Wednesday, February 5, 2014

So Long to SE Asia

Unfortunately my time has come to an end in SE Asia.  Everyday was an adventure and my route has left with so many amazing experiences and funny stories.  As crazy and chaotic as this continent can be, it is so dramatically different than Europe and North America, the novelty of traveling here never wore off! No two days were the same, and just when I thought I had figured out how things worked, something would surprise me.  Where else in the world can you see five people squished on a scooter, dogs roasting on an open fire, bikes piled high with all sorts of goods, and farmers taking their cows for a run along the side of the road.  Entertaining only begins to describe the sights I saw from my saddle…..

In the western world, you have a certain amount of control, confidence, and insight into how things work in order to make your day-to-day life predictable and comforting.  In the western world, you know what to expect, but in SE Asia, this all changes.  Here, I learned to forget about any expectations that I might have, be open-minded, never make assumptions, and embrace and cheerish the moment.  

I put together a simple list of the top ten things I will miss the most from SE Asia….. 

Personal space, it just doesn’t exist!
After living in Spain, I thought I was used to having people get up close and personal, but in Asia they come even closer!  A lot of times they will grab you and escort you places, touch you, as if you are some sort of object on display.  There is no boundary as far as personal space is concerned.  I don’t think I ever managed to sit at a cafe or restaurant alone for my entire trip, even though I road alone, people always approached me and got up close and personal!  Lots of the people would even snicker and laugh right in my face, which made me crack up as well and laugh right back at them!

I wasn’t the only one with a loaded vehicle…
You won’t get any sympathy from the people in SE Asia for carrying a heavy load on your bike.  The majority of the people on a bicycle or motor scooter are carrying a load ten times the size and weight of what a tour cyclist carries. Bed mattresses, animal cages, furniture, garbage, two additional kids, gold fish for sale, bamboo shoots, you name the object and you can find it on a bike.  Just when you think you’ve seen the most loaded down bike possible carrying an enormous amount of goods, another bike pedals towards you carrying something even bulkier or heavier.  Cars and trucks also carried a ridiculous amount of goods as well! 
And I thought I had a heavy load....

All on the back of a scooter

Food here, food there, food, food everywhere!
You’ll never go hungry in Asia!  There is some sort of food stall, stand, or store every 5 kilometers along the road. In fact you can be choosy about what you want to eat because the first stand doesn’t look appealing, you can be guaranteed to find something suitable at the second.  And if it looks like something that you have never tried,….just put on a look of curiosity spit out a word or two asking if it is sweet or salty and they will even let you taste it! Rice comes in a variety of shapes, size, and forms.  You have all sorts of sweet food made from rice, breads and crackers, and savory meals with rice.  I stuck primarily to vegetarian options and fish after seeing ever animal imaginable on the back of a motor scooter meeting its fate.  “This little piggy went to market,” took on a whole new meaning in SE Asia! I broke all the rules when it comes to eating in SE Asia.  I ate all sorts of unpeeled fruits and vegetables and hardly ever went to a western restaurant.  Only once did I have stomach problems and ironically it was after taking an anti-parasitic medicine for prevention.
What's for dinner?

Everything is cheap!
You’re lucky to get a cup of coffee for a few dollars in developed countries, but for a couple of bucks I ate my heart out in SE Asia.  A bowl of soup and a beer costs just under $2 in Vietnam and in Malaysia you can get a plate of noodles and a drink for the same amount.  For a dollar, you have a kilo of any fruit from mangoes to pineapple, guava, to jackfruit.  In Cambodia, for $3 you could find a clean basic hotel for the night (other countries were a dollar or two higher).  In Laos, this same amount of money gave you internet for a week on a smartphone!  In Vietnam I bought several winter garments for the colder climate up north and spent no more than $4 on each, including a new balance jacket (the real deal, of course)!  Hence you can see why SE Asia is a paradise for cyclists.
Dinner for $1,60

Communicating was like playing charades or Pictionary.  Although I did miss engaging and thoughtful conversations from time-to-time in my native language, communicating with other people was quite entertaining in SE Asia.  Fingers and hand gestures were by far the most successful means of expressing myself.  When asking a price, 2 fingers always went up and when I handed them the amount, it was never seemed to be correct!

By far the most universal hand gesture was the solo index finger that went up along with raised eyebrows, asking if I was alone.  I had to laugh and look to each side to make sure no one had rolled up when I wasn’t looking.  Men never failed to hold their two index fingers side-by-side, asking if I was married.  Following this question, I was asked if I had kids, a gesture made by embracing their arms and rocking them back and forth.  I had to laugh,…..if I were married, my husband would be with me, not at home, and if I had kids, well, I’d figure out some way to strap them to the bike and bring them with me!! 
I can't remember how many times this many and his friends asked me if I had a boyfriend......
Asian fashion statements
I’ve seen it all when it comes to fashion here in Southeast Asia! My eyes lit up when I spotted a Barça jersey which was by far the most popular football jersey worn all throughout SE Asia.  If I had a dollar for every FC Barçelona jersey I saw, I would be a millionaire!

Women love to wear pajamas in SE Asia, and I’m not talking about little skimpy silky slips.  They wear the full-on long sleeve button down tops and the long pants all day long whether they are going to the market, work, or just hanging out. 

Flip-flops are by far the most popular footwear, even in the colder months.  You see, they’ve invented a special big toe separated sock in order to where them all year round. This sock looks a bit like a foot mitten where the big toe is separated from the rest of the four toes, making it easy to wear flip-flops (unless you have funny toes like me)!

The most practical fashion statement would have to be the backwards jackets on the motor scooters. For an extra layer, drivers put on a jacket, but why bother having to zip it up when you can wear it backwards and leave it open in the back?!?!  What a brilliant invention and a fast way to put on an extra layer! 

Backwards jackets, I get it!

Coffee with condensed milk
My preferred beverage obviously gets a category of its own!  Would I have been able to do the kilometers I did without this sweet caffeinated treat?  I’m not sure.  Whether it be a Café Sua in Vietnam, Kopi Susu in Cambodia or Laos, Iced Kofi in Malaysia, or simply an Iced Coffee in Thailand, I just couldn’t drink enough coffee.  In fact the one and only gift I bought for myself in all of Asia was a small simple coffee filter, Vietnamese style.  I voted Vietnam’s coffee to be the most flavorful and Thailand deserves an honorable mention for their jumbo size bags, that appeals to the tour cyclist.

Better than any sports drink out there on the market

Lack of rules and order
There is no rhyme or reason to the way things are done here and no “norms” what-so-ever.  Anything goes in SE Asia.  From China to Cambodia, men and women of all ages would spit on the ground.  Whether it be in the middle of a conversation, while eating, or walking down the street, people would clear their throats and hock a big loogie. 

When it comes to driving and the rules on the road, it was total chaos, but somehow it worked. Roundabouts are pointless because people don’t actually go all the way around them to make a turn.  They go whichever way is faster. As a cyclist, you share the shoulders of the road with motorized vehicles that are going against traffic for whatever reason. The only two rules that exist I discovered were, 1) never stop and 2) look left.  If you follow those two simple rules, you’ll be set.  Perhaps there are more rules on the road, but since I couldn’t actually read the road signs, I’ll never know!
I actually do know what this is saying!

Feeling Famous
Everywhere I went, people always wanted to take picture with me, even at the most remote little restaurants where I stopped.  Within 5 minutes of my arrival, the local running the joint had called all their friends to come to see for themselves just exactly what had rolled up!  I should have worn a sign that said, Please don’t touch! because they didn’t just want to look, they were fascinated to touch and feel! They were eager to take a picture with me, touch my bike, my bags, my LEGS! A solo female cyclist was such a rare sight for them to see.  In Thailand, I visited a 50 foot horizontal golden Buddha, quite an impressive landmark.  Yet the Indonesian tourists were more excited to see me on my bike than the Buddha!  I was flattered really,… I never would have thought I’d be up there on the list with Buddha for most visited tourist sights!

They were more excited to see me than the Buddha
I didn’t even know what this fruit was before I arrived in Vietnam.  I remember buying it all peeled and ready to eat after a vendor let me try it.  I liked it, but didn’t see it again until S. Laos.  It wasn’t until Cambodia that I saw the actual fruit and how it was prepared.  Sometimes I wish I hadn’t discovered it as it became an obsession for me.  There was something in that fruit that my body craved and needed for all the kilometers that I was doing.  By the end of my route, I had a to impose a daily kilogram limit or else I would have eaten it for three meals a day. Thankfully I didn’t enjoy the durians as much as they were more expensive and smelled strongly.  Whenever possible I stopped for Jackfruits.  It’s no exaggeration when I say half of my food budget probably went to buying kilos of this delicious tropical fruit, that I probably won’t have again until I go back to SE Asia.

Oh, how I love my Jackfruit!

1 comment:

  1. Bonic reportatge, com sempre!!. Un resum detallat el mes important que t'ha copsat d'Asia. Ara si que he vist i no t'ho amagues, que tard o dora tornaràs a aquest continent del que t'has enamorat