Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh with a Little Help from Strangers

The next day was meant to be our last day in Ho Chi Minh.  We had booked the Mekong Delta tour for the day, and then were going to hop on a bus or train (as of yet, unbooked) out of town.  We naturally woke up early again, which was convenient, because our tour started at 7:30am.  We were out in front of the tour agency, breakfast in hand on time…and then had to wait 30 minutes until the bus arrived.  There were about ten other people on the bus, and we made our way south for a few hours to a small motor boat, where we were all shuttled out to Unicorn Island.  Everyone hopped off the boat into Tourist Central.  We all followed the crowd meandering through market stalls where locals showcased their handicrafts, fruits and veggies, and we sat at a table and ate some tropical fruits, listening to traditional music until we were ready to go.  The group waited in a bit of line to board smaller motor boats on an outcrop of the Mekong Delta while I strolled up and down the river a bit looking at all the boat traffic, and it was comically ridiculous.  There were a massive amount of boats all cramped into this teenie part of the river, going every which way, bumping and slamming into one another in an attempt to get passed.  When our boat arrived, Nicole, myself, and two other people boarded and were provided fun traditional Non la hats while we slowly boated down the river flanked by palm trees to Dragon Island.  We all disembarked our boats and sat at small tables to sample local foods from the island.  The people on Unicorn Island were known for their bee products, so we tried a tea with honey, lime and pollen (which was very strong and I thought didn’t have a great flavor), and some coconut wine.  We also tried and then bought small bags of dried banana chips with sesame seeds and coconut.  The locals got everyone involved, allowing us to hold a honey tray covered in bees, and lastly a Boa…Constrictor…the snake.  Nicole held the Boa first, saying she had done it before and took it like a champ. 
I then got the nerve to hold the stupid thing, which I handled less like a champ.  The pictures are pretty comical, but everyone just giggled as it started to wrap its head up around my neck!  I could feel the snake’s head by my neck, and no one grabbed it!  It felt like an eternity, and I was half a breath away from hyperventilating, but finally the locals grabbed the snake and took it off.  Soooo funny guys!  For our last stop of the day, we got back on the motor boat and floated over to Coconut Island, where we got to try rice wine, snake wine, and some handmade coconut candies before lunch.  We hopped up into a horse drawn cart and trotted through the town a bit to a restaurant on the other side of the island for a simple meal of rice, sautéed veggies, chicken and spring rolls.  After lunch, we had about 30 minutes, during which we grabbed some of the free bicycles the restaurant provided and rode through town and some of the back streets, until we approached a house and two crazed dogs bolted out toward us, barking and snapping their teeth as we hauled A** as fast as possible back out of the neighborhood.  That was sort of the end of our riding around, plus we didn’t want to get too lost meandered through all the little walking paths, so we headed back to the restaurant to leave.  Despite the bikes being free, I think we were the only people that took advantage, so we all rounded up and headed back to the boats and over to the mainland where our bus waited.  Everyone seemed to nap on the ride back to the city, arriving around dusk. 
We had already checked out of our hostel, and headed over to a tour company to arrange an overnight train or bus up north.  What we did not anticipate was the huge tourist migration around Vietnam due to the holiday.  We tried several different agencies and every one informed us that buses and trains up north were booked for close to a week!  There was no way to get out of the city that night.  There was also no chance of being able to stay in the city, because everything was booked out.  Oh, nooooooo.  O Lord.  Plan?  :/  And then, salvation!  For the past few days, I had been in communication with...this may be hard to follow…a friend of my third brother’s childhood best friend’s older brother, who happened to live in Ho Chi Minh.  Did you get that?  You may have to read that a few times.  Anyway, her name was Elizabeth and she had initially offered to host me when she thought I was traveling by myself, but felt more comfortable when she found out I was with Nicole.  Apparently, the exchange between the family friend and her was something along the lines of “you can’t let her stay in that area.  She comes from a good family!”  I didn’t seem to think anything was overtly wrong with the area where we stayed, but we were also going to bed at 9pm.  Anyway, we had been playing email tag for the past few days, and were supposed to meet for a drink that evening before our bus/train out of town.  I was able to phone her, and asked if she wouldn’t mind housing us for one evening, seeing as how everything was booked.  She immediately agreed, even saying “is it ok if you share a king sized bed?”  Teeheehee, silly rabbit.  The poor woman was basically a hostel for a few days anyway; apparently, her daughter’s tennis coach had been staying at a hotel on a weekly basis, but had been kicked out for the weekend for higher paying customers to come.  I felt pretty bad springing it on her at the last minute, but was thankful she was so hospitable.  We quick ran back to the tour company and booked a flight for the next day and a hotel for one night that was a bit more expensive than we wanted to pay, but we agreed it would probably only be for one night, when we could walk around and find something cheaper.  We then hopped in a cab with our bags.  I had zero idea where the area was, and after trying to repeat the exact phrase Elizabeth told me to the cab driver, it was clear he didn’t either.  The cabbie did allow us to use his phone though to call Elizabeth, and she was able to explain the directions to him.  We drove outside of the heart of the city, and had to ask directions several different times, with a few U-turns before we found her house, or villa as it’s actually called.  Her husband, Matthew came out to meet us and showed in to their huge beautiful home.  We got to stay in a big room with a big bed and a nice bathroom.  What luxury!  And only three days into our trip haha.  We met the homeless tennis instructor, and with Elizabeth and Matthew’s daughter Luxi, we all sat down to a nice dinner of burgers and fries from their favorite hamburger joint.  After dinner, we sat around the table chatting for a few hours, sipping on some of Matthew’s Johnnie Walker before calling it a night. 
We were supposed to spend the night on a bus, so I think at least for that night, we definitely upgraded thanks to the overwhelming generosity of strangers!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Cu Chi Tunnels

Nicole and I woke early the next morning, mostly due to our jetlag I think.  We did some planning for the day, and decided on breakfast at a food stall close to the market that she had researched.  We brought along our hostel roommate Charles from the UK, and the three of us set out. 
Breakfast was a coconut and a traditional Vietnamese dish of rice noodles and seafood, which we ate shoulder to shoulder with locals, sitting in the child-sized plastic seats on the sidewalk as people strolled past. 
