Friday, November 27, 2009

Guests of honor

Our first several stops in Indonesia were smaller cities (it's all relative!) that don't see many tourists. This led to delightful experiences with locals 'uncorrupted' by the tourism industry. And just learning to say 'thank you' in the local dialect seems to be the highest form of flattery. (Bahasa Indonesia is the national language, but there are hundreds of regional languages.) One of our most rewarding experiences was staying with a local family in a city that doesn't register on the tourist map just yet. Our route to their house required taking four different angkots (or minibuses, the local fixed route taxis). After two angkot rides, we were soaked in a downpour, and one angkot got a flat tire (so all passengers were shuttled to another along the same route). We were stumbling along a main road and asking a security guard for directions when a local woman (with excellent english!) approached to help us. She read through our directions and next thing we know we are climbing into her car with her husband and mother. We had a delightful conversation with these bewildered locals so surprised to come across us in their city...and anxious to practice their english...on the ride to our destination. For two days we hung out with local families, feasted on regional specialties, and were even taken to a local wedding party!! The wedding party was a bit more attention than Tim and I like. (I must explain that the brother of the bride spent some time in the states and is an english he was quite eager to have us there, I'm not sure about the bride and groom!) As we arrived, the video camera came out and we were whisked to the stage where the band was performing. After we awkwardly danced to a song on stage, as our faces turned fuchsia, we were prompted to congratulate the newlyweds who sat in a receiving line with their parents apart from the guests. Although we certainly felt out of place, everyone made us feel quite welcome... and at the very least, we must have provided a bit of entertainment!!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bridging the culture gap

I had the incredible pleasure to spend a day teaching Jr and Sr high school students at a local Islamic boarding school. It was more conversational practice than instruction, which was a great way to interact with a beautiful group of kids. I visited around 10 classes in this traditional school where the students were all in uniform and the classes were segregated with boys and girls sitting on opposite sides of the classroom. I enjoyed the tattered converse all-stars and jeans that poked out from under the long gray skirts the girls wore. They added a little more personal flair with pins of pop groups on their white headscarves. Curious and timid, they concentrated closely as I introduced myself and told them a bit about me. It felt as if I broke through the wall between us when I asked about what music they listened to and what sports they played. Full of questions, but lacking the vocabulary to express their curiosities, their teacher helped translate questions for me. Many wanted to know what I thought of Indonesia, their city, their school...then they wanted to know about differences between our countries. The last group I met with were seniors, a bright group with a stronger command of english. One boy in particular was full of questions, asked in all sincerity. He nervously formulated his questions in nearly perfect english and anxiously awaited my answers. We were seated on the ground in a traditional classroom, the floor covered with prayer mats. The boys sat to my right and the girls to my left. After several questions, he asked me what I thought about terrorists and expressed his concerns about terrorists in his country and the world. I was very touched by his question and felt like a politician as my answer spilled out. Everyone was listening so closely as I told them about all the good people that there all in this world. I have been so fortunate to come to places where I can meet people firsthand and break down those barriers we have between us. Without knowing where I was going, I kept talking...about the responsibility we all have to break down those barriers and learn more about each other. There were lots of nods and smiles, as it seemed as if this was something on many of their minds. It was a beautiful interaction with a beautiful group of students that certainly impacted me...and I hope perhaps I impacted them also.

A traveler once again

After several weeks traveling through progressively more modern countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore), we were growing more accustomed to the modern infrastructure and ease of travel...however I was almost growing a bit too complacent. Then we landed in Jakarta, the heart of the world's fourth most populous country (an archipelago of over 17,000 islands...of which we are getting the quickest glimpse of Java, the country's political and economic center) thrown into the chaotic, traffic choked, polluted capital. It is the first country we've encountered that could give India a run for its money...and brought back a flood of memories from the beginning of this adventure. A snapshot of humanity everywhere you look. Transactions taking place on the sidewalks, makeshift foodstalls sizzling with savory treats, a seething writhing jumble of buses, cars, and motos transporting an incomprehensible number of people. And the people are delightful and incredibly playful. Shouts of 'hello, mister!' erupt in our wake...the catalyst for a round of smiles and greetings. Two buses of school children appeared as if they would tip the buses over as we were spotted and all the children swarmed the nearest set of windows shouting out greetings. Our waves were met with excited squeals and giggles...and I found myself flashing back to countless such moments in India.

