Run the equator: 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Third world prices in America

No-nonsense prices!
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all those veggies

When I was traveling through South America, seeing the ridiculously low prices of fruits and vegetables I ranted on this site about our own grocery stores back home and the exorbitant prices they charge us for the same stuff. The only possible explanation for this rip-off is that it’s not a rip-off at all: we are subjected to a first-world standard-of-living tax that generously flows into an altruistic aid program that subsidizes the mom-and-pop grocers of the third world. Right?

It turns out that it doesn't have to be this way; the first-world sucker tax is optional. Upon our return, Angela has been struck by a sudden, lasting attack of anal-retentiveness and decided that grocery shopping needs to be done by a meticulous plan which will result in significant savings. Thus, for the last few months we have been shopping at the “Asian” grocery markets in the International District. I mean “Asian” in the blatant “most people who work there look vaguely Chinese” way. In those nondescript stores along and behind Jackson Street you can find not only the familiar fruits and vegetables sold by the ubiquitous Fred Meyer, Safeway or QFC, but also others that may require an advanced course in exotic foods before you can figure out what to do with them. The quality is nothing to balk at but the prices are the best part – everything is much cheaper than at the mainstream chain grocery stores. You spend 10 bucks and go out with three full bags. I took some pictures of their convincing price tags – and these are winter prices; in summer, the numbers are half.

Cheap stuff for tightwads

Unless these guys get all their produce straight from China like Walmart or grow them in their basement closets under halogen light bulbs year-round they would have to buy from the same producers like the big stores. They charge lower prices and obviously manage to stay in business and survive the tough competition. This begs the question, why don’t the major stores sell at comparable prices? The answer is, beyond any economic theory bullshit, because they can. For a variety of reasons, the average white American doesn't shop in Chinatown. If you live in the suburbs you have no choice or you just don’t know better – the Asian groceries are confined to a 5-block stretch along Jackson Street, a small and not too interesting neighborhood south of downtown. However the backbone of the American nation, the soccer moms and baseball dads of Seattle, don’t shop in the I.D. because the place is obviously unclean, unhygienic, unsafe and full of foreigners with dreadful accents, who might as well be terrorists. That leaves the minorities, a handful of liberal hippies and the expert-level white people who – like me – have embraced ethnic diversity. Of course, only as long as it comes to cheap food.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Google makes the world grow stupid

It's imaginary, just like your intelligence

It’s no surprise that a blog called “Run the Equator” gets the majority of its hits from people searching the web for something or other related to the Equator. I run a counter on this site which enables me to see how many people have reached it and where the clicks come from, within the limits of geographic IP address mapping. Don’t worry, the counter doesn’t tell me your name, phone number or email address, but it’s very good at measuring stupidity, and there’s no better dumbness-gauge than the words people use in web searches. Words? No, it’s entire phrases and personal questions that people ask Google these days.

The undeniable fact that Google has indexed and catalogued the entire world of online information has led certain of us to believe that the sum of human knowledge is at their fingertips and no effort is needed to retrieve it. Once upon a time it used to be that you needed to read the manual first in order to be able use a tool. If you wanted to get a book on a certain topic from the library, you had to know how to use the index cards or explain your concerns to the librarian, and later on, when you had the book in your hands you actually had to spend some time reading it to get to the information you were looking for. All this sounds pretty darn complicated, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, in the age of instant gratification all these time-wasting efforts have been made obsolete by web search. Who needs a brain when you’ve got Google?

You can get most of what you’re looking for to come willingly to your web browser, depending on your level of skill in manipulating search keywords, but no amount of search and indexing will redeem some of the lost souls who land accidentally on my blog. For their lack of common sense they deserve house arrest without access to the internet and an interdiction to procreate.

Most people get to my blog looking for something simple and objective, which can be expressed in simple queries: visas, information about a certain country or place I happen to have visited and blogged about, hostels, vaccines for the tropical world, travel information. These boring internet surfers seem to have read the manual and don’t expect the web to be able to cure AIDS and slice bread.

A few clueless dweebs, exhibiting a fair degree of anonymous honesty admit that they don’t know where or what this equator-thing is. Fair enough – in this day and age, operating a computer doesn’t require any level of formal education, like going to school. These guys seem to be struggling in a desperate quest for trivial knowledge. Unless they are 8 year-olds, they have already lost the battle and will soon land a job flipping burgers for the rest of their lives if they don’t already do so.

The frosting on the cake are those who have thrown all gray-matter from the skulls into the trash can and would rather be plugged into the Matrix than exercise their atrophied brains, the part of the population whose cortexes have been leveled with a clothes iron by the digital age. These guys ask Google the kind of questions you would ask of an oracle. One who has all the answers to all the riddles in the Universe, or at least to everything involving the Equator. Let’s take a look at the existential problems these monkeys are struggling with. Some questions require algorithmic answers, which reveals a certain complexity of the problem they are trying to tackle, but the mere fact that they ask the search question in raw, human form reveals their total lack of common sense with regard to technology and its limits. Some of them are merely stupid, others completely nonsensical, more appropriate to the prior category, many are just brilliant. The grammar belongs to them.

  • do you have to pass the equator to get to Turkey
  • what towns are on the equator
  • countries which run through the equator
  • what's the distance of istanbul from the equator
  • India is as much a country as the Equator
  • continents that doesn't run through the equator
  • frostbite near the equator
  • map of india with equator on it
  • equator shit time lapse
  • honduras location due to the equator
  • map of thailand equator
  • where does the equator run
  • visa to equator
  • what rivers run away from the equator
  • ten countries along the equator that you fly along
  • I travel around the world but always in a corner i can cross the equator but only only make one trip
  • a list of all country the equator run through
  • turkey spain or egypt what is closer to the equator
  • lands lieng on the equator
  • the capital of the country that crosses the equator
  • india south of the equator
  • why is the Equator famous

Those queries come from the activity logs of the last month only. Too bad I didn’t save the rest. I wanted to make a top-ten out of it but I can’t decide which one deserves the Darwin Award...

For all of you internet-indoctrinated morons, get an atlas! Google maps would do just fine.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

So you want to know what my favorite place is?

"What was your favorite place?"

How's that for an answer?

I get this question all the time and it irritates me like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. Sometimes I think you ask it just to annoy me – but you’d have to be too devious for that, so I’ll go with the more reasonable assumption: that you’re opening your mouth only to ask the most predictable question because you don’t have anything to say, really. It’s a stupid question. I’ve been to 26 countries during my year-long trip; there wasn’t a lot that they had in common except that I had to eat, shit and sleep wherever I went, and the other tourists annoyed me equally everywhere… but I hardly think that’s a solid basis for a top-ten rating.

I don’t ask you if you like steak more than ice cream. Or whether Scarlett Johansson is hotter than Angelina Jolie. Or whether you prefer beer or coffee. Those, along with the one you keep asking me are stupid questions and do not deserve to be answered. Whatever the answer may be it doesn’t communicate any relevant information and is not going to advance the conversation in any way. It’s just meaningless chatting for the sake of it.

There’s a gazillion of reasonable questions you could ask, that may lead to a funny and interesting conversation. Let me help you a bit:

  • Where did you have the toughest communication experience?
  • Where did you spend the most money?
  • Where did you have the craziest binge-drinking night?
  • Where was the best diving?
  • Where did you smoke the most dope?
  • Did you get laid anywhere?
  • Did you have to go to the hospital anywhere?
  • Did you ever get scammed by a con artist and fell for it?
  • Did you get robbed anywhere?
  • Did you get into a bar fight anywhere?
  • Did you steal from anyone?
  • Did you run naked out in the street anywhere?
  • Where did you have the worst diarrhea?
  • Where did you make the best friends?
  • Where did you have the worst hotel room?
  • What was your weirdest experience?
  • Were you ever afraid for your life?

