Tag Archives: hiking

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…


Flight leaves today? Chiang Mai, Thailand

28 Nov

The Chedi. By Night. From my Balcony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you found black shoes?”

“Yes. Found sandals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To taxi man, “How long to airport.”

“Ten minute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bangkok Airport. View from Food Court.

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

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

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

“I go to Krabi too. You follow me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bangkok Airways. From Bangkok to Krabi.

Outfit for Bangkok Airways baggage handlers..

Airport Tram. From plane to gate.

Nak-AMANDA hotel in Krabi, Thailand

Birthday at the Great Wall. Beijing, China.

2 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “What happened to your pants?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning my Birthday. Beijing, China

2 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour Guide. With microphone and flag...

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

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

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

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

At Forbidden City with the rest of China

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

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

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

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

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

Eating, Shopping, Training & Sittin’ in Mongolia Hotel Lobby

25 Sep

We’re off again. I’m growing fond of trains. Living in close quarters. Sleeping on a 3 by 6 foot mini-mattress, where worn sheets and pillows are provided by the host country. Cuddling at night with a plastic water bottle, ripe bananas, noddles housed in Styrofoam, crusty bread and last night’s vodka.

Substituting baby whites for bathing and baby powder for shampoo. Sharing recycled air with four others, whose hygiene and immune system don’t match your own. And, enjoying a toilet with 36 others whose nationalities and bathroom habits range from standing on TOP of the toilet to peeing on the floor. Yes, one can see why at age 38 I’m growing fond of train travel.

It’s 7:00 am. I believe a Wednesday. The Mongolian train’s final destination is Beijing. At the train stations, herds of backpackers strapped down with their personal possessions on their backs swayed in anticipation. I’ve never seen so many of them. Can I just please do the American thing and ask, “don’t they work? And, whose paying for this?” There’s not one universal answer for their stories are as unique as mine. But, I do wonder which socialist, high taxed, low hourly work week country do they live.

Once again, I’m finding other countries vacation and work policies are short of incomprehensible. Adorable Jonah is a tram driver from Sweden.

He’s been driving trams for over 6 years and has accrued almost 3 years of vacation. Can you frigging imagine? For the next six months he’s traveling Russia and Asia to chip away at his mountain of vacation time. When he returns, he’s secure. He has a job, in which is loves. I mean LOVES. His passion for his job excites those around him.

The next big plan is to become a train conductor. Guess what, a conductor’s vacation policy – even better. But, that is not what motivates him. He loves trains. He loves driving them at night. The streets are quiet. He says, “its like meditating. It’s beautiful. But, people are stupid and drunk. Not so good. They walk in front of trams. Hitting them is not so good.” He is one of the more honest men I’ve ever encountered. His eyes look like looking at Bambi’s soul. He speaks with such earnest. Wanting to connect. Wanting to understand differences. Wanting to understand your own truth. He’s a gift. He makes me laugh.

Jonah is conservative Swed. There’s election happening now in Sweden and he wants his party to remain in power. In his view, taxes are too high and government is too big. He wants more tax cuts and make it more difficult for people to take advantage of the system.

I asked, “I’m surprised. I thought Swedes were proud to be overly taxed and overly inundated with government assistance.” He says, “Proud of Sweden, Yes. Proud of people taking advantage of system, no. We pay too much in taxes. Government not always good with money. But, Sweden taxes is not the same as American taxes. You don’t pay taxes. This, not so good… The opposing party wants to increase taxes more. Bad for people. We have many problems. Taxes not solution.”

Tell me about… But, I’m fascinated by the assumption that Americans don’t pay any taxes… I’m constantly calling bullshit on that one to my social, socialist friends of Scandinavian and Europe.

Gosh, I can’t tell you how much I love Mongolia. It’s a ray of sunshine compare to the dark clouds of Russia. I think I’ve said it before, but these people smile. I mean smile. It’s amazing how individual’s energy or a country’s energy impacts your spirit. OK. Back to the last 8 hours first. Then, I’ll write a blog about Mongolia – the land of smiles and sunshine.

