Saturday, June 20, 2009

re-entry: top hat stories

I’m finding that being back home, and confronting many people I haven’t seen in a year, and delving into conversations (both deep and shallow) about my year in Jerusalem, it’s really hard to explain and express my experience. Not because it was some amazing experience that words can’t even describe, but because it was a complex, profound, reality-based, year, filled with good, bad, and the ugliness of life. There just simply aren’t enough words to describe a year of living.

It’s really anecdotes, stories, funny moments, that really embody the experience. But telling them is often difficult.

At some point during the middle of the year, Ari and Aviva coined a term called “top hate stories.” I’m not really sure of how the term was exactly created, but the basic story is someone was telling a funny story about something that happened back home, with people no one else knew, and it wasn’t funny to anyone listening. It was a “you had to be there story.” We all have told them and had them told to us. And then Ari/Aviva tipped an imaginary top hat at the end of the story, because the air was so awkward.  (I’m well aware of the irony that by explaining what a top hat story is, I have to tell a top hat story.)

Top hat stories are stories that refer to another time, place, group of people, that the listening audience has no basis for relating to. A proper response to a top-hat story is saying, “And I bid you, adieu,” tipping an imaginary top hat, and slowly backing up. Or laughing.

So I need to tell top hat stories. I have to indulge that part of my linguistic self, as much as I resist that, because they're so boring to anyone who's listening. I can’t not tell top hat stories, because all of my experiences are experiences that no one in home life, except for Rebecca, Tom, and my mom (who all visited me and met my friends there), can relate to. Which is strange and awkward and odd. It’s like a live a secret life, a backwards life, like I have a secret identity.

Monday, June 15, 2009

re-entry: rip van winkling

being back in america is wonderful. glorious. it's great to see my family and friends again, be in the wonderful place I call northern california, and bask in the glow of understanding the local language. 

but it's also very strange. For one thing, I don't feel as if any time has passed. It's a reverse Rip Van Winkle syndrome. Lots of time has passed for me, but nothing has changed, really, about the world around me. Ari said it's like being in Narnia: you can disappear into the closet and have many adventures, years and years of your time, but once you come back through the wardrobe, it's just moments after you've left. But that's also being slightly unfair - there have been many changes here, from newly paved roads to having two new baby cousins. But at the same time, while everyday things have changed, really, they've stayed the same. 

But I'm not the same. I feel very different and I feel different approaching the world around me. I know new things, about myself, about education, about Judaism, about my own Judaism. I have had many new experiences and grown in many ways, slightly in some, and tremendously in others. That much is clear. I feel I appreciate the things this place has to offer me in a different, improved way. I'm really excited to visit LA and see how things down there are and how I will react to them. 

I'm still really glad to be back, as weird and awkward and bizarre as it has been. I'll give you one reason why. A few days ago, I was driving from Marin to Petaluma, which is about a 30 minute drive, and it was late afternoon, and it was one of the clear, glorious northern California afternoons: the sun was hovering above the horizon and it hit the landscape in the most perfect way. The hills were golden (California gets its nickname, "The Golden State," not from the gold rush but from the color of the hills in summer/fall) and dotted with the oak trees. The clouds were speckled against the sky, which really was an almost perfect blue. The window was rolled down on the car, I had some nice U2 covers on the ipod, and it was really, really homey. I thought the same thing I think to myself every time I come back from LA to visit: "Why did you ever leave?" 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

and in the end, there's a beginning

as I was furiously, madly packing tonight (this morning?) Adam turned to me and said, "Our year in Israel is over. It's over." And while I've really known and felt it for a while, as my year really ended two weeks ago, there's something really final about this moment. I'm sitting in the airport, using the wireless in the rotunda at Ben-Gurion, having checked my bags (one slightly overweight and one slightly under, so no charge), listening to a "Yeridah" (the opposite of "aliyah," a descent from Israel to abroad) mix I made myself, having gone through passport control (I may have gently giggled when she stamped the exit stamp), having closed out all the learning and experiences and times I've had and encountered and underwent these past 11 months, almost exactly to the day. 

Today, June 9th, marks 11 months and 1 day. I suppose there's something poetic in that period; it's one day longer than the initial 11-month mourning period, but it was the opposite, a backwards mourning, an 11-month celebration time. Or something like that. If I was more awake and alert (the flight from Bangkok to Tel Aviv was horrendous and today was a whirlwind) I could work in a metaphor or two, but I'm not going to. 

