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Home! Part 1 of…uh…however many I need.

August 14, 2012 Post written by: G

home
Today marks 3 months we’ve been back in the States.

I couldn’t believe it when that struck me today.

For me (Ray’s had a different story but here’s my experience), because I spent pretty much 2 months of that on an awesome roadtrip through the States, seeing a surprising LOT of my best friends early on (who are scattered all over the Western US – Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho…), as well as various other friends and relatives along the way, catching up on all my favorite foods, visiting some of my very favorite and most-missed places as well as exploring some incredible new ones, and not to mention attending two of the best conferences in the entire world – one that was at a ski resort in Colorado and one in Portland…that time has really flown by.

And this was by design. Not for the time to go quickly (or to delay getting home to the Nest and settled for so long – sorry Mom!), but to have a smooth (as possible), non-traumatizing or depressing, and even fun and exciting transition from a life and an experience that was pretty darn hard to top, leave, or even conceive of, to a place that was theoretically home but probably wouldn’t seem it, people who would be excited to see me and expect me to be or act a certain way (like, likewise) but I knew I’d let them down (at least initially) by being so inwardly turned and focused instead, and just a new life in general.

It’s not that Asia life was so superior and the USA life paled. It’s always this way when you transition between two whole and separate Lives. But in the 12 years since I left home for college, this was the longest continuous one I’d had, with absolutely indescribable experiences over a massive scope of time and growth and development for me. So I knew I had to do it carefully, so as not to let the experience on either end look disproportionately amazing or crappy. I WAS excited to go back…but I knew it would take time – a fair amount of it, and a certain way of doing it to ease into that so that fact wouldn’t suddenly alter in my flipped-upside-down mind, and leave me looking regretfully back at the life and continent I’d left behind. I was still happy there, very much so. But it WAS time to come back, if for nothing else at least a visit (and a reasonably extended one), given that I’d not even seen my MOM for almost 3 years.

The transition thing is a source of plenty of literature online amongst the expats and travelers of the world, and for good reason. It’s something I’ll definitely get more into later, now that I have a pretty good view of what it was like for me, this time especially with such a long and different trip from my previous ones. For me, it was really awesome, and almost seamless. If you look at the comments of any “re-entry” or “repatriation” articles online, you’ll see a loooot of people who are truly miserable coming back. They don’t cope or deal well, get depressed, even suicidal. It’s definitely an interesting experience, and one that I found with my own, CAN be pretty well (though not entirely, no matter how much and how well you prepare) mitigated.

But before I start definitively arcing this blog away from our personal experiences with this Asia trip though, I’m going to spend some time over the next few days recapping what the return Home has been like on my end, what I’ve done, who I’ve seen, what it made me think, how I felt, and just generally what it was all like. I was going to do it today as tribute to the 3-month mark being back in the States, but I realized it’s going to take wayyyy longer to write out than I have tonight. So we’ll make it a series, and keep the blog going that little bit longer. :)

I’ve known I wanted to write this update (or “these” updates) for a while. I knew when we were leaving I’d write one last update/recap on past and current events from “the other side”, then give it some time to be able to comment with authority on what the experience of Coming Home was after all of this. I think it’ll be a fun process to finally write that, and round off this personal blog that we started with our very first entry on May 26, 2009, before evolving it into its next (professional) form.

That shall be forthcoming, soon.

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ONE last LONG OVERDUE UPDATE from ASIA!!

May 12, 2012 Post written by: G

** K this is a massive update and I will have to add the photos to it later because I am just about to dash to catch our flight from Tokyo to LAX, USA!!!! But I wanted to get this last update in here before we leave Asian soil, so here we go! **

We are so overdue on an update it’s ridiculous. I’ve struggled with doing so, both for being so engrossed in the trip, and because…well, how do you follow up a post like the last one from the Killing Fields in November?

But as I sit on the plane from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo, where TOMORROW (!!!) we’ll catch our flight HOME to the USA for the first time in almost three years, I realize today is the last chance to bring things up to speed about the trip before being on the other end of it. So, better late than too late!

Over the next many months after we get home, as we work on turning this blog into a usable website about backpacking Asia for other travelers or people interested in the region, we will retroactively fill in some of the details which really make the story worth telling. I’ve learned as a writer (perhaps as a person as well) I’m fairly all-or-nothing, which is the other thing that explains the relative dearth of posts on here as compared to the millions of things that were so worth sharing along the way.

To make up for it, I will be working on a book of stories and experiences that Asia has given (sometimes with great force!) at us these past 2 years, 9 months, and 9 days of backpacking through this incredible region. I decided a while back that will be the best forum for really sharing what we have to share in the way I can best share it. If you would like to be put on the list to be notified when the book is going to be available, you can put your email here and I will let you know!

That being said, this will just be a quick run-through of the basics of the past year or so since our last proper (or even semi-proper) catch-up, to at least round off the blog as we finish off the trip instead of leaving it awkwardly hanging back in November.

Ready? Hold on to your seats, a lot has happened! And remember, for the dirty details – of which there are plenty – sign up to buy the book!

Living in Malaysia

After the frantic and tragic days of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, where we were then doing a snowboarding season along with 12 or so other seasonnaires at our lodge, our plans were just subtly yet drastically changed. We left with our lodge friends Joel and Andy to think things over and evaluate our options (on the beach in Thailand, of course!), which is about where we left off on the last semi-proper catch-up.

We had been meant to finish the last two weeks of the season then re-up our visa with a run to Korea in time to meet my then 13-year-old cousin Sam and travel for a month or so in Japan, which would effectively kill off the rest of our savings from Tucson.