But no, you all prefer to ask me the same inane question, one that doesn’t even have a relevant answer to boot. Look, I liked all the countries I visited and I hated some of them at the same time – sometimes for the same reasons. You could figure this out on your own if you paused to think for a second before opening your mouth, but since you’re so narrow and you lack any spark of imagination you keep asking me what my favorite place was as if I were 16 and I had to have a favorite movie, a favorite band or a best friend.

I think before I speak!

I should throw the nearest wireless mouse at you when I hear that question, but I’m medicated well enough so I usually restrain myself. Instead, if I suspect that the person I’m talking to has a bit of a brain left and would be able to see the error of their ways with a bit of help or if I believe that the question was just a momentary lapse into stupidity on the part of an otherwise clever individual (don’t we all?) I’ll say that the countries I liked fall into two distinct categories: those that you fall in love with at first sight, as soon as you get off the plane - like South Africa or Greece or Spain - and those that have to grow on you, like India, Laos and Bolivia. Aside of this coarse classification each country strikes you by one or more dominant attributes that make it unique: it can be the picture-perfect beauty of nature, the ethereal strangeness of the landscape, the good time you had with people you met, the rotting garbage lying in the open, the permanent harassment you were subjected to, the beautiful wild animals, the breathtaking diving on the coral reef, the raging night-life, the hot topless girls on the beach, the soaring snow-capped mountains or the delicious exotic food. You may prefer one or the other in certain situations but no single one tops the rest; I’d have to just pick one out of my ass. Not that you would care. You want clich├ęs? Here’s one for you: stop asking me to compare apples with pears!

Even if I had a favorite country… how would it advance your knowledge of the world if I told you anyway? Stop asking me dumb questions just to be nice. If you don’t have anything to say, just shut up. Man, I hate people.

You want a list? I got one! You order it, stop asking me.

  • I loved Mexico for the soaring Mayan pyramids lost in the jungle and its cheap tacos. And because it was the first destination on our trip
  • Going to Belize because going there was a childhood dream come true
  • I loved Guatemala for Antigua’s beautiful ruined convents and Tikal’s army of howler monkeys who scared me to death at 4 in the morning
  • I loved Honduras because the bunch of guitar-playing hippie divers I met on Roatan reminded me of another time in my life
  • I loved Ecuador because that’s where my Spanish unlocked its brakes. And because I met Michael and Mor in the Galapagos
  • I loved Peru for the crushing dignity of its Inca fortresses and for giving me enough diarrhea to fill a bath tub
  • I loved Bolivia because it’s the underdog of South America and the Altiplano made me feel like I was on the moon
  • Argentina filled my belly with the greatest steak on the planet and gave me wireless internet in every coffee shop
  • South Africa had the bluest skies I’ve ever seen
  • In Namibia I floundered to the on top of a giant red sand dune at sunrise and saw lions having sex
  • In Botswana I followed fresh animal tracks through the savanna and saw a herd of elephants coming out of the fog
  • Zambia made me famous for fifteen minutes and helped me earn $1000 in royalties
  • In Malawi I kept looking for the other shore of the lake while I sipped cold beer
  • Tanzania showed me a place that redeemed all ugliness in the world
  • Kenya… well, I didn’t really visit Kenya but it still had the coolest song in the world
  • Egypt crushed me under millennia of history and showed me that sometimes locals just want to talk to tourists without demanding money
  • In Greece I realized that I could drink tap water again but I turned into a wino instead
  • Italy lead me back to Rome, and for a day I was an all-powerful pasta-eating emperor. Maybe Caligula.
  • Spain had scores of delicious tapas and smoky crowded bars and Gaudi and pretty girls everywhere and Robert and Eva
  • Romania is still where I return when I want to remember the smell of hay and fresh snow and roasted pig-ears
  • I almost had my fingers amputated by frostbite for taking my hands out of my mittens to take pictures in front of the Hungarian parliament
  • In Turkey I shed a tear for the defunct Constantinople and then gorged myself with pide and baklava in Istanbul
  • India overwhelmed me with unusual sensations, crushed me with its mass of humanity and got me some peace of mind, if only just for a short time...
  • Thailand explained to me what the song “One Night in Bangkok” was all about
  • I loved Cambodia because you cannot believe that a place like Angkor Wat really exists until you see it
  • In Laos I wanted to become a bearded, balding, homeless dope-head just to forget that I had to return home and look for a job...

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Friday, July 18, 2008

An open-ended list of things that pissed me off around the world (and still do)

I was going to call this one “Ten things that pissed me off around the world” but once I began to think about all the times I was annoyed, pissed off or wished I had a shotgun to blast someone out of their idiotic useless existence during the course of this trip I couldn’t stop counting and soon I used all the fingers of my two hands and took my socks off so I can start counting using my toes. Hence the current title.

  • 1. White people waiting for a table in front of a restaurant in Cuzco.

    Why the hell would you want to stay in line for lunch with twenty other idiots wearing The North Face jackets at a place that has burgers, roast-beef sandwiches and steak fries at 3400 meters altitude in Peru? Because you’re too much of a coward to try to experience any of the local food in a city that has a million restaurants and because it looks very much like any joint you would find in your pathetic town back home, so it makes you feel safe. If you miss your own corner deli and their stinky pastrami so much, stay home.

  • 2. Public service employees begging for a handout like they deserve it.

    This asshole day-guard walks up to me in the museum of Coptic Christian history in Cairo and asks me “You Christian?” “Yes” (I’m not but in Egypt you’re either Muslim or Christian, there’s no such thing as an atheist) “Me too, see?” (Shows me a cross. Grins. As if now we’re buddies) “I have 10 children. Give me money.” He’s following me through the building so I give him a 1-pound note to shake him off. He looks at me like I did him wrong “Only 1 pound? More! 10 children!” and stretches his hand again. Piss off. I took the pound note back and left him there. Asshole. If you really have 10 children and can’t care for them you should have gotten a vasectomy.

  • 3. Listening to the same idiotic questions from other tourists you meet.

    Where did you come from? Where are you going next? Did you like X? Are you visiting Z? Shut up. It’s all the same. I didn’t talk to you, so stop talking to me because it’s obvious you don’t have anything interesting to say. Do something useful and leave me alone.

  • 4. Dishonest hotel managers.

    So this place is a shithole and you still want me to pay in advance for four nights? And you told me 40 Euros on the phone and now it’s 50? How the hell did you get into Lonely Planet anyway? Their editors must be on crack.

  • 5. Inane “must see” places that are just boring pieces of junk.

    If the top attraction in the city is the public library that exhibits some gorgeous murals from a celebrated local artist, just spare yourself the effort and time and don’t go there. Lonely Planet is on crack.

  • 6. Imbeciles who show up early for everything.

    On our 40-day African safari our guide would announce every evening the schedule for the next day: “tomorrow morning, the wake up call is at 6:30, breakfast at 7, we leave at 7:45″. Each morning, as I woke up at 6:30, the other white people had already packed their tents. By 7, they were done with breakfast and were idling around casting passive-aggressive looks of disapproval at me. Bite me! I’m not going to bend to peer-pressure, I need my beauty sleep.

  • 7. Yes, we have hot water. Yes we leave at 10am.

    Everyone lies. You’re just a big fat wallet on legs. Get used with it or bring a shotgun.

  • 8. Rickshaw drivers in Asia.

    When you take a ride to town coming from the station with your backpack the driver always knows a great hotel, just around the corner – usually a shithole that gives them commission for every clueless guy they drop at their door. Those assholes all have an incurable ear disease – they can’t hear the word “no”. Maybe a jackhammer would help.

  • 9. White people trying too hard to embrace local traditions.

    During the water festival in Chiang Mai everyone gets wet and everyone throws water about and nobody gets mad. But when you see a group made exclusively of tourists armed with buckets and water pistols, dousing every open-back taxi truck that passes - a day after the festival has officially ended - showing them the finger is not only ok, it becomes mandatory.

