Latest update posted 5/24/02
Greetings from NZ. I am in the big city of Paekakariki. No idea how to pronounce it but it is a relaxing costal town north west of Wellington. I am resting here for a couple of days until my flight to Thailand on Monday. Since Christchurch I have been rather active. I was able to start my ticket with a stop in Wellington. I wanted to come up here since my first year on the ice when I had read about a river trip in the Whanganui National Park. I spent 5 days paddling through the very scenic canyons of this river. Hard to describe, as we do not have any river quite like it back home. It is a cross of the hidden canyons of Lake Powell, the cliffs of the Buffalo National River and the lush green of the Kona Coast. I came across only a few other people on the river.
From the river I climbed to the volcanic mountains of Tongariro National Park for a week of hiking. This park gained worldwide attention a few years ago when the volcano, Mt Ruapehu erupted one day as people were skiing on its slopes. The locals must have been tossing beautiful young ladies into the top ever since, as there were no tremors during my visit. On the down side this also resulted in a shortage of lovely young ladies to hike with.
I have come up with lots of ideas to keep my self-busy in SE Asia. The trouble will be figuring out which ones to do, as always there will not be enough time to fit everything in. So far I have booked a liveaboard dive trip in the Mergui Islands in the Adaman Sea off the coast of Burma. This is an area that has log been off limits due to the countries closed doors to foreigners. As they have been open for only a few years the diving should be very good. I will be on a sailboat for 8 days tracking down manta rays and whale sharks.
Looking on the map NZ and Thailand do not seem that far apart. The logistics of travel has turned this into a 24 journey. I left my hotel in Wellington at 4 am and finally rested my head on a new one in Bangkok at midnight. Now that I think of it the trip was actually 30 hours adding up all the time changes.
Crossing the Tasman was simple enough but the 9 hours in Sydney were not all that necessary in my mind. I did pass the time by napping in the Royal Botanical gardens by the opera house and having lunch on the harbor. The only challenge I had all day was trying to explain to the Australian immigration officer that I was only spending an afternoon in town and that I was not a spy. He thought it was odd that I left the USA just after Sept 11 and spent the past 5 months in Antarctica and one in NZ. He kept asking what part of the government I worked for. Hard to convince him that I do not work for the govt. when I fly to Antarctica on an Air Force plane and work for Raytheon Polar Services. Even though Raytheon makes all kinds of stuff for the government he was not totally convinced that I am just a guy who pumps gas. Some times I think it would be easier to tell them, EYes, I am a spy and your Prime Minister is expecting me. Now get my bags and go find me a Limo.E
Ill be here for a day or 3 sorting out visas and transportation for Cambodia and Vietnam. I have 2 weeks before my dive trip so I better find a beach to get my tan in shape.
April 7 2002
I have put on a few miles between Bangkok and Phuket. Since my last visit to Bangkok 4 years ago it has only grown bigger and noisier. As I had seen the temples and historical sights last time around I had no desire to linger any longer than necessary. I spent a day getting my Vietnam visa in order and indulged myself in the delights of Thai cuisine. Sitting down eating was about the only activity I could handle as any other movement resulted in a rainstorm from my forehead. It is stinking hot here. 99 % of all the water I drink seems to gush right out from my skin. The other 1% is a little yellow pellet I produce when I pee. A cool breeze from McMurdo would be nice. Wait a minute bad thought. I would then have to put my boots on to stroll along the beach while I munch on a mango. Even worse all the bikini ladies would be engulfed by evil Carharts. The hardships our bodies have to endure for a bit of fun.
