I've been back in the US for a week. As seems to be the case with time, it has flown by. It has been a wonderful week of seeing family, friends, and catching up on foods that I have missed. To be completely honest, it's all still pretty surreal. Since I'm not ready for a particularly reflective post (I cannot put into words what I'm feeling about the year being over BUT if anyone is interested, I'll be happy to discuss the merits of my mom's cooking and why her macaroni and cheese and spaghetti sauce are the best in the world), I think the best way to wrap it up is to post some facts and figures:
- In total, I visited all 7 continents and 27 countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Australia, India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, China, England, Scotland, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia
- I took 65 flights, 56 train journeys, 39 bus trips, and 32 journeys by boat. Most of these numbers refer to significant journeys and not just a short ride across town. In addition, I spent quite a lot of time in vans while on Intrepid trips as well as the approximately 6 weeks it took to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town on a truck/bus. And 32 boat rides does not include my spending 10 days on a boat for my Antarctic adventure!
- In a year, I had the chance to take the following types of transport: plane, bus, van, car, train, metro, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, elephant, camel, motorcycle, helicopter, taxi, ferry, raft, jetboat, hydrofoil, felucca (Egypt), motorboat, ice-breaker, xe-om (Vietnam), cable car/gondola, mokoro (Botswana), canoe. There's probably more that I'm leaving out but that gives you an idea - there's more to travel now than just planes, trains, and automobiles though.
- For anyone that knows me well, they know I'm pretty accident prone - in the last year, I have incurred the following injuries: a sprained wrist (Antarctica), a black eye (Nepal), a toenail that fell off (started in Ecuador but actually fell off in Peru), a huge scar that everyone now mistakes for a bruise because of its dark color (Zambia) in addition to multiple bumps and bruises. How did I get these injuries - you will have to ask to find out! But I'll tell you now that you shouldn't get your hopes up too much to hear exciting stories - unfortunately, all occurred from pretty mundane events - they just happened to occur in pretty exotic places.
So, I can't say this is THE end because there is never an end when it comes to traveling. The people you meet and the experiences you have stick with you forever - no matter what else happens in my life, I'll always carry this year with me and think about all the amazing places I got to see. But for now, I have to say this is "the end" when it comes to this particular blog. Thanks for being a part of the journey!
The Galapagos were simply amazing and quite possibly the closest anyone will ever come to finding paradise on Earth. It is no wonder that the Galapagos fascinated Charles Darwin - the diversity of plant and animal life is simply amazing. Within the week that I was there, I was able to see hundreds of types of fish and birds in addition to penguins, sea lions, flamingos, sharks, rays, whales, sea turtles, and of course, giant tortoises. We were fortunate enough to have a few orca whales glide by our boat while we were sailing from one island to another. When I went to Antarctica, I was fortunate enough to get very close to humpback whales so to then be able to be so close to orcas just a few months later is beyond what I could have imagined possible. The opportunities to snorkel were phenomenal and my favorite spot included the chance to see about 15 sea turtles "sleeping" on the bottom of the water. It was like coming across a turtle slumber party. I do have to say that I never thought I would go snorkeling with sharks around but apparently the Galapagos variety are not particularly interested in humans. A week in the Galapagos was not nearly enough to experience all it had to offer but I feel very lucky to have had the chance to at least experience a fraction of these amazing islands.
Peru is quite a diverse country and I fortunately was able to experience several different landscapes within a few weeks. We began our journey in the Amazon where I quickly realized that it would take months or years to really begin to know how to look for all the different flora and fauna that this eco-system offers. We were fortunate enough to have guides who have spent much of their life in this part of the world learning how to spot all the various plants and animals that are just invisible to those of us setting foot into the jungle for the first time. I was most amazed on our night walk when they could spot miniscule insects (except the tarantulas - those are not so miniscule) quite easily.
After the Amazon, our travels took us to Cuzco and the Peruvian Highlands to begin our encounter with Incan culture and ultimately, Machu Picchu. I was able to hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu - the trail is approximately a 4 day/3 night experience. At times, I was not so sure that I would make it to the end - because the altitude is much higher than what most of us are used to (it gets up to 4200 meters at some points), breathing becomes a challenge. At times, it literally was a matter of just trying to put one foot in front of the other and seeing how far that could get me before I needed to catch my breath. I succeeded in making it to the end - I fortunately was the only person in my group who did not suffer from altitude sickness or a stomach bug. All of those trekkers made it to the end as well and I really admire the fact that they did. I was physically at full capacity and it was hard enough for me - I can't imagine how I would have done it if I had not felt well. The most amazing part of the trek though are the porters. These are locals who carry everything that is needed for camping on the trail - most are carrying 25 kilograms on their backs and scampering up and down the trail like mountain goats. Of course, most of these men have grown up with the altitude so breathing is not a challenge but it is still a 42 kilometer hike that involves lots of ups and downs but they make it look as easy as mall walking. By the time all the trekkers huff and puff their way into camp, the tents have been set up and there are food and drinks waiting. And the porters clap for you when you arrive to camp - I find this needs to be reversed as it is really the trekkers who need to be applauding the porters for without them, the journey would actually not be possible. We arrived to Machu Picchu in pouring rain but it still could not take away from what an amazing sight it is. I don't think I ever realized how big the sight actually was until I saw it in person. And the mind boggling thing is that the sight was not actually finished when the Incans had to abandon it - just how big would it have grown to had the Incans been able to finish their original vision? Despite the hundreds of tourists in brightly colored rain ponchos, it is still possible to look around you and see the amazing culture that the Incans left behind.
After the Peruvian Highlands, we moved on to Lake Titicaca. We were able to actually do a homestay on one of the many islands in the lake - our hosts were all very hospitable and we joined them in a variety of activities including volleyball (all the women in the village were amazing and competitive players), peeling potatoes and sorting broad beans. Part of the homestay included wearing their traditional clothes which included thick skirts, blouses, and a long knit cap. The cap made it look as though we were stuck in some kind of parallel universe in which Dickens' England met Andean culture. While I'm not ready to sign up to live in Lake Titicaca permanently, it was certainly nice to have a brief glmpse into a world that has largely been untouched by technology and the complications that the modern world can often bring with it. And I have to say that Lake Titicaca is beautiful and quite huge - frankly, I feel as though I have seen smaller oceans. It was great to be able to spend time actually on the lake and then driving around it - it certainly gives you an appreciation for its size.
After Peru, my travels took me to Bolivia - a country that I was fortunate enough to know a little bit about from my time working at Meredith. For several years, we had an exchange with a university in Cochabamba, Bolivia that brought us a professor every autumn. I was able to learn a little about Bolivia from the wonderful people that we had visit us and I always thought it seemed like an interesting place to visit. Bolivia is one of those countries that has not had much experience with tourism up until the last 20 or so years. I have to say that Bolivia has some of the most beautiful natural scenery I have seen over the last year - Salar de Uyuni or the Salt Flats especially are amazing. There really is nothing like it in the world - you feel as though are standing on a glacial field but it is really a plain of salt. In some places, you can see absolutely no humans or land around you. In other areas, there are islands that contain everything from cacti to flamingos to llamas to volcanos. It is a crazy mix and in some ways, you feel as though you must have ended up on another planet. The Salt Flats are also great because due to their remoteness and the fact that it is often hard to find a horizon, you can take a variety of crazy pictures. Thankfully all the tours allow for time to do this so our group spent hours taking pictures in which we did everything from stand on small objects like a Swiss Army Knife to being chased by a toy dinosaur. One of the other wonderful experiences that Bolivia had to offer was the chance to visit the mines in Potosi. Mining is a huge industry in Bolivia - being able to go in and actually see what so many men do day in and day out was very humbling. Most men work 8 to 12 hours a day and often 7 days a week. It is not uncommon for many miners not to live past age 39. There are many physical dangers in the mine and we discovered that most miners do not eat or drink while they are working. They often just chew coco leaves throughout the day to suppress the hunger and wait to eat until they go home. We saw one small boy who lost his father a few years ago in the mines - unfortunately, it is likely that in just a few years, he will start working there himself as children are allowed to start working in the mines at age 12. While mining is an important piece of the Bolivian economy, it is clear that it is a very dangerous occupation and that many Bolivians are claimed by the mines every year.
The Galapagos, Peru, and Bolivia are complex and diverse regions and I am happy to have at least gotten a taste of all of them. There is of course much more to South America than what I have seen and done but I feel as though I at least have had some very representative experiences over the last few weeks. When I have the chance to travel again, South America will certainly be high on my list of places to return to.
After Buenos Aires, I moved up north to Puerto Iguazu - home to Iguazu Falls, which makes up part of the Brazil/Argentina border. The Falls were really impressive - I'm not sure if it had to do with the time of the year that I was visiting but I will make the audacious statement that I actually found Iguazu more impressive than Victoria Falls in Zambia. I visited Vic Falls in Zambia's summer and Iguazu in Argentina's winter - no idea if that would make a difference on the water levels or not. The section known as the Garganta del Diablo or The Devil's Throat was the part that I found absolutely hypnotical and would have been happy to stand in front of for hours. The area is full of animals that resemble a cross between an anteater and a raccoon in that they have an anteater's snout and a bushy tail of the raccoon. They are fairly sizeable - definitely bigger than the average raccoon. The park is full of signs that implore the visitors not to feed the animals. What the signs fail to tell you though is that these creatures are very aggressive and will take your food. I bought a sandwich - a baguette with salami and cheese - I saw the animals patrolling but didn't think anything about it. I put my tray with the sandwich down for one second while I made the motion to put my backpack in the chair next to me. Within that moment, the creature had hopped onto the table and grabbed the sandwich. While I don't think these animals would inflict permanent damage, I wasn't particularly ready to get clawed or bitten. The animal went into the nearby woods and started eating his trophy. I had to then go back into the cafeteria and ask for another sandwich which required me humbly reaching into my wallet and pulling out more pesos. This next sandwich ended up in my stomach though - I sat down with a wary eye and never took my hands off my food to ensure its safe passage.
Mendoza was my last stop in Argentina. It is an area that is very close to the Argentina/Chile border which means it is in very close proximity to the Andes mountain range. Mendoza has to be one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen. It is also home to the lion's share of Argentina's thriving wine business with over 900 of Argentina's 1200 wineries. I went on a tour through Ampora Wine Tours ( I highly recommend them if anyone is in need of a tour provider for the area) of a few of the wineries and then had a lunch that was a 2 hour event. Argentina can certainly be proud of their wines - they are fantastic but they should be even more proud of their vineyards. Most vineyards have an absolutely amazing view of the Andes so the wine tasting experience becomes even more spectacular. Mendoza was on my list because it is an area that a few of Meredith's study abroad students have gone to over the last few years. All have come back raving about the area and I thought it would be worth checking out. I can certainly understand the appeal and if I had a semester to spend to practice Spanish, Mendoza would be at the top of the list.
After my all too short of a visit to Argentina, I have made my way to Ecuador where I will begin a tour that will take me to the Galapagos. I am looking forward to the unique wildlife although I will now be sure to keep an eye on my food in case of any them are as enterprising as the animals at Iguazu!
After my family left, I was able to head north to Scotland to visit my former housemate and very good friend who is currently doing graduate study at St. Andrews. I fortunately had the chance to visit St. Andrews a few years ago when I was doing a trip for the Office of International Programs to familiarize myself with some of the universities in the UK and Ireland that our students were interested in attending. It is an amazingly beautiful (and small) town and this is the right time of the year to be there in that it is a very pleasant temperature and the town is not currently overrun with students as most undergraduates have gone home for the summer. We did not do too much sightseeing during my visit but we did take the opportunity to visit nearby Crail which had an awesome food festival in its extraordinarily picturesque harbor. I can also say that I have now played golf at St. Andrews - we took the chance to play The Himalayas, which has traditionally been the women´s course, which allows non-golfers of both sexes to play 9 or 18 holes. It was basically like putt-putt except that there are no windmills or other accessories that I imagine most golfers of the St. Andrews caliber would find tacky. Otherwise, the week was spent catching up on this past season of Glee (the show I have missed most since leaving the US), having some home-cooked meals (yay!), and hanging out with some of the other graduate-schoolers. It was really good to see another familiar face and have the chance to catch up over the course of my week-long visit.
So, what´s next? On Tuesday, I arrived to Buenos Aires and will be in Argentina until June 30 before heading to Quito, Ecuador. I will then be doing about 4 weeks worth of guided travel which will take me to the Galapagos, Peru, and Bolivia. After Bolivia, it will be time for me to return to North Carolina. So I´m on the last leg of travel for this year of travel and it is very strange to begin thinking about the fact that I will be home in less than 2 months. But in the meantime, I´m here to enjoy South America and make the most out of the rest of my travels!
I did not find China overwhelming in the same way that I found India overwhelming. Part of me wonders if it is because I had already visited India and, in comparison, it is hard to find anything as overwhelming. If I had visited India after visiting China would I have found China to be the more overwhelming country? Who knows? I make the comparison only because there are similar amounts of people in both countries - over 1 billion in each. 1 billion people is bound to get chaotic no matter what but I somehow felt as though things were much more orderly in China than they had been in India. Perhaps it is the difference in economies or governments? Anyway, while the volume of people were not overwhelming - I would have to say that the language barrier was fairly significant and hard sometimes. There are plenty of people who did speak English in China and for those people I am very grateful because they made my life easier (and after all, it is all about me, isn't it? Just kidding). But there are a lot of people who also do not speak English. Everything from ordering food to taking transportation to expressing the need for more toilet paper in your hotel room becomes challenging. I had been told (very correctly) that trying to travel in China without knowing Chinese would be extremely difficult so I feel very happy that I chose to use a reputable travel organization in this leg of my travels. The challenge of language continued up until the very moment that I went to the airport to leave China. My taxi driver had put my luggage in the back of the car and then he just sat in the front. I thought this was a momentary lapse so I let it go. But then he lit a cigarette and took a sip of his coffee still with no indication that we were leaving. After about 5 minutes of us just sitting there, I got up and went inside the hotel and asked if there was any reason the driver didn't seem to want to actually take me to the airport. The hotel staff asked the driver and from his reaction, it was apparent that he thought that we were waiting on someone else before leaving. When he understood that it was indeed just me he was taking he was happy to start the engine and go.
The trip introduced us to some of the most famous places in China: Shanghai, Shaolin (the home of Kung Fu, Xi'an, Chengdu, and Beijing. I loved having the chance to go to Shaolin and see the Kung Fu students. Some of the students were as young as 5 and were absolutely adorable - if I could have stolen one, I probably would have. The concentration and focus that these young students is amazing. Most 5 year olds cannot stand still much less standing still while holding one of their legs up in the air for 30 minutes. It was very impressive and intimidating all at the same time. We did a lesson ourselves - it was a very simple sequence of actions but it was not easy. There were too many things to remember to do at once - we had a youngish teacher but an older master that was also helping. Despite his being 83, he still had an amazing death grip and we were all certain that we would NOT want to make him angry. In addition to visiting two of the world's biggest cities (Shanghai and Beijing), we also had the chance to visit some smaller villages as well. I enjoyed these places because they provided us a nice break from the crowds as well as the opportunity to learn the game of Mahjong. The only thing that I previously knew about Mahjong was that it was a game that characters in Agatha Christie novels typically play. Phoebe patiently taught us how to play - I find the game very addictive. In one of the towns, one of the cafes had electronic Mahjong tables which I found to be very exciting (it's the small things in life sometimes!). A few of us decided to play - we soon became THE attraction of the town as locals would wander up to our table and watch us amusedly. Many would try to give us advice - most did not speak English but they still could make it very clear if they approved or disapproved of our intended move. I have to say that I personally appreciated their help because they helped my game and may have even helped me win!
China is somewhere that I have always wanted to travel to and I am glad that I have had the chance to at least see a little bit of it. China has always played a major role in the history of the world and I think it is safe to say that they are going to play an even bigger part in the rest of the 21st century. It is a wonderful mix of the very old with the newest and best and it will be very interesting to see what comes from this gigantic and amazing country over the next few decades.
In terms of China, Dalian is a small city (around 4 million people). It actually does not seem very large when traveling around the city and it appeared to be a very clean city. Dalian is located next to the Yellow Sea - its proximity to the water means that shipping has become a very important industry. Dalian is often labelled as the 'Hong Kong of the North' because of its relative prosperity and role as a port city. Dalian is a very young city - it was founded in 1899. One of my professor friends mentioned that it has been said that "a brick from Xi'an is older than the entire city of Dalian." DUFE is a small campus - about 5000 undergraduates. Its campus is actually similar to that of Meredith - it has many trees and green spaces. It is quite beautiful and if I were to go to school in China, I think I would be quite happy to go there. I was treated to lots of fantastic food over the week in local restaurants - these were certainly not catering to tourists as everything was in Chinese. It was very nice as I could let my hosts pick out all the dishes and trust that they would all be delicious. While not an expert with chopsticks, I managed to make my way through every meal without the aid of a fork. It was offered on several occasions as a kind concession but I wanted to try to eat the way that everyone else did.
I had the chance to visit the Dalian Forest Zoo, many squares (Dalian has lots of them!), and several shopping malls. Many of my meals and visits around town were actually with students of the professors that I knew from the university. I had the chance to spend time with students in all age groups from freshmen to seniors. I was very impressed with the students' language abilities - I know most of them have studied English since middle (if not primary) school and many are studying English as part of their studies now. But still, there is a difference between learning a language and actually using it. I found all of the students I met to be quite well-spoken, intelligent, and curious. All the students asked me a range of questions from "What sports did I like" to "What do you think about Chinese and American people getting married" to "Why do you send bombs to countries like Libya?" These students are very well informed about the events of the world and did not hesitate to ask me tough questions. I was impressed that several students and professors asked about and expressed sympathy at the recent storms/tornadoes that have swept through the southeastern US. I appreciated the chance to have conversations with them - I think (or hope) they enjoyed the chance to practice their English with a "real" American and I think (and hope!) I did a little to help dispel some stereotypes that they have picked up from all the various US tv shows and movies that they have seen. I admire their intelligence and their quiet confidence - I am certain that I would have not jumped at the chance to spend time with a foreigner when I was 18.
