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So here it goes – the jungles of Borneo, and the great red man!

I leave for Danum Valley in about an hour.Two weeks of trekking for orangutans and camping in the jungle!

I never did find a trekking partner – but instead of the Joseph Conrad style hacking through the virgin jungle with our food and water on our backs that I had pictured when I made plans to go to one of the most remote and pristine parks in Borneo, I’ll be staying amidst a variety of researchers and students at the Sabah Foundation’s camp site.

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Cast Adrift

A white haired man with a mane and careless beard, dressed in a crisp white shirt and red tie clasps his hands together before his face; the large rings on his knuckles catch the light and antique aviator sunglasses obscure his eyes. Billy Holiday shifts to Miles Davis. I’ve ordered what is, for South East Asia, an altogether decent glass of red wine and I have, at least, run a few errands today before sinking into this chair.

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Vientiane & The Yellow Brick Road

“Changing rapidly? I’ll tell you – ” said the Australian-who-wasn’t-one-anymore (we can call him Herc, instead – later, he’ll ask us to), with his characteristic smile-wink (head tilt and eyebrow raise included – it was a marvelous gesture/facial expression that I immediately wished I had the charisma to pull off) “this street was mud last year.””Last year? This street?” I echoed.

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Where am I? What’s up? Another coffee, please?

I’m back in Vientiane – hopefully at the end of all passport troubles (complications).

I picked up yet another new new passport this morning at 8am sharp as the Embassy opened – having arrived in the city at 6am, dropped my bag in a dormitory room at Sabaidee Guest House, taken a cold shower, and had a triple espresso at Joma’s (with yogurt, fruit, and museli) – having boarded a bus in Pakse at 8pm last night – having (essentially) hitch-hiked my way out of Champasak yesterday afternoon – having spent the dayclimbing the ruins of Wat Phu – having discovered that my passport was, weeks ahead of schedule, sitting in Vientiane waiting for me and that if I waited through the weekend (today is Friday) I would overstay my visa – as it expires tomorrow.

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The French Riviera in Loas

Women drive motorbikes one handed, pink and yellow umbrellas held aloft with the other.

Café tables are continuously filled, clusters of people leaning forward to trilingual conversations while assembling bottles of Beer Lao, cigarettes inevitably accentuating all hand gestures. Hands wave along the street as well as at the tables – crushing off tuk tuk drivers, greeting friends, and shooing away the children selling trinkets.

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The Slow Boat of Archetypes

It was the second day down the Mekong and the God of Thunder was asleep on the back of the boat. The Three Graces were getting sunburnt on the bow before returning inside to play cards. Apollo flicked his cigarette ash into the river in synch with his twitching foot. Huckleberry Finn, who’d been sent home from the war in a body bag of opiates, looked as if he might jump. Assorted prodigaals wandered the deck, passing wooden bench to wooden bench, comparing travel routes and swapping near-death experiences while cheerfully swigging Beer Lao. I was perched on the railing – one foot outside, one inside, left arm crooked behind me to grab the pillar for balance, right hand clutching someone else” ipod – watching the river pass us by.

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A lesson in motorbikes and (not) mincing words.

Huay Xai was pleasant enough. I suppose.Or would have been – if not for my own naivete.

I’d be lulled by the easy camaraderie of locals and farangs in Thailand and had thought to look after only my physical safety in Huay Xai – rather than cautiously judging and weighing all of the implications of my friendliness. I hadn’t realized that in Laos, where travelers and locals barely interacted and the government’s answer to the proliferation of the sex trade had been to interdict sex between foreigners and Laos, casual friendliness with a Lao man would result in him deciding he wanted me to bear his children and marry him.

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“Maybe you’re just meant to be in Chiang Mai…?”

I saw the dentist yesterday who verified that my wisdom teeth were indeed coming in (had come in) and that they were problematic; I have a "very very very small jaw" and the teeth are "quite large" and coming in "transverse" - "very problematic". There is no question that they have to be removed and, given that I'm going to have a series of infections until they are removed and suffer the pain - the sooner the better. Normally, the dentist told me, he would be able to do the extractions - but my case was "so difficult" that he referred me to a dental surgeon.I saw the dental surgeon for a consultation this afternoon. The dental surgeon took a look at my mouth and winced. He looked at the x-rays from the dentist and winced some more.

"Will you be staying here a long time?" he asked.

It turned out to be a rhetorical question.

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Excuses, excuses; no drinking during the election & other interesting causes

So there’s two more days worth of Burmese adventures I meant to write up… Highlights involve an intense trek (for me, and my weak lame lungs – it was only six hours of hiking while I was sick) to several Hill Tribe villages, a water buffalo market, and a waterfall outside of Kengtung, and managing to find a movie theatre in Kengtung (wooden shack showing Die Hard 3 – it was weird).

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DAY THREE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Having lost my towel in Pai at the Reggae Festival (no, I can’t explain how that happened; I didn’t touch the inside pocket of my bag all evening and it was securely nestled inside – nothing else went missing from my bag, not my wallet, not my camera, nothing but the towel – and it simply vanished) and thereby broken the ultimate Rule of Backpacking (see: Douglas Adams) I’ve begun to pay more attention to the Maxims of Travel…

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DAY TWO: Border Run to (and into) Burma

I woke the next morning before my alarm - and hit snooze for several hours.

For the first time since I’d left home I had absolutely no desire to go out and explore the town I was in; no compulsion to wander the streets and no wish to meet people.

