Category Archives: Travel fail

What Puking in Parvarti’s River Taught Me About Life

“I am Parvati!”

She ambushes me, taking my face in her hands, her head jiggling from side to side in a way I’ve heard about but never actually seen until now.

“Are you okay? You are sick?”

Yes. Talk about a solo female travel fail – I’ve gotten food poisoning in the middle of an 8-hour motorbike journey, on the very day I’m supposed to be meeting Deepak’s family.

The timing could not be worse, and what’s more – I can’t. Stop. Puking.

Parvarti is the neighbor girl who lives next door to Deepak’s family, and her beauty trumps any that has yet to appear in these posts.

She is more fabulouss than the would-be Polish model at The Lemon Tree, more womanly than Mrs. DeKash, more angelic than Deepak in stolen moments under the covers.

Her dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, free and wild where the other women’s hair is tightly bound and wrapped.

Her skin is pale, a stark palette that highlights the richness of her eyebrows, dark half moons sketched with God’s paintbrush.

Her nose is slightly upturned, which makes her look impish, like she’s planning a practical joke that you’re going to just love.

She takes my hand, touches my hair, inspects me all over with wonder and excitement.

I let her give me the once over as everyone else in the village stares, which is far more comfortable than the way my stomach feels after the putrid, stagnant water I just drank.

“Would you like to see my river?!” yells Parvarti, absolutely bubbling over.

How could I say no? I’ve never heard anyone refer to a river as their river, and for all I know she might mean that literally.

Besides, even if I had a knife sticking out of my stomach and had to choose between going to the ER and going to see Parvarti’s river, I’d pick the river.  She’s that charming.

The others make way for us, as enamored with her beauty as they are with my strangeness.

She is the darling of the farm, and I imagine suitors from the surrounding provinces descending in droves to beg her grandmother for her hand.

Parvarti takes my hand in hers, and for a moment I imagine myself her chosen suitor as we walk together across the dirt road towards the surrounding fields.

She leads me along a network of dirt pathways, helping me keep my balance without toppling onto the budding crops.

Each pathway is about two feet wide and a foot high, and runs the length of the land so that farmers can walk between crops without stepping on them.

“This my garden” says Parvarti, gesturing to the plot of land to our right. “I grow onion, tomato, cauli-flowers.”

“And this garden?” I ask, gesturing to the empty, overgrown, weed-infested plot to the left. “Is this yours too?”

“That Deepak garden” laughs Parvarti. “Is not very good.”

If I wasn’t so distracted by my nausea, I might be more inclined to investigate the obvious metaphor I’m now looking at – the lush, abundant field tended by Parvarti’s hand, and the hot, unattended mess that has been borne of Deepak’s neglect.

We make our way through the fields to a cluster of trees that lie along the banks of a bubbling brook.

“My river!” exclaims Parvarti proudly, looking at me to see if I’m impressed.

I withdraw my hand from hers, look wildly around for the best place to go, see nowhere, walk a few feet towards the water, and vomit right into Parvarti’s precious river.

“I’m sorry!” I gasp between wretches. She says nothing but waits, watches me, stands patiently by a tree.

Again. And again. Into the tall grass. Into her river. There is nothing to clean myself with, I am filth incarnate, I have never been so ashamed.

I dare to look at Parvati, who is doing the head bob at me, looking mildly concerned.

“I’m so sorry” I say again, not knowing what else to say. What are you supposed to say when you puke in someone’s river?

As we walk back to the house, me having completely defiled the most precious thing in her life, Parvarti takes my hand again and begins humming a soft little Hindi song.

She doesn’t care that I’m filthy. She doesn’t care that I’ve just vommed in her river, the only possession she has, the thing that is most precious to her in the entire world.

In fact, the entire episode, which seems incredibly dramatic and awful and unsettling to me, doesn’t seem to have ruffled her feathers at all.

She passes me off to the other women with an easy smile, certain that I’m going to feel better soon.

She leaves just as easily as she arrived, not knowing that she has dwarfed my childish, petulant ego with the might of her magnificent heart.

To be like Parvarti – filled with joy in the face of the everyday, unconcerned in the face of disaster – has become my only goal in life.

By Rebekah Voss. This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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Operation Bikini Wax

The mission:

You have less than 24 hours to a find salon or an individual to give you a bikini wax (preferably with hard wax, because we all know what a disaster crappy Sally Hansen wax can be).

“It’s too easy!” you say. “There’s a place right down the street!” you say.

I wasn’t finished yet.

Not only do you desperately (desperately) need a bikini wax: you also happen to be on a remote island off the coast of Vietnam.

How remote, you ask? Well, there’s WiFi. There’s cell reception. But there are no computer repair shops, there’s nowhere to buy a cell phone charger should yours break, and there are no English-speaking women (none that you’re personally acquainted with, anyway.)

On your mark. Get set. Go!

12:32pm: Enemy Challenge

Truong: “Would you like to go to the beach with me tomorrow?”

That depends, cute Vietnamese guy I’m dating, is this the kind of beach where wild, hairy Alpacas are welcome to roam at will? Because after 4 months without seeing the inside of a salon, that’s exactly what I resemble.

12:34pm: Mission Identified

Me: “Sure. Um. Is Anh around, btw?”

Anh is my best bet – after all, she’s the one who gave me my awesome Vietnamese makeover, she’s the one who yells at me when I braid my wet hair, she’s the one who gives me free pedicures in the middle of her restaurant when there aren’t any customers around, and she’s the one who used to own a salon.

Problem: Anh speaks as much English as I do Vietnamese.

In the nearby capital city of  Hanoi, all of the young students I’ve met speak English beautifully.  If I had to generalize I’d say that the girls tend to have a better command of the language than the boys.

But here in small town Cat Ba, it is the men who tend to speak English, their wives nodding and smiling in the background.

I can’t tell if it’s because the women just don’t care to learn, or they want to learn but their husbands don’t let them, or they’re way too busy running the family business and raising the children while the men sit around smoking cigarettes and watching cricket (I sort of think it’s the last one).

This saddens me both from an empowerment standpoint and from a bikini wax standpoint.

Back home, I wouldn’t think twice about talking to a male friend about this kind of thing, but in Vietnam, it’s different, especially in Cat Ba.

Here you can’t even hug someone of the opposite sex in public. And you most certainly can’t discuss an intimate, personal matter like waxing with a man who’s not your husband.

Heck, the best I can get from my sweetie is a kiss on the cheek – and that’s only if it’s dark out and no one’s looking. So I can’t imagine bringing up the subject of waxing with one of my English-speaking male friends  – I might seriously cause some instances of cardiac arrest.

1:17pm: Location Surveillance

I go to the restaurant. Anh is there, smiling her placid smile, but everyone else is there too. Her husband, his brother, and half a dozen (male) staff under the age of 25.

I hem and haw and order a coffee, and then I remember the powerful tool I have in my pocket – my Google translate app!

1:31pm: Brush Contact

“Where can I get a bikini wax?”

I type the question into Google translate, hoping for the best. The translation includes the English word “bikini” but everything else is magically transformed to Vietnamese. Looks good!

“Anh! Pssssst, Anh!”

I wave her over and covertly show her my phone’s screen. She reads the question, doesn’t bat an eyelash, and nods her head without looking at me.

Stealthy! Anh clearly knows how to be discreet, and she also must know exactly where to go to get the weed whacking done.

1:34pm: Covert Operation

She disappears into the back of the restaurant and magically reappears with two motorbike helmets.

Score!

Anh says something to her husband in Vietnamese, and he looks at me and giggles.

Oh, no! Anh! I thought we had an understanding!

“You go with Anh, you go shopping now” he says.

Ohhhh, I see what she did there. Good thinking, Anh.

“Yes!” I say. “We go shopping!”

I wink at Anh and she winks back and smiles at me. This was so much easier than I thought it would be, especially since I haven’t seen waxing offered as an option on any of the salon signs in town.

Anh probably has a friend who’ll do it in her back room. Or maybe Anh herself can do it – I sort of don’t want her poking around down there, what with us being as close as two people could be without speaking the same language, but oh well. I’m on a mission, after all. Some sacrificial awkwardness is to be expected.

1:47pm: In the Field

We’re off!

Anh’s motorbike races down the main drag, past restaurants and hotels, and makes a sharp right towards the local market.

For some reason we stop here and park. Fruit sellers and baskets of vegetables and electronic stands and shoe stalls are packed on top of one another, creating a loud, smelly, vibrant city within a city.

There are plastic shoes for sale, and fish sauce, dried pork, sweating fruit, leafy greens, duck eggs and knock off designer clothing. So it stands to reason there could also be a woman somewhere in the bowels of the market just waiting to pour hot wax on my hoo ha.

1:49pm: Gloria the Mole

I follow Anh through the market, my flip flopped feet stepping carefully around mysterious puddles of stank liquid.

She stops at a vegetable seller squatting in front of huge baskets of garlic. They exchange a few words, and I imagine she’s asking “Hey Gloria, does Debbie still do waxing, and is she still in the same location?”

1:51pm: Secret Lair

Anh thanks Gloria for what must have been an affirmative answer and we continue on, swimming from the primarily food section of the market to an outdoor mall of covered tents packed with clothing.

We step into an enormous closet. I feel like Alice after she’s gone through the lookinglass – rack upon rack stacked 20 feet high, pants and blouses and dresses leering at me from every angle.

Anh smiles brightly and rifles through the nearest rack until she finds what she’s looking for – a top in XL. She holds it up to me and says “Big! Big for you!”

One of the favorite topics of my friends here in Cat Ba is how large I am, especially compared with the tiny man I am dating.

Dear reader, I am 5’6” on a good day, and about 135lbs. And to them, I am the epitome of obesity. They are very concerned about my health, and everyday demand that I wake up at 5am to exercise with them (this has yet to happen).

2:07pm: The Drop Point

I pay the cashier 1 million dong – about $50 – and emerge from the closet with a new dress, and several Anh-approved (XL) outfits. Anh is very happy because the tunic top she’s chosen for me hides my stomach.

Fine. Good. We had been meaning to go shopping for a while, so I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now we’re going for my wax, right?