As soon as I retrieved my passport from the Vietnam Embassy I got a bus ticket south. Even though I had just endured a 24 hour journey to get here I was ready for another 24 to get away. These unfortunately would not be as comfortable, no in flight movies, or free cocktails, and a seat half the size. I exchanged a few hundred Baht for half of a piece of an index card with some scribble on it. This apparently would get me all the way to Penang island in Malaysia. A few years ago the tourism department launched a big campaign to boost visitation with a slogan "Amazing Thailand" I think they got this idea from their bus system. I would have to agree that it is truly amazing. I spent about $9 for a scrap of paper that would deliver me to a different country hundreds of miles away. Amazingly a mini van picked me up from my hotel at 6:30 as I was promised. From there we drove all over the place picking up other travelers. After half an hour we stopped on the side of the road and were told to get out. Seeing a lot of other people standing about I assumed that this was a popular bus stop even though it was only a bit of sidewalk. The most amusing bit was that after a half hour in the mini bus I had gotten out less than a block from my hotel. Standing on the curb with a dumb bewildered look I was an easy target for the 4 foot ticket agent. A small hand tugged at my arm and a voice said "give me ticket". I produced my scribbled note and received a toothless smile and in exchange for the ticket I got a sticker patted onto my chest. Just my luck after months on the ice the first woman to grope me is a 60 year old ticket agent the size of a penguin. I felt like a kindergartner waiting for the bus on the first day of school. Every one around me had their bags and name tags with their destination stuck to them. Busses came and went while the ticket agent herded people to the correct busses. When mine pulled up I felt like a goat prodded along by the toothless penguin. Fortunately unlike Africa, livestock are not aloud on the bus.
I rode this bus through the night and ended up with rather bruised knees. The lady in front of me was convinced that if she kept trying, eventually my knees would shrink and her seat would recline. Needless to say they did not and she just got pissed off and tried harder. I think my next trip will be to Sweden where there are lots of tall people so busses, beds, and doorways that are designed with big people in mind. At 5:30 am the bus pulled over and shooed us all off. With a groggy head I followed everyone else and then watched the bus drive away. I had no idea where we were but I knew it was not Penang. Soon a new ticket agent appeared and segregated us by our destination tags. After the sun rose mini vans began to appear to pluck away at our numbers. I was one of the last to be whisked away only to be kicked out on the other side of town with a new batch of lost sheep. The herding of the circus animals took place in each major town as I was shifted from bus to bus making my way south. By the end of the day the most "Amazing" thing happened, I arrived in Penang.
Penang has a colorful history and equally colorful buildings, mosques, temples, and shrines. The cultural diversity here is impressive. Explored the towns neighborhoods, religious sites, old British forts and colonial buildings. The extremes here are incredible, in front of one shop a man may be repairing a lawn mower while his neighbor to the left would be selling the latest high tec electronics and the one on the right dried squid. Malaysia has the strongest economy in South East Asia and it shows in places like the highway which looks like the Maryland Turnpike complete with toll's and service plazas. Even with its emerging economy it still holds on to a fair amount of poverty and elements of the very third world.
I think my most unusual experience in Malaysia would have to be lunch on the top of Penang Hill. The British Colonists had developed a park on the top of this 3,000 foot hill. The temperature change was a very welcome relief from the steamy coastal area. A funicular was even installed in the late 1800's. The top of the hill provided a commanding view of town, the island and the mainland off in the distance. I was there around lunch time and as you know the first thing on the menu I do not understand is what I order. Always an adventure and today's lunch was no exception. The broken english description I got sounded good and what eventualy arrived in front of me was truely a unique culinary wonder. In a large bowl a mound of shaved ice swam in a pool of condensed milk. This was coated in a light sprinkling of sugar small cubes of florescent red, green, and blue tasteless Jell-O. Pearched on top a scoop of chocolate ice-cream struggled against the heat. Not too bad if this were the sum of all the ingridance. Three key elements are still to be added which make this a local delight. The first were a bunch of black gooey chucks that tasted nasty on their own but when they were smothered in canned corn and canned kidney beans the collective concoction makes my stomach woozy again just thinking about it. These are the moments that I regret being forced to clean everything off my plates as kids. This is a condition that I have not been able to break. Some how I did manage to choke it all down with a smile to the delight of the cook. The translation of his comment was probably "Holly shit that tourist actually ate it."
