It’s Time for the Best Of 2012 Awards!

Welcome to the Best Of 2012 Awards! And congrats on surviving reading my posts for the past year!   

How do I sum up these crazy past months? If it were a Mastercard ad, it’d look something like this:

Three pieces of Maltese filigree jewelry: 27 Euros

Feeding Coop on a monthly basis: 14% of India’s national budget

Working and traveling through 9 countries, contracting at least 2 diseases, being on crutches for 50 days in a country already notorious for its non-sidewalks, standing where no foreigner has stood before, somersaulting down sand mountains, eating wild honeycomb, having Helen Mirren give your dress the once-over in the ladies’ room, and becoming a sought-after palm reader in northern India: priceless

That said, here are the best, the worst, and the why-did-you-feel-it-necessary-to-tell-us-that awards for 2012.

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Most awkward moment: I mean, everything. When none of the sarees at the wedding fit me? Picking apart the maggot-infested eggplants incorrectly? Having a stranger come up to you on the street and pull your Indian kurta down because you’re offending everyone? Being hit on by a married man–in front of all his relatives? Accidentally interrupting everyone at the temple who has come to get a blessing just because you’re a foreigner? Sinking into mud while rice farming because you weigh twice as much as the next man and woman combined? Explaining to your hosts that you can’t eat something because you’ll get massive diarrhea if you do? Saying no to a marriage proposal? I dunno, you tell me.

Most incredible view: Waking up with nomads to see snow-capped Himalayan peaks turn pink in the sunrise.

Best thing I ate: You expect me to list one thing? You gotta be kidding me. Here are a few of my favs: 

Malaysia: Roti Canai with beef and chicken curry dip, of course           

India: Sweet green onion-potato curry served with soft pouri; upma; peanuts from Ahmedabad, which were so good I had to give myself a daily ration. Until I noticed half of them had grubs inside (well, they tasted delicious at the time!); my coworker’s sister’s red pepper eggplant mash. Looked like poop, tasted awesome

Malta: Sfine?? bl-irkotta ??elwa (sweet ricotta-stuffed mini éclairs drenched in local honey). Ahhhh maaah gaaaawsh

The event people cannot stop talking about: Me in a dress at the red carpet 2012 European Film Awards. Compliments ranged from “not masculine” to “almost feminine.”

Best wildlife moment: Wild elephants that came out of the blue and stormed into a clearing below us–seen while hiking up a monolith in India. I mean, come on!

Only thought about my life: Wait, I have one?

Place to never visit again: Bangalore. Saw some pretty terrible stuff there, and plus, the city has little to offer in terms of being unique. Unless you want to try the McTikka “burger,” of course.

Moment I realized I was a cat lady: That did not happen in 2012.

When I came home from Malta, I was delighted to see… that my (much younger) little brother was loving college and not gaining too much more than the freshman fifty.

When I came home from Malta, I was saddened to see…that my mother was watching Gangnam Style.

Best comment from your boss: Me, to my boss while driving: “Have you noticed that there are a disproportionate number of, uh, little people on this island?” My boss: “You mean midgets? There must be a nest or something.”

Thing I’m still shocked about: How NYers are still the most interesting and simultaneously obnoxious people of the world. I need to get out of here.

Most uncomfortable sleep: That time in the Himalayas when I was sleeping in a hut with hay and no one who spoke a single word of English and then in the middle of the night a cow broke loose and wanted to snuggle and burst in and trampled our feet and because it was pitch black no one knew what was happening but because it was Asia no one particularly cared that some of us were now missing limbs and stuff. Yeah.

Best thing I never ate: The combo fried horse, quail, and rabbit platter. I think it was served with rice and cole slaw.

Most accurate word on what the Thai locals thought of me: Godzirra!

Best scuba diving experience: That was probably in Malta on the Um El Faroud, when we dove in and out of this underwater playground (as in the galley, an exploded part of the ship, a ladder escape, staircases) and then jumped off the bow of the boat, sinking down slowly to 35 meters in the most pure blue waters. Man, what a dive.

Best name: One of my students in India had the name Saddam Husen. I’m serious. We still chat online, and he’s such a lovely guy—and we have the same birthday. Adorable.

Best attempt at lowering my self-esteem: While a co-worker/friend (also from America) and I were visiting a student’s home, the guy’s uncle came out to meet us. He chatted for a few minutes, then looked down at us and back up. “You are fat,” he said. “What?” I asked, surprised at the sudden turn of events. “Fat. You’re fat. F…A…T.” he spelled out, assuming my “What?” had been me not understanding what he was saying. I tried to hold in my laughter, but it’s still a running joke there. If you get offended easily, do not come here. 

Worst thing I ate: Santol, a tree fruit with the texture of cotton balls and an aftertaste of acid. When mixed with fish sauce, shrimp paste, cilantro, red pepper, and other goodies, the result is, I mean, how could it possibly be anything but horrendous? I tried it two different times, two bites each. Trust me. Don’t do it.

Best statistic: In 2012 I slept in 65 different places.

Best comment on that statistic: “Well, that’s less than a HOBO.”

Best crisis averted: I almost didn’t get gelato in Italy. But then, just minutes before I had to catch my train to the Pisa airport, I found a place and got half cream biscuit/half amaretto cherry, as picked by the guy serving me. My look of ecstasy at eating ice cream around 11:30 in the morning must have shown on my face, for two bikers whizzing past saw my cone, shouted, and nearly crashed. Awesome.


Thanks for reading! Here’s to the unknown of 2013…let’s hope it’s good.

 

Life in Malta, Part 2: Malta vs. the World

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Whenever I work, live, or travel outside of America, I notice many differences from country to country. I mean, obviously, I notice whether I’m cooking on an electric stovetop or peeling an unidentifiable edible to cook over an outdoor fire in the middle of rice fields. But so it goes for underdeveloped countries…well, what about Malta, I asked myself? Part of the European Union since 2004, I figured it would be a mix of countryside and vibrant city life. It is, but it’s also a unique mix of somewhat recent technology mixed with centuries-old practices. A lot of folks don’t change. Fisherman still go out in their little boats. Older men walk around barefoot on rocky cliffs. Women dress up in their pearls and I-can’t-believe-people-still-wear-horrific-curtain-print-dresses-this-eepin’-bad‘dos. Guys go out with their guns and sit in tiny shacks all day to shoot tiny birds. It’s such an odd little country when you step outside of the city that you can get lost trying to figure out why things are done the way they’re done, but you’re better off just accepting it. So while I’ve had almost no free time to write on this site, I have been taking quite a few photos for work and studying the differences between Malta and other parts of the world. A few of those thoughts, along with non-related photos, are posted here.

 

In other parts of the world, there are unique foods people eat as part of their diet. Locusts, snake, unicorns, dog,  you name it.

In Malta, they go to the horse races and then eat ‘em. I mean, not necessarily in that order. Is that why there are fewer and fewer horses racing every year? Anywho, horse meat is very popular. Tastes like jumbo chicken.

 

 

In other parts of the word, the “illegals” are commonly referred to in a derogatory manner, and range from Mexicans and Colombians (USA) to Indonesians (Malaysia) and everywhere in between.

In Malta, the “illegals” are referred to in the same way, but are usually Ethiopians, Libyans, or Tunisians. In the two months I’ve been here, I think every single immigrant has stared at me, wondering how albino I am in such a sun-drenched country. They also, I suspect, want to make me their 3rd wife.

 

In other parts of the world, prescriptions are (somewhat) strictly monitored so that medicines and necessary drugs are doled out appropriately.

In Malta, where I had to extend the meds for my Lyme Disease/random Asian life infection, I can walk into a pharmacy with my old prescription bottle and sweet-talk my way into getting more of my cold, hard drugs. Or really, I just show the bottle, have them see I’m not an (obvious) drug abuser, and get my medication. It’s fine, too, because it’s for my own use. I did get tangled up in a gang here in the midst of all this, but they’re super nice people as long as I kill off anyone onto us. So far that’s only happened around 17 times, so no biggie.

 

In other parts of the world, there are bussed tour groups of (almost always) Japanese tourists with their incredibly expensive cameras whipped out every time a squirrel appears.

In Malta, instead of leading Japanese folks on tours, they lead dead people. I mean, they’re not actually dead yet, but they might as well have been. On the last tour group I saw yesterday, as far as the eyes could squint was a sea full of the eldest of the old, and some could barely stand with their full weight on their canes. I’m quite sure that by the end of the day, a few remained in their bus seats. Permanently.

 

In other parts of the world, men use cat-calls, whistles, stares, and catchy opening taglines such as, “Are you married?” to hit things off.

In Malta, old men who are 4’ tall are your constant source of amusement. The conversations go exactly like this:

(Scene: I’m walking along a street and an old man pulls up in his truck)

Old man: Where are you going?

Naïve me: Oh, just walking, thank you.

Old man: You’re going…?

Naïve me: Just walking to my home!

(I smile and pray he drives off. He does.)

 ———–

(Scene, 2 minutes later, same old man driving in the opposite direction. Pulls up and halts traffic.)

Old man: I’m sorry I didn’t offer you a ride.

Naïve me: Oh, no problem, I’m right near my house.

Old man: Well do you want a drive?

Naïve me: That’s very kind of you but I’m just five minutes away.

Old man: No, I mean, do you want to go for a drive somewhere? Around…?

