Sunday, December 20, 2009

Balancing Act in Cambodia

I was only in Cambodia for 4 day. It wasn't long enough to do much more than see the temples of Angkor Wat. What follows are some funny encounters with tuk-tuk drivers. The temples themselves were incredible. I enjoyed cycling around and imagining the grandeur of the ancient Khmer civilization. At the same time, I wanted to be cognizant of and learn more about the genocide in Cambodia. It is worth checking out the following link: to read what happened in the times of Pol Pot and Year Zero. 30% of Cambodia's population died - an estimated 2 million Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution...a silent horror most of the world doesn't know about.

(moment of silence).

Jumping to funny conversations with tuk-tuk drivers and touts trying to sell things...I've been trying to find a way not to be frustated by always being asked to buy things. I've realized that diffusing unwanted bantering with both a "no" and a smile/laugh makes it better.

Do you need a postcard?
No, I don't need ANY postcard.
Oh. Ha.

Hello lady (while I'm on a bike) you need tuk-tuk?
No, why would I need a tuk-tuk? I have a bicycle.
Oh, it's OK lady. You put bicycle here (on the side of the street) and you take tuk-tuk.
No, no, no. But I don't NEED a tuk-tuk. I like the bicycle.
OH! Okay lady.

(at 5:30am at the Angkor Wat temple, waiting for the sunrise)
Encounter #1
Buy coffee here free chair.
(After I move chairs for a better view) Why you be like that? You sat in my chair first! You sat in my chair first!
Encounter #2
Ms? Ms? No coffee? No chair.
Let me think.
No, no think. You pay now.
I'm thinking.
No Ms. No coffee, no chair. Get out now.
Okay, okay. I'll sit on the ground.
You sit on ground. (pulling the red plastic chair out from under me...ha!)

8 Days on a Bicycle in Laos

[Setting: At a small guest house in Phonsavan, Laos. Evening. A guy on a bike just rode up, and jumps off of it likes he's spent some time on one before. Sweating, after a long day for riding around, he takes a drink of water, and wipes the perspiration from his brow. His name is Fabien. He is from France.]

ME: [thinking I may have found a "victim" to cycle to Cambodia with...] Hey! Where you going tomorrow?
FABIEN: South.
ME: Me too.
FABIEN: Where you going?
ME: Well, I'm going to Vientiane tonight on the night bus. But, I'm hoping to buy a bike and cycle to Cambodia from there. [throwing the idea out there...]
FABIEN: Really?? How long do you think it'll take?
ME: I'm not sure. Maybe a week?
FABIEN: Huh...

[one hour later, when I walk past him eating dinner and drinking
a beer in a small cafe)

FABIEN: You know about the bike?
ME: Yah? [thinking - yes! -maybe he wants to go...he seems like the type...adventures are more fun with a friend...]
FABIEN: I think I'd like to go. Yah yah yah.
ME: Sweet! Really? Ha! Well, here's my email address. Email me and we'll find bikes in Vientiane tomorrow...

That's how cycling over 700km through rural Laos started.

I'd had the idea for a few days before I met Fabien that I'd like to cycle through Southern Laos. After spending the previous 2 1/2 months trekking through mountains, I was getting tired of only riding buses in Thailand. It was time to move again...physically move...and cycling seemed like fun. So, why not? Meeting Fabien was an uncanny crossing of people in time and place; he turned out to be a great bike buddy.

In Vientiane, we found, bought, and outfitted cycles in one day. Running around the capital, trying to find a bike shop, then fixing brakes, bike seats, and finding some bike was beautiful chaos. The next morning, we set out.

We met lots of fun(ny) people and saw interesting places along the way. Memorable moments...

-sleeping in a monastery, and parking the bikes in front of Buddha. Oops. A monk came over and told us to move them. Lesson #1: No bikes in front of Buddha.
-Fabien accidentally ordering things he didn't really the time he thought he was getting a hard boiled egg...and the "egg" came but with a partially developed baby bird inside, hair included.
-taking shoes off to enter a guesthouse, but after kicking off the shoes, rolling the bicycles into the room
-riding into Pakse and the bank sign showing 40 degrees centigrade...over 100 degrees F
-on being saddle sore, to quote Fabien: "you know, everything is great. really just great. except, i don't know what to do about this pain in my ass."
-trying to take a short cut after seeing the temples of Champasak, and instead ending up on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. bone-jarring riding, constant dust in the face from passing vehicles, scorching sun. worrying if we could find a way back across the Mekong...we were in luck. managed to score a boat taxi to the others side, and then after 3km of riding single-track over roots and potholes (remember we are on fully-loaded road bikes), popping out onto Route 13 going, Where in the world are we? The good news: We were 8km farther south than we thought we'd be, but 8km in the correct direction.
-the feeling of relief and accomplishment on reaching the 4,000 Islands of the Mekong at sunset, just kilometers from the Cambodian border, after a hard week of riding.

