Backpacking Bonus 13: Paradise Found in the Philippines

The Philippines is a country that is made up of 7,000 islands. Imagine that. Flying into the Philippines from Singapore, for some reason I was expecting something to go awry as I knew I was re-entering the “developing” world after leaving a place where everything had been so easy, but it was actually kind of refreshing that I had to “work” again to make things happen–they don’t just happen automatically in the backroads of developing nations. I think the Philippines is actually pretty advanced, but I haven’t researched it enough to know at this point.

Spending two weeks island-hopping in the Philippines was indicative of the closing of the middle phase of my journey, after which I knew I’d be returning to the mainland to ride out Phase 3, so I was really determined to soak up as much island time as I could. While getting in and to my first destination went very smoothly, moving around from island to island during those two weeks proved to be both expensive and slightly complicated as planes and boats were the necessary modes of transportation to get from place to place. On travel days, I felt like I was constantly getting up at the crack of dawn and rushing around trying to get to a ferry station or to catch a plane or a bus. While paradise is accessible from just about anywhere in the Philippines, you really have to work for it. First, you have to show “proof of exit” from the Philippines before they will even let you board the plane to go in, then there are terminal fees and environmental fees galore you have to pay for every flight or boat trip you take, and lastly, the tricky weather (for example, typhoons) can affect travel plans and sometime result in losing money over a missed connection.

GOING with the FLOW

First of all, people from the Philippines are some of the friendliest people a person will ever meet. They are also very direct and not afraid to speak up and say exactly what is on their minds. The first thing the van driver asked me when I climbed in for the ride to the ferry dock was, “Why are you alone?” I could have been worried–especially since I was the only person in that van for the transfer, but he was so open and helpful and took me exactly where I needed to go so I paid no mind to his inquiry.

Boracay

My first stop was Boracay (pronounced “BOR-uh-kī”), an idyllic island known as a tourist hotspot, honeymoon destination, and party place. I actually didn’t even realize where I was headed until I got there, and even though I arrived late in the evening and couldn’t see the beauty of the island in the dark, I felt a sense of euphoria and satisfaction while the driver of the motorized “tricycle” I was riding in through town to my guesthouse was blasting one of Akon’s typical songs about Africa on his decked-out stereo system. It was neat thinking that I had arrived on a tiny piece of paradise, even though I wouldn’t be able to really soak it in until morning.

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Boracay sunsets rivaled its daytime beach settings with spectacular colors and silouhettes of ships in the distance.

The first night, I just picked the first place I found, but I knew it wouldn’t do for more than a night. The following day, I resumed my search during which a young man showing me his available rooms asked me after I saw the third room, “Are you alone?” “Yes,” I answered. “Why?” he immediately enquired. “Because I want to be,” I responded this time. He smiled and said, “Oh,” and kind of nodded his head. Again, I noticed the straightforward way of communicating, but it was more interesting to me to see how concerned the Filipinos were that I was alone, and when I took my observation further, I noticed that Filipinos were almost never alone. Their society is based so strongly around family that they stick together through everything. Cousins, sisters, family, friends–they are always together. And they will immediately include anyone who is by himself because they can’t bear the thought of the person feeling lonely.

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Tides fluctuate so drastically on small islands such as Boracay that “parked” boats often get stuck in the sand at low tide requiring multiple men to war together to dislodge the boats and get them back on the water. This was a neat process to witness!

Another thing I absolutely adored about the Philippines was that everybody addressed me as “ma’am,” but it sounded like they were saying “mom.” I had to ask for a repeat a couple times to understand, but I thought it was kind of endearing that they call every woman what sounds like “mom.” Haha! It was always a very polite gesture toward other women and the islander accent just made it even more special.

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I don’t recall seeing a sunset sky filled with so much natural purple and red before this one in Boracay.

Speaking of speaking, the official language of the Philippines is called Tagalog, but the really interesting thing is that some of the language sounds like Spanish and some of the same words are even used; for example, certain numbers are word for word in counting, and the national currency is called the “peso.” This is a residual effect from the Spanish influence in the Philippines dating back to the 1500s when the the Spanish colonized the Philippines, thanks to the “discovery” of the land by the Portuguese explorer, Magellan, commissioned by Spain to navigate the area. Had it not been for Magellan and the Spaniards, the Philippines would have become a Muslim nation, but to this day, the majority of the Filipino population practices Catholicism and honors Magellan for his leadership and influence. (Magellan was actually murdered by a tribal chief native to the Philippines named Lapu Lapu way back in the day, but I’m not going into the history of that here.)

Boracay is very touristy and it’s a total honeymooner spot. There are lots of opportunities for outdoor activities available for visitors including snorkeling, diving, island-hopping, parasailing, paddle-boarding, kiteboarding, and sailing. Other options along the main strip include hair braiding, massages, and plenty of partying. In the evenings at many of the restaurants, there are often live performances put on by musicians and/or fire dancers. It can get very crowded, especially in the northern part of the main strip between boat “Station 1” and “Station 2,” however the crowds are avoidable in places toward the south of the island near “Station 3,” which is where I decided to set up shop.

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Boracay’s beaches, like White Beach shown here, are some of the most sought after “perfect” beaches with their soft white sand and crystal blue waters. Boracay is a popular honeymoon destination!

The beautiful place where I found an affordable bungalow was situated in a manicured orchid garden about a 2-minute walk back from the beach. It was much quieter and very peaceful there than it was in the north, and I had to pay for wifi if I wanted it so I went without it for several days, taking advantage of time away from the ever-distracting worldwide web. I found a favorite spot on the beach just a few feet away from the water that was part of a beachside restaurant called Shantal’s Bar, where I had daily interaction with three sweet girls who worked there–they were cousins, and their uncle was the owner of the place. I spent afternoon upon afternoon there, writing, eating, swimming, drinking, writing, then swimming more. I definitely got my mango smoothie craving satisfied in Boracay as I appreciated the simplicity of being able to walk 10 steps in the sand and order one from a shack on the beach.

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Fresh fruit smoothie and beverage stands lined the main strip of Boracay’s beaches. This coconut stand offered “Coco Locos,” fresh coconuts cracked open and enhanced with rum.

Now for the water. All along Boracay’s “White Sand Beach,” there is a giant aquamarine swimming pool also known as the ocean. It was the most inviting ocean I have ever seen. Crystal blue waters beckon visitors to take a dip and go for a swim. The water was lukewarm, almost like bathtub water, and it was so clear that I could see straight down to my feet on the white sandy bottom. There were hardly any rocks, corals, or sea plants–only a handful of small white fish swimming around that blended into the sand. The best part was that there weren’t any big waves pounding the shore which meant no sand in my bathing suit!! I think many people can relate to the relief of that situation… It was so clean and perfect that I almost didn’t believe I was there. More than once, I was out in the blue water, floating and swimming around and I just started laughing in disbelief that I was in the middle of a scene from a postcard. All I did was hop on a plane, then a van, then a boat, then a tricycle and–BAM–I found myself in paradise.

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Mango smoothies were a daily treat I enjoyed between swimming and writing on my little beach spot on Boracay.

Something else I really enjoyed about the Philippines was that everywhere I went, there were love songs from the 90s being played on the radio and everyone was singing along. Tina Turner, Phil Collins, REO Speedwagon, Sara McLachlan–you name it. Philippines, in general, is a musical place and Filipinos have no shame in just opening up their mouths and singing whenever they feel like it–walking along the street, performing at live music venues, participating at church; they are such happy people and so I was not surprised to find them singing all the time. I was like, “Hey! I found my people!!” Of course, I would sing right along with them…

Being that I was on a dubbed “party island,” I knew I needed to check it out. And while I won’t go “party” by myself, I had two new friends whom I had met at the hostel in Singapore who arrived on Boracay just a few days after I did. Kirsty and Chloe, from Ireland and Scotland, respectively, are nurses in London who were on a traveling vacation together. They were absolutely hilarious and Kirsty was always getting hurt everywhere she went so each time I saw them, I could expect a great story about their latest adventure-gone-awry. I made the 25-minute walk along the beach to their hostel so we could all go out together two of the nights we were there. They were so funny and it was good for me to take a little break and be social, but honestly, I couldn’t keep up with them!! Both nights, I think I was in bed hours before they were. Great girls!!

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Chloe (left) and Kirsty (middle), two nurses from the UK, were the funniest girls I met during my travels. I went out with them a couple times in Boracay and we had a blast together, but to be honest, I couldn’t keep up with these two firecrackers!!

A sad observation I made during those nights was how prevalent prostitution is in that area–consistent with many of the touristy areas in all of Asia. There were Filipino women throwing themselves at foreign men on every block. This is the lifestyle they live and there is no shame whatsoever–their bodies are the asset they use to make money. And on the flip side, foreign men play into is, enabling the behavior. I was almost inspired at this point in my travels to change the theme of my storytelling, switching it to a documentary about how young male westerners behave while on vacation or traveling abroad. I figured I had collected enough evidence from Bali, Gili T, and now Boracay, the tipping point, that I could really shed some light on the situation. But I thought that it might not be fair to men who don’t behave in that manner. I wouldn’t want the stereotype to go viral, no matter how prevalent it is…

Sure enough, while I was in Boracay, a typhoon, called Typhoon Lando (Signal 1, the least serious on the typhoon grading scale of 1 to 3), arrived to the Philippines, sweeping across the country with gale-force winds, huge ocean waves, and heavy rains. The beautiful, calm blue waters immediately lost their serenity and came alive with the thrashing winds. Swimming wasn’t so fun anymore, and lounging on the beach was not so relaxing, but I did find great entertainment in watching the kite surfers glide across the water.

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Stormy seas make for some mesmerizing scenes of nature!

I was amazed at the transformation that took place on the island, and the thought of getting on a boat or a plane at that point made me feel uneasy. During one particular stormy day, I grabbed my umbrella so I could walk down the street to a restaurant, and I unfortunately ended up with an umbrella casualty. You know the scene from Mary Poppins where all the ladies’ umbrellas flip inside out when the winds pick up? Yeah. That happened. My umbrella will NOT be accompanying me back to the USA.

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When Typhoon Lando swept across the Philippines, it transformed Boracay’s pristine beaches into unwelcoming stormy sands and seas, with winds roaring through the island at high speed.

I stayed in Boracay for six nights, perhaps longer than I needed to considering that I only had 2 weeks total in the Philippines, but I came down with a one-day cold while I was there so it was good that I had the opportunity to rest and wait for the storm to subside.

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Even though I had to get up at 5 AM to catch a boat leaving Boracay to get to the main island so I could get to the airport early and catch my flight, I was rewarded with an enchanting pre-dawn snapshot of an island waking up…

Coron

My next stop was the island of Coron, to the west of Boracay, but instead of catching a direct flight from one local airport to the next, I booked two separate flights (Boracay to Manila, then Manila to Coron) which, combined, still only cost me a fraction (like one-fifth) of what it would have cost to fly directly. And despite the typhoon, both flights were smooth.

Upon arriving to Coron, I met a Filipino family–a widowed mother and her four grown daughters–that was on vacation in Coron. While the girls and the mother were all very curious about me and what I do, I was delighted to see local Filipino people vacationing around their own country. It is not a foreigner-dominated vacation destination. The people are welcoming and have the means to enjoy their own land. That is always nice to see, especially when in many tourist destinations, it would be impossible for local people to ever be able to afford to do the activities that visitors do.

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Coron was such a small town that THIS room in a municipal building was THE post office for the island. And that is Coron’s proud postmaster.

Coron was a cute little town and definitely not overrun with tourism so it was a nice change of pace from Boracay. I stayed at a Backpackers Guesthouse that was built on stilts right on the water: at hide tide, I could see the water through the slats in my floor; at low tide, there was just moist, stinky earth and garbage below me. I walked around the town my first afternoon there, then just as the sun was setting, I climbed Mt. Tapayas for a panoramic view of the city. This is a popular hill to climb for both locals and visitors, and the people have built a cement staircase with 720-something steps from the bottom to the top.

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On the afternoon I arrived to Coron, I climbed up Mt. Tapayas and was lucky enough to catch the sunset across the neighboring islands.

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Many homes and other shops/restaurants in Coron are constructed on stilts that are built over the water. The shabby building in the middle is Coron Backpackers Hostel, where I stayed in a private room (it’s much nicer on the inside!!) while I was on the island.

The main reason people go to Coron is for diving. Coron is known for its wreck diving as there is an area with 10-12 sunken World War II Japanese warships a little way off of the island. I had never dived wrecks before so that was my motivation for the trip. I signed up with Rocksteady Divers for a full day of diving that would include three dives, lunch on the boat, and beverages. On diving day, my group consisted of one other man, Graeme from Australia, a local Filipino Divemaster named Ronaldo who would be leading our dives, and me. We couldn’t have asked for a better day–we had a break from the rain so the weather was absolutely perfect all day!

Our first dive of the day was at a place called Barracuda Lake which is very unique in that has both freshwater from the mountains and seawater from an opening deep in the lake that connects to the surrounding ocean. Also, Barracuda Lake in known for its “thermocline,” a change in water temperature based on the varying depths of the lake caused by thermal vents that open into the lake from below. Not only did we have to swim to the island from our boat, then climb over some rickety bridges with our tanks strapped on our backs in order to access the lake, but we also dived without wetsuits–only in T-shirts–because the temperature of the water was up to 38 degrees Celcius (~100 degrees Fahrenheit!!) in some areas and very cold in others. While there was hardly any marine life in the lake besides some catfish here and there, it was an amazing dive. In some places, we could see a film separating the fresh water from the seawater and it was so cool because I could stick my head up across the film layer into the freshwater and my head would be cold while the rest of my body remained below the film in the hot seawater!

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Just over the rock wall by the light turquoise water near this island (just 20 minutes from Coron) lies the famous thermocline Barracuda Lake, where we did our first dive of the day.

After that, we had a nice break while we rode out to the dive site of the wrecks. (Breaks are necessary in between dives because they reduce the risk of decompression sickness from being too deep for too long without allowing the body to stabilize with proper oxygen flow.) The first wreck dive was not so good for me as my mask was leaking slightly and for some reason I was very anxious, but it was still interesting to explore a sunken ship.

After lunch on the boat, we went in for the second wreck dive–this time the ship we explored was lying on its side–and it was SO cool! I thought exploring sunken ships would be kind of creepy, but it was actually very interesting because all the marine life under the sea, including corals, giant clams, all kinds of fish, anemones, sea stars, sea horses, sponges, shrimps, crabs, and lobsters, have completely taken over the ships and made them their homes. We swam in and around multiple chambers and explored the dark corners by the light of our flashlights. I was so impressed by how the marine life adapted to the intrusion of gigantic man-made objects and found a way to benefit from it.

Diving day ended up being a blast overall. Graeme was a fun dive partner and I appreciated that he “looked out for me” as he has much more diving experience than I do. I had a great conversation with Ronaldo that day asking about tourism in general and how locals feel about it, how he feels about foreigner dive instructors on the island, and what kinds of issues untrained local “fisherman divers” have from diving unsafely. He reported that the majority of tourists to Coron are European and that Chinese tourists (in general) are the worst divers/swimmers because they kick too much and end up destroying the reef. He said he wishes the foreign dive instructors would have to pay the same taxes and fees that local Filipino instructors and dive masters have to pay (right now, foreigners pay nothing to work on the island). Lastly, he mentioned that local fisherman end up with paralysis from decompression sickness because they go on deep dives for two to three hours at a time searching for lobsters and other seafood; even if they get treated and go back to normal, they immediately start diving again because more fish equal more money and they have to feed their families. Ronaldo was frustrated with the lack of education local fisherman have about diving.

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My diving day in Coron entailed good food (fresh fish, veggies, and a Filipino signature dish–chicken adobo over rice), new diving experiences, great company and conversation with my diving partner, Graeme, and our Divemaster, Ronaldo, and loads of fun in a beautiful place. It was a prefect day!

The next morning, when I arrived at the ferry dock to catch the boat to El Nido, I was told, “No boats today. There is a gale warning. Try again tomorrow.” Instead of being disappointed, I actually relished the fact that I was just gifted a free work day where I could lay low and take care of emails, errands, calls, and upcoming travel arrangements. It felt great to be so productive after such a fun day before. I got a boat the following day and was on my way to my next destination!

El Nido, Palawan

The boat trip from Coron to El Nido on the island of Palawan took about 8 hours and was transporting both locals and foreign travelers. The bottom deck had lots of benches, but anyone down there was subject to some serious splashing and a lot of noise from the engine. While many people on the boat either got seasick or very wet, I found a great spot on one of the only benches on the upper deck underneath a sun cover where I enjoyed a quiet, easy ride and could gaze across the crystal cerulean blue waters, wondering just how many ways I could describe all the different shades of blue ocean there are in the Philippines.

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After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

El Nido, Palawan is one of the most magical, paradisiacal places that travelers report visiting. A traveler friend of mine was actually the one who suggested that I visit, but unfortunately with my travel delays from bad weather, by the time I arrived to El Nido at 5 PM one afternoon, I pretty much had to gear up to leave the following morning to catch a flight I had already booked days prior from Puerto Princesa to Cebu. (I tried to change the flight, but I had bought it as a “promo” so there were no refunds or changes allowed.)

While I was bummed that I was only going to have 16 hours in El Nido which meant I wouldn’t be able to go on one of the fabulous day tours to see perfect beaches, marvel at limestone cliffs, and kayak around enchanted lagoons with jewel-colored water, I decided that I would be willing to get up before dawn to go on a sunrise hike up the tallest peak in town so I arranged that through my hostel. (I needed to do something while I was there!) I also decided that day that I will just have to go back to the Philippines again to have another shot at some things I missed along the way.

So the “sunrise hike” was a unique experience. I was the only person hiking that morning with one guide, Brandon, and we started walking at 5 AM. When I signed up for the “hike,” I didn’t realize that we would be scaling limestone cliffs in the pitch dark with only the light from my cell phone. And Brandon was in flip-flops! I don’t know if it was the dark, the spiders, the intensity of the climb or a combination of all three, but I was more nervous than I had been on other other activity I had done since I started my trip.

At the first rock, I was like, “Holy moly–that’s a vertical rock. And we’re going up it.” I kept thinking there might be a trail of some sort, but no–it was just limestone rock throughout the forest. After 3 or 4 vertical rocks in a row, I knew that is what we were going to be facing all the way to the top. I wouldn’t call this safe by any means and this type of “tourist activity” would never pass safety standards in a developed/westernized country. Good thing I was in the Philippines!

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I snapped most of these photos on the way down from the hike to demonstrate what we were facing IN THE DARK as we hiked up the mountain to catch the sunrise. The bottom right photo was taken at the top and shows how sharp these limestone rocks were. Easily one of my most thrilling adventures during my 4-month trip in SE Asia.

Not much gets my adrenaline going anymore, but this did. I was sweating bullets not more than 10 minutes into the hike and it took us about an hour to get up. By the time we were close, the limestone was becoming razor-sharp, jutting up from the ground toward the sky. “One un-focused move and I’m toast,” I thought. I stepped very cautiously, and all the skills I have acquired over years of indoor climbing–balancing, shifting my weight, keeping my hips close to the wall, staying low when necessary, and carefully calculating each move–totally came into handy. This was an adventure in every sense of the word.

I asked Brandon if people who come on this hike turn around before the top and he pointed out three or four places (right in front of the first couple of vertical rocks that need to be scaled early on during the climb) where people regularly stop and say, “No way. I can’t do that.” I wouldn’t recommend this activity just because of the risk involved. There were a few times when I questioned whether I should move forward. I guess most people do it during the day so that is a little different, but in the dark?? I’ll admit it was a crazy idea. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

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A little slice of heaven. The sunrise created Colten candy skies over El Nido Bay, a view that can only be seen from the top of the karst mountain that towers over the tiny town. This view made the pre-dawn hike worth every drop of sweat and every ounce of concern while scaling this rock in the dark.

But watching the sun rise over El Nido Bay was totally worth it. From the light blue and pink hues streaked across the sky before the sun rose to the bright yellow and orange of the sunlight stretching over the vibrantly green cliffs, I felt like I was experiencing a little slice of heaven. At the top of the peak, I was trying to balance taking in the stunning view with processing the experience I had just had where my mind and movements had to be sharper than those cliffs. But I couldn’t “turn off” my mind yet–we still needed to climb down. (More people die climbing down mountains than they do going up; it’s easy to lose focus after the “goal” of reaching the top has been achieved.)

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Top: The sun rising from the East as seen from the limestone mountain in El Nido, Palawan. Bottom: Me soaking up the thrill of the hike that got us to this viewpoint of El Nido Bay at dawn.

I didn’t relax until I took my last step out of the forest. I survived!! Wow. What an experience. And we got back to the hostel with just enough time for me to shower, eat breakfast, and catch the 9 AM minivan that would take me to the airport in Puerto Princesa (5-6 hours south on the island of Palawan), where I boarded my flight to Cebu. Although my time in El Nido was brief, everything worked out perfectly.

Cebu

Initially, I planned on spending my last 4 nights in the Philippines on the island of Cebu, but what I hadn’t realized was that Cebu City was the second largest city in the Philippines which inevitably meant crowded, noisy, hot, busy, and fast-paced. There are a lot of things to do and see in Cebu City and it is the gateway to many other tourist destinations around the island. I found a nice little “permaculture” eco-friendly hotel called the Mayflower Inn (recommended by Lonely Planet) that I checked in to for my stay, and I thought to myself, “Well, I can have some stability here in this nice place for the rest of my time in the Philippines.” And then I slept. And slept. And slept.

I realized that for the past five days in a row, three of those days had been travel days (in transit from one place to another), and I had been up between 4:30 and 6 AM every single day–to catch a boat so I could catch a flight, to go diving, to try and catch another boat (the day the boats weren’t sailing), to finally catch that boat the following day, and then to go on a sunrise hike. I was exhausted and had no motivation to take on a big noisy city or even leave the hotel. And so I didn’t. I spent the entire next day in the hotel and even took a long afternoon nap. I kind of felt like a bad “tourist,” but I needed to veg. My body needed rest.

Cebu City just wasn’t doing it for me so I decided to ditch it and escape to the tiny Malapascua Island just off of Cebu’s northern tip for my last two days…

Malapascua Island

I figured that to end my island-hopping phase, I needed to be somewhere that felt like an island, not a city, and even though waiting at the bus terminal, riding the crowded public bus for over a 5-hour trip, and chasing down the last [affordable] bangka (the Filipino term for a boat) as it was pulling away from the dock after dark took more than half of a day, I was so happy I made the decision to get to this island. I couldn’t have asked for a better last full day in the Philippines.

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Using public transportation in the Philippines usually means getting cozy with the locals, as seen here with the random guy who fell asleep and ended up leaning on me and the other guy standing in the isle who couldn’t help his arm from bumping into my head occasionally as we bounced along the 5-hour journey from Cebu City toward Malapascua Island.

Malapascua Island is well-known for being a place where thresher sharks can be seen early in the morning at a particular dive site called Monad Shoal. Most of the dive shops on the island run a 5 AM trip out to this dive site. Even though I was going to be on the island for two nights, I only had one shot to do this dive because I had a flight on the second day and for health/safety reasons related to decompression, there needs to be a buffer period of 24 hours between a dive and a flight. I arrived to the island late on the first night so I rushed off to find a dive shop that was still open and could add me to the trip the following morning. Success. And I settled for some simple, cheap box of a room close by the dive shop just for that night.

Preparing for the early morning dive was neat despite the fact that we were all still half-asleep because we loaded onto the dive boat at twilight and got to see the sunrise from the water. Almost immediately after we submerged, we had our first spotting of a thresher shark just a few meters away from us. We descended further and settled in at relatively shallow spot by a “cleaning station” where we stayed for a while and had sightings of two more thresher sharks! The thresher sharks normally reside very deep in the ocean, from 30 meters and below; however, in the early mornings, they ascend to shallow waters, to between 15 and 25 meters, where there are “cleaning stations” at which small cleaner fish latch on to the sharks and suck off all the bacteria and other junk that has accumulated on their skin.

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After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

As we were observing the thresher sharks, a crowd of divers almost instantly appeared along the cleaning station rope boundary. I looked to my right and there were two or three people, then I looked my was left and was shocked by the sight of about 20 new divers all lined up staring in the direction of the cleaning station. I felt like I was at a movie theater and we were all watching a show!

When we started to move, luckily, our dive master was savvy enough to take us in the opposite direction of where that giant crowd was headed and just the three of us witnessed a fourth thresher shark swimming around as well as a white tip reef shark. It was so interesting to note the differences between the two types of shark. The white tip reef shark was smaller, had rough, jagged movements, and looked shark-ish, whereas, the thresher sharks were larger, had bigger, rounder eyes and tail fins that extended upward like cats’ tails, and moved so calmly and gracefully in the water with their tail fins slowly swaying like ribbons above them that they just looked like beautiful, peaceful creatures. It was such an amazing dive and we were so fortunate to see five sharks when on some days, people don’t spot anything!

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This is what a thresher shark looks like! (I snapped this photo of a post card I bought.)

After that dive, I had breakfast at a local spot, dropped off my laundry with the same local lady who made my breakfast, then switched lodging to a place just a little way down the bach called Aabana guesthouse (also known as Mike and Diose’s). Mike, a German man, was one of the first people inhabiting Malapascua Island nearly forty years ago and has watched the place boom as his business with his guesthouse has grown steadily. He gave me a great deal for a lovely, spacious room with a porch and hammock and I kind of felt that he was keeping an eye on me in a fatherly sort of way, advising me which parts of the island to steer clear of by myself at night and other such things. I really adored him and his wife and they made my experience feel so personable.

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At Aabana Loadge, I stayed on the the lower level of this bungalow and had the porch, hammock, and a beautiful view all to myself. A delightful spot!

My last day in the Philippines was absolutely perfect. Although I had the opportunity to hang out with some new girls I had met, I decided to continue being anti-social instead. I didn’t know I could be so anti-social and love it so much!! (I knew I’d be with friends and family soon enough…) I wrote in my journal, enjoyed sipping on some sweet tea as I swung in the hammock, laid out in the sun on a cute little white sand beach in front of the lodge, strolled Bounty Beach on a postcard hunt, stopped at a place for happy hour to do some writing and much on some snacks, had a very relaxing massage, ate a delicious dinner, and slept like a baby. I was so happy. Everything just worked out. Even when I left the following morning, I had the best luck with the timing of everything transportation-related all the way to the airport.

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Pristine blues, greens, and whites are the colors that dominate the natural beauty of the tiny Malapascua Island.

I think I spent more money in 2 weeks in the Philippines than I did in any other country. I know I’ll go back to the Philippines. It is a great place but I hardly scratched the surface and I had to rush through in some places so I did not have the opportunity to dig in. While the people were warm, I didn’t particularly connect to anyone here. It was kind of lonely, actually, not having any of “my people” to go and visit, but I know that is because I wasn’t ever in any place for long enough to form relationships (besides Boracay) and I was very focused on my writing. Also, in the Philippines, I started getting tired. Traveling can be very exhausting sometimes. And while I love everything I have been doing, it is natural to get a lull in energy and motivation. I wasn’t quite ready to come home yet, but I definitely started thinking about it.

TRAVEL TIP: Earplugs. I was almost going to make this one about not bringing rolling luggage to a tiny, perfect, white sand beach island for vacation, but I realize that most people only own rolling luggage, not big backpacks, so I will just have to advise all of you “rolling luggage people” that you WILL be a source of pure entertainment to people like me, barefoot with my bum in the sand and a drink in my hand, laughing as you try to roll those wheels across your paradisiacal beach. It’s a funny sight, just sayin’, so you might as well laugh at yourself, too, when you discover that there really is sand on islands out in the middle of the ocean. Ok. Back to earplugs.

Bring earplugs, several pairs if you can so you have a back up if you lose them. (They are that valuable.) In places like the Philippines, everything is so loud everywhere you go. Annoyance: roosters crowing before the crack of dawn; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: babies screaming or crying non-stop on a plane or a bus; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: loud music blaring from nearby speakers when you’re seeking peace and quiet, trying to work, or reading a book; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: obnoxious boat motors roaring right next to you during a long journey across the sea; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: local lady shouting into her cell phone during a trip in a public van filled with 15 people in close quarters; solution: earplugs. Seriously, I used my earplugs all the time. They are great for when I want to sleep on a plane because plane cabins can be so loud, and I even put in my earplugs one time at a restaurant in Cebu City because the traffic from the street and all the horn-honking was driving me crazy! My earplugs have spared me from a lot of discomfort and will be one of the first items I pack every time I travel from now on.

All my love,
Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 12: Singapore, The City-State Island Country

Singapore is a city-state and an island and a country–all in one. Singapore is the capital of Singapore. Until I actually visited Singapore, I was under the impression (as many North Americans are, I realized) that Singapore was just a big city in one of the other Asain countries. While it is an island, backpacking and being barefoot on the beach aren’t really the norm here; it’s more like a rolling-luggage, business attire, and top-of-the-line technological device kind of place (similar to Bangkok) with easy access to Starbucks, Burger King, Subway, McDonalds, and 7 Eleven on almost every block. Situated right smack dab in the middle of everything in Southeast Asia, Singapore is in a prime location and has become the main transportation hub for all of Asia, serving as the gateway to practically every country on this side of the globe. Most people are usually just passing through, using the airport only as a stopover before continuing on their way. Oh, and the airport–I could write a whole guidebook just on the fancy-schmancy Singapore airport! It is fully equipped with restaurants, beds, free use of internet on public computers, lounge areas with TVs, orchid and butterfly gardens, and even a rooftop swimming pool.

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The Singapore airport has its very own orchid garden and koi pond, among other lavish amenities scattered throughout its three terminals.

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Despite the fact that Singapore is an island, backpacks, bikinis, and bare feet are not commonly sighted on its streets; instead there are people in suits with rolling luggage or briefcases heading to work on paved roads and organized transportation systems.

Despite being surrounded by impoverished countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that are struggling to stimulate and stabilize their economies in spite of rampant governmental corruption, Singapore is actually considered a “first world” country. It has one of the highest GDPs in the world and, thanks to the government, the entire country puts high value on education, sports, the arts, nature, and innovation. Singapore is on the leading edge of both technological and architectural advancement. This place really has its ducks in a row and one could say the people who live here have got it made.

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Valued aspects of Singaporean society can be seen on its currency: “Education” on the S$2 bill, “Garden City” on the S$5 bill, “Sports” on the S$10 bill, and “Arts” on the S$50 bill.

A fascinating UTOPIA with its own sets of rules and SYSTEMS in Asia

Because of how expensive everything is here, Singapore isn’t usually on the radar for most backpackers. The currency is Singapore dollars and the exchange rate is $1 US =1.42 Singapore dollars, stacking up nicely against both the Australian dollar and the Canadian dollar, which are about the same rate, if only slightly stronger than Singapore currency. With their budgets in mind, most people traveling in Southeast Asia don’t even think twice about skipping Singapore, especially because it is so small, and if they do go to Singapore, it is often only for a one-nighter due to a layover for a flight. While I wasn’t planning to have a long-term relationship with Singapore, I definitely wanted more than a one-night-stand because I am fascinated by how this country became the way it is and I wanted to dig a little deeper into the inner workings of the place. So I booked 5 nights (still not very long, but enough time to get comfortable with the place).

The very first thing I noticed was how easy and functional the metro train system, called MRT, was. For ~$1.50, it took me only about 45 minutes to get halfway across the country once I left the airport. Singapore is an extremely tiny country with an area of only 694 sq km which a person could drive his car across in only an hour and a half to two hours, but still, the public transportation system was impressively structured and well-organized. It was so easy to get around–almost too easy. On one hand it was a relief because there was practically no stress involved, but on the other hand, I felt like travelers as well as the general public are spoon-fed on a regular basis: the overhead voice on the train AND a light-up map even indicate to people on which side of the train the doors are going to open at the approaching station!

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This colorful map of Singapore is a guide showing both the highly organized MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system as well as some top tourist attractions.

Geographically located very near to the equator, Singapore has a hot and humid climate year-round. Besides some rain in December and January, there are no seasons. The average temperature during the five days I was there was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This constant steady weather is a contributing factor to the feeling of sameness that permeates the calm, quiet streets of this country that is sometimes referred to as a “bubble” society.

One analogy I’ll render for Singapore is the following: imagine drawing a big line around San Francisco, cutting it off of California (thus making it an island), then calling it a country and letting it have its own government, currency, culture, etc. Imagine the effect that it would have on the rest of California and the attitude that might develop in the people who are “in” or “out” of the San Francisco bubble. I’ll further explore this dynamic later on in this chapter…

When I arrived to Singapore, I didn’t have the best luck finding the place I wanted to stay (it was under construction for remodeling), so I ended up at what I will refer to as a grunge hostel and, and checked in with resolve to find a better spot the following day. I won’t waste space on the details of the “grunge,” but something positive that came out of my stay there was that I made friends with an interesting Indonesian woman named Gokna who was also on a backpacking trip.

Over breakfast the next morning, we discussed how our lifestyles would have to change while we were in Singapore compared to how we had both been living in other countries we had visited. In order to get by on a daily budget within our normal spending limits, we decided that during our time in Singapore, there would be no manicures/pedicures, no massages, no meals at fancy restaurants, we would be staying in hostel dorm rooms as opposed to booking private rooms in guesthouses or hotels, we would seek out as many “free” activities as we could, and there would be absolutely NO shopping. We joked that we could at least drink the tap water so we would save money from not having to buy drinking water!

Later that morning, I made the switch from the grunge hostel to Five Stones Hostel which was really nice and very modern compared to what one would expect for a hostel. The restrooms were even equipped with built-in hairdryers which I considered a luxury as I hadn’t blow-dried my hair in nearly three months by that point! In a five-story building, I stayed in a 10-bed “mixed” dorm room (because all the female-only ones were full) and paid 28 Singaporean dollars (~$20) per night for it. It ended up being all dudes plus me in one room. But I didn’t care about that because everyone was minding their own business and I hardly spent any time in the room–the place to hang out was definitely the hostel lounge! Not only did the lounge have a large kitchen with Ikea mugs, plates, and bowls, plus utensils, tables, a refrigerator, toasters, a microwave, and long countertops (where guests could help themselves to a free breakfast spread in the mornings and coffee and tea anytime), but it also had a relaxing area with cushy couches and pillows, public converter plug strips, a TV with access to a stack of movies/DVDs, free wifi, and a radio that was playing Ryan Seacrest’s Top 40 Countdown over the weekend. I didn’t even feel like I was in Asia.

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The lounge at Five Stones Hostel made for a great working space because it was “fully loaded” with sofas, wifi, converter plugs, TV, DVDs, tables, a full kitchen, and even Top 40 hits playing on the radio in the kitchen.

As I walked around the city, I never once encountered people who were bothering me or trying to get my money as a “hand-out.” I didn’t see any beggars with the exception of one crippled guy which led me to believe that these people are not coming from a place of lack. My observations of Singapore by just walking up and down the streets through town was that is it a quiet, peaceful, safe place where people mind their own business. However, everything I saw “on the surface” made me curious about what was underneath and how things got to be the way they are. Luckily, I had the opportunity to dig a little deeper with some local Singaporeans, the first of whom, Stephanie, was a girl I had met at the very beginning of my trip during my very first week in Thailand while I was at S1 hostel in Bangkok. (Facebook is great for keeping in touch with travel strangers!!)

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Strolling the streets of Singapore at night was not only safe but also provided some spectacular views such as these skyscrapers dazzling just above the Singapore River.

On my second full day in Singapore, I made plans to meet up with Stephanie for lunch as she offered to introduce me to some of Singapore’s traditional food. We met up at a specified MRT station, then walked together a few blocks to the Maxwell Food Centre, which is a huge “hawker” food area meaning that the place is filled with rows and rows of food and drink stalls serving all kinds of dishes that are prepared on the spot and offered at cheap prices. Stephanie was on a mission to pick the most well-known Singaporean dishes she could find which included an oyster omelet (my least favorite–I couldn’t handle more than a few bites!), fried carrot cake (unlike the sweet dessert that comes to mind, this dish consists of radish cake stir-fried with eggs and preserved radish–it was actually quite tasty despite the squishy texture), and, Singapore’s national dish, chicken rice (boiled or roast chicken served with rice that has been cooked in chicken stock and a variety of sauces–soy sauce, chili sauce, and a sweet sauce–that enhance the flavors; this dish was definitely my favorite, perhaps for its simplicity).

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At Maxwell Food Centre, lines of people at each of the neighboring food stalls is typical in the middle of the day; people enjoy their lunches at small open tables set up like a cafeteria.

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Left: Stephanie posing with Singapore’s national dish, Chicken Rice–here, drizzled with some savory sauces. Right: Stephanie, about to introduce me to two other Singaporean dishes: fried carrot cake and an oyster omelet.

To top it all off, which there was hardly space for, we had almond-flavored bean curd (soy base) for dessert. I noticed there is a lot of sugar and carbs in the Singaporean diet and in beverages such as bandung, a rose-flavored sugary milk drink that looks like pink medicine but is ridiculously sweet; I passed on the hot pink bandung, but I couldn’t stay away from the bubble milk tea anytime I passed by a stand selling it! Sugar could be consumed on every corner, however, I felt like I did not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables while I was on this city-island-country. While I was beyond grateful to Stephanie for guiding me through this local experience, my tummy was totally out of sorts and stayed that way throughout the duration of my time in Singapore.

I was excited about talking to Stephanie about the history and current state of Singapore, and I appreciated that she was so willing to share the local perspective with me. The first time I met her, she had mentioned that the unofficial, but spoken, language of Singapore is English, but that the “official” language–on record, at least–is Malay. This time she went on to explain that Singapore used to be a part of Malaysia, then she shared how and why Singapore became its own country. I was totally impressed by how well-educated she was about the history, government, people, and function of her country! Granted, Singapore is tiny and “young,” having gained independence only 50 years ago in 1965, but still, she knew the low-down. (I supplemented what I learned from Stephanie with additional research on my own as well as information that was shared with me another Singapore resident, Adam, whom I met a few days later.)

Originally developed by the British in the early 1800s, Singapore has always been a region where people from all over the world have flocked to; Britain pretty much lost their stronghold there by the time the second world war was over. By the late 50s and early 60s, many Chinese people were living in Singapore and that was during a time when every nation feared being infiltrated and taken over by Communists so Malaysia was on high alert. A man by the name of Lee Kuan Yew (whom I will refer to as Lee from now on, just like Singaporeans do), came into power as the leader of a socialist party in 1959. Fearing Communism in addition to having conflicting beliefs from Singapore’s new leaders, the Malay Federation kicked Singapore out in 1965. Lee seized the opportunity to turn the region into an industrialized, independent, and successful country.

Lee, who pursued his studies in Europe when he was young, was a brilliant man and a great diplomat. Often referred to as a benevolent dictator, Lee imposed strict rules on the people of Singapore, but despite the tight governmental regulation, everyone seemed to know that he always had the people’s interest at heart. He transformed a struggling, abandoned region into a strong country with a booming economy, an educated population, a very large middle class, and practically no poverty or crime. It is rare that anyone has a chance to build a new country from scratch these days, but by treating the country as if it were a small start-up company in the business world, Lee succeeded in endowing Singapore with the capacity to not only survive, but also thrive on its own.

The population of Singapore consists mostly of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian–but each race is not equally represented. It is broken down roughly into the following percentages: 76% Chinese, 12% Malay, 9% Indian, and the remaining ~3% Eurasian or “other.” English is the mandatory first language taught in schools.

Referring back to the San Francisco scenario I created earlier in the chapter, can you imagine how California would feel if it kicked San Francisco out, then San Francisco became a raging success of a place and kept all of its wealth to itself? California might try to pull San Francisco back in so it could have access to all the resources that San Francisco had for itself and its small bubble of a society–and the people who are a part of San Francisco wouldn’t really want to share, they probably wouldn’t want to leave, and they might be wary of anyone else to tried to get into their safe, successful society. That is Singapore in a nutshell.

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There is a lot of wealth in Singapore which is evident by all the fancy cars up and down the streets, like this yellow Lambourghuini.

Sandwiched between two very large and dominantly Muslim countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore has to stay on its toes in order to maintain its position, status, and safety. Strategically, it keeps strong relationships with both China and the United States, and it carefully monitors who its decision-makers in the government are: there is an extensive screening process so any person who might be associated with someone who could potentially drop an explosive device is forbidden to be in a position of power.

The population of the country is controlled so that a Chinese majority is maintained. Stephanie said, “Singapore needs a healthy amount of Chinese to maintain status.” The way I understood that was regarding both Singapore’s business relationship with China (and tourists from China) as well preventing Malays or Indians to rise to power, posing a threat of being merged back into Malaysia or being taken over by a different country. Stephanie explained that the Chinese population isn’t growing as quickly as the government would like for it to be which is due mostly to the Chinese cultural practice of a “one-child family,” whereas the Indian birth rate is slightly higher, but the Malay birthrate is significantly higher than that of the Chinese. When I asked Adam about this, he further explained that the Singaporean government has an immigration plan, specifically for the Chinese, set in motion for the next several years in order to counter the current changing population trends and maintain that Chinese majority.

Stephanie’s one complaint regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants–and she said she was speaking on behalf of most Singaporeans–was that most of the Chinese come to the country and regard it only as an extension of China, as opposed to seeing it as a country of its own. She said it is frustrating because most of the Chinese immigrants don’t even bother trying to learn English even though it is technically the official language of Singapore.

On that note, I’ll point out that Singapore is very obviously a multiracial and multicultural place and the dynamics of the society reflect that. The government is run like a business and does not allow religion to infiltrate how it functions, however people are free to practice how they like. Religious beliefs are just as diverse as the racial demographics, and there is a high level tolerance among the citizens that each person has his or her own beliefs. As religion does not interfere with Singapore’s “secular” statehood, another conspicuous trend I noticed is that homosexuality is widely accepted and people are very openly gay in public (although people don’t run around in the nude as they do in San Francisco sometimes!). There are so many different people and places, cultures and races in Singapore that it is difficult to discern who is a tourist and who is not.

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St. Andrew’s Cathedral is beautifully lit up at night in the center of Singapore’s Colonial District, just blocks away from Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples. Religious tolerance and freedom of practice is a characteristic of society in Singapore.

Another thing that Adam and Stephanie both touched on regarding Singaporean society is that the government has created a “culture of self.” Everyone is expected to take care of their own needs, work hard, and be accountable for themselves. The government isn’t going to bail anyone out of a personal problem or pick anyone up off the ground if he loses his job or isn’t working. While there is a great free healthcare system, there is neither welfare nor pension plans set into place. Citizens have a personal required savings account to which money from their paycheck is automatically transferred and can be used in retirement. These governmental policies have resulted in a country with citizens who are relatively responsible and self-sufficient; however, some downsides include the inevitable development of self-centeredness (a “I worked for my money so it’s mine–why should I share?” attitude) as well as the unfortunate situation of very elderly people still having to work into old age.

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Because the government has neither welfare systems nor pension plans, it is normal that elderly people have to continue to work menial jobs into their old age like this man here who cleans tables at the Maxwell Food Centre.

Singapore faces other problems, of course, just as every other country has a set of its own. First of all, Singapore is a small country and an island-country at that, plus its practically perfect society, nearly nonexistent crime, and steady, warm weather are huge draws to attract people to live and work there; consequently, Singapore faces overpopulation issues. What’s the best solution for running out of land? Make more of it, of course! A small area of Singapore is reclaimed land, meaning that the government “filled in” the sea with cement, rocks, clay, dirt, etc. until they had enough land they wanted to expand the country. (Land reclamation is practiced all over the world, especially in swampy areas [like New Orleans], near rivers and coastal areas, and by bays [for example, San Francisco and Alameda].) Another solution to the population growth in Singapore is the creation of housing flats, where many families can exist “vertically” on the same small plot of land. The government assists couples and families with housing subsidies for these flats.

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This building is an example of the flats in which many families in Singapore live.

A seasonal climate concern in Singapore is that the city-state becomes shrouded in a heavy haze in September and October due to forest slash-and-burn practices for palm oil in Indonesia. This is a HUGE environmental concern and citizens can only protect their health by wearing face masks out in public or remaining indoors during this time. While out to lunch with Stephanie, some girls she knew were on their lunch break from work and joined us at our table. They were discussing the haze and I laughed when they suggested a solution for it: the government should just build a bubble around Singapore up into the sky so that way Singaporeans could continue to have access to fresh, clean Singaporean air. In that case, Singapore would literally be a bubble society with a physical manifestation of its protected utopia!!

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The haze from the slash-and-burn fires in Indonesia was so thick in Singapore in October that it made it difficult to view the sunset from a restaurant on the 55th floor (the top floor) of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

Strict laws are enforced by tight governmental regulation. A person will be fined for selling chewing gum, however it is okay for people to chew it (for example, if they acquired it while traveling abroad). No smoking is allowed in most areas, although it is okay to smoke on the street. There are fines for littering. Pornography is illegal, however prostitution is allowed. And the strictest, most heavily enforced law of all: drug trafficking is punishable by death.

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In order to maintain a society that is mostly free of crime and violence, Singapore enforces strict laws both on its citizens and visitors. For example, anyone who enters the country get this notice in their passport: “Warning – Death for Drug Traffickers under Singapore Law.”

All of these regulations have been put in place in order to make the country clean, safe, and free. Of course, this level of security and stability offers a very different kind of freedom. People are told what the rules are and they choose to abide by them in exchange for an easy, happy lifestyle. It seems that there is a pre-meditated solution for any possible case scenario that could occur in someone’s daily life. There are instructions and directions posted on signs, walls, and doorways. People don’t really have to think for themselves because everything has already been thought out for them and kindly dictated to them. In one sense, I liked how easy it was to just “be” in Singapore, but on the flip side, I sort of felt like there was a lot of hand-holding going on which doesn’t leave much room for individuality and independence. The society has been trained to trust and listen to the government. Interestingly, the government places a high value on educating its people unlike some of the notorious dictators of history who monopolized education systems in order to brainwash their people; despite the fantastic education they receive, Singaporeans are not likely to buck the system.

Singapore is in a constant state of seeking balance between Asian culture and western culture. It is sort of a blend, but with a young population, I suspect western culture will dominate. The younger generation is admittedly pampered and could easily identify with the traits of “millennials” all over the world. It was their parents who endured through the country’s difficulties and their parents who worked hard for the money that now supports the children–many of whom live at home with their parents until they are married because the housing market is so competitive. While attending sports games or community/art events are popular pastimes for these young people, a lot of the free time activities revolve around shopping and eating, which is indicative of the consumeristic society that Singapore has become. (Consequently, waste management is another issue that the country faces, especially because it is an island, but I won’t get into that here.)

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The malls in Singapore began putting up holiday decor by early November in preparation for the Christmas shopping season. (I snapped this photo during my third trip to Singapore that was an overnight layover.)

I noticed in Singapore that people seemed to have a lot of time and resources to dedicate to fashion. I saw people with blue and purple streaks through their hair, pink tips, or partially shaved heads with long hair on the rest of their head. Some people were very creative with their make-up, splashing all colors of eyeshadow on their eyelids or using eyeliner to design unique patterns around their eyes. And then there were the shoes: platform high-tops, neon sneakers, studded boots, and strappy heels. Fashion is a popular avenue that people use to express their individuality here.

For anyone who has seen or read The Hunger Games, the comparison I can make is that Singapore is very much like “the Capital.” In a place where abundance is everywhere and the people are shielded from many of the rest of the world’s problems, their priorities are different. Relationships seem like they are on the surface. I felt like something was missing. It’s not the people’s fault by any means–this is all they know. But I made a strong association between hardship and depth while I was there: where there is no struggle, there is no depth. I am not saying that Singapore’s people don’t have to struggle; they just have a different set of problems from say, citizens of Nigeria, or Syria, or even their next-door-neighbors in Malaysia.

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At the Krispy Kreme donut shop inside the Singapore airport, I thought that I had never seen so many different options in my life! This is one example of a society that lives in abundance.

From what I have seen and experienced around the world, in my opinion, Singapore is lucky to have a government that works to provide its people with a great lifestyle, as opposed to having a corruption-riddled government like many other countries like the aforementioned. Some people have compared the system in Singapore to George Orwell’s 1984, acknowledging the sort of “Big Brother” control that the government exercises. However, despite the “kind dictatorship,” nobody can deny the leaps and bounds of progress that Singapore has made socially and economically as a country. While maybe it started as a big experiment, similar to how many start-up businesses begin, Lee implemented a great strategy and it worked. Lee had a successor named Goh Chok Tong who began leading the country in 1990, but he stepped down in 2004 so Lee’s son could takeover and continue on the path that Lee laid for the country…

As I learned about and experienced Singapore, I felt conflicted about all of it. On one hand, I thought, “Isn’t this what every country strives for? A nearly perfect society with a big middle class and a thriving economy? A place where people feel safe and happy and can live their lives however they choose–as long as it is within ‘limits’?” But then I come back to those conditions and rules and I can see how all the systems that need to be adhered to in order to maintain “the bubble” can make things seem robotic, reducing the unpredictability that inevitably comes along with the human condition.

If anyone is familiar with the movie Pleasantville or the book called The Giver (one of my favorites!), by Lois Lowry, you may recall that the perfectly functioning societies were described as black and white, illustrating the lifelessness that seems to become normal in these places where safe, systematic, mundane lifestyles are had by all in exchange for protection from hardship, pain, and even feelings. In both of these plot lines, the challenges to these systems come in the form of color, either as a character or an object–a small change that gradually takes over, ultimately leaving the audience to question the humanity of the systems. While I could go on and on about the parallels between Singapore and The Giver, one big difference is that Singapore is actually a very colorful and vibrant place–not at all black and white.

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Singapore is splashed with color in every part of the country. Top: The Elgin Bridge that stretches across the Singapore River is lit in bright rainbow-colored lights each night. Middle: This building in Clarke Quay has all of its window panes painted in bright solid colors. Bottom: These flats in the Colonial District are distinguished by their green, blue, yellow, and red building colors.

After Stephanie and I parted ways that afternoon, I had a call to make and some work to do so I set up shop in an Australian-run Russian bar–the only place around that had functional wifi at the time. It was located in a cute area and walking distance from the Chinatown district. Again, I was reminded of San Francisco by how Singapore has become such a melting pot of cultures within blocks from each other.

Chinatown was everything that could be expected from any other Chinatown: red and gold signs all over, hanging decorations stringed up criss-crossing over the streets, markets, shops, and food stands. After strolling up and down all the streets, I decided to continue my trend of sampling local foods so I opted for some chili crab dumplings. Chili crab is a Singaporean specialty that consists of mud crab cooked in a tomato and chili sauce and it is very tasty!

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Chinatown in Singapore is designed with Chinese-style buildings, red and yellow signs and decorations strung above walkways, and busy markets and shops.

While the dumplings were delicious, I still felt like I needed to eat some veggies since I hadn’t really eaten any fresh produce during the entire day. I went on a hunt for affordable vegetables throughout Chinatown and the best I could find was a plate of green beans at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the green beans were practically swimming in peppercorns and hot chilis. One bite and I nearly turned into a fire-breathing dragon! I suffered through that plate, trying to pick out every single spicy thing, determined to eat those veggies and had to order what I was hoping was a milky drink but was actually made from barley. The restaurant staff didn’t know what to do with me: they didn’t speak English well and I could see that my questions, my changing mind (no drink…just kidding–YES, I NEED A BEVERAGE!!), and the fact that I only ordered a plate of green beans and nothing else frustrated and confused them. I was dying and they couldn’t wait to get me out of their restaurant. (At least that’s how I felt!) They even charged my for the wet wipe that was part of the table setting. It was a miserable experience and I left slightly disappointed and relieved to be out of there.

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This is the plate of green beans that I suffered through in Chinatown; picking out the chilis and trying to avoid the peppercorns was all I could do to avoid the spice, but it was to practically no avail…

At the end of that day, making it three days in a row by that point, my tummy was not happy. (I didn’t mention my bad decision to eat Burger King as soon as I got off the plane on the first day, but that was the first contributing factor!) It was difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables in Singapore unless I wanted to order a fancy, expensive salad from a restaurant menu. I didn’t even figure out until a future visit to Singapore that there are many grocery stores, but they are actually underground, on lower levels of some major shopping malls. (No wonder I couldn’t find them!) I was frustrated by this because on multiple occasions, I would walk around craving a fresh fruit smoothie and go searching for a place to buy one, but I didn’t want some smoothie concoction with eight super ingredients and special powders and potions–I just wanted some fresh mango blended with ice and poured in a cup. Simple. But my enthusiasm for my smoothie hunt always dissolved into an unsatisfying abandoned wish.

On the following day as I was walking through the MRT station, I spotted a food place called “Salad Box” and immediately entered to find a beautiful display of fresh salad fixings. I had never been so excited to see shredded carrots, bell peppers, corn, shredded beetroot, tomatoes, kidney beans, and feta cheese!! There were many other ingredients, but those are the ones that decorated my lunch and I was so happy with it that I ate it all in near bliss and almost ordered another one for the road. It was affordable as well, costing less than 10 Singaporean dollars.

Self-proclaimed “The Garden City,” Singapore takes a lot of pride in its gardens and all the greenery that has been deliberately placed or conserved throughout the country. There are plants, bushes, trees, and flowers lining sidewalks and city streets in addition to public parks and gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, named an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 2015, was a “must see” on my list, and, knowing how big the place was, I reserved an entire afternoon and part of that evening to walk through and check out all the different areas which were sectioned off into themed gardens including the gingers, orchid garden, frangipanis, medicinal plants, children’s garden, ferns/cover plants, and fragrant garden, set among acres of trees, grass, and plant-lined pathways.

The place was huge and well-designed. Tropical flowers such as orchids and frangipanis were vibrant with life and color. Families were walking around and playing together on the lawns–some were even picnicking around the symphony stage. (That’s right: there is an outdoor symphony stage at the Botanic Gardens!) People were walking their dogs in the late afternoon and they actually had leashes for their pets! This small lifestyle snapshot was an indicator that Singapore is a great place to raise a family.

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Singapore’s famed Botanic Gardens, an UNESCO Cultural Site as of last July, boast acres of lush greenery sprinkled with vibrant flowers such as the hot pink frangipanis (bottom left) and Singapore’s national flower, called Vanda Miss Joaquin (an orchid hybrid, top right), as well as a symphony stage with plenty of lawn space for visitors to relax and enjoy the surroundings.

I stayed at the Botanic Gardens late that day on purpose because the best time to visit the fragrant gardens is after sundown. Here is a fun biology lesson for the day, one I learned during a school trip I took to Ecuador while I was in college and have since been obsessed with sharing every time I get the opportunity: Most plants with white flowers are pollinated by moths. Moths are usually active at night, however, they do not have the best eyesight. Moths are drawn to the light. (Think of how your very own porch lights attract moths at night.) White flower petals reflect more light than any other petal color so naturally they are easier to see at night. In addition, these white flowers emit a strong fragrance in the evening to further assist the moths in discovering the whereabouts of the flowers, thus increasing the chance that the flowers will be pollinated and reproduce. (This is a simplified generalization, but this is what stuck with me from rainforest ecology lessons!) This garden was such a delight to walk through as I sniffed my way through it that evening. Because of their intense aromas, oils from some of these flowers are used in perfumes; for example, oil from the ylang ylang flower is one of the main ingredients in the popular perfume Chanel No. 5. Jasmine and gardenia are also commonly used in commercial fragrances.

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Walking through the fragrant garden in the evening was a delightful experience because the the sweet aromas of the ylang ylang (top right) and other white flowers lingered in the air.

Speaking of scents, an observation I made about Singaporeans was that people actually smelled good–and clean–there. This may seem like an odd thing to notice, but after many experiences traveling and living in rural parts of developing countries, I have grown accustomed to unique smells coming from markets, dead animals, strange foods, and even people. They are not all necessarily bad smells, but they are definitely different. I was taken by surprise when I could actually detect scents such as soap, deodorant, perfume, and cologne while I was in public places in Singapore. (The Chinese couple, sitting in the seats across the aisle from me on a plane during my flight to Singapore, who took turns closing their eyes and spraying 5-7 pumps of perfume directly on their heads, in their faces, and around their necks just might have been the catalysts who launched me into fragrance-observation mode.) In any case, I simply added this to the list of identifying characteristics of the lifestyle in a “westernized” society.

After finding my way out of the Botanic Gardens, I headed to the Ion Orchard Mall. Singapore has large shopping centers and malls all over the place so I made it a point to check out several different shopping areas. Not only did the Ion Orchard Mall awe me with its futuristic architecture, innovative layout, and flashing lights, but it also surprised me with the number of high-end designer stores that lined every level: Gucci, Calvin Klein, Swarovski, L’Occitane, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Aldo, Valentino–you name it! The biggest shocker, however, was that the place was jam-packed with people at 9 o’clock at night on a Saturday in the middle of October. It was ridiculous how busy the place was! Understanding that shopping is a popular pastime in Singapore prevented me from falling over in shock by all of this, though…

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Singapore’s Ion Orchard Mall’s technologically-advanced architecture creates a galactic effect that makes the place seem unreal, like from a movie.

When I passed by Sephora that night, I glanced in at the endless selection of makeup and cosmetic products and it made me realize that I hadn’t done my makeup since before I left for my trip and that there was really no reason for me to go into a makeup store because I had no need for it. I thought about how nice it is to not have to worry about makeup: I don’t have to buy it, I don’t have to carry it with me, and I don’t have to spend any time putting it on or taking it off. It was liberating to acknowledge that I (and anyone really) can get by in life with so few necessities. Adding so much “stuff” into our lives can just complicate them sometimes. (Disclaimer: No criticisms here on makeup or wearers of it–there is definitely a time and place.)

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Singapore has malls and shopping centers all over the place which has inevitably created a consumerism-based society. Victoria’s Secret and a custom-designed dress shop (top and middle) at the Ion Orchard Mall, and the overwhelming shopping experience with a thousand options for everything at the Mustafa Centre (bottom) in Little India.

Overall, Singapore is an expensive place to both live in and travel through. I bought the most expensive 16 oz. glass of cider in my life here at a restaurant on the roof top of the famed Marina Bay Sands hotel (perhaps I was paying more for the ambience and less for the beverage itself), and to stay at the hotel itself–which consists of three skyscrapers with a “ship” spanning across the top of all three of them, has its own casino, and is walking distance from Gardens by the Bay–costs nearly $1,000 (Singaporean) per night for a room! (Marina Bay Sands is an iconic place for Singapore; there is a lot more interesting information about it on Google.) There were many other factors that led me to compare traveling in Singapore to being in Las Vegas, New York, or even Disneyland because each of those places is also known for having eye-catching inventions, colorful light shows, high-end restaurants and shopping centers, and expensive everything else.

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The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, designed with a “ship” spanning across the three hotel towers, is an architectural masterpiece in Singapore.

I thought a lot about what it means to have an easy life versus a simple life while I was here. I do not think that they are one and the same. In Singapore, there is ample opportunity for most people to have an easy life. Having an “easy” life can sometimes pave the way for clutter, noise, and only surface-deep relationships to dominate. I think people who live a simple life discover ways to eliminate most of the noise, “stuff,” and other clutter and drama from their daily lives. Living simply is not the opposite of living easy. It doesn’t equate to having a hard, tortuous path to forge. The difference between living easy and living simply has a lot to do with priorities and choices. I think it is possible to live both an easy life and a simple life at the same time, but if I had to choose, I would pick the simple life as I think it would be richer due to the rawness of it which provides opportunity to struggle, build character, and really learn to connect to other human beings without layers of “stuff”–expectations and other things–blockading the possibility of forming those relationships.

In only five days in Singapore, I collected more friends than I could handle because everyone was so outgoing and looking for other people to do social activities with them. I felt torn between taking time to work on my writing versus researching as much as possible about Singapore (both by exploring the area and talking to people) in those few short days I was there. Then I found myself trying to balance a huge social life! There was a chance I might see Stephanie again, plus there were other new friends from both of the hostels I had been in who expressed interest in hanging out, and lastly, I found out a friend from home was arriving in Singapore the same time I was there and she was trying to meet up with me. It felt like I was back in the States and that feeling stressed me out because I found it difficult to carve out time to write. Dodging time commitments to other people ended up taking a lot of energy, but I managed to balance having nice conversations with new friends with getting that time to myself.

On my last full day in Singapore, I spent some time walking around Little India and I was amazed at how much like India it really was! It was crowded and busy, with throngs of people along the streets, in the markets, and throughout the shopping and food centers. Strong aromas from incense lingered in the air as I passed by shop after shop selling silks and saris. The vendors charmingly called out to passers-by, “We have imported royal silks. Come and have a look!” As I strolled up and down the streets, I kept getting the urge to do the Indian head bob thing; the Indian energy was getting to me and head-bobbing seemed so natural there! On Arab Street (a 10-minute walk away from Little India), there was even a shop called “Aladdin” which was right around the corner from the Sultan Mosque. I felt like I could take a magic carpet ride all around the world while remaining in Singapore the entire time–it seemed that every major culture was represented at least in some small way.

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At the end of Arab Street in Singapore stands the majestic Sultan Mosque.

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During my jaunt through Little India in Sinagpore, I stopped by one of the hawker stands at the Tekka Food Centre so I could try the popular Indian dish called murtabak, a savory pancake filled with chicken, garlic, onion, and egg. I was also scoping out possible suitors for my college roommate who told me she’s looking for an Indian guy! These guys were on board with my match-making as that is a common thing for India!

For my last night, I planned a usual “date night with myself” and decided to catch the light show at Gardens by the Bay, another heralded national attraction that was planted right along the edge of Marina Bay and is maintained by the government. Gardens by the Bay is a huge public area with plants and flowers arranged into an extensive garden layout, and it is also a great public park for jogging, dog-walking, and family outings, similar in that regard to the Botanic Gardens. There are “flower domes” that are designed as greenhouses, mimicking cloud forests with beautiful tropical flowers and waterfalls on display inside. (There is a small entrance fee for the domes.) A “supertree grove” is a recent addition to the gardens; the supertrees are structures that are man-made in the shape of giant trees, but covered with real plants, ivys, orchids, and bromeliads which make them “living” supertrees with a watering system and all.

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Amidst the Gardens by the Bay, there is a great view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (top left) and the gardens have tropical flowers with robust colors, such as these red and yellow frangipanis (top right), scattered throughout them. The span of Gardens by the Bay can be seen from the roof top of the MBS Hotel (bottom–flower domes on left, supertree grove on right).

Twice a night, after sundown, there is a 15-minute light show in the supertree grove that is orchestrated to a mash-up of well-known symphonic numbers and Disney songs. Each supertree is adorned with strings of lights that change colors, swirl, and dance to the music. Observers sit at the base of these giant trees to view the show overhead. It really was a sort of magical experience. It reminded me of the ambience that can be experienced at Disneyland while watching Fantasmic across the lake in New Orleans Square or the Fireworks show over the Sleeping Beauty Castle with Tinkerbell dancing in the sky in sync with loud fairytale music. Of course the Disney effect was encouraged as Aladdin’s “Magic Carpet Ride” blared on the overhead speakers followed by The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea.” The light show closed out with The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” as its final number. A video clip of that last past of the show can be seen here: http://youtu.be/ATdLCg43Gqs

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The supertree grove comes to life every night creating an Avatar-like grove with bright, colorful lights illuminating these beautiful giants. The two nightly light shows are magical.

That evening, the best seat I found to watch the light show was right next to a gentleman named Andy, from London, who was visiting his son Adam, who lives and works in Singapore. Andy and I got carried away swapping stories until quite a while after the show had ended. I didn’t want to intrude on their father/son time too much, but they invited me to go along with them to continue our conversation over food and drinks at this neat restaurant/bar that Adam knew of with a great view of the MBS Hotel (and the hotel’s laser show) from the terrace where we sat. I was grateful for that time with them because I love good stories and Andy, who has a military background, was full of them! Andy lost his wife just a couple years ago and opened up to me about that experience as well–it was touching to see how much he adored her and still cherishes everything about her. I couldn’t help but appreciate how traveling connects people from all over the world in places and ways no one could ever predict.

Andy’s son, Adam, was the guy I referred to earlier in the chapter who enlightened me on how Singapore is run like a business. Adam has a background in journalism and travel writing, and he has been living in Singapore for six years, working now in consulting for the business world. He was sharp and knew a lot of the ins and outs of the country. There was a lot more that I wanted to pick his brain about, but we didn’t have much time and the attempts to meet up during my following two overnight layovers in Singapore never played out. In any case, he made me well aware of the tactics the country uses to bring attention (and therefore more money) to itself so it can maintain its place as a “top dog” in the world. Both MBS Hotel as well as the “Singapore Skyline” are landmarks that draw people in. (Mostly businesspeople and vacationing tourists, not so many backpackers!!) Hanging out with Andy and Adam was a great way to round off my time in Singapore.

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The Singapore Skyline: prominent business skyscrapers to the left, the Singapore Flyer reflected on the river in the middle, and three glowing supertrees from the Gardens by the Bay on the right.

When my five days were up, I felt like it wasn’t enough. I found myself quite intrigued with Singapore and even considering having a long-term relationship with the place. My curiosity was piqued and I wondered how long this perfect society will continue on its trajectory. Is it possible for other countries to achieve the same kind of equilibrium, and will other countries or extremist groups target Singapore and try to bring it down? I realized the answers to these questions will take time to reveal themselves, of course, so I decided not to wonder too hard… By that time, I was itching to get back to some smaller islands where things were generally simpler and I could actually just walk down the road a few minutes to get to the beach. The next country on my radar was the Philippines, a country made up of 7,000 islands, so I was definitely heading in the right direction!

TRAVEL TIP: Because Singapore is so well-known for its airport and most people just spend one night in the place due to an overnight layover, this tip is all about sleeping in airports. I did, in fact, return to Singapore two more times during my journey only because I had overnight layovers and one night I slept in the airport so I have some pointers for comfort, just in case you ever find yourself on a flight that you bought (because it was significantly cheaper than any others) with an overnight layover somewhere.

First of all, you must pack the following items in your carry-on as you will not likely have access to your checked luggage until your final destination: blanket, travel pillow, 1-2 pairs of socks, a pair of pants, a sweatshirt or jacket, something to cover your eyes (scarf/blindfold/bandana/eye cover), and earplugs. (Keep your toothbrush and other desired toiletries with you as well.)

Hopefully you can find a good chair or soft bench to sleep on, but you may end up on the ground somewhere so be prepared for that (depends on the airport!); if you are sleeping on the ground, try to find something to put between you and the floor (like clothing, a sarong, blanket, etc.) as this will help prevent losing your body heat to the cold ground.

When you are ready to go to sleep, get all bundled up–make sure you are warm!! Set an alarm on your phone, turn the ringer volume up (and put it on vibrate as well if you want), and keep it close. I usually hook an arm or a leg around the straps of whatever belongings I have with me and either tuck them against the closest wall or underneath some part of my body just to make sure no one runs off with them while I’m sleeping. If you have post-it’s or other paper, you can write down the time you need to get up and spread the notes around your sleeping area (in case you miss your alarm–some passer-by will know what time to wake you up).

Now you are ready! The most important things are earplugs and an eye cover if you want uninterrupted sleep. Cover your eyes, plug your ears, curl up, have a nice rest, and don’t miss your next flight!

Happy traveling!

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 11: Gili Island Hopping

After spending over two and a half weeks in Bali with time running out on my Indonesia visa, I decided to make a move so I could check out the Gili Islands, a chain of three very small islands to the east of Bali (and technically part of the territory of Lombok, the next large island to Bali’s east). My original plan was to spend 10 days on Bali, 10 days for the Gilis, and 10 days on Lombok, but I scratched Lombok from that plan once I hit two weeks in Bali. Why rush things?

Each of the three Gili Islands has its own style and while I had read descriptions about all of them and could have selected just one island that seemed like the best fit for me, they were so close together so I wanted to try each of them out. As I mentioned before, Bali is the only place in Indonesia where Hinduism is practiced; all the other places practice Islam, which is conservative in comparison to Hinduism, but it is much more relaxed in Indonesia than it is in the Middle East. Keeping the change of religion in mind, I tried to stay aware of cultural formalities out of both respect and safety.

THREE separate WORLDS on tiny neighboring islands.

Gili Trawangan

Gili Trawangan, often referred to simply as “Gili T,” is the largest of the three islands and the notorious party island. I didn’t get my hopes up for this one and decided to start with it because I thought I would like it the least. Anyone can walk the perimeter of the island in two to two and a half hours. There is a wide lane–made up of stone, concrete, dirt, or sand at any given stretch of it–that circles the island making it an easy path to follow. Motorized vehicles are actually prohibited on all three of the Gili Islands so the typical modes of transportation include walking, using a bicycle, or taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo. There aren’t very many docks and the ones that do exist were built only to accommodate certain types of boats so the majority of the boats just pull up close to shore, often requiring “wet landings,” people having to step into the water to get to the island (especially when the ever-fluctuating tide turns the shores into long stretches of shallow water).

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance.)

As soon as I arrived and walk up to the main strip, I immediately started missing Ubud and Bali in general. The street reeked of stale beer and there were puddles in the lane. Sadly, for exactly the same price, I gave up a hot shower, swimming pool, and fabulous family in Ubud for definitely NOT that on Gili T. In fact, for the first time since I arrived in Asia, I was actually very concerned about having a lock on my door–and even then I didn’t feel all that safe. The locals were friendly, but kind of too friendly for my taste–always trying to find out my plan for the day, then invite themselves along which didn’t fly with me. The vibe on the island was super laid back and many of the local men had wild hair and tattoos. They were the type of guys who might offer you magic mushrooms… Oh, wait–they were offering everyone magic mushrooms!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

The Gilis are famous for their white sand beaches, but the beaches on Gili T are less than inviting because they are dotted with large amounts of small rocks and coral pieces. Between the dirty, littered streets and the beaches that threatened to seriously hurt my feet, the thought of going barefoot as I had in Bali was not the least bit enticing. Besides consuming large amounts of alcohol and illegal substances, other popular activities offered on Gili T include snorkeling, diving, and renting a bicycle to go around the island. I just couldn’t relax much on Gili T so I decided to wait until I got to the other Gilis to pay for any activities. Also, despite public signs requesting that ladies wear more than just their bikinis around the island [when they were not on the beach] out of respect for the local Muslim culture, many female visitors disregarded those requests. I didn’t quite fit with the crowds–actually it was pretty far off–and I spent a lot of time dodging cigarette smoke and dreaming about getting back to Ubud and strategizing on how to work that back into my travel plan.

Everything about Gili T seethed

Everything about Gili T seethed “sex, drugs, and alcohol”–even the ice cream advertisements. This is just what the culture has become there.

I decided to stay for only two nights and used most of my one full day there as a work day and a day to walk around about half of the island to explore. Despite the crowds and the dirty/lazy feel of the place, I have to give Gili T credit for some of its positive assets which include some really nice restaurants and beach clubs right on the water, spectacular sunsets, and some of the freshest and most beautiful seafood that can be found in the ocean. These are the little treasures I indulged in on Gili T and for a couple hours at a time, I almost forgot that I was on Gili T. I would’ve stayed only one night, but I arrived late in the afternoon on the first day, and as luck would have it, the following day would be the full moon–and hence a “Full Moon Party” on the island, of course. The investigative writer in me is always looking for a good story so out of curiosity, I stayed. Plus, I had never actually seen magic mushrooms at work…

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The “mountains” in the distance behind which the sun is dipping are actually some of Bali’s volcanoes.

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

To my sheer disappointment, the highly anticipated Full Moon Party didn’t provide as much writing material as I wanted. In fact, it was pretty boring. There was loud techno music that people were not even dancing to, a few crowds scattered on the beach, and some local men trying to make friends with drunk girls. I walked down the main drag and and equated the rest of the scene to a typical college party with beer pong and everything. While I have a couple of friends who might have really enjoyed that setting, it didn’t tickle my fancy. And no spying on magic mushroom takers happened either. Bummer. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but I was a little bored, what can I say?

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

As I got back to the guesthouse just before midnight, the guys who ran the guesthouse and another girl who was staying there were getting ready to go out to start their night of partying and urged me to join them: “Alexa, come with us! It’s the Full Moon Party. Let’s go! C’mon. It’ll be fun.” I politely declined, saying that I already went and was ready for bed. (Plus, I hate it when people call me “Alexa” so I was irritated, especially when I had told him my name multiple times.) Call me a party-pooper, but I double-locked my door that night and made sure I got up nice and early the next morning as I did NOT want to miss the boat. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough…

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping--late night, ya know?

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping–late night, ya know?

Gili Meno

Quite the opposite of Gili T, the island that never sleeps, Gili Meno is so quiet that it is known as the “honeymoon island.” It is the smallest of the three Gilis and has a rustic feel to it. There isn’t much on the island besides some coconut plantations, seaside bungalows, and a handful of restaurants and beach clubs. Because this is a relatively secluded island, the prices of everything on the island are naturally higher than they are in other areas so affordable lodging options for me were few and far between.

Gili Meno is known as

Gili Meno is known as “the honeymoon island;” the businesses and resorts here are prepared to add those extra special touches for newlyweds.

I settled on a simple thatched-roof bungalow about 30 feet from the turquoise water that was softly rolling onto a white sand beach. With basic amenities including a toilet, a shower, a bed, and a porch (and salt, not fresh, water, I later discovered upon showering), creature comforts were definitely lacking, and while I would have appreciated to have a sink or wifi, I just went with it and decided to “unplug” for my entire stay on Gili Meno (which was only one day and night). Although I had electricity, I decided to take a break even from writing so I could have a refresh, get-in-touch-with-nature day–sometimes that is good for raising creativity level up a notch.

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I rented snorkel gear for ~$3 for the day and headed into the water, but I made the mistake of going in at low tide and spent the majority of time trying not to freak out as I dodged spiny sea urchins clustered together in close proximity to any or all of my limbs at any given time. While it wasn’t the most relaxing activity overall, I did find a few really nice spots with some of the most curious and fearless small fish I have ever seen. They might have just been territorial when I got close, but they didn’t seem to be afraid of approaching me or getting in my face. And the variety of fish species and colors of them just from what I observed snorkeling made me very excited for the diving I had in mind on the next island.

After dropping off my gear, I took off to walk around the island, without my flip-flops this time because the sand was slightly more walkable than that of Gili T (but barely!). I stopped and settled into a quiet little spot with my bum in the sand to watch the sun go down, then continued on my way all the way around back to my bungalow, arriving in the dark with only the bright moonlight guiding my way. The locals or other visitors that I came across on the island mostly kept to themselves, although they would all offer a polite greeting to match mine.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

For dinner, I stayed close and went to a small restaurant down the road, making myself comfortable in a reclined cushion with a small table right next to the sand. There was hardly anything between me and the water and the moon was still so big and bright and beautiful (because it was the night following the full moon). I felt like I was in a trance and to enhance that feeling, there was a local guy who started serenading the dinner guests with love songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I don’t know how long I stayed there even after I finished eating, but time just didn’t matter. At one point, I almost fell asleep so I finally got up and headed back to my bungalow.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The full moon (and the handful of days on either end of it) attracts certain fish–and a lot of them–so in the evenings, local fisherman line the beach and throw out their lines in hopes of making a great catch. There were a group of fisherman on the beach when I returned so I watched them for a while; it was high tide so the waves were big and crashing loudly a few feet away from them (and just a few feet farther from me). I couldn’t bear the thought of closing myself off from this magnificent melody of nature by sleeping inside my bungalow, so I grabbed my pillow, pulled down the hammock on the porch, and swung myself asleep outside to the rhythm of the sea. (A big difference from Gili T is that I actually felt safe doing this on Gili Meno.) The next morning, I got on the ferry to make the hop-skip-and-jump over to Gili Air.

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

Gili Air

Ahh. The Coffeeshop Island. As soon as I stepped off the boat, I knew this island would be my favorite of the three; it is the favorite for most people who visit the Gilis as it seems to be the perfect blend between the other two. However Gili Air is so much more than a mixture of the two other islands as it has developed its own cool vibe. The island is lively and seems to always have something going on, but everything winds down around 10 PM, and the crowds here are active, easygoing, and respectful. While I dubbed it the “coffeeshop island,” it is also the island that seems to have the most dive shops, and consequently, the chilled out diving culture. It’s almost as if coffeeshops and diving go hand-in-hand here.

I've dubbed Gili Air

I’ve dubbed Gili Air “the coffee shop island” exactly for this reason: laidback coffee shops line the shores all around the island. Some of the phrases on the signs at the entrance of this cafe include “Only Coffee, No Wifi,” “Life is Good so Be Easy,” “Enjoy Your Fresh Air,” and “Holiday No Stress.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.

I planned to stay four nights on Gili Air, and my “hopping” theme continued as I booked an expensive room (expensive for me is anything over $25; this was ~$32) for two nights at “7 Seas Cottages”–only because the hostel dorms were full, then I bounced over to “7 Seas Backpackers Hostel” for my last two nights at only $5/night. It’s not like I needed a fancy room when I was spending all my time outside soaking up everything about the island, plus, by saving money on lodging, I could work a couple dives into my budget.

Being on Gili Air was like this: Imagine getting a great night’s sleep. You wake up naturally in the morning and walk across the street to a restaurant on a white sand beach, then make yourself comfortable in an open bungalow with a table facing the bright blue water, where you enjoy a leisurely breakfast and maybe get a little work done. Then you head back to sunscreen up and collect your sunglasses, hat, beach towel (or sarong), and perhaps a book–equipping yourself with the necessities for spending the next couple hours on the beach or by the pool, soaking up the sun and taking an occasional dip in bathtub-temperature water. In the afternoon, you casually stroll down the road with maybe a fruit smoothie, a coffee, or a fresh coconut, just enjoying the people and activity on the island. By mid- to late afternoon, you’ve wandered far enough around to select the perfect spot for sunset viewing and get comfortable once again on either a beachside bungalow or a brightly colored bean bag in the sand, ordering a snack or a beverage while you wait for the sun to go down. After stopping back at your place for a quick shower and change of clothes, you go out one more time in search of a mellow dinner spot and have many options to choose from, most of which have their tables in the sand by the water’s edge, jazz music (or another set of relaxing tunes) and nice lighting dictating the ambience, and a large selection of fresh seafood and other local fare on the menu. And then you go back for another good night’s sleep.

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast:

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast: “Nasi Goreng,” or fried rice with vegetables and a fried egg on top (often served with a puff cracker), a plate of fruit, and coffee/tea. Very balanced! Oh, yeah–and this is a typical meal time view from the Gilis. Here, on Gili Air, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance…as well as a snorkeler on the right edge of the photo.

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime “relaxers” is a common thing on the Gilis.

That is pretty much how I spent my four days on Gili Air, with the exception of adding a couple dives in the mix. The sun and the fresh air had such an effect on me that I didn’t even bother watching the time–it all blurred together. I ate when I was hungry, walked when I was restless, and went to sleep when I was tired. And I slept like a baby every single night.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Of all the Gilis, Gili Air had the nicest beaches because the sand was softer so they were actually walkable. The water was easily accessible so many people were snorkeling just off the shore at all times of the day. And the sunsets might have even been the best on Gili Air, but I could be biased because I loved the island so much. I thought I was going to stop taking photos of all the sunsets, but I just kept taking more. I couldn’t get enough. And I wasn’t the only one: even the locals on the island paused everyday to gaze across the horizon as the sun put on its show-stopping performance, transforming into a giant red ball as if to say, “Don’t you dare forget me!” and passionately going out with a bang before disappearing from the view of its captivated audience, leaving a lasting impression on all. Brilliant.

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

For my budget’s sake, I waited to go SCUBA diving until my third day on Gili Air. (I knew once I started, I would be tempted to make it a daily activity!) Originally planning to dive with “7 Seas Dive” just across the street from and associated with my lodging choice, I went over to check out the operation, but wasn’t immediately convinced that that was the spot for me so I kept wandering down the street to see what I could find. (Dive shops are like lodging options–you need to check out a couple to find the right feel and fit for your tastes.) There was a place a little way down called “3W Dive” advertising an Early Morning Dive to a dive spot called Shark Point so I went up to enquire and met a dive instructor named Lise who was so steady and thorough in her explanation of their operation that I immediately signed up. We did paperwork and sizing for my equipment and parted ways with, “See you at 5:30 in the morning!”

Going on an early morning dive meant that we caught the sunrise first of all, but also that we were the only ones on [and in] the water as the other dive shops on the island wouldn’t have their boats out until around nine. Since I had gotten rid of my first-dive rustiness in Pemuteran Bay (in Bali), I felt very relaxed. In addition to that, Lise briefed our group of three divers so well before the dive, making sure all the underwater communication signals were clear and that all of our checkpoints were examined, that I felt extremely comfortable and in really good hands. I had never had such a professional, thorough pre-dive briefing before. Lise was so passionate about marine life and protecting it that it made me appreciate everything just a little bit more. She was all around wonderful.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer is Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer was Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

So, what did we see under there? Well, to start off, there were gardens upon gardens of healthy coral reef. It was really alive and visible–it looked like underwater flowerbeds lining the hills and valleys of the seafloor. With all the healthy coral came a varied assortment of fish, of course. There were so many different schools of fish–big fish, small fish, yellow fish, catfish! And they mostly lingered within or near the reef, in symbiotic relationships with the other tiny sea creatures. Some of the larger sea life we spotted included a huge Bumphead Parrotfish (which can usually be spotted a lot within a few days before and after a full moon), a Painted Spiny Lobster (like the one I was holding in the market on Gili T), a yellow, territorial Moray Eel, and a handful of turtles, both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles. The difference between the two types of turtles is that Green Sea Turtles tend to be large, have a very detailed and ornate shell, and sedate behavior (in other words, they are usually spotted resting or even sleeping); Hawksbill turtles are smaller, have a sort of pointed beak-mouth and a “dirty-looking” brownish shell, and are very active, constantly spotted eating underwater. Despite the fact that we were diving at “shark point,” my group didn’t see any sharks, but this brings up a very good point about diving: nature is unpredictable so it is best to dive with an open mind and a “see what we will see” attitude as opposed to assuming you will spot certain things, then coming back disappointed if you don’t see them.

The following day, I went on another morning dive (but this time, not so early). With Cristiana leading our group this time, three of us went in the water with her for another great underwater experience. This time, even though we were at “manta point” and didn’t see a single sting ray, we did find a baby white tip shark that we hung around and observed for a little while. Most sharks are hardly aggressive at all so there is no need to be afraid of them. We also spotted more turtles, Batfish, Moorish Idols (like Gill, Nemo’s mentor in the fish tank in Finding Nemo), a tiny crab and Pink Squat Lobsters [that look similar to feather stars], a Pineapple Sea Cucumber that was gigantic, and–my favorite fish for this dive–a yellow Majestic Angelfish with a beautiful violet-colored face.

I was so happy that I found “3W Dive” on the island. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It is the smallest dive shop on the island with one boat and only four instructors, maxing out the dive groups to only 3 divers per instructor. It is a well-run operation with efficient management, professional staff, and great service. There is great attention to detail and they prioritize giving divers a personalized experience. It is owned by a French man, and most of the people who work there are also French (but they all speak English pretty well!). I was so impressed with how tight-knit the “3W Dive” staff is–they are like a family, joking and playing around, but also very open to allowing their guests to be a part of their fun. Dive shop cultures tend to be easygoing in general, but there was something extra special about this group. * If anyone is looking for a dive shop recommendation for Gili Air, this is the spot. You can look them up on TripAdvisor or check out their website: http://www.3wdivegili.com. *

Speaking of culture, the Gili Islands seem to have two very distinct cultures that manage to function side-by-side: the local culture and the “foreigner” culture, which includes all short-term travelers and tourists plus all the non-Indonesian residents who live and work on the islands, running dive shops, restaurants, lodges, etc. The “foreigners” who live and work on the island are mostly French, while the tourist crowd consists of a ton of Australians and Europeans. (In my travels to this area, I have met only a handful of people from the United States; I suppose this is a little far away to take a short vacation.) These two worlds, or cultures, do not blend together well; in fact, it was difficult to tap into the local culture at all.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don't know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have "balancing arms" on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don’t know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have “balancing arms” on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

As tourism has picked up on the Gilis, it seems that the local men have a lot more interaction with visitors and are therefore more comfortable with them. On almost every island, the men were so comfortable that they had no problem approaching female visitors, especially solo females, striking up a conversation, and almost immediately inviting themselves along to whatever the person had planned for the day. This happened to me a couple times, but their attempts were never to any avail. In contrast, the women on the island really keep to themselves. With religious roots in Islam, the lifestyle for women is quite subdued, and this can be observed in the most basic form of how they dress: long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and a veil or scarf covering their heads and necks. It’s unbelievable to me how different “the rules” are for men and women! I made a small effort to connect to some of the women, but many of them were not the least bit interested, seemingly untrusting/resentful of me and closed off. (I did meet a really cool, modern young woman at a smoothie shop called Gili Bliss, and, if I could make a prediction, I suspect her dynamic personality and leadership tendencies will influence the changing culture for women on that island.) In any case, the culture here was quite the opposite from Bali’s and I found myself seriously missing my local Balinese lady friends and the [mostly] non-intrusive Balinese men.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

While four days is hardly enough time to create relationships, I fared pretty well with the 3W Dive shop crew when I wasn’t by myself. A few other activities I did included walking the perimeter of the island–non-stop, it could take about an hour and a half, but of course, I set up shop [for writing] in a place or two along the way–and, on my last night, having a candlelit dinner date night at a romantic authentic Italian restaurant called “Biba,” right on the water. (Solo date nights have become a habit of mine, usually on the last evening that I am in a place; it’s important to me to pause and reflect on the experiences and relationships that different places have provided me with.) I saw smoked salmon ravioli on the menu and was surprised to discover how much I was craving salmon. The Italian owner described the dish to me: handmade ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese in a tomato cream sauce mixed with pieces of smoked salmon–salmon that he imports from Norway to Java, where he has an Italian friend who smokes the salmon, then ships it to him. Sold. There was a part of me that felt like I should order seafood that came directly from the sea, but after diving and admiring the beauty of the underwater sea creatures, I felt better eating seafood that was more removed from my recent experiences. The dish was delicious!!

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

I had seen Lise on my way to dinner as I passed the dive shop and she had invited me to meet up with them after dinner as that night, they were having a celebration in honor of their manager, Mick, who had just stepped down from the position after three years and was getting ready to depart the island to pursue a new opportunity. So I swung back around after my meal and ended up hanging out with the dive shop “family” for the rest of the night. It wasn’t just the 3W Dive crew, though–it was about 25-30 French people in the “dive circle” all around the island; I was the only person there who didn’t speak French, but Lise included me anyway and allowed me to pick her brain for quite some time.

Lise is a 33-year-old French woman who left her corporate job a few years back, packed up her backpack, and took off traveling. (Perhaps this explains why we connected and could relate to each other so well!) She has been living on Gili Air for three years with her other half (who is also part of the diving world), and it has been their dream to open an Eco-Lodge on the island; they are breaking ground in 2 weeks. I asked her a lot about how they manage their relationships with locals and she explained to me that no matter what they do, they are never going to be accepted into the “local” culture because it comes down to money. While they have two or three close local friends, she explained that most people just end up asking her for money because they assume she has more because she is white. (This is a similar dynamic to what I experienced in Guatemala; it made me grateful that I was living at the same economic level as many people in my town which allowed for the development of deeper relationships; but I would be ignorant to think that I somehow slipped past being branded with the “rich American” stereotype nonetheless.)

Lise continued to tell me about the island and how it is led by a tribal “chief” who handles all the issues that arise. Crime is practically non-existent on the island and there is no police force either. Incidents, if any, are dealt with by the island chief because nobody wants to be involved with the police or justice system from Lombok–that is supposedly a terrible experience. Knowing that it takes time to learn how the local systems function in a given area, Lise and her boyfriend put in the three years on the island that were necessary before they could implement their dream project. When I asked about her survival strategy for blending into the island and being able to build a business there, she said, “Be discreet.” Anything and everything she and her partner do is with a low profile.

In addition to the great conversations I shared with Lise, I also had the opportunity to connect with Mick, also a French guy in his early 30s. I admired the quiet bond he had with some of the local men on the island and how they shared some inside jokes; I think it is easier for a single person to integrate in a local culture than it is for a couple. Mick preferred living in a very simple manner on the “inner island” where it is quiet and he could eat at the local spots and interact with the people at the heart of the island. He told me that it is quieter than ever now because the chief banned dogs from the island as well! There are only cats (except for one dog). As he was preparing for his pending departure, he reflected on some of the things he would miss about the island: the fresh, breathable air on the island because there are no motorized vehicles anywhere, only bicycles and horses pulling carts; the comforting jingle of the bells on the horse carts as they trot by on the road; the geckos in charge of “insect control” in the thatched-roof, open-to-the-air bungalows; and, of course, mango season, which starts in December.

Through Lise’s and Mick’s eyes, I got a glimpse of the inner workings of Gili Air; their perspectives made me appreciate the island even more. Also, they clearly demonstrated that this is how they have chosen to live their lives: people are still living even if they don’t have a 9 to 5 office job; a structured and predictable position working for someone else doesn’t define a person’s life–the options are endless. They both really love what they do. I am so grateful for those precious moments I spent with them and the stimulating conversation we shared. I could’ve stayed longer there, but I could feel the time pressure of my soon-expiring visa for Indonesia so I had to be on my way. As the boat pulled away from Gili Air, I blissfully watched the island disappear, knowing that a tiny piece of my heart would always be there.

—–

Back in Bali once again, I returned to my “home away from home” at Merthayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud, and once again, I was greeted with a warm, excited welcome from Wayan and the staff. They got used to me returning and started joking about this being my new home permanently. It was so refreshing to me to return to a place where the local people are so open and friendly. I felt so spoiled at the guesthouse, especially when they started serving me breakfast in my room so I could eat on my balcony and work at the same time (they even started bringing me second servings of fruit and tea). While I was considering returning to Bali for another two weeks after leaving to renew my visa, I ultimately made the decision to move on to a new place from there. And so I spent my last three days in Bali making preparations for the next leg of my journey and paying extra attention to the things and people I loved the most there. I even made it to another Acro Yoga “jam session” and fit in a couple nice visits with some of my Ubud friends, including Wayan, Mona, and Mark.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents' home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents’ home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

When flight day arrived–the same day as my visa was going to expire, I was feeling reluctant. “Ok. Fine. I guess I’ll go now… Only because you’re making me leave.” (That’s what I was expressing toward the Indonesian government in my head!) And it ended up being an emotional departure for me. Leaving Ubud this time, I knew that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon, and while I only spent a total of 15 days at the guesthouse (when I added up all 3 times I was there), I still developed a tight bond with everyone there, especially Wayan. (I didn’t even cry when Allan and I parted ways in Cambodia after 2 1/2 weeks together–but maybe that’s because I know the chance of seeing him again is greater…) So much growth, healing, peace, and love came into my heart while I was in Indonesia so it was only appropriate to recognize that. I sort of felt like a baby bird being pushed out of the nest here. But I know that you can’t stay in incubation forever, as nice, warm, and comfortable as it can be–once you’re ready, it’s time to fly. That day, the flying was literal for me–but there was no denying the transformation that took place during the last 30 days.

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of “flying,” which I am demonstrating here in “bird pose” with Jamie as my base.

TRAVEL TIP: This one I got directly from Allan. Snorkel before diving. SCUBA diving can be an expensive hobby so if you are going to engage, you’ll want to get your money’s worth every time. If you are in a place that offers diving, rent some snorkel gear (or use your own) and hop in the water to investigate first. Some things to look for include the state of the reef and marine life (does it look healthy or overrun?), the visibility (rainy season usually results in poor visibility), and the variety of creatures if that is important to you. If your “taste test” impresses you, then go for it–spend the money and enjoy the diving; but if it doesn’t, save your money and stick to snorkeling or choose another appropriate beach activity like swimming, surfing, or sunbathing. After my snorkeling appetizer in Gili Meno, I couldn’t wait to dive from Gili Air, and I was very pleased with my diving experience there.

{Still} Blissfully yours,

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 10: Monkey Business

Just like the elephants, monkeys seem to be everywhere throughout Asia and I have seem them in the wild in pretty much in every country I have visited up to this point (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia). Monkeys are also regarded as sacred, just as the elephants are, so it is appropriate that they get a chapter of their own. However, this is not as in depth as the elephant chapter was and it is mostly photos and videos. I did not research the monkey world so extensively, but sharing a little glimpse of their behavior I think will be enjoyable for everyone.

PRIMATES at PLAY

While I have seen monkeys all over the place, there have been a few places in particular where I have had more interaction with the monkeys so I am highlighting the top three spots. To sum up monkey behavior from what I have observed, they pretty much just spend their days eating, sleeping, playing, reproducing, and grooming each other.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Monkey troops were running around the temple grounds and surrounding forests the entire time. They were absolutely fearless when it came to humans and approached them to grab bags and steal food whenever they anyone got too close; the monkeys were acting as if the visitors’ food and drinks belonged to them. They made the temple ruins their home and playground, climbing up the walls, bouncing across the rooftops, and banging on whatever loud construction materials they could find on the buildings.

Video – Meandering Monkey in Angkor Wat in Cambodia [15 seconds]: http://youtu.be/wrsMvaVDzow

Monkeys were both on the ground and in the sky at the temples of Angkor Wat!

Monkeys were both on the ground and in the sky at the temples of Angkor Wat!

This monkey was quite happy with the jungle gym made out of reconstruction materials at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

This monkey was quite happy with the jungle gym made out of reconstruction materials at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Mt. Batur in Bali (Indonesia)

Near the top of Mt. Batur, the volcano I climbed for the sunrise hike in Bali, the wild monkeys also demonstrated casual comfort with humans. Some visitors were trying to feed the monkeys, which the monkeys were pretty excited about, but other than that, no had no interest in humans and went about their own business as usual, not caring one way ot the other about the large audience they had.

Video – Wild Young Monkeys on Mt. Batur in Bali [49 seconds]: http://youtu.be/1ob9Y7Pdtnk

Monkey grooming is some serious business! They've really got to concentrate...

Monkey grooming is some serious business! They’ve really got to concentrate…

Monkeys on My. Batur in Bali.

Monkeys on My. Batur in Bali.

This poor guy was chased off by two other male monkeys on Mt. Batur.

This poor guy was chased off by two other male monkeys on Mt. Batur.

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali (Indonesia)

This was the ultimate “monkey experience” as this is a large protected area where visitors are allowed daily so the monkeys have become accustomed to humans and are not usually bothered by them. While it is advised not to touch the monkeys or try to pet them or pick them up (as they can become aggressive if they feel threatened), if a monkey decides to approach or climb on a person, that is perfectly fine. There were guides inside monitoring the interaction between the monkeys and people in order to ensure that both sides felt safe and were being respected.

For information regarding monkeys and their habits, I took a picture of a sign inside and just copied everything exactly from the sign and wrote it below:

BALINESE LONG TAIL MONKEY

The population of the Balinese long tailed monkey — in English called macaque (Macaca fascicularis) — in Monkey Forest Ubud is about 600 monkeys. They are divided into 5 groups: Temple, Michelin, East, Central, and Cemetery, with different home range group. (In other words, the groups of monkeys each live in and defend a specific territory.) Each group may contain 100-120 monkeys consisting of: infant, juvenile 1, juvenile 2, sub adult male, adult female, and adult male.

Macaca fascicularis is active during daylight and rests during the night. The sexual maturities of males is age 4-5 years and in females about 3-5 years. The beginning of female menstruation is at the age of 2-3 years. The menstruation period is about every 28-31 days and lasts 2-7 days.

Females monkeys are pregnant for nearly 6 months and usually have only one infant, rarely twins. Infants stay with their mothers for about 10 months, receiving breast milk for the first 6 months, then, at 6 months, they start learning to eat other foods as well.

The average weight for females is 2.5 kg to 5.7 kg, and the males are 3.5 kg to 8 kg. Sometimes their weight can reach up to 11 kg. The lifespan of males is up to 15 years; for females, it can be up to 20 years.

The long tailed macaques are omnivores. In the Monkey Forest Ubud, the main food of the monkeys is sweet potato, given 3 times a day, and combined with banana, papaya leaf, corn, cucumber, coconut, and other local fruit. (They also eat the bugs they pick off of their furry friends during the never-ending grooming sessions.)

—–

*Monkeys Eating*

Video – Feeding Monkey on a Bench at Sacred Monkey Forest [14 seconds]: http://youtu.be/BXAqiIvc8Yc

Monkey munching on a sweet potato.

Monkey munching on a sweet potato.

Momma monkey gnawing on a banana while her baby nurses.

Momma monkey gnawing on a banana while her baby nurses.

Got bananas?

Got bananas?

Momma monkey working on a coconut with her baby nearby.

Momma monkey working on a coconut with her baby nearby.

*Monkeys Grooming Each Other*

Video – Monkey Grooming at Sacred Monkey Forest [31 seconds]: http://youtu.be/N-2YGgF8xFw

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*Monkey Babies and Mommas*

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This is clearly a baby boy -- isn't his double-mohawk adorable?

This is clearly a baby boy — isn’t his double-mohawk adorable?

This little one fell asleep nursing! Any mommas out there who can relate?

This little one fell asleep nursing! Any mommas out there who can relate?

Cutie pie! Wish I could take her home...

Cutie pie! Wish I could take her home…

*Monkeys Just Chillin’ Out*

Video – Monkey Troop at Sacred Monkey Forest [1 minute]: http://youtu.be/QB4HSWldRR4

Again, lounging on a temple (top) and snoozing on the forest floor (bottom).

Again, lounging on a temple (top) and snoozing on the forest floor (bottom).

Chillin' like a villain, this monkey had got to be the coolest chick in the forest, hands down.

Chillin’ like a villain, this monkey has got to be the coolest chick in the forest, hands down.

*Monkeys and Humans*

Video – Monkeys Playing Around (and on me!) at Sacred Monkey Forest [1 minute]: http://youtu.be/j8kw_0Ys8yE

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TRAVEL TIP: Monkeys can be quite the little thieves so if you ever find yourself in close quarters with free monkeys, remove and secure anything loose or shiny on your person such as sunglasses, hats, watches, jewelry, etc. Keep your bags and purses closed tightly and don’t tempt the monkeys. If you have food in your bag or in your hand, don’t expect to have it for very long–they will find it and take it from you. And if you try to hang on to your stuff to prevent them from stealing from you, they will bite you. Just let it go. Also, do not look a monkey in the eyes as eye contact is a sign of aggression and the monkey will take it as a threat and go ballistic–maybe on you. You probably don’t want that to happen…

Yours truly,

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 9: Barefoot in Bali

I think I got younger while I was in Bali. Seriously. I didn’t realize how much bumming around barefoot could do for the spirit. I had actually been a little wary of traveling to Bali because of how popular it is as a vacation destination for westerners. (In case you’re not familiar with the term “westerners,” it is used to collectively describe people from developed “western” countries such as the Americas, Europe, and Australia–as opposed to the “eastern” Asian countries and parts of Africa.) After enjoying my time in parts of the Southeast Asia mainland that are considered off the beaten path as they are still underdeveloped, I feared that the “white people” crowds might take away from the authenticity of Bali. Thanks to my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

A JEWEL in the middle of INDONESIA

I was interrogated upon arrival at passport control in the airport. It took me a moment to realize what was going on and then I had to think really fast and smile big as I laid out my travel plans, feigning confidence and trying to show how eager I was to leave Indonesia in a month so I could either gallivant through Timor-Leste or explore Singapore–despite not really having much of a plan at that point. Apparently entering Bali on a one-way ticket and claiming to be a writer raises some yellow flags; women with Elizabeth Gilbert Syndrome must have become an increasing threat to Balinese immigration in the past decade (since the release of her book, Eat, Pray, Love and the movie that followed starring Julia Roberts). For a second, I thought the guy wasn’t going to let me in, but I got clearance and, like all United States citizens, a free 30-day tourist visa. I didn’t realize what the big deal was until I got settled in and walked to the beach. Then I understood why people come here and never want to leave.

Seminyak

For a first stop, Seminyak, in the south/west of Bali came highly recommended by Allan, who has traveled to Bali in the past. He suggested that I avoid Kuta, the town two beaches south from Seminyak (yes, I measured by beaches); he said that Kuta is packed with young, obnoxious Aussies who are just having a non-stop party while Seminyak is a more easygoing, civilized place, although still busy. He also suggested that I book ahead this time; because I was flying in, I couldn’t just walk down the street and go guesthouse-hopping–I needed to arrange for a ride out of the airport this time so it was smart to have a pre-planned destination. Also, for the first time, I actually booked a hotel–a real hotel–for my stay with breakfast included for $21/night.

Seminyak reminded me of Southern California in many ways. It almost felt like home! (Except that I’m a NorCal girl, not from SoCal.) The people walking around Seminyak with their hard bodies, deep reddish-brown tans, and “pretty people” vibes were the first indications that brought Southern California to mind. When I got to the beach, I was further convinced of my parallel comparison by the same grayish-golden sand, the dark green ocean, and the constant pounding of big waves similar to those in California. There were surfers, joggers, and tanners on the beach, neon-colored swimwear and lots of activity. The town itself is filled with little boutique shops lining the streets and is well-known for being the place to do lots of shopping–also similar to some parts of the SoCal scene. Just before sunset, bars and restaurants come alive with strings of lights and multi-colored umbrellas and bean bag chairs for people to get comfy and listen to live music while they watch the sun sink below the horizon as it paints the sky in shades of red, orange, and purple; it’s kind of like an adults-only version of Disneyland, with drinks replacing the rides but all the same colors and energy. (Ok, maybe that one is a bit of a stretch as nothing can really compare to Disneyland.) To top off the SoCal feel, of course Seminyak had its share of bodacious [unnaturally] blonde babes with their blown-up boobies and lips. I found myself thoroughly entertained by the scene of it all.

The beaches in Seminyak are splashed with color and made for a perfect spot for lounging around, sunset-viewing, and even getting some work done.

The beaches in Seminyak are splashed with color and made for a perfect spot for lounging around, sunset-viewing, and even getting some work done.

I actually really liked Seminyak, both for its chicness as well as for how busy it was. Despite being alone, I found that I could blend in better in this bustling place than I can in quieter areas, which helped me get “in the zone” and be productive–even though I spent the majority of my time with my toes in the sand. The weather was fantastic with temperatures in the mid-80s with significantly lower humidity than the Southeast Asia mainland. It was nice to not be dripping sweat after taking 10 steps outside as I had been on the mainland! I tucked away my elephant pants in exchange for my bathing suit, sarongs, and sundresses, and while I could have gone without all the traffic and stupid horn-honking, an easy remedy for that was a 15-minute walk to the beach. There were plenty of people but not an overwhelming amount because it was September (“low” season, although there never really seems to be a shortage of visitors in Bali), and it was such a relief to have access to certain amenities that had been lacking in recent parts of my journey (i.e. paved roads and flushing toilets).

During my first full day there, I strolled southward along the beach to investigate the next two towns down, Legian and Kuta. The trend along the beach towns goes like this: Kuta is the farthest south with kind of dirty beaches smattered with rocks and coral pieces. The crowd is young, the waves are constant, food and surf board rentals are very cheap, and with the hordes of people come the inevitable “hawkers,” or vendors walking around selling goods such as bracelets, sarongs, toys/kites, and food. People have rights to sell stuff everywhere, but it can get annoying when they follow you around, trying to either guilt you into making a purchase or convince you that you NEED whatever it is that they are offering. You say, “No, thank you,” and they counter with, “Why not?” It’s a clever tactic that must work often on tourists because so many of the hawkers are now conditioned to using that phrase as soon as someone even thinks about saying no. As a rule of thumb, it is best to just not engage at all or avoid eye contact with people selling stuff as then they probably won’t bother with you much; once you show the slightest bit of interest, you’re in for it. But if you DO want to buy something, have at it–and don’t forget to use your bargaining skills! I did a little bit of bargaining with a lady selling fruit for a gigantic fresh mango to snack on; I had never seen a mango so big and it was juicy and delicious.

Balinese woman peeling a large mango on the beach in Bali.

Balinese woman peeling a large mango on the beach in Bali.

To the north of Kuta lies the town (and beach) of Legian. Here, the beaches are slightly cleaner and less crowded than they are in Kuta, and there is a slightly older mix of people in comparison to the Kuta partygoers. This trend continues as the beaches stretch north to Seminyak and then to Kerobokan: the crowds are more mature, the beaches are cleaner, things are overall nicer and more expensive. Also, as the beach stretches to the north, it is lined with fancy resorts and Vegas-style beach clubs. Everyone is welcome, however, the prices of food and drinks are cranked up two to three times the price of what you could eat and drink for down in Kuta. Perhaps they do this to weed out the crowd who is just looking to get drunk on cheap beer… People definitely pay for quality of experience!

Another sunset viewing in Bali, but this time for the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak.

Another sunset viewing in Bali, but this time for the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak.

While I saw all kinds of people from big groups of young adults to families vacationing, expats and retirees to honeymooners, the dominant theme was short-term vacationers. This strip of beaches is a popular area on Bali specifically because it is close to the airport so people have easy access and not much fuss getting around. Also, this area on Bali is known for being an ideal place to surf because the waves are constant and have long, steady breaks, making it a great spot for beginners to learn and practice. In fact, the entire strip of the beach is lined with surf schools and surf board rental stands. Surfers and honeymooners come here and just stick around the same spot for their vacation because they have access to everything they want in one spot–waves, sun, sand, and in the case of the honeymooners, each other. Every time I went out to eat, I felt like there were honeymooners at every other table, especially at the fancy beach club restaurants.

The beach clubs along the beach in Seminyak are a popular hangout spot for honeymooners in Bali.

The beach clubs along the beach in Seminyak are a popular hangout spot for honeymooners in Bali.

Toes in the water, bum in the sand, not a worry in the world… That is pretty much how I spent my time in Seminyak. (As you can probably tell from now, there wasn’t much else to do there!) I did a lot of walking on the beach and hardly ever looked at the time. I went south on Day 1, then explored to the north on Day 2; on Day 3, I stayed close to “home” in Seminyak…on the beach again, of course. I also did my fair share of shopping as I probably walked past nearly a hundred shops per day. Options included clothing shops, surf shops, stores selling sandals, t-shirts, sunglasses, hats, souvenirs, artwork, furniture, sculptures–you name it. It was hard not to take notice so I ended up with a new dress, new sunglasses, and another tank top–none of which I actually needed but I have used/worn everything so far so it’s all good. Plus, I got a thrill out of bargaining down to a suitable price: I worked on the dress for three days and ended up paying just under 60% of the original price quoted to me. (Please note that vendors expect to bargain and they will never go under the actual price of the item so it’s not like you are ripping them off by paying less than the quoted price; if you are trying to pay less than what the item is worth, they just won’t sell it to you, but it’s up to you to work the price down!)

On my last full beach day, I finally rented a surf board and took to the waves. How could I not being that I was in the prime surf spot? While the last time I surfed was slightly disastrous (the board whacked me in face, busting my lower lip open), I figured I’d give it another shot and this time it wasn’t so bad. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work going against the ocean current and positioning the board in the right spot to catch the waves and ride them in to shore. Once I got up a couple times, I started getting greedy, wanting to go farther out and catch the bigger waves. The salt water was refreshing and the experience was stimulating. Toward the end of the session, when I was starting to get tired, I was pulled under two times in a row by big back-to-back waves with water forcing itself up my nose and into my ears–NOT fun!!! I thought, “Hmm. Maybe I should stop now.” So I caught a couple more easy rides to end on a positive note, then called it a day, returning my board and replenishing my energy with a fresh coconut.

I was totally excited to take out a surf board for the day and ride some waves on Seminyak beach in Bali.

I was totally excited to take out a surf board for the day and ride some waves on Seminyak beach in Bali.

What else should you do after a day of surfing besides sip on a fresh coconut on the beach?

What else should you do after a day of surfing besides sip on a fresh coconut on the beach?

That stretch of beaches is very safe to the point that I was even comfortable walking along it at night. With all the restaurants, resorts, and shops lining it, there are security guards out there all the time and a good handful of other nighttime beach-walkers. I came across some local fisherman one night with their nets out catching small mackerel fish; they don’t come out every night, just when the waves are big like they were that night. A security guard translated for me and explained that the fisherman make the catch primarily for their families, but if they have more than they need, they will sell the extra fish in the market. It was nice to actually see some locals enjoying the beach, although it was more for practical purposes.

A local Balinese fisherman gathering his catch of mackerel on the beach at night when the tide was high on Seminyak beach.

A local Balinese fisherman gathering his catch of mackerel on the beach at night when the tide was high on Seminyak beach.

Another interesting beach experience I had was when I was south along the beaches of Kuta and Legian. In addition to westerners vacationing, there were also flocks of people on vacation from Java and Jakarta–places and islands in Indonesia to the west of Bali. (Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia.) In all of Indonesia, Bali is the most open-minded place and has maintained a consistent cultural belief in Hinduism, while much of the rest of Indonesia follows Islamic values; while their religious system is not as extreme as it is in the Middle East, it is still much more conservative than Bali’s. So to all the young people vacationing from Java and Jakarta, seeing white people in bathing suits was a tourist attraction in and of itself. They kept approaching me, asking, “Hello, Missus. Can I take a photo…with you?” The first group that came up to me were guys in military uniforms and it freaked me out! I grabbed my sarong and covered up really fast, but I soon realized that their requests were innocent and harmless. I tried to avoid this as much as possible but they were up and down the entire stretch of southern beaches! I acquiesced a couple times, realizing that most of these boys were just teenagers on vacation–I was a teenager once, and I can recall a time or two (or a lot!) when my friends (or sisters) and I found entertainment by trying to spot “cute boys” and even asking to take photos with them. Also, whenever a girl from Java/Jakarta asked for a picture with me, I said, “Of course,” as I will always be an advocate for opening women’s minds and showing them that there are endless lifestyle options all over the world for women.

I made a deal with the military boys from Jakarta who approached me on the beach in Kuta that if they got a photo with me, I would get a photo with them as well!

I made a deal with the military boys from Jakarta who approached me on the beach in Kuta that if they got a photo with me, I would get a photo with them as well!

I wrapped up my time in Seminyak with my bum in the sand at the edge of the water listening to live music until late. Then I headed back to my hotel and chatted it up with Arinie, the lady who pretty much ran the hotel, with whom I had become friends during my stay there. I was asking her a lot about the local customs and she was intrigued by my travel stories being that in her 30-something years of life, she had never once left the island of Bali. She thought I was the funniest person ever as I animated sleeper bus and border crossing stories to her. I felt like she really looked out for me while I was there; it’s an awesome feeling to know that you have friends in a place away from home and are welcome anytime. I also have a place to refer any of my friends who might be traveling to this area someday…

Live music at susnset on the beach in Seminyak on Bali.

Live music at susnset on the beach in Seminyak on Bali.

Ubud

Ubud is a lovely town located inland on Bali, as opposed to being on the coast like many of the other well known tourist towns are. The Balinese way of life is very present despite the fact that there has been an influx of western foreigners to the area over the past several decades. Ubud is the town in Bali that served as the setting for the “Love” section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love journey, and I can see why. Ubud is a place of great healing and transformation for any person who spends a little time there, and I will attribute that to the Balinese people for being so open, warm, friendly, and spiritual. They set the tone in that town and the trends have continued as the place has become a center for achieving balance and healing in one’s life. People have access to yoga and meditation, de-tox programs, cleansing, palm readings, tarot cards, crystals, energy healing, and fresh organic food; many restaurants offer an array of vegetarian and vegan dishes in line with the “healthy” theme of the community. I would consider Ubud to be borderline hippie-ish, but not weird like Berkeley which is what makes it so cool. There is just a constant flow of positivity, optimism, peace, and love in the air. Not romantic love like the honeymooner vibe in Seminyak, but self-love–people all over who are so happy with themselves that they emanate joy and support toward anyone and everyone with whom they come into contact.

Ubud has capitalized on the fame it has received from the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat, Pray, Love.

Ubud has capitalized on the fame it has received from the success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love.

My original idea was that I’d spend three or four days in Ubud to do some yoga, check out the traditional Balinese dancing that Ubud is known for, and maybe climb a volcano, then move on. But Ubud sucks people in and tends to have this effect repeatedly on people. I ended up extending my stay to eight days the first time around–and it wasn’t the only time that happened.

The first factor was the guesthouse I found. I take that back: it found me. There aren’t any hostels in Ubud and there really aren’t very many hotels in town either; if there are hotels, they are farther out. Balinese families live in big housing compounds with many separate rooms that are not always occupied. Many families started renting out these extra rooms to visitors which goes hand-in-hand with allowing visitors to be a part of their homes; if a family has the resources, they may even build separate structures within their housing compound specifically for guests.

Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse was set up in this way. I was recruited off the street–by Nyoman, a middle-aged Balinese man with very little English–during my usual “guesthouse investigation” walk and led down a side alley and through an ornate entrance to this Balinese home. To Nyoman, I was a hard sell. I had already seen a couple places and knew I could get a place for cheaper than what he was asking so I requested to see multiple rooms. (Little did he know that for me, it was less about the price and almost entirely dependent on whether I felt like I would be able to get in my writing zone or not–space and ambience dictate.) The third room that Nyoman showed me sealed the deal: it was down in a garden away from the main area so it was quiet and peaceful, and the room itself was spacious and had a lot of natural light. I felt like I was in a small hotel the way everything was so clean and smartly decorated, and for only $17/night, this was a steal–especially because there was a beautiful pool AND a hearty breakfast included every morning which consisted of usually a banana pancake with chocolate (or an option to have eggs), a plate of fruit, and coffee or tea.

My fabulous room by the garden at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud. The frangipani flowers decorating the bed, desk, and bathroon added the perfect touch for a tropical welcome.

My fabulous room by the garden at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud. The frangipani flowers decorating the bed, desk, and bathroon added the perfect touch for a tropical welcome.

The guesthouse was a short walk, less than five minutes, from the famed Yoga Barn so that was convenient. Yoga Barn runs daily yoga and meditation classes from 7 in the morning until 6 at night that are led by some well-known instructors; in addition, they offer and host full day workshops, community health talks, dance lessons, and yoga instructor courses and have a health food cafe/restaurant on the premises. People who come to Bali just for yoga are known to spend full day after full day at this place. People can pay per class or get a 3-class, 5-class, 10-class, or one-month pass; the price per class goes down as the number of classes purchased goes up. I started with a 5-class pass, but when I extended my stay, I bought another 3-class pass. Attending Yoga Barn classes was probably the best investment I made while I was in Ubud and it was right in line with my “barefoot” theme only now it was in a yoga studio, not on the beach.

When I started traveling, I told myself I would do yoga or stretch daily. Who was I kidding? Moving around and changing settings so often is not conducive for any kind of routine. But when I finally participated in guided yoga and meditation sessions, my body responded, “Oh!! Thank you! It’s about time I got some attention and balance again!” And that’s exactly how it felt. From Iyengar to a Tibetan Bowl Meditation, Yin Yoga Healing, Vinyasa Flow, and Women’s Balance Yoga, I exposed my body and mind to all sorts of stimulation it had been craving. Yoga is not just about stretching and crazy positions; in many cases, it is actually about the mind, letting go of control, and leaning into what feels new and uncomfortable as opposed to resisting it. Our bodies know exactly how to heal themselves and achieve equilibrium, however, in our fast-paced lifestyles, we often get accustomed to relying on our bodies to be “on” all the time without giving them much of a break. It is amazing what can happen when we pause for a few moments to let our bodies recuperate–they definitely reward us for showing them some love!

While I didn’t feel much of a connection to either the Yoga Barn atmosphere or all the people hanging out there, I would still say that it was the best thing I did because the classes were so well-run and the instructors were constantly teaching us and explaining everything during the practice. I learned so much about the lines, meridians, and chakras of the body, how each one is in sync with particular emotions, issues, and stressors in our daily lives, and how to properly address any issues that arise or just give a little love to different, sometimes forgotten, parts of our impressive body-mind system. You don’t have to be a “yogi” to do yoga (“yogi” is a term usually used to describe fervent yoga practitioners, although technically anyone who is at a yoga practice is considered one), and I think this idea sometimes blocks people from showing up and trying it.

The majority of the classes I attended were maxed out at around 35 people, ranging from first-timers to advanced practitioners and even other instructors. The packed classes usually filled up about 15 minutes before they began which meant that I witnessed some very aggressive hard-core yogis run-walking past everyone else trying to get to the front of the line to ensure their spot in the class. Yogis tend to have a reputation for being mellow and peaceful people so I was highly entertained by this display of urgency; luckily once the classes began, people became calm again and usually everyone was very pleasant after a practice had ended.

The largest session I attended was in the upstairs open area of the barn that held about 80 people and it was packed to the brim for a Vinyasa Flow (the fast-paced, strength and balance-focused type of yoga that most people think of when the term yoga is brought up) session led by Les Levanthal, a world-renowned drug-addict-turned-yogi from San Francisco. He has a great story and an even greater personality. He kicked our butts to well beyond the point of dripping sweat and feeling a whole lot of burn and he managed to be hilarious throughout the entire 90-minute session–urging us to push, hurt, sweat, sing along to Billy Joel on the stereo, and stand on our heads all at the same time. He was just as funny as he was intense and appreciated and loved by all.

A snapshot of the class at Yoga Barn as they gathered for Les Levanthal's Vinyasa Flow session.

A snapshot of the class at Yoga Barn as they gathered for Les Levanthal’s Vinyasa Flow session.

In addition to yoga practice, I spent a couple of my sessions in the meditation realm. I have never in my life experienced what I did during the two guided meditation sessions that I attended, and I am kind of surprised that I wasn’t scared of returning after my first experience. Cross-legged and sitting in a large circle holding hands with closed eyes, participants are led through guided breathing rhythms while focusing on each of the seven main chakras, one at a time, starting from the sacrum and working up to the crown. I can’t explain it so I won’t even try, but each person has a unique response which will often manifest in some physical way such as crying, laughing, sweating, cramping, shouting, rocking, screaming, or even howling or fainting–I witnessed it all with my eyes closed. Or sometimes there is no response, it just depends. The meditation sequence serves as a catalyst for people to free their emotions. The two experiences I had were completely different from each other: while I will spare the details, the theme of my first experience was very clearly about release, and it was followed by a second meditation three days later that was dominated by a sense of overwhelming joy trailed by clear signs of healing, openness, and inner peace. Both were unforgettable and amazing experiences and while I likely won’t be doing this meditation on a regular basis, I respect the power and impact it can have on anyone who is open to the experience of it. Again–the body and mind reward those who show up and are present with them.

It took me until my second time back in Ubud to finally let curiosity get the best of me and show up to an Acro Yoga session at Yoga Barn, which is a combination of acrobatics and yoga together and is practiced in pairs, with a “base” and a “flyer.” I had been brushing this class off thinking I wasn’t strong enough, but that was half the battle as Acro Yoga is very much a mental game requiring the utmost trust and communication not only with one’s partner, but also with oneself. Falls, loss of balance, and a reluctance to try are rarely because of a lack of physical ability but instead occur when doubt is allowed to enter the mind causing to a loss of focus and trust in one’s own ability. While core strength is important, Acro Yoga involves “bone stacking” which takes the pressure off the muscles. I connected immediately to a handful of Acro Yoga people, participated in Acro “jams” (informal practice outside of a an organized class) out of curiosity to see what my body could do, and soaked up as much knowledge as possible from one of the instructors, Mark, a fascinating Dutch entrepreneur willing to share his many thoughts and ideas with me.

Acro Yoga with Jamie and Mark--both great partners! I loearned a lot from both of them.

Acro Yoga with Jamie and Mark–both great partners! I loearned a lot from both of them.

In Ubud, there are generally three types of foreigners: the short term “tourists” who are only there for a few days to go/see/do and leave, the long term ex-pats and young business people who have decided to make Ubud their home because they like the open, healthy vibe of the place, and the lost or confused wanderers who are seeking direction, cleansing, a new start, etc. While I could find things in common with all these groups–wanting to see the cool things in Ubud, being on a very focused mission to write, and undeniably passing through a transitional phase in my life (although I do not consider myself “lost” by any measure), I didn’t strongly identify with any of them while I was in Ubud, and I especially tried to avoid the people “trying to find themselves” as giving my time away would pose a threat to finishing my project. I was, in fact, trying to be anti-social after all and I had absolutely no problem lounging by the pool, dressing up and taking myself out to nice dinners, working at the Jazz Cafe and other local spots, and indulging in many scoops of gelato night after night all by myself. I loved every minute of it.

The pool and a view of some of the rooms at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud.

The pool and a view of some of the rooms at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud.

The more time I spent there, I did inevitably build some relationships. There was a German lady named Ramona, or “Mona” for short, who was also staying at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse and spending a lot of time doing yoga. She had been in Bali for about five months, leaving only to renew her visa and then come right back. While initially we didn’t talk much, we found that we had quite a bit in common. She was on her own healing journey and also in transition. It was great to be able to share some of the experiences we were both having in yoga and meditation with each other because it can be a lot to process on one’s own. Mona had another friend named Tanya, also from Germany, who arrived while I was there and spent a good week or so doing exactly what we were both doing: yoga and relaxing. I came to adore both of these women and really appreciate their insights and companionship.

My German friends Tanya (on the left) and Mona (on the right) with me here at the Yoga Barn Cafe. We all stayed at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud and became very close during our time in Bali.

My German friends Tanya (on the left) and Mona (on the right) with me here at the Yoga Barn Cafe. We all stayed at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud and became very close during our time in Bali.

In addition to those two ladies, I became close with Wayan, the woman who runs Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse, and her 4-year-old daughter, Naya. Wayan is an amazing woman. She is energetic, personable, and efficient. Her husband and his family have several business and Wayan has become a critical part in helping those businesses thrive. In addition to Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse, they have Mertayasa 1 (the original guesthouse), plus Wayan’s father-in-law runs a small corner store, Wayan’s mother has a little shop of her own, and Wayan also has a small shop where she sells silks, scarves, sarongs, and other fabrics. Wayan is the life blood of Mertayasa 2 as it is a part of her actual residence. With so many responsibilities, she is always very busy, but she manages to prioritize her guest’s needs in addition to happily fulfilling her familial, religious, and communal duties. Wayan is great with foreigners because she is so outgoing and talkative and she makes a serious effort to be welcoming and accommodating to her guests, inviting them to make her home theirs while they are there.

One day, Wayan invited me to go with her around town to run her daily errands. I said, “Absolutely!” and basically had “A Day in the Life of Wayan” as she woke me up at 5:45 in the morning and we hopped on her motorbike so we could make it to the market by 6 AM where she bought breakfast for all of her staff at both guesthouses, groceries for her parents, and other snacks and items that her father-in-law would sell at his shop. We made the rounds through town to drop off everything to everyone, and she had me taste some of the local sweets with coffee at her father-in-law’s shop as she prepared her own shop to be opened for the day. We returned around 8 AM, just in time for another breakfast! Wayan had a few other things to do that morning, but she wanted to take a break from work and “escape” on a trip to some of Ubud’s famous rice terraces with me in the afternoon. Many tourists to Ubud make a point to see the beautifully manicured neon green rice terraces so it was fun for Wayan to play tour guide with me and take me there. We had a great time hanging out like sisters, hiking up and down the terraces, enjoying lunch, and even bargaining for a freshly-woven coconut palm hat that Wayan knew I wanted. It was a great day and I was very happy to see the real life of the Balinese people in Ubud.

Wayan and I and our shenanigans at the rice terraces just outside of Ubud.

Wayan and I and our shenanigans at the rice terraces just outside of Ubud.

Here I am at the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali.

Here I am at the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali.

There is one Balinese custom that particularly stood out to me and that is the “cenang” (pronounced “tcha-NONG”). The cenang are small baskets woven from banana leaves and filled with fresh flowers and petals, an incense stick, and a small piece of cake/cookie/candy. They are prepared every single morning and then made as a daily offering to the gods, honoring them, giving thanks, and asking for good health and safety. The cenang are deliberately placed in special spots including on the sidewalks and in doorways to homes and businesses, on the dashboards to people’s vehicles, and by altars within every home. Tied to Hinduism, this daily ritual is practiced by all Balinese people. Wayan told me that she and her mom prepare about 150 cenang every single day for all the special places in her home, her parents’ home, and all the shops they have! I absolutely fell in love with this practice and looked forward to both Wayan’s mom and her grandfather-in-law passing by my room every day to deliver the cenang as well as other offerings to their indicated spots. Grandpa is in his 80s or close to 90, I think, and I absolutely adored him and waited to watch him make his rounds every morning. It was comforting to me, and he knew I was watching him–we didn’t ever speak, but he would glance my way, I would smile and nod, then he would look away go about his business. This ritual was awe-inspiring and a great reminder of how important it is to pause every day to acknowledge and give thanks to our Creator. I admire the Balinese people for holding this tradition.

The Balinese "cenang." Top left: A woman selling prepared cenang at the early morning market. Top middle: A cenang on the reception desk where Arinie worked (and where I stayed) in Seminyak. Top right: Wayan preparing cenang for the day at her father-in-law's shop. Bottom: Cenang close-up, filled with flower petals, grass, a piece of candy, a frangipani flower, and a lit incense stick.

The Balinese “cenang.” Top left: A woman selling prepared cenang at the early morning market. Top middle: A cenang on the reception desk where Arinie worked (and where I stayed) in Seminyak. Top right: Wayan preparing cenang for the day at her father-in-law’s shop. Bottom: Cenang close-up, filled with flower petals, grass, a piece of candy, a frangipani flower, and a lit incense stick.

Wayan's grandpa-in-law and her mother making their morning rounds of daily offerings to the gods and Bali spirits.

Wayan’s grandpa-in-law and her mother making their morning rounds of daily offerings to the gods and Bali spirits.

Everything in Bali is so colorful and the people are so welcoming and friendly. Everywhere I went, I saw artwork that was splashed in rainbow colors, tropical flowers decorating doorways, houses, and restaurants, and bright clothing and fabrics. People smile and talk to each other, and the energy of the community is so vibrant that visitors can’t help but love the place. The frangipani flowers are so commonly seen and used everywhere in various shades of white, yellow, pink, and red and emitting a lovely fragrance that they have become a symbol of Bali. The only drawback in Bali is the traffic and all the horn-honking from motorbikes can be irritating, but that’s about it. The Balinese pride themselves on making a good impression on visitors so they are open and respectful nearly 100% of the time.

There are a handful of people, however, who play under the guise of “Balinese are friendly people” and try to be a little too friendly with obvious other motives than just making a new friend. Luckily, I only had to interact with one man like this and it reminded me of the pros and cons of both traveling solo and being a single woman traveling alone. While I prefer to get off the beaten track and explore “backroads” in new areas, for safety and security reasons, I choose to stay in the busier, more touristy towns which unfortunately means more crowds and more harassment than I’d like, but it’s a breeze to deal with in comparison to Latin America, and I still manage to find peaceful places along the way.

But that night, I was totally missing my travel companion/bodyguard, Allan, and wished he could’ve been there to ward off the Balinese guy who was deliberately encroaching on my personal space while he and I were both waiting for our dinners to come at a popular “warung,” or hole-in-the-wall local restaurant, in town. (That night, my food didn’t arrive for an hour and fifteen minutes after I ordered it!) Even when I straight up told the guy, “Look, you seem really nice, but I’m not in the mood for making new friends tonight. I’m hungry, I’m tired, and I have work to do,” he still persisted. To his enquiries, my responses–half out loud and half in my head–were the following: “No, I’m not going to tell you where I’m staying. No, I’m not going to tell you my schedule for tomorrow or the next couple of days. No, I don’t want to go with you to your ‘jungle.’ No, I don’t want to ride on the back of your motorbike. And, no, I’m not sorry if I come off as rude because you ignored me when I was being polite.” His excuse was, “Oh, we Balinese people are just very friendly.” But, man–I’ve learned not to dismiss creepy vibes. No amount of pressure or persistence can override the heebie-jeebies…

In Ubud, there are a handful of really neat activities to do during a visit and one of the favorites is attending a traditional Balinese dance performance. The music, costumes, and dancing are just as unique as they are spell-binding. The dance performance I attended featured four of the most common basic musical dances including Kecak, which consists of a choir of men sitting in several large circles chanting “chak-a-chak-a-chak” over and over again (imitating a troupe of monkeys) and making other a cappella sounds that reverberate in all directions sending some of the men into a trance, a second dance I don’t know the name of that had costumed characters dancing with calculated movements in the center of the Kecak circle (as they men chanted)–the routine turned comical when shaggy monkey-lion characters made appearances, Legong, which is performed by two young girls with heavy makeup dancing gracefully in perfect symmetry with each other and flashing their bright eyes as they move to the rhythm of a choir of women sitting behind them, and, lastly, a Kekac Fire Dance, traditionally meant to drive out evil spirits from a village, which entails a barefoot boy or man “in a trance” tromping through a bonfire of coconut husks, leaving his feet blackened by the flames and charred husks. These performances leave their audiences intrigued and impressed. Here are some short video clips:

VIDEO — Traditional Balinese Dance Performane (1minute): https://youtu.be/rvBRT9hAhwk

VIDEO — Balinese Legong Dance Perfomance Clip (34 seconds): http://youtu.be/zeZJadmlVCs

Traditional Balinese dance performance in Ubud, Bali.

Traditional Balinese dance performance in Ubud, Bali.

Another thing I signed up for was a Sunrise Volcano Hike up Mt. Batur, an active volcano in the northeast region of Bali. The volcano is 1,717 meters high (~ 5,633 feet) and the last eruption was 15 years ago in the year 2000, but it still has many thermal vents. I hesitated for a long time before I finally decided to do it because it would mean that I had to be up at 2:30 in the morning and that didn’t sound appealing to me, but it was nagging at me and I didn’t want to regret not doing it when I had the chance. On just a few hours of sleep, I rose at 2:15 AM and was picked up shortly thereafter, joining several other sunrise hikers. Our group of seven, plus our tour guide, was driven to the base of the volcano where we had some coffee, tea, and fried bananas to snack on before the climb. We were surprised at how many people were there to do the same thing–the top of the volcano was crowded! The hike itself wasn’t too bad as it was a lot of flat ground followed by 25-30 minutes of ascending; we started walking at 4:45 and made it to the sunrise location just before 6:15, only a few minutes before the gleaming red sun made its appearance on the horizon. I’ve always been a big fan of sunsets, but–WOW–I didn’t realize how spectacular sunrises can be! Totally worth waking up in the 2 o’clock hour (although not something I would do every day). After sunrise, we hiked around the volcano more, exploring the various levels and spying on troupes of monkeys before descending and returning, utterly exhausted, back to Ubud.

Celebrating the sunrise from the volcano, Mt. Batur, in Bali.

Celebrating the sunrise from the volcano, Mt. Batur, in Bali.

An absolute “must-do” activity in Ubud is to visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary which is home to five different groups (or troupes) of macaques, or Balinese long-tailed monkeys. Each group consists of 100-150 monkeys that are free to roam as they please, however they are very aware of the territory boundaries of the other monkey groups. The place is fenced off for the purpose of placing a barrier there for humans not to come in and harm the monkeys, not so the monkeys can’t leave; the monkeys could care less about the fence as they often play on it, cross it, jump on it, etc. This area is sacred as it is the location of several revered Hindu temples, however, it is open for guests to visit and stroll through the grounds. While guests are asked to not approach the monkeys, if the monkeys choose to interact with visitors, it is fine. Monkeys can get aggressive if they feel threatened, but most of the time, they are pretty chill. Inside, there are Balinese “guides” ensuring that visitors do not harass the monkeys, the monkeys don’t harass the visitors, and any questions visitors have about the monkeys get answered. I spent about an hour and a half walking around inside observing monkey behavior and getting some personal monkey interaction, but I will elaborate more on that experience in my upcoming chapter, entitled “Monkey Business.”

Hanging out with some monkeys at Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali.

Hanging out with some monkeys at Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali.

On my eighth day in Ubud, which was my last (for the first round!), I was a little sad to leave my new home because I had grown so fond of the people there and the town in general and, at that point, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be coming back. I did my usual “last day” routine which included doing laundry, running some errands, getting a pedicure, having a nice meal, etc. I also thought I’d try a Balinese massage and that turned out to be a very interesting experience. I like to support small, local businesses so I said yes to a woman sitting in front of her home advertising massages. Not only did it hurt like crazy because traditional Balinese massage focuses on working pressure points in the body, but the privacy factor was practically nonexistent as her 3 1/2 year old son kept wandering in and out of the room (okay, it’s not like he was 16 so not a big deal). There were other factors, but I won’t put those here. While I can chock it up as quite a funny experience–and slightly awkward, I don’t think I’ll be signing up for massages from people on the street anymore. Organized spas seem to cover just a few extra little touches that really induce relaxation. I headed straight for the gelato stand afterward to finish up my night on a positive note.

Pemuteran Bay

My next destination was a place called Pemuteran Bay, way up in the northwestern corner of Bali. It is out of the way for the normal tourist track in Bali and the main reason people will go there is for SCUBA diving. While it is quiet and slow, some of the resorts are built up well and everything is a little more expensive compared to other parts of Bali. There are not many “budget options” for lodging so I was okay splurging a little bit while I was there for a lovely bungalow at a place with a pool and breakfast included. I planned to stay for three nights and it was the perfect place for a quiet getaway.

The peaceful Pemuteran Bay at dusk.

The peaceful Pemuteran Bay at dusk.

My elegant bungalow in Pemuteran Bay.

My elegant bungalow in Pemuteran Bay.

For all the time I had already spent in Bali, I had not ventured very much into Balinese cuisine so when I got to Pemuteran Bay, I figured I’d give it a shot. One typical Balinese dish is called Babi Guling. It consists of pork in many forms served with rice and some cooked vegetables. I’m not a huge fan of pork but tried the dish for the sake of it and I think there were six different types of pork on my plate including pork satay, pork chop, pork belly, deep fried pigskin, pork sausage, and pig innards mushed together (liver, tongue, and some other organ), seasoned, then steamed in a banana leaf. While I tasted all of them, I did NOT finish everything on my plate…and the banana leaf package was definitely my least favorite. It is common in Bali to cook meats and some other foods in banana leafs and it is also typical to consume a lot of fried rice or noodles–a traditional breakfast dish consists of fried rice mixed with vegetables and topped with a fried egg.

Babi Guling, a traditional Balinese dish based on various preparations of pork and other pig parts.

Babi Guling, a traditional Balinese dish based on various preparations of pork and other pig parts.

Seafood is also very prevalent in Bali–that’s a no-brainer obviously because Bali is an island. I hadn’t been ordering seafood much during my trip yet, but I figured that it doesn’t get much fresher than straight from the sea and on my last night in Pemuteran Bay, I went out for dinner and indulged in a plate of mahi mahi with three dipping sauces. It was heavenly! So fresh and light and yummy and–aww…I want to go back and have it again now! There is nothing like fresh seafood.

My scrumptious fresh mahi mahi dinner in Pemuteran Bay.

My scrumptious fresh mahi mahi dinner in Pemuteran Bay.

Something funny I noticed while I was in Pemuteran Bay was that I kept meeting people named “Putu.” I later learned that three of the four guys on staff at Mertayasa 2 back in Ubud were all named “Nyoman.” And I met multiple “Wayans” as well. Finally I was like, “Ok. What is up with this? Please explain.” As it turns out, many Balinese name their children based on birth order. “Putu” and “Wayan” are both names for firstborns while “Nyoman” is indicates that a child is the third born into a family. They have special names for each number, but I can’t remember them all. It could either be confusing or make it easier to remember people’s names thanks to this custom!

My second full day in Pemuteran was the day I set aside for a full day SCUBA diving trip out to tiny Menjangan Island, also known as “Deer Island.” We were near the most northwestern region of Bali, with the island of Java so close in the distance that it would not have been impossible to swim to it. The water was a clear bright blue and the weather sunny and beautiful. There were five divers on the boat and we were lined up for two dives plus lunch on the boat. I always meet interesting people while diving and this boat included a friendly Austrian couple on vacation, a retired American lady on a trip to reclaim her identity, and an Australian man whose hobby is underwater photography; he (Gary) was kind enough to share some of his photos with me (see below). This day was the first time I did any diving since coming to Asia and it had been over a year since my last dive so I knew I’d be a little bit rusty (translation: nervous) during the first dive. But diving is such a wonderful activity and a reminder to let go of control, relax, and just breathe–everything will be fine. At the day’s end, I was so grateful that I finally got to go into the ocean and explore the entirely “other” world that exists under the sea. The coral reefs and the fish were bright but the highlight for me that day was definitely hanging out around the giant sea anemone and it’s cute little clownfish partners. I was up close with Nemo’s and Marlin’s cousins!

I was stoked to strap on a tank and get back in the water for a couple great dives off of Menjangan Island in Bali.

I was stoked to strap on a tank and get back in the water for a couple great dives off of Menjangan Island in Bali.

The view of the ocean from Menjangan Island, our diving spot for the day. The volcano in the distance in on the neighboring island of Java.

The view of the ocean from Menjangan Island, our diving spot for the day. The volcano in the distance in on the neighboring island of Java.

SCUBA diving in Bali near Menjangan Island. (Photo courtesy of Gary Browne.)

SCUBA diving in Bali near Menjangan Island. (Photo courtesy of Gary Browne.)

The day I arrived in Pemuteran Bay, I headed straight for my first choice for lodging. The lady at reception, Tia, showed me around and while I absolutely fell in love with the place, the only room suitable for my budget (even on a splurge) was only available for two nights and I needed three so I passed it up and continued looking. But Tia and I had some great conversation in the 20 minutes we spent together and that was enough to start a special friendship. I picked a place just across the street from the first place, mainly so I could be near to her and pop over for a visit every now and then. When I stopped by later that evening, she told me she had the following day off and invited me to come over to her house for a little in the late morning and even scribbled some directions to her home on a small piece of paper. When I arrived to her house the following day, she introduced me to her husband, his parents, and her two sons, she took me on a stroll at the school next door where the kids went ballistic upon seeing a foreigner (me) so close and they were all waving and shouting and practicing some English phrases with me, then, when we returned to her place, we all shared conversation and lots of laughter over some fresh coconuts. I was amazed at how much warmth and joy I could feel within her humble household and honored that she would share that with me.

Spending the day with Tia, her hesband, Qutik, and her two boys, Kris and Radik, in Pemuteran Bay.

Spending the day with Tia, her hesband, Qutik, and her two boys, Kris and Radik, in Pemuteran Bay.

Later that afternoon, we planned to meet up again and go to the bay for some swimming. She and I talked on the beach while her 6-year-old son, Kris, played in the sand. During that conversation, Tia opened up to me about a lot of things in her past including the stories of being pulled out of school as a teenager to work and help support her family, a first marriage and a daughter that came from that, and how she and her now-husband, Qutik, fell in love as teenagers and then how he later waited for her to be out of an abusive marriage so he could marry her at which point he stepped up to be the father of her newborn baby girl. They have a beautiful and playful partnership to this day, and with everything that Tia has been through, she has become a strong and amazing woman. I don’t know why she opened up to me the way she did, but that day was very special for both of us. I saw her the following day as well and then she helped me catch a ride with a local bus, called a bemo, early on my last morning for a ride out of town. She was the reason my visit to Pemuteran Bay was so memorable.

Scoolchildren in Pemuteran Bay (on left); Kris and I on the water at sunset in Pemuteran Bay (on right).

Scoolchildren in Pemuteran Bay (on left); Kris and I on the water at sunset in Pemuteran Bay (on right).

There is so much to see and do in Bali and the culture is rich in its history and traditions. I did not spend all my time researching every little bit of Bali; instead, it the Balinese women I met who showed me the real Bali from their perspectives–Arinie in Seminyak, Wayan in Ubud, and Tia in Pemuteran Bay. These women were smart, energetic, outgoing, happy, and creative businesswomen–why wouldn’t I hang out with them? All of them are just a year or two older than me and were willing to share with me not only how things function in Bali and within their households, but also lots of love advice and words of wisdom for relationships, marriage, family, and business. I could go on and on about these women, how they have come to be where they are, and what is important to them–but that could turn into a book of its own. They really enhanced my visit to Bali and I will never forget their generosity, compassion, and strength.

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Instead of heading straight to my next destination, the Gili Islands, from Pemuteran Bay, I went back to Ubud because Wayan had a great transportation deal to get me to the Gilis from Ubud for a fraction of the cost. When I arrived back to Merthayasa 2 Guesthouse, it felt like I had just come home after a long trip as I was greeted with excited faces, hugs from Naya, and even a special snack prepared for me by Wayan. And because this felt so much like home for me, my idea to spend only one night there was tossed out the window as I extended my stay (again) to four nights this time around. In those couple of days, I went back to Yoga Barn for 3 more classes, caught up on some emails, ran errands, finished writing another chapter, and took in as much of the Bali Spirit that I could hold. Bali is such a special place that I didn’t really want to leave, but it was time to move on so I gave thanks to the Bali Spirits for allowing me the time I had on the island and for the great healing, peace, and new friendships that had come to me while I was there.

Wayan and Naya in traditional Balinese clothing.

Wayan and Naya in traditional Balinese clothing.

TRAVEL TIP: Don’t spend your money on transportation if you don’t have to. Even though a short trip in a taxi or on a motorbike here and there can seem cheap–a couple dollars per ride, it adds up quickly. As a backpacker on a budget, spending $5 to $10 per day on transportation is 10-20% of my daily budget which I would rather spend on good food, better lodging, cultural experiences, or an ice cream cone at the end of the day. Of course, there are times when it is necessary to use other forms of transportation besides my feet, however, some of the benefits of walking include getting exercise, getting to know a place up close, saving money, and stopping whenever the urge comes up. If you give yourself plenty of time and are not in a rush, walking everywhere may also mean that you get to see parts of a town that you would normally miss zooming past on a moto.

Rejuvenated and happily yours,

Alexandra

Bolos, Chuchos, & Mangoes

Bolos, chuchos, and mangoes are three integral parts of the Guatemalan culture. “Bolos” are essentially drunk men who stumble their way around town and usually ending up passing out in the street somewhere along the way. “Chuchos” are the Guatemalan term for dogs, or more appropriately, street dogs. And mangoes are mangoes, a delicious fruit that grows in tropical and semi-tropical climates. Although they seem unrelated, bolos, chuchos, and mangoes have a common thread and, in my eyes, they have come to symbolize the heart of Guatemala.

BOLOS

At first thought, bolos seem like they would be a bad thing and “drunk men passed out on the street” usually renders a negative connotation in many people’s minds. In Guatemala, however, bolos are so much a part of the daily life that hardly anyone even notices them or pays any mind to them if they do see them.

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There are several Spanish words to describe being drunk or being a drunkard, however, bolos have become more than just “a drunk guy;” they are, in fact, their own character now in Guatemalan society because they are so prevalent. One might suspect that many problems may arise from a bunch of drunk men roaming the streets. However, the bolo character has passed well beyond the state of belligerence and has drunk his way into a stupor, either stumbling along back and forth and side to side along the streets or sleeping peacefully on the cold, hard concrete, snuggling up to it as if it were his very own bed.