I felt very honored to have been treated so well while I was in Dalian and am very happy that I got to see so many of the DUFE professors that I got to know while I was at Meredith - I hope to be able to go again some day. For anyone wishing to go somwhere that is scenic, not crowded, and not necessarily on everyone's itinerary, I would highly recommend Dalian.
In any comprehensive (not limited to a specific time or region) history course that I have ever taken, there has never been time to properly discuss the Vietnam War. No matter what pace the course took or how well we actually stayed on track with the syllabus, it always seemed like at the end we were running out of time to discuss more recent events (aka anything after the Civil Rights Movement). I was foolish enough to pass up the chance to take a course at Meredith on the Politics of the Vietnam War and so for most of my life, the Vietnam War has seemed to be very hazy to me - a time in recent history that I couldn't quite grasp. I knew Vietnam was somewhere that I wanted to go if I ever had the chance - of course, I wanted to learn about the culture and people but I also wanted to learn more about one of the most explosive (please pardon the unintended pun) times in American history. I have had many opportunities to learn about the war while in this country and I have been glad for the numerous museums and sites that have been available for me to explore.
The museum that makes the biggest impression and that can only be described as intense is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. This museum was formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes until Bill Clinton visited Vietnam during his presidency and began to try to better the relationship between the two countries. The Vietnamese people decided that if the country was indeed going to try to be more open to American tourism, a name change might be a good idea. There is no doubt that the information in the museum is presented in a way that makes the US look really bad - that is not to say that the US doesn't have many things for which it needs to be held accountable for that took place during the war - but to say that Vietnam was completely right in everything they did would also be a falsehood. There is a fantastic exhibition highlighting many of the key photographers (from a variety of countries) of the war - it shows the pictures they took (many of the iconic images that we have all seen on tv and in books) and then also explains what happened to them. Unfortunately, many of these talented (and brave) photographers were killed on the job - but without their efforts, the visual record of the war would certainly have been incomplete. I also liked the exhibit on the world supporting Vietnam during the war. Basically, it was a huge display of photographs from numerous countries that showed the various demonstrations and protests against the war. I knew the war was unpopular in the US but to see all the various people from different countries all carrying signs in their native language with pleas to stop the fighting was very powerful. The display also mentioned a few people who took more drastic actions including burning themselves to protest the war. While I certainly wouldn't encourage/want anyone to ever take this particular action, I do have to admire the commitment and passion that caused people to act in this manner.
The displays that are most powerful in the museum deal with the subject of Agent Orange. It is one thing to know what Agent Orange is and to know that it is a harmful chemical that was used during the war by the Americans but it is another to see the pictures that show the effects of Agent Orange on people. Both American veterans as well as Vietnamese citizens are pictured - the images are sobering to say the least. So many Vietnamese citizens, particularly children, have had to deal with the after-effects of this chemical - they did not fight in the war and many were not even alive during the war. To say that it is an unfair situation is an gross understatement. I was most impressed by a letter that a young Vietnamese woman, Tran Thi Hoan, who has been affected by Agent Orange since birth wrote to President Obama asking for funding for Vietnamese citizens suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. I have posted a copy of her letter here: http://langhuunghi.vn/?web4vn=chitiettin&i
I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit 2 of the unique places that the Vietnamese Army used during their efforts against the Americans. Outside of Ho Chi Minh, I was able to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and outside of Hue (in the DMZ), the Vinh Moc tunnels. These tunnels were used as places to hide, eat, strategize, sleep, and live during the years of the Vietnam War. The tunnels have been widened a bit to make it more accommodating for tourists (and our McDonald's bellies as one of our tour guides so lovingly called them - curiously enough, there are no McDonald's in Vietnam, one of the only countries I have seen without them!) but they are still a tight squeeze. I do have to say that the Vinh Moc tunnels are quite spacious in comparison with the Cu Chi tunnels. If you suffer from claustrophobia, neither are recommended. Anyway, I did not spend long in these tunnels - as tourists we are led in and out and that was fine with me. I think any longer would have started to make me go mad so I can't imagine how a group of people (up to 200 at some times) lived in these areas. The tunnels were cramped, dark, and damp but yet life persisted for years in those spaces. In some cases, children were even conceived and born in these tunnels. We were also able to see some of the traps that the Vietnamese came up with in order to ensnare the American enemy. While short on supplies (the Vietnamese often used scraps of American weaponery to make their own), the Vietnamese were certainly not short on ingenuity. While not an exact replica of the way life was during the war, these 2 areas at least gave me some insight into what life was like for a percentage of the Vietnamese population.