  • 10. Paying 2 Euros for plain coffee.

    Seriously. Europeans are crazy. They should all grow a pair and boycott Starbucks but I’m afraid it’s too late, they’re hooked.

  • 11. Local travel agencies that charge a heavy markup for stuff that you can get for less around the corner.

    And the morons who do not do their homework and keep paying, perpetuating the scams.

  • 12. Fat balding Anglo sex-tourists trying to make dinner conversation with Thai prostitutes who don’t give a shit.

    You know who you are. And I stared and snickered at every single one of you just to make you feel even more self-conscious, defeated and worthless than you are.

  • 13. Paying too much for poor service because you have no choice

    Getting on the island… cheap. Getting off the island… not so cheap. What are you going to do? Ask to speak with the manager?

  • 14. Douchebags who rave about how awesome and spiritual India is.

    All you little shits who act elated, telling everyone who’s within earshot that “India is, like, soooo awesome, so spiritual, I wish I never had to leave, this is the best place ever, man! You don’t understand!” like you are the first person in the universe to ever get laid - go live in the slums on a less than a dollar a day like 90% of India’s population, without bottled water, internet and your stupid iPod, go sell paan or drive a rickshaw for a living and then come and proclaim your epiphany to the world. You are an idiot and nobody cares about your pseudo-intellectual bullshit and your condescending “enlightened” attitude.

  • 15. Retarded teenagers checking their Facebook “walls”.

    You absolutely have to stay in touch or else your friends will stop loving you. And make sure you use all caps and poor grammar, it makes you look smart. “I’M IN THAILND LOL AND ITS SO KEWL WE HAD DA BEST PARTY YOUR NOT GOING TO BELIEV WHN U C THE PICTRES!!!!1” Seriously… better free that bandwidth for someone who has more important things to do, like uploading an angry blog that nobody reads!

  • 16. Horrible European tippers.

    I don’t tip more than the norm (whose norm? mine!) because I think that some professions are already making lots of undeserved money. Take bartenders, for example: one dollar a drink? Are you kidding me!? But even I wanted to take a shotgun at the Euro-dipshits who dropped only 10 dollars in the tipping pot for the army of porters who, for four days in a row, had set up our tents, cooked our meals and transported all the heavy equipment on their backs running barefoot at lightning speed while we were trudging and sweating our way on the Inca trail for the sake of our crusty pathetic egos. Israelis, Aussies and Kiwis included at a discount.

  • 17. Losers who visit the Coliseum and have no idea where they are.

    Who is this guy Octavian Augustus? Look, that statue is naked! (chuckle) Who built all these ruins? Was it the Romans? What's the capital of Rome? Not that anyone cares, but these people make us look like a nation of uncultured idiots and help perpetuate the stereotype that all Americans are stupid and they only know how to make war on other countries. Amen!

  • 18. Jackasses on group tours, who show too much skin in public in Muslim countries.

    Nobody, anywhere, needs to see your lard bulging under your belly-shirt. If you happen to be hot you’ll get more attention than you want for that deep cleavage and the short skirt. Maybe some of those pious, innocent men will get into accidents turning their heads because of you. The traffic will be jammed for hours and I’ll be stuck in a cab without air conditioning, listening to bad music, until they dig the bodies out and remove the rubble. All because you showed cleavage. You monster!

  • 19. Everyone else.

    Stay home. I hate people.

Click here to read more...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Almost Famous

Down the drain

A few months after we left Africa, a blogger from Spain who maintains a popular site where he collects bits of information about interesting and strange places and events wrote an article about the adrenaline-junkies messing around in Devil’s Pool, the natural swimming pool at the edge of Victoria Falls, which we had visited in September. He assembled a few photos and videos off the internet and linked them to the original sources. Within days, my flickr picture set on Victoria Falls was getting thousands of views. I tracked the clicks back to the referring site, to find out to whom I owed this unexpected surge in interest – for once the view count of my travel pictures of exotic places was surpassing that of my older photos of drunk girls kissing in dark and noisy clubs.

Rich and famous... and beautiful!

By April, the story was making the rounds on the internet and a few news agencies caught wind of it. Devil’s Pool hasn’t been discovered yesterday; in fact tourists have been going there for a quick adrenaline-loaded swim for decades. But it looks like every generation needs to be reminded of the same things over and over. There’s just too much information floating around for us to be aware of; knowledge that isn’t in your face daily (and even that) is forgotten fast – how else would you explain the avalanche of movie remakes these days? Hollywood began by reissuing and updating movies from the forties, which were understandably unknown to most of the population currently living on Earth, but with each revamping project they are getting closer and closer the movies of our times – money-making entertainment machine has married attention-deficit disorder and their children are the placebo soothing pills of our anxieties. Soon they’ll be remaking next year’s movies today… but I digress…

A British online news agency contacted me on flickr and asked for permission to use my pictures – in exchange for publishing credit and compensation. I gladly agreed – who doesn’t want to be famous on the internet? – and they wrote a short article that appeared in the online versions of a few British newspapers. The reporter asked me for some quotes about my experience, which he wanted to use in the article. Among others, here’s what I said; this quote was reproduced without much journalistic adjustment:

“Being in Devil's pool is a serious adrenaline rush for the first few minutes. If you jump (you can also get in gently) it adds up to the excitement. The thought that you may get sucked away from the relatively calm waters of the pool and down the foamy hell into the pit makes you giddy with apprehension - although you have to stray far out quite a bit for that to happen. It's great fun - some people enjoy it quietly, swimming, looking, thinking, while others keep screaming to no end.”

I also told the reporter that we chose to go swimming in Devil’s Pool instead of trying bungee jumping because there would be plenty of opportunities for bungee in other places, but swimming at the edge of a 360-feet waterfall is not something you can do anywhere and anytime. That was quoted as “[…] said it was better than bungee jumping”. Well, damn you reporters! I have never jumped anyway, so I wouldn’t know.

Within days I also gave publishing rights to BBC Brazil and to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Before I could say “waterfall” my quote and pictures were syndicated in online newspapers and magazines around the world, translated from English into Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, hell knows what else, and even Romanian. They also made it into a printed version of the US entertainment magazine In Touch – which I am considering suing for millions owed to me in royalties. Wouldn’t you?

OMG! A child! Save him!
This guy had his share of online bashing

The readers’ comments online were mixed – half of the people adhered to the “this is soooo cool, I want to do it too” opinion, the other half supported the “these people are idiots, they should put themselves out of the gene pool” position. An even more divisive discussion went on about the people who had their children in Devil’s Pool with them: one group (consisting, of course, of people who have never been to Victoria Falls) kept screaming bloody murder “I can’t believe these idiots can be so reckless to take their children in the pool with them and expose them to such danger,” to which the second group would reply: “get a life, these children are obviously not in danger; if it were up to you, the social services would rule everybody’s lives and children would go to the playground swathed in bubble wrap.”

So, uhm… I’m famous! Do you want to hang out with me?

