Vietnam

Dhaka Streets_1

Returning to the West

The past few days have been a difficult adjustment period. The accumulation of stress over the past few months was nothing short of monumental and I needed time to allow everything to process.

Budget traveling in Asia was fun, rewarding, and a life-changing experience. I would do it again, but I would have planned things much differently, spending more time in Myanmar rather than Vietnam and Thailand because of the touristic climates of the latter two countries. Vietnam is also particularly difficult as an American; there are massive amounts of propaganda about the war and people just aren’t excited to have you in their country. At least that was my interpretation of my experiences.

India was exactly what I needed; a combination of challenge and pure peace, allowing me to move far deeper into my yoga practice and mediation than I had anticipated. Nepal was a much-needed rest and I feel so lucky to have avoided the earthquakes and the devastation that they caused. Then Dhaka happened.

After I while, I realized that the east is so similar to the West; we are all essentially the same in our humanity and have differences and unique qualities that separate cultures, individuals, and groups of people. And in that uniqueness, comes a diversity that is relatively similar; there are always good people and bad people, people looking to take advantage of you and people looking to help you.

This is why perception is such an important part of the human experience; we base our decisions off of what we have experienced in the past.

Dhaka was so hard because of the way that their society is organized. People are willing to be completely wrong when trying to help you, as long as they can feel like they’ve helped you. They look up to white people and at the same time despite them. It seems that every sword has two sides.

Dhaka was probably the hardest day of my life, but it was also one that gives me the most hope. When people work together we can do anything we want. The way people worked together to help me was truly an incredible thing to witness.

I need to return to Myanmar because I was only able to visit Yangon, but the people were so nice. They went about their business until you came into contact with someone at a restaurant, or through whatever interaction and they were so kind. Far nicer than any country besides India, which I found to be somewhat similar. Thailand was close to Myanmar, but the people seem to be so sick of tourists. Though Bangkok is not really a city I am looking forward to visiting in the future, the north of Thailand was breath-taking and the locals were so nice. But I think they were as sick of the foreigner party scene as I was.

The came Vietnam, which I had always heard great things about. There is probably a lot racism against Americans because of the Vietnam war and the people seem to have taken on the victim mentality completely, like they are entitled to things because of it. And its hard to argue that they shouldn’t.

In the south of Vietnam I was scammed at every opportunity possible, there seemed to no stop to what people were willing to do for a bit of money. The only reprieve was from the people we were already staying with, who tended to be very kind and thoughtful and wonderful towards their clients. There were a lot of very nice people, but there was a lot of dislike directed at me for no reason by people in general. It was probably due to being American, which I think is obvious when I travel.

Coming back to the West through Berlin was great; the country is very in touch with its history and many of the exhibits of the wall in the city are completely eye-opening, full of facts and personalized stories, and bring the situation to life. It was nice to see both sides of the equation as well; how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power and why it was even a possibility in the country. A nice change from the one-sided propaganda in Vietnam.

Now I am in Prague, but spending the day recovering rather than traveling around. Two more days here should make for a lot of history and good food, site-seeing, and spending time with my family. I’m going to write an article on Berlin after this, so stay tuned for more experiences about the journey I am on.

 

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"Rough diamond" by Unknown USGS employee - Original source: USGS "Minerals in Your World" website. Direct image link: [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rough_diamond.jpg#/media/File:Rough_diamond.jpg

Diamonds in the Rough

“A diamond has the highest hardness and thermal conductivity of any bulk material; it can be contaminated by very few types of impurities. Most natural diamonds are formed at high temperature and pressure. A material with superlative physical qualities, most of it original from the strong bonds between its atoms.” -Wikipedia

Sometimes, people rise above their circumstances to greatness. They are forged, hardened by pressure and time to rise above their surroundings and to become more than anyone thought they could become. I’ve been lucky to witness this in several people from all over the world. People all over the world have the capacity to be greater than their circumstances would “normally” dictate.

There’s a popular saying going around now: “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.” I have come to believe that this is completely untrue and a complete idealization; all you have to do is look at the amount of corruption in much of our species to know that people often take the easy way out. Look at the US senate, can you really say they are doing the best they can with what they have?We are lazy beings, like all other mammals we want to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sun and the food it grows. (in balanced quantities of course)

This isn’t to say that people will always take advantage of everything they can; instead, its acknowledging that there will always be both sides to the equation; those that take complete advantage and those that take none and in fact give willingly with no thought of receiving. I’ve witnessed a lot of both lately while I’ve been traveling.

Yesterday was a rough day for me; the traveling and budget have gotten to me and I’m exhausted (you can read yesterday’s article on my mental fatigue here. But the equation will always balance itself out. Today I met an absolute gem of a woman on my way to the Minh Mang tomb. Her name was Rei Nguyen.

Rei was a farmer and told us that she and her husband made around 5 million dong per month (about $250). She sent her kids to a school that cost about 2 million per month, in the city of Hoi.

