Sunday, October 04, 2015

Preview of Little You in the Global World - My New Pet Project

My new project is actually a compilation of stories, not just from me,  but from others that traveled through UH Hilo's study abroad program and some of the not so glamorous aspects of traveling like culture shock.  I'm going to apologize ahead of time if I offend anyone but I'm writing from my naive 21 years old perspective and I'd like to think that I've definitely matured a lot since then...maybe not by much.  I swear a bit in this one - then again, I do in most my posts but you've been warned.  The whole point of writing this is to make our readers aware of what they could expect when traveling to a new, unfamiliar location.  Since this is my first draft, don't expect to see it exactly as is once it's printed.  I'll also be adding photos to this blog just to make it less boring to look at because the book will mainly contain text.

"What I Know Now"

I grew up in a large city until the age of 12 before I moved to Hilo where I reside till this very day.  I had never been anywhere on my own and when I finally got tired of only looking at people’s pictures as they traveled, and listened to their stories while abroad, I knew I had to assuage my curiosity.

I bought a cheap flight after more than a year of saving to go to Thailand and planned for my trip to get to my dream destination, Angkor Wat.  What all those travel blogs and guide books don’t tell you when you’re planning a trip on a shoestring and with no help is that it’s extremely hard and time consuming your first time doing this!  Here I was researching everything I could about safety for women backpacking alone and what to expect culturally and financially.  It was a lot of work but I stumbled upon a few great sites that gave me pointers that I use even today.  I sorta-kinda winged the majority of my scheduling, hoping my timing would work out. 

Luckily, it did.

Yes, it was a stressful way to travel, but I’m also okay with that sort of stress because I wanted the flexibility to stay longer at certain places if I needed to.  It also taught me a lesson on planning in general.  I had to plan out my budget for each day, my trips to the next town and other details to get the best out of my short stay.  Every day, when the sun went down after exploring, I hunkered down in my room - I was paranoid after watching movies like ‘Hostel’ - to plan out my trip for the following day.  While I’m out and about sightseeing, I would find a small local travel agency to ask recommendation for the next big town and also book the next shuttle down for the next day.  That was my cycle for about three weeks.  I had to make sure I made it on time to my shuttle and not get lost wandering - as I did in Trang looking at the White Temple and ALMOST missed my shuttle - but I found out by accident that they have something similar to Hawaiian time and I’m ever so grateful that translates to other tropical areas.

It turns out, South East Asia (S.E.A) is pretty safe but a lot of my learning happened while on my trip.  When I first arrived in Bangkok, Thailand.  I knew it was a huge city and I would be overwhelmed but getting out of the airport and finding a cabby that spoke enough English to understand me was something I didn’t expect.  There was this safety notion in my head that everyone spoke or learned English at one point or another in these countries. When I had a hard time finding someone that would understand me saying “Yaowarat”, the name of their Chinatown in their language, I started to get scared.  I went to the hotel I looked up on Lonely Planet - that's what it felt like! - and showed up with no reservations and so Lo and Behold! - no vacancy.

I caught another cab and decided to go to a train station to make my way down south towards Malaysia for a rendezvous with my host through Couch Surfing (CS).  In that cab ride, I broke down and cried because I really felt like I had bitten more than I could chew and what was I going to do?!  

Well, long story short, I found a travel agency that was open late, made reservations for a flight to Phuket and a hotel for a cheap - or at least what I considered cheap - rate and felt better about it in the morning.  Yeah, I felt a bit defeated after a rough start but once I had my day planned and my next destination booked, I knew I would be okay.

Another thing I'd like to point out that travel shows will not tell you about is how exhausting it is to go from town to town, city to city everyday!  I was ‘gogogo’ mode from the time I landed in BKK until I reached Malaysia and I was on a tight schedule because I made arrangement for with my CS host to be at a certain place by a certain time.  It was also my first time really using CS outside of my host country so I wanted to be sure everything worked out perfectly.  My itinerary was BKK→ Phuket → Krabi → Trang → Hat Yai → Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KL).  I essentially need to get to KL in 6 days and so I hopped in a shared van and traveled all the way down to Malaysia that way to.  I was really bad about reading up on news in general back then and apparently when I was there, southern Thailand had just had a huge coup de tat due to conflict between a Muslim group against the local government.  I had just missed a huge bombing in Pattani and it was a huge selling point for me to take the Hat Yai route down to KL via bus.  Moral of this segment of travel: make sure to know what is going on in the news and the political climate of the area you are visiting.

There were a few points during my month travel that I felt overwhelmed just as I did on my first day arriving to BKK.  I remember after being in KL for a few days of exploring, I took the wrong bus to a very politically enthusiastic part of the city and I was just shocked by the propaganda all over the place.  You know when you watch presidential election and speeches and you see banners everywhere in that stadium, banners and flags waving all over the walls.  Imagine that stadium was hit by a typhoon and blew everything up all over a town, covering it with a parties colors and a person's image. It felt almost suffocating and oppressive in a manner.  I don’t think I’ve felt so uncomfortable by a communities...fervor for a certain party as I did in that bus.  Luckily, the bus driver noticed I hadn’t gotten off - how could he not? I was the only one on it at that point! - and kindly directed me to the right bus stop. He was kind enough to make sure I was in the right place and advised me what bus to take. As odd as it sounds, I was a bit shaken by that experience for some reason and I still don’t know if it’s because of conditioning or a prejudice of what I see in the media about fervent political ideologies or the combined feeling of being lost and surrounded by something so foreign.

