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Horror Stories from Abroad: Huế, Vietnam

 

I should be studying for STEP 1 right now. It’s that time of year for second year medical students, the dreaded “Dedicated”—as in dedicated to studying upwards of eight hours a day for eight weeks in preparation for the biggest standardized exam we’ve taken in our educational careers. NBD.

Instead, I’m writing about a time six months ago when I was on the other side of the world, a time when standardized exams were the last thing on my mind because something much more important was occupying my frontal cortex: my survival. That’s right, this post will be another near-death (or at least catastrophic) experience from abroad, this time in the historic city of Huế, Vietnam, the capital of the country from about 1800 to the end of WWII. The city is best known for its Imperial Palace, so I on my first day there I set off on bicycle to explore it on my own.

The palace was cool, and huge, but I managed to cover the entire grounds in about three hours (did I mention it was approximately 1000 degrees? That’s about 550 Celsius). And because I’d allotted the whole day for the Imperial Palace, I had some time to kill before nightfall. I figured I might as well continue exploring the city. There was a riverside market that was supposed to be big and strange (two of my favorite things!), and from the free map the bike rental guy had given me, it seemed fairly close by. I drank some water, ate a few Lychee berries (free with the room—score!) and set off.

The Imperial Palace

About an hour later, it seemed like I’d been riding too long. I pulled out my map. Unable to recognize any landmarks (there were none) nor street names (all in Vietnamese), I was forced to pull onto a side street to get my bearings. “Follow the river,” the bike rental man had said. But the river was nowhere in sight! The roads snaked in every direction, with neither a grid pattern nor house numbers to guide me. I appeared to be in a neighborhood, perhaps a suburb of the main city, and I was a long way from any tourist sights. Of that much, I was sure. I hadn’t seen a white person in, well, about an hour.

I pulled out my cell phone. Even though I had neither service nor wifi, I had a half-populated Google Maps app which represented frantic me as a glowing blue dot in a sea of nondescript green. It also showed the river. I was far from it, as I’d suspected, and there didn’t appear to be any roads that would lead me straight to it. Rather, it would require a sequence of turns, and this banking on the fact that once I reached the river, there would be a continuous path alongside it to reach the bridge which would then take me back downtown. That was a lot of variables. Still, I had no choice but to turn back, hoping to take the same turns I’d taken, avoid getting struck by the onslaught of disorganized motor bikes, (I’m talking no street signs, no traffic signals, no lanes, no sidewalks. Strictly mahem, with every man and woman for his or her damn self), and stumble across the correct bridge which would lead me back into the center of town.

Big girl that I was, I threw on my Tupac playlist, hopped back in the metaphorical saddle, and turned my ass around. And the first thing that I did was take a wrong turn. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I only realized it about thirty minutes later, when my flashing blue portrait on the Maps app showed that I was now farther from the river. How the…?

Okay, I told myself. Let’s give up on the bike thing and get a cab.

Funny, that, because I was in a residential area, and there wasn’t a cab in sight.

The sun was beginning to slip behind the buildings. My stomach was rumbling, and I had just one sip of water left in my bottle.

Yeah, right…

Plan B: stay calm. Plan C: find somewhere with wifi. You can contact the hotel and they can send someone to pick you up.

I looked around. There was no wifi advertised anywhere. I was walking my bike now, Tupac turned down to low, hands slick on handlebars. True, there was no wifi—no apparent business anywhere, in fact. But as I continued to walk the streets, I noticed an open garage with a few tables set up inside and a boy about my age sitting with a laptop. I wheeled up to him, and he started, slamming his computer shut.

This reaction startled me in return, but I laugh now to think what I must have looked like marching up to this kid: a misplaced tourist, sweat soaking my shirt, face fried from the sun, and what must have been a crazed look in my eyes, accosting him in a foreign language about God-knows-what. How’s that for a first impression?

I sat at one of the tables, tried to look totally cool. I ordered a bottle of water, continuing to test my host’s English. The garage was in fact the kitchen of a private home. Why the door had been opened to the public I can’t say, but there was definitely no other patrons coming in, nor was there complimentary wifi.