2:15pm: Anh’s tries a Starbust Maneuver

Anh straddles the motorbike and hangs her many plastic bags onto the bike’s convenient hooks. We’ve been to the pharmacist, to buy shoes for her husband, and to buy tank tops for my sweetie to wear while cooking in the steamy kitchen.

Is it possible that Anh…..didn’t understand what I meant when I wrote “bikini wax”?

“I need bikini wax” I say again, gesturing vaguely to my nether regions.

Anh smiles and nods, gesturing for me to get on the scooter already.

Ok, phew. I’m probably being really annoying. Clearly we just needed to run a few errands, and now we’ll go get waxed.

2:32pm: Back at Camp Swampy

Back at the restaurant. Anh just wanted to drop off everything we’d bought. We give the guys their gifts, Anh puts the vegetables in the fridge, I stand up to leave again and she….sits down. And pours herself some tea.

2:34pm: Abort?

My sweetie emerges from the kitchen just long enough to smile at me and say “beach tomorrow!”

I muster up as much enthusiasm as possible and smile at him, nodding.

As soon as he leaves, all decorum goes out the window. This is now officially an emergency.

2:33pm: Canary Trap

“Mr. Twin? I need….I need wax.”

Mr. Twin, Anh’s English-speaking husband, stares at me blankly. Anh just smiles and nods.

Oh, crap.

In this moment I realize that Anh smiling and nodding does not, in fact, mean “Yes, I understand” but instead means “I don’t have a clue what you’re saying but I like you and want to be polite.”

How the hell did Google translate “I need a bikini wax” into “Let’s go shopping for XL clothing right now”?!

“Mr. Twin, please. I need….”

I gesture ripping hair off my arm.

He’s not getting it.

“Much hair, Mr. Twin. I need off. No hair for me, please. Where can I go?”

His eyes suddenly light up in recognition, and for a second I think I’m in.

“You want hair gone?”

“Yes! Please! Where can I go to get hair gone?”

“I can do” says Mr. Twin, which is his answer for everything from cooking to teaching English to his daughter to hunting wild birds to online marketing. (and in most of those cases, he really actually can do.)

I blush, hoping Truong can’t hear our conversation.

“No, no, you don’t understand.”

“I can do!” Mr. Twin insists. “Many women come to me and I do. I do like this.”

He mimes the action of threading eyebrows.

“Not there” I say, gesturing again to other areas of my body without going for the gold. Meanwhile, Anh is happily sipping her tea, engrossed in her phone.

“I do anywhere!” says Mr. Twin. “The chin, the lip, hair gone anywhere.”

Last chance: give up or go for the jugular?

I think of Truong, hairless Truong with woven silk skin the color of caramel, lounging in the sand and surf like a Vietnamese Adonis.

And me on the beach  next to him in long pants.

“Mr. Twin, I need no hair..for swimsuit.”

And then it happens. I, a grown woman, standing in the middle of a restaurant, speaking to my friend’s husband right in front of her, point to my vagina.

Mr. Twin dies laughing.

“Noooooooo!!!!” he roars. “I cannot do there!”

And then “Truong! Come here!”

No no no no no don’t call Truong, pleeeeeease.

“I cannot do for you there, but maybe Mr. Truong must do for you!!!”

“But Mr. Twin, please, can someone do? Someone on Cat Ba can do for me?”

He says something to Anh in Vietnamese, who suddenly looks very surprised, and shakes her head ‘no.’

“No one” says Mr. Twin.

“Cannot do” says Mr. Twin.

I give up, defeated.

Maybe I can suggest a hike instead of the beach? Or a boat ride? Or anything where the entire lower half of my sasquatchian body can remain covered?

2:41pm: Mission Impossible

OPERATION BIKINI WAX: 100% FAIL

Here’s what I’m dying to know – what the hell did Anh read when she looked at my phone? What had I accidentally written in Vietnamese?!

And worse, what on earth did she think when I asked again in the market and gestured to the area below my waist?!!!

And finally, the fact that there is no waxing available on Cat Ba does not mean that Vietnamese women just let themselves go – I’ve never met a group of ladies so pleasantly obsessed with beauty, so pulled together, so fashionable, so diligent about straightening their hair and making sure each painted nail is perfectly glossed at all times – even if – no, especially if – they spend their days peeling garlic and washes dishes and shelling crab underneath the hot sun.

Which leads me to believe that they don’t NEED bikini waxing, because just like my hairless honey, they are blessed with this smooth, silken, velvety skin – sort of like human versions of hypoallergenic cats.

I wish I was a hypoallergenic cat. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a hypoallergenic va jay jay.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. You may not get a bikini wax on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam - best take care of your business in Hanoi before you come.

2. Google Translate is not only FLAT OUT WRONG, the translations it comes up with are specific and absurd!

3. There is no way to communicate "bikini wax" without pointing to your hoo ha. If you find a way to do so please let me know.

4. If you are an esthetician of some sort, you could make a killing on Cat Ba because you will have zero competition and hordes of hairy tourists in need of your services.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Driveby Banana-ing in Bucharest

This kid will not take no for an answer. I’ve been trying to shake him for blocks now, but in his thuggish persistence he’s latched onto me like a burr and won’t let go – not until I cough up “uno leu.”

He’s small, clean, well-dressed, with designer sneakers and a tricked-out baseball cap. His dark eyes contain more than a hint of malice which he tries to cover up with upturned eyebrows and a begging pout.

“Per favore” he begs, pressing his palms together in supplication. “Uno leu, uno leu!”

He’s mysteriously Italian, which makes me wonder if there’s a pocket of expats somewhere in the city cooking up something slightly more edible than the unlucky slop I’ve encountered thus far in the old town of Bucharest.

“No money” I say again, smiling at him. I should really stop smiling, because he seems to take that as a sign of encouragement.

It is 7am on a Saturday morning and all the shop doors are closed. The streets become increasingly empty as we walk north toward Herăstrău Park.

Unfortunately this tasted as questionable as it looked.

Unfortunately this tasted as questionable as it looked.

Something about this kid scares me, and my awareness of the deserted streets stokes a growing flame of fear. He can’t be more than ten years old, but he’s tough, hardened by some sort of evil upbringing.

“Where is your mother?” I ask in English.

“Mia madre è morta” he replies in Italian, then immediately regrets it.

He’s just slipped and revealed that he understands every word I say.

“Ah ha!” I say, pointing at him, grinning.

I’m slightly terrified that a) he’s packing, and b) he has a group of 10 hoodlums waiting around the corner to mug me and beat me with their tiny fists, but I like him just the same.

We seem to have an understanding – I understand that he has to beg me and follow me, he understands that I have to say no.

That is, until I bust out the banana.

This has gone on way too long, we’re too far from the safety of my hotel, and there’s not a soul around to hear me if I scream. Self-protective mode kicks in to overdrive.

I face him and step back several feet so that I can reach into my bag without the risk of him trying to do the same.

There will be no one to hear you scream....

There will be no one to hear you scream….

I fish around with my hand, keeping my eyes on him the entire time.

“I’m not going to give you any money” I repeat for the umpteenth time, “but if you’re hungry, you can have my breakfast.”

I pull out the banana I’d grabbed from the hotel.

He looks at it, looks at me, and his eyes roll back in his head like some sort of Italian-Romanian demon only found in ancient folklore.

Wanting desperately to appease the devil, I thrust the banana toward his hand, which has gathered into a trembling fist.

“Here, take it.”

He does. And then proceeds to raise it above his head, rear back, and throw the banana at me with all the force and magnitude of a 7th inning pitcher.

The banana splatters at my feet, fibrous strands and mush flying everywhere, and I’m backing away, sputtering, as if I’ve just been shot.

He backs away too like a lightning-fast crab, scuttling back towards the hotel.

And then, to add insult to injury, my little friend, the one I understand, the one with whom I have a connection, the one whose soul concerns me greatly, issues the following curse in absolutely perfect, accent-free English:

“FUCK YOU!”

He holds out his middle finger for good measure, and continues to scream, with a bellowing force, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”

Over and over again he screams, until my heart is ready to crack my ribcage wide open. I command my legs to move, move!, to create as much distance between us as fast as I possibly can.

Not where you want to be when a terrifying child is threatening you with a banana

Empty streets – not where you want to be when a terrifying child is threatening you with a banana

I glance back over my shoulder, terrified he’s right behind me with a weapon, with his brother, with his pimp.

But he’s dwarfed by the distance, growing ever-smaller as I break into a full-out run.

There is no one to hear the pounding of my steps on the pavement, no one to see the tears streaming down my face.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Just because someone's a sweet-looking kid doesn't mean they won't throw at a banana at you.

2. If someone is following you, walk TOWARD the crowds of other people, not away from them.

3. Be extra careful when opening your bag or purse in the presence of a stranger - especially a stranger who has asked you for money.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Currywurst and Sportscars: Endless Summer in Dresden, Germany

Would you jump into a car with a stranger in Dresden Germany without knowing anything about him? I bet you might do just that after reading this story.

Back in the summer of 2011 I decided to go travelling in Europe for five weeks. To be honest, I was completely broke at the time thanks to my previous travels, but the travelbug wouldn’t let me be.

“So low budget it is”, I thought to myself. I packed my bags and headed to Germany.

My Slovenian friend decided to join me for two weeks, and with our limited budgets we wanted to try Couchsurfing for the first time ever.

This was a choice dictated not only by shortage of capital but also by the desire to meet new people and find a whole new way of travelling.

To continue with the new policy of hanging out with strangers, we decided to use carpooling instead of trains and buses. There is a great website in Germany (Mitfahrgelegenheit.de) where you can find rides from people who are looking to share the fuel expenses. People are very well organised in Germany when it comes to most things, ridesharing included.

dresden-germany (1)

 

So basically we decided to jump into cars with strangers and spend our nights with people we didn’t know in their houses.

Needless to say this plan was exactly what all girls are always warned not to do!

After staying in Berlin and Leipzig, we decided to go to Dresden Germany. The only problem was we hadn’t been able to find accommodation in Dresden – we were also about to get on the road and wouldn’t be able to use the internet on the way there.

We did not want to relapse into hostel accommodation, so we posted an emergency message on Couchsurfing saying that we were looking for a place to stay for two nights in Dresden and that we were already on our way. We took care to include our phone number on the post.

We arrived in Dresden with no place to stay, and decided to enjoy some Currywurst at the Dresden train station. All of a sudden my phone beeped, practically making me choke on my not-so-great wurst!

We got a message from an unknown party saying they’d pick us up from the station.

We didn’t have internet access to check out who was texting us, so it was going to be totally blind Couchsurfing.

Were we scared to see who would show up? Absolutely we were! We had no pictures, no references, and still we were about to spend two nights at this person’s house.

Picture this: two twenty-something girls standing by the train station in Germany staring at every car anxiously.

Then suddenly, an expensive-looking, shiny black Batmobile-style sportscar pulls over right next to us. We look at each other and then we look at the car. The door opens and out comes a gorgeous twenty-something German guy with a big smile on his face.

“Hi girls, did you send a message on Couchsurfing?”

“Well yes, we certainly did – if you’re here to pick us up with that face and that car!”

Okay, so I didn’t say that out loud, but I did say it in my head. I shared another look with my friend, the kind of look two single girls share when they see a handsome guy.

If he’s handsome he can’t be a murderer, right? To the Batmobile!

dresden-germany (2)

We got into the car and started chatting with our new host. Within two minutes all three of us were laughing as if we’d known each other for years.

Soon we arrived at his place and my jaw dropped. There was a big black iron gate in front of us with a huge house and a beautiful yard behind it. Yes, a gate! Who has a gate? Who is this guy? Bruce Wayne?

The gate opened slowly and I started to get suspicious. How could this young guy have a car like that and a place like that?

As it turned out, he couldn’t. The house and the car belonged to his parents. We found out we were about to stay with his family. This information shouldn’t have been a total surprise considering the car and the gate, but still I was a bit nervous to hang out with a strange German family.

We got into the house and our host led us upstairs to a private room filled with fresh linens, towels, the whole nine yards. I couldn’t help wondering how his parents felt about hosting random foreign girls at their pretty house.

We got a tour of the house and on the tour we ran into his parents. We found out they were both doctors and the other building on the yard was their private clinic. For a moment I felt out of place. I’m not very comfortable in very fancy places. If I have to choose between an expensive, top-notch club or a scrubby corner pub, you’ll definitely find me at the pub.

But as we talked with his parents we noticed what wonderful, welcoming people they were. They didn’t speak much English but luckily we knew some German and they knew some English, so it all worked out. At least I like to think they could understand my constant grinning, thumbs up signs, and frequent bursts of  “Kuchenschemckt gut!” (supposedly: cake tastes good). Maybe praising their desserts with my mouth full of cake wasn’t the classiest move.

dresden-germany (3)

In the morning we were invited to join the family for breakfast. Two low budget travellers in dirty shirts, sitting at a really fancy breakfast table with a German family. It was a bit absurd.

The table was set beautifully with white porcelain dishes. On the table was everything you could imagine – from fresh fruit to piping hot bread just out of the oven. The family was so warm and welcoming that I didn’t feel out of place despite the fancy settings.

The weather during our stay in Dresden was just dreadful.

It was windy, rainy, cold and foggy and there were sharks flying in the air. Okay not sharks, but it was bad!

But thanks to  our host, the lack of sunshine wasn’t too bad to deal with. He took as around the town in the Batmobile and the three of us just laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt! There’s no need to do situps when you’re laughing nonstop for days on end!

We visited the Königstein Fortress (one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe), and the Zwinger Palace among other Dresden sights.

Those two days in rainy Dresden ended up being so special that I’ll never forget them: the laughter, the hospitality, my poor attempt to speak German with the parents, seeing amazing sights, and the piece de resistance – peeing in the middle of a park (well, in the bushes) because we couldn’t find a toilet, and asking Bruce Wayne to yell out if he saw anyone coming… I bet he won’t forget us either!

dresden-germany (4)This post was written by Sanna Tolmunen, a Finnish communications professional and travel blogger currently doing an internship in Hancock, Michigan. Travelling, films and good stories in all forms are Sanna’s great passions in life. In a way it could be said that good stories are her one passion, as to her, life is a story. This is exactly why she hopes to share great stories around the world through her writing and her blog, Adventures Of A Finn.

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Superman Sprains His Wrist

A few weeks ago, after a particularly interesting night in Pai Thailand, I received the following email.

Dear Michael,

This is ____ the girl you helped a lot last night in Pai. my friend ____ now is transferring to Chiangmai lam hospital to have an operation. he got two parts of bone break of his left leg. i haven’t deal with the motorcycle problem yet by now. how is your wrist now ? i’m really sorry that you got hurt your wrist. sorry…

You appeared like a super man to me last night! you followed my friend to the hospital after the accident, you found me, you helped me to push my motorcycle for 3 km, you took me to the hospital and also took me back to the hotel.you did so much! like i said you are the best american i ever known. you are so helpful and nice! thanks for everything you did for me.

thank you Michael !

_____ from China

Now, I don’t think I’m a hero for the events described above. I mean, I’m far from being Martin Luther King Jr. (or even, say, Kirk Cameron).

All I am is a guy who was riding his scooter in the rain, after midnight, on a dark stretch of road leading out of a small town in northern Thailand, against all common sense and to the horror of my mother is she ever found out (which she now will, I suppose).

I saw an opportunity to help an injured stranger, which then turned into an opportunity to help a different stranger in need, and I took it. I don’t believe in karma, I was not looking for a reward.

So why then, you might ask, did I spend four hours after the stroke of the witching hour helping people I didn’t know? I’d like to think of it as common decency; just showing concern for my fellow man.

And frankly, it was exciting.

The setting? Pai, Thailand: a small town north of Chiang Mai filled with friendly locals, laid back expats , and tourists; a town embraced by natural beauty in every direction.

With its rice fields, rolling green hills, tranquil muddy rivers, and big open sky sporting puffy white clouds, Pai is a little bit like what Eden might have been, had it existed.

The people are generally very friendly, quick to smile, quick to help. In fact, by the time I came across the injured stranger (let’s call him German Bob for funsies), he was already being carried into the back of a white pick up truck owned by two Thai men and a local woman who had pulled over to help him.

I gave his crashed motorbike a cursory once over, asked the German if he wanted me to go to the hospital with him (silly question apparently), and followed the truck there on my scooter.

At the hospital, once it became obvious that German Bob was in no great mortal danger, we got to talking a little bit (him through gritted teeth, rolling eyeballs, and in between moans, that is).

pai-thailand-just-a-pack-2

Turns out the crashed bike was not his – he’d borrowed it from a girl he met and was speeding into town to buy a lighter, hoping to return to her hotel as quickly as possible.

He crashed his motorbike on the way to buy a fucking lighter! Smoking really IS bad for your health, ya’ll.

The girls’ hotel was located some ways out of town, and Bob didn’t recall its name. It had two lemons on its sign, however, that much he knew for certain. Bob produced a key to room 202 and told me that the girl was eagerly awaiting his return.

A bit of detective work at 1am sounded like fun, so I grabbed the key and promised I’d find the mystery girl and bring her to German Bob’s bedside.

I drove back to the scene of the accident to make sure Bob’s crunched motorbike was still there.

Crunched motorbike, check.

I then proceeded further down the road into the mysterious night, the single beam of my scooter’s headlamp keeping the darkness at bay as I searched in for two lemons in vain.

Bob’s memory was relatively sound, however, and I eventually came across a fruit-filled hotel sign some 5 clicks out of town. They weren’t lemons at all (passion fruit actually), but we’ll give poor Bob the benefit of the doubt.

Pulling into the parking lot on my hardy little scooter, I mentally prepared myself to knock on a stranger’s door to deliver some bad news.

I took a few deeps breaths outside of room 202, my heart beating a little too quickly, and knocked on the door.

A few moments later it flew open and a  short Asian girl (let’s call her Sue) stood before me in an equally short night gown.

I was obviously not who Sue was expecting as evidenced by the look on her face, which transitioned from puzzlement to alarm and back again within three heartbeats. We stood there looking at one another for a few seconds before I remembered I had to speak.

“I’m sorry to alarm you but your friend was in an accident. He is in the hospital now. Your bike is on the side of the road a few kilometers from here “, I blurted, all while trying to make what I hoped to be cross-cultural calming motions with my hands.

It took her some time to accept the news, but I guess my stammering sincerity made the harsh truth easier to stomach.  We stopped by the hotel owner’s bungalow so she could (much to her confusion) take my photograph (y’know, just in case German Bob didn’t exist and I was actually a deranged lunatic who’d come to kidnap Sue and drag her back to my den of unspeakable horrors).

Photos snapped, our next task was to check up on German Bob’s – er, Sue’s – crashed motorbike.

The bike appeared to be in better shape than Bob was, just some minor scratches on the body. But the keys were missing from the ignition, and there was a shirtless (and mostly toothless) old Thai man standing nearby in the dark, looking at the bike (and us) with some obvious consternation.

We decided that leaving Sue’s bike there was probably not a great idea, so I pushed the fucking thing three kilometers back to her hotel.

pai-thailand-just-a-pack

That sweaty task completed, we set off on my scooter to the hospital. German Bob was medicated and sleeping when we got there, but woke up long enough to chat Sue up through his drugged-out haze.

They’d placed Bob in a room with 5 elderly female patients who were not super happy about our late night visit, so we kept it short. Sue told Bob she’d visit him in the morning, asked him if he had the key to the scooter (he did not), and off we went.

While dropping Sue off at her hotel at 3:30 in the morning, I nearly caused the second motorbike accident of the evening when I dropped the damned scooter and wrenched my wrist trying to keep it from falling. Apparently scooters do no like standing sideways on steep hills, kick stand or no kickstand.

Sue offered to nurse my new injury but I begged off, not wanting my travel partner to freak out due to my long, unexplained absence in the middle of the night.

Saying goodbye to ol’ Sue,  I braced myself against fresh rain as I drove back to my hotel. Stumbling into my room half a hour later I fell into bed, exhausted but content.

