Cambodia

by Life Anthem on March 21, 2014

The dreamers aren’t a problem. They approach life with a bit of caution and are at least somewhat realistic and humble. It’s the romantics that are insufferable. They are blind, and for them pragmatism is an alien way of thinking.

I’d say that years ago, I would have defended many ways of living as I went to new places. These days I’m a little less patient with ways of living, doing business and ways of thinking than I was before. By all means, if it works for a group, then may they enjoy it together, but if a place isn’t working for me, well, I have to say goodbye, as time isn’t on my side, and along with that, tide waits for no man as they say.

Oh, I’ve only been in Cambodia for less than a month, and I’ve just left Phnom Penh once for a village outside of town on a film trip. I’m not here on a holiday, but to work so I’ve been getting settled with the team on my new project and looking for an apartment. I’ve made a little group of friends luckily, and quickly. There are so many foreigners here working with embassies and NGOs and other developmental sorts of things that it’s pretty easy to get in with a social group from the west. Am I just ready to settle down faster than I thought I ever would be? I think I’m just tired of settling for mediocre. People here try really hard, I think, but the effects of horrible government and dictatorships and genocide have really ruined this country to the core. The people here today are an example of how humans have really get through a lot. I haven’t seen violence or meanness from people yet, but I have seen dis honestness. I also haven’t been here long enough to judge. But I do feel that I can judge the people from places like Europe, Australia and New Zealand and the U.S. and Canada here. People that refuse to criticise anything because they’re so in love with the idea of being in a rough country that they can’t fathom it really becoming too “easy” to live in. I mean that’s why they’re here right? For the challenge. For the acknowledgement of others that they’ve done something outrageously on the edge. So do they really want it to get too “mainstream” here? Maybe, maybe not. There are the specifics on Phnom Penh that we could bring up, such as how foreigners living here to reinvigorate the country and try to fix it are just driving up the price of rent and goods, supply and demand and what people are willing to pay for things. It’s causing people who’re thinking of low S.E. Asia prices to low ball the locals while they get angry because they can’t live on the salary offered because goods and rent prices are going up because of the foreigners who are here. That’s one example of the oddity that is Cambodia.

I guess sometimes a person thinks they’re up for a way of life, but the adventure really turns into a reality check; a discovery that the person may actually have a different set of goals than they originally thought. I enjoyed a nice year in New Zealand, land of the easy going lifestyle in many ways. Everything is just so easy there, except maybe finding a cool job. Coming here I find everyone wants to have someone with my experience on board their project, but they don’t want to pay because so many here volunteer. I know that I’ll most likely head back to the U.S. in the not-so-distant future, but do I really want to head back into media, or do I just want to find a job and make a paycheck so that I can save some more money up again and head back out into the world? There are so many things I’ve dreamed of doing, like writing a book and creating a film, projects that I’d be extremely proud of whether I was paid for them or not, but I really want to be able to relax in my home country again as well. I really yearn for a lifestyle that is easy going and relaxed to live out my days.

I want a simple life, and while people live with little in S.E. Asia often times, they also life a harsh life. In the U.S. I could find a simple way of life that is a quality life as well. That may be because I’m well versed in the ways of the U.S., but it’s also because the country itself is set up that way for many immigrants as well, to find a way to make a dream come true. That’s the idea at least.

So I write this little entry as a sort of journal passage of sorts. It’s meant to remind myself that just because I envisioned a journey a certain way, doesn’t mean I’ve failed if the journey takes me down a path I didn’t plan for.

 

 

Stuck in the Small Picture

by Life Anthem on February 15, 2014

Just another idyllic Auckland summer day. The sky blue and the water as emerald as you’ve ever seen. I on the other hand wasn’t having such a wonderful one. You know how it goes sometimes. You do what you can, but the day just doesn’t seem to stick. So I decided to go for a little walk and clear my mind.

Walking around a little beachside community in the city’s more upper-class east side I passed a park and sat down for a spell to just watch a group playing a game of cricket. It was nice.

