September 14, 2010

sunrise on the west end of the Grand Canyon.  fabulous.

i drive up through monument valley to moab.

willie plays in the Colorado River to cool off.

i stop by the Needles District of Canyonlands and find the fantastic petroglyphs called Newspaper Rock.

i camp in the LaSalle Mountains for a change of weather and it is cold.  still i find a great camp spot and enjoy the evening.  in the middle of the night there is a full domestic situation going on in the next camp over but really?  after Scary Dave i just turn over and go back to sleep. 

in the morning we hightail it out of there and run into some guys who have a bunch [like 20] hound dogs.  i stop to ask why so many dogs and they say they are looking for a bear.  concerned because i've been camping just down the road i ask if th bear has been disturbing people and they reply, 'no, we've just got a bear tag' so of course i obseess for the next twenty minutes over whether they would dare to kill a mother bear for whatever trophy their egos need.  all this while i'm driving in the wrong direction.  it's hard to get lost out here but i've taken a wrong turn and i'm starting to sweat becuase the gas gauge is very, very low.  i come to a cross roads.  two choices, go 20 miles in the wrong direction to Moab where i know there will be gas or twenty miles in the right direction with little chance to find gas.  sitting undecided in the middle of the intersection i notice a woman in the truck who has pulled up behind me.  she's making an exasperated motion with her hands at the huge delay i'm causing.  i jump out ask her which way to gas and after a few minutes of talking about my options i head for Moab.  she [A TOTAL STRANGER] agrees to follow me incase i run out of gas so she can ferry me in the rest of the way.  i live such a blessed life.

the moab detour was necessary not only for the gas but breakfast at the Jailhouse.  this, my most expensive meal of the trip, was $20. for breakfast.  it was good.

no matter how many times you visit Moab it is always a place to go again.  so spectacular and we take the slow road out stopping at putt ins and pull outs so willie can swim and i can dunk myself before we head out to I70 and the drive back to Boulder.

September 10, 2010

up, up, up

after feeling the brutal force of the sun on the canyon floor i am happy to get up at 4:30AM for breakfast so i can be on the trail by 5:30AM to get as high as possible before the heat is punitive.  i start out with Alan. he hiked down yesterday as well and we chatted several times yesterday.  he's 68 years old and in really good health except his knees [like everyone's] are trashed after the hike down.  we laugh a lot and the time goes quickly.  there is a campsite 1/3 of the way up the Bright Angel Trail and it's here at Indian Garden that he sits down for a longer rest and asks me to go ahead up.  i have struggled so many times to keep up with hikers that i understand all too well how he feels.  about a mile later i run into a park service worker who had gone up earlier and was on his way back down and he asks about Alan.  i tell the park worker i think his knees are preventing him from going up and he says he will check on him.  i feel better because i know Alan won't ask for help. 

when i top out of the canyon at 12:30 it feels amazing.  the German family is coming out at the same time and we celebrate the moment together.  they say less than 1% of the park visitors do the trip to the bottom so it feels like you are part of cool club.

since i am parked over at the backcountry office i take the shuttle over and stop in to pass some information on Alan to a ranger. HERE IS WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW if you hike into the canyon.  YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.    the park rangers have strict guidelines on what they consider safe and recommend.  next, there are PSAR [preventive search and rescue] rangers who are stationed a mile or so down the main trails to assess hiker ability and preparedness.  still they rescue 250 people a year from the canyon.  in fact, i find the rangers coldly objective when discussing foolish hikers but kind and compassionate when required to assist in an escalation.  the night i am at Phantom Ranch a ranger woke up the guys in the men's dorm and rearranged them to accommodate a few hikers who were injured and being brought into the ranch.  there is, however, a threshold that triggers assistance.  blown out knees is not one of them.  the ranger at the backcountry office explains if someone is vomiting or unconscious then they would call down for a ranger to assess the situation.  in part i feel they are justified because there are so many opportunities for the hiker to be warned of the dangers and clearly there were poorly prepared hikers that we saw in the canyon.  but having just completed the trip i know there is no way to really explain how hot 120 degrees is or what your knees feel like after hiking down 4800 feet and turning that around the next day.  it easily compares to hiking a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado but how many people know what that feels like?

i pack up Willie who gets a 5 star report from the kind lady at the kennel and head over to the east side of the park where i want to camp.  there is a first come first served campsite at the Desert View which has spectacular views looking west into the canyon.  also, Gary is working on preservation of the Watch Tower there so i want to stop by and say hi to him.  he offers me space at his camp area and Willie and i camp there.

