Friday, March 31, 2006

Early Morning Climbing in Pushkar

Thoughts That Crossed My Mind as I Climbed a Mountain in Pushkar to See the Sunrise
(Pushkar is a tiny holy Hindu city set around a lake where pilgrims come to bathe. In Pushkar all meat, alcohol and drugs are banned and you cannot display any physical contact with members of the opposite sex.)

Wow, it sure is dark for 5:00 am. - Do we really need to be up this early? - What is that I just stepped in? - Was that cow shit? - We really should have brought a flashlight. - We really should have brought a map. - Are you sure we should be going down this sandy path? - Does this lead anywhere?

Oh my god barking! - It sounds like dogs. - It sounds like hundreds of dogs. - I am going to be killed by a pack of wild dogs. - This is my fate. To be killed by rabid dogs in India. - Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. - Maybe I can climb that tree if they get any closer. - Ok. So the dogs are gone. Breathe. - I hate dogs. I really hate dogs.

Hey, there is a village up ahead. - That lady stiring her pot over a fire really gave us a funny look. - Why is everyone in the village staring at us like we are idiots? - The guide book said that this trek is best done to catch the sunrise. Where are all the other tourists?

Finally, the mountain! - Wow. That looks like a LOT of steps to the top. - Why did I get out of bed to do this? I should be back in bed sleeping at 5:30 in the morning. - Why? Why? Why?

We are halfway there. - More barking? - There are dogs at the top of the mountain too???? - How do dogs get up there anyway? - I bet those dogs are pretty hungry. I don't suppose they get a lot of food up there. - Do dogs eat humans?

I am so glad that these girls are also afraid of dogs and that we are stopping just short of the summit. - This is a pretty view. I can see the whole city and the lake - The desert looks amazing from here. - I am glad that I did this. - The sun rise is incredible. - It was well worth getting up at 5:00 am.

SHUT UP DOGS!! You are ruining my peaceful moment.

What was that noise in the bushes? - Oh no. OH NO. OH NO!!!! Not a monkey. - OH NO. OH NO. OH NO!!! Not a whole family of monkeys! - I am surrounded by monkeys. They have stealthily surrounded my as I was distracted by the sunrise. - I hate monkeys. I really hate monkeys. - I am going to die in India by being mauled by wild monkeys. - I escaped the monkeys of Lopburi only to fall victim to the hands of the wild monkeys of Pushkar. - Do monkeys eat humans? - That monkey just bared his fangs at me! - Can I outrun a monkey? - Let me down. Let me down. Please let me down from here. - Nice monkey, nice just sit there and let me pass. - I wish that I could run downhill faster.

Ok, we made it. - What is that noise now? - Those cows are running straight for us. - Is climbing that small wall a sufficient way of getting away from the cows? - I can't believe that cow just headbutted Alice. - Don't laugh even though it was hilarious. - Supress laughter. She might be hurt. - Ok you can laugh now. She's laughing too.

All these thoughts in the span of 1 hour. I am so glad that I am in India.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bollywood Style in Jaipur

After days of seeing Jaipur, India's pink city, some fellow travelers and I decided to check out the local cinema's Bollywood offering. It was certianly an experience.

Lining up to buy tickets was a tiring and confusing experience in itself. While in line, every two seconds someone stopped to tell me that, "Movie is in Hindi. No English." I repeatedly assured people that it would be fine, but from the looks on their faces I could tell that they were doubtful. Reaching the ticket counter, there was considerable confusion. The man could not understand which date or time I wanted to attend the movie, he did not understand how many tickets I needed and, of course, I was told, "Movie in Hindi. You no understand."

After finally sorting out dates and times, I was faced with the option of purchasing Ruby, Emerald or Diamond section tickets. Asking questions about the merits of each section did little to help my decision. The vendor could not explain why I would choose one over another, beyond repeating, "Diamond. More expensive. You like." Eventually I decided to go middle of the road, and was given three Emerald Section tickets, leaving me with a case of buyer's remource, wondering if I should have perhaps opted for the Diamond Section tickets.

The movie theatre was the nicest building I have seen since arriving in India. It actually rivaled the Taj Mahal. Entering the theatre, the doors opened into a large, ornate lobby. It was a high-ceilinged room with mirrors, gold and carpeting throughout. And it was clean, so clean, the cleanest thing I have seen in all of India. I felt like I had stepped into some high class hotel rather than a theatre. There were no bright neon lights, video games or huge movie posters. Instead, it felt like an old playhouse.

