Saturday, August 9, 2008

Summer Tripping 2008

After Southeast Asia and before the Olympics, I planned on about 4 months at home relaxing. With a few trips to break it up - which ended up being a string of week trips to Denver, Oregon , Chicago , Mexico and Vegas that left me exhausted before I boarded the flight to China!

In June, I went to the Copper Canyon with my dad and niece, Jamie. Dad had found the combo bus/train trip - we took a train along and through the Copper Canyon , which is  four times as big as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It was a beautiful trip, with travel through the high desert and along rivers included. 

A pic of Jamie on the train at a stop shows some of the local indian women selling their intricate woven baskets. These tribes fled the central part of Mexico during the initial Spanish invasion in the 1500's for the high country and the Copper Canyon -we took a hike into the canyon and saw indian families still living in the canyon in rudimentary cabins built into the walls for protection from the brutal weather. Also bought some very cool seed bracelets from them in the canyon.

There were some beautiful and HUGE hummingbirds all over Mexico - here are some in a tree on the rim of the canyon. Also - here is a pic of the canyon from our hotel hanging right on the rim of the canyon itself. I didn't sleep well since it was at 7,000 feet - so when I got up in the middle of the night to sit on the much cooler porch, I got a treat of a lightning storm miles away across the valley.
We had a great guide and learned alot about Mexico along the way. I was pretty chagrined to learn how little I really knew about Mexican history apart from the discovery of guacamole in 1847.  For example, who was Pancho Villa and why should we care? Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

He was one of several military gents that challenged the incumbent and longtime strongman president of Mexico who ruled for almost 30 years. Pancho was from the Chihuahua state that borders Texas and got pulled into a civil war. He has about 20 "wives" (ie recognized by the Catholic church but not the state after #1) and a gazillon kids. He was assassinated in the 1920's. 

Also had some time on the Oregon beach with the Swinnerton  clan I visit each Thanksgiving. Great time playing games at night and walking with Atty and the kids on the beach just outside our house. Funny thing happened - when some folks were "downtown" in the little tourist part of town, they ran into a large group of Secret Service agents with motorcycles - apparently, the King of Jordan was taking a motorcycle tour of southern Oregon between events in the US. A week later, Obama met with him in Jordan on his big tour of the mideast - weird to feel the strings of foreign affairs stretch to OR.

Also spent a great birthday week in Chicago at Jean's - she threw a BBQ for my old high school (and token college friend, Jim) friends and asked them to bring memories of me - it was pretty funny what people pulled out - not playable for a family venue like this blog. Tried to get into the Obama office while in town but its not a walk-in place for volunteers to visit - its strictly by appointment and an HQ for strategy and operations for the national campaign.


Did some volunteering for the campaign this summer - I walked into the weekend office in Los Gatos during the phonebanking into Indiana and got pulled into the core group of South Bay volunteers. 
Its been a fascinating experience learning just how grassroots a campaign like this is. I have met some truly dedicated people - and some a little too excitable! It was a relief to finally see the phonebanking and canvassing (roadtrip to Medford, OR a few weeks before the primary and before his big 80,0000 person rally in Portland) pay off and allow for eventual rallying behind one candidate -and its my guy!  Also really interesting to see who volunteers - I met alot of teachers  and retirees and women in the group. Didn't meet too many high-tech people except for occasional folks on the weekend for phonebanking. 
Had a garage sale in July to fund some voter registration efforts as well as helping one of the delegates get to Denver - raised $840. Here is a pic of Kristin and Kirsten and I with the candidate.

On July 29th, I boarded a flight to Japan and began what is probably my last big trip of my timeoff - on my way to Beijing.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Diving in Thailand.... and home with reflection

From Laos, I decided to spend a short week in the south of Thailand on the island of Koh Tao - its off the Southeast coast of Thailand. After the exotic and personal experiences of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, I wasn't super keen to spend a week "on vacation".... since Thailand is so developed, this wouldn't give me much opportunity to experience the real Thai culture. However, it was a beautiful island, and I have a peaceful 6 days diving and reading and contemplating my feet. 

The pic above is of George and I diving... albeit in Vietnam at about 40 feet. Now imagine us diving with fish and live coral and one little blacktip shark and you have Thailand underwater.

My hut off the beach with a trusty guard dog. Dogs are everywhere.
The beach I stayed at in Koh Tao - see the coral heads in the water- nice snorkelling! I saw a small blacktip sharp near the rocks in the middle top of the picture - running away from me.
I was sitting at a table on this beach writing my journal when two guys walked up - they were checking out the resort as a potential alternative to their hotel. We talked and laughed for 30 minutes. One of them was an 18 year old, a family friend to the mid-30s guy with him. The 18 year old was heading off on his own to Vietnam and Cambodia to meet a friend. At one point we were talking about how 1/2 the wild tigers in SEA had been killed in the last 25 years, and the 18 year old said "That is so gay!" The other guy and I just cracked up - his point was made but he didn't quite get the lack of political correctness and descriptiveness using that term meant. I laughed later that day imagining  him in the Khmer Rouge torture prison museum in Phnom Penh, saying " The Khmer Rouge was so gay !!!" . Having an 18 year old niece set to travel on her own to Europe this summer, I gotta say its still a bit young to be out on your own.

Here is the view from my bed - nice,eh? Yup, that is the ocean about 100 feet from my feet. The "resort" was kinda rustic (Muslim squat toilet, no screens) but the view was amazing, and I could be up  and getting suited up for a dive in 15 minutes.  Now imagine this view at 1am when you have been sleeping for a few hours and someone is trying to open your door - I woke up when I heard this - and saw a person standing at that window feet from me - ARGHHH! I think I yelled "what?" and then just plain yelled, the woman in shadow yelled, and the two of them scurried away. I heard them in a few minutes walking nearby so I think it was a couple that had been drinking at the bar and got confused about which hut was theirs - but it scared the shit out of me - my heart punched against my chest for 10 minutes. It was a sign to leave the next day so I did.

Here is one of my cabin mates - a green lizard or gecko. 
There were TONS of geckos in the trees - I never knew till this trip what a real gecko sounded like - I was confusing the soft chirp of a green lizard with the very loud gecko call, which seriously sounds like "GECKO", (or "Chronkite " sometimes - I swear).

The night before I took a boat to Koh Tao, I spent on Koh Samui, a larger and much more developed island (ie Oahu). They have waterbuffalo fights which are pretty funny. Imagine a bullfighting ring surrounded by people - but instead of a matador and bull, you have two waterbuffalos facing off. It reminded me of the quote that war is 10% terror and 90% sheer boredom - most of the time the two buffalos would be looking in opposite directions, looking confused. In Laos, I did a hike that put me face to face with many buffalos on the trails through the rice fields - and I would crack up when meeting them. They would stop, look alarmed, move off the trail and watch you go by -then stand there with a cartoon balloon above their head saying "now, I was going somewhere, where was that?". Imagine two buffalo doing that. Occasionally, they would lock heads and horns and some blood was shed, sadly around the eyes - but for the most part, this was very low key bull fighting, thank god!

I got friendly with the diving company and some of the local expats since I was diving each day and learned a bit about what its like to be an expat in Thailand. And its not all good. Thailand is a very corrupt country (note that its former disposed prime minister is going on trail soon) and there are lots of backoffice payoffs and ineptitudes to living and working there. Be cautious when you travel in Thailand - there are lots of folks trying to part you from your dollar.

With time to kill on my hands, I decided to get my Advanced Open Water PADI cert, which means I am now legal to dive to 30 meters. I was illegally diving beyond the legal 18  meters for the last few years and didn't know it -but have a greater appreciation for how half-assed the dive companies can be that I have been diving with. This crew in Thailand was strict on buddy checks and making you assemble your own gear, a very good reminder for me. Besides Navigation and Deep Diving, I did an underwater photography section (really fun - I might have a new expensive hobby- shots from my dive are below) and Bouyancy, which I still suck at!  My favorite exercise in that section was underwater somersaults and hanging upside down - they help you get to a neutral ,not-moving bouyancy level without feeling like work.

Caught some shrimp  near their hole - they dove in in the next second.

A porcupine fish - has spikes on it and its box shaped. We christened this "Bambi" in Bora Bora since those heartshaped eyes just grab your heart! 
My best shot underwater - there are black and white Funereal Nudebranches near alot of colorful  Christmas Tree worms embedded on some coral heads. Not alot of new things to see on these dives but I really liked the nudibranches and blue-spotted rays.

Had an allnighter in the Bangkok airport before my flight home via Tokyo. Have been quite philosophical since I got back - maybe from seeing the impact of so much recent war, and from looking forward to reentering the workforce later this year. Here are some tips for people thinking of traveling in Southeast Asia if you are interested.

