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 »

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 »

When Macaques Attack…

So we decided to climb Mt. Emei. This is when my aversion to stairs really solidified, but already I digress. After walking up and down thousands of steps for about 15 kilometers, we reached the Qingyin Pavilion, a few kilometers after which is the Ecological Monkey Zone. There were hordes of tourist groups that day, so I was hoping to see a monkey or two. As we approached the entrance to the zone, vendors were selling bags of monkey food to those who wished to feed the monkeys. We decided not to engage in the feeding of wild animals and walked on. A sign posted near the entrance stated all the dos and don’ts involved in dealing with the monkeys, and there was a nicely written statement about how the locals and macaques have lived harmoniously together for years. Several meters past the sign, I spotted my first lone Macaque monkey walking across a hanging bridge. A few seconds later, a groundskeeper hit the monkey with a large stick of bamboo. “That man just HIT a monkey!” I exploded in astonishment and anger, as the monkey cowered and ran up into a tree. We were crossing the bridge as I continued on about this act of animal cruelty, when a mother macaque with baby attached jumped down and grabbed Jeff’s water bottle out of his backpack holder in one swift move. She then promptly bit open the bottle and enjoyed the beverage, sharing some with her baby, and dripping some down on us from her spot on the branch above. I looked around and saw macaques of all sizes all over the place-on the bridge, the railings, sitting on rocks, in the foliage. I also noticed that the groundskeepers who seemed to be everywhere, all had long sticks and slingshots. It was at this point I began to think that these macaques were too crafty for their own good. At the same moment, I spotted a very large male macaque walking calmly through the crowd of people. For some reason, he ignored all the people and their tangle of legs, bags, cameras, and monkey food and weaved his way straight towards me. As he came closer with no signs of slowing, I thought it best to show no fear. This was a wild animal after all-maybe a show of dominance would prove to him that I was not afraid and he would go away. Really dumb. I should have learned my lesson from the incident with the baboon on the car in Kenya, but apparently I have a thick skull. So, I yelled something, swung out my leg and kicked at him. Note that I did not actually kick him, just at him. Either way, he did not like this one bit, which I realized as soon as he bared his teeth and growled. The rest happened so fast, it’s all a blur. The next thing I knew he had leapt from the ground and was flying through the air. He jumped on me, the force of which knocked me over. Luckily, there was a large boulder to the side which I was able to grab on to as I screamed my lungs out. Jeff tells me that he was yelling by this point too and that he was preparing himself to fight the monkey, but at the same moment as all the tourists turned to see the commotion, the nearest groundskeeper appeared with her stick and chased the male off. Whew. I had escaped with barely a few scratches.

Looking all innocent

Looking all innocent

After that, it is safe to say that I did not enjoy the rest of the hike through the Ecological Monkey Zone. I tried to remain near any groundskeeper at all times, with their sticks and slingshots. And despite my indignation several minutes earlier, any time a macaque came too close (which was often), I found myself whispering to myself, “Get it! Hit it…hit it!!!!” which sadly they often did. Some of the ladies appeared to take a perverse pleasure in chasing the monkeys with their sticks, and playing games of monkey slingshot. Even though I was still a bit shaky from the incident, it made me really sad to see that several of the monkeys were a bit bloodied. I would like to think it was all nature, part of living in the wild, maybe a rivalry between packs, but I also think I know better.

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

Posted: September 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Petra, Take Two

Little thirsty

Little thirsty

“Ignorance is bliss”. Often true. At the risk of sounding like an airhead, there are times (maybe more than I’d like to admit) during travel that I am almost grateful for the lack of previous knowledge I hold about particular destinations. There are people who do some serious research before arriving at their chosen site, and for those who do, I commend you. There is great value in understanding, or even having some awareness of the history behind what it is that you are going to see. We do our fair share of research for the most part, but there are times when we don’t (or one of us doesn’t). Jeff and I have been sharing planning duties, usually with one of us doing the major research for a certain area or country at a time. And although Jordan was left to me, since we were only going for a four-day stint, all I really did was figure out transportation to and within the country and entrance fees to Petra. I’m kind of glad that was it. No google imaging, no trip advisor reviews, no expectations other than the little I knew.