After buying a "Thumbs Up" - India's answer to Cola - and a chocolate bar, we entered to find our seats. The emerald section was at the back of the theatre, which struck me as being the worst seats. I later learned that the Diamond section was in the balcony. Strangely, it seemed that the best seats, those in the middle, were the least expensive ruby section. They were empty. I guess that selection of movie seats is a cultural thing.

Another cutlural phenomenon I experienced was the audience itself. Apparently it is acceptable to talk, or rather scream, into your lit up cell phone throughout a movie in India. I think that the man next to me was giving his wife a play-by-play breakdown of the plot. In fact, most people talked at full voice throughout the movie, and it was like they were in conversations on other intense subjects, rather than watching the film. It is also apparently not considered rude to get up repeatedly to leave the theatre, while stomping on people's toes. Finally, it also appears to be ok, and in fact encouraged, to bring wailing newborn babies to movies here in India. These babies cried through the entire 3 hours. I don't get it....

I cannot believe that I sat through a three hour movie that was completely in Hindi. Strangely enough, I found myself understanding the entire story, which wasn't difficult because it was a bad Weekend At Bernie's rip off. The story basically involved a drunk who wins the lottery, calls to claim the ticket and then promptly dies. His body is discovered holding the winning ticket and soon, after a series of increasing crazy events, the village tries to pretend that he is still alive so that the local lottery inspector will hand over the money. I am sure that you can imagine the dead body gags that ensured. Sadly there was only one impromptu dance number, which at least did not involve the dead body.

The audience loved it. They roared with laughter. They snorted. They cried. They pointed at the screen. They kicked the seats in front of them. They repeated back lines to each other. They didn't stand up until the full credits had rolled. They thought that it was cinematic genius.

Me? I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Stunning Taj Mahal in Shitty Agra

I have seen a lot of amazing things while traveling, but I was not ready for how impressed I would be by the Taj Mahal. On the flip side, as impressive as the Taj was, Agra was equally unimpressive. Quite simply, Agra is a shithole. I cannot think of another city in the world where I would rather not live.

Climbing off the train, I was fortunately saved by a gentle 24-year-old autorickshaw driver named Shabu. He was friendly, spoke excellent English, guided me everywhere and, most importantly, never once lied or tried to rip me off. For not trying to rip me off or lying to me (you have no idea how much I cherish this) I gave him an excellent tip. This gives you an idea of my current travel mindset, especially in India.

Shabu took me through the back streets of Agra - filled with poor kids, cows, goats and beggars - across the river where I got my first glimpse of the Taj. We went to the back of the Taj where we watched the sun set, causing the colours on the Taj to change. It was stunning.

As always, I drew quite a lot of attention and soon enough I had a small contingent of young boys following me, just staring. I am starting to get used to this, but it is still strange. Sometimes I feel like I am the Queen or on some diplomatic mission. I cannot understand what their fascination is.

A group of boys were playing cricket in the sand on the bank so I asked if I could try. This drew laughs, but they obliged. Misjudging the first throw - I thought that it was going to miss me - I was nailed squarely in the mouth as the ball bounced off the ground. Now, if the group of kids were laughing when I first asked to play, when I got hit in the face I thought that some of them were going to pee their pants with laughter. I couldn't help but laugh myself because it was pretty funny, but it left me with a swollen lip for the evening. Finally, on the second toss, I made quite good contact and they cheered for me. Leaving the back of the Taj, Shabu taught me how to drive his autorickshaw and let me drive until we hit a street where there was traffic.

Shabu's friend joined us for dinner and while we were eating we saw fireworks. Shabu told me that this was a wedding and took me to see it. In Canada, weddings are intensely private affairs, but this one was out in the middle of the street and drew quite a crowd. It consisted of a massive brass band of about 15 men, hundreds of people dancing and about 25 men holding what looked like street lamps on their heads to light up the party. It was loud and I was invited to join in the dancing but declined because - as it seems everywhere you go in all of India - it was only men I saw celebrating. I have been told several times by Indian men - rather frankly - that they think that Western women are "sexy", "easy in the sex", "like to go to bed a lot" and are "whores" (they like that word a lot). So I am trying not to indulge these perceptions.

