Friday, May 30, 2008


Originally uploaded by _chlorophyll hello
It is like taking the back road. It takes me 19 hours to get from luang prabang to sam neua, in northeastern laos, at the border of Vietnam.
the Ipod battery didn’t last that long. Should I be thankful for the blaring laos pop music, occasionally accompanied with clapping and singing, through the night, that forced me to stay awake and “acquire” a taste for it?

when day breaks, I see lush green valleys, paddy fields shrouded in fog, and land irregularly punctuated by bomb craters, remnants of US bombing during the IndoChina war.

The bus chokes on the uphills, it is overloaded with boxes of rice, cement on the top, back seats and the floor- they outnumber the humans on it! The road as wide as the bus leaves little room for anything else. The honks are to scare away the roosters, pigs, cows, sometimes children who run out of the village huts to wave their goodbyes. Buses are a once-a-day occurrence on this route.
Village huts, dish antennae are the signs of civilization, but other than that, this land is pristine.

I forget the sleepless night and look out and look forward to another day in paradise..

Thursday, May 29, 2008

hello old friend!

it might be sometime before I see a familiar face again. it was so great to see nadia for 10 days in laos. i was dreading the day she left and its here.
it got me thinking about what I miss about the life I left behind

i miss family and friends- I miss talking to them at the push of a button.
i miss midnight feasts (MNF), bike rides, bhangra nights, swing dancing, bollywood nights, BFF dinners, arguments and just plain conversations

i miss hot oatmeal and walnuts
i miss home-made paranthas
i miss baking a salmon with lemon and garlic salt and a glass of my favorite $7 malbec

i miss sunny afternoons on the papasan
i miss sunlight peeking through the copper canyon curtains, the treasures tucked away in the bookcase, the warmth of the down comforter, the wealth in the presidio library

i miss taking the #1 or #3 to china town and union square
i miss my morning drive to work (yes I do!)

i miss the pain and pleasure of making candles, paintings, soy lattes

i avoid my workout playlist because i miss running – i miss the runner's high, i miss waving thank yous, i even miss the amino vital after the run!
i really, really miss the Sunday morning long runs on the Great Highway- with its share of tourists, traffic, the sun, the ocean breeze, plums on the way back.

so after a month of not doing much except walking, i decided to do shadow boxing a few times a week, followed by some situps and pushups.

Who knows how long this phase will last, but right now, right here, it feels great – welcome back, endorphins!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

with a little help from my friends..

it’s what I imagine heaven to be like. a cool, mountain breeze hits me as I look out the window of our bus, as it climbs the winding roads- I can’t stop looking and trying, in vain, to capture how beautiful this place is. there is no other word to describe it – beautiful does it.

Nadia arrived in Vientiene on the 19th with all the goodies on my list and some not on it – so great to pick out the cranberries and almonds from trail mix again and have non-whitening sunscreen and of course, the best thing of all – the Thinkpad, with all my music (iDump rules!) and a regular Ctrl key.

In the last few days, we
- watched “home-made rockets” being shot into the air
- endured a 5 hour bus ride on a local bus (on an empty stomach)
- rode bicycles on rocky laos dirt roads on a really, really, really hot day, nadia even gave a ride to a local kid
- explored( for 10 minutes) a cave after a treacherous 20 minute climb on slippery rocks
- got a room with a gorgeous view of the cliffs in vang vieng
- skipped “happy” meals in vang vieng and tubing down the river (loud music and bar islands at every bend)
- splashed around in a waterfall, while fearing for dear life (due to slippery rocks and my refusal to put my feet on river/pond/waterfall bottoms)
- walked around in the sweltering heat around luang prabang
- bargained at the night market
- tried to lie as still as is possible, in the afternoons– because talking, laughing made us sweat (and we have three fans in our room)!
- Went bowling
- Finally gave in and tried beer lao and lao lao (lao whisky)
- Taught an English class
- Played ‘petang’ (bochi ball) with the locals

on nadia's last day in laos, we just want to do what everyone does best in lao – not much!
Then its long bus rides to our respective destinations- nadia goes to vientiene to catch a flight back home, and I take a long bus ride to Sam Neau in Northeastern Laos..

