Tag Archives: adventure

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

17 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilton teen: “Seven o-clock.”

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

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

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

I pick up the phone.

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

Me: “You are where????”

Hilton teen: “Outside your door….”

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

Hilton teen: “You need to pay..”

Me: “NOW? Can’t I pay later? ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are some of the highlights…

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

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

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

Fourth stop: Metro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dolphin Aquarium is air conditioned…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avril: “Know what?

Me: “Know the marriage would work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Talk. Dubai.

17 Jan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Route to City in the Sand. Dubai.

17 Jan

Jan. 6, 2010

The flight from Cape Town to Dubai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are these people? Eastern Cape, South Africa.

2 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say hello to my 2010 Christmas family!

Verbal Vomit Update of Vietnam & Cambodia

11 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stampede. Wine. Flowy Pants. Phnon Phem, Cambodia

11 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cu Chi Tunnels. Saigon by Night. Vietnam.

11 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saigon by Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam Immigration. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

It’s 7:45 am.

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “What? What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “Ok?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stolen Identity. Hanoi, Vietnam.

11 Dec

Wanted adventure.  Got adventure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “Yes. We do.”

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

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

I get back to ATM lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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…


Day 3 – TSR…It’s running together

22 Sep

Day three or four.

It’s now all running together. I’ve slept three nights on the train, that I know. We bounce.  We rock.  We drink.  And, the train forces us into a spacey haze. My fellow travelers – the young bucks – have a routine. They wake, drink coffee, eat noddles, take a nap, eat noodles, drink tea, take a nap, drink vodka, eat noodles, drink beer, sing songs, drink vodka, eat noodles… then go to bed.

My routine is – wake early, head to restaurant car, hang with Mark from London, drink black coffee, eat rice porridge with cream and butter, drink coffee, write, read about Siberia…. get off at a stop, walk around, stretch my legs, buy dumplings with cabbage, water and bread… make coffee, graze on nuts, learn how to play poker, win at Swedish card games, drink beer, eat bread, drink warm beer, eat bread, down shots of vodka, sing songs, brush my front tooth and go to bed… No naps here. The lull of the train does not make sleepy, it invigorates me because we are moving – traveling across Siberia. I don’t want to miss anything.

We’ve traveled through four time zones. Yes, as

I look out the dusty window, all I see is distance. Inaccessible. Cold. Distance. The word Siberia, to me, means distant and detached. I read some place if Siberia were detached from Russia, it would still be the largest country on earth. It’s bigger than US, Alaska and western Europe combined. In the Siberian town of Yekaterinburg was where the last Russian Czar – Nicolas I and his family – were slaughtered by the Soviets. They tried to get rid of all traces of their body, but transport broke down and they did not have enough acid…or so the story goes. Years and years later, the bones were discovered and confirmed that his entire family and servants were brutally murdered. Stalin to Yeltsin and rulers in between wanted to destroy the house where this brutal murder took place so it would not become a tourist destination or shrine. I’m learning that the Soviets recreated or rewrote history as it best suited their interests. No one really knows what happened after Lenin and before Putin.

Looking out the window – old, dilapidated wooden houses fly by. Blue, orange and green chips of paint rest on the wooden fences and window panes. The color adds some energy to the landscape’s dreariness. Small farms of cabbage, potatoes and more cabbage are in neat rows. From where I sit, the homes are built for small people – like leprechauns and not amazons. Smoke billows out. It looks cold. It is cold. I wonder about insulation. When temperatures reaches -45 F or -75 F, how do they stay warm? Hot water? I’m from Florida, so this type of cold frightens me.

Siberian became the peasants Wild East. It was born out of optimism and dissent. They came here to own land. Farm it. Provide for their families. The father east they traveled, the government and church tentacles became less choking. Siberian solitude set them free….Until Stalin. It reminds me of our settlers of our Wild Wild west – self-reliant, realistic, stubborn…and loathed corrupt governments and churches.

Misty rain. The train lumbers over more bridges. I think we are going around 75 mph. The train keeps moving. We have fourteen stops today. We’re moving through some of the richest oil fields and natural resources in the world. But, it’s all so distant. Life out here feels heavy. Heavy.

