Sunday, January 24, 2010

Vietnam

It seems too big a task to write about what Vietnam is like, but I've heard that a photo is worth a thousand words, so I'm just going to post a bunch of photos. Here we go!

Crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam


Saigon


The Saigon river




A few hours up the coast from Saigon is a beach town called Mui Ne. This is a fishing village just up the road from where we stayed.


It rained for two days in Mui Ne. We we're stuck in our soggy beachfront room reading, playing cards and staring at ceilings.





If anyone can tell me what the hell is going on here, I'd appreciate it.










Calum got a sun burn.


Local traffic


Roughing it for $6 a night per person in a mountain town called Dalat.


We rented motorbikes and went tooling around the countyside.




These women walk around the city collecting garbage.


I think they're groping around for freshwater clams. It's a bit of spectator event. I felt a bit like a voyeur taking these photos--like if someone saw me they may have gotten upset.




A big ol' Buddha


We stopped into this store to buy some jam, and we ended up getting a tour of the farm behind it and then having a cup of artichoke tea.

Friday, January 15, 2010

How to cross a street in Saigon

Play Me
video

The streets here are always full. There are some traffic lights, but they seem to only slightly phase the flow of cars and motorbikes, which means that if you want to cross the street, you can't wait for a break in traffic, you just have to go. If all the drivers are paying attention (which they are) then they avoid hitting you as much as you avoid being hit by them. If you understand this, then crossing a street is quite simple: you just walk across. As long as you keep your path and pace consistent, then oncoming traffic flows like a stream around you. You have to put your trust in the hundreds of oncoming drivers--fear and reflexes can only make you act unpredictably. I actually think that if you were to close your eyes and walk straight across, you'd be fine 9 times out of 10.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Money and Calum

We're in Cambodia now, and they have a funny way of dealing with currency. To begin with, they use both U.S. and Cambodian currency. Neither one seems more common than the other, but when you go to an ATM, you get American bills--I don't actually know where Cambodian Riel enters the stream. On the one hand, it's nice having American money. I've heard people criticize it for being boring. True, it is a little monochromatic and never varies in size, but these "boring" traits make one of a kind. If you took an American bill and compared it with every other currency I've ever seen, it stands out as the only one that doesn't look like monopoly money.
Although they have the bills of the motherland here, they don't have the coins, so the gap is filled with Cambodian Riel. There are no Cambodian coins either, so they use eight different bills ranging from 100 up to 50,000. It makes it confusing as hell, because at any given time you may have 11 different bills between the two currencies, and can pay or get change in any combination of the two. It consistently takes us about twice as long to settle any money issues here, than elsewhere.
Such a confusing currency system opens up the possibility to money scams, which Miles and I fell victim to in our first hour of being in Cambodia. While crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, there was a Cambodian man who was helping everyone along with the visa process. He was also a con artist. On the Thai side of the border, he advised his flock to withdraw Thai Baht, because there was a better exchange rate for them across the border. We obeyed. Once across the border, we were taken to a bus and taxi hub, for whom our guide was working, and we were told that we should exchange our money there, because they didn't charge a commission. We didn't know a damn thing about Riel, so we handed our money to the teller and got a wad of bills back. It was true that they didn't charge a commission, but their exchange rate was bogus. That night we realized that in changing $300 worth of Bhat, we only got about $250 worth of Riel in return. So much for first impressions. Calum and John were arriving the next day and would be facing the same scam, so we tried to warn them. We emailed them and told them what had happened, but somehow we weren't clear enough, because the same Cambodian guy who seemed so trustworthy to us, seemed trustworthy to them and pulled the same swindle. Luckily they were a slight bit wary and only changed a small amount of Baht, so their loss was less than ours.

Calum is taking well to travel so far. He hasn't gotten sick and his sleep schedule is coming around. I apologize to those of you who may miss him back home, but his presence is needed here. Now with a fellowship of four, there's rarely a lull in conversations, we can exchange and talk about books, and we have the optimum number to play the card game Hearts. It's almost odd having this Boulder group here, because it's almost as though we're having the same sort of hang-outs just in exotic parts of the world. I'm not complaining. Tomorrow we head to Vietnam, and I'm going to have my wits about me in the first few hours.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Of moon parties and cynicism

Two nights of body painting:




For New Year's Eve we all went down to Koh Phangan. As I mentioned before, the island is famous for having beach parties on the full moon that attract crowds in the thousands. This year the full moon (also a blue moon!) fell right smack dab on New Year's Eve for the start of the new decade. We couldn't ignore these auspices, so we joined the masses. I think, though I have no way of proving it, that at the stroke of midnight, when the fireworks were going off, it was the biggest party on the planet. It was a crazy, almost apocalyptic scene. We spent the whole night on the beach intermittently dancing, socializing, drinking buckets (see earlier post for information on buckets), hooting, and hollering. It was unfamiliar to be among such chaos. For example, I had the least regard for my own refuse there than anywhere else. It was the only place where I could be drinking a beer, and when finished with it, let it fall from my hand to a resting place that was just as valid as any other. The whole beach eventually became like an open landfill, but people would just clear out their little space for dancing or passing out. By morning, instead of the water line being covered with shells and seaweed, it was covered in bottles and flip flops. My disgust with the scene was tempered because I think the Thai locals are totally alright with it. They're making a fortune from us. Every westerner has Baht practically falling out of their pockets (actually, Miles found 1,200 baht while snorkeling, so baht is literally falling out of pockets), and the locals seem more than happy to oblige our various whims.

Even so, a cynic would have an easy time tearing apart party scene on Koh Phangnan. There are a plethora of bitter and true observations they could make, such as the party being nothing but privileged westerners abusing their bodies, the environment, and Thai hospitality for hedonistic pursuits. But seeing the party that way is seeing only one side of it. It is also an act of unity. People travel across the world to meet up in one spot with a common goal: to have fun. And the parties are so popular because of the very fact that they're so popular. It's a positive feedback loop. People thrive on other people's energy, which is a beautiful thing. I hope I'm not being too literary if I quote a John Donne poem for illustration of my point:

No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manner of thine own or of thine friend's were. Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

In this interconnectedness, I think there is universal balance where every act of evil is counteracted with an act of good. A cynic has the affliction of only seeing the evil. An example of this balance was a fight I saw break out on the beach. The evil was that two inebriated guys perceived some injustice, trivial as it may have been, as justification for violence. The good, however, was that there were immediately people there to break the fight up and cool the nerves of the would-be fighters. Just like the balance of yin and yang, there was neither a net gain of good nor evil--the whole universal balance was contained within that brief moment. But from this point of view, I also think that it's a myopic idea that there can be peace on Earth. Just like night defines day, chaos defines unity, and evil defines good. To eradicate evil wouldn't leave us with peace, it would leave us with nothing; the whole spectrum of good and bad would no longer exist. And I don't know if that would be a good thing.