I was a bit nervous before coming to Vietnam because I did not know how I would be treated as an American. I knew it was a perfectly safe place to travel but there is a difference between a place being safe and a place being welcoming. I need not have feared because all the Vietnamese that I had the chance to meet were very friendly and seemed very happy that I was visiting their country. While I don't think any of them will ever forget the effect the war had on the country, none of them seem to hold any ill will towards American visitors. Vietnam is certainly not the most developed or prosperous country in Asia and probably will never hold that title. But Vietnam has a strong spirit and seems to have recovered quite well in the last 30 years.
The traffic in the big cities is the one thing that is slightly terrifying - while there is a lot of traffic in places like India, you somehow don't feel as though your life is in danger when you set out on the street. In Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi (whichever one you visit first will feel the most terrifying), you begin to think you may not ever cross the street again. Whatever is on the side of the road you are on will do just fine. But then you realize that you have to cross the street - it is unavoidable. The trick is to move slowly but not to ever stop - all the motorcycles and bikes will weave around you. But if you wait for the traffic to stop completely in order to cross, you will never see anything in Vietnam except that particular street corner. Motorbikes are the common way to get around Vietnam - there are many men who are "taxis" and take passengers on the back of their bike. I knew this would be something I would eventually do while in Vietnam but the prospect of getting on the back of a motorcycle was quite scary. Eventually, I did get on a motorcycle in Dalat - an area in the Central Highlands that I highly recommend. The scenery is amazing and the weather is a fantastic change of pace (cooler!) than the rest of Vietnam. I took a tour with the Easy Riders - a group of Vietnamese men who give tours to passengers on the back of their bikes - if ever in this area, definitely go with these guys. They are fun, informative, very safe and you will get to see Vietnam in a way unlike other tours. While I'm certain that I don't ever want to drive or own a motorcycle, I can understand the appeal of this mode of transportation. It is a fun way to travel and gives you a different perspective on your surroundings than a car, bus, or train does. After having a good experience in Dalat, I decided that the motorbike was indeed a safe way to travel and used a few other times to get around Hanoi. In the span of 2 weeks, I went from being afraid to cross the street due to the bikes to not having any fear to getting on the back of one. And I can honestly say that I made this decision on my own accord - not due to the effects of rice or snake wine which I did try while in Vietnam. Both wines have extraordinarily high alcohol contents and almost taste like pure ethanol. In case of a fuel shortage, I think all the motorcycle drivers should just fill their bikes with this stuff and they will be able to drive with no problem!
One very interesting thing about movies in Thailand is that the national anthem is played directly before the movie starts (after the onslaught of previews and commercials) and that everyone stands during the anthem. This patriotism and love of the king is reflected as you travel throughout the country - there are pictures of the king and queen everywhere. Along streets, in front of buildings, in businesess and homes - just about everywhere you can think to put a picture. And the sizes range from typical 8" by 10" sizes to huge life-size portraits. The king's birthday which is at the beginning of December is celebrated nationwide and has turned into a national father's day holiday. While many Thai people love and respect the king, there is definitely a portion of the country that does not support the monarchy and works every year (sometimes escalating into violent protests) for it to be eliminated because they do not see it as the best way for Thailand's future.
One of the main things to see in Thailand are its many wats. The word wat comes from the Khmer language and is usually used to refer to Buddhist temples and buildings in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand It usually is now synonmous with the ruins of temples as well. The most famous wat in the world is considered to be Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But Thailand certainly has its own fair share of beautiful wats as well. My favorite wat ruins were in Ayutthaya (about 2 hours from Bangkok by train), one of the former capitals of Thailand. The very nice thing about the wats in Ayutthaya is that they are all conveniently close together meaning that you can easily see quite a few in just a little bit of time. It's kind of like a wat themepark (and I'm sure that some Buddhist monks are now slapping their hands on their foreheads as I just referred to their sacred sites as a "themepark"). Even though most of these wats are now crumbling ruins, I still find them beautiful. I like walking around them and imagining all the activity that used to take place in them hundreds of years ago - they all used to be thriving communities where monks lived, worked, and worshipped. And I guess the other part I like is that the architecture is definitely different from what I have seen in other places - there is nowhere in North Carolina or even the United States for that matter where you can see a site like the ones found in Thailand (or Laos and Cambodia if I was going there). The wats that are still in use typically require visitors to take off their shoes and hats before entering the temple - this is a sign of respect and a requirement that I completely understand. I have discovered however that I suffer from SFS (Sensitive Foot Syndrome) - a name I have given to the fact that the soles of my feet seem to be especially tender and cannot handle the heat of stones and bricks that have been baking in the sun. So my typical way of visiting a temple seems to be running around and looking at it as best I can trying to say "ow, ow, ow" quietly so as not to disturb the other visitors before trying to find shade so that my feet can have a break. I did finally learn and remembered to put a pair of socks in my bag to put on after I took off my sandals.
World War II was one of the things that I did not necessarily expect to learn about in Thailand. I took a trip to Kanchanaburi (about 2 hours from Bangkok by bus) which is the site of the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. Now I didn't know anything about the bridge beforehand except for the fact that it was involved in World War II and that it is mentioned in Billy Joel's, "We Didn't Start the Fire." So I visited the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and learned all about the construction of the Death Railway. The centre/museum is actually quite good and well worth the visit. The other sites in town that relate to the railway certainly support one's understanding but the Railway Centre itself is top-notch and worth the most time. With Japan in control of South-East Asia at the end of the 1930's, the Japanese army had wanted a better way to transport military supplies and troops to defend Burma and in order to prepare for a possible invasion of India. Interestingly, the British had looked into building a railway through the same area in the late 1800's but had decided that it was going to be virtually impossible due to the rough terrain of land. Japan connected the railway between Thailand and Burma in 16 months - under other circumstances, it would have been considered a fantastic engineering accomplishment. The railway was built using POWs (mainly Australian, Dutch, and British) as well as forced Asian laborers. In the end, it is estimated that over 13,000 POWs and around 100,000 Asian laborers (unfortunately, good records were not kept about the Asian labor force) died. For most POWs, the deplorable conditions as well as the various tropical diseases were the main culprits. The Death Railway chapter is, of course, just a small part of World War II but it makes it no less significant of an event and I'm glad I had a chance to learn about it.
Thailand is a big country - in terms of land, it is the same size as France. I was only able to visit a portion of it - I traveled as far north as Chiang Mai, a former capital which remains a beautiful and historical university town. If I have the chance to go back, I would certainly like the chance to explore Thailand's many beaches in the south. Thailand certainly has a bit of something for everyone - a big (but not overwhelming) metropolis of a capital, wonderful shopping (both high-quality and bargain markets), numerous beaches, wildlife, fascinating history, and delicious food.
India & Nepal:
Sri Lanka is an amazingly beautiful country - it is blessed with lush green vegetation and there are many lakes and rivers to be found throughout the landscape. The ancient capitals of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura have some amazing ruins and are certainly worth anyone's time even if they have just the faintest interest in history. For someone who likes history (me), it is a playground and left me with the same giddy feeling that I get when I have visited places like the Acropolis of Athens or the many temples of Egypt. There are some awesome statues of Buddha in these places (usually carved out of one piece of rock - which is an amazing feat by itself) that are huge and awe-inspiring. Nuwara Eliya is described as "Little England" because of its Anglo-influenced buildings and it is not hard to see why the British would have enjoyed this area of the country and decided to set up their tea plantations there. It does take a bit of driving (which involves a lot of curves) to get there but it is well worth it - is green and hilly and quite picturesque - although I still worry about the women picking the tea leaves and how much they must pick every day. Yala National Park is just one of the many national parks that helps to make up Sri Lanka - I was lucky enough to see a leopard actually walking on the road. I was in the park for about two hours and saw a huge variety of wildlife including numerous peacocks - their colors are so brilliant up close.
