College and Dating. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I wanted to understand what college life was like in Vietnam. Do they have sororities? Fraternities? All night keggers? Hook ups and throw ups? I wanted Ang to give me the 411 on college life in this wanna-be communist country. Here is part of our conversation.

Me: “So, in college..what did you do for fun? I mean did you have parties at friends’ apartments?”

Ang: “We call each other up. Meet at the sidewalk for green tea. Eat sun flower seeds. Talk. Laugh. Drink more green tea… Meet girls on the sidewalk. My friends have our own sidewalk corner. We go there…”

Green tea? Sidewalk? Sunflower seeds? Little different than my kegger college experience.

Ang said at his University, his professors taught them think. Professors would only give them half the answer and ask the students to do research. From what I was hearing, his university taught students how to critically think, analyze and come up with their own conclusions – unlike China where memorization and regurgitation are the way, the truth, and the light…

For a one-party, communist country, this slightly surprises me. I’m learning more about Ho Chi Minh – founder of the Vietnam’s communist party and the illustrious Viet Cong.

A focus of Ho Chi was education. He believed education would free the people of occupation. Ho Chi built schools everywhere. You question, what was taught in these schools. But, if we keep this high level, Ho Chi instilled a culture of education, knowledge and learning – regardless of subject matter.

This philosophy seems to be true today as well. Vietnam seems to be much more open than China. The V-nam government has tried to limit Facebook, for example, but the Vietnamese students have figured out ways around it.  Unlike China, the government is not stopping them.

Ang said that his friends know Vietnam needs to change – but needs to change slowly. His parents and grandparents are amazed at the progress, and yet horrified by it as well. So much has changed since the Vietnam War. Ang said the government still closes down newspapers and censors publications that go against party lines.

For example, they are building a huge hydro dam and the government will be relocating many tribal people. (Sound familiar? China and Three Gorges Dam.) People are upset and wrote letters to the papers. Papers printed it. And, followed up with articles. Government got annoyed. Shut down the paper. Had everyone fired. This is how the government controls what is said. But, the people know the truth.

Also, as a tourist, you are tracked everywhere you go. (Not the case with me..more on that later…) The government, according to Ang, wants to know tourists are safe. Whatever. Call what you want.

I asked Ang for an example. He said, Mae, our ethnic tour guide, had to send our passport information to the Tribal leader of the local village where we are staying tonight.

The tribal leader called the police to get approval. Once the police approves, then tribal leader allows us to come to his village. It’s the tribal leader who assigns the family to take care of us. Only certain families can receive tourists in their homes. Many homes are not equipped with standing toilets, concrete bathroom floors and spigots of cold water. This is the government’s way to ensure the tourists only see and experience what THEY want them to see. I say this, yet don’t feel like I’m being denied the REAL Vietnam, like China. You can go anywhere you like. I mean the Vietnamese passport process was the most lax yet.

Ang on dating…

Me: “So, you’re almost 26. Are you looking to get married… What type of girl do you like?”

Ang: “I like a girl who can cook, clean, take care of family. I like a girl who does not have a big, hard job. I want her to be home when I’m home.”

Me: “What professions then?”

Ang: “Teacher. I like teachers. And, bankers. The girls work in the bank. They are professional. I like their suits. And, they don’t work late.”

Me: “So, you would not date a shop keeper because they work weekends, nights…very hard?”

Ang: “Different here. I would date a shop keeper. They can close shop when they want. If my wife need to go home early. Not work. Then, she close her shop for me.”

Me: “Really……What if your parents don’t like your girlfriend? What happens?”

Ang: “I’m a boy. It does not matter. Boy says they like girl. End of story. For a girl, it is different. If parent’s don’t like boyfriend, then daughter has to break up with him. North Vietnam is very traditional, unlike South Vietnam. Daughters must obey parents. Sons, not as much.”

Me: “Yea, that wouldn’t go over well in our family… Do you agree with this?”

Ang: “Yes. Because I am a boy….”

Indeed you are.

Vietnam is progressing, but still has a long way to go. It’s interesting because I asked a young girl about dating in Saigon (Southern Vietnam) and she said her parents have NO say in who she dates. Just asking about dating gives you another glimpse into the difference between North vs. South Vietnam. The later controlled by Ho Chi and the South controlled by capitalist.

I hope Ang finds his woman – He deserves only the best.

More Trekking and Tribes. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

Who knew I was part Vietnamese..

These last few days have been amazing. Besides catching a cold from the Norwegian and loading up on Vietnamese pharmaceuticals, this outdoor adventure trip has exceeded all expectations.

I was not all gung-ho about Vietnam only because I was coming off spa-life in Thailand. The thought of hiking through rice patties, biking up mountains, getting wet in a bacteria filled bay and sleeping on bamboo mats with no shower, was unappealing at best. How my attitude has changed. Loving it. Loving it. Loving it. Love Vietnam. Got to come back.

I’ve entered the trekking portions of the trip and hiking around 7,000+ feet above sea level. Point is I can still breathe. Ang, Tour-Burn and I arrived at a town called Sapa yesterday. I just love how Ang described this town.

He said, “The local people know tourism. The French here in 1905. Then, Japanese… Americans…  Local ethnic people speak many languages – French, English, Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese.  Local people learn fast. They understand tourists.”

Excuse me?  Sapa was an occupied town, not a town for tourist training. The French took over Sapa for they saw it as the strategic center to controlling all North Vietnam and Laos. Ang has missed the boat or thinks we’re no longer listening.

Sapa gave me an amazing gift. It’s called cheap laundry. OMG. Six dollars for 90% of my laundry. Sapa has dryers AND some powder substance they call whitening. We’re talking ALMOST bleach. My white long sleeve t-shirt was no longer yellow, just a warm mayonnaise color. When I picked up my clothes yesterday, I applauded. Little ethnic lady dressed garb just grinned ear to ear showcasing her gold tooth. I wanted to hug her too. Sorry to digress… Back to trekking…

To help the local ethnic people, a representative from the Black H’maon tribe – translation is black flower – must accompany you on your trek.

The Black Flower tour guides earn $5 a day for taking foreigners through their mountains, through their villages, through their rice fields.

Our Black Flower guide’s name is Mae. She is 22. Very shy. Oldest of six in her family. Never went to school, for schools were just being built in her village. Plus, as the oldest, she was required to take care of her siblings starting at age six or so. Her youngest sister is now 4 years old. Her mom was 16 when she got married… Mae thinks her mom will have more babies..

Mae may not know Pythagorean theorem but she knows English. She learned

Trekking thru a rice field...

the language by hassling tourists in the market. As a child, she accompanied her grandmother to Sapa to sell trinkets, thread, purses and key chains to the former occupiers of Sapa – the tourists. She said, she started out as “hello…” Then, progressed to, “what is your name… where are you from…give me money…” Then, it was onto numbers and counting.

Her grandmother had a booth in the market, and this is how she learned to bargain and expand her English. I told her she is 150% smarter than most for her English is excellent, especially since she learned it from the Americans, Australians, English, Germans, Swedes, Russians, Indians, and any other random nationality. She said she had no choice for she was the oldest and had to help her family make money.

Some of Mae’s friends from her tribe are also guides. She said, none of them want to get married to traditional Black Flower men and see themselves as living in limbo-land. Her other friends, with whom she grew up with in the village, have been married since 16 or 18 and already have two or three kids. They work in their fields full time, have babies and do what the man says.

If she were to marry a Black Flower, then she must give up her job, stay home — cook, clean, harvest rice, slaughter pigs and raise babies. She would loose her voice. Her identity. And, having the option to say “no.”

Better cell reception than Orlando...

Her language skills and her job have opened the door to a new world. She can’t go back to the “old, traditional ways.” She is the first in her tribe to have this type of job – with outside foreigners – where she earns a formal salary. All the tour guides from her tribe are female because the boys see working with tourists as “female” work. They equate it to selling goods in the market. Yet, it is the women who make the money.

Her parents are FREAKING out for they are torn. One side, they are proud of their daughter because she is supporting the family. The other side, she is not married. Boys in her tribe don’t want to date or marry her for she is too progressive. Too strong willed. Too motivated. And, she does NOT want them either. She made that clear.

Mae’s is in no man’s land. Rejected by both words. She knows this too. Accepts it. And, says she does not want to get married, unless the boy works in tourism. She is not going to compromise and neither are her friends. She is very candid about this and knows she’s a future example for her tribe.

And, she loves her job. She’s learning more everyday. She told me a story of how last week, she was taking 15 Australians and French folks through the mountains. One woman got to close to the water buffalo. The water buffalo nailed the woman in the leg. Gashed it open. Blood everywhere. Thank goodness there was a French doctor there to control the bleeding. And, thank goodness they have good cell service – unlike Orlando – and tribe men came immediately. They placed the woman on a stretcher and ran her down the mountain on their backs.

Sapa really does not have a hospital – see picture. So they put her in a car and drove her to Hanoi, about 5 hours away.

I asked if this was common? She said, “Yes… and don’t go near the animals. Meant to tell you that earlier.”

Duly noted. I told her not to worry, for I walk around and scream “Rabbis” at the ferrel dogs.Liability nightmare in the making..

When work becomes unbearable, think of her...

Mae lead us for two days through the mountains of Northern Vietnam. The trek itself was awe-inspiring and not as painful as biking. Take a look at the pictures.

They speak louder than my words…

We stayed with another ethnic family. And, it was Mae who cooed, cleaned and cared for their kids. It is not even her ethnic tribe people, but another – the DAY tribe!

She said she enjoys taking care of others. And, she does an amazing job. I will keep her in my prayers.

TANGENT: It’s early AM. I’m writing. In a bamboo hut on stilts. I think the DAY family is slaughtering the pig right now. I hear a pig screaming. I mean SCREAMING. I can’t wake to that… I mean, fresh pig blood. Pig parts. Pig intestines. Just can’t. I hear the fire crackling down stairs. Please tell me its for the coffee.

Guess what? I was right. Came back to bamboo house mid-afternoon, walked into the kitchen and low and behold, what’s hanging in front of me. Pig parts…They are smoking the pig they just killed that morning. Soooo going vegetarianism after this gig…

Below are some pics from the hiking adventure…

Mountaing Biking in Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

We’re driving down the strenuous stretch. Leaving the village of Bac Ha in our dust. Just yesterday, Tour-burn and I were biking this highway – the strenuous stretch. The driver has to put the van in low gear. It’s that steep. All I can say is, “I can’t believe this…This is crazy.. I’m from Florida..I’m not outdoorsy. This is not right…”

As the van carries us down the mountain, we pass construction zones, where young men and women are breaking rocks with hammers and digging ditches with small shovels. I recognize them. They are my fans – clapping and screaming in Vietnamese – Are YOU out of your mind!!

By the way, I have not seen one other walker, biker or jogger on this highway. Not even a villager is walking the thing. Damn, I really did this? Wait, I think those are my little dirty, naked highway kids. I took their picture, right? The positive is we did not drive up this “stretch” before our ride for there is NO way I could have made it.

Day three of biking was an ALL mountain biking day. We could not ask for better weather. But, I could ask for more Advil. Majority of the ride was downhill, navigating boulders, rocks and water buffalo patties. It was still grueling. My pelvis may have NOT touched the seat, but my legs and backed burned. Imagine sitting in a squat for 2 hours straight, downhill. And, why do people do this?

I know. The scenery. Today was some of the best scenery yet. No one was on this road – did you hear me? No one. When we were in route to remote mountain path, we took a detour and stopped at a market for the red flower ethnic tribe. NO tourists. This is where I had a little dude install a new watch battery. You would have thought he was performing surgery. A whole crowd gathered around him and watched him take out a Chinese battery and put a new one it. He did it. The watch works. I asked him about warranty for the battery. He told Ang, I have one year guarantee. Had to laugh –

Below are some of the pics from the market. Look how they carry their cute babies. Their bright colored clothes. And, look how they sell rice wine. Funnel cups! Also, the rice noodles are a carb-lovers delight.

After the 2 hour mountain bike trek, we loaded up and headed to Sapa to start the trekking to even more remote villages of more remote ethnic people…

Pouring Rice Wine

Strenous Stretch. Painful Pelvis. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

Children are no longer an option. Not humanly possible. No way. I’m done.  Out for the count.

It’s late at night. In a hotel room in a random, Northern Vietnam town. And, I’m pondering the word, “Strenuous Stretch?” That’s how the Adventure Travel brochure described today’s ride. “Strenuous Stretch.” Stretch means short distance, right? Not 15 km uphill.   Today is an example of marketing gone wrong.

Let’s make it clear. I’m not a biker. Cyclist. Peddler. My biking days consist of a stationary bike at the YMCA and a yellow Schwinn with baskets at seven. Had a mountain bike at college in Colorado. It was stolen on week two. The cops recovered it. Mountain biked moved to tour-DE-bar hopping bike. Fast forward to Vietnam.

My friend Chris told me if I was visiting Vietnam, then Halong Bay was a must. No matter what. Skip everything else, if need be. But, go to Halong Bay. I goggled it. Beautiful.   But why not experience more than just a bay.  Kick it up a few notches and add some outdoorsy stuff.   Fun, right?

I’m now on Day 2 out of day Day 12 of this outdoorsy adventure. I ask Ang about today’s bike ride.

Ang: “Today. We do uphill.”

Me: “Yes, but downhill too, right?”

Ang: “No. All uphill.”

Me: “What do you mean? It has to go down eventually, no?”

Ang: “No. Not today. We bike 15 km this morning. All uphill. Yesterday, we biked over 45 km. Today, much shorter. Today is good…”

Me: “Hold the phone.  All uphill? I don’t understand…”

I assumed something was lost in translation. We got out of the bus. Ang prepared our bikes, raising my seat for “big” people. I’m wearing the same black leggings from H&M and a JCrew t-shirt. Why change now.   Ang gave us instructions. He sounded serious.

Ag: “Only change gears when your body is at 70%. The mistake is when people change and change gears. Need to change gears gradually. And, uphill means you peddle very fast with little resistance. This is not a race. Go slow…”

Me: “I do go slow. I’m from Florida.  And, I change gears a lot because I’m at 70% within 28 seconds of peddling…”

Ang continues: “Watch out for construction and trucks. Do not stop for the first ¼th of the climb. You will loose momentum. No stopping. Just peddling. Peddle fast and go slow…”

Me: “OMG…Where are we?”

I look up the road. It’s a highway. For big, diesel, semi-trucks and motor-bikes. It’s like biking Interstate I-70 from Denver to Vail. And, why are we biking up this mountain? This highway? Why? Someone please tell me WHY. No answers. We’re off.

I’m only three mins in and want to stop. I tell Ang, “My bike is broke. It does not feel like it is going fast. The break must be on.” He said, “No. Bike is fine.” Implying it’s me.  My legs are heavy and tired from yesterday’s little 45 km jaunt. Lactic acid starts to chip in at minute five. Pelvis pain kicks in at minute six.

Sweet Tour-Burn peddles behind me. He needs to move. Or, else I may hurl a rock at him. I blurt out, “Please pass me or I’m going to hurt you. Don’t wait on me today. I’m super slow and superbly deranged.”

He said, “Are you sure?”

He could tell by my evil look if he does not pass me, I’m going to run him off the road. The pressure of having someone tail this Florida girl for 15 km – up hill – was too much to handle.

I told myself. OK. Bike for 15 mins and then reconsider your options – like air conditioned bus and Coke Zero. I focused. I focused on this 70%. Focused on “peddling fast and going slow” as motor-bikes flew by honking, mac-trucks spewed diesel and half naked street kids ran to the road screaming. This is friggin crazy.

Got 10 mins down and the body has started to adjust to the pain. Lungs started to work. Heart started slowing down. Sweat only dripped, instead of gushed. I looked up for the first time. Looked around. Truly breathtaking. Thank you travel angels. Now, I need your help in carrying me up the mountain. I talked to them the entire time – “Are we at 70%? Am I breathing? Are kids an option?”

I looked up and saw Tour-Burn walking his bike around a bend. My word – he is already walking his bike. I’m screwed. I refused to walk my bike. I’m doing this thing – come hell or high water. I don’t care if I can’t have kids after this. I’m biking it baby – well, at least the first 15 mins.

Guess what? I did it! I biked the first 30 or so mins without stopping. Without walking. Don’t ask me how. The mind is amazing. When I stopped for water, Ang said, “That was the hardest part of the climb. Usually people don’t make it. They walk or van picks them up. I did not think you would make it. Very good.”

Well, with that – I was on a roll. Now, I’m biker-lady. If that was hard, the rest of this is a cinch. Yep, give pride a crack, and he takes over.

I get back on the bike. Start peddling. About thirty minutes in, the pelvis is paralyzed with pain. No gel seat. Gel pants. Or, gel period is going to solve this one. I got off the bike, and walked. It felt good to walk. I saw the van. If van driver could take me 3 km as feeling resumes in my lower extremities, then I could bike the last 4 or 5 km into town. That would work. My pelvis needs a holiday.

I got into the bus. The driver was standing on the side of the road looking down into a valley. He motioned for me to come over. I hobbled across the highway and saw a car at the bottom split into two. Spit into TWO. Others were stopping. I hope this just did not happen and we’re just looking and doing nothing. It turns out, the day earlier, three people were going to fast around the turn – downhill – and flew off the cliff. They all lived. I don’t see how.

They said it was “magic,” I think it was more than mere magic. Van driver said, “Road dangerous. People fast. Cars and mopeds turn off engine to save gas when go down mountain…” He kept on trying to speak English. Too much information for me to absorb right now – I’m not sure what was more troubling….cutting off the engine downhill or me biking uphill.

About two mins up the road, we pass Tour-Burn. I wave. Looks like he’s about to keel over. I stop the bus. He was in the van in a matter of minutes. His body was giving out too and he is Mr. Athletic, Norwegian guy. Made this Florida girl happy.

As the van took us higher, I looked out the window. I was to bike this? And, I AM biking this? Crazy. The van dropped us off. Food and flushing toilets kept my legs moving. We arrived at the restaurant and grabbed a table outside. Both of us were in disbelief that we just biked over 12 km uphill. I sit down. Winced in pain. Food arrived in seconds. We inhaled.

Ang walked over to tells us about our afternoon plans.

Ang: “So we check into hotel. Then, do our afternoon bike ride. Two options long ride around the town and village. Or, short ride through the village.”

Is he crazy? Another bike ride? Wasn’t the strenuous stretch enough? And, am I the only one in pelvis pain? Don’t guys have pelvis pain?

Tour-burn and I looked at each other and shouted SHORT ride please. Back at the hotel, I popped four Advil before setting off – again. The positive was we started out going down hill. The negative, was our short trip turned into mountain biking. This pelvis was not prepared.

We stopped at a family’s house. The mother looked about 25. She had a baby on her back and four other kids surrounding her, barely dressed. She invited us in. She was part of another ethnic tribe – the flower tribe. A lot of colors. Creativity. Passion. Beauty.

Grandmother was seated on the floor picking dry corn kernals off the ears by hand. About eight people lived in the home along with a pig, ducks, chicken, pony and water buffalo. They harvested rice for a living and believe they had 400+ pounds of rice in their home, just for the family…just in case of a bad harvest… Now, I like rice – but come on. They did tell us they fermented and sold rice wine at market. They do the same with corn – ferment and make into wine. So, these folks sell moonshine!

Ten month old tiny tot was was half dressed and cozening up to his eighty year old grandmother. I pulled up a stool next to her and helped her pick corn kernels. Naked tiny tot wanted attention, and sat his naked butt in the bucket of corn. He just giggled. I thought, what happens if he pees? I later found out they are using this corn to make booze, so we’re good if the kid goes pee in the corn. No one will die…

The mom told me how she makes the clothes for her family. It takes about a month to make skirt. She puts one on me. It’s heavy! Over in the corner, sits the husband or grandfather. Sitting in the dark smoking a cig. I wondered if he was around during Vietnam War. I wondered what he thought of these Westerners – French, Americans and the whole lot – seeing his country as a travel destination, not a war zone. And, I wondered where I am right now? Was this a Viet Cong village? Were US forces here? N. Vietnam was THE hot bed. I looked over and just smiled at him. Above him hung a picture of Ho Chi Minh. He’s now their national hero. The liberator. I just took this all in as I’m picking kernels off corn with a naked, dirty baby.

We leave. Waved goodbye. And, jumped on the bikes. I felt good, until I go numb again. We rode for another hour or so through the village, stopping and inhaling the views – rice paddies.

Back at the hotel. I longed for a nice hot shower. But, guess what? There’s no warm water. Not only that, the entire bathroom floor was flooding. Where was the water coming from? Hell, they never installed the tub properly. Water was spilling fast. I just watched. The shower head was removable. I removed it. And, tossed the head in the tub and let the water run for a full 4 mins as I contemplated – what to do. I just couldn’t take a cold shower. Not now. Not today. I wondered if Tour-burn has warm water. This meant knocking on his door asking to take a shower. I just met the kid 2 days ago. I can’t do this to him. I walked back into the mini-flood. Touched the water. It’s lukewarm. Tour-burn was saved from naked, American, bossy girl.

After the shower, I headed downstairs to the lobby and overheard a French tourist asking the Vietnamese receptions for a new room. His rooms has spiders. I thought, be happy. Spiders eat the roaches, ants and mosquito carrying the malaria virus. It could be worse, like rats. The receptionist looked confused.

I passed them, and walked into the dining room with major overhead light issue. I felt like I was in an insane asylum or a mid-western cafeteria. Ugh. We sit. The meal was paid for. The room filled with loud, smoking French tourists within 10 mins. Even better. The French occupied Vietnam. And, now they occupy the dining room. Those damn French occupiers! Midway through dinner all the electricity went off. Pitch black. I could have told them its the overhead lights. Guess dinner’s over.

Tomorrow is day 3 of bike riding. God help me… God help my pelvis…

*Check out more photos in the album to the right of this blog

Kicking off Adventure Travel. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I found the place. You know the place I’m talking about. It’s the place you go to when you are down, depressed, or despondent. When you’re trying to remember “the good times.” These places are few and far between. You treasure them. I have a few of them. Like New Smyrna Beach and today – biking through the rice fields in Vietnam. Now, I just need to figure out how to bottle the thing.

Arriving in North Vietnam, Lao Cai

Train pulled into the Lao Cai station at 5:00 AM. Train lady banged on our door and screamed words I don’t understand. I’ve been awake for what seems like hours. I looked at my watch. The Chinese “Adidas” watch read 11:30 pm. Can’t be right.   It wasn’t.  Chinese battery died. Bought in China for $3. Lasted 5 weeks. Now, need to add battery to list of random purchases in Vietnam.

I kicked the top bunk. “Ang, is this our stop?” NO answer. Tour-Burn turns over. People were getting off the train. Wait, people who like look me were getting off the train.

I screamed, “Ang, is this our stop?” No answer. He was still asleep. I kicked the bunk hard with both feet. I felt like I was back at summer camp. I heard him grunt. Something moved.

Yes, this was our stop.  Time to cram and slam.

The boys were up and out in 3 mins while I was still shoving. Why is it boys are faster than girls? I mean, I could be tossing into a bag some lip gloss, sunscreen and a camera, and I’m still last. By this time, the train lady was peering in the window and screaming some Vietnamese mambo-jumbo. I waved back, raised my eyebrows and smiled.

The train corridors were even smaller than the Chinese trains. A six-foot gal caring a backpack and over-sized  bag could not fit.  It was not even 5:15 am, and I was sporting a sweat mustache.  Made it to the door. Tossed my bags. Jumped out. And, yes, I was proud to say, the last one to disembark.

The sun was making its entrance.  The town of Lao Cai welcomed us with honking horns and diesel fumes. We were not even out of the train parking lot and my short term memory kicked in. I thought, “OMG! I forgot my Kindle on the train. I don’t remember touching it.”

I panicked. Told Ang to stop. And, yelled, “Ang, hold it. I need to check my bag for something. Left something….left something…”

I mumbled and ripped open my bag. And, there it was. Laughing at me. My Kindle. “SUCKKKERRR!” Yea, ever since I left 1/6th of my stuff in Chiang Mai, the brain goes into “gotcha” mode when I cram and slam. Not fun.

I wheeled my half-opened bag across the parking lot and into a welcoming restaurant across the street. I spied ambiance.

Freshly squeezed OJ was waiting. Back to happy again. I headed straight to the washroom. Sitting toilets. With toilet paper. That flushed. Happy again.

For breakfast, they served Vietnamese/French banquette, fried eggs, cheese and butter. Happy again. You just got to love the positives from French occupation. Oh, almost forgot, the Vietnamese coffee was to die for. No need for chemicals or cream to dilute the taste. Yep, was happy again.

After breakfast, we waddled to the bikes. I changed into my biking outfit – H&M black leggings and the stretched out, Perfect Fit JCrew long sleeve T-shirt.

Ang raised my bike seat to its limit and said, “You big…” I tell him wrong word. We use the word “tall.” He just smiled.

Me: “Ang, how long is the ride today?”

Ang: “Morning ride is twenty-five kilometers.”

Me: “WHAT!  It sounds like a lot… I think it is 18 miles or so, right?  No hills, right?”

Ang ignored me. I continued to think this through. Have I ever biked 18 or 20 miles before? Can’t recall. Certainly NOT at a pub crawl at CSU (Colorado State University.) And, I believe that was the last time I was on a bike for any extended period of time.

We took off. It’s after 7 am and the little/big town of Lao Cai was waking up with a bang. Families gathered on mini-stools made for midgets. Kids lined up for breakfast from the street vendors.

Old women carried baskets of fruits and flip flops to sell at market. Random men readied themselves for a day of sitting, staring and spitting.

We peddled on.

Within minutes we were out of the diesel aroma and into rice-land. The scenery changed in seconds. Teen age girls were hand washing their clothes at the river. Or, hanging laundry by the road. Their mothers or older sisters were walking to the field with plows in one hand, basket in the other and a baby strapped on their back. Banana fields, green tea fields, rice fields, mango fields littered the landscape. Green screamed at us. The air was dry. It’s hoovered between 68 and 72 degrees. No humidity. No bugs. No motor-bikes. Just Silence. Pure silence. Expect me gasping for air. Happy again.

We hit our first hill. Wait, how do you shift gears? Which side is which? First hill was a disaster. Used all the wrong gears. Walked it. Tour-Burn was cycling patiently behind me. Poor thing. He stopped. Waited. Helped. So kind. It’s nice. I could not recall the last time a cute boy waited on me. Wait, let me rephrase that one. I don’t recall the last time I ALLOWED a cute boy to wait on me. Very different preposition. And, I liked it. Instead of bucking it, I just smiled. It was nice.

The whole morning was filled with Vietnamese adults and children running into the street and enthusiastically greeting us in their high pitched screams, “HI! HI! HELLO!” Their energy kept me moving. And, the mini-hills got better.

We stopped at one point to help a farmer. It’s sunny these next few days and perfect time to dry out corn along the road teaming with mack-trucks, motor-bikes and water buffalo. We helped him sort his corn and he just smiled and smiled and smiled.

The next thing I know, a heard of water buffalo trotted towards us being led by 10-year girls. School does not start until 11:00 am for the older kids, so they can help with farm chores before school.

I really couldn’t imagine walking the dog, let alone a heard of water buffalo, before school in fifth or sixth grade. No doubt, I would have pitched a fit and been grounded for weeks…

After 25 km, we finally stopped. The bike bus was waiting for us. Ang asked if we wanted to keep riding for another 20 km or take the bus to the restaurant. Honey, I was on a high. There was NO stopping me. I say – LETS’ do IT. Both boys nodded in agreement. Off we went. For another 20 km.

OK. About 10 mins into it, my butt froze. Muscle spasm. The pelvis was not used to this much moving, over such an extended period of time.

What was I thinking? I tried to channel this joy and happiness I was feeling earlier. It was difficult. How does Lawrence Armstrong do it?

