Posted by: Alicia Phillips | February 11, 2014

Starting Over in America

4 months. I’ve been back in America for 4 months! But it seems like 4 years! Fiji feels like a dream and my backpacking adventure feels like a story I’ve made up.

The journey home was a whirlwind for me. It took me around 36 hours to get from Hanoi to Memphis. I had a layover in Ft. Worth, where I made a bee line to the nearest food place that had Diet Dr. Pepper. I drank an outrageous amount and then had to deal with the most excruciating headache I’ve had in  awhile. But it was worth it, Oh sweet nectar of the gods. I love Diet Dr. Pepper.

Finally I boarded my plane to Memphis and while my plane was circling Memphis airport and I was 10 minutes away from hugging my mom for the first time in 30 months I had the most amazing feeling wash over me. I just became overwhelmingly excited about this next chapter in my life and I couldn’t wait to get started!

My mom and my big sister met me at the airport and after hugs and kisses I said we needed to go eat Mexican immediately. A large cheese dip and a pitcher of sweet tea was enough to put me in a mexi-coma for the rest of the night.

I spent the next 2 weeks at my mom’s house. My sister and both of my big brothers flew in to welcome me back! The 4 of us haven’t been together in almost 7 years, so needless to say, it was an incredible weekend. I also got to meet 2 very special little people, my 2 ½ year old nephew and my 8 month old niece! They were both born while I was gone and seeing them for the first time was so much fun!

My brothers and sister!

I ventured out a bit while I was at my moms. I re-familiarized myself with driving a car and walked around Target and even made it through the mall without having a panic attack (circa tomato isle in Sydney). I caught up with a few old friends and loved hearing about what they’ve been up to since I’ve been gone. I missed quite a few weddings while I was gone and now most of my friends have children on the way. It made me feel a little bit excluded, like they all turned into grown-ups while I was off doing my thing by myself.

SO, now I was in a bit of a pickle. I had 3 months before I started grad school in Little Rock, I had spent all of my money backpacking, I was unemployed, broke, homeless, with no phone, and no car. I had spoken to my brother before I left Fiji and threw the idea out that that maybe I could come live with them for a few months before I start school.  They were so great about it and told me to come on!

SO I spent the next 9 weeks living in Iowa with my brother and his family. I really just hunkered down and took care of some business. Registered for classes and got health insurance, took care of some medical stuff and slowly got through a little bit of culture shock. The time I spent with my niece and nephew was so wonderful. And it was great to be part of the day in and day out routines.  And seeing my big brother play dad was so much fun! My brother and sister in law are what I would describe as a power couple. I have never met two people who have their shit together more than them. My sister in law is hands down one of the most amazing women I have ever known, just being around her inspires me to be better at everything. They really took good care of me and supported me and helped start me off on the right foot for when I moved to Little Rock.

I found an apartment in Little Rock online and just crossed my fingers hoping I would like it when I signed the lease sight unseen. I packed up a tiny little u-Haul with furniture that my siblings graciously donated to me and drove it to Little Rock the day before NYE. I was very pleasantly surprised when I walked in to my apartment, it felt like home almost right away. Its small but the perfect size for me and in a great location! I spent my first New Years Eve back in America drinking wine and watching Netflix by myself in my own little apartment. Anxiously awaiting 2014 and the adventures it would bring.

(pause for wishful thinking…..)

I’ll tell you what the New Year has brought me…..an exhaustive job hunt that has resulted in me waiting tables and late nights doing biostatistics homework paired with early mornings writing 18 page analytical reviews. Grad school is the real deal! I knew it would be intense, I just wasn’t expecting to spend so much of my free time studying the shortcomings of health care in America and OSHA regulations in the workplace. I haven’t written a paper in APA format in years and I literally had to youtube how to use a calculator for statistics.

And the job hunt is another issue altogether. Turns out, no one really gives a crap that I was in the Peace Corps. People aren’t all that impressed that I spent 2 years living on an island paradise followed by 4 months of trekking through Australia and SE Asia. All they see is that I haven’t worked since June…and that I am a full time student. So, I’ve been working on my “Hi, my name is Alicia. Can I get you something to drink while you look over the menu?” line.

