Friday, August 29, 2008

take a walk on the wild side..

some writing is long overdue..

my excuse is the Olympics were really tiring, and of course, awesome!

I am in Mongolia now, got here 2 days ago via the trans-mongolian and am headed to the countryside tomorrow morning for 19 days with five people I met today, a big map of Mongolia, a rented car, driver, lots of food, camping gear, mosquito repellent, new warm clothes and a keen sense of adventure!!

stay tuned...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

high lights

Early morning, on the 13th, I board a bus from Hanoi to Nanning in China.

With its well-manicured greenery, China is like a wife right out of Stepford Wives, prim and proper, not a hair out of place.

Nanning has a skyline wider than Chicago. It is a cross between a city and a suburb- skyscrapers scattered everywhere with wide-wide roads, the closest ATM to the multi-level bus station is a $5 cab drive away!

There is even a Walmart Supercenter. And the buses- let me not even go there- somewhere between a sleeper bus and a regular AC bus with the exception that everything works!

My vision of China was a bit more exotic than this (that is still the expectation from Yunan)- certainly the Chinatown that California #1 (SFMUNI) passes through is not based on this part of China.

Suddenly I feel lost without a guidebook. It is not as if I can walk down the backpacker’s ghetto and there will be children selling photocopies for $4. So, I decide to head north to Guilin, where the swiss couple, I met in the bus, is going.

After spending a day in Guilin sampling local food, we take the bus to Longsheng and then embarked on an hour long uphill hike to the village where we were staying for the night – PingAn.

What I love about China (so far) is you don’t have to go too far to escape the city- a 3-4 hour drive away you will land up in a small village, with age old terraces, no vehicles and fresh country air.

Of course, others have discovered this village well before I did. So there is an incessant clamoring of village women, who want to let their 2-3m hair down for a picture or sell hand-embroided goodies. One woman decided to follow me on my 1.5 hour hike and so I start running.

I stop, look back to see if she is still there, and I freeze. Euphoria! A liberating bliss!

It is a visually engaging countryside- the smoke from cooking fires in the village make it almost surreal. Women are on their way home, with a duck in their wooden basket for dinner. Men gather in a local shop to share a beer with their friends.

A teenager decked up in local finery approaches me and asks if I know why this place is called Seven Stars and the Moon. I say no. She goes on to show me the terraces- the seven stars and the moon.
I sit and sip on my ginger and fruit infusion tea and take in the view.

I have a one-year multiple entry visa to China!! And my first sentence in Mandarin was understood! And did I mention I am going to the Olympics?

I will be aboard my first train in China for no less than 27 hours on a hard seat (sleepers sold out) in about two hours from now.
yes, I am headed to Beijing- to the Olympics :)

I am already loving this country!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

a kind of magic


motorbikes, chinese lanterns, clothes- the essence of hoi an
I realize I haven’t written much about Vietnam, so I must write a report before I cross borders to another world.

Yet again, I find myself in a café in Hanoi with wiFi- somehow justifies dragging my laptop around and besides I need my monthly latte!

Back from the Mekong Delta, I had an uneventful and low-key stay in Ho Chi Minh before I spent two consecutive nights on sleeper buses (see below) to get to Hoi An.

Hoi An- a quaint little town with cobbled streets, aging, yellow colonial buildings, women with conical hats and custom-made surgical masks cruising on bicycles/motorbikes holding umbrellas, cell phones or babies, and vendors with baskets of guavas and pomellos casually balanced on their shoulders..

I wander these foreign lands on disused roads, passing by nameless faces, toothy smiles of old women, who hold my hand and nudge me to get a $1 pedicure. I pinch my nose as I walk through a market, trying to avoid the nauseating smell of dying fish, and a minute later, breathing in deeply as I go by freshly cut jasmine and lotus.

Every night, the riverside becomes alive with Chinese lanterns swaying gently in the summer breeze- soft music from faraway carried by it, tourists sipping on French wine in restaurants that spring up in narrow alleys, while that wooden dragon in the water looks on and yearns for life.

Hoi An is a magical land with vestiges of Chinese culture- carefully decorated pagodas and assembly halls, quiet ancient houses with ivy/moss-covered ying-yang roof.

The other side of Hoi An is another kind of magic, there are innumerable shops for making clothes- cashmere, Italian wool, satin, silk– they have everything. A custom made wool suit costs $50-$150 and is ready in about 5 hours!

