Friday, June 26, 2009

roots pt 1

"Where are you from?" is the question I'm faced with constantly. There was a point where I got so sick of the question I have been willing to settle with "Filipino" because of sheer laziness, but I won't. When I'm in the mood for fun I respond "guess," challenging them to guess the impossible (only one person has ever guessed correctly by the way). Other times, I get "which side do you relate to most?" which can be a tad more difficult to answer until now. I am both Guatemalan and Vietnamese, both cultures have a wealth to offer despite having suffered much. Along my journeys my path has crossed with people who are proud to be Guatemalan/Vietnamese, who love the lands they call beautiful, which I can attest to because indeed beauty is one thing I have witnessed in both countries. Our most important resource, water, is "not safe" to drink in either of the two and it is bothersome to constantly have to buy bottled water (2L for less than $1) that I now know not many can do. My dad has told me this before and I know now that I have been fortunate enough to have been born in the U.S. and the opportunities I have been able to latch on to and take advantage of here I probably could not have found elsewhere.

I did not imagine myself writing about Guatemala from Vietnam, but it would make sense that once you step away from something it's much easier to view, observe, and criticize it. Going to Guate and drawing in every experience is in a sense...more rewarding because communication is not a problem. From what I have lived and known in my short 21 years Latinos are generally kick ass hosts; when I was in high school I realized this after visiting friends' homes to work on projects and analyzing how we would be welcome versus the way my mother approached the situation. And situation it certainly was, you see I was slightly embarrassed of my mother and her personality when it came to having people over. After I had friends over in high school I was left stunned when my mother turned out to be, as friends say, a pretty rockstar host. She goes all the way to ensure we're fed and have everything we need. My grandparents are the same as well, it just took me a while to actually realize. Now what I am not saying is that every culture is void of a certain charm as a host, simply that los Guatemaltecos flourish as hosts from my experience. A part of me feels like I have missed out and should have spent even more time in Guatemala. Finca de Ixobel was gorgeous, I would have loved to have been able to make that six week commitment asked of volunteers (they provide housing & food. Although I don't miss the packed chicken buses, bumpy roads, sticky political state, or lack of decent vegetarian food & vegetables for that matter...good fruit though. But I also can't really complain, the rest of the summer is looking to be action packed especially now that Nicaragua is confirmed with USFT. This brings the total to six countries in one summer, not bad eh?
One goal I'm thinking of adopting is filling up my passport before it expires in 2014. I've got my eyes set on South America for next summer and hopefully a travel mate to share experiences with...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimming in poverty and disorder.

