Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vietnam



When you tell a baby boomer that you’re going to Vietnam, you might as well tell them you’re going to Afghanistan. Why on earth would you want to go to there?? But the last 40 years have changed Vietnam immensely. Despite its terribly violent and disturbed history, the country is growing and flourishing into a world player. The country is stunningly beautiful and the people were surprisingly (almost shockingly) lovely to these two Americans. It seems like the past is all but forgotten (or forgiven is a better word). No need to hold on to a grudge when, really, you’re only hurting yourself.
             Sure we crashed some motorcycles, saw a child’s head get smashed by a gas tank on a scooter, and almost died in every taxi we got in, but that’s just part of the lifestyle and experience. Hanoi has, without a doubt, the worst, most insane traffic I have ever seen. Sides of the road, right-of-way, signaling, traffic lights?? Get outta here. Whomever has the biggest balls has the right-of-way. I hear India is worse…can’t wait!
            We started in Hanoi, and then flew to Ho Chi Minh in the south of the country, and then finished with a relaxing vacation on the southern island of Phu Quoc, a beautiful little island with near perfect beaches (unless you’ve been to the Philippines) and millions of mosquitoes. Unfortunately, we skipped the entire middle of the country. Guess we’ll have to go back…
            I want to take a moment to promote one of the better dining experiences that I’ve had throughout my travels. The Pepper Tree at the La Veranda resort on Phu Quoc island in southern Vietnam is superb. One of those places that will make you fall in love with foods that you previously despised. A true treat for anyone venturing that far out into the world. Don’t miss it.
            I took a lot away from Vietnam. It was my last stop before returning to the States for the first time in over two years. And unfortunately, my international travel would be slowing down quite a bit for a while as I took time to build a life back in the states. I can’t think of a better last stop to close a very long trip to Asia. What a fantastic journey it had been. And what a country to say goodbye to. Don’t let your visions of the past stop you from going to places that have changed, flourished, and developed into fantastic destinations. I just hope that places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq can follow in the footsteps and develop into functioning and developing environments so I can visit them too.



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cambodia

     I'll admit it, I was pretty lazy in Cambodia. I stayed in Siem Reap the whole time, I didn't go to Phnom Penh like I planned, and I spent a lot of time walking around and eating. Lot's of eating. Maybe it was the happy pizza slowing me down, or maybe the last two years finally caught up with me and I was just dead tired. Either way, I still had a damn good time and saw lots of cool stuff.


     I found a tour guide and ended up using him for three different days in a row. He took me to the floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake, on a day long temple tour, and finally to Angkor Wat, the crowning achievement of Cambodia, and possibly the world. It is, without a doubt, the largest
religious monument on the planet, and certainly among the most impressive. It is a temple complex literally the size of a small city. Its grandeur simply stunning, and then you remember it was built in the 12th century, without cranes or trucks or any other modern machinery. It spans for what seems like forever, and sets any first timer speechless. There is hardly a point in trying to take a picture of the master work, it's scope beyond the reach of anyone a lesser man than Steve McCurry.


     I was out for dinner one night and sat at one of the street side vendors in the market square. I made the mistake of buying a young boy some food, which attracted about 20 other children to come by, all wanting their share. It was somewhere between the line of heartbreaking and feel good. What is the right stance in such a situation? While I could have sat there and emptied my wallet; feeding every one of those kids, something about it just didn't seem right. I've always been a firm believer that if guilt leads you to giving, you're doing it for the wrong reason. And while I was in a safe environment in that setting, I know that that kind of situation has turned dangerous in other situations. The lucky boy ran off, as did the others, reluctantly and eventually; my life being the most changed of the group.
    And as I reflect back, it certainly did change me the most. I often find myself looking online for opportunities to make a difference in the world. A real difference. But it's so hard to find anything that pays even a low wage to someone that isn't a highly specialized professional. While i'm sure a kid getting a full stomach certainly doesn't hurt, I really do want to give back on a broader scale. And I realize now that I have been starting to make decisions that will let me be able to do just that in the future. Just a little too much debt to make the leap right now. But it's on my mind more often than not.

