11/9/13

Wall Street Journal

My favorite mural in San Pedro

My favorite mural in San Pedro

One of my favorite things about Guatemala is all the colors.

All the houses are yellow and red and blue and green, and instead of signs, many of the stores have words and pictures describing their business directly on the wall of the building.

The villages around Lake Atitlan also have an extraordinary number of top-quality murals. It’s like living in an art gallery!

Behold the evidence:

A typical "sign"

A typical “sign”

A tailor in Panajachel

A tailor in Panajachel

There are so many Israelis in San Pedro, there are signs in Hebrew

There are so many Israelis in San Pedro, there are signs in Hebrew

Que linda!

Que linda!

A fabulous mural in San Juan.

A fabulous mural in San Juan.

There are signs like this all over San Pedro--but don't you think it's a bit of a demotion for Jesus?

There are signs like this all over San Pedro–but don’t you think it’s a bit of a demotion for Jesus?

I walked by this mural every day on the way to school

I walked by this mural every day on the way to school

This was on the corner near my host family's house

This was on the corner near my host family’s house

The other side of that corner

The other side of that corner

My favorite coffee shop in San Pedro

My favorite coffee shop in San Pedro

And then there was this one:P1060392

In case your Spanish is rusty, this mural (in San Marcos La Laguna), is advertising an American immigration lawyer who can help with visas, green cards, deportations, etc. It gives his gmail address and his phone number and offers internet consultations. I don’t like to jump to negative conclusions, but to me this really seems like an attempt to take advantage of vulnerable people. (I mean, how is he going to get someone a green card?!!) I hope I’m wrong…

Let’s end on a happier note:

A beautiful house in San Juan.

A beautiful house in San Juan.

11/5/13

Lago Land

A map of Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala  on a wall in San Juan la Laguna

A map of Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala on a wall in San Juan la Laguna

When I was deciding where to study Spanish in Guatemala, I read the same advice over and over again:

If you are serious about learning, you should go to Xela.

But if you want to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth, go to Lago de Atitlan.

Since I have never been able to make up my mind about anything, I decided to do both.

I spent the first three weeks of my trip in Xela, and the fourth week in San Pedro la Laguna, on the shores of what Aldous Huxley called “the most beautiful lake in the world.”

Judge for yourself:

(Did you notice the submerged houses? The lake has been rising dramatically for the past three years.)

The three volcanoes that surround the lake are what makes it so stunning.

The dock at Panajachel

The dock at Panajachel

These boats, called “lanchas” in Spanish, are the best way to get around the area. They are pretty cheap (Panajachel to San Pedro is 25Q for foreigners and it’s about a half an hour trip) and they are safer than overland transport as the little roads between the villages that circle the lake can be dangerous.

Sunset from San Marcos la Laguna

Sunset from San Marcos la Laguna

The last lancha leaves before 8:00pm. If you do get stuck in another village, you can take a tuk-tuk or hop in the back of a truck.

A mural in San Juan la Laguna

A mural in San Juan la Laguna

Beautiful murals abound around the lake.

This is the dock in “my” village, San Pedro La Laguna. Sometimes I just sat there and stared.

(Once I had to deflect the attentions of a boat captain who couldn’t have been more than nineteen. He asked me what I was doing that night. I told him I was seeing a movie at my Spanish school. He asked me how long it would be. I said, “oh, four or five hours, at least!” Dismayed, he asked what type of movie it was. “Epic,” I responded firmly. Despite this rejection, he still gave me a lollipop. Because chivalry is not dead.)

Yours truly on a lancha

Yours truly on a lancha

Convinced yet?

I’m still glad I did my first three weeks in Xela–I thought my Spanish program was much more rigorous there–but I’m so glad I got to spend time in such a spectacular place!

10/27/13

Art Attack

Caught blue-handed

Caught blue-handed

This morning I got up at 6:00 a.m. for a school bike trip to a local hot springs, but almost as soon as we left I realized that the ride was not going to be the flat, leisurely excursion I’d been imagining, but a vertical climb for 20k. (Side note: nothing in Guatemala is flat, so I don’t know what I was thinking!) Halfway up the first hill I begged off and headed back into town, wondering what to do with myself until the rest of the world woke up.

When I got to the Parque Central I found groups of teens sketching the outlines for alfombras onto the street. Alfombras are elaborate “carpets” made for important people to walk on. The Mayans used to make them with flowers for their kings, but after the Conquest the Catholic Church appropriated the tradition, and today Guatemalans decorate the streets with alfombras made of dyed sawdust before holy processions. (The parade I happened upon was for the Virgen de Rosario, Xela’s patron saint, and it was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., giving the teens eight hours to realize their visions).

I stood and watched the teenagers sketch for a few minutes, and even took a video:

While I was watching, a friendly teen came over and asked if I wanted to help.

And that is how I ended up spending the next 5 hours making an alfombra with the world’s most adorable church youth group. I am so glad I’m in such terrible shape, because it was one of my favorite travel experiences ever!

