Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Michele and Paul Get Hitched!

We couldn't have asked for a more perfect day. The weather was great, the food was amazing, everyone seemed to have a lot of fun, and no one was carried out on a stretcher or in handcuffs. What more could you ask for?

It feels strange that it is all over with--but in a good way. No more stress related to wedding planning and details!! I've always heard that "your wedding day flies by", which it did, but I made sure to take several moments to look around and take a few mental snapshots of everything.

Links to all of the photos will be posted in the next week or so, but for now here is one of Paul and I signing our marriage certificate.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

My how time flies

Jeez, I haven't posted an update since we moved to Portland!

It has been one busy summer. Most of my time has been consumed with wedding planning, and I have to say, if I had been hired at a job, part- or full-time, I would have never gotten so much accomplished. Paul and I managed to plan a wedding in just 4 months--not bad! It has been a lot of fun, to be quite honest. Everything is pretty much squared away and hopefully I will no longer lie awake in bed worrying about details that no one else will notice. NINE MORE DAYS, HOLY CRAP!! I am really excited and of course a bit nervous as well. The only things left to do are take care of the table centerpieces (which we are doing ourselves, with the help of our friend Melissa), take a few more dance lessons (who wants to look like a dork at the high school prom, rocking back and forth like Frankenstein's monster?), and find a tie for Paul.

We are skipping loads of other details which I think is making our lives so much easier: there is no wedding party (no I don't need a ring bearer or bridesmaids); the ceremony and reception is being held in one place; I am not carrying a bouquet or doing other traditional wedding stuff that makes my stomach turn (i.e. bouquet and garter toss, cake cutting ceremony, etc.)--It is a non-traditional wedding in many ways and it is going to be one hell of a good party.

In other news, we went to Burning Man again this year; my 5th time and Paul's 7th. It was an amazing year as always, and we reenacted the first time we met out on the playa and had a Burning Man wedding with several friends in attendence. Phil, our wedding officiant, was able to practice what he is (and isn't) going to say for the ceremony, and I think we all felt good about having a trial run before the big day. Our friend Shawn took some incredible photos of our Burning Man wedding (read: not legal--yes we are still single!) and i'll have to bug her to email them to me so I can post them on this site.

Other than the wedding planning and Burning Man, we have had a really fun summer cycling around Portland and getting to know our way around town. It really is a cool place and I miss certain aspects of NY sometimes, but mainly I miss my friends. I have been into this jewelry store a bunch lately and got to talking with one of the women who work there and she asked me the other day if I "feel like a Portlander yet?"---and the answer was "not really", which is true. I am comfortable here and like it a lot, but I think I am still holding a torch for good 'ol Brooklyn, which I think I might always miss in some way or another.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Some House Photos

Quite a change from the Brooklyn digs, huh?

We have plenty of room--come and visit!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The End of Travelling--at Least for Now!

I think we are both grateful and bummed at the same time that we are now actually rooted somewhere since all the travelling adventures are over, as it is now back to "reality", so to speak, and a return to responsibilities. Paul is working from home while I am too overwhelmed with other stuff to even start looking for work.

All of our stuff has been hauled out of storage in Bend, OR and Bronx, NY, the latter shipped out by Ben Hur Moving and storage, the former hauled out by us in a rental truck. I cannot express enough how dissapointed and angry we are with Ben Hur--DO NOT ever use them, if you can at all avoid it (they have offices located in NY and LA). Such little care was used to protect our things that we still cannot belive more things were destroyed in the move. Framed art, unwrapped and tossed into boxes! Power tools wrapped up with once-clean towels and sheets! Glass spice jars dumped all together in a box, along with 2 hats, stuff from a desk drawer, and yes, the dirty, used cat litter scoop! Both of our mountain bikes had to be taken in for repairs as they weren't even put into boxes--just tossed onto the truck which ruined the handlebars and tires. We have a huge list of complaints to file with the BBB and stupid damage insurance forms to complete. ARRGH!

On a good note, our new house is HUGE, compared to the apartment in Brooklyn. More than double the size, and with a big yard and basement! I mowed the lawn (with a push mower, no less) for my first time ever a few weeks ago. We have loads of different colored rose bushes, day lillies, hydrangeas, and a bunch of other stuff that was already planted when we moved in. I couldn't be happier; it is exactly why I left NY--more space and a nice yard. Photos to be posted soon!

My one bit of advice to those who are planning on a move, whether it is short or long distance: get rid off ALL YOUR CRAP before moving--don't ship it with you! We can't belive how much nonsense we have collected and held on to over the years, from childhood onwards. The overall goal is to get rid of 1/3 of all our stuff this summer in the form of yard sales and Goodwill donations.

Our days pretty much consist of unloading boxes and figuring out where stuff goes, buying stuff we need for the house and yard, organizing our lives--and if we didn't already have enough excitement in the past with planning a huge move, travelling overseas, then looking diligently for a place to live--we are now planning a wedding for this October! The action and decision making just doesn't stop! Neither of us can say we are bored, that is for sure.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Photo Links

Here are links to the photos from the second half of our trip:

Laos & Viet Nam




Saturday, May 27, 2006

Kyoto, Kinosaki Onsen, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Nikko

Too many pictures are coming soon, I promise. We have literally thousands to go through and know that no one wants to scroll through all of them. Since the lovely spring weather is so cold and rainy today, there is a good chance we will have some up this weekend.

After bidding adeiu to our fabulous Kanazawa hosts, we decided to risk going to Kyoto without any hotel reservation during Golden Week, one of the busiest holiday weeks of the year. As we figured, not a lot was available according to the helpful staff at the tourist office. Several places had 11pm curfews, which was out of the question on a weekend visit! We were able to score one night at a pricey business hotel, then two nights at a Ryokan, which is like staying in a traditional Japanese home.

Kyoto is a beautiful and fun city with so much to do that one could spend at least two weeks there. We visited several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines along the hilly Eastern side of the city, which had some incredibly fancy schmancy homes and was quite peaceful.

We had our first public bath house experience in Kyoto where you ride the elevator naked! Men on one side of the building, women on the other. Neither of us wanted to make fools of ourselves so we thought it was best to follow the lead of other bathers. You are given "modesty" towels to cover your privates with but not many women used these, which was the opposite of Paul's experience. Many temples, restaruants, hotels, etc. have special toilet slippers that you are supposed to put on before using the restrooms. Don't ask me why--I guess it is a hygiene thing? And yes, the slippers clearly say TOILET on the front of them. Anyway, I had to use the toilet before getting in the elevator, and completely forgot to take the slippers off. Right before the elevator shut, a woman who was getting dressed in the locker room excitedly pointed to my feet and hurriedly said a sentence that had a word sounding like 'toilet' in it, which caused me to blush beet red and jump out of the elevator to put the toilet slippers back into the restroom. The women in the locker room were laughing, of course. Already I am making a fool of myself and I haven't even made it to the bath yet! Needless to say, all went smoothly from that point on. One could ride the elevator to the roof and sit outside in a hot tub that had some sort of seaweed in it. It was rainly lightly at the time and it felt great to be both hot and cold at the same time.

If you think shopping is popular in NYC, that place has nothing on Japan. We felt so dowdy and boring in our easy wash, no-wrinkle backpacker clothing amongst the highly fashion-conscious Japanese. A lot of people, especially the 30 and younger crowd, pay extreme attention to their clothes, shoes, and hair--both male and female. Almost as if they were trying just a little too hard to be cool and styleee in an amusing, self-conscious sort of way. Even the major train and subway stations had underground malls, filled with clothing, cosmetic, and food shops. It was a nice distraction on rainy days.

Although it was easier to get by with the language barriers in larger cities, we still had our challenges with not knowing what was behind closed doors of restaraunts and bars since you cannot see into any of them. The bars we found were tiny and usually upstairs in building complexes. Our absolute favorite find was the Happy Space Mushroom Bar--think Japanese Romper Room stuck inside of an Atari game. Huge smiley faces on the wall, toys to play with on the tables, and crazy sounding video game music.

After Kyoto, we wanted to experience the Onsen--hot mineral spring baths--and a famous town for it was Kinosaki Onsen. We stayed at a Ryokan there and were given free passes to all of the baths. Once you check into the Ryokan you turn your shoes in at the door and are given slippers to wear in your room, with yakata (Japanese robes) and geta (clonky wooden sandals) to wear outside while you roam around town going from onsen to onsen. One place was so spectacular we went to it three times! It was the swankiest of all 7 onsen in town, as it had several different mineral pools, cold pools, steam rooms, dry saunas, rooftop baths--and our absolute favorite feature--a walk in freezer!! Incredible.

From Kinosaki Onsen we wanted to get full value out of our two week Japan Rail Passes, and decided to head to the end of the Shinkansen (bullet) train line out in Fukuoka. The Shinkansen train can hit a top speed of 300km per hour! Beautiful, clean, sleek trains. The high speed mixed with the pressure from entering tunnels really plugged our ears up throughout the ride, but damn did it get us across the country fast.

Fukuoka is a funky city of 2 million people and has a huge red light district, much to our surprise. From what we read, it was off limits to Western tourists, unless they were accompanied by Japanese business partners. After 5pm, the streets were filled with business men roaming from club to club. It seemed acceptible for business men (they ALL wear ill-fitting solid black suits and white shirts--however, some of the older men who were probably more higher up in their positions wore grey suits) to get completely trashed and stagger around the streets. We definately saw a few fall into walls and smash into other stationary objects. Is it the stress of high powered jobs? Unhappy lives? The only way to blow off steam? An alternative to violence?

Our favorite bar in Fukuoka was Siberia, and we were apparently the first foreigners to ever patronize the place! The owner/bartender seemed really into rockabilly and played great music. And he made some amazing bar food, too! He knew barely any English and we knew baby-talk level Japanese (if even that) so we made great use of our two phrase books (thanks Phil and JJ for that helpful addition to our collection) and at times, were able to get some basic ideas across. At some point the bartender compared our communication difficulties to the Bermuda Triangle; thoughts and ideas get lost in translation so often that it is easy to feel stuck when expressing oneself. How true.