I will leave you with this thought, perhaps remarkable to some of you, to whom this is may seem like a "duh moment," but for me, it will be a moment of transcendent amazement: When I arrive at US passport control, on US soil for the first time in over 11 months, I will not look at the monkey mug of President George W. Bush, but I will be in fact staring at the face of President Barack Obama, a face of hope, of change, a face of coming home and finding the world a little better than when you left, of being able to look forward to something grander than now, and a face beckoning a giant leap forward into the great, blinding future. 

Friday, June 5, 2009

back in bagnkok

Well, we're back. Back to Bangkok, the city where it all started. As I write this, on Shabbat 13 Iyar, David and I have one full day left in SEA, and he takes off early Sunday morning, local time. I head back to Israel mid-afternoon Sunday. It's been a whirlwind trip, and tonight, as David and I sat eating iced cream on the steps of the snazzy Siam Paragon mall in downtown Bangkok, we remarked how earlier this week we were in Cambodia. A week ago were we finishing our first day at Angkor. And in a week, I will have been home for 4 days, (hopefully) gotten a cell phone/number and a car, and given the speech as the alumni speaker at my K-8 day school's graduation. Whew.

Our time in Chiang Mai was lovely. It was a very cute, quaint, flat city. David and I rented bicycles and rode them around town, visiting a bunch of temples, eating, and arranging our next few days. It was very hot but nice day. Wednesday night we went to a northern Thai restaurant, which was more leafy and spicier and delicious. Thursday was a real highlight. David and I took an all-day cooking class at a Thai cooking school (they're rampant in Chiang Mai, the "cultural capital" of Thailand). We got picked up early Thursday morning and driven, with 3 other people, to an organic farm about 20 km outside of the city. Our instructor was a Thai woman called Nice (pronounced like the adjective, not the city); our classmates were a really sweet French couple and a woman who was Korean born, but has lived in Alameda for most of her life. It was crazy to meet someone else from the Bay Area; one of the first Americans we've met too!

We cooked all day. We made our own curry paste, totally from scratch. We made curry and stir-fry chicken and basil, different types of soups, stir fry noodles, spring rolls, desserts (mango and sticky rice; bananas in coconut milk). It was all tasty and fun and easy (if you have the right ingredients) and they gave us recipes so we can recreate them back in the states.

Thursday night, we took a night train to Bangkok. It was kind of my "Murder on the Orient Express"/"Some Like it Hot" experience, the the sleeper berths and an all girls band running around. David kept calling it our "Darjeeling Limited" experience; I thought that was kind of in poor taste and renamed it the "Pad See Yew Limited." It was definitely an experience. We had upper berths (much cheaper) but the whole train was air-con, so that was nice. But they kept the light on the whole time and the train was incredibly slow (it's about 700 km from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, about 500 miles, and it took about 13 hours...) and kept lurching and stopping randomly. Needless to say, I slept poorly. David slept better, I think, mostly because he was so tired because he slept poorly in our Chiang Mai hotel (where I slept really well). So we got to Bangkok around 730, went to our hotel, but we couldn't check in, so we put our bags down and then traipsed around the city, killing time, for like 3.5 hours. we saw an amazing temple called the Golden Mount, which is literally a mountain in the middle of the city. Terrific view. Then we wandered around Chinatown and Little India. When we could finally get into our room, we both passed out for most of the afternoon.

Tonight we took the river taxi, and then the skytrain to the center of town, and enjoyed having Indian food in Little Arabia (yeah? it was strange) and then walked to the main mall center. And now I'm off to bed. Tomorrow we're going to check out the huge weekend market in the northern part of town, and maybe get massages in the evening. It's also my last chance to ingratiate myself with the royal family and become their tutor, and perhaps whistle a happy tune or two, or sing about getting to know each other. But we'll see.

I've reached a strange point with my reading. I'm realizing that I will [probably finish Poisonwood Bible before I get back to Israel. Which means I went through all of my books (David is about halfway through The Brothers Karamzov and wont finish it for a while) and need to get another one, here. All of the books at the hostel are not in English, so I need to buy a cheap one. Egads. I forgot how fast I can read when I have nothing else to distract me.