Indonesia, in just a few short days, has me feeling more like a traveler again, and a bit less like a tourist. Showing up to the bus station, we were swarmed by 10 guys shouting destinations and attempting to coax us to their respective buses. As we board the economy bus, there is a twitter among the already seated passengers as necks crane to see what we are doing on THAT bus. Slow and creaking, the bus fights its way through the cramped roadway, announcing its presence with the horn blaring relentlessly. Young buskers hop on and off the bus performing a few catchy tunes on beat up guitars and bongo drums. Beautiful young unrefined voices fill the cavernous interior of these big metal buses before the youngsters pass their hat around and look for their next audience. Hawkers ply the aisle with every imaginable snack that you could never possibly go hungry. There is so much activity taking place everywhere you look and walk that it is exhausting trying to take it all in and process it...but I continue to try to absorb it all none-the-less and feed off the energy.

And all the while the reliable soundtrack is the muezzin's call to prayer blasting from tinny speakers in every neighborhood. As we hopped off the train the other day, the call to prayer echoed around the nearly empty station, a reminder of where we were. Majestic mosque domes grace the city skyline of Indonesia's cities, as it boasts the worlds largest Muslim population.

Yet, despite this, shopping is king here with countless shopping malls and markets everywhere you turn. From glitzy malls in the big cities to dark, crowded markets with the contents of the shops spilling out of the tiny stalls they are crammed into in nearly every town, there is a shopping opportunity around every corner. Seeing as though I am not at all a shopper, I just soak up all the excitement of the hustle and bustle of the markets and cramped shopping zones.

Unfortunately, we had little concept of what an incredibly diverse country Indonesia is...and don't have nearly enough time to explore it as much as we would like. There is always next time...

A little quiet time

I seem to cycle more and more the longer we are on the road, vacillating between the excitement of being on the road and tied to nothing....and then longing for familiarity. Things were really catching up with me in northern Thailand. It had nothing to do with the place or our experiences. In fact, I continued to enjoy everything when we are out and about exploring, but by the end of the day I just felt weary dreading the inevitable next bus ride and guesthouse search at our next destination. I knew I needed to stop moving for a bit, stay in one place for a while and recenter. We have met many people during our traveling who have participated in 10 day silent meditation retreats. Tim and I have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to continue meditating since we stayed at the ashram in India. That was our first real introduction to meditation, and I certainly wasn't ready for a 10 day retreat back then...but I had it in the back of my mind and the more we talked with people who had had very rewarding experiences at such a retreat, I started to think that perhaps after a year being on the road a little peace and quiet might be just what I was needing to refuel for our continued travels. Tim jumped on board and we found a retreat center in southern Thailand that would work perfectly with our schedule. (A little relaxation time at the beach squeezed in to prepare for the intensity of 10 days of silence!)

It was the most rewarding 10 days that slipped past incredibly quickly, despite the dreaded 4am wake-up bell, no food after 12 noon, hours of sitting cross legged on a mat concentrating on my breathing....and 10 days living apart from my husband! It was a beautiful exercise in being mindful of all of our actions, something that seldom happens in our fast-paced, hectic lives. I found a sense of peace and calm, quite easy to do in such an insulated setting, that left me feeling more like myself again. We spent countless hours seated on our mats in the meditation hall (mostly in 30 minute sessions), although I frequently suffered from 'monkey mind'. By the end of the 10 days, my mind was in a completely different state...even though a whole new set of stressors awaited us as we had no plan whatsoever for where we were going to head next! The decisions seemed simple though, and it was stresses of travel so trivial. It was my first chance to practice 'letting go' and being in the moment. So on to Malaysia we went, refreshed and recentered....and seeing the world through a fresh pair of eyes.

