from ¡ay chihuahua! to southeast asia

Friday, December 21, 2007


i have spent a chunk of my afternoon whittling our (excessive) 1400+ photos down to (a still excessive) 400. i then divided those into two separate galleries - one for each country - to hopefully make them a little more digestible.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

homeward bound

it's our last day in khao lak. we are whiling away the day in unbelievable heat, and will head to the airport in phuket tonight at 10pm, for 2:45am (lovely!) flight. six hours to seoul, with a four hour layover, and another 12 onto L.A. all this with sweaty bodies... should be fun.

the similan islands

Snorkeling in the Similan Islands, in Five Chapters

I. Comfort Pocket
II. The Fish Whisperer
III. Taming of the Iguana
IV. Bodily Harm
V. The Beach

I. Comfort Pocket
The first leg of our three-day/two-night snorkel trip to the Similan Islands, off the western coast of southern Thailand, was to actually make it to the islands themselves, so that said snorkeling could take place. It seemed like a straightforward enough proposition, particularly because I had never been on a speedboat, and thus had little understanding of what 80 minutes on a speedboat is like. And particularly because Brendan and I were two of the fools who jostled for the front of the boat to start our beach holiday off right, soaking up the sun. As soon as we got up to speed, we realized that there would be nothing holiday-esque about the journey to the islands. We bounced all the way to our first snorkeling stop. And bounced doesn't quite capture it. On the way back, we smartly picked our seats towards the back of the boat (where the bouncing, from what we could tell on the ride out, was considerably less), and even in this location there was a middle-aged woman who had to stand for the majority of the ride back, presumably because she had back problems. This translates to a ride in the front of the boat -- where we naively found ourselves as we set off on our adventure -- that could potentially crack vertebrae, if not entirely reduce them to dust over the course of an hour long ride. The only saving grace was that I scored myself a corner seat, so I did not have to contend with my butt also sliding along the seat into any neighbor, made more awkward by the fact that in any given seat at least one of your neighbors was going to be a stranger. And thus my spot came to be known as the comfort pocket. It is noted that this little pocket of mine was not so comfortable to lure me back to that spot for another ride on the return trip. Or ever again, for that matter.

II. The Fish Whisperer
Once we got started snorkeling, our memories of jostled vital organs quickly faded into nothing. The underwater sea life was incredible, and I am pleased to report that we saw very little that was of potential danger. My main concern was this whitish-silver fish that seemed to enjoy human company, and so would swim around (and follow) us every chance they got. I was convinced they would sooner or later take a nibble, but no such thing ever came to pass. We did see one sea snake - at a distance that even for me was (mostly) comfortable - and two fishies that may have been barracuda. I was sure to duck behind Brendan on each of these occasions, and thus keep my panic to a minimum. We did get a little nibbled by supposed plankton in the water... though their bite seemed kind of harsh if they were in fact the plankton whose microscopic proportions I learned about in ninth grade biology. Regardless, the little stingy sensations brought back painful memories of my run-in with a Portuguese man-o'-war many years ago, so I started to think of each venture into the water as another installment of long overdue ocean-based therapy. I could barely get Brendan out of the water, even with the yummy Twinkie-style banana cakes that awaited him on board (they were enough to keep me, on the other hand, mostly out of the water by the last day). A snorkeling trip was apparently the right choice, as he couldn't get enough of all of the beautiful tropical fish that were in abundance around every corner. He will henceforth be known as the fish whisperer.

III. Taming of the Iguana
For our two nights on the islands, we were signed up to stay in a tent. The islands are designated as a national park, so there are no accommodations other than those run by the park, which include tents and bungalows on two of the nine islands. As we settled into our spot for the first night, we were pleasantly surprised by how spacious it was, and they even gave us a sleeping mat to provide some cushion under our loaner sleeping bags and pillows. We settled into bed at an unsurprising time (7pm -- adjusted from our usual night-owl rhythm of 9pm, given the fact that when camping there really is little to be done after dark) and I quickly fell asleep. Brendan was up throughout the night trying to improve air circulation in the tent and dealing with his own inability to fall into a deep slumber.

