Beach Life Redefined

I can still close my eyes and just see touristed beaches elsewhere. It’s summertime and the briskness of morning can still be felt in the air. These early hours are dominated by beach-blond surfers hitting the water; some are zen-like cool, others are territorial assholes. The occasional jogger becomes the first of the day to imprint the sand with carefree, confident steps. As the sun heats the sands, colorful board shorts and bikinis begin to paint the landscape. Most arrive in groups of two to four, and in these small groups find areas on the beach to lay claim to (spread out equidistantly of course). The occasional boat might pass on the horizon, silhouetting a sandcastle a boy has made, complimentary with the help from his happy meal sand toys. It’s quiet except for some small chatter and the break of the shoreline, only the occasional whiff of something SPF-40 or higher touches your senses. This is what I recall it is like, but just barely. At the moment “elsewhere” cannot be further from our experience.
We’re in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Beaches line the town on 3 sides of the peninsula. We’ve checked out Otres Beach and Ochheuteal Beach here, and they, for the most part, support my image of a beach. Sunny. Calm. Relaxing. But today we decided to venture to Serendipity Beach, the popular beach of the area. Here, they’ve taken elements of what we’ve seen around other touristy beaches in Asia and crammed it into a 1 kilometer stretch of sand. We arrived via a dirt path, women in asian-style pajamas and kramas (Cambodian scarves) immediately asked if we wanted massages, pedicures or our toenails cut. We declined and hurriedly turned to our left to walk the beach, or more accurately the 1-2 meters of beach between where the water hit the shore and where the edge of the restaurants was. Yes, the beach itself had been swallowed up by about 50 beach shack restaurants with enough lounge chairs and beach umbrellas to block out the sun and the sand. Every few meters a restaurant gave us their pitch. “Cheap food! Free lounge chair! Happy shake!” Each pitch we tossed back to them politely, but firmly and kept walking. We passed a monkey leashed to a tree. And after we walked enough of the beach to not be able to distinguish one area from another, we settled down and tried to take it all in. Women continuously walked past us offering plates of fruit, cooked lobsters (and at $4 for 10 lobsters, we indulged), drinks, souvenirs and of all things…nursery plants. Small Cambodian children played in the water and came from 1 of 2 camps. Either they splashed around completely naked and for the most part only with other kids of their age, or they came to the beach in shorts, long-sleeved shirts and neon bright life-vests. These children waddled into the surf, with watchful parents arm’s lengths away. For some reason the word for “fear of the water” escapes me.
Western tourists laid out on the lounge chairs, ordered beer and read novels. They (and we) soaked in the sun, and occasionally went into the water to cool off before reapplying our sunblock to minimize the actual sun we soaked in, in order to do it again for as long a period of time as possible. It is clear that Asians view the beach differently. Groups of Cambodian young adults played beach games together. Soccer games spontaneously sprang up and just as quickly dissolved on different parts of the beach. Groups of women played Monkey-in-the-Middle in waist length surf, fully dressed and just as often in full hysterics. Men buried their friends in sand and gave them sand-boobs. And speedboats pulled groups of 7 on huge inflatable water toys, only to dislodge the laughing riders into the water at the end of their trip.
It was busy, chaotic and loud at the beach today. There’s so much going on that an image of a serene, isolated stretch of beach blips into my head but has no staying power. But tomorrow we’ll go back to Otres Beach and see again the blue of the ocean, the white of the sand. We’ll escape the crowds, the vendors, the stimulation and just relax. We’ll soak in the sun (as minimally as possible), swim in the ocean and repeat the process. I’ll get through the rest of the mystery I’m reading, maybe treat myself to a Happy Shake. And part of me will recall the groups of Cambodians playing like it’s their first time at the beach, or like they are once again six years old, maybe as if it’s both. And for some reason the word for “fear of jealousy” escapes me.