Catalogs from all over overwhelm you the moment you enter any one of these shops. A Nordstrom suit replica costs about a third of the original cost, and it’s YOUR size, not the size it comes in! Needless to say, I spend time (and dongs) on this side of town, too.

and then, I make a hasty escape to Hanoi, via Hue- another evening on a sleeper bus.

There are a few hours to be spent at Hue- a quiet, little-big town with a lofty citadel. As every other Vietnamese town, it is progressive in its own right. After a brief visit to the citadel on a motorbike, I am hustled on to the sleeper bus for Hanoi.

Hanoi is my favorite city in Vietnam after Hoi An. The streets are small and crowded, I get lost every day and discover new parts of old town, I even have a little pet puppy at the guest house I am staying at.

The first day, I run into a friend I made in Ho Chi Minh. We end up at a tailor’s and then a cloth market, much to the amusement of all the napping vendors there. And we thought we had escaped Hoi An!
(On a separate note, I am ashamed to admit I don’t even know my numbers in Vietnamese.)

It rains and pours the first two days I’m here, we visit some museums and, in spite of my reservations with organized tours, book ourselves on a 2 day- 1 night trip to Halong Bay- the only way it can be visited.

The tour is a must do for its spectacular scenery and it sure is relaxing to be on a boat. I do tend to catch up on my sleep on buses and boats, so I doze through most of the tour.

Back in Hanoi, I pay a humble visit to Uncle Ho- his mausoleum is spotless- a long line snakes towards him efficiently to get a peek. He rests peacefully and seems almost surreal with his intact wrinkles and wispy white hair.

Next on my list was Sapa- the mountainous northwest. A typhoon gets there before I did. Some backpackers I met were stuck in the flooded area for three days and were rescued in a boat by the military. So I am off to China sooner than I expected.

And today is a Hanoi day- I have spent a good part of my afternoon in a bookshop selecting four non-controversial books, which would not be confiscated at the Chinese border tomorrow. LP China is controversial, so I will be leaving without one! (Apparently you can get it in China without references to Tibet and Dalai Lama.)

On my last day in Vietnam, I take time out to look back at my time here.

Last month, as we got closer to Vietnam, we met more and more people recounting horror stories of Vietnam- bags slashed, ripped off by tour agencies, money stolen etc. Ruth turns to me, “We will hold hands when we enter Vietnam”. And we did, while crossing roads, and, as we discovered, we didn’t have to, otherwise.

Apart from an occasional abrasive behavior from some individuals, my experiences in Vietnam with the people have been generally very pleasant. I suppose, when you are prepared for the worst, anything turns out to be better than expected.

The most exciting thing here has been crossing the road, aptly put by a fellow San Franciscan I met a couple days ago. It is certainly more exciting than India, and that says a lot.

The only grievance I have had in Vietnam is that tourists and locals are really segregated when it comes to transportation.
In other countries, you lose time (but never money) on local transport but get a hint of reality as it exists for locals. However, in Vietnam, it is a lot cheaper and more convenient to take tourist buses than go to a local bus station miles away and board a local bus.
Losing both money and time forces most tourists to always be tourists- never travelers.

I have a sneaking suspicion I will be desperately wishing for this kind of segregation in the next month when I get into buses which fail my tests.

off to practise my mandarin and dumb charades..

Monday, August 11, 2008

the outernationalist

when I started out, the top three countries thrown at me by fellow travelers (not Indian, British or Italian) and the locals were India, the UK, Italy (Portugal was next).

if India, then it is normally followed by some hand-eye movement- reference to Indian cinema or gestures to indicate a straight nose and big eyes. On occasion, the die-hard fans of Bollywood request a song (i have heard them in the most unlikely places- floating islands, internet cafes in peru, laos).

sometimes, you bump into an older British gentleman in a train who says I am very “authentic” Indian.

and the next moment, you meet a group of seven Brazilians traveling together, who have never seen an Indian before (and I thought Indians were like potatoes!) and who proceeded to ask me if Indians eat cat and dog!? (I said, not intentionally. They didn’t understand, so I left it open to interpretation.)

lately, however, the EU has been ousted in favor of a larger continent- my dream destination, Africa! (if only I can only go there on my way back!)

Ah, the power of Ra or the absence of whitening creams in my beauty regimen or maybe it's just genes ;)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bus-ted

By the end of nine months, I would have spent about 2-3 months on some form of public transport(mostly buses and songtaews)

As with the rest of the time, I want no less-than-perfect conditions for this duration- correction- in fact, this is THE time I want them to be perfect- that’s the time I spend looking out the window watching places, that I won’t be visiting, go by.

