Friday, December 18, 2009

rarrr! (that is me growling like a lion)

I've just hit the ground running in Leon, Nicaragua.  Being a tour leader in a new place can be a bit of a nightmare, but these days I try to see it as a chance to explore and discover information and I see it as a bit of a challenge.  I'd done a bit of googling about Leon last night and stumbled upon, where you can create your own travel guides.  It is a pretty cool site, that combined with wikitravel I came up with a couple cool places to check out, my favorite being Cafe La Rosita which is just off of the parque central.  Holy hell, they have the best iced coffee I've had in AGES and a killer orange cake.  Oh me oh my, I am a sucker for a good cup of coffee.  Anyhow it was another one of those days that was made better by a bit of time playing in a cafe. That combined with a HILARIOUS trip to the police station to report a stolen camera (a story which I won't recount here) made it a memorable first afternoon in Leon. 
Tomorrow: beaches. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

back in c.a.

It is true, fair readers, that I have returned to Central America.  This has been a bit of a surprise to some old friends.  Most of my amigos ticos have no idea where Thailand or Cabodia are, so I've been telling them that I was in China.  Now they've all started the rumor that I have spent the last six months eating tiger penises.  Seriously.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

it finally happened....

This was breaking news almost two weeks ago, which is kind of indicative of the speed at which news in my life moves, none the less it happened:  I ATE DURIAN.  It took, 3 separate visits, and a cumulative 9 and a half months spent in Asia but I finally bit the bullet. And you know what? It smells a whole hell of a lot worse than it tastes.  I also am proud to report that I ate it in Kampot province which anyone who has spent a bit of time in Cambodia knows grows the best durian. 

How did it happen?  On a countryside tour of Kampot by bike and boat which I wend on with the majority of my group.  We went along the river following the main (paved ) road, then on to lesser red dirt roads and finally veered off on to sandy little tracks where you would loose all control and come to an utter and complete stop.  This of course would cause me to giggle like a small child and slowed our progress considerably.  When we finally made it back to the packed red dirt road everyone was a bit dusty and the local guide decided that durian was what the situation needed.  Not far up the way we found a khmer woman selling durian at a wooden stand on the side of the road.  Next thing I know we had a small durian cracked open and I was putting a custard textured lump in my mouth.  Honestly it tastes a bit like a banana custard mixed in with the smell of overripe tropical fruit.  It was the kind of thing you eat and you aren't sure if you absolutely love it or hate it, not unlike that fish sauce dip that comes with spring rolls, or less exotically chococheese, or strangely for me: white chocolate.  So yea man.  Don't fear the durian, give it a go if you get the chance and if your name is Jon you best be eating some while you are in Asia next month.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

An interlude in the travel advice...

I'm in Saigon's international airport drinking a $4 (74,000vnd) illy cappuccino while three swallows fly around the curved ceiling of the departures hall, which is paneled with acoustic tiles. Dave says they absorb sound and he is right, as he points out there is no echo in the whole long hall. I figure the $4 accounts for the nice view of the grassy runway which leads planes out of Paris of the East and off to other parts of the world.
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

guide: cambodia (p2 to start more to come)

If you have any sense at all you are going to fall in love with Cambodia. Like anywhere it does have its frustrating aspects (NO I DON'T WANT A TUK-TUK YOU JUST SAW ME STEP OUT OF ONE!) but speaking from a tourist's perspective (not of pcv or ex-pat) Cambodia offers up the goods. Boasting an enviable swath of coast line, jungles, ruins, haunting history and decaying colonial cities, Cambodia counters the resort lifestyle of Thailand and the chaos of Vietnam with a difficult to describe charm. Most people end up in Phnom Penh, so we'll start there and then move out.

