Indonesia: a time of thanksgiving

Well this blog post (report) is a long time coming.  Goodness me.  As I’m beginning to write and mentally organize where this piece of writing is going to go, I’m all a blur.  Regardless, I know that if I don’t throw down some words about this adventure soon it’ll all be lost in the sea that was my last 2 months of SEA adventuring.  And truthfully, this one was one of the best, so it must not be missed.

Thursday August 4th my parents, Laura, and I piled 6 oversize suitcases and 4 carry-on bags, as well as ourselves, into a taxi at rush hour and headed for the airport.  This day marked the end of my parents 3 week vacation in Vietnam and the beginning of Laura’s and my trip to Indonesia.  Upon arrival at the airport, after a 1 hour taxi ride that has now raised the bar for busiest traffic I have ever been in, ever, ever, ever, I said “see you later” to my parents and sent them off with a tonne of my (illicit) goods, which would be waiting for me when I would be returning home just 2 weeks later.  But until then, I was off and up and away with Laura on our last SEA adventure together.

We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Jakarta (on the Indonesian island of Java) and arrived in Jakarta at 11:30pm local time.  Knowing that Jakarta is a city with little to be desired we had another plane ticket departing at 6am the next morning.  Although we had planned in advance to make our first night accommodations the airport floors, we wandered dozily and hazily among the dodgy wheelers and dealers of the big city searching for a buck and a scandal, hoping for something we could call home for the night.  It wasn’t exactly the most welcoming of welcomes I’ve received when first entering a country, but rather than entertain and dwell on the filthy factor of the occasion, we found a slatted bench to lay on and rest our weary heads.  Uncomfortably, we rolled around and around and drifted in and out of Stage 1 REM cycle until 4am graced the wee hours and we clambered off our respective benches to find the shuttle bus hopefully waiting to take us to the next terminal for our domestic flight to Yogyakarta.  Armed with a much needed Starbucks espresso, we found the shuttle pick-up station and did our best to guess which bus would take us to Terminal 3.  Without much luck and and a passerby’s hint that such a bus does not even begin service until 6am, we became increasingly more concerned about the likelihood of a missed connecting flight may be.  As we both started to waiver, a man stopped to drop a few passengers at the Terminal where we were waiting, we approached to ask if he was, in fact, the shuttle we were looking for but alas, he too was not our man.  But before leaving he probed a little further.  He asked us where we were going and what time and in true SEA fashion, offered his own services.  Feeling a little unsure of the trustworthy nature of the Javanese (solely based on the sketchiness of our arrival encounters) we declined.  And then, as expected, he offered again, so I asked, “how much?” knowing we were over the ’60 mins before check-in’ count.  He replied, “however much you want.”  Sure sure, likely response.  We replied, “no no, we’ll wait for the shuttle.”  It wasn’t until he turned and looked at Laura and I and said, “but I am afraid you will miss your plane” that I realized that not only was he right but he was genuine too.  He delivered us where we needed to be and when we arrived and I went to give him money for saving our asses, he refused the monetary gesture.  Surprised and touched by his generosity, as a true Westerner, I insisted he take the overpayment.  He smiled, shook hands, and was on his way.

The island of Java is a hotbed of Javanese intellectual and political thought, still headed by its sultan whose kranton (palace) remains the hub of traditional life, and boasting an incredibly rich artistic cultural heritage.  Unsure of what I expected “Indonesia” or “Java” to look and feel like, for that matter, I found myself taken aback by the sites, smells, and sounds of the city of Yogyakarta, populated with 700,000 Javanese.  It certainly wasn’t a outwardly shiny or wealthy as I think I expected but instead it was raw and real with poverty and wealth living hand in hand.  The streets smelled of cloves smoked by the men sitting atop their becaks (cycle rickshaws) charmingly greeting each walker by and offering a service of “transport?  transport?”  A fun a usual response given was one of “walking.  walking.”  Everything of question or quick response was said in pairs.  Made me chuckle on every occasion.  Another surprising presence in the city of Yogi, were collections of young punks out and about squeegeeing and representing torn fashions and anarchy.  I kinda liked it.  While in Yogyakarta for the day and one night, found the most adorable and what will now be known as “the best” accommodation we chose on our Indonesian adventure.  I’ll leave it to the pictures to explain the quaint decor, mostly mosaic tile work, and the blessed bed of canopied comfort.  It saw a midday nap of heavenly bliss and lovely night, post-temple adventuring, local bus riding, sultan square seeing, market bartering, and engaged conversation sweating, of sweet sweet sleep, which worked wonders to prepare us for the 12 hour minibus ride all the way to Mount Bromo.

Early the next morning we boarded the back of the 10 person minibus for the day-long long-haul to to Mount Bromo.  It was as exhausting as it sounds.  It was hot.  It was sweaty.  It was just what you do.  And it was endured with a smile.  There’s not much to say or complain about when there’s a blessed 80 year old Chinese man sitting the front seat accepting his fate with a sense of dignity and pleasure.  After be shuffled, duped, and scammed in Probolinggo, we arrived at the guesthouse of “choice” at 10 pm in the foothills of the volcanic site.  Quickly we began thinking of our early morning ahead and so prepared for our impending 3 am wake up call.