I got up and walked around the corner to a little shop to buy a cold drink; walked inside this shop as I’ve done many times in the past. I passed by several refrigerators full of different sodas, flavored waters and juices. As I saw one that I wanted, up on one of the shelves at eye level, I opened the door gently and heard a “pop, bash” and felt cold sticky liquid soaking into my shoe and onto my foot.

A woman just to my left said: “oh my, it just fell out of there.”

to which I responded: “yea, how annoying.”

I heard the clerk at the counter taking money as a few customers stilled queued to pay for their items. What was I to do? He was the only one running the store.

These little stores are all over Auckland and New Zealand. Each one is called a “dairy”. They are modest corner stores you go to for a little drink, bag of chips or even some cheese or pain reliever. They’re there for when you don’t feel like going to the big supermarket and don’t mind paying about 1-4 dollars more than you should for an item. I suppose you save in gas money, but they usually sell to adults or school children just looking for a snack while passing by.

I went to another refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of juice, and then a shelf for a couple of small bags of chips for the house, then walked up to the shop keeper cautiously.

“So you’re the one who dropped the bottle on the floor.” he said to me. Like a father who hates his boss so he passes on the disdain to his child for committing the horror of a little accident (sarcasm).

I explained to him that I opened the door normally and the bottle just fell out from a bottom shelf.

“Customers open those doors all the time and a bottle has never fallen out.” he responded.

Ok, so reason tells this guy that just because he’s never seen this situation happen, it’s impossible that it could happen.

I explained to him that the other woman, another customer, who was standing in front of him and to my left saw the whole thing and commented that she saw the bottle just fall out.

While we’re having this conversation a man and his two sons are behind me pretending to pick out items from a shelf, yet I know the father is listening to this awkward interaction. I motioned for the shopkeeper to give me back my bank card, letting him know I was not going to buy anything from him for rudely implying without any proof that I had dropped a bottle on the floor and was trying to cover it up by lying and saying that it fell out of the refrigerator, when all I did was open the door.

Here’s a situation that I’ve run into time after time in many countries, including the U.S., where I’m from. Business owners are constantly stuck in the small picture. Yes, this shop keeper was going to lose about 4-6 New Zealand dollars from the sale of this overpriced bottle of soda that fell out; but as he told me, this has never happened. So what he did was embarrass a kind and honest customer over 4-6 dollars.

After I explained to him again that the bottle fell out without me even touching it, he, again proceeded to let me know that he’s never seen that happen before and wanted me to know that he didn’t believe my story. Honestly, if he would have said not to worry about it and been kind, I would have certainly paid for the broken bottle in addition to the other items and gladly helped clean up the mess. There was no concern from him that I might have stepped on a broken piece of glass, or that my shoes were stained from the soda that splashed on them.

I was so angry after being treated like a lying child, I motioned for him to give me back my debit card for the last time and I took it as I proceeded to leave the store. I’ll never go back.

I was so angry for hours after that. It’s so frustrating that a business owner would be so small minded as to treat a customer like that instead of looking at the big picture. This is a small shop in the middle of a very affluent neighborhood. The shop keeper, probably a very nice man who I would venture to guess, educatedly, immigrated here from another country and worked hard to get where he is and was probably elated to be living in beautiful New Zealand and on top of that, having his shop located in one of the cleanest, quietest and nicest neighbourhoods in the city. The shops around him are always busy and the fish and chip shop next to his is a family operation with friendly staff and repeat customers. Why do people get so caught up in being angry at an honest happenstance instead of seeing that this encounter could be golden. That encounters are each chances to improve on a relationship instead of breaking it down because of little insignificant battles of pride or foolish anger.

Always look at the big picture and never get caught up in the small stuff. I reminded myself of this lesson as the hours after that moment passed. I thought about the lesson that I could learn from this in my own life instead of dwelling on how unnecessarily rude this man was over such a small incident.

The 1888 book Banking Under Difficulties uses the phrase:

It was no use, however, crying over spilt milk.