I never saw or heard from German Bob again after that night. Sue, on the other hand, sent me about 18 emails in gratitude, bought my travel partner and I dinner and drinks one night, and was pretty much consumed with expressing her thanks for a few days. We still keep in touch, and she still calls me “her superman” in her emails.

I never told Sue, but I think Superman is a dick. I much prefer Batman, but if she keeps it up I just might start wearing really tight spandex pants as my ego swells to unchecked heights.

Michael-Miszczk-pai-thailand

Michael Miszczak is a nomadic Brooklynite and the co-creator of www.justapack.com. He started backpacking five years ago and has thought of doing little else since. He’s spent months in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. One day he hopes to explore Saturn…but only if he can bring his backpack.

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Murder, Mayhem, and an Asshole from New York (Part 2)

When these things happen, these sudden blips on the heart monitor of life, these moments you write home about and get interviewed about by local reporters (and if the event is really shocking, national reporters), everyone always says the same thing: “It all happened so fast.”

And so it was for the American woman, the Canadian cyclist, the Ecuadorian couple, the British guy from India, the brunette writer, and the New York Asshole that night in the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right.

The smattering of locals that had slipped inside the restaurant earlier in the evening had slumped into the back left corner, and were having a ball of a time getting drunk on raksi, the equivalent of Nepalese bathtub gin.

At one point during the evening, one of the Nepali men has joined their table, slurring his words and asking them all where they were from. Upon seeing Chris’ disapproving look and making sure none of the women at the table were likely to sleep with him that night, he gave up and returned to his den of debauchery in the corner.

Later, just as the brunette was set to murder the New York Asshole, there was a flash of white light to her left.

A man had entered the restaurant from the back door. He swept in swiftly and was immediately restrained by the young hostess and two male waiters who noticed him first.

The brunette looked to her left and saw, not two feet from her face, the cold steel of a fat butcher’s knife catching a glint of the tasseled lamplight.

The man broke free from the staff, raised his arm above his head, and with a wild war cry rushed toward the back table, toward the drunken locals and their empty bottle of raksi.

It could never be said that a roar went up from the crowd so much as a gasp, an immediate silence, a rush of out, out, out, out!

Chris had never had his animal instincts completely take over before. In that moment he had no thought for the brunette or the cyclist or the American or even the Ecuadorians. His only thought was to get as far away from that butcher knife as he possibly could as fast as he possibly could.

In the ensuing chaos,  with the crowd of diners bottlenecking the front door, the women grabbing their purses and shrieking, there was pivotal moment when Chris decided that no, he wasn’t overreacting and yes, this was indeed an emergency.

In that moment Chris made to turn from the scene of the crime toward to the door. And it was in that split second turn that he saw her hips, those same hips backing away from danger, leading the brunette away from death.

And as they sprinted full speed into the night, away from the restaurant and the butcher-wielding murderer, he couldn’t help thinking “this is the dance she does when she is afraid. She is afraid of me.”

It was also not lost on Chris that in a moment of mortal danger everyone, himself included, panicked as politely as possible, not wanting to make too big a scene in case this whole butcher knife-thing was just some sort of terrible practical joke.

——————–

When the smoke cleared there were four of them left, and what a quadruplet they were: Orion, constant and belted against the black winter sky, the New York Asshole, terrified and giddy, her tough exterior melted away in the face of real fear, Chris and the brunette, panting and out of breath as they’d been on their hike up to the stupa.

The rest of the crowd had dispersed, they’d lost their friends, everyone had run all the way home in terror and the excitement of something real and tangible actually happening, and happening to them.

They stood in the street, which was silent and dark, having stopped some 100 yards away from the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right.

Chris and the two women stared in each other’s faces for a few moments, looking for signs of just how frightened they should or shouldn’t be, looking to see if what just happened had, in fact, just happened.

“Should we go back?”

“We didn’t pay for our meals.”

“That poor restaurant owner, he just lost his entire night’s earnings.”

The New York Asshole had already paid her bill, as everyone in the restaurant was well aware, so she bid them farewell and they departed warmly, bonded in the way only tragedy can bond, connected on a level that’s only realized when the ego is silenced and for one sweet moment all that’s left is sheer, unadulterated humanity – that nameless innocence and sweetness common to all who walk the earth, even the jerk from New York.

Chris and the brunette decided to return and pay their bill. Perhaps they wanted another rush of excitement, another shot of danger. They weren’t alone.

A small crowd remained outside the restaurant. The police had come, they’d be questioned, they’d pay their bill, and they’d assure the devastated restaurant owner that no, this incident was not going to ruin his business forever. After all, people could always go eat at the other Turkish restaurant, the one on the left.

The butcher had been sent home with a warning, escorted by the police. Apparently one of the drunken locals had said something rude to him, something disrespectful, something that warranted a stabbing. But in the end no one was hurt except the restaurateur.

The man who was the intended victim, the one who’d almost been butchered to death, was wild-eyed and talking a mile a minute. He grabbed the brunette, shook her by the shoulders and said “You saw. You were closest. What did I do? I just needed to use the bathroom, he was in there, I told him to hurry up. It’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong. Did I do something wrong? It’s not my fault.”

Chris gently lifted his fingers from the brunette’s shoulders, speaking in soothing tones, agreeing with him.

“Of course it’s not your fault.”

They extracted themselves from the shaken victim and walked home together, both quiet, both ruminating on the fact that they themselves could have been butchered tonight.

And yet not even that, not even being faced with their own deaths, was enough to convince either of them to speak up about their feelings for the other.

And so Orion’s belt was gazed upon, the hips tilted backward to prevent the kiss that didn’t happen, and they made plans to see each other again the following day.

For Part 1 of this post, click here.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

The (Very) Long Road to Chitwan – Part 1

The ride is cold and wet, then cold and damp, then cold and dusty.

No amount of stopping for tea and momo can fortify my body against the onslaught of a Nepalese highway – two maniacal, unpaved lanes choked with motorbikes and trucks and baby goats and bushel-burdened women climbing through the misty morning.

The road curves along the Seti River, which grows in size and power as we descend from the high mountains.

Rolling hills give way to rolling fields and valleys, and as a few warm rays of sunshine bring relief, I feel like Apollo descending Mt Olympus in his chariot.

We stop at Deepak‘s sister’s home, a small convenience store where they sell oranges and cigarettes.

5 men sit perched on tiny, hand-woven stools, Nepal’s answer to the infamous plastic chairs of Hanoi, or the bean bag chairs of late 90’s North America.

They can’t help but stare as we dismount with some difficulty, my legs not wanting to work after so many hours in the saddle.

The river hugs the road leading to Chitwan

The river hugs the road leading to Chitwan

And although he probably hasn’t seen her in a year, and most likely didn’t tell her he was coming, let alone coming with this white woman in tow, there is this wonderful easiness in the way we are received – it’s this very Nepalese way of welcoming guests that says “Of course you’re here, of course you’re welcome, let’s not make a big thing of it.”

Because to make a big thing of it would be to point out how long it’s been since you’ve been gone, and that could get awkward. The Nepalese don’t like awkward.

I nod and smile as best I can, and Deepak offers a few words of greeting in that same casual, nonchalant, “of course I’m here” tone.

chitwan

“We take lunch?” he asks, smiling at me warmly.

Suddenly he stops and looks at me closely, a bit alarmed.

“You wash the face.”

“What?” I think maybe he’s using the wrong word for something.

“We wash the hands and face” he repeats, and I think maybe I’m learning about some new ritual that must be followed before each meal.

“I’d really rather not wash my face, Deepak, I have makeup on.”

One of the loveliest benefits of being around people who don’t understand English is that you get to say somewhat intimate, embarrassing things to your partner without anyone else realizing you’re doing it.

I’ve often wondered if people around me speaking Vietnamese or Lao or Khmer are actually saying things like “I think I have a hemorrhoid, will you take a look?”, or “Just wait til I get you home tonight, you sexy thang.”

chitwan

Deepak looks confused, grabs a bottle of water, and begins pouring it onto the grass. He holds one hand underneath the stream until I offer to hold the bottle for him. He rubs his hands together as I pour, my sense of alarm growing by the minute.

My fears are confirmed when he withdraws his hands from the stream, shakes them off, and says “Your turn!”

My mind is racing as I rinse my hands underneath the water, trying to keep a polite smile on my face for everyone’s benefit.

Is this supposed to count as washing our hands?!

Where is the sink? Where is the soap? Is this how Deepak always washes his hands?

In Pokhara there was always soap in the bathrooms. And toilet paper. And Western-style toilets.

It had never occurred to me that things would be any different outside of the city.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that was just a rinse.

“Now your face?” asks Deepak, as he pours bottled water on his own.

How is water alone going to wash my face?

“Very dirty” says Deepak.

“I am? Very dirty?” I ask, alarmed.

I scramble for a mirror and can’t believe my eyes – no wonder the sister and her husband and his posse had stared at me like that!

It had nothing to do with my white face, which was invisible beneath a thick mask of black, caked soot. I looked like Zorro, if Zorro had decided to go all out.

No wonder everyone in Nepal wears masks! I thought it was merely the pollution in Kathmandu that required protection. The air Pokhara is clear, but the air on the roads is not.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of emissions regulations for vehicles here, and I counted at least 5 times when I had to hold my breath as we plummeted through a cloud of thick, black smoke expunged from a careless, farting truck.

Embarrassed, I ask for the bathroom. Deepak may be fine half-assing his hygiene, but I am washing these chemicals off of my face with soap, dammit.

chitwan

The bathroom is back there if you can find it.

I’m lead into the back room of the house via a tour that last about 10 seconds. I realize with some alarm that both husband and wife must sleep in the same room where they sell the coke and the cigarettes and the SIM cards.

I lock myself into the darkened bathroom and take a deep breath – an exercise I immediately regret as I choke on the dank smell or mold and urine.

There is no light, and by the light of my phone’s flashlight I see with much dismay that not only is there no soap – there is no sink.

It’s an indoor outhouse, and I’m on my own. the only water in sight is in a bucket meant to be used for “flushing” the toilet. After you’ve done your business, you must pour water down the chute to send your waste god-knows-where (quite likely directly into the water supply).

