El Salvador (April 29, 2010)

Other than a brutal civil war (in which the US was intimately involved) and a variety of natural disasters (which the US had nothing to do with, we think), most Americans don’t know much about the recent history of El Salvador. In fact, when Meg’s contact with a rural clinic brought us to the country, we didn’t real know what to expect. We found a fun, beautiful, friendly, and modern country. Despite its small size (about that of Massachusetts), El Salvador has great geographical diversity. From the mountains and the beach to the cosmopolitan capital and cute colonial towns, El Salvador really has it all and all within a few hours drive. As we heard on multiple occasions, for Salvadorians a drive of over two hours is “a long drive”.

We started our time in the country with several days of meetings in San Salvador; from people at the US embassy, US AID, NGOs, and more we met with many types of people. And almost universally we found them to friendly and forthcoming. As capital cities in Central America go, San Salvador is among the best (perhaps only Panama City might eclipse it). To those who know Central American capitals this might seem like faint praise, but found the city to be a pleasant, even if not particularly full of tourist sites (which may account for nearly complete absence of tourists).

After San Salvador, the medical clinic we visited in the province of Morazan was a sudden change. The Morazan province is among the most rural in the country and although only a few hours from the capital, it feels very removed. The town where the clinic is has no electricity (though it is scheduled to receive power later this year) and limited running water. As such, the work that is performed at the La Estancia clinic is both impressive and much needed. After learning about the clinic from American volunteers and the local staff, we spent the night and soaked in the local culture in the town of 200 people.

Morazan was also a rebel stronghold during El Salvador’s long civil war. Many of the families in the area escaped across the mountainous border to Honduras during the war while the men resisted the government forces. There are many reminders throughout the province of the war. Among them is the Revolutionary Museum in the town of Perquin. While it isn’t the world’s most interactive museum, the chance to see many remnants of the war firsthand with a former guerilla as a guide is worth the trip.

After the mountains of Morazan, we headed down to the coast (with a short stop at the airport to change our flights- lopping our planned trip to Bolivia and Peru off our itinerary and replacing it with a return to Guatemala to investigate some more job leads). A night in the little beach town of El Zonte was a very pleasant experience. El Zonte is a small cluster of houses on lovely beach with a great surf break- all under an hour from San Salvador. While we probably won’t end up living in El Salvador (as we found better professional opportunities in Guatemala), we would highly recommend it for your next vacation.

Post Script: Guatemala

 After a brief stop in the United States to do our laundry, do our taxes, see our families, take a break from our blog, attend Jed's brother's engagement party, go to Jed's cousin's christening, celebrate Meg's brother's birthday, and meet with some people at the State Department in Washington, DC (phew! In some ways our trip to the US was more parapetic than our trip around the world), it was off on a reconaissance mission to Latin America. 

Our Mission: Meet with contacts, scout cities/towns that we might live in, and find jobs
First Stop: Guatemala

As we've told people many times over the last months, our goal is to live in Latin America for a couple of years in a Spanish speaking country, where our work will be of public service, and which isn't too dangerous or unstable (sayonara Venezuela). 

 More specifically, going into this scouting trip, we were ideally hoping to find (in this order): 
 1. A job for Meg in her field (at least some degree of clinical, primary care pediatrics mixed ideally with some elements of public health and health education work)

 2. A good  country to live, preferably in Central America, since the need is greater there than in many parts of South America and it is easier to get back to the US (the flight from Guatemala City to New York is shorter than New York to San Francisco)

 3. A good town/city to live in- we were hoping for some place that wasn't too big or too dangerous but was still cosmopolitian enough to have cultural activities and things like internet and a supermarket where one can buy peanut butter and Heinz ketchup (the availability of the latter is on indicator on Jed's economic development scale)

 4. A job for Jed that was somewhat related to his work in NYC government- ideally this would be working with a municipality (or possibly an NGO) on improving service delivery to citizens and/or tracking the effectiveness of projects

 We were lucky enough to stay with some friends in Antigua, Guatemala who let us camp out in their guest room for several days as we went to meetings with NGOs, government agencies, and other organizations in Guatemala City.  Over the course of 5 days we had numerous meetings with various contacts. Combine that with several hours of traffic (and getting lost) in Guatemala City and it was a busy week. Though we had several fun diversions including a couple of fun dinners out on the town in Antigua and a day spent climbing a volcano with the US Ambassador (who was extremely nice and full of great advice).   We then headed up to Quetzaltenango (aka "Xela.") where Meg visited some clinics and Jed introduced himself to the mayor (literally; even gave him his resume; the mayor is "looking for possibilities for him.") 