My attitude changed when school was being let out and all the boys and girls filled the street – again waving at us and screaming “Hello! Hi!” They were SO happy to see us. They could not stop grinning and giggling and waving. Innocent little Vietnamese girls in oversized floppy pink hats, hello kitty back-packs and school uniforms rode along side of us. Their enthusiasm and laughter were intoxicating. I forgot about my paralyzed pelvis and focused on their smiles and hats. I wanted their HATS. I had to find their HATS. I’m buying those HATS…

By the last 3 km, my lower body was on fire. Ang was very far ahead of us. Sweet, patient Tour-Burn was riding next to me. I finally screamed out for Ang, and he just pointed. I could hear myself, “Pelvis is paralyzed…Need to stop…” Tour-Burn said Ang turned into the restaurant. We’re at the final destination. OK, back to happy again.

We cycled up. Stopped. My legs buckled and I fell off my bike. I tried to stretch. Tried to walk. Tried the outdoor toilet. Couldn’t feel a thing… Finally after 10 mins or so, synapses kicked in. I had feeling. And, lunch was waiting. I inhaled and even splurged on a REAL coke. Needed the sugar to help fight the numbness…

After inhaling, we loaded into a wooden boat and cruised down the river for 2 hours. In a matter of minutes, I zonked out. I was full, just biked 45+ km and the sound of the engine just put me out for the count.

When my eyes popped opened, beauty danced around me in the form of limestone mountains, green rice fields, dense jungles and tranquil water.

Of course, this scenery caused me to think not about beauty but about the US believing they could beat the Viet Cong? And, why does stuff like this pop in my mind, when I’m supposed to be relaxed in a beautiful setting? This has GOT to stop.

The boat motored on and we passed men on bamboo rafts dredging up sand from the river. The sand was needed for cement to build buildings, roads….

I wonder if they have a permit or anyone with an engine and some bamboo can extract sand from a river bed? No one could answer my question.

We motored onward.

I knew we arrived for I spied her first. It was a tree. She talked to me. How do I know this? She is one TALL tree. And, I’m TALL. Tall beings bond with each other. I’m sure short beings do the same. Katie, Daph and Chop please chime in here. Do cats and shrubs talk to you?

Tall tree stood out. Her branches reached to the heavens and roots dug deep into the ground. This tall mama has seen it all – French forces, US paratroopers and Viet Cong as well as the occasional water buffalo, pig and China man. She has stories to tell.

I forgot about my partially paralyzed pelvis and lept from my metal chair to take photos. I could not stop taking pictures. Every angle – every light. Boat man, slowed down. I thought he was being nice so I could take at least 100 more pics before my battery died. Nope. We were disembarking at the TALL TREE. Travel angels unite. I just smiled and said “hi” to the tree. I felt protected here – protected from yellow fever, rabbis, mosquitoes and food poison. I belonged.

Tonight, we were to stay with an ethnic tribe. I believe only 10% of the Vietnam population is considered ethnic. This tribe is called Thai, but pronounced as DAY. Yep, I knew it. These are my peeps.

After photographing the tree, my battery died. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. The Day tribe is one big fat Kodak moment. Man, I hope this village has electricity. I spotted a wire in the distance. I walked towards the wire.

Ang shouted, “Amanda – this way…” I had to figure out where wire goes. I felt like a heroin addict needing a fix…

Need a few electrons. Just one electron will do – Give it to me now.

I pulled out my American hat – “Ang, do these people – the Day tribe – have power? Battery died. Needs recharging – We’re talking crisis here…” He smiled. “Yes, have power…Goes out at night.” All I heard was “yes and electrons.” Confident my people would have access to electrons.

The Day tribe daughter welcomes us to her bamboo home on stilts wearing her red PJ’s, accented with the Burberry design pattern. Red is my favorite color. Plus, she is wearing an oversized light blue, silk pock-a-dot floppy hat. Want the hat. Of course, she’s a DAY.

Found out later, she is a little over 40 and just had her second child. Her little girl is now one. Day village daughter looks all of 30. I wanted to take a picture, but was too embarrassed. Ang told me that her older son is 19. He’s off – carousing in the town and won’t return back to the village. Day girl wanted a girl, for girls take care of their mommies and daddies. So, her kids are almost 20 years apart. Wow…

Ang took us on a sightseeing mission of the Day Village. The village seemed sooo remote. We put-putted for over 2 hours to get here. Ang told us that the town where we ate lunch is only 7 km away and remember our little boat never went over 3 mph. So, bug spray and Coke Zero are right around the corner. Nice to know.

We came across a little girl cleaning rice with a Whirlpool fan. She looked like a mini-rice terrorists with her black scarf around her head. She’s about 14 and it’s her job to get rid of the unwanted rice kernels. Seriously, I will never look at rice the same. It’s HARD work. A lot of labor. And, I will assert Mr. Uncle Ben should be charging triple.

Next, we walked over to the loud noises. Hammering and music. This is where the men were. Shock city. They’re not sitting and sipping, they building a pagoda for the monks. The village has collected money to build a formal praying area for the local monks. The village does not have a hospital, but will have an oversized monk place to pray. Good to know. After our walk about, we headed back to the bamboo house on stilts for dinner. Another amazing V-nam meal. We inhaled. Then, curled up in our mosquito nets. The boys slept. I typed. Want to remember every moment of this day, even the pelvis pain.

Rise & Shine

My eyes flew open around 5 am. Roosters crowing. Pigs grunting. Birds twirping. Geese landing on our bamboo roof. Two snoring men next to me wrapped in mosquito nets.

My body was still. Mind just absorbing the sounds. I’m waking up with the Day tribe. I feel so blessed to be here. How am I here? Seriously. How in the world am I curled up in a mosquito net, sleeping on a bamboo mat in Northern Vietnam. How? It truly is a wonder. I wake amazed and grateful everyday. And, I’m not just saying that – I hate it when people say stuff like that because it sounds so annoying. You just want to smack them. I mean, waking up happy, joyful and excited to be alive? How is this possible? Well, I can’t tell you how, just can tell you I am.

The mosquito net stirred next to me. The noise of birds landing on the roof must have stirred Tour-burn. My brain goes to “I need to get up…need to go to the bathroom…need to…” But, my spirit said. “Be still. Stay still. And, talk to me.” I did the later.

The boys stirred around 7 am. Breakfast was around 7:30 am. Green tea. Crepes. Bananas. Sugar. We inhaled and then hiked through the Day village, observing their morning rituals. Some women were up early, washing clothes… veggies… babies. Other women were heading out to the fields. Sweeping their floors.

Tots with no underwear were running around. I finally figured out why village kids don’t wear pants. Diapers are too expensive or non-existent. Cloth diapers are too expensive or a pain to wash. They teach the kids how and where to pee and poop as soon as soon as they can crawl. It’s potty training at is finest people…

We hiked for an hour or so then our bus drove us to Day 2 of our bike trek through Northern Vietnam. This was the strenuous stretch day, whatever that means. I’m just happy to be here. Just happy.

Who is Ho Chi? Hanoi, Vietnam.

10 Dec

Governor's Palace. Built by the French.

A quick recap of Day 1 of touring in Hanoi…

Ang picked up the Norwegian, Tour-Burn, and I bright and early to do Hanoi – four or five hours of walking through air conditioned buildings here we come….

The first stop was the Governor’s mansion.   Ang talked.  Pictures say it all.  It’s huge.  French.  Palatial.  Beautiful.  And, French.  That was all I remember.

Next stop, was Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.

Ang instructed us to get into line.  He said, “Follow the people. I met you on other side…”  I assumed, Ang was over the museum tours.  I get it.  I’ve been doing this for 45 mins, and already feel my mind turning to mush.  It’s information overload.

The more the lined move, the more soldiers greeted us with stern looks.  I turned to Tour-Burn, “Waaaait.. We are at a tomb.  Does this mean we’re seeing dead people?  Are we lining up to see a Ho Chi?”

Tour-Burn nodded like, “duh!”   Sooo, not up for this.  But, what was I going to do. The line moved forward. Mostly Chinese and French tourists.

The V-nam soldiers were militant in making sure the tourists were in a single file line, with arms at our sides.  NO talking, no hats, no pushing…  I was behind some French folks who paid no attention to the rules.  They got whacked by V-nam military man.  I mean, whacked the man’s arms because they were not at his side.  Another V-nam military man pointed at French woman’s mouth for talking.

Where are we?

Tour-Burn and I walked in. Dead Ho Chi is laid out in a glass case.  He does not look like he’s “resting in peace.”  There were four young military men guarding his glass tomb.  I was more interesting in their expressions, than the Dead Ho Chi.  They’re eyes starred straight forward.  Body erect. No movement. Talk about a bad job. I wonder if this post is a punishment or an honor. They stand there for an hour or two, then relieved from their post, according to Ang.

Ho Chi Minh has moved up to saint-hood in Vietnam, like Mao, Lenin, Stalin and the rest of the communist dictators who killed, bribed and blackmailed to get what they wanted. Though, Ho Chi seemed a little different.  He tried to live out his ideal –  “equality for all” and “for the people.” For example, he refused to live in fancy French Governor’s mansion and built a bamboo house on stilts on the mansion’s grounds.   He wanted to show the people he was serious — he lived like them, not like a king.

Who’s Ho Chi?

I found out that you need to get an idea of this Ho Chi Minh if you are going to understand the Vietnamese people or the V-nam War.  I don’t recall ever studying Mr. ho Chi in High School.  That being said, I don’t remember the periodic table either or the square root of Pi.

Ho Chi was a smart man. He morphed into becoming a communist for many reasons, one in particular was his  failed attempts to get America’s attention.  He reached out for help, and we said, “Uhhh…don’t think so.”   Yep…that’s right. We did our part in creating another fascist despot….

Ho Chi’s quick soundbite is he led the V-nam communist/nationalist movement for 30 years.  He fought and defeated the Japanese, French and US-backed South Vietnamese and  became president of NORTH Vietnam from 1954 and until his death and embalming in 1969.

If we go deeper, we learn he is an educated, well-traveled man. After he graduated from university, he worked as a teacher and then a cook aboard a French steam ship.  Later, he did odd jobs like a photo retoucher before Adobe photo-shop.

And, when not working and traveling, he inhaled all books about socialism, communism and history from the greats. He lived in USA, England, China, USSR and France. In France, he was one of the founding members of the French communist party. Nice….

Well, rumor has it requested a meeting with Woodrow Wilson, while the Prez was in France signing the treating to end World World I.

Ho Chi intent was to obtain US help in booting out the French for they were abusing V-nam.  Prez. Wilson declined the invitation.  Hind Sight 20/20, you have to wonder how V-nam would have been different today if Wilson had the meeting…

Ho Chi Minh accepted the rejection and established the French Communist Party.  Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying, “It was patriotism, NOT communism, that inspired me.”  Yea, and being shafted by the US government…

Next on the docket of Ho Chi was he jumped to Moscow to learn how to “liberate people,” from an organization created by Lenin.  He soon became a spy for USSR. Then, headed to China and formed another communist party to help V-nam become independent from French control.

He was arrested by the Brits in Hong Kong.  Served 2 years.  And, went back to the land of Red – China – to serve as an adviser to the Red Army.

In his spare time, he built of V-nam communism support to kick out the French.    His followers – or soldiers – later became known as the Viet Cong.

WW II happened.  And the karaoke loving Japanese invaded Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) claiming to be French liberators.  PSYCH!  Instead, the jovial Japanese turned into ostentatious occupiers.  Ho Chi was not a happy camper and ramped up V-nam resistance to kick out all occupiers.

Ho Chi knocked on the Land of the Free – America – one more time.  He was seeking assistance to boot the Japanese and help to make V-nam independent. But, his invitation was declined, again…. So, Ho Chi ramped it up another notch and killed, maimed and injured the occupiers.  Japan relinquished control of V-nam in 1945.

After WWII, France was poor and reeling from the war but they refused to give up V-nam.

War broke out between the French and Vietnamese.

Ho Chi said he will not stop until France is out.  V-nam jungle warfare in its infancy…

Finally, an agreement was made and endorsed by France, Britain, China, Soviet Union and US.  It split V-nam in half – like Korea – into the North and South. North was controlled by Ho Chi, the communist – and backed by USSR.  China was not happy about this… And, non-communist south became a democracy.

South Vietnam was screwy.   Weak.  And, under poor management.  President Dwight Eisenhower sent direct aid to South Vietnam’s government starting in 1954 for Ho Chi – supported by the USSR – was making in roads into South Vietnam.

Ho Chi was out for blood.  He ramped up killings in the south, assassinating over 40,000 civilians – government officials, intellectuals…. South V-nam responded by arresting anyone who may be a communist. They eliminated about 20,000+.

Around 1959, V-nam was on the break of a full-fledged CIVIL WAR, which they later refer to as the AMERICAN war.  Did NOT learn that in history… That’s right.

Vietnam calls  call THEIR civil war the American War.  Guess they learned revisionist history from the Russians…

Focus.  Around 1961, President Kennedy sent more aid to S. V-nam, providing  millions in military equipment for S. Vietnamese troops. Later that year, US military  started to train  S. Vietnamese military to annihilate, asphyxiate, and assassinate North V-nam army, the Viet Cong.

The people in the “know” claimed Kennedy  wanted to pull out later that year, but was assassinated before he could implement his program. Then, came Johnson…

USSR was funding Viet Cong. US funding S. V-nam.  Meanwhile, around 1965 S. V-nam becomes destabilized with a series of government coups. In essence, no one was minding the store in S. Vietnam.    Because of the destabilization, US sent more troops and money as does Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and Philippines to help S. Vietnam troops.

We know the rest of the story. We get more and more involved, for we are now fully engaged in a civil war to stop the spread of communism in a place where majority of Americans can’t locate on a map. War spreads to Cambodia and Laos, for Ho Chi convinced these countries to house Viet Cong guerrillas.

Ho Chi’s people also convinces Pol Pot, Cambodia’s  Rouge Leader who later killed 1/4 of his country’s population , that if he played nice, Pol Pot can have Saigon – South Vietnam’s capital.  Pol Pot agreed.  Viet Cong troops use Southern Cambodia to attack US troops and S. Vietnamese troops in Saigon.

Ho Chi dies in 1969. Nixon is elected on “a plan to stop war.” Has no plan. War escalates. Americans are angry. It was this anger and politics that forced the US to pull out.   It was not until 1973, a treaty was signed for all US troops to be withdrawn. We left as fast as possible.

Once US pulled out, then Communist ate the south and killed S. V-nam troops, intellectuals, government officials – anyone who is against Communist.  Saigon never went to Cambodia.  The communist changed the S. V-nam’s capital name to Ho Chi Minh in 1975.  Communist — or the North – have  full control of V-nam by 1976.

So, N. V-nam eliminated all “capitalists” by sending them to “re-education” or death camps.  Other S. V-name people were forced to relocate from urban to rural areas to become farmers. Around 70,000 S. V-nam were executed and over 100,000 die in camps.

Estimates say one-million South V-nam fled their homeland during this time. US welcomed many – CELEBRATE Nail technicians and V-nam restaurants NOW! So, next time you’re getting your toes done, ask the older ladies where they are from. I bet they are from S. Vietnam.  Ask them about their stories…

Anyway, US imposes an embargo and severs any diplomatic relations with Vietnam.  USSR funds V-nam. It wasn’t until USSR declared bankruptcy and communism “fell” that V-nam turned from “equality for all communist” to “capitalism for all communist.”

In 1994, US lifts trade embargo. Clinton visits in 2000. In 2005, Vietnamese communist Prime Minister visits US for the first time since end of V-nam war and meets with US President George Bush to talk trade and relationships. Now, US is V-nams biggest trading partner, with US$7 billion+ in V-name exports to US.

With this information, you’re now a wanna-be expert on V-nam. I did not know ANY of this until I entered this country.  (Don’t tell!  I’m embarrassed..)

I just thought – well, nothing.  Never gave the V-nam war details a thought. But, understanding V-nam history puts the whole country and its people in proper context.

It’s a new country. New to capitalism. Young. Vibrant. Creative. It’s says it’s still communist – one party – but its people are slowly changing it. They speak up. Scream.  Write graffiti. And, think, unlike the Chinese.  Give it time.  Just give it time…

*Information came from conversations and Wikipedia.

Good Morning Vietnam. Hanoi.

10 Dec

It’s 10:04 pm. Everyone is asleep. Train just pulled out of the station. In route to some random village near the Chinese/Laos border.

That’s right. You heard me. I’m on another train. Just when you thought I kicked my train days to the curb, I come crawling back for one more round of bunk beds, dirty pillows and stand-up toilets. It’s addicting.

As much as I make fun of trains, there is something about train travel that gives you sense of place. Sense of purpose. I mean, you are going somewhere… You ride through fields, villages, towns, and cities and peek into people’s lives – what they eat, shows they watch, cigs they smoke, booze they drink, motor-bikes they ride… You witness  inequality and injustice at its best.

Flying  is just a quick up and down in a sheet of metal, glued to a micro-mini chair, reclined at an 85.9% angle.  Plane travel is where you plaster your most proper “eat shit and die look” to beat back those close-talking extroverts, crying babies and drunk men.

Where am I?

Let me back up here. I flew from Bangkok to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines yesterday evening. I’ve been here for one full day…

Hanoi is the capital cit of Vietnam and the land of French-A-Fied style and 3 million motor-bikes. The French colonized – “occupied” as the Vietnamese like to say – the country off and on from 1873 until the 1950s.

Going to sound bad, but if you were to be “occupied” by anyone during that time, I would choose the French.  I mean, the French have French kisses, French Bread, French Braids……. Need I say more?

Walk the streets of Hanoi today and you’ll come across real, live French bakeries with real, live bread…  French bread sandwiches with pork or fish paste is a common food on the street as are crepes with sugar, honey or whatever you want.  V-nam absorbed the French influence on food, architecture, deign but missed the boat on wine. There is nothing French about fermented rice wine. Nothing.

Adventure what?

On the plane from Thailand to Vietnam, I decided it was time to read more about this thing called “Adventure Touring Through North Vietnam.”  I’m with this group for 12 days and can’t even fathom what we will be doing…

Reread the first paragraph.  Stopped.  I mean, what was I thinking???

Biking between 20 to 30 miles a day, trekking through rice fields, climbing mountains, kayaking for days and staying with villagers in bamboo huts. The huts don’t bother me, it’s the biking… I haven’t ridden a bike since college.   And, I have nothing to wear.  I packed for a 7 month journey around the world, not 12 days of sweating, groaning and moaning…

Ang, from the adventure travel agency, greeted me at the airport. Young. Great smile. Athletic. I’m already sore.

We loaded my luggage into the car and set off for the hotel in Hanoi. He said the two other people in the group canceled because they have VISA problems. Hate that word.

I asked, “Where are they from?” And, replied, “US…” Really? Hmmmm… Anyway, Ang followed up, “Only two foreigners now in group. Me, you and man from Norway.” Yep, Scandinavia is traveling. They are everywhere. I guess they’re getting in one last dose of Vitamin D before day turns to night and green turns to white. I just hope he is not socially slow. Or, the super outdoorsy.

Ang told me about Hanoi in route. A city of six to seven million – mere village to China’s standards. A lot of French influence since they were occupied by them for many years. I added, “what about China influence since they occupied you for a 1,000 years?” Ang, laughed. “Yea, we have A LOT of China influence – too much influence. China will eat us one day…” I laughed too. I think I’m going to like Ang.

Ang is around 25 or 26. The youngest of five. From Halong Bay area in Northern V-nam. He is the only one in his family that went to University. By the way, only 5% of the population goes to University in Vietnam. Go communism!

His brother recently died of lung cancer from working in the coal mines. He was 35. His Dad died too of lung cancer – coal miner. His sister transports V-nam goods to the Chinese border. We call it “import/export” business in US. She has a “retail” store at the market, but Ang said she doesn’t work hard. She only opens the store when she’s happy. I asked, “well how often is she happy…” He said, “Not often.”

We pulled up the hotel.Hidden among vendors selling counterfeit clothes and shoes. Very nice. I’ve return to my roots – a 2.8 star hotel. Liking it. I bet they have real mattresses in Vietnam.

The porter takes my bags up to my room. I told him – “No, no worries. It rolls. I do it…” He did not listen. We go to the room. He drops off my bags and stands there. I have no money. Did not go to ATM. Plus, I do not know tipping customs in this country.

I said, “No money yet. Need to go to ATM. Later?” His mood changed. He swings his body around. Hurls a few words at me. And slams the door. Nice welcome buddy. I think to myself, “great he will tell the cook and they will poison my breakfast. Have an upset stomach for the first 3 days of cycling. I better go to the ATM and fast.” Wait… If I were from Norway or Sweden – or other non tipping countries – what would he do. Not all countries tip. When he asked where I was from – he inferred $$. I hate that. So, I debated to tip or not on principal.

I walked around Hanoi that night. Got lost as usual. Instead of getting lost on the counterfeit  purse row, I scored the barbie and stuff animal street. Two streets that hold zero interests. I had to get out of here. But, how. I have no map. And, neglected to get the hotel card. An older woman carrying about 30 pounds of bananas, pineapples and assorted fruits was trotting down the street wearing her bamboo hat. Stopped to take a picture. She smiled. Trotted over. “I take picture of you?”

The next thing I know, she throws the bamboo rod over my shoulder and grabs my camera and takes a picture. Ahhhh… She’s a pro. I know now it’s my cue to give her a dollar or something. She says, “$200,000 Dong (VND).” First of all, this whole currency thing has thrown me for a loop. I went to the ATM earlier and pulled out $2,000,000 VND. It’s equivalent to $100 US. But, does my bank back home REALLY know that?

I got in a pseudo-fight with the post office lady when buying stamps earlier. She said stamps were $150,000 VND.  At that point, I thought the currency was 20:1. Not, 20,000:1. I was like “No way. Stamps can NOT cost that much in Vietnam.”

We went back and forth about it – neither one of us speaking our language. She got so annoyed with me, she closed the stamp book and told me to leave. Yes, got kicked out of the Vietnamese post office. If only I could do math – The stamps came to $8 US, not $80 US.

Back to old lady with the bananas. I said, “Wait… wait… Let me do calculations. This is like $10 US. NO. NO. Way to much… her happy smiles goes to anger in a second. I don’t care. Not ripping off this tallgirl tonight. I handed her $50,000 VND. We’re talking about a little over $2 and that was too much. She gave me a once over. Forced a grin. Her no teeth flashing at me. Rattled something incoherent. And, trotted off searching for her next tourists victim. I bet she makes more $$ than the street vendors.

I made my way down Barbie street and ended up at the lake. The lake is in the center of Hanoi. Mopeds flying by. Ang told me there was a grocery store near the lake. I was in need of a Gillette razor.

Lost the razor back in China. Seem to be leaving something in each country. So, I’ve been using a swiped razor for the last few weeks. Found out the hard way why a razor is a good investment.

I walked around the lake and found the grocery store. My word, it’s legit. I see named brands. And, they have refrigeration so their milk and yogurt is lukewarm too.  V-nam is beating China in the grocery department… Of course, the grocery gals followed me through each aisle ensuring I don’t steal noodles or packaged meat paste. Headed upstairs to the toiletry/ cosmetics floor. And, guess what, I found a Gillette razor for $15 US dollars.

Sat there for a good 20 mins in silence debating whether or not I was going to buy the stupid thing. I did “pro con pro….” I thought, “$15 US? It goes far and I can use the money for 10 taxis or 5 t-shirts…Do I really need this razor?” Then, went to the other side of $15. I rationalized, “It’s is a good martini at a fancy restaurants or six draft beers at a bad one…” Got mad at myself for wasting time debating the cost of razor. I finally bought the damn thing and my legs have NOT been happier.

The next day, our mini-group met for the first time. Meaning, I met the Norwegian and he met the American he would be spending WAY too much time with. Poor guy. Did not know what was about to hit him. His name is LONG and unpronounceable for the linguistically challenged.

I smiled, shook his hand and thought, I have to figure out how to say his name. I mean, we are going to be spending some quality time together, and I need the name. It took me the entire day until I asked him to spell his name. He did. Torbjørn. And, his name has funky Norwegian letters in it too.

I asked if we could comprise and I could call him, Tour-Burn. He did not mind. You have to feel sorry for him. I did.   And, we just met…


Swipping Spa Underwear. Thailand

28 Nov

At spa in Ko Samui, Thailand

Who swipes spa-underwear in Thailand? Me. I’m becoming one of “those” people — a hoarder.  I swipe hotel shampoos, soaps, shower caps, cotton balls, Q-tips… Well, anything free at a zero, one or two star hotel.   And, I’m wondering why my bag is getting so heavy.  I just can’t give up my Crabetree and Evelyn mini-shampoo from the Hilton in Beijing.  Or, my sugar spice soap from Bhutan.  Just can’t…

So, I’ve moved on to swiping underwear.  It all started in Chiang Mai at The Chedi hotel.  They give you underwear made out of pantyhose for the massages.  They are actually pretty comfortable.  I accidentally walked out with them on — So, there is NO way I was going to return them to the spa-lady after the fact.

You see, I’ve been leaving my underwear behind in random places and random countries.  I hand wash them.  Hang them up and then forget about them.  One pair of Hanky Pankies flew off my balcony in Krakow and landed somewhere in the middle of the square.  Another pair escaped me on the Trans-Siberian toilet.   Hung them up in rank train toilet while brushing my teeth in rank water.  Then, walked out.  Robust Russian Train Lady swiped them.  I can go on and on…

Now, I’m at places where they give you pantyhose underwear with your massage.  Granted — they are ugly as mud.  And, will disintegrate after two hand washes.  No matter.  I have a head massage this afternoon and plan on taking a few pairs.  Seriously, I  need to be put in a time out.  I know this is getting bad. I’m just cheap or  deranged.  I can say, both.

At Kamalaya — spa/wellness camp where majority travel afar to have their colon’s cleaned, loose the flab or find themselves – there is a tray FULL of pantyhouse underwear for the taking in the woman’s locker room.  What do I do?

Oh, I guess you want to know why in the world am I at Kamalayayaya?  Not for those things mentioned above.  For me, I came for the yoga, massages and fluffy pillows.  AND, to get back on track in the consumption and gluttony department.  Living off of beer, dumplings, meat, noodles, and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner weighs you down.  Or, weighs your figure down.  Going to eat healthy for ONE full week.

And, you are probably asking, why don’t I just buy some new underwear.  Much harder than you think.  Besides being an amazon in countries where  LARGE is a small petite in US sizes, underwear is sold in open, street markets.   So, who knows how long they’ve sitting out there.  How many animals, insects, moldy men have touched them.  Or, better yet, how do you know if they haven’t been used. Nope.

On top of that, you have to bargain to wear them.  Who bargains for underwear.  It’s nope again.  So, I’ve taken to swiping.  I hope the pantyhose spa underwear can get me through to South Africa and onward to Australia…  I know there’s legit shopping in Australia… Has to be…

Arrived at the Spa. Ko Samui, Thailand

28 Nov

These last two days have been interesting. I’ve been staying in a town near Krabi, Thailand. It’s on the west coast of Thailand overlooking the Andaman Sea.   Beautiful. Peaceful.  Been holed up in a hotel called Nak-AMANDA, only 500 meters away from a 7-11.  Yes, was meant to be..

My next stop is the eastern side of Thailand to an island called Ko Samui, on the Gulf of Thailand.  I booked a spa/wellness retreat for a few days.

Apparently, they’ve been experiencing some rain on Ko Samui. Some is NOT the appropriate word. The rain closed down the airport. Rain. Not, thunder. Not, lightening. But, rain. So, I was taken back when the Bangkok Airlines lady told my flight was canceled because it’s raining? And, by the way, here is your money. Never before has an airline been so eager to give back my $$.

Bangkok Airways lady: “I refund your $$$…”

Me: “ I don’t want my money. I want a flight to Ko Samui.

BA lady: “I give you back money..”

Me, “When is your next flight?”

BA Lady:” Tomorrow – but another storm comes… I give you back money.”