After Fukuoka, we took the Shinkansen all the way to Tokyo. The main station felt less daunting than when we first arrived in Japan and we both agreed it was easier to save Tokyo for last when we felt more comfortable with the language. We stayed in the Asakusa neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. There we found, completely by accident, the most famous kaiten sushi (sushi that moves around via conveyor belt--you sit around the belt and pick off what you want to eat) in all of Tokyo, according to the man sitting next to us. We had a feeling there was something special about the place because there were 20 people ahead of us waiting to sit down, so we figured it must be good. Asakusa has a cute, old section of town and Tokyo's largest Buddhist temple which seemed to be a huge tourist destination. We really loved Tokyo--so many funky neighborhoods to explore and of course, loads of underground shops and trendy malls. And I know what you are thinking: Who ever thought Michele, of all people, would want to go into a mall, right? Some of them were quite strange and entertaining and a fun way to travel underground when the weather was crappy. Some were long, massive underground labyrinthes that sold all sorts of weird stuff that we just couldn't figure out at all. Many parts of Tokyo reminded me of the "old" Times Square in NY multiplied by 10,000. Overwhelming and intense at times and way too much to get distracted by.

It was highly reccomended by several people that we take a day trip to Nikko, 2 hours outside of Tokyo. Another World Heritage Site (we have visited so many on this trip I am wondering how many there are in the whole world and want to research this!), Nikko has absolutely stunning temples, shrines, landscape and architecture. The temples were by far the most colorful and elaborate we have seen in Japan. It was obvious why people insisted we take a day trip there.

Some notes about Japan:

The toilets are great. Most have seat warmers, which sure feel nice when it is chilly in the room! There are loads of functions on them; some play music and waterscape sounds (for the pee-shy who don't want others to hear them doing their business), most have built-in bidets and front-cleaning spray action for women. And to top it off--you don't need to get up with a soggy butt! Push another button and a hot dryer turns on! Woowee! The first one I experienced was in Kanazawa. JJ and I had to go to the bathroom (by the way, there are public toilets everywhere, and they are CLEAN!) and I was curious about all the commands on the keypad (again, nothing is written in English) and I pushed a button, which turned out to be the one for the bidet. The pressure was so strong I yelped, jumped off the seat, hit my head on the wall, and the water literally shot up, hit the ceiling and went over into the stall next to me. The woman who was in the next stall over where the water came into stared up at the wet ceiling with a confused look on her face. Mortified, I ran out of the bathroom and nearly fell over laughing. Apparently, someone that JJ and Phil know did something similar--but instead, was standing over the toilet when the button was pushed and wound up with a face full of water!

The subways and trains: You can set your watch by them. Even if the electronic boards on the train don't have the name of the stop in English, you know for sure that if your stop is at 2:24, when the train stops at that time it will definately be the correct one. We got a kick out of the train ticket checkers and food cart vendors who bow and thank you every time they exit the car. Unlike the NYC subway (which I love because it runs 24/7), subways in Tokyo don't break down constantly and screech to a halt in between stations. However, it would be nice if they ran past midnight. It makes it difficult to stay out late, unless you want to splurge $50 for a taxi, which we had to do one night at 3am. Or we could have partied on for two more hours and gotten the first train at 5am!

Sumo wrestling: Sumo tournaments happen three months out of the year, and luckily May was one of them. We had watched so much sumo on TV while travelling in Japan that we knew we had to see a match. We bought the cheapest seats available and went in around 10:30 am; matches go on all day until 6pm. The junior wrestlers start first and the experience level increases throughout the day. We were able to sneak into the 3rd row in the morning--seats that cost over $450 each. The majority of the the round is a Shinto ritual and the ring resembles a Shinto shrine. A staff member at the arena told us to come back after 3pm to see the top notch guys wrestle, which we did. Lots of stomping (to scare away evil spirits) and salt-throwing (to purify the ring) goes on, with each wrestler posturing and staring down the other. Once the actual wrestling starts, it can be over in as little as 3 seconds! We were thankful to no longer be seating in the front rows as oftentimes a wrestler would get thrown out of the ring and fall directly into the crowd, who were sitting on tatami mats on the floor. It was really exciting and a great way to end our last night in Japan.

Next to come---Portland, our final destination! More hotel stays! More confusion and overwhelming feelings! And homeless on top of it!

Monday, May 15, 2006


In the land where the trains run at 180mph and arrive on time - to the second (no exaggeration!) - every moment counts. For example, at our current hotel here in Tokyo, somehow our request to extend our initial one night booking to run through Tuesday evening got lost and so we got a call at precisely 11:05 AM - 5 minutes after checkout time - inquiring (profoundly politely, of course) as to why we were still in our room.

So, while these 24hr Internet, DVD, Manga (comix) cafes with free beverages, comfy reclining chairs, huge libraries of books & movies, showers and special $9 overnight rates (subways shut down here at midnight. If you miss the last train, you're faced with the option of a $50 taxi ride or a $50 night in a capsule hotel, so these places have boomed as a refuge for those who can't afford to make it home) are quite something, as we are truly spending 10x more a day here than we had at any other point in the trip, we're really trying to maximize our value here and be out doing something every possible second of the day (no, we are not sleeping very much). Therefore, we're not really devoting much time to updating the blog.

Worry not though, from auto-washing-toilet mishaps (think over the stall fountain) to arduous cross-town visits to hot-spring baths in Japanese traditional garb (wooden geta shoes!), to nervously poking our heads through the doors of myriad tiny bars on the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors of building after building after building to see what was going on (and finding more that we could have ever imagined), to deep forays into the Bermuda Triangle of cross-language communications, we'll eventually give a full update of our hi-jinx here.

And good lord, given the treatment we received just purchasing $25 of incense, I'd suggest that someone with a spare $30k or so come over and buy a new car - just to see what happens...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Japan Madness

We have been lazy and not been online much since we left Bangkok.

Coming to Japan was more than a culture shock than we thought it would be, and not only in terms of cost (which is still quite shocking after being in SE Asia and Nepal). A friend warned us that we should really learn some Japanese before coming here, and he was right. We arrived at the Tokyo rail station after coming from the airport to catch a train up to Kanazawa, and it was pretty mind blowing. Very busy, like Grand Central Station in NY, but to make it more confusing, nothing was in English. We felt pretty baffled as to what direction we should head in to find our connecting train. On top of that, we were hungry and wanted to eat. We found a take out sandwich/bakery place and had to guess as to what the packages said. When we brought stuff to the counter to pay, we were greeted with "Blah blah blah blah blah! (smile smile smile!) Blah blah, blah blah! Blah blah blah (smile smile smile!)". I have not felt to self conscious in a long time, and silly as well--what were they saying? What should we say back? We handed over a large bill and hoped for the best.

We stayed with JJ and Phil for a few days and it was great to see them and be in a house again! Hotels get pretty tiring after 3 months. We got schooled on a bunch of helpful things; vocabulary, phrases, food items, etc. It was a good crash course for our start in Japan.

We leave Kyoto tomorrow to head up north to Kinosaki, an expensive but fun sounding onsen (mineral hot spring) town. One night is about all we can afford, according to Paul`s research online. Then we head south for the beach to visit more onsen. We'll fill in the details of our Kanazawa and Kyoto adventures soon. Things are getting easier with the language challenges, but we still have no idea what we are doing half the time which makes it even more like a treasure hunt. The food has been amazing, to say the least, and it has been fun to see what we wind up with at every meal.

Off to the public baths, where we get to ride in an elevator naked (segregated by gender, of course) -- more reports on that to come as well!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Khumbu Map

While some of the place names do not match exactly, this map gives a detailed view of almost all of our trek.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Notes From our Trekking Journal

This is going to be a fairly long post. Grab a drink and enjoy!

A= ascended
D= descended
all times shown include lunch, toilet, rest and photo breaks.

Day One
April 3,
Lukla to Phakding

A: 750'
D: 1,340'
Highest elev. reached today-9,520'
Elevation in Lukla-9,350'

We meet our guide, Sanga Rai, at our hotel and immediately go to the airport. It is really chaotic and Sanga literally throws our luggage on the scale to be weighed and cuts in front of many people. No one seems to think this is rude, probably because they are shoving and doing the same thing! There is no queue system in Nepal, that is for sure.
Short but semi-frightening plane flight into Lukla--the landing strip is as big as a driveway in a suburban home, with a steep upward U-curve to boot (necessitating specialized "STL" - Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft)! These runways are called "Hillary Jobs" in Nepal - after Sir Edmund Hillary whose foundation and lifelong work has done much to benefit the people of this region; airports, hospitals, schools (including the one our guide attended before going on to college), etc. Very beautiful scenery. Met Harka, our porter, in Lukla. He hiked 9 hours from his village to meet us. (Paul continuing here now.)Can't belive how cold it is our first night. After 6 weeks in the tropics we are freezing. I shake my water bottle expecting to hear ice, but then check my Suunto Vector watch and see that it's actually 60F in the room - not even chilly!

