A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Want more of my daily meanderings?

Although the trip is over, my mind is still wandering. I’ve started a new blog called 908 Asanas. Come with me as I embark on my next ridiculous adventure as a neophyte yogini. Yes, I'm going to do yoga. Lots of it.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

10 Things I Learned Traveling Around the World

I have successfully procrastinated writing this final blog post for days and weeks on end. Partly because once the blog is over, then I have to accept the unsettling fact that the trip is over. That is: “The Trip”. Although we have been back for a few months now, we have been in a state of suspended animation - a perpetual limbo. We live like hobos out of our backpacks and sleep like temporary vagrants on a blow-up air mattress.

In some ways, it’s like the trip was a dream I once had. It’s funny how fast the past bleeds into obscurity in the face of the present. So I’m left asking myself, “What does it all mean?” and “What did we learn at the end of it all?” A lot of the answers are cliché but somehow I feel them in a deeper, more ingrained way than I ever could if they were just needlepointed on a pillow.

1. The world is a BIG place

There are over 195 recognized sovereign nations on earth. In my lifetime, I’ve traveled to 23 countries over a total period of thirteen months of travel. That’s just shy of 12% of the countries out there. There is so much to explore, so much to see, it would take multiple lifetimes to see it all. Some places we visited, we had only scratched the surface, seen only the merest glimpse of its culture and what it has to offer. Instead of “seeing it all“ we were inspired by other travelers and exotic destinations, so now there are far more places we wish to travel to than when we left on the trip!

2. Everything is Same Same but Different

There is this great saying in SE Asia: same same but different. It’s a way to identify something as similar but not identical. A dragon fruit is same same but different than a prickly pear. Sam song is same same but different than Jack Daniels. Traveling has deepened this concept into my bones. It’s not just a quaint saying. All the countries and cultures around the world are same same but different. Sure, there are variations of food and fashion and geography, but the people are essentially the same. In fact, the similarities are more pronounced, the differences are usually on the surface. The world is the same the world over.

3. Money doesn’t buy happiness

Everyone is hoping to eek out a happy life filled with family and friends. It’s the oldest cliché in the book that money doesn’t buy happiness but you can see that truth reflected in the humble smiles of people living in near-poverty. They exude happiness. And not in that well-groomed I-have-a-lot-of-designer-shit happy way. Life is simple, if you stop fiddling with it and analyzing it to death.

4. The less shit, the better

Carrying everything you own on your back, like a crab dragging its conch shell of a home, makes you realize the value of “stuff”. All the stuff you thought you needed. All the stuff that doesn’t live up to its value proposition because of it’s size or weight or maintenance requirements. Everything is studied for its intrinsic value, it's utility. And guess what? There are very few real necessities, even in this modern life.

Out in Hayward, I have four storage cubes jam-packed full of stuff, and for the life of me, I can’t remember what half of it is. I feel like it will be quite the excavation project when we unearth our belongings. And I have the feeling, I won’t need quite so much stuff. I can get by on less. I want less. I need less.

5. Gratitude and Humility

I have come back with a deep gratitude for living in the United States. The richness of our life here. Not riches, but richness. The quality and variety we have in abundance. We are so indescribably lucky that we fail to see it anymore. We take our lives and our livelihoods for granted. One of the most important things I took away from this trip was a double shot dose of Gratitude & Humility.

6. There’s no place like home

No one said it better than Neil Young, “Make a living life like a rolling stone, on the road there’s no place like home.”

The other day, I gave a five minute soliloquy on “the couch”. My friend Tina was telling me how she spent the previous day on the couch. I stopped short, and my mouth dropped open. "The, the couch!" I stuttered. Ohhhh, how I remember you! My velvety plush chocolate colored couch. How I would snuggle on you all day. How I could be so luxuriously lazy that I would alternate between watching tv and snoozing. I would daydream and stroke the cat in it’s own droopy eyed bliss. I would eat dinner while I watched Top Chef. Oh, how I miss you so! My Beautiful, Wonderful, Comfortable Couch!

When you are away from home and deprived of all the homey indulgences, you are delighted by the littlest remembrances. I bet you don’t appreciate your couch that much. Go on, go give him a big, bear hug. You would sure miss him if he was gone.

[I don't know why I envision my couch as male, some sort of a big floppy eared dog, always glad to see you, and you just can't seem to resist]

7. Wherever you go there you are...

Someone more profound and wiser than I once said, “Wherever you go there you are.” How true. You can alter you surroundings, change your location, travel halfway around the world but you can’t escape yourself. You are always there, staring back.

It’s funny that my life could be turned upside down from where it was and yet I felt exactly the same in so many ways (same same but different). There was still not enough time and not enough money. My relationship was stuck in all the same spots. We had the same fights, and fought the same anxieties in ourselves. I guess the point is: you have to face up to yourself sometime and now’s as good a time as any.

8. Growth is a painful process

I embarked on this trip to learn and grow, perhaps become someone new. Something has shifted. But it’s unclear what exactly. It’s subtle. Or I could be so close to the picture I can’t see the nuances any longer. But I certainly didn’t become what I always dreamed overnight.

Change is hard to invoke. Even harder to make stick. I wasn’t the perfect person I yearned to be. I didn’t do yoga every morning or floss every night. I didn’t write anything substantial, but this silly little blog. I didn’t endeavor in art - a near impossibility on the road. The closest we could veer was to be living art: an ever shifting collage of time and place.

I crossed one impassable bridge I told myself for years: I can’t travel because [fill in the blank] and in doing so I unwittingly fell victim to: I can’t [fill in the blank] because I’m traveling too much. It’s not because I didn’t have time or money or any of the other litany of excuses I hid behind to mask laziness, fear, and weak-will. It‘s fucking hard to have the guts and grit to live the life you’ve always imagined. (Thoreau didn't bother to mention that tidbit.) You can have every possibility and opportunity you have always dreamed of right in front of you, and you can still hesitate!

Yes, growth is painful, but like all things that flower we must necessarily (and at times unwillingly) grow towards the light. Little by little. Small small. We'll eventually get there, or die trying.

