Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Give Me Burgers or Give Me Death!

Today was a day of burgers and temples in Chiang Mai, one of the major tourist cities in northern Thailand.

Just a temple down the road from our hotel. NBD.

Inside Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai built 700 years ago.

Being surrounded by religion, I’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality. I guess I’ve always been frustrated when people talk about being spiritual, because I never understand what they mean. I’ve always felt like it’s kind of a buzzword/a cool way of saying that you believe in something off the beaten track and indescribable. And I know that I’m being incredibly judgmental (keep in mind, I’ve had some bad experiences with religion in the Bible Belt), but sometimes I feel like some people sound so pretentious when they talk about their spirituality. So today, inside this temple, I tried to get KHoar to explain her conception of religion to me. She talked about believing in fated choices, something intangible that is bigger than her, and the search for a higher truth.

I guess that for me, I believe that everything in this world is physical—love and emotions are chemical reactions (which is pretty beautiful in and of itself), the bigger thing at work in this world is science, and when you die, that’s it.  And for some strange reason, acknowledging that this life is all that I have, that my choices shape my life, and that at the end of the day all I can fall back on is me comforts me.

I understand that this sort of belief reflects the luxury of having a good life. It’s easy for me to think that life is the be all end all, because I don’t live in abject poverty that I can’t escape, I don’t have to deal with the repercussions of an abusive relationship, and I don’t feel trapped within a social system that I can’t escape. I don’t need to believe that there is a heaven to look forward to or that, in the afterlife, wealthy but cruel people will meet their fate.

So I guess, in that sense, I understand the need for religion. Like in Rwanda, this group of Hutu and Tutsi women lived together after suffering at the hands of each other during the genocide and, when asked how they did it, one woman pointed to the cross on the wall and said God.  Bottom line is just that I wish people would say what they mean and not assume that we all have to spiritual (an idea I’ve run up against many times back home in Tennessee), but just be open to discussion. 

Hungry after our conversations, we decided to hunt down burgers. After 20 minutes of walking and another 20 minutes of driving around, we gave up on the place recommended by Lonely Planet right at the spot (the Kodak store) where we had started our food journey. Ironically, the same two guys staring a map in confusion were right where we left them 40 minutes later. Farang problems.

But not to worry, we found a place.

What can I say? It’s been three long weeks without burgers and watching cows just walk around in the streets and shit wherever they please. I had to get me some beef!

In other news, I had a lot of questionable water today. I ate some ice in two places, drank from a water thing at a temple, and had some water at a restaurant that Katie refused to touch. So we’ll see how my stomach holds up over the next couple of days. I feel like I might be subconsciously testing it since I didn’t get sick in India. Oh well, Thailand pretty much feels like the US after India anyways.

Monday, February 27, 2012

For Someone Who Does Not Prefer Hiking, I Do It A Lot

After a 4 hour plane ride, a 17 hour train ride, a 5 hour bus ride, another 1 hour truck ride, 7 rejection letters, and 5 hours of sleep, I was not at my best when Katie and I arrived at the Akha Hill People's Hotel in the mountains of Chiang Rai. Our room/cabin, however, was GORGEOUS.

Bright and early the next morning, we nommed on the "American Breakfast," which is just basically the option with the most food. Then we headed out on our trek. The first 20 minutes were brutal--very steep uphill. Grumpy Sophie was not pleased. But we soon got into the jungle, and our guides stopped to make us bamboo cups.

I actually would have paid good money for these if I had seen them on the street. Our two guides made these in like ten minutes. They decided to teach Khoar and me how to make them, but my machete skills are not up to par. There was a lot of lawlzing.

Afterwards, we trekked up to a river, where our guides taught us how to catch fish and crabs with our hands. For those of you who don't know me, I am horribly phobic of fish. If one touches me, I flip a shit. So Hoar and I let them do the fishing while I stood on a rock overseeing the process and Katie became obsessed with banana leaves.

This is the river where we, well I should say our guides, caught our lunch. Then, they smoked the fish and crab and crawfish in bamboo rods, made rice, and noddle soup, all using bamboo rods and banana leaves. AHHHHHH! Ridiculous. KHoar and I didn't want to tell them that neither of us like seafood so I ended up eating a crawfish and crab legs. Let me tell you, my intuitions not to ever eat anything that swims was 100% accurate. In general, I think my decisions not to try things are more often right than wrong; so remember this people whenever you try and make me try things. That was a HUGE step for me.

Then we did some more hiking around the jungle. The views were so beautiful, but there is like a constant bit of fog over the hills so the pictures really can't do the landscape justice.

We met some of the local Akha people when we brought them our leftover food.