It takes an entire package of tissue and half a bottle of hand sanitizer before I begin to feel like it might be safe to eat with my hands.

Unable to remove the mask of Zorro completely, I now look like a preteen who doesn’t realized she’s chosen a shade of makeup 3 shades too dark.

I’m terribly uncomfortable and do my best to hide this fact from Deepak, who apparently sees nothing out of the ordinary with his sister’s set up. He waits for me patiently, sipping tea and chatting with the men.

“We eat?” he asks when I emerge from the soapless dungeon.

“Great!” I say, trying hard to appear cheerful and grateful and non-judgmental.

His sister has prepared dahlbat for us, or more likely for herself and her husband, but is now giving it to us since we’re here.

Found it!

We sit on tiny painted stools facing the interior of the shop, and use a glass case containing coke and cigarette reserves as our table.

It is from this position that I notice the flies for the first time. They are the happiest, fattest, most exuberant band of brothers I’ve ever observed, buzzing joyfully between piles of rice and pots of vegetables and everything in between.

“No big deal” I think.

We dig in to the dahl, and Deepak watches me like a delighted father, correcting my hand position as I form my fingers into a scoop and shovel the rice into my mouth.

I’m amazed at how easy this is for him to do, and watch as he effortlessly mixes the ingredients together with his fingers, spoons them into his mouth, and somehow manages to finish with perfectly clean hands.

I’m able to get most of the rice into my mouth, but the odd grain or 7 still manages to slip through cracks, falling to their deaths on the plate below.

It’s within the first few bites that I feel it.

Something deep within the innermost cavern of my belly saying “Wait, what?!” and then “Excuse me! What the hell are you giving me, here?”

I know it, I feel, and I keep eating anyway.

When Deepak is long finished and it becomes apparent that I won’t be able to, I apologize profusely saying “I am so full” and “I think I ate too much at breakfast.”

chitwan

The only thing worse than being served food by someone who barely has enough food for themselves and then not finishing it, is the way that food is making me feel right now.

I do not want to go back into that bathroom. I do not…..

Crap. Literally. Well, at least it’s coming out that end. Perhaps it was a one-time expulsion and we can continue on our merry way and –

Crap. My stomach is churning and gurgling, and I begin to worry about how I’m going to time all of this. And Deepak is waiting for me….and they all know I’m in the bathroom for the second time in 15 minutes!

It’s official. I rinse the regurgitated dahlbat down the hole, wiping my face with a t-shirt since there is no toilet paper and I’ve used all of my tissue on the first movement in this symphony.

My kingdom for a toothbrush, a shower, a bar of soap.

But back on the bike I go, thanking the sister for her hospitality and whispering to Deepak that I feel “a little bit sick.”

“It’s the weather” says Deepak, a mantra that seems to be repeated throughout all of Asia to explain everything from the migration of birds to sexually transmitted diseases.

He takes the burden of the backpack off my shoulders, and I wrap my arms around my own pack as we bump our way back to the main road. The long road to Chitwan just got a helluva lot longer.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Don't eat food if you see flies, even if it'd be really rude not to.

2. When you eat the food with flies because you didn't want to be rude, don't get on a motorbike afterwards.

3. When you get on a motorbike afterwards because there's no other form of transportation, be sure your backpack is well-stocked with tissue, toilet paper, towels, soap, and hand sanitizer.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 2

In our quest to see the entirety of Central Vietnam in a single day, Dan and I must move quickly – it’s already almost noon we’re only halfway done!

Having survived a near-death free fall from the top of Marble Mountain to the bottom, it’s time to head south to heavenly Hoi An.

11:47am: Hoi An Ancient Town 

We drop my bags off at my hotel, park the bikes, and continue on foot to Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The city is set along the banks of the Thu Bồn River, its well-preserved ancient town bursting with colorful buildings and narrow, winding streets that make you feel you’ve stepped into another time and place.

120,000 dong ($6) gains you entrance into the five “attractions,” of your choice.

marble-mountain

Hoi An Ancient Town

We check out….

  • The Japanese Bridge
  • The Museum of History and Culture
  • The Tan Ky family house (200 years old and the ancestors of the original family still live here!)
  • The Cam Pho communal house, where Chinese immigrants held meetings and discussed town matters
  • The Quong Cong Temple, where huge circular spirals of incense are always burning to bless those who have purchased a “place” in the temple
marble-mountain-lanterns

Quong Cong Temple

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

After a quick lunch of traditional Cao Lau, a Hoi An specialty noodle dish made with pork, fresh greens, peanuts, and mint leaves, we are off to our last destination – the incomparable My Son ruins!

2:12pm My Son

The Champa ruins at My Son date back to the 2nd century. This collection of Hindu temples is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in Central Vietnam, and according to Dan, is supposed to be “the most beautiful place in the entire country.”

Pronounced “MEE sun,” My Son is about 50 kilometers from Hoi An.

We learn that the site shuts down at 5pm.

“How long will it take us to get to My Son?” we ask my hotel concierge.

“Two, two and a half hours” she says. “You’d better leave now.”

We exchange a look that says “There’s no way it’s going to take us over two hours to go 50 kilometers!”, hop on our bikes, and head southwest towards the sun.

4:52pm My Son?

It’s been nearly three hours since we’ve left Hoi An, and neither Dan, I, or our combined smartphone powers have been able to get us closer to our goal.

marble-mountain

Somewhere between Hoi An and My Son

Names of streets appear then disappear, or change completely, or never existed in the first place.

Highways suddenly end, turns are missed, roundabouts send us back where we came from.

But we’re on the right track now, we think. I hope.

The sun is inching ever closer to the horizon. I’m tired and stressed that it’s so late, but the incredible surroundings make it difficult to succumb to negativity.

We’ve been up and over an enormous mountain that offered sweeping views of endless green fields and colorful towns.

We’ve seen gravestones painted like Christmas presents, bright altars lined up along the perimeter of lush rice paddies.

We’ve descended said mountain into a secret valley where locals plough their fields with the help of beefy buffalo, and children’s eyes bulge at the sight of white skin.

Dan’s GPS steers us down a dirt road that’s becoming increasingly narrow, increasingly rocky.

We pass a group of construction workers and then there is nothing, just us, the road, fields in Vietnamese green and blue mountains like Japanese brush paintings.

The road becomes more of a path – the kind you walk on, not drive a motorbike upon.

We stop to double check our phones. Yep, according to King Google this is the way. And we’re close, maybe just another five kilometers.

If we get there before the strike of 5pm, maybe we can bribe the ticket taker to let us in, if only for a few minutes.

We’ve not lost hope! Let’s go! Let’s do this! Let’s….

Start the motorbike already.

Dan disappears around the bend, and I struggle with the ignition.

It’s not turning over.

I wait a second, breathe, then try again.

Dead.

Am I doing it wrong? This is my first day on a motorbike, after all, and there does seem to be a delicate finesse required as one presses the left handle while revving the right.

I try doing it wrong on purpose. I try doing it backwards. I try waiting. I try again.

Dan is long gone, out of site beyond the curve of the road, and I am alone, all alone in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the central coast of Vietnam.

The sun is starting to set, and there is a chill in the air at this higher elevation. I’m in nothing but a tank top, with nothing else to keep me warm.

Seconds tick by. Then minutes. Dan doesn’t return.

I watch my thoughts with interest. These are the moments in which I thrive. My mind can make a mountain out of a molehill, but when faced with an actual mountain, I become instantly present, instantly calm. Someone cutting in line in front of me at the airport gets me more riled up than this….

marble-mountain-sunset

I wonder if I could camp out in that rice field tonight…

This being the strong possibility of being stranded on a dirt road leading to nowhere, unforgiving rock face to my right, sweeping fields of nothingness to my left.

“I wonder how cold it will be if I have to sleep outside tonight?” I think.

“If I walk back now and try to find help, will someone steal my bike?” I think.

“Dan’s not coming back for me” I think. “I’ve slowed him down all day.”

And truly, I have. Something about Dan made me relax, to point of indulging in solo travel sloppiness. I was so relieved to have a travel partner, if only for a day, that I relied entirely upon Dan for my survival.

He watched as I lost control of the motorbike while parked, the heavy burden crashing to the ground in front of a group of locals.

He saved me when twice I tried to pay for a 10,000 dong bottle of water with a 100,000 dong note (they look so similar!)

Something about Dan made me let go, let my guard down, take a much-needed break from a constant state of self protection.

And now he is gone.

marble-mountain-featured

“Where the hell are we?”

I begin to worry about paying for two hotel rooms tonight – my room back in Hoi An and whatever room I can find after walking to wherever the nearest hotel might be.

My phone is about to die.

I start to shiver from the mountain air, and have resigned myself to leaving the bike and continuing back the way we came on foot, when….

A blue silhouette appears around the bend, backlit by the setting sun, a lone figure against fields of brilliant green.

He is running up the road toward me, an Adonis kicking up dust, a savior from some ancient dimension sent to rescue a maiden in distress.

I almost cry with relief, but Dan would never go for that, so I play it cool and wait patiently as he catches his breath – he’d gotten a few miles up the road before he noticed I was no longer behind him.

The bike is indeed dead, very dead, and just as we’re weighing our options as to what could possibly be done in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Vietnam, we hear a rumbling sound.

This road, this path, is definitely not made for motorbikes, and it’s most definitely not made for cars, let alone giant flatbed trucks.

And yet there it is – this truck that just happens to pull up right when we need help, just happens to be the kind of truck meant for hauling large items, just happens to be completely empty with a bed just dying for a dead motorbike.

With much hand gesturing, we get two Vietnamese construction-worker-angels to load the bike into their truck bed and drive me back to town while Dan follows behind on his motorbike.

They take me to the only motorbike repair shop in town, then drive off into the sunset as if they’d never existed.

“You didn’t thank them” says Dan.

The repair shop owner takes one look at the bike, one look at me, and grabs the key from my hand.

He places it into the ignition, puts a practiced palm on the handles, and starts the bike instantly.

Dan and I stare in shock. The owner – and surrounding children who’ve gathered to gawk – laughs heartily. He turns the bike off and turns it on again, just to rub it in.

