Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Greatest Gift In Paraguay

During the summer of my senior year of college, I decided to do something different. Unlike many of most students who intern to boost their resume, I decided to be a volunteer for Amigos de las Americas. Through this non-profit that focuses on community development in Latin America, I could travel to a foreign country and immerse myself in the language and culture. Even though I was a French major and I had never taken Spanish before, I applied. With a basic Spanish book, I feigned a passable level of Spanish on my phone interview. Before I could even second-guess, I found myself in San Pedro, Paraguay.

It was in this rural community of around 70 people that I built stoves to replace their open-fire kitchens, taught English and Spanish to kids through games, and worked on environmental projects. However, the program's main focus was on cultural exchange. It was mainly an opportunity for my community and I to learn about our similarities and differences. They had never seen an American before. I had never traveled to South America, much less lived in a Spanish-speaking country. Due my lack of formal study, I muddled along daily with terrible Spanish and even worse Guaraní (the local, indigenous language). With a bit of diligent studying on my part and a lot of patience on my host family's part, I was able to communicate fairly well by the end. Some of my fondest memories were waking up daily before dawn and sitting around the fire drinking maté out of a guampa.

(Note: In many parts of South America, maté is a loose-leaf tea made of yerba maté served in a mug called a guampa. It's sipped through a straw-like filter called a bombilla one mouthful at a time. Everyone takes turns sharing the same guampa and bombilla with one person topping off the mug with more water before the start of a someone else's turn.)

The simplicity made me tranquilo, but it would be naïve to say Paraguayans lead an easier life. There were many hardships that the community and particularly, my host family, faced each day. My family had 4 boys—all in their teens. The two eldest were still younger than me, yet they did backbreaking work in the fields to support their father's income. They weren't even paid for my room and board by the program. As cheesy as this sounds, though lacking in monetary wealth, my family was rich in warmth and compassion. After dinner, my host brothers loved to teach me card games, exchange cuss words, talk about girls, and just treat me like one of the guys. My host mom cooked for me and helped me with my laundry (something my own mom stopped a long time ago). My host dad was always quick to laugh and share his fatherly advice. I truly felt like a part of the family. Before I knew it, my two months were already up.

On the last full day, one of the local teachers bought me my own guampa as a going-away gift. It was handcrafted with intricate leatherwork. I took it back to my host family's house to try it out. Before I could even use it, I carelessly broke the leather strap that was connected to side of the guampa. Upset and irritated myself, I started combing the backyard looking for spare leather parts so I could make a new one. Realizing my plight, my host father told me he could fix it and took it inside. He came out a few minutes later with a polished metal chain that fit perfectly on my guampa. Ecstatic, I thanked him profusely and we drank tereré, an iced version of maté, from my newly improved gift.

The next morning, I woke up and packed my bags before heading to the kitchen for my last, daily maté. When it was passed to me, it felt different than usual. I looked in my hand and realized that the chain loop that had been on the family guampa was no longer there. Unable to afford a new replacement, my host father had given me their chain for my guampa and left their own bare.

When I returned home, I urged some of my friends and family to try the yerba maté I had brought with me. No one enjoyed its acquired taste. Nevertheless, for the rest of that summer, I still sipped my tereré when I had the chance. Once I was back in school, though, I quickly adapted to my old drinking regime of energy drinks and coffee to keep me up during the day. But even though my yerba maté has long run out and my guampa sits on my desk unused, I have never forgotten my time in Paraguay and that amazing act of kindness.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why I Learn Languages...

The decision was made in Munich, Germany. It was the latter part of our All Saints week while studying abroad in France. I was drinking with Ali and Stephen at the Hofbrauhaus. At one point, it was an authentic German beer hall, but now it's a bit tacky (though if you're in Munich, you have to go at least once). Nevertheless, there is still decent mix of tourists and locals. At our table (it's a long, shared table) were two other men and a woman. The two guys knew each other, but the woman was eating alone. However, similar to the friendliness of an Irish pub, we started a conversation.

Beer does that to you...

This woman, it turned out, was actually Ukrainian. Naturally, she spoke Ukrainian and learned Russian as her second language, having grown up behind the Iron Curtain. She was talking to us, though, in fluent English. Living in Germany for several years, she also knew German. Total: 4 languages.

