Archive for January, 2007

Anti-Travel Guide-Travel Guide

So I started writing my own version of a travel guide on the train earlier today, somewhere overlooking the cold Vietnamese coast to the East and shadowed by green mountains to the West. Sort of an anti-travel guide travel guide, if that makes any sense. I was reflecting as padi fields and small villages passed by the window how I had no idea that I would be riding this train less than 12 hours before, that it was the result of a series of last minute adjustments and unforseen events – and that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Had I a better understanding of how to get where I wanted to go, or even a clear picture of where it was exactly that I wanted to go, I would have been spared a good deal of anxiety and a few moments of panic, but I also would have missed out on any number of experiences that I might never forget my entire life.

As it is, I find myself at some guesthouse in Quy Nhon, a town right on the coast, which has given me in its first hour an awesome impression. The streets are somewhat busy in a lazy sort of way, now that the sun has gone down, I found some tasty noodles down on the street from an old woman that got a kick out of dishing out a bowl to a strange white fellow, and best of all, a warm ocean breeze slides through the streets and into my face, a soft sort of air that I have not felt for far too long.

But we seem to have wondered away from where we started, which was this travel guide. Books like the Lonely Planet often prevent one from experiencing a lot of great things as it becomes a crutch – it defines its own reality. It’s kind of a self fulfilling prophecy, because someone using it to travel in a foreign country might indeed feel like it is a lonelyplanet, detached from the rest of humanity even as they are surrounded by it.

Your Man in Vietnam

Some of the amazing geography, near the town of Nin Binh, close to Hanoi, in the North.

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A sign at one of the temples, also outside of Nin Binh.

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Ted, after a long day of getting lost in the city of Hue. From the top of the huge front gate, the door to the imperial compound.

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Ted, all battle-geared up, ready to hit the road, his last morning back in Nin Binh.

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I freaked out when I stepped away from the Bahasa language, the language of Indonesia and Malaysia, the language that I have struggled so hard to get a grasp of – only for a moment, though, until the language nerd in me got that old high that comes from trying to figure out a whole new language. And new it certainly is – Vietnamese is different in so many ways.

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And it’s not only the language that has Vietnam throwing a stready stream of new stimuli in my direction. The food, the faces, the weather, even the entire political system. And, after finally getting used to looking right before left when crossing the street, it feels strange to drive on the right hand side of the road again.

There are an infinite number of comparisons that could be made between what I observe here in Vietnam (remembering, of course, that I am still more or less at the first impression stage) and Indonesia and Malaysia (places that I have lived for over a year and a half total). It is very difficult to pinpoint the origins of many of these differences – for example, some might say that the religion of Vietnam results in a different relationship between men and women than that of Islamic countries. This could also be linked to the socialism of Vietnam, as well, as opposed to the more open markets of other places. I am by no means ready to make that judgement.

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I wrote earlier of my addiction to the marvellous flavour and culture of coffee in Indonesia, especially in the province of Aceh. Once again, the local black magic has me under its spell, though once again it is very unique. Even the act of drinking it is different – the cafe is still a meaningful gathering place for vietnamese people, but in an entirely different way. I’ll have to expand on that. Check out my food blog,, This Spicy World, for a couple pictures.

Kuala Lumpur Damage Report: A City in Transition

The city of Kuala Lumpur, the national capital of Malaysia, embodies the ambiguities, promises and dangers of globalization and the state of our contemporary global world more than almost any other place that I’ve been.

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Kuala Lumpur is known for its strange and vibrant mixture of loud China-town and its lazy coffee shops, colorful and incense laced streets, huge beautiful mosques, international banks and shining skyscrapers. That old culture – the open markets, the stalls lining the streets selling Chinese, Malay and Mamak food, old men in sarong – are still very visible in the city. However, men and women in business suits ride the wonderfully air-conditioned light rail train and Rapid-Transit buses to offices, passing the many shopping malls, the Hard Rock Cafes, and many examples of the ‘post-modern fusion’ that results in places like the “Thai Cowboy Bar, Tomyam and Steakhouse.”

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The writing is on the wall.


A Promotion of Study Abroad

An article of Ted’s, titled “Studying abroad helps to be successful and ethical in a complex world,” was published in the Asian American Press, and was picked up by a site called Muara Teweh. It is a piece intended to promote educational programs in schools and Universities that send students to other countries and into other cultures. The University of Minnesota asked Ted to write this piece as a part of the “Year of Study Abroad” that was declared by the government of the state of Minnesota.

The Coffee and The Conflict in Aceh

This is a small piece about politics in Aceh, Indonesia. I was there during the Islamic holiday of Idul Adha, the culmination of the Haj. The end of the conflict between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement ended less than two years ago, the first elections were held in December, last month, and the region is still recovering from the 2004 Tsunami that his Aceh harder than any other place.

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Coffee is a large part of the culture there. It is literally intoxicating, if prepared correctly, and plays an interesting social function as the cafe becomes a space for important political interaction.

It is posted on my special travel and food adventures blog, This Spicy World.

Religion – Diversity, Divisive

In a small house in Bajingan, a family sits on bamboo mats laid on the floor, eating lunch in a semicircle around the body of the old man who had died the day before. This is a part of the funeral ceremony of the Batak tribe of North Sumatra. The family will live in the room 24 hours a day, designated female members of the family weeping, others singing or dancing, until the body is laid to rest. That happens when the entire family has finally gathered – there are stories of two week gatherings as people waited for family members to return from overseas. A protestant nun enters the house to pay her respects and lead the family in a prayer – a majority of North Sumatrans have adopted Christianity, a result of European missionaries. One of the daughters of the dead man has converted to Islam through marriage, and she returns to the gathering after performing sholat, or prayers, at a nearby mosque. A Christmas tree still stands in corner, the holiday only recently passed.


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Island Hopping

A few days ago, I was in a region of North Sumatra that my friend, whose family I had joined for xmas, was proud to say has the highest percentage of Catholics, in the country (Indonesia). The area is admittedly full of churches and Christian schools, as well as many signs of a different, more ubiquitous European colonial/ missionary influence that in Java. Today, however, my friend here in Banda Aceh tells me that this region, just across the mountains from Sumatra Utara and Medan, on the West coast of the Island of Sumatra, is 99% Islamic.

After stepping out of my room for the last time in Depok, only a few days ago, I feel like I have passed through, lived in, several different universes. A few days ago, the trappings of Christmas and the New Year were all around, with a Sumatran twist, of course – but there was hardly any sign of the Islamic Idul Adha holiday on December 31. Here in Aceh, however, I would not have known that Christmas was a few days ago and that today is only the second day of the new year if my cell phone did not display the date. However, it’s even difficult to find a place to eat in Banda Aceh because everything is shut down for Hari Raya Idul Adha, the culmination of the Haji to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Unlike anywhere else in Indonesia, it is just as celebrated as Idul Fitri throughout the rest of the country. The only province in Indonesia to have implemented Islamic law (a compromise with the government that was part of the ending of the 30 year war for independence last year), the field in front of the central mosque was full as people gathered for the Sholat Idul Adha (prayers), and it has been a public holiday for a week already.

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