Early Morning Cultural Enrichment

The most basic negative of travel is the jet lag, and it hit me hard even after I somehow managed to pass out for 18 hours upon arrival.

This inability to sleep, combined with the novelty of having a TV in my hotel room means I’ve watched too many hours of Hindi and Korean soap operas, as well as the Cambodian karaoke channel. 

It’s better than waking up at 4 a.m. and trying to force myself back to sleep through pure willpower or calling friends and family until they’re sicker of me than they were when I was stateside. Plus, it lulls me back into a half-sleep so I can pretend I’m getting used to the time change

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Who wouldn’t want to learn some dance moves from these groovy people?

Until I was in middle school, watching TV meant pulling the contraption down from the closet in my parents’ room, dusting off the screen and adjusting the rabbit ears until you could kind of make out what was on the screen.

The only movie I remember watching before age 11 is The Sound of Music.

My knowledge gap was the cause of much ridicule and play-by-play recreations of shows by my friends in an attempt to assimilate me into popular culture.

Now, I’m the one trying to explain what my fellow students are missing by spending their mornings practicing broken Khmer on the poor hotel bartender. If you’ve ever seen one of these shows, you’d understand.

They’re similar to telenovelas, with extended shots of people staring at one another suspiciously. The best one so far was part of a Hindi drama where the grandmother didn’t say anything but claimed at least half of the screen time.

Through the magic of English subtitles, I kind of understood what was going on and convinced myself I learned a few words in Hindi, making it all worthwhile. The only word I remember is “sister-in-law,” though, and that won’t do me any good until my 16-year-old brother wifes up.

Until then, I’ll keep up my early morning studying. I guess eventually I’ll get used to the time change and have to give up my entertainment, but who knows. Maybe I’ll permanently become one of those early risers who enjoys the sunrise daily.

Selfie with Buddha? (And Other Ignorance)

I finally understand how busloads of Japanese tourists in the U.S. feel as they stream off their transportation smack into the middle of Washington, D.C. or outside of Mt. Rushmore and proceed to confusedly snap photos of everything.

The entire group of LanguageCorps participants arrived Sunday, and during a tour of the city we tumbled from our tuk-tuks, speaking loud English and pointing at whatever we didn’t understand, posing for pictures in front of temples and staring, unmoving, at murals depicting something involving gods, maybe.

Part of Wat Phnom.

Part of Wat Phnom

I can’t speak for everyone else, but the imagery confused me. Coming from a country steeped in Christianity and having stepped foot in almost every Catholic church in Northern Spain, I can talk in circles about Western religious figures, but when it comes to Eastern culture I’m hopeless.

Visiting Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace made me wish my art history class had allowed for more than a few weeks studying “Asian History” — which really just meant Japanese and Chinese art forms with a little bit of India for good measure.

My art history professor lamented this as well, and as an ignorant high schooler I didn’t get it until now. There’s only so much reading Wikipedia articles and Siddartha can fill in.

And then there are the events the Western world didn’t acknowledge until relatively recently, like the actions of the Khmer Rouge. Visiting the Killing Fields was eye-opening.

If you want to read more about the experience of touring the Killing Fields or look at some high quality photos, check out thisthis and this. Those bloggers sum up the experience better than I can. The descriptions of death are graphic, though, so don’t click through if you’re not willing to read into it.

There, I wasn’t so much a gawking tourist as a silent student, listening to the audio tour and processing the stories. I prefer this kind of assimilation into a country. The kind where I don’t have a voice.

I’m not here to make assumptions about the mudra of this Buddha or the meaning of the huge amount of elephant figurines at the Royal Palace. I’m here to take in the culture, learn about a foreign place, and after a while offer my skills on the job market.

There are foreigner prices on these museums and Wats. To locals, the Wats are public green spaces lending beauty and calm to a community. To tourists, they’re places to breeze through on the way to an overpriced meal. They serve two different purposes, and foreigners pay for their lesson in culture.

