Saturday, August 10, 2013

The travel bug is asleep

After nearly 3 weeks backpacking again through Europe, I can say the travel bug is fast asleep.  Travel is becoming a listless series of tasks as I move from city to city, sitting on trains and making 24 hour friends.   It isn't just the travel but living away from home for the past 2.5 years that's worn the edges down a bit.  Some people can do it long term but right now I need to feel a bit grounded again and Houston is the most logical place for me to be close to everything that's important to me.  So I'm cancelling my Trans Siberian ticket and heading home in the next week or two.

The wanderlust I'm sure will peek it's head out again in the future, but for now all I want is some routine and a place to come home to.  Travel definitely teaches you skills and knowledge you wouldn't have the interest in acquiring from home necessarily, but the curiosity of reading will incite my desires to see a place again later.

Monday, July 22, 2013

America the Beautiful

On top of Half Dome in Yosemite
Nearly 6 weeks and 7,000 miles of driving on the roads of the American west, I’m grateful to have made it back in one piece with only small hiccups to deal with.  The west was absorbing enough that it was difficult to make any conscious time to blog or write anything down.  I was lukewarm to even write this post, but I should put some things to the screen because travel proved again that biases, even against your own country, can be crushed just by putting yourself out there. 

Apart from travelling from Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon with some backpackers and having a friend in LA join me for the drive up the coast to San Francisco, the trip was done on my own with a lot of time to myself, which I still prefer for the flexibility and opportunity for meeting new strangers. The solitude at times got to me, but they were also the most memorable.  

What struck me most aside from the great scenery of the west were the people I came across.  In Salt Lake City I shared a meal with Shawn, a 40 year old man who spilled his guts about his rocky relationship with his son and ex-wives, his numerous arrests for drug use and his experiences as a homeless man in Utah after hitting rock bottom.  For a short moment, we celebrated the fact that he scored an apartment in SLC and was crawling his way back to what was a normal life.  He was hopeful, but I sensed hesitation on his part that he would make another preventable mistake and alienate more people from  his life. The people of America may be some of the most interesting in the world, for the range of opportunity, diversity and consequently, experiences people have.   Living abroad the past few years I created so many biases against Americans as small minded, religious people who refused to travel and consumed to find false security.  Some of this holds water, but I realized that was unfair and ignorant of me to come to such a conclusion.  America has more to see than a lifetime could contain, so I understand why people don’t have passports.

It dawned on me that the reason I traveled so much whilst living in Australia was to escape my life there.  I had a job I enjoyed paying me a 150k salary, beaches nearby, exotic vacations and everything on paper that seemed right, but I was missing my family and those friends I would be willing to stand in front of a train for.   
So here I am in Houston hours before my next flight to Holland to start another journey across the world to traverse 10 countries over the next few months, but the level of excitement is low because I don’t feel the need to escape my life here anymore.   My relationship with my family is solid and the handful of friends I love are here or very close by.   If anything, I have a sense of guilt that I’m leaving selfishly while my sister is on the last leg of recovering from cancer and my dad is in a hospital for his advanced Parkinson’s.  

Dare I say the travel bug is fast asleep inside of me now?  I’ll see when I land in Europe tomorrow. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Food, Shelter, iPhone

We’ve become too accustomed to having our smart phones with us every minute of the day that the necessities these days appear to be food, shelter and an iPhone, iPad or other smart device.  It’s the generation of the me and I, fed by products which encourage self-portraits and other narcissistic pursuits which inflate our sense of self importance. We can’t disconnect and make real quality time for people or immovable objects like natural scenery.  Once we get an interruption, it disrupts our day to day interactions with human beings.  We’ve lost the ability to read maps or practice our penmanship by relying on Google maps and typing everything into a digital device rather than writing things down.  Kids these days who have known Facebook and iProducts since puberty are becoming socially retarded. What the fuck is happening to us all?! 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

America the Hedonist

The past 3 weeks have passed idly in Houston, the first week being an odd adjustment with regards to jet lag and re-acclimatizing to the culture I was raised in.  Big cars, big meals, strip malls, meager public transport were all tell-tale signs I was back in America (specifically Texas).  It was a reverse culture shock of sorts after being abroad for 15 months where things seem to be done more efficiently.  Americans overdo things and are highly inefficient, while being very impatient, a terrible combination bolstering a NOW culture of instant gratification.  We can’t seem to cope with slow internet, normal calorie sized meals, traffic or queues at the DPS, but we tolerate huge portions, driving solo in V8 trucks and a lifestyle of buying unnecessary things.  A product which was revered just a few years ago as an innovation in communication (iPhone 3 for example) is now scorned by those same people as an inferior product which leads to inefficiency, time lags and a flaccid cool factor.  Get real people.     