I did not sleep last night. This time, by choice. Well, more or less… Once again, I’m hanging in the Mongolian hotel lobby. A lot goes down in Mongolia after midnight. This time, the 16 year old porter boy is staying up with me. Last time, it was a young girl manning the front desk. Today, we got back to Ulaan Baatar (UB) around noon time from the GER camp.

My goal was to buy Mongolian cashmere, mail the cashmere at the Mongolian post office, take a Mongolian shower that includes hot water, stock up at the grocery store on train essentials – water, diet coke, bread, jam, cheese, bananas, chips, cookies, beer, misc… – for the two day choochoo to China, lunch at a Korean restaurant with the young bucks, pick up laundry at Mongolian cleaners that use actual machines not hands…I need to get all of this done by 9:00 pm. Not a problem. Right.

It goes without saying, Mongolian cashmere rocks. We’re talking about the cashmere sold at Niemen Marcus – the expense stuff. Not, the crap-ola you buy at Target or H&M that has cashmere fibers intertwined with nylon, pollsters, cotton and dust. Pure cashmere baby.

Gap Adventures provides a country, tour manager to help the tourons (morons) like us to get around the country. Tuya was our gal. She rocked! I asked here where is to buy cashmere for Christmas presents. She set me up. Before that though, I was telling her about my head cold. It’s coming. And, we’re going to China. I had heard that the Chinese don’t let you in if you are sick – cold, TB or STDs. Nothing. So, I was looking for a Mongolian remedy to zap the sniffles. She hooked me up.

The group arrived at the San Hotel around noon time, yesterday, from the GER camp. Tuya had to kick hotel managers ass about pipes breaking in my room, a man shimming down into my bathroom and organismic screams in the hallway. I believe there were a few other issues as well. After her little chat with management, we headed down the dusty streets of Ulaanbaatar, zig zagging across open man holes, broken concrete and paint peeling buildings to a pharmacy. We hit the pharmacy. And, bellowed out some Mongolian. Little girls went a running to the shelves. They came back with little plastic packets of colorful balls and powders. This train festering bacteria was theirs to fight.

The little pharmacy girl and Tuya went back and forth and back and forth. My word, it’s only a cold. They conceded. I needed yellow balls, red balls and orange powder. It’s all “herbal.” Mongolian herbal may mean something different than US herbal. Who knows…But, I will tell you – the snots have left me. I keep popping the colors and drinking the orange. China can’t reject me now…

Commercial break. Lauren from Jersey just walked into our train compartment. She looks tired. Hell, we all look tired. “Yea, I didn’t sleep much last night. Well, you know…Yea, I was electrocuted.” WHAT! Her words were so blase. No emotion. No expression. I fear she has the Russian disease. Electrocution is a possibility when you stay in no star hotels and travel to places like Mongolia, Russia, China…

I asked, “Are you OK? What happened?” She says, “You know. Our room is really dark. We had two lamps. I went to plug one in but it had US sockets, not Mongolian. Damn, like that’s so NOT cool. So, I grabbed the other lamp. Try to put it in the adapter…and ZAP…I screamed. I mean, I really screamed. It hurt like a bitch. No, I was not near any water. So, I’m lucky about that….I mean, not being near water. So, I’m kind of out of it today…I think my brain cells are fried. Damn, I’ve never been electrocuted like that. Yea, so I couldn’t sleep. Other than that my night was cool… Oh, yea, someone stole my cell phone too…I forgot about that…”

After she casually gives us her 411, she walks off to the next compartment to tell the same story. She’s taken on herself to organize a tour to the Great Wall of China when we arrive. Now, That’s going to be interesting.

That’s the norm around here. Electrocution. Theft. Bucked off horses. Mongolian hospitals. Fake organisms. Sliced open toes… Every morning, over breakfast, we all gather to talk about what happened the last 6 to 8 hours while we were sleeping. Every morning, someone has a story – trivial or major – no matter. It can include bowl movements and strange rashes to spider bites and bats landing on your pillow. It’s part of the travels.

OK. Back to buying cashmere. Tuya’s friend has her own cashmere factory. She designs her own apparel and sells it in her beautiful shop. She’s a single mother, raising three children on her own. She was schooled in Germany and speaks German, English, Russian, and Mongolian. Prior to having her own business, she worked for the government run cashmere factor as an executive. It went private when they kicked out the Russians in the early 90s, when communism took a flying leap off a cliff. So, she decided a few years later to start her own cashmere business. A bank gave her a loan. And, Bam…She’s in business, catering to the affluent Mongolian.

Tuya was telling me that the Mongolian women are very strong. They work, support the family, raise the children — do it all. The men are weak. She said, “It’s hard to find a good, Mongolian man” OK – global THEME ALERT. Why are the men – generally speaking – so sorry. Women seem to be doing it all. Carrying all the weight. Maybe it’s always been like this for thousands and thousands of years and I’m at an age where a woman’s fortitude versus a man’s laziness is being thrown in my face, regardless of country, race, or economic status… Maybe, I’m just more aware of this growing gap between women and men. As they say at the train stations, “Mind to Gap.” Maybe us gals need to say, “Mind the Men.”

I really do try and stay away from all of my tangents when I write. But, random things just pop in the head. OK. Back to cashmere. Few days prior, I checked out the Mongolia department store, called the “State Department Sore,” and scooped out some scarfs and hats. Impressive. A green cashmere hat found its way into my hands and kept me warm at the GER camp. Tuya told us “to be careful. Department store cashmere may not be 100%. Only certain brands are 100%. You need to stick with me.” Kiki from Norway, Pat from England and I stuck with Tuya. She took us to her friend’s elegant shop off of Ghangis Khan square. Channel, LV, Prada… I was thinking. I can’t afford this. Wrong.

Tuya had already negotiated discounts. Now, this is very normal for tour guides to bring you to “friends” shops so they can get a kick back. But, this was not the case with Tuya. Gap Adventures and the other tour groups she works with cater to the backpacking set – these are the folks who “refuse to pay more than $1 for water.” Majority aren’t seeking quality cashmere. When we told the group we’re setting out to spend money and paying with what we call a CREDIT CARD, horror was written on their faces. To think VISA stands for something more than an official entry into a country….

OK. Let me set the stage. I’ve been at a GER camp for the last 24 hours – hiking mountains, hanging with four legged animals and cuddling up to an iron stove lit by wood. I’ve not had time to shower for the red and yellow balls and orange powder purchase took a priority. My jeans are brown from riding Mongolian ponies. My hair is brown from oil. My shirt is brown because that its color. I look like shit. And, I walk into an elegant, upscale store smelly and with NO lipstick. My mother would be horrified. “Honey, I’ve never….” I will say I baby wiped the pits. So, the BO was down to a minimum.

Little, Mongolian shop ladies showed us beautiful scarfs, gloves, hats, sweaters… You name it. And, it was inexpensive compared to US prices. We’re talking $25 to $35 for 100% cashmere scarves and pagminas….I loaded up. Next stop was the Mongolian post office. Tuya said – not to worry – the Russian hostility attitude was checked at the border. Hmm… We’re talking about government postal workers in a developing country. Smiles and services are not included in a stamp price. We will see….

Tuya said it was best to mail packages from Mongolia compared to Russia and China. In Russia, “they will steal or just not send it unless it is express mail. They rip you off…They don’t care… China it is the same.”

Tuya was right. I was wrong. We were greeted with smiles. Painless. Now, let’s see if the box arrives in 2 weeks… Maybe Russian Nicoli was right – “Americans are smiling on the outside and feel angry on the inside. Russians look like they are angry on the outside but are laughing on the inside…” I think Mongolians are happy on the inside and outside. This is a country feeding off of 300 days a year of sunshine.

