Follow me!

twitter icons
For corresponding blog photos, please visit my website:

Post to Twitter

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!

(what did you think I'd call it .... !?!?!?!)

And so....Round two.

Sorry for the delay. I've been a little busy, you know, adjusting to
a) Asia
b) a 12-hour time difference
c) my life

Yeah. So, hi.

Currently, I am in the beach town of Nha Trang, awaiting my bus pick-up for a 12 hour drive up the coast to Hoi An, another beach town, but a more quaint one filled with tailors that are ready and waiting to make (in 24 hours, mind you) ANY little piece of clothing your heart desires. For next to kind of town. But, I know I've been lax about writing, so I'll try to catch you up to speed in the half hour until I leave. Might be hard. Vietnam is going to be very hard to desribe in a half-hour.

Let's start here. Vietnam is AMAZING. I actually still don't think I'm grasping that I'm actually HERE. It's on the other side of the world, and you feel that at every turn. There's nothing at all familiar about this place, but it's absolutely fantastic and very very beautiful. And that's only having seen two cities and the Mekong Delta!!

My trip started in Ho Chi Minh City (fka Saigon) about a week ago, I flew through Tokyo on a fifteen hour flight, in coach. I was DREADING the trip, obviously. Cross-country-transPacific in COACH. Not so fun. But, it was actually not as bad as I imagined it would be. Looking out my window, I was continually awed by the wing span of the plane that I was in, one that needed to go 15 hours non-stop. And, then, as the Japanese coastline came into view, I think I caught myself, catching myself...if you know what I mean. I was flying over JAPAN. Narita Airport was a trip, it's almost hokey how overdone on ettiquette the Japanese are. Everyone is in uniforms that seem fake, like from a 1970's movie about Japan, shaped in design like girl and boy scouts, with matching hats and white gloves. They are polite and delicate and everything is done with care and order, and serious little bows. It's pretty wild.

Then, onto Ho Chi Minh, where I stayed with Jordan's friends Joy and Brian, who works for Mersk over there. They live in District 1 (HCMC is divided into districts), where most of the shops, hotels, and restaurants are centered. Since I came into HCMC late at night, I didn't get a sense of the city until morning. But, oh what a morning!!! Walking out onto the streets of HCMC, you cannot stop looking around. You are bombarded by sights and sounds and smells, coming at you from every angle. The first thing you notice are the motorbikes, which are the main means of transportation in Vietnam. Everywhere, motorbikes, racing by at breakneck speeds, carrying men, women, children. 10, 50 and 90 year old drive motorbikes and looking down the streets, seeing them gather at stoplights, it's absolutely like nothing you've ever seen. They are mixed in with the taxis and cars, and there are NO RULES. Taxis U-turn at will in the middle of the streets, traffic lights hold no real stopping-potential, pedestrians (myself included) just cross the lanes of traffic wherever it is necessary to cross. Slowly, with care, looking as you do it. It's nerve-wracking at first, you think you're going to get killed, but you don't. Both the traffic and you develop a sense of crossing. I don't know how it works, but it works....

Then, you notice, the people. Hanging around. Everyone in Vietnam hangs doing nothing ALL DAY LONG. So congregated all over the streets on these little plastic chair/table sets (that you all have bought your 2 year old children, FULLY...) are Vietnamese people. Kicking it on the colored plastic. Eating, usually. They eat all the time, from the vendors on the street (which are at every turn, hawking pineapples, rice, pho -- or noodle soup, live lobsters and crabs that they cook in front of you, spring rolls (currently my staple food b/c nothing else is quite doing it for me...) For all the eating these people do, all the rice and noodles and baguettes (remember, Vietnam was French once upon a time ago), I have NO IDEA how these people are so freakin' skinny! Very jealous of them. I wish I could rice it out and not gain. Not in my lifetime. No one is sure what all these people actually DO, but they're so happy, friendly and smiley. And when they ask you where you're from (well, me....) and I say the United States, a lot of times, I get a handshake and smile and a "Hello, America" response. Very interesting..... The other thing you notice about the people is that many are handicapped in some way, whether it's missing limbs, palsied faces, limps, blindness, there is a lot of hardship for a lot of people here. You want to give money to everyone that asks, you really do, because the poverty here is different, but you can't. And it breaks your heart....

Another random thing -- everyone wears pajamas. Women, usually silk ones. Like sets that I would reserve for a romp in the hay, possibly. Camisoles and pants, you name it -- if WE sleep in it, THEY work in it. And the men wear like Hugh Hefner smoking jacket pajamas. I guess if you think about it, it's pretty damn smart -- get up, get out of bed for the day, but goddamnnit, be comfortable!!! They MIGHT be onto something. But, I didn't exactly get used to it. It's a little off...