I, like most travelers, have had the misfortune of being on several uncomfortable and hence, extremely long bus-songtaew rides.

So these days, my day-pack weighs more than my backpack- extra layers of clothing, medicines, toilet paper, tooth brush, headlamp, food, water, books, mosquito repellent (buses are to mosquitoes what buffets are to humans), sunscreen etc – always good to be prepared.

I have thought about it so much so that by Cambodia I had started memorizing the numbers of the “best seats”- I even recorded them in my little notebook, in case of short-term amnesia, as a result of the panic that besets me when a ticket is being issued.

Of course, those numbers are reset each time I enter a new country and in some places, like Laos, buses and everything else is as unpredictable as the stock market these days- so I just call upon all the local gods for mercy.

Every time I am on a bus, I wonder if they ever go through a customer and user feedback session. As an experienced user, I can guarantee that in every bus I have been on, there’s always been a lot of room for improvement.

There is always some flaw in the placement of different “features”

Like, what is really bugging me right now, as I write, while sitting(seat #29) in a sleeper bus, pulling an overnight 13 hour journey, is the Window-Separator grazing my face- this is the one at which I make that 'oh no!' face when I enter and keep it till I get off- it’s the worst of them all (#30 and #32 were taken although they are slightly flawed as well).

Personal Reading Light - not useful to have a light on my abdomen, when I am trying to read a book

Air Vents- certainly not fun to have an air vent right on your head so you can freeze in your sleep.

I won’t even bother talking about sacks of rice/chickens/lizards (a friend had that experience) next to your feet and on the seat next to you or air-conditioning (or lack of- I prefer non-AC buses any day but that adds about one more month on buses).

Anyway, after careful reviews, I have a recommendation for the best sleeper buses in Vietnam- they are the ones from Sinh Café!. They even make you remove your footwear once you enter, just like they do when you enter someone’s house.

Yes, true, I am on one right now with the incorrect settings, but trust me, the others are not even worth reviewing- They will miserably fail my first round of usability testing.

After spending time and emotion obsessing to find the perfect place to sit to watch the world go by, I, from personal experience, would rather sit on top of a bus, and get grazed and beheaded by branches than sit in a less-than-perfect seat for 13 hours, but then that’s just me- I guess the air from the vent is really freezing my brain off.
now’s a good time to recline..

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Con"tours"

I give in to the simplicity and convenience of signing up for an organized tour to the Mekong Delta versus taking a $7 cab ride to the “unknown” bus station to catch a local bus.

An organized tour is like a bootcamp- with a difference – I don’t like them, now even more than before.

You are made to get up at 6 AM everyday and while you are still recovering from a sleepless night in the village, herded to visit bee farms and floating markets and explained in minute detail how coconut candy or rice paper or rice wine is made. Thankfully there’s always “free” candy/wine that comes with it- the much-needed sugar/alcohol overload.

And then sometimes, you also get kicked out of a hotel at 9:30 PM!

Vietnam is the only country I have visited where you are required to surrender your passport as you check in to a hotel- as a guarantee for payment when you check out. Every hotel takes all passports to the police station everyday to get them registered (?). They aren’t allowed to entertain guests without a passport and can be raided and fined in case they do.

Half-asleep, I checked out in Ho Chi Minh to catch a bus to the Mekong delta at 6 AM, and left without my passport.

Since the guide knew about the passport situation beforehand (he never warned me), they had to “hide me” in the hall where security guards sleep- the police won’t check it, in case there is a raid.

An innocent (ok inane too) mistake of forgetting my passport– one that cost me a night’s sleep- not over the fact that I don’t have a passport (the passport was safe in Saigon) but because of where I spent the night- with a bat hovering over my bed (a mosquito net somewhat protected me) and about a 100 geckos clicked their tongues and swallowed mosquitoes while I watched the entire Season 3 of Sex and The City in one night.

And then there was light!
the only day I would be glad for a 6 AM wake-up call !

Friday, August 1, 2008

the long road

The key to survival in this ever-changing maze, is to walk without hesitation, second-guessing can cost you a leg or the current dream you are in or give you a scare that might instill a lifelong fear of crossing roads.

All the bicycles, motos, cars lined up like runners at the start line of a marathon, raving to go. The shot gun is fired and I walk, right in front of them.

Resolute. Impudent. Invisible.