September 9, 2010

into the abyss

wake up. take down tent. rush to find parking at Bright Angel Trailhead. no parking. find parking at Backcountry Office. meet other hikers who think this setup is a cluster. get shuttle to South Kaibab trailhead. i don't even stop to adjust my boots i just start right down the trail. it's 6:30AM. the sun is just hitting the canyon and it is beautiful. the trail is very steep and so each minute takes you farther and farther.

 i stop for photos along the way but i know that i am not going to be able to capture the feeling of being surrounded by these magnificent walls. walking down through the layers, picking up the rocks and feeling the texture and weight is both a history and science lesson. when the full brunt of the heat kicks in around 10AM i take short breaks in the shade and chat with other hikers. because of the altitude change [3-5 degrees per 1000 feet] it is twenty degrees hotter at the bottom of the canyon. 120 degrees. this trail is quite spectacular but it is very steep 4800 Feet over 6.5 miles and for the last two hours i feel like one of my knees is being ripped out of socket and the heat is punishing.

the bottom is marked by a short tunnel that leads you onto a suspension bridge 70 feet over the river.  i get in at 11:30AM and immediately join all the other hikers who are sitting fully clothed in the Bright Angel Creek. in this heat it takes about 15 minutes for your clothes to fully dry so there is no need to change clothes [even if i had brought extra].

the water pipe has been repaired so there is water for everyone and even showers. the main building of Phantom Ranch serves as an office/gift shop/bar/snack shop/restaurant and so most everyone hangs out there for an hour or so because it's air cooled. plus they have beer.

all the meals are preordered when you book reservations and there's a couple of choices and given mules haul this stuff to the bottom, kinda pricey. it's standard Xanterra fare so nothing to rave about. i'm feeling lucky to have gotten a bunk at Phantom Ranch because they open reservations 13 months out and typically sell out in just a few hours. so there is a mix of people who booked space a year in advance and others who booked less than a week out like me. here's the thing... there are two ways of getting down to and up from Phantom Ranch. the first is free and uses your feet. the second is a cost of $400 per person and you ride a mule. since Xanterra is in the business of making money they hold a certain number of spaces for possible future bookings of mule riders. when those spots don't get booked they open them for hikers. this leads to a whole slew of challenges for hikers that is really unnecessary. for example, i met a lovely German family with three boys who had only secured space at the ranch at the last minute so they had been hauling camping gear around the US in the event that they had to use the campground. which requires a backcountry permit which you CAN NOT obtain online or by phone. you must write to them via the postal service or fax. i am not making this up. i heard this from multiple hikers. so when i say i am lucky to have called in and gotten a spot i mean REALLY lucky. this just sucks for visitors who miss out on the experience because they don't have the kind of flexibility i do.

so if you are visiting and can not get into Phantom Ranch the other alternative is the Bright Angel Campground which is also beautiful and this time of year tents aren't needed but you still need to haul down [and up] a sleeping bag. unless you use the duffel service offered by Xanterra via the mule train. it's a $70 charge for a bag not exceeding 30 pounds.

September 8, 2010

scary dave

day three finds me up and ready to get everything together for the trip to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon the following day.  sooo freaking excited and nervous and filled with anticipation of a unknown journey.  i get myself a shower and head out to find the kennels. i check in and tell them i won't be leaving Willie until the next day because we are having so much fun. i go by the back country office looking for information on a float trip but they know nothing about it. this is the first of many times today i'll be asking myself if i am expecting too much. standing at the backcountry permit office asking about rafting permits and they just shrug their shoulders and assure me i should be able to find information online. okay. next stop the Bright Angel Reservation Desk to confirm i am planning to hike down to Phantom Ranch the next day.

there is a whole bunch of stuff going on here that is off the rails and when i ask a few simple questions i soon have two Xanterra employees barraging me with such nonsense i walk away thinking i must be the biggest bitch. well, now that all the administrative stuff is done i should be able to spend the afternoon enjoying views from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, right? well i head over to the visitor center and i chat with the park rangers. my last question is since i'm hiking down to Phantom Ranch the next day is there anything else i should know. this provokes a 15 minute discussion involving three rangers about options for getting me to the trailhead since the regular bus is not running due to the road construction. wtf? why didn't anyone at the Bright Angel Registration Desk mention any of this? let me tell you my opinion. Xanterra [the concession manager in the park] is in the business of making money and the NPS [National Park Service] is the business of conserving and protecting the park and the safety of the visitors. Xanterra has already collected my money at the time of the reservation so they don't care if i show up at Phantom Ranch. the rangers, however, don't want to be dealing with an escalating issue due to the fact that i planned on a 7 mile, 4000 foot descent to the river and because of a road project i have to add an additional three miles to that trip.

so, instead of leisurely stroll around the south rim i rush to call the kennels back. please, may i drop off my dog today instead of in the morning. [the kennels are fabulous and easy to deal with - just bring him by before five they say] with Willie safely tucked away in the kennel i sort through my gear and get ready to break down the campground early so i can get the 6AM shuttle to the trailhead which most everyone has agreed should be running. the campground is empty although i had noticed the guys who had set up camp earlier two sites over. first, because i heard them using a chainsaw. second, because when i was at the dish sink there were two baby chipmunks in it and since they were close and just lazing about their site i asked them to help the chipmunks find their way back home.