My girlfriend and I rented a scooter for $4 and headed to the tomb this morning, pretty excited to see the most renowned tomb in what appears to be the cultural center of Vietnam. Largely affected by the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War), we were able to see a lot of the effects of the war in our travels, most particularly the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). There was a good amount of propaganda at the museum, especially geared towards the use of illegal chemicals such as agent orange, the US’s involvement in the war, and Vietnam’s victims. This is not to say there wasn’t massive effect from illegal chemical weapons used by the US, but there was no mention of Russia, or of the civil war in Vietnam. As usual, there was a scapegoat to take the blame and the US took full brunt force of it; it’s probably deserved. (again, I’m not saying I know the situation, but I’ve seen this before in WWI & WWII propaganda, Civil War propaganda, and pretty much every war in history is necessarily affected by propaganda where one country is blamed for the entirety of the war)

Rei’s english was incredibly good for anyone in Vietnam, let alone a farmer with an education that ended when she was 12. She works 10 hour days out in the fields with her husband and eats mostly rice and noodles, though she wasn’t malnourished as far as I could tell. She was extremely kind to us, showed us a shortcut to the tomb and then invited us to her small house by the river to talk and have some tea.

The tomb was incredibly peaceful; death has a way of making the life so powerful.  We walked around the tomb for a couple of hours in the scorching heat and humidity, then returned with her to her home.

Happy_in_Vietnam

I noticed she was lucky enough to have electricity and running water; he house was small, with wooden walls and a tin roof and she graciously offered us tea while we spoke about her life and how my life was very different from hers. She ultimately ended up asking for money for her children’s school, but it was far more of an afterthought than most of what I have experienced in Vietnam. Most will ask for money, then turn their back and mutter under their breath when you refuse their service. She offered us a kind smile and sharing of words and experiences that has been unique in my trip to Vietnam.

In this trip, I’ve met people poorer than you can imagine that still show kindness and refuse to take extra money no matter how hard you try. I’ve met people who I’ve gotten along with like I’ve known them my whole life.

One sterling example of this is one of my Muslim friends from Yemen; probably the one of the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met. He owns about six AK47’s at his home and Yemen and left to pursue a more peaceful education in Mysore. Yemen is currently in Civil war and he has been directly affected by it with the death of some of his immediate family members, yet still he pursues kindness and happiness relentlessly. I was with him while it started and there was definitely a lot of swearing and frustration, but it didn’t change his outlook. He goes against any stereotype I could have held against someone of the Muslim religion.

The owner of the Chakra house, Rajesh was like this as well; one of the nicest and most relaxed people I have ever met. He and I will be friends just like the day I left if I ever return to Mysore (which is highly probable). It’s funny how you meet people who you feel like you’ve known your whole life when you travel.

People are individuals and that’s how they should be treated. One is not representative of the whole, because there is so much variation in our species. So at the same time that there are all of these awesome people I have met, there are also some abominable ones.

Let me give you some examples, from history. I don’t like to talk about negatives in reality because people can change and who am I to judge them. With that said, world leaders are different and I feel at full liberty to judge their decisions. There are some terrible people in our world: Kim Jong Il, definitely not doing the best with what he has especially after his most recent execution; neither did Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. Even American leaders smell of stank corruption that can ruin the people: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Nixon, Ulysses S Grant, Kennedy. Even the greatness of America has such powerful potential for corruption because of the essence of its power.

The truth is, humans will look out for themselves before others and in our modern world we absolutely HAVE to expect this from everyone. Think about it this way; even if you are about self-sacrifice, you would give to your children first and foremost the greatest opportunity to succeed in the world. We look out for ourselves before others and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply the reality of humanity. This is why the US is struggling right now, our system of checks and balances has become completely unbalanced in the wake of our economic prosperity in the 80s and 90s and leaders continue to take advantage of the people they rule just as they have since the beginning of time.

Unfortunately, this can even apply to our immediate family. You see celebrities with major mental and stability problems, likely because they can’t even trust their support systems and families anymore (this is just my observation, feel free to comment on it). It’s really sad, but that’s how money can corrupt people. Greed, it seems, is simultaneously the great human strength and weakness.

But on the other side, there are people who will give without even caring about what they receive; they give kindness freely and love as often as they can, as long as their basic needs are met. Sometimes, they even defy those. Remember to think of it as an equation, because that’s what the world we live in requires.

Writing yesterday made me feel so much better, today the same. I really hope that these comments are misunderstood, I am trying to be very objective and am applying my experiences to the greater scope of the world we live in together. I walked around today with a big smile and decided that I would kill my fatigue with kindness and it has worked. I feel a hell of a lot better.

Please let me know what you think of this article in the comments, or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/padayoga

I always love to hear from readers.

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dark_cave

Exhausted in Vietnam

At this point, I am ready to leave Asia. This journey has been a long one; its been almost four months since I left sunny California to head to India.

India was rough; I got food poisoning 3 times, the third time for an entire week before I was able to get my hands on some probiotics and it was not a fun experience. I continued my Ashtanga practice the whole time and it was definitely an empowering experience, but one that I don’t ever want to experience again.

India became very peaceful for me. I was free to meditate for 3-4 hours a day and write stories and make music when I wasn’t meditating. Boredom was absolutely a big part of India and I was already excited to go back to work after a month. By the end of my time there I was so sick of the extra attention of being white and not having anyone to really connect with. When I’m on long trips like this, I always start to miss my family and friends… A lot.

