Monday, December 08, 2008

SE Asia Day 11-12: Pattaya, Thailand

This leg of the trip was probably the most ill-planned.  I wanted to stay at the beach for a few days before heading back to the US, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with ferry schedules to get to one of the islands off the coast, or the time to get down the the peninsula.  So, I chose to stay in Pattaya.
I have some mixed feelings about Pattaya.  The main demographic of the place seems to be middle-aged retired bachelors seeking or already with a Thai lover half their age.  In fact, everywhere I turned I saw ads for “western apartments” in new condominiums targeted toward retired westerners.
Pattaya has all the drawbacks that come with a tourist town and few of the benefits that come with being in a foreign country.  Things were cheaper than they would be in the states, or even much of Asia, but prices are inflated compared to the rest of Thailand. 
Over the past several years I have become accustomed to the cadence and grammar of the broken English found in different languages.  What hurt my ears though were the old men speaking broken English to their Thai lovers.
While speaking in broken English may have been necessary for effective communication, from an outsider’s perspective it just sounded condescending.  This is an approximate monologue I heard from a 60-something North American guy talking to his Thai honey on the phone:
“Hi honey.  You home?  I no home.  I at internet cafe.  I go dentist.  Bad tooth.  He pull tomorrow.  You me dinner 6?  Okay.  Bye.”
I heard the same many times over the course of the couple days I was there.
The seedy side of Pattaya isn’t hidden in some back alleys, it is in your face all over the place.  To keep from getting in trouble, I hung out at the beach one day and then the movies at night.
One day when it was raining, I spent the day at the Ripley’s Believe it or not (tourist trap I know).  Then at night, I went to the movies, had some dinner, and vegged in the room.  I was pretty fine with that.  The purpose of the couple days was to decompress before two long days of travel (first to Korea and then to the US).
I didn’t find any cool spots or restaurants.  Most of the places were western or muddled western-Thai fusion food.  There were several buffets that catered mostly to western tourists.  The beach wasn’t that great either.  It was a very narrow strip of sand and the waves were about two inches high.  Of all the places I visited, Pattaya would probably be the one place that I could say that I don’t really need to visit again.  It was far from awful, but also very far from enticing me to return.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

SE Asia Day 10: On The Road from Phnom Penh

Today I headed out to Thailand.  I bought a ticket through my hostel to the border, with plans to head down to Pattaya, Thailand from there.  I had my stuff packed and waited in the outdoor lobby for the shuttle to come.  I was expecting, as I had happened in Vietnam and in Phnom Penh to be picked up by a smaller vehicle and shuttled to the bus station where I’d get on the larger bus.  So, when the driver came to a tuk-tuk, I started to get in.

He said, “No no, we do not take tuk-tuk to Thailand!”  Then he laughed at me.  We walked past the tuk-tuk to a small 15 person bus.  It too was a hand-me-down from Korea (as had been my bus from Phonm Phen to Siem Reap).  They had reserved a seat in the front row for baggage, so I put my pack in the pile and joined the two other people on the bus.

Oh, that reminds me of a joke.  How many Cambodians does it take to bring a bus of tourists to the border?  Give up?  Four.  One to drive, two to handle luggage, and one to supervise.

No joke, there were four workers for the bus company on the bus.  In Korea, one driver can handle a bus load of 24 passengers, I wasn’t sure why this bus with half the passengers required four workers.  I imagined them serving as muscle in case we encountered a band of bandits but it never came to that.

I soon realized that there was no way this bus had air conditioning.  It was just too old and worn-down for them to worry about maintaining the air conditioner.  I smiled a little at the guy in the seat next to me as he fiddled with his vent trying to get some cool air that would never come. 

It really wasn’t that hot—probably in the low 90s (33 Celsius)—but the heat would make for a long ride.  The passenger who made the biggest stink was a Colombian-American woman.  She was probably about my mom’s age and only had the slightest hint of an accent.  I knew her nationality because she later announced it to everyone.  But that comes later.

She was maybe the tenth person on the bus.  She grabbed the seat behind me and then asked when the air conditioner would be turned on.  One of the porters replied, “No air-con.”

There was some back and forth between the two of them, but it ended the pretty much like it started: the Cambodian bus worker apologized and smiled, and the Columbia-American woman cursed loudly in English.  I was beginning to think that this woman was going to make the ride miserable for everyone if she complained the entire trip.  However, when we were on our way, and the “supervisor” lit up, she complained and he put it out.  It would have been a VERY long trip of the guy smoked the whole time on the bus.

It was an hour after I was picked up before we had taken out last passenger.  It was a couple.

The college-aged girl and guy walked on the bus and immediately said loudly in some vague European accent, “Okay, we’re a couple and we would like to sit together.”  There were plenty of other singles, but I had decided that if she asked me to move, I would have replied, “Well, I’m a single, and I’d like to sit alone.”

It never came to that though.

The first thirty miles or so west of Siem Reap is paved.  That’s pretty much it.  From there we faced a tough choice between keeping out windows open and taking the dust that came with the breeze, or closing the windows and cooking.  We took the dust.

On a map, the border wasn’t too far away, butt the road is really bad.  The path was about 15 feet above the surrounding, flat, flooded landscape.  I read somewhere that during the rainy season, Cambodia looks like a giant mud puddle from the air.  I could see how that would be true.

Every so often, we’d come to a break in the road where a bridge will go.  There were small one-way detours the came down from the main road and went over make-shift bridges where the road just went over those big concrete pipes they use for sewers.  There didn’t seem to be a real river or stream, but I suppose that need to make a way for the giant puddle to flow to the other side of the road if it wants.

There were three main stages to the bus trip:  the first monsoon, the long dirt road, and then the second monsoon.  The first monsoon came in the first hour.  It turned the road into a muddy mess and required us to close all of our windows.  The complaining about the air conditioner hit a second wave.  The Columbian woman tried to bargain with the Cambodians, “Now that the windows are closed, can we turn the air conditioner on?”  I thought, yes lady, now that the windows are closed and the air conditioner is really needed, it will fix itself.

It was during this first monsoon that we made our first stop—maybe two hours into the trip.  There were kids waiting at the road stop with umbrellas to usher us under the tin-roofed store.  I didn’t need to buy anything so I just stood there watching the rain.

