Sunday, December 12, 2010

Same Same?

*note: the majority of this post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam about 3 weeks ago.

One of the beautiful things about traveling in a group of three is the different perspectives we have on every place we visit and experience we have together. Sometimes when I overhear the girls talking to other people about our trip, I wonder if we're actually on the same trip. What do I mean? Let us explain with a few examples...

Motorbiking 
T and Ania both owned motorbikes when they were on their work placements. I learned on the [not-quite-so] mean streets of northern Thailand. We rode semi-automatics around the north of Thailand on day trips and then spent nearly a week motorbiking a loop around north-central Vietnam. Both of the girls would love to own bikes. No thank you!

Ania: Is my calling. I would absolutely love to buy a motorbike and drive it through the region as my primary means of transportation. I feel like I get to see so much more of the country side, driving through different landscapes and colorful villages. The drive through Northern Vietnam was a highlight of the trip for me. We drove along curvy mountain roads where you rarely saw any tourists and got to meet the nicest people who always welcomed us with tea and would never ripped us off for snacks (quite the contrast from Hanoi). It was freezing but I love the mountain air and feel better in such an environment. I decided that if I don't get into law school my plan B will now be to buy a motorbike in Canada...a fair exchange, right?!

Ange: Booooring. Okay, so it was amazing to go through the small towns of northern Vietnam. The scenery was gorgeous, the people were very kind and the food was delicious and cheap. But I feel like I'm doing nothing all day. On a bicycle, I would at least be exerting myself and getting all of the crazy exercise endorphins I love so much. In a train, I could read a book, sleep or go to the washroom whenever I want (note: next time I'll probably take my imaginary future laptop with me when I go...). Also, it is winter in northern Vietnam and COLD, especially on a motorbike. Who the heck wants to go on vacation somewhere cold? (New friends: ignore that statement. Come visit me in Canada!) The traffic in Hanoi is mental, there was construction on the roads in the mountains and it is difficult to pass the many large trucks along the way with all of the curvy roads. I would never take this experience back for anything, but I'm glad the next bike trip I'm signed up for is of the pedaling variety.

East Asian Food
Amazing Indian food at a restaurant behind the club in Chiang Mai! We were the entertainment.
 We are a pain in the butt to feed all at once. Ania is super picky with her meat (no bones, no dark meat, no red meat, nothing too fishy). T can't handle spice. I'm allergic to everything. So of course, we all have had pretty different trips, food-wise.

Filipino food was the worst for me, probably resulting from my cheapness. Nevertheless, I knew I was picky going into this trip but when my only options are gnawing meat off chicken bones and rice as a stomach filler, I am ready to burst into tears. That being said, I had a couple fantastic meals of chicken or vegetarian pancit and adobo...a few times. The Philippines definitely win in having the most delicious mangoes I have ever eaten though! Mmm mango shakes.

I don't think you can really beat Thai food. Whether bought on the street or in a restaurant, the red and green curries, pad thai and spring rolls were to die for! Oddly enough, though my appetite decreased significantly while I was there. I am chalking it up to the [delicious] spiciness of the food...how unfortunate.

Vietnam was saved by its abundance of baguettes and pastry shops. One good thing the French left behind, I guess...
T's one great local meal in Indonesia. Nasi campur (rice + lots of random stuff) from a lady who spoke no English on the side of the road in Senggigi. It was amazing!!
Tiana:The food has been generally getting better and better for me. Indonesia, one of our first stops had a little too much spice for me to enjoy any of it, and it definitely enhanced my western food cravings. But Singapore and Malaysia, although we just went through in passing offered some great Indian cuisine (not spicy of course). Thailand, best food for sure. Spices generally come on the side, unless you order a curry or something you know includes spice as a main component. And they definitely win in the street food department. Bangkok specifically. Khao San Road spans only a few hundred metres but has street food vendors at every feet. Pad Thai, roti with chocolate, fresh corn, fried rice, kabobs, fruit shakes, etc. etc. Yum yum yum! 

I was very stressed coming on this trip. In Chinatown, finding food that is free of artificial sweeteners and food colouring is tough, so I anticipated the same in Asia. I don't know if my body is just being generous with me, but I have hardly been sick at all! So not sick that I have managed to put on oodles of weight. (A note on tourist clothing: fisherman's pants and sarongs are my friends.) 

Eating street food has actually been the best; the only time I've been really sick is in Hong Kong when I ate in real restaurants. Until I found the street food (chicken/duck roast...so delicious), I was sick for a week from all of the extra junk the restaurants put in stuff. One day I was so sick of being sick that I ate oatmeal and New York Fries all day! Also, word to the lactose intolerant: despite many Asians being lactose intolerant, there is milk/butter/condensed milk all over the place, especially in the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong. The worst of it? Almost all soy milk in East Asia that I have encountered contains actual milk! I was sick in Thailand a few times, unable to read the ingredients list on the soy milk containers. Why, Asia? Why????