PHNOM PENH ('p squared')
Upon first glance I wasn't quite sure what to make of Cambodia's capital city, I arrived at night, and night time arrivals are always a bit disorienting. In the light of day I found PP a mass of slowly deteriorating colonial buildings mixed in with the typical skeletons of concrete structures which were variously in some state of falling apart or being put up. It was familiar and yet distinct and though I found PP at first, tiring, dirty, and unappealing I soon found myself enamored with its charms.
I wrote a bit about PP when I first came to Cambodia on a mission to spend as much time consuming coffee and pumpkin soup with Michael as is possible to cram into a single month. I loved it then and I still love it now.
Most tourists end up down by the waterfront, which isn't an awful place to hang out. PP makes it incredibly affordable to live out your Indochine fantasies, you can spend the afternoon buying silk, eating exquisite food and follow it all up with a cocktail on the terrace of the FCC as the sunsets behind the red sandstone of the National Museum or a pretty nice view of the confluences of three rivers. There is quite a bit to see and do so we'll try and break it down....
things to see...
National Musuem: which might be very cool, I have never seen it and no one ever managed to convince me it was worth a trip inside. It is built in traditional Khmer architecture out of a really nice red sandstone. It is definitely worth taking a photo of, but I'm not making any promises regarding its contents.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: so maybe this is going to make me seem like a bad Tour Leader but I never ventured with in the walls of the palace. Louise told me it was worth a visit, but somehow coffee always got in my way. Maybe that is a bad excuse, but I figured it couldn't be that different to the Royal Palace in Bangkok. You can correct me if I am wrong. Just remember to dress conservatively, no tank tops please!
S-21/Toul Sleng/Genocide Musuem: This place has a lot of different names and it is certainly worth taking some time to see. I find the idea of coming to Cambodia and not learning at least the basics of the history a bit lame. The museum makes all the stories, all the facts hauntingly real, you don't have to linger, but I think it is worth getting a guide and listening to what they have to say. I've been twice, and although even just sitting outside makes me feel a bit queasy, I encourage you to go. Afterward you can reward yourself with a cool beverage at the bhodi tree cafe right across the street.
Choeung Ek/Killing Fields: The Killing Fields were the last step for prisoners after leaving s-21. Guides hang out here and are happy to show you around the site, but it is well signed and I think wandering around here silently is usually more than enough. They have a constructed a large stupa to store the skulls of the victims, it is a raw look at a sad time in Khmer history.
If one were to take off in the morning at about 8, stopping first at s-21, then at the killing fields you could be back in town by about lunch time and visit Friends for lunch. Friend, the restaurant, supports Friends International the charity. After a sobering morning it can be nice to relax in a place which you know is giving back to the local people and has a profound effect on many young people's lives. Next door to the restaurant Friends runs a store which has been recently redone.
Continuing in that vein, places to shop...
There are a lot of markets in PP most people's favorite for touristy needs is the Russian Market (no they don't serve borscht). Though at its center it is your run of the mil market, the outer layers are choc-a-block with all the crap tourists love: ceramics, lacquer, t-shirts, knock-off rolexes, pirated dvd, gap clothes from the nearby factory, silk scarves, embroidered wallets. You HAVE to haggle or you will get robbed blind, be ready to walk away and compare prices. Central market is huge and it is more than possible you will get lost just trying to get into the market itself. The building itself has been under restoration for the last few years and the work is starting to show, its art deco architecture has been served well by a new coat of lemon yellow paint. Even if you just stop by to take a picture it is worth the trip. Nearby is the Sorya mall, the tallest building PP. Ride the escalators to the top to earn a nice view of the city. They also have incredible collections of pirated DVDs for sale.

Where to eat:
FCC (all the tuk tuk drivers know it) great for happy hours
Elsewhere and the rest of 278 (tell your tuk tuk driver to take you to golden gate guest house) my favorite street for bars
Garden Cafe (#4, St. 57, very near 278 next to smateria) has absolutely everything one might imagine wanting to eat.
Nature and Sea (on the rooftop in 278) awesome salads and smoothies.
Warung Bali (just up the road from the fcc, across from the National Museum) cheap great indonesiian food.
Friends (v. close to the National Museum) everything is good, omg.
Romdeng (street 178) classy Khmer food in a gorgeous colonial house (also part of Friends International).
The Shop (street 240) for a totally french and fabulous moment, don't miss their sister store, Chocolate (also on street 240).

Enough already! Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

pix pix pix. ur welcome vic.

Images (top to bottom) The venerable Tich Ouang Duc's car, Hanoi alley wall, the glorious Edwardarons on Ti Top hill (photo credits to Tom), Ti Top beach sunset.

'and what do you sell?'

David is absolutely fascinated by the Vietnamese economy.  It all started in Hanoi which is staggering in the guild layout of the Old Quarter.  There are blocks which only sell one thing: shoes, towels, coffee, spices, welded metal, buddhist paraphernalia, pictures of Uncle Ho, you know all the basic necessities.  And more than that there are stores that only sell one thing, which I think is what sparked David's favorite new game to play while walking down the city streets...
'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

travel advising continues... THAILAND

My pending departure from Asia has motivated me to try and sum up a bit of my experience in a 'guide-esque' documentation of some of my favorite places, things to do, and foods to eat so that those of you who have the opportunity to visit this incredible region might benefit from my travels here. Plus I have a bit of free time....