I made friends with a Cambodian kid named Keran who approached me wanting to sell me some foreign currencies for dollars.  I bought a few hundred yen from him for a few dollars since I had the long layover in Japan.  We chatted for a bit about the road and when it would be finished.  He was optimistic and said next spring.  I smiled knowing there was no way.  He asked me about where I was from.  I taught him also the capital of Missouri.  Then, he took out a bracelet he had made and put it on my wrist.  I asked if he wanted me to buy it and he said, “No, for friend.”

With that, it was time to go.  The passengers ran through the ran back into the bus (I guess departing customers don’t need to be treated as nicely as arriving customers).  The first monsoon didn’t last too long.  Not long after the stop, the rains stopped.

Then the dusty road stage began.  The dusty stage was long and hot.  The breeze from the windows offered little relief.  It was during this stage in the journey that I overheard the other American on the bus make an ass of himself.  He was talking loudly about his travels—especially to South America.  I don’t know how he prefaced it, somehow, he came to declare that Colombia was a very dangerous country.

The pushy Colombian-American spoke up, “Don’t talk about my first country that way!  You don’t know what you are talking about.  It is not dangerous anymore.”

Then this guy responded in the worst Spanish I have ever heard.  It was as if he had learned Spanish from a book, and was pronouncing all the letters like one would in English.  It hurt my ears.  Then, if he didn’t know the Spanish word, he would just say the English word.

They argued back and forth for awhile, with the Colombian woman not dignifying the guy’s broken Spanish with a reply in Spanish—she spoke and cursed in English for the entire argument.  When they both finally quieted up the trip seemed to go much quicker.  We stopped for lunch and then headed on for the last leg of the trip: the second monsoon.

I saw this storm approaching from miles away.  I tried to take in the breeze as much as I could before the rain would force us to close the windows.  It eventually came—hitting the bus like a wall of water.  This one was much stronger than the first.  The driver had to stop completely a few times so one of the other Cambodians could get out and check to see how deep a stream of water or puddle was.

Then the leaking started.  I felt a few drops and looked up to see a hole in the roof that I hadn’t noticed before.  It had been taped over with packing tape, but had obviously been wet many times: between the tape and the roof of the bus was a thick layer of mold.  I was ready to get off this bus.

We rolled into Poipet under that same monsoon.  I actually wrote about this stop in a previous post I made from the border:

I just arrived in Thailand after a long, bumpy, hot, muddy ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The people on the bus had a lot of griping to do, and the Cambodians in charge of the bus just smiled and shrugged.

I can't believe the mud everywhere!  Even the paved roads on the Thai side of the border are covered with mud.  Its been raining almost non-stop today.

Poipet, on the Cambodian side filled with scammers offering to take your money for services that are free, for things that aren't mentioned in civilized conversation, and of course just willing to take it.

There are also flocks of children with umbrellas offering to carrying your bags across the border through the no-mans land between borders.  They are soaked of course.  To get through to the other side, you must walk past rows of casinos, willing to take money from those willing to part with it.  Their glitz and modernity likes in stark contrast to the muddy kids carrying bags between the boards.

I carried my own things--just the bag on my back--but a Columbia-American woman I was traveling with paid to have a deaf-mute kid carry her things.  This kid didn't have much, was soaking wet, but he had the biggest smile.  He couldn't talk, but made a gentle chirping sound with his smile.

From there, I paid $10 for a ride in a mini-bus to Pattaya.  I thought there might be a connection involved, but the nice Thai guy said it was direct.  Then I asked, “Leak or no leak?”  (For Arrested Development fans this is an allusion to Michael’s negotiations with a company offering him a job and a home.  Michael wryly asks, “Attic or main house?”)

I rode with two grandpas and one of their twenty-something Thai girlfriends on the road to Pattaya.  I arrived late and crashed after a long day on the road.

Quick Note

I got behind on my “two weeks of posts” with the Thanksgiving and my studying.  I also noticed that I mis-numbered the days on my posts—so those are updated now.

Monday, November 24, 2008

SE Asia Day 9 (part 3): Siem Reap

After a long day at the Angkor complex, I headed back to the guest house.  It began to rain just as I got back.  I showered off the seat and took a nap.  From the map, I knew it was a bit of a walk into the central part of town but I decided to anyway.
I quickly fell in love with Siem Reap.  The roads around the guesthouse are dirt so I had jump around the mud puddles in part.  Once I got to the main road, all the roads were paved and seemed to be in pretty good condition, except the rains had washed mud in the streets so they were mostly covered anyway.
The riverfront has a nice park around it where young couples sit on park benches in the evening.  The two streets that border the river are one way only.  So cars cruise down one street, then cross a bridge, and cruise back on the opposite street.
The area with most of the shops and restaurants and guest houses is called the Old Market Area.  I had a bite to eat and went to the night market.  The place was pretty cool.  There were some nice shops—even though I wasn’t really in the market to buy anything.
I came upon a “Dr. Fish” spa.  These Dr. Fish eat dead skin.  They don’t have teeth so they can’t actually bite you.  They just suck up the dead skin.  This place has a “they will make you smile or your money back guarantee.”  They take a picture to document your happiness.DSCF2454
Overall, I had a great time in Siem Reap.  The people were friendly, the town had a really cool vibe, and of course, there’s the nearby Angkor Wat.

