A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Vietnam is doing so much better than Cambodia. Roads were paved, no trash in sight, no sign of prostitution, and children didn’t beg for food. Of course as in any other place in South East Asia, street hawkers won’t leave you alone, but they seem to be fed, and everybody seems to have a scooter and a cell phone.

I had to convince Lennard to go to Vietnam because he, being an America and in the military, had not-so-appealing images of Vietnam associated with war. Besides, he didn’t know anybody who had taken a vacation in Vietnam. But I, being a teacher in Korea, knew plenty of people who had been to Vietnam. Lennard’s impression of Vietnam changed the second day, once he got over people’s stares in Nha Trang.

Our first destination was Nha Trang, the beach city. But since there is no international airport in Nha Trang, we had to fly to Ho Chi Minh City first. When you land in Vietnam, expect a rush of heat and mist, sudden thunderstorms, intermittent showers, and flood of motorcycles moving in all directions.

Nha Trang was nice and clean. The buildings all seem freshly painted. Countless hotels around the beach, and people very tourist friendly. The beach is long and clean and is very popular among locals. At 5 am, the beach is already crowded with people swimming, jogging, and working out. Children fly kites and adults get together for a chat and snack. Nha Trang beach is a lively place, day and night.

I went snorkeling the second day in Nha Trang while Lennard was getting his scuba certification. Third day, Lennard, our French and friendly diving instructor Emmanuel (Coco diving) and I went for two dives. The first one wasn’t so interesting, low vis and not many fish. But the second one in another location was amazing. He asked us if we feel comfortable to go cave diving. We decided to give it a try. The underwater cave was packed with fish. We swam through it and although I got a bit claustrophobic, it made it to the other end. It was an amazing feeling swimming slowly with the fish and letting them examine you and swim around you.

The water we dived in was near some caves where Swiftlet birds nests are collected. Bird nests are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The caves are guarded by the police to stop illegal collection of the nests. Swiftlet birds make their nests using their saliva, and when their nest are collected, they start building another one, to the point where their saliva gets bloody and their nest red, which makes the nests even more expensive. We saw small pieces of the bird nests for sale at the airport starting from 175 USD, and 300 USD for the red ones. Apparently many of the collectors risk their lives by climbing the walls of the caves to get to the nests.

At night, we ate at Louisiana, an upscale beachfront bar/restaurant with a swimming pool and live band. It didn’t rain, it wasn’t too hot or humid, the band played my favorite songs from the 80’s, the meal was yummy, and the night couldn’t have been more perfect.

I learned early on the trip that in restaurants nothing was free. The wet napkins on the tables, water, or the peanuts are all for sale and will be added on to your bill should you consume them. This took a while to get used to because in Korea, you get loads of free goodies with your drink or meal.

After Nha Trang, our next destination was Hoi An, the shopping haven of Vietnam where you can get tailor made clothes for reasonable prices. I had planned to change my whole wardrobe in Hoi An, but the prices were not as low as I had expected, so I settled for work clothes only: 4 suites, 10 shirts and a long winter coat.

Hoi An is beautiful. It has many things in common with other former French colonies: French architecture, good food and baguette! Hoi An reminded me of Saint-Louis and also Goree Island in Senegal . It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, old, charming and romantic.

My days in Hoi An consisted of waking up early in the morning, shower and have breakfast, then hit the tailor shops for fittings and ordering more clothes, go back to the hotel around 5 with sore feet, and rest for the rest of the night, preparing for another day of shopping. The first day, a young girl convinced us to check out her tailor shop in the market where I ended up having three suits and 5 shirts made, and it turned out to be the best of the tailor shots I ordered from. I also had couple of shirts and a winter coat made at a tailor shop which advertised itself as Lonely Planet’s #1 pick. Their work was OK but not as good as the one in the market. I also had a suit and shirt made at Lanna because their nice roomy shop had caught my eye. But again, the little stall in the market turned out to be the best of the three.

Hoi An was hot and very humid, maybe because I was out shopping during the hottest time of the day. If I go to Hoi An again, I’ll probably plan my days differently: I will stay at the hotel’s pool all day and then go shopping after the sun goes down. Hoi An is beautiful at night. The art and souvenir shops turn on their colorful lantern lamps, and the yellow/red-walled old buildings look incredible. We went out on the town on our last night in Hoi An and regretted not having spent other nights out on the town. After 4 days, I was glad to leave Hoi An because I was way over my budget for clothes. I was like a little kid in a candy shop, greedy and wanting more. I was constantly thinking about new designs, styles, and colors for new clothes. It’s amazing to know that you can have any clothes you want made. Show a picture or draw it, get measured, and pick it up the next day.

On our last night in Hoi An, I wanted to see China beach but found out that it’s about an hour away from where we stayed, so we went to Hoi An beach. It was infested with little crabs and sea bugs which I heard come out only at night. We had dinner and took abuse from some hawkers, then headed back to the hotel without dipping in the water.

We also took a cooking class in Hoi An, and learned how to make Vietnamese style crispy pancake and rolls with rice paper, pork, shrimp and veggies. Vietnamese ingredients take ages to prepare but the cooking itself doesn’t take too long.

Our last destination, Saigon, turned out to become one of my favorite cities in South East Asia. Saigon is full of life. Hundreds of motorcycles at every traffic light, and when the light turns green, there’s a flood of motorcycles and scooters rushing through the road. They are everywhere, so many that we jokingly thought at some point in Vietnam bikes are given away for free to everybody at birth!

At the park across from our hotel, people relax in the shade, children play, and cyclos rest. At night, a large number of women gather to do aerobics in groups. Men kick the shuttlecock and many jog. It’s a peaceful and lively place to relax and watch people. There are many many tourists in the tourist area of the town (equivalent to Korea’s Itaewon) but outside that area, there are not many foreigners or tourists. At the night market, everyone seemed to speak good English, but at the other market outside the tourist area, none of the salespeople spoke English.

The cyclos (bicycle taxies) and scooters are inexpensive means of transport in Vietnam. The cyclos are slow and give you a chance to see the town. You can hire them for a negotiated price although they are infamous for scams. We hired a cyclo to take us to a market, only to find out that he dropped us way before our destination and we had to take a cap again to take us there. But if you know where you’re going, and be firm with the price, cyclos are a fun way to get around the city. We hired a cyclo in Hoi An to give us a tour around other side of the river and it was an amazing ride.

The night market in Saigon reminded me of Hong Kong Ladies’ market. The outdoor restaurants open after the sunset and are great places to try Vietnamese food.

In the tourist area of the Saigon there are many travel agencies selling bus/fight/ tickets to Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos for very low prices, as low as 12 USD. If I had more time, I would definitely hop on a bus to Laos for a couple of days.

I would say the thing I liked most about Vietnam is that there is no sign of prostitution as oppose to Thailand and Cambodia. In the bars, you don't get a woman for every drink you order, and no one knocks on your door in the middle of the night offering 'massages'. I didn't see any 15 year-old girl walking with a 65 year-old man hand in hand deeply in 'love'. If a foreign man and a Vietnamese woman check into a hotel, they need to show their marriage certificate. And Vietnamese women dress and act conservatively. I was relieved to see that their economy and tourism industry does not depend on sex trade.

Vietnam is better and more developed that I had imagined. The country is very tourist friendly, Vietnamese people didn’t stop smiling and approached me many times for friendly small talks, calling me Miss Saigon and asking me if I’m half Vietnamese! The palm trees were enough to make me happy. I wished I had one more day in Hoi An to go to China beach, and one more day in Saigon to see more sites. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit north of Vietnam, where I heard is very different than the south. So a combo Laos-North Vietnam trip is now on my list.

Posted by Bita 29.07.2009 04:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Europe

France, Spain, Poland

I waited so long to write about my Europe-Africa trip, because I’ve been thinking no word can ever describe it.

I wasn’t supposed to leave on vacation until mid January when the intersession winter classes finish. But, at the last minute, I found out that I was spared teaching the winter classes and found myself on vacation a month earlier than I expected. This was the first time since I came to Korea that I didn’t have to teach during the vacation and therefore having the whole two months off.

I had booked a ticket to Dakar via Paris for mid January with two airlines: Air France and Aeroflot. The Air France portion was flexible and could change, with a fee, but the Aeroflot could not. I had planned to tour around Europe after Africa to avoid the kind of shock effect I suffered from when I went from Singapore to Cambodia. But I wasn’t going to stay in Korea for a month waiting for my flight, so I changed the plan: Europe first, Africa next.

And, there I was on a plane to France on December 17th right after I entered the final grades. Without any itinerary, I decided to 'kill time' in Europe until my flight to Dakar, from December 17th to January 8th.

Couchsurfing is a blessing. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford a 2-month vacation, or if I could, I would be lonely and isolated watching CNN in my hotel room.

My first host was Richard, a free spirited Parisian in love with Brazil, who had his door open to guests any time. He had emailed me his address, which he said by subway it shouldn’t take more than an hour to get to from the airport. It was easy to find, but it took longer to get there. When I got there, I saw the rings on the door but didn’t know which one to buzz! I waited for a few minutes and then asked the shop across from his apartment to let me use their phone to call. No answer. I tried again and left a message. I had the address of two hostels for back up, so I took a cab and went Peace and Love hostel. The hostel turned out to be a place for party animals, and the room was strange. My room was on the 4th floor which meant I had to climb 100 steps in a spiral stairway that was too narrow for my suitcase, so I had to leave it in the basement and take the stuff I needed with me. By the time I got to my room, I was tired and dizzy having climbed the painfully long spiral stairway.

December 18th was a cold but sunny day. I got up early and got on a Paris city tour bus. I was so excited to be in Paris that I didn’t mind the blow of the cold wind while I was sitting on the top deck of the bus. The bus went around the town and I took mental note of the places I wanted to go back to visit.

At night, Richard sent me an email and invited me over again, explaining that he couldn’t reach me last night since I didn’t have a cell phone. Hauling around my suitcase was a heavy task so after yet another expensive cab ride, I met him and another CSer from the U.S. Later that night, he invited other couchsurfers in Paris for a small gathering. We partied, drank whatever we could get our hands on, from soju, my souvenir from Korea, to wine and vodka, and shared stories. French guys party like there is no tomorrow. At the party, I met Francois, a couchsurfer from Toulouse, who was going to drive back to Toulouse the next day and was looking for someone to share the ride. I didn’t know where Toulouse was and had never heard of it before, but 20 euros sounded like a good deal to get to the south of France, so I decided to go.

The next morning, François and I went to get his car, which was parked somewhere on the street only to find out that it had been towed. We spent the whole day trying to figure out how to get it back. It was Sunday and we weren’t sure if the parking lot was open. It took him many phone calls, lots of stress and 132 euros to get his car back. Then we met Emmanuel, a nice French girl who needed to send some of her stuff from Paris to Toulouse. So we drove to her house in the suburb of Paris and spent the night there. She had made a nice meal which we gratefully shared, talked and went to bed. The next day we squeezed Emmanuel’s stuff in the car and drove to Toulouse. At night, François had organized a CS party at his place.

I stayed with François and his lovely sister, Iris, for three days. The second day, I went for a short walk around the neighborhood, and spend a long time in an internet café catching up with my emails. The next day, François gave me a tour around Toulouse: the cathedral, downtown and the romantic river. Toulouse is pretty. We had lunch at a famous French restaurant where many panties were hung on the wall. Apparently on some special nights, women who take off their underwear get a free drink! The owner was the type of person who you wouldn’t ever forget if you met him, funny with a strong personality. We had Foie Gras, forced-fed duck’s liver. Foie Gras is a delicacy in France and hard to believe that it actually exist. In a country where human rights and democracy has been an example for other countries, people actually still do that to ducks and geese? Some argue that forced feeding doesn’t hurt the animal because the birds still come to the tubes voluntarily. But the tubes could cause throat injuries or death, and the unnatural excessive fattening of the animal doesn’t sound humane.

I don’t like staying with a host for more than three days because then guest becomes a burden. I was thinking about my next destination when I found out that Toulouse is only few hours away from Spain. So I decided to hop on a train to Barcelona the next day.

On December 23rd, François took me to the train station and I took the train to Barcelona. The train ride was nice, going through villages that looked like postcards. I daydreamed about staying in one of those white villas next to a light house in a villages in the middle of nowhere. Maybe after Africa before going back to Korea?

Barcelona is beautiful, and dodgy! There are so any tourists and ethnicities in Barcelona that it’s had to tell who’s who and who's doing what. After I got off the train, dragging my big suitcase behind me, I walked to the subway station which was few blocks away from the train station. I waited in the line at the ticket machine and saw people in front of me had some yellow fluid, something like throw-up on their back and their bags. I thought a car might have splashed that on them and thanked God I had none on me. I bought a ticket and went down to the train. While waiting for the train, a good-looking guy, who spoke no English, came to me, said something in Spanish and pointed to my jacket. I turned around and there it was, I had the yellow throw-up on me too and all over my luggage. He offered some napkins and helped me clean up my suitcase. I thankfully accepted his help and thought to myself, “yeah, a pretty Spanish boy! I already like Barcelona!” Then he suggested, through body language, that I take off my jacket to clean it up. I had to put down my purse to take off my jacket, so I did. He pointed to the left and said: “water!” I guess meaning that there’s water over there if you want to wash up. Naturally, I looked at the direction his finger was pointing at, and in a matter of seconds, my purse was gone. I looked down and it wasn’t there. I saw a guy walking up the stairs the opposite direction from us, and since he was the only one going that direction, my guts told me it was him. I ran after him and firmly tapped on his shoulder “Give me my purse back!” he dropped it on the steps and kept walking. I grabbed my bag and went back to where my suitcase was. The ‘helpful’ guy was gone too. They were working in a team. They always do. I yelled, ‘I can’t believe this!” People looked at me and mumbled things I couldn’t understand. Then a female cop came to me and said in broken English “We caught the guy. This has happened a few times before too..”

So I learned that Barcelona is no safer than Beijing and held on tight to my stuff for the rest of my stay.

The first night, I checked into a hostel and tried to get rid of the yellow stains on my jacket and suitcase, and then called it an early night.

The second day, December 24th, I bought a three-day pass for the city tour bus, which I have made a habit of using when I’m in a new town. Barcelona was fascinating. The architecture, the life, the cafes, every corner and every street is picture-perfect. I sat on the top deck of the bus and took in as much of Barcelona as I could. I sat there on the top deck and went around town twice. Then I got off at the hostel and went for a walk around the city. At night, the Christmas eve, I went to a ‘dinner for orphans’ CS party where I met Juan, a professional CSer. He offered to host me in Barcelona. He then said if I beat him in chess, I can stay for as long as I want! The next day, He picked me up from subway station. We played chess on the beach. He turned out to be very good at chess and kicked my ass three times! we talked about the CS guests he’s had and teaching English in Korea and Europe. On December 26th, I went for another city tour bus and sat on the top deck again. It started raining but didn’t make me want to move inside. The rain made the architecture look even more majestic. At night we had pizza and watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The next day, I got sick as a dog, it must have been the rain. It had been raining in Barcelona for a couple of days. It didn’t show any sign of stopping so I decided to get out. Juan helped me find the cheapest airfare to ANYWHERE! And it was Poznan Poland by Ryan air for 20 Euros.

At night, sick and tired in bed, I thought about my family, my friends and Scott. I missed them and wished there were there with me. Suddenly I felt so lonely, thinking to myself why I left home and why I was there in Spain by myself when I should be with the ones I love. It was a strange feeling. Wasn’t this trip all I wanted? To be traveling around Europe? to see the world? Why is it that now that I had it, it felt so insignificant? I cried in bed and was careful not to wake up my host. I guess when you travel alone, there is always a time when you miss home and that’s what makes you appreciate it even more when you get back.

Barcelona captured my heart and it became my favorite city in Europe (so far) but I was ready to leave for a warmer sunny place. My flight to Poznan was at 4:00 a.m. Juan Kindly took me to the station and I took the bus to the airport. I got in Poznan at 10:30 am. Landing in Poznan and walking through the train station comparing it to Barcelona, was like going 100 years back. Everything looked cold and unwelcoming. It was like a ghost town, empty, unfriendly and cold, even colder than Barcelona! I took the tram in the wrong direction and had to wait for the next one,. No one spoke English. It took me a couple of hours to find my way to the hostel, Frolic Goats. When I finally got to the hostel, cold and sick as a dog, I slept for the rest of the afternoon until the next day.

The next day, I felt a little better, and decided to go for a walk around Poznan. I walked to the town’s pretty town center, the old cathedral and the modern shopping mall. The cathedral was stunning and humbling. I was the only one sitting there in the back row, with occasional visitors who’d come and go. I sat there, contemplated my life, and again cried. Cried because I was feeling ungrateful for what God has given me. I was mad at myself for not being more grateful for being blessed with freedom and health and all the things I’ve been blessed with. Grateful to be able to do the things I want, to be able to be who I want to be, and to be able to just ‘be’. I felt ashamed for not being happy that night in Barcelona. So I cried in silence and thank God for being so good to me.

The next couple of days, while I was recovering from the Flu, I went for a walk around the shopping mall, caught up with my emails, wrote, and enjoyed the peace and quiet in the last days of the year.

In Poznan, nobody checks your ticket when you get on a tram. Occasionally, a ticket controller might come on the tram to check whether people have tickets, and if you don’t, you could get a heavy fine.

One funny thing in Poland is that ALL the movies are dubbed with one voice all throughout the movie. So you hear the actors in the original language in the background, and one voice, male or female translates the dialogues to Polish while trying to change his/her tone of voice when the actors are angry or screaming. Funny to watch but it takes so much away from the movie! There wasn’t one single movie with subtitles!

I had one host in Poznan: Tomak, a medical student who had been to Iran! When we met, he told me he and his friends were disappointed that I wasn’t actually Korean, but got over it quite fast. On New Year’s Eve, we went to a small house party with some other medical students and had a cozy celebration.

On January 1st, there was a CS slide show party where Tomak and another CSer showed slides from their trips to Iran and Turkey. It was interesting to see those guys talking about their trip to and their impression of Iran. I had no idea Iran had become a sensational tourist destination for East Europeans.

On January 2nd, I met Agga, a lovely Polish girl who invited me to her apartment and treated me like she had known me for years. We went to the supermarket, bought food and wine. I made Loobia-polo and she made the best chocolate moose I’ve ever had. We talked about our lives till midnight and then went to a CS party at Dragon’s organized by François from Toulouse! He was there with his friends after a night of partying in Berlin, which is only an hour away from Poznan. It was nice to see him again and his crazy French friends!

The next day, I got on a bus to Lyon, where my uncle lives. First, a mini bus took us out of town, where we waited for a bigger bus to take us to France. It was freezing cold and the big bus was so late that for hours I thought we had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. There was a restaurant/hotel where we went inside to escape the cold. We waited for hours and when the bus finally showed up, I slept all the way and woke up the next day at the bus station in Lyon.

My uncle was at the bus station to pick me up. Seeing my uncle made me so happy. I hadn’t seen him for years and had vague memories of him visiting us in Iran, teach us French words and numbers, helping out at my sister’s wedding while my father was away, and visiting us in Montreal. He took me to his apartment where I met his wife. The next day, he took me around Lyon and showed me the old part of the town which looked very gothic, just the way I had seen on postcards. On January 6th, he helped me book a train back to Paris.

After Lyon, I had one more day in Paris to kill before my flight to Senegal. I walked around Paris and got my shoes fixed at a shop that was run by a Cambodian family. It was so lovely to talk to them and hear their story of leaving Cambodia and immigrating to France. I stayed at Love and Peace hostel again and anxiously got ready to my trip to Dakar, the trip I had been waiting for a long long time.

Posted by Bita 30.06.2009 01:35 Comments (3)

Senegal

Something about Africa draws me to it like a magnet. I don’t know what it is. Maybe its natural beauty, breathtaking sunsets, passionate dance and music, maybe French language in the west part of it, and the resilience of its people. It had been a dream of mine to go to Africa before I die, and that dream finally came true when I flew to Dakar on January 8th, 2009.

I was warned by almost everybody about going to Africa alone. War, crimes, kidnappings, malaria the least. But I had heard stories from people who’d been there, lived there and had fascinating stories to tell. My guts told me that I’ll be fine. I got vaccinated for Yellow Fever which is a requirement for entering Senegal, and bought enough medication for malaria. I talked to people on Senegal group on Facebook, and secured a host on CS. I was ready to go.

No one checked the proof of my Yellow Fever shot at Dakar’s airport. They were more concerned about where I was staying. I didn’t have my hosts’ address, so they kept my passport while I ran outside, found Aarpul and got his ID to write his address on the form.

Outside Dakar’s airport was just like any other country. Flooded with Taxi drivers who compete with each other to pick up passengers, people who are waiting for their loved ones, and money exchange people. I met my host, Aarpul the CS ambassador in Dakar, and he took care of the taxi negotiations.

Staying with Aarpul was the best decision I made on my trip. On my first day in Dakar, he took me to see his family in Pikine where I got to see the traditional Senegalese lifestyle. Senegalese people are never alone. They are always together, cook together, eat together, sleep together, they are always a part of a community. In a multiple-bedroom house with a courtyard, as many as 30 people live, three or four generations with their children. It’s amazing how the chores are divided and everyone knows his/her job and status.

In the morning, the men go to work and women go to the market. At mealtime, they all gather around a big tray, men on one side, women on the other, and share food. Later, I learned that it’s important to let the ‘woman of the house’ do what she considers her territory: to cook and serve. I was warned not to help too much with the cooking or not to do the dishes since this was her territory and she’s proud of serving her guests. Men do not help in the kitchen and around the house as this makes the woman look bad. In return, the man is the provider and takes care of the family financially.

My second day in Dakar, very hospitable Aarpul took me on an overcrowded minibus from Pikine to Dakar to go sightseeing. I saw the Independence monument, the beach which was well taken care of, and downtown where there were many foreigners and everything was way overpriced.

Dakar is an expensive city compared to Asian countries. Despite what you might expect from Africa, the prices in Dakar are comparable to those is North America and Europe, way more expensive than South East Asia. A night out, with dinner, a couple of beers and entrance fees will cost you at least 30 euros. Taxies are not cheap like in Asia, and a burger, coke and happy meal similar to McDonnald’s cost me 17 euros. The quality of life however is much lower. Many unpaved roads outside Dakar, sidewalks covered with sand and earth, which makes it almost impossible to walk in heels. The suburb's infrastructure hasn’t developed much since the French occupation, and many children working on the streets, selling anything from prepaid cellphone cards to snacks.

That night after the city tour, we met Djamal and Sheriff. Djamal had replied to many of my questions about Senegal on Facebook and had become a friend. Sheriff is a journalist from the UK in Dakar for work, also a CS member. We met at Pen D’Art jazz bar/club near the city’s national university, talked about life, listened to the live band and danced.

The next day, on Sunday, I took the ferry to the beautiful and historic Gorée Island, a UNESCO world heritage site. The ferry was packed with people, some tourists but mostly locals. A very persistent tour guide tried to sell me his services and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He finally offered me to become his wife in order to live happily ever after, to which I responded that I am already married which made him stop wasting his time and pursue another solo female tourist.

Gorée Island was used as the shipping hub of the slaves to the west, and it was known as the point of no return. The cells where men, women and children were kept, known as the house of slaves, is now a museum. Inside the house of the slaves, it was hard for me and some other tourists to hold back our tears, thinking how many families were torn apart and how much cruelty has gone on in that place. Being in the small musty cells was overwhelmingly emotional and heartbreaking.

The Island also has become a venue for art and culture. Dancers and drummers perform in the evenings, artists work and sell paintings, carvings, other artworks. I got to see a demonstration on how to make sand painting, in which the sand is the ink, and the artist skillfully pours layers of colorful sand on a glued-covered canvas. The ‘sand’ painting on the wall were so beautiful that I, again, helplessly started to cry. Was it the slave house and the dark memories that the island had carried for more than a century, or the beauty of the sand paintings? Maybe both.

The shop keepers in Gorée Island competed with each other for the visitors' business and had beautiful artworks to sell. I bought some handmade table clothes and painted jars made of stone.

On the way back to Dakar on the ferry, I saw the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. The whole sky was painted with orange and red with splashes of purple and blue. It took my breath away. I was taking pictures when I met Diofel. He offered to take my picture in the sunset. We became friends and shared many memories until I left Dakar for Korea.

That night on January 11th, Aarpul’s neighbor, a beautiful Senegalese girl studying at the university, invited us to her house where I met her family and had Senegalese food her mother had prepared.

The next day, I went to St-Louis, the old capital of Senegal and stayed for 5 days. Aarpul helped me take the bus which turned out to be pretty amusing. There are no bus schedules and you have to wait on the street for the next bus to come. When you see the bus, you wave and then start running, because the bus may or may not stop where you are. It will probably stop far from where you are after seeing you and wait for you to catch up. On the bus, the amusement continued as I found out that there is an extra row of seats in the aisle enveloped between the seats on the left, right, back and front. I had to take one of those seats. The bus stopped once for rest and took about 4 hours to get to Saint-Louis. Later I found out that there are other ways to get to Saint-Louis from Dakar and that’s called sept-place taxis, a Peugeot 504 station wagon with 8 passengers including the driver, which leaves when full. They are of course more expensive than the bus but faster and more roomy. I took one to get back to Dakar.

I stayed at Auberge de Jeunesse, a spotless and friendly hostel near the city center. I rented a bike and rode around the town, joined a tour to Parc de Djoudj, the third largest bird sanctuary in the world and checked out the beautiful harbor. Saint-Louis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is so French. Old colonial architecture makes the town very charming. The art shops and the laid-back attitude of the town reminded me of Indonesia’s Ubud. It’s very different from chaotic Dakar.

In Saint-Louis, if you want to take a photo of people, make sure you'll have some change handy to give to people you're taking a photo of, or be prepared to be yelled at. I was caught taking pictures of the streets and buildings on more than one occasion, and people who happened to be in the shot asked me for compensation, to which I answered that my camera is not working, or the battery's dead, and I just walked away.

At Auberge de Jeunesse I met two Spanish guys: Oscar: a renowned artist in Spain with many installments under his belt and Peter whose bag was snatched in Dakar by a motorcycle and had lost all his money, passport and ID but despite all this, he had kept a very positive attitude and was enjoying his stay in Senegal. They told me about the guesthouse they stayed at in Dakar, Auberge Asseme. I decided to stay there after my return to Dakar because I didn’t want to become an over-stayed guest at Aarpul’s.

On January 14th, while I was enjoying the peace and quiet of beautiful Saint-Louis, I got an email from my new employer telling me that my contract is now up in the air because I didn’t go to the meeting to sign the contract. I was supposed to start my new job in Seoul in March. They had changed the date of the meeting from the end of February to sometime in January after I had already left Korea for Europe. I tried calling them from Saint-Louis, but they weren’t available, so I started thinking about my other options and possibly staying in Senegal! When I finally got a hold of the person at school, he refused to send me the contract by email and insisted that it’s absolutely necessary for me to be in Korea at least a month before the start of the new contract to do the paperwork. They were freaked out about the new visa regulations and the medical tests and criminal background checks all the teachers in Korea have to go through. I wasn’t going to ruin Africa trip, so I told them I won’t be in country until February and they should let me know if they are willing to wait. They gave me until February 1st to come back to Korea, which meant cutting my vacation three weeks short, a compromise I had to decide if I wanted to make in order to save my job.

I got back to Dakar from Saint-Louis on July 16th and checked into Auberge Asseme. That night, Aarpul brought me the luggage I had left at his place while I was in Saint-Louis, we ate at a local restaurant, met up with Diofel, Sheriff and Sheriff’s two CS guests and went to a Wolof dance show.

My next 10 days in Dakar consisted of another trip to Gorée Island, dancing the night away to Bob Marley and Reggae songs with Diofel's friends and roommates on my birthday, meeting Diofel’s adorable daughter, cooking loobia-polo for my newly found friends, visiting the beach, renting a tent on the beach to escape the sun, meeting with Alioune Guissé, the talented drummer of the band Frères Guissé, visiting Blaise Senghor Cultural Center, meeting Joe Bouschanzi, the dance instructor of the group Foret Sacrée, and visiting the ministry of transport and chamber of commerce to inquire about organizing a dance and drumming class in which Diofel was a true godsent and helped me with every step.

I gave my CV to the British Council (which offered me an interview for cover work after I left Dakar!), the Senegalese British Institute and an international school in Dakar. Later, I found out that had I stayed in Senegal longer, I would have found enough privates, through referrals, to make a comfortable living. But I found that out too late, I left Senegal for Korea on January 26th, planning to work in Korea for a semester and go back to Dakar in the summer.

Leaving Dakar was a tearful one. My heart was telling me to stay, but my head was telling me to go back to Korea for my job. I didn’t want to leave. I secretly prayed to God that my employer in Korea would let me go so that that difficult decision would be made for me instead of me having to make it. But I had run out of my budget for the Europe-Africa trip, and being unemployed in Africa didn’t seem like a responsible thing to do. Another year in Korea sounded more logical, after all I could return to Africa anytime I wanted. I considered Korea a ‘business trip’ for couple of months, an obligation I had already committed myself to. But Africa remains the place where my heart it, where I would like to return to, and someday call home.

Posted by Bita 28.02.2009 23:19 Archived in Senegal Comments (3)

The United States of America

I’ve always had the impression that if you lived in the Big Apple, you can confidently claim that even if you haven’t done it all, at least you’ve seen it all. And after my long-awaited visit to New York, I realized that it was true. I loved New York. It was just like I expected: diverse, cultural and chaotic. New York although at first a bit intimidating to some, won’t fail to fascinate you. Old musty buildings and modern polished skyscrapers seem to get along with each other. The countless billboards, enormous ads, colorful screens and yellow taxis flooding the streets make the city unique. The only disappointment was, we looked and looked, hoping to see some landmarks from Sex and the City, and lots of fashion conscious gorgeous looking people, to no avail. So we decided that half of what we saw in our beloved TV series was in fact B.S. The good news is, we managed to quickly get over that, and moved on.

The easiest building we could get to the day we arrived to get a bird view of the city was Rockefeller tower, on top of which you get an amazing view of all the madness and beauty. Madame Tussuad's Wax Museum was interesting although it was too packed with visitors trying to take a photo of themselves holding/kissing/groping their favorite star. Time’s Square and Wall Street each lived up to their reputation, while the Statue of Liberty looked on from the middle of nowhere.

To my surprise and contentment, we found out that there was no sale taxe on clothes priced under hundred dollars, which, because of the weak American dollar, makes New York a shopping paradise for Canadians.

Our second stop was Washington DC. We visited the White House as well as some of the one thousand not-so-great-looking memorials and monuments soaring up in every corner. Washington, DC is green and looks clean (well, the main streets) but it lacks charm and a welcoming personality. In short, it’s boring, just like its Canadian counterpart, Ottawa. The highlight of the trip to Washington DC was watching a scruffy man camping in front of the White House, dozing away his 12th days of huger strike to express his opposition to Iraq war and the potential war with Iran. The White House didn’t seem to mind … or care.

There was no indication of war, nothing that would remind you that America is in fact fighting two wars. Street banners and TV screens were too preoccupied with selling products and announcing the latest news about Jennifer Aniston’s last breakup. Who cares about the war? no bombs falling down on American homes, no tanks strolling down their streets.

Our third stop was Philadelphia, which looked historic and friendly, with a feeling of a little town just getting a little bigger. The old traffic lights, small little restaurants and the picturesque city hall, the biggest and tallest in the U.S. were nice to see. We had looked forward to getting on an open-topped double-decker city tour bus, but had to, frowningly, settle for a single-deck bus, which turned out to be for the better because it started pouring and people on the double-decker buses rushed in and crammed inside the lower level while we watched. One of those guilty pleasures!

Our last stop was beautiful and romantic Atlantic city which is the second biggest casino/gambling city in the U.S.A. Romantic perhaps because of the beach/beach-front bars/restaurants, and beautiful because of the neon lights of the casinos and the waterfront street and upscale shopping mall where we saw a brilliant water show. It was amazing to see a dull little fountain turned into a fascinating dance of water with light and music.

On the way back to Montreal, we had a short visit to the Woodbury factory outlet, the biggest in North America. But we were disappointed by the prices and the styles. We wished we had shopped more in NYC instead. So we decided that we should start planning occasional weekend trips to NYC for the sole purpose of shopping. Whether or not it will actually happen, I’m not sure, because I’m now back in Korea and well, the future is a mystery.

Posted by Bita 04.08.2008 07:05 Archived in USA Comments (4)

Malaysia

Kuala lumpur

If you like architecture, palm trees, diversity and good food, you'll love Kuala Lumpur. Every building has its own personality, beautifully designed to stand out. Every street has a different color, adorned with trees, houses or apartments complexes. You walk down the street and see people walking proudly in their traditional outfits, speaking different languages. within reach, there are a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, from middle eastern, to Asian, to western food: Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Thai, Bengal, Italian, Iranian, Iraqi, Mexican food stalls just to name a few. I'll be a fat girl by the time I leave Kuala Lumpur.

People of different races and ethnicities live and belong in KL. You see a young woman dressed in a one-inch long skirt and a top barely covering more than bras would, walking on the sidewalk right next to a woman covered head to toe in black burka. You see masques and temples thriving in harmony. It's colorful, it's alive. It's cosmopolitan and democratic. It was hard to believe when my Malaysian friends later told me that Malaysian citizens of Indian or Chinese decent cannot own a business without a Malay partner. And, that a temple or church in any neighborhood cannot be build if there is no masque in the area. In other words, Islam should be one of the options or no other religions can be preached.

But most tourists have little to do with these complicated, deeply rooted religion/race issues. Great food, great tourist sites, nice architecture, excellent transportation system and nice warm weather will make your trip to Malaysia a memorable one.

And for the first time since I left Canada for Korea, I feel completely - and happily- invisible. No one stares as if I'm an alien dumped down on earth. I'm just one in the crowd. When the taxi dropped me off at the hotel from the airport, I saw an Iranian restaurant called Kolbe-ye sharghi, the Eastern Hut, next to the hotel. I almost choked in excitement, it had been so long since I last had an authentic Iranian meal (the one in Seoul doesn't really count, the rice is sticky with no saffron). So after dropping my luggage in my room, I hurried into the restaurant with a big smile ear to ear, only to find out that they didn't share my enthusiasm to see another Iranian. At the restaurant, I saw piles of Persian weekly publications and Iranian yellow pages for businesses in Malaysia, even more than I had seen in Montreal. So I found out that there is a large Iranian population in Kuala Lumpur, and this was confirmed when I strolled around the city and heard Iranian families speaking in Farsi. So I sat at a window table by myself, ordered a traditional Iranian soup, Ashreshteh, and my favorite Kabaab Koobideh, with maast-o-moosir, feeling ignored while I ate. The food was authentic and Iranian all around. And I ate as though I hadn't eaten in years. Then I forced my stuffed and heavy self on my feet, and walked out of the restaurant, still as invisible and happy as I could possibly get.

Yesterday I woke up at 7 and to my surprise I felt up and functional. So I decided to start my day early and go to Petronas twin towers. I was told that in order to get admission to the SkyBridge, the bridge that connects the two towers together on the 41st and 42nd floors, I should be there before 9. The admission is free but there is limited number of tickets everyday and it's on a first-come, first-served basis. So I hopped into a cab and was at the twin towers before 9, only to realize that I wasn't the earliest bird in town. There were tens of people waiting in the line and I decided to wait too, although I had little hope of getting a ticket. 45 minutes later, I was handed a ticket for 12:15 pm. Happy and feeling lucky, I ventured out into the beautiful city of Kuala Lumpur to kill 3 hours. I found a coffee shop/restaurant and ordered an exotic tea whose name I couldn't pronounce. I studied my tourist map, sipped on the tea and noticed that the aquarium called Aquaria is right around the corner from the twin towers. So after finishing my tea, I went to the aquarium. Having being scuba diving and swimming with the fishes in their natural habitat, I realized that I no longer appreciate aquariums with their fake plants, dead corals and the fish swimming in circles in small confined water. But then I reminded myself that the aquariums are for people who, for different reasons, cannot go scuba diving.

Then around 4 o'clock, after visiting the towers, the aquarium and investigating every inch of the 4-floor shopping mall, I decided I had done enough for a day and it's about time I do something to my hair. My hair has been in a mess since the dives in the Philippines. It's been so pulled and abused that the only cure is a magic perm and a cut. But after walking around for another hour looking for a hair salon, I learned that they were all closed for Lunar new year.

Today I got on the hop-in, hop-off bus which goes to 42 tourist sites around the city. You buy a pass for 24 hours and you get on and off as many times as you want. The audio guide on the bus introduces different parts of the town, suggests things to do, and talks about the architecture. I went to the National Museum, the butterfly garden, the National masque, the Sculpture Park and the National monument . Then for my last stop I got off at Petaling Street (China Town) and strolled along hundreds of stalls selling imitation watches, bags and clothes. Malaysia is just as nice as Singapore, yet much much less expensive. And the hop-on, hop-off bus was a great way to get to the tourist sites and see the city.

And, the buffet at the top of KL tower was pricey and food not so good, but the 360-degree revolving floor which gives you a nice bird-eye view of beautiful KL is priceless.

Posted by Bita 08.02.2008 04:02 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Third weekend in the Philippines

Last weekend, I went to the Island of Puerto Galera to take an open water scuba diving course. It was a long trip and consisted of a jeepney, tricycle, bus and ferry ride and 4 hours of traveling. When I got there Friday evening, it was too late and my instructor and I decided to start at 9 am the next day.

On Saturday I was at the dive shop at 9 watching a video about the basics of diving. By 12 o’clock I was told that there’s another student in the shop who is also starting the course, so I’m going to have a ‘buddy’ which is a good thing because you always dive with a buddy and it’s important to learn the buddy system. At 2 o’clock I was in my wet suit, after breaking two nails trying to put in on, and I was in the pool listening to my instructor telling me to take off my mask and hold my breath under the water, swim across the pool with one breath, take off my BCD jacket and put it back on under the water and share air with my buddy while swimming to the surface. That’s when I realized my fear of water is much more profound than I had estimated and so I decided diving is not for me.

But one thing diving did for me was that it made me realize how I take simple things for granted. Small things like breathing effortlessly, running as fast as I want, whenever I want, and voice that enable us to communicate.

Then just when I thought I was totally in control of my life and nothing could stop or change that, I was asked to enter the water and breathe through a moderator for 10 minutes. I looked at the air tank and thought for the next 10 minutes, my life will depend on this small little device. It scared me but at the same time I had to trust it. I had to let go of control. In order to dive, I had to trust something I had no control over.

I guess that’s another thing diving taught me. That sometimes to accomplish something and to open new horizons, I have to let go of control and let someone else or something else take me there. Letting go of control doesn’t always mean denying myself freedom. It could mean being open to new possibilities and being receptive to what might happen that would take me beyond my limitations. That something or someone could actually take me where I wouldn't be able to go on my own. When the instructor asked me to take my mask off, close my eyes (so my contacts wouldn’t fall off) and let him drag me across the pool, my first reaction was: ‘what if he lets go of me? What if I can’t bring myself to the surface with these heavy weights attached to me, and what if the air tank falls off me?’ I was frightened and angry at myself for being there. But then a voice inside me told me that I have to let the fear go. That I can trust this guy that he won’t let me drown. I held on to his jacket and he turned me around, pulled me to the deep end of the pool and back to where we started. When he finally asked me to open my eyes and stand on my feet, I was relieved and happy to have accomplished something that I've been resisting for years. The ability to let go of control and to trust. And I promised myself to always try to remember that with trust comes great accomplishments.

On a much less emotional and intellectual note, my relationship with Chow King is now a complicated one. I guess my enthusiasm for Yang Chow Fried Rice got the cook’s attention because he sent the cashier and the busboy to find out more about me. Here’s how the conversation went:

After I ordered, I sat at a window table, hungry, and waited for my beloved Yang Chow. A minute later, I found the giggling cashier and the busboy standing next to my table.

Cashier: Hello ma’am!
Me (smiling): Hi!
Cashier: Ma’am, do you have a husband?
Me (with my eyebrows raised as high as they could, not sure if I heard it right): Excuse me?!
Cashier: What’s your name, ma’am?
Me: why?
Cashier: Ma’am, our head chef wants to know your name.
Me: hah?
Cashier: Our head chef wants your phone number too ma’am.
Me: oh …
Cashier: Our head chef wants to get to know you, ma’am.
Me: That’s very nice of him! But why he didn’t come to talk to me himself?
Cashier (giggling): Ma’am, our head chef wants to get to know you later.
Me: Well, tell your head chef that I’m probably too old for him. But thanks anyway.
busboy: How old are you, ma’am?
Me (thinking it wouldn’t hurt to add a couple of years): I’m 35. How old is he?
Cashier: He’s also 30 plus, ma’am.
Me: No, I think I’m much older than him. Thanks though. Bye bye now.

And that was the last time I had Yang Chow ... for now.

Posted by Bita 28.01.2008 05:36 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Second weekend in the Philippines

Although January is dry season in the Philippines, it’s raining almost everyday. Rain here is a part of life and after a while you just learn to ignore your wet feet and the drops of water falling on your nose, and live your life as you would if it didn’t rain. So when it started raining Friday afternoon, I decided to go on with my plan anyway and pay a visit to Liliw the shoe town. I was expecting to have two jeepney rides, first one to Santa Cruz and then another one to Liliw. But while I was waiting for a jeepney, I saw a bus with Santa Cruz sign. I flagged it down and jumped in. The good thing about Philippines is that you can actually ask the driver where the bus is going, as opposed to taking your chances and hoping for the best.

If you think the buses in Korea are made for small people, then you should check out the buses in the Philippines. Even I, at 5 foot tall, was squeezed between the seats behind and in front of me. And another unusual thing was that vendors get on and off the bus to sell their products, from popcorn to roasted peanuts. The driver, of course, gets his free dose of goodies for allowing the vendors to sell on this bus. At Santa Cruz I got on a jeepney for a not very pleasant an-hour long ride. I was amazed at how something could be so cute and so uncomfortable all at the same time.

When I finally got to Liliw, I thought the painful ride was worth it since I found myself smiling by the sight of thousands of shoes on display. I walked my way up the hill looking at the shoe stores till accidentally I came across an old church with huge statues of Jesus and some saints I didn't recognize. Then it started pouring. Since my arrival in the Philippines I had being resisting the need to buy an umbrella because I have actually being enjoying walking in the rain, until that day! And it turned out that umbrellas are not sold in the convenient stores. So I had to get on a jeepney to get back. Two hours later I was home and I was amazed at the outcome of the day. I had gone to the shoe haven and back without buying one pair! That must have been a miracle.

Friday morning before the trip to Liliw I decided to join the group and check out one of the two public high schools in Los Banos. And I’m glad I did. I learned some facts about the education system in the Philippines that made me wonder how they manage teaching/learning despite all the problems. For example, books are lent to the students and must be returned to the school in mint condition after the students finish the exams. It means no writing, underlining or highlighting the text. There are on average 60-70 students in the class in a public school (40 in private school). So the teacher to student ratio is on average 1 to 65. The female to male ratio enrolment was just the opposite of what I expected. There is 25 percent more female students than male student enrolled at high school level (well, in one of the public school in Los Banos). The tuition fee is free of the students although the parents are encouraged to contribute as much as they can since the government pays the school only 600 pesos per student per school year. I was shocked and speechless to hear this because I had just bought a pair of heels for 650 the day before. It was hard to believe that my shoes cost more than what the school gets for each student for 10 months.

On Saturday, my not-at-all-anticipated 31st birthday arrived and I decided to do what I do best. Sleep all day. Since I was now officially too old and can now get away with stuff like being a lazy bum, I slept till 1 pm and woke up sore and tired. Then I figured, well, it’s my birthday and I should probably indulge myself in something nice, like a hot spring. So I slowly got out of the bed, slowly got ready, packed my bikini and sunscreen, slowly walked down the rows of beautiful palm trees and got myself into a jeepney to go to Calamba where most hot springs are. When I got there, I walked into the biggest place that got my attention, Splash Mountain. There were pools, Jacuzzis, water slides and rooms. The outdoor Jacuzzi sounded the best till I asked the price and found out that it’s 500 pesos for an hour. I asked to see it and found myself looking at an empty diamond shape pool that takes at least half an hour to fill up. The worst part was that it was right next to a swimming pool packed with hundreds of screaming kids and adults in t–shirt. so I started debating my decision of picking the biggest spa in the area. “Bigger is not always better’. Bigger draws more attention, therefore it won’t to be all yours. So unless you like to share, bigger IS NOT better.” I thought to myself. I was not going to be the only one in bikini. I wanted to be invisible and not being stared out. Being the only one in a yellow bikini doesn’t translate into being invisible. So I walked out and decided to get something to eat instead. It was my birthday so I treated myself to a whole fresh-water filipino style fried fish, with rice and an enormous plate of buttered vegetables. I loved the fish and enjoyed every bite as three waiters attentively attended to me, the only customer in the restaurant. Then I walked out stuffed and happy. I walked to the main road getting all soaked up in the rain, and patiently waited for a jeepney. Then I went to the best spa in town, the V-loung and got a full body massage for an hour. As I was being pampered in the hands of a professinal, I thought to myself, "This is how I want my birthday to be from now on until I die."

When I got back in the hotel around 7 pm, I found all of my 20 students jammed in the tiny classroom waiting for me with a cake, candles, beer, snack and smiling faces. They had thrown me a surprise birthday party. We cut the cake with a plastic fork, we attacked it with our spoons, we drank beer like fish and we laughed for hours until we were ask to keep it quiet by other guests in the hotel. As I lay down on my bed, I thought, this was a good day. And maybe turning 31 isn’t that bad after all.

On Sunday, we went to Manila, to the third largest shopping mall in Asia called Mall of Asia. There were all sorts of shops, from Calvin Cline and Guess to little Gap style shops and boutiques. I found my perfume which wasn’t sold at Gimhae airport, bought some clothes, souvenirs and a jeepney magnetic for each of my 20 students who had so thoughtfully remembered and celebrated my birthday.

After a long day of walking around the shopping mall and spending more than I had planned to, I was ready to go back home. As the van was driving through Manila, I thought I would really like to come back and see this city, where the average income is 200 dollars a month and where most people spend less than a dollar a day. So I decided to spend my last weekend in Manila, instead of Borocay, to see what life in the Philippines is really like.

Posted by Bita 21.01.2008 06:07 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

the Philippines

Los Banos

I'm now in the Philippines, in a city called Los Banos, 'the baths' in Spanish. Ever since I stepped out of the airport, I've been feeling much more alive. Palm trees, heat, mist and smiling faces make me happy. And the other thing I'm happy about is that since I got here I got my appetite back. I'm once again eating with passion, making up for the starvation in past couple of months. Philippines has had much to offer!

Los Banos is home to a branch of the University of Philippines, the International Rice Science Research Center, as well as many hot springs (hence the name 'the Baths'). Although very small, the town is lively because of its young population of Filipino and visiting international students. The UP campus is huge and it's filled with coconut palms and many beautiful exotic-looking trees and plants. It's hot and humid, even in January which is considered winter/dry season in the Philippines. The temperature can be as high as 35 degrees during the day. It hasn't rained at all since I got here and I consider that great luck since I was prepared for too much rainfall and therefore lots of staying-in.

The first thing that got my attention as uniquely Filipino was the jeepneys, the taxi/minibus jeeps which take you wherever you want to go. You tell the driver your destination, and if he nods, you jump onto the back of the jeep and sit next to as many as 15 other people. After my first ride I decided that I like jeepneys not only because they're an extremely inexpensive way to get around, but also because my hair flies in the wind and gets all tangled up. It reminds me of Cambodia and the Tuk Tuk rides. And you never have to wait more than 10 second to flag down a jeepney.

Today I went to the Rice Research Center and found myself in a pool of little school children running and screaming around the museum. There was so much information about rice and how the livelihood of many countries depends on rice production. For example, an average Asian person consumes about 200 pounds of rice per year. An average European person on the other hand only consumes 20 pounds a year. It was interesting and informative and I would definitely stay longer if the museum wasn't so noisy.

Then I took a jeepney back to the town and asked the driver to take me to the Makiling Botanic Garden on the Mt. Makiling. The driver agreed but a Filipino guy who was sitting next to me suggested that I get off at the university gate and take a jeepney in the other direction to save time. He then pointed his index finger to the sky and said this is how you tell the driver you want to go to the Botanic Garden, because it's on the way to the top of the mountain. He invited me to go scuba diving with his scuba diving club next weekend, which I politely turned down since they were all certified divers and I still don't have any training at all.

So I got out of the jeenpney at the campus gate, crossed the street and waited for another jeepney with my finger up in the air pointing to the sky. The first 3 jeennies didn't stop, the fourth did and I hopped in.

At the Botanic Garden's ticket office I was told that the eagles' exhibition is closed and the garden will also close in an hour. So I hurried inside, got my camera ready and started walking. I expected lots and lots of flowers and plants carefully planted but it was actually more like a tropical rain forest, tall trees, wide leaves, uncomfortably humid, and no room for the sun to shine through. I followed the sign to the 'pool' and found myself to be the only one in the area. It was absolutely empty. I was wondering where all the visitors are when a Filipino man approached me and asked if I wanted to see the pool. I hesitantly asked him where the visitors are and he said this is the quietest time of the day. Most tourists come to visit in the morning. I asked him about the pool and he explained that the pool is not actually a pool but a lake where people can swim in but nobody's there at the moment. I thanked him for the info and continued my way in the other direction. He followed me explaning that he works at the garden as an artist and offered to show me the endangered eagle's exhibition. By then I was already on the main road. Later he explained to me that when the ticket agent saw me there alone carrying a camera, he asked him to accompany me for my own safety. He said it's not safe for girls to be by themselves and that a tourist got robbed there a couple of days ago. 'You're so brave!" he said, "in the Philippines we don't let our sisters go to places like this alone."

Although I was at first annoyed by his uninvited company, he turned out to be a good man who genuinely seemed to be concerned about my safety. He walked me to the eagles' exhibition in the forest and asked them to let me go inside even though they were closed. It was nice of him. (I learned that eagles are as mean-looking in person as they are in pictures). Then He walked me back to the gate and advised me to keep my camera hidden in my purse. I thanked him again, jumped into a jeepney and got back to my room.

My mission tomorrow is to go to a town which is the shoe mecca in the Philippines. It's an hour away from Los Banos on the way to Manila. After the long walk at the museum and the botanic garden today, I'm ready to take a break from heels for a while. Flip Flops have never sounded more intriguing.

Posted by Bita 11.01.2008 06:09 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

Singapore

Singapore must be the cleanest land on earth. The city is spotless. Chewing gum, spitting and littering are subject to fines. You see signs read: "If you see rats anywhere, report immediately by calling the following number." (Whereas in Cambodia the signs read: If you have sex with an underaged child in Cambodia you will go to prison here or in your country.)

I booked a hotel through Singapore Stopover Holiday. The pick-ups and hotel arrangements were extremely organised and punctual. Everywhere I went, my vouchers, rides or guides were already there, waiting for me. I stayed at Siloso resort on Sentosa Island but on my short visit to the town I wished I stayed in a hotel around the river and made day trips to Sentosa beach instead. Sentosa Island’s beaches are entirely man-made, the sand is imported and the palm trees are planted. I must admit that it was absolutely breathtaking. Simply beautiful. It’s a romantic place, a perfect honeymoon spot, so going there alone is probably not a good idea! The water was clear, the weather was just right and it felt like a vacation I'd seen on postcards. The free tram within the island is a lovely slow ride and a great way to discover the island. The aquarium was interesting, better than the one in Busan. The dolphin show was amazing. Sentosa Island is paradise.

The night safari, a much-anticipated event, was on the other hand disappointing. The train moved too fast, not giving us enough time to watch the animals. People kept flashing their cameras and the guide kept telling them not to. The animals were separated from each other and confined to a small area by electric fence. It was sad to see an elephant hitting his trunk over and over into the fence because it wanted to go to another elephant on other side of the fence but it couldn’t. The animals didn’t seem happy. They didn’t seem like they’re living in their supposedly natural habitat, the rain forest. And to top it all off, it started raining that evening so I didn’t get off the train for a stroll along the trails.

The raffles hotel was majestic and beautiful. The river cruise will give you a good look at the beautiful architecture and the many bars and restaurants along the river. The shopping malls offer a good selection although the prices weren't as reasonable and the customer service not as friendly as Korea’s. Singapore is not the most affordable place to travel to if you are on a tight budget. The costs of food, accommodation and entertainment are comparable with those in North America. There is a huge foreign population in Singapore, from business people to general labor. It was good to see such diversity after living in a foreigner-challenged small town in Korea for years. Singaporean food is of course one of my favorites. I regret not having scheduled more time for Singapore on my way to Cambodia. There are so many things to do and see. Singapore is a beautiful beautiful country .... a must see!

Posted by Bita 10.10.2007 09:26 Archived in Singapore Comments (4)

Cambodia

Cambodia! The realm of pain and suffering, war and poverty. Another example of how fanatic ideology can destroy.

First days in Cambodia are disturbingly unfamiliar and shocking. Trying to soak up the reality of life in Cambodia, I hardly found the strength to speak. In Phnom Penh, I watched with disbelief bare-feet begging children being kept away from our table by the security guard. Even at the presence of the security guard, the children managed to get the leftovers on our plates and happily walk away with some food. Food is a luxury in Cambodia.

At the riverfront where mostly tourists and affluent Cambodians hang out, children are publicly exploited and put to work. Some children sell copied books, some sell postcards, others sell t-shirts, hand-made bracelets and other accessories, but these are "lucky" kids who have enough English skills to haggle with foreigners, who can afford the 10$/month English schools. The less fortunate kids, who don't speak any English, have no choice but to simply beg for money and leftover foods.

In Sihanoukville, at the serendipity and Ocheuteal beaches, kids as young as 4 years old carry a plastic bag and beg for empty cans of soda. 2 cans of soda earn them 10 riel, or 0.0024 dollar. To earn a dollar, the kids must collect 800 cans. But that would be an impossible task because of the number of the competition also in search of empty cans. A lucky and very hard-working kid will be able to collect 50 cans a day the most, or 2500 riel, hardly enough for a meal. A local dish (such as fried rice) at an average restaurant costs about $US2.50. Only tourists and few wealthy Cambodians can dine out at such restaurants. Children and adults looking for valuables or food in the garbage dumps is commonplace. And you won't fail to see one since every street corner in Phnom Penh is a dumpsite filled with trash.

Street sale in Cambodia is a ruthless job. Some children do it in a sweet way but some children go to any extreme to make a sale. They harass you, stalk you, and make you feel guilty until you buy something.

At Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville, a 10-11 year old boy walked up to me carrying a tray of hand-mad accessories. Here's our conversation:

Kid: Hello miss, do you want to buy a bracelet?
Me: No thank you.
Kid: How about a necklace?
Me: No thank you.
Kid: These are nice. Look. Buy a bracelet.
Me: No thank you. I've bough many bracelets here. I have enough bracelets now.
Kid: But you didn't buy from me! That's not fair.
Me: I can't buy from everybody. There are so many of you.
Kid: Look! This one matches your shirt.
Me: No thanks. I have exact same one.
Kid: How about this one? This one matches your skirt.
Me: No thank you. I don't need more bracelets. I have many.
Kid: Buy one for your friends.
Me: I have bought for my friends too. I bought 15 bracelets since I came here. I don't need more.
Kid: but you didn't buy from me! Remember yesterday when you came here I asked you first. But you bought from someone else. That's not fair.
Me: I don't remember. And I don't need more bracelets. Thank you.
Kid: maybe later?
Me (happy to finally be left alone): Maybe some other time, bye bye.
Kid: ok, bye.

Next day, the same kid found me in a café reading a book.

Kid: Hello miss! Do you remember me?
Me: Hey! It's you again!Of course I remember you!
Kid: Yes me!
Me: How are you?
Kid: I'm fine. You buy a bracelet from me?
Me: No thank you. Remember? I said I've bought too many bracelets.
Kid: No yesterday you promised you buy one from me....
Me: Me? No I never promised to buy another one!
Kid: Yes you did! I said later you buy a bracelet, you said yes!
Me: No no! I said maybe some other time! I never said tomorrow I'd buy a bracelet from you!
Kid: No you promised! You can lie to me, but you can't lie to yourself!
Me: I never promised!

Now at this point I was getting agitated and wanted him to leave me alone. But he's too persistent to let go.

Kid: Here, I give you a special price. This one for 2 dollars.
Me: but I have 15 bracelets.
Kid: How about a necklace?
Me: I don't like these necklaces. They're not my style.
Kid: No! They're nice! look, you can resize it.
Me: How much are they? (big mistake!)
Kid: 5 dollars! You buy two I give you one for half price!
Me: 5 dollars? That's expensive! Your friend sells them for 2 dollars!
Kid: No these are different! These are longer. Look!
Me: No, they're expensive and I don't need a necklace anyway. Thank you.
Kid: but you promised you buy one from me.
Me: I never promised you to buy. I said I have everything I need. Now please leave me alone.
Kid: I'm not going away until you buy this from me.
Me: If you don't go away I'll have to tell the restaurant manager.
Kid: He can throw me out but I'll come back.
Me: Then I'll ask him again.
Kid: I will come back. I will wait for you outside until you leave.
Me: But then you won't make any money. You need to find someone who would be interested to buy something from you.
Kid: No you promised me you'll buy from me. You can lie to me but you can't lie to yourself.
Me (aggravated): I never promised you. Please go away.
Kid: I'm not going anywhere. Buy a necklace.
Me: ALRIGHT! I'm leaving then.

I paid the bill and left the restaurant. He followed me. I met Scott outside, unlocking the bike.

Kid: If you don't buy, you'll have an accident.
Me: what?
Kid (banging his right fist into his left palm): An accident. I promise.

I looked around. Some Cambodian men were looking at us with a smile. Or grin?

Me: You're making me very angry now. Go away.
Kid: You'll have an accident. You'll see.
Me: GO AWAY. Scott, please tell him to go away.
Scott: Go away young man.

The boy walked away. He turns around, again banged his fists into each other and smiled.

But there is a bright side to Cambodia too. Angkor Wat temple complex is one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind. The temples are far away from each other so we hired a tuk tuk for the day who took us from one site to the other and waited patiently while we visited each temple. Just like the Great Wall of China, just like the Pyramids of Egypt, Angkor Wat is very old, historic, huge and it's a proof of our ancestors' intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience. I couldn't help thinking how in earth they managed to build this enormous structure with no tractors and no cranes. There is so much detail carved on the walls and ceilings; it takes days to see all the temples, as each one is different. Each corner is a magnificent piece of art. But most of all, Angkor Wat is spiritual and humbling. Standing in front of this astonishing architecture of the 12th century, I felt so insignificant. It reminded me that life is so much bigger than my little world of worries, insecurities and dreams.

At one of the temples, I saw a 14-15 year old mute boy in scruffy clothes and no shoes talking in sign language to a monk burning incenses in front of a Buddha. Later the boy came to me and pointed to a bag of chocolate hanging out of my purse. I gladly gave him the box, smiled and walked away. He put his palms together in front of his chest and under his chin, the gesture of thanks and appreciation in Cambodia. Few minutes later, he ran to me and handed me a piece of paper. He had drawn two flowers beautifully tangled around each other. He smiled and walked away. I smiled and thanked him with tears in my eyes. The young stranger had touched my heart. "I wish I could help" I thought. But I don't know how.

Cambodians must be one of the friendliest people in the world. They never fail to smile and make you feel welcomed. It's amazing how forgiving there are to foreigners, who bombed them, left them alone in their misery, and ignored the genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime. No one helped them, no one cared. But that doesn't stop Cambodians from smiling at strangers and being warm and hospitable.

Cambodia must also have the friendliest stray dogs, cats and cows. They're literally everywhere going about their business without being bothered, harassed or abused. The only time I saw a Cambodian man shooing and scaring an animal away was when a cow decided to take a bite out of a short, young, newly planted banana tree in front of our bungalow. The man yelled and the cow gently walked away. It was funny to see a bunch of cows sit and chill in the middle of the road in Sihanoukville and nobody seems to mind. The cows sat there like glamorous celebrities for as long as they wished, and no one bothered them. Cats and dogs come and go as they wish. People share the little food they have with the animals. Tourisits feed them too. Stray animals in Cambodia live a good life.

And just when you think things can't get any cheaper than in Korea, you find yourself paying only a buck for a pack of cigarettes (8$ in Canada, 2.50 in Korea) and 50 cents for a pack of tampons (7$ in Canada, 6 in Korea). Your money goes a long way in Cambodia.

And one last thing: I was amazed at how fluent the children and adults speak English. Whether it's because of their job, or because they see many tourists everyday, children as young as 5 years old speak English very well. My conversation above with the boy who was trying to sell me a bracelet is an example. Some university students in Korea study English at elementary school, middle school, high school, university, hagwons and with private tutors for 15 years and still can't utter a word. When I got back to Incheon airport, too tired to ride a bus to Masan for 5 hours, I decided to take a plane to Pusan. I went to the Korean Air customer service desk and asked: When is the next flight to Pusan? The girl stared at me with wide-open eyes like I was speaking an unknown language. Wouldn't you get frustrated?

Posted by Bita 25.08.2007 06:22 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Japan

Japan was great. The first impression I got was: “oh my! it’s so clean!” The second was: “oh, it’s so clean!” And finally: “wow! Everything is clean". I wouldn’t want to live in Japan but for a short vacation, it’s fantastic.

Kyoto is very a historic town with many shrines and temples. Kiyomizutera temple and Heian shrine are both very majestic and well taken care of.

In Nara city at Tou Dai Ji temple, the friendly deers were very cute. The myth is that deers protect the gods, so the park protects the deers.

In Osaka, Dotombori, the street of gourmet, and Sinsaibasi, the main street, were hip and crowded. But my favorite site in Japan has to be Kobe for its breathtaking view, steep yet charming streets and marvelous harbor.

It's amazing how Japan has managed to blend and maintain the old and the new together. It seems that the traditional Japanese culture has found a way to proudly stroll along generation to generation, and come to terms with the western culture.

Posted by Bita 19.02.2007 17:57 Archived in Japan Comments (19)

Bangkok and Pattaya

Sometimes it's just impossible to stick to plans. Every travel plan I made for this summer failed. Being spontaneous would have been a less bumpy journey this time around.

So, my plan to do Europe this summer changed to one-month beach vacation in Phuket, which led me to a package tour to Cambodia and Thailand, only to end up with a 5-day package tour in Bangkok and Pattaya.

First day, Saturday, was only get-there part of the trip. 14 hours of bus and plane ride : Mokpo-Gwangju-Incheon-Bangkok. We arrived at Bangkok airport at 0:30 a.m. and met our tour guide; whom I started to like and dislike all at the same time; and the rest of the group. There were four couples, one of which was on honeymoon, and four single girls including Norah and myself. We were taken to a hotel close to Grand Palace. Next day, we got up at 7:00, and visited the palace. It was hot and sticky and most of us were in shorts and sleeveless tops. At the gate, we were asked to cover up our shoulders and legs with shirts and skirts they lent us for 1 US dollar, the extra layers made it much harder to walk around the site. It was very hot and humid.

Afterwards we got on a long-tail boat along the river to visit Wat Arun the Temple of the Dawn. Amazing site. So much detail has been put into this temple. And I notice how different temples in different countries look like. Korean temples, versus Chinese or Thai ones. Each one has its own unique features and characteristics.

Along the river in Bangkok, we passed by some houses built on water whose residents step out of their house into their boat! An Asian Venice but not as famous. After lunch, which was Korean food not Thai to my surprise, we got back on the bus and headed to Pattaya. Two-and-half hours later we were in Pattaya visiting Mini Siam which displays the small-scaled version of famous historical statues/buildings from Thailand and around the world such as statue of Liberty, Eiffel tower, the Opera House, .... To my surprise I found a miniature of Takht-e-Jamshid, the ruins of the Great Persian Empire, or Persepolis as it was called by Romans. Then we watched a traditional dance show, partly cultural and history telling, partly comedy. To me the choreography, performance, lighting, music, art direction and the coordination of them all were amazing. We were told that the next night, if we wish, we can sign up for a dance show by transvestites, kind of dirty but famous in Pattaya! Out of curiosity we all signed up for it.

The next day, we all met up at the hotel's lobby at 8:00, were each given a towel and got on a boat to go to an Island, not being told any more details. I thought we're just heading for some sightseeing, but later found out that I was going parasailing, so unprepared for the event! All turned out to be ok and I didn't get wet since I took off and landed on a deck. It was not as scary as my bungee jumping experience, but on the first 10 seconds or so, I was basically thinking how could I forget to give Norah my mom's phone number, because I probably won't make it back on deck! It was fun. It's probably the closest you can get to being a bird.

After the parasailing, we took the same boat again to Koh Larn (Coral Island) and its white sandy beach and clear water. I was not going to swim in my jeans and tank top. I bought a bikini and jumped into the water.
Then we were taken back to the hotel, and given two hours of free time. My swimming lessons were going to pay off. I went to the hotel's pool and enjoyed the cool water in that very hot afternoon.

At 3 o'clock we met up again and went to an elephant show, which was so amazing that I decided that my favorite animal has to be elephant. Elephants are not as stupid and dull as you might think they are. The elephants held a brush and with some paint drew a tree on a canvas. Then the "artworks" were sold for US$200. They also played soccer, basketball and darts. They bowled. They danced. They even bowed to the audience's applause. It was very entertaining.

After the elephant show, we found ourselves watching live sex show, what we had expected to be a transvestite dance! The opening was shockingly just hardcore sex, and the other acts were mostly girls stripping and taking a shower on the stage or guys showing off their member! Thailand is supposedly the sex capital of the east. Anything goes and sex is so readily available to those male visitors looking for cheap sex.

Then we went to "Waking Street", the center of nightlife and shopping. We heard live music coming out of some bars (wish we had some of that in Mokpo). We shopped for souvenirs and I for shoes, walked along the street, go-go's, clubs, transvestites, transexuals, prostitutes, …. it was quite controversial, interesting to some, disturbing to some others!

It was a long, busy day. Para sailing, beach, swimming, elephant show, weird sex show, shopping and people watching all in one day. Lots of fun but exhausting.

On the last day, we started the day at 9, first by visiting an alligator farm and alligator show. I heard that Thai people believe that alligators bring tourists to Thailand. There were hundreds of mean-looking yet funny alligators chilling in the sun or in the water.

Then we headed back to Bangkok. On the way were asked to visit some Korean-owned factories such as a bedding factory and cosmetics and we were, of course, encouraged to buy some products. No one did. Then we visited a pineapple farm (I thought pineapples grow on trees!!!) and a souvenir shop, followed by a local market in downtown and shopped some more. I was thrilled to find an Iranian/Indian restaurant even though I didn't at all like the "Estamboli polo" and "Chelo Kabab Koobideh" and "Mast-o-Khiar" that Norah and I ordered. The food was the Indian version of Iranian food. A little disappointing but oh well! Then we hopped in the bus to go back to the airport for our flight home at 2:30 a.m.

On the tour, I spent most of my time with the group, and wasn't at all able to interact with the locals and to visit less touristy places. So at times I felt like a stupid tourist rather than a traveller. I wished I could stay longer and explore Thailand on my own but the return ticket was not flexible. There are so many things to see and do in Thailand, no wonder it's so popular with tourists. I will definitely plan a trip back, this time much longer!

Posted by Bita 13.07.2006 02:58 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Taipei

Shilin night market in Taipei is huge and nice. The prices are higher than those in mainland China but stylewise there's more diversity. It took me two nights, 3 hours each to explore it. The food alley across from the subway station is absolutely fantastic. Taiwanese food is delicious.

My favorite site in Taipei was Hulai aboriginal village. The waterfall, mountains, river, bridges and apartment buildings were stunning. There are also trains and cable cars to take you to the top but they were unfortunately closed for Chinese New Year. I couldn't find a real hot spring; the advertised hot springs in the local spas were only pools and Jacuzzis inside luxurious bedrooms, something you'd rather do with a partner!

Taipei 101 is nicely designed; especially the first 5 floors are like art-deco, loaded with upscale boutiques and designer shops. I heard that the other floors are still empty and not yet rented out. Too bad, what a waste of view and space!

On my last day in Taiwan, I joined a tour to Yehliu, the hill with seawater-eroded rocks. The most famous rock is the queen's head, took us some time to get a clear shot with no tourists in the frame! The rocks were amazingly eroded in strange shapes, the sea was clear blue, and the clouds were dazzling.

Taiwan is so not Chinese! And Taiwanese people don't like to be called Chinese. There is a strong sense of unique identity and desire for independence among them and they sure deserve it. The culture's totally different and the social structure felt to me very different.

Posted by Bita 30.01.2006 02:55 Archived in Taiwan Comments (2)

Hong Kong to Taipei

Hong Kong to Taipei

The airport shuttle bus which picks up travelers along the Nathane avenue -- the longest avenue in Hong Kong -- was on time and spacious. I got to the airport around 9. Taiwan is my last destination. I had planned to shop for a ticket from Taipei to Korea while I was in Taiwan. At the boarding pass counter I was told that I cannot enter Taiwan without a return ticket. My visa is going to be valid for only 30 days and they needed a proof that I'm not planning to stay longer, so I was directed to the Cathay Pacific ticket center at the airport. At the ticket center they offered me an open ticket since I wasn't exactly sure when I'll be leaving Taiwan, before or after Chinese New Year. My common sense told me that an open ticket would not be accepted at the immigration since my visa is only valid for one month. But the ticket agent assured me that an open ticket is fine. The price was too high since a) it was an open ticket, b) the ticket center at the airport does not offer any promotions or discounts. I made sure I can refund the ticket in Taiwan, and went back to the boarding pass counter. I had only 10 minutes to board. At the boarding pass counter I, again, asked if an open ticket would be ok to enter Taiwan, the answer was "absolutely". I got on the plane and an hour and thirty minutes later landed in Taipei. At the immigration, I handed my passport and the arrival/departure card, but being stupid me, I couldn't keep my mouth shut and had an urge to share with the immigration officer that my ticket is open! What is wrong with me? He probably wouldn't even check my ticket as long as I had one.

It turned out that open tickets are not acceptable and as a result I was held up at the immigration. I was interrogated and asked to specify a return date for my flight to Korea. I was furious and not quite a lady. I had asked two agents at the Hong Kong airport if an open ticket would be ok they assured me it would. Now I've been denied entrance. I just couldn't understand why someone with a Canadian passport would be denied entrance for not having a certain return date. Why would I want to stay in Taiwan anyway? What do they think Taiwan has to offer me?

The Cathay Pacific center at the Taipei airport changed my ticket to the 26th. The camp ends on the 25th. I did not want to stay any longer than I had to, I wasn't feeling welcomed. "Thank you," I thought, "I'll spend my cash elsewhere!"

45 minutes later, 2 other teachers and I were picked up by the camp driver and taken to a hotel. That afternoon all of us met for an orientation and I met my boss, a nice, modest man who tried to make us feel at home. The first 3-day camp was going to start the next day.

Posted by Bita 16.01.2006 02:51 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

More on Hong Kong

Update on Hong Kong

Virginia hotel turned out to be a "love Motel". My first night at the hotel, happy to have found such a good deal, I was just off to bed when some very serious sound effects started to shake the floors and the ceilings. Lasted 15 minutes or so and everything went back to normal. I'm sure there had been more of that going on but I was too fast asleep to hear any. The next morning I was asked to check out. Turned out that the hotel rent was only for 12 hours not 24. I wasn't going to stay all day at the hotel so I didn't need to pay for the 12 hours, 11 am to 11 pm. I was offered to leave my luggage in the motel's balcony and check in again after 11 pm. I agreed.

Hong Kong was fun. On my first day I went on a long walk in the central and west Hong Kong area. I walked up the Hollywood street, visited the temple, Jade market, antique street, the old police station, Soho dining street, West and East market, Stanley street, and ate at a traditional Chinese restaurant. At night I decided to take a look at men's market in Kowloon but couldn't find it. I asked a man, Thomas from Germany, who looked like he knows. He happened to be on a business trip and was also looking for the same market and asked me to follow him. We went to the market, had diner, and planned a short trip to Macau for the next day.

Macau, the Portuguese island of China is a blend of Europe and Asia, the old and the new. You see Portuguese written everywhere but only 5 percent of the residents can speak it. We got on a bicycle tour and visited most tourist sites, guided by our friendly bike-cab driver.

At the Macau tower I went for the thrill of a lifetime, something I had always dreamed of: Bungee Jumping. It wasn't a free fall, but it was still one of the scariest things I had ever done. The worst part is right before jumping off. You look down and think: what the heck am I doing? you want to give it a second thought but it's too late to chicken out. I was terrified but once I jumped off, I was relieved. I had never felt so free. 15 second or so in the air and you're on your feet on the ground, craving more.

2 more days of checking out at 11 am and checking in at 11 pm at the Virginia motel, and I was on my way to Taiwan. I'll sure miss Hong Kong.

Posted by Bita 15.01.2006 02:43 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

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