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »


We’ve been traveling for quite some time now. Being on the road has slowly become not just an adventure, but also a way of life, however temporary. Most days are filled with something new, something amazing, or something unexpected, and usually we feel rewarded and fulfilled. But just as important, there are days like today.

We have been in Cambodia for two days now. It is everything and nothing like people have said, which is why we are grateful for the chance to see it for ourselves (more on this in an upcoming blog). After visiting the Tuol Seng Museum (aka S-21 or Security Prison 21) where an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were held, tortured, and killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, we headed a few miles out of Phnom Penh to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, simply and bluntly referred to as “the killing fields”. There are no words that can fully describe the terror or the pain and suffering that occurred here. I could try, but I would fail to capture the horrific magnitude of what took place in recent history. Just like I can try, but fail to understand how human beings can do such things to other human beings, and how we continue to fail to learn from history.

Classroom turned prison cells

Classroom turned prison cells

The brief knowledge I had of the Khmer Rouge was pretty ummm…shall we say, basic. By that, I mean all I really knew was that they were a political party that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s and tortured and killed thousands of their own people in order to build a self sustaining communist country of workers. But knowing the “basics” is not enough. That knowledge gleaned from a few lines of info in some news article or textbook does not do justice to the victims and their families. Some people wonder why places like these are preserved and made into tourist sights. It’s a valid question. Particularly for victims or surviving family members whose only wish is to forget or who want their loved ones’ remains respected and properly cremated, in order to honor them according to Buddhist tradition. But as a tourist, I can say that the value of preserving and maintaining such places is necessary. Change can only come from education. And the lessons gained from visiting the very site where unspeakable acts took place have far reaching effects.

We stood inside the cells and walked through the halls of the former high school-turned-prison in S-21. Even now, there’s a ghostly sadness all around. We stared at the gallows, really gymnastic high-bars turned into torture devices, complete with the original jugs that were once filled with fecal matter into which victims heads were submerged. We read about the ideology and practices of the Khmer Rouge. You were killed if you were a doctor, teacher, student, monk, military or government officer, artist, writer, singer, actor, “intellectual” (or if you wore glasses) or city dweller. Only peasants were spared in order to create a population of self sustaining farmers. Money was abolished. Cities evacuated. Buildings destroyed. The regime created such a sense of distrust among the people, that no one could trust a living soul. They separated men from women, parents from children. If you were suspected or reported as doing anything against the rules, you were taken to one of the “security centers” and tortured into giving a false confession, then executed. Friend betrayed friend, neighbor killed neighbor, and in many cases sibling turned against sibling.

Today at the “killing field” we came face to face with the mass gravesites. In some areas, there are still piles of bones set aside. We saw the stupa filled with level upon level of the nearly 20,000 skulls that have been exhumed thus far. We saw the “killing tree” where children and babies were killed by holding their ankles and smashing their heads against the tree. There were even faded articles of clothing in a small heap at the base of the tree along with some bones. It crushed my heart.

Clothing and bones in the shadow of the "killing tree".

In the shadow of the "Killing Tree"

To say this blog entry is depressing would be an understatement. But to not blog about it at all would fail to capture our experience and would be unfair to the people who lost their lives and those who continue to suffer. It dawned on me during our tuk-tuk ride that every single person we come across in our Cambodian travels who appears to be at least our age or older, is a survivor of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This astounds me. That this is all so recent that it’s barely classifiable as history. And with the trial currently taking place, it must be opening some old wounds for much of the population today.

The Holocaust. “Ethnic Cleansing”. Somalia. Haiti. Rwanda. Darfur. There are no comparisons to be made when it comes to crimes against humanity. Only shame…anger…disgust….and also hope. We can’t change the past. Green grass now covers the pits of the mass graves, but that doesn’t change what happened there. If we learn from the mistakes of the past, then there is hope. Given the state of the world today, we are still a long way away. But for each museum or site of this nature that we’ve visited, I have not been the only tourist with tears in my eyes. And despite the outside daily clamour, it is respectfully, sometimes shockingly silent. People emerge changed. There is hope.

