A Vacation from Traveling

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I think one travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more.” — Thomas Jefferson

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I’ve spent the last few days working my way from Tangalle on the south coast, to Unawatuna, to the fort city of Galle and to my last stop Negombo on the west coast. The only reason (and the best reason) anyone goes to Tangalle is for the beaches - and it did not disappoint. My hotel was at the end of dirt road and out my window was nothing but white sand and palm trees. I got up early in the morning, before it got too hot, to watch local fisherman bring in their catch, and then…well, that was pretty much the activity for the day. I sat under an umbrella, watching the waves crash, swimming, walking the beach and pretending to read.

My mantra is usually “what’s next,” but I have started to realize that sometimes, (just maybe), it’s as important to stop, to look, to listen and really be some place - not planning on how to get to the next one. These few days on the beach were my chance, before my trip came to end (and real life came rushing back), to really enjoy the ride, to relish what I had seen and to just be here, in one spot, with no plans for a few days. Call it intervention by vacation. I soaked up every minute of the sunshine, then packed up and headed north.

Galle Fort

I stopped for two days in Unawatuna - another amazing beach, and just a 20 minute bus ride from Galle. Galle is a fortified city, established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, taken over by the Dutch and eventually by the British. But long before the western incursion, it was the main port on the island and a trading point for spices and goods. It is a confluence of architectural styles, a World Heritage site and the largest standing fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. It is surrounded on all sides by huge walls facing the sea and the land. To this day, you can walk almost the entire perimeter of the city on top of these walls. After doing just that, it was time to head back to the beach for one last day in the sun.

Traveling for nearly three weeks is an amazing opportunity. It can also be challenging. But it is always memorable - haggling with tuktuk drivers to try to get somewhere, trying to decipher a train schedule in a foreign language, or standing for two hours on a moving bus. It is an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and a chance to learn about myself - what I love, what I hate, and what inspires me.

It is also a stark reminder that the world keeps turning while I’m away. That is not a bad thing. In fact it means that the mundane stuff that consumes so much emotional and mental energy, is just that. mundane. The world is a magical and wonderful place. Watching couples walk hand in hand through a garden, teenage boys swimming in the ocean, old men sharing a breakfast on the beach after hauling in the days catch, families working together, and swapping stories with fellow travelers. That’s the good stuff.

We have but one life. The days are long but the years are short. Make the most of it. Find joy.

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Along for the Ride

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I didn’t really have a plan to get from Ella to my next stop, Udawalawe National Park. It was a couple hour drive, but a hiring a car, or tuktuk for one person, didn’t make sense. I thought I would take the bus, then another bus and tuktuk (which could take a lot more than a couple hours). Walking through Ella on my last day, I spotted a sign for taxi service, and asked them if they went that direction, and if there were shared taxis available. There was one the next morning at 9am and there was a space available at the right price.  Once again, procrastination or lack of plan was the right plan.

The taxi was more like a minivan. The passengers included two French women, and an Australian couple on a “visa run” from India (they had a one-year visa but had to leave every 3 months for two weeks) and our driver, Samsa. I was the first to arrive, and Samsa, like nearly every person I have met in Sri Lanka, was open, funny and wanted talk. His parents were originally tea farmers, but he had finished high school, his wife was a school teacher and as he said, his daughter “will be more.” His brother owned the taxi company and he was helping out. He had taught himself English, some Russian (he played club soccer there), and some Arabic (he had worked in Dubai in the hotel industry). 

The ride was mostly uneventful - Samsa talking about his country, the Australian couple seeming interested and the French women, not so much. Once we dropped the women at their hotel near the park, Samsa said he knew a place for lunch and did the rest of us want to stop. We were all game. It was a thatched roof place, run by a local woman, who, according to Samsa, made amazing curry – he was right. We sat on plastic chairs on the lawn, swapping stories and drinking cold beers. The Australians were in the middle of a in a nearly 3000-mile motorcycle ride through India. Samsa was trying to learn more English slang and talked about starting a guest house in Ella. We talked about the politics of visas, the politics of our home countries, the places we wanted to go, and the places we had been. After lunch we loaded back in the van and eventually went our separate ways. I’m not sure the shared taxi was any faster than the bus, but I’m glad I was along for the ride.

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The next morning at sunrise I headed out for a safari in Udawalawe, and a trip to the Elephant Transit Home nearby. The park is a lowland scrub forest with a population of about 300 elephants, wild boar, deer, mongoose, land monitors, peacocks and many other species of other birds. Initially, my guide Janieth and I were in a crowd of jeeps, but he asked if it was ok if we got away from the crowd and tried some other spots. He wasn’t sure what we would see, but nature and wildlife was his “hobby” and he had some ideas. We bumped and banged along dirt roads finally coming to overgrown area, where he saw an elephant in the woods. We slowed and heard more banging, crunching, scraping and other elephant-sized noises. Suddenly, we could see at least six more elephants. We sat as the elephants lumbered around and past us. They grunted and called to one another, filling their mouths with leaves. We caught sight of a tiny baby elephant under the legs of her mother. We were in the middle of a small herd, with no one else around. We stayed quiet, watching and listening until the elephants moved on. A few hours later we left the park, having seen even more elephants, a few elusive crocodiles, peacocks and more.