in a separate campsite across from me is a parked a white car which i was paying no attention to until the owner, Dave, came over. well i was planning a meditation on the rim over sunset since i was alone but Dave invites himself along and although i'm sure he is high on something i think he is harmless so i say okay. i put myself together and go by the camp of my chipmunk saviors. i learn their names are Justin and Eric and they are from Louisiana. they tell me the happy fate of my chipmunks and i let them know i'm camping alone tonight just a few sites over and i always sleep with my remote car alarm next to me in case a bear or any other critter comes uninvited into my camp [while i am silently pointing in the direction of the white car guy]. they say they have already met Scary Dave and will be keeping a close eye on me. i say i am sure he's harmless and that he had invited himself along to see the sunset at the rim with me. they do not like this at all. well, off i go with Scary Dave and i'm determined not to be judgmental of him.

 i lose him after he stops to get a cigarette from someone after the first shuttle ride. i don't think about him again as i ride out to the far rim and watch an incredible sunset. i end up at Hopi Point which must be in the European guide book because it's me and 100 Europeans. i find a rock to myself and enjoy every moment of it.

getting back to the campground is easy but i detour off to see if i can find a glass of wine and plate of pasta but Xanterra doesn't make it easy for travelers like me and it is not to be. as a result it is about 9PM before i make it back to the campground and as i'm rounding the final loop into my section a truck approaches. it stops next to me and i step aside waiting for it to continue. down comes the window and it's my chipmunk hero Eric. he asks about Scary Dave and i say i lost him right after i left the campground. i ask where he is headed and he says out to look for me. i am overwhelmed at the thought that these two guys who didn't know me were so concerned about my safety that they were going to leave the comfort and warmth of their campfire to go look for me in the Grand Canyon National Park. in the dark. with no idea where i could be. i am so blessed.

turns out they had been chatting with the rangers about Scary Dave and the rangers were keeping an eye out for him. about ten minutes after i get back into my site i see the lights go on in Scary Dave's car so i mosey on over to the chipmunk hero's site and sit with them for a while. it takes less than 30 minutes for the park service to get over, collect and escort Scary Dave out.  these girls and guys know what they are doing.

meanwhile, i need to get myself ready for a 5AM start in the morning. have i mentioned before i am not at my best in the morning?

September 6, 2010

ancestral pubeloeans

my first night on the road is camping at Mesa Verde National Park which is surreal.  i've been before but i really want to check it out again. i camp inside the park and get up early for a ranger led tour of the cliff dwellings. each tour is an hour but i'm disappointed because the first 20 minutes are spent talking about how strenuous the 100 foot descent will be and reminders not to touch anything. after the first 15 minutes i'm shifting from foot to foot and wondering exactly how long the shade under the tree i parked will last. nothing the ranger tells me is something i can't read in the literature or signs but you have to be on the ranger guided tour to get into the dwellings themselves and there is a limited number of tickets for tours.

in the end the cliff dwellings are amazing and i go through several getting out of the park a little after noon.  there is so much to see it would be easy to spend two full days in the park.  the cliff dwellers are called ancestral pubeloeans instead of indians.  i never figure out why.  i get stung by a bee and i try to remember what happens when you go into anaphalactic shock.  it just itches so i think i'm fine.  what is really cool is on my way out i see a group of wild horses.  they are beautiful and there is a foal with them.  the ranger talk i went to last night talked about the 'problem' they are because they compete with wildlife over resources. i guess it's more complicated than my little brain can follow cause i'm thinking if they are wild horses are they also 'wildlife'?

also in the really cool category is the regrowth after the widespread fires in the park.  i'm a fan of LET IT BURN because it's part of the cycle of life so i love it when the park services let nature do it's thing.  i cruise on over to the Grand Canyon National Park and get into my campsite just before sunset. the camp is empty and i'm in a great spot.

September 5, 2010

taking on number one

today i left my new home in Boulder for a quick run out to the Grand Canyon. i sign in at the new position in a week so I am going to clear my head, log some miles on the hiking boots and dip my feet into the mighty Colorado. plus when i tell my brother he comments that of course I should go because it's been AT LEAST three weeks since i've been on a roadtrip.

feeling on top of the world and knowing i'll be out of mobile service most of the week i put a call into mom. without going through the painful details of what transpired i never got to the part of "hey mom, i'm headed for the Grand Canyon for a week, isn't that cool?" instead, the first moment i feel she is threatening my new happiness I go off uncontrollably about how she is never supportive of anything I do. so unless someone else told her she has no idea that i'm hiking down the Grand Canyon and camping at the bottom.
willie dawg, however, is up for anything, anytime and a roadtrip sounds good to him.

August 8, 2010

florida to colorado

it's been a month that i'm back from Asia.  the willie dawg is fine and we are off to Colorado.

i take the slow road and stay of the interstate.  first stop Crystal River, Florida where i have never been before.  it is beautiful old Florida here and i swim with the manatees. then i visit the ancient indian burial grounds.  very cool.

