The GoGlobal Blog

Month: March 2011

Unanticipated Adventures

Unanticipated Adventures

So this week is crunch time. Tomorrow all the papers for the semester are due and on top of that, the – cough 50% of our grade cough – Arabic final is the same day. Now I am a man who likes to plan things like this out, so when something unanticipated happens I get kind of messed up.

But that’s just what happened last night.

One of the papers we need to write is a follow-up analysis of a short interview that we conduct. My interview was planned to be last night with one of my host dad’s friends.

Right after we got home my host dad was like “We will go,” so I got my laptop and recorder together and went with him. First we spent about an hour getting medicine for his son – I was a little annoyed about that. After that, we got a call from his brother saying that his car had broken down in the middle of the souq. So we had to go to the souq and push the damn thing halfway through the crowded souq to a nearby car repair shop. Turns out all the car needed was a jump. So now two hours in, we stop at one of my host dad’s other friend’s house for dinner. By the time we finally finished it was about 9:30.

So I called Dominic, the guy I was supposed to interview – no answer. I tried again – still no answer. So, defeated, I ceded that we should to dinner at a small little kabab shack off the side of the road. By the time I finally got back it was about 10:30. I was dead.

I got no work done on a day during which I had planned to do a lot. I will still get everything done and it will still be excellent, but damn, it’s gonna be a late one tonight.

I heard somewhere that American’s are obsessed with time. That’s definitely true but I don’t understand how other cultures aren’t. Time rules us. Are lives are nothing more than a period of time. I guess it’s just the Omani style to be so flexible but sometimes I wish I could get more of a heads up. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my grades for deeper cultural immersion.

Weekend with the family.

Weekend with the family.

Lets dive right into this post shall we?

As I mention in my last post, my family had arrived in Italia, last weekend and they got back into Roma on thursday evening. So after class I went down to meet them at the apartment that they rented for the long weekend near Villa Borghese. It was a bit tricky to get to, so I took a bus to Via del Corso and walked up the Spanish Steps…questionable idea, it was a much longer walk than expected, but I survived and saw cool stuff on the way. As I was walking I kept getting annoyed at the all the tourists who kept getting in the way, which made me realize “Wow, I’m actually…Roman now”.  Anywho, I showed them around near the Trevi Fountain and Spanish steps. Then took them to my favorite restaurant in Rome “L’Archetto” it’s a spaghetteria…so they have quite literally dozens of sauces for spaghetti. Plus it’s cheap for Rome, not like I had to pay (they treated) but still, it’s easy on the wallet.

Friday, my parents and grandparents came up to Monte Mario to see the JFRC. They obviously loved the campus as much as I do. We even had lunch with Director Iodice, he is a great guy and I can’t thank him enough for all he has done to help myself and my family over the past few weeks. Mensa was actually very good for lunch, which was rare…it’s usually so-so. Hence, my parents now think I eat well here, little do they know. After all that, we headed downtown on the bus…grandpa really enjoyed that. He was cracking jokes the whole time. I then took them down Via del Corso and to Piazza Navona. But more importantly I introduced them to Giolitti gelato, which is delicious (as all gelato is). But I really like their pastries more than gelato. I was more so excited that I was able to find Giolitti by myself without a map, because the other times I went I was with others and wasn’t really paying attention. This weekend really showed just how well I know Rome, even though I don’t think I know it that well. As for dinner, we ate at a place near the apartment, they had real good pizza and I also got suppli (which was subpar…c’mon italy)

Saturday my family did their own thing because I had a preplanned day trip to Tivoli for a cooking instructional. It was probably my favorite day trip I have done thus far. First off we didn’t have to wake up ridiculously early, and secondly because we got to make pasta and eat it, in addition to other awesome food. Well on the way to Tivoli we stopped at Villa Adriana (Emperor Hadrian’s villa). Basically an awesome and HUGE complex of ancient ruins. This dude hated Rome (even though he ruled it) and so he built a huge getaway. It was very well preserved, I even saw a lizard. They make you pay for maps so naturally we kind of got lost when we were inside, kind of freaked out for a bit because that is how every horror movie ever starts. But we found our way out and on to Tivoli. The restaurant was automatically cool right off the bat because it was inside ancient caves. The chefs taught us how to make bow tie, fettucini, and gnocchi. I have to say I am pretty awesome at making pasta, it’s also cool because it only takes a few ingredients and then most of the pastas can take any kind of sauce to make TONS of dishes. After a 4 course meal and delicious dessert, we had time to walk around Tivoli. Most of us decided to go to Villa d’este; not sure exactly who built it or when but it has a crap load of fountains and fresco paintings. So whoever built it had a lot of money and free time on their hands, because those gardens were huge.

