Springboard to Asia

Indonesian Sunset
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Author’s Note: I returned to Hawaii in June 1998 after two and a half years with UNICEF – six months in Fiji and two years in Cambodia. The East-West Center, located on the UH campus in Honolulu, had graciously provided me with an office to edit 20 years of personal journal entries while contemplating my next adventure. My landlords also welcomed me back to a quiet, refurbished apartment – with spectacular views up to steep mountains and deep valleys, misty with passing showers and rainbows, and down to the sea, sunsets and the lights of Waikiki – indulging in the artist’s lifestyle in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii was the perfect refuge. But, even ‘paradise’ can become a bit ordinary, and the time had come for a change of scenery. So, once again, the ‘Land of Aloha’ was the springboard to Asia as I ventured off into the exotic hideaways and popular tourist havens of the Far East with none other than Gary – my old buddy from our Western Samoa days.


He’s a former semi-pro footballer, body-builder – not totally gone to fat, but complete with gold chain and perpetual grin, chuckle and lust for good times, especially with ‘the babes and a few beers.’ What a trip! It was quite exhausting trying to keep up the pace with Gary – too damn much beer, a steady stream of women, and no sleep!

Map of Southeast Asia, Wikipedia Commons

Gary had left a successful career as an educator to travel overseas and experience different cultures. He decided he would “rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff and a big bank account.” Having traveled widely and lived and worked in several developing countries, Gary understands the profound impact total immersion in another culture can have on one’s world view and outlook on life.

As the Senior Field Officer with the Western Samoa Red Cross Society, Gary poured his heart into his work, which included organizing events and raising funds tirelessly for a range of international youth health and development programs. He credits his overseas experiences for having helped him develop greater empathy towards other nationalities, particularly developing countries, which made his personal problems seem tiny by comparison. Gary has also clearly had a thirst for adventure, and claims that “if I didn’t have some crazy travel stories to tell, then I did something wrong.” So, here are a few of those ‘wild and crazy’ stories.  

Our night flight over the Gulf of Siam was lit up with the lights of fishing boats positioned in patterns – as if we were flying ‘over’ the stars. It was an eerie but beautiful sight as these constellation-like patterns dotting the sea below merged with the horizon and the night sky filled with the ‘real’ stars and constellations. In Bangkok, we joined a couple of my Thai friends on several occasions for some nice dinners out with plenty of good local food and drink. Before heading home each night, we would drop Gary off at Patpong Road – Bangkok’s infamous ‘Entertainment District’ – where he continued the festivities well into the night.

Street vendor selling dried squid, Thailand

From Bangkok, we headed to Bali, Indonesia – and to Kuta Beach, a popular tourist area, where we enjoyed tons of delicious and incredibly cheap local food and drink. We soaked up the fresh air, sun and surf, and joined the lively parade of nocturnal revelers that filled the streets, restaurants, bars and cafes at night. The delicious grilled tuna steaks, avocado shakes and cute local waitresses were not to be forgotten.

I crashed early each evening and let Gary carry on into the night, taking full advantage of the bar scene and vibrant night life, beside himself with pure pleasure. Unfortunately, he claimed to be unable to remember a few nights – too drunk. However, he did recall waking up at least once with a broken condom – man! Anyway, I did my best reminding him to be careful.

Jim with a group of Balinese Dancers, Bali Island, Indonesia

The weather was blazing hot in Bali, and also at the Gili Islands – a group of three tiny islands located  off the coast of the nearby island of Lombok. It was the height of the rainy season and the humidity was stifling. But the boat trip to Lombok Island and then by bus through the dense jungle, past traditional villages and finally aboard a small, local boat to the Gilis was thrilling. Automobiles and motorized traffic are prohibited on the Gili Islands, so the preferred method of transportation is by foot and bicycle or the horse-drawn carriage called a cidomo.

Each of the three idyllic islands has its own unique character. The two smaller islands offer peaceful tropical island retreats. But of course, and at Gary’s bidding, we opted for the larger and more heavily touristed “Party Island” – and that it was!  Beer flowing, music thumping, mushrooms – people tripping, partying all night. This would have been my last choice – so it was a different experience for me. But we had fun, and Gary was stoked!

Gary and Jim staying with Marie (center front) and some friends at her villa in Saigon

From Bali, we flew via Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (which is still referred to by the locals as Saigon) and were hosted by Marie, my Viet Kieu (French Vietnamese) friend at her beautiful French villa. Gary and Marie hit it off immediately talking import-export business, and Marie proved to be an excellent host and tour guide. She took us into the countryside and through the Mekong Delta region, along hidden canals through Cholon District (Saigon’s Chinatown) for nighttime shopping – including visits to her businesses, and to local markets, war museums and to the immense network of underground tunnels at Cu Chi. We had a great time!

‘Comrade’ Gary (and ‘Uncle Ho’ pictured above) at the Cu Chi Tunnels, Saigon, Vietnam

On to Hanoi, we headed for the congested madhouse of the city’s “Old Quarter” alive with beeping horns along the narrow, winding streets choked with a chaotic tangle of motorbikes and bicycles, and the ever-present pestering touts. Gary was nearly robbed and became totally lost that first night. I was enjoying a second bowl of noodles (Pho) when we became separated. But Gary managed to survive, especially with a Big Mac or pizza fix, whenever possible.

Best of all, it was really neat to experience it all through Gary’s eyes – like seeing everything for the first time. Otherwise, I would have been bored with just the familiar tourist stuff to do. Finally, we concluded our whirlwind three-week Asian tour with a trip to beautiful Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features thousands of steep, limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes rising dramatically from the dark, green water.

Jim at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Travelling by bus from Hanoi through the countryside to the coast, we enjoyed good fresh air, amazing scenery and later, a boat ride through magnificent Ha Long Bay. So, after a dozen or so years of talking about it, we had finally managed our adventure through Southeast Asia! These good times stoked the adventure fires for more, which would lead to our South Asian travels in India, several years later. (Stay tuned for those stories, coming soon!).

Soon after Gary left Hanoi for the States, I met Thanh Huyen, a local newspaper reporter who wanted to practice her English. We shared the next several days and delightful evenings together in Hanoi’s historic city center, sipping chilled avocado smoothies and eating Pho by the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake – brilliantly lit up with lamp lights that shone across the water.

Jim and Thanh Huyen in Hanoi, Vietnam

Despite my nearly complete exhaustion following the full blast travels with Gary, I tracked down some of my aid worker friends in Hanoi who soon talked me into undertaking a more serious job hunt there. Indeed, upon walking into the UNAIDS Vietnam office, I was offered a short contract to do a rapid assessment of HIV/AIDS counseling and social support needs, which took me throughout the country from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south.

As I was finishing the intensive UNAIDS assignment, I interviewed one last key informant before leaving Saigon for Hanoi. She and her three Australian colleagues had just been sacked from an Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) women and child health project based in Saigon, and the Australian government was under pressure to put a new team of international consultants in place. So, despite not being Australian (they must have been desperate!), I was offered a position on the Project – and it just felt so right!

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Back in Hawaii, I was also considering a position with the Hawaii State Health Department, but eventually opted to make the break for Vietnam. A familiar pattern of transition was once again playing itself out – each time, setting me free to take a new direction. This time, a whirlwind trip around Southeast Asia had set the scene for the next exciting chapter to open!

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.




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