“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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Converting to Celsius While Down Under

Sydney, Australia, January, 2010

sun and 43 version 3Wearing sunglasses and spouting sweat droplets, a bright yellow sun icon panted as it hovered over Adelaide, South Australia on the weather map. Accompanying the sun, a red numeral forty-three pulsated near one of the sweat drops. It was forty-three degrees Celsius to be precise.

“That sounds a bit high, doesn’t it, honey?” I asked my husband, Kurt, as we watched the weather report for Australia in our efficiently air-conditioned Manly Beach hotel room and spotted the high slated for Adelaide, the next day, January 13, the day we would arrive in the city that would be our home for the next year. The temperatures in Sydney for the past few days had been in the mid to high 20s Celsius.

Glasers on the ferry

“Yeah. That does seem pretty high,” Kurt turned down the volume on the TV and looked at me with a furrowed brow. “What is the conversion on that? What did that guy on the Manly ferry tell us? You double the number and add thirty?”

“That can’t be right,” I said, thinking back to an Australian man whom we had met on our way from Manly Beach to the Sydney Harbour. In addition to helpfully telling us how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, he told me he worked at a “flare” shop in Melbourne. It took me a minute, after marveling that an entire shop could be devoted to flares and perhaps it was a somewhat hazardous enterprise, to realize that the guy was really saying “flower shop.”

“That makes 43 degrees turn into,” I closed my eyes and did the math. “116 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s Libya we’re talking about or Death Valley,” I said while trying to shove newly purchased Aussie flag emblazoned souvenirs into our already overflowing suitcases.

Frankly, I was more concerned about how many pounds, or rather, kilos the suitcases weighed than the conversion to what seemed to be an impossible temperature.  “It’s been so perfect here in Sydney. Does it even get that hot in Australia — except maybe in the Outback?”

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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

I’d like to make a toast to a post

Book cover Travelers' TalesAs always, when you attend a conference and fill out various forms, you eventually end up on several e-mail and newsletter lists. I went to a travel writing conference in August 2014, so when I opened an e-mail this past October and first scanned it, I thought it was a solicitation to pre-order The Best Travel Writing vol. 10 published by Travelers’ Tales. But then I read the message again and again. 

Dear Stephanie,

We are interested in including your story in our forthcoming book, The Best Travel Writing Volume 10, edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly, to be published in January of 2015.

Enclosed is a copy of a release. If you agree with the terms, please print two copies, then sign and return both copies to me (via email or snail mail). A countersigned copy will be returned to you with your check upon publication.,,,,,

The published book finally came in the mail this month, and I just held it in my hands for several minutes, looking at the front and back covers before I even cracked it open to find my story. I have to say that I had submitted “I Have a Problem with the Blood of a Woman” to a few different publications both print and online a few years ago. And it was rejected each time. So I posted it on Travel Oops back in April, 2013. The response was positive, and it motivated me to submit the story to Travelers’ Tales.

My story

I’m ecstatic to have the story included in the Best Travel Writing anthology. In fact, I thought I might jinx things by talking about it much before I actually saw my story in print. It’s now in print and I’d like to raise a glass to the Word Press Community, travel and my original post. Thank you!

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Taken down by Toddler

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

January 13, 2015; Chaffee County, Colorado

Steph, MRI looks pretty bad, see attached. We will do referral to ortho. Keep icing, elevated. Might do better on crutches if you are not already as there is a bone contusion.

This is the e-mail message I received recently from my doctor, Matt, who typically makes me feel neurotic during my regular checkups or my kids’ checkups. In his laid back way, he’ll look at me quizzically and say things like:

— “You have constant headaches? Try drinking more water.”

— “This is some type of viral condition, and it really just needs to run its course.”

— “Sometimes kids throw up for no real medical reason.” — “Yeah, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

My MRI results. I still don't really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it's not because it's completely torn.

My MRI results. I still don’t really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it’s not because it’s completely torn.

He’s a very good doctor and has a great sense of humor, but sometimes you feel like a hypochondriac when you leave his office. So the phrase “looks pretty bad,” in his e-mail, indeed, alarmed me. Then I looked at the MRI results of my knee, which stated I had….

  • a complete anterior cruciate ligament tear
  • a tear in the posterior horn of the medial meniscus
  • a bone contusion along the posterior lateral tibial plateau
  • a strain of the lateral collateral ligament

Whoa!! A bone contusion? (which is really just a bruise) That sounds hard core. And all that resulted from a fall on a ski run named…Toddler?

December 2014, Monarch Mountain, Colorado

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting....

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting….

On Toddler: A nine-year-old swooshed past me spraying a little glaze of powder as I laid in the snow on my back with my legs up in the air, boots and skis still attached. The little twinge I felt in my left knee moments earlier after I landed was not a welcome sensation. I had done something to it. And next, I did what most other skiers who had only made one run of the day would do. I got up, skied down leaning on my right leg and went right back into the chair lift line. 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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Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

Steph doing a shot

Northern Vietnam, near Sapa: May 2014

Sitting in a Hmong living room in remote Northern Vietnam with ten other freshly showered tourists doing shots of rice wine while cellphones charged and Eminem blasted from iPod speakers on the shelf above a cooler containing multiple cans of Coca Cola, bottles of Aquafina and six packs of Tiger beer, I wasn’t sure I could call the scenario a “homestay.”

The idea of a homestay, of course, is to stay with locals to get an idea of their culture and lifestyle. In all fairness, the Hmong family who owned the home was with us. Sa and Hang sat with ramrod straight posture and their one-month-old baby in chairs a bit away from the dinner table, which had become the station for drinking games. Crouched in a fairly well lit corner of the large open room, their 10-year-old daughter did homework by using a plastic chair as a desk.

Her long ponytail flitted back and forth as she divided her attention between her workbook and her answer sheet. Meanwhile, two of the tourists, César, a twenty-something Frenchman who wore a jaunty fedora, and Londoner Richard, otherwise known as “Trini” since he was born in Trinidad, fashioned a plastic two-liter 7-up bottle into a makeshift bong. They resorted to smoking pot since our Li, our 4’ 8” no nonsense Hmong guide – or rather, her elderly mother — couldn’t hook them up with the opium they had requested earlier on the 15 kilometer trek we all took to get here.

water buffalo hub

First Impression: Homestay or Hostel?

I’m not going to lie. After emerging Deet and sweat soaked from the bamboo lined dirt path that wound around multiple coliseums of mountainous rice terraces and intersected with water buffalo hubs, I was surprised, yes, but ultimately, relieved when I first saw a tiled bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and shower near the entrance of the Hmong home we had finally reached.

front area with bathroom

The bathroom opened to a cement patio that extended in the front of the house with several plastic chairs and stools like the kind found on most sidewalks of Vietnam’s cities. The interior of the house offered a dorm-like setup with an open communal space and a ladder leading up to a loft full of wooden bunk beds. Several electrical outlets lined the walls and the fully stocked cooler featured a beer sticker, resembling Pabst Blue Ribbon, emblazoned on the side. Clearly the home had been modified to accommodate several guests who leaned toward Western tastes.

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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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