My blond waitress serves me porridge. Today, it’s not really porridge buy white rice with a large chunk of butter. Looks like they did not have time to mash it. No worries. Rice and butter and black coffee works for me.

Last night, my compartment roomies had dinner in the restaurant car. Yes, we splurged. Some Russians were doing shots of vodka and started dancing with the waitresses. They could barely stand up. Old men. Pudgy. Big bellies. Pitted, inflamed red skin. Dry hands. Clothes – what looked like – cake in dirt and cement. They could have been the train workers. Next to them were some Dutch travelors downing vodka. By this time, our table put down two bottles of wine and we’re moving on to hot beer.

WE had no idea of the time. I believe we went back to our comparements around 1 or 2 am. I woke around 4:30 am – at a train stop – having to go to the bathroom. Well, the rule is you can’t flush the toliets when the train stops. Yikes… the reason is that it spills out on the train track. I could hear men mumbling in Russian and tapping on the train canisters. They were checking to see if anyone is stowed away underneath. I was praying that this stop was 3 mins or so. Nope. No suck luck. I paced back and forth down the hallway in my striped stocks, tights and oversized night shirt. Willing this train to move. I looked out the window and watched the train police check under the trains. And, circle it. What an awful job. In the middle of freezing Siberia, checking for stow aways at 4:30 am. The train finally starts to lurch forward. I run into the restroom and shut the door. It lurches to a stop right when I flush. DAMN. I hope I did not spray anyone. Fearful, I bolted out of the restroom and into my mini-compartment. Safe. I feel back asleep.

I woke a few hours later to the train stopping again. It was 7 AM or 11 AM, depending on who you asked. I put on my boots, sweater and ran out the door. I have 15 mins of freezing freedom – to buy dumplings, bread, water and dry fish. (Not buying dry fish!) Everyone hurries off the train with the same thing in mind. I see two young, dirty guys who look like they’ve been partying all night sprint from the train to the mini-store. Moments later, they are running back to the train with four oversized beers in hand. Man, they must have been partying all night – and decided to continue on throughout the day. I wanted to applaud them. And, applaud the fact my room is not next to theirs.

We wake early tomorrow – around 5 AM – and go to Lake Baikal for a few days. We’re off the train. I can’t wait to take a shower. My hair has gone from dishwater to dirt brown. I see fragments of blond. Oil is good for the hair. Or, so they say. I’ve been using baby wipes to wash. I don’t feel as nearly as I thought. But, I certainly don’t have the “fresh” feeling either. If I can keep me breath fresh, then I feel good.

After Lake Baikal, we get back on the train for Mongolia. I believe it is an overnight train as well. A few days in Mongolia, and then down to China. Strange. Very strange. I enjoy the quiet time. Just sitting. Writing. Talking. There is something isolating about it all – Just like Siberia. You’re absorb by its silent isolation.

Day 1 – Trans-Siberian Rail… Across Russia

22 Sep

Load’em up.

I’m sitting in the restaurant cart on the Trans-Siberian train, final destination is Beijing. Wow. I’m really at a loss for words. Wow.

I’m going to first describe where I am now at 11:25 am on Tuesday, September 14. Then, I’ll elaborate on how booth #3 became my trans-Siberian resting place.

The train is surprisingly nice. We’re in second class, meaning we have a door to our compartment and restrooms are in walking distance. Our car was “made in China,” an upgraded 1950s Russian model. Just don’t know how to describe it. I’ll take pictures. It’s a typical train.

The Russian restaurant car is another story. It’s old. Actually, it is more in line as to what I expected. Worn floors with patches of orange and blue spec terrazzo. (Go Gators…) Eight mini-booths – four on each side of the car – seating either two American contestants of the Biggest Looser or six Russian women.

As I look around, I’m not sure if it’s ever had a deep cleaning. Windows need a strong dousing of ammonia. The double pane windows are forced shut and the mold wanting to grow in the corners has turned to a lifeless brown. Russia appears dusty.

A Russian emblem rests at the windows base to give the room an air of elegance. The tables are wooden with a polyester gold and crimson fabric stretching over its top. (Go Seminoles…) When the sun hits the booth seats, it shines a winter, plastic green. There are two waitresses, showing off their magnificent cleavage under their tight, white button down shirts. The black tight skirts accent their grandma-looking underwear, and the nude Haynes hose conceal their narley feet in the black open toe sandal. Heavy black make-up line their eyes and it looks like they both are wearing the same crimson color lip stick. One is blond. She’s about 4’11 and round. The other wears the amber/red hair dye and is 5’5 in stature. Heaviness, bewilderment and annoyance are the three expressions they wear best.

