Class of 2020
Alexis del Vecchio
This past summer I ventured off for a little six-week solo adventure to Thailand and Vietnam. I wrote a travelogue email to a few friends and family each week, which I decided to condense down to the highlights and share with this blog. I won’t feed you the typical clichés that I went on this trip to “broaden my horizons” or “grow as a person.” Yes, those are wonderful benefits, but I travel because I love to, not to feign that it was for my residency application. I knew this past summer was the only full summer I would have free in medical school, and I wanted to take advantage of it by doing something I knew I may never get the chance to again: travel alone in an exotic place without a family or any other serious responsibilities. Also, the first year of medical school was incredibly stressful, and I knew there was an even tougher one ahead. Burnout is a major problem in the medical field, and I didn’t want to get myself started on that path by signing up for summer research or a clinical internship. Hopefully this blog post can serve as an inspiration to future first-year medical students who may want to break free from the constant pressure to résumé boost, but aren’t sure if it’s an acceptable option. Fear not; several doctors told me that this is exactly what they would have done if they could go back in time. Hope you enjoy.
From Travelogue 1: The Monks Show Some Spunk (Bangkok, Thailand)
…The next day we visited the two largest temples in the city, one of which was located on the same grounds as the king’s mansion. In most of the smaller temples within the grounds, pictures were allowed. Inside the central, most important one, however, they were not. Who was the one person to break this sacred rule? Rodrigo, our Mexican mate whom we lost within five minutes of each temple visit due to his obsessive picture-taking habit, you guess? Nope, it wasn’t him. It was none other than a monk, decked out in his orange robes, sitting amongst five other monks at the foot of the Buddha shrine. A security guard immediately approached him and told him to delete it from his smartphone. And yes, you read that right; even the monks have smartphones now…
…Yesterday, Dennis (a Dutch guy whom I met in the hostel and traveled with for 12 days) and I got away from the city and visited the ruins of the ancient capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya. It cost us 60 cents for the hour-and-a-half train ride each way, and we rented bikes to explore the town for the day for only a dollar. As a native of Amsterdam, Dennis was starting to develop a nervous tic after not riding a bike in the six days since he had arrived. On the train ride out, we were sitting by a monk eating a pink snow cone. I suppose there is absolutely nothing with a monk enjoying a snow cone, but something about the image just struck me as funny. Between the illegal photo and the pink snow cone, I much appreciate knowing the monks aren’t afraid to show some personality beneath their uniform haircuts and robes….
From Travelogue 3: The Monkeys Are Awfully Spunky (Koh Phi Phi, Thailand)
…Koh Phi Phi is a tiny island split into a family section and a fun section, for very good reason. It is essentially a year-round spring break party without the overpriced nightclubs, collared shirts and cheap cologne, which were replaced by the perpetual smell of marijuana, sweat, and regret. I tried getting the stench out by reading some Nietzsche on the boat out, but it still lingers…
…The top tourist attraction on Koh Phi Phi is Mayah Bay, where The Beach was filmed. Since the only way to reach the bay is by boat, I boarded an old wooden ship with 25 other young adventurers and hit the sea. The tour started with a visit to an island inhabited only by monkeys, quite the pleasant surprise for the 18-year-old British girl sitting next to me. As we approached, we saw them being fed by a hoard of tourists merely feet away, causing Jamima (yes, you read that right, Jamima) to proclaim, “Oh my gawd, I’m so getting a selfie!”…
…The following day, I kayaked from the hostel for about 40 minutes to a different beach, also only accessible by boat, and spent an hour and a half snorkeling and reading there. A dozen or so monkeys, including one that was bold enough to try to steal some food from two Italians’ kayak, inhabited this island as well. It took the Italians several tries to successfully chase off the audacious ape with a paddle. Later on that evening, after buying some dinner in town, I looked up and saw two cats bolting down the walking path right in front of me, closely pursued by a small black monkey wearing khaki shorts. What became of the cats, I don’t know. What I do know is that between the cat chasing and food stealing, these monkeys are showing some serious spunk that even the monks can’t match…
…Nicole was a bit under the weather the next day, so Annie and I caught a taxi out to Cat Ba National Park and did a calf-killing uphill climb to a 360-degree viewpoint of the hilly forest. On the way back we found out that the next bus back to town wouldn’t come for another hour and a half, and that no taxis frequented the park, so we decided to hitchhike back in to town. I’m not a big fan of motorcycles or mopeds in general. Thus, when a young Vietnamese man on a moped pulled over for us, I was a little skeptical but decided to trust Annie, the salty Southeast Asia vet. After 30 seconds I was convinced I was going to live the rest of my life as a paraplegic, but we survived the 15-minute ride. We asked our driver, Rang, to drop us at the beach by the town, but to our surprise he decided to join us for the day. Through very broken English, hand signs, and Google Translate, we came to the understanding that he was a bartender with a couple days off from work. “I went arbitrary,” he showed us on his Google Translate app, which I took to mean, “I came to Cat Ba randomly.” We spent the afternoon hanging at the beach with him and attempting to teach him how to swim. He struggled with the concept of keeping your mouth closed underwater, but otherwise was a real stand-up guy.