Friday, November 21, 2008

SE Asia Day 9 (part 2) The Kids of Angkor

One of the things that I realized right away when I was in Cambodia is how much I loved Khmer people.  They were warm, friendly, and interesting.  Back when I was doing my student teaching, I had some Cambodian students.  I saw them definitely “out of their element” they were facing some of the difficulties I faced in Korea: being immersed in a foreign culture.  Except for them, it was on a much larger magnitude—they had immigrated to America for good.
The kids that I met in Angkor, and everywhere in Cambodia, where witty, happy, and definitely in their element.  The kids in Angkor are pros.  Their job is to get money from cash-flush tourists.  They sell ice-cold bottled water, bamboo flutes, post cards and other tourist trinkets.
They are experts at sales techniques—using the same techniques that infomercials use.  For example, they offer a bamboo flute for $1.  If you don’t seem interested they say, “Okay, okay mister, two flute for $1.”  Then, if you really seem disinterested, they offer you three for a dollar!  Its the same method that guy uses to sell rotisserie ovens.
At first, I tried to ignore them or to keep on walking.  I wasn’t a huge target since the kids usually gravitated toward the groups, but still I was approached more times than I could count.  Then, I flopped the strategy on them.  I started talking to them.
One kid asked me where I was from.  I told him America.  Then he said that he knew five American capitals:  Juneau, Sacramento, Albany, Austin, and Washington DC.  So, I taught him the capital for Missouri:  Jefferson City.
The next kid I talk to at another temple was a girl selling jewelry.  She said, “Oh, some pretty necklace for your wife.”  I told her I wasn’t married.  then she said, “Oh for your girlfriend.”  I said I didn’t have a girlfriend.  So, she said, “Well, if you buy necklace, you will get girlfriend!”  Hah.  I loved it.  I said, “Wow, is that a magic necklace.”  Then she said, “Oh yes, magic.  It will get you girlfriend.”
The next group of kids I came to were probably about five or six years old.  I had just come from teaching kids that age in Korea.  There, families spend a big chunk of their income paying so their kids can learn English in a nice school from foreigners.  In Angkor, Cambodia the kids are learning English from foreigners for free.  Obviously, the setting is very different but the irony wasn’t lost on me.IMG_2169
These kids were playing around near a little mud castle.  The castle was a rough form of the nearby temple!  They had a small bag for people to put money inside.  I couldn’t resist taking a picture—they were so cute.
I don’t know the guy in the picture.  He had taken a picture and was showing the kids.
The next girl I came to told me she was 16.  She was selling table clothes.  They were very beautiful but told her I didn’t have enough room in my back to take them back.  We talked a bit on the way to the temple.  She made one more push and I finally said, “Sorry, I can’t.”
She quickly told me, “Take your sorry back mister.  Take your sorry back.”
Kids are resilient.  They are flexible.  Even as they live in tough conditions that I have never experienced, they find a way to play, to laugh, and to joke.

SE Asia Day 9 (part 1) Angkor Wat

I met my driver, Chang, in the community area at the guest house.  I had a quick breakfast and we headed out.  As we rode through town, I got a much better impression of Siem Reap than I did of Phnom Penh.  There were plenty of new western hotels developments.  But, I didn’t see as much poverty as I did in the capital.  There weren't the gangs of beggars or street kids.
Here’s Chang as we drove along the road through the Angkor complex.
This is a picture of the south gate of Angkor Thom.  We passed through it to get into the Angkor Thom complex.IMG_2078  , I I have to say this was really surreal.  Even with all the groups of Japanese and Korean tourists, there were plenty of views with no people in them.  I realized fully that the Khmer people are really capable of great things:  both wonderfully great and horribly great (the killing fields).
IMG_2090 This is the best meal I think I ate the whole trip, and possibly the entire month of October.  It was chicken amok, which is a curry with coconut milk.  It was really amazing.  It was in one of the tents inside the Angkor Tom complex (#27 I think).
Below is a cool tree that has grown over the temple at Ta Phrom—one of the temples used in the filming of Tomb Raider.
And here are some Korean tourists at the same sight.  I couldn’t resist taking a picture of them.  They were literally saying “hi-ting” for the picture!  I’m not joking.  For non-Konglish speakers, “hi-ting” is a bastardization of the English word “fighting.”  It is used as a generic cheer for Koreans, usually at sporting events.  I love it!
Then, here’s me at the mother of all Wats: Angkor Wat.  I look a little scruffy because I hadn’t shaved or trimmed the beard for all of my trip.
Here’s another without the gratuitous hairy shot of me.  Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world period.  Pretty amazing.  Why was it abandoned?  Basically, Angkor was attacked attacked by the Thais.  So, they moved their capital to a lower-profile spot in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Empire faded.
The weather was hot so it was definitely nice to have a tuk-tuk to ride around in to cool off in the breeze as we rode between temples.  Unless you are going to spring to pay for a tour guide to tell you the history of each site, or do studying beforehand to know what you are seeing, the temples at Angkor are definitely seeable in a day.  It was a good day.

Monday, November 17, 2008

SE Asia Day 8 (part 3): Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

After the somber trip to the killing fields, I returned to Sunday Guest House to pack my things.  I had an early afternoon bus.  On the way in the shuttle van to the bus station, it began to rain.  It didn’t really stop the entire day.  Lucky, most of the day was spent on the second-hand bus from Korea (it still had Hanguel signs throught the interior).  During the ride, I got a better feel for the country.
Cambodia is flat.  I mean really flat—flatter than Kansas even.  Kansas is rugged compared to central Cambodia.  If Cambodia were an Irish man, his name would be Flatty ‘Flat’ McFlatterson, the Flat (“Flat” being a little known title in the British Honor System).
If it weren’t for the trees, I think it would be possible to observe the curvature of the earth.
Along the way the bus made a few stops.  At one stop, I bought a bag of pineapple from a little girl, and a sandwich from a young woman at a sandwich stand.  The sandwich was the strangest I have ever had.  It contained mayonnaise, some carrots, cucumbers, and some mystery meat all on a baguette.  The pineapple came with spiced salt like the fruit did in Vietnam.
The second stop we made was at a gas station.  I saw a few interesting sights.  The first was this hand-cranked gas pump.  First, the attendant turns a crank to get the fuel into the glass measuring  container before it is put in the vehicle.  Thankfully, our bus didn’t actually need fuel—it would have taken forever!
Next to this pump was a lawn chair for the attendant.  I think it is meant to inspire the dolphins, palm trees, and fun times of the Titanic.
The roof over my seat began to leak as we neared Siem Reap.  Even though the bus was only about a fourth full, I sat there and brush away the drips when they came.  The bus eventually dropped us off well out of the city.  So, all the passengers were vulnerable to the tuk-tuk drivers who crowded the bus when we arrived.  All of them had photo IDs issued by the bus company.  So, I guess the racket is transparent—the bus company drops passengers off at a station miles from town, and then tuk-tuk drivers pay the bus company for access to the passengers, who they help along the way.
The driver I picked as actually a nice guy and very reasonable.  His name is Cheng and he speaks pretty good English.  I had a place picked out from my Lonely Planet book but agreed to check out the place he was partnered with.  Upon arrival and seeing my room, I was sold and decided to stick with his recommendation.
That night I stayed at the Happy Guest House and got air-con, tv, and a private bath for $12.  I could have had the same room for $6 if I didn’t want air conditioning.  But the tropical monsoon air of Cambodia is a powerful motivator for spending a few more dollars.
The place didn’t have internet, but an internet cafe was right down the street next to a grocery store.  I felt glad that I had found a nice quiet place to relax, and to which to base my explorations of Siem Reap.
Chang, my driver,  is available for tuk-tuk tours of Angkor Wat or for rides around Siem Reap.  E-mail him at  Tell him Josh sent you.

