Monday, March 22, 2010

I Left my Heart in Southeast Asia (Part Deux)

     While the MV Explorer was still docked in HCM I was lucky enough to take a side trip to Cambodia.  We visited both Siem Reap and Pnom Penh.  The temples at Siem Reap, especially Angkor Wat at sunrise were a phenomenal experience.  Being in the presence of something so ancient, and made for love-a holy love- is definitely awe inspiring.  But my love lives in Pnom Penh.
     There was a joke made on the ship recently about how every port is changing people’s lives.  Each time we leave people feel inspired and changed.  The jokester asked, “Well if you change after every port are you going to change back when we get to Fort Lauderdale? …I think we have some serious personality issues here”.
     So, while each port has brought a different side of me out, or encouraged me to think and wonder about new issues, Pnom Penh is the one place I can honestly say has changed me and my view on the world.
     The first night in Pnom Penh we went to an orphanage.  It was dark out and the bus we took was too big to drive down the street so we had to walk down a couple of blocks to get there.  As we walked by, people stared.  It was a little eerie, unsure of where we were and what the orphanage was going to be like.  But even though it was dark and hard to see, when we turned into the orphanage there was a crowd of children, from toddlers to teenagers, waiting to meet us.  I looked around, overwhelmed, and made eye contact with one of the first girls I saw.  She looked at me; I waved and smiled; she smiled back, walked over to me, took my hand, and didn’t let go for the entire visit.
     I don’t remember her name.  It was a Cambodian name that started with an S-I felt too embarrassed to ask her what her name was again after we became friends.  She was eighteen but she looked like she was twelve.  She gave me the tour of her orphanage and first of all I need to state that these conditions were wonderful living conditions for Cambodia, but I guess my girl knew that I was taken aback when she showed me the bedroom she sleeps in with tons of other children.  The floor was bare when we went in and when I asked what they sleep on she showed me her mat, she said, “It wouldn’t be comfortable for you but it’s good for us”.  Sheesh, break my heart.
     Eventually the two of us sat down on a bench in the courtyard and watched the rest of the kids play soccer.  We talked for the rest of the time, just getting to know one another.  Although she was eighteen, she was at a ninth grade level.  She was thinking about leaving the orphanage in May to go to training school to become a receptionist or a maid.  She said she would love to finish high school and then go to college but it would take her eight more years and by that time she would be too old.  Break my heart again.  I want her to live in a world like I live in a world where you can do anything. 
     Our common ground was love.  We both discussed our relationships, past and present (well her present, and me, well…me on a ship that is 30% men).  But we understood.  She giggled when she told me that her boyfriend tells her he loves her.  I think the concept was a weird one for her nonetheless one to talk to with an almost stranger.  But we still laughed, and shared, and she taught me how to say I love you in Khmer, and she made me realize that love is the energy that keeps us alive.
     After a walk that night through the streets of Pnom Penh I got to thinking about our human needs in relation to our human happinesses.  The houses we walked past looked so shabby from an American eye-but they were normal, middle class houses-just made from metal scraps and only big enough for one bedroom—the kitchen is outside.  So people cook their meals sandwiched between the street and their home, their families gather together, they talk to their neighbors, and when the meal is through the mother’s wash the dishes on the sidewalk and the children dance and run around-barefoot.  So why don’t we do that?  Why do we lock ourselves into our four bedroom, three bathroom houses, and set the alarm when we walk through the garage?  Why do we hide from our neighbors and keep the kids in the living room watching TV?  Why don’t we live openly, freely, and quite simply, basically?
     We are human beings.  We require love and attention.  We require contact not four TVs with DVR, not a garbage disposal, not even an indoor shower.  The Cambodian people appear to have nothing to us, but they have appreciation.  They are grateful for what they have and happy to have it.  They laugh, they smile, and they live how they need.  This is my new American Dream.

I Left my Heart in Southeast Asia

    Let’s backtrack a little-time travel if you will-back a few weeks to Vietnam.  The water is brown, palm trees are everywhere and for the first time I stepped out into port and instantly thought ‘I’m gonna like it here’.
    When I left the ship I expected to walk into a swampland, one that still had footprints of soldiers and was filled with Vietnamese that hated Americans.  To my surprise Ho Chi Minh City was a city that looked like a European twist on an Asian country and was filled with friendly, English speaking people.  People everywhere were excited to talk to Americans, practice their English, and try to get you to ride on their motorbikes.  The motorcycle thing really threw me off-it really is their main (seriously main) source of transportation.  My personal favorite image was while I was passing by a primary school as the children were getting let out.  Just as I waited outside my middle school after play rehearsal waiting for a ride from my Mom or Dad, the children were all crowded outside the front doors waiting for their parents.  But instead of the line of SUV’s and minivans there was a parking lot filled with moms on motorbikes.  It was incredible.  They were swarming-the motorbikes swarm every street.  Another personal favorite image of mine is the full family motorbike.  I searched to find the maximum number of people I could see on a motorbike—Five—one being a small child, two older children, a mom and a dad—So good.
    I don’t like motorcycles.  In the U.S. they are a death sentence—too many people, too many cars.  But here, it is a culture, a way of life, and a luxury.  Our Dean, Loren Crabtree, explained to us before we left that Vietnam was in their motorcycle stage.  Meaning that thirty years ago the Vietnamese were all riding bicycles-not really a developed enough country yet, but as time has progressed their status is improving and moving closer to a fuller more westernized society but not quite yet at SUV status, so motorcycle it is.  I thought Crabtree was using it as a metaphor for the political and social situations in Vietnam-and he was-but I had no idea how important the motorcycles really were to the culture there.
    I much more expected the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War to be a huge part of their culture-but instead it was something that has passed by, and a topic that I had not discussed with anyone outside of the war remnants museum.
    I had a trip on the first day to the war remnants museum and to visit a UPI photographer.  It was unbelievable to see these pictures and hear the stories that actually went along with the pictures too.  The photographer showed us his work and with almost every photo he knew the background of that moment.  He could tell us that in the picture where the Vietnamese woman is crouched down in front of a helicopter with her hand on her forehead, that the woman had just lost her husband, her children, and her land-she had nothing.  I couldn’t believe he could remember all the stories, the dates, the faces.  This was thirty years ago and it was all he had left from those years.  After the war the Vietnamese government raided his house because he was a photographer for the U.S.  He fled the states but in order to salvage what he had spent his life working toward he had to bury his pictures underground.  Dozens of photos that we looked at were discolored and worn down from the dirt that was left permanently stained on them.  It was sad to see his life work put into something that went unappreciated and buried for years.  Today his work was displayed in the war remnants museum.  Meeting him before going to the museum really brought into perspective how many people were affected by the war.  The sights that were seen by soldiers, locals, and photographers were gruesome.  I had never before seen even a picture of a person carrying skin by its head.  That picture is sure to haunt me for the rest of my life.  Another prime example of why I don’t believe in war.
     I will say that even though I find acts of war disgusting I still appreciate the soldiers—on both sides.  There is a faith in military men that I can always admire.  The pictures in the museum showed the passion behind their eyes.  I respect that a person can listen to an order and perform for their country.
     I guess I really just don’t believe in countries.
    --I don’t believe in sides.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'll say it

When time is short-I miss twitter. The end.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'll Eat Your Heart Out With a Spoon (props to Spero Gin)

     I have not been updating my blog lately.  Time has been playing tricks on me.  We just got back from India and I still haven’t written about Vietnam and Cambodia yet.
     So I just got out of my global studies class-a class which everyone on the ship is required to take-and today we talked about how this voyage isn’t about sight seeing, but rather about the people we meet.
     So this blog is dedicated to the people I’ve met in my life and how they have carried through with me on this voyage and in my memory.
     My Uncle Chris passed away while I was in India.  He hasn’t been doing well for a while, but we’ve all just been hoping for something good to happen-and I suppose this is something-good or bad.  It kills me that I can’t be at home with my family right now.  It is engrained in my mind that when you lose someone you should be there-quickly.  Had I known before I left the ship I would have skipped India and flew back home for a few days-how expensive can flights be from India anyway?-Doesn’t matter.
     The countries I have been visiting (Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and India) have a large emphasis on family.  In these countries people spend their lives attached to their family.  Some live in the same homes their entire lives, some work together, cook together, eat together, and pray together.  The point is, the connection is solid and the respect for one another is unconditional.  I want so badly to share these values with my family back home.  I love my family, more than anything in the world-and I would do anything for them-but I feel like the last few years have been distant.  Families are supposed to spend time together, especially holidays.  They are supposed to talk with one another, share their lives, laugh, love.  They should want to do these things-because this is what we have.  I want to celebrate our history together and appreciate that we have similar experiences, backgrounds, personalities, and humor.  When my family gets together (on the rare occasion that we are all present) I have always felt blessed-and blissful.  Since I was little I never wanted the night to end when we are all together.  I can remember so many times, looking at the clock and trying to delay our parents from wanting to leave.  I still don’t want to leave.
     I want to look past the differences that may be between us and find the similarities.  I want us to speak freely to one another and share our feelings.  I want to be able to hang out whenever we are around.  On a day when nothing is going on I want us to call each other up and see if we are interested in getting dinner.
     My grandparents on my mom’s side live in Kentucky.  Her brothers live as far as California.  My grandparents on my dad’s side have been deceased for years-but my aunts, uncles, and cousins all still live on Long Island.  A twenty minute drive is close enough.
     I vow to appreciate the rest of my family, both close and far away, for the good that they have and the good that they have brought out in me.  I have endless happy memories of my family and I together that I will never forget and will bring with me forever.  Maybe now that we are getting older we can all keep those memories and add some more.  If any of you are reading this I love you and miss you.  I hope you feel the same way I do and will try harder with me to see each other more.
     Also, I think Memorial Day is the weekend after my graduation so I should be back home in NY and most likely we all will be home.  I would love to go to the park and wake up early and save a picnic site-just like Uncle Chris used to.  We can barbecue and crack open a few beers, I’ll bring bocce ball, and Eric and my Dad can start a competition over who can run faster.  I think it is time we bring back our traditions and create some new ones.
     Thank you to all my family-blood and non blood-your lives have changed me in so many ways.  My memory is infinite and honestly I have pieces of all of you with me every second of the day.  I love you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

8 Days in China, 1 Long Blog Post. -Hope you still read-

    I left China over a week ago and I waited to write because of exhaustion and there was only two days between China and Vietnam.  But I’m really glad I waited because I’ve now had time to digest China and appreciate it a little more.
    Our first day in China we docked in Shanghai.  The city looked architecturally beautiful-kind of like something out of Tomorrow Land at Disney-so we expected a clean, fast moving city like we saw in Japan.  Surprise! It was not.  China has a much different lifestyle than Japan and we did not expect that-I honestly thought the cultures would be a lot closer.  But the people were loud, very loud and pushy.  Bumping into people is not rude in China; it is just what you have to do to get around since there are so many people.  And apparently in Shanghai it is perfectly okay to throw your trash and food on the ground and/or allow your children to poop straight on the sidewalk.  That was different.  The best smelling thing was the octopus that was being barbecued at the street vendors on the corners.  Also, we arrived in the middle of the Chinese New Year so it was a little crazy because crowds of people were in the markets and hustling around the streets and restaurants.    So that might have affected our original fear and hesitation in China.
    The second day was a lot better.  We were aware of what to expect and we avoided the markets.  We walked around a much cleaner area of Shanghai and went down to People’s Square, which is a large park that was full of people lounging on their day off and enjoying the sunny day that we were blessed with.  Shanghai felt like springtime, which was a good relief before Beijing and also allowed for a great photo opportunity of what we entitled “Babies and Birds”.
    Beijing is where the real Chinese magic happened.  Beijing was an interesting difference just from Shanghai because it was less intimidating and felt more traditional.  We stayed in a hotel a few blocks away from the Forbidden City so we had access to some amazing cultural experiences.  The Forbidden City was one of my favorite places.   I was surprised at how beautiful it really was-I just had no idea going in how huge it was and how immaculate the details on all of the buildings were.  It was also interesting how many beautiful buildings there could be in the middle of these large, open, stone courtyards that were created because the emperor was paranoid about being murdered.
    Our first night was a fun one because I ended up learning more about the modern Chinese culture as opposed to the traditional.  A few friends and I went out to a strip of bars which was funny simply trying to get there.  Apparently almost no one speaks English in China, or at least they didn’t want to (they were definitely not to keen on Americans-my friend Amy and I actually started telling people we were from Canada).  Anyway so when we headed out to the bars that night my friends and I took two cabs and got split up because of the communication issues.  So me and three other friends ended up sticking together.  The strip we were on was filled with bars that were very similar except for one major difference, the price of the beer.  In China, you can barter for anything, including your beers.  So we were getting beers for a dollar and refused to buy anything that was less.  Once we had a good drink deal we were set because each bar had singers performing on stage.  They were all so talented and entertaining to watch.  They sang both English and Chinese songs and loved how enthusiastically we were listening to them.  It was funny though because they sang karaoke kind of style, basically playing a recorded version of the music and them singing the vocals—no actual instruments.  And the songs they sing are hilarious because they are from about ten years ago.  Man did I miss Avril Lavigne and the Backstreet Boys!  But the best part was when we went to a bar where we met one of the singers, a spunky girl named Emily.  Emily is 21 years old and has a short blonde pixie cut.  She was singing “I’m coming out” when we walked in and her energy was amazing.  So as soon as she took a break we went over to speak with her and she chatted with us for longer than she could.  She spoke such great English so it was so easy to talk to her about where she grew up and how she moved away from her family and after going to school for music, sings at this club seven nights a week.  Once she went back on stage she sang tons of songs dedicated to us and even helped us get a better deal on our drinks.  Talking to local people in our ports really makes the trip a thousand times better, and Emily made my China trip.

    Of course, going to The Great Wall was also a huge highlight.  We hiked up the wall at sunset one night and let me tell you, the wall is not an easy hike.  For some reason I had not thought about the fact that it is on the top of some enormous mountains but not that that would mean you would have to hike up and then back down and up and again back down steep and broken steps.  We later went to another part of the wall and had to climb 1,044 steps up to the top of the mountain in the dark.  That’s 1,044 steps straight up! No break!  I used to say I didn’t mind steps because back in Boston we are climbing up staircases all the time to get into our apartments or going to class (because it’s not courteous to take the elevator if you’re going to floors one through three) but after this hike I officially hate stairs.  Every opportunity that we had to skip staircases in places after the wall I opted the escalator.  I better have perfect legs now-it was intense!
    However, that night, after the hike of death, we got to sleep on the wall.  We slept in one of the towers and I slept underneath a window so I could see the moon (the sky that night was incredible-although somehow I still think I saw more stars up in VT with the girls).  Now let me remind you it is February-So China is COLD!  In my real world I would never sleep outside in the middle of winter, but when you’re on the great wall you have to do what you have to do.  So I slept wearing layers and layers of clothing; on the bottom-under armor, jeans, sweatpants, two pairs of big, fuzzy socks, on the top- a tank top, a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, another long sleeve t shirt and a sweatshirt.  All of this on a mat and inside two sleeping bags.  When I first got in it wasn’t that bad-it was actually a relief from the cold and I had to take off my jacket.  But then, once I stopped moving, I froze.  I constantly had to rearrange myself into the fetal position and pull the sleeping bags over my head so that I was cocooned tightly and could get some blood flowing again.  I’m not sure if I actually slept that night.   I kept waking up in the middle of the night and when I did I wasn’t sure if I had been asleep or if I was just closing my eyes.  All I know is that in an instant I was being woken up for the sunrise.  That is where it was all worth it.  The sun coming up over the mountains was breathtaking.  Now I don’t know what is better, the view from the poets table in the black hills in South Dakota or the view off the great wall.  Both are officially sacred in my mind.  I spent a long while sitting on the wall overlooking the mountain range with the sun just starting to touch each and every mountain top.  It was a relaxing experience and a perfect time to reflect on my life and this voyage.  I missed everyone from back home a lot up there.  I took some great pictures but it is not as comforting as the energy and feelings that came from being there in person.

    Leaving Beijing was kind of sad because it made my Chinese experience a better one, but I was looking forward to coming back to the ship to sleep in my own bed again and see all of my friends who weren’t on my trip.  Back in Hong Kong we were all reunited and were able to explore the city together.  Hong Kong is a pretty easy city to get around-it’s pretty cool they have ferries from island to island-and I love ferries because they remind me of Long Island.  But the city was fun because it was a mix of so many different cultures.  The city was like a mix between London, Los Angeles, and a little bit of New York-with a slight Asian touch.  Honestly it was harder to find Chinese food there than it was to find American food.  But thanks to a nice couple at an antique shop we had a recommendation for some great dim sum.  I loved that couple.  They had a tiny, tiny shop that was covered with statues, jewelry, boxes, masks, anything.  We stayed in there for a while, me and five friends jammed into this shop so much that we literally had to stand one next to the other in a perfect line and we filled the whole shop.  I bought a bracelet from them that has a Buddhist prayer for protection on it-I figured it might be a nice mindset for traveling.  But once I showed an interest in the different types of Buddhism and the prayers and practices they pulled out a book and continued to teach me different things about the religion.  I had noticed there were a lot of Buddhist statues which involved couples having sex (so of course I had to know) and when I asked they had no problem telling me.  In Buddhism they believe there is time, space, and consciousness-and sex is one of the only things that alters your consciousness so it is considered more of a holy experience.  Good research.
    The next day was our last day in Hong Kong and it was a little cloudy outside so we were worried, but decided to head to Victoria’s Peak.  Victoria’s Peak is at the top of a mountain on Hong Kong Island that has a gorgeous lookout point over the whole city and the waters around it.  Thanks to some life luck, when we got to the top the sky was clear and the weather was warm.  It was a nice day walking around in the sun and enjoying the views.  We ended the day taking a trolley back down the mountain and had to head back to the ship but it was definitely relaxing to be back on the Explorer that is my home now.

    Before we knew it we were in Vietnam.  This last week there and in Cambodia was absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to blog more about it.  Unfortunately I’m exhausted and we actually have to lose an hour of sleep tonight changing the clocks because we’re going east around Singapore to get west to India.  So Jennie Wennie needs some sleep.

    If you read this whole thing-you rock! I love you all!!