 

7:45pm Back in Hoi An

Dan and I commiserate over dinner. Our mission has been a partial failure which, to a Wisconsinite like Dan, is a total and utter travel fail.

Drowning our sorrows in cao lau

“Hey, three out of four isn’t bad!” I say.

“My Son was the only thing I really wanted to see” says Dan.

At least we got to see Marble Mountain. And the charming ancient town of Hoi An. And some seriously breathtaking countryside that we never would have seen if we hadn’t gotten lost.

The moral of the story?

It’s stupid to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. You end up feeling rushed and stressed, and you don’t begin to scratch the surface of what your destination really has to offer.

Plus, you’ll probably end up lost in the middle of nowhere with a dead motorbike.

For Part 1 of A Morning at Marble Mountain, click here

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Technically, can you can see Da Nang, Marble Mountain, Hoi An and My son in a single day.

2. It's better to see less stuff than to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. We didn't have nearly enough time in Hoi An, and were so rushed that we ended up getting totally lost on the way to My Son.

3. I am infinitely grateful to a pair of construction-worker-angels who came to our rescue when my motorbike died in the middle of nowhere.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 1

The second I hear Dan’s voice I know I know him.

“California!” I shout, pointing at him in the middle of a hotel lobby in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“Wrong” he says. “Weak guess,” he says, and I instantly like him.

How ironic that I guessed he’s from my home-away-from-home, when it turns out he’s from my home-home, the great state of Wisconsin.

After having a very typical “Oh-my-God-you’re-from-Wisconsin-too?!” discussion, which inevitably includes phrases like “Miller Park!” and “Don’t you miss cheese?” and “Isn’t it funny how PBR is now a hipster thing?,” I learn that Dan is in Asia to teach English.

On a break between teaching gigs in South Korea and China, he has exactly 2 weeks to see Vietnam. And in true Sconie style, Dan is determined to use those 2 weeks to see all of Vietnam.

The next day I find myself renting a motorbike for the first time in my life and hoping to God Dan knows what he’s talking about when he says it’s “really easy” to ride.

7:23am China Beach, Da Nang

Swimming "spectacle" at China Beach

Swimming “spectacle” at China Beach

We start at China Beach in Da Nang because our hotel owner says that each day just after sunrise, hundreds of Vietnamese take to the sea for their morning swim. “A spectacle!” he says.

Our reward for waking up at this ungodly hour is half a dozen swimmers and a couple of dudes kicking around a soccer ball on the beach.

So there weren't hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

So there weren’t hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

“Fail” says Dan. “I’m in charge now.”

It’s all I can do to keep up with his speeding motorbike as it soars down the highway that hugs the coastline between Da Nang and Hoi An.

8:40am Marble Museum and outdoor showroom 

marble-mountain

Before we arrive at Marble Mountain, the next stop on our list, we’re distracted by an outdoor museum filled with enormous marble statues of all shapes and sizes.

There are many such places lining the road to Hoi An, which boasts 5-star resorts on the ocean-side of the road, and marble shop after marble shop on the mountain-side of the road.

It’s free to walk around and check out the statues, and we get the idea that purchasing one would easily cost billions of dong.

Before leaving we see a group of women polishing the marble, and one who even seems to be making adjustments to the size and shape of one of the statues with a power tool of some sort.

marble-mountain

I fancy her an exquisite artiste, though from looking at how the women are dressed and seeing their lack of a proper workspace, I assume the brilliant artistes are getting paid less than artiste wages.

9:01am On to Marble Mountain!

marble-mountain-rebs-on-bike

Not to be confused with Monkey Mountain, home to the biggest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam, Marble Mountain is south of Da Nang and is exactly what it sounds like – a giant mountain made of marble.

The hill juts out of the earth suddenly, as if someone had been slowly carving away at her foothills for centuries (and people have – where do you think all the marble statues come from?)

Dan’s stuff is back at the hotel in Da Nang, but I’m staying in Hoi An this week and have all of my worldly possessions balanced precariously on the motorbike.

We park and find that there are no lockers, so I stash my backpack with the parking attendant and opt to carry my laptop case – filled with computer, chargers, my DSLR camera, and anything else remotely valuable – up the mountain with me.

marble-mountain

Marble Mountain is filled with labyrinths and caves and temples built into the slippery rock. You can see and feel the marble beneath your feet, and have to be careful so as not to slip and slide all the way down to the ground!

Dan leads me into a cave and through a narrow opening in the rock that may or may not be an official climbing area.

This guy is from Wisconsin, which means I’ll never hear the end of it if I punk out, so I squeeze through the narrow rock tunnel, shoving my giant bag in front of me and pushing it upwards with my hands.

It's Dan!

It’s Dan!

Next thing I know, we’re climbing upwards at an incredibly steep incline, and the entirety of Central Vietnam  suddenly sparkles into view. A large, flat rock juts out above all the others, and Dan is quick to leap upon it.

“Get up here!” he says, do-see-do-ing with me since the rock is only large enough for one person.

Alright, it’s no Nepal, but I do sort of feel on top of the world.

Until I have to get back down.

Climbing up was easy, but in order to get back down I must leap from one rock to another. The problem? Said rocks are a good 5 feet apart, the space between revealing a 500-meter drop to a cartoonish-looking receptacle of sharp marble spikes below.

I picture myself splayed across those spikes, each one stabbed through various major arteries. I imagine Dan attending my funeral in Wisconsin and trying to explain to my mother how I perished on top of Marble Mountain.

“No big deal” says Dan.

“C’mon, we’re wasting time!” says Dan.

I dance back and forth, about to make the leap, then thinking better of it, then working up my courage again.

It takes a good five minutes, but I finally get a running start and shoot my legs in front of me, landing hard on the rock face and scraping my legs up in the process.

“Was that so hard?” says Dan, shaking his head.

Yes. Yes it was.

I’m antsy to get back on the road, knowing we have a lot left to see.

“Five more minutes” says Dan, turning the corner to enter yet another cave. He disappears briefly then reappears, waving for me to follow him.

And I’m so glad I did.

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Huyen Khong Cave is easily the largest cave I’ve ever been in, and the most beautiful. It is positively massive, with an enormous Buddha statue carved into the rock face, floating high upon the cave wall above our heads.

Candles illuminate the din, the face of the Buddha in shadow except for a few rays of sunlight that stream in from cracks in the cave ceiling.

We are afforded a solid two minutes of solitude here before a mass of tourists break the silence, but in those two minutes neither of us speaks. The energy is palpable – a sacred place.

marble-mountain-7

For some reason, Chinese characters have been carved into the rock face just to the right of the Buddha.

Dan is studying Chinese for his upcoming work assignment, and is eager to look up the meaning.

We throw out guesses, expecting no less than the profound, wise words of the Buddha or some poetry from Lao Tzu.

"Big dark cave."

“Big dark cave.”

“I found the translation” says Dan.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

“It means, ‘big, dark cave’” says Dan.

God, I love Vietnam.

Check back for part 2 of this series where Dan and I head to Hoi An and My Son on our 1-day lightning fast tour of Central Vietnam.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Marble Mountain is definitely worth seeing - it's about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang and is filled with beautiful temples, statues, and incredible caves.

2. Make SURE you wear slip-resistant shoes - the marble is incredibly slippery!

3. If you park "for free" at one of the many marble shops, you will be pressured heavily to buy something. If you don't, you'll probably be charged for parking. (luckily the parking and entrance fees are only a few dollars.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Ways to be a Total A*!hole when you Travel Abroad

Are you interested in coming across as a complete asshole when you travel abroad? If so, you’re in luck!

There are currently thousands, even millions of douchebag travelers who’ve perfected the fine art of offending everyone they meet when they travel abroad.

Don’t let those numbers discourage you – if you play your cards right and are diligent in your pursuits, you too can rise to top of the asshole traveler list, setting the bar for all the jerks who’ll follow in your footsteps.

But with an endless array of options to choose from, where does the aspiring asshole start? Which tactics are most effective when it comes to achieving the coveted title of Traveling Asshole?

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times

Remember that while people may speak softly in other countries, that’s none of your concern. It’s much more important to be a cultural ambassador and impress upon those quiet locals how much better it feels to let loose and SHOUT REALLY LOUD BECAUSE YOU CAN.

Also, don’t forget to share the intimate details of what (and who) you did last night, which is obviously of genuine interest to anyone within ear shot.

2. Complain…about everything

It’s not enough to complain about the food, send it back, and indicate that your local chef is “doing it wrong.” That kind of half-assed move is for junior assholes.

To be a true asshole when you travel abroad, it’s important to complain about everything.

First, complain about the weather. Forget the fact that you were the one who decided to visit Cambodia in the middle of April – someone should seriously do something about this heat.

Next, complain about things like the lack of infrastructure, the price of your hotel room, and the lack of English spoken. Bonus points for making fun of locals attempting to speak English but failing.

By complaining, you’ll be demonstrating that your home country is superior to the country you’re visiting, and inspiring locals to make changes to their country based on your savvy recommendations.

3. Claim to be an English teacher

The fact that you’re a native English speaker means you’re perfectly suited to teach English to everyone you meet, whether they want your help or not.

When a non-native speaker can’t understand what you’re saying, simply increase your volume. This will help them understand what you’ve just said. If it doesn’t, get frustrated and be rude to them. This will motivate them to learn English faster.

If you’re in close contact with non-native speakers for long periods of time, be sure to speak to them in broken English, using only nouns and verbs.

In this way, you will reinforce bad habits they’ve already learned, ensuring they will keep speaking incorrectly. This in turn will give you something to make fun of when you return home – after all, just because you’ve stopped traveling abroad doesn’t mean you have to stop being a douche.

Finally, teach English to your non-native English speaking friends by demonstrating the proper use of the word “like.” Include like at least four times per sentence, more if possible.

A strong example of this would be:

“Is there, like, a safe in our room? Because we like, don’t want the room if, like, there’s no like, safe.”

Not only will this make your speech easier for locals to understand; it will make you appear very intelligent.

4. Travel in packs

It’s much easier to achieve asshole status if you travel abroad in a large pack. Grab at least 10-12 of your closest newfound friends from your hostel, and proceed to walk around town like you own the place.