SE Asia Day 8 (part 2): The Killing Fields

An excellent example of how crooked the current Cambodian government is how they recently leased the Choeng Ek Killing Fields Memorial to a Japanese company.  This sobering place of national remembrance was sold off!
I paid the few dollars for admission and, upon passing through the gate, saw a large white pagoda.   From what I had read, I knew this pagoda to house the skulls of many of those exhumed from the mass graves in the area.  I avoided the pagoda at first, choosing to walk around the grounds first.
The first sign I came was one marking the spot where the victims were unloaded from trucks.  the Teul Sleng Prison mentioned in the sign is a former high school where Pol Pot used to teach.  Since high schools were unnecessary under his regime, they turned the site into an interrogation/torture/prison center.  When they were finished torturing the people, they were brought to Cheong Ek to be killed.
Around the site, there are occasional ditches, surrounded by fences.  It didn’t occur to me that these were the actual mass grave sites that hadn’t been filled in after being excavated.  The sign on this one is a little faded, but it says that 400 victims were buried here.
The countryside surrounding the memorial area is green, and lush and tranquil.  Here are some fisherman in a neighboring flooded field.
The oddest sign I read while there had to be the following, which reads, “Please don’t walk through the mass grave!”
There was also a small housing for some random bone fragments that were found.  It just lay open with bones placed in and on the box.
I eventually looped around back to the pagoda.  The area for visitors is quite small.  The skulls were groups by age group and others by sex.  Many of the victims were killed by physical beatings to the head to save bullets.
Beneath the stacks of skulls were clothes exhumed along with the remains.
In all, it is estimated that 17,500 people were killed here, and about half remain unfound.

SE Asia Day 8 (part 1): The Road to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields

On day 7 I went early to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, just outside of Phnom Penh.  Sunday Guest House made the arrangements and I rode with a couple Brits in a tuk-tuk for a few dollars.  The road there was interesting.  We went from the city out into the “suburbs” with more homes and textile factories, and then further out where the only sign of development were the “People’s Party of Cambodia” signs that were posted on the side of the road.  (Picture from In Search of Siem Reap).melissa
Because I’m a history teacher by training, and since many don’t know much about the Khmer Rouge and their auto-genocidal actions, a brief history lesson.
Its been argued the the bombing of Cambodia by the US during the Vietnam War destabilized the Cambodian government, paving the way for the Khmer Rouge to come to power.  The Khmer Rouge were a Marxist guerilla group under the leadership of former high school teacher Pol Pot to take control of the country.
Pol Pots goal was to, get this, put his country back in the stone age!  Yes.  In Cambodia there are constant reminders in the stone wats (Buddhist monastic temples) and statues of the Khmer people’s might under the ancient Khmer Empire.  So, since the Khmer Empire was a stone-age empire, Pol Pot thought it would be the best way to recapture Cambodia’s glory days.
His communist ideology also fed this idea.  “Khmer” is the name for ethnic Cambodians and “Rouge” is French for red (aka communist.)  Instead of following an industrial model of communism that that the Soviets had followed, or even China was beginning to adopt at this time, Pol Pot believed that true workers paradise was not an industrial society, but an agrarian society (imagine the sickle and hammer symbol, minus the hammer).
And since educated people knew differently, he had them killed.  Here’s a list adapted from the Wikipedia article on the subject of those targeted for killing:
  • professionals and intellectuals - in practice this included almost everyone with an education, or even people wearing glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they were literate)
  • ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist monks
  • Homosexuals
  • "economic sabotage" for which many of the former urban dwellers (who had not starved to death in the first place) were deemed to be guilty of by virtue of their lack of agricultural ability.
Their policy of genocide--both via execution and starvation--left up to 2.2 million people dead, or about 20% of the population!
We we neared the memorial, the cloudy skies and quiet off the country helped prepare me for the sobering site.

Friday, November 14, 2008

SE Asia Day 7: Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh

I arranged for my bus to Phnom Penh with the front counter at the hotel.  I was a little surprised at how nice the bus was.  It was $10 for what would be a six-hour trip.  The bus was nearly empty.  Out of forty seats, there were only five passengers.  I took a seat near the middle of the bus, opting to bring my pack on with me.  I was ready for a nice smooth ride into Cambodia.
Then, the Koreans showed up.  They were two Korean businessmen and they came right for me.  I began to wonder if I was a Korean magnet.  I thought that since there are about forty empty seats on the bus, there would be no way they’d sit near me.
And then they did—right in front of me.  I wanted to take my stuff right then and move away from them.  I wasn’t keen of the idea of listening to these colleagues chat in Korean for the next six hours.  However, I decided to give a chance.  The bus started and began heading out of town.
Then, one of the guys got on his cell phone.  He made a short call, and then he started e-mailing.  For those outside of Korea, you’ve hopefully been spared the sound effects found on most Korean phones.  Many Korean phones have a standard feature where every button pressed makes a huge sound.
This sound can be a vocalization of the numbers being pressed.  Another common one is a water drop sound.  By default the sound is on high.  Okay, all that to say the guy started texting away with a loud water drop sound every time he pressed a button.  I could hear this even though I had my headphones on.
So, I headed further back on the bus and enjoyed myself all the way to the border.  At the border, we handed over our passports.  Then, the bus started to drive off!  I started freaking out a little bit because the driver didn’t give back our passports.
Turns out they have this deal worked out with these border restaurants.  Since the visa process can take some time, they allow buses to take their passengers to these border restaurants to wait until the passports are processed.  Its semi-secure since the border crossing is pretty remote.  So, I had some lunch until they showed up with our passports again.
When I got into Phnom Penh, I stubbornly refused rides from the persistent tuk-tuk drivers and chose to walk to the hostel I had chosen—Sunday Guest House.  My first impressions of Phnom Penh weren’t good.  It was a place of stark contrasts:  shiny clean Range Rovers driving by land mine victims begging for money.  The streets were dirty because of the runoff from the monsoon.
I put my things away and headed toward the national museum before it closed.  The museum housed artifacts of the Khmer Empire.  The handiwork on the statues was pretty amazing.  Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed.
After that, I walked around the river front.  What I saw reinforced the impression I had read before I got to the country—that the ruling party in Cambodia is more interested with lining their own pockets than helping people.  There was nothing as far as I could see in social services for the street kids or land mine victims, yet these luxury apartments and hotels were springing up along the riverfront, and someone is making enough money to afford these luxury imported SUVs that are rolling around.  I don’t know enough to say that it was corrupt, but it definitely has that appearance.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

