History Lessons

31 12 2009

New Year’s Eve at the Bangkok airport is an exciting place. A ten year old just moon-walked by, and “Humpty Dance is Your Chance” is playing over the loudspeaker. We were given New Year gifts of sleeping masks with the cartoon character Lilo on the front. Talk about a party.

We’re in hour four of what will end up being twenty-six hours of travel to go from Cambodia to Bangkok to Dubai to Istanbul. Because we’re flying west, our New Year’s Day will be twenty-nine hours long, which I think is a great way to start the year. We’re very ready for kebabs and hummus. Whether or not we have any clothing to prepare us for winter and snow is another story.

After our week in Vietnam, we hightailed it to Thailand beaches to celebrate Christmas. As a Christmas gift to each other, we stayed at a fancy hotel and ate wonderful foods, such as turkey, stuffing and gourmet cheeses. The beaches were gorgeous, and the trip was pure decadence. In fact, we loved it so much, we decided to take some bacterias with us on the road to Cambodia as a souvenir.

Before we left, I told Sunny that at some point, we’d probably get sick. He didn’t like my negative thinking and was determined to prove me wrong. In a way, he did, because our discomfort was mild compared to any other bug I’ve acquired abroad. Either way, we’re on the mend, and we should enter the New Year bacteria and parasite-free.

Our last two weeks, from Vietnam to Thailand to Cambodia, have been a mixture of relaxation and history. The history portion, both in Vietnam and Cambodia, was difficult. We’ve never seen anything like it, and it shook us. Memorials and museums here are raw and uncensored. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have shooting ranges next to their memorials, for reasons I cannot begin to understand. I guess it appeals to enough tourists and locals to keep them open, which frankly makes me question and lose a little hope for humanity.

In Vietnam, we were horrified by the graphic images and stories that implicated the United States. We were equally horrified by the exhibits that celebrated the defeat, capture and destruction of American soldiers. I still don’t know how to organize my feelings about it. Sunny did some writing on it as well, and his thoughts will be posted soon.

In Cambodia, the memorials felt different. On one hand, the historical explanations and exhibits felt more historically accurate because they shared multiple perspectives of the genocide. The museums in Vietnam proclaim many of their “historical truths” exhibits as one-sided; they seem to champion the idea that they own the rights to telling the story of what happened with the Americans and the French.

Exhibits in Cambodia, in my opinion, analyzed the history more critically. They begin to address issues of justice and the difficulties of reconciliation. They examine the complexity of the young soldiers’ role in the genocide, acknowledging that they could be both victims and perpetrators. They tell personal stories and accounts from many viewpoints, and for me, the exhibits made the viewer acknowledge the humanity of almost everyone involved in the genocide.

However, it doesn’t mean that visiting the former prison of the Khmer Rouge was easy. Both Sunny and I were moved to silence for hours. The prison was a former high school, and it still feels like a school, in the stairwells and the playground and the classrooms. I don’t know if it’s because I live in schools for at least eight hours a day, but seeing a school turned into a tool of genocide was one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. It hit painfully close to home, in a way I wasn’t expecting. Again, I am still trying to process it.

Surprisingly, the rest of Cambodia was an overwhelming happy place. Maybe the happiest we’ve been to in Asia. Besides the occasional sign reminding us not to bring our dog, camera or grenade into a building, there was little feeling of the genocide that ravaged their country.

On the contrary, there is a peace in Cambodia. Smiles abound. The gentleness is palpable. The people we met seemed intent to get to know us, which was renewing for me. For me, being around people who are insistent on knowing and being known by each other is one of the most hopeful places to be.

So, we end the year more overwhelmed by the past, but equally encouraged by the present. Here’s to even better days ahead.


Happy Holidays!

25 12 2009
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Rain, Rain, Go A-Hue!

20 12 2009

We’ve been stuck inside for two days, in Hue, Vietnam, which means we’ve uploaded all of our pics, created albums, and a map. Enjoy our rainy day creations. One more day of rain, and we’ll start building a virtual ark!


