Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 25, 2010

Bug bites

Chinese bugs are out to get me. And I don’t just mean they want to bite me….I mean…they want to BITE me. These must classify as super bugs or something. For example, first I got some bed bug bites:

Those took a while to go away, but once they did, the mosquitos came out to get me. This is how Chinese mosquitos attack:

Unfortunately, American brand itch relievers just don’t work for whatever kind of crazy mosquitos they have here. I thought I’d be adventurous and try some Chinese itch relief stuff:

So far it seems to be working…it smells kind of weird, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Xi’an is awesome. It’s a city surrounded by huge walls, a moat, and has a giant bell tower in the middle. The walls are 13 kilometers around and you can actually go up and walk on them or even rent a bike to ride on top of them. The city also has tons of shopping malls and Starbucks everywhere. It’s a big college city with a lot of Chinese tradition. I really like it a lot. Today I took a bus to see the Terracotta Warrior museum, which was amazing. The are 3 giant pits where thousands of soldiers, horses, archers, and other warriors from a loooonnnng time ago have been dug up. In the late ’70s a farmer was digging a well and actually came across this huge burial site of a fake army. The emperor back then had these thousands of warriors built so that he could have his army and community live on even after death. It was amazing to see how detailed everything was. The warriors were life size and all different. So cool. The first pit was actually the size of an entire airplane hangar. It was so crazy. I walked around all the pits and museum for a few hours then headed back to Xi’an, which took about an hour. I decided to go walk up on the city wall around dusk, but ended up deciding to rent a bike to ride all the way around. This bike was so old and beat up that I couldn’t help but laugh. The pedals, wheels, and handlebar were all crooked. The wall has been renovated, but even so, that was the bumpiest ride of my life. The kid in me came out and I ended up going around the wall and over all the bumps as fast as that bike could go. I’m not sure if the bikes are made for something like that, but I felt like I couln’t really do that much more damage to it. It was such a nice night, the sun was setting, and I was speeding along the top of this wall that is thousands of years old. So much fun. I would take bike rides that bumpy all the time if all of them could be that great. I got all the way around, headed back to the hostel, and did a much neaded load of laundry

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Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 22, 2010

Catching Up

It’s been longer than I realized since I last posted an update on here. I have no idea where the time is going, but it’s flying by. After Shanghai, I took a short 1.5 hour train ride to a city called Hangzhou, which was supposed to me a more traditional looking Chinese city. Before I get to that part, though, let me explain to you how I got there.
To get from Shanghai to Hangzhou I knew that I needed to either take a bus or train. I read that there are plenty of both that travel the route each day. I had heard from different people that one was better than the other, so I decided to just go to the station and see what my options were. I packed up all of my stuff, put my big backpack on my back and my smaller one on the front and left the hostel for the subway. Shanghai is hot, so at 7 am I broke a mad sweat. I got to the subway, though, and headed to the train station, which is conveniently where the main bus station is, as well. Once I got to the train station, I looked/asked around until I figured out that the ticket office was actually in a different building across the street that I had to go underground to get to. I understand now why so many people suggest paying your hotel/hostel to go and book train tickets for you while in China. Complete chaos. The ticket office was a giant room with about 20 ticket windows, no air conditioning, and THOUSANDS of people trying to get tickets. I had decided to use the train since it took half the time of a bus, asked around and was directed to line 10 (the only english speaking ticket window), and got in line with the masses. By the time I got halfway through the line I was literally soaked in sweat and on the verge of passing out from heat, so I put my bags on the floor and sat down in line for a while since it was pretty slow moving anyways. I eventually made my way to the front, bought a ticket for the next train that left about 3 hours from then, and bought my return ticket so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later. After receiving my ticket, the guy at the window handed me a piece of paper that directed me on how to get to Shanghai South railway station, since apparently my train didn’t leave from the main station that I was at. So, I got back on the subway and made my way south. The train station had a huge lower level that had about 12 different waiting areas in it. It’s hard to stress actually how many people there are in China, but believe me, there are a lot. There wasn’t anywhere to sit in this huge waiting area, so I wandered around and leaned against walls for about an hour and a half until it was very close to when my train was supposed to leave. Oddly enough, the departure information hadn’t come up on my waiting area screen yet. This is when I started to wonder if maybe I was in the wrong spot. This type of second guessing happens with just about everything I do, by the way. I found a security guard, showed him my ticket, and gave a shrug of shoulders, dumbfounded look to indicate that I had no idea where I was supposed to be. I was pointed in the direction of an upstairs waiting room. It turns out, I was sold a ticket on one of the first class speedy trains that have their own first class waiting areas that are very well air conditioned and extremely spacious. These types of mistakes have also been happening quite frequently. I sat in this waiting area for about 20 minutes and then boarded the train. My ticket had a train car number on it, but no seat, so I figured you could just sit wherever, but like I said, mistakes are frequent. It turns out that I was sold a ticket on the nicer, speedy train, but the seats were all sold out, so I only had standing room. The good thing is, I had come off of that 22 hour train ride not too long before, so I decided to embrace being able to stand for an hour and half. I also ended up standing next to an American expat who had been teaching in China for three years, and we ended up talking for the whole train ride which kept things interesting (not that anything is ever dull around here). I got to Hangzhou, was told by a few taxis that they couldn’t take me to my hostel, was followed around by a random guy trying to act as a taxi driver for a while, was told by the bus driver of the bus I was supposed to take that my stop wasn’t on his route, and finally found a cab driver who would take me there, and proceeded to get lost. Luckily, after stopping for directions, I spotted the hostel sign, very relieved to finally have gotten there.