We made our way back to the hostel after, to pack for that day, and set out in search of our tourist destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels.  I had done some research, and tours were abundant; however, I found there were actually two different sites for the Cu Chi Tunnels.  Initially, I assumed both sites were part of the original tunnel system, but after a bit of reading, I discovered that the most well-known site (at least for tourists), Ben Dinh, was actually a replica created specifically for tourists, due to…not kidding…our size.  The Ben Dinh tunnel site was constructed for larger sized tourists to fit inside.  Even if we couldn’t squeeze through, we decided we wanted to see the original site instead, so we picked the Ben Duoc Cu Chi Tunnels, which actually no tours visited.  We found buses that could take us on the two hour journey outside of the city.  Our hostel was conveniently located right by the bus station, so we walked over and looked at all the buses, searching for the #13, and napping a bit along the way out, arrived at the Cu Chi bus station, where we changed to the #79 bus toward Ben Duoc.  Tourists basically never take this bus unless they are going to the tunnels, so when we arrived, the bus attendant motioned for us to hop off.  The location was not very well marked with signage, but we did find the grounds easily enough, and were able to then find a tiny sign pointing to the tunnels. 
 When we arrived, we were ushered into outdoor seating to watch a short film on the tunnels, which, much like the War Remnants Museum, did not portray the “American War of Aggression” in our favor.  Once the film was over, we were guided through to different sections of the tunnels.  The guide brought us to a rectangular hole in the ground about 1.5 feet by 9 inches, which we were able to shimmy into…barely. 
We then were able to crouch down and slowly walk through the tunnel built about two feet underground.  That particular tunnel was only about six yards long, before popping up at a different location, but man was it cramped.  Throughout the tour, the guide brought us to longer and longer tunnel systems that reached farther and farther underground, finally ending with a 60 yard long stretch of tunnel that went down a few floors and back up to the surface, with areas we could barely squeeze through while touching the sides and roof of the tunnel.  It was terrible!  It felt like there was barely any air below the layers of earth above us.  We were dripping with sweat and our thighs and backs burned from having to remain in such a crouched position while walking.  Part of us wanted to stop and breath during the walk, but there was no place to feel like you could get more air or space or feel comfortable, so we just had to keep going as fast as we could.  Mind you, it felt this way even with the additional ventilation placed throughout the tunnels.  At one point above ground, the guide showed us the original ventilation system, which was a hole about the size of an apple.  These holes punctuated the ground at irregular intervals and were all the Vietnamese used during the war to provide themselves with enough oxygen and ventilation.  We also got to see the booby-traps they had built: area of Earth dug up, with sharp bamboo spikes sticking up, and the entire hole covered with layers of palm leaves and dirt for camouflage.  It was interesting, but by the end were we beat, hot, sweaty and gasping for fresh air and the sky.  We walked through the rest of the grounds, which included a large temple.  The walls all had bright colorful mosaics, which, upon closer inspection, were Vietnamese horrible depictions of the war, showing foreign soldiers burning and torturing Vietnamese villagers.  It seemed a bit overkill for the side of a religious building, but then I think about how Christian churches can get pretty graphic with their own art, so to each their own I guess.  Anyway, we finished up the tunnel grounds and made our way back to the street to wait for the bus, which only took about ten minutes to arrive.  The bus number this time was different, but when we asked the bus driver if he went to “Ho Chi Minh City”, he responded yes, he did, no stops.  Great!  That was even better than our trip out there; though hmm, in my research I didn’t remember reading anything about a direct bus to the city.  But the driver would never mislead us right?  Ug, why don’t I learn? We ended up having to pay for two extra buses, hauling A** down the highway at one point to catch a bus, which dropped us off way outside of the city.  Ug.  By the time we finally arrived back at the hostel, we were tired and hungry.  We fell into bed to relax before prying ourselves up for a dinner place Nicole had researched.  It was a bit out of the way, so we hopped back on the bus, which I will say is a really efficient and cheap way to get around the city.  Once we got off the bus, something kind of interesting happened while Nicole was looking at her phone map; a woman approached and told her she should put away her phone at night, because drivers can come past and snatch it.  I will say, even in the US that would be uncommon.  That woman had no reason to walk away from what she was doing to help us.  It was very nice of her, and we quickly followed her instructions (we couldn’t figure it out on the map anyway).  We walked a bit, and hopped into a pharmacy where two girls looked on their phones for where the restaurant was; again so nice of them!  In not too long, we found the restaurant, and it was packed!  It was mostly an outdoor eatery with all the cooking done out in the open, with examples of their specialty dish, shrimp pancakes out on display.  Everything we saw we wanted! 
We settled down to a long communal table and ordered two local beers, shrimp pancakes and egg rolls.  As we looked around at the other customers, we noticed two of the signature indications of truly authentic good food.  1) Jam packed.  2)  Jam packed with locals.  Barely a tourist in sight!  It was in fact an amazing find.  The food was fantastic, and to this day (I’m very delayed in writing this), probably one of my top ten meals in Southeast Asia.  We were so stuffed by the end of the dinner, we opted to walk several miles back instead of just taking the bus again.  It was a really nice walk though, with tons of people out and about socializing in the parks and restaurants.  We passed through a nice rotunda with a park and tons of lanterns and tinkle lights and decided to stop for a quick beer and some people watching.  Vietnam is great at night, because they are obsessed with their tinkle lights and no city as much as Ho Chi Minh!  We finally made our way home a bit later than expected.  Instead of just getting to crash in bed, like I wanted, I instead ran around to about five different tour companies (luckily, I was in the heart of the backpacker area, so they were all relatively close to one another), looking for a full day Mekong Delta tour.  We had been going back and forth as to whether we should spend the time and money on a tour to the Mekong, but in the end we decided to go for it. In actuality, this proved a bit more difficult than expect due to the 40th Anniversary of the Reunification of Vietnam.  Everything was completely booked!  I ran around until I finally found a company that had budgeted for the huge influx of extra tourists over the weekend.  I booked the tour for the next morning, and headed back to the hostel to absolutely dissolve into the bed.  It was probably about 9pm.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Crossing the Ocean and the Street in Ho Chi Minh City

Once I had bitten the bullet and made the final decision to travel, I worked feverishly to come up with an itinerary.  I mostly used TripAdivsor, Lonely Planet and a new website I found www.Roughguide.com as my references.  Roughguide was a good resource, because it highlighted some of the lesser known, “off the beaten track” destinations around the world.  We planned on traveling a touch over three months, and decided our first location would be Vietnam.  I came up with a pretty comprehensive list of cities, and activities in each city, even somewhat mapping out each location and finding a good hostel within walking distance of most attractions.  I occasionally sent off my findings to Nicole with requests for her suggestions and input, and received this photos in response:
So that was that!  I would basically take care of everything touristy, and Nicole was in charge of all body input!  I completely trusted Nicole’s culinary nose, as she and I would eat out at great restaurants in New York City, and she introduced me to some fantastic finds that I still remember, mmmmmm.  Anyway, I digress.
