Friday, December 18, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
We commemorated our last morning in Vietnam with Doner Kebab bahn mi eaten on our way up to have coffee at Highlands coffee (a prevalent coffee chain here). Coffee is a big part of Vietnamese culture, ca phe is drank thick and dark and strong. In fact an ad for instant Vietnamese ca phe showed a guy being punched in the face by his coffee cup, and it can feel just like that. Both Dave and I opt for the slightly less potent ca phe sua, coffee with a 1.5 centimeter or so layer of sweetened condensed milk. Mixed up and over ice it is a nice afternoon kick in the pants.
Most days we've been having a 'nosh.' Come 4 I'm ready for some coffee and Dave, let's be honest is always ready for a beverage. It gives the day a nice rhythm. One afternoon, even after having coffee with my friend from Hue, Mr. Khoa, we still wandered down to the river to have another round.
That's actually been one of the nicest parts of having David here, having the chance to introduce him to some of the people I've worked with over the last 6 months. It was pretty funny to see Khoa (who is just pushing 5 feet) walking on the street next to Dave. Ms. Ha, my tailor-friend in Hoi An also insisted on taking Dave and I to Cao Lau, a famous noodle dish from Hoi An. All the girls from the shop took us over to the market where we squatted on child-sized plastic stools. They all giggled as Dave's knees poked above the table and he housed two servings of the noodles.
Cao Lau is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. It consists of square noodles which are a bit soba-like, slices of pork, squares of crackling, and various herbs. You pour both rice vinegar and soy sauce on top and then doctor it with your choice of chile powder, chile paste, pickled chiles and shallots, or lime. It was one of those fantastic moments seeing Dave across the plastic table from me while we sat in the middle of the bustling chaos of a local market.
I have to give David a lot of credit for his stellar traveling skills. I think I had more frustrated moments than he did (especially when we turned around on our way out of Halong Bay to retrieve the forgotten fish). Not many people can hit the ground running in a country like Vietnam; he wasn't phased by much, even when confronted with crossing in front of walls of Vietnamese traffic.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
'Hey what do you sell?,' his monologue begins.
'I sell rolls of foam.'
'I sell car batteries!'
'I sell used medical equipment.'
'I don't even know what I am selling, but I am selling something!"
This has gone on a number of times, it usually makes me laugh pretty hard. But Dave is right, he sums it up by saying that every place is a shop, and that is true, everyone is selling something. Today on our way over Hai Van Pass (ala Top Gear, picture Clarkson having his first moments of enjoying riding his motorbike) we stopped to take a photo and from out of nowhere an old man with a cleft lip, three teeth, and one eye missing appeared to sell us a map of Vietnam. During our stop at the railroad crossing (where Clarkson poetically sums up vietnam in a touching monologue) it was a 12 year old kid selling postcards and begging loose change for his money collection. And finally, the most impressive example of over the top salesmanship are the vulture ladies at the top of the pass who will not let you off without at least consuming a beverage and considering some pearl earrings.
Now we are in Hoi An, a city of colonial beauty and a shopaholics worst nightmare. If you aren't shopping you must have your eyes closed. The Vietnamese are incredible sales people, they put the Israelis that sell that Dead Sea stuff in Mexico to shame. It is exhausting and inspiring all at the same time.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Maybe we should back up here and discuss what bahn my (ban mi or some combination of spelling) are exactly. As the NYT will tell you, and I can tell you as well, the word translates to 'bread,' but usually refers to a sandwich in a mini baguette wrapped in newsprint. They are most frequently purchased on the street from a vendor, you choose the fillings: pate, laughing cow cheese, chicken, pork or in this case Doner Kebab. Then you have your veggies (cucumber is a MUST), chili sauce, and maybe some mayo. Dave sums it up as, 'a vietnamese sanwhich,' which I suppose if you are "into the whole brevity thing" covers it.
Anyhow our first round was not on the traditional baguette, it was some sort of slightly denser, more toothy than the standard mini-stick, right-angle-triangle wedge of bread, which was great. The pork's fat was all rendered and spiced with a sort of Vietnamese take on the chinese 5 spice. Add a bit of lettuce and onion with a squirt of chili sauce to the mix and we were in business. We consumed round one on the way to the DVD shops which line the streets near Bia Hoi corner and by the time we had finished our first round of buying pirated media (don't judge) it was time for round two. Look I get that normal people would say that this was excessive (and I am sure LINDY is having a fit thinking about her over-sized children chowing down in Hanoi) but whatever, we were hungry. So round two was accompanied by some small talk with a couple Aussies and a bit of a wait, but it was worth it. This time it came in a baguette with the addition of purple cabbage and it was fabulous as well. Why are sandwiches eaten while walking down the street so damn satisfying? After our second course it was back to DVD/music purchasing.
Then we took a walk around the lake over to KOTO so that we could do some more eating and support a good cause. We did hold back, just split a main (marinated chicken supreme or something to that end) and tempura vegetables, and then there was creme brulee (i am weak when it comes to this) as well as coffee. I mean this is the shit that happens when you have too many things which you want to eat and not enough time. I blame our crazy ass driver for the not enough time part of the equation. So I guess, judge all you want, my belly is full of Vietnamese goodness and yours probably is not. UP NEXT: a flight to hue and an adventure with Mr. Khoa.
Friday, November 20, 2009
I guess I moved on pretty quickly because there was a person, a very large important person waiting for me in Saigon. After rushing through immigration and an energetic wait at the baggage carousel I managed to do a very excited skiphopshuffle to THE DAVEMAN!!!! After months of imagining what two EDWARDARONs (Eva I know you know just how to pronounce that) would be like in Asia we finally had our answer: loud and entertaining. Food of course was necessary, Dave had already fallen in step with the coffee with sweet milk, there may have been some noodles, and some spring rolls, Dong was disseminated. It was exciting. Then Dave managed to throw his sunglasses to the floor as we tried to pass through security, which resulted in a comedic exchange where the sunglasses tried and failed to pass through the x-ray machine, only to be rescued by the force of a briefcase which managed to part the curtain of rubber strips, all the while Dave was faffing about trying to retrieve them, I may have snorted in laughter.
We managed to board the plane to Hanoi in great style, upon which we were served two types of compressed meats, pickles, tomatoes, salad and a very dense roll. I had a coffee, Dave did too. Upon landing in Hanoi we suited up in our respective hoodies/fleeces and braved the taxi circus only to be matched with a man with a penchant for finding the most ass-backwards way into Hanoi. Whilst driving along, Dave described Hanoi as, Poland meet Puerto Rico meet Hawaii meets England, something about the Soviet-like architecture, the incompleteness of most of the buildings, the palm and banana trees, and the rows of houses. Give the guy a break, he's jet-lagged.
With a bit of trouble we finally arrived at our $28 a night hotel and set off for dinner. David was incredibly impressed with the traffic in Hanoi, and the driving, and the general chaos. It is pretty crazy here and it was funny to have Dave weaving in and out of Vietnamese traffic with me. I steered him to Little Hanoi (which you may remember me mentioning in an early post) and we ate that eggplant and Dave almost lost it. I also introduced him to the wonders of morning glory with garlic. He may never recover. Then I dragged him to the other end of Hoang Kiem lake to sample Fanny's ice cream. It was a pretty full on evening. Now he is in the big bed making snuffling noises, I'm in the small bed typing away. Tomorrow we are off to see the Magical Halong Bay, should be a riot. I'll try to keep up, but somehow I sense that this should be an exciting next ten days.
Monday, November 16, 2009
I spend a bit of time thinking about how photos have almost over taken the actual travel experience. No photo can properly convey the dicomfort, humidity, heat, and annoyances of travel here. The smells and sounds are lost, the dust, torrential rains, and sweat fade as we reduce our travels down to a series of images. Yet we persist with our obsession of capturing our travels visually, we walk around seeing places through a view finder, more focused on our photos than on giving pause to exactly where we find ourselves. People tell me over and over that without their photos they might forget where they've been and what they've done. I can't imagine that one could ever forget the majesty of Angkor Wat, nor Tikal, nor the Pyramids. Even though countless photos have been taken of these monuments we still need proof that we have been there. Of course one photo of us posed awkwardly in front of these places will not do. We need hundreds of images, and these days I wonder what we even do with them. Thousands of unfocused images make their way onto facebook, we email some back and forth, but mostly they just sit, taking up hard drives.
I often pause in my frenzy to document the beauty of the places I travel and try to just absorb the moment. I notice the heat pressing down on me, my annoyance at the trivial things people manage to talk about in the presence of such beauty, how my eyes ache with tiredness, the empty rumble in my stomach, the itch of the mozzie bite on my ankle, and how the sky went from indigo to almost white with guazy peach clouds stretched across it's curve.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I've been dreaming about being cold for months. Now I am cold and it kind of sucks. I do like getting all cosy and snuggly in my new hoody, and I like wearing socks, I like layering, and hiding beneath the blankets because my nose is cold, but the idea of the tropics all of a sudden seems appealing. Bring on sweaty knee pits, cheap cold beer, mozzies, gap year travelers, tuk-tuk drivers, and all that Asian craziness.
Honestly everyone thought I was nuts to go from SE Asia to England in November, but I love autumn. I like yellow and red leaves, crisp air, feeling like Christmas is around the corner. It has been incredible seeing my family, hugging my mom, eating fish pie at Judy and Jeremy's, meeting Isla, seeing Charlie and Eliot being parents, going for walks, seeing art and very hairy pregnant cows. I haven't drank this much tea in ages, nor ate this much toast or cheese. MMMMMM.
Friday, October 9, 2009
2. Paul Theroux is my writing hero. On my moto ride home from Hong Kiem lake to my hotel I saw a guy smoking out of a bamboo bong which reminded me of seeing another man doing the same thing whilst on my run along the shore of Halong Bay. At the time I thought to myself I need to remember that, write it down or something, but of course I was running and forgot all about it until this afternoon. This relates to P.T. because he boggles my mind with his ability to document the minutiae of the travel experience. He is salty and bitter mixed with acute observation, though at times I think he is a bastard I respect his writing and his ability to capture that certain angle of light which illuminates what it is to be a traveler.
3. When it comes time to leave this place I will miss the moto-bikes. I know they are dangerous but I just can't get over how good the wind feels in your face. I hate being cooped up for hours and hours in air conditioned buses. I miss the smells, the sounds, the chaos. Everything feels raw and alive when seen from a moto.
4. Little Hanoi 1 still makes aubergine with garlic and it is as good as I remember it. Can you have cravings for something for 2+ years running? Dave we are hitting that place up when you get out here.
5. I am officially out of the loop with almost everything.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
On my run this morning I was musing that it is a testament to the Vietnamese people that 5 days after a typhoon Hoi An is up and running again. Yes there is more mud and garbage in the streets, and there are a lot of downed trees, but the internet is working! Holy hell. The tailors are still doing roaring business, Cargo Club is serving brownies, Tam Tam cafe is making cappuccinos. Ok, so the old pontoon/plastic barrel bridge is gone, most of the road along the river is still coated in mud, and the fish market has never smelled so bad, but that is nit picking. Compared to the cluster fuck of Hurricane Katrina, the recovery from Ketsana, at least in this neck of the woods, is remarkable.
The following link has some amazing photos from the typhoon. Check it out.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
1. Stop giving things to beggars, especially kids.
Hey I know kids are cute, and when they have dirty snotty faces and ask you for food you really really really really want to give them something. It feels really cruel to stand there with your pringles and not give them anything but giving them chips/apples/ a bottle of water is a shitty thing to do. Why? If kids can get food by standing outside a gas station where they know tourist buses stop, they are going to do it. Why sit in school with a growling belly when dumb gringos are going to give you something to eat? One kid turns to three, three to five, and suddenly half the school is out begging and not going to school. If that person isn't a kid, why are they going go get a job if they can survive just fine on handouts? Aid, handouts, gifts, anything that is given with no impetus to improve oneself only hampers, it doesn't encourage development (look at what has happened to all the First Nations in Canada and the US).
2. Don't buy things from kids.
Kids are cute, are you really going to bargain with a 5 year old? Parents are smart, if their kid can make more money than them why are they going to send them to school? Kids who work on the streets are exposed to a lot more dangers as well. Child sex abuses are rampant through many areas of the developing world, when kids are working on the streets they are more exposed to these dangers.
3. Don't volunteer in a place which doesn't require a minimum commitment of time and a background check.
We wouldn't want our kids exposed to just anyone who walked in off the street and wanted to hang out with them, you shouldn't want other people's kids exposed to that either. You should want a place that you volunteer for to care about who has contact with them. Kids are also very sensitive to change, if you can't commit to make a positive difference by volunteering for a longer period of time figure out another way to give back (0ften a monetary donation is the best way to do this). I know that people love the idea of volunteering at orphanages, after-school programs, etc. But the main purpose of volunteering is to improve these kids' lives, not to take cool photos of you with kids, or to make you feel good, right?
4. Buy from fair trade vendors
It costs more because it is fair trade, make sense? If you are on a budget, buy one or two smaller items from a fair trade place. If you have a bit more to spend try and buy the majority of your gifts/souvenirs/etc from fair trade vendors, co-ops, or collectives.
5. Don't buy antique textiles, jewelry, artifacts, shells, coral, bones, etc.
Often times Maya and Hill Tribeswomen will sell their priceless textiles for a pittance to support their families. You take it home and ancient techniques as well as a small chunk of cultural heritage are lost. Unless you are a collector you really won't be that hurt by buying something new. As far as things from the natural world go, unless you really hate the environment you can understand that if everyone goes home with a black coral bracelet from Khao San soon there will be no coral left. Not so different from Ivory, animal skins, etc.
6. Eat somewhere that makes a difference
Asia is full of amazing projects which give back to the local community: Friends, Romdeng, Java (all inPhnom Penh), Starfish Bakery (Sihanoukville), Sala Bai and Chakmar (both inSiem Reap), Makphet (Vientiane), Tamanak Lao (Luang Prabang), Staff of Life (Danang), KOTO and Baguettes y Chocolate (Hanoi), Streets and Blue Dragon (Hoi An).
I'm told there is a similar project in Granada, Nicaragua, I'll have to check it out when I am back.
Full belly, satisfied soul, happy person.
7. Support smaller, locally/family run businesses.
The same reason it makes you feel good to go to your local book shop rather than Barnes and Nobles, staying at a small posada run by a family, or eating at a small cafe will stimulate the local economy and give you a family experience.
8. Give some money
Choose a project that puts a smile on your face, look at their financials and give them some of your hard earned dough. It'll probably a tax write off (not that I even know what that means).
9. Pay a bit more when you go to ride the Elephants
Projects which take better care of their animals usually cost more. Do you know how much it costs to feed an elephant? Plus you don't want to ride a sad elephant. Elephant Conservation Center and Elephant Nature Park (both just outside Chiang Mai) are great projects. Tiger Trails (Luang Prabang) also runs a much more humane operation.
Cool resources: stayanotherday, childsafe, friends international
I've started running again, for a number of reasons, which aren't exciting or worth discussion, but it has been an interesting cultural study. Namely because people here in Asia rarely run. Usually if you do see them 'running' it looks more like a shuffle in plastic sandals with a towel tied about their head or neck while they are clothed like they are ready to go off to the market or to work. Then picture me, tall, foreign, bouncing along in my trainers in running shorts sweating like crazy. The thought actually makes me want to laugh, which people do, sometimes they shout, the more polite ones just stare, and the kids all yell, 'HELLO!' Adding to this is that there is almost nowhere to run. The main streets are clogged with a constant howling stream of motos, trucks, buses, and people all scrambling to get somewhere. Sidewalks are collections of broken french colonial tiles, cracked pavement, rebar, trash, shit, people, parked motos, and ankle biting dogs. No wonder I lay in bed so many mornings talking myself into getting up and strapping on my shoes.
But like anything there is the good as well. Asia gets going early and running HAS to happen early (midday heat starts to get crippling about 9 am). 6 am Vietnam looks pretty different to 8:30 am Vietnam: past 8 the freshly caught fish are on their lasts breaths and the morning dew has dried off the produce. There is something magic about being out on the streets as Indochina revs her engines to start another day. I've run past monks collecting their alms, a man cutting ice with an electric saw, flapping baskets of the freshest fish one can encounter, past a huge rat that had been killed by a street dog, and had my fair share of dog run-ins (and as Mandy knows 'I'm afeared of dogs').
Running here is a metaphor for doing practically anything else here, it is exhausting, frustrating, chaotic, exhilarating, and exciting. I wouldn't give up my trail runs in the Marin hills, but dodging motor bikes while trying to maintain a steady pace has its charm.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Life has been pretty good lately. I took some time off at the beginning off the month and did a fast at a retreat center in Phuket. It had been quite a while since I had had a vacation from racing around so I was more than pleased to sit in my little villa, read, drink hot water, write in my journal and take about 4 naps a day.
I have also FINALLY found the most kick ass laundry do-ers in Bangkok, just a quick jaunt from the Royal and frenetic Khao San road. It is located on Banana alley, just by the Boots, before you get to Ranee's (mmmmm). Freshie clothes always put a smile on my face. Not only that I have found some lovely places to eat that serve salads which make me feel like I am back in California. SHOCKING! Cafe Corner is my favorite, to get there you follow the boots road over the bridge and take a right on SOI 2, when SOI 2 ends you take a left and it will be right there. Between this place and som tum as well as the juices at Ethos (on the street behind the burger king at the bottom of Khao San) I have been a happy girl. This has put Banglumpu (the general Khao San 'hood) and me on pretty good terms. Which means being in Bangkok feels less and less like a prison scentence and more and more like being in my (like it or not) neighborhood. Is that all it takes to make me happy? Jugo de remolacha (0 betabel para los gueys) and a good lavanderia? I have a feeling some people might be able to relate. My final new discovery was my new THAI salon where I got my haircut (nothing drastic!) which was nice, but the fantastic part was having two Thai ladies blow dry it at the same time. My fancy blow out looked awesome until the monsoon chaos which left most of Rambutri street under about 4 inches of standing water after about 30 minutes of rain and my hair back in its normally wild state. Quite impressive.
What else? I had a delicious snack of these swirly pork (??!!!???) crackers that Meesh and I were a bit obsessed with last September. This was on the way to Kratie where I caught sight of the very endangered Iriwaddy river dolphins. Pretty cool, not unlike seeing whale sharks, but on a sweet long tail boat. Kratie is pretty kick ass, meaning there isn't much to do once you've seen the dolphins, other than playing cards and drinking beer. The place is semi-infested with huge rats, so I find that sitting cross legged in your chair is probably a good practice.
From Kratie I dragged my group north to Laos, which surely deserves its own post. Photos should come as well.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Observing a passing landscape is more enjoyable from an open window than a closed one, if I can't smell a place how can I understand it?
Walking along the street in Luang Prabang I smelled orange oil from the green skin of a peeled orange that a grandmother was sharing with her grandchild. It brought back the face of la chapina who always sold me overpriced oranges on the Belize/Guate border. She'd jam chile salt in them and I would always buy two, one for me and one to give to my driver.
Drivers slow so as not to atropear (run over) baby chicks, dogs, roosters, small children playing on the road's edge, and pigs. Our bus squealed to a stop yesterday to spare a chick's life, which made me think about just how valuable that small bit of animal protein and bone must be to a rural Lao family, and also highlighted the deep respect the otherwise wild driving bus drivers must have for that fluffy bit of life. The more grown up and gallant roosters with their orange heads and green tails always beg the question, of 'why'd the chicken cross the road?' as they race across almost leaving a cloud of red dust in their hurry.
I have been quietly suffering from what I can only equate to an amputation or deep heartbreak since May. I miss C.A. like I cannot quite explain. I tried to compare it to dating the wrong man whilst knowing you are in love with someone else, a simile which my parents found quite captivating. Nonetheless it is true, I feel like I left my heart somewhere along the Panamerican which seems ridiculous in the face of all this beauty.
Vang Vieng and I have finally made a truce. I stick to riding a bike through the jaw dropping landscape to visit its plethora of caves and leave the river and its fashionable tubes to its more hip visitors.
Happiness surely equals noodle soup.
I miss long sleeves and pants.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Garrie makes an incredible point here, something that for so long I had been wanting to put into words. Every time I go to make a decision I have only myself to rely on, an exhilarating and exhausting prospect.
“Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to loose yourself in an exotic place. Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life, or seeing a serious mistake. But this does not happen to the exclusion of the exotic present. What makes the whole experience vivid, and sometimes more thrilling, is the juxtaposition of the present and the past--- London seen from Harris saddle.” (Paul Theroux – The Happy Isle of Oceania, which by the way is an INCREDIBLE book)
In my case it was Lake Atitlan seen from the karst of Vang Vieng, and that moment was so strong I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. In the presence of so much beauty I was reminded of how much I miss my home. And maybe that is what this is, a realization that for me, Central America is home. It took flying half way around the world to realize that. I was talking to Sarah today about the possibility of coming back and she said, 'coming home?' and my heart said, 'yes, coming home.' I am home sick, which is a strange and yet lovely realization.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
I find myself using my day to day struggles as good fertilizer for writing and for spiritual development. Even my reoccurring loneliness for friends, family, and far off places has begun to feel like reminders of what a great life I have rather than something that brings me down.
Yesterday on our epic overland tour of Highway 1, a drive which means a lot of back tracking over hundreds of kilometers (an incredibly inefficient travel day for an Edward like me) through Vietnam, I started thinking how we can never get away from anything. You can fly 100,000,000,000 of miles from home and find yourself depressed over the same thing. As soon as we accept our reality, as soon as we drop our habits of reacting the same way everytime we start on the real journey.
It's funny I created this blog to record my travels, but more than often it feels like a one sided conversation about spirituality, laced with personal references (inside jokes we called them when I was 13) and my weird sometimes romantic, sometimes existential, sometimes humorous views on the world that I am a part of.
Today I am in Vientiane, sitting by the window in cafe JOMA. I've limited myself to one cup of coffee and have been keeping watch of the weather for the past hour while I wait for the Internet to resume. It was very windy for 20 or so minutes while rain made vague threats and finally culminated in a brief but violent storm. Now the leaves are calm again, stirring in a slight breeze, and the sky has lightened a bit, though a dark patch remains. There is steady traffic at the 24 hour atm. I've got Emiliana Torrini playing on my ipod and I am not sure if it is the gray sky or her voice or the coffee or the rain, but it feels very Seattle-like this afternoon.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Some how one of my passengers convinced me to walk the length of the train to the bar car, through eleven miserable stinking cars just to buy some crap Vietnamese beer. I went because I had this feeling, one that kept coming up: I'm stagnating. I've gotten to used to comfort: air conditioning, tourist food (free brekkie), private transport, I'm getting boring. Vietnamese trains should stink, they should be nasty and freezing cold. I finally said to myself, "I'm not scared of smells, or dirt, I dig this shit. I love the raw wild west chaos that C.A. used to dish out daily and which Vietnam will dish out if I just let it." So off we went, loosing balance, running and shouting, crashing into people's feet, stepping over floor picknicks of ramen, and getting stared at for 11 cars. And we arrived into the most brilliant fuck off bar strapped to the back of this clattering mess of a train. Greasy steel tables crammed between wooden booths, every one filled with 4-6 Vietnamese yelling over tables littered with Heineken cans, balled up pink napkins, cigarette butts, and plates of seafood (side note- train seafood is a terrifying thought). We grabbed the last spot, half a booth with a table covered in bins of silverware and chopsticks and cracked two bia 333 (ba-ba-ba). It was the kind of moment that calls to mind cramming pax on overfull chicken buses (GET ON, WE'RE IN F----ING GUATEMALA!), it is that feeling of being absolutely at home with the clamoring chaos of the world around you.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
The rice is turning gold in this part of the country and the stalks have begun to tip over from the weight of the grains. The lower part of the stalks remain green leaving the fields a lush green bronzed with ripeness. It is funny for me to think back on my first trip through Hue, when they were tilling the muddy fields and burning stalks from the last harvest. Now these same fields rest on the verge of another agricultural cycle and I am still here being stunned by Vietnam's beauty.
We stopped at one point to see water buffalo and two calves neck deep in green water staring at us from behind a cluster of giant bamboo. Then we passed a cyclo loaded down with fire wood being peddled by an old man. Another cyclo creaked by with two meter and a half tall gas canisters. Two girls squatted on their heels played in a flower pot, lost in their own world. Above it all the purple gray clouds just obscured the late afternoon sun. How much poetry can be locked up in one hour in Vietnam?
On our way home from the tour a moto passed me, the man driving was dressed in a white button front shirt with thin stripes, his girlfriend straddled behind him in a flowing pink blouse with a cascade of ebony hair down her back. He smiled at me as they passed, his girlfriend reaching under his chin to secure his teal helmet under his chin. They were so beautiful that it made my chest tighten, not in that air brushed hollywood way, but in that beauty of fitting perfectly into the scene.
The title is quote from one of the moto drivers explaining that one of my passengers would now be riding behind another girl after we lost the use of one of the bikes to a flat tire. It consequently made me giggle into the wind for five minutes straight.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
I would wager that until you have experienced the incredible-ness of Phở you haven't really experienced vietnam. Though my train phở is always enjoyable it doesn't hold a candle to my favorite the phở from Saigon.
My first night in Saigon I ate phở on a child-sized plastic stool at 2 in the morning. Knees near my ears, two of my passengers by my side, ripping basil off its stem and smothering the whole mess in sweet chile sauce, it is one of those perfect travel memories.
The nice thing about phở for me is that it is a comfort food. I used to go to the Phở lady up the road from my dorms after especially nasty cold rowing practices. My mom introduced me to the place and the lovely Vietnamese lady that ran it. She always gave my brother extra noodles and served us homemade yogurt at the end of the meal. It was where I first got hooked on lemon juice. It was a little slice of Vietnam before I even knew what that meant.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Both take kids off the street and teach them highly sought after skills: how to cook, how to serve, how to speak English. In countries with fast growing tourist industries, these skills are priceless, they give these kids skills that are in demand and are taught a level of service one rarely encounters in Asia. And the energy in these restaurants pastes a big fat grin on my face. I was struck one morning, while having brunch in KOTO, by a strange tickiling energy that vibrated at the pit of my stomach, a feeling of being home, a feeling of wanting this, a feeling of knowing that maybe I had finally found a calling...
I have a little seed of an idea germinating in my heart right now, one that involves kids, pollo pibil, a restaurant and Guatemala. Sort of a Amigos Chapines if you will. Anyhow something like that will take some funding as well as some serious planning and commitment. It is an idea for a future Gemma who has settled down a bit. A girl can dream....
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Speaking of satay, there is this incredible satay place in Melaka called Capital Satay. If you love peanut sauce this place may be heaven. In fact an article on Melaka was what inspired my first adventure to SE Asia.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
For some reason I keep going to the same place in Bangkok to get things printed by the same confused Thai lady. Talking to Eva today I realized why: it is totally Latin. It is that, "si dios quiere..." approach to life, you can't rush god, or cows, or thai photocopiers, or banana shakes, you know? Sometimes I find myself cursing myself for coming to the same damn place. Yet at other times I can't help but stand there and internally chuckle at how brilliant it is that a lady who runs a copy shop has to read directions about how to print a word document.
I mean efficiency is great sometimes. But at other times I am stunned by the coldness of all things efficient. I find myself wondering what happened to all the warmth and friendliness. I mean in the States I can get shit done about 20x as fast as I can here but it is usually without incident, or if there is drama it is yours truly that is causing it. I had a giggle fit calling my bank to find out my login information. Laying on the tile floor of my hotel room in Hoi An laughing while some poor guy in god knows where tries to figure out my damn login name. He must have thought I was crazy, but then again if you cause someone to smile are you really crazy?
The thing that I know is that happiness is a choice, you either make the decision to see the joy, to laugh at the absurdity of my thai photocopying lady or you can get all pissed off and start blaming people.
You choose: comedy or drama.
I'm planning on laughing all the way down the road, wanna come?
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
I'm thinking someone should pay me to be a travel adviser, or something to that end, but maybe I will get paid back in street phad thai and good karma for all this writing I am doing.
B asked about belize/honduras versus costa rica/nicaragua which I would say are two very worthy choices to choose between and led me to think about what all the countries are like in central. I'm planning on getting to writing mini-guides on those countries that I have not yet covered but I figure I'll start with a what we might call a country briefing. I'm starting North and moving South, try to keep up. Oh and these are my opinions, nothing more.
Mexico has just about everything. Rich in culture, diverse in landscape, I can't really cover it all here. But my general feeling of méxico is, 'GUAU!' It is big, it has states, and the food in INCREDIBLE.
You could spend months or years exploring it: surfing, diving, mayan ruins, climbing volcanoes, visiting pueblitos, getting yourself lost in churches, meeting the indigenous people, swimming in lakes, exploring canyons. Chiapas is fantastic, the Yucatan (and associated states) is divine, and D.F. will blow your mind.
My soul lives in Guate. Highlands, black beans, incredible textiles, gorgeous colonial cities, TIKAL, and the warmest latinos on the block, what more can you ask for? Did I mention the coffee and chocolate?
For a cultural shmorgasborg, postcard beaches, and lush jungle Belize takes the cake. It is small, accessible, easy to get around, and full of friendly faces. Belize combines lots of outdoor activities with a carribean attitude, plus just about everyone speaks English. It isn't as cheap as other countries, but you can do it on a budget. Most people go for the diving, end up exploring a cave or two, and maybe some nice ruins. Don't miss the Marie Sharps.
Considering the current political strife, Honduras might not be your first choice. Honduras is in a word: strange. The catrachos are different from the other Latins and the Bay Islands are a world unto themselves. Copán has lovely ruins (but is more Guatemala than Honduras), las Islas Bahia have some great diving (and it is CHEAP), I've heard other places are great, but I haven't seen much. Most people stick to the islands and head on to the next place. If you want to get off the beaten track and see something new it could be a glorious adventure, but I am not making any promises. Combined with Belize it could be a cool diving vacation (there are direct flights between Belize city and San Pedro Sula).
Can't comment too much. Heard the coast is a great place for surfing. Pupusas seem motivation enough to check it out, but then again most people don't travel just so they can try the local food.
Could the Nicas be any nicer? Seriously. My best best best friends all live in Nicaragua. Traffic is usually caused by cows. Nicaragua is considered the next big thing though the economic crisis may have slowed that for a bit. If you want to experience almost everything Central has to offer (islands, volcanoes, diving, surfing, jungles, colonial cities) you could stay in Nicaragua and see almost everything. Boasting two of the longest coast lines in the region, two colonial gems, and decent infrastructure, it combines the variety of Costa Rica with the wildness of the other countries.
Costa Rica has grown on me. The people are unique and possess a subtle culture that will crawl into you heart and find a home, just give it time. If you like wildlife, getting outdoors and varied landscapes you will be blown away by Costa Rica. Not as safe as some people will have you think, it is still welcoming and lovely. The tourist infrastructure makes doing things a breeze, but there are still relatively undeveloped pockets, they just require 4 wheel drive and a bit more patience. Make friends with the Ticos, they know the best places and love to have a good time. Throw Nicaragua in the mix and you have an interesting balance of two very different cultures, the opportunity to do more outdoor sports than you can imagine and a hundred possibilities for adventure.
My Panama experience is limited to Bocas Del Toro, and I dug that. Panama City is rumored to be quite and adventure, David and the highlands come highly recommended. Plus there is always the added temptation of trying to reach Colombia overland from here. Send me a postcard if you make it!
So there you go, brief, succinct, and obviously biased. Hope that gives you some insight.
Travelers' on the other hand what are they like? They usually will tell you, with an air of superiority, that they aren't tourists. They've had 'real' experiences, maybe they smoked opium with a hill tribe, or they've eaten street food (though I am still not sure Phad Thai cooked on Khao San really counts), or maybe they've even had amoebic dysentery or if they are really lucky scabies. 'Travelers' are hard core, they stay in $3 a night hostels and can live off of $5 a day. 'Travelers' look down on 'tourists,' who of course have too much money to have had any 'real' experiences.
I guess I am just tired of this perspective. Perhaps it was the half a day I just spent in Van Vieng, a place that for me sums up almost everything bad about tourism. Just about every real 'traveler' who as earned their stripes in SE Asia has passed through this place. And I imagine (just as I do about Cancun) at one point Van Vieng was a pretty cool place to hang out. But most backpackers would have you convinced this is the highlight of the SE Asia circuit. “Why?” you might ask. The answer can be summed up in three bullet points...
tubing on the river
Now I am not so old that I don't like to party, and I feel like I have done my fair share of it. I also feel like I am a pretty adventurous and fun loving person. But I also think of my self as a culturally aware citizen of planet Earth. And from everything I have read about and experienced in Laos, semi-nudity and drug use aren't high up on the list of how to be a culturally aware, sensitive, sustainable traveler. And though I enjoy a night out with friends I would prefer to experience a different culture while traveling and enjoy a party when it isn't offensive to the local culture.
What bothers me is all these experienced travelers who wax on about how amazing Laos is, how fantastic all the people are, how beautiful the culture is (and I am sure they will go home and talk about all their really amazing interactions and experiences in SE Asia) don't see how tubing/doing drugs/wandering around in the bathing suit all add up to the erosion of the very thing they say they love.
One might defend all these poor youthful backpackers by saying that the Lao people make all these things possible and that if they really found them so offensive they could just stop providing the services. Well that is a pretty un-capatilist perspective as this is is a huge source of income for the Lao that work in the tubing/drug industry in Van Vieng. Imagine, a pancake lady can make 10,000 kip a pancake selling them to all the stoned travelers, maybe she only sells 2, that is more than $2, double the average wage of more than 70% of the country. You think anyone that has the ability to make money off these dumb drunk tourists... ooops I mean travelers isn't going to do it? They would be stupid not to. Just like most people presented with an easy source of income the Lao exploit it even if it is eroding their culture and exposing their kids to Western culture at its ugliest.