Seeing the Taj up close the next day was obviously amazing but I was surprised by just how impressed I was. It was just so imposing and beautiful. Just like Angkor Wat, I won't try to describe it, but it left quite the impression. It was, however, a little strange being by myself at the world's most famous monument devoted to love. Fortunately there seemed to be no shortage of men and women who seemed to want to give me company. By the end of the day I felt how I am certain that mascots and those who dress in costumes at theme parks must feel. So many people asked to take photos with me, and as the day wore on, people stopped even asking. One woman just walked up and threw my arm around her, had the photo taken and then walked away without saying thank you. Several young boys tried to stealthily sit or stand next to me as their friend took their photo. An entire family who spoke no English simply surrounded me and took a family portrait with me.

I was told that if you look back as you leave the Taj Mahal that it will ensure your return. So as I left, I looked back...again and again and again.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Della in Delhi

5:30 am - foggy - cows emerging from the mist in the centre of a roundabout - skinny stick legged rickshaw drivers peddaling painfully slowly - beggars in my face, tugging at my sleeve - the lady in the orange sari has no teeth - more cows, eating garbage - filth - piles of garbage - shit on the road - dirty kids running next to me - cramped pink hotel room without windows - the stunning lady in the green sari is getting her hands hennaed - thousands of coloured bangles sparkling in the sun - "Only one rupee!" - honking - screaming - motorcylces - bikes - boys blocking the narrow roads pushing carts filled with oranges - potholed streets - "Where you from?" - a maze of alleys that take me to more cows, pink from Holi - piles of Indian sweets - men pissing and shitting in open public urinals in cramped streets - street vendors frying dough in huge vats of oil - insane chaotic roundabouts - India gate - men staring, staring, staring - "Can I take a photo with you?" - furious whistles - Presidential Palace - ushered off the empty street to make way for the PM's convoy of cars - Military Police marching with guns - one single dirty monkey - 17-year-old autorickshaw driver - insane, blaring Indian music - "First time to India madame?" - swerving - dodging - stopped in rows of traffic inhaling exhaust - Ghandi memorial - men washing out in the street - men sleeping on their rickshaws in the shade of the overpass - so many assasinated Prime Ministers - Indira Ghandi's bloody bullet-holed sari - burned pyjamas Raj Ghandi was wearing when assasinated - photos of a thin, dead Ghandi on a pile of flowers - "Come into my shop?" - a young shop owner insisting on dressing me in a sari - "Watch your hands." - "I said watch your hands." - Knee to the chest - crazy wedding proposal from lunatic Indian man who drops to his knees and wants to marry me immediately - National Museum - Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh - crazy red-eyed guru with wild grey beard in my face asking for money - queing, queing, queing at the railway station - "You want rickshaw?" "You want taxi?" "Where you go?" - fruit vendors - flies settling everywhere - naan, thali, chai tea, lemon soda - Sihks, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians - strange hippie travelers - the foul smell of stale urine - railway station 5:00 am train to Agra - throngs of people staring, staring, staring with a hopeless look - men shitting outside as the train rolls past - shacks, shanties and people sleeping outside - a transvestite drag queen begging for money on the train, making everyone laugh - always the people, everywhere you turn...the crush of's a miracle that Delhi doesn't collapse under its own weight and the chaos of all these people - "Anything in India is possible!" - and....


That was Delhi.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Last Night In Bangkok - Eating Crickets and Scorpions

I had planned on a quiet night - a night of planning for India, a night of packing, a night of reflection before leaving SE Asia for the next leg of my trip...

Instead, last night in Bangkok was an evening of debauchery and drinking like I thought I was in high school again. I spent the night drinking "buckets" - the type of drink that an 18-year-old chooses because "You can't even taste the alcohol dude!!" I have only seen buckets in Thailand and they are vile. They consist, literally, of a large pail (hence the name "bucket") filled with ice, 12 oz. of Sangsom (Thai) whisky, a small bottle of Red Bull and topped off with coke. Insert four straws and it becomes the communal drink of the people you are out with - in my case, two 23-year-old Germans and a 24 year-old from Chile who insisted I get trashed on my last night in Bangkok.