Once we got to the 4,000 Islands we managed to sell the bikes to couple that owned a guesthouse on Don Khon. However, it was only once we reach the islands that Fabien realized: a) he was out of money and b) the closest ATM was 3 hrs. in the opposite direction. We decided that the only thing to do - other than putting Fabien on a bus immediately to Pakse - was to sell the bikes right then. Our clients ended up being an older French speaking Laos couple. First they only wanted my bike, but then decided they wanted Fabien's, too. That they spoke French, and that Fabien was from France...well, it was very convenient for the business transaction. :) We bought the bikes for $80, sold them for $50. They got a good price, and I definitely felt I had my $30 of fun out of the deal.

And that is how cycling 700km through rural Laos ended. Lots of fun, fried rice, fried eggs, sticky rice, and Laos coffee. I'm glad it worked started with an idea...and ended on an island in the middle of the Mekong River, bikeless, tired, but all the better from the ride and all the laughter. The next day, Fabien headed to Bangkok to meet some friends, and I took a bus south to Cambodia and Angkor Wat.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Northern Laos - Floating Down the Mekong and Unexploded Ordenances (UXO's)

My time in Northern Laos was split between a 2-day boat ride on the Mekong from Northern Thailand/Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos along with a visit to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. My photo album for this section is a photo journal with explanations of time spent on the Mekong, in Luang Prabang, and the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan. However, because I think awareness of global issues is very important, below is some information on UXO's in Laos. Read on. You will be astonished and horrified.

UXO Lao’s Fight against Unexploded Ordnance by Bounpheng Sisavath, UXO Lao March 2006

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) has established a regional office and field offices in nine heavily impacted provinces in Laos. In 2003, the government announced a national strategic plan to deal with the UXO problem, introducing major reforms in the sector and defining clear objectives for clearance operations. UXO Lao productivity has greatly increased since then and is on track to more than double its annual output by the end of 2008.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic has the distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation in the world.1 As a result of the broader conflict in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s, Laos was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment.

From 1964 until 1973, over half a million bombing missions were carried out over the country, and as a result, over two million tonnes (2.2 million tons) of bombs were dropped.1 Based on its experience over the last 10 years, UXO Lao estimates that up to 30 percent of all ordnance dropped failed to detonate on impact, leaving a lethal legacy that continues to kill, maim and impoverish over 30 years later. This explosive ordnance included vast quantities of cluster bombs which released sub-munitions, or bomblets (also referred to as "bombies" by the Laotian people). Such unexploded bomblets become, in effect, anti-personnel munitions. Bombing records provided by the U.S. government indicate that over 80 million of these bomblets were dropped all over the country.2 There are also vast quantities of unexploded large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortar shells, anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices lying around.

Such large-scale contamination has resulted in over 13,000 casualties since 1975, and vast portions of agricultural land have been rendered unusable...

More more information on Laos and UXO's:

Northern Thailand by Foot, Bike, Bus, and Motorbike

Compilation of thoughts from emails sent in Northern Thailand to different people on November 30th after a 4-day motorbike (110cc of pure power) adventure, chasing the Burmese border, and preparing to head to Laos:

things are going really well...sadly i had to turn in my little blue motorbike yesterday, ah, but he was good company. there was even a bob marley sticker on the side of him. ha! not my doing... i had a good time in mae sai, and some great conversations with a burmese (of the shan people) man yesterday morning. learned a lot more about the political situation there; was moved by the plight of the different people groups in myanmar/burma and their hope for just rule. he also let me borrow a book "twilight over burma: my life as a shan princess" which was actually very well-written and a great intro to burmese history. after that, i rode to chiang sean, and was planning to spend the night there. but i passed through the golden triangle on my way from mae sai, and after sitting there for a while and watching the river, decided that i'd ride the long way back to chiang rai instead. i enjoyed riding the empty backroads of thailand immensely - great time for thinking and contemplating, too. thoughts about oppressed people everywhere (tibetans, burmese/shans, latinos, systemic discrimination, etc, etc), thoughts about my time in thailand, what to do in laos, wondering what my family is up to, hoping my former students are doing okay, all while passing through the golden fields of rural thailand.

