Archive for the ‘Gate One Travel’ Category

Book Review: The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman

August 21, 2014

 

I graduated high school in 1971, as  the ‘Viet Nam War’ was winding down.  It had been a good part of my life since my earliest memories of watching news on TV.  My uncle was in the navy then,  serving just off the coast.  Everyone knew someone either serving or who had been killed.  We were fighting communism, or so we were told.  We were fighting there so it didn’t spread to here.  What did we know of communism except the Soviet Communist bloc—which of course was very repressive…and China?

We didn’t really know  how much racial discrimination affected  non-white people in the USA.   At that time, we still believed everything our government told us.  Our government would never lie to us, because we had the best government in the world.

That mindset is relevant because we also believe that  our educational system is the best on the world, too (in spite of evidence that it is not).  We believed  things were black and white, and whether you went to a private or a public school, you were shaped to be a good American.  My country right or wrong.

Of course, developing my adult self, I became a more cynical and skeptical teenager. I heard Rennie Davis speak about the Viet Nam war, and was a follower of the Conspiracy 7 trial—held right here in Chicago.  In the underground press, we were getting reports of soldiers in Viet Nam not knowing who the enemy was, and finding the South Viet Namese arrogant  and prissy.

We knew nothing of covert operations in Cambodia and Laos until we exited the war, and it wasn’t really until the 1980’s that we found that we were  fighting all over southeast Asia.  After the war, Viet Nam and Southeast Asia faded from our collective interests.

There were rumors that turned out to be true:   that the CIA was  helping the south Viet Namese sell heroin to our own American soldiers.   Yes, we were and remained on the wrong side of history.

I was mentally ill for years, and plodded through my own life….marrying for the wrong reasons and later divorcing.  I took a break from grooming dogs  to coordinate a project to provide free English classes to immigrants and refugees.  It was then that I started learning about different ‘world views’.  I went to Africa, and everything changed for me because  traveling broadens you so much. I returned to college to study anthropology.    I learned more about myself and how to know  other people.  I became less sure of what the truth was , and, if possible, even more cynical.

My geographic concentration was always Africa, but but I realized I knew nothing about India or Southeast Asia. This book was suggested by a tour guide when  I visited Viet Nam (as a tourist) in early 2014.

Heart breaking.  That is my gut reaction.  This story involves a little girl, her family and  community, and medical anthropology, and  our our history manipulating a society not really for freedom, but for capitalists markets. Embarrassing.

Fadiman does an outstanding job of not just narrating what happened to Lia Lee, but the context.  Misunderstanding after misunderstanding, but also horribly cruel exploitation of a whole society, in the name of fighting communism..

We are all so sure of what we know, what is true.  What is real.    We resent immigrants who don’t learn English, or who refuse to mix. They don’t learn to be Americans.  You read what this family has to say about how their lives got turned upside down, and how they had to adjust, and you just have to cringe.  Could YOU handle all this if it happened to YOU?  I don’t think I could.

This book should be required reading for every high school student born and raised in America, and every ‘medical pr9ofessional’, and anyone who  may need care for a chronic illness.   It’s a well written and edited history.

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On the Wrong Side of History: My recent trip to Viet Nam

June 6, 2014

Food sculture, Halong Bay, VN  Food Sculpture, North Viet Nam

 

I visited Viet Nam a few months ago.  It’s  taken me  some time to wrap my head around what I  experienced.

I  bet most people under the age of 50 don’t know anything about the “Viet Nam War” (what the Viet Names call “the American War”) which occured in the 1960’s and why we  fought there.  We never actually declared war on Viet Nam, but  we sent about a half million  people to fight, and we instituted a draft around 1969 to  compel young men to  join the military—to fight in Viet Nam.  Remember?  I do, I’m 60.  I remember coming home from school and seeing news of the war on TV every night.  We allowed our government to tell us a bunch of lies.  We allowed our government—& the pandering news media—to tell us we were fighting communism, and if we didn’t stop communism in Viet Nam, the whole of southeast Asia would fall (the domino theory).  The Viet Namese  ‘won.’  After all our fire power and expertise, they gained control of their own  country.  Not all Viet Namese were happy about that. Same as any country in the world.

So, when people ask why I went to Viet Nam on ‘vacation’, I  responded, “Well, we fought a war there.  I want to see what we were fighting over.”

Others  are curious because  they might want to retire there, or are interested in history.

There are very few traffic signals (what the British call  robots and zebra crossings) in urban Viet Nam.  Most people who have vehicles get around on  motor scooters.  You really take your life in your hands crossing the street. Best to do so in groups.  You also notice everyone wearing surgical masks.  Is it because they don’t want bugs flying into their mouths, or they want to avoid disease?  Not sure.  I was told a combination of both.  but enough with amusing first impressions.

Our guide, Tran,  had lived the history and was  very good at explaining it (Gate One Travel, which, by the way, I would highly recommend–particularly if your travel time is limited), but there is no getting around it. As Tran told us, Viet Nam has been at war for about 3000 years.  If it wasn’t the Chinese, it was the French, and then the Americans.  Why  did (or do) larger powers pick on Viet Nam?  Great location,  lots of arable land.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravelle_Manifesto.  Why the link? It’s an interesting place to get some perspective.  Search Wikipedia,and you will get some jumping off points.  Lots of people don’t know that Indochina was a French colony.  Land was appropriated for rubber, fruit, and rice plantations.  Yes–appropriated.  There are about 30 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, and you have to give Ho Chi Minh his props—that he organized all these disparate, rural ethnic groups to work together and think of themselves as VIET NAMESE.  Remember, he did this without the internet.  He did this  by persuasion, as most people at that time (1950s and ’60s) were illiterate. They were also feeling oppressed by the French.  the French just barged in and took whatever land they could.

It’s important to understand the dynamic, and  what we  westerners  didn’t know( or understand).  The  biggest priority for Ho Chi Minh and his followers (really—mostly young people under 30) was land reform.  Between the French and the Chinese, there wasn’t much left for the native Viet Namese to even grow food for their families.  This is 1 reason it was so easy  to get  people to fight. They were desperate, and had nothing left to lose.  But more:  the west had divided  Viet Nam into north and south in the 1950’s.  The reason is still not totally clear ( side digression:  do we know why we fought in Afghanistan, if Karzai, who took our money, didn’t want us?  Are we sure we are  on the right side in Syria? Iraq? Ukraine?   Really?)  We told ourselves that the north was to be communist, and the south, with no clear leader, would be free.  Uh—free like democratic—compared to the north?  Free like capitalism—so the colonialists could come back and take what was not theirs?

I had so many questions. We started the tour in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon) in the south.  One of the first places we visited was the Cu Cin tunnels.We also visited an organic farm.  We asked how  most people made  a living in Viet Nam, and Tran told us that if they weren’t farmers, they were entrepreneurs.  Indeed.  We  visited fishing  villages, wood carvers, marble carvers, clothing and embroidery workshops (stull, hard to know how many were actually owned by the Chinese…).  So many self employed people in all the urban areas!  This is an irony, really.  This is a socialist country, but there are  probably more self employed  people in Viet Nam—per centage wise, than in the USA!

HCMC from Hotel, VN  In  historic Hoi An, Hue, and  Hanoi, many small shop owners.  While there are  large shopping plazas with  what we would call grocery stores,  they are sort of a blend of  a large ‘anchor’ ans many small vendors. It is amazing how many people  have small stalls selling  spices,  tchokes, hair ornaments and other junk jewelry, toys, tools, medicinal or first aid stuff, fruit, and clothing.  So…what is socialist about the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam?   Good question.  It seems to be the ownership of improved land.    Hoi An is  a world heritage site not far from DaNang.  It’s a beautiful, quaint old town.  Many expats, particularly from Australia,  now make their livings there.  I was able to visit with Cat Besch, who runs the Viet Nam Animal Welfare Association.  They have a small animal shelter,  and are trying to promote the idea of humane treatment of animals—and not eating your pet dog after you grow bored with it.  Seems that the Chinese, who have always been in Viet Nam, have brought the idea of eating  dogs to this mostly Buddhist country.  People will steal dogs, and sell them by the pound to restaurants.

In Da  Nang, a city along the China Sea, there are miles and miles of upscale housing developments. Huge high rise buildings with luxury interiors and amenities. We asked Tran who was buying all these condos.  He told us,’Rock Stars’, but there couldn’t be that many.  It has to be…the Chinese elites who can not buy  such luxury housing on the oceanfront in China.  As the British buy in the south of Spain and France, the Chinese are buying Viet Nam, and there is a lot of animosity.

Also in visiting the historic sites, we  learned a little more about how the  US became  so involved in Viet Nam.  Diem was, apparently a reluctant president.  He was a businessman who wanted to  expand his drug selling (cocaine, heroin) empire. His  sister-in-law was the power behind the ‘throne’.  Very integral to  understanding this was knowing that the elites in the south were Catholics, and they wanted to govern and exploit the  rural Buddhists peasants.  Diem was encouraged to  contact Cardinal Spellman  in Boston who, of course, had ties to the Kennedy family. With little more than connections, we got ourselves on the wrong side of history (more recently, when the CIA paid Achmed Chalabi $238,000 a week for intelligence, which turned out to be bullshit…in Iraq…everyone involved is off the hook for that war, except the American citizens who now have to support a bunch of war maimed soldiers…same in Afghanistan…).

Tran encouraged us to get Le Ly Hyslip’s book, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places”, her view of how the war  affected her life as a child  growing up in Viet Nam.  Obviously, it was a vacation which caused me to do a lot of thinking,  There is a lot to see and experience in Viet Nam.  It’s not just  the jungle.  You can easily have a beach vacation and  not see  any of the rest of the country.  However, you’d miss so much.

Why I Went to Thailand

August 15, 2013
Topiary, Bangkok

Topiary, Bangkok

Hernando de Soto, Cabeza de Vaca, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci.

If you  went to primary school in America, you learned all about the European adventurers DISCOVERING the world.  There was no history of America—or anywhere—until the Europeans  went out looking for gold and treasures.

Of course, that isn’t true, but I became curious about  the culture and geography of southeast Asia.  Ankhor Wat—the whole Nak culture and Ankhor  civilization spread  out hundreds of miles, and the architecture. The apsaras, and  so much uniform, repeating  art.  The many  Buddist Temples.

There is so much about Thailand that  is amazing the the ‘white bread middle class’ American.  So much  history, and the  intricate temples made of laterite that still stand.  The canals.  The silk industry, attributed to Jim Thompson.  Their amazing infrastructure and use of it, and art, as well as hospitality to grow their tourism industry.

In the northern part of the country (that is, from the Gulf of Siam north), Buddism predominates, and the  dynamic is very much ‘live and let live’.  The Thai are very tolerant of invaders, be they tourists or  business people.  If you didn’t already know, there is a huge  community of  gay men:  transgendered and cross dressers, very much integrated into society as a whole, very much for the better.

Literacy is very high, and although there are complaints, the  macro economy  thrives.  I was  very surprised to find dog groomers in many Thai cities. This indicates to me that   there is a middle class population with expendable income.

Thailand is  known for  reasonably priced luxury items.  In Chiang Rai, in the north, by the Myammar border, you can buy rubies.  In Chiang Mai, you can  buy  so many interesting things on the street,, see the Buddist Temples, and also see the Maesa Elephant camp, where the  former logging elephants now  play soccer & paint.

If you go, you will want to get the book, Very Thai:  Everyday Popular Culture, by Philip Cornwel-Smith (photographs by Jolin Goss) to help you make sense of  what you are experiencing.

Turkish Delight

February 27, 2013
Me!  In the balloon basket at Cappadocia!

Me! In the balloon basket at Cappadocia!

I recently returned  (Feb.2013) from a tour of Turkey. Why did I choose to go to Turkey?  It  seemed to be an exotic place to go.   I have kept a  file of travel stories for a long time.  In 2002, travel writer Alan Solomon wrote an article on  his trip to Cappadocia, and I had kept it all this time. I had been reading about World War I and the Ottoman Empire, and everyone knows that Turkey is where Europe meets Asia (& Istanbul is in 2 continents).  The price for the tour was excellent. I could not pass it up.

Gate One Travel is the company I chose. They offer many tours  to many places, their fees are  incredibly low.  Their guides are generally excellent, as was Metin. The hotels are also   3 star or better.  My first Gate One Tour was to Thailand, and I learned so much and had a fantastic time.  Indeed, I ask many of the people (there were 40 of us)on our tour how they had decided on this particular tour, and the response I got was: “It was too cheap to pass up!”  I paid slightly under $1500, which included airfares, for this “13” day trip  (your travel days are included in the number of days). The catch is that every day there might be a special excursion, and you usually have to pay extra for those.  Thus, the trip cost in the neighborhood of about $2500.

I am not the ‘beach vacation’ type, I want to see historical places, and a different landscape.  The trip exceeded my expectations.  Not only is there a lot to see in Turkey, the  economy (at least in the Western portion of the country) is vibrant, and the infrastructure good.

Photo taken from the bus, of izmir. you can see how dense the housing is (background)

Photo taken from the bus, of Izmir. you can see how dense the housing is (background)

I think that’s what struck me the most;  that  the economy seemed so robust, and all the cities we  traveled through had nice street scaping and very few vacant storefronts.  Virtually every building had passive solar hot water   processors on their roofs.  Another very interesting thing:  all the  housing in urban areas is multi-unit.  We didn’t see any single family homes until we were in the rural areas. Why is this?  The population in the urban areas is so dense that in order to provide  water delivery and sanitation services, they need the  water catchment  land and space for  treatment. Very impressive, especially if you go into most neighborhoods in Chicago!

Ephasus

Ephasus

The ‘peak experiences?   Coming into Ephasus was definitely  awe-inspiring.  I mean, you read about the Romans, and the great  empire, and  then you come across an ancient city, and you really get a feel for the place. So, what happened?  Wars, disease, over exploitation of the  environment. The usual.  But to be around the marble, and see the workmanship, and see all the  tourists  walking around, it gives you an idea  of how rich the  community was!

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

Then, Cappadocia.  The whole area is mind blowing.  Due to erosion, there  are all these odd rock formations. And the caves….
the cave ‘churches’ and  the cave city.    We got to see the Sufi ‘Whirling Dervishes’, and learned a bit about them.

Ceramics are a big industry in this area, and we got to visit a pottery studio.
We also  visited a rug cooperative and got to see weaving.   A few people bought rugs, but we have a very large Middle Eastern  and Persian communities here in Chicago.  As I have more  Oriental rugs than floor space, I did not buy any.

One thing you see all over is the ‘evil eye’ motif, and this is something that stretches from Morocco to India.    If you possess the ‘eye’, you can ward off the evil eye.  So every tourist vendor has  tchotchkes with evil eyes:  key chains, bracelets, glass pendants.  They are in plastic and glass.  Also, anywhere food is sold, there is ‘Turkish Delight’. This is a gelatin textured candy (when I was growing up, these were ‘jellies’ or ‘marmalade’ coated in sugar), sometimes with nuts, in various  fruit flavors—-citrus, pomegranate,, even rose being favorites, sometimes covered with chocolate.  Not a favorite of mine…and  a small grocer a block from my home always has it.

Turkey is also known for spices, and there is a very good spice market in Istanbul. It should be every tourist’s first stop—even before the Grand Bazaar, because  the prices are so low.  I’d be cautious of buying  Saffron, most of it is actually turmeric, but I bought some whole vanilla beans.  I  also bought some  herbal tea & a grinder.  I didn’t buy and other spices because there is a large Indian community shopping district a mile away from me, which also has outstanding prices  for bulk spices.

We also got to Ankara, and  a Turkish woman I met asked why we were going there.  I am glad we  did. We got to see  the Ataturk Museum, as well as a museum of Hittite Art recently returned from the University of Pennsylvania.  The Hittite civilization was as old  as  the Egyptian cultures, but  I do want to address Ataturk. He was the ‘father’ of modern Turkey. He also fought the Ottoman empire  during World War I (he was Mustafa Kemal at the time, and had offered the Arabs self-rule after the war), and the man really had a vision for his country. He instituted universal education, and changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latinic.  He had an economic development plan. He is probably the reason Turkey is  as it is.

I also got to visit  a forest sanctuary for  street dogs in Istanbul, and will blog about them next week.

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