Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Feels Like Home to Me

Posted from Bangkok, Thailand

Our time in Siem Reap under the skyscraping and collapsing towers of ancient Angkor Wat is over. We sadly boarded a plane earlier this evening, and an hour later, here we are -- back in Bangkok. We loved Siem Reap, and there are plenty of stories and a cubic butt-ton (that's English not metric) of pictures. I promise we'll get them up as soon as we can, but for right now, we're just so happy to be back in Bangkok.

In fact, we're excited to be in Bangkok for two reasons. First, something about Bangkok feels comfortable, like we're coming home in a way. We know what to expect, how to get around, and where to get decent meat on a stick. So that's really comforting, something we've really been looking forward to. Second, (drum roll, please) Chris and Amanda are flying in tomorrow to meet up with us. We didn't want to say anything before that might jinx it, but in a few short hours they will be on a plane to Bangkok. The four of us will be in Bangkok for a few days and then we'll head to Sri Lanka together. We can't wait! We are so excited to see Chris and Amanda. For those who don't know them, we met Chris and Amanda while I was stationed in Oklahoma. Chris and I were even deployed overseas together, and we've managed to stay in touch ever since. We haven't seen them in years AND they will be the first familiar faces we'll have seen in over a month. Anyway, we can't wait!

On a separate note, one of more ecological importance, Lizzi mentioned to me on the flight that this was our eighth flight in 6 weeks. For those math geeks out there, that's more than one per week. Yes, we are single-handedly contributing to global warming. In fact, I think the hole in the ozone layer just got a little bigger. Please send our apologies to Mr. Gore, but we are having the times of our lives.

Monday, January 28, 2008

It's a Small World After All

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia

Wow! I can't believe all of the comments and emails. I'm completely overwhelmed. In a good way. Thank you to everyone who emailed, commented on the blog, wrote on my wall, or called. It really made having my birthday on the other side of the world feel a lot closer to home.

I also have to thank Lizzi. She came clean to me yesterday, telling me that she's rallied the troops to help me celebrate my birthday, and I couldn't be more grateful. She has always been amazing in making my birthday mean so much more than I think it is. It is one of the reasons I love her as much as I do. I love you, sweets!

Here's how I celebrated my 30th birthday. First, we slept in late and ate a huge breakfast, complete with pancakes, bacon, and cold cereal with milk. Milk! I haven't had actual milk in over a month. It's just not something that's easy to come by here. Then, we hopped in a car and visited the temples of Angkor Wat. Unbelievable! We walked on temples that are over 1,000 years old. In fact, one of the temples was abandoned 60 years before Columbus stumbled upon America! There are pictures, I promise. After touring the temples, we came back to the hotel and went swimming, stopping for a drink or two at the swim-up bar. Swimming. In January! I've never gone swimming on my birthday before. Growing up, I was always a little jealous of the summer birthday kids and their pool parties, but no longer. Because I went swimming on my birthday. Did I mention that I went swimming in January?!

We ended the evening with dinner. Lizzi had planned on us going out for fancy meal on the town -- Western or Khmer, whatever I wanted. But it didn't quite turn out that way. By the time we'd finished swimming and rinsed the chlorine off, the hotel's restaurant was closed and the hotel shuttle was no longer running to town. So we ordered room service. I ordered a big burger, my first one of the trip, which is quite a testament to will power and restraint on my part, as well as a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, my first taste of the coveted Blue Label ever. And it was spectacular! I've got to say that traveling in southeast Asia definitely has the perk of cheap top-shelf liquor.

All in all, this was one of the best birthdays I've ever had. Again, thanks to everyone, and especially thanks to Lizzi.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tales of an Adventurous Boy Named Matt

A Birthday Story by Lizzi, posted from Cambodia

Thirty years ago today, give or take twelve hours, across oceans and some continents, a baby boy was born in a strange place called Texas. He came into the world wide-eyed and fair-skinned, and from the moment of his first cry, he was destined for great adventure. His parents called him Matt. Not long after Matt's birth, the parents added to their humble clan a brown-eyed, tan-skinned boy they called Tom, and together, Matt, Tom and their parents took on America, eventually returning to their hometown in Pennsylvania when the time was right.

The younger brother enjoyed the hometown, put down roots and made friends there. Though he circled round part of the American land, he might yet come back to that place of some of his fondest memories. He married a beautiful fair-haired girl from a neighboring town, and as I am telling you this story now, is presently set to become a man of letters, and people will travel far and wide to learn from him. He will no doubt be famous throughout the land for his thoughts and papers, which people will read for generations to come.

But Tom's story and Matt's story are different. While Matt had a strong fondness for the hometown, he longed to see the world and plant for himself the seed of adventure which his parents first sewed in him. He decided to dedicate himself to his country, in the hopes that his country would take him to other countries, albeit peacefully. But as with all good tales, his adventures were interrupted by a girl. The girl is called Lizzi, and though we are of the same name, I can honestly say that I am not acquainted with her at all. When Matt met Lizzi, he knew that his life's adventures were about to begin, and he learned that adventures could be had from the comfort of a living room, perhaps with the accompaniment of a few oversized cats. But the funny thing about love is that it turns both people on their head, and from an upside-down vantage point, things look awfully different. Suddenly, it was Lizzi who wanted to see the world, and she realized she would do anything for the boy she loved, not least because he made her laugh every single day, and what woman doesn't want to follow the sounds of her own giggle? So Matt dashed his longterm plans for the wild blue yonder, and set out for his greatest adventure yet: monogamy.

The adventure of adventures took them to far-off places, places which are also oceans and continents away from where I tell this tale. They lived in Oklahoma, Virginia, Maine, and Pennsylvania, and showed no signs of slowing down. Until one day, not that long ago, Lizzi devised a plan. "Let's go to Asia!" she said, and though Matt was initially nervous about the idea (he had, after all, grown quite used to those cats), he can't say no to the girl whose laughter makes him feel like he's won a prize, and so he said instead, "Yes, let's!" Which brings us, so conveniently, to today, oceans and continents away from everything they have known, in a place where people eat noodles for breakfast, where things that are ancient are so old that they can't even fathom, where, as it turns out, you cannot dig a very deep hole in the sand and get easily to the other side of the planet.

And today, dear readers, is a day of celebration and excitement! Which is why I'm telling this tale to you. It is a day to look into the sky, to seize your adventure, to make someone laugh! Because today is the very same day that Matt was born, and for Lizzi, if this wonderful day had never come to pass, well then some of her best adventures just wouldn't be worth having. It is also a day to think about the adventures of the future, both those that take place in a living room, and those that take place across oceans and continents. Because who knows what the next thirty years will bring? Except, of course, a lifetime of adventure.

The End.

Almost. Because there is one thing that my cheesy story doesn't yet have. And it is this: Happy Birthday Matt! Thank you for taking me on your adventures. Thank you for making me laugh, and for counting a day as a good day when you've made me laugh. Thank you for turning my world upside-down, for helping me to see all of the interesting things you can see when you stand on your head. And most of all, thank you for coming into my life, for showing me the world through your sea-colored eyes. I love you with all of my heart, and I love every day of our lifetime of adventure, even the days when the idea of eating noodles for breakfast make us both want to travel back across the oceans and the continents in an instant. Yes, even those days are an adventure with you, and I will gladly take them over any day without you.