stayed the night in chiang rai. wandered into a night bazaar with live music. wanted to paint a picture of what it was like. i was sitting at a yellow folding table on a yellow folding chair in the middle of a U-shape of vendors, listening to music, watching a performance. thai families eating, groups of teenagers mingling over with fruit shakes and fried noodles, pad thai, green curry, fried intestines on the menus. lady boys. foreign couples. old men with young thai women. nearly full moon, stars obscured by city light. florescent pink lights on the stage. an occasional cockroach scurrying by. laughter, conversations, people talking, walking, watching.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bangkok and Beyond

First impressions of Bangkok…the city felt incredibly different from both India and Nepal. The traffic was more under control, there was less honking, waste baskets actually existed for trash (like, if I threw something on the floor, it would make it dirty!), and I wasn’t pestered nearly as much to buy things (taxi, tuk tuk rides, hashish, food, trinkets, etc. etc.) from street vendors. The change was actually a bit of a relief, despite how much I’d enjoyed the previous two countries. At the same time, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of backpackers in Bangkok! I’ve never seen so many in one place! They were all eating pineapple on sticks and watching afternoon movies in the common rooms of their respective hostels. Ha! So…instead of spending two nights there as planned, I simply left the day after arriving.

Since then, I’ve been heading north through Central Thailand, in search of mountains and quieter places. Along the way I spent time in the historic capitals of Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, and also a few days in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, the “capital” of the north. In both Ayuthaya and Sukhothai I rented bicycles and honed my peddling skills on the left side of the road. It was very relaxing to spend the days on the cycle, drinking coffee, and looking at old ruins from the 13th and 14th centuries while trying to absorb Thai history. In Chiang Mai, I took a Thai cooking class, hoping to learn more wheat-free dishes. J It was fun to spend the day at an organic farm, with some other foreigners, even though that’s not my normal mode of traveling.

Speaking of traveling…I am daily asked if I’m OK traveling by myself. In actuality, I’m enjoying it a lot. Even as a solo female traveler in Thailand, I feel quite safe. Yes, precautions always should be taken, but Thailand is a very easy country to travel in as a female. There are so many other travelers, I find that I can enter into conversations and socializing as much or as little as I like. Traveling solo, I also have the luxury of stopping when I want,

and going where and when I want. While there are also many benefits of traveling with friends, and I’m excited to do that again, too, for the moment, I am quite content wandering around South East Asia by myself.

I’m currently headed north, touring the northernmost part of Thailand along the Burmese border. More on that to follow soon…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Smiling Yaks and Praying Flags: Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate…But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that's out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He's likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees…He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what's ahead even when he knows what's ahead because he just looked a second before…He's here but he's not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be "here." What he's looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn't want that because it is all around him. Every step's an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant. (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

I love how open spaces open up the mind to reflect, to wander, to be still, or to process life. I had a lot of time for all of the above the last three week. Trail thinking. Nothing better than some physical movement to direct the movement of the mind as well. And, in all of the miles of footsteps, maybe I made some mental footsteps as well.

Hiking the Annapurna Circuit was an exercise in “presentness” – allowing each step to remind me of where I am, Nepal, and the ground I am walking over. During the trek, I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The metaphor of the trek as a life path, one which I walk in terms of who I am, permeated my thoughts. My friend Hana (who I was trekking with) and I had many conversations on how to walk the fine balance of expectation for future events alongside interacting with the present moment – not what has been, not what is to come, but what is now.

And the “nowness” of the trek was incredible. Nepal is a country rich in jaw-dropping scenery. Being surrounded by 24,000+ foot mountains was like walking through a land of giants. Imagine standing in the Annapurna Sanctuary at 14,000 feet, looking up, and realizing that the mountains surrounding you are still ~12,000 feet higher. Some of the “giants” we walked by included Dhaulagiri (26,795ft – 7th highest in the world), Annapurna I (26,502ft), Annapurna II (26,041ft), Himalchuli (25,801ft), to name a few.

I could explain more details of the trek itself. But I think I'll leave you simply to ponder the present-ness of life right now, in this moment, instead of filling it with noise. However, here are a few story-starters...when we meet again, ask me about:

1) Nepali-boy
2) The dog on the roof
3) Figurative leeches
4) The Karma Cleansing Clinic
5) Television noise
6) #1 Halloween in Nepal

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Overload the Dryer, Lessons from the Himalayas

Namaste. Greetings from the mountains. I'm currently in Pokhara, Nepal, getting reading to hike the Annapurna Circuit (340km trek) with a friend. However, before I go forward, I feel that I should fill in some of the events of the past 6 weeks.

First, a synopsis. We climbed. We saw. We completed. After leaving the United States and landing in Delhi we traveled by bus to Ranikhet, a small mountain town, where NOLS India is based. After a few days of rest and repacking group and individual gear, we left for another full day of travel to the mountains. From there, the trip itself can be divided into 3 sections.