 Next stop on on the Latin American reconnaissance trip: El Salvador

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Many people have asked us over the course of our trip a variety questions along the lines of “what was the best [fill in the blank]?” So from food and foul ups to sites and surprises, we thought we’d give a quick run down of the best of and the worst of:

Best place: Wadi Rum, Jordan

Best place runners up: Summit of Kilimanjaro, Gili Islands (Indonesia), Mumbai

Place we would most recommend visiting: While we visited many beautiful places that should be visited. Many of them, however, are fairly well known: the Pyramids at Giza are great, but they aren’t exactly untouristy. Here are the places we’d recommend to get off the beaten track:

1. Syria: while we may not be on most friendly diplomatic terms with them (“Axis of Evil” anyone?), we found Syria be a fun place to visit with super nice locals, good sites, cheap prices, and not a lot of other tourists

2. Burma: Getting a Burmese visa is a process and the government is like a repressive bad joke, but the scenery is fantastic, the food is surprisingly tasty, and the culture is very interesting; this is probably the most different place that we went

3. Namibia: There are certainly some well known sites in Namibia, like the iconic dunes at Sossusvlei, but it is a huge country with very few people and is much less traveled than its neighbor South Africa. Thus relatively speaking Namibia is a great way to get see all that Africa has to offer with less people, lower prices, and better beer than other places in the region.

Places that lived up to the hype:

1. The Pyramids, Egypt: Yes, they are crowded; yes, there are lots of touts; and they are one of the world’s original tourist sites. But there is a reason for this: they are truly remarkable. Their size, their perfect shape, their natural setting, their age… wow!

2. Safari in Tanzania: “Are you going safari?”; “You must see the animals while in Africa!”; etc… We heard all this and more about how great a safari was and how we must do it- turns out everyone was right. Seeing exotic animals in their (jaw-droppingly beautiful) natural setting is fantastic!

3. Cape Town, South Africa: This city is world-renowned and righltly so as it has it all: beautiful mountains, the ocean, good food, great wine. It is a wonderful place to spend a week.

4. Istanbul: Istanbul gets it right- the history, the mix of cultures, the energy, the architecture, the food. Again this is a place that people highly recommended to us and we’ll do the same- Istanbul is great!

Most surprising place (that we thought we wouldn’t like as much as we did):

- Nairobi, Kenya: This city has a very bad reputation but we found it to be a pleasant city; in fact, the nicest city we saw in Africa with the exception of Cape Town

- Victoria Falls: After Niagara Falls, we didn’t have high expectations for another big waterfall. Turns out when you take away tourists and the barriers- allowing you to walk right up to the edge and even lean out over the falls (literally)- it is pretty awesome.

- Jogykarta, Indonesia—we went there as a means to see the temples of Borobudur and Pramadan outside the city but ended up really loving the city. The people were incredibly friendly and it was a great introduction to the vibrancy of the Indonesian culture

Best Food overall: Malaysia

Best Food compared with what you get in the U.S.: Middle East

Best meals: 1. Falafel in a back alley in Amman, Jordan 2. Dinner in Selcuk, Turkey 3. The Copper Chimney Restaurant, Mumbai

Worst meal: Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Best hotel value: Hoang Van Hotel, Kon Tum, Vietnam (beautiful, spotless, modern room with all the conveniences (wifi, satellite TV, bathtub, mini-fridge, etc) in a prime location for $15.)