How I imagine it’s going to go down one day…

Another thing I was hit with and wasn’t quite expecting was not having any friends here! In Fiji I was surrounded by awesome people all the time. In Asia I was constantly meeting interesting cool people on the backpacking trail. And in Iowa I had my family and little people to hang out with. But in Little Rock…it’s been hard to meet people. It’s fine though…I have my textbooks and wine to keep me company.

 valentines day 14 Happy Singles Awareness Day (33 photos)

But, you gotta do what you gotta do, right? Its not so bad, it’s just taking me a minute to get settled. I feel like I jumped onto a train going too fast and I am still trying to find my seat. But, no worries! I’ll find it eventually. I’ll settle into a schedule and school will start to make more sense to me, I’ll find a better job and hopefully one day will be able to afford to go out to eat once in a while. But for now, I’m okay just hunkering down and pushing through. I just have to remember that feeling I got when I flew into Memphis, the one where I felt optimistic about life and how I was going to kick ass this year. Just give me 6 months, 2014 is going to be a great year!

Posted by: Alicia Phillips | October 1, 2013

29 Months and 7 Countries Later….

I’m coming home!

excited

And I’m coming home a much different person now than I was when I left in May 2011. My time in Fiji made me grow up, learn how to take care of myself, it made me realize I am stronger than I ever thought I was and capable of doing things I wouldnt have ever imagined myself doing. I found direction while I was there, discovered what I’m passionate about and what I want to do with my life. It was two years full of learning lessons and self improvement. And the friendships I made there are the kind that will last my lifetime.

And my time backpacking around Australia and SE Asia was life changing. I feel like a different person now that I was when I left Fiji! I learned things about the world and about myself that I never knew. It made me ask questions about why things are the way they are and I found out where I stand on issues and what my values are.

Joining the Peace Corps was the best thing I have ever done. It did a lot of things for me, but most importantly it opened up the world to me. If I hadn’t done Peace Corps, I never in a million years would have backpacked solo around Asia.  And if I hadn’t of done that, I wouldn’t have realized that it’s not a big bad scary world out there. It’s beautiful and full of amazing things and interesting people.

I’m fairly certain now that I wont be able to stay in the US for long. As soon as I am done getting my masters, I would like to live and work internationally again.

However, I can say that I am so excited to come home! So much has happened since I’ve been gone. I have a little neice and nephew that I’ve never met! My sister moved halfway across the world, my brother was deployed and has already come back! People getting married, people getting divorces. Life definitly went on without me. But, lets be serious….this is what I am most excited about:

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I’m not sure if I will keep up with this blog anymore……what else can I write about? Maybe one more post about how amazing America is or how difficult readjustment is. Who knows. Thank you for sharing in my adventures with me!

Posted by: Alicia Phillips | October 1, 2013

A Month in Vietnam

When most Americans think of Vietnam, they imagine scenes from movies such as Platoon, Apocalypse now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter. That doesn’t exactly portray Vietnam in the best light.  So, I chose to come here to see another side of Vietnam. I wanted to meet the people, eat the food, learn the history from their point of view (over here they call it the American War), explore the countryside and see what there is to see.

I started my month-long exploration of Vietnam on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc. I spent two nights here relaxing on the beach, reading, and exploring the tiny island on a scooter. The beach is beautiful and unspoilt. There isn’t a lot of development on the island (yet) so the water is clean and it isn’t too touristy. Truthfully, it has the prettiest beaches I have seen since leaving Fiji.

Sunset on the beach

Sunset on the beach

From Phu Quoc I took a 12 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This place was INSANE. Crazy busy, there are around 10 million people living here and I swear there are 10 million motorbikes driving around. So I get in late and check into my hostel that is smack dab in the middle of town. The city is so cramped, there are hundreds of tiny little ally ways off each street that are so narrow I can touch each wall at the same time. People are constantly harassing you, asking you to buy their knock off sunglasses or hair ties or fruit. “Hey lady, you want Ray Bans?” “Hey you, need a motor bike?” “Hey lady, come inside and buy something”  yeah, no thank you.