Turns out the boy spoke zero English, and when I brandished my map under his nose, he frowned and scratched his head for a few minutes before sliding it back to me. Then he had an idea. He opened up his laptop and began furiously typing. “Translate” he muttered to me, then faced the screen towards me to type.

“I’m lost,” I wrote. “Can you help me get back to my hotel?”

An excruciating ten minutes of Google translate later, the boy had the brilliant idea to call me a cab. I gestured to my bike, but he assured me it would be okay.

While waiting in silence for the cab, what I gathered to be the boy’s father entered stage left. He and the boy spoke at length in Vietnamese, obviously about the strange white girl who had landed at their kitchen table. What the hell was that all about?

The boy caught his father up to speed, and about this time the cab driver arrived. He took one look at the bike and turned visibly angry, shouting in Vietnamese at the boy and his father and gesturing wildly to me. Yikes. I continued to sit, drink my water, and suffer my panic attack in silence.

The cabbie left.

The father sat across from me. He pulled out a napkin and began to draw a map. God help me, another freaking map. I really played up the damsel-in-distress role on this one, partly because I couldn’t read the damn map and partly because I knew as soon as I was on my own I would end up lost again, considering my frantic state of mind and ever-failing navigational abilities. The man crumpled the napkin on which he was drawing and stood. “I will take you,” he said.

Wait, what? That was an option this whole time?

He disappeared for a moment and returned with a red motorbike.

Shit.

“But my bike…” I said. What didn’t these people understand?

“I will take you,” he said again, and made to get on his bike. Okay…

I followed him, not knowing what else to do, and sat my ass on the back of his bike.

He laughed. “No, no,” he said. “You bike. I take you.”

This was going to be interesting.

He started up his bike and I hopped on mine, ready to pedal like my life depended on it (which it did) miles back the way I’d come. My consolation was that he probably knew these streets well, meaning he knew shortcuts and backroads so we wouldn’t have to take the highways.

Wrong.

I want to say this man was a Vietnamese Evil Knievel, but looking around as we raced through five lanes of seething, beeping traffic, I realized everyone in Vietnam was off their rocker when it came to driving. I was the only regular bike in the middle of the highway, that was for sure, but no one even batted an eye at the spectacle. They simply beeped and swerved their way around, leaving me tailing my lifeline in the form of red motorbike at ten miles an hour.

My lifeline was doing me a huge favor, but he wasn’t exactly making it easy for me. Not only did I have to constantly fear (appropriately) being struck from any angle at any moment by one of the thousands of motorbikes streaming around us, but he was also taking his turns at breakneck speeds with no notice, leaving me jerking and flailing behind. One such turn (about halfway through this godforsaken journey) he turned so sharply that when I made to emulate him, my tire caught on a ledge and sent me tumbling into the street. I glanced up just fast enough to see my little red lifeline disappear around the corner and out of sight.

I quickly snatched my bike and body out of the street before getting pummeled, but now I was truly out of luck. My back tire had popped! And, I was still in terrifyingly unfamiliar territory, perhaps even more lost than before. I wheeled my limp body/bike to the grassy patch on the side of the highway and sat, palms bleeding.

If there is a god, he appeared to me that day in the form of that Vietnamese dad on a red motorbike, zooming back around the corner to my rescue.

He had come back for me! Vietnamese Dad idled over to where I sat (not to mention that he was stalling in a lane of traffic running in the opposite direction), took one look at my bike, and laughed. It seemed to me like a God-better-thank-me-for-being-such-a-goddamn-saint kind of laugh. And then he told me to get on his motorbike, repeating over and over, “I will help you. I will help you.” His plan was to tow the broken bike alongside us, a prospect even more terrifying than following him on the bike myself. Still, we had no other option, so I hopped on the back of his bike for a second time, noticing instantly that the only way for us both to fit was to flatten my entire frontside up against his backside. Great.

Off we went, idling through the mad dash of motorbikes yet again, this time with a barely-rolling bike careening to one side of us.