9. Life is always happening

I wrote this back when we were leaving for the trip:

Like a single balloon escaping the bunch and floating away. No anchor to hold steady. No direction but up and away.

I had that giddy feeling that I found out a way to escape. Escape the normalcy of a prescribed life, the 9-to-6 job, the obligations of adulthood. This journey made me realize I wasn't one of the chosen few that miraculously found a way out. In reality, nothing ever anchored me to earth, but myself. I could always write myself a hall pass. In fact, we all have a thick stack of 'em in our desk drawer. Life is always out there - happening, whether you are apart of it or not. The best thing is: you can always join the party, there is no RSVP required.

[I think I mixed three metaphors in one paragraph, that’s a new personal best (or some would argue, worst) for me!]

10. Life is unutterably fragile and fleetingly short

One of the most motivating quotes I heard when I was getting up the guts to go on this trip was from the movie Rumble Fish:

"You know the older you get, you say, Jesus, how much I got? I got 35 summers left. 
        Think about it - 35 summers."

As frightening as this thought is, there are no guarantees in life. No one is going to promise you a long life of good health. You actually don’t know if you have thirty-five summers or just three left. So don’t hesitate, act. Whatever you were "planning" to do sometime in the future once "this" or "that" happens is just excuse-making. Like the wizened old runner in too short shorts says: Just do it. Don’t look back on your life with tearful regret. Don’t be bored with the life that flashes before your eyes when you kick the bucket. That would be really sad: "Eibert, I give it two and half stars, it was uninspiring and the ending just dragged on and on."

Promise me. 35 summers. No regrets.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fix your shit man!

[An attempt to ghostwrite a ranting blog post with Ron about the horrid state of affairs in hostels, guesthouses, and shitholes all over the world.]

Why is it that everything everywhere is totally screwed up? (Or maybe I should say un-screwed up) Nothing works and is falling apart wherever I go or stay, so I’m constantly repairing other people’s shit. Of course, I never thought to bring any tools along on this trip. Big mistake. I ask myself over and over why I didn’t pack that Leatherman 831102 Super Tool-300 Multitool. (A shameless plug to Amazon where we get 4% of your purchase.)

Or the better question is why can’t these owners spend a few minutes - or weeks, cuz it’s going to take that long due to their neglect - fixing their shit?!

First, you walk up four flights of stairs to your room, either because there is no elevator, or everything is so dilapidated it is certainly a death trap. Each stair is a different height like you’re in a fun house. Not all different, mind you. The first eight or so are equal height and then the last is a half stair so you trip and unexpectedly lose your balance. What kind of ku-ku brain is building these places? Don’t they know to measure twice, and cut once?

Then I’m handed a skeleton key. What is this - 18th century technology? Once we got locked inside our room in Africa and had to slide the key under the door to the manager to get out. God forbid there is a fire. If the lock is not an ancient relic, it is a cheapo Chinese-made padlock: real high security. But apparently, there is a deep historical tradition of padlocks in China. Inevitably the light bulb is blown out over the door so it 15 minutes of fumbling around to even get inside.

Inside the room there are at least twenty light switches, half don’t do anything, half go to lights in a purely random fashion all over the room, or perhaps to something in next room. The light switch that isn’t labeled rings the front desk, so then someone shows up with whom you can’t communicate with. WTF?

The lighting is invariably a single energy saving florescent light that casts an unnatural hue on everything and everybody, making an already depressing room feel like a cross between an insane asylum and a prison cell. Never let yourself get excited by the bedside lamp, it doesn’t work. Face the fact that when it gets dark, you won’t do any reading in bed unless you use your Black Diamond Icon Headlamp (Cha-ching!)

Electrical outlets are inconveniently placed halfway to the ceiling, way too high to actually plug anything in. That is, if you even dare to plug in your Pink iPod Nano (Double cha-ching!) or other prized possessions. The electrical outlet holes are the definition of sketchy, and so worn out you have to use duct tape to fasten anything you might want to plug-in. Then there are always exposed wires of some sort that dangle threateningly from the ceiling, sometimes sticking out of an old water heater looming above your head in the shower! An electrician’s nightmare.

There is no such thing as a right sized curtain. It is too short, either lengthwise or longwise. Or it is too sheer, so we are on display like a zoo exhibit. The windows themselves are paper thin and useless to block out any sound - not the cows mooing, not the locals speaking at shout level, and certainly not the Call to Prayer blaring at 3:45am.

The switch for the A/C or the hot shower or both are outside or potentially in someone else’s room. You won’t realize this until you are naked, however, and have to call down for assistance from the front desk to get a little hot water. Often the A/C units are hooked into some scary voltage adapter that would cheerfully electrocute you. I got a 240 Volt zap while taking a shower in India, I went to turn off the hot water and as soon as I touched the knob…POW!

The TV is probably from the 1980’s with an average diagonal size of 13”. A far cry from our Samsung 58" Plasma(Quadruple cha-ching!) Although, at least it’s in color, there will be only three channels you can tune in. One is a serious religious prayer of some flavor, one is a disorienting frenzy of high-pitched singing and choreographed dancing that would make perfect sense on acid, and one has a great American movie on - OMIGOD! …But then you slowly realize that its sub-titled in Arabic and all the good parts are censored out anyway. You reach for the remote, but the remote never works so don’t even try.

Paint is most likely slopped on out of a bucket onto the walls with ill regard for the boundaries of trim, ceilings, or floors. It appears as if the concept of using a roller has not been invented in other parts of the world. The implement of choice is a broom of some sort that makes the finishes more careless and amateur than a blind man painting. My cat can paint better!

There are dust mites and bed bugs and future vaccines growing in the corners, waiting to be discovered. That’s if you are lucky. If you are unlucky you have cockroaches the size of circus peanuts crawling on your feet in the bathroom.

Now, don’t even get me started on the bathrooms!

You can’t even get through the doorway without incident, rusty nails sticking out of the wooden threshold to give you Tetanus followed by a trip up or tumble down the step into the bathroom.

If the shower works at all, you have a one percent chance of hot water; that is, if you remembered to call down twenty minutes in advance. The bathroom, or what is more accurately called the shower room, is essentially a showerhead positioned in the middle of the room over the bare floor and drain. Usually this is where the toilet sits so if you’re really into multitasking it’s great! The nozzle, although aiming down, will spray out sideways or trickle out in a low flow or in tiny spikes that feel like low levels of electrical current. The showerhead hose is at least forty years old and most likely you will have to hold the slimy implement while showering because the hook for it is broken.

The sink leaks on the floor. The hot and cold levers never work, or are backwards. The knob can be so hard to turn that when you finally force it on, the water sprays out of the sink onto your shirt. Forget about the sink stoppers, they never provide one, and even though we brought two different sizes with us the sink will never stay stopped up. This makes the hand-washing of laundry really fun. One minute after you fill the sink, you return to find your clothes stuck to the inside: damp and poised for escape over the edge. A completely sub-par wash job for clothes so stinky they need submersion in high-octane tide for at least two hours.

All this means the bathroom floor is constantly wet all day and all night long, and therefore so is the floor of your room. There are no bathmats or extra towels provided. You are win-the-lottery-lucky to get a towel in the first place, and then you must sacrifice it to dam up the damn bathroom floor.

The toilet seats are flimsy and made of some form of laminated cardboard. They have a tendency to just rip off, sometimes during mid-use. The toilet bowls themselves are ineffectually designed to make your daily business as smelly and disgusting as possible. Either, the water level is ridiculously low or there is a shelf in the toilet to catch the kids instead of dropping them off at the pool. Why, I implore you, why?!

After you’ve perched uncomfortably on the broken toilet seat and are on the verge of blacking out from your own foul fumes, you reach around and find the flusher doesn’t work. Of course not. That would imply that one thing in this fucking room works! Better get a bucket of water, placed inconveniently four feet away.

I mean, I know this ain’t the Ritz and I’m paying like ten bucks a night for this room, but FIX YOUR SHIT MAN!


Sunday, May 2, 2010

RTW Trip Cost

We traveled to 62 cities in 18 countries over 277 days. We spent a month preparing for the trip and a month or two in transition (read: recovery) after the trip. You may argue, we are still in major limbo. But Ron, bless his heart, has been gainfully employed for two months, where I’m still floating around not yet ready to come down.

A frequent question is: how much did we spend in a year of travels?

Bear in mind we are more Flashpackers than Backpackers. That is, we are not 20-year-old college students on summer vacation and we didn’t work our way around the world. We worked professional jobs and saved our nickels and dimes for several years. We stayed in budget rooms but not at the bottom-of-the-barrel establishments. We traveled cheaply, and overland where possible, but we didn’t hitchhike or ride on the roof of buses or in pick-ups full of chickens. We ate frugally, but we didn’t always eat street food. And the hallmark of the Flashpacker - we brought all sorts of techno gadgets: cameras, ipods, and a laptop.

Health Insurance: $1240
We were insured with IMG Global Patriot Travel Insurance which cost $310 per person for six months of travel coverage. We had a 1M policy with a $500 deductible and all the usual travel insurance benefits like emergency medical evacuation. Even with our scooter accident in Thailand, we didn't hit our deductible, so we didn't file any claims. Overall, we were happy with our coverage and more than happy that we did not need to use our coverage.

Medications/Vaccines: $2424
Before our trip, we loaded up on all the CDC recommended medications and vaccines. I spent five times as much money as Ron in this category due to my shoddy insurance coverage with Blue Cross. I also needed a year supply of birth control which alone cost $345. The list of vaccines we got are outlined in the post All Shot Up

Supplies: $3478
Most of this was spent at REI and includes everything from: backpacks, shoulder bags, cameras, clothes, shoes, sandals, water filters, books, a little netbook laptop, and even the world map we tacked to the wall and put pins in and dreamt about our trip, at the time was but a dream. For a full list, see our post What We Packed.

Moving/Storage: $4753
The move with Corrib Moving was $700 with all the supplies and the tip. Door to Door storage cost $280/month for 4 cubes of storage with extra insurance. Even though we downsized a fair amount, I guess we had a lot of stuff! For more details, see the post Packin it Up.

Daily Budget Europe: $10822
The daily budget includes room, food, drink, local transportation, and sightseeing. Our daily budget in Europe was $100/day, but we ended up at an average of $119/day for the 13 weeks we were in Europe. It is really challenging to live on the cheap in Europe. The most costly was the room which easily took up more than half the daily budget. I would highly recommend CouchSurfing to save money and meet local people.

Daily Budget Elsewhere: $10007
Our daily budget everywhere else (Ghana, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) was $50/day, but we averaged $55/day over six months. We tried to keep it cheap but you have to splurge every once in awhile on a good meal, a nicer guesthouse, or a beachside massage.

Daily Budget US: $5000
Most of this expense occurred the month before we left. I had hefty rent and bills on a San Francisco loft totaling over 3k. The remaining was for daily living expenses when we returned to the US in March, luckily to the loving arms and paid-for abodes of our families.

Transportation: $9916
This covered all visas and major transportation between countries, mainly flights and trains. We bought tickets as we went instead of buying a RTW Ticket which we debated for some time. In the end, we had far more flexibility and even saved money because our trip was cut short. But if I had to do it all again, I may have opted for the RTW Ticket. Sometimes too much flexibility is a bad thing.

Special Events: $2226
This was our slush fund and a critical part of the budget. If you get too close to counting your pennies every day, you can forget you are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and have to live a little. This funded epic luxuries like: a Buddhist Thangka painting, a party in Paris, a romantic hotel room in Venice, an under-the-table gift for Salomey, a two-week Annapurna Trek, and a cruise in Halong Bay.

And the unexpected pitfalls like: being scammed in Istanbul and our scooter crash in Thailand.

