Hoi An’s Tourism

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Tourists and locals reflected in the canal in Hoi An.

Hoi An, our next destination, is a ‘traditional’ village located 30 km south of Da Nang. Imagine any quintessential tourist village with preserved architecture, art galleries, and traditional restaurants, except in the theme of Vietnam, and you’ve got a good idea of what Hoi An is like. Women in traditional dress pose beneath the curved roofing of old homes and temples. Streets are lit by handmade fabric lanterns of every color, and human-powered rickshaws shout to get past throngs of tourists loitering, buying, staring, and photographing. It is at once adorable and obnoxious, somehow simultaneously catering to every touristic whim while being touristically exhausting.

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Lantern displays in Hoi An’s old town.

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A floating candle-lit lantern on the canal.

Nearly everyone in Hoi An is involved in the tourism industry, and anything and everything has a price on it. You can pay a man to pull you around in a  rickshaw, for a boat ride on the town’s canal, to take a photo of you in front of a building, to get ‘tourism information’. Even walking around costs money; Hoi An’s pedestrian streets have sometimes-manned ticketing booths at every street entrance, where occasionally people will deny you entry unless you pay. You can stand there as people who are clearly other Asian tourists stream by, but they won’t let you through unless you pay. Here, it’s the inconsistency of rules, both in race and in time, that bothers me.

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A man walks past a lantern display in the old town. And yes, you can also buy a lantern here. As many as you’d like.

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A woman gets ready for her shift at the inconsistently-manned ticketing booths that charge you to get into old town.

Things are also a distinctly different price for you as a tourist. I arranged a fairly pricey $75 cooking class for our second day there, and in the morning our guide showed us around Hoi An’s market. She was primarily interested in discussing the market’s vegetables and kept us at arm’s length, dodging questions about herself and life here in Hoi An with silence or vague responses like “We’re poor. We need tourist money.” We switched to asking about the market to make her more comfortable and to try and get an understanding for the pricing of things, but we found her responses equally as vague. It was confusing, given that she’s probably shopped this market every day of her life. Then she bought us some snacks for a few thousand VND and it became clear why she couldn’t give us exact prices. Excited to finally have a benchmark for something, I asked her about the price. “Hmmm…” she hesitated, “For you, maybe it would be 20,000 VND.” More than three times what she had paid.

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A traditional dish of prepared seafood (snails) mixed with chilis and green onions, available at the market. Our guide was unable to give us an estimated price for tourists.

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The snacks she bought for us. For locals, you can get three of them for around 6,000 VND.

Though the rest of the cooking class was pleasant and uneventful, I couldn’t shake the fact that every interaction was an opportunity to put on a show and pull more money from us. We took a boat out to our guide’s small village, on an island in the Thu Bon river delta, to continue with the cooking class. They brought out an old woman and introduced her as ‘grandma’, where all of the recipes come from, and she showed us a handful of tasks in rapid succession before shuffling off exhaustedly. The local ‘shopkeep’, a man who drives his motorbike laden with random goods around the island, paid us a visit to see if we wanted anything. And after the cooking class, the guide invited us on a walk that ended up at the house of an old woman, whom the guide told us was widowed. “She sells vegetables for a living…and we all try to help her by buying something or helping her tidy up around the house. Do you want to come in?” the guide asked as she held the gate open. I was only a little ashamed when I blurted out, “No, thank you.” I was exhausted.

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The travelling salesman of the island.

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The ingredients of our cooking lesson.

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Taking the boat back to Hoi An. The net in the background is used for nighttime fishing.

Part of this is my privilege talking. I can, after all, get onto an airplane and be welcomed in nearly any country in the world with my U.S. passport. It’s in immense privilege to be able to go somewhere and have more spending power than half of the local population. It’s a privilege for people to be excited about you coming to their country. You’re not an immigrant or drain on resources—you’re a gift to the economy and a sign of good times to come.

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A woman smiles after we bought two paper lanterns from her to float in the canal.

I also don’t blame the local people for all trying to make money off of tourism. When you see your neighbor bringing in a hundred times what you are by catering to tourists, you’re going to try and do the same. And there’s no way to say who does and doesn’t get to profit off of tourism without being unfair to someone, without shutting out a group of people from the new prosperity. But when everyone does it, when every interaction you have with another human being is a transaction, you’re bound to get transaction fatigue.

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Crowds of tourists in the old town.

The next day we left Hoi An, bound for Da Nang by way of a tour bus. We visit ancient Buddhist temples in the marble mountains, where just outside you could buy carved marble Buddhas to take home. We walk through a sacred Buddhist cave, embellished (recently) with scenes of Buddhist hell to liven it up for the tourist crowd. At the entrance to the cave is plaque to Vietnamese fighters. “What does it say?” I ask our guide. “Oh, it’s for soldiers who fought here against American forces. They shot down a plane,” he says absentmindedly, “But if you keep walking, it is more interesting inside. There are scenes of Buddhist hell.”

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The plaque commemorating guerillas stationed here during the American War.

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A demon roasts humans in a scene from ‘Buddhis hell’. I think this is the sin for eating meat or being a butcher.

