Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Fun with Maoists

So, when we last left our heroine, she was trying to get to Katmandu. Yeah, it took 42 hours of continuous travel to get from Agra, India to Katmandu, Nepal. And Bhairawa, Nepal is right up there with Po, Burkina Faso in border towns that should be stricken from the earth if god has a spare minute. While waiting for the overnight bus to Katmandu, I met two British travelers who expressed condolences that I would be spending the night on the road. It was “absolute shite” in their opinion. I beg to differ. The BQE is shite. The Yako-Tougon road in the rainy season is shite. This was like driving a golf cart full speed across the moon. And my leg room was taken up by some bigwig’s suitcase, so I spent most of the journey in the crash position again. But I lived, and arrived in the cool clean backpacker friendly air of Katmandu at 4:30 in the morning.

After a much needed nap, I wandered around the city for a bit before going to the main tourist attraction of Durbar Square. Since my knowledge of Nepalese history is sadly deficient, I decided to hire a guide to give me a quick rundown of the numerous temples. I got one that was pretty mediocre but not terrible. He pointed out some interesting things in between trying to sell me hash: like that the Nepalis are into carving the 84 positions of the Kama Sutra into their temples. In one place, the Monkey God Statue (the bachelor god) had a cloth draped over his eyes so he couldn’t see. I thought that was neat. Anyway, after the two hour tour, I gave him 200 rupees, a couple bucks, and a little on the high side of what the tour book suggests. He flips out. Goes completely mad. Had he not been a Hindu, I would have sworn it would have taken a steady diet of weeks of mad-cow beef to get this out of control. He starts screaming that I need to give him 2000 rupees. This is $25 and roughly 10% of what the average Nepal makes in a YEAR. I look at him incredulously. Everyone on the street has turned around because this behavior is considered grotesque in Nepali culture. You never raise your voice in public and this guy is having a full out meltdown. He threatens to take me to the tourist police. I hesitate. I just need one corrupt official to make me pay and then split it with him. Eventually I have no choice. I start to calmly explain the problem to the officer, but crazy guide guy interrupts, screaming in Nepali. The tourist cop just stares at him, offers him the 200, which he doesn’t accept and keeps on screaming. The cop gives me a “where did you find this loon” look, then tells me to just go. I leave.

It is raining now and I grab the first rickshaw I see. I want to get out of the there before the cop lets him go. No luck. Crazy guide chases down the rickshaw and grabs it, still screaming. He demands the 200 rupees. I give it to him. He curses me and my family and my children, telling me that he knows many more Westerns that I ever will and that I am a money hungry bitch. I shrug and we leave.

The next day, no guides. Just me and a rented bike, going to see the sights on the outskirts of the city. The guy who rented me the bike assured me the route was paved and flat. [Editor’s note: “Paved” and “flat” have slightly different meaning to someone that grew up in the Himalayas.] My first stop is the Monkey Temple, so named because it is crawling with rhesus monkeys. Everywhere. Ratty pesky like bastards if you ask me. The temple was pretty, though I was dying when I got to the top of the 365 steps to the temple. I had just ridden up a hill, through one of the world’s most polluted cities, and the air is a little thinner up there.

Then I rode about 13 km to Patan, Katmandu’s southern sister city. It was smaller and prettier, with one of the best museums I have seen anywhere on my travels. I spent just over an hour there, reading everything I could find on Ganesh (more on that in a minute.) And, I had some really good momos for lunch. Momos are Tibetian ravoli, and I ate a ton of them in Tibet. Except the ones in Tibet are filled with yak, because nothing grows in Tibet except yak and lichens. Yak tastes like wet rancid shoe leather. These had vegetables in them and were much better. It had started to rain at this point so I decide to throw my bike on a transport for the next leg of the trip. I only have one pair of pants, so can’t risk getting them wet! As soon as the very complicated process of tying my bike onto the car is finished, the sun comes out. Oh well, at least I get a break. The next temple was Pahupatinath, which was unremarkable except that I arrived in time to watch the afternoon cremation ceremonies. It too was infested with monkeys. (Too many “Ands” can get tedious).

Now all I need to do is ride back into the city. 5 km. No sweat. Except that Nepali roads don’t have street signs. And, this is typically the response I get when asking directions. “Go down two roads,” holding up three fingers, “then turn left,” pointing to the right. I got HOPELESSLY lost. Eventually I started asking traffic cops and police officers only and started to make some progress. They were on every corner so it helped.

Why, might you ask, are there cops and riot police on every corner? Well, I’ll tell you. I go down a hill and run into an “opposition rally.” I believe a more descriptive term though is a “small scale riot.” They (the thousands of them) are between me and where I need to be. I could try to forge the crowd. Nah. Large excited crowds have not been historically kind to the “other,” so I got the holy living hell out of there. This still left me trying to find a way home. I continued to ask directions, at one point riding my bike up to, and pacing, the last riot cop jogging in a flying wedge formation. He was a little surprised but helpful, gesturing with his nightstick. Eventually I made it back, but it took two hours and I was exhausted! Too tired even for dinner, I went shopping.