SE Asia Day 6: The Mekong Delta

For my sixth day, I signed up for a tour to the Mekong Delta.  I’ve always been reluctant to take guided tours.  But this one was $10 and included everything—including lunch.  We rode in on a minibus with about 15 seats for about two hours to get down to the delta region.
We made a pit stop at a tourist trap place that sold trinkets and food.  The stuff actually looked kind of cool, but was more than I was willing to pay.  The place had a nice garden area.
Here are some bottles of “snake wine.”  In each bottle is a whole snake that has a scorpion in its mouth.  At a later stop, they were giving samples of this stuff and I tried it.  Snake wine tastes like liquid snake—simple as that.
When we arrived at the delta area, I was surprised at how wide it was.  I haven’t ever been to a major delta region before.  The river seemed to move very slow and was so wide that it could be mistaken for a lake.
We made four major stops on our boat tour of the delta.  First, we visited a small island that had a bee farm.  There, they had honey tea for us to taste, and of course there was an opportunity to buy some honey.  This kid was an expert bee keeper.
There they also had a huge python for people to hold and take pictures with.  One person said that it was the biggest snake he’d ever seen, then the tour guide corrected saying, “It’s not a snake—its a python.”  Of course.  That’s a distinction without a difference if I ever heard one.
Here’s my fun tourist picture with the python.
Then, we went to a place to listen to traditional music of the region.  The songs were from a traditional Romeo and Juliet style story about two young lovers whose parents didn’t want them to be together.  They served use some interesting fruits during the music.
The fruit in the foreground is called dragon fruit.  It has a pink skin with green pedals or scales on the outside.  The flesh is white and almost apple or pear-like in texture with small black seeds like a kiwi.  It was the first time I’d ever eaten, seen, or even heard of this fruit.
I don’t actually know what the below fruit is.  It is like a big grapefruit with a much milder taste.
Above, in the small dish to the right center is a mound of spiced salt that is used as a condiment when eating fresh fruit.  I must say that I appreciated the spice more than the salt on the fruit.
From there, we went on a canoe ride through a canal to another island.  They had hats for each of the passengers to wear.
Our rower was a middle-aged woman who looked like she was more comfortable on water than on land.  The strap on her hat was made of the same material that her blouse was made from.
The next stop was at a coconut candy factory.  When I think of coconut candy, I think of something with actual coconut flesh in it with chocolate over it.  These candies were more like taffies made from coconut milk. 
The final stop on the tour was for lunch.  The simple lunch that came with the package included some vegetables, rice, and a cut of pork.  It wasn’t bad.  Then, we had a couple hours of down time to laze about in the area in the hammocks and nap or relax.
Overall, I had a great day.  I must say that it was easily the best $10 I’ve ever spent on travel.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SE Asia Days 4 and 5: Ho Chi Minh City

I left Bangkok on the afternoon of my fourth day.  I flew Air Asia, this cool new discount airline in Southeast Asia.  They’ve developed the model of selling rock-bottom tickets, and then charging you for everything else—from your first checked bag to a can of soda.

Again, I had this plan of using a bus to get into town, but I arrived after the bus service had shut down.  So, I got a cab driver who took me to the area where I was planning to stay.  The guy was kind of a jerk.  He wouldn’t take me down the side street where my hotel was actually located, and then he was insisting on a tip.

The first night I stayed at a place called Hong Hoa.  It was pretty nice and centrally located.  I quickly discovered the most of the hotels and guest houses in Ho Chi Minh are tall and skinny—often having 14 floors with only two rooms on each level.  I had a great dinner at a nearby restaurant and went in for an early night.

The next morning after a quick breakfast, I decided to change hotels.  I moved to Hotel 64, which is run by Madam Cuc (pronounced kook).  Madame Cuc runs several guest houses in the area the include breakfast and dinner with the room rate.  Anyway, I liked the place and decided to stay there for the next few nights.

After that, I went for some lunch and then out to see the War Remnants Museum and the National Palace.  The war museum contained mostly pictures taken from journalists during the Vietnam conflicts—both the French-Vietnam conflicts in the 50s and the US-Vietnam conflict.  Without controversy, this museum could be said to at least show the horrors of war.

There is military hardware left behind from the American withdrawal next to the American brands that came later.  IMG_1842

There were also a few reminders of the French occupation.  Here is a real guillotine.  The second I saw it, I got shivers all over.


Below is a mock-up of the “tiger cages” used to hold prisoners under the French and later under the Saigon regime during the war.


The museum was sobering to say the least.  From there, I walked to the National Palace.  The place is strange.  It was built under the Saigon regime during the war for the president and it seems to be frozen in time.  Here’s a conference room that asks, “Hey, remember the 70s?”


By the time I got back to the hotel, I was beat—it was a lot of walking.  I went out for some great pho—Vietnamese soup.  The restaurant is called Pho 24.  According to the menu pho is, “more than just a balanced meal.  It is [sic] represents the heart and soul of Vietnam and its people.”DSCF2324

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

SE Asia Day 3: Siam Square

After a couple nights in the backpacker central near Khao San Road, I decided to move to a different part of Bangkok.  I wanted to see the newer, modern side so I packed my things and headed toward Siam Square.  I was going to take a water taxi up a canal, but couldn’t find the stop near where I was staying.  So, I grabbed a cab and headed out.

Siam Square is the area where many of the skyscrapers, malls, and trendy restaurants are.  I heard about a placed called the Atlanta Hotel, near Siam Square.  The hotel is known for its retro decor and for policy that “Sex Tourists are not Welcome.”  It sounded like a business I wanted to support since I was going to be in an area where sex tourism is big business at night.