We met the Young Bucks travel group at a Korean restaurant. I’ve never had Korean. There were twelve of us jammed in small restaurant. It’s so interesting how we all react to “imposing” on businesses, whether it is a restaurant or store. Tuya asked the Mongolian restaurant workers to move tables so we can all sit together and share the meal. The Swedes, Norwegians and English all cringe. They hate “putting people out” and would rather suffer themselves than ask a paid employee for something extra. American girl here is like, “that’s their job… to take care of customers.. if they can’t move tables, then will tell us….Let’s ask…Plus, we tip….” My European and Scandinavian friends think I’m rude and they’re embarrassed. I think they are wishy-washy and a pain in the ass… Australians and NZ are pretty forceful – or tell people what they want – like Americans. So, it’s always good to have them in a group. The Canadians just follow the group. They are just along for the ride. Yes, I’m generalizing. But, it makes me laugh how right I am..

So, the restaurant workers move the tables to the center of the restaurant. My friends are freaking. I don’t even notice. Tuya helps us order. She tells the group that we’ve ordered too much food. Our resident Korean/Swed – Hanna, who was adopted from S. Korea to Swed parents – told us that it was not enough food. Guess who was right. Tuya. Our table had stacks and stacks of food. I felt at home. In the States, we’re all about packing mounds of meat, lard and rice on plates. Overeating is our birthright. The rest of the group, were horrified again. They have not seen this much food in such a long time. But the food spurred on US travel stories where they’ve ordered at a US restaurant and received mounds and mounds of food. They talked about how embarrassed they were…. And, even more embarrassed when they ordered just one meal and asked for an extra plate. Such an inconvenience for the kitchen staff, no?

By the way, the Mongolian cuisine is all meat all the time – horse meat, cow meat, chicken meat, goat meat, sheep meat, yack meat – and random meat. If you are a vegetarian or have food allergies, then Mongolia is not your place. They drink unpasteurized milk and cook with heavy creams from cows, goats and yacks. The creams and milks are delicious…

Young bucks order Tiger beer and Tuya and the waiter have a heated exchanged. The restaurant did not have beer in the fridge, just fanta and water. Unacceptable. Tuya – I could tell – told him as such. The Mongolian waiter ran outside. Paid some street kid to get us beer. We got our beers. But, the kid brought back warm beer, instead of ice cold. No matter. Warm beer works with Korean food. It’s so damn spicy that any liquid quenches a burning esophagus.

Tuya was telling me how many Mongolian go to S. Korea to work in factories. They make very good money there. The factories feed them, provide housing and they send their money back to their families so they can buy an apartment, take care of their parents or send a kid to private school. She said that when kids get married, they can’t afford a house/apartment. They normally have to move in with their parents. That’s hard. If they go to S. Korea they can save and buy an apartment when they return. Apartment for life. Fully paid for. Sounds familiar. You see this trend everywhere. Prior to S. Korea, Mongolians would go to Japan. But, with Japan in economic crisis, the Mongolians have opted for S. Korea. She said there is a large Mongolian population living in the US west coast. And, these Mongolian BBQ restaurants are a US born phenomenon, not Mongolian. They have them in Mongolia because of the US, not the other way around. They don’t “own” it… Who knew…

After cashmere and postage, Kiki and I headed back to the hotel. It’s about 7 pm. Pat, our 78 year old traveling companion, was walked back to the hotel an hour prior. I still can’t figure out why Gap Adventures would assume the liability of someone close to 80 traveling with a tour group whose mission is low budget, no frills, no nothing. We have to carry our own bags up flights of stairs. We have to haul this our personal effects through through metro stations, onto buses, through train compartments, over pot holes….