I woke up at 5am to hit the bathroom, and was quickly freaked by the amount of wildlife I passed on my way to and fro. I saw a couple of little furries that I presumed were mice, and something distinctly more rat-like in the bathroom. I also had the pleasantly constant thought of the pythons that Brendan had informed me inhabit the island. I made my way back to the tent as quickly as possible, but at this point was completely wide-awake given my wild imaginations of possible scenarios involving me and all of the rodents I left in my wake. I read for a bit to try to get tired again, and as I was starting to doze off, I noticed that one of my feet seemed to be propped up higher than the other. I thought for a moment that maybe some clothes were stuck under my sleeping bag. I checked, but no luck. Though there was indeed a large-ish lump underneath my sleeping pad. And the more I contemplate it - without daring to look under the mat itself - the more I notice that there is a subtle rising-and-lowering quality about it. And so I wake Brendan/F.W. up to get his thoughts on a potential living creature inside our tent that has made its temporary home under my sleeping mat. He takes it in and concurs that it looks like there is something there. Then he comes up with the brilliant - BRILLIANT! - idea that perhaps the creature is under the whole tent in that spot, and not co-habitating with us on the inside at all. I immediately love this much more palatable idea.

We decide that we will both exit the tent to determine - to start - where the creature is, exactly. We find ourselves crouching in the pitch black outside the tent, aiming our headlamps in the direction of the offending lump. Somehow I get the duty of pushing the pad out of the way. I work myself up to it, and - holding my breath? - push the pad aside. Sure enough, the lump is under the whole tent. We study its shape for a minute or two, and decide that it must be a close relative of the large iguana-looking lizard we saw traipsing around earlier in the day. We get back in the tent and Brendan (F.W.) throws our bag at it (so much for leaving only our footprint on national park territory) to try and encourage it to move from its spot where it could perfectly cuddle my legs for the remainder of the night. We think it moved slightly, but eventually I moved over (the tent's ample size really did pay off) and considered the iguana the victor. We immediately decided that we would look into paying the extra $10 to get a bungalow for the next night. We managed to sleep for another couple of hours, and in the morning I looked under the tent to see what had become of our third party. He wasn't there anymore, but looked to have left an indented path on the floor of the tent as he made his way to his daylight resting spot... far, far away, or so we hoped.

IV. Bodily Harm
On day two of snorkeling - immediately following the iguana encounter - things did not get off to a good start. I took my malaria pill on an empty stomach for the first time, figuring - stupidly - that my body was probably used to them after taking them for three weeks. As soon as we were getting on the boat for breakfast, I started feeling horribly nauseous and couldn't find it in myself to eat anything (which would have made me feel better, as I soon learned). We talked to our guide, and decided to stay on the island for the day. I soon put it together that it was the pill that was causing my malaise, and ate a bunch of fruit and soon was feeling good as new. Brendan (F.W.!), in the meantime, had secured our (presumably) iguana/wildlife-free bungalow for the second night. When I was feeling better, we gathered up our stuff to move house. We sprayed down our sandy feet before crossing the deck to the door of our bungalow. Wet feet, freakishly slick wood, and I was down on my knees before I knew it. I now have a couple of nice shiners and some scrapes on my knees, just like any seven-year-old you would find on the playground at recess. And as if that weren't enough, I also managed to spear the top of my right foot with a sharp object (stick?) when we were walking to our bungalow later that night. Despite my fears of ocean life, our trip to the Similans was a good lesson in how I would be better off fearing myself... on land.

V. The Beach
Last, but not least, is the insane beauty of the beaches on the Similans. Given its national park status, they are immaculately maintained, and there are strict regulations on how many boats and come in and out (though there were still a surprising number, especially being aware of the regulations). We got a good chunk of beach time throughout the three days, and it was unbelievable. Superlative in seemingly every way -- the whitest, softest sand (we learned that the sand is ground down coral, giving it - in Brendan's words - its likeness to powdered sugar); the bluest, clearest water. And given its relative inaccessibility (see the injury-inducing speedboat narrative, above) it was amazingly private, especially in the morning and evening before and after the many who made the trek for just a day trip had not yet arrived, or had already gone. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

giving pasty new meaning in khao lak

we have arrived at the last stop of our journey. we arrived in khao lak, in southern thailand, last night after a long day of travel from bangkok. we had debated how to get down here, but had both come over with some interest in doing a bit of travel by train (thanks, darjeeling limited). we had as yet avoided it given train travel's mixed-reviews (to put it mildly) in vietnam. we also figured, since we were only going to see bangkok and khao lak, it would be a nice way to see a bit more of the country, even if it was in the form of it passing us by at 100km/hour.

