Alina’s Half-Way Sur-Vey

1. What has been your favorite place and why?

This is almost an impossible question, but if I had to pick one place I would have to say Chiang Mai, Thailand. We spent a lot of time there and I think we really started to settle in, it was very difficult to leave. The cost of living was incredibly affordable, the people were always smiling and very helpful, the weather was amazing, and the food is delicious. The city itself is just the right size; small enough that you can walk almost anywhere, but big enough to host cultural events and weekly markets, plus it’s surrounded by beautiful natural areas. It was attractive to tourists, but also had a very local feel. Also, transportation is easy and as we discovered with Erik’s mystery tropical infectious disease, the medical care is superb.

 2. What has been your least favorite place and why?

Delhi, India. In Delhi’s defense it was the first stop on our around-the-world trip and I think I was feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. A one way ticket to India and almost no planning is just as scary as it sounds. Not to mention, that we both got the worst food poisoning I have ever had in my life there, and couldn’t even stand to smell Indian food for weeks which was one of the things I was most excited about. But beyond those disclaimers to be perfectly honest, it was filthy, everyone lies to you, everyone starts at you and I just felt unsafe. It’s quite an experience to be jammed in somewhere with so many people and have the belief that if you were screaming for help no one would stop to help you. You get the impression that no one wants to deal with the complicated and bureaucratic law enforcement and it’s everyone for themselves. I sincerely hope that I can give India another chance someday as I have heard numerous times that Delhi is not the best representation and there were some really incredible things about the culture and people that you can’t find anywhere else.

 3. Funny story?

Flying into Australia I think we were both a little on edge. After fudging entry requirements and avoiding scams in our cross-country travels throughout South East Asia, we thought the Australians would be running a tighter ship, and we had no onward flight leaving the country, which is a requirement. We were also exhausted from a very early flight from Indonesia and had an overnight flight ahead of us to the other side of the country. We went up to border control in separate lines and Erik was called up before I was. I easily passed through with smiles from my very pleasant officer, and noticed that Erik was still discussing something with his border control officer. I caught up with him finally at the last customs checkpoint before we could collect our baggage, where he was once again in a conversation with an officer. Not a good sign. Not wanting to draw attention to the two of us, I asked him quietly, “What is going on with you?!” He smirked and held up his customs entrance card which had the “Yes” box checked next to both questions: “Do you have tuberculosis?” and “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Both of the boxes had been scratched out and now had TWO officers’ initials by them.

4. Embarrassing moment?

I’m sure I put my foot in my mouth many times, but for whatever reason I remember when we were staying at a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand when one of the staff had made a massive pot of local cuisine. Being a little overzealous at the prospect of free, genuine local fare I put huge spoonfuls of what looked like a mushroom mush over the rice Erik and I had just made for dinner. I was then very politely told by one of the other guests that actually it was a desert and those “mushrooms” were cooked bananas in a sweet sauce.

Another time, I was pulled down from my mighty horse of cultural sensitivity when I was not allowed to climb to the top of a holy temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia because I had thought that a wide scarf was enough to cover my bare shoulders. I was shunned to sit with all of the other “sluts” along the wall while Erik was able to ascend and get great views of the temple complex from the top.

5. Most and least favorite food?

This may sound uninspired, but honestly I think my favorite food has been a perfectly prepared pad thai. When it’s made with just the right amount of salty, sweet, fishy, spicy, lime tastes it can’t be beat. Pretty much the only thing I didn’t care for was a typical Malaysian breakfast of rice porridge mixed with eggs, onions, fish, spices and various other things. I find that fish is very hard for me to stomach in the mornings, especially in sweltering weather.

6. What have you learned about the world?

Among many other things obviously, it has been very interesting to see how much variation exists in a culture’s idea of beauty. In India for example, almost all Indians shown in magazines and in ads had very, very light skin and everywhere we went in Asia we saw skin whitening creams. Girls on a beach in Cambodia even stopped to touch my pastey legs, while all I could think about was how people back in the US give themselves skin cancer to look like the Cambodian natives. Also, the male celebrities in Thailand seemed exceedingly feminine to me. They way they dressed, made themselves up and even spoke went against most ideas of sexual attractiveness that have been culturally ingrained in me.

