Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cambodia & Thailand

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As an Orthodox Christian, I’m not supposed to believe in destiny, fate, omens, and the like. We’re supposed to believe in Free Will & Co., which is fine by me.
However, as a slightly superstitious, anything-is-possible, there-must-be-some-sort-of-hidden-meaning-to-this sort of person, I have three philosophies:
  1. Everything happens for a reason.
  2. Everything has some sort of hidden meaning and
  3. If you figure out the hidden meaning, everything will turn out well in the end (the end, however, may come later than you think).
And this was beautifully demonstrated this morning at 4 am. But to explain, we must go to the beginning.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paradise

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Define paradise. A lost island in Thailand, a hut on a white, fine sand beach, azure, shallow waters with a ripple like a wave, a couple of long boats, painted in their bright, hot colors and palm trees sharing their shadow in the gentle breeze. Rocks on the side with some reefs and colorful fish. The hills and the jungle behind, cutting off any sight, sound or thought of an outside world. Warm just enough to be naked all the time. Great tasting food, tropical fruits and cold drinks. A quiet night with buckets of stars, squeezed in a long chair along your loved one. Silence, just the sea sounds or maybe some subdued great music. A stunning sunrise and a breathtaking sunset. If it has to be just one, who decides, do you get options or just take what comes? And when some of these ingredients are missing, where does someone draw the line and counts it as a good enough paradise?
Up at the viewpoint

The Land of Siam

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Sawatdee Ayutthaya
With lots of adventure (link 1 2 3), bad feelings and Mihai’s skill, finding our bus in a huge terminal, we arrived in the old capital of Thailand. It is a change of plans, we didn’t know we wanted to come here, because we didn’t read about it. While at home, Mihai tried everything, except bribing, to make us find more about where we wanted to go, but we procrastinated. For one reason, I can’t remember all the details and I didn’t want to read about something that later would prove that we were not going to visit. We wanted flexibility and that’s what we were doing: deciding that we don’t want 5 days in Bangkok, but two in Ayutthaya.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thailand

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"I love this sink!" Ioan exclaims when he goes into the bathroom in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Without waiting for an answer, he continues, "It's got this huge crack in it."

We didn't notice the crack much over the next few days, but it was definitely there.

The bungalow is small, cramped, and starts telling us how much clutter we can accumulate over three weeks.

It's a lot. Even though we each have two to three shirts (I actually think my wardrobe is the largest in this family, which would explain my backpack's tendency to shrink whenever objects are placed into it), it seems our backpacks are overflowing with stuff

And where could it all possibly come from? Where has this gargantuan collection of stuff been absorbed?

Yes, Ileana bought me legwarmers in Tibet.

I would have died without them, to be honest, and I still have the cardboard that they came with, mostly because I haven't been able to get a proper picture of "Fits perfectly your nice legs." Or "Conforms to your nice legs." Or whatever it is. The point is that the packaging assumes you have nice legs, not that you need legwarmers to make your legs look nice.

Please note the difference. American packaging tends to tend toward the second example. I vastly prefer the Tibetan.

I also bought the punjabi in India. Well, okay, Dad did, but I picked it out. The trouble is that the top is a perfect just-above-knee dress for warm climates. When paired with the leggings, it feels a bit like something one would only wear in India. I'll be fixing that soon.

All three of these items (legwarmers, punjabi top, leggings), are actually a bit more bulky than I'd expected. Paired with gloves, scarves, winter clothing, and hiking shoes, suddenly the backpack balloons. It becomes ridiculously heavy. And even though I'm not carrying my laptop around, it seems to have gained weight. Trust me, clothes are lighter when you're wearing them, not carrying them.

For one thing, the clothes' weight is evenly distributed over arms, legs, chests, torsoes, feet, waistbands, etc. A backpack tends to center on one place-- your shoulders. And your back, if you decide to lean forward and look absurd.

But still. The amount of sheer stuff in three backpacks is nothing compared to the average closet in the average home. We three together own, what, ten percent of what an average person owns in clothing? Scratch that. Twenty percent.

And yet… this little space is full of stuff.

--

Our toilet paper becomes infested with ants. We have no idea where they come from, and we're not sure how they found our toilet paper. But soon Ileana and Ioan are dousing it with water (we went without TP for some time thanks to this, letting it dehydrate on the unused safe), I'm moving it around and systematically killing insects with a well-placed thumb. I don't mind eating the occasional ant which has crawled into my fried rice, but I draw the line at toilet paper. The little things are hunted out and we have a few days of insectless bathroom.

