Archive for June, 2006

happy father’s day (better late than never)

Monday, June 19th, 2006

(due to technical difficulties, this didn’t get posted yesterday… apologies)

happy father’s day to dad, raul, carl-the-mailman, ben v. and all my friends in the states… hope you had a wonderful day, and we love you lots.

jen and jon


Sunday, June 18th, 2006

it’s early morning and the mists are still clinging to the green-gray spines jutting out of the turquoise waters as we glide through the quiet channels of ha long bay. the heat of the sun is beginning to dissipate the haze of clouds and warm the jagged spires of dragon scale legend. birds dance on the breeze overhead.

such beauty exists in this world as my eyes would not have believed, and it restores me, heals the damage of neglect like a balm, smoothes the thin patches and fills up the careworn gaps of my soul. it is everything i have needed and more than i could have asked for.

heartfelt hanoi

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

i’m falling a little in love with hanoi, but i can’t help it. after all, it’s hard not to be won over by a city that’s so unapologetically insane. with its giant mash-up of chinese, french and american influences, it’d be easy to write it off as derivative, yet somehow it is still wholly unique unto itself.

first of all, i didn’t think it was even possible to have crazier traffic than beijing, but somehow they’ve managed that feat impressively. scooters outnumber cars about 10 to 1 and the few traffic lights which exist are really just a big waste of electricity. here, drivers slow down for nothing and no one – and they sure as hell don’t stop. crossing the street without wetting your pants takes pure nerve, and provides an adrenaline rush which equals any daredevil stunt. we’ve already witnessed accidents and innumerable near misses, and it’s small comfort that if you *do* get hit, at least it will likely be a motorbike, and will probably hurt less than being hit by a car. actually hiring a motorbike (as we’ve done in other cities) would fall under the category of “adventure sport”, and as such, is specifically precluded under the terms and conditions of our travel insurance. walking around is excitement enough.

and you have to walk *in* the street because the primary function of the sidewalks is as car park for all the millions of motorbikes. the pavement which is *not* overrun by bikes is instead comandeered by sidewalk cafes. not sidewalk cafes in the western sense, mind you, but eateries where all chopping, cooking, boiling and grilling is done only inches off the sidewalk while crouched over tiny fires, and the seating consists of miniscule plastic stools. noodle soups, skewered meats, corn on the cob (asians *love* corn on the cob, it’s everywhere!), steamed rice, roasted banana leaf parcels – all prepared and consumed just inches off the pavement and only feet from the zooming scooters and fetid gutters.

which is really only disturbing when you get back after a day of walking and find your feet completely blackened. as a bit of a foot snob, i’ve taken great pains to keep my toesies clean and tidy, my heels smooth. but hanoi has presented a mighty struggle, and i’ve resorted to using an old toothbrush to scrub them. the streets are really gross.

but so much about hanoi is enormously appealing. the shops full of exquisite silk dresses and handbags, beautiful laquerware and wood carvings. the unfailingly delicious food and genuinely friendly people. the city which is still laid out by speciality: tinworks and hardware, banners and ceremonial needs, clothing and shoes. the vestiges of french architecture found cheek-by-j0wl with ancient community temples and concrete communist party monstrosities. croque monsieur sandwiches, curries and stir-fries. hecklers shouting “madame!” and then plying their services in u.s. dollars. women wearing traditional straw field hats balancing huge baskets of fruit while listening to an mp3 player. hanoi is all these things and more – a city of contrasts and culture clashes and chaos.

and it’s wonderful.

(photos to follow soon – internet in vietnam is again limited and censored by the regime, so uploading is a p.i.t.a….)

hell and back again

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

we’ve spent the past few days in vientiane, the capital of laos. due to a strategical error (read: numbskullery) we’ve spent three days waiting for the entry date on our vietnam visas. vientiane, meanwhile, is a strange little nowhere-nothingsville of a place – a curious bit of hellishly hot backwater suspended in a state somewhere between renewal (if you’re a glass-half-full type) and decay (if you’re not). j calls it a shithole, though i wouldn’t say that. there’s nothing overtly wrong with it – but there’s precious little to recommend about it, excepting its function as a transport hub for, oh, anywhere but here. so our days were filled by shuttling between air-conditioned oases: eating at bakeries, noodling at internet cafes, and watching world cup matches at pubs. nothing to write home about.

so once our visas became valid, we hopped on te first bus to hanoi. as i write this, we’re in the 23rd hour of what has become the journey from hell. vientiane and hanoi are probably roughly600km or so apart, as the crow flies. so how, one might ask, does this entail such an epic bus ride? let me explain.

