Friday, February 10, 2012

In America

It seemed like I would never say those words but I am indeed, "In America."  I have been on U.S. soil for just over a month now, the majority of that time spent living at my parents' house in Colorado.  My parents were wonderful about making or taking me out for all those foods I spent two years fantasizing about, not to mention holding off on celebrating Christmas until I got home.  They also let me borrow their cars--though it took considerable convincing as seemingly they thought I'd forgotten how to drive in that span of time.  Rest assured, I am still quite nimble behind the wheel.  That said, because my parents live in the mountains at least 15 minutes from civilization, one of my major adjustments was not being able to walk out my front door and run an errand.

Besides the driving, there were many other things that felt strange despite the fact that I was back in my homeland.  At the grocery store, I had a flash of indecision about whether I was responsible for bagging my groceries or not.  After being in mostly homogenous countries, the blend of races catches my eye constantly and I had forgotten how common it is to hear people here speaking languages other than English.  Believe me though, my life is much easier now for the prevalence of English.  Being able to turn on the faucet and just drink the water still feels risky but luxurious.  Going into box stores like Target feels dreamlike--things that I struggled to get in Macedonia like sporting equipment  are right there at my fingertips.  Meeting up with other Peace Corps volunteers on U.S. soil was strange but terrific.  Seeing my friends' new houses and babies and whatnot was not nearly as terrifying as I had anticipated and in fact it's good to see them doing so well. 

A week ago, I flew out to Washington, DC where my job hunt is centered.  I must say that being unemployed is fairly stressful.  I am not sure how picky to be about the jobs I apply for, whether to look for a temp position or wait it out for something permanent, and I feel unproductive because I'm not "working."  Oh yeah, and there's that whole no income part stressing me out too.  On the plus side, I found a nice apartment to sublet for a month where I am rooming with a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Cameroon and I have a job interview next week so that's encouraging.  And when I venture out, I have fun trips down memory lane by seeing my old haunts and catching up with my DC-based friends.

Macedonia is never far from my mind.  It has been an extremely cold winter there--we're talking negative digit temperatures and several feet of snow--so for the sake of all my friends, I hope warmer weather arrives soon because you can only spend so much of the day sitting on your heater.  Occasionally I get updates about the latest happenings with the projects I supported and mostly it's good news.  It's easy to wish I could jump back in the action but there is something redeeming about knowing things are moving forward without me.  

Last but not least, here are a few photos from my first month back, enjoying being in America. More news as it comes...

Ice skating in Evergreen, CO with my sister-in-law and brother

Christmas in January celebrated at my parents' house

One of the deer that like to hang out in my parents' back yard

Bliss--eating a Chipotle burrito

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thailand--the end of an adventure (or a beginning?)

I'm feeling pretty groovy at the moment, with a tummy full of the deliciousness that I made in my Thai cooking class this morning and relaxed muscles from my one hour Thai massage that cost me a whopping $7.  Tomorrow morning I start the 18 hour journey back to Colorado and admittedly after 2 months on the road, I am looking forward to:
1.  No more squat toilets, pay toilets, or hunting down toilet paper
2.  Not wearing a money belt everywhere that gives me the ever-so-attractive stomach pooch
3.  Sleeping more than 1-2 nights in one location and on mattresses that aren't just slightly softer than the floor
4.  Wondering whether the food I just ate is going to play tricks with my stomach
5.  Thinking so hard about whether I have enough clean clothes to make it to my next laundry opportunity and finding new ways to cram more into my backpack.

Me and Tamar cooking up some green curry
My Tom Kha Gai soup and best green curry ever
That all said, this trip is 3 times longer than any other I have taken and I feel so fortunate that I could take this journey, it was incredible.  I spent most of this week in northern Thailand, the highlight of which was trekking into the hills to stay overnight in a village and then travel back partially by elephant and bamboo raft.  First we visited some tribal villages, including a Karen tribe where the married women wear colored clothes and the single women wear white.  Most of the villagers were cutting bamboo to be woven into baskets for sticky rice and such.  Then the hike to the village was about two hours but with some steep bits, so luckily our host crafted some hiking poles out of bamboo.  Afterwards, my travel buddy Pru and I used them for some battles ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Everyone in my group stayed together in an elevated hut, sleeping on mattresses with mosquito nets.  With a very modest fee of $1/person, we were entertained around our campfire with a traditional performance from some local girls.  We also led them through the hokey pokey but I guess it's a smaller world than you think because they seemed to know it already.