We woke at 3 am and readied ourselves for the cool altitude airs and the hiking ahead.  Our jeep for transfer arrived, we piled in with our 80 year old traveling companion and his wife and daughter and headed straight for the peak that looks out over the active volcanic range of Bromo, Java.  Mount Bromo (Indonesian: Gunung Bromo), is an active volcano and part of the Tengger massif, in East Java. At 2,329 metres (7,641 ft) it is not the highest peak of the massif, but is the most well known.  Mount Bromo sits in the middle of a vast plain called the “Sea of Sand” (Javanese: Segara Wedi), a protected nature reserve since 1919.  We hiked the remaining 500 m up to the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan (2,770 m or 9,088 ft) in the darkness of the early morning hours and waited for the sun to rise over the Tengger massif.  And as sure as the sun rises each and everyday, we began to see the light take the stars away and warm our skin with oranges and reds.  Not before long, not only was Laura’s camera battery dead but we were beginning to see the four volcanoes sitting in their early morning shadows.  Breathless and in awe, we took advantage of the forgiving light of the rising sun and snapped a mini-photo shoot of us both with the spectacular range in the distance.  After our time atop looking on, we met with our jeep-man and headed to the foot of the volcano where we trudged through the volcanic ash sands and up to the rim of the active volcano.

Whilst atop the rim of the billowing Bromo, we noticed items of noticeable sacrifice had been tossed into its mouth.  Later, thanks to Wikipedia, we learned that on the fourteenth day of the Hindu festival of Yadnya Kasada, the Tenggerese people of Probolinggo, East Java, travel up the mountain in order to make offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, flowers and sacrifices of livestock to the mountain gods by throwing them into the caldera of the volcano. The origin of the ritual lies in the 15th century legend where a princess named Roro Anteng started the principality of Tengger with her husband, Joko Seger. The couple were childless and therefore beseeched the assistance of the mountain gods. The gods granted them 24 children but stipulated that the 25th child, named Kesuma, must be thrown into the volcano as human sacrifice. The gods’ request was implemented. The tradition of throwing sacrifices into the volcano to appease these ancient deities continues today and called Yadnya Kasada ceremony. Though fraught with danger, some locals risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to recollect the sacrificed goods that believed could bring them good luck.  With thoughts such as this swirling in our minds, Bromo began rumbling and such a rumble was getting louder and louder.  I looked at Laura who’s eyes were as wide as I have ever seen, staring at the growing white cloud of sulfuric smoke coughing out of the craters pit.  In a quick reactive moment, Laura yells to me, “run, go, let’s get out of here!”  Knowing that if this baby’s gonna blow, it’s likely not going to matter much if we’re sitting here or running down the side of the mountain, and so I giggled and responded with a few more photo snapshots and big “whoaaaaa… yes.”  We returned to the jeep soon after jumping down the side of the volcano sands, just for fun not out of fear, and we were delivered back to our beds of the guesthouse just in time for a nap and a few hours of reading time before beginning our next long trip to the island of Bali.

Not without typical southeast Asian travel unreliability and confusion, we found our chartered bus headed overnight to Denpasar, Bali, a short 11 hours away.  Certainly not a tourist special, we sat ourselves down with about 40 other Javanese men and a rooster, secured our place and hoped for a night of of some sleep.  I tossed and turned, listened to podcasts and albums to keep myself dreamy and happy, while Laura sat still, without a movement, eyes closed, and serene.  By the early hour of 4am, we arrived in Denpasar at the bus station, hours away from any kind of hotel check-in and still a number of kilometers from Ubud, our next destination.  Given the dodgy nature of the hours in waiting we did at the bus station before leaving to find Ubud, I will refrain from writing detail about our “think-happy-safe-thoughts” strategies and will jump to the point where we were dropped at the monkey forests of Ubud just in time for breakfast.  Ubud is famous as an arts and crafts hub, and much of the town and nearby villages seems to consist of artists’ workshops and galleries. There are some remarkable architectural and other sights to be found, and a general feeling of well being to be enjoyed, all thanks to the spirit, surroundings, and climate of the place.   Still in the early hours of the morning, we settled into to an early opening organic vegetarian restaurant, ate Balinese pancakes, much like the dutch-style pannekoeken, and embraced the hollywoodized pop-philosophies promoting eat, pray, love.

