Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand to Hanoi to Pan Hou to Ha Giang to Dong Van, Vietnam

Greetings from Cilantro Café in Cairo…

I just found my semi-permanent residence here: a rooftop (of course) one-bedroom apartment that is half indoor half outdoor. It has everything I am used to at hostels PLUS a bunch of things I now see as luxuries: a washing machine, a hot water shower, a refrigerator, oven, and stove, a private room (it’s actually a private apartment, but it’s the private bedroom that is the most distinct change), and my own keys. And it costs the same as a month in an Israeli or European hostel. And it’s close to my language school, but also close to Zamelek (for those of you who care… so Marc Eichen, and pretty much nobody else haha), it’s near the Dokki Cilantro Cafe and the metro line that goes straight to Tahrir Sq and downtown. To put it simply: it’s perfect.

Picking up from where I left off several weeks ago: Thailand. I had been to Thailand multiple times before, most recently on a trip related to my work with Minga when I was sixteen. That trip was focused on figuring out a way to save the lives of the tens of thousands of child prostitutes forced into sex work by kidnapping, dire economic need, or enslavement. “Saving the lives” is not an exaggeration; research suggests that an estimated 60 to 70 percent of kids forced to sell their bodies in Thailand are HIV positive, and HIV is just the beginning: beatings, forced drug use, other diseases and torture used to “break” the minds of young are all common aspects of this horrific cycle of exploitation. Though this visit was a much more carefree one, after my previous exposure I couldn’t help but notice the rampant prostitution of young girls and boys and overhear several conversations between ill-advised foreign visitors making some pretty ridiculous claims about the situation. I made a new Australian friend buy a boy that sold flowers on the street at night some food, and when the kid gave half the food to a man nearby, I explained that it was possible the kid owed the guy money and that at least he was getting some of it.

Apart from the depressing parts of Thailand, I enjoyed my time there- for the most part. Between multiple Starbucks iced drinks and a lot of questionable street food, I managed to get food poisoning that took effect while out one night and which necessitated my accompaniment back to the hostel by two random Kiwi girls to whom I am truly indebted, and which I have no means of thanking, even, because they didn’t leave contact information. Over twelve hours later I began to feel like the Kazakh sickness felt, and I realized that passing out alone in a hostel was probably not a good idea. I asked the hostel owner if there was a clinic nearby, and he put me on the back of a traffic cop’s motorcycle. We proceeded to drive around downtown Bangkok looking for an open clinic, and eventually found an Adventist hospital. In my hazy, highly-dehydrated mind, it looked like we were going to the “Adventure” Hospital. Between that and the fact that I arrived by motorcycle, I was pretty sure I was hallucinating. I’ve gotten quite used to the hospital drill: I told them my symptoms then asked for an IV for rehydration and an injection of anti-nausea medicine so I could keep water down, and directed them to the only vein that is big and accessible enough to use, on my right hand. After that I got some medicine, and checked out. I have excellent international medical insurance, but the whole visit to the emergency room cost $40 US including all the medicine. A hospital bed is almost as cheap as a hostel bed.

To add to the prostitution and food poisoning, I managed to get my precious blackberry and $150 (aka my Christmas gift shopping money) in cash stolen one night on Khao San Road. I like to think that both went into the hands of the little flower-selling boy, so at least somebody was happy about it. Although to be honest, it’s kind of a relief to have kicked the crackberry addiction.

After these few extremely pleasant days, I met up with the Crockfords, the awesome traveling family I first met one night in Krakow. I knew they were going to be in Bangkok, but it was still really crazy to meet up with people from my country who I had last met on another continent, on this continent. They were staying at I think the cheapest hostel in Bangkok, complete with a crazy man in the dorm, Barbie dolls hanging from the ceiling for decoration, and the hostel’s only shower- broken. The first day we hung out I was recovering from food poisoning, so we rode around on tuk-tuks that got some kind of commission from the places we stopped at, so we never had to pay! Apart from the fun let’s-not-get-killed-by-Bangkok-traffic game, it was a very pleasant day visiting temples and a massive standing Buddha from whom I tore a gold coin to keep in my journal and which has now probably cursed my karma for a good century. We stopped at a couple of tailor’s shops where we pretended to be interested in getting custom dresses made so that our drivers could get their gas cards. Andi was so good at it that Rachel and I were genuinely concerned that she was about to spend $100 on a summer dress. I went to bed early that night and hung out with some of the people in my dorm, including an awesome older woman from New Zealand who came to Thailand to get her teeth fixed for a fraction of the price it would have cost at home. She had dozens of incredible stories about sneaking Spanish teenagers across the border to Czechoslovakia and choosing her destinations by the next train on the departure board which made me want to get more of my own stories so that when I’m her age I can entertain a dorm full of teenagers from around the world.

The next day, feeling a bit more alive, Rachel and I took off for a very random “free” day. We realized quickly that we both suck at making decisions, which does not a productive partnership make, so we set some really random goals for the day and decided to pursue them. First we took a river ferry all the way along the river that runs through Bangkok until we were kicked off at the last stop. We decided we wanted to learn about Buddhism, so we needed to find a monk. Walking off the dock and into a riverside’s equivalent of a bus station, we observed an apprentice’s intricate process of making model wooden boats and houses, then played a massive wooden xylophone type thing and decided that constituted being artistic for the day. We sort of followed a monk for a while and then finally just decided to talk to him. He was possibly the cutest monk I have ever interacted with—despite our obvious scatterbrained-ness he was very helpful and wrote down directions to a wat that had lessons on Buddhism for foreigners. We decided to explore the neighborhood we were in, first, and discovered that it was not just in areas for foreigners that food is practically the only thing sold. We walked into a Chinese temple of some sort, but got shooed away by an old man, and then we found one of the “Clean Drinkable Water” refill machines scattered throughout the city. It only costs 1 baht for a liter, but after my experiences in the Adventure Hospital- and the clinic in Uzbekistan, multiple clinics in Kazakhstan, and multiple visits to the clinic in Israel- I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Eventually we found the correct bus, and went on a very long ride through the length of the city on one of the pink buses. I loved how all the cars and buses and tuk-tuks were painted bright colors; I feel like, why not? Immediately upon exiting the bus, it started pouring, but some random vendors gave us newspapers to put over our heads and we ran through the street asking for directions from anybody in an orange robe until we found the wat we were looking for. Totally soaked and dripping onto the clean floors of the temple’s office, we asked a bewildered receptionist where we could learn about Buddhism. Apparently there was a class that started about an hour earlier, for free, in English, and if we had followed the original monk’s instructions we would have actually made it! But it was not to be. They had already moved on to meditation, which we were not interested in. So, after crashing the meditation session we headed back out onto the street. At this point we were a little directionless, but I was getting hungry so we randomly decided that we would cook our own Thai food. Not wanting to pay for or organize a real cooking class, we headed to a restaurant, pointed at pad thai on the menu and asked where the kitchen was. They had no idea what we were after, but they pointed up a flight of stairs and that’s where we headed. A table was laid out with bowls of ingredients, and a couple of cooks were standing around. We tried to explain again that we wanted pad thai but that we wanted to cook it ourselves, but they didn’t seem to understand, so as the cook started chopping up tofu I took the knife out of his hand and started doing the job myself. It was in this way that we learned to cook thai food. And might I just add- it was quite tasty ;)