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Bolos are actually pretty harmless. I realize that drunks are usually associated with violence and stupidity around the world, but these guys can’t even walk straight, let alone see straight, so there isn’t much damage they can do once they reach “state of bolo.” Most of the time they are asleep anyway. Every Guatemalan woman knows that if ever a bolo stumbles toward her all she has to do is give him a little nudge and he’ll lose his balance, or she can just move out of the way and he’ll probably just run into a wall or trip on a curb anyway.

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Among the Peace Corps population, we girls used to swap similar stories of how the bolos didn’t really harass us beyond reverting to their second nature upon seeing a foreigner and immediately asking for money: “Gringa, dáme un quetzal!” (Hey, white girl, give me some coins!) Of course, there was also the drunk-Spanish-accented English phrases like, “I love you, Baby!” that they would shout after us as we walked on by. Inevitably, these meaningless love confessions would illicit covert giggles from us at the sheer ridiculousness. From a certain perspective, bolos could be so endearing sometimes…

(...but usually not when they pee themselves!)

(…but usually not when they pee themselves!)

Taking a deeper look at rural Guatemalan society, the roots of “bolo-ism” can be revealed. I don’t want to limit this situation to only Guatemala as it is a trend in many small communities in underdeveloped nations. Where work is hard to find in farming societies and often only abundant seasonally, many men wait for their opportunity to make some money by tending the crops. During harvest season when there is a huge demand for extra hands, boys will likely be taken out of school to go help their fathers in the field and also to take advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the family income while there is a lot of work. Education is not the priority when there are many mouths to feed and there are able-bodied men in the household to earn a little extra cash. The lack of educated men in town limits their work opportunities, but I won’t dig into that here.

A great depiction of the traditional attire for rural Guatemalan men.

A great depiction of the traditional attire for rural Guatemalan men.

In small towns, entertainment options are few and far between and many shops and markets close up shortly after sunset. Most families retreat to their own small dwellings in the evenings, narrowing primary activity options pretty much down to baby-making and watching TV within the home. (But even baby-making could be difficult when there are so many people sleeping in the same room!) Where I lived in Guatemala, it was more likely that a home was equipped with a television set than a proper toilet or refrigerator. And when people learned that I did NOT own a TV, they couldn’t imagine what I could possibly do in the evenings to keep from getting bored. Reading books, writing, or doing yoga were not exactly appealing activities to most Guatemalans.

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While the women usually stay in the homes, watching the children, cleaning up, or relaxing after a long day, the men will leave the house in the evenings. After a long day of grueling physical labor in the fields–which equates to providing for his family and thus fulfilling his purpose for the day, a man wants to relax as well so he will meet up with his friends and spend his money on alcohol and/or gambling. His full day of work in the field equates to money for the family so how can his wife tell him that he cannot go out? And of course he is allowed to do whatever he wants with his money because his time and energy earned it! Drinking beer with his buddies or taking shots of cheap hard liquor becomes the automatic past time of a rural-living man. And the young ones are recruited into this as well because being able to pound down a couple straight shots of hard liquor is a demonstration of manliness, of course. (Please note that not all men are like this–there are many who are home with their families in the evenings. I am just exploring how the bolo mentality has come to exist here.)

Snuggle buddies!

Snuggle buddies!

Unlike in the United States and other developed countries, there are no laws against being drunk in public. Or if there are, they are not enforced. This can be viewed as a negative thing or a positive thing, depending on one’s opinions of the definitions of freedom and security. (I suppose it is nice that we don’t have so many drunk dudes sprawled out over public sidewalks all the time in the USA!) Rural Guatemala could be considered a lawless land where things are not monitored and people can do whatever they want. But the beauty of this is that people are actually living without having someone else dictating rules to them about their schedules, habits, do’s, and don’ts. Perhaps this means that things aren’t so safe and security measures are absent. In some cases, this can lead to devastating effects; in others, it exemplifies freedom in its purest form.

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I made it a project of mine to take photos of bolos to see which were the best ones I could find. I always photographed discreetly, trying not to disturb them. I used to show all of my bolo photos to my friend, Acisclo, who lived across the street and has a passion for photography and we would joke that I should print out all the bolo photos and make a poster, then anonymously hang it up around town as a game to “Name That Bolo!” It would have also been meant as a social message to shed light on the effects drinking had both physically and in regard to family and social relations. We never actually did it, but we still talk about it so the joke continues…

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During my time in Guatemala, I developed a certain fondness for bolos, not only as a silly character and object for photography and entertainment, but also as a representation of the freedom that still exists in Guatemala. While I know Guatemala is on a development track and there will be many social changes in the coming years, it is difficult to imagine a Guatemala without its bolos. I am an advocate for progressive change, however I will always cherish bolos for their contribution to Guatemala’s pulse.

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CHUCHOS

Most Guatemalans view and treat dogs a lot differently than how people in developed countries treat dogs. It is rare that Guatemalans have dogs as pets and if they do, it is typically for a practical purpose like guarding the territory. And, man, do Guatemalan dogs know how to be guard dogs?! Protectors of the house, they snarl and bark at any stranger who passes by in front of the home, whether the person is being aggressive/suspicious or not. If a Guatemalan family does have a dog as a pet, it is likely that they live in an urban area like Guatemala City, Antigua, or Xela where western influences are prevalent.

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In rural parts of Guatemala, most families hardly have enough money or food to properly feed the people in their own households so any thought of spending money to feed a dog is unheard of. If there is a dog in a home, it usually just gets the leftover table scraps or some torn up corn tortillas because dog food is expensive. Most dogs are treated like the animals they are, banned to the streets to fend for themselves and survive on whatever food or nourishment they can find, which usually entails digging through trash and even ingesting plastic bags to get whatever food is inside. (Plastic bags are often seen as part of dog poop in the street–I know, that’s gross, but it’s a reality.) And so the chucho has been born into Guatemalan society.

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Chuchos, just like bolos, are so common in Guatemala that it seems like something is missing when they are not around. They are literally wild dogs, doing as they please whenever it suits them–also like bolos in that manner. Unfortunately, the consequence of not having anyone to take responsibility of them means that the chucho population is riddled with hunger, infection, and disease–its own kind of poverty. It is common to spot chuchos with mange, a type of skin infection that causes dogs to lose their hair in patches. Chuchos are often seen limping around with broken hips or missing limbs, or simply appearing as if they are just skin and bones. Wild dogs are known to be extra susceptible to rabies; this issue, however, is one that the health centers in Guatemala try to curb by regularly going out to vaccinate stray chuchos because rabies poses a threat to human populations.

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Chucho populations are out of control. No one goes around “fixing” street dogs so nature runs its course. Until I lived in Guatemala, I had never seen so many sets of dog balls; pet owners in the States usually have their dog’s reproductive organs removed so I had grown accustomed to not seeing male dog parts and was a little surprised initially. The female dogs aren’t “fixed” either so when a female dog goes into heat, the pheromones that her body is emitting attract male dogs far and wide. I can’t even count the number of times I saw a female chucho being chased around by seven or eight males at a time all trying to hump her. She would run away from them and tuck her tail between her legs in an attempt to block herself, but there was little protection and they all just followed her around until one of them was successful. I could go on and on about the parallels between this aspect of chucho culture and rural Guatemalan society; for now, I’ll just say that it is common that females do not have much power or protection and usually the males dominate and have their way when they choose. (I’ll dig deeper into that topic in the next chapter.)

A chucho chillin' just like a bolo...

A chucho chillin’ just like a bolo…

I used to joke with my host family and some of my Guatemalan friends that we needed to teach family planning to the dogs and cats in town because it seemed that every time we turned our heads, there would be another pregnant dog or a cat with fresh kittens. The physical effect it had on the animals was that their undersides would get droopy, their nipples would hang low like udders from continuous nursing, and in some cases, their uteri would become prolapsed–not unlike Guatemalan women who have spent their lives having and raising 8, 9, or 11 babies or more. Bodies can only handle a certain amount of stress so the likelihood of bodies “bouncing back” if they haven’t had a chance to rest and recover is low.

I named this cat "Mama" because that seemed to be her life purpose and she was so good at it. She lived in the house where I rented a room and this was the 3rd litter of kittens she had at the house while I was living there. When I moved out, she was pregnant again.

I named this cat “Mama” because that seemed to be her life purpose and she was so good at it. She lived in the house where I rented a room and this was the 3rd litter of kittens she had at the house while I was living there. When I moved out, she was pregnant again.

But there is no Sex Ed for chuchos so they act consistently with the underlying forces of nature, which urge that evolutionary success is determined by having offspring that will survive to reproduce. Perhaps the lack of education and training in both the chucho world and other “third world” societies may be considered “uncivilized” when looking through the lens of a “developed” country, but in considering nature vs. conditioning/manipulation, it seems that there will always be a debate over where the line is and which side of the line is better. All mammals are capable of learning and yet the animal instinct is always present, no matter how trained or civilized any human or other mammal ever becomes.

Chuchos have their own special kind of conditioning as they attempt to survive among humans who have little regard for the animals’ lives. Some Guatemalans treat the dogs like crap, kicking them, throwing rocks at them, or even running into them if they’re in the road–and chuchos unexpectedly jump out in the middle of the road all the time. Consequently, the chuchos are skittish and, having very little trust in how anyone will treat them, they are jumpy at every little movement or hand gesture in their direction. All a person has to do is say, “Chucho!” and the dog perks its ears and jumps back simultaneously. Accustomed to a culture of intimidation, these pups are used to living in a constant state of anxiety–one look in their hungry, wild eyes reveals their world in an instant.

The fear in a chucho’s eyes is reflective of how the entire country lives and runs. The government-initiated genocide that began in the 60s planted a deep seed of mistrust on the part of the people toward the government. While the genocide has stopped, the corruption remains prevalent and Guatemala continues to be plagued by violence and poverty. As the government tries to manipulate its people through fear, threats, and other intimidation tactics, the people have learned to smile, nod, and fend for themselves. This widespread insecurity has resulted in a game of survival–people worry about themselves first because there isn’t anyone else there to take care of them. Trust rarely extends beyond the family in Guatemala, similar to how the chuchos roam in packs. And just as a human is not part of a pack of dogs, a chucho is not usually part of a family.

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From most Guatemalans’ eyes, it is completely unreasonable and silly that people would treat dogs as if they were humans. It doesn’t make sense that the dog has a soul and feelings (feelings don’t really matter when not having enough to eat is a primary concern in a household). It baffled and amused my Guatemalan friends that I would actually hold the cats and be affectionate toward them; to them, the cats were just mischievous animals whose only purpose in a house was rodent control. It took me awhile to get used to the seemingly insensitive attitude toward animals, but eventually I became immune to it. I remember one of the first times I witnessed a tuk tuk hit a dog in the street; the chucho yelped out in pain, whimpering and whining, before he hobbled off with his freshly-broken hip. I broke down in tears. And while there were some other contributing factors to my emotional state that day, the poor pup was the tipping point. I learned quickly that I couldn’t cry or get upset every time I saw an animal get hurt, and I couldn’t possibly protect every one of them–there were just too many. In essence, I had to adopt the Guatemalan mindset toward chuchos as a means of self-preservation; there were even times when I had to chuck a rock at a dog (or pretend to) just to get him off my back. (The intimidating “stare down” also worked.)

Scrounging for scraps on market day in San Andrés.

Scrounging for scraps on market day in San Andrés.

A handful of PC Volunteers contributed to putting a little more love in the world by adopting a dog as a pet and raising it as his or her own. They trained their dogs, fed them nourishing food (more than just soggy tortillas), and took their dogs with them everywhere they went–even if it meant a long trip on a chicken bus. (If I hadn’t moved into a house filled with cats, I would have had a dog as a companion as well.) Janece adopted “Nala” from a dog shelter early on in service, trained her very well, and ended up taking her back to the States at the end of service. Kathy inherited “Suki” from the PCV who lived in her house prior to her moving in. Suki was this gangly young pup that kind of looked like an old man and he would play with another neighborhood chucho named “Pulgoso,” which translates to “flea bag.” When Kathy left, she passed Suki on to Kelly. (Pulgoso probably would have gotten lonely without Suki around!) And Lauren inherited “Moi” from a former PCV, but Moi had some serious abandonment issues and wasn’t the nicest; he also got hit by a car one time, but he survived. Lauren brought him home to New York when she left and now he’s plump and happy. Despite the training and love, these dogs will always be Guatemalan at heart. Lauren and I like to say, “You can take the chucho out of Guatemala, but you can never take Guatemala out of the chucho.”

In the world in which they exist where the name of the game is “survival of the fittest,” chuchos have to figure out how to live off the land. They are scrappy and tough, sometimes even savage-like in their natural state. These street dogs are not well-mannered and polite, they aren’t ever told what they should or shouldn’t do, and they are not conditioned or trained to behave in a particular manner. They simply are. I admire chuchos for their authenticity. In a world where they can only exist moment by moment, these pups openly express every emotion from growling, barking, or just being alert when they experience fear, anxiety, or aggression to whimpering in pain, sadness, or loneliness to tail-wagging and bouncing around when they are feeling playful and happy. Chuchos are not primped and pampered by any means, but they are not the least bit wimpy either. Chuchos are resilient–a beautiful reflection of Guatemala and its people.

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MANGOES

Aw. Mangoes. The juiciest part of this chapter. While any type of seasonal fruit or vegetable would be a suitable example for this section, there is something extra special about mangoes that has me completely obsessed with them. Mangoes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. All young mangoes have a green skin, but as they mature, the skin color can range from different shades of green to yellow, orange, pinkish, and even red. Many mangoes are oblong in shape, but there are some varieties that are roundish; some mangoes are small enough to cup in the palm of a hand while others can be as long as a person’s forearm, but the juicy yellow-orange meat inside is the same. There are many varieties of mangoes (300+) and the flavor differences from one variety to the next can actually be quite distinct. Because of the odd shape and slippery texture of the meat inside as well as the large pit insdie, peeling a mango can be very tricky. It is an art in itself.

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Mango season in Guatemala is highly anticipated by everyone. The earliest signs of the season come in late February and some varieties ripen up until early June, but March and April bring the best selection, hands down. The country is practically swimming in mangoes for two to three months so the prices go down and people buy bags and bags of them. Children and adults alike are seen sucking on mangoes as they walk down the streets in town, trying to get every last bit of mango meat off both the pit and the peel. It can get very messy with juice running down people’s chins and it is likely that the fibrous mango strings will get stuck in people’s teeth, but those are small costs for the satisfaction of such a delicious treat.

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Peace Corps Volunteers quickly caught on to the mango craze and we, too, would excitedly await mango season. We stocked up on recipes and planned to put mangoes in everything we could from our smoothies to guacamole, salsa, curry, or any number of things. We had to make the most of it while we had that small window of opportunity. One of my PCV friends, Jenny, loved mangoes so much that she would eat them throughout the day and consequently, she occasionally broke out in a rash from eating too many mangoes (and having exposure to a particular oil in mango skin)!

Kathy and I with mango coconut chicken curry.

Kathy and I with mango coconut chicken curry.

In agrarian societies, or places where farming is an important part of a community and the economy, many fruits, vegetables, and grains are seasonal and therefore only available during certain parts of the year. Most grains like corn and beans have a particular harvest season, but they can be dried and stored throughout the year so people have access to them at all times; corn and black beans are staple foods in the Guatemalan diet. In contrast to grains, most fruits and vegetables cannot be kept year-round and must be eaten while they are fresh. This results in people literally living off of the land, eating and cooking only what is available at any given time. And when mangoes or any other seasonal ingredient are not available, the people will just make use of what they have which usually means they will get creative with recipes and substitute an unavaiable ingredient with what they have access to.

Mango Salsa

Mango Salsa

This rural lifestyle is a stark contrast from how westernized societies function now. In the developed world, people are so spoiled. We have access to just about any type of food we want year-round. There are so many options and everything is at our fingertips. At a grocery store, not only are there at least 50 different types of cheese available, but there are options to buy those cheeses shredded, grated, crumbled, in a block, etc. Sure, there are times of the year when certain fruits and vegetables are abundant and the prices for them drop which means people usually consume handfuls of “cuties” (a type of tangerine) in wintertime, buckets of watermelon in summertime, and tasty pumpkins and other squashes in autumn, but if they really wanted to eat these foods at any time of the year, there is a high probability that they could find them somewhere–usually grown in a greenhouse or imported from another part of the world.

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The unfortunate effect that these spectacular technological developments have had on advanced societies is that they condition the people to a lifestyle based on instant gratification. When things come too easy, people quickly discount the value of what they have. When people don’t have to wait and are not required to put in the work, they easily stray from a sense of appreciation. This applies to many aspects of life, not just fruits and vegetables. The trend in the developed world these days–especially with access to technological devices, the Internet, and social media–is that the people are no longer trained in having patience and often take things for granted. Things move too fast so people just don’t seem to have time to wait for anything anymore. Speed seems to be what is favored over quality, and that can breed shortcuts and a lack of integrity and depth within a society.

Mango Guacamole

Mango Guacamole

Mangoes are the representation of so much more than a juicy fruit. They are a symbol of societies that function in the raw and a reminder of the ebb and flow of the the seasons. People who live “in the raw”–just like chuchos–understand struggle, are willing to put effort into things, and have a lot of patience and faith. When things get too easy, we tend to lose touch with all of those characteristics.

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I rarely buy mangoes in the States despite my obsession with them because I know they are imported and that somehow takes the magic out of them and makes them lifeless, in a sense. Fresh mangoes are another story. When I travel to places with mango-conducive climates, I can’t get enough of them and they are my top choice for smoothies, snacks, and toppings whenever they are available. Mangoes are and always will be a gift.

I heart mangoes!!

I heart mangoes!!

While I am no longer in Guatemala, bolos, chuchos, and mangoes still stand as a solid reminder to be balanced, alert, and flexible, to be proactive and not get lazy, and to protect the freedoms that we exercise while being appreciative of all the options that we, in developed societies, have at our fingertips. We are so fortunate.

Slightly nostalgically yours,
Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 8: Elephants Everywhere

I left Cambodia a few days sooner than I was originally intending to because I found a cheap direct flight to Bali leaving from Bangkok that was priced at less than half of the price of the flight out of Phnom Penh (which had an overnight layover and luggage fee as well as a higher price). Big surprise. Bangkok is known for having those great flights. So instead of flying out on a Sunday, I was now scheduled to fly out [and arrive] on a Tuesday, AND the situation required that I return to Bangkok which I couldn’t complain about (especially since I needed to stock up on some small items from 7-Eleven). There is no fee for the visa or border crossing to enter into Thailand so it was no hassle at all. Except for the “VIP Sleeper Bus” and transfer experience from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, totaling around 15 hours which I mostly laughed through instead of sleeping. But I will not put that story here–you’ll have to get me in person after a glass or two of wine to hear that one…

I left Cambodia on a Thursday which gave me a couple days to kill in Thailand before my flight–the perfect amount of time for what I had in mind. Instead of staying at my usual spot in the business district, I opted for a night in the busy backpacker area on the river that Camila and Cris had recommended to me becasue of the location–it was a 50-cent boat ride across the river, followed by a 10-minute walk to the train station where I needed to catch a [three-dollar] train to Kanchanaburi, a small mountain town about two and a half hours to the west of Bangkok along the Kwai River, made famous by the World War II film called, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. In addition to that, Kanchanaburi is also where I could access a project associated with the Elephant Nature Park (whose headquarters are located in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand). I was finally going to get that up-close-and personal elephant experience that I had been dreaming about for years. [Hashtag: dreamsreallydocometrue.]

The MAJESTIC MATRIARCHS of ASIA

It wasn’t difficult to come up with the title of this chapter because elephants are literally everywhere in Asia–or from what I have seen in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia thus far. Not necessarily real live elephants, but elephant statues, elephant carvings, elephant decorations, elephant artwork, elephant souvenirs–you get the point. I took notice immediately, but it has taken me awhile and lots of interrogation to figure out exactly WHY there is elephant-everything everywhere.

Stone elephant carvings occupy the garden in front of a restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Stone elephant carvings occupy the garden in front of a restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Elephant image on the outside of temple Wat Traimit in Bangkok, Thailand.

Elephant image on the outside of temple Wat Traimit in Bangkok, Thailand.

According to my research (which mostly involved asking the locals and any tour guides I have had during the past month and a half), elephants are a symbol of power and have been a part of the culture and daily life in Asia since before the history was even recorded. In the spiritual realm, elephants are considered transportation of the gods. In Hinduism, elephants are the transport of Indra, the god of storms/thunder. He is the king of heaven, the god of directions, the most powerful of all the gods–the equivalent of Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Roman mythology. Also in Hinduism, there is a god called “Ganesha” that is actually part elephant. Another example of how elephants were a symbol of power is that kings and high-ranked military officials used to ride on elephants to illustrate their positions of importance within societies.

An image of the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesha, at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud, Bali (Indonesia).

An image of the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesha, at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud, Bali (Indonesia).

Royalty riding on an elephant in a carving at temple Wat Phra That Doi Sutep outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Royalty riding on an elephant in a carving at temple Wat Phra That Doi Sutep outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There are engravings of elephants on temples walls, inside and out; they have played a critical role in humans’ lives for millennia. They have been used for logging and for building great structures, and they have also been domesticated, growing very close with humans to the point of developing lifelong relationships with them. Elephants are extremely intelligent, and they are also considered sacred. Unfortunately, people have also thought that ivory is a sacred/holy material; therefore, elephants have been poached all over the world specifically for their ivory tusks leading to the addition of elephants to the list of the most endangered species in the world.

Elephant statue at temple Wat Phra That Doi Sutep overlooking Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Elephant statue at temple Wat Phra That Doi Sutep overlooking Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In addition to elephants being revered both in the cultural and religious senses, they are now also a huge attraction in the world of tourism, so much so that elephant artwork, paintings, and other small souvenirs are the prevalent items in the market. There is even such a thing as “elephant pants” that many travelers end up purchasing. At first, I thought I had packed everything I needed so I wouldn’t have to purchase any more clothing. I also thought that “elephant pants,” most of which come in two colors with the main print involving sketches of elephants, were cliché and that if I started wearing them, my backpacker status would be completely obvious so I resisted even though they were being sold everywhere for approximately $4 a pair. But one hot, sweaty temple-hopping day in Bangkok wearing a long maxi skirt was enough to change my mind!

I finally gave in and purchased a pair–the black and emerald-green pants that keep showing up in my photos–and it was probably one of the best and most practical purchases I have made in Asia yet. Not only are they lightweight and airy, allowing for ideal ventilation, but they also stretch from the waist down to the ankles with a loose fit in between, offering protection against both sun and bug bites as well as serving as a modest (non-butt-hugging and reaching the knees) option for respectfully entering temples. I love my elephants pants. I will highly recommend them to anyone traveling to SE Asia.

Elephants (available for riding) passing through the gates at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Elephants (available for riding) passing through the gates at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Once I arrived in Kanchanaburi, I settled in to a place that Camila and Cris also recommended, called VN Guesthouse, situated right along the river–great recommendation as my room might as well have been floating! I could have jumped in the river from the porch. It was very peaceful. But more importantly, I was gearing up for elephant day!

Sunset view of the Kwai River from my balcony at VN Guesthouse in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Sunset view of the Kwai River from my balcony at VN Guesthouse in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

I left early the next morning and walked through the market, grabbing some quick street food for breakfast as I made my way to the bus station, where I was going to be picked up. When I got in the minivan and we started to drive away, I asked if we were going to pick anyone else up and the driver said, “Nope.” Then I asked if anyone else was going to do the activity that day, and he replied, “Yes, there are two other people who will meet us there.” That was it. There were going to be exactly 3 people participating in the activities with 6 elephants that day–a 2:1 elephant to person ratio. Score! I thanked my lucky stars and felt quite happy that I hadn’t pursued the experience at Elephant Nature Park while I was in Chiang Mai. Instinct, research, and patience had led me up to what was about to be a spectacular day…

Supported by Elephant Nature Park, the activity offered here was called “Elephant Haven – Single Day,” located in a town called Sai Yok about an hour outside of Kanchanaburi. Elephant Haven – Sai Yok is a new project, having only recently opened on August 20th so when we were there, the project had only been up and running for about 2 weeks. It is advertised on the Elephant Nature Park website which is how it will gain most of its visibility and traffic, and the set-up is similar to how Elephant Nature Park runs, it will just take some time for the kinks to get worked out and a system to be established–just as in any business that is starting up. Christie and Jason, the couple from South Carolina who were the other two people there that day, and I were very excited that we got to participate in the project while it was still so new. And the price per person was only 2500 baht (about $70), compared to the $175 personal elephant experience that I had almost done in Chiang Mai. For the closeness to and the amount of time with the elephants that we had, we all got a great deal! (Elephant Nature Park website: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org)

Christie and Jason (the couple from South Carolina, in Thailand for Jason's work, but Christie got to accompany him for a little vacation this time) and I posing with the elephants after we got to feed them.

Christie and Jason (the couple from South Carolina, in Thailand for Jason’s work, but Christie got to accompany him for a little vacation this time) and I posing with the elephants after we got to feed them.

This project and all of the projects that Elephant Nature Park runs are different from many of the other companies in Southeast Asia who operate elephant activities. Traditionally, elephants had been used for logging for centuries, however, when that practice was banned in 1989, people started using the elephants as a source of entertainment and trained them for circus acts and for riding–as that is what people wanted to see and do and therefore, that is how people could continue to make money by using the elephants. All of the elephants at Elephant Haven were formerly part of the circus and riding-themed elephant camp right there in Sai Yok; they are now the beginning of a conservation-based type of tourism, which is in high demand now–people are more aware of animal rights and therefore many will do what they can to support them. The activities for visitors to Elephant Haven are designed for the purpose of getting to know the elephants, observing them, and interacting with them, as opposed to riding them or using them as a source of entertainment (the training for which usually involves forcing the elephants to do things they don’t want to do, coercing them with sharp hooks and whips, and other forms of animal cruelty).

Before I go on, for all of you elephant enthusiasts, I have several videos from the day that capture some typical elephant behavior. I’ve included five of them on this post, but the links are all in one place toward the end of the chapter. Also, I’m sure you won’t mind ALL the elephant pictures I couldn’t help but including here. (I started with about 40 favorites from the day…it took me a couple days to narrow it down!)

When the day started, we were given the history of the project and introductions about the elephants and where they had come from, how their lives have changed, and how happy they have all become since being introduced to their new lifestyle. All six of the elephants on premises are females between the ages of 25 and 50. (The lifespan for elephants is between 60-70 years!) As male elephants tend to be much more aggressive than females, they are not often a part of touristic projects; the females, on the other hand, are easier to domesticate and generally have calm, gentle, and deep spirits.

A beautiful elephant grazing as she strolls through the forest.

A beautiful elephant grazing as she strolls through the forest.

Our first activity entailed preparing food for the elephants. As a means for assisting their digestion, we each got a bucket with a mixture of sticky, starchy, and whole grain foods that we needed to peel, pick out the tough plant parts, then work into what Jason referred to as “giant meatballs.” There was sticky rice, rice bran, corn kernels, small bananas (that we peeled first), and tamarind (from which we removed the tough veins). Once everything was raw and ready, we squished it all together and mushed it up with our hands, mixing all the ingredients well before formulating the balls. After we each rolled six balls and placed them back in our buckets, we moved on to peeling watermelons and cutting them up, along with small pumpkins, into large pieces that we would get to hand-feed to the elephants.

Here we are preparing watermelon and pumpkin that we would later feed to the elephants.

Here we are preparing watermelon and pumpkin that we would later feed to the elephants.

We finally got to meet the elephants when they were led in by their “mahouts,” or the people who work with and tend the elephants, to the feeding area and lined up behind a long post. knowing that food was coming, they waited patiently behind the post, just standing there–they didn’t need to be tied up or locked in or anything. I was so excited to be so close to them! we were all just as eager to feed them as they were to eat and because there were only three of us, we were each stationed to two elephants, alternating feeding from one to the other.

Talk about beggars! These three lovely ladies--one of which came to me to beg when Christie had run out of food--just couldn't get enough and wanted more!!

Talk about beggars! These three lovely ladies–one of which came to me to beg when Christie had run out of food–just couldn’t get enough and wanted more!!

Elephant trunks are one of the neatest animal body parts in existence, in my opinion. They are so cool! Each elephant uses her trunk like a hand–but also like a nose to sniff things and a hose to suck up either water, mud, or dirt. In this particular case, it was more like a hand. Some of them took food in their nostrils, suctioning it to hold it in place as they moved it to their mouths, while others preferred to wrap the last 8 inches or so of their trunks around the food like a little scooper or cup and carry it to their mouths in that manner. I loved being able to be in contact with their trunks as I passed the food from my hand to them! They are such grand creatures that it was downright awe-inspiring and it made me giddy.

As I fed

As I fed “whole grain [meatless] balls” to the two elephants on the end, this particular elephant preferred to cup the end of her trunk around the ball in order to then safely deliver it to her mouth.

After that, we all headed to the forest to walk with the elephants as they grazed even more. Elephants pretty much just eat all day long; in fact, they usually eat for 18 hours during every 24-hour period and they can consume between 150-200 kg of food on a daily basis! Being that they are such large animals, they need to consume a lot of food to maintain their metabolism.

As we headed for the forest, this elephant was apparently not finished eating so she took a snack for the road!

As we headed for the forest, this elephant was apparently not finished eating so she took a snack for the road!

We continued walking with the elephants through the forest until we came upon a large pit of mud. The elephants headed straight for it! While covering themselves in mud is actually a very practical way for the elephants to cool themselves down, to us, it just looked like a bunch of elephants playing in a mud bath. They all stepped in and continuously sucked up large amounts of mud using their trunks as a sort of straw, then blew all that mud all over themselves. Over the top, under their bellies, to the sides–every direction they could come from to cover their entire bodies. Another method elephants use to lower their body temperatures is flapping their thin ears; because the surface area to volume ratio of elephant ears is so high, it is the best place on their bodies to release heat.

Elephant Mud Bath!

Elephant Mud Bath!

At that point, we took a lunch break and were served a delicious Thai meal of chicken lemongrass coconut soup with large plates of stir fry vegetables and rice. We discussed all of the excitement of the day so far and some of the neat things we observed about the elephants. For example, considering how ginormous elephants are, they impressively walk through the forest on their large, spongy feet hardly making any sounds. We also noticed that each elephant had different pinkish markings mainly on their ears and trunks; we were informed that it is just pigmentation (which is why it almost looks like a patch of freckles) and it can help to tell the elephants apart from one another.

Right after lunch, we changed our clothes, preparing for river time, then we cut up a couple more buckets of watermelon and pumpkin that we were going to feed the elephants as an afternoon snack. We went back to the forest for more walking as the elephants grazed, followed by a second mud bath. The fun behavior that they were exhibiting post-mud bath was that they were using trees as scratching posts and rubbing up against them slopping fresh mud all over the bark. They were acting like how cats and dogs do when they need to be scratched or rubbed–it made me want to help them relieve that itch! (Except for the fresh mud factor. Oh, yeah, and the fact that they are so tall I probably couldn’t have even reached the itch to scratch it!)

Another really cool thing about the day’s experience was learning about the mahouts’ relationships with the elephants. The mahouts are responsible for tending to the needs of the elephants as well as training them. There is one mahout per elephant and this sets the stage for developing a life-long closeness between the mahout and the elephant. It’s like a pet and its owner, a dog and its master. The level of trust and ability to understand each other become increasingly greater over time. When an elephant dies, its mahout is responsible for arranging its funeral. (Elephants have several sets of teeth that come and go during their lifetime–I think it is 6 sets total–and when the last set of teeth falls out, it quickly leads to the end of an elephant’s life as they can no longer eat. No such thing as elephant dentures!)

Walking through the forest with a mahout close by.

Walking through the forest with a mahout close by.

Elephants are extremely sensitive animals and they are known for having incredible memories so they remember well how they are treated. If someone hits them very hard or digs a hook into their skin, they will forever remember who administered the blow and caused the pain despite the fact that they have thick skin–which is literally one inch thick. Luckily for these pretty pachyderms, their days of being hooked are long gone and they seem to be happy to just have love, nurturing, protection, and freedom now.

A Happy Elephant

A Happy Elephant

Finally, we headed down to the river with the elephants. Because the current was relatively strong at that part of the river, Christie, Jason, our guide, and I suited up in life jackets. As soon as we were in sight of the water, the elephants went straight for it! They were like big dogs who see a pool/river/ocean and instantly make a run for it! While this was an opportunity for the elephants to play in the water and cool down some more, for Christie, Jason, and I, it was our best chance to be really hands-on with the elephants, splashing them with buckets of water, then scrubbing all the dirt and mud from the day off of them.

imageBathing elephants in the river at Elephant Haven in Sai Yok, Thailand.

We could tell that the elephants really enjoyed this process as they literally just plopped themselves down and even rolled over in the water, completely dunking their heads under and staying there for extended amounts of time. One elephant even wandered a little deeper out and just started floating down the river, letting it take her for ride like it was no big deal! (She eventually got out and walked back to us.) At one point, I was standing between two elephants, but I had to move quickly as they were rolling all around and could have easily squished me without even realizing it. But the experience of bathing the elephants was so fun as they they were all so playful and cute and happy! I wanted to wrap my arms around them and give them big hugs because I was so happy!

This girl just plopped her bum right down in the middle of the river, ready for her bath.

This girl just plopped her bum right down in the middle of the river, ready for her bath.

Giving this beauty a good scrub, I didn't even notice the other elephant floating down the river behind me!

Giving this beauty a good scrub, I didn’t even notice the other elephant floating down the river behind me!

Right along the river’s edge, we got another opportunity to feed the ever-hungry elephants an afternoon snack of the fruit that we had cut up earlier. This time, one of the mahouts motioned for me to try placing the fruit directly in [his] elephant’s mouth, rather than at the end of the trunk so I tried it and felt a big, squishy, slimy, but grateful elephant mouth. The teeth are pretty far back so there was no danger of my hand being chomped on and obviously the mahout trusted his elephant with me otherwise he would not have recommended it. It was neat to get that close, knowing that she and I both had to trust one another.

Here I am with

Here I am with “Chopper,” post-river bathing and afternoon snack.

After an afternoon tea and coffee break for us, Christie and Jason took off because they had a 3-hour drive back to Bangkok, but it was only a little after 2 and the program was scheduled until 3 so I went with the mahouts and our guide back to the forest to hang out with the elephants more. Talk about a personalized tour! The mahouts started opening up and joking and chatting and interacting with me more, and they let me get pretty close with the elephants, who seemed to be getting more comfortable with me as well. Even though they had just bathed, they kept throwing dirt on themselves–the guide said they do that to “powder themselves;” it’s similar to how dogs and horses will go roll in the dirt or on the grass after being bathed. I think it is an instinctive thing to help protect their newly exposed skin from bugs, sweat rashes, sun exposure, etc.

The six mahouts, ranging in age from 20 to 58, who accompanied us with their elephants that day.

The six mahouts, ranging in age from 20 to 58, who accompanied us with their elephants that day.

One last walk back to the main area and then I had to bid these beauties farewell. I was sad to go but feeling so filled up inside. How freakin’ cool to hang out with elephants for a day?! From that, I was on a high for the rest of the day and for the entire day after. I think I might’ve even missed them! There is something so very grounding and healing about working with or just being around animals, especially when it is with the majestic matriarchs of the jungle. We are so connected to them which is why education and awareness are crucial to conservation efforts in this day and age. Spending that day with the elephants was an unforgettable experience (that put me on Cloud 9 for a bit!), and I would recommend it to anyone who has the interest, urge, and opportunity.

Up close and personal with an elephant at Elephant Haven in Sai Yok, Thailand!

Up close and personal with an elephant at Elephant Haven in Sai Yok, Thailand!