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The park, like many in developing countries is under threat from poachers. The deer are hunted for meat, and “tuskers” - elephants with tusks (only 7% of elephants in Sri Lanka have tusks) are taken for ivory. There is a strong tourist market for wildlife safaris, but it is an ongoing struggle between man and wildlife. The Elephant Transit Home was established by the Conservation Department to foster orphaned elephants and attempt to return them to the wild. To date, they have reintroduced 90 elephants and are caring for 30 more. Each day, they bring the babies – some were so tiny (elephant tiny), to a small clearing and feed them by hand for visitors to see and raise awareness. There were tourists, but also local school groups. Hopefully, the next generation will see continued economic development from tourism and understand the impact that poaching can have.

In the meantime, the center requests donations of powdered milk and money to continue to care for the stream of orphans that arrive there each week. www.eth.dwc.gov.lk.

Elephant Transit Home

Elephant Transit Home

Over and Through the Mountains

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I thought of this trip in three stages - the cultural triangle of the north, the Hill County in the southcentral region and finally the south and east coasts. The Hill Country is many things – green, mountainous, bisected by waterfalls and rivers, cool climate, lush farms, tea plantations and by all accounts one of the best train journeys in the world. 

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I boarded the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, one of the highest points in the country. The town, known as Little England, with Victoria Park at its center, is surrounded by acres and acres of tea plantations. Tea growing, harvesting and processing is done almost exclusively by hand and is back breaking work. Pickers climb the steep hillsides picking the tender leaves and buds. The baskets they carry are strapped to their heads and they are paid per kilo of leaves collected. The bags of leaves are picked up from the fields and brought to the factory, During the initial drying or withering, leaves in the giant troughs are turned by hand, then fed manually to the rolling machines. Once rolled the leaves are sorted, fermented and dried again. Each step the tea leaves are handled by people. The process is old and so are the machines. Most wood-fired drying machines came from England or Ireland in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. The tea estates bag the leaves and sell the tea at the auction houses in Colombo to buyers like Lipton, who blend the leaves from many estates. Some tea factories retain a portion and sell estate grown teas under their own label…a little like winemakers and grape growers. 

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But it’s not just tea, the area is perfect for growing all kinds of vegetables – especially as my tuktuk driver said, “English vegetables” - carrots, peas, cabbage and leeks. The narrow mountain roads are lined with vegetable stands, precariously perched between the cliff and roadway.

From Nuwara Eliya I hoped the train again to Ella. The trip through the mountains was even more spectacular than I could have imagined. Everywhere you looked there was green, and the people, especially women in vibrant saris, lined the tracks at each station or walked along behind the train. It was almost sensory and color overload.

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Ella is the heart of the Hill Country. Over the last few years it has gained a reputation as a backpacker destination - surrounded by the mountains, more tea plantations, and a small downtown, filled with cheap eats and Western style cafes. It is a hiker’s paradise – start walking in any direction and the views are amazing. I walked nearly 20 miles in two days - climbing Little Adam’s Peak, walking along the railroad tracks to Nine Arch bridge, hiking to waterfalls, and cave temples. It is also was one of the few places in Sri Lanka to take a cooking class – which was my reward after a day of many, many, many steps up the mountains.

I’m not sure that there was an “aha” moment, or lesson learned by traveling to the Hill Country, but I know I will never forget the sights, the colors and sense of being in a place that practically begged to be seen and explored, and then enjoyed with a cup of tea or (or a beer).

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Questions and Answers

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Kandy Street View

Kandy Street View

After a nearly a week among the ruins and relative quiet of the towns of the of the “cultural triangle,” I boarded a bus and headed to Kandy. Kandy is the cultural center of Sri Lanka, a not so big city on a lake, with lots of traffic and the ubiquitous honking of tuktuks, busses, cars and motorbikes, signaling and warning each other along the narrow roads at all hours. It is home to the most sacred of Sri Lankan sites – the Temple of the Tooth. Three times a day a puja ceremony is held and the sacred relic – a tooth of the Buddha, is brought out (actually just a gold casket where the tooth is kept) and hundreds of worshippers bring offerings and visitors file past for glimpse. 

I spent my first afternoon in town aimlessly wandering, stumbling upon some colonial architecture and people watching (and maybe some shopping). The second day, with the help of my very gracious host at the guest house, I arranged for a tuktuk driver to take me on the temple loop - three 700-year old temples that lie outside the city, along with a stop at the giant buddha that overlooks the town and a walk through the 140-acre botanical gardens. I ended the day at the evening puja (along with everyone else in town). 

