By Edo Steinberg
Incoming graduate students Glenna Read and Joomi Lee each travelled to the Far East this summer. Glenna was in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and Joomi travelled in India for a month. Glenna took the trip with her boyfriend, Ben. Joomi, on the other hand, went to India on her own, travelling with tourists she met there. “It was fun to get to know different people from different backgrounds,” Joomi said of her fellow backpackers.
One of Joomi’s favorite places in India was Turtuk, a village in the Himalayas near the Pakistan border. It wasn’t easy getting there, requiring two different buses. “It took about twelve hours. Usually, foreigners take more expensive transportation. We took the local bus. It was very dirty, very crowded. I had very little space to stand. My friend was hanging outside, on top of the bus, trying to avoid rocks, branches and electric lines.”
The dangerous voyage was worth it. The scenery was beautiful and the locals were very friendly.
One of Glenna’s favorite parts of her trip was a hill tribe trek in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where she got to ride an elephant. She also went on the Gibbon Adventure, which entailed ziplining through the jungle and staying in tree houses.
Joomi’s interactions with locals were very positive. She stayed at one elderly woman’s house and was invited to a traditional wedding. However, it was important to be cautious. “You have to be careful, because it isn’t a safe place to travel,” Joomi said. “In urban areas there were always people trying to cheat. Also, men are always looking for women. Their culture is more rigid and strict about relationships. I heard I shouldn’t wear short pants or miniskirts.”
Glenna observed that people in Thailand and Laos seemed very gentle and avoidant of conflict. “It was less so in Vietnam, but it could be because I was American,” she said. “Nobody was rude, though.” She was also cognizant of respecting local traditions and covering her shoulders when visiting temples.
Many of the locals wanted to take pictures with Glenna and Joomi, since they enjoyed being photographed with tourists. The two would also like to stay in touch with many of the people they met during their trips, both fellow tourists and locals.
Glenna and Joomi say that tourists should try to learn about the cultures they visit. Residents of these countries like to talk about their societies. Joomi believes visitors should try their food and visit their homes to fully experience life in that place.
“And don’t complain,” Glenna implores. “Even if something sucks, you’re still on vacation. You have this amazing opportunity. Why get upset or angry over anything? Keep a positive attitude.”
Glenna and Joomi learned a lot about historical and political issues during their travels. Glenna learned that in the countries she visited, American landmines from the Vietnam War were never removed and still kill people every year. “There are so many landmines that you can’t walk off the path,” she says. “We did not do anything to get rid of these landmines, so it is left up to these countries to deal with this problem that we created.” She also learned about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Joomi discovered that the caste system in India is still very strong, despite the fact that it is no longer enshrined in law. This is especially true among older people and in rural areas. For instance, there are still people who are beggars and street sweepers solely because that is what they were born to do, according to tradition. Also, those whose job it is to burn dead bodies and throw their remains into the Ganges River in Varanasi – a tradition Joomi witnessed – are members of a low caste.
“As a traveler, there is nothing to do,” Joomi says. “All you can do is recognize reality and tell other people about it.”