We came up with a tentative plan to move in a clock ward direction through Southeast Asia, and so we booked out flights to Ho Chi Minh City in the north of Vietnam…right?  Apparently, we did not start out on the best foot, because about ten minutes after booking the flight, I spoke to my father who reminded me that Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it’s commonly called), was in fact in the south of Vietnam.  Ok!  So, we will be traveling in a COUNTER clockwise direction through Southeast Asia!  It’s a miracle I can do anything without my father (shameless brownie-point plug).  As my departure date approached I became more and more excited, and nervous for some reason.  I think the large language barrier is always a bit daunting when looking ahead.  I did my damndest to leave as little as possible behind in New Zealand, only really leaving behind my scrubs from work and a boat load of spices that my mother had sent me in the mail…you know, because New Zealand doesn’t have spices like oregano and curry.  The night before I boarded my flight I ate the last of my food, and made some snacks for the long flights ahead.
Travel day arrived, and I had a few work items to close off, before packing the last of my things and preparing an overnight bag for the airports, including locks, food, earplugs, eye mask and some toiletries.  My landlady, Helen, dropped me off at the airport, and I wasted the next few hours using up my pre-paid minutes to call some friends in Australia. 
My first flight was an evening one to Melbourne, Australia.  I arrived late and walked around a bit, finding a nice little nesting place in the departure terminal right by the check-in counters.  I ate my leftover New Zealand-prepared sandwich of turkey, cheese, and sautéed onions and peas (I had about 1/5th of a bag of peas leftover), which was surprisingly good might I add, before locking all of my bags together, tying them to my body, and donning my eye mask and earplugs.  I set my alarm early to wash up, brush my teeth, and check-in at 7am for my next flight to Singapore.  The flight was easy enough, though they didn’t provide any food which was shocking!  Never fear though, I had packed some bags of nuts and homemade granola, so I wouldn’t have to chew off my neighbor’s arm.  The airport in Singapore was nice, though when I arrived I was exhausted after a rocky sleep the night before.  I walked through the airport and picked up my bags, making my way out of the exit.  I was kind of excited for the Singapore airport, because I had a very long layover there, about 13 hours, and had read that there is actually a city tour that departs from the airport, takes two hours, and drops back off at the airport.  What a great idea!  I walked around looking for some sort of tour counter, which I found easily enough, but they informed me that the tour actually leaves from INSIDE the arrivals terminal…which I had just walked out.  WHAT!?  What kind of a technicality was that!?  Ug, there was no way I was allowed back inside the terminal to take the tour, so slightly bummed out (but not overly, because I figured there was a high likelihood that I would actually fall asleep on the tour from being so tired), I wasted time by watching Youtube videos and anything else I could do to just make it a few more hours awake.  It was only about 5pm at the time, and I knew I had a bit of a time difference to bounce back from when I arrived in Vietnam, so I was hoping to accomplish that along my extended journey there.  I finally went up to the check-in area, where I found many people with the exact same overnight idea as me.  In the end, I wasn’t able to find an especially comfortable sleeping arrangement, but instead just laid across a row of metal chairs, pulled out my sleeping bag, and prepared for the night in the usual fashion.  I seemed to be the only non-local making this move, and people actually came up to me and pointed out that there was a hotel, literally, across the street where I could spend the night.  Yes, I was aware of that, but a) I’m too cheap, and b) I had to wake up at like four in the morning anyway, so I wouldn’t have even been able to enjoy it.  Granted, it would have been more enjoyable than a row of metal chairs, but back to reason a) I’m too cheap.  I set my alarm for 3:50am, and after waking up every hour or so to check and make sure my bags were still all together, my alarm finally chimed.  I went to the bathroom as usual to wash my face and brush my teeth, and happened to look up and notice a clock on the wall.  Now, normally, I wouldn’t even pay attention to that, but I was struck, because, contrary to you know, COMMON SENSE, there is NEVER is a clock inside of airports.  Am I right!?!?  Anyway, I noticed it in the mirror, and, once my surprise at its existence subsided, I noticed that it looked like the clock said 4:50am.  Now, I hadn’t changed the time on my watch yet, and was strictly relying on my iPhone which SHOULD NORMALLY automatically adjust the time when you get on the internet in a new location, and sometimes even without getting internet.  More curious than anything else, I asked a women next to me, motioning to my watch, what time it was, and she said 4:50am.  CRAP!  I was planning to check in a 4am for my 6am international flight, and now it was 5am!!!  I ran out of the bathroom with all of my stuff in tow and beelined it for my check-in counter.  Great, there was self-check-in. I tried the machines, but they wouldn’t accept my passport, I assumed because I was so late.  I tried to ask for assistance but people were everywhere, and no one spoke English and just smiled, nodded, and ushered me into the main check-in line to wait.  I waited and waited as the line moved at a snail’s pace, which of course it only does when you’re late (or only seems to) as the clock seemed to speed up, possibly even using fewer seconds that 60 for each minute!  I debated back and forth between being that neurotic traveler who shoves and waves and yells for assistance, and being that neurotic traveler who sits and waits for another flight because I missed mine.  The first option.  I was finally able to wave down a man, and told him my departure time, to which he just smiled, nodded, and said I’d be fine on timing.  What is this?  Pre-9/11 travel?  Ok, I said, and trusted him, planning in my mind my tirade when the desk attendant later informed me that I had checked in too late.  I took a long sigh of relief though when I finally approached the desk and was able to check in without incident.  Phew!  Crisis averted.  I still had enough time to eat a bit before my departure and boarded that easy flight to Ho Chi Minh on time.
