Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Goodbye Cambodia, Goodmorning, Vietnam!

Since the last time I blogged, I have improved immensely. We rested for a few days in the town of Battambang where I spent most of my time in bed filling up on antibiotics and salt water. I have a few more countries that I will be visiting that pose high risks of getting sick….I hope to be better prepared next time around.

After the recovery, we decided to head south and spend our last week of Cambodia on the beach. On our way there, we stopped in a small town close to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia. There are numerous “floating villages” along this lake and we wanted to visit one of them. We researched and found a village called Kompong Luang. I am really glad we chose this village because we were the only foreigners there that day. We paid a local to take us around in his wooden boat through the village to see how the everyday life was. It was such an interesting sight to see….1000s of people literally live in these huts that float. There are gas stations, restaurants, cell phone stores, farm animals, electronic stores, and churches floating together. People either hop from one hut to the next or take long wooden boats to their destination. Locals cruise around all day in boats selling produce or meat. There were kids swimming with fish nets trying to catch food for their family to sell. It was a Vietnamese village (probably refugees from the war) and everyone was extremely friendly to us. We felt like celebrities because everywhere we went kids just ran to the porches to wave and practice their English. I couldn’t help but smile as we went past huts where the elder women grinned at us with teeth filled with gold or no teeth at all. To me, it seemed like life would be so much more difficult to live like this on the water, but for them….it was all that they knew. Their livelihood was based around this lake…it is where they caught their food, and the water source for growing their produce and feeding their animals. During the changes of the rainy and dry seasons, they will take apart their homes and move them to rebuild where the lake level will remain for that season. Throughout the tour, I couldn’t help but notice how the huts were so open and there didn’t seem to be any privacy. We were able to peer into everyone’s homes as we passed by on the boat. I don’t remember seeing any mattresses for beds, only hammocks with people snoozing in them. Of course, my perverted and inquisitive mind couldn’t help but wonder the most obvious question of all – Where in the heck do these people have sex? Clearly they procreate as I saw kids of all ages EVERYWHERE, but I just couldn’t figure out where and when these people would “do it”. Yes I know, I am traveling the world and exploring other cultures and these are the types of things that I actually think about. Perhaps it is not something so private like our society keeps it. Maybe the old man yells “Hey honey, why don’t you hop onto this hammock and give me some loving before the kids come back from fishing…don’t mind the boats passing by!” Who knows how they do it…

After the floating village we hopped back on our tuk-tuk and headed back to our guesthouse. It was about an hour ride to where we needed to go. I was having one of my moments where I pondered, with my face in the breeze and thinking about the amazing village and cultural experience I had just witnessed. I was feeling healthy and back in my travel mode again. Then I saw a large group of people up ahead on the road. As we got closer we realized there had been a car accident. An SUV had flipped and a motorbike was in pieces. There were 2 foreign women banged up (it looked like a mother and daughter) and then a local girl on the ground surrounded by blood. Someone was holding a cloth to her face and she appeared to be going in and out of consciousness. I immediately jumped out to see if I could help in any way…not sure what I was going to do exactly. I ran to the foreigners and asked if they were ok, the daughter (who appeared to be around 15) just glanced at me and didn’t say anything. The older woman was now helping the seriously injured local girl. Turns out the motorbike tried to pass the SUV, but somehow they ended up colliding. Most people in the countryside of Cambodia do not follow the helmet law, and unfortunately in this case it didn’t seem like the girl was wearing one. Once I realized that I would not be able to help and was probably causing more harm than good, I began to get really lightheaded and sick to my stomach. All of the blood everywhere and the site of the injured girl being carried into someone’s car really freaked me out. I got back in the tuk-tuk and spent the next 30 minutes holding back all the fears that were coming out. It was a moment where I realized that some crazy shit could happen while traveling. What were the foreigners going to do about the accident? Was the girl going to live? If she lived, her face was certainly going to be scarred for the rest of her life. All these thoughts were racing through my head and I wanted to see my family and loved ones and be “safe” from all of these potential disasters. It is so crazy how I was having a total “high” from the floating village and then moments later I was bottoming out to fear and depression. I seriously think I am turning into a bipolar maniac on this trip, my emotions seem to be one extreme to the other. By the time we had returned to our guesthouse, I had talked myself through the stages of how anything could happen anywhere, even in my own hometown. I simply cannot think about the “What ifs” and just live in the moment. Bad shit just happens sometimes. And if something does happen….I will deal with it at that time.

The next day we arrived to the coast. We were pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the water and beaches were. Everyone raves about the beaches in Thailand, but I was excited by what Cambodia had to offer. I was so ready to lie on the beach, wade in the warm water, and catch up on reading and journal writing. When we got to the beach we set out our towels and then noticed kids from all directions running towards us. Little did we know, the beaches were swarming with kids ages 10-18 who made a business of haggling the tourists for every cent they had. At first we told them “no thanks”, but they didn’t budge. Instead of trying to sell you things, they decided to befriend you. They would lie next to you and ask questions about where you were from, if you had a boyfriend and what your city was like. We were surrounded by about 7 girls who got real comfortable around us. They spoke very good English and I soon realized that these were pretty damn smart street kids…I held my belongings tight. I hadn’t shaved my legs in a few days and they noticed that. The girls whipped out some string and offered to “thread” my legs. Threading is a type of hair removal where they rub string on your skin and it pulls out the hair from the follicle. I used to get m eyebrows threaded in USA so was excited when they said they could thread my legs for $10. When I said yes, I didn’t realize that I had sold my soul to the devil and became these beach kids next “victim”. Laura and I spent hours chatting with these girls about their daily lives. Once you got to know them you felt like helping them out, so you started buying friendship bracelets and headbands and fruit from them. Once you bought something from one girl, the other girls made you feel bad so you had to buy something from them too. After spending almost $30 I finally told them that it was ENOUGH and I had no more money. I had gone way over my daily budget. We made them promise that the next day they would leave us alone and let us relax. The following day we got to the beach and all the girls ran up to us and gave us big hugs. We made some short talk with them and headed to our chairs. A few girls asked us if we wanted pedicures or to buy fruit, but for the most part they were not as aggressive. However, a different gang of girls started hassling us because they knew of all the business we gave the other girls the day before. I was a bit more authoritative and did not budge into any sale. The girls pouted and walked away. The new mob of girls started playing cards with the first group of girls. They were behind us and taking bets on each other. One girl from the new group lost a bet in the card game but didn’t want to pay up. Just as I was getting into relaxation mode I heard a bunch of girls yelling and a lot of commotion. I turned around to see that 2 girls were on the verge of fighting only about 10 feet from my chair. The commotion continued for another 5 minutes and all the locals working the beaches came around to see what was going on. Finally one of the girls snapped and charged the other girl and next thing I knew, we were witnessing a chick brawl between the two gangs of beach girls. They were pulling hair, smashing each other’s faces in the sand and swinging limbs at one another. Some of the adults were trying to pull them off each other but the fighting continued. A few guys jumped in and toned down the fight and then a police officer showed up. One of the girls was taken away from the scene and the fighting dissolved. Within seconds, all of the girls pulled their hair back again and shook off the sand, grabbed their jewelry or food trays and headed back to haggle the tourists. I was like…OOOOKKKKAAAAYYYY! Note to self: Do not bet on a card game against a gang of Cambodian beach girls. So much for relaxing! The following day we decided to pay $15 for a boat to take us to an island nearby where there would be no loitering around. It was exactly what we were looking for…..We FINALLY got our tranquil day on the beach.

Our visa was up in Cambodia and we headed to Phnom Penh to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had met a British guy named Dave when we were first in Phnom Penh and he happened to be heading to Vietnam as well. We all got tickets on the same bus and headed to the border.

I always get butterflies and excited when I am heading to another country. What sort of adventure lies ahead for me in this new place??? We were the only three foreigners on the bus to the border and the precious cabin boy was so sweet to us. He would go on and on in Khmer explaining the instructions of the border crossing to the locals. Then he would take a heaping breath and try his hardest to re-explain them in English. “Hello ladies gentlemen. We have at border I need passport. I take passport but you get back. Please do card with pen. I need passport but you get back. Thank you and good luck in your life”. He was such a sweet guy and went out of his way to make sure we were all ok. He would send us to the front of the immigration lines and constantly smile and tell us good luck. When we arrived to the border a Vietnamese man boarded the bus with a face mask and an ear thermometer. Apparently we missed the memo, because as I looked around I realized that nearly everyone on the bus was also wearing face masks. All 3 of us were seated in the last row and hadn’t noticed it before. I hadn’t paid much attention to the latest on the swine flu, but I figured that was why he was taking everyone’s temperature. He went to each person and stuck the thermometer in their ear. Then he wiped it off with this small cotton swab. He used to same swab each time as if it was actually cleaning off the germs. Since we were the last row, you can imagine how excited we were when he approached us. As he stuck it in my ear I felt the greasy thermometer go against my dirty waxy ear. Fortunately, I did not have a temperature, but lord knows what type of bacteria is chilling in my ear right now from the 100s of people that he previously tested that day at the border.

Good morning, Vietnam….actually Good afternoon. We made it! When we got off the bus in Ho Chi Ming City aka Saigon (its name before the war), we were approached by locals trying to sell us a rooms in their guesthouse. We followed this one man and he took us down a main road then slipped down an alley. We were meandering through these small narrow alleys witnessing locals hanging outside of their homes. They were playing chess, cooking up food, gossiping, kicking footballs, and playing racquetball. It was so narrow that people were running into each other. Motorbikes and bicycles were trying to get buy the chaotic scene. Laundry and potted plants were hanging from the windows and small children were running around laughing and teasing each other. I smiled the whole way to our guesthouse….I immediately felt a good vibe from the city. The guesthouses in this area are all family owned. Usually their home is the bottom and second floor and then they have rooms on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors. When you enter the homes you need to take off your shoes. Our particular guesthouse is a family with a new born baby. I am actually not sure who lives there as there are always new people in the living room. They always say hello and the kids practice their greetings in English. The head lady is physically challenged and has deformities with her arms. I think it is some sort of dwarf syndrome. Her sister or another relative has lazy eyes and can’t look at you straight. The newborn baby has an oblong head. They are all very nice and hospitable. I am happy to be staying in their home.

Our first day, Laura and I decided to do a walking tour of the city. The big city was a bit overwhelming at first. As we walked down the street there were 100s of buzzing motorbikes flying by and mobs of people walking everywhere. The city felt like this pulsating energized body. The streets and sidewalks were the life support of the veins. We slowly maneuvered our way onto the sidewalk and joined into the flow of the bloodstream. If you wanted to cross the street, you had to keep moving without hesitation or else you may cause an accident. From the outside it seems like mayhem but once you joined into the flow, all of the hustle and bustle seemed to mesh together successfully.

We headed to the War Remnants Museum which is known for its graphic display of photos from the “American War”. It was the first time that I had heard that term for the war. Growing up I studied about the “Vietnam War”, but they do not call it that on this side of the world. Once again, I was horrified by the photos and information that I read about. It is one thing to read something out of a textbook in school and another to re-live the moments in the country that it took place in. The museum was very one-sided and I pretty much felt like an American jackass as I walked through the exhibits. The most staggering part of the museum was the information about the Agent Orange chemical that the US dropped everywhere. Still today there are people being born with horrendous side effects from the toxins. I wondered if the people that ran my guesthouse were deformed because of the chemicals of the war.

Thanks to the Bill Clinton administration, our relations with Vietnam are doing better. The US Embassy re-opened in 1996 and Vietnam has since joined the World Trade Organization. I am looking forward to learning more about the culture and history through the next 3 weeks.

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