GRAND TOTAL: $49,866

I have two emotions when I consider this number. First, I'm amazed at how much money that is! Um, that's a down payment on a house! But then I realize that I would have spent that same amount of money living in SF over the same year. And think about how much we did, how much we saw, and how much we experienced. It is a year we will never forget. A year that has changed us, evolved us, and opened us up to ourselves, each other, and the world. That, I believe, is what MasterCard calls "priceless".


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Back in the USA

After much deliberation, we have decided to head home to the good ole US of A. Ron's family made a valiant effort to re-rent his apartment, but in the weeks that followed, the financial situation proved to be a little more precarious than initially thought. Ron, like millions of Americans, is underwater on his mortgage. And in a big way, from buying in 2004 near the peak of the market in California.

He is headed back to San Francisco to look at mortgage renegotiation or short sale options. In the meantime, he is going to squat in his condo, and even with meager accoutrements, will be living better than we have been in 9 months. So don't feel too bad for him!

We've decided to divide and conquer, so I'm going to Oklahoma to see my Dad and my much-missed kitties. Fear not readers, there are a good 10 more blog posts from the last month in Vietnam and from earlier in the trip when I got back-logged. I won't be closing down camp just yet! And who knows, we may pick back up either abroad or here in the States.


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Tokyo Airport

We arrived at Tokyo Airport before 7am, armed with a detailed master plan as to how to expedite our way through customs, get on the Narita Express to Tokyo, visit the Imperial Palace grounds, eat the most amazing (and expensive) sushi in the world, and arrive back by 2:30pm to catch our flights. Only problem was, I got one lousy hour of sleep (due to screaming kids and over-crowding) and Ron had just started to get my cold. We stood bleary eyed at the end of the ramp into the airport, like zombies. What to do now? Well, the traveler in us told us to press on, no matter the obstacle or physical discomfort. “You only get this one chance, don’t waste it.” The pragmatist in us said, “Screw it I want to go back to sleep.” Solution: the day room. Only the Japanese would think to provide a room at the airport where you could pay by the hour to sleep. Ingenious. We awaited their opening at 8am and snagged a double room for 5 hours. Cost: $65. A little more than the Holiday Inn, but worth every yen.

We awoke and wandered through the designer shops and duty free offerings. What can I say, the airport was splendid. Everything was clean and sparkling: all the little trinket shops with lucky cats and anime dolls.

Perusing bean paste sweets, as lovely as a work of art, as expensive as a small car…

Next came a Japanese food extravaganza. Since it was morning, we headed to a café for coffee and pastries. We sat amongst chain smoking travelers for an hour, only then realizing the whole café was, in fact, the smoking section. We headed to the next course where we ate some Japanese fast food, or Ikayaki, pan-fried squid dumpling. It looked more like deep fried goodness than it tasted: the inside was gooey with a hint of fishy flavor. However, the cold Kirin beer, serving as a chaser, saved the day.

We were frequently lured by the fantastical plastic recreations of menu items in restaurant windows, but we couldn’t resist the sushi bar. I mean, how can you visit Japan and not eat some sushi? We opted for a line-up of our favorite nigiri: maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), and aji (mackerel). Sipping hot sake and savoring the moment. Clearly, it wouldn’t rival the famous Tokyo sushi joints, but it hit the spot and made us feel like we got a little taste of this little island.

Now I know that in my synopsis I tend to stereotype, but I just loved, I mean LOVED the Japanese people: their gentle way, sincere helpfulness, and sheer graciousness. Everyone we met was so polite (and so stylish), I was literally taken aback. The only thing rotten about the whole day, was knowing we would be leaving, and we didn’t even get to venture out of the airport. Ron and I firmly resolved that in our next world travels we must return and properly visit Japan. Sure, we’ll need a small fortune but I have a sneaking suspicion, more like a trustworthy inkling, that it will be well worth it. Something about the air, the overriding sentiment of quality over quantity, has won me over. I’m smitten.

When it was time to board our separate planes, a curious feeling came over me. I had dreamed of this day (can you blame me after spending every day together for over nine months?!), and equally feared it, how could we ever part? Can I function alone in the world? And more importantly, can I even function? This ending has been quite abrupt and unexpected. We are being flung back into our regular lives - to sink or to swim.

Will we hack it? We'll see, dear readers. We'll see...


Sunday, March 7, 2010

So Long Hanoi

We only spent two nights in Hanoi, one before and one after our excursion up to Halong Bay. We stayed at the Sunshine Hotel in the Old Quarter a buzzing, boisterous section of the city. We walked the narrow streets, getting to Dong Xuan Market that was just closing. On the way back we passed street vendors selling Thit Jo or dog meat. They say that sandy blond dogs taste the best. Ewww. We didn’t dare it try it, I may be able to munch on Charlotte but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat Lassie.

One night, we finally took a cyclo ride and cruised past the Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake on our way to a Mexican dinner at Al Fresca.

Street food abounds on every street corner. Vietnam is a serious contender, if not heavyweight, of the world in street-cooked delicacies. Most vendors specialize and offer up only one dish on their menu. In doing so, they keep costs low, operations simple and the food perfecto. Some memorable dishes include: Pho Bo (Beef Noodle), Com Ga (Chicken Rice), Bahn Mi (the famous “everything but the kitchen sink” sandwich). The price is invariably right at about 20,000-30,000 dong ($1-2) and you get to eat in miniature plastic chairs that make you feel like Lily Tomlin.

We didn’t make it to Bia Hoi corner (at Ta Hien and Luong Ngnoc Quyen) where fresh beer is served to revelers to cries of, “Mot, hai, bat…go!” or “One, two, three, cheers!” Apparently a lot of local Vietnamese drink beer when it’s the freshest, which is first thing in the morning when it sounds the least appealing. I suppose, there is always next time.

We did make It to Ly Van Phuc Street or what known as “Chicken Street. Tucked away on a side street is the most tantalizing smell of chicken ever to waft on air.

We were gestured to a plastic table and sat down. As the only westerners as far as we could see, we knew we were in for a treat. However, the menu was a bit challenging. Instead of totally chancing it, we went up to the grill master and pointed out our selection. No chicken feet, please.

The chicken came out on two giant bamboo skewers and there were only three words to describe it. To die for. It was easily the best chicken since tandoori in India. The potatoes were perfectly browned, tastily seasoned, and equally gone in 60 seconds. But Elanore, oh Elanore, came in the form of white baguette bread drenched in honey and grilled with butter. We ordered seconds of everything, and washed it down with some Tiger beer.

The entire evening was fab until we hopped in a taxi (not one of the reputable green & white ones). I thought, how bad could it be? Maybe all these people getting ripped off are whiners or inexperienced travelers. Well, about 10 seconds into the ride the meter had already flipped three times. The ride that was around 36,000 dong ($2) on the way there hovered near 100,000 dong (over $5) on the way back. You know me by now, and I wasn’t going to stand for that.

When we stopped I told Ron to get out of the car, it’s always easier to deal with someone one on one. I calmly explained to the driver that his meter was faulty but out of the kindness of my heart I would pay 50,000 dong. Upon this point, he started yelling that he “didn’t know” why it was so much but we had to pay up. His arm reached back and barred my way out of the cab. I laughed at him and pushed my way past his twig for an arm, throwing the bill in my wake. I mean seriously what was he going to do about it, I outweigh him by at least fifty pounds. The moral of the story: take only the Mai Linh or the Vina Sun cabs while in Vietnam. The reports of unsavory taxi companies are confirmed true

As a final aside, the Vietnamese currency is called “dong”. Although snicker worthy in its own right, it actually makes me think of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, everyone’s favorite foreign exchange student. Which brings me to one of life’s great mysteries, where in the world is Molly Ringwald?!! No doubt, living in Evanston, Illinois with Jake Ryan and two screaming brats.

Well, that’s all we have to report from Vietnam. We’ll leave you with a view of the rice fields that adorned many of our bus rides through the countryside.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The sheer beauty of Halong Bay

Since we were almost certainly cutting our trip short so Ron could deal with his condo, we wanted to go out with a bang. To aid and abed this idea, my Dad had given us money to get scuba certification for Christmas, which seemed a waste at this point. So we re-appropriated the funds and settled on a luxury cruise around Halong Bay as our swan song of the trip. Thanks Dad!! To start our jet setting, we took a flight to Hanoi instead of the horrid overnight bus, which made us feel like movie stars right off the bat. The next morning, we took a shuttle bus 3 hours to the private dock at Bai Chay where we were greeted with warm hand towels and a fruity beverage.

You can take any number of tours on Halong Bay, from a few hours to a few days, from $25 to over $500 a person. We took the 3-day cruise on Handspan Indochina Sails which is one of the luxury lines, for $281/person. The boat, I mean Chinese junk, had only 16 rooms but less than half were full. It exuded romance and for us was a highly indulgent affair, so much so that I had those chills that whispered, “So, this is how the other class lives.”

Our wooden room was cozy at about eight square feet but the dominating king-sized pillow top bed had a down comforter (down! comforter!) and was stuffed a mile high with pillows. “Yay!” I screamed in glee internally to myself as I threw off all the unnecessary and pompous bed toppings, “to have the luxury of being annoyed at throw pillows!”

The bathroom was all marble granite and sparkling glass, and reminded me of our suite in Goa. Too good to be true, almost to good to use. Certainly interesting to use on the high seas, swaying and sloshing around on slippery floors. But the piece de resistance was the giant picture windows that looked out onto the magnificent bay floating slowly past. It was so beautiful we would just sit and stare in reverence. We couldn’t bear to close the curtains, unless absolutely necessary, lest we missed a split second of the majesty.

Nothing could be more perfect, and then of course, I started to come down with a cold. What ill timing for the finale of our trip! But I wasn’t going to let it slow me down. I knocked back a shot of Jack Daniel’s and leapt off the hull of the ship 12 feet into the frigid water. That should either wake me up or kill me, I thought. I put all my money, what meager scraps are left, on the former.

We had lunch in the large teak dining room on the second floor of the ship. Our table, for the remainder of the voyage, was in the corner along a long stretch of windows. Lunches were generally a five course set-menu of various seafood and meat dishes, some more successful than others, all far more fancy than our habitual fare. Needless to say, we were delighted with everything, even something as banal as a radish rose.

The first activity on the itinerary was a stop at Ti Top island situated 7-8 kilometers southeast of Bai Chay. There we could sun and swim on the crescent moon shaped beach and hike the 427 stone steps to a pagoda-style rotunda. The hike up left me light-headed and clammy but the 360 degree view of the surrounding bay sprinkled with thousands of limestone islets jutting out of the water was spectacular. Legends say that the islands were created by a great dragon, hence the name of Halong Bay translating into, “where the dragon descends in the sea”.

Our first afternoon we went sea kayaking in a doubles kayak. It was a pleasant sunny day to be out on the emerald green water. We paddled through the Luon Bo cave, the water eroding a natural granite archway into a secluded inlet. I love being inches above the water with the peace of nature all around you. Especially when you pull up your oars and glide along in perfect bliss.

With not a moment to waste, we were back on board for a quick shower and change of clothes so we could be ready for dinner. I can get used to this buffet of food at regularly scheduled intervals. Did some say buffet? Oh yea. Every night for dinner was a buffet! Nothing excites me more than to have a sumptuous feast ready for the picking. I can get a half dozen spring rolls with extra dipping sauce, fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs, steamed vegetable medley (I actually squeaked when I saw fresh broccoli), and jumbo shrimp cocktail. And then have a repeat of all my favorites. Oh joy! (I can always buy bigger clothes when I return home, right?)

I got the best nights sleep aboard the boat from the gentle lull of the waves. Fascinating especially to me, I was up early and on deck at Tae Kwon Do before breakfast. The svelte instructor tried to teach us the slow deliberate movements but it was hard to follow. At times we would be turned around and she would be behind us. And then we would be perched on one foot in a crane position, which would be hard enough if the rocking ship underfoot was actual land. Half of us would stumble over in giggles. What do you expect at 7am in the morning?