I went out to the balcony and watched the street below, trying to rally myself. I was alienated, not threatened. Lonely, not in danger. Under-the-weather, not truly ill. I couldn’t remember why I’d come to Burma (I went back through the reasons that I had given my family and friends, what the grad students and aid workers had told me: friendly chatty locals - no; exotic good food: no; an inside look at an isolated region of an isolated country: not yet, really; supporting the local economy: at least) but, given that I was here already - I ought to at least do it properly. I’d have a walk through the market, find at least one temple and a tea house and a restaurant at which I could try some of the Burmese dishes I’d been recommended.

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In summary: Reggae festival; onwards to Burma

1. Have passport!

2. Am in Mae Sai; arrived last night from Chiang Mai, slept for 15 hours (it was beautiful but unintentional; I’ve got a cold and my body appparentlly needed the sleep) and am on my way to the Burmes border in a few hours.

3. Was convinced (by a grad student on the bus from Pai to Chiang Mai who is studying/working towards the application of DDR – disarmament, demobilization, and reintigration – alongside Burmese social leaders) and reassured by friends in Chiang Mai (who work with a school training Burmese refugees in civil rights action, and write/traslate textbooks for the refugee camps) that spending a few nights in Burma was not only completely safe but a good idea. Since the visa-money goes to the government, the only ethical way to do a border run is to support the local economy – so I’ll sttay at a guest house, eat at some restaurants and tea-houses, and buy something at a market. I’m only going to stay a couple of nights; I’m only allowed to stay a week, anyway, and can’t go farther than two towns (Tachilek and Ketung).

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Common Denominators: Soy Sauce and Chillies

I wake at dawn to do yoga on a mountain top. Mist rises in the valley below as the clouds float into the sky above like a curtain peeling back. I sleep in a mud-and-straw hut with a thatched roof. Orange curtains, the same color as the monk’s robes, hang in front of the fine blue netting which covers the windows.

Cooking classes commence once we’ve all gathered in the Coffee Shop each morning. The Coffee Shop has, technically speaking, neither walls nor corners. There are a woven mats covering the floors, two long low benches molded from the same earthen clay as the floor and counter, shelves of books in both Thai and English, bamboo curtains, pillars made from whole logs (bark intact), dozens of pillows, and - somewhere (I can’t manage to spot it though I’ve tried) - an espresso machine. The cappuccinos are wonderful but the fruit shakes are amazing - as is the homemade bread, still hot from the oven that we eat for breakfast each morning.

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Regaining my Equanimity at You Sabai

[Various excerpts from my journal… Bit fragmented, sorry!] 

I can’t manage to slip my gaze past the valley without it getting caught. I find myself staring off into the view, which is nearly omnipresent. (I find the other guests – even the other residents – doing the same on a regular basis; to say that the view is distracting would be an understatement.)There are more shades of green on display than I had imagined existed.

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“Sing that funky music white boy, sing that funky music WIDE EYES…”

They say (the proverbial they being, in this case as in all cases while traveling, Lonely Planet) that Chiang Mai doesn’t have much of a nightlife. And, to be fair, it might not have the shining neon, triple-story giant clubs of Bangkok or the endless dusk-to-dawn partying of the beaches in the southeast – but they have music here. And the music is wonderful. A good helping of classic rock (I hear “The Wall” at least once per bar any given night), enough reggae to keep the Caribbean happy, indie-alternative (with more bass) and the occasional hip-hop. A Norwegian music producer (ex-psychologist who decided to pursue a happier life) brings new cds to Bohemian’s every few days. Every third place has a live band or a dj, and from what I’ve heard, they’re all good. There seem to be a countless number of dread-locked Thai men who play a great guitar and – funnily enough – while the music might be western the musicians are Thai.

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The frustrations have moved past petty.

I’ve spent the last two days – and it looks like I’ll be spending the next several – dealing with all the beauracratic red tape that follows being mugged and losing your passport, credit card, camera, all of your cash (I was left with less than $3), and (subsequent to the actual robbery, due to extreme fatigue and stress and not watching my belongings) my cell phone.

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Being the Bad American at The Bohemian’s Café

“I figure it out,” he told me. “Your next president is Britney Spears.”

He’d asked me, the day before, whether I thought Hilary or Obama would win. After explaining that they were both on the same side and that, in my opinion, neither could win a national election due to the American culture of repressed racism and sexism (not to mention the Electoral College), I’d refused to hazard a guess as to the next American president.

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Just Remember Not To Smile…

“Just remember not to smile,” the Canadian told me, grinning. “You’ll get bugs in your teeth.”

I watched the motorcycle driver balance my pack on the front handles and, with a pleading look at the man from the travel agency, made a complicated gesture that I hoped resembled a helmet (the only response was a laugh and a pat on the back), I threw one leg over the back and climbed on. I must have thrown a last dubious glance at the Canadian, because he continued with reassurances: “You’ll be fine. It’s a great way to see the city. And he’ll get you to your bus, no worries. This one time in Perth…” The driver throttled the engine and we took off before I could hear the rest.

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Learning Curve – Part two

The market was wonderful. Clothes, silks, flowers, food, seafish, fruit, vegetables, statues, gramaphones, antique bronze fans, endless displays of silver jewelry, chickens, singers, dancers… I shopped a little (despite myself – I’ve already bought everything that I needed to get and spent a week’s budget in two days), and wandered around until I hit complete sensory overload.

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