Friday, August 14, 2009

Volunteer turned Tourist

As soon as I arrived in Hanoi, I was off to mini rock islands. Kyan's volunteer group (VIA) had bought a one night tour package to Halong Bay. We were to sleep on a boat and the cost would be $40.

The American dollar no longer has any meaning for me. I no longer understand the worth of dollars. Living abroad has totally warped my idea of what a $1 can buy.

I expected broken down buses to drive us to the boat. I expected the boat to be a big ugly piece of junk, big sails, and gross toilets. They'd probably give us bamboo mats as beds to lie upon the deck at night. There would probably be no shade except for a big blue tarp over an area of the most uncomfortable wooden benches. I had no idea how we'd get food, stranded on a boat. Maybe we would stock up at little stores before boarding. That's what we do when taking an overnight train. I imagined a primitive experience, one a little better than Africa. Maybe there wouldn't be any livestock that we'd have to share sleeping quarters with.

Instead $40 bought us a posh trip, not the most luxurious for those with money but extremely luxurious for this Peace Corps volunteer who has been roughing it for the past 3 years.

The four hour bus ride was air conditioned and they even had 1 bathroom break. I have never been on a 4 hour bus trip with a bathroom break. In this extremely touristy area we stopped at a tourist trap full of over-priced food and souvenirs, a place full of foreigners, so I guess it really wasn't a bathroom break, but a separate you from your money break.

At the dock we boarded a fancy boat that was on the border of being run down; however, it was still pretty luxurious. There was a dining cabin with fans blowing and a 5 course meal waiting for us. I was still uncertain though, assuming the worse, but every assumption that I had about roughing it was dashed. There were western toilets. There were even cabins with 2 beds, a fan, plus an air conditioner, and a private bathroom. The next surprise were two tour stops that were free. We got to see some caves and rock formations and then got to go kayaking.

It wasn't all luxurious. We slept upstairs on the top deck under the stars and in the salty air coz the sleeping cabin stank. Even with stinky rooms and roaches, I felt like I had moved from being poor to being one of the rich and famous.

When we got back to shore they tried to stuff 25 people onto a bus. It felt very African; however, even though there were 25 seats there was not enough room. Foreigners pack bags the size of middle school students. The tour guide was trying to separate a father from his family. Kyan and I jumped off and gave up our seats. Traveling abroad one learns that everything will work out. Even in a city full of tour scams and broken contracts, we didn't get cheated when we left our tour group and our receipt, the only evidence of payment behind. We arrived safely back at the hotel, 30 minute tour trap bathroom break included.

I came to the conclusion that living the lifestyle of the rich and famous is nice but not really for me. Give me a map and good walking shoes. That is the type of tourist I am. I prefer experiencing local color rather than buying a luxurious western experience to see some famous site.

Pictures taken by Kyan. (My camera is broken.)

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