Let's just put it this way - the night ended with me eating a cricket leg and the ass of a fried scorpion at 4 am. Yeah.

So tonight I say goodbye to SE Asia and fly to India. I am sad about this so...

Things I Will Miss About SE Asia

1. Cute, friendly kids
2. Thai, Cambodian and Laos food
3. Drives past rice paddies on the back of a motorbike
4. Angkor Wat
5. Cheap food at night markets
6. Caving
7. Swimming in clear lagoons
8. Local hospitality (except for in Vietnam)
9. Eager locals who want to practice their English
10. Waxy, dead communist leaders
11. Vietnamese karaoke
12. The pastries - I will miss the pastries SO much
13. Watching sunsets (I never paid much attention to sunsets when I was at home in Canada)

Things I Will Not Miss About SE Asia

1. Monkeys
2. Rats
3. Cockroaches
4. Aggressive Vietnamese touts - "Cyclo madame? Bracelet madame? You come into my store madame? Pineapple lady?"
5. Asian hoarkers
6. Vietnamese food
7. "Massages" (aka torture)
8. Children with lice sitting next to me on local buses in Laos
9. Hue
10. Jackass scuba instructors
11. Mosquitos

So now I am halfway into the trip - 3 months to go. I had the most amazing time here in SE Asia and can only hope that the second half in India/Nepal/Tibet is just as good.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rat House Whores - Pak Beng, Laos

A Conversation Recenly Overheard in the Most Disgusting Guesthouse I Have Ever Stayed At

G1 - Girl #1
G2 - Girl #2
G3 - Girl #3
LO - Laos Guesthouse Owner

G1 - What are we going to do? We can't stay here.
G2- It's pretty bad, but all the other rooms we looked at are the same. They're all equally disgusting.

G3 - Yeah, it's only one night. We get back on the boat tomorrow.
G1 - Oh my God! I just stepped in poo. Rat poo! It's everywhere all over the floor! Gross!
G2 -
You're freaking out over nothing...
- Oh my God! Look. It's a rat hole in the wall. That's where the rats live.
- I'm sure there aren't any rats...
G1 - No look! Someone wrote above the hole. It says "RAT HOUSE WHORES". Why would they write that if there were no rats?
G2 - I'm sure that it's just a joke...
G3 - Actually, I think she's right. It does look like a rat hole and someone did write "RAT HOUSE WHORES" above it.
G1 -
(yelling at Laos guesthouse owner) Come here! There are rats in this room. Look.
LO - What?
G1 - Rats. In hole. Look.
LO -What?
LO - No understand.
G1 - Look at the hole! It says RAT HOUSE WHORES. It says that because that is where the rats live. RATS.
LO - Ohhhhh.....(imitating rat noises) eeeeee eeeee eeee eeeeeee
G2 - Yes. Rats! Bad. We want to move rooms.
LO - No worry. Rats no come at night.
G3 - So there are rats here?
LO - No worry. Rats nice.
G1 - Rats nice? I am worried. If there are rats here I am pretty sure that they will come at night and that they won't be nice. Can you at least fill the hole?
LO - What?
LO - Ok. Fill hole.
G1 - Oh my God I hate this place.

Five minutes later...

(girly shrieking)
G2 - Calm down! It is just a gecko.

Overheard on the floor in my room when the power unexpectedly goes out in the entire guesthouse...
(scratching noise of claws clicking on the wood floor under my bed)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Luang Prabang Kills the Love Affair With Laos


Luang Prabang, Laos - Laos authorities annouced the creation of a task force to investigate a female Canadian's report of abuse suffered during a recent traditional Laos massage in Luang Prabang.

Della Rollins, a 28 year-old traveler and professional wrestler, filed an official complaint with Laos officials this week, alleging that she was throttled, pinched, punched and suffocated during a $3, hour-long massage.

Rollins claims that the massage started out innocently, but quickly progressed into a painful experience, where her body was contorted into several unnatural, uncomfortable positions, culminating with the masseuse climbing onto her back, effectively suffocating her.

"At one point the massuese climbed onto the table and was punching me. I was not sure that I was going to make it. Thoughts of friends and family helped me get through it," said Rollins.