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Kandy Lake

As a solo traveler I get asked lots of questions by drivers, seatmates on the bus and people waiting in train stations. Some of the questions are pretty innocuous, where are you from, do you have a family, or don’t you have a driver’s license; but some seem a bit forward by western standards, like how old are you, how much money do you make at your job and why aren’t you married?

Travelling alone requires a certain amount of vigilance – tracking my belongings, not putting myself in certain situations. On the other hand, I have to be open to these questions, to being curious and being the curiosity. If I am willing to share, I can ask questions in return, about their family, their history, work and lives.  I learn that your religion in Sri Lanka is determined by the religion of your father, that owning a tuktuk costs $5000, so many drivers work for companies or rent their tuk tuks, that a good wage is 1500 rupees/day ($10), that most Sri Lankans spend Sundays with family, they think their country is beautiful and they are grateful for peace after 13 years of civil war; that tourism is good, but also hard. 

I also learn what they think of Americans, what they know and don’t know. (I had a long conversation with a man in the train station about animals – the fact that we did not have leopards and elephants was a surprise.) Generally, Americans are liked, but there are not as many American tourists compared to Europeans. Mostly they don’t think America is interested in them. I hope that’s not true. So, I will keep asking questions, and answering theirs.

Buses and Blessings

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I left the relative peace of my colonial hotel in Anuradhapura and hopped a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Gratefully, the driver dropped me right at my bus for Habarana and after some negotiations, the conductor promised to let me know when I had reached my destination. The thick plastic covering the lace upholstery on the seats (think a grandmother’s living room sofa), the tasseled curtains, and lack of other tourists, should have been a giveaway for what I was in for, but it wasn’t until we pulled away, that the full picture unfolded. Sinhalese music began blaring from speakers throughout the bus, and the driver, who apparently can decorate as he chooses, had installed running lights, religious icons and stuffed teddy bears across the inside front of the bus. I saw a guy pass some money to the conductor, then stand at the front of the bus and shout over the music an informercial for colored pencils. After his very formal speech, he walked down the aisle and sold his wares. About twenty minutes later, at a stop in the middle of nowhere, the conductor was passed more money, and a guy who just boarded (as the pencil guy stepped off) proceeded to shout out the benefits (apparently, since I don’t speak Sinhalese) of various creams and liquids. This parade of salesmen went on for nearly the entire two-hour trip. While I didn’t buy anything on the moving equivalent of the home shopping network, it was definitely worth the .50 cent admission!

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In Habarana, I checked into my guest house – a six room place run by a local family. The sister and mother do all of the cooking, serving breakfast and dinner each day. I headed out for a late afternoon safari in nearby Minneriya National Park. After the ruins of Anuradhapura, I needed to look at the living! Around the watering hole there were elephants and hundreds of birds of all colors and sizes. All in all, a good way to end a day of travel.

The next morning, I felt ready for the ruins of Polonnaruwa - tuk-tuk to town, another bus, a rented bike and I was off. Polonnaruwa was the second seat of the kingdom of Sri Lanka and the ruins were even more elaborate than ones I had seen from the first kingdom. Temples whose architecture looked like churches, remnants of frescos covering the surfaces, and intricately carved stones decorating the inside and out. The west definitely does not have a monopoly on great design and architecture. I left the main road and headed down a dirt road, to a small Hindu temple I had read about. The road was off the beaten path of the tour busses and quiet. I walked around the small stone structure and heard singing. It was a Hindu man (disciple?) whose job it was to tend the temple and make daily offerings. He saw me and invited me up the stairs to look inside, then he began chanting, dipped his hand in reddish chalk and marked my forehead, telling me I was blessed and wished me good luck. 

I thanked him and biked back up the deserted road. I did feel blessed and certainly lucky to be able to do what I’m doing and see what I’m seeing.

Stop and Take a Breath

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Today I got to hit the road, or more accurately the rails. I arrived at the train station in Colombo (with a pre-purchased ticket) about 20 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart and entered through the main gate onto a teaming series of platforms and the early morning rush of people going to, from, and through the capital. When I asked the gate keeper which track my train departed from, he waved his hand around in front of him - this wasn’t exactly the clarification I was looking for. I found a European tourist-looking couple sitting on a bench near the first platform. Hoping it would be this easy, I asked them where they were headed. Gratefully they were going in the same direction - north, and had the same train number. They seemed to think it would arrive on the first platform. We were joined on the bench by a young German backpacker, who was looking for the same train. We all sat staring at the platform, hoping and waiting. Finally, our train came in.

We boarded and the train headed out, making its way through the impoverished outskirts of Colombo, to the green of the country. At every stop (even in the middle of nowhere) men and women walked along the train offering snacks for sale. With the help of the six-year old Sri Lankan girl in the seat in front of me (who was practicing her English), we scored some little corn (or maybe chickpea?) cakes with chilis and onions for breakfast. I arrived in Andurhadapura five hours later well fed, and ready to explore the ancient city. 