Note: not all photos featured in the articles listed below are mine. While all those news items quote my words and mention my name, the photos come from various sources. In some case, other Victoria Falls pictures have even been mistakenly attributed to me.
Some of the links below may become dead over time. The internet moves fast…

Article Links:


UK

South West News Service
Daily Mail Online
Daily Mirror
Metro Online
Times Online
Opodo Travel News
Daily Express
Atlas Direct
The London Paper
Essential Travel
The Telegraph
2by2 Holidays

Brasil

BBC Brasil
Ultimo Segundo
Globo News
Camera2
Jornal NH

Viet Nam

Viet Bao

Romania

Timis Online
Femina
Ziua
Click.ro
Cancan
Kappa
Informatia Zilei
Antena3 (hacked)

Austria

ORF

Croatia

24sata

Poland

Onet.pl

Click here to read more...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Life after the road

  “Sir, are you finding everything ok?” the sales associate with a fake smile interrupts my moment of day-dreaming.
  “Yes, of course,” I say and I walk away, but I am irritated, and I don’t know if I’m annoyed more by the fact that she talked to me when I was obviously not trying to make eye contact or by her choice of words - the most aggravating conversation opener used by salespeople in the northwest.
 “Do you want to apply for our store Visa credit card today?” I am told later at the cashier’s desk, again, with a huge, unjustified smile.
  “No.”
  “Do you know you can save ten percent of your purchase price today if you apply for the credit card?”
  “Yes, and I still don’t want it.” Please stop offering me things I don’t need. Just ring me up and take my money.
  “Do you want to donate one penny for the Special Olympics?” the grocery store checkout clerk asks me.
  “No.” I look her straight in the eyes but my laser gaze misfires. I don’t care for the Olympics, special or not, and I only donated money once, long ago, during the Microsoft giving campaign, to a cancer research institute. I am a bad person and I do not want to save the world. I swipe the credit card; the cashier gives me the bag with groceries and before she hands me the receipt she takes a brief look at it, then turns back to me and says, sporting the same punch-me-in-the-face smile: “Thank you, mister Sturgeon.”

I give her the look of death again, but I don’t say anything. I’m back home and it’s generally considered impolite to tell people what you think, i.e. I really, really don’t want you to act like you know me and say my name when you thank me for shopping at Safeway; I do not need you to try to make me feel like I am at the neighborhood mom-and-pop store and you’re my best friend. And certainly I don’t want you to butcher my name mispronouncing it, which is more likely to happen than not.

Now that I can compare I realize that the salespeople at home are just as annoying as those from the Cairo bazaar, albeit a bit less aggressive; they just have a different style. I don’t know what is more pitiful or irritating – the impertinence and obstinacy of street-vendors and taxi drivers in third-world countries, asking you, the presumably-rich foreign backpacker, for prices five times higher than what they expect to get in the end, or the excessively obsequious and unnecessarily friendly attitude of American sales associates working for commission or simply being forced to apply what their management considers good customer service.

Urban bliss

Later that evening we have dinner at a local restaurant in Queen Anne. The over-the-top friendly waiter talks too much, and pushes the specials of the day at machine-gun-fire speed, his smile so wide and bright I could almost believe he loves being there with us more than anything else in the world. At the end of the meal I take the bill and add the tip, 15% before tax, plus a few pennies to round up. It’s been a year since I last had to figure out a waiter’s tip, write it down on a bill and do some post-dinner math. In most places we had just followed local customs – leave some coins to show that you don’t care much about the petty change in most small eateries; tip nothing in Europe or risk getting the “pathetic American sucker” look; add up to 10% in more upscale restaurants anywhere else.

New home

A trip cannot last forever; sooner or later, moving from place to place every few days becomes too exhausting and starts undermining the desire to travel; slowly, the need for some sort of stability, for a home, settles in. And now, a year after packing up and cramming all our belonging into a 12x10 storage room, we ended up back in the same town that we used to call home before this adventure started. There are quite a few things about Seattle that I did not miss during our year away. The semi-permanent rainy season is one of them. Having to pay 8 dollars for a plate of Thai food that used to cost me one dollar merely a few days before is another. The price of gas, the housing market, car and health insurance, being stuck in traffic on the way to work listening to an uninspired morning show on the radio…

I can’t let those things and thoughts take more importance than they are due. There are plenty of reasons why it’s fine to be back at home. During the past week I saw a few of my old friends: some have longer hair, some have lost a bit more of theirs. Some have lost or gained weight, others have more wrinkles around their eyes. But they are still the same people and I’m glad to see them again.

Hi sweetie!

I missed the way our beautiful little city shines on a sunny day, the clean, quiet tree-lined streets in the residential neighborhoods, and the views of downtown from the freeway. I missed drinking microbrew ales on tap at a local tavern, the Capitol Hill coffee shops and my favorite Thursday night hangout. I missed working out at the gym and having a proper bathroom. I needed to be around my horses, play my guitar, and maybe most of all, I missed my weathered, beat-up 1988 3-series BMW, which still needs new suspension, a few sensors and a replacement left-side door lock since thieves broke into our apartment’s garage more than a year ago. Maybe if I get a job I will be able to afford all that.

Strange as it sounds, after a year of keeping my brain in hibernation I miss having a job – just the exciting parts of it, the challenges, the rewards and the fun, not the stress and the occasional nights and weekends spent trying to meet a deadline.

Life is normal again. Or is it?

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Return address

We're back in Seattle. Life goes on, even after you've been traveling for one year. Updates soon... this blog does not end here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

No one stays dry in Chiang Mai

Splaaaaash!
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Songkran photos

No one, really. Unless you lock yourself in your hotel room and order food delivery you will get wet sooner or later. During the three days of Songkran, the Thai new year festival, most of Thailand's population is locked in an extraordinary water-dousing fight match, which involves everyone who sets foot in the street, from children (the first to start, days ahead of the official festivities), to older people, to hapless - or willing - tourists. The only people who do not become targets for the buckets of water thrown at random all over town are the few brave street-food vendors who defy the flood hoping to make a penny - even wet people grow hungry sooner or later. In the general exhilaration, no one pours water on them on purpose, but bucket handles slip occasionally and aims are missed...

Caught in the act

The situation is especially intense in Chaing Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand, a town become famous precisely because of the madness that takes place on its streets each year between the 13th and 15th of April. The old part town is shaped like a perfect square with sides roughly one-kilometer long, and used to be surrounded by defensive walls and a wet moat. There aren't many bricks left standing from the old wall, but the moat is alive and doing very well these days. While the water-craze takes over the whole town, the streets that run along the four sides of the square are the epicenter of action and fun - that area sees more water per square inch in a day than the country sees in a week of monsoon rains. Pickup trucks jammed with wet people cruise along slowly, loaded with barrels full of water. Every now and then the merry passengers fetch a pail and throw it at the passersby. At the same time, in the snail-paced traffic, they are easy targets for the walking crowd. Once in a while everyone stops to refill their weapons of choice: buckets, pails or water-guns - from the moat, of course. The water is warm and brown, so you better keep your mouth closed when a pailful lands on your head. It may not be an easy resolution to keep, if you are stunned out of your senses by a sudden splash of icy water!

Hanging out at the moat
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or here for all Chiang Mai photos

I bought a big squirting water gun for the outrageous price of 200 Baht (which I managed to wrangle down from the original 300) - if you get caught in the middle of a war without a weapon, you pay dearly for the privilege of taking part in the hostilities. Half an hour later it broke and refused to squirt; after trying unsuccessfully to fix it for a few minutes I abandoned technology in favor of tradition and bought a small pail - it was easier to refill and inflicted greater damage - especially when I was able to sneak around the people who guarded their barrels of ice-water, steal a scoop and pour it on them. There's only one rule to the game - nobody gets upset.

Hungry!
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or here for all cooking school photos

The other highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai was the day-long cooking class on Thai food, which we took during the festival. After an entertaining visit to market, where we got acquainted with the various vegetables and spices, the following delicious dishes where cooked and subsequently devoured by each of us, seven farang eager to unlock the secrets of those exotic recipes:

  • Stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts
  • Deep-fried fish cakes
  • Spicy Tom-yum soup with prawns
  • Chicken green curry over rice
  • Fish souffle in banana leaves
  • Pumpkin custard pie
  • Pad Thai noodles with pork and prawns
  • Fried spring rolls

On our way back to the hotel we got drenched, but we managed to save our self-cooked dinner, thanks to the magic superpower of multiple layers of plastic bags.

Posted in a hurry from Bangkok, our last stop on this trip. Home is almost in sight!