Granted, I did see some insane feats on motorbikes in the days following this fiasco (spoiler alert: I survive!), including a full cart of vegetables and someone’s grandma being towed by a single motorbike. But at this point in time I hadn’t seen such feats, so naturally I was convinced we would die.

I don’t know if I took a single breath during the rest of our journey back to my hotel, not only because I felt very near to death the entire time, but now with the added realization that I had no idea where this man was taking me, nor did I know a single thing about him. For all I knew, he could be taking me to his warehouse to be his next sex slave. Or, to his friend’s warehouse to sell me as a sex slave. My attention flicked back and forth between Taken and Crash for what could have been five minutes or fifty. But eventually my panic was rewarded by the sight of the river. The river! We were going in the right direction; I was almost “home.”

In about three more minutes (I can comment on this time frame with confidence, as I was about 70% calm by this time), we arrived at my hotel, the friendly bike rental man, completely oblivious to the tribulations of the day, rushing out to greet us with a massive smile.

I practically fell off the motorbike, entirely drained from sympathetic nervous system overdrive and so overcome with relief that I was. But I did have the wherewithal to reach into my backpack and pull out a wad of Vietnamese Dong (yes, that’s really the name of their currency). I didn’t even look at what I was offering him, as my survival was priceless (right, Mom?).

Vietnamese Dad leaving

My guide refused, even appeared a little heated that I would offer. I stuffed the cash back in my bag and shook my head, unable to express my gratitude. In an impulsive moment I threw my arms around Vietnamese Dad, not stopping to think about customs in Vietnam and whether that was vastly inappropriate, or what I was conveying in such a gesture. He patted my shoulder and repeated, “I help you.” With that, he started up his bike and peeled off down the road. I never even got his name.

“Did you find the palace?”

It was the grinning bike man.

“I found it, all right,” I said, returning the shredded map he had given me that morning and the bike with the busted tire.

And as I walked away, back up to my room, I pondered what exactly it was that I found that day. More than the palace, or Vietnamese suburbia, I had stumbled across something to which no map could have led me—something like hope: a restored sense of faith in the good of people, even complete strangers.

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Horror Stories from Abroad: Mysore, India

This posts kicks off a series I’m calling “Horror Stories from Abroad”—stories of which I’m not proud, but since I happened to survive them all I figured they could at least provide some entertainment. Disclaimer for all these stories: do NOT emulate them (don’t know why you would). Disclaimer #2: I like to think of myself as an intelligent person and an experienced traveler, but no matter who we are we all make mistakes, so if you can manage not to judge me I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt. Without further ado, a near-death experience in Mysore, India.

 

Led Primary at KPJAYI

Mysore is a magical place. It is a haven for truth-seekers and yogis, counter-culturalists and artists. There you can find anything the mystic in you desires: group meditations, manifestation workshops, philosophy talks, yoga shalas (Mysore is the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga), Sanskrit language courses, Vedic studies, massages, Ayurveda, cleanses, vegan food, Kirtans, gong baths…the list is nearly endless. In short, I was Alice and it was Wonderland. I lived in Mysore for a month in 2015 studying yoga with Saraswati Jois at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (for more on this institution, read my post here), and when I wasn’t practicing yoga I was quenching in any manner my thirst for Eastern spirituality.

Mysore is fairly safe compared to many places in India. It sees throngs of Western yogis seeking to practice under the venerated Sharath Jois each year, and still more hoping to escape Westernism for other reasons. However, it is still an Indian city, and there are customs and precautions by which any traveler need abide. These include avoiding going out at night—especially alone. There have been stories of yogis on their way to an early morning practice who were assaulted by men on motorbikes. There have been muggings. Women need wear modest clothing in order to avoid unwanted attention. Women should travel in groups, especially when venturing outside the city center. Women are not commonly seen in chai shops, so it’s best to partake only in the direct sight of the street traffic. All taxi and rickshaw drivers cannot be trusted similarly and extreme caution must be taken if you choose to hitchhike. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to walk alone.

While very aware of these unwritten rules now, it took me a while to catch on to them then. You could say I learned the hard way.