Married Karen woman in traditional clothes
Darling village girl not the least bit shy about checking out the foreigners
Villagers at home cutting bamboo for baskets
Pru and I battle it out
My group checks out the homestay--we slept in the hut pictured
Dance performance by the village girls.  The traditional costume includes metal bands worn around the waist.  
Incredibly our elephants each held 3 people plus the mahout (guide) and my mahout actually balanced right on the elephant's head.  My fellow riders Pat, Vicky, and I were slightly disconcerted to learn that our elephant was 45 years old and elephant life expectancy is only 40, but we came through unscathed and watched amazed when he chomped down a whole tree as a mid-ride snack.  Next we rode bamboo rafts and I mean literally bamboo poles held together with cut strips of tires.  Each of us took a turn as a raft gondolier but whatever my next career may be, it's surely not as a raft captain.  

Pat, Vicky, and me (plus our mahout) on our old elephant
Boarding the bamboo rafts
One other noteworthy stop was the White Temple near Chang Mai, one man's vision strange yet sometimes beautiful creation.  Inside the temple, some of the motifs include the burning twin towers, Neo from The Matrix, and Michael Jackson.  Oh, and did I mention the golden bathroom?

At the White Temple
Fanciest bathroom building I've ever seen
And with that, 849 days and 20 countries later, I am returning to my homeland.  I plan to keep this blog going just a bit longer, so expect to hear soon about my readjustment to life in the USA.  The adventures may just be getting started...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Lovely Laos

Sabaidee (hello)!  For the last week, I’ve been traveling through what I believe is my 48th country, Laos (the “s” is silent).  This is almost a sleepy place, with a slow pace of life and quiet, polite people.  It took me awhile to warm up to Laos--it was such a departure from the intensity of India--but now I find it really quite lovely. 

I’m traveling now with a group of 13 people ranging from 24 to 73 years old, hailing from Australia, Britain, Canada, and the U.S.  In Laos, we started in the small capital city of Vientiane which did not have any very remarkable sites but it was fun to explore one man’s self-made collection of Buddha statutes. 

At the Buddha Park near Vientiane
Vang Vieng was our next stop and the town itself is an unattractive string of shops catering to tourists who want to tube on the river and drink alcohol served literally in small plastic buckets.  However, the environs have lovely green hillsides that we got to see on an extremely bumpy dirt road bike ride.  It can only be deemed miraculous that I did this 8 mile roundtrip ride on a fixed gear road bike.  The next day, I went ahead and tried bar hopping by inner tube on the river, where there are guys at each bar who throw ropes and pull each floating customer in to shore.  It’s not the classiest pastime but it was a fun afternoon. 

Me and my fixie
Local kids check out the weird foreigners
Next, after 5 hours on one of the windiest roads I’ve ever been on, we arrived in Luang Prabang.  The city is dotted with many beautiful temples or wats, including the Buddhist monks in orange robes who provide the wats’ upkeep.  On New Years Eve, I got up at 5 AM to see the monks gather offerings of rice, fruit, etc from people who line the street sitting on bamboo mats, collecting them in a lunch pail of sorts.  I was surprised that some of the monks were very young, perhaps only 10 years old.  Then we stopped at a pretty nature area, Kungsi Waterfalls.  After visiting a few wats, my final mission was to finish my Christmas shopping at the Night Market (my family is celebrating Christmas on January 16th after I get home).  The currency here is 8,000 Kip to $1, so it took awhile to get used to so many zeros in my wallet but my multiples of 8 are now fresh in my mind.  Then finally I stayed up until midnight (just barely) to ring in 2012 with my group.  People all over the city set off huge paper lanterns that go up like hot air balloons, dotting the whole sky with orange specks—it was a serene but special start to the new year. 

Monks collecting morning offerings in Luang Prabang
Pat channels his inner Tarzan at Kungsi Waterfalls
At Wat Xieng Thong
Buddha statues with tile mosaics behind at Wat Xieng Thong
Night Market in Luang Prabang
2012 is off to a calm start as we’ve spent the last two days on a boat going up the Mekong River.  We’ve had some of the best food on the trip during this time, dishes like green papaya salad and larp, a ground meat/hot pepper salad.  The boat ride has fortunately left me with time to write up this blog on the boat but no wifi, so the uploading will happen later.  I have a few more days in northern Thailand, then it is home sweet home which gives me a bit more excitement and angst each day--excitement for food, family, and friends; angst for job hunting, reverse culture shock, and weighing in after many months of travel cuisine.  I just keep reminding myself, what will be will be and besides, that’s all still a week and a country away.  Next up, Thailand.  

Our boat on the Mekong River
Locals busy along the Mekong
Boy eating sugar cane in a village along the Mekong River

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Southern Hospitality

I’ll be honest—when I left northern India, I was wondering if I had made a mistake booking a full month in India.  Could I handle another month of honking horns, touts following me around with postcard books, and questionably safe food?  Luckily, southern India proved delightful, the Florida to the north’s New York.  In the south, people were more relaxed and in turn, I was more relaxed.  The air was fresher and we spent a lot of time outdoors, from the beaches to the hilltops.  Many dishes used fresh ingredients like coconut, sometimes instead of a plate we had a banana leaf, and I didn’t get sick at all (other than a head cold).  Now, I was still seeing a gazillion temples (all of which require shoe removal—I’ve never gone barefoot so much in my life) and if I never see another grain of rice it will be too soon, but I’m certainly glad that  southern India proved to be a whole other creature from the north.

Veg Thali served on a banana leaf, including a big heaping pile of rice
The southern tour began in Kochi, a city where the fishermen still use enormous fishing nets attached to an elaborate lever, introduced by the Chinese hundreds of years ago.  In this region, gestures are important and one we had to learn quickly was the head bobble (picture a bobble-head doll) that is the equivalent of nodding “yes.”  Moving south meant hotter temperatures, so it was a relief when we moved on to the Hill country.  As an avid tea drinker, I was fascinated to see start-to-finish how tea is grown and processed.  Then we visited Mudumalai Nature Reserve, where we watched elephants being bathed and fed by their handlers.  Most of the trained elephants end up at temples—I got blessed by one in Pondicherry.  Each person holds out money, the elephant grabs it with her trunk, and then she bonks you on the head—err, blesses you—and this blessing is supposed to bring me prosperity.  A good job offer soon perhaps? 

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi at sunset
Me as a tea plantation worker
Always wash behind your ears
Getting "blessed"
One of my favorite southern stops was Mamallapuram, a small town on the Bay of Bengal (east coast) where we rode bicycles between the sights which included a Shore Temple, Five Rathas, Krishna’s Butterball, and a huge bas relief called Arjuna’s Penance.  Unexpectedly I also got a chance to swim in the Indian Ocean at a place called Varkala.  This wasn’t on my original itinerary but rather was added due to our need to avoid protests about proposed dam reconstruction at our previously planned destination, Periyar.  Unfortunately the protests also caused road closures between 6 AM and 6 PM, so to reach Varkala we actually had to drive all night in our tiny van.  Varkala is one of the nicer beaches I’ve been to though, good sand and right below a cliff that keeps all the shops and restaurants at a respectable distance.  Without going into all the details, the itinerary changes led to some struggle with the tour company to get substitute activities but in the end we had a nice long boat ride added through a beautiful region called the Kerala backwaters.  There we stayed 2 nights in guesthouses on an island within the backwaters, a restful way to de-stress and end my stay in India.

5 Rathas (Carriages) in Mamallapuram
Me in front of Arjuna's Penance
Krishna's butter ball
Laundry in the Kerala Backwaters
Getting around the Kerala Backwaters
Once again it was sad to say goodbye to the friends I made on the tour, particularly Wendy and Dennis who did the whole month with me.  Spending so much time together and in such a chaotic environment has a way of bringing people together quickly—and you can’t get much closer than trying to shove numerous Westerners into rickshaws built for tiny Indian behinds.  Now that I am in Laos and have some distance from India, I can better appreciate that the intensity of India is part of its magic.  In the end, I am very glad that I devoted a month to exploring India and I’m missing the smiles and hellos of the Indian people already.  I’m in Laos for a few more days, then one week in Thailand, and then, unbelievably, home!  More on southeast Asia in a future installment, of course. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011


This blog title was on the side of my tour bus and there have indeed been many ah-worthy sights during my first 10 days in India.  I’ve seen an almost overwhelming amount of forts, temples, and palaces carved from sandstone.  The number of people everywhere is astounding and they are constantly moving--carrying water or packages on their heads, weaving in and out of traffic on bicycle and auto rickshaws, buying and selling wares, and much more.  To facilitate all that movement, there is a LOT of honking horns, so much so that I think the beeping will echo in my head for weeks after I leave here.  To quote my roommate Malaika, "I didn't know what the definition of noisy was until now."  So, there is a great deal to take in but I am enjoying all of the unique places and delicious foods.  Or I was until about 2 days ago, when something I ate led me to projectile vomit in front of my entire tour group.  When feeling up to Indian fare, my new favorite dish is called vegetable thali which is a plate with 3-5 small samples of vegetable dishes along with bread and rice, which is delicious with a yogurt lassi drink.

Street scene in Agra; note monkey on the wire above
Enjoying a thali in Orchha with a palace in the background
Women collecting water in Alipura
I’m now on a group tour with 14 other people from around the world—Canada, UK, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, Puerto Rico, Australia, and 4 other Americans—plus our Indian guide Bhupendra or as he lets us call him, Boo.  The ease of group travel is something I’m appreciating, even though that does mean sometimes we spend longer somewhere than I would if I were traveling solo.  Also it’s nice to have other people to explore with because out on the street, people are usually trying to sell us something or asking for money.  Or in the villages, the kids want pens or chocolates because that’s what many tourists give them.  I didn’t realize what an attraction we ourselves would be as white foreigners—the kids love to shake our hands and while we are taking photos of them, they are taking cell phone pics of us.  It’s practically like being a celebrity and almost everywhere, people follow us and stare at us.  For me, it’s a bit too much attention but I figure the trading of photos is fair since we are equally fascinated by them.  The colors people wear here are incredible which makes taking good photos almost effortless. 

Attracting attention in the village of Bhadarej
Villagers in Bhadarej 
Me and the village kids in Alipura
Mother holding baby in Abhaneri
Collecting well water in Alipura
Our itinerary has included many classic stops like Delhi, Jaipur (known for its Red Fort), Agra (location of the Taj Mahal), and Varanasi (on the renowned Ganges river), but for me it’s other smaller destinations more off the beaten path that have been more enjoyable.  One of my favorites is a village called Orchha which, given the scale of India, has 6,000 residents even in a village.  Orchha has striking palaces and monuments scattered throughout the town, including one that Malaika and I explored all by ourselves.  A local woman gave us a cooking class for 9 Indian specialties including masala chai and an amazing eggplant curry, and I have all the recipes to add to my cooking repertoire.  Malaika and I also befriended a local shop owner who said I’d have good karma for not bargaining too hard on the metal art pieces that I bought from him. 

At a temple in Orchha
Me and Joany helping with cooking class, instructor in the center
At another palace in Orchha
Sunset in Orchha
Another unique sight is in the town of Khajuraho, a 1,000 year old Hindu temple with erotic imagery, i.e. just about every sensual act you can imagine.  In this way, and with how many other temples incorporate Hindu, Muslim, and Christian imagery together, I have come to appreciate how India is accepting of many approaches in life.  My group did not actually stay in Khajuraho but a smaller village called Alipura about 3 hours away.  Both here and in another village, we are actually staying in former royal residences turned into hotels.  Outside the hotel the first night a Muslim celebration was taking place with included drumming from about 9 pm to midnight and again starting at 5 am.  Suffice to say, nobody slept all that well. 

Another noteworthy experience was seeing a Bollywood movie in Jaipur called Desi Boyz (City Boys).  I’d never watched a full Bollywood film and despite being 90% in Hindi, the story was easy to follow.  It was about 2 guys who lost their jobs and, desperate for work, became dancers for bachelorette parties.  They tried to hide these new jobs from their family which, of course, didn’t last long but in the end, everyone was happy.  About every 20 minutes, there would be a musical number and the whole film lasted about 3 hours.  There were many ways that the film included near kisses but no actual kissing, which was amusing to see compared with a Hollywood movie. 

Another super stop was visiting a village school where the kids sang to us.  All the students were sitting on the floor and it astounded me that they still use slate tablets.  With the smallest kids, there were at least 40 students in the class and sunlight lit the classroom.  The older grades had maybe half as many students.  It’s so easy to forget how fortunate we are in the U.S. to have schools with computers and gyms and desks for everyone. 

Village class in Abhaneri
The kids singing to us
It has been surprising for me here that many people, particularly in the villages, do not speak English.  Somehow I thought that as a former British colony and because so much media is in English that almost everyone would be bilingual, but that does not seem to be the case at all.  It’s not difficult to find someone that knows English in the cities but it can take some asking around.  That has been the biggest surprise for me here.  And not necessarily surprising but sad nevertheless is the amount of garbage strewn everywhere.  Although the trash is sometimes swept into piles and burned, there is still a great deal of rubbish most everywhere you look and it really detracts from what is otherwise nice countryside.

Piles of trash in Delhi
Our internet access has been pretty sporadic and when we do have access, all 15 of us are trying to use it, so I can’t put up much in the way of photos now but I’ll try to post a few to give a small sense of the color and chaos of India.  I am in India until Christmas so more news on this country to come.  Not that it seems like Christmastime now that I’m running around every day in sandals and T-shirts but truly, it’s fine by me!