After a few days I returned to Thailand and the beaches off the west coast town of Krabi. This is the kind of area "The Beach" and one of the James Bond movies were filmed. Giant limestone cliffs jutting out from the sea. Recently it has become a very popular rock climbing spot. I stayed for 5 days climbing with people I meet. Unfortunately I stuck out like a sore thumb. Even though I know how to do all the cool things like tie figure eights and belay I did not have enough parts of my body pierced or tattooed. Always wanting to fit in with the cool kids I had to accessorize. Fortunately I am over 12 so I did not need father approval for the piercings and now I am not the only one in the family with out tattoos.
I have 2 days here in Phuket before boarding my boat for the next week. I am looking foreword to this as I am ready to get away from all the noise. This has to be one of the loudest countries I have ever been to. I hope you all had a happy easter. I celebrated with a hard boiled egg at breakfast. I'll send another update after my dive trip.
Saturday April 20
Chiang Mai, Thailand
I have drifted ashore from my week of diving off the coast of Burma/Myanmar. Boat life has been worlds apart from my other wonderings here. From Phuket I traveled north and crossed the Pakchan River on a long tail leaving Thailand in its wake. Approaching the nations southern outpost of Kawthoung by this way provides a unique introduction to this country. Myanmar's immigration office stands alone on an island just off the port town. The tide was high allowing our boat to tie off half way up the submerged stairway leading to the office perched above.
Four photos, numerous pristine US dollars, a stack of forms, and a thundering of stamps later, we were officially welcomed. As we motoring around the bay our dive boat; Crescent came into view. The crew were all on deck and pulled us aboard. The anchor was raised while the sun set on the golden spires of Kawthoungs Wat and we headed out to sea. Crescents local crew of 4 and a divemaster from Seattle ensured that we would have a fantastic holiday. The boat can sleep 10 but fortunately for us this weeks trip was not fully booked. My fellow divers included a couple my age from England and an older woman from Austria. Our divemaster and the Brits were great company but thoughts of lashing the Austrian to the anchor had been passed around more than once.
During the course of the week we traveled throughout the Merigo Archipelago diving the reefs and exploring deserted beaches. Highlights for me were the numerous Manta Rays that inquisitively glided past us. These have to be the most graceful creatures in the sea. With wing spans of 8 feet my little fins were no match for the Manta. However I was able to swim under it's belly along with the other remoras for great distances. In addition to this I found my very first wild sea horse. It's no wonder you never see them as their camouflage methods are very effective. Throughout the trip we had continuous sightings of sharks, eels, crustations, octopus, sea snakes, squid, and tropical fish of every description The soft and hard corals here are some of the best I have seen.
The dive company keeps an on line news letter and this is what Jesse our divemaster had to say about one of our dive with the mantas.Manta Rescue in the Mergui Archipelago EMarch 2002 We awoke at Black Rock with the usual feeling of excitement when you open your eyes and see only a single rock with nothing else (boat or land) even remotely in the vicinity. On our first dive we spent ten minutes looking into the blue water when we realized that the Mantas normally in the area were out to lunch at some other venue this morning. However we did see several Leopard Sharks, White tips and lots of Moray eels and schooling Trevally. While having our backs turned to the blue one of the divers got everyones attention to the Manta Ray patrolling just at the edge of our visibility. When we saw each other he came in to check us out as we went to him. After forty seconds he had enough, looking unimpressed with us and went his own way. Our next dive was one that will always be remembered by every one of the six divers with us this week. When at thirty meters, we waited at a rocky outcrop for any passing pelagic to swim by, a figure of a Manta Ray immerged from the limited visibility. Immediately you could tell that this Manta Ray was in trouble. It was obvious as to the problem as soon as he got close to us. A fishing hook was lodged deeply into his right mandible and about 15 meters of heavy fishing line was wrapped horizontally around his body. It was cutting about a quarter of the way through the center of his body. The fishing line was literally cutting the animal in half and unless someone were to do something at this moment he would, without question, die a painful death in the very near future. As he swam nearer, it was without question he was coming to us for help. As he approached he literally stopped swimming, allowing me to approach him. When I was on top of him I gently touched his back and he went completely still as to let me help him. Taking out my knife I had to cut the line in three places to let it fall free. He gave me as much time as I needed. Cutting and pulling it must have been close to four minutes before he was free. The line was gone but he still had a large hook connected with wire trace line hanging from his mouth. I tried again swimming underneath him this time, holding onto his mouth for support. I spent several anxious minutes trying to work the hook free, it would not come out. After I gave up Dave tried but to no avail. The Manta kept approaching hoping we could work it free but we were unable and he eventually left us. After twenty minutes in the water I noticed I only had about seventy-five bar left in my tank, due to the amount of nerves and energy involved in cutting the line. It seemed like eternity underwater until we finally surfaced. The experience was one of the most sad and beautiful at the same time. The remainder of the day we sailed to Fletcher Island where we talked about the dive and pondered upon the MantasEfuture. Report written by Jesse Huey EDivemaster onboard S/y Crescent.
