January 2008


Dateline: 20 January 2008, Luang Prabang, Laos

Hi Everybody!

Well, we just passed the three-month point in our trip and we’re both feeling twinges of homesickness. We find our thoughts turning to puppies, houses, gardens, and of course friends and family (that’d be you). Missing home… *sigh*… what to do… hey, let’s turn on CNN! (Thank you, Jaliya Guesthouse with cable tv.)

So we turned on CNN, where the big news of the day is about the U.S. presidential primaries, especially McCain’s win in the South Carolina Republican primary. And on the Democrat side, Clinton and Obama seem to be neck and neck.

What an interesting primary season! How are things there? What do you think about the choices of candidates, on either or both sides? How are people feeling in Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Montana, California, Alabama? How is the news coverage? News-wise, we feel kind of lucky that we’re only getting bits and pieces — the frosting on the election-news cake, enough to make it interesting without the overload that you all might be feeling there. On the other hand, this means we’re getting only the surface view (frosting) of the candidates — but maybe that’s not so different from what we’d get there anyway? 😉 We’re also missing out on just being able to talk about it with friends and family, so we’re hoping our “comments” box will fill up with your thoughts, hopes, doubts, etc… (hint, hint…)

From this distance at least, it’s exciting because this primary feels quite different from the usual.

On the Democrat side, we have a really experienced woman who is like contender number 1 (omg! in our lifetime! yesss!), and a young but rock-solid black man who is like contender number 2 (omg! in our lifetime! can this really be happening!). Amazing.

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And the choices are interesting on the Republican side, too. Each candidate seems unique, and none of them quite fits the “GOP” stereotype. One, Ron Paul, even has a sense of humor.

What would really be a dream come true is if come November, we can look at the choices on the ballot and feel that no matter which party wins, our next president will get our country moving in a positive direction. A year ago we probably NEVER would have thought this possible — the divide between “Bush” and “us,” so vast, felt like a divide between “Republican” and “Democrat.” But it doesn’t have to be!  The most amazing thing would be if our next President, whoever he/she is, is someone who does NOT stoke these idiotic fires of “red state/blue state,” “culture war,” “with us or against us.”

Kate says: Some people stoke these fires on purpose, but some stoke them simply by virtue of who they are and how people already feel about them. This is one reason why I’m worried about a Clinton presidential candidacy. I’m worried that so many people already think they “hate” her and everything she’s ever touched. I don’t want 4 or 4X more years where our country is divided into “President-Lovers” and “President-Haters.” Enough. I want to be excited about a Clinton-Obama ticket, but even moreso, I want some sense of unity in our country’s support for its president. What do other people think/say about this? Are there signs of rising Hillary-hatred, or am I worrying for nothing?

Derry says: I’m more sanguine about this than Kate. Hillary is, after all, quite the centrist. And I would like to think that the fires of polarization are subsiding. Fatigue if nothing else. That said, I do find dynastic presidencies in general off-putting: we end up voting, for or against, a package that includes irrelevancies tied the past.

As for the Republican side of the ballot, we both breathed a huge sigh of relief while listening to McCain speak today. He has a wealth of experience in both the military and the legislature, and seems highly capable, grounded, intelligent, etc., etc. No, we don’t necessarily agree on various policy points, but there’s not this feeling that we’ll be DOOMED if he is elected president. What a huge relief, like a dark cloud lifting. Maybe he would even choose Ron Paul as his running mate! 🙂

OK we don’t want to jinx ourselves by getting too optimistic too early, and we don’t know enough about all the Republican candidates (McCain included) to know if our relief is warranted (oh no! maybe it’s just another trap! {:-0 ). But we’re going to hope for just what we said: a November ballot where no matter which party wins, we’re not doomed. (Or at least not because of our president.)

What do you think? Your civic engagement can help alleviate our homesickness — it’s a win-win! Let’s discuss!

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You know those experiments where the scientists put the lab mice into a cage that’s just a little too crowded, and subject them to loud noises, erratic movements, flashing lights, etc? And then they watch to see what happens? And within a short time the normally docile lab mice turn into tormented, snarling beasties? Well, take that scenario, add abysmal air quality, and you’ve got… us in Hanoi! Yes, the gentle Oregon mice you know and love were quickly transformed into bitter misanthropes in this uniquely challenging environment. It’s a good thing we were only there for a week; any longer and we’d probably be writing from a Hanoi jail cell, thrown in the slammer for kicking over one of the countless motorbikes that vroom along on the sidewalk honking at pedestrians.

