Archive for May, 2008

May 27 2008

Tales We Never Told: One night in Prague

Published by under Prague,Virginia

We met new people virtually every day of our trip. It’s the best part about traveling, actually. We had some amazing experiences with amazing people.

Meeting so many new people from around the world, you become adept at quickly identifying who you’ll get along with, and who you want to avoid. On the other hand, long-term travel forces you to broaden your outlook when it comes to friendship. Sure, you may never be friends with a person in “real” life, back home, but when they’re the only fellow English speaker in your vicinity, you bond immediately. And people often surprise you. It’s just another reason traveling opens your mind in unexpected ways.

At our hostel in Prague, we met a guy named Toby, whom I’ve always wanted to write about. I loved Toby. It became clear right away, when he plopped down in the seat across from me at the downstairs bar with an awkward, “hello, mates,” that Toby was our kind of people.

A 19-year-old, floppy-haired Australian on his gap year between school and “Uni,” he was the antithesis of all those annoying elitists you so often encounter in travel circles. Everyone would be sitting downstairs in the hostel pub discussing the various sights and experiences of Prague we’d witnessed that day. Then Toby would pipe up with his daily adventures: he’d slept all morning and surfed YouTube all afternoon. That was it. When fellow hostelers would stare at him quizzically, or disdainfully, he seemed not to notice. He’d just say, “yeah, I saw this wicked video…”

He did this every day. And he didn’t apologize or make excuses. We’d come home from our explorations to find Toby in bed, in front of a computer screen, or scrounging up some food from the common kitchen. In his pajamas. And we pretty much hung out with him every night.

On the evening of our last full day in Prague, we came bustling through the front door of our hostel, frost-bitten, laden with Christmas presents, and running late. “You check game times, I’ll get the boys!” I shouted back to Ben, as I ran up the stairs.

We’d made sketchy plans the previous evening to attend a hockey game with Toby and his travel buddy, Owen. I’ve never attended a hockey game, ever, but the fervor surrounding hockey in the Czech Republic matches the fervor surrounding “football” in the rest of Europe, so I though it was a good place to experience the sport. In fact, one of the hostel receptionists got into a surprisingly heated debate with her friend over which sport was the “national” sport of the Czech Republic.

“TOOOOOOBBBYYYYYY,” I yelled, banging my fists against his door. I’d been standing there for five minutes, pounding the heavy wooden door, my screams echoing through the halls of the hostel. “TOBY! OWEN! I know you’re in there! GET UP!”

Finally I hear a groggy moan: “Who’s there? Bugger off, mate, wouldja?”

“Toby, it’s Brittany, would you open the door?! We’re going to a hockey game, remember? You’re coming!” I heard Owen slowly climb out of bed, shuffle over to the door and turn the lock to let me in. Toby rolled over in bed and put a pillow over his face.

“But I just got in bed!” he whined.

“Toby! It’s six o’clock at night! You’ve been in bed all day!”

“Nuh uh!” I hear his muffled voice arguing from underneath the pillow. “I went out to the bakery and then got on Facebook some, too. I only just got in bed for a nap.”

“‘Just got in bed’ when?” I asked.

“I don’t know. ‘Bout three, I suppose.”

It took much yelling and pillow-throwing from Owen and me to get Toby out of bed. He finally stumbled out, promising to meet us downstairs. He showed up with a parka thrown on top of his pajamas.

As usual, we hadn’t planned well. Turned out that the hockey tournament venue was about an hour train ride outside of Prague. The effort to get there, coupled with the additional expense, our inevitable tardiness, and sub-zero temperatures outside, quickly deflated our excitement. I may have been convinced to go if someone in our group was particularly enthusiastic about it, but we didn’t really keep Toby around as a motivator.

“Want to get some food then?” Toby suggested. Since I’m always game for food, we agreed.