July 6, 2010

exhausted but happy i get myself together to return to the US. on my last night in Asia i go to see a Chinese fortune teller.

July 4, 2010

Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, is the place where Foxconn has gotten publicity for the horrible working conditions in it's factories and that is where i land. it's dorm houses 500,000 migrant workers. talk about immense - the dorms alone houses more people than in most American towns. it is raining so it is not a good ferry day and instead i opt for the bus.

in line at the border crossing from China to Hong Kong i meet an American living in Shanghai. he is married to an Australian and they have two small children. he is doing some type of visa run. he gets pulled aside as we get to the immigration desk and i breeze past.
travelers get nervous at new border crossings. traveling independently we have to find the border, face the border guards, cross the nomans land inbetween, face new border guards and negotiate the gauntlet of potential scams all without the buffer of a packaged tour. we thrive on this. overland crossing of borders is like a rite of passage and the more remote the more esteem conferred on the traveling party.

when the American gets back on the bus he sits next to me and admits he is starved for some american talk. perfect. i hit him with questions and he talks nonstop for about 45 minutes giving me China 101 on the culture [or lack thereof], the education system [focused on rote memorization not critical thinking skills], healthcare [they take care of their sick], perception of westerners [not good] and on becoming a world power [he's happy to get paid in RMB]. lastly, i ask him if he thinks Chinese people will embrace western culture as they become a leading global power or if westerners will embrace Chinese culture. he thinks about this for a moment and responds that every major city in the world already has a China Town but there aren't any 'West Town' in Chinese cities.
there is a downpour that does not seem to want to end. two weeks ago in Hoi An I made a delivery of items i no longer need for homeless kids. a nalgene bottle, the black shirt Marti gave me, books and my umbrella. this storm is socked in and i have just crossed a boder, here's list of my immediately need to do. in the rain, go find a money changer or an ATM, get enough cash for lunch and an umbrella, sit someplace i can dry out and assess the area. i am up beat but no one enjoys dragging around bags looking for a hotel in the rain.
here in Shenzhen i see Starbucks for the first time since leaving Chang Mai, Thailand.

July 1, 2010

i do a good job

i only have a few days in China before i need to jump a flight to take me over towards Hong Kong. i feel the people are curious about Westerners and with the country moving away from isolation i am interested to see how the culture changes. there is a lot more English than i was expecting. a small girl about four years old walking next to me tells me ' i do a good job' with an emphatic hand pump. i smile because she is adorable and because this is a sterotype of China worker mentality.

the constant spitting i could do without but the one cultural difference that drives me crazy is that they are constantly telling you that you are wrong over stupid stuff.  in the hotel girl insists that she gave me the voucher for breakfast but i know she did not.  at the ticket counter in the airport they say the flight number i give them is not correct but when i get my boarding pass the flight number i gave them is printed on it. it is more than a language barrier and long term has to be debilitating.

i meet some high school kids from Oklahoma and ask them about the highlight of their trip. their eyes light up, they get really animated and tell me about how the teacher they are traveling with took them to a store where they could buy pirated dvds. also, they are excited to because Kunming has 3 KFCs. on the food i agree with them because it is all quite flavorless. i think how proud the parents will be and how glad they spent the money on a China trip when the kids tell them about the highlights.

having been warned repeatedly about the food in China i have brought my friend, the laughing cow, along with a stash of nuts and a few apples from Vietnam.  the cow is getting a lot of people through SE Asia.

i keep checking access to my blog hoping that China will magically give me access but they don't. when i was trying to get onto facebook in Vietnam i did a Google search on getting access and found that the best way was to set up a vpn. since i was not planning on staying very long i decided not to take the time to set it up. to facebook or not is a ongoing discussion among travelers. when you are traveling and every day you search out food in a new city, find a new place to sleep, if you are lucky work and talk alongside the locals and each experience is extraordinary the content you see posted on facebook becomes so irrelevant and meaningless that most travelers get disgusted with it.

it's Saturday morning in the US so that means Skype time with my brother. i try to elicit some pity because i am down to my last few days before leaving for the US but this backfires and i get no sympathy.  we are talking about getting to Hong Kong from China i mumble something about expats, visa run and a free shuttle to the ferry.  in fact, i briefly read something on the internet but really have no idea what i am talking about and my own indifference to logistics shocks even me.