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The longest boat ride

Burning land
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or here for all Mekong trip photos

The major attractions of the Laos tourist track are strung like beads on a rope along Route 13, which spans the whole length of the north-south axis of this country shaped somewhat like a deformed cooking pan or a spiked battle axe. Once you’ve seen the south and followed the Mekong northwards through the “panhandle” to Vientiane, once you’re done with tubing and partying in Vang Vieng and got your share of temple photos in Luang Prabang, you have a choice: you can either continue the arduous land journey north, to the remote highlands in the Phongsali province, or you can return to Thailand - which is what most tourists do. It wouldn’t be much fun to backtrack your steps all the way to Vientiane in order to cross the border; no traveler likes seeing the same roads again on their way home. Fortunately, there’s a better alternative: the Mekong.

A cozy spot

From Luang Prabang to Huay Xai on the Thai border, the river journey takes two days by slow-boat. These are long, low-floating, single-deck covered boats capable of transporting a few dozen passengers. Called slow-boats for the obvious reason that there are also fast boats on the same route, most tourist prefer them to the faster alternative for reasons related to comfort and safety - the fast boats are minuscule, ultra-light contraptions that can only seat a few cramped passengers and move at break-neck speed; they have been known to flip over occasionally, with deadly consequences. The level of comfort on the slow boat varies with the number of people and the quality of the seats. Most boats have a few rows of reclining seats that look like they have just been ripped out of a minibus – in fact they are just that: minibus seats whose metal railings have been mounted on pieces of wood so they won’t damage the lacquered wooden floor planks. In addition to those, the boats hold a number of movable small wooden benches who look - and are - very uncomfortable; in the long run, the coziest spot for resting may end up being the floor. There is a bathroom on board and drinks are can be purchased. You can walk around, stretch your legs or lie down if you chose, and with the right company, be that people you like or a good book, you can spend the time pleasantly. And time you have, if nothing else; each day, for 10 hours, the boat munches its way against the current through the never-ending jungle-covered hills, through swats of land fallen victim to the yearly slash-and-burn agricultural ritual, through mountains of layered sediment brought downstream by past floods and millions of monsoon seasons.

Sunset on the river

There is a travel agency in every house on the main street in Luang Prabang; all of them sell tickets for the slow boat - at a charge. They seem to be doing a good business of it - few tourists bother going down to the slow-boat landing to check the prices at the ticket office. The fare to Pak Beng - a riverside village where you must spend the first night, half-way between Luang Prabang and the Thai border - is 110,000 kip for foreigners (about $12.50), but the more brazen agencies will slap an extra 30,000 kip ($3.50) on your back – one of those rackets is right near the ticket booth! In Pak Beng the ticket for the second leg of the trip costs 115,000 for foreigners, but if you fall for the tricks of the few Luang Prabang agencies who sell the ticket all the way to the border, you’ll pay a lot more. As usual, it’s worth checking prices in advance - buy the ticket at the pier or negotiate with the travel agencies. Sadly, the complacent attitude of many tourists, “oh, it’s only three more dollars, never mind,” works against everybody’s interest giving a blank check to businesses’ greed. It only helps drive prices higher for both locals and tourists.

  “How many hours to Pak Beng?” I ask the lady behind the desk at the travel agency.
  “6 or 7. Boat leaves at 8:30 in the morning.”
  “On the second day, are we going to arrive at the border before it closes?” I wanted to know if we had to spend two more nights in Laos or just one.
  “Yes.” I realize I just asked a question leading to the answer that I wanted to hear, so I rephrase:
  “What time do we arrive at the border on the second day?”
  “At three o’clock,” she assures me. The border closes at 6PM, so we may make it to the Thai side the same day. Three different agencies give me similar answers.

Slash and burn

But we didn’t make it in time. The first day of traveling, we took 9 hours to Pak Beng. The second day we spent 10 hours afloat and we arrived in Huay Xai after dark. What is this worldwide tendency of travel agents to lie to their customers about arrival times? They know how long the trip really takes, don’t they?! We would have taken the boat anyway, even if they had told us the truth... Spending a last night in Laos wasn’t bad at all. I enjoyed the last few Beerlao (one of my favorite lagers on this trip) with Craig, Rae and Jordan, some Aussies we had met on the boat, and spent our last kip which were going to become useless once we arrived in Thailand – you can pay for almost everything in Thai baht on the Lao side of the border but you cannot use kip anywhere else.

And so the next day we crossed the river into Thailand and took a minibus to Chiang Mai. We had reached the last destination of our year-long journey.

Posted from Hat Sai Khao beach, Ko Chang island, Thailand.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Luang Prabang, a Kingdom afar

Luang Prabang is ready for business!
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or here for all Luang Prabang photos

Laos is a communist state, and therefore the official propaganda is still reviling all the social evils that the Pathet Lao party has triumphed upon with its seizure of power in 1975: capitalism, imperialism, and monarchy. But the voices of the official party line are more likely to be muffled these days; the tune is a different one, in sync with the political realities of China and other nominally-communist states that have abandoned the economic doctrine of collectivization: “get rich if you can, but do not dare defy the party”. And the Lao are very busy trying to make money; every day of the week is business as usual in Luang Prabang for night market sellers, for tuk-tuk drivers, for tourism agencies, restaurants and guesthouses.

Dark clouds over the Royal Palace wat

Even the tough stance on monarchy - a staple of propaganda literature of all communist regimes - has softened in recent times: there are amulets for sale at the market with carvings and pictures of the late kings of Laos, and the neatly preserved Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang is the main tourist attraction in town. It’s a rather austere royal residence, more of a large country mansion than a sumptuous palace. As a museum, it provides a good insight in the simple lives of the royal family of a poor, mountainous kingdom, squeezed between more powerful neighbors. In the room reserved for diplomatic gifts to Laos from other states, there’s a noteworthy token of appreciation sent by US President Nixon (hence still addressed to the Royal government, since Nixon’s presidency ended before the communists took power): a scale model of the Apollo 11 lunar module and some tiny bits of lunar rock cast in a glass bubble supported by a plaque which bears a miniature flag of the Kingdom of Laos and an inscription in English saying that the flag has been flown to the moon and back. A strange and cynical gift to the people of Laos, considering that at the time the United States was busy bombing their country to bits.

Reclining Buddha on Phu Si hill

Stay another day!” – the words of this unofficial tourist mantra of Luang Prabang lure you from street banners, advertising windows and tourist brochures all over town. We stayed four days, defying the crushing heat, surviving a sudden storm that nearly flooded our room, patrolling the courtyards of many slumbering temples and drinking a lot of Beerlao (the one and only locally-produced beer, and quite a good one) with extra ice, to prevent it from growing warm too soon in the hellish outside temperatures. We slept at the Oudomphone Guest House, whose owner, an older, very effusive Lao lady, calls herself mama, feeds you bananas whether you want them or not, and stays awake late at night to make sure every one of her guests returns to the nest. On a whiteboard in the ground-floor corridor she makes annotations about the rooms of the house - the current prices, which rooms are empty, and a check sign for the tenants who have returned at night. I wonder what she would do if one doesn’t show up until the next morning… She also gave us a thick comforter to cover ourselves with at night, although there was no need for such radical care…

Inside Wat Xieng Thong

Every morning we started the day with breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery (who knew the Swedes had a reputation for things cooked in the oven?), which serves great pastries, delicious sandwiches and all-you-can-drink fresh brewed coffee. Every evening Angela finished the day with a few hours of hunting for bargains at the Night Market on the main street; luckily she had Rahel to keep her company among the mountains of cuteness set for display on the pavement, and I was able to spend this time online, keeping up with the blog and uploading photos. The nights weren’t much to talk about; we’d celebrate our trip with a few more bottles of Beerlao or glasses of wine - there’s a swanky, well-stacked wine bar on the main street in Luang Prabang - but the whole town shuts down around 11PM and the only place to hang out was mama’s terrace at the guesthouse.

