I was looking back through my journal from Thailand, where I studied abroad last year, and realized that towards the end I got extremely lax about writing. So, I’m putting this down before I forget all of it.
After Thailand, I traveled with a friend to Vietnam and Cambodia. Our last stop took us to Halong Bay, Vietnam. Hundreds of small islands, covered in bright green foliage, jut out of the bay. It’s a gorgeous spot. Which, of course, means that tourists descend upon it en masse. Nearly every one of those tourists travels the bay on a two day boat tour. The boats are identical. As far as I can tell, the itinerary is identical, too. Day 1: Kayaking, visit quaint fishing village, swimming near the boat. Day 2: Cave tour, more swimming, visit to another quaint village.
Halong Bay is absolutely beautiful. Everyone should visit. However, at the end of three months overseas, and two weeks of intense traveling, volunteering to be trapped on a boat with sixteen strangers is possibly not the best idea. Not only was I completely exhausted, and pretty much over gorgeous scenery, I also had a broken rib. Without easy access to anything stronger (um, make that legally stronger), I was dulling the pain with about 15 advil a day. We failed to recognize the eight hour bus ride with a Michael Bolton CD playing on repeat as the ominous foreshadowing that it was. As we stepped onto our boat, I was a bit horrified to realize that the only common area was filled with large tables that would be shared with other passengers. In my tired and grumpy state, I would have to make “traveler talk.” “Where are you headed?” “Where have you been?” “Where are you from?” “What was your favorite place?” All those innocent, friendly questions that travelers feel compelled to ask out of politeness, or occasionally genuine curiosity.
Blaine and I sat down at a table with an Australian couple. I glanced at the book the woman was reading, “An Atheist Manifesto.” The woman looked up, “So, where are you guys from?” “California,” I answered with a smile. “So, is it hard for you? You know, travelling as an American citizen?” Uh oh.
There were actually some really interesting people on the boat, including a couple who was spending the year bouncing around the globe. They had quit their jobs, sold everything they owned, and jumped on a plane. Still, at the end of day one, I strongly considered staying in my room through dinner. Blaine convinced me to venture out. And we ended up chatting with three 20-somethings from Singapore for several hours. We talked politics, religion, and culture. All three were studying to be teachers, so we talked for a long time about educational systems. I asked about educational equality, and they were shocked to hear about inequalities in the US system. I told them that schools are partially funded by property taxes, meaning that schools in wealthier areas have more resources. The girl from Singapore looked at me with wide eyes, “But…then how will the poor schools ever catch up?”
The fishing village was staged. The caves had multicolored lights and dolphin trash cans. On day two, we gave up on the scheduled fun. Instead, we stayed inside the boat and played cards with the Singaporeans.