After finding (or it finding us) a delightful homestay in the heart of the city, we headed out for a day long walk through Ubud and its composite villages.  We shuffled and picture snapped through the streets decorated in for one of a many Hinduism festivities, navigated through the rice fields, drank young coconuts, and ran from threatening guard dogs.  Similarly but not redundantly, the next day we traveled through the gorgeousness that is the countryside of Ubud for nearly the whole day, but this time we did it by it bicycle and with a tour group.  It started early in the morning and even a precious hour earlier than we thought due to an unexpected time change since coming from Java… despite having a total of 3 mins to prepare for an entire day of cycling, we found ourselves laughing at the triviality of time and its current and welcomed insignificance.  We rode and stopped at a number of points of interest including a Kopi Luwak plantation (yup that’s the coffee beans taken from the Asian Civets poop), traditional Balinese homes, and had a traditional Balinese feast at the end of the ride.  Speaking of the end of the ride, in true Wendy and Laura fashion, we opted for the optional 8 kms uphill ride to the site of the feast.  Along with 2 other girls, we four plus 2 guides, powered up and up to the finishing line.

Deliciously, Ubud also fed us well, in spirit and in stomach.  We ate and lounged and coffeed in some of the funkiest and warm bistros and cafes.  One certain cafe stop on one evening on one particular night was one that will forever be my definition of Ubud and dreams rediscovered and realized.  I fell in love again that night in a really important way and I still sometimes wonder how different things may have been for me now if that night, that light, if that moment of rest hadn’t happened those 4 days before my southeast Asian departure.

All aglow and with harmless delusions of grandeur, friendships carved in stone, and with eyes wide open, my current read began to make more sense and truly taught me to say and feel thanks for it all.  From Ubud, we then headed to the beaches of Kuta, where I’m realizing now that living out thankfulness isn’t all too difficult with the beach as your backdrop and sun all ablaze, but it was certainly a good site to start practicing a life lived in Eucharist.  These last days at the beach were spent reading, reflecting, relating, rambling and resting.  It wasn’t until we were traveling back home (to Vietnam) via Jakarta with one last night stay in the big city, that we were truly tested in theory and practice.  We stayed at the least desirable of all guesthouses, ever.  We were afraid to touch the mattresses, were quick to douse the room in citronella spray, and did our best to will away the bugs and filth.  Our room was sweaty, sticky, and soiled (much like the rest of the city).  Just when I was ready to admit that I had reached the limit of “oh God, I can’t take this any more…”, I heard Laura begin to say in a small voice from the bed laying next to me, “Thank you God for the roof over our head.  Thank you for a mattress to lay on and a sense of humour well developed enough to tolerate this.”  With this, we began laughing and did our best to search out the 1000 little things in our last moments of travel spent together being truly thankful for it all.

This bit of writing is coming months after the Indonesian exploration ended but this was not reason enough to not write anything about it.  Since being home home, I find myself thinking back on this time away with my dear travel companion longingly, lovingly, and glowingly.  It was a defining time… and it only took me a year to get here.

Thanks.

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so long farewell auf wiedersehen tạm biệt

3 weeks until I will say goodbye to Vietnam but only a few days until my time with my wee-man Huy is up.  In celebration and as an overwhelming act of gratitude and thanks, Huy and his family threw a “Farewell Party” in my honour.  When I arrived at Grandma’s house outside District 11, there were balloons welcoming me through the entrance and a huge banner with my name and many thanks written across it.Along with all the decorations, smiles, and warm thanks that welcomed me to their home, an enormous meal was also being prepared for us all to share.

After lunch, I joined all the kids in the pool for a couple hours of swimming fun!  We played a bunch of fun games together and without getting too sentimental in the moment, we laughed and splashed and played just the way we had always done over this year past.

I am so fortunate and so blessed to have been matched with such a loving and supportive family.  They welcomed me into their family from the first day I arrived until these last days.  We exchanged gifts of “thanks” and managed to give each other gifts that reflected exactly what each other like.  So much so that we gave one another the exact same card of “best-wishes”.  Grandma’s last embrace and sincere sentiments are something I will never forget and will treasure always.

I will miss this family so much.

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Twelve Days in Thailand. One Night in Bangkok.

Back in Bangkok, I found myself, in the evening on June 30th, excited about the next 12 days to be spent exploring the mountainous beauty of the North and the sandy-white island beaches of the South(ish).  After many nights of wishing, dreaming, planning, and organizing the possibilities of traveling Thailand together, I rounded the alleyway bend to find Kyle Barnes sitting, reading, waiting at the guesthouse we had previously decided upon, which sits just off Khao Son Road.  With a couple of tilts of the head, cheeky smiles, and a big ol’ hug, we were reunited.  It was a lovely exchange and was fueled with excitement for what was to become of our adventuring time together.  We then headed to the streets for some delicious Thai food, discussed our up and comings, and then we were off to bed with an early start set in our minds.

Up and out by 7am, we nabbed a tuk-tuk and requested a delivery to the train station set for Kanchanaburi, our first stop on our travels to the North.  Expecting this would be a quick and easy ride, we were duped into many detours along the way.  Detours including a smokes stop (“5 baht, 5 baht, gimme 5 baht!”), a couple of tourist agency stops, and finally riding the wrong way on a one-way for a dangerous amount of time till we stopped at the last agency across from the train station… this is as close as we would get to our requested destination opting out of further arguments with our crazy driver-man.  With our plans altered by the pushy tuk-tukers antics, we quickly signed up for the next mini-bus heading northwest.

