USMNT Earn Vital Win After Disappointing Start

USMNT Earn Vital Win After Disappointing Start

AP Photo/Moises Castillo
AP Photo/Moises Castillo

The US Men's National Team signed off the opening week of their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with a 4-1 win against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night.

The game was tightly contested, with Honduras holding more possession for the most of the match and shocking the USA with a headed goal from Brayan Moya in the 27th minute.

The second half saw the USA come to life, though, with an inspired performance from 18-year-old MLS starlet Ricardo Pepi, who ended his first ever national team appearance with a goal and two assists.

“Gregg told me that I was going to start on the plane on the way here,” said Pepi in his post-match press conference, “It was very special. I was prepared for the moment and I took advantage of it.”

Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson, and the LA Galaxy's own Sebastian Lletget were also among the scoring as US Head Coach Gregg Berhalter shifted to an attacking 4-3-3 in the second half.

The win provided a vital three points on the road for the United States and puts them back into a qualifying position after two disappointing results away at El Salvador and at home to Canada, both games ending in draws.

“It is very difficult when you don’t have much experience in a competition like this," CBS Sports Soccer Analyst Luis Garcia explained of the historically young US National Team roster. And with an average age of just 23 years old, Wednesday night's squad was the youngest starting team that the US has ever produced in a World Cup qualifying match.

Despite the past week's challenges, the USA will be delighted with the three points against Honduras and will be looking ahead to the next fixture on October 7th, a must-win game against Jamaica in Austin, Texas' brand new, state-of-the-art Q2 Stadium.

CONCACAF Qualifying Table:
Via MLSSoccer.com
Via MLSSoccer.com

How To Survive The Climb Up China’s Highest Sacred Mountain

Standing at just over 10,167 feet, Mount Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China and one of the most famous mountains in the Sichuan province. Its golden summit is one of the most significant Buddhist landmarks in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims alike each year. It is also home to the Guangxiang Temple, regarded by some as the first Buddhist temple ever built in China, dating back to the 1st century CE.

1. Eat well, sleep well, and don't get drunk at the karaoke bar the night before...

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At least that's what we should've done before our early-morning departure from the western-Chinese city of Emeishan. Instead my friends and I stumbled out of bed, heads pounding and stomachs churning, dreading the two-day journey that awaited us to the golden summit.

2. Take the first step, but not too fast.

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The road to the summit is a long and arduous 37-mile trek along a network of cobblestone steps that snake through the jungle-clad mountainside, so make time for rest and recovery by stopping at one of Mt. Emei's ancient temples to sip plum juice and pay your respects to the mountain and its history.

3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate.

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Before we even began our climb, we were sweating buckets. The temperature was in the high 90s and the humidity was in the high 80s, and it was only seven in the morning. Scientists state that nearly 25% of heat-related illnesses result from dehydration rather than the heat itself, so it was important that we drink and drink and drink so that we wouldn't end up asleep on the side of the road... though we did anyway.

Budget traveler tip: buy water at the base of the mountain and carry it with you. It may be extra weight on your back, but it will keep you from over-spending on bottled water. The nearer the summit, the more expensive everything becomes.

4. Find yourself a bamboo stick.

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Nearly four and a half hours into the ascent, my hiking partners and I began to notice that every local farmer, elderly shopkeeper, or mountaineering tourist we passed carried a bamboo stick. We thought they were used as makeshift walking sticks, until we discovered our new arch nemesis for the journey: the Tibetan Macaque.

These endemic primates are big, strong, fanged, and have an undying love for petty theft. As one roadside sign warned: "Carrying any plastic or paper bags can make you a target for the local monkey gangs. Please avoid doing that...As we are not allowed to arrest them according to Law on the Protection of Wildlife, we strongly recommend you take good care of your belongings."

5. Spend the night in the Elephant's Washing Pool.

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No, not an actual washing pool filled with elephants, but a sprawling temple complex just five hours below the summit where monks pray and incense burns slowly beneath towering statues.

After a tiring day of nonstop hiking and macaque warfare, we had finally reached the steps of the temple Xixiangchi, meaning Elephant's Washing Pool, and watched the sun set above the misty valley. The temple was named after a legend that the renowned bodhisattva Samantabhadra once bathed his white elephant in the waters of its courtyard.

6. Never drop your guard.

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We left Xixiangchi at daybreak with our stomachs full and bamboo sticks at the ready. At that point we had learned that the macaques attack when you least expect. Like guerrilla soldiers, they use the land to their advantage and attack from all angles, even dropping on us from the trees above our heads. So we kept our guard up as we marched on through the forest, the remainder of the ascent spent fending off macaques and taking in the stunning vistas that the mountain had to offer.

7. Don't look down.

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There comes a time in the journey, though, that taking in the scenery becomes less than pleasant. There are sections of the hike that venture above staggering drops and along uneven, sometimes unstable, portions of cobblestone. One wrong step in your battle with the macaques could send you hurtling down the face of a seemingly-endless cliff and into the swirling sea of clouds below. So it's best to keep your eyes on the trail in front of you and march on with a clear mind.