What I knew of Petra was this:
#1- cool looking ruins (this knowledge courtesy of scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
#2 – Jeff had wanted to see it for years
#3 – it would be HOT

After spending the night in ‘Ain Musa, we woke early and took the free shuttle down to Petra, where we had decided to purchase the two-day tickets. Within seven minutes of walking down the entrance path (armed with two liters of water and my cool-tie) with the morning sun beating down and no clouds in sight, I was already regretting this decision. Even with the heat, which only became progressively worse as the day wore on, there were those moments where the sights combined with the weight of centuries of history made me forget my discomfort. And rather than focus on frying in the sun, bask instead in the glory of the lost city. Petra is one of those rare places where even though there are specific tombs, monuments, and other types of ruins, you don’t need to be standing in front of one to be overwhelmed, only to then hurriedly rush to the next marker to be overwhelmed again. No matter where you are in all of Petra,

Kinda looks like bacon...

no matter where you look or which direction you face, it is incredible. Even on the climb to the Monastery, as I plodded along mentally cursing every other one of the 800 stairs, when I stopped to catch my breath, I was rewarded with a stunning and changing view. I was happy to just stop at any point, out of fatigue, but also just to stare and take it all in.

As for ignorance being bliss, I can no longer claim not to know Petra. There are places that inspire and this is one of them. Seeing it for myself, as with seeing so many of the places we’ve been, has only served to make me want to learn more about it. I feel maybe more ignorant now, having seen that something like this could exist and still knowing just the tip of the iceberg about the who, why, and how. So maybe I’m doing the process in reverse, but whatever the case, let the research begin.

Posted: June 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Jordan | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Petra Rocks!

If you’re ever in the area and get a chance to fly Royal Jordanian, do it. There seemed to be more leg room than the average airline (though Mari couldn’t confirm this), the food was great and the flight attendants were all so attractive it couldn’t have been by coincidence. The best part?  Even in economy class there was alcohol being served for free. I imagine the whole experience was close to what it must have been like to fly American flights when commercial airlines were in their heyday…minus the old stewardess buttons with the icon of a woman.
We came to Jordan to see Petra, a previously “lost city” built by the Nabatean civilization. Ever since Indiana Jones walked out of the Siq, revealing the Treasury to us, I’ve wanted to go. The entrance into Petra was a dusty road, open to the elements of the desert, hot and bright. Along the walk rudimentary caves and tombs appear foreshadowing what’s ahead. After we were sufficiently hot, the path turns into the Siq (gorge-like, but made from tectonic forces instead of water). We walked in its shade, at points 80 meters high and only 2 meters wide as our anticipation built with each curve. The subtle descent to the path added to the effect, as it drew us further into the city until it opened up to the Treasury, the structure that’s been Petra’s face to the world. It didn’t disappoint. It stands 43 meters high (about 13 stories), well preserved in rose hued rock. It’s “awesome” in the way the word was originally used.
Actually, “awesome” describes not only the transition from the Siq to the Treasury, but Petra as a whole as well. I hadn’t realized that Petra isn’t just a one trick pony. It really was a lost city. There are over 800 archaeologically significant sites in Petra spread over the mountains and valleys. We walked to the theatre, Royal Tombs and the Monastery, passing on the way other nameless tombs, grand in nature, and realized they didn’t even appear on the maps or trail guides. Over the 2 days we were there, we ventured out and saw Petra from the mountain tops, took the trails mostly used only by the few local Bediouns still living in Petra, and in the early evening sat alone-just in front of the Siq and staring at the Treasury, taking it all in. In terms of things man-made, I think this may be the most amazing place I’ve seen yet.