Besides that, the trans-Siberian is a hard trip at any age. But, at that age, when you are frail – its frightening. And, it’s not fair to the group for we are very, very worried about her. Our group leader, fearless Mash from Mongolia, seems not to notice of her fragility for he rarely walks with her or helps her with her bags. That’s a whole other story.

What I really can’t figure out is why in the hell her two sons and daughters would permit her to do this trip – alone. If this was a cruise or one of those post all included trip, that’s one thing. But, we’re talking about sleeping in bacteria filled trains, making and eating store bought food in your bunk bed, finding your way to the toilet on a train hurling out of control in the middle of the night, walking miles a day, fending off thieves in markets, going to sleep at 2 am and waking at 5 am to catch a train in 20 degree weather… I can go on and on and on. This is the day in the life of Trans-Siberian travel…It’s hard.

OK. Last night. Picked up my laundry. Yes, paid $8 for someone to disinfect my clothes in boiling water. How happy am I? Washing shirts and underwear in a bathroom sink, with cold water gets old – but not only that – you never believe anything is really clean. I’ve taken to washing my pants while they are still on in the shower, then soak them after. That’s one thing I do miss – washing machines.

Next stop is the super market to buy train staples. It’s getting dark. Tuya and other say that Mongolians, like Russians, drink a lot. Especially the men. Too much vodka means too much frightening. Too much fighting means too much crime. Police are – well – they can be paid off so justice is in the eye of the beholder or the pocket book. It’s best if you do go out at night, to stay together or just stay inside. But, it’s around 8:00 pm. I have a few hours until the vodka kicks in. I make a dash for the grocery store.

By the time I returned to the hotel, the young bucks had left for dinner. I opted out. I just needed some alone time. Put myself in time out. I’ve been with people for 24/7, and like recycled air, I’m becoming ill. I don’t want to have another conservation about traveling. About packing. About what we are not doing in China. About spending too much on lunch. About rude service. About getting lost. About insects bubbling out of the toilet. About bowel movements. Nothing. I need to be quiet.

Our hotel is hidden from the street. So safety is an issue. Nice, right? The grocery store is 3 blocks away. I pass karaoke bars, a run down apartment complex, pile of human shit and a pub called NATO. The blue NATO signs offers no reassurance. At the intersection is where it gets interesting. Rarely do you have a cross walk. So, you must just walk out in front of traffic and ignore cars. If you look at the car, you have a higher chance of getting mowed over. Uh, slightly different than home. I place my foot down, and jet across the street. I see the store. One eye is closed. I don’t want to see the car that will nail me. Though, I do hope its a Renault not a van.

Got across just fine. Found the grocery store like I own the place. See, this is uneventful. Why? Because the store had a SIGN saying “food market,” unlike Russia who’s attitude is – good luck sister in finding us…we really don’t want your money or you…

The store was stocked with mostly Mongolian, Chinese and Korean brands. I did see Kellogg cereal with duct tape and Nestle instant coffee. I head to carb central. Mongolian breads go stale in hours. Maybe it’s the flour. No clue. I sit and look at the packaged breads trying to determine which one will last two days. I pick the softest one.

Kiki said she found tuna. I decided to splurge and try for some protein on this trip. One thing I vowed NOT to do is to consume plastic noodles packaged in Styrofoam cups. The smell makes me want to hurl. I was in search of peanut butter – I have not seen peanut butter since the States. I did not start looking for it until Poland. So, the Middle East could be stoked with Peter Pan for all I know. Anyway, no peanut butter. I bought some bananas, an apple, crusty bread, strange cheese, yogurt, raisins in a zip lock and three diet cokes. I did not have ONE diet coke across Russia. I believe that is one of the reasons my stomach fell apart. No Diet Coke chemicals to fry the baby bacteria…

I loaded my backpack with the foods and hurled it on my chest. I think I’m going to do that when I get back home. I’m going to go to Publix. Instead of bagging it. I’m going to throw it in my backpack. Strap it to my chest and walk out the door. Now, talk about looks — And, I’m going to pretend that I don’t speak any English. I would like to see how the high school check-out gals would treat me. Done. That will be on my return “bucket” list… That, and drinking loads of FRESCA.