We end our tour with a stop at a marble factory, one of those ‘compulsory opportunities’ to buy souvenirs that so common in tours. We take the chance to use the restroom and wander through the store, past gemstones, jewelry, and carved marble of every shape and color. We stop to stare at an ornate marble fountain and a man hurries over to us. “Want to buy it?” he asks.

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A marble statue, as always, available for sale.

An Introduction to Vietnam

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Students pose in front of a communism monument in the shadow of a Pepsi advertisement.

We’re on to Vietnam, where we’ll spend the next three weeks traveling. Since these posts are retrospective (we were there in April) and Vietnam is a country that gets mixed reviews when it comes to tourism, I wanted to start with this post outlining our overall experience in the country. Here are five impressions we got as first-timers in the country.

It was super-affordable

Excluding the flights into/out of Vietnam, we spent $600 USD a week, or $300 a week per person. While there are South American countries that price similarly, the difference here is we were living a step above the standard backpacker lifestyle: we flew between all our destinations (three flights), we rarely ate at street food vendors, we went to a Starbucks-like coffee shop almost every day, and we paid for two tour packages and a cooking class. We were more like we were upper-middle class tourists here than backpackers.

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We flew everywhere in Vietnam. In some cases, flights were cheaper than the advertised bus and train fares!

You are an outsider

This is the feeling we struggled with most, and I suspect it’s the feeling that leads many backpackers to leave Vietnam with a negative opinion. You are an outsider in Vietnam and very rarely are you invited in. One reason is the language barrier; for people whose native language is English, Vietnamese is hard. In our three weeks we picked up only a couple of phrases, mostly to order coffee and thank people. Since language is often how we connect with people, it’s hard to move from outsider to insider, even for a backpacker.

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Stoytcho walks through a crowded market.

The second, more insurmountable reason for this is that Vietnam has suffered a lot under actions of the West. Vietnam was as a staging ground for a proxy Cold War only a few decades ago, with the U.S. bombing the country while the rest of the Western powers looked on. Before that it was a French colony, where heavy-handed tactics were used to keep the Vietnamese in check. While the Vietnamese claim they hold no grudges, it’s in their rhetoric to say they won their independence and autonomy on their own. This means the Vietnamese people aren’t going to glare at you on the street, but they don’t have a reason to do you any favors. Or, as we found out when we asked a guide about the price of something in the market, “For you, it would cost about this much.”

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The market where we learned prices were different for us and locals. It’s not a good feeling.

The tourism dollar comes at all costs

In Vietnam, the primary goal of tourism is wealth transfer from foreigners to locals. This leads to three problems: a lack of budget backpacker options, some shady dealings, and environmental damage. Vietnam doesn’t offer much in the way of super-cheap backpacker options because that doesn’t facilitate as much wealth transfer; we lived as middle-class tourists because we couldn’t find any backpacker options when it came to tours, food, and accommodation. There are hostels, but their minimum price is higher than in South America because they know that anyone who can afford to get here can afford to pay a little more for that bed. Tours start around $40 USD because the agencies know you can pay. This is why people have such different opinions after visiting Vietnam: those looking to travel middle class find a fantastic deal, but those looking to travel as backpackers wonder whether they’re being cheated.

There’s also a distinct goal of getting as much money from you as possible; some people are outright dishonest and lie to you, but more often it’s subtle omissions of information or referrals to friends. Things like “Oh, we forgot to mention that the all-inclusive resort doesn’t include drinks and you’re not allowed to bring your own,” or “you shouldn’t go with this tour agent, go to the one down the street (who I happen to be related to).” We took any info we got with a grain of salt and always looked for second opinions. And when it comes to providing good tourism, the goal is to again maximize that dollar. I cringed when I saw our tour guide feeding monkeys so they would come closer to us, and sighed over the massive environmental damage in Ha Long Bay. Like so many other developing nations, the Vietnamese know what cultural treasures their country holds but they’ve decided the tourism dollar is worth more*.

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A monkey looks up at us, expecting more food from our guide.

The Vietnamese culture is amazing and unique

Even with the above issues, there’s no place like Vietnam. The food is like nothing else, a fusion of Asian and French cuisine that’s had centuries to become sublime. There’s pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, and a hundred other amazing dishes that haven’t yet made it out to the rest of the world. And there’s a plethora of healthy, fresh vegetables at every meal, so you’re getting good nutrition. Simultaneously, the Vietnamese celebrate and preserve their culture in temples, museums, and open-air displays. And it’s a culture that you can’t find anywhere else.

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A dish from our first night (in Ho Chi Minh City). It’s fresh veggies, rice noodles, and fried tofu with fish sauce and citrus juice for dipping, and it was delicious.

The future looks bright

The Vietnamese are excited about the leaps their country has made in economic wealth in the past decade and they’re optimistic for the future. Cities seem to be under construction everywhere you turn, everyone’s starting a business, and people talk about the future with smiles rather than frowns. In rural areas, opinions seem more mixed—the residents here look at the growing wealth in cities and fear being left behind. We also have a biased sample – we can only talk to English speakers, and their economic prospects are much better than people who don’t speak English. But it’s invigorating and exciting to see people talk about their country with such pride, love, and excitement, and to see them look forward to the future.