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Tad High in Tadlo

Despite what some may infer from this blog title, we have not yet partaken in the special pizzas offered on many a menu in Laos. Usually dubbed “happy pizzas” or “space pizzas”, they are cooked special to order with your herb of choice. Not something that would fly in the states, but apparently legal here. Maybe we’ll give it a shot in Cambodia, another place well known for its pizzas, and chalk it up to another “when in Rome…” moment. But, I digress.

Tadlo is a teeny town in Southern Laos, known by tourists for its waterfalls and as a place where one can trek through the forests atop an elephant. To get to Tadlo, we took an overnight bus from the capital, Vientiane, to the town of Pakse. Having now been on our fair share of overnight buses, our expectations were pretty much set. At best, we figured we were in for individual clean-enough reclining beds and maybe even a stinky but working on-bus toilet. At worst, we geared ourselves up for not-so-clean, semi-reclining chair-beds, middle of the night pit stops, and loud Lao music blaring out of the speakers all night long. Maybe the stars aligned, because the bus gods were kind to us, and our 11-hour trip turned out to be the best overnight bus journey to date. As we entered the upper deck, semi-private double beds awaited us. If you happen to be a solo traveler, this is a potential hazard, but for us, it was perfect. The sleepers were clean, the toilet was only slightly disgusting, but best and most surprising of all (in addition to a peaceful music-less night), we were given dinner, bottled water, then dessert, and packaged towelettes (for freshy!). We were reluctant to get off the bus in the morning.

From Pakse, we ventured out to Tadlo. After hearing animal abuse horror stories, particularly from Thailand, I was wary of hopping on any old elephant. We had heard of elephants at the very least being bribed with food, and at the worst, having hooks through their ears, or being kicked and beaten. My hope for Tadlo was that the elephants were treated respectfully and humanely. We asked a few questions before signing up for the morning walk and it turned out to be a good experience. Jeff and I both rode in a hand-made basket, stuffed with a couple of rice sacks and cushions, atop the elephant. Our non-talkative guide sat on a blanket straddling the elephant’s neck. No sticks, poles, hooks, or even treats. Aside from the occasional verbal command, we only witnessed him using his feet to push on the elephant’s ears in order to guide her. Moon (our elephant) seemed happy enough and got to eat lots and lots of vegetation all along the way as we loped through the jungle, through a village, and even forded a couple of rather strong streams. I got a chance to see our surroundings from a different point of view and it was just pretty darn cool. Blue sky above. Water, ground, people and animals below. And canopy all around. It was nothing like our camel ride in Africa where I was teetering back and forth with each step and holding on for dear life. This was leisurely and peaceful and I enjoyed my high ride. I’m hoping Moon did too. Several times, she raised her trunk very slowly back over her head, as if to say hello or make sure we were still there. I’m no expert in elephant behavior, so I hope that’s what she was communicating, as opposed to “get the heck off my back” or some similar sentiment. After we climbed down, I wanted to give her a pat and hoped to share a moment or something, but she had already started in on a huge bunch of bananas.