Until they somehow find it again. I must have missed a messenger ant one day, because all of a sudden there's a swarm of them everywhere all over again.

Ah well. It's one of those things you can record for posterity.

--

The waiters here tend to be happy and inclined to make conversation about anything and everything. They laugh frequently, spin trays, play guitar, and suddenly start belting out the lyrics to whatever's playing on the stereo system.

They say good morning, yell out "Who ordered rice pudding?", laugh, and exclaim, "Now I know who you are!"

It takes getting used to.


The days are spent in sitting. Relaxing. Reading. Writing. Drawing. Swimming. There's absolutely no pressure to do anything. We can choose whether to eat breakfast or lunch or both. There's no 'family' time except dinner and playing a card game afterwards.

This might sound weird. A family, at the beach, basically avoiding each other.

It's not that strange, actually. We've been around each other 24/7 for the past four months. 

--

If I had only six words in which to describe our island experience, they would be:

Relaxing, sometimes boring, bemusing, a relief.

A relief, that is, from perpetual motion.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Beyond Fear

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I fear water! 

It is a force of nature, untamable, uncontrollable.

 I don’t like to be in deep water, to not have the bottom in reach. If I have to, I will do it, but not for fun. It is a conscious decision. So how come I am taking a SCUBA diving open water course? We’re doing it as a family, we’re taking advantage of being in Thailand where the waters are warm, 28-30 ºC. There are a huge number of schools, that makes the prices lower and also you get to choose what kind of school you want. For us is a small group, just our family (we exceed the group limit by one) and it is made possible by New Way Dive School. Anna is going to be our instructor and Sarah will join us in the diving sessions.

Monday, February 13, 2012

We Got Mermaids

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We went to Ko Tao to dive. It is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, on top of the more famous and much bigger, Ko Samui and Koh Phangan. Like most places on this side of the world, there are a couple of spellings that all go along together, Ko Tao, Koh Tao. The name means the "turtle island", there are no turtles here, the name comes from the shape of the island. It has a population of about 5000 people and it is famous for its diving schools. Like with any government in the world, stupidity and greed reigns here as well, corruption is the name of the game and the local police and immigration services impose hefty "shares" to let the  diving schools alone. It is stupid because they support the local economy and are essential for the way of life of the locals. Somehow the schools get by, and probably because of the competition, it is the cheapest place in the world to get an open water PADI certificate. It has warm tropical waters, the sea is calm and clear, there are about 30 diving sites in the vicinity with relatively low depth making it easy for beginners to learn their skills and pass their testing.

Getting on the boat in the Gulf of Thailand

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tangent

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As a tangent touches the circle in just one point, that’s how we interacted with Cambodia.
Siem Reap has a tiny and welcoming airport. We walk on the tarmac, pick up the forms  for the visa, stand in line to deposit our passports and then watch as a line of 15 officials does each one its own little thing. By the time we remember to close our mouth we are called to pick up our passports.
From the Tanei guesthouse there are two rickshaws waiting for us. They look different from the Indian ones, they are more open, bigger and more comfortable, and pulled by a motorcycle.
Waiting for their clients at the temples



Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Slice of Thailand

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Thailand is proud of its history, never being occupied by a western power. It is a monarchy, the dynasty has been in power for 700 years, their king is the longest reigning monarch in the world (65 years and counting) and probably one of the most loved and respected. It is illegal in Thailand to say anything negative about the king or the royal family. That is all good, but it is surprising to us to see the huge monuments, the colossal pictures of the king from the earliest age to the oldest, it looks like the cult of personality that we know so well from the communist Romania. It is a bit annoying, especially since I have no idea if it actually reflects the real sentiment of the people. Then looking closer, people really have pictures of the king all over, on their dashboard and in their houses. They might be official pictures, but they show the young king of 50 years ago with a bicycle or a camera, or other "candid" pose. The cabs have banners on their windows "Long live the King." In public places they play the royal anthem at 8 am and 6 pm, and people stop and stand for a few minutes with their right hand to the heart.

