hostel. However, I got tired at ten o'clock and blew the game and started to fall asleep on people's shoulders. So typical.
Today, however, was the most special. We went with a bunch of our new friends to this beautiful temple up in the mountains called Doi Sethep. It is Chiang Mai's pride and joy, and for good reason, as it was absolutely stunning. With views of the whole city and so many gold buddha's all around, it felt like a yogi's dreamplace. Caroline and I wandered into one of the many small temples in the larger temple area and sat in front of a monk who, wth water and some sticks which I'm sure have more significance than i can describe here, chanted prayers and blessed us, showering us with water. He tied white string around our wrists. It was so beautiful.

Manny Buddhist visitors will buy a lotus blossom and incense and pray at one of the many buddha's. I've done this before and did it again today for my grandfather and my family. And this is where it got interesting. After my nana died last summer, I began to think about death and the possibility of an afterlife. I'm still not entirely sure on where I stand on the whole issue, but in reading Virgil and Dante, I started believing in the possibility of another world beyond the living, and specifically of the idea of an afterlife. Perhaps it was my way of dealing with grief, but I truly felt like my nana came back to the world as a dragonfly this past summer. I felt a strange connection with an insect (insect, right?) that I'd been scared of before, and it assuaged a tiny bit of my pain. Well, today, after praying for my grandfather to be in a higher, better place, wouldn't you know that the LARGEST MOTH IN THE WORLD planted itself right on my leg. Now, for those of you who know me well, you will know that the bug I am most scared of in the world is the moth. And this was the king moth. I don't know what my Poppie decided to come back as that animal, but come back he did, and he didn't want to leave. I just stood there, totally frozen, half out of terror, half out of belief, with Caroline snapping photos of the immense winged creature on my calf. "Transcend! Transcend!" she said to me, as I stood there with my eyes squeezed shut, trying to transcend and find inner peace and love the moth but all I wanted to do was scream and run away. After a solid five minutes of inner turmoil but calm surface, I called out to a man (there were several people watching at this point) to please get this moth off me, at which point it started crawling up my leg, wanting to get closer to me. Then I started screaming and running around the Wat, which was totally bad and innapropriate but geeze, the thing was huge.
The point of this rambling story is that my grandfather is a moth. Maybe he wanted to help me get over my fears, or maybe he just wanted to let me know that he was indeed in a better place, just like I'd asked. I'm not sure why the universe put him in that form, but I'm not going to question it. I'm just going to go with it.

It's ten o'clock at night now and obviously I'm wanting to go to bed. Tomorrow we are going elephant trekking and white water rafting in the mountains!

Sending lots of love and peace,

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alive in Chiang Mai

Sawadee ka, everyone!
I hope this post finds you all well. I certainly feel better about things than i did in my last post. While I am still dealing with many of the things that I was clearly struggling with in my last update, I am beginning to feel so much better--not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.
I'm into my second week here, which is bringing with it feelings of stability. I had forgotten how difficult the first two weeks in Georgia were--they were some of the hardest times in my my life, adjusting to a new country, a new lifestyle, a new language. The adjustment away from home is difficult in itself, and the added dimensions of change further alienate us during those first few weeks. Now, however, I feel more settled in. I've been religiously writing in my journal, recounting the events of the day not so I can remember them, but so I can feel a sense of closure as I close my eyes at night. No part of the trip is going the way that I had (or hadn't....ugh, not gonig to start that again) planned, but i'm learning to go with the punches.
Our week on Koh Phangan was absolutely beautiful. We stayed at this lovely little bungalow a few hundred feet back from the water, and spent every day at the beach...sunning, reading, eating, sleeping. lazy bums we were....and happy about it. Some highlights from our week on Koh Phangan:
-a stray dog got into Elana’s and my room. Yes, a stray dog. I was coming home from the local convenience store around 9 pm, and a cute dog that resembled a golden retriever was sitting on my steps. I chatted with him for a bit, persuaded him to come down by talking in a high pitched voice, and then when I thought he was settled next to me, ran for the door. Well, so did he, and he lodged his little face into the door and I just couldn’t close it on him. I tried pushing his head out, but he was strong and he just barged his way in with me screaming profanities and elana’s name like bloody murder. With the two of us forming a barricade, we created a wall so our flea-infested friend couldn’t penetrate beyond the first ten feet or so, and using all of our brute strength, we got the pup out the door. Locking it immediately, we screamed and ran to the bathroom to wash our hands.
-Full Moon Party. What is there to say about that? It’s the craziest party in southeast asia. Let’s just say lots of alcohol—buckets of it, really. A slow boat over from one side of the island to the other, thank goodness we were wearing bathing suits. Thousands and thousands of people miling about the island, getting wasted and sexually provocative. Think of a frat party gone awry, on the beach, with bathing suits and a bucket of alcohol sure to make someone like me drunk after a few sips for only 100 baht—a little shy of four dollars. People were peeing in the water, and apparently if you stay past four, you see people actually having sex in the waves. Lovely. Needless to say, I got drunk for about an hour, sobered up, felt ill (obviously)….got hit on by some pervy Australians (EBT, there was one cute guy from Melbourne, but to be honest I didn’t think he was straight and then the hitting on was just all very confusing). We ran around for a few hours, covered ourselves in body paint, and got back at 4 am, only to take a ferry out the next morning at ten. ROUGH. MAJOR ROUGH.
    A ferry, bus, and two overnight train rides later, we are now here in Chiang Mai, in what is supposed to be one of the best cities in Thailand. We got here a few hours ago, and are about to shower up (and wash the paint out of my hair…lovely) and scoot downtown to do some sightseeing.
I feel like our journey is really starting now that we’re off the beach, plunging deep into the country. I feel better about things and life every day….and I think its onwards and upwards from here. I’m spending a lot of time thinking (we have a LOT of time to think, between the various modes of transportation we take), and I feel like I’m already growing, already changing, already learning more about myself. We’ll see where it takes me. Will write more later….but the mixture of aloe, sunscreen, bugspray and sweat that covers my body is really starting to get annoying.

Happy 21st birthday to my little brother….I’m thinking of you, tools, and wishing I could ring in your big 2-1 with you.

Until next time,