They were a little expensive—about 500 baht per night—but its a good price for the area.  I spent some time hanging at the pool—which was a great way to cool off after my hike there.  I got lost trying to find the entrance to the soi that the Atlanta was on, so I was more than read for a dip when I arrived.  It reminded me of something I saw in the show Mad Men.  This place was definitely designed in the 60s.  DSCF2314

Its quaint that they haven’t really updated the lobby in fifty years but I found a few things off-putting.  They have many policies that can best be described as smug.  I understand their policy against sex tourists.  They explain that they likely assume that Thai people in the company of westerners are prostitutes and that service will be refused.  Okay, fine.  The thing is, these warnings are EVERYWHERE:  in the rooms, in the hallways, in the lobby, on the taxi cards, and on the front door.  Having a sign on the front door is enough.  In addition to that, there were signs explaining that since Atlanta is a budget hotel, they don’t take complaints--only “constructive criticism.”

Now, some of that may be in jest, but the whole impression created is, "You’re one of the fortunate few to get to stay at the Atlanta, and we have relatively low prices, so you have nothing to complain about.”  In addition to their stated policies, the place just wasn’t at clean nor the staff as attentive at either of the backpacker dives I stayed at the previous two nights.  Every time I came to the desk, the attendant seemed put out to have to help me, and once I had to awake the clerk from a nap.

As the evening drew near, I decided to head into Siam Square to have some dinner and catch a movie.  I took the Skytrain.  The Skytrain is an elevated train with a couple lines in downtown Bangkok.  Its fast, and clean, and easy to use.  The closest stop is Phloen Chit (E2).  Its a bit of a hike from the Atlanta, but much cheaper than a cab.


I went to the National Stadium stop and to the MBK Center.  MBK Center is a huge mall.  I grabbed a bite at a really overpriced food court and watched a movie.  Here’s a karaoke booth near the mall.  These were crammed with young Thais waiting for their movies to start.


Below are a few pictures from billboard I saw in the Skytrain station.It’s for Vaseline Healthy White Skin Lightening Lotion!  I guess its the opposite of a self-tanner.  Just as I was surrounded by Thai people and thinking how beautiful their skin complexion is, here is a company telling them that they should be whiter, and that they have the product to do it.



Monday, November 10, 2008

Day 2: Bangkok Bicycle

I woke up in time for breakfast.  I stopped in at the first place that advertised “American Breakfast.”  I later found out there are many places that serve bacon, eggs, toast, with orange juice and call it American Breakfast.  I realized when I got the bill that it was horribly overpriced.

I then moved my stuff over to the Lamphu House, which was just next to my hostel of last night.  The place was much better.  I got a cheap room that had its own bathroom.  I still liked this place a lot.  In fact, I probably liked it the most of all the places I stayed.  The room only had a fan, but with a window that faced the nearby river, it was nice a cool.  Here’s a picture I grabbed from the website that is the same as my room:

lamphu house room

After dropping off my things, I decided to explore the area.  I grabbed a tourist map and headed toward the nearby National Museum.  On the way, I came upon a bicycle stand.  This booth had a big sign that said, “Green Bangkok Bicycle.”

Its a free service for tourists providing free bicycle rentals to tour central Bangkok.  I filled out the paperwork, got the booklet, and set off.  The funny thing is that the program requires riders to travel clockwise around a circular bike path around the area.  So, in order to go to the museum, I had to travel the long-way around.

But, I had all day so I didn’t mind.  I made the first few stops suggested on the pamphlet.  then, I realized that you get what you pay for.  The chain fell off the gear.  I tried to get it back on, but without a wrench, it was impossible.  By this time, I was soaked in sweat—like completely through.   So, I walked it to the next bike station to see if I could exchange it.  The people at the stand made a call, and decided to do the switch.  So, I got a new, free bike to borrow.


Along the way, I passed this utility worker.  In the middle of traffic, he leaned a ladder against the wire itself to do work.  In retrospect it reminds me of the woman mopping a light socket in The Beach.  The main character tries to warn the lady about the dangers of electricity, and the woman just responds, “No worry.”

With the second bike, I again got what I paid for.  About a kilometer down the road, I made a hard push on one of the pedals and bent it way out of shape—like beyond use.  I pushed the pedal up against a wall to try to bend it back into shape.  I was careful not to push too hard because I was afraid of breaking the plastic pedal.  I got it back mostly where I should have been and continued on my way.

After the long ride, I was so tired I skipped the museum.  The people at the last bike stand just shrugged when I showed them the bent pedal.  As I see it, the Bangkok Bicycle program has two big drawbacks:  (1) the bikes are low-quaility and (2) it is damn hot in Bangkok.  But, at least the price is right.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

SE Asia Day 1: Soi Rambutri, Bangkok, Thailand

I arrived in Bangkok late after a full day of travel.  A direct flight would have only been about six hours, but I was traveling on a free reward ticket for redeeming my miles with Northwest, so I had a long layover in Tokyo.  The whole travel time was about 15 hours from first take-off until final touch-down.

Customs was easy since I just had my rucksack.  I had upon arrival plan:  I exchanged some dollars for baht, and walked toward the bus area.  I even knew the bus I was going to take.  The only problem was that the bus service had shut down for the night.  The left me vulnerable to the predatory taxi drivers that swarmed around me as I headed toward the departure door.

There was this cartel of taxi drivers with laminated cards laying out their rates.  They offered vehicles ranging from a standard car, to a luxury car, all the way up to an minibus.  They standard car rate started at 890 baht, which is over $25.  I had done my research and new this to be well over twice the normal meter price.  So, I brushed the guys off, until one guy approached me and offered a ride for 400 baht.  I took the offer.

Now, this could have ended bad.  I got to his car and realized that he wasn’t a licensed cab driver—just some guy with a car.  He didn’t have meter or anything in his car.  There is a multitude of scams these drivers run.  Most of them have deals with guesthouses, strip clubs, or other places and get money for dropping you off at these businesses.

I got lucky.  The guy turned out to be a nice guy.  We chatted a bit on the way.  One of the more alarming things I saw on the way was the make-shift shrine built to the woman killed in the recent demonstrations against the government.  Down the block were a couple dozen riot police in full gear in case anything flared up.  The driver merely commented, “Politics.”