and so we set off by train at 8am yesterday (i wanted to say what day of the week that was, but at this point i have absolutely no idea -- tuesday?) in a 2nd class air-conditioned train. i had high expectations, given rough guide's description of train travel in thailand. it turned out to be just fine, but without any trace of luxury. unless you consider an ample stock of toilet paper in the bathroom a luxury, which on this trip i have started taking it to be. the first curiosity was the size of the train. we had tried to get tickets for the same train on the day prior, but it had sold out. i was kind of surprised, especially because we have not had problems getting lodging or travel reservations elsewhere, so i have taken it to still be the tail-end of the low season. i also thought it was noteworthy that our tickets had us listed as having seats in car 1. it seemed odd that we had bought tickets the day before, yet had ended up with reservations for the first car of the train (i make this out to be some sort of accomplishment)... but when we laid eyes on our train all of it made much more sense. because the train had 2 cars. two cars for an 8.5 hour journey. you would think they would throw a few more cars on that baby on their way to the bank. and they didn't even add cars as we made our way south. so we settled in with the 100 other passengers (if that) and brendan's jerry-rigged tray table that would fall down every time the guy in front of him reclined his chair and prepared to watch thailand roll by.

it was an uneventful trip, and we arrived in surat thani around 5pm. we had little (i.e. no) plans as to how we were then going to make it the distance to khao lak, which is more off the tourist radar than phuket and krabi. b inquired about a bus once we were at the train station, but the last one of the day had left at 3pm. and so we shopped around for a taxi fare, and were surprised to hear that it was a 3 hour drive. the nice thing about thailand is that the fare for a three hour drive is not remarkably more than a fare from the airport to home in seattle. we agreed to pay our older gentle-seeming driver (the kind i have tended to the whole trip -- who cares if their eyesight might be a bit off if they're friendly?) about $60 for the trip. for as long as we had daylight, the drive was beautiful. after rolling into khao lak, we stopped for directions as poseidon bungalows was even more out of the way than we expected. we finally made it around 8pm, and sent our poor driver off with a nice tip to do the whole 3 hour drive back again.

our stay at poseidon is the only part of our trip that has been planned from the beginning. as we made our way to our bungalow in the pitch-black of night, i can't say it was exactly what i was expecting. our bungalow is on the spartan side, particularly after the swanky place we found ourselves at for our four nights in bangkok, and - as we transition from the constant urbanity that is bangkok - the setting is thoroughly nature-entrenched. i lied down on the bed for a quick rest before we headed up to the restaurant for dinner, with brendan in the bathroom giving his feet a quick scrub. no sooner had i taken a deep breath than i hear a loud and forceful squawking noise coming from the bathroom. brendan, channeling his outdoorsy/chrissy field side, casually mentions that some bird appears to have made its home right about our bathroom. and even more casually mentions that there is a large hole in the ceiling right near where the noise is coming from. all of this causes me some alarm, since my interpretation of what he is telling me leads quickly to a vision of a hawk-sized bird prancing into bed with me at any moment. turns out, there is a screen covering the hole (i'm not sure why this fact apparently seemed cosmetic at the outset) which puts me (slightly) more at ease. we go to dinner, with me dodging lizards on the path the whole way. when we're eating, we hear that (now familiar) squawking once again. and as we sit with our curry and tom kha, we have the chance to spy the perpetrator, and it turns out to be a very large lizard. this does not provide much relief, despite brendan's assurance that it must be totally benign. the problem is not any malicious intent of the creature, the problem is that it has made its home in a spot where it can effortlessly scare the bejesus out of my as i take my occaisional leave to the loo.

we settled in to bed with one last squawk from our bungalow-mate and i try make my peace with the nature installment of our trip. if nothing else, it was dead silent (aside from the squawking) compared to our spot in bangkok, so i slept like a log for most of the night. the peace was interrupted only early this morning, as the air was pierced with a sound that seemed not unlike that which would come from a malfunctioning dentist's tool. brendan woke me up to get my thoughts on what it might be. my paranoia kicked in with the idea that it might be the tsunami warning system (khao lak was the worst hit of anywhere in thailand by the tsunami four years ago, and there are signs about evacuation routes everywhere), but then figured we would probably hear more people shuffling about outside if that were the case. he popped in his earplugs and i was tired enough to fall back asleep with the noise ringing in my ears. when we got up this morning, we still heard it and have figured that it is some kind of bird that got the short end of the stick in the evolutionary lottery for bird calls.

