Foreign Thoughts

we are all just a bit lost

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The Most Terrible Enterprise

I wrote this a few minutes after I read a book. It was The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. I typed it out in a few minutes on my phone and felt that I should post it up here. There seems to be such a disconnect between what we see on the news in places like Afghanistan and how we react. I was talking with my mother this morning and she told me about the SHOCK AND AWE campaign at the beginning of the Iraq War. People were watching it in her break room at work. They were sitting there with snacks enjoying the spectacle of it like it was some sort of action movie. She started to cry. They didn’t understand.
"We are kicking their butts!"
"Isn’t this cool?" 
There is a terrible disconnect between the reality of those things and what the public feel about them. We know that families are ripped apart through daily drone strikes. We know that children in Pakistan are radicalized by our foreign policies. We know that we, through our elected representatives, order soldiers to end the lives of others thousands of miles away. We know these things, but that is where our understanding stops. I wrote this quickly, so I will apologize if it comes across as too meandering or badly written or overly judgmental. They are just my thoughts. They are written as well as I was able to articulate them.
With that in mind I will lead with a quote found at the start of the aforementioned novel.
To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows not kept raw by he edge of repetitions.                                             -Sir Thomas Browne
Men with guns kill other men with guns, and women at clotheslines, and children hiding behind bushes, and dreams written on first grade chalkboards, and innuendos whispered over french wine, and lives and thoughts and feelings that were and that could have been. They extinguish the potential of the men they fight and are in turn extinguished. They are left jagged and cracked for their obedience to our wishes. We ignore it. We tell ourselves that we aren’t responsible. We didn’t do anything. It’s them. If only our killers were better, more human.
It is the burden of experience. Only a few must suffer through it and we condone their suffering through our passivity. We don’t have to see what they see, or know what they know. Broken bodies, pained souls, dead friends. We can live in contented ignorance. Our dead pass in their sleep, or on a sports field, or in a car accident, or after breakfast, or getting their mail. We say, “That’s terrible,” without having any idea what terrible really looks or feels like. We cry, we forget. We are affected only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be. There is control, and without it we would break, as our killers do.
They don’t have that choice. We tell them to kill, and they kill. And then we let them suffer and drown in our indifference.

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Complete and Utter Exhaustion, with perks…

As I am sure you know, throughout the last three and a half weeks David and I have been traveling. If you don’t know that, you have now been informed. There have been paraw boats, big planes, small planes, trains, cars, buses, ferries, vans, and all varieties of two, three, and four wheeled vehicles. We have been bouncing around the Philippines like hyperactive five year olds for the past month. There has been sightseeing, diving, atv rides, clubs, bars, lounging, sun, sea, and sand. We have kept up a breakneck pace throughout. In Cambodia, it all caught up with us. But I will start elsewhere.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on April 4. After one night of sleep we dumped the suitcases we had and took a very early and very uncomfortable bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On arrival we were greeted by a very nice man who called himself Lee. Naturally, a newly arrived traveler in a strange city would raise an eyebrow at a friendly local who offers to drive them around. We did not. Of course…. Instead, we permitted Lee to drive us to our hotel and show us around the city on the way. He took us by a few landmarks and showed us where as he described it, “You can meet many beautiful women here!” We thanked him for the tour when we arrived at the hotel and planned to see more of the city with him the next day. For that evening however, we had other plans. As luck would have it I have a friend living in Phnom Penh. Her name is Anne Sjolander and she has been a resident of the city for the past 8 months or so. We met at, of course, an Irish bar… They seem to be everywhere.

Anne, I am sorry if you don’t like the photo. It is the only one I took… But, best guide ever.

