Travel Scoops: Mongolian yak dung and cheese curds in Denver Colorado

Denver, CO, USA, May 2015

I’m learning to appreciate the smell of yak dung, which, evidently, is bluish in color and quite prevalent in Western Mongolia. After Baja encircles me with one of her arms and passes a receptacle of burning dung dust around my waist three times, she then waves toward my face wafts of the incense-like curling smoke, which actually smell more like pot than poop. It is all part of a Mongolian purifying ritual.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

“We do this every morning,” says Tsogo, Baja’s artist husband whom I have come to interview for a story about his art and the burgeoning Mongolian community living in Denver, Colorado. “Before we go to work — just going to morning,” the affable artist says while gesturing widely with his arms outstretched. “Smile and the whole day is good.” He points to both corners of his broad grin that prompts his deep dimples.

The dung certainly stimulates one’s senses. I enlist my seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, for a cleansing. After all, I brought her along with me to meet the Majids and experience a taste of Mongolian culture in Colorado.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain state is home to more than 2,000 people of Mongolian heritage. Mongolian immigrants chose Denver as one of the first US destinations in which to settle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It started with an engineering student who came to study at Colorado School of Mines in 1989 and now Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, is a sister city to Denver. The two, both classified as “mile high cities” due to their elevations at more than 5,000 ft., share many similarities, including climate and terrain.

Photo by: Sheila Sund; https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_sund/

Denver, Colorado. Photo by: Sheila Sund; https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_sund/

Photo by: Francisco Anzola; https://www.flickr.com/photos/fran001/

Ulaanbaatar. Photo by: Francisco Anzola; https://www.flickr.com/photos/fran001/

It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Tsogo and his wife, Baja, decided to leave an economically depressed Mongolia that Colorado registered on their radar. First Tsogo checked out San Francisco, which he did not particularly like, “Too many people in one city,” he maintains. “Then my sister’s son was in Colorado and he said, ‘Tsogo, come to Denver — it’s just like Mongolia.’”

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“We’re with the Princesses”

legong dancers gazing outUbud, Bali, August 2010

disney-blondes-disney-princess-16232127-500-280

Balinese dancers blow Disney princesses out of the water — and I’m not just talking about the Island of the God’s own Indian Ocean. It’s any body of water. No question. I didn’t even have to look at the reaction of my three-year-old daughter Kasey, who before the Legong dance performance began, was partial to the blonde contingency of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel  and Cinderella.

dancers in unison

My own eyes confirmed that Balinese dancers reigned supreme as we watched them flex their fingers backward, snap their fans, jerk their heads to the side and slide their bare feet at 90 degree angles across the stage in slow-mo unison — not to mention, the Balinese “princesses” displayed more gold than the Magic Kingdom’s reserves. 

more gamelanThe striking sound of the gamelan, a collection of Indonesian percussion instruments, amped up the dramatic presentation. It sounded a bit like an ensemble consisting of a hard core heavy metal xylophone, steel drum and reedy flute. The xylophone, or metallophone, when struck by the musicians’ mallets, prompted the hairs to rise on the back of my neck.

Meanwhile, the dancers’ movements transfixed Kasey and my five-year-old son, Eddie, in addition to securing a second wind for them. Even Kurt, my husband who wasn’t always as exuberant about all the cultural activities I dragged him to see, sat ramrod straight with focus. At the very least, the dancers distracted us from the heinous humidity that still hovered in the stagnant August evening air.

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Trying to hammer out the details about nails in Vietnam

nail outletHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam; May 2014

“Aren’t the Vietnamese supposed to be completely repulsed by feet?” I asked more myself than my friend Debbie as we wandered down what seemed to be an alley exclusively designated for foot and leg massage outlets in Saigon.

If there was any revulsion, these shopkeepers hid it well with neon signs promoting “foot care,” charts of podiatry pressure points, photos of glistening legs getting the royal oiled treatment and pretty Vietnamese girls in flirty cocktail dresses and stiletto heels handing out discount flyers.

“Well, since they’re not grossed out, do you want to get a foot massage?” Deb asked, shrugging her shoulders.

She clearly wasn’t as upset by the reality that was displayed in front of us on a sign showing a woman’s hand loofahing a customer’s foot, soaking in a golden bowl with lotus flowers floating and swirling around the pampered appendage. lotus flower This bit of news that the Vietnamese not only handle feet, but also that they apparently use their sacred lotus flower petals to caress bunions, corns and fungal colonies was troubling.

I had come, partially, to Vietnam as a travel journalist, exploring stories like American Vietnam War vets who return to Vietnam, propaganda art from the war and the burgeoning nail salon industry.

The nail business angle was a follow up to a story I had done that covered the Vietnamese American domination of the US nail salons. Almost half of all nail technicians in the $7.5 billion dollar American nail salon industry are of Vietnamese heritage. In California, the number is 80 percent. This fascinated me. I thought perhaps tending to toes and fingers was an ancient tradition in Vietnam much like acupuncture in China. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story came straight out of Hollywood or at least it had a Hollywood connection. Continue reading

Travel Scoops — Who wants truth in advertising? Australians: “yes”; Americans: “maybe not so much”

Homebaked, fresh bread -- a must for Vegemite

Concentrated yeast extract: aka. Vegemite.

Steph’s note: I’d like to introduce a new feature, “Travel Scoops,” in which I will highlight travel observations, interviews, news and finds. 

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How do cage eggs, scones topped with clotted cream, toast spread with concentrated yeast extract and coffee pressed by a plunger sound for breakfast? To an American, these items sound more like a line-up rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. Many Australians, however, gladly consume these products at “brekkie.” In fact, they may even flashback to childhood while eating some of these comfort foods.

french press with plunger

A French Press.

USA: Glam it up

Americans, instead, go for “farm fresh eggs,” “scones with “Devonshire cream,” and coffee made in a “French Press.” Forget the concentrated yeast extract (Vegemite) altogether. Americans, who, occasionally, are accused of being superficial, want products to have pleasing connotations. Remember, we’re talking about a country where the government has referred to torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and sports organizations admit that athletes use “performance enhancing drugs” rather than steroids. We definitely like things enhanced — or at least glammed up a little. I once worked for a temporary agency that offered me a “paper manipulation” gig. You mean filing?

Dumb ways to Die poster

Australia: Tell it like it is.

Recently, while living in Australia for one year as an exchange teacher, I noticed Australians, on the other hand, are direct and straightforward. They don’t sugar coat anything. After all, this is a nation that labelled Vegemite, its favorite spread, as “concentrated yeast extract;” created boots called “Uggs;” named a popular discount retail outlet, “The Reject Shop;” and promoted train safety with the hugely successful public service campaign dubbed, “Dumb Ways to Die.”

You are what you market.

Essentially, the product names and the marketing messages of a specific country tell us quite a bit about that nation’s personality. In fact, marketing, in general, reflects the tastes, attitudes and values of a nation’s citizens.

For example, since Australians are typically direct and, of course, “no worries,” those character traits influence their marketing strategies. “Australians tell it like it is, and we don’t stand for bullshit,” says my Aussie friend, Amy Frazier, who is a photographer and language arts teacher. “We don’t beat around the bush.” 

toilet

Australia: Time to use the “toilet.”

Straightforward communication is just part of life in Australia where, daily, I heard newscasters announcing which streets were hosting active speed cameras. “Take it easy driving on Cheltenham Parade today. The cameras are on.” Public Service Announcements warning about flu season show snot and mucus spraying full on from convulsing noses and contorted mouths. Additionally, in public places, people ask to use the “toilet” rather than the “bathroom” or “restroom.”

USA: “Toilet” = TMI

While Americans appreciate the truth, we also cringe with too much information. When I taught high school in Adelaide, I was somewhat stunned the first time a student said: “Excuse me, Miss, I need to use the toilet.” Whoa, I don’t really need specific details. For Americans, “toilet” already is implied in “bathroom.” On the contrary, according to Scott Hill, another one of my Australian teacher friends, “When some of my kids say, ‘Can I go to the bathroom,’ I say, ‘What? Are you going to have a shower?”

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On an Ao Dai High: Part II

Loan's stall

This story is a continuation of “On an Ao Dai High in Saigon,” and some of the information is repeated for clarity in the new version. 