8. And finally... breathe.

Image by Luke Netzley

Once the clouds finally part and you see the the sun shining on the golden summit before you, everything you have suffered on the climb, all the hardships and doubts slowly melt away. There are few feelings that come close to this, to the sensation of achievement. We had reached the summit of Emei, without the aid of bus or cable car, where we stood in the footsteps of countless generations past and knelt on the stones where Samantabhadra found enlightenment.

I closed my eyes and thought back to the times I nearly fainted from dehydrated exhaustion, the times I nearly lost my footing on the cobblestone steps, the times I fought off hordes of angry macaques, the times I felt like I had reached my limit and that the summit was too far from reach... and I couldn't help but smile.

China 2019: My Life in Chengdu 成都 – Personal Blog

Upon touching down in Chengdu after a long flight from Los Angeles, I found myself back in a world I had been apart from for four years. The last time I was in China, though, I was visiting with a group of some of my closest friends for two weeks. This time, however, I was alone and would be living there for over a month and a half. I have no problem living on my own, but compared to my home town the city might as well have been on a different planet. I couldn't speak the language and I wasn't accustomed to the culture, food, or social cues. What was I even doing there in the first place?

In the spring of that year, I was walking back from playing soccer with a friend of mine at university in Cardiff, Wales. On the way home, we passed by a career fair in the university's main hall, where I picked up a pamphlet for an internship opportunity in China. An online application and a couple of phone interviews later, I secured my place on the program and started looking at round-trip flights to a city I had only ever heard of once or twice before in my life.

After I arrived at my apartment in Chengdu, I dropped my bags and went for a walk. I wanted to explore the city on foot and get a sense of my surroundings. After walking for over an hour and a half, I realized that I had only passed through two high-rise neighborhoods and a business center. The city was so massive that two hours of walking eventually landed me two centimeters away from my house on a city map. I knew it was a big city from my research back in university, but being able to see the scale firsthand was much different. Even the size of the buildings astonished me. Not just the size, but the shape as well. Modern Chinese architecture is an art of its own. The attention to detail and the use of patterns and irregularity was particularly astonishing.

The photo above on the left is from when I walked past Chengdu Polytechnic University in the Hi-tech Zone on my way home. The illuminated building is the same in both images, but the second is the view of it from my room. The lights on the building would turn on at exactly 8:10 pm and would turn off at midnight.

Jet lag kept me up at night through the first weekend. I didn't mind because I found the night to be better for exploring the city than the day. Afternoons in Chengdu had two moods: windy with torrential rain or oppressively hot and humid, while nights were usually cool and cloudy. I tried to balance my walks through the city between tourist traps and local favorites. Each night, though, would bring me back to the same spot: Anshun Bridge.

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Over time, the rainbow-lit steps by the bridge became my favorite place in Chengdu. Local musicians played their guitars and sand to the crowd as pedestrians came and went. I would usually walk there late after work or nights spent on the town and sit for hours. The crowd would change every half-hour or so, but almost every person came in a group of two. University students drinking canned cocktails, a mother and her boy, a blind man and his wife, star-crossed teenage lovers, a businessman and his small dog...All of these different people sitting and listening to music together, sharing the same moment under a moon-lit sky.

Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.
Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.

The picture above on the right is the first hotpot meal I had in Chengdu. A group of interns and I were led through the restaurant to a private room in the back, where we were given translated menus and tea. The idea behind hotpot is that the entire group uses a pot of boiling water to cook the raw meats and vegetables they order. By tossing different ingredients into the boiling water, you basically create your own custom broth to cook the food in. Our hotpot was segregated by spice level and food preference, with the pot on the left cooking mild vegetables and the pot on the right cooking spicy meats. Hotpot is a communal experience and was a perfect way for the group to make conversation, share a few laughs, and get to know each other better. One particularly comical moment was when we ordered a pig's brain for the hotpot. The majority of the group seemed both curious and nervous to try it. Once the brain arrived, a friend of mine started to lower it into the spicy pot. Suddenly, it slipped from the spoon and into the mild vegetarian pot. The entire group screamed and fished the brain into the correct pot, apologizing profusely to the vegetarians who found the funny side of it, thankfully. As the night drew on, we realized that each person in our group of twelve was born in a different country: Israel, Poland, England, France, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, and the United States. It was both an honor and pleasure to have dinner with such a diverse, friendly, genuine, unique, and all-around fantastic group of people.

I am not a beer drinker. If a restaurant offers any kind or quality of wine, I would happily drink a bottle of it before a beer. This particular hotpot restaurant, however, did not. Determined not to be the only person in the building not enjoying a drink with their dinner, I asked one of the internship coordinators if there was anything else to drink besides beer. He replied, "Yes. You can try Baiju." I had no idea what that was, so I simply nodded my head and suddenly a small glass bottle of clear liquid was placed before me. Baiju, I would come to learn, is a Chinese grain-based spirit. After my first sip, I instantly recognized my mistake. Finishing the bottle was a painful experience. Some people enjoy it, like some people enjoy sipping straight vodka, but I am not one of them. It was cheap, though, so if you're looking for a bottle of discount vodka while in China this is a solid option.