Even in addition to Japan, we still had six countries left to go on the itinerary (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, and we had decided to add Burma to our original plan), which meant we’d have to figure out something for money. Most likely we were looking at 3-12 months working in South Korea to get our savings back up at the end of the Japan travels.

In fact, just by eliminating that month or so of travels in Japan (and its necessary visa run), that left us with enough money to finish our Southeast Asia itinerary – all six countries. Yes, it’s really that much more affordable than one month and a visa run in Japan.

But the good season to visit most of those places wasn’t until September, three months after our stint in the beach hut and subsequent travels through Malaysia for three weeks with Joel and an Arizonan friend I knew from studying abroad in Italy eight years ago, Hillary. So Ray and I decided to try to keep our current savings – enough to finish the itinerary – in tact for those three months, and try to offset the cost of living and hopefully even earn more in that time, by living somewhere cheap and doing little more than working online during that time.

We chose Malaysia because it had an easy 90-day stay for Americans, as opposed to the hoops you had to jump through for Thailand, Vietnam, or Indonesia. There was really little interest in Malaysia other than that, and it seemed reasonably inexpensive, which we both have felt bad about saying now that we’ve come to love and appreciate it so much!

Malaysia was actually a great choice, and I’m so glad we got to experience it the way we did. Now it’s Home to us, not just the quick somewhat obligatory blip on the radar for a few days or a couple of weeks, just for the sake of being part of Asia, that it might have been otherwise. The standard of living vs. cost ratio is quite possibly one of the best on Earth; certainly the best we experienced in our 19 countries we visited on this trip. The people were some of the nicest, the food some of the best, and the culture, especially where we were in Penang where there was a good mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and southern Indian – plus a fair amount (though not overbearingly so) of expats of other nationalities, was always interesting. Living right next to the state mosque and within earshot of at least 23 others – as I was always reminded of at about 6:30am during the morning call to prayer that would ring out across the landscape ten stories below our condo every day…fortunately I was almost always awake still and it never bothered us in our room even if we weren’t – will always be one of the fondest memories and most memorable experiences of my life, not to mention the trip.

While we loved many aspects of living in Malaysia, probably the highlight for me was the opportunity to individually tutor a few Korean students, which was made possible by our friend James. I absolutely loved those kids and teaching them. They really made my life in Penang feel like home. So much so that instead of leaving in Sept as we planned to go travel Indonesia, we altered it a bit to go in August, when Sjoerd came to visit, then come back for the month of September so I could teach them again before we moved on in our travels.

Indonesia – mostly August
(Sjoerd Visit)

Jakarta – a visit to the awesome Taman Mini architecture park showcasing all the various forms of traditional architecture throughout the massively diverse country, the fantastic national museum, and despite being taken on the most ridiculous rip-off taxi ride of the trip (joke was on him when he ran out of gas trying to run up the meter on us though…!), enjoying the capital much more than we though we would, given all the rants and criticisms, and staying in a new hostel with the nicest proprietor lady ever.

Yogyakarta – all things cultural, most notably the awesome batik and one of the famous Shadow Puppet shows, and purchasing my very first true piece of art: a handcrafted and painted Shadow Puppet of my very own. Expensive, but priceless.

Borobudur – getting to see one of my most prominent magazine clipping photos that had adorned my bedroom wall right by my bed in Tucson for more than a year, and having it turn out to be way better than even expected, taking tons of photos, wearing the required skirt thing and loving the fact that Ray and Sjoerd had to, too

Prambanan – visiting this ancient Hindu site after seeing the ancient Buddhist one at Borobudur and after a delicious buffet dinner in view of the temple, taking in an incredible open-air Ramayana ballet under the full moon, with the ancient temple lit up in the background – amazing! Sjoerd even explained the story as it went on, and taught me to, for the first time, understand this form of performance art (and thus the Shadow Puppets as well!). Very cool. Thanks, Sjoerd!

Gili Air – Sjoerd’s friend getting us an awesome chalet just off the beach, complete with waterfall shower in the open-air bathroom, massive monitor lizards out front, delicious free rooftop breakfast overlooking the beach, great snorkeling right off shore with turtles, my third degree sunburn (unheard of!) thanks to the side effects of our anti-malarial Doxycycline (Whities TAKE NOTE – if it can happen to me, it can KILL you!) and my two wonderful best friends so gently applying 43 necessary layers of aloe to my crispy back while tears and beers worked to soothe the trauma of it all.

5-day, 4-night Perama Boat trip to Komodo and Rinca islands for KOMODO DRAGONS!!! – being scared to death of boat in some truly massive and frightening waves (there were tears – and I’m a water person!), horrible rough 1st night for me and Ray on deck, all of it still somehow made worthwhile by great snorkeling en route and getting to see TONS of wild dragons on BOTH Komodo and Rinca – amazing!!!

Bali:

Ubud – awesome cultural place from food (the pig place was my favorite! [Warung Ibu Oka is the name] and there was even some AMAZING Mexican food, the best in Asia – much appreciated for us Arizonans) to museums to the little shops to the massive traditional homes turned to guesthouses and art galleries, to the dance and performing arts (the Kecak version of the Ramayana was really a sight to behold!), the incredible arts and crafts, and the awesome, awesome masks…one of which soon became my second-ever real art purchase…

Seminyak – while I was interested in seeing the infamous Kuta Beach, we didn’t get a chance to, or see much of Seminyak either. We basically just had time to meet up with Dan Andrews of the TMBA internship we’d applied for a couple of times for his interesting Pool Party in his great backyard, but that was definitely a fun and worthwhile use of the time to meet him and some other really interesting entrepreneurs.

