Ditch It Keep It

 March 6, 2011                                             Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There is this whole backpacker mentality that you are unaware of until you start traveling. I have been observing the backpacking subculture for the last several months and this is what I have come up with: backpackers are obsessed with how cheaply they can eat, drink, and sleep, how little they can shower, how much ground they can cover in the least amount of time and most of all…how light they can travel.  Basically, the term “backpacking” becomes synonymous with “a competition of who can suffer the most while traveling.”  Dreadlocks and dirt are a status symbol.  Having a tent pushes your street cred up a notch and although you only have room for two pairs of travel underwear, somehow hauling a guitar with you around the world is commendable. Lastly, as the proud label suggests, the most necessary and important part of a backpacker’s identity is the backpack.  Without one, you are an outcast from the backpacking world.  Your natty hair, unwashed clothing, and food from the grocery store mean nothing without a pack.   Walk into a cheap hostel with a rolling suitcase, and you will hear whispers and get looks that make you feel like the time you accidently wore the same outfit to school two days in a row (which ironically is also commonplace backpacker behavior). 

When I started this trip, I wanted so badly to fit in with the cool kids.  No pack was not an option yet the thought of carrying all my possessions on my shoulders for 8 months literally made me cry (twice in REI), provoked laughter from my friends, and was met with pure disbelief by my family.  Before I left, I had a tumultuous love affair with the backpack section of REI (the employees doubled as my therapists), where after trying on every Kelty, Gregory and Northface pack and not being able to take a step with those weights they put in to simulate your luggage, I finally settled on an Osprey rolling backpack.

The drama did not stop there. Selecting the bag was only the first step. The next two weeks of my life were consumed with sitting in the middle of my hallway playing a game of ‘ditch it keep it,’ where my friend Danielle used her counseling techniques to get me to part with my beloved belongings. Like an addiction, I was first in denial, then regressed in my recovery by hiding items until after she left to add them back into the pile and in a final desperate attempt, triangulated with my mom, convincing her that I actually “need” what Danielle forced me to ditch. These items included random things such as a doorstop, hand warmers, vitamins and an emergency shock blanket.

After experimenting with various ways of rolling verses folding, miraculously, I was finally able to get myself together and most importantly, zip that tiny green Osprey shut.  Although I had no intention to (nor did I ever) put that thing on my back, the possibility of pretending that “yeah, I carry this on my back… most of the time” let me save face with the backpacking crowd.

During my travels, when I was constantly met with the comment, “You don’t look like a backpacker,” I quickly realized as much as I tried to blend, I just could not fit in (story of my life). Like being a Persian Jew in the Middle East, discovering myself as a “traveler” in a “backpackers’” world has been met with a journey of internal struggle and pain that has manifested itself through five phases of self-reflection and five pieces of luggage. 

#1: Acceptance and the Mini Osprey Rolling Backpack – Everyone was shocked that I could go 8 months carrying all that I had in this tiny, carry-on sized backpack.  I thought I’d show them wrong but HAVE YOU SEEN MY CLOSET? When panic attacks ensued each time I had to move from one place to another, I realized I had to make a change. When I finally accepted the fact that I would have to get rid of the bag, the game of “ditch it keep it” began with my luggage.

#2: Denial and the Big Backpack on Wheels – I was still not ready to totally give up on my identity as a ‘backpacker’ and was so pleased with myself when I found a larger backpack on wheels in a Thai market. Problem was after packing and seeing the full size of the bag, I woke up the next morning in horror at the thought of dragging a bag that could house a dead carcass in it across the world.

#3: Anger and my Mom’s Used Carry-On Bag – After realizing how ridiculously huge this oversized body bag disguised as a backpack was, I panicked and ditched it, trading it for my mom’s carry on rolling suitcase that was falling apart. This meant reluctantly giving up everything that could no longer fit in the bag which included the doorstop and the petite pharmacy I had assembled for myself.