Wahoo!  I’m here, I’m here!  I was very tired when I arrived, but powered through and hopped on the local bus 152 into the city, having to pay for two seats with my big backpack (even though I swear other people with large bags didn’t have to pay extra).  There is something called “local” prices and “foreigner” prices, which even locals will admit to openly; I think I got the “foreigner shaft” on that one, paying a whopping 20,000 Dong (aka 92 cents).  Off we went, into the city.  The ride was easy, and I used the GPS on my phone to track where I should get off.  I disembarked a few blocks from my hostel, rearranged my things, and wouldn’t ya know it, my brand new $250 purse that houses my computer BROKE!  The zipper came undone!  What crap.  I did the zipper half way so each side was open, but somewhat fastened in the middle, and made my way in the heat to my hostel, My My Arthouse.  Finding it was a bit confusing, but I did remember reading something about an alleyway, so finding a small alley and winding my way through a few streets, I finally found it.  It was still quite early in the morning, despite already being “hot as” as the Kiwis and Aussies would say, so when I entered, the attendant was sound asleep on a couch.  I tiptoed past, so as to avoid the early check-in fee, and walked up the flight of stairs to the room Nicole had messaged me the night before.  I crept open the door and…REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOOOODDDDD!!!!!  YEAAAA!!!  There was Nicole already awake from the time difference!!  We went to hug, at which time I remembered I was dripping in sweat, and Nicole saw that I was dripping with sweat, and we mutually decided to postpone our embrace until after I had taken a good long shower; I needed to wash off the last two days of airports and the recent five blocks, during which I completely sweated?????????????????? through my clothes.  I took a shower, we had our official hellos, and set up a game plan for the day.  #1) get Kathleen massive amounts of coffee.  Oh, wait!!  My toys!  Nicole had dutifully touted a few things all the way from New York, across the ocean for me, including underwear that cannot be found in Australia or New Zealand, and MY CAMERA!!!  I had decided to splurge and buy a fancy camera, so after massive amounts of research and online photography tutorials, I settled on the slim and sleek Sony Alpha 6000.  Thank you Nicole for packing an extra bag and carrying it all the way over for me!  We packed our bags, and THEN made our way out for Mission #1.  Our first stop was actually a tour office where we received a much-needed map of the city and browsed around for some extra ideas during our time there.  Our first official stop was the market, which was only a few blocks away, during which time we caught up on all the gossip; well, I caught up on all the gossip, there’s not much gossip in New Zealand.  Now, I HAVE to mention one of the most jarring experiences for anyone visiting Vietnam, which I had been somewhat alerted to from a travel Facebook friend who had recently visited Vietnam.  I write this while in Laos, and still have never had the “Ho Chi Minh experience” since.  Let me preface this by writing that it was the 40th Anniversary of the Reunification of Vietnam (aka end of the Vietnam War).  A) We had no idea this was going on when we initially arrived and B) later, an expat living there reported that she had NEVER seen this celebration so crazy in the city (this will come into play later).  This is entitled “Crossing the Street in Ho Chi Minh (during the crazy 40th Anniversary of the Reunification of Vietnam)”.  My Facebook friend had posted a few things that she had learned during her visit to Vietnam, and one of them was “don’t look when crossing the street”.  It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it did when we attempted to cross the street next to the market, where there was a lot of traffic.  There are really no street signs or stop lights in Vietnam (this will also come into play later), so we were kind of hoping for some sort of opening in the traffic, which never came.  I mentioned the Facebook comment to Nicole, and thank God we aren’t Country bumpkins, we just started to cross as traffic continued to zoom towards us; just slowly strolled across the street as mopeds, cars, trucks, and buses actually swerved around us.  Ok, this is difficult to picture if you are from the US, but normally, when a car approaches you as you cross the street, the driver will slow down to let you pass.  In Ho Chi Minh, they do not slow down, they weave; so mopeds will often pass within a few inches of you on both sides.  The key is, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, never stop in the middle, and for the love of God, NEVER turn around and go back, that disrupts the incredibly delicate balance between life and death when crossing the road.  We held hands as we crossed, looking right, left, forward and backward, and safely made it to the other side.  I will write more about some of the traffic “laws” in Vietnam, but suffice to say, there are really no laws, more like “suggestions”.  Anyway, we arrived at the market, which mostly consisted of clothes initially, but we continued through and found the food area.  Initially, the foods on display looked incredible, making our mouths water, but then we took a deep breath, anticipating delicious foreign smells and were instead hit with the stench of…”I dunno, what is that?” “Garbage?”  Perfect timing for a rat to scurry across our path.  Oh no.  No no no.  Could we keep going?  Why, yes we could.  We trooped on, determined to get an awesome local meal at a food vendor, and meandered through the cramped stalls.  We finally found a place with a lot of locals a few aisles down, and made to sit, when the female attendant hustled over shoving menus in our faces and ushering us into metal stools.  We asked what her favorite was, and she brought us two glasses of Che Thap Cam, “Tri Colored Sweet”. 
I’m not sure if that was the direct translation or the description, but I found the picture on the menu and that was printed just below the Vietnamese writing.  It was made with jelly sweets made from palm sugar, much like I had eaten in Indonesia, with coconut milk, and also pomegranate seeds, red beans, and a lot of other items we couldn’t place, all arranged together to form a chunky “drink(?)” that we ate with a spoon, and incidentally was quite good!  We walked around a bit more and sat at a different stall for some soup.  Nicole got a beef noodle that was recommended to her, and I got one with squid and shrimp, both with rice noodles.  All of this would become so familiar to me later, but as a newbie, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a rice noodle, an egg noodle, and whatever the other kinds of noodles there are; so it was all quite a novelty to me at the time.  Once our soups came, they set down a plate piled high with all different types of greens from lettuce and bean sprouts, to mint and lemon basil, which, as we looked around to see what other people would do, we grabbed large chunks of and loaded them into our soups.  The soups were surprisingly sweet, and we left stuffed to the brim, making our way in the direction of our second meal.  Nicole was a champ in this way, taking the touristy suggestions I had sent, and finding great eateries in those areas!  And the award goes to…Nicole and Kathleen for Excellent Travel Teamwork!  I have literally never met another travel who was able to combine tourist attractions with well researched meals.  Moving on, we moved on.  I wanted to check out a water puppet show, but when we arrived at the theater location, it was closed for an extended lunch, and would reopen 45 minutes later (45 minutes was not the amount of time taken for lunch, we just arrived with 45 minutes left in the three hour lunch break).  So we moved on to our next tourist location, the War Remnants Museum.  Along the way, we met a man carrying two baskets over his shoulder, connected by a bamboo reed.  He approached and asked where we were from, when we had arrived, how long we would be in Vietnam; just general pleasantries as we walked along the street.  At our turn off, he stopped us and offered some of the coconuts that he had been carrying.  We initially said no, thanked him, and started to walk off, but he insisted after our nice conversation, and opened up two coconuts for us…after which he demanded payment.  Say what?  Excuse me, but didn’t we just refuse you, and you said no, and proceeded to open up the coconuts anyway…after we refused.  We each looked back and forth at him and each other, a bit at a loss for what to do.  And then New York City clicked in each of us, and we would not be swindled.  We each handed him back the coconuts, and simultaneously went off exclaiming that we had never asked for them and weren’t paying for them; HA, pretend to be nice to foreigners; try to take OUR money, when we didn’t ask for these; you best learn better than to force your product on unwilling recipients; now you’ll know better than to waste your product on people that didn’t want them initially.  Ok, I think maybe the “New York” thing clicked a bit more in me than her, and probably only because I had more recently been duped as the traveler there, but she played right along with the tirade.  As we both talked AT him at the same time in, I’m sure, completely incoherent sentences to him, he just stood there with an opened coconut in each hand, completely dumb struck.  I think people just normally say, “well, he opened them, I guess we have to take them, right?”  Well, meet some New York ladies, honey.  You wanna waste your product, that’s your decision; we will never be “guilted” into buying anything.  We walked away feeling zero remorse, and if anything satisfied that we may have taught that man a valuable lesson about supply and demand; “demand” being the operative word there.  Off to the War Remnants Museum we frolicked!  We arrived just as they were opening their doors after lunch.  The War Remnants Museum is completely dedicated to the “Vietnam War”.  I use quotes there, because….in Vietnam, it’s not the “Vietnam War”, which hadn’t really occurred to us prior to entering the museum; I’ll get to that in a second.  Out front on the lawn were old US tanks, fighter pilots and helicopters, but inside things got a bit darker.  We walked around each floor, reading the placards next to pictures, and at one point we both decided it may not be the best idea to proudly exclaim that we were from the United States.  This museum invoked feelings of horror and sympathy at the photos, and feels of disgust and rage when reading the placards; I mean not from us, but they were clearly designed to have that effect on, maybe, anyone not from the United States, and definitely anyone from Vietnam.  There was an entire section dedicated to the world’s anti-American sentiment, another to the women and children who fostered education and industry during the war (evoking images of the Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It” poster). 