In Canada Rollins had been attending bi-weekly massage therapy appointments with a registered massage therapist and was devasted by the experience. "I feel like all the work that I had accomplished with my massage therapist Krystyne has been erased," she said before breaking down into tears.

Having obtained a copy of Rollins' official complaint, photos show deep finger and hand-shaped bruises along her calves and wrist. Laos medical representatives sitting on the task force investigating the allegations of assault have been quick to point out that Rollins' injuries are consistent with those seen in other cases of massage abuse. In recent years there has been a rash of massage assaults on foreigners in South East Asian countries, including Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Rollins herself had been a casualty of a negative massage experience two years prior in Thailand, but had not felt that it was necessary to report that incident to Thai officials. She narrowly avoided being impaled through the nose with a perfectly manicured nail during a face massage, despite having requested a foot massage.

"I had such a bad experience two years ago, but that was in Thailand. I thought that Laos was going to be different," said Rollins.

Adding further mystery to the allegations is the questionable nature of the sex of the alleged abuser. In her complaint Rollins cited that she was unable to determine the sex of her masseuse, claiming only that the masseuse was a "Laos Manlady", a female who looks manly, a reverse "Thai Ladyboy".

"The View" massage shop in Luang Prabang refused to be interviewed for this piece, but issued a statement claiming, "We give good massage. Canadian stupid. She no know good massage."

The experience has not been all negative for the Canadian who claims that she will be incorporating some of the moves into her wrestling repetoire. Rollins is said to be considering replacing her signature "backpack" wrestling move with the new "Laos Massage", a move that would emulate the painful, suffocating position that she experienced when the Laos Manlady masseuse climbed on her back.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Ready to Marry Laos - Vang Vieng

For the trip to Vang Vieng the TITs (Ten Independent Travelers) decide to pay for a covered pickup truck to take us the 3 1/2 hour drive. It turns out to be the best decision and I stand outside on the back of the truck on a platform (holding on tightly to be sure I don't fall off) watching the rivers and mountains of Laos fly past as the sun sets.

Our first day in Vang Vieng three of us decide to rent motorcycles to explore some of the caves in the region. The drive takes us through gorgeous mountains, through fields and down dusty roads. As always, children wave and scream hello as we pass. The first cave is beautiful and we are the only ones in it. It is cool inside and before climbing back down we stop to admire the view across the river.

After stopping for lunch along the river, we drive to a second cave. Outside is a giant clear lagoon filled with blue water from the caves. We stop to swim - swinging off ropes, jumping off of the high trees and watching locals cross the bridge. Climbing into the cave, we are treated to a giant bronze reclining Buddha that the locals have placed inside to worship. With the light streaming in it is stunning.

Driving home, the sun is setting and I decide to walk back into town on my own. At this point, the day has already been amazing, but it only gets better. Stopping to take some photos of children, I am asked by a quiet man if he can practice his English with me. I agree and soon he has invited me to teach his English class. I ask when class begins and he gestures the school behind us, pointing to his watch to indicate that class is starting now. I am filthy from the motorbike and soaked from my wet bathing suit under my clothes, but I join his class anyway.

Somehow I am suddenly in a brokendown Laos classroom teaching 25 children how to pronounce colours in English. At first they quietly repeat the colour after me. Then I encourage them to yell the answer louder and louder until they are all screaming "purple! yellow! blue!" as loud as they can. I am surprised that the children are actually listening to me and I realize how fun it is to run around the class pointing to objects, asking "What colour is this?" while the kids scream the answer at the top of their lungs.

I then take them to the field outside. I yell a colour and the first kid back to find an item of that colour and bring it back to me wins candy. I can tell that the teacher thinks that this is a little unorthodox, but he simply stands there beaming at me. The kids seem to be learning and he is clearly just happy to have a native English speaker teach his class.

As the class ends, the teacher gets them to chant my name and soon I am in the middle of a circle of kids screaming, "Della! Canada! Della! Canada!" Before leaving, they all pile on me to say goodbye - grabbing onto my arms, hanging off of my back, kissing me. One wraps himself around my leg and will not let go.

The next few days in Vang Vieng children call my name as they bike past and each time I smile. Laos continues to charm me over and over again. I was invited to stay and teach for a year. I am considering the offer. Anyone got a better counter-offer?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Officially in Love With Laos - Vientienne

The love affair with Laos continues...

