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In the Asian Springboard

In the Asian Springboard

Adventures in Singapore and Beyond

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Written by Alyssa Richard      Add a comment

My last jump off of the Asian springboard brought me right back to where I started. The 25 hour flight was miserable and uncomfortable, so finally coming back was nice, but it's very surreal. Now I'm home where nothing has changed, and I have to remind myself that, yes, the past 5 months did actually happen. Honestly, its depressing. I'm glad to be home but I am already terribly missing Singapore, missing Asia. It's true that the grass is always greener on the other side. Literally and figuratively. 

But now I wonder what IS it that I actually miss? I've been thinking about this over the past few days. Lets see, I don't miss the food, the climate, the academic pressure. I miss the experience. But you know what, an experience is exactly that- its not something you can prolong or relive. An experience was once a present and is now a past. Only a new experience is in the future, so I have to stop myself from "missing" it too much. Every experience has an expiration date, and mine expired, just like my green card. It's okay to feel sad and nostalgic but the great thing about having lived a positive experience is the memories never fade. Mine certainly never will.

Other than archiving my experiences in this blog, I also uploaded many of my photos to Facebook, kept a short personal journal, and lived like a packrat. I saved everything. I came home with a thick folder filled with every boarding pass from my many flights, ticket stubs, receipts, brochures, maps, currency from every country I went to- anything and everything tangible that has a story behind it. Now with all of those things how could I ever forget such an incredible journey!

But the people I met along the way are most worth mentioning. Singaporeans and exchange students made up the majority of people I became close with, but it certainly doesn't end there. While traveling I met backpackers from all over the world. The Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Australia- literally, everywhere, from every walk of life. The locals I met in each country were some of the nicest people I've ever met. Even conversations with people next to me on the plane presented me with a new face to meet and story to hear. I got used to being a minority and became very comfortable around such diverse peoples.

I have to say, its weird being back in the majority. When I walked through the Chicago O'Hare airport, it was a shock for me to be around Americans again. You can tell the difference. I was so used to being on constant alert, being stared at, being treated differently, for being white. Touching down in Chicago alone was the beginning of the reverse culture shock. Sitting down at the gate and opening my laptop only to find out its $6.99 just to access the internet reminded me how nothing in America is free, nothing. Nope, not even friendliness, because you have to TIP- something I went 5 months without doing (you don't tip in Asia since service fees are usually included). Now don't get me wrong- tips are my livelihood, but I would be more than willing to be nice to someone even if they weren't going to tip... not everyone sees it that way, if you get my drift. In Chicago I ate a bagel for the first time in 5 months and it was wonderful. I stepped onto the plane heading to Boston and suddenly saw dozens of people wearing red sox caps, celtics jerseys, Bruins t-shirts- WHOA. I never met a fellow Sox fan while traveling. As a matter of fact, no one cared about anything but football (soccer). So that part was nice. But then eating dinner with a fork and not chopsticks? Is it weird that I prefer chopsticks now? Good thing I bought a supply. Showering in a real shower and not in a bathroom with a hose attached to the sink? Lovely. But leaving the house in a sweater, long pants and a jacket and still cold? No. There's lots of give and take.


The biggest differences and greatest culture shock- I can't figure out how to describe. I tried but I just deleted the paragraph because it didn't make any sense. I guess if anyone reading this has traveled and then returned to the the States- you might understand. The combination of sights, sounds and PARTICULARLY the smells. I threw away all of my shoes before coming home because they fell victim to what I call ACSS: Asian City Street Smell. The combination of sewage, spices and I don't know what. Its pungent and its distinct. Coming home and smelling fresh air and the beach was nice but different.

Today I drove to the mall, did some shopping, ate lunch at a restaurant, and now I'm back in my comfy bed, being lazy and watching the Red Sox. Except for watching the Red Sox, that could also be a typical Singaporean's day, but its not typical for other cultures in Asia. The fact that I own a car, a tv, the means to go shopping- I feel so... spoiled. Take for example, the people I met in Cambodia. I'm living their dream. The villagers I stayed with in Sapa, Vietnam- some of them hadn't ever seen a digital camera before. Coming back home I definitely feel more appreciative of even the smallest things.