June 27, 2010

goodbye lonely planet

the hotel in Sapa makes me an early breakfast and walks me up to the car [there is road construction so there is not access to the hotel] they arranged to take me to the Vietnam border at Lao Cai. the border crossing is easy enough then the fun starts. i find the bus station but no chance they are taking dollars or want my leftover Vietnamese dong. no bank or atm that i can identify and i end up getting my fresh cash from a black marketer on the street corner. we haggle a bit and i know it isn't a good rate but i need 143 yuan FAST to get back to the station for the bus to Kunming or i will be waiting 4 hours for the next bus in a very hot, very dirty bus station.

this is a rarely used border crossing for westerners so i am thrilled to see a western couple and then i am approached by a girl from Taiwan who speaks mandarin. BINGO this is like hitting the lottery so i know all those extra prayers mom is says must be working. or maybe it's the lucky coin i got from the fortune teller. or the blessing from the shaman. or is it?

the bus makes a toilet stop and it is like nothing i have seen or smelt since i have been in SE Asia. i see this billboard and think i have seen nothing to indicate that todlers or even adults here use any type of container to relieve themselves.   you would think that i would be used to bad toilets by now but this is a whole new level. also, the girl next to me on the bus is vomiting alot but that i have become used to that for the most part.

during one of the bus stops [it is an 9 hour ride] the Taiwanese girl asks me if i know of a cheap hostel in Kunming. i am thinking that she wants to stay there so i say the other westerners have a good recommendation for a $3US hostel. she asks if i will follow them and i say no. then she says she is very concerned about my traveling without any of the local language because no one will speak English to me. i tell her i have been traveling for months and i am sure i will get by.
later sitting alone on the bus with my ipod the doubt starts to set in. my first day in china. what if i can't make anyone understand me? what if i can't find a hotel? what if something happens that i am not prepared for? what if there is a danger my mind can not even think of? what if? what if? when i get into Kunming i get around with zero problem. i am so pissed at myself. it makes me want to cry that i let some random traveler project her fears onto me after all this time.  i vow to never let this happen again whether i am traveling or not.
the ride from the border to Kunming takes us through the Stone Forest.  created 60 million years ago when the Himalayas shrugged, the 'forest' resembles a vast ghostly city looming out of the landscape. 

last stop vietnam

really rough morning. arrived at the train station with no warning at 4:30AM. touts banging on our door trying to sell us minivan tickets into Sapa. by the time we get into a hotel in Sapa it is 7AM.  i get online and several people skype me as i have been out of touch for about a week.  i am in a really bad mood.  i am in a remote area of Vietnam with only 3 days left on my visa and no good plan on how to get overland through China to Hong Kong in the time frame i need for my return flight to the US. i am very cranky that i have to leave and i warn everyone i am talking to of my bad mood.

Sapa is postcard beautiful. a lush valley surrounded by slopes of tiered rice paddies and small villages of ethnic minority hill tribes with rich cultural traditions completely different from the Vietnamese.

 it is an oasis in the chaos that is Vietnam and made even better because i spend a few days with a really great couple from Belfast who shared their train berth with me.  one day we hire bikes and a guide [to drive mine] and cruise around to caves, villages and a waterfall.  the Hmong women at the caves smell cash and swarm all over Nicky and Michael.  our guide is a wealth of information and we quiz him about the culture and customs of the tribes.  he warns the women of some tribe have magic herbs which can make a man fall in love with the women.     

fellow travelers are giving me a tough time about leaving for China without a lonely planet guide. in Cambodia and Vietnam there is a micro industry of copying books and selling them cheap. so you can get a lonely planet copy for $1US - $3US. i have a whole list of excuses for them like i am too cheap or it is too heavy [lp china is 3 inches thick] or Chinese border officials are quite likely to take away a LP China and they have good solutions for every excuse. the truth is i am tired of relying on LP. i want to see if i can run the gauntlet of scams and the language barrier on my own plus i have the words Nick had written down for me.

i desperately need to know as this trip comes to an end that i have pushed myself outside my comfort zone and been open to experiences that come along instead of manufacturing them or relying on the experience of a LP writer.

throughout this trip i have used my instincts to guide me and it has served me well so i think i can rely on this to get me to Hong Kong. although when it's 1AM and i am still trying to book a flight from Kunming to Shenzhen i am cussing China before i even get there. i end up paying an extra $50US to book via Expedia because the websites for the Chinese airlines don't take credit cards. i am still pissed about the inflated price of Chinese visas for Americans and so if i hadn't paid for the visa i would skip China.

limestone and liquor

one reason i always wanted to visit Vietnam was Halong Bay.  so i have been looking forward to this location for the whole of my trip.  i'm the first on the mini bus when it comes around to pick up guests and the next stop is at the hotel where my friends from dinner the night before are staying. i see them coming out and wave hello.

the bus on the 3.5 hour ride to Halong Bay to get the Junk makes a stop at the obligatory ceramic factory and while there i am happy to run into the two young European girls from Hue. they have had an equally bad night bus to Hanoi and said a rock was thrown at their bus shattering the glass and cutting someone's eye quite badly. this explains why there are so many blown out windows on the buses. they have joined up with a large group of young westerners for the Halong Bay trip so i hope their trip will improve with the added buffer.

the port is chaotic but our guide is orderly so we get onto the tender and out to our boat with a minimum of hassle and we are off to the tour the bay. the first day we cruise around, climb through some caves, kayak around some of the formations and chat with some of the other tourists and travelers on the boat.

the second day we move away from the other boats and into a private cove where we kayak around the formations and through caves. we take our time, enjoy the isolation and magic of the area jumping off the boat to cool off when we get too hot. happy hour and dinner and i tumble tired and happy into bed. this has been a wonderful tour in part because the boat is great and in part because this group of people is tons of fun. Halong Bay has been the highlight of Vietnam.

two of the couples from the boat are heading to Sapa on the night train.  i really want to go to Sapa but know should be heading instead up to China from Hanoi. the couple from the UK solve my dilemma when they offer me a bed in their sleeper so i am off to Sapa.

i also meet two Americans one of which is fluent in Chinese languages. i ask him and he agrees to write me out a list of words that i can use in China as i plan to do it without a travel guide.