We also had determined to learn the Thai alphabet, and spent a while futilely looking for some schoolchildren to harass before giving up and heading back to a free bike stand near Khao San Road. Some strange system had been set up wherein if you handed over your ID, you could take out a bike for the day, completely for free. Helmets were not included (or available), but hey, it’s not like Bangkok traffic is crazy or anything. We took advantage of the wheels and headed to a bookstore, where we subsequently infringed the copyrights of several books by photographing the pages that explained the pronunciation of the Thai alphabet.

We met up with Andi and Kevin and got some dinner at one of the street “restaurants” where you can order from different food stalls depending on what you want, and then Rachel and I went off for the night. Our primary goal for the night was to “make friends,” and though it took us a while, we did, in fact, succeed at this. Among other activities, we sampled a “seaweed and mayonnaise” prepackaged sandwich and Tim Tams, placed flowers which we had gotten for free in random spots including the door handle of a police car, fingerpainted our names on cardboard boxes in an alleyway using tempera paint we bought off of a group of guys painting swastikas on canvases in the street, snuck into a construction zone, found me a Subway sandwich, danced in the middle of the street to the bewilderment of some fresh-off-the-flight backpackers, watched some monks set up a free breakfast in a temple at dawn, tried to go to the floating market only to be told that “it did not exist,” though we knew otherwise, and watched an episode of The Hills on one of our new friends’ iTouch. The entire night, we convinced the guys we were with that my name was “Adie,” and despite Rachel’s numerous slips, they completely believed us. At 8:30 in the morning I said goodbye to Rachel, took a quick shower and then headed to the airport. Time to meet the familia in Vietnam.

I arrived in Vietnam in the late afternoon, and the view of the rice paddies in the setting sun was truly spectacular. It’s moments like that when I’m reminded why I’ve flown halfway around the world, endured multiple nights in a row spent on public transportation (Poland/Ukraine), toilet paper like cardboard (Uzbekistan), doctors that don’t speak English (Kazakhstan), rooftop living conditions (Israel), and extreme vomiting (Thailand). Fairly exhausted, I pretty much crashed at the hostel in Hanoi that night. I stayed at an extraordinarily clean, fun, friendly, comfortable hostel in Hanoi called The Drift, which cost $4 per night and which I would highly recommend. The bunk beds are full sized and have COMFORTERS. I have never heard of comforters in a hostel. There was also really fast wifi and computers that had access to facebook, which is rare in Vietnam, and they made Western food for you, like veggie burgers and milk shakes and tex mex (TEX MEX). I wanted my family to stay in a hostel at least one night, and though I was happy they would get to stay in such a nice one, I was also a little pissed off because this was SO not the typical backpacking experience.

I had a day before my family arrived and I spent most of it searching for vegetarian food. Nobody speaks English in Vietnamese sidewalk restaurants and the others are usually expensive and rather few and far between. The concept of “vegetarian” is difficult to explain in sign language, so as I did in Kazakhstan, I ended up eating mostly eggs. I was still pretty exhausted from my last few days in Thailand, and I spent most of the afternoon napping on a diner-style couchette, only to wake up and overhear some Australians talking about my yellow-painted hair. Time to head out.

The culture shock between staying at the cheapest hostel in Hanoi and possibly the most expensive hotel was larger than any culture shock I had thus far experienced between any two countries. I arrived in a spotless, shiny lobby with yellow hair, smelly clothes, a dusty backpack and a torn, stained bag, and was immediately directed to a bellman who would “take my bags from me.” I was escorted around the lobby and into the elevator by hotel staff; I think they were afraid I was going to try to steal something. (They actually had reason to be afraid after the Tel Aviv Intercontinental towel incident. In this Hanoi hotel, I was equally tempted by flannel blankets they put in their outdoor seating at their restaurant and the super-soft robes they had in the rooms. I could have pulled off the blanket but I’m sure the robes would have been missed.) I tried to fall asleep before my family got in, but after months of rock-hard/lumpy (and in some cases, like in the desert in Israel, just plain rocky) mattresses, having a soft sleeping surface actually prevented me from sleeping well. My family arrived around one in the morning, and after hugging them I pretty much immediately asked for the stuff I had asked my mom to bring, mainly toiletries and books; one of the reasons I smelled so bad was because I had recently run out of soap. A HUGE thank you to Marc Eichen for the massive amount of new music, which I’m sure will carry me through the rest of the year, and the books, the chocolate covered cherries, and the stories, and the journals, and the wrapping paper and the teensy-tiny (klitze kleine) USB stick. You rock.

We were all pretty tired the next day, and my little bro Ben’s bag had been lost before it left the U.S., so before everybody else woke up we headed out to a mall and bought him jeans and a t-shirt. He smelled worse than me, so I’m pretty sure my dad wrote off that purchase as charity and therefore tax-deductible. For a few days we hung out in Hanoi, eating excellent French-American-Vietnamese-Japanese-English breakfasts at the hotel, going to the water puppet show (which made my mother’s jaw drop and served as nap time for my little brother), visiting the Hanoi Hilton, some museums and markets, and avoiding getting run over by the stampedes of commuter motorcycles and scooters that fill the city’s streets. Before I arrived in Hanoi several fellow travelers had explained to me that the only way of making it across a street alive was to just step out and walk steadily into the traffic. The rule is: two-wheeled vehicles will part ways to avoid running over you, but it’s up to you to avoid cars or trucks- they won’t necessarily change their trajectory to accommodate your survival.

A couple nights into our arrival in Hanoi we met up with the head of the Business School in Hanoi who my dad was connected to through his alumni network. I wasn’t feeling very well but I decided to go anyways. Between courses of jellyfish salad and Vietnamese pork spring rolls, the hosts figured out I was vegetarian and put together a big dish of… mushrooms. The mushroom-only dinner combined with my earlier queasiness led to a brief but memorable relationship between my vomit and their toilet. After the meal we headed to their sitting room and listened to a wide variety of styles of music. A post-dinner living-room sit-down is not unusual in America, but sitting in silence listening to music is not exactly normal. We realized that in a country where art and creativity haven’t always been free or open, listening to music has become something to celebrate in and of itself.