My progress in the Ashtanga practice was unmistakable, but by the end it really wasn’t important to me anymore. Where was I going anyways? So now I can do full lotus, supta kurmasana, and I can pretty easily get one foot at a time behind my head; but so what? What does that mean for my life and my happiness? Absolutely nothing. I listened to Alan Watts a lot in India and my favorite quote of his was: “So when you have achieved enlightenment, so what? What now?” and that’s where I think I’ve ended up.

So by the end of India, I was exhausted. It’s not easy to live in a third world country; the boredom alone is enough to drive you a little insane. But then I headed to Nepal.

Nepal was a breath of fresh air and a nice rest for me. I stayed with people who didn’t hesitate to act when the quake happened; which I was very lucky to avoid. These guys enjoyed their lives so much and I met people from around the world that I had an absolute blast with. I stayed in the city the whole time because my budget over here was very strict; I came over with less than $3,000 for 4 months of serious travel and I’ve been to 6 countries, all of which are very poor.

After leaving Nepal, I was lucky enough to meet up with my girlfriend/best friend. She was a much-needed break from being alone. We planned to meet in Myanmar, but a technical difficulty with my flight on Biman Bangladesh airlines (NEVER fly with them if you can avoid it) left me stranded in Dhaka for an overnight stay in the airport.

I was lucky; a family that I met in the airport randomly and extremely kindly  offered to let me spend the night at their apartment. They gave me kindness that I won’t soon forget. Then, in my first real terrifyingly close encounter with extreme poverty conditions (which I was a part of for a solid day) where I begged for water and for help. A girl named Anna came to my rescue and helped me to find the family’s apartment that I had completely lost. Another stroke of luck and kindness that I won’t forget; neither will my stress response system.

After narrowly avoiding some terribly consequences in Dhaka, I was able to get a new flight to Yangon, Myanmar and was excited to see a tiny bit of westernization for the first time in months; sky scrapers, parks, and paved streets were never so beautiful to my eyes. And I got to see my girlfriend again, which was what I was really looking forward to. The culture of Myanmar was the easiest for me to cope with in Asia; people were kind and treated you like a human rather than a commodity. Bangladesh was the worst; people will absolutely take as much advantage of you as they possibly can and all of the westerners that lived there looked completely exhausted as a result.

We moved on to Thailand which was surprisingly touristic, but again nearly everyone was more concerned with your money than with anything else about you. It gets exhausting over time to have people trying to get from you and sell you on things. In Thailand, we visited Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, and flew from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Bangkok was not fun for me; it reminded me of a combination of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, but at least they were used to tourists.

Ho Chi Minh was far different from my expectations; most everyone in the city is trying to take your money by offering Rickshaws, taxis, even random scooterers will stop you on the side of the street and try to get you to ride their scooter. And people are always trying to please you, even if they are completely wrong. This is part of the reason I got so lost in Bangladesh; if someone doesn’t understand you, they’ll make something up that they think you want to hear. It’s frustrating to say the least.

So we took the night buses from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, which was another breath of fresh air; kind of. Out hostel was amazing, I highly recommend Mozjo Inn if you are ever in Vietnam, the hostel alone is worth a trip to that city. We went scuba diving there and it was amazing! No license required.

Hoi Anh was next, which is an extremely touristic town and didn’t have too much history, though the influences of China and Japan were incredible to see.

Today, I am in Hue, which is a great city, but relentless. I am tired of the extra attention, tired of people trying to sell me things, tired of people who are trying to take money with a huge smile on their face. Most act like they want to know where you are from then are quick to turn around and try to sell you things. It’s nearly impossible to actually meet anyone over here, especially due to the fact that they view you as a commodity. We’ve exchanged some nice jokes with our hostel owner and a couple of waiters, but most aren’t interested in us unless we have money. Its disheartening to see, but it goes to show that human are the same; we love to idealize about the peacefulness of the East, but the truth is that its even more chaotic than America.

This becomes obvious when you pay your first 5 dollars to enter a Buddhist temple. Money runs the world now and its painfully obvious here with the amount of poverty that exists.

Surprisingly, just writing this article has made me feel a lot better. It’s so tiring to be harassed ALL the time. Sometimes, its nice to just be able to share a smile and continue on our separate paths. It’s also weird to miss America, but I know that this will pass, just like all things and I will be doing my best to enjoy these last few days to the fullest. But man, I am tired. Ready to meet up with my mom and sisters in Germany and return to the west… and I am very excited to come back and keep teaching yoga, making music, and to see all of the friends that I miss a whole hell of a lot. Its been a long journey and I am seeing the end in sight and am happy about it; a sign that I am where I need to be.

Please don’t take this as a negative review of Vietnam; this has just been a long, arduous trip for me, partially due to the budget, partially due to the amount of ground that I’ve covered in the past month and a half. But keep in mind that the people here in Asia will get everything that they can from you, just like in the rest of the world. I know that once I am in a comfortable bed again, I’ll look back with fondness on these hardship and eventually, I’ll want to do it again 🙂

 

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