Leaving Malaysia

Had another great month tutoring the kids almost primarily in the month of September, and we capped it off with a really fun day all of us together (and Ray finally got to meet them) visiting an amazing temple, playing soccer, water basketpolo in their swimming pool, and video games. One more lesson, and then I said goodbye to Max, Tony, Rick, Alex, Nexon and James, and Mrs. Kim. I was sad to leave them but so glad they were all on Facebook and easy enough to stay in touch with. I’m really glad to have grown up in this internet generation. There are tradeoffs, but these benefits sure make those ok!

Vietnam Oct 6

Hanoi – We left from Penang and met up with our old lodge and travel friend Joel in Hanoi, after he’d spent a little time at home in Australia and another snowboard season in my old “snowboarding alma mater”: Queenstown, New Zealand. We really enjoyed Hanoi and our awesome accommodations for dirt cheap. We visited the great museums and other sights, including the “Hanoi Hilton”, the POW prison where John McCain was held – and wow was the (completely false) propaganda AMAZING there. I’m curious now to read his and other POWs takes on their time there, but somehow I doubt they actually threw Christmas parties for them and had so much fun doing crafts and playing basketball with their friends. The food – both Vietnamese and Western alike – was amazing in Hanoi and we had so much fun seeking it out, and the water puppet show was absolutely fantastic.

Halong Bay – a fun and memorable 3-day, 2-night cruise aboard the lovely Imperial Junk (that’s a special type of boat, not a social commentary!). Islands, caves, bike rides in the countryside, water buffalo, karaoke with the nice Chinese people, sneaking our rum and Coke in the boat’s beer cans (Ray and G, keepin it classy) and my favorite…sitting at the hull of the boat with my legs dangling above the water, just enjoying the scenery and just living the good life and hanging out with my awesome travel friends Ray and Joel, as life in our 20s, out exploring the world, enveloped us.

Sapa – an amazing, muddy, slogging rice paddy trek, assisted by 25 cent bamboo poles and a troupe of the smallest, surest-footed little hilltribe ladies you ever did see (Hmong people will forever hold a special place in our heart!). And let me tell you about the 25 cent rice whiskey….

Sapa-Hoi An – a train journey especially worth mention because we were stuck on there for 12 long hours more than the 12 hours we already expected the journey to take. When the tracks got flooded along with a good portion of that part of the country, rumor was circulating we could be stuck on there for days.

Hoi An – some of the most delicious food in the entire world, great lanterns, nice UNESCO World Heritage town, and a nice hotel stay, marred, sadly, only by what we suspect was the only theft of the entire trip

Saigon – My 29th birthday party at the Buddhist Theme Park and a dinner meet-up with a few other fellow bloggers; visiting the incredible Cu Chi tunnels and the war museums and sites; learning about a new religion we’d never heard of and seeing it at the source; sending Joel off for his (random?) trip to India for two weeks (SOLO!) to see the F1 and Metallica and do a little India exploring, including the Pushkar Camel Fair, at our insistence! “Joel, you leave us a boy. When you return, you shall be a man…”

Mekong Delta trip – We decided to take the adventurous route of a 3-day, 2-night bus, boat, boat, horse cart, boat, bus, homestay, etc. journey through the Mekong Delta to get to Cambodia, rather than just the much more straightforward, much more easy, and much more boring 6-hour some bus journey across the border to Phnom Penh. It was a pretty full-on tour with having to constantly climb into these boats with all our bags, especially Ray’s 450-pound backpack of electronics/our lives, and trying to step from one floating, wobbly boat onto another that is hell-bent on floating away from you right as you are straddled perfectly between the two. But it was definitely cool to be able to visit all these floating markets, island weaving villages, tropical fruit orchards, coconut candy making places, and rice noodle-making factories, drinking rice wine, riding horse carts and bicycles, waving at the kids along the backwaters, staying at a homestay and walking out among the fields first thing in the morning to catch that quintessential bright red rising sun view through the palm trees that you see in the Vietnam War movies. An adventurous, and sometimes somewhat inconvenient way to transit to Cambodia…but well worth it, in the end. And SO CHEAP!!!

Cambodia

Phnom Penh – Phnom Penh surprisingly ended up being one of, if not THE, singularly most memorable and touching experiences of the entire trip. I didn’t expect much from it as I knew nothing, but the day we spent visiting the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields, in conjunction with meeting not just one but quite serendipitously BOTH of the two remaining survivors of that most terrible prison (only 7 out of the 14,000+ people who went there survived), was absolutely gripping, mind-blowing and completely unforgettable.

Phnom Penh was actually quite nice in itself as well, at least the small corner we visited. They’ve done up the riverside very nicely and we even, rather oddly, saw a man walking his unrestrained elephant down the main drag full of traffic. We’d not seen elephants walking in the streets like that since India (and I’m not sure that it was exactly commonplace there either), so that was fun to see.

Angkor Wat/Siem Reap – We had a great couple of days exploring the Angkor Wat area and its multitude of temples. Even being very well “templed out” by that point, we really enjoyed our explorations because they were all so different and just the spirit of adventure in driving around to each of them in our rickshaw, knowing we were encompassed by so much history and marvel, was so much fun. The food and lodging there was great too.

Thailand – BKK-CR nov 11

Chiang Rai – a quick stop in Bangkok which was experiencing some terrible flooding, though not in the area we usually stay in, then up to Chiang Rai to meet up with our boys again: Joel, back from India; Andy rejoining us after getting settled in his new life in Sydney; and Andy’s Welsh friend from Sydney, Simon, who would be joining us for a couple weeks of our travels.

The next day, the five of us headed out to see the beautiful, unique, and interesting contemporary White Temple. Ray and I had visited it back in April 2010 when we were in Thailand the first time, but our photos from that and the rest of our Laos/Burma border trip were some of the casualties of our tragic hard drive crash of 2010. So it was good to get to go back and get pics again, especially with our new camera that we’d upgraded to since then, our beloved Canon S95.