I already knew I was going to skip Khao San Road (aka backpacker central).  Khao San Road was made really famous by the movie The Beach.  The main character stays in a run-down guest house and is a little jaded by the whole backpacker scene.  I actually didn’t read the book until I was on my way out of Thailand and to the States, but already shared a similar sentiment after my backpack trips to China and Bali.

I opted for the quieter and nearby Soi Rambutri.  The whole area on the map below (based on is full of guesthouses, shops, and restaurants catering to backpackers.  Don’t spend too much time here!  There’s an entire country to see!  Use this area as a base to plan, regroup, etc, but this is not the destination.

There are a lot of travel companies operating in the area.  So if you are basing yourself in Bangkok, you could easily buy a seat on the many day trips offered and get out of town for the day.

I stayed in the Rambuttri Village Inn on my first night (#4 on the map).  They were okay.  They didn’t have any of their cheap rooms so I had to get one of their “superior rooms” which has TV and air con.  The place is okay.  The rooms are really bland and would be fine for just crashing for the night.  They also have a pool, but I didn’t stick around long enough to use it.

Unlike the main character in The Beach, my first night wasn’t nice and quiet.


Tomorrow’s Post:  “Day 2: Bangkok Bicycle”

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Korea's Revenge

Twenty-six hours after heading to the airport in Busan, Korea, I am home.  Its 6:30 am here in Missouri.  Those that know me know that I would never get up this early by choice.  In a way, Korea chose for me.

The meal they served on my Korean Air flight from Busan to Tokyo made me very sick.  Sparing you the juicy details (Ha ha get it?  Ewww), I had to make constant trips to the bathroom, had a fever, and chills.  It left me hundled beneath my blanket most of my flight from Tokyo to Chicago.

Despite repeated dosage of medicine, it was the after effects of this Korean Air meal that got me up at this inappropriate time in the morning.  By my count, this is the fourth time in my life that I've gotten food poisoning, and three of those times were caused by Korean food:  1.  raw oysters/ gaebul, 2. donkkaseu, 3. the mystery fish lunch served on my Korean Air flight.

Korea, I know you're sad to see me go, and don't want me to forget you, but surely there are less painful ways to remind me.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Last Goodbye

I just passed through Korean passport control and had my passport stamped for what may be the last time here in Korea.

Last night, I returned from my travels through SE Asia and stayed with a couple friends in Busan.  One of those friends was really the first friend I made in Korea.  We noted last night how our conversations are always weighty—not necessarily serious, but about substantive things.  He challenged me a lot in my faith and my worldview.  He’s Canadian (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and he constantly challenged the American-centric views that I brought with me when I arrived in Korea.

He was also the one that opened my eyes to Geoje’s amazing beauty.  With his car, we were able to explore the nooks and crannies in Geoje that I would have never been able to find or experience if it hadn’t been for him.

We discovered a dead whale on a deserted Geoje beach, ate whale meat (not the same one we found), and ate dog-meat stew.  There was actually an ongoing joke comparing him to John Locke from Lost for his connection to “the Island.”  Geoje would have been entirely different if it wasn’t for his friendship.

Then, I got to know his girlfriend who became his fiance and then his wife.  The past two weeks, I’ve been so overwhelmed with the experience of travel, that I haven’t reflected much on what I’m leaving behind.  Late last night we were catching up, my friend asked how I felt about leaving Korea.   It really made me think about it.

It’s too easy to say that I’m “going home” in returning to America.  Korea has been my home for the past two years.  My heart has become attached to my friends, my students, my co-workers, and my church family.  I’ve become so used to the green mountains surrounding Gohyeon, and seeing the sea almost everyday that its hard to adjust to life on the plains.

Korea will always be some sort of home.  No, I’m not simply returning home.  Instead, it might be better to say that I’m returning to my first home.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Notes from the Road: the Thai-Cambodian border...

I just arrived in Thailand after a long, bumpy, hot, muddy ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The people on the bus had a lot of griping to do, and the Cambodians in charge of the bus just smiled and shrugged.

I can't believe the mud everywhere!  Even the paved roads on the Thai side of the border are covered with mud.  Its been raining almost non-stop today.

Poipet, on the Cambodian side filled with scammers offering to take your money for services that are free, for things that aren't mentioned in civilized conversation, and of course just willing to take it.

There are also flocks of children with umbrellas offering to carrying your bags across the border through the no-mans land between borders.  They are soaked of course.  To get through to the other side, you must walk past rows of casinons, willing to take money from those willing to part with it.  Their glitz and modernity likes in stark contrast to the muddy kids carrying bags between the boards.

I carried my own things--just the bag on my back--but a Columbia-American woman I was traveling with paid to have a deaf-mute kid carry her things.  This kid didn't have much, was soaking wet, but he had the biggest smile.  He couldn't talk, but made a gentle chirping sound with his smile.

I was only in Cambodia for a few days but I fell in love with the people.  I'm spending a couple days on a Thai beach, but I find myself thinking more and more about home than the sand and waves.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Notes from the Road: days 1-8

I thought I'd write a brief post about my Southeast Asia trip thus far.  I plan to update with pictures and more details when I get home.

Day 1:  Busan-->Tokyo-->Bangkok
This was a day of travel.  I had an extended layover in Tokyo which inspired me to do a guide to hanging out in the Tokyo airport.  I've recently become a fan of the Australian show Kath & Kim.  In one episode Kath spends her honeymoon stuck in the airport, but has the time of her life.

Day 2:  Bangkok
Spent the day on a bicycile ride through town on Bangkok Green Bicycle.  The rental was free--and you get what you paid for.  The chain fell off my first bike, and the second bike had a bent pedal!  But it was a great way to see central Bangkok.

Day 3:  Bangkok
Stayed near Siam square in the more developed part of the city.  It was really need to see the urban Thais in their element.  I encountered some teens playing cards on the skywalks connecting the malls.  On the way back to the hotel, I passed two old men playing checkers with beer bottle caps.

Day 4:  Bangkok-->Saigon
Spent most of the day traveling due to dire warnings from the hotel staff of demonstrations that would disrupt travel.  So, I left extra early for the airport, only to find that the ride took 25 minutes!  While newer, the Bangkok airport has less material for a guide to hanging out there.  I rode Air Asia, the new budget airline in Southest Asia.  The planes are brand-new, you have to pay for any extras (can of Soda, $1), and the flight attendants wear a lot of makeup and red mini skirts

Day 5:  Saigon
I can't believe how many motorbikes there are in the city.  People drive in swarms in many different directions.  It is madness.  Checked out the war museum.  Pretty nasty stuff:  pictures of the horrors of the war, weapons the US left behind, and a tank full of fetuses deformed from Agent Orange.