Naïve me: Thank you but I must be getting home and packing.

(Runs like never before.)

Oh, and how did I know he was 4’ tall? Because just 2 hours prior to this incident, another old man (literally 4’ tall) had found me AGAIN (oh yes, he’d already taken me and a friend out for drinks, then cornered us just a few days before) while I was sitting alone in a park with a view. I mean, crikes, I’m on an island with 30,000+ people, and the same old man finds me? Anyhow, the truck driver looked like this guy’s brother, so by association, I’ll assume he was also 4’ tall. Age? Both were approaching 70. I know I’m old, but must I be hit on by senior citizens? I think they belong on bus tours at that age.


I’m wicked tired since I recently got back from working on the Maltese island of Gozo (photos to come sooner rather than later) and haven’t had a day to…well, catch up on sleep. In the past 30 hours, for example, I worked, felt ill, went out to dinner where snails, horse, rabbit, quail, and cheese pie were served, hung out with a former professional clown, woke up at 2:30 to measure and document dead sharks at the country’s fish market, drove out to the salt pans to catch the sunrise at 6 something a.m., filmed and photographed around the capital city and small villages, slept a wee bit, worked, went out for free food with friends, and crashed around 4a.m. this morning. No, life is not boring here. I need sleep. Enjoy the photos. 

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My Southeast Asia Trip Part 10 (and it’s the last one, I swear!) – 1 year since I left .

Well folks, I did it. I went to Southeast Asia, made it through with neither a guidebook nor a bite of pasta, and have been back in the U.S. for about 8 months now. In fact, I left on my trip exactly one year ago. You’ve all been asking me questions. What have you learned? Do you miss it? Do you keep in touch with the people there? Did anything get stolen? Have you lost weight? If I haven’t yet annoyed you with my stories of this and that, or with annoying sayings such as, “Well, in MY village we did it THIS way,” or “In Cambodia, it only cost xx cents,” then here’s your last chance to read even more.

I promised one more update, and here it is. Why so late? Well, I didn’t want to write until I got a job. So I waited…and waited…still waiting…no, I finally got a freelance copywriting job, and actually, the wait is due to an entirely different reason. While visiting all my friends upon my return, I arrived at one friend’s home and was speaking to her mother. The woman looked me directly in the eye as I was telling my tales, and with a wise and knowing voice, said, “I’ll be real curious to know how you feel several months from now. Once you’ve had a chance to really sit and think about it, I bet you’ll feel a little bit differently from how you do now.” She said it with such confidence that I thought, why not? Why not wait, say, half a year and then see how I feel? So I bring you my thoughts, a year to the day of my departure. A plane delay until 12:30AM on August 27th essentially gave me one more day of stalling to complete this final letter. If you’ve lost interest so late in the game (or never had it to begin with), well, I’d be happy to remove your name from this mailing list.

To answer the question, yes, my thoughts and feelings did change. While I thought about the trip much more fleetingly upon arriving home and stuffing my face with pasta, bagels, and brownies, these days I think about it quite often. Small moments and memories bring forth emotions and feelings I wasn’t aware existed. 

Have you ever gotten that feeling of your heart being up in your throat? I hear most people feel that way when being in love, but for me, I remember that initial feeling when I stepped onto the trade floor of the first Fancy Food Show of my life. It was three massive stories of free food, and I just remember feeling so overwhelmed and full of excitement that I almost wanted to burst into tears. Sad, but true. 

This is the same feeling I get when I remember my trip. It isn’t the articles I read or tourist pictures that spark these emotions, but the random bits of similarity that bring forth memories. It’s hearing that obnoxious, crooning Asian music played on random streets in NYC. It’s walking through Brooklyn’s Asiatown and seeing a familiar vegetable that I ate in Vietnam. It’s hearing a scooter and remembering the crazy bike rides. It’s smelling a food that I smelled over there in the markets, or seeing a photo of mine that almost makes me want to cry. I want to be there again. The sudden flashbacks of such an amazing, scary, simple, lonely, awkward, and unique experience make me smile with a sad fondness, if such a term is even posssible. But of course not everything was hunky-dory. So why do I miss it so much?

I think that we, as people, tend to remember events and experiences on either the good side or bad side of the spectrum, often forgetting the middle. The middle is boring: It’s the things we don’t talk about, the sleepless nights that weren’t mice-infested enough to be talked about in a bad way, nor the walk through the park after volunteer work that wasn’t beautiful enough to be raved about. There’s so much of the in-between in any experience that often, we simply choose not to remember it existed at all. 