I mean, it felt a lot like going to a Holocaust museum, where everyone clearly feels hatred toward the Nazi Party and empowerment at their own countries [I say “their own” assuming most of my readers are my USA family and friends [not because I don’t value other readers, but only because I only know of my actual family and like three friends that read this) progression and ingenuity in a time of war.  There was an entire floor dedicated to things like our bombing campaigns, the use of Agent Orange and it’s developmental and environment effects (“upsetting the delicate ecological balance” [I took photos of placards because I was so intrigued by the dichotomy of our two nations versions]), and some of the other horrors of war.  To be honest, it seemed a bit more graphic than most war exhibits of museums I’ve visited.  As we walked through and read all the placards, we became increasingly confused about the events of the war.  To be honest, it seemed like the whole of the country was on the northern side.  Or was it even the northern side we were fighting?  The museum seemed to emphasize unity between North and South Vietnam even at that time, and often made it sound like the reverse of what we were taught in school.  The museum referred to the war as the “War of Aggression”, and the Southern fighters as the “Liberation Army of South Vietnam”.   My father fought in the Vietnam War, and I took a class in high school dedicated to the subject, but the way information was portrayed in the museum confused me about what I had learned.  I needed to go back and review information that I received in the United States.  But wait, wouldn’t that seem like the most normal occurrence?  That different sides of wars receive different information regarding details even decades later.  That history books print difference versions based on the side of the war that their printers supported.  I had never really thought about it that way.  As far as I’m aware, there had never been a war (maybe besides the current war and its domino predecessors, but I have yet to read those history books printed for schools) with such an ambiguous finale.  I remember one specific moment in high school while I was taking my Vietnam War class; I had signed up for the elective class on the Vietnam War specifically because my father fought in the war, but I didn’t understand it’s events very well.  I was really struck by the extremes of information that I received in the class.  At one point during the class, I learned about how we had “lost” the war.  I went home, and asked my father about losing the war, and his reply was that it depended on whom you asked, explaining the reasoning behind that duality.  Subsequently, the next week, I learned about how we “won” the war.  I guess, in retrospect, it’s not at all surprising that the museum used that ambiguity to its advantage.  It was very much a nationalistic museum, quite beautiful really in its portrayal of the people, and the photos of women in fatigues with assault rifles huddled together over school books, and of people coming together to build infrastructure at an exponentially higher rate than normal.  Not to compare the two, but it sort of reminded me of photos of post-9/11 photos, when people came together in a time of confusion and difficulty.  We have been a lucky country in the grand scheme of things, but war brings people together, no matter which side those people lie.  Anyway, overall, we walked out of the museum confused, and a bit quicker than I would a museum on, say, textiles.  We strolled a few blocks over, to the royal palace, paid the entrance fee, and walked the grounds.  The building was kind of interesting with clearly Asian influences mixed with western influences of darkly lacquered wood posed against starch white plastering.  The building in its entirety was built in a western fashion, but the decorative pieces were Asian antiques.  We got to see the kitchen downstairs, which I think was Nicole’s favorite due to its huge automatic mixer; my favorite part was all the frangipanis trees outside.  If you’ve never seen or heard of, or especially SMELLED a frangipani, just try to think of the way Heaven smells, and then you’re on the right track.  Our next move was to continue walking for ages, looking for another war museum.  At some point though, we had a decision to make: Lunch Lady or War Museum.  It was a close call, but after our War Remnants Museum experience, we were sort of emotionally drained, and decided to head instead to the Lunch Lady, out long overdue and well researched next food stop.  Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at Lunch Lady, it had just closed!  We instead got food at the Lunch Lady’s neighbor, which was, apparently, a far cry from the Lunch Lady, but still really good, so we were ok.  After dinner, we headed back to the water puppet theater, confident that they had finished their lunch break, to buy some tickets.  We grabbed tickets for the evening show, and made a quick stop into a nearby open-aired bar for a few local beers.  Slightly more tipsy that expected after two beers, we made the evening water puppet show, which…well I don’t know what exactly we were expecting, but it was interesting.  It was in fact an above ground pool of sorts, with murky brown water, where intricately designed wooden puppets swam out from underneath a curtain and danced around.  The show basically depicted normal village life, infused with magical dragons, wild beasts, and festivals.  There was commentary from the musicians in Vietnamese, so who knows what they were saying.  It was entertaining and interesting, but despite its intrigue, I looked over and found Nicole napping at one point.  You can’t blame her though; it was our first day in Vietnam, and it had clearly been a long day!  We walked back to the hostel and experienced our first Vietnamese death trap, crossing the streets at night!  Crossing the streets in daylight is scary enough, but at night without lights, is a death wish!  Needless to say, we made it, occasionally actually holding hands we were so scared, and after a good shower, passssed oouutt!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Life in New Zealand

I arrived in early February with a vague outline of a plan…that being, make some money honey!  During my time in Indonesia, I didn’t have the greatest or most reliable access to internet, but I was at least able to update my resume and shoot it out to the first several companies on the first page of Google under “nursing agency New Zealand”.  I got pretty immediate responses from recruiters wanting to get in touch with me and peg me down for a Skype interview.  I was able to email back and forth sporadically and, basically, just explain that I would be unable to chat whilst in Indo, but I would fly into Auckland on such and such date and could be available after that date. 