After our time in Hanoi, we headed out into the Ha Giang province of Vietnam, way up by the border with China. The typical tourist/backpacker route more often takes a person to Sapa and around there, but, as Simons, we refrain from being normal whenever possible, and instead took the completely unbeaten path. The first day in a very cramped car- it sat seven people, and we were seven people plus (a lot of) bags- we stopped at a school for children with birth defects as a result of the Americans’ use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and ate lunch at a family’s house (thus began my ten day long egg & tofu diet- with the occasional ramen noodle meal thrown in there, just for some variety within the all-yellow diet) where pigeons were kept in a cage above a massive pile of manure in the “bathroom” and a calf took up a good portion of the living room. At dinner my brothers sampled “rice wine” fermented with panda’s claws and cobra bodies, as well as turtle stew and turtle blood. Saved by vegetarianism once again… That night we arrived at our hotel, a sort of ecological resort (that makes it sound expensive and fancy; it wasn’t) after dark, and crashed.

The next day to break up the driving a bit, we took a 13-km walk along a winding mountain road through several villages, which we had been assured was entirely downhill, and which turned out to be completely the opposite. My mom and I walked about twice as fast as the males, but had nothing to do when waiting for them when we were done. I blame this waiting period for my subsequent Alpenliebe caramel addiction, which lasted as long as we could find supplies- the entire Vietnam trip. Later, in Ha Giang town, we ended the day with foot massages that involved washing our feet in brown water and attempting to rip off our toenails… yet were somehow rather pleasant nonetheless.

The next day we headed to Dong Van, where we would spend Christmas. Probably the most remote, Dong Van was a small village by Western standards, though it was a central market town for the surrounding areas. Arriving on Christmas Eve, my mother unveiled her Christmas surprise: our traditional stockings which my grandmother made for each of us when we were born, and paper cut-outs of Christmas trees with themed stickers to decorate them. Thank you Patty! That was cool, even if everything in the stockings was entirely useless. Our Christmas Day consisted of a ramen noodle brunch followed by a 20km hike through several tiny villages in the mountains. This was one of my favorite times in that country- it was absolutely gorgeous, up in the clouds; it looked like the islands of Ha Long Bay if the oceans had been drained. We stopped to say hello to a couple of men who had just spent their market earnings on enough alcohol to make them sway even as they squatted in the dirt playing cards. We also hiked up a cliff to the mouth of a massive cave that supposedly tunneled through the entire mountain. It should be noted that our guides (for some reason there were three) were primarily wearing slippers and sandals.

To be continued…


Friday, December 10, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel to Kiev Boryspil Airport, Ukraine to Bangkok, Thailand


Greetings from Bangkok, where I have, over the course of the past 16 hours since I arrived, consumed about half my weight in delicious Thai food. Even the airport food I ate while waiting for the first airport shuttles to start working was SO GOOD. I need to stop choosing to go to places with such awesome food, or else I'm going to need to expand to my budget to include larger pants... I can always go back to Ukraine, I guess, where the only vegetarian airport food is a soggy tomato sandwich (I have flown through Kiev 3 out of my 4 my flight series this year, so I came prepared with food bought in the Tel Aviv airport).

I wanted to share a few pictures to sum up my last few days in Israel. I think they speak for themselves...

In case you can't tell- I kind of used my hair as a paintbrush, and apparently acrylic paint does not wash out of hair once dry, so I've been rocking a yellow-tipped look for several days now. Israeli airport security was not too into my freaky hair combined with my Uzbek visa stamps- they gave me the second most dangerous security classification out of six possible classifications. This included testing for various chemicals/bomb-making materials, accompanying me in person to my terminal, and unpacking my bags three separate times. And... I'm Jewish. Cool.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel to Ramallah, Palestine to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Israel


Last night, or rather, far too early this morning, the humidity up on the roof woke me after just a few hours of sleep. Looking through the mist, I heard a familiar sound- rain drops on walls and windows. I smiled. So cozy and warm in my little nest of blankets… wait. In my little nest of blankets on the roof. I poked my head out from under the blankets, and all of a sudden, the sky was collapsing and all of the rain that had not fallen for nearly two months came pouring out of the clouds. It took me about thirty seconds to gather everything essential (aka not waterproof) up into a sheet, a minute to climb down the ladder and lower myself down the wall to the apartment’s terrace, so that by the time I was inside, I was completely soaked. Luckily I had moved most of my stuff into the apartment the day before, to avoid awkward questions from the visiting landlord and angry exchanges with a new tenant who has partial ownership of the upper roof, but being woken up and soaked at the crack of dawn? Not so fun… plus the challenge of finding a warm place to sleep in the apartment (Tal, I may or may not have taken advantage of your empty mattress- but I did put a water glass under a leak, saving your room from flooding, so we can call it even?) in the wee hours of the morning. I think this is Israel’s way of telling me it’s time to move on…

While I have been in Tel Aviv, though, a few significant holidays from the land of Hummer’s, Starbucks, and Walmart took place: Halloween, Martina’s birthday, and Thanksgiving. Read on…

Halloween, it appears, is a holiday only popular in America. I found only one Halloween-related event happening in Tel Aviv on October 31st, so I knew I had to pull something together on my own. The fact that I had met not a single American, with the exception of Patty- and Texas is arguably another planet, not just another country- since I left Poland nearly two months earlier, was not particularly heartening. However, Halloween rolled around and in walked a student from Kentucky, traveling through Israel after studying Arabic in Cairo. Speaking of which- if you know of a really good, Arabic-intensive language course (MSA and Egyptian Arabic as well) in Cairo, or maybe Damascus, I would LOVE to hear about it. Email me- Anyways, I had my American partner in crime, and we decided that in true Tel Aviv-United States fusion, we would “carve” a jack-o-lantern sandcastle out on the beach. After a bit of strategizing and a lot of digging we had something that resembled a pumpkin rather well. I was satisfied.

The next “holiday” was Martina’s birthday. Martina, from Sweden, seemed to think that birthdays are not a big deal. I have since taught her otherwise. After sleeping over half the day (even for Martina, who sleeps more and in more random places than nearly anybody I have ever met, except perhaps Sarah Pincus, this was a lot of sleeping), we gave Martina small presents (despite her insistence that she did not want presents, I felt it was necessary to inject at least a little of America’s hyper-consumerist culture into the day) and journeyed around to various Tel Aviv favorite spots, including the beach restaurant next to one of our sleeping spots, Max Brenner Chocolate Restaurant where we enjoyed some very excellent chocolate foods, Bjorn’s increasingly crowded apartment (at various points there were as many as six people sleeping in the small two-bedroom apartment- and there were only enough mattresses for three, technically), our favorite bar, and some particularly inviting alleyways. Even Martina had to admit it was a nice birthday. I felt very proud.