Keep in mind that everyone – from restaurant staff to tour guides to pedestrians – should stop what they’re doing to cater to the needs of your group.

Don’t forget to utilize volume – particularly loud, high-pitched, maniacal laughter – to remind everyone that you guys rule.

5. Make it like spring break

Take your wildest nights during spring break in college and experience them again – but in another country. This is a delicate art form, but ideally you want to act like you never left home in the first place.

Don’t become distracted by things like cultural experiences and the local way of living. That stuff is stupid and boring.

Instead, make sure everyone you meet knows that this is your vacation, and they all should be working hard to make sure your vacation is awesome.

Bonus points for screaming “SPRING BREEEEEEAK” at 3am, especially in neighborhoods with lots of families with young children. Double bonus points for working in “Dude, I was so fucking wasted last night” into the conversation. Triple points if you’re still drunk from the night before.

 

Phew! Sounds like a lot of work, right? Don’t worry. Even if you’re only able to achieve one of the items on the list, you’ll still come across as a jerk, which is a good start.

Above all, keep in mind that when you travel abroad, it’s all about you. The world (and everyone in it) is simply there to make sure you have a great time, so treat it (and everyone you meet) accordingly.

  • Whatever you do, don’t cater your behavior to the norms of the culture you’re in – that would be admitting that their way of doing things is better than yours.
  • Don’t open yourself up to any experiences even remotely different from what you’d experience at home – eat Western food, drink in tourist bars, and hang out with people from your home country.

And whatever you do, never treat travel as a way to open your mind, examine your beliefs, or experience something infinitely different than your life back home.

If you do that, you’ll never win the travel asshole award.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Speak as loudly as possible at all times.

2. Complain about everything.

3. Teach English to everyone you meet, whether they like it or not.

4. Travel in an enormous pack of 12 of your closest friends.

5. Treat every day you travel abroad like it's spring break in your home country.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Yak Cheese Balls with a Side of Loneliness

Lake Phewa/Fewa/Fua in Pokhara, Nepal

If I’m not careful, I might end up staying in this room forever.

Why leave this cozy haven, with its beautiful view of Fishtail Mountain, just to seek the outdoors? I am already bombarded by nature in all her glory from the welcome confines of my humbly-upholstered chair.

Bright fuchsia flowers wave playfully just outside my window, infusing my soul with the wonders of natural Nepal. Exquisite visions of mountain peaks hold fast to my right, while a lush rooftop garden rustles to my left.

“I’m not moving a muscle” I think, as I finish a steaming pot of sweet milk tea. But it’s my first day in town, and whether I like it or not, the city of Pokhara begins to beckon.

I stubbornly extract myself from “the writer’s room,” somewhat reluctant to perform what’s become a regular ritual in each new city I visit.

The first thing I do when I get to a new town – any new town – is walk around and get lost. I never take a map on the first day, and only ask for directions in the most general sense.

Today I ask Hari, my guest house owner, how to get to the lake – the sparkling blue lake I’d seen in so many pictures, the lake that is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the lake that looks like someone plopped a chunk of Switzerland down right in the middle of Nepal.

“Very easy” says Hari, giving me directions to Lake Fewa (AKA Lake Phewa, Phewa Lake, Lake Fua, or however else one feels like spelling it given one’s mood that day). “Just follow the road.”

That certainly does sound easy. I’ve booked this hotel because of it’s proximity to the lake, which Hari promises to be just a five minute walk away.

I follow the winding road west, walking past narrow, colorful hotels and one-story cement homes.

Women work in their muddy front yards, taking pick-axes to the soil in bare feet and bright skirts. Shop owners and children stare at me as I walk past, or perhaps it just feels that way. I don’t see any other foreigners on the road – I barely see any other people.

The gravel veers sharply to the right and I’m suddenly thrust toward a main thoroughfare. Restaurants and bars begin to replace the hotels, and shop owners call to me to come look at their souvenirs.

Every other storefront seems to be home to a trekking company that offers bus tickets, organized tours, hiking, biking, boating, motorcycle rentals…absolute heaven for adventure travelers and outdoorsy types.

I arrive at the main road that runs along the lake – the aptly-named Lakeside Drive – and grin in appreciation of how the Nepalese people like to keep things simple.

The street is choked with rooftop restaurants, souvenir shops, merchants selling precious linens and silks, and signs boasting everything from lakeside seating to live music.

Backpackers, Westerners, and large groups of Chinese tourists dodge racing motorbikes and taxi cat calls. It is warm and sunny, and while I’m tempted to sample one of the many yak-themed dishes offered on every restaurant sign (yak cheese balls! yak cheese pasta! yak!), I have a single goal in mind: find the lake.

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

I must be close, since every other sign I pass seems to point toward the lake, but each alleyway leads me astray. I continue walking north along Lakeside Drive, hoping there will be an obvious opening and I’ll be lead to the placid promised land.

Fishtail Mountain is my guiding star, standing steadfast above the intricate nets of tangled electrical wiring that somehow powers the city (well, kind of).

A glance toward the sky fills my vision with a decidedly Nepalese triumvirate  – impossibly high mountain peaks, rat’s nests of wires, and the remnants of brightly colored, tattered flags.

The flags and the wires are strewn across the horizon and serve to remind the viewer that no matter how pristine those peaks, no matter how much English is written and spoken everywhere, no matter how many dread-locked Dutch guys you see, you are still very much in Nepal.

I’ve been walking for way too long with no lake in sight, so I decide to take the next left no matter what. The lake looked pretty big in those pictures – it’s not like I’ve somehow missed it, right?

I spy a shock of bubbling blue peaking through a hole in a distant fence, and I move toward it.

It’s the lake! Well, it’s the lake, kind of.

pokhara-3

I wind along a concrete path that wraps around private homes. The front yard of each home is made of water instead of earth, and hundreds of fish wriggle inside homemade nets, creating a row of miniature fish farms.

The metal fence that stretches along this path finally offers a checkered view of Lake Fewa.

The mountains are not snow-capped, but green, and it’s a bit hazy out, and I can’t get as close to the shore as I’d like, but there it is – the reason to build a town. The reason to journey 7,685 miles around the world. The reason to believe in a benevolent creator.

Lake Fewa is set against the mountains like a drawing, like a child’s idea of Eden. It is positively idyllic, with rolling hills and rocky peaks serving as the perfectly-shaped backdrop to an enormous, shiny blue pond.

The undulating earth hugs the lake in a crescent embrace, shielding it from the impossible peaks beyond.

The entire town of Pokhara seems to fall under the protection of this half-moon, which  towers over the hustle and bustle with a calming, fatherly presence.

Pokhara-4

I press my face against the fence like a five-year old at a baseball game, wondering how the hell I can get closer to the majesty. I want to sink into the view, to tumble into the painting and lose myself until I become one with the vision.

“Where are you from?”

Godammit. I’m starting to hate that question more than I hate people who chew gum with their mouths open (YOU LOOK LIKE A COW. STOP IT.).

The poser of the question is a bespectacled Nepalese student with the eager air of a salesclerk who works on commission.

I never know how to answer the question “Where are you from?” since I’ve been a nomad within my own country for so many years. Do I say the U.S.? Wisconsin? California? Los Angeles? Miami by way of Syracuse by way of North Carolina?

I mutter what I usually mutter when traveling abroad, because it’s just easier than going into the whole story, and because it seems to be a name most non-native English speakers recognize:

“California,” I say, and attempt to get back to the spectacular view.

But four-eyes is one eager beaver, and sidles up to continue a conversation I don’t want to begin.

“Is your first time Nepal? I show you around. I am a student. I study English here in Pokhara. You don’t know where to go, I help you.”

The look on my face must be screaming “Leave me alone you big scammer!” because four-eyes flails his hands in front of his body in protest.

“No no no, I not guide! I not want money! I want help you, you don’t know.”

I’m unsure of how to get out of this awkward situation, since his offer to help me find things is completely appropriate – I mean, I couldn’t even find the lake when it’s right there.

Pokhara-4

“I friend to you, you no pay money. I take you to the stupa. I show you around Pokhara. You meet my mother, you eat with my family.”

And then I do a thing that is so completely stupid, so ridiculous, so the opposite of what I want to do, that it’s almost as if an invasive, invisible entity is pulling out my iPhone and beginning to type…

I’m taking down Four Eyes’ phone number, and worse, I’m giving him mine.

Why would I do that, you ask? Because I am physically unable to do anything that even faintly reeks of rudeness. I would rather shoot myself in the foot – literally – than be rude. And somehow, in my mind, I equate not giving someone what they want with being impolite. It’s a terrible quality and I struggle with it daily.

What’s more, I’m suddenly very, very lonely.

There is nothing more isolating than longing for connection while traveling only to have the first person you speak with try to pull one over on you.

Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll leave me alone. Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll end up being really cool, and I’ll realize I was wrong about him, and we’ll turn out to be best friends. I mean, I don’t have a particularly bad feeling about him, but I also have no intention of hiring him to be my guide or going to eat dahl bat with his mother.

And because I’m a passive-aggressive-moron-idiot who can’t just say no when she means no, I give him my real phone number to boot. (I’ve never understood giving someone you might bump into again a fake phone number. How awkward.)

“What is your name?” I ask, so I’ll know who I’m hanging up on when he calls.

“Deepak” he smiles, shaking my hand vigorously. “I call you soon, we go tomorrow to stupa.”

“I can’t go tomorrow, I’m working” I protest.

“Ok. We go tomorrow. I call you soon.”

And he does. Over and over and over again beginning exactly one hour after I’ve left the lake, until I’m forced to edit his name in my phone to read “Deepak Don’t Answer.”

The best cure for lonliness in Nepal - Yak cheese balls

The best cure for loneliness in Nepal – Yak cheese balls

With each harassing ring I feel more and more alone. Is everyone in this country just out to take advantage of me?

I drown my sorrows in a plate of yak cheese balls at a lone table in the Monsoon restaurant while the staff watches cricket on a rickety television set. The meal is steaming and delicious, but it’s not enough to temper the utter isolation that suddenly permeates my heart.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Teaching English in Taiwan

Tell me that doesn't look like what it obviously looks like.