The day finally came when I flew to New Zealand.  Unfortunately, the day was not the easiest.  After a pretty awkward goodbye to Jared, I hopped in a cab and made my way to the airport.  I told the driver my airline and he dropped me at Terminal 1.  Unfortunately, after a bit of walking around aimlessly, I discovered my DOMESTIC flight on the airline was in fact in a different terminal, but no worries, “you can take the inter-terminal bus”, and I had an extra 30 minutes before my 1hr check-in time (I was initially flying to Bali from Jakarta and had brought the ticket from Bali to New Zealand separately, so only 1 hr was necessary).  I waited around for the bus, and when I hopped on, tried to basically sign language to the driver that I was getting off at terminal 3, by the way “terminal” is the same in both languages, so I didn’t THINK that saying “terminal” and then showing the number “3” with my hand could be misinterpreted…apparently it could.  After a few stops, he said something to me and pointed outside, at which point I repeated the “terminal” with three fingers, to which he nodded, so I hopped off.  Turned out that was not the correct terminal.  So I had to wait around again for another stupid bus, which took longer than the first to arrive, but did end up dropping me at the correct place.  I got out and hurried inside.  At this point, I was 10 minutes overdue for my 1 hour check-in time, but I wasn’t stressing too much…who actually CLOSES a check-in gate an hour before?  Apparently, Lion Air does!!  Oh, good god.  I could not miss my connecting flight.  Thank GOD, I had given myself hours to make the connection, but I was still nervous, made worse by the fact that the next flights to Bali were completely booked out.  I ran over to the terminal desk for Asia Air, and they did have availability for me on their next flight, still giving me several hours before my check-in to New Zealand.  I begrudgingly bought a new ticket and boarded that flight with no issues and arrived in Bali.  I spent the next few hours walking around the airport and waiting for my flight.  Finally, at midnight, I was able to board and took the long flight over.  The flight itself was uneventful, which is exactly what you want out of a flight!
New Zealand!!  I arrived a bit late, close to midnight, but was able to take the city bus into the main part of Auckland.  Seeing as how I was a bit nervous about this new chapter, it was nice to see English, Pie Face, and not be surprised by the ever-present squat toilet from Indonesia!  I arrived at my hostel, Base, and walked through the throngs of young travelers drunkenly congregating outside…Good God, get me into a bed!  At the front desk I was surprised, when I discovered that I had made a slight error when booking the hostel.  Since I arrived after midnight, my flight details said I was arriving the 6th, so I booked from the 6th on.  Thank God they had another room for me, and thank God I only stayed there one night.  The room was on the first floor right above the club that all the hostel kids went to; need I remind you, for some travelers, drinking every day is acceptable.  Despite my exhaustion, I wasn’t able to sleep until 3:30am, yuck!  I didn’t even change out of the clothes I had been wearing, because I knew I’d just have to move the next morning, which I did happily!  My next room was thankfully several floors up, and sans windows.  I basically, threw my bag down and napped, until Lord knows when.  The great thing about not having windows is that napping seems appropriate at all hours of the day.  The problem with that, though, comes when you are able to get a full night’s sleep and still feel groggy the next morning.  I think a bit of sunlight subconsciously sets off the body’s alarm clock and makes rising and “shining” a bit easier. 
Anyway, that day when I finally got around, I made my way to the library.  I should remind people, just in case, that this is actually my second time to New Zealand.  I came in November 2013 for one month and absolutely loved it, deciding I just had to come back with more time.  I already had done most of the touristy things in Auckland, so my mission was more to settle in and find some work.  When I opened my email, I saw that one of the recruiters with whom I had email previously, actually remembered the date I was arriving, and sent me a welcome email!  In that case, I’ll contact you first!  Her name was Prudence, and right away she wanted to know everything about me, about what I wanted from my time in New Zealand, and what I wanted out of a job.  She already had put together a few options, and with my approval would send them out ASAP.  This was great!  Granted, I could only get vouchers for internet usage at the library, so I had to drink about five cups of coffee for enough Skype time, but by the end I was satisfied that Prudence had my best interests in mind, and would get the ball running nicely. 
The next few days were a bit of a waiting game. Prudence had advised me of several potential opportunities, and once I bought a cell phone, my hope was to just sit back and let the calls start rolling in.  Roll in they did not.  I sat and waited and napped and sat and found different locations where I could abuse their internet and waited.  Finally, I got a call!  It was the exact position that I wanted, the ICU, in Taranaki.  Where?  Taranaki.  Never heard of it?  Yea me neither.  But no worries, they wanted to set up an interview as quickly as possible, and I was as eager as could be.  I booked a bus ticket, the drive only taking about five hours from Auckland.  There was actually an apartment across the street from the hospital that housed a lot of the staff members, so I was already imagining in my head how I would live and how crazy convenient my commute could be!  I had bought a nice dress, high heels, and a sassy suit jacket for the interview, and was pumped.  I can’t actually remember most of the questions from the interview, except “what brands of ventilator have you working with?”  Say what?  Jesus I dunno!  The brands with the tube that go down someone’s trachea and assists them with breathing?  The interview, as a whole, basically followed that pattern.  When I left, I felt completely dejected.  Actually, that’s not true.  When I left I felt fine.  I met with a midwife from the UK, with whom Prudence had gotten me in touch, as a reference for the style of living there.  We went to lunch and walked along the water.  She was a very nice woman, with two small children, and explained how there was so much to do in Taranaki like biking, swimming (for a few months), hiking, hiking…hiking, three bars…a knitting club.  Ummmmmmmm…hmmmmm.  It wasn’t until the bus ride back to Auckland that I realized I had completely ruined the interview.  I lost focus for one minute, and had this moment of panic, where I asked myself “what the hell am I doing here?”, “do I want to travel solo next year?”, “is it time to just go home after a year and a half of traveling?”.  Yea, that happened.  During the interview, after that sudden moment of doubt, I became a complete basket case who sounded like she could barely hold a conversation, let alone a scalpel.  Did I want to live in Taranaki.  Yes, I went to New Zealand to see more of its natural beauty, but this place was sooo remote.  Absolutely nothing around, and no one that is single, without children just wanting to let loose occasionally.  Did I really want to join a knitting club to make friends?  Ug, it all seemed a bit overwhelming at the time.  I got back to Auckland and called Prudence and my parents and broke the bad news of how I completely chocked the interview.  Ok, no worries.  We’ll continue looking.  Luckily, Prudence quickly found me another interview for Christchurch, a much more appealing location, at a 24 hour clinic, and much less appealing employer.  But, I was a begger not a chooser, so was ecstatic to receive another opportunity.  Later that week, I got myself all gussied up for a, thankfully, Skype interview, where I breezed through it much easier.  I was a rock star interviewee, seeming professional, light-hearted, yet focused, and funny.  Skype interviews are great, because you can twitch your hands around and tap your feet nervously, which is a red flag normally, but is completely concealed behind that little computer screen.  The interview came to an end, and the two women on the other side of the screen immediately offered me a position, saying I could start the following week!!!  HALLELUJAH!!!  I again called Prudence and my parents with the good news, and probably threw it all over Facebook.  I had a job!!  I could start straight away!!  I did have to sit tight a few days for a formal contract, and on the day I received the official offering, wouldn’t ya know it, the ICU from Taranaki called and offered me a job!  Jeez, they must have been REALLY desperate to want to hire me after suck a cock up interview.  But decision time loomed.  I called everyone I could think of for a bit of assistance, and in the end, decided on…Christchurch!  I packed my bags, and set out for my new home.