All my love, Always

Friday, January 25, 2008

Speaking of War

Written and posted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We went to the killing fields today. We saw piles and piles of human skulls. We saw a box full of bones and teeth. They are all that remains in the wake of Pol Pot's destruction.

We went to the killing fields today.

When we first decided to go to Cambodia, people told us that other than Angkor Wat, there wasn't a whole lot to see in the country. "Go straight to Siem Reap," they said. And when I told them that I wanted to go to Phnom Penh to see the killing fields, they looked perplexed. Maybe rightly so. It's not that I WANTED to see the killing fields, it's just that, after spending thousands of dollars on a plane ticket to come to this part of the world, it didn't feel right to abrogate my duty to pay my respects to the thousands of lives that were lost at the hands of an outrageous killer. And that's exactly how I saw it: coming to Phnom Penh, having the day that we had, it was my responsibility.

And so we went to the killing fields today.

We have no pictures from our day, only the grim images that will most likely remain in our minds for a long, long time, if not forever. We will remember the holes in the grounds where hundreds of Cambodians were left to rot, and we will remember the school-turned-prison with its bloodstains still on the floor. We will remember that tower of skulls, and the photographs that were meticulously taken of each prisoner. We will remember the shackles and the chains, the instruments of torture, the peaceful grounds that used to be a nursery.

We will remember that as we sat, grim-faced, heading from the prison to a temple, we were both thinking of the destruction going on in the world today. We thought about Darfur and Sierra Leone. We thought about the Sudan and Kenya. We thought about Guantanamo and Baghdad. We thought about Palestine. We will remember that those devastations, like Pol Pot's devastation, occured in our lifetime. In OUR lifetime.

Sitting in that tuk-tuk today, I thought about my parents and grandparents. My parents could not have stopped these atrocities, just as my grandparents could not have stopped Hitler. And I cannot stop Darfur and Kenya and Guantanamo. Oh, but I will remember.

At the end of our dark day, we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us to that aforementioned temple. I wanted to say a prayer, because at the end of a day of death, prayer seemed fitting. And it didn't matter to me, not even a little bit, that the prayer couldn't be said in a place where I might normally pray. A house of God is a house of God, and if it was to Buddha to whom my prayer was directed, it was Buddha who would help me find peace again. I will tell you what I prayed for, because it is a message that I wish I could send around the whole world, to people who read this, and to everyone they know, and to everyone THEY know, and so on.

I prayed first for the people whose lives were lost, for their families who could not bury them, for the babies they could not have. I prayed for humanity, for the soul of humanity, which gets inexplicably lost in times of war. I prayed for the child-soldiers who carried out Pol Pot's plans of utter destruction, because I believe in my heart that when the soul of humanity is lost, even the purest of hearts can be persuaded to engage in evil. I prayed for justice, because I believe that I understand that word, because I took an oath to seek it out, and because justice, justice, I shall pursue. I prayed that Matt and I will be able to explain to whatever children we will someday be lucky enough to have, that these things do happen, and that we must remember them. I prayed for old people, that they might be able to forget. And I prayed for all of you, and for all of your children, that we all might someday know a world where these prayers simply aren't necessary, that humanity will find its soul, that justice will prevail. I ended my prayer with a note of thanks, thanking whatever deity was listening, even the one residing right there within me, for the man sitting next to me, for the ability to pray, and for all of the good and wonderful things that I see around me all of the time.

As we drove back to our hotel, I saw an old man playing a version of badminton with what I'm assuming was his grandson. I thought of the stories Matt told me of playing badminton with Tom when they were little. I felt the corners of my mouth curl towards a smile, at the old man and the young boy, and the child versions of Matt and Tom. I took a deep breath, exhaling this day, and decided to write this to you.

Sojourns in Saigon

Written from Saigon, Vietnam

We woke up at 9am, high above the busy streets of Saigon. We turned over, away from the alarm clock, not wanting to get out of bed. The events of last night were still fresh in our minds.

Wait a minute! Haven't you read this post once before? You have! But it was about a completely different city, and as far as we're concerned, it could have been about a completely different planet. Because today we woke up in Saigon, not Hanoi. And last night we ate at a pretty fun restaurant and walked around the city a little bit. Despite the fact that Lonely Planet gave us grave warnings about how insane this city would be, how many motorbikes would try to run us over, how lost and overwhelming it can feel, we found their warnings to be totally unfounded. In short, we really loved Saigon, and we're going to sleep tonight wishing that we could have had more time here.

In the days since I wrote that last post about our experiences in Vietnam, I've received emails from a few people asking if we're okay, if things got better. And the short answer is that yes, things DID get better. The long answer, which of course I'm going to share with you now, is that they got better because we decided we were going to make them better. When we realized that we didn't like Hanoi, and that we really didn't want our experience there to cloud our entire time in this country, we decided to do a few things to help ourselves out. Accordingly, here is our recipe for having a better time in a place you're on the verge of hating:

1) Stop rushing around in the morning. If you're tired, sleep in. You're on vacation. Act like it.

2) Stop chastising yourself for feeling sick of eating noodle soup. If noodle soup isn't doing it for you, eat something that IS doing it for you. Something a lot like a chocolate croissant. Or a yummy baguette. Or pizza. Eat pizza.

3) Buy yourself something that reminds you of home. In our case, this was a bootleg DVD of Friends, Seasons 1-10. We watched a few episodes at night before bed, and we were instantly transported to those nights we spent on the floor of J and Cris's living room in Arlington. It made us feel so much better.

4) See the things you want to see. If you're reading your Lonely Planet and there's something that sounds just dead boring, skip it. Instead, after you've managed to roll yourself out of bed, pick ONE THING that you really want to see and see it.

5) Drink cocktails early and often. Vietnam is brilliant with the drinks, I'll give it that. They have 2 for 1 happy hour specials. And happy hour? Make that happy FIVE hours. Because it runs from 4pm -- 9pm. Yes, please.

6) Shop. Oh, little Hoi An, we didn't know how much we'd spend in your beautiful french colonial town. But we did. Matt had two shirts made for him and I had three (yes, three) jackets made for myself. It was magical. And it also made us feel guilty. Which made us need cocktails. Luckily, Hoi An stepped up to the plate. See #5.

And there you have it. In the end, it was only Hanoi that we really didn't like. Hue was so much better than Hanoi, and we would have loved to have had an extra day to wander around the Imperial Palace (which are the old royal grounds of the Nguyen Dynasty). Even though we spent a very depressing day at the DMZ (about which a post or two will be forthcoming), we stayed in a nice guesthouse and ate good food. And in Hoi An, we managed to give ourselves some time to get to know the city. We didn't plan any side trips, and we basically spent our time walking around the windy streets, and balancing our meals between western and Vietnamese food. And then we got to Saigon, and as we were walking back to our guesthouse tonight, I was feeling really kind of sad that this is our last night in Vietnam, and there's a chance that I might never be back here. Saigon especially really managed to endear itself to me (something about it reminds me of a gentle mix between Bangkok and New York) and I can honestly say that when the bus comes to pick us up bright and early tomorrow morning for our 8-hour journey to Cambodia, I WILL be sad to wave goodbye to this place.

If you look for it, the Pho in Vietnam is every bit as awesome as it's cracked up to be, and that nudging French influence peeks its way out from around corners. Our collective history with this place, and my own relationship to that history is part of what made being here so unique. While our experience in Hanoi is one that I hope we don't have to relive while we're on this trip, I wouldn't go back and erase it even if I could. In the end, we're leaving Vietnam with more than what we came with, both emotionally and physically (our packs are STUFFED!), and in the end, that's all you can ask for from a place.

Another Day, Another Country

Written from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We made it! We left Vietnam this morning, bright and early, and got on a bus to Cambodia. Yes, a BUS to Cambodia. It occurred to me as we booked the trip that it didn't seem like the smartest way to enter a country, but then I reminded myself that just a few weeks ago, I entered Laos by longtail boat and didn't even bat an eye. Things went smoothly today, all things considered. There was one point where our bus driver took our passports and our money, and I completely and totally lost my shit, but he didn't understand me because he didn't speak a word of English, so he simply handed me back my passport, stamped with an exit stamp from Vietnam and an entry stamp for Cambodia, and smiled. So I, um, calmed the F down, much to Matt's delight. And here we are in Pnomh Penh.
We're not planning to see a whole lot in Cambodia, just two touristic sites ("touristic" is a word we heard from our friends from the UK. I love it. It sounds much more loathsome and undesirable than "touristy," I think.). Here in the capital, we'll mainly stick to the sites that memorialize the grim devastation left by the Khmer Rouge. And then we will probably get drunk somewhere. Rather, if it's anything like I expect it to be, we'll order a drink and then stare at each other as the ice melts and the flavors blend, wondering how, HOW on earth it's possible that people can be that disgusting, and worse, how we can sit comfortably a world away and let it happen. We will not answer our questions. Luckily for Matt, Scotch is awfully cheap here. But then on Friday we're heading to Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat. We'll be able to explore the ancient temples for about 3 full days, pausing only to celebrate Matt's 30th birthday (!) and swim in the pool at our hotel since it's supposed to be REALLY frickin' hot here. And then we'll find some mode of transportation to take ourselves back to Bangkok for a few days before heading onward to Sri Lanka. Given our track record, we will most likely travel by chariot. Wish us luck.


Written from Hoi An, Vietnam, about Chiang Mai, Thailand

Here's something you don't expect to see when you're walking around Thailand, on your way to a famous temple called Doi Suthep:


For those of you who haven't already figured it out, that's Chiang Mai University. Matt and I couldn't get enough of the fact that there's ANOTHER CMU. Yes, we're well aware of Central Michigan University, but we're SO not even going to talk about them here. We're talking about the CMU in Thailand, the one that has a pagoda right on campus.

Carnegie Mellon Needs a Temple

We decided that would really spruce up the CMU in Pittsburgh. That and some elephant statues.

Elephant Statue

We walked around the campus looking for a bookstore so we could buy a tshirt, but alas, we were disappointed. Instead, I made Matt take a picture of this sign, because somewhere in there are the letters for "CMU" in Thai:

CMU in Thai

Did I mention that we're total dorks? Because in case you hadn't noticed, we're TOTAL dorks. Also, GO TARTANS!!!!!

That Trip To Africa

Written A Long Time Ago, Posted from Cambodia

Just over a month ago, I took a two-week trip to Africa with my dad and brother. I took over 650 pictures on that trip and was eager to share them all with you. I even made promises. But between packing up our apartment, moving our possessions into storage, and flying halfway around the world (again, in my case), it took me the better part of a month to tag all of the pictures so that you at least know what you're looking at. But the task is finally done, and Matt painstakingly uploaded them to flickr, so here they are at last, in all their glory.

What I've included here in the slideshow is but a subset of the whole album. It includes my favorite pictures from the trip. As with most favorites, sometimes I picked the picture because of the picture itself, and sometimes I picked the picture because of how I felt when I was taking it, or the memory it evokes for me. You're totally entitled to have other favorites. I promise that I'm cool with that.

Those of you who are gluttons for punishment and plan to head over to the flickr gallery to look at the whole set, I want to give you a brief warning. On our safari trip, we were lucky enough to see a "kill." Before I went to South Africa, I thought that the kill was the act of actually KILLING an animal. But while I was there I learned that the kill refers to that actual killing, as well as the dead animal that's being eaten. I have pictures of the latter, and some of them are quite gruesome. The pride of lions currently living in Sabi Sands, all 18 of them (minus the two males, who don't really hunt), took down an enormous male Cape Buffalo. Over the two days that followed, they devoured every inch they deemed edible (they leave the skin, bones, and teeth for the hyenas, who will eat anything). It was an amazing thing to see and hear and experience, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of it. But I recognize that some of you log onto this site first thing in the morning, and you may or may not want to be greeted by images of a masticated buffalo. I get that, so I didn't include any of the dead buffalo pictures in my favorites set. So if you just NEED to get your dead buffalo fix, you're going to have to mosey on over to flickr.

And with that I bring you my trip to Africa, in pictures:

If you haven't figured it out yet, it was an amazing trip. I can't wait to go back to Africa to do safari with Matt someday. And our kids. Because once you go to visit animals in their own home, it seems strange to go to the zoo to see them trapped in a home that we built for them. Getting the chance to see them this way was definitiely worth both the money and the long flight. If you're not getting the message, I'll spell it out for you now: GO TO AFRICA!

Some Helpful Phrases

Written on the bus from Hue to Hoi An, Vietnam
Posted from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When you're traveling the way we're traveling, you occasionally have the good fortune of meeting other people who are traveling the way you're traveling. If you're lucky, these people are funny and interesting, and they are happy to engage you in hours of meaningless conversation. If you're SUPER lucky, they're not from America, and they have idioms and mannerisms that you've never heard before, but you find endlessly amusing. And if you're luckier still, they don't mind it, even a little bit, when you ask them to repeat these idioms so that you can write them on your blog. Here are some of our favorites, for those of you following along, who want some backpacker flavor.

Courtesy of Anna and Caleb, of New Zealand:Feral -- used to describe something TRULY disgusting. Example: "Eating a fried cat is feral!" When pronouncing the word, be sure to draw out the "e" so that it sounds like "feee-ral." Be emphatic.

Shit as -- used to describe how you're doing, when things are kind of crappy. Example: "I'm shit as, that's how I am. We just spent the last hour trying to confirm our flight and no one would help us." When pronouncing this phrase, the "as" part is sort of dropped off at the end. So it sounds a lot more like "shit-aaaahhhs."

Courtesy of Tom and Lizzy, of the UK:Posh -- now of course, I've heard this word before. Who DOESN'T remember Posh Spice? But there's something about the way Brits say the word that makes you want to curl up inside of it. It's used to describe something nice, fancy, or high-end. Example: "This restaurant is really quite posh. I hope we can afford it." Matt and I have taken to dropping the word into conversation whenever we can. Which, given our budget, is not often.