Next: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving at home is always a little tricky, because the primary food item is of the animal nature, and thus, as a vegetarian, I do not partake. However, stuffing is essential. But I had no idea how to cook any of this… and then Bjorn decided to schwenk on Thanksgiving Day! What is schwenking, you ask? I suggest you educate yourself on this important cultural activity of Saarland ( but if you are short on time, from my limited experience and observations, I can tell you this: the schwenker is a special swinging grill indigent to the Saarland region of Germany (debatably its own autonomous zone, but that argument is for another time), held over a fire by a tripod. “Schwenker” can also refer to the pork most commonly cooked on the fire, though in Tel Aviv fashion, we schwenked kebab, pita with hummus, and pita with eggs primarily. (For other international schwenker events, past and future, check out: There is also the schwenkmeister, in this case Bjorn, though we all got to practice swinging the grill and even my four-year-old friend Laila got the hang of it by the end of the evening.

Later on Thanksgiving evening, I headed back to Sarah Robins apartment, and came across a gathering of extremely stuffed American teenagers and a table full of leftovers. Though the pie was finished, everything else was delicious: wild rice, green beans, two (!) types of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a couple of non-vegetarian things. Hummus has contributed to the healthy development of my food baby, but I think I made some real progress toward its growth after my multiple-meal Thanksgiving evening.

The day after the original international schwenkmeister (Bjorn) departed for Saarland, Martina and I headed out of Tel Aviv and toward the Jordan River… that is, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Martina had heard about a workshop in Ramallah that we might be interesting, and we decided to check it out. We spent the night before the workshop in Jerusalem to avoid having to wake up super early, and of course, we slept on a roof there… Jerusalem is significantly colder than Tel Aviv (perhaps not actually much colder, but when you sleep on exposed rooftops, you notice even the slightest alterations in temperature and humidity). This roof belonged to a hostel, though, which was a nice change of pace from the Florentine rooftop bubble, and we did our best to convince everybody we met to go to Tel Aviv and stay in Florentine. Jerusalem reminds me of Washington, DC, in the sense of the low-rise, all-white-stone buildings. Though DC is divided up by wide-sidewalked avenues and parks filled with monuments and mid-Atlantic-specific foliage and Jerusalem seems to have developed from a desire to tone its inhabitants’ calves, between the local sport of dodging other passersby on tiny alleyways and the stair-filled passageways, walking around each of these cities gives me a similar feeling.

Upon sitting down in a conference room with the other workshop participants in Ramallah, we had to go around and say our names, where we were from, and why we decided to join the workshop. After two English/Kiwi guys stated their desire to make a difference on the ground, get their hands dirty, help the suffering Palestinian people, I felt a bit intimidated- I just came to be exposed to another perspective on this conflict, and had no idea upon joining of the history or activities of the hosting organization, which I think is called International Solidarity Movement. About half the workshop sessions were illuminating for my purposes, and the rest of the time we discussed how to avoid being blown up by poorly directed sound bombs, “rubber-covered steel bullets” (it’s true that the rubber bullets were actually steel bullets covered with rubber), and tear gas bombs, as well as how to physically avoid arrest by, for example, lying on top of one another and going limp, and finally, what to do in case of arrest. Though the specific knowledge I gained from those parts of the workshop are probably not going to be useful in my life, seeing footage of the demonstrations and non-violent work of the organization was fascinating and it really gave me a sense of the on-the-ground reality of the current situation. We learned that people here have been programmed to react violently or through endless negotiation processes, and efforts at non-violent resistance are often met with confusion or sometimes just violence. Though the organization claimed that they did not determine the definition of legitimate resistance, the general opinion on Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers was that it was symbolic, and therefore non-violent. This seemed a bit off to me, so I pushed further, asking if the Palestinians intended to hit and injure Israeli soldiers if possible, and the workshop leaders said that yes, they did, but compared to Israeli weapons, stones were pathetic. While I agree that the deck is loaded in favor of Israel in terms of weapons, somehow I can’t see how hurling stones at human beings with the intention to cause them pain is not violent. My overall conclusion coming out of the workshop was that conflicts don’t make me empathize with each side, believing each to be valid and “right,” but rather, conflicts make me feel that each side is “wrong” and should handle the situation better. Kind of harsh, yes, but whoever decided to fight fire with fire in the first place must have been insane- don’t they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

We also learned a bit of Arabic (ana nabatiyah means “I’m vegetarian), some Palestinian customs about drinking coffee and tea, not pointing the soles of the feet at a person, and male-female relations. After the sessions finished for the first day, Martina and I wandered around suburban Ramallah. We both agreed that if it weren’t for the inordinate number of empty lots filled with trash, Ramallah would be a really beautiful place. I also spotted an Arabic billboard for Ben & Jerry’s, so my life is now complete.

I’m choosing which books to have my familia bring me when we meet up in a couple weeks in Vietnam, so if you have any book recommendations, please let me know, and I will send them out to find them. English books in Israel are not cheap unless you stumble across them secondhand, and I’m guessing I won’t have a good selection in Southeast Asia. So… anything good you’ve read lately, anything you think is relevant to my experiences this year, or anything you read at my age that you think I would benefit from or enjoy- email me!

A belated public happy birthday to my brothers, Alex and Ben, and my soul sister ISABEL O WALSH, and a pre-emptive strike: happy birthday Mr. Esteemed Guatemalan Honorary Consul to New (ton/ England?) (questionable). How old are you now, sixty-five?


And a last note… I am sitting in my favorite café, Casba, and I just watched a waitress apologize, out loud, to the dog she bumped into. Dogs in Florentine are like cows in India… but still—that was definitely one of the more “Florentine” interactions I have witnessed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, Israel to Jericho, Palestine to Ein Bokek to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Tel Aviv, Israel

Shabbat Shalom!

Very long time, no blog post… as my friend Marc says, I have been “immersing myself” in my new (temporary) Israeli life. I have quite a few stories from the past weeks that I will be telling my grandchildren, and quite a few that I will most definitely NOT be telling my grandchildren… here are some of the former. First, though, the basics:

Patty came and went in a brief but joyous five days, spent taxiing back and forth between the Herzliya Medical Center and Tel Aviv proper, where we consumed obscene amounts of hummus, swam in the Mediterranean, went to a Tel Aviv art museum and replaced some of my more destroyed clothing (Kazakh ambulances are a bit wearing). It was very surreal seeing her show up at the airport, suitcase laden with American junk food and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory candied apples (note that I do not qualify these as junk food- apples are healthy). Though she refused to stay at a hostel, I managed to convince her that when our family meets up in Vietnam for Christmas, we will all spend at least one night in a hostel together. I think she’s already having nightmares about this.