Unfortunately not all is safe here with some locals still fishing with dynamite. During dives I could see the damage and hear the explosions much like the depth charges in the Red Sea. Shark numbers have also declined due to the increasing oriental markets demand for their fins.
The strangest part of the trip had to be my responsibility. I had absolutely none! In the morning our cook would have a cup of coffee waiting for me. Before every dive our deck hand fitted my fins to my foot as if I were trying on new shoes. Upon surfacing breakfast would already be sprawled across the table. In-between dives the only thing I had to think about was if the cloud above looked like dragon or an elephant. Quite a change from all my Broadreach dive trips.
Returning to Thailand I was quickly reintroduced to the speed and volume that makes this such an interesting place to explore. If you ever come here never sit next to a shrine with red paper scattered around. I did not understand its significance until an entire brick of firecrackers went off . It is customary to light off some fire crackers but I think this guy must have had a bad day and needed make up for it with some extra prayers.
I have taken the overnight train north to Chang Mai. This is a much more enjoyable option than the overnight bus. I was actually able to sleep most of the way. After a couple of hours into the journey the train crew worked their way through the cars converting the seats into beds. Pretty nifty set up and incredibly comfortable as long as you measure five and a half feet or less. I am now off to explore the town and uncurl my legs.
Friday April 27 2002
Luang Probang, Laos
Greetings from Laos the most bombed country in the world. That is quite a statistic considering "we were never here". Despite this claim the only evidence of a major war I have found are the warning about wondering off well-traveled trails. Tragically there are still thousands of unexploded landmines and bombs through out the country. Fortunately I got all my hiking desires out in New Zealand and dont plan on any off trail travel here in Laos.
Before I made my way north I spent a couple of days in Chiang Mai. This has become a very heavily touristed area with an emphasis on treks into the mountains, visiting the local hill tribes. I did not have a desire to join one of the trips, as they have become a very contrived experience. Instead I signed up for a cooking class. The Brits I meet on the dive trip have flown on to Nepal so I was in need of some new travel buddies. I was hoping I might get to meet some while cooking. Luck was not on my side as the only other person to sign up for that day was a dorky German guy. None the less this turned out to be a great day.
Before we could start cooking we went to the local market to buy out ingredient. This was by far the best part of the day. We traversed the market while our teacher picked up all kinds of odd-looking things explaining what they were, where they came from and how to prepare them. I did not quite understand what they did with the worms and some of the bugs. For some things its best just to except them as a Cultural DelicacyEand hope they are not on todays menu.
Back at our teachers home we chopped every thing up, ground a lot of chili, and stir fried till our arms ached. By the end we had enough food to feed the whole village. Everything came out delicious and I graduated from the class Magna cum BellyE
On my second day in town I spent $4 for the best thrill ride available in Thailand. I rented a motorbike and tackled the streets. The Thais drive on the left-hand side so I did need to keep reminding my self of that. This turned out to be the least of my worries as I have been traveling on the left for the past 2 months. The big challenge is to get into the flow of traffic with out crashing and then merging from one stream to the next. This took quite a bit of effort and I would not be able to get out of the city until I mastered it.