Finally, Sunday (today). Met my parents after lunch downtown. We had tickets for a tour of the crypts and catacombs. I would have to say the catacombs were my favorite, they go over 100 feet underground and the halls go every which way, without a guide one would surely get lost. Unfortunately they do not allow pictures in the catacombs (or any of the sights we saw today)…so I definitely did NOT take ANY pictures AT ALL. (sarcasm is pretty thick here). Anywho after the catacombs we saw the San Clemente Church; which is a 12th century church built on top of a 4th century church built on top of a 2nd century church on top of a 1st century church. Yea, exactly. It was pretty epic going down through all the levels. There was even a spring running underneath the bottom level, which clued the ancient people in on the fact that there was multiple levels they forgot about. After that it was on to the “Church of Bones” and old Capuchin monk place (whatever you call those)…basically each crypt is made of a lot of bones, over 4000 monks are displayed. It was kind of creepy but also kind of cool. Another great italian dinner with the family followed…though I had a steak. There was still wine and such involved so it was still very italian.

Grandma and Grandpa leave early tomorrow morning, and then the parents leave on tuesday. It was great to see them, a good way to spilt up the semester and make it a little easier to be away from home for so long. Only 6 weeks left!!! Crap its going by fast!! London in two weeks!!! I want make the best of the time I have left…but I will be happy to go home. It’s quite a catch 22.

Sorry if this post seemed rushed and a little business like, I try to make them witty, etc. But I am quite tired….I wanted to post while the topics were fresh in my head. So I’ll end it here before I say something you all can hold against me later haha.

Ciao ciao.

Arrival in Cambodia

Arrival in Cambodia

As promised I have written about Cambodia before the week was out, but this is only a dent and not even the ‘cool stuff’ yet. Stay tuned for more!

It was Ash Wednesday and I had no ashes on my head, but I did have a plane ticket to Cambodia. I had a legitimate claim for traveler’s dispensation as there was no time for a Mass in the day’s schedule. The five of use Loyola students and Rylan sat in the terminal waiting. I rationalized in my head that Toberlone chocolate was not candy, which I had just given up for Lent, and shelled out three bucks to buy a large stick to eat before we boarded out plane, or rather the shuttle to our plane. I broke off my piece and tried to eat it before it melted in the hot Vietnamese air. The chocolate drizzled all over my nice white shirt. Evidence to all that I had already failed my Lenten goal… at any rate the sun was setting in a fiery orange ball behind the runway and was quite a beautiful sight. The announcement came on for Cambodia Angkor Air, our carrier for today and Cambodia’s national airline. We all boarded a little tram and headed out on the tarmac.
We approached a Douglas DC-3 and I got really excited because I thought we were going to fly on a plane that revolutionized transportation (I would also feel like Indiana Jones). Alas the plane belonged to the Royal Thai Airforce, and our Angkor Air plane was parked nearby. It was taller and more robust than the DC-3, being a an ATR 72. It was not a jet, but a prop airplane, so I was excited. We boarded via stairs and we all sat down in our assigned seats. Flipping through my magazine I chatted with everyone else about our upcoming trip until the engines roared to life and the propellers began to spin. I found out that the fleet size was only three planes, so I was on 1/3 of Cambodia’s air fleet. Angkor Air was Cambodia’s only airline, and only flew to three destinations: Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Siemp Reap. Can you imagine that? This country only has three planes. Can you even imagine how many planes American or any Western country operates? It blows my mind. The plane began to role and within moments we were in the air.
“We can’t be over the ocean; we are heading into Cambodia right?” I asked Rylan. “Yup” I looked out the window again. I hadn’t seen any lights in over half an hour and we were already preparing for landing. Cambodia was the darkest country I had ever seen, as there had been no lights since Saigon. Finally light came up around the capital of Phnom Penh, but it was nothing compared to Vietnam. I would come to learn later that the country relied on diesel generators and thus electricity was not as abundant as it was in neighboring countries. Upon landing we got our visas from customs (You can get a visa upon entry for 50 USD, a good deal for tourists who just want to stop by). The entire airport seemed so tiny for a capital airport, and walking outside only about five men held signs waiting for people as opposed to the hundreds outside Ho Chi Minh ciy’s airport. We met our tour guide Veeshna at the front of the airport and following him piled in the ever popular Mercedes sprinter van and was on our way to the hotel in no time. He began giving us a quick low down of Cambodian history and said, “We were first Hindu, and now we are Buddhist. Still, we are Hindu. Every Buddhist in Cambodia is also a Hindu. Not everyone will say it, but we are. We are different from Vietnam.” My ears perked up at the words spoken. I was really interested to learn more about this religion that was Buddhism on the surface but apparently retained aspects of Hinduism. More on that later. We arrived at the SunWay hotel and all of us set up in our rooms quickly and then we set off again to our dinner destination: The Titanic.
The restaurant was not a boat, but it was on the Mekong River providing a nice peaceful setting to eat under the moonlight. We ate outdoors around a large table in huge plush chairs. The food presented to us was nothing less than a feast, and I had some amock, a kind of green Cambodian curry with fish. It was delicious. I also slurped down a mango shake and munched on huge river prawn. I saw a stage nearby our table and asked over to Rylan, “Do you think we’ll see dancing while we are here? I am really interested to see some traditional Khmer dance, like the aspara.” Just as I finished my question a band playing wooden xylophones picked up and a women dressed in traditional Cambodian clothes appeared onstage and began to dance, swaying her body gently, moving her feet rhythmically, and twisting her fingers around slowly. It was very beautiful and I sat entranced as I ate my food.
Upon finishing we headed over to a bar and enjoyed some cheap beer. As time went by we saw some old beat up cars drive by with tarps lining the back of the car, the back fender sagging down, and water splashing out of the rolled up windows from time to time. How odd. We kept seeing these every few minutes and finally one of us asked a server who told us they were ‘fish cars’, which fishermen packed full of caught fish at the Cambodian coast 375 miles away and then drove to the capital of Phenom Penh inland. Crazy right? I guess whatever gets the job done. All of us raised our bottles together and said cheers to fish cars, Cambodia, and good friendship. Afterwords we got in a tuk tuk (a motorcycle pulling a kind of carriage behind it, different from the three wheeled tuk tuk/rikshas of India) and headed for the SunWay, which is located right across from the US Embassy. We all headed off the our respective rooms and I changed into my nice Cambodian sleeping robe and headed off to bed. There was a long day of touring the capital tomorrow, and I needed to get some rest.

