Around the world in 7 pages

18 09 2011

The summer is full of camps.  That’s how it is supposed to be anyway, but I didn’t do a good enough job filling mine up.  Stupidly enough I thought that if I left some gaps in the summer plan I would fill them up with work in my community.  Common, Clara, you know yourself better than that by now.  If you give yourself unscheduled time with nothing you must do, then odds are you won’t do anything.  So, I spent a large chunk of my summer on my bedroom floor, reading books, doing crosswords, and watching movies.  Oh, and one of the dogs that lives in our neighborhood had puppies, so I spent some time with them.  One of them got sick and was having seizures and seemed to have lost its eyesight, so I spent a couple of days trying to nurse it back to health.  I had to go to a camp not long after it fell ill, but I promised the puppy that if it made it through and was still alive when I got back, blind or not, I would take it with me when I found an apartment and take care of it for at least the next year.  Sadly, I think I jinxed the poor animal.  I have seen its two littermates and mother almost everyday since I returned, but the little black puppy seems to be no more.  I’ll just have to take one of the other two, though the mom has been growing on me, and I might just end up with all of them.  That is if I can find a damn good flea medication, because you can see the bloodsuckers on those dogs from a mile away.  Okay, but really, back to camps.

The first camp was women’s camp, which I helped a friend organize.  When I say help I mean I stood on the sidelines waving imaginary pompoms while she did all the heavy lifting, then got to put my name on the project next to hers and claim some credit.  I know, I know, and yes, I do feel like a scumbag for it.  I am hoping, however, that next year I will have the chance to take someone under my wing and do the same for him or her.  I think I have already written a fair amount about women’s camp, but I’ll check on that.  For now I will just say it was an awesome whirlwind of chaotic energy and fun, and I’d do it again any day.   Onto the next!

I guess I do owe my traveling some blog space.  I was going to just skip over it, but if I do that I might forget some of the amazing things, as one so often does, and view it as just another place I went that wasn’t home.   From the airport in Abu Dhabi I flew to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.  This was my second time flying into this airport and I told myself it would be all different.  I had learned my lesson last time and didn’t have any checked baggage that the airport could misplace for three days, so I just had to get through customs, find my way to the parking lot and I’d be safe.  Right?  Somehow I did not learn to set up a concrete meeting place with my friend.  I mean, there’s the parking lot where friends and family wait for incoming passengers, so I just sort of assumed we’d meet there.  The problem with that is that there are always about 200 people waiting there and while I may stand out in a crowd of short, dark Filipinos, my friends, a short dark Filipino herself, doesn’t.  So, once again I spent a good 20 minutes searching the crowd for a familiar face before we found each other.  I did manage to make it out of the airport without terrifying any poor security guards by breaking down and sobbing in front of them though, which I definitely did not do last time I was in Manila.  The day after I arrived we took an overnight trip to Subic/Zambales.  We went to see the Subic Safari, and may I just suggest that no one ever go see a zoo in a 3rd world country.  Tigers and lions are amazing and beautiful, yes, and I’m glad I got to see them, but I really wish it hadn’t been in a place that they were so obviously cooped up and exploited.  A thousand pound cat need more than 12 feet to pace around in an a couple of frozen chicken carcasses a day.

After the trip to the zoofari, or what have you, we drove another couple of hours to a small village on the beach.  The cheapest accommodations we could find were these tiny little bamboo huts, right on the waterfront.   The owner was an American expat and because it was the off-season and he had no other guests he gave us two huts for the price of one.  Rough deal, I know.  The next day he and his inappropriately aged girlfriend took us up to a waterfall in the mountains and we spent a few hours swimming, then a few hours on the beach before making the long drive home.  Back in the city we took a day at the Mall of Asia, either the biggest or one of the biggest in the world, which I’m sure I only saw a fraction of, toured some of the residential areas via tricycle taxi, saw one of the dirtiest lakes on the planet, and played basketball with some local youth.  Well, okay, my friend did, I was merely the photographer.  All in all it was a good trip, wonderful to see some faces from home and to eat food that had a variety of spice and flavor.  Oh, and of course to sing karaoke with the neighbors.  What would a trip to the Philippines be without hanging out around the karaoke machine at least once?   And on the fifth day they took me to the airport and I set out for Vietnam.  Well, with a few minor hiccups.  I’m just really not good at doing the whole airport thing.  First I went to the international terminal because, well, Vietnam is a different country.  I assumed it should be an international flight.  However international flights via domestic airlines require going to the domestic terminal.  And of course the two aren’t attached, aren’t even within walking distance.  So, I overpaid enormously for a 10 minute taxi ride to the other terminal, only to find out I had forgotten to print out some important documents pertaining to my visa.  The people at the check-in desk were nice enough to let me print them there, then hurried me along the way.  I did have a brief relief from the stress of traveling when I stopped at a coffee kiosk in the airport and had the first thing that came close to a real hazelnut latte in almost a year.  It was heavenly.

I landed in Ho Chi Minh city in the middle of the night.  I knew there was a backpackers district, and I had written down the address of the hostel I’d chosen, based on the online pictures and price of $4-6 a night, but I hadn’t a clue where it was or what the best way would be to get there.  So, I hoped into a taxi, again, and set off.  And, of course, was ripped off again by my driver.  It’s a hazard of traveling, and one I don’t feel too bad about falling victim to in countries that are still struggling to get their feet under them.  However, my one am taxi ride through the city showed me that this might not be the case in Vietnam, at least not in the cities.  It seemed to be standing on pretty solid ground, covered in steel skyscrapers and neon lights.  Not in a gaudy way either.  Even in the dark I was pretty sure it was going to be a beautiful place to spend a week.

My first day I set out on foot and immediately realized that traversing the city, by any means of transport, was going to be a challenge.  The guide book said that there are over 4 million motorcycles, scooters and mopeds in the city of Ho Chi Minh but I think they might have underestimated that.  They are like schools of fish, zooming down the road, looking to outside observation like they are following no set of rules, weaving in and out of cars, pedestrians and each other without a second thought.  And it’s amazing some of the things they pile onto their two-wheeled vehicles.  Baskets of food, families of five, dogs, birds, washing machines, refrigerators, 15 foot PCV pipes, just to name a few.  And they just go about their business like there is nothing to it.  The trick to crossing the road is to just go.  Yes, there may be about 500 vehicles coming at you, but as long as you don’t hesitate, if you keep a steady pace and walk a straight path, they will move around you.  Pedestrians, buses and cars pose no challenge to the master navigators on those streets, as long as they don’t act too idiotic.  So, I walked around.  I took a rickshaw ride to a few Buddhist pagodas, which are amazing.  One was actually a monastery, so there were all these tiny little monks and monkettes walking around in gray cotton scrubs, praying, eating, tending the garden.  Beautiful, peaceful.  Then I abandoned my slightly upset rickshaw driver, and the peace of the temples, for the War Remnants Museum.  Anyone who ever finds themselves in HCM should stop by.  It’s amazing.  I cried, I felt ashamed to be an American.  The travesty of some of the things we did there is indescribable, or rather can only be depicted through a serious of heartbreaking of the country and people before, during and after the war.  Villages of rice farmers, later destroyed by bombs, the children that are still being born with horrid deformities from agent Orange.  I’m not the most emotional person in the world, but it kicked me in the gut, in a good way.  It was nice to know more about the war, about the people, and then to pair that with the fact, that as an American traveling through Vietnam I had so far experienced nothing but courtesy and hospitality from the few locals I had encountered.  I doubt many countries would be so forgiving after something like that.

I went to the market in the middle of the city, crowded, hot, full of people vying for the attention of all the foreigners.  Turns out that Vietnam is riddled with backpackers and tourists, mainly from Europe, especially the UK, and therefore all of the vendors speak either some English or have developed a very effective system of hand gestures.  Walked around a bit, was overwhelmed by everything from the Good Morning Vietnam tee-shirts, to the food vendors with dried lizards and other unidentifiable things.  In the afternoon I returned to the hostel for some R&R and met some of the other guests.  A large group of us went out for dinner and enjoyed examining the difference between what we thought we had ordered and what was actually on the plates they put in front of us.  The next day I explored again, this time with company, a young guy from Holland.  We saw some of the same things I had seen the day before, and some new things.  Good times.  At dinner that night the group was taken in by a somewhat odd young local, with perfect English who had spent some time in England.  He took us to a rather ritzy night club, which due to its newness was almost empty, but it was still a good time.  Neon lights, loud music, terrible dancing.  Most of us had scheduled a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels the next day, which left the hostel around 8, and for some of us it was a bit tricky to get up in time.  The tunnels were crawling with tourists, but still worth seeing.  The Vietcong used the tunnels during the war to travel around under the American army.  The US was never able to effectively infiltrate the system.  There was something like 250 km of tunnels, and they are tiny.  We wet down in some of them, and you have to crawl.  The Vietnamese are a bit smaller than westerners, so they troops could run, at a crouch through the tunnels.  Sometimes they spent up to 10 hours a day down there.  Very well constructed, well hidden.  Smart guys, those Vietnamese.

The next day, my last day in Ho Chi Minh, I absolutely did not rent a scooter.  I did not rent a scooter because that is not allowed by the organization I am currently working for, too dangerous.  So, I did not spend a few hours zipping around the city with a fellow backpacker from England.  Well, zipping only after an initial accident, in the middle of downtown traffic.  Actually, I did not crash a scooter twice and have to pay $20 for a few minor repairs.  I did not giggle like a fool the whole time either.  Nope, I’m too sensible for something like that.  However, not driving a scooter in HCM has made me think that when I get home that might be a good means of transportation to look into…

Are you still with me?  Have you gotten bored yet?  Sorry, I know I’m a bit long-winded, it’s why I don’t post very often, and why I need to do it more often so I don’t have to cover this much every time.  Anyway, I left HCM and went up north to Hanoi.  Side note; one week is nowhere near enough time to spend in any country really.  I would have loved to take a train or bus up to the north, stop off in some other cities, see the beach, etc, but there was no time.  Too bad, I just might have to go back later.  So, after having so much fun with the backpackers I met in HCM I decided that I am indeed a social butterfly, so I checked into a hostel known for its social environment and traffic of partiers.  I checked in, took a shower, went to one of the two bars inside the hostel, and immediately realized that my ability to socialize in HCM had been merely a fluke.  Large groups of strangers are not one of my strong suits, I prefer quite and calm.  Whoops.  So, I took one day to explore the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh museum, and some other important sites.  In the process I sweated more than I ever have in my life.  My clothes were literally soaked.  Heat and humidity, why do you exist?  If not for those things I could almost live in Vietnam, but I guess without those things it wouldn’t be quite as stunning as it is.  It would probably look a bit like Kazakhstan, or Montana.  Both beautiful in their own ways, but there’s just something about the tropics, all that color and life.  After bathing in my own sweat I decided to sign up for a three day tour of Sapa valley, which is where most of the picturesque photos of mountain rice terraces come from.  Me and a group of 7 other backpackers, all from the UK, took the night train, arrived in a small town at the base of the mountains and were driven 2 hours up a narrow, windy road to Sapa itself.  The village is amazing.  Its on the face of a mountain, so full of staircases.  There are three main ethnic groups that live in villages around Sapa; the Black H’mong, Red Dao, and Zai, whose color I’ve forgotten. Many of the women still wear the traditional clothing of their people.  For the H’mong this means navy jackets, skirts, leg and arm warmers that are all heavily embroidered by hand in elaborate, colorful patterns.  If you find yourself in Missoula on a Saturday, go look at the crafts market.  We actually have a large population of H’mongs and they put some of their wares on display there.  But in its native context their traditional artwork seems so much more authentic, maybe because it is.

We left for our first day of hiking through the patties followed by 10 or twelve H’mong women.  We were all outfitted in our fancy hiking shoes and packs, and these women were wearing slip on plastic sandals and baskets tied to their backs.  They kicked our butts up and down the muddy slopes.  Almost every member of our group fell on the slick clay mud multiple times and the tiny H’mong women would gasp, giggle, and then hold out a hand to help him or her up.  Turns out that’s their plan.  They help the tourists navigate the tricky trails through the rice patties, then when you stop for lunch they open up their baskets to showcase their products.  It’s like, ‘we helped you silly foreigners not die on the mountain, now give us your money.’  I guess that’s a fair trade, plus what they are selling really is quite beautiful.  Overpriced, of course, and a bit sad that they followed a bunch of 18-20 somethings into the mountains, only to discover that that demographic doesn’t usually have much money on hand.  We all tried to get something though, because they did help us, and its cool stuff.  The H’mongs left us at lunch, and when we set off again we were almost immediately beset by another group of helpers, the Red Dao this time.  These women wear these large, read headdresses, sort of Princes Amidalla style, and colorful lighter blue short pants and jackets.  I didn’t get a great picture of them, because it felt rude, but it they looked neat.  Sadly, I had spent all the money I brought into the mountains on the H’mong wares and didn’t have any left to buy from the Dao women.  Neither did any of my fellow backpackers, so we tried to tell them to stay behind, that we could manage without hand-holders on the next leg of the trip. And truthfully it did get easier after lunch.  They still followed us, but didn’t seem too upset when we didn’t buy anything other than a friendship bracelet or two.  We spent the night in a lodge in one of the villages, which had a hot shower and served an amazing dinner.  It’s amazing because I took more showers in that week in Vietnam than I think I have in the whole last year here.  Hot water coming from a tap, how I’ve missed you.  I’m now solidly back in the world of bucket bathing.  The next day we hiked out, but sadly this time the crowd of locals that followed us was almost all little children.  Tiny children.  Sweet and cute, but we still didn’t have any money and they walked with us for hours.  Also, they were not quite as good at helping as the older women.  Much better at getting underfoot and making you feel like a mammoth that was going to crush them accidentally at any moment.

So, after two days of hiking we got back in time to spend a couple hours exploring Sapa.  It had been rainy and chilly in the mountains, so we had some spiced wine and coffee before wandering the markets.  Man, I still regret not buying more things.  I know that material things aren’t what makes a trip, it’s the experiences, but still, there was some neat stuff there and who knows if I’ll ever be back.  Ah well, I perused, almost bought a modernized embroidered jacket, didn’t, and then it was time to head back down the mountain and get on the train.  After the night train I got back to Hanoi just in time to rush to the airport for my flight back to dear old KZ.  I choose a motorcycle taxi, which seemed like the cheapest and maybe quickest way to go.  About five minutes into the 45 minute trip to the airport it started raining a little.  Then a little more.  And then I was convinced we were caught in a monsoon.  Sadly, motorcycles don’t work too well in the rain, so our 45 minute trip turned into nearly an hour and a half.  I made it to the airport in time to zoom through check-in, dripping wet, change quickly in an airport bathroom, and hop on my plane.  I had two stops in China, but didn’t actually change planes so I figured there would be no problems with visas or anything.  Wrong.  Even though it was like a 30 minute stop, they make you get off the plane and go through customs.  And surprise, I didn’t expect that so no visa. After the airport officials hemmed and hawed at the computer for about 25 minutes they presented be a 24 hour stay permit, saying I would be find as long as I left the country within 24 hours.  I told them I would be leaving in about 3, if I didn’t miss my plane, so they rushed me back on to the same exact plane, the same exact seat, and we took off.  Jeeze China, really?  Let’s just say I love traveling, but I am always happy to be home, even when home isn’t really home.  Coming back to Kazakhstan, where I mostly speak the language and know how much a cab ride costs, was a huge relief.  I arrived at night, of course, but without any of the nervousness I felt when arriving at night in Vietnam.  It was home, sort of.

After I got back from my travels through I had one of the aforementioned gaps in my schedule.  I had all sorts of ideas; I would go visit my students, I would look for an apartment and move out, I would cook lots of amazing food, I would buy a bike and start getting back in shape.  But the first day of course I was a bit jet-lagged, so I just stayed in bed.  And then that felt so good that I did it the next day too.  And so on, and so forth.  I did a few things here and there, but needless to say, two weeks went by and I had accomplished none of my wonderful goals.  Its okay, I said to myself, I just have to go to Almaty for three days for my medical exam, then I will be back and I’ll do all that great stuff then.  Ha, ha, ha.  The twelve-hour train ride back from Almaty induced in me a syndrome similar to jet lag, so I had to take another week and a half to recover.  In that time I did go to Shymkent and Aksu to see friends before they left the country, but nothing at all that counted as work, or looking for an apartment.  Some friends of mine looked for an apartment for me, but I wasn’t terribly helpful.  In my defense, I don’t know the first thing about apartment hunting in Kazakhstan.  It seems to mainly be a word of mouth process, and I’m not exactly in on the village gossip circle.  Oh, that’s another goal for this year; make local friends and worm my way into that circle.  Ward off the loneliness with petty chitchat.  So, after another week and a half of nothing I set of for Pavlodar, a city in the north of Kazakhstan, about a 36 hour train ride from home.  I was going to help another volunteer who works for the Scouts of Kazakhstan, yes, like boyscouts but coed, with a Scouts camp.  Camp was fun. It was nice to be in the outdoors, to be around kids outside the classroom.  Sadly, in the north of Kazakhstan they speak almost only Russian, so I had to communicate through facial expressions and hand gestures.  I learned a few words and phrases and improved my understanding, but still no ability to converse.  New goal for year two: learn Russian.

When I got back I was supposed to go straight to another camp down South, but it was put on hold for a week.  That’s just how it goes here sometimes.  So, I spent a week at home.  I did actually start looking for an apartment, sort of, and a friend of mine who finished her service in August had given me her old bicycle, so I was starting to almost accomplish something with my summer.  After that week I left for Turkestan, which is a city in Kazakhstan, despite its misleading name, and had a wonderful week at an immersion English camp in the wood with two of my closest friends.  Me and Anne, one of the other volunteers, told the kids that we didn’t speak any Kazakh or Russian, so they had to speak to us in only English.  It was kind of fun, especially since we understood what they were saying, but had to pretend we didn’t get it.  I don’t usually condone lying to children, but it did help them learn.  We played games, went hiking and swimming and altogether had a ridiculously good time.  The campers were responsible for meals, and we tried to teach the boys how to cook and wash dishes.  For most of them it was the first time they had to do either or these things, and they put up a might struggle, saying it was all “women’s work.”  I think some of them actually enjoyed it though.  I saw one of the boys the day after we went back to the city and he said that he had gotten home, seen the mess in the kitchen and done the dishes there.  I was so proud.  Sadly, camp had to end a day early because of near tornado force winds that were threatening to rip our tents apart.  Plus, Turkestan is in the steppe, so the winds were whipping around so much dust that it was nearly impossible to see or breath.  Anne and I spent an extra day in Turkestan with Jennie.  It is home to the largest mausoleum in Kazakhstan and is supposedly the second Mecca, so we went to see the sights.  Cool stuff there, but a bit hard to understand when all the interpretive signs are in Kazakh.

Okay, so I’ll wrap up briefly.  I got back to site about three weeks before school started.  I worked half days during that time, and met the two marvelous new English teachers had hired over the summer.  I think they are going to make year two even more enjoyable than year one.  I found a house and moved in three days before classes started.  It was a bit awkward for my host family at first, but I think things have smoothed over.  Unfortunately I’m still not quite alone.  I moved into a house with a 24 year old girl and her 76 year old father.  The old man said he would be moving to Astana within two weeks, so it would be just like having a roommate, not a new family.  Yup, he still isn’t gone, and doesn’t show any signs of leaving, and treats me a bit like a ward.  Clara, come drink tea.  Clara, why did you come home late last night?  Clara, should I talk to your work?  You shouldn’t be there until after 7 o’clock.  Yeah, we’ll see how it goes.  Hopefully he does leave eventually, and until them I’m sort of passive aggressively trying to force my independence on them.  I know I should just say I want to cook for myself, eat when I want, come and go as I please and not be treated like a family member, but I don’t know how well that would go over.  For now, its working like it is.  And the great thing is I at last have internet at home.  Now I have no excuse for not updating both my blog and my photos more frequently.  School is now in its fourth week and I’m totally exhausted already, but it has been terrific to see the kids. I missed them over the summer.  Our school is a bit of a mess because we had a large staff overturn this summer.  We still don’t actually have a regular class schedule so everyday is a surprise.  Its frustrating but, like I said, good to be back.  I’m hoping the next year will be amazing and fulfilling, especially because of the two wonderful new English teacher who are actually excited about their jobs and interested in trying new things.  I’ll try to keep you updated on the progress of the year.  For now, my hands are tired, and I’m sure many people haven’t actually read this far, so I’ll sign off.

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