Patchouli the Dog

One day during my second week in Mysore, I was returning to my apartment after a particularly moving meditation. It was about noon. I had befriended the stray dog who lived outside my building—a ridiculously playful pup who I’d named Patchouli (and proceeded to adopt, only to be thwarted at the airport all the way in Bangalore…), and he bounded up to me as usual on this day. Patchouli must’ve only been about one, but he’d gotten in a fight with something bigger than him which left one ear with a patch missing. Hence, Patch.

I was in such a good mood, I rolled around with Patch for a while until a rickshaw driver with amber eyes like a tiger and dressed all in white approached me. His name was Hakim, and he was touting Ayurvedic massages for a ridiculously cheap price. “Free sample massage!” He also mentioned pure essential oils and incense, all handmade at his shop. I was feeling so light from my practice, meditation, and from this adorable pup that I decided to give Hakim the benefit of the doubt. He seemed kind enough, and he offered me a free ride in his rickshaw to get to his shop for said services. Not having anything planned for the rest of the day, I went.

Off we drove in his rickshaw, about half an hour out of the city through ramshackle adjoining towns. The further we sped from Mysore, the more anxious I became. “Hakim,” I said. “I’d like to turn back. I didn’t realize your shop was so far away.”

He waved his hand at me, assuring me over and over it was “just up here.”

Keep your cool, I told myself. Panic won’t get you anywhere…

After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a concrete, two-story structure with no doors and shattered windows. When we stepped inside the noise from the street fell away. It was dark and cool. There was an old Indian woman squatting on the dirt floor, hunched over a pile of hand-rolled incense sticks. So, the tidbit about handmade incense was true. “My worker,” said Hakim, gesturing to her. The woman kept her head bowed over her work.

I shivered to think what “worker” implied. The place seemed more like a sweatshop than anything else. Still, it comforted me that there was a witness in the room. This was the state of my psyche.

Hakim showed me to a ratty couch. I sat gingerly on the edge, afraid of what that couch may have seen. There was graffiti on the walls in a handful of languages, some of which I couldn’t identify.

“No worries,” he said, noting my discomfort. “I have travelers all over the world come to my shop.” He passed me his cell phone—already opened to WhatsApp—for me to read over the conversations he’d had with past visitors.

 

This was the strangest part. All of the exchanges were with foreign women, and all of them involved bold advances from Hakim—“you are so beautiful,” “I love you,” kissing emojis, and such things—while the women, if they replied, would say things like “you are making me very uncomfortable,” and “please stop messaging me.” Why would he show me this? The only purpose it served was to increase my anxiety about a hundred-fold. I quickly passed the phone back, quite disgusted, and demanded he take me home. My palms were slick with sweat.

“You don’t want my massage?”

“I want to go back. You promised.”

“Come upstairs to my massage room. I won’t charge—all for free.”

I rose, ignoring his outstretched hand. I don’t know what I would have done if, you know…

There was no wifi in this part of town, and I had no cell service. Nobody spoke English, either, because we were so far outside of Mysore, and I hadn’t seen any other rickshaws on the streets outside. But it didn’t matter—I just had to get out of that shop before he got any more aggressive.

Hakim saw I was serious. He thrust his hands in front of him as if to pacify me—impossible at this point. “Okay, Mary,” he said (I had given him a false name, of course), “I am sorry you didn’t get to enjoy my services. But I will take you back if you wish, and you can come back tomorrow.”

And he did. On the way back he had the nerve to ask for my number. What didn’t he understand? I snatched his phone from him without a word and typed something which wouldn’t have passed for a phone number in any part of the world. I just wanted to play the part until we got back, avoiding any action that might cause him to turn back around.

I directed him to a building that was on the other side of the city as my actual apartment, just in case.

“I’ll message you. Tomorrow I will show you the oils.”

I gave him a hateful look as I stepped down from the rickshaw and walked away.

I still curse myself for my stupidity that day. I can’t say exactly what went through my head when I hopped into a stranger’s rickshaw to God-knows-where. If I had to guess, I’d say all my uplifting experiences in Mysore up to that point gave me the naïve perspective that only good could come from such a place. My confidence in its security had outgrown reality.

