Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Some years ago an elfin man approached me as I walked along a boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He could see I was puzzled and wanted to help. What did I need? Holding out my handfull of trash, I pantomimed dumping it, then shrugged my shoulders and swept my hand in a semicircle to indicate my search for a trash bin. He pointed to the street pavement. No! I shook my head. Yes! he replied with a nod. Springing forward, he grabbed the trash from my hand and threw it on top of a pile at the curb then, flashing a huge grin, turned on his heel and ambled away unconcernedly. Had it not been tossed upon a fetid, stinking garbage heap I would have picked it back up.

Trash on the street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Trash on the street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Later that same afternoon I came back to the same neighborhood after a day of traipsing around old Saigon and noticed a woman clad in a green smock and conical straw hat pushing a two-wheeled cart. Every few feet she stopped and bent to the asphalt with her hand broom of twigs to sweep up piles of trash and deposit them in her bin. The pile that had horrified me earlier in the day was long gone, and I suddenly realized that my trash was her job security.

Flash forward to 2010 and my four months of travel around Mexico. A beach bum from way back, I was stunned by the dazzling white sands and crystalline turquoise waters of the Yucatan. The beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen are among the most magnificent in the world. As I traveled further south to a largely undeveloped part of the peninsula, mile after mile of exquisite beaches stretched as far as I could see. Unfortunately, so did piles of rubbish. Shampoo bottles, shoes, needles, plastic containers of all kinds had washed up just above the high tide mark; where there were no houses or resorts there were no efforts to clean it up and in places the trash was a foot deep. At the southernmost point of the Yucatan I rolled into Xcalak, a sleepy town best known for its diving and deep sea fishing, and put down roots for a few days.

I brought up the subject of litter with the managers of Casa de Suenos Resort, who insisted that it did not originate in Mexico. Although some claim it comes from cruise ships that dump their trash at sea, current regulations for the cruise ship industry require weighing of the trash when ships return to port. Using available data about the average number of pounds of trash generated per person at sea, a formula is applied according to how many passengers were aboard. If the load is light, the cruise line is subject to severe financial penalties. The more commonly accepted explanation is that currents wash trash up from Central and South America and as evidence that the theory is sound, the resort manager produced a yellow hard hat he had picked up on the beach. Scrawled across the front were the words “Panama Canal.”

Trash on beach in southern Yucatan, Mexico

Trash on beach in southern Yucatan, Mexico

More trash on beaches in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

More trash on beaches in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

For the past several months I have been back in Asia, where the problem is as severe as anywhere in the world. To a large degree I have learned to look past the garbage; though I still cringe each time someone leans across me to toss their trash out of a bus window, I find myself reasoning that even the plate is made from biodegradable palm leaves. Rather than being appalled, I am Read More

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I’ve passed through my fair share of border towns over the years. Many are shabby, filthy encampments that exist on either side of a barren no man’s land where immigration officials with steely gazes extract their pound of flesh. Some, like Poipet at the border between Cambodia and Thailand, feel downright dangerous. As I gradually made my way toward the northeast corner of Thailand to cross over into Laos, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was prepared for the worst. My bus from Chiang Mai dropped me in Chiang Khong, Thailand, just across the river from Laos late in the afternoon, so I dumped my pack at the hostel and headed out to explore the town, since I would be leaving early the next morning.

Food vendors line the streets in Chiang Khong, Thailand

Food vendors line the streets in Chiang Khong, Thailand

Piles of glistening vegetables, like these multi-colored hot peppers

Piles of glistening vegetables, like these multi-colored hot peppers

As I followed the main street along the Mekong River I was initially surprised by the lack of trash on the streets; indeed Chiang Khong was the cleanest town I had ever visited in Thailand. Children waved and greeted me with “hello,” then giggled and hid behind their mothers, having exhausted the the only word they knew in English. I replied in Thai, asking their name or how old Read More

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On the day I departed from The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan, the seas were again too heavy for the Koh Samui ferry to pick guests up from the beach, so we climbed into an inflatable rubber boat for the short ride to the larger boat, waiting out in the bay. As if serving up a crowning indignity on a visit that had been disappointing at best, the boat timed the swell poorly and dove through a wave, drenching passengers and luggage. Exasperation turned to laughter all around and soon I was comparing notes with Patricia and Martin Bourbonnais, who had spent the previous week at the resort.

They had chosen the Sanctuary for its famous detox and fasting program and were now bound for Koh Samui for a few days of relaxation at Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa. I  had wavered between spending time on Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Samui but eventually settled on the former because it was reputed to have lovely beaches and its remote location meant it would be less touristy and crowded. But the extra effort required to reach Koh Pha Ngan, which is accessible only by boat, hadn’t deterred visitors, who arrived in droves to party hearty at the famous full moon parties held every Friday. I admitted that even the beaches had fallen short of my expectations; the soft, powdery sand that I prefer was non-existent on Haad Tien Bay.

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Perhaps sensing my disappointment, when they learned my plane didn’t leave until later that evening, Martin and Patricia suggested I join them for lunch at Zazen and relax on the beach rather than spending hours waiting around an airport. I gratefully accepted, delighted to have an opportunity to check out what Koh Samui had to offer. Despite my disheveled and still soggy appearance, the Resident Manager of Zazen, Diego Pignatelli, graciously welcomed me and provided a changing room where I could shower and store my luggage for the day. Refreshed, I joined my friends and dug into a mouth watering vegetarian coconut curry over rice at the resort’s open-air Zazen Restaurant while drinking in the view – a perfectly manicured beach and shimmering seafoam green ocean that stretched to the horizon. After lunch my friends headed out to do some shopping while Diego stepped in and showed me around. Read More

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For my very first trip to Thailand in 2002 I chose a week-long Yoga retreat on Koh Phra Thong, a little-known island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of the country, and Yoga has been part of every subsequent trip. So as I made plans to return to Thailand for the first time in four years I researched destinations that would offer Yoga and beautiful beaches on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, an area that I had never visited. Over and over, one name kept cropping up: The Sanctuary Resort at Koh Pha Ngan.

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Although best known for its no-holds-barred full moon parties, the island of Koh Pha Ngan also has a tradition of secluded resorts that offer yoga, meditation, and fasting programs, and The Sanctuary was said to be the best of the bunch. I contacted the managers to explain I wanted to review the resort on my blog and inquired whether they offered a media rate; they offered me a discount and asked that I contact them a few days before my arrival to make final arrangements. However, when I did so they had no cabins available and suggested I try again in a few days. The following week, although they still had no cabins available, the resort manager offered to reserve a space for me in their dorm and, knowing the dorm rooms are usually booked on a first-come, first-serve basis, I eagerly accepted.

Following the instructions on their website, I flew to Koh Samui from Bangkok and took the Thong Nai Pan ferry boat from Mae Nam pier, which delivers passengers directly to The Sanctuary on Haad Tien Bay. Unfortunately, on the day I arrived the seas were too rough to land at Haad Tien Bay and the boat had to put me off at Haad Rin Town, but I had been forewarned about this possibility by the resort’s website, which stated: “To get here by boat from Haad Rin Town, locate the taxi boat drivers at the port. They can bring you to The Sanctuary, which is a short 15 min journey.” I began asking about onward transport to the resort but was told that the once-per-day jeep taxi that braves the horrendous dirt track masquerading as a road had already come and gone. The long tail boat operators wanted 2000 Baht to take a single passenger (about $67 US), which was astoundingly expensive, even in a country where things are getting pricier by the day. They insisted that my only other option was to hike up and over two steep hills with all my luggage on my back. Hot, sweaty, and by now frustrated, I decided to phone the resort for assistance. Stepping into an Internet cafe, I presented the number shown on the resort’s website and in their emails, but the phone was out of service.

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Fortunately, the woman in the Internet cafe pulled out a map and explained what I needed to do. My ferry boat had dropped me at the Haad Rin West pier, which is located on one side of a very narrow isthmus. Long tails departing from the west side have to make a long journey around the isthmus to the east side, where The Sanctuary is located, thus the high fare. Smelling a sucker, the boat owners didn’t tell me that I simply had to walk five minutes to the other side of the isthmus.

Fifteen minutes and 200 Baht (~$7) later, I jumped into thigh-high water and hefted my backpack across sloping sand and up a stairway to the resort’s front desk, where I introduced myself to the reception manager, Lenka. Unsmiling and brusque, she ran me through the drill. I was given a number that was to be used for all purchases during my stay and instructed to check my bill each day to make sure it was correct. This same number was written on a dry-erase board hanging at the end of the reception desk, in full view of every guest. When I expressed concern that anyone could use my number, she reiterated that it was my responsibility to check my charges each day and insisted I would not be charged for disputed amounts. Their emails had promised: “Last but not least for all you internet geeks we now have WiFi all over the Sanctuary in every nook and cranny and the houses also,” but Lenka informed me that the wifi didn’t work well because the resort was surrounded by rock. However, since my iPhone picked up the connection with no problem, she offered to sell me a 1000-minute package for 2000 Baht ($67!). Irritated, I pointed out that nowhere on their website or in emails had it disclosed that the wifi was fee based. Her dismissive reply was, “It is what it is.