Later that night while walking the town with some mates from the hostel, we ran across a tour guide whom one of the girls in our group knew, and he invited us to join his group of Vietnamese buddies for a few beers. The ringleader was a local hotel owner and he bought all of us, six total strangers to him, three or four beers each and snacks. The level of English in ‘Nam is far below Thailand’s, but these guys were pretty good, so it was nice to get a feel from some locals on Vietnamese culture. I quickly discovered that you’re only allowed to drink after someone says “Dzo,” the Vietnamese version of “cheers,” which someone usually does after three of four minutes. Definitely creates an awkward dynamic when you want to drink your beer but aren’t sure what the norm is for how often you should yell it out. To add to the awkwardness, the tour guide was amazed at the amount of leg hair I have (pretty standard for a western guy, I think) and insisted on stroking it for a solid 30 seconds. Hey, sometimes you have to give up some leg hair for a few free beers. Just the way the world works…
(Cut to Sapa, a beautiful Vietnamese mountain town)
… At night we set out in search of some good, cheap local food for dinner, which turned out to be a grave, grave mistake. We happened upon a small, open-air restaurant with a family that not only beckoned us in, but offered us to let us try the food right off their plates. I denied the rice liquor the father offered but couldn’t do the same with the skewered meat he popped into each of our mouths with his chopsticks. Delicious. Too good of vibes to keep looking for somewhere else. None of us were able to put our finger on what kind of meat it was, so Annie called over to the next table to ask. “Beef?” she inquired. “No,” the guy replied, “dog.” We all looked at each other confused, assuming they didn’t speak English and “dog” meant something else in Vietnamese. “Dog?” we asked with scrunched faces. The guy spelled it out this time as we hung on to every letter, “‘D’…’O’…’G’.” Refusing to believe what we heard, we called over again, “woof, woof?”… He nodded his head. We pointed at a dog wisely darting to the other side of the street… He nodded his head. The doom sunk over us and we greyhound galloped out of their as quickly as we could. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave our guilt behind with the kebabed canines at the restaurant, as the rest of the night was irreparably tainted. At the next restaurant we decided if we wanted to get a drink after our soup. Annie, a dog lover who volunteers at animal shelters, stared off into the distance and lamented, “I just need to go back to the hostel and reflect.” It was a rough night for us all (pun very much intended), but Annie definitely took it the hardest. Having spent over three weeks in Vietnam, she and Nicole had heard dog was a delicacy here, but there was no way they could have anticipated such generous deception…
From Travelogue 5: Convenience Store Dance Floors and an Avocado that Soars (Hanoi, Vietnam)
…At around 11:30 the first night we decided to head to a nightclub nearby after a couple hours of drinking 25-cent beers on kindergarten-sized plastic street tables. On the way there we saw a handful of Vietnamese teenagers and twenty-somethings dancing in front of a convenience store and throwing bowls of ice at each other. A couple of us, myself included, thought it would be too much fun to pass up and joined in. Unfortunately, they upped the ante from innocent chips of ice when the westerners turned up, and after just a minute or two I got blindsided by an entire bucket of water. Despite a half drenched shirt, I wanted to stay, but the rest of the group was leaving me behind, so I continued on…
…Although there isn’t much to do during the day in Hanoi, we still had a good time bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop, soaking in the bustling street-life, drinking egg coffees and avocado smoothies and playing cards. There were a number of interesting characters that tagged along with us from the hostel, the most obscure of which were two girls who introduced themselves as Feather and Soaring Avocado. For a $2.50-per-night hostel, I’m not sure I should have expected anything less.
Navigating the streets of Hanoi is a tourist attraction in itself, as it is nothing but pure chaos. I saw maybe a dozen stoplights in the city, and not a single stop sign, not that anyone paid attention to them anyway. The sidewalks are completely useless as every one of them is filled with parked scooters, tiny plastic restaurant tables and market venders, thereby forcing every pedestrian on to the street. Just like the scooters and cars that merge and meld together at every intersection, you have no choice but to walk right into traffic to cross the street. It was pretty terrifying at first, but somehow it all works. One helmet-less five-year-old girl found it so mundane that she snoozed soundly through traffic with her head on the dash of her dad’s whizzing scooter…
From Travelogue 6: The Ill-Fated Finale
…I left off last on my way to Da Lat, a small city with a heavy French influence tucked away in the southern mountains of Vietnam. Da Lat is best known for its outdoor adventures, so when I arrived in the afternoon, I checked out the only main tourist attraction in the city, the Crazy House. The house-turned-hotel was a surrealist’s paradise, consisting of three psychedelically shaped buildings connected by staircases that were painted like tree branches and twisted and turned just the same. The only reason such creativity in a Communist country is permitted is because the architect is the daughter of the second prime minister of Vietnam. I spent 45 minutes in awe of the architecture and seriously debated purchasing the ridiculously cheap price of a room: $25-$75…
The next morning I set off on a group tour to experience canyoning, the reason most travelers come to visit Da Lat. The day started out with what was a slippery trek down the muddy mountainside for most of us but more of a steady slide for the uncoordinated girl behind me. We then reached the river and proceeded to slide down a waterfall, rapel down two more waterfalls and jump off of cliffs seven and eleven meters in height. The rapelling, an intense, yet exhilarating experience, was the highlight of the day. It was also quite entertaining watching the handful of girls in our group who failed to follow instructions bounce off the side of the waterfall before back-flopping into the water for the final jump (none were in any real threat of danger, don’t worry)…
I was raised in Charleston, SC by two quirky but wise parents who’ve helped me realize that thinking creatively and keeping an open mind are two of the biggest keys to happiness. Writing, meditation, yoga, traveling and playing basketball all help clear my mind so I can express the creativity that memorizing tons of medical facts does its best to quash. Despite the tedium, I can’t wait to treat psychiatric patients in hopes of helping them understand how wonderful their eccentricities can be when approached with the right perspective and sharing some of the wisdom I’ve gained from my parents, living in foreign countries and meditating.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville