This will be an attempt to make a summation of the six weeks we spent in Southeast Asia and China. As I begin, most of our experiences are overlapping in my mind, blurring the boundaries of where and when. I think this is a reflection of being away for six weeks. These summaries are easier when the journeys are a week or two. I’ll just talk about my thoughts as they enter my brain.
First, everywhere we went produced feedback from our guides that it was safe to walk around their cities. I don’t even recall anyone cautioning us about evening walks. Compare that to our country… I guess one could make the argument that New York is safe at night as long as you stay on 5th Avenue between 42nd and Central Park. But don’t walk into the Park after dark. This is not to say that all Asian cities are free of crime… But there were no concerns raised about assaults. I found that refreshing. I’ll add an element to this by restating a general impression that we were treated with curiosity, interest, and respect, by the locals.
I also thought it was interesting that most children are taught English in school… In fact, many private schools teach everything in English. So if you are unemployed, or want an exciting adventure, come on over and be an English teacher !!! Most are from the Philippines because they are cheaper than we would expect. In China, kids learn English and Cantonese in school, while speaking their native language at home. But a lot of the adults we met learn their English from watching movies and participating in conversation. One of our highlites was being approached by two Vietnamese boys from an English-learning club, who wanted to speak with us in order to assess their skills (and have an experience with Westerners).
Which brings me to Vietnam… A close look at the photo above displays a complete absence of simmering tension between past enemies. In fact, it was John McCain who led the American effort to normalize relations with Vietnam after the War. In Vietnam, it was known as the America War, and it was their last, in a long line, of conflicts leading to their reunification and independence. They saw it as more about manifest destiny than a political ideology. And today, the war of their grandparents is in the past, replaced by 50 years of peace and prosperity. In Vietnam, Uncle Ho ( Ho Chi Minh) is their George Washington. I say this with respect… This guy beat the French and Americans… Don’t know anyone else who can say that!!!
And all the countries we visited are prospering. While my human-rights-activist (and editor) daughter may dispute this, the people seem content with their authoritarian governments. They see their lot in life as improving. Families in Vietnam can afford another motorbike, while Chinese families are buying cars and condos. These may be communist countries, but they have found a blend of socialist capitalism that allows individuals to accumulate wealth. It’s the same in Thailand, except the country is run by the military… Capitalism lives there as well. Finally, the governments seem to be pumping money and resources back to the people via healthcare and social programs. The Chinese are pushing for anything that cleans their air and rivers. Lots of solar heating, mass transit projects, and thousands of planted trees. And they don’t believe that wind turbines cause cancer.
I could go on about the places, but these have been adequately described in previous posts. I’ll focus here on the people.
The locals employed in the service industries are very well trained and genuinely gracious-. For example, the further away we got from the major cities, the more language became an issue. But our hotels went out of their way to always have someone on call for us who spoke better English. It was a regular deal for three or four of our attendants come to the car to say goodbye as we left.
I also found it quite refreshing that the elders, who were coddled and looked after by their kids and grandkids, were always accessible to me by eye contact and smiles. Many was the time that I spontaneously shook hands, and in return, received gracious acknowledgments. No verbal language skills needed.
Mrs Bear got in on the requests from locals for photographs, primarily by hanging out with me. Some people, it seems, are not used to 6’2” with silver hair and fair complexion. And they really couldn’t imagine it when I truthfully told them I was short in my family.
Eating was interesting… Mrs Bear was more demanding::Nothing spicy and no pork… I just wanted food with no bones, intestines, hearts, or brains !!! We were accommodated nicely. And I actually found myself feeling similar to our guide’s description of the Hong Kong locals… That the older generation could easily give up meats in favor of the veggie dishes. I enjoyed the variety of stir fry vegetables, rice, and fruits. I could have left the pork (an important dietary staple), chicken, and beef in the kitchen. But don’t ever deprive SE Asians of their fish !!! Actually, walks through the dry markets revealed a whole new way of buying fish… Big plastic bags of dried, salted fish parts that were used for soups. And families come back to the same roadside stalls for generations… It seems that the guarantee of quality is priceless over a relative exchange of currency.
Our family wondered whether Mrs Bear and I could get along for six weeks. At home, we have independent schedules with an hour or two each day for overlap. Now we go on a six week trip, spending all but a few daily moments with each other. But at least for us, these shared experiences are a rekindling of the feelings that brought us together so many (45) years ago. Traveling with our own guide led to the perk of taking more photos of We Two… And who else would I ever want to share these adventures with???
One more ironic adventure to end… Originally, we were scheduled to take back-to-back cruises: 1) From Bangkok to Hong Kong,… 2) From Hong Kong to Shanghai. But a very rich company approached Regent and offered to buy the entire ship for the second leg. After serious deliberation, Regent opted for the company’s offer and bumped us!!! Mrs Bear sought a China alternative, and put together the wonderful itinerary you have hopefully read. Scrolling forward to our last night in Shanghai, I walked over to the Riverwalk for a better view of the skyline, and what do I see tied up a half mile away???? None other than the Regent Mariner, our ship for the first three weeks and our aborted ride thereafter !!!
But after the surprise and karma, I left with a feeling that our “less traveled path,” was destined for us all along. Thank you, Regent !!!