Cambodia never really crossed my mind when I knew that I would be traveling to Asia. But as it turns out I've spent four days and three nights in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Its a country that has loads of problems including UXO (Unexploded mines), poor road conditions, corruption, lack of proper medical services, and less than half of Cambodians have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. So why visit? Well, one thing I take seriously is the suggestions of others as far as where to travel next especially if they have found a certain place particularly moving or a "must see." The temples of Angkor Wat (think Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie) are a pretty big deal, 8000 years old big deal it seems and I'm always up for something new and unexpected. I would be exploring Angkor Wat for a day even though to see it all you need three days. All of the traveling would be by bus and a hell of a bus ride they have been so far, you're lucky if you can keep your bum on the seat longer than five minutes. Sleeping is also barely manageable so I've goten a lot of reading done when I'm not talking to the stranger next to me. From Saigon to Phnom Penh is a 6.5 hour bus ride then from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap it's another 6 hours.
We got into PP at 1pm then had a tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda at 2pm. By 3pm I was fed up with tours and saw everything I had wanted to see so I separated myself from the group. I jotted down ten or so different places like coffeehouses or restaurants that seemed interesting and ended up going to two. There is a need for help in this country and what has amazed me is the response. There are a slew of businesses that work with non profit organizations as well as restaurants that are reacting and helping all sorts of projects. The restaurant where I just dined holds permanent exhibits that work in conjunction with the Centre for Children's Happiness orphanage that provides a home and access to education. The children living there had previously worked as garbage pickers at a landfill dump, the centre works with the kids as well and teaches them skills- such as photography *displayed at the restaurant for sale. I visited a fair trade shop, spent a whopping 12 bucks that got me lots of presents (soap) and the lady working there was kind enough to offer me a ride to the chocolate shop I was searching for. She saved me a twenty minute walk I really didn't mind taking. The chocolate shop was a bit ritzy so it led me two stores down to The Shop which turned into my haven. Not that I needed one, I just happen to really enjoy the coffeehouse culture. You're immediately welcomed a small path resembling something from The Secret Garden and by the open glass doors. The volume of the music in the background was perfect for any conversation you'd like to have or even overhear while sitting on the simple wooden tables indoors or outdoors. Oh, they also have seating area in the back porch, or is a porch only in the front? Anyways, the art on the ceiling looks freshly painted and everything about The Shop says sit, pick out a magazine or newspaper, and don't forget your cup of coffee. I later found out it's been open for eight years. Just about 90% of the menu items are between a buck and a buck fifty....and they've got plenty. It's not very apparent that they're into sustainability until you walk into the bathroom and notice the towels instead of paper towels as well as the biodegradable packaging some people opt for instead of dining in and hanging out. One woman sat down next to me and had an adorable baby on her lap, we went on and chatted for a bit about her life living in Cambodia versus Washington D.C. Her husband worked for the embassy which hooks you up with housing in the country you relocate to, she almost had me sold on where I would applying for my next job: expenses include 6 dollars a month for cell phone, 100/mo for internet which is a luxury, and 60/every 6mo for cable. You move every two years and can choose where you'd like to live. There is the downside of not having family and friends with you she mentioned.
After leaving The Shop I took a stroll in the direction of the vegan restaurant the woman suggested and ran straight into two large fitness groups exercising to some funky techno cartoon-ish music. It was quite a sight you simply had to laugh at its beauty. Its this type of community involvement/participation I really enjoy witnessing.
Museums, Royal palaces, and the like are great but give me a community in action or a conversation with a local and it'll teach me much more. Coming into Vietnam my dad warned me several times over as did my mom about the dangers and how I need to be more attentive. It's in wandering around the city in the evening with only an address that has made me enjoy being here and appreciating the way it moves. At first it was quite horrendous: loud vehicles honking constantly, the polluted air, intense heat but once the sun sets it turns into a playground. I am convinced the best way to get to know a city is to get lost in it (it's more enjoyable with someone though). Smells, sights, and more that can't be described are all of a sudden overwhelming and perfect. Businesses don't close shop until late which was music to my ears.
Following the 20th mango smoothie I've had since arriving in Asia I realized every recent trip is accompanied by a fruit obsession. Here it's mango & lychee, half a pound for fifty cents! In Guatemala it was also mango, in Spain it was tangerines (the sweetest I've had, ever). Fruit salad anyone? good times :) anyways, substituting fruits for sweets is always a great choice.
After almost three weeks there was an increasing frustration in not knowing what's occurring in Vietnam and only tonight was I made aware of a newspaper that circulates daily in English! A great relief nonetheless. Everyone is entitled to feel like a complete fool every so often.
Back to where I started, Cambodia is swimming in poverty & disorder but it's absolutely stunning once you take a magnifying glass to the work being done to repair itself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

beautiful people.

Hoi An is such a relaxed, laid back town where you can feel completely safe or at home walking around late without a worry. Shop merchants that you interact with and purchase from will remember your face and wave hello as you pass them by a couple of times. There are hundreds of tailors that are willing to make any outfit you show them or desire in addition to shoes. You can't escape them, everywhere you hear "come in, no need to buy...just look." Until one woman looked at me in the eyes and repeated, "come look around, please, help me" which just reeled me in unlike any other thing. I had a dress made and a top for the asking price of $25. There's this small guilt in me for buying anything I really do not need, so I tell myself that I am going to have a massive fall clean up of my closet and give away an article of clothing for every new one I purchase.
So I've just returned from a PowerYoga class held at L'apothiquaire in Saigon. Perhaps it's because I haven't taken an actual yoga class in more than two months or that I was in a great mood walking into the class and genuinely enjoyed every minute of it. Or perhaps it's that there were a total of three of us in the class, the view was absolutely stunning, and the young instructor turned into one of my favorites. This class was wonderful despite the heat that made the studio seem like a bikram class (typically held in a studio of 105F). The $13 drop in rate included the use of showers, sauna, and steam room. Everything about it was so vastly different than any other class I've taken in Chicago and Miami. I'm going on and on about this , I know but bear with me I am almost through. My point: if you've never taken a yoga class, I strongly recommend it. You don't have to be Mr. or Mrs. flexible you just have to be willing to try something new.
Hue is the city where my dad was born and raised until he was around fourteen. The first day or two in Hue reminded me of the loneliness that accompanies a solo traveler. For a bit, you regret not looking hard enough for someone interested in hitting up parts of Asia. And then it isn't until you meet another fellow solo adventurer that you sit back and laugh at how pathetic and silly it feels having dinner in a restaurant for one when everyone around you has company. Traveling alone is work, but you have the liberty of choosing your own schedule, eating when you want to or not even eating at all if you so decide. Having dinner one evening with three other guys was a mission, they were not very good at choosing where to go so this is when I am glad that I have some sort of "restriction/special diet" that constantly requires explanation. It gets to be a drag, but you deal. It's pretty wonderful how immediately following this lonesome period I meet a shit ton of people from all over that are just fascinating to connect with. Most have been European and only two brilliant Americans, one of which works for a non profit in NY, we spoke Global Justice, trade, and activism. The other, a young woman with such a beautiful soul; she was truly an adventurer taking her gap yr between high school and college to travel.
Her name is Chiara and she's hit up South America (to learn spanish) for 2 months, Africa for 2 months, Asia for a month, and she's got her eye on India I believe after leaving China. I'd like to say that I would love to do something like that on my own, but deep down inside I might be too chickenshit. She talks to her parents once a week through e-mail, only placing a phone call once a month to them and can chat on and on without pausing if need be; definitly a curious creature. Not once had she felt "unsafe," mentioning how after a while you pick up that intuition of knowing when to get the hell out of a place. I also chatted a bit with a German in detail about life, I've noticed most people who have learned english as a second or third language use the word "quite" a lot, sometimes coupled with "nice" or "good" as well.
Anyhow, Hue has so much history it's got loads to offer. When my dad gets here in a couple of days we're to go back and visit family that we have there. I'm dozing off and need to be up in a couple of hours to catch a bus to Cambodia. It's home to supposedly the largest religious structure in the world *Angkor Wat. Not that I'm deeply religious or anything even though I must say each pagoda I have invaded has been moving, especially listening to the monks beautiful chanting.
Pictured: Chiara & I

Saturday, June 13, 2009

beaches unlike any other.

Nha Trang's beaches are pretty spectacular...they're enough to give Miami Beach a run for its money. I arrived yesterday and instantly felt the need to explore and started wandering.
After a half hour I stumbled upon Cafe Louisiane, with its wooden chairs, large brewery sign, and laid back atmosphere. Note: I'm just pointing out the fact that it's a brewhouse b/c apparently its quite popular, I really don't like beer. The people at Cafe Louisiane are split almost evenly between American/European tourists and the Vietnamese on holiday.
They also have chairs lined up along a half mile stretch facing the beach that you can rent for less than $2. Conversations around you are mostly out of earshot and the dominant noise is the wind against the straw on the makeshift mini trees providing a blessed shade. Equipped with my notebook, pen, and Naomi Klein's "No Logo" I was all set to be a beach bum extraordinaire. After ten minutes of corporations, branding, advertising money, cheating, profit I was disgusted. I looked around and at the bar they had a nice collection of books on Asia, I spotted "The Alchemist" and knew we were meant to be. Yesika was the first person to mention the book and since she's a wonderful gal I went with it; I'm also not afraid to admit that I am a sucker for self-help books.
Yesterday we went on a tour of 4 islands that really ended up being two. There were several hours that could have been disastrous and mind-blowingly boring. But I know better, if I am ever bored it's my own fault. There are always things or people around me that I can entertain myself with and its in this time that I got most of "The Alchemist" through. When I was younger I would spend a lot of time with my dad, which translates into spending a lot of time in the car during tax season when the only entertainment was the radio or the cd you popped in. This would be insufficient so you need a book or homework, but a book is preferred.
After the tour I met up with Hung again for dinner which made for a great chat about chopsticks versus forks and knives. You see, he described how us Asians are more like birds because we pick at things with our chopsticks whereas everyone else seems more like a tiger cutting and grabbing at their food with forks and knives. I thought it was sweet and made me want to carry this practice on when I get back to the states. When eating with chopsticks I also feel myself eat slower.
On the tour, the same five men that cooked, managed the boat, cleaned, also performed a couple of songs including "Will you still love me tomorrow" and "La Bamba." They were a multi talented bunch.
Random- one thing I have noticed both here in Vietnam and in China is how at a certain hour- say around post lunch time people nap. As in they literally put their head on their desk and nap. The first time I noticed it was in Shanghai's airport as I passed by the door marked "security" and saw every soul inside (about six people) napping, which was a relief as you can imagine...
I boarded a sleeper bus last night at 730pm and arrived in Hoi An at 6am, they're quite comfortable too! It held around 40 people and you could actually lay down and sleep. My hotel was kind enough to check me in at that God forsaken hour and was able to nap a bit more. I had a whole free day in Hoi An so I woke up around lunch time and sat at a nice cafe called "Re-treat," which I would generally avoid because who wants to eat at an American named restaurant in Vietnam? But it was pretty tasty, I got my mango smoothie again (a daily ritual), tofu, and rice for under $3. After a long lunch and simultaneously filling out some postcards I took a stroll around a street where there were several stores offering clothing tailor fit (not sure if that's stated correctly). Then it started pouring like a mad man so I quickly retreated to the hotel from where I write to you.
Hoi An is a much quieter town than Nha Trang, with more bicycles and motorbikes on the streets. The heat is a killer though, within five minutes of standing outside you're whole body is drenched in sweat. Just when you're ready to run back to your hotel you realize that there's a cool breeze and shade along the roads. This place is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as My Son which I'll be touring tomorrow. Brief intro: "it is the major site in Vietnam from the ancient Champa Kingdom which flourished between the 2nd and 15th centuries. Descendants still live along the coast of Vietnam though they are now fuly integrated in Vietnamese society. It served as a religious and intellectual centre where Champa kings were crowned and buried"

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Xin chao.

Two days ago Linh and I went to Sinh Cafe to check out the different tours they had. Tia got me into Frommers and they're supposedly a great travel agency with several locations around Vietnam. After an hour of indecisiveness and excitement, I cut a sixteen day trip in half and am going to hit up Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Hue (where my dad grew up).
Yesterday I hopped on a charter bus for six hours to head to Da Lat where I currently write to you from, the weather is cool in the evenings and the air is clean unlike in Saigon. The only annoying thing about the trip was how every minute on the dot the driver would honk. Except that here, honking is not so much because you are anger as much as it is to let the other person know "hey I'm here, move or be aware."
Most of the stores you pass clearly cater to the tourist by advertising "free dsl wifi." They wanna keep you connected to the world, these smart people. Every internet cafe you pass by is swarming with young people. Merchants here don't constantly badger you to buy something which is a relief where in Guate you hear "Seno, cuanto me ofrece" every single shop you pass by. Seno being short for senorita. Sinh Cafe is way better than Viet Travel (thailand trip agency) because there are only about 25 people or so on this trip and our itinerary is jammed pack with things to do but you have the evenings free to explore on your own. So last night I walked around in search of Frommers' recommended veggie restaurant which was fantastic; I had veggie stir fry with rice and a mango smoothie for less than $4. Yep, be jealous.
The owner of Art Cafe is an artist and all of his pieces hang in the restaurant. It was a charming place and the waitress, no older than 16 was incredibly softspoken and timid. I was excited and scared for her at the same time.
Along these travels the same question always pops up with anyone I strike up a conversation with, why are you traveling alone? Well, many reasons. One college student from Vietnam asked me to tell him everywhere I have been which totaled 13 countries (kinda blew me away). Every time I traveled it was always with a group or at least one other person. It's not that I got tired of traveling with other people, in fact I love it because it's in traveling with them that you get to know them pretty quickly and whether or not you click. Anyhow, being alone while traveling has had me scared for a while, so why not jump and take the leap?
Last year while in Europe Juan and I met Andrea from Canada, she had been on her own for a month or so hopping through hostels. She was a big inspiration. Plus you should do something every day that scares you right? So here I am in a small hotel located on a street that has my last name wondering where I'll go get dinner or if I'm hungry at all. Lychee is incredibly filling and addictive plus it's healthy!

Oh, and Xin Chao is hello :)

Monday, June 8, 2009

smiles everywhere.

The Thai people have the most contagious smiles you've ever seen.
My dad hooked me up with a group tour for 5 days of Thailand that include Pattaya and Bangkok. There are a couple of ups and downs to group tours.

-you don't really have to do much thinking, you're like a bunch of chickens told where to go, when to wake up, where to eat
-amazing thai food
-107 different opportunities to meet someone new & practice my vietnamese

-you don't really have to do much thinking
-There are 107 other people on this tour, 30 or so in my group....90% of 'em only speak Vietnamese
-many families bonding on holiday don't make for a particularly great 21 year old

I'll expand on this last part. On my second day with the group I chatted a bit with one man whose wife and son were on the tour, his English wasn't great but we managed to understand each other. On the third day a man named Hung sat next to me on the bus and was reading the Pattaya local newspaper in English. Score! We shared a couple of laughs and his charming family (grandmother, mother, and father) would never lose sight of me come every meal, they'd wave at me and pat the empty chair closest to them. You know you're in the club once both families you have spent time with call you to sit with them during breakfast and you stand indecisive for a few minutes embarassed to choose.

Memorable foods
-pad see ew, for breakfast...
-ah here lunch is pretty much seen at breakfast give or take some eggs, cereal, and toast
-jelly, crushed ice, and some sweet syrup for dessert

Last night was by far one of my favorites. Bored and in need of a walk in order to aid in digesting all the food I inhaled I asked Hung to join me. We ended up in Pot Pun, a lively district in Bangkok that had many "sexy shows," open air bars, discotecs, huts of souvenirs, and of course the hundreds of massage parlors. We passed by several men advertising the shows and kept walking until the topic came up, Hung asked whether or not I had ever been to one seeing as how I appeared a bit clueless as to whether it was a strip bar or plain show with women in bikinis. He insisted it was part of Thai culture so on we went into a show that was barely twice the size of an average dorm room at Loyola. And whoa what an experience that was...I witnessed things coming out of a woman I was not thrilled to see. After a half hour of chit chat about this profession we left and we stopped to watch a band play "Hotel California," which you can't ever really neglect, my father has taught me better. We hung around there for a couple of hours since the venue turned into somewhat of a club that was packed for a Monday evening. Then we headed towards a coffeeshop and talk about the educational system in Vietnam and Hung's career in advertising.

Oh! we rode a tuc tuc back to the hotel where we were staying which was pretty extravagant, a tad too much for my taste even though hotels are not my preferred method of lodging (if we haven't spoken about it yet, you are in desperate need of knowing about couchsurfing..message me).

There are some pretty funny characters on this tour and I've picked up a few handy Vietnamese words as well as passed on some Spanish ones :)

Today we head back to Saigon around noon and ideally I'll kickstart my journey from there.

Friday, June 5, 2009

stuck & the land of motorbikes!

So my total travel time from Miami, FL to Saigon was supposed to be 31 hours but because Shanghai airlines canceled their flight from Shanghai to Saigon it turned into 46 hours. Not fun. Although one of the first things that caught my attention is the disregard, or rather the fact that personal space probably isn't a common word in China. Every time I would line up to be attended by someone I would constantly see the person behind me creep up right next to me. But a few things I do appreciate! including the fact that you need to insert your key into a slot in your hotel room in order to get the power working as well as the popularity of soybean milk.

There was no soymilk in Guatemala. Okay, I lie. I found some in a pretty well-kept cafe in front of the central park in Antigua and boy was I one happy camper. I was pretty glad that I had brought my laptop, which allowed me to finally really clean up my inbox which had not occurred since first opening up my gmail account. After touching down in Saigon as 1230am on June 5th I met up with Linh, the travel agent that's taking care of booking some tours I'll be going on in Thailand. She's been kind enough to let me stay with her and play host. Today was my first day in this city and if it's one thing that you need to know about Saigon is that motorbikes rule. They overpower cars tenfold. There is also absolutely no order, bikes come at you in every direction. Thankfully all my experiences have involved me being the backseat passenger. When I first got on we stopped once. There was only one stop light in our half hour journey. One.

A friend of my dad's friend has kids and one of them is a boy, a seventeen year old who never stops smiling. His sister goes to a university in Florida and he put up with showing me around for a couple of hours with 3 of his other friends all the same age. They were a funny bunch. As I sat behind Phuong on the motorbike I almost had a couple of attacks (reminding me of Guatemala, although instead of being on a car we were on a bike). But you quickly learn to just look the other way. When lunch time came around they asked where I wanted to eat and responded anywhere that has vegetarian food. Then the usual questions ensued, "no meat? no chicken? no fish?" and the responses, no, no, no. They stared blankly at each other, chatted a bit, then one kid finally called his mom (you gotta love that) and she suggested some food court.

The city reminds me so much of Guatemala City, it's uncanny. The way in which the apartments are built and the potent smell of food down certain streets. Pollution here is also a big problem but definitely not as detectable.

I was worried a bit before coming and being unsure of how things would work out. Would I spend the entire time bored or lonely? But it did all work out. My dad had gotten in touch with some people and all is well. Reminds me of Germany and being in Dusseldorf with my cousin's friends who showed me around since she wasn't there.

There's an afternoon heat here that reminds me of Las Vegas: dry, sticky, & lethal but thankfully the evening brings a cool wind with it. I gotta head out and catch a flight to Bangkok.

Oh, Ma! Te encantaria esta ciudad, todos usan el timon y es tan horroroso que podria darte un dolor de cabeza eternamente.

Un beso.