BANGKOK ('Bangers,' 'KOK')

Loud, modern, huge, overwhelming at first. Most backpackers end up being spit out into the bowels of Khao San and the 24 hour honkey circus which is perpetually in motion. I struggle with Khao San, it has a lot of convenient aspects to it, but it also kinda sucks. Some might say it 'isn't Thailand' which is kind of like saying a tomato isn't a fruit. Regardless you should give the whole thing at least a gander, it is an amazing tribute to all things traveler oriented. The whole swirling chaos exists for a reason and if you can learn to exploit it for what it is good for Khao San can be a kind of fun quirky experience. I higlighted a couple of my favorite spots here in an earlier post.
Of course Bangkok is much much more than Bagalamphu. My favorite thing to do in Bangers is to head to Siam Paragon, which is a big mall. I don't typically find myself wanting to spend a lot of time in malls but this one has a number of things in its favor: 1. air conditioning that allows you to forget about crippling heat and humidity 2. hands down the most amazing supermarket I have ever seen 3. movies (PONYO!!!) and a selection of 3 different types of popcorn. Seriously the supermarket is something else. Find the ladies with the rice crackers with coconut sugar, sesame and pumpkin seeds. They are ridiculously good. Plus the food court goes on for ages, every type of fast food a Midwesterner could want, surprisingly cheap thai food, as well as a plethora of ice cream/gelato/fro-yo places. Siam Paragon is part of a long chain of malls all linked by either the BTS or raised walkways. In fact most of the BTS (KOK's MRT/tube/BART) is lined by huge malls. If you needed to spend a lot of money you could do it quickly in Bangkok.
Other cool things to check out:
Boat rides on the klongs (canals), which is consequently one of the fastest ways to get around in Bangkok.
Wat po, home of the giant and incredibly impressive 40m long reclining buddah (Mandy is a HUGE fan).
Nancy Chandler does an awesome map of Bangkok, I'd suggest picking one up if you are planning on spending much time in the area. I'd say it is a must have if you were living there.

I never feel like I have enough time in Chiang Mai. We always stay at Mandala house for work and it is cool enough that I have spent time there on my time off as well. The price is right, it has a good location, and the staff are super friendly. Chiang Mai is famous for its night markets, which are absurd sprawl of stands selling everything that one might want to cart back home: strings of christmas lights decorated with champa flowers, Karen silver jewelery, lanterns which fold flat, hill tribe tote bags, Thai fisherman pants, knock off Tiffany's, the stalls run as far as your eyes can see, the markets spill into one another forming blocks of frenzied consumerism. To one end of the markets is the Old Chiang Mai Coffee shop, it is a funky little cafe/gallery serving a ridiculous chocolate cookie cream cheese sandwich. Derlish. Que mas? Ahh of course there is ever famous cooking courses in Chiang Mai. I've always taken them at the Chiang Mai Cookery Schol, because Sompon is a BAD ASS. They are super professional and you will be blown away by what you can learn in a day. I think that taking a cooking course also gives one a deeper appreciation for the local cuisine. You will be more able to understand the flavors in the foods and possibly be motivated to try new dishes (rather than spending your whole time eating Phad Thai --- boooooring!). Finally people often come to the North of Thailand to ride an Asian elephant. This can be an amazing experience, especially if you do it at one of the more responsibly run organization. I wrote briefly about this on an earlier post, there are a number of elephant camps around Chiang Mai but two which stand out are: the Elephant Conservation Center and Elephant Nature Park (which also runs a veggie restaurant in Chiang Mai). Both programs take good care of their elephants meaning that you can feel like you and the elephants are both benefiting from your experience.
Finally: Nancy Chandler also made a map of Chiang Mai which is another fun way to discover some hidden gems.