Disgusted but too exhausted to argue, I hefted my pack and carefully negotiated the rickety stairs leading to the dormitory, built directly over the restaurant and bar. The keyless door opened into a large room that seemed more like an enclosed deck. Not only did it vibrate each time someone came up the stairs, it faced directly onto the beach where full moon debauchery went on all Read More

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My friend Todd Wassel, who writes the great travel blog Todd’s Wanderings, was on the ground in Japan during the earthquakes and subsequent tsunami, visiting his wife’s family. Although his family was all safe and sound, they watched the news reports in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Todd also happens to be a conflict resolution specialist for the United Nations; as such he works with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) the world over, and has even set his fair share of NGO’s, so he knows how to assess such organizations to make sure they are legitimate and doing the work that’s most needed. And he’s been doing just that in the case of Japan, identifying the organizations that are doing the best work but that may not have access to tremendous fund raising abilities. He wrote the following article on his blog, suggesting which organizations are the best possible choices for support, and asked his fellow bloggers to reproduce the article, which I have done below:

This page is dedicated to helping the survivors of the Friday 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan by channeling international donations to local efforts.

The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, over 9,500 people have been confirmed dead and another 16,000 are missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.

The images of the destruction and suffering have shocked the world. However, with the World Bank reporting over 300 billion USD in damages and families torn apart there is a need for everyone to help both financially and emotionally.

A few weeks ago I posted about my Experience During the Japan Earthquake and made a plea to my readers to spread the word about helping Japan recover. My wife is from Tokyo and we are both professional aid and recovery workers with the United Nations. We have seen the recovery phase of the 2004 Tsunami up close and we know there is a tremendous need to not only raise donations but to make sure those funds are used responsibly and are in the hands of organizations with not only technical expertise but also local knowledge.

How You Can Help

A lot of people around the world want to help and have been donating to various international organizations (mainly the American Red Cross). I think this is great and with the money being transferred to the Japanese Red Cross this money will be used well. However, we also believe there is a need to donate funds directly to local Japanese organizations and NGOs that don’t have access to this type of fund raising. There are also many scams out there trying to benefit from this horrible disaster. We know that language barriers and lack of knowledge can also prevent people from donating to the right place. As such we have put together a list of Japanese Organizations that we know, trust and recommend to channel your donations to.

If you are unable to donate we ask that you Share this Page with your friends, family and coworkers through e-mail, facebook, twitter or any other outlet you can think of. The more people who see this page the greater the donations will be.

If you are blogger, or have your own website. Please see the Blog4Japan page to learn how you can utilize this appeal on your own site and help us reach even more people.

Japanese Organizations We Trust

Please consider donating to one or more of these organizations. All are local Japanese organizations and we have found the English Pages for you. Even a small amount like $10 is useful, but we hope you donate more! Read More

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I first saw the acrobats on the beach at The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand. One of the men was lying on his back on the sand, balancing a diminutive Chinese girl seated on his feet. Using only his feet, he turned the girl around so that she was facing away. She gracefully bent backward and hung upside down, allowing her head to hang suspended just above his abdomen.  When he reached up and gently stretched her neck I thought, oh, my god, that’s what I need.

Richard Baimbridge "flying" me in "Front Bird" pose. Photo courtesy of Susan Huang.

Richard Baimbridge “flying” me in “Front Bird” pose. Photo courtesy of Susan Huang.

The position seemed ideal for relieving my chronic neck pain. But I quickly dismissed the idea. I could do all the poses they were demonstrating on my Yoga mat, but up in the air? No way. He probably couldn’t even support someone of my size.

As luck would have it, the following afternoon the same acrobats sat down next to me in a restaurant on Haad Tien Bay and I couldn’t resist asking about their unique practice.

“It’s called AcroYoga,” explained Richard Baimbridge, describing it as a playful and healing combination of partner Yoga, Thai massage, and acrobatics. “But informally, it’s known as flying.”

Baimbridge, who originally hails from Texas, teaches both AcroYoga and Vinyasa Yoga in Shanghai China. While at The Sanctuary Resort training for his Anusara Yoga certification he  met Surya Dancing Buddha, another AcroYogi staying at Haad Tien Bay. The two hooked up to compare notes on this still emerging form of Yoga and the impromptu beach demonstration was born.

I admitted my fascination but expressed doubt that he could support someone of my size. “I’ve flown people lots bigger than you,” Baimbridge insisted, adding that he’d once flown a Japanese sumo wrestler. Before I knew it, he’d spread a wicker mat on the restaurant’s wooden deck and waved me over. It was put up or shut up time. I stood in front of his upraised legs as he coached, “Just lean over my feet and grab my hands.” As I bent forward he planted his feet on either side of my pelvis. “Now arch your back and take your arms out to the side.” Tapping into core strength built up through years of Yoga practice, I let go and moved into Front Bird pose.
 

Can’t view the YouTube video of AcroYoga on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand? Click here.

Excited to know more, we gathered again later that same afternoon in one of the Yoga shalas at The Sanctuary, where Baimbridge and his girlfriend, Susan Huang, demonstrated two types of AcroYoga: the more gentle massaging/stretching routines and the more complex acrobatic maneuvers. Afterward he grinned and beckoned me over once again, this time instructing me to bend backward over his feet. He supported my Read More