My day as a Narc aka the Green card Angel

As part of my “exploring different life options” thing, aka unemployed, and searching for anyone who will pay me; I have signed up for 2 different temp agencies in my area.  After a long process of tests, questions, interviews and waiting, yesterday I took my first assignment. An assignment my recruiter Chris described as “a day job that will be kinda fun”.

Yippee! I thought as I returned Chris’ call. I was picturing myself running around in a flowery field while a photographer was taking pictures to use for an up-and-coming magazine spread on “The World’s Most Interesting People”.

That was not the assignment.  The assignment was to drive around to “select businesses” and try to buy tobacco products to see if they’d card me. If the teller asked for I.D, I’d give them a green card. If the teller did not ask, I’d hand them a red card. So basically I was paid to Narc.

I watched a 12 minute training video on how to properly execute this. I was not allowed to say “Ha ha, got you!” when handing out a red card. Like I would anyways, my first 5 stores were in Vallejo.

I was given a list of stores, a route, and a log sheet.  I would go up to the register, ask for a specific brand of cigarettes and depending on the cashier’s response, I’d hand them a green or red card instead of my ID or cash. If the cashier received the green card I’d ask for their name to record on the log sheet. I’d also record the time I was at each location. Simple enough.

 

Log sheet and green/red cards

 

Being a little pessimistic about the assignment I dressed myself in a dress with a bow in my hair, trying to look as underage as possible.  I did not want to get shot because an unstable 7-11 cashier didn’t appreciate their red card.

I was obviously a little nervous at my first store. Luckily, I look 17 years old. After cashier Maribel asked for ID, I handed her a green card instead. She lit up with excitement! This is when I knew 7-11 must have some incentive for these cashiers receiving green cards.

By store 10 I was in my groove. While I do say that handing out green cards to all the multicultural 7-11 employees did feel a bit odd, I was beginning to feel less like a Narc and more like the 7-11 Angel.

“Great job Rakesh!, Congratulations Cheryl!”  I’d sing their praise and glide out the door, before they had the opportunity to thank me. Sometimes I’d shoot them a little wink and a smile.

By hour 4, the enthusiasm faded and I was ready to be done with this “kinda fun” assignment.  I had driven a full circle- Fairfield to Vallejo to Benicia to Vacaville to Suisun and back to Fairfield. I was exhausted and bored.

I wanted to hand out a red card, just to see what would happen. The danger of it intrigued me. The opportunity never presented itself and by hour 5, I finished. 24 stores and 24 green cards. Really? My day as a Narc started out dangerous and ended as tedious and boring.  I think I’ll retire.

 

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Happy Birthday LADY GAGA and me…

Lady Gaga and I have the same birthday; same day, same year. Same, same. Ellen DeGeneres broke the news to me on Friday, via Twitter. Apparently, she’ll be baking a cake for Gaga’s 25th.

As I type in the computer room of my parent’s house on an ironing board I’ve converted into a desk, I can’t help but compare Lady Gaga and I. (obviously)

Here we are, Gaga and I, both turning twenty-five. Quarter of a century.Gaga has a couple of Grammys, a few hit albums, some catchy songs and millions of  fans.  I mean, she’s Lady Gaga. She can crawl out of an egg, douse herself in blood, rock meat dresses and people will still buy her albums. She’s an artist. She’ll  be celebrating her big two-five at the Staples Center in LA.

I will be turning twenty-five unemployed and living with my parents. Things could be worse, I could be turning thirty, unemployed, living with my parents.

Comparing myself with Gaga is silly, I know. She was born with talent and I was born, well, I was born this way 😉

Being born this way has had its benefits. I’ve done some traveling, exploring and have connected with people all around the world. While my birthday twin Gaga is connecting with millions of people through music, I’ve made bonds with hundreds, personally.

Lady Gaga with fans in Japan

A few of my "fans" in India

Gaga has millions of fans who know her music and I have around 700 Facebook friends who know me.

Gaga sings on National Television while I sing to 10 friends in a Karaoke bar in South Korea. You can have the world stage Gaga, they’re not ready for this rocks in a blender voice.