Our waitresses don’t “look” Moscow or St. Petersburg-ish. They look like single moms, surviving the elements of their Siberian hometown. They landed this gig of riding the Russian rails to support their kids, father of their babies and consume “free” food. Speaking of free food, the cook just walked out. She is the first heavy woman I’ve seen in Russia. Hair slicked in a pony tail. No shoes. Full skirt. Olive green apron. If you sent back your food, she’ll more than likely let you starve.

Music is playing. It’s that damn Eminem song. It must be popular in the WWII countries. I hear it all the time. I sit in the restaurant car by myself sipping on coffee and nibbling on a chocolate muffin I did not order. I asked for milk and got a chocolate muffin with chocolate shavings. O’well. There is condensed milk somewhere inside the thing. Can’t and won’t send it back. I want to eat later.

It’s fall. Leaves are changing. We’re ambling by old Russian towns. Homes made out of wood and tin roofs. We’re passing by industrial plants and buildings. I’m thinking of cold winters.And, I can’t but think of Stalin’s campaign to kill and murder Russian traitors. How in the world was it possible for him to kill up to 30 million – some estimates say as high as 50 million – Russians pre and post WWII. I would have thought people living out in these providence would have killed his soldiers or his men. But, the civil war was so subversive you just never knew who was a traitor or not, so you just killed… friends, family…anyone who was against the Party. How could he inspire a national identity of Soviets in a country twice as large as America? Its unimaginable in these times – yet still happens today, all around the world.

Let me focus on the train ride and then I can devote time to another blog muddling through killing for the sake of security.

Did I tell you that I’m so happy that I’m here? That I’m having this surreal time. I keep pinching myself. Keep thinking…Is this me? Really?

Yesterday in Moscow was uneventful. The day prior, the Swedes, Canadian and I “did” Moscow. I will tell you more about the Kremlin, Gorky Park and Lenin’s tomb later. Our Moscow hotel is super-touristy. It’s a high rise among other high rises built for the Moscow Olympics in X. Now, fast forward X years, economic rival of this despondent area has not taken hold. We are near a metro stop and a grocery store. So, all is not lost.


One of my Moscow hotel highlights involved the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Let me back up for a minute….I’m traveling with a bunch of young bucks from all of the world who either just graduated from college or are in the their late 20’s taking a break from work. Love that…”taking a break from work at 26.” All of them have a tight, tight budget and freak when a meal costs more than $2.50.

No joke. I was there once. When I backpacked in Europe, we had zero cash. Allison, Katie and I resorted to begging for cookies at the Athens airport and serving as “whatever” girls in Greece – bars giving us free drinks if we hung out in their bars. More girls…means more boys…means more money for the bar… So, I get it when they say they are poor and on a budget.

When Young Bucks discussed plans for breakfast this AM, the majority voted to walk over a ½ mile to buy $.35 bread and $.75 cheese. I pulled the “mature” card and said, “Have fun! I’m going upstairs to the breakfast buffet for $11.00 and filling up for the day.” They gave me a puzzled look.

I walked into the restaurant and was in heaven. Two rows of breakfast options. I spotted…coffee stands. Cappuccino stands. Fruit stands. Bread stands. Cheese stands. Sliced meat stands. Salad stands. Pastry stands. Seriously, for $11 this was CHEAP. I must tell you how much I ate in 1 hour. Started with beans and barley. Moved to real omelet – watched her make it – with cheese, ham and chives. Moved on to three scoops of sweat porridge. Back to more barley and beans for the fiber. Four cups of coffee. Tried a Russian pancake with jam. Back to another scoop of porridge. Six slices of water melon. Yogurt and granola for the stomach. And, ended it with water and another cup of coffee. I declined the bread, cheeses, cut meats, salads and corn. It’s all about moderation. So, they hoofed it while I sat and inhaled it. I think I got a better end of the stick because for dinner, I had a lovely banana and yogurt and chased it with three shots of vodka.