Worst hotel value: No Name Hotel, Damascus, Syria (noisy, dirty craphole with bathroom filled with bugs for $29)

Best decision: Going on a 6 month honeymoon (we highly recommend it!) Others include:

  1. going through the hassle of figuring out how to get to Burma
  2. not booking Kilimanjaro trip in advance as booking it on the spot cost 30% less
  3. renting car in Thailand allowing us to escape the hordes of tourists and find “the real Thailand"
  4. opting to buy plane tickets on the fly, rather than buying a pre-arranged around-the-world ticket- ironically not buying this gave us more flexibility and cost us 75% less

Worst decision:

1. Trying to go from Nkhata Bay, Malawi into Tanzania in one day: turns out this trip is long and slow and drove us to the brink of insanity

2. Changing money (from Zambian Kwacha to Malawian Kwacha) with scammers at the Zambia-Malawi border: they cheated us out of $8 with their tricky math

3. Not changing money with scammers at the Malawi-Tanzania border: this reactionary move (see #2 above) cost us $50 since no else one in the entire world will exchange Malawian Kwacha (trust us, we asked in every subsequent country we went to).

Best Cities: Saigon, Mumbai, Istanbul

Worst City: Mandalay, Burma (although the surrounding sites are great)

So that is the wrap up on our around-the-world honeymoon. We look forward to being a source of advice for our travel friends in the future. Now on to finding a job in Latin America....

Hong Kong, April 5, 2010

Hong Kong was a good transition between the rest of Southeast Asia and New York. With a diverse population, many familiar stores, and westernized prices, Hong Kong felt like a cross between Madison Avenue and Chinatown.

The efficient transportation system makes Hong Kong a very easy place to spend a pleasant weekend. In fact, even Jed had to admit that Hong Kong’s public transit system was better than New York’s in many ways. With an integrated system of subways, buses, ferries, and street cars, the transit system is a model. Where New York has tried (though largely failed) to use its maritime assets (it was originally a harbor city for goodness sake), Hong Kong has succeeded; there are cheap, regular ferries that go all over the city.

Hong Kong (as well as Bangkok) has engineered a very efficient way of transferring between subway lines. Rather than walking up or down stairs and all over the station (as one does in New York), they have set it up so subway lines between which travelers regularly transfer are across the platform from each other. This certainly is not that difficult an idea to think of, but it makes life a lot easier for the average rider.

You have a close to perfection when you add a (very fast) direct train from the airport and the “Octopus Card”, a great stored value card that can be used on all public transport and many stores as well. While the logistical challenges are great, an Octopus card (we could call it the Hudson Card) would be great in NYC. 

Hong Kong also has great food assets. Like Singapore, the unique merging of many cultures has led to very tasty buffet. Jed tried to eat as many meals a day as possible to take advantage of all the culinary treats (despite great efforts,  six meals in a day was the most he managed to fit in). And after a trip of shunning Chinese food in favor of local food, Meg was finally able to enjoy Chinese food without feeling guilty. 

Jed enjoys some Hong Kong pork jerky

Despite the fact that Hong Kong was shrouded in fog the entire time we were there (which is better than the sandstorm that had blown down from China a few weeks earlier), we still marveled at the fantastic scenic beauty of the place. The juxtaposition of green mountains towering over beautiful aqua water with skyscrapers sprouting in the foreground makes for a unique and fantastic visual fabric. However, it was the non-urban parts of Hong Kong that we found most invigorating. While the island of Hong Kong is the main urban center there are dozens of other smaller islands that make up the city. On Hong Kong island itself but also on the myriad of smaller surrounding islands, there is much untouched nature and many small towns and fishing villages. For example, we were able to take a 30 minute ferry ride and spend a few hours hiking around mountains and through small villages. 

 And so with a long weekend in Hong Kong, our epic around-the-world honeymoon came to an anticlimactic end. Stayed tuned for the our awards for the best, the worst, and in betweens of the trip. 

Being Culturally Insensitive (or why people shouldn’t be allowed to do construction at 6am on a Sunday)

(Author’s Note: The below is meant to be a humorous take on some of the head-scratching moments we’ve had on our trip. Despite the title of this post, none of the below is intended to be insulting rather just a compilation of some of those times when rather than getting angry you just have to shake your head and laugh (or vent by writing a ranting blog entry). So enjoy and if you get offended then apologies from Meg who was against posting this entry.)

So you may say that we’re being culturally insensitive, but as I’m writing right now at 6am on Sunday morning, the loud noise from the construction next door is pretty darn annoying. Maybe I’m missing something endemic to India culture here but really after getting to bed at 1am (not a completely unreasonable hour even if they do close the bars at 11pm here in Bangalore), I’d really just like to be able to get some sleep now. So I really wish there was a law (like there is New York) about the hours during which one can do use their heavy-duty saw (or whatever it is that is making that terrible noise).

When traveling we’ve all had instances like this, when we say “you can’t be serious, you aren’t really doing it that way?” Or perhaps more mildly something like “why do they do that? It seems that our way in the US might make more sense.” Often in our politically correct age, we can chalk some of these annoyances up to the school of thought that says “cultures are different and just because they do it differently doesn’t mean it is wrong.” And there really are many things that are different and that’s just fine (and part of the fun of traveling is seeing the, often innovative, different ways that people do things)- but maybe sometimes (like at 6am on a Sunday morning) there really are better ways of doing things…

Obviously one of the goals of our around-the-world journey was to learn about the aspects of different cultures and to broaden our world views. And there are many things that we’ve seen done differently that are just as good, or better, ways of getting things done- for example the reusable electronic tokens in the Delhi metro system (much more environmentally friendly than disposable plastic Metrocards). And there things that really just can be chalked up to the idea that people do things differently, though not necessarily any better or worse, in different places. For example, there aren’t mini-marts at gas stations in India because not many people go on long distance road trips and traditionally meals aren’t eaten on the go. While it would be nice to be able to buy a coke and chips at gas station, one can accept that not having a mini-mart is a just cultural difference.

But there are some things that no matter how culturally sensitive we’re being that just seem like they could really be done a better way. What follows is a list of other things that we just can’t wrap our head around why anyone would do something this way (or just things that we have found really frustrating):

1.     Littering: Many of the countries we’ve been to have enormous trash problems. Many places there is just trash everywhere. In some cases there are probably very reasonable explanations for this ubiquitous of trash- for example, not having the funds for a fleet of municipal garbage trucks certainly makes it hard to effectively remove residential trash from city streets. Or living in a rural area where the government hasn’t created a centralized trash dump could certainly mean that trash is in more places than one might like. But we can’t think of anything that explains away why you would throw your empty soda bottle out the bus window- when driving through the midst of a beautiful rainforest! When we were in Dar Es Salaam, Meg walked around with an empty water bottle for 20 minutes looking for a trash can with no luck.  Finally, given the heat, we stopped to buy another bottle of water and Meg asked the vendor if he had a place to throw away the empty bottle.  He said yes, took the bottle, and promptly threw it on the street behind him.  When he noticed the disgusted looks on our faces, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said “This is Tanzania.” Yes, there are worse problems in the world, but nonetheless but littering just seems disrespectful to your country.

2.     Playing movies on full volume on an overnight bus. Sometimes watching a movie on a bus can be a nice way to pass the time. But on an overnight bus when everyone is asleep, what sense does it make to play a movie? And in what reality does it make sense to play the movie’s sound over the bus’s PA system at 95 decibels at 3am?  This is just a bad idea (especially when you’re en route to Cairo and it is a horror movie with incessant screaming in guttural Arabic).

3.      No shower curtain in the bathroom. While we may think that showering is the best manner to wash one’s self, we can understand why other people might choose to bathe in an alternative manner. But if going through the trouble to construct a shower, why not do that last 1% of the job and install a shower curtain. We’re not talking about a fancy shower curtain (like those great ones they have in US hotels now that bows out away from the tub so the shower curtain doesn’t stick to you) but just a simple piece of plastic sheeting (which is clearly available everywhere since it is used for everything from roof coverings to carrying sacks). It would seem that the benefit of shower curtain would be a non-cultural thing- who doesn’t like to keep the toilet and bathroom floor dry when they are showering? But no, seemingly the concept of not soaking the entire bathroom (which inevitably stays un-usably wet for the remainder of the hotel stay) while showering is a cultural thing- who knew?

