Getting Lost

Recently, I made a trip to Lake Como in Italy.  Lake Como is renowned for the beauty of their scenic landscape.  It is a lake surrounded by large hills that are right on the water’s edge, and gorgeous mountains in the distance.  Lake Como is about forty minutes by train from Milan, Italy so I, along with five other friends of mine, decided to travel there for a day trip and return by evening.

We all met up at the Milan Central Station, which is the main hub for trains coming to and from Milan.  From there we bought the train tickets at a ticket machine, and we had two options, to either pick the train that would leave in fifteen minutes or the train that leaves in an hour and a half.  We decided to pick the train that was going to leave in fifteen minutes, however, that ended up being a poor decision because we were incredibly rushed.  It took a while for the tickets to print and by the time we all got our tickets, we only had five minutes to find our train.  It was the first time any of us traveled by train so we did not know how to read the tickets or which train was ours.  In a frantic rush we tried asking people passing by in our broken Italian, and everyone we asked would point to a different train.  We heard the station bell ring for last minute passengers so in a panic we all decided to board the train nearest to us.

None of us knew if we were on the correct train or not until the ticket stamper came around asking for our tickets.  He looked at our tickets and was about to give us a fine for taking the wrong train!  In hopes to avoid a fine, we all blurted out the few words of Italian we knew, and him, realizing that we were all confused foreigners, told us that he wouldn’t fine us, but that we would have to get off at the next stop.

On the wrong train, but still smiling :)

So when we got off, we realized we were in the middle of the countryside and all we could do was wait for the next train.  The next train came about thirty minutes later and we were on the wrong train once again!  In total, we rode on three wrong trains, and almost got fined three different times, but finally we hopped on the right train the fourth time around.

Getting lost usually frustrates people, but for me, it was a positive experience. I not only learned that I should always plan ahead for my travels and my studies, but it also gave me an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with my friends.  There was something about struggling together that allowed us to trust each other and to know that we could depend on one another. Also, since we had a lot of time to waste while waiting for trains, it provided us the opportunity to have enriching conversations and grow in our understanding of each other.

We arrived at Lake Como about four hours later when it should have only taken forty minutes.  Lake Como was beautiful, but surprisingly, I enjoyed the journey to Lake Como more than the destination itself.  Trying to communicate with strangers about how to get to the proper train, solving problems together as a team, and trying our best to tear up when almost getting fined, were more memorable than picturesque mountains.  This has taught me to be flexible with plans because they can, and did go wrong, and to adapt well in any situation I find myself in.  I guess it is true what Ernst Hemingway once said.  “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

We finally arrive at Lake Como!

Lake Como was definitely beautiful

Weekend in Cambodia

This past weekend I traveled to Cambodia and I had an amazing time. I traveled with a group of three other SMU students. We flew in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) on Friday and we left Monday afternoon (taking advantage of my 3-day school schedule!).

On the first day we arrived in Phnom Penh, our flight was delayed so we didn’t arrive in the city until 6pm. As soon as we got there we took a private taxi to go up north to Siem Reap where the great temples of Angkor Wat are. The trip took about 6 hours including a stop for dinner. It was a long ride so by the time we go to Siem Reap, we checked into our guesthouse and just went to sleep.

Riding the tuk-tuk from the airport to the center of the city

The next morning we woke up and set out to explore Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a magnificent Hindu/Buddhist temple complex. It’s dedicated as a UNESCCO World Heritage Site to further protect and conserve the ruins. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century under the Khmer Kingdom. There are many different temples but Angkor Wat is the entrance to the entire park. It was the biggest and grandest temple.

The magnificent Angkor Wat!

We spent two days exploring the temples and there was still more to see! I could of easily spent another day exploring as the temples were so peaceful. Also, since it’s currently low season (rainy season) for traveling in Southeast Asia, there were fewer tourists around which made it even better. Luckily for us, the weather was in our favor; the most it rained was an hour during one day.

A part of Tomb Raiders (featuring Angelina Jolie) was filmed in this temple!

The best part about Angkor Wat was that nothing felt contrived. Although some parts of the temples were obviously restored, nothing about the temples felt perfect which made it even more beautiful. For example, there many statues that had their heads cut off because there was a period when riots happened and people stole Buddha heads to sell off to foreign countries. This didn’t make the temples any less beautiful, it fact it made it even more authentic.

If you look carefully, you’ll noticed that one of the statues in this picture is missing a head…

Although the temples were beautiful, I was more surprised by the poverty I saw in the surrounding area of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, and villages not too far away from the city. Outside the temples, there were many food and souvenir vendors and every time we got off our tuk-tuk (motorcycle bike with rickshaw attached) to visit a temple, hordes of children would surround us and ask us to buy bracelets and postcards for a 1$. These children were very young too. All of them were barefoot and their clothes looked like they haven’t been washed in months. They were extremely clever as they tried to persuade you to buy their items by saying things like “Buy 1 post card get 9 free!”. Another young girl asked my friend to buy some bracelets for his girlfriend and when he responded that he didn’t have a girlfriend, she said, “You know why? Because you no buy these bracelets!”.

It was sad seeing this because it makes you wonder whether these kids go to school or if they don’t have time because they have to help support their families by selling souvenirs to tourists. After coming back from Cambodia, I researched more about it and found out that despite the tourism that Angkor Wat brings in, 36.6% of the population lives below the poverty line (less than 45 cents per day). Many Cambodian children go to primary school (80%) but less go to lower secondary school (25%) and even less go to upper secondary school (9%).

I witnessed even more poverty when I traveled back to Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. We drove pass beautiful green rice paddies and along these rice paddies were houses where the farmers and their families lived. The houses are better described as simple shacks as the whole thing consisted of only one room. Even though we were only driving by, I could tell that there was no kitchen or electricity in the shacks. Bedding was just a blanket on the ground or a hammock outside. Kids ran around barefoot and naked but they all appeared to be very happy and carefree.

I didn’t realize that Cambodia is still so underdeveloped (which sounds very ignorant of me), but I’m glad at least now I’m aware. I wish I could of done more to help but we had such a short amount of time there.

I’ve realized that the most important part about traveling is not seeing new things or famous sights, it’s about learning and letting these experiences shape you.

Beautiful Milan

During my first week in Milan, I traveled out to the center of the city.  When I say the center of the city, it is literally in the center of the city of Milan.  In the center, there is a main cathedral called the Duomo, which is a term used for church, more specifically a catholic church.  The Duomo is literally in the center of Milan.  Then from the Duomo, the city is built as a circle that radiates outward.  The structure of the city can be described as a small circle as its center point, and then a circle of buildings built around the center, and so on and so forth as it keeps radiating out.

The Duomo of Milan. It was absolutely stunning.  Of course this picture does not do it justice.

Above is a picture of the Duomo that I took from behind.  It is absolutely stunning.  The building is so large, with hundreds of handcrafted sculptures of famous disciples, and people described in the Holy Bible.  This church took about 600 years to build, and it is still under reconstruction (if you notice to roof of the building)!  I know from pictures it just looks alright, but it is similar to looking at a picture of the ocean, and actually going to the ocean; two very different experiences.

This is a picture of me about 100 meters from the entrance of Duomo. It is absolutely huge!

I was not allowed to go into the Duomo the day I took the picture above, because I was wearing shorts.  The entrance guards were really strict about what kind of clothing one could wear when entering the cathedral.  It was understandable, because they viewed this as a place to meet God, and they wanted people to wear respectable, very conservative clothing, so I have yet to still go inside, which I am sure is just as beautiful.  This small encounter with the entrance guards was a slight culture shock for me.  At my home church, which is a protestant church, I am allowed to wear whatever I please as long as it was socially appropriate, so shorts and a T-shirt would have been no problem back in many churches in the States, but here at this specific cathedral, they wanted people to dress better when entering a building of God.

Moving on from the Duomo, I was walking around taking pictures of everything around the center plaza and my friend was taking some pictures of me too when a man came from nowhere, just grabbed my hand, and put bird food into my hand (see picture below).

Getting hustled my first day in the center of Milan.

He lifted up my hand and walked away, and right after that, pigeons flew towards me and ate everything in a matter of a few seconds.  First, I hate pigeons…I sometimes see them as rats with wings.  And secondly, once the pigeons (although the picture has just one pigeon, about ten came) landed on my hands, I immediately thought of bird flu.  After that very unenjoyable experience, the man walked back towards me with another friend of his and he pointed to my hand and gestured for money.  He spoke to me in Italian but I understood what he probably said, which was something along the lines of, “You used my bird food and now I want my money from you”.  Him and his friend kept getting closer and kept asking for money so two thoughts flew into my head.  First, for some odd reason, I was quite enjoying this experience.  Maybe because it was the first time I got hustled and I was waiting to see how I would react.  Secondly, I was thinking that they chose the wrong girl, because if they knew anything about my father, they would have known that he has done a good job teaching me not to waste money, and I was sure not going to spend money on these guys. So I told them I did not have money.  They kept following me still so I said in a harsher voice, “I don’t have any money” and walked away (which was quite an obvious lie, since I had a very visible fanni-pack).  They followed me and kept gesturing for a couple minutes but I walked quickly and made sure I was by other people so they eventually gave up.  I know this situation could have been much worse if it was later in the night or if I was alone with not many people around but thankfully that was not the case.  After this experience, I noticed that there were so many people trying to hustle money from tourists or people who looked foreign.  I realized that just because I am Asian, I will probably be targeted more often than other people of Caucasian ethnicities because I will have a harder time “looking” like a typical European.  Also, it won’t help my case that Asians often come with the stereotype that we are all rich, and innocent…especially since I am a short Asian girl.  From this experience I learned to be more aware of my surroundings, to not let strange men give me bird food, and to not wear a fanni-pack around.

Near the central plaza of Duomo, there are hundreds of stores just around the corner selling beauty products, clothing, and accessories.  Milan did live up to its title as the “Fashion Capital of the World”.  There were several malls in which only designer products were sold.  Just below is a picture of a shopping mall that only sold designer products.  There were many expensive cafes next to the shops as well.  Some stores even had their own cafe such as with Gucci, in which they had their own Gucci cafe right outside their store.  The architecture of the mall was beautiful as you can see in the picture below.

This was a designer indoor/outdoor shopping mall right next to Duomo.

Of course I could not afford to buy anything, but I was happy to just walk around and take everything in.  It was a beautiful day, with blue skies, nice friends, and a lot of experiences,   with many more to come!