Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mith Samlanh (Friends)

Things strike me sometimes, they leave me with my breath caught halfway up my throat with their absolute inspiring beauty and make me want to scream for joy at the brilliance of humanity. Friend International makes me feel like that, staring into toddlers' faces, and a lot of other things. But Friends (and its associated projects: Makphet, Romdeng) and another project very similar to it in Hanoi, KOTO (know one teach one) give me a lot of HOPE. And inspire me in a big way.
Both take kids off the street and teach them highly sought after skills: how to cook, how to serve, how to speak English. In countries with fast growing tourist industries, these skills are priceless, they give these kids skills that are in demand and are taught a level of service one rarely encounters in Asia. And the energy in these restaurants pastes a big fat grin on my face. I was struck one morning, while having brunch in KOTO, by a strange tickiling energy that vibrated at the pit of my stomach, a feeling of being home, a feeling of wanting this, a feeling of knowing that maybe I had finally found a calling...
I have a little seed of an idea germinating in my heart right now, one that involves kids, pollo pibil, a restaurant and Guatemala. Sort of a Amigos Chapines if you will. Anyhow something like that will take some funding as well as some serious planning and commitment. It is an idea for a future Gemma who has settled down a bit. A girl can dream....

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

the brian food list: ASIA

Brian is on my trip right now, and he is kind of dorky about food like me. So I keep harassing him about food things I think he needs to know about and finally decided that maybe it was better to just write a blog entry about it and then he could read it at his own speed and I could stop geeking out. And then I was thinking that maybe having an ongoing food list might be cool. So I'm going to start with Asia because that is where I am.

To start....
You know when some one does something and it is just so awesome you can't really describe it? Makansutra is one of those things. Their reverence for street food in inspiring, they have a rating system that makes me smile, and have dedicated food guides to some pretty damn cool places. If I ever get my shit together I would do this for taco stands and other delicacies in Mexico. In Singapore they have a dedicated food center called Gluttons Bay. It located down on the water front near the symphony hall (which is aptly called 'the durian'). Don't miss the skate wing, or the mee goreng, or the satay, just make sure you go hungry.

Speaking of satay, there is this incredible satay place in Melaka called Capital Satay. If you love peanut sauce this place may be heaven. In fact an article on Melaka was what inspired my first adventure to SE Asia.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

a big happy slow family

I like dysfunction in simple tasks. To be more clear in this statement, I find dysfunction to be a zen koan put into practice. I love and hate dysfunction and in that way my reaction to dysfunction is an indication of where I am at with myself.
For some reason I keep going to the same place in Bangkok to get things printed by the same confused Thai lady. Talking to Eva today I realized why: it is totally Latin. It is that, "si dios quiere..." approach to life, you can't rush god, or cows, or thai photocopiers, or banana shakes, you know? Sometimes I find myself cursing myself for coming to the same damn place. Yet at other times I can't help but stand there and internally chuckle at how brilliant it is that a lady who runs a copy shop has to read directions about how to print a word document.
I mean efficiency is great sometimes. But at other times I am stunned by the coldness of all things efficient. I find myself wondering what happened to all the warmth and friendliness. I mean in the States I can get shit done about 20x as fast as I can here but it is usually without incident, or if there is drama it is yours truly that is causing it. I had a giggle fit calling my bank to find out my login information. Laying on the tile floor of my hotel room in Hoi An laughing while some poor guy in god knows where tries to figure out my damn login name. He must have thought I was crazy, but then again if you cause someone to smile are you really crazy?
The thing that I know is that happiness is a choice, you either make the decision to see the joy, to laugh at the absurdity of my thai photocopying lady or you can get all pissed off and start blaming people.
You choose: comedy or drama.
I'm planning on laughing all the way down the road, wanna come?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

quick and dirty guide: the central 7 and mexico

(B this entry is for you)

I'm thinking someone should pay me to be a travel adviser, or something to that end, but maybe I will get paid back in street phad thai and good karma for all this writing I am doing.

B asked about belize/honduras versus costa rica/nicaragua which I would say are two very worthy choices to choose between and led me to think about what all the countries are like in central. I'm planning on getting to writing mini-guides on those countries that I have not yet covered but I figure I'll start with a what we might call a country briefing. I'm starting North and moving South, try to keep up. Oh and these are my opinions, nothing more.


Mexico has just about everything. Rich in culture, diverse in landscape, I can't really cover it all here. But my general feeling of méxico is, 'GUAU!' It is big, it has states, and the food in INCREDIBLE.

You could spend months or years exploring it: surfing, diving, mayan ruins, climbing volcanoes, visiting pueblitos, getting yourself lost in churches, meeting the indigenous people, swimming in lakes, exploring canyons. Chiapas is fantastic, the Yucatan (and associated states) is divine, and D.F. will blow your mind.


My soul lives in Guate. Highlands, black beans, incredible textiles, gorgeous colonial cities, TIKAL, and the warmest latinos on the block, what more can you ask for? Did I mention the coffee and chocolate?


For a cultural shmorgasborg, postcard beaches, and lush jungle Belize takes the cake. It is small, accessible, easy to get around, and full of friendly faces. Belize combines lots of outdoor activities with a carribean attitude, plus just about everyone speaks English. It isn't as cheap as other countries, but you can do it on a budget. Most people go for the diving, end up exploring a cave or two, and maybe some nice ruins. Don't miss the Marie Sharps.


Considering the current political strife, Honduras might not be your first choice. Honduras is in a word: strange. The catrachos are different from the other Latins and the Bay Islands are a world unto themselves. Copán has lovely ruins (but is more Guatemala than Honduras), las Islas Bahia have some great diving (and it is CHEAP), I've heard other places are great, but I haven't seen much. Most people stick to the islands and head on to the next place. If you want to get off the beaten track and see something new it could be a glorious adventure, but I am not making any promises. Combined with Belize it could be a cool diving vacation (there are direct flights between Belize city and San Pedro Sula).


Can't comment too much. Heard the coast is a great place for surfing. Pupusas seem motivation enough to check it out, but then again most people don't travel just so they can try the local food.


Could the Nicas be any nicer? Seriously. My best best best friends all live in Nicaragua. Traffic is usually caused by cows. Nicaragua is considered the next big thing though the economic crisis may have slowed that for a bit. If you want to experience almost everything Central has to offer (islands, volcanoes, diving, surfing, jungles, colonial cities) you could stay in Nicaragua and see almost everything. Boasting two of the longest coast lines in the region, two colonial gems, and decent infrastructure, it combines the variety of Costa Rica with the wildness of the other countries.


Costa Rica has grown on me. The people are unique and possess a subtle culture that will crawl into you heart and find a home, just give it time. If you like wildlife, getting outdoors and varied landscapes you will be blown away by Costa Rica. Not as safe as some people will have you think, it is still welcoming and lovely. The tourist infrastructure makes doing things a breeze, but there are still relatively undeveloped pockets, they just require 4 wheel drive and a bit more patience. Make friends with the Ticos, they know the best places and love to have a good time. Throw Nicaragua in the mix and you have an interesting balance of two very different cultures, the opportunity to do more outdoor sports than you can imagine and a hundred possibilities for adventure.


My Panama experience is limited to Bocas Del Toro, and I dug that. Panama City is rumored to be quite and adventure, David and the highlands come highly recommended. Plus there is always the added temptation of trying to reach Colombia overland from here. Send me a postcard if you make it!

So there you go, brief, succinct, and obviously biased. Hope that gives you some insight.

sorry, but tubing is not the coolest

The beginning of my previous entry begins with a famous Paul Theroux quote about the difference between 'travelers' and 'tourists.' People who identify themselves as travelers, most often are 'backpackers' on a 'budget.' 'Tourists' are the honkeys running around paying too much for everything with their noses in guide books, yelling loudly in English, right? Usually they are stodgy and old and don't have a clue. They are on packaged tours. They usually have too much money. '

Travelers' on the other hand what are they like? They usually will tell you, with an air of superiority, that they aren't tourists. They've had 'real' experiences, maybe they smoked opium with a hill tribe, or they've eaten street food (though I am still not sure Phad Thai cooked on Khao San really counts), or maybe they've even had amoebic dysentery or if they are really lucky scabies. 'Travelers' are hard core, they stay in $3 a night hostels and can live off of $5 a day. 'Travelers' look down on 'tourists,' who of course have too much money to have had any 'real' experiences.

I guess I am just tired of this perspective. Perhaps it was the half a day I just spent in Van Vieng, a place that for me sums up almost everything bad about tourism. Just about every real 'traveler' who as earned their stripes in SE Asia has passed through this place. And I imagine (just as I do about Cancun) at one point Van Vieng was a pretty cool place to hang out. But most backpackers would have you convinced this is the highlight of the SE Asia circuit. “Why?” you might ask. The answer can be summed up in three bullet points...

  1. cheap drugs

  2. tubing on the river

  3. cheap liquour

Now I am not so old that I don't like to party, and I feel like I have done my fair share of it. I also feel like I am a pretty adventurous and fun loving person. But I also think of my self as a culturally aware citizen of planet Earth. And from everything I have read about and experienced in Laos, semi-nudity and drug use aren't high up on the list of how to be a culturally aware, sensitive, sustainable traveler. And though I enjoy a night out with friends I would prefer to experience a different culture while traveling and enjoy a party when it isn't offensive to the local culture.

What bothers me is all these experienced travelers who wax on about how amazing Laos is, how fantastic all the people are, how beautiful the culture is (and I am sure they will go home and talk about all their really amazing interactions and experiences in SE Asia) don't see how tubing/doing drugs/wandering around in the bathing suit all add up to the erosion of the very thing they say they love.

One might defend all these poor youthful backpackers by saying that the Lao people make all these things possible and that if they really found them so offensive they could just stop providing the services. Well that is a pretty un-capatilist perspective as this is is a huge source of income for the Lao that work in the tubing/drug industry in Van Vieng. Imagine, a pancake lady can make 10,000 kip a pancake selling them to all the stoned travelers, maybe she only sells 2, that is more than $2, double the average wage of more than 70% of the country. You think anyone that has the ability to make money off these dumb drunk tourists... ooops I mean travelers isn't going to do it? They would be stupid not to. Just like most people presented with an easy source of income the Lao exploit it even if it is eroding their culture and exposing their kids to Western culture at its ugliest.

I'm sorry if this all sounds harsh, but just imagine if a group of tourists showed up in your hometown, got really drunk, dressed offensively, did a bunch of drugs, all the while your kids were playing in the street. How would that make you feel? And what would you think of the people that were doing it? Now add a couple more things to that image. Backpackers are notoriously stingy (sorry, anyone in the tourist industry will back me up on this one) so now they are nickel and diming you at every turn, stealing hotel soap, extra bread from the included breakfast, never tip, and generally are only looking out for their own benefit. Yet these people who reluctantly part with their money will also exhibit incredible material wealth their $200 backpack. These people are wandering around with a couple $1,000 dollars on their back while fighting you for a $1 a night discount on their room. Can you even imagine what the Lao people must think?

Now contrast that with our original image of the bumbling tourist, does he look so bad?

My point is that as travelers we are representatives of our respective countries and cultures, we have a great duty to our hosts as well, we should be respectful as we visit their homes, walk softly in their countries. No one likes a rude guest, everyone appreciates the person who arrives with a gift, cleans up after themselves, acts graciously, and remembers to say thank you. And now with all these amazing NGOs and social projects we have a chance to maybe leave a place we visit a little bit better than we found it.

I guess maybe not thinking that Van Vieng is cool might make me 'uncool' in the eyes of some really awesome hard core world travelers, but the thing is I don't really care. The more I live in this world I realize that my friend V's grandfather is right, life isn't the number of breaths you take it is the number of moments that take your breath away. You may be able to blow your mind in Van Vieng, but tubing isn't going to take your breath away, nor is partying with a bunch of 18 year olds on their gap year, nor is smoking opium or getting ripped on happy pizza. But watching laughing kids play in the river or people planting rice in the shadows of Karst peaks might just tighten your chest with the intrinsic beauty of simplicity. Too bad all those kids were too busy drinking Lao lao on the river to notice the beautiful world that was passing them by.

Because I think it would be wrong to slag off travelers (who are most of the time just tourists with less money and bigger egos) and not give suggestions, I'll give you my perspective on how I think we could all be better tourists/travelers/guests.

The first thing is not to travel beyond your means. You are working with a ratio of time versus money. What happens to most long term travelers (were talking over a month here) is that you think you have more money than you do and end up just scraping by towards the end. This is NOT the way to do it, you want to go home with money in your bank account. Good advice: take the amount of money you think you need, now double it. When you are scraping for money you end up cheating a lot of people, not to mention yourself because you may not be able to do what you want to do. I am not saying that being on a budget is a bad idea, I have had some very memorable experiences being on a budget, but there is a difference between budgeting and scraping by. Money gives you flexibility, it will get you out of tight situations. Another good rule: if you can afford a beverage other than bottled water you still have enough money to tip.

Yea, so tipping is a BIG F'N DEAL. Round up! If your bill is 17000kip you can afford to leave 20,000. That $0.30 means a hell of a lot less to you than it will to your server. Don't drink your big beer lao and then roll your eyes at me when I suggest a tip. Imagine if your 3,000 kip makes it possible for your waiter's kid to go to school, how would that make you feel?

So how do you save money/budget? Eat on the street (not in the tourist strip you idiot) walk around until you find a bunch of locals, check out their plates and point at what looks good, then gesture the number one and point at your chest. Congratulations, you've just saved yourself $2. Now stop drinking those damn fruit shakes. Stop eating pizza, sandwiches, pancakes, chips. Stay in a room with a fan not a/c. Find a friend to share a room with, or stay in a dorm. Walk everywhere you can, or explore the public transport, how are the locals getting around? Now do it yourself. Interact with some local people, that is why you came all this way isn't it? Or maybe you just came to talk to more people like you?