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

break on through..

he is a sixteen year old who dreams of becoming an actor (or a physics teacher), only if his acne go away, which he (and his friends) believe are there because he doesn't get his beauty sleep. he asks me if i know how to get rid of them, while solemnly spelling acne on the blank piece of paper ( i correct the spellings)

another sixteen year old (som peng) dreams of becoming a doctor, and wants to open his clinic or pharmacy, he's not quite sure of the difference between the two. he uses the word "success" as much as he can because he can. he is in third grade, because he didn't study when he was younger. he wants a laos to english dictionary which would increase his vocabulary and the $10 lonely planet phrasebook is too expensive to be bought. he also wants a thai to english dictionary. when asked how he knows thai, he smiles and says, 'thai television. we used to watch it back home.'
his elder brother, who lives with him, goes to college. he is in his first year and wants to work in a bank, he has many subjects in college, he says.

the nineteen year old (som pan) is quieter. he wants me to talk slowly, so he can understand. his sister, who was about thirty passed away in a house fire. he, then, left home. he wants to be a doctor and work in china hospital in luang prabang. it takes five years and a lot of hard work, he emphasizes.

in the afternoons, they practise english with foreigners such as me. sometimes, they practise their vocabulary with friends.

these days, they are learning about the different body parts- so there i am teaching them elbow, nails, eyes and correcting their grammar and spellings and solving math and chemistry equations, their homework, they say.
most everything is in laos, or so it seems, some pages are photocopies from a thai book, but all i see is chemistry equations. in any language, the symbols are the same and so is the periodic table.

they ask me to write the alphabets of hindi and then the basic questions - hello, how are you, i am fine, goodbye. i ask them if they have been to india- 'not yet'. a perfect reply- hopeful.

they ask me to explain what lonely planet says about the bqaasi ceremony - and then one runs to his room to give me three threads- white, yellow and red- the colors signify something important, he doesn't know what.
novice monks aren't allowed to do the bqaasi ceremony, he says but i give them to you

they aren't allowed to touch me, so no handshakes. even pencils are handed to me carefully

i can visit their room and their school

they aren't allowed to drive/ride bicycles. they can take a tuk-tuk, if they have the money. but they don't. so everyday, they walk to school - its a half an hour walk one-way- its tiring, they complain.

they have three terms of computer classes, the first teaches them MS word, XP, the second- excel etc and the third, photoshop. they ask if i will teach them photoshop on a laptop?

they don't do dinner- only lunch and breakfast.

they used to get books from the library, but now that the library has moved, they don't have access to them. they don't know where the new library location is.

they are learning the "part of speech", world history- the thais and the english, the vietnamese and the french.

to the world and to me, until a few hours ago, they are novice monks in a temple in luang prabang. but really, they are only teenagers, who because of circumstances and ambitions had the wisdom to put on an orange robe and lead a life of chastity and penance for sometime, to pursue their dreams, to give themselves their only chance to fly, to get out of a farmland into banks and hospitals

their ambition makes me humble, their passion for knowledge makes me proud, their age makes me envious- i want to be sixteen again.

every day, i continue to meet a variety of people, i have discussions on anything and everything from hair conditioners to relationships. i leave every good conversation with a feeling of satisfaction for having learnt something new or for having seen a different perspective to something

but its when i am down to some very basic topics that i realize, sometimes, how little i truly understand.

how do I explain "equilibrium" to someone who thinks 500000 kip(about $70) is too expensive for a year's education. that's the "discounted" hourly massage rate in san francisco.
how do i explain what divorced is?
how do i explain what a software engineer really does?

just when you think you are able to answer some pretty tough questions in life, some seemingly simple questions leave you wondering.

Monday, May 12, 2008

country roads

so much for staying in one place..

i am in a french cafe in luang prabang, opposite a school with school kids in crisp white shirts and blue skirts running about, with a wireless internet connection!

my loas book mentions a fabulous, circuitous route to vientiene, via sainyabuli and pak lai, which i plan to take tomorrow. there i meet my good friend and then we will travel north..

more details about the awesome slow boat journey to follow soon..