I only spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh. I took a day trip to the Chu Chi tunnels museum. This museum showed an immense underground tunnel network that the North Vietnamese used as hiding spots during the Vietnam war. The original tunnels were much too small for tourists to go into so they widened one of the tunnels for foreigners to explore, but it was still way too small for my tall ass. Along with the tunnels they also showed up various “traps” they would set for American soldiers covered holes hiding bamboo spikes and such. And at the end of the day they showed us a video that I wasn’t quite prepared for. In the video they spoke of the “merciless American soldiers” and “evil Washington DC” and showed clips of smiling Vietnamese soldiers receiving “Killing American” awards.

The next day I figured it would be a good idea to go visit the War Remnants museum, also sometimes called “The Museum of American War Crimes.” It is supposed to be one of the best war museums in Vietnam. Once again, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw. The outside was old tanks and helicopters and planes, old guns and discarded bombs on display. But once you got inside- things turned pretty grim. Three floors worth of disturbing and horrible pictures portraying the horrors of the war and adverse American propaganda. An entire floor was dedicated to Agent Orange and the lasting effects still being felt today by the people and the landscape. All of the pictures had captions and almost all of them talked about the horrible and merciless Americans. The reality of it really caught me off guard, I always heard about the war growing up, but not like this.

It was apparent that the captions are from the point of view from the north so the content was very one-sided and biased, and it made no mention of the atrocities and horrors that were suffered by the South Vietnamese and US by the hands of the northern army. What I got out of all of it was that the Vietnam war was a very horrible thing, and both sides suffered immensely, and not a lot of good came out of it. And I’m still not entirely sure what the whole point was? Isa. The museum is worth seeing though if you ever make it to Vietnam. Most of the pictures there aren’t anywhere else, and as gruesome as they are, they need to be seen.

Since HCMC turned out to be a pretty humbling and depressing few days for me I decided to get away and go visit a cute little town in the mountains called Dalat. This was a beautiful little place to relax for a few days and see the countryside. I took a motorcycle tour with an easyrider around the countryside and got to see beautiful waterfalls, flower gardens, coffee shops and local tribes.

Hiep, my easy rider

Mr. Hiep, my easy rider

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

Weasel used to make coffee

Weasel used to make coffee
They feed the weasels coffee beans....and they poop out coffee...and then they brew the pooped out coffee beans

They feed the weasels coffee beans….and they poop out coffee beans…and then they brew the pooped out coffee beans. It’s literally weasel poo coffee

But boy is it good!!!!!!!

But boy is it good!!!!!!! Delicious!

Deep fried cricket anyone?

Deep fried cricket anyone?

Not so bad actually. Like potato chips....with wings and legs

Not so bad actually. Like potato chips….with wings and legs…

From Dalat I took a 16 hour bus journey to Hoi An. A city famous for its paper lanterns, banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes), and tailors. It is a gorgeous little town right on the river and every night paper lanterns are lit all over the city and boats float down the river and there are delicious restaurants with little bands playing traditional music. This was definitely a place where I wished I wasn’t single, because it would be a very romantic getaway. But, alas, I am single so I spent my time eating delicious food by myself (never a bad thing) and getting pretty clothes made by the tailors.

Beautiful drive

Beautiful drive

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Riverfront at Hoi An

After Hoi An, I spent a few days in Da Nang city, where the My Khe beach is located. There was a famous TV series back in the day called China Beach that was based here. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that, but it was nice.

My Khe beach

My Khe beach

From Da Nang I flew up to Hanoi to start the northern Vietnam portion of my trip. I was really looking forward to Hanoi because I would be meeting up with my friend Jeremy. Jeremy and I worked together in Fiji and also met up while I was travelling in Melbourne. Now he is here working in Vietnam for the conservation of monkeys. He has a great little flat in the middle of town, and a great place to kick back and relax.

Being here with someone who lives here makes me feel like I am seeing the city differently that I would if I were a backpacker. I am going to the most delicious places to get street food (places TripAdvisor doesn’t mention), fun little bars, exploring the city on his motorcycle, and meeting his local and ex pat friends. Hanoi is such a fun city! Much different from any other SE Asian city I have been to. It is crazy busy but also very beautiful. There are lakes and green spaces all over the place. The food here is so freaking unbelievably good. I’ve probably gained 5 pounds and I’m not even sorry about it. There is also a lot of history here, this city was bombed to hell during the war so there are very few old historic buildings left. The prison where John McCain was held in tortured is here (it’s called the Hanoi Hilton) and many other museums. It is a fun city to walk around and explore. It is a nice mix between authentic Vietnamese but with a few western influences.

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Chicken anyone?

Chicken anyone?

How about pig? And you wonder why I'm vegetarian.

How about pig? And you wonder why I’m vegetarian.

Little women walk around town selling fruit

Little women walk around town selling fruit

Look at the fruit! So lovely

Look at the fruit! So lovely

Tourists relaxing by the lake

Tourists relaxing by the lake

I planned on taking a motorcycle tour 4 hours outside Hanoi to a place called Mai Chau. However, 3 hours in, I got in a little accident, dog ran out in front of me. I hit the dog, pretty sure I killed it, got thrown off the bike and hurt my wrist. Isa. I jumped on a local bus headed back to Hanoi, then went and got x-rays to confirm there were no fractures, just a sprain. After that I decided not to push my luck any further. I’ve made it almost 4 months, back packing around third world countries, and haven’t so much as had a runny nose yet. Apart from the motorcycle accident, Ive been extremely lucky. SO the rest of my trip I just took it easy in Hanoi, eating and observing life going on around me.

And so I have come to the conclusion that, I love Vietnam. A lot.

Here are a few other thoughts I have about Vietnam:

#1- Vietnam has to be the most dangerous place in the world to drive. There are no rules to the road. You can drive on either side of the road (and oftentimes the sidewalk), drive any speed, no stop signs, no lights, no rules! I’ve seen as many as 5 people crammed onto a scooter, babies and small children ride around on them without helmets. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and electric bikes are everywhere. I have also seen an outrageous amount of wrecks. It’s quite depressing to see an old woman who survived the American war and everything else in her life, only to die by getting T-boned by a scooter. Check out this video of the insane traffic, it’s just like this.

#2- Crossing the road may be the scariest thing in the world. You have to go against everything you learned growing up and just step into traffic, trusting that the bikes will go around you. The key is not to be unpredictable, don’t speed up or slow down, walk the same speed across the road so the drivers can accurately judge how to go around you. It’s insane.

#2- If you are a Vietnamese woman, the sun is not your friend. They go out of their way to make sure the sun doesn’t touch their skin. Jackets and gloves and hats and face masks. Because white skin is beautiful to them. They even go so far as to bleach their skin white. It’s bizarre to walk into a pharmacy and see an entire section of skin bleaching cream next to an entire section of sunless tanner and bronzer (for the ex pats and tourists). They must think western women are out of their minds when they see us laying on the beach soaking up the sun, trying to get as tan as possible.

#3- They love their karaoke. Karaoke bars on every street.

#4- American culture is everywhere here. Everywhere. T-shirts with the American flag, American products, American music, American merchandise, And they love President Clinton. It is a little bit baffling to me. After seeing all the anti-American propaganda and such in regards to the war, I don’t understand how they can embrace us so fully now.  I asked someone about it and he said that no one thinks about the war anymore because it was a very bad thing, and it is better to forget it. Really though? That’s it? How can you just forget it? Guess you’d have to have that Buddhist mentality.

#5- Most countries that I have visited have had McDonald’s. In Fiji there was two! But here in Vietnam I haven’t seen a McDonald’s yet, however, I have seen plenty of KFC’s!! Bizarre!

#6- You are not cool unless you are wearing a face mask. First time I saw it, I figured that person was sick and didn’t want to get anyone else sick. Then I noticed a ton of people wearing them, all the time, especially when driving. Some even have matching jacket and face mask combos. Very interesting. I can understand wanting to protect yourself from germs….but if that was the case….why don’t people ever wash their hands? It’s kind of like an accessory here, nice purse, nice shoes, nice face mask!

#7- Tons of Russians here on holiday! Didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I found that a) there is a direct flight from Moscow to Nha Trang (party beach capital) and b) Russians don’t need a visa to come visit here, whereas everyone else has to pay close to $100 for a visa. Yay communism!

#8- Best cuisine I have had in Asia, quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. And that’s saying a lot because Thai food is really really good. Vietnamese food is just on a whole other level. The delicious combinations they do, the noodle soup, the rice dishes, the hot pots, the breakfast food. So yum. Street food is where it’s at though. Very delicious, and very cheap. And most restaurants only do one thing. You go and sit down and they just bring you what they make, takes the anxiety out of choosing something from the menu. They only do one thing but by golly they do it right!!

#9- The language is hopeless. I don’t even try. It is so very difficult. It’s all about tones and sound combinations I can’t recreate. Most cultures at least acknowledge that you’re trying to speak their language and can figure out what you’re trying to say – not here. Here if you don’t say it EXACTLY right the first time, they don’t try to work with you, they just ignore you. Very frustrating.

Well folks, that’s all I got for you! Hope you enjoyed following me around Vietnam, and all of Asia, Australia, and Fiji for that matter! This is the end of my trip, I’m on my way home now!! On to a new adventure!

Posted by: Alicia Phillips | September 28, 2013

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of those places that you just have to go to if your in Vietnam. Like the Eiffel tower if you’re in Paris or the Colosseum when you’re in Rome. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world. So of course it is very beautiful, very expensive, and over run by tourists.

I booked a 2 days/1 night trip on a boat that would make a small circuit around the bay. You sleep on the boat, and eat all your meals on the boat. There is a little bar and a nice rooftop area to hang out on. There were only 7 other people on the boat with me. A nice couple from Holland, a couple from Canada, a couple from New Zealand, and then a random French guy who was my roommate.

The boat was great and the food was fantastic! Every couple of hours we would stop and get out and do some activity like exploring a cave, hiking up a big hill, kayaking, and swimming. It was really lovely.

Hope you like photos! It was a little cloudy when I was there, but still very beautiful. Enjoy!

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Posted by: Alicia Phillips | September 3, 2013

9 Days in Cambodia

Cambodia- a land full of ancient temples, beautiful landscapes, gracious kind people, and a terrifyingly violent history. I am surprised by how quickly Cambodia won me over, I remember thinking during the tuk tuk ride from the airport to my hotel that I was going to like it here. Perhaps it is a by-product from my vipassana (see: Vipassana meditation post) but I am finding the good in everybody I meet and the beauty in everything I see. Nothing gets me down and I am happily content just sitting back and watching the world go by around me.

View from the TukTuk

Working hard planting rice

Working hard planting rice

Little kids in the river, floating around in big cooking pots

Little kids in the river, floating around in big cooking pots

After spending an amazing few days in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of Angkor (see: Temples of Angkor Post) I made my way to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Like most capital cities, it was crowded and polluted, full of beggers and scam artists. But it also had great restaurants and a beautiful riverfront. I only booked two nights here because there were only a few things I needed to see, the killing fields and S-21prison in particular.

Before coming to Cambodia, I had no idea about its history. I had heard of the Khmer Rouge but I didn’t know what or who it was. Quick history lesson for you. Pol pot was the ruthless leader of the Khmer rouge. During a period of about 4 years he terrorized his own people, killing 25% of the population. In a population of 8 million, 2 million people died while he was in power. He wanted Cambodia to be an agricultural empire so he proceeded to evacuate all the cities in just 3 days- forcing everyone to go and work the land. He shut down all government offices, schools, hospitals, churches, and shops, killing anyone who opposed or questioned him. He was incredibly paranoid and murdered or sent to prison anyone who he thought was a traitor or had any ties to the former government.

S21 was a primary school that the khmer rouge converted to a detention and torture center. Over 17,000 people were held and tortuted here over a span of 4 years. What makes it so terrifying is that there was no rhyme or reason behind it. The people here were completely innocent, forced into confessions under torture. Anyone could be sent here, if you were named by someone during interrogations, if you wore glasses, were educated, spoke a different language, were a certain religion. Babies, children, and the elderly were also held here. By the time the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh, only 7 people survived S21. The entire time I eas walking through the rooms, seeing the pictures of the prisoners, the instruments of torture, and the tiny cells people were held in I kept wondering #1 why did this happen? and #2 why didn’t we (we being the international community) do something to stop it? I still don’t have an answer.

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

Faces of the prisoners

Faces of the prisoners

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The Rules in English

The Rules in English

The killing fields are where people were sent to be killed. A large field full of mass graves. As you walk around the grounds you can spot bits of bone or teeth or cloth in the ground from the bodies that were buried here over 30 years ago. I took an audio tour while i was there. One of the most terrifying sounds ive ever heard was the music they had blaring over the loudspeakers at night, over the roar of a generator that muffled the screams of the people being murdered.

Bracelets visitors put on the posts fencing off the mass graves

Bracelets visitors put on the posts fencing off the mass graves

The Khmer Rouge used this tree to beat and kill babies. Right beside it was a mass grave sof over 200 women and children.

The Khmer Rouge used this tree to beat and kill babies. Right beside it was a mass grave sof over 200 women and children.

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I visited both the killing fields and s21 in one day. It was very heavy day. Luckily, I wasnt by myself. I went some other backpackers from my hostel. It would have been tough to do alone.

After Phnom Penh I decided to spend a few days in the kompot province in the south of Cambodia. This province is famous for it’s pepper! Before the civil war, all the resturants in Paris imported their pepper from Cambodia. Then the khmer rouge destroted all the pepper farms, saying that Cambodia should grow rice, not spice. But in the last 10 years it has made a comeback.

My last full day in Cambodia I decided to book a motorcycle tour of the countryside. Me and another girl I had met went together and toured a pepper farm, then visited the coastal town of Kep, which is renowned for their crab, before taking a boat ride to rabbit island to spend the afternoon lounging on the beach.

Pepper plants

Pepper plants

Baby peppercorn

Baby peppercorn

Fresh crab in Kep

Fresh crab in Kep

Boats to Rabbit Island

Boats to Rabbit Island

And I finally got to try a durian! This is a large spiky Asian fruit that smells like a rotting corpse when you open it up, but supposedly tastes better than chocolate. The people who try and like durian say it is the most decadent fruit they have ever had. The smell is foul though, in fact many hostels I have stayed in strictly forbids durian, you can get kicked out if you bring one in. So I tried it, liked it, tasted like a creamy custard, but it wasn’t the most delicious thing I’ve ever tried. Maybe it grows on you?

Durian Fruit

Durian Fruit

There is some pretty exciting stuff happening politically at the moment as well. Apparantly last month they had elections and the military dictator that has been in charge for the last 30 years won, amongst rumors of corruption and rigged results. (Sound familiar Fiji PCV’S?) So this Saturday there is a march/demonstration in Phnom Penh- people are angry and want fair elections. Should be interesting to keep up with and I’m a little sad that I won’t be around to witness it.

Alas, my time in Cambodia has come to an end. I’m surprised by how much I have enjoyed my time here. This is definitely the poorest country I have been to since living in Fiji, I think maybe that is why I like it here so much- it seems more genuine, more real. It is a country that has been through hell and is trying to make a name for itself in the modern world. I see myself coming back in the future, maybe even looking for work here! Why not?

So, where to next you may wonder? Vietnam baby! Im headed to the island of Phu Quoc for a few days before I go on to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Updates will be along shortly!

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