I look forward to seeing you in Israel or back in the states!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

chilling in chiang mai

Well, through five sometimes dirty and adventurous nights, lot of angry tuk-tuk drivers, some interesting cockroaches, and some really awesome temples and delicious Khmer food, David and I survived. We made it to Cambodia and back. And let me tell you, it's a relief.

Thailand is gorgeous. It's got paved roads, sidewalks!, street lights, nice people, also good food and neat temples. Pretty, pretty good. As I write this, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, we both agreed that we liked our time in Cambodia, but are in absolutely no rush to get back.

Phnom Penh was an interesting city. Not huge, not much to do either. Not much of a nightlife and not many areas to really hang out and explore in. It's a pretty utilitarian city. On our only full day, David and I started off by taking a tuk-tuk 14 km out of the city to the Killing Fields, where about 18,000 Cambodia intellectuals, dissidents, etc were mass murdered there. It was pretty scarring. And interesting. The Khmer Rogue genocide of 1975-1979 claimed over 2 million Cambodian lives. 2 Million! It's insane, and yet hardly ever talked about, discussed, referred to, nothing. It's like all other genocides get swallowed by the shoah. Now, I have some very hard cut issues with comparative genocide - there's really enough suffering to go around and we don't have to insist that ours is greater - but more and more it seems really horrid that in the Jewish community at least, and the American community at large, "never again" should really mean "never again." And when it's already happened, we really need to take a stand and talk about it.

That's my soapbox for today.

The rest of the very hot and humid day was spent walking around the center of town. We went to the National Museum, which filled in a lot of gaps on the history of Cambodia, mostly the Angkor period. It was a neat, if not terribly large, collection of statues (Hindu, Buddhist) from the 5th-15th centuries, and then some modern Cambodian war instruments, decorative arts, etc. Wood carvings. Some really interesting panels depicting the Cambodian version of The Ramayana, a central Hindu myth (which I'm now super interested in learning about). Then we had lunch, and then went to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, then rested, and then had a fabulous dinner at a place called Friends, which trains and hires street children to work, serve, cook, clean, in the restaurant. And the food was really, really tasty too.

Again, I'm continually struck by how much the Cambodian culture is based (at least here and Siem Reap) on the tourist industry. And it's not like there's that many of us. Everyone either caters to us, or don't care that we're here. My favorite moments have been the tuk-tuk drivers, who, after being repeatedly ignored when they say, "You need driver, good price, okay!" try a new tactic: "You want happy meal?" "Amsterdam" "You want a smokey smoke?" It's really sleazy.

And Thailand really isn't. The tuk-tuk drivers understand "No thanks," or a nod of the head, or just a bland ignoring. They're cool with it. Everybody gets a long in Chiang Mai! I don't really know that much about Chiang Mai, as a city. I can tell you it's big and flat, about 200,000 people, the culture capital of Northern Thailand (which means cooler climate - or less humid - and different, more Burmese influenced cuisine). It's got a moat and some remnants of an old city wall. A LOT of temples (which we're exploring tomorrow on bicycle). We saw an elephant walking in the street while we were eating dinner (no joke! but it wasn't stray or wild, it was being walked by its owner. But it was still really surreal). There's a really awesome arty and crafty night bazaar. We're staying in a super reasonably priced guest house, in a good location, nice bathroom, and a pool. Yes, a pool.

All right, it's 11 so I'm going to sign off now. I'm going to go back to the room and continue reading Poisonwood Bible - yes, I finished Dune: Messiah, which was pretty good, and yes I restarted Poisonwood Bible, and I'm pleasantly surprised that I'm liking it more and more. Maybe it's because it's a jungle book, and I've been "living" in a jungle for the last week. I have some frame of reference. I've also been listening it Miss Saigon a lot. I'm now in the middle of the 4th listen through - it's the only music I have with a southeast Asian reference frame. It's weird. I'm so used to putting a soundtrack to life, but here, nothing really fits. Tapestry is the only album, along with, strangely enough, Broken Social Scene, that seems to fit a little bit. Everything else - and I've tried U2 to Joni Mitchell to Kronos Quartet (which actually works more than one might think) to Sufjan Stevens - feels uncomfrotable and strange.

Here's to finding a soundtrack to Chiang Mai!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

pampering ourselves in phnom penh

Cambodia is a really crazy country, a "shit storm"as David cleverly and accurately termed it our first night in Siem Reap. It's a mess, totally underwhelming. For one thing, everybody wants a piece of the Westerner's money. And they do not take "No" "No way" "Not a chance" Absolutely not" "Not on your life" or "No way in hell" for an answer. I told David they needed rape prevention classes here, because the Cambodians need to realize "no means no." He didn't laugh.

Also, the driving. Tom will nod his head and agree, because it's a total fucking mess. When we arrived in Siem Reap, there was this mob of bikes, motos (like passenger motorcycles), tuk-tuks (motorcycle pulling a bench for 2-3 people) and few cars, all swarming in teh street. I couldn't figure out was was so off-putting about it, other than the road was dirt and they were all going so fast. then it dawned on me: there were no stoplights. No street signs, no stop signs, no stop lights. Nothing regulating the flow of traffic. The people just...drove. And prayed they didn't hit anything.

The flip side of this, of course, is that we're really in the third world. The country is filled with abject poverty and child malnutirtion and victims of land mines and people desperately trying to stay alive on a daily basis. It's incredibly harsh. It's very upsetting. And so, like most Americans, I pretend it doesn't exist and focus on the food and the temples and counting the days until I'm back in the west (from today: 7 to Israel; 9 to California).

Siem Reap, the springboard town into the Temples of Angkor, is fun. It's a little crazy, as the people here have made tourism into a true industry. There is a whole stretch of Vegas-style hotels of brobdignagian proportions, and then streets and streets of more "modest" guesthouses and hostels (like the place David and I stayed). The town itself is very cute and touristy; by our third night I was bored with the options. It was fine, for a night or two, but I couldn't imagine staying here for more than a few days. If you love bars and clubs, then, yes, of course, but otherwise, eh. They had very, very good iced cream though.

Angkor Wat is truly spectacular. I'd learned about it in my archeology of cities course my 4th year at UCLA, but not really in great depth. But it's amazing! Angkor Wat is really a misnomer, it's really the temples and cities, spread out over many kilometers, of Angkor - Angkor Wat is the biggest and most central Temple; it's the biggest religious building in the world. How about that, huh? They are these huge, immense, grand, monumental limestone buildings, with huge staircases and stepped towers and moats and carvings and corridors, all in the middle, the random middle, of the Cambodian jungle. It was wild. It was so wild, and so much in the middle of nowhere, that before we started David and I decided we needed an extra day here, so we ended up spending three nights here, with two full days on the temples.

I have hundreds of pictures (If possible, I think my photo collection of Angkor stone rivals Ari's pictures of Turkish tile...) up the wazoo and will show them when I get home (to the brave and the very patient). The highlights, for me, were many: the Elephant terrace of Angkor Thom, which was a huge, long terrace with hundreds of elephants carved into the wall; Angkor Wat itself was magnificent, so much so that we went twice, once in the afternoon and the following morning; a temple called Bankong, one of the first temples, the Rolus Group. about 12 km out of the way, which was very stirring and peaceful and beautiful in its (comparative) simplicity.

Phnom Penh is kind of like Siem Reap, if it was a city of 1.5 million instead of 100,000. The roads are paved, there is a plethora of restaurants and really big day and night markets, with a lot less tourism (but it's the off-season). Whereas walking in Bangkok smelled of a Thai restaurant, Phnom Penh smells of rainwater, rancid fruit, and trash. It's not particularly pleasant. Our hotel is fine, probably the nicest places we've been in (it has a TV and I watched an episodes of The Wire this afternoon while David napped). We walked around and sweated (I decided I really need a Dune stillsuit in this weather; it would save a lot of hassle dealing with the buckets of sweat and sontinually buying bottled water) and we saw the sights, from afar. Tonight we had dinner on the river. Tomorrow we're going to the killing fields memorial in the morning, and then the national palace, silver pagoda (oo!) and maybe a temple or museum in the afternoon. And the next day we fly to Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand.

In case you're keeping track, I finished The Audacity of Hope, and really enjoyed it, and then moved onto The Beach, which is about backpacking culture in Thailand in the mid-1990s. It was also made into a Danny Boyle-Leonardo DiCaprio movie in 2000. I'm now onto Dune: Messiah (see refernce above), which is good, not as good as the original. The only book I have left is finishing The Poisonwood Bible, and at the rate I'm reading, I may be forced into doing that. I guess there are worse things in life.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

say hello to siem riep!

David and I arrived today in Siem Riep, Cambodia, the gateway town to Angkor Wat, a marvel of archaeological and historical and architectural temples and city, that we'll be exploring over the next 2 days, before heading to Phenom Penh, where we'll regroup and probably continue on to Chiang Mai.

Anyway, yesterday we explored Bangkok. It's a crazy city. In the morning we walked a lot, and found ourselves in the old, fortressed part of the city, where the Royal Palace and many central wats (really just a southeast Asian temple) are. We walked through Wat Po, where there was a huge reclining gold Buddha, and then onto the Royal Palace and the Shrine of the Emerald Buddha, which David had read a lot about. David is actually quite the expert on Buddhism - not specifically Thai Buddhism, which is Theravada Buddhism, but Japanese Buddhism, which is Mahayana Buddhism. Apparently Therevada is like Tibetan Buddhism and is very esoteric and monk oriented. Anyways, he was educating me quite a bit on what the towers and figures of the Buddhas and shrines represented. It was all very interesting, although I haven't really retained much. It's the stupid heat.

All of our walking was accompanied but any street vendors and food carts, hawking their wares and thrusting beggars in our faces. Walking the in city is a bit overwhelming, and I hoped that the rest of SEA wasn't as "in your face." We then hopped on a river taxi and rode down to the center of the city, and along the way saw some barges, the ferries, and many, many tall buildings. It's a really big city; according to wikipedia about 8 million people. We disembarked and then hopped right on a skytrain, which, during rush hour, was packed, especially with families and school children, all dressed in the same navy blue shorts/skirts and sky blue shirts, all heading to the mall for an after-school snack and hang out/cause trouble/run amok time. Some things, some cultural elements, are pretty universal.

The skytrain was neat, really just an elevated metro. We got off at Siam Center, a really, really big complex with three connected malls. They have Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Coach bags, Swensens, and movies theaters. This part felt super westernized.The mall was air-conditioned, and so we bummed around for a bit, exploring the basement level "Gourmet Food Market," which is basically what the San Francisco Shopping Centre basement food hall/Gelson's wants to be. It was super neat and, again, a bit overwhelming. We left the mall and explored the shopping and street vendors below. David really wanted Curry, I was just hungry. Eventually we found some non-curry chicken-rice-bowl. Then we walked. And walked and walked and walked, heading back in what we thought was our hostel, but it turned out was south, instead of west. We decided to keep walking, towards the nearest pier in order to catch a river taxi. By the time we got back to the pier, it was around 730 and the taxis stopped running at 6. So we ended up taking a tuk-tuk (like a covered motorcycle with a bench for two) back, and got to see some definitely non-touristy Bangkok along the way.

Early this morning we got up to take a bus to the Thailand-Cambodia border to cross over and then take a taxi to Siem Riep. The whole thing was fairly cheap, but still more than bus-bus, and until we got up, seemed a bit dodgy. But the first bus was like a super shuttle, or a sherut. It was large and ACed and has comfy seats and sat about 10. It filled up with a brazilian couple, a french couple, a few very non-friendly israelis, and some unidentified asian women. We bonded with the french couple, who had been traveling for about 8 months and marveled at our ability/willingness to see places in a few days - for them, at least a week in Siem Riep would do. Anyways, once we got to the border, we waited. And filled out visa paperwork. And waited some more. And waited some more. And then drove to the border. Where we waited. And waited. And waited. And crossed from Thailand into liminal space. And then waited. And then crossed over into Cambodia, and then waited in line. And then waited. And waited. And waited. And finally got in our taxi.

Eventually, we made it to Siem Riep. The whole process, in retrospect, was farcical (David would like me to note here that he thought it was farcical the whole time, whereas I was just annoyed and frustrated). And incredibly frustrating. But, it's now over, and probably when we cross over back into Thailand it will be via plane, so maybe a little smoother? But the Thai, and especially Cambodia countryside are beautiful. Really gorgeous. And Siem Riep is a neat city, with a fun touristy but cute downtown, and a wide, brownish river and big trees (it feels very southern), and large wide streets, tuk tuks and bicycles and motos chaotically filling the roads.

Anyways, we're going to spend 2 days exploring the Temples and city of Angkor and then away we go!