On another note, Hangzhou was really cool. The city is spread out around a lake that has paths and trails all the way around it. There were lots of pagodas and temples on the hills surrounding the lake as well. The Lingyin Temple was probably the high point of my trip there; it’s apparently the oldest Buddhist temple in China that is still active. It was so interesting to see the monks there and people praying with incense. In the hills surrounding the temple were thousands of ancient stone carvings of Buddhas and text inscriptions. Very cool.

I spent 5 days in Hangzhou then took the train back to Shanghai for a day. I stayed in a different part of the city and wandered around through the giant skyscrapers and random shops everywhere. I took an overnight train to Xi’an the next afternoon. Having experienced spending the night in a hard seat going from Beijing to Shanghai, I decided that the 17 hour trip to Xi’an would be spent in a bed. The only ticket available was one of the nicer sleepers, so I took it. Luckily the ticket was still cheap for me with the exhange rate. My compartment had 4 beds, a locking door, a little table, and a TV. There was also elevator music playing in the halls and a toilet in the bathroom. Talk about being spoiled. I ended up sharing the room with a daughter, mom, and grandma. They were from Xi’an and had been visiting Shanghai for the past week. The daughter was a university student in Xi’an and going back to start the new semester. She spoke english fairly well, so I was able to communicate with them without too much trouble. They were so nice- they insisted that I share their grapes and pumpkin seeds with them while we talked. All three of them were peeling their grapes before eating them which I have never seen done before, but since I was the foreigner, I sat there talking with them, peeling my grapes, too. Before I went to sleep they gave me a Chinese fan with a picture of a female emperor from Xi’an on it. I still can’t get over how genuinely nice and welcoming everyone is.

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Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 13, 2010

Shanghai is hot.

Did I mention that Shanghai is hot? Wow. I thought Texas was the hottest place in the world, but Shanghai has me drinking 5 bottles of water a day and still dehydrated. In fact, I just finished another. After walking around for 3 hours I feel like I’ve gone nonstop all day. It’s hot. BUT, it’s a really cool city.
After I found my hostel the first day, dripping in sweat, I did some wandering around. I’m only here for a few days and then I’m coming back for a day later this week. My first day I mostly hung out at the hostel and recovered from the long train ride. The lobby is a pretty cool place to hang out…there are a few tables, a flat screen TV, and tons of movies and books. There is also an air conditioning unit which I sit in front of anytime I am in the room. The air is so cold, you can actually see it coming out of the ac. It’s great. Yesterday I ventured out to an area called “The Bund,” which is a huge tourist/shopping/walking district around the river that goes through Shanghai. I walked around a bunch of shops, some underground markets, and the river walkway for a while and then took the subway back to the hostel. During the walk from subway stop to hostel I pass by a few restaurants, so I decided to check one of those out for dinner that night. Most places around here have english menus because of all the tourists, but this one didn’t. They did have about 6 of their dishes pictured on the wall, though, so I pointed to one that looked okay and waited. Naturally, I ended up with something completely opposite from what I ordered, but what made that alright was the fact that on each table there were what looked like straw dispensers, but actually gave you chopsticks when you push the little tray down. I’m in love with using chopsticks, so I use them whenever I can. The people working at the restaurant were laughing because I was using them to eat noodle soup that came with a spoon, but it just makes eating so much more fun.