waking this morning put our bungalow in perspective. it is literally right above the water, and maybe 100 steps to a beautiful and private beach. suddenly our $20/night is seeming worth every penny and then some. and now i am psychologically prepared for what nighttime trips down the path hold in store, so i'm ready to show those lizards who's boss.

speaking of being psychologically prepared, after a lovely day spent lounging and reading on our beautiful little beach, brendan and i decided to explore the town of khao lak, about 7km up the road. for me, this prospect meant a long but good-for-the-soul walk. for brendan, this idea meant renting a moped and driving into town. i'll let the allusion to potential psychological damage tell you who won. i was clinging to him every inch of the way - the pressure of his helmet was smashing my helmet against my head hard enough to probably leave permanent indentations, i was holding onto him so tightly - while on the mopeds going the other direction, the passenger is nonchalantly/stupidly not holding on at all. but we made it, and i plan to hold on just as tightly on the ride home. we head out tomorrow for a three day snorkel trip to the similan islands, and then will have two more days in khao lak before heading to phuket for our long journey home. the sun is about to set, and we forgot to get the tutorial from the friendly scandinavian lad at poseidon on how to turn on the headlight, so we should be on our way. more soon, with possible tales of encounters with manta rays/barracuda/sharks. but hopefully not. i am hoping to see nothing more than coral and minnows during our three days of snorkeling.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

who's afraid of a little thai boxing?

after spending our first day in bangkok, we had decided that at some point we wanted to give a thai boxing match a go, if for nothing else than the spectacle of it. we had gone to a soccer game when we were in mexico city, and it was a memorable experience, mostly because it gave us the rare opportunity to go somewhere with few other tourists and experience an event as fundamentally mexican as we could hope for. we had hopes of the same with thai boxing, which has become hugely popular in thailand as of late, since they apparently had a gold-medal boxer in the sydney olympics.

after our day of air-conditioned consumption at the mall, we did a bit of research to figure out where the matches are and when. it soon became apparent that the timing probably wasn't right to end up there that evening, but brendan got the details down so that we were able to get to a match last night. i did my research too -- i read the two paragraphs the rough guide has to offer on the subject. i was happy to have done so, since they made it sound as though it is a good idea to go into a night of boxing prepared. the book described how those less-than-obsessed spectators might be well-served to show up for the evening on the later side, since there are many matches in a given evening so the fighting can end up feeling endless if you're not totally invested in the sport. they also kindly warn their readership about the violence of it. they indicate that most knock-outs come from a kick to the head. i don't know much about boxing, but i was pretty sure this is not standard operating procedure in the U.S. of A. so i was glad they told me. they also point out that, though violent, it is far more palatable now that boxing gloves are mandated. before the 1960s or so, there was no such requirement. "what would one wear on one's hands in a boxing match, if not boxing gloves?" you might wonder. well! it seems that one would wrap his hands in hemp, which has been laced with shards of glass for added effect. a kick to the head suddenly seemed like nothing, compared to a face bloody and lacerated by bits of broken bottle implanted in the hand-wrapping of one's opponent. an evening of modern-day thai boxing was fixing to be a walk in the park!

so we get a cab to the arena and are quickly sweet-talked by a young man charged with selling the most expensive tickets to unsuspecting tourists. the tickets were obscenely priced -- we assume that thais pay the ticket prices because they get to bet on the fights (foreigners don't) so it is something of an investment -- the nosebleed seats were $25 a pop, and ringside was $50... the latter is roughly equivalent to the cost of two nights' stay at our relatively swanky hotel. our suave salesman was quick to point out that if we got the nosebleed seats (which was our leaning) we would be better off watching the fight on TV, since we wouldn't be able to see anything anyway. brendan decides that he will cough up the difference for an evening spent ringside. so we soon find ourselves in the middle of the front row, surrounded almost exclusively other tourists (so much for that thai cultural experience we were after) who had been similarly duped. and those nosebleed seats? though the building looked deceptively grandiose from the outside, once inside this place was not a stadium. the folks (mostly thai) way up there in the nosebleed section were probably10-20 yards from the ring, tops. saying that they would be better off watching on TV was a stretch to say the least. regardless, we settled in next to our thai neighbor, who was at his first match and was betting with a vengeance. got ourselves our $2 beers (also highway robbery, and i was expecting them to be free after spending $90 on the tickets... i got the "lady" price of $40 instead of the gentleman's fare of $50) and prepared ourselves for the first bout. it looked like we would be there with the most devoted spectators for the whole evening, since we found ourselves seated 30 minutes before the first fight, and would likely stay through the bitter end, since the fights were said to get better and better as the night progressed.

