“What are you doing there, anyway?”

Lately speaking with a few friends from back in the states, I have been surprised to realize that most of them do not know where I am, what I am doing, and, most importantly, why I am here.  As I thought about it, the fact began to bother me.  I’m not sure I have done a proper job in communicating my story to my beloved friends back home, so I am going to give another brief explanation right now.  (Or you can refer back to my first post from December.)

 
Beginning in January, I spent two months traveling with a program called Pacific Discovery to finish up a few honors credits for my undergraduate degree.  We spent 9 weeks exploring, volunteering, absorbing the history, and, of course, taking part in all the local fun in four unique fantastic countries: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  I ended this trip backpacking some fantastic southern Thailand beaches for a few weeks.  
 
I flew to Kolkata, India on March 30 to start a 9 week internship working with an anti-trafficking organization here.  This was the original reason I wanted to come out to Asia: to gain experience in a grassroots NGO promoting justice and making a real sustainable impact for the struggling.  Saying that, it has been a very challenging transition coming from the lazy backpacker life to working full-time in a crazy, unfamiliar city with all new faces, personalities, culture, and overall lifestyle to adapt to, but it has forced me to face a part of myself that does not come easy and that is something I would not trade for anything.
 
After my first week and a half of work, through all the struggles, self-doubt, and awkward encounters, I have felt so blessed to be in the position I am and to be able to work with the amazing people I do.  Being in the presence of these real life heroes is such an honor and, even with all my inadequacies, I am glad I can take part of this movement in some small way.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Kolkata

I wasn’t expecting so much culture shock when I got here.  I figured traveling for two months throughout four developing countries would prepare me plenty for Kolkata.  I could not have been more wrong.  Leaving the soothing, picturesque paradise of Koh Phangan behind me, I stepped off the plane into a world like I had never experienced before. And all I could think of was…I seriously have to liiive here for the next 10 weeks? Thiiis is home?? 

 
I was met at the Kolkata airport by the young American couple, Chris and Sally,  who would be my fellow roommates and coworkers for the next few months.  They were an extremely kind couple who had been living here since September and they had graciously offered me a place to stay in their apartment for my time in Kolkata.  When we stepped outside the airport, I was quite relieved to feel a slightly “cooler” temperature than the unbearable 100 degrees I kept hearing of.  But my joy was short-lived as Sally announced to me that this was the coolest day they had had in a while, and warned me to prepare for the worst.  I did not understand how much worse it could get past 100, but I decided to avoid the reality of it until I had to face it myself.
 
Taking the taxi home, my subconscious slowly soaked in the chaotic surroundings: cars racing around one another in a series of beeping chaos, dark-skinned people flooding the streets all rushing onto their various destinations, shiny and colorful trash heaps lining the roads, women dressed in full Indian garb with bright-colored dresses flowing past their ankles and elbows, and towering, plain structures appearing as if they hadn’t been used in years. And all I could think to myself, in a silent fit of shock, was “welcome home Kaleigh, welcome home.”
 
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The best was saved for last!

 

Well I made it to Kolkata…And I do not think this place could be more opposite from the Thailand beach paradise I just came from.  I have been extremely spoiled these last few months traveling throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and meeting some amazing people along the way.  Pacific Discovery, the program I traveled with, had a final shebang in the stunning Railey Beach near Krabi, Thailand.  I have seen a lot of beautiful places in the last few months, but nothing can compare to this one.  It was absolutely breathtaking with the rocks jutting hundreds of feet out of the green-blue ocean.  During our fabulous last few days together in paradise, the group had a chance to go scuba-diving in one of the most renowned corral reefs in the world off of Koh Phi Phi Island, famous for where The Beach was filmed.  As my first time scuba diving, the experience was absolutely stunning with the so many stunning colors and crazy fish life I never knew existed; it also convinced me that I not only want to become a climbing instructor now, but switch off as a scuba instructor as well.   Our instructor was actually one of these lucky people who was originally from England and offered to take Jackie and I out rope rock-climbing for free at one of the most coveted rockwalls in Asia!  We set a date for two days later, and spent the next day deep-water solo climbing, snorkeling, and cliff jumping with some of the PD groupies.  This marked our last day together asa group and we ended it with a great catered meal, watching a spectacular sunset and skinny dipping in the ocean. haha  On the morning of March 24, Pacific Discovery departed back to Bangkok from the three girls staying behind, me included.  We haddecided to take an extra week to soak up the sun at a few different islands.  This marked the first of many goodbyes, which was a lot harder than I imagined it would be.  
 