Today I made my way out to the Yu Gardens, which I had heard a lot about. On the way there I wandered through some markets and into what looked like a mini shopping mall but turned out to sell a bunch of Chinese medicinal herbs and roots and that kind of thing. It was interesting to walk through. I wish I knew what everything was and what it was supposed to do, but that’s really hard to figure out through hand gestures, so I just looked. I found the Yu Gardens, which were surronded by new but very traditional looking Chinese buildings. There were tons of shops and stalls selling everything a tourist could ever want. There were even two different Starbucks withing a couple minutes walking distance of each other. It was fun to wander around the crowds and see the different food and crafts and what not. The Yu Gardens were really pretty.There were a bunch of stone arches and walkways, pagodas, plants, and ponds. I had only been walking around for about 3 hours, but the heat was intense, so I decided to head back to the hostel.

It took me a little while to find my way out of the gardens and back through the endless market streets to the subway stop, but I made it, got back to the hostel, and took a much needed shower. Normally I would wait a minute to get in the shower so that it’s not freezing cold, but in Shanghai I don’t turn the water on until I’m standing under the faucet in hopes that I’ll get the coldest water possible.

Tomorrow I’m taking a bus or train to Hangzhou, which is an area situated around a lake that apparently has a more traditional Chinese feel to it. Beijing is definitely becoming more modern, but it definitely holds on to tradition. Shanghai seems to be way ahead of the rest of China…I would say Shanghai is to China what New York City is to the US. There are tons of skyscrapers and everything is very modern. The also have the best metro that I’ve used in any big city. The gardens today were really the first time I’ve seen anything in Shanghai that reminded me that I’m in China, minus the millions of Chinese, the pre packaged chicken feet in convenience stores, and Chinese writing everywhere. It will be interesting to see what Hangzhou is like. Now I’m off to figure out how to get there.

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Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 12, 2010

Mei Jia Hui

It’s official; I have a Chinese name. It turns out that the 22 hour train ride was actually not so terrible after all. Yes, I was packed into a section of 6 seats with 7 people, I used a hole in the floor to go to the restroom, the chair didn’t lean back at all, and I had feet propped up onto my seat in other people’s attempts to stretch their legs, but I did end up making a few friends and picking up a Chinese name along the way.

It’s important to know that if you want to feel famous, you should take a trip to China. I’ve had at least 5 different groups of people ask to take their picture with me, I’ve had tons of people smile and wave at me, and lots of people practice their English with me. I’m not Chinese or Asian, therefore I cause mass curiosity. This played into how I got a Chinese name.

I boarded the train that was supposed to leave Beijing central station at 11:57 am. I was not supposed to arrive in Shanghai until 10:03 am the next morning. The train was hot, packed and smelled like smoke. I was in car 9, seat 10 with about 200 other people packed in there with me. On one side of the train there were 4 seats (two seats facing two seats with a small table in between) and on the other side of the aisle there were 6 seats (three facing three). I was sitting next to a window on the side with 6 seats to a section. The seats around me quickly filled up until there were 3 other people sitting in the 2 seats next to me as well as people standing and sitting in the aisle…and people sitting in laps. Apparently, they overbook trains, and the passengers that don’t get a seat have to wait until other people get off at stations along the way.

Once we started moving I realized that at least 10 people were attentively staring directly at me. It was a little weird, but what can you do? I decided to get out my notebook and write a letter, but with zero table space, I had to put the notebook in my lap and write. This caused the 5 people nearest me to duck under the table to watch me write. I couldn’t help but laugh at the reaction, and ended up holding the paper up so that they could see. Talk about excitement. I flipped through my notebook to show them some more writing; everyone was happy. The three people across from me started talking to each other, and the one in the middle finally asked in broken English if I was a student. She acted as a translator from then on out as best she could, but her English was basic. We ended up communicating mostly by writing out words because she could read and write better than she could speak. I learned that the three of them were teachers with UNESCO for early childhood education in China. They wanted to practice their English and get to know me better.