   I'll take a second to plug a friend. My good friend Joe Rice has done exactly what I speak of. He moved to asia and started a non-profit with the goal of helping orphaned and under privileged children learn and achieve their potential. I am immensely proud of Joe, and I strongly recommend that you check out his project. http://runwithjoe.org/   If you have some extra cash and don't have physical time on your hands, I vouch 100% that this is a worthwhile effort. Joe was a magician for me during the years I knew him, and he carries that tradition on with these amazing children. A true heart of gold. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Myanmar (Burma)


Myanmar (Burma)


            When I visited Burma in October of 2011, it was still a very isolated and mysterious country. And while that pretense still largely holds true, it was just a month later that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, the first visit of a U S diplomat in over 50 years. Myanmar has opened up considerably since then. Burma has had an excessively violent history filled with ethnocentrically fueled civil wars, a thriving slave trade, and historic military coup’s, this kind of long lived strife doesn’t go away in just a few months or years.
            Before I visited, I read George Orwell’s ghastly novel Burmese Days, based near the end of Burma’s British Colonial and Indian rule. It was a frightening, fantastic read and really sets the mood for a trip to the country. I highly recommend this read, trip to Burma in mind or not.
            I booked a room that would pick me up at the airport, and on the ride back to the hotel, I sat next to a journalist that was traveling Asia as an independent writer for several different news publication. We went to dinner that night and, curious about her work, I pressed to know what she was covering. Eventually she told me that she was in the country to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the nations most famous political activist. Aung San spent 21 years incarcerated for her activist actions, most of those years under house arrest. But she never stopped pressing forward with her word. She was released in November 2010 and has continued her political activism in hopes of a united and peaceful Myanmar despite violent threats and even attacks on her life. I was blown away by my fellow travelers story and to this day wonder if it was true. For some reason, I didn’t find a way to keep in touch with that journalist girl, and I regret it as my international political interests grow.
            Myanmar is a country of immense beauty, but it remains an uncomfortably unstable place. An alien world, free from most western influence, and shut off from the outside world, it is a truly unique nation. And while I never felt threatened during my visit, a great feeling of unease filled the streets at all hours of the day. It constantly felt like the whole thing could come tumbling down at the drop of a hat. It felt that the streets were just waiting to erupt into a violent mob at any time.
            Such a mysterious nation was a real treat to visit. It was a place that I knew very little about before I started researching for my trip. It’s a dark, haunting world, but it has a unique soul unlike any place I’ve been before. The temples of Bagan left me speechless, and the golden pagoda of Shwedagon Paya was amongst the most calming and beautiful places I have ever seen. A small city literally made of gold.
            I certainly wouldn’t advise Burma as a first international trip, but for a person a bit more seasoned that is looking for a truly unique, life changing experience, this just might be the place for you.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Philippines 4, Boracay


   I was sitting in the living room with Ben one night, deep in the depths of the internet, drinking a Macau Beer (again), and dumbed down from the monotony and depression of my life. Neither of us had spoken for probably an hour. Not for spite or resentment or anything in that vicinity. At this point in our friendship, I think we had said every thought we had ever had to each other.  “Let’s go to the Philippines.  It’s been a while, and we have a three-day weekend coming up." Boracay it is.

   We searched the internet and found a hotel we liked. We pulled up on a tuk tuk style taxi and paid the driver. The hotel just happened to be under water so we decided not to stay there. A very nasty storm was coming in. As we walked down the beach, sand pelted our faces, arms, and legs. As expected, the beach was beautiful, though it had an obvious glare of over-tourism. We walked the entire length of the tourist section, and found a beautiful little tree-house style hotel.  Living in a tree-house rules.

   Strangely enough, the best Greek food I’ve ever had in my life came in Boracay. Some fantastic seafood  as well, as expected. It really was a beautiful place, but its reputation of being the party beach has certainly done it some damage. It was my least favorite place in the Philippines (besides the mind shattering mess of Manila) but that’s like having a least favorite Victoria’s Secret model.

   Luckily I did get to change my mind a bit about Manila. Our flight was cancelled so we ended up with a free day and night in the city. It was interesting walking out of the airport with no trace, no passport stamp, and no immigration. Somewhere in my passport, I have two exit stamps for one entry. We did actually have a nice time. We went to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, found a place with real American micro-brew’s, and even had the pleasure of eating at Wendy’s for the first time in years.

   I’ll always love the Philippines, no matter where I am. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Himalaya Part III, Nepal


    Our driver in Tibet let us out at the China/ Nepal border where we would have to walk through immigration and then find a ride to Kathmandu. We got out of China and started walking. There is a bridge you have to pass before you can officially enter Nepal. We had been walking for a while and finally ran into some drivers. We soon realized that we had completely missed the Nepal immigration office and had to walk back a bit to officially enter the country. We paid our visa fees (which physically went straight into the pocket of the border agent), and were on our way.
   We found a guy to drive us and after much debate about the price, we were off in a very rocky 4x4 SUV. We drove for a while and ran straight into dead traffic. But it wasn’t for a wreck or anything of that sort. The whole side of the mountain has slid down and mud and boulders were blocking the route.
   We sat in the traffic jam for several hours as different groups tried to clear the road. We walked around and explored, walked up to the mess, helped move some rocks out of the way, etc. It wasn’t looking hopeful. We were all getting frustrated and had just about decided to start walking and find another ride on the other side, but the road finally cleared up. We eventually got through the mess after about another hour of traffic and were back on the road. We stopped at a gas station to get some food. There was an 8 foot tall marijuana plant growing in the ditch by the gas station. Seriously, it was way taller than me.