Which seems fitting for the dairy industry conscious nation of New Zealand. Except in this case it was the shopkeeper crying over spilled soda, and forgetting his reputation along with his manners in the meantime.

Thailand and Vietnam

by Life Anthem on January 23, 2014

Paradise? Not quite.

Cheap? Not quite.

After spending about a month in “the land of smiles”, I would return, but for a choice list of reasons. I had never been to Asia, and this was a great entry point. My journey started in Bangkok, where I had about 8 hours to grab dinner, take a walk and grab a few hours of sleep before I rushed to the bus station for the bus/ferry combo with Lomprayah which took me to Koh Tao (a small island in the Gulf of Thailand).

Coming from safe, easy, breezy, clean and sometimes boring New Zealand, it was a bit of a shock even for a traveler who has been to some bustling parts of the world. Especially in the South of Thailand, you feel like cargo with a wallet. This was the high season, to top it all off.

My path for the next few weeks looked like this:

Auckland-New Zealand to Bangkok via Sydney, One night in Bangkok then bus down to Chumporn, ferry to Koh Tao (for dive school), ferry to Koh Phangan (for New Years), ferry/bus combo to Krabi, bus/ferry combo to Koh Lanta, minibus/ferry combo to Koh Jum, ferry/bus combo to Phuket via Krabi, bus to Khao Sok National Forest, minibus to Surat Thani airport, plane to Bangkok, nice quick train ride to Ayutthaya, 10 hour train ride (that was fashionably and typically late) to Chiang Mai, plane back to Bangkok, plane to Hanoi-Vietnam.

The South, for the most part, sucks. The end, and I don’t apologize for saying it. Somebody has to say it. The respect for the environment is largely thrown out the window in the all important pursuit of the BAHT. Plastic is used like you wouldn’t believe. Plastic wraps every bottle top of every plastic bottle it seems, plastic wrapped plastic straws for every beverage at 7/11, automobile pollution abounds, fuel-leaking long tail boats and people who ruin the coral around the islands and the water itself. There is more concern that a tourist is going to take a drug than would ruin the country’s irreplaceable environment. When I see sticky rice wrapped in an environmentally friendly banana leaf I get so happy.

I understand that the people working in the tourism industry go through a lot in this part of the country dealing with idiotic and rude short-term vacationers from all over the world who come for a cheap holiday, but there has to be a way to improve the system and make it safe, sustainable and friendly at the same time.

There are 3 places I visited in the south of Thailand that I would return to (keep in mind that I didn’t have time or money this time to visit places like the Similan Islands or Koh Lipe which I found highly recommended. For nearly unspoiled I chose Koh Jum (below) which I found pretty lovely for the most part. :

#1: Koh Tao. The island’s interesting part is walkable and most go there for open-water dive training. It was rewarding to overcome fears and get certified to be an open water diver. Dive Masters, recommended to me by a traveler in New Zealand, is most likely the only dive school worth going to on the Island, because for not much more the school is leaps and bounds better than the others from all indications. One indication is watching our school with only 1-4 people to each instructor while the other schools around us jumped off large long-tail style boats in the same bay crowded with around 8 students per instructor. No exaggeration. You pretty much stay in Koh Tao for the course and then it’s a good idea to leave because, at least when I was there, the water wasn’t very clear and the corals are badly damaged. Also the bays are so crowded with dangerous and polluting wooden boats with leaky old motors that you don’t know if you’re going to ingest fuel or get hit by a propeller. Thai-style.