The next day I decided to take the “luxury a/c” coach to Pokhara. It is a 7 hour trip and after my adventure from the border, I’m worth it. But it costs $12, 10 times what local transport would cost. No matter, I am worth it. It drove three hours before dumping us at a restaurant on the side on the road, saying we had to change buses. We sat there for 5 hours waiting for another bus, watching the local buses whiz by... Eventually the Nepalis started getting very excited. If we didn’t leave in the next half hour, we would get caught outside Pokhara when the 8 pm curfew hit. Not good. 15 minutes later I found myself on a local bus. The last few kilometers of the trip were pretty rough. The bus started to fall apart. Screws fell out of the ceiling, support poles clanged to the ground. Paneling popped of the walls. I was happy to get there.

Then the good news. Today, my first day in Pokhara was also the first day of the two day long Maoist ordered general strike. All the businesses were half open this morning. The Maoist threatened to torch anything open, and the army (which has a VERY visible presence) threatened to bust the locks of anything closed. All the metal shutters where half closed for most of the morning, with the owners sitting in front to make adjustments accordingly. The army had just started to encourage the closed shops to open fully when I came in to write this. This involves breaking off the padlocks with the butts of their automatic weapons. I’ll keep you updated.

And finally, my favorite segment here on the show, stupid things that someone else did for a change. I was hanging out with a British couple one afternoon and we decided to grab lunch. I order a sandwich, she orders a salad, and he, being the culturally conscious traveler he is, orders a cheeseburger. We look in horror. We ask if he knows that he is in a Hindu country and cows are sacred here. He insists that this is a tourist joint, they got to have beef. We are hours by any sort of reliable transportation from anything. I can’t really picture a Nepali, no matter how hard up, leading of a sacred cow to its earthly and his spiritual demise. Long story short, he was sorry. We never quite figured out what it was, but are fairly certain it never mooed, clucked, baaed, neighed, or bleated.

Time out for Culture : Ganesh

(OK, so I am a Ganesh freak as well!)

So, like I mentioned, I am completely enamored with Ganesh. He is the elephant headed god of knowledge, wisdom, literature and fire, who is the also the giver and taker away of obstacles; which is great because it is difficult to curse someone for your suffering when you have to turn around and ask the same guy for help. He also has be best story of any deity I have yet crossed paths with. Here goes: So there was this divine couple right, Parvati and Shiva. Parvati is your typical god-mother type matriarch, but her main squeeze Shiva has a bit of a temper, being the god of destruction and all. Well, Parvati likes to take baths alone. She had tried to impress the alone part on Shiva, but he just wouldn’t listen, barging in whenever the heck he felt like it. So she eventually gets sick of it and decides to take action. She scraps the sandalwood soap off her body from bathing and makes it into a beautiful boy, who she names Ganesh. She tells Ganesh, welcome to this world, now look, your job is to guard my baths. NO ONE comes in, get it? He gets it and off she goes.

Now Shiva happens by and wants to see his wife, but Ganesh stops him. Shiva roars that it is his wife and he will see her when he wants and no little sandalwood pipsqueak is going to stop him. Ganesh looks at him and says, look buddy, I don’t care if you are Ed McMahon(?) and the Prize Patrol, no one bugs Mom while she is in the bath, capeesh? Shiva, like I mentioned, being the god of destruction and a bit of a hot head, gets P.O.’d and cuts off the kid’s head. And, oh man, when Parvati gets wind of this, she is MAD. Flowers and a foot rub ain’t fixing this one. She starts yelling about how this is it, she’s had enough, she’s destroying the world… Shiva realizes his predicament and decides that in the interest of not sleeping on the divine couch until eternity, he better make this right. So he tells her, yeah, yeah, he’ll bring the kid back to life, and sends his army out to bring back the head of the first animal it finds facing north. Which is an elephant. They bring back the head, Shiva attaches it to Ganesh’s body, and breathes life back into him. There, are you satisfied now? Parvati gives him the “look-don’t-think-you-are-off-the-hook-yet-buddy” look. “Okay fine fine, In addition, I will make him the god that people pray to before all others in their endeavors. How’s that?” She relents, and Ganesh, with his elephant head takes his place among the mythology.

But it doesn’t end there. Ganesh is also a really cool guy for a god. One night he was out at party, indulging his famous appetite. He was on his way home, riding his faithful mount, the rat Mooshika, when they come upon a snake. Now rats are understandably a little skittish around snakes and Mooshika bolts, tossing Ganesh to the ground. Ganesh has eaten so much sweet cake that his stomach bursts open. He quickly grabs the snake to use as a belt and gets himself back together again. He is dusting himself off when he hears someone laughing his ass off at him. It’s Chandra, the moon god. Well, Ganesh is pissed, so he looks for something to throw at Chandra. Finding nothing suitable, he breaks off one of his tusks and hurls it at the moon, putting it out. Then continues on his way home. After a while though, humanity gets upset because they really liked the moon. They appeal to his compassion to bring it back. He relents, but only partly, saying the moon must wax and wane in the sky, achieving its previous glory only once a month. Now tell me, is he a deity after your own heart or what?