Day Trip to Da Lat

Day Trip to Da Lat

For my religious studies class in Vietnamese Religions, Fr. Julio invited Gabe and I on a day trip to Da Lat, a city nestled in the mountains of Vietnam’s central highlands, called Tay Nguyen in Vietnamese. For our trip we would go to Da Lat’s famous Zen monastery and pagoda to get more hands on experience with Vietnamese Buddhism by talking with some of the monks there. We would also be touring the city and meeting several nursing masters students attending Loyola’s new nursing campus opening up in Vietnam as part of Loyola’s web of projects in the region. This trip had been in the plan for weeks and had been nestled between our Taku and Northern excursions. A week or so before our trip Fr. Julio opened up the possibility for the rest of the students to join us, which they gladly did. So, shortly after Vietnamese class on Friday the five of us Loyola students met Mr. Ky, Fr. Julio, and our driver outside the university gates. We all greeted each other, hopped in the Mercedes sprinter van, and headed north on our way to Da Lat.
On the way we saw may cool things. One town was filled with giant boulders. There would be a stretch of houses and then a boulder, there was a factory buil around a boulder, and one bolder even had a giant Buddha statute fixed on top of it. That was interesting. Later on we saw miles and miles of thin trees lined up perfectly and extending as far as one could see in columns on both sides of the road. Fr. Julio commented that these were trees used for rubber, and that the French had planted these huge rubber plantations centuries ago. After a stop a gas station for a quick lunch, we continued on our way.
Crossing the vast plane of rice paddies we eventually came upon a river. This river was quite remarkable because there were house boats stretching along both banks of the winding river as far as we could see. The river emanated from the highlands, which we were about to enter.
Upon entering the foothills, Mr. Ky, a devote Roman Catholic, asked Fr. Julio if we could stop at a shrine of the Madonna to pray for protection during our upcoming journey in the mountains. Fr. Julio agreed, saying it was a good idea, and just as the road began to rise and twist we found ourselves at a little roadside shrine. We pulled over to pray and have a little refreshment before the real arduous part of the journey began. I climbed up several steps to a large stone statue of Mary in the center of a large brick platform overlooking the mountain pass. I silently offered a pray to the Virgin Mary as several Vietnamese children approached waving incense sticks and placing them in a large stone urn filled with sand at the feet of the statue. This practice looked almost identical to what I have seen with prayers done I front of statues to the Buddha or bodhisattvas. I remembered a professor I had freshman year, Kim Searcy, and his quote about the spread of Islam across the globe, “Islam is like a river. It runs through many countries and although the water, the teaching, is the same, it picks up the colors, the culture and practices, of whatever country it flows through.” I smiled and thought that for sure this same ideal was true for Catholicism. I continued my prayer and then began to notice the sound of rushing water that reminded me of a certain place in northern Michigan called Roaring Brook. I grew excited, and ending my prayer, I walked past the statue and up into the hills to look for the water.
I found it in a little stream rushing down the hills. I went down to the waters edge and put my hand in the cool water down into the soft sand and then rubbed my fingers over the smooth stones. I was instantly transported to the city of Harbor Springs in northern Michigan, a place where I spend my summers. The cool air, greenery all around, and this little stream were almost identical to what I live to experience every summer.
I was summoned out of this trance when Gabe approached behind and said everybody else was getting a snack at a little shack below the shrine. So, pulling my fingers out of the water and my mind out of my memory I crossed a little arched stone bridge and approached the canteen. All of us had a simple coffee or tea and then we were back on the road, heading up winding paths that would rock from side to side with our windows filled with the reflections of the awe inspiring mountains that loomed above us.
Hours passed as we rolled by giant mountains and little towns clinging to the edge of the road and straddling cliffs and sharp plummets. Tea plantations began to pop up and the simple rolling hills and steep mountains began to be terraced, offering structure to the wilderness we had been witnessing for so long. Terraced tea hills were dotted with dark green tea plants and packed with reddish brown dirt all the way down to the valleys which were covered in bright green rice paddies. Among all this, medium green palm trees dotted the entire scene. This array of vegetation and shades of green was very pleasing to the eye.
Sunset hit us a few minutes before we hit Da Lat on the final incline. The sun set among the mountains between the summits and the clouds. The effect was quite stunning. The sky remained light blue as the burnt orange setting sun hit the puffy clouds mixing white and orange as the greenery of the mountains grew darker. It was truly a unique sunset. Finally the sun disappeared below the mountains as we rose over the final hill into Da Lat.
Beautiful. That’s all I can say. When we crossed that last hill we entered into a little European enclave in Asia. I could have mistaken Da Lat for Alpine Switzerland. Pine trees were everywhere and French colonial villas surrounded a large central lake. Thousands of houses were nestled in the slopes comprising this large bowl at the top of the mountain and church steeples were prominent among the city skyline. I was in awe.
When we reached the hotel, we were greeted by several Vietnamese attendants in parkas. Yes, PARKAS! Even I had trouble believing it when I first saw it, but didn’t after a few moments outside the van. I was wearing gym shorts and my ‘Vote for Dave’ T-shirt that tightly hugged my upper body. I began to shiver. The air was temperate by American standards, but having lived in Saigon for the past few months, my body had not experienced this kind of ‘cold’ in so long I was not used to it. “Wow, I’m shivering in Viet Nam… this is odd”, I thought to myself.