Day 6:  Mekong Delta
Today I spent probably the best $10 on any travel I've ever spent.  Went on a guided tour of the Mekong Delta.  Was with about 12 other people.  We toured a honey farm (the bee dissapearances in America don't seem to be impacting here), a place where we listened to traditional music and ate local fruit (dragon fruit), a place where they make coconut candy, and finally a nice lunch and chill time in some hammoks.  Very great.  On the way back, I sat next to an American who teaches LSAT classes back home!  I picked her brain about applying for law school, studying for the test, etc.

Day 7:  Saigon-->Phnom Penh
It was a long bus ride, but very comfortable.  There were ten people on a full big bus.  The air conditioner was frosty, and they showed pirated movies on LCD screens that flipped down from the ceiling.  I went to the National Museum when I got into town.  Pretty amazing.  The Khmer people used to be the dominate force in the region--for a long time.  But their downfall seems to follow the same way of Romes (curiously at about the same time): overextending themselves, then constant attacks from invaders.

Day 8:  Phnom Penh-->Siem Reap
Spent the morning at the Killing Fields.  I don't really have words for it.  They built a huge monument to the dead made of skulls.

Tomorrow, Angkor Wat.  Pray that tensions between Cambodia and Thailand don't get too messy--I need to cross the border in a couple days.  Also, Pray that the Thais at least hold off on a coup until the 31st--the day after I leave!

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Week of Goodbyes: Wednesday

Today was the big goodbye.  It was when I finally said goodbye to my co-workers and all of my students.  I came in earlier to say goodbye to the kindergarteners one last time and finished up my student evaluations.

Then, I had to run around applying for my pension refund and then close my bank account.  Luckily the won had partially rebounded from its lows last week.  I didn’t get hit as bad when I sent my last paycheck and my severance pay home.

Back at school, I said goodbyes to each of my classes, giving them some candy, and getting some notes and things.  My highest elementary class threw me a party.  They had been asking me over the past week questions like what kind of food I like and what I like to drink and things like that.

So, while it was no surprise that they had planned a party, I was surprised at how expensive it was.  When I came into the room, they had put balloons all over the white board, and on the walls.  They had laid out all the food: ddeokbokki, grapes, cookies, kimchi, and mandarin oranges.DSCF2282

I had probably gotten the closest with this class since since there were only 4-5 of them in class at any given time and they were in the highest ability level.  They gave me some fun gifts.  Below is a picture of my bounty: 20 dried squid, a Mickey Mouse notebook,  2 semi-dried squid, and small cell-phone doodad.  Unfortunately, I had to leave the squid behind because I didn’t want an issue with customs (and they have a very pungent aroma.)


I got a round of applause from my adult class and then a hurried goodbye from my last class.  When I returned to the teacher’s office for the last time, I realized I hadn’t really packed my desk.  I rushed everything into my backpack or the trash and left with my bosses.  It wasn’t until the elevator ride down when my boss was telling me that she couldn’t believe I was going that I got choked up and teary.

I really had been a great year at the school.

I closed the night with packing and a visit from my chicken feet friend.  We have had some really good conversations from different ends of the political spectrum.  He’s the first person to hold his own in a political debate with me in a long time.  that sounds arrogant I know, but I am pretty stubborn in my views (too much so probably) and most people shrink away.  But he called me out when I was wrong and full of it, and he let me do the same to him.  We left knowing that we probably will keep in contact, and that we really might just see each other again, and that made this bye really good.

A Week of Goodbyes: Tuesday

Tuesday, I had my final kindergarten classes.  My first class was a group of three really smart kids.  They are like little sponges.  We did a little bit of actual work—reading the new science books we had received.  These kids are 6 and are reading words like evaporation and condensation as good as any native speaking 6 year old.  I drew the water cycle on the board to show what the words mean.  The girl said, “Teacher its like recycle.”  That made me happy—recycle is another word that I taught them.

Then, I said goodbye to the other 6 year old class.  Most of the kids are really good, but there was one who had me going daily to my bosses to complain when he first came.  He would hit other students and teachers, stomp on feet, and bite without provocation.  Add to that he’s twice as big as the other kids (he’s the one to the left in the below picture), he made that class very difficult to teach.Me with the kindergarteners

I used some very firm behavior management techniques on him—sometimes having to physically restrain him when he was out of control.  However, I am happy to say that he has come around.  I haven’t had to send him out of the class for months.  And he’s learning now!  He’s a little behind the other kids, but he’s trying and he’s an active member of the class.  I can take only a small part of the credit, but still, it is satisfying to see that change from when he first came.

After school, I had dinner with a friend with whom I had gone to church, studied the bible, and prayed for the past two years.  I have seen him go from dripping sweat in the dead of winter out of nerves when he first got up to preach, to clearly and confidently preaching from the Bible.  I got to congratulate him at the birth of both of his children.  He bought me dinner and we talked about our plans for the future.  It was a fitting goodbye.

On the way home, I said goodbye to my local Korean convenience store owner.  This guy owns and operates the corner store just across from the stadium in Gohyeon.  He goes from selling ramyeon and popsicles to the high school student and middle school student that pass by in the mornings and afternoons, to catering to the drunk Soju men swinging by for another round on the table outside or some dried squid to settle their stomachs.

I’ve known him now for two years.  Last year, I lived two blocks east of his store, and the past six months I lived two blocks south.  I have made many a late run to get a bottle of water, and he was my Coke Zero dealer, supporting my caffeine addition.  He is no-nonsense and good with cash money math (unlike many Koreans I’ve encountered).

Last October through this May, when I was living in the south part of Gohyeon, I ran into him once at the big grocery store down there.  The store had a standing sale that all of their ice creams are 30% off.  I saw this man putting dozens of these popsicles and ice creams into large boxes.  He was buying them at retail--although at a discount—and selling them at their regular price at his store.

I told him first I was leaving in bad, broken Korean, and then again in broken English (I go America).  It was the first time I saw him smile.  He had a big toothy smile with polished teeth that almost seemed to big for his mouth.  He took my hand and reached across the counter to give me a pat on the back and said goodbye.

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