Wet and happy!

Between morning coffee and evening-time Beerlao, the days in Luang Prabang can be packed with activities. There are only so many temples that one can visit before they all start looking “same same”; the Phu Si hill, located smack in the middle of town offers great views, but after climbing the few hundred steps to the top, baking slowly under the unforgiving sun, anyone would be beset by doubts that the photo opportunities were not worth the effort and sweat. For the rest of the time, short of spending money in the scores of good-looking cafes and restaurants meant for the tourist dollar it’s better to head outside of town for a river trip, to visit caves or to swim at the waterfalls. On our third day, we took a half-day trip to Tat Kuang Si, a scenic waterfall a half-hour drive away from town. We were supposed to get wet swimming in the natural pools at the base of the falls, but we ended up getting dunked and drenched on our way back by the kids who ambushed every car, truck and motorcycle and doused them with buckets of water. They were getting a bit of advance practice for the water festivities of the Lao New Year, and it seemed that the season for splashing farang was already open. They had no mercy.

Published from Chaing Mai, Thailand.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Vang Vieng

The road to the river
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or here for all Vang Vieng pics

If you take Lonely Planet seriously you would think that Vang Vieng has graduated into the Major League of non-stop party scenes, right there with Bangkok's Khao San road, The Strip and Ibiza. The reality however, is not nearly as frightening as that. Sure, Vang Vieng has already become a fixture on the Laos backpacking circuit, a mandatory stop on the South-East Asia tourist trek, and for good reasons. Tubing (while drinking, optionally) down the Nam Song river is drawing a steady stream of enthusiastic, boisterous water-splashers; the more adventurous fill their day with adrenaline-loaded activities like caving, kayaking and rock-climbing; the scenery is breathtaking, the jagged karst mountains jutting out of the rice fields, dominating the landscape for miles.

Still peaceful

On the more decadent side, in what has become a trademark of the Vang Vieng experience, many restaurants play endless reruns of Friends on their street-side open patios, drunk falang in their bathing suits waddle their way in the middle of the street to the next bar, and the famous happy-shakes are more popular than ever. But the charm of the place has not yet been spoiled by unrestrained partying. In fact, I found the town rather quiet; there were few tourists around and no loud music was blaring from speakers at the bars. The vibe was peaceful... still. Perhaps the fact that all of Laos more-or-less shuts down at 11pm plays a role in that.

We didn't stay here too long, only enough to have a drink at a riverside restaurant admiring the magnificent sunset over the mountains and to do a bit of tubing the next day. Angela and our travel-friend Rahel did the tubing, I did the drinking...

Posted from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

The most relaxed capital in the world

The Great Stupa
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or here for all Vientiane pics

There's not a lot you can do as a tourist in Vientiane. Sure, you can take pictures of the the photogenic Great Gilded Stupa, you can visit a few peaceful Buddhist wats, or you can stroll along the corridors of the National Museum through exhibits about the revolutionary history of Laos. But most of all, you will end up appreciating the restaurants that this town has to offer. The locals seem to be very proud of their flimsy French colonial heritage; bakeries, cafes, croissants and wicker chairs are pleasant fixtures of the city center streets. Many appealing, tastefully decorated dining establishments boast international cuisine on their menus - there is even a Mexican Taqueria on the river front - and most offer a very good, tasty deal for your money.

Tech-savvy monk

Surprisingly, the first few hotels we looked at as we got off the night bus from Pakse, were all booked solid. After wandering around in circles a few times, increasingly frustrated, looking at the "full" signs set up on top of many reception counters, we found a decent room at the Orchid Guesthouse, with bathroom, TV and air conditioning for $16. It was a little expensive, considering that Laos was supposed to be still one of the cheapest tourist destinations, but it seems that the Lonely Planet effect is being felt around here as well. As soon as something is listed in one of their famous, popular guidebooks the prices increase, sometimes up to double. You cannot negotiate much for room rates in Laos, even less so in remote rural areas like the Bolaven Plateau; more than once we arrived at guesthouses that were practically empty, yet they wouldn’t budge when I tried to haggle. Prices increase naturally over time, and the dollar is at a historic low nowadays, but these sudden radical adjustments of the most recent published rates seem only motivated by the greed of local businesses and the willingness of the tourists to pay without questioning. In the words of a bitter forum member on the Thorntree message board: "I travel with a f#@%*! Lonely Planet guide only so I know to avoid all the places listed in there!"

No incoming traffic?

One day is all you need in Vientiane if you don't have any special business to attend to. I did - I had to apply for another tourist visa to enter Thailand again; unfortunately Romania is not on the list of the countries whose citizens are exempt of visas or can receive them on arrival. The process was as easy as ever: you stay in line to apply, you wait in a stifling room for your name to be called so you can pay the 1000 baht fee (about $30) and you pick up your passport the next day. And since Vientiane is a small town, I didn't even need to pay for a taxi to take us to the consulate and back - we rented bicycles and explored the town on wheels; the flat land and the absence of heavy traffic makes biking a very appealing alternative to tuk-tuks.

After two days we continued on our way north - the next stop was Vang Vieng, the backpacker's mecca in the mountains of northern Laos.

Published from Luang Prabang

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Rural adventures in southern Laos

Tubing on the Mekong at dusk
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or here for all Don Det pics

As soon as I got off the boat in Don Det I knew it was the place I’ve been hoping for. I had seen too many crowded cities, busy paved roads, hassling tuk-tuk drivers and growling tour buses. Without even knowing it I had been longing for a hammock under the shade of trees by the riverside. I had been dreaming of a peaceful village with no cars and few people, a haven of silence with dirt paths and bamboo bungalows where the morning crow of the roosters and the music of the roaring waterfalls would be the only disturbing noises. Then our long-tail boat landed on a muddy river bank in Don Det. I was in backpacker heaven.


Our bungalows - Vixay guesthouse

At the southern tip of Laos, the Mekong River spreads into a maze of arms and canals, snaking its way through and around the swarm of islands that dot its waters. Don Det, the most famous outpost in the Four Thousand Islands, is where the crowd of international modern-day hippies goes for a swim, a beer, and countless hours of just watching the waters flow. The islands still live in a time of their own; the local families tend to their riverside guesthouses and patio-restaurants when they are not busy cultivating rice. Electricity is a daily four-hour festival, between 6 and 10 PM. There are no cars, only a few scooters. Nobody runs; everybody seems to be taking a stroll. If you’re looking for the deepest meaning of the words “slow” and “relaxed,” Don Det is the place for you. The French have tried, with little success, to build some infrastructure – a short railroad, a bridge and a few concrete dams – in order to circumvent the furious waterfalls that make the navigation toward the lower Mekong impossible. After their departure, everything fell into ruins.

Beach life in Don Det
The tourists, mainly young backpackers and aged hippies, haven’t destroyed the place yet since it’s been “discovered”, about 10 years ago; they’re mostly busy socializing at the small beach on the northern tip of the island, biking their way around, swimming in the natural pools at the Tat Somphamit waterfalls and getting high on the widely available, cheap ganja. The lack of permanent electrical power contributes in part to keeping the islands isolated and underdeveloped; everyone who loves them would like them to stay so. For as underdeveloped as they are, the islands don’t lack the basic commodities needed by 21st-century backpackers – beer, kept in coolers under blocks of ice, is usually cold enough despite the lack of refrigerators; internet, albeit expensive, is available (running on batteries outside of the electricity window) and in every hamlet lives at least one guy who can fix a flat tire – a skill sorely needed by many falang who rent bikes to explore Don Det and Don Khon (its sister island to the south). During our own biking adventure, Angela’s wheels punctured and deflated three times, the same day. Bad luck or bad karma?