Friday, May 21, 2004

India and the Taj

Well, I am in India. It is bloomin’ friggin’ hot here. I don’t think the high has been below 110 since I got here on Tuesday night. My arrival from Thailand was uneventful, as was the public bus trip from the airport. I was a little worried about getting from the bus stop to a hotel. I had heard a number of urban myths of people getting carried off to certain murder, robbery, and white slavery, all beginning at the Dehli airport. A number of backpackers set up a makeshift camp in the arrivals terminal to wait to make the trip downtown in the daylight. But I was sitting next to a young Mexican guy who had been studying Sanskrit in Varanesi for the last 6 years, and looked uncomfortably like a sufi mystic, and he took me to a nice hotel. Then vanished. I guess they teach you that in sufi school.

The next day I hit the highlights of Delhi, the Red Fort, Friday Mosque, and a bunch of miscellaneous tombs that looked something like the Taj, etc. etc. etc. The best part of the day was the rickshaw ride from the hotel to the Red Fort through old Delhi. It looks just like it does in the movies: hot, dirty, busy, sprinkled with random cows. The Red Fort was nice, but falling down a bit. I think they are trying to spruce it up, though. The Jama Masrid (Friday <--huh?) Mosque was nice, not my favorite mosque, but the style here is different than other places I have been. Allah is a bit more imposing and less ornate here. The funniest thing about the mosque, though, was that you can’t wear shoes, so I was in India all of 12 hours before I was running around barefoot. Then I decided I wanted to climb one of the minarets to look out over the old city. I presented myself to the ticket guy at the base of the minaret. No dice. It is too dangerous for single women to go up alone. The passage is narrow and women have been groped or mugged rather routinely. Okay. No worries. I went back out across the burning tiles in my bare feet and searched around until I found two British girls. I convinced them that this was a great idea and then the three of us went over to the ticket guy. Still not good enough. No penis, no minaret. So then, with the two British girls in tow, and across the blazing tiles again, I found an English speaking male to act as our “guide,” for a reasonable fee of course. And up we went. The view was nice, but I am not sure worth the scorching my feet took trying to arrange the whole deal.

Then on to Gandhi Park, which is the aforementioned’s final resting place. It was nice in the way Kennedy’s grave is nice. Then past the India Gate, which was nice in the way the Arc de Triomphe is nice, and on to Rashtrapati Bhavar (the President’s house and parliament.) We (the British girls were still in tow) couldn’t get in because of the high drama going on with the Congress Party and Sonia Gandhi, but it was nice to look anyway. They looked like red sandstone versions of the Washington Mall, with roaming troupes of bare-assed monkeys cavorting around the place. One of the British girls remarked how strange that was. Not to us Americans. We have roaming troupes of bare-assed monkeys roaming around IN our President’s house and Congress.

The next stop was the Qutb Minar Complex, which is a series of mosques commemorating the Muslims’ victory over the Hindus in India (it struck me as a smidge pre-mature, don’t you think?). After tooling around there for a while and doing the requisite drooling over the carved columns, I parted ways with British One and British Two, and headed to Humayan’s Tomb. It was more impressive, largely because it had recently been restored, but by this time it was well over 110° and I had had enough. After mistakenly thinking I could handle the public bus system, and a delicious lunch (oh shahi paneer, how I love thee…), I eventually stumbled back to the hotel to recover. Later, I ventured out for some dinner then hit the sack.

The next day I caught the train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I took what they call a “sleeper” class train down there. It is the second to lowest train class (out of like 8) but it is considered the safest for women traveling alone. Plus the trip was only 2 hours, so how bad could it be? I have to admit, I was rattled when I walked on that train. There is just a crush of people squeezed into this open air car with bars on the windows. Children under 15 ride pretty much free, so there are swarms of them hanging out every opening. I got on with some trepidation to say the least. The ride turned out to be a long hot 3.5 hours, but I lived. I can see why it is considered the safest though. “Excuse me, pardon me, if you could just let me get by, I am trying to mug that white woman over there, sir, if you could just move your bags, pardon me, ma’am, can you relocate your brood, I am trying to mug that woman . . . .” It would take the guy half the ride to get anywhere near me.

I settled into my hotel, and headed to the Taj. I had been hoping to see it at sunrise, but it was closed the next day, so sunset would have to do. The place is incredibly beautiful. I walked around taking the usual obscene number of pictures for hours. If I try to describe it, I will come off sounding like one of the hippie kids here that think it’s cool to go native and paint dots on their forehead, which they have no idea what they mean, so I won’t. I won’t mention the beautiful white marble, carved and inlayed, nor will I describe at length the huge domed roof or stately minarets. And, I will not even touch upon the elegantly carved interior, with the two coffins laying side by side. Suffice to say, it is cooler even than Ankor.

