travel

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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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.

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.

Traveling on Two Wheels

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On this trip I’ve travelled by planes, buses, trains, boats, bicycle and foot. The only mode of transportation I hadn’t tried was a motorcycle. In a country of 90 million people and 40 million motorbikes, it seemed like something I should do. But given the traffic situation and the lack of good road maps, I though I’d make a better passenger than driver, so I hired a local English-speaking Vietnamese guide to drive me to some of the sites outside the city of Hue on his “very good” motorbike. Turns out his English was not so good and his motorbike only so-so, but his driving skills were very good.

At 9am, I climbed on the back of Lu’s (my driver’s) motorcycle and headed out of the city. We left the town behind and began climbing the hills. I looked around and realized, “Holy (blank), I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam with a complete stranger and I have no idea where I’m going.” I had a brief moment of panic and then decided, Lu had done this before, he was recommended by my hotel and sometimes that has to be enough. I took a deep breath and a long look around at the scenery flying by. It was pretty amazing. I’m not sure there was a better way to see it.

I wanted to visit some of the imperial tombs that were located along the river around the city. These were no ordinary burial sites. The emperors began building their tombs almost as soon as they ascended to the throne. In some cases, they would take regular visits to these sites to check on progress. In other cases, they became second cities, and they would govern from the site of their tomb, building residences, and theaters and later the ritual burial site. Some even built residences for their eunuchs and concubines to live in after their death to watch over them and their tomb.

The burial sites are guarded by stone statues representing the emperor’s military and civilian leaders. Several temple buildings lead up to the burial site, and finally, usually at the top of a mountain, a huge circular enclosure with a stone building to house the remains. One emperor had an underground channel built to ferry his remains to the mountain. After his death the channel was destroyed and has remained sealed ever since.

What struck me was that most of these sites were relatively new. The last one was finished in 1924…less than one hundred years ago. I was trying to imagine something as elaborate as these places being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of honoring and paying on-going tribute to a leader. Maybe the closest we come is a presidential library, but they pale in comparison to these complexes.

Lu and I drove from one tomb to the next, only got stuck in the mud once and had no near misses with on coming cars (even when he was driving on the what I would guess was the wrong side of the road). After five hours and despite my earlier trepidation, he dropped me at my hotel. I guess today (against the advice of my mother) trusting a complete a stranger was the right thing to do.

Seeing What's in Front of Me

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” ― John Ruskin

I’ve been traveling now for almost two weeks. I can tell. Packing and unpacking, figuring out what to see, how to get there…I’m not complaining, but as I got to the city of Hue, I decided instead of knowing what I wanted to see, I would let the city decide what I should see. Hue is the former political and cultural capital of Vietnam, located in the center of the country and set along the banks of the Perfume River. The Nguyen emperors united north and south by building the capital here. Before the war I can imagine how beautiful, almost European it might have been.

I headed in the direction of the old citadel across the river from my hotel (leaving my map in my bag). I stopped at a small pagoda complex that was completely deserted except for some monks studying and tending orchids. It was quiet, cool and the infamous horn honking of southeast Asia faded into the background. As I came out of the pagoda, I saw the ancient walls of the citadel. The citadel is surrounded by brick walls on four sides, each almost a mile long and inside the citadel in another walled fortress - the old imperial city - also surrounded by a moat. I wandered through the citadels narrow streets, finally stumbling upon the entrance to the imperial palace late in the afternoon. The sun was lower, the tour busses and crowds were gone. I paid my entry fee and wandered inside. The palace area used to include almost 150 buildings, about 20 remain (the palace was heavily bombed during the war). The street noise once again faded, and a I walked the grounds…the ceremonial palace, the house for the emperors’s mother, the royal theater, the spot where the forbidden city once stood, I saw only a handful of people.

As I was leaving the citadel, I met a Vietnamese man who showed me where the citadel’s walls had been bombed. He explained that his father had fought with the Americans (the first question everyone asks, “Where you from?”). He said that his father was shot by Vietnamese and lost both his legs for his treason. In this small country, everyone was affected by the war.

I made it back to my hotel and in the spirit of not having an agenda, I showered, changed and headed out to find a spot for dinner. I stopped at a cafe that was run by two Italians. I ordered a beer and a pizza marguerite. It was delicious! My American palette (and my Wisconsin dairy-addiction) was craving something other than rice, noodles or spring rolls. An Australian guy sitting next to me had the same idea, as he sheepishly order a pepperoni pizza, saying he needed some “real” food. We talked about where he had been, what I should see in Saigon and his travels around the world.

I’m not sure that I did everything I was “supposed” to do in the citadel of Hue, but I saw what was in front of me and I feel ready for the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow…a motorcycle tour outside the city.

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Through the Mist

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

I spent the last couple of days in the northwest mountains of Vietnam around Sapa. The French once called this area the Tonkinese Alps - it’s home to the highest peak in southeast Asia Fansipan. Sapa town is a strange mix of hippie backpackers (mostly European), outdoor trekking types (lots of pants with zippers) and the native Black H'mong, Flower H'mong and Red Dau people (hill tribes).

While it was supposed to be one of the drier times of the year to visit, mother nature had other ideas. It was pouring when I arrived and a grey fog settled around the mountains. I decided to take my chances and booked a guide for the following day for a 12km trek to three neighboring hill tribe villages. On the morning of the trek (which honestly I hoped meant walking), it was misty and cool, but the rain had ended. I met my guide Ahn and we headed through town, out the main road, past the checkpoint for entry into the hill tribe area and onto the trails. As we hiked up and down the mountain side, through rice fields, mud, more mud, and rocks, she leapt like a mountain goat and I kept hoping I wouldn’t slide several hundred feet down the mountain through the orange mud.

The clouds moved in and out of the valley and I could see endless steep slopes carved into terraces for rice planting, water buffalo grazing, wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain and small villages in the valley below. While it was take-your-breath away beautiful, it also become clear as I talked with Ahn and others over the next two days, it was not an easy life.

The H'mong are a very traditional people, trying to grow enough rice to feed the family through the winter, making most of their own clothes, including spinning hemp fibers, dying cloth and embroidering designs and taking care of their families, young and old. The outlying farms do not have electricity (or heat), just a water-powered generator for a light bulb or two. It can be a two or three hour trek (each way) from the farm to the nearest market or village to sell or trade goods. Education especially among girls has been a problem. Many marriages are arranged based on astrological signs and birth years.

As I visited the villages with Ahn and the next day at a hill tribe market, I began to wonder how many more generations will live like this - both the good (strong families and culture) and the bad (poverty). There is better access to education for the H'mong people and a push to keep children in school longer. There is a greater opportunity to earn money through tourism and some H'mong are moving away from the family farms. H'mong teenagers with cell phones are probably going to start arranging their own dates. I hope they can navigate a future without loosing their past.

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To Bus or Not to Bus

I just finished a 24 hour journey from Cat Ba Island to Sapa, in the mountains of northwest Vietnam. The trip required a bus, a boat, another bus, yet another bus, a taxi, a six-hour layover, a train and a minivan. Despite all this, I have to admit, I love public transportation.

When I’m traveling solo, I rarely feel afraid. With a map, a little common sense and a home base, I’m free to explore, but when moving from one city or place to another, that is the time I feel most vulnerable. I’m out there, stuck between two worlds and have to negotiate systems or bargain with people who don’t speak my language. The possibility of being taken advantage of, or led astray, are my biggest worries. Public transportation is my safety net. I assume the bus (train) driver knows where he’s going, the prices are clearly stated and besides a whole bus load of people are not going to let him go off his route (let’s hope).

Also, because you’re sharing the journey with other strangers, you just might meet someone new. On this last trip, during my extended layover at the Hanoi train station, a little Vietnamese boy ran over to me, waved a toy bird, smiled and ran away. This game continued for several minutes, until his mom came over. She sat down and introduced herself (Ahn) in broken English. She was clearly curious about the lone American, and also, I think, wanting to practice English. We shared our stories (as best we could)…where we were from, where we were going, our families. While talking, I saw some older women (I later learned that this was her mother and other relatives), spread out a piece of plastic on the floor of the train station, I asked what they were doing. She said they were preparing dinner. After a bit she apologized and said she had to join them, but immediately came back and in very proper, but halted English, asked, “Would you like to share a meal with us?”. I couldn’t refuse, so I sat on the floor of the train station, and shared a dinner of rice, vegetables and fruit.

Amid lots of nodding and smiling, she asked questions about the U.S. and places I had gone. I learned her mother had worked teaching sewing in Hong Kong when she was young and this is where she had learned English. She talked about places she wished she could go…if things were different.