We visited the Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave” that was discovered in 1901 by French explorers. Impressively grand at 10,000 square meters with thousands of well-lit stalagmites and stalagmites.

Some in interesting shapes and configurations. This, the tour guide told us, was a big cannon. Mmm hmm, sure. Maybe in your country, buddy.

We visited Cua Van, a working fishing village, that was the definition of remote. Not a Walmart in sight. Instead, the mini-mart would paddle to you where mother and enterprising children would sell you Oreos and Pringles (marked up 300%) from their family boat.

Surprisingly, they did have electricity (from generators I presume) to operate radios, tv’s and lights in their floating houses. There are 176 floating households and even a floating school, buoyed by empty drums. Everyone gets around by boat, children learn to swim before they learn to walk, and generation after generation of fisherman cultivate the waters. I’m sure it’s not an easy life, but you couldn’t paint a better view from your office window.

We went kayaking again and realized that some couples should just not kayak with each other. This was our third attempt, and as always, it ended with a fight. We couldn’t paddle in time together so we would knock oars. We also couldn't decide who was steering so we would run too close to the shoreline or into other boats. It was almost comical how we would veer back and forth, overcompensating every turn until we were pointed in the completely wrong direction. We bickered the entire time. I think we both pledged to stay on dry ground from now on, at the very least, to spare our relationship.

The remainder of the evening, we sipped our smuggled whiskey up on deck, watching the sun set in orange wisps behind the granite islets. Ah, this is the life.

Before we knew it, we were sailing back. Like the rest of our trip, it went by way too fast. The time on Indochina Sails was an unexpected highlight of the entire trip. So, if you are looking for an unconventional vacation idea, why not take a trip to Hanoi, a romantic cruise on Halong Bay, and (what I hear is) a fascinating cultural jaunt to the tribal villages in Sapa.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next stop up the coast was Hoi An. We took our last official overnight bus ride of our trip. Hallelujah. It was a Sinh Tourist bus, the kingpin of travel in Vietnam, and it was the first multi level bus I’ve ever seen. With fully reclining seats stacked on top of each other in two levels. It looked quite promising but unfortunately it was most uncomfortable. First, I had my big satchel and the food bag and there was nowhere to put them. One I hung off the side, the other I stuffed between my feet so I was virtually immobile. Secondly, there was a sharp piece of exposed metal right under my Achilles heal, so I had to choose between wrapping my feet in the single provided blanket or turning blue under the full blast of the AC directly over my bunk. Either option left me sleepless. Overnight travel is pure torture, and I won’t be shedding any tears over our last sleeping bus.

We arrived in Hoi An in the early morning and proceeded to get turned around in the wrong part of town with no hotel in sight. There is nothing quite like being sleep deprived and lost to make you feel hopeless and irritated. A nice man pointed us in the right direction and we soon found Thanh Binh Hotel 3. Off the main street was an attractive hotel, the dark wooden interior had a Chinese flair which made the Roman statues of the inner courtyard pool seem more oddly placed. Our spacious room on the second floor had two beds, fast wifi, and a balcony for $25 a night.

Hoi An, an important trading port between China and Japan in the 15th-19th century, has retained a rich cultural heritage. In even earlier times, it was a hub of the booming spice trade, that brought much wealth from afar. The Old Town is now a World Heritage site, and it is a fascinating marriage of Asian and European architecture. There are Chinese style shop houses next to a Japanese covered bridge, juxtaposed harmoniously like a 5-spice blend with colonial style buildings. It feels like you are walking around on a movie set. These two enterprising grandmas were stars.

At night, the streets of Hoi An are lit up by brightly colored lanterns, and filled by pedestrians taking in a pleasant stroll by the riverfront shops.

We wanted to try some of the local dishes, and headed to a restaurant called Faifoo (interestingly, the previous name of Hoi An itself). Our ebullient waitress Yum Yum advised us on a few tasting menus and soon our table was filled with: Cao Lau, White Rose, Binh Xeo, Wonton, Springrolls, Cuttlefish, and Vegetable Soup. We topped off the feast with a Vietnamese bottle of Vang Dalat Red Wine. It was quite a gorging and we walked away (or waddled as it were) with a bill of only 300,000 dong (or $16). We were so in love with their Binh Xeo, a fried savory pancake wrapped in lettuce leaves, we had to return for our last lunch in town to have it again.

The next night we went to The Cargo Club, a highly lauded restaurant on the riverbank. Replete with white tablecloths and sparkling silverware under the soft glow of lamps, I felt severely underdressed in my Cambodian t-shirt. We started with the baked brie. Need I say more? Ron had bacon wrapped pork chop and I had an extra creamy gorgonzola fettuccine. Despite the severe lactose overload, it was a lovely evening dining on the terrace.

Hoi An’s other claim to fame is their prolific tailor shops and made to order wares. They had some totally cute coats with asymmetrical collars, but I couldn’t justify spending money on a jacket in the balmy weather. However, I made no qualms about talking myself into some new sneakers. Yum Yum told us that Shoes 9 on Tran Hung Dao was a reputable place that made shoes to order with real leather. I tried on a pair of hightops with a Velcro strap in a myriad of color. It was supposed to be a sample of all the types of leather on offer, but they were so funky that I wanted them off the rack. The girls seemed a bit confused that I’d want such an ugly pair of shoes but were quite happy to make a twenty dollar sale.

We meandered around town window-shopping and sight-seeing in the stifling hot afternoon. Our hair was wild and unkempt so we ventured to a hole-in-the-wall salon called Nana on the other side of the Japanese Bridge . Nana had spent a year in Hanoi becoming a beautician but was back in her hometown. My cut, the first of the trip, was a decidedly Asian inspired bob with a straight bang. Ron got his hedge-like hair mowed down mostly on the sides and back, but leaving some height a la Kramer. His hair grows like a Chia pet so this has been his 3rd or 4th cut.