Preparing for this alfombra, including designing it and buying the supplies, took the kids two months. Which may sound excessive, but when you see how complicated the finished product was, you will understand why.

My first job was filling in the letters in the design, which announced the name of the church the group belonged to. I would grab a handful of dyed sawdust from a large trash bag, then, taking care not to spill it, head over to my part of the design.

Trash bags full of dyed saw dust

Trash bags full of dyed saw dust

Soon I came up with some best practices; it’s faster if you use one hand to protect the edge of whatever you’re filling in from spillage and the other hand to fill in the empty space.

Girls hard at work on our alfombra. (I filled in the "d" and "e.")

Girls hard at work on our alfombra. (I filled in the “d” and “e.”)

I can’t emphasize enough how sweet the kids all were. Almost all of them took the time to ask me where I was from and how I was enjoying Guatemala. One girl spoke very good English; the other kids called me “Carolina,” but she called me “Caroline.” (Not my name, but, hey, good for her for trying!)

Our alfombra progressed quickly:

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary

After a half hour or so we took a break for some team-building exercises, which they very sweetly included me in. (Later in the day they insisted on sharing their snacks with me too.) In small groups we made human knots by taking each other’s hands and then untangled them by climbing over and under each other. Then we each said something we thought we should pray for, and one representative from each group made it into a prayer to share with the entire group. (I thought the representatives were just going to say something like, “Carrie wants world peace, Maria wants an end to hunger…” but all six of them talked for a solid five minutes each! I had some trouble following them (maybe because they were using Biblical language? I hope that’s why…) but I was very impressed by these teens’ ability to focus.)

After the break we went back to the alfombras.

Mary gets her veil

Mary gets her veil

As the day progressed, more and more people appeared in the streets to admire our handiwork. Several of my friends from school happened by and were very surprised to see me with my youth group! I invited them to join in and they helped finish the edging.

We're getting there...

We’re getting there…

I’m not normally a perfectionist, but I made sure every flower petal on that alfombra was evenly spaced.

The almost-finished product:

Getting to stand in the group picture was one of the best parts of the day.

And of the year.

The crew

The crew

Is there any better feeling than feeling like you belong to a community?

And even though it’s not supposed to matter, ours was totally the best alfombra. Don’t believe me? Check out the competition:

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Nice, but inferior (imho), alfombras

Nice, but inferior (imho), alfombras

Once we finished, we had a break for a couple of hours before it was time to watch the procession.

Crowds arrive for the procession

Crowds arrive for the procession

Since standing people were already lining the sidewalks, I sat on the curb–which I soon realized was a mistake. People participating in the procession line both sides of the alfombra as they wait for the Virgen de Rosario, and so my view was mostly of people’s legs:

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But in the end I was able to see the Virgen de Rosario:

The Virgen de Rosario being carried along the procession route

The Virgen de Rosario being carried along the procession route

It was an amazing experience to get to witness such an important tradition.

Alas, my poor alfombra did not survive the experience:

P1060210

As soon as the procession was over, the same teens were hard at work sweeping the streets clean:

P1060211

The alfombra may be gone, but today is one day I will never forget!

10/25/13

Take It To The Grave

P1060213

I don’t think of myself as a morbid person.

But I do love cemeteries.

What can I say–I think they teach a lot about a culture.

So when I heard that my school was doing an excursion to the one in Xela, I jumped at the chance to see it.

And I was not disappointed.

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The section closest to the church was the most expensive, and it shows.

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I loved all the beautiful details:

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This is one of my favorite pictures of the year:

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Some of the private family tombs were incredible:

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You could live in some of them!

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Yes, that is a pyramid:

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Some of the marble has been stolen from the nicer tombs:

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There was a stark division between the wealthy ladino (part Spanish) section and the poor Mayan section.

There was even a wall separating the two.

Looking towards the ladino section from the Mayan section

Looking towards the ladino section from the Mayan section

Normally the cemetery is considered a dangerous place (our guide told us not to bring expensive cameras), but since we were there a few days before Day of the Dead lots of people were there cleaning off their ancestors’ graves. I have never seen so many  people carrying shovels in a cemetery!

The indigenous section of the cemetery

The indigenous section of the cemetery

Many of the graves were cemented over, but some of them were just mounds of dirt. I got a bit choked up thinking about how sad the families must have been when they couldn’t afford to cover their loved one’s body with anything! Plus Kevin (the guide from my school) said that you can’t buy a plot; you can only rent one for seven years. After seven years, they move the bodies (Kevin wasn’t sure where). And, of course, the first bodies they move are the ones that aren’t covered, since they’re easiest to move. Which means that the very people who had to scrimp and save the most to bury their family members are the most likely to have no grave to visit.

P1060227 P1060228

Not everything about the visit was sad; one of the highlights was seeing the most famous grave in the cemetery:

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Legend has it that Vanushka was a gypsy girl who fell in love with a rich ladino. His disapproving family sent him to Spain to keep him away from her, and she died of a broken heart. But the good news is, she grants wishes! Just write your romantic wish on her grave and your dreams may come true…

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History, culture, and wishes coming true–it’s like I died and went to heaven! :)

10/19/13

Se habla Español

Me, Jessica,and Xela

Me, Jessica, and Xela

My first full week of Spanish classes is over, and considering the difficulty I am having typing this in English, I think they were a huge success!

A typical day began with me getting up at 7:00, enjoying a breakfast of Corn Flakes or Guatemalan hot cereal at 7:30, and heading to school right before the bell rang (oh yes, there is a bell) at 8:00. Then Jessica and I would sit at our table in the courtyard and discuss how our evenings went (with me struggling to use the past tense correctly). After that she often wanted to see my homework (usually some verb work sheets and a page or so of writing in the past tense). Then we might do a bit of grammar (this week we did the past perfect, the imperfect, por and para, and direct and indirect objects). At 10:30 we´d get a half-hour break. I´d head to the kitchen for coffee and bread, then go to the center of the courtyard to sit in the sun and chat with the other students. After the break Jessica might show me a video in Spanish and ask me answer questions about it or she might have me read from a book and try to decipher what it´s about. Then we would probably do some more grammar (but interrupt the lesson frequently to tell each other semi-related stories in Spanish).

Living so close to school is great for many reasons (it doesn´t matter that I´m so forgetful, I can play on the internet whenever I want, and I don´t have to leave the house in the morning until 7:59) but one negative is that I don´t get much exercise. So a few days ago I asked Jessica if we could take a walk as part of class. (I thought it would also be a good way for me to get a feel for Xela–and for how safe it would be for me to walk around by myself.)

She suggested we walk to Panorama, a restaurant overlooking the city. Here is what the walk looked like:

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It was quite steep and I was definitely out of breath by the end.

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But it was totally worth it for that view!

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With that view, you´d expect prices to be high; I didn´t have any other Xela restaurants to compare it to, but juice was less than $1.50 and hot chocolate was not quite $2.

Later that day I got even more exercise when I went on a walk organized by the school to Cerro El Baul, a hillside park on the other side of the city. I don´t have any pictures because we were warned not to bring our cameras, as sometimes people get robbed there. (That warning did concern me, but Jessica seemed to think going was a great idea, and as the group was large, it didn´t seem likely that there would be any problems. In fact, the only people we saw in the park were police officers, who proceeded to walk with us for about 15 minutes. I don´t know if that was out of concern for us or out of boredom.) The views from the park were as good as the view from Panorama (a couple brave people did bring cameras, and I hope to steal their pictures soon). The park contained a couple of playgrounds, including some very intimidating slides–the sort that would never be allowed in the U.S. because broken bones and lawsuits would be inevitable. We had fun sliding down them.

Every Friday night the school throws a ¨graduation¨ for the students who aren´t coming back the following week. Last night the theme was wine and cheese, so I had to brave my first trip to a grocery store. (I find the shops kind of intimidating here since you have to ask for what you want, as almost everything is behind glass). Happily, some of the students here showed me a large-ish store that actually had aisles, so I was able to browse in peace. I bought a very dubious-looking box of white wine for about $2, then headed to school, where the teachers were busy building a bonfire in the courtyard. Then we sat around the fire singing songs in English and Spanish until the smoke had tears streaming down our faces.

The rooftops of Xela

The rooftops of Xela

After graduation a group of about 10 of us decided to go to Panorama for drinks. Since I was one of the few who had been there before, I was at the front of the line. While we were hiking up the hill a muscle car passed us and the men inside shouted ¨Hi, baby!¨out the window. When we got to the top we were astonished to see two of our friends get out of the car! Apparently the men had passed them first and asked if they wanted a ride, and they said yes! (Later I found out that one of our friends had 10 surgeries last year, so strenuous walking is out of the question for her, and as she put it, ¨I was going to die on the hill anyway, so I didn´t care if I died in the car instead!¨)

More rooftops

More rooftops

We ended up sitting out under the stars (and under wool blankets that they provide for their customers), eating chocolate fondue and toasting to our travels.

I could get used to this!

 

 

 

 

10/15/13

¡Guatemala!

City hall, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

City hall, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Hola todos! I am writing to you from the internet cafe at my Spanish school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

I arrived in Guatemala two days ago and so far, so good.

I made my first friend at immigration; the official who checked my passport spent ten minutes chatting with me about my struggles with Spanish verbs and his with English verbs.

I was picked up at the airport by representatives of the school, who drove me to the Alamo bus station (maybe I should put that in quotes: it was basically a single car garage with a counter.) After I bought my ticket I went to the waiting room upstairs to wait. I was hoping that there would be food for sale but there were just a few gumball machines and a water cooler. I quickly filled up my water bottle (I slept through all the drink offerings on my flights) but then I took a closer look at the water and decided that it would be smarter not to drink it.

The bus was comfortable and the ride to Quetzaltenango was four hours.

Because of the hills the roads were very windy, so I felt like I was being constantly flung from one side to the other. But it never felt dangerous (I´ve read that the public “chicken” buses go very fast and can be very scary, but this wasn´t bad at all).

