Friday, October 9, 2009

laundry list from the far east

1. I am staring at the molding of my colonial ceiling, or maybe it is a colonial recreation it seems hard to believe that this might be a french era building. The internet keeps turning on and off, making a conversation with Snr. Tiago impossible. The ipod is on shuffle leaving me feeling a bit frenetic.

2. Paul Theroux is my writing hero. On my moto ride home from Hong Kiem lake to my hotel I saw a guy smoking out of a bamboo bong which reminded me of seeing another man doing the same thing whilst on my run along the shore of Halong Bay. At the time I thought to myself I need to remember that, write it down or something, but of course I was running and forgot all about it until this afternoon. This relates to P.T. because he boggles my mind with his ability to document the minutiae of the travel experience. He is salty and bitter mixed with acute observation, though at times I think he is a bastard I respect his writing and his ability to capture that certain angle of light which illuminates what it is to be a traveler.

3. When it comes time to leave this place I will miss the moto-bikes. I know they are dangerous but I just can't get over how good the wind feels in your face. I hate being cooped up for hours and hours in air conditioned buses. I miss the smells, the sounds, the chaos. Everything feels raw and alive when seen from a moto.

4. Little Hanoi 1 still makes aubergine with garlic and it is as good as I remember it. Can you have cravings for something for 2+ years running? Dave we are hitting that place up when you get out here.

5. I am officially out of the loop with almost everything.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

typhoon ketsana

A natural disaster hits and I know nothing of it until all the danger has passed (I blame bad coverage in the Bangkok Post). I missed all of the mud-filled drama and only suffered through one serious down pour in Saigon. Only now that I am in Hoi-An, which got slapped hard by this typhoon, do I realize that the shit went down and big time. The hotel I am currently staying in has water marks 4 feet high and this is at least a third of a klick from the river. On our train ride from Nha Trang to Danang we saw billboards that had been knocked over, trees ripped up with roots exposed, and rice paddies which had been turned into fields of muddy mush. It was a bit like turning up at the end of a party only to watch the cleaning crew do its thing.
On my run this morning I was musing that it is a testament to the Vietnamese people that 5 days after a typhoon Hoi An is up and running again. Yes there is more mud and garbage in the streets, and there are a lot of downed trees, but the internet is working! Holy hell. The tailors are still doing roaring business, Cargo Club is serving brownies, Tam Tam cafe is making cappuccinos. Ok, so the old pontoon/plastic barrel bridge is gone, most of the road along the river is still coated in mud, and the fish market has never smelled so bad, but that is nit picking. Compared to the cluster fuck of Hurricane Katrina, the recovery from Ketsana, at least in this neck of the woods, is remarkable.

The following link has some amazing photos from the typhoon. Check it out.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