Being in Asia changed me for the better. I have always counted my blessings but now I do a lot more. I have also realized what I really want out of life- simplicity. I loved living out of a backpack. I didn't need a laptop or a tv, or nice clothes, jewelry. I didn't even use a cell phone! It's amazing how much more you can enjoy life when you omit all of that clutter. They can be such distractions from what's really important. I don't want to sound like a hypocrite because here I am, typing on a laptop, tv on in the background, just having bought new clothes at the mall. (Side note: Asian malls put American malls to SHAME!) I mean that I don't need these things to live a fulfilling life. Simplicity is also a state of mind- relevant to our hearts desires, our "needs and wants." It just makes me think twice about what I'm striving for in life and who I want to be.

This summer I have been offered the incredible opportunity to intern with CBS Consumer Products in New York City. My start date is June 1st and I'm thrilled! It's going to be great to live as a professional New Yorker for a summer, but it's comforting to know that no matter what kind of lifestyle I take on, I can be flexible. If I work as a professional someday in a big city, I know that I could just as easily travel back to a third world country and rough it up for a while.

To end my last blog post (sorry it's been so long), I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart- all the people I met along my journey. Each and every person had an impact on my life and I will never forget you. I sincerely hope our paths cross again in the future. Secondly, I would like to thank my family and friends who kept me going. Despite the incredible experiences I had, there were some rough times, and my loved ones never failed to stay in contact and continue checking up. Even the brief conversations on Facebook and Skype kept me going. It's amazing to have come home to such a warm welcome. They say you never really know what you have until its gone- well, being 10,000 miles away makes your life at home feel "gone" to an extent, so I think its safe to say I really realized just what great friends and family and I have from being so far away for so long. 

Lastly, thank-you to FUSE, which gave me the opportunity to maintain this blog and share my experiences! I hope anyone out there reading this could get a good understanding about what study abroad is like and how many opportunities there are for it at IC- this one and dozens of others equally special. Keep reading Fuse, the stories will never disappoint! Watch out for my article in the next issue. Until then, goodnight and God bless!
 

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          Back home with my family on Mother's Day :)

 

Written by Alyssa Richard      Add a comment

Almost- as in, another 22 hours in transit to go, but thats close enough for me! My last final exam was Thursday morning, my first flight took off Saturday morning so here I am, on a layover in Hong Kong, waiting for my next plane to board, heading to Chicago. It's going to be very, very long- about 15 hours I think, and then another few to Boston. But, last night I once again "slept" in the airport- which isn't really sleeping at all- so I'm tired enough to sleep and let the time pass.

To avoid the upcharged cab fare at 3:30am to get to the airport, I lugged all of my bags onto the bus and then onto the MRT to the airport. It was a brave move, if I do say so myself. Everyone was staring at me the whole ride, probably thinking I'm crazy to handle so much luggage on my own, but I did it.

I don't feel as sad as I thought I would, but the fact is, it hasn't hit me yet that I actually left Singapore for good. I have traveled just about every other weekend for the past few months, but always came back to Singapore. I've seen way too many airports and planes during that time, so in my mind, today is just another adventure that will bring me back to Singapore. But nope! I'll be back in the US "tonight"- time travel is so weird. My 26-hour journey begins and ends in the same day- after crossing the date line I'll be going back in time, gaining back the day I lost when I came here. Here's to hoping the jet lag isn't as bad this time around!

Well it's time to board now-- I hope that seat next to me stays empty- Lord knows I can't sit still. Until next time! Zài jiàn!

 

Written by Alyssa Richard      Add a comment

We all know I've had the time of my life here but I was looking forward to going home.

Changed my mind- I don't want to leave!!!!

Ok, well in a way I do- the heat is still bugging me, I can only eat select foods and I'm running out of money. But it's starting to hit me that I have less than a week left, and it's starting to hit me hard.

It didn't feel real until last night I had my last girls' night out downtown- did a bit of shopping, ate at a good Hawker Center, and listened to a free concert on Marina Bay. It was sad knowing it would be our last time. Then I got back to my room and my roommate had moved out. I woke up this morning having had at least 3 or 4 different dreams about being home and being in Ithaca. I woke up and found myself so relieved to still be in Singapore.

I still stand by the fact that I'm physically ready to come home but I know I'm going to want to come right back after a week or 2. I know so, because that's how one of my dreams went down. Then I remembered how long I had to save up to afford a flight here- so yeah, coming back anytime soon is not an option. 