Hanging out with Moon

Hanging out with Moon

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Secret’s Out

To my right, about 30 prosthetic legs hang from fishing line to create a thought provoking piece. The ones hung closer to the floor are rudimentary, made primarily from a wood log or pipe. The materials have been salvaged and painstakingly carved by hands desperate for the body to work again, for the ability to make a living, for a sense of normalcy As the limbs ascend they become more technologically advanced—stronger, lighter, capable of bending at the knee. In contrast, another installation sits in front of me. This one though dominates the room, with hundreds of tennis ball-size pieces looking as if they are falling from ceiling to floor. Each piece however, is a plaster of Paris model of a bombie and these, unlike real ones dropped on Laos, don’t drop, but instead hang inertly suspended, mercifully granting this country reprieve.
I am at COPE National Rehabilitation Center here in Laos. It’s a devastatingly sobering center as one of its aims is to educate others on the enduring consequences of the US’s Secret War on it. For 9 years (1965-1973), the US feared the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia and so in the way that America does, it intervened. And in this case at this time, intervening meant flying hundreds of missions from Thailand and Southern Vietnam, dropping 260 million explosives on a country with a population of fewer than 7 million, equating to 37 explosives per person. It meant flouting the international community by violating the Geneva Convention, it meant lying to Congress and the US public, and it meant utterly destroying a country and people who were not our enemies.
And it meant for me, feeling again what has been becoming a familiar salad of emotions. Anger and sadness, embarrassment and disgust. In Nicaragua I felt this way as I learned the US had ousted the Sandinistas. For what? Ideology? And the feelings have been there in Vietnam learning about Agent Orange and the generational effects of chemical warfare. But if there was any sense of justification, it is to be found in the ugliness that is war. But this? There is no sense of justice in something that has been done in secret. There is only anger. And for a people that have seen 11,000 die from UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances) since the “war” ended, that farming of land comes hand in hand with the fear of digging up bombies, for a country that can’t progress with roads and infrastructure without first flashing back to the US’s past role in hindering the present. Or to learn that the country won’t be cleared of UXOs for many decades…there is only sadness. Embarrassment comes from my growing up in the US and not knowing of our responsibility here…or for John McCain’s singing joke “bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb” playing in my head. Learning that when air missions couldn’t be carried out in Vietnam, they were diverted to secondary targets in Laos mostly to just get rid of bombs rather than take the added risk of landing with them on Navy ships; that disgusted me.
COPE though tries to move the country past these feelings. I learn that the center provides prosthetic legs to victims of bombie explosions as part of a holistic approach to healing in the country. As people with new legs and arms return to their villages one can often see shells of bombs turned into boats or house supports, scrap metal from bombs are recycled into knives, pots, bowls and shelves.
We exit the Center at dusk, quiet settling on both Mari and me. And there, lining the side paths we see more shells of big bombs. Only they’ve been placed on their side, propped up. Inside each of the shells hints of pink push past the tender green leaves as young flowers are for the first time, coming into bloom.

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Vang Vieng

In the middle of Lao rattan woven bungalows pepper both sides of the Mekong river as teetering bridges seemingly made of driftwood crisscross the water. Here, hammocks are a way of life, as sunsets unfold between limestone karsts that nestle the small town in peaceful isolation. This is the Vang Vieng we hoped to experience.
We arrived into town just after sunset and our first sight was a tuk-tuk full of blonde hair, board shorts and bikinis. Mud was smeared across sun-burnt skin as college-age foreigners struck superstar poses as flashes from their digital cameras popped off all around. The scene was repeated as we passed more and more tuk-tuks bringing back drunk hordes from the town activity of tubing. They, barefoot and loaded, then flooded the town restaurants and bars to keep the good times rolling. And rolling…and rolling. After we found a guesthouse we continued to hear those good times throughout the course of the night as the riverside bars lived up to their location and kept the liquids flowing. The morning came with the sounds of a rooster and of a partier that had partied too hard and needed to chuck his/her cookies. Repeatedly.
Ok, Vang Vieng was not what we had thought. We realigned our compass of expectations by moving to a rattan bungalow overlooking the water. Another guest came up to us and told us about the tubing. “It’s too expensive if you rent a tube. Just grab a tuk-tuk to the first bar with us, and when the crowd moves on, float to the second and you can swim to the third and fourth.” And though tubing without a tube was a novel idea, we decided to pass on the invitation. Instead we sought out the other side of Vang Vieng. We hiked a nearby mountain, along the way passing scattered villages and farms. A boy ran up to us, carrying with him two puppies he wanted us to see. We went to a bright blue lagoon and cave. And, we tackled a limestone karst. Mari and I tried rock climbing, going up 24 meters on one of our climbs. It was fun and exhilarating, minus the spider I almost grabbed who was hiding in one of the holds I reached for. Ugh. We stayed in Vang Vieng four nights in all as it proved to us day after day that expectations aren’t always a bad thing or even misplaced. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder (like past the nearest bar).