I freely admit that I am the same person I was when I left, but little things have changed, and one place is in my thoughts every day. I still cannot forget my Thai mountain hilltribe village. Out of everywhere I stayed, it is absolutely the place I would return to. Realistically, sure, I picture myself there again and can recall how bored I was. How Supermom™ made me feel ill at ease, how I sometimes felt used, how the mice kept me up at night, how terrible the food was, how I didn’t feel I was helping much. But then I remember what comes naturally: The sheer beauty, the relaxed pace of life, my tension-free body, the happiness and generosity of people. How they shared their home with me. My friend Sanit. The freedom. The walks. The lack of worry, the lack of expectations. No need to rush. Finding amazing insects and hearing animal noises I’d never heard before. Learning a whole new way of life, and settling into it with no problem at all. I just cannot forget any of it.

Was I doing anything to actually help these people? This is a situation anyone wrestles with upon visiting third-world countries. Should I help? Can I help? I do still want to help if I can, and if any of you have ideas for donating to a fund so my “little sister” Janjira can go to medical school, please let me know. She has worked hard and wants to learn, and I think she deserves that.

Is my help even wanted? If you are to actually live with these people in my Thai village, you find that perhaps above everything else, they are happy. Not a faked happiness, but a general good attitude towards life. These people work hard, raise kids, have almost nothing to look forward to, and die young, yet they are the happiest people I’ve ever met. Unless you’re dealing with some remote tribe of undiscovered indigenous people from Papua new Guinea (wearing loincloths, of course), anyone you meet is mostly likely to have had some sort of contact with, or at least knowledge of, the outside world. Even the poorest communities have cell phones, have seen television, or have eaten dog. These people aren’t clueless. But I think that because they have never traveled to these places or even seen a single example of something that might be on television (a furnished house; skyscrapers; waffles; a vacation), these things only exist in a fantasy world. They are so completely unattainable for your average farmer here that there’s no reason in even trying for it. It’s not even a goal; it’s simply impossible. They live in their own little world, seemingly uninterested in what else might be out there, and happy to do their own thing as it has been done for generations and generations. And so what you end up wondering when you leave this kind of place is, well, What did I do? Did I help at all? Did I step in and make anything better? What is better to them? Because in the end, they are happy, much happier than I would say we are as a people. Happier than I am, happier than you are, and happier than anyone you know will ever be. And who am I to change that? Who am I to say that technology, meals-in-minutes, or medical advances make people happier? To these people, life is life and death is something not to be mourned for long. And when I think about it, I was happiest in the village and on the island snorkeling. My body was relaxed, time was not a worry or a limit, and day-to-day living was easy. Yes, we can make the argument that we’re not on this earth to be happy, but to further the world. But why isn’t happiness the ultimate goal? Aren’t vacations, marriages, and relaxing the stuff dreams are made of? Why do we always feel this need to push technology on the poor and unfortunate? What are these notions of grandeur we have, seeing photos of volunteering Americans with poor kids sitting in their laps, then thinking that we are going to change their lives? Are we actually wanted, and do we actually help? A few days or weeks is almost nothing, but a month, a year, two years? I am left with more questions than ever before.

I always wonder if, in the end, I actually did anything. Or was just being one of them good enough? Perhaps it all comes down to not making a big deal of anything, but instead making just the smallest statements in fitting in and living with each other to say Yes, we are just regular people and can get along. I’m not arguing against giving and teaching all we can to those who desire to learn. I just think we all need to realize that we are not the ultimate models or givers, that we don’t harbor the answers to everything in life, and that “better” is a relative term that’s hard for people to understand. After all, they’re the ones who don’t even need to pursue happiness to attain it. They’ve been living it this whole time.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve gone off to visit friends, work and earn quite little, and play outside all over the country. There’s been snow tubing in New Hampshire, hiking in Massachusetts, archery and golf in Vermont, a wedding and rope swinging in Maine, crabbing in Connecticut, eating in Maryland, camping and climbing in California, and hiking and exploring in Oregon. I guess I can’t really complain, because although I’ve wanted to be working and earning money, I’ve realized that I’m just not meant to have a standard, full-time job. Some people live to work, or work to live, and that’s fine. Since this trip, though, I feel that I’m wasting every day I’m not exploring and learning, and I just can’t do that. I’d rather keep up my wonderful freelance jobs, including my creative ideation gigs, my tasty food reviews, and my small volunteer teaching positions, then try to find fulfilling work in the meantime. I enjoy not knowing what I’ll be doing one month to the next, and if I’m poor doing that, then so be it. I do have a plan for my next escapade, so that’s what I’m in the midst of researching. And yes, of course it involves travel and outdoor adventure!

Overall thoughts

The worst parts:

-The Southeast Asian computer viruses that have wreaked havoc on thousands of my photos, as well as ruining a lot of my time in Malaysia, much of which was spent trying to fix the computers I accidentally infected at my volunteer host’s business.

-Witnessing the hunger for money in such poor countries.

