Sunday, December 28, 2008

relief in agra

Ahhhhhgra. A breath of fresh air. Relatively clean, less touts, good prices, healthy food and a world-class monument, what else can a traveler ask for? I could tell we were in a new phase of our trip when we arrived late into Agra on the train and I wasn't stressed, the roads were paved, and I could see the stars burning brightly on this chilly desert night. We got up before dawn to see the Taj Mahal, THE monument to romantic love (the Shah built it for his wife who died in childbirth), which was shrouded in an ephemeral mist. Then, we took some time to wander through Agra Fort, a sandstone red complex that stood to protect the royalty more from the revolt of their subjects than invaders.

The following day we took a day trip on the insanely overfilled local bus to Fatehpur Sikri, a city built as the new dynasty and abandoned 20 years later due to the lack of water. Because of the short tenure of human habitation, the place is well preserved and some of the details remaining are quite exquisite carvings and decorative flourishes As we strolled through the abandoned streets of this ancient city, I was wishing all of India was a placid as this place.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

incredible india

After Khajuraho, with a renewed tenacity, we headed on to a less touristy part of India to see a slew of UNESCO World Heritage sites: prehistoric rock paintings, the oldest buddhist building in the world, gigantic sacred Ajanta and Ellora caves with sculptures and paintings of early Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and the famous colonial train station in Mumbai. We got to our first hub, Bhopal, our base from which to explore the cave paintings and the oldest buddhist stupa. We had planned to spend several days here, relaxing for Christmas and seeing each of the sites on their own day, but these notions were reversed once we stepped from the train.

Shouting touts and half-witted beggars getting eerily close to our pockets with their wandering hands greeted us at the station exit. Checking out our hotel options, we found a few overpriced musty rooms and decided that Bhopal is not a place to linger. Deciding we would try to take a train to the Ajanta and Ellora caves tomorrow afternoon, we rushed that evening to see the fantastic rock paintings, hemmorghing money to bypass the public bus and go by taxi for time's sake.

We had an hour to see all fifteen caves, which made us feel rushed, but the wonder of seeing markings made by the humans of prehistory is immensely moving. These marks were etched in the stone twelve thousand years ago; before any seeds had ever been planted and cultivated, before any people took dominion over animals through domestication, before anyone lived in settled homes, before religion, wars, empires, industry, science. The graceful animals they scratched showed a study, a respect for the creatures that exist and sustained them. The most moving image for me was an outline of a hand, that opposable thumb and the part of our body that separates us from the animals, which this early person placed onto the rock and decided it needed to be remembered there.

Back to the madness, we went to the train station to reserve our train for the next day to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves and we come to find they were sold out! So, placing ourselves on the waiting lists we prayed we'd get a spot. We returned to our hotel room late, slept fitfully, and rose again in the early morning to see the buddhist monuments. Again loosening our pockets for speed, we arrived at the monument with less than an hour to spend. We saw the influence of the far-reaching ancient Greeks on this earliest of Buddhist monuments (from 250 BC), and enjoyed the artwork from before Buddha was depicted as the smiling fatty we know him as today; then he was the bodhi tree, the lotus flower, and the horse.

Returning to the chaos of the Indian city again, we picked up our bags and hoped we could get the hell out on the train. Which, of course, didn't happen. India, incredible! Being forced to either stay in this terrible city for an indefinite amount of days with nothing to do or skip the Ajanta and Ellora caves and head north to Rajasthan, we chose the latter. Here's hoping we have a shift of luck in this next leg of our journey.

kink in khajuraho

After the holy city of Varanasi we tried to head to Khajuraho, a double feature town with both UNESCO World Heritage listed Hindu temples as well as a national park with lots of indigenous animals to see. Alas, the transport gods do not love us. We waited for our 11 pm night train for 4 hours, finally getting on at 3 am only to find the conductor setting up his office in our sleeper birth, conducting business all night. After a two hour tipsy-turvy taxy ride from the rail head (I think our driver thinks he is racing the Indy 500) on little to no sleep, we trudged into Khajuraho...

...Only to find out that evening that Alex had contracted food poisoning which was getting slowly worse as the evening progressed. The night passed along with plenty of bodily fluids fleeing his ailing system, and we spent the next day nursing him back to health. It is these particularly trying circumstances that really made us want to enjoy where we are, to take it in, to see what we came here to see. Forging ahead, we spent the next day giggling at the sculptures on the temples, as they are famous for their depiction of Kama Sutra, and the following day we got up before dawn and went on a safari. Our main goal was to see a tiger, but because of human greed and negligence, the tiger population has dwindled drastically over the last decades. Knowing our chances were slim for a tiger spotting, we could relax and enjoy the creatures we did get to see: Nilgai (giant antelope), Sambar (large deer), Chital (small spotted deer), Wild Boar, Langur Monkeys, Kingfisher birds and Storks. The landscape was a combination of teak forest and savannah-like grassland with a few craggy trees dotted in the foggy mist. Oh, it's the moments that make travel what it is.

Friday, December 19, 2008

challenges in east india

India is filthy. From the moment we stepped from the plane we were bombarded with grime, scum, dirt, exhaust, feces, urine, vomit, spit, trash, burps, farts, mice, rats, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, and miscellaneous bugs. People are poor here, the population is exploding, filth is to be expected.

But seeing past the grime reveals a world unfocused on the external and casually retaining its history. Older women let their often soft sides show through elaborately decorated saris and men with dyed red hair chew betel nut (a mild stimulant) as they stroll through the streets. Every person is cognizant of their caste, a system which delineates sectors of society by birth. The lighter skinned people are the highest caste, Brahman, succeeded by three lower castes down to the 'untouchables,' people who are cast out from society altogether.

Calcutta is a difficult place, challenging to handle for even this experienced traveller. We spent most of our time there seeing the remnants of British colonial architecture and one afternoon strolling through the neighborhood where people have burrowed homes into piles of trash. To see a child climbing out of her home which was created from the waste of others is just staggering.

We moved on quickly to Varanasi, the holy city along the Ganges River where Hindu people come for good karma. They bathe themselves in the river, and if they die here they are said to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth, which makes it a popular place to lay to rest (certainly different from Florida!). We spent most of our time here wandering through the Ghats (areas of steps down into the water which serve different functions). Saw people swimming in the (now officially sewage) water in the mornings, waking up and starting the day with a jolting cold swim, and watched the bodies burn from a distance at the cremation ghat. Private moments are public here, and the inevitability of human suffering is on display in all its varying forms. Children and cripples beg for food and animals (dogs, goats, cows) pick through trash for their next meal. India is both sad and fulfilling, educating and difficult, exhilarating and fundamentally moving.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

in transit

Sometimes, when travelling, the places that I imagined don't fulfill my expectations. At those moments, I feel in transit - like I am moving through, passing by, a stranger in a strange land with no business but to move forward. Now is one of those times.

We tried to go trekking in Northern Laos, but after having spoken to a few terrible salesmen (one of them drunk) who made Laos sound like the Dan Ryan Woods, we decided to get back to Thailand as fast as possible. The nicest and jolliest Thai man gave us a free 8-hour ride to Chiang Mai out of the kindness of his heart, saving us close to $30 and hours upon hours of travel time.

Chiang Mai was nice, nothing to write home about, so I won't. Sukhothai - ancient Thai ruins where we stopped on the way back to B'kok - were underwhelming compared to the Ankorians they conquered centuries ago.

Moving along, pressing on, looking forward.

The next legs of our trip loom excitingly on the horizon, like we are at the outset of an entirely new adventure. We fly to India on Sunday where we'll see throngs of women in Saris and ride camels in the desert, tour the Taj Mahal, go on tiger safaris and wander through the pink, golden, white and blue cities of Rajasthan. After a month or so there, we'll fly back to Bangkok and spend some time at the Highland Farm Gibbon Refuge, getting to know our primate relatives. Lastly, on to paradise! Southern Thailand, home to some of the best and last remaining intact coral reefs in the world. We'll sleep in secluded cabins plopped on the shores of tiny white-sand islands and float in warm crystal-clear azure waters hovering above rainbow-worlds of coral and tropical fish and maybe even whale sharks.

As we loaf in our homey room in Bangkok, I feel like I did as a child right before a vacation I had been dreaming about: relaxed, comfortable, but on the edge of something fantastic and unimaginable.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

lovely lao

A poor but relatively sparsely populated country, Lao is an eruption of sensory stimuli. Like an onion, each layer you peel off has a stronger impact -- and might even make you cry a little. We arrived at the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge border crossing after our night train from Bangkok pulled into the station roughly 6 hours late. Considerably spry after crossing the border on foot, we watched the other tourists pay exorbitant prices to hop in personal jumbo tuk-tuks while we nestled in the back of a 50 cent bus with the locals. After a few stops to let out the older women and their live chickens, we arrived in capital city Vientiane.

There are a surprising number of NGOs working in Lao, and Vientiane is crawling with United Nations Land Rovers and do-gooders with fair trade tshirts walking hurriedly around. As a side effect of this, there is *the most incredible food* we have found on our trip thus far. For under ten dollars you can have a huge french steak with pommes frites and a 40 oz beerlao and a large pizza with the works and a crepe suzette for dessert. Bummed about missing Thanksgiving, I was yearning for something vaguely reminiscent of home. Lucky me, I found a place serving a turkey sandwich with cranberries and stuffing; to top it off, they were playing Christmas music amid dangling shiny ornaments. Satiated and nostalgic, we moved on to the old French colonial town of Luang Prabang.

Palm trees loiter around whitewashed french mansions with opened shutters, saffron-robed monks collect alms beneath blooming azaleas, little kittens purr for attention at my feet and I enjoy my lusciously thick spaghetti carbonara amid broad-leafed houseplants twisted with white christmas lights. Oh, but I am sure your Thursday evening was nice too. Enjoying perfect (mid 70s and sunny) weather, we ambled through the streets, discovering historical Wats that house different sects of buddhist monks. We returned in the evening to listen to the monks' nightly chanting, their solemn repetitions bouncing off of the large gold buddha in the temple and into the evening sky.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

safety in bangkok

We arrived on Thanksgiving Day in Bangkok after a 12 hour bus ride from Siem Reap. Weary and a bit nervous about the political situation here, we trudged towards the backpacker district not sure what we'd find. Not surprisingly, all was well in perpetually-adolescent backpackerland: party buses and funny tshirts for sale, cheap food stalls and grown white men lying in the streets yaking or sobbing, depending on the type of alcohol they drank, I assume.

The next few days we spent seeing the gaudy royal palace, a giant golden reclining buddha, some famous wats and enjoyed eating. On our tree-lined mostly pedestrian street stood food stalls with freshly made pad thai for less than a dollar and concocted-as-you-stand fruit shakes for 60 cents. Oh, a budget traveler's heaven!

As for the supposedly chaotic airport hold-up here, it clearly did not effect anything we had planned to see or do. Just like the 1968 DNC riots in Chicago, I am sure the people in Beverly managed to make it through unscathed. Protests happen, they usually have particular objectives and those must be taken account of. These protesters are not trying to physically harm tourists (like the terrorists in India were), they just want to force to government to pay attention to them by inconveniencing a lot of loud whiny westerners which would get the attention of their home media organizations.

I know from watching CNN here that it seems like a scary situation, but it must be put into perspective: in the US, several people died and women miscarried in WalMarts on Black Friday being stomped to death by angry shopping mobs. Exactly zero foreigners have died in Bangkok from these protests. You had a better chance of being hurt shopping the day after Thanksgiving than I did watching the overgrown boys in cargo shorts and backwards baseball hats throw back shots here in Bangkok.

Friday, November 28, 2008

polarity in cambodia

Cambodia is the Ecuador of Southeast Asia. In its capital, Phnom Penh, there is trash strewn on every street corner, roaming dogs with bellies full of swollen nipples, and beggars with another sympathetic story to hawk. I know you’re poor, Cambodia, but you’re not letting me enjoy you!

Phnom Penh was gross, frankly. With little to offer besides garish overpriced palaces funded by the French colonists and a former high school turned prison camp in the Khmer Rouge era. We did find a delightful little restaurant, Mama’s, around the corner from our hotel where we thoroughly enjoyed our three squares a day with the precious tiny daughter of Mama taking our order and meringue blaring on the stereo. Sick of modern Cambodia, we travelled back in time to visit ancient Khmer culture.

The Angkor temple complex is one of the most spectacular places I have been in my (fairly short) life.

It has huge repetitive tower-faces jutting up into the jungle trees, monkeys relaxing in the grass and giant trees spouting on top of temple walls, maneuvering their roots in through the ancient brickwork. To get between temples and back to town, we hired a tuk tuk (a motorcycle with a four seat Remarque attached to the back). In the middle of the second day, with the sun peaking through the thick canopy, soft, warm wind cooling my rosy cheeks, and beautiful rounded temple towers peeking through the forest, I felt real elation. Cambodia, you have redeemed yourself.

speed in south vietnam

Southern Vietnam boasts most of the same draws as the North: colonial architecture, women in markets with conical hats, and fresh baguettes. But the South feels more tropical, lowland, and lush.

In Hue we stayed in a perfectly adequate seven dollar room and saw the citadel complex of the former monarchy and, subsequently, the Communist Party as a base to fight against the Americans. We only had a few hours to see the entire complex, but feeling rushed we resolved to take our time and finish what we couldn’t tomorrow. We strolled around the romantic fallen structures set amongst green fields and statues spotted with moss. Even with all this loveliness, we finished seeing the palace in ninety minutes.

Surprised at the quickness of our pace, I sat in the promenade in front of the former royal residence and re-evaluated. Are we lingering in these places too long? Should we be moving faster? Yes, I decided at that moment that we should speed through only the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia (you don’t visit the US and go to Piedmont, ND, do you?) and make some time for INDIA!

I threw my haphazardly conjured idea at Alex and, always a good sport, said he’d look into making it happen. Two days later, in Hoi An, we bought the Lonely Planet INDIA guide for eleven dollars, now there was no going back.

Hoi An was wet, drowned by a tropical storm that flooded the streets. Almost ruined by the rain, we still managed to see the wonderful Chinese, ancient Vietnamese and freshly-painted French colonial architecture on offer. Scouring our India Lonely Planet in a café on our last night, we decided we needed to move quickly if we were going to get to India. Skipping Dalat and Quy Nhon, we bought a $37 flight to Saigon that night.

Which was stiflingly, pore-openingly hot. We saw the little there was to see, including an enlightening War Crimes Museum and spent most of the rest of our time hiding from the heat in our air-conditioned room.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

whimsy in hanoi and ha long bay

Stumbling off the night train from Sapa, we fend our way through a maze of rip-off taxis and whizzing motor bikes. We find a safe ride and honk and speed our way through the decaying colonial decadence of Hanoi's Old Quarter.  We move through a quiet alleyway -- with old women sitting on stoops in silk pajamas slurping up a morning bowl of Pho Bo -- to our hotel.  

The next few days we spent soaking up the tropical and putrid regality: mold growing on painted french mansions, hundreds of wires strung overhead through broad-leafed tropical trees, fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat waiting for us every morning.

Then to Ha Long Bay where former mountaintops jutted out of the sea filling us with whimsy. We kayaked through bat-filled caves and onto abandoned white sand beaches hidden in coves we pretended we discovered. We jumped from the top of our boat two stories down iunto the salty bay and watched the orange ball sun throw a pink glow behind the misty grey peaks at sunset.

Back to Hanoi where we forget we even left, returning to our old haunts: Pepperoni's for the endless lunch buffet, St. Joseph's Cathedral for decrepit colonial grandeur and Fanny's for mouth-watering milky ice cream which we always enjoy while walking alongside the promenade on the lake.  We got back on a Saturday, when all the lights strung over the streets turn on and the city is cast with a blue or white glow, adding to its already uncanny fanciful nature.  

An hour before we left, we met an American guy who tells us we can make the same amount in Hanoi as Taipei and how he is living in a two-bedroom three-storey furnished townhouse for $300/month. Now I don't want to leave.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sincerity in sapa

After our last Chinese bus ride (from hell) -- with the road washing away by massive rainfall and us waiting while the authorities blew another one into the mountainside -- we stumbled into Vietnam bleary-eyed and with grumbling tummies. Our English and Isreali friends were relieved of their guidebooks in China for political reasons, but we lied and kept ours. As we walked through the border station it was into a different world. Hundreds of motorbikes and people shouting English at me, decaying colonial architecture and crispy french bread. Oh, good morning Vietnam! I think I'm going to like you.

We got into Sapa in the dark and had an adequate (but due to the deprivation percieved as delicious) french meal with conversation on life and holidays in our respective countires. As the morning sun rose the next day, we found ourselves surrounded by verdant mountains and a cosmopolitan mix of once-insular people. Red Dzou and Flower Hmong filled the streets and the marketplace.  I met a Hmong girl named Sa, eleven years old, who stuck around me for the weekend. I learned through the grapevine that both of her parents died within the past year and that she had no where to stay in the village so she couldn't go to school. I felt guilt for teasing her earlier about not wearing Hmong traditional clothing, her mother's not around to make any for her.  She gave me a bracelet she made and wouldn't take the money I treid to sneak to her for it, so I bought her a chocolate tart and apples and oranges which she gobbled up into her tiny frame.

Leaving, a hot tear fell onto my skin as she took my hand and whispered, "If your friends come here, will you tell them about me?" Alone and yearning for love, I felt her pain once from across the world. The tear that fell was mine.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

the wild west in yunnan

China's wild west, Yunnan Province is the final frontier. We started in Dali, a walled city with canals streaming alongside the cobbled streets and the Jade Mountains loomed in the distance. There we took a chairlift to the top of said mountains and looked down at the clouds from a warm Taoist temple at the top.

Next, Lijiang. A bigger and better Dali, with even larger snow-capped peaks on the horizon. We sat in European cafes and watched the rain patter on the blurry panes. On our last night we went to see the Naxi orchestra - a group of ancient musicians playing on even older instruments pieces from the Middle Ages. There was even a solo from one of the oldest members called "heartless love" about how his money left him and his woman followed suit. ouch.

Oh, then to Shangri-la, where we expected so little so the return was even greater. We met with the first foreigner allowed into town in 1987, and she told us of how she got around town on horseback. We drank yak butter tea and were invited into the dormitory of an orange-robed Tibetan buddhist monk. I watched the sunset from beside the largest prayer wheel in the world, looking over Old Town Shangri-la with prayer flags rustling in the wind overhead and bells tinkling in the temple and I realize that looking for Shangri-la is a fruitless endeavor, it can only be realized in passing moments like this.

Finally, Shaxi shocked me. The most intact and least touristed village yet, we saw an ancient Buddhist temple, trudged along the old Tea Horse Caravan Road through the fields of harvesting Bai people, and ate locally-grown organic potatoes, roasted red bell peppers, snow peas, chives and goat cheese washed down with thick red tea for two dollars and twenty five cents. We laid to rest under the roof of a structure built during the Tang Dynasty. Look it up - it's more amazing than you think.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

harvest season in minority villages

Colorful tapestries, harvesting rice, morning cock crows and ancient songs floating over drum towers where old men sit playing mah jong. The ethnic minority villages of Guangxi Province offer much in the way of slow living - especially in contrast with the rapid industrialization of the home places of the rest of their Chinese brethren. These pastoral places seem to serve as refuge for city-dwelling Han Chinese; similarly to the romantics in turn-of-the-century continental Europe, you can find painters and poets and lovers of a slower life here in these villages, enjoying the clean air and the sweeping movements of the brightly-clad reapers, harvesting what they had sown many months previous.

In Ping'an, home of the Zhuang people, the rice fields are in the form of terraces cut into steep hillsides - referred to here as 'dragon's backbone.' Most of the time in Ping'an was spent hiking amongst these carved mountainsides, taking in the autumnal scent of burning dry leaves.

In Chengyang, a series of Dong towns clustered along a water-wheeled river, the main attractions are several flower (or, more practically, wind-and-rain) bridges. A leisurely stroll through the towns finds gaggles of schoolchildren giggling out hello's, narrow alleyways framed by nail-less Dong houses with drying bouquets of rice hanging from their eaves, and drum towers with friendly old men smoking pipes and offering weak green tea as a token of friendship and pride.

Monday, October 20, 2008

hipness in yangshuo

Yangshuo is the Moab, Utah or the Jackson, Wyoming of China. These gateway towns are hip, filled with dreadlocked climbers and their dirty backpacks, and are surrounded by gorgeous natural scenery. For the first two, the draw is Arches and Yellowstone, and here it is the Li and Yulong rivers and the karst peaks that jut out of the otherwise flat land of this southwestern province. For some, the sight of westerners at all in this fairly remote area of China is too much to bear; with their hideous visage of unkempt northface pants and designer hiking boots.  For others, including us, the sight of westerners only makes obvious what is inherent in many "remote" areas here, the effects of globalization - of America Brand consumerism and greed - are everywhere, and cannot be avoided.  Many purists say that Yangshuo is not the 'real China,' but I think they are looking for something that doesn't exist, and are actually offended to see some mainstream middle-aged American white couple making it to somewhere that was -up until then - making them feel radical and wildly adventurous.  Alex and I make no claims of grandeur and purity, so we can be okay with beautiful scenery, Heineken's and pizza for dinner, and American breakfast. So we did, and enjoyed ourselves.

One night, when enjoying some local beer at a great cafe with great music, we were approached by a 9 year old boy who asked us if he could practice his English with us.  Well, we were skeptical at first, reading about people who want to "practice English" by asking you to buy things. So, we asked him a few questions and he seemed legit, so we invited him to sit with us. We sat for the greater part of an hour discussing pokemon and American movies and his parents' jobs and how much he likes knowing English.  He gave us some (what he considered simple) 'math problems,' which were actually super Chinese-esque riddles for us to solve. Like, if you have 8 eggs, and one of them weighs more than all the other 7 separately, and each of those other 7 weigh the same, and you can only use the scale 2 times, how do you weigh the eggs (in any combination) to find out which one is the heaviest egg. Yeah, we failed to figure this one out.  In any case, this theme of adorable and earnest children has been repeating itself. I am once again taken aback by the joy of conversation, and once again (as in Morocco, Ecuador) it is with a child. They have less of a filter to guard against the wrong words, so they tell you exactly what they know. Like our friend Joe says, "Chinese video games are horrible."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

colonialism in macau

More a colonial city than Hong Kong, Macau reveals its Portugese bloodline. Cobbled streets and richly decorated churches, words in arabic letters (albeit still hard to decipher) and people who look (more) like me, Macau gives me my last shot of The West -- of home -- before my long abstinence in The East. We spent time here wandering along the winding european alleyways and relaxing into churches, following our eurotrip model of finding sanctuary from our own feet in comfortable and often cool holy places. We ate Italian for the first (and not the last...I HOPE!) time, had Macanese (a mix of Portugese and Chinese) food and found a Portugese cafe with soft coconut pastries and caffe latte's in which they can be dunk. Oh, pleasure drome! Basta! Give me something hard, tough, strange, absurd, an assualt on my senses. Southern China, Li River, ethnic minority villiages, I'm coming.

fables in hong kong

After an arduous but surprisingly tolerable fourteen hour flight, we arrived -- for the very first time -- on the continent of Asia. We wobbled wearily toward our hotel, in Mirador Mansions, which were anything but the luxurious image that comes with the name. It is basically a series of buildings housing stores, exchange shops, tailors, apartments and guest houses. After a bombardment of neon lights and a maze of indians hawking "sunglasseshandbagswatchestailoredsuits," we made it into our fortress of solitude, complete with hot water, free wireless internet, powerful air conditioning and a flat screen tv now showing a David Attenborough nature documentary. ahhhhh. 

Our first nights were mostly sleepless, our bodies in a funk from the insane opposite-side-of-the-world-timechange, so our first couple of days we spent marching like zombies through the streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong. We saw two movies (Body of Lies and Vicky Christina Barcelona), applied for our China visas, went to two museums, an English bookstore, and took the longest (1/2 mile) escalator in the world. 

The fourth day, however, after having adjusted our eating and sleeping, we journeyed into Kowloon's fabled markets. After popping off a quick and insanely cheap metro ride, we found the flower market. Teeming with flowers named and nameless (to me), we were overcome by the sheer sweetness of it all. Every perfect package of luscious buds was wrapped up in crisp and soft and pale paper, waiting to be delivered to blushing babes and gracious mothers. Then the bird garden -- a series of men fawning over their exotic bird-friends that I am not entirely sure they actually wanted to sell, for fear of parting with their best mates. It is rumored that the men hand feed each of their creatures crickets with chopsticks -- spoiled! but also worthy of the attention, these birds overwhelmed with their colors, shape, size and sometimes uncanny ability to talk back. After that, fish. Assuredly illegally garnered, there were tanks and tanks of water plants and anemones and coral and so many types of goldfish you didn't know existed, some of them so strangely resembling anime creatures that you would think they were designed by nintendo. oh, asia. Repititions of things, especially aesthetically pleasing things, has an uncanny way of making you feel overwhelmed but curious. Like a child running through a flock of grounded birds, you want to keep it all, to discover it, to feel it, to touch it. Oh! So many flowers and they smell so sweet and oh so bright and fresh and oh they can all be mine! and birdies! and fishies! I want to see them all close up, to hold them, to have them, forever. Come to asia, you'll know what I mean. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

on the road again

On the road again
goin places that I've never been
seein things that I may never see again
and I can't wait to get on the road again

Flying from Chicago, I touch down in Phoenix and as I step out of the plane I breathe in the heat. Exhausting and invasive but inspiring and motivating, travel draws the best from me like powdered sugar through a sieve.  There are little unconscious symbols that exist in Phoenix for me, signifying the beginning of something new: the bright sun on the white floor, the lights of planes burning like brighter stars in the desert sky, the palm tree against an endless blue. I went to visit my grandmother (Nan) and Uncle (Kurt) last time before I left for Europe, and returning again I feel safe, like this is my launching pad, and I'm ready to take off.

After a week of preparation for the journey ahead and relaxation for now, Nan and Uncle Kurt drove me up to Flagstaff where I was forced to face the worst part of leaving home: saying goodbye to the ones you love the most, and who love you, too. After some tears, and some fleeting thoughts of regret, Alex and his mom (Oksana) and I drove off to conquer to Colorado Plateau. 

We saw deep chasms and natural arches in fiery red (Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion), ancient cliff palaces (Mesa Verde), rock cities made of pink and salmon and tan hoodoos (Bryce Canyon), and ended with Alex's home place -- the enchanted forest in his backyard called Yosemite. 

So, here I am again. On the brink of something scary and new. And as hesitations begin to take over, I am reminded of the student speaker at my graduation, and I think this is the best time to include the entirety of his speech, because it has been a sort of maxim for me, post-graduation.

“Life. . . naturally pulls us down toward death.” 

Welcome to your graduation. 
As a product of a U of C education, I feel compelled to cite my sources, and so I’ll tell you that what I just said was a quotation from Anne Bogart, a renowned American theater director, who was paraphrasing writer Italo Calvino from one of six lectures he wrote but never finished. He didn’t finish them, because he died. Now Anne Bogart is not a U of C student and moreover, she’s an artist, so she isn’t required to cite anyone—for example, she fails to cite Rudolf Clausius. Who is Rudolf Clausius? He’s the German physicist who stated the second law of Thermodynamics. But it’s not like his idea was original—he was only revising Sadi Carnot’s theories, which were addressing advances made by James Watt, who was standing on the shoulders of Thomas Newcomen, who synthesized Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, and so forth, and so forth. Five hundred years of neglected citation, but I will not perpetuate such irresponsible scholarship—all of my information was taken from Wikipedia.

For example, Wikipedia tells me about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that since the Big Bang, entropy has been rising—which means that the energy of the universe has been dissipating and will continue to do so until it arrives at equilibrium, fatal and final. That event is otherwise known as the Great Heat-Death of the Universe. Now this will happen billions of years from now but you’re graduating today, and entering a world, as Anne Bogart conceives it, of dissipating human energy. For the rest of your life, you will get tired. You will shy away from risk. You will cathect to comfort. You will watch lots of television. It’s a gentle process, and it's completely unstoppable. We will lose energy. The universe will end. We can’t stop the Great Heat-Death of the Universe.

But by God, we are University of Chicago students. And we can fight.

How do you pick a fight with the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Anne Bogart, artist and abstainer from Chicago-style citation, argues that the act of creation is inherently an act of resistance against our own death.
To fight entropy, I might add, is to have the audacity to act against the universe’s inclination to settle and our own impulse to simply live a comfortable life. This of course puts me in the mind of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The cave, we forget, is a really cozy place to be. It’s warm, there’s a big long couch—there’s even a sweet television and all your friends are there watching it. But the cave is part of a universe that yearns for stagnation, and so here at the U of C we leave it. It’s uncomfortable and even painful but it takes a damn good shot at entropy. If we’ve learned one lesson from Plato, it’s that discomfort is often a sure sign of something worthwhile. We take up discomfort, we take up the fight because to fight entropy is to transcend our own fate and the single most important thing we can do as human beings is to confront the Great Heat-Death of the Universe and to defy it. For four years, you've been doing just that—talking, writing, collaborating, creating—fighting entropy 10 weeks at a time. Today you decide—do you go back to the cave? Or do you stay outside and fight?

Life naturally pulls us down toward death, but today you graduate; and today, entropy meets the U
niversity of Chicago. This is your graduation. This is your fight. 

Asia, here I come.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

yearning for the unfathomable

Looking through this journal of my journeys, I re-read my post from right before I left Chicago last time.  I was looking to reconnect to my old self, to answer some questions. Is the feeling the same? Was I ready? Was it the right thing to do? Did I learn? 

My former self did not offer much self-revelation, only prescient and perfect advice:

For my part, Robert Louis Stevenson once wroteI travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. 

After days and days of social engagements, goodbyes and hellos, hugging many children who probably won't remember my name and some who won't forget it, amid tears and laughter, I was feeling a little emotionally drained. It is difficult to go away, to leave all that is stable and known and safe. This is not an easy decision and it is one that comes with the tremendous responsibility of making time away from loved ones worthwhile. I recognize this. 

But I cannot wait, as Stevenson regails, to move my feet. To listen to tropical rainstorms and take beautiful pictures, to see unchanged asian hilltribes and to sample french cuisine shaded by palm trees, and all of the most fantastical experiences I could not begin to fathom yet. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

extraordinary machine

united states
czech republic
united states

if there was a better way to go then it would find me
i can't help that the road just rolls out behind me
be kind to me or treat me mean
i'll make the most of it i'm an extraordinary machine
fiona apple. extraordinary machine

next is vietnam (hanoi) to teach english. and visiting china, laos thailand, burma, cambodia. then off to new zealand for a few months after that to work and stay and eat on organic farms (WWOOF). and, hopefully, the year after that in africa (tanzania, please!) with a fulbright or thorugh the peace corps. and the year after that in south america (argentina and brazil, yes!) teaching english and learning spanish. i can't help that the road just rolls out behind me.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

holy spaces in ireland

As the airborne seeds dance in the wind like tiny glowing fairies, I sit in the ruined kells priory. We ambled along Irish countryside to get to kells from kilkenny. We hitchhiked, picked up by the sweetest old lady whose car was overflowing with fresh flowers from the market. As we sat among the blossoms she told us of her village, kells, the new 'uncharacteristic' real estate, and of her famous race horse. She let us off near the stream and told us to go along the river, around the old mill and it'll be just beyond that. wow. when's the last time you've gotten directions like that?

We ambled along the clearest creek I've ever seen, lined with fresh spring buds. It was the kind of creek I imagine you'd dip into on a hot summer day, swirling between the water lilies and swans and drinking it straight anytime you got thirsty. The grass was crisp and bright and green, the dew drops slipped onto our toes as we passed along it. We came upon the old mill, still operating, and just beyond it stood the castle-like towers of the ruined monastery. Erected in the dark ages, monks used to walk these halls, pray in this chapel and think about God, life, and existence.

Within the walls is a large rolling meadow with dozens of sheep and lambs scattered upon it. The babies are experiencing their first spring, tumbling on their new awkwardly long legs and mowing the grass like adorable puffy white lawnmowers. I sat under a flowering tree and watched them play, sit, drink milk from their mother. I felt like a milk maiden, hiding from my duties to take in the beauty and warmth of the new spring sun. My long hair blew in the wind and the sun shone lightly on my back, warming me.

And now I sit here, in this ruined place of worship. The arches of what were walls and windows are being flooded with the afternoon sunlight and I can imagine how human beings could devote their lives to learning and meditation and worship in a place like this.

Alas, the monks eventually left this place and the rocks they assembled into walls and holy spaces are slowly returning to their place in the earth. The tombs are eroding, turning into rocks and then sand and then soil. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. A verse from the bible that these monks might not have known well enough.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

on Proust and travel in Paris

A prompt in a contemporary french newspaper: a scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people... what would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm?

Proust: I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it - our life - hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Mrs. X, or making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

*an excerpt found in a book on Proust in an english bookstore in Paris

we are humans. finite but far-reaching creatures, we assume our lives will go on forever and as this assumption lies burning in our subconscious, we deaden inside, losing the desire to think and feel deeply, to explore and to love. Travel is the conscious acknowledgement of my finite-ness, the fact that everyday that I live I am one day closer to my death and it oughtn't take a perceived catastrophe to confront this truth. I must constantly move my feet on this trip, move my body through the world, and I am aware of my life's lack of routine and knowing always of my decision to be here now.

By behaving this way I fall into the anti-routine, a place where the catastrophe of death becomes more conscious, and I explore my place in my life on a daily basis. I know almost every hour of every day of this past two months that I am young and I am seeing the beauty and intellect of Europe, of western history, while politics and economics allow it. And I, like Proust, must work to retain this awareness throughout my life - through routine and change, happiness and trauma, good and bad - I must live this day as if it were my last, and to beware of the endlessness and risk of the unconscious routinized life of which Proust speaks.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

resurgence of wonder in paris

This post may make you nervous, but dont worry, mom, its totally safe.

In Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris Alex and I couchsurfed. What does this mean? you ask. well, it means that we meet up with a total stranger and stay on their couch or extra bed. In exchange, we make our couch available to people when we are not traveling. It was only a tiny bit scary at first; but after the first 5 minutes, when you get a sense that the person is not crazy, it immediately becomes rewarding. Not only do you get to save money, but you get to exchange ideas, make new friends, and learn about the world through the people in it.

In Stockholm it was Andreas. Slightly gothic, befitting the Scandinavian youth stereotype, and very much into the Smashing Pumpkins, he was such a friendly fellow. We all talked late into the night about swedish socialism and american capitalism, and all of the politics that make them work. He told us of his free education (up to college), no health care bills, and his government funded job making educational television on Swedens public access channel. Oh, how I wish I were Swedish!

Then, in Amsterdam, we met Robb, a cal tech postdoc working on particle physics. We talked about LAs music scene, the presidential race, and we acquired a scientists insight on the energy crisis. Oh! and he took us out for a Dutch beer with his German girlfriend.

Finally, Gabriela and Angel in Paris. They are Brazilian students (sociology and journalism, respectively) earning their phds with an exchange year in france. From them we learned about the life of the Sao Paolo working class, the effects of multinational corporations on south americans, and how they hope for change in our country as it will bring change in theirs.

I am radicalized by the ease and beauty with which these people have opened their lives and homes to us. Nearing the end of our journey, I am feeling a resurgence of love and wonder in the world and the people it contains.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

clean beauty in stockholm and joy in amsterdam

From Prague we moved on forward to Berlin, or so we thought. We got into Berlin, saw the wall, the place where Hitler shot himself, and then realized Alex forgot his retainer in Prague. Oh, lord. Okay, so risk his teeth shifting and then having to find a dentist to get another retainer molded OR spend the next day that we were supposed to spend in Berlin going back to Prague. We chose the latter. Kind of absurd to be reliant on a strange molded plastic mechanism, isnt it? So, 5 hours back to Prague then another 5 hours returning again to Berlin and then a 2 hour break and then a night train to Malmo, Sweden and then a 15 minute break and a 5 hour train to Stockholm. Whew!

Luckily, train travel is super not stressful and we had our night cabin to ourselves and it was mostly pleasant for having to go that far for that long. Stockholm was beautiful. Clean, neat, happy. The land looked to me like northern wisconsin -- which is probably why a lot of swedes ended up there -- filled with red barns and flat land, lots of glimmering lakes among forests of thin pine trees. I felt like I fit in there. Lots of tall beautiful blondes, not what i am exactly, but sort of how I see Lindsey. Alas, it turns out that in very well run countries with not much sightseeing you'd rather dream of living there than be a tourist there. So, we cut out a day of Stockholm and headed to Amsterdam via Copenhagen.

Just in the short while we have been here the experience has been filled with wonder and awe. Bikes everywhere! Barely any cars only buses and trams and bikes and people fill the streets. The canals are rife with young and beautiful large dutch people, rowing their boats and their newly-browning skin glowing in the afternoon sunlight. When we tried to get on the bus the driver said it was free today (i think informally because no other native amsterdammers knew about this), and everyone was in such high spirits about this spontaneous phenomena that they kept filling with laughter everytime someone else got on the bus and received the pleasant news from our jovial captain. To top it off, he picked up his microphone and told the bus he was thinking of Louis Armstrong's famous song and began to sing "the colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people on the BUS, i see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they're really saying I LOVE YOU -- I love you, I love each and everyone one of you, my bus riders." And as I look over past all the faces just beaming with glee in unabashed and unironic happiness, a little girl who looks like a younger version of myself and is also dressed up like a priness smiles at me as the setting sun shines behind her head and illuminates her golden hair, throwing a halo around her angelic face. Then I look out the window behind her and see the famous statue that proclaims I AMSTERDAM. This can't be real.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

bureaucracy in prague

So, now I know what Kafka was talking about. The bureaucracy of eastern europe, namely the former communist countries, is outrageous!

Alex and I had just gotten into Prague. We were excited. We were happy, ready to see the gem of central europe. After a few poorly marked signs and hard to find ATMs we made our way onto the metro. We bought a 90 minute ticket, or so we thought. We waited around at our hostel for a ridiculously long check-in procedure with some Thai students in front of us in line and then finally got our room and headed out to the city. We finally got back on the metro to go into the historical district and as we slipped off into the crowd two burly slavic men stood at the bottom of the escalator, checking tickets. Ours was 30 minutes less than valid. Not knowing this, I took our tickets out of my back pocket and presented them with confidence. He pointed to the clock, the 75 minutes on the ticket, took us to the posters that explained his badges and the penalty that was about to be forced upon us. A whirlwind of both disbelief and clarity ensued.

There was no way out, we were about to get fined, and I cannot believe it was over such a small thing as this. shit shit shit. ugh. no! 90 dollars. A days' budget. Bureaucracy. The men seemed to get a sick pleasure from walking us over to the atms, holding our American passports. Getting thieved by bureaucratic thugs is somehow more rewarding than getting robbed by the poor. They aren't desperate, they don't need the money, they are just doing their vicious jobs and holding us accountable to their flawed system.