29 January 2008

Ten days

Ten days ago, we left New Zealand.

Ten days from now, we leave for Africa. It's amazing how much can change in ten days.

Ten days ago, we were free-wheeling—but exhausted—tourists in a first-world country, floating in its volcanic, lower-right-hand corner of the world. Ten days ago, we pondered the merits of the Memphis Meltdown, Marmite, diet Schwepps Ginger Ale, Jelly Tips, the caramel Tim-Tam, and the yellow-eyed penguin. (In case you were wondering, we decided they all had quite a bit. Except maybe the yeast).

Today, we're bedraggled first-world citizens juggling getting taxes done (yes, in January), papers written, supplies shopped for, and dinners had before we leave. Today we're harried Dallasites, criss-crossing this city's cement macramé in preparation for something we don't know. Today, we're devouring the blogs of those already there, trying to get a feel for what living in Cabin 3425 is going to be like (will we have windows? a bathroom? shelf space? sheets? access to the internet?), for what operating on this rolling ship will entail and what caring for these patients will challenge, for what meandering through the streets of Monrovia will ask of us, for what living with four hundred or so others in a 499-foot boat will do to us.

Today, we're attempting to stave off the unknown, but finding it bubble to the surface in concentric circles of uncertainty, excitement, anxiety, anticipation, and the contrasting, alliterative emotional roller-coaster that accompanies any change.

And in ten days, we board an American Airlines 767 for the first of three legs of the trip—to Brussels, then to Abidjan (it's in the Côte d'Ivoire...I had to google it too), and finally to Monrovia.

Our hearts are restless, wrote the erstwhile Bishop of Hippo. I wonder if he was ever able to accomplish what he wrote next.

18 January 2008

From Northern Lights to Southern Cross

I'll be honest. We never thought January 18th would come. When we set off for Iceland, the summer was still blistering, and planning as far ahead as after Christmas was all theoretical. But as I start writing this blog entry, it's officially the last day of our trip. Right now, we're fresh off a whirlwind tour of New Zealand, firmly ensconced in front of computers at Auckland Airport, and not quite sinking into the realism of finality.

It's been a crazy trip—by the numbers, if nothing else. We've traversed, by bus, car, boat, horseback, train, and simple walking, 33,420.5 km of the earth (that's about 83% around the world. It doesn't include the flights, which add another 41,485 km to our tally, putting us almost twice the circumference of the equator.)

Or, put another way, our most northerly point on the trip was Akureyri, Iceland (65°41'N, 018°05'W); our most southerly was Kaikoura, New Zealand (42°25'S, 173°42'E), meaning we've crossed 108°06' of latitude and 191°46' of longitude (that's 60% of the earth, top-to-bottom, and 53% of it, east-to-west). It took us 683.5 hours on these modes of surface transportation to cover this distance, making our average speed 30 miles an hour.

We've had our language abilities stretched in unforseen ways—speaking French at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, Spanish in Iceland, Arabic in Beijing, Russian in Uzbekistan, and Chinese in Nepal. We've worn through pairs of jeans, tattered shoes, torn holes in shirts (and in our skin at times), watched a goat meet its doom, helped Chinese train conductors read their English overhead announcements, learned a smattering of words in languages we'd never heard of (yakhshimusiz!), slept on floors, on half-bunks on Indian trains (don't get me started on that one), and with more insects than your average entomologist. We've scaled mountains (most notably Mt. Ngauruhoe, better known as Mt. Doom) with just a good pair of shoes and some overused ski-poles. We've dived the Great Barrier Reef and gotten caught in massive currents in Palau. And we've pigged out on lukewarm chicken (it's much better than it sounds), a dessert made of ice, corn, and beans (ditto), sugar cane juice, and noodle soups spicy enough to make you bald.

In other words, we're exhausted. But in a very, very good—inexplicably, ineffably good—way. We're exhaustedly happy.

It's staggering that this has gone so quickly; it's just starting to sink in how remarkably humbling a way to see our world this trip was. During these five months of seeing, though, we've run across some of the best and worst hotels, showers, toilets, place names, and McDonald's burgers in the world. Here are some of them.