Imagine being the one black sheep in the middle of a large flock. First you stick out like a sore thumb. If you were to climb the tallest building in town and look down on all the bikes, tuc tucs, pushcarts, motorbikes and cars it would only take seconds to say, one of these things is not like the otherE Yup thats me the big white dorky tourist, making a mess of the local traffic pattern. I am continually amazed watching a family of 5 ride one motorbike while weaving around others loaded with coconuts.
Eventually got the hang of things and got out of town. I climbed up into the hills seeking out cooler temperatures, a sacred Wat, picturesque waterfalls and the presidential palace. The Wat was beautiful and unfortunately over run with tourists. On my hour hike up to the falls more water pored off my forehead than actual waterfalls. By the time I reached the palace it had just closed for the day. No worries, the ride through the mountains has been enjoyable on its own.
Looking down the valley it was difficult to make out Chiang Mai through all the haze. With slash and burn agriculture and air pollution at high levels I decided to stay up in the hills as long as I could. Not having a map made planning a route difficult so I set off with not plan in mind. The highlight of this journey was my stop in a little village. I got a snack and tried to calculate how far I could get on a tank of gas that read EE Not too far I decided.
There were no proper gas stations to be seen but with all the local motorbikes there had to be a source of fuel some where in town. Through some comical sign language I was directed toward one of the shops. I parked in front, lifted the seat and removed the gas cap. This I figured would make my needs obvious. The woman who ran the shop understood and asked supremeE I am embarrassed to say I had no idea what this thing took so just nodded yes. A few Thai words were exchanged with her 8-year-old daughter before she disappeared. Moments later she returned with a liter Coke bottle filled with fuel. Too easy I thought. The girl looked in the tank then looked at me shaking her head and then walked away. I looked in the tank curious as to what she saw. The only thing I could make out was a nearly empty tank. Looking back up the girl had returned with a second bottle of coke, this time with a reddish colored fuel. Well, I guess this thing doesnt take supremeEafter all. So much for my career as a fuels professional.
The rail line terminates in Chiang Mai forcing me to return to mini bus mayhem. I oragamied myself into the bus for the final push to northern Thailand and the Golden Triangle. Chiang Kong is on the banks of the Mekong River, which form the border between Thailand and Laos. I boarded a boat that was filled to the gunwales for the short trip into Laos.
After a few more stamps were added to my passport I changed some money. For $50 I was handed a 2-inch stack of notes valued at 475,250 Kip. Trying to convert all the zeros is way too much for my pea brain, especially on vacation. Conversions with my personal international exchange I simplified the process; a night at a guest house became equivalent to 5 beers, dinner at 3.75 beers, my upcoming 2 day boat trip 9 beers and an hour on the internet a whopping .025 of a beer. Speaking of beer, Laos has its own King of BeersE Beer Lao which is also the countrys only beer. Fortunately it is quite palatable.
The crossing of the Mekong was just the beginning of my river travel. For the next two days I floated south east watching the local fisherman cast nets for catfish, lumberjacks using elephants to pull trees to the river edge, and tons of kids having a blast splashing along the shores.
My arrival here in Luang Probang came just in time as I feared my but had gone permanently numb. There was no Aloha deck on this cruise, only cramped wooden benches. This is a wonderful town with a wealth of history. The French were the first to colonize Laos. Even though they have gone their presence is still felt through the architecture and yummy baguettes. With the addition of the ancient Buddhist temples and the current Lao people a few days will be needed here to soak it all in.
Friday, May 3 2002
The past two weeks have rocketed by. Time here seems to travel at the speed of light. If only the public transportation were able to come close to any fraction of that. My bus journey from Luang Prabang south to Vang Vien took 7 hours while traveling a distance of just over 100 miles. Even though the trip was rather painful I was spared from the puke fest that many of the other passengers endured. Yes, it was a very twisty road up one mountain and down the next. I miss the level flow of the Mekong.
