Malls. $50 WiFi. Concrete. Bellydancing. Dubai.

17 Jan

What do you get when you’re jet lagged and put your evening plans into the arms of a teen from India, managing the concierge desk at the Hilton in Dubai? You get a Russian dinner cruise.

Have you ever been in a situation where you knew it will be a funny story, once the story has ended? That was my last night. Arrived from Cape Town into Dubai. Had no sleep. Knew if I took a nap once I arrived at the hotel, my body clock would be whacked. So, I pushed myself through the day.

I was welcomed to the Hilton in Dubai with added costs and fees. They told me WiFi access would cost about $27 per day. Twenty-four hours of WiFi is more than my monthly internet bill at home. Were these people mad? If I wanted breakfast, it would be another $27. OK. Dubai is expensive. I get how they can price gouge you for eggs, bread, a toaster and canned jam, but for WiFi? This city was built yesterday. The airports have automatic scanners for luggage, bypassing a person to put a sticker on your bag. This place is the definition of wired.

Besides that, all the major hardware, software, IT, internet, and media conglomerates of the world have an office here. I bet there is not one land line in the country, and they are charging me $27 for 12 hours?

Fast forward, now they tell me they’re offering me a “deal.” For $50, I will have internet access only at the Executive Lounge, which includes food. Later to find out, the fruit was unripe and pastries were probably bought at the 24-hour convenience store down the street. I hate being ripped off. And, I already had a bad taste in my mouth. I should of seen this as major foreshadowing…

I asked the Hilton Indian concierge teen for tour help. I told him I wanted to see the sun set on the river. I wanted a boat cruise. And, I pointed to which tour I wanted.

Hilton teen: “Mam, I know better cruise for you. Perfect…This cruise no good for you. I know…” I smiled.

Me: “OK…what time will they pick me up?

Hilton teen: “Seven o-clock.”

Me: “But, the sun will have set by then?”

Hilton teen: “This better cruise. You will like. Trust me. Very good. Very fun…”

Fine. Too tired to argue. And, this is the Hilton. I still trust the Hilton brand at this point. I went upstairs to disinfect the bod before I was to jump on the open-air tour bus of Dubai to orient myself. I hear a knock. I ignore it. My phone rings. It’s Hilton teen. He is at my door. I get dressed. PJ bottoms and a tank top. Only thing freed from my zip lock bag.

I pick up the phone.

Hilton teen: “Mam, I stand at your door. I have voucher for cruise…”

Me: “You are where????”

Hilton teen: “Outside your door….”

This is a no-skin showing, cover-up country. I don’t feel comfortable going to the door showing this much skin. Plus, I’m alone. I crack the door. Put my hand out.

Hilton teen: “You need to pay..”

Me: “NOW? Can’t I pay later? ?”

Hilton teen: “I’m sorry mam. But, they ask for payment.”

I closed the door. And, think to myself… Hilton is beyond annoyance. I’m down right mad. I mean, they sent their concierge up to a female’s room and asked for money? I am shocked. Has the Hilton forgotten about guest service training?

Me: “Here is the money. And, they’re are picking me up at 7 pm.”

Hilton teen: “Yes, mam. Is there anything else… like another tour? I know another good tour…”

I smiled. Said no and shut the door. Miffed.

Went downstairs and asked the teen concierge for walking directions to the bus tour stop. He opened a very large map. Why do they make maps so large… It’s hard to open and close when walking down the street. Anyway, I asked for “orientation” buildings and road signs, for this is not an easy walk.

Well, 5 minutes into the walk to find City Center mall, I was lost. Hilton has neglected to train its staff on how to give directions. I knew the mall was East. So, I just meandered through skyscrapers, over highway medians and across asphalt parking lots.

A travel angel appeared, for I was caring the bus brochure. She saw me walk by and called after me. “Are you looking for the Dubai bus tour?” I replied, “Yes.” She said, “You are going the wrong way. You need to go left there and follow the street to the end. You will see it.” I smiled. Did a herkie. And, thanked her.

Did the bus tour of Dubai. Took about 2 hours. Funniest thing I heard in some time. Thanked the travel angels for reminding me to bring a pad of paper to this gig. I usually forget.

So, on these bus tours, they normally give you headphones whereby the recorded voice gives you a brief history of the surroundings. Dubai is new to the scene so her history is more like 1980 than 1480. Also, the government wants to position Dubai as the most progressive, cosmopolitan, sophisticated city of all the Emirates. So, it is safe to assume, all war, sex, ethnic violence, extremist talk is a “a no comment.”

We head down the road. All I see is concrete….. Great transport. Great roads. And, great concrete. The place is dripping in the big C. The bus’s first stop was a mall, as was the second, third, fourth…

I quickly found out that Dubai’s scenic bus tour sites are all malls and skyscrapers. I laughed openly. Joke is on me for I loath shopping. Nothing ever fits, for pants, shirts or fabric in general is made for little people, not 6-foot girls.

And, the recorded description of the malls, was better than a Seinfeld episode. At every mall we passed or stopped, the voice told me how many seats were in the Food Court, whether or not they have KFC or sell scarfs. Loved this!

Below are some of the highlights…

First stop: Mall……  Built in 1995. 500 seated Food Court. All ethnic cuisine, like KFC, Pie Face, Sushi….. There’s a kids area in the mall.

Second stop: Mall…… Modern mall with food court. Couture lines and upscale retail. Sell items like sunglasses, shoes, scarfs, stuffed toy camels.

Third stop: Market……Reasonable priced restaurants like Little Ceasers Pizza, Burger King, Baskin Robbins. There’s a super market in walking distance.

Fourth stop: Metro

Metro opened on September 9, 2009 at 9:09 am. First mass transit in Dubai. Two lines, red & green. Train has air condition.

Fifth stop: World Trade Towers…… Opened in 1979 by Queen Elizabeth. Restaurants on the ground floor. Go to 51st floor for cocktail bar.

Sixth stop: Mall…..   Designers at a discount prices. Food court. 200 retail outlets. 25 restaurants. Walking tour of the mall offered to bus riders.

Oh, there were so many mall stops. It was frightening. Did stop at the Gold market. The recording said you can bargain and purchase gold at reasonable prices. Define reasonable in today’s’ market.

When the recording was not talking about Food Courts and the KFC menu, they were giving the soundbite of Dubai culture. When they describe Islam religion, this is how they positioned it:

Islam is the second largest religion, next to Christianity. Islam believes in one God and share the same principals of honesty, justice, truth and tolerance with Christianity. In Dubai, there are catholic and protestant churches. The world Islam, means submission. It’s the duty of a Muslim to believe God’s word and obey Him. The holy day in Dubai is Friday.

Here are some more fast facts learned on the bus tour:

United Arab Emirates (UAE) comprises of 7 states. There are 1.2 million living in Dubai. UAE was founded in 1971, whereby they gained independence from Britain.

Dubai consumes 205 million gallons of water per day. It is the highest consumption rate in the world. It is important for tourists to wear sunscreen.

The UAE legal system is divided into three parts – traffic, criminal and family. Traffic and criminal follow Egyptian law. Family follows Islamic law.

The Dolphin Aquarium is air conditioned…

Life before oil, consists of date farming and pearl cultivation.

———————————

I’m in the lobby at 7 pm waiting for cruise dude. He arrives about 7:30 pm. I’m about to fall asleep. I’m the first on the bus, assuming it is just me. Don’t assume.

We had ten other people to pick up and we didn’t get to the bus until 8:30 pm. By this time, I had fallen asleep in the bus in route to the cruise. The car was full of Russians and one couple on their honeymoon, from Ireland. We arrived to the dock – walking distance from my hotel. And, boarded the boat.

The boat was decked in tables, chairs, white table clothes, wine glasses and candles. OMG. It truly was a sit-down dinner cruise, as in SIT DOWN. I shook my head. I know what’s coming.

The porter was surprised when I told him “only one.” He did not know what to do with me. He first sat me right next to the buffet, trying to hide me. Then, decided too many people may push their way to the food and knock me over. Really? Was the food that bad? OR, were they embarrassed solo traveler could eat enough for a family of four?

He moved me to the CENTER of the boat to a table by myself. Smacked dab in the middle. It screamed, ALONE. I’m laughing. This was a riot. People around me looked nervous. I could see them whispering.

I sat. Starred. And, thought… It is 9:15 pm. We’re just pulling out. I’m about to fall asleep. I will not be back until 11:30 pm. Can I make it? You know the feeling when you are sooo tired, you just don’t think it’s in you to make it a minute, let alone an hour. And, what was I going to do with myself for 2 hours. I’m really not THAT fun.

To my right was a Russian family. The father seemed distressed I was alone. He said, “You. You. Russian?” I said, “No. American.” He said, “American????” He was shocked. I would love to know why. I could hear him report back to everyone in the boat that there’s “An American on Board.”

He pointed to his son, who “speaks” English. Found out that was not true, but did not want to tell the Father. The father handed me his oversized camera. I lifted it to take a picture. He said, “No. Look…” He was trying to give me something to do, since I was alone and we can’t talk. He wanted me to look at his pictures. From what I gather, they family has some coin and rented a plane or helicopter for his pictures of Dubai were breathtaking.

The man pointed to his family and said, “Moscow..” I motioned to the son, “Me. In Moscow. In September.” The boy smiled and reported something back to his family. The family smiled. They looked like a nice family. No Russian sigh here.

The couple to my right did not talk the entire cruise. All about the Russian sigh. They must have been in their 20’s. She’s tall, blond and Russian. He’s tall, blond and Russian. Wedding rings adorned their fingers. Yet, they never talked. They both had cell phones and, I assumed, texted each other the entire time for they would giggle now and then.

When they started taking pictures of each other eating, is when the entertainment value ratcheted up a notch.

She would pose with a pouty look with her fork full of pasta. Her husband would snap a photo and email it to her. Then it was his turn. This went on the entire meal. Am I missing something in the way the younger generation communicates? Cut out sound. Stick with acronyms. Snap photos. And, transmit via a mobile device.

The food was edible. The cruise was lovely. Seeing Dubai – concrete producer’s paradise – lite up at night was spectacular. Brilliant architecture. Urban planning at its finest. We docked around 11:15 pm and loaded back onto the van. I fell asleep in route to the hotel. And, zonked.

Next day, I finished the bus tour and headed to Jumeriah Beach area, where I gave my regards to the Bur Al Arab, the world’s only seven star hotel. And, I broke down and went to a mall with a ski-slope. Had to take a picture of people actually snow skiing in a mall.

What made me most happy was the Forever 21 store next to the slopes. Bought 2 new long sleeve t-shirts to replace my No-longer Perfect Fit J-Crew T-shirts. Those two shirts were sooo severely stained and scared, a washer machine and bottle of Shout had no chance in killing the dirt disease. I had a ceremony saying “thank you and good bye” to my t-shirts. They did their job in protecting me against skin cancer, sun spots, insect bites and snake venom. Time to say goodbye.

Later that afternoon, I did the obligatory desert, camel and belly dancing tour. You have to do this when in Dubai. That is jump in a four-wheel drive truck and roll over sandy hills. In route to the desert – all of 20 minutes away – the tour driver picked up the most fun, vivacious, Pakistani family. Husband and wife were doctors – gynecologist and laparoscopist – and eldest daughter was attending medical school while the middle daughter was in college and youngest boy in high school.

You could tell they really enjoyed each others company. I mean, they actually liked each other. When the wife told me her husband performed LapBAND (laparoscopy) surgery, I asked if there is a large problem with obesity in Pakistan.

She said, “yes…obesity is becoming a big problem. What’s happening in Pakistan is both husband and wife work and don’t have time to cook. They pick up fast food on the way home from work. People drive everywhere, and not longer exercise. Schools are cutting physical exercise programs because of funding. Kids are staying inside and playing video games, no longer playing outside and being active. And, we’re eating way too much sugar and fat…Diabetes is also a big problem” This is Pakistan? It sounds more like the US… It just reminds me how small this world is and how similar we are.

They invited me to their home in Pakistan. I implied, it was not safe for an American. They laughed. And, said that is not true. But, their tourism industry has not recovered since 9-11. The people of Pakistan are much different than their government. And, remember, Pakistan has some of the best adventure travel and hiking in the world, with K2. They said, if I do come and visit, they will host me and put me in touch with their travel agent who can arrange the best possible tour of Pakistan.

I told them K2 was out of my league, and reminded them I live at seal level in Florida. Our idea of a mountain, is a garbage dump. And asked if K2 has a cable car?

They live in Southern Pakistan. It’s a fertile area near the ocean. I apologized, for I just assumed Pakistan was dusty, dirty and backwards. They laughed, for people of Pakistan assume Americans all carry guns and shoot school kids, politicians and neighbors for sport. How stereotypes both define and frame our realities of each other.

After our desert dune riding, we all were shuttled to a belly dancing and camel riding “luau” in the dessert. It was good fun. Super touristy. While in line for our meat dish, I asked Avril how she met her husband. They’re around 50 and could tell how much they loved and respected each other. It was evident in their laughter, their language, and the way they carelessly touched each other. Both were doctors, so I assumed they met in medical school in Pakistan or England.

Avril: “It was an arranged marriage. My parents knew his parents.”

Me: “What? But, you seem so genuinely happy. I mean, you like each other… How did your parents know?”

Avril: “Know what?

Me: “Know the marriage would work?”

Avril: “Of course it would work. You have to remember, arranged marriages have been in our culture for a very long time. And, both my husband and I were raised with the same ideals, values, rules, morals and respect for education, work, family and God. Our parents knew what was best for us…”

Me: “When did you meet your husband? Were you nervous? And, were you attracted to him?”

Avril: “I met him the night of our engagement. I don’t remember being nervous, for it was long ago. But, I do remember thinking he was very handsome….”

Me: “Will you arrange the marriage for your son and daughters?”

Avril: “Yes. Now, what has changed is if they are interested in a certain boy, then we will go and meet with his family. We’re open. But, it is up to the mother and father – us – to decided who they will marry. Now, how did your parents meet?”

Me: “They met after college. They are divorced now… Both remarried, and very, very happy. Though, I do wonder who they would have considered a suitor, given the talent pool in our home town. I will have to ask them…I can’t imagine who…I bet they would have to go out of state, put an ad in a paper or outsource the whole gig to a pro…”

Avril: “ A western woman would not do well in a Pakistani culture of arranged marriages. Just like it’s hard for a Pakistani woman to marry into a western culture.

It’s too different. You were raised much differently. All you can do is accept and respect each others culture, and not try to change it… Your way. Our way. It’s not right or wrong. It works. Works for us…”

Gosh, I loved them. Great people. Now, I’m adding Pakistan to my travel list. Who wants to go to Indian by way of Pakistan in the next year or two or three? And, if you go into labor, in need of a lap band or a husband for that matter, I know just the family to help us…

Any takers? I’m not kidding. Stephanie? Suzie? Jamie?

Random Talk. Dubai.

17 Jan

Wow!

Two emails from two boys. When it rains, it’s pours…. I make myself laugh…

One from an Arab resembling Michael Jackson. And, the other from a hottie back home.

Though, to be fair, one was drunk and the other troubled. The later, needs a lot of fixing. The former, just needs sobering up. He’s going to wake in a few hours, horrified. It’s great. Been there SOOOO many times. That feeling of, “What did I say last night? What did I do last night? And, who did I do it with?” You can read it into that comment all you want. But, if you know me, it’s usually regretting some form of verbal vomit while being over-served. Not cooool…

A friend of mine asked me why I deleted the headline “Sexy. Sassy. And, Single” from my blog and changed it to Tall. And, Traveling.

First of all the blog program for Dummies made me insert a tag line when launching my blog back in August. First words to enter the brain, were the three S’s. Then, I forgot about it until a few months later.

I changed it because I never thought of myself as any of the words. Sexy is not in my DNA. I interpret Sassy as cocky. And single implies, to me, lonely. And, I certainly do not feel lonely when traveling. People are everywhere. I mean, like cockroaches everywhere.

And, I’ve met so many new friends and teachers of life that the idea of being alone, rarely crosses my mind. More importantly, God is more real to me on this journey than the people sitting next to me in this outdoor cafe. So, the word ‘single’ does not work.

Now, going back to the word sexy. For me, sexy and traveling suggests a lot of work…. like matching, applying wrinkle repair cream and bathing, shaving and fixing a body part every other day. None of that is me. Maybe it’s Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, but not me.

So, segway… I just saw Eat, Pray, Love on Emirates Air from Cape Town to Dubai. People have asked, “Wow! You’re single. Traveling. You must be doing E, P, L???” Short answer is, “no…”

First, don’t have a book deal advance prior to my departure. Second, don’t have a new, cute outfit for every day, or themed for every country. Third, haven’t endured a divorce or recently had my heart broken into bits …. promoting me to find myself by learning how to be alone, while in the end, falling in love with some Brazilian hottie.

That is not my story, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s. And, how she described her journey in her book was real. Honest. And, it took courage. How Hollywood portrayed her story, was VERY unrealistic. Details are everything.

Now, the things I did relate to in the movie… the chaos of a developing country. Her comment about everyone you met on your journey is your teacher. And, meditating. Praying. And, no longer being in control for God is inside of us all.

Things I had issue with. Julia Robert’s hair. I studied her hair. I mean, paused the movie to get a better look. And, after a full year of traveling, the woman did not have any split ends or dark roots. In each scene, she wore a cute bun or braid. I stopped the movie many times trying to figure out how they made her bun look so damn cute. I know she had a million dollar stylist, but come on, it’s a bun. In one scene, she had four different bun renditions. Her bun people must not have paid attention to detail. I did. I wanted the bun.

Next, who has time for make-up at 4:30 am in India to meditate. And, who wears white shirts in countries where bleach is a rarity and hand washing is the norm. And, who brings accessories, hats, glasses and earnings for every occasion. Packing must have caused physical suffering.

Finally, and most importantly, where are these single….. AND  straight AND super-fine AND fit AND emotionally available AND successful AND tall AND funny AND English speaking …. men? I haven’t seen any, yet…

But, if you look at the premise of her story, where she left her comfort zone to slow down. To go to a place that allows her soul the freedom to explore, to question her contributions, to shed light on the dark bits and to answer her God.  Well, that is a different story.

What’s been interesting has been the majority of solo travelers who are taking one-month up to one-year to have a look at the world are female.  And, range in age from 25 to 65.  And, all have the same story of being overworked, overburdened,  and just over IT. This state of mind knows no border. No color. No class….

We’re from all over – Amsterdam, London, Singapore, Germany, South Africa, Scotland, Italy, England, Sweden, Norway, Argentina, Finland, Poland, Egypt, Mozambique, Ireland…. And, we all yearn to fill our cups with joy to be better lovers, friends, wives, girlfriends, daughters, mothers, pet owners and worker-bees.

But, its this curiosity about how others – not ourselves – think, eat, sleep, love, pray, mother, lead, govern, nurture that drives us to travel, and not go to a spa.  Our soul asks the “why” and “how,” knowing full well we’re here to understand. To listen. To be aware. To learn. And, to carry small pieces in our soul to replenish our joy cups when we return.

So, back to where this RANDOM blog started. My tag line. Tall & Traveling. To me, it is funny. It’s exacting. Literal. Smart. With a dose of ODD.

I mean, is there really something to be learned or said about being tall and traveling the world? Besides complaining about clothing sizes in China, train compartments in Vietnam or leg room in Thailand, not really. And, that’s why I titled it Tall. And, Traveling. It’s aimless with a focused fortuitousness. It’s anything we want it to be…

And, today, this blog is much about nothing… True definition of verbal vomit of the Tall & Traveling.

In Route to City in the Sand. Dubai.

17 Jan

Jan. 6, 2010

The flight from Cape Town to Dubai.

On Emirates Air. One of the premier airlines of the world, and now I get why. These people pay attention to detail. Like Disney detail… Even the flight attendants’ lips are all painted the same shade of red. Perfectly coiffed. Serving FREE booze with a smile.

What else? Movies are recent. Chairs recline. Bin space big enough for a small animals. Food is digestible. Bread served warm. Full can of coke. And, I was sitting in toilet class. Literally, two rows away from the flusher.

The downside to the flight was sitting a stones throw from a two year old who cried, talked, moaned and cried 10+ hours. I felt like the Twilight Zone, where I was on a flight from Orlando toooooo Hell, where all the kids are either revved up to see Mickey or screaming to leave the little rat. Either way, its surround-sound loudness.

On this flight, the father was in charge. Mom looked like she could not be bothered. I wondered about their relationship. Based on dress alone, they were a conservative, Muslim family. The mother was covered. The father was not. Yet, the father was responsible for tending to his child, not the mother. She watched movies and slept. Maybe they had some arrangement of “she’s yours to Dubai and she’s mine to Damascus.”

Couldn’t figure it out… Made up a lot of stories to by the end of it, I was super-mom and knew I could settle down the little girl. Please remember, this nonsense comes from the girl who opted to mow lawns instead of babysit.

First movie on the docket was Eat, Pray, Love. You can read about my review in the next blog. Imagine that I have an opinion about the movie??!! After EPL, I moved onto a Woody Allen movie called Meet a Tall Dark Handsome Man. Never been into Woody Allen, but liked the title. It was OK. Never figured out who the TDHM is for Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Bandares both come in around 5’7 on a good day. And, I think Antonio Banderas has a rolling eye… So, I’m still waiting. Maybe TDHM is in his traditional costume, waiting for me at airport border security.

Oh, funniest thing happened to me. Apparently, when I say the word “water” it sounds to the South African ear, I’m saying the word “wine.” No joke. First time it happened was at an outdoor restaurant in Kei Mouth.

We’re riding horses. Stopped for lunch. Asked for “water.” The woman did not understand me. I repeated it three times. She said, “wine?” Second time this occurred was at lunch in Cape Town. I asked for “water” and the waiter asked if I liked the “house or wine list?” Well, maybe I looked liked I needed wine, so I ordered the house white. Third time, was on the flight from Cape Town to Dubai. Instead of water, lip-stick lady gave me a small bottle of FREE wine. Since, she handed over the whole mini-bottle, I ordered another once the kid started cranking it up into high gear.

Americans, in general, don’t use a hard “T” when saying “water.” And, we jumbled it together in one syllable. Whereas, British English pronounces the word “wa-ter” in two syllables, with a harsh “T.” So, warning to future travelers, you may be getting a fair share of wine when visiting South Africa. It worked for me…

—————

Just landed at Dubai airport. The immaculate, pressed, gleaming men flanked in their white robes and red-checkered hats greeted me at border patrol. No more green uniforms, these Emirates border patrol dudes can turn out. This meant, there’s bleach in the city built in the sand. So, far, so good.. I’m liking Dubai.

In line next to me, were eight Chinese men wearing germ masks. All of them couldn’t be carriers of swine, dog, avian or rodent flu. I just stared at them and wondered what message they’re sending. Was the message, “your city is as polluted as mine? Or, you don’t want what I have?” The masks made me nervous. And, I just don’t get it…

I’m next in line. And, I’m the one singled out, not the mask fearing men. Can’t figure out why it’s always the tall blond in Arab countries. Do I look like I’m going to hurt someone? Or, is it my adorable allure after sitting near a toilet for 10 hours.

If it’s this hard to get into Dubai, I can only imagine what it is going to be like leaving this place… Israel comes to mind. I exhale. Look around. Roll my eyes. And, try not to look annoyed. I wanted to say, just take me. And, make sure the holding cell has a goose-down pillow and tempurpedic mattress. I’m tired.

So, Dubai border patrol agent called over his twin in a white robe. They pointed at my passport and laughed. I could hear them saying my name. They continued to laugh. Looked around the room. Never looking at me. I followed their gaze. Are they calling in the reserves. I just stand. Shift my weight back and forth. Why smile. No use.