Courtesy of Tom and Jan, of the UK:This one is less of a phrase and more of a story, and if any of you have been to London, you will, no doubt appreciate it. Tom was talking about the night bus in London, and all of the insanity that goes along with it. Neither Matt nor I have really spent any time in London, so we turned to Tom and told him that every time he said night bus, we thought "KNIGHT Bus" of Harry Potter and Stan Shunkpike fame. "It's exactly like the Knight Bus!" Tom cried. "Except that everyone's drunk and no one can do any magic." And something about that sent Matt and I overboard. Everyone's drunk and no one can do magic! Brilliant!

Also courtesy of Tom, a phrase just for Geoff, "the wank bank." This one needs no explanation if you're Geoff, and if you're not Geoff, and you're curious, you're just going to have to email me to find out what it is. Because it's not appropriate to write about on a blog, especially when its speaker was a pretty high-powered attorney.

As we still have another 2 months of our journey left, I'm hoping to add additional phrases in, here and there. So far, these are our very favorite. For the few days after we left the company of Anna, Caleb, Tom, Lizzy, Tom, and Jan, Matt and I talked as though we were immitating someone who was British. Trust me, it was even annoying to us. But until we get it out of our system, we'll be the Americans in Hoi An, trying to find a posh restaurant that serves food that isn't even a little bit feral.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Caught the Bug

Posted from Hoi An, Vietnam

Sadly, it's not the traveling bug. Nope. On the second morning of our trek through the hills east of Luang Prabang, our group sat down to a quick breakfast in the Khmu village we stayed in overnight. Our guides had prepared a plate of fried eggs and a baguette for each of us. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling quite up to snuff. The night before we'd all sat around the table, drinking some sweet, semi-fermented rice liquor the villagers down by the gallon. Being a gracious guest, I accepted what our guides put before us, again and again and again. Although I went to bed with a mostly clear head, I simply could not fall asleep. Not one wink. So when the guides set our breakfast plates in front of us, I was only too eager to dig in. But there was something about those eggs. I don't know if it was the slightly bitter, smoky flavor from the cooking fire or the fact that the eggs tasted a bit like our dinner from the night before, but something about those eggs did not sit well.

When we arrived back in Luang Prabang, I figured that a little Western food would be just what the doctor ordered. The others were having pizzas and curries, and I decided to take a stab at an American classic: the cheeseburger. But even that didn't make it down. The meat was too salty, and the cheese was a creamy, French cheese. Yech! So Western food was out. I tried Lao food, but that was a non-starter. It seemed like no matter what my eyes wanted to eat, my stomach had a vicious and violent difference of opinion.

Still eating very little, we left Lao and arrived in Hanoi. At least that night, I was able to try a Vietnamese dish of grilled, marinated pork and noodles, and I managed to enjoy most of it. The next morning, however, our guesthouse served us each a baguette with a plate of fried eggs. I tried. I really tried, but the eggs were too much. Instantly, the smell and the taste of the eggs from the village filled my senses, and I couldn't do it. I munched on my baguette, trying to forget that smell.

Over the course of the past day or so, my stomach has slowly returned to normal. Except that now I have an almost allergic reaction to the taste or smell of eggs in my food. Be that as it may, I'm still taking it easy on the food adventures, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be a little wiser when accepting drinks from strangers.

I Didn't Love It

Posted from Hue, Vietnam

When Lizzi and I left Hanoi, we both breathed a sigh of relief. We couldn't wait to leave, but at the same time, we were surprised at our sense of getting the hell out of Dodge. We chose to come here. Why do we feel so miserable, so let down, so disappointed? The answer is clear: we just didn't like Hanoi.

Of course, we knew somewhere deep inside that we might not enjoy everywhere we chose to travel. Even on our road trip around the U.S. we found plenty of places that we will gladly never visit again. We even find other backpackers, who rave about every bit of their own travels, annoying and woefully unrealistic. Did you really like it all that much? Of course not.

We're coming to grips with the fact that we've really stumbled upon someplace that we simply do not like. And that understanding is helping us to feel better, as though we didn't make a huge mistake or that there's not something terribly wrong with us. We just didn't like Hanoi.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Ugly American

Written from Hue, Vietnam

Remember a couple of days ago when I said that Hanoi was managing to work its way around our hearts? That after that first disturbing night there we spent what turned out to be a pretty great day in the city? Remember how I was all excited for Day 2, saying that I'd be sad to leave the mayhem of northern Vietnam? Well, scratch that.

Our second day in Vietnam wasn't bad, but it was one of those exhausting days that make you hate traveling, make you long for home, where taxi drivers aren't out to scam you, and everywhere you turn there aren't people who just totally hate you and your American money.

See, here's the thing about traveling in Vietnam: Matt and I are both feeling some level of discomfort about being here. This is the part where I talk about that thing that's been hanging over our heads since we touched down in Hanoi: the Vietnam War, or, as they call it here, the American War. The war itself is something that affects Matt and I in a strange way. In college we took a Vietnam history class together (the first and only class we took together) and the books we read and images we saw are with us, right now, as we're traveling around this country. So too are the stories of our fathers'; not because they were here, but because in my case in particular, he worked hard NOT to get here. And yet, just over thirty years later, here we are.

Before we came to Vietnam, I joked that I was going to get my dad a hat to add to his collection of baseball caps. Now that we're here, I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen. This is the first place we've been where we'll tell people that we're from America while ducking our heads, lowering our eyes, searching the face of the person to whom we're speaking for a sign of how much they hate us for what we did in their country. And that's a strange feeling. It's the opposite of how I felt when I walked around Dachau. There, if anyone had asked, I would have shouted, with pride, that I was was Jewish. Here, it was my people who created the horror, who dropped the bombs whose holes are still in the ground. It's no wonder, then, that when we were walking around Hanoi last night, we saw a poster celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first time the Vietnamese shot down a B-52. Or is it? Because something about that feels WRONG. Celebrating the shooting down of a plane? A plane with people in it? Even enemy people? There was something about the poster that pulled at my heart, that made my stomach tighten, that made me want to hightail it out of Hanoi.

And so we did. We found some books at an English bookstore, collected our packs, and headed to the train station. A nice, official-looking man came up to us to check our tickets, then he heaved our bags onto his shoulder and showed us to our cabin. Where he demanded that we pay him $5 each. Which, in writing this, doesn't seem like such a big deal. Ten dollars isn't a lot of money. Especially compared to how much we spent to buy a plane ticket just to get here. But at the end of a long day, a day where we DID get to see Ho chi Minh's Mausoleum (which Heather was right about -- it WAS trippy and cool), but where we also got totally swindled by a taxi driver who drove us round and round in circles just trying to hike up the fare, a day where the city was just as cold and just as crammed as the day before, a day of looking at those stupid f*&%ing Lonely Planet maps and vigorously denying a need for bananas, at the end of that kind of day, $10 seemed ludicrous, absurd, unjust. It seemed like a tax levied only on the Americans, a charge for a war that was fought before I was even born. And on some level, I get it. I do. But even so, I have never seen Matt so angry. And for those of you who know Matt, and I mean REALLY know him, you know that's saying a lot. His cheeks burned red with fury as he handed over $5 and then $10 to the smiling man, who assured us that he was going to use the money to buy lots of beer. Sitting next to Matt, trying to calm him down, I was fighting the urge to burst out laughing at the lunacy and madness of the situation. There we were, sitting in a cramped and cold sleeper car in Hanoi, in a place where just a few blocks away they were celebrating the fact that American soldiers were shot clear out of the sky, in a place where what we're currently doing in Iraq holds absolutely no meaning, where $10 buys about 100 beers, and where, at the end of the day, that's all you want anyway, no matter where you're from.

So we're in Hue now, sleeping off a sleepless night spent on an overnight train. Rather, Matt's sleeping. I took Ambien in order to ensure a few hours. Matt was too angry, too hurt, too frustrated for sleep. We've decided that tomorrow we're going to do a tour of the DMZ, we're going to pack our cameras and our pride and some brief knowledge of history, and visit a place that our fathers, thank god, never saw. And we're going to do our best to keep our heads up and to be mindful of the stories on both sides of that history, all with the knowledge that in another 30 years, when our children board a plane to Baghdad, we will try to explain how it might feel to be there, how difficult and strange it is to travel in a place where you're not necessarily welcome and where your history, however removed, speaks for itself.

Baby Elephant Walk

Posted from Hue Vietnam

I got to play with baby elephants! Four of the them to be exact. First, you have to rewind almost two weeks back to when Lizzi and I were in Chiang Mai. We had decided to have separate adventures in Chiang Mai: a cooking class for her and a day with elephants for me. And what a day!

After a short minibus ride to the Elephant Nature Park, we got a short safety briefing. What day with massive mammals easily capable of squashing you is not complete without a safety briefing. The gist was this: they're big and hungry. Always hungry, which leads to the first experience of the day: feeding the elephants. Each elephant has its own basket of food (almost 300 lbs of food per elephant!), full of that elephant's favorite treats, which you feed directly to the elephant -- hand to trunk! My elephant fancied sweet corn and watermelon, but she refused to eat any watermelon until all of the corn was gone.

After lunch it was time for the elephants' bath. The mahouts (elephant caretakers) would lead the elephants to the river, where we washed and scrubbed them. If they were cats, they would have been purring the whole time. Of course, what do elephants do right after a bath, they play in the mud. The four babies were rambunctiously playing in the huge mud puddle next to the river. They wrestled and played, and I couldn't do anything but watch and smile.

Then the elephants went off for some alone time, and we sat down to watch a documentary about the working elephants of Thailand. All of the elephants in the park have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries of Southeast Asia, and the documentary displayed in excruciating detail the torture and abuse these magnificent animals go through. After watching the video, we bathed the elephants one last time, and then called it a day.

pile of baby elephants

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Happenings in Hanoi

Written in Hanoi, Vietnam

We woke up at 9am, high above the busy streets of Hanoi. We turned over, away from the alarm clock, not wanting to get out of bed and face the madness below us. The events of last night were still fresh in our minds. Nothing bad happened. In fact, nothing happened at all. But when we got off the plane in Hanoi, Vietnam, our minds still full of the lovely calm of Luang Prabang, we were totally unprepared for the utter madness of this crazy Vietnamese city. Lonely Planet made us fearful of everyone we passed, and we heeded the book's warnings, certain that everyone was out to scam us, every taxi driver set on driving round and round and hiking up the fare, every hotel intent on grossly overcharging us. We ate dinner at a so-so restaurant because it was close enough to our hotel, and we came back to our room relatively early, exhausted and unsure whether we'd make it through the day we planned for ourselves today.

By way of explanation, let me back-track a bit. We owe you guys a few posts about some things, including pictures and stories from my cooking class, Matt's amazing experience with the elephants (both were way back in Chiang Mai, Thailand), and of course we need to tell you all about Luang Prabang, and our two-day trek to several hill tribes in the surrounding area. But for now, suffice it to say that Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang were really relaxed places. Compared to Bangkok, they were like Charlottesville is to Washington, DC, or New Hope is to Philadelphia. Neither city was as clean as Charlottesville or New Hope, but they were both amazingly beautiful and the people were truly lovely, and we really enjoyed our time in both places. So it's possible that we weren't totally prepared to land smack in the middle of a city where there are no traffic laws, where every single man, woman, and child is driving a motorbike at exactly the same time, where rickshaw drivers aren't interested in taking no for an answer, and every woman you pass really wants you to buy some bananas from her, or a bootleg copy of the Lonely Planet if you're full of bananas.

But here we were, and we decided to suck it up and face the day. A whole day later, I'm so glad that we did. It's winter here, and unlike all the other countries we've been to, that means that it's actually cold. But we put on every single pair of long-sleeved items we own and spent the day walking around the city. When you look up in Hanoi, up and away from the madness on the ground, you see a whole city above a city. Each four- or five-story building has a balcony on each floor, and each balcony has a wrought iron fence and potted plants and charming shuttered windows. There are twisty-turny roads that seem to lead nowhere, and every other corner contains a makeshift restaurant selling steaming bowls of pho. The motorbikes are enough to make you crazy, but after a few scared starts, we came to feel comfortable crossing the street, as opposed to feeling like we were taking our lives in our hands. The coffee here is thick and plentiful, and the chocolate is real and French and delicious. We managed to artfully dodge the millions of people trying to sell us a ride, or a camoflage hat that says "Vietnam!" And we also managed to find our way to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (probably better known as the Hanoi Hilton, which was a prison where the French once incarcerated and brutally tortured the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese later incarcerated American POW's, including John McCain), an interesting and sobering experience put into even greater perspective by the fact that we were here, in this place, where they call it the American War.

Tomorrow we're getting up bright and early to head to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, and the Museum of Ethnology. We have tickets to see a water puppet show at 2:45, and tickets on the night train at 7pm. This time tomorrow night we'll be "speeding" towards Hue, and there's no doubt in my mind that after another day in this crazy, mixed-up city, there will be a part of us that will be a little bit sad to leave it behind.

Monday, January 14, 2008

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Posted from Hanoi, Vietnam

In case you're trying to keep tabs on us, we arrived in Hanoi last night. Our first, over-tired impressions of the city at night are that it's a scary, overwhelming place to be. Hopefully daylight and a good night's rest will help us find the silver linings to this particular cloud.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

And Another One!

Written from Luang Prabang, Laos

Today is Steph's birthday. She's not turning 30 because she's a youngin', but that doesn't mean that she doesn't deserve her very own birthday post.

Matt and I met Steph a little over two years ago and from the moment she walked into our house, put oven mitts on her hands and gave us a puppet show, all without even a bit of reservation, we knew she'd be a part of our lives forever. She is the kind of friend whose loyalty knows no bounds, who would do anything for you, even if anything includes making fun of people who she doesn't really know, just to make you feel better.

