Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive March, 2011
Monkey v. Chicken

Monkey v. Chicken

Some days are stranger than others. The strangest days usually involve some form of public transportation and/or farm animal.

I thought having a rooster for a seatmate on a public bus was the height of absurdity. It wasn’t. Yesterday in MuiNe, we reached new levels of the bizarre and unusual.

This chicken didn't need to cross the road, he took the bus

We rode an Ostrich.

Ride 'em cowboy!

We watched a monkey get his ass handed to him by a grown chicken.

We surfed giant sand dunes.

Surfing the dunes

White dunes

We discovered why they’re called ‘gas pumps’ and were embroiled in a nasty traffic jam.

Our gas station

Traffic Jam

And finally made it back to enjoy some $0.75 Beer Saigon

I love beer

It was a good day.

 

I think I CanTho

I think I CanTho

People had warned us that Vietnam had gone the way of Thailand: that is to say overrun with tourists, notably backpackers of the white and dreadlocked variety. This did not sound cool.

There is a huge tourist scene in Vietnam but avoiding that crowd is unbelievably easy. Don’t get on a tour bus. Yes, it’s that ridiculously simple. Just rent your own transport and suddenly you’re in the ‘real’ Vietnam with nary a dreadlock in sight.

Off the tourist trail

According to the map there are highways in Vietnam. The map is wrong. There are one lane roads that run through small towns and over the Mekong canals. It’s the perfect scene for an epic scooter ride. Along the way you can hold snakes! Head to floating markets! Crash your bike! Get pulled over!

I did all of the above.

The Accidental Tour

I booked a one way ticket to MyTho from a local tour company.  No one bothered to tell the driver that I wasn’t booked for the actual tour. Instead of being dropped off in MyTho at the beginning of the day, I was taken down the Mekong river in a boat, rode a horse and visited a bee farm. I also met Serge, a massive Russian man who proposed marriage. Together we held snakes, dined on freshly caught river fish and sang Vietnamese folk songs. I finally escaped the packaged tour madness but not before Serge bought me a coconut  and took my photo several hundred times.

A Mekong Cruise Ship

My Russian stalker

Boat in the mangrove

Snake!

The Crash

The ‘highway’ from MyTho to Vihn Long runs through dozens of idyllic, water-soaked villages. Cafes line the street and houses are built on fragile pieces of land surrounded by canals and rice fields. The scenery was gorgeous, but even more interesting to me was the insane amount of shit that village people manage to carry on the back of their scooters. SUV be damned, all you really need is 2 wheels and a 50cc motor. Perhaps, given the scenery and the crazy motorists, I can be forgiven for taking a ton of pictures.  And if, when taking a picture, I accidentally drove my bike into the subject, I could also be forgiven?

After a day of scooting I hadn’t yet managed the gas and break basics.  I drove my scooter into a coconut farmer and broke the front lights.

Barbed wire Bicycle

I spy a cow

Typical highway scene - a bus, a bike and scooter hauling tons of crap

This crappy picture cost me 12 bucks

Kris and a rice field

No need to actually ride the bike

Mekong Delta

HOW IS THIS CONSIDERED A HIGHWAY BRIDGE?

CanTho and the Floating Market

When you rent a bike in Vietnam you’re meant to have a Vietnamese drivers license. You also need insurance and proof that the bike is yours.  Unfortunately I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t even have a valid US drivers license – it expired in January.  In order to rent a scooter I had to hand over my passport and I wanted it back, so I decided to get the scooter repaired on my own.  Mechanics in Asia operate pretty loosely, they’re usual just a doorway filled with spare parts and a man smoking a cig. I stopped by every ‘repair shop’ I could find, until someone could fix my bike. $15 bucks later it was good as new!

Me and my mechanics

CanTho is most well known for it’s floating market.  Keeping along the ‘I hate tour groups’ theme, I refused to take a tour boat to the market.  Instead I booked the slowest, most labor intensive row boat, manned by a woman with no teeth.  Most people head to the market and are back in 2 hours.  It took us 3 and a half hours. Along the way we broke down four times.

Floating Market

Care for a gourd?

CanTho Floating Market

Kris at the floating market

It ended up being pretty cool since she let me row the boat.

 

Rowing my way home

Scooting back

Perhaps I got a little cocky with my bike.  Sure I had crashed it once and fell over several times while attempting to make sharp turns, but I had learned how to drive in Vietnam – which is saying a lot.  In Vietnam the highways are moderately paved roads full of potholes.  In Vietnam you only pay attention to what’s going on in front of you because it’s perfectly acceptable for oncoming traffic to veer into your ‘lane’. These are some extreme driving conditions.

Extreme driving conditions!

So with all that well earned confidence, I began to travel a little faster.  And a little faster still. Until I was blaring my horn, letting everyone know that I was passing each and every car on the road. Silly girl.