I would have to say the highlight of the trip was our pee break in one of the mountain villages. This stop was a big surprise, as most busses do not stop for such luxuries. Stepping off the bus I looked like a newborn calf dazed and confused with legs that barely knew what to do. While I steadied myself against the buss a local woman approached me with a tin box. With pride she lifted a flap to show me her booty of wiggling catfish. This definitely was a prize here on the crest of this mountain. The journey for the fish had to have been worse than mine. I wonder if they threw up too. It took a bit of effort to convince the lady that I really had no need for a box of catfish even though I was hungry. To appease my belly and shake the fish lady I settled for a stick of shskabobed eggs. I have dined at many fancy street side vendors through out the world but this was a first for me. Between the chicken on a stick and the whole bbqfd fish lay this neat row of skewered eggs slowly roasting. I took a photo and am thinking of sending it along with a culinary review to Fine Dinning Magazine as I think they have missed this regional delight.
Vang Vien is the kind of place you see that old guy on PBS painting during his half-hour show. A bit mystical and utterly gorgeous. Some how he can capture a magnificent image in just 30 minutes for me it took a couple of days and a few rolls of film.
As always the local market is an interesting place for pictures. Today the tables were filled with all the specialties, today is Laos Day a national holiday. No holding back for tonightfs feast. Cubes of congealed blood were stacked neatly next to carefully laid out rows of Water Buffalo Tongue. The spirit of festivity filled the air and everyone was so happy. I took a few pictures and then my skin tingled and the warm saliva of fear, filled my mouth. What if one of these people were to invite me home with them to help celebrate? With a quick glance out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the blood cubes glistening in the early morning sun. Hastily I jammed my camera back in my bag and fled from the market.
Down on the river I paused to catch my breath and take a photo of a mini longtail that was tied to the shore. These are cute little versions of the ones from Thailand. Instead of a Toyota car engine, 5HP weed whackers with a prop were used to propelled the thin boats along the water.
My camera does not have a shutter speed as fast as the materialization of the boats owner. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride so I inquired about the cost of a trip to Cambodia. His eyes dilated to an aperture of 3.5 in disbelief. I am sure he had never been there or knew how far it actually was but he did know it would take quite a few days to get there. He seriously thought about it but in the end said no. So, naturally I asked him how much to buy his boat. Now he was really baffled, as no one had ever asked him this question before. After much thought he came up with $428. Not sure how he came up with this number but now I was the one doing some serious thinking. I could buy his boat and take it all the way to Saigon. My wheels were turning and the man noticed that I was teetering on the fence. gI give you extra tank of gas tooh! This was a very tempting situation but in the end I decided to go for his half-day trip instead. If I had more time here Ifll bet that I would be the captain of my very own mini long tail right now.
The journey up the river was fantastic. The further we went the more I thought about taking this boat all the way to Saigon. What a great way to explore the region. Dipping the weed whacker into the water my captain pointed the bow upstream. Within a couple of minutes we came across our first obstacle, a small waterfall. This ainft Niagara but for any boat trying to navigate a thin layer of water poring down a one foot elevation change it may as well be. I figured I had literally been taken for a ride and this would be the end of our trip. To my utter amazement my captain adjusted the weed whacker so the prop was barely beneath the surface. Now with a 2-inch draft we skimmed the ripples and proceeded up river. This procedure was repeated through out the trip as we traveled further than I ever thought possible.
After a couple of hours passing locals who were in the middle of the river fishing with nets and spears we pulled ashore. During our initial negotiations my guide had offered me a visit to some caves that had A/C. gYes, nice and cool for youh. That was the clincher I was sold. A/C even the natural kind is always a luxury around here.
My river guide passed me onto his buddy who by his own decree was a gprofessional cave guideh. As I walked through the jungle behind my barefooted-expert guide I thought about some of the other caves I have explored. For some reason I always remembered having to carry a lot of gear. I must have been pondering this too long as I almost lost sight of my guide as he slipped into the entrance of the cave.
I fiddled with the small flashlight I had been given at the river. It certainly was not a high tec. piece of equipment but it challenged my abilities. With the attentiveness of a mother hen my guide rushed over to provide assistance. Taking the flashlight from my hand he whacked it against a stalactite, nodded with satisfaction, turned and faded into the darkness of the cave.
