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“We peer so suspiciously at each other that we cannot see that we Canadians are standing on the mountaintop of human wealth, freedom and privilege.”
~ Pierre Elliott Trudeau

There’s a funny thing that happens when you travel through small rural communities in Australia…you’re actually, usually, mistaken for a local! I know we’d each like to think we’d stick out ; what, with our pulled-together looks, radiating charm, and big-city confidence?… but really we’re all the same.

So the locals assume you’re with them. Either that or, on the off-chance you really are that put together, they can spot the foreigner a mile away. Luckily, due to my wardrobe – or lack there of (I’ve spent months upon months wearing the same stuff and I can’t wait to burn most of them).. I don’t think I stick out much at all. Well, at least until I open my mouth. I will admit there’s something really nice about chatting to a checkout clerk and being told I have a lovely accent.

..a lovely Irish accent. Is it cold in Ireland? Right.

It’s nice not to stick out; to blend in. But then it’s always nice to be able to use your nationality as an excuse to decline unwanted solicitation. Example: While walking on any street, at anytime of day, in any part of Vietnam, one must have quick answers to questions that resemble, but are not limited to: “Where you going lady?”….”Cheap price for you?”…”You buy now?..Yes? Now? …Lady…big sizes lady…cheap for you, you buy?”  In most cases a simple direct “no thank you” doesn’t suffice. They stalk on. Shaking your head, waving your hands down to the ground; stern but passive, dead look in the eyes…this works sometimes (in Australian bars as well, but that’s another story). Now, when these street vendors and moto-drivers we speak of realize they’re not getting through with they’re promises of high quality good n’ services at dirt-cheap prices, the smart ones will pull out the big guns.

Their next question, as they follow beside you on the street: “Where you from lady?”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I grew up knowing that it’s only polite to answer when someone asks you a direct question about your native country…especially when you’re from such rad place – it’s like bragging. What’s the harm?

”Uh, Canada.”

Oh! CANADA!?! Canada: vvvvvery nnnnnice! Canada beeaaauuuutttiffffullll.” Their wide-eyed awe is hard to hide: they’ve been so very fortunate to have met someone from Europe!

The politeness continues, you can’t help but feel flattered at the reverie. ”Um, yeah…you been?”…

Oh shit. You’re in a conversation. What?!

Sneaky.

Well, after a few rounds of these blindsided attack on one’s good senses, it’s easy enough to avoid. You just make stuff up. It’s not hard. Take the name of your favourite animal or food and add -ville or Island. There you have it: a new country! Eggs Island (also in Europe). Unicornicopia is a favourite.

Oh, Unicornicopia? So verrry nicccce there….”

So it doesn’t actually work, but at least it’s amusing.

Anyway, I digress. I was going to write about Australia. I’m not going to write about Australia now though. There’s time for that. I have another couple of weeks here before I head to the Land of the Long White Cloud. I’m starting to get nostalgic for my year in Oz and I haven’t even left yet. Ridiculous.

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Thailand was a treat. Upon arrival we were greeted with fireworks, a parade, dance and light shows…it was amazing. We ate bugs – more than one – and agreed they tasted like the small crispy bits of french fries.    We wandered around in awe at the activity, picking small antennae out of our teeth, and only on our way out of the city the next day, did we find out it was Coronation Day.  One night in Bangkok …pretty great.

The majority of our taste of Thai – you know, besides the grasshoppers and such – was spend on beaches surrounded by other young westerners. It was quite a change of pace from our experience in Cambodia but it was easy and relaxing.

Our Balinese Christmas came and went and was lost in a sad and happy wave of normality I had never experienced before. It was good to take a break though…no carols, no presents, no freezing temperatures. We had a seafood dinner and I was lucky to share my token Christmas Guinness with two Irish blokes.  They kept us entertained with tales of excess and debauchery.  I reckon that Guinness pool-side is just as good as eggnog fire-side.  And tales of debauchery are a very close second to “Miracle on 34th Street”.

All in all, our last couple of weeks in Asia  were a gentle transition – relatively speaking – back into the throngs of the Western world.  Both the prices and the touristy-feel increased as we migrated south. We were blessed with exceptional scenery, culture, and religion.  This assisted in filling our hearts with a sort of pseudo holiday joy.

And so we made it back to Australia in time to celebrate the bringing-in of a new year.  This one will be pretty good I think.  A year of new beginnings… adventure, travel, friends, family, new things, new people, old things, and all things in-between.