The twin wrote something down in Arabic. Fab. They kept on talking. I stood. Looked around. After much conversation, the young lad in white stamped my passport, smiled real big and said “Welcome to Dubai.” Now, I’m spooked. Wonder if they are selling me into Royal sex slavery? Back to reality. They brought in reinforcements for my passport looks like it was stapled together at the Dollar Store. I get it.

Right now, I’m at the Hilton in Dubai. Waiting for my room. Got here at 7 am and it’s around 9 am. A cute Italian family is skyping next to me. Gosh, I love their accent. I just want to scream out PREGO and Gellato and Cioa Bella! Sounded as if he’s saying Bellini, as in the drink. Start early in Italy.

Irritated with the Hilton for they want to charge me an additional $50 for internet and fruit/pastries per day. I can’t believe the Hilton can get by with this…

And, tell me again WHY am I in Dubai? Oh, to see concrete, kitty litter, steel, asphalt, white robes, and seven-star hotels in their glory…

Wine Country. Cape Town, South Africa.

12 Jan

January 4, 2010

Made it to wine country. Let me tell you, it was short of amazing for I had to drive on the wrong side of the road, in a stick-shift car for lefties, without a GPS system, via the interstate highway system, all in the name of consuming large quantities of happy juice. I’m still amazed I made it. I was thinking I need a glass of wine to celebrate. And what do you know, the wine-lodge celebrates my arrival with a FREE bottle of wine. Welcome to South African wine country. And, Happy New Year to me!

Step back for a mili-second. I would have never made it here, if it weren’t for Jessy Lipperts with Extraordinary Travel. Let me tell you she is a top travel angel. She’s up there with Ha from Vietnam.

Bill Jones, National Geographic tour guide who led me through Bhutan and has traveled 140+ of the 190+ countries in the world, recommended to reach out to Jessy to help me plan my Cape Town travels. Thank you BILL! Another travel angel…

I emailed Jessy a few weeks ago, telling her I’m coming to Cape Town. I have little dinero. And, this is my story. “I want to learn to surf. Learn about South African history/politics.  Get my hair highlighted and cut. See the beauty of Cape Town. And, drink wine.” Other than that, I’m good. She hooked me up not only with a biking tour and a licensed hair stylist but also with NGOs working in South Africa.

I knew she rocked in her first email for it had a cute masthead and signature block. Got to love marketing! Then, she wanted to Skype to fully understand my needs.

I saw that she was blond, so I knew I was in good hands in the hair department. Plus, she wanted to meet me for wine. She was going to be in Zimbabwe over Christmas meeting her boyfriend’s family, but she would make a trip to wine country just for ME. Love that! My trip was in her hands. And, if you haven’t figured it out, she exceeded all expectations.

Kline Zalze

So, Jessy hooked me up in Stellenbosh, wine village outside of Cape Town, at a winery called Kleine Zalze. They are the ones that greeted me with a bottle of wine.

My room was called Pinot Noir #5. Like Chanel #5, right? Outside my door they’re growing the Chardonnay grape, one of my favorite wines. My room overlooked the mountains and more grapes. It truly does not get better than this. The fact I did NOT total my car, makes life even better.

Not much to report, except did the wine tasting gig. They have a wine called Pinotge. It’s a light red wine. I liked it. I’m not a wine person, so I call tell you is, it was yummy. Nice review, huh?

After Stellenbosh, I drove to the another wine village called Franschhoek. By far, my favorite. I could live there. Not kidding. And, not sure what I would do for a living, except walk the streets, hike the mountains, ride the horses and sip vino. The fact I found the place, was a major miracle. Signage on back wine roads, not the best. Let’s just say, I had to go to the bathroom when I started, and after 2 hours of driving 30 miles, I no longer had to go. It’s called the sweat option…

Got a ‘little’ lost. Stopped at a grocery store to ask directions, and got the “left, right, left, left” response. I repeated I was a clueless American tourist driving on the wrong side of the road, and needed much more than that. The manager of SPAR grocery store came out, and drew me a picture. Thank you travel angel!

His picture included four round-abouts, hills and stop lights. Again, sweat…

When I pulled up to Akademie Guesthouses in Franschhoek, I knew I arrived. Cutest B&B. Old Dutch house. Hard wood floors. And, all the rooms have art work either drawn by the family or purchased locally. My room was the size of my kitchen, TV room and bedroom back home. Yes, moving in was an option.

After arrival, I walked three streets to the main street, with all the cafes, restaurants, wine bars, shops and police station. It was here, where I started to feel melancholy. I’m surprised it was the first time I had the feeling of wanting a “fun, male travel dude” with me. Drinking wine alone is only so much f-u-n.

I looked around, and all I saw was couples or families. Old, young, ugly, hot, fat, skinny, drunk, sober – all kinds from all over the world were meandering down the street holding hands, pushing strollers….You get the picture. In my mind, they all looked like they were “in love” and having the time of their life. They all could be on the “most wanted” list for domestic offenders for all I knew.

It boiled down I was feeling lonely. I looked for other single travelers or randoms at cafes, for I would have joined them. Yes, becoming that person who talks to strangers in cafes. Frightening…

I could not spy any solo sitters. “They” say retail therapy and wine helps in these matters of the heart. So, I tried retail therapy and bought some key chains and baseball cap. Yea…didn’t work. I sat down at an outdoor cafe, ordered a glass of wine, and watched people walk by. My heart felt heavy. This is the perfect place to have a part-time-lover (PTL), boyfriend, husband or, even, friend. It reeks with romance, laughter, and togetherness.

I took my wine and walked across the street to a Dutch church to pray. Sat there for a real long time talking to God. Or, what the Buddhist call meditating.

Yes, I did take my glass of wine into the church. Protestants do support wine consumption. Mediating, praying, talking, drinking wine all seem to gel nicely. I walked out feeling 1000% better.

Needed that time of reflection, thankfulness… humbleness.

But, I did asked myself. Why am I feeling this way? Why now? I’m a girl. Very good at over analyzing the situation. Now, this blog is NOT the place to share my personal boy travel stories. That is personal. Plus, my father’s clients, mother’s friends and sister’s parole officer are reading this. Boy talk is sacred, while bowel moments are not…Have to dry the line somewhere.

The cliff notes version is I’ve hit the 6 month mark of traveling. I’m not tired, to say the least. If anything, taming my curiosity energizes me. I just wanted to share wine tasting with someone I care about.

And, there seemed to be little prospects in Franschhoek, South Africa. Plus, my B&B was filled with couples, and here I am some single traveler. When I checked it, they assumed I’m traveling with a man. I had to correct them. Nope, I’m traveling alone. I guess, I feel like an outcast. Like a reject. Rationally, I know none of this is true. But, emotionally, it was a different story.

Instead of pushing these emotions or thoughts down, I sat in them all day. Hence, I went to the church to talk. Later, I wrote. And, told myself to feel the rejection today for tomorrow, we’re moving on… Tomorrow, I’m horseback riding to wineries. Drinking and riding… Now, that is a new one. Today, I feel sorry for myself. And, trust me, I milked that emotion…For I found a kitchen shop and bought some wooden salad spoons, and I don’t even eat salad.

I did have a great laugh in the kitchen shop. Next to the knives, was a burlesque section of garter belts, bustiers, thigh-high stockings and sparkling underwear….

I just stared at it, trying to understand their market mindset. Is it common to purchase a carving knife and a leopard bra together? Does the mind make that link? “Oh, need to pick up something sexy and a garlic press, know the perfect place…”

I asked the clerk if lingerie was a “hot” item. She did not understand the question. I changed it to, “big seller…” She smiled and said, “yes.” I still don’t think she understood. I needed more than a yes. I wanted to know why. I don’t think she knew the “why.” I took a picture, and left with my salad spoons, and declined the crotchless underwear.

Next day was 100% better. I was in my element once again, on top of a mighty, powerful horse named Cindy in search of wine. Bad name for an incredible horse.

We cantered through vineyards in search of a winery. Found one, two..or three. I was riding with a cute couple from London. He’s from New Zealand, and she is from England. He’s a reporter. And, she’s in communications. Sounds familiar…

They just got back from Namibia and wanted to end their month long vacation with wine too. The day is what you imagined. Drinking. Riding. Smelling. Drinking. Riding. Smelling. Perfect-o.

As we untacked our horses, I bonded with our trail rider. She told me the tragic story of her horse being killed by a car. Her horse was tied up. The wind came. The rope came loose. She trotted off towards the road. She went running after her horse. Her horse looked back one last time before the car smashed her. Her horse died before her eyes. She was 17. And, her horse was her soul mate. I get it. There is something powerful and knowing about horses. I get it.

I let her talk. And, told her how much I understood. She talked about her horse being her only friend and it has taken years to get over the pain. Again, I get it. I listened. We talked. She cried. I cried. I told her how blessed she was to have known her soul mate, even if it was short lived. Many walk this earth and will never meet, or let alone be open to, that kind of bonding, connection and trust.

She cried more. I cried more. I believe in my heart that God wanted me there. To listen. To share. And, listen some more. It made all my “don’t have a man” talk the day before seem trite.

I felt privilege to be in this girl’s presence. Privileged she is sharing. And, privileged I could be a blessing, even if it meant just listening. When I left her, I saw a different light in her eyes. A light of gratitude. And a light of relief.

I climbed back into my car made for lefties, and forgot where I was. Almost took out the gate while making a left hand turn. Having a problem judging distance, you think?

Headed back to B&B to pack and pack and pack for my flight to Dubai. Oh, sooo don’t want to leave Cape Town. Or, South Africa. My heart tells me, I will back.

US Consulate, Again? Cape Town, South Africa.

12 Jan

Yep. I’m back at the US Consulates office. By the time this rendezvous around the world gig is up, I will be well versed in Passport/Visa hell.

Step back. In Hanoi, Vietnam had my identity stolen. Passport, Visa, credit cards, dinero, license… You name it, gone. US Consulate office in Hanoi issued me an emergency passport with 4 pages. Why do pages matter? Good question. Who knew that to enter South Africa you need 2 pages. Australia and New Zealand asks for 2 as well. Rumor has it, US asks for 3 pages. Now, what the border patrol babes do with these pages is another matter. But, a rule is a rule. The other rumor is they won’t allow you into their country if you don’t have enough pages for their measly stamp.

For those who have trouble adding, I now have 4 pages. But, I need 6 pages and a possible extra for Dubai. So, I’m in a crumple. Tall US lady in Hanoi told me that Cape Town US Consulate office could issue me a “real” passport, but they need 2 weeks for turn around. Oh, the real passport is“free.” I laughed when she said that because Hanoi US Consulate office charged the girl with no cash, me, $135 US dollars for an emergency passport. Don’t get me started.

So, I emailed Cape Town US Consulate’s office to make arrangements about my “free” and “real” passport. Paula in Cape Town responded and said the US Consulate’s office is closed on December 27th for a national holiday. What national holiday? Found out later in South Africa, if Christmas falls on a Friday or Saturday, you get the Monday off as well as December 26th, Boxing Day. And, Boxing Day is a holiday to box up your gifts, not to smack people.

Anyway, Paula said, I need to come to the US Consulate’s office on the 28th. But, I would not be able to get a “real” passport in time because offices are closed New Years Eve. Little did I know at the time, I would have had time for a “real” passport for the US Consulate’s office express mails your “new” passport to any location in South Africa. Paula was a sharp one.

Paula recommended to issue another emergency passport, so I can use both. That’s cool. They know what they are doing, right? Right…

I hire a taxi on the 28th. It costs me $40 US dollars to drive 24 minutes. People in Cape Town believe anything more than 8 minutes is FAR. By the time we get there, it’s noon. Unlike Hanoi, the Cape Town US Consulate was on lock-down alert. Three security guards escorted me inside. They called the back office. It rang and rang and rang and rang. They called everyone on the list. NO one was there. All at lunch?

They pass me a laminated piece of paper that says, “Starting January, all US citizens and inquiries will need an appointment. Times: 8:30 am – 11:30 am.” I smiled and said, “It’s not January yet…and I pay taxes.” The two security girls laughed. I just smiled, getting annoyed.

It’s approaching 12:30. No one is picking up. One of the security gals meanders ever-so-slowly to the back office to take a look. She saunters back 15 minutes later and says someone will call me. The front desk phone rings. I pick up. A woman tells me, I need to come back tomorrow and schedule an appointment.

Anger. I mean, I could feel tears welding up for I was about to loose it.

Me: “I’m a US citizen. All I’m doing is dropping off my passport so you can make another emergency passport….I’ve been emailing Paula about this…”

US govt worker: “Paula is out of the country. On vacation. You need to make an appointment. Paula was to tell you about the appointments.”

Me: “She didn’t, or else I would have scheduled an appointment. I paid $40 to come out here…”

Govt worker: “We don’t take walk-ins. And, you’re not eligible for an emergency passport.”

Me: “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? And, tell me what does Paula do here?”

Govt worker: “I need to put you on hold…”

By this time, I’m thinking I’ve been emailing with the janitor, instead of an authorized, trained consulate worker. I was at my breaking point. Could feel it. But told myself, who has the power here. They do. Calm down. Relax. It’s not the end of the world. Plus, her putting me on hold may mean she’s sending security to toss me to the curb.

Govt. worker: “We can provide you extra pages. But, you need to make an appointment. We changed the policy a few weeks ago. Paula should have told you this. There is no one here…”

Me: “I’ve been emailing Paula since December 13. I have records of our emails. She said I’m eligible for an emergency passport, and mentioned nothing about appointments. It says you take an appointments until 11:30 am. I was here a few minutes after, yet no one was here. Can I please just drop off my passport?”

Govt. worker: “No. You need a stamp from the cashier to process your passport. And, the cashier has left for the day. It costs $80 for extra pages…”

Me: “Well, why didn’t you say so. Of course, the cashier left. And, Of course I need a stamp…”

The govt. worker appeared behind the wall. She handed me a card with an internet address and email and told me I needed to go ONLINE to make an appointment. They do not schedule appointments over the phone or in person. My response, “Of course you don’t…”

I got back in the taxi and was miffed. At the Hotel Lady Hamilton, I told my story to my new BFFer, front desk worker from Zimbabwe. Guess what the first thing uttered out of his mouth. “That’s discrimination…What about the US citizens who don’t have a computer or access to a computer or internet? What about the US citizens who can’t read? Or, can’t type? What about the poor, who don’t have $80 US dollars for pages? Your country is telling you only those people with money, computer, internet and can type can make an appointment to their country’s consulate’s office?”

I thanked him profusely for making me angrier. I didn’t even think about it in those terms. Now, I was super-fired up. How dare they!

Yes, I’m blessed for I have a netbook and money to PAY for hotel internet connection. I logged on to the US Consulate’s website. No mention NO where on how to make an appointment for Cape Town’s consulate’s office. Johannesburg, Yes. Cape Town, no. So, I fired off an email requesting a time for tomorrow. The same govt. worker emailed me back saying “I gave you a card with the website address. You must do it online, not by email.” You’ve GOT to be kidding me.

Now, I more than fired up. I took screen shots of their homepage and client services pages and indicated their webmaster/marketing department has NOT updated their website since they’ve made this policy change only minutes ago, hence my email. The only way to access the appointment page, is through Johannesburg. Last I checked, this was Cape Town. I recommended she forward this email to the webmaster so they can create links appropriately.

Then, I secured my 9:30 am appointment. Another forty dollars down the drain, I arrive at 9:20 am. And, they see me around 10:30 am. All I had to do was sign a form and pay. I waited for the cashier for a good 30 minutes. She decided to take a cig break. I mean, she is leaving at 11:30 am and must have a break. I paid. Smiled. There was no use of even complaining. They are not going to change. Government workers are the same, regardless of country. And, many exude the same dispassionate energy. Though, Hanoi was different. Thank you travel angels for Hanoi!

After paying $80 for additional pages, I walked over to the DHL desk (express mail). US Consulate makes it clear they do NOT want you back. So, you have to pay more money to express mail your passport to your location. Well, I’m moving every other day, so how does this work? The woman was very nice and we came up with some contingency plans. Passport to wine country was an option…

I walked out praying. Praying, once again, for passports safe arrival. Man, this passport should be considered holy paper, considering all the praying I’ve done about this little blue bound book. Oh, did I tell you, it looks fake? Even Cape Town US Consulate’s office looked at it strangely. I bet it’s my photshoped picture. No wrinkles. No bags under the eyes. No spinach in the teeth. They just don’t recognize me in person. That MUST be it. That, and the purple lines and smoggy marks running through the picture.

Got the passport in wine land. Came with extra pages, that looked more stapled than glued. It looks even worse. Need to continue praying for the passport.  I hope they let me in Dubai…

Happy New Year! Cape Town, South Africa.

12 Jan

New Year’s Eve

What did I do on New Year’s Eve? Well, I blew dried my hair. Applied make-up. Put on a NEW pair of leggings – recently purchased at Woolworths – and went to dinner with ten interesting people at a fancy-smacy restaurant where they only have one seating.

Ate seven courses in 4 hours. And, rang in the New Year on the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment, watching the fireworks light up the Cape Town harbor.

Woke up at 4 AM to a big fight outside my hotel window. Put the pillow over my head. Popped Advil for “just in case.” And willed myself back to sleep.

Happy to be here. Happy to be alive. And, Happy New Year!

Biking. Beauty. Kabul? Cape Town, South Africa.

8 Jan


“OMG. You live in Kabul? Tell me, why are we in Afghanistan? I’m American. We talk in sound bites.. Help me here…”

So, that was the first thing that spewed from my mouth after meeting Suzanne and Gustav. Poor people. Suzanne is German and is married to Gustav, a South African who owns Bike & Saddle, a leading eco-active travel company based in Cape Town. They married ten years ago, and she works for the World Bank. They’ve lived in DC and Madagascar. She now lives in Cape Town and commutes to Kabul – eight weeks on and two weeks off.

Earlier that day, I did ANOTHER bike tour with Gustav’s company. This one was around the Cape. More strenuous stretches up mountains, down hills, through canyons to explore the beauty of South Africa.

The challenge was the gale force winds. Can’t ride a bike up a mountain when you see birds flapping their wings, going backwards. They call the winds the “South-Easterlies.” I call it bad for biking.

I can not put into words the beauty of Cape Town. It’s California and France’s

Stadium built for World Cup

coasts on crack. Plus, it has a cosmopolitan flare with its robots, organic supermarkets, and Woolworths.

That’s right. Woolworths still exits! I was shocked. I thought it went bankrupt. I have fond memories of going to the Winter Park Mall and eating grill cheeses with my grandmother at Woolworth’s cafe. It’s not the same in South Africa. No selling of plastic flowers and toy guns. Woolies, as the local’s refer to it, is equivalent to our Whole Foods and any upscale department store.

Back to biking. Gustav’s travel company had a bus follow us as we attempted to peddle. Short story, longer. We opted to put the bikes in the van and see the sights from the confines of a sheet metal to better protect us from sand, wind or fire.

That’s right. Fire. The mountain next to my hotel was burning. The firefighters managed to get it under control with the help of four helicopters and a reservoir.

That evening, Gustav asked if he and his wife could join me for dinner. I have no friends here…. So, guess what was the answer? They picked me up from the Lady Hamilton Hotel and off we went to the waterfront to dine. It was there, when I asked Suzanne what she did for a living. She said, “I work for the World Bank in Afghanistan. I’m based in Kabul…” That was when, I hurled a zillion questions at her. Poor lady. She thought she was going to have a very nice evening. Nope. Not with the inquisitive Tallgirl…

All I wanted was a soundbite. I mean, I’m American. And, we Americans, don’t have patience for details.

You have our attention for 45 seconds on a good day. So, what is the value proposition here? Below is an edited recap of our conversation – for the wine flowed and consumption was the name of the game.

Suzanne: “There are 26 or 27 countries in Afghanistan, some with only a few thousand troops.”

Me: “Whose running the show? Americans?”

Suzanne: “No one, really. That is part of the problem. The countries who are there have their own territories they are monitoring. So, their focus is just on that area. For example, Italians are in one providence and when they invest $$ or more troops, it can only go to that area so they can get credit for it back home. It makes it difficult to make decisions from a global sense.

The Afghans are tired. Back in 2001, they welcomed Americans and the international communities’ help. They wanted to kick out Al-Queda. They were tired of being under their control. Kabul used to be a cultured, polished, worldly city. The Afghans wanted it back. The international community promised a lot.

Afghans waited and waited and waited. Then, Iraq happened and all attention, resources and promises went to Iraq. Once again, Afghans were left holding the bag, with nothing. History repeats itself. Their trust evaporated, and they went back to trusting Al-Queda.

Now, we’re at 2010 and, promising a lot, yet at the same time, telling them we’re leaving in a year or two. Why trust and work with the international community when they are going to leave again – leave them with nothing. It will take more than a year, two or even ten to bring any sense of stability to the region. This is a long term investment….

In the meantime, you have complications with Pakistan. Then, there is India. And, you have a country – Afghanistan – that is mineral rich and, possibly, oil/gas rich. The Chinese are buying up mineral rights now. They see Afghanistan as a long term investment. Chinese have a different sense of time. They can wait 50 to 70 years, without a problem. China is in Afghanistan. So, is the US Geological Service too. All trying to understand what lays underneath the country’s surface.

What is hard to understand is there are sooo many brilliant American minds? So, many who have studied at the War Colleges. Tremendous experience. Yes, they forget Afghan history. Or, neglect to examine past mistakes.

And, then there is this void. No one wants to make decisions. And, it seems, some are more concerned about their careers with the Obama administration than the long term health of the country. This makes it hard to move anything forward. There is no clear direction, from nobody.

Afghan people are beautiful. The country is breathtaking. One day, it will be a tourists paradise with its mountains and vastness. The people find it hard to trust….

————————————————

Suzanne continued to share much more details about how complicated it is. But, our conversation left me sad. Sad there is a void in leadership. And, it’s unfair. Unfair to the people of Afghanistan and to those countries investing in a better Afghan future. Unfair because innocent people are dying for no one knows who is on First, Second or Third.

And, what are they risking their lives for? Can you imagine being in the US military. On the front lines, and every week or day you hear a different reason why you are sacrificing your life? Irritated, to say the least. Can you imagine being an Afghan and every week or day, you hear a different reason why you’re being occupied. Irritated, to say the least.

Boils down to communications. Can’t trust, if you don’t understand. Can’t understand, if you don’t communicate.  And, can’t communicate, what you don’t know… Why do we make things so hard…. Why?

The Over-Served Cure. Cape Town, South Africa

8 Jan

Had only two glasses of wine last night. Woke today with make up still on the face and brain cells swimming in a purple haze. Looked for IB Profin, and saw they’re all crushed.  Crushed? Smart me carried the pills in my pockets while horse riding. Day after day of bouncing pulverized the pills.   Yea, I’m prepared to surf today…

Avis man dropped off the rent-a-car at 10 am.

Me: “Thanks…Where is the GPS mechanical-thingy?”

Avis: “Oh, we ran out. No more. GPS.”

Me: “Are you kidding me? You expect me, an American, to navigate this country not only while driving on the wrong side of the road, but without a GPS? Are you mad?”

Avis guy laughed. I’m not finding it funny at all. I’m feeling hazy. Feeling confused. And, feeling tears weld up in the back of my head out of frustration. I mean, really?

Me: “You must have a GPS. I mean, World Cup was here a few months ago. Thousands needed GPS maps, right?”

Avis: “For World Cup we outsourced our GPS map service. Last month, Avis decided to move it all in house.”

Me: “Well, how’s that working out for you?”

