I know that a few months ago I wrote this whole thing about feeling bad about not writing, and how we were about to change that, etc. Obviously, we did not hold to our end of the bargain, since you can see that we have not written in quite some time.
The thing is, I think I’m a decent storyteller. I’m good when it comes to an entertaining/ridiculous tale of the madness that is the life of the backpacker. What I’m not as good at is describing how I feel about the state of the world as I see it, or discussing all the questions that I am constantly asking on this trip.
At some point in Asia I reached a turning point when travel became less about the crazy stories and more about the difficult questions, and honestly, I found those issues difficult to write about. Even more than the difficulty of the subject matter, I find that I am scared to write something stupid, since I do not have a degree in public policy and as a matter of fact I know little about global politics in general, so I feel like I am an inappropriate speaker on such issues.
Bloom looks over my shoulder. “Why are you writing about excuses?” He asks me. “Just write!”
Ugh, fine. So here it goes, a disorganized, stream of consciousness post:
I will start by saying that we are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos in a “fancy” guesthouse. We decided to splurge ($23/night) for Bloom’s birthday, and it’s totally worth it. Clean sheets, a balcony overlooking the Mekong river, a clean bathroom. Luxury for us.
We discovered yesterday that this place also came with a middle aged, large-ish American man and his much younger, svelte, Asian female companion. We have seen many of these mis-matched couples here in Laos and also in Bangkok. Are they just an inter-racial couple, or is she a prostitute? Is it rude of me to think that she probably is his prostitute? Possibly. The couple spends their time sitting on the balcony while the man drinks beer after beer and blasts loud American classic rock from speakers. He is basically declaring to the world that he owns this place. He will play music that blasts throughout the guesthouse and the streets, and he doesn’t give a shit about people who might not want to listen to it. Something about this man, his “his relationship,” and his music is driving me nuts. This is what people think of America. An occupying force. A few minutes ago, to prove some sort of ridiculous point, I went out to our balcony and started blasting “Jump Around,” which seemed to be an appropriate fight song to his classic rock. I only have a computer, so my music was not nearly as loud. I looked down to the street and saw a bunch of locals staring up at the balcony toward the American man and his loud music, and I realized that it was not worth a music war, I was not stooping to his level, so I came back inside, turned off Jump Around, gave in to listening to “Free Ride” from the other room, and started to write.
In terms of Laos in general—it’s a great place to be. I would advise everyone I know to come on a vacation to Luang Prabang. It has everything. It’s beautiful, and it’s cheap, and people are friendly. On the other hand, it has fancy places for the more upscale, and it’s not completely “rustic” like the places in Sumatra. So what are you waiting for? Get over here!
For weeks, and much to the chagrin of anyone we hung out with in Burma and was forced to listen, Bloom and I debated back and forth about if we should even come to Laos at all, since we don’t have so much time in southeast Asia. Finally, the day we arrived in Bangkok, last Friday, we decided, screw it, let’s just go to Laos, and we’ll work it out from there. On Sunday night we got on a train to the Thai-Lao border, and Monday morning we were in Vientiane. My brother and Bloom both said that Vientiane was lame and we should not spend much time there, but in the end we spent 2 and a half days there, and loved it. We had just been in Burma days before, and then had a rushed weekend in Bangkok, and we needed time to just breathe for a bit. Vientiane was perfect for breathing. We spent our time drinking lattes (or tea for Bloom), eating baguettes, and talking to people at the local French cafes, and in the evening we would watch the sunset over the Mekong and wander the night market.
Over the past month or so we have been much more social with other travelers. It seems that in Southeast Asia the travelers are just really friendly, which is nice for us. In South America, we rarely met friendly people (we were instead snubbed by hordes of Israelis), and in Indonesia and China we rarely ever saw other backpackers.
In Burma we did a three day trek from Kalaw (a small town in the hills of the Northern Shan State that looks shockingly similar to Alon Shvut…) to Inle Lake, another small town in the same state 60 km away, which, as its name suggests, is on a lake. Our trekking group had a total of 8 people, and it was a fascinating group of characters. There were two guys who were actually from the Chicago area! That was very exciting for me, and led to great nostalgic talks of skiing in Wisconsin and summer weekends in Lake Geneva. One of them currently lives in Hong Kong, and the other in NY. There was a Canadian woman who had spent the past decade living in Europe, a New Yorker living in Singapore, a woman from Reunion Island (which I shamefully did not know of before this encounter. It’s near Madagascar, but part of France), and an older Israeli man who spoke to us about the superiority of Israeli produce. “The strawberries are the best in the world! And the cucumbers!”
I really liked this group, and it was nice to spend three days with such interesting people, and when we got to Inle we continued to eat dinner with the other trekkers almost every night until they slowly left for other destinations, while we stayed in Inle, reading, biking, taking a boat trip and generally lazing around in our deluxe balcony room.
The thing I realized when hanging out with the trekkers was how JEWISH we are. What I mean is, we don’t notice this so much on a daily basis, but our Jewishness has taken over our lives. We decided to explain about our eating habits, and because I didn’t want the trekkers to think we’re fanatics, I felt the need to thoroughly explain our practice and our choices in great detail, and then after I would finish speaking, I would feel horribly neurotic about seeming like a religious fanatic to these people who I really liked. When I listened to what Bloom and I were telling these people, I tried to imagine what they must think, and then I realized that we sound completely crazy, and all my religious questions, that I thought I had filed away when I was 22, came flooding back into my mind gnawing at my so-called frum self. I explained to the trekkers—‘Judaism is a value system that helps me be mindful of everything in my life, that’s why there are all of these seemingly small details,’ but after I spoke, I silently questioned what I had said. Does all this ritual actually do anything? Who am I doing this for? Other people help change the world through belief in social justice and good deeds, why isn’t that as meaningful as a religion?
On our last night in Inle, after our trekker friends had all left town, we found ourselves in an Indian restaurant in a conversation with other backpackers. There were two Americas, a Malaysian guy and a Slovakian woman, and somehow the conversation turned to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The American man was talking about atheism, and how it made sense, and about a quote someone said about how it really makes no sense to say that children have a religion, and that religion is generally dangerous and causes wars, etc. For some reason this made me feel anxious and defensive. I started wondering if he knew Bloom and I were religious Jews, wondering if we could make it through an entire conversation without me blowing our cover and mentioning something about being Jews. I’m probably more agnostic than anything else, but still, for some reason I felt the need to defend believers. I went on a rant about how religion doesn’t make someone evil, an evil person if he wants to do evil, will use anything as his excuse for committing evil acts. People can use religion for good, or they can use it for evil, people can use science for good, or they can use it for evil. That’s how the world works. I then referenced a South Park episode about Richard Dawkins and a future world war not about religion, but about details of evolution, to prove my point. I didn’t stop there, and I went on to talk about how it would be wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism, it’s not Islam, it’s certain people using Islam. I’m not a muslim, but I would be pretty pissed off right now that the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist, when really it’s just some assholes using Islam as an excuse. You can find an excuse to kill people in anything!
The Malaysian guy beamed. I am a Muslim, and I am angry about this! I’m Jewish and I’m angry for you, I said. And there it went. I was back to putting myself in the Jewish box. The conversation went on for a while and in the end the Malaysian guy gave his phone number so we can meet up in Kuala Lumpur when we’re there later this month. The whole thing was interesting, and it made me re-remember that I am Jewish, because I can’t not be. I feel it in my bones. I feel the need to defend religion, I feel the need to defend Jews, I feel that I cannot eat that delicious looking grilled chicken on a stick, and I feel committed. This is not compelling, but it is true. The thing is that traveling has made me question everything. Maybe it’s because I have the luxury of time, maybe it’s because I am seeing new things and meeting new people, but either way, I feel like everything needs to be reevaluated—be it my religious identity or my politics or how I spend my money.
When we went to China I became obsessed with learning more about global politics, about world history, about policy, about development, about everything, and I was overwhelmed by how little I knew about anything. I read a handful of books about China and watched tons of Chinese government propaganda TV to try to bring me up to speed, obviously I am not even close to up to speed, but I am trying. The thing about China that is so unfathomable to me is that in many ways it is a totally developed country. The Beijing and Shanghai subway lines put the NYC subway to shame. Both those cities seem more modern than any American city, and there are fancy expensive shops everywhere you turn. But, at the same time, the fact that a Chinese citizen cannot openly say anything critical of the government, that websites are blocked, that news is censored, that the cultural revolution took place (!!) is totally shocking to me. The shocking part lies in the modernity of its big cities, I think. At least for me, I didn’t expect such a “modern” place to have such closed policies, and I felt guilty about loving China so much, although a big part of that love was out of sheer fascination for the place, and because I want to know more about the country, it’s citizens, and it’s policies. If we could have overstayed our Chinese visas, I would have. I would still be in China now if I knew we had more time. I want to learn Chinese. I want to befriend Chinese people and live in this crazy place that feels so alive and also so stifling all at once. But, alas, we moved on to our next country, since this year is not meant for serious iyyun (in depth) on any particular place, but a b’kiyut (overview) study of the world. For now.