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Kids play in an open-air square in Hanoi. Optimism for the future runs high among the people we spoke to (in English).

*Note: While it feels bad as a traveler to be seen as an outsider and walking money, I find it hard to begrudge the Vietnamese for their behavior. They’re responding to blooming tourism after decades of hardship in the most human way possible: let’s make money and create better lives for ourselves, our families, and our friends. You can’t fault them for that, or for feeling no particular affinity of friendship toward visitors from the Western world that created many of their hardships in the first place.

Cemoro Lawang

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A sign for the village of Cemoro Lawang in the sandsea, with volcano Bromo in the background.

Cemoro Lawang is a tiny village at the edge of the Tengger caldera and were it not for Bromo’s close proximity, it would likely have never seen tourists. Most residents here are farmers, though some are now part of a growing tourism industry that serves tourists to Bromo as hotel staff, restauranteurs, and tour guides. The wealth disparity between the visitors like us and the residents here generates a feeling of desperation, where streetside vendors sell Bromo souvenirs half on pity. Part of the reason is that we’re (once again) in a tourist town during the off-season, when times are hardest. But part of it reflects an economic shift wherein people realize that tourism-related jobs, even one that requires standing out on the cold street selling Bromo kitch, will make far more than any farming work. We might visit Cemoro Lawang one day to find the fields replaced by artisans’ shops and tour agencies in their place. But for now, the dominant feature of village’s landscape remains rows of neatly-planted spring onions, nourished in the volcanic soil.

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Farms cover the hills in Cemoro Lawang.

 

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A field of spring onions stretches off into the horizon.

 

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A farmhouse surrounded by fields of spring onions.

 

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A man carries his farm produce into town.

 

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A woman burns garbage at the edge of town.

 

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Our hotel in town, the Cemarah Indah.

 

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The entrance to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, with a tour jeep parked in front. The poles hanging over the streets are charms, important to the Tengger people who inhabit this and nearby villages.

 

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A view down the hill into town on a foggy day. The proximity to the Tengger Caldera means that most days start or end with fog.

 

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A communications tower in Cemoro Lawang disappears into the fog above.

The language of travel.

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In South America we picked up Spanish quickly. In Mexico we started with our basics : “where hotel?” “what cost?” “when, where bus?”. In Columbia we were chatting about our travels, where we had been and what we’d seen, where we wanted to go. We had just started getting in to more complicated topics like careers and work, the state of the city, hopes for the future. By Ecuador we were chatting with cabbies – when we rarely took them – and haggling like pros at the market. We had our grade-school Spanish classes and California locale helping us with this, but that’s the general progression. What, when, where. Then, we will and we want. Then came past tense – we went, we saw, we did. And finally the complicated stuff – hopes, dreams, cares. Nuances that flew far above our initial survival struggles.

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Now comes Indonesia. The fluency that we had struggled to build up in Spanish was gone once we hit the tarmac. On Java, there is very little English. Sure, in Bali with the nice resorts and overpriced taxis everything caters to foreigners, but Java is not that. Here the only English we really spoke was with the blessedly helpful hostel staff, other tourists, and the occasional ticket seller, hotel clerk, or police officer. Outside of those cases, we were suddenly and almost completely stripped of our language capabilities. This was a first for me. Never had I been in a position where my number one form of communication was rendered so utterly useless.

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My initial reaction was frustration and annoyance. It didn’t help that our first real experience with this was ordering lunch on a sweltering day. Hunger, heat, and complete lack of communication. Natalie fared much better – she’d had this experience before and was enjoying it thoroughly. Pointing at things, holding up fingers, pointing at more things, watching her navigate was great. I sat and ate my noodles and tried to imagine how the rest of this trip was going to go.

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As it turned out, it was going to go great. But not without the huge learning curve at the beginning. We started very, very slow. Numbers and “how much does it cost?” (“Harganya berapa?”) is roughly the first week of Indonesian, and that’s about where mine stopped. Natalie picked up : what’s this?, what’s that?, a little, up, down, what’s up?. We both got thank you – terima kasi, and you’re welcome – sama sama. And thanks to the consistent voice on the bus – matsuki halte – “next stop”. Neither of us reached any real fluency outside of haggling.

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That didn’t stop us from interacting at all though. Natalie was a master of pointing and using her hands to make intentions clear. Food was acquired that way most of the time. She also had some interesting and in depth conversation using thumbs up and thumbs down alone. For finding where we needed to go, we got a long way with just stating place names repeatedly. If we needed something special – like and umbrella for example – we learned the word for it (“payun”) and wielded it like a magic spell. We once set four employees of a mini mart running around looking for an umbrella just by walking in, waving and smiling, and asking “payun?”. It was chaos.