Posted: June 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Jordan | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cappadocia

In Central Anatolia there’s an area that alternates between hillsides that mimic bunched ribbon, at once both smooth and rippled, and plains where seemingly randomly placed rock columns violently dot the landscape. It’s a hiker’s wet dream. In actuality both formations were created by previous volcanic activity and make for a spectacular scene. The rock columns look like giant phallus symbols or fairy chimneys, depending who you ask (and I guess depending on the audience). For the purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to them as fairy chimneys henceforth. And I guess it is a pretty accurate description, since coming here to Cappadocia made me feel like I had entered a fantasy world. Because the formations were created from tuff, softer volcanic rock– the hillsides, fairy chimneys and the ground itself has been carved out by previous civilizations leaving a world of possibilities imagined and imaginations actualized.
We arrived into Goreme, the most central town in Cappadocia expecting to find a “normal” hostel to lay our bags and then go exploring our new surroundings. We checked 5 or 6 which all offered dorm accommodations for relatively more expensive housing then we were hoping for. So we kept looking and were offered a cave to stay in, but Mari exercised her executive veto power. The move was a good one though, because we ended up being offered our very own fairy chimney as lodging because of it! As Mari entered the fairy chimney, ducking at the door, I thought about how small fairies must have been in the past. Not enough hormones in the food supply. Our ceiling in the chimney was almost 6 ft. in height, which gave us the illusion of being giant—like that room at the Exploratorium where you get bigger as you walk further in. We settled in, made our obligatory Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum jokes and went for a walk.
Over the next 3 days our walks took us through the Rose Valley, the church of John the Baptist, numerous fairy chimneys and an underground city which was populated by upwards of 10,000 people. Throughout the sights one of us would usually proclaim that they felt like they were on a movie set. I pictured a movie with Christopher Walken for some reason.
I should actually make a correction. The fairy chimney was not our own. We had a fairy chimney buddy that stayed on the floor below us whom we had met previously in Fethiye. Mari and I complement each other pretty well as travel partners, but because our companionship is constant and encompassing, an interesting new travel friend acts like a snap of the finger to a driver crossing down the long straight part of I-5. It was great to be able to hear another perspective on what we were seeing-another voice to supplement our knowledge base on the area. We all shared meals, conversations, hikes and somewhere around our 2nd bottle of shared wine, I realized our fairy chimney buddy felt more like an old friend.
The next day we went our own ways, she back to Ankara and us off to Istanbul. We all were glad we came here if not a little overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the landscape. I think too, at least for Mari and myself, that the land of the fairy chimneys was made better because of our buddy on the floor below.

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Leatherbacks

I guess it’s only natural that I’m the one writing this entry. I’ve always liked turtles and friends draw parallels between me and the genus a little too freely. But there is something about them that draws people to them like no other reptiles do, as evidenced by their religious significance in Polynesian culture. So on April 3rd, we arrived at Reserva Pacaure to work with Leatherback turtles, the largest of the existing species, during their nesting season. We wanted to experience a connection between these prehistoric relics and do so while improving their 1 in 1000 odds of egg-to-adulthood survival.

I started my first patrol at 11 pm under an almost full moon, the black sand beach still dark to my maladjusted eyes. The unevenness of the beach, coupled with the washed up driftwood made my first minute’s steps small and unsure. Only the constant sound of the ocean and the white of the waves kept me steady with their rhythm. About 45 minutes in, I caught up with another person on the beach, a Research Assistant sitting close to where the beach met the forest. We started talking for a couple of minutes in the dark, when she asked me how it felt. I responded with, “what?” to which she answered, “to see your first turtle,” as she leaned to the side, revealing a Leatherback a foot away. I had missed seeing this animal as big as a clown car. But now it sat there preparing her nest as those before her had been doing for nearly 200 million years. For the next hour we worked with her; measuring, relocating the eggs, and camouflaging the tracks—-but mostly just connecting with the experience. I watched her return to her element and continued my patrol.

As the night wore on, my steps gained confidence, getting used to the slope of the sand and eager to come across another sighting. Shooting stars and fireflies broke into the monotony of the trek and made me feel nature was encouraging those who tried to aid her. At 4 am, walking back to the lodges, we came across another nesting turtle. We worked with her till nearly 6 am, the sun rising as she finally made her way back to the ocean, enabling a rare site—seeing a Leatherback by day.

Since my first night, Mari and I have gone out patrolling nightly, doing what we could to help, and feeling closer to nature in the process. We were scheduled to leave on April 10th, Good Friday, but have extended our stay through Easter. So while the rest of Central America will be observing Semana Santa, we’ve opted for a subtler communion, right here with the turtles.

Posted: April 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Costa Rica | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Volcan Pacaya

Being told the prices of things in other countries is a little like constantly having to adjust a barometer. Price equates to value, and so by adjusting to the countries price systems, I gain a better understanding of the country, its resources and/or direction. I might not put such a high value on Pizza Hut, but Guatemala apparently does.

So last week when Mari and I were told of a $5 volcano hike, not only was the bar not raised, we didn’t even pick it up. But the guide told us it would take 5-6 hours, so we thought if nothing else we’d get some exercise and save a little on the day doing it.

Our first inkling that we were going to get our money’s worth was when our bus stopped at the foot of the volcano, and 2 men got on the bus to try to sell us walking sticks. The French people beside me purchased them, which did nothing to persuade me of its need. As we got off the bus, a dozen horses met us and were being offered as taxis up the mountain. Mari and I said no. Instead, we lined up behind our guide, a man who looked to be in his late fifties and topping out at about 5 feet. In Spanish he told the group to go at our own pace, take rests if we need it, and to walk carefully. Then he turned around and sped off up the mountain. We followed suit, racing up the hill, at a pace too fast to take in our surroundings. Instead, I concentrated on 3 things: not slipping on the thousands of Pumice stones lining the path, trying to catch my breath, and not falling to the very back and becoming “that guy.”

About an hour into the hike, a Spanish mother of 2 overtook me for the final time catching up to her daughter as she ran up the hill back and forth on the trail because the hike in itself didn’t offer enough of a challenge to her youth. Behind me was an American, one of the few people having a more difficult time than me, in full Under Armour outfit, sweating ridiculously. A European boy near me constantly asked his dad if he could get off his horse taxi and walk the path. I almost asked the dad if I could have his son’s horse ride if he didn’t want it. Mari overheard near the back of the group an American accent say, “I’m already walking as fast as I possibly can!” 2 hours in and the French couple with the walking sticks passed in front of me. Damn.

Every once in awhile I would turn to Mari to see how she was faring. The length of the hike seemed inversely proportionate to the length of her answers and the fairness of her face. Near the top of the volcano, Red Mari made an appearance and was only answering that she was OK by nodding her head.
Eventually though, our ascension up the mountain turned into an even-leveled hike as the terrain turned to a volcanic black sand with sharp rocks jutting out. The fog rolled thick here, giving an other-worldy sense to all the fast-walking Euros, Mari and myself.

Finally, we got to a steep hill entirely made up of loose volcanic rock. And to our right was a slow flowing river of lava. There was no guard, no fenced off area, no rules besides those of common sense. So, people made their way to the lava, scrambling in every direction. Some ran up the hill sending mini-landslides of loose rocks on others, some went directly across to the lava eventually standing on recently cooled magma, red hot lava still visible through cracks a couple of feet below where they stood. Above me I heard an American yell “dude, it’s so hot…it’s so hot!” as he ran back from the lava sending rocks flying down the hill. His walking stick was on fire, a foot from the lava where he had just been.

My barometer had me sensing that this is so cool, and would NEVER be allowed in the United States.

Posted: April 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »