Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When the mountain takes your shoes, take the mountain

Vietnam is one of the most fascinating places I've been, and not easy to figure out. Even on the flight over from Luang Prabang, the confusion began (Lao Air motto, I am not kidding: "You Are Safe With Us"). The captain made announcements like, "There is some turbulence, you should fasten your seatbelt, I don't know, for your safety."

Hanoi is a perfect example of how bipolar Vietnam is. It's a city chock-full of art stores and boutiques where people will (and do) eat anything and everything in order to survive. The baguettes are fresh....but so is the dog meat.

The people you meet fall into one of two extremes: the nicest people you have ever met or some of the angriest. Within hours of arriving, we met two Vietnamese restaurant owners in the street who took us to a beer hoi joint (fresh microbrewed beer that is found everywhere in Vietnam. It's watery but the tastiest beer in Southeast Asia). One adorable waitress passed me notes saying "peanut?" or "coca?" because she was shy but wanted to practice her English.

On the other hand, when one of the three Israeli career army men (good choice for someone to mess with, right?) broke an obviously previously defective kayak paddle on Halong Bay, a Vietnamese man and wife both tried to push him and Nate around because they wouldn't pay the US$30 demanded as a replacement fee. It wasn't just resentment of the West, either...we witnessed more than a few shouting matches between two Vietnamese. Unlike in Thailand, saving face wasn't a priority here.

I never felt uncomfortable being American in Vietnam, and probably got more flak from Canadians than anyone else about politics. This is despite the anti-American propaganda I saw at the Vietnamese Army Museum and the pictures of John McCain being "rescued" that were posted in the Hanoi Hilton.

Sadly, my time in Vietnam was cut short and I had to make the arduous journey back to Orlando, which as it turned out was 60 hours door to door. But I wasn't about to leave Asia without one more night (or a few hours) in Bangkok.

Rather than sleeping in the airport, I went to a Bangkok bar to watch the Russia v. Netherlands Euro Cup game with a few people I had met on the plane who had never been to Thailand before. I felt like a wizened old ex-pat, even knowing that I had to leave at 5am to catch my flight back to the states. There were some drunk and happy Polish men in the bar who were cheering for Russia - I gleefully told them that I was moving to their country in two weeks. All night, they had been substituting their own lyrics to "Guantanamera" and in my honor began singing, "Orlando, Flor-EEE-da!!"

It was one of those moments where I felt the ground shifting under my feet. It was time for a new continent...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Into the burning ring of fire...

You really can't appreciate Asia without having the long bus ride experience. Asian buses are microcosms of human experience, if that isn't me waxing overly philosophical.

I'll give an example. Reactions and saving face are important in Asia, especially when a Lao man decides to sit next to you when there are plenty of open seats and you are trying to sprawl out and try to sleep on the ten hour ride. Being passive aggressive does little to help the situation - loud conversations, surreptitiously jostling the seat and sighing will do little to make the little man move. But without that minor annoyance, I might have missed some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen out of a moving vehicle in my entire life. Think: the blue ridge parkway, but with higher mountains, precarious turns with no railing, and entire villages built on steep hillsides. And pineapple farms everywhere. I love pineapples.

Northern Laos is an outdoorsy kind of place, even Vangvieng, which is essentially a backpacker party city. In it, you can go tubing down the river and stop at bars along the way, jumping off rope swings and generally making a fool of yourself because of the free Lao Lao. Unsurprisingly, there is a good reason why it is free. While you are floating, small children (who presumably are skipping school) pull you in from the rapids to your watering hole of choice and ask for money. It's the kind of place where you feel guilty even supporting the economy by having a beer because the average Lao makes less than the cost of a Beer Lao in a single day. But despite Laos being relatively undeveloped, it's got a friendlier spirit than most of the tourist spots in Thailand, where tuk tuk drivers will tell you to walk if you won't pay ten times the normal fare.

Since trekking is so expensive here, our next stop is Vietnam, which...wait for it...involves something like 30 hours of bus riding. Until next time!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Truly Asia?

Krabi may have been expensive, but it certainly was relaxing. After the exhilarating experience rock climbing in which I self-induced a limp due to banging my knee on rocks, we decided that a big city was in order. Also, I needed to be in a country capital in order to work on a long term visa, because, it would appear, I am moving to Poland in early July.

Malaysia is truly a learning experience...such that on the bus ride down, I thought I was in Ft. Lauderdale. There were swan boats, and golf courses, and toll roads, and even a monorail.

Where in the world am I?

I have found out that in Kuala Lumpur, the surreal Muslim tomorrowland of Asia, some things are easy and some are difficult.

Easy Things:

Watching an IMAX movie for US$3
Getting food poisoning
Eating dinner at California Pizza Kitchen
Purchasing counterfeit Tiffany's jewelry
Going for a roller coaster ride in a shopping mall
Finding cheap gas (what do you think paid for the Petronas towers?)

Difficult Things:

Finding a travel agency
Finding the Poland Embassy
Getting past the toothless border guard at the Poland Embassy
Reuniting with the boys, or hearing from them at all
Changing a Delta flight from Malaysia to come home a week earlier so I can see my family

Hmm, perhaps it's for the best that we are headed out for Laos via Bangkok tomorrow...