Today, the young bucks set out to traverse the Moscow metro to photo all the ornate metro stations. I had zero interest. Though, I must say that the metro is exquisite and one of the most clean to date. For clarification, I don’t remember the Paris metro for I was the college backpacker with over 50 pounds of products and fashion accessories loaded on the back. I walked in a 45 degree angle as I navigated Europe. I don’t recall looking up. I heard Japan and Moscow are the two busiest metros in the world. I believe it.

So, the young bucks left and I spent the afternoon meandering around Moscow and planning my trip in China and Thailand.

We were told by our fearless leader, Mash – Mongolian who is NOT fluent in Russian – that we were to meet at the hotel lobby at 7 pm but must load up with food for the 4 day train ride. He said, “the train’s restaurant car is expensive and paying $2 for water or $3 for a hot meal is truly unacceptable.” Just say no to Russian train extortion. I got caught up in the cheap food and I’m going to starve hysteria as well.

It’s 5:15 pm. I’ve got over an hour to go to the grocery store and organize my bag for the 4 day/night train trip. Mash, our Mongolian fearless leader, pointed out earlier the location of the grocery store where humans can touch food and place them in the carts. You see, the mini-grocery stores store their food behind glass windows and some woman – possibly a former prison guard from Siberia – screams at you when you point to a food product or water.

I walked over to the tall building. Walked in. Can’t read any signs. Didn’t spot any food on the first floor, so I took the escalator up. Second floor is all clothes. Took the next escalator up. Third floor is all lingerie and kids’ toys. Shit. Here we go again. My eyes take in the shoppers’ bags. Do I see cans, boxes, green stuff hanging out of any bag? Nope. There is not a grocery store in this building. Don’t tell me I’m lost. I go back outside and look around.

I walk around the building. I took the bold move and opened a door with no sign and walked down a long hallway. At the end, there was a salon – yes, they’re using scissors – and the grocery store. YEA! It’s now 5:45 pm and I’m back on track. I shove my pack-back in a locker, grab a cart like I own the place and start shopping. I hit produce – bananas, apples, pears, oranges. Who cares if I have to carry this along with my two bags to the train. Next aisle are the nuts and dried fruit. Pricey, but that is fine. I can afford $3 raisins.

Next, I hit the soup and noodle aisle. People warned me about which ones to buy – “don’t buy the soups that say ‘boil’ water. You want instant.” Easy enough if it is in English. So, it was there in the noddle/soup aisle that I tried to translate Russian to English. I spent 10 min comparing Styrofoam cups of noodles. With 23% confidence, I picked a brand. Next was to figure out the flavor. I looked at the pictures, but they all look the same expect a red color here or a brown spot there. Red may mean “pepper” and brown may mean “meat or mushroom.” Time will tell. I’ve never been into the overly salty noodle thing. So, why not start now. In Moscow.

I smiled when my eyes located can foods with a lift open top. Hold the phone. I love can foods. I live off can foods. I jetted down the can food aisle and found what I was looking for – mini-kidney beans, corn and green beans. Perfecto! I will reduce my 12 Styrofoam cups of soup to 3 and substitute with some can food. I’m really happy. I love beans. Love corn. Love lift-off tops. Though, I can already see my fellow travelogue looking at me like I’m “whacked.” O’well. I’m playing the older, mature card right now. It’s fun. I’m finally the “strange one” where they will talk about my eating habits. Spending habits. Consuming canned food habits.

Commercial break. The Trans-Siberian waitresses just cranked up the music in the restaurant car. Loud. It’s sounds like a Russian Fifty-Cent. YO. They are mumbling the music as they pass by. Underneath every booth seat has storage room for food or dead bodies. Duly noted.

Back to the Russian grocery store. Next on the list. Mug. Vodka. Putin mugs were on sale for $2. Who knows what it says – “Death to America!” Or, “I heart Putin!” True bargain. Putin is in the basket.

Then, I hit the vodka aisle. I looked like a super nerd for I whipped out my calculator. Here’s the logic – not paying $4 to $9 for vodka. That equated to severe hangover, regardless of one sip or consuming the entire bottle. I was going for the $10 to $15 range. This assured me some sort of confidence that I would wake up the next day. I choose the vodka that had a lock on it. Looks premium. We’re talking about $12 here. No chasers. Buy that on the train or just drink it straight.

We all met at the hotel lobby. The young bucks were filling me in their metro-train tour details. I told them I spent the day meandering and working on a few client projects. The word “work” surprised them – I could see it in their eyes.

I seriously would love to hear their fabricated stories about me – the mature TallGirl. When you travel, the group becomes BFFers for a set amount of time. Like high school and the workplace, there’s the “cool” crowd and the “uncool” crowd. Uncool are your outcasts or just “damn crazies.” Late at night, after a couple of drinks, you sit around – drink, smoke, laugh – and talk about the uncools like you’ve known them for years. “What’s up with him…she made me buy a coffee for $2.75 today…did you see the size of his backpack…he doesn’t shut up…Typical Canadian….”

We had to take the metro (subway) to the main train station to catch the Trans-Siberian to Beijing. People were throwing their backpacks over their shoulder and I decided, split decision, that I would do the same. That is, carry my pack on my back, instead of rolling it. I had bought the roller suitcase with an option to wear.

I heaved the 40 or 50 lb bag up, over my shoulders and onto my back. My mini-pack was resting on my chest. One hand was carrying my can goods, noodles and fruit and the other hand is gripped to the mini-roll-on. Mash – our Mongolian leader – gave us instructions.

If we loose the group, then get off at stop four. Jump to the brown line. Get off stop 2. Then, walk to the train.

Got it – right. I was not going to loose the crowd so I didn’t pay much attention. Anyway, it was our Mash’s job to ensure he does not loose the group, not the other way around. We set off. After 5 minutes of walk, my breathing got thick and my shoulder joints were poised to snap in two. I focused. Walked. Did not want to hold up the group. I knew we had to buy tickets at the metro. If I made it to the metro, then I could use the rollers – like a normal person.

Hit the metro. Looks like everyone but Maria and me pre-bought their metro (subway) tickets. The group of young bucks walked through the security gates. I yelled at Maria to wait for me. She did. I tried to get the handle up to roll my backpack, but I had bent the metal frame while wearing it on my back. That’s right. Backpack is busted. In the Moscow metro. I busted my backpack. I told myself, I don’ t have many options. Just be calm. I asked God for help. I felt calm. Smiled. Even giggled. This is funny. Found the strength to carry two bags with my hands. Picked them up. And, Maria and I were off to catch up with the young bucks.

Took 56 marble stares down to the metro subway platform. Looked around. Our group is gone. Just us. Maria said she knew what stop. I put my faith in her and tended to my bag. We boarded the metro car and were off. Priority was fiddling and fixing my backpack so the metal arm extends and I can roll my bag. Cold Russian eyes were just staring. Not with curiosity. Not with amusement. Just with blank loathing. Well, I’ll give them this. We looked …like what you expect – crazy.

My guardian angle fixed my bag and the handle sprang up. Just in time. We hit the fourth stop and people were everywhere – pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s the mob mentality. Maria was frantic. I saw it in her eyes. I also saw the buddy system concept of sticking with friends was not in her vocabulary. She jetted off leaving me in the dust. She clamored and push like the rest of them – fighting her way up the escalator. I followed – way behind. My eyes were just focused on her red back pack. Up the escalator and out of the building we went. What? We are not suppose to be outside. This stop is where we transfer to the brown line, not our final destination. My bag is fixed. It’s time to focus – stop following and become assertive.

I walked over to the train’s “gate guard” – an older woman, with a big smile and a blue square hat. I pointed to the map. She told us where we were. Yep, I was right. We’re at the wrong place. Maria did not believe her. Maria raised her voice and started asking her questions. Gate lady looked confused. I thought to myself – calm down Maria… This is NOT a big deal. We will figure it out. We’re late and lost, not going to prison.

I said to Maria, “What this means, is we have to buy new tickets. Go back down the escalator, take the metro train to the next stop and transfer there. Tickets are 26 rubles, or less than a $1. I will pay for it…You get in line. I watch our stuff…” This set Maria off. “We are NOT buying new tickets. We should not have to buy new tickets..this is not our fault.” I repeated that I’m buying the tickets. Let’s keep moving. I stood off to the side, near our gate guard lady, and felt confident that Maria was going to have a melt-down buying not one, but two tickets. She angers easily and does not communicate well.

Well, the “wrong” station for us was the “right” station for ALL of Russia. Hundreds and hundreds of Russians were clamoring for tickets and entrance onto the escalator. I stood. And watched people of all ages, all backgrounds, all classes and all walks of life pass by. I asked God for help. For patience To protect us from thieves. And, to lead us to our final destination. I was calm. I watched. Then, I spotted the thieves. Once you stop, look around and you will see them before they see you.

Two men on the prowl. First, they tried to jump the gate. But, our fearless gate guard lady screamed at them. Busted. They crawled into line. I watch them scan the crowd. It took a matter of seconds. Their eyes landed on my bags. Then, on me. I looked right at them. My eyes were not deviating. “Don’t fuck with me…I see you …I’m ready for you…” Brown, hard eyes on mine. Neither one of us moved. They whispered. I did not move. I was ready for them. Bring it on.

Meanwhile, I see Maria at the corner of my eye holding up the line. She’s waving her hands. An older Russian male steps in the help. Again, I say “thank you God.” I just keep staring at the thieves, praying the line would go slow and by the time we were on the metro, they would be just at the ticket window.

Maria came back with a story about the tickets. We walked to gate guard lady let us through the gate for the disable. That we were.. She smiled. My angel. There’s only one escalator. About 50 to 75 people are vying for the opening. I’m have two roller bags, a back pack and can food. I was pretending that my bag was a child, deserving space on the escalator. I kept my head up. Pulled the Russian thing – looked angry and resolute. Maria is off – she’s dusted me again. I wanted to scream inside. We get to the metro platform. She rolls her eyes when she sees me. Can’t loose me, baby..

We squeeze our way onto a crammed car. This train car was an old Moscow, 1940’s train car. Old, slow and loud. Everyone was staring at us. Fine with me because they would be able to witness if I were to get jumped or robbed. Though, I don’t have the confidence they would do anything about it. We fall out onto the next stop. Maria is off and running. I asked her to stop. I asked for us to regroup and look at a map. We got into trouble next time by just walking. I saw some teenager boys ogling at us. I walked over – smiled and pointed to the map. The taller of the bunch, showed me where to go. I walked off, blew him a kiss. They all giggled. Ok. Flirt worked. Now, let’s get on with it.

We walk for half a mile underground to the next metro tunnel. Maria was 200 feet in front of me – trying to dust me again. Amazing. We hit stairs. It’s the mob mentality. Someone pushes me. I loose my balance. I see myself falling down stone stairs – An angel in the form of an older man reaches out for me, grabs my bags and helps me down the stairs – slowly. I thanked him. He smiled and rushed off. Maria is no where to be found. I go to the the platform and wait for the next train. I see Maria. I walk over and smile. There’s no need to say anything. Why. She looks stressed. Flexibility and calmness is not her DNA. Strange for a girl who loves to travel.

We get on the train. Not as many people. I breath. Finally relax. Next question is – will the group be waiting for us? Where is the large train station for China? I had 3 minutes to let that bother me. Meanwhile, I need to get rid of the frightening “what if” thoughts of falling down the stairs. And, going to a calm place of gratitude that God protected me. I mean – for real. I was a split second from busting a knee or my head. I needed to purge evil thoughts about Maria. I needed to forgive her selfishness and be grateful that she stayed behind. The doors flew open. Maria was gone. I got off the train. Regrouped. Found a woman with a large roller bag. She has be to going to the large train station. I walked over, asked if she spoke English and if she was going to the train station. She said, “Yes. I take you.” Once again, thank you God.

I see Maria’s red bag climbing the stairs. I now have a “new” friend. I look up at the top of the stars and spy Kiki from Norway and David from Belgium. They’re waiting for us. YEA! What a relief. In my heart, I knew that all would be fine. It was just another adventure. I believe Maria did not think so.