1. It is so easy to travel here, since so many westerners come here. English is spoken everywhere that a tourist might be. This means that you will have people very aggressively trying to part you from your money  so get used to saying No when people try to sell you something.
2. Skip southern Vietnam - its all a sprawling metropolis around Ho Chi Min City with not alot of beauty (think Cleveland). Head to Hoi An or Hue in the middle of the country on the coast, or directly to Hanoi.
3. Don't plan your short trips before you get there - you will spend way more energy and money than you need to. Any city that has seen a tourist will have travel agencies that can book you on a plane, or bus, or train, or a packaged tour for a day or a few days, immediately. There are usually several in any block so compare prices for the lowest price. I know its weird to not plan ahead but seriously, you can plan an adventure to anywhere on one day's notice at these places, including pickup and drop off at your hotel. We planned our trekking trip to Sapa Vietnam including all hotel, guides, train, meals, and village homestay the day before we left!
4. Bargain, Bargain, Bargain! If you are anything but Asian looking, assume that anyone in SEA will hike up the price to you and is prepared to negotiate it down. 
5. Get used to more crowds in transport - unless you rent a private car to take you everywhere, you will be sharing that minivan or bus or boat. The planet thanks you for conserving.
6. Get your ass to Laos and Cambodia before everyone else does - easy to travel, cheap, beautiful, sad.... they have it all. And much less commercial than Thailand, so you meet real people. 

Next up - Mexico's Copper Canyon in early June and then tentatively China/Nepal/MidEast starting in August.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Laos Called - It Wants It's Silent "S" Back

Hello from Denver DREAMING of Laos! Back from my trip and updating my blog finally - internet was very slow in SEA and I just couldn't take the time to upload photos there for the blog.
Just as gray is the new black, Laos is the new Romania for me.... it was my favorite country on this trip. I went in with high expectations based on people that had been there and it didn't disappoint. 
A word of explanation. It took me about a week to realize that noone in SEA pronounces the "s" in Laos. When the French colonized Laos in the 1800s, there was no single country but instead, several kingdoms of the Lao people- so the French aggregated them and called them the plural Laos. Being French, they didn't pronounce the "s". Being American , we do. Mistakenly. 
After the hurly-burly and in-your-face commercialism of Vietnam, Laos was an oasis of calm. It is one of the least populated of the SEA countries ( 6 million to Vietnam's 90 million), very poor, starting to ramp its economy outward, very Buddhist and..... Communist! For a very long time now, since  1975, or the fall of Saigon. It was fascinating to compare these two seemingly Communist countries (Vietnam and Laos) bring in international investment and privatize business.
I flew to the old royal capital, Luang Prabang, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. There are 32 Buddhist temples in the area that I was looking forward to visiting. LP is a gracious old French colonial town - and way too easy to travel in. I spent 1.5 weeks there, staying at a hotel with CNN so I could keep up with political news, great food, the temples, cooking class, etc. In case you hear Laos and think it might be rough to travel there - think Carmel, California. No kidding. Those French have been visiting for years. 
The pic up top is of the morning alms. Each day, the monks in the temples walk down the main street at dawn with their alms bowls to collect food. Its a traditional interaction between monks (who don't work in paying jobs) and the townspeople. Monks get food for the day and the townspeople get implied blessings. Monks can only eat until noon, so they eat at dawn and just before noon. Since there are so many tourists and locals participating in this each day, the monks had a ton of food in their bowls. I saw them periodically reach in and give a handful of rice or fruit to young kids standing next to this line with baskets. They are poor kids from the town and the outlying area. It was nice to see that sharing. I loved this morning - seeing hundreds of monks in their bright orange robes lined up down the street.

One of my fave temples was Xieng Thong - it had a building housing the  wagon for burial of cremated remains of the Royal family. It also had these gents and many more Buddhas lining the walls.

I talked to one of the young monks for awhile and he invited me to the evening chanting - it went on for 30 minutes and was magical. Note that the monks below cover their feet when in temple - the feet are considered dirty and it is an insult to point your feet at someone. Even if they are the tourists in the back of the temple.

This temple complex was covered in glass mosaics. On the back of the main temple  was this Tree of Life mosaic - incredibly beautiful, albeit hard to capture on my camera.

Here is a detail of a mosaic on one of the smaller buildings - lots of elephants.
I had just walked away from my monk buddy after the chanting when I walked by Rick Cord - Rick and I had worked together at McDATA and knew that we were both in SEA but hadn't coordinated a meet anywhere, nonetheless in a temple in Luang Prabang. Amazingly small world - here we are enjoying a beer to celebrate.

Laos women still wear their traditional silk/brocade-edged skirts with sandals, and most women have long hair in a bun or ponytail. So I loved this street sign for pedestrians above. You can see the little girls at this primary school are dressed that way, also, with the lead girl hoisting an umbrella.

Many of the temples have extensive painted murals inside -this one had tigers and lions next to Buddha.

The temple below was a large one that houses many of the statues that need repair - this effort is funded by the UN, I think. So behind the altar , there were dozens of statues in states of disrepair.

The temple below with the exterior painted SO reminded me of the Romanian painted monestaries in Bucovina that I visited last summer. The murals in Laos told the story of Buddha in 92 cartoon-like panels - and I am sure, like the biblical stories painted on the monestaries in Romania 600 years ago, that they were meant to teach the illiterate people the stories of their religion. Love the symmetry. I've attached a pic of Voronets, one of the Eastern Orthodox monestaries in Romania, for comparison.

There is a lovely waterfall outside of Luang Prabang that is popular with the tourists. 
Below the waterfall are pools that you can swim in. I ducked into one that was off the path - and had it all to myself as a result - imagine me paddling around those rocks in the middle of this milky, turquoise blue pool on a hot day - heaven!

There is a hill in the middle of LP with a temple and a large golden stuppa on it - this view is from the top of the hill, when I walked up to see the sunset. You can see the rooftops and temple spires of LP, as well as the Mekong River, sand islands and surrounding hilly countryside. I've included a pic of the main road in LP - old colonial buildings now occupied by travel agencies , shops and restaurants.

I was getting a little too comfortable in Luang Prabang (a friend expressed concern over my CNN addiction) so I went up the Mekong for a few days to a village called Muang Ngoi. My friend Laurie had been to the village just before it 7 years ago and asked me to go farther on so that she could live vicariously through me - and I am so glad that I did. You reach Muang Noi by boat - there are no roads there. There is one road in town , stretching the 3 block length of town. MN was a simple fishing village until about 2000 - when it bought some generators for electricity and starting opening guest houses for backpackers. Its still a pretty rustic place - here is a pic of the road with one of the many canine inhabitants (sorry - my Mac is uploading some pics on their side even though I have rotated them). Its a dramatic view up the street to a mountain. The town is surrounded by mountains and it lovely. I picked a super deluxe hut for $2 a night - had a shared toilet, a spiggot on the wall for showering (cold, of course), a lightbulb that was on 6:30 to 9:00, when the generators ran. It also had a view of the river to watch people wash clothes or themselves, and a hammock. At night, I fell asleep to the thunder of bug, dogs and roosters crowing.

On the river on the way to town, passed a boat like ours - with cattle on the roof.
One of the attractions of Muang Ngoi is that there are several villages nearby that you can walk to to see village life as it has been for 50 years (no electricity, cooking over fire, etc). So one day I walked about 90 minutes to a village called Huyxen. On the way, I passed through incredibly pastoral valleys surrounded by hills, layered with dormant rice fields, and haunted by many water buffalo. I passed this foursome taking a mud bath - they do this to keep bugs off them and to keep cool.
A few shots of the valley I crossed. I stopped at one of the huts to absorb my experiences this day - it was so peaceful and beautiful and moving. Until the bombs went off.

Laos is one of the most bombed countries on the planet. In the late 60's, the CIA worked with the incumbent government in Laos to keep out the communists that were attempting to overthrow the government. This behooved the US since the North Vietnamese were using eastern Laos to run troops and supplies down to South Vietnam during the American war.  We had not declared war on Laos with Congress, so therefore the CIA ran a secret war in Laos and heavily bombed eastern and northeastern Laos with 250,000 bombs , in hopes of hitting the northern Vietnamese troops.  20% of these bombs didn't explode and remain in the earth. Each year, 100 people die as the bombs are accidently triggered, predominantly women looking for firewood. As I walked through these beautiful valleys, or lay in my bed, I heard 5-7 booming explosions a day - there are UN and British teams setting off the bombs. At this rate it will take 100 years to make the country safe. Its a tragedy for so many reasons, not the least of which is that , like Bosnia, its a physically stunning country primed for outdoor adventure travel. Hearing these bombs echoing off the valley walls was a reminder to me that these people continue to have a very hard life. But I sensed no animosity to myself as an American. Below is a shot of a bomb sitting next to my guest house.
Here is a view up the river, as water buffalo wandered over and into the water before collapsing in a "huff" to submerge themselves.
My nickname growing up was Garlic Gut so boy did I love seeing that garlic is a local crop - here is a local pup raiding the garlic drying on the main road. And below, that same boy is getting a bath in the Nam Ou River.