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[Help us!!]

Ah, Hanoi; we wanted to love you, we really did. To be fair, there were some things about Hanoi that we appreciated. It’s the first place on our trip with free WiFi offered in many cafes (which we would’ve utilized to email y’all if we hadn’t been so depressed!!). The coffee was good, and the pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) was delicious, much yummier than any we’ve had in the U.S. Also, a few people were friendly! (Yes, a few! Everybody else seemed just as disheartened by the cacophonous environment as we were, and/or solely intent on selling us something whether we wanted it or not.)

As a city, Hanoi seems to still want to be French, although one wonders why, after being treated so poorly as a French colony. There are “boulangeries” everywhere, and the cafes are adorned with fin de siecle Parisian posters. Baguettes are sold on the steet, but unfortunately compress to almost nothing on first bite. Beneath this faux European patina lies the bedrock of the communist government. Ho Chi Minh is still the (north’s) father figure, but the militaristic posters and red banners do not seem to be able to compete – the exactly correct word – with rampant capitalist energy. The face-off between Uncle Ho and Coca Cola at a major intersection leaves little doubt which engages the real passions.

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Let’s zoom in a bit…

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[Ho Chi Min’s side of the street…]

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[…and Coca Cola’s side of the street]

In fact, the communist struggles for independence have themselves become commodites: propaganda posters are now sold to tourists, along with Zippo lighters with U.S. military insignia (most appearing newly counterfeited) and even U.S. military dog tags.

There’s much more to Vietnam than Hanoi, of course. Though we had only a week, we did get out of town a couple of times — once for a day trip to the countryside around Tam Coc, and once for an overnight trip to Halong Bay. One thing travelers note about Vietnam is that it’s difficult to travel around independently; instead, most people sign up for organized tours, which is what we did.

Our day trip to Tam Coc included a pleasant bike ride through picturesque rural villages, which would have been significantly more pleasant on bikes that weren’t falling apart. This was followed by a rowboat tour on a slow river through rice paddies, limestone outcroppings, and caves. Each rowboat in this “rowboat parade” held two tourists, two rowers, and an ominous metal chest.

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[Before the opening of the chest]

Halfway through the trip we learned what was in the chest when one rower stopped rowing, opened it to reveal innumerable souvenir “handicrafts,” and launched a timeshare-intensity sales pitch. We had to be very assertive and persistent about the fact that we did not need any souvenir handicrafts, no matter whose brother’s mother had supposedly embroidered them. By the end of the ride we were both rowing enthusiastically to extricate ourselves from this uncomfortable situation!

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[No handicrafts, thank you!]

Our trip to Halong Bay was better. The bay is stunning — a sea of calm blue-green water sprinkled with 3000 limestone islands.

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We travelled in an eight-cabin junk, spending the night onboard in a lovely, comfortable cabin and eating excellent meals. Interestingly, more than half of the 15 passengers on our boat were Vietnamese or of Vietnamese origin. (Even for Vietnamese people, it’s easier to see the country on an organized tour rather than traveling independently.) There was a group of eight college students from Hanoi, a woman traveling with her European husband, and an Australian couple whose families had emigrated there from Vietnam in the 70s.

The boat chugged along among the islands, passing little floating villages complete with laundry lines, kids, and dogs. (But no motorbikes! 🙂 )

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We stopped at a large inhabited island for a bike ride through the countryside. (Lovely, but again with the falling-apart bikes!! 😦 )

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[A chicken coop with great cell reception]

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Later we were set loose in kayaks to explore a bit, paddling around one island and INTO another — through an arch and into a lagoon in the center! Cool.

We’re relieved to be back in Thailand now, none the worse for wear. Like most folks, we aspire to be the kind of people who maintain equanimity regardless of fluctuating conditions — you know, able to retain your peace of mind and goodwill toward humankind even when you’re in a situation that doesn’t agree with you. Alas, not always! Having so many buttons pushed by an environment like Hanoi (or Arkansas) is humbling. Well, tonight we board the night train bound for Laos, and we’re very curious to see what it’s like. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned….

Sawat dii kha and Happy New Year everyone!

Tonight we’re celebrating the new year in the vibrant city of Bangkok. A quick look at a Thai calendar might leave you confused, however, because here we’re actually in the year… 2551! This is because Thai people begin counting not from the birth of Christ, but from the nirvana of the Buddha, some five hundred years prior.