Today I looked at the other lesser sights in Agra, the Agra Fort and Itimad-ud-Daulah (or the Baby Taj). Eh. Agra Fort was like the Delhi Fort. Nice but not the Taj. Then I headed back to Delhi. This involved a long protracted attempt to buy a train ticket, which I eventually gave up on, went to the station manager, gave him the big watery baby blues, and found out which official needed to be slipped a baksheesh and got on my way. I had another protracted train issue here in Delhi to get a spot on the train towards Katmandu (towards, I won’t get there for a few days . . .) but everything north is sold out since it is Friday and everyone is trying to get the hell out of this oven, but the Tourist Office found a place for me on a really, really expensive car (bed, air conditioning and dinner --it cost more than all my other Indian travel so far-- $30 if you can believe it!) but it was the only way out and it is really hot in Delhi.

Sorry this one isn’t very interesting. I will try to eat some bugs or do something death-defying (just kidding Mom) before the next one.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

*New and improved* Now with more live insect eating!

So I am bound for Dehli tonight, just in time to get in the middle of the new Prime Minister mess. The last few days in Thailand were spend roaming around the northern hills near Chiang Mai. After I last left you, I took a day offish. I slept in, took the bus to Chiang Mai, checked into my guesthouse, painted my toenails (what color?), took a nap, leisurely cruised a couple of wats, and when shopping. The only thing noteworthy that happened the whole day is my adventure coming from the bus station. There was no more room in the covered pickup (songthaew) into town, so I had to throw my bag onto the roof, squeeze my feet onto the running board with three others, and hold onto the luggage racks as we sped into town. It wasn’t as dangerous as it may sound (relax, Mom), but it certainly made me miss the relative safety of New York taxis. And I guess “Monk Chat” was pretty amusing. “Monk Chat” was set up at Wat Chiang Man to help monks work on their English and to let tourists have an “authentic experience.” (OK, that is freaking bizarre) You can sit at a table and talk to monks about anything you want, for as long as you want, for free. Unfortunately my monks were about 16 and couldn’t speak any English. It was painful for both of us, so I called it a day.

Then I went trekking. I signed up for a two day trek into the nearby hills. My group included 4 Americans, 2 Swedes, a Brit and a Dutchman. Our first stop was a local market. Eh. Toothless ladies selling mangos. Been there. Done that. Then it was elephant trekking time. It wasn’t really as much of a tourist-trap train wreck as it could have been, but I didn’t feel all that authentic (of course LI Girls rarely ride elephants so how authentic can it be? LOL). Luckily authenticity has nothing to do with fun, so I enjoyed myself. I was paired with Lillian (who just happens to live two blocks from my most recent haunt on the Upper West Side), and we got the little girl elephant with the teenage handler in a deathmetal tee-shirt. I named her Packy (as in pachyderm) and off we went through the jungle.

Not unlike puppies, young elephants like to be in front of the line (NO PACKY! You are two tons, you can’t squeeze us through there), and, somewhat unlike puppies, like stop to wander in the forest looking for bamboo shoots. All in all though, elephant trekking kicks camel trekking’s ass any day of the week. After the ride Lillian wanted to feed the elephant. I wasn’t really interested, but I went with her to buy the green bananas and take her picture. Well ol’ girl Packy got one whiff of those bananas and, I won’t say go so far as to say charged, but walked purposefully at Lillian, swinging her trunk in a way that some may interpret as aggressive. (The handlers were there laughing the whole time, so I don’t think we were in any real danger, but that was less apparent then.) Lillian tosses me the bananas and jumps back. Great. So here I am, holding a bag of green bananas, bobbing and weaving like a sub-par boxer as this elephant swings its trunk at me. Okay, when in doubt, give the two ton animal what it wants. I tear off a banana and give it to her. She tosses it in her mouth in one smooth motion and swings at me again with missing a beat. Eventually I fill her with enough of the bananas that she calms down and Lillian takes a turn. We take pictures and then head off to grab a plate of rice and start walking.

The walk up to the Karen ethnic village where we would spend the night was uneventful. We stopped at a waterfall for a much needed dip and continued up. On the way the guide asked us if we liked lemon candies. Well, anyone that has ever seen me in the relative vicinity of jelly beans or jolly ranchers knows that yellows are my absolute favorite. I piped up enthusiastically with this information. “Great” he says, “because red ants taste just like lemon drops.” Great? We stop at a particularly active ant hill and the guide sticks his finger in it and then sucks them into his mouth. He explains that you have to kill them quick with your teeth or they will bite your tongue. A couple of the guys had some, and there was no way I was being called chicken. What do you know! They DO taste like lemon drops!

The camp we spent the night in was a small village of 40 people near the top of the mountain. It was so peaceful. The shower was a piece of pipe sticking out of a hillside with the pressure of a fire house. And, we slept under mosquito nets in an open air thatched bamboo hut. There was no electricity, no running water, a latrine complete with palm sized wolf spider . . . it made me a little homesick for the Peace Corps. Children playing, stupid roosters with no clue when sunrise is, dogs laying in the shade . . . . The rain put a little bit of a damper on things, but it didn’t last too long.

Next morning up and at them bright and early. We hiked down the mountain through the forest. On the way down we stopped and made a new friend, a pointed natter (elaphe oxyehala) Which is what?. He was about 3 feet long and bright green. He crossed in front of us too quick to take a picture, but the guide grabbed him by the tail and brought him out for the waiting cameras. According to the website I found later that night, they may bite, but are relatively harmless. We continued down the trail, stopping at another waterfall, and for me to poke at a pill bug the size of an Egg McMuffin, and then lunch. We had street food, phad thai street food! Some countries have all the luck.