The other two guys at our table spoke limited English, so they talked to her in German, and then she translated it for us into English. Through her, we found out that they were Swiss. They grew up in a German speaking part, so they spoke German and Swiss German (which are mutually unintelligible). They also spoke fluent Italian (which they were drunkenly trying to teach Ali how to hit on girls, Ciao bella). And then, just to top it off, in their hometown, they use an Old Swiss dialect (another branch of German, but different than Swiss Standard German). Their grand total: 4 languages.

But I shouldn't feel too bad, right? It's not like Ali and Stephen speak 4 languages as well. Right? 

Well, Stephen grew up speaking Cantonese to his mom. In Ali's family, they speak Farsi. Both grew up bilingual. With French: 3 languages each.

Which left me, like Ali and Stephen, a French language learner (not fluent, but proficient). Unlike them, though, I spoke English at home. With no special "bonus" language for me, my total: 2 languages.

I never felt more inadequate in my life. That's when I realized that I ought to learn more. If not for the practical reason that I'll be able to speak with more of the world as I travel, then perhaps for the next time I'm at that table, I'll be the one translating for others. Or at least, not feel so linguistically left out.

Why I chose Spanish, though, is another story...

Friday, January 14, 2011

In Favor of Solo Travel

(Originally written 1/3/11)

"Isn't it dangerous?"
"Don't you get lonely?"
"What if something goes wrong?"

The list goes on against solo traveling. Many people have never done a trip alone for longer than a day or two. Even fewer have done it in a foreign country. Some never will.

I hadn't done a trip longer than a few days before Vietnam. Now, I am writing this on a beach in Nha Trang, having reached the end of my trip. Over these two weeks, I've learned a lot. When you travel solo, it's a completely different experience.

Is it dangerous? Yeah, if you're stupid, but the same is true of any activity. I would argue that it is more dangerous to travel in a small group--you stand out more as tourists and become more likely to be a target of a scam or a bag snatching. If you're by yourself, as long as you hide your Lonely Planet, learn a few phrases, and respect local customs, locals may mistake you for one of them. After I got a Vietnamese haircut to blend in better, I paid local prices at attractions when I asked for a ticket, "Cho toi mot ve." Even if you don't blend in as well (apparently I look Vietnamese), you may be at least mistaken for an expat.

Do I get lonely? Sure, at times. Christmas alone could have been rough. When you travel solo, though, you become more outgoing. You have to talk to people. There are some travelers who like to stay in and read or whatever. A little bit of that is okay, but it gets boring pretty quick. And when you're bored and by yourself, that's when you get lonely.

On Christmas Day, I took a walking tour in Hanoi. Once finished, my tour guides mentioned that they were university students. Our tour ended next to their campus and they asked if I wanted to see it. If I wasn't by myself, I probably would not have gone (or even have been invited). I agreed, and after showing me off to their roommates (they lived in a room of 10 girls), we went for dinner in their dorms.

The entire tour group. 3 guides and me.

When I returned to my hostel, it was still early so I went to the lounge. The great thing about hostels is that it's so easy to meet people. You have a guaranteed common interest--traveling. Grab a beer (or in my case on Christmas, there were free bottles of wine in my hostel) and start talking. Ask where they're from, where they visited, and where's next. Chances are, they have a good story or two. And the more you travel, it may be you who has the interesting story. This leads to the last question, "What if something goes wrong?"

The best stories are when something doesn't go according to plan. When you travel in a group, unplanned hiccups can be disastrous. More often than not, you already planned where you're staying and where you're going since it's harder to book things in a group. When it's just you, though, you decide where and when to go. If you want to do something, your vote is the only one that matters. I ate the heart, blood, and venom of a cobra; went on a three day motorcycle tour of Ho Chi Minh Trail; and decided to got scuba diving just because I could. I didn't plan it, but because I wasn't in a group, I was much more open to random opportunities.

What was supposed to be 1 day of travel became 3 full days through the mountains

When I travel, I have an checklist for things I want to do in places. However, the more you talk to people and find out their stories, the more that gets added to it. Even so, some of the best experiences will still deviate from your list. In a group, you lose that flexibility to do something on a whim.

Of course there are benefits to traveling with other people. For my time in Vietnam, though, I would not have done it any differently.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Face Death And Drink It

"Wanna drive?"

"No thanks... maybe if it was an automatic, but not a manual."

We were leaving the hostel to go to a "Snake Village" just outside of Hanoi. Since it was just us two, we were taking her motorcycle instead of a taxi or a bus. Normally, it's a tour for 5 people or more. However, no one else in the entire hostel was down to go so, I went by myself. I had to do it--it's why I came to Vietnam.

Instead of the usual guide, the receptionist at the hostel was going to take me. I had decided too last minute for a guided tour, but since it was my last night in Hanoi, I had no other choice. After I told her my story, she said she'd take me herself.

Which brings us to her asking me if I wanted to drive her bike. It was cold out, and riding passenger is warmer since it's protected by the driver. Being a gentleman, I should have driven us...

Except for the fact that I've never ridden, much less driven one. The closest thing I had done was ride a Go-Ped. It's actually pretty embarrassing, and I couldn't outright admit to this cute local that I didn't even know how to sit on the back of her motorcycle.

So I lied. It couldn't be that bad, right?

It was terrifying. Let me describe Hanoi traffic. Streets lines are pure decoration, traffic signals are mere suggestions, and one-way streets... well, you can make it a two-way street if you feel so inclined. I've never seen anything like it. (Not exactly true. Imagine the game Crazy Taxi but with motorcycles and everyone is playing at the same time. It's like that.)

Needless to say, I was a bit shaken after the most (well, first) exhilarating ride of my life. And then, there was a cobra.

Dinner anyone?

I'll admit that some things scare me. I have a healthy respect for heights and a bit of claustrophobia. Normally, though, fear is something I can overcome with a bit of determination. I mean, I proved it to myself while weaving through traffic only moments before.

This was different. It wasn't just any fear. It was pure, unadulterated terror. My conscious brain was thinking, "Damn, this is cool. Let's get closer." My unconscious brain said... well, nothing. It froze with terror. So though I wanted to get closer, my body literally froze.

After sizing up our meal, we walked across the street to the actual restaurant and sat down. The server brought the snake over with a few glasses and a knife. Looking back on it, this was the time to pick it up, pet it, or at the very least, get a picture with it. I didn't. Or better put, it didn't even cross my mind. I was still shaking from the insane amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

I watched as he forced the snake to release it's venom into a glass. Once finished, he cut open the chest, slit a main artery, and bled it into a second glass. Then, he reached in, pulled out its beating heart, and plopped it into a third glass.

This last glass was handed to me. Topped with a splash of vodka, I was motioned to drink it.

No time for hesitation. You must drink it (eat it?) while it's still beating. And it was, after all, what I had come for.

In one gulp, I swallowed it whole. A second later, a shot glass with a blood and vodka mix was procured in front of me. I drank that too. The venom, a greenish-yellow mixture, followed soon after. (Note: Venom is poisonous if it enters your bloodstream. Otherwise, it's safe to drink... though there is a slight risk if you have a cut in your mouth or a stomach ulcer.)

It is said that a snake (particularly the blood, heart, and venom) is good for "male" health... Vietnamese people have straight forward thinking. If you eat feet, your feet will get better. If you eat eyes, your eyesight improves. And if you eat snake, well... it's good for men.

I'm not too sure about that last part for myself, but it was a rush all the same--as trite as it sounds, I've never felt more alive in my life. It invoked in me such an instinctual, primal fear that I didn't even know existed.

Simply put, it was the best experience I had in Vietnam.

After the craziness of the beginning, the rest of the evening was quite pleasant. We had dinner--snake, of course. Every part of the cobra was prepared in a variety of ways so that nothing was wasted.

Snake skin in the front, the upper left is mashed bones

Barbecued Cobra Hood 

But honestly, in the end, words and pictures are just that--words and pictures. To truly understand, you have to be there and experience it yourself.

So if you do end up going to Hanoi and find yourself craving cobra, let me know. I'm down to go. I still have to get a picture of me holding the snake. And if you really want it, I'll even let you have the heart, as long as we split the venom...

It's missing the first shots of blood and venom, but it has round 2.