Angela and Rahel sipping a Lao-Lao shake

Many people stay on the islands longer than they planned, but “slow” and “relaxed” can become “boring” after a while. We left after three days and took a sawngthaew (a sort of pick-up truck turned bus) to Pakse, the closest bigger town on the Mekong and a former French colonial provincial capital. After peace and quiet we were now missing the creature comforts of modern life: TV, better food and air conditioning. It was time for a bigger adventure: a motorbike tour of the Bolaven plateau. Lonely Planet recommends the plateau, its jungle-covered mountains, the spectacular waterfalls, and the dirt roads winding through sleepy villages as one of the main attractions of southern Laos; we took their word for it and followed the circuit they suggested.

Tad Fan Waterfalls
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or here for all Bolaven plateau
photos

We left Pakse with our 100cc 4-speed Honda on a rainy morning. As we woke up with the dark skies and warm rain we hesitated for a while; should we just skip the whole plateau-thing and head straight to Vientiane? But we didn’t give up; we left the big backpacks at the Lankham hotel and hopped on the bike with the day bag, a change of clothes, the camera and the computer (which we did not need, but couldn't leave behind). Within minutes my shirt was drenched and we had to stop at the market to buy plastic rain coats. As we arrived frozen and wet at the Tad Fan resort, where we wanted to have lunch at the restaurant overlooking the waterfalls, we were already having second thoughts. What if it was going to rain like that for the next few days? Fortunately it didn’t; the weather got better in the afternoon and by the time we arrived in the Tad Lo village, where we were going to spend the night, the skies had cleared and our clothes had dried.

Kids playing Thai footbal in Tad Lo village

Tad Lo village is a perfect spot to while away a day or two in perfect harmony with nature. There are a few guesthouses with decent restaurants on the banks of the river, a short distance from the waterfalls, and only a handful of quiet backpackers. Unlike in Don Det, where all foreign tourists behave like one big family, there’s none of that overbearing socializing in Tad Lo; you’d almost want to talk in a whisper to your mate at the restaurant so you won’t disturb the divine peace that surrounds the village…

Foreigners come to the villages and towns of the plateau but not in large numbers, and the locals are always forthcoming and eager to practice the few words of English they know. In Attapeu they changed the TV channel to CNN when we sat down in a restaurant; they were happy and surprised when we told them we wanted the Lao traditional noodle-soup for breakfast instead of the omelets and baguettes they expected every falang to eat in the morning.

Bike warrior

Driving a bike up and down on the potholed dirt roads of the plateau is no easy affair. Storms broke out a couple of times; we had to stop and take cover under an abandoned house with some Lao boys who were kindling a scrap-wood fire. Another time, as the rain started to pour, a woman invited us in her house; her kids were staring at us the whole time, not sure whether they should laugh or be horrified. And when we thought things were just going great we got into an accident – I tried to avoid two consecutive potholes and the back wheel went skidding out of control. Before we knew it, we were reeling in the dirt, trying to figure out what happened, and the whole village was running toward us to help. Luckily we got away with a few superficial skin wounds, and the bike was fine. We were able continue our drive but we were hurting badly and decided to push all the way back to Pakse to treat our wounds – there was not much in the way of hygiene and medical help in Paksong, a small town in the heart of the plateau, where we had hoped to clean up and spend the night.

Road food
Our travel medical kit was more than enough, but out of sheer curiosity and a sense that a professional would do a better job, I decided to go to the local hospital. Surprisingly, it was all very clean and the nurses who treated us did a great job – but then again, they didn’t have to do much; they only cleaned the wounds, rubbed in some iodine and applied sterile plasters. Before long, we were entertaining the whole hospital staff with stories from the trip and bits of information about America. Treatment was free but we had to buy some cheap medical supplies, painkillers and antibiotics. Later that night, we celebrated the return to civilization and our narrow escape from an accident that could have turned much worse, with copious amounts of western food, beer and wine. The next day, we slept.

falang (or farang): generic word used in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to describe foreigners of European ancestry. A bit like "gringo" in Central and South America.
Posted from Luang Prabang, Laos.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Indochina route

Sunset at the Royal Palace
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or here for all Phnom Penh
pictures

Getting to Cambodia from Bangkok on land is sort of a painful adventure, from what I’ve heard. Guide books and weathered backpackers advise against taking the minibus service to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, offered by many Bangkok hotels and guesthouses. Apparently, the “direct” minibus deal is a major scam. The journey takes the whole day and the weary backpackers are dropped late at night at a commission-paying hotel, when they are too tired to set off and look for another guesthouse. A better alternative is to take public transportation to the Thailand-Cambodia border and arrange your transfer to Siem Reap once you crossed - there is no lack of options on the Cambodian side. Even then, the journey would not be much faster, since the road leading from the border to Siem Reap is in very poor shape. Conspiracy theory pundits maintain that the road is kept purposely in this state of disrepair, in order to bolster business for the only airline that links the two places, Bangkok Airways. Allegedly, Cambodian government officials receive solid kickbacks in exchange for keeping their eyes closed and allowing the status quo to continue. But that’s just a story… I’m sure that the money we paid to Bangkok Airways to fly us to Cambodia, about $200 per person for a 35-minute flight, will be used for a noble cause…

After exhausting ourselves scampering through the ruins of Angkor, the obvious next step was to travel to Phnom Penh, the capital of the country, the central hub where all roads lead to anyway. Luxury buses (luxury meaning that they have AC and a toilet) between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh take about 5 hours and cost $8. The road is paved and the ride uneventful.

The ravages of neglect

Phnom Penh, the largest town in Cambodia, still has the air of a sleepy colonial river outpost, boasting a nice French quarter with many renovated, charming buildings. Between 1975 and 1979, during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the city was almost completely abandoned; the population was evacuated and sent to remote villages and reeducation camps. Its residents were labeled enemies of the people, unfit and unworthy to live in the new agrarian republic of Kampuchea; many were eventually killed. The infrastructure gradually collapsed; the plumbing system, unused for too long, decayed and broke down. Rebuilding efforts started soon after the demise of the communist regime, with the gradual return of the population. Today the town looks pretty good, considering what it’s gone through in the past. Business is booming; tourists, foreign NGO workers, and even Cambodians fill the fancy restaurants and cafes along the river; renovation projects and construction work are underway in many parts of town. Yet as charming as Phnom Penh is, it’s nothing to fall in love with. After a few uneventful days, which we spent mostly eating and watching TV in our $15 air-conditioned room at the “OK Guesthouse” - a favorite backpacker’s hangout - we moved on… but not before a last-day extravaganza, spending $50 for Spanish tapas and a bottle of red wine at one of the finest restaurants in town.

Stung Treng... center

Since there wasn’t much else to see in Cambodia, we continued creeping our way toward Laos. There aren’t any luxury liners on that route; we had to take a mosquito-infested local bus that stopped in every village. It wasn’t very cheap (at least for us foreigners) - $12 and about 9 hours will bring you not quite to the border, but to Stung Treng, the closest town, where bus services end. Locals don’t cross the border often, and when they do, they are more likely to be seen on motorbikes loaded with bags and crates in a precarious balancing act. Various Phnom Penh guesthouses that provide bus tickets to backpackers sell transportation all the way to the Laos border, without volunteering the information that you have to spend the night in Stung Treng. But you have no choice, the border closes early. In Stung Treng, another $13 will get you a ticket involving two river crossings and two road transfers, all the way to Four Thousand Islands - the backpacker’s haven on the Mekong River in the south of Laos. Surprisingly, the suspicious-looking guy who sold us this deal accepted the Phnom Penh-to-Lao-border ticket that one of the foreign travelers had; he only paid $8.