we were looking over the program, and noticed that most of the fighters were in a ridiculously light weight class. there were maybe 7 or 8 matches total, and about half of the fighters were in the 40kg weight class. i wasn't sure what i weighed in kilograms, but i knew that 80kg was quite a bit less than me as i started to wonder what we were in for. then i noticed that the weights were also listed in lbs -- sure enough, half of the fighters were in a 100 lbs. weight class, with a couple of others at 105 lbs. and 113 lbs. and the heavyweights of the evening weighing in at 155 lbs. i started to wonder aloud about grown men who weigh 100 pounds or less. it seemed almost impossible to imagine, even in a country where brendan and i are comparatively statuesque.

and you know what? it *is* impossible. because the boxers were not men at all. they were CHILDREN. how did that little factoid get lost in the shuffle by the folks at rough guide? they are certain to prepare you for the level of violence, but find it insignificant to mention that this brutal violence is between boys for whom puberty is a far off reality. i couldn't believe my eyes as the first fighters came into the ring. i would guess the boy in the corner closest to us was 10 years old, and that's probably me grasping optimistically at straws given my upbringing in a society where child labor is illegal. and so it went. we spent 2.5 hours watching little boys beat on each other. there was one match (the 155 pounders) where there was some evidence of body hair, which was a relief. but otherwise it was tiny, innocent-faced school boys doing their best to punch and kick the shit out of each other. the upside is that when you have less than 100 pounds to put behind your kicks and punches, it can only get so brutal. we only saw one knock-out the whole night and i think it was in the match-up of the hefty 113 pound fellas.

i can now check "watch a thai boxing match" off of my list of things to do in my life and carry on with my new mission of informing any other potential inexperienced spectators that it's 4th-graders that they will be watching should they decide to go. it was certainly an interesting way to spend an evening, but i (obviously) have yet to fully recover.

today is our last day in bangkok. it will be a relaxed one, since we spent a sweltering day yesterday visiting the grand palace, which houses the indescribably revered emerald buddha, and wat pho, which houses the indescribably huge reclining buddha. we'll pick up our tickets for our 10-hour journey south by train to khao lak tomorrow. we are sticking with our original plan and hoping - HOPING - for weather that cooperates. we've struggled to find any sort of reliable weather report for our specific destination, but we're crossing our fingers for a big karmic payoff given all of the buddha visits we have been making.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

melting in bangkok

we have arrived at phase II of the trip, after what feels like a lifetime in vietnam. our last stop was amazing -- it was a three day/two night trip to ha long bay, which is easily the most magical place i have ever experienced. we went with the reputable - but pricey - kangaroo cafe in hanoi, and this proved to be a great decision since we had the added pleasure of being in a tour group of 16 with some of the coolest people around. it was a surprising mix of nationalities -- it was ruled by the english/irish, accounting for 9 of the 16 with 4 americans (including us), 2 israelis, and a dutch lass. it was kind of like being able to watch 48 hours of hilarious BBC comedy taking place right before our eyes, all the time. we spent one night on the boat, which was a first for me. i am pleased to report that i don't get seasick. the second night was spent on cat ba island, with plenty of exploration of caves and beaches and floating among the bay's limestone karsts (i don't really know what that word means, but that's what they are according to our friends at wikipedia) in between.

on day 2, we went to monkey island which - surprise! - is an island inhabited by wild monkeys. as soon as we got there, the two dudes running the show got the monkeys all riled up by throwing bananas all over the place. we stood around, took some pictures of them eating and pooing... what you would expect. brendan then suggested that i take a picture of him with the monkey. brilliant. i snap a couple of shots of him with his monkey friend, one where they are in opposite sides of the frame at a very safe distance, and one where the monkey has come into a little closer range to my better half. it's all well and good until i put my camera away and the monkey starts to approach brendan with an intent look in his beady little eyes. as brendan started to back away, the monkey realized there was only one alpha in this situation and called his little buddy over to get in on the action of terrorizing the unsuspecting american who dared to enter his personal space. there stands brendan, fear in his eyes - with me looking on in panic thinking of our ongoing conversations about what to do in the event of a bite from a rabid animal - while the first monkey lets out a nasty little hiss and his buddy starts lunging (do monkeys lunge?) at him. he has the (bright?) idea that maybe the monkeys just want the gigantic bottle of water he is holding in his hand, so he puts it down on the sand as a peace offering. this seemed to distract them somewhat, and as brendan moved into the the mass of the rest of our group, the monkeys seemed to lose interest. we all got off of monkey island without so much of a scratch. and once brendan had escaped the clutches of death-by-rabies, we even got to kayak around ha long bay for a bit and watch the sunset, which was stunning. i have never been so taken with a spot so overrun with tourists. it was absolutely brilliant, as one of our boatmates (and english version of chris farley) would say.

