Friday, February 29, 2008

On The Road Again

My sharply trimmed beard has started to look a bit more scruffy, my clothes a bit dirtier, and my stomach a bit bigger. It is time to hit the road again.

The first thing I did when I got up this morning was pack my bag. Ten minutes later I was staring at an empty room and a full bag, and for about the hundredth time this trip I was marveling over the fact that everything I have fits into a 35L pack.

My emotions are pretty mixed right now. I guess the positive ones are a good place to start. I am excited to be traveling again. I have spent the last nine days doing very little aside from eating, working out, eating, watching movies, and eating. Therefore, due to this lethargic lifestyle I have developed, I am ready to continue my journey.

I am feeling quite a few negative emotions as well. For one, I am traveling again. Spending the majority of the last two weeks living in a house, driving a car (well being driven in a car), and hanging out with a friend who was not just a travel buddy, but an actual friend from home was really wonderful. It reminded me of all the things that I had been missing about life in Seattle. Second, I am headed to Myanmar (Burma) in a few hours, and while I am excited to be going there, I am a bit nervous about what I will find when I arrive. I have met tons of people traveling through Southeast Asia, but out of everyone I have met I have only met one person who was tentatively thinking about traveling to Burma. So while it is easy to travel in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I am not sure if Burma is going to prove to be the same. I find the prospect of traveling around Burma for a few weeks without meeting any other travelers to be quite frightening. I guess when it comes down to it I am clueless as to what I will find when I get there. I do know that once I leave Yangon finding email service is going to be difficult in most places, and that the government often blocks access to email services like Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail. As such, I doubt I will be doing any blogging from inside Burma. If that is the case, this will probably be the last post for about three weeks.

So that's it right now, a pretty mixed bag. Excitement and fear pulsing through my veins as I prepare for traveling through Burma.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Life in Cebu

Not much to report these days. Felt like I ought to type something up though. Hmmm....What's happened lately that I could report? Well, I have been back in Cebu since last Friday, and due to weather (Ugh. Don't get me started.) might be spending the rest of my excursion to the Philippines stuck here.

I have been living a very different life here in Cebu. Those of you who read some of my earlier blogs will know the comfy lifestyle that I have been exposed to here. However, I have also been having a very interesting (and quite intense) cultural experience as well. While I am living with a wealthy family and have all the amenities I could ask for, I am also living with an Asian family. As such, the family is incredibly close. For me, it is a little too close. Every single action or plan seems to take into account the entire family, and it would be absolutely crazy to suggest doing anything on your own. Why would anyone ever want to do that when the same activity could be done with the entire family?

Now if it sounds like I am complaining I am not. JB and his family have treated me like one of the family, and their hospitality and generosity have been wonderful. I owe them much thanks.

Thanks Sergio, Susan, Bea, and JB!

I will however say that it has been very difficult for me to adjust to this sort of closeness. As someone who has been entirely independent for the last 7 months not being able to do anything on my own has been a bit difficult for me. Today, I was in such need of some alone time that I had to decline going on a hike with JB's dad, and quickly sneak out of the house to go to the bank, lest his mom offer to either drive me herself, or have one of the maids drive me. I hopped in a jeepney and was finally off on my own.

As a quick aside, I love jeepneys. I was able to take one once before when JB and I went to the mall, and I absolutely loved the concept. They are similar to Sawngthaews in Thailand, but even better. They are a crazy cross between the decked out, painted up, chicken buses of Guatemala and a pick up truck with benches in the back. Each Jeepney holds around twelve people and you can go anywhere in town for about 10 cents. The people are friendly and they run everywhere at all hours of the day. Much like the chicken buses you would NEVER wait for one, and you would be able to get anywhere without any effort. I love public transport!

So I was off to the bank, a quick fifteen minute ride and I was standing outside the bank looking at a huge closed sign. Damn... I forgot that it was a holiday today (though don't ask me what the holiday was). Luckily there was a Starbucks next door so I walked in, ordered a three dollar coffee, and then climbed back on a jeepney for the ride home. The people in the back with me thought that it was hysterical that I was drinking Starbucks and riding in a jeepney. Apparently you just don't do that sort of thing here! 40 minutes after leaving I was back at the house happy as could be and ready to spend some time with my new family again.