We stopped about halfway there at a roadside restaurant. I gratefully bought some lunch (it was about 4pm EST by this point!) My lunch consisted of a piece of chicken, rice, some sort of casserole involving carrots and mayonnaise, and fresh blue corn tortillas. I enjoyed it very much.

As soon as I got back on the bus I dozed off, and the next thing I knew, we were in Xela. (Xela is short for Xelaju, the Mayan name for Quetzaltenango.) I shared a taxi with two Americans from the bus. One had just realized that she had the wrong suitcase; since she had left her new camera in hers, she was not a happy camper. They were going to a different school, so I wasn´t sure if I would see them again, but as it happened I ran into them yesterday and she was able to locate the owner of the suitcase, an official in the Guatemalan department of agriculture, and do an exchange.

The taxi dropped me off at my school, Celas Maya.

Celas Maya

Celas Maya

It´s in a quaint old building with a beautiful courtyard.

The courtyard at Celas Maya

The courtyard at Celas Maya

I waited in the internet cafe for my host family to pick me up. After a few minutes a little girl appeared in the doorway. She marched up to me and stuck out her hand.

“I´m Manuelita,” she announced in Spanish. Then she led me to a woman standing by the door. “This is my mother, Esmeralda. She has been hosting students from this school for 19 years!” Esmeralda and I said our hellos, then we went outside.

¨We live very far from the school,” Manuelita warned me. “Very far.”

Then she walked me around the corner.

My host family´s house

My host family´s house

While Esmeralda put fresh sheets on my bed Manuelita and I chatted in the (lovely) living room. I soon learned her favorite color (purple), her favorite animal (the dog), and her age (8). She has a brother, Roberto, who was about to turn 18, and a sister, Natalie, who is 16.

She was very impressed that I spoke French. She asked me how to say “television.” “Well… it´s ´television…´” “What about your name?” “It´s still ´Carrie.´” I felt bad for having disappointed her. Then I had an idea. “But your name in French is ´Emmanuelle.´” Her mouth formed a perfect o of surprise and delight.

Later, she asked if I was married; I said no. She shrugged. “It´s better not to be. This way you can have a career and travel. Plus, men are so jealous.”

Esmeralda called me upstairs to my room. It´s right at the front of the house, with two beds and lots of sunshine. She gave me a key, and I took it, certain that I would never use it.

That was before I discovered how much Manuelita likes jumping out and scaring people. In two days, she has hidden in my room three times (twice behind the door and once in the closet), and jumped out at me countless times from the kitchen, the living room, her room, and the stairs. So yeah, I lock my room now. My heart can´t take it!

Their house is more or less like an American house, except that you have to turn on a switch to make your shower water hot. They watch Nickolodeon and Disney (dubbed in Spanish) and eat Corn Flakes.

But they also eat lots of tortillas, and yes, even some black beans. Everything has been absolutely delicious so far.

Yesterday morning I had my first day of Spanish class. By “class” I mean five hours of one-on-one lessons with my teacher, Jessica. I think she´s fantastic–both as a person and as a teacher. She is studying to be a lawyer so she can help victims of domestic violence, so she teaches Spanish in the morning and works at a law firm in the afternoons. She is also studying English and French, and taking voice lessons! I wish I had her energy. We sit outside in the courtyard at a little table, which is very pleasant.

Halfway through the day we get a coffee break. On Mondays during the break they announce activities for the week. This week some of the activities are a soccer game, a tour of the city center, a movie, and weekend trips to an archeological site and the famous market at Chichicastenango. (I couldn´t figure out how I knew that name–and then I realized it´s a lyric in a song from “Bye, Bye Birdie!”)

After school I decided to join the tour of the city center. Since my host family lives so close to the school, I hadn´t walked anywhere at all in the city and I wanted to get my bearings. They showed us the buildings around the Parque Central, including the Catholic Church, the city hall, and the theater, where they have a major poetry competition every September.

After the tour I met up with my friend, Blake. (If you´ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you might remember him. He was the first friend I made after Khalid and Isaure left me in Cambodia, and, by an amazing coincidence, he also lived in Wuxi.) After those coincidences, it wasn´t that surprising that we would find ourselves in Guatemala at the same time.

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We sat by the Parque Central for a few hours–long enough for the same drunk to approach us several times and ask if we were from the United States (Blake told him a different country every time). I did appreciate the man´s positive attitude. And his enthusiastic fist bumps.

At dinner time Blake gallantly walked me home–which is good because I turned down the wrong street and walked us past my first Guatemalan prostitute! But we found our way eventually.

Today after class I made my first solo excursion downtown. I somehow managed to forget all my make-up at home, and my chapped lips were killing me, so I found a pharmacy. Everything–and I do mean everything–was behind the counter, so I had to explain what I was looking for and the proprietress showed me a few lip gloss options. I blanched when I saw the price–142 quetzales, or almost $18! But then she explained that that number wasn´t the price, and typed those numbers into the computer to tell me the real price–about $2.