The shipping of backpackers into Laos is like a family affair around here; guesthouses, bus companies, ferry operators, border guards - everybody seems to get a piece of the pie. Things works on the “Cambodian hour,” which is not unlike the Mexican hour; you must double the time they give you, and add one hour here or there to account for the unavoidable delays. We were told we would leave at 7:30AM, but ended up on the bus around 10. No one would tell us - five increasingly annoyed falang backpackers - what was going on, or when we would finally leave. Straight answers are not the norm here; admitting failure would mean losing face. Magically, when you demand explanations or try to negotiate for a better price, nobody speaks English anymore. But maybe there was a problem on that day and maybe they did usually leave at 7:30… in any case we made it to the border, where a larger group of tourists going the other way was waiting for the bus to take them into Cambodia.

Crossing the border was a breeze... a money-smelling breeze. At the border post on the Cambodia side, a simple wooden shack on the side of the road, the surly guard stamped our passports with the exit visas. “One dollar each” he said, in a flat, matter of fact voice. I know it’s never wise to argue with border officials in third-world countries, but I couldn’t help asking “Why?” “Overtime work,” the answer came. “It’s Sunday.” We smiled and paid. Later Angela told me she was burning to say “No problem, we come back tomorrow,” just to see how they take it. I suspect stamping passports would be considered overtime work not only on weekends, but also during breakfast, lunch and siesta and in general, whenever tourists happen to arrive.

A van was waiting for us on the other side of the barrier, confirming that we hadn’t been scammed after all. A few hundred meters farther, at the Laos border post, we showed our visas, which we had obtained in advance through an agency in Bangkok, and filled our entry cards. “Two dollars each,” the guard said, holding my passport in his hand. “Why?” “Overtime work. It’s Sunday.” I paid without saying a word, but at the same time I was thinking that somebody should tell those suckers on the Cambodia side that they have to adjust the overtime fee, because their smarter Lao colleagues are making double the money for the same work…

Posted from Vientiane, Laos.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of ruins, tuk-tuks and Lonely Planet books

An unforgettable first impression
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Angkor pictures

Cambodia - the cradle of the powerful Khmer empire in the old days - is a land that has gone through tormented recent times. It slumbered under a brief colonial French rule whose legacy can still be visible today; it achieved independence and survived the Indochina wars almost unscathed; it got its share of civil war between a corrupt western-backed government and ruthless, single-minded communist guerillas and wound up subjected to a horrifying social experiment performed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Yet the Cambodians still smile as they go through their days. Lately, after a period of turmoil following the return to monarchy and democracy (for lack of another word to describe the local medley of bickering political parties, military coups, and foreign influence) and the demise of the last Khmer Rouge guerillas, Cambodia’s wounds began to heal slowly. And what could spell “normalcy” better than a steady influx of western tourists and sustained hotel development? In fact, hotel building seems to be at an all-time high those days in Siem Reap, the provincial town used as a base to visit Angkor Wat - possibly the most famous ruin in Asia.

An afternoon in Siem Reap
Siem Reap still has a frontier-town air about it, with its charming old French quarter (now housing cafes, restaurants, bars and internet access points), with its cheap street-side food stalls and its lazy green river flowing peacefully to join the Mekong. The outskirts, however, have already begun to look like a fake resort town. The streets that radiate from the center toward the airport and the Angkor archaeological area are lined with vast luxury compounds boasting exquisite cuisine, flashy discos and relaxing piano-lounges. Their facades are bathed in mood-lighting at night; the lawns are perfectly manicured and the uniformed staff bows to open the doors when you arrive. Many of those new hotels weren’t even finished when we visited, but there is collective hope that the future will see interest in Angkor grow worldwide, which will materialize into a steady influx of package tours to fill the many new, expensive rooms. Understandably, the backpackers still prefer the cheaper guesthouses in town, within walking distance to Molly Malone's Irish Pub.

Mr. Meth, my driver for the day,
watches as his tire is being fixed

There are many ways to get to the Angkor ruins. You can take an organized tour – if you like to spend your day herded from site to site in an air-conditioned minibus, with a bunch of other clueless tourists, listening to a guide who will probably give you less historical information than your Lonely Planet book; you can rent a bike and pedal your lungs out in the searing heat that descends over the Cambodian plain by 9AM; or you can hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day and visit the sites of your choice at your own pace. Cambodian tuk-tuks are similar to rickshaws, but unlike those, they are built by attaching a two-wheeler passenger cart, seating up to four, to a regular motorbike. In my opinion, the extra comfort of a car is not worth the price increase over a tuk-tuk.

Reflection of Angkor Wat

A day-pass for the ruins will set you back $20 (or $40 for the 3-day pass) and you’ll count another $10 or $12 for the driver per day, sunrise to sundown. The three-day pass is the best option. You can’t see everything in one day; the heat will likely send you back to town early, in search of a cool corner and a chilled beer. Angkor Wat and The Bayon may be the most famous and well-preserved of the ancient Khmer temples and they will take a good chunk of your time, but in fact there are enough interesting ruins at Angkor to fill three days of slow-paced exploration, allowing for plenty of down-time to while away the unbearable afternoons. Climbing the worn-out stone stairs, following dirt paths through holy courtyards abandoned to the ruinous vegetation, jumping over giant crumbled masonry blocks brought back memories of our visits to the Mayan cities in Yucatan, almost a year ago. It was the same feeling, the same guilty pleasure of being a dumbfounded spectator to the silent show of broken, wasted glory from a bygone age.

Practically stoned

Cambodia doesn’t bother much with the money exchange business; as weak as the dollar is now, it is still the de-facto currency here. Unlike Ecuador - another dollar-based economy - Cambodians have their own money, the riel, but it seems to be mostly used for giving change under a dollar. Almost all prices are quoted in US$: hotel rooms, restaurants, tickets, groceries, museums. If you happen to have riel you can use those interchangeably, at a fixed rate of 4000 to the dollar. ATMs dispense dollars and traveler’s checks are redeemed in the same currency. Tourists are happy to see their buck going a long way – one dollar will get you a plate of fried rice or noodles on the street and most purchases are negotiable. Children try to sell you water and “cold-ish” drinks as soon as you get out of your tuk-tuk and are about to set off eagerly for the ruins, and after you come out, tired and worn out, heading back to your driver. And if you really don’t need another bottle of water beside the two that you’re already carrying in your backpack, you surely need some books, don’t you?

Old Buddha, new head

Maybe you want a guide for Angkor Wat, with nice aerial pictures and in-depth historical explanations? No thank you… Maybe you need a Lonely Planet guide for Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos for only 2 dollars? No, thanks… wait! Only two dollars for the most recent Lonely Planet edition!? How is that possible? You take the book in your hand and slowly flip through a few pages. Yes, it’s indeed the last edition and it definitely looks brand new, not a used copy abandoned by a tourist. But there’s something wrong about it, something you can’t identify immediately. It just doesn’t feel like a Lonely Planet book, it doesn’t fit and bend in your hand the same way. And then you suddenly realize – it’s a knockoff copy! Yes, even the photos are printed on glossy paper, but they are less shiny and the colors are rather dull and sometimes off the mark. The photocopied black-and-white text looks just a bit flawed, the maps show grainy bits of grey where the original pattern was too delicate. Some pages are a bit faded, where the toner had started to run out; they are not aligned properly so you can’t see the black markers that delimit the chapters when you look at the book sideways… still, for only two dollars… I have serious objections to buying illegally-copied intellectual property, but if I were traveling in Cambodia, desperately needing a guide book for my next destination I might chop off some of that moral integrity by way of reasoning that my purchase helps the local community...

The real thing
But we had already bought our genuine Laos LP guide in India, so there was no need to commit a moral crime… Later we realized that it’s not just Lonely Planet guide books that come fresh from the Cambodian printing presses; all the action, mystery and romance bestsellers that tourists usually read on vacation (including the dreadful Davinci Code) were lying on book stands wrapped in plastic, neatly photocopied from the original editions and bound into seemingly-genuine soft covers. On closer inspection they may look just a bit too cheap, but they would do the job just like the originals. Happy reading in Cambodia!

Posted from Pakse, Laos - we may not have much internet access for the next few days!

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