Click here to see a map of our travels, courtesy of wayfaring.com.  (Sunny tried valiantly to embed it on this page but it seems the free wordpress service does not support Google map embedding.)


Bangkok, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand – Orchid Farm and Elephant Farm

Chiang Mai, Thailand – around town

Thai cooking class

Doi Saket School, Thailand

Traveling to Laos by slow boat – Day One

Traveling to Laos by slow boat – Day Two

Luang Prabang, Laos

Mountain Biking in Laos

Hiking in Laos

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Sanibonani (sah-nee-boh-NAH-nee)!

18 12 2009

Hi everyone!  This is Sunny writing solo!

* * *

For the first ten years of my life, we had a maroon 1975 Buick Century station wagon.  I loved that car.  My mom and I cried on the day we sold it.  I used to sit in the “way back,” which was the best place to be.  I could face forward and perch over the back seat, risking crushing my sister below if my dad stopped quickly and the seat folded forward.   I could lie back and relax, leaving my bare footprints on the side windows while trying to determine our location just by my view of the treetops.  But usually, I would face backwards.  I would wave at the people in the cars behind us, trying to get them to wave back.  Usually they would.  Sometimes, though, they refused.  That was frustrating.  My arm would ache as I waved faster and faster for miles on the highway.  Sometimes they would speed up and pass us rather than wave back.  I could excuse drivers sometimes, for safety, but never navigators.  I asked my mom why they didn’t wave back, and she told me they were “stingy.”  For a long time, I thought “stingy” meant “didn’t like to wave.”

Lao people must be the least stingy ones we have met on this trip.  They always waved  back.  Whether we were cruising past in a slow boat, perched precariously in the back of a tuk-tuk, hiking along the road, or pedaling along on a bike, I had many smiles and waves and calls of “sa bai dee!”

taking this from the back of a moving truck was not easy

I waved at a family rumbling behind us on a motorcycle – father on the bike, mother crammed into a sidecar with a son under each arm – and the mother excitedly tried to keep her balance and wave both her sons arms at the same time.  A group of boys playing in the street were so excited when I came by on my bike that they lined up so I could slap all their hands.  They got a little too excited though, and crowded closer and closer to the bike until I almost ran them over.  On the same trip, while riding up a tough hill, a passenger leaned out of a big truck and encouraged me to keep pedaling.  I had a good 90% return rate on my waves and smiles, and the locals initiated the greetings as often as I did.  Even in the “land of smiles” (Thailand), I did not get such good results.

Being in Asia in general has reminded me of my home, family, and childhood.  I think it comes from always being surrounded by Asian people.  I didn’t worry when we went to a barber, because I knew they knew how to cut Asian hair.  I like that we can eat rice at every meal, even breakfast.  I like that even though the flavors are sometimes similar, they are familiar.  I like that almost every elderly woman we see reminds me of one of my grandmothers.  I like that when I enter and exit a restaurant, my instinct to bow (in-sah) is not out of place.

Curiously enough, I do find myself craving Western food too – a juicy hamburger that isn’t seasoned with soy or fish sauce, pizza with real sausage (sausage in Asia is more from the hot dog family), a Caesar salad where you don’t have to wonder if the lettuce was washed well.  I miss my car (made in Japan), my comfy Bob-o-pedic mattress (made in Taiwan), and my mom’s pork chops (made with black bean sauce from China).  Hmm.  Maybe what I’m most grateful for is that I am a mixture of different cultures.  As a teenager, I felt like I stuck out at home with my bowl cut and small eyes.  I visited Korea and found that I didn’t fit in there either, with my Western clothes and American accent.  But now, I feel happy that I can find an element of comfort almost anywhere.  We’ll have to see how things are in Africa.  I’ll start by learning to say “hello” in Zulu.  As long as they wave back, I think I’ll be just fine.