Now I´m at school, where I really should be doing my homework. I have a verb worksheet, and then I have to read several pages from a book about the Guatemalan Civil War and then write my thoughts. And it´s Roberto´s birthday, so I´m invited to a special dinner at his grandparents´house. Ok, enough fun. Hasta pronto!

 

10/11/13

Pen(ang) Pal

Now that I’m back from Asia, I am slowly catching up on entries I didn’t have time to write while I was traveling. Here’s the story of my time in Penang, Malaysia. 

Monkey Beach, Penang National Park, Malaysia

Monkey Beach, Penang National Park, Malaysia

I thought long and hard about where to spend the Lunar New Year.

China was a tempting option. I mean, we call it “Chinese New Year” for a reason, right?

But I talked to friends in Hong Kong and they advised me against it. Everyone is spending time with their families, and lots of stores are closed. So I decided to look for somewhere that had a large Chinese community, as well as attractions that I could enjoy even if none of the businesses were open (read: beach!)

And that’s how I found myself in Penang, Malaysia on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

Fortunately, I had booked well in advance–1.5 billion people are on vacation during the Lunar New Year, and they make it very difficult for anyone else to get accommodations anywhere in Asia. Several desperate people who came to my hostel were given gear to use to sleep on the beach! (While that may sound romantic, let me assure you, Malaysian bugs are not romantic!)

I took the overnight train from Bangkok, which was both comfortable and fast–I didn’t have time to be bored.

The train, in Bangkok ready to go south

The train, in Bangkok ready to go south

The train drops you off on the mainland, and from there you have to take a (ridiculously cheap) ferry to Penang. I met some American girls who had just arrived in Malaysia to study abroad, and we discussed our efforts to dress appropriately. (Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it is very diverse; you don’t have to wear long skirts and long sleeves, but basic modesty (no thighs, no cleavage) is appreciated.)

Once on the island I headed for the bus station, as the hostel I was staying at was about half an hour outside of George Town, the main city. I was a little nervous to be taking a bus after relying on taxis for so long–would finding the right bus be difficult? How would I recognize my stop? But I ended up running into a British couple that comes to Malaysia every year, and they helped me with everything. And since English is widely spoken in Malaysia, I didn’t need that much help.

I found my hostel without a problem; it was just behind the main (and only, really) shopping street, a short walk from the water. I dumped my things and made a beeline for the beach:

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There was lots of activity; jet skis, parasailing–even horseback riding. But for me, the most interesting part was seeing burqa-clad women on the beach, alongside women in bathing suits. (It did make me feel a little self-conscious in my bikini, though. I have never rushed into the water so fast!) All in all, the beach was all right, but it wasn’t as pristine as the ones on Koh Chang, and it was much noisier. It’s not a place I’d recommend for a secluded, romantic getaway.

But the beach wasn’t the only thing to do.

Penang National Park was a short bus ride away.

Shortly after I got onto the bus a woman my age climbed on and asked the driver if it was the right bus for the park. I was standing nearby, so I immediately piped up that I was going there as well in the hopes that she would suggest that we hike together, but she just smiled and walked past me to the back of the bus! I felt a bit rejected until we got to the park and she immediately started walking with me. When I asked what had happened on the bus she laughed and said she just wanted to sit down!  Her name was Nina and she was from Hamburg, and by the end of the walk we were promising to visit each other someday.

The paths were well-maintained

The paths were well-maintained

There is something so exciting about walking in a jungle!

Looking relaxed, pre-lizard

Looking relaxed, pre-lizard

Nina and I rarely passed other people, and I found myself extremely grateful for her presence when I spotted what appeared to be a small crocodile swimming in the surf off the deserted jungle path we were walking! (I don’t think you’ll be able to see it in this shaky video I took, but you can try. Look by the far rocks.)

Later I found out that it was just a monitor lizard. They aren’t dangerous, but they can be huge–this one was about five feet long and a foot wide–and quite scary-looking.

Wikipedia's photo of a monitor lizard

Wikipedia’s photo of a monitor lizard

Since we didn’t know what it was when we saw it, it left us pretty freaked out! I kept waiting for a snake to drop out of the trees on us. Fortunately, it was the only large reptile we encountered on our hike.

The path ended at Monkey Beach, which lived up to its name:

We were famished after all that walking, and to our relief there was a stand selling cold drinks. We got some and settled onto the sand.

A small boat (see photo at the top of this entry) had just arrived bearing people who hadn’t wanted to do the whole hike (maybe they’d heard about the monitor lizards?) Among them was a young Muslim family, a mother, a father, and a toddler boy. The mother was wearing a burqa. Even though her entire face was covered, she was busily taking photos of her husband and child. She even waded a little in the surf, which, of course, got the bottom of her long black garment wet. I was dying to know what she thought about, well, everything. Nina and me sitting there in our short sleeves, on vacation alone. Her own life. The world. I wish I had felt like I could have asked her.

I spent another day visiting George Town with a Dutch guy from my hostel, Alex.