I was totally caught by a gaggle of cops and their radar gun.

To reiterate: I had no license, no passport, no insurance, and no proof of ownership. I did what any sensible girl would do. I cried.

The cops didn’t speak English, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with me.  On one hand they had complete authority to confiscate my bike and charge me a ton of money to get it back. On the other hand, they had to communicate that to me. It looked like just too much work and after some minor discussion they let me go. God bless the Vietnamese.

Me and my scooter

Those are DOGS on board

Sleeping Buddha

Back to the beginning

The End

I think the trip was a success. I got to see the country without dealing with many tourists. I didn’t kill myself. I even managed to return the bike and retrieve my passport from the scooter lady.

And now I have something to remember my trip to Vietnam.  My new Vietnamese friends tell me that with this exhaust pipe burn, I’m officially Vietnamese.

This hurt so incredibly bad

My souvenir from Vietnam

 

 

Mekong it on my own

Mekong it on my own

Traveling as a couple has it’s advantages – you tend to have less harassment from touts, there is always someone to share in the inevitable travel frustrations and it’s cheaper to stay in your own room rather than a disgusting communal dorm. But there is one serious hardship – you are NEVER ALONE.

Vin and I had spent 170 nearly-consequatiive days together – that’s over 4,080 hours of constant companionship. That broke our previous record by 3,192 hours. And frankly that’s too, too, too much time spent with anyone. Even your husband.

Possibly insane at the time of this photo

Another 24 hours together would have put us into the dangerous ‘teetering on the edge of sanity and divorce’ territory. And with no prenup, neither of us wanted to risk our fragile financial future on divorce lawyers.

So we agreed to split up for a few days.

But as soon as we booked the flights, fear started to creep in. I realized that I was essentially headed to a country that I have never been to, where I knew no one and didn’t have a place to stay. I was totally unplugged – I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t even have a jacket with geolocation so the authorities could find my body in case I died. As the day of my flight approached I began to really regret my rash decision to jet off to Vietnam. Suddenly being on my own didn’t sound so fun.

But it was!

A tour through the Mekong Delta is not complete without this picture

I met fabulous locals who took me out for great food and partied until the wee hours of the Saigon morning. I went to museums and discovered the history of the Vietnam war. I drank a $1 Beer Saigon, indulged in delicious strong coffee and ate at least a dozen Bahn Mi.

Some bún chả giò - I'll take more please!

Real Bread! Real Coffee! Vietnam is my Asian Heaven!

I'm more of a 'Make love, not war' kind of person

This is my "I'm totally claustrophobic" face in the CuChi tunnels

 

I even rented a scooter and took a do-it-yourself tour of the Mekong Delta.  And that’s when I came to love Vietnam and I have to say, Vietnam loved me right back.

My Scooter

Mekong Delta

As a single white woman scooting down the delta by herself, you cut an interesting figure and everyone wants to know what the hell you’re up to.

I sat alone at cafes in tiny off-the-beaten-path cities, and old people would sidle up to ask where I was from, why am I here and would I please meet their friends just down the street? The street food ladies would serve my meal, proudly presenting each dish and encouraging me to try new food. Even people at the hotels wanted to baby me, making sure my purse was carried properly and warning me about thieves.

The open road

As I scooted into CanTho, a fairly large city, I must have looked incredibly lost. Yet in all that crazy traffic a man motored up to me and asked, “Where are you going! To a cheap hotel? Follow me!” and he directed me to exactly the correct location, parting with the warning to “Protect yourself. Protect your money and protect your moto. Call me if you need help!”

Lost in CanTho

As I headed off on my own I felt vulnerable and more than a little scared. But instead of being killed and left for dead, person after person welcomed me to their small town and told me that they could help if I needed it. It felt like the world was looking out for me.

And I can happily say that after 264 hours apart, Vinnie and I regained our sanity and remember why we’re so happy to be traveling together.

Together again

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

J’adore the children at Thien Phu’oc orphanage in Saigon.

I was hesitant, dare I say nervous, to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam.  Not only had I never worked with children with disabilities but I was uncertain about how to volunteer exactly. Should I just call and show up?  Is it ok to barge in and hang out?

Absolutely!  I called Thien Phu’oc orphanage and was told to stop by at anytime. And so I did.

children at saigon orphanage

Tien & her partner in crime Tai

The first day wasn’t easy. It’s hard to face human suffering and on the surface the children appear to be in pain. Many of the children at Thien Phu’oc can not walk, some can not talk and some are impacted by Agent Orange. Upstairs were 16 smaller children who have more severe mental and physical disabilities; they’re not mobile and spend most of the day laying on their bed.

I was so uncertain what I should do, and if my silly back rubs and attempts to smile and chat with the kids were doing any good.

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Her face lights up when you sit down for a chat

But as I walked downstairs to spend time with the more advanced kids, something really unexpected happened.  One of the older kids piped up, “Hello! Where are you from!”

I was shocked!  The sisters who work at Thien Phu’oc don’t speak much English and here was this kid in a wheelchair speaking perfect English with an American accent! The boy’s name was An and he is AWESOME.

An at orphanage in Vietnam

An is amazing

This small interaction helped to remind me of the advice given to me by my best friend (who is a school psychologist): Try to talk like you would to any kid their “true” age. Their receptive skills are probably much better than you suspect- they understand a lot more than they can verbally communicate.

Talking just happens to be one of my strong suites.

If An can teach himself English then who knows what the other kids can understand! After this I was able to relax and enjoy spending time at the orphanage. Some days we spent time doing physical therapy and other days I read, played ball and just spent time hanging out.

Kris and Nguyen working it out

The kids are utterly fantastic and are absolutely thrilled to spend time with you. And after a few hours I realized that An may be the only person that speaks English, but all the children communicate in their own way: pointing, smiling, motioning with their heads. Even the smaller children upstairs will follow you with their eyes and give you a big smile or nod their head when you sit down. Not only do they communicate with you, they care about and look after each other.

Tai, Phuong, Nguyen and Kris

I was surprised to find myself looking forward to returning. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with some of these smiling faces.

Loving the children at a Saigon orphanage

I have big LOVE for Bac

I highly recommend spending several afternoons at the Thien Phu’oc Orphanage.  Here are the details – just give them a call and head to district 12 on a xe om. It takes 30 minutes to get there and roundtrip cost is about 7 bucks. Free time is from 8am-11:30 and 2:00-4:30 pm.

If Sister Kim Chi isn’t around, you have to ask where the toys are stored (unfortunately they’re not just lying around). They toys are kept in the very front room on the right – just point to the door and someone will give you the key.

Sister Kim Chi at Thien Phu’oc Orphanage
156 / 1, An Phu Dong Ward, District 12,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Vietnam
Tel / Fax: (84-8) 7195997  0903 949 981  0918 207 660
E-mail: thienphuoc20012004@yahoo.com

Hello Moto!

Hello Moto!

As a college freshman there are few things more important, or more fragile, than the reputation that you create for yourself during those first few weeks at school. At Kent State the freshman are banned to the lowliest housing – the dorms furtherest away from any of the classrooms AND all of the bars.

The walk to class wasn’t so bad in the summer but when the lake effect hits and snow begins to fall, the ‘Small World’ dorms are a nightmare. That’s when the public bus becomes very, VERY important.

But more even more important is who is going to be at the bus stop!!

Babies on Board

My girlfriends and I would concoct special outfits and spy out the window waiting for a cute boy to head to the bus stop. We would book it out of the dorm and run to the bus stop, trying to casually stand beside him or get a seat next to him on the bus. We planned our day around what could, would, and did happen at the bus stop. We were little bus stop hussies.

I had a stellar bus stop reputation until the day I was hit by a car in front of everyone I was trying so hard to impress. More accurately, I hit the car, the car did not hit me.

The entire freshman dorm watched as I impatiently crossed the street, miscalculating how fast a moving car was going and instead of walking through traffic, I walked into it. In front of everyone, I walked into a moving fucking vehicle.

Moto-mania!

Luckily all I got was a hugely bruised knee and a reputation as the girl who was hit by a car in front of everyone. Not exactly what I was going for.

Now I can finally say that this little lesson on depth perception has come in quite handy: Saigon traffic is insane and never stops. The city has six million people and ONE HUNDRED MILLION motorbikes. Instead of waiting for the endless succession of scooter to cease, you have to simply walk through them.

This particular scooter was easy to avoid

I just want to tell the world, and especially Mark Lions who I had a huge freshman year crush on for 5 months and who saw me get hit by a car, that I am seriously capable of crossing the street these days. Check it:

And not only can I walk through traffic, but I can ride through it as well!  Take that freshman year bus stop people!

Xe om through Saigon!

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

After 10 days of silent meditation, I am now a lot more sympathetic to what Neo must have been going through when he discovered the Matrix.  That is to say, a shit ton of PAIN.

Seriously folks, we are not hippies.  We are not new age, crystal-and-gem-stone healing freaks. We’re not that deep either, we don’t often sit around questioning the meaning of life or debating our conscious existence. But for some reason when a local Malaysian girl told us how calm and focused she felt after her 10-day meditation course, we thought, without much hesitation or research, “Sounds great!  Sign us up!” A week later we were in Indonesia taking a vow of silence and sitting cross legged for 11 hours a day.

Dirty Hippies - Not on their way to Vipassana Retreat.

The first four days

The course was full of normal looking, non-dreadlocked, fairly clean looking individuals – which eased my worries about joining a cult. But on the first night when the gong sounded and the Buddhist chanting began, I was ready to hit the door running.  My mind is open to new ideas but it hesitates when asked to zen out to a piped in recording of a man who sounds like Dracula growling in Pali. Chanting, among other things like animal sacrifice and praying with snakes, was just too wacky for me. And after one minute of sitting on the floor, my toes were already numb. I was ready to leave without the course even properly beginning.

And the next day I discovered that our teacher wasn’t even at the retreat center, instead we would be listening to audio recordings that were paused every fifth sentence and translated into Bahasa Indonesia so the entire class could understand. At night we were shown a lecture given by the teacher in 1993 and filmed by a novice who just learned how to pan and zoom. What are we doing here!?

I really felt that we were being filmed for a hidden camera tv show. I was prepared that at any moment someone with a camera would jump out and laugh.

A dip in the Ganges of Damma

But we stayed. Our video guru had a positive message and all he asked us to do was sit still and observe our breathing. The kitchen didn’t appear to serve kool aid.

We woke up at 4:00 am and meditated the entire day, sometimes for 4 hours at a time – always sitting still, just breathing, breathing, breathing.

Your mind has a lot to say when you’re asked to concentrate on your breathing. You drift off into a day dream. You think about the past, you plan the future, you scratch your itches and adjust your back.  Try it right now, sit still for just one minute, feel your breath and don’t allow your mind to wander – it’s hard! But our guru continued to tell us, “have a calm and patient mind. You’re bound to be successful.”

So after the first two days, about 20 hours of meditation, my mind began to calm down. Suddenly I could sit still for 3 minutes and breathe. Then 4 minutes. Then, maybe, 4 minutes 20 seconds. But the pain! The sheer and total agony of sitting still is almost overwhelming.  Your back aches, your legs go numb, your feet and hands tingle from lack of blood. And this is where Buddhism kicks in.

I am in PAIN! This is not CALMING!

Vipassana (the short-short version)

Each night our taped guru taught us a tiny bit more about why we were putting our bodies through this torture – namely experiential learning. All religions are meant to act as a moral guide and Buddhists believe that meditation is the best way to learn how to affect positive change in yourself and others. You learn to understand and accept that your body is in pain and that the pain you’re feeling is temporary, you learn not to react. You train your mind not to scratch your itchy nose or adjust your sore back. By not reacting, the physical pain goes away. You begin to understand everything is temporary.

In training your mind not to react to your physical pain, you learn not to react to emotional pain. When someone makes you angry, you are able to step back and understand that the anger (pain) you’re feeling is temporary.  You can choose to react or your can choose not to react.

Eventually, there is no anger.

When there is no angry reaction you have the space to feel compassion towards others. You can positively impact a situation by responding with kindness and compassion. When you can do this, you help yourself and you help the other person.

The last few days

If you can agree with the basic tenets of Buddhism, meditating becomes a lot easier. And so does accepting the odd nature of the course.

You master breathing and learn to concentrate on your body – how does your head feel? Is there pain?  What about your shoulders? Can you feel your clothes or the wind blowing on your back? Suddenly every part of your body is humming in utter misery. You feel everything. My hip joints ached, blood was pumping vigourously through my fingers, a single hair was brushing against my face.  I wanted to move, stretch, itch – react!

But slowly you discover Sabbe sankhara anicca (everything is temporary) and you don’t need to move. Somehow the pain subsides. Somehow you become calm.

There is no pain.

Freedom!

On day 10 we were released from our vow of silence and, surprisingly, it was totally unwelcome. This course was deeply introspective and physically intense. After paying such close attention to your body, all of your senses are physically heightened. During meditation when someone coughed, I could feel the sound hit and reverberate on my ears. When silence ended hearing all the voices of fellow mediators was absolutely jarring. After having all this time to understand my own mind, I was not yet ready to share that watershed of emotion with other people, not even Vinnie.

It took a while before the room filled with voices.  And then the voices became a little louder as people realized that we all went through the same experience. And then suddenly the room was filled with laughter, “I thought I was the only one in agony!” “Me too!” “On the second day I asked our teacher what kind of cult is this!?” “Me too!’

What’s next?

Now that we’re not meditating 11 hours a day, we can easily say that the course was wonderful. It was certainly deeply impactful.

And we’re happy. Calm. More compassionate. Plus, we have six more months of traveling ahead of us!

So with our new found knowledge of the world, Vinnie and I are setting off in different directions for a while. I am on my way to Vietnam where I will indulge in french baguettes and volunteer at a local orphanage.

And keeping with our Matrix theme, Vinnie is heading back to China to chill with Buddhist monks and learn Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery .I’ll join him in a few weeks.

I know Kung Fu!