We checked into our rooms and after a little half an hour break we met in the lobby for dinner, and were met by around twelve nursing students and two doctors from Loyola’s Vietnam medical school based in Da Lat. Fr. Julio introduced all of us and we were ushered into the hotels dining room to eat a large Vietnamese feast, including a hot pot of beef, squid, and shrimp. During our conversation, a woman named Tuyet, which means snow in Vietnamese, began to tear up. A woman sitting next to her asked what was wrong, and Tuyet said that I reminded her of her son, who was also twenty because I acted like him. I smiled and she smiled. We continued our dinner and Fr. Julio clinked his wine glass with a spoon and stood up, raising a toast for this to be the first of many dinners between Vietnamese students and Loyola students studying abroad and for increased friendship between those studying through Loyola in Vietnam, and those coming from Loyola to study in Vietnam. We all raised our glasses and drank the sweet pink wine produced locally from vineyards in Da Lat. We also enjoyed the distinctive Da Lat tea, which is based on artichokes. It was a very subtle, and yet sweet flavor.
When dinner was concluded we bid the Vietnamese nursing students goodnight, Betsy headed off for bed, and all us guys headed off into the city to wish Robb a happy birthday by hopping around bars. The first bar we came upon was called ‘Why not?’ All three of us looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Why not?” while shrugging out shoulders and laughing. Upon entering and climbing upstairs we found a white floor and multicolored walls with different colored orbs. Behind the bar Disney channel was playing on TV and the DJ was playing techno that reminded Robb of German clubs. Several young Vietnamese were drinking on the balcony and we sat down for a drink inside. After our drink we head out into the city center to find a lively night market of old folks frying things on charcoal stoves, little kids playing, and people eating little fritters on the classic Vietnamese ‘kindergarten table and chairs’ that are ubiquitous across the country, all wrapped in parkas and woolen caps mind you. Some of the old women stooped over cooking reminded me of my adopted Bhutanese refugee family I work with, and the grandma Bhagi, who is always wrapped up, not used to the Chicago cold. A little boy in a baseball cap ran out and quickly rubbed my belly before asking us to have a warm milk at his families stall. We opted not to and kept going. That was the first time I had my belly rubbed. I’ve had my stomach patted by a Buddhist monk, a old woman on the street, and one of the cleaning ladies at the dormitory I am living in. I have no idea why this keeps happening. I wonder if its good luck or something, but nobody has given me an answer yet. Anyway we found our next bar and had another birthday toast to Robb, who turned 21. Not too too late we arrived home and went to bed. We had a packed day a ahead of us, and needed some sleep.
I awoke promptly at 5:30 and lay in bed until around 6 when I got up to take a shower. I dressed in clothes appropriate for a pagoda, and woke up Robb because he is notorious for sleeping in. After that I descended from the stairs to an almost empty dining room and grabbed some fried eggs, dragonfruit, pineapple, and a soft baguette. Sitting down to eat and looking out the window to the little mountain get away, I began my breakfast very content. I was soon joined by Alex who returned from his morning walked and we ate together. I sipped the local artichoke tea until we were eventually joined by our other friends in succession. Julio informed us this was a big morning for the hotel because today it was being upgraded from the rank of a two star to a three star hotel. Pretty cool huh? There were a few banners, some communist party members, photographers, and bunches of flowers. Activity picked up farther into breakfast. Eventually we all finished and packed into the van, heading off to the Zen Pagoda.
We arrived at what looked like a Japanese castle with stone walls, gates, and little buildings with the iconic sloped roof separated from each other by gardens, stone walkways, and many saffron and orange clad monks scurrying around. We entered the monastery and followed Fr. Julio to the chambers of one of the monastery’s senior monks. I never really learned his name because all of us simply called him teacher. We all greeted him with pressed palms and Fr. Julio shook hands with him. The monk was older, very lean, had a shaved head, and had a very charismatic smile that lit up quite often. We were led into a small library around a large table and were served fresh tea grown right in the monastery by a novice monk. After settling in and sipping our tea, the elder monk began his talk with a great smile. The talk went on for quite some time and he emphasized clearing our mind of distractions, being mindful of what we do, and showing the greatest compassion to others. The monk said there were three levels of compassion: 1. Realizing that there is compassion. 2. Having compassion for ourselves. 3. Sharing and outpouring unlimited and boundless compassion with the world. I wonder what stage of compassion I am at? That is a good question to ask yourself too reader… At any rate, the monk concluded his talk by offering advice to us students saying, “The most important thing now is to stop learning so much, and to actually do something.” I’m sure many students at Loyola can relate who take a full slot of classes and continuously find themselves holed up in the IC day after day studying and studying. DOING something would be a breath of fresh air. I think that study abroad is actually doing something. So Loyola students reading this: Consider Vietnam, Rome, or Beijing next fall or really any semester at Loyola you think you are ready for. See the world while you are still in school. Do something!