Personally, when it comes to budgeting what I've figured out is that I like certain things to be nice and other things I am not that fussed about. I spend extra money on a nicer hotel because that is my home, but I don't really care if I have to survive off street food to save some money. So you figure out what is important, pay more for those things. You might have to have money for beer, but you can stay in a total dive and eat pb&j for weeks on end. Just make sure to be friendly and polite to the owners of your dive and maybe offer to make them a sammie. Did you know that if you offer someone food they might want to have a conversation with you and BAM, you've had a unique incredible local interaction.

Learn the language, talk to the locals and they might SMILE at you. A genuine smile from someone is like a ray of light blasting you in the heart. Learn, hello, thank you, how much, and how to count to ten, it maybe the best thing you do on your trip.

Try the local food, not that watered down shit they make for westerners. Eat Thai food that makes your eyes water, eat Som Tham with balls of sticky rice, crouch on a plastic stool in Saigon and slurp pho, eat at the damn taco stands, there will always be time for spaghetti bol at home.

That is the big lesson, if it is the same, if it is comfortable and normal then why travel? Get out of your comfort zone, try something new, that is why you left home in the first place.

Read a book about the place you are visiting, learn the history, try to understand why this place is the way it is. What is growing in the fields? why do people dress that way? What do they believe? What are families like? Start paying attention, what makes this place different from your home? Write your thoughts down, draw pictures, think about it. And don't just take a million photos and think that is sufficient to 'capture' the place. Put your camera down, take a deep breath and think about how each of your senses are stimulated by this different place. What does Oaxaca smell like? What is the exact flavour of pineapple when floating on the Mekong river? What does Bangkok sound like at four in the afternoon? How does your skin feel under the sun while sitting at Angkor wat? Absorb your travel experience, immerse yourself in it. Take a moment to think about how you might put it to words and then do, write yourself a postcard about a simple detail you've noticed, and really mail it to yourself, when it arrives it will be like a little piece of magic, you may treasure it more than anything you purchase.

Find a local supermarket, or street market, stare at everything, try a new fruit, look at what is and isn't available, and wonder how the world works with out readily availalble peanut butter.

Research local projects and NGOs that are trying to make the local people's lives better and participate. Spend a bit more on a fair trade product, even if you buy the cheapest thing in the store you are making an impact. Buy fewer things, but things that you know will leave a positive mark on the country. And buy from women, when money is put in women's hands it goes to kids and food. Men just aren't as reliable.

Learn local customs, learn what is offensive and don't do it, dress like a local, check out a temple/wat/church/mosque and pray, leave an offering, and thank the local gods that you have been so blessed to have the freedom to travel.

See you on the road.

la casa de paños y pensamientos

Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they are going.” Paul Theroux

If Paul Theroux is right then I am totally f'ed. For the most part I am totally lost. My memories have turned into a swirl of faces and places, sometimes I suffer from what feels like mental vertigo. I can't find the line between dreams and memories (then again, maybe there really isn't much of a difference). Recently as I was pulling up to the airport in Phnom Penh I couldn't remember where the hell I was. Somehow Saigon is now north of Hanoi (at least in my mental geography). The whole thing might freak me out, but it have a feeling that this is what a life of constant movement will do to you....

Life used to be life like/now its more like showbiz/ I wake up in the night and I don't know where the bathroom is/ and I don't know what town I'm in/what sky I am under” -Ani DiFranco

In the same vein I found myself asking Tiago one day: “Where do the towels live?” I can't put a number to how many times I have found myself standing naked and dripping with water wondering where the damn towel is, only to find it folded like a swan my bed. But for me, like Ani, 'the road is my home,' and because of that I shouldn't really complain about loosing towels, that just comes with the territory, especially as people make my bed for me and I don't have to pay an electric bill. But all of that doesn't stop the world from rising up and swirling around, tossing me around like a rip tide. Sometimes I remember dreams about passengers that I had months prior to meeting them. My vocabulary is a mish-mash of spanish (how many times have I said, “Si?” to a Laoatian?), australian, american and pommie english. I miss so many things that the dull ache of absence has become my constant companion. Yet that rawness that lonliness or desire creates makes all the beauty I encounter taste a bit sweeter. As Che says in his Motorcyle Diaries, all meals peppered with hunger taste better (or something to that point) so it is true for my encounters with hidden vistas and unexpected friendship. When you hunger for intimacy, friendship, or comfort, their sudden appearance is all the more welcome.

Dad- don't worry I know this is a bit introspective, maybe it is all the rain and the mist cloaking the karst landscape of Laos, but I've got a big cup of JOMA coffee keeping me warm and a lot of love eminating from Northern California.