we are now in bangkok, where the heat is giving us a run for our money. it is unbelievably hot compared to vietnam, and even more unbelievably orderly compared to vietnam. i think we went in the right way with the order of countries visited. this place is a cinch compared to the cities we were in in vietnam. there we were almost taken out by a moped/car/bicyclist every other street and we had to give ourselves little motivational speeches each morning before heading out into the chaos. here there are actually sidewalks. that the pedestrians can use. where they are safe from motorized transit. it is bliss.

at the moment we have escaped the heat - after a 6km hike across town in its clutches - at the largest mall in all of asia. it's kind of a bizarre destination, but we had heard a lot about it from the folks on the boat with us and the idea of being entertained and air-conditioned simultaneously was just too appealing to resist. so we just ate at the classiest food court on earth and now we will hunt around for a new memory card for my camera, since we have officially outdone its 800-photo capacity. we are very happy to be in thailand, where the food holds huge promise - already, the food court kao soy and phad thai were far beyond anything i had in vietnam - and everyone is running around in yellow shirts to honor the king on his 80th birthday. we'll soak up all that is urban and gritty in bangkok and then head to the beach - which beach remains to be seen, since we intend to follow the good weather wherever it may be - before we head home in 10 days. i wonder how many panang curries that will allow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

so long hanoi. the beef was worth it.

we have wrapped up our one day in hanoi, and have discovered a definite fondness for the place. what else can explain the fact that we are still up at 9:30pm? it may seem like i am exaggerating about th early-to-bed routine, but two nights ago i actually went to sleep - as in fell asleep, for the night - at 7:45. being up and alert at 9:30pm indicates an unprecedented infatuation with our surroundings. so yes, hanoi is lovely. it is chaotic and loud and makes my pulse shoot through the roof, but we have enjoyed it much more than ho chi minh city. we are staying in the heart of the old quarter, and spent the evening having vietnamese coffees and strolling around the neighborhood. tons of people are out and about - meaning careening into one another on mopeds - so we soaked it all up for awhile and eventually started to seek out a spot for dinner.

our hotel had provided some recommendations, including a vegetarian option in the vicinity. we checked out their menu, with all of its mentions of foods that have not been in the realm of possibility for the past 10 days (grilled cheese sandwich!) - and then decided to go in a different direction for our only dinner in hanoi. totally raw red meat. yum. we plopped down at what appeared to be a very popular sidewalk spot, where they give you a cast-iron hot plate heated by a candle flame and bring you a plate of raw cow flesh (i wasn't thinking of it in such terms when ingesting it) and veggies to cook up at your table. i have been tiptoeing around the whole meat-eating thing, but for this meal i was totally on board. it was hands-down the best meal we have had here (i was considering holding out on the praise until we are safely out of getting-violently-ill territory, but here's hoping).

we gobbled up our heaping serving of beef, onions, garlic, tomatoes and pineapple and felt very happy with our bold new eating-as-the-locals-eat move. i had perked up my ears when the one other yank who was nearby was paying to see what the damage was going to be -- as far as i could hear, it cost him 18,000 - just over $1 - for his meal for one. it seemed totally reasonable given that we have been paying under $5 at some restaurants for the two of us. we checked in with one of the servers to see what we owed -- all the while i am convinced we will be talking about the deal we got by pulling up a 10-inch stool among hanoi's discerning populace for months -- and are told that it would be 140,000 dong. nine dollars. our sails immediately deflated. we paid up and learned yet another lesson of the road. ask the price beforehand. it seemed that once we had blistered our tongues licking the cast iron plate, we had limited leverage for haggling.