-The Malaysian holistic practitioner who randomly “read” my personality after meeting me for two hours. It was amazing, but what he figured out about me was absolutely accurate. And sometimes the truth is very, very depressing.

-Having to physically rip guys off of my pack and my body as they fought to have me use their taxi service.

-That I feel pretty badly about feeling used by my family. I should have been a lot more giving and less self-absorbed.

-Realizing I’m never going to look like the model-perfect flight attendants on China Air. I believe they were made from a combination of silicone and implanted politeness chips, sans the “r” and “l” buttons.

-Losing some of my favorite photos, despite having them doubly backed up.

-My crazy Malaysian host, who said (heard through the grapevine) I was an American freeloader, then accused me via email of bringing fleas into her bed. I plead not guilty.

-My family, who unsurprisingly didn’t seem to care very much about the trip, and who only heard a few stories I begged to tell. Yeah, it hurts, but that’s not new news.

-Most people I’ve talked to, who sadly have never heard of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot, or the Temples of Angkor. How have American history teachers not found these to be of importance?

-Cucumber in watersoup™ for dinner. Not my fav.

-Speaking to a Khmer-American woman while in Cambodia. She had witnessed her husband’s murder, and her entire family had been wiped out by the Red Army. This was a woman who had eaten trees to survive, then lived in the mountains and escaped to a foreign land, and who had tears in her eyes describing how grateful she was to be in America. Yes, we are lucky.

-My friends, very few of whom challenged me in opinion or who truly wanted to hear my thoughts.

-Having no one with me to share experiences.


The best parts:

-Gazing at the rainbow-colored fish from a floating dock in the middle of turquoise water, then realizing that the three guys and I sitting on there were from four different countries, and even continents: We were from the U.S., Scotland, Iran, and Australia.

-The cheer that rose up from a group of Khmer workers passing the white chick who was sitting on the roof of a speeding truck.

-The rolling mountains and farms that went on forever in layer after beautiful layer.

-Learning everything I never expected.

-The candy, yarn, books, and notes friends and family sent me.

-Snorkeling for free, whenever I wanted, with turtles, manta rays, starfish, urchins, anemones, and thousands of fish I never knew existed.

-The food, going catfish fishing, and playing ping-pong in a village no foreigner has ever visited.

-The funeral in my Thai village. It was one of the most intriguing and singularly unique situations I’ve ever found myself in, and believe it or not, it was extremely enjoyable.

-Having no one to depend on and figuring out solutions for myself.

-Having my family come pick me up from the train, including my father, who had taken a day off of work. He had extra days to use up, I was later informed. But still!

-Finding the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in a place I’d never expect.

-My friends who challenged my ideas and my decisions.

-Meeting the most generous people of my life, and having hope that one day, I can be less stingy and more giving.

-Gaining the respect of those who have far less than any of us do, which is not an easy feat.

-Walks in foreign lands, with no knowledge of where to go and no time limit for doing so.

-Every incredible memory of every untold experience, which I will (hopefully) have as long as I shall live.

-Being alone for all the experiences.


I am always developing new thoughts on this trip, and on the world in general, and while I will definitely go on more unique trips in the future, this first, big, unknown trip will always hold the most magical place in my heart.

Overall, this experience gave me more guidance on how I want to live my life and enjoy every day. I’m more clueless than every about what I want to do with my life, but I do know what I want not to do. One thing that’s changed is my lack of tolerance for people I already had little patience for in the first place. To those who complain about their dull jobs: Do something about it. Change. If you don’t want to, fine, but don’t whine to me about it. There are the sayers and the doers, but don’t ask others for the reasons to change, because in the end, no one is going to make that happen but you. To stay in a bad job/relationship/place for a few months is one thing—and there is something to be learned in every situation, for sure—but for years? You’re probably never going to change, and only you can be blamed for that.

I know that many of you must think I pat myself for going on this trip, and that it wasn’t even unique, but I don’t think either is quite true. While I’m proud and happy that I took the trip, it was for a relatively short time, and half of that was fairly tourist-laden. I also believe that anyone who teaches abroad or does a program such as Peace Corps gets an experience that’s unlike the norm. Although my trip was short, the high number of first-time experiences and one-of-a-kind treks made it quite special to me, and had a big impact. And being alone to do it, with no other Americans, made it that much more memorable and challenging. 

Am I a well-traveled gal? No! Are the people who have visited 14 European cities on a 30-day tour and cruise well-traveled? Heck no. I’ve spent some time in a few parts of the world, but well-traveled, no. I’m working on it, though.

