Oh the Places You’ll Go

Sorry for slowing the pace of the blog but I’ve been working on some fiction projects the last few days. In a futile attempt to outwit the all pervasive soreness I’ve had since starting training, I’ve also been rubbing on a number of ointments that would make Eddie Harris from Major League blush.

I called my parents last night, and they had some of their oldest friends down to “The Babin,” as their future home in retirement is known. After talking to Mom for a minute, I made her put Holder on the phone, as I have loved giving him grief (mostly for his wildly inappropriate shoe selections) since I was a kid.

We spoke for a few minutes about this and that from the trip, some of the things I’ve seen and some of the travelers I’ve met. Then he asked how I was received by the locals. I laughed as I thought back, from “Mama” on the Castaway cruise in Halong Bay, to Man in Hoi An, to Snow and the rest of the absolute sweethearts running the hostel in Nha Trang. I told him about Nam, the novice monk in Luang Prabang and about my powerful jealousy of the 4 generation daily dinner picnics on An Bang beach in Vietnam.

He-yen for instance, our cooking teaching in Hoi An, only 3 weeks older than me, but mature and wise in a way that words can’t really describe.

It hasn’t all been roses. Just yesterday I was party to an incident where a minivan tried to run me over on my moped, then strong arm me into paying him for “damage” to his van. I know just enough Thai to know that when he was calling “the police” he was just saying foreigner and money over and over again. Everything was fine until he reached into his glove box and pulled out either a knife or something that he wanted me to believe was a knife and shoved it into his waistband.

Its low season in Thailand. People are hungry, and you’ll get that kind of thing occasionally, but I stood my ground, and cocked those “HELL-bows” that Zac has been training me to throw.

Then I told Dave about BBQ-ing with Koh, Zac and the rest of the trainers here at Lanta Gym.

I’ve drank a lot of beers in a lot of places. My mother would probably say too many. From $10 Budweisers on a rooftop full of the dregs of B&T society in Manhattan, to my first illicit Bud Lights with Al Spreen and co in a cabin in Williams. Sitting out in that handmade shack laughing with a bunch of people, total strangers mere days ago, who have lived lives so incredibly different than my own was really a powerful experience.

Koh is a madman with a…colorful past but a heart of gold. After a few shots of Sangsam, he gets to waxing “eloquent” about how we are all from different places, but all friends. Sitting there that night I saw the truth in what he said. Along with the 6 Thai trainers, there sat Glen, a 4 year sober recovering addict from England, Maiyo, a Finnish girl who could probably hammer toss me clear to Malaysia on a good day, and Oliver, a Belgian of Congolese extraction who speaks 4 languages fluently and is working on Mandarin now.

Here we were, sitting together swapping stories, laughing hysterically at the antics of the trainers, and discussing everything from politics to ill-fated moped rides.

I was reminded of that greatest call to adventure, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss.

The town I grew up in was 99% White in the 2010 census. Those who could speak a foreign language were pretty much relegated to the women who comprised the foreign language department at the high school, and from my experiences with the French teacher, even that is a stretch.

I haven’t seen another American in 2 weeks. When Dave asked if I thought that the things I’ve seen would have an effect on me. He answered his own question before it was all the way out of his mouth.

For travel like this to NOT have an effect is impossible.

One of my favorite documentaries, 180 Degrees South, has a great quote by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia.

Speaking about those who climb Everest in the most luxurious fashions possible:

“Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high powered plastic surgeons and CEO’s, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

You see the truth of these words when traveling like this. There are any number of ways to travel in this part of the world. You can have every luxury known to man: 5 star resorts, drivers with SUVs, and daily spa treatments. You could be sheltered from the heartbreaking poverty that afflicts many locals here in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sip Mai Tais on the beach, eat Australian beef hamburgers for dinner, and snap selfies as the sun sinks majestically into the water.

But you were an asshole when you started out and you’ll be an asshole when you get back. You were merely the exploitative tourist. The one who came and effectively said to the locals, “Oh your homeland looks nice. Now take this money and leave me alone.”

You didn’t interact, you didn’t experience any culture other than talking to the posh English girl on the beach chair next to you. You just sat on a beach with a cellphone, thinking about the best way to post something pithy copy with your Instagram picture to create maximum jealousy among your peers back home.

