Past the halfway point!
Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
53Trip End Oct 17, 2008
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When I landed at LAX yesterday I couldn't help but wonder if most of the Australians on board were visiting the US for the first time. I wondered what their first impressions of the place would be and if they would judge the whole country on what they saw at LAX and Los Angeles. I sure hoped they wouldn't think we all live like a Beverly Hills or Hollywood celebrity since this a huge and diverse land. But think about it, these are the tourist places they will most likely see and form their judgment. I couldn't help but wonder if what they see on American tv will be reinforced as well if they stay on the tourist circuit.
So I got to thinking about my own experiences landing at airports for the first time and that I need to be careful not to do the same thing about all the stops on my own trip. I have to constantly remember that what you see in a day does not a country make and I do hope everyone on that Qantas flight remembers that about our home here. For sure in some places all I saw were the big sites like in Buenos Aires so I know I missed out on the real soul of the city. What I relay to you might be a totally different description of what a Porteno (resident of that city) might give.
With that in mind I always do try to go off the beaten path wherever feasible (probably best to avoid the crime ridden shanty towns in Cape Town though) to get a taste of the local flavor and it's easy in places like NYC. An all day subway pass and some good shoes and you are all set to go for some awesome exploration away from Manhattan and the throngs of visitors. Other places like Siem Reap are more elusive and it requires peddling a bike all day under a blazing sun to get past the tourist sites and into small villages and rice paddies complete with water buffalo where time froze long ago.
Some of my stops I could see the entire place in a day like tiny Bahrain or Dubai so I think it's safe to assume what you see (on the surface) is what you get. Ten miles do not make much of a difference in terms of landscape or people in Bahrain, but in the other places where the geography is vast or the cultures many like in Australia and India, I have to just remember what I saw was just a quick glimpse that barely scratches the surface.
All of the countries I've visited so far are new to me except Argentina, South Africa and a Malaysian city on the Singapore border called Johor Bahru. Since most of these places were like clean slates for my imagination, I have made some first impressions that I want to pass on to you at this halfway point:
Amman, Jordan - Yes, cracked and crumbling buildings replete with missing windows in faraway parts of the world do actually house real people.
Dubai - Skyscrapers and glitz rising out of holes where once was just sand totally scream take a look at me, but when I did I found there's nothing there but steel and glass. It's like having the beauty but no brains to balance it out. Driving around here in constant frustration caused a huge waste of cursewords and f bombs, too.
Kuwait - How do people live in a sweltering sauna with 122 degrees with 90% humidity? I don't know but they seem to manage. It was like a game to see how long I could stand outside before cracking a sweat. I think 10 seconds was the record.
Manama, Bahrain - There were so many people from India and Bangladesh I had a hard time remembering I was in the Middle East. The call of the muezzins for prayer from the mosques and constant reminders of Ramadan snapped me back to reality quickly though.
Delhi, India - This city was a simmering stew of urban squalor and odors I hope shall never again pass through my eyes and up my nose as long as I travel this Earth. I can still taste the place in my mind.
Bangkok, Thailand - Temples with so much colorful ornamentation it borders on the tacky and absurd. I take that back...it doesn't border on the tacky, it surpasses it in the best way possible and it is awesome to see. You have to love a guy named Buddha who loves it so big, bright and colorful.
Siem Reap, Cambodia - Having an ancient temple complex that is still holy and used by some was a first indication to me that traditions may still run deep here and I found it to be true. I saw green rice paddies still tended to by hand and animals still being used for their intended purpose...field work and pulling carts.
Vientiane, Laos - Time here moves about as slowly as the lazy Mekong River flowing right past it. It's so laid back and quiet you can't help but love it. It invited me to just slow down, grab a table and savor food that is as colorful and well spiced as my general experience in this great place.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - I found it to be like Atlanta, a place devoid of any real soul that tries to show off to the world. They tore down the past and shoved it deep into the recesses of their memories so all that is left are anywhere in the world skyscrapers, subways, and freeways (minus the amazing Petronas Towers of course).
Gold Coast, Australia - Outdoor paradise with amazing beaches in the morning and lush mountains that afternoon. And you just want to listen to the people here talk since they have the coolest accents on earth.
Getting past those first impressions was an elusive and futile exercise in some places like Delhi where it was a full on daily assault to every sense my body has. I think the place made me discover new bodily senses I didn't even know existed either, like the fact that the filth that pervades life here seems to cause even your skin to taste it. Try as you might in vain to find some small thing that shakes this impression and you come up short. When you see beggars and animals sleeping in the dirt airport parking lot on arrival, be warned it's going to be a tough sell once you get into the city.
In other places like the Gold Coast I hoped I would never discover something to contradict my first impression and I didn't leave disappointed. Unlike in Cape Town where you need to be careful where you turn because what's behind door number three could get you carjacked, the Gold Coast has no wrong turns. Just when you thought it couldn't get any prettier, your senses are overloaded with an even better view.
Some places I had a preconceived conception of how it should look and was totally blown away that I could be so wrong like in Amman, Jordan. I think I was expecting it to look like a Mediterranean place like you would find in Greece, Lebanon or somewhere else in this corner of the world. Instead it was miles of crumbling buildings missing the glass windows in many cases and I kept waiting to see the "nice" part. That part never came but the city was nonetheless a fascinating glimpse into "big city" Middle Eastern life. Also scratch a little deeper and you find Petra with it's impressive ancient ruins beyond the hustle of Amman.
I will keep this all in mind as I explore more familiar territory in Europe. As always I will try to get off the tourist trail and let you know what I can dig up.
I am excited to see Paris and wonder what Ramadan in Tunisa holds in store for me. I will see you first in Paris though.