travel

… and now…

So I’m not at Danum anymore.

The second day there I started – and I swear I’m not making this stuff up and that I’m not a hypochondriac whatsoever – coughing up blood.

There’s some signs of ill health that you can easily brush aside as the cost of travel – an infrequent cough, a bit of extra fatigue, stomach cramps, headaches – and then there are some things, such as discovering that the phlegm coming up through your throat is an intense bright red color, that make you head for the nearest hospital and email your doctor.

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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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Moral of the story: Southern Laos is gorgeous.

Tadlo – on the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos: beautifully pastoral, gorgeous waterfalls, cute children, and a five-day party (Pi Mai Lao!)

Don Khon – one of the Four Thousand Islands in the Mekong between Laos and Cambodi (Don Khon is on the Laos side – the smallest/quietest of the three with tourist facilities): unbelievably gorgeous, quiet paths to wander, French colonial ruins to climb, and a buff-cheeked gibbon to play with…

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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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“Buy me pepsi.”

A group of us from the boat had managed to get rooms in the same guest house in Luang Prabang and spent the next several days just hanging out. It was nice to be part of a group, for a change.

We (Olivia, Ruth, Louise – the British girls – Martin, Benny, and I) hired a tuk tuk to take us to the nearby waterfall, Kuang Si. It was breath-takingly beautiful; the water an impossible shade of light turquoise (no doubt due to some mineral in the stones), the setting stunning and – perhaps most importantly, at least to our overheated sweat-drenched bodies – the water chilling. Only a few minutes after we’d pulled ourselves from the water, walked down the hill, and seated ourselves at a table under an overhang in the parking-lot/tourist center, it started to rain – to pour, actually. We watched others come running, skidding, down the hill; it wasn’t cold, but the idea of carrying that much water in our clothes was less than appealing – except to Olivia, who got up to dance in the rain.

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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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I’m in Laos!

So, it turns out that my wisdom teeth weren’t quite as much of a priority as I’d been lead to believe – and that one of them was so close to the nerve in my jaw as to make both the dental surgeon and my parents uncomfortable with the risk involved – and I won’t be having them done in Thailand. (I’ll just be running the risk of infection, flying home if it becomes worse, and pressing on until then.)

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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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Sorry it’s been a while (since I’ve written home)

I’ve been sick.That “cold” didn’t shake itself and I’d been running low-grade fevers on and off for the last few weeks, utterly sapping my energy. And, thanks to a bad case of dysentery, I lost ten pounds week-before-last.

When I last said I was going to You Sabai, I actually ended up in Pai (missed the You Sabai songtaew three days in a row, met another traveler on their way to Pai and decided to go along for the company – I’d been meaning to go back, anyway – because I thought I was feeling better). Where I got sick, again, worse. When I realized what I had was worse than food poisoning and that hiding out in my guesthouse trying to wait it out wasn’t a viable strategy, I got a bus back to Chiang Mai and saw a doctor who told me that I had a fever, raised blood pressure, a bacterial infection, and gave me handfuls of pills to take.

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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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DAY ONE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Tachilek is the sort of town where the architecture far outshines the furnishings.”It’s a border town,” I’d been warned, “don’t expect too much.”

I’d pictured a Tijuana, full of embroidered sarongs rather than piñatas, tinsel Buddhas rather than dayglow Christs; when I arrived I felt more like I’d stepped onto the moon. It was, fittingly enough, gray and overcast without as much as the suggestion of a breeze. Not only were the people and the cars mysteriously missing (the roads were more than wide enough but in two days in Tachilek I saw perhaps ten cars – most of those parked) there was no sense of desperate fervor. The buildings were too large for the inhabitants, the clothes too big for their wearers. Tachilek resembled a colonial ghost town – faded derelict colonial architecture and rusty motorbikes with no review mirrors.

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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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