A part of me feels bad for these kinds of people, but another part wants me to give them an “HELL-bow” to the head to see if I can knock some introspective sense into them.

There is a massive gulf between “travel” and “going places.” I didn’t really realize it before, but now I can see it retrospectively  in some of the travel I’ve done in the US.

One of my best friends managed a “lodge/long-term hostel/guesthouse/den of iniquity” known as the Park Meadow Lodge, in Vail, Colorado for a ski season. Just about everyone living there was working somewhere on Vail Mountain for almost no money, merely the opportunity to ski as much as possible.

Scotty B, the de facto mayor of the Vail ski bum community, had been at Park Meadow Lodge for nearly 10 years. His disdain for “gapers” as jackass tourists are known in mountain lingo, was unrivaled. He managed a ski rental shop on the mountain, and would constantly come back with a story about some rich idiot who just didn’t get it, who thought that money would fix any problem, and who treated Scotty and every other worker like some sort of second class servant.

I stayed out with Craig for a powder filled couple weeks before moving to NYC in 2010, and I got to “live like a local.” I took part in the non-monetary “favor” based economy that the locals have. Someone runs a ski shop, and they get your friends free rentals when they come visit, someone else works at the pizza shop, and they throw a messed up pie your way now and again. Others work at the spa, and will look the other way when you want to go have a little Presidential workout in the hot tub and steam room after a hard day’s skiing.

In reality, the locals are living even better than the rich tourists spending countless dollars. What they lack in loot, they make up for in the social skills that so many people try to compensate for with greenbacks.

The rich look down on them as minimum wage monkeys, who in turn look back with scorn on the rich as cake eating jackalopes for substituting cash for substance.

Whether Vail, Colorado, Hoi An, Vietnam, or Koh Lanta, Thailand, travel is about more than a place. It is about interacting with people and letting the stories of the people you meet move or change you.

Don’t tell me where you’ve been. Tell me who you’ve met, and how their story affected you.

I’ve sat with Glen for countless hours now, talking about abstenince based recovery, his life as an addict and some of the things he’s seen on the other side. He’s graciously opened up in a way which few of even my friends back home ever would. He’s got a story that has something to teach anyone willing to listen to it, so long as they can do so with an open mind.

That’s what life is about. Just a bunch of souls bouncing about at random, creating unexpected reactions when the universe flings them into one another.

If we’d all just take time to put down the selfie stick, we might actually learn something. Hell, I bet that fella over there would be willing to take a picture for you if you’d just smile as you walk up and ask.

It is the people, infinitely more than the places that make travel an enriching experience. We’d all do well to remember that.

 

Friendships and Forks in the Road

Greetings from Bangkok. Turns out this is a real place, not just something that teenaged boys say before hitting each other in the balls.

Took the night train from Chiang Mai. Quite a nice way to travel when compared to the busses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I paid about $25 for a sleeper berth, which wasn’t at all what I expected. When I got onto the train originally, the seats were setup in the traditional 2 facing 2 format. I thought to myself, “Shit, you managed to get ripped off.”

In Bangkok, everyone with a voicebox is trying to rip you off.

There wasn’t really anywhere to put my bags either, so I just laid them in the middle of the two seats. I took a short nap sitting up, and then settled in to read for a bit. About 2 hours later, a small Thai stewardess walks up with a big Allen key and motions for me to get out of the way. 3 minutes later, there were two beds, top and bottom, laid out in front of me with small blue curtains almost holding back the light. There were even real pillows.

I was amazed and grateful, so I tucked my things into the top bunk, and laid back down in the bottom. Again, SE Asia has made me realize that height isn’t always an advantage, as even my very average frame was at the absolute maximum to lay flat in the bunk.

I had a little chuckle thinking about my 6’11’’ buddy Kiefer trying to lay in this bed… or hell, do damn near anything in this part of the world. God that’d be miserable.