Crawling on a Glass Floor

17 12 2009

Vietnam. It’s a bit strange to be here. Though I can’t pretend to understand the entirety of what Vietnam represents to our parents’ generation, the country does feel like a huge part of my upbringing, at least symbolically. I’ve been constantly told that Vietnam was the golden age of successful protesting (and why doesn’t your generation know how to do that?). It represents the mistake we never want to repeat (yet everyone keeps insinuating that we are), and the place where virtually every U.S. history class ends.

In our guide books and on traveler forums, we’ve been told that if we’re going to get scammed, pickpocketed, or taken advantage of in any way, it’s going to happen here. That warning, combined with any subconscious messages that slipped into my head during high school history class, have not created an ideal traveler-country relationship.

I’m on the defensive. It doesn’t help that life is chaotic here. Sidewalks are used for parking lots, which means we have to find spaces to walk along the edge of the street, dodging motorcycles, cars, and vendors as we go. We’ve been trying not to hold hands in public to respect the cultural norms, but after several attempts at crossing the street separately, Sunny grabbed me and said, “Forget this! Just hold on!”

I’m glad he did. The best (and only) way to cross a street is to start walking. We’ve been instructed to just start crossing, and the hundreds of motorcycles and cars will know how to weave around us. I feel like I’m in that experiment psychologists invented to determine when babies first feel fear.

In the experiment, a baby is put in a room with a favorite toy or parent on the other side. The trick is, the second half of the room has a glass floor, which looks down to a room below. The baby has to crawl across the glass to reach the desired destination. At about six or eight months of age, babies start refusing to crawl over the glass. At that point, the experimenters say, babies are scared of falling.

Every time we cross a street, I feel like I am crawling over glass. I know we’re going to make it, but boy, it sure feels like I’m going to get swallowed up by something.

The people are also more aggressive and confusing. Vendors approach us, try and push something in our hands, and say, “So! Here you go!” as if  we’re in the middle of a sale. A fruit seller caught sight of Sunny and threw her hat on his head and her fruit carrier over his shoulder.

“Look, Miss,” she yelled at me, “He’s ready!”

Not to mention the street and store names.

We were excited that we had finally reached a place where we can read the street signs. Unfortunately, similar to Boston, street names change from block to block without warning. Our two maps name each street differently, which is incredibly helpful when trying to navigate.

In addition, every successful and reputable restaurant or travel agency has a variety of impostors. I’ve counted six Kangaroo Cafes and at least twenty-five Sinh Travel Agencies. And there’s very little way to figure out which is the original. It’s like we’re on a page of Where’s Waldo? and we can’t get off.

I think you get the picture. In a word, we’re lost. For the first time in months, I’m craving pizza constantly. Talk about symbolism…

I hate feeling annoyed at a place, and probably because of the history, I feel compelled to work on my attitude.

Maybe it’s time to channel my five month old self. Glass floors, here I come.

On the (bumpy) road

13 12 2009

It’s only been a week since the last time we posted, and since then we successfully crossed a border on foot. We’ve been relaxing in Laos for about six days, and tomorrow, we head to Vietnam.

Before we left Thailand, Sunny made the day of at least twenty-five students in high school. We had the opportunity to visit a school in Chiang Mai because an educator from Boston, who completed the same prinicipal program that we did,  now teaches there. Our program directors told us to look her up, and we are so glad we did. Julie was a generous host, introducing us to street food, Thai culture, and cheap accommodation.

and the crowd goes wild!

In addition, she invited us to her school, where we were given center stage in a senior English class, with the idea that the students would practice their speaking skills. Most were incredibly shy and at a loss of what to talk to us about. However, as luck would have it, Thai teenagers are obsessed with Korean soap operas. When the students learned Sunny is Korean, and when Sunny casually offered to show one girl how to write her name in Korean, the entire class (girls and boys) squealed. Thirty minutes later,  Sunny had translated every student’s name and nick name, and the kids had missed P.E. class. Oh well. Judging from the rest of the day, instructional minutes were not being counted too carefully.