Day Two
April 4th
Phakding to Namche

A: 3,460'!!
D: 890'
Current elev.: 11,340'

We were supposed to overnignt in Jorsalle but it only took us 2 hours to reach it, and it seemed silly to stop trekking at 11:30 a.m. Originally thought we might feel crappy due to the elevation and didn't want to push all the way up to Namche, but we were feeling energetic and decided to go for it. Semi-tough uphill climb; "slowly, slowly", reminded Sanga, and we took his advice. Namche is quite the booming village; loads of shops, guest houses, trekking supply stores, photo developing shops, and bakeries (electricty too!). We stay here for two days then continue on to more semi-remote places. My body is tired from the walking, especially from the climb today. It will only get easier with experience, right? (Paul continuing here now.) The trek up to Namche was through fantastically beautiful pine and fir forest with red, white and pink tree sized rhodedendrons in full bloom. We repeatedly crosed a gorgeous turquoise glacial stream over various "bridges of death" (not really that scary - very well constructed - but at certain points you could look down at least 600' to the river below). I know it's lame to make comparisons, but this lower portion of the trek could be some imaginary, vastly overscaled spot somewhere on the eastern slopes of the Cascades or Sierras. I had to stop myself from starting to hunt for Morel & Porcini mushrooms and keep my eyes on the rocky trail in front of me.

Day Three
April 5th
"Rest" Day in Namche
A= 1670'
D= 1670'
Highest elev. reached: 12,760'
Time= 4:13

Rest day--ha!
Hiked from Namche to a viewpoint close to the fancy schmancy Everest View Hotel ($400/night! Guests get flown in via helicopter and have to have oxygen pumped into their rooms. Doubt they can walk around much outside without feeling terrible).
Saw our first glimpse of Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam. Visited a local state-run museum nearby on the way down. There was an army post there and razor wire all around. Sanga said they were there in case of the Maoists. (Paul continuing here now.)Wind kicked up pretty seriously while we were at the top of our "rest climb" and again, the cold was shocking. I was actually rather worried as to how I'd handle it further up.

Day 4
April 6th--Snow Day!
Namche to Deboche
A: 2,790'
D: 1,820'
Highest elev. reached: 12,764'

We were supposed to overnight in Tengboche but all the guest houses filled up. Much colder today due to the snow that began on our ascent. The morning started off very overcast and in the clouds, so we had no view. Sanga tried to make us feel better by saying there was nothing to see, which we know was hardly the case! I don't blame him, I guess.
Visited the monastery in Tengboche. Heard the monks chant for maybe 5 minutes.
Watched goofy Tibetan pop videos in our guesthouse in the evening. The women certainly looked more glamorous than the macho men with long, flowing hair on horseback. (Paul continuing here now.) As you may know, the Khumbu (aka the "Everest Region of Nepal) is populated by the Sherpa people. The Sherpas (as they are now known - more on this later) emigrated to Nepal from Eastern Tibet around 500 years ago, bringing their Tibetan Buddhist religion with them (and a strong continued connection to Tibetan culture, religion and language). They are well know as the high altitude climbing guides that have allowed westerners to "conquer" the 8000 meter peaks of the Himalaya. Additionally, they own all the land and lodges here (and some have become quite wealthy as a result). Sanga, our guide, hoewever is Rai, as are many of the other trekking guides. They too are an upland people, though not of Tibetan origin. They are considered to be one of the original peoples of Nepal (a country of at least 86 distinct ethnic groups - each with their own language and place within the "Caste" system)and live just below (elevation-wise) of the Sherpa. For over a century know, the Rai men have comprised the backbone of the British Army's elite Ghurka fighters.

Day 5
April 7th
Deboche to Pangboche
A: 1,000'
D: 100'
Time: 1:36

Since this was such an easy day, we had an acclimatization climb scheduled as well. Sanga also said he was testing us to see if we can endure the hike.

Pangboche to the bottom of Ama Dablam Base Camp
A: 2,240'
D: 2,240'
Time: 4:50
High point reached: 14,730'!

Holy crap, what an ass-kicking climb. I felt terrible, as if I were drugged. Unsteady, disoriented, somewhat nauseated, dizzy, and extremely tired. I could have just curled up on the ground and went to sleep, but Paul refused to let me. It was very windy and cold at the top. I have never walked so slowly in my life. Tiny two inch baby steps at a time, heart beating like mad, completely out of breath, terrible headache. My legs felt they were made of lead. Sanga congratulated us when we reached the top and said, "Michele! Do not lose your exitement!", as I wanted to pass out right there. It is the highest elevation Paul and I have ever been in so far.
We are the only guests in the lodge, so in the evening it turns into a makeshift tailor shop. A man sets up a hand powered machine and holds the bobbin in one hand. He has a stack of cloth and makes pants for someone. A woman comes in with a new zipper later on to repair her down jacket. Eventually word gets around that the tailor is in action, and it turns into quite the small village scene.

Day 6
April 8th
Paul's sick day due to acclimatization

Paul felt terrible in the morning, "like I have an ice pick going into my eye", and Sanga decided it would be best for him to stay in bed and rest rather than climb higher. I hand-washed clothes in some very cold water. Later the four of us took a very short and easy hike and hung out on a sunny overhang that was protected by the wind. Easy relaxation day. I have started to come down with a sore throat.

Day 7
April 9th
Pangboche to Dingboche
Michele's sick day
A: 1,420'
D: 450'
Time: 3:55
Current altitude: 14,270'

I have a terrible head cold. Why now, of all possible times? It feels like I am swallowing knives and have to spit on the ground instead; it is that bad. Stuffy head, ears hurt. Started to cry while hiking because I was in so much pain and was not enjoying anything. I was relieved when we stopped; I went to sleep while Paul and Sanga went for a short hike. They brought me back throat lozenges from a local store. We are above the treeline now and no longer have wood fires at night in the stoves to keep warm. Yak dung has replaced the wood and it doesn't smell very pleasant! I really like the yaks--they are kind of cute. We eat their cheese almost every day; tastes kind of like parmesean.
Meet a filmmaker from Canada who is doing a documentary on the oldest Canadian ever to attempt to climb Everest. He died enroute of heart failure last year at Camp Two.
(Paul continuing here now) Leaving Pangboche we walked through the last of any trees we would see for a long time - junipers not unlike the ones in my yard in Bend - just lacking the gin producing berries. From here on out it was scrub rhodedendron (whose leaves are used for the most fabulous insence) low juniper bushes and yak-mowed grass.

Day 8
Dingboche to Chhukung
A: 1,290'
D: 60'
Time: 2:25
Current elev.: 15,574

Gradual uphill hike, very pleasant. I am not feeling any better, but was able to enjoy today's hike more than yesterday's.

Major ass-kicking hike to Island Peak Base Camp
A: 1,620'
D: 1,620'
Time: 6:25 (ugh!)
Elev. at Base Camp: 16,770' (first ascent over 5000 meters!)

What a screaming headache I have. Sick both of a head cold and from AMS (acute mountain sickness). Not happy, am in pain right now. I cannot eat--absolutely NO appetite, despite burning over 5,000 calories today from trekking and breathing very hard. The thought of food is revolting, but I need to eat. What to do? I hide my food like a child under a mound of rice and pretend I have eaten more than I really have so Paul and Sanga don't bug me.
Despite all this, the walk was long and oftentimes stunning to Island Peak base camp. By the time we arrived, the light hurt my eyes so much I couldn't look around to see the sights, so Paul took photos. Several people were practicing climbing for their eventual ascent to Island Peak. We drank hot Tang (very good, really!) before heading back down. Paul and I held our heads and rocked back and forth on the bed when we got back to the lodge; it felt like our brains were going to explode. The last time my head hurt that much was when I had a mild case of encephalitis. For once we run into Americans; the lodge was full of them! Several were climbers from Oregon and Washington. Paul used to live down the street from one of them, who lived in Bend! Weird. (Paul continuing here now)Agreeing with Michele, I think this was the most wiped out I felt the entire trek. Just klobbered. Could barely talk or eat.

Day 9
April 10th
Chhukung to Dingboche
A: 30'
D: 1,300'
Time: 2:00
We were supposed to trek to Thukla, but I still have a crappy case of AMS on top of a head cold. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish which from which. Paul reminded me that I am supposed to be enjoying this, not feeling miserable. I felt lame about not being able to continue on, but from the look on my face, Sanga decides for me. Later on I realize that was the best decision. I have even considered ending the trek early; that is how terrible I feel, mentally and physically. I still cannot eat much, but more than the past few days. Headache is somewhat better due to being in a lower altitude. I am nervous about hiking to Lobuche tomorrow and tackling Everest Base Camp the day after; however I feel less defeated as I did yesterday and am not giving up yet.

Day 10
Dingboche to Lobuche
A: 2,190'
D: 300'
Time: 5:14
Current Alt: 16,270!

Loads of uphill climbing today over moving glaciers (underneath the endless sea of rocks beneath our feet from which we had to hop, hop, hop). Passed a huge section of memorials built for people who have died while ascending (or trying to ascend) Mt. Everest. Very moving and sad.
This guest house is a dump [not my exact words in the journal, mind you]. All of the other nicer places have been booked, and for good reason. Even the stream is polluted! What is wrong with people? How can they litter this high up in the clouds? They should be ashamed.
When Sanga shows us our room, there is a locked door inside. He says it is a toilet, but is locked because it "freezes" in this weather. As soon as he left, we tried picking the lock, as there was no way in hell we were going to hike up and down stairs in the middle of the night (we are literally peeing up to 5 times a night, which is a positive sign of adjusting to the altitude) to use a disgusting toilet. Paul figures out how to unscrew the lock; the toilet was nasty, but certainly NOT frozen (or unused)! It is our saving grace and we are thankful for having the luxury of a toilet in our room for once.
The walk here was steep at times, and incredibly stunning. Even walking on level ground I was huffing and puffing like mad and could barely catch my breath!
AMS symptoms have improved for both of us, but I am still hacking up nasty plegm and have a loud, harsh cough.
Big day tomorrow to Gorak Shep, then the post lunchtime hike to Everest Base Camp. Yikes. (Paul continuing here now.) As nasty as this place (the "Alpine Inn" hah!)was, and for whatever reason Lobuche is, if you have a copy of John Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", go read his section on what it was like back in 1996. It has definitely improved.