Two seconds after stepping onto the streets of Vientienne I heard my name. Turning around, I saw that it was one of the guys I had met in Vietnam who had formed a large group of travelers. They had decided to rent bikes the next day to travel 30 km outside the city to Buddha Park. Having dubbed themselves the TITs (Ten Independent Travelers), I was allowed to join the group because one of the Swedish guys had bailed due to stomach illness. So I was primarily invited to join them because NITs (Nine Independent Travelers) isn't as funny as TITs.

The bike ride was difficult, it was hot and 30 km is actually quite far, but the park was quirky and worth the ride. Buddha Park is filled with strange statues, including buddhas and a giant pumpkin, which you enter through a giant Hellmouth. Inside the pumpkin, visitors are greeted to the artist's vision of Hell. It was weird, but somehow after some of the things I have seen on this trip, it didn't seem so strange.

Three of the guys bailed on the way home, strapping their bikes to the roof of a tuk-tuk. So the rest of us began biking the 30 km home. About 5 km into the ride we heard loud music. Passing several local village homes, we saw money trees and were greeted by people dancing, singing and waving madly. Each family motioned us to stop and we finally pulled over at one home. Immediately I was handed a beer Lao and the family surrounded us, speaking excitedly in Laos. No one spoke English, but we understood that it was some type of local festival and everyone was quite drunk. I spent the next hour and a half surrounded by drunk Loas men trying to understand what was going on, but having the best time of my trip.

At the first home we visited, one man dressed in a cowboy hat and wearing broken sunglasses stumbled around. Another wore a black t-shirt, a US bandana and aviator sunglasses, and was trying to prove to us how much he could drink by slamming back large glasses of beer back-to-back. A skinny man carrying a toy gun, covered in flour and lipstick could only explain to us in English that this was a special festival for their village. Being the only girl from our group at this house, every two seconds someone from the family grabbed me and insisted that I take a photo with them. We later learned that this was the first time non-Laos people had ever been to their house.

Moving on to another Laos house, a large drunken jam session was already underway. The band consisted of a drummer wearing a construction hat, a topless fat man with crazy hair walking around pounding a stick on the ground, a zen-like guitar player, several beret-wearing triangle players, some random backup singers and a lead singer - the drunkest of the lot - wearing a motorcycle crash helmet, a black leather motorcylce jacket and crooked sunglasses who only seemed to be able to drunkenly sing "I looooove youuuuu!!" in English. More beer was passed around and bongo drums were shared. At some point men appeared wearing women's clothing and makeup. All of the families we visited were obviously incredibly poor, but were some of the kindess, more generous hosts I have ever encountered.

With the sun setting and a 25 km bike ride still ahead of us, three of us set out on bike, leaving four behind (we later learned that they were paraded around town, prayed at the temple and took a tuk-tuk home). Deciding to try a shortcut, we drove down a crazy dirt road where more villagers screamed at us to join them. Along the way we passed huge emerald rice paddies, small shacks and dirty kids who waved at us and ran after our bikes. At one point the houses disappeared, the road narrowed and I was worried that we were lost. Fortunately we were saved by a French-speaking Laos Catholic nun in a pick-up truck who gave us an overly-detailed map of the ride back to Vientienne, which included several unnecessary landmarks, including where she lived and where the church was. Still, it got us home.

Arriving into town as the sun was setting, we pulled into our hotel next to the National Laos Stadium just in time to catch the Laos soccer league playing. The game was entertaining and no one charged us anything to watch, even though the stadium was full. At one point, one of the goalkeepers got nailed in the groin with the ball and dropped to the ground in pain. The crowd went nuts with laughter and it was another five minutes before they had all quiteted down and started to pay attention to the game again. The soccer was lousy, but it was a great way to end the day.

Despite a 60 km bike ride in 30+ degrees heat, the bike to Buddha Park was one of the best days of my trip. I am continuing to fall deeper and deeper in love with Laos.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Falling in Love in Laos - Savannahket

After a 5 hour bus ride from Vietnam I arrive at the Laos border. The actual crossing on the Laos side consists of a small shack where a man watches over an empty dusty street filled with cows. Immediately I fall in love with Laos.