I live on a roof. Not in a penthouse, not in a tent on a roof, not under a canopy… just- on a roof. I have several blankets and a borrowed sleeping bag that form my nest beneath the solar panels, an extension cord to charge my laptop, a melting candle-pile, a line of empty wine bottles, a makeshift cinderblock table and some hanging sheets for coziness. I am not, however, squatting: I ran into my old friend Sarah Robins, of the Charles E. Brown Middle School variety, one day on the street and she very generously rescued me from the hostel I had been staying at and allowed me access to her roof, her shower, her Thanksgiving dinner, her kitchen, and her roommate Shira’s season pass to Glee… I owe the girls of Nehalat Binyamin Apartment 13 a MASSIVE thank you. And a bit of an apology for continually allowing two drunk Europeans to sleep on the roof as well- though that is a different story.

I have been based in Florentine, a “poor musician” neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv, for the past six weeks or so. Tel Aviv is awesome, and Florentine especially so. I literally cannot leave one building and walk to the next without running into somebody I know. Israel is debatably the least shy country in the world, and this was proven over and over as I met people pretty much everywhere I went. And you don’t just meet people and walk away- usually you get invited to go on a road trip somewhere, or go out in a different part of town, or come over for Shabbat dinner. Usually I like staying in hostels so that I can meet people easily, but here, it’s really not necessary, and maybe even better, because I’ve gotten to know a lot of local people. I got a month-long membership to a dance/yoga studio and met several cool people there, while trying to work off some of the hummus weight that inevitably piles on when chickpeas constitute about half of one’s diet. I have a favorite café and a favorite bar, and as it turns out, they are owned by the same person- I have been at the bar, decided I want the best sandwich in the world, and then wandered down the street, picked up a sandwich, and brought it back to the bar. I know all the waiters and bartenders by name, and they know that I like my coffee with ice, sugar, no milk, and chocolate powder.

There is a lot of street art in Tel Aviv, and especially Florentine. It’s easy to identify the artist from the style, and one street artist, Luca, has been staying at the hostel for months. You can see some of his work here: The hostel has an eclectic mix of vacationers, long-term backpackers, and people staying in Tel Aviv for an extended period. I originally intended to base myself out of Jerusalem, but Florentine is kind of magnetic, how Samarkand was, and how Santorini, Samode, and St. Leonard du Bois were for my family when we traveled around the world eleven years ago. However, I have managed to leave my ten block radius and explore some other parts of Israel.

My first departure from Tel Aviv was a day trip to Jerusalem back around the beginning of November with my friends Bjorn (from Saarland- which is definitely an independent nation, and by no means is it part of Germany), Martina (from Sweden, land of reindeer, Ikea, and smart, simple solutions), and Bjorn’s roommate Lee, an Israeli who, in typical Florentine style, Bjorn met randomly at an ice cream shop and moved in with in a matter of days. We walked around the old city, took a nap on the ground next to the Western Wall, and saw sunset over the Jerusalem rooftops.

The next excursion was a bit more of a production to organize. Or rather, we didn’t organize it, and this led to a lot of… problems. Bjorn, Martina and I wanted to go to the Dead Sea and sleep out on the beach. Because Martina had begun working at the hostel, we had to leave Friday afternoon, and in Israel, nearly everything closes down from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, for Shabbat. The rental car place in downtown Tel Aviv was closed; only the airport rental car place was open. Okay; we could take the direct train to the airport. Not so fast. The last train stopping at the airport had already left (we learned this, of course, after we had already bought tickets). Fine then- there must be a sherut, a shared taxi, that goes there. Nope. A bus? The last one had already left. A taxi then… but because of Shabbat, the taxi cost significantly more. Whatever. We had to make this work. We arrive at the rental car center and walk from rental car shop to rental car shop, but most are either sold out or only have large, expensive cars to rent. Eventually we found a sales-guy sympathetic to our quest, and he found us a car within our budget (although as the day wore on, our budget had become more and more flexible- we were hungry, tired, and really just wanted to GET IN A CAR). However… in order to rent a car, you need a passport. Bjorn was the only one of us old enough to register as the driver, and in the rush to get out of Tel Aviv, he had forgotten his passport. After hours of waiting on a bench outside of the rental car place, where people returning their cars gave us a week’s supply of unopened water bottles and a lot of pitying looks. We tried to get a copy of Bjorn’s passport from the hostel, from his roommate, from his bank in Germany… from anybody we could think of. But eventually, our need for hummus and pita and falafel became too great, and we hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv. Except wait. The woman driving the car was, shall we say, a little bit crazy, and we ended up getting out of the car at Terminal 3, where we were resigned to take a taxi back to Florentine. Except- Terminal 3 is closed on Shabbat. We considered sleeping on the grass by the empty parking lot there, it already being nighttime, but we could not resist the draw of Israeli hummus. After creeping out a bunch of security guards, we ended up calling a cab that took us to the doorstep of a falafel/hummus place in Yaffo. Not wanting to return to the hostel defeated, we decided to pretend that the Mediterranean was the Dead Sea and sleep on the beach in downtown Tel Aviv. On the way there, we ran into the hostel owner, who was mad about us calling about the passport… it’s not fun having the person who controls your sleeping space be mad at you.

So, we waited out Shabbat and on Sunday headed to the rental car place just a few minutes walk from Florentine. After a few technical difficulties, Avis, whose tagline is, perfectly, “we try harder,” hooked us up with a bright green, brand new Ford, and we were on the road. We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, talking and eating dinner in the dark, and then taking advantage of the total silence and isolation by climbing on top of the car and screaming. Sometime in the middle of the night some guys walked up to us, and before Martina and I really knew what was going on, Bjorn was off searching for hot springs with them… this was a very Bjorn thing to do. We spent the rest of the night sleeping in the car- Bjorn has a lot of experience with making cars sleep-worthy after years of living out of a car himself.

The next day, after exploring the Dead Sea below the cliff, we decided we should go to Jericho for lunch. After nearly entering a military zone accidentally, then being stopped by a Palestinian soldier to whom we confusingly requested the best place to eat lunch in town, we eventually found our way to a second-story terrace in the town center and a massive meal of salads, pita, hummus, and kebab for Bjorn and Martina. We walked around the town a bit, picking up more water and groceries, then sat down a bench where I promptly took a nap. When I woke up, we were surrounded by about thirty young Palestinian guys, practicing their English and trying to take pictures with Martina and I as close as possible. It seems that Israeli friendliness extended to the Palestinian neighbors.