We both sported the ultra fashionable Chinese bamboo hats, although mine was ten times too small. I wanted to get one Sushi sized, as a Halloween costume, but I hesitated at one shop and never found the size on offer again. What a shame, she would have been an adorably cute Chinese cat.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nha Trang, Vietnam

We took a daytime bus, an 11 hour ride, to Nha Trang on the central eastern coast of Vietnam. Other than an unannounced bus change in Mui Ne, the ride was comfortable and painless. Known as the best beach town in the country, we were looking to escape the bustle of HCMC. The beach wasn’t as impressive, nor as clean as those in Thailand, with rubber bands, plastic grocery sacks, and other slimy kitchen-drawer contents sticking to you like urban seaweed. At least the waves were more exciting, and the sun was still a-shining, and the sand was fluffy underfoot.

We stayed at the Ha Van Hotel right in the heart of the action. The hotel was lovely, with a veritable plethora of breakfast choices at their rooftop restaurant: banana crepes, cheese omelette, eggs with bacon, and fruit n yogurt. At night, the space morphs into a bar that serves up vile cocktails. We went for our “welcome” drink and was assured we could order anything on the drink menu by two separate staff members. One gin fizz ruined by sour lime juice and one sorry excuse for a long island later, we were presented with the bill. Even after calling downstairs and explaining the situation we were SOL. Oh well. We eventually did get our welcome drink and learned our lesson that anyone can feign misunderstanding due to language issues, but it will rarely work out in your favor. Our bright, clean balcony room was plush and lifted our spirits from Ron’s apartment crises.

If we were in need of a drinking establishment, there was always the bar across the street beckoning “Why Not?” that served our favorite buckets of booze. Their rendition included red bull, pineapple juice, and whiskey. Mmm sweet concoctions inducing short term memory loss...indeed, why not?

One of the famous local attractions of the city is the Thap Ba Hot Springs where we could take a communal mud bath, soak in a heart-shaped mineral tub, and lounge around the pools all day for a measly $12 a piece. I had visions of wallowing in a deep mud bath, but it was more like muddy water or a Yoohoo© consistency than the thick mud of my imagination. Since Tet was over, it wasn’t all that busy, and we were lucky to get our own tub. I had never been in a mud bath so it was an unnatural experience to be smeared with mud all over my body, in my hair, between my toes. My skin glowed, from the rich nutrients, for days afterwards. Ron didn‘t dare bring his camera, so you will have to just pretend this is us.

After several hours of soaks and dips in the various tubs and pools, we went for our first massage in Vietnam. Performed by two pint-sized girls, it was not the best massage I’ve had by any means, but there was an element of novelty when she leapt up onto my back, steadying herself by a mounted bar overhead, and walked up my spine. Thankfully, I could walk myself right on out of there 45 minutes later, so no harm, no foul.

We rode the longest sea crossing cable car in the world over 3 kilometers to Vin Pearl island, where we cavorted at another amusement park in Vietnam. Ron and I share a love for acting like kids and have frequented 8 amusement parks around the world since we began dating. (I’m sure our future children will love this about us.) The water slides were steep and scary as usual, made even more so because all the floor was made of steel grating. This is murder on the soft undersides of your feet, not that I noticed. I had to face my most petrifying fear of walking on see-through ground, first up several stories of transparent stairs where I clung onto the banister for dear life, to the platform at least 100 feet up which I raced across fighting back the vertigo. Good thing there were no lines. The fear of the ride down was no match for the walk up, and soon I was looking for alternate ways to while away the afternoon.

The wave pool was tumultuous and fun, as was the lazy river that seemed miles long with one stretch through a spooky cave. It was a poor-mans Pirates of the Caribbean, only you weren’t in a boat but a deflatable inner tube, floating by the odd element of danger and other sharp objects in the water. The waterpark edged against a beautiful sandy beach where we built sand castles on the shore and read our books. Also, included in the ticket price was all the rides at the adventure park, so we rode their compact rollercoaster 5-6 times, watched monkeys ride bicycles in a circus show, walked under sharks and stingrays at the aquarium, smashed into each others bumper cars, and played every game in the coin-free arcade. The trip back on the cable car felt like another ride, as we swayed on the cable high over the ocean, the lights twinkling and reflecting off the depths we hope we wouldn’t topple into.

Nha Trang has some of the best diving spots in Vietnam, so we didn’t want to miss out on a snorkel trip. The scuba shops didn’t really want snorkelers along unless they couldn’t fill the more expensive scuba slots. The other option was the much publicized party boat, offered by Mamma Linh, sure to be jam-packed with twenty somethings dancing to annoying music along with a floating bar, which we ended up learning was one dude in a buoy serving watered down wine. By chance one day, we spotted a sign that said something to the effect of “This is a real snorkeling trip if you want to snorkel, this is not a party boat” so naturally we signed up on the spot. It was $13/each at Vu’s Tour Adventure and we were not disappointed. It was a fabulous day of snorkeling at two different popular coral reefs around Mun and Mot islands. The full day excursion included a sumptuous buffet-style lunch with banana-leaf bowls full of shrimp, grilled fish, spring rolls, noodles, rice. A real spread of local cuisine. We gorged to our hearts content and leapt back into the water, a little less buoyant, but excited to explore the underwater world that awaited us.

We went to dinner with a Canadian couple, Robyn and Eric, that we met on the snorkel trip. They took us to a street side restaurant (which by day doubled as a car wash) that served Bo Ne which is beef grilled with onions and a spicy red sauce next to an egg that cooks itself on the hot caste iron skillet its served atop. You then mix it all up, spoon it into a baguette, and voila! steak and egg surprise. I nicknamed it “The Lisa Bonet“, since a catchy name would both help me remember how to pronounce it and slightly comfort me with a reference to The Cosby Show, that all-American institution of our youth.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hole in our Big Red Balloon

Also known as, a swift kick in the gut. Ron got deflating news today that pricked a tiny hole in our big red balloon. His tenant of his condo in San Francisco is not renewing her lease and is moving out in 12 days. Arghhhh!

We have been thrown unwillingly head-first back into the “real world”. Trying to make international phone calls on Skype, enlist help from two time zones away, find leases and photos and hard drives, post advertisements on Craig list, you-name-it. It’s seriously crimping our style, but now more than ever, the lure of home is calling. It’s one thing to travel away from reality when everything is in order, it’s quite another to try and conduct business or make major life decisions on the road. Stay tuned on the unfolding saga...