After lunch there was one more stop on our trip, bamboo rafting. It is supposedly relaxing, and for the most part it was. Lillian and I claimed the better looking of the two 20 year old Swedes to row us gondala style down the river. We had water fights with swimming children and braved very little rapids. It was cool too because the bamboo raft sat about 4-5 inches under the water because of our weight. It was all really very idyllic until Mr. Bocourts Watersnake (enhydris bocourti) decided to join us. That bugger was fast and only missed my left foot by 6 inches. (“Don’t be a hysterical woman!” “Don’t be a hysterical woman!”) The website said that it wasn’t poisonous, but highly aggressive and can inflict nasty bites. Luckily it didn’t stay long enough to do that. Just long enough to stop my heart and continue swimming to a rock.

After that it was back to town. Charlie the Alaskan Fisherman insisted we all go out for drinks that night. He bought bottle after bottle of Thai whiskey. (ooo. More on Thai Wiskey! Tastes like ether, no?) I went home early because I didn’t want to drink any more of the firewater. I don’t suggest it. Your stomach lining will thank you.

Unclear date ref. Yesterday I took a day long cooking class. It was a little expensive, but I made some kick-ass thai food, and learned how to make sticky rice, another life goal to check off. Let me know if anyone wants me to whip up some coconut cream of chicken soup or warm mushroom salad with bean sprouts when I get back.

That is pretty much it. I got the bus down to Bangkok, sitting next to a Dutch guy who was a dead ringer for Iceman from Top Gun and seemed to have a serious and frequent muscle twitch in his spine. Then did a couple takin’-care-of-business things, like getting more pages stapled in my passport and trading my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia for a Clive Cussler novel.

I am off to Delhi in a few hours. I hope all is well and I will e-mail you from India!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Fast track to the Golden Triangle

I made it back to Thailand. I am on the last mad dash down from the Golden Triangle to Bangkok in order to get my Tuesday flight. Cherish these! There aren’t many more Southeast Asian adventures left!

Vang Vieng: I decided to go trekking in Vang Vieng in central Laos. The mountains were high and rocky, set in verdant hills as the Mekong River flowed by. Beautiful country--so it seemed like a good idea. I joined a group led by a man named Keo. Let me tell you--Keo kicked my ass. His guy does this hike every day and has calf muscles like no one has ever seen calf muscles. So, the first three hours of the hike were up (emphasis on the up) and over a mountain into a valley. And this was “jungle trekking.” I was figuring a couple banana trees, maybe a vine or two. This was serious. It was the one and only time in my life that I have had a practical use for a machete. Thick growth, huge trees, tall and leafy enough to actually form a canopy in most places, humidity, and bugs.

Oh Jesus the bugs. Ants, of all shapes and colors, covered everything. There were mosquitoes big enough that they were required to file flight plans.

Lunch in the valley was nice. It was filled with butterflies, and marginally less ants. We swam in a creek and had lunch on an elevated thatched platform while children came out to see what the heck our deal was, and if maybe we would give them a gift or a pen or something. After lunch it was back through the fields and up and over another mountain, this one mostly down, but muddy. Let’s put it this way, it would not make a highlights reel of my most graceful moments. The fields were also filled with bushes at least six feet high, which is a problem when you are not. The only reason I am still not wandering around there is because of the sheer genetic quirk that one of the English guys in my group was tall and really blond. He made a good beacon if you jumped high enough.

After over-the-mountain we went tubing in a pitch-black cave, following a pull rope until it ended, and then following it back. There might have been something to see in there, but I don’t know because it was dark. It was also refreshingly cool and less refreshingly batty. Then it was through the fields to yet another ethnic village and yet another Buddha-in-a-cave. The only excitement on the way back to the pickup was when I found a snake in a drainage ditch. Ever curious about nature’s creatures, I asked the guy which one it was. By this time the snake had crawled out of sight (not keen on getting its picture taken, I guess), so I had to describe it to the guide, you know, bright yellow, with black markings… His face blanched a bit, then it was “hurry hurry, must go, very dangerous . . .” as he dragged us by our shirts away from the ditch.

I was exhausted by the time I got back to town and decided to relax by getting a beer and watching the sunset. The bar I chose, “Lucky Bar,” was on the river and required crossing badly lit rickety bamboo bridges and actually forging a small river to get there. I sat and watched the sunset over the mountains while the kids drummed, sang, and played in the water. The guys at the bar next door decided that it was too peaceful, so they decided to set off some fireworks to spice things up. (Editor’s Note: This is factually inaccurate. Actual fireworks as we know them are in short supply in Laos. Instead of the black powder-pretty color jobs we have at home, the guys just fired a shoulder mounted grenade launcher into the sky--US gave them plenty to fight the Commies. It landed across the river, where a suspicious “mist” started to rise soon afterwards. The author is covering up to keep with the peaceful theme.) After it started to get dark, I headed home to avoid any unpleasant mishaps with bamboo bridges.