Saturday, May 10, 2008

both sides now

"emotions in my experience aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness", "joy", or "regret".
maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster" Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy". I'd like to show how "intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members" contacts with "the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age". I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar". I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can't just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. From here on in, everything I'll tell u is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events."

from "Middlesex"

words just are never enough to describe where i have been, what i have seen or felt this past week. but i will try, anyway.

a cute little 7-year old, manni, asks me my name and where i am from-- i am reminded of bangladesh except this is aboard an overnight train to lampang from bangkok on may 7th. an hour or so later, she gets her english book and we read together, just like tahsin!

it also turns out that noom, her father exports wooden stuff(spice racks etc.) to walmart and target! he also kindly offers to drop me at my guesthouse from the train station, which, given the heat was such a blessing. the guesthouse is amazing, i even have a terrace (for less than $10) although mosquitoes wouldn't let me relax outside for more than a minute.

the next day i go to the elephant conservation center 30 km outside lampang. i can go and HUG an elephant. I even hug a baby elephant, who sniffs my toes and then sneakily tries to trample my foot- it must smell bad!! my own reaction to the ensuing elephant show surprises me- elephants demonstrate their log lifting skills, curtsy, even paint and play the xylophone. it is too artificial for me, especially coming from an animal as majestic as an elephant. the audience is allowed to feed the elephants after the show, and i buy bananas for my favorite female.. a 7 year old who is the cutest, the most playful and occasionally grumbles!

the rest of the day is consumed in flagging buses off on a highway and making it to chiang rai. it is my stop to get some good books from orns bookshop.

the next morning, on my way to board the bus to mae sai, the border town with myanmar, i change my mind and decide to go to the golden triangle directly.

chiang saen is a beautiful, sleepy village on the river mekong, with about three guesthouses, one very loud bar and a wonderful night market which serves the best tom yum ghai. i visit old temples during the day and have an interesting conversation with jim, who stayed with one of the village tribes the night before, to smoke opium with them.. yes, it was a "legitimate" organized tour!

early next morning, i take a songtaew to the "golden triangle", the confluence of thailand, laos and myanmar. the opium museum provides a lot of information about the opium trade and the tools required for trading and using it. and then i am off to laos..

there is no direct bus to chiang khong, where the border crossing is. there are songtaews to haat bai and then to chiang khong, which go if there are enough passengers (you wait for them to show up for an hour or more, of course). if there aren't, you end up paying a lot more but the scenic drive is worth the extra money, anytime. finally i get to see northern thailand, just as i had imagined it to be.

i crossed over to the other side of mekong this afternoon-- i am in huay xai-- i arrived here, had a sumptuous chicken tikka masala with mint naan, and then signed up for the slow boat to luang prabang tomorrow morning, it will take two days before i reach that popular "french town" in the middle of laos.

every single night of last week was spent in a different city and now, i am ready to settle down and relax for a week in some town, some village in laos- the one i will find or the one that will find me in the next two days.

Monday, May 5, 2008

rain on the roof

on a cloudy day i leave kanchanaburi to see hellfire memorial, a memorial dedicated to PoWs who built the thailand-burma railway. that night is spent in a small town of thong pha phum, with its burmese mon curry, lychees, pancakes and coffee (which was actually pancakes with condensed milk)

and then i reach the quiet border(close to myanmaar) town of sanghlaburi. it rains for three days after i land here. the monsoons have arrived and along with them gheckos the size of a mouse, a million frogs that croak through the night, and flying termites which hover over towns the entire day.

we take a walk to the mon village, crossing the longest wooden bridge in thailand to see the temple mounted with 6 kgs of gold on its spire. i spend the next two days in the restaurant of the guesthouse (which has a spectacular view of the area) making new friends, saying goodbye to the now-old friends, walking into town and finally making peace with the rain and going to the border post of myanmar.

the border has been closed for more than a year now (but its still possible to step into myanmar by just stepping behind the food stalls) it was more the journey than the destination that i went for. in the afternoon, i take a 4km hike into the remote karen village, a village with no electricity but solar panels for dish antennae, a 50 concrete road in the middle of the village and dirt motorbikes! the latter are badly needed in the rains.

i almost have to slide down the last few meters! tevas make bad hiking sandals in the mud- once again!

i am in bangkok now, to take care of some business back home. tomorrow i head north to see more elephants, temples, hill tribes and more (or less).

with another 7 days left for my thai visa, i have perhaps two more stops before i cross over to laos and slowly float away (to the capital)..

(and yes, i finally gave in and went for an organized tour- the day after meeting the tigers, in an effort to touch more "wild" animals, i went for an elephant trek and to bathe with the elephants in the river- the only way you can do it)