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Against my own better judgment (given the heat), but at the encouragement of my hotel’s front desk, I borrowed a bike and headed out. The city was the first capital of Sri Lanka and the ruins of temples and kingdoms are scattered around the small commercial center. I decided to stay to stay close to my very colonial (albeit slightly aged) hotel, in case the whole bike thing didn’t work out.  By the end of the day, I had only gotten to three or four places on my map and there were dozens according to the guidebook worth seeing! I was going to have to pedal faster tomorrow.

The next morning, I got out the bike again and headed farther afield to the ruins of the Abhayagiri Monastary built in 100 BC. Monastary sounds like a building or two, but it is 500 acres of land, that once was home to over 5000 monks. There were kitchens and residences, entrance halls and relic halls.  Even a water system that moved water from three nearby lakes, to the “Elephant Pond” – named, not for the animal, but because of its size – for drinking, bathing and sanitation. The stupa at the monastery was second in size only to the pyramids of Giza. How did I not know this existed? 

Elephant Pond, Abhayagiri Monastary

Elephant Pond, Abhayagiri Monastary

I started to feel overwhelmed, thinking I’m never going to see everything, and then I realized I didn’t have to. I looked around and besides a few people cleaning up leaves, I was alone. I had the forest and the ruins to myself.  I biked and wandered among the buildings imagining what the city must have looked like in its heyday and spent time with my feet hanging over the edge of the Elephant Pond marveling at the achievement. As the day wore on, and I got to a few bigger monuments, there were more people, and tour busses, and tuktuks, but I had those few hours of time to stop, take breath, and be awed by history (even if I didn’t see all of it).

Bigger and Better?

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Living in a small town, I know (almost) everyone and they know me. I know how to get what I need, or who to call to find it, or fix it. I wouldn’t change this for anything, but after a period of time, something pulls at me - to get outside that comfort zone, and open myself up to the unfamiliar. I need to make my world bigger, if just to see to see my home with new eyes.

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So once again, I have set out to see what I can see. After 36 hours on the road, in the air and on the road again, I arrived in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It’s booming – cranes everywhere in the skyline, and advertising for development opportunities, financing, and technology abound. I think at first, I was put off by the lack apparent “differentness,” There even is a Minististy of Megapolis and Western Development,. (I can’t help but ask, is this really something to aspire toI?!) It’s not fair for a place not to grow or evolve. I certainly don’t want someone else’s world to be smaller so mine can feel bigger. The fact is our world is already getting smaller. (While I’m writing this, at a little curry restaurant, a guy is getting off a motorcycle with an UberEATS backpack to pick up an order).

So rather than asking a place to make my world bigger, whatever that means, I’m going to say “show me what you got,” because I want to see what makes a place or people special, to learn from the experience - to see what’s here, instead of what’s not.

In this case, I saw some beautiful restored colonial architecture in the Old Dutch Hospital, wide open green spaces in the midst of the city (picture a Sri Lankan central park), Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian religious sites (sometimes all on the same block), 30,000-years of Sri Lankan history at the National Museum, and lots of juxtapositions of religion and history across a city that took a day or two to open itself up to me…or maybe it was the other way around.

Family Ties

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After the madness of Phnom Penh, I headed south via bus and tuktuk to the small ocean town of Kep. It seemed laid back enough that I decided to brave renting a motor bike. I rode down from my mountainside bungalow to the waiting white sand beach. What I forgot was, it was the weekend. Hundreds of Khmer families come to the beach on the weekends. All along the coast, not directly on the beach, but set back from the beach are platforms with hammocks hanging from the side walls. Families rent these covered platforms for the day, sitting in the shade by the ocean, eating fresh crab, drinking and relaxing. I felt like I’d walked in on someone else’s summer vacation.

Sometimes, when you’re traveling, you work hard to see how people do the work of their daily lives, and forget see how they enjoy their lives and each other.

From Kep, I travelled north and west to the ultimate Cambodian tourist destination, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. After a day of temples and lots of people, I wanted to get back into the countryside, so with the help of a local guide, I headed out of town. We visited a small village east of Siem Reap and home to two families who produce all of the fresh rice noodles for the entire province. Given the number of noodles consumed daily, you would assume this was a factory operation, but that is definitely not the case.

Under a tin roof hut with wood smoke filling the air, a family of six were working in a quiet rhythm. A young son pounded the rice mill. Another sat on a wooden press over a large kettle on an open fire, squeezing the rice flour and water mixture into noodles. A young woman used a reed basket to scoop and drain the noodles. An elderly gentleman cut banana leaves to line flat baskets, and two woman, a mother and daughter, scooped handfuls of the fresh noodles, twirling them into bundles and artfully laying them in the baskets. This well oiled family machine produces about 1000 pounds of noodles every day, completely by hand.