Avis guy laughed again. Again, where is the humor?  I calmed myself down. I mean, prior to GPS in cars, people used maps. I will be fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. It is out of my hands. Need to give up control. And, asked the travel angels to get me to Muzeinburg in time for my surf lesson. I have 45 minutes and have no idea where I’m going or what I’m driving.

Avis guy walked me to the car. Very cute, small Hyundai. I peered in the window. It’s stick shift. My heart stopped. Not only am I clueless about where I’m going, but now, I need to be ambidextrous to drive. OMG.

He handed me the keys. And, a map of all of South Africa and walked off. The map was a marketing brochure with pictures and captions…. This was NOT a road map.  Where’s AAA when you need them?

I walked back to the Lady Hamilton Hotel and called Gary’s Surf Shop for directions. Gary got on the phone– loud South African man.

He said, “Don’t you have a GPS, Dammit?”

Yea, surf lessons with him will be pure joy.

I replied, “No. Avis ran out… And, you are talking to a clueless American who has never driven on the wrong side of the road. So, please make your directions very, very, very clear.”

He said, “I drove in New York City without a problem. So, that should inspire you.”

Gary gave me directions.  I started the car.  Prayed like a mad woman.  And put little red car into first gear.  Booom… I was off. Pulled onto the highway and almost took off my rear-view mirror on a road sign.

OK.  No distractions.  I turned off the radio. Even turned off the air condition.  I talked to myself the entire time. I mean, I talked outloud…”Great job Amanda!  Now, a stop light is coming.  This means to downshift. Use your left hand…”    So, I made it to Muzienburg. Even parked the car with the help of a homeless man. Gave him a $1.  Should have given him a $100!

Next was surf lessons. Gary did not have my name on the list. They did have the name “Amand-o” but not Amanda. Who is Amand-o? Never figured that one out.

Some little surfer girl gave me a wetsuit. I pulled the thing on and felt like a super-cool chick for all of 10 minutes, until I tried to carry the long surf board to the ocean in gale force winds. I almost took out a car and a bench when trying to cross the street. Yea, coolness and coordination are officially gone.

There were 10 of us in the “surfing for dummies” group. Our instructors were teens, and clearly had better things to do. They quickly walked through the safety rules. They included:

  • Paddle when we say paddle.
  • Stand when we say stand.
  • Don’t run people over.
  • If you hit your head or bleed, go tot the store. But, wait outside. No blood allowed inside.

A boy named Carl showed us how to stand up. He’s all of 5’7 and can jump up fairly fast. What about a 6-foot girl with little balance and coordination. We all practiced on the sand. The other tall girl from Belgium and I got special directions for we could not pop up so fast.

Carl told us to use our knees first. Then stand up. Right.

And, what about the gale force winds? These mamas are clocking around 30 to 40 mph. I mean people can’t walk on the sidewalk without going backwards. Birds are flapping and not moving… And, your’e telling me all I need to do is pop up from my knees?

In case you’re wondering, gale force winds, coupled with high tide and 50 to 60 degree water, cured being over-served the night before.  No IB-profin was needed after all… The purple haze lifted. And, cold salt water entered. I was alive.

The first couple of rides, I was able to get up on my knees. Quite frankly, I was fine with just that. But, Carl was adamant that tallgirl stood up. We went out farther and farther so I would have more time to stand up. Right now, the waves were breaking so fast, you were riding on sand in a matter of seconds.

After ten or more tries, I stood up for a second or maybe two. Or, maybe it was a nano-second. Whatever it was, my body went slightly erect and then I wiped out. So, now I was hooked. I was going to stand longer. I mean, I can do this!

Not really. By that point, my bod was exhausted from being bashed by the waves and my toes were going numb. My feet were red and bruised. I think the nano-second stand was it for me.

Carl was ticked off at the office for booking a surfing lesson surfing high-tide and in gale force winds. He said, “no one surfs in the conditions like this… And, did you know 5 people drowned yesterday?” All reassuring. I guess since I did not drown, it was a feather in my cap.

So, I can all check the box that I learned to surf in Cape Town. In gale force winds. During high tide. And, wearing a wetsuit two sizes too large. If I had any sense, I would have learned how to surf 45 minutes from home in Florida. But, what fun is that?

The Island. Cape Town, South Africa.

8 Jan

Went to Robben Island to check out the prison, where they kept Nelson Mendela.

Going to be kicked for saying this, but the place is not all that bad. Nice boat ride over.  Picturesque island. Great views of the cape. Large cells, with windows. Paintings on the walls. Inmates worked from 8 am to 5 pm. Had nights off to read, write, draw, sing or do drama….

Not that bad, considering what I’ve seen. Yea, Yea….Why they imprisoned Nelson Mendela was terrible. I will give you the why. How some where treated. I give you the how. But, the where, not that bad when comparing it to Cambodia, Vietnam, Israel and the concentration camps. Just an observation….

The former political prisoners gave us the tour. When they were released, many could not find jobs. So, the state – I assume – wanted them as paid tour guides. I mean, they need someone to tell us “what really happened” so we’ll be shocked and vow never to let this happen again.

And, the former prisoners, now tour guides, are great story tellers. As I looked around, I could see their story really resonated with the tour-ons, as it should. It’s powerful.

That being said, I say next to Scotland transplants. They’ve lived in South Africa for 30 years. They are white. They leaned over about half-way-through the tour and said, “There’s another side to this too…” I smiled.  And, agreed. There’s always another side. Another story. Another slant. My response was, “Are we open to listen. Understand. And, accept the truth from both sides?”

They just nodded. Their looks was, “You’re white… Whose side are you on…” I just smiled back but wanted to scream out, “Our souls – this moral, moving force living inside each of us – knows NO color, dude..”

South Africa is shredded into bits for its arrogance that color predetermines a person’s worth, education and value in society. I did not know what to expect in South Africa. Many told me the country is racist. It’s dangerous… Hello, tell me a place on this earth where racism and danger does not exist…

I will give South Africa credit. Since 1990’s, this country has tried to bring forth every misdeed, transgression brought on by Apartheid. As someone said to me, “Apartheid is an open wound, and for years we’ve pick and pick and pick at the open sore. South Africans are entering a healing stage, but we have along way to go.”

From an outsider very far removed, I see talking and communicating about the recent history is healing. It’s when you push things under the table, is when they reappear in unwelcome places down the road.

In Cambodia, they don’t even mention Pol Pot and the Khomer Rouge’s extermination of ¼th of the population in school. In Thailand, if you talk about the Royal Family and the military, you are placed into prison. In South Africa, if you’re not talking about the country’s history, then you are the one with the problem.

Talking about the past is one thing. It’s leading into the future is a whole other can of worms. Nelson Mandela’s party, the ANC, is still learning how to lead and manage a country littered with division – try 11 languages and just as many tribes – and littered with natural resources like gold, diamonds, coal…

The ANC came to power under the umbrella of unity and justice. They over-promised and can’t deliver. They promised every black person a house. This has not happened as fast as first envisioned. People are upset. And, for the ones who do have houses, many don’t want to pay taxes, utilities or for the upkeep. Instead, they are renting out their free houses and moving back into shacks where the govt pays for all utilities, cable, etc.

As we know in the states, when people are angry, they go to talk radio. Here, they complain about govt. corruption. And, govt. perks.

Govt politicians want to shut it down by reigning in the media and stopping social networking sites. Here we go again…Same story, different country.

I believe it will have to get worse before it will get better in South Africa. A person’s ability to lead should not be based on color, religion, politics or economics. It’s based on listening, understanding, envisioning, planning, implementing and changing. Oh, flexibility, patience, thick-skin and a triple dose of passion is must as well… If they elect leaders based on party affiliation or color alone, then the future is a toss up. As my father has said many, many times… “The people get what the people deserve.” And, South Africa deserves an honest, transparent and fiscally answerable government, supporting the education of its people to become productive, responsible citizens.  But, don’t we all?

If things go well. South Africa.

4 Jan

December 26, 2010….. I’m airborne. Again.

Leaving Eastern Cape. South Africa’s Wild Coast. I don’t want to leave. Not yet. Two weeks was not enough. I already miss the horses. Miss the people. Miss the comradery.  I don’t know how it happened. Or, how I even planned this. But, how blessed am I to have spent my Christmas with such a diverse, loving, open and active group of people from all over the world. I mean truly.

Commercial break. What is up with these pilots. They have verbal vomit and need to shut it. The pilot just announced that this plane had technical difficulties. They had to do an emergency landing in Durban to fix the plane. He’s trying to make up for lost time and said we should be arriving 40 minutes late, “If things go well.” What do you mean, “IF things go well???” Is he expecting something NOT to go well at 20,000 feet?

Now, I’m watching an airline attendant play with oxygen masks. Is anyone watching this? No. The masks are all tangle. She looks annoyed. Very annoyed. She’s untangling it and staring at a woman. Wait. The oxygen is for the woman. And, why is my heart racing? I’m feeling nervous. OK. She’s put the oxygen mask on all the lady. Is this what the pilot mean when he said, “if things go well?”

Point is, I’m sad to leave the horses. Kei Mouth. But, I can’t write anymore. This flight is one big, fat buzz kill…. I’m out.

Happy Birthday Baby Jesus. Kei Mouth, South Africa.

4 Jan

Band Aid. Farm Aid. First Aid.,,,, Whatever the 80’s band is called. Those big-hair, shoulder-pad wearing rock-stars missed the boat on “Do they know it’s Christmas time in Africa.”

Yea, they know it’s Christmas. They got Christmas. But, it’s not the credit-card charging, decadent Christmas we all love to hate in the states.   No gift-a-mania here…

For an American, it’s shocking actually.  Walk down the streets, no Santa sweater-sets. Drive though a neighborhood, no reindeer on rooftops. Go to a mall, no deck-the-hall. In fact, there’s not even a Santa’s station. Listen to the radio, no Christmas discounts. Watch TV, no Rudolf or Frosty specials. Unbelievable.

Friends and family have emailed me asking, “Are you homesick? Miss your family this holiday season?” I reply, “What holiday? The only tinsel I see is tinfoil.”

In South Africa, it’s summer. School is out and families are on vac-cay. The way I see it, Christmas in the Eastern Cape is a Fourth of July and Thanksgiving combo, but without the gunpowder and Puritans.

And, while presents are exchanged, it’s more of a small token of appreciation. Spending $ on food and spending time with the ones you heart – or have to heart – are the priorities… Oh, and getting your fill of beer, wine and whiskey. That’s one thing both countries have in common. The drunken gluttony of Christmas.

So, how did I celebrate Christmas at Sunray Farms in Kei Mouth, South Africa? Brilliantly. On Christmas Eve, I galloped along the white sandy beaches, on top of cliff tops and through green rolling hills. Yes, I wore my SPF and my pleasure, bug spray. No ticks on Christmas Eve please.

After six hours of riding and my legs feeling like jello, it was time to put on my gift-a-mania gear and head to the local food and liquor. What to buy the family for Christmas? The choices came to chocolate, beer, wine, pocket knives, fishing hooks, detergent, meat pies or pears. I opted for all things gorging.

Fifteen minutes later, finished with my Christmas shopping, we headed back to the farm to disinfect and primp for a night out at the Bush Pig. BP was not packed. But, certainly had its fair share of locals on this Christmas Eve.

Ian, the bar owner, who sports a shark tooth necklace and gray flowy mane down his back, was talking about how he lived at his bar. I did not believe him. So, he showed us his living quarters…..at the bar.

Never doubt a man wearing shark teeth. The grand tour took 6 minutes and ended in his bedroom. Two things I noticed was the plethora of hair products and the multiple shot guns next to his bed. Alex, from Italy, stumbled upon an old revolver. Don’t ask me how.

Ian’s reply was, “You never can be too safe around here… I run a bar, you know…” Yea, and does Hooters and I bet they don’t sleep with revolvers.

He said, “People think running a bar is glamorous. But it’s hard work. I close down every night between 2 am and 7 am, depending on the season. Last night, we had a fight. I called the cops. The cops were busy dealing with a rape. That took priority. So, I just pepper sprayed the guy. Tied him up and waited.” Yeaaaaa….

After a couple of beers, Rox, Alex and I were feeling good. I asked for a shot. It’s a Happy Birthday to Jesus shot, right? The teenage bartender said he was going to make us a flaming Bush Pig. I asked, “What’s in it? And, by the way, I don’t do Jaeger..” He said, “I don’t know what’s in it…I’m making it up…” I responded, “I want to see fire. I mean, we’re talking about toasting to Baby Jesus…”

So the kid starts pouring in colors –yellow, blue, pink… I have no idea. And, then he lights the thing on fire. I think to myself, “I don’t do shots. Let alone on Christmas Eve. I’m supposed to be at church. Where am I??”

Shot went down fast. We headed to the pool table. Was loosened up. Ready to kick some butt. Arrogance got in way and I won only because Alex shot the eight ball in the hole. I think we stumbled home after 1 am. Santa was not too happy about that.

Next morning we slept in until 8 am. Julie-Ann’s boys made us a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, random meets, beans, toast and other goodies. We inhaled for we’re not eating again until Christmas dinner at 7 pm. It rained all day. Again, the gale force winds…What is up with these winds.

I tried to Skype the family on – more or less – a dial up connection. So, that took a good two hours of screaming at my computer. Julie-Ann told us to dress nicely for dinner. So, out came the black yoga pants and non-stained t-shirt. Perfect-o.

Some friends came from the farm next door around 7 pm. They’ve been drinking since noon. Primed and ready to go. Nikki told us the same story – over and over again – about how her pig had piglets, how her dog escaped and found her at the store and how George the giraffe walked a little to close to the horses. I love drunk people. They are so fanatical about their stories each time they tell them. Same story. Same detail. Same enthusiasm. And, everyone around the room just nods, smiles and asks the same questions. By the way, how many of you talked about piglets and giraffes at your Christmas dinner?

We opened presents. I received a lot of chocolate, no booze, and a bar of soap. Very telling.

PS.  Woolworth’s is still alive.

Welcome Home Honey. Kei Mouth, South Africa.

4 Jan

Try this one for size.

How about coming home after a long day of trail riding, spraying ticks, washing horses and guzzling beers to find left over horse shit in your house.  You heard me.  Horse shit.

You ask, how?  Try leaving the door open.  A random horse strolling by saunters in.   Becomes a little nervous.  Knocks over some chairs.  Gets more nervous, and takes a dump not only once but twice… Welcome home honey!

That was tonight. All I can do is laugh. I mean what can you do?  Ask a bunch of questions as to the “how and why and how and why and how and who left the door open..” But, it happened.

The best was the clean up job.  Looks like someone shoveled it out, thinking we wouldn’t notice.  So, the remains are there, just adding another flavor fragrance to the volunteer house.

Happy that I’m catching a cold, numbing my senses… Even happier for those beers at the Bush Pig.  But, I’m happiest about my Pleasure bug spray  for I have a strong feeling crispy-critters will be doing the happy dance on some future fertilizer…

Need to spray me down and say my prayers… Sweet dreams…

What are you doing down there? Eastern Cape, South Africa.

2 Jan

December 13 – 18

My body is too old for this. I have to laugh because I keep thinking, “Man, I was in good shape when I was 12, 13, 14 and 15….” My inner thighs are looking at a lifetime of bruising.

Dad asked, what am I doing down here? Well, down here is only a few kilometers from the Indian Ocean. It is stunning. I’m sitting atop mountains. Mountains that are millions and millions of years old that have been carved into hills. All you do is gone green rolling hills. Indescribable.

I’m glad I’m here, even though the place needs to be pressure washed and disinfected. The first few days were abnormal. We had a hurricane like storm pass through here for 2 days — gale force winds and tremendous rain. It was cooooold and there’s no heat in the volunteer house. This meant, no showers for me.

Dad wanted to know what I’ve been doing? So, here’s a recap.

Day 1: Arrived. Greeted by the rich fumes of dog, horse, mold and manure. Welcome to a horse farm!

Day 2: Drove to East London – 45 mins from Kei Mouth – with the volunteers to Christmas shop. Saw a movie. Bought name brand toothpaste, Pantene shampoo and vitamins.  No shower b/c too cold.

Bed at 9:34 pm.

Day 3: Horse rolled on leg. Hurricane, gale force winds. Rain. Cold. No shower, too cold.

Bed at 8:12 pm.

Day 4: Rain gone. Sun out. SPF and bug lotion on.

Groomed 30 horses, checked for ticks, fed the horses, cleaned saddles.. Speaking of ticks, was in the tack room with Julie-Ann and Roz. Felt something crawling up my leg. Julie-Ann told me to pull down my pants. Right there. I did.

Damn, there was a crispy-critter, little black Tick crawling up my leg in route to the privates. I almost hyperventilated and fainted on sight. Not about the bug but about where the little thing was going.

Now, I feel like I have ticks all over me. Crawling in my hair. In my underwear. Down my back. I’m constantly heading to the bathroom, tearing off my clothes and applying more Pleasure Spray. That is what I call the flea, tick and mites spray. Pleasure Spray… It provides me much pleasure.

This afternoon, we galloped along the Indian Ocean (beach). Amazing! So much fun. I rode a Thoroughbred. He hauled ass. I just grabbed the mane and let him go. Loved it!

After riding, we headed to a local watering hole, called the Bush Pig. Very interesting characters. We played pool. And, some married men bought us shots. I dry heaved and threw it up on the floor for it had Jagger. I was wearing and smelling of horses, so being lady like never crossed my mind. Just a FYI, can’t do jagger. After beer and pool playing, we came back to the farm and unloaded the car. Trying carrying saddles and shit after drinking five or six beers…

Bed at 8:34 pm.

Day 5:  Today was charity ride.

Try 20 horses/people on a ride along the Indian ocean, across ravines, over hill tops, and around cliffs. We are raising $$ for a charity that works with the local tribe people to teach them how to take care of their horses.

The local people use barb wire as bits. And, punish horses by hammering their ears to the wall. The charity needs money to buy more saddles, bits and other materials for the local people.

The volunteers – Roz, Amanda, Alex and Tiny Tito (other Amanda) – were responsible for grooming, tacking all 20 horses. So, we’re up early and at the beach padlock even earlier.

First job was to catch the horses in the field. We’re talking about acres and acres and acres. Before catching them, we need to find them. Tiny Tito (other Amanda) and I set out to herd the horses.

We found them. Then, had to scream “yeeehawww!” to get them to move to the padlock. Try encouraging 20 horses to move in the direction you want. After a lot of “yeehaawws!” and a lot of cussing, we got them to the paddock.

I road another Thoroughbred who likes to run. Today I wore gloves because reigning in a horse of this caliber means extra, puffy blister on these porcelain hands. Can’t have that. Plus, I need extra help in the gripping game.

So, how’s my leg? About to give out. It’s my knee that kills. From the horse rolling, some random muscle from my ankle to my knee was whacked. So, I just turned my Advil into Tick Tacks for the day. No pain for me.

Many highlights of the day. One in particular, was hustling 20 horses onto a ferry boat/barge to motor across the mini-inter-coastal water way. Yep, we’re talking 20 animals weighing in at 600 kilos a piece and 20 large men & woman weighing in a little less. The ferry looked like it would sink. The ferry operator looked like he was going to shit. The horses looked the same. They were jammed like sardines. Some of us, Roz in particular, were waiting for one of the horses to kick, bite or shake. Inevitable, it would displease another horse, and mayhem would ensue. Guess what? Not one horse acted improper. A few took major dumps, but everyone, even us humans, were cordial. This called for major drinks!

Another highlight was prego girl and broken back girl. Prego girl has had complications and, yet believed it was wise to ride a horse for six to seven hours. Broken back girl recently fell off a horse, had back surgery, been in physical therapy and yet, felt it was wise to ride six to seven hours. I guess there are always two winners in a group of 20. After lunch, we placed their butts in the back of a pick-up truck. And, their two horses rode solo. I had forgotten horses are pack animals and hate being alone. So, these two horses just ran, walked and pooped along side of the herd. Cool to watch..

We ate lunch at a place called Seagulls, where Hillary Swank stayed when filming Amelia Earhart. Yep, they filmed part of the movie in Kei Mouth, South Africa. The place truly looks like Northern California in some parts. Pristine. Natural. Bankrupt. And, dangerous. The motel and restaurant has gone to pot since then…Just in case you’re thinking of booking a room there.

After the ride. And, after the Advil wore off, my body screamed “no more.” I screamed back, “too bad.” And, decided it was time to take a shower, check for ticks and shave my legs with my Gillette razor.

Bed at 9:01 pm.

Look at my Jeans. Eastern Cape, South Africa.

2 Jan

December 15, 2010

It’s 6:30 am. I’m riding Starlight, a chestnut horse, through a game reserve only a few miles from the Indian Ocean. I’m working on a horse ranch as a volunteer. Meaning, I take tourists on beach and non-dangerous, animal game rides via horseback.

This morning we have a honeymoon couple, approaching the age of 20.  One still has a year left of University.  The other, just graduated. They are blissfully unaware that it is raining, foggy and frigging freezing.

We are sauntering down a hill. At the bottom, my horse picks up the pace into a trot to gain momentum to go up the hill. It’s muddy. Slick. Like clay mud. There’s a hole. I think you know the rest.  My horse trips and falls over. Yep, rolls on me.  We’re only day 2 of my 2 week working horse riding holiday.

Starlight rolls on the bottom part of my leg. My foot is still in the stirrup. My mind is not racing. It’s just there. Watching the horse roll on my leg like an outside observer. The horse pops up. My foot slides out of the stirrup. And, I’m laying there in mud.  I look down.  All I can think about is my jeans. I have one pair. They are wrecked. I now have nothing to wear.

My next thought, thankfully, leads to my physical and mental, not fashion, condition… “did I break something…sprain something…and pain is not part of the Christmas plan…”

I look down again.  My leg and ankle are turned sideways, set in 4 inches of clay mud.  I  start to talk to my ankle.. “OK, what are we doing…We’re good, right?”

Meanwhile, Alex, the Venice Gondola driver and other volunteer, had jumped off her horse.  She’s now leaning over me, shouting at me in a thick Italian accent, “Roll on back…breath.” I think, “Roll on my back? Are you out of your mind? Have you seen my jeans?  No more mud, thank you!!”

I ignored her demands and opted to pry my ankle from the grime.  My ankle responded.  Then, I flexed my knee muscles.  Looked like no permanent damage. Just major soreness. I mean a 600 kilo horse just rested it’s torso on my leg.

I stood up.  My hip felt out of joint. Or, something was pulled there. Hell, every muscle on my right side just got a good stretch.  I walked.  Limped. And, looked around. Yep, no helicopter or car rescue here. Time to get back on the horse.

Meanwhile, the honeymoon couple just ogled at each other. I could be decapitated and they would not have noticed. Man, romantic lust has its advantages.

Starlight and I slowly meandered forward. It felt much better to be on the horse, than to walk. Not a good sign. We continue through the game reserve, walking past giraffes, zebras, and all types of antelope I can’t pronounce.  And, all I can think about are my jeans. Whose going to wash my jeans…

Welcome to day 2 of my horse riding holiday.

Pretend I’m 15. Eastern Cape, South Africa.

2 Jan

Morgan Bay, South Africa.

December 13, 2010

I love horses. Used to ride, and even, show horses as a child. When I planned this around-the-world gig, I had certain “must dos.” And, working with horses made the top ten list.

  1. Rekindle and forge friendships
  2. Meddle in the Middle East
  3. Build something lasting
  4. Transport tall-body across Russia
  5. Soak up confused communism
  6. Do the Buddhism gig in Bhutan
  7. Pretend I’m 15 and ride horses
  8. Drink in South African people and wine
  9. Smooch boys in Australia and New Zealand
  10. And, expand, extend and enlarge my soul

Found the perfect place to channel my inner horse child, Sunray Farms in Kei Mouth, South Africa. It’s the place for all things horses – Horse riding. Horse training. Horse trailing. Horse cleaning. Horse kicking. And, Horse smelling.