Luang Prabang: Next morning it was an 8 hour bus ride through what appeared to be the set of The Lord of the Rings movies to Luang Prabang. The ride was through areas rumored to be terrorized by capitalist rebels, but the ride was uneventful. I attribute this mostly to the fact that every male over the age of 16 was carrying an automatic weapon. I checked into a guesthouse and hurried up the 329 steps to see the famed sunset from the top of Mt. Phoussi. The sunset was incredible, even though I shared it with various representatives of the League of Prosperous Nations. On the way down I decided not to follow the tourist herd. I found a sign written in Lao with an arrow. So I followed the arrow. And got lost. I found a monastery and a large statue of a reclining Buddha, but no way down. Eventually I came upon a group of monks and another monastery. It was dark by then. I asked which way to town and six different monks pointed in six different directions. The two youngest ones were appointed to take me to town. And off we went. (Where else in the world does a single unarmed woman readily follow two skinheaded teenagers down a dark path? It is all about those orange robes.) They were already late for prayers, so it was a pretty quick trip, but I arrived.

The next day I signed up for a tourist trip to the Park Ou, or the Buddha Caves. Eh. A bunch of Buddhas in a cave. No bats. But the leisurely two hour trip down on the Mekong was nice. That afternoon I went with a group of other travelers to swim in the Khouang Sy Waterfall. It was a seven tiered turquoise waterfall, the pool of which was perfect for swimming. I tried to hike to the top, which involved jumping more than one “No Admittance” sign, but the jungle got thick and there was no trail. The jungle view from tier five was nice though. The water in the pool was icy cold, but refreshing after the hike. A bunch of the guys were jumping off the rocks into the pool, but I declined, partly in fear of falling off the dangerously slick rocks, and partly in fear of what country my bikini would be found in after I hit the water.

On the way back to town we stopped to visit the endangered animals park. I petted a sun bear, which looks like a miniature grizzly but has the disposition of a lab puppy, but declined on the full grown female tiger. I was brave enough to get in the cage with her to take her picture, but she had a rep for course finger amputations for overly brave backpackers. We also stopped at H’mong village. It wasn’t a tourist village, so I was a little uncomfortable just walking around playing voyeur. (Can you imagine being in your kitchen after a long day, and have a pack of Vietnamese tourists staring in your window taking pictures as you were microwaving your Lean Cuisine?) Instead, I found a group of kids across the street playing a strange blend of soccer and volleyball. There was a net and rules were similar to volleyball, though you could double hit, but, like soccer, you could only use your head and feet.

Fast Boat: Any form of mass transportation that requires earplugs, a lifejacket and a motorcycle helmet as standard equipment is okay in my book.

There are three ways to get from Luang Prabang in Laos to the border to Thailand. 1) Fly. Too expensive. Next. 2) Slow boat, takes 3 days. No time, what else you got? 3) Fast boat. Insanely dangerous, but the right price and speed, so fast boat it is. These things have a bad rep because there is a serious accident about once a week and a handful of fatalities every year. But I’ve met some travelers who took it and they weren’t dead, and I was going to wear all my gear no matter what the rest of the people on the boat did, so I figured it would be okay.

Let me pause for a moment to describe this boat. It is the bastard love child of a really big wood canoe and a tractor. All the luggage is lashed to the front section, then there are three two foot by three foot wood boxes built into the canoe hull, with a thin cushion on the bottom. In each of these boxes, two full sized adults sit. You are already in the brace position because there is no other way to fit except curled up in a ball. On the back is a tractor engine with a prop mounted on a 5 foot slanted pole (to yank out of the water if it gets too shallow). The driver sits perched like a parakeet on this pole and steers. And the whole shebang is painted lemon yellow, red and teal. The racket from the engine is deafening, even with earplugs. And we do all this for 8 hours. So what, you may ask yourself, would be better than hurtling at Mach 1 down the Mekong River in a flimsy wood boat, smashed into a tiny ball with three Japanese hipsters and two arguing Spanish lesbians? Hurtling at Mach 1 down the Mekong River in a flimsy wood boat, smashed into a tiny ball with three Japanese hipsters and two arguing Spanish lesbians in the pouring rain! You’ve tilted the wind visor on the helmet as low as possible to protect your face and neck, but you’re arms are shit out of luck. It was like facing down a sandstorm of pissed off hornets. But strangely, when this happened somewhere in hour six, that made it all seem okay. You hit the point of absolute absurdity. What in hell are you doing? And you have to laugh. It is the same as if your commute was delayed for three hours because a green zebra with a cockney accent had decided to make crepes in the middle of the LIE (Long Island Expressway). You can’t stay mad. Eventually we arrived at the border, late of course. In my first 10 minutes in the Golden Triangle, I bribed a border guard to let me through. Then I didn’t have enough Lao money to pay for the ferry to Thailand, so I paid the boat guy in chewing gum. He respected my effort and, when it comes down to it, everyone likes Double Mint. I grabbed the last minibus out of town to Chang Rai and called it a day . . .