I walked back to my hotel around 9ish. The place was quiet. I packed, again. It takes me 45 minutes to pack this damn bag. I’m still trying to figure out how to make all this shit fit. I’ve been discarding clothes. Discarding shoes.

But, bought boots and a sweater. But, I would have hoped that my bag would have gotten smaller. Nope. After Bhutan, I’m yanking a lot of things. I’m keeping an ugly pair of hiking pants and button down shirt for the Monk trek. After that, its gone baby.

OK. After packing. I went downstairs to the hotel lobby. Only one cable for internet. It’s around 10:30 pm. I’m updating my blog. Trying to rearrange my trip to Thailand. I want to stay longer there. I need a weeks worth of $2.50 massages. It’s now midnight. The porter dude cranks the TV. Dirty Dancing is on. I’m watching him. He’s mezmorized by Patrick Swayze. Yea, I can see that. Then, he flips to Ghangis Khan kicking ass in some fight. He’s mezmorized by that too. Get that. He’s a dude. Then, he lands on Celine Dion in Vegas. Really? Can we PLEASE go back to the Khan. I will take him over Celine. I keep my head down and continue to type.

It’s after midnight and the lobby gets into action. A man walks in the door. He’s talking loud. He does not see me. The porter boy just wiggles his head “no.” Porter boy does not look at the man. Down at the desk. Can’t look at the young girl walking into the lobby. He’s sees her before me. She has the man’s jacket over her head. It’s like she’s cold or something. Probably ashamed. The man is in a nice suit. Looks like a business man. The woman is dressed in a black skirt, tights and shirt. Once again, nothing that scrams, “SLUT.” The porter boy continues to shake his head.

The man says some loud words, grabs the girl and walks out. I catch the porter boys eye. It is vacant. I can only guess what that was about.

He goes back to TV. We’re now listening to a Mongolian show. It’s like a game show. Why do they have to put the volume on notch 100. I tune it out. Back to videos. Shakaria comes on. Porter boy eyes grow wide. He can’t take his eyes off the scream. Damn, neither can I. The woman’s voice and dance moves are amazing. I loved her when I was in Honduras and love her music now. I hear clicking of heels down the marble stairs.

It’s now after 1 AM. A young woman – about 22 – and older Mongolian male make their way down the stairs. She has dark glasses on. He looks straight ahead. He nods at the porter boy. Man does not see me, neither does the girl. The girl keeps her head down. They leave. I have not heard the orgasm screams like a few nights ago. Either these men aren’t performing or were asked to tone down the moans, screaming and rocking of head boards. My last thought is it’s a Wednesday night – so, it could be a “slow”night.

We’re coming to 2:30 am. Another couple comes in. I think its the same man with another woman. I’m not sure. I hope not. But, the porter communicates, “there’s no room at the inn…” They leave. This time the young woman looks at me. She does the once over and dismisses me. Rightly so… I mean, I’m once again wearing crayola crayon brown PJ pants, a zip up hoodie and black suede long boots. My hair is down. And, a Velcro curler is in my hair to keep my bangs down. I would love to imagine what she is thinking of me. I bet it’s good.

It’s 3:30 am and I’ve posted all of my Trans-Siberian travels. I did my last communique on Facebook, for China has shut out the social networking site. Three weeks and no Facebook. The Young Buck travelers are having a hard time of this. The thought of not being able to facebook friends for three whole weeks. I don’t participate in that conversation for either I will come across as a fuddy dud, judgmental or just a retard techie.

I head to bed. Up four flights of marble stairs. Our room is frigging freezing! We only have a sheet. They forgot a blanket. Typical. I need the GER’s iron hot fire now. I throw on more clothes and jackets. I get into bed. Set the alarm for 5:45 am and wait it out. There’s no sleep.