It was a strange transition traveling independently after being with 15 other people on a more or less guided tour for two months.  On our first day “alone,” Jackie and I distracted ourselves by rope-climbing at, according to our [sucba] instructor, the best wall in Southeast Asia, ending with a 150 ft 6A that shot straight up hundreds of feet above the aqua-blue water.  What a spectacular view we had!! It was a moment I will not forget for a long time. To thank our previous scuba guide for taking us out climbing for free, we made him and his mom (who happened to be visiting) lunch on the beach and watched our last picturesque sunset at Railey.   The night ended with some crazy fire dancing (by Jackie herself) and slack lining frenzy as did most nights at Railey/Tonsei.  I will never forget this little laidback climbing mecca and can definitely see myself coming back here in the not-so-faroff future.
 
We left early the next morning to catch a bus and, then, ferry to Koh Phangan, the final destination for our last week together.  We arrived late that night groggy from our lack of sleep and day-long travel.  But as soon as we arrived we could feel a whole different world of energy than the chill backpacker beach we had just left.  There were signs everywhere posting about parties and celebrations for everyday of the week.  This place was going to be a bit wild, to say the least.  The rest of the week was like a dream, and by far the best I have had on my entire trip altogether.  We spent six fantastic days lounging on the beach staying during the day and staying out all night, and motor biking around the island to secret, pristine swimming holes, each with their own distinct vibe about them.  We also got to take part in the infamous Full Moon Party, which is basically when a few tens of thousands of backpackers come together for one last huge party on the beach under the full moon every month.  We got there at midnight and stayed until sunrise.  It was an incredible night!
 
And then I flew into Kolkata…
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Some moments of impact…(written in mid March)

Instead of trying to sum up the last week in brief like usual, just wanted to share two very delicate and impacting moments I was able to experience over the last few days.  The first one took place earlier this week in Phnom Penh.  During a late night out exploring the city, a couple girls from my group and I had met a friendly Cambodian tuk-tuk driver around our age who spoke fantastic English for a change.  Enjoying his company, we invited him to join us for a drink, and he ended up giving us a ride back for free.  During the ride home, our conversation began to switch from light easy topics to exchanging heavy personal stories.  The driver, who I ashamedly don’t recall his name, opened up about his successful lineage of family that were viciously destroyed in the American bombings and dark Khmer Rouge times.  I sat outside the hotel for what seemed like hours listening to the raw and honest horrors of his family’s past that was little over 30 years ago.  He told me about how his grandfather was one of the most renowned doctors in all of Cambodia until he was killed by an American bomb that had blown up his house.  The bombs had also blown up his Aunt and Uncles home, killing some of his cousins.  The few educated people that were left in his family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge a few years later.  His father was shot near the end of the reign just before he was born, as well as all of his paternal uncles.  His mom, one of the few family survivors, still waits in Phnom Penh in hopes that one of her displaced older siblings will return there one day, although the chances are very likely that they were killed as well.  

 
Narrating his story of hopelessness, the man began to weep for the desperate state of his country.  I think it was the moment that he mentioned his grandpa dying by the American bombings that really touched home with me and I began to cry as well.  I’d been to the museums all over Vietnam and saw the pictures, but there was nothing like hearing the monstrosities of what the Americans had done firsthand.  i explained to him that many close friends grandparents had been drafted into the war.  So there we were, two generations down the road both with direct contacts to this wretched war, an American and Cambodian weeping over how senseless violence can so easily destroy an innocent family, and an entire nation.
 
But forgiveness and understanding sat in the air, and we hugged for a long time sitting on the road there.  I don’t think we said much after that and I eventually made my way back to my room in silence.  God bless that driver for impacting me more than he will ever know.
 
 
The second moment of impact…
 

Picture this: all the garbage and sewage your family accumulates in one year, slowly collecting in one big rotting pile of crap. Fast forward that image seven years, even more decay, with an unbearable stench wafting all around twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Now, multiply that petrifying image to 6000 families, crammed tightly together in a village, shack to shack, rotting waste overflowing into homes, compiled for seven years, no removal, no cleaning, just sitting and rotting. Absolute filth, an unfathomable smell, and a perfect scenario for disease infestation, and absolutely nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, this place exists, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was there to see it with my own eyes.