After crossing the border I am shoved onto a local Laos bus going to Savannaket. It is already full of Laos locals and along the 7 hour route we stop whenever someone waves us down from the side of the road or when someone yells that they want to get off. People strap motorcycles, cages and bags of rice to the roof. Soon the bus is overfilled. People sit in the aisles, in the stairways, on the floor. An older woman and a young child climb on the bus an hour into the trip. There is no room so they are crouching on the floor. I offer them the edge of my seat, which they eagerly accept. Along with the Laos man next to me, there are now four of us on a seat built for two. We travel this way for 6 hours.

In Savannakhet I get a small guesthouse that is a room in a Laos family home. They are lovely and friendly. They open their home to me and show me photos of their family and only charge me $2 for the room. They offer to loan me a bike for free. I am shocked after Vietnam where everything costs money and the people are not nearly as friendly.

The next morning I wake up and wander Savannakhet, a small town in the south of Laos. Two teenage boys pull up next to me in a tuk-tuk and ask if I want a ride somewhere. I say that I will walk. They shake their head and say "No charge, we just want to practice our English." I don't believe them and keep walking - nothing is ever free in SE Asia. They persist in a friendly way and something about them - something genuine and real - convinces me that they are safe to drive with. They drive me to the bank and, as promised, ask for nothing. I am left shocked.

Wandering the streets, people stop on their motorcycles every two minutes to pull up and tell me that I am beautiful and then drive away. How can you not fall in love with a country where people tell you that you are beautiful as you just walk down the street? Wandering around, cute children start to follow me. Soon I am like the Pied Piper. There are 20 children tagging along behind me. I try to ask them where the dinosaur museum is. I do my best dinosaur impression for them, which they love, but do not understand me. I take their photo. They give me flowers and candy. One tries to give me money. They are the cutest and friendliest children I have ever seen.

Walking along the river teenagers on bikes stop to talk to me. They ask to practice their English. When I ask what they want to talk about, one says "Albert Einstein." Soon more people are surrounding me. They all want to talk to me. I begin to feel like a celebrity and realize that I have not seen another Westerner all day. From across the street a man yells "I wish you much happiness as you walk around Savannakhet!" Every person I pass smiles broadly and says hello in Laos. Not a single person tries to sell me anything. I fall deeper and deeper in love with this country.

Passing a buddhist temple, a group of novice monks are carving Buddhas. They smile when they see me and motion that it is ok for me to come closer and take photos. They ask me in broken English where I am from. They ask about my religion. They ask about Switzerland for some strange reason and are very excited when I tell them that I have been there. I spend the next 2 hours being toured around the monastary where they insist on getting keys to open up all of the special temples (which I am not allowed in because I am a woman).

Watching the sunset on the river I am struck by how lovely Laos is. I have a feeling that this a love affair that might last.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Saigon Reloaded...With Family

A good backpacker guesthouse/hotel: You are provided with toilet paper and a towel.

A great backpacker guesthouse/hotel: You are provided with toilet paper, a towel and a hot shower.

An excellent backpacker guesthouse/hotel: You are provided with toilet paper, a towel, a hot shower and a shower curtain.

An outstanding, luxurious backpacker guesthouse/hotel: You are provided with toilet paper, a towel, a hot shower, a shower curtain, television (of mostly TV shows you cannot understand) and airconditioning.

So you can just imagine what it was like for me to stay in a 5 star hotel after flying to Saigon to meet my parents and Aunt and Uncle. Not only was there a television, air conditioning, hot water and all the rest, but there was a pool, a massive breakfast buffet and you could actually flush your toilet paper (everywhere else in SE Asia there is a dirty garbage can reserved for used toilet paper).

It was great to get a few days in Saigon with my family who were on holidays from their trip to Japan - and not just because of the hotel. Besides the shopping (sunglasses, 2 handmade silk Chinese lanterns, a t-shirt, a photocopied copy of the Laos Lonely Planet and another paperback book - all for less than $20!!) and the fact that I loaded my family up like pack mules with things I no longer needed to carry around Asia, the highlight of the few days in Saigon was our trip on the Delta Mekong.

Hiring a small boat and guide, our first stop on the river was a factory where terracotta tiles, pottery and cats (yes, pottery cats) are handmade in huge kilns. Our second stop was a nursery where we were shown local fruit trees. We were quickly greeted by the crazy 85-year-old owner of the property, a man who looked exactly like Ho Chi Minh who spoke no English. We stopped for a taste of local fruit grown on site and Uncle Ho came and joined us, bringing a nasty powerful wine that he makes himself. After a few toasts - Uncle Ho yelling "Yo!" with great vigour - it was apparent that he was quite the boozehound. He drank a lot of wine while we were there, but our guide Nam told us not to worry, that everyday he "gets drunk, goes to sleep, wakes up and then feels better."

Heading up river, we passed houses along its banks and boats where people lived - washing themselves in the river, laying in hammocks or hanging out laundry. We stopped at a local factory where were shown how puffed rice, coconut candy and rice paper are handmade. I tried to make some rice paper myself, but while the woman who taught me made a perfect, uniform round rice paper, mine was mangled and filled with holes.

On the way back we passed through a floating market where boats hung whatever it was they were selling - jackfruit, mango, banana - from the mast of their ship. It was amazing to see how people live in this area of Vietnam. It is so different from home.

Leaving Saigon to fly back up to Hue to cross into Laos, it was a sad goodbye. It was especially sad because I realized that over the last few months I have had too many teary goodbyes. So almost halfway into the trip, I am happy to be traveling and having the most amazing trip, but also looking forward to some happy reunions - with friends and family - in the next few months.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Hanging Out with Uncle Ho in Hanoi

When I die I want to be preserved and put on display in a mausoleum, just like Ho Chi Minh (even if his dying wish was to be cremated - all the great communist leaders get to be embalmed and put on display, it's part of the job description).

Visiting Uncle Ho's body in Hanoi has to rank up there with the weirdest things I have seen on this trip...and in my life. Arriving at the mausoleum, I saw that the line to view Uncle Ho's body was huge. He has been dead for over 30 years and all these people are still willing to wait over 30 minutes to check out his body for a few seconds?

At first I was impressed at how orderly and calm the Vietnamese were, lined up perfectly. This didn't last long. At the line-up to drop your camera off (no photos of Uncle Ho allowed) all choas broke out and they pushed past me, shoving and clawing their way to the counter. At first I was offended, but quickly figured out that I would also have to force my way or be left behind. So I body checked and blocked a fair number of Vietnamese, many of them men, to drop off my camera. Some of these little guys are tough and they didn't seem to care if they trampled over a woman. Clearly the principles of communism are at work - the Vietnamese shove, elbow and block everyone equally.

As the line approached the mausoleum - an imposing grey structure, very communist-looking - guards dressed in white uniforms marched along carrying wreaths. Once inside, we entered a high-ceilinged, large dim room with a glass-covered coffin in the center that holds Uncle Ho's body. Four guards stood around the body and on the marble walls were the large communist hammer, sickle and star. Ho Chi Minh himself looked awfully waxy in a basic navy suit, lying with his hands crossed at his waist. The freakiest thing of all was his beard, perfectly preserved as it appears in all of his photos. So freaky! After 30 strange seconds of staring at the body, I was ushered out. Leaving the mausoleum I couldn't shake the feeling of how strange the whole experience was.

Hanoi itself was an interesting city, especially the Old Quarter where I stayed. It is a maze-like area of streets where clusters of stores in one area all sell the same goods. There is a stringed instrument street, a army shoulder bag street, a mattress street, a chinese paper lantern street. Many of the streets are named after what they sell. It was odd. I was staying near what can only be described as packing tape street. A whole block of tiny stores that sell only packing tape - rows of it, in different styles and colours, all stacked together. I can't imagine that the Vietnamese need that much packing tape, but apparently they do. So bizarre.

Hanoi was also the venue of great tragedy for me. Rushing on my last morning, I broke the zipper on my bag so that it would not zip shut. Now to you, the person sitting at home reading this, you will think that this is no big deal - So what? Your bag broke. Big deal. However, let me remind you that this is the one posession that I own on the road. It is like my home. It would be like having the roof blown off of your house. Fortunately the bag got fixed, but in Bangkok I will need to part with it. So I am trying to spend some quality time with my bag before I say goodbye. Strangely I am sad to see it go. It has followed me on all my trips for the last six years and I am quite sentimental about this backpack. I can't believe how attached to it I have grown. Perhaps when I get home I will build a mausoleum for it and put it on display.