We know that she's missing us a lot these days, and we're going on record to say that we miss her too. If we were in Maine with her, we'd be freezing our butts off and eating sushi, and we'd probably make her get drunk on something a little too sweet and then go ahead and order another bottle of wine, because that's one of the things we do best. We'd probably also have a loud conversation in a restaurant about something you're only supposed to talk about in your living room, and we'd be laughing so hard we'd be crying. Is it any wonder that we can't wait to live closer to her next year, so that we can celebrate her birthday in the same city? Laughing so hard that you cry is the reason you have friends.

So today on her birthday we had massages and ate ice cream (sorry Steffers, it was the real deal, but if we'd been in the States we would have eaten tofuti for you) because that's exactly what she would have done if she'd been here (minus the real dairy).

Happy Birthday, Steph! We hope you have a wonderful year, filled with lovely and beautiful days, occasions to celebrate, and homecomings to look forward to.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Very Jewish Thailand

Written from Luang Prabang, Laos, about a Shabbat Experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We were frantically looking for accommodations in Chiang Mai. Everyone told us that the province was booked solid, that we'd have a hard time finding a place that would have availability, let alone availability with a double bed and a hot shower. But the never-fail hostelworld.com brought us to what promised to be the BEST hostel in Thailand. We surfed around on the site until we found this little link: "Celebrate Shabbat with our Jewish neighbors!" Huh? Shabbat? In Thailand? But there it was in black and white. "Call Larry to celebrate shabbat with an American Jewish family" accompanied by his phone number.

"You have to call," Matt said.

"But what if it's weird?"

"You have to call."

Matt knew as well as I did that Friday, January 4 was the date in which my brother and father would be observing Yahrtzeit for my mother. Yahrtzeit is the calendar date in which a prayer is said every year to note the death of an immediate loved one. I don't usually observe the Jewish calendar date, but this year it was quite close to the American calendar date, and it was hard to know that my dad and brother would be together at synagogue, and that not only would I not be with them, that I'd be half a world away.

So I called Larry on Thursday, a day before Shabbat. An excited voice answered the phone, promising Matt and I a delicious kosher meal, along with Shabbat prayers and stimulating conversation with his daughters. "My husband's not Jewish," I told him, and was reassured, up and down, that this was fine, that he was excited to meet us, that we should be there at 6:30.

We arrived at 6:25, and were greeted by Larry and his three beautiful daughters -- Ayelot, Rivka, and Tamar -- as well as a young friend from Germany who endeared himself to this lovely family. Dinner was, of course, delicious (kosher Thai food) and conversation was more than stimulating. Larry included Matt in the Shabbat blessings in a way that made us both feel comfortable, and we passed a few delightful hours at his dinner table, then took a walk around his neighborhood.

Larry and the Girls Plus Ludi

I think that the most amazing thing about the experience is that it's one that I never expected to have. If you would have told me before we left that I'd be saying Shabbat blessings in Thailand, I would have laughed at you. If you would have told me that we'd come across a Chabad house in Phuket, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Laos, I would have thought that you were out of your mind. But here we are, and here they are, and even though Larry didn't know that a million miles away my family was saying Kaddish for my mother, I managed to feel connected to my family and my faith across a few oceans and several continents. There's something perfectly timeless about that, something that reminds me about what it means to be Jewish, and that you take your history with you, no matter where you are in the world.

The Devil's In the Details

A Post About All the Little Things
Written from Luang Prabang, Laos

I gathered my shower things -- shoes, towel, soap, shampoo, conditioner, flip-flops, razor, bottle of water -- and made my way down the hall to the bathroom. Once there, I locked the door, hung up my towel and turned around to contemplate the room. Sink, check. Toilet, check. Shower head, check. All seemed to be available and in working order. After brushing my teeth and carefully ensuring that not a drop of water from the sink comes even a millimeter too close to my toothbrush, I set about determining how to use the shower. There was the telltale external hot water heater, which was a good sign that I would, in fact, have a hot shower. But after turning on the water from the shower head, being careful to avoid the bucket of water next to the toilet that's used to scoop-flush the toilet, I found that the external hot water heater was not cooperating. I walked over to the wall of switches, flipped the breaker, and went back to test the water. Eureka! A hot shower! A hot HAND-HELD shower, to be more exact. But here I am, ten minutes later, showered, dressed, shaved, writing to you about the experience.

There were so many things about traveling to Asia that all the Lonely Planet books and blogs in the world couldn't have prepared me for. I didn't know, for example, that when you use toilet paper here, you throw it in a waste bin next to the toilet, rather than IN the toilet. And that in order to flush the toilet, you use the aforementioned pot of water next to the toilet to wash down whatever you've done. Squat toilets I'd heard of, and I knew that I'd have to travel with plenty of Purell, but I was totally unprepared to throw my dirty toilet paper into a trashcan. I was also unprepared to encounter what looked like a spray faucet next to the trashcan. Most people here don't use toilet paper at all and instead use the spray faucet to wash themselves after they've done their business. An overheard conversation in a youth hostel the other day revealed that most travelers use the faucet to wash...their dirty feet.

Now that we're in Laos, everything is touched by a lingering French influence. This didn't disturb me in the least when we were able to eat decent chocolate from a street vendor last night. But this morning, contemplating the fact that I have one hand in which to hold the shower head, and another to, um, clean myself, I was cursing that French influence and all of its requisite charm.

Today at around 3pm, we'll come back to our guesthouse to pick up our clean, folded, slightly warm laundry. It costs less than a dollar per kilo to do laundry, which, for those of you not well-versed in the kilo, means that it's quite cheap. We allow ourselves to get down to one or two pairs of underwear, put all of our dirty stuff in one big bag, then drop it off somewhere to be perfectly laundered. And thanks to my dad's warnings of all of these years, we know to request that it be washed AND dried. So far, we haven't had any problems, and the only remaining question is if we'd prefer that they iron our socks. True story.

Every single day I find myself wondering what my friends and family members would think if they were here. Would they walk out? Would they use the squat toilet? Would they get used to carrying around a roll of toilet paper with them wherever they went? Granted, if we were staying in places that catered to Western tourists, or were slightly above Lonely Planet's "budget" category of accommodations, we wouldn't be met with some of these Asian charms. But we're slowly but surely getting used to them, and now that we're getting used to them, they feel like part of this whole thing. Like, I'll get to look back on this experience and think, "not only was I in Laos, but I also braved a hand-held shower and scoop-flushed my own toilet!" This, people, THIS is why you travel.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Couple of Sore Bums

Posted on our first night in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

The idea seemed simple enough: take a bus to the river and catch a boat from Thailand to Laos. But it's sooo much more than that. Getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang underscored for us that getting from point A to point B is actually part of the adventure. First, we took a six-hour minibus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, a sleepy town separated from Laos by the mighty Mekong River. The overnight accommodations in Chiang Khong left much to be desired. In fact, they were far worse than what we experienced in Bangkok, but at least it had a hot shower. From Chiang Khong, we crossed the river by long-tail boat and processed through immigration. As unceremoniously as that, we entered Laos. Then we waited. And waited. And waited until our ferry boat finally pulled out of the dock. The long-distance ferry, which would carry us to Luang Prabang, was crowded, noisy, and slow. Slow. This word has a new definition for me, as does the phrase "a slow boat to China" because we took a slow boat down the Mekong River. So slow. After seven hours, we reached the midway point, Pak Beng, where we stopped for the night.