Afterwards, we walked through some tea leave terraced hills down to a truck that took us to a river where a bunch of elephants were splashing around. We took a boat across the river, and got on Tom, a 20 year old elephant. Unlike my ride on Sonya (the Indian elephant), I got to ride on Tom's neck for most of the trip. IT WAS SO COOL. Seriously, Heffalumps are my favorite animals. Fun facts: they mourn when another dies, and they are a matriarchal society.

As much as we loved the Heffalumps, we had to leave them to finish the day with hot springs and waterfalls. Finally, some activities for my inner waterchild.

We finished the day out eating pad thai and drinking freshly squeezed orange juice in a treetop terrace overlooking the mountains. This whole trip (which was pretty expensive) was worth every penny.

I must say that, so far, I am really loving Thailand. The people are so incredibly polite, helpful, and respectful, especially in comparison with Indians. For instance, I decided to take the metro in Bangkok rather than pay 10 dollars for a taxi, and so I, of course, got incredibly lost. Two girls that barely spoke English spent half and hour helping me find my guesthouse, and they didn't even ask for a tip! For me, I think that no matter how beautiful a country is physically or historically, I can't love it if I don't love the people and the culture.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Brief Aside from Traveling

For first time in my life, if you don’t count my childhood dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, I have failed. I spent this past summer interning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program, and nannying on the side so that I could afford to keep an unpaid position. I worked from 9 am to 9 pm every day and spent anywhere from 1 to 3 hours commuting, depending on the bus schedule. At night and on the weekends, I studied for the GREs. Finally in late September, I decided that my lifestyle was not something that I could keep up for even another month so I came home to apply to graduate school.

After interning for a Congressman, a non-profit, and a think tank as well as studying abroad, I realized that my heart really lies in academics. As nerdy as it is to admit this, I loved writing my thesis. I enjoyed every minute of the interviews I conducted in Uganda. I realized that I have a talent for teaching when I spent my senior spring giving presentations on the Rwandan genocide at local high schools. And on a more emotional level, I have grown up on college campuses. When I was little my brother and I ran around the University of Missouri’s quad while we waited for our mom to get off of work at the museum, and I still go to work in my dad’s office at MTSU when I come home. I feel comforted by the smell of libraries, and I thoroughly enjoy editing my friends’ papers. In short, I felt and still feel that I have figured out what I want to do in my life. The next logical step, then, was getting the degrees I needed to become a professor.

While I didn’t expect to get into Princeton or Yale, I thought I had a chance at Wisconsin or Northwestern. But, as it turns out, on this trip I have received seven rejections from the seven schools I applied to. And looking back on it, I really honestly couldn’t have done anything differently. I had great grades, a personal statement that I am still proud of, solid recommendations, and plenty of summer internship experience. And that still wasn’t enough. I was not enough.

I am trying to stay positive, reminding myself that today I am not enough—this year I am not enough. But that next year or the year after I will be. That this is still the career that I want and, as I have said before, I will put my head down, toughen it out, and do whatever it is in my power to make this work.

But for the moment, I feel beaten down. I don’t really know what else to do. I have tried so hard to get a job, but the competition is fierce, and working a nannying job to gain experience with an unpaid internship has meant that I can barely afford to live in expensive cities like DC or New York. Even if I lived at home, saving every penny I earned this coming summer, I still would not be able to cover the costs of rent, food, transportation, and student loans. I don’t know what to do anymore. I obviously haven’t given up, but I have never felt so beaten down in my life.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how much you sacrifice, there just aren’t any opportunities.  And where do you go from there?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It's Been Real India

I’m sitting in the Delhi airport waiting to catch my flight to Bangkok, where Katie Hoar is going meet me. Thinking back to my first night in India, I honestly cannot believe that I stuck it out, and that I only had two moments of homesickness. And as expected, I feel like I am walking away here not as a completely different person but definitely as a changed one.

On my last day in Delhi, I went to an expensive cafĂ© in a wealthy part of the city. Bordered on either side by first world hotels and business offices comparable to those in New York City, the coffee shop felt just like a Starbucks. Yet as I enjoyed my over-priced hot chocolate and bummed around on the internet, I noticed a beggar and her child tapping on the window at me. That image of a woman living in abject poverty but surrounded by wealth pretty much sums up India to me.  It definitely is a country on the move; the statistics don’t lie. But the inequality between rural and urban centers as well as the lower and higher castes continues to challenge this nation. Watching this country struggle to move beyond its colonial legacies always brings me back to my experiences in Uganda and Rwanda, two nations that are hopefully on the same economic trajectory as India but much further behind. I suppose I already knew this, but our mathematical measurements of development cannot even begin to paint a picture of the complexity of economic success. There are very real winners and very real losers, and I think that, as political scientists, we really need to focus on creating strategies that foster more equitable development rather than overall economic success.

I also spent my remaining time in Delhi thinking about myself and how I grown from this journey. In the past, most of my inner thoughts have been highly critical of myself, and I haven’t really thought about the downside to this sort of internal dialogue simply because it has helped me be so successful thus far. But in constantly pushing myself to make better grades, run further, tackle harder, and travel more, I have not been my own best friend. I have not acknowledged my positive attributes, preferring to focus on my negatives. But after traveling alone and really mediating on myself, I can say that if I had to pick a word to define myself it would resilience. I don’t give up. I always challenge myself. And when things get hard, I put my head down and push through. Yeah, I cry about it and whine and mope, but the important thing is that I am always moving forward. I made it through this time here. I traveled alone in one of the worst places in the world to be a woman (I think India ranks 3rd on this list). I stuck it out on trains where I got groped, I held my head high after men grabbed me on the street, and I fended off many many sexually inappropriate comments/actions. So whatever other flaws that I may possess and believe me there are many, I can say with absolute certainty that I am an incredibly strong woman. 

And so in spite of everything, I leave India feeling empowered.

Goodbye Pink City

Kels and I spent our last day in the pink city watching the Bollywood movie that I didn't get to finish in Delhi, Agneepath. Seeing it twice was definitely helpful; although, I still can't understand Hindi. English subtitles, please? 

We also explored three of the main historical sites of Jaipur--the City Palace, where the reigning king still lives, the Jantar Mantar, which is full of instruments used to study the stars, and the Hawa Mahal, a gorgeous palace filled with small windows that women could use to view the street. 

From the City Palace. There was also this museum of textiles that the royal families had worn, and they were unbelievably beautiful. But they didn't allow cameras. I guess ya just had to be there. 

The various sundials and instruments that people have used to study astronomy at the Jantar Mantar. This is about all that I can say. Everything looked super cool, but I could not tell you how even one of them worked. We did, however, meet this beautiful old Indian woman who politely asked to have her picture taken with us. LOVED IT!

This palace, the Hawa Mahal, is connected to the City Palace and located on one of the main streets of Jaipur, which is full of absurdly expensive tourist shops. One man tried to charge me 1200 rupees for a scarf and, when I walked away after saying 200, he followed me into the street bargaining down until he finally sold it to me for 200 rupees. That's a price difference of 20 dollars. On the same road, a young boy was bold enough to grab my breast in front of everyone, reminding me of a quote by Lara Logan that I'll steal from Biff. "When women are harassed and subjected to this in society, they're denied an equal place in that society. Public spaces don't belong to them. Men control it. It reaffirms the oppressive role of men in the society."I think that quote pretty much sums up what I think about gender issues in India.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Future

Over the past week, Kels and I have spent a lot of time talking about graduate school, summer jobs, careers, and just our futures in general. I guess I'm just sort of coming to terms with the idea that nothing is going to be certain or set in stone for another couple of years--that we're all a little bit lost, but that's just what our 20s are for. 

For those of us that went to Hamilton, I feel like we all graduated with this sense of urgency. Get a job, find an apartment, and settle down into life. But for most of us (with the great exception of economics and computer science majors), we have all struggled meet our own expectations. And that is such a hard thing. Graduating from a school like Hamilton with honors and prizes, I felt like I would be a failure if I didn't end up with a job in my career field by the end of summer, which is the well established grace period for recent graduates. I even felt a bit embarrassed to take on an absolutely amazing internship at CSIS just because it was, well, still an internship. Even now, when people ask me what I do, I hesitate. Did I just graduate from school? Am I unemployed? Former intern? Hopeful applicant to graduate school? Traveler? There are so many possible answers, but I'm not really happy with any of them.

I guess, I think that it's just time to embrace this sort of phase in my life. Yeah, I feel incredibly lost and frustrated that I don't have a job. And yeah, I feel like a HUGE loser when I have to check the unemployed box when I fill out my visa applications. And I obviously hate telling people that I moved back home to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But I'm also realizing that these moments do not define me and, more importantly, that most of us feel this way right now. And Hamilton definitely did not and could not prepare us for these feelings. No matter what, it's hard to go from a environment in which we were all overachievers to one in which, try as we might, many of us just cannot get those jobs that we want. And that is okay. It is okay to feel lost. To apply to Ivy League graduate schools we can't get into. To fill out thirty job applications that we know we won't here back from. To dream big, but to feel crushed when we just can't make it. To re-evaluate. To fly half way around the world to seem cool, while we really are just avoiding starting our lives. That's what our 20s are for.

(Inset cliche picture of me pensively looking out into the distance. Obviously, I am thinking of very wise profound things)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Indian Weddings and Heffalumps

I must say that after Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra, I had had fun, but was overall just kind of over India and ready to head off to Thailand. But Jaipur has definitely changed my perspective. It's more of what I expected to see in India--development side-by-side with third world poverty, which definitely interested my inner but not so inner world politics nerd. 

After just being in the old city for just one hour, Kels and I were already invited to drink Indian chai and go to a wedding. Our guide told us that it's wedding season here in Jaipur, and they are EVERYWHERE. It's not quite what I expected (all my expectations obviously come from Monsoon Wedding), but still so gorgeous. We were just so overwhelmed by all of the colorful sarees and cute little kids that were excited to see some Americans. 

 Kels and I had a HUGE day today. We woke up bright at early at 7:45, ate a rather interesting bit of toast with jam that tasted like koolaide and cornflakes with boiling milk. Hmmm, failed Indian attempt at Western breakfast?? Then we headed off to the Amber Palace, which was beautiful. It's hundreds of years old, and absolutely stunning. 

Some of the inner gardens.

We also visited the Jaigarh Fort (pictured above), which is over 1000 years old. And Kels nerded out in the armory looking a guns after we saw the biggest cannon in the world. The cannon ball weighs about 50 kilograms which is just as much as me.  AHHHHH! 

Some of the gorgeous artwork in the palace. I seriously want someone to do this to my future house. 

True life: snake charmers are not just in Disney Movies!!

After our fort explorations, we rode elephants!! Well an elephant who was 23 years old named Sonya, which is actually the same name as Sophia just in a different language. WE WERE MEANT TO BE!! It was sooo cool. Elephants are probably my favorite animal, and I was just dying. We also got to meet a baby elephant, who was just 5 years old. Her name was the Hindi word for Smiley, and she would not stop dancing. In the picture, Kels is teaching her how to toe-tap, which she picked up pretty quickly. 

After our wildlife adventures, we tried on sarees. AHHHHH! So tempting. I will say that once again, I had another uncomfortable incident with an Indian man. He took me and Kelsey into the dressing rooms separately, and put us into sarees. We had to take off our pants and shirts, which is fine with me. But then he tried to get me to take off the rest of my clothes. It was just really really frustrating. 

I feel like most of what a lot the Indian men that I have encountered know about American culture and American women comes from Hollywood. So they think that we are all so incredibly sexual and just available at all times. They think it's hilarious that we drink beer, and I don't know if they think that they are being forward. I dunno. Maybe I'm wrong. But I also feel like sexuality is kind of repressed here, but society is still pretty oversexed with Bollywood movies and music videos. So when men see white women, it's like a jackpot. This is all speculation though so I dunno. I will say, though, that these three experiences now have really colored my trip in not such a great way. They've made it really hard to just sort of step back and appreciate India for its culture and color and history.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

¿Donde esta el tigre?


Just kidding. We went at the right time of year, to the right park, in almost the right zone, but ALAS we did not see them. What was cool, though, is that we heard the alarm calls of the deer, which means that we were very very close to them, but the brush just hid them from us. AHHHHHH! We were so dejected, especially because the tigers that we were so close to were two cubs!!

Anyways, the park itself was GORGEOUS.

Here is some wildlife that we saw!

Sloth bear!! All of the people who hadn't seen tigers (like 4 jeeps) all spent like half an hour taking pictures/stalking this bear at the end of the trip. He was such a cute whittle guy though!

That's it for now. Final Score: Tigers 1, Sophie and Kelsey 0.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Ahh, the Taj Mahal. They definitely call it a wonder of the world for a reason. Despite all the hype, it did disappoint. Held together with limestone, honey, sugar, and egg yolk (according to our guide), the Taj is perfectly symmetrical and pure marble with precious stones carved into it. For those of you who don't know, it was built as a symbol of love for the king's fourth wife, who unlike the previous three, bore him 14 children!! So if you want your own personal Taj, you know what to do ladies.

Just a few more fun facts. At the time, the cost was 16 million dollars. IMAGINE THAT WITH INFLATION! Seriously. And four chapters of the Koran are written on the walls, and jewels all over the building so that it glows at night!!

One of the entrance gates. Also VERY VERY beautiful.

Some of carved detailing on the walls.

Several shots from the photo shoot that our guide insisted on taking of us. They were RIDICULOUS!

The only cute one.

I rode a camel!! The guy tried to charge me 50 rupees, but then he let me do it for free! I also made a great bargain in a jewelry shop, where I bought two small stud earrings that are "the star of India" which is a really rare stone in India that will be gone in five years. Or so he said. Who knows. It could be a total scam, but they were really pretty and I bargained them down from 50 American to 20 American!! They're sooooo cool, so I'm pleased.

Anyways, tigers tomorrow! Overexcited, but tired since we just had a 7 hour drive across India. I'll talk more about that later, but it was definitely a lot like rural Uganda and Rwanda. Like exactly the same!!