3 hours later we arrived in Kanchanaburi, home of the infamous bridge over the River Khwae.  The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway,  is a 415 kms railway between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), built by the Empire of Japan during World War II.  Forced labour was used in its construction. About 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project.  Whilst staying in this town (at a sweet riverside bungalow) we had a chance to visit the site which once saw so much grief, pain, and death.  We wandered the rails, crossed the bridge, visited the museum, cycled the streets, and learned much from the pictures and writing describing this awful, destitute piece of history.  We stayed in this town for one night, one evening I spent solo due to some undeniable jet lag my afflicted travel partner was experiencing.  I spent the evening eating, reading, and singing along with the local house band at a cozy roadside bar… felt good to be out and traveling again.  Midday of the next, we paired up with another mini-bus and headed ESE to Ayutthaya Kingdom, a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767.  The sacred city, the sacked city, Ayutthaya is complexly intertwined with Thai nationalism and religion.  An appropriate place to be on the eve of a National election, right?  Well, sorta.  Except for the fact that we had to drink beer from teacups due to a ban on alcohol consumption the day and night before and after the election, many business were closed, and local transport was overbooked because people were flocking to their home towns to vote.  Not surprising given their 80% voters rate.  Learning this valuable information on the ground without forewarning meant that we got our drink on with one pinky finger raised and stayed in town for one more night than we had planned before we could book our bus ride to Chiang Mai.

We settled into a bunny-clad guesthouse with our new kiwi friends and were soon out, all together, on the waters of the moat, which encircles the town of Ayutthaya for an evening boat tour visiting the many Wat’s that sit on the outside shores of the river.  Stunning.  Captivating.  Inspiring, as these grand structures seem to be.  Seeing such outstanding buildings from ancient times past was not a first for me but what was, was seeing an enormous lizard, which I’m classifying as a Water Monitor, swim passed us in the boat.  I have never seen anything like it.  I sat with eyes wide and fists clenched until it passed.  Needless to say, no photos were taken to prove such a site but just know, it made me make a series of “hulahhh!” sounds.

For our extra unplanned day in Ayutthaya, Kyle and I decided to venture to the neighbouring town of Lopburi.  The city is most famous for the hundreds of Crab-Eating Macaques (Monkey-mongrols, more like it) that live in the middle of the city, especially around the Khmer temple, Prang Sam Yot, and a Khmer shrine, Sarn Phra Karn. They are fed by the local people, especially during the Monkey Festival in November. Because they are not afraid of humans, they steal whatever food they can find from unwary diners.  Sold to us as a place to go and see all the “cute-little monkeys” we swooned and jumped the first local bus to this town 1.5 hours out of Ayutthaya.  Cute they were, the first Macaques we saw and then the next and the baby above and the cutie climbing and swinging from rooftop to rooftop.  Then suddenly they were swinging down the posts, were infesting the streets, which neared the Prang Sam Yo Wat, and were approaching people walking on by.  Kyle and I slowed our steps in their general direction as we watched these scoundrels ravage for food in the garbage and out of the hands of people holding anything of interest and then suddenly, I noticed a monkey leap from a rooftop overhead onto an elderly Thai man crossing below.  The monkey knocked the man to the street and I looked in disbelief as I saw the man hit the pavement face first.  This was enough for Kyle and I to get out of Macaques territory.  Little jerks.  Thankfully not the entire town was infested with these scavengers, so we were able to enjoy Wat wandering for the rest of our stay in Lopburi, away from the monkeys.

After our last day cycling the innermost parts of Ayutthaya and the Wat’s that sit within the moated city, including a visit to the ancient Royal Palace, we boarded the “VIP” bus to Chiang Mai.  It was a 10 hour bus ride through the night that will hopefully be forgotten over the years.  It was much to be desired.  Thankfully, Chiang Mai was more than enough to make up for the bus travel.  With metal rods digging into my back and a series of bizarre-o dreams slipping from my uncomforted sub-consciousness, I gazed out the window and watched the sun rise over the mountainous range of the North of Thailand and was energized, yet again.  Once in town, we found a guesthouse perfectly suited for our needs ($7 bucks a night, enough said) and got to a day of rest and reflection.  We “chilled” in the welcomingly conducive to “chilling” common area filled with travelers, read, napped, journaled and took inventory for the greater portion of the day.  Once the evening hit we headed out to Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.  It was seemingly endless and I was in my consumerist glory.  (I love market goods so much!  Gonna miss this…)  I purchased an item or 2 or more (shhh!) until we wandered past a local bar pouring out old-timey country music.  Surprised by the choice in music (not techno?) I realized the band comprised of a guitarist, banjo, upright bass, and an accordion player.  Before I had a chance to try and convince Kyle to stop at such an anomaly we simultaneously locked eyes on the name of the bar: “Rabbit’s” (refer to Kyle’s life if it’s not painfully obvious why we would quite naturally have to go to such a place and why this is SO perfect).  And so we nodded, crossed the road, nuzzled into this gem of a find, joined in for some old country gospel tunes, singing and playing, had one too many drinks, and stumbled on home.

Next morning we headed to the mountains to see Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  We traveled high into the mountains until we found the spectacular Wat, which hosted a beautiful view of the city of Chiang Mai.  The site was magnificent.  Upon leaving the site and on the 309 steps back down, I stopped to say “hello” to a gorgeous little girl from the minority tribe, H’mong.  Without any toys or kids stuff in my bag, I took out my lonely planet guide and crouched next to her and looked at the pictures together.  It was a special exchange of smiles and laughter and ooooh’s and aaaah’s and warmth.  Remembering I had a good luck charm attached to my bag from similar-type run-in with a young Cambodian girl in Siem Reap, I passed the toy along to this sweet gem and we parted ways, smiling.  From here we traveled further up the mountain to the H’mong villages, climbed 500 hidden stairs to a hidden temple, strayed off the beaten path to find an itty bitty kitty who had found the most spectacular view, and made a few friends.  One of whom who could not get over my freckles and insisted I see a doctor and get a cream for my “condition”… sigh, bless his Japanese heart.

On our last day in Chiang Mai we visited more and more Wat’s around the moated town but also visited the local women’s prison and got a massage from an inmate.  As a part of the rehabilitation program, women set for release are put into a training program, which teaches them a trade such as massage, baking, sewing, etc.  Amazing.  So we took advantage of it and had the best Thai-style massage.  Outstanding.

In response to our bus ride up to Chiang Mai, we decided to take the night train back to Bangkok.  It was a much more desirable mode of transportation.  We shared a bunk with a local Thai man and we spoke of trade, politics, life, work, international affairs, family, and old cars.  He was a good man with a great outlook on life.  From the window, I watched the sun set and the sky glow before waking in the morning light as we approached Bangkok.  Upon arrival we headed straight for the next leg south to Ko Samet, about 3 hours outside of Bangkok.  After a total of about 5 more hours, post a 13 hour train ride, we ferried ourselves onto the island and went straight to the beach.  I have never seen sand so white and the ocean so blue.  Mmmmm, I can still smell it.  Our time on the beach included seaside napping, sunning, coconut sipping, fire show watching, delicious Thai eating, cocktail bucket indulging, half-moon party observing, fire jump-rope judging, and long walks… you get the idea.  This is as far as my reporting goes for this leg of the trip, given the slowing nature of the style of travel.  Just know it was a blissful time in the sun and in conversation and I’m much more freckled (yet again) as a result (of the sun, of course).

Before too many days got away from us, we returned to Bangkok where Kyle and I parted ways.  I had to head back to work but not without a stop in the markets.  I shopped and I found!  I found the book I had been looking for since I started traveling, I found a Nepali dress that makes my heart sing and think of my dearest Laura, I found a perfect gift for Dana in the place we had always said we’d go since “Broken Down Palace” was released, and I found a Starbucks with a comfy chair where I enjoyed my espresso over ice in quiet courtyard while I thought of love and my Dad and his impending arrival.

Thank you Thailand for enriching my Southeast Asian palate and sense of living so much.

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My Wedding!

Ok, ok… not my wedding, exactly.  Yesterday evening I went to My’s sister, My’s wedding.  Still confused?  Let explain further.  While working in the school with my lil’man I got to know some of the teachers and teaching assistants fairly well.  During this time, I had the most pleasant opportunity to befriend the teaching assistant in the classroom where I was placed.  Kieu My (pronounced: Queue Me) is a delightful, sweet, and tiny woman (I’m a giantess in comparison!) of my same age and we got along very well over the past year.  I could always count on her for a warm smile, a shared laugh, and an endearing hand holding squeeze throughout the school year.  And so when she invited me to come to her sister, Diem My’s (Dee-em Me) wedding, I felt honoured to be a part of the special day.

Unsure of what to expect, what to wear, where to go, how to get there, I dug deep into my closet and found that little black dress I was smart enough to have brought from home, yet hadn’t had a reason to wear until now, dressed for the occasion, jumped in the cab, handed him my cellphone for directions and headed deep into the city.  I cleared D4, D1, D3, and ended up in Tan Binh district, which means as much to me as it likely does to you.  I quickly learned, it is an area of busy busy narrowed alleys my taxi driver struggled to drive down.

Eventually, I met up with My and her family at her home.  They were all rushing and bustling about to get their things together, quickly organize themselves, and rush off to the restaurant for the reception party.  We arrived at the restaurant and were greeted by 10 women dressed in white ballgowns lining either side of the stair entrance into the hall.  Once a top the stairs, I got to meet the bride, My’s sister My and her husband and both sets of parents.  It was a lovely exchange of “hellos” and “thank-yous” and “congratulations”.  Immediately, I felt welcomed by this gorgeous family.