Wat Pho, the reclining Buddha


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Temples and School

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As a parent who homeschools her children in New York State, I have to report four times a school year for each child about what they are learning. This is the law. How does a visit to the Angkor Wat Complex qualify as school? In my report I always start with Language Arts. For Reading they read the signs about the place,



 plus whatever their mom makes them read from a book. Add to this the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata because these are sculpted in bas reliefs around Angkor Wat Temple. For Writing they have to describe their experience in a blog post or a personal journal. Vocabulary is improved when they find words like apsara (that means dancer)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

China (because this is SUCH an imaginative title)

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Oh thank God for China. I understand China. I know Chinese food. China makes sense. Not that I don't love India, no—but despite how much colder it is here, I love China much more.
We flew from Kochi, India, to Guilin, China, then took a taxi to Yangshuo, where we had a real fireplace and electric blankets. We hiked mountains, rode buses, and floated down rivers. Then from Yangshuo we went to Guangzhou, and all I remember from it is we went to see the museum of the tomb of King Nanyue, who was buried in a suit of jade during the Han Dynasty, and his tomb was discovered in 1983. It has colored frescoes in the funerary chamber and is larger than most tombs from the time. I also remember fighting with Maria because I'd taken a brochure for the museum in French, and instead of using Ultralingua (an English-to-French/French-to-English app), I'd ask Mom for translations and wouldn't let Maria read it. Well, I did, but more like "I am sitting here reading. You may read over my shoulder but if you remove this brochure from my hands there will be dire consequences *glares menacingly from corner of eye*." This part was actually written while consulting my pink French brochure.

Angkor Wat, The Biggest And The Best

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Before we left we were asked which one of the places to see are we most excited about. Both of us answered without hesitation: Angkor Wat! The combination of excitement from leaving the cold of China and the anticipation of what we were about to see raised our expectations even more and that is never good.

We started by visiting the Angkor National Museum. I planned a couple of hours then we would have gone, for free, to have the first contact and maybe catch the sunset. Wrong plan. The museum closed on us, I couldn't get my family out of there. It is that good.
Next day we started the exploration of the temples. As my guidebook says "it is a unique repository of incredible craftsmanship on a staggering scale." There are hundreds of temples, between 15 and 25 are major touristic attractions. The local brochure lists them with 1 to 3 stars, from interesting to "must see"; two of them have four stars on that three-star scale. If you know anything about this place, then it makes sense.


Write Your World (amino): Siem Reap to Bangkok

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Write Your World (amino): Siem Reap to Bangkok, pt 1: (post from Maria's blog)

Nutsy day. Woke up at 5:30… though I set the alarm for 4:30, and we went to the bus station by Tuktuk. It was… interesting waiting for the bus. We ate baguettes which everyone in Cambodia seems to have… but which seems to come from a bakery no tourist can ever find. The reason we had them was because the hotel was nice enough to give them to us for breakfast.

So as we were on the bus (which was really just a large van, seating 12 in the main body and one more person in the front), we stopped twice, once for gas and the bathroom, and once five kilometers from the border, where a man there told us all to get out (only some of us actually did).

He told us to give him our tickets, in exchange for which he gave us a red, rectangular sticker.

As we were waiting to leave, an American comes to us and says, "The ticket is your receipt. You give him your ticket, you don't have a receipt and you pay twice. Go and get your ticket back."

(Mad dash for the tickets ensues.)

The guy who gave us the stickers ranted and railed, telling us that we'd never manage to get to Bangkok without him, that we'd never find a bus, that we had to give him the tickets— but with at least 20 people all demanding their tickets back, in the end the guy gave up. Our drivers spoke no English, or if they did, they didn't show it.

Basically, the people were acting very suspiciously— trying to guilt and frighten us into giving away our tickets, into getting off the van, etc. They were yelling, not answering the questions we asked them, and always giving new information without following up on it.

When we got to the border, another guy was there, telling us that without the red stickers we'd never get on our bus. Four Czechs, who had a plane to catch back home, gave up and gave their tickets away. The American, whose name we found is Derek, offered a photocopy of the ticket, but no luck— it had to be the real thing. We followed the Czechs as far as we could, past immigration. When we got out, people offered us taxis— and laughed when Dad said he had a bus.

We waited with Derek and a New Zealander (who was in Cambodia for six months and had a small guitar with him) to wait for the Czechs, who we'd spotted going to the bathroom.

They led us to where another guy had led them and told them to wait a bit for the van, which was coming (presently?). During this entire time, two Israeli women (a mother and her daughter, who I think live in… France?) and a Korean woman going to Bangkok to meet her friend at the airport were waiting for us.

Then the van showed up. Part 2 will be up on the 6th:


Siem Reap to Bangkok, pt 2


Where I last left ourselves, we were waiting for the van. When the silver van showed up, the driver absolutely refused to let those without a sticker get on— even though the Israeli daughter had a red sticker, he pushed her mother.

Huge scandal (I just realized that scandal translates to scandal in Romanian— a big noise/fight) ensues.

The driver gets in, is waiting, and then one of the guys shows up and tries to make us all move away from the van. Derek, the American, refuses to budge from behind the van.

"They're not going to cheat me." He says, "And I'm not moving from this spot."

"Is your life really worth ten dollars?" Mom asks him.

Ileana wants to stand there too, but I explain to her that she's Mom and Dad's responsibility— if she gets hurt Mom and Dad get in trouble for it.

As the van backs up a foot, we all kind of get out of the way, except for Derek, who hammers on the back window and tells the guy to stop.

Another foot.

"HEY! NO!" Derek shouts.

And then he gets out of the way. We all get out of the way. And the van backs up and zooms away.

"POLICE! Please, someone call the police! The police!" shouts one of the Israeli women, the daughter. (I think her name is Zslil or Zstil)

The spectators shake their heads. A guy from one of the travel companies comes out and tries to explain that she has to go find the police herself— the police station is that-a-way.

"I WANT EMBASSY ISRAEL! NBC MY COUNTRY, NOW!" shouts her mother.

As Zslil explains, "Hot blood."

If this was a comedy movie… it would be a very good one.

Derek and the New Zealander with the guitar are trying to figure out how to best get to Bangkok. The Korean girl is looking around, somewhat lost (her English isn't very good), trying to figure out how she's going to get to the airport to meet her friend.

"POLICE!" "WHO are you? I want to know. WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE COMPANY?"

Dad tries to find an ATM. Derek and the New Zealander try to figure out how much a bus costs. We're all going with our own agenda, hoping to find the best solution for everyone.

I hope the Czechs made it to the airport without getting fleeced out of more money. They needed to catch the plane badly.

In the end we decide to take a bus, all to the north part of Bangkok. The New Zealander goes a different way, but the five of us, Derek, and the Korean girl are all on the same bus for 6 hours. The Israelis stay to figure things out with the policeman (and I don't have words enough to describe that smiling policeman!). We found one of the conmen. Dad took his picture.

Thailand, we're told, is MUCH better, even if they have a fake border crossing 20 yards from the real one.


February 7, 2012 at 1:38 PM
What an adventure, huh? Live and learn I guess. Sorry for the misinformation on the stickers, I feel really bad about that. I guess I was being a bit overly cautious. I still wonder if the 4 Czechs made it ok to Bangkok.
I hope you enjoyed your time in Thailand. 
Sincerely,
Derek
Reply:
Maria March 1, 2012 at 10:56 AM
Sorry for the late reply! I took an internet fast while in the islands of Thailand.
I would love to know their experiences-- I imagine the guys stopping them on the side of the road and saying something along the lines of 'More money. Now.'
No worries! It was an interesting, spicy experience. Our group wouldn't really have 'met' otherwise.
Maria

Saturday, February 4, 2012

One Week in Cambodia

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"So far, is there any place where you would consider moving?" Ileana asked me this after 14 hours on the road, the day we left Cambodia. "Maybe just one. Siem Reap." The name means something bad about Siam (Thailand), Cambodia's neighbor to the west. It is a small size city at the gate of Angkor Wat. A few years ago didn't even have a paved road, now it has plenty and it has hundreds of hotels from five stars to the cheapest guesthouses. After twenty years of wars it is safe to travel here and people are coming from all ends of the world.


Typical motorbike


Learning From Cambodia

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Cambodia is my favorite country so far. Why?

It's a friendly place. It's quiet. It's happy.

Three illustrations:

1) You smile at someone, they smile back. And you don't even have to worry about whether or not you look weird. Nope! This is the culture. It's friendly. It's open. It's welcoming.

2) There are no horn honks. There are few cars. People walk slow.  NO ONE HONKS.

3) People are smiling all the time. Even when they're not smiling, one smile makes them light up.

There are dirt roads in Siem Reap, with tuk-tuks hitched to bright red motorcycles. Little kids are running around the temples holding up postcards and flutes, offering to sell one for one dollar, or two for one dollar… anything for one dollar.

It kind of makes you hurt a bit.

And it makes you re-evaluate what you need.

Yes, the economy of Cambodia and the economy of the USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, are completely different, but just think for a second of how many things you may have that you think you need, but you don't.

I now realize that while I might hate it for a while, I could do without the laptop or an iPod for the entire trip. And, in the end, I'd be happier.

Why? Free internet is rampaging through the world. A notebook works just as well as a keyboard. The latest music isn't necessary for your wellbeing. In fact, music isn't really necessary at all-- not the in-your-ear-all-the-time variety, at least. And book exchanges are paradise. If I ever travel again like this, I'll probably purge a couple of things from my bag:

  1. The tablet and pen. I brought this for comics. I knew even before I left I could probably live without it, but at the time I wasn't much in the mood. And it fit so nicely in my bag!
  2. The school supplies. Besides the fact that I haven't used them because of the tablet (lifesaver when doing Khan Academy, which is pointless without internet), the next time I take a trip like this I probably won't need them. Hopefully.
  3. The notebooks. I only have a sketchbook and a notebook, but one thing is clear-- if I had a moleskine or some equally lightweight but good-quality notebook, I wouldn't need the heavy stuff.
  4. The laptop. Like I said, the internet is rampaging. And book exchanges are everywhere. Book exchanges are lifesavers, I kid you not. And I'm not writing as much as I used to. And I type fast, so any blog posts I ever wrote would be very quickly typed up, probably in 15 minutes. Not forgetting, of course, advanced planning.

This does not mean I'll be packing off my laptop and notebooks and tablet off to Upstate New York. For one thing, I have to live with four other people, and no matter how nice they are, one needs an escape route from them.

But it does mean that I'm reassessing my needs and wants, which, after all, is part of what we're on this trip for. And Cambodia definitely helped with that.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Write Your World (amino): Khmer Food

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Write Your World (amino): Khmer Food:


The most touristic street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is Pub Street.

While I guess that is an apt description, I wouldn't exactly call it riddled with pubs. There are fish massages (Dr. Fish— NO PIRANHAS!), massage parlors (for feet, hands, bodies), beers, tennis games on huge screens which everyone watches as they eat.

Prices vary widely. We first ate at a restaurant whose name I don't think we'll ever remember. It faces a tourism agency that also offers a fish massage (cheapest on the block— one dollar for an unlimited time in the water). Signs advertise Khmer food.

Everyone on Pub Street wants you to come to their restaurant. They hold up laminated menus. The first night, after walking up and down and up and down and up and down, we stopped at that first restaurant. It advertises Khmer food, and has red plastic chairs with green and white checkered table-clothes.

The waittresses smile widely, waiting for us to order.

For the next four times we come here, I will be ordering the same thing: Fried Cashew Rice with Pork. It has cashew nuts in it, but otherwise is exactly the same as any other fried rice. I don't think I've ever liked fried rice much, but this was good.

The shakes are $0.75, and we order almost everything on the menu. The lemon shakes are delicious. A Dragon Shake uses something called a dragon fruit, which is bright pink on the outside, but white with black dots on the inside. I think. I've never seen it named, but I've guessed.

When we show up a second time, we get wide smiles and big waves.

The third time, we're hustled to one of the five tables, next to the counter. There is a long counter, you see, running at the 'back' of all of these restaurants. Behind the counter, there is a shake-making machine, a stove top in which the cooks (and waitresses— there seem to be no actual designation for each person) make the food. Delivery men come up and plonk things down on the counter. We get bright smiles whenever we show up. Other return guests— finding that this is the best restaurant, I suppose— are greeted with smiles just as wide.

When we first arrived, an old man showed up with a shopping bag and three ice cream cones, which he handed out to each girl. "Today's my last day." He said, "I brought you some ice cream."

As she took our order, Ali, who seems to be the main waitress, plonked the ice cream cone face down on the table. When we went there today, she hugged Ileana 'hello.' It felt like this very big family.

(It's not restricted to just there, by the way

When we told Ali we were leaving, she reached over the counter (she'd hopped over to help with the cooking), shook our hands, hugged us, and told us we were beautiful and to come again.

I mean, what's a better way to spend your last meal in Cambodia?