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We learned to rely on google translate a whole lot. It’s a huge change from how travelers even five years ago must have had it, but the phrase book is basically extinct. We used the translate app to learn why we we had to pay a fine – spoilers, because we lost one of our tickets mid-train route back from Bogor, and apparently this means we’re fare jumpers. We used it to translate warning signs – hati hati! – and lists of rules and ticket prices. We used it to figure out how to get up and around and over all sorts of mountains, and along the way we used it to talk with anyone who started a conversation. Halfway up the path to Bromo, we chatted with three teenagers, both parties typing and exchanging phones, laughing and making funny faces and waving hands. The translation technology is not perfect, especially in Indonesian, but the meaning usually came through enough to be understood and keep us on the right trail.

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The hopeless and helpless feelings of that first day were entirely a product of shock. They faded rapidly and in their place was the experience of exploring a totally different culture in ways I had never thought or needed to try. I can’t say it’s better than speaking the language. I don’t think anything quite matches that. Interestingly, I have come to believe that being perfectly fluent is the worst situation in terms of spending time and getting to know a place and people.

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There is a level of very primal human to human interaction that is covered up and hidden by the fluency of language. A limited word-set forces you to slow down and really work at connecting with someone else. To find other ways of explaining yourself and understanding others. It forces you to double check what you just heard, and to be especially grateful to the people around you who took the time and were patient with you. Being fluent removes much of that. Yes, the conversations can be deeper when they happen and that’s great, but it also gives you an easy out. It’s easy to glide on the strength of your language skills and get in, get what you need, and get out. Things function much more smoothly and normally, and in that is lost an interesting perspective and experience.

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We got along very well in Indonesia, occasionally asking hostel staff to carry through a transaction but mostly on our own as described above. It’s not for everyone and it does eventually get tiring, but going through the experience once opens up a lot of opportunities later and makes anywhere you have a tiny grasp on the language seem totally fine.

The Influence Game – Last day Batik Sale

All over the world there are folks trying to make a quick buck by scamming others, and travelers are particularly vulnerable because they’re often unfamiliar with the traditions and norms of an area. It’s a risk you take as a visitor to another place, and while a scam can ruin your trip, it’s also a chance to learn how people work. Below is one of the scams we encountered on our travels, broken down so that you can see the techniques the scammer uses to influence you; read on to learn the signs so you won’t fall for it:

Name: Last Day Batik Sale

Location: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Why it’s a scam: A seemingly friendly face will lie or provide unverifiable information so that you’ll be convinced to visit a pricey batik painting shop with them. A Hustler will then also lie/provide unverifiable information to you to convince you to buy overpriced batik that’s actually mass-produced.

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A batik painting from a ‘last day batik gallery’, demonstrating how the batik process works.

 

How it works:

The two actors in the scheme are an agent that approaches you with information, and the hustler who tries to close the sale. You’re the mark (victim), usually someone who has just come into town and don’t know your way around yet. The mark could be anyone from a lone traveler to a couple to a whole tour group. The ploy starts with you walking on the street; the Agent (usually an older man) will start a conversation with you in English. He’ll ask where you’re from, and miraculously he’ll have visited the place or has a relative/friend who lives or went to college nearby. It may be a lie, but it’s unverifiable and so he’s doing two things here: 1) dispelling suspicion of why he speaks such good English and 2) more importantly, building rapport and trust with you. After all, you two have something in common, and what a crazy coincidence you’d happen to meet him here. It’s human nature to like him a bit more after this.

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Maliboro street in Yogyakarta–you’ll find tons of Agents hanging around here.

The Agent will then ask where you’re going today, and when you respond he’ll try to deter you from going there with one of the following: the weather is bad for it, there is a protest going on in the area, or that attraction is closed. Since he’s a local, you’ll likely trust him to know more than you do. Furthermore, you feel like he’s done you a favor by giving you this insider information. In reality, he’s probably lying to trigger feelings of reciprocity, meaning you’re more likely to say yes to his next request.

This is where the Agent then makes his big move, part hook to catch your interest and part request: he’ll tell you he knows of a traditional batik art gallery nearby that he could take you to visit. It’ll sound like a great substitute for what you planned to do that day, so you’ll probably agree to go.

But if you resist and show hesitation, the Agent has one more powerful technique to convince you to come with him: scarcity. You might tell him you’re not sure or you’ll go tomorrow, whereupon he’ll reply “Ah, but this is the last day for the gallery. Tomorrow they close and go to (insert another city or island in Indonesia). As the mark you’re trapped—if you don’t go now, you’ll never get a chance to see this batik sale! You could find something so amazing and unique that it stays with you for the rest of your life! Aughhh! At this point, most first timers of this scheme follow the Agent willingly.

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One of the “last day” batik galleries we were directed to by Agents. If it’s a temporary exhibit, why do you have a permanent sign?

The Agent will lead you into a maze of alleys and arrive at a small store filled with hundreds of batik paintings on the walls and stacked along the floor. The Agent introduces you to the Hustler, who he says is a ‘teacher’ at the batik art school. Here, the Agent is making the Hustler a figure of authority, someone you’ll trust to have valid information.