Patch was waiting for me when I got home. I’ve never been happier to see anyone in my life. The moment Hakim whisked me away could have been the last time I ever saw that excited tail and half-eaten ear. I could have disappeared in India without a word. Or I could have come back but with pieces missing—just like Patch.

By nothing but a twist of fate, these things did not happen. I came away unharmed but frightened into a more cynical and shrewd attitude towards travel. Better to keep your guard up and your confidence close at hand. When you travel alone, the only person whose trust you can be certain of is your own. And sometimes not even that. 

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A Vegetarian Abroad: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life. And while I can’t speak about the specifics of meat production in other countries, I can speak with a semblance of knowledge about how it goes down in the ole U-S-of-A.* In America, the vast majority of meat comes from factory “farms,” where animals are commodities: means to an end. As such, their lives are spent in space-efficient pens, and they’re fed what’s cheap: byproducts of subsidies like soy and corn, or worse: recycled parts of their fallen comrades. (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the documentary “Food, Inc.”) They are given antibiotics and hormones to ensure their meat stays juicy despite unnatural diet and unnatural living conditions.

More than this, factory farms contribute about 10% of our carbon emissions, and the number is growing as natural habitats–from rainforest to desert–are converted into pastures.** What’s more, consuming meat from these animals posits dangers to our own health. Of course, large government subsidies to these farms means their affairs are kept largely hush-hush, a whisper drowned in boisterous campaigns advocating Meat! It’s What’s for Dinner, Goddammit! [Emphasis my own.] In fact, compared to every other world nation, American meat consumption ranks highest or second highest across the board (in the categories poultry, pork, veal, and beef).*** That’s more than the [former] European Union combined. Thanks, propaganda!

But I digress. Believe it or not, the purpose of this post is NOT to mount my soap box nor to scold the omnivores in the house. My mission is quite the opposite, actually…

Lombok, Indonesia

 

Strange & tasteless, the snake fruit

A week ago I arrived in Lombok, an island in Indonesia that gets largely overshadowed by its neighbor, Bali. Especially in the coastal towns and offshore islands, the native people have a distinct cuisine based on native crops: coconut, spicy pepper (and I mean spicy), tropical fruits, green beans, rice and, of course, the sea. I visited several markets where fish and seafood is brought in daily and offered to customers, charged per 100 grams and barbecued over a fire pit for you to eat on the spot–often whole. But instead of recoiling from such a display (as I might in America, scurrying past the meat aisle as though the butcher had her wily eye on me, next), I found it inspiring (aside from the Giardia I’m still coping with). Without the ocean, the locals wouldn’t be able to survive, period. They rely on it for food, transport, supplies, diversion and livelihood. Though Muslim, they still show gratitude towards the gods of the sea and the creatures within it. And although they are grateful for the sea, they don’t hesitate to consume its inhabitants. It would be a foreign concept.

Yeah, this just wouldn’t fly in America.

A big disconnect in American culture is lack of appreciation for our food. In Japan, too, (where I was a few weeks ago, and where eating from the sea is like breathing air), food and the ocean and nature at large are shown respect–a bow before and after eating, before and after swimming, climbing a mountain, et cetera. In America, there seems to be a sense of entitlement for food, potentially due to a disconnect from our food sources. Have you ever seen an animal carcass at the grocery store? What about even a picture of the animal on the label of a meat package? Don’t think, just do.

I wouldn’t argue when someone says humans are “designed” to eat meat. Our ability to eat widely is what helped us to the top of the food chain. And, when animals are treated with respect, killed with compassion, and consumed for subsistence rather than desire, it becomes a very natural process. All things in moderation, of course.

Humans, however, are capable of subsisting without meat. We also are endowed with a conscience which allows us to choose what we will and will not eat. Such has been the practice of Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Jews, and many other religions around the world for centuries. Ultimately this is the choice that I’ve made, too. So no, I did not eat the market meats, but only because years of vegetarianism-for-a-cause has lent me sympathy for the critters who happen to sit below us on the food chain. It was a personal choice more than a boycott-the-man one. Because despite my emotions, the process in these Indonesian markets feels very…natural.

To reiterate, I’m not preaching vegetarianism. Everyone has the right to choose what they eat and how they live. But until America in particular cleans up its act and learns some respect (which I believe will come hand in hand), I can only hope more people will cut back–in any small way–in their support of a tasteless industry. That, or move to Indonesia.

Contemporary Indonesian farming methods?



*Experience gained from extensive book-reading, documentary-watching and lecture-listening on the subject.

**Statistics from EPA 2015 official report.

***Statistics from OCED 2016 official report.

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The Ashtanga Yoga Kool-Aid: An Outsider in Mysore, India

As I write this, I am sitting on the cold tile floor of my wide-open, one-bedroom apartment in Mysore, India, where I have been living the past month for the purpose of studying at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. I practice Ashtanga yoga every morning at sunrise, here and back home in Florida, and my yogic training is rooted firmly in the Ashtanga tradition. But despite my fondness for the practice, and my trust in its methods, I am disheartened with the current managers’ business scheme and with the community here as a whole.

Let me first say that the guy Sharath who is essentially CEO of today’s KPJAYI is making bank. Every single student that walks into his shala (which this month is around 500) brings in 30,000 rupees. That’s equivalent to about $450 per month, per student. If a yoga studio in the United States—where everything is about five times more expensive than India—charged this per month, everyone would think they were insane. A month unlimited pass at the studios where I’m from in St. Petersburg, Florida, is about $75 per month. Granted, it is not with this venerable guru, but six times the price?

3114571015_eeb6e4ae90_o

The actual process of achieving a coveted “certification” from KPJAYI is arbitrary, to say the least, but seven years of consecutive trips to India is considered a short amount of time to attain the title. And, despite the monstrous amount of cost this entails for the practitioner, the certification is only valid if a $2000 fee is paid. Per year.  It seems cost should not be the prohibiting factor that it is, for shouldn’t everyone be able to benefit if the goal is really to attain enlightenment? The Tibetan monks are claiming the same thing, but you don’t see them charging shit for their services.

I realize that the Ashtanga certification is taken very seriously because the creators want to preserve the tradition, trusted in the hands of only very experienced practitioners. They want to make sure those that bear the reputation of KPJAYI are of the highest training. What I am talking about is not the commitment, but the money involved—just what they do with it all that dough is a mystery to me (though it’s certainly not being used to buy toilet paper for the shala). I do know that Sharath lives in a mansion next door to his equally impressive shala.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/footfun/3114565003/in/photolist-4UzbFD-9qiRPE-7Mvrm5-7MrvHZ-7Mb7Qa-6bcnR4-5KdXEB-5Hqusv-7Mf25N-7MvwqY-68wWox-b7j9zc-b7j56c-b7iXJZ-b7j1J8-b7iVWB-5Kiei7-5KdZsg-5KidPh-8fxBoX-9yP465/lightbox/

The scary thing is, nobody here sees it. KPJAYI has become an exclusive empire, where troops of gaunt yogis from across the globe eagerly shed the bills to take part in and behold this master. As I said, I love the Ashtanga practice, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the lineage and the knowledge it embodies. But I can’t bring myself to drink the damn yoga Kool-Aid. I’m content to learn from my teachers at home, whom I trust because they do shell out the money each year to make the sacred pilgrimage, although I admit the esteem I held my teacher prior to this trip has faded slightly since coming. She, too, is as member of the cult—a cult marketed exquisitely to Western audiences. In fact, I have encountered just a handful of actual Indians while here, in a crowd of around 500 white faces. I do not need to spend that money myself, on continual flights and shala fees to support who-knows-what. I do not need to join the cult and earn the sacred blessing from Sharath. I’d rather enjoy the fruits of the practice for my own benefit.

What exactly is going on behind the doors of that mansion? It’s a mystery to us mortals, but if you’re willing to shell out enough money, you might just find out.