    We made our way to Kathmandu and found a decent hotel in a quieter part of town. We had plans to stay a night or two and then fly to Pokhara, a nice mountain town farther west in Nepal. We arrived in Pokhara, exhausted from the journey. We found a lovely hotel room with three beds and crashed hard. We spent almost a week in Pokhara enjoying the beautiful mountains and slow lifestyle. A torrential downpour of rain came one night, which caused flash flooding like I have never seen before. We were walking in water almost up to our knees to get dinner that night.  I often tell people I wouldn’t have been wetter if I had jumped in a pool.
   Pokhara is where we would part ways with Brett, his time in Macau had come to an end. He would go on to hike then Annapurna circuit for two weeks and we would go back to Macau. It was hard to even imagine going back to work after an adventure like this. But by this point, all three of us had limited time left. I would be leaving in November, and Ben not too long after me.
   Ben and I arrived at the airport to catch our flight back to Kathmandu. It was cancelled due to bad weather, and we ended up on a 9 hour taxi ride back to Kathmandu. I’m pretty glad it happened, because the drive was beautiful, despite the drivers constant warnings to be careful when we stepped out of the car as we were driving through Maoist country. The Maoists are a rebel political group that control a large part of Nepal. They are often a violent group and aren’t above killing and kidnapping, and while we made a safe journey, we were on the edges of our seats.
   We arrived in Kathmandu with some time to kill. We saw the city a bit more and then finally headed to the airport. (on the way, our taxi driver got a flat tire, it seemed like the gods didn’t want us back in Macau either) The end to a fantastic adventure. 



Saturday, August 13, 2011

Himalaya Part II, Tibet.



     If I could recommend one place in the world, if you were going to stay in your house forever and were only going to take one trip your whole life, to just one place, it should be Tibet. And you better go quick, it’s fading faster and farther away every day. The strong hand of Beijing is pressing deeper into the Tibetan Province, pursuing an unfortunately brilliant kind of “ethnic cleansing” on the Tibetan lifestyle, not with force or with violence, but with simply being there. The Chinese move there, open restaurants, start businesses, and become part of the society, and slowly but surely, being to destroy the Tibetan lifestyle by turning it into the rest of China. Kind of like how we are steadily turning the world into the United States with McDonalds and Coca Cola. Slowly, surely, the identity disappears until there’s nothing else to protect; until there’s no Tibet left to “Free.” And with Tibetan Buddhists refraining from any sort of violence, protecting a once flourishing identity becomes harder and harder. If someone is breaking into your house, it’s a lot easier to pull out your shotgun than trying to reason with him or her and explain why they are doing the wrong thing. Yet that in itself, is what had made Tibet such a fantastic place. A struggle against an oppressive regimen, the political and religious leader of the region in exile for the last 55 years, his face illegal to display or possess… what chance do you really have? How do you stop something like this?
     Our trip to Tibet sparked in me a strong interest in the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s teachings and writings. I’ve read several of his, as well as other influential Buddhists’ books since my trip and have found amazing life advice to live by. I probably wont ever convert to Buddhism, but the lessons learned from such teachings can benefit any life. I have made a lot of strong progress towards becoming a better, more fulfilled person. And I honestly do think it started in Tibet.
     Anyone attempting to describe Tibet with words will fail. And I’m sure others do a much better job than I could ever hope to explain. It’s more like another planet than a foreign country. I was awe-struck from the second we landed in Lhasa, until well after we crossed the border into Nepal. I’ve never felt more spiritual, closer with the earth, more in love with my life, or closer to the people around me than I did for these several days. An overwhelming sense of excitement and peace came over me, and it still comes back whenever I look back at my photos, or talk to my travel companions about the experience.
     There’s no point in me trying to explain where to eat, where to stay, what to do. When you get there, you’ll know exactly the path you need to take. Let the mountains take you far far away. Let the chants fill your heart with mystery. Let it overwhelm your soul. It’s a hard trip, but it’s worth every cent and every second. Far more than I could ever explain.
            
Potala Palace by night. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Himalaya Part 1: Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La China.


      Three weeks is really an incredible amount of time to be away for. It’s enough time to change your perspective entirely. I went from being miserable with my job to barely even thinking about it. Make sure you’re able to take time off from your life. You’re worth it, it will make you a better person, and it will put your priorities and life into a whole new perspective.
      It turned out to be a fantastic idea to slowly step up to Tibet. Macau is at sea level, so the slow progression, finally topping out at Everest Base Camp was crucial for our health and sanity. Little did I know how strongly high altitude could affect the body and the mind. We flew to Kunming and took an overnight bus to Dali. The sleepers were built for people in the 5’5” range. Ben did fine, but Brett and myself suffered all night. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to get up and walk around, once you’re in the bed, you’re staying in the bed. The bathroom?? Luckily the window opened. I think we were on that bus for about 14 hours.
      We walked around the city, a quaint little town with interesting shops and restaurants. Old ladies were walking around with huge grocery bags of freshly picked marijuana for sale. We went to the beautiful Three Pagoda’s monument. I have no idea why this isn’t a UNESCO world heritage site. This is where I saw my first naturally growing marijuana plant growing up from the sidewalk, and nobody seemed to notice or care.
     There was a courtyard hotel at the top of the mountain that we had heard about. We ended up taking a chair lift up the mountain and finding the inn. It ended up being beautiful and we stayed for a few nights. Each night, the owners hosted a family style dinner for the tenants. Everything was home cooked, sourced from the local city, and amazingly fragrant and delicious. Dali ended up being a wonderful experience.
    And on we continued to Lijiang on another bus trip. We arrived in the city just outside of Old Town, the area we were staying in. From what we could understand with our extremely broken conversation with the cab driver, our hotel should be just around the corner. Two and a half hours later, we were still aimlessly wandering the cobblestone walkways, bags on our backs, incredibly lost and frustrated beyond belief. How anyone could every learn there way around that labyrinth, I will never understand. Every turn opened up 20 new options of where to go, and everywhere looked exactly the same as where we had been before. This mess, coupled with an incredible lack of signage led to three American kids stranded and hopeless. I honestly can’t remember if we ever found our rooms or if we just gave up and picked somewhere else. 
      We booked a day trip to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which houses the famous Yangtze River. We took a bus a few hours and got out at the top. The hike to the meeting point seemed like the only way to go. The first hour was a nightmare of what seemed like a path that would never stop going up, and up and up. At one point, we walked up on a herd of mountain goats that were completely blocking the path and didn’t look happy to see us. After much debate, screaming, and paying them a small fortune, we continued on our way. It really was a stunning hike and I’m glad we opted for it, but as the sun started to set, we got pretty concerned about making it back for the bus. We ended up running for the last half hour, attempting not to fall and slide down the mountain. We barely made it back to the bus in time. Whoever said that hike is easy to do in the allotted time needs a reality check. Lijiang was a mess, but still enjoyable. And on we went to Shangri-La.


            Shangri-La stopped me dead in my tracks. At the time, I thought it might as well be Tibet. I fell in love right away. A great feeling overcame me, a strong desire to understand or be part of the culture. We went to the town square where people were gathered, singing and celebrating their Buddhist traditions. We climbed a hill to the biggest prayer wheel in the world, a magnificent piece of art. Shangri-la is where I’ll be if I ever need to run away and start a new life. You’ll find me writing or taking pictures at the town square. I knew that we had an amazing journey left ahead of us.  And then we flew (first class) to Lhasa, Tibet.

Tiger Leaping Gorge


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Shanghai, China



   What a polluted, crowded, hectic mess of a city! Going right after Japan probably wasn’t the best idea. But the MagLev train was pretty amazing (187MPH). Of course, I still had a great time. Ben happened to be there again, so we did some exploring together. We stayed at a hostel right on the bund. A fantastic view of the skyline met me as I woke up in the mornings.

  We got the best dumplings in the world. If they weren’t, I don’t even wanna try the better ones. Chinese food, like real Chinese IN China, is amazing. The Hunan Wok or China Best Restaurant down the street from you doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It’s not even the same KIND of food. The food in China is so eloquently refined, so precise, so focused, it’s not just food anymore. It’s an art form all its own. The dedication and pride that goes into the cuisine is apparent immediately and sticks with you forever. Do they eat weird shit? You better believe it. And it’s amazing.

   The short trip to Shanghai was totally worth it. I only scratched the surface of what the city has to offer, but atleast I got to stop in for a few days. It made me start to realize just how massive, how diverse, and how endless China really is. You could spend your whole life just exploring this one country. And sometimes, I wish I could.




Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Osaka, Kyoto, Nara Japan



   It would be impossible and even foolish to think that I could sum up my experiences in Southern Japan with words, images, or any other representation of mimicked reality. The trip was so spiritually and psychologically dynamic that writing about it seems useless. Almost a waste of time. If anything, just to remind myself of the experience I had (and to encourage you to do the same). Did I see Cathedral live in concert? Sure did. Did I see someone die out front of a department store? Pretty sure I did. Did I spend way too long in a reggae bar in Kyoto?? Yep. Did I spend way WAY too much money on a Kobe Beef steak?  Nope, I would have paid double for half the size. Did I go to Universal Studio's Osaka with an amazing, beautiful Japanese girl and then go out for horse sashimi? mmhmmm. Did I go to the Manga Museum?  No…. they were closed… Doesn’t matter. I would move to Kyoto faster than I could get there. I have never felt more at peace, never more tranquil and content with life, with the universe, with reality as I did on this trip to Japan. Sure Tokyo is everything you could ever want. But the rest of it is everything you need.

   There’s really no point in listing what I did. I could name off plenty of places, parks, spots, eateries, etc. I could brag about my luck, rub it in your nose, be pompous, talk about how ya’ll in America don’t know shit about sushi… But that’s not what this, or my life is about. What did I really do? I reset. I cleansed. I transformed. I forgot, moved on, and woke up. Out of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, Japan hits closest to home. It’s such a prominent and important place to me. It is the world that I want to share with my friends and loved ones the most. If I could take everyone I know to one place, it would be Japan. The value of aesthetic beauty, simplicity as perfection, sparks the warmest feeling inside of me.  Anyone wanna go??


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Singapore 2

   I always enjoy going back to a city for the second time. Being even slightly familiar with a place can open you up to a lot more possibilities. You can put all of the first time frets aside and really get to know a place. You're familiar with the train, the scams, the taxis and the culture. It also help to have a good friend wherever you're traveling to.

   I went to see the Lion King at the Marina Bay Sands, the masterpiece of a new casino, luxury hotel, and mega shopping complex. I'm usually not into places like that, but this resort is certainly worth visiting. My friend gave me a tour of the theatre, took us to the world famous swimming pool on top of the casino, and then took a friend and me out for dinner. We went to THE BEST indian influenced food I have ever had in my life. As you sit, they lay huge banana leaves down on the table that act as a plate. You know you're in for a treat when the food comes but no silverware to accompany it. (Just don't eat with the wrong hand.) As the smell runs up your nose, a smile quickly and irresistibly jumps onto your face. Fragrant and amazing. If you're ever in Singapore, eat at the Banana Leaf.

   We went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. What a lovely place to escape from the bustling city life. Singapore has everything, and is a fantastic introduction to Asia. It's Western influence gives you the feeling of being home, yet turn down a different street, and you're right in the middle of Asian life. Where places like Kathmandu and Shanghai can be an all out assault on the senses, Singapore is like Asia light.  I love it.



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Deftones in Bangkok! or My First Riot!


   The Deftones are playing in Bangkok! Am I going?? Of course I’m going. There is no way I would miss that concert in such a famously rowdy city. Justin and I bought tickets and flew to Thailand. A taxi dropped us at Khao San Road where we began to search for a hotel. After looking at a few places, we stumbled upon a guesthouse with a rooftop view of the busy backpacker street. Grand total for 2 nights, $14.
  
   We hailed a taxi and headed to the concert, which ended up being WAY farther away than expected. We checked out the outdoor merch booth, grabbed some cheap beers, and got in line for the show. Door time came and went as we continued to stand in line. 30 minutes passed, an hour passed. People started to get uneasy.

   Out of nowhere, a guy got up on top of a merch table and started yelling in Thai. He was obviously way beyond angry. At that point, people started to gather around the table and yell and push each other. A young local guy came up to us and said: “They just announced that the show was cancelled, you two probably don’t want to stand there.” A beer bottle came flying past my head and smashed into the window of the venue. He was right. We moved out of the way and watched from the back of the cinder block wall. Then shit went crazy. The Deftones concert quickly turned into a mob riot. People were smashing glass, throwing rocks through the windows, and flipping merch tables. One guy lit the beer tent on fire and kicked it over as the poor vendor girl ran away. By this point, all of the concert promoters were running for their lives. I saw one guy on the ground holding his head, blood seeping out from between his fingers. I turned around and there happened to be two of my coworkers standing behind me. It’s funny to run into someone you know at a riot in Bangkok. The crowd went on smashing lights, tables, and windows and I regretted not having my good camera. It took a long while for the cops to start to show up. We decided that that was our queue to leave. There had to be more trouble to get into, right??

   I’ll leave out the next 12 hours. But I can tell you that it involved amazing street food. What’s important is that we made it back to Macau safely.