Once introductions are done, the Agent quickly disappear and the Hustler works hard to reinforce his authority and do you favors to close the sale. The Hustler will start out by displaying examples of the batik dye process, which reinforces his role as an authority and also again primes you to feel reciprocity; he’s giving you this information, so shouldn’t you reciprocate a kind act to him by buying something?

The longer you hang around, the harder the Hustler piles on the pressure. He may increase the likelihood of your reciprocity by offering you a free bottle of water for that hot Indonesian weather. He’ll tell you that all of the prices in the gallery are very affordable, and that a percentage of the sales goes back to the school so they can give classes to students for cheap/free. This is meant to trigger the warm feelings you get when you donate to charity. You’ll do good by buying!

The Hustler will encourage you to pick a piece you like, and this is when the final tricks happen. Once you point out one you like, the Hustler will compliment you on your good taste and give you a price. He’ll quickly follow up with, “We don’t haggle here on price. I hope you understand.” This is a SUPER devious, SUPER common salesman tactic because it pre-empts nearly any attempt to haggle. Who does something that just isn’t done, especially if you’re in a new country where you’re not sure of the social norms. If you actually are in the market for a batik piece and someone does this, give them a friendly smile and say you’re only able to pay X amount so it’s out of your price range, and start to walk away. They’ll haggle.

At this point, the Agent and the Hustler have used a huge number of influence tactics on you, the Mark: rapport, reciprocity, an interesting hook, scarcity, authority, warm feelings, salesman tactics. At this point, you usually make a purchase, the hustler excitedly thanks you, and you leave the shop. It’s possible you paid for a nice, unique batik art piece. But it’s more likely that the Hustler has made over 100% profit on the batik piece that is mass-produced (we ‘visited’ a few of these shops and saw several duplicates), which he splits with the Agent for bringing in business.

To save yourself from this scam:

  • Always be wary of unsolicited favors, be it information like above or physical gifts like those candies left by kids on your table or the bracelet slapped on your wrist by a wandering old lady. Truly free things given to you while travelling will come with a big smile and a “free/gratis/regalo”, after which the person will wave you off. Otherwise, unsolicited favors should raise a red flag that the person will ask for something afterward.
  • Deviate from the script and ask for more information that might catch the Agent/Hustler off guard and reveal them as frauds. Ask the Agent for more specifics on his relative/friends or drop a fake detail and see if he agrees it’s true. Ask the Hustler which paintings in the gallery he’s made as a teacher, and note if the ones he point to look like they’re in a similar style or form. If he hesitates or they’re totally different, he’s probably lying. These are just examples, and you should think up your own questions—if the Agents and Hustlers encounter a deviation too often they’ll modify their own scripts.
  • If you get a bad feeling, just say no calmly and walk away. This is what we did once we realized we were in a scam. It doesn’t matter that you’re standing in a shop and someone really wants you to buy something. It doesn’t matter that he might have even given you a free bottle of water. These people tricked you to get you here. The key is not to get angry, because that may get you into trouble (the Hustler might have friends nearby). Smile and say thank you, but you’re not interested in purchasing anything. Stay calm and repeat this as needed even if the Hustler gets angry/offended/gives you sad puppy dog eyes. Then leave.

Visiting Prambanan

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A visit to Jogjakarta is incomplete without seeing the massive temple complex that sits just on the edge of town, forty minutes or so by bus from the center. Prambanan is a towering and expansive series of Hindu temples, thought to have been erected during the 9th century when the ruling dynasty of Indonesia shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism and answered the Buddhist temple of Borobodur with Prambanan.

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Photos do little justice to the feeling of the place. Unlike Borobodur where you can scale the temple itself so that it seems smaller the closer you get, Prambanan offers no such relief. The nine central towers do exactly that – they tower over you and climb to incredible heights. In my opinion the eye is fooled even further by the shape of the towers themselves, dwindling to needle-like peaks which seem all the further away.

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Each spire has a set of stairs leading up about halfway, leading to a path encircling the temple and a door into the tiny inner chamber. The path takes you through a relief carved religious story or legend. This is a photo of the tree of heaven, a common theme in many Indonesian works.

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Inside each spire is supposed to be a deity or their representation though most of the statues are missing.

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The surviving ones are treated with care, though many are replicas and the originals are housed in museums. The outsides of the temples are covered in carved statues and faces, often better preserved than the shallow reliefs inside.

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The temple area includes four separate temple complexes – Prambanan, Lumbung and Bubrah temples, and the Sewu temple. All four are in various states of repair, having been historically plundered for stones and statues and in recent times suffering damage from earthquakes. Prambanan once housed many temples of various sizes in concentric squares. Now only the central temples stand, and a few of the smaller outer temples. The rest are waiting in piles to be rebuilt.

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We saw reconstruction teams working on putting some of the smaller temples back together. Fitting the pieces together in the correct order and making the structure stable again is hard work. Not only is the location not marked, but each piece weighs a ton. Maybe not literally, but heavy enough that one person can’t lift it.

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For all the wonder that is Prambanan, the other temples deserve a visit. They are smaller in both area and height, but offer more diverse temple styles, statues, and reliefs without the crowds of tourists. When we went over to Sewu temple, there was literally no one else there.