The hall was set for more than 200 guests and rather than being stuck at the odds-and-ends table in the back corner, I was rushed to the front of the room and sat at the table reserved for family.  Never has a front row seat been more important at wedding I was soon to find out.  I had no idea what a show this was going to be.  There was no head table at the front of the hall for the wedding party, just a stage and a projector and a master of ceremonies that introduced the evening with this:

…and this was only the beginning of the show, which also included a beautifully choreographed 7-course meal service.  Simultaneously, the bride arrived at the hall (visible for all the guests to watch via live feed on the hall projector) in a Cinderella pumpkin-shaped carriage shooting fireworks.  All 10 mini-brides escorted her into the hall where she and her husband approached the stage.  Once at the front, the parents were introduced in a similar fashion with music blaring and confetti launchers exploding.  Needless to say, my eyes were wide in disbelief and in awe of the spectacle.  From here the couple approached a glass tower and together started to pour champagne over the tallest glass.  This tradition most closely resembled the lighting of the candles tradition I am more familiar with… if you were to add dry ice, bubbles, and more confetti launching.  Amazing.

The entertainment continued throughout all 7-courses of the meal.  The volume of the entertainment was at a level that required everyone to shout their conversation with each other.  Here’s a clip from the dinnertime show, to give you an idea.  The entertainment varied and was performed by friends and family members.

As I finished swallowing my dessert, a chunk from the fruit jelly mold, I turned around to see half the hall clearing out.  Surprised and unsure of where everyone was going, My came over to fetch me, escort me out, take a quick family photo, and organize a ride back home to D7.  As we walked out she apologized for how late it was (8:45pm) and thought the night had gone on too long (it only started at 6:30pm).  I couldn’t believe everyone was out the door so quickly!!  Not even one person was encouraged to stay and chat or shmooze and have a post-meal coffee.  That was that and we were on our way.

I said goodbye to My knowing this will likely be the last time I see her.  The care and concern and love and the happiness that she has shown me will never be forgotten and was perfectly summed up in this evening of celebrated love and dedication.  Miss My, thank you for being a bundle of sunshine in my Vietnamese life.

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“I’m only interested in writing things I can’t say.”

Some thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about leaving and moving and coming home, summed up and explained through another writers writing.

An excerpt from: In Arcadia by Ben Okri (85-86)

‘I’m only interested in writing things I can’t say.’

‘You’re perverse.’

‘That’s what the crab said to the horse.’

‘What?’

‘You’re perverse, why don’t you walk sideways, like me?’

‘And what did the horse say?’

‘The horse was too polite to say anything, and trotted off. But the story has a sequel.’

‘What is it?’

‘When the horse was out of sight of the crab, it stopped and wondered why it didn’t run sideways like the crab.  The horse had often secretly admired this ability in the crustacean.  And so the horse, making sure that no one was around to witness its folly, practised trotting sideways.  The horse found it very difficult at first, then increasingly pleasurable, and refreshingly novel.  Over the next few weeks the horse kept up this practice till it mastered the art of running sideways as much as it was possible for a horse to do.  And then came the day of great games and festivities of the horses.  And in the games the horse astounded all the horses with its elusive capacity, its ability to escape capture by being able, very swiftly, to run sideways, to change direction effortlessly and without thinking about it.  And so it became the most accomplished and mysterious horse among all the horses.  Many years later, when it had long been acclaimed as the greatest of all the horses, after it had become a legend in its own horse-time, when this great horse was dying, its children gathered round and asked the secret of its longevity, success, and enormous influence.  The horse said: “I befriended all the large and little creatures, and learned from them.  In one word, I seemed perverse.”  The children laughed and were amazed.  And when the great horse asked why they were amazed the children said: “We met the greatest and most fascinating crab, profoundly revered by its people and many others.  And when we asked the secret of its great life the crab said more or less the the same thing as you.”  The great horse smiled and said: “Then it must be the only crab that knows how to run straight as well as sideways, and also how to gallop.  What we sometimes call perversity, my children, is really genius at work.”  “And what is genius, father?” the children asked.  “Common sense raised to the highest,” the old horse replied.  And then he expired.  That is the end of my improvisation.’

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My 29th at Jungle Beach

My long awaited Birthday weekend at Jungle Beach (a secluded beach 35 kms outside Nha Trang, Vietnam) finally arrived and I couldn’t have been happier.  We all boarded the train downtown District 3 of Ho Chi Minh City (“we” being a group of friends/coworkers) Friday evening after work and headed north to Nha Trang, the central highlands, by way of overnight train, a mere 10 hours away.  With a shake here and a rattle there, we buzzed along the rails till reaching Nha Trang at sunrise.  As we coasted into town, I was woken by a big “Happy Birthday” from my dear friend Laura.  Unable to provide me with my traditional breakfast in bed, she showered me with presents in my bunk.  The gifts she found for me were perfectly me.  I was so surprised to see how “all-out” she went for me.  It’s these extra-special thoughts that make a birthday feel like a birthday, rather than just another day.  And so, with these seemingly simple gifts, I was touched by how perfectly suited they were for just me.  This girl truly knows me and that’s the greatest gift I could ever ask for.