Getting Ripped Off
I have the good fortune of looking local or suspiciously close to local, helping me to get decent prices or at least get attacked less in the streets than the other two. (This also gets me prostituted out by helpful working girls in Bangkok on occasion, but that night ended fine so I'll go back to bragging about my ability to blend in.) Ania, being our blatantly blue-eyed foreigner, has been getting special prices since day 1 on this trip. T, being our blatantly nice small towner, didn't get any special treatment until she stumbled into Hanoi...
Shopping in Ubud, Indonesia

I, out of the three of us, look like I am the one begging to  be ripped off by locals in these countries. And people try on every occasion. I expect it though. People need to bring home money and I don't blame them for trying. I look at it as at least mostly my responsibility to recognize it and avoid it...which has led to some pretty animated “discussions” between myself and my “rip-offers.” (I have on occasion been known to request that individuals stop stealing from me). As slimy as it may seem at the time, I believe that it's in large part my own fault if I do not properly count my change or haggle to the point of yelling for a fair price if I really want something. With all the situations in which I find myself being ripped off, however, I can recall an equal number of demonstrations of generosity from complete strangers, like the elderly Filipina woman who rode with me in my cab and then paid for my ride. Good and bad, it's all a part of this fantastic experience.

Vietnam, you have dissapointed me. I am glad that we did a biking trip in Northern Vietnam before coming back to Hanoi, because the people outside the city are the only ones giving me hope. I have not really had problems with people ripping me off thus far. Of course, I will always be charged the 'foreigners' price, but I can always negotiate my way down and get a decent price in the end. Except Hanoi, Vietnam. Here's a few stories...After arriving to Hanoi, I was given a quote of $1.50 to have a bag lined and a zipper put in. The next day, inflation took hold of this shop and the price had gone up to $6! Now this might not seem expensive to you, but I can buy a brand new bag for $6, so I was not impressed. But this misinformation was translated to me after I had given her $10, so she gave me $4 back and left to continue working. Even after trying to explain to her that she had quoted me a much lower price the day before, she completely ignored me and continued to work. 

I have been getting a lot of hate for my shoes. Okay, so some are in rough shape, but local sellers have totally been calling me out on it! This one guy stops me to say he will fix the soles of my shoes (which are ripping off, but I've been trying to find a new pair, I swear, they just don't have Western sizes here for me to find some that fit!). After insisting that I do not want his services, he grabs my foot and begins to super glue the sole of my shoe while on my foot. As I try to resist, he then grabs my foot, and takes my shoe off, and refuses to give it back to me. He glues it, then proceeds to polish and shine it, all with me in the background telling him to stop. Long story short, when he's done, he has the nerve to ask me for $15!!!!! After having just picked up my bag, I am in no mood to be ripped off, nor negotiate a price for the service I did not want. In the end, I gave him enough money to pay for his supplies which he took after some haggling. People are out to get me! I need to get out of this city!

Thai Massage
It just seems right that when you are in Thailand, you experience a Thai massage, so Ange, Ania and myself decide to head out one afternoon and find a place where we can get some authentic cultural massages. Bad idea #1. It was so painful! First, I must admit that I am sensitive to massages, it doesn't take much pressure for me to feel someone pressing down on my skin. There just is no kidding around with these ladies. We had heard that they continuously contort your body and crack it "where it has never cracked before" (-Nick Barton). But given that my body apparently doesn't seem to want to crack, I think the woman took it as a challenge, and continued to try to pull my body in unnatural positions to have it crack. Let's just say her further attempts were not successful. At one point, she was pressing so hard into my back that all of the air was pushed out of my lungs and I only had a fraction of a second to suck in all the air that I could before she pushed all the air out again. My body felt so bruised and sore that night, I felt like I had been beat up, but not in a good way (A: too much info, T). Next time, an oil massage.

Attempt #2: There was no way that when Ange said she wanted to head back to get another Thai massage that I was going to give it another chance. But an oil massage? Now that sounds much more enjoyable! So I tagged along. The oil massage was so much nicer, calming, oils, with soft and gentle hand motions, now this is what I'm talking about. Until she started pulling down my underwear and rubbing my ass. Ummm...I didn't sign up
for a happy ending massage did I? This is awkward. At this point I tried to hold back my laughter while contemplating my escape plan if it went any further. Luckily, it did not and a butt rub is all part of the package. Overall, oil massage 10x better, but next time I'll ask them to skip the butt part.

We met under innocent enough circumstances. It was a fresh, cool morning in Mae Hong Son. Five feet tall and slim with a small gap in her front teeth and a large mole on her upper lip, Lam was an unassuming goddess. Each sweet second of our 80 minutes together was part of a spiritual experience.  The pressing, stretching and cracking of every inch of my body had me leave Lam feeling like an angel, a cloud, a completely weightless figure free of any stress or strain. I did not know her, but she knew me. Better than I know myself.

In a perfect example of quitting while you're ahead, the next massage I had began with the masseuse introducing herself, asking a few questions about where I'm from, then pointing out my 'obvious' pregnancy. I now have a love-hate relationship with Thai massages. (But a love-love relationship with Thai food.)

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