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Another memorable experience during a dinner with the interns was at a Pizza Hut celebrating my flatmate's birthday. Like many Western chain restaurants in China, the menu at this Pizza Hut was unlike others, sporting local favorites such as the durian pizza. It was on this night that my friend Katie and I hit a language barrier with the waiter. After the guy sitting across from us ordered a pepperoni pizza, we ordered a plain cheese pizza to share. He said that they were out of them. Katie and I exchanged confused glances and looked around for help. Another intern showed the waiter the cheese pizza on the menu and he shook his head. We asked if there were other pizzas available, and he replied with a range of options, all including bread, red sauce, and cheese. Figuring that something must be lost in translation, we asked him if we could have a pizza with just those three basic ingredients. He nodded his head, confirmed the order with us, and left. Twenty minutes later, we received the pizza pictured above. Somehow, a pizza with 'just bread, red sauce, and cheese' came out as a pizza with mayo, potato slices, and a buttery egg base. At that point, we were too tired to try again so we ate it. It was strange.

A fun day at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu is often known as the home of the giant panda, the birthplace of Chinese tea culture, and the artistic, historical, and cultural hub of all Sichuan. For a city that’s thousands of years old, Chengdu has increasingly become a symbol of Chinese modernity. This is seen in it’s growing population of eight million residents, in the number of supercars present on any given street, and in the construction of the New Century Global Mall.

Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.

Back when I was applying for this experience in university, I was given a link to a list of potential companies I could work for across the city. I chose my top three, all in media-related fields, and emailed them to one of the internship coordinators. He emailed me back saying that none of the companies I chose were offering opportunities that year. He then sent me a link to a company that was not on the initial list, a company called Walkingbook. They were an event organizer looking for someone to help with social media and marketing. I jumped at the prospect and, after an interview with the leader, Karan, I happily accepted the position.

Working for Walkingbook was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Little did I know that a "social media and marketing" position would offer me so many new skills, friendships, and opportunities. Aside from shooting promotional photographs and videos from the summit of a 12,000 ft mountain covered in storm clouds, a normal day was spent at the city studio in Tongzilin designing advertisements, building the website, and managing social media accounts.

Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.
Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.

There were several days that stuck out to me looking back at my time working at Walkingbook. The first was the day of my first 'Paint & Sip.' It was a Wednesday during our first week and my coworker Alina and I arrived at the studio expecting another day of media-based tasks. When we met with Karan, however, she handed us a pile of supplies and pointed to the walls, asking if we have ever put up wallpaper before. We shook our heads and before we knew it we were wallpapering the entire studio. Six hours passed and Alina and I were tired and sweaty, taking turns standing in front of the studio's air vent. It was almost 6:00 pm and we had to finish before the night's event. After putting up the last slab of wallpaper, Karan congratulated us, poured two glasses of red wine, and asked if we wanted to stay for the event. We shrugged and took our seats in front of our easels as guests began to pour through the door.

This event is the crown jewel of Walkingbook. Hosted in our studio, Paint & Sip brings locals and visitors from across the world to a shared table to drink wine and paint whatever they want. At the end of the event, the guests share what they painted, why they painted it, and what the finished work means to them.

After everyone had shared their paintings, Alina and I stepped outside and made conversation with a couple of American visitors. They told us that they were on their way to Lan Kwai Fong and asked if we wanted to join them for a few drinks. At that point, I was already a fair few glasses of wine down and I was up for anything. We met up with Alina's boyfriend, David, and before we knew it the entire group was packed in a taxi headed for a night of hilarious memories and antics.

This was the culture. This was life in Chengdu. With each adventure, I grew to love where I was and who I was with more and more. Every day was a new story, every moment and opportunity to laugh, learn, and grow...and this was just the beginning. This was week one. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of my time in Chengdu would bring. Looking back, I'll tell you now that it did not disappoint.

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Shooting to Edit: Playing with Photoshop Filters in Tokyo – Personal Blog

Street photography has never been easy for me, which is probably why I love it so much. I love the challenge and resulting growth that it provides. In a cityscape, I'm not only looking to create something out of nothing, but often nothing out of something as well. A mega-city like Tokyo, for instance, is packed full of various colors and shapes. I found that this ocular chaos was reflected in the images I was taking. My goal in a cityscape is to find moments of peace amongst the chaos because I personally find that dichotomy to be both visually and ideologically compelling. I struggled to find such moments in Tokyo outside of the tourist attractions like the Meiji Shrine or Sensoji Temple, and I had little desire to focus all of my energy on such destinations. Instead, I wanted to create something extraordinary out of what would normally be considered mundane, like a street corner, pedestrian crossing, taxi, etc.

After struggling to create such serenity through the wires, billboards, and crowds of Tokyo, I thought of a new approach. If I can't find moments like these naturally, can I create them artificially?

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I found my solution in the post-production process. Through selective-color editing, I was able to direct the attention in my images to the subtle vibrancies of Tokyo. I am forcing the eye to focus on, for instance, a taxi, a pagoda, or a bridge. I want the viewer to unpack the city and admire its finer details, the ones I fell in love with during my stay. By simplifying the content of the photographs, I found it easier to focus on the subjects, like a man walking beside a train.