Have I told you how much I love Mongolia? Thank you God for sharing Mongolia with me. In a few hours, we head to China.

Puttering Around Petra, Jordan

21 Aug

Petra is one of the 7th Wonder of the world, voted by the world in 2007 according to the Jordain controlled tourist agency.  It truly is breathtaking.

As I walk through the granite mountains, I ask myself could I be a Petra woman?  Well, it’s better than being a Celtic Viking woman.  Like the heat.  Abhor the cold.  Ok.  So, let me share with you the 411 on Petra.  Because before I stepped foot here, I had zero knowledge of the place.  I did not even know Indiana Jones and Terminator 2 or 3 were filmed here.  Talk about being out of touch.

The place was built in 6 BC – that’s BEFORE Christ.  The Nabataeans – today’s  Bedouins who will NEVER be a contestant on Biggest Looser – settled in Petra because the porous rock held vast amounts of H2O. These folks built an empire on trading spices to Egypt, Greece, Indian and the rest of them.  At one point over 30,000 folks lived in Petra and from I can tell, were obsessed with building tremendous tombs to rest their heads forever and ever.  Tombs are everywhere.  The question I had was where in the world did they live.  No Days Inn Hotels or roach motels from what I could see.  Death ruled the day.

Next, on the block were the Romans.  They came in and classed-up the joint with their oversized arches, columns with curly-ques and dynamic drainage systems.  The Christians (Bad-Ass Byzantines) took over   management around 500 AD and converted all of those tombs into churches. How appropriate.  Down with the dead!   Fast forward a few hundred years and the Arab’s invaded and converted the lot to Islam.  They built an important Muslim shrine for Aaron, brother of Moses, on top of a very, very tall mountain. Which, I’m still confused about why Aaron get’s a Muslim Mosque…thought he was Jewish… but anyway…  And according to the Arab tradition, this was the prime place where Moses struck a rock and water sprang forth.  Petra has it all baby –

Next up were the barbaric Crusaders rolling thru around 12th century.  They came.  They conquered. They left. Petra became  a “lost city,” hidden from the Western world for more than 500 years.  Archeologist rediscovered it and now it’s teaming with tourons from all over the world. That is Petra’s back story.

Now, let’s get on with the fun part. Hiking 14 km in 110 degree heat and heat index of a bazillions degrees.  Yes, I consumed gallons of water and only used the temple of relief (bathroom) once.  I tell you this to give you an idea of the sweat factor.  Mom got upset with me about talking about my bathroom escapades, so I’m trying to keep it clean.

I still feel zapped, so bear with me here.

RANDOM thing happened while puttering around Petra. Our group was sauntering  through the siq (split – entrance into Petra) and Eric – recent UCLA graduate – asked me if Senator Scott Brown from Mass. was standing next to us.  What? I swear I heard him say Dan Brown, author of DiVinci Code.  Crazy child.

I ignored him.  Imagine that.  Then, he asked again.  I looked over, this time for real, not for fake.  This Brown fellow played the part of an athletic looking American male – golf shorts and an izod polo.   I observed security, ear pieces and eyes darting.  This fellow is “someone” but is it really the dude who took down a Kennedy?  And, he is in Petra?  Our group walked on and Eric became annoyed.  I just shrugged him off.  I just can’t be bothered, right?

I reached down and got the Goddesses out for a photo opp.  I looked up and guess who is standing there?  Tall, athletic looking dude.  He reached out his hand, asked where I was from and introduced himself as Senator Scott Brown. WHAT!  And, I’m not even wearing lipstick! Instead, I’m sporting another sweat mustache and pity arms.  I introduced myself like I’m someone just as important and I thought Eric was going to pee in his pants.  Senator Brown wanted to know all about the Goddesses.  He died laughing.  Brought is wife over and we all had a nice giggle. The Jordanian security teens seemed uneasy, like the Goddess fan was disguised as an free-wheeling, arsenic shooting weapon from a Bond movie.  Serious threat here. I wished him luck and ventured on.