Chinese temple in George Town decorated for the new year

Chinese temple in George Town decorated for the new year

The views from the bus’ winding, seaside route were so beautiful that I joked that they should have weddings on the bus. Then I wondered whether a bus driver has the same powers as a ship’s captain to marry people, and we decided that Malaysia should really pass a law making it possible. We then discussed etiquette–would it be gauche not to pay the bus fare for all your wedding guests? Alex thought so. Fortunately, Malaysia is cheap, so treating everyone would not be a burden for anyone. :)

I wanted to see all the Lunar New Year activity; unfortunately, the holiday meant that most shops were closed, but it was still interesting to see the city.

After a few hours together, Alex told me that he was gay. He was keeping it quiet because homosexuality is highly disapproved of in Malaysia and Singapore, and homosexual activity is illegal and could be punished with jail time! He had decided that even if he met someone he really liked, he wouldn’t act on it, which made me very sad for him. (Ironically, in Malaysia I saw men being more affectionate with each other than anywhere else in the world. They sit on the bus with their arms around each and their hands on each other’s legs!)

That night we joined others from our hostel at a restaurant near the beach. Some dragon dancers came through (they were ubiquitous throughout my stay in Penang–by the end I was cringing and running the other way, since they make so much noise!)

After dinner we moved to a patio on the beach to hear a band. When they announced the last song I stood up and told the men around me that one of them had to dance with me. Alex gamely volunteered, and to my delight, he actually knew how to dance.

There’s nothing as fun as being twirled around by a good friend under a palm tree and all the stars in the sky.

Penang National Park

Penang National Park

 

09/20/13

Carrie, Indiana

Buffalo fountain, Indianapolis

Buffalo fountain, Indianapolis

It’s funny; I have a mental picture of Kenya. I can imagine quite clearly what Russia, India, Morocco, and Bermuda look like.

But I didn’t have the faintest idea what to expect of Indianapolis.

(Ok, ok, apart from Parks and Recreation. But I suspected that was not an accurate representation).

I was pleasantly surprised.

In addition to its very modern Circle Center Mall, it had some lovely old memorials. Here’s (part of) the enormous Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (which the above buffalo fountain is featured on):

Civil War memorial, Indianapolis

Civil War memorial, Indianapolis

I especially liked the World War I memorial, which, with its steep staircase and imposing presence, reminded me a lot of the temples at Angkor Wat. I have never seen anything like it on the East Coast. It convinced me that the war had hit the people of   Indiana particularly hard–until Wikipedia explained to me that the memorial was constructed in order to lure the newly-formed American Legion to build its headquarters in Indianapolis! Well, whatever the reason was, it’s quite imposing.

Poignantly, the words over the entrance say “The World War”—as if there will never be another.

World War I memorial, Indianapolis

World War I memorial, Indianapolis

Indianapolis is laid out a bit like Washington; it even has a sort of mini-Mall with a mini-Washington Monument, the Indiana War Memorial Plaza. Here’s the view from the other side of the World War I memorial.

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The building at the far end of the Plaza is the library. I ended up spending a few hours there while I waited for my bus to Chicago. It was built right before World War I (a librarian told me that if the groundbreaking had been any later it would never have been built, because the war would have derailed the funding). A modern addition was recently added, which was apparently a money pit, but it’s quite sunny and pleasant. It is also the only library I have ever been to that has a cafe in the central atrium.

Wikipedia tells me that the population of Indianapolis is 800,000–30% bigger than Boston! This, I do not believe. Maybe Greater Indianapolis is 800,000 (Greater Boston is 4 million), but the city center itself seems quite small to me.

Indiana State House

Indiana State House

The friend I was visiting, Camille, took me to a fun little area on Mass Ave that had a number of bars and restaurants. (As well as the obligatory Kurt Vonnegut mural.) She tells me that the city has a very good theater scene (and she should know–she has a side job stage managing).

I had a bit of drama the first time I tried to leave the city (yes, I had to try more than once); when Camille dropped me off at the Megabus stop for the 9:30pm bus, I found that people were still waiting for the 7:00pm! Since I didn’t relish the idea of spending the night on a street corner in Indianapolis, I quickly called Camille, who, fortunately, was able to come and get me and give me a place to sleep on her couch.

The next morning I sat in a coffee shop overlooking Monument Circle (where the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is) before checking out City Market, Indianapolis’ answer to Quincy Market. It’s a bit small but it has lots of lunch choices. I ended up getting food from several different stands for my bus ride.

All in all, I quite liked Indianapolis and I hope I have a chance to go back someday.

Next stop: Chicago!

09/10/13

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Kansas!

Kansas!

As you may recall, in the middle of August I decided to embark on a Tour de Friends and visit some of the people I never have time to visit while I’m working. The first stop was Seattle. From there I flew to Wichita, where I spent three days helping my friend Vats prepare for her do-it-yourself wedding and consequently have no travel advice beyond the fact that Wal-Mart has a pretty good selection of florist tape.