#4: Bargaining and the Rolling Duffle Bag– Since the borrowed bag was in no shape to be traveling the world, the hunt for the perfect luggage began again. I convinced myself that although I would no longer be a backpacker, I could be somewhere in the middle. I found a rolling duffle bag which nicely fit my new ‘in-between’ persona. Crisis averted right? Not so much. Once I started packing I realized that this bag was also enormous and flimsy and more closely resembled a chest on wheels as opposed to a duffle bag. So I donated it to another fellow traveler,  justifying my own actions and prostycizing the backpacker tourist trail one person at a time.   

#5: Resignation and the Purple Suitcase-After 4 transitional bags, I finally had to admit to myself that I would have to give up on the backpack idea all together and resigned to buying a regular rolling suitcase. I spotted a luggage store in Laos and very persuasively begged the store owner to let me buy the bag and bring it back the next day if it was again the wrong size (apparently my spacial reasoning had taken a turn for the worst). I took the bag home which neatly fit all my stuff and from that day on, this medium sized generic rolling suitcase has been my saving grace.

This trip around the world is supposed to be about “finding myself”, “knowing who I really am,” and being ok with that.  Well guess what I discovered? I am NOT a backpacker. I despise expensive travel gear, will stay an extra day in a place in exchange for clean clothes and can’t live without my facial moisturizer. By manically cycling through 5 pieces of luggage I ditched all my preconceived notions of how I should be traveling aka torture camp, and made peace with my new backpack-free identity. Suddenly a new world of carefreeness opened up to me. Though I still get the comments and judgmental stares from the 20-something ‘rough it’ crowd, I no longer care. I just judge them right back for their nappy hair, dirty clothes and the fact that they will need a whole lot of chiropractic care in the coming years.  

Thank you to my dear friend Jana Shih for helping me to add a little humor and light heartedness to this blog. Follow her adventures in Senegal at http://janashih.tumblr.com

Cambodia: A Deeper Look

March 3, 2011                                          Siavnoukville, Cambodia    

In the third grade my best friend was Chaunty Thook. Assigned seats right next to each other, we instantly became friends and felt a common bond: we were both brown in a predominately white school, spoke a different language, and loved Paula Abdul. We would often bring snacks from home that the other kids thought were weird and share them with each other. I still remember the taste of the dry uncooked Asian noodles we would shake with the MSG seasoning and eat like a bag of chips. Though we didn’t fully understand this at the time, what we shared the most was our experience as first-generation Americans.

I visited Chaunty’s home in the public housing complex across from our elementary school. He mother was a tailor and her father took any job he could get. They worked hard to provide for their family but  being from the suburbs of Eastside Seattle, Chaunty never really could keep up with the rest of us economically. She was always struggling to buy gifts for birthday parties or attend class field trips. When I met her parents I remember thinking that although they were so much younger than my parents, their faces looked old, weak, worn-out, and tired. Though I felt a commonality with Chaunty, I also  felt a deeper pain and hardship in her immigrant experience as compared to the privileges I was afforded.

It wasn’t until college when I learned about the war in Cambodia that I began to understand Chaunty’s story. Her parents, like many others in Cambodia, were victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and came to the US as refugees with nothing more than the clothes on their back, in hopes of a better life for their children.  

My friendship with Chaunty, social justice classes, and work with Cambodian refugees in Seatle, sparked an interest in visiting Cambodia that I  was last-minute able to incorporate into my Bonderman experience. While in Cambodia, I spent a week lounging at the beach, did some Korean line dancing in the center of Phnom Penh and visited the ancient temples of Anchor Wat. Most importantly, I got a closer look at the genocide that ravaged the country.

On a sunny clear day in Phnom Penh, I hired a driver to take me around to some of the different genocide memorial sites. Having limited time, he parked the motorcycle-drawn carriage in front of the Killing Fields and gave me an hour to visit the site.

I walked into the memorial and the first thing I saw was a tall glass bookcase filled to the ceiling with thousands of human skulls.  My eyes filled with tears at the site of this and suddenly, I felt a hand grip my forearm. I saw an old Khmer woman looking me in the face.  She stood there for a few moments with my arm in her hand and her eyes locked intensely but gently on mine. She didn’t say a word but I could feel her reaching out and offering herself to me in that moment. I was so touched yet felt guilty for taking solace in her comfort when I was far from the victim.