I am a pretty normal college student from back in the U.S.A, with a passion for development. I had read about villages having to be forcefully moved because of a variety of reasons. I had studied how distraught and ripped apart that it can leave communities. I mean, I cannot even imagine having my whole family and neighbors being moved without warning, leaving your house behind, and possibly most of your belongings, to be relocated to a place not of your choice. After this small town in Cambodia, I have a little clearer picture of this. They had lived along a lush river, in a much more open area and, for undisclosed reasons, were kicked out to an area a fraction of the size, forced to make a living in the back of an old cow pasture that was partly encompassed by a swamp.

I visited the village guided by a friend who was working on a reconstruction project there. While living in the states, I had heard about the village project and wanted to witness the progress for myself. I did not know much about the village besides it was extremely poor and had no means of leaving the desolate area it had been handed. When I arrived, I was astounded by how small of an area such a city of 6000 residents could fit into. By my estimation, it looked like no more than 30 to 40 acres with all of the shops and public service areas included. The entrance to the city was the area being reconstructed, and it was coming along beautifully. I know there had been a number of outside influences helping it regain its control since it had been moved locations seven years before, and this semi-reconstructed area looked clean and organized with rowed houses, a new market place, and even a newly developed sewage system! But, as we moved deeper into the city, where many projects had been vacated, an entire different type of nightmarish reality developed before me. 

We moved past current reconstruction to the area that had been left untouched by human aid groups. The immediate loss of concrete road was the first sign, which quickly transformed from paved straight roads to uneven dirt paths to a swampy mess of sewage with only a pipe to hobble down between homes. This sewage area made up the lowest part of the town, and is where all of the waste generally flowed, to along with most of the garbage since the rains would naturally push it to this area naturally.

This vicinity was the most shocking to my system, and, by eyeballing, I guessed it made up nearly a third of the entire city area. The sight was something I could have never imagined until being there in its presence. When the first dirt path converted into these large transporting pipe ways, snaking their way in between rows of compacted shacks, I had to stop for a second to take it all in. We were literally walking on a pipe, of which purpose no one really knows, that barely surfaced the excrement that piled up on all sides. At the surface, the waste took on a rainbow of shapes and colors that quickly melded into a dark gooey heap of incomprehensible mass. Not even a meter from the walking-pipe, laid the small shanties of the hundreds of families living amongst the rubbish. The stench drifted up with a sickly sweet, yet sour stench of burnt rubber, feces, stale urine, and putrid products; it was nearly intolerable to bear and I ended up stuffing small cotton swabs into my nose that I happened to have in my pocket. We stopped to talk with the bordering homes, and the families seemed happy enough, playing cards, kids running freely up and down the pipe, some even plummeting into the mysterious goop below, making treasures out of what others had left behind, whatever that may be. The homes were raised barely a foot or two above the mess, with a common room on bottom, and the bedrooms and kitchens strategically placed on top, but highly doubt that this organization stopped much of the disease that spread quite rampantly through the area I had heard. I could not imagine why…

The shallow water hole lay not far from this living dump, where the people all bathed and drank from. I wondered to myself what the statistics of survival are in this area compared to most. My host explained to me that this was their last and biggest area of the city to tackle for proper sewage. He still had no idea how it was going to be all figured out in the end. Nobody wanted to do it, or had any idea where to even start. How can you efficiently and effectively clean this area that has been collecting rot for seven years straight in a small enclosed area where hundreds call home?

That is a question that I would very much like to see answered myself. A people that once had a flourishing community next to a lively river, now stuck in a collecting heap of decaying rubbish. After visiting this sight, I feel like it cannot be fully comprehended until you actually walk and talk with the people who live their daily lives in the disarray. It’s absolutely astounding that this actually happens, and still no solution yet solidified. The future has yet to answer these tough questions

 

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Oh Cambodia

We have had the warmest introduction to Cambodia over the last week, both figuratively and literally.  The people here are so peaceful and friendly, and the hottest weather we have had yet. During the last week, we have had the great privilege of becoming more involved with the Cambodian community through multiple service projects.  We began our Cambodia experience at a lovely couple’s and long time friends of Pacific Discovery, Supen and Mach’s, beautiful home stay.  While there, we split up into groups to construct a toilet one day while the other group taught English to the an afterschool program called Hope for Happiness. The toilet construction turned out to be quite rewarding, even if I wasn’t the most useful builder.  We got to play with the family’s kids and managed to communicate with them with the help of cameras, creative motions, and bursts of laughter.  The after school program turned out to be just a continuation of these laughter and games, but with much easier conversation since most of the teenage students had been taught very well. It was great to exchange stories and engage in fluent conversation  with local teens.  Mach and Supen also gave us some in depth lessons over their vivid Khmer Rouge experiences that took place only 30 short years ago…quite chilling.