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Here you can see not only more of the art and architecture, but also of the destruction wreaked on the temple site by the earthquake. These temples were once fully repaired, now awaiting time and funds.

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The Sewu complex is full of statues, usually damaged in various ways.

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It houses reliefs waiting to be put in their proper place.

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And is a storage grounds for spare spire tops and temple stones, intended either for their original location or to fill in a partially complete temple.

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For tourists who stand out : be prepared for the local crowds. As with all other attractions we visited in Indonesia, groups and individuals stopped and asked us to take a photo with them. Sometimes this meant a selfie, other times it meant we were going to be in some classes’ travel photos. It’s exciting and fun, but eventually I get tired of it. Natalie does a bit better with photo stamina.

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Finally, a few last shots of the entire complex. We found the entire day to be completely satisfying. A quick breakfast, temples and tourists, and a bit of haggling at the end. Be prepared with water and a bit of people stamina, and come as early in the day as humanly possible – the grounds get sweat-and-sunburn hot quickly, and there’s a lot of walking to be done.

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The Life of Passport Stamps

When we entered Australia, we had the chance to use their shiny e-Passport system, which expedites border entry for citizens of specific countries and has cut most wait times to around 10-15 minutes. Instead, we chose to wait in the standard line for more than an hour to get through customs. It’s not that we thought the e-Passport system would violate our privacy, or compromise our digital security. It wasn’t that it was hard to use. No, we stood in a low-tech customs line because we wanted our passport stamped. After all, at this point we’ve gotten stamps from more than 8 countries. How could we miss out on one? It’s a completionist’s nightmare, and we’ll wait in line, thank you.

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Pages of my passport with stamps from Central and South America

The passport stamp has provided evidence of travel for centuries, reminding travelers of their experiences and enabling governments to control the flow of people between borders. Passport stamps arose with passports in Europe during the 1800’s, but the modern system of passports and controls wasn’t developed until World War I, when hostilities and compulsory military service necessitated greater understanding of who was travelling where. Following the war, most countries kept the passport system and passport stamps became a common method of tracking human travel. Governments can determine where you’ve been by flipping through your passport, and can bar your entry; several nations (including Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia) will deny you entry if your passport contains a stamp from Israel. Depending on who your country is aligned with, your passport stamps could also raise some eyebrows when you go home and lead to questioning.

Despite their role as a bureaucratic tool, passport stamps have become a part of travel history and culture. Travelers covet and record the stamps.  Passport stamps from places that no longer exist remind us how much the world has changed in just a few short decades. We romanticize the passport stamp in our culture, with passport stamp patterns adorning everything from stationery to pillows and coffee thermoses. The passport stamp has come to symbolize sophistication and worldliness.

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People mill around after exiting customs and immigration in Hong Kong. Immigration areas are no-photo zones, so you’ll just have to imagine us waiting patiently in line, inching forward.

Back in Australia, we reached the front of the immigrations line and present our passports with an explanation. “We know as U.S. citizens we’re supposed to use the ePassport line, but we really wanted our passports stamped. Would that be alright?” The immigration agent looked up at us. “We don’t stamp passports anymore,” he replied, deadpan. I experienced a moment of dismay, then thought he was joking. This wouldn’t be the first time a customs agent has had a bit of fun with us. “Wait, you’re kidding, right?” I asked. “Nope,” he says, “we just stopped last Tuesday.” We had missed the Australian stamp by less than a week!

We asked the immigrations official if he’d be willing to stamp our passports anyway. He chuckled, “Sure, alright, I still have the stamp. Good thing you arrived now; they haven’t taken those yet.” With a loud thud, he inked a stamp onto a page in each of our passports. We asked if he gets many requests for stamps like this. “No, not many,” he replied. I guess we passport stamp hunters are a rarer breed now. And as electronic and biometric identification become more commonplace in travel hubs, passport stamps will become rarer as well.

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The Australia stamp, perhaps the last one ever issued. 

Hunting for information on passport stamp history, I encountered a few lamentations over the diminishing use of the passport stamp. Some reply that the loss of the passport stamp is for the better if it reduces hassle at immigration and during travel. Others look to collecting something else as proof of their journey, such as unofficial travel stamps. But what would the ideal future look like? What could we implement that would do away with the cost and trouble of a physical passport stamp, but still evoke the memories of a trip?

One possibility is to harness technology to create a digital “stamp” to collect. This could range from something as simple as a QR code in the welcome area that links to a country’s welcome webpage, to something as sophisticated as data embedded on your passport that you can privately access online. In the latter case, governments are already collecting and collating this information—why not make it accessible to the person it belongs to? Integrating it with digital records that we make during our travels – video, pictures, writing – and we could create whole travelogues of our experiences, richer than what we might remember years later when we glance at our passport stamps.

But it’s hard to beat the physicality of a stamp. Each of the things listed above would have to be accessed consciously and intentionally. A passport stamp travels with you, visible and present whenever you carry your passport. It’s as much a reminder of your trip as it is a government approval to travel across borders.