The process was incredibly simple. All I did was drop an image into Photoshop and open up the 'Hue/Saturation' menu. I then moved through each color profile within that menu and decided which color I wanted to keep. Finally, while leaving the chosen color's saturation at 0, I completely desaturated the others. After saving and exporting, I had my image.

When I first tried this technique, I was using images I had shot the previous day. After experimenting with a large range of old shots, I was ready to shoot the following morning. When my friends and I explored Akihabara the next day, I found that the way I looked at my surroundings had changed. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. When shooting, I always try to see the world as if it was through a viewfinder so that  I can plan and frame shots in my head long before I take them. On this particular afternoon, I was looking at the colors of buildings, cars, signs, clothes, and food, trying to visualize what different scenes would look like if I was working in Photoshop.

What defining colors were present? What shapes or subjects did the colors emphasize? Was there enough of one color to fill the image? Was I shooting a wide variety of colors or focusing too much on one throughout the day? These were all questions that played on my mind as I shot to edit.

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Manga is a widely popular variety of literature. Although it has a foothold in the United States, it is massive in Japan. Every bookstore will feature a section dedicated to manga. By appearance, it looks like a comic book on psychedelics. I wanted to pay tribute to this art style by editing images of my own to look as if they could appear in a manga.

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Compared to selective-color editing, this process was technically much easier but required more experimentation. All I did when editing these images was place Photoshop filters on them from the 'Filter Gallery' menu. I simply used the filters 'Torn Edges' and 'Stamp' and their sliders to adjust the contrast and lighting of the photographs.

In the past, I had never been a fan of harsh editing practices. I always wanted to uphold the reality of my photographs and anything that could compromise that honesty was never welcomed in my portfolio. The idea of throwing a filter on an image seemed like taking the easy route. It almost looked like cheating. Over time, however, I've come to realize that this was a limiting belief. By using these edits, I was able to tell stories I never could have told before. I crafted fantasy worlds that were based on aspects of the real but deviated into the imaginary. I had access to a toolbox for storytelling that I had never even considered before, and I loved it.

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What I found was that, as opposed to the selective-color edits, the filters emphasized the shapes, symbols, patterns, and textures of the scene. Color became completely irrelevant. At this point in the trip, I started to look through the city for both selective color scenes and black and white abstractions. Through practice, I trained myself to look for both edits interchangeably as I walked through Tokyo, a difficult feat in a city so tall, wide, and condensed. The result was a collection of images that represented both the colorful vibrancy and the architectural brilliance of the Japanese capital.

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Hiroshima: Seventy-Three Years After the Bomb – Personal Blog

It was a gloomy Tuesday morning when we arrived at the train station in Hiroshima. After getting off the bullet train, we met our local guide and started our tour through the city. Our first location was Carp Castle, erected by Mori Terumoto, a powerful lord in feudal Japan. The carp is an important symbol in Japan and is especially popular in Hiroshima, whose baseball team is named after it. The fish stands for strength and determination, as it is famous for swimming against the current.

The drive to the castle brought us through a diverse and beautiful city. Hiroshima was built upon a river delta and has grown into a city with a heritage important not only to its prefecture but to all of Japan. After our tour of the castle, it became clear that many of the residents of Hiroshima are proud of their vibrant ancient history. However, as we passed by a collection of stone shrines and other historical relics, I couldn’t help but remember that they are not the original structures. Like the vast majority of the buildings in the city, they had to have been built or restored in the last 73 years. There was an elephant in the room that had to be addressed. It was the reason we were there, after all.

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At 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945, a U.S. Army B-29 bomber known as the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was the first time in human history that the weapon had ever been used outside of testing. It detonated around 600 meters above the hypocenter, striking the city with blast wind, radiation, and heat rays of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The city was decimated and an estimated 140,000 people lost their lives. The aftermath was devastating as people burned to death in the streets and black rain fell from the sky. A poem from survivor Akiko Takakura goes:

Black, black rain.

Huge drops.

People craned their neck

To the sky

With their mouth wide open.

Hot bodies, so very hot,

They wanted water.

It started to rain lightly as we made our way past the Atomic Bomb Dome, which stands as a somber reminder of that horrific day. There was something so haunting about the remaining shell of the building, something surreal about the mangled metal and burned stone. We kept walking and soon found ourselves within the Peace Park, a place of beautiful symbolism. One such symbol is a fire said to stay burning until the world is rid of all its nuclear weapons. It is sadly called the "eternal flame.” Next came the museum, the part of the tour that struck me the most. We strolled through exhibit after exhibit, astounded and horrified by the images and voices around us. One room showed photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bombing. In this exhibit, there was a video display of the bombing being projected onto a circular miniature map of Hiroshima. As I began to watch, a group of young Japanese students walked in and filled the space opposite of me. The video showed a colorful, bustling city full of life and commerce. Then a bomb started to fall. It detonated above the city, turning everything in sight into a black and white heap of rubble. There I was, an American standing across from a group of young Japanese children, watching an American bomber turn a Japanese city to ruin. What I felt wasn’t exactly personal guilt, it was something much more complex. I felt out of place, like I shouldn’t have been there. But at the same time it felt absolutely crucial to be standing there, witnessing what happened and learning about the devastation from ground zero.

During the tour, I asked our guide what the perception of Americans was for the people of Hiroshima after this tragedy. She said that in the days that followed, the survivors had no time to think about the war. All they wanted to do was get back to their normal lives and find their loved ones. There was no time for hatred. As the weeks went by, more and more Western organizations and individuals, many from the United States in particular, went to Hiroshima and brought food, water, and things to help the kids. They helped rebuild the city. It was then that many survivors realized that the propaganda their government had been feeding them about Americans, the demons on earth, was false.

Strangely, that was the first moment the United States had been mentioned between us. The entirety of the tour had been based around the effects of the bomb and hope for a better future. The United States wasn’t even mentioned until near the end of the tour, where there stood a section about WWII history for those interested. The bombing of Hiroshima was spoken of as if it was a natural disaster: a bomb was dropped and an entire city was destroyed. At the museum, it isn’t recognized as an act of merciless violence from one country against the civilian population of another. The bombing is seen as a disaster of human nature. The city stands as an example of the dangers of nuclear weaponry and lives as a reminder that such a disaster should never happen again.

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That was what I found to be the most powerful aspect of the museum. It wasn’t about the violence between the Americans and the Japanese. It wasn’t about governments hating each other, with one bombing the other’s territory. It was about people killing other people and how wrong that is, not just at the scale of an atomic bomb attack but on any scale. There is a unity that has been created here, at ground zero, in the hope for a denuclearized future. It’s a hope that transcends borders.

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        I visited Hiroshima in the months before the meeting scheduled to take place in Singapore between President Donald Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un, when this issue of denuclearization was once again a massive talking point on the world stage. The issue remains prevalent today and there are many questions still to be answered. Is it possible for humans to ever live in a world without these weapons again? Is it possible for the governments of the world to trust each other enough to stop stockpiling enough firepower to wipe entire countries off the face of the earth? I’m not sure. What I do know is that the ruins of the Hiroshima bombing still stand as proud and solemn monuments of the direction humans can take the world if they aren’t careful.

Words and images by Luke Netzley

The Faces of Khao San | ถนนข้าวสาร

Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, a certain invulnerability, that I feel in this place. I’m hidden in a small bamboo village that sits perched atop the edge of a large valley buried in the jungle of Northern Thailand, making conversation with the children who call it their home.

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Astonishingly, these children are not actually Thai citizens, and even if they sought citizenship it is unlikely they would be granted it. The children around me were born in Thailand, but belong to a hill tribe from the Tibetan Plateau. The Lahu people settled in Northern Thailand centuries ago, yet have been shunned by most of society. Without citizenship, they cannot attend government-funded schools or secure land rights. It is also much more difficult to get a stable job without proof of public education or ID. With little money and no rights, the people of the hill tribes are of the most marginalized in the country and fall victim to one of Southeast Asia’s most sinister industries: human trafficking.

Despite prostitution being illegal, Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world, and the Thai legal system can be described as faulty at best as little to no arrests for sex trafficking are ever made. This is due to both corruption and gaps in the system. For example, there are certain bars where a customer will be seated at a table and then immediately greeted by a girl. While at the table, the customer is allowed to do whatever they wish to the girl, and the girl’s job is to flirt with them. Eventually, the customer approaches the bar owner and pays a bar fee to take the girl away with them for the night. Since the customer is paying the bar owner and not the girl, and the payment is not explicitly for sex, it is not legally defined as prostitution.

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There are countless stories of hill tribe girls being taken from their homes and forced into the sex trafficking industry. When they arrive in Bangkok, they work in bars where they sell themselves to strangers and become trapped in psychological slavery due to filial piety and personal threats. It becomes a painful cycle of guilt and suffering.

“We are coming up on Khao San Road. It’s a crazy street. There are a lot of tourists there. It’s very busy.”

Raindrops started to form on the window as the taxi rolled slowly through traffic in Bangkok. When we finally pulled up to the curb, we were met by what looked like a Thai version of the Las Vegas strip, except condensed and filled to the brim with wandering bodies. The rain continued to pour, but that did not stop the crowd of locals and tourists from flooding the bustling road. I was glued to the pavement, awestruck by what I was witnessing.

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The clouds had rolled through and the storm had ceased for a moment, leaving puddles and debris throughout the city. The aftermath was beautiful. The traffic lights spiraled down into the pavement like colorful veins stretching into the depths of a dark world.

As I made my way down Khao San Road, I was greeted with smiles and laughter. There were vendors selling tropical fruits and fried meats, the steam of their grills dancing through the wind. Everywhere I looked there were nooks to explore, shopkeepers to bargain with, dance floors to enter, and travelers to meet. It all felt so poetic to me. I had to go further.

The rain returned, as it always does in the summertime, and I was caught without an umbrella. A daunting orange sign loomed above and provided a temporary shelter. It seemed as though every building was a nightclub and that the pavement itself was bouncing to the songs of the loudspeakers. The neon colors and bright lights were intoxicating, the noise relentless. I somehow felt both repulsed and drawn into the fray.