We are alive and it’s our job to do some serious living.  Everyday will be a day of celebration even if it’s small and quiet and personal.  We will smile more. Why not? We will forgive – get over it.  We will open our hearts and be amazed when others open their hearts to us.

We will realize our faults and forgive them.  If we are able to forgive others the very least we can do is forgive ourselves.

We will get excited.  There’s a lot to do: we pay the bills and do the dishes, but everyday holds joy, and if it doesn’t then we need to make changes.  Maybe we will open up, be honest, and ask for help.
We will find love.  It’s everywhere and it comes in oh, so many forms and it starts with you. We will give love and give it freely – that means no strings– none…no exception.

One of the best things I’ve done this year is to remove myself from my comfort zone.  I’m not suggesting everyone give up everything they have to travel the world – although I support you 100% if this is the case, and I hope to meet you along the way.  The montage of destinations are simply a change of canvas that has helped in removing routine, pattern and familiarity from the equation.  The palette.

All the most memorable experiences of the past year are the ones that initially gave me pause.  The times that I had to work up the balls to get ‘er done. No shortcuts.  I’ve had to challenge myself, ask for help, take the leap.  When I have truly done this, each and every time, I have walked away a little bit proud of myself.

It’s important to know that these challenges have resulted in a magnitude of outcomes.  The whole gambit; an entire colour spectrum of emotion.  Regardless of the greys and browns and blacks, I have surfaced more complete – each experience benefiting the painting-in-progress that is my life.

May 2010 be a more-happy-than-sad year for all of us. A colourful year.

As we make our way over another border, our fellow passengers bob their heads in tandem to the swaying, bumping bus.  I pretend my head-wobbling is just the same, but really I am quietly and almost, but not quite, dancing in my too-short seat.  My knees dig into the back of the poor person ahead of me.

We roll forward past the onslaught of vehicles, the buildings, numerous electrical wires bundled, en masse, above the houses, the shacks, the people.  I nurse a headache resulting from a late night out – hours of dancing in the rain.

So much is going on outside my window.  As we travel forward, I travel backwards in time through my music.  My on-again-off-again, mostly malfunctioning iPod is a saving grace on a six hour bus ride with delays at the border.  Actually, the ride is pretty smooth and easily contrasts the horror stories we’ve been heard about local land-travel.  We may have lucked out with our particular bus.  Consistency of service ain’t much a priority ‘round here…

Shuffle: my favourite way to go.  I’m on a little musical journey.  Maybe it’s the exhaustion but I’m feeling each song – each one wraps itself up in my soul.  Every song holds my hand and walks with me through a multitude of memories.  Does everyone remember people when they listen to music?… I think they do. Maybe places, events, eras? Anyway, this is how it is for me.  A personal soundtrack, always there in the background…blaring from the sidelines of my life.

He caught me dancing.  It’s a story for another time.  A memory wrapped up in a song and an instant.  It’s whittled itself into my heart and been coaxed out by sleepiness, shuffled songs, too much time to think.

He Caught me dancing.  This was one of those pinnacle moments – never forgotten – that changed everything.  I smile and as I remember.  The moment was encased; dressed up as a laugh and a look, and it’s never been forgotten.  And although we make a thousand choices a day, this was one of those big moments disguised as a small one.  It’s a good memory.

Theme Song of the Day:

Dust Storm – Seagull

If life seems jolly rotten
there’s something you’ve forgotten
and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
~Monty Python


I love my family.  We who have family, and friends that are loved as family, we are among the lucky ones.

The Peaceful Children's Home Dining Room

The Peaceful Children's Home Dining Room

Missy and I were greeted by the throng of small, beautiful children.   Our bikes had carried us down the red dusty road just south of Battambang, Cambodia.  We travelled to this small city on a personal invite from a family friend of Missy’s named Len.  Len is from Vancouver Island but is spending six months here in Cambodia, helping with the construction of multipurpose building at The Peaceful Children’s Home, an orphanage that fifty-five children call home.

Looking up at us with wide eyes, each of them waited their turn in approaching us.  With their hands together, they bowed in respect.  Although initially overwhelming, their solemn gestures exuded both grace and welcoming at the same time.  Missy and I weren’t sure what to expect… how were we to talk to them?  Our limited Khmer: “hello” …“thank you”… “no sugar” …although highly useful and enough to get by on a day-to-day basis, these phrases just didn’t seem to cut it here.

New Friends at the Orphanage

New Friends at the Orphanage

Within minutes I felt a small hand slip through mine.  Another one lightly grasped my wrist.  Missy and I were being led around the grounds.  All the kids that could get a piece of us were hanging on.  We were given a tour, meeting the older children as we went.  We saw their sleeping quarters, the small kitchen and dining hall, the gardens and the new multi-purpose building, in its early stages – the foundation just being laid, at the back of the complex.  The afternoon was spent playing and running around.  Duck, duck, goose was an instant favourite.

These kids are amazing.  Their histories are varied but they have all ended up in the orphanage due to dark and heartrending circumstances.  They have all come from hard, seemingly hopeless lives.  The Peaceful Children’s Home gives them a future and a family and they smile though they have very little.

Everything about Cambodia has been amazing.  We had originally planned about five days in the country; the Temples of Angkor and the orphanage in Battambang were our two priorities.  Thinking we would more-or-less bypass the capital Phnom Penh entirely, we actually ended up spending three nights there and having to tear ourselves away from the beautiful and dynamic city.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Two days of exploring Siem Reap and the surrounding Angkor temples, well that actually turned into four.  We spent much longer in Battambang than we had planned because we couldn’t stand to say goodbye to the kids. We also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in a small village just west of the city. On one of our nightly outing we were approached by the founder of a free English School and we were asked to come see the school and talk with the children.  I used a pointer and it felt great!  Oh yeah, we figured that we should learn how to cook at least a few of the delicious dishes we’ve been enjoying for almost two weeks.

Fresh fish from the market for Amok

Fresh fish from the market for Amok

We spent a morning learning the intricacies of Khmer Cuisine….fish amok, luk lac, and tom yam.  Yum.

And finally, it was decided: time to fly to Bangkok and start the Thai leg of our journey. …but then again, you know, we haven’t really explored the south and we’ve heard some great things…?  And so it is – we find ourselves in Sihanoukville, on the South coast of the country.  Just a couple of days…or five.  Ok, six…and then we fly to Bangkok.

Theravadian Buddhist Monks in Battambang

Theravadian Buddhist Monks in Battambang

Our tickets are booked and we sadly say goodbye to this beautiful country that has managed to spring back, if not ahead, after such recent torments that spanned the vast and appallingly evil side of humanity.  We have both laughed and cried many times, and we’re in agreement that these distracted wanderings and detours and are some of the best we’ve made.

…So much has happened, and we have seen and experienced so many things in the last few weeks, that I am having trouble figuring out what to share!

This time around I have decided that a picture is worth a thousand words…

The Phu Quoc Phantoms

A highlight of the Island of Phu Quoc in the far south of Vietnam included renting bikes to explore the island!

Underwater Cameras Rock!

We spent some time snorkeling too!

Monkey & Me

Monkey & Me - The company was amazing!?!

….What else?  Oh yeah – we saw Hoi An, on the central coast. The beautiful architecture did not go unnoticed as we roamed the narrow lanes.  We spent a lot of time along the  Thu Bon River.

The Thu Bon River, Hoi An

The Thu Bon River, Hoi An

From there we went north to the capital: Hanoi.

Our next direction was back to the coast – Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island.  We spent the night on a boat and a night on an island and it was beautiful and fun and we met some good folk along the way. Hiking and Kayaking  and relaxing on the boat took up most of our time.  The backdrop was breath-taking.

Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam

Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam

The Top of Tower on Top of a Hill on Cat Ba Island

The Top of Tower on Top of a Hill on Cat Ba Island

This is just a small taste of some of the places we’ve had the opportunity to explore.  Vietnam is one of the most diverse and devastatingly beautiful countries I have ever seen.  Before my visa expires we will cross the border to Cambodia.

Another adventure awaits…
but then, doesn’t it always?

I had to wonder if the mild numbness in my face had anything to do with taking my first anti-malarial tablet….or maybe it was the snake wine I had with lunch?  It’s so hard to know.

Even after reading through the former’s possible side-effects (numbness is, indeed, on the list) my vote stands strong with the latter.

Perfect for Pickling

Perfect for Pickling

You’ve got to imagine there is still venom in there somewhere….rumour states that the toxins are deactivated by the rice wine-pickling, but really – the entire snake is coiled up in the bottle, fangs and all.  It smiles at you from the cloudy jar… a gaping “last laugh” smile…incisors prominently displayed.  I’ve seen the same mocking grin on spiders and crocodiles (we’ve all been warned of crocodile tears, but crocodile smiles warrant even more caution; you never want to think a crocodile knows more than you).

Smiling, to be sure!

Smiling, to be sure!

As the numbness spread down through my neck and chest I cautiously asked how Kim was feeling… not wanting to raise alarm bells unnecessarily. She and I had shared a dollop of the light amber liquid and she said she was just fine, her tone questioning…?   I laughed nervously and said I was just tired.  When we spoke of it a few days later she admitted that she had also experienced some numbness but didn’t want to worry me. Aren’t we so good to each other?

.. side-effects of snake, to be sure.  The numbness – not the kindness.

Snake wine is supposed to enhance vigor and cure whatever ails you (if the thing that ails you in sobriety then you are in luck!).  It’s sold all over the place; packaged in small bottles with small snakes – perfect for tourists to take home as souvenirs.  Many times a small scorpion accompanies the reptile for good measure.  Pretty and potent.

Our Version: Not as Pretty!

Our Version: Not as Pretty!

The snake wine we had was of an entirely different variety. We had stopped in a small village a few hours out of Saigon. It was so hot and so muggy and we had ordered soup (traditional pho is quite addictive even when its 35C outside).  We had a cold soda and couldn’t help but notice the dusty liquor cabinet, perched grandma-style, at the edge of the room.  Amongst ambiguous Vietnamese liquor and ancient bottles of rum, there sat a large plastic bucket.  In all its anonymous glory, it was anything but pretty.  The snake was incredibly big.  It beckoned.  Anti-malarials have nothing on this stuff.

Snake Wine Instructions

Snake Wine Instructions

This particular concoction tasted of mild rice wine with hints of brandy, vodka, and venom.  The scaly skin doesn’t offer much taste but surely enhances consistency.  One would never know it was anything but fantastic.  A bonus: no more lower back pain.  And I’m sure my problem with ‘sweat of limbs’ has drastically subsided.…  pretty, potent and practical!

This was definitely one of those moments that wouldn’t have been the same had I been travelling solo.  I was so happy to share in both the horrors and the glory of snake wine with my incredible travel companion.  Thank you Kim, for the great couple of weeks together – I haven’t laughed so much in a long time!

Theme Songs of the Day:

Dog Days are OverFlorence & the Machine

Home for a Rest – Spirit of the West

*(My first choice was: Kimberly Austin – Porno for Pyros… but, alas, no good version  on the internet)

Floating Market of the Mekong Delta

Floating Market of the Mekong Delta

Theme song of the Day:

Noctuary Bonobo

In a country so stricken by poverty, its hard to fathom how a shop that sells only large stuffed caterpillars can make a go of it. This is the complexity and contradictory simplicity that is Vietnam.

As we made our way through the maze-like waterways of the Mekong Delta we were struck by so many thoughts and feelings that seemed at odds with each other.

The Mekong Delta supports millions of people and it shows. We tried to hide our unintentional looks of disgust as the spray from the boat hit our faces.

Sunrise on the Mekong

Sunrise on the Mekong

There were people bathing, fishing, and trolling boats of various shapes and sizes along the river. The floating markets are hubs of activity – each boat hangs a sample of their wares from poles at the stern – a form of advertising. Women are a huge part of this important venture. It’s so hot and humid, they row their small boats, heavy with produce, up the waterway for hours, yet they look so put together. Many don silk suits and they all don looks of determination and pride. I would be proud.

We spent a few days in a small city called Can Tho before making our way to the coast. Rach Gia is home to the port that is home to the ferry system that takes people to the island of Phu Quoc.

Jill and Qua, On the Way to White Sand Dune!

Jill and Qua, On the Way to White Sand Dune!

It’s also the first place that I really felt my visible minority status. As we walked from the bus station to search out guesthouses children ran out to great us “hello, hello, English”….people stared; turning around to watch us pass. This doesn’t happen in cities as big as Saigon. In Vietnamese culture one is best to blend in. Standing out is undesirable. … but then, there is a novelty to us ‘big girls’…5’9”, both of us. My blond hair and freckles get a lot of looks.

I was stared down by the driver of one of our taxis, after I said hello. He looked at me as though I had just uttered a string of profanities regarding his family. I felt I had offended him in some way and I was feeling quite self-conscious. I sat quietly for the 20 minute drive.  As we got out of the van to grab our bags,  he mumbled shyly in very broken, quiet English…head down: “You are very beaut-i-ful”… I smiled inside and out – it’s so easy to misinterpret.

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I am amazed by the way we are welcomed. We have made friends at every turn. Our waiters and motorbike drivers insist on giving us their phone numbers, writing out English words, helping us with our limited Vietnamese phrases, offering themselves as husbands (just joking…sort of). The people that can speak English are eager to practice.

I couldn’t help but expect a sort of underlying national animosity towards Westerners…North Americans in particular, after arriving in Vietnam. It would be so understandable; the recent history of this nation can’t be easily forgotten…can it? I wouldn’t think so. It shouldn’t be. But from what I’ve witnessed so far, it seems that for many, the horrific history is just that. History.

Theme Song of the Day:

Don’t Fight Itthe Panics

The fishing Boats in Mui Ne

The fishing Boats in Mui Ne

It’s been a matter of days, but it really feels as though we’ve seen and done enough to warrant a few weeks in this little nook in a small, but vibrant, corner of SE Asia.   It’s time to slow down a bit, and we’ve found the perfect place to do just that.

Kim and I awoke in a small coastal town called Mui Ne this morning.  We’re in agreement: this will be our temporary home as long as our itinerary will allow.  There is something in the air that differs incredibly from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon), where we’ve spent the last few days…it might be the whiff of the brackish, fishy ocean?   You get used to it. Actually it’s just a quietness; it floats on the air.   Only waves break through the heavy, humid blanket that wraps itself around you and doesn’t let go.

Mui Ne is the wind- and kite-surfing capital of Vietnam and many guesthouses line the six kilometer beach…fishing boats span the horizon.  We’re on the edge of the South China Sea.  So far, the entire scope of our activity has been walking, reading, spa-ing, eating and sleeping…oh, and swimming!  Beautiful.

Saigon was about how I’d imagined it.  Maybe bigger, busier, noisier, …more motorbikes.  SO many motor bikes – supposedly the ratio is 2:1 people to motorbikes.  That works out to about 5 million bikes in the Saigon area alone.  I had read that crossing the street can be perilous in HCMC.  It was suggested that one is to walk slowly and steadily through the throng, eyes focused on the other side of the street.  I guess the idea is that everyone will adapt and move around you if they can see the direction you’re intending?  Yeah, that doesn’t work (not in the streets of HCMC… nor in everyday life).

Kim at the Markets in Saigon

Kim at the Markets in Saigon

The funny thing about crossing traffic-laden streets is that you can’t really practice.  It’s something that should be done properly, right off the bat.  No room for getting it a “little bit wrong”… luckily survival instinct should kick in.  My best advice: face the fear, take a deep breath, look for a small gap and make eye –contact.  Cross slowly and steadily but look at the drivers, they need to know what you’re doing. Eye contact is the key.   Áfter the first couple of times it becomes second nature.  I feel I have the skills to jay-walk ANYWHERE around the world.  Travel teaches you so much, hey?

Outside the War remnanats Museum

Outside the War remnanats Museum

Anyway, it’s been a few days now, but I am still thinking about our trip to The War Remnants Museum in HCMC. The pictures and stories on display give a no-holds-barred look at the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War over here) and the atrocities that took place.  It’s the worst of the horrific things you’ve heard about, but in its visualized form the horrors are really driven home.  The effects of Agent Orange and other dioxins that were used are discussed and displayed vividly.  Kim and I had a chance to meet people disfigured by these chemicals the very next day, and let me tell you – these people have strength – it certainly gives one a different perspective on the many faces of the spirit of humanity.

Needless to say, the history here is vast and has affected me deeply.  It has given rise to thoughts and feelings with regards to politics, patriotism, mob-mentality, and the power of the human spirit and the lengths we will go to simply survive.  This may not be the medium to discuss all this, but I think it’s important to touch on something that has shaped the culture of this country so profoundly. Humans are capable of so much – good and bad.  It’s amazing how we are able to rationalize even the most abhorrent behavior.

Some of Our New Friends

Some of Our New Friends

Although these are heavythoughts, we have also managed to enjoy all that Saigon has to offer.  We have met some great people.  Only hours after we arrived on our first night we were invited to an engagement party!  We were treated as old friends as we sat and ate and drank and shared stories with the locals.  We danced too, but didn’t take our new friends up on their all-night dancing party.  What a welcome.

The Office

The Office

 

The people here have so much to offer and smiles welcome you at every turn.  Poverty has settled in between the cracks and it’s so easy to become desensitized to it.  But happiness is prevalent and there is a determined and relaxed quality that surrounds us; it’s admirable and beautiful.

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