#2: Koh Jum. After experiencing New Years on Koh Phangan, which was a nightmare, I needed to find some modicum of solitude. 50,000+ rude drunk foreigners nearly sunk the island as they hoarded it like ants on sugar. Faith in humanity lost. After that mess I was ready to go to the quietest place I could find. As I headed to Koh Lanta, off the bad advice of a few travel blogs, I was so exhausted from Koh Phangan that I left my bag on the ferry. I only realized after a confusing start to the bus ride across the Thai peninsula to Krabi. Faith in Thailand restored when the company booked me into a cheap room in Krabi for the night as I waited for my bag on the next bus over. With that error solved (luckily it seemed), I headed to Koh Lanta the next day. A travel agency in Krabi attached to the Pak-Up hostel booked me into an overpriced boring resort at the bottom of the island and seemingly snuck in an extra 300Baht for a one-way minibus/ferry ride that I didn’t order and already had. When I arrived I realized just how “family-friendly” Koh Lanta is. More screaming kids than I could handle, unless you can find a bungalow on the hipper mid-western beaches. I rented a motorbike to try and salvage the couple of days I was there, but ended up using it to realize just how underwhelming Koh Lanta really is and to go to another travel agency to book a ticket and accommodation to go to the locally recommended Koh Jum. I’ll sneak in this bit of advice with the trio:

The tiny island between Koh Lanta and Krabi (Koh Jum) was recommended to me by the taxi driver in Krabi. He said to go there to escape the tourists. When I arrived my first bungalow was at Andaman Beach Resort. PASS. The staff are rude, unreliable and cold and the beach there is mediocre. I arrived at 11am on a ferry/longtail trip because the island doesn’t have a pier. The room wasn’t ready until 2pm and the next morning I was woken up to a knock on the door at 8AM saying I needed to check out because many guests were arriving. What a joke. They were angry because I said I wasn’t staying longer because I found a better and less expensive place at Golden Pearl bungalows up the road. I showered, packed my bags, tossed the key to reception and rode my motorbike up the road to Golden Pearl where my bungalow was ready and I spent a couple of days in a 350Baht cool place with a great beach, bar, restaurant and campus. While on Koh Jum go to Friendly Restaurant which is next to Andaman Resort. The people there are sweet and the food is wonderful. This is one of the few places in Thailand where you’ll feel safe riding a motorbike, so rent one from Friendly Restaurant too at a fair price. You’ll be able to ride to the little town centre to book a day trip to any of the nearby islands like Koh Phi Phi, or even check out some of the other little restaurants in the town or shops. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t even bother going to this island in the off season though because everything will be closed and you’ll be eating at the resort the whole time.

#3: Phuket. This was the most surprising. I even stayed in Patong Beach. It’s so ironic that I liked it, but not for the trashy people and atmosphere, but for the nightly market on Soi Banzaan, the nice restaurants and Thai massages on some of the streets further away from the beach, and for Phuket Travel Company. They are on Soi Banzaan and run the Loveli Guest House above which is affordable and well kept. The staff at Phuket Travel Co. are super friendly, funny and helpful in many ways. They booked about 3 tours for us that were a great deal. I think. You just never know in Thailand. And you always have a portion of a trip where you want to do some tours instead of just wandering around. We toured some of Phuket, went to Coral Island for some snorkeling and left for Khao Sok National Forest for a 2 day tour on the way to Bangkok. I’ll sneak in Khao Sok as an extra recommendation here for the south of the country. We went on this tour booked by the Phuket Travel Company that was pretty nice. I thought it felt very packaged, but my friend really enjoyed it because it was all so organized and easy. We went on this night canoe ride down a river where you could see the incredible limestone rocks in the moonlight and get up close by flashlight to some creepy night creatures and we thought it was pretty awesome. Sure most of it was touristy and packaged as hell, but we knew that before going and accepted the good parts. After that I was ready to get the HELL out of the South of Thailand, for christ sake.