4.     Sidewalks and the free passage theron: Many places in the world it clearly doesn’t make sense to have sidewalks. On a country road with little traffic of any kind, no one would go through the trouble or expensive of building a sidewalk. Or even in a larger town or city with little pedestrian traffic a sidewalk might not be worthwhile (for example, it is unclear why they bothered constructing them in Des Moines, Iowa). But in jam-packed city where people walk everywhere, then it would seem like it might be worthwhile to construct a sidewalk. For instance, it might lead to less traffic accidents if people weren’t walking in the same place as speeding cars or rickshaws, as the case might be. Additionally, once you go through the time and expense of constructing a sidewalk, it might be nice if it was possible for pedestrians to actually walk on it. But if your sidewalk has been taken over by stores displaying their wares, vendors cooking things, and farm animals, this renders the sidewalk useless to pedestrians. So while Jed has been accused of being anal for monitoring NYC sidewalk cafes encroaching outside their prescribed boundaries, it is a slippery slope to unusable sidewalks.

Of course, there are also countless things that could be changed about American culture (our penchant for being very demanding about how other people should do things, thinking that the key to someone understanding English is voice volume, or the New York Yankees) but the above is just a few things that would seem to transcend culture differences.

Vietnam (April 2, 2010)

Vietnam was really the first place on our trip, where we were truly stumped in our ability to communicate with people. There have been many countries where we didn’t speak the local language (in fact, all of them with the exception of southern Africa where English is an official language in many countries), but in most places people know enough English that you can order a basic meal, get a bottle of water, or buy a bus ticket. In Vietnam, however, we regularly very challenged in getting even the most basic tasks completed (Meg to Jed on a 90 degree day: “well, I wasn’t that thirsty anyway, I probably don’t need a bottle of water now”).

In many ways, this lack of English was refreshing after being in some foreign towns that feel more like an English-speaking overseas possessions than anything else. And the lack of English speakers was a small sacrifice for not being constantly offered a ride in a tuk-tuk (or a t-shirt or postcards). But nonetheless given Vietnam’s history and what we’d heard about Vietnam from other travelers (how easy it was to get around, for example) we found it odd to have such little English being spoken.  To be fair, we deliberately went to an area of Vietnam where most tourists do not go.  The Central Highland towns of Kon Tum and Buon Ma Thuot provided beautiful scenery, incredibly friendly people, and a glimpse into the life of “the real Vietnam.” 

 This all changed, of course, when we got to Saigon where there was no shortage of English or tourists.  However, it was hard to not fall in love with the city- once you recovered from the shock of an unfathomable number of  motorbikes coming at you as you tried to cross the street:

With the charm of an old French colonial town and the warmth of the Vietnamese people and culture, Saigon is definitely a city you feel like you could live in.  It also has a very western feel to it, which made us question how it really was the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Despite all the Cold War era ideological battles, the economy is as capitalist as anywhere we have been. 

 Communism meets Capitalism

Given our confusion about what really was Communist about Vietnam, we asked questions of our guide at the Cu Chi tunnels (which were dug by the Viet Cong to hide from American soldiers during the war- so a fitting place to figure out how the economic system resulting from the war really works).  His response was that while they had elections, it was a one party system and the elections are decided far in advance- “you can go to polls if you want, but your vote is already entered into the log book before you get there”. He said that government owns some of the major industries (oil, electricity, communications), but apart from that capitalism abounds. Meg then asked him if it was possible to write a newspaper article criticizing the government and our guide burst out laughing, said “if you want to go to jail” and continued his amused chuckling for several moments. (I guess there is some communism here after all.) 

And, of course, no entry about Vietnam would be complete without some reflection on the role of United States military in the country. While most of the time Vietnam feels like other Asian countries, which aren’t burdened by such a well-known troubled history with America (though we did take significant military action in Laos and Cambodia too), there are moments when one certainly feels the weight of this history.

The official government sites, like the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, are obviously full of anti-American rhetoric. But while the images are certainly moving, the language is so overtly slanted that it almost diminishes the terror that was the war. However, authentic moments with the average Vietnamese person can be quite moving. For example, when we were chatting with a shopkeeper in Buon Ma Thuot, he turned toward the central square, pointing to the large statue of Vietnamese soldiers (surrounded by happy peasants), and said “today is a holiday to celebrate Americans leaving”- it was the 37th anniversary of US military’s departure from the country. A response other than “sorry about that” is a little hard to come up with at times like that.