Posted: November 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Frozen Feeding Frenzy

Banana….Strawberry….Pistachio….Salted Caramel….Coffee Chocolate…Mint….Vanilla Macadamia….Stracciatella….Chocolate Chili…Lime….Strawberry sorbet…Tutti Frutti…Pineapple…Vanilla….Mocha…Rum Raisin…Banana (again)….Vanilla Macadamia (again)…Strawberry (again)….Chocolate Chili (again)…for a total of 20 scoops of ice cream.

Still happily going to town

Still happily going to town

Not to brag (because I probably should be ashamed), but this is what I consumed in less than an hour and a half at Fanny’s First Friday of the Month All-You-Can-Eat Ice Cream Buffet in Hanoi. You should have seen my reaction yesterday when we walked by the sign. As for my ice cream appetite, Jeff said he has never felt more proud and horrified. To his own credit, he put down 16 scoops, which is fair, but he had nothing on me.

Heaven on a sign

Heaven on a sign

If not for the crowds of fellow ice cream freaks getting a little too pushy, I would have had a few more scoops. But after Jeff got shoved out of the way by a pudgy little girl on her way to the chocolate syrup fountain and my numerous attempts to muscle my way to the front of the crowd, it seemed like a good time to make our sticky exit. At $4 a piece, it was a bit of a splurge, but not a bad way to spend our last night in Vietnam.

At the counter again.  "Please sir...may I have some more?"

At the counter again.

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Back on Two Wheels

I had deluded myself that it might be possible to go through our whole trip without having to set butt on the dreaded and ubiquitous motorbike. We went through all of Indonesia and China walking past hundreds of calls of, “Wan motobai?” with me declining or ignoring each and every one. In Vietnam, I had hoped we’d manage to avoid the touts and their bikes with increasing ease. Not so.

If you know me well, then you know the details surrounding my fear of anything on two wheels. For those of you that don’t, all you need to know is that I was in a bicycle accident in college. I took the brunt of the fall with my face. The result was an eye patch, a false tooth, a couple of scars, and consequently bike-a-phobia. Sure, I can laugh about it now. Once, several years later, I was even able to hop back on a bicycle (albeit the back seat of a tandem on an empty bike path in Tahoe).

However being faced with the prospect of hopping on the back of a motorbike was no laughing matter. I had a feeling it was going to happen at some point, and the time had come. If we wanted to get to the Marble Mountains and China Beach, motorbike it would have to be. I have been observing people on motorbikes for months now. The way the passengers nonchalantly hold on to packages of all sizes, kids and babies stowed between, up to four on a bike, as the vehicles and streets and hazards fly by, where the rules of the road are that there are none. Jeff and I each had our own motorbike, complete with driver and helmet. If I didn’t already have reservations to begin with, what definitely did the trick was the fact that printed in familiar font on my driver’s helmet and bike were letters spelling out “HONGDA”. Despite the fact that my driver was really a complete stranger, I had to resist the urge to wrap my arms around his waist and hold on tight. After all, in my analysis of motorbike passengers, the only ones I’d ever seen clutching their driver were likely also dating or married to them. So, the 15-minute ride was spent with white knuckles gripping the skinny bar behind me, legs squeezing both sides of the seat and bike, and body so tense, I thought for sure I’d be sore afterwards.

