After 77 days in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Shanghai, China (all of 3 days) – I have safely returned to the good ole United States of America.

Angkor Wat at sunrise - absolutely breathtaking

Angkor Wat at sunrise - absolutely breathtaking

Sigh.

I still have so many mixed feelings about my return. Don’t get me wrong, I love America and am so excited to be living in CHICAGO, but by taking my little 77 day sabbatical I’ve come to understand my heart and spirit LOVE to travel.  Discovering the different people and places in this world is something I’m absolutely passionate about. I couldn’t travel continuously all the time but I definitely enjoyed three months! My cancer (July 19th) instincts and introverted aspects of my personality need a home base I can rest and come back to.  There is something about this ginormous world and it’s diverse populations that completely captivates me.  I hope and pray that travel will continue to be a part of my life for a long, long time!

wat worker taking a snooze

wat (temple) worker taking a snooze

Boy. There are so many things I learned on my trip I wish I could share them all but I can’t. So many memorable experiences I hope to never forget. I have a few thoughts I’ve learned the past few months that I’ll share…

If I could share one piece of wisdom my trip has taught me I guess it would be the golden rule: treat others how you wish to be treated. There are so many different people and languages in this world it’s crazy…but when you get down to the heart of them they are just like you and me – people.  No, not everyone is good and kind but we are all capable of it. It’s simply the choice we make at a given time. We are the only ones in control of how others perceive us and how we perceive them.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt

an awesome cause: Cambodian Children's Painting Project - empowering and teaching former street kids to develop their creative talent in a positive and engaging atmosphere

an awesome cause: Cambodian Children's Painting Project - empowering and teaching former street kids to develop their creative talent in a positive and engaging atmosphere

I’ve learned over the past few months to be more comfortable with who I am, what I think, feel and believe. You and I might not agree but we can certainly respect and appreciate each others differences.  

In the end, we are the only ones that are in control of our personal life decisions and experiences. Yes, there are other outside influences but if you want something bad enough – you can find a way to get it… or at least try. 

If you’re not happy, do something about it. Life is too short to be miserable.  

a remote island fishing village (no electricity) off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia

a remote island fishing village (no electricity) off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia

As people, we deserve nothing but the best. If there is someone in your life that treats you poorly, you don’t need to associate with that person. It’s not you that is flawed… it’s their perception of perfection and you don’t need to be pulled down by their negative ways of thinking.  

Stop over complicating things and try simplifiying things. We have too much stuff in our lives we don’t need.  It often times doesn’t bring happiness but the opposite – burdens.  

lao buddist monks collecting alms in the early morning hours

lao Buddhist monks collecting alms in the early morning hours

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always  be eager to practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13

“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding is all you see.” – John Lennon

sand everywhere after swimming in the huge waves before a storm in Nha Trang, Viet Nam --- could have been the reason I had a horrible ear infection the next day that lasted for two weeks! At least it was fun at the time :)

sand everywhere after swimming in the huge waves before a storm in Nha Trang, Viet Nam --- could have been the reason I had a horrible ear infection the next day that lasted for two weeks! At least it was fun at the time 🙂

I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue this blog or not. Right now I’m furiously looking for a job in the city. The frustrating part is I honestly don’t know what my next job should be – I’m interested in a number of different things. I am praying God will reveal his path for me at this moment in time. The market is tough but I have to believe he is leading me somewhere.

I’m very excited to be living in Chicago. I think it’s the best place for me right now. My friend Katherine and I were lucky to find an unbelievable apartment in an ideal location. We signed the lease yesterday and now I just need to find a job to support that monthly payment!

I wish you all the best and nothing but happiness. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers as I travelled. I was so happy and encouraged to read every ones comments, personal notes and emails you sent to me. We all deserve nothing but happiness and I hope we each can find that in our own unique way.

xxx – Pearl

p.s. I’m bringing kisses back to the states… our firm handshakes at introductions are just too impersonal and cold 😉

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The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.  ~Nelson Henderson

Two malnourished Basarwa children sleep under a tree, hiding from the scorching sun in Metsiamenong, a remote village in the heart of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana, Friday Jan. 12, 2007. About 30 Basarwa bushmen have remained inside the game reserve, waiting for 3000 others who were removed and relocated outside  between 1993 and 2002. The Basarwa are the last of the original inhabitants of a vast area stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth have fascinated scholars. Only an estimated 100,000 are left today, most living in poverty on society's fringes.

 

Here is a little food for thought.  The video only takes two minutes but is very thought provoking.  It really puts things in perspective — especially when you think about where and if you would fit into this miniature earth.

 

I am only one, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something.  And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.  ~Edward Everett Hale

one happy pearl

one happy pearl

I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post (at least it seems like a long time).

Time is a funny thing. It’s almost like it’s continually changing with us the the stages of life we go through.  If you’re going through a rough patch, one day could seem like a week and one week might seem like a month. 

On the other hand, if things are going well – a week might fly by and seem more like one day.  I’ve been fortunate to experience both of these situations within the past six months…wow.  I can’t believe it’s been almost six months since my I called off my wedding.

The first three months were painfully sad and slow.  The past three months gave have been amazing and have absolutely flown by.  I’m honestly really thankful I’ve been able to learn so much in the past six months.  So much about me, my family, my friends and what I want and desire in life.  Not to mention, traveling has completely opened my eyes to a lot of new things… different people, ideas and ways of life.  Some exciting to see and other things that are a bit more difficult and really make you stop and think about the world that we live in – so many good and bad things exist in the same places.    

I know I’m still young but I’m seriously so thankful for everything I’ve learned lately.  I feel very lucky to be learning so much at such a young age.  I’d much rather be here now, knowing what I know, then anyplace else.  I’m a million times overly confident the decisions I made six months ago were right.  I can only say that because God has done nothing but reaffirm my decisions over and over again.

I’ve had many great moments while traveling but the best was about three weeks ago.  I received word from my parents that my ex-finance had successfully refinanced the house we owned together.  With the way the housing market is today, it was a HUGE burden off of my back and an answer to a prayer I had been praying for months.  Last Wednesday my father so graciously moved all of my furniture out of the house.  That was it.  That chapter has concluded in my life story.  Not that I regret it because I’ve learned so much and felt so much.  It’s made me who I am today, but I’m very thankful it’s over and I don’t (nor won’t) ever go back. 

Don’t get me wrong… God has also shown me on this trip that my heart still has a lot of healing to do.  It’s definitely not going to be easy for me to trust people as easily as I used (mainly men – sorry guys).  It’s going to take time for that part of me to heal  I’m not in any hurry to meet the ‘man of my dreams’ anytime soon.  Matter of a fact – I know I’m not ready for him yet.  That’s on God’s time…not mine and I can safely say I’ve learned it’s best that way. 

Right now I’m back in Ha Noi, Vietnam. I briefly mentioned in my last post but my dearest friend, Katherine, is traveling to Shanghai, China for business.  I decided to extend my trip three weeks to meet her in China.  I’ll be in Shanghai with her for one week before we fly home together on Sunday, April 19. 

I never thought I would say this when I left Indiana,  but I’m actually very excited to return to the states.  I’m looking forward to next chapter in life. Again, I’m not quite sure what God has in store for me but I know it’s something more beautiful than I could ever imagine (and yes – Dad, I know that beautiful thing will involve the daily grind of an 8-5 job and not wondering through foreign countries on buses all day) but I’m still excited.  Excited to see my family (my new niece or nephew who will be arriving any day now!), my friends and their families, my old co-workers and my new co-workers.  I believe so much in life depends on your perspective and I pleased to say I’m ready to move on into the next phase of my life.    

one happy Vietnamese man with a great perspective on life!

one happy Vietnamese man

This quote is from the movie The Shadowlands. It’s based on the later years of C.S. Lewis.  I wholeheartedlyagree that you can’t truly know what it’s like to enjoy the good days in life if you haven’t felt the bad.  

Jack: Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. 

Joy Gresham: We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal. 

Well, I never saw it coming. I should’ve started running A long, long time ago. And I never thought I’d doubt you, I’m better off without you. More than you, more than you know. I’m slowly getting closure. I guess it’s really over. I’m finally getting better. And now I’m picking up the pieces. I’m spending all of these years. Putting my heart back together.

‘Cause the day I thought I’d never get through, I got over you.

 

slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, dirty run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization

Well this post could contain hypocritical and/or contradicting comments but I’ve been thinking and seeing a lot of different things this past week and would love to share them with you!

I left the beaches of Sihanoukville last Saturday.  Even though the town is filled with backpackers wanting to party around the clock, I was able to break away a bit. I spent four intense days completing my PADI certification course but really enjoyed it. We took an over night trip to a few remote Cambodian islands for the open water dives.  That evening, we stopped in one of the villages and it’s amazing to think they are living on this island that’s at least a two hour boat ride from the main land. It’s definitely remote! We met a British scuba guy who’s living and working there and trying to educate the locals on the sustainable fishing practices as well as taking care of their coral reefs. Overall Cambodians (and most Laotians and Vietnamese) understand that tourism can provide an income for them but most just don’t have the education or tools to understand what it takes to bring the tourists in and keep them coming back.

It had been storming every day in Sihanoukville almost daily and on most nights. Much to my delight (that’s not sarcastic) it poured down rain and thundered all night we slept on the boat. It was beautiful.

When leaving the boat at the fishing pier, the three of us students were asked by our dive instructor to tip our Khmer (Cambodians) boat staff. He told us one dollar would be more than generous for the three staff members and not to tip too much. Crazy to think one dollar tip is overly generous for close to two full days work. We left the staff and dive boat at the fisherman piers. We passed through the piers on the way out and it was completely eye opening to view the slums they live in. I mean complete slums. Tin cans on stilts filled with nothing and surrounded by murky, dirty water from the bay. Just breaks your heart and the more you look in and around town, the more you see that this way of life is common for the majority of people. The thousands of moto drivers don’t own their bikes, they rent them off the wealthy Cambodians. Most of them aren’t even from the town they are working in but again, have traveled there in hopes of making money from tourists. They don’t have an education and learning education is the key to opening doors for a better life.

In town, I had heard about this cool little movie theater in town that showed new releases at cheap prices ($3.50), it has A/C, comfy chairs and you can bring in your own snacks (what?!?!) or buy them there (not to mention you can buy beer too – same goes for internet cafes). I had been hearing from friends (mainly Ashley!) that I needed to see Slumdog Millionaire for awhile now and I saw they were showing it. I grabbed some Rold Gold pretzels, a diet coke and a bag of M&M’s (of course, all imported novelty items I saw, really wanted for the movie and decided I would buy them to make it more like home), snuggled into my cozy wicker basket chair in the nice A/C (hadn’t felt that in awhile). If you have seen the movie, you probably know what I’m talking about but it made me feel horrible about my recent purchases. I wanted to throw away my food because I was ashamed… but then I felt guilty because that would be a waste and other people seriously are starving in India. It’s not a joke. We hear that comment all the time and laugh – but it’s true.

The movie hit me… I just happened to have my eye open to the slums that very day. I saw their homes and I saw people who didn’t have homes. I’ve seen beautiful eight year old girls using paper bags to cover up on sidewalks. Not just in Cambodia but all over SEA, India, Africa and America too. The difference is the concentration in the other countries that makes it so much more severe than what we see and think about in America. Here..it’s everywhere. The intensity of the poverty, disease, famine and lack of education in the underdeveloped and developing countries that is overwhelming.  

I really don’t even know what more to say because there is so much. The movie rings so true and so much more. AH! All day, every day you are approached by children selling bracelets, pirated copied books, postcards and simply spitting information at you just so you will give them money – for school maybe or for food or simply because their parents realize that their children will make more money than they will if they force them to beg in the streets. The Khmer are so amazingly friendly and upbeat despite all of the hardships they have been through in the past 40 years alone. I already mentioned the Khmer Rouge but what I didn’t mention (because I only learned later) that the before the KR, Americans dropped some astounding amount of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam war to stop the Vietnamese. I mean the stats were UNREAL! Bombs followed by genocide followed by famine followed by (and continuing today) landmines planted by the KR exploading and injuring people every day… it’s enough to make one depressed. Yet the Cambodians are so egar and excited to learn and develop to better both themselves and their country.

Today, I ran into one of my tuk tuk drivers named Saron. He’s 25 and serious about learning English. The guy is absolutely adorable and you can tell he is genuinely a good person with a great heart. He lost his father about 15 years ago and has moved to Siem Reap (about ten hours away from his home village) to be a tuk tuk driver, make money and learn better English. He was reading a grammar book and asked me to explain a few words (lettuce, storey, hurricane, frightening). As I stood there, explaining, saying and defining these words, I was suddenly surrounded by about six other drivers who were also wanted to hear and learn. Some of them even pulled out paper to write it down or were practicing their pronunciation. My heart just melted.

I really don’t know what the moral of my post is here. I started writing with the intention of telling you about how marvelous Angkor Wat was at sunrise (it was) and how fortunate and excited I am to be extending my trip for two additional weeks. I will head back into the south of Vietnam (which I skipped before) before going into China to meet my best friend, Katherine, who will be in Shanghai for business (it’s just an opportunity the two of us would hate to pass up!!!). I also wanted to tell you about how many beautiful things are happening in this country by great organizations like Angkor Children’s Hospital which provides FREE medical serives to ANY child who comes to their center. Goosebumbs.

I know, I know…it’s about time I put up another update. Honestly, my time has been flying by so quickly. Last time I posted was in umm shoot – Pakse, Laos and now that I think about it… that was SO long ago. I know I’ve said this before but I’ve done SO MUCH since then. Geez! Here are a few highlights.

First off, remember that amazing duck feast I had back in Luang Prabang Laos. My French Canadian friend, Max, took a few photos and posted them on his blog (yes, the blog is in French!).

the amazing sunset and delicious feast

After Pakse I headed down to Don Det.  It’s one of the 4,000 islands in Laos.  If you know anything about Laos, you would say that it’s a land locked country. Yes, it is – however, the beautiful thing is the Mekong Delta spreads out here creating …well umm 4,000 islands! Don Det is definitely more popular with backpackers and the island caters to them. As in bars, restaurants, convenience items (it’s no supermarket here – I’m talking about flashlights, candles, toilet paper, candy bars, water, fruit etc). Guest house after guest house but the island is relatively small and did I mention it’s freaking HOT on the island and there is no electricity 🙂 Each guesthouse has their own generator and they are typically turned on between 6pm (after the sun sets) and 9pm. Hints why the shops sell candles.

sunset at Don Det - the Brit Morgan made me smile for the camera

sunset at Don Det - my Brit friend Morgan made me smile for the camera

The place is pretty cool if you want to lounge around and literally lay in a hammock all day because it’s too hot to walk around. Any walking or bike riding should be down in the early morning. I was in the need of a little R&R and I actually spent about four days here. It was wonderful and very peaceful. I happened to find a very nice little guesthouse called Little Eden that had the best sunset view on the entire island. It’s owned by a Belgium guy and his Laotian wife.

They had killer food. One night a group of friends I met ordered the Belgium stew with chips (aka fries in America). He needed 24 hours notice to make the stew because it soaks in beer all night. AH it was soo tender and delicious.

He also served an amazing drink I’m going to start making back home. It was with Lao Lao (the local whiskey that really is more like a moonshine but I would use vodka), lemon and honey. Suburb and very refreshing!

local fisherman - we joked they were being paid each night to give us beautiful sunset shots!

local fisherman - we joked they were being paid each night to give us beautiful sunset shots!

Another highlight of Don Det was the ‘pearl of the Mekong’.  A Dutch friend and I rode bikes to another island to see a nice, small waterfall we heard about. Once we arrived, we met another tourist who said the other waterfall was much bigger and better and highly recommended we saw it. We decided we should probably go since it was the widest waterfall is SEA.  

The day ended up being great fun. With our hired bikes, we also hired a local guy who spoke no English to take us to the mainland. He towed our bikes and us in his boat.  From there we rode about 8 kilometers in the direction we hoped was the waterfall (stopping a few times for me to motion ‘waterfall which way’ to the locals) in the sweltering heat. Finally… the pearl of the Mekong.  It was beautiful (it’s the dry season right now and it has to be very intense in the rainy season) The power was unreal and my photos again won’t do it justice!

standing on top of a ledge on part of the smaller waterfall

standing on top of a ledge on part of the smaller waterfall

 

mekong transportation

mekong transportation

at the pearl of the mekong

at the pearl of the mekong

an adorable Laotian boy who played with me/tried to steal from my pockets/shared his snot, chewing gum and chips with me while I waited for the bus

an adorable Laotian boy who played with me/tried to steal from my pockets/shared his snot, chewing gum and chips with me while I waited for the bus

From Don Det I took a VIP bus to Phonm Phen, Cambodia (the capital city). It was NO VIP that’s for sure. haha transportation can be so crazy sometimes it’s simply comical and that’s all you can really do. sit back, try to relax (sweaty butt and all) and enjoy that this is all part of the experience of traveling. simply put. we left Don Det at 8pm and arrived in PP at 10:30 pm. exhausting. they also have a tendency to switch buses on you. We did this I’m guessing at least five times. the last time they crammed 15 people into this mini bus with all of our things on the back. ha. i was sitting in the crack of two seats for 2.5 hours. thoroughly delightful but definitely unforgettable!

PP was really cool. I’ve heard a lot of people don’t like it but I actually spent another four days here and enjoyed it. It’s actually a pretty big city (bigger than I expected) and there were proper supermarkets! Not like a Kroger or Marsh or Walmart to any degree but they were A/C, had aisles and lots of food stacked next to each other – often times with different brands representing the same time of food. It was amazing. You might not know but I love the grocery store so I was seriously in heaven and so excited to see one.  I happened to be with and English guy who also loves supermarkets (seriously!) so we both went it a few and really enjoyed just paroosing around the aisles. so fun! haha

 So in PP, I stayed at a guesthouse that was on the Boeung Kak lake. It’s kinda cool that I stayed here because for one, it’s a huge lake in the middle of this big city (also a backpacker central type place) but I heard to stay here because the government is filling it in for commerical and residential property development! It’s not going to exist in a year. It’s seriously crazy to think about. I don’t know all of the details but I can’t imagine being one of these businesses that have built their lively hood on ‘being on the lake’ and pretty soon their back yard will be concrete. The nice big patio deck with hammocks, pool tables and open air bar won’t be the same that’s for sure.  I’m glad I was able to see it and experience it before it’s history.

meet Tree - a super cool Cambodian street kid who harrassed me a few friends for a good 30 minutes trying to get us to bike counterfit/copied books .. he also managed to show us some illusion magic tricks and pose for a few photos!

meet Tree - a super cool Cambodian street kid who harrassed me a few friends for a good 30 minutes trying to get us to buy counterfit/copied books .. he also managed to show us some illusion magic tricks and pose for a few photos!

The oooo how do I say it…not highlight but must see of PP was the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum… it’s not really what one would call a highlight but definitely a must see for anyone visiting Cambodia. Geez.  It used to be a school and the building was turned into S-21 (Security Center 21 or what we should rightly call a prison/interrogation/torturing center) by the Khmer Rouge.

As soon as I walked in I felt this lingering emptiness and heart ache you really can’t explain.  If you have the time, check out the wikipedia link above for some photos and short history.

In a nutshell, the Khmer Rouge dictator known as Pol Pot, attempted to wipe out the entire Cambodian population in order to make it one big classless society. Between 1975-1979, 1.5 million people were killed (one out of every four/five Cambodians).  Terrible.

Anybody who was educated or even looked educated (doctors, lawyers, teachers, anyone wearing glasses, women, children, foreigners) were killed. The rest of the urban populations were forced into the countryside to become laborers in the fields – overworked and virtually starved.

The poem below is displayed in the museum. I think it will give you a taste of what the Khmer Rouge was going for….

 The New Regime

Poem By Sarith Pou in Corpse Watching

No religious rituals.
No Religious Symbols.
No fortune tellers.
No traditional healers.
No paying respect to elders.
No social status.No titles.

No education. No training.
No school. No learning.
No books. No library.
No science. No technology.
No pens. No paper.

No currency. No bartering.
No buying. No selling.
No begging. No giving.
No purses. No wallets.

No human rights. No liberty.
No courts. No judges.
No laws. No attorneys.

No communications.
No public transportation.
No private transportation.
No traveling. No mailing.
No inviting. No visiting.
No faxes. No telephones.

No social gatherings.
No chitchatting.
No jokes. No laughter.
No music. No dancing.

No romance. No flirting.
No fornication. No dating.
No wet dreaming.
No masturbating.
No naked sleepers.
No bathers.
No nakedness in showers.
No love songs. No love letters.
No affection.

No marrying. No divorcing.
No martial conflicts. No fighting.
No profanity. No cursing.

No shoes. No sandals.
No toothbrushes. No razors.
No combs. No mirrors.
No lotion. No make up.
No long hair. No braids.
No jewelry.
No soap. no detergent. No shampoo.
No knitting. No embroidering.
No coloured clothes, except black.
No styles, except pajamas.
No wine. No palm sap hooch.
No lighters. No cigarettes.
No morning coffee. No afternoon tea.
No snacks. No desserts.
No breakfast (sometimes no dinner).

No mercy. No forgiveness.
No regret. No remorse.
No second chances. No excuses.
No complaints. No grievances.
No help. No favours.
No eyeglasses. No dental treatment.
No vaccines. No medicines.
No hospitals. No doctors.
No disabilities. No social diseases.
No tuberculosis. No leprosy.

No kites. No marbles. No rubber bands.
No cookies. No popsicle. No candy.
No playing. No toys.
No lullabies.
No rest. No vacations.
No holidays. No weekends.
No games. No sports.
No staying up late.
No newspapers.

No radio. No TV.
No drawing. No painting.
No pets. No pictures.
No electricity. No lamp oil.
No clocks. No watches.

No hope. No life.
A third of the people didn’t survive.
The regime died.

 On to Sihanoukville! This is what I’ve been waiting for the entire trip. The BEACHHHHH! It’s not a holiday without some quality R&R in the hot sun and sand. Sihanoukville is on the south coast of Cambodian (the only coast actually). It’s a town filled with backpackers but I’m still enjoying it. One of the beaches at night is completely like spring break (every night). Kids wasted all over the place BUT there is another beach down the road that is MUCH more secluded and you can bet I’ll be there for about four days strait at the end of this week. Again, they are out of the city limits so they don’t have electricity but seriously, you’re on the beach during the day and sleeping at night so you really don’t need it. Until then, I’ve decided to pursue something on my bucket list!!! I’m super excited because I signed up for a four day, intense PADI diving certification course. I actually just finished my second day of instruction and pool work. My next two days will be on Tuesday/Wednesday when I’ll do my final dives on an over night trip! My thought is – why wait! Now is the time to learn and if I don’t do it here I never will. I also met a really cool Australian couple from Melbourne the other night. After talking to them, I’ve decided I to add kite surfing onto my bucket list. Why not?!?! This is a once in a lifetime life I’m talking about here.

Well, my next stop in Cambodia is Siem Reap and Angkor Wat (Laura Croft, Tomb Raider anyone?). From there I will head to Bangkok, Thailand then on to the states and Chicago. I probably won’t post until next week when I’m in Siem Reap… until then… it’s the beach for me

 

what more could you want from the beach? tiki hut, sun and sand and a drink in hand

what more could you want from the beach? tiki hut, sun and sand and a drink in hand

 

 

Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos

Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos

 

Monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang, Laos

Monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang, Laos

 

Hello starbucks lovers...here are your coffee beans drying out

Hello starbucks lovers...here are your coffee beans drying out

I think I crossed the month marker a couple of days or so ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about all I’ve been doing, seeing and encountering. Before I left I noticed quite a few people were facinated by the entire ‘backpacking’ portion of my trip so I’m going to highlight a few things (borderline too much information for some of you) that I feel classify me as a “true backpacker in South East Asia”.
*Eaten with my hands
*Have spent at least one 24 hour period without showering
*Rode on local buses with locals, not tourists. Highlights: at least 60 people on a bus that seats 40. This involves taking out plastic stools and lining them in the aisle. In a bus with no A/C in 85 degree weather. Huge bags of rice, motorbikes, cargo and luggag all strapped to the top of the bus. Makes FREQUENT stops (i.e. every five minutes) to either pick up a new passenger or allow more locals and children to gt on the bus, crawl over people in the aisles to sell their ‘convience’ foods. We stop, leave and then stop five minutes later for this to happn all over again. This is called Lao transportation.
*Witnessed a portion of a wedding and was invited in to celebrate… Lao style – drinking and eating from the same bowls and glasses. This happened last night and I didn’t really know what I was eating but didn’t want to be rude. Took some sticky rice and a bit of veggies ‘next to’ the meat so it looked like I was eating more. Delicious!
*Squatted over a squat toliet and fell off. Nice.
*Squatted in the woods without a toliet.
*Slept someplace dodgy because it was the only place to sleep
*Splurged on a hotel with A/C and cable TV becasue you want to get some sleep
*Encountoured traveller’s diarrhoera for a 24 hour period – four of which I had to spend on a bus with out a toliet. My group of eight were the last to arriv to the bus so we were stuck ‘downstairs’ in what I would call a dungeon fit for livestock only. Could barely breathe and the ceiling was two feet from my head when sitting down (I’m short) and the windows didn’t open. Note: I checked into the nice hotel right after I got off of this bus.
*Knowningly paid too much for something because you can’t do anything about it nor can speak their language
*Paid too much for an item and didn’t know it until later because the bills have too many zeros at the end
*Lost a wallet
*Bought a tshirt
*Shipped something home because you bought too much in Hoi An, Vietnam and wouldn’t dream of carrying it across SE Asia
*Saw a rat crawl across the dishes in the kitchen you are eating soup at knowning that one also has probably crawled across your bowl at one point in time too
*Had a massage, and another, one more and will probably have another very soon  (they are only $4!)
*Drank warm beer because they don’t chill it
*Lost a train ticket stub that you needed to keep in order to exit the station. Were told to find the ticket or buy a new one by the Vietnamese woman who is collecting the tickets however she blows a snot rocket in th corner and lets at least twenty people walk out while she’s doing this but still wants to you buy a new one that they are asking you to pay more than the first ticket. Refuse, go back on the train in the dark to look for the ticket, cant find the ticket, the police officer has a really good laugh at the stupid foriener girl and then lets you go with the mean snot woman isn’t looking any more.

These are just a few random things I’ve experienced in the past month and many many more than have gone unmentioned.

A good friend asked me the other day what my thoughts and feelings were so far.  I think I’m extremely fortunate to be able to afford to travel half way across the world to see how other people live.  I meet so many amazing and beautiful local people over here. I find myself thinking, please come say hello and visit me when you come to America.  Then I catch myself because most likely they will never see America and maybe not even the next town over. 

It makes me remember how lucky we are in America to have so many opportunities and chances to do whatever we want in life with very few limiations.  We also have SO many modern conveneinces and things we don’t really know what to do with so i’m hoping I can continue to minimize my ‘things’ when I return.  Life is so much simplier with out so much stuff. There is also so much around us every day that could make us happy if with simply took the time to stop, look and enjoy it.  We really don’t need to go go go all the time.  I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about my trip – not having an agenda or list of things I ‘need’ to do today.  I really only need to do what I want to do today so that’s a change of pace I’v never really experienced and it’s nice.  Don’t get me wrong, I know certain things have to get done each day and I will certainly be looking for a job.  I also think it’s important to look at your day and think about what really matters.  

One day turns into the next and then the next and end the end…all of those little days have made up your life.  Smile and be thankful. We are very fortunate to have what we have. So many people in the world have so little but are still so happy.

highest waterfall in Laos - this only shows half of it!

highest waterfall in Laos - this only shows half of it!

Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls

 

I’m very sorry it’s taken me over a week to post! As always, so much has happened I wish I could share all the details with you. The little details are really what make traveling worth the time, energy and money!

Last time I blogged I was in Ha Noi. From there I took a flight into Luang Prabang (my abbreviation – LP), Laos. Laos is landlocked and sandwhiched between Thailand and Vietnam. One word for my encounters in Laos so far – outstanding. Oh, it seems that each stop gets better and I hope it continues that way. The Laoation people are simply amazing. As soon as I entered the small, small airport at LP you can tell it’s different. The entire population of Laos is only 6.5 million so it’s darastically slower and more relaxed when compared to Vietnam (85 million). I was reading today in a magizine that they Laoations are described as ‘kindhearted people’. I sincerely think that’s the best way to describe them.

Goodness, I really don’t know where to begin other than in the beginning. LP is so charming it’s unreal. I think if I had to live in any of the cities I’ve visited so far it would be there. Part of it’s beauty is the main square is a peninsula of land with the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other. In the center of the town is an elevated section of land called Phu Si. It’s scattered with a few different Wat’s. The 400ish stair climb to the top is worth every breath as the most incredible view of the town is spread before your eyes. This would be the ideal place to see the sunset over the Mekong.

Crepes are also scattered all throughout LP. I promise I had at least one banana and nutella crepe a day. Nice tasting but bad on the waist. I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy the good eats while I’m here and as my father told me I might gain 4 pounds, I’ll just have to work hard to loose it when I get home…at least I will have had a lovely two months of holiday food!

my feet at the top of tat kuang si

I don’t have much more time left on my Internet connection but I’ll try to do my best at summing up two other highlights of LP… (forgot to mention I’m not in LP anymore, I’ve also already stopped in Vang Vieng and I’m in Vientiane now – headed further south tomorrow!). There is a beautiful waterfall just south of LP called Tat Kuang Si. It’s a series of tiered waterfalls. You can climb to the very top of the falls via a lot of half hearted steps and hand hold. It took a good ten minutes to get to the top. I didn’t really know what I was climbing up to or if I could even see anything (sounds very similar to my journey to the top of Phu Si – I guess I just start climbing and hope for the best. There must be a path for a reason right?) but once I got to the top the views were incredible and breathtaking. Again, I can’t really find any other suitable words to describe it. The photo here is from the top of the waterfall and you can see the water begin to trickle over the top of the fall. Then below you can see my feet at the top. It’s hard getting photos of yourself everywhere so I figured I would at least take a photo of my feet in the falls! 

view from the top of Tat Kuang Si

Once I climbed back down I was able to take a dip in one of the refreshing pools below. There was a Tarzan like rope swing I tried out a few times. Definitely fun but my shoulders and arms were a bit sore the next day. I should have a few Jane like photos coming in the next week or two. 

Oh yes! The highlight of my stay in LP. Long, random story short… I met two French Canadians on the plane from Ha Noi, we grabbed dinner together, decided to try this bar out that was supposed to be opened by French Canadians called the ‘hive’, sat down and was attacked by ants on my feet, was offered to have a shot of tequila by some American students on their GAP year (so glad to hear the concept is at least starting to take off in the states), went bowling with all of these people after the bar closed at 11:30 because it’s the only thing open in LP late at night and then we were invited to a local duck bbq that was taking place with some of the local Lao workers with the GAP year organization.

The evening was unforgettable. They bought two ducks and bleed them to death before chopping them up and making them into more dishes than I’ve ever seen before! I didn’t see the bleeding of the duck but that wasn’t what was a amazing. All of the electricity went off in the entire town and you could see the stars so beautifully. I wondered around outside and enjoyed the view for a few minutes before I noticed all the candles in the house and shadows moving. I figured it was time for dinner, walked in to about 25 people sitting down (there were about 8 foreigners and then a good 15 or so locals) on the floor (don’t forget shoes off!), with candles scattered all about and SERIOUSLY about 40 bowls of food (probably about 10 different types of food but divided up and spread all over the floor – including duck blood soup and the most incredible tasting salad I’ve ever had before – no joke! We all enjoyed the dishes with our hands (it’s much better that way) and sticky rice… laughed and enjoyed lots of beer (more sharing and drinking from the same cup)

My two friends and I brought three bottles of wine to share. It was so cute to see one of the locals try it for the first time. I coached him (hand motions – no words) on to not chug it like beer. I wish I had a photo of his face! Oh he puckered up so big .. he thought it was disgusting and motioned for me to have the rest and couldn’t stop thanking me from taking it. Ok this is getting long, so story short, we ripped up the table cloth and danced to lots of Akon, shakria and then crazy lao music! Ah it was unreal, unforgettable and something truly Lao.

 

I spent the past few days in Sapa, Vietnam. This is an old french hill top town that has been taken over by tourism due to the large amounts of hill tribe minority people in the area. From HaNoi, I took an overnight train up to a nearby city of Lao Cai. The train was about nine hours each way. I bought a soft sleeper ticket which meant I was in a small cabin with four others on soft mattresses. I met two guys in Sapa who bought hard seat tickets. Ha. Looking at their photos explains the hard seats. They had to sit upright on wooden bench like seats for nine hours with people sprawled out all around them, on them, under their seats etc. Needless to say, my bed was excellent compared to theirs and I also killed two birds with one stone (over night accommodation and transportation). Very nice!

Once I arrived in Lao Cai, we had an hour mini bus ride up into the hills (they looked more like mountains to me) to the town of Sapa. Our train arrived around 6 am so we were driving up into town in the early hours of morning. The views were marvelous.  As we began to get further up, we started seeing some people from the local hill tribes walking up the roads in their traditional outfits/clothing. We had to slow down a few times for the oxen (or some other large animal – I forget exactly which one) who were being hearded across the streets.

In general, the Vietnamese work harder than anyone I’ve ever seen before. Their manual labor is just outrageous for their small size. Then you enter into the hills and it’s a completely different type of manual labor. Old fashioned plows being pulled by animals, woman and children in the fields with their tools. Four year old children walking to and from school together for miles and miles without their parents anywhere in sight right on the edge of steep cliffs.  It’s just a completely different mentality of openess, community and maybe even a sense of karma.

I spent three days and two nights in Sapa. The first day I simply walked around the small town, wandered through a few markets and got familiar with every thing. As soon as you step off the bus, you have H’Mong woman and children following you. Seriously, one turns into three into five because they all want you to “buy from me, will you buy something from me”.  It’s cute at first and maybe even flattering but it gets old VERY quickly. Everyone wants to sell you something!

Since Sapa is on the top of a hill (huge mountain if your from flat Indiana) there is lots of trekking you can do. I knew I would do a little there but other than that I was honestly going to see if I could exchange my train ticket out for a day earlier. It’s amazing to see all the colorful fabrics, textiles, blankets and people but the town is a bit small and I was getting kind of tired of going back and forth up the same street on the first day. Then I remembered a photo journalist I had met on the minibus ride up into town. He had mentioned he wanted to visit an ethnic market that was about three hours away from Sapa and no tourists really ever want to travel that far. I thought what the heck, I have nothing else to do tomorrow and it’s $16 for the bus and driver we hired vs. the $10 I would pay to trek for the day so I should go.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30 am to be ready for the bus ride at 6:30. It was our local Vietnamese driver, four adults, one teenager son and one 16 year old H’Mong girl named Ha. The drive there was three hours long and filled with simply spectacular views. Sapa is already relatively close to the China border so we were dancing on the edge of it the entire way up. My cell phone sent me a message letting me know I had service in China so I’m guessing we were definitely considered in China at one point or another. Local people would stare at our bus as we drove by because about after an hour of driving, we were basically the only car on the road.

I was beginning to get a bit nervous because the paved road became dirt and mind you we were curving through the mountains. One of the guys got car sick but the rest of us were fine. Personally it was mind over stomach. I was hunkered down just trying not to enjoy the enormous views anymore. Just when I thought I was going to freak out I realized we were there. I quickly gathered my belongings, stumbled out of the van and looked up.

Wow. My heart came alive with the sight in front of me. Not only was I staring at the most beautiful women, men, children, landscapes, clothing, colors, etc but they were all staring right back at me. We were pretty much from another planet. The local H’Mong girl Ha was also a new sight for them because her clothing and skin were also different from theirs.

I almost didn’t know where to start but I followed the other two photographers down some steps. Our timing was perfect and magical. We were smack dab in the middle of the school recess! Now let me remind you I’m not in America, I’m in Vietnam. Never in America would they let two men and one woman with cameras waltz onto the playground to snap photos of children. Thank you Vietnam. It was amazing! These children have never seen cameras let alone what their photo looks like. The trick was to snap a photo and then show them. Most were shy at first but then they loved it. Their smiles and giggles were enough to fill anyones soul. I will never forget it.

Recess was over so we began to walk into the market. Again, so many stares it was unbelievable. Even though we were different and unknown to them we were welcomed and greeted with nothing but huge smiles. We spent a good three hours walking through. It was almost like I made friends with people and children even though we didn’t speak the same language.

My last day in Sapa was spent trekking with Ha in the morning through the countryside and then walking around the town grabbing a few last gifts from the H’Mong women before I departed back for Hanoi. I wish I could better describe my experience in the local market (I’m waiting for the name/location to be confirmed so I can better note it) but as one woman noted something earlier in my trip I believe it left a thumb print on my heart.

Here are some photos below. I’m sorry I can’t rotate them right now and they are small but it took me at least an hour to upload all of these. Hopefully you can begin to see how magical it was!

I’ve finally been able to upload a few photos on here… it’s taking too long but there is a flickr feature on the left side of the blog you can click on to see what I’ve uploaded so far. There aren’t a ton because they 1) limit how much I can upload and 2) it takes a long time! There aren’t really a lot of shots with me in them..I’m working on that one but it’s different when you’re traveling alone! You’ll pretty much see I try to capture the overall feelings/culture/every day life experiences in the photos. I do have some of the typical tourist spots, monuments etc but random, real shots are so much more fascinating — in my opinion.

The only internal battle I’m having right now is who it’s appropriate to take photos of and who you shouldn’t. I mean, how would you feel if you were simply sitting out side of Starbucks and some tourist came up and started snapping photos of you? A bit weirded out, confused, upset, irritated, offended, happy, excited – whatever but I’m really thinking a lot about these thoughts lately.

For instance, the other day in Hue we went to visit this pagoda with monks praying and singing inside. You could take photos and our tour driver was kind of encouraging it. I took a few. It was very beautiful to see their singing and worship but there was just something very bothersome about the who observing/photographing of them that I was uncomfortable with. If a tourist came into my church at home while I was singing and praying and started snapping photos I’m not really sure how I would feel.

Enough of that chit chat… enjoy the photos!

busy streets of Ha Noi, Vietnam

busy streets of Ha Noi, Vietnam

the old quarter in Ha Noi

the old quarter in Ha Noi, Vietnam

a bridge outside of hue, vietnam

a bridge outside of hue, vietnam

I’ve safely arrived in Hue, Vietnam and will spend only about 24 hours total here. I’ll do a quick day tour of they city before I jump on a 12 hour bus back to Ha Noi for the weekend (including Valentine’s Day which I’ve actually forgotten about). A Vietnamese girl told me I should find myself a boy in Ha Noi to buy me chocolates… I like the chocolate idea!

I apologize if I ever repeat myself in my posts. I have had so many thoughts, random conversations and interactions with all sorts of people they begin to run together.

It’s a bit pathetic I’ve eaten more oreos and pringles in the past week alone than I have in the past three years. Honestly, that’s all they really have to sell in the ‘convenience’ store stands. Along with water. (sorry if I spell anything incorrectly here or a word here and there doesn’t make sense. I can’t really see my entire computer screen right now – it’s a bit dodgy and slow so I’m going to have to make do.

Back to the pringles… great snack food but not great for you. Same with oreos but they do the trick when you have a sweet tooth like I do. The Vietnamese don’t really do sweets but they sure do coffee right. Man, the coffee here is so delicious. I know I’ve mentioned that before but it’s worth mentioning again.

Something else worth mentioning is a very random God encounter I just can’t get off of my mind. It was a couple of days ago when I was still in Ha Noi. I was meeting Conor at a cafe (with great coffee by the way). I was a bit early so I enjoyed some hummus and fresh veggies. The book of choice I brought on my trip with me is “blue like jazz” by donald miller. It’s a book I’ve heard lots about for the past three or so years but never really read it – until now. What can I say… God’s timing is hilarious.

Something I read in the book caused me to say a little prayer.  I don’t remember it exactly but it was something in regards to God revealing himself to both Conor and I that evening by providing a conversation or encounter Conor and I could identify with and he could be intellectually stimulated…he’s a very challenging fellow and I didn’t feel that I could properly entertain his thoughts surrounding Jesus, God, religion vs. spirituality, etc.

All the mean while I’m continuing on with my reading. I notice a cute, Western couple walked in but I couldn’t really pick here they were from. It was a random night because I also received a very interesting email from a complete stranger whom I still haven’t actually identified.  I can’t really put it all together at this moment in time but it was just an all together random and ironic evening…that’s the best way to sum it up without taking too much of it away.

Conor joined me about thirty minutes later and of course browsed through my book and enjoyed a small  chuckle at the tag line: “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality’. He browsed through the pages and and skeptically talked about a few points before headed to the restroom.

While he was away, the western couple began speaking to me. They were from Washington, DC. They are 27, married for three years and the husband was a meeting planner (umm…. my past job!) They asked if I had a skeptical friend and I giggled and said, “yes, to say the least”.

Let me set the scene for you. There are few Americans traveling in Vietnam. More Europeans, Swedish, Germans, Aussies, etc.

What are the chances that we would meet, sit next to and interact for the next two hours with a Christian, American couple…seriously. Out of this world. I wish I could explain the intensity of the ironicness. They were very real and well versed on scripture. This was an answer to my prayer. There was no way I could have pulled all the information from the bible out like they did…and made it interesting.

The husband left to use the restroom and the woman and I were discussing who wrote Revelations. We were going back and forth, not really too sure and all the sudden this petite woman pipes up by the pastry counter and says “I know, I know”. Seriously?!?! She starts naming all of these books of the bible, in order and then tells us it was John the baptist. HA. Even better!

She’s Korean and a Christian… in the same stinking cafe as the other four of us – sitting right next to us. I mean the chances are simply out of this world.

Long story short God is amazing and is answering my prayers all too often – it’s scary. I wish you could have been inside my head when this woman spoke up. I almost got up and walked out it was unreal. I’m completely serious. I almost walked out.  God is good, very good. I know not everything is going to always work out in my favor but at least I know I have Him in my corner and by my side.

Someone wrote to me earlier tonight told me I have the greatest life coach ever living in my heart – Jesus. With Him I’m beginning to find a peace and faith I can’t really put into words, explain, justify or defend at times but I sincerely hope you too seek and find it one day.

“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. ” – Jeremiah 29:12-13