One of the women wrote out the alphabet and wanted me to teach her how to pronounce the letters, so we went through them until she knew how to shape her mouth to say them correctly. Once she could say them, she wanted me to teach her the “abc” song, including the words at the end, so I sang it for her a few times and then we all sang it together about 10 more times. Once the singing started, they wanted to hear another song. I decided that happy birthday was as generic as American songs could get, so I learned one of their names and sang happy birthday to them. They all clapped, and I asked them to sing a song for me. The three of them started singing a song that must be well known in China because a handful of people around us started joining in. It was really awesome to be able to experience something like that. We could barely communicate, but we ended up spending almost 10 hours of the ride getting to know each other. I got out my guide book for China, and they suggested places to visit. They asked for my email address, and one of them had her middle school son text me from her phone to practice his English. After writing and asking questions back and forth, they learned that I did not have a Chinese name and decided to give me one. After a lot of thought and a lot of trying to figure out the English translation, they came up with “Mei Jia Hui,” which means “beautiful, best, and knowledge.” (It might be a little different in Chinese, but that’s the best translation we could figure out) From then on out, I was Mei Jia Hui, which was convenient since they couldn’t really pronounce “Kristen.”

Unfortunately they got off at a station 12 hours before Shanghai, so I didn’t get to talk to them any longer, but I was glad to have been able to get to know some people and learn a lot about China’s from them.

I got to Shanghai, rode the subway the rest of the way to my hostel, and took the most needed shower of my life.

Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 9, 2010

Beijing

I have been in Beijing for 5 days now and am loving it. I had heard some negative views on the city, but I disagree with them. There is so much to see and do. The first day I got here I walked around a lot…I saw Tienanmen square, the Qianman area, lots of parks, markets, etc. Tienanmen sq. is huuuuge…The second day I went to the Summer Palace, which is pretty much a bunch of pagodas and temple looking buildings around a giant lake…so pretty. The next day I planned a trip to the Great Wall. On the way there I met a guy who spoke just enough english to tell me which stop I needed to get off with. Fortunately he and his brother in law were also going to the Great Wall, so we were able to share a cab the rest of the way and walk around together. It was really fun and interesting to get to know someone who has grown up and lived here their whole life. The Great Wall was amazing. I knew that it was big, but actually seeing it made me realize just how massive it really is. It literally wound on and on over and around mountains as far as I could see. I could even make out guard towers miles away on mountain peaks. Climbing it was harder than I expected…getting to the top of the mountain was difficult in itself, but the wall has so many ups and downs…it’s a never ending stair climb. I stood on top of one of the guard towers at one point and had the whole wall winding out behind me over the mountains…I loved it. To top the day off, when I got back I took the subway out to the Olympic village. I’m not sure how anything could really top that day…the olympic village was amazing as well. The Bird’s nest was soooo big. It was actually shocking. The architecture was so unique and detailed. The park itself was huge, too. It has 3 subway stops all to itself. I spent a couple of hours walking around there and could have spent more, but had to get back to my hostel for the day. Yesterday I went to the Temple of Heaven which is in a giant park that has a lot of ceremonial ruins and temples. It was nice to walk around, sit in the grass, and just watch the world go by for a while. I headed back from there and stopped at the Pearl Market, which is like a Canal Street in New York City that is packed into 5 floors of a really big building. Very crowded, but so fun. Today I’m hanging out in my hostel for a little while before going out to tour the Forbidden City. It’s massive…everything seems to be huge in China…I guess because China is so big itself. Well, that’s all for now. I’m heading to Shanghai tomorrow. Unfortunately, the only train ticket that I could get I a 22 hour ride on a normal seat. All the fast trains and beds were sold out. That should be ….a trip.