it’s important to understand, first of all, the distinctions between the several different classes of bus journey. the highest class is what’s known as the “v.i.p. bus”. this is a tourist class coach, of varying degrees of plushness, but the commonly found characteristics include three things: tourist priced ticketing, super-freeze air-conditioning, and an on-board toilet. the natural habitat of this “v.i.p. bus” is limited to within the borders of thailand (though some may say it has a close cousin in the chinese “overnight bus”, however the chief difference is that such “overnight buses” make absolutely no pretence at plushness.) the “v.i.p. buses” are often promoted as “sleeper buses”, the theoretical notion being that one departs in the evening, sleeps through the night, and awakes refreshes at their destination in the morning. having taken several of these, however, i can safely attest that absolutley no such sleeping takes place. these buses are also often billed as “express buses”, a description which might lend one to believe that they arrive at their destination significantly faster than other buses – but that belief would be highly erroneous. a unique and entertaining feature of many of these buses is the airbrushed artwork on the side (in imitation of “old-skool” graffiti artistry) and the neon halogen lighting, creating a funky urban thai hip-hop kinda vehicle.

the second class of bus is known as the “local bus”. this is the bus which the native-born countrymen take for long distance trips. it is usually characterised by uncomfortably narrow vinyl seating (reminiscent of a classic schoolbus), and hideous decor, often consisting of leftover wallpaper remnants, children’s bedroom curtains and dustruffles. the amenities on this type of bus are usually limited to basic airplane-like ventilation (or electric ceiling fans) and overhead lighting which is turned off for the duration of the trip, rendering it decorative only. while these buses are somewhat cheaper, the ticket price for foreigners is in no way reflective of what the locals actually pay (a fun little custom called “price tiering”) and the savings are often offset by the need for in-person purchasing and navigation of the chaos which is the public bus depot. this, in and of itself, requires one to call upon unexpected depths of patience and fortitude. furthermore, the “local bus” makes all “local” stops, some of which include mr. smith’s driveway, grandma jones’ convenience store, and a multitude of assorted random intersections and curbsides. depending on road conditions, refreshment/toilet breaks, whether or not mr. smith/grandma jones is travelling, and the mood of the driver, these buses can take from 2-6 hours longer to get where you’re going.

and finally, there is the “chicken bus”, which I believe i’ve described here before, but suffice to say they are often distinguished by the presence of livestock.

our current convoy falls somewhere between a “local bus” and a “chicken bus”, inasmuch as there are a few hundred kilos of rice and fruit lining the aisles, and no toilets, but it does have air-conditioning. still i am beginning to desperately wish we’d shelled out for a plane ticket.

when we boarded the bus, nearly 24 long hours ago, i knew it would be trying, but it didn’t seem too bad. they piled all the luggage into the back rows of seats because the holds were already full (of contraband imports, to be sure), but there were still rice sacks to load so they formed impromptu aisle seating for extra locals. we waited an extra hour for a few more locals and all their accompanying luggage (also piled in the aisles). a family of five squeezed into two paid seats. the tall guy behind me protested when i tried to recline my seat. the lady in front protested when j’s knees impeded her recline. it started to pour, so the windows were shut and it because close and steamy. i was starting to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic and we hadn’t even left the car park yet. ten minutes after we finally got underway, they turned off the overhead lights – so much for finishing my book. i napped a bit and we stopped off for a few pissing-in-the-ditch breaks (never straying far from the road, in case of landmines), but we seemed to be making good time.

six hours in, however, shortly after midnight, we stopped at a roadside cafe. and that’s when j suddenly recalled that this particular route entails a six hour layover. so after a plate of noodles, the cafe closed up shop and the restauranteur family gave the driver a place to sleep and went to bed. leaving the rest of us with no choice but to pile back into the cramped, hot bus to try to sleep. we sweated and stirred and sighed – sleep was impossible. many abandoned the bus and spent the evening sitting in the cooler air outside. mosquitoes were rampant. i’ve never been so intensely, annoyingly uncomfortable.

but light finally arrived on the horizon, and two hours later we arrived at the border controls, first in the queue. only there was no queue, only a teeming mass of swarming locals shoving passports and bribes in the faces of the officials and a bunch of bewildered foreigners getting trampled in the stampede happening at the window. stamping our departures, then, understandably took quite a while, what with the piles of scattered passports and money, people constantly breaking into the office to try to personally plead with the immigration officer, etc. etc. etc.

and then we had to enter vietnam – vietnamese immigration a model of efficient communist bureacracy, if ever there was one. it took them two and a half hours to shake us down for a few u.s. dollars and stamp our pre-arranged pre-paid visas, while we helplessly watched them suffle the small red and blue books from one pile into another, take a coffee break, scan them on the new passport scanner, curiously examine all our other stamps and visas, take a call on their mobile phone, take care of dozens of local passports, flip through ours again, put them aside – all in time-warp super-slow-motion, before finally extorting another 30,000 dong to hand them over.

our passports moved less than 10 feet during the entire two and a half hours. it took supreme feats of self-control not to start screaming.

back on the bus, it seemed that was the worst of it. yet the trip continues to drag on, twelve hours hence. at lunchtime the sin read “hanoi – 350 km”. at a second lunch break the sign read “hanoi – 150 km”. the bus broke down and was fixed. i engaed in tug-of-war with the lady in front of me over control of my window curtain. i got gum on my ass. my ipod battery died.