America doesn’t foster an environment of learning and curiosity anymore, but rather buying, consuming and opposition to something (anything).  Our independence and our status as the most capitalistic, quasi democratic country make us feel entitled to complain about anything as long as its something.  We need to be satisfied in all facets of our lives and any source of disappointment should be spoken out against rather than simply rolling with the punches and realizing everything can’t be tailored to our specific needs.   We’re a country of 312 million people who are all in a hurry looking for our niche comfort zone and products.   Someone inept is to blame for anything that slows us down or fails to satisfy us. 

What we praise as American culture these days is nothing worthy of boastfulness.  Overconsumption of food, drink, media, religion, sports, technology, celebrity gossip?  I've been smacked in the face by this upon returning and it doesn't appear to be letting up.  We no longer give merit to literary achievements, scientific breakthroughs, or humanitarian efforts. Diversification by way of immigration is a bane and something we should be afraid of lest we lose our jobs and become insolvent to pay off our multiple televisions and cars.  

We try to make up for these shortcomings of inefficiency by recycling or driving an efficient vehicle, for example, because we know how wasteful we are relative to the rest of the world, but who are we fooling?
But fuck it, who am I to speak?  I'll be driving 10,000+ miles over the next 2 months driving around the US indulging in my self made independence as well...  but it doesn't necessarily feel right.  Hedonism at its best. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Burmese Days

George Orwell is one of my favorite writers so I was pleased to find out he spent 5 years posted in Burma in the 1920's serving for the British police before his writing career and used it as the premise of his very first novel, Burmese Days.  The novel paints a very grim picture of the landscape in Burma in addition to the racial tension present between the British with the locals.  Orwell was first posted in Maymo (now known as Pyin Oo Lwin), which I just arrived to a few hours ago by an overnight bus from Bagan and a 4 am train through the mountains from Mandalay.  After dealing with 110 degree heat for the past week, I intend to stay here for 3 days to cool off and look around the town Orwell was posted in.  Orwell's subsequent novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four have been likened to the recent status of turmoil in Myanmar under the government totalitarian regime and some people here call him "the prophet" for his ability to tell the future. 

From the week I've spent here, I feel like I've stepped into a time warp to observe men wearing traditional longyis / chewing betel nuts and women walking around smeared with thanaka, a golden tree root bark, all over their faces.  These practices have been ongoing for 2,000 years and Myanmar appears not to be affected by Westernized "fashion" trends due to its isolation from the outside world. 

Buddhism is still highly practiced (pagodas dot the landscape everywhere) and the interaction between men and women is still very conservative, where the simple act of shaking a woman's hand is off-putting.  The people are still dumbfounded in certain areas I've crossed to see foreigners like me and they've welcomed me with open arms and random Burmese children have asked to take photos with me.  They've a smiling and very spirited bunch of people. 

It's hard to believe the human rights record Burma is notorious for since its independence from Britain in 1948.  In 1962, a man named Ne Win overtook the country by a coup d'etat and the country has since been under totalitarian, military rule since.  He nationalized private industries and turned Burma into one of the most impoverished Asian countries. The military government has been known to stifle the Burmese, mainly minority groups, by hoarding resources such as rice, and inducing fear by spying on them, making them perform forced labour and imprisoning outspoken critics of those who speak out for democracy.  Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was placed under house arrest for 15 years after becoming an icon for democracy during the 1988 uprising, and was finally released in 2011.  Since the infamous day of August 8, 1988, when students protested against the government and thousands of children / monks / students were slaughtered, the military government has effectively tried to re-write history and went so far as renaming the country to Myanmar, renaming the capital, re-locating the capital, renaming other cities and changing the flag.  The education system is poor, with only 4% of the GDP allocated to education while over 50% goes to funding the military, which has no known enemies other than its own political dissidents.  This has effectively implanted a fear in the Burmese to think for themselves and landed in a place of learned helplessness where they've accepted their fate and are helpless. 

What I don't observe here, however, is a strong nationalism amongst the people in favor of the military government like typical brain-washed countries where totalitarianism thrives (North Korea), which will be the downfall of the current regime.  The people seem to know they're in dire straights and quietly revere Aung San Suu Kyi as a symbol of hope in democracy, which is imminent by the way things have turned around the past 2 years.  Since the Burmese are unable to speak out without consequences such as imprisonment, the only real aid can come from foreign government intervention, which luckily has been successful and is highly warranted in Burma's case.  This is one of the exceptions where I think foreign intervention is necessary in favor of democracy to depose totalitarian rule.

Myanmar is unlike most of its counterparts in Southeast Asia.  They're resource rich (precious stones, oil, gas, fertile soil) and border India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos and China with a large sea coast, providing a perfect opportunity to be a key Asian hub.  Before World War II, Burma had the infrastructure and was earmarked to become one of the most prosperous Asian economies, but the infrastructure was destroyed by the British for fear of the Japanese utilizing it to their advantage and the country hasn't had the opportunity to recover and rebuild since.  As a result, they're one of the poorest countries in Asia with wages lower than Cambodia, which has nothing in comparison to resources.