After failing at entering Jordan and making it a three country day (apparently Israeli rental cars are not allowed into Jordan- also, this time Martina did not have her passport), we picked up a hitchhiker and drove to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is… the Dead Sea. Fun and cool but exactly what you expect- you can’t really swim because you’re so buoyant, and every tiny cut you have from sleeping on beaches and cliffs becomes extremely painful. We made use of the outdoor showers to take our first and only showers of the road trip, then found a suitable spot to sleep at by the main road and watched shooting stars while trying to share our few blankets to stay warm enough throughout the night. We also saw some local wildlife- ROCK RABBITS!!!

Early the next morning we drove back to Tel Aviv to return the car, but as it turned out, it was cheaper to keep it for another night than pay the extra kilometer charges, so we road tripped it back up to Haifa, but had to stop before sunset. We camped out on a beach full of kitesurfers coming in for the night, and had a little picnic on a sand dune. Despite the cold we swam in the sea then ran around on the beach until we were too exhausted to move… and fell asleep by 8pm. We slept on the sand dune, in the car, and out on the sand next to the car, and early the next morning we drove into and around Haifa, without really stopping. The main goal of the day: Swedish meatballs at Ikea!

We actually arrived at Ikea before it opened, but they give out free café au lait a half hour before opening, so it was all good. We spent hours in Ikea, trying out blankets and pillows and being those annoying people that pick everything up and put it down in the wrong place. At this point I knew I would be living on the roof, or at least in Sarah’s apartment, so I was very tempted to buy a lot of semi-useless stuff, but I abstained, and as it turned out this was a very good decision- Sarah’s entire apartment is furnished with Ikea stuff, from the couches to the paintings to the knives to the blankets. So beautiful!

In order to do justice to the rest of my Israel/Palestine experience, I’m going to leave off here. More to come in the next few days, since on Thursday morning I leave for Thailand and Vietnam and I’m sure I will have plenty of southeast Asian tales to tell.

Much love from my roof ☺


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shabbat Shalom...

I've created a flickr account and uploaded some pictures from the past few countries- Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and now Israel! Check them out here:

More later...


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Almaty to Khorgos to Zharkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Tel Aviv, Israel


In Almaty, a package of books from home theoretically was waiting for me at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. I had half a mind to hop directly on a bus to Urumqi, China, and avoid spending a single night in Almaty, which I had heard was overpriced and not too interesting, but I wanted to see about picking up this package. I figured that I could stay in Almaty for the day, pick up the package, then take a night bus. Upon arriving at the Hyatt in my torn pants, loaded up with bags and reeking of overnight bus, I learned that the package had never arrived. Assuming that the concierge just wanted to get rid of me, I persisted and asked them to check the lost and found, the mail room, and asked to speak to the manager. I called American Express, who was supposed to set up the mail drop, and found that they had never followed through (we had never followed through with them, either, so it was not really their fault). I then tried tracking the package online through my cellphone. It was taking so long that I took advantage of being in a nice hotel and washed up in their disabled restroom (which is big enough for me to unpack my backpack in—I do this in McDonald’s as well) and stole their free lobby wi-fi, even skyping a friend. Eventually I worked with a very kind young woman at the concierge desk, who had recently backpacked through China, who helped me track the package to the main mail sorting center of Kazakhstan, which was conveniently located in Almaty. After a long taxi ride with a driver who claimed to know exactly where we were going and then got lost several times (of course), I eventually found myself at the security gate of a massive mail complex. After handing over my passport information and package tracking number and explaining my request, I was led into the complex, down a cavernous, columned outdoor walkway and through an unmarked door, which opened into a mail sorting center. Oversized packages from Bahrain, Dubai, Russia and Canada waited to be sorted behind the desk I sat at as multiple people (none of whom spoke English) tried to find my package. Eventually they did, and I walked back to the taxi feeling very successful.
I checked into a hotel that had been recommended by a few people back in Samarkand (I never heard of a real hostel in Kazakhstan—which is, by the way, the 9th largest country in the world), and remembered to ask for the dorm, which is less than a quarter of the price of a single room and is actually just a double room that I shared with a woman from Astana who was in Almaty on business. The first person who really spoke English, I was at first happy to meet her, but she ended up keeping me up rather late asking me questions and looking through my new books. I went out to get my first meal of the day then, overpriced half-heated spaghetti and French fries, then walked around a bit, eventually going back to the bus station to buy a ticket to Urumqi for the next morning. The only way to get to Urumqi (unless you wait until Saturday or Monday for the trains) is on buses that leave at 7am, and I had been told it was safer to buy the ticket in advance. Getting to the bus station in rush hour traffic was not so fun, and communicating what I wanted to the ticket lady was not very fun either, so that by the time I got back to the area of town that my hotel was in, I was ready for dinner. I had heard of a vegetarian Indian food place, and I went there thinking I might get something other than carbs, but unfortunately what I got was very very sick. Here’s how it went down:

Several days earlier I had felt extremely nauseous one evening but avoided throwing up by drinking some coke and taking some awesome German medicine called Vomex. I had a low fever the next night, but took some awesome German/Thai medicine and that went away too. Since the first night I was nauseous I had always felt kind of weird after eating, but nothing too serious. After having the Indian food I felt nauseous but thought nothing of it, because it had become kind of normal over the past few days. I felt even more nauseous in the morning when I woke up at 5:30 to catch my bus, and at the first stop the bus made I hightailed it to the hole-in-the-floor toilet and threw up… and at the next one… and the next one. I had one of the worst tickets on the bus, in the back on what is essentially a king-size bunk bed, which I shared with three Kazakh guys. I slept between bus stops to avoid having to feel my own nausea, but after eight hours or so of vomiting and drinking very little (and keeping none of it down), at the border with China, I started feeling lightheaded. I leaned against a wall at passport control because I couldn’t really stand up, and then everything started going blurry and I stopped hearing anybody and realized I was probably blacking out. Somehow I ended up sitting in a chair with a guy slapping water on my face, an old lady trying to feed me milky coffee, which made my stomach turn, and a “doctor” taking my blood pressure. I was shuttled to a room at the border, and then into a van to what was supposed to be a clinic, but ended up just being a first aid room where a woman—who ended up being one of the nurses—was lying on a wooden bed with an IV dripping blood down her arm. I was in touch with my parents, who were, among other things, trying to get somebody who spoke Russian on the phone so that I could actually communicate to the nurses. They tried to give me an IV, and I refused—no way was I letting these people stick a needle in my arm. They did not have clean water for me to drink. Eventually I was put in a taxi, which took me to an ambulance from Soviet times (a gutted army-green van with a seat, not a bed, in the back), which took me to a real clinic in Zharkent, the nearest big town. Here they ran a lot of non-conclusive tests, taking a lot of blood and feeding me a lot of liquids as well. A woman was there to translate, and right before she left I learned that she did not work for the hospital, but had been called in from her job as a schoolteacher to translate for me. After she left they had a patient who spoke English come in a few times to translate. I remember being so tired I literally could not stay awake while on the phone with people. To all the people who were on the phone with me, with clinics, with doctors and with ambulances that night/day: A MASSIVE THANK YOU. Though I’m 100% sure I would have been fine and ended up in a hospital regardless of all the phone calls, I am so grateful for the help you all gave me. Eventually I got in an ambulance- a real one- around 3 in the morning, and slept the whole way back to Almaty, occasionally hearing Kazakh pop songs through the barrier with the front of the car and the rather loud conversations of the EMTs. But nothing could stop me from sleeping. At the very, very nice hospital in Kazakhstan (and I would know, having then visited 4 or 5 Central Asian facilities) I was escorted from test to test- ultrasounds, x-rays, blood tests, urine samples, more ultrasounds, more blood tests. I talked briefly with a doctor but most of my communication was with a wonderful nurse who spoke some English named Natasha. Unfortunately Natasha only worked certain hours/days, so sometimes I was left with nobody in the hospital with whom I could actually communicate. I spent four nights there, two of them without real internet (when you have nothing to do and can’t really move, this is a big problem), so I was really happy for the books my parents had shipped me! I read my friend Lizy Murray’s Breaking Night- if you can, READ THIS BOOK, Liz is awesome and her story is incredible. I was on a mission to finish it while at the hospital because it was hardcover and it really sucks carrying hardcover books around with you when you’re traveling, but after a while I was just addicted to it. I was only fed liquid foods- soupy oatmeal (sometimes salty- SO GROSS) and vegetable broth, mainly. I had my own room with a TV that played what I’m sure were very interesting and exciting programs- in Russian- and a balcony and the nicest shower I have seen since I left Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the first few days I could not shower because they left the IV in my hand all the time. My veins are very small so they could only put the IV in my right hand, which made it impossible to write- for everybody that received a very poorly typed email during that time, I apologize, blame it on my genes.

Nobody could really tell me what was wrong with me- at various points different nurses and doctors explained it as food poisoning, elevation sickness, traveler’s sickness, an inflamed gallbladder, an irritated pancreas, and pancreatitis. This was after I assured them it was not appendicitis or pregnancy. They prescribed a bunch of “pancreas vitamins” for me. I was supposed to take ten pills a day when I left there, but I faxed the Russian tests home to my parents after I got back and they had a doctor friend translate them (thank you!) and apparently they were the wrong pills, so I stopped taking them. After days and days without solid food I was extremely weak and literally could not lift my backpack, so when I eventually left the hospital I checked into an Almaty hotel and chilled out for several more nights, eating soup, bread, and eggs to regain my strength and walking up to two blocks away every day. I have now watched every episode of season 1 Glee probably four or five times each.

Though it probably should have been the hospitals, ambulances and sickness that got me to decide this, it was the realization that I could not lift my backpack anymore that forced me to re-evaluate my trip. If I couldn’t go through the day to day motions of traveling, there was no way I could weather the 24-hour bus rides necessary to travel in China. So after some brainstorming and flight-searching on kayak and skyscanner, I decided to go to Israel. I was planning on going in the spring, but it’s nice weather now, and there is a lot of vegetarian food, you can drink the water, doctors speak English, and there are no 24-hour bus rides. And then… the night before I flew out, I get an email… with my mother’s flight confirmation. Guess who’s arriving in Tel Aviv ten minutes before me? More on that in the next post…


Monday, October 18, 2010

Samarqand to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Shymkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from room 345 at the Private Clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan,

As I recently posted on facebook, my new goal for this year is to avoid further hospitalization, at all costs. Since I left home on August 31, 2010, I have been seriously ill two times, treated at four different clinics, spent hours inside multiple ambulances, had about a dozen liters of fluids pumped into me, and taken more types of medication than I can remember. Here’s the story of the past week or so, and the conclusion I have come to about what I’m doing here/now. If anything blood-and-guts related makes you queasy, don’t read this.

A few days before I finally left Samarqand for good, I felt nauseous on and off, and had a fever for an afternoon/evening. After taking some of my friend’s medicine, resting, laying off complicated food and resting a lot for a couple of days, I felt significantly improved, and woke up the morning of the 10th to head to Kazakhstan. It was a running joke with my friends from the hostel that I would never actually make it to Kazakhstan, so rather than take a slow route and stop for a night in Tashkent, I decided to make the multi-part trip in one day. The transportation looked like this: walk to bus stop, bus to bus terminal, walk to shared taxi stand, shared taxi to other shared taxi, walk across the border with Kazakhstan, shared taxi, walk, shared taxi. Eleven hours of hot buses, cramped taxis, a deficit of English-speaking drivers, confusing customs policies and very little vegetarian food, and I was in Shymkent. But where to sleep?

When we were within the city limits, I turned around to the other passengers in the shared taxi, a few of whom were Uzbek-speakers, and asked in my limited Uzbek about a place to stay. They told me to ask the taxi driver, and he would help. After we had dropped off all the other passengers, the taxi driver turned to me and began trying to communicate. A note to Central Asia travelers: Lonely Planet’s Russian language section of the Central Asia guidebook is pathetic. The accommodations section for Shymkent lists the cheapest place to stay as about $25 US. If you rely on it, this is what happens…

After leaving the community I had found back in Samarqand, I had let my guard down and neglected to make the safest possible choices, which is usually my policy when it comes to things like arriving late at night. I remember back in June, I got into Montenegro at sunset with no guidebook and no idea where to stay, so I stayed at a “cheap hotel” which was actually outside of my budget, knowing I would not have to walk around the town at night. I tend not to regret travel-related decisions, but I really wish I had made some different ones that day/night going to Kazakhstan.

At first it seemed like the driver wanted me to sleep in the back of the taxi. Not happening. At this point I was feeling a little sick, definitely exhausted, and it was dark out. I wrongly believed I was safer inside the taxi than out on the street. I found the Russian word for hotel, gas-tee-nee-tsa, and kept repeating it. He kept telling me they were very expensive, and then repeating another word which was not in my book. It seemed to be some sort of guesthouse or cheap hotel. He pointed to himself, put his hand on my shoulder, and made the universal gesture for sleeping, two hands under the tilted head. He drew in my journal stick figures for a man and a woman parallel in a square that looked like a bed. I drew a line through the bed, pointed at myself and made the sleeping gesture, and pushed away the air in front of him and made a sleeping gesture, pointing at him. He frowned and made sad eyes, as if saying “why won’t you share a bed with me?” Writing this now I realize I should have expected what happened over the next hour or so, and I don’t really know why I didn’t do anything to prevent it.