June 24, 2010

oh Ho

i arrived on the night bus from Hue. it was the worst of the bus rides i think because this driver was really bad. there are two drivers for the night bus and when we get pulled over by the 'traffic wardens' there is a quick change of drivers so i suspect one may not be correctly licensed. you know when you are getting close to the end of the trip when the drivers let the hotel touts onto the bus. the bus stop is again some random intersection surrounded by taxi and hotel touts. there are two good ways to deal with them. the first is let all the other westerners get off first then sneak around the back. the second is to jump off first and move quickly down the street because they are mostly too lazy to follow you and wait for an easier target behind you.

i find a cafe in the old quarter and leave my bag for a couple of hours while i explore Hanoi, look for a hotel and book a trip to Halong Bay for the next day. i beeline it to the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh is on display. he is a national hero similar to Che. this is a must do in Hanoi because the whole experience is surreal. first off, i am really lucky because Uncle Ho's body is here. for two months every year [October and November] he is shipped off to Russia for 'maintenance'. the list of rules about walking through the mausoleum is long and strictly enforced. i see the guards pulling random visitors from the line and making them empty their pockets and they are not kind. this is after a TSA style security check where all electronics must be checked at a desk. i just avoid all eye contact and walk as slowly as possible [the guards push you if you stop or walk too slowly or put your hands in your pockets or talk or laugh] so i can enjoy the air conditioning. mostly i just feel sorry for the guy who lived a humble life and is now pumped full of something and left on display. 

as i leave the museum at the complex i'm approached by this tiny Vietnamese woman who asks me to help her with her English.  we talk for about 10 minutes and she has a gazzillion questions for me and i wait for a product pitch but it never comes.  other travelers have similar stories and it makes for a great experience and an opportunity to ask questions about the culture and their families.  i ask about the disparity in response to Westerners and she tells me the people are cranky because it is so hot but i'm not buying it.

there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam but the taxis are metered so it is not required to negotiate the cost up front. however, when i grab a taxi from the mausoleum complex i get a block and see the taxi driver has started the meter at 100,000 dong [$5] instead of 10,000 [50 cents] and i tell him to reset it or pull over. this doesn't end well for him. i get out against his protests and i am in front of the Dutch embassy. the guards don't speak English but i gesture wildly and the taxi leaves. i hope all fraudulent taxi drivers burn in hell for all eternity.  really. 

lunch at KOTO [know one teach one]. i am such a sucker for these NGO's that are doing such great work to get the kids off the street. again the food is fantastic and staff eager to create a good experience for the patrons. this one holds the distinction that Bill Clinton has been a visitor.

there is a feeling among some travelers that the lonely planet writers are fear mongers because the guides are constantly warning about all the ways you will get scammed.  after the bad taxi i become frozen by the fear of being ripped off and it makes for a bad afternoon of hunting Hanoi in the heat of the afternoon for a decent hotel and tour office to book a trip to Halong Bay.  hang in there with me for just a minute as the day turns out quite good. 

i get my admin [that's what we call our travel booking, laundry, blogging, email, skype or other chores] done and head over the Tamarind Cafe for dinner.  here i have dinner with two Australians and two Kiwis and we laugh and swap travel stories late into the evening.  the Australians are also booked for a Halong Bay trip and it sounds like we may be on the same boat but there are so many boats that we can't be sure.  off to bed for a good night sleep with just a little bit of trepidation about the quality of the boat and tour of Halong Bay.

June 22, 2010

my short lived love affair with Vietnam has ended in Hue.  every day i wake up and say today is a new day and i must give Vietnam a good chance but here is the first time i feel like i really want to go back to the US.  it is a wildly huge pendulum swing between the people who are interested in westerners and the indifference and offensiveness of others.   i take an early bus to Hue and spend a very hot.. 98 degrees afternoon visiting the Imperial City.  it is huge - like 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers - i walk the whole city and end up 'off the beaten track'.  i am clearly not in a good area and there are no taxis because they are only outside the imperial city.  no one speaks English but asking for a taxi works and along the way they keep pointing me in the direction that i need to go.  after the 1000 year old ruins of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia the imperial city is unimpressive.  mostly it has been bombed to bits [that is quite the theme here] and not so lovingly restored if at all.   when i do get to a taxi i ask to go to one of the best hotels in Hue the Saigon Hotel so i can get a salad and a glass of wine.  i find 5 star prices but poorly executed western food.
the tombs outside the city are good and i get an early motorbike hoping to miss the crowds but they have the same idea.  in Cambodia the ruins rise from the forest in a majestic way that takes your breath away when you see them.  here in Hue i keep looking for some elegant remnantt of the Nhgyen dynasty but find only a shadow of some former glory.  if you have been to asia or seen video of the aggressive motocyclists then you can imagine what my day was like.   this is the only motorcycle i have hired so far that i did not like - i guess i should have known when he put on the gloves.  travelers are polarized on Hue and i vote this is a good spot to skip.