Anyway after the monk’s talk we went on an exclusive private tour of the monastery beyond the gates baring tourists. We were able to see private libraries stacked with books, meditation halls with giant gold Buddhas and murals of bodhisattvas, stautes of Bodhidharma abounded, and beautiful flower gardens of lotus flowers, roses, and hydrangeas among many exotic plants and bonsai trees in rock gardens following the Zen tradition. It was very peaceful as we walked around quietly, the monk smiling and using his umbrella as a cane as we paced behind him every so often asking a question. After seeing the men’s meditation hall we walked to a railing overlooking a river flowing down from the mountain and observed what the monk called ‘personal retreat centers’ which were little one room cabins spread out along the river. The monk said that these little cabins would be used by a monk for personal retreat in silence for reflection, and would be separate from the rest of the community from a few weeks up to several months. The monk then told us he once spent over three months in personal retreat. I was impressed by this. I’m not sure I would mentally be able to handle isolation for that long. Besides silent retreat, all the monks gather together for meditation at 3:30 to 5:30 AM, 2:30 to 4:30 PM, and 7:30 to 9:30 PM. Can you imagine six hour spent meditating a day. I feel like I’m lucky to get in half an hour, let alone six. The monastery life sure is different from that of a busy Loyola student.
After our private tour, Teacher let us wander around the monastery while lunch was being prepared. So we all split up and independently explored the terraced gardens, a prayer room, and the little buildings holding large gongs and Asian drums. Russian tourists and Vietnamese pilgrims were among us as we checked out the different places. I removed my shoes at the prayer room and was offered a lit incense stick by a monk so I did a little prayer. I then proceeded to the garden and smelled red flowers when Robb called everyone to eat. The meal to follow was one of the most memorable of my life.
We gathered around a table. We students sat with novice monks at one table, and several other tables were filled with other monks. We said a little prayer and then sat. Then we pressed our hands together and said another prayer. Silence followed and a monk whispered to us, “Use the chopsticks only for picking food up in your bowl from the table, do not eat with them. For that, use your spoon.” Then the monks all picked up their bowls with their right hand and with their left put their fingers into a seemingly ‘rock on’ gesture with the thumb over the two middle fingers and said another prayer. Following this prayer a little bell was rung by teacher, who changed out of the standard saffron robes and was now wearing bright yellow robes. The meal had begun. The novice monks heaped chunks of rice into our metal bowls and we all proceeded to pick up tofu, spinach, and cucumbers for ourselves with our chopsticks. We also had the best squash soup I’ve ever had. It was very zesty and full of squash and a kind of lentil. By the end of two little bowls eaten mindfully and in silence, I was full. But there was still a tray of watermelon to eat! So I grabbed my chopsticks and plopped a cube of watermelon in my bowl. There was enough melon for each person to eat a cube, so it was expected we each ate a piece. While eating my watermelon most monks poured tea into their bowls and were finishing off their meals/cleaning their bowls with the tea. I picked up the pace of my mindful eating so we all wouldn’t have to wait in silence while only I ate. I hastily (but politely Mom, incase you are reading) ate my watermelon and a few seconds after I finished the monks said another prayer breaking the long silence of only clicking chopsticks, clinking spoons, and chewing food. After the solemn melodic prayer the little bell was rung again and the monks instantly got up and began to clean the tables. They were very surprised when we offered to help. We picked up dishes and took them back into the kitchen with the myriad of smiling monks. Loyola students stood apart from the average tourists once again.
After lunch the old teacher monk wished us farewell and gave us several books on Buddhism which will be a great read I’m sure. After shared smiles and pressed palms, we departed the monastery and headed back into Da Lat proper for one more attraction before hitting the road and ending our day trip. Fr. Julio and Mr. Ky had more business to attend to, so we split paths, but not before Fr. Julio gave us some money to cover dinner and snacks for the way home. It was very nice of him and good for me since I’ve been trying to keep my spending to a minimum.
Our last pit stop before the long journey home was Da Lat’s ‘Crazy House’. Formally known as Hang Nga guesthouse and built by Dang Viet Nga it is very crazy indeed. It is five stories tall, comprising a central core house and large constructed trees and mushrooms that wrap around and go through the house. It is very bizarre with strange animals like giraffes popping out of places, ladders everywhere, little bubbled cubbies in tiny hallways, and multiple staircases going up and down in every direction. There were lots of purple flowers all over the place, and the top provided a great view of the city. It was…interesting. Not really my cup of tea, but a cool experience nonetheless. After about 45 minutes of exploring that odd place, we regrouped in the central garden and ordered coffee from a smallish log cabin covered in moss. I then had probably the worst coffee of my life. It was basically brown water. Blech. Oh well. So ended our night and half day in Da Lat! It was a crazy little adventure. Even though we really didn’t spend a whole day there, I guess I’ll call it a Day Trip.
With that we hopped back on the private bus and sped of down the mountains on our seven hour journey home. I simply laid back and watch the mountains and clouds roll by. I find myself increasingly busy in Saigon with a flurry of papers popping up, Vietnamese getting harder, scholarship deadlines to deal with, and of course volunteering on top of that. So, before I threw myself back into the craziness I simply sat and enjoyed the ride. When else do you get hours of mountain trail to enjoy?



Pumping Iron – Well – Oil Too

Pumping Iron – Well – Oil Too

Yesterday we had a surprise party for one of the girl’s 21st birthday. While we were at her house I found out that her host brother is a bodybuilder. He was big, but since he was fully clothed it was hard for me to judge just how bodybuilt he actually was.

After the party he opted to give me a ride back home in his giant hummer.

Okay – I got to go on all little tangent here just to describe this automotive beast. First of all it was massive. It probably had a clearance space of over 3 feet easily – and moreover the dude took off the step on the side of the car that makes it possible to step in without hurling yourself into the backseat (since the guy was a bodybuilder he kind of just lifted himself up with one hand and plopped in the seat). It was flashy gold, and on the back there was a bumper sticker that just read ‘Kool Kar’. The inside was like the Enterprise or something. 12-inch hi-def touchscreen that showed music videos, sunroof, LED dashboard. We asked him if he ever took the thing wadi-bashing and he was like “What? This car has too much electronics, I would never”

so yeah…it was a big car.

But while he was talking about his bodybuilding career I started to realize -Hey, this guy is no joke. He’s number one in the Middle East and Asia. I asked him if he had ever been to America and he was like “Yeah, I went first time to Ohio this month,” (I thought that was cool ’cause I’m from Ohio)

Turns out he went to the Arnold Classic in Columbus. At first I thought he meant he just went to see the exhibition but turns out he actually was in the Amateur bodybuilding competition.

Okay – tangent number two. When I asked him if he was professional or not he said no. At first I thought he was saying that he didn’t do pro because there are no drug tests and he doesn’t like steroids, but it then I found out he was saying the exact opposite. He loves doing steroids. When I asked him what his supplements were – creatine, protein, etc. – he was like “Creatine is kids stuff” So yeah, he loves himself some drugs.

Anyway, the Arnold Classic is a big deal. There’s far more money to win than at Mr. Universe and it’s almost just as prestigious. The guy got fifth place. Fifth place. That means that of all the body builders in the world, there is only a small handful that are better than this guy. And he’s in Oman. And he’s driving me home. And he’s got a big hummer. And he went to Ohio.

I wish I had known he was going to Ohio before he left – I would’ve told my Ohio State friends to cheer him on during his performance.

But yeah, his name is Ahmad Salim Saleh al-Harthi, and this is what he looks like.

Family Values

Family Values

It’s a different dynamic in Oman. Here families aren’t just the people you see during holidays – they’re basically the only people you do anything with. I found out a little while ago that all of the kids that are always running around my house are actually all cousins of my host family’s kids. Also at least 99% of the people my host dad and I hang out with are either brothers, or cousins, or uncles (sometimes the nephews are older than the uncles – which is kind of wacky). I think the only guy my host dad is friends with that isn’t from the family is a guy from Zanzibar – but they’ve worked together for years and years.

That may sound kind of impractical from an American perspective – but families in Oman aren’t like families in the States. First of all polygamy is everywhere – it’s just like a thing people do. One of my professors here has twenty – two-zero – brothers and sisters from three different mothers.

This brings me to my next point – there’s a buttload of kids here. There are three things that are everywhere in Oman. Cats, goats, and children. Half of the population here is under twenty. A conservatively small family in Oman is two sons and two daughters –  a big family in America. This leads to a huge interconnectedness between people in Oman.This is even truer in the south. When I was in Salalah last weekend, I was told that the first things Dhofaris do after meeting for the first time is establish a familial link between them. If someone wanted to meet the Sultan, the best bet would try to go through family members until he finds one who works with His Majesty.

This is, in my opinion, the leading cause of the rampant nepotism in this country. If the way people do everything relies on going through family members, why would employment or appointment be any different? Corruption is a similar story. “My nephew works under me so I will re-direct more money to his department – some of which might be skimmed off the top.” I heard a story in Salalah about how the Sultan ordered the construction of an OMR 4 million (about $12 million-ish) theatre in Dhofar. The foremen threw together a place with poured cement seats, pipes everywhere, and the foundation cracking. They spent OMR 1 million and pocketed the rest. They then sent pictures of a theatre in Kuwait to the Sultan and told him that that was what they made. The Sultan announced an unexpected trip to the grand opening of the theatre – when he got there…….stuff hit the fan.