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Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | August 4, 2010

I need to shower

I left Dallas at noon on the 3rd, got to Seoul, South Korea at 4:30 pm on the 4th, and will get to Beijing at 10:35 am on the 5th. I am having trouble remembering what day it is. I stayed up all night on the 2nd so that I could sleep during the 14.5 hour flight. I took a Benadryl right before I got on the plane and managed to sleep for about 11 hours. The flight felt really short, minus the numb butt, so my planning worked. When I got to Seoul, I took an hour-long bus ride into the city. I was able to walk around for a few hours before dark. There were tiny alleyways everywhere with tons of market stalls selling food and everything from shoes to cell phone dangle things(?).  There were bright neon lights on every building, and enough coffee places to never fall asleep again. There were also 2 Starbucks on the same street…I never knew karaoke was such a big thing on a Wednesday evening. I knew that it was popular over here, but I didn’t ever think that I would see a line outside a karaoke club at 7pm on a Wednesday. Talk about intense. I ended up wandering through a bunch of alleys and streets which got me slightly lost on the way back to the bus stop, but I managed to back track and find it. Jet lag really started to hit me on the bus ride back when I noticed that I had been staring at the same spot on the windshield, completely zoned out, for a good five minutes. I got back to the airport around 9:30pm, went through security and immigration, then went into the restroom. When I came out about five minutes later, the entire terminal had completely shut down. I’m not sure how this happened during that short amount of time, but it did. So now I’m sitting on a couch in this handy little internet corner they have set up, alone besides some workers (one  just walked up and waved to me), in the near dark, messing around on the internet and snacking on granola. And I need to shower. 14.5 hours on a plane, 3 hours sweating in Seoul “extreme humidity,” South Korea, and 14 more hours of layover do not add up to a clean person. Oh well.

Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | April 24, 2010

Getting lost in the jungle…no big deal

Before I went to Peru, I had read online that people will try to give you directions even if they have no idea how to get where they’re directing you. In an eargerness to help, if you look lost or ask how to get somewhere, someone will give you directions…even if it sends you off in the complete opposite way that you need to be going. This sounds like it could be really frustrating, and you might wonder why they don’t just tell you that they have no idea where said place is, but it’s a part of their culture and their being. They want to help, and in their minds, they are.

I never really came across this until almost the end of my trip. I took a 5 day getaway to a small jungle town in the central Amazon called Pucallpa. Unlike Iquitos and other well known, touristy type jungle towns, Pucallpa is not necessarily a foreign tourist destination. It is more of a domestic travel spot where you will find Peruvian tourists. The reason another volunteer and I decided to go to Pucallpa was because it was cheap. Because it’s not built for foreign tourism, you have the capability to do anything and everything on your own. One day, Zoe and I decided to hire a Peke Peke – a narrow, long, wooden, motorized taxi type boat- to go check out a traditional tribal village of Shipibo people. Apparently this village, San Francisco, on the edge of a lagoon, was a place of straw huts, dirt “roads,” and traditional tribal dress. A 30 minute hike from there would get us to Santa Clara, another Shipibo village, but less modern. In Santa Clara there is absolutely no electricity, which made it a more “genuine” tribal village. Obviously, Zoe and I wanted to hike from SF to St. Clara, so after asking about ten different people how to begin our journey, we finally decided, or rather hoped, that we were on the right path. Every person we asked gave us a different set of directions. Apparently, what I had read before I left for Peru held true in Pucallpa.

Zoe and I walked, and walked……and walked…..down a red dirt road that was walled in on both sides by the jungle.  Every now and then we would pass by a straw house with kids playing outside or a family lined up alongside the road staring at us. The hike was amazing- we were surrounded by countless numbers of trees that I had never before seen in my life, and the mass of colors was beautiful. The diffferent shades of green contrasted with the bright pinks and reds of flowers, while the bright blue sky above the tree line and the rusted red color of dirt below it just added an unforgettable and surreal touch to the place. It seemed, though, that somewhere along this amazing hike, we had gotten lost. Keeping track of time was a difficult task while walking on a road cut through the jungle. The essence of every single moment sort of captivates you; you don’t really want to know what time it is because the passing of time means the passing of the hypnotic moment that you’re in. After what was supposed to be a 30 minute hike turned into about an hour and a half, though, we pulled ourselves back to reality and decided that somehow we had missed Santa Clara. We weren’t sure how because at a few points along the way we had asked if we were going the right way, and every time we were reassured that Santa Clara was indeed just right up the road. Since we had not yet passed a village, we wondered if maybe we were just insanely slow walkers…or maybe these random tribal people we were speaking to were getting a huge laugh out of sending us the wrong way. At one point, a group of little boys pointed us the “right” way, and then ran off laughing. Sure, that might have been an obvious sign that we were being played, but when a map to this place doesn’t exist and signs are unheard of, what can you do? 