After settling in, I went to go grab some dinner on the dining car. Dining car was a bit of a scene, with the mandatory moaning Thai music videos playing and the staff smiling and dancing. When I walked in I was the only phaulong (foreigner) in the room. I got a Pad Thai and a Chang beer, and tried futilely to talk to the older Thai gentleman sitting across from me. We got through our names, exhausted our knowledge of our non-native language and finally settled with smiling at each other and tapping our beers for cheers about 5 times.

He left, and two Westerners sat down next to me. I asked, “How ya goin’?” having picked it up from the Aussies, and we started to talk. After getting to where are you from, they replied Americans and I said the same. They actually thought I was Australian, which shocked me.

Turns out they are from…Indiana.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

One had gone to school at Arizona State University, and I asked which fraternity he was in. When he replied Sigma Chi, I asked if he ever met an alum named Kyle Uminger, a pseudo cousin of mine who had been the president of that chapter. Turns out, he had apparently given a talk at the house while he was there.

The world is a damned small place, evidenced today on a night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

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Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet. As I left, I knew that I was leaving several good friends behind. Luke and Wendy (of the Thaket/Kong Lor Cave adventure and motorbike accident) finally caught back up with me. Luke and I went and watched the USA/Germany game, and then said our goodbyes afterward. He’s headed back to Australia in a couple weeks, to have a cornea transplant and hopefully open a food truck in Brisbane. In a little over 3 weeks, we had some great adventures.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

From getting to Thaket in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, with reports of Burmese body snatchers floating in and finally having a 10 year old kid take us to the neighbors, where he beat on the door at 2AM and told them to make us dinner. Finally some poor groggy man got out of bed and beckoned us in. We sat and laughed and drank beers while watching some old Champions League game.

The next day was when we crashed our motorbikes during the 4 hour ride to Kong Lor cave.

The night after that, we got into Vientienne in a pouring rain at 1:30AM and were promptly dropped off in an alley full of hookers by the least scrupulous tuk-tuk driver I’ve encountered yet.

The following hour and a half was an unfunny comedy of errors before we finally found a hostel that would take us.

I also left behind Fabio and Marlene, the German couple I’ve been traveling with for the past couple of weeks.

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They’ve been excellent traveling partners and great friends. We’ve ridden elephants, flown around Vang Vieng on go-karts, played endless games of Ralfrunta, and even seen off a near tragedy when our mutual traveling partner Marayna decided to take a header down some stairs (resulting in 40 some odd stitches.)

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We talked about a little bit of everything from politics, culture, language, movies, you name it. I can speak a very small amount of poorly pronounced German now (Marlene still thinks I have potatoes in my mouth,) and they know what phrases like “Hell in a handbasket” mean. I had a blast with them, and saw how a well functioning couple doing this kind of long-term travel operates.

The mere thought of traveling with most American girls like this is enough to give me grey hair, but Marlene was a trooper of the highest order; a veritable mobile pharmacy which could produce anti-diahhera medicine, toilet paper, contact solution, and mosquito repellent out of a bag which didn’t seem large enough by half.
I’ll miss Fabio’s bad jokes, which were always saved by the second punchline, “Ya, dat EEs funny. Right?” And I’ll miss Marlene yelling at Fabio during Ralfrunta, “Fabi-YO, I cahn see yooor cahds!”

They are headed to the Philippines from here, then back to Germany in a month after a full year of traveling from New Zealand through SE Asia. I promised that if I ever got to Germany that I’d stop in, and I’d imagine if Marlene has her way there will be a mini-Kraut padding around their flat if I wait more than a year or so.

As I got off the plane in Krabi, I wondered who I’d meet as I got to my hostel. Turns out, there was a ready made crew waiting in the dorm room when I got there. Dutch girls, with their throaty accents and slightly amazing hair products (just in time for the Netherlands/Mexico game!), a Welsh lad who was brutally offended that I didn’t know about rugby, and a parcel of English girls telling me all about their time in India.

I have the feeling I won’t lack for company here either.

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That’s the beauty of friendships on the road. In a mere few weeks, I’ve had more unique experiences with these people than many that I’ve known for years. I know how they react under pressure and how chippy they get when they’re hungry or tired. I know how they deal with a legitimate crisis and how easily they can laugh off a “toilet” which is little more than a hole in the ground. I’ve seen them on mopeds and I’ve seen how well they barter with tuk-tuk drivers. I sat across from them when the transmission fell out of our bus in the mountains, and I saw the fear on their faces when we drove past a bus just like ours that had rolled off the highway on a rainy night to Vientiane.

These friendships taught me things, both about others and about myself. So often we find ourselves squabbling with our friends in our routine lives, taking offense at this or that. None of it really amounts to a hill of beans, but we ball up our fists and get angry instead of just letting it all go.

I’ve seen enough of the world to know that lives intersect for a reason. Hell I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today if a collegiate acquaintance hadn’t been dumb enough to stay in the biggest dump of a hostel in Amsterdam and struck up a conversation with a certain dingo kicking Australian.

They traveled together for 5 months and thus began a lifelong friendship.

That dingo kicking Australian ended up becoming my roommate when he moved to NYC, and since then I’ve been on 4 continents with him and consider him one of my closest friends.

Thanks for picking a dump of a hostel Mr. Misamore, I owe you one.

If it weren’t for an interaction that I was unaware of until years later, the Conquest would probably be sitting in front of 8 computer screens swearing at non-existent gold customers. Instead, I’m sitting on the 10th floor overlooking Bangkok, celebrating the start of my 4th month on the road.

Friendships come in all different kinds. Some last for decades, others for only a few days. Appreciate them all and be careful about discarding them. The universe puts people together for reasons often beyond our comprehension.

There are enough forks in the road that end friendships prematurely. Don’t be like the fork-throwing monkey in Battambang and put one there artificially.

I can damn near promise that the issue you think matters so much isn’t half as significant as you think. Holding onto anger in one hand and a friend in the other, the choice seems pretty clear.

Blood, Organ Snatchers and Caves

Sometimes while traveling, real life seems to sneak away. Outstanding one of a kind circumstances keep popping up, and every day is a new adventure waiting to be conquered. Everything might not be easy, but nothing goes far enough astray that it can’t be easily fixed.

Mopeds and mountains

Mopeds and mountains

Then you have weeks like this.

After leaving Siem Riep and Angkor Wat, (which I promise to go back and write about) I headed up on another shady 12 hour bus ride to Don Det, Laos.

Don Det is in the 4000 Island archipelego in the middle of the Mekong River straddling the Laos/Cambodia border. This was a border that I literally forded across through the river.
This puts it approximately in the middle of nowhere.

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

I booked a room in Don Det prior to getting there, only to realize that the hotel was a 3 mile walk from the point that the boat dropped us off on the island. I quickly decided that opposed to walking that far with a loaded pack after a 12 hour journey, that it was time to duck into one of the many guest houses that lined the rutted dirt path through town.

The real power behind Mr. Mo's

The real power behind Mr. Mo’s

I settled on Mr. Mo’s Guesthouse, which was nestled against the river with a Spartan but clean restaurant that looked out over the water. On the 12 hour journey there, I met a German couple traveling with their two kids, Vido and Caroline. The kids were 3 and 6 and I was absolutely in awe of the bravery that it takes to do this kind of travel with little kids for 7 months. The father had a hernia pop out while in Manila, so the family was all helping him pick up the slack to transport their luggage through SE Asia.

I laughed to myself about the impossibility of meeting an American family traveling in the same manner. These kids will be better for their parents’ bravery without a doubt.

In Don Det, I ran into some semi familiar faces including my German friend Marius, and a pair of Canadian cousins I had met on the river in Kampot. A few days later, I made the acquaintance of Luke and Wendy, a British guy and Australian girl who had been traveling for several months as well.
While in Don Det, I took in the sights, including fishing on the Mekong, using a spark plug as a sinker, and a 9 hour kayak trip to see some of the last remaining freshwater dolphins in the world, and the SE Asian Niagara.

Fishing with Marius.

Fishing with Marius.

Throughout my travels, I keep running back into the Mekong, which is basically the Mississippi or Nile of this part of the world, acting as the watershed for countless acres throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a massive river which allows the people here to live lives largely unchanged for generations.

Leaving Don Det, I picked up some bus tickets with Luke and Wendy to go see the Kong Lor Cave. A 12 hour bus ride to a place called Thaket, which can barely be called a town, allowed us to get mopeds for the 4 hour drive up to the caves. Finally had my first moped accident over here, going through some of the most treacherous roads I’ve ever seen. A graphically busted knee, bumped helmet and some road rash on my shoulder and hands were all that I came out with. Very lucky all things considered, as all 3 of us laid our mopeds down on the mountain right after a permanent sign that only said “Accident Ahead” in English. Guess we should’ve taken more heed.

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We stayed at a guesthouse in the valley for $3 a night and we were one of about 10 foreigners in the whole valley, which only got electricity 3 years ago. Surreal experience.

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One more little note about Thaket and the valley. We heard that there was a band of Burmese organ snatchers on the loose in the area. The police and military were setting up random checkpoints to find them. At first I thought this sounded like a backpacker rumor gone wild, but it turns out that there really was a band trying to procure organs to sell to Chinese customers. Absolutely terrifying horror movie stuff, but in the spirit of traveling, we just laughed and said, “well I hope they take the left kidney, I’m rather partial to the right.”

Our moped rental owner actually knew the girl who was attacked a few nights before. Never a dull moment on the road in SE Asia.

I can’t be happier that we did it though. It was truly one of the more beautiful places I’ve been on this trip. It was basically the karst islands of Halong Bay formed into mountains. The cave itself was a 5 mile long cavern which was voluminous enough to stack the church I grew up in several times. Just absolutely breathtaking, Lord of the Rings stuff.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

After we left Kong Lor, we headed to Vientienne, to stock up on bandages/Mac chargers/Western Food for about 12 hours before heading onto Vang Vieng. We arrived on the bus in a pouring rain about 1 AM, and jumped in a tuk-tuk to get to the city center and find somewhere to sleep. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off on a road with nothing but prostitutes, and we wandered the city for another 2 hours before finally finding a hostel to lay our weary heads for the night. Always have to be adaptive when traveling, because things don’t always work to plan.

After our resupply in the “big city” we headed up to Vang Vieng, another small town on the Mekong known for tubing, bowling, a rave in the jungle and every restauarant constantly playing “Friends” repeats. Another dreamscape of a place surrounded by karst mountains, but so different from the Kong Lor valley.

I met back up with the Canadian cousins, and had a great time with them and a German couple who thinks that teaching me German is a hilarious activity. My accent is so bad that I wholeheartedly agree. I’d heard from someone that German is the hardest language for native English speakers to fully subsume. After a few days of impromtu German lessons, I can see why.

Boy it is a fantastic language to shout in though.

After all these idyllic landscapes, reality snuck back in. I woke up yesterday morning to go have breakfast on the river and as I was walking back, I came across Marayna, the female half of the Canadian cousins, covered in blood with a huge line of stitches in a shaved line on the front of her head. She was dazed, bloody, and confused. It was really a terrifying moment.

She’d fallen down a flight of unlit concrete steps at the guesthouse and in reality she was lucky that it wasn’t worse than it was. I got her calmed down and cleaned up, and she and her cousin quickly found a bus to get them closer to Bangkok, where the best Western style hospitals in SE Asia are located. Unfortunately it was still going to take them over 24 hours to get to a real hospital, but that’s part of traveling in remote places.

Last I heard from them, they were trying to get on a 7:30 AM flight to Bangkok today. I assume they’ve made it, but should know more soon. It is amazing the clinical detachment that everyone took on this situation. From the standard clinical nature of the Germans, to my scientific searching for best routes to Bangkok, to the simple fact that this situation wasn’t going to get any better without a little work, everyone pitched in and made sure that people who were strangers mere days before ended up getting to where they needed to go.
Most backpackers have a sense of, all for one, and being a solo backpacker myself, I thank God for that fact.

More will come now that I’m in one place, but I reckon that’s enough for now. Next up, World Cup watching!

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

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A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

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Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

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The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

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Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

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But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

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Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

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Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

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As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.

Old Friends in New Places

A lack of internet, power, and time has conspired to get me way behind on my blogging. There is a heap of activity to recount.

Last week we went out to Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the more awe inspiring places I’ve ever been. Imagine Norwegian fjords surrounded by crystalline blue waters. It is the cliff of every Bedford limestone quarry chopped into 1969 islands and speckled with jungles. It was both home and a surreal land wrapped into one place.

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"This is where the dragon lay"

“This is where the dragon lay”

We took a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, which was…intriguing to say the least. The theme of Vietnam being a hodgepodge of old/new, rich/poor, Eastern/Western continued. Most of the drive was a trek through vivid green rice paddies. Upon close examination though, one sees graves interspersed throughout the watery fields. When I say graves, I’m not talking a mere headstone, I’m talking full up marble sarcophagi sporadically placed throughout otherwise virgin fields. I haven’t pinned any locals down on the “Why?” yet, but it is a fascinating wrinkle in a place wrinkly as a slept-upon bedsheet.

Upon arriving in Halong Bay, we stood at the quai for about 15 minutes before embarking on the boat. Much to my delight and surprise, I started hearing my name be called out through the din of the crowd. Suddenly Mark Schneider, a giant of a friend from home started wading through the masses to where I stood. Mark and I knew that we were going to both be in Halong Bay, but the fact that I was getting on a boat, and would only be on the mainland for a few minutes, coupled with the lack of cell phones for either of us made meeting up an improbability to say the least.

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Apparently Vonnegut was correct in his description of the Indiana accent when he said

“where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”

Ah, we lucky Hoosiers. An accent recognizable anywhere.

I figured the chances of two native Bedfordians being in the same spot in Vietnam independently of one another were far less than one in a million. It was a poignant moment for me, to see a guy I’d grown up with for years and years in a place so far from home. Standing next to 3 Australians diminished it somewhat, as those people travel like mad and run across one another in countries both near and far, but to understand where Mark and I came from, a place where Vietnam is a nightmare to be forgotten, not a sliver of earth to be seen, really put the whole trip into a more focused perspective.

It was a meaningful hug between two men an awfully long way from home.

Upon embarking on the boat, we quickly realized that we were in for a treat. Our Kiwi guide Jack was “on” from the moment the tinder pulled away. The junk was owned by a woman affectionately known as “Mama” who lives and operates the boat 19 out of every 21 days. She has an incredibly profitable enterprise, between renting rooms on the boat and selling what we’ll politely call “liquor of dubious strength.” She plays her part to a T though, smiling and laughing through whatever nonsense this crew of backpackers gets themselves into. She employs 7 family members, all of whom sleep on mattresses on the back of the junk including Mama’s 7 year old granddaughter Hai, who looked at our crew suspiciously through her cutting dark eyes.

Many Westerners would consider this living arrangement barbaric, but as is always the theme in Vietnam, everyone seems quite happy with their lot in life. Again, it puts into perspective what one really needs in life. This is a family that eats every meal together in a place as majestic as I have ever encountered. Sleeping nightly under the stars seems a small price to pay.

Once we arrived on Castaway Island, we were greeted to “rustic” living facilities. Our huts were placed mere meters from the beach, and as I woke up, huddled under my mosquito net with the sun glaring off the white sands I considered how far I’d come. Gone was the 5:15 wakeup in a -15 degree Chicago. I was seeing the world and taking what it had to give.

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That’s what I came for.

We climbed and kayaked, ate and drank, and shared stories under the stars on the edge of the beach. Our crew of about 20 was made up of Scottish, German, English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Australian, Vietnamese and 2 Americans besides myself. With a group that diverse, there are constantly new viewpoints and experiences to be discussed.

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Through my travels, I’ve gotten a chance to discuss Scottish independence, the situation with Ukraine, German thoughts on the Euro, the impending World Cup disaster (the Braziallian’s words), and the viticulture of New Zealand. These weren’t articles read on an iPad on the way to work. They were real conversations with people who LIVE the realities of different situations. Boots on the ground, no profit motive or pretensions, timely and candid.

Being the former trader, I always want to put a price on this kind of interaction but it isn’t possible. These are experiences that can’t be bought and sold like a newspaper at the bodega. The world becomes smaller but more intricate with each passing day on the road.

And so the conquest continues.

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It was great to have a run-in with a friend as old as Mark bookended by an experience like Halong Bay. It puts into clearer perspective how unique it is for the two of us to have interactions with people from all across the world. It makes me appreciate the Conquest even more.

And so it goes.