Hoi An, Vietnam, May 2014 

In a frilly, white top, tight jeans and slip-on kitten heels, Loan hoisted her tiny self up on to a worn wooden shelving unit in her tailoring stall, No. 7 “Cloth Shop.” Like a librarian on a sliding ladder, searching a dusty floor-to-ceiling bookcase, her hands moved from shelf to shelf pulling various reams of silk and cotton fabrics. After lowering herself down like a gymnast, she showed me the selections for closer inspection. Easily a few feet taller than Loan, I felt oafish — like a 1980s burly and brutish East German swimmer named Helga. I doubted whether her Vietnamese measuring tape would even have enough units to assess my broad shoulders.

Loan measruing my biceps

I am Helga. Hear me roar!

Loan whipped out her measuring tape and, surely, released more of the white tailoring strip than was usually necessary. While lifting my arms straight out, I scanned the interior of the Hoi An marketplace, which was crammed with tailoring stalls like Loan’s, a food court and several souvenir stands with lanterns, fans, conical hats, trinkets and inflatable toys. Bored shopkeepers sat on plastic stools, playing cards. Their laughing children instigated a game of tag in the tight confines. A grungy backpacker couple in the tailoring stall next to Loan’s spoke to each other in German while holding a rather shapeless linen dress. The German man, in a grimy, ripped tank top, haggled in English with the Vietnamese tailor over the price of the linen garment.

Meanwhile, Loan gently wrapped the measuring tape around my damp neck, which glistened with a permanent necklace of perspiration. The day had been heinously humid, and I wondered how Vietnamese women could even bear to wear an ao dai, the beautiful traditional high collared, fitted tunic dress with side slits that is sported over silk trousers. The heat, however, would not deter me. I had come to Loan specifically for an ao dai.

But, somehow, I thought a fitting for the elegant dress that symbolized Vietnam and was emblazoned on everything from keychains and magnets to lovely embroidered wall hangings would be more…glamorous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

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The Travel Ahh….The Phenomenal Conical

I think this woman felt bad that I was such a sucker, so she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

At Marble Mountain, near Danang, this woman sold me two packets of incense for five dollars. I didn’t even bargain with her.  Feeling sorry for me that I was such a sucker, she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

On my recent trip to Vietnam, it was a thrill every time I spotted someone wearing a Nón Lá, the traditional conical hat made out of palm leaves and a prevalent symbol of Vietnam. And, after sporting one in both heinous heat and pouring rain, I soon discovered it is the ultimate all-weather hat. Not much has changed with its design over the centuries. Nothing is more effective than combatting the blistering Southeast Asian sun and tropical monsoons. Here are some photos I took of the phenomenal conical.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Hoi An

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Using “the force” to cross the street and yielding to Yoda in Vietnam

Line up of scooters

Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014

Ever so cautiously, I put a flip-flop anchored toe in the crosswalk, but yanked it out immediately. It wasn’t time. Instead, I stood, watching the motorscooters swerve in tumultuous tentacles, some revving up the wrong side of the street or even up on the sidewalk itself. As the riders whizzed by, I could’ve easily reached out and pulled down the ever-present facemasks that many of the commuters wore to ward off pollution and the sun. They were that close. So, when is the right time to cross the streets in Saigon?

Starbucks on the corner

During my first few jetlagged hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to leave my hotel on a mini expedition to find a cup of coffee — never mind that a Starbucks was just across the street. I saw a few promising mom and pop shops, but like Starbucks, they were located on the other side of the death zone. I knew what I had to do.

And it wasn’t jaywalking. I don’t do it. It doesn’t even happen in the small Colorado mountain town where I live. My lack of daring may stem from being the subject of a Teutonic tirade in East Germany. It was during the Cold War and a crumpled old man in a long wool coat and furry hat berated my college friends and me in angry German for crossing a completely empty intersection against a red light. He even shook his cane at us.

The crazy wiring of HCMC

The crazy wiring of HCMC

A traffic light existed at the main intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du. But after a few minutes of studying the patterns of traffic, I decided the free-for-all of cars, motorscooters, buses and taxis was as much of a twisted, webbed cluster as the intertwined telephone and cable wires that gathered, looped and tangled on the city’s telephone poles located along street corners.

