May 31, 2008
How do you describe a shot of tequila? It burns as it first enters your system. Then, you feel the warmth coming from within. You beg for more. It’s funny how the same words can be used to describe India. At first we were overwhelmed by a city of more than 15 million. At first we were disheartened by all of the people pushing their products – often lying to make a sale. At first, the crowds of men huddled outside a restaurant like a pack of starving dogs waiting for scraps was appalling. Then, suddenly the warmth comes through. We see past the bad and into the good. The people are warm and friendly, the culture is well preserved, and the chaos has become quite comfortable after only a few days.
After wandering for a day through Delhi, the most overwhelming city in the world, we headed south by train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. This is possibly the most photogenic structure ever erected by man. Its perfect symmetry and raised foundation give it a surreal appearance, not to mention the white marble that shines as bright as the day it was completed. We spent four hours looking at the Taj from every possible angle.
We are now in the small town of Khajuraho. We spent the morning strolling through the ancient Jain temples here that feature thousands of Kama Sutra carvings. It’s hot , it’s crazy, it’s India.
May 25, 2008
May 24, 2008
It is said that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. Between 1971 and 1973, it became helplessly involved in the largest bombing raid in US history as the North Vietnames sheltered their soldiers across the border in Laos. In these 2 years, more bombs fell in Laos than were dropped during all of WWII.
Yet, in spite of all this destruction, today they are a wonderful people who have begun to embrace capitalism and open their borders to investment and tourism. We loved Laos and give it an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
May 20, 2008
It’s quite humorous that I find Laos to be such an amazing country. After all life has not gone so smoothly for me since our small plane barely landed on the tarmac of the dark airport. The trouble began as I sat in the head customs agent’s office. After paying an extra dollar for my Visa because our plane landed after hours, it was pointed out to me that my passport has less than 6 months of validity left on it. Apparently I am the only world traveler that did not get this memo. I should never have a passport in this state of existence. It is nearly worthless in most countries. Lucky for us a little cash will do the trick - $120 and my meaningless identification had yet another entry stamp emblazoned in its tattered pages.
Luang Probang, in Northern Laos is referred to in our Lonely Planet guide book as the “prettiest city in Asia” This might be true. However, it has also fallen ill to the “Lonely Planet” curse. All of us loyal followers adhere to its words with the voracity to descend like the swarm of adventure-hungry independent traveling locusts that we are, destroying every town, hotel, and restaurant whose name is so fortunate to find it’s way onto the pages of the tattered Lonely Planet bible that rests clutched in the hand of every other tourist who passes. With one finger stuck in the page where a small map of the town resides, we hand over our hard earned cash in abundance, raising prices and crowding the streets with our own kind. Unfortunately, this is the exact thing we have traveled around the globe to avoid. Ahh but not all is lost. Luang Probang is simply too wonderful to be destroyed by the $800 scarves that sit on the shelves of boutique stores and the $40 French restaurants nestled between two $1 noodle soup shops. It is a town teeming with young monks who reside at its more than thirty temples. They march through the streets at 6 am collecting alms for the day from shop owners. Their mere existence is a constant reminder of the country we are visiting, - as if the beautifully colorful tuk-tuks weren’t evidence enough that this was indeed not Kansas.
It’s not so much that 23 people were crammed into the back of a truck on a journey north that bothered me. It was not the sweltering heat. The frequent and jolting stops and uncomfortable seat did not rattle me. It was not even the motorcycle that leaned on its kickstand mid-ship in the truck dripping gasoline on my foot that simply has no other spot the rest but beneath its engine. None of these things disturbed me. What nearly brought me to tears was having not a clue how long the journey would last, and that the guy next to me was smoking. Eventually we reached our destination. The beautiful city of Nong Khiaw’s small write- up in our “Lonely Planet” has spared it. A town must have a map in the guide book before the curse sets in. The swarm must know where to sleep. We lulled the day away reading from the hammocks in our private Sunrise Guesthouse bungalow ($5/night) perched high above the Nam Ou River. Massive Limestone cliffs dripping in lush jungle rose on all sides. Kids played soccer on a small island that surfaces only when the water is low. Ridiculously long river boats motored locals and tourists alike up and down stream.
So far it sounds pretty good doesn’t it? There’s just one hiccup in this story. That’s true. Then there was the fall. We had been hiking through the thick jungle, around freshly scorched rice fields, between thatch houses on stilts, and among the amiable water buffalo for three hours. We stopped every five minutes to pick leaches from our ankles. I had been telling the German in front of me about the amazing durability and usefulness of bamboo. “Did you know that pound for pound, bamboo has twice the tensile strength of steel? It is the fastest growing plant in the world – ten cm a month! It is used in Chinese scaffolding Michael! It is used in concrete as a cheap alternative to rebar! It is a truly renewable building material. You can eat it! It is godlike!” Most of these words fell from my mouth in the moments leading up to the bridge.