Fueling doubt

Fueling doubt

Anyway, since then I have been on a motorbike three more times. It doesn’t matter that for two of those times, I had no idea a motorbike trip was involved until it was too late (once to get to the bus station and once to get to the docks-both sans helmet, and the latter trip with all my luggage!). Good thing I had one ride under my belt because who knows how many more motorbike rides lay ahead. In fact, just today we rented our own motorbike for a day trip to a national park. And despite the inexperience of my driver, at least I was able to hold on to him for dear life without shame. Jeff said that it was fun to drive and towards the end of the ride I realized that playing passenger wasn’t as terrifying anymore. It was even fun…almost.

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Science 101

Lately, connections have been coming from the realm of science. Take entropy for example. It’s the idea that closed systems move from order to chaos, from shiny to rusty. It came to me the other day when Mari looked at me, studying my face, and said, “you’re looking old these days. I guess 10 months of unrelenting sun and elements really do add up.” Ppphhhhttt went the balloon that was my self-confidence.
But it did make me think of our backpack of belongings—as closed a system as any. My clothes, each a little worse for wear every time I push them back in the bag, have long ceased being dirt-free let alone wrinkle free. And they in turn press hard on my toiletries, which includes my electric clippers. Back in April, Mari’s parents brought me a clipper which I was able to use on my fuzzy head once before it stopped working. I bought a second pair in Turkey which worked fine for the first 4 ½ months. However, when I took it out to cut my hair in Hawaii for my grandfather’s birthday party, I noticed that the guard had broken in my backpack. Its side had broken off, leaving no way for it to stay secured to the razor and with a portion “guard-free.” My solution to secure the guard was duct tape. I cut my hair and felt pleased with my Mcgyver-esque ingenuity. Mari saw the back of my head and thought otherwise. She managed an “um…” before trailing off. It turned out that the part of the guard that broke off was kind of important. It’s what keeps your head from having lines shaved into it. I felt like I had the LA freeway system carved into my head that night at the party.
3 weeks later in Danang, Vietnam I again took the slightly used clippers from my backpack. This time I used more duct tape. But when I turned it on, it rattled for a few seconds, and made a new noise. But I cut my hair anyway. Or at least I tried to. The clipper’s noise had been its way of telling me cut at my own peril. It conked out on me, leaving me to feel like an unfinished crop circle. As I chucked my second pair of clippers in the garbage, I thought, “ain’t entropy a bitch?”

Remarkably, 10 months in and we haven’t been robbed, pickpocketed or beat up. We have the things we set out with (minus only a few things we’ve carelessly forgotten along the way), haven’t had any major health problems or other major issues. All in all, it feels like we’ve been extremely fortunate. And that’s led me to be a little reluctant to write about how we have been faring to date—for fear of our fortune changing by me jinxing it. And I surely don’t want to be the jinx, since I’m not the cause behind our good fortune. But for today, science trumps superstition.
For some time, I’ve been convinced that much of our good fortune is directly linked to Mari. She’s the equivalent of a scientific secret weapon. There’s a school of thought that says that mammals all have an instinctual affinity towards mammal babies. And because of that mammals will want to take care of them. It’s called the Biophilia Hypothesis. Think about how warm and cuddly you feel when you see kittens or puppies. Or calves or piglets for that matter. It’s the reason there are urban myths about people being left in the woods and raised by wolves, and why Tarzan was…well, Tarzan. Mari, thanks to her impish size and Asian youthfulness, seems to have fallen into a little natural selective niche with this one. Her oversized backpack only accentuates the issue.
Despite not speaking the language, local peoples love trying to communicate with her. They pat her on the head and grab her cheeks. I’ve seen men pick her up and carry her across streams and then put her down as gently as if she were being lowered into a crib. Every time we get off a bus or train, someone is helping her with her backpack. Last week the guesthouse owner, a woman actually about the same height as Mari but older looking, took Mari’s backpack for her and then held her hand to help Mari cross the street. For whatever reason, people want to baby this 31 year old woman, which has been ok with me.


12 hours after I wrote this, we lost our camera.  Way to go jinx.

Posted: November 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Hawaii, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »