Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I write this sitting in the living room of my 'host's' house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. My 'host' is a member of couchsurfing.org. Basically, you make a profile about yourself and your travel experiences, and as you approach a city, you can search people in that city who are willing to share their time (coffee/drink) or thier house (thus you 'surf' their couch). Everytime you have an experience with another member, you write a reference for how that meeting went - was it positive/negative? What things were unique/helpful? And so on.

I have been a part of it for 2.5 years now, with my first experiences coming in West Africa and the Middle East. I then opened my house in Korea to several surfers and I'm now surfing again in Central Asia (and did so in SE Asia as well). It's an opportunity to get an inside look at the city/country that you're visiting and a chance to share your culture with a complete stranger. Now, I know this may sound a little crazy to some - I mean who would let a complete stranger into their house to sleep with them and eat thier food? This is one of the reasons I love CSing the most - it puts blind faith in humanity, something we don't do enough of these days (okay, with the profile and references it's not totally blind faith, but imagine a stranger called you up and asked to sleep at your house, and told you the number of another total stranger to call as reference). In all my experiences - probably somewhere in the range of 30-35 (not counting the 'unofficial' couch surfing done with friends in different places in the world) - I've never had a negative experience, although I have had some very interesting conversations.

One memorable experience was when I was couchsurfing in a country called Mali with a 60 year old Dutch man who had quit his job as a computer engineer in The Netherlands to help women grow sustainable gardens in the villages outside the town of Mopti in Mali. On Friday nights he would take his computer and projector and play movies for the local children on the wall of his house (which he painted white for the movies). We were lucky enough to be there on a Friday and saw this man in action - literally hundreds of kids and their parents showed up to watch the movie, some walking an hour one-way. You must consider, a lot of these people don't have running water, let alone power or TV. This weekly event was something out of the future for them. It was inspiring to watch this man and the joy and laughter he was bringing to the people around him. These are the types of things CSing can add to your travels.

Another amazing thing? It's completely free, both to join and to take part in. I've never been asked for money, and I never asked for money when I hosted. You just clean up after yourself, replenish whatever food/drink you take and share some of your time with the host/surfer. Check it out.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hammoms (Bath houses)

First, I haven't written in two months because China and Kyrgyzstan both block access to blogspot.com (as did Myanmar, but one cafe there had a way around it). I'm currently in Uzbekistan and they block access to bbc.com, as well as a host of other international new sights. Second, to all those people bitching about having their rights taken away at the G20 in Toronto, maybe you should be thankful for having rights everyday of your life, rather than lamenting the one day they may have been infringed upon. You sound like spoilt, ungrateful Canadians to me.

Now, on to the topic at hand: bath houses. In Korea, bath houses are everywhere and a family/social event (divded by gender). While in Korea, I would try to go at least once a week to soak in the hot tubs, then jump into the cool tub and back and forth, sending my body's nerves into shock several times a visit. There are also steam rooms, traditional sauna rooms and heat lamps (not tanning lamps, strictly heat). Sometimes after a night of sparkling water and philisophical debate in Daegu, I would stumble into the bath house around 6 or 7am and soak for a bit (hot and cold pools) before gently falling asleep under the heat lamps. When I would wake up a few hours later, I would be flanked on both sides by naked Korean men (no clothes allowed in bath houses) relaxing under the lamps. This is when I knew it was time to go home.

Anyways, I went to a bath house (called Banya in Russian) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and it was unlike anything I'd seen before. Some of the men wore funny-looking cone-shaped wool hats (and nothing else, of course), others were beating themselves with birch tree branches, complete with leaves (a way to clear the pores apparently), and others still were donning both. Quite the sight to see, but relaxing and enoyable.

Most recently in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, I went to the most incredible Hammom (Uzbek for Bath house) I've ever experienced. Before entering, as I was negotiating the price, the guy told me the place was 6 centuries old. I figured "yeah, right", something he probably says to tourists to jack up the price. However, when we finally agreed on the price ($0.50 more than I wanted to pay, but $4.50 less than the posted price), and I entered, I instantly believed him. The place was something out of a foreign language movie - lighting so poor and steam so thick that one couldn't see across the room. The place was made of old, sand coloured brick, with domed roofs, dark nooks and corners everywhere - the type of place the KGB would've killed someone during the Soviet occupation. The massage was great, albeit a little rough at times (when the guy was standing on my back and pulling up my legs and arms at the same time I must've looked like an acrobat or contortionist). At the end I was given a honey/ginger scrub that felt like fire when I went into the steam room to let the concoction go to work, but it felt great when the cold water was poured over me again.

The only thing that makes me sad is that I will not be able to experience these when I return to Canada. They are such a great place to relax and unwind, yet in Canada I have the feeling they may be considered "gay" - all those naked men being rubbed down by one anotehr doesn't sit too well with the Canadian pysche. I think this is unfortunate, as I can't think of a better way to spend a few hours in the morning or evening on a day off.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How one person can make a difference

Today while I was discovering the Temples of Angkor around Siem Reap, Cambodia, I made a detour to the Cambodia Landmine Museum (www.cambodialandminemuseum.org). What I thought was going to be a lesson on landmines, their history, their debilitating effects and ways for clearing them, turned out to be so much more...

The man who founded and runs the museum with his uncle and aunt, is named Aki Ra. When he was 10 years old he was taken by the Khmer Rouge (who killed his mother and father) and turned into a child soldier. He spent the next 13 years fighting, killing, maiming and - believe it or not - laying landmines all over Cambodia, first for the Khmer Rouge and later for the Vietnamese & Cambodian Armies. Some of the stories he has shared over the years can be read in the museum or seen in a video at the museum - they will chill you to the bone. He openly shares stories of killing and destruction during the civil war. However, he no longer personally shares those stories as he prefers to look to the future rather than dwell on the painful past.

In 1994 Aki Ra began working to de-mine the very areas he had previously mined. Because he had spent so many years working with mines he was excellent at detecting and defusing them. Word quickly spread about him and local villages would call him in to de-mine their fields. He kept all the mines he de-fused (30 000 plus) and eventually opened a small museum in Siem Reap to showcase his findings and raise awareness.

As word spread and money came in he got the help and funding to be an official NGO and opened a new museum as well as an orphanage/school for children affected by landmines. These children can also be seen in the video, as well as photos around the museum - scarred and limbless, but laughing, playing sports (soccer with crutches, for instance), swimming without arms and living life as children should. They also share their stories on the walls of the museum. These stories always begin with unimaginable horror and heartache, but all end with such hope for the future speaking of their new home, their chance at education and how happy they are now - as well as their love for Aki Ra and his family. It is beautiful to see the tangible effects this man is having on these children, as well as the work he is doing in his country.

As well as running this museum and orphanage and raising landmine awareness, Aki Ra still helps to de-mine areas in Cambodia - and when you see the videos you understand how dangerous this task is. He continues to risk his own safety in order to save the lives of people he will never know, and who will never even know they were saved, let alone by whom. Aki Ra is the definition of a hero, he is an inspiration, and he is proof that one person can make a difference.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Universality of Football (see: Soccer)

I have mentioned to people before in my travels how popular the game of football is around the world (and I call it football because that’s what it’s called by 5.5 billion people on this Earth – power in numbers, people). I’ve played football with locals on an island on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia at 3000m+ above sea level (none of whom spoke English). I’ve kicked the ball around in West Africa, and watched towns and villages shutdown in countries as remote as Burkina Faso when important football games come on TV - and I’m not talking fancy TVs here. I mean a 15 inch black and white TV pulled out onto the street and surrounded by plastic chairs for all the neighbourhood to watch. The conversation went something like this… “What’s that Chubabu (“white man” in West Africa)?”…. You want dinner? … Okay… After the game”. There is no other sport in the world that can do this on so many continents in so many languages.

Most recently the guy I met at the airport in Yangon (hence forth called Ilan) and I met a Buddhist scholar when visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda (google that). He invited us to the monastery he was studying at and when we went to visit him we noticed newspaper cut-outs on the walls of famous football players from the Premiership in England. This was obviously not something I expected to see in the dorm room of monks, but there were several pictures on the wall of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool players. As we walked out of the monastery we ran into novice monks (8-12 years of age) playing football with a small plastic ball in their robes and bare feet in the 40 degree weather. Since Ilan is an avid football fan (he is from Israel but also loves the Premiership) we played for about an hour with the children. Ilan, myself and our Bamar friend (Bamar is the actual term for the majority of people from Myanmar – the British fucked it up, like everything else except football, and called it Burma) played against four gritty and determined 8-12 year olds who eventually beat us 13-11. The amazing thing? the kids come from hill tribes and can’t speak the Bamar language, so not even our Bamar friend could communicate with them. We just played the game as it is supposed to be played and shook hands/high-fived at the end. There is no need to talk when everyone knows exactly what is supposed to be done, and how it is supposed to be played. This is why football is the world’s sport.

To top it all off, tonight half of the men in the city I am in (Bago) are watching the Liverpool/Chelsea game live on TV. Every generator in town (power in Burma goes off as easily as a child flicks a light switch) must be on standby for this game tonight because the restaurants are packed with men hungry for their fill of European football. As I sat eating dinner and watching the locals watch the game (I personally don’t care for football), I started to think about how many people in how many countries on how many continents might people be watching the game? I mean, if most of Myanmar is watching it, are the astronauts in the ISS watching it? And would that make it truly Universal?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jumping in Puddles

A few days ago I was in Mae Hong Son (North-western Thailand), and there was a wicked thunderstorm. It was the kind of storm where the rain gets horizontal at times because the wind is so strong, and the rain comes down in such torrents that the ground appears to be dancing.

I was walking back from a hike when it began to lightly rain, and as I got back to the guesthouse and was about to shower the rain started pounding the tin roof so hard it sounded like machine-gun fire raining down from heaven. Having nothing better to do, I decided to put on my bathing suit and head out into it. At first it felt good just to feel the cool water spalshing onto my face and body and within a minute I was soaked through. I spread my arms out, threw my head back and just smiled up at the sky, feeling as free as Andy Dufresne when he finally escapes from the shit-filled sewers of Shawshank. As I stood in the middle of the street I noticed the water pooling on one side of the street as it flowed down the hill. I sauntered over to where the water was running and felt it rush over the tops of my feet up to my ankles. I tentatively took a small hop... and burst out laughing as a child does upon discovering something so joyful that he cannot contain his mirth. I quickly took as big a jump as I could and landed with all my might into the water, splashing water up onto my bathing suit and chest. I laughed as a grandfather does when he watches his grandson do something his own son did years ago that frustrated him as a father, but delights him as a grandfather: one of those deep belly laughs that sounds like someone has lost their common sense. I continued to jump in the puddles for a while, every time unable to conceal my merriment - I must have looked quite the sight to the locals as I stood in the pounding rain in my bathing suit in the middle of the road jumping up and down while laughing hysterically. This only added to the enjoyment, of course.

After this experience I tried to remember when the last time I played in the rain was, and I can recall it - August of 2003, just before going to univeristy. Can you believe that? Six and a half years of rainfall wasted without enjoying it - in fact, probably wishing it away everytime I got caught in it. Next time I'm home in Canada and a good rainfall comes I hope I remember to get out there and jump in the puddles. Give it a try.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to enjoy yourself, Thai style

I am currently in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand, for Sangkron. Sankgron is the Thai new year (April 13-15th) celebration. Officially it's three days, but unofficially it's more like a week. As it occurs at the hottest time in the Thai year, the Thai people decided to celebrate their new year with a massive water festival. I arrived yesterday morning and quickly bought a water gun (super soaker style) to fight back against the constant onslaught of guns, buckets and myriad other contraptions designed to administer water onto any and all passersby. Pick-up trucks are turned into water assault machines, with huge pails of water and numerous people standing in the back of the trucks showering water onto everyone on the street, while the people on the street fire at one another as well as the people on the trucks. Even people on motorbikes and scooters aren't free from the onslaught - everyone is soaked and loving it.

This was probably my greatest realization of the day - that the Thai people can completely forget their egos and enjoy themselves to the utmost. It doesn't matter if someone gets water in the eye, or an excessive amount of cold water poured down their back - they may shout in surprise - but they turn with a smile on their face and spray you back. I didn't see anyone angry or abusive during the festivities. Foam put directly into ones mouth? No problem! Someone's sunglasses flew off from the stream of water and broke? HAPPY NEW YEAR!! Your gun is empty? Here, take some of my water! Of course, there is some etiquette. For instance, food is generally off limits, and when someone is opening their waterproof pouch (they hand them out for phones, money and cameras) they are (usually) left alone. Aside from that, no one is safe - old women or young children are fair game - and yes, there is something a little sick in spraying an 80 year-old toothless grandmother with a water gun, but you forget that after she throws an ice-cold bucket of water down your back!

What I love most about this event is the harmony that exists within the water warfare. I'm not confident that the city of Toronto could have such an event without a few fights breaking out due to bruised egos and male pride. Of course, a water festival of this magnitude wouldn't happen in Canada because the environmentalists would be up in arms over the egregious waste of water. Thankfully, the Thai people know how to have fun - if only for a few days a year (but I have a feeling it's many more).

Friday, April 9, 2010

The simple things

A few days ago I was on a public bus in Java, Indonesia, for just over five hours. This is a bus that travels between major cities, but has its doors open at all times (literally) for people to wave it down and jump on, or tell the "door man", for lack of a better word, whenever they want to jump off. He makes a shrill whistle (by the third hour I was able to sleep through it), and the driver knows someone wants off, and thus pulls over. FYI - there are two doors, with the door man controlling the back of the bus - most people get on and off via the back door - and the driver controlling the front door. Once the passenger is on or off the bus, the door man shouts the Indonesian equivalent of "go" and the driver continues. There is also a "fare guy" who walks up and down collecting the fare, which is dependent on the distance you want to travel. All the while, people selling goods will jump on and off, and even local musicians jump on with their guitar, play a few songs and collect a few rupiah from the passengers. As a result of this regular stopping and starting, what should be a 3 1/2 hour bus ride turns into just over 5 hours. That's sounds like a complaint, but it's not - I could have taken a shuttle bus that would have been direct, but where's the fun in that? The people who take shuttle buses pay twice the price, and when travelling, I feel there is an inverse correlation between how much money someone spends and how interesting they are. On the local bus you can walk on with your cigarette, live animal, or several small children all for one fare, provided they all sit on your lap. You can't get that on the shuttle buses.

Anyways, as I was on the bus I had to marvel at the order and precision in what could be seen as a constantly chaotic jumbling of passengers - some a few blocks, some several hundred kilometres. I couldn't help but smile as I looked around at the faces, many missing teeth and looking like life's been rough, but all quick to smile as they make eye contact with me. Like in Malaysia, nearly everyone smiles from ear to ear a friendly, genuine smile, whether they are missing teeth or not - more often the former (I feel there could be another correlation there - the more teeth one is missing the more interesting they are... Any thoughts?). It is these types of experiences that I hope to remember long after I've left these countries - they are the moments that cannot be captured by a camera, but tell more about a country than any picture can. Often when I tell people of my travels at home I tell them of the "highlights", ie. climbing Mount Kinabalu, seeing orangutans, etc, but simple things like bus rides can be even more remarkable in the day-to-day life of a traveller.