Monday, February 28, 2011

The Handbasket Has Landed

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
I'm feeling an amount of anxiety this morning. Sure, I had a coffee and I've been giving up coffee, but I don't think that's what's agitating me.

The overseas job search has turned up nothing hopeful. South Korea has turned out to be very difficult to break into: if you talk to tourists they're all, "Oh yeah, there's incredible demand for teachers there! All sorts of jobs!" but if you look at the websites they're all, "This is the worst time of year to look for work, and anyway, you don't have your paperwork in order, and here's a new stipulation we came up with last month." As well, the message boards are full of horror stories, teachers working in private institutions headed by a schizophrenic or simply running afoul of a foreign bureaucracy with little to no legal recourse. Many of these are written poorly, a warning flag for me when reading reviews, and of course people are going to hyperbolize the negative, but even when dialed back down from 11, the ratio of "I had a good time" to "what a Kafka-esque nightmare" is not encouraging.

So we've expanded our search terms to include Thailand and Japan. The latter seems unlikely because it's increasingly in demand--we might as well try to teach English in Italy or France--and the cost of living is prohibitive. At least in Korea, we could've worked for a year and built up some savings, as a pair of teachers sharing living expenses. In Japan, not so much. As for Thailand, I love it (though I don't like their current battle in trying to usurp a Cambodian temple for its revenue potential) and a couple affable Aussie boys told us that the city of Trang had a great need for English teachers, yet I can't find anything there. I've seen three ads for schools that offer ESL degrees like the ones we got in Bali, but no jobs. Do we have to hop on the bus there? It's 180 miles from here (Battambang) to Bangkok and nearly 500 miles from there to Trang. And then what? Knocking on doors, handing out our résumés? Is that how it's done? I certainly couldn't read the Classifieds.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Online Adventures Abroad

Location: Battambang, Cambodia

All right, call me a tedious wannabe geek, but I'm really enjoying the online applications at my disposal right now. The above image is my personalized Google Map of where we've gone in Cambodia. I've been tracking hotels, restaurants, temples and other sides, shopping centers, etc., with customizable symbols.

I started doing this when we were going to school in Bali because I wanted to see how far our villa was from our school. This was inspired by taxi drivers charging different rates for different routes, so I thought I'd try to discover the shortest route. Then I started marking where I liked to eat, where the post office was, and many other landmarks not listed in Google Maps or Lonely Planet for my personal reference. And then why wouldn't I keep this up in the other nations I visited?

For other people this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, but it's a fun hobby for me. What I really wish, though, is some online travel group would realize I'm already abroad and would love to write and take pictures for their database. Half the stuff I'm pegging on my personal map doesn't exist in the satellite photos: the coffee shop I'm writing from is depicted as a broad block of dirt field with no buildings whatsoever. I'm here, I can document that change, and who'd begrudge me a nominal sum for that assistance?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Battambang Bamboo Train

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
Hopping cities yet again: today we loaded into a minibus that took us to a vintage and ramshackle old school bus, and that wended through surprisingly tight back alleys to get us to the actual bus that would transport us from Siem Reap to Battambang. They said it would be a five-hour trip but I know I wasn't listening to five hours worth of podcasts while we drove over, or else we just made good time.

Upon pulling into Battambang we were swarmed with men waving pamphlets for the local hotels. My wife and I got two of them competing against each other for the lowest rate with the amenities we wanted, which left one man sore but by the look of him we made the right choice. And no sooner had we agreed upon a room (double bed, AC, wi-fi, hot water) than we were pressed to start choosing our agenda for the next couple days, but that was easily settled: we came here for the bamboo train.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More Than Freshmaking, I Assure You

I'm not generally a fan of Mentos.

Why? I'm not a fan of hypermint candies or gums. The taste that replicates cell death due to exposure to cold does not generally appeal to me. I'm not suggesting that I'm a supertaster and that the flavor actually hurts: I just mean that real mint is nice, and laboratory-synthesized mint is not. To me.

And in SE Asia, there are other flavors of Mentos, to my wife's delight. She likes the regular stuff and was downing it with alarming frequency throughout Indonesia. I don't know if that was a coping mechanism with the heat or just gave her jaw and papillae something to do. But here, it also comes in grape and pineapple and mixed fruit varieties. It even comes in a sour version of the mixed fruit variety, but candy's bad enough for your teeth with all the sugar, without introducing industrial-grade citric acid to erode your enamel.

That said, SE Asia has introduced new concepts of Mentos to me. I don't know if these are available in the States--maybe they are and I'm well behind the times--or they're entirely Asian domain and the States can only lust after them from great distance. I'll grant you 4,000 miles is a long way to pick up cola-flavored Mentos.

You heard me right: Mentos that carries the rich tang of the cola nut. It will remind you of RC Cola gone flat, or Coca-Cola syrup if you've been lucky enough to sample it prior to carbonization, and it does not have a shred of mint in it. It's just a hard, chewy candy that bursts with cola concentrate! I liked it a lot.

But when I saw Mentos X, I was sufficiently intrigued to try this as well. All other Mentos comes in a foil roll covered in paper, but not Mentos X. The candies are wrapped in foil, rolled in paper, and then sealed in a long and dense plastic packet like a glowstick might come in. Why? Because Mentos X has to contend with unnatural forces that would defeat regular packaging.