It’s fair. As guests in the country, we’re learning.

I haven’t taken a selfie with a Buddha, but the fact that it even crossed my mind for a second shows how much I still have to figure out. Having the opportunity to finally do so without worrying about required curriculum in a high school classroom is unparalleled.

To clarify: I’m not assuming tourists in the U.S. are as poorly versed in the country as I am in Cambodia. But the general confusion seems to compare.

American Thoughts on Khmer Cuisine

One of the downsides to living in a hotel for the next two weeks is the lack of a kitchen. The upside is that I’m in Cambodia, Kingdom of Street Food and Cheap Beer. The options are endless.

But the only phrase I know in Khmer is “Check, please,” which makes eating known foods more difficult.

Yesterday, I discovered how much I don’t enjoy Khmer curry or fruit smoothies, for example. But I’ve also eaten fried banana, something I never would’ve tried if I’d known banana was involved.

It’s one of the only foods I actively avoid, and here I’ve found a way to consume it. I just had to travel halfway across the world and enjoy its least healthy iteration.

After a few days I’m street savvy enough to know the general direction in which good-smelling food can be found, at least, but beyond that I’m hopeless. After perusing guidebooks at the local coffee shop, I discovered I’m not missing much, and hopeless pretty much describes the state of enjoyable prepared meals around here.

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This tasted fine, but I don’t trust the color of those tomatoes.

There were three pages in this 100-page book about local cuisine, and two of them featured the fast food scene and local pizza. To be fair, there’s a bakery that sells pizza toppings on bread, and it’s rumored to be tasty. But still.

So for the next two weeks I guess I’ll stick to my fried food and the sticky buns I found at the Taiwan Bakery down the street.

And I’m sure I’ll return to the Khmer restaurant where I ordered one can of beer and received a basket with six. (Maybe they just don’t want to deal with drunk customers trying to order round after round?)

You think I'm kidding.

You think I’m kidding?

In case you’re worried I’m planning to live on beer, pastries and fried fruits, you’re probably justified. On the positive side, I’ll sweat everything out in a matter of hours , and the hotel sells entire pots of tea by the dollar, so I’ll get more than my fair share of antioxidants and other cancer-preventing benefits.

I imagine after two weeks it’ll balance out. And then — even if they have to roll me across the border — it’s on to Vietnam, home of the famous pho for every meal.

There’s also a possibility that I’ll discover some hidden gem of a meal. Considering I’m not too big on pork, which seems to be a staple, I’m guessing not. If so, I swear, you’ll be the first to know.

Worldwide Communication

I’m still not quite sure what day it is in Cambodia, much less back in South Carolina and Louisiana. But I’m starting to grasp the time difference. While I’m rising with the sun, my friends and family are eating dinner and getting ready for bed.

Sunrise from my hotel room window.

Sunrise from my hotel room window.

As my mother said via Facebook message after figuring out our differing times, “The world and sun and moon are freaking amazing!”

Thanks to abundant WiFi, my phone, and the free time I have right now, communication is possible, however weird. I fielded a drunk call yesterday afternoon and talked a friend through walking home from the bar after spending a morning wilting under glaring sunlight.

I’ve also been able to speak to my father from the Bangkok airport, email my grandparents from my hotel room and receive and give counsel from friends through Facebook message over breakfast.

I have a GroupMe with my high school friends from Greenville, and one of them is studying abroad in Switzerland, which means that while I’m talking about lunch, she’s talking about dinner and everyone in the U.S. is at a bar.

It will take some getting used to, just like everything else that comes with moving halfway across the world.

For the past few days I’ve wondered quite a bit about what I think I’m doing, traveling somewhere I know practically nothing about and planning to live there.

Maybe it’s because I’m at my most awake when my body thinks it should be 2 a.m. and all my late night thoughts have been pushed into the cold light of day.

It was a mixture of walking around in awe of a completely new city and telling friends about what I was doing without grasping it myself that reminded me.

We’ve all got our own paths, and no matter how this one goes for me, through the magic of technology, my favorite advisers remain at my fingertips, and I at theirs. Traveling the world isn’t as intimidating as even just 10 years ago.

I need to take a lesson from the tuk tuk drivers congregated on every street corner and take a nap in the driver’s seat. Everything doesn’t deserve constant over analysis.

Things happen because we choose them, and then they fall into place from there. Class starts Monday, and I couldn’t be more excited to begin learning about what I’ll spend at least the next year of my life doing.

New York, I Love You

Allow me to confirm suspicions, because every television writer seems to know this already. New York City is amazing. It’s a microcosm of brick-built society, rife with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and fruit stands, boasting a global population all crammed onto an island and overspilling the surrounding rivers.

Spolier alert: I fell in love with everything. If you hate New York City or know anything about the politics and hate it for deeper reasons, please disregard my opinion based on five hours of walking around aimlessly.

I’d never visited before, but a 9-hour layover at the Newark Airport called for nothing less than a jaunt into one of the greatest cities in the world.

Since it was my first visit after three stymied efforts, I had all the highlights mapped out and planned to rent a Citi Bike to get around. Silly me assumed a 30 minute ride from Penn Station to the Brooklyn Bridge was doable in a city I’d never visited.

Instead, I emerged from Penn Station completely overwhelmed and decided to wander, taking in the environment, eventually ending up on Broadway, then the Avenue of the Americas, Fifth Avenue and Madison Ave.

I walked through the New York Public Library and took a selfie with the lions. I ate two huge slices of pizza. I investigated St. Patrick’s, St. Thomas and a couple other ornate churches that would seem behemoths in a normal-sized town but here were undergrowth in a skyscraper forest.

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In short, I missed the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. I did walk at least 30 blocks of 2nd Avenue, staring up at the buildings — each one taller than the last — a definite country mouse astounded by a city.

By the time my feet ached and I just wanted to get back to the airport to collect my luggage and hop on the next plane, I knew New York City had landed a spot on my need-to-live-there list.

There’s some competition, if the discussion in my fiction workshops in high school and college are to be trusted. Every writer seems to dream about living in the city at some point in their lives. And now that I’ve seen it, I understand.

I’m all aboard this bandwagon.

 

Pains of Being Young at Heart

Since I started kindergarten, I’ve been on the younger end of the age spectrum, turning the next age around the first day of school and watching everyone turn a year older than me throughout the year.

Most of the time, it’s a great bragging right. I’m young, and I’m doing the exact same thing the older kids are doing. Now that I’ve graduated a year early, I imagine it’ll continue to feel the same way, at least for a few years.

The negatives came in the form of restrictions.

The first age limit I bumped into was the one for getting my ears pierced at 12. Then there was the driver’s license debacle of 16 and legal pay at my job as a camp counselor and lifeguard as a technical minor younger than 18. The last milestone I cared about was 21 — the infamous drinking age.

As a result of my birthday, I was the last person in most of my friend groups to turn 21. So when the waiter carded a table of us at a bar Tuesday night, it was more of a victory than usual as we handed him our IDs and everyone bought pints.

Because it was finally everyone. I was finally a part of the majority. I celebrated with a couple shots, a margarita the size of my head and a few beers I’d never tried before.

beers

A legal salud.

It was a perfect night. I was able to get rather drunk in a town I know better than any other with a group of close friends, so I was safe.

That’s something I’m giving up when I move abroad. I’ll still be the youngest in my class of future ESL teachers, but I won’t know the area or be able to trust anyone like I can friends I’ve kept for years.

Letting my guard down won’t be an option. I’m not going to sleep with a knife in my hand or anything, but constant vigilance will me my best friend.

For now, I’m now free to do everything I want in the U.S., and I’ll take advantage of that until the plane takes off.