Monday, December 03, 2007

from hue to hanoi: bodily functions, hacky sackin' and street smarts

we are spending a couple of nights in hanoi before heading to ha long bay early tomorrow morning for a three day boat trip. i had started to formulate a theory that the smaller the city we were in, the more anarchic the traffic. now that we are back in big-city territory - hanoi has a population of 4 million - i am revising my theory. we have reinstated the (read: my) rule that we have to hold hands when crossing the street, and i do my best to ensure that brendan is between me and the traffic. the hand holding causes some additional anxiety, since his tendency is to forge ahead through oncoming mopeds, while mine is to hold back and let them do their thing. we're working through it. making our relationship stronger and all of that.

one of the interesting things that i have been mentally tallying is the evidence of bodily functions that is EVERYWHERE. it's kind of funny to be dressing conservatively, with lots of skin covered in billowy fabrics, and then see all of these things happening on every street corner that are ingrained in me as being private business (though given my proclivities, sometimes i wish they weren't so private and could be discussed openly, maybe at the dinner table). it started with a pee stop on our bus trip from ho chi minh to da lat, where a couple of older gentlemen hopped off and took a pee basically right outside my window on the bus. the display of public urination has since become part of the landscape. then when we were walking around after booking our ha long bay trip, an older man in front of us blew a snot rocket onto the sidewalk. for me, snot rockets conjure up the walking offense that was puck from the san francisco season of the real world, not middle-aged vietnamese men. the frequency and non-chalance with which people hock lugies (how do you encapsulate that act in a way that does not require high school slang?) has also been striking. my favorite, though, has to be the few occasions where we have seen one person - who has typically been either a friend or mother figure - popping a zit (zits?) on the face of a disinterested teenage girl on the sidewalk as they sell their fruit or baguettes or whatever. now this is a practice i can get behind. we'll see how i fare with importing such sensible cultural idiosyncracies.

we are going to spend the day in hanoi, which is pretty chaotic and in some subtle and unidentifiable way completely different from ho chi minh city in the south. we left hue on a high note to then get off to a rough start in hanoi. it was raining off and on all day yesterday in hue, and during one of the downpours, we found ourselves making calls to hanoi hotels at a post office in hue. brendan checked his email while we were there, and as i waited for him outside under the cover of the post office entrance way. soon enough a boy of about 8 came along with the vietnamese spin on a hacky sack that we have seen everywhere -- basically a plastic base with multi-colored feathers coming out of it -- and started kicking it around on his own. brendan had noticed kids playing with them all over the place, and obviously has had an inner longing to join in. when he came out of the post office to meet me, he met his golden opportunity when the kid accidentally kicked it in his direction and brendan kicked it back. within five minutes, brendan was leading a hackey sack circle with five or six elementary school-aged kids. i got plenty of photo documentation, with brendan getting lots of giggly high-five's as we finally set off on our way.

when we got to hanoi, we were to be picked up by someone sent by our hotel. sure enough, when we came out of baggage claim, there was our sign proclaiming "prendan posworth" (the p/b distinction is apparently a difficult one, as we have noticed on other occasions; one person at a hotel had to say "passport" at least 5 times before i understood what they were saying). the guy holding it said he was waiting on one other passenger who was getting in on an international flight and should be there in 10-15 minutes. fine. we sit down and wait, and sooner or later 30 minutes has passed and brendan has done plenty of research into how we could get to the hotel on our own -- it was 11pm so a good 3 hours passed our usual bed time and we were exhausted. we tell the guy we are going to take a cab on our own. he tries to get us to wait, but we don't go for it. we go out to the long line of taxis where various companies are trying to flag us down, and go with the one with the seemingly reputable name of "airport taxi". we climb into a big, comfy cab that i quickly notice has no meter. the driver - who seemed potentially high and/or drunk, or maybe just sleazy - gets in and as soon as i broach the topic of price, he starts pulling out of the parking spot. we are slowly pulling away as he says it's going to be "very cheap"... "how much?"... "20 dollars"... no way. brendan had seen signs for $12 to the city center. we open the doors and jump out (in retrospect, i pretend that the car was still moving, but *perhaps* it was at a standstill) grab our bags and go see the friendly driver down the way with another cab company, who jauntily puts our bags in his car and has classical music playing all the way to our hotel. it was all very james bond meets the get along gang.

so the adventures continue. we are starting to plot out our trip to thailand. we have to decide if it makes sense to go all the way north to chiang mai when there don't appear to be any convenient travel options to get there. we'll have our summit today and try to plan out the rest of our trip so we can coast until the end with travel and lodging reservations in place. gotta say i am looking forward to the grand finale flop on the beach.