Elephant Haven Videos
1. Elephant Haven Feeding (26 seconds): http://youtu.be/aeSVoTNv4RA
2. Fruit Snacks for Hungry Elephants (31 seconds): http://youtu.be/XREcn9c-tPE
3. Elephants Grazing in the Forest (41 seconds): http://youtu.be/z3andiYa90E
4. Elephant Mud Bath (2 minutes): http://youtu.be/9_mPBm2FURw
5. Elephant & Their Mahouts Walking in the Forest (1 min, 30 seconds): http://youtu.be/feTVkns9lEw

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Another activity that Camila and Cris had recommended I do while in Kanchanaburi was to go out to Erawan Falls and hike around. I almost didn’t do it. The bus trip alone out there and back was going to take an hour and a half each way and I still needed to get to Bangkok (a two and a half hour trip) before sunset. In a “seize the moment” decision, I went for it, and while I felt slight time pressure, it was worth it. Erawan Falls is a national park with guided trails through the forest to each of the seven layers of waterfalls that the area is named for. The hike was a lot longer than I was anticipating and I was sweating bullets by the time I reached the seventh and final waterfall–the perfect place to jump in! I met some Spaniards along the way, Marina and Josep, who were traveling together so I hung out, chatted, and swam with them for a while. Anyone was welcome to get in the water at any of the pools and some of the waterfalls were busier than others, but we were satisfied with our swim spot. By the time I got back to the bus, I calculated that the entire hike with swimming took 3 hours and 15 minutes. I ran the last 10 minutes of the trail back and made it to the 2:00 bus with only enough time to spare to use the restroom really fast. Not only are “sight-seeing” activities like this enjoyable, but they are also great exercise; my family would have loved to have done something like this!

Erawan Falls: (left) Waterfall #7 where we swam (yes, with those big fish who kept trying to nibble on our skin!) and explored the layers of rocks and waterfalls above the pool; (top right) Waterfall #3, the tallest of the 7 waterfalls; (bottom right) Marina, Josep, and I during the hike down, right before I left them and took off running for the bus.

Erawan Falls: (left) Waterfall #7 where we swam (yes, with those big fish who kept trying to nibble on our skin!) and explored the layers of rocks and waterfalls above the pool; (top right) Waterfall #3, the tallest of the 7 waterfalls; (bottom right) Marina, Josep, and I during the hike down, right before I left them and took off running for the bus.

I made it back to Bangkok just after the sun went down, but it was all right because I was back in the busy business area that I know relatively well now. Before making my way via my favorite train system toward the original hostel I stayed in, I decided to take a small detour to stop by the Erawan Shrine–the place where the bombing occurred in August. I was just curious and wanted to see the after-effect of the traumatic event… What I saw was touching: besides being guarded by tight security up and down the block, the shrine had a constant flow of visitors coming to pray and make offerings of flowers, candles, incense, and money in honor of the lives that were lost on that fateful evening. The quiet, but strong community support system speaks volumes about these people, this city, and their faith. I am glad I got to witness it. While it appears that the root of the bombing has yet to be confirmed, the Thai police have identified and detained several suspects linked to incident.

Bangkok locals and visitors pay their respects to the victims of the August 17th bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.

Bangkok locals and visitors pay their respects to the victims of the August 17th bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.

Back at S1 Hostel, my friends (a.k.a. the staff) remembered me and helped me to arrange the best airport transportation for the following day. (Unfortunately, the trains don’t start running until 6 AM, so being that I had a 6:15 flight, I needed to have a taxi pickup at 3:45 in the morning instead, but the price wasn’t bad at all–only about $7.) I ate dinner down the street where I had another “friend,” a sweet, young girl who worked at the hole in the wall restaurant–she hardly speaks English, but we bonded when she taught me how to peel a rambutan (the spiky red fruit) on my first night in Bangkok. Then I went back, cleaned up, repacked my bag, and slept for a couple hours. This was the official end of “Phase 1” of this journey which was 6 weeks of gallivanting through Southeast Asia mainland (Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia). To kick off “Phase 2,” I was bound for Bali!

TRAVEL TIP: For any smartphone users (or tablet/iPad owners), there is an App called “maps.me” that will change your world of travel navigation. Cris and Camila told me about this app and I have used it almost every day since. The beauty of this GPS app is that it functions without using data on your device–it will even locate you and create a route to your destination while your device is in airplane mode. All you do is download the map of the country (with routing) you are visiting when you have data or wifi; this will take up some space on your device, depending on the size of the country–for example, Cambodia took 10 MB and Indonesia uses up 200 MB. It allows you to navigate, search for specific points, pin point “bookmarks,” and even share your location. It is simple, easy-to-use, and convenient. You can zoom in to browse the area you are visiting and locate restaurants, lodging, ATMs, banks, the post office, shopping areas, transportation, etc. While sometimes there have been places I was looking for that were not yet registered on maps.me, 95% of the time, everything I need is right there. The only downside is that it might reduce the possibility of having a “getting lost” adventure…but you could always decide not to use it and get lost anyway!

Happy trails…

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 7: Functional Chaos in Cambodia

I’ve had a really hard time with this chapter. When talking to some friends who have been checking in with me, I have started referring to my condition regarding this chapter as “writers’ constipation,” as it has literally been holding everything else in the queue back and causing me a certain level of discomfort and anxiety. I had to take myself far far away to a tiny island in the Philippines and book a simple bungalow with no wifi where everyone was “doing their own thing” on the beaches so I could unplug, relax, and finally confront what was making me uncomfortable. (My process went something like this: “I can’t leave this spot on the beach until I complete x number of sections.” It was torture…)

This is a bit of a heavy chapter so I understand why I have been avoiding it. It can be emotionally draining to write about some of the stuff you will read in this chapter. (Consider that a warning.) However, I think it is necessary to shed light on even the unpleasant experiences of the world. That said, just know that there is a lovely fun chapter all about elephants that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside that is already written and will be posted within a few days of this chapter.

A SOCIETY recovering from being FLIPPED on it head.

Cambodia and its history are pretty messed up. I’m just going to start with that. I only spent 9 days total in Cambodia, in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh–the two largest cities, so I cannot speak from of the entire land, but I got a good glimpse of the countryside during bus and minivan rides along the way. Cambodia reminded me of Guatemala in many ways, and as I learned more about Cambodia, I almost felt at times like I was back in Guatemala–only safer here. Some parallels between the two countries are that the physical stature of the people is small/short, the area and population of both countries is similar (Guatemala: 108 square km, 15.5 million people; Cambodia: 181 square km, 15.2 million people), both countries stood as the primary regions of great ancient civilizations and their empires (Maya in Guatemala, Khmer in Cambodia), and both countries are still recovering from their tumultuous recent histories of genocide and brutality at the hands of the governments directed toward their own people.

Guatemala experienced a 30+ year civil war from the 60s through the 90s and the government was aiming to wipe out the indigenous Maya population who lived in rural towns and villages throughout the country; in contrast, in 1975, a dictatorial regime took over the government in Cambodia, led by Cambodian Pol Pot, who intended to turn the country into a self-sustaining Communist state based on agriculture by annihilating the the entire population of intellectuals–and anyone related to them. Recovering from the after-effect of the Vietnam War, Cambodians were in a vulnerable position looking for some relief. Pol Pot, like all typical dictators, recruited the young and uneducated into his army and, in a period of less than 4 years–known as the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer,” he managed to reduce the population of Cambodia by one third; nearly 3 million people died while he was in power from 1975-79. People who lived in cities, wore glasses, spoke another language, worked as a teacher/doctor/engineer (or any other profession besides farming pretty much), or were educated in any way were dragged off to prisons and concentration camps, forced to endlessly work in fields under terrible living conditions with little food, and ultimately murdered–if they hadn’t died already from starvation, disease, or torture.

It has not even been forty years since Cambodia experienced the devastation of the Khmer Rouge and, in the wake of the living nightmare, Cambodia has struggled to rebuild itself and create a new identity. There isn’t a family in Cambodia who was unaffected by the Khmer Rouge, and the air here is still heavy with traces of the traumatic history. While the population has seen a healthy increase from 5 million to the current 15 million people since the end of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has a deeper history of being in a position as a territory that Thailand, Vietnam, France, and China have all gone back and forth between trying to protect and attempting to infiltrate and conquer. Cambodia is still struggling to find its way and that is evident by the scrappiness of the people and the the culture. It is experiencing a period of critical development right now, and it could go one way or the other: achieving economic prosperity and stability or falling back into a pit of dysfunction and despair.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which traces back to the ancient Khmer civilization that dominated the region in the 1200s, however, English is being spoken more and more across the country, especially in the larger cities where tourism has been gaining traction. And while the national currency is riel, US dollars are actually used in many places–even the ATMs in the larger cities only dispense US dollars; supposedly the people don’t have much confidence in the value of riel. The funny thing is that in some places, the price will be listed in dollars so the customer pays in dollars, but if the customer needs change back, the merchant will give change in riel, not dollars. This is the prefect example of how what seems like just confusion to outsiders actually makes sense somehow to Cambodians.

Cambodia uses US dollars as their currency in addition to the Cambodian riel. When I went to pull cash from the ATM, it spit out 3 crisp Benji's, just like this one.

Cambodia uses US dollars as their currency in addition to the Cambodian riel. When I went to pull cash from the ATM, it spit out 3 crisp Benji’s, just like this one.

The western influence doesn’t stop there. With nearly two-thirds of the population being under the age of forty, the country is dominated by a young generation that has easy access to pop culture and worldly trends via the internet and social media. Certain cities in Cambodia are developing a hip vibe to them as the creative and open-minded young generation puts its stamp on the culture, incorporating technology and new business ideas into the ever-shifting economy.

Don’t get me wrong, though–Cambodia is still a crazy place. The driving alone can demonstrate that. The streets, the markets, the systems (or lack thereof), and the confusion is like India meets Guatemala. Businesses open as often as they close as people try their hands at a new idea, being ever resourceful and optimistic–until the business idea stops working of course, then they shut down the operation and try something else. The resilience of the people is impressive, and while many older Cambodians seem very solemn–perhaps still deeply scarred from their recent history, the younger Cambodians demonstrate an un-matchable sense of humor, making light of every possible situation.

There are tuk tuks and motorbikes all over the place, and despite the utter chaos of the streets, it is safe to step right out in the middle of it all as people are so alert that they will go around anyone or anything in their path. It is just as important to them not to crash or injure themselves as it is not to harm another person or vehicle. There isn’t much of a system, but somehow they make it work. I walked pretty much everywhere I went while I was there, but I got used to the constant enquiries from almost every guy on the street saying, “Hello, miss…tuk tuk?” as he held up both of his fists in front of him, motioning one of them as if he were revving a motor, and smiling with hopeful, raised eyebrows. I would point to my legs and say, “This is my transportation.” Some of the guys who saw me regularly started joking with me, and saying that they’ll just have to cut off my legs so I have to take a tuk tuk. I laughed, appreciating the interaction, not at all afraid that they weren’t kidding. I just got a good vibe from the people. Allan also loved interacting with the locals; he would mess with them and say that he would take a tuk tuk ride with them only if they would let him drive it! VIDEO – Tuk Tuk Ride in Siem Reap: http://youtu.be/3S9Ewa30j3Y

Speaking of Allan and transportation, after the 11 days we had spent together in Laos, we decided to continue our journey together in Cambodia for a while. Also, once we crossed the border, although Sheni and Michal headed in a different direction, our Italian friend, Giuseppe, went on to Siem Reap with us. Our journey to Siem Reap from the border was a obvious indicator for what the rest of the country would be like as we bounced along potholes on dirt roads in remote villages, stopped for nearly an hour for what was supposedly a 20-minute lunch stop, then got “kicked out” of the van temporarily on the side of the road somewhere so the driver, who didn’t speak any English, could remove the seat that Giuseppe and I had been sitting on, load a giant round table top into the van with the help of some local men, then put our seat back in on top of the table. (We felt really safe in the minivan after that…NOT!)

Exhibit: Random stop on the side of the road in a Cambodian village. Orange seat removed from van (on the ground). Local men loading table top into van. Okay. We can go now...

Exhibit: Random stop on the side of the road in a Cambodian village. Orange seat removed from van (on the ground). Local men loading table top into van. Okay. We can go now…

During that stop on the side of the road, curious Cambodian women couldn’t stop giggling as they inspected my fair skin and the blond hair on my arms. By now, I am used to being the object of entertainment for women and children who live in remote villages in other countries for these exact reasons; a fun way to engage with them is to pretend to be just as shocked that they don’t have freckles or hair on their arms as they are intrigued by your idiosyncrasies.

Siem Reap was an interesting city. The climate was hot and very dry–drier than anywhere else I had been in Thailand or Laos thus far. However, rainy season was just starting to pick up so we had to be prepared for some afternoon downpours, but the early daytime was clear for the most part while we were there. Most people come to Siem Reap to see the expansive region of the temples at Angkor Wat–which is exactly why we were there–but there is more to the city than that. We were in walking distance of a variety of markets–day markets, night markets, art markets, etc., fresh meat and seafood stalls, restaurants, bars, other lively nightlife venues, and, of course, the typical beauty salons and massage parlors that are a staple to every city in Southeast Asia. Almost every night, we went out as a group to walk around, explore, and be a part of the goings on.

Fresh meat and seafood at a street-side restaurant in Siem Reap.

Fresh meat and seafood at a street-side restaurant in Siem Reap.

One really fun night was when Allan, Giuseppe, Yuito (a Japanese guy), and I went for a shared meal. (I’m pretty sure it was Cambodian BBQ.) This was Yuito’s last night in Cambodia and he was about to leave on an overnight bus back to Thailand, I think. He was traveling around just like the rest of us, however, this was his first solo trip, he was only about 20 years old, and he didn’t speak English very well. Talk about brave!! He was nearing the end of his trip and was on the same bus as the rest of us coming from the border. Upon arrival in Siem Reap, Giuseppe took him under his wing and they were glued at the hip until Yuito had to leave. Yuito had expressed to us that he had often felt lonely traveling by himself, but we could see that meeting Giuseppe completely changed the tone of his trip. Giuseppe, a confident, gentle, and charming Italian, stood in as a the perfect big brother/guide/translator for Yuito. One of the neatest things about traveling is seeing how people from all over the world can connect and relate to each other, sharing a bond that may never be repeated in a lifetime. We ended our evening letting loose with our dance moves at a nearby club. Not the usual scene for any of us, but we all embraced the moment and even Allan busted out a couple moves! Yuito was grinning from ear to ear, completely euphoric as he left to catch his overnight bus. (Giuseppe left a day later as he was nearing the end of his holiday and had to return to Italy soon.)

Top: Family style Cambodian BBQ; bottom: Giuseppe, me, Allan, and Yuito at dinner together.

Top: Family style Cambodian BBQ; bottom: Giuseppe, me, Allan, and Yuito at dinner together.

I am so glad I captured this moment! The euphoric Yuito is capturing a selfie with Allan at dinner.

I am so glad I captured this moment! The euphoric Yuito is capturing a selfie with Allan at dinner.

Now for the temples at Angkor Wat–the network of places of worship that were the city centers of the ancient Khmer civilization that spans an area the size of a small city; it’s the largest draw for tourism in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is one of the few temple sites that remains in Cambodia as many temples were destroyed during wars as well as in the Khmer Rouge. Exploring the entire span of temple areas can take several days; giving it only part of a day would be an injustice to the sheer majesty of the place. The park will issue a 1-day, 3-day, or 7-day pass. Unless someone is there doing an in-depth study of the place, the 3-day pass is usually the best option. And while the temples can be explored on one’s own, it is wise to get a local tour guide as they are chock full of history and other cool information about each temple and the entire city network.

Allan and I each bought a 3-day pass, and while he spent his first day riding a bicycle to and through the temple sites, I was bumming around Siem Reap at the lodge writing, so my first day was actually his second day; he suggested sharing a tuk tuk and a guide for the day which was a great idea so we could split the costs. It was also more fun to explore a place like Angkor Wat with a companion as it was immense and interesting. Allan and I shared our thoughts and experiences with each other and also learned from the different questions that each of us asked our tour guide during the day. So with Sami as our tuk tuk driver for the day and “Lucky” as our guide, we ventured out.

Here I am in the tuk tuk at the Angkor Wat complex with our driver, Sami, and out tour guide, Lucky. (I asked Allan to take this pic which is why he's not in it. Thanks, Allan!)

Here I am in the tuk tuk at the Angkor Wat complex with our driver, Sami, and out tour guide, Lucky. (I asked Allan to take this pic which is why he’s not in it. Thanks, Allan!)

We followed the “small circuit” route, visiting four of the most popular temples that day so unfortunately we ran into a lot of crowds, especially at the main Angkor Wat temple, but that was only a minor distraction. We were so grateful to have Lucky with us because he educated us beyond what we expected to learn that day. Some of the general things we learned about the area that day include the following: some temples were constructed to honor Buddhist divinity while others were built as a shrine for Hindu gods–it depended on the religious beliefs of the ruler at the time who commissioned the project; also, each and every ruler (a.k.a. “god king”) intended to build his temple bigger and better than the prior king’s so the Angkor Wat region proceeded to grow larger and more grandiose with every new leader. Most of the doorways to temples and gates have a statue of a god on one side and a statue of a demon on the other side; the demons are there to scare away the bad spirits. Lastly, in many of the temples are altars and shrines that are still used to this day; people light candles and burn incense around these altars in order to “burn away” bad luck.

The first major temple we stopped at was Bayon. This temple was so cool-looking as its towers jutted upward with the sky as its backdrop. Every time we passed this one, I was awe-inspired no matter what time of the day it was. With 216 giant carvings of stone heads as the dominant feature of Bayon, I felt as if I were being watched at every turn. It was as if the temple had come alive! In all three days I spent temple-hopping, I’d say that this temple was my favorite one. I’m not sure if it was because I could interact with the temple (see photos) or because of the overall character of the temple in general. Whatever it was, it didn’t fail to make an impression.

Here I am standing on the steps of Bayon, my favorite temple in the Angkor Wat complex.

Here I am standing on the steps of Bayon, my favorite temple in the Angkor Wat complex.

The architecture of the Bayon temple and its 216 stone face carvings was so cool--we had a lot of fun taking photos with this one!

The architecture of the Bayon temple and its 216 stone face carvings was so cool–we had a lot of fun taking photos with this one!

The next major temple we visited was Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple since Angelina Jolie’s character, Lara Croft, was filmed entering this temple via tree in the movie. People flock to this temple just to take a picture with the “Angelina” tree. (We jumped on the bandwagon and got a photo with it as well!) The amazing thing about this temple is that it was built in the middle of the jungle over 800 years ago so it has been gradually succumbing to the forces of nature for hundreds of years as trees have literally sets their roots on top of this stone fortress and grown. The roots drape like giant snakes slithering over the roofs and walls down to the forest floor in search of nutrients, and the resulting weight of the ever-growing trees has caused some of the stone structures to cave in, crumbling beneath the hand of the jungle. It was sort of magical to be exploring the abandoned, entangled ancient temples. It was like our own Indiana Jones adventure–all that was missing were the props: a jeep, a whip, and the trademark hat!

Allan and I at the

Allan and I at the “Angelina Jolie tree” at Ta Prohm. :-)

The unique feature of Ta Prohm is that it has become entagled with jungle trees growing from the rooftops of the temple and stretching out their roots down to the forest floor.

The unique feature of Ta Prohm is that it has become entagled with jungle trees growing from the rooftops of the temple and stretching out their roots down to the forest floor.

We saved the biggest one for last that day: the Angkor Wat, the grandiose temple that the entire complex is named for. Erected in the early 1100s, around the same time that Westminster Abbey was built, Angkor Wat is massive–it is actually the largest religious building in the world. Protected by a wide moat that circles it, this used to be a city center for the Khmer people, and a symbol of their national pride. It still remains a sacred place of worship and now a heavy-hitter as a tourist attraction. To think that such a sturdy, ornate, and majestic place was constructed almost a thousand years ago is mind-boggling and impressive. Granted, there have been some restoration efforts made to preserve the site, but much of the authenticity in the structures, carvings, and artwork on the walls remains. Lucky took us in and around the different buildings, translating the history on the walls into stories for us. Then we climbed the tallest tower that is at the center of the temple for an exploration of the architecture and set-up as well as a panoramic view of the grounds. A great way to wrap up our day.

Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world is stunningly grand.

Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world is stunningly grand.

Bottom: The bridge crossing the moat over to the entrance gate of Angkor Wat. Top left: the pathway leading up to the main temple. Top right: one of towers in the center fortress at Angkor Wat.

Bottom: The bridge crossing the moat over to the entrance gate of Angkor Wat. Top left: the pathway leading up to the main temple. Top right: one of towers in the center fortress at Angkor Wat.

Here is a young Biuddhist monk monitoring the altars at the main Angkor Wat temple.

Here is a young Buddhist monk monitoring the altars at the main Angkor Wat temple.

The next time we went back to the temple complex (Allan’s third day, my second), we decided to take a tuk tuk again because the temples on our radar were on the large circuit, well beyond reasonable walking or even bicycling distance, however, we opted to go without a tour guide. This was such an enjoyable day because we visited places where there weren’t crowds so it was peaceful and we could move along at our own pace, without feeling pushed or like we had to look at something really fast and move on so the next person could see.

The highlight temple of the day was Banteay Srei, which translates to “Citadel of the Women.” Other translations call it “Citadel of Beauty,” so it seems that women and beauty must be one and the same! This temple is unlike many of the others in the Angkor complex for several reasons including that it was NOT commissioned to be built by a king, it is made from a pinkish stone, and the carvings are unique from anything seen in Angkor–or in the world, for that matter. The elaborate carvings adorn every wall and doorway of the structure and are so delicate that rumor has it the citadel was created by the hands of women because men’s hands wouldn’t be able to make something so intricate. (Not sure how true that is, but some people believe it.) Just as we were finishing our stroll around the temple grounds, we actually ran into a large group from the Cambodian military (with over a hundred cadets) that was on a “field trip” to Angkor Wat to learn about Cambodia’s history and the Khmer culture so we chatted it up with them for a bit; it was neat to see the importance they place on interactive experiences for learning.

A few shots of the ornate Banteay Srei temple, the

A few shots of the ornate Banteay Srei temple, the “Citadel of the Women.”

The doorways at the Angkor Wat temples made for some good entertainment: At Banteay Srei, I had to stretch to reach the corners, but at Angkor Wat, Allan had trouble getting through the narrow doorway! (Until he went sideways, of course...)

The doorways at the Angkor Wat temples made for some good entertainment: At Banteay Srei, I had to stretch to reach the corners, but at Angkor Wat, Allan had trouble getting through the narrow doorway! (Until he went sideways, of course…)

Another temple we made a brief stop at was Preah Neak Poan, called “the water temple” as it is situated like an island surrounded by large pools (so we couldn’t access it). We pretty much just snapped a few photos and walked away. It was a leisurely day overall, and being away from the throngs of tourists allowed us more interaction with locals, which we both love.

Cambodian girls playing simple hand games at the temple grounds near Banteay Srei.

Cambodian girls playing simple hand games at the temple grounds near Banteay Srei.

The area where we were that day meant that we would pass the Cambodia Landmine Museum which Allan was very interested in checking out. Since he is always chock full of good ideas, I was totally on board so we stopped there on our way back and spent about an hour and a half inside taking the self-guided audio tour. Similar to how Laos was affected by the bombs and landmines from wartime activity in the past several decades, Cambodia has suffered the issue as well. This museum is full of landmines and other metal weaponry that a local man named Aki Ra has retrieved from all over the country. As a boy, he was trained by Pol Pot’s army to fight as a child-soldier during the Khmer Rouge; during his time in the military, he planted thousands of explosive devices, but upon realizing what kind of damage landmines can cause to the local people, he has taken his expertise with landmines and made it his life’s work (with some assistance from the government and donations) to return to villages where he had planted them so he could defuse them by hand then locate and deactivate land mines that plague the entire country. The museum holds the collection of what he has found and explains each device, how it works, and what damage it could effect. It is honorable work and Aki Ra has even gone on to start a Relief Facility for victims of landmine explosions. There is still so much more to be done.

A collection of deactivated explosive devices from all over Cambodia at the Landmine Museum.

A collection of deactivated explosive devices from all over Cambodia at the Landmine Museum.

Explosive devices and other remnants from war are so common across Laos and Cambodia that they have become a part of the locals' daily lives--whether someone lost a limb or was blinded by an explosion (seen on right) or the devices are used for practical purposes such as makeshift canoes (seen on left) or as scrap metal to be sold.

Explosive devices and other remnants from war are so common across Laos and Cambodia that they have become a part of the locals’ daily lives–whether someone lost a limb or was blinded by an explosion (seen on right) or the devices are used for practical purposes such as makeshift canoes (seen on left) or as scrap metal to be sold.

That evening, Allan and I attended a show in Siem Reap called Phare, The Cambodia Circus. This was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook with the suggestion, “Not to be missed.” Not knowing what to expect, we headed to the big top and settled in with popcorn and drinks. We learned that Phare started as an organization to give opportunity to young people coming from underprivileged areas. In addition to ensuring a solid academic education, the institution also provides training in the arts, especially music, dance, and acrobatics. After years of training, the performers form “circus troupes” and put on shows in the major cities in Cambodia; Phare has received so much praise that they are now touring internationally. After witnessing the talent and originality of the troupe, I was not surprised that they have gained worldwide acclaim: the performers displayed just as much passion as they did purpose while they danced, flipped, stood on each other, balanced on small or moving objects, and played with fire in order to tell a story and convey a social message. The athleticism of the performers was superb and their energy contagious. Here is a 1-minute video from the show: http://youtu.be/0P_7__QXS-I

These are some of the impressive acts that the performers of Phare, The Cambodia Circus demonstrated.

These are some of the impressive acts that the performers of Phare, The Cambodia Circus demonstrated.

Post-show posing with the Phare performers.

Post-show posing with the Phare performers.

While we were in Siem Reap, our other travel friends, Cris and Camila, the Chilean couple whom we had met en route to Laos, showed up. We had been in touch and coordinated it somewhat as their route was similar to ours. It is common while traveling to cross paths with people you have met before because oftentimes travel routes that “make sense” are taken by many. For example, it doesn’t make sense to leave a country and cross back in multiple times if there is a visa fee so the idea to visit all parts of that country that seem interesting the one time you enter. Also, a west to east or north to south route is usually chosen by travelers as opposed to zig-zagging back and forth all over a country. Travel routes usually “make sense” because they minimize both travel time and costs. We spent some time with Cris and Camila during those handful of days, either sharing meals or exploring markets, and, as it usually is with good companions, it was fun to reunite and swap travel stories of what we had all been through since we had last seen each other.

The morning after the circus, Allan left Siem Reap for the capital city, Phnom Penh. I stayed behind with Cris and Camila, knowing that we would only be a day behind Allan. I still had one more day left on my pass for Angkor Wat so in the early afternoon I rented a bicycle for the day and just went around to a couple of favorite (and devoid of big crowds) spots I had seen during my prior visits. It was a great way to take in the sheer beauty of the Angkor Wat complex and reflect on the magnitude and spirituality of the place. The risk of being out on a bicycle, of course, was that there was a high likelihood that the skies would open up and dump out buckets of water as they had almost every afternoon while we were there. Allan got caught in the rain the day he took a bike to the temples, Cris and Camila had a similar experience when they went on bikes, so now it was my turn.

When the rain first started, I curled up on a stone block under some trees writing with my umbrella propped in such a way that I could stay dry and continue writing despite the rain. I thought I was pretty clever because I was still completely dry when the water stopped falling from the sky. And then fifteen minutes later, Storm #2–the BIG one–rolled in. The skies went completely dark as the gray clouds covered everything and a complete downpour was unleashed. I was on my way out anyway and still dry, but I knew what was coming. The giant stone faces on the gates of the city looked epic against the sky so I paused long enough to capture a photo, but after that, I knew what I had to do: ditch the umbrella, secure all electronics in a waterproof place in my bag, strip down to as few clothing layers as possible, and ride. Waiting that storm out wasn’t an option by the look of the sky, and I didn’t want to be riding in the dark, so I just went for it. It only took seconds to be soaking wet, but it felt nice. It was an awesome ride.

This is the epic moment I HAD to capture as I was about to exit the gates of Angkor Wat on my bicycle in the middle of a thunderstorm. You can't really tell how hard it was raining from the photo, but the stone head against the sky still looks awesome!!

This is the epic moment I HAD to capture as I was about to exit the gates of Angkor Wat on my bicycle in the middle of a thunderstorm. You can’t really tell how hard it was raining from the photo, but the stone head against the sky still looks awesome!!

When Camila, Cris, and I settled into a place in Phnom Penh, it ended up being on the same street where Allan was staying at a boutique hotel. (It was his last couple days of vacation before returning to Australia so it was time for him to splurge a little bit!) Some daytime activities we would do together, but we almost always met up in the evenings for dinner and hanging out. It was fun to spend these last few days together as we knew we were all about to disperse to different places from there. Allan to Australia, Cris and Camila to Vietnam, and me to Indonesia.

Phnom Penh is a neat city. It’s big with a lot to do, and while it was still very hot, it was not dry like Siem Reap because it is situated along the Mekong River. (The Mekong River originates in China and runs all the way down through Laos and Cambodia which is why it keeps showing up on my travel route! It is one of the longest rivers in the world.) There are markets and historic buildings, shopping centers and coffee shops, cool restaurants, massage parlors, and a Royal Palace. During the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh essentially became a ghost town so the hustle and bustle of the city now with a lot of young people is an indicator of how the entire country is bouncing back from the devastation that occurred in the late 70s.

Two very funny things about Cambodia that were prevalent in Phnom Penh are 1) the crazy driving and 2) names of people and their shops/businesses. Allan said to me once, “I know it looks scary, but just ride into the middle of the traffic–they’ll go around you.” Sounds like great advice, right?? Only in Cambodia would that be safe despite how messy the streets are. But whatever system they all abide by, it works. In regard to names, we met so many people along the way–tour guides, tuk tuk drivers, shop owners, etc.–who called themselves “Happy,” “Lucky,” or “Smiley.” There is a cultural obsession with “good luck” across the country (I think this is along the lines of the societal belief in fatalism) which may be why they label everything with positive connotation, but I couldn’t help but wonder when I was going to run into Dopey and Doc.

Typical chaotic driving scene on the streets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I vote that Cambodians are the best defensive drivers in the world!

Typical chaotic driving scene on the streets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I vote that Cambodians are the best defensive drivers in the world!

Two very important things to do for any visitor to Phnom Penh are take a trip to S21 and then go to the Killing Fields. While they are not exactly “feel good” activities, I believe it is necessary in order to both understand Cambodia’s history and pay respect to the people and the land. On the day we planned to visit these places, our group consisted of Camila, Sofia–an Italian girl whom we had met the night before, and me. Allan had gone the day before and Cris had seen these places several years ago when he was in Cambodia and had no interest in going back. So the guys had a relax day, and the three of us ladies–thank goodness we were together–shared the emotional experience of S21 and the Killing Fields.

From right, Camlia, Sofia, and I in a tuk tuk heading out for the day's activities. Little did we know when we were starting out that we would all be borderline-depressed on the way back...

From right, Camlia, Sofia, and I in a tuk tuk heading out for the day’s activities. Little did we know when we were starting out that we would all be borderline-depressed on the way back…

S21 is in town and used to be a school before the Khmer Rouge. However, when Pol Pot’s army infiltrated Phnom Penh, they converted the school into a concentration camp, a holding ground for prisoners (a.k.a. educated civilians). They took everything away from these people and stripped them down to hardly any clothing, if any. People were kept in tiny cells and would be punished if they made a sound unless they were being asked something directly. People were forced to go out and work in the rice fields day after day doing an insane amount of agricultural production while receiving almost no food–and what little food they received was in the form of a watery porridge. Pol Pot wanted to turn the nation into a self-sustaining agricultural communist society, but the amount of rice he was aiming to harvest was impossible to achieve. He demanded the back-breaking toil nonetheless.

This is S21, once a school, but turned into a sort of concentration camp druing the Khmer Rouge where prisoners weld kept, interrogated, tortured, and, in some cases, killed at the hands of Pol Pot and his army.

This is S21, once a school, but turned into a sort of concentration camp druing the Khmer Rouge where prisoners weld kept, interrogated, tortured, and, in some cases, killed at the hands of Pol Pot and his army.

S21 is a museum now. During our tour, we were shown interrogation cells with blood stains on the floor. There were photos up of the many people who came there and died there. (Pol Pot’s army was meticulous about tracking who came in and out so as not to lose anyone who tried to escape which is why there were photos available.) We saw the conditions under which people lived and how emaciated they had become during that time. When S21 was finally taken back from Pol Pot’s regime, the rescuers took more photos of the place–and all the dead civilians they found there–for evidence. We saw all of this.

At S21, these were the rules posted for all the prisoners to see and obey while they were being held here during the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

At S21, these were the rules posted for all the prisoners to see and obey while they were being held here during the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

All the different methods torture were described to us as well and there were still tools and props around for visitors to see. There were shackles and bars where the army would stretch people out or hang them upside down, then lower them headfirst into barrels of contaminated water or sometimes buckets of excrement. Electrical shock was another common form of torture. Inside one of the rooms, there was a “special” bath tub that had cuffs at the bottom of it–they would lock people in and then fill up the tub, often resulting in drowning. Whipping, yanking out people’s fingernails, and, for women, cutting off their nipples were some other methods that were used at S21 and other concentration camps.

From S21 and other concentration camp holding areas, the prisoners would be loaded into big trucks and told they were being moved to another place, but they were actually being taken to killing fields, never to be seen again. Blindfolded and lined up one-by-one, the prisoners would be led by Pol Pot’s guys out to the fields where the army had dug enormous holes in the ground. At night time, they would play music over the loudspeaker so no one in the surrounding town could hear the screams, and then they would kill the prisoners, usually by some form of bludgeoning as bullets were too expensive and Pol Pot wouldn’t allow bullets to be wasted. Shovels swung against people’s heads usually did the job, but other methods were used as well which included machetes, axes, crow bars, hooks, and the like. Oh, and there was a special tree for babies–a sturdy one; they would take the babies by their feet/legs and swing them toward the tree, smashing their skulls against it before throwing the babies into a pit with their dead mothers, whom had likely been raped and mutilated before they were killed (unless they were forced to watch their babies be murdered first). When Pol Pot’s regime ended and these mass grave sites were recovered, pieces of brain and children’s skulls were found all over the bark of that particular blood-stained tree.

Top: Mass graves on site at the Killing Fields. Bottom middle: The Hanging Tree. Bottom left and right: A sign requesting,

Top: Mass graves on site at the Killing Fields. Bottom middle: The Hanging Tree. Bottom left and right: A sign requesting, “Don’t step on bone” next to pieces of bone and articles of clothing that are still set in the earth. Occasionally, bad rains will wash away some of the land, exposing more remainders of the horror that took place at the Killing Fields during the Khmer Rouge.

At the Killing Fields, Camila, Sofia, and I each picked up a headset and had our own audio tour (in our native languages). We spent about an hour and a half there, going at our own paces, but staying close to each other. We listened to survivors’ stories and heard all the details about those four years and the history of the Killing Fields. At first, there weren’t so many deaths, but toward the end of his regime when he started getting paranoid about losing his control, Pol Pot order truckloads upon truckloads of people to be killed night after night. Around 1.7 million people were murdered at the concentration camps or killing fields in those four years, not to mention those who were taken or killed outside of these places. It was so hard to imagine the degree of inhumanity associated with Pol Pot and his army. From the perspective of his followers, it was “kill of die” with no other option so they had to kill in order to survive and if they showed any sign of weakness, hesitation, or questioning, they would be the next to go.

We completed the tour by stopping into the memorial building, where they keep the skulls and some bones of the victims of the Killing Fields. All three of us were shaken up from everything we had just seen. This all started happening only forty years ago, when most of our parents were teenagers or young adults. That is fresh. And it is unbelievable how people could do this to one another. Living, breathing human beings inflicting harsh measures of torture onto other humans. I don’t think any of us expected to be affected the way we were as several things that day drew quiet tears from all of us and the overall impact left us feeling sad and depressed.