Chang Rai: ...or so I thought. The bus doesn’t actually go to Chang Rai. Dumps you off at a gas station about 4 km outside of town. After refusing a few drunk offers (to? LOL), I got a ride to the guesthouse. The guy was an absolute asshole, complete touchy feely balls-for-brains, and the bastard shortchanged me. The guesthouse was the dirtiest place I have ever seen, but I was so tired I just went to sleep. The next day I was up early to go motorbike trekking. Which means that I just ride around on the back and take pictures . . .

. . . or so I thought. The trip started out okay; we visited two caves with the standard bats and Buddhas. Then we headed off into the mountains. The motor bike turned out to be not strong enough to pull both of us up the steepest parts of the mountain. So, he rode and I followed, jogging, up 45 degree inclines in the brutal sun. This went on for about an hour. I was exhausted and completely soaked when the road finally flattened out again. The poor guy felt so bad. I was never going to accept his dinner offer now. (Which was a shame for him because I had “eyes like stars, hair like gold, and skin like silver.” I almost snorted a liche nut through my nose when he hit that last part.) The rest of the day went better though. Visiting ethnic villages, I got so many liche nuts as gifts because it was harvest season. Then I swam in a waterfall and later some hot springs, hiked through more countryside that looked like Lord of the Rings, climbed another mountain, sat down by the river. If they are still growing opium in these parts, I didn’t see any. Unless it was hidden under the bales and bales of liche nuts. It worked out well.

Tonight I walked through the night market (and got squid-on-a-stick for dinner--yeah for being back in Thailand!)

That’s all folks. Tomorrow it is off the Chang Mai for more trekking and then to Bangkok to fly out. As of now I will wake up Wednesday morning in Delhi, but I am trying to change the ticket to Katmandu. I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Among H’mong

Yeah, I know that I have been out of touch for a while, but first I was on a boat, then trekking near the Sino-Vietnamese border, then hotmail decided that working in Asia wasn’t a priority, so it didn’t. I will try to keep this to the highlights:

Hanoi, Part I: Hanoi was pretty quiet the first day I was there. The true highlight was getting to the guesthouse at 6 am and being able to watch a YANKEE game, LIVE, on the satellite TV. Pure bliss.

It was Reunification Day, so most things were closed. I did see the Ngoc Son Temple on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. Eh, another day, another temple. Getting completely lost in South Central Hanoi and sitting in the guesthouse watching MTV Asia (It seems the only videos they have the rights for are Usher…) took up most of the rest of the day, and then I hit the World Famous Water Puppets that night. I found it interesting in the way I found Chinese opera interesting, good to see for the cultural aspects, not super enjoyable. I guess if you are living somewhere without books, television, or radio (i.e. a 12th century rice paddy), then it would be pretty darn good. I think being able to speak Vietnamese and understand the monologues would have helped too.

Halong Bay: Halong Bay is on the east coast near China and stupid beautiful. Limestone cliffs rise out of the blue-green water, there are caves to explore, and, when the guides have enough Sapa Beer, they let you jump off the top of the three story boat and go swimming in the water. “JUMP BIG” to clear the bottom deck. The boat was an old school wooden one with cabins on the bottom, then the dining rooms, then the sun deck. And the food was delicious, shrimp and squid and delicate salads, and, for a girl that hasn’t eaten anything that wasn’t sold at a street stall in a month, a one-way ticket to gastro-intestinal hell. As a precautionary measure, I will only be eating at the dirtiest street stalls I can find in the future.

Sapa: Sapa is the center of the hill tribes of Northern Vietnam. And again, stupid beautiful: terraced rice paddies and H’mong people who still wear traditional dress all the time. As I was hiking, I keept looking in people’s windows to try and catch them in western clothes so I prove it was all done for the tourists. No such luck, but I did manage to scare the bejezus out of a number of (traditionally dressed) children and old ladies.

Also on my hike were two guys from NYC. I was a little worried when in the first five minutes the phrase, “back when I was on Dead tour . . .” came out of one of their mouths, but they turned out to be cool guys. Our guide was an earnest little guy named Tiens. (That is the French word for “here you go,” leading me to wonder if perhaps there wasn’t some slight miscommunication in the delivery room of the French clinic…) The first day we hiked down to Ca’t Ca’t waterfall, past boys walking the family water buffalo and girls headed to market with big baskets on their heads: idyllic scenes of life in rural Vietnam. At the bottom, we watched the little boys fishing for a while. Awww . . . . Nothing like innocence and bilharzias to warm the heart.

The second day it poured. This was a particularly inauspicious thing for me, as I had left the newly sink-scrubbed contents of my backpack outside to “dry.” I spent the first part of my morning trying to prop various soaking wet articles of clothing in front of various fans in an attempt to dry them.

The hike started out okay, we were walking down a paved road in a light drizzle, then the rain picked up, the pavement ended and off we went downhill 14 km through the rice paddies. I spent most of the mud skiing (which is roughly like snow-plowing in all-terrain sandals) while the guide tried to keep me from falling into the paddies or water buffalos etc. He was mostly successful. And to capture the true essence of backpacked Americans in the rice paddies, they were blast mines right in the next pass, so it sounded like we were continuously getting shelled.