I went through the memorial feeling almost numb. The tragedy is just too horrible to comprehend. There is an urge to tell yourself that this didn’t really happen because human beings are not capable of inflicting this much pain upon each other.  I had to sit down and just let it all sink in.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist driven government lead by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia, “implementing one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society the world has ever seen.” They had a vision to turn Cambodia into a peasant dominated, rice growing economy and weed out anyone who didn’t fit the new vision of the country: urban dwellers,  intellectuals, professionals, Chinese, religious leaders, Buddhist monks, those who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language etc. In short, no one was spared and everyone was at risk.

At least 3 million people were murdered or died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the 4 years they were in power, constituting almost a third of Cambodia’s 7 million population. People were dislocated from their homes and separated from their families to join slave labor camps where they were forced to work and then killed, tortured or died of starvation and disease. 

As  I continued through the Killing Fields, I saw the trees that were used to beat and kill young children. The mass graves where humans were thrown after they were massacred in the fields, the bones of which are still being excavated. The tools that were used to carry out the killings and videos documenting how a tragedy of this scale was executed.

2.5 hours later I emerged from the memorial looking drained and a bit guilty about my tardiness. I looked at the driver and said, “I know, but this is more important than visiting temples or other sites. I needed to see this.” He emphatically agreed and then told me his story.

He was only 4 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. Though they all rejoiced in happiness in the beginning, within a matter of hours their lives were changed forever. His father, a nurse in the local hospital, was taken away and murdered by the Khmer Rouge due to his education level  and perceived connection to the west. His mother escaped with him and his sister, hiding in the jungles of Cambodia for 3 years until 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese army. Though they suffered from starvation, disease, and trauma, somehow they made it.   

We headed to S-21, a school that was converted into a torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge period. This time I hired a guide for a measly $5 (revealing the desperate economic conditions of the country). The guide toured me through the school, very dryly explaining the context behind each place: “Chemicals were poured on people here and then they were set on fire.” “Men were hung by their legs from what use to be a  gymnastic bar and suffocated in a bucket of feces.” “Here the families of the prisoners were locked away without food or water.” The humiliation, pain, and tragedy were again  uncomprehendable.

My guide appeared detached and aloof, like she was reading a script in each room we passed through but I  could see the hurt in her eyes. As we were completing the tour I thanked her and asked if she had any children to lighten the mood. She told me she did and was struggling to raise and support them, working several different jobs. I expressed how much I admire her and understand that it must be so difficult to relive this horrible tragedy every single day. She nodded her head.

Then she showed me her lower leg which was deeply scarred, almost like a chunk of her flesh was missing. She explained:

“I was 13 when the Khmer Rouge came into power. I was taken away from my family and forced to work day and night like a slave in the rice fields. I did this for 3 years and one day a soldier put a gun to my head and said I wasn’t working efficiently enough. My leg was infected and I was really sick. As he was about to shoot me he looked at my leg and said, ‘You will die tomorrow anyway. I won’t waste the bullet.’ He left me there to die, but somehow…I survived. When the war ended I went searching for the rest of my family and found out they were all dead. At 16 I was alone, poor and had lost everything. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off dying. I can never forget what I went through. Even now, I can’t sleep through the night. Every time I close my eyes I see the same horrors. There is no escaping the damage that was done to me. I will live with it for the rest of my life.”

As I traveled the country, I continued to see the deep scars the Khmer Rouge left behind. Orphaned women sold into prostitution, adults with missing limbs from the hundreds of land mines, government corruption, child labor, HIV/AIDs epidemic, land-grabs and eviction of families from valuable land, extreme desperate poverty, nation-wide famines, and  disparity between the rich and the poor at an all-time high. Little responsibility has been taken by the international community about turning a blind eye to the genocide and even less has been done to rebuild the country. In fact, the Khmer Rouge occupied the Cambodian UN seat until the 90’s and to date, only one suspect has been tried for crimes of genocide.   Instead the Khmer Rouge leaders continue to live peacefully in the mountainous regions of the country.