Details: Phone Use Abroad

A solid 3/4 of moving halfway across the world involves reading everything about the place, stumbling across travel tips, creating packing lists and learning how people live out of a suitcase. The first step I took down that research-heavy road was when I bought a new phone with my life in Vietnam in mind.

Friends swear by unlocked iPhones, but I knew I didn’t want to foot that bill with my planned budget for at least the next year or so. Also, flexibility is limited because contracts last forever.

Then, I found this post on Mr. Money Mustache’s blog and decided Republic Wireless might be the way to go.

I bought a Moto X, and for the past couple months, I’ve paid $25 per month for unlimited 3G. It’s been worth every penny, and been less than half of what I would pay for a similar plan under most other providers. And there’s no contract.

My beautiful, new phone all ready for use.

My beautiful new phone.

You hook up the phone to WiFi and whenever it’s in range of, say, your college campus WiFi or the networks at your friends’ houses, the data, calls and texts travel on that network instead of 3G. That keeps costs for Republic down.

Where there isn’t 3G coverage, the wireless capability is imperative, but the plans are cheaper without non-wireless function bundled in.

Overall, the transition from iPhone to Moto X has been smooth and hassle-free, and any questions I had were already answered by savvy users on Republic’s forums.

One of the more contentious subjects involves use of the phone outside of the US, which is currently not supported (I can’t even text Puerto Rican numbers), but other users have attested to its strength on WiFi abroad.

The cheapest plan is $5/month, which allows use only on WiFi, and that’s what I’ll switch to in Vietnam. I’ll have access to a phone with an American number that can call home, text friends like normal and function as a miniature computer whenever I have a wireless connection.

That’ll be at home or in a cafe for me. And while this may not work as well during travel outside of the city, I’ll also have a Vietnam phone for contacting friends and work in-country.

The only significant downside was that Republic requires you to buy one of their phones, since they need the wireless capabilities. I was looking for a new phone anyway, and the Moto X fit my criteria: Small, touchscreen, smart and quality photo capabilities.

The other potential rough patch came with syncing to my MacBook. I anticipated many more issues, but it’s been smooth sailing for the most part. I converted my iTunes library to Google Play and all my photos are stored on Google Drive. I’ve got backups on my physical computer.

I’m far from a techie, so I can’t speak to the subtle differences between Apple and Android, but the phone allows for greater flexibility software-wise and I don’t see myself going back to Apple anytime soon.

My phone is locked and loaded, and as soon as I board the plane leaving the US, due to the ability to change plans in the software of the actual phone, I’ll be able to switch to the cheaper $5 plan and begin spending less than I ever thought possible to keep myself connected to home.

Saying Goodbye

One of my friends is in Atlanta this summer for an internship, and her apartment is right behind a Kroger. So picture us, at sunset, opening the gate that separates her complex from the strip mall and crossing the parking lot, suffocating heat rising from the asphalt, Marylee complaining about needing to clean the apartment, me leaping onto the sidewalk and trying to convince her she just needs some wine and it’ll be fine.

Nothing really happened there, except that I caught a whiff of the pizza parlor and we emerged from the little patch of woods into the sunlight while having a conversation.

But these mundane moments are the ones I travel for, and the ones I’ll miss as new habits and conversations rise in their place.

This particular moment was part of a road trip I took to my hometown with another close friend who’d never been to Greenville before. Since Cole had shown me around his hometown, I figured it was only fair to return the favor.

He had an old blue Jeep Cherokee since high school and this would he her last adventure with us (we named her Saphira a few weeks into our friendship — I’m still the five-year-old who named every single one of her Beanie Babies), as well as the last time we’d hang out before I head off to Vietnam and parts unknown for time as-yet-undetermined.

It was one of those momentous occasions, the whole thing really. Cole tried his first Carolina barbecue, I began openly hating Atlanta, we bid farewell to the trusty steed that took us the length of Texas and beyond, and we finally confronted the beast that was saying goodbye to one another.