I believe everyone should not so much just travel, but actually be immersed in a culture and place in order to understand different ways of life. I believe we always learn something valuable when we put ourselves in new situations. When I look back at my photos or hear those memorable sounds, I cannot believe how blessed I am to have experienced such beauty, such discrimination, and such different aspects of humanity. Every day I think of this journey and am transported to such magical places, not because it was all amazing, but because it was all such a journey. I believe that we should walk down that alleyway, because whether the end is a brick wall or an amazing sight, we will never know unless we sometimes go against our instincts. I believe that without being scared by doing something new, we are never quite challenging ourselves to everything else out there. When we choose comfort over the unknown, we miss out on the world. 

There is so much more to say, but I think we’ve all likely had enough. Thank you so much for reading and responding to my notes, because I’ve been blessed to have you as my readers. I truly hope you enjoyed them.

 

Love always,

Coop

My Southeast Asia Trip Part 8 (and there’s just a week to go)!

Greetings all,

Well, I spent Thanksgiving alone and fairly sick in my single room in a guesthouse. At least I was in a nice guesthouse. Actually, my single room was probably the biggest available in Ho Chi Minh City, complete with a bed, dresser, table, footrest, 2 chairs, bench, wood loveseat, and corner kiosk. Yes, I was confused with the kiosk at first as well, but in my delusional, feverish state, I made good use of it by first selling tickets to Miss Ho Chi Minh City and then playing poker with my closest imaginary doll friends. I lost a lot of money playing poker, but it wasn’t until the fever broke that I realized that the dolls had all been in my head.

But that’s okay, because the day after Thanksgiving everything improved. I met up with a new travel buddy and we went to the Vietnamese underground war tunnels, otherwise known as the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels are quite famous with visitors who marvel at the tiny openings that the Vietnamese were able to not only fit into, but live in. It is with great sadness that I tell you that after several men on our tour made it in and out of the tunnel opening with ease, I was the only female to attempt it, and I didn’t make it in. Not because I’m claustrophobic, or because I didn’t try hard enough, or because I couldn’t fit. Oh wait, yes, it was because I couldn’t fit. I got my legs through but once my ginormous hips hit, the group of Singaporians we were walking with started tittering. I got up from sitting on the ground and we all went to the next hole in the ground, which was different and quite large, having been widened specifically for Westerners. “Here, maybe you can fit into this one!” they exclaimed, pointing in encouragement to a hole large enough to fit a baby elephant. They meant well.

You’ll notice that what is written and what the actual story is…well, they’re completely different things. Above, for instance, you may have read that I went to the tunnels. The next few sentences gave you the real story, though. Do you often wonder how much of what you first read is true? What’s really behind the headlines? What are the people in the situation really thinking? I don’t want to lead you on or mislead you with what’s happened here, so now I bring you the real thoughts behind the headlines. It’s a li’l bit of Lost in Translation for you, but hopefully it’s better than the movie. Then again, I hated the movie but sat through it three times, so maybe, by extension, you’ll read this note even though you don’t want to.

What you read: I ordered a delicious pineapple milkshake off a cart on the street.
What’s really going on in my mind: I feel like drinking something refreshing and fruity. Ah, a street stall selling shakes! My favorite, and I think I’ll get a pineapple one. Okay, there she goes cutting a fresh pineapple right in front of me. There’s no prepped fruit here, only the fresh stuff cut right in front of your eyes. Okay, she’s peeling it now in the brilliant way all of Southeast Asia peels pineapples, which saves a good portion of the fruit and looks cool too. Okay, now she’s ruined all milkshake credibility she had by touching money, rifling through several drawers, and exchanging something with her friend, who’s just pulled up. That’s wonderful, really. Great, now moneyhands is back at my pineapple, cutting it up. Okay, well at least I get a nice, refreshing, healthy dri…no, nevermind, there goes one, two, oh wow, three tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. Goodbutbadforyou Morning Vietnam.

What you read: Every guy is so friendly here, always curious and asking me questions!
What’s really going on in my mind: It’s simple: They’re either trying to get you to take a moto ride, or they’re asking if you’re single or not. Green card, anyone?

What you read: After a long day working with the youngsters, the boys asked me to join them for dinner and had the eldest boy serve me.
What’s really going on in his mind: She was so nice to come, and we’re so young that we’re not corrupt yet, nor are we asking for her hand in marriage yet. Now that she’s helped us out, let’s share our dinner with her. No, of course I don’t note the dead ants that look like spices in the meal we just gave her. No, I don’t notice any giant cockroach crawling on the wall. What do you mean it just fell off the wall due to its massive weight and size. Even if it was real, I don’t see how it would be the biggest cockroach she’s ever seen in her life, and she’s from New York City so she’s seen them all. So you’re saying it fell into the cabbage, that’s fine. If that really did just happen, well, at least it is not in her food. Not that she’ll ever know what was in it, because that’s another story I’ll deny.

What you read: My buddy and I motorbiked to a Cambodian cave and were led on a not-so-safe tour through it.
What’s really going on in my mind: I think the moto ride was safer than the cave. Here go these young boys in their flip-flops and their tiny flashlight, showing us through these amazing caverns. “Want to keep climbing, lady?” they ask. Well, sure. Oh, there’s a giant hole and some bad footing and I will fall down into that hole and die if I make a mistake, awesome. Lovely. Okay, I made it through, and now we’re onto another cave, and wow, this one is even more cavernous and amazing. And we’re walking over the Buddhist ruins, passing under the stone staircase that now leads nowhere due to a past partial cave collapse. Comforting. “You go further, lady, sir, you climb?” Sure, why not? So we’re led into a snaking walking tunnel and then come to an almost-sheer rock face that leads to light. The boy scampers up. “Just grab onto root. Tight.” Oh, I love putting my life into the hands of a tree root that’s not all that thick. But we make it up and into the open with just a few now-bloody scratches, and now it’s pouring. “Follow close, hole here,” says the boy, pointing out that if we don’t step on the rocky, vine-covered spires exactly as he does, you will fall through a hole and die. After climbing over this and that, we emerge at quite possibly the most beautiful view in all of Cambodia. Mountains in the distance, lush rice fields, gardens, homes, farmers, and animals here and there, and green palm trees dotting the misty horizon. It really was worth it, but of course I say that having not fallen down a massive hole and died.

What you read: Cambodians love their karaoke!
What’s really going on in their minds: It’s quite normal for everyone to love listening, and just listening, not singing, to karaoke. That’s what it’s for, anyway, the notion of karaoke, to listen, right? Here in Cambodia, it’s all the rage. At a bar, at a friend’s, at a party…oh, how we love to sit stoically and watch the television play the same 16 songs over and over again! We think it’s a great celebration of life to silently watch this phenomenon. What do you mean sing with it? That’s confusing and takes effort, something we’re not accustomed to. We would turn it louder to cover your useless suggestions and chatter, except it’s already at maximum volume, and would also involve getting up and pressing a button since remote controls weren’t invented here yet.

What you read: I got a great bargain on Indian food for my dinner the other night.
What’s really going on in my mind: Well, I’ve been sick for a few days and I’m finally feeling better, so I’m going with Indian tonight. Ooh, here’s a good deal! 2 dishes plus chappati, a soft drink (and the carbonation will help my stomach), and dessert. Not bad. I’ll order.
Oh, so the woman who suggested the deal is handing me a phone. Perfectly normal. So I just repeated my order on the phone to some dude, which I admit isn’t at all creepy since really, who needs to walk in back to the kitchen a few steps when you can just make a phone call? The man on the phone says he “respects my decision.” Hm. I don’t hear any kitchen sounds either, which is only creeping me out a bit.
Ah, just got my order, and apparently my bill is now higher. They’ve put me on the phone again. Takeaway is a different price, you see, but they didn’t bother to list it. Whatevs. Great. Oh, and a banana is dessert. Oh, and bottled water apparently is a soft drink. Interesting interpretation in this part of the world. It is also the worst Indian I’ve ever had, and I’ve really only had bad Indian food once in my life. Next time I’m asked to speak to the cook on the phone three times, I’ll eat at a different place.

What you see: I don’t think Cambodian food can get much worse.
What’s really going on in my mind: …but the drinks are AWESOME! They have so many creations that luckily (almost) outweigh the bad food. They’re probably all good because they start with a large dose of sweetened condensed milk, which, next to a block of 100% pure, unadulterated lard or a cube of fois gras, is the next worse thing for your system.* So they have street fruit shakes with spiky mangos, persimmons, cheyote, custard apples, and many other fruits I’ve never seen, different powders and milks, bubble teas, milk teas, tapioca teas (none of which have any tea in them, of course), syrup drinks, etc. Etc. All mixed in a cocktail shaker to make you feel special. Dang, they’re good. And a common meal supplement. I miss them terribly. Maybe three a day wasn’t good for me though.
*Not an FDA-approved statement

What you see: My private little boat captain makes all these funny gestures when he’s smiling and talking to me in a language I can’t really understand, so I just smile and nod.
What’s really going on in his mind: That was easy! I have a new wife now.

What you see: Southeast Asians are liberal with their rules.
What’s really going on in my mind: No traffic rules. No “no nose picking in public” rules. No “don’t put your feet on her seat” rules. No personal bubbles. No private space. No men who don’t hit on white gals. No “you must sleep in the seats, not on the floor in the aisle of the moving train” rules. No moto/tuk-tuk/taxi drivers who don’t make you want to rip your hair out. No rules, but in Vietnam, a present from above. Toilet paper, free and meant to be used in your guesthouse bathroom. I’m in love.