Thailand in a nut shell

Thailand sees around 11 million tourists every year (along with a huge expat community), so everywhere we went we found plenty of western comforts. We avoided the big resorts, of course, and enjoyed the intimacy of small guesthouses even in the most remote areas. National parks boasting thick jungles and countless waterfalls kept us busy until we made our way to Bangkok. So many people we crossed paths with bemoaned the traffic and pollution of Thailand's capital, but Tim and I encountered a remarkably clean cosmopolitan city that we successfully ate our way through...from one food stall to the next...meals, snacks, fruits, and drinks all enjoyed curbside.

And what is a trip to Thailand without a little time spent relaxing on the beach?? We spent several days in a bungalow a stone's throw from the placid aquamarine waters on Koh Tao island. The temptation to do some diving at the island's best sites led us to get our advanced open water diver certification. We found ourselves diving with bull sharks, amidst brilliant anemones, and on an incredible night dive dancing with the phosphorescence witnessed only in the dark. It was wonderful to rediscover the magical underwater world and enjoy such diversity hidden underneath the deceptively uniform surface. Oh, and then there were the obligatory sunset happy hours, sipping on cocktails just feet from the small waves lapping in on the beach.

My apologies...

Somehow after nearly a year on the road, I was becoming a bit complacent. Places were starting to look the same and the excitement of travel was waning a bit. Although I was still enjoying our adventures, I was losing inspiration to try to capture and share our experiences. My apologies that more than a month has passed without any entries. We have made our way down into Indonesia...but a lot happened between northern Thailand and Indonesia. I will try to fill in some gaps, for both you and this blog doubles as a personal journal for our travels also.

And it just so happens to be thanksgiving, a little more than a year after we started this adventure together. I am overwhelmed when trying to process all that we have seen and experienced this past year. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to embark on such a journey (and with such a remarkable person too!) We meet countless people who don't have the means to leave their own country, let alone their own city....while we are able to travel so extensively. The world is full of imbalances, and is certainly a world of 'haves' and have-nots' as we witness on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to have grown up in a world in which I was surrounded by opportunities due to my circumstances. However, I have encountered some of the most lovely smiles and sincerest kindness from the people who fall into the 'have-not' category. I have witnessed such beautiful happiness in this world so full of injustice that it can be overwhelming at times. I wish everyone the happiest of thanksgivings with family and friends....and know that we are thinking of you (and the pumpkin pie!!). And to our families....thank YOU for all the love and support you have offered during our journey!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Motorbike 101 in the wilds of Thailand

I was extremely indecisive about whether or not I wanted to take my own bike on a 1,000 km trip around NW Thailand. After spending 6 months on the back of a motorbike in South America with Tim, countless trips around the US, and several rental bikes around SE Asia...I felt like it was time to actually learn how to drive a bike. And for more than a few kilometers...I've done that several times and handed control back over to Tim as soon as the road got rough or more congested. I've always wanted to learn to ride, but I've always dragged my feet as my nerves have won out. I was still flip flopping as we were heading to the office to rent the bikes, but I knew I had to this time. I had to prove it to myself that I could. And why not?! I'm in a foreign country, that drives on the opposite side of the road...we were gearing up to do a loop through the jungle that is full of endless curves and daily rain showers. Why shouldn't I just bite the bullet and do it now?! So, I did. Tim and I got a pair of Honda Dreams....little 125cc motorbikes just like all the locals drive. I tried to appear confident as we headed out into Chiang Mai's traffic leaving the rental shop. I don't think I was wavering too much! It was 30-40 km on straight highway before we start climbing up into thick jungle....and by the time we reached the jungle (and the real excitement), I was thrilled to be in control of the Dream... I had a silly grin on my face as we snaked along a beautifully paved road that unfurled in front of us like the vines hanging from the trees overhead. I sang at the top of my lungs and was delighted to be cruising along these beautiful roads with the wind in my face. Each day added some excitement as we ventured further out. Rainstorms throwing huge icy drops down stinging my skin through my jacket, herds of cows milling about around blind curves, potholes and road construction, hairpin curves and drop offs have kept me on my toes as I cycle up and down through the gears. Tim zips off ahead of me, and usually has a big grin on his face when I catch up to him. He's enjoying having his own moto without me trying to control things from the rear! We have driven some of the most beautiful stretches of road I have ever been on. The Burmese mountains stretch off to our west, as we snake south along the border. Some stretches of road the jungle is trying to reclaim. Waterfalls and breathtaking viewpoints break up the ride, giving us a chance to rest...and soak up the scenery as much as we can!