Lady Gags on American Idol

Singing to my boss in my America sweatshirt

I will be able to travel, inspire, and explore different cultures in a way that Gaga will never be able to. She will never have the luxury of living her life as a normal person, only a superstar. (poor Gaga)

So Happy Birthday to Lady Gaga and myself. While she will be celebrating with thousands of people, publicly, I’ll be celebrating by personally “liking” all my Facebook birthday comments.

Here's to 25 years young!

Assignment 4.3 Taking a bow for the Japanese

“A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.” A Japanese proverb says it best. In the days after the 9.0 earthquake and the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, something needs to be said for the integrity, grace, and sense of community of the Japanese.

Those who  travel to Japan always rave  about it. The cleanliness, the food, the culture, and the people are amazing! I traveled to Japan in the Spring of 2006 and while I did enjoy it, it definitely wasn’t one of my favorite places in Asia. This perhaps, was due to the fact that it was the end of my Semester at Sea voyage, I was broke, it was raining the entire time, and I had just found out my grandfather had passed away. All of these factors definitely contributed to my somber mood.

I did think the cities were amazingly high-tech. The transportation, efficiency of everything, bars, internet rooms, and 4 story porn shops-crazy!   I loved Kyoto. Picturing old Japan really brought me  into my favorite book at the time,  “Memoirs of a Geisha”. As I walked through the cobblestone  streets under cherry blossom trees, I enjoyed MY idea of Japan.

Geisha crossing the street in Kyoto, Japan

The Japanese didn’t’ strike me as the friendliest and didn’t stand out as particularly welcoming. No one initiated conversation with me; in fact, I felt most avoided eye contact. The friendliest they got were after a few bottles of sake while stumbling home at 2am in their business suit.

Is being super friendly and welcoming to foreigners really all that important? No, absolutely not. After seeing the character of the Japanese when faced with such crisis, I will completely retract any negative idea I’ve ever had of them.

We can learn a lot from the Japanese on how they deal with disaster. Instead of whining, and finger-pointing, they are showing a true sense of community by pulling together. No one is grabbing media attention in attempt to prove they’re the hero; instead they are working together in attempt to help.

There have been no reports that I have come across on looting or taking advantage of situations which would  benefit individuals. In a time of utter disaster, they are still focused on the collective good.

The Japanese are graciously accepting aid, not expecting it. In a television news report, a reporter tells a story of a woman who is blown away by the help from a foreigner. “You came all the way from England to help?”

While no country deserves disaster, the Japanese are a good model in times of crisis for the rest of the world to follow.  I would hope that if this type of “end of the world” disaster were to happen again, we would react like we’re Japanese.

 

Assignment 4.2 Overcoming rope swing phobia in Luang Prubang

A Facebook wall-post is used for many things. To share greetings, pictures, information, or even a distinct memory. I received a post the other day that triggered a memory I’d buried away years ago in hopes of forgetting: ” Hey Amanda, I was just telling someone the story  about the time you fell off the rope swing. LOL”

I sat, staring at the post.  Damn. It has been 6 years and people are still “LOL-ing” about my tumble-down a cliff and into the water at my hometown lake, Berryessa.  A long day in the sun and a loose grip on the swing led me to fall and roll down the side of a rocky cliff and onto the shore.  My friends stared in disbelief as I flopped my scratched and burned body into the murky water.

This incident provided a great conversation topic at school come Monday and apparently still serves its purpose as one today.

I know I will never live this down in the eyes of my peers but I have conquered my fear of the rope swing thanks to my bravery and determination at the Kuang Si Waterfall in Luang Prubang, Laos.

Kuang Si rope swing

I arrived at the waterfall with a group of 5 others on a tour I found in the Old Quarter of Luang Prubang. Once I weaved my way through trees and across the path to the crystal blue, pools of water and feasted my eyes on the rope swing, I knew right away that this was the place to over come my fear.

The oasis  is something close to what I picture of heaven.  Cascading waterfalls, clear blue water, and green, lush, trees. It looks like the playground of angels and fairies. There’s no way I’d fall off a rope swing in heaven.

After taking a dip in the cool, brisk water, I watched from the shore as others climbed their way to the rope swing, grabbed a hold and swung into the water. The approving audience, clapped and cheered as person after person flew through the air with ease.