Moments later, he came upon our group again.  I asked him – what in God’s name are you doing in Petra?  He went into detail about his trip to Afghanistan, meetings in Amman and his next stop to Israel.   I told him, we’re heading that way and maybe we will run into at Jesus’s place.  He did not understand my humor – and he quickly said that he will be in meetings.  JOKE!  He probably thought I was some scary stalker….   who carries a laminated fan of her BFFers in her backpack?  I was happy to see that he was inhaling, touching, feeling and seeing Afghanistan and the other countries first hand.  The WSJ, NY Times, Foreign Policy Magazine and pre-pubescent Capital Hill staffers only can tell you so much.  (I worked on Capital Hill so I can say that…)

Next stop, hiking 14 km up and down Petra mountains… I won’t go into details about the heat, sweat, dirt, grime and joy felt when scaling the Petra.  I’m zapped and verbs and adjectives are not floating freely.  Let’s just go with American slang — AWESOME.  By the way, that’s our resident Ausie, Rhonda, doing some push ups on the cliff. AWESOME!

Oh, I do want to share this.  Along the way, we rested in a Bedouins’ tent.  The woman was 55 and looked 95 – slightly weathered and in need of a strong moisturizer.   She had a lovely generator powered fridge filled with water and diet pepsis.   Perfect.  Her grand kids covered with packed dusts served us our drinks while asserting that they do attend school – sometimes.  They are the few that are allowed to live in Petra and have yet to be booted by the harmonious government.  AnyHOW, the breeze was delightful and it was the perfect pick-me up.

Our afternoon “45 mins” hike or 600 stairs saunter led us to the monastery.  Petra folks say it was the “best view in the world.”  Well, 2 hours later, we understood what they meant.  The stone, tomb-like structure loomed over us like ants.  Some crazy people found there way to the tip-top of the monastery structure. (I could not get it in my photo if that tells you something….)

You could never scale something like this in the States.  Lawyers would have a field day.  Our group was hedging bets on what country the rule-breakers were from.   After much discussion, we decided it had to the Italians by process of elimination.  For the French, it was too boring.  Germans, too law-breaking. For the Ausies and Irish, it lacked a pub. Brits, too unpractical. For the  Americans, why bother, you can’t sue. Award goes to Italians.

There was a sign we encountered that said “view the end of the world.” We asked, “what does it mean?”  And, we translated…Israel is righ over there… Well, that sums it up, huh?

After investing over 8 hours of walking, it was time for a cold, cold, cold beer.  But, it was damn Ramadam.  UGH. As we trekked the last few miles, Natalie and I decided to try out Oprah’s Secret.  You know, “throw it out to the universe and the unvierse will grant your wish.” Well, Allah certainly was not going to help us on the beer front.  But, we Oprah can. We chanted “beer.”  We visualized “beer.”  We tasted “beer.”  We knew there was a bar in the parking lot area.  The question… was it open?  If it was open, then the Secret had two new converts.

Guess what.  The CAVE was open. Cave is the name of the bar.  They served beer, in secret too.  Perfecto!  The whole group gallaoped in – finding our last bout of energy – and ordered LARGE pints. The Cave Bar is serioulsy the oldest pub in the whole wide world.  How do I know, because those dudes in 6 AD used it as a tomb.  Drinking beer with the dead works for me.

I will end it by saying, Natlie, Eric and I hitch-hiked back to the hotel and made it in time before the buffet closed.  Keeping in line with our German and American culturals of consumption.  The next day, I could not move.  Those IB Profin came in handy as well as a pot of Turkish coffee.  I’m still zapped.  And, I’m not hung over.  It truly is the heat people.  I promise.

PS. Spell check in Polish. So, forgive me… Kate!