Though the genocide is such a huge part of Cambodia’s history, it is by far the only thing that defines the country. The landscape is beautiful and lush with everything from golden beaches to dense mangrove jungles. Khmer people are among the friendliest and warmest people I have ever met. Regardless of how much they have been through, they let me into their lives in countless ways and their kindness radiated through every level of my experience: slurping a cup of noodle soup across from an old toothless man practicing his English with me, children on the beach begging for money but settling for playing with my hair, and the family guesthouse owners who safely kept my misplaced passport and wallet until I came to retrieve it in a panic. Maybe it’s the impact of Buddhism that gives the Khmer people the strength to accept the pain they have endured or maybe it is just their resilience as a people…whatever it is, Cambodians are survivors.

Though my time was very short, I left Cambodia treasuring all of these moments, remembering those who lost so much to this war including my driver, guide, and childhood friend Chaunty, and most of all thankful for finally finding my purpose in this region of the world.

**If you are interested in learning more about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia some good books include: First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung and When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him

More photos from Cambodia

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Laos: Tourism and Communism

February 17, 2011                                                        Vientiane, Laos

After about a month in Thailand, and a visa expiration date fast approaching, I knew I needed to move on to my next destination.  Since Southeast Asia was not initially on my itinerary I didn’t have a plan of where I would go to next. Witnessing my indecisiveness a friend of mine came to my rescue and said, “You need to come to Laos. You will love it.”

The next day, I arrived in the quaint town of Luang Prabang; a subtle mix of French sophistication and Southeast Asian charm. In the mornings I would rise before dawn to participate in the Giving of the Arms, a daily ceremony offering bananas and sticky rice to the hundreds of orange-robed monks parading through the streets before beginning their day of spiritual devotion. My days consisted of visiting temples and breaking for a cup of Lao coffee in the small outdoor restaurants that line the Mekong River. In the evenings, I leisurely strolled through the colorful night markets trying to resist from buying all the unique handicrafts made by local Hmong villagers and savored the local food where $1 bought you an unlimited helping of curry, rice, noodles, and papaya salad.

A highlight of my time in Luang Prabang was my visit to the waterfalls: a series of crystal white streams of water gracefully cascading down to form small tropical blue pools at the bottom, perfect for taking a dip in. On the way back from the waterfalls we made a stop at an indigenous Hmong village. I noticed a row of young Hmong girls sitting on the ground selling bracelets and repeating in a sing-song voice, “one thousand kip for me.” They said it over and over again to every tourist that walked by, persuasively coercing each one into giving the girls money.

Conflicted, I bought a bracelet from each girl wondering if I was doing more harm than good.  I thought about the implications of traveling the world as a western tourist and how by default, I am participating in a dynamic that creates dependency and disrupts cultures all around the world. Though the experience of visiting a village is so much richer than seeing waterfalls and temples, my benefit clearly causes drawbacks for the local people. Entering their world, handing out money to their children in exchange for a photograph, and interfering with their lifestyle which previously consisted of subsistence farming and collective participation are just a few ways. With the rise in tourism, competition among the local people has escalated wearing down the strong communal bonds and promoting a more individualistic approach to life. Hmong communities have become more dependent on the cash business that tourist bring in as opposed to their traditional methods of livelihood; another way in which globalization continues to disenfranchise the most vulnerable people.

In graduate school I read a book about the Hmong giving me some background about their tumultuous history and how despite this, they have managed to retain their unique culture, religion, language, and traditions. The Hmong people have never had their own homeland but inhabit the mountains of several Southeast Asian countries. During the Vietnam War, although Laos was declared a ‘neutral zone’ by the UN, the U.S. secretly entered Laos and capitalized on the Hmong people’s isolation and opposition of the communist government, training them as undercover fighters and informants.  The fallout, other than the 15,000 deaths caused, was that after the ‘secret war’ ended many of the Hmong who were trained by the CIA were later suppressed, brutalized and killed by the local communist government, with little help or intervention from the US.  Many of them fled to neighboring countries living in exile. Clearly, the exploitation caused by infiltration of the west, whether government or tourism, is not a new theme in the lives of the Hmong people.