I gave Kiki and David our 13 second sound bite of our “wrong stop, bought a new ticket, crowded..” metro experience. They said that Pat – our 76 year old English woman – was trampled on at one of the metro stops. If it weren’t for Canadian Dave, then she could have been real hurt. Shit. Our little situation was just that – little bit of nothing. Pat, on the other hand, that was real scary. Frightening. How’s Pat? “She’s shaken up. A man walked in – pushing. She fell to her knees. People were pushing. They walked over Pat. Dave reached down and got her before anything worse could have happened.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Ok. Many things run through my mind. First, Gap Adventures should have arranged a bus to pick us up at the hotel to take us to the train terminal. It would have cost us $4 per person. We have 16 people traveling and taking this size group through one of the busiest subway system in the world at rush hour, says “disaster.” Pat falling or me getting lost is bound to happen. As a business, you want to protect your assets – your travelers – and doing this means paying a few extra dollars for a mini-bus. Further, Mash- our fearless leader – should have made sure the entire group was together at all times. And, he should have been walking with Pat the entire time. Gap Adventures credibility was shot on this one. Truly unacceptable.

The air changed once we boarded to train to Siberia. We were all giddy. Trying to board the train, I had issues with balance and bags. I was holding up the line. So, this tall Russian young man, picked up my bags, actually SMILED and walked me to my compartment. Damsel in Distress! Very thankful. He understands English but can not speak a word. He looks like he can murder someone on the outside, but seems kind on the inside. It’s the Russian look…

There’s four of us to a compartment. Emily and Hannah from Sweden. Maria from Canada. Me. My hope was the beds were long enough. The overnight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the bed was short and as people walked by, they knocked my feet and kept me awake. Mosh said it’s a newer train built in China. We have air condition – windows don’t open – and enough space for our bags. It’s fun.

We unpack. And, I go looking for the vodka. The cool crowd was a few compartments down. David – the Belgium – had the vodka out and was passing around shots. I joined in. We fit eight people in there. John and Franklin from Sweden. Kiki from Norway. David from Belgium. Lauren from New Jersey. Hannah from Sweden. Emily from Sweden. Anastasia from South Africa living in London. Collin from London. And, me. Some stood, but most of us squeezed in. We drank shots. Talked. They talked a lot about the differences between Norway and Sweden. I did not know that Norway was one of the most expensive countries in the world, next to Japan. No one eats out. They go to Sweden to shop and buy booze. Swedes go to Germany to buy booze. Germans go to Czech to buy booze. Czech goes to Ukraine. Love that… Also, I did not know that Absolute Vodka is a Swedish brand. Hmmm.. These were the type of intellectually stimulating conversations we were having.

We made bets on who will stick the most – the fastest. We have four days and four nights without a shower. We are bartering shots of vodka for baby wipes. We narrowed it down and believe John from Sweden will stink first since he was wearing his last clean shirt. Must agree. The New Jersey girl started talking about US health care. She doesn’t know shit. I had to keep my silence – well, a little. Can’t help it. So, Franklin from Sweden and I had an offline conversation. He said that he is a conservative Swed in that he thinks they are taxed to high. He used to work for an insurance company in Sweden. He says their system is broken too – it might be free – but you’re not talking about quality care.

I told him, that it is a complicated. I was talking with a gentleman from New Zea land who says that “we deserve health care from our government.” The word “deserve” is what I struggle with. That is not an American word. We work. We pay taxes. We work. We have freedom of choice. We don’t do nothing and deserve a lot. Franklin agreed – he says people milk their system too. They are having issues with immigration. Iranians and others are coming over for surgeries. The government is debating, “do we charge them?” My expression looked confused. “I mean, you would consider NOT charging foreigners who made the individual decision to pay for a flight to Sweden for a surgery…” After a couple more shots of vodka, we solved all the health care problems…right.

We stayed up until 1 AM or so. We had a 10 minute stop in Vladimir Pass, once a Russian capital. It’s foggy. Ominous. I envisioned the KGB appearing through the industrial complex to “seize us.” Snapped a few photos, crawled into my mini-bed made for tall, skinny Russians. And, slept well. The vodka must have helped.

At 9:15 AM our cabin of four woke, quickly dressed to jump off at our first “lay over” station. We had 15 minutes to stretch our legs. It’s now 1:23 pm and we’re slowing down to stop at Balezio, Russia. No clue where or what it is. It’s pretty ugly from the window. Old trail yard. Old cement, blown out buildings. Blue sky. It’s around 45 degrees. We’ve stopped. Let’s go and see what Balezio has to offer…