Day 11
April 13th
Lobuche to Gorak Shep
A: 1000'
D: 300'
Time: 2:50
Current elev: 16,930' (only night sleeping over 5000 meters)

The walk to Gorak Shep was really scenic [dumb statement--nothing this trip has been anything but!]. Again I have no appetite. Maybe it will return when we descend? This is not a good weight loss plan--hiking in high elevation and eating very little. I don't recommend it.

Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp
A: 1,290'
D: 1,290'
Time: 5:56
Highest elev reached: 17,510'!
Long, rocky trek up and down hill. Unfortunately I forget my camera in the lodge and we have no photos of the base camp. This makes me even more angry and disappointed. The glaciers by the Khumbu ice fall are like giant, frozen ocean waves. I feel like we are now on the moon--it seems otherworldly. So if you want to see close up pictures of all this, I suggest Googling them, or taking the hard route and going there yourself :)

I was coughing a lot and found it exhausting to catch my breath. Why does this appear so easy for some people? Some woman who was SMOKING, for crying out loud, passed us! Maybe I should start? Ha ha!
[WARNING: This is about to be pity party for Michele time. Skip ahead if you are not interested]
When does this get easier? I feel I am walking so incredibly slow. Is my cold really slowing me down that much? I am supposed to be enjoying this but it feels like a death march.
I was so exhausted and defeated-feeling when we finally arrived at base camp. Again I had thoughts of quitting the trek and heading back to lower elevation. We sat down on a rock in the freezing wind--giant fleece under a windproof shell under a down coat! I looked at Paul and said, "I don't think i'm very good at this--I want to cut the trip short and go back down", and started to cry. I feel like a lame, weak quitter. Paul hugs me and says we'll talk about it when we get back to the lodge. Boo hoo. We spend all of 15 minutes up there. I wish we had more time, but it is getting late and need to head back. There are many expeditions up here and we wonder how many of them will make it to the top? (Paul continuing here now) Michele is of course being much too hard on herself here. It WAS very freaky how some - not even remotely fit people - seemed to cruse along with no pain at this elevation. But I think at this point we were too focused on our own goals to notice that rescue helicopters were making multi-day trips to bring people down who were at risk from dying at this altitude. And in any case, this would be a long, tiring, ankle twisting hike no matter where you did it, and unfortunately we got to base camp around 2:45 PM at which point the wind chill had dropped well below freezing (our porter and guide really really wanted to go!). I can only say that the fortitude of the people who choose to make that place "home for the 60 or so days it takes to actually summit the mountain is truly impressive.

Day 12
April 14
Gorak Shep to Kala Pattar
A: 1,600'
D: 1,600'
Time: 3:40 (including 40 minutes at summit)
Peak Trek elevation reached: 18,400'!

Still no appetite. What to do? Yesterday I was close to considering not climbing Kala Pattar (which provides the main viewpoint for Mt. Everest) and now I feel I've turned a corner (so to speak). We awoke before dawn and had some breakfast before beginning the steep climb up. I had much more energy than yesterday. It almost felt easy! I wasn't breathing as hard, but started to as we reached the top where the air was really thin. People coming down kept saying, "Keep going, it's worth it!", which was encouraging.

An they were right. It was more beautiful and jaw-dropping than I could have imagined. I started to cry again (do you think I have cried enough yet on this trip??), not because I was feeling crappy or dejected, but because for the first time since we were in Namche, I thought--I can do this and i'm not giving up! That and the view was so overwhelming-and we reached our highest peak ever on the trip!
Perfect weather and views of the largest mountains on earth in every direction, Lhotse, Nuptse, Pumori, and of course Everest, with huge glaciers stretching out below. We both congratulated ourselves on completing the highest climb of our lives.

Gorak Shep to Lobuche
A: 300'
D: 1000'
Time: 2:03
Current Elevation, 16,270

Came down in the afternoon back to Lobuche. Stayed in a much nicer lodge this time. We had been under the impression that both our guide and porter had contracted food poisoning at the "Alpine Inn", and therefore decided to reserve a better lodge for us in advance, before we went up to Gorak Shep (though it turned out that they were actually just hung over from drinking too much Nepalese whiskey).

On this portion of the trek, we definitely did not have our pick of the best rooms in the best lodges. Unlike some of the bigger treking groups (one group from England was 46 people!) which could send an unburdened porter ahead to reserve entire lodges (hours before the actual trekkers would arrive), we traveled together with our guide and porter and typically had to take whatever room was available when we arrived in the afternoon (more than a few times, we were lucky and got the last private room available, otherwise we would have been stuck in a dorm room).

Michele's appetite returned enough this evening for her to devour an entire pizza in five minutes, in addition to eating apple pie for dessert!

Day 13
April 15
Lobuche to Dzongla
A: 640'
D: 960'
Time: 3:00
Current Elevation: 15,930

Short trek day today in prep for crossing Cho La pass tomorrow. It is actually colder in our room than outside. Everyone is lazy and doesn't move much after lunch. Semi-crazy place. Toilet is nearly 100 yards from our room and very nasty. We've re-named it "The Funhouse" and can't stop laughing at the joke (not like it's really that funny) - much to the confusion of our guide.

Day 14
April 16
Dzongla to Thangnak via Cho La Pass
A: 2,190
D: 2,670
Time: 7:43
Peak elevation at Cho La Pass, 17,600'
Current elevaton: 15,420'

A tough one! Felt dizzy at the top of Cho Las pass. Also had heart burn again (Did I mention yet that I finally can eat again? I almost didn't recognize the sensation of hunger.) Saw the Canadian film crew we met on our 2nd night in Dingboche up on the pass. One of them had to go home as his AMS had become so severe his resting heart rate was over 170 beats a minute. Mentioned the heart burn to Elia (the lead film maker) and he pulled out a giant bottle of Tums and offered me some. I guess heartburn is another known problem at altitude.

We walked past ice falls & crossed a small glacier at the top of the pass. Lot's of snow up there and quite windy. The descent was really, really steep - lots of huge boulders covered in snow and ice. Feet and legs were very tired. Lodge here in Thangnak is the nicest we've been in a while. Descending below 16,000' it almost looks like spring time again - tiny purple flowers and some actual green grass & plants. Almost feels warm in the sunshine. (Paul continuing here now.) Descent from Cho La was so steep, that once we were down and perhaps a half mile or so away, when we looked back, we could not even remotely see the route we had climbed down. It looked like a cliff - impossibly steep.

Day 15
April 17
Thangnak - Gokyo
A: 650'
D 380'
Time: 2:20
Current Elev.: 15,584'

Nice easy walk over another boulder covered glacier (this one descending from Cho Oyu, another 8000 meter peak) to the Gokyo valley - a beautiful string of lakes connected by a rushing stream.

Gokyo - "4th Lake"
A: 1,140
D: 1,140
Time: 3:55

Took an afternoon hike up towards the "5th Lake" (of the string of lakes in this valley). Rugged up and down over huge glacial moraine ridges. Views from the 5th lake are supposed to be spectacular. It's right at the base of Cho Oyu, and also features excellent views of Everest (and about 1,000 other unbelievably beautiful mountains). Unfortunately clouds moved in, wind picked up, and legs were still tired from yesterday's climb over Cho La, so we turned around perhaps 40 minutes from the lake and beelined back to the lodge. Plan is to climb Gokyo Ri (another > 5000 meter viewpoint) at dawn tomorow, though legs are hoping for a cloudy weather sleep-in.

Day 16
April 18
A: 0'
D 0'
Time: All day


Awoke to thunder and lightning around midnight and looking out the window, could already see that it had snowed several inches. No 5:00AM hike up Gokyo Ri, much to my relief. Was still snowing hard when we finally got up with close to a foot already on the ground. Our plans to cross Renjo-La pass to the rarely visited Bhote valley are now cancelled due to the weather. I have mixed feelings about this. My body is very achy & tired and not wanting to hike up another 18,000' pass, yet I really was looking forward to being in a remote valley and camping out one night on the other side of the pass (there are no lodges yet in this area). Spent several hours building a snowman outside the lodge (was tough going as the snow was so dry). Until we equiped him with a nose and eyes (rocks Paul fished out of the river), the Sherpa owner of the lodge thought we were building a Buddhist Stupa. Afternoon was spent by the fire, watching the snow pile up, wondering how we were going to get out. Had our first alcoholic drinks in two weeks, now that we are no longer ascending higher--hot lemon with rum! It takes very little to make us giddy. Harka and Sanga are more than happy to help us finish the small bottle of rum we purchased.

Day 17
April 19
Gokyo - Machermo
A: 370'
D: 1,510'
Time: 8:10
Current Elev: 14,490'


Major snow storm. Very difficult walk through deep snow. Waist deep postholing and frequent falls. Biting headwind threatens frostbitten cheeks. Very slow progress until we meet up with another group (9 people) and can proceed with a somewhat better broken trail. Sketchy descent down icy icy rock steps with steep cliff dropoff to the left. Can't believe Harka - our porter - manages all this with tired old boots and a basket with all of our stuff balanced on his back. Eventually the trail flattens out and we make it to Pangka for lunch. Everyone seems quite relieved. Weather clears in the afternoon and the trip down to Machermo is much easier going.

Day 18
April 20
Machermo to Phortse Tenga
A: 790'
D: 3,230'
Time: 7:34
Current Elev: 12,020

Long snowy wet melty day. Very slippery and muddy at times. It is so nice to see trees again - really beautiful. Paul and I had constant snowball fights the whole way down, very fun. The main lodge in Phortse Tenga was completely filled, so we are staying in the Himalaya Lodge. Very old school; bunk beds only, no private rooms and only a wood oven in the kitchen for heat and cooking. We are the only ones staying here and a single woman runs the whole show herself. Using just one wood fired burner she makes us the most delicious potato curry soup, grills up chipati from scratch, tops them with tomato, cheese & veggies & pops them into a double deckered steamer to make us yummy pizzas. She does this all much more quickly than do many of the big fancy lodge kitchens which are equipped with kerosene stoves.
Many helicopter rescues today. Overheard a medical resuce worker in Machermo radio for a helicopter for 2 people with HACE (high altitude cerebral edema--very dangerous) and one with pneumonia.

Day 19
April 21
Phortse Thenga to Thamo
A: 2,190'
D: 2,640'
Time: 8:00
Current Elev: 11,530

Long, long day. Very beautiful and scenic. Back to blooming rhododendrons, birch & pine (and green grass!). It like being back on earth again, whereas above the tree line was like the moon. Much warmer today and the snow is melting. Much of the trail has turned into small rivers running over our feet everywhere we go. All day we hike in soaking wet socks & boots (gaiters & plastic bags proove useless). It was really unpleasant and after more that two weeks of happy feet, blisters are now happening. Took our 2nd shower in 3 weeks at the hydro-electric plant in Thamo--K.B.C, short for Khumbu Bijuili Company. The shower room even had an electric heater! Felt like a new person.

No music allowed at dinner this night as word comes that one of the local climbing Sherpas has died (along with 2 other climbers) in an avalanche somewhere up on Everest. First real news that situation in Kathmandu may not be so stable when we get back.

Day 20
April 22
Thamo - Thame day hike then back to Namche
A: 2,760
D: 2,750
Time: 8:35
Current Elev: 11,320

Lovely hike to upper & lower Thame. Visited the monastery and enjoyed some raucous music and chating by the Buddhist monks. Sanga loaded us up on rakshi (homemade rice wine) for the hike back to Namche and we made the long distance in record time. Amazing to be back in the "big city" with stores, electricty, internet and all the trappings of "civilization".

Day 21
April 23
Namche to Phakding
A: 950'
D: 3,360'
Time: 5:38
Current elev: 8,890'

Loads of downhill action. Feet are blistered due to hiking in soaking wet shoes for 3 days. Rhododendrons and peach trees are in full bloom. Barley & wheat are now over knee high and potatoes are well on their way. So much green that we don't recongize most of the hike - even though we had walked the same trail just 3 weeks before. Was fun to speak to a group of trekkers just beginning their trip, all wide eyed, curious and cold, just like we had been.

Day 22
April 24
Phakding to Lukla
A: 1,600'
D: 920'
Time: 2:53

Great to be back. Sanga took us for amazing, spicy momos for lunch. Plane back to Kathmandu leaves at 7:30 AM tomorrow. Not sure what we'll encounter when we get there...

Whew! That is all for now. We will post some photos in Japan, if Phil and JJ let us on their home computer in Kanazawa :)

The grand total:
Number of feet ascended: 35,313
Number of feet desceded: 35,818
Total feet combined: 71,131

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Safe in Kathmandu

I'm sure many of you have been monitoring the political situation here in Nepal as we have been trekking, and here's our latest report.

So we were all set to spend the day at the Kathmandu airport (after flying in from the mountain town Lukla - where we started our trek) - as the city was supposed to be under an 8am to 8pm curfew and there would be no way for us to get to our hotel - when the king finally caved in to the protesters main demands (crazy things like a constitutional government elected by the people).

The strike was lifted and everything is almost completely back to normal here, just like somebody flipped a switch. I guess we missed 19 days of chaos, strike and deprivation while we were treking (we experienced absolutely no hint of any of this while we were in the mountains - only heard the smallest hints of the news from other trekkers or from the radio (translated to us of course) as we huddled around the yak dung burning stoves staying warm) Now we are back to a city full of very happy people out shopping and enjoying the late spring sunshine. Everyone has big smiles on their faces.

The only indication that anything happened at all is that the air is amazingly clear here as there has been basically no car traffic the entire time we were gone (the fact that it rained significantly for the first time since October probably helped too). That and there is still a big police presence, but things are definitely looking more hopeful for this wonderful country.

We're spending one more day here sightseeing and shopping before heading back to Bangkok on the 27th. We hope to get a few days at a beach there before we fly to Japan on April 3.

We'll try to get a full rundown of everything that transpired on the trek up in the next few days - including the vast reams of datum we recorded.

Keep the comments coming!!!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Last Day of Our Trek, and All is Well!

It has been a while since we have posted, and for good reason. There was nowhere to post from!

This will be a short post as it costs a bundle to email here way up in the clouds of Lukla, Nepal (Khumbu region) and we will post a more extensive update when the price is right--possibly Kathmandu (if we are able to due to the political situation) or Bangkok.

In all we climbed and descended over 35,000' (70,000' total!), which is pretty amazing. I wanted to completely give up several times along the way as it was far more difficult than either of us had bargained for. But we stuck with it and feel pretty amazing, albeit tired.

We hit a major snowstorm while up in Gokyo and it was pretty scary hiking out. But here lower down in altitude, it is springtime; you would never know that it snowed as much as it did. Several people have reportedly died above Everest Base Camp due to the weather. We saw and heard many rescue helicopters in the past week and are thankful we were not in them.

Thanks for all your amazing comments! We love reading them.

More updates to come!


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Greetings from 12,000 feet!

This will be a very quick post as it costs an arm and a leg to use the internet way up here in the middle of nowhere.

After finally leaving the beach in Mui Ne, we only spent one night in Saigon and would love to go back someday. We flew the next day to Bangkok, and the day after that, to Kathmandu, Nepal. We had a quick day of buying gear that we didn't have with us (hiking boots, etc. - all stuff that we have at home but didn't want to lug around for 6 weeks in the tropical heat), and then had the joy of an ATM Machine eating Paul's card when we were trying to get enough cash together to actually pay for our trek (we didn't know we'd need to pay cash). Repeated subsequent attempts to do a cash advance on Paul's visa failed - even after a $20 call to get it straightened out with the credit card company - but luckily Michele's card (same company!) worked fine and we were able to deliver a 3" stack of 1000 Rupee notes to our outfitter.

We entered Sagarmatha National Park (aka Mount Everest National Park) yesterday and started our trek in Lukla, which we flew to from Kathmandu.

We are currently in Namche and leave tomorrow, headed for Everest Base camp--it should take 7 days to reach it. From there we will cross two different mountain passes to explore other alpine valleys that are more off the beaten path--and it will only get colder!! We had to buy neck gaiters today and hope we have enough warm clothing.

All is well with the acclimatization process, thanks to the wonderful drug called Diamox.

Sorry for not responding to any personal emails you all have sent but we are short on time due to the high costs here, and you'll hear back from us in a few weeks (and we'll backfill on some other stuff we've skipped over then).

Send your prayers to our legs and lungs!!!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Midnight tribute to Bill Holden

As you might imagine, it can get a little weird staying in a different hotel room every 3-4 days. Beds change. Room layout changes. Sometimes you use the mosquito net, sometimes you don't.

But of course the big deal is being able to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. An embarrassing secret I will admit is that I have often slept with my headlamp around my neck, just so that I could safely light my way to the john should the need arise.

Well the other night, we'd gone to sleep for the first time in our beach-front bungalow here in Mui Ne. As our room has no screens, we rigged up our mosquito net to hang over the bed before retiring. It's really kind of cool to crawl inside - kind of turns an ordinary bed into some combination of 4-poster masterpiece and cool secret hideout.

Now I remember reading for a bit then turning my head lamp off and putting it inside my book (The Great Shark Hunt) as a bookmark. At some point I wake up and need to use the restroom, but I don't really wake up quite completely enough to get the job done properly (while I'm not a sleepwalker, this sort of thing has happened to me maybe 4-5 times in my life). I somehow get out of bed, can't see a thing (are my eyes open? I don't even know now), trip over the 3" threshold that divides the main room from the bathroom (keeps the shower water from running out) and smash my forehead into a tiled corner of the bathroom wall that just out next to the sink.

I distinctly remember that (though it took some reconstruction of events the next morning to determine where it was exactly that I smashed my head). And then I have some memory of thrashing around trying to get back into bed (did I even pee?) and then didn't wake up again until 6:00.

Michele on the other had awoken to me thrashing around on the outside of the mosquito net, blathering on and on about how "I'd broke my own rule". She had no idea that I was hurt and though I was just being my usual weird self. She told me to knock it off (I have no memory of this), pulled the mosquito net apart so I could get into bed and went back to sleep.

In the morning there were several big streaks of dried blood on the net, where my head had rubbed against it.

Michele says it doesn't look to bad, but to me it's kind of like a combination of Harry Potter's lightning bolt and the poorly sewed up seam on Herman Munster's forehead.

And of course the "my own rule" that I broke was in not sleeping with my headlamp. Even in the midst of bloody delrium, always time for a little self criticism.


At least I avoided old Bill's fate.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hello Madame! Hello sir!

So much has happened since we last checked in. I think Michele is going to do the more general run down of places and events so I might just ramble here a bit about some general observations.

It has been fantastically interesting to travel through three different countries - all sharing a land space of (I'm guessing) about the size of California - that have long historic interconnections with each other, yet are so completely different culturally and economically that it's been a big shock every time we've crossed a border.

The striking thing for me about Thailand - after you get over the huge, obvious differences that come with being on a different continent in a country where you can't even read the alphabet, let alone say the simplest of words (we mastered "Hello", "Thank You" "Delicious" and "Two" - that's it (not even yes or no))- was how completely normal it was.

The highways were excellent as was the general infrastructure. The streets were fantastically clean (even though we could never find a municipal trashcan). 7-11's and other western stores were everywhere. Traffic was dense but orderly and nobody ever honked their horn (the Thai people in general were very laid back and friendly, and obviously very used to having western tourists in their presence). The ever present motorbikes and "Tuk-Tuks" were all 4-stroke, no stinky 2-stroke mix of burnt oil and gas fouling the air. Perhaps we missed them, but we saw no sprawling slums, children begging on the street, or any of the disturbing things one often encounters in "developing countries".