For an hour we crawled from one passage to the next until my guide stopped and aimed his light to the ceiling and uttering his first word of the day,hbath. This turned out to be his only word but did get used frequently as the cave was inhabited by hundreds of bats.
The cave system was extensive and decorated through out with giant stalactites and stalagmites. At the end of one passage we came upon a lake of crystal clear water. My guide removed my shoulder bag and just about tossed me in the lake. Our tour continued on our backs floating through this flooded labyrinth.
Having lost track of time and location I walked within arms reach of my guide. I am sure my torch had not been loaded with fresh energizers and the thought of having to find my own way out was not a promising one. As our lights faded my nose and skin tuned in to our proximity of the entrance. The A/C was being turned off. Before reemerging to the steam bath I had my first oand only conversation with my guide. It consisted of only one word but that is all we needed.
My dim light had caught a slow movement in the shadows. Shinning with all its fading strength my light was able to home in on a 4-foot snake. I was intrigued and uttered an ooh of curiosity. My guide had obviously missed the snake and turned back to see what I had found. It took a moment for him to see it but as soon as he did he uttered an ooh of startled surprised which was closely followed by an ooooooh of ultimate respect and a 3 foot jump backwards. Even though our conversation consisted of only one syllable I did not need any help interpreting the last oooooh Yup time to go tours over.
Durring 30 minutes of PBS you could capture the beauty of Vang Vien on canvas but there is now way of capturing the power of an ooooh.
Sunday May 4 2002
We all know why the chicken crossed the road but we never learn how she does it. Now what if that same chicken wanted to cross a road in Pamplona, say during the running of the bulls. Sure she still wants to get to the other side but how does she do it with out getting squashed. This is something I have had to contemplate recently as the traffic here in Hanoi has presented me with a similar challenge. How am I going to get across the road during the running of motorbikes with out getting squashed? This has to be one of the most chaotic traffic patterns I have seen anywhere. To call it a pattern would be generous. A surrealistic mosaic of some sort may be more accurate. During my first day in Vietnam I was only able to explore sites on my side of the street.
On day two I awoke realizing that I would have to face the beasts on the street and some how cross to the other side. Success for this mission would not come easily. Experiential education through trial and error has no place in an environment such as this. One misplaced step would undoubtedly lead to permanent failure. To get to the other side I would have to take a scientific approach. Fortunately, I have been able to draw on my experience as a highly trained wildlife observer for this mission. At the time I had no idea that my keen observation and analytical interpretation of the Anthesis Squamapenis social patterns would save my life.
With a cup of coffee for cover I camouflaged myself in a cafe at the end of my street. I figured this would provide me with a suitable environment to observe motorbike madness in its natural habitat. For the chicken in Pamplona victory comes with patience, as the stamped will eventually subside. I will not have this luxury as the stampede here never ends. I must now focus my attention on how the locals navigate the crossing. For three hours I watched people approach the intersection from every angle and successfully cross the road. To remain inconspicuous during this study I had to refresh my camouflage frequently. I must say the coffee here has quite a kick and I had become immortal with caffeine. Reviewing my notes one last time I stepped from the cafe. Mimicking the locals movements I adjusted my stride and locked in my trajectory before hitting the curb. With my eyes fixed into oblivion I drifted from my side of the road to the other.
Once both of my feet were planted safely on the opposite sidewalk I exhale the deep breath I had taken before my crossing of faith. Elated I turned, and faced the apex of the intersection. There were no markings on the road nor the obligatory central monument or fountain, only a vast sea of pavement. Vehicles entered this black hole from one side and mysteriously exited through one of four other portals. The ultimate test for my research would be to traverse this intersection right through the middle. I set my course and without looking left or right, set off. I was like a giant boulder in a river. Traffic from every direction bore down on me only to alter it's course slightly before impact and rushing off down stream.
Once I learned the rules of the road here getting to the other side has become a simple task. Keep a steady pace don't alter your course and don't stop for any reason once you have entered the gauntlet.