Mentos X tastes like Red Bull. And not the crappy, acidic blue-and-silver bubbly concoction we have in the States. It tastes like the serious, medicinal/apple, uncarbonated syrup that is the original Thai Red Bull. Oh, yes.

Does it contain taurine? Does it give you wings? Does it abuse your metabolism like a teenager discovering onanism? I can't answer these questions, but I can tell you I would buy it again if I found it anywhere else besides one tiny island off another, larger Indonesian island. I've only seen it in the one place and I'm grateful for the experience...

And yet, and yet...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Underdressed in Angkor Wat: Travel Gear

It's one thing to strut around town wearing too few clothes or clothes that reveal too much. Not "too much" by Western standards, but too much according to the country you're in.

But you would think that if they can't show any respect for the culture in which they find themselves, at the very least they would dress appropriately when visiting a temple. Or maybe you wouldn't think that, but I would, and in that sense I am contradicted by the reality of international tourists visiting Angkor Wat.

Maybe I should be grateful they're not shitfaced drunk? They are in Siem Reap, the town right outside Angkor Wat, the town you hole up in to visit Angkor Wat. I went out for ice cream tonight and happened to walk by a short cross-street called Pub St., and true to its name it was dense with watering holes. Everyone was getting drunk and starting to cross over into the "leap about and holler" phase of the evening. And it must've been killing them but at least they waited to get sloshed until they left these eight-century-old temples.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Underdressed in Cambodia: Travel Gear

All of these people are travelers, or like to think they are. All of them like to think they're worldly and experienced, that travel has imbued them with perspective broader than one gets while sitting on one's ass at home, never leaving one's city. They like to think they're part of a global community.

That means, to them, disrespecting those cultures they visit and doing whatever the hell they wanna. In Phnom Penh I happened to find a very useful tourist map for fun things to do in the city, and right there was printed a list of things to be mindful of so as not to offend the locals, foremost being to "keep your upper arms and thighs covered." Simple rule, basic rule, and a rule not exclusive to Cambodia. Yet somehow each of the above (and the hundreds they represent) seemed to miss this in any guidebook or posted sign at the airport or passport station. Or, worse, they did see the notice and willfully chose to ignore it.

Note: Please to note the elderly man second from top, second from left. I first saw him strutting through my hotel's lobby with a prostitute, and I figured he was shirtless out of convenience. When I saw him the next day, also shirtless, wearing the same dress pants, coming back from the morning market and without a prostitute, it was harder to tell whether he believes Cambodia is the place to show off his physique or he's simply gone senile and needs some real help.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Underdressed in Laos: Travel Gear

Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
This is something I can't get my head around. International is not cheap--it's cheaper for some than for others, sure. International travel offers treasures in perspective, wisdom, and experience. And yet there is a class of tourist unworthy of the name: "vacationer" might be more appropriate (or "holidayist" in the UK).

But I don't understand why people shell out for international travel solely to get drunk/stoned in other countries. And I don't understand why people are so intent on traveling to those countries yet feel no compunction to observe the least of their social conventions.

Any guide book, travel map, or phrasebook for Laos will tell the literate traveler: "Seriously, cover up your shoulders, chest, and thighs. Uncovering these is considered improper and rude in Lao culture." It's a simple enough observation. The weather is hot, yet at least 12 hill tribes have survived wearing clothing enough to keep covered. Why can't the tourists?

Why can't the backpackers, who make such a big stink about how important it is to see the world? What those hippies aren't saying is, " see the world and trammel its cultures." The garment known as a tank-top in the US and a singlet in other places is a convenient thing for people who want tans, have zero heat tolerance, play sports, or beat women. But it has no place in Laos, despite all the hippies and backpackers who insist on wearing them. It was not a difficult feat in the least to camp out on a sidewalk curb and take pictures of all the foreigners who exhibit complete disregard for Laos' considerations in their wardrobe.

The exposed thighs is another thing. Even when we were traveling through the Muslim-predominant areas of Indonesia, some women thought flaunting their sexuality was more important than preserving their livelihood and staying out of jail (or at least respecting the local culture). Denim short-shorts with the rolled cuffs or the Daisy Dukes are in display throughout SE Asia. I can't say that only Australians violated this code, nor that this was the staple of the Australian outfit, but I can say that most of the time, whenever I saw someone wearing as little fabric as possible to expose as much leg as possible, I thought I detected an Aussie dialect when they spoke. Other nations violated this too, but one could make a strong case that Daisy Dukes and halter tops are standard issue when leaving Australia.

And it's not just women, note. Women frequently exposed their shoulders in thin singlets, exposed their bra straps in a real display of taste, but men were right up there with uncovering as much of their body as possible. Why? There are ample notices (for anyone with the capacity to read) that advise in friendly terms any traveler to Laos that there are certain things you don't do. Why would someone spend all that money to go to another country and not have a basic concern for any local customs they might violate? I'm all about customs and culture when I travel. I want to make sure I do nothing wrong, I don't want to accidentally offend the locals. So I don't understand these hypocritical, callous, and ignorant people at all.