We had lunch in an embroidery shop in village of Lao Cai (village being defined as one shop that sells water and a slightly higher concentration of trinket sellers), complete with a shell-shocked vet ranting outside the door (I guess that America hasn’t a cornered the market on those.) Then the guys smoked tobacco out of a traditional water pipe, which looked suspiciously like a giant bamboo bong. In order to get back up the mountain, we took a refitted Army jeep that fishtailed all over the place on the mud roads. We actually partially lost a back wheel of the cliff once, but luckily the jeep was front wheel drive so I didn’t plunge to a horrible fiery death.

The next day it was just me; so, after a disastrous morning visit to a people zoo (WTF is that? Explain?), the guide took me to another village, Ta Phio, on the back of his motor bike (which he apparently decided was safer than me tumbling through the paddies). The ethnic village was cool (couldn’t find any Western clothes there either) and my guide was a cute little 12 year old girl, who spoke flawless English and only came up to my elbow. We went around the town where she pointed out the Red H’mong, Black H’mong, and Black Zai houses, then she took me to see the “sacred cave.” Every town has got one, usually a stone? Buddha in there somewhere. This one was pretty unremarkable except for the lighting system. The place was lit by a swarm of small boys carrying bamboo sticks stuffed with kerosene soaked rags and lit on fire. These kids barely made my waist, so I spent most of the time trying to keep them from lighting my hair on fire as they ran around, jumped off rocks, through streams etc. I thoroughly suggest this method for your next formal occasion.

Hanoi, Part II: So after Sapa I grabbed the night train back to Hanoi to a bit of sightseeing before I headed out to Laos. First stop had to be Uncle Ho. He is embalmed and laid in state. I had to wait over an hour to get there, but it was worth it. Now I only have to see Lenin before earning the Embalmed-Communist-Patriarch-Hat-Trick merit badge. And I got to see the Chinese tourists in front of me on line talk to the Vietnamese school children next to them, in English. Common border, linked heritage, shared language of a people 5,000 miles away. Then I went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Really, the only way to describe this is “What the #^$@?” It takes Social Realism to a place that it was never meant to go. Half of the museum is things from Uncle Ho’s life: his glasses, bicycle, favorite manifesto pen, things that one would expect to see in a museum. The other half was “art” of the revolution. The one that sticks out in my mind the most was one, in front of a room-sized mound of melted red plastic, with a plaque that said, “the Cu Chi Caves, which Uncle Ho used as a base against the French, depicted here as the human brain . . . .” The place gave me a headache, though the bowl of soup containing 80% MSG I had for breakfast might have had something to do with that . . . .

After that I hit the Hanoi Hilton. Certainly an example of history as written by the winners. It was full of stories about what bastards the French were and how nice the Vietnamese were to the Americans. Hey, it could be true. And they dropped John McCain’s name more than John Kerry in a swing state stump speech.

Laos: So I really wanted to fly to Laos but the flights were booked up so off I went on the 25 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane. The bus I took was relatively empty, except for the hundreds, nay thousands, of deer-skulls-with-antlers that were tied to the top and overflowing the back. It made the bus easy to find though. “Which one is ours?” “Pet Cemetery, row three.” And they made the whole bus smell like Gim Chi, making me really suspicious of Korea all of a sudden . . . . The only real excitement of the interminable voyage was the crossing. The government was nice enough to build a bran’ spankin’ new bridge over the river, but the bastards slapped a toll on it. Damn the Man and his Bridge, this bus is taking the ferry! And the French were kind enough to leave us this ferry, rusty and disabled as it may be. I know, we’ll use wood planks to get the bus onto the ferry, it’ll work if we really gun the engine, then lash this tug boat to the side and sail across. It took a couple goes to get the bus up on the ferry, then off again, but we made it, without using the bridge, and were off again. Slowly. After only a few more stops, including ones to off-load rice at a thatched village (they apparently weren’t interested in the antlers) and re-attach the front bumper, we arrived in Vietiane.

Vietiane: Vietiane has more NGO workers per capita than anywhere else in the world. And prices to reflect this phenomenon. I was only there 18 hours, nine of which I was sleeping. I took local transport (taxi brousse, how I missed thee!) out to “Buddha Park,” which—had I not been to HCMC’s museum a couple day’s earlier—would have been the strangest thing I’ve seen in Asia. I guess some slightly unscrewed old monk collected a bunch of concrete Buddhas doing very strange things. I’ll send pictures when I get back. Apparently they are scenes from the life of Buddha and accompanying mythology, but, as a product of the American education system, I have a complete dearth of knowledge on the subject.

After that, I hit the cultural highlights of the city, including a cement Arc-de-Triomphe rip off, that even the official state-installed plaque calls it a “monster of concrete.” And you know where all that concrete came from? You! It was a gift from USAID to finish repaving the runways at the airport. I don’t know if the runways ever got finished. Then the local golden stupa, That Luang, then the bus to the country.

I am currently in Vang Viene, where I will be spending tomorrow spelunking and floating on the Mekong, and just generally taking a break from all this nonsense. Now if you all will excuse me, there is an ice cold Beer Lao with my name on it.