I. Rain, Rain Go Away. Our first week of trekking up to the glacier was a very soggy one. Late monsoon weather kept the sky falling and our gear wet. However, it was a good week of getting to know the other group members and getting acquainted with our equipment. The trail was mostly cobblestones, as it's the main artery – could I even say a foot and donkey highway? – up to the small villages throughout the valley. Our last camp was spent at the base of the Pindari Glacier, where we were taken care of by Babaji. Babaji is a name given to any spiritual man; this particular Babaji is a friend of NOLS. He's a Hindu holy man and practices a simple life of meditation and of giving. He cooked us an incredible meal while we camped near his hut; we were grateful recipients of his care.

II. Don't Overheat the Dryer. In other words, don't try and dry too many wet socks or clothes in your sleeping bag with you overnight! If you do, you'll sleep cold and wet until morning, and your clothes won't dry
. However, if you load the "dryer" properly - for example, one pair of socks and some gloves - a sleeping bag and body heat is a very effective way to dry small items at 16,000+ feet.

During this section of the course we camped mostly on glacier and spent our days shuttling up rations to future camps, or traveling on rope teams to our new camps. A typical day: 6am Wakeup/Breakfast. Take down camp. Repack. 8 or 9am rope up on rope teams. Hike. Wait for the first group to break snow. Hike. Wait. Hike. Wait. 1-5pm arrive at new camp. Probe for crevasses. Level snow for a tent. Dig out a kitchen and community latrine. Make dinner. Make hot drinks. 7-8pm Go to bed.

What was most surprising to me was the temperature extremes while on the glacier. During the day, if the sun was out, it felt like we were on a white beach. The reflectivity was so strong, and the temperature felt so hot, it seemed we should be sunbathing, not hiking! However, the minute the sun went down, being on glacier was an entirely different, very cold, world.

Highlights: Seeing the sun set over Nanda Devi (25,643ft). from the top of the first pass (17,600ft). Having constant snowball ammunition for 2 weeks to throw at anyone for any reason. Laughing through life with other people. Night skies full of stars and the Milky Way.

III. More chai? After completing our glacier travel (we were the first group in 18 years to complete the trek as a group, with no evacuations), we hiked out the Milam Valley to catch jeeps back to Ranikhet. This valley is tightly controlled by the India military. Because we were only a few miles from the Tibet border, we had to go through certain checkpoints down the valley so the government would know that we exited. During these few days our instructors went ahead of us as we traveled in small, independent groups of 4-6 students. Again, it rained, but after weeks on snow, we didn't flinch. This time we stayed in small guest houses instead of camping and it was a welcome relief not to pitch a tent. Our favorite guest house in the one-hut town of Siuni, consisted of an old man and 10 cups of chai (chai = milk tea). That is, 10 cups of chai, each! We had chai in bed, before bed, and the minute I sat up in the morning, I had a cup of chai in my hand.

The course winded down with a few more days in the mountains, cleaning equipment and final debriefing in Ranikhet, and then a train to Delhi. I loved being in the Himalayas for such a long time, and hope to spend more time in them in the future. They are big, gorgeous mountains. And speaking of mountains, I'm already on my way to being back in them. Tomorrow a new friend from Colorado and I will start the Annapurna Hike, a classic trek through the Nepalese mountains. Namaste…goodbye.

Interested in seeing more pictures? Check out Picasa web album:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All Things Begin Somewhere

Quiet, Pacific Northwest night. The first crisp of fall is present and outside there is a damp chill in the air. Sitting inside and listening to the hum of the refrigerator, I’m trying to formulate words to describe how I feel at the beginning of a 6-11 month trip. Flying up to Seattle to spend a few days with friends has felt more like a normal, weekend visit than the beginning of some saga-like adventure. I like that. I like the emphasis on the present moment more than the preoccupation with the unknown future.

Tomorrow morning I meet up with my NOLS Mountaineering group, ushering in the next five weeks of new friends and the glacial ice of the Himalayas. I’ll be back in contact with the outside world during the second week of October. After that, there are countries I’d like to visit, but my plans are more oriented in how I’d like to interact with the world than an itinerary that I feel obligated to keep. I do know that I’ll be in Asia until the end of January and then flying to Argentina on January 24th, 2010.

If I could sum up the purpose of my trip, I’d borrow author Salmon Rushdie’s words: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the whole world.” I’m setting out to swallow - to taste, touch, feel, see, and ponder - the world. Not to quantify or qualify people or cultures, but to seek understanding and communication between people. As I see more of how others live, I can only hope that it will help me understand “one life” - my life - more fully and the lives of the people from the worlds of Colorado, Wheaton College, and Los Angeles that I’ve loved and inhabited. Here I go.