The idea of goodbyes is a strange one. With effort, goodbyes never really mean what they imply. We will see each other later, or soon, or maybe in a few years, and continue to text incessantly. There’s still value in a modern Internet friendship.

The luxury of an in-person friendship is what we said goodbye to, though. We’ve spent the past three years in each other’s apartments and dorm rooms, taken vacations together, always been present for a crisis. That’s what’s over.

Marylee is in a long distance relationship with a guy she met during study abroad in London, and he’d just left before we arrived after a three-week-long visit. We caught her during one of the times where she calls him at six in the morning London time and asks him whether or not it’s worth the long shot.

And of course he answers, and they talk. She knows it’s worth fighting for. She’s applying to grad school across the pond (for reasons other than the guy as well, don’t worry. But also, why is moving somewhere for someone you love so suspect?)

Their relationship is strong, but it’s not ideal, and that’s what was difficult about sitting in a park in downtown Greenville and talking with Cole about the future.

I’m headed in a different direction from everyone I know, so from here out, all my former relationships won’t be ideal. I want to travel for the foreseeable future, and I’m going alone. I’m excited, but it won’t be easy on any of my relationships.

 

I’ve left enough places to know how friendships fizzle. It starts with the promise to Skype, which dwindles to an email or a long Facebook message every now and then and eventually ends up with a couple unanswered texts and never-ending likes on Instagram.

People move on, and it’s no big deal unless you’re confronting that from the beginning of the process. As much as I want to stay in touch and keep current levels of communication open, I know it’s not possible. I’ll be halfway around the world, and we’ll have different lives.

It will be an evolution, and we’ll become different types of friends. But I like to believe if it ever reaches Instagram-like levels of detachment, I’ll pick up the phone and call from wherever I am, time difference and phone bill be damned.

Then that moment will join the many walks to grocery stores and trips to far-off goals in some film reel of friendship, and we’ll move on.

I’m thankful to have such amazing friends, and even though I wouldn’t marry any of them (though I love them all dearly,) this song captures the feeling of permanence I hope we hold on to in one another’s lives.

Cooking and the Art of Patience

Anyone who knows me knows how easily a five minute delay or failure to complete projects by deadline irks me. This isn’t a desirable trait in someone who lives for a flexible schedule, loves travel and plans to chuck all traditional planning out the window to head to Vietnam in 17 days for who knows how long.

A few weeks ago, I decided this character flaw of mine needed some work, and that I needed to learn how to cook something with more nutritional value than half-scrambled eggs. Turns out they went perfectly in hand, because avoiding undercooking requires a bit of patience.

The kitchen I’m currently working with has a wonderful stove, but since it’s stocked by a sub-par chef (me), the foods I was working with included week-old potatoes, many different types of cheese, peanut butter, hummus, popcorn, one yellow bell pepper and half an onion.

Oh, and I bought soy sauce a few weeks ago too. That stayed in the cabinet though, alongside the can of chili (hurricane provisions?) and ketchup.

I ended up frying slices of the potato in a pan with the bell pepper and onion.

See, so tempting and full of vegetable!

See, so tempting and full of vegetable!

My mission began with the olive oil and a frying pan. Instructions said to heat the oil until a slice of potato sizzled when tossed in the pan. It took about five of these tests for the heat to be sufficient.

Then I had to learn that browning actually meant browning and not just sort of softening, and that overcooking a potato is vastly preferable to the other end of the spectrum. Also raw onion, while interesting in texture, isn’t the best way to go.

I ended up with a half-edible meal that incorporated vegetables, which is more than I can say for recent meals that may or may not include three straight days of eating pepperoni pizza.

And as far as my patience goes, that’s not something one cooking adventure will fix, but it’s getting better. My fried potatoes range from crispy chip-like concoctions to almost-mashed in consistency, but that’s because of personal choice, not a rush to shove food down my throat.

I’ve got the whole rest of my life stretching out before me, why not savor the extra couple moments it takes to try all sorts of potatoes?