After visiting the Hmong village my interest in the politics of Laos was sparked and I realized I knew nothing about the current government. I visited some ex-pat friends of mine living in Luang Prabang and over a glass of wine at their glorified treehouse home overlooking the Mekong River, they told me a bit about the context of the country.

In 1975 Laos was declared a communist nation and this government continues to rule until today. This information shocked me as after 2 days in the country I was completely unaware of the communist regime. I am not sure what I expected would have given this away: soldiers marching the streets, red flags, people being arrested etc. Though the country does allow private enterprise and little would reveal that Laos is in fact communist, there are things that confirm its existence as a red nation: Buddhism is kept at bay, individuality is discouraged, property can be revoked at any moment, there is only one legal political party which is the one in power and most things are monitored, run and regulated by the federal government.

Thinking about the dual impacts of communism and tourism, I left Luang Prabang for the crazy ‘tubing’ party town of Vang Vieng. From the back of a bumpy mini-van I peered out the window to see the countryside, the quintessential picture of Southeast Asia: lush, green and tropical with seas of local women harvesting the abundant rice fields. When I finally arrived in the town, I felt like I had entered another world.

Vang Vieng is a cross between a water park and a frat party where psychedelic pizzas are openly sold, Friends and Family Guy are constantly playing in the local bars, and drunk backpackers in their early 20’s tube down the famous river with a Lao beer in one hand and their waterproof cameras in the other, swinging from unreliable ropes then tossing themselves invincibly into the rocky river. Though I tried to embrace this ‘party’ scene I couldn’t help but think, “What happened to the local people who use to live here?” “Who is benefitting from this new backpacking tourist industry?” “What do Lao people think about crazy morally stumped westerners?”

As my time in Laos progressed I was starting to feel aimless and confused about my purpose in this part of the world.   Though initially I longed to just be a tourist, I began to resent this role fully aware that there was no escaping it. I felt disconnected from the other holiday backpackers yet found it difficult to break the barriers between myself and the Lao locals.  Feeling lost and isolated made me miss home and familiarity. I called my sister and she said, “Maybe this is a part of your experience. This trip is not only about having an aim but is in fact the opposite to wander and wonder. To not know what your purpose is and to see that as a path to figuring it out.”

The funny thing is, it was not until I wrote this blog that I actually realized how much I learned and gained while I was in Laos. Though I came to Southeast Asia to shut off and just be a ‘normal’ backpacker, Laos forced me to think critically about the footprint I am leaving as a tourist and most importantly, how our actions have a rippling effect around the world, even when we fail to recognize it.

My first Chameleon spotting in Laos. It really does change color!

*If you are interested in learning more about the Hmong people and culture a great book is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

More photos from Laos

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February 10, 2011                                                Chiang Mai, Thailand

I came to Thailand not knowing exactly how or why I ended up there. After the Middle East and India I was overwhelmed. The hardest part of the Bonderman experience has been that just as I am digesting my experiences in a place, I have moved on to a new country with a different array of sights, smells, and cultures, forcing me to leave the last place behind as a distant memory. I needed time to think, process, and escape the intensity that had consumed the last 3 months of my trip before burning out. I longed to be someplace where my identity was not implicated and I could simply be a tourist.

Something told me that Southeast Asia was exactly what I needed and thankfully, Thailand gave me the relief I was looking for. I spent the first week in Bangkok writing in my journal, indulging in the amazing street food, shopping in the vast night markets, and strolling along the streets getting a peak at urban Thai lifestyle without the constant stares and questions I had become so accustomed to. The anonymity was a nice break and the silence allowed me to finally reflect on the first portion of my trip.

