In San Francisco there is a man. His given name is Ju-yin, but we call him Julian. His demeanor is somewhat reserved, but extremely aware. His voice is soft and hushed, and his English is broken.
I met Julian through a girl named Char-Mee. We first saw him sitting on a sofa directly across from us in the day room of our hostel. He avoided our eye contact, yet clearly paid notice to our joking remarks directed at one another. But when Char-Mee addressed him in Korean, his eyes lit up and his smile beamed. In their mother tongue, Julian told Char-Mee his story.
It was always his dream to explore North America, so over a year ago he had hopped a flight that took him from Seoul to Vancouver, where he found a job working as a cashier. But the song of the southern road had been calling him, and now he found himself with us in San Francisco, California, having migrated down the coastline from Canada.
Julian has been living out of his van, moving from city to city. He showers in hostels in exchange for cleaning services, saving his precious money as best he can and spending it only on things that he finds uniquely valuable. Everything he owns is in his van.
Tonight, a man asked Julian if he could sleep in his van. The man was from New York, and he had flown out two weeks prior. Things in San Francisco did not work out as he had planned and, his money having been depleted, he only needed a place to lay his head. But knowing that it would be cold out, Julian took this man inside the hostel instead, and paid for his bed overnight. He did all of this as quietly as possible, not wanting to attract too much attention, perhaps in part to save the man from any kind of embarrassment. I realized then that Julian truly is a good man.
About a month before, while Julian was out, a group of kids decided it would be a great idea to shatter this quiet man's life. They broke into his van and took everything, making off with more than two thousand dollars worth of his belongings. He told me this, while having lunch, in a seemingly frank and forthright tone of voice. When I asked him if he was all right, he simply lowered his eyes and nodded, as if saying there really isn't anything else to do but deal with it.
Amongst his stolen personals was a saxophone, on which he had taught himself to play. It had been too expensive for him to buy, so instead he did what he could just to have one, and the best he could think of was to rent it. When asked what made him want to teach himself the workings of an instrument while on the road, he said that it was more because he needed something to do during his solo travels, something that would keep him company whenever his state of solitude beset a feeling of loneliness. Julian is always alone, but it is when he is lonely that he feels the need to play. But someone has made off with this borrowed instrument, and instead of having saved money by renting, now he is stuck with a debt that he cannot pay off.
Yet, oddly enough, he has managed to get himself another saxophone, this time purchasing it. The occasionally overwhelming feeling of seclusion has given him the rationality to spend his savings on what to some would seem a luxury but to him would be a necessity. It is an older sax, and from what he tells us, it is somewhat broken and flat. He tells us that there are some notes it cannot reach, but my untrained ears cannot pick up the difference.
Julian told me today about his Okinawan girlfriend whom he had met during his travels. She could not speak Korean and he could speak very little Japanese, yet they spoke to each other with their eyes. She returned home a while ago after having rode with Julian for a short time, and now he is trying to sell his van so as to meet her in her home country.
I sit here on the curb, listening to Julian play his haunting music on a cold park bench. He plays us a song called Santa Fe. It is a well known tune here on the West Coast, although its melody is unfamiliar to me. His version sounds low and almost tiresome, yet pleased and slightly relaxed. It makes me see how one can understand a language even if it is not their own, whether it is through the eyes of a close companion, or through the notes of a second hand saxophone.
The song Julian plays slowly winds down, and when his solo is done, a German kid named Alex claps his hands in applause. Julian bows his head and shyly reiterates the fact that his instrument is slightly out of tune. But Alex just smiles at him and tells him that his ears cannot pick up the difference.
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And now we ask you: Have you ever met someone that has affected your way of life, or the way you think, in such a way that you will never forget the impact they had on you?
Siem Reap is the town closest to the temples of Angkor. Many use it solely as a gateway to those fascinating monuments of Khmer architecture. Yet despite the fact that it is very strategically situated, in a rush to see the temples, very few visitors take the time to see what is really going on beneath the surface of this Cambodian town.
Siem Reap--a dusty town throbbing with human spirit and desperate emotions--was a pleasant surprise for me. The town itself is not much to look at, especially considering the fact that for many who come here, the City of Angkor is what appeals to them. But what Siem Reap lacks in visual appeal, it more than makes up for with character. The nearby ruined City of Angkor is empty and has long since passed away. In contrast, it's neighboring counterpart of Siem Reap is a town alive and vibing with a mix of Khmer locals and tourists alike.
Cast of Characters
Here you will meet the familiar Southeast Asian tout, aggresively pushing his business, whatever it may be. But don't be so quick to brush such ones aside, they are eeking out a meager living on the dusty streets of the only place they may ever call home.
You may also come across the young hopefuls of Cambodia, the possible future leaders or creators of a nation. Step into a little shop off a small side street and talk to the person working there. Chances are, it'll be a young man (or woman) from a village in the countryside, someone who moved into 'the city' to go to school, get a job and chase dreams... some of which are unbelievably attainable for such a so-called 'backwater' nation.
The Nature of Humanity
In a nation that has had so much recent turmoil, political and otherwise, the people of Siem Reap is a mix of hopefuls and hopeless, strong spirited and downtrodden, prosperous and grasping. But wherever you look, whomever you may experience Siem Reap through, you will more than likely come away with a wider view of the nature of humanity.
And now we'd like to ask you: Are there any off the radar places that you feel deserve more credit than what they get?
As we all know, the joys of being in a different country do not come without hardships, and sometimes just trying to get the simple things done can be the most frustrating part. Contributing blogger Jon Gedge writes about finding the light at the end of this inevitable tunnel.
Today I am going to get my haircut.
This seems like an easy task. I always like it cut the same way it’s growing, shorter, but not too short because then my hair stands up and I can’t brush it down, yet not too long where I’ll have to return to get it cut again in a few weeks. Normally it’s a quick errand you fit into your busy schedule of running around in this sometimes fast paced, crazy world.
But when you’re traveling, sometimes the simplest of tasks at home can seem like a mountain of an obstacle in another country.
Last night I was thinking of what to eat for dinner. The fridge was mostly empty, with just the typical easy foods, like sandwiches and some leftover pasta from a couple nights before. Yet I was tired of eating those same old foods when just outside my apartment the options for good traditional Chinese food are endless. Different shops lined up from street to street with bright lights inviting everyone to enter. Families packed into crowded corners of the restaurants, with owners scrambling to find extra seats, all of them bringing hungry appetites with happy faces, anticipating the tasty food they would soon acquire.
Yet there we were watching from a sad, dark distance, like two hungry helpless street dogs licking our lips, seeing young and old enjoying their savory dishes.
“Wow, that looks gooood,” Jay said.
Sadly, looking at the posted menu, we only saw Chinese characters that we didn‘t understand.
“We don’t know how to order here,” I said. “Let’s find a place with pictures.”
Pictures of food are our savior and the only means to eat a decent meal out, a picture of duck or chicken on top of rice, or a bowl of noodles with pieces of beef, simmered until the meat is soft. We have, in a sense, become picture hunters, hunting for restaurants that have photos that we can point to with our hands and nod in agreement to, with wide smiles.
To the Chinese restaurant workers, we probably sound like cavemen from a foreign land, our English words sounding like grunts, while we nod our heads because we want delicious “FOOOOD!”
Although a short time has past, we now have our favorite hunting grounds that we visit regularly. The restaurant workers now recognize us, and know what foods we enjoy. Little by little, life has become easier. Even though I am in a country different from what I am accustomed to, I feel the normality of life getting easier day by day.
Days don’t always seem like being in a battlefield, where I have to be on my toes. No longer am I scared of walking, or riding my bike on the busy street, with cars and motorbikes flying by me at arms length. I don’t bother caring about loud fireworks popping at random parts of the day. Sure, I can't speak Chinese, and I don’t know how to buy everything I want, but in reality I have been getting by just fine.
Now for my next battle: What do I say to my barber today?
And now we ask you: When living in another country, how do you deal with not being able to get seemingly everyday things? Or what hardships do you imagine you might face if you ever made such a move? Comment below and let us know!
Contributing Blogger: Jon Gedge
Jon grew up in Honolulu,
Hawaii, and has worked as
a community volunteer in
the cities of Altamira and
Puerto Escondido, Mexico
The State of Hawaii is America's poster-child for exotic tourism. And yet unassuming Lanai, smallest of the six accessible islands, is oftentimes overlooked by those who flock to the 50th State looking for a touch of foreign realism, only to settle on familiar comforts that are culturally tame.
In contrast to her siblings, the island of Lanai is rugged substance in rare form, and visitors here find a contradiction of terms. Clearly overshadowed, yet quietly aloof, here is an island truly set apart. Lanai's unique vibe may be due to a predominantly Asian immigrant population, or perhaps it is because of its lack of fast food restaurants and late night watering holes. Whatever the reason for its soft-pedaled vibe, it is just as long time island residents endearingly say: “Lanai is the closest you’ll get to Third-World in the U.S.A.”
As your ferry from the island of Maui nears the shores of unruffled Lanai, the pod of dolphins that have been surfing in its wake takes graceful leave, plunging deep into the blue waters that skirt the island. You are left staring inland at Manele Bay Small Boat Harbor, which for decades had been nothing more than a rustic welcome pad with a single dirt road and its fair share of pot holes. Today it is a refreshingly warm landing place of freshly poured concrete and beautifully patterned rock walls. Looking around you begin to understand that what you are about to experience is an exclusive taste of an alternative Hawaii.
A 4x4 Lover’s Paradise
The recently repaved Manele Road slowly snakes its way up from the harbor, until about 1,306 feet above sea-level, where stands historic Lanai City, a small plantation town nestled at the cool mist-laden base of Lanaihale, the island’s highest point. From this tiny hamlet, the highway splits off into two opposite directions--southwest descending to Kaumalapau Harbor, the island’s commercial port, and northeast down Maunalei Gulch to Shipwreck Beach and the rugged North Shore. Aside from these three comfortably paved thoroughfares, you can expect to hit red earth the rest of the way.
With only thirty miles of asphalt, the island offers more than a hundred miles of wild off-road adventuring as an alternative. Although these trails are accessible mainly by 4-wheel drive, it is not unheard of to pass a beach going islander, sporting a rusted and red-dirt dusted sedan, cruising along these back-country byways.
Lanai City, USA; Population 3,557
“Don’t blink… otherwise you miss it!” These well repeated words describe the compact brevity of the island’s old, and only, town.
And this is not just a cliché, it is the truth.
The old plantation town’s main business district sits on 7th & 8th, two streets that run parallel with Dole Park, a large grassy square dotted with pine trees that stand guard like rooted sentinels towering over the city center.
Here you’ll find a modern art gallery alongside a charming playhouse, “plate-lunch” restaurants with local fare, an Asian market tucked behind a New York style deli, as well as the island’s very own vintage jailhouse, currently closed for business.
Of Sleeping Bags & Sandy Beaches
Regardless of its laid back small town atmosphere, the island is no stranger to the spotlight. Mostly due to Bill Gates’ buttoned-up wedding in 1994, the world now knows Lanai by name. And year after year, a steady stream of high profile visitors have graced this tiny island since. But despite being an occasional media child this playground is not exclusive to the rich and famous.
For those traveling on a shoestring budget, the island offers an authentic beach camping experience. This involves pitching a tent on the golden sands of Hulopo’e Beach Park. Facilities include restrooms, showers, running water, barbecue areas, and picnic tables. The site also boasts a strategic placement at the base of the Four Seasons Manele Bay Hotel, which connects you by shuttle to the uplands of Lanai City, where you can stock up for provisions at any one of the island’s three grocery stores.
The Heartbeat of a Town
Enjoy breakfast beneath the tawny roof of “Canoe’s Restaurant”, and lose yourself in an enlightening discussion with the island's old-timers while enjoying a plate of gravy soaked loco-moco, getting a feel of what life was like back in the days when pineapple ruled as island king.
Get your lunchtime caffeine fix at “Coffee Works” and talk story with second or third generation islanders who sit around sipping steamy lattes with an up and coming crop of mainland American resident transplants.
At night, stop in for pupus and a drink at “Pele’s Other Garden”, the town’s most happening yet laid-back hotspot, and mingle with expatriates hailing from countries such as France, Egypt and Malaysia, all of whom make up a growing portion of the island’s current influx of resort workers.
An Island Set Apart
Far from being the stereotypical Hawaii of little grass shacks and lovely hula hands, the island of Lanai is more pine tree cool than palm tree hot, more an eclectic mix of East-meets-West than a Polynesian paradise.
Whether you come here to experience a vibrantly alive but forgotten part of old plantation Hawaii, or to hobnob it with the world’s pampered elite, chances are you will leave Lanai with a quiet grin on your face and a faint feeling in your heart that runs deep, like you’ve just been let in on a well-kept secret.
And as your plane touches down at the Honolulu Airport and you find yourself once again staring at a sprawling skyline of a concrete city, or as your ferry pulls into the crowded port of a neighboring isle and you reluctantly push your way through an all too familiar congestion of people and vehicles, just remember that the island of Lanai, a tiny pebble in the center of the Pacific, is quite possibly the closest you will ever get to touching the outside world while still standing on American soil.
And now we ask you: When it comes to traveling, do you prefer staying on the well known path, tried and true, or would you rather step out into the great unknown?
For many of us, the name 'New York' conjures up the image of a line of skyscrapers sprawled out along the horizon from afar, or bright lights and zooming taxi cabs up close. But in actuality, The Apple is just one-third of the whole.
Upstate New York
In my mind, New York State can be divided into three primary sections. The first I consider as Upstate New York. Here you find the Hudson River Valley, Catskills Mountains, Niagara Falls, the capital city of the USA and the Adirondacks. The farther north you go, the more dramatic the seasons become. I am in love with the Hudson River Valley and its neighboring Catskills mountain range. Easily accessible and aesthetically charming, these are great places for a weekend getaway from the often times hectic city pace.
The Big Apple
New York, New York... a mass of ethnic diversity and cultural stimulation. The city is made up of 5 main boroughs all centered around Manhattan Island. In my opinion, this is where the cities of the world are represented most in the USA. Always a sea of heaving people headed upcity, downtown, inner city or out of state, this is the crossroads of the state.The beat is lively, always flowing, and beneath the icy, straightforward stares is a layer of men and women who go where they're headed and know where they've been. It's hard to fit in if you don't pick up the pace, but once your pace is set, this place is inspiring.
This can best be described as an area of economic contradiction, where the very rich rub elbows with the debased poor. Middle class is a series of numbers, and the farther east you get, the more pretentious the lifestyle seems. And yet, underneath it all, if you scratch behind the facade, you will find a history of the people who were there before the onslaught of summer homes and Manhattan elite-come-settlers. It's a history of farmers and fishermen, immigrants and locals alike.
And now we ask you: Have your previous perceptions of a place ever been challenged by the reality of the experience? Comment below and let us know!
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...