Worst Hotel
1. Leo Hostel, Beijing
2. Osh Guesthouse, Osh
3. Any hotel in Shegar, Tibet
4. The "retiring rooms," Siliguri train station, India
5. The Kirey Guesthouse, Lhasa, Tibet

Best Hotel
1. New 7th Storey, Singapore
2. Butterfly Guesthouse, Reykjavik
3. Watson's Way Backpacker's, Renwick, New Zealand
4. Sunder Palace, Jaipur, India
5. Gulnara's Guesthouse, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Worst Toilets
1. Everest base camp (better picture here; they're both graphic. Sorry...)
2. The Snowman hotel, Shegar, Tibet

Worst Showers
Leo Hostel, Beijing (there was no cold water)

Best Showers
Xin Hua hotel, Lhasa (this thing could do everything but take you into space. But it was working on that...)

Worst trains
1. India
2. Malaysia

Best trains
1. Uzbekistan (believe it or not)
2. China, especially the train to Tibet

Strangest McDonald's Burger
1. The Chicken Maharajah Mac (rendered, spiced chicken patty, spicy sauce, unwashed lettuce), Jaipur, India
2. The Kiwi Burger (meat, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, eggs, and boiled beetroot, bacon optional) , Rotorua, New Zealand
3. The Paneer Salad wrap (tortilla, fried cottage cheese, lettuce, and Tex-Mex salsa), Jaipur, India

Best place name encountered
Whakapapa, New Zealand
(The realization that wh is pronounced [f] in Maori was simply too much for our puerile minds)

Highest point reached on land
5248 meters (17,218 feet), the Himalayas

Lowest point reached on land
–154 meters (–505 feet), Turpan, China

Number of pictures taken

Number of pictures uploaded

Total distance travelled
74,906 km (46,544 miles)

Favorite countries (in alphabetical order)
1. Iceland
2. Mongolia
3. New Zealand
4. Singapore
5. Tibet

What's most strange about this list is that this was just the start of the year. This is the prelude. We've had a tremendous time, but this has all been preparatory for the time in Africa.

And we can't wait to get there. Thanks to your unbelievably forthright generosity, our tickets and our health insurance have finally been purchased. We will be leaving NYC for Monrovia, Liberia, on the 8th of February. Just enough time for us to get our clothes clean.

12 January 2008

Really? Pleeeeeease?

This has to be the best sign we've seen our entire trip. I think it tops pleasanty surprise or any of the other Chinglish signs we ran into. I'm sorry I only had my cell phone on me at the time.

So... straight from the only internet cafe in Blenheim, NZ, words around which to model the rest of your life:

And to think I almost did...

10 January 2008

Fungus gnats

What if I told you that you had the opportunity (operators are standing by!) to strip, in the rain, down to your bathing suit, squeeze yourself into an oft-used-and-seldom-washed, mildewed and odorific drysuit, dripping wet from its last occupant, immerse yourself in a pair of oversized, torn shorts, and water-socks with holes in them, just to shimmy your now-neoprened derriere into the inner-tube of a tire? What if I were to tell you that, thus-bedecked, you had the opportunity to join fourteen other similarly-clad tourists for a three-hour, claustrophobiogenic spelunk, 210 feet below the earth's surface, jumping backwards off waterfalls in pitch darkness, landing in fifty-degree, eel-infested, spelean rivers and ingesting—nasally— a fair bit of their water (and possibly a bit of giardiasis to boot...we'll find out in two weeks), simply to see the defecatory products made by the maggots of a fungus gnat? What if I told you that, after you were done, you were offered (It's free! Act now!) some tepid, watered-down tomato soup and a week-old buttered bagel (but only one). How much would you pay?

On the other hand, if I told you that you had the opportunity to go Blackwater Rafting, with The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company, on their Black Labyrinth Adventure, to see world-famous glow-worms lighting up the ceiling of a cave, followed by a steaming-hot soup in the warmth of a rustic cabin, and, in doing so, included a picture of two young, good-looking people, splashing in water, faces lit up in excitement, how much higher would that payment rise?

Such is the power of marketing. The crazy thing is, though, we paid (I'm not telling you how much). And, despite my cynical bent, I'll have to admit: once you got past the frigid cave water working its way through the holes in your neoprene, eroding your body's thermoregulatory defense mechanisms, it was absolutely spell-binding.

There's nothing more peaceful than floating down a river, in pitch blackness, save for the eerie glow emanating these mere larvae. The sound of your own breath is the only thing that accompanies you and the constellations of these ugly-in-real-life (but beautiful in the dark) insects. After an hour of jumping, paddling, ducking under stalactites, avoiding the underwater stalagmites set to tear more holes in you or your inner tube, you simply float. The current carries you through tunnels of green light, around faintly visible corners, past millions of glow-worms and out, to civilization, tepid tomato soup, and the opportunity to buy a specially-made (for you!) photo CD. (We demurred, politely).

It's amazing to think that these little, luminescent beings exist simply to feed—voraciously, it turns out. See, after three months spinning webs and maintaining their own yellow-green, glowing derrieres, the larvae pupate for two weeks (yes, I just had to write that word), and then become adults.

For three days.

And in those three days, the adult fungus gnat will do nothing but mate. It doesn't even have a digestive system—it couldn't eat if it wanted to. It simply glows (if it's female) or finds a glowing mate. Its existence is simply reduced to procreation.

After which it dies.

I'll avoid the easy comparisons.

The Crusty Burger

Imagine this: a hamburger bun slathered in mayonnaise, then topped with a chicken patty. Two strips of steak are then piled on, followed by one fried egg, a slice of bacon, some melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and a couple slices of boiled beets. Let me introduce you to the crusty burger, a New Zealand creation which we enjoyed for one heart-stopping meal. McDonald's has a tamer version called the Kiwi burger, which we have yet to try.

There is no question that we are in New Zealand. One of our first tasks was to settle a dispute that cropped up between us. We had heavily debated the moniker "Kiwi." What came first, the fruit, the bird, or the appelation for the people of this nation? It turns out that kiwi, the popular name for a flightless bird of the genus Apteryx, are endemic to New Zealand. These birds were embroidered on the uniforms of the soldiers stationed in the UK, who were subsequently dubbed "Kiwis." The fruit was an imported fruit originally called the Chinese gooseberry. In a marketing ploy the name was switched to the melonette, but in order to avoid taxes on melons and perhaps due to the resemblance of the fruit with the hairy behind of the bird, an ultimate renaming was performed and the name stuck.

In our short time here we have realized that New Zealand justly deserves its reputation as the adventure sport capital of the world. We saw people jumping off the top of the 328-meter Auckland Skytower while dining at the revolving restaurant up top (Yes, they were strapped to wires and yes, we averaged 5 jumpers per lunch course). In Waitomo we jumped off the top of waterfalls in an inner tube, all in underground caverns lit by Arachnocampa, the mistakenly named glowworm. We passed on the chance to abseil 37 meters into the same underground caverns or to hurtle through the dark in a harness. While heading from the North to the South Island we decided not to bridge the divide via skydiving (a plane drops you off midair and delivers your luggage to you on the ground), choosing the boring old ferry instead. In Queenstown, bungy jumps are available from almost all tall vertical surfaces and it appears as if no tourist leaves without attempting one. Other activities include Rotorua's giant luge, zorbing, and rides named the Swoop, Freefall Extreme, and the Agrojet.

In truth, though, all this fun has left us feeling a little like kids who have had too much cake. We are definitely feeling quite homesick, and ready to start work on more substantial things. In a week we will be back to Dallas, and in less than a month we will be in Liberia. We can't wait.

05 January 2008

A sultana and some fairy floss

It's been a while since I've perseverated on linguistic issues in this blog (no, the last post doesn't count as perseveration. It's a fine line...)

That's mainly because, since we left Tibet, we've been firmly ensconced in English-language sorts of tourism, and way too much has been written about the semantics of the Indian head-bob or the syntactical rules that govern Singlish (, lah). Having figured out the former, to a greater or lesser degree, and having enjoyed the realization that the latter is absolutely essential for communication in Singapore (even for an ang mo like me), we figured we'd land in Australia and be set. Comfortable.

After all, World English may be a fascinating topic in some circles, but this is Australia. They speak English, right? Just like the rest of us, right? There's no Hindi or Chinese or Malay or Tamil to pollute these pristine linguistic waters.


It's harder to get around in this country's language than either of the other two. Sure, the alphabet isn't hung, dangling off a diaphanous horizontal line. But that's about all the help we got. And we were shocked at how ununderstandable Australian English was. It wasn't that we hadn't been exposed to English from Down Under. But, that English had, evidently, been tempered in those who spoke it by the fact that they lived Up Over.

Down Under, though, things are different. Countless times, we've overheard a conversation in a bus or elevator or Opera House, and automatically assumed those involved were speaking some Germanic language. Until they weren't, until our minds parsed, and the realization dawned that we could actually understand them.

The reverse has been true. Just yesterday, we were behind a Russian couple. I could have sworn they were speaking Australian English. Until they weren't.

See, it's not just the pronunciation that's different. Yes, um becomes aam and rhymes with ham. Yes, the r is absent unless it's followed by a vowel, and then it's there even when it's not supposed to be (droring?). But it's also an entirely different lexical world you're up against.

A schooner, for example. Yes, it's a fore- and aft-rigged sailing vessel. Except when it means a tall glass of beer.

A sultana doesn't wed the ruler of a small desert state. Here, she's a raisin. And raisin is simply not understood.

A hotel—well, yes, you can book beds in it. Except when it's not a hotel and transforms, instead, into a multi-storied beer garden with pool tables and meeting rooms.

And fairy floss, unlike pork floss, is not the end-result of a rendering plant (though that would explain where all the fairies went). No. It's justs a slightly more embarrassing way to order cotton candy.

Finally, there's the word squizzy. When we first heard it used in the sentence, "We can go have a squizzy," we weren't sure whether to shrink in disgust, to report the man saying it for a medical check-up, or to wonder what sorts of things he did when he was home alone.

A squizzy, we were happy to find out, is not communicable. It's simply "a look-see." I guess this is what happens when you incarcerate a certain subset of your society on an island as far away from anywhere as you can find, and then leave them be.

In the meantime, we've started catching up on all our pictures. Tibet is uploaded (though not labelled too completely yet). Have a squizzy.
Meanwhile, I'm going to go grab myself a schooner from the local hotel.

02 January 2008

The names of God

We take it for granted that we should be able to call God by whatever name we choose to use. It's unthinkable to our western minds that such a personal thing should be subject to the whims of legislation.

But, this is one of the many illusions we've been disabused of during these travels. In Malaysia, at least in public worship and in press, there has been a governmental push to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah" to refer to God.

The reasoning? The use of the word "Allah" by Christians is "designed to confuse Muslims." Those wily Catholics!

This assertion is notwithstanding the fact that the word itself is used by Arabic-language speakers of all three Abrahamic faiths and was probably used within the Arabic world before the arrival of Islam (thereby confusing the pre-Muslims of the time, poor souls.) But, there's a bigger problem: see, there really isn't another word in many languages for God. In Bahasa Malaysia, for example, Allah means god, and Tuham, the word that the government is allowing the publications and churches to use, means lord; it can be used of political leaders as well. So, preventing non-Muslims from using the word may be tantamount to an Orwellian attempt at curtailing religious conceptions of God. (Yes, you're welcome to argue with me on the merits of linguistic determinism, but still, it's worth mentioning).

Regardless of the reasoning, though, what's most striking is that a nation so economically and politically advanced should be so subject to the vagaries of theocracy and racial politicking. It's not just the Christians either: while we were in Malaysia, for example, the capital was wracked by demonstrations led by Hindu groups claiming underrepresentation in a country that is only 60% Malay. (Don't even get me started on what the Malaysian constitution requires for you to be considered Malay.) The demonstrations were followed by voluminous editorials detailing exactly how "embarrassing" they were, how the lawyers that led them were a blight on their profession, and how of course there was no discrimination in Malaysia. How could there be?

It was hard not to be shocked.

I would be remiss not to mention, however, that, sometime between the time I started writing this post and the time I finished editing it (oh, the timing!), The Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur's office sued The Ministry of Internal Security. The latter appears to have backed down and permitted the use of the word "Allah" in the Catholic Herald for at least another year. It's unclear to me what happened to the churches similarly affected.

Meanwhile, after spending time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Taichung, Manila, and Palau with friends and family, we've finally crossed the equator for the first time this trip. We're currently in Cairns, where we've had to figure out the haphazard flipping that entails driving on the other side of the road (you're sitting on the right, sure, but the gear-shift is still ordered from left to right, and the pedals are still right-foot dominant; the blinkers, lights, and windshield wipers, though, have been swapped. I can't tell you how many times we've accidentally expelled wiper fluid instead of telling the bemused drivers behind us that we're turning).

And, despite finding ourselves blinded by the ubiquitous beach culture, the diving here is unbelievably spectacular. It almost makes you forget exactly how many pasty-white, over-fed, poorly-tattooed, shirtless bellies you find yourself subjected to.

Perhaps that should be subject to the whims of legislation.