Today, I took a cooking class. Ben, as he calls himself, runs the school and picked me up a motorbike. After a visit to a local market outside of town, we headed to meet the woman who would help me learn to cook traditional Cambodian food, in a traditional way - over a wood-fired clay brazier, using a mortar and pestle, and cleaver as my only tools. We pulled up to the hut, and Ben and I worked on three dishes, under the watchful (and smiling eyes) of the “chef.” As we were talking, I asked Ben about his family. He said he was not married, but had 65 children. I said “65?” He said yes, all of the children who benefit from the proceeds of the cooking school and tours he runs, are his children, his family. He provides a home and kitchen for orphaned children and children from families in need, including those with HIV. As of today, that was 65 children and counting.

Whether east or west, developed or developing country, I think family (whoever you decide to include in that definition) is what gets us up each day, helps to get the work done and are the people you turn to after it is done.

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Lessons from the Past

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Phnom Penh is an exploding, vibrant, chaotic, city. Like its predecessors on the way to development, Hanoi and Bangkok, it is a crush of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, new high rises agaInst crumbling ruins, high end-foodie restaurants and local food carts. It is one of those cities that requires you to steel your nerves before you walk out into the crush of humanity and traffic. I almost always prefer to walk, rather than take a tuk tuk (although given the heat -102 degrees, I did think twice).

I headed towards the Mekong Riverfront in the center of town to visit the National Palace, residence of the ruling King; the Silver Pagoda (the entire floor is made of silver tiles with several famous Buddha statues inside); the National Museum, a beautiful archive of Khmer and Angor history, and restored temples. The ubiquitous question “Tuk tuk, Madam?” followed me everywhere, but I resisted. 

I stopped at the Wat Ounalom, the center of Cambodian Buddhism, a complex of over 40 buildings. Behind them main temple is a small shrine, with an ancient inscription over the door, and a toothless old Cambodian man guarding the entrance. I climbed the stairs and he unlocked the shrine and led me inside. He grunted and urged me to kneel. I placed a few Riel in the offering dish and he proceeded to grab my hands, turn them palms up, splash them with water and then told me to rub my face. He recited some words in Cambodian, blessing or curse I couldn’t be sure. When he finished he squeezed my hands and gave me giant toothless grin. I’ll take that as a sign it was a blessing.

It was hard to remember, as I moved through this city of half a million people, that only 40 years ago, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the population was only 50,000. Most historic and religious sites had been looted and destroyed and all of the intellectuals, civil servants and religious leaders moved to the villages or killed. 

While I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, on the morning of my last day in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit Tuoi Sieng, the genocide museum. The museum is at the site of Security Prison 21, formerly a high school, where thousands of Camodians were tortured and killed, upwards of 100 a day during the final years of the Khmer Rouge. When the prison was liberated, only seven prisoners remained. They had saved themselves because they were painters or photographers and were used to document the prison by the Khmer Rouge. The museum includes room after room of gripping black and white photographs of men, women and children, almost all killed. The space is bleak and the contrast of the old school yard and the instruments of torture sill hanging from the walls is so incongruous as to seem unreal. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty we humans are capable of, and a place I will never forget.

As I walked out of the museum, back into the throws of the city, I was reminded that despite all that this country has seen and suffered, they are once again growing and thriving. Maybe this is the greatest answer to those atrocities - resilience.

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Time Well Spent

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I travelled by minivan and then by boat to reach the villages of Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi and others in northern Laos. The river winds between mountains, long boats are scattered along the riverfront, and small foot paths lead uphill from the shore to the mostly unseen villages. Each has a dusty road down the center, chickens and dogs wander freely, and small kitchen gardens attached to bamboo houses. The rice fields lay outside of the village, along the mountain slopes and valleys.

The difference between a big village and small village is the number of families that reside there - 30 versus 150. Everyone is connected to someone. Children may attend school in their own village, if it is big enough, or spend the weekdays away from home and return on the weekends to help the family. Most are farmers or fisherman. Wealth is determined by the number of cows you own, or acres you farm. Families provide all of their own food and a successful farming family earns $750 per year from their surplus crops or the selling of handicrafts.

In northern Laos, there is a never ending stream of work to be done, collecting firewood, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner over an open fire, washing clothes by hand, weaving, feeding the animals, planting and tending the fields…the list goes on. But nothing seems to be done in a hurry. There is a pace and rhythm - rainy season, growing season, harvest time, making bamboo baskets time; spinning time, and time with family and neighbors.

I had only been in Laos a few days and my western brain was still running at top speed - accustomed to asking “what next?” and the never ending stream of multi-tasking and busyness that surrounds all of us. As I hiked up the rocks to summit the 100 waterfalls (another thing on my list), my guide said, “you can stop, rest, take a picture, you’re on holiday.” Point taken. I slowed my pace, looked around a little more and fell into the rhythm of the climb. I eventually got to the top and the view was that much more special.

The next day, we trekked to the Ban Naa village, a relatively prosperous village by Lao standards. One villager, Mama Khan and her husband, had begun running a guest house for backpackers - a simple bamboo bungalow without indoor plumbing. They also had a small restaurant (three tables under a bamboo roof). After my guide and I ordered our lunch, I watched an aging Mr. Khan scale a neighboring tree to gather some tamarind for the salad, then walk to the garden to harvest some vegetables for the noodles; and Mama Khan gather the pots and stoke the fire, and so it went. We sat overlooking the rice patties for about an hour while the elderly couple worked on lunch. It definitely would not qualify as fast food, but I remembered there was no where I needed to be, except where I was right at that moment.

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The Right of Rituals

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I moved north from Vientiane to beautiful Luang Prabang. In recent years, the city has become known as the gateway to the eco-tourism explosion in northern Laos….trekking, biking, kayaking, etc. It is at the intersection of the Namtha and Mekong rivers and for centuries was the seat of the monarchy - before the rise of communism, and the religious capital of Laos.

Despite, their adoption of a communist government in 1975, Buddhism is an integral part of their society. This small town has no less than 15 temples and monasteries, is home to the famous Luang Prabang golden Buddha, and hundreds of monks young and old. Many Laotians still send their sons to a monastery for few few years to be educated.

Each morning the drums sound from the temples, and the barefoot monks, clad in bright orange robes, leave their homes to walk single file through the streets to receive alms of rice from the locals. Men and women kneel or sit on low stools on the edge of the road with large steaming baskets of sticky rice, placing a small handful in each monks basket as he passes by. There are no words exchanged, in fact, there is no eye contact. In this simple act of daily charity, there is unspoken respect for the life they have chosen and of course, tradition. The procession lasts for about 20 minutes on each street, and then people get back to their day, but this happens every day, every year and has for centuries. 

I’m not sure why I find this comforting. Personally I’m not interested in organized religion, but in a world where religion so often comes in the form of extremism, evangelism, and unfortunately hate, it was reassuring to see this rite of daily compassion.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and temples. I walked along the Mekong River, visited the national palace, and climbed a mountain (really a big hill, but that’s what they call it) to view a golden stupa and get some amazing views of the city. As I came home from dinner, I passed a monastery, just finishing their evening payers, lit up, covered in pink bougainvillea, and the orange robed monks closing the doors for the night. I have to say I did feel some of the peace they are always talking about and quietly thanked them for caring for this special place, and the work they do.

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The Sound of Silence

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When you’re traveling alone, you don’t have the voice of a friend to come between you and the unfamiliar. So those first days on the road, on the other side of the world, can seem almost overwhelming - an assault on the senses - unknown noises, smells and sounds.

As I woke (all too early…jet lag) in Vientiane, I noticed the distinct lack of honking that is so pervasive in other southeast Asian capitals. In fact, all I heard was what sounded like an army of angry squirrels, but turned out to be some sort of small, very noisy bird. As the sun rose over the Mekong River, roosters started crowing…another unfamiliar urban sound and the revving of motorbike engines.

Vientiane is small by comparison to places like Bangkok and Hanoi. It feels sleepier, more like a big small town. This location on the Mekong has been the seat of kingdoms, but it has also been destroyed, over and over and over again, by the Siamese, Chinese, French, and Americans. The city is not old, but throughout there are remanants of its past…a stupa from the Khmer period (once covered in gold, but looted at some point), disintegrating French colonial architecture, Soviet style concrete block buildings, and a few standing temples (wats).

After a short walk through morning traffic (still no honking) I passed through the gates of a small temple complex. As soon as I entered, the street noise faded and the only people I saw were a few young monks in training, studying at a plastic table behind the main hall. Coming from a country where we no longer enter public buildings with out searches, scans and guards, I’m always amazed that these places are so open…that there exists a trust that we will treat these spaces as we should.

After a few more temple visits, I made my way to the central downtown, passing through the “backpacker” district, read cheap guest houses, man buns, batik pants and mostly European languages. I stopped for an iced coffee at what could have passed for a French cafe, eavesdropping and trying to remember my high school French.

I made my way to Vientiane’s oldest religious site, Wat Si Saket, the temple of 2000 Buddhas. Once again I was struck by how quiet it was inside…a couple dressed in traditional Laotian wedding garb for a photo shoot and few older travelers to break the silence. The exterior buildings were filled with bronze, wood, and concrete Buddhas, some damaged, but most staring implacably at the intruder.

I was beginning to wonder just where the noise and commotion of a city of 250,000 was happening, until I got to the market area. The scene was orchestrated chaos - wooden carts, motorcycles, foot traffic, and cars parked on the sidewalk. But unlike other cities, I was never harassed with the infamous “buy something Madam” instead I wandered the stalls, watched an old woman serve lunch from a shopping cart to the vendors and as I left, a few unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers asked me if a I wanted a ride. They seemed relieved when I said no.

During the hottest part of the day, I wandered the National Museum, in a crumbling French colonial building. It was clear that in a country that has suffered many losses and struggles with wide spread poverty, preserving the national heritage was not high on the priority list (or maybe too much has been lost). Myself and four other visitors wandered room after room of faded photographs and antique weapons laying in the open and held down with wire.

At night, the street vendors came out, Laotian families sat at plastic tables, eating and drinking. The sounds of frying food and beers being opened filled the narrow streets. As I lay in my bed, I finally heard my first car horn. While traveling is so often about seeing things, the sounds we hear or don’t hear often tell us as much about the place we are in.

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A Work in Progress

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ― Jawaharlal Nehru

It had to happen eventually…today is my last day in Vietnam. Since leaving the Mekong Delta region, I’ve spent two days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. It was like going from Kansas to Manhattan. There’s unending traffic, old colonial architecture, street markets, high-end restaurants; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic places of worship and lots of reminders of US history here.

On the antique street, there are old American GI aviator sunglasses and zippo lighters for sale. There is the Reunification Palace (as its now called) where Kissinger met with the South Vietnamese leadership and the eventual site of their surrender (or liberation according to the current regimes version of history). Yet the the city itself feels like it’s moving forward - refurbishing historic buildings and building new ones like the Bitexco Financial on top of an old colonial building. Maybe this is what Vietnam is…a work in progress.

Before I left, I read lots of things about travel in Vietnam. It didn’t always get great reviews. There are lots of people trying to sell lots of things - even when wearing flip flops you’re fair game for aggressive shoe shine boys. It’s a hard country to navigate. The public transportation system is not well developed and there are lots of scams targeted at tourists. The people can be difficult or unfriendly. Despite all this, the real question is, “Is it worth it?”

It probably would have been easier to sign up for a tour and been driven around the country in an air-conditioned bus or car to avoid some of these pitfalls, but I’m pretty sure I saw some things and met some people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard - it was. I’m fairly certain I paid more sometimes than I should have, but I’m not going to argue about 50 cents or a dollar or two. I did feel pressure to buy things, but the things I did buy, I’m happy I did. I got where I wanted to go on trains, boats, buses and the back of motorbikes. Along the way I shared meals, trusted in the kindness of strangers (and was not disappointed), learned that there is nothing you can’t load on a motorbike - from a family of four, to a refrigerator, to eight kegs of beer, to 500lbs of rice, to a half a slaughtered pig; saw amazing landscapes and a way of life vastly different from my own.

Generally speaking, the people were hard, but in most cases their lives have been and continue to be hard, in a way most of us will never understand. On the other hand, rarely was a smile not met with a smile. Even when they were obviously trying to con me or sell something, a smile and a shared knowing laugh, seemed to be enough to stop the game. And if we were lucky enough to be able to communicate in broken English, they were willing to talk and share their lives for a brief moment. They are still trying to figure out how to open their country and themselves to all types of travelers and tourists, and while there is still work to be done, I would have to say, yes, its worth the effort.

A Web of Water

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

From An Bihn Island I moved even farther south to the largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho. Can Tho is not a beautiful city (read lots of concrete block buildings) there are few sites to see, but it is a growing city, home to the largest university south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and a redeveloped riverfront. It is a stopping point between HCMC and the unreachable areas of the delta. I came here to get a glimpse at those unreachable place.

While we use cars, trucks and highways to move goods, in the Mekong, everything moves by water - from logs, to food and even household goods. The major rivers are navigable, but the small channels are accessible only by canoe-like boats called Xuong. Without roads, this is the only means of transportation in and out. Even the ever-present motorbike isn’t feasible.

Today I hired a Xuong (almost always driven by women) and an English speaking guide to visit several floating markets - the center for trade on the delta - and to go deeper into the delta’s channels. My guide was amazing. Her English was mostly self taught, but she was curious about the US and about improving her English. She was also very generous in sharing information about her life, her family and living on the river. She had spent her early childhood on a boat, although her family were now farmers.

Most of the floating markets set up before sunrise and trade is over by 10am, so we had to be on the river by 5:30am to reach the first market. Some markets are wholesale markets, like Cai Rang, where larger boats bring produce from many farmers and sell to individuals who then take these goods to the markets on land. Each area of the market is devoted to a single product…yams, pineapples, watermelon and each boat is identified with a large pole on the bow indicating the items they have for sale. The small boats weave in and out of the larger boats, bargaining, trading, and stocking up. There is a small grocery store boat, a boat selling coffee and even a boat selling noodle soup to the wholesalers. The larger boats, and the boats’ owners, remain on the river for several days until the goods are sold.

After Cai Rang, we visited a smaller market for farmers selling directly to other farmers…trading papaya for ginger, or purchasing sweet potatoes. Then set off down a narrow channel into the delta. It became clear that many of these people never travel from home. They are fully self-sustaining. The river and the land provide everything, from peppercorns, and herbs, to rice, fish and vegetables. What was more amazing, as my guide and I spoke, she could look at a plant and tell me what they used it for. There was almost nothing that couldn’t be eaten, used medicinally, or didn’t bear some sort of fruit (over 100 varieties of bananas). All of this knowledge handed from one family member to the next.