I knew that the plane would have to eventually fly. So, I told her I would be back and put myself in time out. Grabbed some peanuts and tried to figure out my next move. The positive is I needed to do shopping for I left a bunch of stuff in Northern Thailand at the The Chedi Hotel at Chiang Mai. The negative is I’m going to miss a full day of yoga at Kamalaya wellness spa. I know. I know. I don’t even do yoga… Can’t even touch my toes. But, these two things were weighing on my mind.

Fast forward. Had to find ATM. Took the escalator downstairs at the Krabi Airport. Passed by a tourist table with two young girls eating noddles. Instead of spending hours on the internet locating a legit hotel close to the airport, I approached their counter and asked questions. They were excited to have a customer. “This hotel good….” I asked the price… And, commented, “Yea, this hotel IS good…Too $$. Try again…”

After I got a feeling of what is out there, I walked back upstairs to Bangkok Airways and told the lady to rebook me for tomorrow’s flight. No money back. I want to leave. The bus/ferry took over a day. And, I was not going to do that. A flight had to leave…. one day…

She thought I was crazy, but rebooked my flight. And, I went back to the girls and paid for a hotel in Ao Nang. And, off I went. The brochure said, “hotel is on the water…” It is NOT on the water. It is across the street from the water, hidden by trees. You can barely see the water. No matter. I have a room but no WiFi. The hotel wanted to charge me $40 a day for internet. Fat chance.

Walked into my room. It’s clean. No bugs. One shower cap. We’re back to a one star. I throw on my flip flops and set off to shop. I hate shopping. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Especially market shopping for you have to haggle. And, they all follow you around. Not my idea of a good time. But, I need a skirt and clothes for humid, tropic climate. So, I was acting like this was FUN. The day was beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky. There is NO rain people…

Well, I spied a market stall for big people. The guy did not seem like a perv. And the clothes look clean. I walked in. He did not bother me. So far, so good. I just wanted a solid color flowy skirt with a thick elastic waist band that expands when you eat too much rice and drink too much beer. All these flowy skirts are multicolored and super, duper-hippie. I’m going out on a limb with the flowy skirt thing. It’s not my style. But, I just can’t stomach the psychedelic, “I drop acid” look. Just looking for primary colors. Oh, in the corner. My fingers searched the solid skirt rack. Looks like theses skirts will disintegrate after one wash. Good thing I hand wash garments in the bathroom sink.

Found a black skirt with a REAL coconut on the belt. The dude walked over and thought the coconut was the selling point. Fat chance. I was yanking this ugly, piece of ply-wood off ASAP. We haggled. He started at $15. I asked if he has ever heard of Wal-Mart? At Wal-Mart I would pay $8. And, you’re not Wal-Mart. So, let’s start at $3. We went back and forth. Got the black skirt with a coconut for $6. Still paid too much. Damn dollar is too weak. I also bought a long sleeve shirt to protect my cancer attracting white arms. He tried to sell me a dress. I told him the dress is too short for my boobs are not that close to my neck. I don’t think he got it. But, I scored. Black flowy skirt and long sleeve shirt. Honey, I’m a backpacker-cool girl. Don’t you know it… Right.

I walked through Ao Nang and decided I was beat. Needed a massage for $5. Prices are going up on massages. I walked into one place and walked out. I think they do “funny” business in there. It smelled wrong. The next place, three men sat in the lobby. Another bad sign. My fourth place was perfect. I asked for a head and neck massage. And, 3 mins later, shirt is off and she is walking on my lower back. Did not realize this was included. Not sure if I liked it. But after her stomping, she rubbed some fab oil on my neck and hair. I was relaxed in no time. All for $5.

Went out to dinner. Met some cool folks from Australia. They are traveling for ONLY 4 weeks. Ugh. They are sad. Just got here two days ago. They were telling where I must go in Australia. I told them I was set up with my new BFFers I met in China. Cool couple. Young.

So, next day, I head back to the airport. Not a cloud in the sky. Dark clouds loom far away. I bet that is Ko Samui. I was right. Flight delayed because of rain. Got to be kidding! An hour later, we finally board the plane. Only 5 people on a 30 seater. I guess Bangkok Airways lady did a great job refunding everyone’s money.

Landed in Ko Samui. We’re talking about massive flooding. It’s raining. The streets are underwater. People are using bamboo rafts to get across the road. A little dude from the spa picks me up in a big, pick-up truck. Four wheel drive. Looks like he’s been mudding. If it gets me to the final destination, don’t care about the transport. Off we went. Heading to Kamalya for one week of eating well, sleeping well, exercising well and trying all those things I would never do in the US like Chinese medicine, Astrology, Indian head massages, Acupuncture, strange yoga… Can’t wait. Blog is officially closed.

Tiger Woods. Krabi, Thailand

28 Nov

It hit me the other day. Why Thai people are obsessed with Tiger Woods.

In other countries, the non-English taxi drivers only know two words: Obama…Bush…”

In Thailand, it’s different. The only two words they know are: “Tiger Woods.”  At first, I thought it was a nation obsessed with golf.  Then, I met a Thai man who elaborated.

“Ah…Tiger Woods. Yes.  He hero… Our people love Tiger. Mom is Thai. Dad is American.  Met during American war.  He married her. Took her America. She has rich son.  No worry… Thai women want good life with western, rich man…Want a to marry a father like Tiger, no?”

Got it. It clicked. Vietnam War started this fantasy trend of the Western male rescuing poor Thai women.  And, Tiger Woods’  mother perpetrated this myth for she married a Western male and produced a super talented, promiscuous son.  She’s the poster child for possibilities for Thai women.  Just one more reason to celebrate our Tiger Woods…

Yesterday, I did the tourist thing. Took a boat cruise to four Thai islands off the coast of Krabi. You know, one of those tourist junkets where you load up about twenty on a boat carved out of wood and motor to “four islands in six hours.”

It was here I met a REAL one – young Thai bride and an old fart. Found each other in a chat room. Married a year later. He works in Baghdad. She still lives with her mom.

Quick description. He’s about 60+. Arms, shoulders and ankles colored with military symbols and lady tattoos. Skin soaked with either age spots or scars. Bald head wrapped tightly in a light purple dew-rag bandana. Extra skin protrudes around the edges. From his neck, dangles purple polarized glasses.

Looked to be missing back teeth. Bottom teeth were brown from coffee, tobacco or bad hygiene.  Blue long swim trunks pulled tight around his middle. Black muscle t-shirt pulled tightly around his beer belly and arms. Thick ankles.  Thick neck. Thick hands. Heineken in hand at 9 AM. Oh, forgot about the gold studded pierced tongue. In other words, cruise into any dive bar – from a biker bar to fish-camp bar, and you’re likely to find his twin brother.

Thai girl? She’s about 20 or younger. Long black hair, later found out they were extensions. Tan skin. Plucked eyebrows. Purple eyebrow pencil. Angelina Jolene lips. Full set of white teeth. Dainty hands. Petite ankles. Flat tummy with two gold belly piercings. Matching, gold studded tongue piercing. Tattoos on her thumb and wrists. Itsy-bitsy black bikini.  Mini-diamond ring. Looks like she’s been through a hair removal program.

Question was how to strike up a conversation. Couldn’t just say, “Hey, did you buy the bride?” No. Had to go covert.

As I waited for our boat, I found some children, birds and trash to play with. Cute kids. Need to understand Thai’s fascination with birds and bird cages though.

Anyway, the boat pulled up. I followed the couple onto the boat. They headed to the front and I followed.

There was another couple perched up front. Found out later from Finland. I squished my body next to them. Smiling all the time. Old Fart and Young Bride sat across. Mission accomplished.

We pulled up at our first island. Jumped off. They walked ahead of me. I noticed my camera card was full. Found a cave.  A cave of fertility. Not the cave I was looking for. It’s the cave where Thai women worshiped wooden dildos. We’re talking all sizes. All colors. All shapes. A true Kodak moment. Put some pictures in below. For full enjoyment, check out the photo album to the left of this posting.

Before I could immortalize the hundreds of dildos on my camera, I had to delete pictures. I sat my tall frame on a mini-rock, away from the monkeys, and near the bride, groom and dildo shrine, to delete photos. Old Fart and Young Thai walked into the cave. Seemed not to be surprised by the hundred of dildos plastered, hanging and protruding.

Old Fart, in a thick-drawl, “better pics around the corner…better views..” I told him about my camera problems. He laughed. She laughed. He initiated conversation. SCORE! I’m in.

Screw the view. I’m shooting the dildos. The Goddesses are going to LOVE their smiling faces pushed up next to dildos the size of orange traffic cones. What makes it even more funny is the Goddesses all have kids. Their issue IS fertility.

It begins to rain. We all get back on the boat. Same places. Old Fart starts the conversation..

Old Fart: “Did you get some good photos? Get the view?”

Me: “Yes. Thank you….Where are you all from?”

Old Fart: “I’m from Fort Worth. They call it Dallas, Fort Worth – but it’s just Fort Worth. Retired US Marine. Served 38 years. If my back did not go out, I would still be serving. In the construction business. In Baghdad. Got some time off to see my wife.”

They smile. I smile at them. Nod.

Me: “So, how did you meet?”

Old Fart: “Chat room. I pursued her for a full year before she said she would marry me. Traveled to Bangkok twice.  Even met her mom…Went after her hard….”

She smiles. Nods. Smiles at him. Barely touches him… I take notice.

Old Fart continues, “I live Baghdad. She lives in Bangkok with her mom. I come to Bangkok whenever I can get off. I have three weeks off now. Longest off in a while. Got married last year. I hate the city. I told her, I can’t live in the city. So, we go to the Thai islands when I come…

Now, you need to see other Thai islands…. there is a nude beach on the other side. Great beach. Not as rough as this water. We like the nude beaches.  Get a full tan…”

He smiles. I see his brown teeth for the first time. He turns and grins at her, reaching for her hand.  She smiles back and squeezes his hand.

Me: “Yea, not into the nude beach scene…. I burn easy….Pale skin. I have to cover up… Skin cancer…”

He did not hear a word of what I said. Only thing he heard was “PRUDE” girl. Yea, I would think the same thing if I were him.  I wanted to add that I steer clear of nude beaches because I don’t want to see people like you fully exposed….

Finish man next to me: “What part of England are you from?” This question was directed at me. England? Wow. Do I sound that proper? Intelligent? Uptight. LOVE THIS!

Me: “I’m not from England. I’m from Florida.”

Try that response sometime and imagine the expression. Finish man looks at his wife and they quickly converse in Finish.

Me: “Yea.  That’s right.  I’m from Florida. Disney World? Micky Mouse?  Do I sound English to you? Proper? Smart?”

Finish: “You no sound like American…Your accent good. Me, I learned English from the Russians. American accent is hard to understand..I understand British and Russian English accent….”

Russians again… They are EVERYWHERE…

Me: “You learned English from the Russians? Do you know how strange that sounds to me? I don’t understand.”

Finish: “Yes.  I was in the Finish Coast Guard. Now retired. Did a lot of work with Russians.  Finland and Russia have a long history – not a good history. Now, I do work in Antarctica…”

Me: “You mean the Arctic. It’s closer…right?”

Finish: “No. Go to Antarctica. Very cold. Not much fun. Nothing to do. A lot of research… I get away from Russia, no?” He starts to laugh. I don’t get the joke, but I have a feeling his slamming the Russians.

Me: “I’m from Florida. I don’t understand the desire to live, work or sleep near the arctic circles…Not fond of penguins and polar bears. Take  a liking to alligators, sharks and mosquitoes…”

Finish man looks confused, as I intended. I laughed. Sometimes I just crack myself up at others’ expense. When you’re traveling alone, you have to do this sometime —

The boat stops at another island. It looks the same. The smiley tour guide gives us a long explanation of the island. He talks about a sandbar. He’s really excited about the sandbar as are other people who are not from Florida or lives near an ocean. I didn’t hear any of it. I wanted to be back in the conversation with the Old Fart and Young Thai.

I did the obligatory walk across the sandbar to another island.  It was very pretty – don’t get me wrong. Breathtaking. I found a toilet on the other island, so it was worth the walk.

Also, I found interesting the Thai bathing suit attire. If you are not cozening up next to an old, hairy, white, fat male, then the Thai women wear surf shorts and t-shirts. No bathing suits. The Indian couple with beautiful dark skin swapped out their surf shorts for leggings and a long sleeve shirts. The only ones wearing actual swimsuits showing obscene skin were the Europeans, Scandinavians, Canadians, Australians and Americans.  All the ones more prone to skin cancer. I seriously think I was Asian in another life.

We climb back on the boat. Leaving sandbar island. Next stop is Chicken Island.

Me: “So, what is it like living in Baghdad? Is it really getting any better?”

Old Fart: “Depends who you ask. The PM is corrupt. That’s not news. It’s how things get done over there. We just see it differently. Sunnis and Shiites are still killing each other – have been doing it for thousands of years – no news there. They’ll keep killing – with or without US troops there.

A lot of business in Baghdad. It’s the wild wild West. A lot of Slavs are in Baghdad. Hire them for my crew. Work for cheap. Work for less than what we pay Iraqis.  Nigerians are coming too.  Low cost  labor has arrived…  Baghdad is looking like an international city…Surely ticking off the locals, if you know what I mean.  A lot of US money there.  A lot of European money. Just a lot of money… Building. Keeps me in business.

Me: What do you do?

Old Fart: I’m a project manager for construction projects. I just tell them, “let me get it done…don’t ask questions.’  My best workers are Iraqis. I promote them to foreman or project manager. Very smart. Hard working.

No women in Baghdad. I mean no real women. I’ve got my real woman here… Once she get’s a VISA, I’m retiring. Done…. Yea, they pay me well. Able to buy a house…

Me: Do you see a lot of death? Killing?

Old Fart: Yea, I’ve seen many men and women getting killed. That’s war. What do you expect.

Iraqis I worked with have had their entire families hacked up. They take off a few days work. Come back… Can’t explain it – but that’s the way it is. Americans don’t get it. Media doesn’t get it. Don’t watch the news. My mom calls and tells me what’s going on – and I tell her, Naaaa…didn’t happened like that… not that bad… not true…You know how it is. What US doesn’t get – is it is not the US. Not America. I love my country. Proud to serve…I would do it all again tomorrow – no questions ask. Marine for life.

Me: Do you want children?

Old Fart: “Why not…. I have three grown kids back home. Flew home a few months ago for my daughter’s wedding.  Bride couldn’t come. No Visa. Yea, we’re married, but they still wouldn’t let her in.

I wanted my kids to meet her – my bride. Yea, we could have some kids…”

She touched is arm. Cozyed next to his hairy armpit. He asked her to get her another beer. We’re pushing around noon time, so it is beer time. She jumped up and yelled in Thai something about more beer upfront. I think I will have one too. I think I need one. Next on the docket was some snorkeling.  Beer goes well with breathing underwater.

They brought their own gear and proceeded to tell me how much they paid for their mask, flippers and shoes…bathing suit. She smiled and added, “very cheap in Thailand…no?” He called her “mama” and told her how to put on the flippers. You could tell she very well knew, but she just nodded, smiled and did what he said.

And, guess what, it works. I mean, I was expecting to see something horrid. Terrible. Like he whacks her or something. None of that was true. He treated her well. His voice filled with calmness and respect for her, even when he was telling her what to do. And, who am I to judge whether this marriage is good, bad or indifferent. It seems they have what they want.  A partner.  Or, a caretaker – looking after each other. He cares for her monetarily. Gives her safety. Options. Freedom. She cares for him emotionally. Giving him comfort. Stability. And, no sass.

And, she is lucky for he DID marry her. I’ve seen so many old men – Western, Chinese, Japanese – with beautiful Thai woman on their arms. You know they are just paying for sex. Or, telling them wild fantasies about how they are going to take care of them, but never returning. You hear stories like this in the states too. Universal.

As we parted, I thanked him for his service with tears in my eyes. It takes a special, unique person to serve that long in the military. In war. Serving for the freedoms of our country. Go and travel the world – and you’ll have a new respect for our country. For the majority of the people in the world, they don’t have the freedom to bitch, gather or pray like we do. We take it for granted. I certainly did…

Flight leaves today? Chiang Mai, Thailand

28 Nov

The Chedi. By Night. From my Balcony.

Phone rings. It’s dark. Blue lights from clock spell out 5:45 am. Phone rings again. Reach for phone. Drop it. Pick it up. “Yes?” Voice sings to me. “Ahhhh.. Ms. Amanda… taxi is here for you… take you to airport… send help for bag?”

Eyes flew open. What day is it? Is it the 30th? My travel calendar is based on weather and dates. What number is it today…

I sit up. “ Taxi? Wait, what? What day is it? Today is 29th,?”

“Nooooo. Ms. Aman-DA. Today 30th day. Check out day. Taxi here to take you to airport. You request, no?”

“Give me 10 mins. I will be there.” FUUUUUUUU…

I knew this day would come. It’s only a matter of time when you sleep through an alarm, a train stop, or the last call for alcohol… Well, today is my day.

Body bolted. Heart’s racing. Took a deep breath. I can do this. Eyes darted around the room. Quick assessment of my tossing, throwing, thrashing these last four days at The Chedi hotel in Chiang Mai. Four days is the longest time I’ve stayed in one place since July – excluding my time in London visiting brilliant Mary and her posh husband. The positive here is I properly unpacked, meaning my clothes were free from their imprisoned life in zip-locked bags hanging in the closet or stuffed in scented drawers. I knew where they lived.

The clothing concern is purged. I stood up. Eyes scanned for placement of THE chief necessities – adapters, EQUAL, battery charger, coffee creamer, instant coffee, writing pen, laptop cord, notepad, toothpaste, razor, brush, hair rubber bands, detergent… Items at the local Dollar Store.

Stripped off the boxers and Habitat for Humanity t-shirt. Reached for the bulkiest clothes. More I put on, more room there is for packing. Wiggled on the jeans. Thank you God they still button. Punched my arms through the thick long sleeve brown shirt. Reached for the flowy wool wrap. Couldn’t find my socks. Opted to go without. Forced my feet into my pink hiking boots. Got the scarf. To remember, I chucked my purple PTA-styled rain jacked at the door. Dressed. Box checked.

This was my first pack & jam feast. Prior to this, my track record for packing for air travel was around 45 mins. It takes time to push the life out of cottons, polyesters and wools using an over-sized, vacuumed pack, Zip-locked bag. And, keep in mind flights only allow 20 kilos – equated to 40+ pounds – per person. So the heavy equipment – electronics, shoes, pills, books – is allocated to the carry on case. Ragged apparel and used toiletries are checked. You ask about transport via a train, bus or camel? Weight is irrelevant. Here, the chief concern is accessibility to soap, toilet paper, flip flops, clean t-shirt and underwear.

Mind raced. There’s a Coke Zero in the micro-mini fridge. Couldn’t go to waste. Spent less than $2 on it. Grabbed it from the re-fridge. Flipped the lid. Started swigging. Nice. Love the sensation of carbonation hitting an empty stomach. Inhale. Time to start jamming.

First, I went for anything on a hanger. Next, emptied the drawers. Shoes. Damn, where were my shoes? Located the furry boots bought in Poland. Where’s my black Chinese “wanna-be” Todds. I knew they were here. I wore them the other day. Which day? Damn, right about now I was feeling annoyed with the Thai custom of de-shoeing when walking into a home or room. Neglected the rule, so God only knows where the black flats landed. I opened the hotel door. No flats. No shoes. No nothing. Shoe search put on hold. Back to concentrating on packing.

Night before, I transformed the jumbo-sized tub into my personal laundromat. Biked, hiked, whitewater rafted and road an elephant earlier so scrubbing and soaking the J-crew not made for bike-riding pants, bathing suit, t-shirt, underwear and socks were a glamor-do. Now, where did I hang the stuff. From the looks of it, everywhere. I walked the room and balcony and snapped up the soaked items. No time for plastic bags. Figured it will dry in humid Southern Thailand.

Now, time to locate all the Dollar Store supplies. I heard myself say, “don’t forget about the weight and liquid factor.” Question to self. Do I say, “screw it” and check both bags and swallow the unnecessary $50 luggage fee charge or take the harder, cheaper route? I hated being ripped off. You know the answer.

Bathroom. All SPFs and lotions must go into separate zip locks for the high altitude, explosive factor. Where were the 7-11 plastic bags? Did Thai Molly-Maid toss all of them? Guessing yes. OK, needed to think fast. Shower caps. Nabbed them. Tightly wrapped the explosive toiletries into the thin plastic shower caps. I just hit the ten minute mark. Almost there.

Door knocks. Little Thai boy with no shoes smiles. I smile. He started apologizing to me. Loved the Thai graciousness, service and hospitality. But, there was no need to apologize. I asked him to help me find my black wanna-be Todds.

I blurted, “black shoes. Dark in here. Poor lightening. Can’t find black shoes. You help.” Yes, I’ve started talking like English is my 4th language. He got it. I looked over and he’s searching blindly on his hands and knees for the black flats. Little Thai boy found my flip flops instead. SCORE. Would have forgotten those.

Meanwhile, I dumped my tall self on top of the ginormous brown backpack masquerading as a suitcase. Anxiety adrenaline rushed through me. The infamous sweat mustache formed. Flight will shoot in the air in 45 mins. I struggled. The zipper appends itself to some piece of cloth. I tugged harder… It zipped. Little Thai uttered “I sorry… Help you…taxi waiting…?” I pointed to the bathroom. “Please. Look. No leave nothing. Please. Look one more time.” He’s been here for 2 mins, and now I’m annoyed. Get him out of here.

“Have you found black shoes?”

“Yes. Found sandals.”

“No, black flats. No heels. Sparkles. You find. I happy.”

Damn, this place is dark. NOT going to leave without my shoes. As I write this blog, I truly can’t remember if I found them nor not…It will be a Southern Thailand surprise.

Now, where’s the passport and money? In the safe. Good job Amanda! Surprised I remembered. Running off without the passport and $$ would be very typical. I could see myself packing old hotel soap but forgetting to pack the passport. So me. Thank you God! It was then, I started to pray. “Ok. Need help here God. Don’t want to miss the flight to Southern Thailand. This is in Your hands – with or without my black flats. Help me stay focus and calm…” I felt my body relax – a notch. I smiled at little Thai boy and used a sweet voice – not my bark voice – to please take the brown, hairy monster suitcase to the taxi.

I did a quick scan. All packed, dressed in 14 mins. Oh, yea – needed to wash my face. Washed off the eye gel or random lotion residue.

Took a deep breath and looked in the mirror. Wow. This was a bad one. Looked like I was bit by a vampire. Where’s eye drops? And, what did I eat last night? Face looked like I opted for salt instead of food. Eyes darted from eyes to hair. Damn. Matted frizz served up and in-style… It dawned on me as I was reaching for a hair band that I was to shower first thing in the AM. What was the reasoning? Oh, I laundered clothes instead.

Earlier in the day, I hiked, biked, whitewater rafted and rode an elephant for nine hours in the rain. So, it makes perfect sense to forgo a shower for doing laundry. Sometimes I want to put my logic in timeout. What’s staring back at me was ripe, river rank and elephant aroma. Pray a stunner does no sit next to me on the plane.

Turned on faucet. Wet down the bangs. Matted them over. Tried for the severe Latin look. Washed my face with left over soap. No time for the teeth. Time check?

Scanned the room one last time as I was touching my passport. Brain saying, “remember the passport, credit cards, cash, laptop…other than that, GO!” Touched it all and ran out the door. Watch said 6:08 am. Plane leaves at 6:55 am.

Ran to counter. Thai receptionist said, “Oh, Ms. Aman-DA…how you stay? Fill out questionnaire?” Didn’t he just call me a few minutes ago about my taxi and I shouted…”WHAT!” I breathed. “Thank you. No time. Late for plane. We good.”

“Oh, but Ms. Aman-DA. Please fill-out form, please.”

I responded, “I love hotel. Body forgot what day it was. So relaxing. So beautiful. Want to stay forever and ever and ever. We good?” I forced a smile. Let’s go buddy.

He says, “Oh. Oh. Oh. Need your your credit care for buy-one-get on free spa treatment. You have spa, no? Fill out form about spa?”

I handed him my credit card and ignored him. I looked for Mr. Taxi man. Signed the slip. Screamed thank you and took off for the taxi.

To taxi man, “How long to airport.”

“Ten minute.”

“Seven minute? Five minute? Faster? Late for airport.”

He pushed the accelerator. Car lurched from 30 mph to 35 mph. Really? This is going fast at 6:15 am on a Saturday morning… God was in charge here. Calm down. I’m fine. As my fellow world traveler Stephanie would say when we were in these types of travel predicaments, “We’re fine… everything is Fiiiiiiiinnnnnneeee.” I thought of Steph. She would have LOVED this.

I searched for a car light. Wanted to see what I threw into my LL Bean blue backpack. Hoped I packed my flight information. Dumped everything onto the backseat. Started to reorganize. My three-ounce liquids were thrown everywhere. Stuffed my cover girl cover up cream, chap stick, SPF, toothpaste, hand lotion and eye drops into the zip lock. Laptop and Kindle were there. Found flight information. OK. Good.

We pulled up. There’s a line at Bangkok Air. Check-in gate was open. When Thai taxi asked if the flight was domestic, I had a flash back of Poland. In Poland, I was going to St. Petersburg, Russia. I told Polish taxi man my flight was an international flight. Wrong. On that day, Russia was domestic and I landed at the wrong terminal. So, when I responded to Thai Taxi my flight to Southern Thailand was domestic, I took a wild leap of faith, praying it was still part of Thailand.

Paid the taxi. He had no change. This gets me. You give them a large bill. And, they claim no change. Not going to budge. Might miss my flight, but he was already robbing me for the taxi charge for 8 minutes. Loath getting ripped off. I just looked at him. And, said, “Problem? Get change inside?” Then, I smiled and waited. He looked around. Went to another taxi man and got the change. OK. It was all of $2, but it was principal here. Was I really going to miss my flight over $2? Maybe. I could have seen it happen.

Got in line behind more Norwegians. This is the travel year for Scandinavia. They’re everywhere. The family of four was traveling with four kilo-sized bags of Thai chips. I mean these bags put American-style, super-sizing to shame. What was it? Major munchies on domestic flights? I could not stop starring.

I checked in at 6:42 pm and flew to the gate. No line at security. Actually,there was no nothing at security. As I start to strip, I call out…“” He said, “no worry.” Thank you GOD! Wow, I could have brought my Coke Zero through X-ray security without a problem. I told myself just to be grateful and forget about the Coke Zero.

Last call for the flight. I asked the agent if I had time to go to the toilet. She said, “yes.” Went to the restroom and looked in the mirror. I must do something about my eyebrows. I can’t even see my eyes or my face. When I get on the plane, I’m locating my eyebrow pencil. Or, any pencil. This must be fixed ASAP.

Last one to board the plane. Two happy Bangkok Air attendants welcomed me with freshly brewed coffee, EQUAL and fruit. I exhaled. Settled into my window seat. Thank you God! You got me here.

We’re to go to Bangkok.  I have an hour lay over.  Then, I’m to jump on a plane to Krabi, Southern Thailand. I sipped my coffee. Looked out the window. Let my mind wonder. Bad idea. Mind goes to dark places. I started itemizing everything I forgot.  Time to think positive.

It’s not bad. Really. I have been needing to change out a few t-shirts. Talking about it for weeks. God’s way of pushing me to purchase. Even the night before as I was scrubbing my pastel peach t-shirt – trying to get the elephant mud out – I told myself, toss the pastels t-shirts and replace with brown or black. I will be trekking, hiking, biking and kayaking these next few months and don’t have the time or energy to scrub dirt. Dark colors wear dirt better. Besides leaving the pastel shirt, I may have gifted my J crew pants made for tall people. I’m OK with the shirt. But, replacing pants in the land of the little will be more difficult.

My mind ran through items I don’t recall touching. Bra? Hankie Pankies? No memory. Confident I touched the soaking wet bathing suit. I don’t recall touching my black, bullet proof, mini-purse I carry for day trips. Ugh. I think I tossed it in the dark corner of no lights in the hotel room.  What else was in that corner. That’s right. Postcards. Written too. I even bought stamps. The more I tried to remember the time between 5:45 am and 6:10 am, it all turned to mush. Brain is out of order. Perfect.

Think positive. Positive is the pink-now-gray bra was on its last leg anyway. Can switch to the black bra. And, since I’ll be buying a dark t-shirts, we are good. Postcards can be rewritten. Stamps are not that expensive. Bullet, terrorist purse can be substituted for a plastic 7-11 bag. And, I have been complaining about style. When I get the islands, I’ll go the market and buy some t-shirts and a long flowy skirt to go with my pink hiking boots. I’m fine. Plus, when I open my brown backpack, it will be like Christmas. “Let’s see what Amanda brought me from Chiang Mai!” It is all good. God is good.

I landed in Bangkok an hour later. Back to my home away from home. Bangkok airport. I need a shot of my addiction – a super-sized fountain drink. Head to Burger King. I forgot they sold beer. It’s 8:05 AM. No beer for me. Just my Coke Zero. Sit down at my favorite place overlooking the green park and mini-Buddhist temple cozening up next to concrete structures. A family of four walk by. The husband is carrying a pitcher of Chang beer and one mug. Mom has coffee. Kids have Burger King fries and burgers. Where are they from? And, was the flight that bad that Dad had to go solo on a pitcher of beer at 8 AM. Now, I’m curious. The majority of the people in this food court are drinking beer. One dude is drinking coffee and beer. In Bangkok, it’s stimulants and depressants before 8 AM. Got it.

In order of importance. Sugar. Depressent. Stimulant. Rehydrate.

Bangkok Airport. View from Food Court.

Go to the gate. Board a mini-plane. The airline baggage carriers are sportin’ the terrorist fashion. Whole head is covered in a black mask. This look wouldn’t go over in the states, regardless of air pollution index.

Just took off. Heart stopped again. Damn, bad karma day. The pilot said we’re going to Samui. I’m not going there. I’m going to Krabi. Am I on the wrong plane? They were laxed through security. And, Bangkok Airways gate lady did not really look at my boarding pass. I swear I went to the correct gate. My brain is so scattered right not, I could be on a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and not know it. I catch the eye of the Thai flight attendant. Smile. Just smile. I tell him I’m going to Krabi. Smile. Keep smiling.

I watch his expression. What do I see. I’m holding my breath. I can feel it. Wrong plane… He smiled. “Oh, we go to Samui first. We get off. Get next plane. Go to Krabi.” I need to repeat what he said. I’m not trusting my synapses. “What I hear you say … I get off this plane. Go to Samui airport. Wait for next plane to Krabi. Same flight number and same seat, no?”

“I go to Krabi too. You follow me…”

I exhale. Body relaxes. Thank you God. Thank you for sending me another travel angel. Yes, I’m in need of a lot help today. Need a travel angel to carry me from point A to point B… wherever that leads. My journey continues with the help of travel angels.

Land in Samui and greeted by Disney-like, colorful tram to transport us to the airport. The air is thick with humidity. I’m sweating through the layers. No matter. I’m in the islands baby. I smile. Tram man drops me off at the best airport gate in the whole wide world. Pictures have to describe it. I mean, the ladies room has an aquarium in it. Bangkok Airways offers complimentary pizza topped with can vegetables – peas, carrots and potatoes. There’s an all you can drink juice and coffee, and water bar. And a table full of complimentary cakes and coconut jellies. Love this!

I plop myself down in a chair. Taste the cold pizza. Smile. A few mins later, we’re back on the colorful tram in route to the same plane. Boarded. And, behind me sat a young German couple with a 2 year old. Little girl is NOT happy to be on the plane. Neither is the mother. We took off and she reached for a barf bag. I’ve never seen or heard anyone use a barf bag before. You are not missing anything.

About 45 mins later, the plane bumps into Krabi airport. Two hotel greeters welcome me. I don’t even know where I’m staying. They have my name on a card. I go with them. Again, they could be Armenians posing at Thai greeters wanting to sell me to an underground sex market and I would not know the difference. The more I think about it, I don’t even know the name of the hotel. Nor, do I have a brochure. I booked this two weeks ago based on price and a friend’s recommendation. I just followed them. Folded myself into the back of their recalled Toyota. Little Thai lady handed me a bottle water and cold towel. I sat back. Made it.

A hotel brochure was perched next to me. Guess it’s time to read about where I’m going, where I’m staying and where I am. The name of the hotel is Nakamanda. Wait. That is my name. Nak-Amanda. It means Sacred Sea Dragon of the Andaman Sea. This is fortuitous.

We pull up. Wow. Kari and Patrick were right. (Friends from grad school living in Singapore). It’s small. Boutique. Beautiful. My room has its own private, bodacious balcony. We’re talking chairs, couch and tile. Bathroom is the size of my car port at home. When checking-in, the owner greeted me. Served me tea and showed me around. Before, he opened NakAmanda, he was in the Seafood business. This resort was his dream.

I’m surprised this place does not cost more. I mean, this is paradise. I’m more surprised more Americans don’t travel to Thailand. It’s easy. Inexpensive for what you get. The word is “value.” Good for kids. Customer service focus. Best food ever. And, they have over 6,000 7-11s. Love Thailand! Thank you God for getting me here safely. Thank you. Thank you. And, Thank you. Tomorrow, I’m off to island hoping. But before that, I need to unpack… Let’s see where the day takes me.

Bangkok Airways. From Bangkok to Krabi.

Outfit for Bangkok Airways baggage handlers..

Airport Tram. From plane to gate.

Nak-AMANDA hotel in Krabi, Thailand

It’s Expensive to Die in Thailand

28 Nov

It’s expensive to die in Thailand.

Found out it costs major bank to die in Thailand. Who knew.

I was mounted on an elephant, being guided by a 12 year old, meandering down a muddy trail, when we stumbled upon music, laughter and smoke. I asked the soon-to-be teen elephant driver, “what’s this?” He responded, “Die. Die. Die.” I rephrased the question and the response was the same. Die? These people are partying, eating and playing. They’re not killing. It must be a funeral.

Of course, I was mortified to be that random American tourists on an elephant kicking-up dust at their funeral party. They see this a lot – a tourist on top of an elephant. But, still.  Look, I would NOT want some random out-of-towner walking through my fiesta for the dead on large animal. I mustered a smile. Nodded at them. And, pretended to be invisible riding a mammal weighing a few tons.

Much later, I asked Bae – my English speaking Thai guide – more about funerals in Thailand We had a 2 hour car ride in front of us to get back to Chiang Mai. Needed a “hot topic.” Plus, Bae’s English was very, very good.

Bae: “Guess how much Buddhist funeral costs in Thailand?”

Me: “No clue. $500 US dollars?”

Bae: “No, cost between $3,500 and $7,000 US dollars. And, if you are rich, it costs more.”

Me: “You have GOT to be kidding. For what? Is the body dipped in gold?”

Bae elaborated…

Bae: You are very funny, Ms. Aman-DA. Buddhist believe when you die, your spirit needs help. There is a lot of preparation. If you are poor, then Monk says need three days to prepare. If you are rich, need seven days or ten days. Monk come to house to tell you.

Me: What happens to the body during this time? In morgue?

Bae: No. Dead in house. In the bedroom during preparation period. On last day, dead goes to crematoria. If you are rich, you can rent space at the Buddhist temple and not put dead in bedroom. Monks charge a lot for the space.

Now, if you die in accident and not by natural causes, then the body can not come home. It must go to the Buddhist temple and the Monks charge you rent – poor or rich. Buddhist believe if you die in accident – like a motor-bike wreck, knife fight or elephant stomping – then there is bad Karma or bad spirits around you. Accidents to Buddhist mean you were not suppose to die then. A bad spirit came and got you. So, to protect the family from bad spirits, dead body goes to the temple. And, yes, Monks make money. Lot of accidents in Thailand.

Me: What happens during the three days when dead body is sitting’ in the bedroom?

Bae: During these three days, everyone from the village stop by home to show respect. You – the host of the dead – must prepare food for village when they come by house. You cook breakfast, lunch and dinner and feed all village these three days. Last day, is celebration. You pay and cook for big party for village. Pay for food. Pay Monk. Pay for whiskey and soda. Very expensive.

Stop right there. All I heard was the family of deceased has to pay for Monk time and food/drink for three days for EVERYONE in the village. And, booze costs? We’re talking about some serious cash. Thai people LOVE to party and drink.

Me: “Wait. You mean to tell me the family has to pay for everything? What if they are poor? What if they have no money for monks or whiskey?”

Bae: “You find a way. Our culture is about respect. Saving face. We don’t question Buddhist belief systems. Or, how things are done. It’s about respecting the dead, monks and tradition. You find a way. My mother-in-law died. We had to pay over $6,000 US dollar for food, drink and Monk ceremony. This is a lot for Thai person. Costs more than a car and two motor-bikes.”

Me: “My God. It’s expensive to die in Thailand.

I mean, in the states, weddings are a big business with feeding and liquoring up the masses. Funerals? Not a big business….yet… It could be because we Christians and non-Christians bury the dead in one day. And, getting married can be a two night, three day affair – excluding honeymoon and the pre-prep costs. Weddings, not funerals, are big business.

For funerals, a family spends dough on the church, casket/cremation, plot, flowers, hired cars… And, because the family is in a state of grief, its the neighbors, friends, church ladies or relatives are the ones who prepare the food for the gathering after the funeral. This is a time for people to support the family, not gouge them. Seriously Don’t die in Thailand”

Bae: “Very different in Thailand. Monks need money. Family needs merit. Very different.”

Now, here we get into the real discussion. Bae broke Thai funeral down day by day. After listening to him, I was exhausted and figured you need a second job when there’s a death in the family.

Day 1:

Body comes home. Dead rests in bedroom. Feeding the village is contingent on when dead body arrives. Dead arrives before lunch, the host family must serve lunch and dinner on Day 1. After lunch, we’re talking dinner only. No whiskey or sodas are offered, yet.

Around 8 pm you get a knock on the door. Monks (PLURAL) arrive for prayers and to perform ceremonies. The number of monks is based on your pocket book. Expect Monks to come in odd numbers. “One” is not odd. So, minimal, you’re looking at three Monks in orange robes. If you are rich, expect more like five to eleven….

Monk performs ceremony in San-script for host family and relatives. No clue what the Monks are saying in ceremony. They do remind the host family about the five main precepts (rules) in the Buddhism practiced in Thailand. If you follow them, then you will be closer to enlightenment and not be reincarnated into a rabid dog.

  1. Don’t kill humans or animals.
  2. Don’t steal.
  3. Don’t lie.
  4. Don’t commit adultery.
  5. Don’t drink.

Don’t drink? We will come back to that one later. Bae said when the Monks get to #5, everyone in the room puts their head down for they all either drunk or intend to be drunk in a matter of hours.

After the ceremony, the host family pays Monks $$ for merit. Merit is an uncommon word for me. I found out merit is what you earn for doing “good” deeds. So, when you die and the “universe” is deciding your next life form the more merit – good deeds – you stacked up in this life, the higher likelihood you’ll be reincarnated into a 7-11 franchise owner instead of a elephant taking around tourists. I’m sooooo overly simplifying all of this.

Point here is that the host family is buying merit – or a hall pass – for themselves and for the dead peacefully resting in the bedroom. When Bae was telling me about how each night the family needs to offer money to the Buddhist Monks for merit, Luther sprang to my head for Catholics tried to pull the same thing. Martin Luther, a catholic monk, criticized the Pope for pardoning people in exchange for money. Luther believed it was wrong for the church to earn money by selling forgiveness or pardons, instead of praying to God and asking for forgiveness. Long story short, after the scuttle between Luther and the Pope, a new denomination was founded – Say hello to protestantism.

And, once again, I find it entertaining how man is so uninvented when it comes to swindling money in the name of God. It’s the same story, different century. Get creative people…

Day 2

Host family of dead prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for entire village.

Monks come by again for the same ceremony. Underscoring the same FIVE precepts.

Host family still drinks.

Monks get the same money. Host family gets the same merit.

Dead body still in the bedroom. Host family lights incense

Day 3

Big spending day for the host family. They prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner and booze.

Monk(s) must eat before noon. It is a Monk rule that they can not chew anything after the noon hour. No gum. Nothing. Only liquids. So, the monks must be fed between 11:00 – noon.

Monks eat first.

Villagers eat after.

Monks kick off ceremony after everyone, including the dogs and water buffalo, are fed.

Host family says some simple words. This all take place at the home.

If host family has a son of a young age, watch out on Day 3. The monks require the son to shave its head – regardless if they have a future in the monk-hood – and put on an Orange sheet. The son is considered a Monk novice on this day. Little novice goes with the Monks and takes dead from bedroom and places him/her in a coffin.

Monks and novice boy are draped in orange and pull the the coffin down the road to the crematoria. (Yes, they use cars too). It is believed the color orange helps lead the dead spirit to “it” or Buddha. They don’t believe in heaven, so I’m not sure where their highway is taking them.

Next stop. Crematorium. They cremate bodies in Buddhism. There’s another ceremony, meaning coughing off more $$ to the Monks. This is your last chance for one more photo with the dead. The crematorium charges extra for pictures.

The monks do another ceremony for merit. Again, charging you more. They wheel the dead to the fire. The crematoria charges for burning. Meanwhile, it’s time to light the fireworks and get the village party started. Villagers are waiting at a park, home or central location for you to feed them and booze them. Fireworks cost a lot too. Monks are the only ones allowed to light the fireworks. It can run you around $100 to $500 US dollars. If you are rich, expect to pay the Monks more.

Next, host family provides the holy water for the monks and the crematoria. They do NOT want any evil spirits from the cremation to follow them back home. Monks charge for the holy water too. Monks do another ritual.

Next on dock is  The Part-ay. Everyone in the village comes. You are expected to pay for it all. We’re talking 50 to 500 people, if not more. If you are considered wealthy, then randoms will show up too. It’s a booze fest. Music. Food. Party… It goes late into the night. All you can drink Whiskey.

Day 4

Host family is hung over.

Day 5

Host family goes to the crematoria and pick up the ashes. Time to blast these babies into the spirit world. No joke. The monks come. Perform a ceremony. They charge you for it.

Monks put the ashes, some coins and GUN POWDER into a bottle and light it. Blast it into space. They want these ashes to get to “it” ASAP. They don’t want the spirit to get distracted. It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure dead makes it to “it.” Can’t have him/her linger around.

Day 6

You are poor.

Monks stop by to be paid.

You need much more than merit. You need a new job.

Moral here. Don’t die in Thailand.

Bikes. Elephants. Rafting. Orchids. Military. Chiang Mai, Thailand

27 Nov

I had to get out of my hotel room. Out of my head. I’ve been in the glorious Chedi Hotel in Chaing Mai for two days now editing China. It’s consuming. And, I believing biking, white water rafting and elephant riding are in order.

I called  my new BFFers at a local travel agent for Asia. The day prior I scared the shit out of their Chiang Mai office by knocking on their door. That’s right. I went to their physical location. Apparently, people don’t go to the office. They only email. American girl does not email when wanting information about travel and transport in communist countries.

I hired a Tuk Tuk to take me to their offices. Off I went in a Hello Kitty motor-bike with a covered seat. The Tuk Tuk driver dropped me off at someone’s house insisting it was an office. I thought, “fine. I’ll knock.” Got out of Tuk Tuk and she raced off. I knocked on the door. Two young women peered out. I peered at them. Smiled. And, said, “I need travel help…”

Thirty mins later, after my face to face with them, I’m emailing my travel ideas. Looks like the Chiang Mai office is for operations only. Hey, website did NOT say that. I gave them something to talk about for the day… But, they did help me with a day bike trip exploring Chiang Mai.

My tour guide picked me up at 8 am and we’re off. My tour guide’s name is Bae. It is short for a very long Thai name. Bae was on fire. He’s highly irritated with his government, royal family, military, corruption, education, health… you name it, he’s mad.

I told him “Welcome to America… We’re all mad too…” I have not found one Thai who would speak the truth on how they feel about their government. Not one. So, I was surprised at his spewing. Taken back actually. And, I LOVE talking politics and learning about other country’s governments.  It says so much about the energy of the people.  And, his rage was another birthday present. Yes, I’m still celebrating my birthday a month later.

In my opinion – and take this with a grain of salt for I only rested my head in this beautiful country for a few weeks and I’m NO expert – Thailand could implode economically or politically in the forseable future.  I’m not talking Chinese future, like 1,000 years.  I’m talking US future, like 2 to 8 years.

Why? Well you have two old farts running the country. The King and the Military General are in their 80s…  on their last leg.  So, what the Thai people are up against is the elite ruling from a place of fear….  It’s your typical fear — Fear of change.  Fear of their legacy. Fear of being found out.  When one manages and leads from a place of fear, then expect the worst.  And, we all know what that is like for we have had bosses who use fear to motivate, lead and direct their employees.  Not a happy place to spend 8 to 10 hours a day.   So, in my pee-size brain opinion, Thailand is a ticking tomb bomb.

According to Bae, this mess started about six years ago. And, it’s complicated and simple in one breath. The Prime Minister at the time – forgot his name – was from Northern Thailand. Smart man. Business man. Studied in the states. Made a lot of money in Thailand. Owned the largest telecoms business. I believe he brought wireless mobile phones to Thailand.

He ran for Prime Minister. Overwhelming majority. The country was progressing. He invested in infrastructure, education, tourism and business.

Goal was to open up Thailand. And, it was working. More business was coming in. Tourist flooded in. Thailand was moving. Then, the opposition started asking more and more questions about his business dealings. The kick-backs. Bae, my tour guide, went in detail, which I don’t recall now. In essence, the Prime Minister was getting $$ under the table. But, it could not be proven. His supporters do not believe it is true.   He said he would sell his business to avoid future conflict. And, he ended up selling the largest Telecoms/wireless company in Thailand to a S. Korean company or to another government.  Details escape me…

At any rate, the Thai people could not believe that a foreigners owns their Telecoms company. Found this disrespectful. It became a scandal. The opposition and military said they were going to arrest him for corruption.

New elections were held. And, he fled for the new party in control wanted to arrest and try him. His wife is still in Thailand.  Now, the Northern Thailand political contingency and the poor call themselves the RED Shirts. It’s all about the color shirt you wear in Thailand. Either you’re a Red Shirt or a Yellow Shirt. They keep it simple in Thailand.

This was six or so years ago. The new government came to power. Military backing. This new Prime Minister is just a puppet for the military. There was a quote in the Bangkok Post that said he is just a pretty face. The military has grown stronger and stronger. Their goal is to wipe out any opposition and try the old Prime Minister. They want old Prime Minster to go to jail, thinking if they show he’s corrupt – unlike them – then his followers will join their side. Easy Breezy. Cover Girl.

The military has been suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for the last few years.

The Red Shirts had enough. In 2009, they protested against the military (governments) policy. And, riots broke out. Military came in and with their big, bad guns. CNN aired the riots. So, the world thought these people were hooligans. US State Department posted travel warnings. I read some place that almost 100 people died in the riots and over 2000 were injured. After that, the military went crazy. Shut down everything. They shut down TVs, newspapers, blogs – anything against the government. The World Press Freedom Association downgraded Thailand to 153 on their list, below Democratic Republic of Congo and Palestine. Hello, Houston, we have a problem??? Democracy to military dictatorship in a matter of days. Though, Thailand still calls herself a democracy. Another example of using the wrong word to describe a government. Communism in China. Democracy in Thailand.  Both get the ax in Websters.

Oh, after these riots, the King Bhumibol Adulgadij – longest reigning King in Thai’s history and the world – had a nervous breakdown. Couldn’t deal. Guy is 83+. Broke him that people might be a wee bit upset. He has been in the “hospital” since 2009. When Thai’s say the word “hospital” their voices convey doubt. So, the military, in essence, is running the country.

Let me give you some perspective. Right now, a Thai Editor for a newspaper/blog is facing 70 years in prison for remarks she made about the monarchy. The government claims she breached some computer law and Thailand’s majestic legislation, prohibiting criticism of the royal family. Can you imagine the US pulling that one? What would Glen Beck and Morning Joe talk about? All the advertising dollars lost because NO ONE can speak ill of Obama, Palin, Biden, Bush or Clinton.  Again, raise a glass to our country! Thank GOD we have freedom to rant and rave.

Back to editor. So, I read that ANY Thai can make an accusation of insulting the monarchy and the police MUST investigate. You are guilty until they prove you innocent. When I was in Bangkok, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon came for a visit. The Army Chief had some fab quotes in the Bangkok Post. He told the “bad people and outlaws” not to rally. Not to embarrass Thailand. See if our local police, or Obama for that matter, could get by with quotes like this…

Army Chief  quoted in the paper…

“Do what civilized people do….They must NOT show up in masses or cause trouble before the eyes of foreigners. I think that is embarrassing.”

“There are two groups of Thai people: the good and the bad, normal people and outlaws. The bad and outlaws must be prosecuted, no matter what they do, and they can later defend themselves by legal means.”

“Young kids should not protest. You should not do that. If you do not know, you can ask your parents.”

“All people, from their grandparents’ generation down have been blessed by the royal institution. From past to present, Thailand has existed thanks to the royal institution. So no matter what the political expression, do not involve the royal institution.”

Bae talked in length about the government corruption. They take bribes. Take the people’s money. Once again, there is no social safety net. The outsiders think Thailand is an nice place. To travel, yes. For freedom. To raise a family, no. Bae was raised on a farm. He was the youngest and was in charge of feeding the water buffalo every morning and harvesting rice. He came from a very poor family. I asked him how he learned English? How he broke out of poverty?

Summary of Bae’s story: “I have three sisters and two brothers. I was the youngest. My father was a farmer. We grew tobacco, rice, corn, vegetables to sell in the market and to feed our family. I did not want to be a farmer. Very hard life. I went to primary school. Did not graduate from high school because my father said we could not afford college. He told me I must become a farmer.

My sister worked in Bangkok. She worked in a bar. Served drinks to foreigners. I went to live with her. I was 16. I learned to make drinks and worked in a bar. I worked all night. My sister said I must learn English to get a better job. There was an English school down the street. She made me go. I was so tired. I worked until 3 am. And, had to be at English school at 8 AM. I would study English until 2:00 pm. And, start work at 4 pm. Other students dropped out. I was the only one that stayed. I studied English for three years. Worked in a bar. And, practiced my English with foreigners. Always practicing.

I worked at the bar for many years. My other sister was working at a travel agency. She helped with reservations. They needed English speaking guides to answer tourists questions. My sister gave me the job. I went to tourism school. You have to be trained and certified to be a guide in Thailand. I took classes for two years. Passed the test and became a guide. I know everything about Thailand. I love my job.

I’m married. Have two daughters. My wife works as an accountant. I have two Labradors. I jog with them everyday. And, very happy that my sister made me learn English. I have a good life. I’m not a farmer…”

Of course, tears welded up in my eyes from the backseat. I love his story – story of perseverance, faith, struggling and overcoming GREAT odds. And, he had the support of his family. Love Bae.

We biked through the countryside. We stopped at a rice house. I really don’t know what they call it, but I’m calling it a rice house. A woman about 70 was cleaning the rice with a machine that costs $4,000 US. It’s old. Rusted. And, amazing.

Farmers bring her their rice. She puts it through the grinder. It takes off the brown stalk. Cleans the little rice, turning it to white, and dumps into a 20 kilo bag.   There is NO bleached or random products applied to turn rice white.  For whatever reason, I thought that was the case.  White rice is natural.  And, there a billion-and-one types of white rice…

Back to rice lady.  She charges $1 to clean (take mini-stalks off each rice grain) one 20 kilo bag of rice. Dumbfounded. She needs to charge MORE. She said, she can’t because the farmers would get mad. Mad, who cares. Again, it gives me a greater appreciation of rice.

Next, we stopped at a random shack. It started to rain, of course. When I was in Thailand, they were experiencing the worst floods in 50+ years. Nice.  A family of six were sitting in their house with no doors cutting up marigold yellow flowers. They were going to sell the pedals in the market. People will buy and make it into tea or  wreaths for the dead or Buddha.

They had a small radio playing Thai music in the background to keep them going. They will make $4 for all their work, if that. The family seemed very joyful. Happy to be together. They offered us tea. Out of dirty glasses.  We drank.  Sat.  Talked.  Even the men joined in the conversation, which was unique for they are the ones that sit back in a corner and stare at foreigners with distrust.  I tried my hand at cutting too.  Didn’t work out so well — Cutting pedals with a dull knife  and bike helmet is HARD work.

As we trekked on, the roads became more and more muddy. Our next stop was the elephant farm. This is a “must do” in Thailand. My elephant was PMSing or something.   She growled.

I did NOT think elephants growled. She got really pissed at the teen who was sitting on her head making her move. He would talk, cluck and them hit her. When he used the stick, she growled. I tapped in the shoulder and waved my finger – “Don’t do that… No hit.” I felt better. We walked a mile, which took a good hour. Very slow. And, it was raining. I was over the elephant ride about 4 mins into it. Check to box on riding an elephant in Thailand…

Next on the docket was white water rafting down a polluted river. I love rafting. Right up my ally. We loaded up and off we went.  I asked what “class” river this was.  And, they did not know.  They said, “fast because of the floods.  A lot of water.  A lot of rocks.  A lot of  fun.”  Got it….

We hit the first rapid and Bae, my guide, flipped out. I mean, flipped out of the boat.  Yea, it’s fast and rough all right.   Bae landed in water that was teaming with sewage and other random particles I learned in chemistry.  Glad it was him, not me. No skin disease today please.

After white water rafting, we biked to an orchid farm. As we biked, he vented more. He was linking military life with monastery life.   According to him, both were the same. Really?

The monastery is for lazy boys or poor kids, according to Bae. People really don’t have a “calling” to be a monk, per se. At least, I did not hear it. If a family can’t support a child or the child is not that motivated, the family sends him to a monastery.

Everything is free for the boy. Free food. Free housing. Free orange robe. Free education. Free. The poor see this is an insurance policy. The boy spends nine years in the monastery. I asked about what the kids learn. I mean, this education is “free” but what are the filling their brains with?

He said 80% is Buddhism. 20% is math, science, Thailand history/culture. And, they are starting to teach them English. That is good. When the boy is around 20, there is a ceremony. He “graduates” into monk-hood. He has learned his 227+ rules. Remember, the plebs or commoners only have 5 rules. Monk have a few more. Their Buddhism they practice is from India – so it is very restricting. Bae said around this time is when the Monks leave to go into the military, go to university, find a job or get married. He said about 95% of kids who graduate from the monastery leave. But, they leave armed with knowledge.

The Thai military is compulsory for all Thai boys. But, there are some rules there too.

You have to be over 160 cm (not short), be built, have good coordination and not be a Lady Boy. What is a Lady Boy? Google it. I beg you. Then, you will understand why Thai Lady Boys are not permitted in the military. The govt has a supply and demand issue. More and more boys are voluntarily enrolling in the military after university or later in life. They see it as job security. Especially, given the Thai economy. So, there is a large chance that you will not have to serve time in the military right after high school or college. In other words, the military is full.

If you do serve time, then your life will ONLY be complete if you also do time at the local monastery. Boys are encouraged to enter into a monastery for 3 months or 15 days to learn more about Buddhism. The story goes, once they do military and monastery time, there life is complete. That is all it takes for a male in Thailand. A little M&M – military and monastery – then you’re good to go.

We ride up to the orchid farm. All I can think about is my stepmother Dewease and my Mom. They would DIE. I mean this is orchid heaven. I took a zillion pictures to share with them when I return. Amazing. The grow and export these babies all over the world.