I ended my visit in Galle - a beautiful town on the ocean which was heavily influenced by Dutch settlers. Galle's proximity to the sea also meant that it was heavily affected by the tsunami. Through Betty, I was able to be in touch with Sister Alex of the Sacred Heart Convent in Galle. Sister Alex seems to know everything going on in Galle and has her finger on the pulse of those who may be in need. She has been a tremendous help to those who have been affected by the tsunami and has been the main liaison with Meredith on figuring out how to distribute the Tide of Hope money. She is a very busy woman but she was kind enough to visit with me for a few hours and show me some of the ways in which the money from Meredith has helped the people of Galle. We visited the fishermen and saw some of the boats which Meredith had helped to purchase. Fishing is integral to the Galle community and so many people lost their livelihood when their fishing boats were destroyed. We visited a few houses which had been recipients of sewing machines. I think that approximately 100 sewing machines were purchased for households - we, of course, did not have the chance to visit all of them! The women in these homes have used the machines to create beautiful fabrics and products that they sell out of their home. The women are quite talented and the income that they can contribute to their families from their sales is certainly appreciated. Everywhere we went people were quite excited to see Sister Alex - she gives people hope and has helped so many people througout the years, especially in the years since the tsunami. I asked Sister Alex what she thought Sri Lanka needed most at this time and she said that it was money to help educate the youth. There are many children, especially orphans (many of whom were orphaned due to the tsunami), who cannot afford the associated costs of school including books and transportation to get there. She said that education is essential to the future of the country. One of Sister Alex's other passions is working in the prison so she knows firsthand what can happen when children don't get the education they need.
I remarked to Sister Alex that it seemed as though there were many different religious communities in Galle and asked her how everyone got along. She said that the tsunami had definitely brought everyone together and that arguments over religion did not seem to be much of an issue for the community. She said that she never asked about someone else's religion - she said if they are in need, it didn't matter who they were. I was very impressed with this statement and thought to myself that the world needs more people who have this attitude. I then realized that I was sitting next to a nun in a tuk-tuk driven by a Muslim man (Meredith helped buy several tuk-tuks for people in Galle, including for Niwas who was driving us). My thoughts were two-fold: 1. I felt as though I was in a real life version of one of those jokes about religion that usually start off something like a priest, a rabbi, and a Muslim cleric are all in a life-raft at sea except this one would be a Muslim, a Catholic Nun, and a recovering Protestant are all in a tuk-tuk.... 2. More seriously, I realized if the three of us (all coming from very different backgrounds) could be riding peacefully together in Sri Lanka then change in the world is possible. It may not be swift or as much as we hope for but it is possible. I am very thankful for the time I had with Sister Alex - she is the kind of woman who certainly makes me look at myself and wonder what I can do in my own life to better the lives of others. I enjoyed everthing I saw and did in Sri Lanka but it is the time that I spent with her that will be what I remember most vividly when I think about Sri Lanka in the years to come.
On a lighter note, I became interested in something in Sri Lanka that I never thought I would be interested in: cricket. It started in India but became a full blown obsession once in Sri Lanka. Since cricket is Sri Lanka's national sport, it was a good thing. When I was in New Zealand a few years ago, I saw cricket on tv and tried to have some interest - for the life of me though, I could not understand how the game worked at all. In the end, it just seemed easier not to bother. Rugby was more interesting and I could understand that more easily. The 2011 World Cricket Cup just ended but it was in full swing while I was in India and Sri Lanka. The matches were actually being held in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh which made India and Sri Lanka even more cricket crazy than they would have been normally. One patient Australian explained cricket to me while we were in India - he also took the time to patiently explain it again to one of the other Americans over dinner one night. Various glasses, the salt and pepper shakers, toothpicks, whatever we could find became part of the demonstration. If someone had looked in on our dinner, they would have probably been very confused as to the curious arrangement of objects on the table that night. Since there was a match on nearly every day, I had plenty of time to develop my knowledge - I still can't tell you about the finer points but I at least got what was happening. There were a few nights where most of us gathered together in someone's room or common area to watch whatever match was on. I realized that I soon started caring about actually seeing the match or at least knowing who had won and I realized then that I might have a problem.
The cup started out with 14 teams and group play finished by the time I left Nepal. When I arrived in Sri Lanka, the top 8 teams proceeded to the elimination round. Now I made sure that I was able to watch or at least listen to the matches on the radio. Through the quarter-finals and semi-finals, I was hoping that India and Sri Lanka would win so they could meet in the finals. My wish came true and the two did end up meeting in the final. The final actually ended up being on the day after I arrived to Thailand. I was lucky enough to be able to find an Indian restaurant that had lots of tvs set up for the big match. I had been wondering who I had really wanted to win and it wasn't until I arrived to the Indian restaurant and found myself in a sea of Indian fans that I realized I really wanted Sri Lanka to win. Since I was surrounded by Indian fans though, I decided I better not cheer outwardly for Sri Lanka. It was a great match overall and India ended up winning. They deserved to as they were the better team that night. While I certainly think I'll pay more attention to the word cricket if I come across it when I am reading or watching tv but I don't know that I'll ever have as much interest again as I did over the last month. It was fun though to get caught up in the spirit of the event and it made me realize that even seemingly boring sports like cricket can be fun to watch if you just give them a chance.