By the time I got to Cambodia, I was a bit hardened and felt like a seasoned traveler - though I was far from it - but I still managed to get swindled!  When I landed in Phnom Penh, I was extremely exhausted from all the traveling.  I just wanted a driver that spoke English and would take me to a hotel.  I asked this persistent motor bike driver if he speaks English - mistake #1 - and asked him can he take me to a hotel - mistake #2 - which he readily replied, "Yesyesyes" to.  Previous drivers were honest and turned me away so I was probably too hopeful that this guy would be honest and do the same.  This guy started to rattle on nonsense about where he was taking me and I kept on reiterating I just wanted to go straight to a hotel and rest.  

Well, he started to take me to some random shack that was in the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere, didn’t explain why he needed to stop there and I was almost afraid that that was the hotel that he was suggesting. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from Cambodia and if he had said it was my hotel, I was so tired at that point that I probably would have taken his word for it. Thankfully it wasn’t but he then took me to the Killing Fields - very eerie place, a shooting range, and a market before stopping at a decent hotel.  He had quoted me $15 when I first talked to him and at the end, his quote turned into $50! WTFF?!  I was fuming and told him off because I only wanted a hotel and I gave him $25 because he failed both of my interview questions on whether he knew English and can he take me straight to a mother fuckin' hotel?! (rant over)

When confronted with Angkor Wat, you are awed by the beauty, scale, and history of these temples but something that no one likes to mention is the destitute poverty the Khmer people live with.  Their lean-to tents and homes against the ancient site was an eye opener for me and then the panhandling from the children was more than I can handle - especially for a sucker like me.  In a way, I’m grateful for the brief trip to the Killing Fields because I was schooled on the despotic rampage that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge inflicted upon the Khmer people - check it out if you don't know but it's pretty fucked up.  They are still trying to rebuild from those four years of his premiership that lead to the death of 25% of Cambodia’s population due to executions, lack of food and medical attention, harsh working conditions and political uprisings.  These children out here accosting vulnerable tourist like me, selling and begging were also missing parts of their childhood because they had the obligation to make money for their family. I don't know about you, but it was opening since my childhood was filled with school and playing and enjoying first world amenities. But not these kids.  They had to work at a young age and yes, I did break down and buy stuff from them - many guides will tell you, DON'T DO IT! you'll just perpetuate a messed up systems but you try and look at these kids and say, "no". Despite my bleeding heart, after a while, I become desensitized to their haranguing .

My senses were on overdrive over in these countries and you don’t realize how you’re used to certain sights and smells until you go to somewhere completely different.  Sure, guide books will warn you about really spicy hot food in Southeast Asia but will they tell you about the tent in the middle of an open market where it smells like old and drying blood remnants from when they butchered the meat earlier in the morning? No, they won't!  I remember staying at a motel in Ho Chi Minh City and sitting on the couch resting when the owner of the motel comes out with a duck and held it by the body and proceeded to hit its head against the floor because it was dinner.  I was shocked to say the least but I just watched in quiet horror because I knew that was how they did things over there.  They didn't have regulations like we do in US about fair treatment of animals as well as humane deaths.  She sees it as food and a means to an end and she only knew one way to kill it.  She then proceeded to take the dying or dead duck and scared the poor dog watching her by shoving the limp duck in its face before it ran off. Yeah, I was shocked to say the least but I wasn't going make a huge production of it and I schooled my expression to make sure my shock wasn't completely evident - I'm sure my eyes were all bugged out though. I almost wonder if the old woman had a sadistic side to her and wanted to see if the shock value of her killing the duck would affect me. I almost thought she was waiting for some kind of reaction from me. Oh, well. I guess I disappointed her but I wasn't going to be her entertainment at the expense of that poor duck - now I do sound like a privileged '1st Worlder' (not a word but I don't care! I'll just coin it!).

I caught a bus on my way back from Viet Nam to Thailand and we made a stop through Cambodiato get there.  The bus stop had a stall of bugs - and mind you I'm not that picky of an eater - I am more than willing to try a few different bugs but not a whole cart of roaches the size of my palm!  I draw the line at roaches and really squishy bugs unless they are cooked but I still won’t try a roasted roach.  Traumatized by them as a kid.

My travels abroad was one of the most exciting, scary and hands-on educational learning experience I’ve ever had in my whole life.  I’ve traveled to places with family but unless you are on your own and have to rely on your own instincts. I, personally, don’t think you’ve really traveled unless you’ve had that bit of fear and a bit of triumph over your own prejudices and overcoming these challenges.