We climbed into the car and headed for a Su Tu Kil for lunch. Basically a Su Tu Kil is a fish market where you pick out your freshly caught-and by caught I mean dynamite harvested-fish and have them prepare it for you however you would like it. After selecting a dizzying array of multicolored fish we sat down for a fantastic feast before heading to the mall to do some shopping at the ultra-hip boutique clothing stores. In one store I decided to try on a pair of jeans that caught my eye, and, DAMN, my ass looked great in those jeans! HAHAHA, joking! Looking at the price tag I quickly realized that even after getting them tailored they were still only going to cost about 17 dollars so I treated myself to another pair of jeans. 10 days ago I had not worn jeans in six and a half months. Now I have two pairs to send home, and I am anxiously awaiting getting home just to wear them again.

I didn't miss any of my clothes on this trip, I was just wearing traveling attire, and, since no one really gives a damn what you look like when you are traveling, I never thought about the fact that, due to a lack of wardrobe, at times I ended up wearing some pretty goofy combinations of clothing on this trip! It's funny how the simple act of just putting on a pair of jeans, something I do everyday at home, can remind me of just how far removed I am from my everyday life!

Sorry the post was pretty lame, just not a whole lot to talk about right now. I head to Myanmar (Burma) on Saturday. From opulence to one of the worlds most isolated countries. It will be an interesting change of pace to say the least! Perhaps then I will have some more interesting things to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Estoy Borracho

OK. I am drunk. I will freely admit to being quite intoxicated at the moment. BUT, that does mean that what I am about to write has no merit, and that you can just ignore my ranting and raving. Pay attention God dammit! Some of this is important.

Before we get to the important stuff let me just address a couple of other issues. First, yes I am hammered. This is the first time that I can remember where I have sat alone drinking on this entire trip. And second (this is to you mom and dad), before you go worrying about August's drinking, this is the first time that I can remember having more than three beers in one night in at least two months (I am currently working on number four, and just might add a fifth one into the mix later on.). To address why I am drinking alone I guess I should explain the last couple of days. I decided that the relative comfort of Cebu (and the incredible generousity of JB and his family) was actually not what I wanted at the moment. Perhaps I have been on the road for too long, but I really wanted to be traveling again. So I decided to pack a bag and head for the south of the island. I arrived in Moalboal yesterday only to discover that, while there are an infinite number of dive shops, the place is a shithole, and there are more old fat Europeans and young Filipino prostitutes than I could ever have imagined. Basically, the place sucks. I was in a pretty foul mood last night, but, as I had signed up to do a few dives today, I tried to hold my head high and just ride it out. Unfortunately, I could not go anywhere last night without being a.) The youngest westerner in the the place by at least ten years, and b.) the only person not trying to sleep with a teenage Filipino. This resulted in me spending the entire night in my room reading Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. More on this in a minute.

Today I went diving for the first time in a couple of months. Unlike previous diving experiences this one proved quite different. It turns out that all these old nasty whities who are sleeping with young Filipino girls at night are also all very experienced divers. As a result of this there was not any real leadership on the dives. All these guys just hopped off the boat at the dive spot and did there own thing, surfacing at the end point on their own time. As I was the only person without a dive master's certification a dive master from the shop accompanied me on my dives. However, I must say that he was one hell of a terrible dive master. He never checked my gear, and once we were in the water he rarely checked to see how I was doing. He just sort of did his own thing forcing me to follow him. This meant that I had to dive to a depth of 25 meters on my first dive, and while this was fun I am only certified to dive to 18 meters. He was fully aware of this. Despite the fact that I was a bit worried about my safety, and the lack of protocols that were followed (For example, when I ran out of air on the first dive my dive master did not surface with me, leaving me to swim to the boat on my own while he continued his dive.) I enjoyed the dives quite a bit. At least as much as someone who only enjoys diving occasionally (Most divers I meet tend to be quite obsessed with the sport.) could enjoy the dives. I was fortunate enough to have two incredible experiences with sea turtles during the dives.I saw one on each dive, and swam with each of them for a couple of minutes. The turtles were beautiful, and I was overwhelmed with joy each time I gently place my hand on their shell, or casually kicked behind them for 50 meters. It is funny how three or four minutes of your day can translate into an experience that you will never forget no matter how long you live. Absolutely FANTASTIC!!

The dives over, I was back in the shithole of Moalboal. But this time I was prepared. I was going to drink. Quick pause in the story. Beer number four is...finished. OK, so like I said, I was going to drink. It just so happened that there was a beautiful sunset, so I sat on a dock with a couple of cold San Miguels next to me and read a bit more of Barack Obama's book. After a while I put the book down and put my iPod on. Listening to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here while enjoying the splendid reds, oranges, yellows, and purples of the setting sun is an experience that I will not soon forget.

