Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!


Nollaig Chridheil from Ireland
God Jul from Norway
Linksmu Kalédu from Lithuania
Wesolych Swiat from Poland
Veselé Vánoce the Czech Republic and Slovakia
Froehliche Weihnachten from Austria and Germany
Kellemes Karácsonyi ünnepeket from Hungary
Noeliniz Ve Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun from Turkey
Sung Tan Chuk Ha from South Korea
Selamat Hari Natal from Malaysia
and
Chung Mung Giang Sinh from Vietnam!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Feliz Navidad

Does anyone know a good word for an experience that seems like it is in the wrong location or geographic context? The word for this in the wrong time is anachronistic. Any ideas of a good word for that?



I was in a French Cafe today in Hanoi, Vienam, eating a croissant, and I heard Feliz Navidad (put to dance music). I really hoped I wasn't going to have to hea that song this season.



Oh well.

We're Sick.

I woke up in the middle of the night and got sick to my stomach on Wednesday morning. Two days later, Ron woke up in the middle of the night and somehow managed to avoid getting sick out his top, but was fully sick nonetheless.

You'll be excited to know that we are both keeping down solid food now and well hydrated thanks to the powdered Gatorade we brought with us!

We've seriously spent the past four days in bed. After sleeping 11 hours, we woke up, walked around the corner to get some breakfast and by the time we returned were so wiped out that we took a 2 hour nap. Yesterday it took me the length of time to drive from Portland to Seattle to eat a cup of rice. No fevers, just a nasty bug.

We fly out tomorrow morning for a small, quaint town where we'll spend Christmas. We'll write more when we feel better.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Guess who picked out this cheese?


Hint: The picker may have something in common with the cheese...=).

.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Flashback: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

We visited the bar that inspired Cheers, the hit TV show. The inside is very different, but the outside was filmed for the show. We also visited a replica bar that was a bit of a bust.

Still, we had a good time drinking and eating dessert!







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Aren't my in-laws good looking? Definitely good genes in that family. No wonder my wife is so beautiful.

Gotta love these names

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Big Blonde & Beautiful

Here in Vietnam I am...a giant. I don't run around thinking of myself as grossly oversized compared to the general population...but here I am seriously a rhinoceros.

There were several instances where I was keenly aware of my size relative to the population. One was at the aforementioned water park where I towered above all the children and their teachers. Later that week we found an air conditioned gym. The posters on the wall were...well, let's just say they didn't exactly reflect the population of the gym. When I went to take a shower, I could see the two other ladies showering over the partition at my chin. Upon exiting the shower I shouldn't have been surprised to find that the provided towel wouldn't wrap around my waist! Nothing makes you feel Baby Beluga like your thin towel stretched tight around you and your hiney flapping in the wind.

During my next run at that gym, I came across a certain song from Hairspray and I really identified with it. Please enjoy...

PS - Here's the posters I mentioned



Flashback: Harvard Visits #2 and #3

Visit number two ended badly.

A girl on a bike ran right into my mother-in-law Ann. They went down in a tangle of spokes and tires, but no serious injuries were sustained.

Visit number three went much better. I toured around on my own, went to an information session, and coincidentally, when checking my email, received an invitation for a phone interview.

I hope if I go there my mother in law will still come visit me!







Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oh, the food...

Most every meal here is a treat. Here's just a small sampling of what we spend our days eating...

Fruit. Lots and lots of fresh, tropical fruit. This particular pineapple was peeled and carved in front of us for a grand total of...$0.50

And fruit "shakes" which are fresh fruit ground up with milk and ice available in pineapple, papaya, mango, banana, etc. They run a mean $0.85

Vegetables, meat, rice and FLAVOR. Vietnamese cooking is famous for being healthy and tasty. Signature dishes usually include mint leaves, cilantro, lemongrass and some other "clean" feeling herbs.
They did offer oatmeal for breakfast which was a nice break from all rice all the time.

I have come to really enjoy the rice paper that is used to wrap many things...you've seen it before, it is sticky and stretchy and a fun texture.

Don't forget the French were here for years. On most every corner is a patisserie full of French treats. Every once in a while we'll break down and "sample" a few...

I'm hungry just writing about it!

Being White

This is a tricky post to write. In the spirit of honest communication, I feel like I need to discuss these things that have taken up a lot of my mental space...even if they reveal prejudices or ignorance in me.

I'll start by saying that before this trip I hadn't given much thought to my racial identity (other than the Danish Christmas traditions). Throughout Europe I was often startled by how often and naturally it came up in conversation. From Ireland to Turkey, nationality, country of origin, historical injustices committed against "your" people are all taken extremely seriously and personally.

I guess I've always thought of myself as a citizen of the US, but part of the identity of the US is that it is a nation of immigrants. Certainly over time an "American" culture has developed, but it is based more around recent experience (our country is so relatively young) and many people still have affinity with their country of origin...so it isn't quite the unanimous, racial pride that I've noticed abroad.

There are things I really respected and enjoyed about this national pride. People are (on the whole) invested in their country. Most countries don't have the privilege/liability of being the "world's great superpower" so there's more unifying and passion needed to have your country's voice heard. They also know their history well. History isn't just a subject...even fairly uneducated people often know the stories/legends of their national heroes and "their land."

I do find it interesting to see where people see time as "beginning". For us in the US, our country "started" in the 1600's with the Mayflower...we don't generally think of the Native American (First People?) population as part of the history of "our" land, and yet they certainly occupied it and had a long, rich history before the arrival of the Europeans. In Turkey, the "beginning" is marked by conquering and uniting of the Ottoman empire around 1300. In Ireland, the "us" is people who were Celts (originally from Central Europe) and the "them" is definitely the Vikings who began arriving in 800AD and of course those "nasty English" who persistently invaded. Granted, many "Irish" people are descendants of Celt/Viking unions or the Norman invaders.

Do you see how it begins to seem a little arbitrary as to where and why we call a place our own? If I was born in the US, of Danish/Norwegian/Swedish origins, but moved to Vietnam and lived here for years...at what point could I call myself Vietnamese? When I have earned/gained citizenship? We met someone in Norway who originated from Seattle, married a Norwegian and said she felt so strange about the idea of wearing the traditional Norwegian costume because although she is married to a Norwegian, has had two children in Norway and has lived there for nearly 10 years, she said it still seems like I am not quite "Norwegian" enough to be able to really wear that costume rightfully. And, yet, one of my closest friends whose grandmother emigrated from Norway has worn that same costume in the US since childhood.

So, then I arrive in southeast Asia to which I have no family heritage connection (that I know of) and am totally aware at almost all moments of my racial identity. Often I am the only "white" person in the room, on the bus, in the store, or on the street. I am certain that some of my previous lack of awareness of this is the result of the "luxury" of having lived as a member of the racial majority throughout most of my life situations. Honestly it has been a very "good" (not comfortable, but enriching) experience. To be on the receiving end of countless stares, pointing, assumptions and simply feeling on the "outside" is really an experience. It is amazing what "goes with" being white. I will say that I have never felt threatened based on this difference here in southeast Asia. I have certainly felt like a spectacle.

(Sidenote: I'm sure that some of my newfound noticing my racial identity is also due to the fact that I grew up on the West Coast of the US...it isn't strange to me to see racially mixed couples (here in Vietnam, an Asian woman traveling with a white man is often assumed to be a prostitute), interact with other cultures or eat many types of ethnic food in a week. In many of the European countries we visited this was less true...or maybe I should say, it was more geographically limited. In Seattle or Portland, I might eat Thai food one day, Indian food the next, Mexican the next and Norwegian waffles the next. In Europe, there is certainly French food in Ireland, but not much Cuban or Japanese.)

So, after Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Saigon, we headed to Nha Trang which is essentially a resort town...and it was completely full of white people. I couldn't get over it. I felt the weirdest mix of feelings. I mostly just kept noticing it. It was an event. I felt a little bugged that there were so many of "them." I was often frustrated at their behavior and seeming lack of respect for the culture. One thing that seems like it can go with "being white" is the idea that you get to remake a place in your image if you "find" it or bring it enough money. That really bugs me. And we are trying very hard to transcend that. To join into the cuisine, culture, clothing habits, etc. of the place.

Part of what I am realizing is that whether or not I actively "claim" it I have a racial identity that is "visible" and it affects things. There are pieces of it that are accurate, pieces that couldn't be farther from the truth and pieces that are probably hard to see in yourself that are true. It kind of feels like someone put a badge on my back without me knowing it that signed me up for some club. Technically I meet the qualifications of the club and I maybe even went to a meeting or two, but I'm certainly not hardcore enough to walk around with a sign on my back advertising this club. But, I don't really have a choice. So, I'm trying to figure out what to do with this sign. Do I try to rewrite it? Do I make a big effort to try and change people's opinion of "white people"? Do I resent it? Do I get angry at the stares or the points or the assumptions? Do I try to pretend it isn't there? Do I act Vietnamese/Malaysian/Korean and look ridiculous to everyone around me but feel somehow more "authentic"?

I do feel like after a mere 20 days in SE Asia I am markedly more comfortable, culturally sensitive, and "fitting in" than I was before I arrived. And, I think I will forever feel a certain kinship to places like Vietnam (where I will have "lived" for a month) and people and food from there. But, I also will never be Vietnamese, nor would I pretend to...that would be kind of insulting to the Vietnamese.

Here's where I would like to put a well synthesized summary that ties together all these thoughts. But, the truth is, it is very much a work in progress. So, stay tuned.

Taxi Drivers

We've had some interesting ones.

There was the guy who had the "Do you know where you are going to go when you die?" sign hanging in the back of his car, handed us two tracts, and had Christian preaching on the radio.

There was the Brazillian immigrant (he was in New York) who made us twenty minutes late for a train we should have been ten minutes early for, and it was only 10 minutes away. He got very, very, very lost. Nice guy; I felt kind of bad for him.

We also had a taxi driver in New Haven who was a Sudanese Refugee. He had an interesting and harrowing story too.

There was the lady who told us about every medical ailment she's ever had, mostly from complications from severe car wrecks (yikes!). She wasn't wearing her seat belt as she told these stories.

There was the guy with astro-turf for carpet.

There was the guy with the plastic still on the ceiling of his car.

There were two in South Korea who watched TV while driving. One of them ran red lights (we were in a busy city).

There was the guy who drove a really crappy taxi with a really fast meter. Didn't like him.

And there have been many others.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One bad apple

Trina asked me to add my thoughts:

I too had a frustrating experience at the Mariamman Hindu Temple as well.

First, we were basically forced into the temple with the goods in hand. To appreciate this, understand how assertive I tend to be. The stuff was pushed into my hand and I definitely asked for the price. The man shook his head, and cut his arms across each other and outward in a very clear "no", while shaking his head aggressively. I didn't remember that in the confusion until a few minutes later.

The woman at the end, finding a hundred reasons to charge us, was shrill, dismissive, and physically aggressive. I was very good; I didn't yell, I didn't run her over, and I didn't say anything I regretted. My tactic of acting out of money was very useful, if a bit dishonest.

Well, there was one thing. At one point when she was waiving her hands dismissively at every thing I said and making shrill sounds at me, I did muster a very good imitation though. That was my only real cultural snafu.

And yet, it wasn't a snafu. This women was defiling a temple. The amount she was wishing to charge us for a few cents of stuff was enough to pay for three big meals with appetizers and dessert.

I got taken, and it made me mad.

For anyone in such a situation. Ask others in the temple what they were charged. Buy one from another vendor for nothing and give it to her. Take her picture and say police. But don't give her the 400K unless her cousin Vinny (or Vinh in this case) is there to enforce things.

By the way, as soon as I was certainly there was no cousin or mob, we got out of there.

This was a very bad experience. The woman definitely made us think a mob was going to form. It really scared Trina. Unfortunately, it was a bit tainting.

It's so sad when people misrepresent their own populations so horribly (my antics notwithstanding, of course). We have met hundreds of Vietnamese people. They are, perchance, a bit aggressive in soliciting business, but who can blame them for that? In our experience, they are fair, friendly, and very warm. I feel very comfortable here.

But this lady, she was a bad apple.

Flashback: Tony Danza's Heavier Cousin

We meet lots of interesting people.

After Trina's interview at Stony Brook, we took the Port Jefferson Ferry across the water from Long Island to Connecticut (we were headed to New Haven and Yale).

As we were about to disembark, a man started chatting us up. He was like a much stockier, Tony Danza with a harsher Long Island accent. He reminded me of a guy named Augie (short for Augustinian) from my UO days. He was insistent that we shouldn't take the 25 minute train to New Haven and piled us into his truck (he owned a construction company and his truck was very large).

His hospitality was only matched my his "rough around the edges" personality. All in all, he was very likable, and very excited that we are traveling around the world. And I forgot that I'm not supposed to get in a stranger's car.

Vietnamese Prison Narrowly Averted!

One day in Saigon we decided to tour the variety of historic religious buildings. Vietnam is largely Buddhist, with small populations of Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. There is one large Hindu temple, one major cathedral and one sizable mosque. Our first stop was the Mariamman Hindu Temple.

I've never been to a Hindu temple before and I know very little about the religion. I was very intent on being respectful and open when on their "sacred" ground. We approached the front and a lady and gentleman very assertively pushed into our hands some incense, candles, a small lei, some fruit and a few other small items. The mob that gathered up behind them made it a little difficult to do anything other than walk forward into the temple. The man instantly took all the incense and lit it, and took all the offerings and put them in front of one of the statues. A few moments later a lady came up and said "two hundred" (the Vietnamese currency is the dong...17,000 dong to a dollar). Ron said, "fine" and she said, "no, two hundred thousand." Ron said "no way!" What happened between here and our exit was for me a blur of loud stressful prison visions. Ron was not going to give in and this lady was not going to back down. I wanted to know where the Vietnamese mafia was and how long it would take them to execute us. In retrospect I'll say that Ron was very clever...he did this whole charade of "I have no more than this!" then snuck around the corner to count his remaining 8000 dong so when they said "I know you have more" he pretended to be all bugged about giving up his 8000 when he had 500,000 in his other pocket. By the way, by the time we were leaving, the price had risen to 400,000.

Ok, so now we're running away and I'm sure we are being tailed by someone on a motorbike. I convince Ron to go straight to the US embassy just in case we committed a crime by accepting this Hindu offering and underpaying the highest quoted price by 200,000 dong. Have you ever had to seriously consider Vietnamese prison?! This isn't Slovakia where the EU can force them to not cane you.

We arrived at the embassy and a very smiley guard helped us in broken English. We told him our story and eventually asked him, "So, are we bad, or are they bad?" He looks straight in my eye and says "You are bad." I am now expending serious effort not to wet myself. I am headed for the flogging chamber. I can taste the poisonous blowfish they will serve me in my cell already. He continues, "You should never have paid them any money!" What?!? Is he serious? He explained that we were definitely scammed and should report it to the local police.

It took me the rest of the day and night to calm my nerves. Every little bug made me jump, certain that someone's older cousin was coming for us.

As it turned out, no one did catch up with us. I was genuinely surprised. I hate it when you can break rules that you don't know about and have to fear prison. I narrowly avoided insulting Turkishness in Turkey and I will try hard not to insult the monarchy in Thailand. For now, we made it...but just barely =).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dream, Dream, Dream

Willy Wonka is leading me on a tour of New York City along the "Freedom Trail" (which was in Boston) with my cousins Lisa & Jossie and several members of my high school volleyball team. I'm in a mining cart on a track that abruptly ends and my cart takes flight. Willy explains to me that if I open my arms I will keep flying, if I get afraid I will sink. I am flying through this forest that is fall-foliage-colored, but the trees are made of lollipops (technically they are primary colored hard candies connected by Tootsie Roll Pop sticks). I'd fly up and down and stop with my nose a few inches from the ground, but I'm not afraid.

All of a sudden I am in Lisa & Jossie's childhood house with the King's (my high school) volleyball team and I wake up to Angie (from high school youth group) explaining that I haven't eaten in 9 days. I need to drink multiple Vanilla Costco brand Slim Fast shakes because "if you drink them and eat, you'll gain weight. They really should tell you that on the can." But, I can't go to volleyball practice without my earrings. Fortunately, my cousin Lisa takes me upstairs to her bedroom that is painted teal and she opens up a perfectly organized 20 foot display case of earrings - they are sorted by size, color and how much she likes them. I really wanted to pick out the stud earrings with the black center but I feel so guilty about it so I settle for the large, clip-on footprint earrings that are silver with a purple center...but some of the purple is falling out. They hurt my ears. Lisa and I hop onto a combination sleeping bag/Astro minivan that drives itself and Patrick Dempsey is laying across both of us because he's our uncle and it is his job to protect us from the falling "animals."

Then I woke up.

I'm married to a boy...

MasterBake: For those who like innuendo

Today, we found some great cookies at a coffee shop called MasterBake. From their brochure:

Front Page

"Master your parties, delight your trips."

Inside:

"A child's sparkling eyes, a parent's brilliant smile, a friend's accord and a guest's contented satisfaction as they once again take to the road...these are the greatest rewards to which MasterBake has dedicated our hands and our heart."

"Would you like to bake your own bread and feel the excitement of watching the bread gradually puff up, brown and fragrant, in your microwave oven?"

"The never ending passion of the MasterBake chefs to create a perfect mix that tastes of the sweet purity of nature, of the seasons, and of the love between family members, couples and friends."

