Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What's Wrong with the World Mama?

I've decided to keep adding to this blog, even though the journeys have temporarily paused, because it remains a good place for me to dissect my thoughts on things beyond a Facebook post or casual conversation over Chipotle. This has literally nothing to do with traveling, but I figure in the future, I'll want to remember the in-betweens as well.

I'm sitting at my favorite Starbucks in Cherry Creek, the sun is shining, it's 60 degrees, and the Apple Store only gave me a two hour wait time for my computer.  Life is calm and beautiful here in sunny Colorado, but it feels facetiously mocking of the rest of the world. In Nepal, the earth is vindictively crumbling in on itself, weighed down by factories, people, and progress.  In Chile, the ground is exploding in an passionate expression of protest against the domesticity of the wild.  And in Baltimore, the city's on fire.

As I was reading Obama's remarks on the recent rioting, I was struck by the continuing narrative of scapegoating one particular public department, in this case the police, for the problems of a nation. Our society has chosen to blame the police for discriminative brutality against young, black men, and of course, there is serious responsibility to be laid at their feet; but, this type of popularized anger is eerily reminiscent of the same blame our society placed on teachers and administrators for the increasing prevalence of drugs and violence terrorizing our cities.  According to the popularized social thread of our American brain, bad teachers, intent on exploiting a systematically contrived pension system, are (were) to blame for the drugs, violence and failure that both cause and result from the massive economic disparity between the races.  Now racist police officers, protected by a historically racist justice system, have become responsible for the oppression of these same young, black men who were the victims of these exploitative teachers.

The common denominator is not the generally well-meaning public officials who choose to dedicate their talents, time and lives to public service and safety; but rather the system.  We scapegoat police officers, as we scapegoat teachers, for participating in a capitalist system that is designed to segment our country into winners and losers. By segmenting the justice system from the education system from the health system from the tax system we create misaligned lanes of injustice that, at best, create traffic jams, and at worst, fatal accidents. Moreover, by blaming the teachers and the police officers, we choose to scapegoat the individuals who drive within the painted lines when the real culprits are those that designed and painted them in the first place. Limited by the scope of our headlights, we fail to address the underlying, venn diagram of a system that does systematically oppress young, black, males in a ridiculously disproportionate fashion.

Our president says it best himself:

"And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty; they’ve got parents -- often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves -- can't do right by their kids; if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead, than they go to college.  In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men; communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks -- in those environments, if we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem.  And we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual."

In other news, an 80 year old man just came up to me in Starbucks and invited me to his apartment for "personal/social time". Props to Lisa Packard for saving me with that phone call. It's a strange world out there, folks. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

I'm in Love

Guess what mom? I'm in love! With a place though not a person...sorry.

Seriously, I love Indonesia so far. I don't know what was in the air yesterday, but so many great things and good people have me already obsessed with this giant, mystical, simmering beast of a country. Yesterday, I left Thailand after leaving my hostel a classic 20 minutes and attempting to reach the airport via public transportation. It should have been a complete clusterf--k, but somehow there was magically little traffic in Bangkok and I got to the airport early and without any mistakes! I even had time to go to the post office and mail a bunch of souvenirs home. #winning

I landed in Jakarta with little plan but to somehow make it to Yogyakarta by midnight. There was a train or a plane BUT the plane tickets I couldn't buy online and I assumed day of purchasing of tickets was ridiculously expensive. I was wrong.

After taking 15 minutes to figure out how to find the ticket booth, the man behind the counter escorted me through the security line, back into the area I had just gotten to. He pointed to another ticket booth and walked away. At this counter were about 7 young workers, all about my age, male and female and one wearing a hijab. They told me I had to go back and buy a ticket online. Which was weird. Because I was at the ticket counter. And couldn't buy online. Which was why I was at the ticket counter. We consulted the same line back and forth for about ten minutes until one guy eventually took it upon himself to get me a ticket. I'm pretty sure he was a security guard and didn't actually work at the counter but somehow, a full hour later, I had a ticket to Yogyakarta that night and paid the same price as I would have online. I also had a bunch of new friends from the counter. They loveddddd feeding me these incredibly spicy dried spaghetti pieces and watching my face turn bright red and sweating, before quickly offering water and lemon biscuits to counteract the spice. They were awesome, but pretty horrible at their jobs....which was to sell tickets. Regardless if it always takes me an hour to buy plane tickets here, that's fine because I'll make soooo many friends.

No idea how I got a ticket. Literally none. Winning again.

After navigating the affront of maybe 50 taxi drivers waiting outside the airport, I made it to my hotel where I was the ONLY ONE in the air-conditioned dorm room for the night. The hotel has a pool and free beautiful breakfast (which I'm now eating) and it's so pretty and tropical! They make you eggs, you drink coffee, you sleep in air-conditioning with a toilet that doesn't leak and it only costs about $7.50 a night. Boom.

After an entire day of 7/11 yogurt and Ramen noodles from the plane, I was starving and craving vegetables, particularly a veggie burger. My hopes were low and I was sad, missing my first love, broccoli. The receptionist told me an area to walk to for food and literally the FIRST RESTAURANT I found had not only veggie burgers (for $2...with fries) but also LIVE MUSIC. and they were good. Like really really good. My book forgotten, I spent the rest of the night eating and listening to the blues band croon their way through American songs, the melodies familiar even while the lyrics remained a complete mystery as their thick accents rolled over the foreign words. The five men in the band looked straight from the 70s, long, flowing shoulder-length hair, flowered shirts and bell-bottomed blue jeans. The man playing the harmonic was wonderful and they alternated between smoking and singing with impressive fluency. In their second set, they invited others up (I think friends) to sing random songs. They ended with a harmonic battle for the ages, the original player being challenged by young guy in a trucker hat and a tie-dyed Nike t-shirt. All in all, it was such a random wonderful series of almost failures that got me so incredibly pumped to be here. And I slept like a baby with the room to myself.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Back to the Baht

We are back in Thailand!!! It's amazing the difference between Thailand and Cambodia when it comes to development. Being a first world kinda girl, I myopically view Thailand as a place firmly developing, afterall, you can't drink the tap water! But comparatively to Cambodia, a Thailand is rich. For one, they have their own currency that is legitimate and people don't take dollars. Cambodia, Panama etc all take dollars because their currency is so unreliable. We became Riehl millionaires as 4000 R = $1. Cambodians don't use coins, they just use their own bills to make quarters and nickels from dollar bills. Thailand, on the other hand, uses the baht and only the baht. Another difference is the existence of many a chainstore in Thailand. Besides the heavenly 7/11s that populate every corner, Thailand had a substantial number of countrywide chain stores connecting south to north by common products and logos. Oh my 7/11, it's good to be back. 

We spent a day NOT being on a bus in Bangkok. Rob went to find a climbing gym, while I walked the back alleys and "soi"s (lanes) of Bangkok in search of a floating market. Apparently, they only happened on weekends so I was sadly disappointed BUT I successfully found Baan Silipan (the Artists House), which overlooks the canals that used to be the main roads of Bangkok. There were Buddha sculptures and postcards everywhere and it was lovely to sit watching the boats go by and write some postcards. The canals are filled with these massive massive catfish and people kept feeding them with Fruit Loop-colored corn things that the fish literally leapt out of the water for. These fish were huge. Like two feet long. Huge. 

We took a PLANE to Chiang Mai because we're completely over buses and the ticket was only $25 (killin ittttt). I love love LOVE Chiang Mai and want to do it justice, but am currently starving (and therefore soon-to-be grumpy) so this is all I'm writing for now. To set the scene, I've written this from an outdoor coffee shop called the Cafe d'Artist in Pai, which is up in the northern mountains of Thailand. It's actually a little chilly and the night market is in full swing, with everything from burritos to dried squid being sold from carts on wheels. Rob is sick (:-/) so I spent the day bike riding through the surprisingly steep foothills, getting sunburnt and happening upon many an elephant farm. Tomorrow we RIDE! So. So. SO Painfully excited to ride a JUMBO. So excited. Jumbolandia.  

Bumping and Grinding

So I'm probably never going to post the rest of our first half in Thailand because it was over a week ago now and I'm over it. We went to an island. It was beautiful. We took a tour into lagoons and went sea kayaking under limestone rocks. We swam at gorgeous beaches and took a hot pink night bus that played pirated vid Vin Diesal movies all night long. I got a bad stomachache again but persevered through many temples and Buddhas and tailor shops. We saw an incredible temple by surprise and watched a slew of middle aged women participate in an outdoor Jazzercise class while the sun set over the river. It was cool.

Monday morning (last Monday) we crossed the border at Koh Kong and immediately caught a taxi to the bus station. After much haggling, sweating, and ultimately money, we finally got on a bus to the village of Andoung Tek, which we were supposed to catch a bus to journey to Chi Phat, a government-sponsored EcoTourism site that promised adventures through the Cardamom Mountains. This bus ride was the beginning of the inspiration for the title of this post. It was a bumpy, bumpy, hot, smelly (many children pulling from motion sickness) way too long bus ride. By the time we got to the first village, the boat had left and we waited instead for a motorbike to take us to Chi Phat. The motorbike was actually so cool. My driver drove for about 40 minutes through rice fields, little villages, and stunning vistas of jungled mountains. The road was completely dirt and sand but he expertly shifted us through all of the obstacles without breaking a sweat. It was beautiful.

After eating at the communal dining "hall" (open air, thatched-roof hut) we spent the night in a concrete jail cell of a room that had both of us fantasizing about terrifyingly creative escapes from trash can fires gone wild (mainly me) and sweating profusely for lack of windows (mostly Rob). It was not ideal, but we were in the jungle in Cambodia so life could definitely be worse.

The next day we went mountain biking through the Cardamom Mountains, led by our guide who spoke extremely limited English but was insanely talented at biking through sand. Which is what we
did for most of the morning. Surprisingly we were surrounded by massive tress, all which grew out of this rocky, nutrient-less, soil. After stopping at a waterfall for lunch (which was SO cool...the waterfall and lunch because the waterfall was very cleansing and lunch was rice, chicken and eggs wrapped in BANANA LEAVES), we biked through a banana plantation and across a stream that becomes a thundering river during the rainy season.

After getting back to "town" and booking our boat ride for the next morning, we watched the local men play on their and volleyball court. They LOVE volleyball and the games are nightly rituals. The  men are quite good and there is a bookie who takes bets. Each side chooses how many players they want on the court, so we saw a two man team beat a team of five. Teamwork. Its all about the communication, I was the only female watching. In Cambodia, volleyball is definitely a man's game.

The next morning we took a lovely ride down the river back to Andoung Tek to catch the bus. The river wasn't too big, but there were these MASSIVE boats with cranes and big construction diggers
pulling up the sand from the bottom. We think the sand is used to make concrete, but it was a very juxtaposed experience riding by on our little long tail boat as huge cranes and diggers drag the ground out from under us.

After another bumpy (albeit airconditioned) bus ride and another bumpy bumpy tuk tuk adventure through Phnom Pehn, we spent the rest of the day coffee shopping before going to the casino...Nagaworld. Nagaworld indeed. It was awesome. As an American who has yet to experience Las Vegas (mom and dad took Rachel there for her 21st....another family vaca I was RUDELY excluded from and am clearly still feeling the painful repercussions of that and other parts of my deprived childhood), Nagaworld. Was. The. Shit. 7 floors of gambling and people watching (I spent a grand total of $4 to lose repeatedly at roulette) and free beer. We were basically the only white people and definitely the worst dressed people in building but it was so. Much. Fun. Happy Chinese New Years indeed!

The next day was spent at the prison and the death fields, which I already wrote about so I'll skip here. Then on to SIEM REAP and ANGKOR WAT and by far our worst and bumpiest bus ride ever. It was bad. And hot. And 8.5 hours long. During the day. With at least 6 puking Cambodians (after 6, we stopped counting) On an UNPAVED ROAD! It might be my first world-ness, but I also don't think it is because this was the stupidest unpaved road I've ever been on. It is by far the most critical thoroughfare in Cambodia because it connects the capital city with that of the country's (and worlds) biggest treasure. The road we came into Phnom Pehn on was paved, but for some unknown and inexplicable reason, this road was not. It just...didn't make sense.

But I digress. We rented bikes and caught the temples at sunset, grabbed some PIZZAAAA for dinner and passed out before waking up incredibly early to try and catch the sunrise (which we missed but oh well...it was cloudy anyway). Angkor is amazing and Indiana jones like and beautiful and unique and mystical and terrifying and just everything. I could go on and on, but pictures are better. After a run  along the river in Siem Reap,  which is perfect for running and so lovely while the sun is setting,  we got a three course dinner for $6 and spent a couple hours wandering through the stalls, buying fruit shakes and  things for people from home (get pumped).

The next day, we said goodbye to Cambodia (:-/) and got on our last bus ride. It was surprisingly enjoyable. The scenery was beautiful and we passed the time quickly chatting about life and making friends with all the English speakers who surrounded us (for once). It was actually really nicebecausewe hadn't seen Americans  in so long(everyone is European) so it felt good to be among our people again.

That was Cambodia. Dirty and bumpy, but ultimately beautiful. It is truly a land of perseverance and tenacity, keeping temples alive, open, and holy for thousands of years, embracing life and country despite all encouragement towards the opposite, growing jungles out of sand, building roads through rice fields and cow pastures, and of course, spending 8 hours silently and stoically puking on a mercilessly un-airconditioned bus.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Color Red

I halfway wrote a post, but then we had to go to the Grand Palace (which we never actually went into) and I never finished it. Regardless, at the end of the post, I'll give a brief overview of what we've done since Khao Sok...SO MUCH btw.

Yesterday we got to Phnom Pehn and we can't get away from the color red. It's the Chinese New Year, so every tree is bedecked with bright red and gold envelopes filled with money. The stores all have promotions, advertising 50% off and 2-for-1 deals in Khmer or English shiny red lettering. Last night, rob and I went to the casino. It was decked out in Year of the Goat scut urges and banners. We bet only red numbers in Roulette to honor the New Year.

This morning we visited Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, the largest and most secretive torture detention center of the Khmer Rouge. (Rouge of course referring to the vibrant red that is the emblem of the Communist Party.) We never learned about the genocide in high school; the closest I ever got to education on the topic was looking at the cover of "First They Killed My Father", quickly deciding it was too sad to read, before putting it back on the shelf. In my courses on Human Rights at Tufts, the Cambodia Genocide was mentioned alongside the slew of broken "Never Again" promises, but I can't remember reading a single article or participating in any discussion on the topic. We passed over the Khmer Rouge for other, more "popular" genocides, like Darfur or Rwanda, and for my Latin American studies, there were Argentina and Chile to explore. In short, I had no expectations about what I was to see, simply that I knew I would be sad.

The prison is a converted high school, in part used for its natural cells made by the classrooms and part used because Pol Pot , the dictator, outlawed education, branding any individuals with any sort of formal schooling to be enemies of the state, wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language, and having "soft hands" all became crimes against the state. I can't go over everything we saw today, but by far the most striking brings me back again to the color red. The floors still had deep blood stains splattering the floor. they were in staircases and in prison cells, and they were way too real. New Years, Communism and blood - red is a very versatile color.

We went from the security prison to the death fields, following the route that so many doomed prisoners had before us. It's pretty far outside of the city, but there are tuk-tuks everywhere (their seats a nice, faux-leather shade of red) waiting to complete your journey. At the deaths fields, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, often boys and young men between 15- and 24-years-old, executed the tortured prisoners, dumping their bodies into mass graves that, to this day, let loose bone fragments and fabric scraps during the rainy season. The audio guide was excellent, walking the difficult line between intellect and emotion. The setting itself is eerie; meadows and rice fields lay on the outskirts of the barbed-wired memorial complex and I watched a farmer herd his cattle through undisturbed mass graves as I listened to stories of survivors on my headphones. Again, there is too much to share, but the red this time lay in the bracelets scattered onto every grave site by visitors paying their respects to the many innocent and tortured individuals who eventually found peace in death.

The last piece just happened five minutes ago as I was writing this post. The owner of our hostel is a hilarious older woman, laughing and chastising her workers quickly and efficiently, sewing up pants and curtains while dispensing invaluable travel advice on journeys to Siem Reap and Koh Rong. Rob and I befriended a French brother/sister pair when we all saw a rat skittering around the hostel's patio and the owner came out to see about the ruckus. We all made awkward jokes about the smart city rats, while keeping our feet firmly off the ground. Ten minutes into our banter, the hostel owner causally mentioned that "during the Khmer time, when we were very hungry and living in the country, we ate rats." She quickly moved on to compare the fat, rice-eating country rats with the slicker city ones, but that little comment "we used to eat rats" stood out. This woman, who owns the hostel and sells me water while wearing her silky red nightdress, used to eat rats. I think she's younger than my parents.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How to Get Lost in Thailand Without Really Trying

We took the plunge and left touristlandia. It was a good jump.

After exploring Ko Phi Phi and all of the wonderfully amusing tourist photo shoots that went with it (peace fingers and packs of international sorority girls FTW), we took the morning bus to Surat Thani, a transport hub for one of the oldest standing rainforest on earth and some more tropical islands. Being the ill-informed Americans that we are, we got our tickets from the travel agency that charged us three times the price of the actual bus ticket but "provided transportation to the station" (about 3 miles or 50 baht away). We'll know for next time.

The bus was colorful and full of foreigners and Thais alike. The landscape was beautiful and there was enough space to spread out and sleep....critical because the 2 hour bus ride somehow became 4 hours when accounting for stopping for any individual on the road, whether they wanted a ride or not. Our plans for the forest dashed, we wandered off the bus with nowhere to put our packs and zero tourists anywhere. Luckily the Thai people find everything we attempt to say endlessly amusing and we made friends with many a chicken-skewer seller as we meandered to find a hostel. Enter "My Place", the cheapest nicest hotel we've seen with free bottled water, private bathrooms, and less than $7.00 a night. Thailand win.

We spent the rest of the day essentially doing nothing. We wandered a bit and ended up at Pizza Hut to satisfy Rob's craving. I checked in with my Masters class and went for a run. It was really cool being in actual Thailand; this is a transport hub, but not a tourist town, so its much more genuine and less flashy than Krabi. I had to weave my way through food stalls and shoes stands, ducking under the low low awnings that are fine for most Thais, but difficult for Americans,
while I ran. There was a huge carnival happening and temples abounding every couple of blocks. I'm

surprised by the relative lack of poverty I've witnessed. It might be behind closed doors or hidden in alleys I won't go down, but honestly the Thai people seem like they're doing all right. If they're not terrifying the shit out of everyone on mopeds, they're driving nice, shiny pick-up trucks. The schools have basketball courts and soccer fields. We're in a relatively big city and I honestly think I see more beggars in Denver. As Rob pointed out, it'd be really easy to be homeless becaus you could just eat all the offerings from the Buddha shrines which dot every corner and parking lot. I think there is a massive fine to prohibit this, but I have no doubt it happens.

After my run, we went to 7/11, an invaluable water resource supported by the WHO, to stock up with snacks for our hike today. I got some weird stomach thing but sat at the night market for pad Thai anyway. Dinner ended real quick when, in a span of about 30 seconds, Rob spotted a cockroach and two rats. #winning. I needed to buy bug spray and we ended up in a target-like store playing charades
 with the employees. One woman thought I wanted a pedicure and another group essentially played
rock-paper-scissors to decide who would talk to us. By the time we finally found the bug spray, we had a gaggle of 7 female employees following us and laughing together (with us right?!?!?). Regardless, mission accomplished.

Today I woke up with the continuation of the weird stomach thing, but went to Khao Sok anyway. It's the oldest evergreen rainforest on the planet (bring it on Amazon), with its history starting about 160 million years ago. 160. Million. Years. Americas got nothing on Khao Sok.

The must amusing part of the day by FAR was the bus ride, which again took an solid hour longer than predicted (it's like the bus drivers are weather men..between 8-10 inches, partly sunny, somewhere maybe close to this time). The delay this time was the result of traveling to the other side of the city, an hour long journey itself, to have street venders come on the bus to sell fried chicken. 5-
6 street vendors all selling the same product at 9:30 in the morning! And so many foreigners (but no
Thais) bought it. It's like the awful Burger King stop on the NYC - Boston route, where everyone buys fries and then the bus reeks the rest of the way. But in Thailand. With chicken. At the beginning of the journey.

Regardless, the park was beautiful and old and such a nice respite from hordes of beachgoers. Unfortunately, that stomach thing kept me moving really slowly and at one point Rob just kept going without me while I took a nap, but still compeltely worth the journey. The picture tell the story of the jungle better than I could and this entry is crazy long so I'll stop here. Tomorrow, we head to Koh Samui and a national marine park which I am pumpedddd to explore and get much tan onnnnnn. No sunscreen Mom, Amrite?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Finding Nemo (aka Rob)

Spoiler alert...I FOUND HIM! It was actually incredibly easy and there is zero story surrounding our reunion in Pak-up Hostel on the other side of the world. First words of greeting? "Hey dude!!! I'm so fucking sick! For like days ..yeah it sucks!" .....hey Rob. Good to see you too.

We wandered around Krabi last night and happened upon a huge sports complex where people of all ages (but not genders) were playing soccer. There was also a group of men playing a sort of hacky sack  game only the "sack" was way bigger than normal and the ball went a solid 20-30 feet in the air every time it was kicked. After laughing at the ridiculous outdoor work out equipment that involved some logs and what we believed to be an extremely intense stretching apparatus (it was up to my shoulders so at least as tall as the average Thai), we found this basketball court with little kids rollerblading all over. It was legit rollerblading with cones and backwards skating involved. Definitely a slice of life kind of moment.

We ate at the night market and I had my first official Pad Thai in Thailand. It was definitely extremely good and also only about $1.25 for the meal. Score one for Thailand.

This morning we woke up relatively early, got some breakfast, and then waited for the boat men to take us to Railey Beach...not an island but inaccessible from Krabi because of these massive limestone cliffs that jut out of the earth. I have no idea how they are formed but they are compeltely beautiful and quite dramatic. I would add a pic but my internet isn't strong enough. There is this honor system amount the boat men that I've never seen in other places...whoever tags you on the street because your man and the other boat men won't drive you because you've essentially been marked as someone's territory. I'm used to such intense competition over customers, but these men, although aggressive, are also extremely respectful of one another. We mentioned we had talked to the man in the blue polo and all of sudden all hands were off...we had become someone's property.

After an unbelievably scenic boat ride, we got to Railey and dove right in. Luckily, Rob's inability to sit still far outpaces mine so we went adventuring to find the lagoon. It's a legitimate scramble up these limestone rocks, hand over foot and some ropes involved, so it was SOOO fun. You 100% felt like you were in an Indiana Jones film, exploring to find the lost cave of treasure and save the beautiful Charlize Theron (spelling?) from getting in bed with the wrong man. We had to climb up for a quite a bit and then the path wove around to go into a depression. At the bottom were even more, steeper limestone rocks that you had to climb and rappel down until you reached the lagoon. So. Cool.

The lagoon is this massive body of water that fills with the tides.  The best way to describe it is an exact replica of my mind's eye image of Jules Verne's underground sea. Crystal water and stalactites everywhere, it was the size of three football fields. The bottoms was the squishiest of mud BUT (thank the lord) no worms. My favorite character who joined us was the portly Chinese man who stripped right down to his whitey-tighteys and proudly stood in the middle of the lagoon for a picture. Sexy can I.

Rob grumbling about me taking forever (no idea why...I'm a super punctual individual) SO there is just one last note about globalization. When I was in the airports two Buddhist monks checking for a flight with their non-Monked friend. Non-monk turns around...is wearing a Bruins t-shirt. 1. Go Boston. 2. What world do we live in?!?!

Also there is an insane number of 7/11s here. Significantly more than home nobly instead of taquitos, there are sticky rice bowls. The world is flat!