i plan to take the night bus to Hanoi and two younger europeans girls at my hotel are planning the same so we share a taxi which drops us at the side of the road and we wait with a bunch of locals.  we are travel chatting and they are trying to get quickly to Laos.  i tell them it's quite different and they perk up immediately.  they also have not enjoyed Vietnam and i am relieved to hear i am not the only one.  when the bus pulls up i get on because i just have a daypack but the girls wait to store their packs underneath and don't get a seat!!  so again i am sitting on bus waving goodbye to fellow travelers screwed by the bus agents.  such is SE Asia but DON'T feel sorry for me because i could easily travel by plane between the locations here.  it costs a tiny bit more to fly, is faster and more comfortable, but i choose to do Vietnam overland. 

June 18, 2010

china beach

when i am sitting in a bus or a plane every time i look at my watch it is about two minutes from the last time i looked. when i am sitting on the beach every time i check my watch thirty or forty minutes have gone by. why does time go faster on the beach?

finally i have found a spot in Vietnam that i like. Hoi An is a smaller city with a historic old town that is well preserved and easily explored by bike. the beach is a 15 minute bike ride away. it is another UNESCO site that has been flooded with money. i am wandering the town and stumble across a restaurant called the Secret Garden and when i go for dinner the next night it is a little slice of heaven. i have become a bit wary of the food since i left Thailand and find myself eating more fried stuff instead of fresh local produce and my body is feeling the effects of a greasy diet. Ricardo, an expat and one of the owners, makes a recommendation to me on a local dish they prepare fresh and then invites me to see how it is prepared. wine glass in hand i sit down for a mini Vietnamese cooking class.

i get up at 5AM to go to My Son which is a 1000 year old ruin.  there isn't a tour bus in site and i really enjoy wandering around.  later i met a partner of Bazar, a restaurant in Hoi An, Fredrico who is an arechologist working on the site.  he told me it's quite dangerous to wander around the ruins because of the UXO.  i think it woud be quite ironic given all the concerns about my safety from family and friends if i ended up getting blown up by an american bomb.

here in Hoi An i find quite a few NGOs operating restaurants and shops and i appreciate the opportunity to give back in a responsible way. at a place called Streets the manager asks me how he can better market the restaurant and i give him marketing 101 on social media.

everyone who knows me well knows i can hike for 8 hours non stop but put me in a shopping mall and in 10 minutes i am exhausted and my feet hurt. so it has come as a great surprise that i have really enjoyed having clothes made here. i hope they turn out well.  i give up on going to the shop where there is no air conditioning and the lights are only on half the time.  instead i invite my tailor to my hotel where i usually have both lights and ac.
i meet so many wonderful people here and every day and night is filled with fun. several months ago they started planned power outages so every other day the power is out across town. talk about inconvenient! most hotels compensate by using generators but cut a/c and other services.   the place i am staying has a pool so it quite nice to cool off there. when asked the reason, the finger is being pointed to the northern friend [China] who is controlling the water flow on the river where power is generated. did i just blog about how China was going to do this exact thing in Laos?

June 16, 2010

night bus in Vietnam

i get booted off the first bus because it was overbooked.  i have the seat already so i make them pay me $5US and they put me on another bus a half hour later.  it seems there is all this yelling and conflict constantly between the Vietnamese.  once the bus is moving i wrap myself up in a sarong and go to sleep.  because of the bus change i end up at the wrong spot in Nha Trang.  i take a cab over the travel agency and tell them to pay for the cab.  they don't want to [and it's only a $1US] but i do not back down and they take care of it.  i leave my bag in storage there for the day and head to the beach.
i arrange for a boat trip out to the islands a bit of snorkeling.  the masks are really bad but i love to snorkel and so i jump in even though there are jet skis and boats zipping along and a thin coating of gas covering the whole area.  it is the high season for Vietnamese travelers because the kids are just out of school.  the whole day has a very carnival like atmosphere. 

it reminds me of the boardwalks on the beach in New Jersey. the boat is mostly Vietnamese and when the boat stops for swiming the few westerners strip down to swimsuits in 2 seconds flat and jump in. the Vietnamese don't go swiming and they remain covered from head to toe in clothes.  after the third stop the motion catches up with them and like a wave across the whole boat they all start vomiting.  meanwhile the crew transforms the table into a platform for thier boy band - complete with guitar, drums and front man.  let's just say i do not think they would make it past Simon on American Idol.

i only have the one day here as i am getting another night bus to Hoi An in the evening.  what i have seen of Nha Trang is not impressive and i hope there is more to Vietnam than the dissappointment it has been thus far.

i am on the open tour bus which means i can jump on/off the bus at any location and it is $36US from Saigon to Hanoi which sounds like a deal to me.  it works out to just over .50US per hour.  i booked with TM Brother, however, every time i am asked by a local which ticket i am on they screw up thier faces terribly and say Sinh Cafe is the best open bus ticket.  thanks lonely planet!!