Not able to communicate what I wanted, I got a little frustrated, and I think he could tell, because he got a little frustrated and began raising his voice. I sort of gave up on communicating at that point, figuring that once we got to this guesthouse place I could point to what I wanted. I have a good sense of direction during the day, but at night I have no sun as a point of reference, and not knowing where we were headed made me nervous. I wished I had negotiated all of this when the other passengers were in the car. I wished I had gotten out and asked for a cheap place to stay in a restaurant or an expensive hotel or a convenience store, or anywhere other than to the angry old guy in the driver’s seat. What I wish now is that I had realized I could still get out of the taxi and do any of those things- ask for directions, find a new taxi, whatever.

We got to a guesthouse, directed by a woman we picked up on the side of the road, and I got out with the driver even though he gestured for me to stay in the car. I tried to ask the woman at the desk for two rooms, but she didn’t understand me and listened to the driver, the guy who spoke her language. A lot of keys were exchanged, so I was hopeful. We got back in the car and drove around the corner, parking in a dark lot between two apartment buildings. I brought my handbags with me when we entered the building. We walked into a semi-furnished, fairly run-down, poorly-lit apartment on the ground floor, with a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom with one double bed. I tried to ask where the other room was. There didn’t seem to be one. I was angry. The driver sat down on the couch and gestured for me to sit down next to him, patting the seat cushion. No. Not happening. I started walking toward the door. The driver got up and tried blocking the door, pulling at my arms and trying to take my handbags from me to bring me back into the room. I got out the door and walked back to the car. I need my bag, and I needed to get out of there. I tried opening the trunk, but it was locked. I tried opening the back seat, but it was locked. The driver came out with the woman renting the room. I was calm.

Open the trunk, I want my bag.
Come back inside.
I want my bag.
No, no, no. Leave your bag in the car, come back inside.

I realized this wasn’t working. To all the people that laughed at me for taking a self defense class before I left—wow, am I glad I did not listen to you. All of the de-escalation skills, the awareness/assessment skills, the instinctive knowledge of what to do next, came back without my needing to even think about it.

Make them believe they’re going to get what they want.

I nodded. Okay, I just need something from my bag, then I’ll come back inside with you. I positioned myself so that he would not be able to grab my backpack before I did when the trunk opened. A bag that normally takes both hands and a knee up to get onto my back found its way with a single hand and a lot of adrenaline. A friend I met in Samarqand once commented that with her backpack on, she felt much safer. Backpack on, I put my hands up—we call these stop sign hands. My voice got louder- not yelling, because that’s antagonistic and not what we’re going for, but bigger, more powerful. I was at least two arm spans away. I pulled out the $5 the ride was supposed to cost and held it out to him, saying “I just want to get by, can you move please?” and gesturing for him to step aside and take the money. He took the money but wouldn’t budge. I backed away, saying “okay, then I’ll walk around.” He met me on the other side of the car, but I could tell something was changing. The girl who he thought he could take advantage of was gone; he was dealing with somebody else. But he was a Central Asian taxi driver, and the woman from the guesthouse was observing us, and he was not letting me walk away.

What do you want?
Ten fingers went up.

I took the $5 from him and pulled out a $10 bill. Stop sign hands, take steps back. “It’s okay?” I was tearing up and he was starting to laugh, making some comment to the guesthouse woman. I assessed the situation: the tension was gone, the confrontation would be finished if I left, but now I was afraid. I walked away very quickly, out into the main road, across the street, and back to an intersection I had seen from the taxi. You’re supposed to tell somebody about a confrontation, but nobody in this place spoke English and I was primarily focused on getting to a safe place. After walking a few blocks I found a restaurant, but it looked more like a strip club than I was comfortable with, so I sat on a stone wall outside and opened my guidebook. Later that night I would realize I had cut my leg sitting down, but again, the adrenaline was pretty powerful at that point and I didn’t notice anything at the time. I found the cheapest hotel, and walked over to a crowd of taxi drivers. I didn’t smile, just asked how much it would cost to go to the hotel. They laughed and asked where I was from. After my last taxi driver, I was not in the mood. They charged me $3 for a two minute ride (if I had known how close I was I might have walked there), and the whole time I was nervous they would be like the first taxi driver.

By some miracle, the woman at the front desk spoke some English, and through her I got a room, found dinner (I quickly learned that my Russian food vocabulary “no meat,” was not sufficient to obtain anything other than French fries), a bottle of water, and went to sleep.

Originally I had planned on staying in Shymkent a few nights to fully recover from my sickness of the past few days, or maybe transfer to Turkistan, a small, slightly more interesting place a few hours away, to rest there, but after the previous night’s “adventure” I had no remaining interest in Kazakhstan. Buses to Almaty left around 6pm, and after checking out of my room I spent the remainder of the day finding food and catching up on emails. Tourism of the backpacker variety is not widespread in Kazakhstan, and I stuck out everywhere I went, but never more than on the public buses. Luckily, instead of getting annoyed at me for taking up multiple seats with my big backpack on, people would help me push my way out of the bus and find which stop I needed to get off at.

Kazakhstan is not a cheap country to travel in. Food is 3x the price it was in Uzbekistan, and long-haul bus trips are absurdly expensive when compared to any other non-Western place. This bus was fairly nice, with seats that reclined practically into beds and a decent amount of leg room. Central Asian bus drivers don’t understand the concept of turning off the music videos that are playing at the front of the bus, so sleeping was challenging. My seatmate, a young Kazakh man, had excessively long limbs which always ended up on my side of the armrest, and after the previous night’s experiences and earlier experiences with Central Asian guys who don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves (every male in this region needs to go back to kindergarten), I was not particularly thrilled about sleeping next to him, so I waited until he fell asleep and then closed my own eyes.

At bus stations in Central Asia, bathrooms can be anything from squat toilet stalls in fairly clean, tiled rooms with sinks, soap, and unlimited (though very rough and scratchy) toilet paper, to rows of holes in a grimy dirt/concrete floor with side dividers and no front doors, leaving you open to the rest of the bathroom’s occupants. Heading for the back of the room might afford you more privacy, but the trade-off is a serious lack of ventilation and a lot of questionable liquid on the floor. Needless to say, this species of bathroom is not overflowing with toilet paper, soap, or usually even a sink. I have Purell with me, but these bathrooms make me wonder how I’ve gotten away with being hospitalized only twice.

More later- probably tomorrow.
Love (finally out of the hospital!!!)