Anne was an amazing hostess. Between Ms. Sjolander, her friends, and Lee we saw just how much fun of a city it was. With Anne we tasted the street cuisine, went to bar called Red Fox to sample the local herbs, and enjoyed a great afternoon swimming in ‘Olympic Park’ (the name seems arbitrary). We got to join some teenagers doing backflips off of a forty foot high dive. No backflips from our group, just piercing screams from David and Anne as they jumped off. It was pretty funny to watch the stands full of families observe the foreigners giving it a try. Anne even got a smattering of applause. With Lee we had a very different, but nonetheless fantastic, day. We started by driving off into the country on his tuk tuk to shoot some stuff, because, Cambodia. We fired an M4 and a modified M16 called an SKS. After sufficiently greasing up the shirts we were wearing and while still wreaking of gun smoke we went to the Killing Fields. This was pretty rough to get through so I will start with a little background. These fields are essentially a collection of mass graves. From ~1975-1979 Pol Pot and his military government decided to create a new society. In this society they used the military to mandate an exodus from the cities. Minorities and the literati were executed while everyone else was put to work in farms. By the end the death toll was around two million people. This was roughly a third of the country’s population at the time. They executed people at random. Families, women, infants, etc. were all fair game. This site was one in which you had some graves the size of king sized beds holding over a hundred bodies. In the photo below each depression represents what is now an excavated mass gravesite. There were far more than I have in the photo. It was an extremely sobering but exceedingly well presented site. There was plenty of background on the people and institutions that facilitated the genocide.

After one last night with Anne and her friends we bade farewell to Phnom Penh. Then, disaster struck. While out with Anne and her friends we decided to dive into some delicious street food in the red light district. While this is obviously not an ideal setting for a quiet dinner it was nonetheless delicious and satisfying. After saying our goodbyes we realized our mistake. Diarrhea. Bad diarrhea. The stomach cramps were brutal and we were both running on about three hours of sleep a night. In this physical state we took the most cramped van possible for a six hour ride to Siem Reap. The agony!!! On arrival we were completely dead. However, our trusted driver Lee had hooked us up with a buddy of his in the city. His name was George. Our first day there was not very good at all. It started with the room. A broken air conditioner. It continued with the sites.

George insisted that we see a place called ‘The Floating Village.’ Sounds scenic enough. We arrived to find ticket prices at twenty dollars a head. This was more than somewhat unreasonable. Then after a boat ride through what looked and smelled like a drainage ditch we finally arrived. It was essentially a floating ghetto. Every single thing we saw there was created for the sole purpose of the tourists (us) spending as much money as possible. We were first taken to a store and there were nearly guilt-tripped into buying a sixty-five dollar bag of rice for school children. Then we were taken to the school house. After the school house we arrived at a restaurant to see a crocodile and fish farm. There was a boy with a python there. We posed for some photos with him and our guide told us, “He needs money for school. You should pay him.” Again, we caved. Finally, after battling the constant swarms of insects and nearly choking from the smell of the stagnant water we got back to the dock. Before we got off the boat however, there was one more request. “I need money for school,” our guide told us. David, frustrated, pulled out a wad of money and put it in his hand. At least now, we could leave. Now, I don’t want to ignore the plight of the impoverished nor am I trying to be condescending but, diarrhea, no sleep, hot, sweaty, in pain, and irritated.

The afternoon wasn’t a whole lot better. We were driven near Angkor Wat to check out the sunset. So, after another twenty dollar admission fee we climbed a hill to check this out from the top of an ancient temple. Two  problems with that: David was not allowed up because he had no sleeves and we could not see the sun through the haze that had collected on the horizon. It was, I suppose, a day of character building.

Coming back to the hostel we shared our miserable experience with some Kiwis who found themselves in the same boat just the day before. After some consolation beers and good conversation David and I called it a night.

We slept in our brutally hot room, took some laxatives, and prepped ourselves for the next days’ temple exploration.

We woke for the sunrise. George drove us down to Ankor Wat to check out what he swore would be a beautiful view. “Not like yesterday” was the promise on his lips. So, with high hopes we set up for what would be a change in our recent fortunes. David had his camera prepared as we waited, waited, and… Anticlimax. We literally did not see the sun until it was half way into the sky. Pictured below.

It was kind of cool. So we weren’t entirely deflated. Angkor Wat is a beautiful place but, as all real tomb raiders know, Angkor Thom is where the action happens. It is a sprawling, overgrown, complex with more sites than have likely been catalogued. For those moments when you escape the massive screechy tour groups hailing from East Asia you are in another world. The trees and the stone morph together to put you into the middle of your own Indiana Jones movie. We scrambled through holes and over fallen stones to find pits, skylights, dead ends, and blocked passages. It really is a fantastic place. We spent hours upon hours exploring.

When we got back to our hotel we were exhausted, but relieved. The day had been a huge gift for us. We spent the afternoon catching up with our Kiwi buddies and a couple of new Canadian friends at a local pool and then returned to the hostel for some shut eye. When we got back David collapsed. He was pale as a sheet and completely inarticulate. After one more spill he took in the room he managed to get in bed. We brought in fans, gave him water, and did the best we could to keep the room cool. That’s how we ended our time in Siem Reap. I have no doubt, and he agrees, that the sweating, sun, heat, lack of cool air in the room, and lack of any meaningful sleep probably did it. Of course, now we are both much better and are sitting in a very well air conditioned room in HCMC waiting to start the final leg of the trip.

Cambodia kicked our asses. It was amazing and fun and beautiful and crazy but it really did beat the hell out of us. Now, rested and reenergized, we can finish with a bang. Until next time.

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Week three!

So, before I update all of you on the recent developments I would first like to say that there is no better way to spend time in the Philippines than with the distant family of a close friend. With that said I will explain and wrap up David and my time in the Philippines.

Diving. We started our third week with a trip to Anilao. This is a dive resort and channel South of Manila on the main island of Luzon. We traveled there with David’s cousin Nino Muhlach. Nino happens to have been a child star on par with our Macaulay Culkin. Basically, everyone in this country that I have spoken to knows who he is. Also in tow were a German salvage diver and reef builder named Danny, and the owner of a Filipino billboard company by the name of Edward. So, with our former child star, company CEO, and German dive instructor we headed to a dive resort called Planet Dive. Here, David would get his Open Water Certification and I would participate in the dives to get a few more written into my manual. The diving was spectacular. You simply got your gear on walked in the water and you were in the middle of the reef. We saw turtles, electric clams, plenty of fish, and (my personal favorite) nudie branches. They are small vividly colored sea slugs. Most people sadly don’t share my affinity for them. The corals were great. Our instructor was better. He was involved in a salvage dive at about 60 meters to recovere the crashed plane of a Filipino politician and has logged more than tow thousand dives. Basically, the government needed his expertise to raise the plane from the sea floor. We did three days of diving at this resort and then headed back to Manila for a night of drinking with some friends and our next stop in this busy itinerary. 

Unfortunately, we had to come to terms with a slight issue while diving. We were informed of a diver who disappeared and then had to be hospitalized right before we got in the water at our first boat dive in the area. This was not something you usually like to hear. However, with our instructor and his thousands of logged dives we felt fairly confident. The stories of lost, stranded, and disappeared beginners didn’t help that much. Then, on our second boat dive that day, I ran out of air at about 10 meters. Luckily, David, my dive buddy, was there to give me his alternate regulator. We finished the dive without incident. I must say though, it was the best diving I have ever done. Go dive in Anilao!

Following that great experience we went to the family home at Tali Beach. This is a place owned by David’s extended family. Arriving with his cousin Bianca we met the masses that make up this wealthy Filipino family. There were grandparents, uncles, aunts, second and third cousins, nieces, and nephews. I was among about six people staying there who had no relation to the family at all. So, it was a big gathering to say the least. There were four staffed maids not to mention three or four more men to help with the boats, jet skis, driving, and bags.

The best part, of course, was the family itself. There were little cousins who nearly drowned David in the kiddy pool as well as some patriarchs who had pretty interesting opinions about settling down. Namely, don’t do it, ever. This was reiterated by a certain Tito Alex several times over the weekend.

We met some great people and had a few drinking game sessions last until sunrise. It was a blast. We ate delicious food cooked by a trained chef and learned plenty about the country and the people who live there. Those pictured below made quite an impression. Plans are already in the works for get togethers in the US or Palawan with them. However, after just three days with this amazing group we had to return to Manila for our quick turnaround and the final leg of the trip. We miss you all!

The final stop.

Palawan.

This was our last taste of the Philippines and in many ways it was also the best. David, Bianca, and myself went down there with a flight to Puerto Princesa. Then, after a punishing 6 hour van ride over gravel, rock, and badly leveled asphalt, we were in El Nido. This place is paradise. The pictures do a good job communicating it but it was just so peaceful. The water was cool, the sun was hot, and the food was great. We drank on the beach with Israelis, Germans, French, and, of course, a few Americans. We took a boat ride out to the Bacuit Archipelago (a definite must for anyone who travels) and we sat and looked at the beautiful place we had found ourselves in. Really… Paradise.

To leave there was immensely difficult. I could have imagined two weeks lounging among the limestone karsts that surrounded us. However, as all good things must, this too ended.

Up next, Vietnam and Cambodia! Speak soon.

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Soon. I promise.

I am exhausted. I am running on about 9 hours of sleep from the last three days. I need to sleep but I will update this as soon as I can. To hold you over if you want an idea of how we have been doing here are a few photos.

Anilao, Luzon. Here David got his open water diving certification. Beautiful place.

El Nido, Palawan. One of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Definitely making another visit soon.

Just a few of the great friends we made during our time in the Philippines.

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Update Numero Dos.

Wow! It has been a VERY busy 10 days for us here in the Philippines. With this in mind, I will try to keep everything in order and not forget the important stuff.

Our first night here was quiet. We basically got in and slept. Our second day was quite different. Seeing as we had the opportunity to meet so many of David’s cousins it seemed like a great chance to go out for a drink. We met up with a bunch of people for some live music, the first I’ve heard in a long time, and a little bit of clubbing. This was Wednesday. Things were very busy here. I think my personal highlight was during a raucous rendition of “Summer of ‘69.” David and the rest of us were dancing close to the stage and the lead singer, a gorgeous woman, moves next to him. She leans over to him and sings, “Those were the…” while passing the mic to David. At which point he belts out, “Summer of ‘69!!!”

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Full points for effort. Not the right lyrics. But, David’s memory of the words aside, we went on to have an amazing night in Manila. This was complete with David being forced to switch his shorts with our driver’s jeans to get into a club. Hence the above photo. It was eventful. :)

The next day we went off to Boracay in the Visayas. A three hour bus ride and a ten hour ferry later, we were there.

First of all, let me get some stuff out of the way. It is MOBBED with tourists. They are absolutely everywhere. The streets are packed with people. Everything is overpriced, the food was mediocre, and the hawkers get in your face every two seconds. We seemed to be chanting a mantra together. “‘Jet ski?’ No. ‘Boat ride?’ No thanks. ‘Scuba?’ I’m good. ‘Wake Boarding?’ Nope.” Needless to say, I was sick of that after about 5 minutes.

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Now that all of that unpleasantness is out of the way I can get down to the point. That place is absolutely beautiful. The beaches are the most perfect things I have ever seen. White sand goes for a mile in either direction and the sun, unrelenting though it was, gives everyone that nice smooth vacation feeling. This usually led to afternoon drinks followed by a nap in the shade. David and I spent most of our time there either laying out, napping, or drinking. We both gained an unhealthy appreciation for Red Horse. That being the Filipino equivalent to a 40 oz. with 9% alcohol content. And it tastes like a nice smooth light beer. Dangerous. The clubs on the island are great. This is something we didn’t realize on our first night. We called it an early one after going a bit hard at the boos around lunch. However, the second and third nights were great. Everyone is in a great mood and I even got to use a little Korean at the bar. So overall, it was a blast. It is a beach lover’s paradise. I would not pass up an opportunity to get out there again.

After we finished in Boracay it was back to Manila. From there we had a nighttime bus ride out to Bicol. This is the Southeast of the main island of Luzon. Thanks to David’s grandparents and their paranoia regarding the imminent beheading of all tourists in this country, we had a driver and a bodyguard for our trip. Not bad at all…

We started our time in Bicol visiting a cousin of David’s Lola (grandmother). This was very reminiscent of meeting my own family in Italy in a few ways. The food, the generosity, and the smiles. Driving down the roads in that region you really see the poverty that grips so much of this country. We stopped at a non-descript concrete walled house. It had corrugated iron sheets in place of a roof. There were three people there when we visited. One, Lola’s cousin, was a small sweet man who held three degrees (two of which were in law and accounting) and suffered from what appeared to be debilitating arthritis. The others, his wife and son, were 50 and 13. The most striking part of this visit, besides the wonderful food and hospitality of our hosts, was their son. He was extremely bright. He beat David and I handily at checkers, several times, and was a very quick talker. We learned that after putting their two oldest children through college they no longer have the money to pay for their third child’s education. It’s tragic how much opportunity we squander in the US when these kids just want a few of the resources that we take for granted.

The dinner we had there blew my mind. Rice, fish, vegetables, and spicy chilis were in no short supply. After the wonderful visit in which I ate about three times my usual limit  we went on to Mayon volcano. Here, we got the chance to ride ATVs up the mountain. We started the drive in a riverbed snaking through an old lava flow. The views were stunning. It is perfect cone, dropped into the middle of surrounding farms.

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Following closely on Mayon we went to Donsol. This is a small town on the coast where whale sharks are, according to Lonely Planet, “guaranteed.” With that enticing word sitting in the back of our minds we went on our three hour boat trip to go snorkeling with these giants. Needless to say, things went sour almost from the start. First, we found out that two of our fellow boat mates had gone out four consecutive days without a sighting. Second, it started raining. Third, it got foggy. Fourth, the water was at almost zero visibility. Then, just as we close in on one that our spotter found off the bow, in one final gut wrenching insult, it dives. So, no whale sharks.

We left Donsol feeling dejected. We took a LONG bus ride back to Manila and decided we ought to blow off some steam. Luckily, as always, David’s cousins were there to give us another great night out.

Up next, scuba, family beach trip, then Palawan. Speak soon!

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First Report

David and I are safely in the Philippines. He arrived in Seoul on March 8th and we hit the ground running visiting Hongdae (a college town with clubs and a TON of people, seen below). We went to a norae bang (karaoke room), we had LOTS of Korean BBQ and soju (korean liquor), and finished it out with a few bars and other festivities. Luckily, we had my friend Max Gow along to show us some cool spots that only a college student like him would know about. Thanks Max!image

The next day, seeing as we were all a little tired we decided to do a museum. We went to the War History Museum in Itaewon in central Seoul.  It is near a large military base that the US have used since the war ended. We spent hours going through and soaking up the great exhibits that they had. David even got some material for a short film he wants to throw together.

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That night, with sore feet and a serious case of jet lag on David’s part, we decided to take it easy. We had a nice dinner of lamb chops at a South African restaurant near our hostel.

The next day, Monday, was packed. We decided to check out some more of the city. This day brought us to Gyeongbok palace, some notable statues of admirals and kings, and the Itaewon tourist district. We had some amazing food during his time in Seoul and we continued that in fine form during the day. We went to the Myeongdong shopping district, then climbed Namsan mountain and got a good view of the city.

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That night, we took it easy with a last Korean dinner and headed off to the Philippines the next morning.

A special shout out to Younsoo, EunJong, and Jongshik! The greatest hostel owners of all time. We will miss you dearly.

Some difficult staff who frightened the hell out of us in Incheon Airport, convinced us that we might be turned away from the Philippines because we lacked a printed confirmation number (apparently info on a phone isn’t alright). I then proceeded to scare the hell out of my parents with this information and then lost my WIFI connection and went onto Manila fairly blind. We boarded our flight and headed off more than somewhat worried that this might be the shortest vacation ever.

In the Philippines there were zero problems. Because, of course there wouldn’t be any problems…… We found David’s grandmother and she led us to her ‘cousin’ who took us to their family home in Quezon City. I think everyone I have met so far is a cousin. The meaning of the word is becoming more confusing the more of his family that I meet. But regardless, everyone David is related to is incredibly sweet. We had a great dinner then looked over some wonderfully embarrassing pictures from his childhood and snapped a few photos.

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Today was busy. We changed money, saw a bunch of malls, walked around his neighborhood, and met more cousins. One of them is a movie director, another owns a cake shop that looks like a massive factory, and yet another was from San Francisco and is living here since October! All of them were so sweet and we had a blast just chatting with them. It seems that a cover band tonight is in order, his cousin Bianca will be doing vocals with them tonight. There is also some scuba diving next week. Oh, and did I mention diving with whale sharks? Because, yeah, whale sharks…

I’ll try to update this again after a week. Happy trails! I hope everything is going great with all of you. :)