Monday, July 30, 2012

One Year Anniversary

So just recently the one year benchmark has elapsed.  It is crazy to think that I have been living in Asia for a year now, and even crazier to even try and think about how long I may live over here.  All I can say is that I have been truly blessed by this experience and am continuing to try and live it to the fullest.  Just in this one year I have visited 7 new countries (counting Hong Kong separately from China.  Different flags+different currency+different government= different country in Bradley's expert opinion) and experienced countless new cultural experiences.  I am excited to see what year two brings.

Friday, July 13, 2012


So way back to when I first accepted the job here in Singapore, my parents have been planning to come see me this summer.  However, our deal was that I wanted to spend my summer traveling other places and not stuck hosting people in Singapore the whole time, so let's pick a secondary location to meet at.  My parents chose Beijing, China and that suited me just fine.

It was really great to get to see my parents.  Even though I Skype with them fairly regularly, it is not the same as getting to see them, hug them, and spend time with them, so it was a real treat.  As for Beijing, it was really nice getting to see the historical sites like the Summer's Palace, where the emperor would spend his summers to evade the summer heat.  Its grandeur and beauty were impressive as it looked out over a giant lake.  Another highlight from the trip happened randomly while we were just standing in Tianamen Square.  Tianamen Square gained international notoriety after the protests in 1989 (you may have seen the photo of the man standing in front of the tanks). To this day, Tianamen Square remains a popular site for protesters against the Chinese government.  For this reason there are police and military officials EVERYWHERE!  Well our story picks up while we standing in the square, just across from the Forbidden City, when all of a sudden this woman in a wheel chair opens her book bag and all these papers just go flying.  Within seconds there were 5 to 6 officers around snatching up all the papers (including the one under my foot that I had stepped on to prevent from blowing away, and secretly was hoping to keep to have it translated) and wheeling off this old lady and putting her in a van.  I have no idea what those papers said, but I have to assume it was some form of propaganda because she deliberately threw them on the ground.  It was just interesting to witness first hand the tight grip of China's Communist hand, and how quickly they were able to erase this woman's best efforts at "free speech".

Perhaps the biggest let down of the trip for me was the Forbidden City.  The fact that during the imperial times nobody was allowed in that part of the city makes it an intriguing site, but once inside it is a little boring.  I mean the architecture was beautiful, but it looked like all the other temples we had already seen.  Its size was very impressive, but as you walked through the compound everything started to look the same.  It is still a must-see due to its historical value alone, it just didn't live up to its hype.

Other sights we visited were the Temple of Heaven, Birds Nest Stadium and Olympic Park, the Silk Market, where I taught my parents how to bargain, and the Drum and Bell towers where we just barely were able to catch a spectacular drum performance (the towers used to be used to keep time). But the REASON we were in Beijing, the main event, the headliner was the Great Wall of China.  One of the most recognizable structures in the world and certainly one of the grandest, it is something most people aspire to visiting in their lifetime, and we were getting to do just that.  Now the weather we were experiencing had been crappy to put it nicely.  Dreary haze covered the sky with a blanket of foggy grey.  Not the most picturesque setting, but we had to make the best with what we were given.  Now, I had heard from friends that much of the wall that tourists see today was part of a massive restoration project by the government in the 1980's, and in some locations was not even built in its original location! (Why not just build a wall in America, call it the Great Wall and save money on airfare right?)  To avoid seeing a replica, I looked into the different places where you can tour the wall to find an authentic one.  The trouble was that the more authentic the wall, the more difficult it was to access.  Luckily we were able to discover one place where there had been minor restorations done to the original wall, and still had a chair lift to the wall to prevent my parents from having to hike to the top.  Being in the high elevation certainly didn't help with the visibility issues, but it was still impossible to escape the giddy feeling I got from standing on such a significant piece of world history!  The part of the wall we were standing on was built during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.  That is before America was even on the map (unless the Native Americans or Mesoamericans had maps...).  

However, I was still disappointed that we went on such a crummy day and did not get any good pictures, so we decided to try again on another day.  This time I found a tour that allows you to hike from Jinshanling to Simitai, about 7 km (4.5 miles), on the wall, and the latter sections have remained completely untainted by restoration.  So I went for a solo day hike along a 700 year old structure on what just so happened to be a day with the most beautiful weather.  It was completely blissful, as the wall was vacant of the crowds and I could just be alone in my thoughts (which tended to be imagining I was a Chinese soldier having to ward off a Mongol invasion).  The hike was strenuous, and got harder as it went along, but totally worth it.

Having satisfied our Great Wall expectations we were all set to leave, but having a late flight, decided to catch an acrobatic show before we left.  The things these people did were incredible.  Extreme feats of strength, balance, flexibility, and danger.  At a few points, I was almost certain I was about to witness a death.  Luckily I didn't and it made for a great ending to a fantastic trip.

The Protester

Drum Tower

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Traveling Through 'Nam

After our pampering in Denang, it was time to resume our travels.  James and his friend only had a few more days till they had to leave so we took off for Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam, also the capital.

Hanoi itself was rather uninteresting.  You can spend a few hours waiting to look at Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body through a class if you wish (I did not), visit a few pagodas, and that is about it.  However, Hanoi serves as the launching point for many tours to Halong Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  Here you can see literally thousands of stone islands jutting out of the water in various different shapes.  Everyone we talked to suggested taking one of the multi-day tours where you actually stay on the islands, however we had not allotted our time accordingly and only had time for the single day tour.  In hindsight, I wish we had planned for more time there because for the single day tour you spend more time on the bus traveling to the bay than you actually spend on the bay itself, but I am at least thankful that we still got to see it because it is truly beautiful.  We had the misfortune of going on an overcast and slightly rainy day, but it was still beautiful nonetheless.  The next day we all went our separate ways: James' friend to China, James back to Singapore, and me down to Ho Chi Minh to do some solo traveling.

The reason for me heading to Ho Chi Minh City was to go on a few tours that I had heard about and sounded interesting, but I was also just looking forward to traveling on my own.   The first day in HCM I just wanted to get settled in and go explore the district surrounding where I was staying.  It is often times the random things that you get to experience that you do not plan for that turn into some of the most enjoyable parts of your trip, and this was certainly the case for me.  While I was walking through a park next to my hostel, I was approached by a few college age students and asked if I would mind talking a few minutes with them because they wanted to practice their English.  Seeing as I had no plans for this first day, I obliged.  As I talked with the students, whose English fluency varied across the board, the group soon grew to around 15 to 20 different students and I ended up talking to them for around two hours.  And then came a really cool opportunity.  Before leaving, one of the guys in the group offered to show me around the city the next day on his motorbike.  What better way to see the city, right?  The funny part is that while I was waiting in the same park the next day to meet this new friend, I was approached by ANOTHER group of students that wanted to practice their English.  When my friend with the motorbike showed up, I mentioned to the new group that we were just going to be going around the city to a few places and asked if they would care to join, not really expecting them to be so whimsical, but they jumped at the opportunity.  A day that I previously had NO plans for had quickly turned into an amazing and adventurous day.  With the group we went to the War Museum (which was VERY propagandist towards Americans and a little awkward being the lone American in a group of Vietnamese), to a nearby street vendor that they frequent, and they even showed me their university where I got to go in, meet people and help a group of students make paper sunflowers to be given to children with cancer.  All of this spawned from being willing to take some time and have a chat with a group of complete strangers, and the friendliness and hospitality of the Vietnamese people is beyond anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world (Yes, it puts “Southern hospitality” to shame).