Bangkok is loud and modern, but we love it. In the midst of the urban chaos there are small altar-like “spirit houses” everywhere, even in front of shopping malls. They are built to resemble full-sized temples and are full of animal figurines, flower garlands, incense, and other offerings left by worshippers. Of course there are also large, beautifully ornate wats (temples) too. Derry’s favorite houses this colossal reclining gold leaf Buddha.

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He is well over 90 feet long, and his enigmatic smile itself is over 10 feet in breadth. Like the Buddha, people here smile easily, and their gentleness leavens the intensity of the city.

Soon after we arrived, we learned that we had just missed the 80th birthday celebration of Thailand’s adored King Bhumibol (December 5). No matter, since Thai people celebrate his birthday for the entire month. His likeness, usually adorned with flags and flowers, is everywhere. This one, in the atrium of a numbingly huge shopping mall, looks out over hordes of Christmas (yes, Christmas!) shoppers. (For scale, you can just see Kate in the lower right corner.)

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The King and the royal family are revered and loved, and the King himself is an interesting person — an accomplished painter, photographer, and musician. He has played jazz clarinet with Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, and there is a popular CD of his symphonic compositions performed by the London Philharmonic.

One Monday morning, we noticed that virtually everyone was wearing yellow polo shirts emblazoned with the royal crest. Finally we asked someone why, and we found out that this too is part of the King’s birthday celebration — every Monday in December is “yellow shirt day.”

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The following day we noticed that everyone was wearing pink polo shirts. (We didn’t ask.)

One of the reasons we love Bangkok is the food, especially the street food — stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice, delectable sliced fruit, steaming noodle soups, barbecued skewers of chicken, pork, sausage, meatballs, squid, etc… with a delicious meal typically costing under a dollar. Just point and hope. When that feels too intimidating, we retreat to the mall food courts, where the same delicious dishes are on offer with less chaos and confusion. This stall sells Derry’s current favorite — mama noodles stir-fried with pork, green vegetable, and dark soy, doused with fish sauce and pickled chili peppers.

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Our first venture into the countryside took us south by train to the Andaman Coast. We then traveled by boat 35 miles offshore to the Surin Islands, a marine national park. We snorkeled over many dramatic coral gardens and shared the jungle with a three-foot long monitor lizard, a kamikaze flying squirrel, and lunch-stealing pig-tailed macacques. One of the Surin Islands is the rainy-season home of the Moken people, also known as Sea Gypsies. Most of the year they live on their boats in the ocean. On the beaches, they place families of brightly-painted protective totems.

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Much of this area was hard-hit by the 2004 tsunami. The Moken suffered a great deal, as did many small fishing villages along the coast. We lingered for a few days in the small coastal town of Khura Buri, which is making a comeback. The guesthouse we stayed in was surrounded by a lush garden tended by our gracious hostess. She is not only good with flowers, but also lends her garden hose to a large, thirsty neighbor.

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Further inland, we visited Khao Sok National Park and dramatic Chiaw Lan Lake. This lake is actually a huge reservoir created in 1982, through the efforts of the King, to generate hydroelectric power. The beautiful reservoir seemed to us like a “water bridge,” enabling us to explore by boat this otherwise unpenetrable limestone karst terrain.

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The surrounding jungle is filled with life. From our boat we watched langur monkeys swing through the treetops. We spent the afternoon hiking through the jungle to the din of cicadas and countless other insects, punctuated by the melodic hoots of gibbons.

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Beauty and reverence are essential components of Thai culture. On the busy street near our Bangkok hotel, we pass this life-size Shiva shrine daily. But what is the Hindu diety Shiva doing in a Buddhist country? This is just one of the fascinating things about Thailand. Buddhism, practiced devoutly, is interlaced with elements of Hinduism. Thai Buddhists regularly make offerings to Hindu gods, such as these scarves on Shiva’s arms.

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Also, while Shiva is a male diety, you can see that this figure expresses both male and female in one. To us, this captures another aspect of Thai society that we’ve been noticing: gender differences are less extreme here, and tilt toward the feminine end of the spectrum. For example, “third-gender” people — males who live as female — are just part of everyday society here, even in small towns like Khura Buri. Characteristics that we view as feminine, like gentleness, graciousness, and beauty, are highly valued and permeate Thai society.

Well, midnight is approaching and it’s time for us to celebrate! Hope this finds you all well; here’s to a gentle and gracious New Year. With love, Kate & Derry