7. What have you learned about yourself?

I have a very strong need for community. I was very surprised to discover that, every once in awhile, I envy people living their lives in one place. When you’re moving often, be it every few days or every few months, it’s sometimes hard to feel like you’re building anything. We’ve met some incredible people like the hiker in Nepal who was traveling using money that she’d earned by selling her story of how she was attacked by a lion in Africa. Or the doctor in Australia who lives his life in cycles of working in an ER for four months and then traveling around the world for three months. Great conversations and memories come out of these interactions, but at some point we always go our separate, nomadic ways. I didn’t expect to miss the luxury of gathering a small group of good friends together at my place for dinner, or the ability to become involved in an organization. Unfortunately, I find that when I know I won’t have the chance to build a relationship I’m less motivated to seek interaction. While I’m traveling I have an amazing opportunity to expand my comfort zone, character, and experience, but I also look forward to returning when I can build connections, lasting relationships and a sense of community.

8. What have you learned about Erik?

This guy is infinitely adjustable, he can get used to anything . . . instantly. Walking around at 2am in Bangkok looking for a hostel? No biggie. A cross-border trip that takes six van transfers instead of the promised single switch? Whatever. One month of high fever, vicious cycles of sweats and chills, and no appetite in which he loses 25 lbs? It could be worse. All we have to eat for three days is cheap bread and peanuts? Yum! An eight hour bus ride playing high-speed chicken with trucks on some of the most dangerous roads I’ve ever seen? He’s sleeping. Erik’s as comfortable in a massive house with a home theater system as he is in a mildew-ridden dorm room with three snoring men. Or at least that’s what he leads me to believe. This might seem like a small feat, but when you’re constantly moving and drastically changing environments every few days his flexibility is invaluable. It’s especially mind baffling to someone who deals with constant transition slightly less gracefully.

9. One thing you wish you brought?

This is hard because when we were in South East Asia I kept wishing that I had more tank-tops and shorts, and now that we’re in Southern Australia in winter I wish I had more long-sleeve shirts and sweatshirts. Maybe that means I did a good job? Although I’m not completely convinced that it would be worth the extra weight and hassle, I’ve wished several times that I had a nice SLR camera. Don’t get me wrong, Erik’s small camera takes amazing pictures and fits perfectly in a pocket. In fact when he dropped the first one literally down a sh#*t hole in Nepal, we bought the same camera again. That being said, we’ve seen some incredible things and I can’t help but think that an amazing and expensive camera could have done them more justice.

 10. One thing you can’t live without?

This is somewhat embarrassing, but right before I left my well-traveled and wise father handed me a cheap Emirates Airlines eye blinder. I said in my best pro-traveler voice, “Oh, Dad I don’t use those.” I only stuffed it in at his insistence and now I can’t thank him enough. There’s been many times that we’ve had to sleep in less than desirable places: airports, cars, busy dorm rooms, trains, during the day etc. and no matter what is going on if I can at least turn off my sense of sight I sleep better, longer and often fall asleep more easily. I lent it to Erik once when he needed it for a nap and he thought he had lost it for several days. Luckily for him, he didn’t.

11. Your best travel advice?

I could say, “Try not to make definite plans too far in the future.” Or I could advise, “Slow down and enjoy living somewhere not as a tourist.” However, honestly, the best travel advice I have for the world traveler is this. Bring Imodium with you everywhere. You never know when you’re going to need it, and when you do . . . well you need it. Also, rolling your clothes is world-changeing. 

 12. Thing that has most surprised you?

No one tells you how sick you’re going to be. I can confidently say that we were pretty consistently sick with either a fever or some form of intestinal distress for the first three months of our trip. It has been manageable thanks to our amazing first aid kit and the incredible medical care in Asia, but I didn’t expect it at all. Since then we’ve been remarkably healthy, but whether it’s due to more careful eating, different countries or just adjusting to new bacteria I couldn’t say.

13. Something you would do if you had more time and/or money?

Some things you can’t do on the cheap and you just have to pay a premium for them. Some such examples are: climbing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, jungle trekking in Chiang Mai, or exploring Cheow Larn Lake in Thailand. We tried to prioritize and spend money where we thought it would be most memorable, but there’s always amazing things left undone. Other things we did on the cheap, and I wish we would have splurged on like hiring a driver for a day in Agra, India or going out at night more. If I had more time, I think I would really have liked to visit Laos and Vietnam while we were in South East Asia, a great reason to go back I guess.

 

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