 
Our next destination led us to Rabbit Island off the coast of Kep, Cambodia, where we spent a movie-esk afternoon basking in the rays on a gorgeous white sand beach and soaking in the warmest ocean water I have ever experienced!  Not spending too long in the sun, we reached our camp-style river bungalows in Kampot that night.  Picture summer camp on a huge river, altogether with docks, kayaks, slides, and volleyball court, and you will have a pretty accurate idea of this place.  Naturally, we spent some time reliving our camp days swimming in the river, stargazing, and playing some competitive ping pong, but all play was short lived as we were put back to “work” for the next few days helping teach English to a local school and build an entire thatched-roof hut for a struggling community member.  It’s amazing what a lil bit of sweat and hard work can do for your spirit when doing it for another.
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Vietnam from 2/25..whoops

Vietnam

Time moves so fast.  We have been in Vietnam nearly a week now, and I feel like a month of adventure has passed.  Directly after we flew into Hanoi, we took an overnight train up to Sa Pa, which is really close to the Chinese border.  We were in awe at the striking mountain formations jutting out of the valleys and layers upon layers of rice fields built into the steep sides.  We spent a foggy few days hiking through these beautiful mountains and staying at a charming little home that reminded me more of a private bed and breakfast than homestay with their amazing meals and accommodations.  Our hilarious little women guides Sue and Mai shoes us around the village one day, giving us a thorough overview of the history and cultural background of the integrated minorities throughout the village.
 
After our quick trip north, we backtracked by train through Hanoi and took a bus to Halong Bay.  I did not have much of an idea of what to expect here, but words cannot begin to express the beauty of this place.  More so,  for our house boat I was picturing a tiny wooden thing that would basically fit us to sleep and eat in the same space, but man was I wrong again.  We had a fantastic little antique ship that looked broken down from the outside, but had a classical restored inside with separate bedrooms, a magnificent dining room, and even a roof to lounge on in our free time!  We spent three memorable days eating fresh exquisite seafood meals, exploring caves and beaches, swimming, jumping from the boat, and learning about the intriguing history of this enchanting place.  what an incredible few day with one hilarious crew that we got to bond and dance  party with the last night we were there!
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Luang Probang

We are leaving Laos today and taking a quick flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.  We have had a much needed chill weekend in Luang Probang, Laos.  We took a two-day boat ride down the legendary Mekong River to get there.  I have read so much about all of the history and folklore that originated from the Mekong, so I was pretty awestruck for the first few hours imagining what had taken place on the shores we were passing.  Apparently, it was the most highly bombed country in history in terms of bombs dropped per person during the Vietnam war.  It’s so hard to believe after experiencing a few weeks in this seemingly quiet, peaceful land.  Along the river, the views were spectacular with mountains shooting up from the deep river, and hardly any inhabitants for hours at a time.

 
Upon arriving in Luang Probang, none of us knew what to expect, as in reaching any new destination. I feel like it’s Christmas everyday on this trip with an unknown adventure around every corner.  I get excited just to wake up every morning to see what’s to happen next, and cannot seem to look further than 3 days ahead in the itinerary because the activities we have planned are all so dreamy and overwhelming to take in all at once. I have gotten a lot better since being here of taking in literally one day…morning, afternoon, and night at a time.  
 
Back to Luang Probang, this city was when of the most exquisite we have been to yet, and is definitely one of my favorites.  It used to be colonized by the French, and their influence is still extremely evident still with the numerous cafes, baked goods, and architecture.  Honestly, it almost felt like I was in Europe more than Laos many a times.  I think the highlight of my visit was our trip to an outstanding waterfall right outside the village, probably the most beautiful place i have ever been. The waterfall consisted of nearly a dozen layers of aqua blue pools with jumping cliffs, little swimming holes, and a rope swing to play on.  The entire place looked like it was taken straight out of one of those paradise postcards.  I will try to upload pictures ASAP…absolutely breathtaking… I could have spent a week straight exploring those waters.
 
Other than that, we spent our time gorging in some amazing food, hung out along the river at night engaging in some awesome conversation with people from all over the world, haggling at the elaborate night market, and climbing to the hill temple to watch the sunset over the entire city.  It was one fantastic weekend.  And I have yet another  dream of a week ahead of me..one day at a time.  Amazed every hour that I’m even here, and get to experience these mysterious and exciting places!

 

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Hi ho hi ho, it’s off to trek we go!