Sadly they don’t allow photos inside so we don’t have any from either then or now of the interior, which is painted in a most curious fashion with depictions of current pop culture: events and characters ranging from 9/11 and conflicts for oil to Avatar, Osama bin Laden, Neo from the Matrix, Spiderman, Doraeman, and more. Osama bin Laden USED to be there, anyway. Interestingly, despite having a notoriously terrible memory, I definitely remembered bin Laden’s picture being painted on the wall there before. But it wasn’t there this time. I was surprised on two counts, that they weren’t just continuously adding to the mural (it’s very clearly still being painted, some of it still blank on the side walls, with scaffolding and paint buckets), but also that they removed such an evocative persona from this mural of modern times. I wonder why they took it off, and if/when/how they’ll replace it. I’m pretty sure the burning Twin Towers were different as well. We bought a book this time that does have pics of the inside so I’ll scan those and post them when we get home and you can at least see what it looked like at the time of the book’s publication, anyway.

Laos

2-day Slowboat Trip to Laos – From Chiang Rai, we headed to the border and caught the long anticipated two-day slow boat to Laos. When I was planning this trip back from Tucson, I’d never even heard of Laos, but in researching it, I read about this journey being beautiful so I’d been looking forward to doing it ever since then. If you’ll recall from our original itinerary, this leg was supposed to be done some two years ago or so! But better late than never, and even better that now we got to do it with our friends. It was indeed a beautiful journey, and considerably more comfortable than the stories I’d read about online, now that the boats are equipped with cushioned car/van seats. I can’t imagine doing it on the old wooden benches, which is what I think we’d have been doing had we gone on it two years ago as planned.

The overnight stop in Pakbeng was far less frontier than I imagined as well, and we easily got nice walk-in accommodation, and ended up having an unexpected big night on the town together, which made the next day’s 8-some hour journey to Luang Prabang in Laos go by in a bit of a blur…

Luang Prabang – we had some awesome times in Luang Prabang, the five of us. We did some lounging and relaxed sightseeing around town. We also rented motorbikes and drove them out to the waterfalls for a frolic, which was great fun, both for the ride there and back and for the falls themselves. Ray and I were glad for our previous experience on the scooters in Goa (India) and Ko Tao (Thailand), as while the other guys were a little nervous sorting them out for the first time themselves, we felt quite confident. I was even able to give Joel a ride back on mine going back to town, which was cool. We also did a bike trip, which was meant to be a “beginner’s” trip but I think they meant “evil” instead. More long and steep hills the entire day than I ever thought even existed. Few things truly suck but that bike ride really did. Fortunately the whole trip wasn’t awful as we did make a nice trip to the elephant park and I got to see an elephant walking through the river giving a couple ladies a ride, and we had a nice frolic in the other waterfalls which were pretty cool, very Havasupai-esque, for those familiar with the falls in the Grand Canyon.

Vang Vieng – few towns in the world will draw as much ire and debate from travelers (or people who just read the articles about another traveler who died or got hurt there) as Vang Vieng, but the truth is, we fell in the camp that loved it. And in truth after reading all the debate, I was expecting much, much, much worse and was almost kind of disappointed it wasn’t nearly the raucous spring break Girls Gone Wild crazy bar scene I had in my mind (almost – except I still cringe when that scene is present in other countries). The main draw here is the tubing, similar to the Salt River tube float in AZ, but with a number of bars along the banks that throw ropes to you and drag you in for drinks, free shots, even…special…items to imbibe (though personally we think booze + water with current can be enough to try to regulate safely) and generally feature any number of insane features to entertain you – and every year kills one or a handful of people. But still, even with the bars and towers, air cushions, rope swings, slides and zip lines of doom, it was a pretty cool place if you know what to expect and take it for what it is and are VERY careful (Ray and I were careful but still both managed some nice injuries on an air cushion and rope swing, respectively – but then again I ride park on a snowboard and nearly kill myself on a daily basis, plus we both play hockey, so nothing new there). I do see how travelers, even careful ones, could get hurt or worse. But if done responsibly, and knowing that regulations are NOT in place and you do everything at your own risk (like for real, not like the U.S.’s bullshit “at your own risk” with drinking a cup of McDonald’s coffee), it’s fun and also a good chance to check and hone your limits, and calibrate them with your sense of adventure and lack of almost insulting regulation that is so present in the States and other Western countries. There is certainly plenty of controversy and things to consider with a place like Vang Vieng, and we’ll examine those more later on…but if done tastefully and responsibly, a good time can definitely be had in Vang Vieng, and our group definitely did.

Vientiane – our time in Vientiane was short but sweet; having just enough time to enjoy some delicious ribs and have a beer together on the steps overlooking a would-be river, if it weren’t pretty much dried up, but still a nice promenade with lots of people out and about, exercising, line dancing, sitting and chilling. We also got to see the beautiful Pha That Luang, the most important monument in Laos, a golden Buddhist stupa which also features on the country’s currency (always fun to see those things). We were also able to do a quick scoot out to the very interesting and slightly eclectic “Buddha Park” full of interesting and odd statues, some of them absolutely massive, before catching our bus for our Laos Stray Tour, a suggestion made (rather emphatically) by Joel, who had done the trip after he left us in Malaysia in April. It was one of the only organized tours we’ve done of the trip, but definitely a worthwhile one.

Laos Stray Tour – so many things, but the main highlights were camping and beering at the beautiful Tad Leuk waterfall, the crazy 7-km long cave at Kong lor, one of the most memorable experiences ever – an overnight village stay in a tiny village where we were only like the 4th or 5th group of White people they’d ever seen and we had a cool ceremony (we’re still wearing our bracelets, 6 mos later!) drank with the village chiefs and had an awesome riverside view of the stars; temple visits and a stop at Mr. Coffee and helped him pick coffee beans from his trees which he then showed us how they are made into coffee; an overnight at Tad Lo waterfall where we communed with an elephant and frolicked in the river above the falls; karaoke with the locals in Pakse where in a nice twist of social fate the women were all over the boys and showering them with affection and liquor; and finally ending the trip in Don Det where we saw river dolphins and massive waterfalls and drank shakes by the river before heading back to Thailand on the overnight train.

Burma

Yangon – Man, Burma was something else. It didn’t feature on our original itinerary because of the turmoil of the country; I wasn’t sure if we should contribute to the military junta by going there and I also wasn’t sure if it would be safe so we just left it off. But I’m glad some travelers we met along the way (including a Burmese who had lived many years in America) convinced us to go. After a quick stop in Bangkok to try to get visas, we were successful and booked our flights to Yangon. It was like stepping into another world; in league, in that regard, with only India. The massive, golden Shwedagon Pagoda was simply mind-blowing, and our first meal there together was definitely a fun and memorable dining experience.

Mandalay – you can’t think of Mandalay without thinking of the Moustache Brothers, and I’m so glad we made the trip out to see this strange, unique, and politically incredible show. That’ll deserve an entry of its own.

Mandalay-Bagan – a really awesome boat ride (aside from me falling down the slippery metal stairs and cutting myself all up), fun for hanging out with the guys and playing chess or iPad games together, and absolutely unreal to come upon ancient Bagan and its literally thousands of spired temples rising out of the landscape as the sun set. That the taxis from the hotel which met us were two horse-drawn carts with the driver holding a sign with our names was just fantastic. Such was life in Bagan, as we were about to discover.

Bagan – best days ever, exploring by horse cart soooo many different temples. Again, even having seen so many temples by this point, this experience was still special, memorable, fun, and wonderful. It was fun to do with our friends, and it was really unique for how many there were and how untouristed they were. We generally had the whole thousands-of-years-old structures to ourselves. The sunset views over the landscape were absolutely unworldly.

Inle lake – one of the worst bus rides of the trip to cross from Bagan to Inle (Andy left us from Bagan by prop-plane to go to Bangkok and back to Sydney), but again well worth the trouble – and believe me, I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be possible after that ride. But it was great fun and gorgeous and interesting scenery, touring the lake, getting to know the people in the small town, and seeing the boatmen’s extremely unique method of rowing their boats with their legs.

Thailand

Ko Chang – As we were about to end our long tenure in Asia, what better way to end it but then at a beach hut on the beach!? The three of us headed to Ko Chang for its proximity to Bangkok and reasonably awesome strands of sand with at least possibilities for huts on that sand. The first night had us in basically a shack (though a nice enough one!) off a rocky area – close but not quite, but the next few nights put us right by the sand. Joel, Ray and I did have to share a double bed to get it but, you know…sacrifices. It’s surprising the things you can get used to and not really even think twice about while backpacking. There’s a reason you bond so much and so quickly with travel friends – three people in a double bed in a beach hut on a beautiful beach in Thailand is one of them!

Japan (Sam Visit) – Dec 20

Tokyo – and so, a few months later than originally planned, young cousin Sam (now 14) was able to come and join us to travel Japan after all! We started him out in Tokyo and he had his first experience in a hostel and we also got to experience a capsule hotel for a night – a first me and Ray as well! We took him to see the Tsukiji fish market and a very strange experience, a Maid Cafe – both also firsts for us – and stroll around to see some of the cool sights of Tokyo.

Kyoto – we spent Christmas and several days in Kyoto and saw so much awesome stuff: the excellent Manga museum and Geisha district again, the Golden Temple, the Zen Rock garden, the bamboo forest, the incredible orange shrines of Fushimi Inari, and more. It was made all the better by our great little guesthouse at Peace House Sakura, in which we were pretty much the only Westerners and we got to celebrate Christmas with Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean folks over a delicious meal of homemade sukiyaki – a really special experience for all of us!

Hiroshima – this was a special stop for me, as it sort of made for a full circle for me, as ten years ago I had lived for a summer in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was built. I had visited the museum there at the time and was fascinated by some of the compelling comments left by visitors to the museum, especially the Japanese. I read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey before we got to Hiroshima (and had Sam and Ray read it as well) and was really glad I had; it really gave a lot of context to this terrible event in history. We got a personal tour of the hypocenter and the melted marble gravestones by an “in-utero survivor” which was pretty incredible, and visited the museum, which was reasonably well done. It’s a nice, vibrant city now, and holds no ill-will against Americans, which I found almost mind-boggling and has given me much to think about. We also took a nice day trip out to see the floating shrine a day trip away.

Nagasaki – Nagasaki wasn’t quite as compelling as Hiroshima, which is perhaps a testament to its somewhat understated but also devastating place in history. I was still glad to get to go see it in person as well.

Tokyo – finally, we ended 2011 and the trip with Sam by – oddly, again – ringing in the new year just as we had from 2010-2011, standing (or rather, getting shoved around by the masses) at the Shibuya crossing for New Year’s celebrations. We took Sam to see the emperor on the 3rd as we had previously as well, and then sent him on his way back home, with lots of adventures and great memories shared by all.

Winter – Jan 4

G: Hakuba, Japan – I went back to the lodge in Hakuba for a second snowboarding season, as did Joel, and my park buddy from last year, Rich, came back and joined us for 3.5 weeks in February, as well as another friend from last year who came for a couple of weeks in there too. I stayed out of the park this year, preferring the mountain riding (and, specifically, the not being injured the entire season) and had a great time hanging out with my travel buddy and getting to know him better now as a close friend, a roommate and a boarding partner too.

Ray: Bangkok/Penang/Singapore – meanwhile, Ray opted to spend his funds and time on a new computer and setting up his new software company, and he caught a flight from Tokyo back to Bangkok for a few days then the train down to Penang. He got our room back at the apt with Zac and worked there til I got back at the end of the season, and also took up teaching English with the kids which he enjoyed a lot and was great experience for him.

Malaysia – March 19

Penang – we reunited in Malaysia at the end of March and had a good month and a half there living together, catching up, charting out the course of our future together and individually now and after the trip, and having a good time together, enjoying all our favorite things about life in Penang.

Perhentian Islands – to round off the whole trip together, Ray and I took off from Penang for one more getaway and adventure with each other. We splurged (SPLURGED, by our standards!) and got a gorgeous beach chalet with the works – AC, hot water in the bathroom, a fridge, even satellite TV. We actually didn’t want all the extras, but it was the only place we could make a reservation to be sure we got the beachfront porch, view, and awesome-snorkeling-right-off-the-beach combo we wanted for this last beach hut stint. The only thing it was missing, being Muslim country of course, was cheap tropical drinks. But we made do with our 14% strong beers one night and general sobriety the rest of the time. We spent our time snorkeling, eating lobster, crab and beef, drinking banana-chocolate and Snickers shakes, and playing our newly-bought Pokemon card game (long story). It was a total blast, absolutely gorgeous, and a perfect way to end the trip.

Perhentians-KL-Tokyo-LAX-ABQ-Phx:

And so now we’re on this very last leg of the journey, flying Tokyo-LAX, where we’ll meet up with my cousin Gwen till our evening train to Albuquerque (gotta keep the adventurous spirit – never really traveled by train in the States before!), get Ray’s car, and finally drive back to Arizona, where this all began. More adventures to follow, but that will mark the end of this one.

We’ll catch you on the flipside. Thanks for joining us for this journey – it’s been every bit the amazing, incredible ride we hoped and dreamed it would be when we started planning, saving, and putting it together 5 years ago.

Adventure on!

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This Changes Everything.

November 04, 2011 Post written by: G

There have been but a small handful of times in my life that I have known that my life has just changed and will never be the same.

Today was one of those days.

Killing Fields

A trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum/S21 Prison and The Killing Fields in Cambodia

I’m still far too much in digesting mode (forget processing – that will take months), but I feel like something about this day and the things we’ve seen, learned, and experienced today needs to be acknowledged, shared, and SOMEthing put out there, now. Immediately. Yesterday. Five years ago.

To begin with, since my own pieces on the subject and experience will be long in the making, please check out these links to familiarize yourself with what I’m about to talk about. They’re not too long and are fairly digestible while still being incredibly educational.

Chances are, you may have never even heard about this. The bigger chance is, even if you’ve heard of it…something…you had no idea the half of it. I certainly didn’t.

I should have.

We should. You should.

There’s much more that goes into this, but this will give you a good starting point and you can read more if you are so interested in understanding the context. Eventually after I return home, I will have something on here to put the pieces together in a simplified form.

For now, start here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Killing_Fields

Those are the two places we went today.

When we got home tonight, I wanted to sit and write a post or a journal or SOMEthing, but as I did some searches to get more details, context, and a bigger picture of everything now that we’d seen and experienced the places in person, I found myself feeling fairly agitated.

I wanted to talk to someone about it, but whom? I know not many of my friends and contemporaries would know about this enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of what I really wanted to share, one major part of the day and the experience, and I wouldn’t expect them to.

Fortunately, my good friend Scott was on, and he was just the person I needed to talk to.

I’m still feeling too antsy about today to really adapt this into much of a coherent post, but maybe this sort of thing is better that little bit raw anyway.

He wasn’t anticipating it being a public conversation, so I’ve edited it to just my parts of the dialogue, and it may be too much of a bitch to read in this format. If so, don’t worry about it…there will be a proper post (probably several) eventually. But for now, this is what I got, so I thought I’d give it to you:

me: i always think when we visit places like this that it should be mandatory to visit at least one if not several as part of one’s higher education
at any rate this was NOT given due study in school, especially given that it JUST OCCURRED IN 1979
wikipedia says In all, an estimated 1,700,000–2,500,000 people died under his leadership
i just feel like, for as terrible as the holocaust was, the way they (cambodians) carried theirs out just seems so much more brutal
pure torture
that was pretty much all they did
i’m not making the comparison to belittle one or the other, rather to say how shocked i am that something was actually at least as bad, perhaps even more acute

me: yeah even i didn’t (have any idea about cambodia) until starting to plan this trip, and really, even until today
i knew roughly something had happened…that there was something to learn about it, it was bad, maybe really bad, and that i’d be learning about it soon
that was the extent of it til today pretty much
but today it was so mind-blowing (and after everything we’ve seen, done and learned about the past two years, both good and bad, that’s saying a LOT), i actually took pages and pages of NOTES, which i never do
in addition to the 675 photos
fortunately they let you take pictures of EVERYTHING, so i will definitely be sharing it

me:
yeah we actually hired a guide to take us around the prison and i’m SO GLAD we did
usually we just walk around stuff like this, just to see it… usually that’s fine. this was worth it for sure
there are still bloodstains on the floor in some spots
i even found a bloody handprint on one of the walls
it’s an empty room whereas most others at least had a bed (actual one left from the torture) and a photo of the last corpse found there… so since the room was empty, most people didn’t walk in
i was pretty shocked when i found it, as the guide didn’t even point it out (he pointed out the stains on the floor in another of the buildings that we may or may not have noticed)
that made it pretty real
you could still see the prints, like fingerprints, from the hand

me: and you want to know the most unexpected thing? the thing that i find myself, now that we’re back and i have some time to process, is totally spinning my head? not the stacks and stacks and stacks of skulls and bones, or the horrible photos or the blood….
there were at least 14,000 people who came through S21 and all were severely tortured (btw it got HELLA creepy in there when it started getting dark…and i’m not usually spooked by such things – but it did start feeling different)

[edit: this is my own current understanding/interpretation (and simplification for personal understanding) of what I've read and from the visits; don't take it as gospel]

they were basically tortured to extract a “confession” to wrongdoing, to justify killing them
because basically pol pot was trying to cull everyone who was educated or had any ties to the western world or mentality (including nothing more than living in the city)
he needed only 1 million to fulfill his agrarian utopia dream
the rest needed to go, so that’s why he was culling those people
so basically this prison was just the way to extract a “legal” and political justification, right, then once the confession was signed, off they went to the killing field
dropped off from a truck, blindfolded, handcuffed, nationalistic music playing full blast to cover up the screams so no one arriving would panic and fight back
they perched them on the edge of the ditches and beat their skulls in to kill them to save bullets
babies got their heads beat against a tree, or tossed up in the air and sliced by the bayonets
torture, then killing fields, boom… they excavated only 86 of 129 sites i think it was (will give you exact figures later)
but that still uncovered almost 9k corpses
there are like 300 of these fields elsewhere in cambodia too
walking around….
i thought it would just be like you go and look over some barely looking like anything field, from faraway
walking around…they’ve left things pretty preserved
they excavated almost 9k skeletons and skulls but left who knows how many still buried
and even from the pits they excavated………
as the soils shift from rain, flooding, etc…. bone fragments, teeth, and clothes still surface
they leave them there (and ask visitors to do the same obviously), and the staff goes around every 2-3 months and picks them all up
but until they do that, they just lay there – so i saw teeth, bones, and the scraps of clothes used for binding their hands and their blindfolds
saw the tree where they’d beat the babies heads against before throwing them in the adjacent pit
when the site was found, that tree was covered in bone, skin, hair, and brains

me: so that was the killing fields….to back up a little, so before they go there, they’re tortured
listen to some of this  
i’ve heard of torture stuff
i went to a torture museum or two, saw the hanoi hilton
this was new shit i’d never even heard of
there was the classic waterboarding and other dunking stuff
they used the school’s (the prison was formerly a school) thing, you know where they have a rope that you climb up for PE?
they’d tie the prisoner’s hands behind their back and winch them up on there that way…from the picture, it looked like they’d winch them up from their bound hands BEHIND THEIR BACK
then flip them upside down and dunk them
they had to shit in ammo boxes and pee in jugs
if they spilled, they had to clean it up off the floor with their tongues
after their 6 second every-4-days “bath”, they had to clean that up with their tongues
(those were just living conditions) the actual tortures…things like pulling off their fingernails and pouring alcohol on it…or this one was new:
for women, they’d pull off their nipples with pliers… and then sting them in the wound with scorpion venom and centipedes
oh and the babies wouldn’t always make it to the killing fields… they all got their pictures taken when they arrived at the prison, and if the baby cried at that time, the guard would take it then and there and do the tree or bayonet thing in front of the mother
they would also have electric wire stuck in their ear and shocked, stuff like that
so, some 14,000 people at least passed through this place with these things being done to every one of them
wikipedia says 17,000
it’s hard to say for sure, but figure at least around there
of those….there were 7 survivors
the only reason they weren’t killed was because they were useful
a mechanic, a painter, etc.
(had to paint pol pot in his perfect likeness, you know)
yeah. SEVEN.
so like i was saying earlier, all this shit that i’ve seen, done, read, heard, walked on, etc. today
what’s still kinda freakin me out the most right now…
after our tour of the prison, the tour guide says…

Would you like to meet one of the survivors?

me: i was shell-shocked. uh. YES???
i couldn’t really believe what he was asking though; it was so unexpected.
when i was doing all my research last night i saw there were 7 that survived, 3 of which were still living (at the time the articles i was reading were written)
during the tour, the guide said now only 2 of them were still living
and one of them was there

Indeed, Mr. Bou Meng was there at the prison, and he had copies of a book about his life that had been written last year by a researcher. We not only got to meet him, shake his hand, talk to him, but we got to take a piece of it and one of the most harrowing, horrible, and mind-blowing pieces of history with us: a book of his story, signed by him.

AND he was so happy we both wanted a copy, he even gave me a kiss on the cheek! (Ray’s cheeks apparently weren’t as kissable though.)

He was happy to take pictures with us and though I wasn’t sure whether we should smile or look solemn, I looked over at him to see and he had a big smile (close-lipped…almost all of his teeth were bashed out of his face during his tortures at the prison).

I suppose in retrospect the moment was brief, a few minutes, compared to the many minutes that make up a lifetime. But that experience will stay with me the rest of my life. Those few minutes worked like glue to help me put together both the tour we’d just had of the prison/school/torture chambers/cells/museum, the ghastly fields we visited just after this encounter, and the haunting roaming around we did to take it all in on our own when we again returned to the museum a few hours later, after seeing the fields.

The Khmer Rouge, the genocide, the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng/S21, they all – unbelievably, unexpectedly and amazingly – now have a face to me. A moving, breathing, smiling, talking, touching, cheek-kissing face. It was only a moment, but it was a moment that made it all a whole lot less History book, news article, or Wikipedia article…and very much more personal.

I can tell you one thing, with regards to how this personally changes my life directly: forevermore, if I’m having a “bad day” or if something makes me nervous or uncomfortable or worried…this is my benchmark. This is what a PROBLEM is. This is what a BAD DAY is, the shit I saw today. What people went through. What my few-minutes/forevermore friend went through. I’ve learned about problems before, both historical and modern (all the moreso since traveling through India and Asia). I generally try to reflect on those to keep perspective anyway. But this is a new level – and perhaps most importantly…one I can connect with.

Our guide kindly offered to translate if we wanted to talk but I was still so stunned to be able to be having this opportunity at all that the best I could muster was, um, “Hello.” (brilliant) and “I’m sorry for what happened,” to which he replied (first, hello – thank you so much for coming, he was really glad we were there), and that he hoped we would tell many people about the story of this place and his story. He wanted people to know what had happened to Cambodia, and in Cambodia.

I don’t blame him.

I do, too.

img_1480

I’ll leave you with a few links to learn more about this man’s story:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/world/asia/17cambo.html
http://khmernz.blogspot.com/2009/07/bou-meng-long-term-detainee-in-s-21.html
http://www.camnet.com.kh/cambodia.daily/selected_features/bou_meng.htm

Also, the Khmer documented their victims in detail. The museum is filled with hundreds of these photos, taken right after the blindfold is taken off the victim upon their arrival, confused, not knowing why they were arrested and taken away, and not knowing what is in store. You can see some of the photos we saw today here:
http://tuolsleng.com/photographs.php?photographsPage=1

The photographer was only a young teenager himself, striving to do his assignment perfectly to avoid execution. Also worth a read:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/world/asia/27cambo.html

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Happy Birthday G!

October 20, 2011 Post written by: Ray

It’s that time, October 21st, and it’s G’s last year of her 20′s. Yep, that’s right, she’s the big 29.

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It’s amazing to think that we just celebrated another year traveling, and now another birthday in strange new lands! It’s something special indeed and I just wanted to commemorate it here and now. G has been an amazing travel partner and my bestest friend. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to celebrate another birthday of hers while on the road, even with her T-Rex impersonations!

G, every moment has been priceless, and I can’t thank you enough for the awesomeness that we’ve been able to experience together. Happy Birthday, with lots of hugs, I hope you have an awesome day today!!

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Gotta run with it

October 19, 2011 Post written by: Ray

It has been a crazy night.

Today was our last day in Hoi An. We decided to take it easy, savor the amazing local foods, and chill with a couple of drinks before leaving on the night train to Ho Chi Minh City. All was well… until we had to pay the hostel tab.

We had to pull out some money, as we usually do, prior to traveling to another location. The first bank I went to told me that “The request cannot be processed”. I did this a couple of times thinking it was a limit issue, since most ATMs here let you only pull out a max equivalent of $200 USD. I gave up after setting for the lowest value I was willing to pull out for a service charge before moving on to another bank. Same thing. I figured I might have mixed up my pin, so I rearranged the possible offending numbers. No dice. As I had wasted a bunch of time already, I ran to another ATM to try again, and got an error saying “cannot be processed” and to “call bank”. The rest of which was in Vietnamese. Problem was, I never got my card back. After pushing all the buttons, and hitting cancel a couple of times with my fist, I decided to compose myself before I started kicking the machine out of frustration and rage. During the time of running back and forth between ATMs, G mentions that our minibus was there and waiting to take us to our 9:56p departure train. It was 8:30pm and the station was 45 minutes away. I’d gotten lax, this was a total rookie mistake, waiting until the last 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave before pulling out cash. Doh!

While the card issue was annoying, we did have some USD on us, so I figured we could pay with that. We keep the USD on hand for visas and other unexpected needs, plus money we’d gotten elsewhere and held onto to use when we go through those countries again, rather than losing on the exchange.

The hostel lady recalculated the bill in USD, and I went to pull out the leg stash that holds our American dinero, and suddenly things went from annoying to frantic.

No leg stash.

Not in any of the backpacks.

I tore everything apart looking for the leg stash and it was nowhere to be found. Now we had no ATM card, and no cash to settle the hostel bill and train tickets with. Not to mention the minibus (with two other customers) has been waiting for 20 minutes during my frantic scurryings, and if we didn’t make the train we’d lose out on another $100 for the tickets. AND completely ruin G’s birthday celebration, because instead of being at the Buddha Amusement Park that she’s been excited about for weeks, we’d be sitting on a train instead.

Thank goodness for our spare bank debit card, and storing our access to money in different locations. G luckily had enough left in her B of A account to pay our outstanding bills, and within enough time for us to grab a madman taxi driver. For reference, normally the trip from Hoi An to Da Nang station takes 45 minutes. We left at 9:00pm and got there at 9:25pm flat.

Adrenaline and paranoia (Vietnam is known for fraudulent activity) coursing through me, I quickly logged on to the GPRS and iPad to request a new pin number for my debit cards, and effectively lock out any other potential use. Then I transferred money back to our safety net account to float us until we can get a new set of cards and pin. Couple that with the ongoing singing of the taxi driver’s horn and the sharp turns avoiding motorcyclists, and you have the perfect recipe for a bit of car sickness. Exiting the taxi with stars above my head and black spirals in my eyes, we waited 20 minutes for our late train. As Joel would say: TIA (This is Asia). It really sucks about that leg stash, and I’m left to still wonder what happened to it, but I’m very glad we caught the train. I write this as we are on our way to Ho Chi Minh.

It’s always an adventure traveling. There are ups and downs and you just gotta run with it.

At least we’ll still have the Buddhist Theme Park for G’s birthday.

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Where are G and Ray RIGHT NOW?:

BACK HOME in the US of A!!!

Where to Next?:

Writing a book!

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