I never expected to fall off a bridge in the thick Jungle of Laos. Then again I never expected three sticks of such a wonderful material to give way beneath my weight, depositing me into the river below. I was not scared. Mid-air, as my arms both attempted to roll up imaginary car windows I did not think about the fact that we were thousands of miles from a Western hospital. I did not wonder if I would be hurt. I did not worry that we were three hours by foot from the nearest road. In this moment of clarity, all that passed through my head was the fact that the bamboo had failed me. I felt used.
Of course I was fine. I sat in the muck in shock for 5 seconds while my five trekking partners, Amanda included, ran to my aid. I escaped with a small scratch and nothing more.
Strike two for Laos. But I still love it. The people are amazing. The food is wonderful and the terrain absolutely surreal. I keep expecting a red Jeep to drive by with a T-Rex in close pursuit. Our hike finally brought us to the small village of Phayong. As you stroll down its dirt paths and watch the children throw chickens at each other, it is difficult to know what century it is. Under one of the 40 stilted houses a woman crushes corn with a foot powered mill. Next door, a topless woman holds her new-born slung across her back as she watches her chickens eat from an old basket of feed. Down the street, a man tends to the ten beautiful pineapples growing inside his bamboo fence. Laos is wonderful. This particular village sees about 10 tourists every month. We slept in the home of the Village Chief. For dinner and lunch we chewed on rice and green beans. Breakfast mixed it up a bit with rice and bamboo. Amanda couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She became a vestige of her lens as it pulled her toward every corner of the village. The shutter never rested more the a few seconds.
And this has been Laos. We are headed towards Vientiane, the capital, so I can replace my passport. I’m hoping I don’t receive a third strike in this country because it is really great. No one wants to see Sammy Sosa strike out. It’s just not right.
May 19, 2008
May 10, 2008
May 1, 2008
It is a small and leaky wooden boat. The barefoot man standing behind us has just ignited his 6.6 horsepower engine. Attached to the engine by way of a five ft long rod is a small propeller. It is 5 o’clock in the morning and we are motoring down one of the many rivers that connect with the mighty Mekong in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam.
Skip ahead 2 hours to the floating markets of Phong Dien. This is interesting. Someone decided to place the produce section of Safeway in old wooden boats. To our left a woman in the typical Vietnamese garb of loose pajamas and a conical staw hat stands on her small craft filled with pineapples as she rows past a 30 ft long wooden vessel. This particular vessel, along with every other boat, appears to have looked old before construction was completed. It also is motivated by a propeller at the end of a long steel shaft with a hand controlled diesel motor guiding its load of lettuce deftly through this crowd of edibles. On our right a floating cold beverage stand motors by. An ice cold sweet melon tea quenches the thirst of a young Vietnamese man on his break. Shortly thereafter he resumes tossing hundreds of coconuts from his small boat up to the larger one he is tethered to. It is huge and crowded and it is beautiful.
Fast forward another 2 hours. After motoring through the small canals Amanda and I now wander by foot in confusion. Our driver has pulled over and begun to sing karaoke at one of the small houses facing this busy route of commerce. And we can’t help but wonder if the world might be a better place if we all took a ten minute break at 9 am every day to sing a few national hits.
Then we are in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as most of the world knows it. Thousands, no, millions of scooters buzz around us. Rather that run, we train ourselves to deftly maneuver through the swarms of Africanized Moto Bees crowding the narrow streets. The key is to keep one steady pace and like a finger in a fresh bowl of jello, they move around us. The War Remnants Museum is wonderful and devastating all at once. The American instruments of war are scattered about in the form of tanks, bombs and airplanes. None of which could stop the north. To be an American has never felt so confusing after staring at hundreds of war images and reading dozens of sad stories. We feel sorrow to know that history often repeats itself.
Yet, this is in the past and Saigon is a bustling metropolis. It also has a slow bus to Dalat where the weather is cool.
Now place Amanda on the back of a motorcycle, her arms raised at her side as she copilots her craft through the strawberry fields, flower farms, coffee plantations, rice fields, and forests of central Vietnam. The Easy Riders have become world famous for their English spoken tours of Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle. It was a beautiful ride indeed.
Fianlly, as though tearing off yesterday’s joke from my page-a-day calendar, we race down the mountains back to the coast in the city of Nha Trang; one of Vietnam’s many beach resorts. We couldn’t resist spending $4.5 dollars to rent a motorcycle for the day. Today was very hot and wonderful, just like Vietnam.