Ok, time for my bus. Part two, HCMC and Nha Trang next . . .


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Notes on a Continent….

Right now, I’m on a plane to Tokyo. Ready to begin the next leg of my trip, SouthEast Asia. I’ve dreamed about visiting places like Vietnam, Thailand, and Bali since college and today is the first day of that journey. But, before I rush off to immerse myself in Asian cultures, I want to pay a little mind to the most fantastic two months of my life.

As most of you know, South America was a most surprising trip for me. When I planned to take this year-long odyssey, it was South East Asia that was the crux of my wanderlust. South America got tacked on the beginning of the trip because I was getting antsy and thought that two months in South America -- not too far away, I could speak the language, I could use it as a test case, etc… I thought it would be fun, but didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know myself as a solo traveler, I didn’t know myself as the person I was going to be out on my own without my New York support system. It was the surprise of a lifetime. In so many ways.

I remember starting in Quito, feeling apprehensive and courageous at the same time. Wondering if I would do everything “right,” if I would make the most of my travel experience. I remember feeling amazed with where I had come to in my life to be able to do this. It felt good. Then I got to the Galapagos, and I made new friends that transcended culture and environment. Seeing that people who have no ties to me, no history with me, could take to me, appreciate me….so great. Doing the same thing in New York for so long, you forget what you bring to the table, sometimes. And, by traveling, meeting new people, making new friends that don’t come from “your world” and have nothing to gain by befriending you, except well, meeting YOU is such an invigorating feeling. I remember feeling melancholy in Valparaiso, adventurous in Cusco, disappointed by Santiago, awed by nature at Iguazu. I remember feeling challenged by Brazil, enamored with Buenos Aires, peaceful in Punta del Este. I felt overwhelmed by history but small in the world seeing the width and breadth of Macchu Picchu, I felt community and assuredness of self in Argentina.

I can’t wait to go back to South America. And, I feel like my time in New York was short and chaotic (it was really really good to see all of you, though!!) and I hadn’t gotten to properly digest my experiences in South America. Changing gears so fast is good because it keeps you moving, on schedule, sure. There’s so much out there I still have to see, so many places I still want to go. But, there’s so much to cherish about where I’ve been and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I’m so eager to see the next parts of my trip, but I’m also wistful they’re not back there.

So now, with five hours left of my 15 hour flight (I’ve come so far, only 5 hours left. . . .) to Tokyo, then another 7 to Ho Chi Minh City, I can open my SEAsia chapter. I just wanted to make sure I did it AFTER closing (well….for now) the one that just ended and made me feel so invigorated.

See ya on the other side of the world in a few days . . .


Backtracking to Brazil...

My baby, My baby goes to RiO! Rio de JanierO! La la la la la la la……
Hugh Jackman, shaking what his momma gave him, always springs to mind when I think of Rio. But, now, having DONE Rio, that’s no longer the case. Rio, and well, Brazil, now have their own places in my memory. Carnaval is an aptly named holiday for such an outrageously colorful country.

So, the last stop in my journey through South America was Brazil. Of course, being the last country, the amount of time I got to spend in Brazil was short because of excess time I had logged in other places (read: Argentina). Which sucked, since Brazil is such a big country with so many varied regions. I had originally planned to go up the coast, hitting Florianopolis (beautiful beach city that everyone raves about) and Salvador (epicenter of afro-brazilian influences), but only made it to Rio and Buzios, two of my four planned stops. Fine by me, that just means I’m going back! ☺

How does one describe fabled Rio? God, I don’t even know where to begin.

Rio was different than any of the other South American cities I’ve been to. While most are poor, in Rio, “the city of dreams,” you actually feel the poverty in a more visceral way. The way Rio is laid out, the way the landscape sets Rio up, is that you have an enormously large population of poverty stricken Brazilians, set next to one of the biggest, wealthiest resort towns in the world. The beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon teem with tourists looking to spend money, to have a good time, to let loose. And nestled in the hills and mountains above the beaches (which is one of the most amazing landscapes to see from up top – lakes, mountains and ocean all in the same view – unreal), you have people who live by profit off of such tourists turning their head for a moment. When the sun goes down, the people come out of the mountains. And the air of the city changes. Wealth and poverty sit so close to each other in Rio, I can’t imagine crime NOT being a factor here. But, the difference is, in Rio, you feel it. I didn’t specifically feel nervous or unsafe, but you just know you’re being watched, your bags and your person are constantly in check by eyes all over the city waiting for you to let your guard down. Rio is a really fun, fun place, but unlike in most of the other cities I’d been to, you really have to be careful. This was the first time I was highly aware of that.

A friend of a friend who works for the US embassy set me up in Leblon, the restauranty, trendy, spot of town at the opposite end of Copacabana beach. A little less hectic in terms of beach, a little more busy in terms of nightlife. I had my own little apartment, set up shop for a week and set out to explore. But, of course, I was immediately frustrated. By…….Portugese!!!! After almost two months of perfecting my Spanish, I was now completely up shit’s creek. Even though Portuguese and Spanish derive many of the same words from the same bases, there’s a French inflection to it that throws off pronunciation and renders, at least MY, Spanish useless. So, the first few days of Rio, I was fighting with taxi drivers, having translators sneak up behind me in restaurants and help me out with ordering a salad. I felt USELESS and frustrated. If this was my tolerance of Portuguese, what would SEAsia bring in terms of language barriers?!?!?! I was miserable, and making it harder for myself by allowing myself to get rattled. I even had a taxi driver take me back to the hotel one night bc we were driving in circles, not understanding each other in the slightest. (Turns out I had written down an address that didn’t exist as my destination…OK, my fault. I know, I know…)

But, after a couple of days, it started to work out and I became used the to inability to communicate flawlessly and started to appreciate the Brazilian people, who are so warm and good humored, partying all the time. Day, night, beach, bars. It’s amazing how much these people are out and about, laughing and having the time of their lives. Talk about living. And, the beaches. The beaches are pretty unbelievable. They are a circus. An orgy of colors, smells, tastes, sights. The sand between water and street is PACKED, and I mean don’t-have-any-regard-for-personal-beach-blanket-walk-thru-space-PACKED with people. One on top of another, on top of another. The colors of towels, bathing suits, beach chairs, umbrellas, skin color, hair color, is candy on the eyes. The heat is sweltering, but you just get lost in people watching for hours. I don’t think, at any point on a Brazilian beach, I shut my eyes. There’s just TOO much to look at. Add to that, the vendors. Oh my god, the vendors. Just going near a beach is a test of impulse buying will. You can buy ANYTHING on the beaches of Brazil. Like, you can furnish a house, dress your kids and stock your fridge from the vendors. They are hawking EVERYTHING. For thirst, beers, sodas, coconut waters, mates (ice-tea lemonade ones were the best), water, mixed drinks. For hunger, peanuts, popcorn, fried cheese, empanadas, cotton candy, sandwiches (home made in tupperwear!!), watermelon (balanced in trays on their heads), ice cream, fried chicken, chips, salads, burgers, fries – you name your food. They sell it. For body, SPF lotions, hats, sarongs, bathing suits, tunics, skirts, tourist shirts in Brazilian colors, flip flops, towels, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, tattoos, piercings. For the home, wicker baskets, wooden jugs, sculptures, ashtrays, pillows, tablecloths (two people would walk by with it held spread out), CDs, DVDs….

Ok, you get the point, but all of the vendors are yelling for your attention and you get a cramp in your neck shaking your head NO every moment. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. But, FASCINATING. I’ve never quite seen beach culture like that. Nor will I probably ever again. The nightlife in Brazil is a lot of late-night dining into clubbing. The food is unremarkable, lots of sushi, though I use the term loosely. After five days buying too much jewelry, too many pairs of Haviannas (5 in various colors – are you at all surprised?!?!) and too much ogling the beaches, I headed north to Buzios, which is a posh little beach town that is a step away from the chaos of Rio.

Buzios is a totally different Brazil. Calm, laid back, less frenetic, Buzios feels like a European little coastal getaway, with the marina, cobblestone stone streets that become pedestrian walkways after dark, stores open until well past midnight, people just sitting around at the restaurants and cafes all night, eating, drinking. Everyone becomes friends, you dine together at night and, of course, beach together by day. But such a modified version of the Rio beaches, that you are able to relax and drift off every now and again, knowing you’re in a very safe, comfortable and easy place. I LOVED Buzios. I stayed on Jose Fernandez Beach, my villa was high above the Spanish tiled roofs of the city, off the water. I was the only person staying at my villa, and treated like a princess. Every morning, Javier and the breakfast girls would come knock on my door to tell me breakfast was ready, and I would go down to an elaborately set table for one, overlooking the water with a FEAST of food to start my day. It was hands-down, the best way I could’ve ended my trip to South America. I appreciated Brazil, the people (who thought I was a Carioca, or typical Brazilian girl, which didn’t bother me in the SLIGHTEST), and the beaches. I can’t wait to head back to see more of Brazil, because I think there’s more Brazil that’s like this, rather than the jungle-fevered gentlemen’s city of Rio.

Boys, if you’re looking for action, head to Rio.
Me, I’m going back to Buzios….