The main road has drainage channels on either side of it - this baby was making a run for it over outside my guest house. 
I spent about 2.5 hours in the village of Huyxen. There was one place to eat, so I ordered Vegetables Curry, rice and a Coke (yes, they walk cans of Coke in for tourists to buy for $1). While I was eating on a platform with two tables, about half a dozen villagers wandered up on the platform to hang out on the hammocks and chairs. Noone directly engaged me but I think they were curious about me. I was the only tourist to walk to town that day, it seems. One of the girls had cut her finger hacking at bamboo - so I put a bandaid on it. She kept looking at it - maybe she had never seen one? After lunch, I hung out with the kids - they had a chart of the English alphabet with a picture of something beginning with each letter - they asked me to pronounce each word. It was an odd chart - showed Giraffes for G - so I guess it must be for an international crowd, since these kids would have no idea what a giraffe was.
I asked the kids to show me their school (it was Sunday) so we wandered over to their wood-framed, bamboo walled school. We spent some time copying my English phrases on the blackboards - until they started climbing the walls - literally. They crawled up the walls saying "photo, photo!" for me to take their pictures.

Here is my lunch coming down the ladder - Laos houses, like Cambodia, are traditionally on stilts even out of a floodplain. 
Walking around the village - you can see how basic the houses are - and how many kitchen activities are done outside (probably to prevent fire and keep smoke out of the house). 
It was a great day  - walking through such beauty and playing with kids. When I got back to MN, I had dinner with Martin, my neighbor in the next hut. He is on a 6 month trip from Switzerland, travelling without using a plane. He took a cargo ship to Singapore and will take the TransSiberian railway back west - very inspirational given that I used my carbon footprint for 5 years taking regional planes. At dinner we met the boy below, Hom, who lived in the village. He agreed to take Martin on a traditionally fishing trip the next day and a hike up that mountain at the end of the street for a great view. There was much negotiating back and forth on price (in Laos Kip and Thai Baht) and the inclusion of LaoLao, local Laos rice whiskey. Here is a pic of them sealing the deal with a handshake.
Walking back from dinner was fun - there were sounds of singing and drumming through the town. We learned that the women of the town get one day off a month to "not work" and they party like its 1999 that night - went to sleep listening to the drums.
Back to Luang Prabang for a few days before I flew to Thailand. I took a boat across the 
Mekong to visit some less travelled temples- here I am with a local boy acting shy. His friends wanted to take pictures with my camera. If you took the picture, you ended up turning it around for the kids to see themselves, accompanied by much giggling. I also got a great video of two little girls doing local dancing and singing but its too large to upload!

One of the temples I visited had funding to train monks to maintain the artwork in the temples around town. Here are several monks taking a class on drawing. They also learn carving and gilting. 
This monk opened the temple for me and we ended up having a long conversation. His name is Bounnian, which means sticky rice. He told me it was because he was born so compromised they thought he would die. His grandmother thought to put him in warm water, which revived him and he survived. She called him "sticky rice" since she has to  put him in water like rice. So I called him Sticky. He was trained in gilting and did the art to the right inside his temple. He was interested in reading English (very common for all monks to walk to learn English) so I gave him a book about Bhutan, including about Buddhism in Bhutan, that I was walking to a bookstore to donate. 

Here is a store in LP that I frequented each night for water. I loved how they had EVERYTHING outside on the sidewalk.
Each night in Luang Prabang, there is a night market for local crafts. I can't believe that they haul in and set up their goods each night but they do - and it stretches for 6 blocks. Here is a view of it out of my hotel window.
Sigh, time to go. Can you tell that I loved Laos? I reluctantly flew to Thailand when my visa ran out. Here is my tuk-tuk taxi to the airport... I already miss these little guys.