Roadtripping in Australia

What is roadtripping in Australia like, you might ask. Great news! We did it and we can tell you.

IMG_9932 This wasn’t outback roatripping, which is a whole ‘nother bag of rocks. This was Queensland coast roadtripping. First, there are sometimes farmer’s markets, and if you get lucky they take place at the right time and place to grab some delicious food for later. We went to a market on the Sunshine Coast, a very relaxed and family friendly place. We were not expecting a large variety of bananas, but bananas we got. Very tasty ones too.

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We definitely were not expecting to try some of the nicest cheeses we’ve had in a while. Australia is not especially well known for cheese, and White Gold Creamery has set out to correct this issue. They homebrew their cheese varieties, experimenting for months at a time until something good comes up. Their stated goal is not to compete with the super-market cheese aisle, but to offer different varieties and pleasant twists on famous styles. Natalie went straight to the mushroom-ripening brie, which gets a stronger and stronger mushroom taste as it ages. They also offered cultured butter – butter that has been to the opera – and we took a block to go with us.

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After shopping around we went behind the market to a local park full of man-made lakes. A mid-morning swim was in order. No pictures of the lakes were taken, suffice to say every park would do well to have a couple. Next, there are sometimes very big things along the way. Australia is kind of famous for this in fact, having about one hundred and fifty big things in the country. Our big thing visit was the Big Banana. We brought out some of the regular-sized bananas for scale.

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If you’re lucky you’ll meet your hair spirit animal. I met mine at a farm/restaurant along the coast. The restaurant was pretty expensive, but they have a free-pick macadamia nut orchard, so that was cool. We grabbed a handful and Natalie got these pictures of me and this yak.

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On any good Australian roadtrip, there will be meat pies. We searched high and low and googled for the best place to get some. Off the highway a bit sits an old house that is actually a restaurant inside, Fredo’s Pies. There the very kind cashier gave us a pile of meat pies and best wishes for the road. These were amazing, flaky and chewy with the meat cooked for hours till it was tender and delicious. The kangaroo pie is the specialty to try.

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R stands for ‘Roo.

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H stands for I don’t remember but it was delicious.

The last thing to see along the road is the sunset. These tend to be, almost universally, amazing in Australia. The open skies lend themselves to great cloudscapes and the sunset paints them in fantastic colors. Our night was rainy and we took the sunset photos from the car, so the amazing doesn’t translate so well, but we were treated to a 20 minute red and orange light show on the road.

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An open letter to New Zealand about freedom camping

Dear New Zealand,

You’re amazing. Our two weeks spent road-tripping through the North Island were priceless and filled with wonderful hiking trails, delicious meat pies, and breathtaking views. Your parks, from the local to the national, all had a unique beauty we’ve never seen elsewhere. And your people are so friendly and helpful. In short, we loved you.

So it’s totally crazy to ask this of you, but could you please, please change your rules on freedom camping? They’re vague, vary by council region, and are incredibly hard to navigate as a visitor. Twenty hours of our trip were spent on trying to figure out where we could and couldn’t camp with our tent, and in most cases we still weren’t sure. There was also a huge disconnect in understanding the rules between Kiwis and visitors. When we noticed a district prohibited freedom camping, we often asked locals in an area where we could camp. “Uh, right here?” they’d reply with confusion, followed by something like, “Pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s not private property.” Asking about the ban on freedom camping usually led them to even more confusion. So it seemed like there were different rules for Kiwis and visitors. And that felt bad.

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Our tent at a free campsite we found via app and hours of driving.

At the same time, I totally understand why you’ve cracked down on freedom camping. I read online about the environmental and health problems that freedom camping caused.  It’s great that you saw a problem and wanted to protect your beautiful countryside. But letting councils regulate freedom camping hasn’t achieved that goal. Instead, it appears to have pushed budget-constrained campers who can’t afford paid campsites into a few areas where they do more damage. While camping at one of the few free sites in the Northland Peninsula, we watched campers doing their dishes in the river with soap and water. At another site, I listened to a Kiwi tell me that “camping was THE best life” as chocolate wrappers fluttered out of his campervan door and into the grass. When I pointed them out, he laughed and said “Oh no!” but made no effort to retrieve them. And then there are the hundreds of people choosing to sleep in their cars or drive on tired to the next campsite because freedom camping is banned in a district. We did this several times; it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wake up miserable.

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On the upshot, sleeping terribly in the car means you’re up early for sunrises like this.

So given the problems above, I’d like to make a humble suggestion: move to an online course-and-permitting system. One of my many specialties is negotiation, much of which comes down to understanding what motivates someone. You’re motivated to keep your country beautiful and safe, to ensure that freedom camping doesn’t do damage the environment or human health. The motivation of the would-be freedom campers is to see your country’s beauty and have fun while on a budget. Both of these could be satisfied with a course-and-permitting system where would-be campers went through an online course highlighting New Zealand’s freedom camping rules, took a short quiz, and paid a small fee for a freedom camping permit. It could help New Zealand’s citizens as well, who don’t always realize what they’re doing is damaging the environment.