how to give back (and not make things worse) while you travel

To assuage some of that first world guilt we all carry around a lot of people come on my tours and want to 'give back.' I think that this is a great, fantastic, and honorable intention, it just goes wrong so many times. Rather than attacking the tourists for not having a clue and constantly sticking their foot in 'it,' I figure I can write something about how to give back in a good way and maybe one or two of you fair readers will learn something and actually make a difference while you'' are out exploring our fair planet. All of this is based on my experience, and in no way am I claiming to be an 'expert.'
1. Stop giving things to beggars, especially kids.
Hey I know kids are cute, and when they have dirty snotty faces and ask you for food you really really really really want to give them something. It feels really cruel to stand there with your pringles and not give them anything but giving them chips/apples/ a bottle of water is a shitty thing to do. Why? If kids can get food by standing outside a gas station where they know tourist buses stop, they are going to do it. Why sit in school with a growling belly when dumb gringos are going to give you something to eat? One kid turns to three, three to five, and suddenly half the school is out begging and not going to school. If that person isn't a kid, why are they going go get a job if they can survive just fine on handouts? Aid, handouts, gifts, anything that is given with no impetus to improve oneself only hampers, it doesn't encourage development (look at what has happened to all the First Nations in Canada and the US).
2. Don't buy things from kids.
Kids are cute, are you really going to bargain with a 5 year old? Parents are smart, if their kid can make more money than them why are they going to send them to school? Kids who work on the streets are exposed to a lot more dangers as well. Child sex abuses are rampant through many areas of the developing world, when kids are working on the streets they are more exposed to these dangers.
3. Don't volunteer in a place which doesn't require a minimum commitment of time and a background check.
We wouldn't want our kids exposed to just anyone who walked in off the street and wanted to hang out with them, you shouldn't want other people's kids exposed to that either. You should want a place that you volunteer for to care about who has contact with them. Kids are also very sensitive to change, if you can't commit to make a positive difference by volunteering for a longer period of time figure out another way to give back (0ften a monetary donation is the best way to do this). I know that people love the idea of volunteering at orphanages, after-school programs, etc. But the main purpose of volunteering is to improve these kids' lives, not to take cool photos of you with kids, or to make you feel good, right?
4. Buy from fair trade vendors
It costs more because it is fair trade, make sense? If you are on a budget, buy one or two smaller items from a fair trade place. If you have a bit more to spend try and buy the majority of your gifts/souvenirs/etc from fair trade vendors, co-ops, or collectives.
5. Don't buy antique textiles, jewelry, artifacts, shells, coral, bones, etc.
Often times Maya and Hill Tribeswomen will sell their priceless textiles for a pittance to support their families. You take it home and ancient techniques as well as a small chunk of cultural heritage are lost. Unless you are a collector you really won't be that hurt by buying something new. As far as things from the natural world go, unless you really hate the environment you can understand that if everyone goes home with a black coral bracelet from Khao San soon there will be no coral left. Not so different from Ivory, animal skins, etc.
6. Eat somewhere that makes a difference
Asia is full of amazing projects which give back to the local community: Friends, Romdeng, Java (all inPhnom Penh), Starfish Bakery (Sihanoukville), Sala Bai and Chakmar (both inSiem Reap), Makphet (Vientiane), Tamanak Lao (Luang Prabang), Staff of Life (Danang), KOTO and Baguettes y Chocolate (Hanoi), Streets and Blue Dragon (Hoi An).
I'm told there is a similar project in Granada, Nicaragua, I'll have to check it out when I am back.
Full belly, satisfied soul, happy person.
7. Support smaller, locally/family run businesses.
The same reason it makes you feel good to go to your local book shop rather than Barnes and Nobles, staying at a small posada run by a family, or eating at a small cafe will stimulate the local economy and give you a family experience.
8. Give some money
Choose a project that puts a smile on your face, look at their financials and give them some of your hard earned dough. It'll probably a tax write off (not that I even know what that means).
9. Pay a bit more when you go to ride the Elephants
Projects which take better care of their animals usually cost more. Do you know how much it costs to feed an elephant? Plus you don't want to ride a sad elephant. Elephant Conservation Center and Elephant Nature Park (both just outside Chiang Mai) are great projects. Tiger Trails (Luang Prabang) also runs a much more humane operation.

Cool resources: stayanotherday, childsafe, friends international

Happy travels.

dodging traffic

I will start with where I am right now and hopefully from here I can get out all the words that seem to spill out whenever I am out on a run, or on the train, or walking around and can't get my fingers to a keyboard.

I've started running again, for a number of reasons, which aren't exciting or worth discussion, but it has been an interesting cultural study. Namely because people here in Asia rarely run. Usually if you do see them 'running' it looks more like a shuffle in plastic sandals with a towel tied about their head or neck while they are clothed like they are ready to go off to the market or to work. Then picture me, tall, foreign, bouncing along in my trainers in running shorts sweating like crazy. The thought actually makes me want to laugh, which people do, sometimes they shout, the more polite ones just stare, and the kids all yell, 'HELLO!' Adding to this is that there is almost nowhere to run. The main streets are clogged with a constant howling stream of motos, trucks, buses, and people all scrambling to get somewhere. Sidewalks are collections of broken french colonial tiles, cracked pavement, rebar, trash, shit, people, parked motos, and ankle biting dogs. No wonder I lay in bed so many mornings talking myself into getting up and strapping on my shoes.

But like anything there is the good as well. Asia gets going early and running HAS to happen early (midday heat starts to get crippling about 9 am). 6 am Vietnam looks pretty different to 8:30 am Vietnam: past 8 the freshly caught fish are on their lasts breaths and the morning dew has dried off the produce. There is something magic about being out on the streets as Indochina revs her engines to start another day. I've run past monks collecting their alms, a man cutting ice with an electric saw, flapping baskets of the freshest fish one can encounter, past a huge rat that had been killed by a street dog, and had my fair share of dog run-ins (and as Mandy knows 'I'm afeared of dogs').

Running here is a metaphor for doing practically anything else here, it is exhausting, frustrating, chaotic, exhilarating, and exciting. I wouldn't give up my trail runs in the Marin hills, but dodging motor bikes while trying to maintain a steady pace has its charm.