I'm nervous about how my emotions are going to play out. I swear I'm not a really emotional person- but all of a sudden I feel like I might not be myself in the upcoming days and weeks. I don't know if I'm ready to experience the reverse culture shock. I honestly can't even picture myself going home, eating regular food, driving, always having a nice clean bathroom, and seeing so many familiar faces. I havn't seen a single person I KNEW before January since then. I am NOT going to want to pay for gas, go out for dinner and pay quadruple what I pay here, and start paying my cell phone bill and car insurance again. I guess you could say being in Asia has made me really cheap. You see all those things, although part of my "regular life" have suddenly become foreign to me. I know when I get back in my Jeep and go for a drive I'm going to feel 16 again. Not using public transportation is going to be weird. I will also feel shocked to be able to go to my Mom's kitchen and browse through and prepare my own food. And the weather- it's currently 55° in Sagamore Beach- I'm going to freeze!

Although don't get me wrong, I can't wait to see my Mom and my sister waiting for me in the terminal. I am so excited to see my family and friends, meet my cousin's baby, who was born while I was away, be back in mild weather, be able to communicate with people in the same time zone, and start an internship or job, whichever happens. 

So all in all, its a bitter-sweet ending with extremely mixed emotions.

My flight is in 6 days with connections in Hong Kong and Chicago. The worst part of having a 25 hour flight with long connections is that its going to give me so much time to think... and be emotional... ugh, we'll see how it goes! Until then, gotta study for my last exam, soak up some sun, say some tearful goodbyes and top off my Singapore bucket list. Here goes...

 

Written by Alyssa Richard      Add a comment

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The 3 hour bus to Ha Long bay was definitely a relief after being in trains for 9 hours. We arrived there in the afternoon and waited until our boat reached the dock.

We checked in and had a nice but small cabin room on the boat. The package we bought was 2 days 1 night, so we would be spending the night on the boat as it cruised through the bay.

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Ha Long Bay is in line to be one of the new wonders of the world. It is a bay in northeastern Vietnam that is best known for its beautiful limestone rocks and islets jutting out of the water. We found out that the limestone has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The water is beautifully blue and green and rocks are very majestic looking as they cover miles of the bay.

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On our first day we settled in, had lunch and cruised around the bay. We walked through a cave for about an hour, which was really cool, but personally I think it would have been cooler to walk through it with flashlight- enough of the development crap! They made the cave look cool with colored lights but it looked so unnatural. Oh well, that's what you get in touristy destinations! After the cave, we kayaked around the bay for about an hour and got back on the boat. Some of us jumped off the boat for a swim but the water was freezing. Now, if you know how Cape Cod waters are- nothing should be cold to me- but I think it's been too long since I swam in my hometown waters- because I lasted all of 3 minutes!

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That night we laid out on the top deck of the boat, just taking in the breeze and relaxing. It was really amazing to just lay there in such a beautiful area without a care in the world; without a phone, without internet, just beauty and good company.

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The next day we ate breakfast and did more laying out on the deck. I ended up taking this time to study a little bit for my exams. The sun wasn't shining, it actually wasn't really out the day before either- it was really hazy- so no suntanning this time around- but that made it easier to lay there. We got off the boat around lunchtime and headed back to Hanoi on the bus.

By this time it was Friday evening, and I was set to leave Hanoi for Singapore on Sunday morning. We did some hostel hunting and ended up at Hanoi Central Backpacker's Hostel- without a doubt one of the best I've ever stayed at. It was $5/night which included free breakfast, drinks, internet and travel services. It was dormitory style which is always cheaper, but I didn't mind- I tend to sleep like a baby when I'm traveling anyways- its exhausting!

Our time in transition gave us the opportunity to explore Hanoi. I love this city! I have found many Asian cities to be all too similar, but something about Hanoi was different. Maybe it was the fact that I could walk around outside and not sweat- or that the coffee shops are amazing, or that street vendors don't harass you, or that the food is incredible. Maybe it's the French colonial influence from years back that made it different. Either way, I didn't want to leave! But the time came on Sunday morning and back to Singapore it was.

I had an exam the very next day, and as I'm writing this, I took one last night and have another tomorrow. So far so good! Either God just blessed me with a brain or these exams are easy- at least the first 2. I expect the next 2 to be more difficult but it doesn't matter anymore- it is what it is, and I will be home in 10 days!

 

Written by Alyssa Richard      Add a comment

grp

That's right. Last week I left the Singapore Changi airport with about 4 million dong, ready to take on the beautiful country of Vietnam.

With a whole free week in between class and exams, it only made sense to travel. Last Friday, the 17th, I took the last MRT to the airport where I slept for the night in the budget terminal. My flight was at 7am, and a cab would have been extremely expensive, so compared to the S$1.80 it cost to get there 7 hours early, I would say it was entirely worth it. I can't say I was able to sleep much, but now I can say that I slept in a McDonalds. It was on my bucket list, you know. 

I took off to Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon (although everyone still calls it Saigon) by my lonesome, but met up with friends when I got there. I traveled with my Canadian and Mexican amigos, so the three of us fully represented North America. It took a while to get my visa but when I finally did, I found Alex and Josue waiting for me outside the terminal and we took off to explore the city.

In Saigon we visited the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The museums were very moving and gave a lot of insight into the war. I found it particularly astonishing to see the affects of Agent Orange- I saw dozens of photos that really struck me, needless to say it was a little depressing. In my generation I think its hard to fathom that the Vietnam War really wasn't so long ago- Vietnam is still deeply affected by it- there are still so many people affected by the AO with diseases, deformities, etc., which were then passed down to their children- so sad. 

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Reunification Palace

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War Remnants Museum

The Cu Chi Tunnels were really cool though. It was about an hour and a half drive from Saigon, so we took a tour bus. We got to crawl through the tunnels, and Alex and Josue got to shoot AKs and M60s. 

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Ho Chi Minh city is unlike any city I've ever seen. The streets are densely packed with motorcycles, and its really chaotic, busy and bustling. It is one crazy city!

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Good luck crossing!

English is not spoken in Vietnam nearly as much as in other countries, but that didn't stop vendors from being really aggressive. They pull your arm, tug your shirt- typical street vendors.  We visited the famous Ben Than Market and experienced quite a bit of that- but we didn't actually buy anything (we left most of our shopping to Hanoi capital city). And I can't talk about the first few days without mentioning PHO (Vietnamese noodle soup), one of my new favorite foods! So delicious. Pho Bo, Pho Ga... all amazing. Oh and did I mention the spring rolls? Is there a Vietnamese restaurant in Ithaca? If not there should be- I'll be craving this for a long time!

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On our last night we saw a water puppet show- it is a traditional Vietnamese show that is very popular and meaningful to the locals. Lonely Planet says you can't go to Vietnam and not see one- so we did. It was really funny at first, then got a bit boring- the guys weren't really amused but I am glad we saw it after all.

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The hostel we stayed in during our first night in Saigon was pretty nice- $5/night for a private room, although we may have gotten a 2-person room and snuck Josue in to get the better rate. We flew to Hanoi at 6:30am on Monday so we decided to sleep in the airport again on Sunday night. Alex and Josue had already been sleeping in the airport before I got there- yep, we are true budget travelers! So I lied- we're not millionaires- 4 million dong is about $200. But at least we could say that at one point we were millionaires. It wasn't very comfortable sleeping there and I actually got attacked by mosquitos there but we saved a few bucks (thousands of dong) and a cab ride early in the morning. 

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We touched down in Hanoi, the capital city in the north, and immediately booked our trips with the travel agent. Our first stop- Sapa. Sapa is a mountainous area even further north of Hanoi, on the China border, and its really well-known for its beauty and culture. We spent the day around Hanoi and then got on the sleeper train around 8:30 pm. It was actually really comfortable! It was a 9 hour ride and I was able to sleep for most of it.

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Our cabin on the train

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My travel buddies :) 

Once we got to Lao Cai station we took a 4-wheeler van to Sapa because it is only accessible by car. The bumpy ride ended at the top where we were dropped off at a hotel for our base (to keep our bags and eat and shower) before making the trek to the village. We spent 7 hours trekking through the mountains and rice paddies of Sapa. It was hard work but a good balance of uphill, dowhill and flat, unlike the other treks I have done. It was very muddy however. There was a group of Sapa women following us, who actually helped me in some of the hard muddy areas. They are known to follow the tourists during the trek to try and sell them crafts once they stop for lunch. 

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Our guide was a Vietnamese girl name Vui. She is 20 and a native of the village. She was very sweet, I was really impressed to learn that she picked up English in a matter of about one year, by guiding travelers through Sapa. 

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After 7 hours we reached the homestay where we would stay for the night. It was less of a real homestay and more of a lodge, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it. An Australian couple and a French couple also did the homestay with us. Its funny how I never, NEVER, meet other Americans when traveling- and I meet so many people! I guess they're all in Europe maybe? Anyways I wasn't feeling very well that night so I opted out of the drinking game we played with the hosts- they are really into their rice wine- which tastes like pure alcohol.

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Our homestay

The next day we did more trekking and stopped at lunchtime to get on a bus back to main Sapa. Another beautiful drive. And then it was back on the sleeper train! 

We arrived back in Hanoi at about 5am and waited in a hotel until about 8:30am for our bus to Ha Long Bay- which I will post about next! 

 
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