I'm sorry if this all sounds harsh, but just imagine if a group of tourists showed up in your hometown, got really drunk, dressed offensively, did a bunch of drugs, all the while your kids were playing in the street. How would that make you feel? And what would you think of the people that were doing it? Now add a couple more things to that image. Backpackers are notoriously stingy (sorry, anyone in the tourist industry will back me up on this one) so now they are nickel and diming you at every turn, stealing hotel soap, extra bread from the included breakfast, never tip, and generally are only looking out for their own benefit. Yet these people who reluctantly part with their money will also exhibit incredible material wealth their $200 backpack. These people are wandering around with a couple $1,000 dollars on their back while fighting you for a $1 a night discount on their room. Can you even imagine what the Lao people must think?
Now contrast that with our original image of the bumbling tourist, does he look so bad?
My point is that as travelers we are representatives of our respective countries and cultures, we have a great duty to our hosts as well, we should be respectful as we visit their homes, walk softly in their countries. No one likes a rude guest, everyone appreciates the person who arrives with a gift, cleans up after themselves, acts graciously, and remembers to say thank you. And now with all these amazing NGOs and social projects we have a chance to maybe leave a place we visit a little bit better than we found it.
I guess maybe not thinking that Van Vieng is cool might make me 'uncool' in the eyes of some really awesome hard core world travelers, but the thing is I don't really care. The more I live in this world I realize that my friend V's grandfather is right, life isn't the number of breaths you take it is the number of moments that take your breath away. You may be able to blow your mind in Van Vieng, but tubing isn't going to take your breath away, nor is partying with a bunch of 18 year olds on their gap year, nor is smoking opium or getting ripped on happy pizza. But watching laughing kids play in the river or people planting rice in the shadows of Karst peaks might just tighten your chest with the intrinsic beauty of simplicity. Too bad all those kids were too busy drinking Lao lao on the river to notice the beautiful world that was passing them by.
Because I think it would be wrong to slag off travelers (who are most of the time just tourists with less money and bigger egos) and not give suggestions, I'll give you my perspective on how I think we could all be better tourists/travelers/guests.
The first thing is not to travel beyond your means. You are working with a ratio of time versus money. What happens to most long term travelers (were talking over a month here) is that you think you have more money than you do and end up just scraping by towards the end. This is NOT the way to do it, you want to go home with money in your bank account. Good advice: take the amount of money you think you need, now double it. When you are scraping for money you end up cheating a lot of people, not to mention yourself because you may not be able to do what you want to do. I am not saying that being on a budget is a bad idea, I have had some very memorable experiences being on a budget, but there is a difference between budgeting and scraping by. Money gives you flexibility, it will get you out of tight situations. Another good rule: if you can afford a beverage other than bottled water you still have enough money to tip.
Yea, so tipping is a BIG F'N DEAL. Round up! If your bill is 17000kip you can afford to leave 20,000. That $0.30 means a hell of a lot less to you than it will to your server. Don't drink your big beer lao and then roll your eyes at me when I suggest a tip. Imagine if your 3,000 kip makes it possible for your waiter's kid to go to school, how would that make you feel?
So how do you save money/budget? Eat on the street (not in the tourist strip you idiot) walk around until you find a bunch of locals, check out their plates and point at what looks good, then gesture the number one and point at your chest. Congratulations, you've just saved yourself $2. Now stop drinking those damn fruit shakes. Stop eating pizza, sandwiches, pancakes, chips. Stay in a room with a fan not a/c. Find a friend to share a room with, or stay in a dorm. Walk everywhere you can, or explore the public transport, how are the locals getting around? Now do it yourself. Interact with some local people, that is why you came all this way isn't it? Or maybe you just came to talk to more people like you?
Personally, when it comes to budgeting what I've figured out is that I like certain things to be nice and other things I am not that fussed about. I spend extra money on a nicer hotel because that is my home, but I don't really care if I have to survive off street food to save some money. So you figure out what is important, pay more for those things. You might have to have money for beer, but you can stay in a total dive and eat pb&j for weeks on end. Just make sure to be friendly and polite to the owners of your dive and maybe offer to make them a sammie. Did you know that if you offer someone food they might want to have a conversation with you and BAM, you've had a unique incredible local interaction.
Learn the language, talk to the locals and they might SMILE at you. A genuine smile from someone is like a ray of light blasting you in the heart. Learn, hello, thank you, how much, and how to count to ten, it maybe the best thing you do on your trip.
Try the local food, not that watered down shit they make for westerners. Eat Thai food that makes your eyes water, eat Som Tham with balls of sticky rice, crouch on a plastic stool in Saigon and slurp pho, eat at the damn taco stands, there will always be time for spaghetti bol at home.
That is the big lesson, if it is the same, if it is comfortable and normal then why travel? Get out of your comfort zone, try something new, that is why you left home in the first place.
Read a book about the place you are visiting, learn the history, try to understand why this place is the way it is. What is growing in the fields? why do people dress that way? What do they believe? What are families like? Start paying attention, what makes this place different from your home? Write your thoughts down, draw pictures, think about it. And don't just take a million photos and think that is sufficient to 'capture' the place. Put your camera down, take a deep breath and think about how each of your senses are stimulated by this different place. What does Oaxaca smell like? What is the exact flavour of pineapple when floating on the Mekong river? What does Bangkok sound like at four in the afternoon? How does your skin feel under the sun while sitting at Angkor wat? Absorb your travel experience, immerse yourself in it. Take a moment to think about how you might put it to words and then do, write yourself a postcard about a simple detail you've noticed, and really mail it to yourself, when it arrives it will be like a little piece of magic, you may treasure it more than anything you purchase.
Find a local supermarket, or street market, stare at everything, try a new fruit, look at what is and isn't available, and wonder how the world works with out readily availalble peanut butter.
Research local projects and NGOs that are trying to make the local people's lives better and participate. Spend a bit more on a fair trade product, even if you buy the cheapest thing in the store you are making an impact. Buy fewer things, but things that you know will leave a positive mark on the country. And buy from women, when money is put in women's hands it goes to kids and food. Men just aren't as reliable.
Learn local customs, learn what is offensive and don't do it, dress like a local, check out a temple/wat/church/mosque and pray, leave an offering, and thank the local gods that you have been so blessed to have the freedom to travel.
See you on the road.
If Paul Theroux is right then I am totally f'ed. For the most part I am totally lost. My memories have turned into a swirl of faces and places, sometimes I suffer from what feels like mental vertigo. I can't find the line between dreams and memories (then again, maybe there really isn't much of a difference). Recently as I was pulling up to the airport in Phnom Penh I couldn't remember where the hell I was. Somehow Saigon is now north of Hanoi (at least in my mental geography). The whole thing might freak me out, but it have a feeling that this is what a life of constant movement will do to you....
“Life used to be life like/now its more like showbiz/ I wake up in the night and I don't know where the bathroom is/ and I don't know what town I'm in/what sky I am under” -Ani DiFranco
In the same vein I found myself asking Tiago one day: “Where do the towels live?” I can't put a number to how many times I have found myself standing naked and dripping with water wondering where the damn towel is, only to find it folded like a swan my bed. But for me, like Ani, 'the road is my home,' and because of that I shouldn't really complain about loosing towels, that just comes with the territory, especially as people make my bed for me and I don't have to pay an electric bill. But all of that doesn't stop the world from rising up and swirling around, tossing me around like a rip tide. Sometimes I remember dreams about passengers that I had months prior to meeting them. My vocabulary is a mish-mash of spanish (how many times have I said, “Si?” to a Laoatian?), australian, american and pommie english. I miss so many things that the dull ache of absence has become my constant companion. Yet that rawness that lonliness or desire creates makes all the beauty I encounter taste a bit sweeter. As Che says in his Motorcyle Diaries, all meals peppered with hunger taste better (or something to that point) so it is true for my encounters with hidden vistas and unexpected friendship. When you hunger for intimacy, friendship, or comfort, their sudden appearance is all the more welcome.
Dad- don't worry I know this is a bit introspective, maybe it is all the rain and the mist cloaking the karst landscape of Laos, but I've got a big cup of JOMA coffee keeping me warm and a lot of love eminating from Northern California.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
To sleep there are hundreds of hotels, good hostel is the Yellow House, they make some mean oatmeal and spaghetti (!!!) for brekkie. Check out the parque central, on the side opposite the cathedral, behind a bookstore is lovely (though pricey) cafe condessa. Have a very North American moment at the Bagel Barn (off parque central) If you want to do a trek use O.X. Sky bar is awesome on 1 avenida, and there are some cool shops around there. I still love Fernandos (7 avenida) for coffee and early morning wifi.
I will admit that Antigua is Guatemala at its most organized and cleaned up. It is a pleasure to wander the streets, but is lacking the hard edge of the highlands or the funky soul of Peten. For me it was always all about indulgences: breakfast of fruit at the ceviche place, sammies from epicure, hair cuts on la septima avenida, pupusas at la rana y sapo, hanging with friends, and of course it is beautiful. If you can find your way to Santiago Zamorra to visit the weaving cooperative or out to Vahalla to the Macadamia nut farm, do it.
From Antigua most people head to the Lake usually via...
Most people end up here first and a lot of people don't like pana, but it is one of my favorite places as it is just a crazy weird part of guate. There is a fantastic little deli/restaurant on the main road with a tree growing in the middle of it, somehow i can never remember the name of it (algo de fuego or somethin'), but they have banana curry soup and it is SO good. Also there is fantastic Asian food at Chinitas (also on Santander) she makes some amazing blue corn pancakes and there is crazy live music every night. Oh and on your way out of town grab brekkie to go at Panapan bakery. The market right in town is fab, and they sell the wool clothes from Solola. Also if you don't want to go all the way to Chichi for a market you can check out the market just up the hill in Solola (grab a chicken bus). I'm not positive, but I think market days are sunday???
From Pana take the launchas out to other parts of the lake, they are going to rip you off on the launcha ride, but there isn't a lot you can do about it.
When you finally peel your self from the gorgeous waters of the lake head up the mountians to...
I like el cuartito for cute drinks and wifi, exploring mecardo Minerva for those plastic market baskets, and discovering all the hidden bars and restaurants. Oh and La Luna for hot chocolate, Blue Angel for vegan cookies, and the famous chocolate place near Mercado Flores (Doña Pancha), la fonda del che for peruvian flute music. There are always things going on at the gorgeous cathedral and lots of cool NGOs to support.
Anyhow everyone says it is amazing and very worth the long travel time to get there. So just go.
Amigos is a cool hostel, but tons of the hotels are very affordable, just make sure you get a fan and a place with a pool is always nice. Grab a launcha to take you to the mirador at sunset, bring beers and hike up to the lookout. Very cool. Lots of nice places to eat: Villa del Chef (killer mojitos which are 2 por 1 during happy hour 4-7), Cool beans for pancakes with fruit, and Las Puertas (near amigos) does nice veggie food plus the owner's husband plays classical guitar every night.
I think Tikal is done best if you head out there about 11, do a picknick at the grand plaza and then cruise around. By about 2 all the tour groups have left and you have the place practically to yourself. Pretty awesome. Sometimes you can catch sight of a toucan in the afternoon.
Obviously this is not an exhaustive guide, nor is this all that detailed, but it gives you a bit of a sense of Guate.
As far as getting around, the tourist shuttles are more comfortable but the chicken buses are far more entertaining and often a bit faster, if you can believe it. Spanish skills help out a lot but you will learn as you go.
Enjoy. Drink as much Zacapa on the rocks as you can, eat some pepian and make sure to give the Chapines lots of love.