it’s now been 24 hours and 13 minutes (12 hours driving, 6 hours “sleeping”, 3 hours immigrating, 3 hours eating) with no end in sight.

i’ll let you know if we make it there alive.

file under: love

Monday, June 12th, 2006

nothing makes my day like when j’s cap elicits a cry of “go red sox!”

sox love is everywhere!

thank you

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

thank you all for your kind thoughts on j’s grandpa. unfortunately, he won’t be able to get home for the memorial service, given the time constraints and the difficulties of organising travel from where we are right now. he plans to visit as soon as possible after we get back to pay his respects. he thanks you for all your prayers and offers of help – they mean a whole lot.

lights out in vang vieng

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

the electricity is out here this morning in the l.ittle town of vang vieng – though “town” may be too grandiose a term. vang vieng is really just a glorified dirt road with a few guesthouses thrown up around it. but that dirt road just happens to be situated next to some spectacular scenery and a placid little river, so the main attraction here is outdoorsy-type stuff like kayaking/caving/tubing (which we did yesterday). i know i’ve mentioned how poor laos is, but until you realise how fickle something as basic as electricity is, and how little difference it actually makes in the day-to-day quality of life, it doesn’t really hit home.

for all intents and purposes this morning, nothing has changed. we woke up drenched in sweat because the fans were off, but otherwise, probably wouldn’t have noticed. all transactions are still cash and paper only – there’s no electronic banking in these parts. refrigeration is pretty much limited to beer and yohgurt anyway – meat, eggs, butter are stored at room temp under a cloth. most activity is limited to daylight hours – there’s not a whole lot to do in vang vieng after dark, and most backpackers just get stoned on opium shakes and watch the incessant “friend’s” repeats shown in the cafes. (aside: given the number of times we’ve been offered opium and cocaine here, i think it’s safe to say that the “golden triangle” is still doing a brisk business.)

it is, however, entirely conceivable that the town somehow blew a transformer somewhere while the whole population was simultaneously watching the opening match of the world cup last night. i’m still astounded that the biggest sporting event in the world goes nearly unnoticed in the u.s. meanwhile, the rest of the planet is in the grip of football fever, and little laos is no exception – the entirety of vang vieng was huddled around their tellies until 1am watching germany v. costa rica. being in such a rural area which is so passionate about their footie really makes me appreciate what an incredible phenomenon this globally unifying sport is. and makes it all the more unbelievable that almost no one in america either knows or cares. still, i will be watching and cheering on a strong u.s team, from wherever we are.

so while we’re laying here praying for the fans to come back on, the rest of vang vieng is just desperate to get the juice back in time for tonight’s match. and that speaks volumes about both the country and the sport.

two months in: lessons learned

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

1. never take soap or toilet paper for granted

2. deet is useless – mozzies bite

3. always count your change

4. never trust the motives of someone who tries to sell you their service. when someone tries to solicit you (even if they’re offering something you need) turn them down and ask someone else yourself. this particularly applies to taxis and hotels.

5. take other travellers’ advice with a grain of salt – then go see for yourself and form your own opinion

6. write things down

7. always apologise before long journeys – they’re miserable enough without bickering

8. never pass up an opportunity to get wet or dirty

9. clothes always take longer to dry than you think

10. books are priceless – and literacy is an incredible gift

11. leeches suck

12. when you have to encounter or deal with something unavoidably disgusting, deliberate mental denial goes a long way… (”I’m going to pretend that never happened.”)

13. transportation may be easier now than it has ever been in the history of mankind, but when you want to be with your family yesterday, even one mile is a mile too far.

oupa johnny

Friday, June 9th, 2006

j’s oupa (grandpa) johnny passed away wednesday evening in johannesburg, south africa. please send a good thought for him and his family.

i know he wants to be with his family. not sure what the plan is yet. will update when i know more.

oupa johnny

a little laotian lesson

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

i’m not generally much of a history buff – it usually goes in one ear and out the other – but the little i’ve read about laotian history is both fascinating and profoundly sad. i’m borrowing heavily from the guidebook here, but the secret u.s. war in laos during the vietnam era was so incredibly devastating, and so little known. from 1964-1973, the u.s. flew an average of 177 planes per day, carrying payloads of more than 2 million tonnes of bombs, making laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. not to mention the unknown number of landmines still remaining buried all over the country, creating untold victims every year. all this was of course, strategy by the u.s. to prevent the so called “domino effect” of communism. then several decades of puppet governments and manipulation of the ethnic minority population by the c.i.a. as guerrilla soldiers served to wreak further devastation. even years later, the ecomony is a joke (50 pounds sterling will get you almost a million kip) and all the lao educated classes have long since fled (amounting to almost 10% of the population).

and in the end, vietnam was lost and laos became a socialist state anyway. how bitterly ironic. read more about laos on the “where we are now” page.

  • Photos