Thursday, January 20, 2011

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

Greetings from Cilantro CafĂ© 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…