Upon arrival in Nha Trang, we were picked up and whisked through the mountains and brought to the private beach of Jungle Beach Resort.  Operated by a friend, we were greeted and settled into our own little thatch huts, our basic (basically beautiful) accommodations for the night.  We hit the beach by 9am and stayed there for the entire day.  I spent my day reading, relaxing, napping, swimming, floating, chatting, playing, laughing, reflecting, squinting, and dodging the sun.  It was a gorgeous day and I couldn’t have asked for any better.

We stayed out till 6pm, then headed to the communal table for a family-style dinner.  When we finished the main meal, much to my surprise, Sylvio (owner of JB and friend) walked from the kitchen holding two lit birthday cakes and singing “Happy Birthday!”  What a fun surprise!!  The cakes, in true Vietnamese fashion, were layered with thick sugary icing.  Both cakes decorated with 3 perfectly designed iced-roses.  With my name on one and a “Happy Birthday” message on the other, I was as giddy as 9 year old princess.  After I made the first cut, Sylvio insisted on serving up each slice.  With each cut he made he wiped the excess whipped cream from the knife into a separate bowl until each guest was served and full bowl of cream sat separated.  Likely, I should have seen what was to come next but before I had a chance to anticipate his next move, he proceeded to fill my face with an obscene (but equally delicious) amount of whipped cream.  Happy Birthday to me!

We then went back down to the beach for a night swim.  We headed straight for the still waters and floated out to sea.  There are no words for the peace I felt floating beneath the night sky.  So good.  So glorious.  We finished the day with a bonfire on the beach listening to some of my favourite CCR tunes among a few other classic rock favs.  It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.  Content, I am.  If this is any kind of foreshadowing for what my 29th year will bring, then consider me ready to live this last year of my twenties for real.

Many thanks to my good friends for a sharing my birthday with me, for making it special, and a day I will never forget.  Much love.

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Đà Lạt: a time of ideas, inspiration, Arcadias

Feeling the need to skip town and retreat to the mountains for some time of rest and reflection, I planned a last minute trip to Đà Lạt.  And so, last Friday night I went downtown (and with some standard Vietnamese confusion) caught an overnight bus to Đà Lạt.  I left Phạm Ngũ Lão at 11:30pm and arrived at the bus station just outside of town at 5:00am.  I managed to catch a shuttle van into town and was dropped off at my guesthouse whilst still dark outside and very early.  Upon arrival in this small town I was surprised with how different this place is than any other town in Vietnam I have visited.  As termed in the LP, it felt more like “Bizarro Vietnam” where it was sorta same same, but definitely different.  The town is dotted with elegant French-colonial villas instead of squat socialist architecture, and farms around are thick with strawberries and flowers, not rice.  It was spring-like cool instead of tropical hot and I was here looking for fresh new perspective, so I knew I had come to the right place.  With this early morning drive through the alleys I knew I was on the right track, until I was dropped at my guesthouse that wasn’t due open until… well your guess was as good as mine.  Given that my sleep on the bus was less than sufficient, I found a neighbouring monster-sized hotel, which is always open, to hangout in the lobby in until I figured out where to go and how to get there.  Also, a fellow traveling friend from the Netherlands was only a mere 1.5 hours behind me on a bus into to town, so I waited until he arrived and then we set off, on foot, into town.  Despite it being the wee hours of a sunny Saturday morning, the town market was bustling and booming with delicious trade.  The bright flowers, vibrant greens of the veggies, and “just-gotta-sink-my-teeth-in” juicy hues of the fruits sparked a fresh excitement that began dreaming of meals to come in this lovely town.

We weaved in and out of the vendors until coming out on the other side where we met the waterside and the perfect site for a morning breakfast, avocado smoothie #1, and strong Vietnamese coffee.  We ate, we gazed, we chatted, and then we split for the day.  I wandered the streets, followed the rivers, ducked down alleyways, sat on park benches, stopped to smell the roses, sang to myself while listening to my headphones, danced when no one was watching, and dabbled with life’s many cliches.  God, it felt good.  Did this all the way to the “Crazy House”. The Hang Nga Guesthouse, or more appropriately named, “Crazy House,” opened on 1990 and began as one woman’s personal project.  The outside of the building looks like a tree with trunks and branches built to look like they are growing along the walls, making it more of a house-tree than a tree-house. The misshapen windows make it look like a fairy tale house, with small ponds and mushroom statues that adorn the house.