Now for some serious stuff. Four and a half months ago I sat in Nicaragua telling a friend (Who I still owe a massive debt to for helping me out of one hell of a tight spot. Thanks a ton Lyle. You are one hell of a good friend.) that I supported Hillary Clinton because I just didn't think that Barack Obama had what it took to be president. He asked me if I had ever read The Audacity of Hope, and whether I knew much about Barack's positions on various issues. Sheepishly, I had to admit that, no I did not know a whole hell of a lot about Barack Obama. Over the past few months I have tried to learn more about Barack as well as the other candidates involved in the race. As recently as a month ago I can remember telling some Norwegian friends, anxious to here my views on the upcoming election, that I was pretty unimpressed with any of the candidates, and that the only person I thought could help our country out of the complete fuckhole that George Bush has dug for us was Al Gore. While I still belief that Al Gore would be one hell of a good president I have started to realize what a great man Barack Obama is.

About a month ago a close friend of mine forwarded an email to me about Barack Obama. I was very shocked when I received it. The email stated that Barack Obama was a radical Muslim (he is a Christian) who was trying to destroy America from the inside out. Utterly shocked that anyone could belief this I replied to my friend that I was shocked that he could possibly begin to believe such utter garbage. This was at a time when I still did not know a whole hell of a lot about Barack Obama. Nonetheless, I knew that what was being said was garbage, complete slander bordering on racism. This was one of the catalysts that led me to start learning more about Barack Obama. I occasionally would watch clips of debates online and read interviews with him, increasingly becoming more and more fascinated with this man. When I arrived in the Philippines there was a copy of The Audacity of Hope (courtesy of JB) and a copy of Notes From My Father (courtesy of Natalie) waiting for me. I immediately started reading The Audacity of Hope, and while I have not yet finished the book, here is what I think of Barack Obama thus far. If there was ever a chance to right the wrongs of the last seven years; to change the direction of a country that is faltering not only abroad, but also at home; to provide our children with a chance for a better future; to improve a flawed healthcare system; to improve an educational sytem, that despite its name, is leaving millions of children behind; to keep us from losing our footing as the worlds only superpower; and to keep us safe, then it is Barack Obama. I am thousands of miles away from home, and unfortunately, due to poor planning on my part, I will admit to not voting absentee in my state's primary. However, I will use my only form of public communication, this blog, to implore you all to examine the beliefs on Barack Obama. As far as I can tell there are only two possibilities. Barack Obama is either the worlds greatest liar and does not actually give two shits about our country and will say anything to get elected. OR, he is a great man. A man who has dedicated his life to public service. A man who has sacrificed much in order to improve the lives of countless Americans. A man we can trust. A man that all of us, both Republican and Democrat alike, can find reasons to believe in. A man who can lead us. A man who can help us. A man who is willing to sacrifice everything in order to better a country he believes in. It was not so long ago that men like Barack Obama gathered in Philadelphia and collectively changed the world forever. Their names were Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison. We owe it to Barack Obama, to our children, and to ourselves, to examine his political beliefs. So, in parting, I beg you all to spend some time learning about this man, and if you find the same thing that I find, then PLEASE do whatever you can to help his campaign. We need this man. The fate of our country might very well depend on whether or not he is elected.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Night of Decadence

I have arrived in the Philippines for a two week break from travel. One of my college roommates, JB, decided to return to the Philippines for three weeks to visit his family and I have come to join him. I had been counting down the days until I got here, anxiously awaiting seeing a familiar face. Arriving at his house it finally hit me that I was not on the road anymore. I have a bedroom. A REAL BEDROOM. There is a kitchen and a bathroom and a living room. I am in a house! Absolutely fantastic. What's more, JB's family live a very comfortable lifestyle (I still have not gotten used to having the live-in maids do everything for me.), and have graciously welcomed me into their house. Additionally, they have generously treated me to a bit of their lifestyle.

I have lived a comfortable life on the road. I am happy with my two dollar hotel rooms, my 50 cent street food meals, and my cold showers. I have nothing to complain about, and I certainly have not done anything that has made me feel that I deserve any sort of special treats. Nonetheless, that is exactly what I have received here.

JB's father procured memberships for us at a swanky gym/spa on the top two floors of the tallest (and nicest) building in Cebu. So after my workout yesterday morning (Those of you who know August know how much he loves the gym, and how much he has missed it over these last six and a half months.) and a tasty lunch I zipped down to the mall to buy a pair of nice jeans for dinner. Dinner was at the Marriott, so after purchasing jeans I needed a haircut and (gasp) to trim my beard. Wearing a nice t-shirt, some nice jeans, and with my beard and hair sharply trimmed I must say I looked quite dashing. Certainly not like the grubby backpacker who has been zipping around the world living out of a 35-L pack.

Arriving at the Marriott (still WAY under dressed) I was blown away by the opulent nature of the dining area. The meal was this crazy hybrid buffet where the appetizers (which were phenomenal) were laid out buffet style along with the salads and desserts. The entrees were all at little stations where a chef was standing by ready to whip up whatever you wanted from his station. Everything was incredibly fresh and the wine was, well...WOW!

Here is what I ate for dinner last night: 1 large fresh salad. 1 plate of cheeses, grapes, walnuts, and crackers. 1 plate of various appetizers. 2 plates of fresh seafood fettuccine. 1 plate seafood jumbolia(is that how you spell jumbolia?). 1 large plate of sushi. 2 grilled pieces of tuna. 1 grilled chicken breast. 1 plate of calamari. 6, yes SIX, pieces of cheesecake (2 blueberry, 2 mango, 2 strawberry). 3 glasses red wine.

It was crazy nice, which led to some confusion for me. I am not the most sophisticated of people, and, while I knew what to do with two of my forks, I had no idea what the hell the third one was for!?!?!? Anyone??

After being rolled out of the dining area it was time for a sauna and then a massage. Both were fantastic and my masseuse found more knots in my back than I knew could even exist. After six months of sleeping on hard, lumpy mattresses my back was finally being sorted out. The massage was 100% legitimate, but I could not have asked for a happier ending.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I can't think of anymore blog titles

I haven't written in a while. I guess after the experience at the train station in Lao Cai there just wasn't much I could follow that up with. The rest of my time in Vietnam passed, but I suppose that is all I could say. Just that it passed. I saw a few things and celebrated Tet, but nothing was that exciting. This is probably due to the horrible bout I had with what I am diagnosing as dysentery. I am basing this diagnosis on two pieces of evidence. 1.) I took Tinidazole (as a last resort) and within two days was feeling much better. 2.) I shit like I had dysentery! There is a great book that I would recommend to anyone as an essential travel book. In the book Are You Experienced by William Sutcliffe our hero, Dave, is traveling in India when he comes down with terrible travelers diarrhea. Here is how he describes it. "Imagine pouring cow pat into a cricket bowling machine (essentially a pitching machine) and turning it to the highest speed setting. That was my new experience with shitting." Like Dave I had never experienced anything as truely horrific as what I went through my last four days in Hanoi. I was unable to eat for three days and left my hotel only one time over a two day period of time. I spent most of my time in the bathroom or huddled under a couple of blankets on my bed.

With yet another illness behind me I arrived in Bangkok absolutely famished. Luckily there are more than enough street stands to accommodate a starving traveler so for the past two days I have been doing very little other than stuffing food in my face. God bless Thailand and all it's glorious (and cheap) food.

Lying in bed with dysentery gives you a lot of time to think about what you are doing and why you are traveling. This trip....what to say about this trip. I have been wandering the globe for over six months now and well...shit...I am amazed at how much I have changed. Everyday something reminds me that I am not the same person I was six months ago. I left Seattle without a single friend from another continent and now I consider myself fortunate enough to have friends all over the world. But it is not external factors like meeting people or seeing new places that have really changed me. Rather I have changed myself. On some deep level this trip has stripped away everything that I thought about myself. It took months for this to happen but at some point in time (Actually I think it was during round one in Thailand) I hit rock bottom. I was so confused as to why I was here and what I was doing. Completely lost and utterly depressed it was not until I arrived in Don Det, Laos and became friends with a young Laotian boy named Bong that I began to understand why I was traveling. Not to see the world, but to find yourself in the world.

I look at the world with a different set of eyes these days. Everywhere I travel there are constant reminders of the human condition. Mass graves, refugee camps, and war memorials can be found everywhere I have traveled. Additionally, compassion, courage, and love are found in equal measure in every country that I have set foot in. How do I, as an individual, fit into this picture? That one persistent question is a reminder that I still have a lot more wandering and a lot more wondering to do before this trip is over. In some ways I realize now that, because I have so much to question and so much to learn about myself and the world I live in, this trip will never truly end. David Bonderman did far more than simply provide me with the means to travel for 8 months he placed me on a path that has changed my life. This trip, my wandering and wondering, will never end. I will carry on in spirit, if not in name, as a Bonderman fellow for as long as I shall live, and can only encourage those of you who have yet to step out into the world to do so. If you do, do so with love in your heart. The human condition is a vastly complex equation and the more love we carry, the more compassion we show our fellow man, the closer we come to finding a harmonious balance in which we may all have peace.

Friday, February 1, 2008

When Chaos Reigned Supreme

I am about to attempt to describe one of my craziest travel experiences to date. It might be difficult to convey the utter chaos that was surrounding this event so, please, whatever I describe, and whatever you imagine, I want you to then amp up the chaos level by a factor of 10. It was that insane!

Tet (The Chinese Lunar New Year) is fast approaching. To say that Vietnam is chaotic and congested on a normal day would be a slight understatement, but to try to describe the madness that has gripped the country as it prepares for the New Year is just about impossible. People are EVERYWHERE! Most people spend Tet with their families, and thus moving about the country is quite a task as all the bus and train stations are crammed full of people trying to get home in time for the celebrations on February 6th.

Pat and I had decided to flee Sa Pa (and the incessent rain) before we ended up catching pneumonia and the only way to return to Hanoi was by train via Lao Cai. We wandered down to the booking office and tried to purchase seats on the night train back to Hanoi. By this point in time I have adjusted to the fact that most Vietnamese treat travelers like mushrooms (i.e. leave them in the dark and feed them shit), but was super frustrated when the people at the booking station first told us to come back three hours later, then told us they were not selling tickets, then told us they were actually closed for the day (despite the OPEN sign on the door). Thus, we left Sa Pa for Lao Cai without train tickets, hoping that we could simply purchase them at the station. It all went down hill after that.

When we arrived at the train station three hours before our train it looked like a large scale riot was taking place. The amount of people who had some how packed themselves into that station simply defies logic. There were a couple fo lines so Pat and I battled our way into one and waited to buy tickets. About thirty seconds later a group of ticket scalpers comes to inform us that the train is sold out, but they have two seats left (lucky us). We aren't buying it, and continue to wait in line to try to buy seats. People are pushing left and right to cut in line and the police are present in staggering numbers. They are screaming into bullhorns, and pounding the railings with their battons. When they see people cut they try to grab them and move them to the back of the line. It is sheer chaos and Pat and I have to scream at each other just to be heard. All the while the group of scalpers is jeering at us and generally harrassing the shit out of us. After one young woman somehow managed to worm her way in front of me I had had enough. The next person to try to cut was an old woman in her sixties or seventies. She roughly shoved me aside and stepped in front of me. Despite the fact that I am becoming a hardened bastard even I am above hitting an old lady. So, as gently as possible, I put my elbow against her chest and push her back behind me. Yes. I did elbow an old lady. Anyone remember that post about the Guatemalan bus stations? Well it is actually happening now. I'm beating up old women! In my defense I want to say that I was gentle. I did not throw an elbow, I pushed her with my elbow. The next man who tried to cut was not so lucky.

This is one of the few situations I have found myself in since I started this trip where I was actually feeling a bit worried about what was going on. The cops are trying to control the crowd, but there are not enough cops to keep an eye on everything, and about a minute after I had asserted my dominance by elbowing grandma a younger Vietnamese man climbs over the railing and hits me in the neck with the heel of his hand and violently shoves me out of the way. I am not about to let this slide, and using a technique that I developed in mosh pits for self preservation I drop my shoulder under his in order to raise his arm enough to expose his rib cage. With one swift motion I deliver a violent elbow which causes him to hit the railing giving me time to squeeze past him and regain my position in the line. He spins around swearing at me in Vietnamese with a look of sheer anger on his face. Fortunately for me he does not have enough room to throw a punch, but he tries to grab me and push his way back in front of me again. I'm in complete 'stay alive' mode now. I grab him by his jacket, and snarling things I don't dare to repeat here, I shove him against the railing and hold home there, pressing my face into his. Before I know it a cop is stepping in, grabbing the man and ordering him to the back of the queue.

I've made an impression on the people around me and no one tries to cut in line again. Unfortunately this does not help much because when I get to the ticket window the teller informs me that they are sold out of tickets on all three trains tonight and the morning train the following day is also sold out. Without any other options available to us we turn our attention to the touts and purchase two tickets for a slightly inflated price. In hindsight we are quite lucky. For one thing we are alive and back in Hanoi, and second, we only ended up paying about an extra five dollars for the tickets. Another experience I won't soon be forgetting. There seem to be a lot of those on this trip.