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

That is “Happy New Year!” in Vietnamese. Once again, we’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a major national observance. It is the Chinese New Year on February 14th this year that marks the beginning of what is called Tet. Where families reunite all over the country and then go on vacation. It has stopped us dead in our tracks in Ho Chi Minh City for the near future. For several days all businesses shut down and for the next week travel and hotels are triple the cost. Just our luck. So we have decided to stay put in the capital city, still known to the locals as Saigon.

Since we had only one day to sight-see before Tet began, we did a walking tour that included the Reunification Palace, where a tank crashed the gates in 1975 portending the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army. The entire palace is preserved as it was in that era of history and walking the hallways is like going back in time. The cool sixties style offices and meeting rooms are overshadowed by the basement, turned war room, where retro phones sit atop metal desks and ancient electronics are stacked. Ron was in a photo candy store.

On the way back from browsing at the famous Ben Thanh Market we saw a beggar in the street. So often, we ignore all the panhandlers, quicken our pace, pretending to be engrossed in conversation like we can’t be bothered. But this man was filthy, limbless, his face severely burnt almost melted away. In our effort to not look we both did, and then stopped 15 feet afterwards. Ron said, “If there is ever a person that could use a little help…”. I asked him if he wanted to go back, but he said he couldn’t. It was that disturbing. When you are faced with someone dealing with total physical wreckage you are humbled in your gratefulness for your fortune, yet frozen by dread and utter repulsion. Like you can’t get far enough away fast enough.

If this trip has taught me anything it is to not hesitate. Don’t delay on your life. Do the things you always wanted to, and do the things that you think you should do, if not for anything but your own sense of peace for never living in a world full of “what ifs“. I decided to go back. I gave him 100,000 dong, what is equivalent to about 5 bucks, and I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. He smiled back and we connected for a split second in what I can only describe as a pure exchange between two human beings. I wished him a happy new year, and was gone, but it’s one of those moments that I won’t soon forget.

We were lucky to meet up with our pals Jay & Corina again before they headed off to Japan. We celebrated the new year (again) and struggled through the massive crowds to see the fireworks display over the river.

My favorite are the sparkling gold ones that twinkle into a million pieces of glitter The blasts were so close overhead that ash floated from above, singeing off your eyelashes. We walked back to our hotel, the un-notable Red Sun, in a sea of people, moving like a leisurely lava flow through the wide boulevards.

To escape the heat and pass the days in the virtual ghost town of Saigon, we went to Dam Sen Waterpark for some fun in the sun. The waterslides were wildly steep and fast, and nothing short of dangerous. It was the first time I actually felt afraid at a waterpark. There were slides I just wouldn’t do. One, we nicknamed “The Vomitron” involved a precipitous descent in a tube, ending in a conical sphere where you would spin around inside from centrifugal force before being ejected out the bottom into a pool below. It was almost obscene. Being squeezed out the underside into the water, like a giraffe giving birth. But funny, was watching all the Vietnamese (there were only a handful of foreigners at the park) get up disoriented and dizzy, stumbling drunkenly towards the ladder out of the pool. And thankfully off the The Vomitron. Jay was the bravest, taking on slides that made the rest of us shrink away. More my speed, was lazing in the lazy river, although crowded and boisterous with all the locals on holiday, it was an experience to be at a theme park overseas. Overall, it was a thoroughly splendid day.

Although we sampled a lot of interesting Vietnamese food wrapped in lettuce leaves and topped with questionable sauces, we really craved a really good hamburger. I googled the area, and lo and behold, there was a joint called Black Cat that claimed the “best burger in the world”. An hour later, and we were salivating over the menu. Expectedly, Ron wanted to try and eat the The Big Cheese burger, a whopping 500 grams of beef served on a bun the size of a dinner plate. Instead of the usual, free meal if you finish it, the only reward for ingesting this artery clogger was a picture on the wall. At $13.95, the upside did not outweigh the heartburn. I ordered the Zurich burger and it actually was the best burger in the world. I’m not kidding! I mmm’ed after each delectable bite of beef patty, cheddar cheese, carmelized onions, and barbeque sauce enveloped harmoniously by an onion roll. Needless to say, we went back a couple days later for a repeat. Unfortunately the rapture was not replicated.

Crossing the street here is an exercise in blind faith and narrow escape by motorbike collision. There are over 3 million scooters in Saigon, one for every man, woman and child over 15. Imagine a city with hundreds of scooters whizzing by in both directions (and random vectors) between you and the other side of the street. Our natural inclination was to head to the nearest traffic light and crosswalk. Although rare in their occurrence, they do exist, but to laughable effect. Green does not mean go. There is no such thing as right of way. And you, a mere pedestrian, will get run over if you haven’t your wits about you at all times. In these parts, the size of your ride determines who rules the road. First come buses and trucks, then cars, scooters, cyclos, bicycles and lastly poor Ron and Alison, haplessly stranded on the wrong side of the road.

The first time we crossed, we latched on to two locals, shadowing their every movement. I crushed Ron’s hand as we inched forward into the chaotic flow of traffic. Every step or so, we’d stop for a rushing blur of bikes to pass, before our next tentative footfall. The dizzying lights and proximity of metal, made you feel like you were inadvertently trapped in one of those circus attraction cages of death. What seemed like an hour in only a matter of minutes, we were out of the pandemonium and in to a pleasant looking park bedecked by acres of glorious flowers for the new year. A bushel of which Ron bought me for Valentine’s Day. The hotel gave us a plastic bucket to put them in, not exactly a silver vase from the W, but it was the sweetest surprise.

This is the year of the Tiger, which influences major changes and social upheaval. I can’t imagine this next year bringing any more change then we have been experiencing but we’ll see. There’s always tomorrow and another near miss with the deadly SCOOTER.

There have been visitors to this blog and you are one of them. Thanks and have a beautiful day!