I’m sitting in a hole-in-the-wall breakfast place with the best banana chocolate pancake I have ever tasted and an ice cold coffee drink, and, the best part of it all, the entire meal cost barely over a dollar.  What a strange world it is where a minimum wage “poor” Western college student can have the ability to take out loans and work odd end jobs to afford a trip across the world.  I can’t ever forget how fricken fortunate I am to be able to do such a thing.  It continues to blow my mind.  

 
Anyhow, I am enjoying this breakfast on a beautiful Valentines Day morning that just happens to be our first day off in a while.  As much as I love all of the amazing activities we get to do, it is so so nice to be able to take a deep breath and reflect peacefully on the last three action-packed weeks. 
 
Just yesterday night, we arrived back from a three day trek and kayaking trip through the Lao jungle.   We split up into two smaller groups to create a closer group dynamic which was a great change of things, and our group started out with two solid days of trekking up and down the rolling Lao hills.  The first hour was all uphill and I do not think I realized how difficult real backpacking can be.  I’m not used to carrying so much wait on my back for so long.  But as we rolled into the swing of things, you just kind of forget about the pain and become lost in the enchanting scenery, and comfortable conversation.  We stopped for lunch near the top of the mountain and ate traditional Thai/Lao style with a banana leaf as our plates and our hands as our utensils.  I quite enjoyed the simplicity and messiness; I almost feels like that is the way things are meant to be.
 
After a full day of beautiful trekking, we reached our destination towards nightfall.   We were having a home stay in a tiny mountain village with no more than 150 people.  They were Animists and believed in many spirits.  Before dinner, we got to play with the kids for a while, showing them typical American games such as duck duck goose and tag, which they picked up on surprisingly fast.  From there, we attempted a tricky river bath, where the women must be fully covered with a wrap-around sheet; let’s just say this makes it pretty difficult to get entirely clean after trekking all day.  The night finished up with a brilliant candle- lit dinner with some of the best-tasting fresh tomato dish and greens that I have ever experienced.  A snapshot moment for sure.  
 
After dinner, we chatted over a quaint bonfire and gazed up at the dazzling stars until one-by-one we strolled into our one-roomed hut to crash for a well-deserved rest. I think we were all out by the crazy late-night hour of 8pm. 
 
The following day we trekked again, and finished up with a raft trip down a breathtaking mountain-and jungle-lined river.
 
Tried to slow down a day for ya’all.  Hope that helped. Until next time, Sao bi di!  (Hello and goodbye in Lao.:))
 Image
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Goodbye Thailand, hello Laos

We finished our last weekend in Thailand with a jam packed week full of Thai culture and activity.  We participated in a Thai cooking class, practiced Muay Thai with the pros and later got to watch a real match  ( honestly not really my cup of tea, but still quite interesting), took an amazingly calming yoga course, trekked to a magical temple in the mountains full of waterfalls (think Rivendale on a smaller scaled).  Chang Mai is definitely a city I will never forget with some memories so unique that only my group will ever be able to understand.  

on after the last few days of traveling by van, we crossed the Mekong River into Laos.  Already this country is a world a part from Thailand with imuch surplus of greenery and rolling mountains, and sudden lack of flocking tourists.  It’s so quiet and peaceful compared to our city venture, and I look forward to our three day trek kayaking in the next few days…like rock climbing was, this is right up my alley!

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Best of both worlds ( from feb. 3)

This past weekend we spent 2 days rock climbing, rappelling, and caving in the beautiful mountains near Chang Mai. This experience definitely met all my adventuring desires that had been building up for the last few weeks, and pushed me even further than expected  with my fear of heights rappelling and ziplining over 150 above the cave floor. I even completed some of my hardest climbs to this day! Definitely a time I will hold onto for a long time to come.   And with a guide job offer from one of the instructors, maybe it won’t be long until I am back in the area…:)

 
We spent the last few days in a Buddhist meditation retreat located in the peaceful countryside outside Chang Mai.  Looking forward to this for a while, I did my best to keep an open mind.  We started with a monk teaching us the details of the Buddhist beliefs and different methods of meditation including sitting, standing, walking, and hand movements.  Finally we began actually practicing the meditations with an experienced monk.  It was fascinating to be among such peaceful people and to be living a life they lived.  We also participated in certain food limitations and rituals and waking up at dawn.   While we were eating, our focus was to not enjoy the food and to only eat until you were no longer hungry.  After a day of practicing with the monk, we were able to meditate most of the second day on our own.  It was definitely eye opening to see how difficult  it was to focus so long. These monks got some serious talent!
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