After the Safari, I had a few days down time in Jo’berg (Johannesburg) before jetting off to Sunray Farms. Everyone and their raccoons told me to NOT to leave myhotel without armed guards, a set of exacto knives or a titanium vest while in Jo’berg, so I spent a few days not moving and opted to hand wash clothes, watch D+ movies and fall in love with a STRIP mall.

Don’t tell, but I actually walked down the street by myself in broad daylight. The supermarket, ENGLISH book store and outdoor coffee cafe were all too tempting. I mean, I have not seen proper turn lanes, parking spots or visa machines since Poland. And, the grocery store had check out lines, a nut and candy dispenser, produce wrapped in plastic and meat behind glass. I spent an hour in the g-store taking pictures and touching aluminum cans. Did I tell you they have brand name toothpaste too? We’re talking a world class city people!

Two days of fondling canned vegetables was enough. On day three, I boarded a puddle jumper, prop-plane from Jo’berb to a town called East London, located on the Indian Ocean.

Brandon, son of Julie-Ann and owner of Sunray Horse Farms, was waiting for me at the airport with flowers and champagne. JOKE! He had just got off work. He markets/sells meat to small grocery stores and restaurants around the area. He was over served the night before and did not fall asleep until 3 or 4 am, to wake around 7 am for work. He announced within three minutes of my arrival that he must stop by a gas station for a pie. I thought it was strange he was craving a dessert when hungover, but I just nodded my head.

We found a gas station. Brandon came out, not with a dessert pie, but what looked like a hot dog wrapped in pastry bread. That was my introduction to meat pies in South Africa. Yep, could tell right away that this stay was going to be different…

Brandon was telling me on the way to the airport to pick me up there was a police road block. He believed the cops were tipped off about possible drug smuggling. In this part of South Africa, the farmers are paid by drug “lords” to grow pot in the corn fields or the jungle. The farmers get a cut. I guess now, the police want a cut too.

Brandon said the South African police conduct road blocks all the time. It’s the norm. They want to see if you’re legal – have your license, car registration, insurance, seat belts, and tires filled with air. Oh, they’re checking for booze breath too.

He said the police do it for many reason, one of which is to make sure the cars are safe to drive, the people driving them are legal, and drug smuggling is curbed. Wonder if this is what Arizona had in mind?

I arrived to the farm late and met my two new roommates for the next two weeks. Another Amanda. She is a full time worker at the horse farm, from South Africa and around twenty years of age. Roz is a 3 to 6 month volunteer from the UK. I later found out they are both “super cool.”

But, first impressions of the place where I’ll be resting my head this holiday were dismal at best. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Dog, mold combined with a manure fragrance filled the house. The common area was coated with white, Russel terrier hair and a farm of flies. And, my bed made for little people, inherited the wet, mold smell along with more flies. When I closed my eyes the first night, I just giggled. It all felt right. I mean, this is a horse farm, not the Four Seasons or Holiday Inn Express. What did I expect?

When I woke my first morning, the feeling of euphoria overcame me. I could not wait to meet the horses. I bound out of bed. Walked to the community bathroom and was welcomed by a millipede, spider and more flies. I ignored them. Went for the DEET bug spray, coated the body and headed to breakfast.

Over breakfast, Roz gave me the 411 on what I’ll be doing. Looks like we work from 7am or 8 am until 5 or 6 or 7 pm. We have an hour for lunch, or sometimes 10 minutes.

There are around 60 horses and three main pastures. One at the game reserve. One at the ocean. And, one here. I believe we check on the horses in the morning. Groom them. Feed them. Wash them. Ride them. Train them. Or, we lead tourists on beach or game horse rides along the Indian ocean and thru game reserves. It depends on the tourist bookings. I can expect to ride between one to six hours a day… Mouth did drop on that one.

I rode horses as a child. Rode until I was 15 or 16 at Barrett Farms for those who live in Orlando. My version of my horse riding story goes like this. Mom and Dad gave me a choice when I was 16 – a horse or a car. In my warped mind, I believed them. I choose a car for I assumed it would be a convertible, red, VW Rabbit. I mean, why wouldn’t an irrational 16 year old girl think this?

Come birthday, Dad gives me a small box. The keys are inside. I just knew it. Opened it. A gold key chain engraved with the words, “Big Blue” rested on top of the fake cotton. I wondered, “Big Blue???” Yep, Big Blue was the name of the 1960+ Chevrolet Pick-Up Truck he inherited from some random cousin in Mississippi. It was our Orange Grove Truck. Only one wind-shield whipper. No seat belts. Rusted flat bed. Holes in the floor board. And, no radio. I remember thinking, “This is NOT what I had in mind….and wanted to change to the horse option..”

My horse career was over, for pursued rowing for the hot high school boys. But, in the back of my mind, I longed to work and ride horses again. So, here I am.. In a town called Kei Mouth. With a bar called the Bush Pig.  Two food stores called Top store and Bottom store. And, two main roads…

It’s where South Africans travel for their summer holiday.  It’s where one is mesmerized by the intoxicating views of rolling hills, green pastures, game parks and the Indian Ocean.

Yes, can’t wait for this amazing ride….flies, ticks, dog hair, horse breath and all…

Who are these people? Eastern Cape, South Africa.

2 Jan

Mom asked, “honey, now who are these people you’ll be spending Christmas with? I need to know…”

Well, where to begin. To sum it up, they are amazing, entertaining, surprising and touching.  Try dedicated, hard working, inspiring and loyal. Most of all, they are kind and generous with their time, their love for animals, and with their heart. I feel truly blessed to be spending my holidays with them.

Julie-Ann and, her husband Clint, both manage Wild Coast Adventures. It’s the Eastern Cape’s leading travel/tour adventure company, giving tourists a full-on African experience whether you’re looking to hunt, fish or do overnight safaris on horseback and day rides along the Indian Ocean or thru private game reserves.

Sunray Farms is the name of the actual horse farm, where Julie-Ann cares for, trains, breeds about 60 horses. Sunray accepts short and long term volunteers year round.  That’s me!

As for volunteers, there’s Roz and Alex. And, Amanda – or Tiny Tito – is the full time Sunray employee, responsible for day-to-day horse riding tours. Julie-Ann also has a full time staff of local tribe people who manage the farm, house and “everything” else.

Roz is a career nomad. And, super cool! Alex and I told her she is “360 degrees perfect.”

Not sure what it means, but Alex said in Italy it means “super cool!” I went along with it. Roz has worked around horses all her life – from training race horses to foals. She works in the UK for about 6 months and earns enough money to spend the blizzardy time of year working with animals, whether it is horses in South Africa or Pumas in Peru. She’s the glue that held us together.

Alex is an interesting character. She will be upset I’m even writing her name in a blog. But, she is FAMOUS! She’s the ONLY female gondola driver in all of Venice. That’s right. The only one.

She has her own boat and works with the top hotels in Venice. The rich and famous all seek her out when they visit. She says, “There are over 170 canals in Venice. I get the stars lost without problem…” She pops cow-boy killers (Marlboro Reds) like they are candy corn and took to drinking beer, instead of wine. Of course, she has that Italian style and attitude that goes along with it. She’s ridden since she’s a child and decided, out of boredom, to take the horseback riders instructors license and passed. She’s a fab rider and loves telling me, the American girl, what to do. Lots of stories to tell.

Little Tiny Tito – aka Amanda – is around 20 years old. Loves to ride. And, loves to party. I remember those days of staying out until 3 am, waking at 6 am for work and not even being phased. She’s that girl. The three of us would watch in “awe.” She has her own horse, Donatello, who she tumbled over in a river during our charity ride. It was hysterical since she survived. Bummer if not. I share a room with her. Really, its a loft. The best is we’re so damn tired after a day of work and riding, that lights go out around 8:30 pm. That is if she’s not out…. Lots of stories to tell…

The five or six or seven Russel Terriers are next on the list. Russel terriers are the “must” have farm dog in South Africa. They are everywhere! Julie-Ann’s dogs are named after.. guess? Yep, Disney characters. So, I felt right at home.

There’s blind Mickey Mouse. Horse kicked him in one eye. The other eye got infected. There’s cancer ridden Donald Duck. Then, needy Mini-Mouse. There’s Junior, with so many indescribable aliments. A terrier called Tabitha and another random dog, whose name I forgot. Bella is the sheep, herding dog that nips at horses feet. All of them lived at our volunteer house. And, all of them have a lot of hair.

I will only give a mention to the ticks, fleas, flies, spiders, lizards, millipedes, beatles, flying thingies and other creepy crawlies living with us…

Say hello to my 2010 Christmas family!

African Safari. Timbavati, Kruger National Park. South Africa.

2 Jan

December 6 – 12, 2011

Safari server, “What would you like to drink for the safari?”

Me: “Ommmm… I guess whatever? I mean, what do you have?”

Safari server: “We have anything you want – coke, wine, gin, vodka, beer, whiskey….

Me: “Oh, I will just have water…”

Safari server: “It’s included. It’s free….”

Me: “Change that. It’s gin. Gin and tonic! Better, yet, I will have both – the South African booze and a Gin and Tonic…Is that ok???”

Welcome to my first African Safari.

I have not had hard liquor since Russia – stuck with beer or rice wine for you know what you’re getting. If you order vodka in communist Asia, they more than likely to water it down or just pour tonic water, insisting liquor is floating in there. My word, it feels good to be back to civilization…

Back to a place where people know how to pour a good drink…

Made it to Johannesburg. Jumped in a car and drove six hours to Timbavati, a private game reserve part of Kruger National Park. Staying in a hut with no electricity and an outside shower encased by tall bamboo sticks. Very happy. I arrived yesterday after lunch, just in time for the afternoon wild animal look and see.

Room at the Tambavati Lodge at Kruger Ntl Park

There are ten of us at the lodge – or camp – called Umlani Bushcamp. Two teachers and three students from Durban, South Africa. A couple from Mozambique. An American from Philadelphia. And, me. We loaded into the safari Land Rover with no roof with our guide Moses and animal trekker Hendrick and off we went in search of the big five – elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards and hippos. There are many other animals, but those are the Big five. Right now, I would be happy seeing a domestic cat or dog. Take that back. I’m actually more keen on sipping a gin and tonic.

We rode for 30 mins or so and came across a pack of buffalo. One female and three males. Looked calm. Like you can pet them. Moses said he is most scared of the buffalo and elephant, out of all the animals. WHAT? What about the lion? He said with buffalo they are viscous. Buffalo? Like of the cow family? I took another look at them – and said, “ok, you are going into my fearful animals category.”

Next, we spotted a heard of elephants with their babies. One baby elephant was born 5 days ago. So micro-mini. Found out the hard way, elephants charge you. Charge cars. Especially, younger males who are asserting their power. Scared the be-jezus out of me.

First time, we were charged, we were sitting still and pretty observing a male elephant with one tusk. He was eating. Watching us. Walking a little closer. Eating some more.

I’m thinking, “come closer..want a better photo.” Think Jurassic Park.

Moses said he wants to sniff us. They have poor eyes, and sense things via nose and vibrations/hearing. He waddles closer. Lifts up his trunk. Raises his hears. Snorts loud and runs for us. I freeze. Moses keeps talking like “no big deal.” And, then he stops a few feet from the car. Shows us his butt and saunters to a tree to continue his eating. This is not funny. Moses says this happens all the time. He is just telling us he’s boss. I think, “Let’s get out of here…”

Then, we encountered a heard of 20 elephants grazing together. We pulled up in the middle and stopped our engine. Not feeling all the calm, especially with 5 day old baby. Mama and her girlfriends are not going to like us getting close.

Actually, the mother and baby came up to the car and paid us no attention. It was the teen male elephants that had to bang their chests and snort at us. Typical. Man or elephant egos…all the same.

We saw a bunch of Impala – like Antelope and giraffe. Took many pictures of the giraffe for we are both very tall creatures. We stopped for a break. Next thing I know, Moses is using the hood as a mini-bar. A bottle of gin. Wine. Beer. Sodas. And, some buffalo tongue. I’m in heaven. Sipped on my beverage and began bonding with the group.

The three young students are between eleven and twelve and attend a private school. They are traveling with their Afrikaner language and History teacher – Ms. T and Ms. A. And, yes, Ms. T and Ms. A were the first in line for their double gin and tonics. Wish they were my teachers..

The girls were hyper. Had a lot of pent of energy. By their second cocktail, Ms. T and Ms. A said it was time for relay races with elephant dung. ELEPHANT POO? I told them, “we don’t do this in Florida..” First game was, whoever found the most petrified Elephant Dung, won. They had 30 seconds. Next game was spitting dung. Not sure what type of dung for it was smaller and round. Whoever spit the dung the farthest, won. I wanted to gag.

The last game was charades. Music was the topic. Ms. T and Ms. A went for songs like Footloose, Thriller, Heart Break Hotel by Elvis, Hold my Hand by the Beatles…

The girls pulled songs from Miley Sirus, Justin B and Taylor Swift. I know these young pop stars are intentional sensations, but here I am in Kruger National Park watching South African teens go crazy over these three highly annoying pop singers. It felt surreal. I think more surreal than spitting dung for fun.

We came back to camp, inhaled beef, drank more, sat around the fire and passed out to loud bull frogs by 10 pm. Got a knock at 5 am for the morning safari. Within 20 mins, we’re back out looking for the big five.

It rained the night before, so our tracker was trackless. That did not stop us. About an hour later, we spotted three lionesses napping with their cubs. No men in sight. They were all relaxed and mellow for they had a kill earlier -either in the night or the other day.

Moses said they were no threat to us. ARE YOU KIDDING? They are female lions. And, we are in an open air car. Elephants can charge. But, lions can pounce. We moved on to more eagles, giraffes, antelope, lizards, rodents, random birds, beatles eating dung, baboons, monkeys, and elephants. No need for coffee.

That afternoon, is when we scored big. Hit the big five. Lions, Leopards, Hippo, Elephant. And, Buffalo. We also got to peek at Wild Dogs, Random Birds, Snakes, Lizards, Hyenas, Bamboos and more. What a good day…

The male lions made me nervous. There were 3 brothers who just killed a buffalo. They were ‘fighting’ – I mean FIGHTING – for the food.

Made me uncomfortable for we are food too. But overall, it gives you a greater appreciate of animals and a deeper understanding of how much we are like them – or they like us…

Click on the photo icon with the name African Safari for some more picture fun.

Landed in Nairobi. Kenya.

2 Jan

December 5, 2010

Just landed in Nairobi. Flew Kenya Airways. Started in Siem Reap, Cambodia. An hour flight to Bangkok. Lay over for seven hours at Bangkok airport.  Bangkok to Nairobi was nine hours. Now, a five hour layover In Nairobi airport. Then, a four hour flight into Johannesburg

Brain cells are fried. Muscles spasms in random places. And, a head stuffed with snot. Started off with a $2 Cambodian drug for nose-plumbing and upgraded to the $12 recognizable brand name, Actifed.    I now can breath, but am severely dehydrated.  Perfect addition for transport hell.

Landed 30 mins ago. It’s 6:15 am. Walked the pint-size airport in less than 10 mins and discovered no seats. No joke. I made a home for my bum and backpack underneath the only digital boarding monitors in this airport.

Besides no seats, there are no restaurants. Just twenty or so duty free shops all selling the same things – booze, cigarettes, Kit Kats, Mars Bar and an occasional Kenya t-shirt.

Ouch. Something just bit me. Am I to start the malaria meds now? Or, wait until I land in South Africa. Fighting a cold is hard enough.  It’s time to pop the bug pills now. There’s no purpose in waiting.

Just figured out what I left in Cambodia. You know, I had to leave something. Make my mark. Left the Nokia $20 phone bought as an insurance policy in Vietnam. You see, if my V-nam Visa was illegit and I was taken to a dark Vietnamese cell, at least I had my Nokia with all the emergency consulate numbers.  Nokia was my insurance plan.

OMG. Did someone loose a cat ? Because, one just sprinted by me. Nobody seemed phased. Maybe he’s the Nairobi airport mascot. Or, maybe since he’s not a leopard or cheetah, everyone is OK with itty-bitty kitty. Need to pop bug pills now. Can’t risk getting cat scratch fever either.

Just stood up. Had to. Pain in the pelvis from sitting on the terrazzo.  Back to perusing the airport halls. I saw someone carrying a brown cup.  It looked like coffee.  I picked up the pace.  I spied a line. Of course, I just get in it, assuming the line is for coffee. Nope. It’s a line for Khartoum. Uh, can we say wrong line? Don’t need to go to Sudan. Just need coffee.

I smiled. Acted like I know what I’m doing. And, continued down the hall in search of coffee. Then, I saw it. Amidst the rubble, there was a Java stand. And, this line is longer than the line to Sudan. I hope they take dollars. I did not see an ATM. And, have no clue as to the Kenyan currency exchange. I really just want a coffee.

I see a few scattered chairs and tables. I’ll be back to squatting on the floor. Maybe I will blow up my plastic airplane pillow and sit on that. That’s should look cute with coffee.

Guess what? Java lady took dollars. And, I found a chair. Actually, the chair found me. I was blowing up my pillow and a nice African man walked over. He just picked up my bags, took my coffee and said, “follow me.” He spoke English, so I followed. He put my bag down and pointed at the empty chair, with a small table being shared by three other people. I smiled and thanked him. And, deflated my airplane pillow.

It still amazes me how I just follow people who speak English.

I plopped the body and just stared. My mind was numb. Turned on my lap top. And, just stared. The man next to me asked where I’m going. My head was so clogged with snot that I had to ask him to repeat himself please. I told him, “I’m in route to South Africa.” He said, “I’m from Uganda and going to Senegal.” My brain couldn’t locate Senegal on a map. He said, “it’s 11 hours flight.” I smiled. But, my brain still couldn’t locate it. I hope it’s because I’m just sick and tired, not mentally map defective.

He introduced himself as Mayor Charles, the mayor of a small town in Uganda. Right out of the gate, he asked if I liked politics. I tell him, “It’s a love/hate relationships. I love to hate it and hate to love it.” He laughed. He proceeded to tell me all about being a Mayor in Uganda. Mr. Charles has three main goals:

  1. Expand access to electricity from 30% to 50% by next year.
  2. Start a garbage collection program. He bought two trucks and needs to train the people and find a dumping ground.
  3. Beautify a park for the kids.
  4. Expand access to clean water. Only 20% of his town’s population has clean water.

He said he works closely with the UN, NGOs and other governmental organizations around the world. He said, “It takes a lot of time…A lot of paper… But that is ok…My people are patient…” In Senegal, he’s attending a Mayor’s conference…Again, brain freeze on Senegal.

He shared with me the level of corruption in the Uganda government. He is part of the DP party, which stands for Truth and Justice. His party is the opposition party to the ruling party. The ruling party rules by guns and bribes. He claims Uganda is one of the worse corrupt governments in all of Africa. I told him, “All I know about Uganda is a lot of churches go there for mission trips…I assumed, it was one of the least corrupt because of this…” He laughed openly. He really thought it was funny or I was superbly naive. Probably both.

Mayor Charles is young, about 36. His next goal is to become a minister but before he can do that, he wants to achieve his goals. I told him that I worked in DC. And, in my opinion, mayors and governors have more immediate power than the President of the United States. They decided whether houses can be built, trains can stop or dogs can play in a park…

He asked about Obama. He said, “I like Bush. Bush helped Africa. He president to give  most money to Africa – ever.  Help us fight disease. Help with Aids…Bush good.” First time I ever heard that in my travels. It usually, the opposite. Then, he bolted. About to miss his flight to Senegal. Before he left, he asked if I had kids? Married? And, invited me to stay with him in Uganda.

I waved, still trying to remember where is Senegal.

Flight from Bangkok to Nairobi

2 Jan

December 4, 2010

Bangkok to Nairobi flight on Kenyan Airlines comprised of the Asian and African delegation – Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Africans. The minority passengers were your Europeans and Americans.

Fascinating to watch each country’s personal space policies. Meaning, who pushes and shoves in a line to go nowhere. Guess who won the push and shove war? Chinese. Hands down. They may be small, but they’re fast. The Africans were not at all pleased with this pushing.  But, what do expect in the land of 1.3 billion. China is sooo going to eat Africa one day….

I had a window seat in toilet class. Next two two African ladies wearing their traditional garb. Since I’m American and don’t push and really don’t care, I was one of the last to board the plane. I smiled at the ladies and pointed to me seat, indicating, “Yes, tallgirl squeezes in there…” No reaction. They just stared at me. Didn’t move.

Did they expect me to crawl over? I pointed again. They just looked at me. Fine. I’ll first find a bin for my bag and then throw these long legs over the two of them. That should get their attention. I opened all the bins. Full.

Now, everyone is staring at the tall, white girl. Why is that? We all do it – staring intently as people struggle with their luggage. No one helps. It’s like we have this attitude, “We had to shove, squeeze and s– so should you…” I kept opening bins. Full. Now, I’m at the toilet. Well, that’s not going to work. I found a bin full of soft duffels and purses. I know I could rearrange and shove my bag in.

Knowing everyone was watching, I was deliberate and slow. Why rush. Why look like a fool. Why not teach them the art of patience. Right. I was actually praying that my zipper was closed, my sweat mustache goes unnoticed and these random bags aren’t full of rancid juices.

About two mins into bin reorganizing, an African man stood up and opened another bin. He moved his luggage around and made room for my bag in less than 15 seconds. He was probably fed up with my proper, patient, methodological maneuvering and wanted me out of his sight. That, or my sweat mustache was dripping. No matter. I thanked him. And, thanked him. Everyone still just stared with blank expressions.

I walked back up to the ladies. Point again. Smile. Point. They don’t move. I tilt my head to the side and said, “Excuse me, that’s my seat…” They roll their eyes. Talk in their language. Still, not moving. I noticed my seat was loaded up with their purses, blankets and crap. The seat arm was up and I realized, the woman in the middle was overweight. Looks like there will be some snuggling tonight.

I waited. They finally moved. I wiggled myself in and sat. It’s now 1 AM. The flight attendants start their song and dance. OK. This is not your Asian airline with beautiful, coiffed young girls in suits and heels. Nope. Kenyan Airlines’ flight attendants look more like backers for Miami. All very large men. Don’t think I’ll be asking them for an extra blanket…

I was exhausted. Before curling up with my plastic, blow-up pillow, I checked out the movie options. My remote was broken. Looks like sleep it is… I tried to turn sideways and press my body up against the window. But, was unable to turn for the lady next to me was large and in charge. When Mr. Line Backer walks by, I’ll be requesting a glass of wine or two. I mean, can’t pass up free vino….

Wine came. I gulped it. And, closed my eyes, praying the plane arrives safely to Nairobi. I just hope I don’t wake until we hit the Kenyan coastline.  It’s only 9+ hours away… Think I’ll be ordering a third glass.  The women next to me is growing…

Temples. Temples. Temples. Siem Reap, Cambodia.

12 Dec

December 2, 2010

No tour of Cambodia is complete without seeing, touching, climbing and tasting the temples at Siem Reap.  For those history buffs, the city of Siem Reap is home to the Angkor Wat –one of the temples in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie.  Sure you saw it.  Fab acting…

Instead of verbal vomit of the temples, I opted for a biz-zillion pictures.  Click on the icon on the side of this blog labeled Temples.  And, you can see the amazing temples discovered in this area. Pictures are much better than words here.