And most telling of all - when you purchase something in Thailand, you actually pay tax on it (7%). I can't think of any country outside of Europe or North America where I've actually seen taxes collected. Amazing. And they're obviously being put to good use.

I'm sure there's a back story to all this that as a tourist I completely missed (like perhaps how Thailand deals with the flood of illegal Burmese and Lao immigrants that pour over its borders in search of work), but (in a very complimentary way) I would almost liken Thailand to being the Canada of Southeast Asia.

Crossing over into Laos was quite a shock. Landlocked and with a tiny population (just 6 million), Laos is decades behind Thailand in terms of general development. New York city has nearly the same miles of streets that Laos has in the entire country (and only 20% of them are paved - including many dirt streets even in the major towns). The first town we stayed in - Pakbeng - has electricity only 2-3 hours each evening. I saw a man and his son cutting up firewood with a 2-man bucksaw just like my grandpa used to use. In fact, everywhere we went in Laos except the most "western" restaurants (the ones that give you food poisoning), all cooking was done over wood or charcoal (whereas propane was always used in Thailand). Most of our trip down the Mekong was through essentially uninhabited hill country. You'd probably have to go pretty far out in Alaska to float a river and see so few people or settlements. And unlike Thailand, where the hills have almost been completely deforested by logging and agriculture, the hills in Laos were for the most part green and untouched as far as the eye could see.

That being said, parts of Laos are changing very rapidly and will probably be very different in a few years. Luang Prabang - the lovely colonial town where we spent five days - was completely engulfed in a renovation boom. Streets were getting paved. Sidewalks rebuilt. Etc. Etc. I doubt it will seem quite as rustic and quaint in a few years time.

As for the people, the Lao were even more friendly and laid back than the Thais. You simply did not pass anyone on the street without saying "Sabai Di" (hello). And it wasn't just to us westerners - it was universal. We sat in Luang Prabang for hours, drinking Beer Lao and watching people cruise around on their motorbikes, never ever going faster than about 15 miles an hour.

One of the real treats of the trip was when we were standing outside one of the temples in a Buddhist "Wat" (monastery), listening to some teenage monks do the most beautiful chanting in Sanskrit (Balinese Sanskrit - we were informed) when one got up, came out to us, and asked us if we'd like to come in. We sat with them for about 20 minutes (carefully keeping our feet pointed away from the Buddha)while they finished their chanting. It was quite magical. Afterwards we had the interesting experience of explaining to the monk who had invited us in (and who spoke excellent English) where we were from. While he knew of America, he did not know of New York City - had never heard of it.

And it was very refreshing to meet an obviously educated person who was not aware of a place called New York City. With all the westernization you see here (almost every product you purchase has some bit of English* text on it, almost every store or shop has some sign written in English, the video you watch on the VIP bus is inevitably an American** movie, the music your taxi driver plays is some weird cover version (in English) of The Carpenters Greatest Hits. English is omnipresent here as is American culture. Consider if every bottle of beer or shampoo you purchased there in the good ol' USA had something written on it in Thai or Lao on it, or that your favorite pop singers perform songs from another country in another decade in a language you can't understand, and that you didn't find any of this either weird or annoying.

It's something Michele and I are both still trying to get our heads around.

As Michele has already reported, Vietnam took us quite by surprise after laid back Laos. There is nothing laid back about this place or these people. Everything is go go go and there is not much time for niceties. We gave up trying to say hello or thank you in the first few days as it was obvious that nobody here said it to each other either (doubly disconcerting for us, as these were the only two words we'd mastered in Thai and Lao, and so we'd spent a fair time in the days before our arrival here memorizing the Vietnamese versions thereof, only to have all that mental effort prove to be a waste).

While not as developed and certainly no where near as orderly as Thailand (Michele says the traffic/driving here is nearly as insane as in India (sitting on the right hand side of the bus is advised, lest a sideswipe occur with some ancient Chinese truck (honking it's horn) while the bus (honking it's horn) is passing a cluster of 20 or so stinky 2-stroke motorbikes who have swerved to the left (honking their horns) to avoid a woman walking down the side of the road balancing an entire portable restaurant (food, cookstove, utensils, tables, chairs, everything but a horn) in two baskets hanging from her shoulders), construction is booming everywhere we've been. We watched iron workers (in flip flops***, an no hard hats) on the building next to our hotel in Hue put in 12 hour days right straight through the weekend that we were there. In Hoi An, along a fairly desolate section of the beach (just a few fishing shacks & small houses) outside of town we came across a brand new section of paved road with wide sidewalks, street lights and all the trappings of a brand new American subdivision under construction. When we saw the billboards for the two new mega-resorts that were going to be built where those fishing shacks were, it all made sense.

If they approach this development with the same tenacity they display when trying to sell you a foot massage or a pineapple on the beach, or to convince you to purchase a third set of beautiful, custom made silk pants because buying just two pairs is not enough (and oh the sad sad faces when you refuse), this country is certain to be an economic powerhouse in the years to come.

Nepal will be an interesting transition from here. It's about as far physically as you can go from here yet still be in a Buddhist/Hindu culture. I'll be very curious to see how the similarities and differences play out.


* If you were a tourist in any of these three countries and did not speak either the native language (Thai, Lao or Vietnamese) or English, you would have a really really difficult time. Being tonal, none of these languages are even remotely pronounceable from a phrase book. So as a workaround, everything tourism related is done in English. Menus are in English. Shop signs are in English. Travel Agents speak their language and then English. It's quite amazing to hear Russian and French and German tourists struggle through ordering food off a menu, trying in their broken English to reach some base level of understanding with the broken English of the person that's serving them. As you might imagine, mistakes do occur.

** Ironically though American culture is here everywhere, there are absolutely no Americans here. Believe it or not, there is actually a huge contingent of people in the world doing exactly what Michele and I are doing. There are whole industries built up to serve us and almost every major town we've visited has its "Supertreker Ghetto" of western restaurants, Internet cafes, travel agencies, and budget guesthouses (and the inevitable Irish pub). The travelers that pass through these places tend to be younger than us (not by much), but are almost exclusively English, Irish, French, German, Israeli, and Australian (with a smattering of Italians and Canadians popping up from time to time). For whatever reason, Americans do not travel here.

*** If haven't spent much time traveling in the tropics/subtropics, you may have a bit of a difficult time getting your head around this one, but the plain fact is that when most of the people on this planet put on their shoes to go to work, they are putting on flip flops. Think about that the next time you're swinging a machete at the coconut you're holding in place under your right foot, arc-welding some steel railing, or balancing an entire pig carcass on your motorbike as you work your way through the public market.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Yee Haw, Back in Action!

We can't seem to figure out why we are suddenly able to post to the blog again and have no idea what will happen when we reach Saigon (or even Nepal for that matter).

We escaped being run over by motorbikes quite successfully in Hanoi, although some woman clipped my elbow as she squeezed by on her bike and yelled at me. Go figure.

After being in chilly Hanoi (40 degrees colder than when we were in Laos!), we flew to Hue (which Paul just had to remind me about--it wasn't even that long ago--March 16th--but feels like an eternity ago).

Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was heavily bombed during the "American War" as it is known as here. Hard to believe there were people fighting in the streets there, and it makes me sad to think about it. The Citadel is the main attraction of Hue; this is where the Emperor lived. It is a massive place, and very beautiful, heavily influenced by Chinese art and architecture. I didn't realize that Chinese characters were used in Viet Nam at one point, which explains why there is so much written in Chinese at historical sights.

Hue is way more toned down compared to Hanoi--you can actually cross the streets without risking your life. More bicycles and less motor scooters, which was a nice change.

We rented a private boat (all of $15 for the day) to take a trip down the Perfume River and first visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous residence where the monk Thich Quang Duc lived before his self immolation to protest the policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem (if you recall the famous photo of the burning monk who was sitting in the street, completely ablaze). After that the boat dropped us off on the river bank, where we had to negotiate prices with motor scooter drivers to take us where the boat could not--the tombs of previous emperors. The drivers got to wear helmets, and when I enquired where ours were, they just laughed. Great! Seeing as they were the only game in town, we each hopped on the back of one and drove through narrow dirt roads that went by neon green fields of rice paddys (paddies?) before heading onto a paved road. It was so uncomfortably hot that the breeze from the ride felt incredible and I no longer cared about wanting a helmet. We visited the tombs of Emperors Tu Duc and Minh Mang; both were pretty impressive. The latter had 105 wives and concubines, with tombs to hold them all. He had no children, apparently, as he was sterile due to having smallpox.

Viet Nam specializes in custom made silk clothing and we couldn't resist getting some stuff made. I could really go crazy with the enormous variety of fabric out here if I had the room to haul it around. Actually, we purchased a bootleg North Face bag to mule around our purchases. Bootlegged brands are huge out here. Our cheap plastic shower curtain in one of the hotels actually said "Versace--Paris--Italy"--ha! Give me a break.

After Hue we took the bus for 5 hours to Hoi An, a really cute town with a beautiful beach. We finally felt safe enough, street traffic wise, to rent bikes and cycled and easy 5km out to the beach every day. Thanks to JJ and Phil for recommending Hoi An; so far it has been my favorite place in Viet Nam. We felt really comfortable there and there are so many little streets to poke around in and get lost on. Locals seemed to enjoy messing with us on our bikes; that is one thing I will say about the Vietnamese--they are real wise asses. Twice we had people pull up from behind us on motor bikes and blare their horns, startling us. When we turned to look at what the commotion was, they just passed by and laughed. Other than those experiences, it is pretty apparent that they like to mess with each other and be pretty obnoxious, but in a friendly way. Not like I could understand what was said, but just by their body language and voice it seemed kind of obvious.