The North

Ayutthaya was cool for a day or two. The guest houses there are hit or miss, but we liked Baan Lotus the best, and the sweet old lady that runs the place. She’s a bit forgetful so be patient with her, it’s worth it. Thailand really pisses me off with the guest house situation. It is highly likely that you will book a room ahead of time and they won’t ask for any real details about who you are or any payment method for a deposit. When you arrive you have no idea if they are going to try and give you a more expensive room, or give your room away to someone who walked in right before you with cash in hand. There were a few times when we’d walk up to reception, tell them we had a booking and they would say they are full when I just got off the phone with them after they said they were reserving a room for us. It’s pathetic. Then you have the all too common “I need to hold your passport for a deposit”. How many passports can a person have and lend out? If you rent a motorbike and stay in a guest house, you’re likely to have two or more people wanting your passport and I heard people asking if one could just make a photocopy to give to the other because his passport was being torn in so many directions. It should be against the law to hold someone’s passport as a deposit. I had an expired one that I gave to one guest house as I couldn’t leave my current one and the U.S. Passport Card I have wasn’t going to be acceptable. Of course even my older expired passport was very important to me because it had all of my old visas and stamps from other trips. But the guest house worker got an attitude as if I was doing something unethical by giving him my expired passport. Well I think his method of potentially blackmailing someone into paying by saying he would hold their passport is unethical.

That last encounter happened in Chiang Mai which, besides some cool parts of Bangkok, I will say is incredibly worth a return visit. I loved Chiang Mai more than any other place in Thailand. Without question. It has all of the convenient appeals of the country, but with a great little character and charm coupled with great history and a slower less mind-boggling pace.

Next we spent a few more days in Bangkok, which could have been cut by 2 and went to insanely busy Hanoi. Wow, talk about a crazy way to end the trip. I was so tired of the hotel dance (changing hotels nearly every night) that I booked 7 nights into a nice hotel in Hanoi because the price was so good. The first two days and night were really cool, and then suddenly I was over it. So we booked yet another packaged tour to Ninh Binh Province (because Halong Bay seemed a little too far for one day) and went to Tam Cốc (The Three Caves). We booked at a little travel agency on Ma May street in Hanoi next to the 3b Hotel. The company we went with had a great guide who really warned us and helped us with the pushy tip-hungry locals. I tipped the boat rower anyway, and the guide was right there helping me give the right amount, because in Vietnam, you’ll be amazed at how people with comfortably just reach right into your wallet to grab out the cash they want as you’re trying to give it to them.

It was a relief to get back to Thailand for the journey back to New Zealand, and it was a total 1st world shock to be back in clean, tidy, amazingly easy Auckland, New Zealand. The U.S. was never this well put together.

Those are the tips and feelings I have on the Southeast Asian countries that I’ve been to so far.

I do have a bit of news. This blog will likely turn into a written journey on my time in Cambodia next. I’ve just gotten word that I’ll be working with UNICEF based in Phnom Pehn and traveling around the country to advocate for children’s rights and give children a safe and fair voice through video and pictures and interviews. It’s going to be a rewarding experience and I look forward to sharing it all.

New Zealand

by Life Anthem on December 9, 2013

I’ve been in this country for 7 full months. Let me repeat that. I’ve been in this country for 7 full months.

There’s no need for capitalized letters, exclamation points or yelling. Do you see where I’m headed with this? I won’t bore you with hyperlinked articles to show you sources for the following information, but I’ve heard that New Zealand was just voted the safest, or at least one of the safest countries on the planet. Then in addition to that was all this talk of Auckland, New Zealand’s sprawling metropolis, being just on the verge of the Earth’s most liveable city. A friend and I were talking the other day and we came up with the conclusion that New Zealand is wonderful as long as you have the money to leave the country and get a nice break from it. By break I mean, find some excitement. When you return, you’ll appreciate how pristine, cozy and easy it is. That is if you’ve got the money to live here.

I’m being a bit dramatic.

New Zealand is a unique place tucked away at the bottom of the earth. This country is beautiful, and with such a diverse melting pot of people in many places on the islands that make it up. You have everything you need here, yet something is missing. I don’t know if it’s the “hard-to-crack” ernest exterior that blankets so many in the clique known as the kiwi, or if it’s the isolation you feel every time you can’t do simple things like enjoy unlimited wifi or cell reception.

Things like the arts and entertainment can be of high quality and very impressive, yet at the same time, many times, it’s a sort of remake of something seen somewhere else by a well traveled and cultured Kiwi who came back home; Of which there are heaps.

The plusses of this country are found in it’s welcoming immigration policy. For numerous reasons, people from all over the world come to New Zealand to find a “new frontier” of sorts where people can find a somewhat libertarian lifestyle and enjoy success in small business or even corporate life. Often it seems, they stick to the main centers like Christchurch, Wellington and especially Auckland.

I came here to do something different, so I found work in PR. I learned a lot and was able to save money, but the kiwi welcoming open immigration policy which greeted me on all the forms I filled out, wasn’t felt in person, and I got a sense that the professional kiwis around me were, at the same time, yearning to get out of Auckland and New Zealand all together. The grass is always greener.

The radio chatter constantly complains of housing prices for rentals and sales in the city of sails; of how the money-smart Chinese are buying everything up before the kiwis. Same for the country’s second largest habitat, called Christchurch. Wellington keeps the politicians happy with low prices, in exchange for wind and clouds. It’s as if everyday issues are magnified here, burning tempers faster than the sun’s rays through that thin ozone layer. Maybe they should adopt the Thailand policy of requiring a foreigner to marry a citizen before he or she can buy land.

I have to say that on days when I feel really great and I’ve made the most of it all. When it’s sunny and I am appreciating a beautiful view (of which New Zealand has an enormous amount of), I realize that the people who complain are the ones who need a place that guides them. New Zealand is a frontier culture. You have to make your life. You won’t be given a thing. New Zealand is full of people who are largely self-sufficient and don’t have that much time to really worry about your problems. I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t make an effort to explore, stay busy, make friends, prove your worth and really mold and carve out a life here, you will get angry and give up.

I don’t fault New Zealand or kiwis at all. In fact I learned so much here in such a short time. I learned that it’s ok to switch careers and find yourself. They’re all doing it every day here. Every day you can meet someone who is on an incredible journey of self-discovery. It’s quite incredible. I would recommend everyone do a stint in New Zealand and meet as many people as possible. You’ll be quite surprised that even if you’re really ready to get the hell out of here, you’re so glad you came.

To Chill

by Life Anthem on September 7, 2013

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I’m constantly asking myself to reassess why it is that I do what I do. Why am I so unhappy when someone else controls my schedule? In an office environment.

In life there is really, sometimes, only one thing that seems to lock me down, and that is the idea of a career and the obsession with the upkeep of one. In the culture I come from, having a career is equal to having an identity in too many ways. I think just like the obsession with going to university, the not-so-thought-out philosophy of labeling yourself with a field of work and building a life around the ideas behind a career and being “career-oriented” are just too constraining for me. Getting out of that mindset, once you’ve been in it for a while, is so hard.

I think a routine can be a good thing. The key is to have the ability to break free from that routine when you feel you need to. This is important because one should try to go through daily self-imposed lessons on how to live freely. Imagine the artist’s lifestyle. The idea that inspiration can come from anywhere and one must live the life, live the idea, in order to be able to create it. One must always keep busy and be kinetic. Kinetic with a focus, and with a sustained focus on the task at hand, as an essentialist would preach. Just with activities of one’s choosing. Activities that enrich life instead of the ones that come from outside pressure.

It’s interesting that the biggest challenge is learning to chill. Learning to relax the mind and go with the flow. I used to be that way as a kid and a teenager (if memory serves me right) and even in my early 20s. I wasn’t afraid of much and had dreams about cool adventures. For a while that all seemed stifled and somewhat frivolous. It was the daily grind of a career-focused life that sort of put water on the fire. You have to wonder if that system is in place as a way to make each of us just another worker bee, cogs churning out product to keep the system going for the few at the top. I don’t know, but what I’m slowly figuring out is that if you turn off the fear for a bit and just jump, you’ll find out your mindset changes so fast and so drastically, that you can’t even remember the old you.

It’s as if these daily meditations, these techniques for molding one’s life into the bespoke shape that fits a personality, is like cleaning house. If your house has gotten messy, it’s probably going to take a while to get it clean again.