We then headed to Laos, drifting down the Mekong River for two days on a slow boat, which is…guess what…quite slow. The scenery was stunning and our seats were comfortable, so slow was no problem.

However, when we arrived in Luang Prabang, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel after the many nights of $10-$15 accommodation. Our current room is one of the best we’ve had, but the truth is that this town is a respite in itself. Life is slow, gentle and calm here. Even the aggressive sellers whisper their advances once, and then back away.

Luang Prabang is the most interesting city we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. It’s an uncanny combination of old and new: there are beautiful old temples and monks chanting at dusk juxtaposed with lovely art galleries and quaint coffee shops. We can’t figure out how they keep their streets so clean, and the wooden signs next to each building are so perfect that they almost seem contrived.

We’ve also gotten out into the countryside, visiting villages and waterfalls. The country and lives we’ve only peeked at feel about as far away from home as we could get; in fact, it’s the first time in my life I’ve felt deja vu for the remote village in Mali where I stayed six years ago.

Our biggest excitement in the midst of these lazy days was our mountain bike ride. We found a company with several rides, but when we went in to book, the only thing available was a ride that was called “Perfect for Beginners!” We were a little bummed.

little does jocelyn know what kind of day she's in for!

“Don’t worry,” the man said, “We say it is easy, but it is not really easy. It goes up and down and up and down. It’s not like easy.”

How right he was. It’s still hard for me to sit down, and though we were on “major roads”, major roads here are bumpy, rocky and unpaved. In addition, major roads have major hills. So, it was more like a mountain bike trip with a monster truck thrown in every five minutes or so for good measure. The monster trucks, in addition to taking up most of the road, also gave us about a minute with no visibility and mouthfuls of dust and exhaust.

Did I mention they didn’t give us helmets? Or that my brakes weren’t completely working? I spent most of the first half of the trip worried that I hadn’t told Sunny where to find our travel insurance information. I spent the second half cursing anyone who doesn’t support a helmet law. I might just institute a global helmet law. Look out New Hampshire; here I come.

that's a lot of dust!

Through it all, our guides were gentle souls, and one biked most of the day right behind me. He was mostly silent, but would check in on me every so often with a soft, “Ok?” or “Water?” Whenever I felt ready to throw my bike over the hill, he would look at me and nod, which gave me just enough energy to keep going. If a particularly big truck or cloud of dust came near us, he sped up to get next to me, as if his ninety-pound body might somehow shield me from its force.

So in the end, we survived, and despite it all, it was one of my favorite days thus far. It’s a good life lesson: sometimes the bumpy roads are the most fun. Indeed, some of our hardest days have helped us learn the most about a country or each other.

So, here’s to a few more bumpy roads in our future. Next time, however, I’m wearing a helmet.

1,000 words

6 12 2009

Hi everyone… maybe you noticed that the last blog entry actually had some pictures!  Keeping pictures has been my responsibility on this trip, but I’ve only recently started to play around with this blog site.  So expect more pictures in future entries!

Some of you have seen all our photos that I’ve been uploading to Facebook, but in case you have not signed your soul over to Mr. Zuckerman yet, here are the public links.  Sorry to overwhelm with a whole bunch at once!  I hope these links work!  Will start working on editing Thailand photos in the next few days… lots of pictures of “wats” coming!



New Zealand – Piha Beach and Auckland – North Island

New Zealand – Lake Taupo and Wellington – North Island

New Zealand – Picton (our first WWOOF site) and Nelson – South Island

New Zealand – Nelson and Motueka (aka street market, seals, kayaks, hiking) – South Island

New Zealand – West Coast (our second WWOOF site) – everything from here out is South Island in NZ

NZ – Queenstown

NZ – Doubtful Sound (overnight cruise)

NZ – Routeburn Track (three day hike)

NZ – Milton (our third and last WWOOF site) and Dunedin

NZ – Moeraki Boulders and Christchurch

Sydney – miscellaneous pictures

Sydney – The Rocks (neighborhood we stayed in)

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Animals