Finally another pedestrian came along as the light turned green. Following in synch with the local, I proceeded. Jerking about while looking right and left at traffic, I flinched as scooters beeped at me and came dangerously close to toppling over my nearly paralyzed body.

I don’t know how, but I made it across the street. The caffeine I had so desperately wanted wasn’t necessary anymore. Surging adrenalin took care of that, and made me more alert than any jolt of java could.

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On an Ao Dai High in Saigon

beautiful woman in Ao Dai

beautiful ao dai woman 1960ishShe was stunning. And, for all practical purposes, I was stalking her. Moving past a lineup of tarnished, stationary yet imposing tanks and helicopters leftover from the Vietnam War, the woman wore a long sleeved neon yellow tunic dress fitted over flowing white trousers that barely revealed the tops of pointy kitten heeled shoes. Although in full 2014 vibrant color, she looked like she came straight from a black and white photo shoot for a 1960s Life magazine pictorial of Saigon.

This was my first up-close sighting of a woman wearing an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional, elegant high-collared dress with slits up the sides that is typically worn with silk pants.

tank

In the courtyard of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants museum, I first pretended to be examining a tank, US Army 09A78969, and then moved closer to a wall displaying bold primary colored propaganda posters. I scrutinized one featuring Ho Chi Minh as if I was completely literate in Vietnamese. Really, I was just working up the nerve to ask the woman in the ao dai for a photo.

She was standing with a man who wore a polo shirt, khakis and had a camera dangling from his neck. Since we were at a museum, I assumed he was a tourist and the woman was possibly his guide — especially since she gestured toward the tank while she talked to the polo man. In a quiet moment, I finally approached her and asked if she spoke English.

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Being Followed by a CaoDai Deputy

Slapping a closed silk fan into his outstretched palm, a slight, elderly CaoDai devotee wearing a white tunic, white trousers and sporting a low, jaunty black turban, fires off loud Vietnamese to Binh, our interpreter and tour guide. The devotee follows us as we pad barefooted through the sanctuary of the largest CaoDai temple in the world, located in Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province.

According to Binh, who occasionally glances up from reading the CaoDai reference book I brought from the US, the old man is with temple security. He wears a yellow, blue and red striped armband (oddly resembling the Colombian flag), which indicates his position. The CaoDai bouncer continues his lecture as he walks with us, making a whapping sound every time he bangs the fan into his hand.

I’m fairly certain my friend, Debbie, and I have upset him. It could have been the photos we took earlier of worshippers kneeling and holding their bent arms in a triangular formation with their hands clasped together at their foreheads.

The trippy temple.

It’s tempting to document everything in the “Holy See,” the headquarters of CaoDai, a blended religion that incorporates primary tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to University of Southern California anthropologist and CaoDai scholar, Janet Hoskins, the syncretistic sect attracts more than six million followers worldwide.

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Scarves, Somali Tea and the Polar Vortex

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso reaches around my neck to reposition a fringed end of the gold trimmed navy scarf that she picked out for me. The scarf, made of soft cotton, feels surprisingly heavy after she wraps, rolls and tucks the material into place just above the collar of my puffy black winter jacket.

Standing back with her hands on her hips to assess, and in her own vibrant fuchsia and gold print headscarf, she squints. It’s not quite right. Shamso leans in and gently tugs at the fabric above my forehead. She nods, smiles and says something in Somali to Maryan, who also seems to approve of my new East African look.

I'm flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

I’m flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

When I suggest a photo with the two women I have just met, Shamso reaches in her pocket, whips out her iPhone, holds it out with one hand and then snaps a few photos while we smile and lean in together with a backdrop of fluorescent light panels and the vibrant inventory of shopping stall 137, which includes hanging scarves, as well as neon animal, striped and floral print gowns, skirts and leggings.

It’s an “I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony” moment, and I’m on a giddy global high. About 30 minutes earlier, I had trudged with my dad through the sloppy, tire-churned-up Uptown snow toward Suuqa Karmel, a Somali market in Minneapolis. The powder blue concrete complex with colorful murals of dessert scenes, including a camel caravan and palm trees, definitely seems out of place since snow banks jut up from the sidewalk leading to the entrance.

Suuga Karmel

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