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Freedom camping isn’t just for those on a budget; it lets you capture picture perfect moments in New Zealand’s landscape.

And as a bonus, let’s look at whether the program would pay for itself. Let’s say that you give New Zealand citizens permits for free (they pay taxes already), but you require a $10 NZD permit for every visitor who wants to freedom camp. You had 3.2 million visitors in 2014, and let’s say on the conservative side that 20% are would-be freedom campers. That means you’ve got 640,000 visitors getting a permit at $10 per person, meaning $6.4 million NZD. Could you run a program like this for $6.4 million? As a government, you would know better than I would, and you could adjust the permit cost as needed. But beyond budgeting, the course-and-permit system would help you keep New Zealand beautiful by ensuring people know the rules of freedom camping while keeping it fun and accessible to everyone, even those of us traveling on a shoestring. I hope you’ll consider it. May your grassy hills always stay green.

Love,

Natalie

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There’s a lot of beauty to protect in New Zealand, and a course-and-permit system would go a long way in everyone knowing how to protect it.

Glowworms and Tea

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We finished our waterfall adventures and headed for one last tiny hike for the day. It’s called “Mounds Walk” and is listed as one of the short hikes near Whakapapa village, the center point of Tongariro. The New Zealand government helpfully supplies fantastic information on their parks website, well worth looking at for planning.

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The whole 20 minute there-and-back culminates in a small raised platform surrounded in the distance by sets of mounds, exactly as described. The mounds are small hills, rising and settling with gentle slopes turning the landscape into a bubbling greenscape. The walk has informative graphics as to the theorized origins of the mounds – debris from previous volcanic explosions.

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We visited too late in the day to get any really good shots of the mounds themselves, but the clouds filled in. As with many other places in New Zealand, the cloudscapes are vibrant, ever shifting, larger than life canvases in motion on which the sun paints with vivid palettes of reds and golds and violets.

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We got our exercise for the day running back to the car and motored off to our last destination for the day : glowworms were said to live in the walls formed by a road cut far-ish off into the countryside. What should have been an adventurous jaunt was threaded with anxiety and paranoia that night. Earlier in the day we’d met a very friendly Dutchman while we were drying out our camp gear. He’d been travelling around in a campervan for some months and chatted with us briefly. Before the rains came and we hurriedly stashed our gear, he brought us two cups of tea which we drank gratefully. Waterfalls and mounds followed, and my mind embarrassingly brooded on the incident. Despite months of meeting people and relying on their kindness and good will, the manual of safe travel popped up : be careful what you accept from whom, especially if you’re alone. Lack of sleep combined with darkening skies and childhood stories of backwoods terrors and coalesced into the though of : what if the tea was drugged. Natalie was in a similarly tired state and could only counter that it was highly unlikely, but now the errant thought nagged at her too.

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The last light before the long road to the worms.

What followed was a weary drive and a long conversation on travel, people, kindness and ill will. The short of it was that we were being very silly, and that by and large people everywhere want mostly the same things – a stable life, a chance to grow and raise their family. Of the places most people are likely to travel to, at worst people might be mildly annoyed at the large backpack and “tourists” ruining the area. We’ve found though that people we’ve met have been largely welcoming and curious. About why we’re in their part of the world, about what we think of it, about the rest of the world is like. We’ve been very lucky to not yet run into someone who wished us direct harm, though even then the goal is usually monetary gain rather than simple violence. This is not to say that the world is safe in all respects and that everything is peaches and cream, that would be too black-and-white for reality. But when it comes to people meeting people, at least in the places we’ve been to, the interactions are statistically for the better.

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The cut in the road, only barely a car’s width across.

We’d arrived at this point, more tired and anxious than anything. The dirt road was pitch black excepting the streetlight at the junction to the main road. Here there is no place to turn around, so forward is the only direction. The dirt sides of the cut-through hill rise up rapidly and surround the car, everything is quiet except for the rumbling of the motor and visibility is truly limited to the beams of the headlights. It’s the kind of place where horror stories live, and boy were we primed for it.

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Unfortunately, to see the glowworms, we had to kill the lights and let our eyes adjust to the total black. An unpleasant concept, but we did it. The result was this scene – blue-green lights twinkling on an unseen plane a foot from our eyes. We didn’t take the brave step of getting out of the car, and in retrospect that was a mistake.

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The phenomenon of glowworms is unique, at least to me. Other animals produce light, of course, and eyes glowing in the nightbush can sparkle just the same. The glowworms though are as if the stars were brought within arm’s reach in all their cold and distant glory. I find it endlessly fascinating searching for constellations unknown in the star field of the worms. That they live and are arrayed on the side of the road is a spectacular event. Their larvae eat fungus and other decomposing plant matter and need moisture and darkness to grow. Apparently this cut satisfied all their needs since they were thriving.

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Our night of anxiety ended as we slept at a roadside stop near Taumarunui. We woke to the sight of familiar rolling hills and winding roads. All was well, and we felt embarrassed and very silly. A sincere thank you and apology to the kind Dutchman for his tea and food for thought.