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Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Road


Hello from Koh Phangan, Thailand!  I feel like I ought to revise the name of my blog since it’s going to be more of a travel blog now – in the last two weeks I’ve been to three countries on three different continents and I’m just getting started!  Unfortunately I’ve also realized that it’s a lot easier to blog about my experiences when I’m sitting at site with nothing to do than it is when I’m moving around, even considering my vastly improved internet access.  It’ll be quick, sporadic updates from here on out.  But that’s better than nothing, right?

Our first stop was Cape Town, South Africa.  Leaving the airport, the first thing I noticed was the juxtaposition of the townships and slightly wealthier neighborhoods.  There would be a block or two of shanties made of old sheet metal with laundry lines strung between them and then the next block would look like an American suburb.  Once we were in Cape Town, the townships disappeared from view altogether and it started to feel disturbingly like home.  There were grocery stores and 7-Elevens and people walking dogs and jogging along the beach.  It was completely surreal.

I bought a variant on Raisin Bran and some nonfat milk at the Pick n’ Pay and lived out my dreams of having cold cereal for breakfast.  I think that was my single best moment in Cape Town.  Not Table Mountain, not the Red Bus tour, not the wine tour, not even running along the waterfront at sunrise.  Cape Point was a close second, but nothing beat having cold cereal for breakfast.

Our next stop after Cape Town was Bangkok, but in-between we had a 20-hour layover in Istanbul.  Rather than staying in the airport, we decided to venture out into the city and meet up with a couple of other RPCVs.  Istanbul was, in a word, enchanting.  Damp and cold and gray, but enchanting nonetheless.  We saw the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, explored a massive bazaar and ate some delicious baklava.  I also entered a Starbucks for the first time in two years and had my first bout of culture shock since Cape Town.  Then we returned to the airport and passed out for a few hours before boarding our plane to Bangkok.

Smells are important.  Every place we’ve gone to, I’ve had a distinctive smell-based first impression.  Cape Town smelled like the ocean.  Istanbul smelled sweetly like smoke.  Bangkok has a faint ginger-garlic smell that permeates everything, even the airport.  When we arrived the sweltering heat and humidity came as a shock, not least because they air-condition the heck out of the airport and the trains and basically every indoor place.  When you step out of the train into the street the temperature differential makes your head spin.  But heat and humidity aside, I love Bangkok.  Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly and helpful, even the cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers.  And the street food is amazing.  There’s phad thai and seafood and miscellaneous fried delicacies and iced coffee and juice and all kinds of fresh fruit sold in little plastic bags.  Coming from Rwanda where there’s no street food whatsoever – and Cape Town, where there really isn’t any street food either, and Istanbul, where the only street food I saw was donuts and baklava – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  We tried phad thai in four different places and the best we had was the phad thai we bought from a street vendor on Khao San Road.

We only spent a day and a half in Bangkok before heading to Koh Phangan, an island off the southeastern coast of Thailand.  I could’ve spent ages in Bangkok but we wanted to get to Koh Phangan in time for the Full Moon Party.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Full Moon Party is a massive beach party created by and for tourists.  I think it started with some hippies proclaiming that Koh Phangan is the best place to watch the full moon rise over the ocean and steadily evolved into what it is now, thousands of people from all over the world covering themselves in blacklight paint, drinking buckets of booze (literally buckets, they sell cocktails in buckets) and dancing on a beach until the sun comes up.  We went with some people we met at our hostel and had an amazing time that, frankly, I’m still recovering from.

So now I’m here.  In some ways I haven’t quite processed the fact that I’m no longer in Rwanda.  Cape Town made me homesick for my village, but here on Koh Phangan, with the rainforest backdrop and locals zipping around on motor scooters, I don’t feel completely out of place.  It worries me that when homesickness does hit me, it isn’t homesickness for America.  But I’ll deal with that later – for now, the sun is setting over the beach and I have a Thai curry craving that needs to be satisfied.

‘Til next time.

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