I’m awoken from a deep sleep – the kind that only severe, flight-around-the-world jetlag can create.

A curious sound begins pulsating slowly, steadily. It is a dull thud wrapped inside a dream, a deep, melodic moaning that begins in my belly and rises steadily, gently into my waking consciousness.

One hundred monks have gathered in the temple next door, their sole task to rouse me from my sleep as if today, of all days, will be the most special of my life.

It is 5:13am, and the air in Taipei is no cooler at this hour than it’s been at the sweltering peak of high noon.

I lie on the hard hostel bed listening to the harmonic chanting, deep and rich and straining to reach God. To feel God. To become God.

I’m absolutely certain at the time that this will remain one of the most beautiful, sacred moments of my life.

The room where the monk magic happened.

The room where the monk magic happened.

So how, after being awoken to the glorious, mysterious, unexpected chanting of Buddhist monks outside my window, could the rest of my time in Taiwan be so friggin’ awful?

I had signed a year-long contract to teach English at a private primary school in Chang hua, a sleepy suburb in the central coast on the western side of the island, about 100 miles southwest of Taipei.

I have yet to meet anyone else – not a single living soul – who disliked visiting and/or teaching English in Taiwan.

My experience was a massive travel fail, and after having some time to consider why I hated it there so much, I’ve come up with these 5 questions I wish I would’ve asked myself before signing that contract.

1. Do I LOVE teaching English?

I boarded the plane to Taiwan with a TEFL certificate I’d earned online. I found the course really challenging, even frustrating, and I had to force myself to muscle through each module.

I had enjoyed my previous experience as a theatre teacher in Miami and working one-on-one with ESL students in Miami and Los Angeles. I adored working on pronunciation and intonation – a throw back to my years as a theatre baby.

But pronunciation is one very small part of teaching English, and I had failed to account for all the friggin’ grammar I’d be responsible for imparting to beginning Taiwanese students.

What’s more, I never would’ve taught English at home.

When the glitz and glamor of teaching English in Taiwan wore off, and it was really just teaching English, I realized what a big mistake I had made. A classroom is a classroom, and you’ll be in it, many hours per day, doing the job you’ve been hired to do.

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

For some reason, I hadn’t thought about that. I’d been swept up in the idea of teaching overseas – hell, in the idea of just going overseas.

I thought about the money I’d make, the people I’d meet, and all the wonderful places I’d get to go. Maybe I’d weekend in the Philippines! Spend spring break in the mountainous regions of Eastern Taiwan! Fly to Vietnam on a whim!

The first day I arrived at my school, all of the teachers and staff were gathered for a weekly meeting where they discussed problems with students, upcoming events, and so on.

The head of the school turned to me in the middle of the conversation and said “Rebekah, what ideas do you have about new curriculum for our 1st grade students?”

Luckily one of my co-teachers jumped in and defended me, saying “She just got here, give her a break!”

If she hadn’t, I might have actually uttered the words “I don’t have any ideas, and I hope nobody ever asks me that question again as long as I live.”

I was a square peg in a round hole. God bless all teachers everywhere, and God bless that moment for revealing to me that I did not, could not, under any circumstances, remain where I was.

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

I really, really thought that I’d work 40 hours a week and spend my weekends traveling. Unfortunately, the school had other ideas.

When I got there, and only after I got my teaching schedule, I realized that my 40+ hours were spread out between 8am and 9pm, 6-7 days per week.

Meaning I’d work Saturdays. And sometimes Sundays. And be accountable to someone 12-13 hours per day, nearly every day.

There were breaks in between classes, yes, but for me finishing a class at 4pm and having to return to teach again at 6pm felt like I was working the entire day, almost like an on-call nurse.

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

There wouldn’t be time to go anywhere on the weekends when weekends only lasted one day.

I was saturated with the school – the school was Taiwan, it was my entire experience of Taiwan besides a few brief but fascinating days in Taipei.

There wasn’t time to do anything else but work. When there was time, I was too exhausted to do anything about it.

I found myself thinking “What’s the point of being here when I’m stuck in a classroom all the time? I could be doing this at home and getting paid a lot more.”

Ok, the getting-paid-more part may or may not have been true, but it sure felt true at the time.

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in?

Not only had I never been to Taiwan before; I’d never been to Asia before. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense culture shock I experienced the second I landed in Shanghai.

My own ignorance astounded me during those first few days. Somehow, I really imagined that most everyone I encountered would speak at least some English (why did I think that?!).

I also had no idea that people were still doing things like working in rice fields and living off the land. I had expected some kind of modernized, Westernized society to have sprung up across Asia, making the entire continent feel like a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Chicago.

Here’s the most embarrassing part – I had no idea that menus and signs would be written entirely in Chinese characters. I had expected everything to be accompanied by pinyin, the romanized version of simplified Chinese. In my ignorance, I also thought most places would have things written in English.

Shandao Temple in Taipei

Shandao Temple in Taipei

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a Shanghai restaurant and was met with a giant menu board written entirely in Chinese. In that moment, all of my months listening to Pimsleur Chinese CDs became obsolete.

I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” and “I speak Chinese very badly” about 7 different ways, but I couldn’t decipher a single character. I was regressed back to childhood – illiterate, confused, alone. It was an awful, terrifying feeling I’ll never forget.

4. Am I in a good place in my life, like, mentally?

I really, really wish I would’ve asked myself this question before teaching English in Taiwan!

I wasn’t going to Taiwan because I was passionate about teaching English, or because I was particularly interested in Taiwanese culture. I was going because I didn’t know what else to do with my life.

An unexpected career change had left me in limbo. I dreamed of studying French in Paris, or backpacking Europe, but I was under the impression that it’d be way too expensive.

So I decided to teach English in Taiwan in order to save money to go to Paris later. In this way, I totally set myself up for failure. I was in it for the money, and after taxes the money was pretty much crap anyway.

Not only was I confused and directionless (a common hazard of being 29 going on 30), I had the brilliant idea to get involved with someone back home right before I left.

This genius decision resulted in hour after hour of tearful phone calls as he begged me to come home and marry him and have babies and forget Taiwan once and for all.

Culture shock + lack of passion + cute guy proposing marriage = get me out of Taiwan, stat.

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all bad.

The other teachers I worked with were absolutely wonderful human beings; well traveled, open minded, and incredibly patient with me as I wallowed in misery on their forest green couch for weeks on end.

They even let me live on that same couch after I’d decided to leave the school, and never once complained (at least not to my face) that I was being the biggest Debby Downer ever (which I absolutely was).

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

The kids were great as well. There was Hank, who at 4 years old had the scratchy, sultry voice of a has-been Las Vegas lounge singer. And little Cindy Lou, who fell into fits of delicious giggles every time I practiced my numbers in Chinese.

And there were great morning workouts with Zoe, a fellow teacher who’d just graduated military school and volunteered to be my personal trainer at 6am each day. Doing planks and pushups next to elderly Taiwanese practicing Tai Chi was always invigorating, even in the oppressive heat.

But I had zero desire to teach. I missed my boy back home. I couldn’t find anything I liked to eat after being served soup with what I swear-to-God was some animal’s penis floating in it. And I was completely closed off when it came to accepting cultural differences.

It was perfectly ok for the Chinese teachers to hit the kids, and to shame them in front of the others students if they misbehaved. (note – people in Taiwan often, if not always, referred to themselves as “Chinese,” which is why I just did too.)

One boy was made to wear lipstick in front of the class, while another was threatened with a diaper if he didn’t shape up (as in, he’d have to wear a diaper all day to show what a ‘baby’ he was being.)

Finally, a tale circulated about the worst punishment of all – being placed inside a large metal can or box that was 2-3 feet above the student’s head, making it impossible for them to climb out but easy for other students and teachers to peer in and taunt them.

Depending on the transgression, a kid could be imprisoned in the box-of-shame for hours on end.

Now it’s not my place to say whether all of this behavior is right or wrong. I’m not interested in making judgments, and I really think it’s impossible for a Western mind to understand the nuances of morality as experienced in another culture.

At the time, however, it was too much for me to bear. I couldn’t be a part of it.

The other teachers were fine with it because they knew something I didn’t – that there is relativism to right and wrong, and that the kids undergoing these punishments were no more traumatized than you were when you had your name written on the board in 4th grade. It’s simply how things are done in Taiwan, and everyone – teachers, students, parents – is perfectly fine with it.

My limited mind didn’t see it that way, though. I thought the Western teachers had turned into desensitized monsters. Pretty soon they’d be hitting the kids and putting them in diapers as well. I refused to put diapers on anyone over the age of 3, godammit!

So I left, like a chicken, my feathers between my legs.

Learning from my mistakes

For some reason, my second journey to Asia has been the incredible eye-opening experience I’d hoped the first time would be. Who knows why the second time’s the charm, but it is, and I’m grateful.

I’ve even eaten bone-in fish, fresh crab eggs, and shrimp with the eyeballs in-tact and enjoyed every bite of it!

If you’re thinking of teaching English in Taiwan, learn from my mistakes!

Before you sign your contract…..

  • Make sure you really, really like teaching English
  • Be prepared to work a full time job, and realize that working is going to be your main (perhaps your only) activity for the duration of your contract
  • Visit the country you’ll be teaching in before committing to a lengthy contract. Regardless of what recruiters will tell you, I think it’s almost always easier to find a job once you’re in-country anyway – you just have to time it right.
  • Bring a mind so open its prepared for anything.
  • Don’t expect it to be just like home, because it won’t be – that’s the greatest part about teaching English abroad, and it’s the part I completely missed. Of course the food is different, and the language is different, and the values are different, and the people are different. That’s why you’re teaching in another country in the first place, right?

Have you ever taught English abroad?

Did you experience major culture shock like me?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Before signing your contract to teach English abroad, ask yourself:

1. Do I LOVE teaching English? Like, reeeeeally love it?

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in and am I suuuure I want to live there for an entire year?

4. Am I mentally prepared for all of the stresses that come with moving to another country? Is this a good time in my life to make such a big change?

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

If you answered YES to most of the above, then have at it!!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!