I mean, I could tell you how the bike guide of our group tried to convince us that Pol Pot was not that bad.  Or, how my seat was stuck and I looked like a clown in a circus act riding thru temple land.  Or, how I ripped my black H&M leggings.

Or, how the Siem Reap restaurants suck and street food is golden.  Or, how the govt. gave all of Angkor Wat to a Vietnamese business man, in return for ‘free” gas.  Or, how you pay $40 for a ticket to the temples, knowing 90% goes to this  V-nam business man’s homes, cars and women… Or, how “water view” at a Cambodian hotel means looking at a concrete water tower.

Or, how all the old lion statutes don’t have balls, and the new lion statutes do have balls. Or, how the monks cruising thru temple-land smoke cigs.  Or, how the female statues either have their head or boobs chopped off.  Or, how Hindu and Buddhism gods play happily in temple-land.  Or, how the Khmer Rouge shot up the temples, trying to kill the monks.

Or, how I ran into Anastasia and Collin from the Trans-Siberian train journey while temple touring.  Or, how I woke at 4:30 am to see the sun come up over Angkor Wat with two thousand other Chinese tourists. Or, how I found BLEACH in a Cambodia grocery store and socked the shit out of my clothes.  Or, how I met a really hot boy from Sweden.  Or, how I splurged and bought a fancy silk scarf, but still have no underwear.

But why bother with words?    The story is in the pictures… Enjoy! (Click on the photo icon to the right of this blog)

Chet’s Story. Cambodia.

12 Dec

Boy with No Bottoms Riding down Village Road.

December 2, 2010

Before we go into Chet’s life and surviving the Khmer Rouge, I want to share what I learned about Cambodia’s education system.  I found it fascinating, to say the least…

First, kids go to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Thursdays they go to school to clean. Schools are so poor that they don’t have janitors that have placed cleaning as part of the curriculum… Think about it…Our kids don’t like cleaning their room.  Try cleaning the entire school!

There are two school day shifts. Young kids go from 7 am to 11 am. And, the older kids go from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. This way, the older kids can work in the fields, slaughter pigs or help sell pineapple or shampoo at their family’s shop. Life is much harder on girls than boys. By the age of seven or eight, the little girl is cooking for the family, washing clothes and raising the younger brothers or sisters. According to Chet, boys are lazy. They have limited chores, compared to girls. In the city, it is worse for boys. No farms, means boys play on the streets… Not good for Cambodia.

About grades: To make a good grade or pass a class, the child brings the teacher money everyday. Teachers are poor. Wages are very, very low. If you miss a day, then you don’t pass the test or are punted from school activities. Talk about learning corruption at an early age! Got to “pay to play.”

If you are rich and want to go to University, you buy the entrance exam from teachers.  If you are poor, then you have to study. Higher the test score means you get a better scholarship.  So, rich kids get more scholarship than poor kids.

Rich don’t study.  Drive nice cars. Pay teachers to graduate.  Many do meth or other drugs, like opium.  Can buy meth behind hospitals.  Pay cops if busted…Not good for Cambodia…

Chet’s Story begins in late 1980’s.

Background: Below is his story about fleeing Cambodia, navigating land mines and learning to farm in a small village. Before April 17, 1975, Chet’s family lived in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.

Chet had one older brother and five sisters. His dad was an engineer, per se, and worked for the Cambodia military, under General Lon Nol, who was seen as a US puppet. From what Chet told me, his father helped the US military and South Vietnamese in their fight against Ho Chi.

Chet’s Mom and Dad were originally from Southern Vietnam and fled to Cambodia in the 1960’s when Ho Chi was kicking things up into high gear.

All of his brothers and sisters were born in Cambodia. Cambodians and Vietnamese look very similar, and it is hard to differentiate the two. Meaning, he/she is “true” Cambodian or “true” Vietnamese.

Also, one thing to point out, even though the Vietnamese army overthrew Pol Pot in 1978/1979, the Khmer Rouge political party/regime maintained power during the 80s and 90s. I tell you this because his story gets confusing.  Well, confusing for me for I assumed when Pol Pot was kicked-to-the curb, then the country was stable again.  Not true.

After 1979, Khmer Rouge changed their name to the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea and actually grew in power by focusing  their conflict on the Vietnamese, an ethnic conflict that has existed for over 500 years.

Moving forward, the KR announcements were prefaced with the fact no one would rest until all Vietnamese and/or Cambodian Vietnamese supporters were eliminated.   This fear led to a civil war between the KR supporters and the new government regime, imposed by Vietnam.

The civil war displaced another 600,000+ Cambodians to refugee camps along the Thai border and the planting over 4 million mines to kill the traitors (Cambodians) or encroaching Vietnamese.

Chet’s Story.

It was 1988/1989. Civil war in Cambodia.  Khmer Rouge very powerful.

I was ten. Had to carry my sister to the Thai border. She was barely two. I’m now the only son.

Brother killed by KR. Sister starved to death. Family goes to refugee camp in Thailand.  Heard if we make it to Thailand, we safe. New life.

———–

You ask how it started?  Ok…. On April 17, 1975,  family left Phnom Penh for countryside with rest of city people. Pol Pot and KR tells all people must leave homes.  Leave capital city and go to countryside.  Everyone leaves.  Everyone believes Pol Pot’s lie that Americans will bomb city.  We flee.

My mom takes kids. We go one way.  Dad goes other way.  He knew bad things will happen.  Dad no want to live near us for fear KR found out he military and civil servant.

KR stop him one day on road.  Asked if he capitalist, he said “no.  I farmer.” They looked at is hands. His hands have callous. His hands look like farmer’s hands. They let him go. Let him live because of callous. If Khmer Rouge found out he military, they would kill him and find us to kill too.  Kill us because one day, when we older, Khmer Rouge fear of revenge.  So, always kill whole family.

Mom and my brothers and sisters go to a small village. Mom was school teacher, now she harvest rice for Khmer Rouge everyday. People harvest rice to sell to China.

If farmers found eating rice, then KR would kill them and family. Rice only for China. Mom sewed a pocket inside her shirt. She would put little rice in there everyday. At night. Very late, she cook rice for her me. Not enough food. At this time, I was three. I had older sisters and one older brother.

My brother very hungry. One day, he stole a potato from a farm. Khmer Rouge found out. Wanted to make an example. They took my brother. Brought him to center of village in front of all the people. And, took out his stomach in front of all the people. He was alive. Much screaming by my brother. KR wanted to show the people that stealing his bad. KR will kill if you steal. KR will kill children if you steal. Brother died.

My sister was very hungry. She cried a lot. She had no food. Got real sick. Died too from starvation. Mom could not find enough food for her. I was the only one left. That is why she stole rice. To feed me. She did not want me to die too. After brother and sister died, I now was oldest. Mom had more children. I got four sisters.

————-

Fast forward….

In 1989, we have civil war.  For last 10 years, Vietnamese ruled Cambodia.  Cambodia people tired.  Vietnamese military leave in 1989.  We now have new government.  But, KR said new Cambodian government is run by Vietnamese.  KR now has a new enemy. The enemy is government.  Now, KR wages a war with its own people.  It gets bad.  Cambodian people frightening each other.

Mom and Dad want to leave Cambodia.  We want to go to Thailand.  We can be free there.  Thai border open, if you can get there, and we can be free. But, need to get through land mines first.

Dad hire a guide to take family to Thai border. Guide knows where mines are. Knows where not to walk. Can gets us to Thai border. This is when I carry my little sister. She cries a lot. Other people in our group wants to kill her because she is loud. She cries. If KR finds us in jungle with guide, they will kill us. We don’t kill my sister.

We pay $1,000 in gold to guide to take family. A lot of money. We only carry gold. We have gold made into rings and swallow them when KR comes to village. Only way to have money. To survive. Gold goes to poo in 2 days. You can see it very easy.

We walked for days and days. Hungry. It is hot in jungle.  We look for roots to eat. Poison in roots. We get sick. Vomit. Diarrhea. We eat wrong things. We walk for one week. It rained. Flooded in jungle. No can see in jungle. We close to border. But, Thai people want no more Cambodia people. They open the damn and it floods the border jungle area. Guide now confused where mines are. We ran out of food.

It was midnight. Guide said he knows new way. We walk through field. Guide blows up in front of us. He walk on mine. He dies. We stuck. We had to turn back and run fast. Loud noise will alert KR and police. If find us, we die.

We go to a new village. Mom and Dad very upset. New village people don’t like us. We are new. They want to kill us. We tell them we are farmers. KR Military people in village say we are rich because we have light skin. But, Dad has a friend in village that saves us. Said, no we are poor and farmers.

We build a house. Roof. No walls. We start a new life in new village. I find job and look after cows. I fish for food for village. Every night, KR comes to village to bomb and kill people. They kill my teacher one night. Put her on fire.

We build a bunker that is 4 by 4 meters under house. We sleep there every night. During rainy season, we sleep on roof or in trees.

One day, KR comes to cow field. I work. They ask about situation in village. They ask if my family is “Vietnamese, Chinese or a Capitalist?” I tell them none. Just a farmer. I tell them that village is good. They give me candy, medicine and food. They come and help my family with the rice harvest. They like us. Give my family milk too. Now, I have four sisters. Big family.

—————————-

When walk from village to village, you see many dead people on road. Burn people. Everyday. Behind our house and around village, KR planted mines. Cows died. Friend from school died because he play in cow field one day. When people die, we are happy. They go to good place. Next life will be better. People are very sad when have children. Can’t provide for children. Many parents kill children. This is not a good world. Poor people believe in magic. Voodoo. We use this to protect us. And, to put bad spirits on KR.

KR kept killing people in our village until mid 1990s until United Nations comes to Cambodia. They give KR amnesty – soldiers money, house and everything to stop killing. Many KR soldiers take amnesty others go to jungle to kill more.

I did not feel safe until I was 16 or 17.

—————————–

My parents divorced only few years ago. I think seven years. They went through soo much. One day, my mom lost motor-bike. Dad very mad. Dad beat her. Dad kicked her out. She left her family. Fled to a Thai camp. Met a new man. And, went to live in Southern Vietnam. She farmer in Vietnam.

Dad very violent. He was solider. Now, he has new wife. Young. She wants to take my family’s property. Me and my sisters’ property. I don’t trust new wife. Dad has more children by new wife. He is nice to children. His children don’t work. They watch TV and eat candy. I get very mad.

My father beat us. One day, he tried to kill us with an AK47. We went to house to talk about property. He said we disturb him. He was very drunk. He grabbed gun and started shooting me and my sisters. We ran to pond and jumped in. Hid in the water. People in the village just watched. He is evil. And, will not talk to that animal.

————————-

I learn English from UN. When UN came, we had teachers. I work very hard. I want to leave village and work. I help UN find mines. I help UN. I get scholarship and go to college. I still take classes in marketing at night. I read a lot. Want to learn. Feel like I need to know more.

I got married. My wife is an accountant. We have two girls. They learn English. I put in private school now. I become guide six years ago. Money is good in tourist season.

In not tourist season, I do other jobs. I buy warehouses, repair them, and sell them. I buy old cars, repair them, sell them. I started a computer repair business, but went bankrupt. I gave money to company in US to help me – Company run by Cambodians. They took all my money. I saved $15,000. Lost everything. Had to start over. It’s ok. I learn about contracts.  I now have contracts.  No more shaking hands.

I want better life for my girls. But, this government is very corrupt. Very corrupt. We have problems with drugs. Rich people do opium. Everyone else does meth. Meth comes from Thailand and China. Twain big supplier of drugs to China too.  It is easy to make. We have problem with human trafficking and sex. Moms sell daughters for $100 per night. If Virgin, then can get up to $2,500 for the weekend. A broker will take daughter. They go see doctor to check for Aids and disease and to make sure she is Virgin. She stays with man. Mom gets the money. Mom sells boys too.  Gay is big business too with small boys.  Mom can get a lot of money.

Many Cambodia women see Chinese and foreigner as way out. See money. They have sex for money. You see a lot in capital city.

Normally, old man comes to Phnom Penh and rents apartment for $160 per month. He is retired. Stays here and has sex with women for a few months – until money gone. Then, goes home.  Girl is happy.  She has food, bed and nice clothes for few months.

——————–

Our elections are in 2013. Very corrupt. Party buys votes. There are 11 parties in Cambodia. In 1998, election corrupt and we had bombs. Kill people. Government can’t trust. Can’t trust police. They take bribes.

I have hope.  Cambodia come far since killings.  Very far.  Our people need education.  To learn.  We build.  I have hope for my daughters…They will have better Cambodia than me…

PP… Cambodia.

12 Dec

December 1, 2010

I wanted to share a different view of Cambodia thru the eyes of my tour guide in Phnon Pheom, Cambodia. Chet is 40ish. And, endured Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

By accident, I taped our conversation when I asked him a zillion questions about Mr. P. Pot.  The next thing I know he is telling me in detail about his brother being brutally murdered and his sister starving to death…and almost being blown up by land mines…

Cambodia’s wounds are fresh. Open.  And, sore.  They don’t like scratching the open sore.  In fact, it’s hard to get people to go into detail about “what happened” in the 70’s and 80’s.  I was blessed for Chet said, “ask me anything…and I tell you all.”

The blog below is Chet’s version of how Pol Pot came to power, not Wikipedias.  The next blog gives detail about his family trying to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s political party).

—————————————-

Let me tell you about Pol Pot.

He was poor. His sister was a dancer. The king noticed his sister and wanted her to live at the Royal Palace. Pol Pot’s family moved to the palace. Pol Pot was young. He saw many things. Many bad things.

His sister was forced to have sex with the king. His sister very young. Sister forced to dance naked for the king. And, king’s friends. His sister not happy. Pol Pot became angry. He saw the King and his friends were very happy. Had a lot of food. Always laughing. In the countryside, people were starving.  Not happy. Countryside people were dying everyday. Struggle everyday. Not the king.  Pol Pot became more angry.

Pol Pot compared life of the people to life of the palace. He saw unfairness. He grew up thinking he must kill all capitalist. Kill all civil servants.  All friends of the King.  He read a lot. Wanted to learn more. He got a scholarship to Cambodia university in 1949. Then, he got scholarship to study in Paris. Remember, France was occupier.  He learned French. Learned about communism. He joined the French communist party with his friend, Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) .  They studied Lenin, Mao, Tito…

French sent Pol Pot back home ten months before Cambodia claims independence from France. He works with Cambodia govt to kick out French. Pol Pot becomes a high school teacher, teaching French and Math. He joins the IndoChina Communist Party (Cambodia’s Communist Party) led by Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi called Pol Pot is brother number one. Younger brother. They best friends. Everyone knows it.

In 1961, Ho Chi assigns Pol Pot to be a spy for Cambodia.  To spy on Cambodia govt and King.  Pol Pot becomes leader of Communist Party of Cambodia. Ho Chi still communist leader of all V-nam, Cambodia and Laos — He in charge of IndoChina Communist Party.  Pol Pot works for Ho Chi. Everyone in Cambodia calls Pol Pot, “Brother Number One.” Ho Chi gives him $400,000 in weapons. Not enough to take over country, yet.

At this time, Pol Pot’s followers were the intellectuals who studied with him in Paris. Now these people are in government – ruling party. Pol Pot told them, “Don’t use the government $$ in wrong way. Put $$ to good use. Help the poor. Help the people…” They did not listen. King Sihanouck found out Pol Pot had supporters in government, and he threw them all in jail.  King started kill Pol Pot’s people too.

King Sihanouck was in bad place. Ho Chi ask King and King said yes to allow Viet Cong troops go inside Cambodia.  Viet Cong use Cambodia for safety and to kill S. Vietnamese near Saigon.  King said “yes” for he certain S. Vietnam would loose civil war.  And, certain America would leave.  Certain communist win.  King want be on side of winner.

More bombs come to Cambodia during Vietnam War because more Viet Cong fighting in Southern Cambodia, near border.   Now, King wanted Viet Cong out.  Too many bombs.  No longer trust Ho Chi.

King ask Americans to help throw out Viet Cong and Ho Chi people.  Cambodia People mad that Vietnamese in Cambodia. Cambodia has long history of hating and fighting with Vietnamese.  We no like them.  Our people went to streets. Protesting. Fighting. Want America and Vietnam out.  King scared.  He fled country to live in Moscow in 1970.

Coup happens, since King gone.  General Lon Nol new leader. Americans like him. He puppet for Americans.

Pol Pot happy.  Cambodians hate American puppet more than Vietnamese.  See General as another occupier.  Tired of being occupied.  Pol Pot knows this.

Pol Pot calls King.  He tells King to tell Cambodia people to go with his party, Khmer Rouge. If King tell people, people listen.   If King does this, then he can come home to rule country.   King cared about getting new General out of power.  King agreed to Pol Pot.   King and King party (Royalists) now part of Khmer Rouge.  Together, they kick out the  General.

Royalist soldiers (ruling party of King) joined Khmer Rouge.   KR said all soldiers get amnesty. Broken promise. All  Royal soldiers killed. Viet Cong stays in S. Cambodia. Ho Chi tells Pol Pot if Viet Cong stays, then Pol Pot can have Saigon. It was a “thank you.”  Ho Chi lied to Pol Pot.

After General overthrown, people feel better. No more fighting. On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge drive into Phnon Phem, capital. People hold white flags outside door. Surrender. They are very happy General is gone. Americans are gone. Cambodia is free. Independent from occupier. Now by ourselves. Can rule ourselves. See Pol Pot as good. He is friends with King.

Pol Pot went on TV. Said, “Brother, Sister, Grandparents…civil servants, military….ask you move to suburb. Leave city. Americans may bomb city. I want to protect you…Only for three days. Don’t take much. Be back after America leaves…Everyone must leave city in three hours… Walk on streets to leave…safer… ”

All a lie. America not bomb the city. Pol Pot used America.  And, War in Vietnam to throw people out of homes.  After three days, Pol Pot back on TV with new message, “You need to walk to countryside… Can’t move home… After 15 days, you can move anywhere in countryside…Learn to farm…”

This was 1975. No one moved back to capital city until 1979.

Khmer Rouge had check points in route to country side. Wanted to know who was a capitalist…civil servant…military. Said they wanted these people to work in new government.  To help.

All lie. They sent people to prison. Four prisons. Used high schools as prisons. Tortured them. Made them talk and tell on friends.  Pol Pot thinks can’t control smart people. Can’t control capitalist.  So, kill them.  Easy to control poor people.  And farmers.  Have nothing already.

—————–

Our people in countryside tell many bad things. People take breast milk from dead mothers for drink. Starvation. Have baby is very sad for family.  People no want babies.  Can’t feed babies.  They think dying is good.  Much better than life here.  Next life is much better…

Pol Pot closed all borders.  Khmer Rouge military put in mines so no one can leave Cambodia.  Or, Vietnamese can’t come in. KR kill all foreigners.  Journalists.  Tourists.  Anyone walking on roads and not farmer, taken to prison and killed.

Prison first, then Killing Fields.  They say over 300 Killing Fields in Cambodia.  Bullets too expensive.  People dig own grave.  Big grave.  Line people up.  Bash over head with sticks.  Or stab them.  Or, put acid on them.  Or, poison with gas.  Or, tortured them. After, they throw in grave.  Bury people alive too when lazy.

Children killed too.  Soldiers grabbed feet of children and hit them on tree until skulls broke.  Then, threw in big hole.

Changed high schools into prisons.  Tortured people — men, women and children.  Made them talk.  If not, then more torture.  Starvation.  If not die in prison, then go to Killing Fields.  Only way to leave prison is to die.

I have friend — nurse – who worked at a prison.  She’s ok now.  But, tells of bad stories.  Had no choice.  Had to work for KR or die.  She force to marry a solider.  KR tell people who to marry to help their race.  Force you to have babies too.  She still married.  Has her own babies. Life is better now.

After KR killed all capitalist, then killed all middle class. After killed all middle class, Pol Pot started killing his own military.

When kill his own military at Killing Fields, then many soldiers fled to Vietnam. Vietnam not happy. Former Khmer Soldiers and Vietnam troops come to Cambodia and took over. They send Pol Pot away in 1978/1979. Vietnam occupies Cambodia for 10 years.  Until 1989/1990.

——————

People say Pol Pot killed to keep power, build new people and build a better race. He wanted everyone to be farmer to grow rice.   Grow rice for China.  He saw Cambodia as poor and only way to become rich is to grow rice.  Be farmer.  We only ate few spoons of porridge a day. We skinny. Very skinny people. Fat is good for Cambodia — even today.

Now, our people start over. Need to study. Our Prime Minister today never finish high school.  No schools back then.  Only farmer.  Our people need to study very hard. Khmer Rouge killed the capitalist.  Killed smart people.  Killed civil servants. I think killed more than 2 million.  I think killed many more– many more living in jungle and small villages.  And, killed many babies.  Babies with no record of birth because people scared.  Many more killed than UN says…

KR still here today.  Many still follow KR teaches.  Very poor.  Live in jungle.  Makes me mad.  Government fault.  Need to build more schools.  More teachers.  Need to educate its people of right ways, not wrong ways.  I get mad at poor people for not sending kids to school.  Only chance for Cambodia is education.  Our people are good people.  We must be better people.  One day… I have hope…

Pictures help tell Chet’s story..

Tour thru Mass Graves. Cambodia.

12 Dec

November 27, 2010

As we dance our way into the sexy topics of mass graves and genocide – something I’m sure you’ve been breathlessly anticipating – we need to take a step back and do a quick 411 on  Mr. Pol Pot, the man responsible for exterminating 1.7 to 2 million – or  1/4th of the Cambodian population in the 70’s and 80’s.

Quick Soundbite: Mr. P. Pot and his four BFFers led Cambodia’s ruling communist party from 1975 to 1979, under the name of the Khmer Rouge (KR).   The dates answer the question of why there was not a global outcry for his “social engineering” policies.  You see,  it was prime time BOLTING from Vietnam time.    We were leaving as Mr. P. Pot was confiscating Cambodians and Mr. Ho Chi Chi was victimizing South Vietnamese.

More specifically, Mr. P Pot’s mission was to exterminate Cambodia’s intellectual class — capitalists, civil servants, city dwellers, educated…. Buddhist monks, former government officials, soldiers…ethnic minorities like Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams (Muslims), Thais…  Only the farmers and poor peasants were permitted to live.

Pol Pot’s “social engineering eradication”  is up there with the other “great” genocides. We have Stalin who starved over seven million Ukrainians  from 1932 to 1933 by confiscating their entire harvest.  And, then polished off around 30 to 40 million Russians who thought he was ugly.

Then there is Turkey who purged over 1.5 million Armenian Christians – more than half their population – and seized 90% of their land.  In the US, we hear a lot about the 6 million Jews who perished at the the hands of the Nazis from 1938 to 1945. But eliminating the Jews, gypsies, gays and any other misfits were just one part of Hitler’s plan to create a more secure, ethnically homogeneous state.

Hitler removed and transplanted about 12 million Germans. Those that survived, resettled in Eastern Europe, Russia…. After WWII, Poland, Czech, Hungry, Romania and Yugoslavia booted all Germans.  Estimates say over 2.1 million Germans died from hunger, cold, disease…after WWII…in route back to Germany.

We can go on and on for we’ve haven’t even touched Mao’s golden touch in China or the continent of Africa.  I say this because while Cambodia is gruesome and tragic, this people purging is not new or novel. Fascist, nationalist megalomaniacs or religious zealots have ethnically cleansed, removed or transferred groups of people since the Middle Ages, if not before. We did it to the Native Americans.

What I struggle with is why don’t we learn. Why do we commit the same atrocities. Using the same tactics. Same justifications. Same rationale. Why?

While in Israel, I toured the Holocaust museum with my East German friend. We were in the room detailing how Nazi’s confined, starved and killed Polish Jews.  She said, “Just change the word Warsaw Ghetto to Palestinian Ghetto and that’s the West Bank today…Don’t you see that?  I mean, come on….”

At Auschwitz in Poland, I toured the concentration camp with over 100  Israeli soldiers.  God placed them there. I felt it. I was so angry at Israel that I could not even write about her – publicly – after my visit in August. And, I had to giggle, for only weeks later, I’m touring a concentration camp with her military protectors.  I knew what it meant.

I followed the soldiers. Observed. And, wondered what they were thinking when touring the chambers where Nazis forced the Jews, gypsies, gays – for being born into the “wrong” group – to stand for days at at time. Or, were shoved in small cells in solitary confinement. Or, given only one small meal a day….

From what I have read, Israeli prisons employ the same type of tactics today.  So, what were they thinking? I mean, were they justifying treatment of the Palestinians with the same nationalistic zeal as the Nazis? I  don’t know. I just don’t know… Again, history continues to repeat herself…

I write this and ask.  Ok.  So, what can we do?  What we CAN do is one thing.  What we DO, do is another.  If history is any predictor of the future, then here’s the deal.

We stand back.  Let others deal.  We watch.  And, we wait.  We wait twenty or thirty years for the Palestinian, Iraqi or Guantanamo Bay prison museum to open.  We wait for the historians to tell us what “really happened.”  We pay our $5 to walk thru mass graves.  To tour killing chambers.   And, to be shocked by the torture.  Appalled by the death.  And, vow never to let something like “this” happen again.

But, for now we just wait.

I’ve got my $5 ready, do you?

Verbal Vomit Update of Vietnam & Cambodia

11 Dec

Get ready for massive verbal vomit. This is not a dry heave, we’re talking massive expulsion of words, thoughts, verbs, pictures and adjectives about Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now, let me give you some direction for the slow readers or skimmers.  For those who have not even read about Thailand excursions, I recommend starting with Bangkok by Night blog and work your way up.  All of Thailand was written in November, so if you go to the button under “recent posts” and click on November,  all the fun, filled and exciting Thai tales ranging from dildos to Tiger Woods will be before your bright eyes.

As for Vietnam, I had a few challenges.  The blog started off chronicling my journey into “adventure, outdoorsy” travel – with massive biking, trekking and kayaking.  Then, it turns a 90-degrees when I had my identity stolen.  Yep, passport, Visa, credit cards, $$ stolen in a country we terrorized 30+ years ago.  Try that one for size.

The stolen identity tales all have the title “Stolen Identity.”  Please start with the first one labeled “Stolen Identity,” and then move up to Day of Reckoning and end with Snowballing in Halong Bay.

I’m well aware that violence, crime and sex sell, so many will want to start with Stolen Identity.  But, don’t forget to read about dead bodies, Ho Chi, pelvis pain, marriage proposals and the Vietnamese DAY tribe tales starting with the blog called Good Morning Vietnam, Hanoi…

If it were me, I would start with Good AM Vietnam and work my way up to get the full story for the adventure travel and stolen identity are all wrapped together.  But, that is me — I lived it.

Cambodia takes a bleaker tone.  I went Cambodia primarily to understand Israel.  Sounds strange, I know.  Trust me.  I know.. The Cambodia story is told through Chet, my guide.  He survived the Khmer Rouge’s terror in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  And, his story is powerful and haunting.

While in Cambodia, I did hit temple-land.  Check out the pics in the pic section.  Much better than the words.

Again, thank you for your comments, questions and random thoughts about my journey. Keep them coming.

Everyday, presents itself with a new gift. And, finding the world is a very small place… Enjoy the ride…

Stampede. Wine. Flowy Pants. Phnon Phem, Cambodia

11 Dec

I’m on wine glass number two. Perched at the Foreign Correspondence Club hotel bar in Phnon Phem, capital of Cambodia. Outside bar. Overlooking river front. Just had dinner. Something called fish run Amok. Just realized the “cool” bar is on the roof top, not where I am.
A hottie just passed by heading to the rooftop bar – tall, tan and messy hair. Tan. Wait, I already said tan. No ring. Need to take a closer look.

A pasty, pissed single dude, sitting next to me, just bolted for the roof top bar. He looks Russian. I’m on wine number two, getting’ ready to order my third. And, thinking I look kind of cute. Can’t waste this cuteness on the Russian.

What am I wearing? Well, I’m glad you asked. My $3, red “linen,” breezy, no-fitting blouse… My black breezy, hippie skirt with a coconut clasp and elastic waist. My hair has the frizzy, humid, bangs-are-growing out look. My eyes are bright after sixteen drops of Visine. And, if you look closely, mascara residue from this morning’s Cambodia customs graces my lashes. Yep, looking hot in Cambodia. Must do something with this super hotness.

I flew into to PP from Vietnam around lunch time, the day after 400+ died in a stampede only 1,500 feet from my hotel. The Cambodian people are shocked. Walking around lightening incense. Crying. The men in orange sheets – the monks – are walking the river front. Praying. Sitting. Staring. The energy is below low. It’s non existent. Outrage and anger has not set in yet. They are focused on counting the dead and creating conspiracies.

After I checked in, I slowly walked the waterfront to orient myself and capture this moment. Let me step back. Cambodians from all over the country came to PP to celebrate the Festival of Lights. The purpose is to celebrate a good harvest. It is three days of festivities from food, rides, selling goods, parties… All culminating in the last night of fireworks, which was the night of the stampede.


I signed up for a 2 day tour of PP – it included airport pick-up and “tour” of the Killing Fields. Chet was my guide these next two days. In route to my hotel, he gave me his version of last night’s stampede. Chet first said he had a premonition something bad was going to happened. His Italian clients (tourists) insisted on going to the waterfront – by the island – to see the fireworks.

He said, “No. I will not go there– too many people…especially by the island…island is new….just opened…too many people…” Italians don’t like being told “no” and reported him to his agency. It was only a few hours later, more than 400 young kids are trampled to death crossing the bridge to get off the island.

Chet said he went to the hospital this morning. He wanted to help people. Give them money. Buy them caskets. Anything. He said, there are no more caskets left in the country. And, the hospitals are full. People who are alive, can’t find their loved ones.

He heard a story where a woman called the hospital inquiring about her son, the hospital said, “he’s dead.” She had a heart attack on the phone. Died.

Chet said, the story on the street is some kids yelled “Fire! Fire! Fire!” into the crowd as a joke. There was NO fire. But, the people did not know it. There are only two bridges – one going to the island and one leaving. The island is “new” in that some developer – sister of the current Prime Minister – has built a casino, entertainment area, the works. People go to the island for concerts, celebrate birthdays or get married. Weddings are a BIG business in Cambodia. The opening of the “entertainment” island has been heavily promoted on TV, radio, newspaper. Those traveling from the countryside wanted to experience it first hand.


Chet said, the night of the stampede, about 1 million people gathered for the fireworks. Let me put this in perspective. It’s like a million crammed on Park Avenue in Winter Park. We’re talking only six or seven blocks. And, a small bridge to a an island the size of a super Wal-Mart.

When the stampede occurred, it was around 11:00 pm – or teen time. Meaning, the families with small kids and elderly had left for the evening. According to Chet, when they heard “fire,” they panicked. Teens crossing the bridge pushed, shoved and trampled each other. Some jumped into the river, but the water is very shallow and they died on impact. Others jumped by accident into electrical wires. The police were there, but did nothing – to direct crowds before, during or after.

It has taken only a day, and the conspiracy theories are out. After spending some time here, I found Cambodia to be conspiracy capital. Also found out, the conspiracies later turned out to be right. This conspiracy said the incident was planned. One of the Khomer Rouge’s tactics in its killing hey-day, was to gas/poison people. The stampede survivors said around 11 pm, it was really hard to breathe by the bridge. People panicked – and that is why even more people died. They were gassed. Could not move. “They” are blaming the wedding businesses. That’s right. Weddings… The island has taken a very lucrative profit stream from wedding planners, wedding halls, wedding caterers…. Reasoning is if “something bad happens” then the island would loose business, and money would roll back in to these other wedding folks.

The other theories have to do with the corrupt Prime Minister. His sister owns the island – given to her brother. The Bank of Canada wrote the loans. Somehow, Canada and the PM family is involved in this – or people are trying to get back at them.

In this morning’s paper, the Prime Minister equated the stampede to the killings by the Khomer Rouge political party … Now, that is going on a limb for KR and their leader, Pol Pot, killed over 1.2 million in three years. Bad comparison buddy. And, bad politics… KR political party is still around. They must have ticked off the PM earlier in the week for him to say something so stupid.

On November 25 the government declared is the national day of mourning. I will still be here. Very interesting. Interesting that God placed me here. Why? By the way, is that Thanksgiving? When is Thanksgiving?

Also, the government said it is giving a couple hundred dollars to each family to help pay for funeral costs. Talk on the street is it is “hush” money. The other talk is the people will never see it and government officials will pocket it. Which one do you believe? Survey says, number Two – embezzling the money.

I’m now listening to the guys next to me. Why do foreigners have to smoke. Gosh, this guy is HOT and then whips out a cig. Buzz kill. They are talking about number dead. They think it is closer to 500. CNN said it is 300, but CNN has it wrong. Imagine that…

I noticed some guy “ogling” me out of the corner of my eye. FREAK alert. Some old man. Wearing hot red, flowy pants. And, a white flowy shirt. Big belly. Grey hair. Smiling at me. I can see him. I’m ignoring him. Pretending I’m working. Typing faster.

Damn, I can tell he wants to talk to me. NOOOOO. I want to go to the third floor. I now want the Russian…. WHY do the freaks have the confidence and NOT the hotties.

Please stop. Tell him to go away. Someone. I will take small, petite smoker dude over guy in red flowy pants. I think I’m going to get my check soon. Go upstairs. I’m getting my check. FUUUUUUUUU.

He just walked over to my table. He just asked me what wine is best – REALLY? We are in Cambodia, not France.

He said, “Anything but Chardonnay…I’m from Austria… From the wine country and I don’t drink Chardonnay…” Well, my response? “I”m drinking the $2.45 wine. And, it’s chardonnay…I like it.. It works..”

He said he will try the wine and invited me to sit at his table. I could NOT say NO. I should have followed the Russian. I bet Red flowy pants will buy me a glass of the $2.45 wine? What do YOU think? OK. Let’s see what he has to say…I’m upgrading on the vino. Going for the $5.00… UGH…

Cu Chi Tunnels. Saigon by Night. Vietnam.

11 Dec

I made it out of Vietnam! The whole passport/border control gig at the airport was uneventful. So uneventful that they did not check my passport, visa or asked me to undress. Impressive for me. Even more impressive for future terrorists. I’m just happy I’m up in the air in route to Cambodia. That sounds very, very strange to me. I mean, Cambodia???

Before I go any further, I do want to announce that I DID receive my ATM and Credit Card today – Day 5. Ultimately, FedEx did their job. Delivering my cards on time so I can do the American thing – spend more $$$.

Taking in these last few days. I have not had time to journal. But, I do feel compelled to share a little about about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It will be brief.

The adventure junket ended in Halong Bay. The three of us returned to Hanoi to catch flights to our next destination. For Tour-burn, it was off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to tour the temples . For me, it was Ho Chi Minh City – for more cycling. No resting for this pelvis.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed all the signs said Saigon. I was confused. What is the proper name for the largest city in Vietnam?

This is what the locals told me….Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh in 1975, after US bolted and Viet Cong ate Southern Vietnam. The folks in S. V-nam haven’t taken to the name – or communism for that matter – and still call their city Saigon. People in Northern Vietnam – taken to communism – call the city Ho Chi Minh. But, when you’re checking luggage at the airport, the AIRLINES call it Saigon.. Yet, the AIRPORT calls the city Ho Chi Minh. We’re back to confused communism, Vietnamese style…

If you ask me, which I’m sure the Vietnamese welcome my opinion, I prefer Saigon. Has nothing to do with communism or the embalmed bearded man. The name Saigon sounds more exotic. Has more energy. Seems eccentric. Fitting for a city with 6 million motor-bikes and 10 million riders. Think about it. Say Ho Chi Minh City and what comes to mind? For me, I picture a desolate, dusty Indian Reservation being corrupted by gambling. Not exactly fitting.

Focus. What did I do in Saigon for 1.5 days? Took to peddling. Wanted to see the city and tour the tunnels. Sam, the bike guide, arrived at the hotel at 8 am. I had the routine down. Grab a helmet. Raise the seat. Pop some pills for pelvis relief. And, start peddling. Our destination was the Cu Chi tunnels, built by Viet Cong to fight their enemy – their South Vietnamese brothers and our troops. Jungle warfare at its finest.

I want to share how V-nam tourists’ materials describe these famous tunnels. Needed some tweaking so I made some edits:

The Cu Chi tunnels are a historic revolutionary vestige and the base for the Viet Cong in the Anti-American resistance during the American War…. Tunnels were used as a place of eating, accommodation, meeting as well as unique battle formation, which took its part in the fight against the enemy for saving our country.

It was also the place where over 20,000+ of our soldiers were killed. Take a look at the pictures below of the tunnels… Small. And, the government expanded the tunnels 40% so tourists could crawl though to experience the full effect. Let’s just say, my H&M black leggings now have holes in the knees. Had to crawl. There were NO tall people in Viet Cong army. Or, fat people for that matter.

Other “must do” tourist attractions at the Cu Chi tunnels included shooting your choice of guns – AK 47, Automatic machine guns, pistols, riffles… Pay the dude $5 and fire away. I opted for that AK 47. My shoulder will never be the same. I hit my target, thanks to taking riflery at summer camp… Only in America, can kids grow up learning to shoot weapons at camp. I digress..

After tunnel crawling and rifle shooting, we jumped back on your bikes. I popped some more Advil. We toured through the country side of Saigon. I noticed group of people gathered in the distance. Sam slowed down. Stopped. He said, “Stop. Try this…” I whipped my leg over the bike seat and missed. Pain again. I limped up to the group of people. Notice furry creatures in cages. Furry creatures were rats. People are lining up to eat rat. Doesn’t get much better than this.

Rice farmers catch the rats in their fields and the women sell them on the side of the road. And, here I was the tall foreigner scared of something they ate. Damn straight. Scared is not the right verb. It’s more like repulsed. And,vomiting was not part of the day’s scheduled activities.

So, here’s this cute woman in her PJs. She’s about 20 or so. Her kids are running around half naked.

Her job is to grab the dead rats in the bucket, and with a pair of scissors in one hand, cut off the legs, tail and head and toss the body into another bucket. The next woman wearing Pjs, grabs a knife. Opens it up. Pierces it with a stick and cooks it on an open fire, on the side of the road.

Now, if you don’t want to eat now, you can always just buy the no extremities rat. The Pjs women plopped the rat in a clear plastic bag. And, off you go on your motor-bike or on foot with a rat in hand. Kodak moment…

Saigon by Night

Sam struck a cord yesterday. He complained how foreigners come to Saigon just to tour the war, talk about the war and leave thinking about the war. They don’t want to see the NEW Saigon. He said, “Saigon is not war. Young people don’t even know about war. Business people don’t care about war. War is old. I want show you Saigon not for tourists.. Tonight…” I’m IN!

So, off we went on his motor-bike to see the NEW Saigon. This NEW Saigon is suburbia.

We’re talking four or five story homes. Lawns with sprinklers. Screened windows. Streets with speed bumps and stop signs. Sidewalks for people. Gate guards. This is NOT your one-party, communist controlled country. It’s Reston, VA. It’s Lake Mary, Florida. It’s reeks of wealth. It reeks of inequality. It reeks of excess.

Sam: “Homes here are $1 million to $2 million US. Pay in cash. We don’t trust Vietnamese dollar. People here invest in gold for years and years. People rich. People here are government workers. Shipping. Textile manufacturing. Work with US…Work with China. Rich…”

Me: “People are sitting on $2 million in cash? No bank loans, home loans, car loans in Vietnam? Not even credit cards?”

Sam: “No. No credit cards either. We save. We don’t understand how you buy on credit card. We know each penny we have and spend everyday. I save between $1,000 and $2,000 US a month. Took me two years, and I bought my house with cash. Saved everyday…”

We zoomed passed homes, town homes and apartments ranging from $250,000 US and $2,000,000 US. Sam continues to be amazed only ONE family lives in a house with four or five rooms and three bathrooms. He screamed into the night, “Look! Only one family… Look! Only one family. This family only have 2 kids. And, four rooms. Have three stories. Only one family! Look! Only one light one. Whole family in one room. Look!”

In Vietnam, they squish a family of four, six or eight – we’re talking grandparents, aunts and uncles and randoms – into a one story house with just two or three rooms. He’s amazed by space.

I was amazed by paying in cash, investing in gold and automatic garage doors. I bet these families have washer machines, dryers and bleach. NO underwear, sheets or Pjs were hanging from these pricey windows. How bad did I want to knock and use their washer machine and dryer…

We cruised on over to his neighborhood. He wanted to show me his new house. San was proud. He bought his home two or three years ago. It has 4 rooms and he rents THREE of them to families. We darted through dark streets. We turned left on a dirt road filed with water. He said, “this is temporary. Govt. building a 20 story apartment building at end of my street. Next to my house. Take 2 years. A lot of flooding now. Putting in new sewage system…water…very good for me.” Yea, not good for me for this nasty sewage is forming a new life on my clean jeans.

By this point, he has proposed. When I said, “We just met…little early?” He changed tactics, “Then, you come and live with me. You single. I single. Same age. It works.” I said, “Oh, is it that easy. You single. I single. Boom, that is it.”

He said, “Yes. Easy. I like you. When you see my house, you will know.” That is a lot of pressure because I can’t insult his home for I feel certain he lacks closet space, kitchen counter-tops and water pressure. We pull up. I see two pad locks on his patio door. Barb wire around the roof. Home sweet home.

He unlocks the first padlock. Then, another one greets us on his front door. I giggle inside. When he show’s me his kitchen, he’s proud it is NOT attached to his house. He said, “Too messy. Too smoky. It’s better out in patio.” Fab.

His house is nice. Clean. One bedroom downstairs. Two working bathrooms. No closet space. Super-small fridge with space for only a twelve pack of Coke Zero. And, a Buddha shrine to boot. The decibel level of the construction site and padlocking the doors would drive me to drink. I just don’t see Sam’s home as my final resting place. Don’t feel it. I tell him as much. He really looks sad. I’m not taking time to analyze this one…. I’m about to land in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The capital.

Last night, over 300 people were killed in Phnom Penh. Trampled. I saw it on CNN this morning. They say too many people were crossing a bridge? I don’t know the details yet but it is bad. Cambodia government said worse crisis since Khomer Rouge. The dude that killed over ¼th of the population. That’s hard to swallow.

Welcome to Cambodia. Two for one. Killing Fields. And, Killing River. I just hope they let me in…

Snowballing at Halong Bay. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

Snowballing. That is what they call it. When the mind just goes to the unimaginable places. When you run through worst case scenarios, and the next thing you know you’re sittin tall and pretty in a Vietnamese prison or scaling a fence into Cambodia. That is where I am now.

I’m waiting. Waiting to hear if “they” secured a legit Visa. Waiting to hear if I can leave the country. … Leave for Cambodia. Can we please laugh? Cambodia out of all places… Surreal. This is surreal.

I arrived in Halong Bay about two hours ago.

Halong Bay is in North Vietnam, surrounded by untouched coastlines and islands. Limestone rock. Clear blue water. Think Avatar but in the water.

My transport was perfect Vietnam. Perfect. No foreigners. Just me chugging along side of beer drinking, motor-bike riding men. My soul inhaled every second. An adventure for I really had NO idea where I was going. I just kept moving from car, ferry, motor-bike, bus, feet, boat, ferry, boat….until I reached what Handspan Travel calls a resort.

Let me step back and walk you through how I got to Halong Bay. Ha dropped me off at the hotel after we stuffed, crammed and cajoled Christmas presents in a box to be shipped to America via a ship. This took over an hour.

I had about twenty minutes before my driver was to pick me up to start my three, four or five hour journey to Halong Bay – depending who you asked. I perched myself on a one-foot stool outside our hotel and watched the world go by. I get why men and women can sit for hours on a sidewalk in this country. This place is sensory overload and pure entertainment. Much better than Mad Men, Price is Right or the Amazing Race.

A V-nam policeman in one of those nasty green uniforms was approaching. The rank color of his uniform and sour expression caught my eye. He looked about 21. And, he wore his angry proudly. Like a badge of honor.

He was searching for his prey. With each step, his eyes darted to V-nam to V-nam finding who was in violation of whatever the rule was for the day. He spied her. Unlucky for me, she was sitting a few feet away. He did not notice the tall, white Westerner. His legs picked up the pace. And, bee lined for the older woman sitting on her hind legs – you all know the yoga pose that kills your Achilles…that one.

Her bamboo basket was full of nuts and potatoes for $.15 or $.25. She comes from the countryside to make a living in the big city of Hanoi. Thin frame. Face lined with sun damage and wrinkles. When she smiled, she showed off only a few teeth. Her hands were gnarled, weathered and muscular. Her white shirt was now stained with cooking grease and picked-off dirt. Her brown pants were made out of what looks like burlap fabric. She tied her fashions together with a brown, orange and blue scarf. Worn plastic flip flops encased her tired feet. Clearly, she was out of place among the shop keepers of Hanoi.

I watched.  She smiled at the Foreigners. Please buy. She smiles at the V-nam residents. Please buy. I can feel him approach. Within seconds he was hurling insults and her. He raised his hand and hit her. In the street. Next to me! I’m taken back. What do you do? I stood up.

She looked embarrassed. Mortified. Now, all were watching. She collected her things. Bowed her head and walked as fast as possible. He looked around to receive admiration and respect from his fellow V-nam-ers. But, all he got was coldness. They all just stared at him and turned their heads. They don’t want to be next.

I just stare at him. His eyes settled on me. I could tell he did not see me standing there, but it had little impact.  He probably believes he was protecting me. And I have to wonder. Is his assault because of me? I reported a crime on this street. Now, I see street patrols everywhere. Is the word out. Foreigner’s passport and visa was stolen – look out – the police are watching.

I feel sick to my stomach for an old woman from the countryside was not the thief. She’s the target. And easy victim. I bet it was a V-nam teen on drugs. A rich kid. Not a poor peasant. I inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to comprehend what I saw. And, understand that I had no power to do anything. I asked God to protect her.

Off to Halong Bay…

The driver picked me up and I settle in for a good 3 hours of bad driving to a flat-bed boat for motor-bikes. I later found out my driver was a bus driver in his previous life. That is why we did not pass trucks and yielded to motor-bikes. I wanted to pop him along side the head and tell him to move it. Slow drivers KILL me.

I’m typing away to distract me. I mean we are moving at a snails pace. I look up. We are in ship yards, passing by hundreds of thousands of containers. There is no tour bus or foreigner in sight. No one. Where in the hell are we? Is the driver lost? He picks up the phone. Talks. I try to make out any hint of stress in his voice. Nothing. We are not lost. I can not believe any travel agency would take foreigners out here. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos – V-nam style. My time is numbered.

We make a slow left down another dirt, rocky road. Yep, this is the place they shoot people. We slow down next to a makeshift hut on the side of a ship yard. Looked desolate. This is NOT a ferry station. No dock in sight. Men – only men. There’ all sitting on foot stools smoking cigs and drinking beer. Staring at me. I’m staring at me too.

My driver hands me my bag. Points to another hut with words and set’s off in that direction. I follow. But, he motions for me to stay. Great, now I standing in the middle of ten beer guzzling V-nam motor-bike men. Just standing. I stare at them for they are staring at me. Stare game is on. What seems like 3 years later, my driver reappears with a cig in his mouth and a ticket. He points down the road.

I guess that is were the ferry is? He nods. I motion do leave now? He shakes his head. Wait. I sit down. He goes over to the car and gets on his phone. Why do I think we are in the wrong place. The only thing keeping me sane is we are near a canal. Water. About an hour later, a put-put boat pulls up . It’s a flat bed boat for motor-bikes. And, another small hut for people. This is the ferry? Ferry for foreigners. Think again. Loving this adventure for I’m so at their mercy.

All of a sudden the men jump to their feet. The must have heard a bell. Or, one of those silent signals only certain species can hear. They finished their beers, start their motorbikes and leave me in the dust. The driver points. And, motions to me to follow on foot. I do.

He picks up my bag. Together we navigate the rubble and dirt roads to the mini-ferry boat. By the time we arrive, the motorbikes are on and everyone is waiting for tallgirl.

I get on the boat. Only one seat left up front. Everyone is quiet. Staring at me. Gosh, I hope I don’t trip or burb or fart. They’re look is of “what are YOU doing here?” This type of scrutiny is unnerving. It’s like I’m in a freak show – what will the white, tall woman do? Will she sit? Drink water? I decide to sit.

The motor starts and we are off. I think to myself. Wait… I did not ask for details of this transport. I’ve been so consumed with Visa, passport and money – that I have NO idea the name of my final destination. It’s in Halong Bay.

But, it like saying, I’m going to swim in a lake in Central Florida. I just hope and pray I can figure this out. Calling all travel angels again. They must be resting for I’ve kept them occupied these last few days. So, I settle in and just wait.

We putter on. About an hour later, we arrive at another desolate ferry stop. I stay on the ferry. Not sure if this is my stop. I show the ticked to the boat driver. He motions to me to get off – NOW. I did. No one is there waiting for me. There are NO foreigners. Just V-nam men on their motor-bikes. I walk over to the ticket lady. Show her my ticked. She smiles and motions this is the place.

But, the place to do WHAT? I’m to hop on a bus. There are four buses sitting in the dirty parking lot. Now what. I breath. I walk around and take pictures. I will give it 15 to 20 mins and then ask to use someone’s cell phone. I have Ha’s phone number. I watch the people. Someone caught an octopus. They are playing with it now. Guess, it’s super for later.

I wait. Take pictures. Wait. Give it another 10 mins. Then, another 10 mins. I figured no harm in calling Ha. I reached for some Vietnamese dollars. I look around and I’m down to three people. Octopus players and me. Then I heard some loud voices. A man in blue appeared. He is staring at me and saying loud things. I smile. He motions for me to follow. I do. Love how I just follow people I can’t communicate with. He points to the four buses. I smile. I stop. I mean, which bus. He grabs my hand and walks me to the red bus. Red is my favorite color. YEA for me. He points. I get on. I smile. He grunts. Clearly he had to deal with foreigners before… I sit down. No one is on the bus. I just wait. Wait. And, wait.

Within in 20 mins, the bus is bombarded by heard of Vietnamese families, teens and elderly. Packed in minutes. And, we’re off. The scenery is amazing. Limestone mountains standing tall in the bay.

Winding through small villages. Doors and windows open. Families sitting on the floor eating rice. TV playing in background. Kids playing outside. The world marches on. The bus starts to make random stops. People get off. Where do I get off? I decided I’m not moving until I see lamp post lights. Electricity. Need to see electricity. I’m sure my resort has electricity. Little did I know…

We arrive at a mini-town. Looks like a fishing village. Outdoor restaurants. Cafes. Hostels line the street. I’m the last one off the bus. The driver asks, “where you go…where you go..” I respond, “I don’t know…I don’t know…” And, just smile. A man appears in motor-bike helmet. My name is scribbled on a piece of paper. AM-DAY. Yep, that’s me! He smiles. Grabs my arm and leads me to his motor-bike.

Someone how he gets my one piece of luggage on his bike along with my 6 foot bod. We set off. Streets are dark.

We zoom along the bay. The moon is full, guiding us. I feel like I should be cold, but I feel warm all over. I look out over the water and think, “Are you KIDDING me? I’m in Vietnam. Riding by moonlight on some RANDOM man’s motor-bike along the water, windy roads, over the mountains to an unknown destination.

I’ve been robbed of an identity. But, right now, feel so rich inside. Overwhelmed with gratitude that I’m here. I mean REALLY. Who is this person? It’s not me – Not the tallgirl who is Ms. Marketer/Communicator worker-bee. Not the person who gets up at 5 am and works until 10 pm. Works weekends. Works and works… Has no life outside of work. Who needed to blow it up big to fill her cup up with joy – again. Well, ladies and gentleman, my cup is being filled. Being replenished. Renewed by a country with a generous spirit and complicated culture….

We stop at a shack. Motor man gets off. Tells me to stay put. He grabs an oar and a life preserver. Tells me to put on the preserver and he will carry the oar. I follow directions. Now, I’m sporting a helmet and life preserver as we jet off again in the dark night. This is a sight.

We make it to another dock. This time we are greeted by an old, delapidated boat with a bamboo canopy. A woman is there to greet me. Not really. She’s giving her husband, the motor-man, the 411 on me. She’s in her Pjs.

Motor-man then grabbed my hand. Looked into my eyes and apologized for his country. I was taken back. What in the world was he talking about? I just smiled. Again. Just smiled. I nod. Then, he said his wife just told him I was robbed. Everything gone. She looks at me with sadness. Motor-men grabs my arms and says, “sorry for you…sorry for you…some of my people are bad… sorry for you… Vientiane good country. Good people. Not all bad. Please come back…” Tears welded up. Am I really going to cry wearing a motor-bike helmet and a life preserver? NO. I smiled. Told him I will be back and jumped on the rickety boat.

The boat driver looked about 90 and no teeth. But, he was strong. He hand cranked the motor and we set off. The only light was the full moon.

He’s navigated these limestone mountains and floating fishing huts for years. I felt safe.

Once again, I pinched myself and thanked God. How am I here? What is it I need to learn? Observe? See? Take with me?

I am so grateful. Even grateful for this experience. God has blessed me with so many angels to carry me these past two days. I was not in control. Still not for I’m in V-nam and NOT Cambodia. My mind keeps saying – you will relax when you get to Cambodia. I have many more hurdles. And, need to hear back about my Visa.

In the meantime, I am puttering through the waters of Vietnam with an old man. He looks at me. Looks at me with a sense of sadness – for me, not him. I get the feeling they are embarrassed by their countryman’s action of harming a foreigner. How much things have changed since Vietnam War. Think about it.

I’m thinking about it all. And, inhaling the air around me. Its one of those times I want engraved in my heart and soul. If I ever loose my short term memory, I pray this day, this hour and those minutes of traveling to Halong Bay will be seared into my soul.

After an hour of puttering, we pull up at the resort. This is a NO star resort. It’s a negative star. Why? No electricity or water. Water tank busted. And, back up generator down.

The resort is on a remote island. I could care less. Ang met me. He led me to my bungalow. Mattress on the floor. Bamboo with holes as a roof. Rustic is a good word. I smiled. Very happy to be hear with Ang and Tour-burn.

I wonder outside my hut to the patio area and order a beer. I’m telling the guys my story. I say the word Visa and my body tenses up. My mind snowballs. I’m trying to act cool. I believe we call this an anxiety attack. I keep talking. I wanted to blurt out to Ang, “Hey. Call Ha NOW and ask for a status on the Visa. It’s 8:00 pm at night. She should have heard something – no word means I’m screwed. CALL NOW…”

Instead, I calmly talked about my ferry trip and wonderful motor-bike ride. They did not notice that I’m having a complete freak out attack inside. By the time I’m finished with my story, my mind has placed me, once again, in a V-nam prison. Irrational, I know. But, the mind can do that to you.

I sip my beer. Sit back. Act cool. And, calmly say to Ang, “Hey, can you call Ha? I’m curious if she heard about my visa. Status?” He said, “Sure. I go now.” He gets up from the table and walks off. I start to over analyze. He’s leaving the table. Not good. Why can’t he talk in front of me? He knows something. I’m screwed.

I strike up a conversation with Tour-burn… “Tell me about kayaking today? What did you see? Do?”

He wraps it up in 45 seconds… You have GOT to be kidding.

I’m looking for a distraction. Give me something here. Anything. I can’t feed off this information. I just smile. Forget it. I just sit in silence. If he wants to talk, fine. But, I’m not doing the work here. I have more important things to think about, like breaking out of V-nam prison.

Minutes pass. No Ang. We are hitting the 10 minute mark. Next is 15 min. Clearly, no visa. I’m starting to make contingency plans. OK. What if I can’t make it to Ho Chi Minh City. Just fly straight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Wednesday instead. That will work but my CREDIT CARDS and ATM will be resting in Ho Chi Minh at the travel agency. Then, what… It will work. It will work. I have options. Always options. I’m FIIINNNEEE… As Stephanie would say. FFFIIINNNNEEEE.

We’re hitting the 20 min mark. I blurt out to Tour-Burn who is just sitting and staring next to me, “I’m screwed. No Visa. Ang is not back yet. I’m here for the long term… I do LOVE rice….”

He actually agrees with me. Idiot. Doesn’t he know I need reassurance, not agreement. Men can be so clueless sometimes. I smile at him. Shake my head and stare out into darkness. Where was that inner peace. Joy. Nirvana I felt only an hour ago. Gone. I think back willing it to calm me.

I hear Ang behind me. He is silent. Bad. I hear his voice. “Good news! You got the Visa… We are good.” I wanted to scream, “Where have you BEEN? It took more than 20 mins to find out this news??? I mean, I’m at the point of buying a cemetery plot in V-nam.”

Instead, I jumped up and hugged him. No need to freak him out. I thanked him. Thanked his company. And, told him that I was nervous because it took so long. He said, “Oh. Bad reception. And, I got other calls I had to take…” I did not want to hear that because this was all about me. I’m the customer. And, I’m top priority. Let it go—

I felt my body relax. Check another box. Got the Visa. Question now is it real? Who is this “expediting” agency. And, will it work? Faith baby. Faith. I pray for faith. Protection. And, mounds of patience. We’re not there yet. But, we’re getting there. Travel Angels unite! God, just get me to Cambodia.

Vietnam Immigration. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

It’s 7:45 am.

I’ve been in the hotel lobby since 6:30 am. Emailing the bank. Travel insurance companies. And, contacting the travel agency I’m working with in Cambodia.

Yes, there ARE travel agencies in Cambodia. I went ape-crazy on them the night before. I got an email saying they did not receive payment for my flights OUT of Vietnman to Cambodia or anything else. My credit card told me differently. I pulled out my “this is unaccepable” card. And, put a PS in there that my whole life has been stolen in Vientman. So, this is NOT a good time to try and rip me off.

Yea, got a response on that one. I felt bad. Of course, they found the money. The company actually is amazing. I mean superb too. It was all bad timing. They are so traumatized by my situation, that they are meeting me at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take me to dinner. I email Vo, my travel agent contact, that I need my confirmed flight information that says I’m officially scheduled to leave Vietnam on the 23rd. This is a MUST for immigration. She sends it to me in a matter of minutes.

Ha walks in. It’s maybe 70-degrees and she’s buried in a red, ski jacket and a new pair of jeans with rhinestones. She smiles, grabs my arm and off we go on her motor-bike. She brings me a better helmet today. One that fits. And, one I can get off. I think I embarrassed her yesterday walking around the bank and immigration with my motor-bike helmet on.

We pull up at the former French prison – aka V-nam immigration. And, sprint to the Visa for foreigners desk. Our girl is there. She smiles at us. We sit. Feeling confident. We’re next. Ha shows her our paper work. She touches the paper. And, starts chatting up a storm. Ha looks upset. Annoyed. None of this is good. I just wait. Trying to ready body language and expressions. Other people walk up to the desk to look at my paper work. I wonder what they are saying. I just stand there. Reminding myself that I’m not in control. Ha still is holding on to my arm, reminding me to be still and silent. She huffs. Grabs my paper work and sits down. I follow. Sit down next to her in the plastic chair.

Me: “What? What happened?”

Ha: “She said need 3 to 5 day for Visa. Business days. Today is Friday. Not good. I make call…”

Me: “Wait. If I need to change flights, I can. I mean..there is a solution here?”

Ha: “I make call. Not good. Not happy. You stay here. Don’t move.”

She walks out. Walks back in. Opens her purse. Grabs $200,000 VND (Vietnamese dollars). Then, shoves the money and my passport into an envelop. Stands up and walk to the V-nam immigration agent.

NO. NO. We’re NOT bribing the communist… Not worth it. I want to get out of Vietnam, legally, not through prison time. I grab Ha’s arm and whisper, “Not good. No. I don’t do this…I will change flight..”

She shakes her head. Motions to me to shut up. And, continues to talk to immigration lady. I can tell immigration lady is not budging. Ha’s hand is on the envelop. I’m starring at the envelop. If she moves it, I’m grabbing it from her. I don’t do this. No way. I can tell Ha is exasperated. Her voice sounds annoyed. But, she is smiling. Her hand never leaves the envelop. She waiting to play her card – or not. She decides to fold, grab my paper work and walks out of the office – leading me by the arm.

She whispers, “I have a friend. Take care of this. May cost you $$. Like $100 US dollar for Visa. Ok? You Ok?”

Me: “Ha, not a problem. As long as it is legal. In US we have companies that are in business to expedite passports and visas. That is all they do – if this company is legit, that is good. My country just charged me $135 for an emergency passport..ok? It’s ok…I have travel insurance. Money not a problem. It must be legal..”

Ha: “I make phone call. It’s legal. Ok. Don’t move.. OK?” She assumes I have some great place to go…

She returns a few minutes later. “Ok. Let’s go. They get you Visa in one day. I negotiated. You only pay $80.” Her smile returned. Yep, she is my travel angel.

On with the helmet. And, onto the motor-bike. We speed through the streets in search of a random office. We pull up. I wait outside. She’s gone for a while. I wait. Find a curb. I’m turing into a Vietnmese. Love curb sitting. This time, I’m not wearing my bike-helement.

She walks out – smiling. “Ok. We good. Get Visa in one day.  Now, you go to Halong Bay to Kayak with Ang. I get you there. Bus pick you up in 2 hours. Take ferry. A bus. A motorbike. And, another boat. Spend one full day at Bay. Ok?”

I respond, “ROCK ON Super star! I did NOT think I would see Halong Bay. I’m so grateful that my heart hurts…

Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

No sleep. Maybe 2 hours. I wake at 4 AM. Need to repack for prison or kayaking. Either way, there is a full hour of sorting, folding, tossing before I kick off today’s festivities at 7:45 am.

The hotel lobby greets me around 6:30 AM. I’m back on the phone with the ATM folks at USAA. It’s 5:30 pm Central Standard Time. The real people are working. Real meaning NO night answering morons telling me my ATM card will be in my hands in 15+ days. I go through it again with New ATM gal. She puts me on hold forever and ever. I took it as a good signs. She’s either asking questions or going on a cig break. Either way, she’s meeting my expectations. She’s doing something.

For whatever reason, I keep reminding these ATM gals they are working for an international, military bank. It’s like I want them to take ownership in their brand promise. It seems to have zero impact.

New ATM gal looks into other rush options and it seems like night ATM gal was right. We’re talking about ATM in hand in 4 to 5 business days via FedEx, no guarantees. My heart says – there is a faster way. But, I’m in Hanoi. In a lobby with poor internet connection. Without an identity. So, not much I can do right about now. Release it. Purge the I’m in control monster.

An email pops up from Dad. It’s the secret code needed for Western Union. God willing, Benjamen Franklin and I will be celebrating a la rice wine tonight. But, I must prove my identity to get the money. Government issued ID, which leads me to the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi. This whole day hinges on an emergency passport. The worst part is to get me out of the country, hinges on a communist immigration bureaucracy.

Hello, anxiety? I pray – “God, help me let it go. Protect me. Keep me safe. Send me your top travel angels. Allow me to give this day to you – be gracious, humble and thankful…Thankful I’m NOT in Russia…”

And, then she appeared. My pint-sized travel angel. Quite frankly, I’m not feeling all that confident. What is it about size, clothes, and, overall, first impressions that can set you in a tailspin.

She walked over to me wearing a big smile and introduced herself as “Ha.” I asked her, “Like in HA?” She said yes. I hear myself saying… “ha..ha…ha…This is soooo NOT funny…Please, God…we’re not doing funny today…”

Ha is about four-foot eleven. Sporting jeans, with colored rhinestones spelling the word BeBe. Her little purple polished toes are squished into black, open toe flats. It’s chilly out – like 75 degrees – so she’s bundled up thick glow-in-the-dark blue sweater. Her black hair is slicked back into a tight pony tail, making her look like 16 instead of 22. She’s wearing no visible signs of makeup. Has a few acne scars. And, her mouth carries too many teeth for her small mouth.

She tells me she’s the office receptionist. REALLY? The office recptionsit? Ha…Ha…Ha… Yea, this is getting funnier by the second…

We sit down for she comes up to my arm pit. She describes, in broken English, our game plan for the day. I just listen. Control my breathing. And, take in this little person who is going to find me an idenity and an exit out of V-nam all in ONE day.

Ha: “Get taxi. Go to US consulate. You get passport.  By taxi, go to police to get stamp. Office manager take you to police. She know people. By taxi, we take police stamp and passport to immigration to get Visa…ok…ok…You call US consulate now. Tell you’re coming…ok?”

Me: “Ok?”

I’m trying so hard not to overwhelm her or me. I have so many questions. I quickly determine which questions to ask now and then pepper her with in the taxi on the way to US Consulate. Because, this is NOT that easy – way tooooo many variables. And, I need to calculate and debate. Role play scenarios. Do a decision tree analysis. Game theory…. Just can’t walk into this blindly, can I? Is it possible for me to let go control of these three ginormous “to do” items without questioning, understanding and over analyzing? Inhale. I look at her. My God, I don’t have a choice. I’m in Ha’s hands.  God, are you listening?  It’s time to call in for reinforcements.

Inhale again… “Ok. I do have a few things I need to tell you before we get started…. My father…..” Voice trails off. Tears sprout from my eyes. You see, I have not cried yet. So, why not just let it rip in the lobby. Why not cry so much that black mascara showers my cheeks. Cry so much my lips blow up like Angelina Joelie. Cry so much that I finally have color in my checks. Perfect timing for guess what today is? New passport photo day. I got up even earlier to shower, blow dry the hair and apply cover-up, eyes and lips. Because we all know this photo will haunt you for years… ha…ha..ha..

When I said my Dad’s name, feelings of genuine love and relief overcame me. I miss my family so much – especially in times like this. And, just having their support and prayers is truly indescribable. There are no words. But just tears of gratitude. Tears of thanks. Tears of love.

Ha grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes, “I’m here. No worry. I take care of you…No worry…” I looked into her deep, dark, soulful eyes and knew her little 80 pound frame would be carrying this 6 foot body these next two days. God sent her to me. And, I’m grateful. We’re going to do this – No worries.

I shook my tears away. Repeated out loud…. “Brain… need to be focus… Brain…find logical, rational thoughts…Emotions are for later.” I am NOT kidding. I really said that. I laughed at myself and that my emotional, wackiness subsided. I uttered Western and Union and Daddy in the same sentence without having a nervous breakdown. We’re off to a good start.

Next thing I know, we are in the back of a cab in route to the US consulates office. Ha asked me within 30 seconds of our trip if I have a boyfriend. I laughed. GREAT distraction. I said, “No…Not as of 5 mins ago… Why? Do you have a tall, smart brother?” For whatever reason, she thought that was so funny. She said, “No tall in Vietnam. We short.” She told me about this boy – in high school – with whom she has a crush. They go out with a large groups – eat sunflower seeds and drink green tea. They’re just friends, but she likes him more. The taxi stops in front of a big, ugly yellow building.

We get out. She grabs my arm to lead me. She’s not letting go – and never did for 2 days.

We march to the building with my country’s flag. Wanted to climb up the pole and kiss it. The guard said, “you in wrong place. Passport office moved…” Ha looked shocked. And, then she turned it on. My word, she’s got it. She has the FLIRT gene. God is GOOD! I got a Vietnamese Choppy! (Choppy is my stepsister, BFFer.. She’s one of the top flirts out there..) Next thing I know, V-nam military leaves his post and is escorting us down the sidewalk. He points the building. Ha smiles, never letting go of my arm.

As we are crossing the street she asks, “What do you do when you’re sad?” The question startles me. It’s a little out of context as we fight traffic with our feet. I scream over honking horns, “I write. I have a journal. When I’m sad– I go to a place –by myself – and write…and pray…later, like 1 week or 1 year later, I look back and see how much I’ve learned…and, you? What do you do when you are sad?”

Ha said, “I write too! And, listen to my favorite music. I go outside of Hanoi, where it is more quiet. I like to write. I have a journal…” Perfect. We have something in common. And, by this time, we are in front of a gray, oversized building. I head inside to see what the US consulate has in store for me.

Second floor. Second window. There are only two or three people in the lobby. None are from the US. Not sure if this is a good sign. I ring the bell on window 2.  A Vietnamese lady speaking perfect English greets me. I tell her my situation. She nods. She says she received my email and has a copy of my passport. Then, she uttered words I longed to hear, “We’ve been expecting you…” I LOVE my country. L-O-V-E!

Relief flooded the body. She told me where to go for new passport photos as she handed me a stack of documents. As I wait for the photos, I can fill out all the paper work. Wanted to kiss the woman. The words, “she’s been expecting me” rings in my ears as I skip down the steps.

Ha is waiting for me outside. We head down to the Kodak store to pose for pictures. I pass by a mirror. Damn, this is going to be one ugly photo. I quickly whip on some lipstick so I would not fade away. Kodak V-nam dude takes one photo and tells me to wait. Only one photo? Can’t we go for the best of five? Back to ugly. I just nod and smile, reminding myself it is out of my hands. I start to fill out the paper work. Ha is holding my arm – still. I told her I’m not going anywhere. She says, “Friends hold each other when sad and happy…” I smile. Look over at the Kodak V-nam dude and he’s touching up wedding photos. Yea, we will be here for a while.

About thirty mins later, I have the passport photos. Not that bad. He photo-shopped the dark circles Red puffiness. And, kept my oversized lips. And, my skin looks flawless. Like HIM! And, like the photo. Who knew redesigning your face was included in the $1 price?

Back at the consulate’s office. I turn in the paperwork and sit down. Wait. Wait. The Director of Passport (I guess that is her title) called me over. She is a fellow TallGirl too! We bonded. Good energy. I told her what happened. Told her I’m taking time off to travel. Told her I’m thankful I’m NOT in Russia. She agreed. Or, China. She agreed. But, she DID say, “BUT you’re in Vietnam…” I smiled. And, later found out what was behind those words.

Tall consulate woman said, normally, she only issues a three month emergency passport. But, she will extend it to 7 months for me. She recommend once I get to Cape Town, for I’ll be there for 2 weeks, to contact the embassy and have them issue me a REAL passport. This emergency passport will cost me $135 US. I told her, “I have NO money. Nothing. And, I can’t go to Western Union without a govt. issued ID. “

She told me to borrow from the Travel Agency. She said to come back between 3:00 – 4:00 pm to pick up the passport. In the meantime, I need to go to the police now to get a formal incident report with a stamp. Bring it back and the US consulate will write a letter to the V-nam immigration requesting an emergency Visa. I thanked her profusely. And, thanked God the place as not packed so all the govt. worker bees can focus on my issue. I’m serious too. The place was DEAD.

I tell Ha about the $$ situation and ask to borrow $200 US dollars. She smiled and said, “Ok. I call friend. Wait 20 mins, Ok? We get green tea.” We sit on two stools for micro-mini people on the sidewalk, in front of the US consulate building. And old woman with narley hands, dirty fingernails and no hygiene hands us two dirty glasses full of tea for $.15. I take. Drink. And, say a silent toast to Tour-burn for gifting me his cold for I’m consuming large doses of antibiotics to kill all bacteria on sight.

Ha and I watch the world pass us by. We go through different scenarios of our day. “What if… What if… What if….” Next thing I know, a kid who looks about 12 pulls up on motor-bike and pulls out a wad of cash. Hands it to Ha. She giggles, bats her eyes, touches his arm and yanks the $ from his little grubby hands. He blushes. My word, she is good.

We got the $$. Next stop, her travel agency office to tackle the next cog – Vietnamese police department. I have to file a formal report with the police if I’m to get a Visa. Ha said, “Office manager know police in neighborhood. She take you. On motor-bike… You go with her..” I nod. What am I going to say, “no?”

We arrive at Handspan Travel Adventures and the Office Manager introduces herself. Didn’t catch the name, so I called her Ann. She hands me a motor-bike helmet. Next thing I know, I’m straddling little Ann as we fly through the busy streets of Hanoi. I’m actually smiling. Having fun.

We pull up in front of the police station. Buzz kill. Fun is over. The Vietnamese police station is like something out of a military, war movie. Like Platoon. This station is sandwiched between an assortment of shops — coffee, stuffed animals, handicrafts, stolen movies… We park the motor-bicycle out front. Ann reminds me of my story. We rehearsed it several times. “Stolen passport. Stolen $200.”

I believe she was more concerned about the street names than anything else. Apparently, Hanoi is divided into police districts. The police departments are judged by crime reported in their district. Less crime reported, the better for the police station. Some areas – like the touristy areas – the police departments are HYPER sensitive to reporting crime. If something bad happens to a tourist, then the department is severely reprimanded. I did NOT know this. I would have been vomiting in a toilet if so.

We walked up the three concrete stairs. No doors. Few plastic chairs scattered to the side. Two men in olive green, polyester uniforms look up. NO smile. They said a few words to each other. Younger man leaves. Older man of 50+ sits and stares. He is wearing German, style square glasses. Faint gray mustache line his lips. Skin is smooth. Shirt is open. No hair on his chest. Ho Chi Minh portrait hangs above him. His, uniform is too large and swamps his small frame.

His eyes say it all. He does NOT give a shit. Only thing he cares about is good sex and good rice wine. He looks past us as we walk closer to his desk. His desk is perched in the middle of the room. It’s his thrown. I look over my shoulder to see what is holding his attention. Then, I look down in embarrassment. GIRLS GYMNASTICS is on the TV. He’s entranced. So, I revise my comments. Let’s add good sex with little girls to the list.

We sit. I slump over a tad. Body language of the submissive foreigner. Ann sits up. Leans forward. Tilts her head and smiles. Everyone is listening. I notice police from the backroom got word a “foreigner” is here – so now we have a party. Shit. V-nam Police Pervert is not going to cave. I slump over more and look down. I repeat, “look humble.. respectful..listen..”

Ann starts. Police Perv is intent on watching gymnastics. He looks at me a few times as she continues to tell my story. Does not say a word. Nothing. She stops. He’s silent, like he did not hear a thing. He tilts his head. After a few moments of silence, he looks at me quickly, turns to Ann and says, “was not stolen…she lost her passport.” Ann translates. I give him a look of confusion. And, shook my head. I said the word S-T-O-L-E-N very slowly. He sighs. Great, he’s part Russian.

A younger man looking on says something. Police pervert reaches for a folder. Starts to go through it while looking at the gymnastics. There’s no motivation to find the document. Younger police man opens a file cabinet and yanks the sheet out. Hands it to Ann and smiles. Maybe THIS is her friend? She fills out the form for me. Her writing. Police pervert is paying no attention. But this time, the room has cleared. It’s anticlimactic. Maybe its a blessing he was distracted by flat chested, little girls twirling in leotards.

Ann writes my passport was lost. I grabbed her pen. Wrong verb. I scribble in caps STOLEN. What is it about verbs. They can make or break you. It’s always about the verb. If it is lost, I get no stamp. She looks embarrassed. She keeps writing. Then, hands it to me to sign. I sign it hoping it will not come back to haunt me. I mean, it’s all true – but signing a V-nam police document in a communist country… Makes me skirmish. Again, calling on my faith and travel angels.

Police pervert looks over the document. Says a few things. Puts it down and continues to watch TV. Now and then, he looks outside to see what’s happening. Ann says, “he can’t speak or read English. I need to translate to Vietnamese.” I reminded her, “Please say the word stolen…” She finished. Pushed the paper back to him. Police pervert sighs. Not happy about missing his gymnastics. Stands up. Shakes his head and walked in the back room, leaving us out front.

Ann and I move to plastic seats in the corner. I notice more and more people are coming in to sign a paper and give the police money. I ask, “What’s going on? Crime reports?” Ann laughs, “No. The police charge for parking motor-bike out front. Money business for them.” Of course the do… Got to love seeing capitalism at work in police departments in communist countries.

We wait. Watch. Ann is nervous, but tries to appear calm. I’m reading every expression in the room. I ask, “what’s happening now?” She said, “Police meeting. Decide to sign or not. No like signing…Bad. Crime needs to be low here. No good to have crime with foreigners…” This was my OH SHIT wake up call. I knew what she meant. I just sat there, praying. Ok God, it’s ALL in your hands. I’m just watching. I tell myself – it’s a movie…I’m really at the movie chomping on family sized popcorn and supersized Coke Zero. I’m just an observer.

Police pervert walks out about 20 mins later and tosses the paper at us. Ann looks surprised. I mean, shocked. I just smile not knowing what happened. She thanked them, grabbed my arm and ushered me out with great speed. Those red high heels can walk fast. She said, “Helmet fast. Get on motor-bike.” I did. We sped off. She starts to laugh. I can’t hear what she says, but I scream PART-AY really loud. She giggles even louder.

We pull up at Handspan Travel Adventure’s office. She gets off. Looks at me and said, “You lucky. Very lucky. Very lucky. Three or four hours at police. Never sign. You lucky. Lucky…” I said, “No luck. We’re blessed. Travel angels are with us…” She giggled, “Yes, angles… and dragons…” She kept on rattling off more. I smiled. And, asked her to make several copies of this police report.

I ate some lunch. Big bowl of carbs, washed down with a beer. Next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motor-bike heading to US Consulate’s office. Ha is in the driver’s seat. We pull up around 2:30 pm. I’m to pick up the passport around 3:00 pm, but hoping to get it sooner so we can make it to immigration and Western Union. The guards now know me. I sprint up to the second floor. Ring the bell at second window.

They gals ask for my police report. I gave it them. They were surprised I got one – and got one so fast. They said, “That is not normal in Vietnam… Usually takes days for police report…You are lucky…”

Hmmmm… maybe police pervert wanted me out of his country for I’m not his type… Or, he had to make crime quota for the month… Or, saw that I was NOT one of those narly backpackers who drink, vomit and poop all over his streets. I don’t care. Just blessed. I sit down. Thank my travel angels. And, wait. And, wait..

About 30 mins later, I walk out of US consulate’s office with my passport in hand. I have a 7 month extension. Hurray! I have an identity. I will say the passport looks fake. Looks like some kid did it on power-point. As long as it gets me out… Gets me to Cambodia…

Ha and I are back on the motor-bike and race to Western Union. I smiled. It’s now almost 4:00 pm. Ha and I bet we can get the $$ in minutes and be at V-nam immigration by 4:15 pm. It’s right around the corner. We submit my paperwork and pick up Visa the next day. Life is good.

Snag.

The V-nam bank using Western Union services was slower than slow. The girl who helped me had trouble dialing a phone and using the fax machine. I did NOT know what to do. I can’t tell her to hurry it up b/c I need to get to “immigration” in time. She has my money. I need to be nice.

Then, Ha stomped in. Highly annoyed. It’s been 15 mins and she not tolerating slowness right now. She lays into little girl in a pretty suit. The girl looks mortified. Ha and shy girl come to a solution. Make a copy of my passport for Western Union files. We go to immigration and come back after to pick up my money. Done. We bolt. No need to put my motor-helmet on, because I was wearing it in the bank. Saving time. And, we’re off… zooming through the crowded streets. Going a zillion miles an hour.

We pull into the V-nam immigration. The French used the building as a prison back in the day. Perfect setting. As we’re pulling in, everyone is leaving. It’s 4:28 pm. Govt. workers going home. Ha ignored this and motored through. She was making fun of them – their schedules – and the fact they don’t work.

We park the motor-bike. I can’t get my helmet off. It stays on. Ha grabs my arm. She guides me through the crowd. Smiling. Talking. Responding to these govt employees. They all look at me. Who knows what she is saying. They smile back. I look like the Jolly Green Giant wearing a blue bike helmet. I feel it too.

We are walking up some stairs. Ha still has my arm. A woman asks where are we going. Just so happens she works in the Visa department. She looks through my paperwork and says we’re missing a document. I need a stamped letter from the hotel saying to confirm I was there. Ha looked very upset. She was trying to convince the woman to follow us to HER office to start processing my Visa now. Ha REALLY wanted to wrap all of this up in one day. From where I sit, I have an identity and money waiting. That’s called a miracle…

Back on the motor-bike to Western Union. She stops. I hop off and run across the street. The bank is closed. A large garage door covers the entire storefront window. Workers can’t see out. I can see them through the cracks. I’m NOT leaving without my money.

Wearing my motor-bike helmet, Jolly Green Giant starts banging on the metal garage door. You can see the scene now. Tall blond. Jeans. White long sleeve t-shirt. Pink hiking boots. Striped socks. Pounding with both hands as hard as possible. People behind me stopped. I feel their eyes. I hear Ha, “Amanda…No! We ok…No more bang…Stop!” I started to laugh.

Ha grabbed my arm and says, “see what happens when I let go of arm…you go crazy….I take care of this…no worry…”

Don’t ask me how, but we find our way into the building. A security guard waits for us in an some random garage for motor-bikes. We walk through a long hallway and enter the bank through the back door. I see slow Western Union girl. She smiles. Hands over the Benjamen Franklins. I LOVE him. I ask for a receipt. Slow girl takes a good 10 minutes to turn on and make a copy of the receipt. My word… I could NOT work here.

We’re back on the motor-bike. It’s getting dark. Ha drops me off at the hotel with instructions. “You ready at 7:45 am. Sorry about immigration. No worry. My country slow. We fix…”

I thanked her again and again. Told her she was my present. My gift. And, to keep holding on to me so I won’t go crazy. And, I needed her more than she knows…

Stolen Identity. Hanoi, Vietnam.

11 Dec

Wanted adventure.  Got adventure.

Entire identity was stolen from me last night. Passport. Visa. Credit cards. Driver’s license. Cash… You name it. Gone. All in the name of shopping. The first time I’ve shopped since I left the land of free press.  BAM.  Talk about buzz kill.

I’m sitting at the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Waiting.  Thought now is a good time to start chronicling these last 18 hours.

The US Consulate’s office is what you imagine. Grey blue walls. Gray tile floors. Obama, Hilary and Joe all staring at me – smiling. I’m not taken much comfort in their rosy disposition.  Instead, I want to cry. I need to cry. I feel it in my throat. The enormity. The violation. It’s settling in.

Last night was just adrenaline. Today is –oh shit. I’m in a wanna-be Communist Country with out an identity. I keep pushing my mind to the positive. God is good. I mean, I could be in Russia. I could be in jail in Russia. They they imprison you for being without a passport.

I keep going to the positive.   Well, I could be in China. I could be in a jail in China where I would be a just another faceless number buying my time.

God is good. I’m in Vietnam. This capitalistic communist country recognizes tourist dollars are needed for their economic survival. I’ve got that on my side. God is good.

So, what happened. How in the world am I seeing the inside of one of our nation’s consulates  in a country we terrorized only 35+ years ago.  It goes back to shopping. Two main points here. Vietnam is on sale. And, US dollar is one degree stronger here than other Asian countries. Oh, I almost forgot, the post office is in walking distance from my hotel. The shopping stars aligned. So, I took to the markets to spend US dollars.

Wait. The US Consulate’s office is blasting God Bless America over the sound system. They have a video of clean, happy Americans eating pie, BBQ, riding motorcycles, drinking beer and smiling. Who are these people? I want to be them right about now. Kudos to the video editor for it looks like the US is diversity sensitive. I look around. Is anyone watching the video? I’m the only one. Have tears in my eyes. I love our country. I’m soooo ready to cry right now.

Back to yesterday.

Of COURSE, I was pick-pocketed five minutes away from my hotel. Just bought a bowl with a hole for chop sticks. Yes, liking the chop sticks thing…. I paid with cash. Put my mini-wallet in my backpack. Walked out of shop with three bags. Meandered down the street looking at counterfeit Northface jackets and Gucci shoes. Cruised into the hotel lobby. Reached for my purse. Noticed my zipper was slightly open. Hmmmm.. Yes, I did the hmmmm thing. Felt heart start to race. Felt light headed. Felt sweat. Body going straight into adrenaline mode before I even reached for my bag. Spirit knew I was FUUUU before the mind did.

Breathing got labored. I started to wave my hands next to my face, thinking it would cool me. I took a deep breath and went into search and destroy mode. Dumped everything on the hotel lobby marble floor. Two mini-Vietnamese front desk girls looked on in horror. Words have not been uttered yet. Just crazy flapping of the arms and shit spilled on the floor. I look up at them and bellowed, “Call Ang now. Call Ang. Call Ang. Call tour operator. Passport stolen. Need him here now. OK?”

Within seconds, I’m out the door. Walking as fast as possible – if not jogging – back to the last store. Trying to navigate motor-bikes, taxis, bikes and walkers. At this point, I didn’t care if I were hit because I would feel NO pain. I’m now sprinting. Within minutes, I’m back at the shop. I walked in calmly. I wanted to see the expression of the girls’ eyes – afraid or questioning. If it’s afraid, they are going down. If it is innocently curious, then they are scratched off my “who done it” list. By now, I had a long list for everyone I passed on the street are guilty.

The two girls were helping another customer. One waved. The other smiled and walked over.  They are excited to see me.  They don’t have it. I hastily ask about my wallet? They look frightened now for their store will possibly be named in a police report.  No longer my problem.

I sprinted out the door. I’m actually surprised I found the shop for Hanoi is one big cluster of streets, markets, shops and traffic. Each street looks and sounds the same. Run down French architecture and a lot of honking. I spied a $3 pedicure place. Damn, I wanted to get a pedicure, but now can’t because I have NO money. Not even $3! I’m screwed…

I’m back at the Hotel Serenade in minutes. I shouted, “Where is Ang? Call him? Where is he?”  I called Tour-Burn and asked him for Ang’s number. No, I did not have his number for it was in my WALLET. The front desk lady handed me the phone.  She was clearly frightened of me. I told Ang what happened. Twenty-six year old appeared at the lobby minutes later.

By this point, I’m back in my room. For whatever reason, the hotel hooked me up with an AWESOME room overlooking the streets of Hanoi. Big king size bed and over-sized tub. But, no internet connection. How do I know? Well, I called the front desk. Raised my voice in hysteria about “no internet connection.”

Seconds later the hostess at the restaurant appeared with a cable cord in one hand and hot water for tea in the other. Why can’t it be vodka. After she fiddled with my computer, she declared “Room no internet. Near street and far from router. Cable no good.”

It did not makes sense but I had a solution.  I will take Magic Jack and the 1980’s phone from Wal-Mart to the lobby and work off their computer. I had to call the bank to cancel my life line of $$ and have them reissue new cards ASAP.

It’s around 7 pm. I’m seated in the hotel lobby with my 1980’s phone. French tourists were walking in from a day of touring. They were loud. Ang is sitting next to me –just watching. He won’t leave my side, yet has zero solutions so far. I ask, “I’m sure this has happen before. This is common, no?”   He responds, “First time happen to me… Vietnam is very safe…” Great. Got a newbie here.

On the phone with USAA ATM hotlink. I’m mentioning their name because I’m floored. Here it goes… This is after hours lady…

Me: “Hi. I’m a USAA member. Bank with you. I’m in Vietnam and had my passport, ATM and credit cards stolen. I need for you to cancel my ATM and reissue me a new one.”

ATM gal: “Wow. That is terrible? Where are you?”

Me: “Vietnam. Hanoi. Capital City. Yes, it’s bad. Can you please stop my ATM.”

ATM gal: “Not a problem. I will take care of it. Your new card should arrive between 14 to 21 business days.”

Me: Pause. Shake my head. Brain was screaming, NOT AN OPTION. “That will not work. I need for you to FedEx the new card immediately. I need you to overnight it.  It must be here in 2 days. I leave Hanoi for Saigon in 2 days. ATM is the ONLY way to get any money. Don’t forget, I’m in Vietnam.”

ATM gal: “With international express mail, I can’t guarantee you when it will arrive. You didn’t carry checks?”

Me: Did ATM gal really just ask me about CHECKS? All credibility just flew OUT the door. “Yes, you CAN guarantee international shipping. Fed Ex has a tracking system. Their whole business model is based on the premise of getting random stuff to people anywhere in the world in matter of hours or days – not weeks or months. You pay up the nose. But, they will get it to you. I think there is some confusion here. I need my ATM fast. I need for FedEx to deliver it to my hotel in 2 days. I leave in 2 days…”

ATM gal: “You will need to call Fed Ex.  Do you have a pen.  It’s 1-800-Go Express. It’s an easy number. Tell them you have the $8 option. That is what USAA uses…”

Me: “$8 option? I will pay the $80 option….. And, don’t I need a tracking number before I call them……. And, what I’m hearing you say is if I call this 1-800 number and say “$8” option they will know what I’m talking about? Look… I need my ATM. And, you are a military bank – you have people living all around the world. I’m SURE you can send cards to people within days… I’m positive..”

ATM gal: “Let me check for you. It looks like we can’t guarantee it but there is a chance we can get it there in 4 to 5 business days. So, we’re looking at next week sometime. Do you have a physical address?”

I think to myself. FedEx ships on the weekend too. Has this lady missed the memo on international shipping? And, does she realize she works for an international bank, not some community bank in farm-town USA where Fed-Ex stands for former Federal employees? Yep. This is what you get when working with the after hours on call folks. I WILL be calling back.

Now, I needed to think through dates. Where in the hell where will I be in 4 or 5 days. I don’t even know what day it is. My bottom has been glued to a bike seat for 3 days and, after that, I’ve been trekking for another 3 through the jungles and rice fields of Vietnam. It could be Thanksgiving for all I know. Mind is calm. The day Tuesday pops in my head. It’s the 17th. So, in 4 days, I will be in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in route to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Couldn’t get any less civilized right about now. And, I’m not staying at a star hotel with a reputable name. So, sending my cards to a random, no star hotel in Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh was not an option.

I turned to Ang. I needed to make this kid useful. I asked, “Hey, does your company have an office in Ho Chi Minh?”

He said, “Yes. We do.”

I responded, “Write down the address. Do they speak English there? And, is it a physical location or just a PO box….”

He answered my zillion in one questions. Who knew I could come up with so many questions about an office location… “speak English? Receptionist speak English? Manger at this location? Telephone work at all times…Back up generator during power loss… Open on weekends? Hours of operations? Do they understand what signing for mail means? Have they heard of Fed Ex? Do they have the authority from their manger to sign????” Questions kept coming until I felt assured that this travel agency, Handspan Travel, can handle the signing and holding of an envelop with precious goods. Yes, Tall Girl is still in control, bully mode..

I get back to ATM lady.

Me: “I got an address for you in Ho Chi Minh. Yes, that is right. They use both Saigon and Ho Chi Minh. Today, we’re using Ho Chi Minh…. What do you mean the computer won’t let you put in Ho Chi Minh…what do you mean there is not enough lines for the address…what do you mean the address defaults to ‘Street’… what do you mean that the phone number does not fit…”

Yes, this was the call. So, in my mind, I will never see the ATM card. I need to think of another option. Next was the call to the credit card side to shut down my card. Another dozy. I never thought getting a credit card would be SO impossible. They give them out to students at college campuses. My word, they were mailing them to us when Enron was crashing. Giving them out to people who can’t pay, yet can’t get it to those that can pay. And, you wonder why they are in such a mess. Shock city. Focus.

Call with credit card lady at USAA went something like this…

CC lady: “Glad you are OK. Of course we can stop payment on your credit card and reissue you a new one. Do I send it to your home address listed in the system?”

Me: “No. I said I’m in Vietnam, not Winter Park, Florida. I need it sent to me in Vietnam….that should not be a problem for you are a military bank. An international bank with clients living all around the world. And, credit cards seem to fly by themselves. So, I’m confident there will be NO problem getting me my new credit card in 2 days…”

CC lady: “It normally takes longer. It will be in for an emergency credit card with Master Card. It’s up to them on when they process and send it to you. We ship by FedEx and you should have it in 7 business days.”

Are these people mad? I’m mean REALLY!!!! I have NO money. Nothing. Not a cent. I’m thinking of opening up a Viet-Comm banking account right about now. I’m thinking they can get me a card in an hour, not days and days and days. Unreal.

ME: “What I don’t understand is you are an international bank. And, you can’t get me a new card faster. I need this expedited. I will pay.”

Turns out, she can get it to me – NOT guaranteed” in 3 to 4 business days, if I’m lucky. Turns out that her system allows enough room for the address, but not enough room for the company name. Computers…. UGH. I hung up and decided I will be looking for a new bank. Citibank is everywhere.  This is truly ridiculous. I have no money. Need to figure out $$. So, who do you turn to in crisis situations, DADDY!

I called Dad. It’s after 7 am there. He’s up. He’s probably at work. I got him before he walked out the door. I tell him the situation. Calm, cool and collected, he says, “I’ll wire you money. Western Union. No problem.” What is it about Dad’s and daughters? They have that gene to solve problems of hysterical, emotionally wrecked daughters who are sitting penniless in communist countries.  I felt confident I would be seeing the green back by the next day. Love DADDY!

Ang gets a call from his agency. He informs me that a woman from Handspan Travel will be at the hotel at 8 AM to take me to the US consulate’s office and local police department. Told me not to worry. By this time, I’m not worrying about anything. All I wanted was a beer and some rice. It’s out of my hands. I am no longer in control. Bully, demanding, I’m in control of everything Amanda has been purged. And, it SUCKS. So need a drink because the next 48 hours will be a wild ride.

Ang, Tour-burn and I head to dinner. We opted for a restaurant with windows and chairs over 2 feet tall. I ordered steam broccoli with my dinner. They brought me steamed cabbage. I told Ang – this is not what I ordered. I’m in a mood. Over it. And, I’m fighting for my steamed veggies tonight.

Ang and the waitress go at it. I mean, he is attacking her. She’s attacking him. They get the menu out. I just watch. Mind is checked out. Mind is in a far away place. Ang finally says, “They fry broccoli, not steam. Only steam cabbage.” This would NOT fly in the states. I just nod. Reached for the soy sauce, chillies and chop sticks, and began to consume my steamed cabbage.  No need to ask questions, just salt the shit and move on.

Back at the hotel, I crawled into my super-sized bed. Can’t sleep. Mind races to random places. Somehow my neurons find their way to V-nam police station.  And, V-nam immigration offices…. I think I slept about 2 hours. So, I was emotionally primed when I met – who would later become my travel angel… The adventure continues…