This monument was erected at the site of the Killing Fields in order to honor the hundreds of thousands who were murdered here during the Khmer Rouge. The skulls on the right are those that were dug up on site at the Killing Fields.

This monument was erected at the site of the Killing Fields in order to honor the hundreds of thousands who were murdered here during the Khmer Rouge. The skulls on the right are those that were dug up on site at the Killing Fields.

One of the most idiotic things a ruler can do is wipe out the educated population. But of course that is how he gains control because then people don’t think for themselves and are easily influenced by a charismatic leader with radical ideas. Taking a look through history, some famous dictators including Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini attained complete power by taking control of the education systems and monitoring what their followers were exposed to. Even today, when journalists and other media publicly share an idea that could influence people’s way of thinking, radical leaders feel threatened and target those sources. (No wonder the media is regulated so much–it’s a security measure.) This fear-based way of operating has had devastating effects on populations and cultures. While it may be more comfortable to assume that we are well beyond dictatorships, radical leaders, and genocides, that is not the case. Just take a look at what is going on in the Middle East now. That is our world, too. And the more “global” our interactions and economy become, the closer to home the radical ideas and terrorism of the Middle East get. We are not isolated from it. And to think that certain governments or human rights organizations are able to prevent others from implementing acts of inhumanity would be naïve–otherwise what’s been showing up in the news lately would be different.

Despite Pol Pot’s responsibility for the Khmer Rouge, he was never indicted for any of it. He was taken to court over all this, but the trial was postponed for years and years so he lived out the rest of his life pretty happily with his wife and kids until he died while the trial was still lingering. Similar situation with two of his leading generals. What he left in his wake is a Cambodia that struggles in poverty–the lack of education resulting in short-sightedness and corruption among the people. Supposedly some of the current government officials were a part of Pol Pot’s regime while he was in power–perhaps that is why the trials never materialized. In any case, Cambodia is in re-boot mode and has a lot of room for trial and error right now.

I didn’t want to leave Cambodia on that note, so I stayed one day longer in order to walk around exploring the city more while I decompressed from the heavy experience. Also, all my travel buddies were now well on their ways to their next destinations. It was the first time I had really been by myself in almost three weeks so I had to get used to what that felt like again. This was the symbolic end to the first phase of my journey–six weeks of Southeast Asia mainland, lots of contact with friends and family from home, and building lasting relationships with travel companions. I knew the upcoming phase would be significantly different, but necessary. It was starting to look like the next six weeks were going to consist of island-hopping, solo travel, less contact with home, and lots more writing. But I’ll save those details for later…

This is Allan's photo--I borrowed it from Facebook. (Thanks, Allan!) On our last night together in Phnom Penh, Allan made sure we all took some pictures together. From left: Allan, me, Camila, and Cris. Gosh, I miss them!

This is Allan’s photo–I borrowed it from Facebook. (Thanks, Allan!) On our last night together in Phnom Penh, Allan made sure we all took some pictures together. From left: Allan, me, Camila, and Cris. Gosh, I miss them!

TRAVEL TIP: If you find great travel buddies, stick with them. No matter where you are traveling, you are bound to meet many people along the way. It is rare to find someone whose travel style, tastes, interests, and budget are compatible with your own. And then there is the question of personality compatibility! So if you do click with someone and you’re going along the same route, be open and flexible if it means you can stay with a great travel buddy for a little longer. Having travel companions can have many benefits including having someone to share meals or experiences with, having a little extra security (especially in the cases of solo travelers), and having a resource for wisdom, travel tips, and decision-making. At first I was hesitant to collect a travel buddy so early on, but meeting Allan was one of the best things that could have happened. He has so much more travel experience than I do so he was a wealth of knowledge, plus he was patient, independent, and funny. He now holds the record for length of time I have stayed with any travel companion!! (He was also very supportive of my writing habits!) I know we will remain friends forever. I also picked up some great tips from Cris and Camila and they were loads of fun to travel with as well (but the dynamic of a couple is different from that of a solo traveler). Conversely, if you meet people along the way with whom you clash or with whom communication seems particularly difficult, ditch them–no matter how nice they seem or how interested they are in doing activities together. It’s not worth it. You don’t owe them anything. Just keep moving. Knowing your boundaries is key to quality of experience, great adventures, and fabulous relationships.

Your [very relieved] friend and storyteller,

Alexandra

The Gringo Groove: Worlds 3 & 4

Back to another Guatemala chapter… I’ve finally slowed my movement down enough to get mostly caught up with capturing all the stimulation of my current travels to the point where I can turn my attention back to the primary project. I have a few Backpacking Bonuses waiting in the wings, but I’m taking a short break to make sure Guate gets some spotlight, too. WARNING: This ended up being a very lengthy post so get comfortable (it’s been in the works for three years); also, I do not have access to all my Guatemala pictures at the moment so I cannot illustrate everything I am describing, but I was able to dig up a couple good ones…

This chapter is technically the follow up chapter to a post I made three years ago (in June 2012) called “The Gringo Groove: Worlds 1 & 2.” The Gringo Groove is an exploration of the way we as Peace Corps Volunteer gringos, or foreigners, living abroad fit into the worlds in which we find ourselves. These “worlds” are not exclusive to PC Volunteers (PCVs) as many other gringos who have lived, worked, or traveled abroad may be able to relate to them as well. In the section for each “world,” I analyze the roles we have to fill, how we are seen and treated, the emotional/psychological situation that comes with each world, and lastly, how we manage to balance all four worlds as part of our daily lives while we are abroad, and, especially in the case of World 4, when we come home.

To summarize the first chapter, “World 1” entails what life is like as part of the city, town, or village where each PCV is stationed for 2 years. This is where PCVs spend most of their time, create a new home and lifestyle, and integrate into host country families and communities. “World 2” describes what it is like to be a foreigner living or traveling abroad in the general sense. This is the world of short-term relationships as tourists and backpackers are just passing through to see the hotspots in each country; gringos in this world are often targeted by vendors, beggars, and scammers. While living as PCVs, we often found it difficult to relate to the backpackers and tourists we encountered because our mindsets were so different from theirs, and also, we loathed being treated as if we were tourists.

World 3

This world is all about the Peace Corps web, which was the backbone and vessel for how we were all in Guatemala in the first place. Representing the United States of America and the Peace Corps, an organization of the federal government, was our primary responsibility. We had to be “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we all had very strict rules in place that were mainly for our safety. We were all a part of the same system adhering to the same standards with the purpose of promoting peace in other countries through friendship and meeting the country’s need for trained professionals.

Some of the rules included not traveling to certain regions in Guatemala or not participating in certain “high risk” activities, only spending 3 nights per month away from our sites, having to call a hotline to report our “whereabouts” whenever we did spend a night away from site, not riding on motorcycles, avoiding chicken bus transportation along the Panamerican Highway (and using the PC shuttle system instead), and avoiding travel at night whenever possible. Sometimes these things were not always possible so it was up to us to make the safest choice. For example, occasionally I would accept a motorcycle ride back to my town after working in the village if it meant that I could be home in 10 minutes, dropped off by a friend, instead of walking for an hour at dusk or in the dark along the dirt road in the countryside by myself. Transportation options were not exactly abundant where I lived.

In addition to rules, we also had vacation allotment which was 2 vacation days per month of service (totaling 48 days over a typical 2-year service) and we could save them or use them pretty much however or whenever we liked as long as we planned for it and communicated it to our supervisors. While many of us reserved our vacation days for holidays, trips to visit our families back in the States, and buffer days for when we had visitors from home, we would also plan extended weekend activities or trips that involved only PCVs, because we in essence grew to become a family in Guatemala. Plus, it was easier to plan activities with people who were living the same lifestyle because the interests, budget, responsibilities, and time flexibility were pretty much the same for everyone.

Peace Corps is a volunteer organization, however we were each allotted a monthly living allowance that was sufficient for us to live at the level of the average person in our community; the monthly amount was between $350-$400, depending on the size and location of the town or village, and that money covered rent, transportation, phone credit, internet, food, and other necessities. There was no possible way that any of us could live in one of the busy tourist towns like Antigua or Panajachel on the income we were receiving, but if we planned right, we could afford to spend a weekend “splurging” on a nice restaurant and decent lodging in any of those towns. Some of us, myself included, would stash a little bit of the money away each month so we had a bit of a “savings” that we could tap into when we had visitors from the States. It was kind of a given that I take my visitors to a few of the tourist hotspots but as my friends and brother were all on their own tight budgets, I needed to be able to pay my own way and keep up with them, and even though I knew of most of the money-saving tricks and budget options, I still needed that extra money to be a “tourist.” In my not-so-humble opinion, [most] Peace Corps Volunteers are some of the best savers, bargainers, and financial planners that you may ever meet; when we felt like we were living on pennies, we sure learned how to pinch them fast when necessary, without being cheap, without having to borrow money, and without having to dip into savings. (Of course, there are a handful of PCVs who were notorious for running out of money each month, but they seemed to have endless backup funds streaming in from home so they didn’t starve after all.)

I heard some crazy statistic one time toward the end of my service that something like 50% of Peace Corps Volunteers end up marrying either a PCV whom they met during service, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who served somewhere else in the world, or a Host Country National (HCN)–in other words, a local the PCV met in their country of service. This statistic is not the least bit surprising and it indicates just how connected the Peace Corps world can be. From my training group alone, a group of 52 people who arrived in Guatemala in April 2011, out of curiosity, I checked up on some of the relationships that started during our service and are still going strong four years later (and two years after we have finished our services). Megan and Aaron, Craig and Juliana, and Cat and Ryan are three couples who started dating early on during service and are still together. Also from our group, there are Brady and Jenny, who are both still with Laura and Joey (respectively), two PCVs from the training group that started just ahead of ours in January 2011. And Jacob is still dating Maggie, a PCV who began her service just as our group was leaving. In addition to that, Emma and Ashley have both since married their Guatemalan boyfriends. That is 11 out of 52 (just under 25%) who fall into that statistic so far, and that is not counting the relationships from all the other groups or even having statistics on everyone from my training group.

Megan and Aaron started dating early on in service and are one of the couple who has stayed together.

Megan and Aaron started dating early on in service and are one of the couple who has stayed together.

On the note of dating the locals, this was a particularly common theme among female PCVs. In our training group, I think there were 38 women and only 14 men, a 3 to 1 female to male ratio. As there were so many more women than men, we joked that the men always had a lot of options so they could stick to dating Peace Corps girls. (Of course, there were more than those 14 male PCVs as we had over 200 PCVs in country when I started service, but the female to male ratio was the same.) Preferring not to get involved with the rather incestuous Peace Corps dating circles, many of the girls either had a Guatemalan boyfriend or a pet (usually a dog) instead. Also, it was difficult for a male PCV to date a local woman because there was a high pressure or expectation that he marry the girl; and if he didn’t marry her and left when his service ended, that would put her in a terrible position in her society, leaving her “marked” as unwanted and making it tough for her to find a husband in the future. I, too, started dating a Guatemalan man toward the end of my service, however, I might write more about that in a different chapter.

I have to give props to three more ladies in my training group who were all involved in long-term relationships when they began service and stayed steady the entire time despite the fact that their significant others were in the United States. Lucy had a boyfriend to whom she recently got married, Jen had a fiancé and they are also now married, and Gina–the beautiful, quietly strong, and big-hearted Gina–was a married woman doing her service solo. Her husband, Kostya, actually had the opportunity to come down and live with her for about 6 months after finishing his studies so that was a special time for them; they are now living in D.C., where Gina is working at PC Headquarters and Kostya is pursuing his passion in his career as well. (They had originally applied to Peace Corps as a couple, but it was taking so long to get clearance, then Kostya received a grant/scholarship to pursue further education, but Gina still couldn’t get her mind off of Peace Corps. He said, “Go for it,” and supported her through every single day.)

Besides the fact that Guatemala is known worldwide for being a dangerous place due to drug trafficking, corruption, merciless violence, and random but frequent bus assaults involving weapons, robbery, and occasional death, it was also a foreign and new place to most of us. The stress, stimulation, and anxiety of just being there without knowing anyone, perhaps speaking but hardly understanding the language, and not really having much of a plan was enough to send us all twisting around on an emotional rollercoaster on a very regular basis. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to save the world is how many PCVs begin their service, but the honeymoon phase abruptly comes to an end when we are faced with the reality of the poverty, the lack of education, the absence of systems and structure, the distance from home–from our loved ones, their excitement for us waning as our departure becomes a distant memory and we disappear from their daily lives, and the slapped-in-the-face feeling upon discovering that our open, helping hearts are sometimes met with greedy, manipulative people who try to take as much as they can from us because they know that we are in a vulnerable position (or assume we are rich because we are from the USA). While we are feeling so angry and helpless in these moments, we cannot ignore the enlightenment that they are simply trying to get ahead or just get by. And when the curiosity about us from people in our sites has subsided and they have retreated to their own homes and families, we inevitably find ourselves very alone. But there is little room to sulk about it because each and every one of us independently chose to be here–this is what we signed up for. It was a choice, a freedom, a commitment. And most of us were too determined/stubborn/proud (call it what you like) to back down.

At a conference that was held for all the PCVs in Guatemala during service, a Peace Corps psychologist did a presentation on the “cycle of service” of volunteers. He started with explaining the honeymoon phase, which entails pre-service training (3 months) plus the first month or so in site. Just after the excitement-filled honeymoon phase is around the time that “LIMB” syndrome, as he called it, sets in. LIMB is an acronym for Lonely, Isolated, Miserable, and Bored. He said that this was essentially what we all were getting ourselves into, but that none of us knew how intense it would be. By several months in, we had all fairly adapted to the conditions of living and getting around in Guatemala, but we hadn’t yet established steady work or tight relationships in our communities yet. It was during this time that many of us would ask ourselves, “Why am I here? What am I doing? What was I even thinking when I applied to the Peace Corps?”

I distinctly remember when LIMB was at its worst for me in September 2011. I had been in my site for less than 2 months and it was right in the middle of rainy season. With neither insulation nor ventilation in my room, there was a dank feeling lingering in the air and settling into my clothing. My brand-new wooden shelves were holding so much moisture that they were starting to mold, it was raining so hard that the water from outside was seeping under the door into my room, and there was no escape as it was evening. (There wouldn’t have been many escape options anyway because the rain turned our dirt roads to mud making it nearly impossible to leave my town until the roads dried enough for the minibuses to pass through.) I had recently discovered that there were worms living in–and thus blocking–the drain in my sink and that same day, miniature ants had infested both my sugar and my stash of Jolly Ranchers that my step mom had sent me in a care package from home. I’m talking tiny, almost microscopic ants here, not like normal-sized California ants; these little guys could get into the smallest possible hole if there were one…they would find it. I was frustrated, but I either accepted or dealt with most of the problems. I was going crazy, though, feeling trapped in my room with so much happening at once so I decided to try to calm myself down by sprawling across my bed with a book I was reading.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a spider. A teensy weensy spider. Not even the frightening poker chip-sized jumping spiders that would so often crawl into my room from under the door (there was about a half inch gap between the bottom of my door and the floor) and try to make themselves at home. This spider was hardly bigger than a flea. But it crawled across the page I was reading just as I had settled into my book–at the perfect moment to make me snap. I probably shrieked, more out of frustration than fear, and I think I might’ve thrown the book across the room. Not sure if I squashed the spider or not, but if I didn’t, he probably ran for his life. And then I cried. And cried. And cried some more. I just let it all out sitting on my floor leaning hopelessly against my shelf. I wanted to talk to someone, but what was I going to say? “Waaah! Ants found my candy!!!” “Boo-hoo! There was a pinhead-sized spider on my book!” “I can’t go anywhere cuz it’s raining!!” Yeah, no. So I just wallowed by myself for a few minutes, garnering up as much resolve as possible to push past these little things.

That evening serves as a great example to me still of how useful feeling sorry for oneself actually isn’t. (I did end up talking to my dad after all that night, and we laughed at the silliness of the entire situation which helped get me back on track.) Solutions to each and every issue from that night were also implemented shortly thereafter, some of which included disassembling the pipes in my sink to clear out the worms, treating my wooden shelves with bleach periodically to keep them mold-free, and storing my sugar in empty peanut butter jars. I don’t know if or when I would’ve ever learned these problem-solving tricks had I never left the USA–we just aren’t presented with these basic issues in the USA or, if we are, there is usually someone elses there to fix them for us.

Peanut butter jars were the answer to many food storage issues--sugar, rice, beans, oatmeal, and oregano went into these jars.

Peanut butter jars were the answer to many food storage issues–sugar, rice, beans, oatmeal, and oregano went into these jars.

I remember missing home so much that I couldn’t wait to go back for Christmas (and some friends’ wedding) and I rushed into purchasing a plane ticket at a ridiculously high price; that was a good lesson in patience as tickets were going for half of what I paid a month and a half later. But it was a tricky time of service for all of us as we found ourselves counting down the months we had remaining when we had only been gone for 4, 5, or 6 months so far. Talking to ourselves became a normal thing, and that psychologist reassured us that “having conversations with yourself is totally fine; it’s when you start talking back to yourself that you might want to look into getting some help.”

During his presentation, he encouraged us to develop coping mechanisms in order to counteract the effects of LIMB. We all had SO much alone time that we had to learn to entertain ourselves. Some healthy activities PCVs did to manage their stress and boredom included reading, running, yoga or other exercise, praying, meditation, or hanging out with friends or a significant other. I read around 35 books during my service, and I know of one PCV who read nearly twice as many. I also found that in times when I was feeling particularly down, simply walking out my front door and strolling through the streets was enough to pick me up because there were always people outside to greet, visit, or chat with for just a few minutes at a time. The simple village life always seemed to shake me out of my gloom as people were warm and happy despite their own issues so it always put things in perspective.

Twenty-seven months is a long time to be away by oneself so it is only natural that there often existed an intense longing for companionship in all of us and we each had to find our own ways to cope with that desire. It is no wonder that some PCVs never quite find their niche and suffer from depression; my site mate, Perry, was one of them, and he was medically separated for that exact reason about one year into our service. Vulnerable and exposed, we were all faced with a survival challenge of our own and we had to figure it out pretty much on our own. Psychologically speaking, when people find themselves in highly vulnerable positions, they cling to whatever feels safe and develop a strong emotional connection to it. Can you see now how it makes sense that PCVs go and get themselves a dog or a boyfriend or girlfriend? And how leaning on someone for an extended period of time while experiencing intense physical changes, psychological adjustments, and emotional swings creates such a tight bond between two people? This explains the PCV marriage statistic.

As our service continued, we PCVs became each other’s primary support system. No two Peace Corps services will ever be identical, but we all go through the same cycle and bond through the shared experiences, relating so well to one another. Most of us had finally found a niche for our work within our communities by about one year in, and when we reached a year and a half, we were mostly all very busy and integrated in the local society so by the time we were nearing the two year mark, our work and community lives were thriving but there was a sense that we were running out of time, we still had so much to do, and we weren’t quite ready to leave. Then we all had that same “dénouement” process–wrapping everything up to prepare for the end of service, starting our process of goodbyes to the people to whom we had grown very close, and looking ahead trying to figure out what we were going to do after our services ended.

Through all of this, we PCVs each experienced similar frustrations, discoveries, breakthroughs, and success stories because we were under the same conditions at the same pace. The rate of growth and change was so fast within each of us that it was difficult for our friends and family members at home to keep up with us, let alone understand what we were going through. Also, as close as we had become to some of the locals in our area, they often could not relate to what it was like to be a stranger, alone, in a foreign land–and sometimes local friends we made even betrayed our trust. Ultimately, we PCVs were drawn together through all of this and grew to trust and respect each other at a level beyond what many us had even experienced in our own families or lives before the Peace Corps. We were like soldiers in the same unit in an army–a collective group destined by timing and chance to become a brotherhood/sisterhood with the same mission and similar struggles; no matter what we went through or how much our personalities clashed, we always had each other’s backs. And we still do.

Here, on Lake Atitlán during an infamous Peace Corps Boat Party, are Chelsea, Kim, and Gina--great friends of mine who are also ridiculously tight with each other still.

Here, on Lake Atitlán during an infamous Peace Corps Boat Party, are Chelsea, Kim, and Gina–great friends of mine who are also ridiculously tight with each other still.

Speaking of personalities, the Peace Corps is full of BIG ones! People often commented that I was crazy for doing what I was doing by joining the Peace Corps, but the fact is that there has to be a little crazy in every Peace Corps Volunteer in order to survive. In our training group of 52 people from all over the United States, we had some seriously strong personalities. During training (first 3 months in country), we were pretty much all together all the time and there were some people who really rubbed other people the wrong way. Imagine being in a room where one third to one half of the people in it have type-A dominant personalities, very loud mouths, and strong opinions. It could get very annoying very fast. Each person had his or her own quirks, but some people were just downright weird with very strange habits. (One guy from Pennsylvania didn’t believe in banks so he buried all his money in a hole he dug behind his host family’s house.) I would say that we were mostly all stubborn and independent with minds of our own. I suppose that is what Peace Corps looks for in potential recruits: dynamic, determined, and unconventional crazy people. While we couldn’t wait to get away from each other and be placed in our sites with our own space, over the 2-year span of our service, we came to admire and appreciate the strength and resilience that each of us drew specifically from tapping into our quirks and “craziness.” That is how we survived Peace Corps Guatemala.

At our PC 4th of July Party, Eric, Brian, and Brady competed in a pie-eating contest, with "President Jacob" cheering them on.

At our PC 4th of July Party, Eric, Brian, and Brady competed in a pie-eating contest, with “President Jacob” cheering them on.

At one point, about 8 months into my 27-month service term, Peace Corps Guatemala (as well as several other Peace Corps programs in Central America) came close to being shut down due to a couple recent major security incidents that involved some of the volunteers. Instead of suspending PC Guatemala (like they did in Honduras, pulling out all the volunteers), they chose instead to reduce the number of PCVs in country and consolidate all volunteer sites so everyone was closer to the PC offices. In addition to forcing two groups to end their services several months prior to their scheduled COS (close of service) dates, Peace Corps also pulled other volunteers from their sites in “dangerous” departments, and gave everyone the option to leave the country early with all the benefits of having completed a full service. Within just two months, the volunteer population dropped from ~220 down to 120 PCVs in country. (Peace Corps’ intention was to have a smaller group of volunteers in closer quarters so the security measures could be more manageable.)

All of us who chose to stay knew exactly what risks we were facing and that the rules and security procedures were going to tighten up, but that didn’t matter. In my case, I was hardly bothered because my site was in one of the safer areas of the country so they didn’t move me, plus I was just getting my work going so I had no intention of cutting out before I had done what I had gone there to do. But some of my friends got displaced and had to start from scratch in a new site, and they stayed anyway. Even some of the people who had been involved in the bus assaults–robbed and groped at gunpoint–decided to stay and continue their service. Talk about some tough cookies! The fearlessness and drive to fulfill a commitment was another bonding factor; we respected each other for those qualities.

In addition to that, PCVs develop or express other characteristics as our services progress. In the state we were in, the primary survival skill was open-mindedness. Many PCVs who were not open-minded didn’t make it. Patience, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to any situation are traits that become ingrained in PCVs for a lifetime. When we found ourselves in situations with very little to work with, we had to be resourceful and creative to come up with solutions. Our problem-solving skills and ability to think fast and make quick decisions became sharpened and refined. (More than once I arrived at an event thinking that I was going to be a guest only to discover that I was actually expected to run the thing!) We also develop excellent instinct about people, timing, and situations. Finally, a PCV’s communication skills (with the exception of people whose personalities just don’t entail being communicative) are at their best while living in another country and dealing with a language barrier. We learn to be patient, clear, and creative in our communication techniques–not just with the locals, but with everyone in our lives. And the constant practice of all of this increases our confidence exponentially in regard to embracing what we are capable of learning, doing, and becoming in life.

A little blurry, but a great example of PCV creativity at a Halloween party we had in 2011: Melissa is a Pink Flamingo, Linnea is Pippy Longstocking, and Sara is Rosie the Riveter. Great costumes!

A little blurry, but a great example of PCV creativity at a Halloween party we had in 2011: Melissa is a Pink Flamingo, Linnea is Pippy Longstocking, and Sara is Rosie the Riveter. Great costumes!

While I mentioned that there were a lot of big personalities within our group, surprisingly, in creating a Peace Corps culture of our own, we all became some of the most cooperative people you could ever meet. Please note that I am NOT using the word “cooperative” as a synonym for obedient or submissive–we still very much have minds of our own, but we know how to communicate, compromise, and contribute equally to a shared purpose or goal. A group of PCVs together functions like a well-oiled machine: everyone pitches in to cook a meal or complete a task, there is very little laziness or complaining, and we are usually all open to what we can learn from each other. I still remember little tips and tricks that I learned from my fellow PCVs during service; whether it was a new way to cut a fruit or vegetable or a tip for running a workshop, great recipe ideas or advice for taking visitors around, I learned countless skills and techniques from almost every volunteer there. We were constantly exchanging ideas and resources. I don’t think there has been a time in my life when I was ever so willing to try just about everything, openly accepting of the possibility of failure. Most of us were able to set our egos to the side and instead of saying, “I can do it myself,” we were open to learning from each other and constantly expressing, “Teach me how to do it your way!” As true peers and partners, we also trusted each other with our lives and admired each other for being exactly the person that each of us was. We even came to adore the crazies.

As entrepreneurs designing our own work and being in charge of our schedules, we each took ownership of our service and learned to set and maintain boundaries. Of all people, our fellow Peace Corps companions respected these boundaries the most because they had a similar set of their own. Everyone knew how far away they lived from each place we gathered and which chicken bus or PC shuttle they had to catch at exactly what time. We worked like partners, checking in on each other’s schedules and making sure we did what we could to ensure each other’s success and emotional well-being. We socialized and planned trips together (during our occasional weekends out of site), we took turns visiting each other’s sites and having sleepovers, and we partied together. We hiked volcanoes together, visited Maya ruin sites, spent holidays on beaches or lakes together (when we couldn’t be with our real families), and we shared hundreds or meals together. We mourned each other’s losses, empathized the frustrations, and celebrated the successes. And we shared the same excitement about the little things, for example a good price for our favorite fruit, a seat to ourself on a chicken bus, a favorite Guatemalan beat playing on the radio, and peanut butter. We respected each other and we pulled each other through. It became very important for us to finish together.

Sitting next to these girls in a row arranged alphabetically by our last names--Langston, Lee, Leroux, and Levien--at our swearing in ceremony at the beginning of service, little did I know at the time that these particular 3 women, Kathy, Chelsea, and Janece, would become some of my closest friends in the 2 years to follow.

Sitting next to these girls in a row arranged alphabetically by our last names–Langston, Lee, Leroux, and Levien–at our swearing in ceremony at the beginning of service, little did I know at the time that these particular 3 women, Kathy, Chelsea, and Janece, would become some of my closest friends in the 2 years to follow.

While the Peace Corps community functioned as a collective unit in many regards, it was inevitable that we each had just a handful of PC companions to whom we grew particularly close–our “best friends,” per se. The people I talked to and hung out with the most included Kathy, Lauren, Chelsea, Kelly, Pedro, and Janece. (Pedro and I were tight during pre-service training, and although Pedro chose to do an “early termination” seven months in, we are still pretty close.) Along with the tiny black cell phones that Peace Corps supplied us with–which we called frijolitos, or “little beans”–came the Peace Corps cell service network of 4-digit codes that allowed us to talk to any other PC person for free. (Otherwise, we had to purchase phone credit to make local calls or calls to the States.) In any emergency situation, we would call our PC friends first, usually even before calling PC staff, just to make sure we hadn’t missed any available information, we were taking the correct measures, or we were approaching a situation in a tactful manner. With the free 4-digit calling, it was easy to stay in touch with other volunteers who lived in different parts of the country so were grew closer even when we didn’t see each other often. I can remember countless phone calls where we were either laughing in stitches, doing some serious brainstorming, or balling our eyes out–and just as many calls (with Kathy, Lauren, or Janece) where the phone cut off because we had reached the 1 hour, 59 minute time limit that the poor little frijolito couldn’t go past on a single call. (Hint: maybe it’s time for us to stop talking now!)

Pedro and I were in the same training town during pre-service training. He will always be a dear friend and is like my PC brother :-) Pedro is one of the best friends a person could find--he has your back through thick and thin.

Pedro and I were in the same training town during pre-service training. He will always be a dear friend and is like my PC brother :-) Pedro is one of the best friends a person could find–he has your back through thick and thin.

It was nothing short of obvious to everyone who knew Kathy and me how deep our friendship became during service. While we were always cordial with each other from the moment we first met in an elevator and discovered that we had grown up only 30 minutes apart from each other (I was from Roseville, she was from Auburn, CA) at staging in Philadelphia just before flying to Guatemala, we didn’t become instant best friends and we didn’t even really hang out until circumstance (again) brought us together after we had been placed in our sites several months after meeting. Despite the physical distance between us–it usually took us between 4 and 5 hours to get to each other in person via public transportation because our sites were in different parts of the country–we became emotionally inseparable. Kathy was my rock and I was hers. During many evening phone conversations using our headsets to talk so we could both use our hands to cook dinner, clean up, and do other chores in our own homes while we chatted, we shared philosophical discussions during which we analyzed everything, cracked jokes, and came up with solutions to the world’s problems all in under two hours [at a time]. At least once a week, we were each other’s dinner guest via phone.

With our handy-dandy headsets and PC "frijolito" phones, we could catch up with friends as we multitaked around our homes, as Kathy is demonstrating here.

With our handy-dandy headsets and PC “frijolito” phones, we could catch up with friends as we multitaked around our homes, as Kathy is demonstrating here.

We became partners in crime and excitedly supported each other in everything, especially each other’s crazy ideas or schemes to uproot traditional Guatemalan norms that we didn’t like (usually related to nutrition or machismo). We may have bent some Peace Corps rules together, but only when we could counteract the security risk imposed (for example, having a private ride with local friends to and from a particular destination). Despite being two very different people, we complemented each other well, bringing our best selves to our partnership and having no expectations of each other beyond knowing that we were going to have a great time whenever we were together, no matter what we were doing, and knowing that we could depend on each other for anything. We would coordinate schedules so we could see each other about once a month and we would cross-reference vacation or holiday plans. Our brainstorming sessions on anything and everything have yet to subside, and we have even sort of developed our own language–or at least some of our own words–which is still evolving.

As you read this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the thought is crossing your mind right now about how much we behaved like a couple. We totally did. We knew each other’s schedules and work plans, we cooked together, we took trips together, we occasionally slept in the same bed and had conversations in the dark until one of us finally fell asleep, we wore each other’s clothing, and we shared each other’s stuff. While I remained decidedly single for the majority of my service, Kathy usually had a boyfriend. Occasionally when Kathy would make time for me it created problems with [jealous] boyfriends, but that just made for more brainstorming sessions about what characteristics we DON’T want in future mates. We had lots of these conversations, actually, and I realized one day that I had learned more about love through my friendship with Kathy than I had through any romantic relationship I had ever been involved in. Our friendship is based on respect, partnership, trust, patience, communication, and unconditional love. We give each other space, support each other, challenge each other, and let each other shine, embracing and admiring the talents that the other has. We have grown to have such a healthy, positive relationship that we often joke that all we need to do is go find male versions of each other to have as a “life partner.” While this may not exactly be realistic, we do respect that there is a certain standard a significant other has to reach–we have a special word for that, but it mainly entails expressing unconditional love (in all of its forms) toward our best friend. While there may be some big shoes to fill, so far, it looks like Kath has met someone who is up for the challenge…

Kathy and I, sharing a meal...

Kathy and I, sharing a meal…

So more than anything, we became sisters. We saw each other at our best and worst and everything in between. We even bickered like sisters–probably more than each of us has ever bickered with our own sisters! But we felt safe in doing so, knowing that it always came from a place of love and caring (or extreme hunger), and we almost always resolved our issues in a reasonable amount of time using lots of nice words and apologizing for being stubborn, snarky, impatient, etc. We became protective of each other, in a sisterly sort of way, and we attended each other’s events when we could to show support. Kathy even got me a couple singing gigs during service through some connections she had made in her site. I performed a total of three times at her friend’s cafe/restaurant and I seriously couldn’t have done it without Kathy stepping into the position as my “agent,” per se.

The first performance was one of those times I thought I was going to be a guest singer to the main performer; when it started getting closer to showtime, we asked where the main singer was and we were told that he wasn’t coming and that I was the show. Being that I only had five songs prepared, what ensued in the next three hours was a scramble of me writing down any song I had performed in the past (either karaoke or with a live band), another guy downloading all the karaoke background tracks for as many of those songs he could, Kathy finding all the lyrics online and printing them out, and me frantically practicing and finally deciding on a 16-song setlist of [mostly] popular music that urban Guatemalans would hopefully be familiar with. It was a seven-hour adrenaline rush and I had no voice by the end of the night, but we pulled it off. Kathy and I were with each other every step of the way and felt so connected and accomplished by the end of it all because of how well we had worked together and what we were able to achieve with limited time and resources. Luckily for me, I also had a few opportunities to root Kathy on as she performed–one time in her town while she was facilitating an HIV workshop, and another time as she was competing in a dance competition with several partners involved in a choreographed routine. (Dance is one of Kathy’s passions!)

Thanks to Kathy's connections, she lined me up for 3 different shows at D'carlo's Cafe in Huehuetenango and she was always right there with me every time.

Thanks to Kathy’s connections, she lined me up for 3 different gigs at D’carlo’s Cafe in Huehuetenango and she was always right there with me every time.

While I elaborated on mine and Kathy’s friendship here, this is just one example of the strength and depth of the relationships that are formed among Peace Corps Volunteers. I could write an entire separate story on my bond with Lauren or my adventures with Chelsea or Pedro–and so could each and every other PCV tell their story of their Peace Corps “besties.” We are a family and even when we are apart, we know that we’ll pick right back up where we left off once we are reunited. Our Peace Corps network is formatted like concentric circles with our bonds being closer to the inner circles, but still relating to the outer circles if only at a lesser degree. The concentric circles are as follows: 1 – PCV’s closest friends and PC “besties,” 2 – The training program the PCV was in (in my case, “Healthy Homes;” there were 38 of us) — we start and finish together, 3 – PCV’s entire training group (52 in our training group, but some groups can have as few as 10 people) PLUS the PC staff and trainers at the office, 4 – training groups shouldering PCV’s group–usually by about 3 or 4 months in either direction; we experience the phases of the 27-month cycle at around the same time, 5 – All PCVs in country (Guatemala in this case) at any point during PCV’s service, 6 – All RPCVs who served in the same country/region at any time except for when PCV was there, 7 – RPCVs who served in any other country/region around the world. It is a widespread and unique network, and the organization is actually part of the federal government’s defense strategy–but we promote peace through friendship; there are no guns, bombs, or bootcamp in the PC regimen.

Lauren is totally my Peace Corps Bestie. We swapped so many recipes and nutrition course ideas and we would visit each other and cook together whenever we could!!

Lauren is totally my Peace Corps Bestie. We swapped so many recipes and nutrition course ideas and we would visit each other and cook together whenever we could!!

Of the 52 of us who started together, 35 of us made it to our Close of Service (COS); this was consistent with the average attrition rate of about one third in Peace Corps all across the world. We lost a few along the way due to early termination (a PCV choosing to stop), medical separation (stomach issues, depression, and physical medical problems that Guatemala didn’t have the resources to handle; other reasons for a med sep could include pregnancy, rape, assault, and the like), and administrative separation (PC kicking out a PCV). Leaving one’s site or country before finishing their work (esp. in the case of “med seps”) was probably one of the most difficult things for a PCV to deal with. They feel helpless and possibly cheated. But no matter what happens or when a PCV leaves, they are always a part of us. We support each other and honor each “fallen shoulder,” per se. Also, I didn’t elaborate on the Peace Corps staff very much in this chapter, but they are a vital part of our service as well–they make it possible for us to get deep into the country as they provide us with the tools, knowledge, and insider information to make it easier for us to integrate.

There was a silver shop in Antigua that offered a discount to Peace Corps Volunteers and even started designing pendants and rings with a Peace Corps theme. For about $15, we could buy a silver ring cut with the letters “CUERPO DE PAZ” on the outside. (Cuerpo de Paz translates to “Body of Peace” in Spanish; it is how we refer to the Peace Corps in Spanish-speaking countries.) I would guess that somewhere between one-half to three-quarters of the PCVs in country purchased one of these rings for themselves. We could get the ring engraved so many of us put the name of our site and years of service on the insides of our rings as well. Even after we have completed service, we still wear our rings with pride, as a constant reminder of the commitment we made to our service, our communities, our loved ones at home, and ourselves. Every time we look at our rings, we remember the experiences that the Peace Corps has enriched our lives with–the joys, the difficulties, the growth, and especially the level of commitment required to finish strong. The Peace Corps will always live on in all of us.

World 4

Now that you so patiently worked your way through my “Ode to PCVs,” it’s time for a glimpse of the final world that contributed to our experience living abroad. World 4 consists of the family and friends we have at home, back in the States. This is a very complicated world to manage as the relationship we have with our loved ones and the United States in general is constantly shifting throughout our service. This world starts out as a top priority for PCVs, however, as we get deeper into our work and create new lives abroad, we can easily and gradually drift apart from many of our relationships at home.

The families of PCVs are put in an extremely difficult position from the start. Their son or daughter has decided to join the Peace Corps and there is this sort of expectation placed on the family to be the future PCV’s biggest cheerleaders, rooting them on in support of their decision and excitement despite the fact that the family members just might be scared to death of sending their son/daughter/sibling/cousin/etc. away to live in a foreign country for minimum two years. While the family is happy for their loved one’s great opportunity, they are also reluctant to say goodbye and, as I found out later, they may have a feeling of helplessness in regard to lacking the ability to protect their loved one while he or she is so far away.

Taking all of this into consideration, and looking back on my service, I cannot express how grateful I am for the efforts that some of my family members and friends made to share my journey, to be there with me, to support me in everything even when they didn’t even really know what I was doing most of the time. My step mom was probably the most consistent person to buy calling cards and initiate communication with me regularly. She also maintained my mail and sent amazing care packages chock full of notes from my brother, sister, and dad plus peanut butter AND Nutella, chocolate, circus animal cookies, and an assortment of other goodies and knick knacks. The amount of time and money she spent on those packages had to be high because there was so much TLC involved. I also got cards, letters, and care packages from Elease, Linda, Robin & Karl, my mom, Grandma, and a couple other people. They totally spoiled me. And I can speak for all PCVs when I say that those little touches from home can re-energize us in our saddest moments. We would even stash some of the goodies and hang on to them for our desperate “downs” that we knew would inevitably happen.

Krista was my very first visitor and she came bearing gifts of peanut butter and Nutella!!

Krista was my very first visitor and she came bearing gifts of peanut butter and Nutella!!

Anytime a person steps out of their comfort zone and routine for an extended period of time (minimum one month), it seems that there is a giant colander that shakes out all the unimportant stuff that has been crowding his space and taking up his time. In short, a person’s priorities have a chance to re-focus. This happens with all PCVs as well, especially in regard to people “we left behind” in the States. Many relationships disintegrate, not for any negative reason, but simply because that is how nature works. Then we are left with an amazing group of friends and family who shine brightly in our lives like stars or rays from the sun. We learn to value these people more than we ever did and we start making efforts to “show up” in their lives more instead of spending so much time trying to keep up with people who don’t even really care to be a part of our lives.

Sometimes we are surprised by who keeps up with us and who slips away, but there isn’t much use in worrying about it–it’s more like we are just observing the effects of our absence from home with curious minds. It was actually a relief to learn that so many people didn’t really care about what I was doing! I guess this is part of the transition from childhood to adulthood–changing your mentality from thinking that everyone’s lives should and do revolve around you to realizing that you are NOT the center of the universe, accepting it, then embracing the freedom that comes along with it. It is a fabulous enlightenment! It was exhausting trying to keep up with everyone and everything anyway…

During our time in the Peace Corps, we are on a path of accelerated growth and discovery. Spending so much time alone gives us the opportunity to think about a lot of things and identify who we are as individuals and what our nature is. As we “come into our own,” per se, we realize how nice it is to be able to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. You don’t realize how much your family and friends influence your choices in life until they are NOT there to guide you, solicit their opinions, boss you around, etc. All of a sudden, everything is up to us while we are away. Embracing this independence, we begin to take more responsibility and take better care of ourselves, going on high alert for safety precautions, learning how to cook and eat healthy meals, and managing our schedules and boundaries better than we ever had before. As we rapidly transition into full-swing adulthood, we both need and heed our families less and less.

These changes can’t be easy for any family. They must feel like crap sometimes, left out or left behind. Sometimes I could tell that some of my friends or family members were wanting so badly to participate in my Peace Corps life, but they didn’t really know how to relate. And to be fair, we PCVs don’t always let them in, especially as we grow closer to each other and develop a sort of private Peace Corps world. There are mixed feelings and frustrations from both sides, and as I only experienced this from one side, I can only make guesses at how my family and friends truly felt.

One of the biggest frustrations we have is how closed-minded some people at home can be. People who haven’t gotten out of the box they have been raised in often don’t understand how much bigger the world is. In describing an idea or a new experience, they cannot fathom how we could possibly think that way–it is so foreign and uncomfortable to them. Sometimes reactions like these make us pull away from home. Another issue with home comes if we start dating a local. I don’t know what the big deal is, but sometimes it seems as if family members have this idea that “a local” is an uncivilized alien or something. We’re like, “No, it’s ok. He’s a real thinking, feeling human being, just like you and me. Really.” I suppose I can empathize with their fear that we might fall in love and stay gone forever or that there will be a clash in values due to different cultural upbringings, but if two people are connected enough and really love and commit to each other, they will find a way to make it work. Oftentimes, our families were NOT the first ones to know about our relationships with locals…

Here I am with my boyfriend, Sergio, in Antigua. We were together for about 6 months--until I returned to the United States. I think some of my family members still don't know that I ever had a boyfriend in Guatemala. Lol.

Here I am with my boyfriend, Sergio, in Antigua. We were together for about 6 months–until I returned to the United States. I think some of my family members still don’t know that I ever had a boyfriend in Guatemala. Lol.

And so exists this constant dichotomy of emotions toward home. Sometimes we can become resentful of how much we acquiesced to our families’ opinions beforehand, but then we also can see who always had our best interests at heart and we value them even more when we are separated from them. While we savor the freedom, sometimes it can be difficult to make so many decisions alone–we yearn for the guidance and wisdom of those who have come before us and those who know us well.

I spoke with my parents (my mom, my dad, and my step mom) the most regularly while I was away, about once every two weeks–sometimes they would call me and sometimes I would call them, we took turns; I always enjoyed these conversations as they would fill me in on everything happening in the family and also listen to my “enlightened” ranting and raving. I would say that I grew closer to my dad during my time away than I ever had before. However, as my world got turned upside down toward the end of my service, unfortunately the relationships with my parents all shifted as everyone had their own emotional reactions which included freaking out, emotionally shutting down, and “sharing” my [at the time, private] “news” with other family members/friends–each of their own coping mechanisms. In turn, I reacted to their reactions and started keeping everything to myself and seeking emotional support mostly within the Peace Corps circle. It was a difficult time for all of us, but I think I can safely say that these relationships are bouncing back, perhaps even stronger or better understood than before. I’m learning that relationships within families are constantly in a state of flux. Families are like mobiles: when one family member is undergoing great change, it throws the dynamic off balance and there is a push to get that family member to go back in place; while that family member doesn’t usually go “back” into place, everyone typically adjusts over time to reach a new equalized state.

I am so appreciative of the efforts that my family members and friends made to attempt to understand the Peace Corps experience. From occasional phone calls and emails or Facebook messages to reading my lengthy blog “chapters” and even planning trips out to see me, there was a lot of love. I’d like to take a moment to share how important it is to PCVs to have visitors from home. Obviously not everyone from home can make the trip as they all have their own lives and obligations with limited resources such as time or money, but the people who do visit PCVs while they are abroad are remembered and appreciated forever in a special way because we understand the amount of sacrifice that goes into making that trip. We feel so honored that our families and friends want to come learn about and be a part of the lives we are living in a country we have grown to love. It can be so difficult to explain what exactly we do as our Peace Corps “work” and the conditions under which we are operating, so to have our loved ones come see for themselves–riding on chicken busses, taking bucket baths, and observing our classes as we teach them–is such a relief. It is the closest thing to a shared Peace Corps experience that they can get.

I felt absolutely spoiled by the seven visitors I had during service, and I wrote chapters about each of their trips (the “Visitors Galore” series) as a way to honor and thank them for their time and curiosity. The friends who visited were Krista (close friend from when I worked at Macaroni Grill), Russell & Maricela (college and travel friends), and Christina (freshman college roommate) & Aundrea (her partner). The family members who made it out included my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom–both of whom allowed me to be their guide for their first major international traveling. The transition that happened in my brother was amazing to me: he was so scared to leave the United States and thought he was going to have to fend off robbers and giant bugs the whole time. He got to a point where he trusted me enough to buy a ticket and just went for it. In only eight days in Guatemala, I watched his world completely open up. He was relaxed, he was intrigued by cute girls with European accents, he was euphoric when we reached the top of a volcano after several hours of hiking UP, he was inspired by exchanging ideas with people we met along the way, he was bored in my site (although he managed to survive an entire week without going to the gym), and by the end of his trip, he was eager to plan our next adventure together. His reaction made me so happy that I could be a facilitator in opening up his world and proud, as a big sister, of how I could be a source of trust and guidance for him.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport. He was so relaxed and energized by the end of his 8-day trip!

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport. He was so relaxed and energized by the end of his 8-day trip!

On the flip side of having visitors is when we have opportunities to visit home during our service. Most PCVs go home one to three times during the 27 months, however, the rare volunteer never goes home at all. And with each trip back to the States, the dynamic of being home changes. The first time we go home home, we announce it to the world: “Hey everybody! I’m coming HOME!!” And we try to visit everyone and their mother. If a second trip happens, we don’t advertise it publicly as we know we have limited time and prefer to spend quality time with family and some good friends. If a third trip happens, which it did in my case, almost no one knows about it. My last trip home was only four days and it was mainly for a best friend’s wedding, and being that it was so near to end of my service, the rest of the days were all business, dropping stuff off and getting the last few things I would need to close out those next few months. I saw a few family members but pretty much came and went without many people noticing. By this point, our core group from home has become very intimate.

Moments like these in my best friends' lives (here at Bethany and Gordon's wedding) were some that I didn't want to miss so I made a special trip home when I could. I couldn't get to them all, of course, but I am grateful that I could be there sometimes to show my support.

Moments like these in my best friends’ lives (here at Bethany and Gordon’s wedding) were some that I didn’t want to miss so I made special trips home when I could. I couldn’t get to them all, of course, but I am grateful that I could be there sometimes to show my support.

On that note, it is sometimes those very close relationships from home–loyal family members and friends who were with us every step of the way even though many did not have the opportunity to visit us–that are the most important because they are the steady backbone of our support system. They are consistent with communication, whether it be once every 2 weeks or once every 6 months, and they love us through everything and continue rooting us on. Sometimes they don’t really get what we are going through, but they try their best and that’s all that matters. One time, I was on a Skype call with a college friend, and I had only four months left in my service. He commented, “I bet you can’t wait to get out of Guatemala and come back to the States!” And I thought, “Well, actually, I can wait. I don’t want to leave so fast. I care about these people. This is my life now.” But I began to realize how comments like that from home were simply a reflection of how my friends and family were feeling: they missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back safe and sound, close to home. While these little things made us feel special, what was really cool is that these friends and family members allowed us to continue to be a part of their lives as well, even when we were not there with them in person. This was the greatest gift.

The post-service transition home is not easy for any PCV. Upon completion of service, we officially become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (“RPCVs”) and enter the “readjustment” phase, which is a form of reverse culture shock and is always harder than dealing with the culture shock of our initial arrival in our country of service. One would think that going back home would be a relief and a positive thing all around, but PCVs feel so out of place. We feel like we are ripped from the lives we had built in our country of service. Granted, we knew it was only going to be a temporary thing anyway, but that didn’t make leaving any easier. Some people prepare fairly well by making a plan to start a job or attend grad school immediately after service; other choose to travel for several months in order to make the transition smoother. The worst plan is to go straight home without one.

Upon arrival, people are so happy to see us and to hear our stories. We are welcomed with open arms and lots of hugs by our families and friends who have been patiently waiting our return. It’s really exciting to be back near our loved ones again and the plans for visits and activities begin instantly, but nobody expects the emotional turmoil that inevitably goes hand in hand with our return home. One issue is that people at home remember us for how we were when we left, but we have grown and changed so much in two years. It is natural that they treat like how they always did when we had fit into a particular role or niche in the family before. But the problem is that we have outgrown that space–we don’t fit anymore and no matter how hard they try, we’re not going to be able to squeeze back in–we would suffocate. It is frustrating for both sides because sometime it can seem like we are complete strangers. Yet after everything we have been through and no matter how conflicted we are or how lost we feel, they love us anyway.

After waiting, waiting, waiting for us to come home, our families continue to have patience with us as we struggle through readjustment, trying to figure out how we fit again in the United States. At first, we are not ready to leave our recent lives behind us–we try to hang on to as much of our Peace Corps lifestyle as we possibly can. I remember taking this almost to the extreme by packing up my cooking utensils and even my tupperware containers that I had used while I was in Guatemala and bringing them back to the States (as if I couldn’t find the same stuff here). My theory was that I knew how to cook and store my food using those particular items so if I had them with me, I could easily cook the same things and eat the same way I had while I was in Guatemala–in essence, I was trying to have some sort of control during the transition when I felt completely lost and helpless. My poor family probably went on thinking I was crazy again and there was nothing they could do about it.

At one point, one of my best friends called me out for my ridiculousness and how it seemed like I was still acting like I lived in Guatemala–nearly a year later! That’s about the time I started to snap out of it. (Thank you, Bethany!) Because it is a challenge for RPCVs to develop our confidence all over again when we are not in our element anymore or we do not have our own space, having loved ones around us to keep things in perspective is a huge advantage in getting acclimated again.

So as the “Peace Corps Experience” comes full circle for PCVs, we realize that this world is really the most important world of all. Our families and friends are the ones who sent us off on our great adventure, and they are the ones we come back to, banged up, battle-scarred, a little rough around the edges, but more mature, grown-up, and open-minded than when we had left. They probably think WE are alien-like when we come home, but they admire us and love us anyway.

My dad and step mom have remained a steady support since the first day my dad and I went together to a job fair in San Jose to start researching Peace Corps in summer 2009. And even though a lot of what I do and how I think may baffle them sometimes, and they cannot relate to so many international travel experiences, they are patient, they listen and try to understand, and they love me through all of my "craziness." I am lucky to have such an amazing family.

My dad and step mom have remained a steady support since the first day my dad and I went together to a job fair in San Jose to start researching Peace Corps in summer 2009. And even though a lot of what I do and how I think may baffle them sometimes, and they cannot relate to so many of my international travel experiences, they are patient, they listen and try to understand, and they love me through all of my “craziness.” I am lucky to have such an amazing family.

Most people have about a 2-minute attention span when they ask us, “So, how did you like the Peace Corps?” Or “How was you trip?” We really want to respond, “It wasn’t just a trip. It was my life for two and a half years, for Goodness’ sake!” But instead we give a short answer and smile. How do you explain two and a half years to someone? I just tell people, “It was the best decision I’ve made and I’ll never do it again.” But our families and friends know that there is so much more to it. We are not the only ones who had a Peace Corps experience: every single family member or friend who kept in contact with a PCV had their own Peace Corps experience as an extension of that volunteer. Our experiences live on in them and with them (especially because they are stuck listening to our story-telling forever, which they are so gracious about!), and as the Peace Corps experience does not end once we come home, it is our family and friends who are pivotal in shaping the next chapters with us.

We really couldn’t have done everything we did and grown so much without our family and friends at home. Gotta have roots before branches! Despite not always being able to adequately express my gratitude in some cases, I hope all my family members and friends (and readers!) will be able to feel my deep appreciation for their constant support. Thank you.

From the bottom of my heart,

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 6: Khop Chai Lai Lai

In Lao, “khop chai lai lai” translates to “thank you very much.” This was the first phrase I learned upon entering the country, probably the most important term to know, and the last thing I wanted to say as I moved on from Laos.

A BLESSING to Witness Great BEAUTY

Just when I thought that I had already experienced the best of Laos, having been seduced into pure relaxation in Luang Prabang, and then pulled out of it in Vientiane, thinking the days of visiting unspoiled land had passed, I arrived with Allan to one of the loveliest villages I have ever been to. It was a little out of the way, kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but Kong Lo Village was definitely worth the visit! The reason we were out there was because we wanted to explore the reputable Konglor Caves in the region.

The fading light of day casts a warm glow across the Kong Lo Village in Laos. The place with its rice paddies,  cliffs, and people was both majestic and welcoming.

The fading light of day casts a warm glow across the Kong Lo Village in Laos. The place with its rice paddies, cliffs, and people was both majestic and welcoming.

The bus ride wasn’t too bad and we arrived sometime between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, checking into a family-run guesthouse and still having time to stroll along the single dirt road that ran through the village before the sun went down. Not only was the place beautiful with its neon green rice paddies spanning the countryside against a backdrop of emerald greenery-covered karst cliffs, but also its people were extra special–I think just about every single person we passed greeted us with a warm smile and an enthusiastic hello. The villagers were in their homes, in their shops, and in the rice fields and they seemed so open to share with us. We even got a semi-tour of the rice machine at work, sifting and separating rice kernel from rice bran from plant scraps! In case you ever wondered, here is a video of the rice-separator machine at work: http://youtu.be/5ncK0SieQEw

This is an iconic image of Kong Lo Village in Laos: bright green rice paddies, simple homes, and karst cliffs painting the backdrop.

This is an iconic image of Kong Lo Village in Laos: bright green rice paddies, simple homes, and karst cliffs painting the backdrop.

Even though there wasn’t much to do out there and we were only staying one night, I had the sense that I could stay there for two or three days because it was so peaceful, slow, and friendly. Even the family at the guesthouse where we were staying was open to interacting with us. They ran a restaurant connected to the guesthouse and while only one lady spoke decent English, the entire family helped out and did their best to serve their guests. In turn, a couple of us tried to interact and visit with them or help teach them some new English words while they taught us some Laotian words. One of their cats had recently had a litter of kittens so we had some entertaining “conversations” about that as well!

The kittens were a source of entertainment and conversation at the guest house where we stayed in Kong Lo Village, Laos.

The kittens were a source of entertainment and conversation at the guest house where we stayed in Kong Lo Village, Laos.

Speaking of cats, a strange characteristic of many cats in Southeast Asia is that they have short tails–about half the length of regular cat tails with a little nub on the end. The first time I saw this was in Thailand, then I continued to see it in Laos (and further in Cambodia). I asked around to other travelers and they figured that people just cut off the cat tails when they were young, similar to how certain breeds of dogs get their tails cut off. Being that this region is so peaceful, I didn’t buy it. Why would people bother to make the effort to cut off cats’ tails? Surely they have more important things to do. Plus, because it was a prevalent sighting in over three countries that each have their own culture, I suspected it had to be related to genetics, a mutation that had worked its way to survival through decades of evolutionary history. This suspicion was confirmed–sort of–when I enquired to the lady who ran the guesthouse why the cats had short tails. She wasn’t sure, but her guess was that the male cats came around after the females gave birth and bit off the kittens’ tails! I think I’ll stick to my genetics theory…

Some other animals that are common to see in Laos and many parts of Southeast Asia include chickens, fish, and water buffalo. There are cows, too, but water buffalo seems to be all over the place. They are related to cows and have giant, thick horns that wrap in a semi-circle formation behind their heads, and they are used mostly for practical purposes, both to help plow the fields and pull carts as well as to be eaten. Buffalo is known for being a leaner type of meat in comparison to cow/beef. These water buffalo are neat in that you can often see them submerged in small bodies of water; they do this to cool down. I saw many water bathing buffalo along the way, but always while I was in transit so I never got a good photo; instead you get this guy:

A curious water buffalo in Kong Lo Village, Laos.

A curious water buffalo in Kong Lo Village, Laos.

Our adventure to the Konglor Caves was the next day so after breakfast, Allan and I, along with four other travelers who were staying at the same guesthouse, walked a good half an hour down the road to the national park entrance and the beginning of the cave. The draw to this natural wonder is that this set of limestone caves was formed inside a mountain with a river that flows underground from one side 7.5 kilometers (~5 miles) through to the other side with no natural light except for the mouths of the cave on either end. The only way to get from one side to the other is to take a makeshift-motorized canoe that fits three people plus the driver…and then enter the dark, spooky caves with only a flashlight or a headlamp to look around.

As you drift further into the Konglor Caves, the light from the mouth of the cave fades out of sight, leaving you in pitch darkness for the 7.5 km ride through to the other side.

As you drift further into the Konglor Caves, the light from the mouth of the cave fades out of sight, leaving you in pitch darkness for the 7.5 km ride through to the other side.

It is a pretty interesting experience that tends to freak people out due to the sheer darkness and the unknown of what lingers in that pitch black–bats, cave spiders, creatures of the depths?? You never know what you are going to get! We got some bats, but not much more than that. At one point, our non-English speaking canoe guide banked the canoe on a patch of sand and motioned for us to get out. So we did and pointed for us to go a certain way, and once we started walking, he went back to the canoe and puttered away–that was the most unsettling part of the trip! Being ditched on a sandy island in an underground cave!! As it turned out, there was a guided path to follow that let us examine the limestone stalagmites and stalactites up close; there were also electrical wires and strobe lights lining the path, however, we deduced that since the village was experiencing a power outage due to a huge storm the night before, the lights in the cave were also non-functioning, providing an even spookier experience to its visitors that day than normal.

Limestone stalagmites and stalactites inside the Konglor Caves in Laos.

Limestone stalagmites and stalactites inside the Konglor Caves in Laos.

All in all, I’d say my favorite part of the experience was “seeing” (as best as I could with a high-powered flashlight) all the underground waterfalls that dropped fresh water from the cave ceiling right down to the flowing river. I’d never seen anything like it–completely natural underground showers pouring out from underneath the earth floor, in some areas dropping a whole 100 meters from above. It was enchanting and gave a sort of “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. Lastly, I am glad I got to share the experience with my friend, Allan, and not just some strangers; it’s always fun to exchange perspectives with someone you know who got to enjoy the same thing with you.

Allan and I standing in front of the Konglor Caves in Laos after the adventure.

Allan and I standing in front of the Konglor Caves in Laos after the adventure.

Most of Laos is what I would consider to be “off grid,” meaning that there is little access to the outside/global world. Because it is such a poor country, life is still very simple and people make do with what they have. I am always amazed at the resourcefulness and creativity of people in developing countries. If something falls apart, they’ll find a way to repair it (without buying a new one); if water and electricity are too expensive, they’ll make their own lights and save rainwater in bins or get water from the a river; and if they want to decorate their homes and spaces, they’ll create things often using recyclable items. It is a reality check to see how little people can live on and what they can do without access to the millions of goods, services, and merchandise at the fingertips of people who live in consumer societies. Sometimes I think we have it too easy in the United States. Granted, we all have our struggles and every environment brings its own set of issues–sometimes we refer to these as “first-world problems” in comparison to “third-world problems.” It’s important to keep things in perspective, though, and a great lesson learned from developing nations is that whatever struggle presents itself in life, we shouldn’t fret too much–it’s not the end of the world. Really.

I am always impressed by the creativity of people in developing/poor areas: these hanging decorations are made from aluminum soda cans.

I am always impressed by the creativity of people in developing/poor areas: these hanging decorations are made from aluminum soda cans.

My cell phone service, T-Mobile, has a nice automatic international plan that partners with cell phone companies in about 140 nations; many of the countries I am traveling to during these months are included in that partnership, however, Laos was not. It was actually really nice to be disconnected for a while, and even when there was supposedly wifi at the guesthouse, people had to crowd around the router to get a rather dysfunctional signal so a few of us didn’t even bother trying. Then the electricity went out which meant no running water, no flushing toilet, no light, no fan, and no wifi. What can you do about that? Absolutely nothing–just roll with it and enjoy the break from technology. It was fabulous (minus the toilet not flushing).

Speaking of toilets, they come in all shapes and styles all around the world. We westerners are fortunate enough to have a comfortable, clean toilet seat to sit down down on that is filled with clear water and flushes nicely–in some cases automatically now. Many places in Asia use what is known as the “squat toilet,” which in most cases is still made from porcelain but it is set low to the ground with a shallow bowl and “foot markers” on either side where you are supposed to position your feet, pull down your pants, and squat to do your business. To flush, you have to use a small bucket or bowl to retrieve water from a holding bin, then pour it quickly (and from at least 12 inches above the toilet) into the hole–the force/water pressure should flush your business down the hole, but in same cases, you have to do the bucket thing a couple times for total clearance. Luckily, I mostly had access to regular toilets, but in the “off grid” places in Laos and Cambodia–and usually during transit–only squat toilets were available (or bushes). One funny thing that comes along with the introduction to “sitting toilets” to this area is the need for instructions on how to use a sitting toilet, for those accustomed to squatting.

This is an example of a quat toilet. This one happens to be very clean (didn't want to gross you out), but you can see the foot placement on either side of the toilet, plus the water reserve and scooper bowl for flushing.

This is an example of a squat toilet. This one happens to be very clean (didn’t want to gross you out), but you can see the foot placements on either side of the toilet, plus the water reserve and scooper bowl for flushing.

Instructional signs such as this one are often posted in rest rooms that now use "sitting toilets" in places where people are accustomed to "squat toilets."

Instructional signs such as this one are often posted in rest rooms that now use “sitting toilets” in places where people are accustomed to “squat toilets.”

After the caving adventure, we returned to the village, grabbed lunch, and awaited the 2 o’clock tuk tuk pickup–the only ride out of the village that day–that would take us to Thakhek, where we would catch our next bus. The tuk tuk actually arrived nearly half an hour early, requiring that we scarf down the rest of lunch and load into the back of his [covered] pickup truck with our backpacks, ready to hit the road. There were five of us and none of us realized that it would be a four-hour trip along a mostly dirt road filled with potholes. That was only the beginning of the adventure…

By the time we pulled into Thaket, it was 5:40 PM, 10 minutes after the last bus was supposed to leave. But the bus was still there when we arrived, perhaps waiting for the drop-off. A Laotian guy ran up to us and started herding us toward the bus. I asked him, “Overnight bus to Si Phan Don?” And he responded, “Yes!” I said ok, but Allan and one of the other guys with us, Giuseppe, the Itlaian, had more sense to check with the ticketing office, where we had to buy our tickets anyway. Quick bathroom stop and on we went, still covered with a layer of dirt on our skin from the tuk tuk pickup ride.

This “overnight bus” was supposed to drop us off in Si Phan Don, also known as “4000 Islands,” which were situated at the most southern part of Laos along the long Mekong River just before the Cambodian border, at 7 in the morning. These buses have a habit of making random pit stops all along the way no matter where they are going. The first stop appeared to be for gas and [free] restrooms. After that, we all started settling in but not less than 10 minutes later, we stopped again. This time for food, although it took us awhile to figure that out–the bus just stopped and people started getting off, no one said why.

The food options ended up being the furthest thing from actually having an option. At 7:30 PM, the street market was lined with with vendor stalls. The first stall was selling chicken on a stick. And when I say that, I don’t mean prepared, cubed, seasoned, and sautéed chunks of boneless, skinless meat–I mean literally a chicken on (or in between) a stick. The bird was stretched out so every part of it would cook over the fire so in addition to thigh and breast meat, the skin, the tiny head (these seemed like relatively young chickens), the beak, and even the eyes were all intact and roasted up nicely. Hmm. No thanks. Next! But the next stall was also offering chicken-on-a-stick. And so was the one after that. All the way down the block. No rice, no vegetables, no fruit shakes. Just chicken-on-a-stick. Finally, at the last stall, there was another option: frogs-on-a-stick. I finally gave in and having eaten only an ice cream bar since lunch over 6 hours prior, I knew I needed some protein and opted for the half size chicken-on-a-stick. I did my best with eat, ripping off whatever meat I could find with my teeth until I was tired of dealing with the mess, but satisfied with my effort. While we were still stopped, I had time to floss and brush my teeth and pay to use the squat toilet there so I get wind down as soon as we got back on the bus.

Between 8 PM and midnight, we stopped a couple more times, mostly to let people off. Lucky for me, the seat next to me was empty so around 10:30, I curled up and tried to sleep. Another big stop at midnight, though!! And all the bright lights inside the bus lit up the place. When we finally hit the road again, I figured I could get a solid 6 hours of dream-filled sleep before we arrived at our destination. But that was a silly idea being that the lights came back on at 3:30 in the morning, the driver letting us know that we had arrived and basically kicking us off the bus to the side of the road in the pitch darkness. Public transportation is notorious for arriving late to destinations, so of all times to arrive 3 1/2 hours early, of course it happened to be in the middle of the night.

Apparently this wasn’t the first time this had happened so as seven of us (the five of us from the Kong Lo Village guest house, plus 2 Israeli girls) stumbled off the bus on a dirt road thinking we might have to just sit on the ground until the sun came up, we were actually greeted and, in my opinion, rescued, by a guy who ran a restaurant out of his house just down the road. While he and his family were still sleeping, he was kind enough to allow us to hang out on the deck in the restaurant area outside and showed us where the drinks were, saying we could help ourselves and pay in the morning–well, when the sun came up. Being that the plastic chairs, dewy tables, and wooden decks didn’t exactly make for the ideal sleeping conditions, there wasn’t much else we could do except share a couple beers and play cards until the crack of dawn, at which point we peeled away from the card games and watched the sunrise over the river.

With not much else to do having been dropped off on the side of a road in the middle of the night, Allan is enjoying a beer and the sunrise simultaneously in Si Phan Don, Laos.

With not much else to do having been dropped off on the side of a road in the middle of the night, Allan is enjoying a beer and the sunrise simultaneously in Si Phan Don, Laos.

After eating breakfast and settling the bills, we were on our way again on the 8:30 AM boat that would transfer us from Don Khong (the island where we were dropped off) to Don Det, where we were staying for 2 nights. While Si Phan Don, the “4000 Islands,” may bring to mind a tropical island chain floating in turquoise water, these islands were far from that. First of all, it was rainy season so the already brown Mekong River was even muddier than usual, and secondly, these “islands” were more like small landmasses covered in sometimes marsh-like greenery. In the entire island regions, there are really only 3 main islands where people live and visit. In addition to the 14 hours straight of transportation time on tuk tuk and bus, if I add the 5-hour “layover” and the boat ride to Don Det, by the time we settled into a place on the island, we had been traveling a total of 21 1/2 hours. It was nice to have finally arrived. And later that afternoon, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset from the western side of the island.

Sunset viewing from Don Det in the "4000 Islands" along the Mekong River in Laos.

Sunset viewing from Don Det in the “4000 Islands” along the Mekong River in Laos.

The feel of Don Det was lazy and slow. There wasn’t too much going on and it seemed the whole places was in a lull. The people were nice, although seemingly very shy and serious. (If you caught them with no tourists/visitors around, you could see them letting loose and goofing off!) As tourism is relatively new in Laos, the people are still getting used to strangers in their land. The economic opportunity from tourism is a benefit, but their way of life certainly will change as more foreigners stop over for visits to the area. We did have the opportunity to check out some of the local markets–always an interesting activity that gives insight to the local culture and dietary customs of a region; some new market finds there included lots of [live] frogs in buckets as well as giant green “toy” beetles.

Markets all over the world have their eccentricities. This is what we found in the market in southern Laos--beautiful giant green beetle insects! At first we thought people ate them, but then it was clarified that these are actually sold more as a sort of pet for entertainment; some girls we saw had put a little string-leash around the beetles' necks and then  flown them around like a kite.

Markets all over the world have their eccentricities. This is what we found in the market in southern Laos–beautiful giant green beetle insects! At first we thought people ate them, but then it was clarified that these are actually sold more as a sort of pet for entertainment; some girls we saw had put a little string-leash around the beetles’ necks and then flown them around like a kite.

A Laotian mother and her baby enjoying each other's company in a little grassy area near the river.

A Laotian mother and her baby enjoying each other’s company in a little grassy area near the river.

As far as island activities go, the available options pretty much could be one of three things: rent a bike, go kayaking, or swing in a hammock. A couple of us from our travel group stuck together for the most part for daytime activities and dinner. It was Allan and I, of course, plus Giuseppe and the two Israeli girls. On our full day on the island, we all embarked on a kayaking adventure all the way down the river to just across the Cambodian border, where we stopped for lunch and Irrawaddy Dolphin spotting (a rare breed of freshwater dolphin that lives in the southern part of the Mekong River), before kayaking another 40 minutes to the bus that would take us back. At the beginning of the trip, we made several touristic jungle hike stopovers for waterfall viewing; each time we stopped was a welcome break to the intense kayaking we were doing! Most of us thought it was just going to be a relaxing day on the water so we were definitely taken by surprise at how difficult it was to maneuver the kayaks through the strong river currents. A day well spent, for sure, and in great company!

During our day-long kayaking trip in Si Phan Don, Laos, we stopped to get a viewing of the waterfalls--which more resembled rapids--that were revered in the area.

During our day-long kayaking trip in Si Phan Don, Laos, we stopped to get a viewing of the waterfalls–which more resembled rapids–that were revered in the area.

We all enjoyed one last dinner together that evening and lots of camaraderie and more laughter. Another huge storm rolled in that night, making it so that we had to stay together even longer (or else get drenched trying to run back to the guest houses!). The next morning, we traveled together to cross the border into Cambodia, where Shani and Michal left for Phnom Penh while Allan, Giuseppe, and I headed to Siem Reap (both places I’ll write about in the next chapter). All in all, Laos was good to us and provided the setting for many shared adventures and funny stories, and for that I am grateful. Khop chai lai lai.

Leaving Don Det and the 4000 Islands, Allan and I traveled with our new friends: Allan on left, then Shani and Michal (from Israel) in the back/middle, and Giuseppe (Italian) in the front, with me on the right. We all shared lots of experiences and laughter together duing our time in southern Laos.

Leaving Don Det and the 4000 Islands, Allan and I traveled with our new friends: Allan on left, then Shani and Michal (from Israel) in the back/middle, and Giuseppe (Italian) in the front, with me on the right. We all shared lots of experiences and laughter together duing our time in southern Laos.

TRAVEL TIP: Always travel with toilet paper or tissue tucked in your bag. You never know when you will need it! Hand sanitizer is a good item to tote along as well. In many developing countries, you will be lucky to get a toilet, and even if you have access to a toilet, you might just prefer a bush or a tree instead. Sometimes nature and its open air create a much more welcoming spot to relieve yourself than a tiny cramped smelly space with a dirty toilet seat (or no seat at all), no light, spiders and their webs, or even maggots and other creepy crawlers–“toilets” that you are expected to pay to use. And don’t count on there being soap to wash your hands, that is, if there is even access to water. People in some cultures/places don’t even use toilet paper; traditionally in India, water and a person’s left hand are used to clean themselves (that is why people don’t eat to greet with their left hands!) and in other places, a hose is placed near the toilet so people can wash themselves off (but interestingly, no method of drying). In any case, keep that TP close at hand! Some of these case scenarios are the worst you can get, but it’s better to be prepared than to get caught with your pants down, bum hanging out, and nothing to wipe yourself with…

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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