Well, that’s not completely true. I bet you didn’t know that there is a surprisingly large Lao community in the Wichita area. (Vats was born in Laos–before morphing into your typical Kansas cheerleader!) Her family is very involved in the community (heck, her family is so large that it probably makes up most of it!)

How big is the Lao community? Big enough to have its own temple, complete with monks!

Temple outside Wichita, Kansas

Temple outside Wichita, Kansas

If it hadn’t been surrounded by corn fields, I would have thought I was in Laos.

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Inside you could have your fortune told by picking a stick out of a container, reading the number on it, and then matching the number with the proper stack of paper fortunes. I don’t remember what mine said… Probably just as well. I like to be surprised!

It was fascinating to see how the whole community came together for the wedding. Her family borrowed tents from the temple. Cousins with the appropriate skills did the sound, hair, and make-up. In the evenings leading up to the big day dozens of relatives descended on Vats’ family’s ranch house to prepare food, assemble flower arrangements, and make decorations.

The wedding had two ceremonies, Lao and western. I was officiating the western ceremony, which was second, so I was a bit nervous. When I was growing up I did a lot of theater, and it occurred to me that by officiating I was living one of my old recurring nightmares, where I had to appear in a play I had never rehearsed for!

The Lao ceremony was two hours long. It began with the groom’s family processing into the room (in Laos the groom sometimes rides an elephant; Vats’ fiance, Stephen, was very disappointed that he couldn’t get one in Wichita). It was a little difficult to understand everything that was happening; sometimes someone went to a microphone to explain, but most of the time I had to try to piece things together myself. Money was exchanged and at one point the bride and groom seemed to be asking each relative for their blessing. Since I’d been assured that it was fine to come and go (most of the Lao people there talked to each other throughout the ceremony, and even answered phone calls, which would have shocked me if I hadn’t seen Chinese parents do the same thing at their children’s graduation ceremony), I went out of the room to practice the western ceremony, and when I returned all the guests were tying white thread around the bride and groom’s wrists. The threads are symbols of good luck and well-being. I joined in, telling Stephen as I tied the thread, “I saw this and thought of you.”

Thread is tied around the bride and groom's wrists

Thread is tied around the bride and groom’s wrists

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You can read more about Lao weddings here.

Fortunately, the western ceremony went off without a hitch (no pun intended). If all else fails, I can break out my “Will officiate weddings for cake” sign.

The western ceremony; can you spot me?

With that out of the way, my next preoccupation was figuring out how to get to my next firm engagement, my cousin’s wedding, which was happening the following weekend in Minneapolis. Stephen grew up in Cincinnati and Vats told me that I could probably get a ride there with his friend, Heath. From there I figured I could get myself to Indianapolis, home of a camp friend I hadn’t seen in ten years.

At the reception I asked a guy I knew was from Cincinnati if he knew who Heath was; he didn’t, but he said he might have room for me in the minivan he and some friends had rented. Since that was great news, I forgot about my quest to find Heath, but the next morning (aka the day everyone was leaving) the guy with the minivan said that another member of the group had promised the empty seat to someone else.

I got a very sinking feeling.

I looked into my bus options and they were horrible–almost as expensive as a plane ticket (Greyhound was $123!), overnight(!!) and more than 17 hours(!!!). Flights were what you’d expect–aka a lot more money than I wanted to spend.

I hated to bother Vats the morning after her wedding, but since I was desperate I sent her a text and asked if she had Heath’s number. I called him the second I received it. As the phone rang, I was afraid he wouldn’t answer, since it was an unknown number, or that he would already have left Wichita.

Well, I must be the luckiest person in the world, because not only did he answer, he was willing to turn around and pick me up even though he had already left the city. As he pulled up to my motel in his truck, I thanked any number of deities that I didn’t have to take the 17-hour bus ride (we did the drive to Indianapolis in about 10 hours). Not only was Heath very nice, he did not play any of the dozen genres of music I feared he might insist on listening to for our ride (heavy metal, polka, heavy polka, etc.). I spent about $80 buying gas, lunch for us both, and snacks, so it was both cheaper and more fun than either of the other options. Plus I got to take pictures like this:

St. Louis!

St. Louis!

Try doing that from an airplane.

Next stop: Indianapolis!

09/2/13

Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle

Seattle

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Seattle.

And by “always” I mean for the past four years, since one of my best friends moved there. I had nothing against the city before, but ever since it has been The City That Stole Anna. (Though to be fair, it really wasn’t the city’s fault. It was the fault of The Man Who Stole Anna.)

For four years she has been singing Seattle’s praises and urging me to visit her, but every time I had time and money for a big trip, I wanted to go out of the country, and since she usually returned to the East Coast at least once a year, I got to see her anyway. But when I got back from Asia and found myself with more free time than I was likely to have for a long, long time, I decided it was time.

The trip got off to an auspicious start. When I got to the self check-in monitor at Boston Logan, it asked if I would be willing to volunteer for a later flight in exchange for some Delta credit. Since it emphasized that I would get to make my final decision at the gate and I didn’t think Anna would mind picking me up at a different time, I thought I might as well find out the details. It asked how much I would want for the inconvenience, and it offered several choices (something like $50, $75, $100, and $125), along with a keypad. $125 didn’t seem like nearly enough to me, so I put in $250. But then when they actually asked me to volunteer (to switch to a flight that would get me to Seattle 30 minutes later than originally scheduled) they told me they would give me $300 since they couldn’t issue credits in increments of $50! And that is the story of how I got a free plane ticket for basically nothing. (You could also say that I made $300 for half an hour of my time. Maybe that should be my new freelancing rate…)

So that was awesome—what happened next, not so much.

When I got to Seattle I grabbed my suitcase at the baggage claim and waited for half an hour or so for Anna, her husband, Jesse, and their two-year-old to pick me up at the airport. When we were driving past downtown Seattle and admiring the view of Puget Sound I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I don’t usually pick those up but this time I decided to. (Thank God!) It was a woman from Delta, calling to tell me that I hadn’t picked up my suitcase! “No, I did,” I told her, looking right at it. “I have a suitcase with your name on it right here,” she told me gently. At first I didn’t believe her—it is such a distinctive suitcase (bright blue with a lace-up front) that I couldn’t believe there were two of them on the same airplane. But then I unzipped a pocket and found a hairdryer that wasn’t mine. Waves of mortification washed over me as I realized that my carelessness had caused some poor woman to wait and worry for almost an hour, and would now force my friends to turn around and drive back to a place that nobody enjoys driving to. Fortunately, we made good time and my victim took her suitcase back without any recriminations. But I still felt (feel) bad about it.

View from the ferry

View from the ferry

The highlight of my trip was definitely our day trip to the peninsula. We left the house at 7am and took a ferry across the Sound. (I looked and looked, but did not see any seals on the way.) We drove through cute towns with wooden houses that wouldn’t seem terribly out of place in Vermont—except for their views of working ports, complete with cranes. We had breakfast in Port Angeles, which seems to be the biggest town in the area. It has a surprisingly healthy downtown with several nice restaurants (and several that you can take a toddler to without feeling guilty). Then we drove to Hurricane Ridge, an appropriately windy hike in the Olympic Mountains. I had never heard of the Olympic Mountains, but they were stunning. The views made me I feel like I was back in the Alps, but the hike itself was easy enough that bringing a toddler was not a problem. But be warned: despite the fact that it was a hot day in Seattle, it was so chilly on Hurricane Ridge that Anna bought a sweatshirt to wear over her summer dress, and she was not the only one with that idea.

The Olympic Mountains.

The Olympic Mountains.

The trees were worn down, presumably by all the wind at the peak.

The trees were worn down, presumably by all the wind at the peak.

Mountain flowers.

Mountain flowers.

Mist rising from the valley.

Mist rising from the valley.

After Hurricane Ridge we drove another 50 miles to one of the world’s only two temperate rainforests. (It is a rainforest because of the number of inches of rain it gets annually.) It is right next to the town of Forks, which I had never heard of, but which is apparently the setting for Twilight. (Because vampires hate the sun.) Except for about five Twilight-themed tours and businesses (Twilight firewood, anyone?), Forks reminded me of the towns in western New Hampshire near where my grandparents used to live—struggling downtown, trailer park, a field that was hosting a car show. It seemed to be a lumber town that had fallen on hard times. So that was kind of sad, but the rainforest itself was amazing. Alas, there were no monkeys, but there were other-worldly moss-covered trees.

Moss-covered tree

Moss-covered tree

This stream could not have been clearer.

This stream could not have been clearer.

More mossy trees.

More mossy trees.

It was mercifully sunny, and we hiked for about a mile. The trees were spectacular–my camera does not do them justice–and I would love to go back someday.

The Seattle Public Library.

The Seattle Public Library.

In the city, my favorite sights were the library (a really cool modern building worth exploring), the Panama Hotel (where dozens of Japanese families stored their belongings while they were interred), the mansions around Lake Washington, and, of course, Pike Place Market. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but seeing fish fly through the air is one of those things that you will imagine wistfully on your deathbed if you haven’t experienced it in real life.

Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market.

If you enjoy shopping, I highly recommend Fremont (a funky neighborhood known for its independent stores and its non sequitorial statue of Lenin) and Ballard (which has endless clothes, jewelry, and gift shopping). Capitol Hill proved a surprising bust shopping-wise—with the exception of the fabulous Elliott Bay Book Co, an enormous independent book store/nerd paradise.

Anna's daughter playing in a fountain near the Space Needle.

Anna’s daughter playing in a fountain near the Space Needle.

Our best meal was at Marination Station, a Hawaiian restaurant across the harbor from downtown. The views are incomparable, and the pork sliders were delicious. (And I wasn’t the only one who thought so—the lines were out the door.)

More views around Pike Place Market.

More views around Pike Place Market.

To sum up, Seattle may be a friend-stealing bastard, but it’s a pretty fun place to visit.