Monday May 20
My travels in Vietnam are coming to an end. In a few days I will be moving onto Cambodia. Vietnam has been a fantastic country to visit. When I arrived all I could hear in my head was Robin Williams voice screaming out Good Morning Vietnam? Now that I am about to leave I am becoming a bit sad. Do you remember in the movie when Robin Williams goes out into the streets and sees all the lovely girls riding around on bicycles in the long white robes? He chases after them falling in love with each of them. This has become my dilemma too. The woman here are stunningly gorgeous and incredibly friendly. I will miss their welcoming smile, long dark hair and sexy legs.
Once I overcame my fear of crossing the streets in Hanoi I have ventured out and joined the masses. Each town I visit I rent a motorbike and set out for the countryside with no particular agenda. These have turned out to be some of the best days. Stopping along the rice paddies and local cafes I have made good friends and unbelievable memories. Where else can you be driving and have to stop in the middle of the road while a sea of gold floods around you. Back home we have to watch out for the odd cow or moose crossing the road. Here you may round a corner and be faced with a million young ducks being herded along the road by a lone Shepard. Even more amusing is the site of me waddling my motorbike along like a duck after running out of gas.
During school my generation seems to have avoided the history of Vietnam. Most of the info we receive is from the movies, and their representation are rather narrow in scope. Traveling among the people and visiting the historical sights has been an eye opener. The determination, loyalty and adaptability of the Vietnamese is incredible. Thousands of nationals file past the embalmed body of Uncle Ho in Hanoi every day to pay their respects. This morning I crawled through the tunnels of Cu Chi and struggled to fathom the suffering that occurred here. Now I see kids pecking away at computers faster than I ever will to connect to the rest of the world. This exemplifies the peoples attitudes of the country and its future. They hold no grudges and have welcomed me as an American everywhere I go. With access to computers and the internet beginning only 5 years ago the people are taking advantage of these new opportunities to progress as a nation on an international scale while retaining their sovereignty and cultural identity.
I have another day here in Saigon to explore before traveling up the Mekong River and on to Cambodia. I look forward to the stark differences this country will provide me.
Friday May 24
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I have returned to the Mekong River, yet this time I am traveling up stream. The delta region in Vietnam is worlds away from the fast flowing upper reaches I floated on in Laos.
As with all deltas the Mekong has produced some of the richest farming lands. This has become the rice basket of the world. I did not realize how many uses there were for rice. I suppose it is similar to the Inuit relationship with snow and its 20 words to describe it. When your world is dominated by a single element it becomes necessary to make use of it in as many ways as possible. The thought of rice for every meal would be depressing. However when you have the choice of boiled rice, steamed rice, fried rice, rice candy, rice milk, rice noodles, rice paper and rice wine everyone has cause for celebration. Needless to say I am ready to supplement my diet with dishes containing no rice products.
My trip through the delta was visually pleasing and culturally stimulating. Where else can you get a riverboat taxi that is rowed by a beautiful woman in her pajamas while warring a cone hat? Venice has nothing compared to this except maybe ice cream, that I would have relished in the sweltering heat.
Crossing into Cambodia along the banks of the river was a breeze. On the Cambodian side of the river the views changed dramatically. No longer were the shores lined with houses and activity. Only sporadic settlements showed themselves. After years of isolation and civic unrest Cambodia is struggling to rebuild its self. Thousands of people were executed during the Kemmer Rouge regime leaving many areas empty and the entire country in political, economic, and cultural turmoil.
I have visited the area known as the Killing Fields. What a sobering experience that was. Bones and clothing still protrude from the ground in testimony to all the lives mercilessly taken here. From talking with other travelers my short amount of time in Cambodia will not be enough. I would love to be able to explore more of the countryside to get a better understanding of the country as a whole. I have made sure that I will not run out of time before visiting the ruins of Angkor Watt in the northwest. From what I have read and heard this is one of the most amazing historical sites on earth. I have planned on three days to check it out, as it is an enormous place. Dave's web page http://davecarpenter.tripod.com/