Prudence was absolutely amazing during the transition.  I arrived on a weekend, and she set me up with a hostel for the first two nights, and then reached out to some of the staff members from my soon-to-be employer for something more comfortable.  Bonnie, a nurse from the US who had recently moved to Christchurch two weeks before me, offered up a room in her place.  She picked me up in her car, and together we grabbed a bed she had bought for the extra room in her house.  She moved there with her husband, Clayton, and I stayed with them for about a week, while I started my job and frantically looked for a more permanent living arrangement.  Bonnie and Clayton were so nice and helpful.  Bonnie even let me use her bicycle to get to work and around. 
A week later, I was pretty settled in.  I moved into a room in an empty-nester’s home.  Helen was from Christchurch, and her children were grown and husband long gone (and apparently good riddens).  She had three extra rooms, one rented by a nice woman from Canada, Rachelle, who was a student taking a deaf education program there.  I bought a bike, unpacked my things, and made my room as personal as I could with my few belongings, stocked up the fridge and started the daily grind of working.  I liked the job, despite it being slightly less stimulating than an ICU.  The other staff members were such nice people, constantly offering me rides, suggestions, information, and inviting me out with them.  This was not the kill-or-be-killed New York City mentality.  The patients ranged from babies with the sniffles to the elderly with lacerations from falls.  Christchurch is very much a city in reconstruction, five years after two massive earthquakes brought the city to its knees, so there are a lot of construction injuries; it is also very much a city in love with its rugby so every Saturday morning and afternoon it was chockablock full of muscle and bone injuries (a few on some very attractive rugby players!).  Despite falling short of some of the more critical injuries I usually like, working in New Zealand did allow for some educational opportunities.  Due to the high incidence of bone injuries, we performed our own X-Rays, and I got to learn to assess injuries for fractures (which was never really part of my job before), interpret X-Ray findings (some of which are shockingly more difficult than I expected), and apply casts.  Nurses in New Zealand are also allowed to perform suturing (stitches), so I got to take a class and become certified at that as well.  Life was going swimmingly…and then I got an urgent message from my best friend from New York, Nicole.
Several weeks before, Nicole had mentioned that she wanted to travel South East Asia with me.  We discussed a few details, mostly financial, and she said she would save $5,000 in a month and a half…yea right.  You still live in New York City, right?  I sort of shrugged off the conversation, and projected that, with her lifestyle and income, she would probably save that amount in about five months, during which I would make enough money in New Zealand to travel as well.  Well, a month after our initial conversation, about three weeks into me working in Christchurch, I got the, “when are we going to buy tickets?  I need to do it soon” phone call.  Say what?!?!  “How much money have you saved?”  “$5,000.  That’s how much you said, right?”  O crap.  Apparently, Nicole had made good on her promise, which I NEVER expected, and wanted to travel ASAP.  We had a long conversation, where I went back and forth a lot.  I contemplated ways of stalling, finding a new job when I got back, asking for a leave of absence without pay; and those were all the best case scenarios.  The worst case scenarios involved, “no, you can’t come back to this job, and don’t come back tomorrow”, that no one would hire me when I came back with only six months left on my visa, that I wouldn’t have enough money for the trip, that I would be able to find another job to make enough money to travel after New Zealand; in essence, that if I went on this trip with Nicole, that would be the end of my travels and I would have to go home.  I was pretty panic stricken.  I did not want to finish traveling, but more than anything, I did not want to be FORCED to go home due to lack of money.  I’ll go home!  But I want to go home because I’m done traveling or because I miss people too much.  Ending my travels, because I ran out of money, feels like defeat.  I don’t wanna go out like that!  Anyway, I struggled with the possibilities a lot.  Nicole’s biggest problem was that she COULD stall, but she couldn’t guarantee me that she would be ABLE to travel when I was ready, preferably February 2017, when I have worked a full year and gotten a lot of New Zealand traveling completed. 
I left the decision up to fate.  That is, I approached my job, explained the situation, bent a few rules, begged, pleaded, bargained, begged, pleaded…begged…begged, and God smiled upon me.  They said it would have to come from the powers that be, so I sent out an official request, and the next day was informed that I had been approved.  I was ecstatic!  I wanted to cry.  I was literally, the luckiest person on the planet that day.  I had completely my orientation, would give them an extra three weeks, and would be able to return to my job.  Literally, the luckiest person alive!
I write this now back on the road, and eager to write about my new adventures in Asia.  I’m not done with New Zealand or the world, and I’m so grateful that I at least have choices.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Yogyakarta's Temples and Terima Kasi Indonesia

I flew from Manado to Yogyakarta on the island of Java and arrived in the evening.  Hopping into a cab to the city, we arrived at our hostel to find that we had booked ourselves into, what appeared to be, a youth Muslim hostel.  There were tons of kids hanging around in small groups, presumably between the ages of 16 and 19; boy did I feel out of place, a 30 year old at a teen religious hostel.  I checked in and looking around a bit more, it seemed as though maybe there was just some sort of high school group staying there, because I did notice a few international backpackers sprinkled around.  I was pretty tired, so just settled into my room, showered, and went to bed to figure out plans the next day.