Eventually, we decided to turn around. Again, asking for directions along the way, we were told that Santa Clara was just down the road….in the direction we were now heading. Apparently this tribal village was also a magical moving village. Zoe and I made a deal between ourselves that if the next person we asked did not give us a sure answer, we would just head back to San Franciso. We came across a girl standing outside of a lone straw house. We tried to explain to her that we kept being sent in the wrong direction, and we simply wanted to know where St. Clara was. And what do you know…we were IN St. Clara. Yes, this dirt road with a few straw huts scattered about was the infamous tribal village we were searching for. Where were the traditional markets and tribal dressed people? After asking around, we figured out that there was no public market….rather, if you wanted to buy something you were taken into someones house and shown buyables that were wrapped up in a huge sheet and unfolded on a table in front of you. The family who told us this took us through their front door (which was actually a hole in the wall with no door), through their combined living room/bedroom (the interior of the house was one room with a matress on the floor and a sheet hanging from the ceiling, turning the home into two rooms), and into their backyard where there was a wooden table next to a fire pit. We were shown jewelry, coin purses, and other souvenirs that were in fact more expensive and the exact same as they were in central Pucallpa. Of course, we still bought a few things from this family as it was obvious that they needed our money more than we did. We left Santa Clara a little speechless. No, it was not the traditional village that had been described to us, but rather a group of people just trying to make ends meet. We also left thinking that our 30 minute hike turned 3 and a half hour, lost in the jungle hike was completely worth it. We were tired and hungry, but filled with new experiences and memories that would never be forgotten.

It’s true that the Peruvians we met along the way tried their best to give us directions that more often than not led us the wrong way. But looking back, it turned out that we had gotten to Santa Clara by following everyones’ directions…we just didn’t know it. So maybe what I read online was true- Peruvian directions don’t get you where you need to go. But maybe it’s not because they’re giving us bad directions, but rather because we just don’t understand that our idea of a village is different from theirs. In our case, we assumed that this village would be made up of more than just a handful of homes, and that its’ presence would be marked by a sign at the very least. Obviously, we assumed wrong. It’s clear that even when you can speak a person’s language, there can still be a huge barrier. From this trip I learned that you really have to throw all previous assumptions out the window and always keep an open mind. The saying holds true- always expect the unexpected.

Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | April 17, 2010

Nay sick mm sick gog ying mun a?

According to my newly obtained Cantonese Chinese phrase book, “nay sick mm sick gog ying mun a?” is something I’m really going to have to become familiar with. “Do you speak english?” will probably become my go to phrase. Even though it’s been spelled out in my book so that I will know how to pronounce it, I’m still not entirely sure if I’m saying it correctly. All I know is that while reading through the phrases and trying to say them, I couldn’t stop laughing at myself. I’m assuming I’ll get the same reaction when I try to actually use them once I’m in China…it’s a good thing I already have no problem finding the humor in my attempts. What’s also good is that the phrase books have the Chinese, Thai, etc. symbols for the words next to them to be used when, inevitably, all I get are raised eyebrows and weird looks when I try to communicate. Honestly, though, I can’t wait.

Also, I’ve started writing my first story that I’m going to try to submit and get published. In a nutshell, it’s about how my young age affected me when I traveled around Europe after high school. After finishing the rough draft, I realized that it really has been a long time since I’ve done any serious writing. In other words, it’s going to take a lot of editing and revising.

Posted by: thoughtfulnomad | April 10, 2010

History Lesson Time

When I decided to travel around Asia, I realized that there were only a few specific places that I knew I wanted to go. For the most part, though, I really had no idea what there was to do around China and Southeast Asia. I feel kind of ashamed that for a part of the world with such an extensive history, I really didn’t know that much about it at all. I’ve decided to fix that and do some researching and reading. Obviously I’m not going to become a complete history buff on every country, but I do want a genereal knowledge on where I’m going. I’m starting with the countries I know the least about, which are Laos and Cambodia. It’s safe to say I’ll be glued to the computer for a while…

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