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Behind the front row of buildings on Khao San Road lies a complex network of alleys and markets. The corridors were full of apparitions; ghostly figures floating into dimly lit rooms. I wasn’t sure where to go or what time it was, and I became tangled in it all. The winding wires and puffs of smoke unearthed a sullen nostalgia for a caring face. The seraphic mountain paradise of Chiang Rai felt out of reach both physically and mentally. That sunlit spectacle became just as lost as I in the dizziness of the world around me. Bars and clubs formed in the space where golden spires and palm trees once stood. A discount disco ball replaced the sun. Shady men sold produce, pottery, and people.

But I was not in danger. I was, in fact, the intended customer, the one who indulged, the one who robbed, the one who ruined. I was the young white male who was meant to arrive from a far away place and spend my money, fueling the human trafficking industry. I felt disgusted by this game and the role I was expected to play in it. The night became more menacing as the situation became clearer. The Thai girls around the club were not brought there by their own free will. The warmth of the bar owner was a façade reserved for the customer. The police van parked down the road was not there to protect, but simply parked as an ornament. The stories were real, except no longer just stories to me. They became images and facts engraved in my mind, never to leave.

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I left Khao San road late that night accompanied by friendly faces, yet the road still stays with me. The twisted harmony between the beauty and madness of it all never ceases to astound me, and I can still see the speechless mouths and longing eyes of those who watched the frenzied madness reign over their home.

Recipient of Soroptimist International's Young Journalist Award 2019-2020,  published in The Culture-ist.

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Organizations and resources to help fight human trafficking around the world:

The Freedom Project: https://www.thefreedomproject.org/

Destiny Rescue: https://www.destinyrescue.org/

Polaris: https://polarisproject.org/

The Freedom Story: https://thefreedomstory.org/

International Sanctuary: https://www.internationalsanctuary.com/

US Human Trafficking Hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888

SAṂSĀRA: Remnants of Disaster on the Andaman Coast.

Our old silver Toyota bounced back and forth down the muddy path. It was the height of the monsoon season and its wheels struggled to find a stretch of solid ground as the rain thundered down on the metal roof. To the right lay a labyrinth of mangrove trees that stretched for miles before reaching the mountains, and to the left a small collection of misty islands rising out of the dark grey sea. Small muddied waves broke quietly onto the sand. The gloomy water was peaceful, easy to forget its deadly potential. But there was history here.

The small seaside village of Ban Talae Nok sits along the shore of southern Thailand’s Andaman coast and is home to a largely Muslim population, a rarity in a country that is almost entirely Buddhist. Sadly, discrimination against Muslim groups within Thailand has not been uncommon, and the country’s religious tensions have occurred primarily in the south due to the proximity to Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country.

The town is a small, yet lively, place. The community is situated around a single paved road that runs through its center, with gravel back-streets shooting off from the asphalt into the adjacent neighborhoods. During the afternoon it became clear that the paved road was rarely used by motor vehicles, occupied instead by cows, carts, and children at play.

For two nights we stayed with a family of six on the southern edge of the village.
For two nights we stayed with a family of six on the southern edge of the village.

At night, the residents returned to their homes. A dense mist pushed inland from the shore and snaked though the jungle valley, smoke poured out of candle-lit windows as religious hymns echoed across the street, and the evening sky turned a Prussian blue as a blanket of twinkling stars coated the night sky. 

I counted the constellations from the second story balcony of a small white-walled home on the southern edge of the village before being summoned downstairs for a late-night dinner of spiced chicken, pumpkin, and rice. It was Ramadan, and the family with whom I stayed had fasted until sunrise. 

After dinner, the owner of the house joined my travel partners and I outside on the patio. She was an older woman, yet spoke with youth in her voice, and we were able to communicate through basic translations. 

I showed her images on my phone of family, friends, and adventures from back home. She pointed, smiled, and laughed, showing genuine interest in who I was and what my life had been like back in California. I found it amazing that I could so easily connect with someone who spoke a different language, followed a different faith, and lived in a different country, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised after all. 

My friends and I told her that if she had any questions for us, we would be happy to answer. The first and only question she asked, relayed through loose translations, was this:

“Why would you choose to live in these conditions when you have a comfortable life back home?”

Looking back, she had a point. Why would anyone travel from a place where they are happy and stable to a place they have never been before? It is true that change can be uncomfortable, however change can also bring immense growth. This is especially true in regard villages like Ban Talae Nok.

As the night became darker, the wind grew stronger, carrying with it the patchy rains we had grown accustomed to during our stay in the village. From I lied awake in my bed that night, I could still hear the faint sound of the waves breaking onto the beach. No matter where you are in Ban Talae Nok, the shore is never far. However, the village’s relationship with the sea is as complex as the maze-like swamp between them. It has brought the people life by providing sources of food, pathways for transportation, and a gateway for trade, but it has also brought immeasurable hardships.

On the morning of December 26th, 2004, the village was decimated by the historic Boxing Day tsunami. According to a survivor who witnessed the impact of the first wave, the water came higher than the trees, roughly 7 meters, or 23 feet, in height. As if the devastating of the first wave wasn’t enough, the brunt of the damage actually came from the second, for its water carried the debris from the first. Out of the 200 residents of Ban Talae Nok, 153 survived. The most severe physical damage was done to the thirteen beachfront houses that were used as stay-over destinations for the fishermen during the jellyfish migrations. Ruins still dotted the sand bar as we floated past. 