But seriously -this kid stuff is out of control. There are three things in Oman which are just looming, inevitable problems – the depletion of oil, the (death) of His Majesty (we don’t talk about it), and the million kids which are gonna grow up soon and need jobs. It also doesn’t help that these all are happening at around the same time (even if they were 5-10 years apart that’s still pretty close). For practical purposes, Omanis just need to stop having so many kids.

Mama Vien to the Rescue

Mama Vien to the Rescue

So our program assistant, Vien, who is also Rylan’s personal assistant has become very close to us Loyola students. She is after all only twenty-two and all of us on the program are twenty or twenty-one. Its only natural that she has bonded with us. She is also a graduate of USSH, where we Loyola students and our Vietnamese roommates are studying now. Its not uncommon for her to drink beer with us, and she is in charge of our weekly Friday activities that show us different fun things to do in Saigon, but recently she has been a really big help. On Taku mountain Vien singlehandedly took care of all rooms, transportation, and food. This is a big task considering four Americans with different tastes including one vegetarian, and one observing meatless Fridays for Lent (me). She did everything effortlessly and through it all hung out with us and joined our party for Alex’s 21st birthday and watched the moon with us as it was ‘supergiant’, or whatever scientists call it, for our last night on the mountain. Due to here caring nature, we all began to call her mama Vien instead of just Vien. She seems to like the title. It is curious how this works. Back in high school at St. Xavier in Cincinnati a lot of the students including myself would call women teachers Mama. Not every woman could be called Mama. There were several teachers who were very strict, cold, or just outright not friendly. The moniker Mama never applied to them. However teachers who went above and beyond for their students and really did care about us personally always got the prefix Mama before their names. So teachers like Mrs. Thurman were rarely addressed as Mrs. Thurman, but rather as Mama Thurman. Honestly, what a great environment where students can informally address their teachers but at the same time so a lot of respect.

Ok, back from high school and into the CAMBODIAN JUNGLE! The jungle was really amazing, except for the fact Robb slashed open the space between his two smallest toes on a sharp root just sticking out of the ground (note if you are trekking in a jungle its best to avoid flip flops because they can get caught on roots and vines) and has been to the hospital several times since then for stiches and checkups. Instead of having to take a cab with crutches, Vien volunteered to take Robb on her motorbike. Vien has also driven several students to their organizations that are farther out in the city, reducing travel time on the bus at around one hour to a mere twenty minutes via motorbike. Isn’t that nice. Finally, I’ve been sick for the last few days with a fever and sore throat and have been trying to take it easy. My roommate, as he has since day one, has been there for me, but Vien has come to help too. Today she popped in my room with a big bag full of lemons to make homemade lemonade, which she says will help me feel better. I’m not sure about medicinal lemonade, but it can’t hurt to try. I really appreciate it. So if anyone is considering studying abroad, ask yourself: What program would look out for me the most? I would say the Loyola Vietnam Center. I’ve never heard of any program that gets so involved with its students. So I have to say THANKS MAMA VIEN, YOU ROCK!
(Not to worry. I’m going to write about Cambodia before the week is out. As for the Mekong Delta and other happenings. I’ll get there… eventually)



So this past weekend we went to Oman’s second city, Salalah. It’s a pretty small city, only about 150,000 or so, but it has had major significance in both the past and the present. The culture of Salalah, and the rest of the Dhofar region (the area in the south of Oman, bordering Yemen) has a culture, people, language, and climate separate from the rest of the country.

People in Salalah are taller (generally), speak Jabali (the montain language – not even a dialect of Arabic, it’s actually it’s own language), and generally see themselves as separate from the rest of the Gulf.

However, Salalah has had a major impact on world history in the form of Frankincense. The luban form of Frankincense – the real stuff – really only grows in the Dhofar region in Oman. So for thousands of years Omanis made bank by shipping the stuff to the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese, and pretty much every other culture. People couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

This also explains how Oman became known as a nation of seafarers and how they first got their feet wet (ha!) in maritime trade. Their boats, the most prominent of which is the dhow, were shipping stuff all over the world for thousands of years. The first Arab boat to dock in the United States was an Omani ship which arrived in New York in 1840.

Anyway – Dhofar. Because of this sense of separatism, along with numerous other encroaching factors (neglect from the Sultan, communist insurrection) the Dhofaris staged a rebellion during the early 1970s. The rebellion managed to be supressed by the Sultan and since then the Dhofaris have slowly become more connected with the Omani identity.

Today the Sultanate has investments massive amounts of capital into the Salalah area. The biggest is the Port of Salalah which has been successful because of its premium location. Also in Salalah is the Salalah free zone. This is located right next to the port and allows foreign companies to operate free of corporate tax. Currently the zone has only six foreign companies but there are several more on the waiting list.  However because of the massive utility requirements of these facilities progress has been slow in establishing new companies. I got a lot from the trip to Salalah, enough to possibly change my ISP topic – the proposal for which is due the day after tomorrow.

Benvenuti parenti

Benvenuti parenti

Welcome to my mother, 2 aunts, uncle and grandma and grandpa. They arrived this morning to begin their Italian vacation, and of course to see me.

Since my dad was already here, we headed over to the airport bright and early to greet the travelers. There was not a whole lot of time for chit chat as they had to head to the other airport in Rome for their flight to the Amalfi coast to visit my grandpa’s birthplace. They’ll be back in Rome on Thursday for a handful of days, so I will be doing stuff with them at that time. I’m planning on showing them the good restaurants of Rome, mainly to get a free meal but you know…a guy’s gotta eat.

To recap the last few days. Thursday was my “triumphant” return to class…I only had one class, so it was quite the easy day. Then it was the weekend, so really I got an extended Spring Break. Thursday night I went over to the hotel where my dad was, and since it was St. Patty’s day we had pre-dinner drinks at the bar and ate dinner at the attached restaurant. It was quite good…spaghetti carbonara and some antipasti.

Friday we headed back to campus, did some laundry (since he had only packed for a few days but ended up having to stay). Had lunch with Vice President Emilio Iodice and a few others. I can’t say enough good things about the staff here, they went above and beyond the call of duty and I thank them for that. That afternoon then, my dad and I headed down to the Vatican City (after waiting 40 minutes for the darn bus, I miss the CTA). I showed him the ins and outs of the VC, unfortunately the Pope was busy at the time and could not come to meet us. So we walked along the river for a ways. It was starting to get to be dinner time, so we headed back to campus. There is a very good restaurant not too far from the JFRC and we decided to eat there. Of COURSE I had suppli as my antipasti…(Quite note on suppli: If you don’t know, they are fried balls with rice and good stuff on the inside, about the size of a clementine). Mi piace molti suppli! Annd for my main dish I got a pizza with shredded radishes and gorgonzola cheese (YUM).

Saturday, was a day trip to Anzio for a little tour of a few WWII cemeteries. We saw a German and US Cemetery. The US one was a lot bigger, even though it has fewer soldiers buried there. It was a cool site, the weather was great but it’s still something to think about; a lot of good men gave their lives to make the world a better place…and what have we done with the opportunities they’ve given us? Afterwards we  ate a very good 5 course lunch. It was so much food, but it was so good…capped off with Tiramisu for dessert. The last stop of the day was a museum home to the largest collection of WWII era artifacts (Both war items and toys and such from that time period). All in all a really cool day, I learned a lot that I did not know about the fighting in Italy.

I realize that it wasn’t the most exciting weekend ever, but then I keep remembering that I’m still IN Italy, so even a boring weekend here is still pretty great.

This coming week will be good, I can feel it…hoping for NO RAIN on wednesday so we can get back out on that calcio field. But I’m really looking forward to spending time with my family this weekend. I am certain I will have exciting things to report on about that.

Only 7 weeks left here! Ahh crap…gotta stop counting down the days. I have a feeling it is going to go fast…I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Nicaraguan Treehouse Adventures

Nicaraguan Treehouse Adventures

After only receiving a 15 day visa from the immigration official in Costa Rica after my trip to Colombia I have to admit I was a little irritated with the stress of having to leave the country again in 2 weeks.  However, now I have realized that what I thought would be an inconvenient border run turned out to be a blessing in disguise and created a very memorable 3 days.

I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua after a 7 hour bus ride from Puntarenas, including 2 hours at the hot and quite unorganized border.  When I arrived in Granada I had no plans, no reservations and no expectations.  I did however have a pamphlet a friend had given me of a tree house hostel 10 km outside the city, so I jumped on a bus leaving the city, got off at the landmark and hiked up through the jungle to Poste Rojo Treehouse.  After arriving and picking out the hammock with the best view (which cost roughly $3/night to sleep in) I went to the yoga class they held during sunset.  That night I ate a communal dinner with the other backpackers and met some amazing people who were so much fun to get to know over the course of the next 3 days.  We made our own pizzas and then cooked them in an outdoor oven before feasting.

The next day I hiked up Volcan Mombacho with 2 boys and 1 girl I met at the hostel the night before.  They were part of a group who had been traveling in a communal bus around Central America for a few months now.  Basically, they had each met this bus and the driver at some point during their travels and he invited them to ride with him South letting them sleep and eat on the bus along the way.  I thought this was such a cool concept and really admire the compassion and love of travel the driver Tim had, as well as the amount of time and energy he invested to make this dream a reality for him and fellow backpackers.

The trek up the volcano was no easy task for me but after reaching the top and seeing the view of Lake Nicaragua, Isla Ometepe, and the forests that lived within the craters it was worth the pain.  Later that day we hitch hiked into Granada and went for a swim in giant Lake Nicaragua, another great reward to an exhausting day.

The next day I went to the Masaya Market located in the small town of Masaya.  This market had everything I could ask for, from fresh pineapple to handmade dresses to wooden carved table ware.  I bought a beautiful handmade floral purse, a hammock, some earrings made of turtle shells, and some head scarves.  The market was so vibrant and bargaining with the different vendors in Spanish made the experience memorable.

My last day in Nicaragua was spent exploring Granada with a Dutch boy who had worked as a film maker there for 2 months before.  It was such a relaxing day just walking around the city, sitting in the Central Park, seeing the market, eating local food from street vendors, exploring the Cathedrals, and walking along the lake.  That night after a meal of spaghetti and garlic bread at the hostel, a lot of the musically talented travelers played on the deck over looking the jungle.  It was so nice to hang out with my new friends for one last night in such a chill environment and realize that maybe fate was working in my favor.