At what temperature do you turn on your car's heated seats?

50? 40? For die hards, maybe freezing?

Here in Hanoi, the hotel sent a driver to pick us up from the airport and he had thoughtfully turned on the heated seats to help us cope with the "cold, northern temperatures" we'd been so thoroughly warned about.

Let's just say that at 76 degrees, Ron wasn't exactly appreciating the heated, leather seats.

Nha Trang airport

Not exactly the largest airport I've ever been in...

...the full departure/arrival board...


The entire terminal...


...and a very cool men's bathroom sign.

Flashback: Bjorn the Ham

I didn't have many successful pictures of Bjorn's sister, Katie. She was always dancing and singing (which was quite cute), and almost all my pictures of her are of about half of her.

But Bjorn loved the camera. He'd just give you a big grin every time you brought it near. For those of you kiddie lovers, I thought you'd enjoy a spread of the little guy.







Miss Universe 2008

The small little beach town we just left turns out to be not quite as "off the beaten path" as we thought.

Turns out the Miss Universe 2008 pageant was held there about five months ago. On the drive to the airport we passed all the facilities built for the pageant and many, many billboards still advertising the July 18th event. It's almost like we're famous!



[photo]

From the Miss Universe website

Just in case you were wondering, the winner of the Miss Universe 2008 pageant, was...Dayana Mendoza. The 22 year-old former Miss Venezuela was born in Caracas and speaks three languages - Spanish English and Italian.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trip Stats so far

Since we are coming up on the halfway mark, I thought I would post some fun trip statistics.

We have been in 13 countries, 15 if you count a short layover in England and an overnight layover in South Korea.

We have taken 14 major train rides. The number is 20 if you include really lengthy commuter rails. This doesn't count short commuter rails, subways or anything like that.

We've ridden 2 ferries, although we rode one of them about eight times.

We've taken 12 enormous bus rides, some overnight--17 if you count really long "local" bus rides to nearby cities.

We took our 16th flight today, 17 if you count a 'diverted to Scotland, sit on the Tarmac while Ryan Air gets its mechanical act together', flight.

And, most impressively, we've switched beds 47 times (having used 46 beds, since we visited my uncle twice)!

No wonder we get tired sometimes.

Noise!

When we returned to the US in October we were startled by a certain phenomenon. After spending nearly four months in countries where English is not the primary language spoken, we were used to much hubbub surrounding us...but it was sounds that we didn't understand...it became sort of like "white noise."

On our first subway ride back in the US we were both positively overwhelmed with the volume of people speaking around us. For months the only English we heard was when someone was speaking to us directly. It felt like every person on the rush hour subway was trying to get my attention specifically. It took about a week for me to stop whipping my head around to every poor person who spoke on their cell phone or talked to their dog.

Flashback: Emily and Peter


After my parents, we relocated to Emily and Peter's house. They also have two adorable kids, Katie and Bjorn.


Emily has been a dear friend of mine for many years, starting our first year of high school. She's presently pursuing a PhD in Political Science (focused in international relations and conflict issues) at Columbia. Peter, her Danish husband, is staying home with the kids. Emily stayed home the first two years, while Peter worked as a high level budget controller for the Danish government, and now Peter is taking his turn at home while Emily is in school. This is an arrangement we particularly admire.




Our time with them was too brief and harried--we had to visit several medical and law schools. But it was still a wonderful experience. We look forward to seeing them more if we end up on the east coast!


Flashback: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

It was hard to say goodbye to my parents. It will be a very long time until I see them again. At the time they left, it was going to be six and a half months. We had a wonderful time reconnecting, hanging out, having fun and learning together. Plus we got to share a lot of our trip through stories and pictures. They arrived home safe, but exhausted.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Beach

In the five months we have been traveling, we have had countless experiences. Strangely, pure vacationing hasn't been one of them. We have had a blast...but not a lot of chance to feel that wonderful feeling of doing nothing. These last few days in Nha Trang we gave ourselves permission to not tour anything, not try a battery of new foods, not make attempts to speak the language...but just relax. Here's what that looks like for us...

Yes, I am in the shade of a palm tree



Here's the view from where I was laying...




Romy!

Here in Nha Trang we walk past a certain ice cream stand everyday and given its special name we indulge each and every time we walk past.

Here's the shop...

and here's it's namesake... (at least in our minds!)


PS - Romy is the most adorable small person I know (and happens to be our niece). For more photos of her, look here.