We stepped outside of the hostel, bundled up so tightly that only our eyes and noses poked out from beneath our wool hats. Only then did we realize that we didn’t have a destination in mind. We stood there for a moment, shivering, discussing our options.

“I guess there’s that pizza place next store,” Owen suggested.

“Yeah, but I think that’s closed for the holidays,” I replied.

“I think a lot of restaurants are closed tonight,” Ben said.

“You know, I’m not even hungry,” Toby said, after a bit of self-reflection.

“I’m not really, either, actually,” I agreed. “I guess… let’s just go to the grocery store to get some food for later or something?”

And so, in an anticlimactic turn of events, we ended up walking to the small, local supermarket to pick up some dinner for later. There, Toby was able to once again prove why we liked him so much. He bought a honey pomelo. Because while we shopped for sausage or potatoes or other authentic fare, Toby, in Northern Europe in the middle of winter, shopped for tropical fruit.

Later, when we got back to the hostel, we sat around the large, oak table in the warm kitchen, sharing Toby’s pomelo.

And then Terrance walks in. One of Toby and Owen’s roommates was a Canadian guy whose name I can’t remember as I intentionally tried to erase the knowledge of his existence from my brain. So, for now, I’ll call him Terrance.

It was clear early on that Terrance was NOT our kind of people. He was a one-upper: no matter where you’d been, he’d been there too and done it better. He went out of his way to establish that he was so much cooler than you: he knew all the best beers, the best drinking games, the best local bars. Most annoyingly, he kept coming up with lame excuses to mention his sex life. Now, to people with a maturity level beyond that of a twelve-year-old boy, it’s painfully clear that anyone who talks excessively about their sexual experience to strangers has never actually had any sexual experience at all. That didn’t stop Terrance from inventing games that allowed him to divulge disgusting details no one wanted to hear. “Yeah, there was this girl in college,” he’d say to the uninterested crowd. “And one time we [insert graphic sexual act he’s never experienced but learned about from the porn he buys off the internet]. It was HOT.”

The first night he’d hung out downstairs with us, he’d excused himself early to go “do some work.” When people didn’t seem to be making a big enough deal out of him leaving, he paused at the bottom of the stairs. “Yeah, I can work from abroad… you know, anywhere I want… [still no reaction from the crowd]… my company gives me all this fancy equipment…I’m a web designer… yeah, I know html code… important stuff…” he trailed off as he realized no one was listening, and stormed upstairs. It was a good thing, too, because if Ben hadn’t been there, trying to calm me down, I was about to go off on Terrance in a big way.

Terrance had walked into the kitchen as we were trying to formulate our plans for the evening. We’d thus far avoided the numerous massive nightclubs in Prague, but the general consensus was that the Aussies wanted to celebrate our last night in the city at a popular nearby club. So once again, we donned our many layers, and set off: me, Ben, Owen, Toby, Terrance and a couple other people we picked up on our way out the door.

I’m not a loud, techno-music-loving nightclub kind of person. And Ben’s even less so. As in, it takes some serious peer pressure to convince him to step foot in one. Still, Kross Klub immediately impressed me. The entire club was outfitted in a hardcore industrial motif: whirring car engines hung from the ceiling and rotating gears lined the walls. As opposed to one gigantic space, the club was a maze of small rooms, each with its own bar and music. We wound through narrow staircases, suddenly popping through a door to find ourselves on a dance floor with a DJ spinning trance music and a huge screen on the wall flashing the words TAKE LSD. Other rooms were quieter, just a string of tables and a black-lit bar.

In one such room, we chose a small booth in a corner and squeezed in. Shortly after we sat down, a shifty-eyed Czech man slid up beside our table. “You want to smoke some drugs?” the man whispered in a heavy Czech accent.

We looked at each other, nervously. Sure, we all agreed. ‘Cause you only live once, right? So we made a hasty exchange. The next thing I remember is waking up, freezing and half naked, in the dirt on the side of a road – my feet frostbitten, all my belongings gone, alone, with no idea where I was and how I’d gotten there. And this, my friends, is why you DON’T DO DRUGS.

Just kidding. In case our parents are now worried that they’ve raised children who make Bad Decisions, I’ll tell the truth. We sat in the club, talking for a while. When I couldn’t convince any of the boys to dance with me, I pouted. We eventually left, walked back to our hostel, tiptoed into our room so as not to wake our roommates, and fell asleep in our bunk beds. So there you have it. A boring ending. FINE.

The next morning, we woke early, stocked up on medovnik from the local bakery, and ran to catch the bus that would deliver us, 24 hours later, to Barcelona.

There is a bittersweet part to meeting new, awesome people everyday: you have to leave them. It’s something I never quite got used to—saying goodbye to people that meant something to me with the full knowledge that I’ll never see them again in my life. So even though it breaks my heart that I can’t just call Toby and meet him for lunch on a whim, it’s heartening to know that people like him are out there in the world. Especially since returning home, where I’m bombarded on a daily basis by the media giving me new reasons to believe that people are evil and life is scary, the people we met on our trip help me remember that people are good and life is fun.

So, here’s to everyone we met during our eight months abroad. You rock. Thanks for making our trip, and my life, better.

3 responses so far

May 21 2008

Sweet Home Virginia

Published by under Virginia

The one thing I could never figure out during our entire trip was what it would feel like to finally return home. I knew we were both looking forward to it. Because while traveling around the world is unspeakably amazing, there is also no substitute for the feeling of being surrounded by family and friends. Who speak English. And now that we’ve been back for a couple of weeks, I can say that coming home after eight months to everyone we love was one of the highlights of travel experience. With their help, we’ve been doing our best to grab this bull called Culture Shock by the horns, sleeper-hold it into submission, and ride it straight into a swimming pool full of cattle prods. Here’s a tutorial…


Three days after we landed, NASCAR came to our home city of Richmond. I think the Richmond race is a big deal in the NASCAR world, but I don’t know for sure because I know absolutely nothing about NASCAR, racing, or cars in general. It’s certainly a big deal for Richmond. Something like 100,000 people head for the track, and spend as many hours/days/weeks as possible tailgating before the race. When our friends called to invite us to come along, how could we refuse? Especially when it became clear that no one had any intention of buying tickets for the actual race… everyone was simply going for the tailgating. Righteous.

flags a-flyin'You may or may not know this, but Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. Which may seem like nothing more than an interesting bit of trivia at first glance, seeing as it hasn’t held that distinction for 150 years. But not so for many Richmonders. When the War of Northern Aggression was temporarily suspended in 1865, Richmonders immediately began readying themselves for their inevitable counter attack. Strategic preparations continue to this day, including affixing Confederate flags to pick-up truck antennae, buying cases of Milwaukee’s Best Light on sale at Food Lion, and riding backwards on a wooden roller coaster called The Rebel Yell. Just let those Yankees try something!

But on one day out of the year, Food Lion is empty, the Rebel Yell is silent, and there is a startling shortage of Confederate flags on the highway. Amazingly, I never made the connection until last weekend: that one day is race day. And it’s a good thing the Confederate flags aren’t out trucking around, because we need every last one we can find to properly blanket the racetrack parking lot. Can you imagine if we managed to allow Dale Jr. flags to outnumber the Stars and Bars? Sacrosanct!

supporting our drivers with NASCAR hatsLike I said, I know nothing about NASCAR, so I spent my day eating grilled meats and trying to pick a favorite racer. It was a tough choice until fate introduced me to the merchandise trailer of Greg Biffle. My only criterion for a favorite racer is that his name be satisfying to holler at the top of my lungs in a Southern accent. Biffle, your name is music to my ears, even over the din of a morbidly obese woman in a miniskirt being hungrily spanked by her boyfriend behind the port-a-pottys. And I speak from experience.

2. Pot Luck Surprise Parties

We’re lucky to have friends who threw us a surprise “welcome home” party the Saturday night of the NASCAR race. Of course, at this point, we should just call it a welcome home party. The surprise bit went out the window when Brittany’s sister Lindsay called me to ask me to bring some of my mom’s famous hot crab dip to the party. And drinks. And napkins. Surprise!

partypic2.jpgThe party was great, and it also constituted another one of those “you’re not in SE Asia anymore” moments. We have Chick-Fil-A chicken nugget trays? A vegetable and dip spread? DRINKABLE WATER FROM THE TAP? Traveling in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam was such a different experience than traveling in Western Europe. When I think about the newfound appreciation I have for this horn-o-plenty called the United States, I’m so happy we were able to devote the time we did to exploring these countries. I am, of course, also happy about our time spent in Thailand, but there’s a distinct line between Thailand and its neighbors. That is, Thailand has Mr. Donut.

3. Fishin’

For all the fun I poke at Richmond NASCAR fans, I do have my own deep fried Southern passions. First among these: fishing. Not deep sea fishing or whatever other shenanigans people with too much money (Yankees!) have gotten themselves into. I’m talking about walking down to the lake with a pole, a tackle box, and some nightcrawlers from Bob’s Bait Shop. I’d been itching to get back to fishing ever since our first days in Greece, and this past weekend, Brittany and I finally scratched my itch.

ta da!The important thing, of course, is simply going fishing because it feels like HOME. And it doesn’t really matter if your girlfriend catches five fish and you catch zero. Nope, it really doesn’t. Really really doesn’t.

Other things that matter include catching a fishing pole on the bottom of the lake (this seriously happened, somehow) and the overall experience of patronizing Bob’s Bait Shop.

Yes, Bob’s Bait Shop flies a Confederate flag. Yes, Bob’s Bait Shop sells fake deer for target practice. Yes, Bob’s Bait Shop buys your old swords and guns. And yes, Bob’s Bait Shop’s parking lot is home to a super-size pick-up with the following license plate:


In other words, welcome home!

2 responses so far

May 18 2008

The best part about coming home

Published by under Virginia

Yeah, coming back home has been pretty tough. But it’s also ruled. Why? I have awesome people in my life. Without them, these past couple weeks of re-immersion would have been nearly impossible.

In honor of them, I’ve decided to post snippets of the conversations and emails I’ve enjoyed upon my return.


Pretty much daily since I’ve been home:

Mom: I’m so glad you’re home. Don’t EVER DO THAT AGAIN.


Phone call from mom… pretty much daily since I’ve been home:

Brittany: Hello?

Mom: You answered! I called and you answered. Isn’t this great?

Brittany: Yes, mom. You need anything?

Mom: No.

My phone rings, five minutes later…

Brittany: Hi, mom.

Mom: You answered again! I just like hearing your voice. This is so great!

Brittany: Okay, this is has got to stop.


E-mail from friend, Taylor:

I don’t think you need to feel sad at all. Because, for one thing, when you are Brittany, you never REALLY know what the day will bring, right? Who knows what you could trip over, or what you will find on sale at Gap.

…Besides, you never know what’s going to happen. Ten years ago, when you were sitting on the floor beside our lockers mooching Ben’s Cokes and my sandwiches at lunch time, did you have even the faintest tiniest sliver of an idea that you would be where you are right now?

So in ten more years, who knows where you will be. Maybe, like, THE MOON.


Finally seeing Taylor in person, upon walking in the room:

Taylor: OH MY GOD, you’re a different color!


Calling the grandparents. Part of “Nana” played by elderly woman with thick, Southern accent:

Brittany: Hey, Nana!

Hey Brittany… you back on this side yet?


Dad, upon overhearing a conversation between me and mom on the way back from the airport:

Dad: Wait, where was this?

You know, the homestay we did in Cambodia.

Dad: [blank stare]

Brittany: We wrote about it on the blog.

Dad: [blank stare]

Brittany: You didn’t read my blog??

Dad: Well… I read some of it.

Brittany: You mean to tell me that strangers all over the world keep up with my blog and my own father doesn’t?!?!

[awkward pause]… your car needs brakes.

Thanks, Dad


A phone call with my sister:

Brittany: The dreaded time has come! I’m coming over to get all the clothes you stole from my closet.

Lindsay: I didn’t steal THAT MUCH, okay? Just a few things for work.

Brittany: That’s fine, whatever. Have you seen my gray hoodie?

Lindsay: Yeah… okay, I’m wearing it.


E-mail from friend, Allison:

Welcome home! You should shower daily.

2 responses so far

May 14 2008

Tales We Never Told: Full Moon Party

Published by under Ko Pha-Ngan,Thailand

The first in a series of stories we never got around to telling while on the road…

Where: Ko Pha-Ngan. What: the BIG one. Why: Not sure?

ben with ollie and kevin, arriving via longboat at the full moon partyI’m talking, of course, about the Full Moon Party on the Thai island of Ko Pha-Ngan. The party occurs every night of the full moon (that’s once a month, for the astronomically challenged) and has achieved legendary status around the world. What started as a small effort by local bar owners to lure backpackers over to Hat Rin beach has exploded over the years to become one of the biggest parties in the world. During Thailand’s high tourism season (December – February) this all-night rave draws more than 30,000 people to one small island beach. And not ALL of them are rolling on more drugs than I’ve even heard of. OK, they probably are.

We arrived on Ko Pha-Ngan a few days before the Full Moon Party, and settled ourselves far far away from Hat Rin beach. We came to the island looking for peace, quiet, and everything the Full Moon Party had pledged to purge from this world. During our first few days of beach lounging and hammock naps, the possibility of attending the Full Moon Party did come up in a couple of conversations. But it always sounded something like this:

Brittany: Hey, do you want to go to the Full Moon Party?
Ben: (asleep)

I’m not a betting man, but in those lazy days before Full Moon, I would have advised a betting man to bet against the chance that I’d ever see the party.

Scratch that last paragraph. The truth is that I’m very much a betting man, but it’s hard to make many bets when you’re asleep and out of money. And in the interest of holding onto my girlfriend, I wanted to avoid depicting myself as lazy, destitute, AND dangerously drawn to gambling. But there, I’ve said it. And see, Brittany? I may be a bankrupt, slothful gambler but I’m so HONEST. And wouldn’t you agree that HONESTY is a veritable PILLAR of any strong relationship? Wouldn’t you? Brittany?

Anyway, it’s a good thing I was out of money, because what I didn’t count on was meeting a group of four Irish travelers there on our beach one afternoon, who had every intention of attending the Full Moon Party. I don’t know if it was their merry accents or their inspirational ability to down fourteen pints of Guiness in one night (each) but within five minutes of meeting them, Brittany and I had decided to accompany these wee, green people to Hat Rin. Also, it wasn’t lost on me that the Full Moon Party goes on past sunrise, and this might well be my best chance yet of fulfulling my lifelong ambition to receive an authentic “Top o’ the morning to ye!”

Our bargaining powers combined, the six of us hired a boat to motor us to Hat Rin at aroud 6:00pm the night of the party, and then to bring us back to our peaceful/secluded/all-around-better beach the next morning.

After hearing so many stories over the years about the Full Moon Party, I have to say that my first impression of Hat Rin beach is that it was much smaller than I had pictured it. We attended the party in April, when an estimated 8,000 people attend, and that beach was PACKED. Where do the extra 22,000 people even FIT in the high season?

full moon partySo that you can picture it yourself, the beach consists of a short string of virtually identical bars, with stools and/or bamboo mats in the sand in front of every one. At one end of the beach is a giant wooden sign saying “THE ORIGINAL FULL MOON PARTY” or something to that effect. You don’t really notice that sign until after the sun sets, which is when people set it on fire. Then you spend a few minutes strangely mesmerized by the sight of it, until some twirling raver in a trance accidentally knocks you in the face with a glo-stick. Don’t bother confronting him about it. If you succeed in waking him from his trance, he’ll just start begging you to touch his skin because “it feels so WEIRD…”

Yeah, it’s pretty much just like that. If you’re picturing any open space in the beach area, fill it with half-naked people. Oh, and BUCKETS.

bucket vendorsBuckets is one Full Moon phenomenon that I can really get behind. They are the preferred method of imbibery at this party. For three or four bucks, you can buy a plastic bucket (think beach pail) outfitted with a flask of liquor, a can of soda, a can of red bull, and as many straws as you can carry. Once you make your liquid choices, the seller opens all the containers, skillfully pours them all into the bucket at the same time, and hands the concotion over for you to take away.

Depending on what you want to spend, your liquor options are pretty boundless when it comes to buckets. When I said three or four bucks, I was referring to OUR spirit of choice: Thai rice whiskey. Thai rice whiskey isn’t really the smartest choice, but it IS the cheapest. And it’s not SO bad… there’s even a recognized national brand of rice whiskey, whose prosperity leads me to believe that it must have some semblance of quality control. That’s what we were GOING to pick, until we found a shady bucket seller with generic Thai whiskey. We chose… poorly.

But enough about the next morning. The bucket sellers set up small stands all along the streets that run between the bars, away from the beach. Additionally, they have laid claim to one stretch of beach in between two bars. Here, bucket stands are all tightly squashed together end to end. And since they’re all selling the exact same product at the exact same price, they’ve tried to get creative when it comes to distinguishing themselves. Toward this goal of capturing market share, there are two preferred methods…

1. Yelling. Walking by the beach lineup of bucket stands is a gauntlet-like experience. Every bucket seller leans way over their countertop, arm extended, shouting anything and everything they know (or don’t know) in English. “Hey you!”, “Bucket bucket!” and “You buy someting!” are favorites. The most perplexing part of this phenomenon is that despite the fact that the guy in the very last stand just watched you blatantly ignore the cries of the previous 29 bucket sellers, you can count on being greeted by his outstretched arm and cries of “Bucket bucket!” Of course, you’re really only able to make out the individual sales pitches by getting pretty close to the stands. From any reasonable distance, the whole affair sounds exactly like: “AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”

2. Signs. Every bucket stand’s got a big one painted on the front. The vast majority, I’m sorry to report, are far too lewd to repeat without heavy censoring. Either way, here is a small sampling…

  • Same Same But BETTER Bucket
  • F%*$ Bucket: Make You F%*$ Long Time!
  • Bethlehem Bucket: Jesus’ Favorite!

You get the idea. I think we did try Same Same But BETTER Bucket, and were disappointed to find its product to be, you guessed it, exactly the same as everyone else’s. But just think: if we hadn’t tried it, would I ever be able to get to sleep again? Or would I lie awake, consumed by the thought that maybe, just maybe, that bucket WAS same same but better? I just couldn’t do that to myself OR to Brittany. Again, Brittany, you’re looking at marriage material here.

surprise!And so our night was spent hanging out with four cool new Irish friends, dodging unsolicited offers of questionable drugs, and trying to keep up with one particular bucket that Brittany really wanted to bring home as a souvenir. All in all, the night goes by quickly during the Full Moon Party (the buckets help with that) and before we knew it, it was time to meet our boat driver for a ride back.

What they DON’T tell you about the Full Moon Party is that around 3am, the beach evolves into an obstacle course fit for one of those gross-out episodes of Fear Factor. We had to step over scores of people passed out on the sand (face up/face down/face buried in sand) and showing debatable signs of life. Several other unconscious bodies were being carried off the beach by friends or Good Samaritans. In hopes of escaping this maze, we made our way down to the waterline, figuring we could wade our way down the beach faster than we could body-hop. Big mistake.

Because while there ARE free public restrooms at Hat Rin Beach, drunk people prefer the ocean. Not a big deal if one or two people choose to relieve themselves that way. BIG DEAL when 8,000 people relieve themselves that way at the same time. Both genders. We quickly hopped back out of the water, and shuddered when we finally had to wade our way back through a crowd to get to our boat. I was so tired when we finally arrived back at our beach an hour later… but not too tired for a shower.

Conclusion: If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Ko Pha-Ngan during the full moon, the Full Moon Party is worth the excursion. But please: after midnight, stay out of the water.

2 responses so far

May 13 2008

About the T-Shirts

Published by under Travel

A little while ago, Brittany posted an announcement that we’re now able to sell Euros Ate My Dollars T-shirts through a company called CafePress.

When the T-shirts went on sale, we didn’t have anything in the way of a product sample from CafePress. Since then, my beautiful, supportive, fiscally liberal mother ordered herself the black version of one of the T-shirts, and we’ve discovered that the color fidelity on the black shirt leaves something to be desired.

My mother called CafePress to complain that the colors looked muted on her shirt, and they are sending her a replacement in gray, so we’ll soon see how that looks. Until then, if you’d like to buy a T-shirt, I would recommend choosing one of the lighter colors.

And if you’ve already received a dark shirt only to find that the color printing proved disappointing, then please note that CafePress seems to be willing to make the issue right. Give them a call at 1-877-809-1659, explain the difference between the online product photo and the actual shipped product, and hopefully they will work as hard to fix the issue as they did for my mother.

Updates to come, as soon as we can get a lighter version of the shirt in for inspection.

One response so far

May 08 2008

The mo’ problems we see

Published by under Virginia

Shiny. Shiny and new and big. That’s America.

Driving home from the airport, I was amazed at how wide the roads are. How you actually have room to drive on them. How clean and new everything seems. How open and spacious it all is.

There are things I appreciated immediately after landing in the great big U.S. of A. I can read that entire sign! I know how to work a pay phone! I can eat uncooked food and not get typhoid! And there is so much diversity here! Any given crowd is full of so many colors of people. You don’t really appreciate how great that is until you experience being an outsider in an ethnically homogeneous country.

Other things were harder to adjust. For one, our conversational skills. After eight months of conversing only with each other or non-native English speakers, we basically know how to communicate using three phrases: “can do” vs. “can no do,” “have” vs. “no have,” and “same same” vs. “same same, but different.” That plus wild gesticulation. Ben tried to order a bagel in New York by making a circle with his forefingers and thumbs, showing the formation to the cashier and asking loudly, “Have bagel? BAGEL?” In San Francisco, I accidentally thanked a woman in Thai (“khap khun kaa”). A woman who happened to be Asian. She looked at me like she couldn’t decide if she should be offended or if I was just a crazy person.

For eight months, we’ve had to approach any given conversation like a puzzle: how can I communicate with this person? How can I determine if and how much English they speak? How should I pantomime what I need? It’s been difficult to abandon that mindset. Not only do ALL the people I talk to understand me perfectly, they share my same accent and vernacular. It is mind-bogglingly easy to get anything I need here. I almost miss the challenge!

Although it was nice to go away for eight months and pretend like real life doesn’t exist, my happy little bubble popped when I walked in my mom’s house and saw the massive pile of mail waiting for me, mostly foreboding little white window envelopes with my name printed in scary, black ink. With every envelope I opened, I became more depressed. It was all, your-car-insurance-is-due-you-should-pay-your-student-loan-get-this-credit- card-what’s-your-credit-score?- your-mutual-fund-lost-money-are-you-saving- for-retirement-don’t-forget-to-get-your-oil-changed-your-health-insurance-is-

So I turned on the TV to escape for a while and everything is all Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

I suddenly felt stifled and claustrophobic, so decided to walk with my dad around our neighborhood. This didn’t help either.

The houses are so HUGE. I was amazed that this had never struck me before. I always thought my parents lived in your typical, no-big-deal, suburban neighborhood—which they do. But, oh my GOD, no one needs a house this size! Seriously, I’ve seen how many hammocks can fit into a small, bamboo hut. I’ve seen entire extended families living in these huts. They don’t have studies. They don’t have formal dining rooms. And, yet, somehow, they survive.

Then I see three-person families driving massive SUVs. Why? Why do they drive such big cars? And if they are going to, can’t they at least offer rides to people? I mean, you could fit at least 25 more people on those things—inside, on the roof, hanging out the window… Otherwise, get a motorbike. A family of five can fit comfortably on a motorbike. Really!

I’ve appreciated the opportunity to view my homeland objectively for the first time in 26 years. But my first impression was not a good one: everything—everything—in this country is about MONEY. During my first few days back, this was a constant source of hopelessness for me.

My depression reached a climax when I accompanied my mom on an innocent visit to the local grocery store. Everything was so big and well-lit and organized and excessive and expensive, and instead of making me grateful, it sent me into a fit of tears. Because, you know, people in Laos don’t even HAVE grocery stores; they slave every day in the heat, growing rice to feed their families. And here I am trying to decide between varieties of imported feta.

On the way home, I called my friend Allison, who I knew would give me the virtual slap in the face I needed. She did, by telling me that I better get my shit together before her wedding reception on Saturday, in a threatening but jovial bridezilla voice. And it’s true. ’Cause if an aisle full of sugar cereals will make me break down, crystal stemware and floral centerpieces will really put me over the edge.

I’ve tried to keep in mind that so many of the people we met were happy—happier than most people I’ve ever met here at home. I mean, how can you survive something as terrible as the Khmer Rouge as a child and still welcome someone into your home with a huge smile and a delicious meal?

I’ve also been listening to “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” a lot.

No matter how many financial troubles you think you have, no matter if you consider yourself average or “middle-class,” keep in mind that you are UNFATHOMABLY rich to the large percentage of the world’s population.

In an effort to make me feel better about having so much STUFF, the day after I returned I went on a purging rampage. I attacked my closet and the many packed boxes littering my room and starting throwing things away. Ben came over to find several giant bags full of clothes outside my door, and me running frantically around my room tossing things into them. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Giving away my stuff because I HATE ALL OF IT,” I growled. He ran away and probably had a serious discussion about my sanity with my family.

I’m better now. A bit more readjusted. I promise.

I also wanted to purge my wardrobe because I am seriously incapable of deciding what to wear on any given day. Having spent months with only one pair of shorts and three shirts to choose from, I can’t handle so many options.

I’m also incapable of making ANY decision without Ben by my side. For eight months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I’ve had Ben beside me, giving his input on every decision. I don’t know what to do with myself when I turn around and he’s not there.

When I reactivated my cell phone, I promptly called Ben, not realizing that I hadn’t talked to him on the phone in nearly a year. Our first phone conversation went a little something like this:



“This is weird.”

“Really weird.”

“You should probably just come over.”

Needless to say, returning home has taken more getting used to than I anticipated. After a little handy internet research (what did people DO before Google?), I’ve been able to take solace in the fact that we’re not the only long-term travelers experiencing reverse culture shock.

But I don’t want to make it seem like this readjustment period has been all bad. There are certain things that I will forever be grateful to my home for providing. Things like toilet paper. And drawers. Drinkable tap water. Reliable electricity. The comfortable feeling that no one is trying to pickpocket me.

Our friends decided that the best way to re-acclimate Ben and me to Virginia culture was to tailgate at the NASCAR race last Saturday. In hindsight, our acceptance of the invitation might have been a little hasty. I saw enough ass-cracks and distended beer bellies (how do they get so big? Why do they wear them with such pride?) to last me a lifetime. But that story, along with a couple other surprises our family and friends had in store for us, is for next time on EAMD.

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