Being my first time in an Asian country I noticed some stark differences from the other places I have visited. Things were easy, organized, and comfortable without the looming feeling that chaos would ensue at any moment. The many restrictions that confined my daily tasks were suddenly lifted: I could wear what I wanted (even if that meant heels in the middle of the day), drink alcohol freely, get on a bus ON TIME, walk around without being harassed by men and every western amenity I could imagine was at my fingertips.

Though Bangkok was a nice break, as much as I tried to run away from the implications of my identity, I realized it was always facing me in one way or another. In Koh Samui, I somehow landed in the Israeli tourist enclave of the tropical Island and in Pattaya, I was surrounded my hundreds of tourists from Iran there on vacation. I befriended many Israelis and Iranians and in both instances, I felt a confusing mix of familiarity and estrangement as I collided with the two pieces of myself that I still could not successfully integrate into one.

In addition to my ethnicity, what I thought about the most in Thailand is gender and sexuality. In Thai culture sexuality is open and gender is not viewed as stagnant. Everyone from gay/lesbians to bisexual and transgender individuals are embraced within society and are free to express their individuality, in stark contrast to the US where they are stigmatized, outcasted and hidden. I went to the world’s first lady-boy or transgendered show and saw that in Thailand, people who stray from the norms of dichotomous gender identity are celebrated. I came to admire this about Thai society and respected their openness to let people be who they are without the restrictions of labels or fitting into boxes.

Thailand also has a booming sex tourism industry and prostitution, though technically not legal, is open and free. The epicenter of this is Pattaya, the one place I was trying to avoid nevertheless in a desperate attempt to chase the sun had begrudgingly ended up in.  Initially, I was quite judgmental of the prostitution and from my feminist perspective was deeply disturbed by the idea of women selling their bodies to fulfill the exotic fantasies of men. I saw things that shocked me like I have never been shocked before: woman posing behind a glass wall waiting for western men to “pick them” for the night, openly discussing going rates and women using their body parts to do things I never thought possible. I felt repulsed, saddened and most of all just plain confused. As I tore away at the many layers of my pre-conceived notions, I began to see another side to what I previously thought was a black and white social problem.

I realized that many of these women view sex as a commodity they have that they can barter for something they need, not necessarily a form of emotional expression. Even the Thai women in relationships with western men would often share that they feel like they are getting their needs met as much as the men are: they want economic security while the men are searching for someone to dote on them…possibly an equal exchange? Though this dynamic of course is instigated by a patriarchal society in which men have more power than women, the Thai women have taken a different approach to addressing this inequality: leveling the playing field or getting in the game. In the west, we pride ourselves on being empowered but deep down I wondered, “Are these women any more ‘oppressed’ then we are?”

Thailand is a female driven society. In stark contrast to the other countries I have visited, here most of my interactions were with women. Women are the shopkeepers, vendors, bankers, hotel owners etc. The first night I was in Bangkok I saw a woman beating up a man in public with the man desperately begging for mercy. In the U.S. I feel like a woman trying to fit into a man’s world while Thai women appear to be participating in creating a society not based on patriachal norms. I felt the presence and power that women hold in Thailand and began to see their sexual freedom as a possible reflection of their empowerment.  However, the horrible accounts of human trafficking, rape, sex slavery, child prostitution and the power-hungry men who exploit these women, which constantly haunted me, made me revoke my new found acceptance of the world’s oldest profession. In Thailand, sex is not taboo like it is in the west but is instead open and free yet simultaneously degraded and deluded and the cumulative effect of all of this left me wrestling with where I stand.

Thailand challenged me in unexpected ways and pushed me to see that things are complex and not always what they appear to be. It was impossible to make sense of things within the narrow scope of my western values of gender and sexuality which brought these pieces of my identity to the forefront as I questioned my black and white perspective on provocative issues. Although most of my time in Thailand consisted of incredible things like riding elephants, white water rafting, visiting elaborate temples and long-neck tribal villages, eating some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted, and taking in the rays of the beautiful beaches, I walked away with the understanding that underneath all the luxury, controversy, and confusion of this country, there is a layer of openness and acceptance in Thai society that is missing from our world in the west. Maybe we have something to learn from them.

More photos from Thailand

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