Bae was a gift. His rants, raves and remarks made me curious. And, opened my eyes to another Thailand. I could tell he was unconformable sharing all of this when we parted. He apologized. I told him I LOVED every minute of it and gave him a nice tip. Thank you Bae for your honesty!

Just a Crying. Chiang Mai, Thailand

27 Nov

In Northern Thailand. Just flew into to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Booked a room at the Tamarind Village Hotel. Love my little room. Love Thailand’s design and architecture.

Well, I’m in bed.  And, crying.  Actually, bawling. Can’t stop crying and laughing.

I have not seen a movie since July. Embarrassed to admit this. The movie causing my eyes and nose to inflate is The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and the male actor – forgot his name…You know the one… The hottie married to Scarlet someone.

Anyway, the movie’s is a COMEDY! I’m crying to a comedy. But, you don’t understand. These people are clean. Their white shirts, are truly white. There are no dust bunnies flying across the room. And, their movie-family seems like so much fun. Oh, this movie makes me miss my family. I’m feeling homesick. For my family. For my friends. For my dog (not cat). For EQUAL. For a fridge full of FRESCA. For clothes hangers. For an iron. For Ziploc bags. For bleach. For new undergarments…. I’ve been washing my bras, underwear and t-shirts in the sink since July. You can only imagine. So, yes, I’m bawling.

Turned on my computer to write about it. Why not. This will be a different type of blog. No talk of politics, religion or economics. But, just emotions. Tears. Am I really crying to The Proposal?   This is starting to scare me…

Trying to think back to the last time I bawled. Can’t remember. It feels good to cry. Not sure if the source is homesickness or sheer exhaustion. If I’m really going deep. Ask the question of what is triggering this. I need to mute the TV. Close my eyes. And, write the first thing that pops in mind. OK. Here it goes. I really don’t want to do it because I know this scene – it’s funny. OK. Focus. I will turn the TV on mute. What do I hear?

“God is breaking me again.”

Great. Great. Great. Fab-u-los-a. My question back is… are we talking about a rebuild or remodel job? I pray we’re talking about a few new additions to the soul. A total rebuild is just too painful. And, I don’t have time for a rebuild. I can with some new additions though… I know this feeling for God shredded me while living in Honduras working with street kids. Shredded me to pieces and had to start from scratch. That was an intense project for Him. And, I did not willingly oblige to the process either.

Yea. TV still on mute. So, this pain. This crying. What is it. It is reminiscent of Honduras shredding, yet different too. I’m not living for a year in a country where despondency, desperation and depravity are the norm. No, I’m moving through places glimpsing noxious despair and surprising hope not from one country, but from multitude of people. I believe that’s the difference. Places are not remodeling me. It’s the world’s people with their hammers, nails and measuring tapes building new additions for them to settle into my soul. Unfortunately, I’m not privy to their plans – size, shape and function. I do wonder what will these new additions hold? And, what does it hold for me? It truly excites and scares me. Yea, more excited than anything. Bring it on… Build it baby! OK. Stopped crying.

I look at the movie again. Watch it for 20 mins. I truly am embarrassed I’m crying to The Proposal. I hope Sandra Bullock never finds out. The next thing that pops to mind is how I’m going to talk about this journey. Friends back home assume it’s about running away, finding a husband or finding me. Survey says, “XXX.” (XXX is from Family Feud not a porn shop…)

For better or worse, I know me. I’ve been traveling with me for 39 years. It’s more about knowing others. Seeking their ideas. Probing their thoughts. Understanding their culture. Respecting their way of life. And, figuring out a way to communicate it back to the world that we’re all very similar. Souls do not discriminate. We do. And, all of us are trying to navigate through the ups and downs of this unfair, discriminating world. Now, how do you sum that up at 2 for 1 Happy Hour at Hooters? I think I’m going to cry again…

OK. Took a break from writing to finish the movie. Now, a Drew Barrymore and the star who overdosed on meds movie is on. I think it is about Boys Driving in Cars. Not a good flick. But, I’m crying again. Why? This move is about friendship. I now miss my friends. Damn, I have a lot of emotions pent up inside. If I was traveling with a boy, they would be reaching for the Jack Daniels and a gun right about now. It makes me laugh. One thing that sucks about all this crying is my eyes will be super puffy tomorrow. No matter. I don’t know ANYONE in Thailand. So, we’re good there. Thai’s will just think, “Oh, your typical puffy American…”

Speaking of tomorrow, I check out of the Tamarind Hotel and have upgraded to a five star for a reduced price. It’s interesting because Bangkok has reported massive flooding in Northern Thailand. It hasn’t rained here for days, but tourists are canceling their trips. Good thing I’m here – ripe and ready – to take advantage of weather gone wrong. YEA! This means, I need to pack. Hate packing. I’ve been leaving stuff behind at the hostels, hotels and rest stops. Did toss the Naturalizer flats. Exchanged them for a pair of Chinese-made, look-a-like Todds loafers. The lady put a match to the loafers to ensure “its real leather.” Could care less. I was only going to pay $15 – real or fake.

OK. That is all I’m going to write now. I can go on and on about this random crying. But, it’s ran its course. Drew Berrymore’s character just found out she is prego. I’m starting to like this movie..

Bangkok by Day. Bangkok by Night.

27 Nov

Arrived in Bangkok. Had three days in this city. Three days is plenty. Sprawling. Polluted. Unruly. Word on the street is there’s over 5,500 7-11s convenience stores in this country…  And, thousands  and thousands more profiting in prostitution.  Heart the 7-11s.  But,  can do without human trafficking and sex crimes.  Yea, three days is plenty.  I’m ready to absorb the brazen seediness of this city. Bring it on baby!

A friend of mine has a friend who’s a driver/tour guide in Bangkok. His name is Kitty. I emailed him prior to my arrival asking for help to pilot this place.. Next thing I know, I have a private guide ushering me around in a big, black car with tinted windows. Well, at least I fit in.

Kitty and I kicked off “Bangkok in one day” at the Grand Palace. The present King Bhumibol Adulyadej – pushing 83 years of age – and his Queen no longer live there. They built another super-sized palace across town. The Grand Palace was the official residence of all the Kings of Thailand starting from 18th century onward.

It houses complex buildings like bodacious Buddhist temples, golden Stuppas, and Kinnon – the mythical golden creature of half bird and half man. All in all, the place is dripping in gold and largeness and scary mythical statues that give kids nightmares.

A quick background on Thailand’s govt to put things in perspective. Sum it up this way. Thailand is considered democracy to the UN and military dictatorship to the people.  They haphazardly borrow from the British style of government – a constitutional monarchy under a parliamentary democratic system.

But lucky for its people, the government adds its own special seasoning. Try a strong dose of military might whose special mission is to imprison or kill anyone who speaks against or annoys the Royal monarchy. Yea, it’s in the air. I bet my pair of H&M black leggings this place is gearing up for a rumble. More on that later…

Back to a day in Bangkok. So, I had Kitty-cat and his armored car for the day. As I said, our first stop was the Grand Palace. Yes, it not only houses scary, gold statues but it also entertains the famous Emerald Buddha. I assumed E-Buddha would be large and in charge. Like Jolly Green Giant to sprout. Not the case.

E-Buddha was sprout – about 2 feet on a good day. And, he REALLY was made out of emerald. Rumor has it the Thai people stole him from Cambodia. Sprout was perched high on a stack of gold plates. You can’t take pictures. Was anti-climatic for me. *This is NOT a travel blog, so if you’re interested, google Emerald Buddha and Bangkok for more background on the little green martian.

I was more interested in the monks with shaved heads wearing Orange sheets sitting a mere 4 feet away from us. They look like Hare Krishnas hair at JFK airport. I wanted THEIR story. Kitty gave me the low down while we sat cross-legged, with no shoes in temple-land.

Me: “What’s their deal? The guys in the orange sheets?”

Kitty: “The monks? They come to pray. Everyday. Pray..”

Me: “What type of Buddhism do they practice? Can they marry? What is their life like?”

Kitty: “The Buddhism Thai people follow is called Theravada. But, Thai people have old traditions and beliefs. So, our Buddhism is different Buddhism. We use our traditions, Chinese traditions and mix with Buddhism. Almost 95% of population is Buddhist.

You ask about marry? No marry. No touch woman. No look at woman. No think woman. Can’t eat after noon. Only two meals a day. Pray. Pray to Buddha. Monks have many rules. Over 200 rules to follow. Thai people, not as many rules. Just five rules to be a good Buddhist – no stealing, no lying, no cheating on wife, no gambling, no drinking… Follow these rules, we get good life. Good afterlife. Good Buddhist.”

I never thought Buddhism had rules. Catholic church has the rules. But, Buddhist? Newsflash. Then, my American side came out. I mean, they have to do something productive, right?

Me: “Besides, praying what do they do? Give back to the community? Help the homeless? I mean, they can’t pray and not look at woman all the time…”

Kitty: “No help people. People help them. Our people make food. Honor to give food to monks. Honor to give money to monks. Give to monks, you get merits. Get better life and more blessings. Monks do ceremonies. People pay for ceremonies. Good if your son is monk because you get ceremonies for free…”

Me: “What? What? What do they do with the money then? Pay for upkeep of the temple? Reinvest? 401K plans? Mattresses? Health Insurance? ”

Kitty: “ People don’t know where money goes. People are upset, but can’t ask questions to monks. Be disrespectful. People do talk… Bad to talk about monks. The collect money. But,temple paid for by the government. Monks pay nothing. Being monk is good profession.”

Me: “Wait. They don’t feed the poor? Help children? Feed children? Nothing?”

He starts to laugh out my outrage. And, he is not whispering. He’s enjoying this conversation, yet looks around to make sure no one is listening. What he is saying is blasphemy.

Kitty: “Many monks in my country. Monks get free food. Free education. Everything is free for them. Just like military, no? And, you don’t have to be a monk for life. Get education. Food. House. Clothes. Leave and get married later. Poor families send their boys to be monks. Good investment in son. Good profession…Easier for son to get job later if monk.”

I look over. There is a huge box filled with money. Contributions. This temple is dripping in gold. And, the people outside are starving. Men sabotaging religion in the name of God to better themselves. It’s called “morality by man.” And, its a reoccurring theme in all religion – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism…And, I suspect Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism. Not one religion holds the morality card.

The irony here is man never learns. Each religion has a story of God punishing its people who use His name to self-enrich and promote their individual interests. Old Testament is full of stories. God destroying temples because the Jews were selling goods in holy places. He sent Jesus down to kick some woop ass, then we have the stories in New Testament of man getting annoyed with Jesus for calling them out on their corruption, lies and selfishness. Yet, man does it over and over and over again. Hijacks a religion or a philosophy to personally gain. Man’s pride and cowardice continue to be our downfall.

As I listened to Kitty and through my travels in Buddhist countries, I found Buddhism to be rooted in a philosophy of one gives to get. Give monks money. Prepare monks meals. Feed the poor. Turn a prayer wheel. Raise a prayer flag… With the intention of getting something in return – get more merits, get a good grade, get married or get reincarnated as a super-star instead of a slimy-salamander. Their intention is to give back to personally benefit. There’s a difference between man giving to others to get blessings rather than giving to others to be a blessing. Take a look at the verbs. To Get vs. To Be. Big difference.

I’ve been making a daily effort – though most days I fall short – where I try to be a blessing to others whether it is in the form of a smile, kind words, or just being still. It’s hard because most of the time I think, “if I’m nice, smile and wear lip gloss, passport man will give me a stamp… or the front desk lady will upgrade my room to a plastic shower curtain and two towels…” It is only those times when I’m conscious of being a blessing to others, where I can truly can see a difference. Difference in the people’s acceptance of me. And, a difference in my acceptance of them. It’s like all barriers of communications are shredded. We genuinely connect.

Tangent. Sorry. I’m writing this AFTER being in Bhutan. So, my appreciation and understanding for Buddhism has only increased. Back to Bangkok.

After Kitty-cat took a zillion pictures of me at the Palace – hate pictures of me – we bolted for the tailors. This was HIGH on my list.

Wanted to get some clothes made. No clue what, but why not? Well, three dresses and two suits later, I walked out the door. First of all, don’t wear dresses. I’m a pants gal. The shocking white legs will do it to you. But, since I’ve been wearing only three pairs of pants for the last four months, I’m on a fashion, style mission.

You’ve heard me vow upon my return to the land of the free press, that I’m going to wear styles made for 2011, not 1989.

Tailor people asked me to pick out fabrics, colors and styles. They handed me a 2000 Vogue issue and said, “You pick style. We make.” Well, maternity, wedding and bridesmaid dresses were out. So, I randomly choose three style that MAY work. And, what do I know about fabrics? Silk? Cotton? Wool? No clue. Colors too? I willed for Mom to be there. She knows her fabrics and fashions. It was good fun. They shipped the clothes back to the states. After all of this, let’s hope they fit. If not, it’s going on Ebay.

That night, I signed up for “Bike Bangkok by Moon-Light” with Grasshopper Adventures. The company claims they have bikes for Amazons – aka Tall people. The bike tour started at 6 pm and ended around 10 pm. We were to bike through the bowels of Bangkok while wearing a helmet and bug repellent.

Only three of us signed up for the tour this night. The other two were from Sarasota, Florida. Super buzz kill. They thought the same. Young couple. Early 20’s. Sold their condo and took the year off to travel the world. They are just entering week 4 of their overseas adventure. It took the other Florida gal only 15 mins to start complaining – Thai food was too greasy…hostel was dirty… and surprised by the number of creepy crawly bugs… I smiled. Nod my head and looked at the dude. Yea, this is not going to last. He looked embarrassed.

I would love to know how this little soiree around the world even came up in conversation.

Drunk one night? At a bar in Sarasota with the 65+ crowd. Looked around. Thought there was more to life than this. Both hated their job. One is a teller at a bank. The other answers phones for a bankrupt developer. Thought they must seize the moment. Live life for today…Why not sell everything and travel. Sounds super-cool. Super-fun. Can do it for cheap. Stay in hostels. Eat street food. Go where the wind tells us… Yea, super-cool… And, bamb, here they are in Bangkok. Eating street food. Staying in a bug, infested hostel for whores for $1. And, calling this “fun.” I have to smile. I give it 3 months.

The beginning of the bike trip was to be expected. Many people. Many cars. Many potholes. Much pollution. The city of Bangkok sits on a river. It is divided into two parts. The old city. New city. So, we bounced around on bridges, ferries, sidewalks and roads all covered in dirty water. It started to drizzle about 45 mins into the ride. No matter. We’re all from Florida. We know rain.

We stopped at two temples – forgot their names. Glad we did for there were NO tourists. We had the place to our selves. Taking pictures. Riding around. It was brilliant.

Our tour guide told us the temples were made by Chinese workers. Chinese were the Thai “worker-bees” at one point in history. The Chinese used porcelain from coffee cups and plates to design and build some of the temples. Very ornate. Intricate. Beautiful.

It was at temple-land, when it really started to rain. And, rain, and rain.. And, we thought we knew rain. Our tour guide came prepared and handed us over-sized, see-through garbage bags to protect our clothes. Perfecto. No worries. We’ll just get muddy instead.

Next, we peddled down a muddy road and stopped at a shack that cuts, deep fries, ferments to preserve fruits to be sold in the market and exported to China. Got to see fermenting fruit in action. We’re talking mounds of oil and sugar. Rethinking the whole idea that dried fruit is healthy. But, what do I know…

Two sons at the fruit fermenting shack are tasks with hacking the fruit into small bits using and over-sized, sharp knife.

When we were there, one was humped over on the floor. Wearing dirty socks. Smoking cigs. Unwashed hands. And, you wonder why you need Cipro or antibiotics in these countries. It starts with the sons.

Meanwhile, their mother is sitting fat and happy in the doorway watching her sons and watching the street.

I wish I remember the name of the fruit they were preserving. It was a big word. Take a look at the pictures. Keep me posted.

The rain would not stop. We biked for a little while longer. The riverfront flooded. We waited it out in a random family’s wooden porch. These people package garlic for a living. Try sitting next to a ton of fresh garlic for an hour. In the rain. The family gave us water in bottles that were already open. I politely declined due to future bowel irritations.

We sat. Watched the rain. Watched the flood for a solid hour. It was hitting 10 pm. The rain was not stopping. We’re already wet. We’re from Florida. Why not get soaked. So, off we went. On our bikes. Peddling along the flooded riverfront to the Thai flower market.

This is the main Bangkok market for all flowers to be exported around the world or sold in Thailand. Beautiful. We’re talking about two dozen, long stem roses for less than a $1. Orchids. Lillis. Daisey. Gardenias. Jasmine. Lotus. You name it. It was there.

Everyday, budding flowers come in from all over the country. They refrigerate them. Load them onto shipping containers. And, the flowers are delivered in a day or two or three. Take a look at the pictures. If I were Thai and forced to work in a market, this is my market of choice. Someone else can hack meat, fish and fruit. Give me the pretty flowers please. Scroll for pictures…

The downside in riding in a flood is drainage. I’m in Bangkok. Not known for good infrastructure or a run-off, environmentally sensitive drainage plans. Let’s just say scary floating things were moving beneath me. Stopping was no longer an option.

Our guide wanted to take us the shorter way back for we were approaching midnight. Get ready for the super REAL Bangkok. She led us to the streets of prostitution. These streets were not for the old-Western or Japanese tourists hungry for cheap girl meat. Or, where the Lady Boys dance and exploit their new and improved bodies for hundreds of dollars. These streets are for the low-life. Poor girls and boys with no options. No way out. We are talking about 11 and 14 year olds trolling the streets looking for anything – I mean anything.

My eyes would hold their eyes as I approached. Saturated in black. Hardened. I had to look away for I did not know what to do. I’m an American. I solve problems. I fix things. We’re a fixer country. And, I was embarrassed by my helplessness. I also felt like an oversized fool – biking through their streets in my H&M black leggings, pink hiking boots and blue bike-helmet – as they sell their bodies for a hot meal. I just asked my mind to remember these people. And, they are people with hearts that beat like you and me. Remember them. Never forgot them. Pray for them. Hope for them.

As we motored on, I was shocked to see the street vendors – those selling water, Thailand T-shirts, postcards, or kittens – actually live in their mini-stalls. I mean LIVE. An entire family lives in a tent on the sidewalk. Families gathered around their tiny TVs watching America’s Next Top Model or Thai news. I saw a TV turned to an infomercial where a California blond with a flat stomach was selling some ab-fat reducer. Ab-fat reducer in Thailand? My brain could not take this in. The poverty. The Shock. And, American tacky TV. It’s hard to digest. Because, what am I to do with this information? I don’t know. I’m at a loss. I keep riding on. Looking. Watching. Absorbing.

My mind kept going back to TV and toilets. I asked our guide, “Where do they use the bathroom?” She said, “streets, parks, sidewalks… Anywhere. They shower in the river.” And, to think I buy food and postcards from them. I truly will never look at a street vendor the same. I assumed they had homes – or shacks. Like China, Thailand does not have a social safety net. Monks certainly don’t help these people. The poor are on their own.

We arrived back at Grasshopper Travel around midnight. Wet. Dirty. And, nervous. Biking Bangkok by Night struck an uneasy cord with me. Something was off. The element was out. I felt it. Darkness surrounded me. Not right. I need to get back to my hotel ASAP. I asked my guide to help me get a legit taxi. One with a meter. My intuition told me if I were hailing a cab on my own – at this time of night – a dark ally and not a hotel would be the next stop. The tour guide said of course. I quickly went next door to get some bottled water at the 7-11. I was right. People were staring at me – in a way they want to hurt me. Rob me. Mame me. Saw this look in Honduras. Know it well. Yep, time to get this wet, smelly butt home.

Tour guide hailed the first cab. They exchanged words. He drove off. I asked, “what happened?” She did not answer and smiled. She hailed another cab. Same thing. The third cab, she let me in. She wrote down the cab’s name and identiy number and kept it. He saw her do this, meaning, he is busted if he tried anything. Yea, she felt it too. We both knew but did not say a word. She got a big fat tip.

Taxi driver asked if I knew Tiger Woods. That would be a BIG no. Those were the only words he knew. He did not even know Obama. Just Tiger. Have to laugh. He dropped me off. I ran upstairs to my room and took a hot shower. Thankful I’m home. And, asked God to look after the people living on the street. What else can I do? I just stood in the shower letting the hot water run over me thanking God for my blessings. And, asking Him, “Why not me? Why am I not out there, living on the streets, ogling at America’s Next Top model, bathing in rivers and selling my body? How come I am here? In the hot shower? Safe? Oh, did I say Thank You? If not, THANK YOU. And, please, what do You want me to do to help?

Blog Housekeeping

26 Nov

You have asked, “where’s your blog about Bhutan? Weren’t you in Thailand? Have you posted anything about Vietnam?” I know. I know. It’s in the pipeline people. Let me give you a verbal vomit status update.

Bhutan blog is coming. I’m editing it in route to South Africa. I believe I have a 20+ hour transport agenda on December 4th and December 5th. Meaning, I have time to kill if the flight doesn’t kill me first. Expect Verbal Vomit of Bhutan posted the second week of December, while I’m in Johannesburg. I’ve scheduled a safari for 4 days. Then, I have 3 extra days in Johannesburg. Considering it is one of the more dangerous places in the world, I will be hunkered down editing and posting from the confines of a J-berg hotel room or lobby. Let’s just hope WiFi works..

After Bhutan, I traversed to Thailand – my place to take a nap. To re-energize. Try yoga. Eat healthy. And, work on amassing more freckles and age spots.

My friend Mary from London sent me an email saying, “You are the ONLY person I know who takes a holiday from a holiday?” She’s right. But, quite frankly, I was in need of some R&R after the Russian sighs, Mongolian sunshine, Chinese confusion and Bhutanese Buddhism. Thailand blogs will be short, even though I could have written a book about the place.

After tranquil, tame Thailand, I popped on over to Vietnam and Cambodia, where chaos befell and the “true” travel experiences were achieved.   So, expect many blog entries or, as I refer to them as, TallGirl Verbal Vomit to delight your day.    Off the races…

Saying Goodbye to China – Confused Communism & Controlled Capitalism.

2 Nov

Say goodbye to China. I wonder when I coming back? If, I’m coming back? Isn’t it strange to think like that. Thinking that you many never, ever return to a place. In other words, death will knock on my door before China will?

What would bring me back to China? Work? Vaction? I really just don’t know.

Do I see myself in China? Hmmm… Do I see myself in Russia? I believe Russia needs me more than China. They’ve got things cranking in China.

Russia, she just sighs. Has so much potential. I have a “fixer” soul. When I see a problem, obstacle or issue – I look for a solution. For me, China’s simple. She’s in need of an image makeover. Re-branding to describe this blending of free market and one-party government. Russia is lost. She needs to find herself.

After spending some time in China, I found day to day, communism is a non-issue. Like the rest of the world, the Chinese are more worried about holding on to their jobs, paying bills, feeding their kids, saving money for school… They are more concerned about making a better future for their children than what the Chinese government says about the currency, human rights, Tibet or climate change. For the most part, they’re a politically apathetic bunch of folks… Sounds familiar.

Unlike Sweden, UK, US or Canada….there’s scant evidence of any social safety net in China. This SHOCKED me for I assumed communist governments took care of their people to the point of putting a spoon to their mouths.

What about Social security programs? Medicaid or medicare? Welfare? Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac? Chinese are on their own. Because of this, they save and save and save and save.. To buy an apartment. To buy farm land.  To pay for having a baby at the hospital. To pay for their one kid’s high school education.  To pay to drive on a road…They pay out the nose, considering their average salaries per year hoovers around $4,000 US dollars –– depending on who you ask and who you include…

At a macro -level,  one-party rule is here to stay. There’s no tea party. No coffee party. No dumpling party. No nothing. People can’t kick out the inept. Can’t trash talk their leaders. Can’t call for change. Really, they can’t call anyone.

What you see – is what you get. Quite frankly, it’s in their culture NOT to question parents, elders or superiors.  They obey.  Did you see the opening ceremonies for the Olympics???

As a Westerner, I can NOT imagine keeping my mouth shut if I received a notice from the government instructing me to move from my home I was born and raised in to make way for a skyscraper, five star hotel or new toll road.  They do.  They comply.  For, government officials know what’s best for the collective whole.

Commercial break. So, when China Southern Airlines does their 411 on “what do do when you crash,” you have to giggle. Of course, I look around

Picture taken of TV of N. Korea Parade

seeing if anyone else finds this humorous. The plane is 98.4% Chinese. No one is smiling.

They are reading the newspaper. Front page news details yesterday’s little dictator gathering in N. Korea’s where Kim Jong-il showcased his large and in-charge son and his country’s military might on international TV.

OK. China Southern Airlines instructs us to do the following before you crash and burn. Four main rules of thumb…

  1. Take off your high heels
  2. Take out your denatures
  3. Take off your head phones
  4. Put on your flotation device.

Then, and ONLY then, can you slide down the raft. That is, if you are still alive. Never knew wearing heels and denatures were an issue during an airplane crash. Now, they are playing over the loud speaker some Latin dancing number to slow Chinese music. The woman is doing the samba to Chinese music.

Back to blog: Confused Communism and controlled capitalism. That’s how I labeled China.

Came here with little expectations. And, leaving confused.

Someone I met said China, reminded her of Europe after WWII. People had hope. People saw a promising future.  Innovation. Ideas…She said, that is how China is to her now where possibilities are limitless…  Even, a two party government? Freedom to express your differences?  Five thousands years of written history says…“not so fast lady.”

Face of China

I look out the plane window and question what is China’s tipping point?

They’ve entered a time of government corruption, a widening income gap, a decomposed, non-existent social safety net and political disinterest in favor of profits. China’s been here before – just a different dynasty, different millennium, same issues…

And, I wonder if it possible to change the direction of 5,000+ years of a culture based on Confucianism, Buddhist & Taoism?

Where respect for elders and complete obedience of your superiors remains unquestionable.

Where people have differences in opinions, yet are required to live in harmony with each other.

Where seeking knowledge to become a better person means bringing wealth and honor to your family and, once again, serving your superiors.

Where trading for profits is seen as disrespectful and self-serving. Where attraction, not force, is used to obtain what one wants. And, where humanity is seen as kind and benevolent.

This philosophy fits perfectly in this government’s one-party rule. Doesn’t fit so nicely with free markets and modern political parties. China seems to be straddling both sides.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said of China, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she’ll shake the world.”

From what I’ve seen, this giant has stirred. Watch out world..

Next stop. Bhutan.

Buddhist country of only 700,000.

Just put in roads in the 1960s… Some towns just got electricity. Monarchy introduced democracy two years ago. Only allows a select # of tourists in per year…My type of place…

Happy Birthday at the Hilton. Beijing, China

2 Nov

Where am I? Back at the center of balance and harmony. Beijing Airport, Terminal 3. Blogging. Finally writing… Terminal 3 is my place.

Last night was a night for my travel history books. The Hilton Beijing Airport Hotel welcomed me for my birthday. After resting at the zero star hotels across Asia, I’ve realized I’m made for this type of living. We’re talking about shower heads over 6 feet tall. Water pressure strong enough to rinse hair conditioner. Springs, not plywood, for a mattress. Oversize pillows on a King Sized bed. White linens recently pressed. Clean robes falling to Tall Girl’s knees. Working hair dryer expelling heat not air. Soft toilet paper to last more than 2 days. Working lamps and working electrical sockets. Unused, recognizable brand named shampoos and soap. Hog heaven baby! Heart the Hilton.

Pure relaxation hit as soon as the Hilton’s automatic, magical doors ushered me into a lobby built for giants – Ghangis Khan would be proud. It was here, the brain shut off. Muscled crumbled. And, I exhaled. Ahhhh… Clean….Silence…Alone… I’m starting to like people again….

Getting to the Hilton Beijing Airport Hotel was not easy. When traveling via trains, planes, automobiles, boats, bikes and taxis, expect the hardest and longest path of resistance. Especially in those countries that have over 2,000 characters in their alphabet. To minimize arriving in pools of sweat, I enlisted the help of the front desk lady at the Beijing Hotel recommended by Gap Adventures. I told font desk lady where I needed to go. She never heard of Hilton. There are five or six Hilton’s in Beijing – never heard of it. This was going to be fun.

I showed her online where the Hilton Airport Hotel is located. Her only role in this was to translate directions to the taxi driver. She nodded. I assumed by her nod she relayed this information to the taxi driver.

We’re making good time to the airport. Not much traffic – for Beijing – on a Sunday. As we approach the airport exit, taxi man slows down. My internal “not a good sign” radar goes off. Here we go. Taxi man starts to mumble. Talking into his ear piece. I gathered he called a friend to figure out where the hotel is located. Lost in translation. I know where the hotel is. TERMINAL 3 – My home away from home. I could lead you to the land of order, balance and harmony in darkness…

He kept talking. I booted up my laptop. The last stop on the internet super-highway was Beijing Hilton and I hoped Firefox saved the page. It did. Thank GOOOOOD. I pulled up the map. Showed the driver. He nodded in enthusiastic relief. Yes, he had NO idea where this hotel is located. Don’t get it. Hotel lady and taxi man talked for a good 3 mins before I got into the car. What did they talk about? Climate change? North Korea’s national “I heart communism” military parade being broadcast in Chinese TV? Chinese dissident receiving noble peace prize? Overcooked dumplings?

Yes, its the Anglo that gets us to the Hilton. I would have walked at this point. We pull up. A Chinese young lady greeted me in perfect English. Another young man opened my door. White gloves on the car door, ensuring I don’t bump my head. Young lady with a tight bun wrapped in bows and rhinestones hands me a taxi card. Not knowing what to do, I handed it to taxi man. She laughed. “No. It’s for you. It has the taxi name and number on the card. If you accidentally leave something in his car, we can call him for you. He will bring it to you. I guarantee it…” she smiles. She’s wearing red. Favorite color. I’m confused by this level of service. Mind is entering into happy, calm, zone. Can feel the transition as I step from mini-taxi into the Hilton built for giants.

Commercial break. On plane. Chinese Southern Airline. Flight attendant just said. “We’re waiting for one passenger. Please be patient. And, refrain from smoking.” Shit. I hope this is a non-smoking flight. Get ready to gag. When is the last time you heard about smoking on an airplane? Oh my… Also, the nicely dressed Chinese man sitting next me opted not to shower today. Not sure if it BO or Chinese cooking grease. Flight is only 2 hours and 55 minutes. Just going from Northern China to middle China. Big ass country.

Back to Hilton.

Little lady asked me if I’m a World Hilton Member. Hell, I am now. I smiled – and said, “my step-brother works for Hilton, so…the answer is YES BABY!” Fiona – another young, smiling lady with a bun laced with bows and rhinestones- enthusiastically greets me…

“Ms. Day. We’ve been waiting for you. Happy Birthday! Today is your special day. We have a cake for you…”

If I would have known about this type of reception, I would have whipped out the red lipstick AND eyebrow pencil. Then it hit. That’s right. Guess who called Beijing Hilton Airport the day prior – my Southern Mama. She had a “lovely chat with this very friendly woman who said she will take care of me.” I can only imagine the conversation from a NC, Southern bell and the Chinese guest services manager. What Fiona heard was Mom was taking care of everything. Hey, that works for me! This is not what Mom had said. But, I’m going with Fiona.

Mark, my stepbrother, got me the family/friends rate for he works for Hilton in Orlando. ROCK STAR! I don’t even want to know how much this would cost otherwise. I’m so grateful to him and Susan – his cute wife – to help me reserve a room. I’m bringing back a surprise. Soap from the Hilton in Beijing…

Chinese bell man escorted me to my room. I walked in. Smiled. Body is entering the land of Zen… The air condition even has FREON. The other hotels claim air-condition, but they opt for the fan only. Life is getting better by the minute.

Bellman left. I just say and took it all in. The mini-fridge is not only cold, but quiet. One thing I can not get used to is their idea of refrigeration. I get why they don’t sell milk, yogurt or cheese… It is unnerving when you reach for a water or COKE Zero from a mini-market fridge and it’s warmer than hot. Fridges in China are for storage, not coldness.

The bathroom – well, I could move in. A SITTING toilet and a faucet with both hot and cold water. A tub to hold a 6 foot girl. And a bathroom window facing the flat screen TV. You can bath and blow dry while watching the BBC. Life can not get much better than this.

Wait. It can. My other goal is to mail – they use the word post – a few things back to the states. I’ve purchased a few things along the way – like Polish furry boots – and picked up a few times – rocks from Petra. Hilton has a business center on floor 2. I walked in. Greeted by a tall – five foot six – smiling, Chinese lady with a bun, bows and rhinestones. I told her I needed to mail a few items. She looked confused. Switched the word “mail” to “post.” She understood the word post, yet still looked confused. Hilton has trained her in the art of customer service – meaning, listen, find a solution and charge the customer. My type of proactive, guest service system I support.

She made a few calls to EMS and DHL. Express mail is the best way to go. Yea, most expensive. I told her, “I have a date with a spa so I’ll be back in 2 hours. It’s in your hands. You are the expert.” She smiled. I did a birthday dance. When I came back, she told me it would cost $100 to express mail. Nope. I’ll wait to Bangkok to do the 4 week pony express for much less.

In route to the spa, I pass a REAL gym with REAL equipment like a treadmill, free weights, TVs…. The works. My overachiever goal had me in there first thing in the AM. FYI. Did NOT happen. I walked into Spa room. Dark. Cool. And two overly friendly, giggly Chinese girls with buns in bows and rhinestones greeted me with flowers and tea.

First thing out of their mouth, “Happy Birthday!” Fiona – front desk girl – gave them a head’s up on my arrival. LOVE this place. Proactive baby. They both agreed before I even saw the menu that the Red Wine Spa was for me. Like the sound of this. But, wine in China is 50 to 80% proof. Are they going to bath me in it or do I drink it? Either way, pulled the American thing – need to be in control and see my options – and asked to see the spa menu. I was really just looking for a manicure. Cuticles have not been tended to since July 9, 2010. It’s time.

Cuticles will need to wait. No manicure. Just wine disinfecting. Chinese massages. Acupuncture. Facials. O’well…what is a birthday girl to do. I asked for the deep tissue massage for 90 mins and 30 min facial. Glass of wine will work too. My pores need to be drained of Chinese pollution. Fibi was my lady. “She’s the best…”

We kicked started the relaxation gig by washing my feet. I felt uncomfortable for my feet have been wrapped in wool socks and hiking boots for the last 6 hours. They are NASTY. I took off my shoes and apologized. She just giggled. The Chinese like to giggle. Meanwhile, the oversized copper bowl was filling up with steaming water. She gently placed in the water pink rose petals with three scoops of green powder. She lifted my feet and set them in the water. DAMN. Hot mama. I smiled. With an exfoliate in one hand and more grainy, green powder in the other, she worked over my two worn out stubs, mandated to hold up my 6 foot body.

Next on the docket was a shower. She requested I shower first. I had to agree. I walked and walked earlier in search of my Oba-Mao t-shirt. I can only imagine the pollution I’ve accumulated. When I washed my face, my skin felt grainy from the dust. Chest too. After showering and swaddling my body in a warm, fluffy robe, I waited.

Within 30 minutes of the massage, I was out cold. Asleep. Probably snoring. I have never fallen asleep on a massage table. Especially in a foreign country. Oh, one other thing. The face hole on the table, guess what greeted me? A warm bowl of water with red and pink rose petals. When my eyes opened, petals and fresh sent of flowers greeting me. On the other hand, in Petra, Jordan for the “Turkish” massage, I was greeted by mold and scum. Love Hilton!

The facial was interesting. I was expecting a high powered mirror to deep clean every pore. Nope. It was more of a face massage with apply every oil and lotion from “France.” She exfoliated a few times. Then, spent the rest of the time giving me a face and head massage. I fell asleep again. Who falls asleep in a facial? My body was so tired. I do this. That is, run hard with little sleep for a week or two or three, and then my brain and body shut down. I need to be quiet and sleep for 10 to 12 hours then I’m recharged. Today is recharged day.

After spa, I zombied back to my room. Within minutes, the phone rings. New front desk girl, Julie rings. She has my cake and a present. OK. Come on up!

Five minutes later, she arrives with the CHEF and three other Hilton employees with a cake in one hand and fresh purple and white flowers in the other hand. Tears came to my eyes. Am I really about to cry… Was it because of the service or shear embarrassment of imagining my Mom negotiating a cake in her Southern-drawl English? The best part was their rendition of the Happy Birthday song. Bad. None of these lads will make it on Karakee night at the local Beijing bar.

I asked them to sing it in Chinese. They all looked relieved. And, just as embarrassed. We clapped. I think they wanted to stay… Not sure what the protocol is. I led them to the door for my next stop was a tub, beer and cake. Check the box. Filled the CLEAN tub with yummy water. Drank my beer. Cut some cake. Soaked in silence. I was tempted to turn on TV for I have no had English news in weeks. Why start now? Silence.

All I could think about was my blog. How to write about the fact that my soul is made for fine hotels and customer service. I’m no longer cut out for 5th class Chinese trains, sleeping six to a compartment with no door, sheets encrusted with old food and bathrooms where you need to use a mask and gloves to enter. I had to giggle for if were ever to run for office my opponent would have a field day on my “love for fine things” – clean sheets, customer service and birthday cake. But, I’ll be brave and put it out there. I like nice things. I like nice people. Political career is now over.

Last night, I cuddled with FOUR oversized, fluffy and firm pillows. A mattress with springs. And, clean, WHITE linens. I watched Addicted to Love on HBO with Meg Ryan and Ferris Bueller Day’s Off actor. (Forgot his name). Never seen the C+ movie. No matter. Meg Ryan’s hair and make-up is what captivated me. Perfect in every scene. Her character is a “grunge” or one of those “avaunte guard” tough girls. Tough girls don’t devote an hour a day applying eye shadows and eyebrows. And, another two hours styling hair. And, Meg Ryan’s wardrobe was so cool and stylish. Man, I must be craving new clothes. I’ve been wearing the same four long sleeve t-shirts since July 11th. I also want her eyebrows and hair. I have all of these high hopes for my style upon my return. I’ve already given up all forms of instant coffee and replacing it with ground coffee beans. I guess my next “big thing” is to embrace daily hygiene and fashion. Got to love what traveling does to the soul…

Commercial Break. Chinese Southern Air is serving lunch. I’ve already got some coffee laced with heavy cream and extra sugar. I’m on a roll. What’s in store. Wow. For those that sleep, flight attendants leave a sticker requesting you ring the bell for lunch. The Chinese business man next to me is going to town on his food. He’s slurping up the rice and chicken while using a fork. I swear if he hocks a luggie, I’m going to scream. For whatever reason, I assumed slurping only happened when using chop sticks. Wrong. Lunch was rice. Chicken. Yogurt with a straw. Dried apricots. Mixed vegetable with tofu and peanuts. All good… Glad to see a fork again. Oh, and alcholog is free… All you can drink.

Back to Hilton.

This AM, woke to sunlight. That’s right. Pollution, midst, fog – whatever you want to call – has enveloped the city. Thick stuff. It rained last night. Air is clean. Sun is out. Vitamin D is in the air. Puts a smile on my face. Checked out of my favorite hotel in the whole wide world – Hilton – and headed to the airport. At airport security, I was greeting by young girls wearing bows, buns and rhinestones. They all have the same hair style. Here these young girls – wearing all black. Black jumper. Black thick belt. Black boots. White letters in Chinese and English on their back saying Security. But, THEY even have sytle. They spice it up with their buns, bows and rhinestones. Super feminine security. Why have I not noticed this until now? Julie – your Mom would be psyched to see so much glitter in one place.

Next stop is Bangkok. I have my passport photos ready. Thailand requests passport photos at immigration – or so they say. I’m in Bangkok for a few days, then off to Bhutan. Can I just tell you how much I HEART the Hilton? I need to be their paid spokesperson in Beijing… Thank you Susan, Mark and Mom. Birthday at the Hilton was the BESTEST!

Pics. Chinese National Holiday. Beijing, China.

2 Nov

Chinese National Holiday.  1.3 Billion on Vacation. T-Square. Forbidden City.

Travel Angels. OBA-MAO. Beijing, China.

2 Nov


Not sure when I will be back to Beijing. Leaving a city of fog, dust and mist. In route to the airport to stay a night at the Hilton. Tip a hat to the travel angels blessing me today.

From my previous blog, you note I can handle underground travel.  My challenge is above ground — maps, street signs and roads. Goal today was to buy Christmas presents for the family.  They have orders in for the OBA-MAO t-shirts —  “made in China.”

Found the Beijing metro. Bought the 2 Yuan ticket.  Made it to the market metro stop — or so I thought.  Problem was Beijing tourist map is not drawn to scale nor are the streets marked in English or Chinese.   This time, I have NO pride.  I was asking for help.

I asked the ticket lady which exit – N, S, E, W – would get me to the market. You are probably wondering how a non-Mandarin speaker is going to translate this question to a non-English speaker. One alphabet has 26 characters. The other, over 2,600. It’s all about the smile and pointing. I pointed. She shook her head. I repeated myself again. She shook her head and started her lyrical pronunciation of Mandarin. I smiled. She started counting on her fingers to me. Found out a few days prior that our hand gestures  for counting are not the same. We are still not communicating.

Finally, she said A. I heard A. I walked to A. At the sign labeled “A,” I asked the military girls for direction. Pointed at the map. They said “A” too. This is not going to be that hard. I climb the stairs. I see the light. I stop. Shit. I’m in a residential area. What I refer to as the “REAL” China.  Real people.  Real life.  Really lost.

I refuse to analyze. Refuse to allow my brain to think, “I can do this on my own.. I can figure this out…”  Before I went there, I asked God for help. “Ok.  Quick.  God, we GOT to find someone — and fast… before Pride takes over…” A young man and older gentleman with a cane approach.

I smile. Smile. They smile. People in China smile a lot, unlike Russia.  So, we’re all smiling. I say, “Help?” I show them my map. I speak one word at a time.

“I here. Want here. Help?”

I repeat it three times….They are going back and forth. I interrupt.  They ignore me.  On my fourth time, the young guy said in English, “You are at the wrong stop. You want to go to the Hunang market. You need to follow us. We are taking a bus in that direction.  We will lead you. Come with us…” My mouth dropped open.  I want to kiss the little dude.  You speak English.  Good English? Thank you God!  You SCORED on the travel angel.

I followed them.

Young guy is studying to be a medical doctor, focusing on genetics. He has one year left at Beijing University Hospital. One of his professors is from America and is “very pretty.” I smiled. He is with the old man because old man wants to sell young doctor a bicycle. Young doctor needs a new bicycle.

I asked him, “So, how did you find old man? On the internet? How did you know he has a bike for sale.”

He responded, “He just walked up to me on the street. I was visiting friends. And, he asked the group if we needed a bike. He sells a bike. And, I need a bike. So, I’m following him back to his house to see his bike.” Talk about trust.

We all jumped on the bus. Only ONE Yuan. Translation: $.15 or so. This is one thing the government WILL subsidize the cost. Public transportation. Too many cars in the city. Looks bad for the Beijing…

The older Chinese man sits down and smile at me. He starts in. I don’t speak the language, but when he found out I was from the Ameri-CA, I was waiting. And, I was right. Young doctor dude looked a little embarrassed as does the people around him. No matter. I love my country. Bring it on baby.

Young doctor translating old man: “Obama. You like your president?”

Me: “Do I like him as a person or as a leader of the free world?”

Old Man: Looks confused. “US military is strong, but not that strong. You go to war…in Afghanistan.  You in Korea.  Japan. China… US military becoming weak…”

Me: “As a person, I like Obama. What’s not to like. As the leader of our country, I disagree with his policies and overall management of the US economy.

American people are angry. We vote with our pocket book. When we feel poor. When politicians promise, and don’t deliver. When they waste our money. We kick them out. I go to market now and buy an OBA-MAO t-shirt…For Christmas…” I smile. I don’t think he got the joke.

People in the bus look on in amusement. I saw one person nodding their head. Anther one, turned his head out the window. The whole bus was quiet.

Old Man: “Ohhh.. Your military.  Your government is weak. US is weak. China is getting stronger in military…. China is strong. It’s people are strong…”

Me: “Our military is strong.  We have different military goals than China.  China may hit us economically for little bit — but not military, no?”

Old Man: “We are the super power. Not US. Our military is strong.”

I just smiled. We went around and around and around… His focus was on military power, while mine was economic. I wonder what the government is feeding them..

The bus stops. The young doctor gets out of the bus with me, telling the driver to wait. He draws a line from the stop to my final destination on the map. “Follow only this street. You will get there. Good luck to you!!”

I wanted to kiss the dude, my travel angel. I wished him good luck with genetics and getting a good price for his bike. And, off I went in search of my OBA-MAO t-shirt.

Thank you God for sending me a travel angel.  Just leave it to YOU… And, when I hailed a cab back, a Chinese woman picked me up.  Haven’t seen a female taxi yet.

She smiled at me and said, “For, you I know short cut to hotel… very worry…very fast…” Ah…. so nice… It’s the little things to be thankful for.  Thank you God…

Oh, I got something better. No OBA-MAO t-shirts. But, OBA-MAO beach bags!  T-shirts were made for little people.  And, Day family is anything but petite or little..

Birthday at the Great Wall. Beijing, China.

2 Nov

It’s 5:40 am and I’m waiting for the Great Wall tour bus to pick me up at the Dong Jiam Mia Xiang Hotel for a 4 hour drive to a remote part of Northern China to hike the Great Wall.

Today is my birthday. Well, today in China. My official birthday is not until tomorrow. I’ve opted for a 2 day celebration, not by choice but by timezone. Today I will hike the Wall. Tomorrow, I’ll check into the Hilton. That’s the new Hilton at Beijing Airport at Terminal 3. There awaits a mattress, massage and manicure. It can’t get better than this.

What is it about hotel lobbies? Everyone is asleep. The valet boy is zonked out on the outdoor bench. The two receptionist have their heads down behind the desk. The lobby attendant is sitting next to me – back straight, face looking forward, eyes closed. He frightens me. What if he starts sliding over towards me? Come on bus…

The hotel is located only a block or so from the famous Tienanmen Square and Forbidden City. Interesting how these two historical and politically prominent icons are a stone’s throw from each other.

The hotel’s neighbor is one of the Premier’s of China. So, our street is teaming with military soldiers. Young kids. Standing straight up. Wearing Mao green. Looking forward. Not smiling. Protecting the Premier. When we walk pass, we wave. They don’t..

There is a mini-market around the corner. Chinese mini-markets freak me out. Each aisle has one to three people assigned to stare at you. At first, I thought it was about shop lifting. There is probably some truth to that. But, now I believe it is a government requirement stores of a certain size must hire a set number of workers. So far, I’ve found these people to be the street cleaners and aisle watchers.

So, at the mini-convenience store, I was assigned a kid probably in need of Ritalin. I just wanted water, peanuts, dried fruit and Coke Zero. You see, I LOVE strolling grocery stores in foreign countries. It tells me a lot about that particular neighborhood or country as a whole. Ritalin boy was breathing down my neck. No time to stroll. I took a step. He took a step. I reached for peanuts. He reached faster. I wanted to pop him one.

Where is the bus? I hope they pick me up. If not, I will walk over to T-Square and watch the soldiers raise the Chinese flags. That will be my Birthday. Flag raising. Nice second to Great Wall hiking.

They got me. Scared the shit out of the employees sleeping in the lobby. Now, I’m on another micro-mini bus in route to pick up more fellow Wall travelers. It’s a little after 6 AM. Streets are calm. Pollution is thick. Can’t see much. We’re now driving through an affluent area. Car showrooms like Ferrari and Rolls Royce line the street. Who are these rich and what do they do for a living? Confused communism. Wait, there is action at the Motel 254. Hmm.

So, it’s my birthday. From the sound of these blogs, I would assume I LOVE birthdays. Can’t stand them. That is why I make a big deal out of it. It’s a joke to myself. So, this year I’m going to do a resolution or need to improve myself plan. Not sure what all it includes but working on my selfishness and Pride is part of it. I walked for almost 2 hours because I refused to ask for help. Really? How stupid. Mr. Pride is like that – The more defiant. And, the more I place faith in my own brains, the more lost I become. Yea…. Got to love what Mr. Pride can do to you…

Now, we’re driving through a Hutong neighborhood. This was what the old Beijing looked like, until the government decided to relocate the people and replace them with hotels, retailers and skyscrapers.

In this neighborhood, people are getting the day going. Preparing street food. Walking or cycling to work. We pull up in front of the Shijia Hutong, name of a hostel. Old man with a pony tail takes a seat. I hear an accent. Can’t tell where he is from.

Fog is thicker. Sun is trying so hard to shine. What do I see? Man is jogging – not in running shoes – but loafers. Ouch. Street sweepers are out. The architecture is amazing in this city. I give the Chinese credit for innovation. Yesterday, I passed the Olympic Village. The Birds Next stadium. Truly spectacular.

I spy a breakfast place. Steam is rising from the tables. Dumplings and tea for breakfast. Bamboo steamers are stacked five feet high on tables.

We pull up to another hotel. Picking up three women. From afar, they look Chinese. Nooooot Chinese. They look Israeli. I wonder if I’m right. It frightens me to think I’m right. Guess what, I’m right. I hear Hebrew. And, they wear their annoyance with such grace.

They sit behind me. Within 45 seconds, I’m asked to shut my window for its cold. I respond, “Yea, but there’s no circulation… Foggy windows or fresh air?” Then, I smiled. She nodded at me to shut the window. I give it 30 min before she asks to open it again.

We pick up more. A Norwegian family. Some couples. We’re cruising. We take a pit stop at a gas station. The Israelis and I hit the “little girls” room. I belted out a huge laugh when I saw them tie their bandannas around their face. They were laughing too, saying – “we come prepared.” Damn, I wish I had a bandanna. This place was RANK. I can’t write about it or I’ll dry heave. Three holes. No door. No cleaning. We all looked at each other and stood guard. Decided one girl at a time and the others wait outside. Glad we’re on the same page. Get back to the bus, disinfect with every bacterial cleaner possible and opened the bus window.

We arrive. There is no one there. PART-AY. The Chinese Great Wall guide – maybe 18 and weighs 80 pounds – tells the electronic lift to take us to the top of the wall to start our climb “no work today.” I have a feeling it has never worked. We’re in BFE. I mean, when we were driving out here, we were stopped twice by Chinese police to check our papers. We were driving through manufacturing and industrial zones. Feeling that foreign businesses do not want tourists out here. And, the government doesn’t want us snooping around either. The REAL China.

I take in the Israelis’ expression about the lift. Roll their eyes and interrupt… “We were told there was a lift. We paid for it. We want our money back. We want a discount…” On and on they went. Really? This whole tour is about $25 for the day. And, we’re at the Great Wall. It’s about exercise. Walking. Climbing. Not electronic lifts. I did NOT say a word. Just looked at them in amazement. Wow…Our stereotypes are right on. That’s what international business school taught me – all stereotypes about countries are right on the money. I digress.

I let little Chinese Wall tour guide sort them out. And, I walked off. I’m here to get away. And, get away I did. I was alone. With my thoughts. Hiking the Great Wall on my Birthday. Really? Am I really here? I just thanked God over and over and over again for my health and the gift of being alive. Gift of breathing this air. Gift of being able to journey the world. Still questioning why in the world am I so blessed – why? Why me? And, grateful.

I prayed to help me understand. To help me see what He wants me to see. And, do what HE wants me to do – today and tomorrow. As am American, I want answers now. Patience is something God and I battle with – or let me rephrase it. God continues to teach. On this day, I focused on being grateful. And, asking to help prepare me for whatever He has in store for my life. It’s His life, not mine. My cup of joy is being filled – day by day. Thank you.

I made it to the point of no return. Meaning, the place where you can’t walk any farther on the wall or you will fall to the depths of Chinese hell below. It’s a cliff. I sat. Continued my long conversation with God. Attempted to listen. And, the old pony tail man appeared. He sat down next to me. Started chatting. His name is Kelly. From Ireland. Outside of Dublin. Owns his own bar. We got into the usual discussion about Guinness. He was giving me pointers on how to pour, refrigerate and drink the brown gold. Didn’t want to tell him I’m not fond of the Guinness.

After our Guinness discussion, he mentions he just left Russia. I started to laugh. Well, he was not laughing. He pointed to his pants. His pants looked like a pit bull tore them apart and he stitched them back together using bamboo roads and a needle.

Me: “What happened to your pants?”

Kelly: “I was mugged in Moscow. Took my wallet. My passport. Had me a knife point. Two Russians. Coming back from the bar late at night. Just right around the corner from my hostel. They were waiting. Surprised they didn’t kill me. Cut me up real good…”

Me: “OMG. Were you hurt? What happened?”

Kelly: “Tore my pants here. Stabbed me here. Went back to the hostel and they said I should NOT go to the police. They said to call the Irish embassy because my passport was stolen.”

Next day, I went to the embassy. They said that I needed a new passport. And, I needed go back to Ireland to get it. If I file for a new passport here (Russia), then I need to go and report it to the police. Well, I’m leaving in a few days on the Trans-Siberian. Have got my ticket. I thought I should go to the police. I can’t go back to Ireland.

Went to the police. What did the Russian police do? Arrested me for NOT having a passport. Put me in jail. I’m reporting a crime and they arrest me. I had to pay 6,000 Rubles to get out of jail. Then, they told me they are deporting me because I don’t have paper work. They would charge me more.

I showed them my stab marks. I was mugged. They did not care. They just wanted more money. I called the embassy. They said they can help me get back to Ireland. I don’t want to go back. I paid off the police.

I did not know what to do. I was sitting in my hostel a few days later and they say a woman is in the lobby. I go downstairs. And, she is holding my passport. She found it in the garbage or something. She had heard about me – getting mugged and all – and found me…..

I listened and took all of this in. Typical Russia. So damn corrupt. Syria and Iran are probably safer to travel through than Russia. None of this surprises me. Everywhere I go, people have a bad story about Russia. It is comical. On a tangent – yes, I’m editing this blog in Thailand – I was at a Thai cooking school yesterday. Cute couple from Holland is next to me. They are telling me a story about their stay at a Burmese/Thai camp on the border. They said there were NO tourists at the camp except one group. They were a very, very unhappy group.

I said, “let me guess. I bet they were Russians?” She screamed out.. “YES! How did you know??? They walked around with their arms crossed. They were angry….You have to feel sorry for them… They just look like they want to kill or throw objects – all of the time….” She went on and on with stories. Oh, it makes me laugh. Poor Russia.

After Kelly finished his story, he headed back down to the bus. I stayed up at the top for a little while longer to take in every minute. I wondered back and encountered very few people. It truly was a brilliant Birthday.

On the way back, I chatted up the Chinese Great Wall tour guide. She has been doing this SAME tour to the Great Wall – everyday – for TWO straight years. And, has had only ONE vacation day for snow… She said, “If I take vacation, I loose my job. In tourist business, there is no vacation. Tourists are here everyday.”

She wakes every morning at 4:00 AM and returns home by 9:00 pm. Her Mom told her that to succeed, she needs to be tough and not complain. It has nothing to do with complaining, and all to do with workforce protections…. Yea, I worked on the subcommittee for Workforce Protections in DC. So, I’m overly sensitive. I gave her big fat tip. It made both of us feel much better. I keep her in my prayers. So young. So eager. So smart. So tired…

Her story reminds me how thankful I am to be living in the US. Thankful and truly blessed. Once again, I asked God “Why? Why me?”

Went back to my hotel room. Showered. And, had a planned “Skype” with the family. Well, I was SURPRISED because what appeared on my screen in Beijing were the GODDESSES! Yes, the traveling goddess went to Mom’s house to wish me a happy birthday via Skype. Wow. So surprised. And, once again thankful for having friends who would take time on a Saturday to drive to my Mom’s house to wish me a happy birthday. It’s make me feel so humble and grateful. They truly put a BIG fat, red bow on my Birthday DAY. Thank YOU Goddesses!

Planning my Birthday. Beijing, China

2 Nov

This is how I imagine I’ll be talking about my birthday….

“So, Amanda…what did you do to celebrate your birthday?”

“Oh, nothing much…Jumped on a bus in China. Drove 4 hours. Hiked the Great Wall without tourists. Captured a glimpse of the REAL China..”

It will be a remarkable birthday for I only have three goals – Be outside. Be alone. Be silent. Sounds dull? You’ve GOT to be kidding. Try traveling a country the week where 1.3 billion are on holiday.

Government reported Chinese traveling was up 24% from last year.

Over 900,000 tourists were on Tienanmen Square on October 2nd. Just a tad less than the population of Orange County, Florida. And, 25 million+ were on a train during the first two days of Oct.Now, we’re talking about the population of Texas.

China was booked. Guess where I was during the first week of October – trains, planes, buses, boats to all the prime Chinese tourist attractions. Yes, birthday was about embracing my inner dullness.

One thing I noticed about the Chinese is they travel in groups. Travel with

Tour Guide. With microphone and flag...

guides. The difference between their guide and our guide – peppy, positive Olive – besides smiling and enjoying their jobs, is their tour guides ALL carry their very own karaoke machine. You don’t know noise until you have five Chinese tour guides competing for air space. It’s one big, fat, staticky run on sentence lasting for hours. I asked Olive if this annoys her. She said, “I don’t even hear it…When you share space with millions. With constant noise – or constant karaoke – you tune it out…or invest in ear plugs.” Olive carries ear plugs.

So, you get why my Happy B-Day present to me was peace and quiet. This meant locating a Chinese travel agency who specializing in Great Wall treks. This also meant finding time to jump on the Beijing metro to sign up for the tour. The agency I wanted was located near the main train station. Easy enough, or so I thought, for I entered this great country on the train. Know the station well.

Beijing metro is simple – just like walking through an open door. It’s when the escalator throws me outside – into the light – is when I become dazed and confused. The map indicated main train station was right in front of me. Don’t see it. When I’m map confused, I take to walking the streets. Always leading in the wrong direction. On this day, my legs and lungs put in a good 10 minutes. Nothing. No train station. I turned around to head back to the metro, seething with annoyance. I just want to go to the Great Wall on my birthday. Is that hard to ask?

After wondering for another good 20 mins, I stumbled upon the ginormous train station. It was on the OTHER side of the metro stop. Whatever. Found the Chinese travel agency. Booked the Great Wall trip on my B-day, scheduled to pick me up at 6 AM. Easy. Breezy.

At Forbidden City with the rest of China

Now, I have two hours to get back to my hotel. Think I’ll have time for a nap. I’m so tired. We spent the day at the Summer Palace, Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. Great day to inhale pollution, make friends and witness Chinese history.

Learned a lot. Not going to blog about it for anyone can go to Lonely Planet for tour details. Or, check out my pictures in the album in this blog. It’s big.

You can imagine what happen. I got lost. I mean real lost. I walked to an industrial district in Beijing. An hour and forty-five mins later, still walking. As each minute passed, my pride inflated. I refused to ask for help. I refused to hail a taxi. I was going to find my hotel, no matter what. Each step, the more angry I became – AT me. Was I really this directionally challenged? Why is it the more I travel, the more my map skills shrink. I later found out if I would have made a right instead of left, my hotel was 20 mins from the main train station…not 2 hours. Travel angels got me back to the hotel. I spied some tall men and followed them to a main cross road. Tall people know best. Right.

We had our final farewell group dinner on October 8th – day before my birthday. The Travel Posse surprised me with a B-day cake. Talk about surprise! I was surprised the cake tasted so good. I was very sad to leave them. Great travel group. It’s always about the people when you travel. Olive was a super star.

The next day, I will wake early and hike the Great Wall. I will be on a bus for 4 hours heading North. Heading to the area that the government has not rebuilt for tourists. Actually, very few tourist go to this part of the wall. Can’t wait. Pray for peace…no noise. No people. Yes stillness.

Cruising Down China’s Toliet. Yangtze River.

2 Nov

China's Largest River - the Yangzte.

Boarded the Chines LOVE boat to cruise down China’s largest toilet, Yangtze River, to check out the Three Gorges Dam.

Olive, our chipper Chinese tour guide, is bunking with me. The boat is oversold, given 1.3 Billion Chinese are on holiday. Because of this, tour guides are booted from their rooms and have to sleep in hallways. Not for our Olive. Having her one-on-one allowed me to hear her thoughts about growing up Chinese. More on that later.

Real fast. Let me give you a 411 on the boat. It’s not your LOVE boat or your “I support Obesity” with the all-you-can-consume – Carnival Cruise – boat.  It’s an older boat. Low ceilings. Musty carpet. Built in 1950. Needs updating. In comparison to the others, our boat is clearly a ONE or TWO star, not a zero star.

Say no to bunk beds and hello to two twin beds with mattresses. A toilet that flushes into the sea.  Lukewarm water.  And, a dusty window with pristine views of the river.

Room aboard.

The boat is to carry us down the Yangtze river, largest in China, to the Three Gorges Damn. Quick background about the Damn. I’ve never given dams a though prior, but give me a political, economic or religious angle and I will find most anything interesting.

Three Gorges is one of the wonders-of-the world for the communist. The dam is an estimated 600 feet tall, one mile wide and generates over 20,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity.

The building rationale was irrigation, flood control and power generation for millions of Chinese. The dam was the brain child of Li Peng, the prime minister involved with the communist party split that let to the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. You can imagine there was no debate on the damn’s efficacy and the $22 billion dollar project moved forward.

It is reported Three Gorges displaced over 1.4 million Chinese living alongside the river – equivalent to the obliteration of Dallas, Texas.

Rumor on the street is another 300,000 will need to be relocated with the recent flooding and “cracks” in the surface. So, let’s add the estimated population of St. Petersburg, Florida to our friends in Dallas. Relocating in China means getting a few weeks notice to quit your job, pack your home, move your animals, harvest your fields and go wherever the Chinese authorities see fit to place you.


Besides displacing millions, the dam ate up over 80,000 acres of land and large number of historic relics from one of the most ancient areas in Chinese history. Translation. Daming the river means higher water levels. Higher water levels means artifacts lost forever and ever. To Chinese, feeding people and powering businesses outweighs preservation of ancient civilizations and animal/plant species.

To the locals, Yangtze river is seen as the country’s largest toilet. More than 150 million Chinese live upstream from the dam. Household garbage is dumped directly into China’s largest river and it is reported that nearly three tonnes of crap is collected from the dam everyday. Imagine if that was your job. And, imagine being able to walk across the river via bridges made of trash.

That should give you a nice visual of floating along the Yangtze to the Three Gorges Damn. Water may be polluted, ancient relics lost, plants dead and people displaced, but the natural beauty is truly awe-inspiring. Photos do a better job describing it than words. Check out the album on this blog for more pictures.

This View on back of $10 Yuan. Olive and Dawn model for us.

We docked one day and took small boats through the Yangtze canals. Breathtaking. We were to do some hiking, but the entire area was flooded. So, we cruised around.

That night, we stopped at the infamous relocated town of 1.4 million. It reminded me of a slum. Or, tenant housing. The people looked happy to see us, for we now our their only source of income. Prior, they were farmers – had their own land – now they live in small apartments. We happened upon a square where the town came out to greet us. They played some rockin’ Chinese music and started line dancing. Country and Thai-Chi line dancing rocks. They next thing I know, tallgirl is out there line dancing among the young and old. It was a memorable night.

One final note about the boat cruise, rats. So, I’m rooming with Olive. She said, “we may have friends tonight….we are near the kitchen…expect friends.” I did not know what she was talking about. “What?”

Olive: “You know. Rats. If you have food in your room, they will come for a visit. I don’t like rats Can we keep the light on tonight.”

Hell, I hate rats too. The lights stayed on. I just slept with a pillow over my face. Oh, the joys of traveling…

Gearing up for the Chinese Boat Cruise

28 Oct

Traveling on a Chinese Train. 6 Bunk Beds per Compartment.

Just got off the overnight train. Landed in a town of 13 million called Wuhan. Key word here is town. As far as I know, still in Southern China. Inhaling humidity. Dancing in pollution. Typing on a mini-bus made for mini-people. Travel poss is in route to a village of 2 million to board a boat to cruise the Yangtze River, the second or third largest in the world.

Just crossed a ginormous bridge over a man made lake. When asked, the town of Wuhan is reportedly known for their rice and fish ponds. Sounds quaint and fits perfectly in the book of tourist propaganda. From where I’m perched, Wuhan is a confused community for this town of 13 million reeks of capitalism not a silly fish pond. One of the country’s main shipping ports saddles Wuhan. Big city. Big money. Bid deals.

The highway drives orderly Three to four lanes. English and Chinese signs, warning us not to follow so close. On one side of the highway you have a shacks of warehouses piled with lumber, cement bags, blue roof tiles, plywood (for my mattress), broken pipes and big boulders. The sky scrapers look as if they’ve been blown out in a recent war. Not the case. They’re actually in the process of being built. The Chinese build sky scrappers in stages. First is they mount line up three or four building skeletons. Then, they tackle the inside – electrical, floors, ceilings. Then, they wrap up the outside. The skyline looks like a cluster mess then —- whaaalaaa – concrete beauty abounds.

Crossing the Yangtze river now. I spy tankers carrying more coal. More rocks. More sand. More lumber. More oil. What look like floating drift wood are fisherman competing for space among the tankers. To my left, I count twenty-five tankers. “Must feed the beast,” I hear them chant. Yangtze transports 70% of the entire country’s shipping imports/exports.

Peering from my mini-window in the mini-bus, I’m checking out the cars speeding by. Thinking of investing in China. Rumor has it a very small percentage of the 1.3 billion own cars. I spy Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, Chinese brand cars I can’t translate… I see very few American cars. As much as Japan and China are seen as political adversaries, by the looks of the highways this is not the case.

When asked about Japanese products, you get mixed answers. If the elderly respond, they lean towards anti-Japan. If the youth or students respond, they lean towards pro-Japan for they have more access to cheaper luxury products. Olive told us a funny story. She said when her grandfather bought her grandmother their first TV many years ago, he bought the best – a Sony. Her grandmother responded, “No Japanese in my house.” The TV was booted to the curb. Sounds strange today to a US person who is not abreast of Japan/China history.

Now that I’m here in China, I want to learn more. A few months back, there was an incident between a Chinese fishing boat and the Japanese Coast Guard. Both sides claimed the dispute had to do with fishing and waterway rights. Little fishy incident escalated to a point where Beijing and Tokyo were talking about breaking off all future relations. Visas were being revoked. Business trips canceled on both sides. Quite frankly, this had little to with fishing but more to do with who owns the tiny islands in East China Sea. Is it Japan, China or Taiwan? Some believe there is something special under those islands. Energy reserves? Oil? Ahhh… There lies the rub.. It seem to come back to oil ’round here.

Going back to cars… Olive said the Chinese government marks up imports on cars between 80% to 100%. Sometimes, up to 200%. So, a Nissan in China may cost you double. And, what better way for the Government to keep people employed and the Chinese economy humming? Penalize for buying imports and reward for buying domestic. Chinese people are saying – “noooooooo way Jose…we want imports….brand name shows status… Chinese car? No status…”

I was in a bathroom stall the other day – yes, squatting Chinese style – and to my left was an advert for BMW. Guess how much? Almost $550,000 in Yuan for a low end BMW – Series 3 or something. That’s around $90,000 US dollars. We’re in China were the mean income per-capita is around $3,500 per year – taking in rural and urban populations. (No one really knows the per capita income in China… this is a guess).

What baffles me is the government push of this communism ideal of “everyone must be equal.” As I squatted I contemplated the following – Do I actually believe those who can afford a BMW support the communist notion of “equality for all 1.3 billion?” These Chinese work and save for years to drive an import. They get their imported car. How do they justify “equality.” Just can’t see the Shanghai Chinese believing they are on equal footing as their fellow rice picking peasants, military soldiers or Tibetan monks. Still seeking. Still struggling. Still confused.

Then, I wondered – still squatting – why is BMW pushing hard at the advert game. They are everywhere in terms of billboards, magazines, newspapers and bathroom stalls at highway rest stops. Well, even if .0001% of Chinese can afford a BMW, we’re still talking about millions sold per year. And, as US and EU pressures China on to rethink its currency and tariff strategies, companies like BMW will be poised to capture a larger market share. Brand awareness today for market share tomorrow. Invest in BMW? Couldn’t think anymore. Legs went numb from squatting for more than 2 minutes.

Last night’s train ride was much better than anticipated. I expected mayhem and chaos. But, remember, this is China. Rules and order make this country tick. As we made our way through train security, the actual station was orderly. People were seated. Staring. And, quiet. The only noise was coming from a static loudspeaker. The gals decided to make one last run for the bathroom before hunkering down on the overnight train. I was envisioning sharing the toilet hole with rats. For me, this was my last restroom refuge for some hours.

Well, it turned out to be the second worst bathroom I encountered in China. Yes, this time I had a door. But, I had to squat over a trough. One long cement ditch where running water moved bodily junk to an undisclosed location. No, Kerri, I did NOT look down. Kept my eyes focused on the wooden door, while holding my breath.

The positive…seriously there was a positive here – the aroma was not THAT bad. The restroom ladies stoked up some MAJOR incense to reduce the potential for dry heaving, vomiting or fainting. Oh, in case you are wondering, the worst bathroom by far was a truck stop. One room. Multiple holes in the floor. No doors. Risked a bladder infection on that one.

Fast forward. The micro-mini bus made it to the town of 2 million. We had a few hours to kill before we boarded the boat to the Three Gorges Damn. So, the travel posse spent the afternoon exploring. It felt more like a “REAL” Chinese city/town than Shanghai or Yangshuo. Not many tourists. Chinese were walking up to us wanting to take our pictures, practice English or just smiled as we walked by. They would stop on the sidewalk and giggle when we approached. This town – will become a tourist haven in a few years. The Chinese government has kicked out or “replanted” many Chinese residents living along the river to make way for high rises, hotels and Prada retail stores. Soon this sleepy village of 2 million will grow to a town of 10 million.

When we drove in, we passed what looked like a real US style suburb. The homes and town homes were brick, large streets and trees. It was like Pleasantville – Chinese style. Very eery. I was surprised for it wasted a lot of space. High-rises are the way to go in China. Olive said that those homes are inexpensive compared to Shanghai or Beijing. Many Chinese are moving here.

We cruised over a big bridge, shot some balloons, watched some Chinese play cards and walked the town. It was a good way to spend an afternoon. Headed to the grocery store for one final “load’em” up. Took a lot of pictures.

There is little refrigeration – so milk, yogurt, cheese, tator tots or healthy choice is out of the question. You get a lot of zip lock packaged foods. See pictures below. Oh, there is no bread in the grocery stores. You have to find a bakery, and even then, bread is limited. This has caused confusion with our group. The fruits have been amazing. Street corners just full of fruit stands. Olive pulled through and we boarded first. She “knows” people. Next blog is about the actual cruise up and down the Yangtze River to see a very large concrete structure made by men and not otters. Three Gorges Damn.

Walking across the bridge

View from the bridge

Food Market. Bus Ride. Angels in Yangshuo, China

28 Oct

Dry heave. Gag. Vomit. I mean, this could be it. Saying goodbye to meat forever. Katie Lou, I’m putting it on paper. Vegetarianism is knocking at my door. Today was a good and bad day. Love the adjectives. My brain is fried. Keeping it simple. On a train bound for another large city in China. Six bunk beds to one train compartment. I’m in the middle bunk. No head room. Starting to rethink no-class rail travel…

The day was good in that I was taught how to prepare a traditional Chinese meal by a legit, working chef. Bad, because I went to the Yangshou outdoor food market and confronted caged dogs waiting to be slaughtered. One look at the dogs and the shirtless teen wielding a machete and my stomach curled and legs shot out from under me.

Why did I look? I knew the dogs were in there. The Chinese chef-lady told us as such – “dog is in corner…you look… no look.. no care..” Why do I do these things. I mean I had issues with seeing guinea pigs in cages in Peru. And, hello, dogs take it this to a whole different level. I blame the little devil. Need to blame someone, so he’s the best bet. Little angel was whispering on side side, “no look…” And, little devil was a tad bit more convincing, “just one quick look…won’t kill ya…” Now, I’m contemplating vegetarianism. Tell you one thing, I’m reducing my meat intake.

Ok, so the food market was bad. Just down right icky. The ducks made me sad. Chickens made me hurl. The only live creature having little impact on my nervous system were the fish.

Someone told me way back when, the Chinese thought Westerners were heathens not because of our rudeness and need to rule the world but because of our meaty aroma. It’s called BO – Body Odor. It’s said vegetarians emit more fragrant smells, unlike our fellow carcass consumers.

Not sure if that is true, but it sounds really good right about now. Just another reason to stop eating meat. Save $ on antiperspirant. I have found in Thailand antiperspirant is a mere novelty. Went to TESCO and they only had 2 types among the rows and rows of soaps, shampoos, anti-hair falling creams and skin whitening gels. Bhutan, I did not see any. Maybe some truth to this.

So, besides the animals, the actual market was beautiful. Ripe with fresh veggies, fruits and random roots I’ve never heard of before. No matter. I took a zillion pictures to help me remember. So, when I walk into Publix, I will show the teeny-bopper a picture and say, “find me this, now…” Right. My goal is to cook more. So, I may have no home and no kitchen when I return, but I will have a wok. I’ll come to your house and cook for free. Any takers?

After the market, little chef-lady led us back to her restaurant where she handed us – you guessed it – a wok, gas fire burner, large knife, noodles, meats, veggies, spices and said “let’s go baby..” It was a riot. We’re outside cooking, overlooking McDonald’s and KFC. There is something wrong with that image. We rolled dumplings. Fired up bamboo steamers. Spiced the food with digestible spices. Yea…this is going to be a good blog for the cooks out there for I can’t spell or pronounce 98% of the foods. All I can tell you is they gave us the recipes in English. And, I have pictures.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it was some of the best Chinese food yet. It may be because it’s cooked by Chef Amanda — in that I knew how much oil, spices and veggies are going in. It felt healthier. So, it tasted better.

After the cooking school, we all sauntered back to the Imperial Hotel with full tummies of food and beer. Our next stop was a train station with the rest of the 1.3 billion vacationing Chinese to go to another large city to board a boat to the Three Gorges Damn.

pics from cooking:

One problem. Since Yangshou is overcrowded with Chinese tourists, Olive said we will have to walk to our micro-mini bus – “it’s just up the road.” Yea. Heard that one before. Try Siberia. Moscow. And, all of Russia. I broke my backpack/luggage after MASH – my fearless Russian tour guide – uttered those words. Remember, got lost in the Moscow metro? Thank GOD for the creator of Duck Tape.

Just as I thought. Two miles later. Still carrying a 44 pound bag as I navigate down cobble stone streets and around thousands upon thousands of tiny tourists walking, driving, smoking and cycling. Sweat dripped from my brows and pits. Yep, been eating meat for I’m starting emit a rank odor. Think positive. I’ll smell just as bad as everyone else on the overnight train.

We finally got to the bus. Olive said the bus driver got lost. Could not get through the crowds… Or, something along those lines. The American “customer-service and this unacceptable” voice entered the brain. I quickly sniffled it once I sat my sweaty creases on the cotton/polyester bus seat. Trying the Buddhism “let’s be present and in the moment” gig. And, starting to reconsider because being “present” means I’m “fu—” hot and annoyed. Being in the “future” means being clean, cool and comfortable. “Being present” is not a preferred option.

The bus ride to the train station was heart-stirring. Our group has been talking and joking about seeing the “REAL” China for days now. We’re getting the China the government wants us to see. But, not the “REAL” China. Sad thing is I’m not sure if we want to see the “REAL” China. And, what are we to do with this “REAL” China information. Tallgirl is over analyzing again.

We got a small taste of REAL China in route to the train station. Blinding poverty. Poverty does not discriminate. Change the Chinese signs to Spanish, Romanian, English, Arabic, Russian, or Thai…and she’s equally indistinguishable. Heaps of plastic bottles casually tossed. Trash burning in metal containers. Laundry hanging from trees. Moms harvesting rice with one hand and holding their child with the other. Young and old men sitting and staring.

And, then you look past the scanty conditions and your eyes are filled with rich nourishment. And, rich work. Miles and miles and miles of green rice fields, banana fields, orange fields – nourishing over1.3 billion people. Stark contrasts. Yes. Did some thinking on the bus ride. Even sprang a few tears.

Here I am, staring out the window wearing just a bra and flimsy camisole to cool off. Tears are running from my eyes. My face is blowing up like a red balloon. Fumbling for the pocket toilet paper to absorb the tears and wipe the nose. Taking all of this in from distance. More tears. Now, full fledged crying. Never can say the Day girls aren’t emotional. It’s in our DNA. Ask Dad.

Yes. I cried. I cried for these farmers. For injustice. For little choice. I cried out of gratitude and wonderment for my rich blessings for I do not deserve this abundance. I cried for the honor of living in the US and being an American. For the freedom to say no. And, for having the option to say yes. For God gracing me with a loving, supportive family and crazy, interesting, lively, chaotic friends.

I cried because I’m not doing enough to make a positive difference in this world – with the gifts God gave me. Cried because I’m working off of a God inspired plan and, quite frankly, I’m scared shitless. I cried because I was feeling a little misunderstood, unrecognizable and lost in a land of 1.3 billion – maybe like these farmers.

At the end, I cried for the recent loss of my great Uncle who had passed a few days prior. All of these thoughts. All of these emotions blasted me like a never-ending wave. Oh, I’m going to miss Uncle Tom. End to a great era. He served in WWII. The “man that knew everything.” He tended to his garden in Searsucker pants and Buddy Holiday glasses to the very end. Best green beans and Brunswick stew, EVER…

Then my sobs turned to giggles. I could hear Uncle Tom’s voice talking to me in his Southern drawl as I was calculating and debating “Chinese Equality.” I could her him in heaven getting on with my Grandmother, Cousin Ann (recently passed), Aunt Duckie, his brother (my Grandfather) and the rest of the Skinner family. I can hear them rejoicing and laughing – laughing at me and my somber mood. Laughing at me trying to simplify what “this journey means” into a digestible sound bite. I could hear all of their voices.

Grandmother was talking first. She told me to go ahead and put on that red lipstick in China. She would find way to pay for the soiled hotel linens for I “never know who I’m going to meet.” They told me that my journey was God inspired and I have nothing to fear – they are all with me – my traveling angels. And, they started to tell me about the other angels that surrounded me on my journey. Granny – my Dad’s mom who was an avid traveler – comforted me too. She told me over and over again that she is by my side every second. She never leaves me for she’s a seasoned traveler and is helping me navigate this crazy world. She reminded me about my Archangel and he’s taking care of the details. Not to worry. Uncle Tom came back and elaborated in more detail about the turbulent history between the China and Japan. Cousin Ann was there telling me about her favorite books and how I must get to India next time. I could hear them all laughing.

Southern China passed me by as I listened and conversed with my family of angels. I asked them to forgive me for I do forgot they are with me. I seem to reach out when I’m distressed and I need to work on being more aware. I thanked them over and over again for their help for I could never do this trip by myself. I can hear all them say, “Damn straight, honeychild…”

People ask all the time, “so how did you plan this?” My response. “I didn’t. Much larger than me. This trip – organization – came about in 3 or 4 weeks time…” Once I knew my house was going to sell, it was balls to the wall in planning. All of it has been divine. I could not have done this all alone. My word, I did not even have Lonely Planet guide book – the bible of all travelers. Reactions are interesting, depending on the person’s belief system.

I truly miss Uncle Tom. I miss my grandmother and granny. I miss them all. But, am comforted they are with me. Guiding me. My traveling angels. And, Grandmother, I promise to work on putting some color on my lips. You are right. I never know who I might meet and that “washed out look” is not becoming of a woman of my height and paleness. Thank you for reminding me you are there – watching over me.

Back to the bus. I cooled off. Sweat stopped. Put on my shirt. None of the marrieds even noticed I was sitting in my bra and camisole. I wiped the tears from my eyes. No make-up means no mascara running. Another reason to ward off make-up. I feel much better. Ready to conquer another sleepless night on a train and few sleepless nights on a boat to a dam. Let’s do it baby…

Cycling through China’s Countryside

28 Oct

Once again. No clue what day it is. I look at days now in terms of weather. Is it a full body SPF day? Just a SPF for the face, neck and hands? Is it the purple, PTA-style rain jacket? Break out the over 65+ floppy hat? Or, is it the entire ensemble?

That’s right. Sure to hook up with a hottie sportin a purple rain jacket, white zinc-oxide and floppy hat while riding a bike with baskets and a bell. Gosh, can’t WAIT to infuse some style into my life when I get back home. I’m having burn the clothes party. All are invited. By the way, the nub bangs are finally growing. Girls will get this. But, it’s emotionally exhausting to be this ugly and unkempt all the time. I look in the mirror and say, “Really?” Can’t wear the lipstick, apply zit cover up or eye liner for fear of buying a whole new set of hotel linens. Get me to South Africa or Australia NOW. They must have bleach there. And, no import tax on luxury goods like Hanky Pankies, J Crew or Naturalizers.

One thing that is for certain when it comes to wardrobe….is EVERYDAY is a long sleeves

Seen this before? Long sleeves..Long pants.

and long pants day, regardless if it’s raining, snowing, or polluting. My skin turns a hot shade of hot pink when exposed to rays. Yes, I even get fried when driving in a car or bus with tinted windows. Right Kate? Kate refused to believe this tale until my visit to California. I pull up. Get out of the car. Kate says, “Amanda, your skin is pink…are you burned…is it a rash?” My reply, “Yes, it’s called sun burn, sun poison, sun rash and soon to be sun cancer. Served to me via a car window.”

In pictures, you’ll always see me covered up. The positive is the Chinese, Thai, Bhutanese all cover up too. They even waltz around carrying parasols. In a past life, I was probably an Asian, certainly not a Scottish Viking naked and freezing wearing a plaid kilt. Yes. I was certainly Asian…Love rice.

Focus. So, getting ready for the cycling trip. What will it be today. It’s misty. NOT raining. And, its NOT pollution, according to Chinese propaganda. Whatever. Heavy doses of dirt, dust and diesel in air equates to pollution. No matter, I’m lathering on SPF 50+ to cycle Southern China’s countryside.

The travel posse gathered early AM to get first dibs on the Chinese bikes. As they jockeyed for bikes, I was in my own “la la” world – observing the morning rituals of this little town of 300,000. It’s 8 am. Calmness – Chinese style – was in the air. Just breathing it in.

Because of my Zen-”I need to be present” mentality and meandering through the streets stopping, watching, taking pictures…. I was burned on getting a good bike. That’s what I get for being “in the moment” and not “planning for the future.”

When I arrived at the bike-depot, only two bikes remained. Option 1: No brakes. Option 2: Girl bike, front breaks only, no cushion, seat only goes up a good three good inches. Basket is in back. Bell barely rings. Looks like the sequoia will be traversing the countryside Fred Flintstones style – using my feet for breaking and voice as the “get out of the way” bell.

Olive, chipper Chinese tour guide, gives us the 411 on “how to ride a bike in China.”

The only thing I heard was avoid being hit. One thing we must remember was all bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, motorcycles posing as cars, small cars, large cars, tour buses, public buses, oxes, kids, babies, dogs – you name it – they all believe THEY own the street and THEY have the right away. Bike depot did give us helmets – the only tourons I saw with them on – for protection. Good.

The group of sixteen, many of whom have not ridden a bike in years, were off and running. Let’s just say, even the mangy dogs avoided us when they saw us coming. I think the helmets scared them. It took about 20 minutes to get out of the metropolis into the countryside. What we encountered was purely breathtaking. The imposing mountains jutting out of nowhere. Awe-inspiring rice patties being harvested by hand as far as the eye can see. A stunning river flowing with determined force and purpose. Mud clay roads jumbled with random potholes, overflowing with murky water.

We weaved. We braked. We crashed. Such joy. I finally scooped out my MOSTEST favoritEST food in the whole wide world – RICE. Love the stuff. Give me some beans, and call it a day. The Southern Chinese rice is days away from being harvested by hand. Wish I could see that. I would join them in hacking it…Abutting up to my favorite food though was a dirty, little stream being used to wash clothes by the locals. I wanted to scream, “you can’t contaminate my rice! Call the rice Po-lice now!”

Rice fields.

Other wonderful foods I saw were oranges, bananas and fruits I can’t pronounce, but seem to eat at every meal. I’m in heaven. Let’s see… Ducks and water buffalo littered the fields. Never encountered any horses. Hope they are NOT eating them too. Biking gives you a good sense of rural China. The labor. The hard work. The need to cultivate food to feed the 1.3 billion. Damn, starting to rethink “I was Asian” past life. Not so sure if I can spend hours, days, years cutting rice with a butter knife for survival. Barely got chop sticks down.

Whenever we stopped to take pictures, old women looking around 110 but probably more like 60, would appear out of nowhere. It was like they were beamed to us from the Starship Enterprise. They just appeared to sell us flowers or rocks. Anything.

I wonder how much they rely on our $ to make it through the month. What has STRUCK me and where I’ve had to add “confused” in front of the word Communism, is the fact China does not have a social safety – medicaid, social security, food stamps, homeless shelters… Nothing. That’s right. You heard me. ZERO. The government, built on the premise of “everyone is equal,” does not have a welfare system as we know it or what I expected from a country like the indomitable China. I had no idea. I must have missed the 411 on communism according to Chairman Mao in college. I think I will dedicate a whole blog exploring my capitalism communism confusion. OK. Leave it for later. Let’s just say – The Chinese are taxed on income. Pay for all medical. Pay for high school and University. Pay tolls to drive on roads. Good news is there’s no sales tax on food/items. Phew….off the hook there.

Back to a happy place. Biking. For lunch, we stopped at Moon Hill or, was it Moon Pie, cafe. Either way, it’s in the valley of Moon mountain. Olive, our chipper Chinese tour guide, did what she does best – got us seated and got us fed and is getting us FAT. She ordered food. We nod. Open our mouths. And, inhale. Oh, need to take a moment to worship ME. This is MY blog. Guess what? I can almost use CHOP STICKS. It’s called survival if I want to eat, right? I’ve never used chop sticks b/c I’ve always opted for using a fork to shovel food in as fast as possible. Two little sticks to pick up a peanut or three rice grains does not pass muster in the world of consuming everything as fast as possible because we have something to do now. But, I’m trying.

After inhaling, we hiked up Moon mountain. Felt good to get the glands sweating again. Little old ladies walked with us carrying coolers and postcards, trying to sell us water and to remind us that their photos were much better than our shitty cameras. Can I be mean and say, HOW annoying? Don’t have patience. Is it selfish? Probably. I’m talking to my new BFFer, Sandra from Switzerland about my major crush on tennis player Roger Feder, and little Chinese lady weighing about 65 pounds is right behind us screaming her ten or twelve words in English at us. “Hello…Slow Down… Water… Coke…Aloe…Postcard…Good deal…Rest…Picture..” We ignored her and told us we have our water. She did not stop. Finally, she got pissed. Yelled. And, hawked a luggie at us. After tossing spit on us, all guilt flew out the door.

At the top, we took pictures. My other BFFers, Libby and Julian from Australia had a ghast of a time taking pictures. They crack me up. Poor things. I will be stalking them forever and ever and ever… They just don’t know it yet. Going to stay with them in Australia… Poor things.

Anyway, at the top of Moon Hill, there was this cute, young Chinese couple who asked Julian to take their photo. Julian is hysterical. He says in his Aussie accent… “Ok..get closer you two… now, Kissy…Kissy…Give me a kiss…” Well, the Chinese girl expression went from all smiles to mortification. The Chinese are normally sooooo shy. And, this may be a first or second or hundredth date, but this little lady does NOT want “kissy kissy” on a camera camera. The Chinese dude was all for it. He reached over and gave her a big kiss. Julian captured it. The Chinese dude ran to Julian..and in broken English asked, “did you get the kissy kissy?” Oh my…. Never a dull moment. Some things are the same, regardless of country. Chinese girl, not so happy.

We biked back. Stopping off to talk to more water buffalo and admire the orange trees. No one was killed or maimed, which is always a good nice. It was a nice ride.

Next stop – tomorrow, whatever day that is – we’re taking an overnight train to Wuhan where we will board a boat and head up to the Three Gorges. Again, no clue on the day or location. Just focus on the weather. The overnight train will be like the Moscow train. Six to a compartment. No door. No air condition. No sleep. They call these trains a “hard sleeper.” I wonder what they call my hotel bed made of plywood? Comfy, cushy and cozy….If that is the case, Moscow train was marvelous in comparison to what we are in for… Stay tuned…

The Yangshuo Massage

28 Oct

In Yangshuo, China – small town of 300,000. Only been here for a few hours. Jonesing for a massage. Got some Chinese Yuan to spend. Found a two hour Chinese massage for US $35. Life is good… Yes, it may be pricey for China. But, let me tell you something – this ain’t your “mama’s” cheap China anymore. Dollar is weak. Yuan is in limbo. Prices are climbing to the sky. Besides that, I had a STRONG urge to upgrade to an unsoiled, sanitary Chinese massage mill.  The $35 for 2 hours is a “good deal.”

TANGENT: OK… Where am I? What am I doing? 411 on your surroundings please. Well, tallgirl is propped up by two polyester-infused pillows, perfumed with a hint of mold. The bum is feeling heavy after sitting for an hour on a packed plywood mattress. Jaw aches from chomping on at least six pieces of Chinese sugar-filled, tasteless gum. The balcony door is open. Market chatter infuses the room. Same flute tune playing over and over and over again. Bugs doing a happy dance around the only two, 40-watt lamps. Let’s see. If you kick the flute and plywood bed, I’m channeling Florida Keys. Smell and all..

Moments ago, I just walked through the lobby with my CLEAN laundry shoved into a mini- plastic bag used for carrying prunes and raisins. Splurged on laundry for I’m trying to put a stop to the continuous sink-scrubbing of undergarments. In the lobby, I spied recent arrivals – German tourons (tourists + morons) checking-in at the Imperial Inn. They appear older. Well dressed. Nice bags. Polished shoes. Belts. Accessories. Recently showered. I see they arrived in an upscale bus with leg room. Not your Gap Adventures type of travelers…. Tick tock… I’m thinking Imperial Inn is their “plan B” for they all seemed confused. I don’t speak German, but I do speak “what the fuuuuu….”

What will be their reaction when they push their hotel room door ajar. Will theyVendors lined up outside my window be delighted by the the commanding view, smells and sounds of the 200+ vendors just a few feet away? Shocked by the loud “thump” when they place their designer bags on the impenetrable, plywood bed? Jubilant to be able to scope out their mate or BFFer showering, squatting or brushing through the over-sized bathroom window with no shades? This will be goooood…

Oh, forgot. What about the fact there’s no warm water or water pressure. Turbulent times for the Imperial Inn. In a way, the Chinese should rejoice for they’re dealing with Germans and not customer-service, demanding, this is unacceptable Americans. We would sue on the grounds of Human Rights violations for no blinds in the bathroom. We can’t even discuss the plywood mattress issue. That’s another law suit on the grounds of Environmental Protection of plywood.

Tangent over… Back to massage. I’ve been dreaming about Chinese massage and herbal medicines since I landed in the land of 1.3 billion. Don’t know why I need herbal medicines, but I like the sound of it. Acupuncture as well. Fearful of shots. But, if small needles can cure what ails this tall body, you’ve got my Yuan. My former roomie from the Young Bucks Trans-Siberian trail said she was going to find a good acupuncturist in Beijing. She’s a nurse for the Saudi Royal family. Beijing is a week away. Can’t wait. Must have a massage, now. I went to Olive, our chipper Chinese tour guide, for the 411 on massage mills in Yangshou.

Olive delivered. She led me to a store front with the word “Dr.” and “massage” in lights. Hmmm. Olive said, “this is good… no?” It took less than 2 seconds for me to decide to subjugate my body for the word “Dr” spoke to me… I scheduled an appointment for 7:30 pm. By the way, kudos on the marketing front folks…

I wondered back to the restaurant to find the China travel posse of couples. They were craving rice, noodles and meat.

I hate food. Only a few hours prior, our group inhaled ten plates of Chinese food – super sized dumplings, white rice, fried rice, random meats, tofu, random veggies, noodles, tofu, more meat and extra rice. Oh, yea..soup. Just say “NO” to food. Who goes to China and gains weight. Me. Tonight, I opted for liquids and firm hands to transform Chinese food intake into lean muscle mass.

So, I threw back a large “pint” and less than 30 mins later, there I was laying flat down, semi-naked on a plastic massage table along side eight other plastic tables. Starting to relax when I opened my eyes through the open hole of the massage table and peered at my dirty hiking boots, smelly socks and passport. Couldn’t they place a flower, odor eaters or a Glade stick there instead.  These sock fumes reminded me to buy more detergent. Forgot to get these washed earlier… By in large, the “dr” massage mill is meeting my Chinese expectation.

Little Sin Sin, Jin Jin or Tin Tin – can’t pronounce her name – worked my back over for the next hour. The girls weighs about 80 pounds and is 4 foot 10 inches on a good day. I’m G-I Giant next to her. Poor little thing. She will be working hard for her tip.

Little Tin Tin’s English words were few. But, when it came to my shocking-white, transparent skin, she found the superlatives to describe her state of surprise. “Oh, you so very, very white… Oh, you work on being white, no… you use white products… where buy white products…you tell me secret…”

Not really sure how to respond when you are laying naked on a plastic table smelling dirty socks being reminded you are a super, pasty freak. No really relaxing. My response, “skin is real. No bleach. No lotions. Just DNA. I’m a recessive gene in a family with melanin. Think of me as a mutant…Like in X-Men.. Know mutants? I’m transparent, shocking-white mutant…” Yea, like Little Jin Jin got all of that. Wrong. This is what I really said… “Your skin is better. Your skin –no cancer. My skin – yes cancer.” She understood the word cancer but not in context with no-color skin. She kept talking about whitening her skin with some Chinese herb.

Get back the massage. For the most part, the “Dr.” place was the Ritz on steroids in comparison to the Turkish bath/massage in Petra, Jordan where they throw a bucket of water on you and a lady in a Burka scrubs you with rocks. This is my second massage while traveling – so I’m only going to compare it to that. I mean, if I really looked, I’m sure I could have freaked out over bugs, dust mites, bed bugs – or whatever the bacteria rage is in the US.

Here goes another tangent…My Mom would say, “honey, if it’s that nasty then why don’t they get some sense and shock the shit out of everything with some bleach?” I’ve had this conversation in my head a zillion times and did my own investigating as to why all hotel linens, towels and robes in a zero, one, two and three star hotels give off a putty, mayonnaise hue. White, crisp linens are an obsession of mine, thanks to my Father.

Of course my explanation has to get political. Can’t talk about linens without going into the cesspool of greed and self-interest. In China, foreign imports are excessively expensive. Another way for the government to force Chinese to buy Chinese products. Let’s take a bottle of Clorox. The Chinese government adds a tax of 200% to 300% to the price of imports. This deters demand for this luxury good, even if it is a bottle of damn bleach. There’s no Chinese brand substitute, at least none that I’ve found in the general stores. Let’s take it a step further. Imagine getting red lipstick, eyeshadow or hair dye on a hotel towel in China. No amount of scrubbing or soaking with Woolite in your backyard river is going to remove the the stain. Hotel’s solution? You soil. You buy. Just one more reason NOT to wear lipstick or get your hair died in China.

So, yes, the towels and pillow cases in “Dr” massage mill exuded a lovely pantone color of grays and yellows. I assume this exposed body is relaxing along side friendly, flesh-eating parasites and bacteria bombs since no one is able to “shock the shit” out of this place. For whatever reason, I’m not phased. I rode across Russia in a train built for the dirty, grungy and deranged. Skin is becoming immune to local parasites, mites and creepy-crawlers.

Tin Tin did her magic. Her little hands found the pain parts. It hurt. My lower back and the “no pedicure since July” feet squealed in pain. I closed my eyes and forced myself to a happy place hoping her pinching, kneading and squeezing provoked memory and metabolism pressure points and not the digestion and bladder zones you see in the foot reflexology charts. Not sure if I felt relaxed or relieved when she finished. But, the beer tasted good.

I was happy to see no visitors in the massage room of eight tables. I asked Sin Sin – after we were finished – if this was a girl only room. Her expression said it all. “No…No…for everyone…” God is good for if some furry man flopped beside me there’s no telling what I would have done.

I gave Little Sin Sin a tip personally. She thanked me over and over again. I had a strong feeling her boss kept all tips. That was confirmed at the end when I paid. “So, you tip Tin Tin?” I fibbed. “Oh, let me tip her now. I handed over a few dollars – much less than what I gave Tin Tin – to play the game. Something inside of me led me to give Tin Tin some extra change. As I was leaving, Tin Tin raced by me down the street. She waved and waved and waved…And, squealed something in Chinese. I waved back and sauntered lazily through the have of the Yangshou market. Maybe she’s off to pay rent? A phone bill? Buy food for her family? I’m praying the extra Yuan went for something good…

Sorting it out in Chiang Mai, Thailand

28 Oct

The Chedi Hotel in Chiang Mai. My resting retreat.

I’ve decided.  If I every make a long term living in writing or doing something awe-inspiring, life changing and highly meaningful –  I will negotiate in my contract… must be around clean, pristine architecture to inspire creativity and brain cells.

I’ve decided I write and edit best in a places with clean lines, hard wood floors (no carpet),  over-sized tubs, 7-foot shower heads, ironed sheets, white comforters with snazzy red pillows, crisp robes, firm and mushy king-size pillows, balconies with reclining couches, near any body of water, proximity to a spa, full breakfast buffet, freshly brewed coffee with whole milk, plethora of tall trees, lotus flowers  and featured in some Architecture magazine… It’s the little things that inspire “us” creatives…

My room. View from bathroom.

Checked into The Hotel Chedi in Chiag Mai, Thailand to edit/write about China and Bhutan.  As you can see, LOVING it…  Went from bunk beds and zero stars to five star overnight.  The hotel is having a special due to the recent floods sweeping Bangkok and Northern Thailand.  But, guess what.  There’s no rain. No flood.  And, no one is here.  Five star hotel for $99 – free buffet and buy one get one free massage.  Sign me up.  I even have a butler who checks on me WAY too much.  He probably thinks I’m a sloth since all I wear is a robe and slippers.  Not complaining.  He comes to refill my Equal, water, coffee, tea and milk.  Yes, that’s right, FREE whole milk in the mini-bar.  Went tot he 7-11 yesterday and bought some coco-puffs to go with my rich, creamy milk.  Midnight snack…

Been editing my super blog.  Damn, I write too much.  Verbal vomit.  What to post.  What do you want to know about is the question.  Every single day there is an inspiring story to make you smile or cry.

So, I’m doing the “I hate talking and need to be in a cave” thing in order to process, reflect and write.  I’m half way through my journey.  SHIT.  It’s moving all to fast.  Freaking out.  Everyday is such a gift – even on those days where I’m lost, poor, dirty, inconvenienced, annoyed and…..

Cave dwelling by night.

I had a revelation the other day…I actually really, really like traveling with me.  Sounds sooooo strange…. Yea, there are days where my indecisiveness, impatience and leaving behind important items like my Gillette razor, Velcro rollers, bang cuttin’ scissors, underwear, zip-lock bags, SPF zinc-oxide, adapter, maps does escalate the annoyance factor.  Issue there is I have NO one to blame but me — which super sucks because a perk traveling with others is you are privy to playing the “blame” game.

But overall, I enjoy traveling with me.  Again, this sounds strange.  Talk about how strange it is to write it… But, I’ve met people who have asked “how can you be by yourself for so long… I couldn’t do what you are doing.. I would get bored.. I don’t like being by myself… how can you stand being alone…”

There is a difference between being alone and lonely.  I enjoy my alone time.  I like me.  But, when the black shadow of loneliness creeps in, well…that is a DIFFERENT story.  I learned the difference of the two while living in an orphanage in Honduras.  Never felt so lonely among so many people as I did while living in Honduras.  Loneliness can break your soul. It broke mine.

Enough of that deep crap.  I just wanted to write a quick blog about this beautiful place.  And, my fantasy of writing …aka…”what am I going to be when I grow up” matter at hand.  Tell you one thing — “I ain’t no editor.”  My sister keeps calling me out on grammar and spelling, and she is dyslexic and as all the acronym issues — ADD, ADAAYH, ADAH, AA..AAA… So, I do apologize.  I will one day read this and probably hurl with all the conjunction..conjunction… conjunction what’s your function mistakes..

Yea, I’m inspired here.  I guess, once you go clean, crisp and creative — you won’t go back to clutter and confusion.   Just say no to writing on bunk beds in rail cars traversing across Siberia.

Oh, if anyone has any ideas as to what I should “do” when I grow up.   We’re talking about March 2011.  I’m ears.  You can always email me at  I probably should put my email address on my blog someplace.  Need to figure that out.. Now, on to posting the blogs.  Have a wild ride…

Cave dwelling by night.

Cave dwelling by day.  Lobby of hotel.

Where is China blog?

13 Oct

Chinese Children... So cute!

Yep… Just left China.  Landed in Bangkok.  Heading to Bhutan in 2 hours.  Goal is to spend air flight to finish editing China.  Suspect Bhutan has no access to electronic -TV, WiFi, Radio – given its named “happiest place on earth.”  It’s run by Monks.

Will be back in reality on October 23 and 24th.  Will post all China then.  Bhutan, following week.  Pictures to follow.  Get ready — there’s a lot of random observations about no-nonsense  China.  “It’s not your Mama’s communism…” It’s more like… “confused Communism.” You’ll need a cocktail if/when you read it.  Happy October!

Bhutan Map below…Leaving now…for the airport.  It’s 3:35 AM…

Seeing Southern China

1 Oct

*Email to friend Julia turned into a blog…

Homemade chocolate cake and milk sounds good. Can’t remember when the last time I drank milk. Wait. Mongolia. But, it was unpasteurized heavy cream. A sip worth 2,000 calories. From now on, I’ll sacrifice bacteria for taste any day.

A view from my hotel

What am I doing? Just woke. It’s 5-something AM. And, I’m chomping on Chinese crackers slathered with peanut butter with a wiped off expiration date. Downing it with instant coffee and sugar cane.

No doubt I’m returning to the states as a coffee snob. I’ll import beans if I have to. But, I will never, ever, never drink instant sludge again.

I have NO idea what day it is.

Where am I? Yangshuo, China. Google it. I have no idea where I am map wise. I believe it’s way south. Just know I took a big plane and small bus to get to the land of warmth, humidity and zits. Hey, getting to save on lotion costs. Getting to stave off wrinkle formation. Getting to sweat again. The body is overjoyed…

As I said, it’s early…like 5:45 AM. I like watching a city wake up. Yangshuo is considered a mere town of 300,000.  All you hear are the large locusts rocking and few birds singing. I’m waiting for the roster to kicked it in a few.

My new tour posse is mainly couples — BIG change from Trans-Siberian rail young bucks crowd.

Traveling Posse below… They rock!

China Tour Posse

We’re staying at the Imperial Hotel, butting up to the market of counterfeit non-essentials. Meaning, constant noise. Constant harassment Constant. Since tour posse is comprised of couples, I super scored on the hotel room.

When traveling solo, you have a choice. Fork over additional $$ for a private room. If not, then you’re bunking with a random. Well, no other single, white, scary female showed up to the China gig, so I gained two beds, four pillows, two lamps, two towels, two rolls of toilet paper, two working electrical outlets, two tea cups, one remote control and a plethora of cold water. No hot water at the Imperial. It’s ok. We’re not in Siberia.

Speaking of beds. Are you ready for this one? At the zero, one, two and three star hotels in China, they substitute mattresses with plywood, bamboo or some other sort of “hard” material easily found in resource rich China.

Let me repeat.  No springs.  No fluff.  Just wood. I’ll be staying at the Hilton in Beijing for one night and will report out if they swap out springs for wood too. Hilton is my B-Day present to myself. Mark, my step brother, works for Hilton and, rumor on the street is, he’s going to reserve it for me. Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaa…. If not, then it’s back to sleeping on wood NOT with Chinese wood.

It’s not been overly injurious for they use a soft blanket for a mattress pad and a sheet for the fluff factor. Plus, I have four pillows. SCORE. The traveling posse’s side sleepers are screwed for they wake with achy joints and bruises.  Many morning conversations kick off with “how did you sleep” and “which joint hurts this AM?”

Seen from my balcony

OK. Back to the hotel. My room has a balcony overlooking the 200 Chinese street vendors schlepping everything from counterfeit Nike hats

(spelled NKE), polyester scarves sold as silk to Buddha key chains and random meats and bugs vacuum packed in Zip locks baggies. Market closes around 11 pm. The Chinese women are in charge. There’s not a man in sight.

When I wrapped up my 2 hour Chinese massage last night, I kicked back on my balcony with some peanut butter, a banana and local beer.  I was perched to observe. Around 10:30 pm, I watched these women painstakingly packed up their individual wooden retail cubicle. Folded and refolded every scarf, shirt, trinket, piece of rubble and gingerly placed these items into worn boxes. I sipped on my beer and felt gad it was not me for I would have crammed, stuffed and tossed all my goods into any box as fast as possible to get home in time for Law & Order SVU. Not them.

After diligently packing, they hoisted the poundage onto their 1950’s Schwinn bikes with front AND back baskets or their 1980s mini-moped with no muffler. Then off they went. Heading into the darkness. Heading back home to their family. Hopefully, putting their feet up on the couch. I guess its not the case. They probably are going to prepare a meal for their man, their elderly parents, their children and then clean their home. I’m feel tired for them. I needed another beer..

Damn… It’s too early in the AM. I hear the luggies launching. You know, they hawking and toss their spit on the street. This luggie thing makes me want to dry heave when I hear the flem moving in their throats and being sprung loose. Men and women do this. They say it’s to rid the evil spirits. I say get the government needs to invest in cough suppressant and call it a day.

For the Olympics, the Chinese government had tourist manners training broadcasted on the radio and TV instructing the 1.3 billion, essentially, two main things. No hawking luggies in public. And, no roaming the streets in your Pjs. For the Games, you must get dressed. Makes me giggle. I did spy a PJ wearer in Shanghai. Took a picture…

Besides confused communism, the words hawking and luggie launching are going to be added to my list for China as the word sighing was my go-to Russian descriptor. Anyway, I hear the luggies launching. The women are back reassembling their goodies for another day. My heart goes out to them on one hand and the other hand, not so much. Many vie for a spot on counterfeit row. They are the lucky ones. I watch Chinese tourist buy their goods. It’s their business. Their livelihood. They are supporting their families. They are all ages — young to very old. Retirement age here is 50 for woman and 55 men. That being said, pensions are a rarity. Savings is the only way to prepare for old age. These woman don’t want my pity — but my money. This idea of communism – they way I was taught and have understood – has been shredded after visiting China. More to come on that later.

Back to the hawkers. Ok. So last night, as I was sipping my beer I observed an interesting transaction.l One Chinese market lady is prego. Let’s hope its her only child for she will be fined if not. Chinese preggers has been on her feet all day. She packing up her assortment of goodies, in particular halter, strapless dresses — like bathing suit cover ups. For me, it would be a micro-min skirt with a large elastic waist band. Anyhow, I watched a fellow prego Western woman eye a halter dress. She wanted it. Perfect for preggers. Maybe I should buy LLL one and ship back to the states in time for the baby shower. Thoughts?

You would think fellow preggers would not rip each other off — would be patient. You know, do the follow prego bond. Nope. Voices were raised. Western preggers stormed off. Chinese preggers went running and screaming after her. I sipped my beer and ate peanut butter and watched it unfold. Is Western preggers going to walk? Chinese preggers whipped out a calculator. Western preggers waved her off. Back and forth. Walk away. Screamed. Came back. It was settled. Western preggers got her halter dress. Chinese preggers ripped it from the hanger, balled it up and threw it in an old plastic bag she found under the table. Deal done. These people really need to start practicing their bonafide religion, Buddhism.

You should see the other rooms in the hotel Julia. You would HEART the one given to Canadian Dawn and Mike. (Yes, 90% of group is from our NAFTA partner to the North.) Over their plywood bed, the snazy hotel painted two young backpackers walking into the sunset — talk about getting you into the mood. The shower, bathroom and sink window takes up half the wall. It’s INSIDE the room overlooking the bed. I took a picture. So, when you’re scrubbing or going #2 your husband, lover or hook up can watch. Maybe the Chinese believe backpackers like to watch each other take dumps and shower. No clue. Things like this just make me happy.

Went down on the Yulong or Li river – forgot name of river – yesterday.

They had me hoisted on a rusted, metal chair ducked tape to six bamboo sticks. My Chinese guide was a no-teeth smiling, cig smoking, bamboo pole paddling master. He guided us over mini-rapids – without getting a smudge of water on my pristine, prescious outfit.

I do need to blow up the picture of the Marlboro packs I photographed in Mongolia. To reduce smoking, the country forced Marlboro to put pictures of cancer ridden teeth and black lungs on the cig packets. I’ve seen this throughout Poland, Jordan and Israel too. It’s good stuff.

But, bamboo pole pusher gave my first real sense of calmness since entering the country of 1.3 billion – that is if you remove cigarette smoke and his occasional cackle to other pole pushers passing by. The river. The limestone mountains. Huts littered along the water. Mini-rapids. Water buffalo. Rice fields. Peaceful. Southeast Asia must have inspired the movie Avatar’s scenery. I shared my metal chair with Jeff, who I alluded to earlier. No, I did not jump his bones or sing  “Strangers in the Night,” Julia. If I rolled   of him, suffocation would ensue.

Wait — I hear a new noise. No, not hawking. It’s sweeping. Let’s celebrate the street cleaners. What’s surprised me is China’s cleanliness. I expected litter everywhere. Like Honduras.

But, with a Central Government whose main goal is equality for all – get to that one later – it’s their goal to find jobs for everyone. So, China has a deluge of street cleaners sportin’ orange vests and rubber boots, carrying hay broomsticks and rusted trays, walking around with heads down in search of their prey – LITTER. It’s all good. They make some dinero. Govt gives a break on housing. And, streets are always clean. Keeping with the theme job security, at the airport going through security ten agents per machine. For a two hour flight on a mid-size plane from Hangzhou to Gulin, we’re talking eight flight attendants. They greeted us. Passed out water and packs of dried carrots. Picked up the trash. And, called it a day. Job security.

I need to go. Sick of peanut butter. Need to eat some rice porridge — water, rice and gelatin stuff – and dumplings for breakfast. I’m biking to Moon Hill, Moon Pie or Moon mountain today. Biking through rice paddies and giving a shout out to my fellow Orange growers. Citrus is a big business in China. Don’t worry, I promise not to hit a water buffalo. Am I really here? The capitalism convoy?

I will be sharing more about big-city Shanghai of 20 million. I popped several sedative after “doing” Shanghai… Sensory overload.

On my way to becoming a vegetarian.  Thanks China…

Cute Chinese couple…

She’s selling beer on the river.  On a bamboo raft…

Yes, those are computers on the river.  Take our picture.  Beam it back to land.  Sell the pictures to tourists..

Pictures on the water

Transporting the bamboo rafts back upstream