Cutesy to the max, Pai is a fun mellow place to escape the city and see some pretty stunning countryside. In their same same but different way Pai has been totally overrun by cute boutique like shops, it is a bit out of control. But it is a fun place to kick around for one or two nights. The van ride from Chiang Mai is a bit crazy, there are about a million curves but it isn't too bad. Many people use Pai as a base for some more in depth explorations: moto touring, hill tribe trekking, ventures towards Burma. It is a bit overdone tourist-wise but the setting is pretty idyllic. Dini and I stayed riverside in a place called Rim Pai , which was a bit pricey but gorgeous and totally cute. There is quite a bit of good food around Pai, in the late afternoons there is a well organized fresh market with some good street foods, otherwise most of the restaurants whip up the normal delicacies.

UP NEXT: Cambodia


David is not good for my attempts to go wheat-free, or at least bread-free (which is not some shallow attempt at weight loss or at being trendy, it is actually because every time i eat bread i end up feeling ready to barf). Anyways he found this ridiculous article in the New York Times.  So of course this afternoon, pressed for time and starving after an incredibly frustrating return trip from Halong Bay (which included 40 minutes of backtracking for a styrofoam box of fish) we set out in the general direction of Hoang Kiem lake, and not feet from the famous Bia Hoi corner we stumbled upon a man slinging said sammies.   All wheat-free resolve had crumbled days before during a rushed attempt to eat brekkie before departing for the glorious wonder of Halong Bay so I didn't even pretend to resist and we ordered two right there and then.
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

Dave arrives.

Today has been grand.  I started off with a round of goodbyes, a passion fruit, pineapple, banana and mango smoothie in a very windy Nature and Sea, a final purchase at Smateria, and then a jaunt in a tuk-tuk to the airport.  Then it was time for my final goodbye to Cambodia, which was sad.  Cambodia has become pretty homey to me. I get by with my terrible Khmer, I love the food, and I had a couple of really lovely friends here, so it was pretty sad to see the Khmer landscape fall below my airplane as we soared off towards Saigon.
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

pure magic.

Forgetting the hords of tourists, red plastic chairs, ridiculous chatter, and how tired I was, this photos just about conveys the experience of an elusive sunrise at Angkor Wat.
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.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

vacation for the girl whose job is vacation

Images, top to bottom (St Peter and Paul, Godalming. Mirrors, Camden Market. The North Down Path, near Farncombe.)

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

laundry list from the far east

1. I am staring at the molding of my colonial ceiling, or maybe it is a colonial recreation it seems hard to believe that this might be a french era building. The internet keeps turning on and off, making a conversation with Snr. Tiago impossible. The ipod is on shuffle leaving me feeling a bit frenetic.

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

typhoon ketsana

A natural disaster hits and I know nothing of it until all the danger has passed (I blame bad coverage in the Bangkok Post). I missed all of the mud-filled drama and only suffered through one serious down pour in Saigon. Only now that I am in Hoi-An, which got slapped hard by this typhoon, do I realize that the shit went down and big time. The hotel I am currently staying in has water marks 4 feet high and this is at least a third of a klick from the river. On our train ride from Nha Trang to Danang we saw billboards that had been knocked over, trees ripped up with roots exposed, and rice paddies which had been turned into fields of muddy mush. It was a bit like turning up at the end of a party only to watch the cleaning crew do its thing.
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

how to give back (and not make things worse) while you travel

To assuage some of that first world guilt we all carry around a lot of people come on my tours and want to 'give back.' I think that this is a great, fantastic, and honorable intention, it just goes wrong so many times. Rather than attacking the tourists for not having a clue and constantly sticking their foot in 'it,' I figure I can write something about how to give back in a good way and maybe one or two of you fair readers will learn something and actually make a difference while you'' are out exploring our fair planet. All of this is based on my experience, and in no way am I claiming to be an 'expert.'
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

Happy travels.

dodging traffic

I will start with where I am right now and hopefully from here I can get out all the words that seem to spill out whenever I am out on a run, or on the train, or walking around and can't get my fingers to a keyboard.

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.

Friday, September 25, 2009


An elephant was ridden, I got thrown in the dead dog river once again and got the flu from it.

Mandy and Gem heart Pai! (but we forgot to buy the t-shirt to prove it)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009


sin titulo

Where to begin? I've been trying to work on a blog post the last while but nothing seems to stick. My friend B is traveling through Central America and I read his blog, which just drips with all that fresh travel enthusiasm, add to that his impressive writing skills and I have started to feel like a bit of a farce. On the other hand this blog moved on from being a serious attempt at a travel narrative a long time ago. So what is there to say?
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

Update of sorts from a girl out of sorts...

thoughts, ideas, and general randomness from 'the road.'

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

self-reliance and a very beautiful road

a blog entry inspired by two minds...

"When you are traveling you are your sole support system, and that is hard and it gets tiring." -AG

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

que EMO gringita!

The other day someone said to me that we never realize what we have until it is gone. This isn't a new or original idea, I think there is an extensive collection of literature, music, and art all dedicated to it, but it has been a long time since I've felt that way. I'm not sure if it is a result of being on the road for more than 2 years, or if it is my spiritual superiority over normal mortals, but I have started to learn how to appreciate what you have in front of you. I spend a lot of time thinking about this concept, especially as the world feels posed on the brink of a big shift (2012, global warming, financial crises, failing monsoon rains). My conclusion is that I think we should spend more time appreciating what we have right now and not worry so much about the stock markets, the price of gas (petrol for you pommies), and Jessica Simpson's fat but beautiful tour.

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

the best place in vietnam

I realized something last night: I have gotten complacent in my travel. Jaded or hardened or whatever you want to call it, but last night snapped me out of it. We were on the SE2 bound for Hanoi, in the plushy Livitrans cart: luxury attached to a howling creaking mess of cars that reek of urine, durian, and sweat all mixed in with stale cigarette smoke. And I have to say something right now, I have gone flash packer because I f---ing hate that part of the train. I hate sleeping on patched dirty mattresses with only a thin sheet between me and god knows what. I hate the cockroaches and the mice and the slimy feeling of everything on the train. I feel like I am caught in some Orwellian nightmare rocking my way through a ghost-like Vietnam cast in misty silhouettes.
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

'you go number 2.'

I just got in from my most recent motorbike tour through Hue, which hands down has to be my most favorite thing to do in Vietnam. It is the ideal way to experience all the beautiful minutiae that make travel so exhilarating and breathtaking. Probably more so because motorbikes are so classically Vietnamese and somehow accentuate the whole experience, just like a good wine can do for a great meal.
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.

tạm biệt!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Train Phở

Across the street from the Ga Nha Trang (Nha Trang train station) is a row of food carts, bánh mi, nước mía, and then 3 phở carts. My favorite is the third, and in my pathetic terrible vietnamese I ask for, "Phở ga." Into a small plastic container go soft rice noodles, young onions sliced longways with most of their tops taken off, little rings of green onions, a squirt of plum sauce, a squirt of sweet chile, a bit of boiled chicken, bean sprouts, and finally, stock. My favorite part of the process is the stock ladeling, the lady swoops the ladel over the top of the steaming pot, scooting the fat, bits of bone and other stock making debris out of the way, then it is one and a half ladels of steaming stock turning the plastic container into a noodle swimming pool. The whole thing is packaged up in a plastic bag with a spoon and wooden chopsticks and back to the train station I run.

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

Mith Samlanh (Friends)

Things strike me sometimes, they leave me with my breath caught halfway up my throat with their absolute inspiring beauty and make me want to scream for joy at the brilliance of humanity. Friend International makes me feel like that, staring into toddlers' faces, and a lot of other things. But Friends (and its associated projects: Makphet, Romdeng) and another project very similar to it in Hanoi, KOTO (know one teach one) give me a lot of HOPE. And inspire me in a big way.
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

the brian food list: ASIA

Brian is on my trip right now, and he is kind of dorky about food like me. So I keep harassing him about food things I think he needs to know about and finally decided that maybe it was better to just write a blog entry about it and then he could read it at his own speed and I could stop geeking out. And then I was thinking that maybe having an ongoing food list might be cool. So I'm going to start with Asia because that is where I am.

To start....
You know when some one does something and it is just so awesome you can't really describe it? Makansutra is one of those things. Their reverence for street food in inspiring, they have a rating system that makes me smile, and have dedicated food guides to some pretty damn cool places. If I ever get my shit together I would do this for taco stands and other delicacies in Mexico. In Singapore they have a dedicated food center called Gluttons Bay. It located down on the water front near the symphony hall (which is aptly called 'the durian'). Don't miss the skate wing, or the mee goreng, or the satay, just make sure you go hungry.

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

a big happy slow family

I like dysfunction in simple tasks. To be more clear in this statement, I find dysfunction to be a zen koan put into practice. I love and hate dysfunction and in that way my reaction to dysfunction is an indication of where I am at with myself.
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

quick and dirty guide: the central 7 and mexico

(B this entry is for you)

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.

sorry, but tubing is not the coolest

The beginning of my previous entry begins with a famous Paul Theroux quote about the difference between 'travelers' and 'tourists.' People who identify themselves as travelers, most often are 'backpackers' on a 'budget.' 'Tourists' are the honkeys running around paying too much for everything with their noses in guide books, yelling loudly in English, right? Usually they are stodgy and old and don't have a clue. They are on packaged tours. They usually have too much money. '

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...

  1. cheap drugs

  2. tubing on the river

  3. cheap liquour

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.

la casa de paños y pensamientos

Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they are going.” Paul Theroux

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


Alright, I've had another request for more Central America information, well two in fact so I'm going to try and slap together a couple posts on that. Plus the wee compu has been down and out for a couple days (seems I picked up a virus) so I've got a lot of words to put down. First things first we'll tackle GUATE.
Right. So you will more than likely have to experience Guatemala city unless you are lucky enough to be arriving overland via some other fabulous place. Get in and get out is my approach. Everyone is going to tell you it is dangerous and I think it is, but then again I spent very little time there. Anyhow the airport has NOTHING, some mayan ladies selling galletas chicky and that is about it, no joke. To get from there grab a shuttle ($7-10) or a cab if there are a few of you ($30). People are very helpful, but will rip you off if you act all super gringo (and then you deserve it). From there probably easiest to head to...
Most people just call it Antigua and it probably deserves its own post. Where even to start????
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...
Market days are thursday and sunday, though I prefer sunday as there are often processions which can be a lot of fun to see. Bargain, but be kind, these highlanders work hard for their money. Check the back of textiles to see if they have been hand embroidered or are machine made. Great woodcarvings and some unique jewlery, otherwise everything is same same but different and you are better off buying from a weaving cooperative on Lake Atitlan.
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.
Nested at the foot of a volcan, cruise over to Santiago and get a little kid to take you to see Maximon, a local diety. very cool. You can buy the local traje there, all the fabrics with purple stripes and embroidered birds are from this small village. The church is also fantastic, a great example of traditional Catholicism. The main alter is carved wood and dedicated to Jesus and corn. All the Saints are represented by wooden sculptures that are dressed every year in cotton outfits. Pretty awesome. From herre you could grab a launcha over to Santa Catarina del Popolo to check out weaving cooperatives.
Back packer ghetto, drugs, beer, good pizza and angry juice ladies who will shake their shredded plasitic bag fly swatters at you. If you want to hang out with stoned back packers or have ridiculously good pizza (up the hill, first right) then it is your place. Otherwise it is hilly and often smells funny during coffee harvest (they dry the beans out, so it stinks of fermenting coffee berries). You can also rent kayaks here and cruise around in the protected bay.
I lived here in this place of hobbity paths through the coffee bushes. It isn't a utopia as some hippies may have you believe, but it is great. Xamanik up on the hill has great parties but is a loud place to stay. You can check out La Paz for accommodation, yoga, and good but very slow food. Explore, try and get lost (you can't really) and get a massage (Flower house or the San Marco Holistic Center). More kayaks if you want and adventure, or hike out to the rocks to jump in the water or to Russel's dock for some nice sun bathing. I think San Marcos has some of the best swimming on the lake.
Casa del mundo or Vulcanos Lodge are both very special amazing places to stay if you get a chance.
La iguana perdida is a good place to loose yourself for a couple do nothing type days. They do great family style dinners and Belle might still be around doing morning yoga (nothing like downward dog in front of gray blue volcanos).

When you finally peel your self from the gorgeous waters of the lake head up the mountians to...
For me Guatemala is the highlands and Xela is the heart of the highlands. Most people who head this way go to language school (1 on 1 classes, 5 hrs/day, room and board should cost between $130-180) cruise around a choose one that feels good to you (my heart lies with Miguel Angel Asturias). The opportunity to live with a Guatemalan family will enrich your travels and understandings of this incredible country.
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.
Confession: I never made it out here. L-A-M-E. I know. But I will get there ok???
Anyhow everyone says it is amazing and very worth the long travel time to get there. So just go.
Grilled cheese and the bungalows at Tijax. Nuffsed. From here take a boat ride to...
Tapado at Bugga Mamma's. Chat with some Garifunas then grab a boat on to Honduras or Belize or back to Rio Dulce.
I love Flores. Cool places to drink right on the water, a gorgeous lake, could you ask for more??
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.