We took a day trip from Hoi An to the Cham ruins in My Son (pronounced MEE son) which took an hour to reach. The Cham people traded between Viet Nam and India, and through their contacts adopted Hinduism. The ruins were built between the 9th-12th centuries, but unfortunately the Viet Cong used them as a base to hide from American forces, and much of My Son has been destroyed. I wish I could have seen what it looked like in its heyday, and plan on researching it when we get back to the states to see if there are photos of it from before the war.

After Hoi An we took a taxi to Danang where we caught a train to Nha Trang. Not the most comfortable train I have ever taken, and after 9 hours I was pretty much ready for a cushy hotel room. We found one a block from the municipal beach for the whopping sum of $20 a night--and it was a suite--in our first hotel with an elevator (much appreciated when you are on the 5th floor)!! One and a half bathrooms, cable TV, a balcony overlooking the city, fridge, two beds, a make-up table of sorts, several chairs with a smaller table, A/C, and plenty of room to spread out. Nha Trang seemed like spring-break central for college-aged Australians, so we avoided that scene after our first night there. We spent the next day there on the beach and left the next day on a bus that took us to our current local, Mui Ne Beach, which is off the major tourist track. It is a one highway town along the beach and we really scored with a bungalow that is 5 steps from the beach--only $10 a night! Mui Ne is apparently renowned for its Asian kite surfing competitions. Today there must have been at least 30 people at any given time kite surfing, which looks like so much fun that I wish I had the patience to learn it out here. Some French guy I asked said it took him weeks to learn it, and the 10 hour lessons they give you here (which are actually really expensive--if we weren't already shelling out for the Nepal trek, I would do it) are not enough.

The hammock we have been hauling around since Thailand has finally come into good use again, as we strung it up right outside our door. It is easy to be lazy out here. Not much to do (if you don't wind or kite surf) but swim, read, eat and snooze. A constant breeze blows all day and it feels wonderful after the baking hot weather we were just experiencing in Hue and Hoi An.

Just to back track a bit here--ever since that crazy boat ride we took from Thailand into Laos down the Mekong, we have run into several people from the boat, whom we now practically consider family after being squeezed together for so long. It is really fun to run into our boat friends and we always stop and update each other on where we have been. In Hanoi, we ran into these 4 Irish women who were travelling together. Apparently they took some absolutely horrendous bus ride that was supposed to be 24 hours and ended up being 28 hours--the same trip that took us one hour by plane (going from Laos to Viet Nam--see, this is what I meant about the crappy roads in Laos!!). The bus broke down for 4 hours in the middle of the night; no one could communicate with them about what was going on due to language barriers; a man with a crocodile on board the bus was escorted off by police at the border (I am not making this up, and neither were they!), and some man with a broken leg was taken off on a stretcher. They seemed pretty relieved to be off the bus, to say the least, and called it "the bus ride from hell".

One week left in the heat and we are off to a new adventure in Nepal. I am welcoming the cold at this point and will probably eat my words in two weeks when my teeth are chattering.

Testing, Testing

This is a test of the Viet Nam anti-blogging network. Please do not contact the authorities if this can be published. If posting is successful, further postings will follow. Again, this has been a test. Thank you.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Pictures from our trip (up to Luang Prabang) can be seen here:

Check it out!!!

Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Viet Nam

Since we have left Louang Prabang, things have really cooled off significantly.

We flew from LP to Vientiane, the capital, and spent 2 days checking out the sights. It is a shame we didn't spend more time in Laos, but a lot of what we want to see is in the south where the temperatures are high and the water levels are low. Returning someday after the rainy season would be more interesting, I think. That and 80% of all roads in Laos are unpaved. Call me a wuss, but I really don't want to spend a half day to a full 24 hours on a bus going down a lumpy dirt road. Originally we were going to fly to Pakse in the south and from there, fly to Hanoi. However, the heat was already as much as I could stand up north and going into hundred-plus degree weather sounded kind of rough.

Two days ago we boarded the plane in Vientiane in t-shirts, flip-flops and thin pants and felt pretty foolish stepping off the plane in Hanoi in 50 degree temperatures! I had no idea it would be so cold. We had a taxi waiting for us and drove 45 minutes to the Old City in the center of town. What a culture shock from chilled out Laos--loads of horn honking, fast driving and thousands of motor scooters. Cars and scooters are oblivious to pedestrians here. We felt like country bumpkins visiting the big city for the first time when we stepped out of the cab and had to dodge moving objects from all directions.

I kind of like the chaos here--you really need to pay attention and have your wits about you at all times, way more so than being in NY. It's fun to sit on a street corner and watch the traffic action whizz by--very entertaining, to say the least--especially when there are near-crashes every 10 minutes. So far we have only seen one, surprisingly enough.

The food here is outstanding--noodles for every meal! There is some odd looking street food specialty we saw today that neither one of us will dare to try: soda cans with the tops cut off and a small, whole bird with head and claws still attached stuffed into it. They are then dropped into a vat of hot oil and cooked, still in the can. Some turn out pitch black, some are brown. If anyone out there reading this has tried it and/or knows the name of it, please tell me!

This morning we woke up early to see Ho Chi Minh's tomb, as the last entry is at 10:15 a.m. The line was pretty long but moved fast; we even got to see the changing of the guards outside of the tomb. After moving slowly through the line for a half hour, we finally got to enter. There he was in a glass box in an air-conditioned room with police standing on all corners keeping watch. You can't stand around and look at him as the line has to keep moving around the tomb slowly. He looked exactly as he does in photos, long white beard and all. The poor guy wanted to be cremated and now he is stuck in a glass box, sent to Russia for 3 months out of the year to be re-embalmed.

We are flying to Hue later on today, which is in central Viet Nam. The weather is going to get hotter and it will be nice to go to the beach again.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Houeixi to Louang Phabang via the Mekong River

We have not quite melted yet, but have certainly started to.

The last we left off I think we were in Chiang Mai enroute to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a small city that people use as a jumping off point to explore the various hill tribes that surround the region. My former Park Slope Food Coop-er, Havilah, got us in touch with her brother, Caleb, who lives in Chiang Rai and works for an NGO out there. It was great to have him show us around for the weekend, and he speaks Thai which is pretty helpful, too. He took us to an Akha village where one of his co-worker's lives with his wife and baby and it was pretty fascinating to see how the village is set up and learn a bit about their history. There were also Karen and Hmong tribes living in that region as well, and I think I would have passed out from wearing the heavy clothing and head coverings some of the women were wearing due to the heat, but I can only assume they are just used to it. Regardless, it was quite intricate and colorful.

We hired a driver to take us from Chiang Rai to the border at Chiang Khong, where we would purchase our Lao visas. It was sort of a package deal, as he drove us to various sights enroute to Chiang Kong, so we made a full day out of it. First we visited the Monkey Caves and hiked up steep steps to some dark caves full of bats and Buddha shrines, but no monkeys. The monkeys were hanging out at the bottom of the caves by some water and didn't seem too interested in people, nor did we get too close to them to avoid being bitten. After that we drove to Maesai, a big shopping town which we did none of since there isn't much room in our packs to buy stuff, but there were some great viewpoints above the city with temples and shrines. After Maesai we drove to the famous "Golden Triangle" region where you can look out and see Burma, Laos, and Thailand come together by the Mekong River. Our driver took us to this overly touristed Opium Museum, which was filled with old opium pipes, opium scales and weights and other paraphernalia, in addition to information in English on a brief history of opium. Somehow the museum staff thought it would be helpful to include a section upstairs on catfish, marijuana, bamboo waterpipes, and photos of Karen "long-necked" women. Go figure.

Kitt, our driver for the day, drove us through some really pretty countryside areas while we sweated our butts off in his "air conditioned" jeep, and in the afternoon, arrived at Chiang Khong. He found some guy, whose name and actual job description I never got, to secure us visas and tickets for the longboat journey on the Mekong into Laos. We handed over some money and our passports, and assured us he would see us at 8 a.m. the next morning with our visas and drive us to the dock.

Chiang Khong is a one-road town that is quiet and peaceful. We stayed in very modest accomodations (I think $5 a night) that served food and beer. That night we met Lynn and Andrew, she from Ireland, he from Wales, who met while travelling in New Zealand. We drank and chatted with them that night and learned they were also going on the boat the next day to Laos.

Next day, 8 a.m. we are ready to leave and no sign of the man with our passports. 8:30 comes and Paul sets off down the dirt road to find him (it is a small town, remember?). Five minutes later a motorbike comes down the road with the man with our passports and Paul on the back!! He forgot all about us, our passports, and our visas, and hurried to get them. He returned with a friend who is on a motor bike and I get on the back of one and Paul on the other, with our semi-heavy backpacks mind you. Off to the docks! Visas get stamped, exit fees from Thailand paid, we are rushed onto a longboat and away we go. Minutes later we are on the Laos side of the river in Houeixi, Laos. Paul and I are talked in to paying for a room in a guesthouse in Pakbeng, where the boat is heading to on the first leg of our journey "because it will be too dark for you to find a place when you arrive, so it is best to secure one now". Yep, we are scammed. But more on that later.

Who do we see in the restaurant before boarding the boat but Lynn and Andrew! They also purchased accomodations for the night in the same place that we were talked into, so at least we weren't alone. We board the boat and sit in front of them. Off we go with about 100 other people down the Mekong for the next 7 hours. We were pre-warned that the benches make your butt sore so we laid our yoga mats on them for some comfort. The scenery was incredible and I can only imagine it is more so after the rainy season when the water level is higher and the trees are lush and green. It was a long day on the boat and we were relieved to know they sold beer which came in quite handy after the 4th hour or so.

The benches, by the way, were not very stable and were in serious danger of collapsing from under us. I tried my best to tell this to a crew member, who only shrugged and seemed uninterested in this information. Paul lashed a daypack to the bench and connected it to a post in hopes this would prevent a disaster. When Lynn and Andrew moved temporarily to sit on the floor of the boat in front to stretch their legs, I took over their bench to have some more room. Sure enough, their bench collapsed from underneath me and some other passengers took photos of the now in pieces bench, as it was pretty hilarious. A crew member carried the pieces off, no questions asked, and didn't seem surprised in the least.

Finally we arrive in Pakbeng and loads of children race to the dock in hopes of earning some money for hauling bags up the steep steps. The four of us had none of this and grabbed our own bags and followed the guesthouse worker up the street to where we would spend the night. Mind you, it was not dark out and there were PLENTY of places to stay. Regardless, we were shown our room and it would have been ok except for one thing--the bathroom was so unbelievably disgusting that no amount of incense we lit could remove the foul stench. I actually dreaded having to use the toilet and preferred to hold it in, much less take a shower. I wish I could say I am exaggerating, but I am not. Lynn and Andrew paid a bit less to have a shared bathroom and instantly wished they had shelled out the extra buck or two to have their own, as they were pretty disgusted as well. The beds looked ok, until you sat down on them--I think they were made of wood or concrete, no joke. Despite all this, the village itself was quaint and lit by candlelight as electricity was scarce. We had a good dinner and basically called it a night.

Everyone complained of sore hips the next day from the awful beds and were pretty eager to get out of town. We ate breakfast and headed down to the boat and lets just say that was another experience all on its own. The stairs headed down were very steep and covered in sand and I had images in my head of tumbling down them while wearing my 30 lb. pack and breaking my ankle. To top it off, you had to literally walk a narrow wooden plank to get on the boat. Luckily everyone made it just fine and Lynn and Andrew nabbed some seats for us in the back where we would have more leg room.

At some point the boat pulls in to bring on more passengers and we all seemed shocked--where would they sit?? There are no seats left! There went our leg room. I'll tell you right now, if you have issues with personal space, don't take the slowboat down the Mekong! People thought nothing of squeezing in between others and just plopping down at their feet. Live roosters and baggage get piled on top of the boat, and then the boat just won't start. You can hear the engine struggling to start as someone is banging on the engine. People suddenly begin to theorize: Will we have to get off and wait for another boat? Will we get stuck here? Where are we, anyway? Someone paddles out on another boat to try and help. Next thing you know, a group of men are holding onto a heavy rope that is attached to the engine's flywheel, they start counting in Lao, do the heave-ho move and yank hard a few times until the engine roars to life again. Everyone cheers loudly and the boats takes off.

No one seems to know what time the boat is due to arrive in Louang Phabang (I see different spellings on the name--sometimes it is Prabang, other times Phabang)--some are told it is shorter than the first day and will take 5 hours, some were told 6, some 7. In all, it takes 9 hours, a total of 16 hours in two days. I have a meltdown of sorts on the last 2 hours of the trip due to a wave of pre-menstrual depression and people try hard to cheer me up, but nothing seems to work. I just stood in the head and cried, how pathetic. I hate when this happens, and luckily it does not happen every month, luckily for Paul.

Paul and I feel we have earned a night in an expensive hotel at this point after sitting for so long on a 2 day boat ride and take a tuk-tuk to a place we read about; they are fully booked and reccomend another place called the Merry Lao-Swiss. Everything there is written in German and English, and I'm not sure if I understand the connection, but there you have it. It is a lovely place and we check in, take a shower, and head to The Apsara, a swanky, New York-priced place for dinner. The food is delicious, and we both wake up around 2 a.m. feeling horrible. We have food poisoning! The next day is spent in bed but at some point I manage to make my way downstairs to let the staff know the A/C is broken, we are sick, please fix it! Within 10 minutes 3 guys come to the door to replace the relay in the A/C, and we are relieved to be spending a sick day in a comfortable guesthouse and not on the boat or in Pakbeng.

The next day we finally get to see the sights of Louang Prabang and have been here ever since. It is a cute place with friendly people and a laid-back atmosphere. LP is an early to bed, early to rise kind of town and there isn't much going on after 10 p.m. We have been to several Buddhist Wats, or temples, as there are loads of them. There are also many young (by young I mean at least 10 to 15 years old) "novice" boy monks with shaved heads all over town, who are here to study. They carry parasols to shade them from the hot sun and I think they look adorable.

Tonight we are off to the capital, Vientiane via Laos Airlines. More updates to come from Vientiene before we head off to Viet Nam.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Heat Wave Coming

For those of you tracking our meterological progress, things are looking a bit grim.

After abandoning our shoes for flip flops the moment we got off the plane in Bangkok, we've been enjoying some pretty danged hot weather. Temps were probably in the upper 80's in Koh Phangan - where we had frequent rainstorms that cooled things off nicely in the afternoon. Ocean temps were proably around 80.

At Haad Beach Koh Island (off the North Coast of Little Rangoon) things were definitely hotter. Daytime temps were well into the 90s and the sea had to be well into the upper 80s - some of the warmest water I've ever swam in.

One night the tide came in quite high - waves maybe 15 feet from our bungalow as we were sleeping and the moist heat from the water was palpable.

Chiang Mai has been much dryer and cooler in the evenings, but afternoon highs have been in the low 90s.

As we head north we were hoping to cool off a bit in the hill country, but it looks like this part of the world is going to be pretty hot next week. Chiang Rai (our next stop) and northern Laos both look to be in the low 100s next week - temperatures we thought we would be avoiding by not going to India this time of year.

If you don't hear from us, assume we've melted into some fancy hotel with AC, a pool and a large bottle of the coldest Chang beer.

My 30 Seconds of Fame

And let's just say that when a 175lb (more or less) lady decides to jump into your arms while you're simultaneously trying to get your sideways flip-flop back on straight and also boogie-down in a fashion that will be remotely entertaining to your newfound throng of cheering fans, you better be ready to catch.

Needless to say, I was not.

I was laid out flat - with her on top of me.

The crowd went wild!!!

Chiang Mai enroute to Chiang Rai

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second biggest city after Bangkok and we have been here for 3 days. Paul and I stayed in a modest hotel on the bank of a river, while Frank and Rebecca, the honeymooners, stayed at this hotel called The Chedi; it is the swankiest hotel I have ever seen. Our jaws dropped when we walked in, then dropped even further when we went up to their room--they were assigned their own butler, if you can believe that. We were more than happy to live vicarously through them during cocktail hour on their terrace every evening.

Chiang Mai is a really cute city that is easy to get around. The area we stayed in was not heavily touristed and on our first day of adventuring around we looked for a place to eat lunch. Everything on the menu was listed in Thai, which gave us little choice but to wing it and see what we ended up with on our plates. I have to say that I am pretty thankful at this point I have falled off the vegetarian wagon, as it is practically impossible to avoid meat if you want to be adventurous and eat in local joints. It turns out that many restaraunts specialize in just one thing, so there is essentially one dish on the menu with a choice of either pork or chicken with broth and vegetables added in, with rice on the side. It feels odd to order hot, spicy soup in 95 degree weather but there you have it. I haven't had one bad meal yet, regardless of how much I sweat while eating it!

The other night Frank suggested this cabaret/Vegas style show at "The Simon's Dream" and it was pretty hilarious. Think extreme schlock and drag queens mixed up with traditional Thai costumes and dancing, with jungle motif. I don't know how else to explain it. The costumes were outrageous and glittery and the stage sets changed with every dance routine. Of course, the gay national anthem was played at the end--"I Will Survive"--and this fabulous trannie yanked Paul out of his seat and dragged him on stage. We were laughing so hard that I almost forgot to pull out the camera. He wound up with glowing red lipstick marks all over his face by the end of it.

We couldn't board the 10:00 bus to Chiang Rai so we are currently killing time in an internet cafe, awaiting our 12:30 V.I.P. luxury bus with toilet and air conditioning -- only $12 for two one way tickets.

We keep spacing out on bringing the USB cord out with us to upload recent photos and hope to have some up on the next post.

After Chiang Rai, it is off to Laos! Just in time for the heat wave. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mr. Pong II

Just to expand on a bit of Michele's most recent post, I must tell the tale of Mr. Pong II (not to be confused with Mr. Pong I - who operates Dubble Duke seafoods on Haad Salad on Koh Phangan).

When we were last in Surat Thani a week ago, we'd just been taken by the mini-mini bus driver from "Holiday Travel" to a bogus stop at restaurant (where we thought we were going to catch the minibus to "Little Rangoon", but instead were just suckered into buying lunch before proceeding to the actual minibus station), when we managed to get in touch with Kae - the proprietor of the Haad Beach Koh Island "resort" at which we wound up staying. Kae confirmed that they had 2 bungalows available.

The problem, however, was that our minibus would arrive into Little Rangoon right as the last boat headed off the north coast would be leaving.

However, Kae informed us that her husband - Mr. Pong - the Chief of Police would meet us at the minivan.

So we depart in a pounding rainstorm, twisting through beautiful tropical mountains, Frank, Rebecca, Michele and I (and 6 of our closest friends) all scrunched into a Toyota minivan.

As in all such cases, our minivan was met in Little Rangoon by a sea of faces offering taxi and other services. Bags our getting pulled out. People are going this way and that. Somehow through the mini-throng, a smiling face appears and we realize in that magic - somehow I know you're the guy we're looking for way - that it's Mr. Pong.

Bags are tossed into the back of his truck. Michele and Rebecca get in up front, Frank and I dive into the back and he hits the gas. We tear through town, passing on the right, left and straigh up the middle. I see myself in the rear view mirror and I look like a dog in a pickup on the freeway as I watch scooters and pedestrians dive for the shoulder.

We get to the dock (not quite a Starsky & Hutch power slide, but damn close), throw our bags on the longtail boat that's been kept waiting a half an hour for us and with a quick wave goodbye, we're off into an exotic estuary of mangrove & fishing boats.

And that was the last we saw of Mr Pong II.

This time...