After dinner, she, her son and I walked around the night market pointing out fruits and vegetables in English and Vietnamese. I could see she wanted her son to learn English, to see, and maybe do the things she couldn’t. Afterwards we sat on the step of the train station, and paged through my Vietnam guidebook, her trying to read the English, and genuinely curious about what was said about her country. As her departure time got closer (and the grandmothers had enough of chasing her son), she went back inside the station and boarded her train.

I don’t know her last name, I will never see her or her family again, but I’m grateful for the kindness, the meal shared and the conversation…and for public transportation.

Stepping off the Curb

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Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

I woke up this morning on the other side of the world. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived in Hanoi late at night and rode to my hotel in the back of a dark, air-conditioned mini-van, so my first glimpse of Vietnam came as stepped outside the doors of my hotel this morning.

Living in a tourist destination, I think of myself as prepared for cars stopping randomly, people stepping out into traffic, and generally slow going. Nothing could have prepared me for Hanoi…a seething mass of motor bikes, goods for sale, people, and the ever-present honking. Crossing the street, while a necessity, seemed part dance and part blind faith that some unfathomable system was at work.

I had the inevitable moment of “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this?”, but I stepped off the curb, dodged several motorbikes and started to wander the streets of the Old Quarter.

This central area of Hanoi, is a one of the oldest parts of a city that was named the capital in 1010AD. There are no Walmarts or big box stores in the Old Quarter. Each alley or street is dedicated to a particular type of good being sold or merchant…tin boxes, blacksmiths, toys, gravestones, herbs, altars, shoes, rope, straw mats, silk, jewelry…every street has a purpose.

While this ancient grid of streets is the foundation, everywhere the new is pushing up against the old - crumbling clay tile roofs and brick alley ways surrounded by soviet-era block buildings, women carrying baskets with produce and a motorbike loaded with knock-off Beats headphones; traditional straw hats and young Vietnamese in fedoras; handmade wooden toys and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, faded communist party posters and pirated DVDs.

I wandered this maze of alley ways for several hours finally coming out on the other side at Hoan Kiem Lake. A brief moment of quiet at the temple on the edge of the lake and then I took a deep breath and threaded my way back through the streets to my hotel. While I didn’t travel far today, I did learn to cross the street…

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Taking the Long Way Home

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A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable. ― Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus

I’m struggling a bit for words with this post - what is likely my last post from this journey. (Whether I keep writing, we’ll see, but I have enjoyed the process more that I ever expected.) I started planning this trip in January, but I know that it will shape the way I see and do things for much longer. It has been many things - adventure, challenge, inspiration, frustration, relaxation, an education and full of many, many serendipitous surprises.

I was reminded that true travel can be hard. The kind of travel where you are ignorant of everything, the spoken and written language, how the most basic things work - even crossing the street seemed daunting at first. Every step was a guess (some more educated than others). Sometimes it was just a hope…”I hope this works…I hope this driver knows where he’s going…I hope I read the map right…I hope I didn’t offend him/her.”

I have some amazing memories, some (I think) have been worth sharing and some were my own challenges, mistakes and achievements. I got to stand in, but still outside another culture. I was witness to other people’s days and lives. I have been awed by the devotion and austerity of the religious monks. I have watched people “make merit” and provide food for the monks. I have also seen these same monks stroll the markets, talk on their cell phones, and sit have a smoke. I have seen poverty. Shacks with corrugated metal roofs and old street banners for walls, but also families sitting in the shade of these metal roofs sharing a meal together in a society where family matters. I have stood at the base of temples and city walls that are over 1000 years old; and stood a top peaks that take your breath away. I have been blessed with nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those who took the time to share with me a story or a meal, point me in the right direction, or were just fair when I was negotiating for ride. I have eaten some incredible food prepared in the most unlikely of circumstances.

I learned to listen to that inner voice that told me when to keep going and when to ask for help, or in some cases, call it day. I loved the challenge, the guess work, the opportunity each day held. I asked myself in the first post “Am I still a traveller?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” But it is time to put away my passport and backpack (for a while). Because each and everyday I was on this journey, something reminded me of home and those things that had seemed painstakingly familiar are the ones I missed the most. So on that note…

All journeys eventually end in the same place, home. ― Chris Geiger

Getting From Here to There

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Since being in Thailand, I have ridden on a bus, a train, a tuktuk (a three-wheeled moped taxi), an actual taxi, a boat, a songthaew (a pick up with passenger seating on the bed of the truck), a mini van, the back of a motorbike, and my own two feet, but I haven’t driven myself anywhere in almost three weeks.

I decided that was going to change. I would never have have considered it in Bangkok or Chiang Mai - the traffic is insane, the drivers potentially more so, and the kicker, they drive on the left side of the road. Yesterday I rented a “motorbike,” looked like a moped to me, but it was my ticket to freedom, all for $8 a day - less than a songthaew one way.

I started the motorbike, tried to adjust in my mind what a right and left hand turn might look like, and set out for the beaches on the eastern side of the island. I have to admit to being a little scared with the trucks, tons of other motorbikes, and my demonstrated lack of direction, but I made it. The beach, Chaweng, was a beautiful stretch of white sand. The crowds…less beautiful. Music pumped out onto the beach, euro-partiers everywhere…it was a quite a show and in a way, fun to observe on the sidelines.

I brought the motorbike home before dark. I decided I wasn’t brave enough to drive at night. This morning, after a quiet breakfast in my little fishing village, I thought maybe I could venture even further. I set our for the waterfalls in the center of the island.

After 40 minutes, I turned on the road towards the waterfall. There were some very touristy options, including a 4-wheeler ride to the base of the falls. I turned it down and started hiking up a dirt road, then over a bamboo bridge and once again followed a rope trail up the rocks. I’ve decided ropes lead to good places. The upper falls were deserted. It was quiet and cool. I sat in pool under the falls, until I was ready to try the beach again.

I drove to Lamai Beach on the southeast coast, and paid for a day pass to a resort on a secluded stretch of beach. Lounge chairs, pools, quiet, drinks delivered… a huge contrast to the life I have been lucky enough to have had the last few weeks, but it was the perfect end to my stay on the island.

When I got back to Bophut, I turned in the keys to my motorbike and tomorrow I head back to Bangkok (minivan, ferry, bus, train….).

The Language of Food

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I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas - fat, drugged, and completely out of it. ― Anthony Bourdain, Chef

Chiang Mai is nothing if not the food capital of Thailand, especially street food - from every type of meat or sausage on a stick, to noodles to something that resembles a fried doughnut with black sesame seeds. Everywhere you look, there is someone cooking something. By all accounts, everyone here should weigh 600lbs. They are eating or taking away noodles and soup in plastic bags to eat later, popping dumplings like candy and frying up everything in sight. And I am right there with them, at least that is what it felt like today.

I took a full day cooking class today, with a well-known Thai chef. We got an introduction to Thai ingredients, watched the chef prepare seven different dishes and then we replicated (as best we could) our versions of them. Of course, we had to sample and eat our way through the day too.

I thought I knew something about Thai food, but the complexity of the food and the list of ingredients was amazing. They have 10, count ‘em 10, different soy sauces, 4 types of basil, I don’t know how many types of chilies and list goes on. I took notes like I was in school again and left with a recipe book, so we’ll see what I can do when I get home.

When I got back to my hotel, I fell into a deep food coma. When I came to, I thought I only have a two more nights here and there were places I still wanted to try, so I put on my walking shoes (no tuktuks or taxi tonight) and headed out of town, through the old city gate (1400 years old to be exact) and across the river to a restaurant that I had heard about. It is situated overlooking the Ping river. There was a guy playing crazy good jazz guitar (who knew?) and a mix of locals and expats all trying to get in. There was a wait for a table so I sat at the bar. An Australian, now living in Thailand, and his Thai wife sat down next to me. We started talking and when their table came up they asked me to join them. Initially I refused, because I didn’t want to intrude, but eventually I agreed.

We sat down and the woman started reading the menu and asking the waitress, in Thai of course, which dishes were local and where the ingredients came from. I asked her to order for me too. It was one of the best meals I have had - green mango salad, fresh fish with chili and vegetables, rice…

We talked, ate and drank. I forgot all about trying to figure out how they made the food or what was in my food, and just enjoyed it. So while, I’m glad for the opportunity to have learned what I learned today, I’m more grateful for good company and the prospect of sharing a meal with friends when I get home.

Lost in Bangkok

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“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

If only that were true…Today was my last day in Bangkok, so I packed my luggage and left it at the hotel desk for the day. What I didn’t realize until I got to the river taxi dock, was that I had packed my map of Bangkok. I knew I wanted to go to China Town and the Indian Market, and knew where to jump off the taxi, but beyond that, I had no idea where I was actually going.

I got off at the dock and asked where to get a map. I was directed to a board with about three streets marked and the general location of the sights. I thought, “how hard can this be?” Well, let’s just say it was harder than I thought. There are hundreds of side streets, alleyways covered in tarps with stalls selling everything from knock-off barbies, to whole octopus, to air conditioners and no real street signs.

I started walking in the direction of the Indian Market, a promise of scarves, fabric and curry waiting for me. I walked, and walked some more. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not seen another European or other foreigner for quite a while and I had wandered VERY far off the beaten path. I stopped at a shop and a sweet little old Chinese grandmother got her grandson, who in broken English directed me to the street I thought the Indian market was on. So I walked and walked some more, when I stumbled on a flower market - blocks of of the most beautiful cut flowers I had ever seen. I forgot about the scarves and the curry and just wandered the aisles. As I came out of an alley, I walked right into the Indian Market. Sometimes, when you get lost, you end up right where you are supposed to be!

Next stop China Town. I got where I was going once, surely I could do it again. I walked and walked some more (apparently the theme of the day). I found myself in the middle of a giant wholesale food market, piles of cabbage in baskets, nuts, fish, and hundreds of things I had never seen (or smelled) before - and not another tourist in sight. I emerged on a main road and headed towards the direction of the river (or so I thought). I realized after an hour that I had been up and down so many alleys, but crossed the same corner on this main road three times, so really, not actually getting anywhere.

Then it happened, the moment I thought, “I’m in over my head, I should hail a taxi (if I can find one) and just go back to the hotel.” I took a deep breath and realized I had spent the last four hours seeing things I would never have seen if I stuck to my map; that I could, at anytime, get a taxi, but really I wanted to see what was beyond that corner. So, I took a good hard look around me, and started walking. I passed the same corner for the fourth time and just kept going.

Eventually I made it back to river taxi dock. My day was nothing like I planned when I left the hotel this morning, but maybe that was the point - to trust myself to know when I’m in over my head, but also, to not let the voices in my head stop me from experiencing what is around the corner.

Am I Still A Traveller?

“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.”
― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real

I had always considered myself a “traveller.” I had a valid passport, could pack in 20 minutes and seemingly my bucket list of places to visit was never ending. But in truth, it has been a long time since I truly travelled. I went on vacation, visited friends, went back often to familiar cities, and enjoyed the requisite beach, books and booze trips. I hadn’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone, gone someplace where I didn’t speak a word of the language, or didn’t know a soul for years.

I decided in January to get back on the horse, so to speak. When I told my friends and family that I had booked a plane ticket to Thailand alone, it was met with mixed emotions. I heard, “don’t you have anyone to travel with?, “why?”, or “are you sure?” These comments were generally followed by “be safe” or a horror story of a lone female traveller who met with disaster. I was excited about the trip, so I put on a brave face and said I was fine, looking forward to it, I knew what I was doing, etc…

Honestly though over the next two months, I started to hear those voices in my head. I had doubts. Could I still travel alone? Did I still want to? Was this really who I was? Am I a traveller?

Then of course there is that pesky age thing. It’s ok in your 20’s to disconnect, to take risks, and besides there are always lots of 20 somethings with a bad case of wanderlust roaming the world’s “must see” destinations, but what about in your 40’s. Most of my friends are raising families, so the idea of setting off alone for three weeks, isn’t possible. Travel for most, seems to go from backpacks, to disneyland vacations, to tour busses. I’m not sure what solo travel in my 40’s looks like.

So with a very light backpack, a healthy dose of doubt and trepidation, I set off for Thailand.

I arrived late last night. When I awoke this morning in a hotel in Bangkok. It hit me. I’m really doing this. Over breakfast, I poured over my guidebooks, maps and travel blogs one last time. I knew eventually I had to step outside the front door of the hotel.

Was this first day everything I had imagined. Yes and no. I leaped off a moving river taxi onto a rickety pier, I got lost in old Bangkok trying to find a noodle stand I had read about (never did find it and ended up eating a granola bar for lunch), was befriended by a monk and got an impromptu guided tour of the Buddhist university, saw the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha, forgot to drink enough water (its 95 degrees) and had to give myself a timeout in the only shade I could find under a scraggly tree on a street corner, wandered the amulet market, and took myself out to dinner.

I’m hoping as the days go by, I will find the answers to my questions, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the adventure of getting up each day in unfamiliar territory.

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