June 12, 2010

uncle ho

9 million people and 4 million motorcycles make up Saigon. i arrive late and wander around the maze and find a place to stay after i have talked to the tour company about the bitch. Saigon was the seat of the southern fight in the Vietnam civil war and so there is a lot of history here.  

i start the morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and there is a 100 meter [300 feet] section of tunnels that you can crawl through and i force myself to do it. 50% of the group turns around before the first 10 feet. it is dark and claustrophobic and i find myself focusing on my breathing and moving as quickly as possible. it feels like being buried alive and i can't imagine how it would be live underground like this for days, weeks or months.

the next stop is the War Remnants Museum which documents the atrocities of war. there is an exhibit dedicated to the photojournalists who died during the war and their work in SE Asia. it is amazing. we end the day with a drink from the top floor of the Sheraton.

the next day i meet Katrin at the Reunification Palace. i'm pretty much tapped out on Uncle Ho and the propaganda against the Americans but everyone gives this site high marks and it is a time warp. nothing has been changed since Siagon fell to the VC in 1975. as we taxi over to a gazzillion year old pagoda and the meter goes unusually fast so we suspect we are getting ripped off. when we leave the pagoda the same taxi driver wants to take us back but we decline and use another one who gets lost but at least he doesn't rip us off. here's the thing, we are both pissed about getting ripped off and it's not about the money because it was about $1US.

i have the night bus to Nha Trang so we have a massage, a drink at the Rex, dinner and Katrin sees me off at the bus.  our paths crossed in Saigon but she is on the north to south tour and i am going in the other direction. we swap information on where we have been.  we share a love of books and laugh about how much of the weight in books we are carrying around.

back on the boat

two more days on the Mekong River before i leave it for inland Vietnam. going to the border crossing i meet a group of 5 Kenyans [they are actually of Indian descent born in Kenya and studying in England] who are delightful. we laugh and joke and tell stories all day. crossing the Cambodian/Vietnam border is uneventful and i don't take the more traveled route by bus but a bus/boat/bus combination that involves two separate dockings for each immigration checkpoint.

the landscape along the Mekong on the Cambodian side is filled with rice paddies and quite unpopulated. this changes as soon as we cross the border. at an 85 million people Vietnam is densely populated. here in the Mekong delta the river is lined with shanties and fish factories.

the first night in Vietnam we stay at a floating hotel on the river in Chau Doc. i escape into the bubble that is the Victoria and worlds apart from my floating hotel for a meal which i hope will be safe. after dinner the Kenyans come to find me to ask advice on a problem. one of the boys has been bitten by a cat. they are completely freaked out because no one at the clinic speaks English, they have no idea what the treatment should be and the doctor is demanding cash before he will treat the boy. i check my book and we talk through the risk of rabies which is pretty high in SE Asia, find him a translator and i assure him that it is common here for the clinics to ask for cash before a treatment. i tell him make sure the needles for the shots are clean.

no one sleeps well as it is so hot and for the first time i really need the mosquito net but without air conditioning it is unbearable and finally i abandon it so i can at least feel the fan. as the sun comes up i sit on the deck and watch as the river activity starts and i feel the enormity of the poverty here and how hard the people must work for basic survival.

i see the Kenyans at breakfast and get the update on the cat bite and plan to meet at 7:30 for the pickup for a tour of the area before the bus to Saigon. there was a miscommunication about the time and so when a woman shows up i'm the only one around and she goes to town yelling at me because the Kenyans have wandered off. well it turns out this bitch is our 'guide' for the day. she dishes it out to the Kenyans as well and if they had been out drinking all night and just too lazy to get up on time i would have kept my mouth shut but they are really good, kind people and i explain the dynamics of money - traveler - tour guide relationship to the bitch and she shuts up.

 it is a really bad introduction to Vietnam and there's another couple that joins our group and hears the end of the discussion. they seem really hostile and i think it must be because of the delay we caused. when i talk with them later i find they've been with the same bitch for three days and they said if she is rude one more time they will throw her in the water.

we do a morning tour of a cham village and it's awkward. i specifically have not booked anything that involved village tours because it seems quite voyeuristic and that is exactly how this feels. it is clear the people do not want to be photographed and i hate every minute of it. the next stop is a fish farm. it was so disgusting that i promise if you had seen it you would never eat fish again. i am learning a lot about our food sources on this trip.