After exploring all the nooks and crannys of this house, that was so clearly designed with Dana in mind, I ventured out and met up with a local “Easy Rider” tour guide, named Mr. Hung.  Already mentally planning a motorbike trip for my Day 2 in Da Lat, I hopped on the back of his bike and headed to his office to book my day trip.  Once booked, I crashed at the hotel for a quick afternoon nap on a bed that felt like it hugged me in a cloudy comfort.  When I awoke early afternoon I headed out in the torrential rain that had landed in town, skipped through the rivers that were once roads and hopped into the nearest cafe for a curried lunch and avocado smoothie #2.  Whilst here I watched the rain, wrote about life as it passed, and read my book.  Did this till I wore out my welcome and the rain calmed considerably, found a new cafe to snuggled in and did the same.  Likewise, I milked my stay for all it was worth then I moved on again to a cafe called “Chocolate” and made this place home.  It was during this time I admitted to myself all the realities of what leaving Vietnam really means to me.  I am going to miss this beautiful country for reasons I’m not even sure is clear to me, yet.  One reason that was made certain during this sentimental moment, was when the woman working at the cafe approached me for some lovely conversation that was simply endearing and heartwarming.  The Vietnamese people have taught me, by example, what it means to be a neighbour with a caring heart.  We are all in community with each other and in this, whatever this is, together.  I went away from this cafe warm and sad, despite the chill in the air and the smile on my face, knowing that I must take this with me because its commonplace feel here in the East, I know we in the West easily forget to look together in the same direction.

I rose early the next morning, sure to grab breakfast before embarking on my day-long motorbike trip planned with Mr. Hung and my goodness, I’m so glad I did.  Without a doubt, it was the best breakfast I have ever had (especially for a cheap guesthouse stay).  Breakfast included prepared eggs, french crusty buns, cheese, avocado, passion fruit, passion fruit juice, papaya, dragon fruit, cereals, pineapple, strawberries, jack fruit, mango… it goes on.  I wanted to stay all day, nibbling.

By 9am I bid my Dutchman adieu and was on my way with Mr. Hung.  Before hitting the mountains outside Đà Lạt, we explored some of the sites in town.  We visited “The Valley of Love”.  Being warned of such a tourist trap, designed with only the Vietnamese in mind, I entered the gates ready to observe the people rather than the tacky sites.  I wandered in and out of the kitschy sculpture gardens, which of course were being used as posing sites and overly photographed.  The setting, the valley, the forested land, the water, et al., was quite beautiful.  Even better, was that I quickly learned that I was considered one of the sites to be seen, given that I was the only foreigner on the grounds that day.  Photos of me were being snapped as readily as my camera snapped back.  It was a fun exchange of foreign beauty.  During my wandering I came across an open field occupied by a huge group of Vietnamese teens standing an even bigger circle playing an organized game.  Seeing other kids walking up and joining in on the fun, I decided I should as well.  I was welcomed by the young teens, who I learned were a “Ride for the Environment” group playing a follow-the-leader type game, which proved to very difficult and equally as hilarious for me, the white girl just trying to keep up.

From here I hopped back on the bike with Mr. Hung and we were off to the countryside.  We stopped to see the farmlands, to see the growing cabbage, and strawberries organized in the landscape by each individual terrace.  I climbed a little of Lianbiang Mountain to admire the view a little further, inspected the handwork of the Dutchman’s greenhouses harbouring Gerber daisies and roses, chewed on coffee bean cherries, sat silently in the pagodas, drank still-warm rice wine, slurped fresh passion fruit, and watched the clouds fly by above the chili fields.

 

Đà Lạt is located at 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level on the Langbiang Plateau in the southern parts of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.  It is an area of Vietnam where the Vietnamese people went to hide during the American war.  Once here in the area and once the war had ended, many families settled in this fruitful land.  Mr. Hung was a wealth of knowledge and all around awesome guy to spend my day with.  When finished, he dropped me at the airport and continued on his way.

I waited 4 hours for a flight that never came.  During the time I sat and waited for the invisible flight a typically horrendous storm rolled into Đà Lạt, canceling my return flight to Saigon.  Without anything else to do and only after 2 hours of much Vietnamese hostility from the other frequent flyers scheduled to depart, I returned to town (35 minutes from the airport) with a few other disgruntled passengers, checked back into my hotel and canceled what I had planned for my Monday morning.  The next morning after the best-breakfast-ever #2 I jumped in the taxi headed back to the airport, only to learn midway that this next flight too was delayed… okay, I’m gonna spare you the delaying details.  In the end I didn’t get on a plane until 5:30pm (24 hrs after the scheduled time) for a return flight that was only 30 mins in length.  But during this time I had a chance to drink avocado smoothie #3, read more of my inspiring tale, and see the most phenomenal sky from the airplane window I have ever seen.

An excerpt: “They had chosen, at dawn, to wonder at self’s uniqueness, and happiness followed.  They had chosen joy at self’s existence, and freedom followed.  The had chose love of self’s regenerativeness, and prosperity followed; the necessity of self’s presence, and stillness followed; the certainty of self’s growth, and power followed.  They had chosen the beauty of self’s death, and awareness followed; the sense of self’s continuance, and peace followed.”   In Arcadia by Ben Okri

I’m moving home.  It’s been decided.  And I’m finding peace with it all.  But did I mention, I love this country.  I’m going to miss you, Vietnam.

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