Wandering through the pages of a National Geographic

When we arrived at the local Akha village where we would spend the night, it felt as if we were wandering through the pages of a National Geographic magazine. Those very images that inspired me to dream about the larger world out there and have fueled my travel bug for years...were actually happening to me. I've had those moments several times during our travels when we are passing through rural villages where life changes ever so slowly. We wandered the single dirt lane through the village, flanked by bamboo houses with thatched roofs. The women sat on porches adorned with their ornate headdresses staring skeptically at us as we marched through the center of their world. The young children had no inhibitions though and before long a pack of boys formed a long parade behind us as we made our way to our hut for the night. It was a delightful evening of playing ball with the eager and curious pack of boys. The eldest were the ringleaders and the youngest ones watched on from the sidelines anxiously awaiting a stray ball that they could retrieve. Shreaks and squeals soared in the air as boys in broken sandals and torn pants played in the waning daylight.
Our evening got more interesting when we were called into the hut for our 'traditional massage' from young Akha girls, accompanied by their boyfriends. As a pack of guys hung out listening to two conflicting boom boxes, we attempted to relax as these tiny girls threw their weight into us and massaged every square inch of us! The massage seemed to last an eternity...and when she pulled at much shoulder, I happily sat up. Then she gestured for me to lay on my back and started working my arms some more. When the massage finally came to an end, I found myself far more tense...and was fighting a charlie horse in my calf! Our young masseauses were possessively escorted by their boyfriends, and Tim and I let go of a huge sigh of relief that we had survived the massage!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Feeding the demand

With reports that a very sustainable ecotourism is being developed in northern Laos, we decided that was something we really wanted to support. As is often the case on our travels, nothing is ever quite what it seems on paper. However, by the end of a two day trek (staying overnight in a small minority village within a national park), I felt we got a real glimpse of the issues in the area....although I don't think this was the intention of the trek organizers. With promises of hiking through primary forest in the national park, we found ourselves climbing through a young forest with small trees and not much canopy overhead. At any opening where we had a view over the hills in the distance, we saw an endless patchwork of thick forest and cleared plots. Arriving at the village, we discovered it perched like an island in a sea of rubber trees that spilled out in every direction from the small cluster of huts. My first reaction was frustration that we were not getting the experience we signed on for, but in retrospect it was a real glimpse of the state of this 'preserved area'. The national park is facing illegal slash and burn farming by the minority groups living within its boundaries, the demands for timber from China and elsewhere, and China's hunger for rubber. We teased details of the demands on the forest from our young guide, who gave us naively honest answers. New roads are crisscrossing northern Laos easing the transportation of resources out of this underdeveloped country.
It was all so alarming in Laos because many of the cleared areas, rubber plantations, and road construction projects are so new. In the neighboring countries, when you pass through well established platations, traveling old roads...the destruction isn't always so glaring.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Let's try that again

While we were staying at the organic farm, I spent the evenings helping instruct english at the school they helped establish. Two back to back classes of 50 students made for exhausting evenings, but the eagerness of the students made it the most rewarding opportunity. And since the students were giving up their evenings after full school days, I figured giving a little time from my vacation was the least I could do. Five to ten minutes before the hour, our first class was already seated, squeezing onto the low wooden benches...filling up every space in the room. The lessons were simple, almost too simple, making it difficult to fill the hour sometimes. Basic converstation, numbers, time. The students repeated everything you said in unison...a deafening chorus of voices bouncing off the bare walls of the classroom. The ones with a greater english background would skip ahead a few lessons and call you over asking about pronunciation and definitions. In between classes, it was gridlock as the earlier class fought their way out the door and leaping through the windows....and the next class fought their way to the benches. They are obviously accustomed to having a new teacher every week, eagerly welcoming us at the beginning of the week...and anxiously asking us if we would return the following week. I was showered with thank-yous as I said goodbye at the end of the week, and had a nagging feeling of guilt as I biked away from the classroom and these dedicated kids. In a town that is exploding with tourism, english is essential to find these higher paying jobs.