Pak Beng is an interesting town, because it only has electricity from 6PM to 10PM each night. That's appropriate, because the ferry pulls in around 6:30PM, and the locals have to get up early. So there's no nightlife. In fact, the bar we stopped at shooed us out the door at 10:30. However, the lack of street lights, TVs, and lamps meant that the night sky and its stars shone brilliantly. I haven't seen stars like that in years.

The next morning, this morning in fact, we woke up and hopped back on the boat for another bum-numbing 7 hours. We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5:30PM, got settled in a guesthouse, and here we are. Our butts are sore, but we're ready to explore Laos for the next few days before we head off to Vietnam. Luckily, there are no long boat rides anywhere in our near future.

Traveling slowly offers an opportunity that hopping on an airplane for an hour just can't; you get to meet other travelers. On our first day in the minibus, we ended up meeting not one, but four people, two couples who were making their way through Southeast Asia. Both couples are about our age; one couple (Lizzy and Tom) are from England, and the other (Anna and Caleb) from New Zealand. We hit it off right away and stuck together through the crappy accommodations at Chiang Khong and the butt-numbing boat ride to Pak Beng. In Pak Beng, we banded together to bargain a better rate at a guesthouse and closed down the bar that night. This morning we found seats together on the boat and kept the conversation going. We couldn't have dreamed of meeting better people along the way. Good luck to you, Anna and Caleb, Lizzy and Tom in the rest of your travels and in finding your ways home!

fellow travelers

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Why We Chose Laos

Posted on our last day in Chiang Mai, Thailand

It was over 15 years ago that I first learned about Laos. My mom, a guidance counselor at Central High School (255!), was assigned to the students whose last names began with the letters "Gr" all the way through those whose last names began with "Lao." I will never forget the piles and piles of recommendations she painstakingly put together for her students, the hours she spent at our dining room table stuffing envelopes and contemplating the higher education choices of her students, or the fact that many of her students were originally from Southeast Asia, and had, through some combined miracle of fate and really hard work, made their way to Central.

When I was about 12-years-old, my mom had a student who truly tugged at her emotional heartstrings. Kaoli was 15, a sophomore in high school, Hmong, and engaged to be married. While Kaoli expressed interest in pursuing a career in nursing, family and culture dictated otherwise, and Kaoli was instead intending to drop out of school so that she could have a baby. My mother worked tirelessly to persuade Kaoli's parents to let her continue with her high school education, and for a time, my mom's best efforts prevailed. Kaoli continued to see my mother, and even at that age, I knew that they had a bond that went beyond a counselor-counselee relationship. It was one of the few of those bonds my mother made with her students of which I wasn't jealous, and I curiously sought out time with Kaoli every time I went to visit my mom at school.

One year, Kaoli invited our entire family to attend a Hmong celebration. It might have been New Year's, it might have been another festival, I honestly don't remember. But I remember that everyone marveled over the curliness of my hair, and generally made me feel welcome amidst a sea of people whose language I did not understand. It was the first time I was immersed completely in another culture, and while I remember feeling nervous about feeling so different, I can still close my eyes and see the colors of the clothes that the Hmong women wore, and the smell of the food I'd never before eaten.

Kaoli ended up transferring from Central to a high school in Detroit, where her husband's family moved sometime during her junior year. She kept in touch with my mother for a time, but they lost touch when my mom got sick. Through her few remaining connections to Philadelphia and Central, she learned of my mother's death and sent a touching note to our family. She didn't become a nurse, after all, but she had two healthy and beautiful children, and I couldn't help but smile at their picture, one which I still have, tucked away in box somewhere.

It is fitting then, that on January 9, 2008, fourteen years to the day that my mother died, I will be setting foot in Northern Laos for the first time. Matt and I planned to be in Laos for this anniversary, and the timing has worked out in our favor. We will be in a country that my mother, purposefully or not, introduced me to. We will visit a place that made an indelible impression on my young self, a place that perhaps helped to inspire my desire to learn about new cultures and new foods and new people, even before I could properly locate it on a map.

While spending this annivesary in Laos is really quite different from the way I usually mark this date, it feels totally appropriate for this time in my life. I think that in some small way my mom would be happy to know where I was, and that she may even be there with me, smelling the smells, experiencing the colors, right alongside us.

So it is with these memories in my heart that I set out for our three-day journey to Laos today. Thailand has been wonderful and beautiful and spiritual in ways that I can't quite even begin to grasp. And starting tomorrow, I will have a whole new country to absorb, to soak up, and to experience from every angle.

** The spelling of Kaoli's name was wrong in my original posting. Many thanks to Harriet, who remembered the proper spelling and emailed to let me know that she had a dream where she could see my mom's papers with Kaoli's name on them. I can't quite explain how grateful I am that Harriet has dreams like that, but it makes me feel amazing to know that there are people in the world who are still so very connected to my mom.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Right Now: Chiang Mai

This might be the first real-time post in a long time. I am sitting at a bar that has free wi-fi in Chiang Mai, drinking my draft Chang beer (so much more on that later...) and reading Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask. It's a good life. I'm on my own today because Lizzi is taking a Thai cooking course, which I'm sure she will tell you all about.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city. It's full of the culture and history, and it is so much more laid back than Bangkok ever could be. The people are friendly and always have a smile for you. We arrived here with a grand plan of walking tours of temples and daily massages, but that has yet to materialize. So far, we've visited one temple, and the only massage has been to scratch our itchy mosquito bites. But we are only ourselves immensely. I can only imagine what it would be like if we had a year to spend. I don't think we would change our destinations, but I think we would come to enjoy a more intimate appreciation for each one.

With that, my battery is about to die, and I should finish my beer.

Night Train to Chiang Mai

Getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a fairly easy task. In fact, there are as many options as you can imagine to convey you from point A to point B: planes, trains, and automobiles. For us, the largest limiting factor we have is time; we want to maximize our waking hours in every place we are going to be. However, the number one thing we did NOT account for in our itinerary was the time it would take to get from one place to the next. Given that we were used to catching a non-stop flight to Boston from Pittsburgh whenever we wanted, factoring in older and, especially, slower modes of transit was not even a consideration.

When presented with the myriad options for traveling to northern Thailand, we naturally chose the one that allowed us to enjoy a full day of sightseeing in Bangkok AND a full day in Chiang Mai: the night train. The night train is something of a backpacker standard. Everyone we talked to at the hostel in Bangkok had either ridden the night train to Bangkok or was headed to Chiang Mai on the next one. The train leaves Bangkok at 7:30PM and arrives in Chiang Mai at 9:45AM the next morning. We booked our tickets in the 2nd-class sleeper car, so that we could hit the ground running in Chiang Mai.

The sleeper car is divided into upper and lower bunks. The lower bunks are formed by two seats facing each other, and these tend to be more desirable. The upper bunks flip down from the roof of the car like the overhead baggage compartments on an airplane. Unfortunately, Lizzi and I weren't able to book a matching upper and lower bunk, but we managed adjacent uppers. What's most surprising is how comfortable the bunks are. After spending four days sleeping on plywood covered in styrofoam at the hostel, these train beds seemed the height of luxury.

In our car, there were several couples traveling together, a few pairs of friends, some singles, and an entire family of eight! Mom, dad, four kids, grandma, and grandpa! When it was time for bed (a time strictly enforced by the night train's staff), the car was a complete circus. People were climbing up the tiny ladders to the upper bunks. Kids were dashing about in pajamas, brushing their teeth and washing their faces. Hilarity and insanity. It felt like a weird mobile slumber party of complete strangers. In fact, Lizzi and I joked that the whole scene reminded us of the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, and we were waiting for Stan Shunpike (pre-Death Eater days) to come by to collect our fares.

The night train was a blast. And it ended up being some of the best sleep that we'd had since landing in Bangkok. I hope we get the opportunity for more night train experiences throughout the rest of our trip.

One Night in Bangkok

Actually, it was four nights in Bangkok. And it could have been many, many more. But four nights was what we had for our first stop in the City of Angels, and thanks to the good advice of a very dear friend (Hi Eric!) we had a pretty fantastic time there.

I keep thinking that Bangkok is a city of juxtaposition. It is the spirituality of Jerusalem alongside the hustle of New York City. And not just alongside, as in "next to" but alongside as in all mixed up with, thrown together, a jumble of faith and fun smooshed together. Because of Eric's advice, we were able to create a strong affection for this city. Having someone to tell you where you might like to go and how to get there helps make a place feel manageable. We seriously can't thank him enough. He's blushing now, so I'll stop, but really, Eric, please know that we think that you're a rockstar.

Here are some of my favorite things about Bangkok, in no particular order:

1) The Reclining Buddha. I loved him. Just loved him. I could have spent hours and days in his presence, staring up at his relaxed and omniscient face. He made me feel like I was a part of something bigger at the same time he made me feel content just to be myself. He alone is worth a visit to Thailand.

reclining buddha

2) Lumphini Park. The Lonely Planet describes it as an oasis within the city. It couldn't have been a more apt description. It was a place to sit and hear...none of the city noises, as well as a place to watch kids feed fish in the midddle of the afternoon.

lumphini park

3) The Erawan Shrine. I love this shrine because of WHY and WHERE it is. It's outside the Erawan Hyatt, and it's there because the place of the original shrine was deemed inauspicious. So a new shrine was built and it has been bringing good luck for over 50 years. People come to the shrine in the middle of the day to pray, and they make offerings for good luck. Sometimes those offerings even include McDonald's. Also, there are dancers that you can hire, on the spot, priced per length of dancing time and how many dancers. You hire them if you really really really want Buddha to know that you're serious about your offering and your heart's desire.

erawan shrine


macdonald's offering

4) The food. And the food courts. Eric advised us to go to MBK's food court with the caveat that we shouldn't think he was crazy for suggesting that we go to a mall to eat lunch. We didn't think he was even the least bit crazy before we headed over to the MBK, but after we got there, we knew that he was a genius. The MBK food court is like a wonderful, fabulous maze of food. You buy coupons then use the coupons to pay for the food you want. Each food stall basically sells what you see on the street, but best of all, it has a picture and brief description of what you're going to eat. So we went crazy and ate about 3 main courses plus 2 desserts. Remember how we were worried that I was going to come back from this trip all skinny? Worry no more.

individually wrapped sushi

5) The skytrain. It's easy-peasy to get around town on this thing. Plus, Matt loves the fact that this sign COULD be mistaken as implying "no lawyers" even though it CLEARLY says "no hawking." Whatever.

no lawyers

6) The Chao Phraya Express. This boat takes you up and down the river and calls out the places to stop where you can go and see the famous sights of Bangkok, including the Reclining Buddha, the Grand Palace, the Flower Market, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun (a really old, really cool temple), and Chinatown. It was so easy to use, and so inexpensive, that we took it twice in two days.

7) The gourmet food market inside the Siam Paragon. They had blue and green rice! And white and pink eggs! It was like Whole Foods but BETTER, SO MUCH BETTER. If they had grocery stores like this at home, I WOULD quit my job and cook all day.


8) The technicolor taxis. I don't know why they warmed my heart, but they did. I think it's partly because I knew that my sister-in-law Amanda would love them as much as I did, and every time I saw a hot pink taxi, I thought about her. But I also think it's because they kind of reminded me a little bit of the extremely nice people we've met in Thailand. It seems like people here take something that could be mundane, and they turn it into something a little better, a little more special, just a bit more beautiful. I love that in a country.

technicolor taxis 3
technicolor taxis 2
technicolor taxis 1

One more note about Bangkok before I sign off and let Matt tell you about our experience on the night train to Chaing Mai: the people in Bangkok are unabashed about showing their love for their king. All over Thailand, actually, people express their love for the king in every way possible. There are pictures and larger-than-life-sized posters of him everywhere, and people wear yellow to show support for their king of over 60 years. Something about that kind of national pride really strikes a chord with me.

long live the king

Our days and nights in Bangkok have been some of the most interesting days and nights of our trip, so far. We can't wait to go back there in a few weeks to revisit some of our most favorite sights, and catch up on things we missed.

Another Auspicious Birthday

Today is our very good friend Geoff's 30th birthday. (Are we sensing the theme that this is the year everyone turns 30? Because it's there. The theme, I mean. Everyone is turning 30!) Many of you don't know Geoff, but to know him, REALLY know him, is to love him.

I met Geoff as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon. We were both in the dorkiest history class, and we both had an unabashed love for our professor. We took a couple of other classes together at CMU, and every single time we confessed the exact same things about the class: we're SUCH dorks and we LOVE our professors! Over time, I came to know Geoff as one of the smartest people I've ever met. He might deny it, and my other friends always wonder why I picked Geoff as the smartest, but it's true people, it's really true.

Underneath his veneer of dirty jokes and well-timed one-liners lies a heart of pure and solid gold. Though he is, at times, 30-going-on-18, at other times he is 30-going-on-ageless. He is the type of man you want your kids to hang out with. Not only because he will he adore them, but because he'll encourage them to do all of those things that kids need to be encouraged to do (from someone other than their parents).

We really wish that we could be in two places at once -- here in Thailand seeing all of this stuff, and in New York with Geoff celebrating his birthday. We know that Geoff was really excited for us to be on this trip, so we're going to stay here for the next couple of months. But when we get back, we're going to celebrate his birthday in style, because that's what you do for a guy like Mr. Go.

Happy Birthday, Geoffey! We wish you many years left with your hair, and a lifetime of wonderful things.

Lizzi and Matt

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Not a Problem...Yet

Lizzi's dad sent us another public service annoucement with an eye toward our upcoming travel to Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka ends cease-fire with rebels

Of course, the State Department hasn't updated its travel warning yet, but that's ok, we're not concerned. It may make things a bit more exciting when we fly into Colombo in a few weeks. Don't worry we'll keep our heads down.

On a completely separate note, we arrived in Chiang Mai this morning on the night train from Bangkok. More about the night train to come...