Soon enough, I mustered up the confidence to give it a go. As I carefully maneuvered my feet around sharp rocks, slippery algae and tree roots, I found myself standing on the thick branch which acts as a bridge over the water. Here I am, legs shaking from nerves and an audience of strangers awaiting my big moment. I am happy to be standing in front of strangers and not my pals back home.

slowly making my way to the rope swing

I began to crab walk slowly on the wet branch, using the wooden steps nailed to the tree to prevent myself from slipping into the water. Once I reached the swing, I knew I was fully committed.

It was in this moment where I went over the steps of rope swing success:

1. Test the rope

As I grabbed a hold of the rope, I gave it a tug to make sure it was sturdy and secure enough to hold my weight.  Then, I looked up and inspected the branch, it wasn’t going to snap.

2. Estimate the best place to land in the water

We’ve all heard of people landing on rocks and breaking limbs. I located possible hazards in the water (rocks, shallow spots, swimming people) and calculated which way I’d have to swing to avoid them.

3. Grab tight and HOLD ON!

I tightened my grip on the rope and tensed up my arms, in order to hold my weight as I kicked out away from the tree. As I flew through the air a kick of adrenaline rushed over me. I was doing it!

4. Release before you begin to swing backwards

After having watched many people hold on for too long and swing back into the tree, I knew I ‘d need to release sooner than later.  I let go right as I reached the rope swing’s full extension.

5. Watch your landing

Since I am no professional rope swinger, I knew I had no reason to get fancy.  I dropped my arms to my sides, straightened my back and slightly folded my knees to ready myself for impact.  As I splashed into the cool water, I knew I had taken a rather conservative yet safe, landing.

I stayed under water long enough to fist pump and comprehend my accomplishment before rising to the surface. Playing it cool, I swam to the shore and perched myself on a rock, waiting for my legs to stop shaking from excitement.


Assignment #4.1 Traveling solo in Luang Prubang, Laos

While munching on a chicken-baguette and walking through Luang Prubang’s Old Quarter, a sense of companionship began to rush over me. The long and bumpy bus ride from Vientiane left me tired and cranky. These feelings were soon replaced with excitement and comfort, the moment  I stepped off the bus and onto the streets of Luang Prubang.  I’d found a friend in this charming, quaint, South East Asia city. The tidy, easily navigated streets, edged with French inspired villas had me wondering, “Am I in Europe?”

Th Sisavangvong

Luang Prubang’s Old Quarter provides all the action and resources needed to fill one’s diary.  When strolling down Th Sisavangvong Street surrounded by like-minded falangs (foreigners) the solo traveler will come across cafes, tour companies, Internet stops, and countless tuk tuk drivers resting in their rides, waiting for their next fare.

What to do:

There are tons of Wats to visit while touring Luang Prubang so in order to not wat yourself out, head over to Mount Phu Si where you can explore the Royal Palace Museum and take a peek at Wat Pa Huak, That Chomsi, and Wat Tham Phu Si. The steps up to the top will be worth the view. At sunset, people eager to chat and photograph the city below may offer good company to explore the Hmong Night Market.

When you’ve soaked in everything that the Old Quarter has to offer, a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfall is a must.  Tour companies along Th Sisavangvong will be offering 2 trips a day (11:30pm/1:30pm) to the waterfall 32km out of town.  A tuk tuk ride alone will cost more money than joining an organized group through a tour company. Plus, this is a good way to see the magnificent, crystal blue oasis while meeting new people.  Kuang Si can be a day trip in itself. Make sure you try the rope swing while you’re there. If you do one thing in Luang Prubang, this should be it.

On your return to Luang Prubang, you may be given the option of stopping at a “traditional Hmong village”, opt out. The village serves more as a showcase than as a glimpse into the life of the Hmong.

the ropeswing at Kuang Si waterfall

Other sights and activities around Luang Prubang can all be handled and organized for you by the tour companies around Th Sisavangvong. Walk up and down the street to price each company. See what they’re offering and if there are any trips you can join with others.  There seems to be a lot of groups who are in need of one more to fill up the trip and lower the cost for all.  In attempt to join a group on the river, I signed on for a white water kayaking trip. The “white water” included a few tiny rapids on a mostly calm river. The landscape is beautiful but Luang Prubang is not the best place in Laos to get your adrenaline kick. Other trips include: touring the Pak Ou caves, elephant treks, river rafting, or even renting a bicycle to see the city.

Where to shop:

The Hmong Night Market is arguably one of the best in South East Asia because it is open every night (5:30-10pm) and bargaining is possible. No hassling to buy, endless options, and even food; the night market is the place to buy your Laos souvenirs.  Every night a section of Th Sisavangvong shuts down and tents go up, full of T-shirts, bags, sweatshirts, artwork, and local-made jewelry. There is even an alley offering cheap baguettes, bbq, vegetarian options, and beer.  Always crowded, this is a great place to dine with expats and travelers on picnic bench set-ups.

Vegetarian stand at Hmong Night Market

Where to sleep:

When choosing accommodation, travelers will have their pick. The old quarter is on the peninsula of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. French style villas with competing owners make it possible to haggle down prices during low season. If a quiet place near the Mekong is what you’re after Silvilay/Silichith Guest House tel: 212758 offers warm water, comfy beds and is only a 2 minute walk from Th Sisavangvong.

If interested in the nightlife, guest houses a long the Nam Khan tend to keep their gates unlocked after midnight curfew for those stragglers who found the pubs serving a little later. Also, Spicylaos Backpackers just west of Old Quarter is Luang Prubang’s first backpackers and offers cheap rooms, free wi-fi, lockers, a pool table, and even a TV. Spicylaos is a great place for those who travel alone. It maintains a social atmosphere and  has a common area used for mingling and drinking a little later than citywide curfew.

Expats will often clear the rumor that midnight bowling keeps the party going. This is no longer the case so your best bet will be a journey to the local club (any tuk tuk driver will know and gladly take you).  This interesting club is full of young locals and serves until 1am.

I’m back, whether I like it or not

So, its been awhile, a long while. Now that my hectic traveling lifestyle has run its course and I’m physically back at square one, it’s time to continue on with my mental growth. Sounds cheesy but bear with me.

Although my body is grounded in my hometown, my mind is elsewhere and I woke up this morning with a need to write. I’ve been back in the U.S for almost 2 months and haven’t done any written reflection.

Anyone who has taken leave from their routine life in the U.S and has returned home  a year or so later, will tell you it can be a reverse culture shock that is impossible to prepare yourself for. Things may not have changed much, but I sure have.

Here’s a little insight to what I mean by that:

 

Oh yeah, this is reality tv in its finest

Television: My first time actually tuning into the tube, a friend played a special episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”, for me. If the idea of a politician having a reality show isn’t crazy enough, this episode featured the one and only Kate Gosselin and her eight ticket’s to reality stardom. I sat, cringing; yet unable to peel my eyes off the disaster.  Everyone and everything now has a reality show.

 

The Diversity: Driving into San Francisco for the first time, I couldn’t help but stare at the multicultural stew that was brewing in front of me. A bus drove by  and it was filled with probably 4 different races. Amazing! This also comes with loss of feeling unique. I no longer hear how beautiful I am or how small my face is, fifteen times a day in Asia. I’m just another white girl in a sea of good looking, multicultural, girls.

Language please!: In Korea, an english speaker could talk freely without hesitation. I now realize that I cannot talk about how annoying this slow walker is and how they need to get the hell out of my way, without a string of dirty looks from an english speaking audience.

This applies to word choice as well. After having left Forever 21 to use the facilities, the greeter shouted out, “Thanks for stopping by!” With completely ignoring the fact that this is just customary, I decided to put his  fears that we were leaving empty-handed, at ease. “We’ll be back, just going to use the toilet!” The look on his face simply read: TMI.

Obeying the laws: What do you mean I cannot walk around the streets with this beer in my hand? I can’t drive whatever speed I feel like? You won’t negotiate the price of this? But I’m White and foreign and rules don’t apply to me… wait, a minute.

 

San Diego sunset

San Francisco sunset

 

Becoming one with nature: When someone returns to a place they haven’t seen in awhile, they may find themselves becoming a little obsessed with the beauty of the nature they used to overlook. While spending a week in San Diego, I couldn’t help but jump up and down and yelp like a tiny dog going for a walk whenever the sun began to set. I’d send text messages like “Please go look at the sunset!”, take pictures while driving on the freeway, tell everyone within earshot to “LOOK AT THE SUN!” and even update Facebook, on what I thought was the most beautiful moment of my life. With the increase of puzzled looks, and fake excitement from others, my outward enthusiasm has decreased; but not my internal. California is beautiful and I have made it a necessity to spend most of my days outside, with weather permitting.

While there are dozens of little adjustments,  I am grateful to having had the experience in which makes these adjustments possible. There are worse reactions to having returned home than being socially awkward.

 

 

Myanmar Village fire: the silent tragedy

“You may want to pack your toothbrush in case we get thrown in jail.” Ross adds as I finish off the toast at breakfast. What a way to start off a day.

I met Ross at Motherland Inn 2, our backpackers in Yangon. Traveling alone, friendly, and helpful, I soon realized he would make a great travel companion in Burma. Sharing taxis and boats in Inle lake led us to the same guest house in Bagan and as soon as I informed him of the gas explosion that occured 3 days earlier, he was keen on going to investigate.

I arrived in Bagan on October 24. That evening across the  Ayeyarwaddy River a gas  pipe exploded killing and injuring many people. At least thats what I was told. When I asked any of the locals about the incident, no one would give a direct answer. Avoiding the question or blowing off the incident, making it sound like no big deal.

The fire from the gas explosion was in the distance all day on October 25th

 

Knowing there was more to this story, Ross and I set out by horse and cart- yes that is correct, through the ancient roads of Bagan to the river. After about 15 minutes of negotiating a price for the boat trip and debating back and forth whether the trip was worth the money, the excitement of what we could find took over and we jumped on an ancient boat to cross the Ayeyarwaddy River.

When we reached the other side we were happily greeted by local children playing on the shore.  “Money! Money!” they repeated as they skipped behind as we followed our boat man up the path to the village. Smiles of local people and curious stares met us at every turn as we made our way to the taxi stand.

our boat trip down the river

our $10 boat

After another 10 minutes of negotiation on price we climbed on the back of two motorbikes and made our way through villages, mountains, and barbed wire fences until a road block appeared in the distance : Myanmar Police.

Officer ahead, quick grab the camera!

The officer stopped our motorbikes and immediately asked for our passports. Snickering to ourselves we took a seat and waited. A few minutes later, back up arrived. 5 cops for an old Aussie and me. Real necessary.

The Police read through our passports, wrote down all our information and checked our visas. A mixup with the dates on my Myanmar Visa raised the eyebrows of the officers, but playing dumb and innocent got me out of further investigation. 

As the Police wrote down every possible detail on both Ross and myself, I decided to bust out the camera and take some photos on the sly. One *cough cough* *snap snap* and I had myself a decent photo of our investigation.

Moments later I hear the jeep door slam and the sleeping officer awakes just in time to tattle.  As quickly as I rejoiced my sneaky picture, did they take our cameras and delete, delete, delete.

Upon searching through Ross’ entire camera (thinking it was mine) they handed back our cameras after receiving radio confirmation that we weren’t journalists or something dangerous to their coverup.

As if we were a huge threat, they questioned our drivers, and wrote down the motorbike registration before telling us we could not go any further (duh!) and that we were free to go.

My ride out to the village

Although we could not communicate with the people we met , you could see the appreciation they had for our attempt. Their faces however, lacked a sort of empathy you would think would come with such a tragedy.

We rode back home on the boat in silence, although we didn’t make it to the village, the attempt was well noted.

I left Myanmar not knowing the facts on the gas explosion. On my bus back to Yangon I was told it made the Myanmar news but the internet ALSO went down that day, making it impossible to check the world news.

I flew out of Myanmar on October 29th and received an email on November 2 from Ross stating the facts he had heard about the fire.

From Ross’ reporting, the explosion happened in Saling Village- just over the Ayeyarwaddy River  from Bagan, Myanmar.  Ross’ source claims 145 people died, 3 are in the hospital and 45 are missing.  Back at home in the United States, the San Bruno fire killed 6 and burned many homes. This was a major news story.  Did anyone hear of the Myanmar village fire? Interesting what little actually makes headlining news…

Bagan at sunset