It's easy as a tourist to come here for the exotic appeal factor and tread along the safe route and take away memories of smiling people, pagodas and deeply rooted traditions.  The government has their finger in everything, however.  The hotels I've stayed in which are clearly government owned have required all of my details and I've received numerous questions about my intentions in Myanmar, why I'm visiting, what my job is and what my address / email address are. 

The people here have blown me away by their friendliness, trust and forthcoming hospitality to welcome tourists like me.  They appear to have a genuine interest in what life is like abroad, but on the same token are content with what they have because they've suffered so much and have stopped having expectations. They adore Korea and what the country stands for - progress for an Asian country. I wish the best for the Burmese people so long as its not another episode of British rule.  My hunch is the country with make a positive turnaround over the next 20 years with the aid of countries like Australia, America, South Korea etc..

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Understanding Vietnam

Visitors to Vietnam have given me mixed reviews of their experiences from pure hatred by famous travel bloggers such as Matt Kepnes to adoration.  (I lean towards the latter).  Despite all personal experiences, the generalization of North and South being very different holds some water from the short time I've spent here.  My thoughts are the ones who hate Vietnam do so because of their Westernized expectations from the locals.  They feel that by paying money to visit as a tourist, they are entitled to fair treatment by not getting ripped off and being treated nicely.  They compare Vietnam to Thailand, for example.

This is unfair.  Vietnam, firstly, is communist, albeit a conservative communism.  The people have also experienced a lot by way of domination by the Chinese, French and the United States. Visitors also have to remember Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist and believe in karma.  To be fair, the USA pillaged, raped and bombed the country for 10 years without very clear objectives other than victory as the Presidency shifted to LBJ and Nixon.  This may have led the Vietnamese to feel they have no obligation to cater to tourists due to previous unfair treatment.  Additionally, the communist mindset doesn't necessarily provide them with the perspective of a capitalism where tourism is an industry to be fed.  Rather, it is an opportunistic way to supplement their simple lifestyles.

Hanoi is lined with areas dedicated by zones to appliances, art, books, tires and the like,  For a niche product, it seems you have to go to a very specific area and choose among numerous shops selling the same products at the same price, going against the capitalistic mindset of fierce competition.  Rather, it leans towards socialism.  The Vietnamese seem quite content to set prices and leave everyone to benefit equally.  The nationalism is obvious, so foreigners are a means to gain a personal advantage, and frankly we should be okay with that given their roots in communism.  Accepting that has allow my experience in Vietnam to be much more bearable than if I had come here with a democratic hat, expecting equal treatment as the locals.

By misunderstanding this, a Westerner's experience can be a horrid one.  The US in the war failed to prevail despite having superior weaponry, money and military support because the Vietnamese were so strongly nationalistic and united to defy our understanding while we were protesting and forgetting why we even entered the war.

Communism by repression, oppression, aggression and censorship limits freedom and usually fails to remain sustainable (i.e. the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, former Soviet Union, East Germany), although North Korea still stands.  This extremism isn't obvious here.  Communism is usually written off too quickly by the West because we think of the oppressive examples, but Vietnam appears to have achieved a healthy balance.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sex Industry in Vietnam

The backpacker district of Pham Ngo Lao in Saigon is filled with women trying to coax men into their massage parlors, not dissimilar to Thailand.  My experience in Thailand, however, was that the women were still well-trained in massages and if the topic of sexual favors in exchange for money was never brought up, you walked out with some knots rolled out at a bargain price.

Seeing the obvious sex tourism here in Pham Ngo Lao, I asked a local to take me away from the backpacker district for a proper "no sexy"massage.  Walking in, I paid $15 (higher than Thailand), and naively proceeded upstairs.  The masseuse proceeded to lightly massage me when she grabbed my attention and demanded money to massage "my baby." I said no, to which she began to become anxious and upset that she wouldn't have a short session with a cash bonus to walk away from.  After expressing my disappointment and refusal to tip for a service I was declining, she began to beg and say she was hungry and received no salary from the parlor.  Whether the latter fact is true is questionable, but if it is, it shows the obvious demand for sex the tourism industry brings here.

The women have transactions which earns them $10-$20 quickly without a demand for a salary because stepping in is the entrance fee paid by a patron, so the parlor is satisfied.  This way she can get high turnover.  Unfortunately, I made her work for it and it was obvious how untrained she was in giving any semblance of a real massage.

My hubris led me again to a different massage parlor where I explicitly stated I wanted a foot massage.  Same story.  Only after turning her down did she actually try to give a real massage, although she tried numerous times to coax me again.

Can sex have economics?  Clearly so.  There must be a study out there that analyzes this stuff, but it's obvious how many tourists come here to have a meal, drink some cheap beer and get jerked off.