There was a free breakfast at the hostel, so I enjoyed my fill of fried rice and coffee before heading to the front desk to figure out a plan.  The hostel could organize transportation to the two main attractions in Yogyakarta, Prambanan and Borodudur, both religious temples on a massive scale.  Neither are located directly within the city of Yogyakarta, so I arranged for a driver for later in the afternoon to beat the midmorning heat and hopefully the early morning tourists.  I walked around the city area a bit, past motorbike repair shops, food vendors and convenience stores, grabbing a coffee along the way to sit at the sidewalk tables and people watch.  After a few hours of killing time, I headed back to the hostel and met the driver.  It was about a 45 minute drive through speeding traffic and mopeds out of the city to Prambanan, a huge collection of Hindu temples and the largest in Java.  As the car approached, I could see the peaks of jagged stone towers creeping closer over the tops of trees lining the streets.  We pulled into a parking lot and hopped out to buy tickets.  As I approached the main walkway, the view of the massive main temples showed themselves.  We were approached by two young girls with their heads covered in saris; they said they were local history students and would like to give us a guided tour of the temple complex for free as a student project they had to complete.  I was siked!  A free tour of a temple that is clearly laden with religious symbolism and centuries of history was exactly what I never expected and always wanted!  The two girls were very nice and very well informed, pointing out mosaics, statues and intricately carved reliefs laid into every inch of the temples, explaining the different sections of the epic Ramayana.  There were three temples, layered in tiers with edges like a crown, stabbing up through to the sky.  Each temple contained an inner sanctum, with statues representing their specific religious icon.  The center temple Candi Lara (Loro) Jonggrang, was the tallest and dedicated to Shiva.  The two temples flanking to the right and left of Candi Lara, Candi Lumbung and Candi Bubrah, were dedicated to Vishnu and Brahma (not necessarily respectively).  The girls explained that the temple complex had been abandoned for centuries when the political and religious center of Java changed locations.  Evidence of many other smaller temples were scattered to each side of the main three temples’ complex.  Unfortunately, after an earthquake destroyed the temples ages ago, locals, who had at that point completely forgotten the significance of the complex, began using the materials for constructions and looting the statues to be used in their homes.  Who knows if someone in the area has a garden statue of Shiva that dates back to the 9th century!  What a find!  At the end of the tour, the girls had us fill out a small survey to complete their assignment.  I was very lucky to have them and their guidance while exploring the remains.  I walked around a bit to two smaller Buddhist temple sites, which were closed off to tourists’ entrance and mostly still in ruble.  The entire site is still in its restorative phase.  I finished touring around just as the clouds started to roll in, so I booked it back to the driver and we made our way back to the hostel for the evening.
I woke before the sun rose the next morning, and met a driver again who brought me out to Borobudur to watch the sunrise from a nearby mountain.  The trip was a bit farther, though traffic was pretty nonexistent at that hour.  Upon arrival, I met many other vans pulling up to the “parking lot” as well.  It seemed as though it was really more like someone’s backyard, and we were all trudging through a family’s property.  They had clearly set it up for tourism though, so I grabbed a quick coffee before starting the short climb up stairs to a lookout point.  There were several people along the way with flashlights, and I used my phone to help guide me.  The sky started lightening up, just as I reached the lookout, but I couldn’t even tell which direction exactly I was supposed to look toward.  More people arrived and everyone was trying to pick out the best vantage point to, as of yet, a still hidden Borobudur.  Lighter the sky got, yet still I could see nothing and spotted, as I strained my eyes against the dark, the thick fog blanketed over the entire valley below.  The photos I’ve seen of sunrise over the Borobudur temple are quite dramatic, but the longer I waited and the more lit the area off the mountain became, the less hope I had of seeing anything.  Finally, the sun was clearly well up in the sky, though I couldn’t actually see it, and there was no temple to be seen below, so I gave up and made the walk back down to the van.
  We drove to Borobudur, and thankfully arrived before most tourists.  Borobudur is a single huge Buddhist temple, with hundreds of bell shaped sloping stone structures, which give off a much softer smoother appearance than Prambanan’s jagged regal peaks.  Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, “has the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world”, it is also the single most visit tourist attraction in Indonesia!  The first think I did was go straight to the top, to try to get a few photos without having to fend off tourists.  The view from the top was quite dramatic, with the fog surrounding it still lingering, snaking through forests and streets in the distance.  The top level houses the most bell shaped structures, which actually represent upside down lotus flowers.  Each was constructed from square stones angled so each one only touches the corners of the next, instead of laying side by side.  A few were actually somewhat crumbled, and I realized from those, that every single lotus flower contained a depiction of a sitting Buddha.   The temple had several levels, each running all the way around the entire periphery, so after exploring the top level with all of its lotus flowers, Buddhas and the amazing 360 degree view, I made my way down level by level, each time walking around the entire circumference of the temple, admiring the over 2,000 carved reliefs, dragon heads, and countless sitting Buddhas, many missing a head, facing out presumably watching over the city below.  The reliefs were quite interesting to explore, because they seemed to depict both religious stories, as well a daily life, carvings of markets, ceremonies, and, my favorites, sailing ships!
  The lower I got, the more tourists I noticed arriving.  By the end, I think I actually skipped about half of the lowest level because of the amount of hassling I received!  I understand I stick out a bit, but, by the end, groups of tourists, mostly young students but also adults, were literally grabbing me to take photos with them, and then wanting to chat with me to practice their English.  With the students, I tried to oblige as best I could, but eventually, every student wanted to have a 2 minute conversation and there were hundreds of students!  It took me 45 minutes just to walk from one side of the temple to the other; a walk that would normally take two minutes.  I was pretty flustered and a bit irritated by the time I was able to break free, and just looked straight at the ground and walked quickly despite hearing countless people calling for me to stop as I walked by.  It was outrageous!  Totally unacceptable.  I’ll happily do it for 10 minutes or something, but people were literally grabbing at me from every angle.  I finally made it back out to the parking lot, just in time to leave.  On the drive back, we brought some extra people, and stopped at a few small locations along the way, like a very small market, and a lotus temple, before arriving back to the hostel.  I grabbed lunch close by and tried to relax out of the heat for a bit.  That evening, there was a traditional Indonesian ballet showing at the Prambanan temple complex’s open-air theater.  I hopped in with another driver who brought me out to the temple.  The open-air theater is actually a bit off location, but the three main temples were visible, all lit up, and there was a magnificent view of them from the theater.  The main cast of the show made an appearance out front to allow spectators to take some photos, and see their elaborate costumes, headpieces and makeup.  The show itself lasted about 2 hours, and told a story from the Hindu epic Ramayana.  Unfortunately, I was not able to take any good photos during the show, but it was full of princesses, princes, scary tyrants, and magical ninja monkeys; all culminating in a happy ending.  That was my last evening in Yogyakarta.  I flew to Jakarta for a few days after, but unfortunately was not feeling very well.  I had a few plans that I ended up having to skip out on, including my most anticipated moment of the entire trip!!  Getting to see my family’s old house L.
I IMMENSELY enjoyed Indonesia, and absolutely must go back, as there are several islands I never got to explore, but the time I spent there, my first time in an Asian country, was everything I had hoped it would be, including language barriers, ordering from menus when I had no idea what I might get, the markets, the music, the religious temples, and so much more.  It was just a taste of Asia, but a great one at that, and something tells me I might have more of Asia in store in not too long ;) 
But FIRST…somebody’s gotta pay for these BILLS BILLS BILLS, and so off I go back to my FAVORITE place, and the most consistently beautiful location I’ve been to yet, New Zealand!