Archive for March, 2011

Viewing Vietnam And Life Through Its Traffic

Where has all the time gone and where have I been? The time has gone so fast and I have been through most of the coast of Vietnam but haven’t had a moment to stop by and say hello.

We left Cambodia and I left a deep part of my heart and a huge section of my ego behind in a country I never expected to be so affected by. I am still intrigued by it, talking about it, haunted by it, and desperately wanting to go back to discover more of it. As we left the land made as sudden and striking of a change as it had seemed when we had entered. The dust turned to green as we descended into the lower lying lands where the Mekong travels to disperse and feed the fertile ground known as the rice bowel of Vietnam. We crossed the border by foot and I can’t wait to share the photo of me walking across with bags on my front and back and rice fields and low mountains around me; it is a vision of which I never thought I would see.

We have spent time in Chau Doc; Ho Chi Minh City (still greatly referred to in  many times and cases as Saigon, not exactly sure how it works); Nha Trang; Hoi An; Hue; Halong Bay; and today arrived in Hanoi. The charm of the country, its landscape, its friendly people have seeped deep into my soul. I have spent nights, more than three of them, in sleeper trains that remind me of my experiences in summer camp with bunk beds, bugs, and crazy singing ladies at 5AM, which is how they announce that you are arriving in town to depart the train. I have been sick since entering the country but have found that eating the delicious food is well worth the repercussions an hour or two later and have come to know it as a fact of life. I have left behind my days of tuk tuks and have traded it in for rides in cylos (bloody, never doing that again, harassed into it and regretted it from the start), and my favorite form of transport here is on the back of a moto/motorbike with my arms stretched out riding through rice fields; I am reminded of my godmother Annie and my love of her motorbike growing up.

I fell in love with Hoi An and its beauty. I got lost in the streets and felt myself transported to a romantic time of the past. I see women dressed in ao dai that blow in the wind as they ride bicycles and feel I am in a page of a book or a picture from some far off dream. I took a cooking class – look out for future posts with cooking and recipes from the trip. I have walked through the Imperial Palace of Hue and sat in the ruins of the Forbidden Purple City and lost time as I just thought on a bench. I have seen the fog lift and reveal the majesty and wonder of Halong Bay and felt myself sail into the enchanted mist to discover the gems of islands waiting to be seen. I have walked on the beach and found my mind and heart grow with the experiences of the past weeks, months, years.

More than anything I have found my way in this new and different world, and I have found it most in the traffic and my learning to navigate and successfully partake in it. While in Cambodia, I couldn’t understand my part in the traffic pattern, so I would just run and pray. I have learned differently since entering Vietnam. As a foreigner, the flow of traffic seems chaotic, constant, without borders, rhythms, or any sense of speed or direction. Yes, traffic dodges, weaves and goes in both forward, back, side to side at any point and any time. I was told that to cross the street one has to commit, to walk forward, to go at a steady pace and not to stop, they will counter and compensate for you. But since my first brush with traffic and believe me it feels like a brush with death, I have learned to see the beauty, the order, the balance, and the perfect dance that is traffic in this part of the world. It is not as it first seemed with mere throngs of motos and cars moving at once, it is a dance as delicate and synchronized as any ballet or tango. It is a give and take between each driver, each pedestrian, and the any number of vehicles or people moving at the same time and in the same space as you. What at first seemed daring and risky now seems like an interlude that has a rhythm and a tone of its own. I have learned just when to step from the curb and which moving vehicle to look at first, I have learned when to go forward and when to hold back; I have learned to trust that they will counter and swerve to avoid me and if not I have learned to counter to avoid them. I have learned that here there is no too close for comfort–that it will always seem a little closer but that ultimately like any piece of music or exchange of dance, you must come close to have the true brilliance of the piece shine. I have found my confidence in the streets, at times lost it, and then found it again.

And as I take on each intersection and each sojourn into the world of traffic, I have seen how learning to play in it is so much like life. There is no stop to the traffic or life, only a slowing of intensity or concentration. I have learned that in the same way I have had to step into the street with cars and motos heading straight for me, so too must I at times head straight into life. Life doesn’t slow or stop so you can enter the dance at your convenience or even at a later point. I can’t run into life and just pray it won’t hit me as I did in Siem Reap. I have learned to see that life is always moving, find the best moment step into the dance or intersection as it were and move at a speed with as much confidence and a single minded pace as one can muster; I have to look at each vehicle but not the six million others in the intersection. I have to move and see that the cosmos and the congested city will counter and play a part as much I do. And just as I can now get from one side of the street to the next on my own, I can apply the same concept to life. I have even at times found a way to enjoy the trip across the street.

Sending so much love from a rainy and cold night with cars and motorbikes zooming by outside my window,

Ramona

Hanoi, Vietnam

17

03 2011

Overcome By Cambodia

Some views and images are too big for words or pictures. Some histories and truths are too hard to comprehend and find a way to express or let settle within you. Some places are too complex to convey in simple comparisons or small descriptions. I am left wordless by Cambodia. Cambodia is so much more than I expected or was prepared for – so much harder, so much more beautiful, filled with so much more life.

We visited Angkor Wat and I found in the ancient stone, the intricate carvings of the massive temple, and the even larger archeological site a world that surpassed my dreams for a place I have wanted to visit for so long. The day was hot, as all days have been in this hot country. I felt myself weather and melt in the intense sun but felt the pulse and breath of life push me on.

I fell immediately in love with the city of Siem Reap which felt like my every idea of an end of the line city, far away but pulsing with activity. I explored the Night Market with its stands of local crafts and affordable goods; I went to the Morning Market with the locals gathering their daily provisions. As I roamed the morning market with the fruit and vegetable stands of countless colors – orange, green, yellow, and vivid pink; I passed the meat laid out with cleavers for cutting entire animals, with live eel swimming in buckets of water, and with crabs that jumped from their basket to the floor to scurry away, I was not as I ever thought I would be. Before this morning I expected I would be how I am at home: squeamish and uncomfortable. But here in these surroundings where I have discovered life at its most basic and immediate, I found I was enthralled and saw that away from the packaging and lights of a modern supermarket what was happening felt so much more natural and real.

Phnom Penh was for me the opposite to the way I felt in Siem Reap; it was crowded with people and motos and tuk tuks, it felt gray and oppressive in its poverty splashed with opulence and obvious wealth. We took a tour of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda; we experienced the overwhelming Russian Market filled with knock off goods, crafts, food, and auto parts, so alive with every walk and function of life from the city around it. In the afternoon I decided to face the truth I had been intellectually aware of but so frightened to see in person, the history of the Khmer Rouge. I have seen a concentration camp and thought somehow if I could handle that as a Jew I could handle anything, but I was more wrong than I could ever think. Tuol Sleng Museum once a high school and then converted into a prison in 1975 where countless thousands and millions were tortured before being killed amongst a staggering genocide at Choeung Ek. Where in Germany the concentration camp experience was sanitized and made into a moment in history to remember and reflect, S21 felt as if it was still a living ghost of what happened. I walked into the first room and in a hope to avert my eyes from a graphic photo, I looked up only to see the dried blood stains of one of the countless victims that has never been cleaned. I felt myself lose my every breath and have the life knocked out of me. Where the concentration camp felt distant from another generation and cleaned up to a comfortable European sensibility, S21 and Choeung Ek were not. The genocide and subsequent civil war of this country were squarely in my lifetime (even if it was the start of my life). These places haven’t been altered or made easy to experience; we stepped on bones and teeth and saw towers of skeletons as memorials. We walked out and men who had lost limbs and eyes from land mines beg for money, I am destroyed, I am more than sorrowful, and I am hopelessly affected.

And yet with all of this I feel like I have been tethered to this place with a thousand strings of silk. I want to come back as hard as it is here and I want to do and see more. I want to try to understand that which seems so beyond comprehension. Perhaps it is the people hard but open and so honest. Perhaps it is that after a day in which I felt such grief and guilt I went out to a beer garden and under Orion’s Belt and the rest of the constellations as my light, I learned to open and eat cockles’ from their shells – sweet with the sea and flavored with chilies and lemon grass. I drank beer after beer to quench my thirst from the heat of the day and the heat of the chilies and then to quench my aching body that felt it had been drop kicked into reality. With a woman from Whales and our guide, a Cambodian man of 30, we ate together and laughed, I saw that life while difficult is carrying on in its every way. And perhaps it was the wind and life being knocked out of me that afternoon that allowed me to see the life come back into me that night.

I am mesmerized, I have been opened, I have been broken and rebuilt and broken again by this place. But Cambodia is a place to be experienced, it is a place to be seen and felt for the life it has lived and the one it continues to contain. Last night in the blanket of a dark night I splashed my legs in the ocean and the salty water stung my calves as just another reminder of how alive I am. Like the salty tears I choke back, the lapping waves show me how life continues on and will always continue on. To say I have been changed by Cambodia is an understatement. I have been opened up by Cambodia. I have been confounded by Cambodia, and I have seen in Cambodia how life can be so much more than something that can be put into a few lines or in a photograph.

Endlessly altered and so very humbled,

Ramona

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

08

03 2011

From Bustling, Boisterous Bangkok and into Cambodia

Greetings from a land that is hot and humid!

It is morning here in Siem Rep and I have yet to sleep a full night, perhaps because of the 15 hour time difference to California or perhaps it is just my excitement in this new place that I am loving already.

I landed early in the afternoon to Bangkok after I had left behind my life in a blanket of fog and further behind that, my life comfortably sleeping under a comforter of snow. Bangkok was as promised—hot and ready for me to experience it on so many levels. Where I felt Japan was experienced as a slant of light glimpsed through the small opening of a door, Bangkok is lived full out, it is seen and felt, heard and smelled in the streets from the very start.

I made my way on the new LINK air train into the center of the city at the recommendation of a friend’s nephew who lives in Bangkok. The newly finished transport which only started service in Jan 2011, was fast, efficient, and virtually empty except for myself, one gentleman from the UK, and three or four locals. I made a fast friend with the other traveler and we found we were heading towards the same general destination: Hualamphong Train Station.

With more of the day ahead we took the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the new surroundings by way of a long tail boat ride down the Mae Nam Chao Phraya. Once known as the “Venice of the East” this river and its subsequent canals are the artery and life line of this very alive city. We quickly realized our boat ride was more than a leisurely sail and was meant to get us to purchase pencils, beer if not for us than our boat driver (is that really wise while he drives a boat?), to sell us seats at a snake circus or a crocodile show. When the boat driver and his wife realized we were not interested in anything other than the boat ride she quickly said as she nursed her son, “we will go back now ok?”

After a dinner at the train station of an unidentifiable curry that was spicy enough to bring tears to my eyes and a cough to my throat and a few Tiger Beers, my new friend and I parted ways as he boarded an overnight train and I went back to finally fall asleep for a few brief but ecstatic hours.

The next day I walked through China town and took the Mae Nam Chao Phraya Ferry to see the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. My godfather Timmy had sent me a post card of this statue from his trip years ago to Bangkok and as a young woman I held onto it and vowed to someday see it for myself. At 46 meters long and 15 meters high, this reclining Buddha is housed amid the oldest temple in Bangkok. My every fantasy was not let down, it was so much larger than any 5 by 7 post card could ever convey. But what took my breath away was the temple, or rather cluster of countless stupas and temples with more Buddhas than could be imagined. The air was filled with the sound of monks at prayer and people dropping coins into the small bowls to make wishes. I felt my very self become more serene in the magnificence of every size of statue and large mosaic tower. I left and wandered along the river and then tried to see Wat Arun but was too overwhelmed to go inside.  Is it possible to have a Buddha overload? I have discovered that like cake with nothing else, it is.

The streets in Bangkok are thriving with life. From the tok toks that careen between an endless stream of traffic, the young boys diving into the grey waters of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, the women washing dishes by the river banks, and the street side vendors with overflowing tables of people eating their daily meals. Bangkok is lived outside for all to see and experience in its vibrant existance.

I left Bangkok yesterday and made my way to Cambodia, a full day bus trip from a thriving metropolis through a quiet country side of green fields with white cows and enormous water buffalo. We arrived at the border, which appeared to be at first glance, the largest outdoor market one could think of. As we walked past people selling eggs, bread, back packs, shirts, fruit, plastic goods, a woman said “I feel like I am going into a market to exit into another country.”

But instead of another country, it felt like on the other side of that border we had entered another world. The cars were replaced by countless motorbikes and people pulling wooden carts, the smell intensified, the road turned to a terra cotta dusty vastness with stands under umbrellas on either side, and if it is possible, it instantaneously felt like the heat intensified by 10 degrees, how can that be?

It is all incredible and as shocking as it is, I feel more alive than ever. I feel like it is just such a rush of reality and serious life. I feel my chest constrict and yet feel myself fill with more life than ever before. It feels like this place is pulsing with its history and heartache and every bit of it can be seen and felt from the moment you enter.

Siem Rep is like a dream – tok toks and motor bikes whiz by and there are forms of traffic I have never seen elsewhere. I once considered myself an independent woman, but here I can barely figure out how to cross a street without help, but I am learning, fast and without fear (at times the best way is to close your eyes and just run)!

Last night we went into one of the poorest areas of Cambodia; Mondul3 Siem Reap is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. We went to see New Hope Cambodia which is one of the most inspiring places a person can witness. New Hope Cambodia is a free clinic that serves at times up to 150 people a day and a school for both children and adults. We were given the opportunity to go into the classroom and talk with people to practice their English. It made me want to stay for an endless amount of time and it made me so excited for Kenya. In that moment I knew everything I was doing was so right, I couldn’t have been more certain.

As we drove into and out of the area, children yelled to us and jumped up and down in various forms of dressed and undressed. They chased us and smiled and waved hanging on us as much as we hung on their brilliant smiling faces.

I am beyond filled with gratitude and an unmistakable sense of life in its every form. Today I will see Angkor Wat and then a traditional dance.  Could there be more to experience?  Yes, I have a plan to eat crickets!

So much love to you from one hot place to whatever place you are in,

Ramona

02

03 2011