As we motored back to Can Tho around noon, I though about trying to fight a war in this place, about how unprepared and unknowing we must have been. It has taken generations to know what they they know. I also felt humbled. There is whole way of life - a hard life - that exists completely and utterly different than my own. Hundreds of thousands of people, working, trading, living, getting married, feeding their families all on this network of waterways.

Delta Time

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I left Hoi An and traveled south through Saigon to the Mekong Delta. (plane, taxi, bus, a smaller bus, ferry and motorbike was all it took). I arrived on An Bihn island, a short ride away from the town of Vinh Long, a small provincial capital. I had booked two nights at a home stay with a Vietnamese family. Mr. Phu’s home stay is a little larger than some. You do not share the family home, but stay next to the home, in a thatched building with several rooms and shared baths.

To say it was culture shock, would probably be an understatement. Compared to the international, tourist-friendly town of Hoi An, An Bihn is nothing but jungle, slow moving canals of water, stilt houses, no signs in English or French and the heat is stifling, a rare breeze moving the jungle around me. Since I arrived late in the day, I opted to spend the evening with a book and dinner made by Mr. Phu’s wife.

In the morning, I borrowed a bike and set out to explore the island. The roads are mostly dirt trails, cement paths wide enough for a bike or motor bike, maybe two if you’re a good driver, and one single lane asphalt road. There was no available map, so Mr. Phu drew a circular route for me that was to take about two and half hours. At his suggestion, I started out early to be done before the heat of the day.

During my ride, I did not see one other tourist. Occasionally a Vietnamese kid would yell hello, but as I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bottle of water, I felt a little like a curiosity. I’m not sure they see many Americans on a bike riding around the island. Because of the heat, nothing seems to move very fast and work seems to happen early in the day and late afternoon. As a I neared my home stay, I saw lots of people laying in hammocks (a really good idea at this point), or asleep on their motorcycles in the shade. I did round a corner on the cement path and see a lean two with a pool table and several guys shooting pool. I had to wonder how they even got the pool table there…boat, motorbike?

I got back to Mr. Phu’s grabbed my book and headed for a hammock. I think this is the first time on this trip that I have not been doing something in the middle of day. I wasn’t quite sure I could really relax, except that moving induced sweating, so staying still seemed like the best option. I laid about for few hours, Mr. Phu and his wife even joined me by laying in the hammocks in front of the house for a while. I finally decided I could move again, and with another map from Mr. Phu I headed across a bridge to the adjacent island and then took my bike by ferry to the market on the mainland, another short ride and a ferry back to An Binh.

Life seems to move differently here, and while it is not necessarily beautiful (maybe interesting and different), there is a beauty in the rhythm of the place.

Speaking my Language

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“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected" ― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries

After Hue, I headed over the mountain pass, towards to sea and to the small city of Hoi An. I am in love. Hoi An is a magical place. It is the reigning culinary capital of Vietnam, an old Chinese merchant town - a mecca for fabric and food.

Hoi An lies along the Hoia river and during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major merchant town for the Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian traders - somehow remaining untouched during any of the wars. The old town is a 15 block area that architecturally is both European and Asian…tree lined streets, row houses, Chinese assembly halls (temples dedicated to various clans), a Japanese wooden bridge, and so much more. The entire area is a heritage site, so there is no unwanted development, and even better, there are no motorized vehicles allowed in the city center, only bikes and foot traffic.

I knew I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An. The location of the city makes it a melting pot of both northern and southern cooking styles. I found a cooking school run by a Vietnamese woman chef named Mrs. Vy. She is a force of nature - an advocate for preservation of Vietnamese street food, the use of local, fresh ingredients and the owner of four restaurants. I was incredibly lucky to be in a small group (again, no Americans), but a Canadian chef, and two people from the UK.

Our day started with a trip by boat to the local market. All of the local restaurants and hotels shop at this outdoor market twice a day to guarantee the freshest ingredients. I learned how to tell if a papaya is ripe, watched a woman tie crabs with banana leaves, tasted herbs (one leaf that tasted exactly like an anchovy), and the difference between the several varieties of garlic available. After the boat trip, we headed back to the kitchen and got to try our hand at making several Vietnamese staples, rice paper wrappers, noodles (much harder than it looks) and tasted some local delicacies (including frog with lemongrass and chili, which I tried, and fried silk worms, which I did not).

After that we set to work making some traditional vietnamese street food, crispy rice pancakes, mango salad, barbecue, cabbage soup…while this sounded simple, each dish was a complex mix of flavors and textures - sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft. Not to mention everything had to be presented in a manner pleasing to the eye. I’m not sure I will ever remember how to make it all, or be able to get the ingredients, but I will remember the tastes.

Hoi An comes alive in the evenings, after the sun has set and the weather has cooled. The chinese lanterns that line the street are lit, the shop owners put out their goods and the street side tables fill with diners. I walked the old town for a few hours, spent a few dollars and am sad knowing that tomorrow I will leave this place, but so glad to have found a city that speaks my language.