What you see: My buddy and I went on a trek through the Cambodian jungle with a guide and a ranger.
What’s really going on in the ranger’s mind: Well I don’t know why these foreigners come on holiday and want to sweat and hike through our pseudo-jungle. Plus, they get all decked out in those hiking boot things. Me? I do it in flip-flops, because those are the only shoes that exist here. What do people think of the trekking? Well the trek is pretty but if you count in the part about how it, like every other rain forest and primary forest growth in Southeast Asia is getting torn down, it’s not as nice as it seems, and add in the fact that the deforestation has ruined the animal population and that during our entire trip in the jungle, we don’t see a single animal other than a frog and or a tiny lizard, no birds, no wildlife, no nothing. At least I know where I’m going. Except for now. No, I do know where. Well, now I don’t know. Ok, now I do know. But be prepared because I might get us lost again…now. You enjoy backtracking, right? Is it me, my wrinkles, or my chain-smoking that makes the girl digs me? I think she’s attracted to the fact that I brought approximately 120 ciggies with me on our 3-day jaunt. And had to wake up at 4 in the morning to get my fix. Yeah, she’s definitely into me. Sick, going after men my age.

What you read: I had to sleep in a “dormitory”-type room in Saigon.
What’s really going on in my mind: I’m totally okay with how things went. Upon looking for a cheap hotel for my last night in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, but the names are used interchangeably), I find exactly what I’m looking for, a.k.a. the cheapest room in town. “Oh, sorry, no one else staying in room now,” the woman says, handing me the key sadly. I get a room that is about 1000 square feet. All to myself. Sweet, though it’s stressful trying to pick which bed to sleep in.

What you read: I took a 1,200 kilometer, 3-day-long train ride through Vietnam.
What’s really going on in my mind: “Why you take train? Why no fly?” they ask me when I try booking at a tour spot. “Why no bus? Train long!” they say at another. “Why we can no speak English?” at yet another. Well, the reason I want to take the train is because I have very little time left in Vietnam, want to see up north, and hear it’s a wonderful way to see the scenery. So I book a ticket in a “soft seat,” a.k.a. no bed, just a seat. I do this because I want the real experience, because I’m cheap, and because I know I’ll only meet foreigners who can afford the expensive sleepers if that’s where I stay. And also, it’s not three days of travel. You leave really late the first night and arrive before sunrise on the third day. So really, you’re only using up one day, though admittedly not getting the best sleep. But boy is it a great experience. I sit next to a man who knows some English and talks with me quite a bit, I have a seat with actual leg room, and I’m meeting interesting people, to say the least. A group of 35+ soldiers (the soccer-playing, beer-chugging, happy Vietnamese kind) sit right next to me and take up all the seats in front of me, so to say that I am an object of fascination to them would be an understatement. Some of them speak some English, and are quite happy to ask me many questions. Oh, did I mention the scenery? True, we travel during the night a lot, but during the day, our train goes right in the middle of rice fields, in between rolling hills, and along curving mountains above the ocean. These small, lonely beaches, with white, frothing water, set among the wild green mountains, are amazing. Seeing five of the same in the distance with the fog rolling in is incredible. I can’t wipe the grin off my face at having seen something so beautiful, and in a way one can only see by train. In the night, I wake up and can make out dark mountains and silvery, moonlit lakes right outside the window. I think I’m falling in love with the scenery here. Of course, while I’m taking pictures of this all, one by one many of the soldja men come to introduce themselves. It’s cute. Throughout the trip, we’re all sharing snacks. If I was a normal person, I’d barely have enough snacks for myself, but since it’s me, I somehow have enough to feed almost all the guys. As I laugh, eat, and chat together with these extremely kind young men, it dawns on me that just 40 years ago, we were killing each other and winning praise for doing so. These guys, knowing full well that I’m American, are just as welcoming as could be, and we are very sorry to see each other go. They are the true people of Vietnam—friendly, helpful, and lovely. It has been an amazing train journey.

Well folks, I don’t know how that read, but I do know that some of you read my last update very closely, for several of you noted that I’d had two questions marked #13, and only one answer. I did this for several reasons, but mostly just because I was being annoying, had nothing better to do, it was numbered 13 (which, in Sideways Stories from Wayside School, doesn’t exist), it actually happened on Friday the 13th, and I really thought we were going to crash.

So now I’m on the last leg of my trip. I have only one week left! Unbelievable how time flies. Whether you like it or not, I will be arriving in JFK next Wednesday night. If you want anything that doesn’t involve prostitutes, prostiboots, or prostitots, let me know! This might include souvenirs, pictures, t-shirts, or hookers.

I’m off to explore Hanoi, Vietnam, in my last week here. Please forgive this lame attempt at a note…I was sick, come on!

Talk to y’all soon,
Coop