The next day I was set to go on one of my tours to the tunnels of Cu Chi.  These were the tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the American War (Vietnam War for Americans) to move forces incognito and have a secretive, underground, and ever changing base of operations.  These tunnels gave the American soldiers hell as the tunnels would also lead to many different hidden hatch doors in the surrounding area that led to a whack-a-mole style of fighting.  What was so fascinating was learning about and seeing what the life was like for these soldiers underground and learning the measures that they took to avoid discovery by the Americans (they designed their air ventilation shafts to look like termite mounds).  Tourists are allowed to even squeeze into one of the hatch doors, which I am certain would make a claustrophobe out of anybody.  The tour is then culminated with a 200 meter walk through one of the actual tunnels to practice a little historical empathy.  As you walk through completely hunched over, shoulders almost scraping both sides of the walls, fighting for air, and pouring in sweat it is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that these soldiers could spend weeks at a time down in these tunnels and walk many kilometers.  All the history of the experience was really interesting; however, the highlight of the trip came in the middle of the tour at this rest area/gift shop that happened to be next to a shooting range.  Here one could pay to shoot some of the guns that were commonly used in that era.  The three big hitters were the AK57, the M16, and the M60 turret style machine gun.  I went for the M16 machine gun because I wanted to test its accuracy and see if I could hit one of the can targets they had down range, which I did.  The Cu Chi tunnel tour was both historical and testosterone inducing, what more could you ask for.

The following day I went on yet another tour to the Mekong River delta.  I am not a fan of group tours, but in this case it was unavoidable as that is really the only way to see these things, and it worked out well as the tour provided experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.  Now, I have to be a little bit honest here and admit that I really had no idea what to expect on a river delta tour and the main reason for me even going was because the Mekong River delta is one the destinations in our families 501 Places to See Before You Die book and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign off on another place that nobody in my family has yet.  So I suppose it was more my competitive nature more than interest that motivated this trip, but it turned out to be a fantastic tour.  You start out by getting on a bigger boat and making a couple pit stops in different villages.  First, we stopped at a village that harvests bees and makes their own honey, which they showed us and of course encouraged us to buy.  Next, we went to another village where they make coconut candy, which was interesting to see the process in action and even get to sample some.  After the tourist traps, they then take you in a large canoe style boat for nice peaceful paddle ride through the jungle on one of the Mekong tributaries.  Even though the rain poured down on us, it was still very peaceful to be floating through the jungle.  At the end of the ride you reach the final destination where you get served lunch.  This is where the trip got REAL interesting!  The lunch was a pretty standard chicken, rice, and vegetables…BUT you had the option to pay more and eat a black cobra if you wanted (a local delicacy).  Wanting the full cultural experience and not wanting to pass the opportunity to eat snake, me and two other British guys decided that we would split it.  What they failed to mention until we had already ordered was that they bring the snake to your table first ALIVE!  This drew a big crowd from the other tourist who wanted to watch the decapitation of this snake, and before many cameras the man proceeded to cut the head off with a pair of scissors.  Here is where it really gets bad…they then squeezed the snake’s blood into a glass that was diluted with water.  Apparently drinking the snake’s blood is a sign of true manliness in their culture.  At first I insisted that there was no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that I was drinking that, but the other two English boys were on board and I didn’t want to be the only one to miss out so I toasted to unique cultural experiences and threw back a shot of cobra blood.  The eating of the snake came easy after that.  Following the meal, we were taken back to Ho Chi Minh, and my stay in Vietnam was brought to an end as I flew out the next day.

Vietnam was truly one of my favorite places I have visited thus far, and most of that is due to the people.  Yes, there are many neat things to see and do there, but I have seen and done far greater things in my opinion than what I saw and did in Vietnam.  It is the people and their friendliness that makes this trip stand out to me.  Prior to going to Vietnam I was curious as to how my interactions with the Vietnamese would be, being that the war between America and Vietnam is still fresh in both nations histories (I even told people I was Canadian for the first part of the trip).  I was pleasantly surprised to find all remnants of animosity from the war days are practically extinct.  If Vietnam is not very high on your “Countries to Visit” list, then I suggest that you bump it up a few notches.

 Which One is Not Like the Others?

 My New Friends

 Making Paper Sunflowers

 A Tight Fit


 Cu Chi Tunnel

 Honey Bees

 A Float Through the Jungle

The Execution

 Not your average Bloody Mary


 Snake Curry