In the summer, the men of the village are drawn out to sea on their long tail boats to catch jellyfish for harvest. Wielding their massive nets, these fishermen can bring in hundreds of jellies per boat with each excursion. The catch is then taken to a large wooden mechanism on the shoreline to be harvested and prepared for export. This had historically been Ban Talae Nok’s largest industry, until the tsunami hit.

Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.
Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.

Tourism-based activities, such as mangrove swamp cruises and bamboo weaving, have become important sources of income for the community. The people have had to adapt to the spotlight put on them by both charity and travel organizations, as community-based tourism slowly became the new central industry of Ban Talae Nok.

Through non-profit organizations and tour companies, foreigners have been welcomed into the homes of local residents, worked in the workshops of local residents, and learnt from the experiences of local residents.

“I am happy you are here, but the only problem is we can’t speak.” 

She was right. Even with the aid of our translator, we were only able to ask relatively simple questions. Our translations would not be exact, for our translator and our host spoke different in dialects, though we were able to grasp the essentials of each conversation and grew more and more enlightened as the night went on. We asked her about the presence of tourism in her village and how that has impacted her life. So far, she remarked, the industry has proven to have many benefits. Outsiders who come to Ban Talae Nok and meet the people who were personally affected by the tsunami can gain a new respect through understanding and bring the stories from the Village by the Outer Sea back home.

But tourism can also have its drawbacks, she explained...

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“Everything is so much more expensive in Thailand now, but the income is still the same.” 

Our translator knew the numbers: “15,000 baht, divide that by 30, that’s a good 500.” What he meant was that 15,000 baht a month is a salary of roughly 500 baht a week, equivalent to fifteen U.S. dollars. “That’s the local income of a Thai,” he said, before quickly adding, “if you have a degree, that is.”

Well, what if you don’t have a degree?

“The construction workers get approximately 500 baht a day, but the work is not steady. You don’t get a contract. Pickup trucks… In the morning you see them everywhere. They just pick up people who can work for the day. If you’re lucky, you receive a project for a couple of days.”

Prices in Thailand, especially in southern areas like the resort-filled Phuket, are heavily catered to tourists. What about the local people? What about those who cannot even work? 

“For villagers who don’t work,” our host explained, “the government will pay for a Medicare-like program…when you go to the doctor you can pay 30 baht as a deductible. So you pay and the government forces the hospitals to accept you.”

As we were talking, two young twins, no older than 3 years, ran out to the table and climbed atop their mother. She smiled, then shooed them away. The two giggled and stared in fascination at us, the foreigners, before disappearing back into the house.

“The kids on Saturday and Sunday go to study Arabic,” our host said, looking off into the night. It was getting late and nearly time to head back inside, but not before we were taught an Arabic saying:

Alhamdulillah.

“It’s an Arabic blessing. May God be with you. 

The saying can hold many meanings and is used within many Thai-Muslim communities. After our brief lesson, we bid farewell and retired to our mosquito nets.

Boys running back home in the rain.
Boys running back home in the rain.

The people of Ban Talae Nok are resilient and strong. Although they have had to adapt to the new and rising industry of community-based tourism, they are making the most of the resources at hand and are steadily rebuilding their lives. It is a truly remarkable sight to see children dance down a village road that had been demolished by a tsunami just over a decade before. The future looks bright for this vibrant seaside community.

. . .

To learn more about tsunami relief, visit UNICEF USA.

China 2015: Paradise Found in Guangxi – Personal Blog

        After a short flight from Shanghai, I was on the bus to Guilin, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi. Guilin is one of the most captivating cities in the entire country. At night, the buildings explode with bright lights and dazzling monuments dot the streets. One such attraction is a glowing golden orb built on the banks of Shanhu Lake, whose waters hold the stunning Sun and Moon Pagodas. During the night I stayed in Guilin, I was fascinated by my surroundings. The city was unlike any place I had ever seen. Guilin is a truly special place.

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        The famed karst peaks of the Guangxi province take their unique forms from their composition. The mountains are made of limestone and have been eroded throughout history to become what we see today. The hills are also known for the underground caves they naturally produce. Tourists from around the world are attracted by the colorful light displays strung up throughout the caves. They leaves fascinated by the show and relaxed after a dip in the underground hot springs and mud pools.

        After exploring the landscape around Guilin, my group and I boarded a bus to Yangshuo, a town of just under 300,000 people. Compared to Guilin, a city sixteen-times its size, Yangshuo felt like a small village. Compared to Shanghai, it felt like another world.

        The town of Yangshuo is home to winding rivers, quiet countryside, a bustling night market, and, strangely enough, a McDonald’s. Yangshuo county offers spectacular sights, such as Moon Hill, Yulong Bridge, and Fuli ancient town.

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        Similarly to Shanghai, Yangshuo’s downtown transforms after dusk. From where I sat on the patio of a small Chinese restaurant, I observed a noticeable calm before the storm. For a moment, all was quiet under the neon blue lights of the alley. A warm wind swept past, carrying the distant sounds of a growing storm. In an instant, the two main pedestrian streets are set alight with lanterns and LEDs as vendors populate the curb. We walked through the masses of wandering shoppers, busy exploring the various foods and trinkets on display. Wood and bone carvings, rice cakes and noodles, bright clothes and jewelry, gold and jade ornaments…it was a spectacle, to say the least, and one of the most enjoyable nights of my life thus far.

        The following dialogues are not exact quotations, but they closely mirror the content of conversations a friend of mine and I had with two shopkeepers:

“Why the high price?”

“These are one of a kind!”

“You made these yourself”

“Yes, they’re my carvings.”

“Then why does a man two stalls down the road have an identical collection for half the price?”

“Would you like half price?”

“Yes?”

“Here.”

“Thank you.”

“Where are these from?”

“Apple.”

“So they are real iPhones?”

“Yes.”

“Why are they so cheap?”

“There was an explosion in a factory and I took them.”

“Oh…that’s nice. Do they still work?”

“Yes.”

“Can you show me that they work?”

“You ask too many questions. Buy one and it will work.”

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        The next morning, a friend and I drifted down the Yulong River on a bamboo raft. It was a soothing rest after our dance with the swindlers of the night. The breeze from the previous evening’s storm came back again, this time carrying with it the melodic sounds of the countryside. European tourists dressed in white rode bicycles by the riverside, a water buffalo splashed playfully under the bright midday sun, and the man steering our boat punted our small vessel forward with a bamboo pole as he whistled into the humid air. The blissful experience was a perfect way to say goodbye to Yangshuo.

The Dong Villages: A rural dreamland.
The Dong Villages: A rural dreamland.

The early summer rains pattered on the wooden shingles and the smell of smoke drifted in through an open window. The storm had finally started to cease after drenching the ancient town of Chengyang, one of the several Dong villages. These indigenous communities rest in the hills and valleys of Southern China and their people still follow traditional ways of life.

On the side of the river stood a collection of dark wooden houses, drum and bell towers, a theatre decorated with paper lanterns, and a small school. Amidst the din of the noisy schoolchildren, wind and string musicians practiced their pieces, farmers tended to their paddies, and elders weaved indigo cloths in front of their homes. All was calm in this hidden paradise.

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The Guangxi province is a difficult place to express in words. It’s natural beauty captivated like nowhere else I’d ever seen. The people showed immense respect to the landscape around them and kindness towards us. The way the cities shined at night was breathtaking. No matter where you live, Guangxi is a must-see if you want to get a sense of how incredible the world can be. I will never forget it.

. . .

China 2015: Shanghai, The Moving City – Personal Blog

        It could have just been the jet lag, but after landing in Shanghai everything seemed bright and blurred. Choking smog and flashing lights, words and symbols that made no sense to me. The world was spinning and I felt the full impact of culture shock. There was an astonishing beauty to it all, a harmony that I did not yet feel acquainted with. The vehicles and pedestrians worked together like clockwork, moving rapidly beneath a grey sky. However, wait just a few hours after sundown and bursts of color take over the night. The side of the Huangpu River bustles with life as people make their way down the Bund.

        The Yuyuan garden changes with the time of day. When the large your groups flood through, the narrow corridors and bazaars become alarmingly crowded. The winding streets become threatening for those who suffer from claustrophobia. When the fray begins to calm, however, the garden becomes a serene place where one can enjoy a cup of tea in peace. Empty or full, the architecture of the garden is stunning. Red and white buildings adorned in gold flank the bustling market and open courtyards. This is a must-see destination for anyone interested in the history of Shanghai and classical Chinese culture.

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        The Longhua Temple is the oldest in Shanghai, preserving Buddhist traditions and Song dynasty architecture. A towering pagoda greets visitors entering the large red gates. First constructed in 242 AD, this Buddhist sanctuary sprawls over several acres of land, making it Shanghai's largest temple space, and serves as a perfect place to take a break from the pace of the city.

One element of Shanghai that I did not particularly enjoy was the weather. When I visited in early summer, the air was hot, humid, and smoggy. During the day, the buildings looked dull, dreary, and monotonous. Through the viewfinder of my camera, it appeared as though I was drowning in a grey ocean. As night approached, however, the character of the city transforms. Like a butterfly out of a cocoon, Shanghai bursts into new life in a frenzied explosion of color. Neon lights decorated the skyline and spotlights cut through the cloudy night sky.

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        Whether it’s a peaceful stroll through a misty park or a trek through one of the busiest cities in the world, Shanghai does it all. The city is both fast-paced and relaxed, noisy and quiet, hardworking and creative…a harmony of the past and the present, history and modernity, skyscrapers and teahouses.

        Shanghai is an incredible city. Sometimes I feel as though it is a living creature with a mind of its own. The concrete jungle can be an intimidating and sometimes lonely place. The tall buildings, noisy intersections, unfamiliar faces, and afternoon smog are certainly parts of the city’s character, but there is so much more to it. The boats drifting on the river, the steam pouring out of restaurant windows, the temple bells ringing in the wind, and the brilliant light displays that dominate the night sky are all too a part of the moving city.

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. . .