Wednesday, March 30, 2005
What technology are we going to produce to stop the devastation and prolong our way of life as it is? Uh, maybe that's not possible. Maybe a change/restraint is necessary?
Just an idea.
While cold water (for only 6 baht) is a nice treat on a day like today, it's gratification is superceded by that provided by fresh pineapple on a stick (10 baht). Sweet, juicy, and oh so refreshing! Good stuff
Just noticed a couple huge stains on my chest (on my shirt, not my actual chest. You wouldn't be able to see one of those. All the hair, you know?) that are not simply sweat stains like I had hoped. Oops.
It's ok though. I have a change of shirt in my small backpack to toss on once I get to the airport. I'll continue sweating in this one until I reach the AC'd confines of the terminal.
Speaking of bags, I don't think I could have packed my bigger bag any better. Open/dead space is virtually non-existent. The bike lock and pump and machete and pots and wicker basket all fit inside.
And I bought a new book, which I am enjoying immensely: The Magus. Thanks to RN for the suggestion. Unfortunately, it is not a small book, so my precious baggage space has once more been compromised.
Last day in Asia...hard to imagine that I am already so far along in this venture. 6 months or so it's been since I left Chicago on a jet plane, not sure when I'll be back again. And what a time it's been. Asia is amazing and I can't wait to come back. Though I am not that different a person than when I left, I feel like I've changed some. Learned more, grown more patience and tolerance, and in general am a better person (as Tupac says: Only gods can judge me now). My eyes feel more opened to so many things, and my life more open to just as many. It really isn't that large a world, and I can't wait to see more of it.
I've met many people along the way who have enhanced my travels or have given me some stories to tell. Some I am sure I'll keep in touch with, while others have email addresses that will remain in my notes, unused. I'll echo a sentiment that R wrote in her last email about traveling alone. It is a hell of a good experience. I've loved it.
Asia comes highly recommended to you from me. It is intimidating, especially at first, I won't deny that. But in the end it isn't that bad and overall is a great experience. Check 'er out. And if you want to hire a guide, porter, whatever, let me know. I come pretty cheaply.
Arriving in Nong Khiaw, I settled into my guest house (a tiny room at the edge of the ricketiest deck I've ever stepped foot on-a sagging bamboo number. Nice view of the river though) (on the east side of the river) and then headed to get dinner with the guy from Quebec who was checking into the room next to mine as I dropped my load.
A beautiful little town, Nong Khiaw. Large limestone cliffs on all sides, the wide Nam Ou ('nam' is pretty much anything water. So it's the Ou River) floating lazily past, and a long concrete bridge extending between the town on the east and west sides of the river. Seeing the river got me more than a little excited about my idea.
Have I mentioned the idea yet? Passed along from my sister who undertook the same voyage a year previous (though I intended to go further because I am better!), the idea goes like this: buy a local boat in Nong Khiaw. Paddle down river (my destination being Luang Prabang) and stay in villages along the way. Brilliant idea.
Back to dinner. While eating with M, 2 girls showed up, also hailing from Quebec (Quebecers were everywhere!!), and sat to eat with us. Politics were discussed; I simply hung my head made funny noises. For a change, the discussion was more Canada vs. Quebec than the evil incarnate that is the US of A. Seems that while some Canadians hate being lumped in with Americans, many Quebecers feel just as strongly about being lumped in with Canada. Pretty weird, eh? Take off ya hoser!
Siderant-we're all people, ya know? To rephrase some lines from "Chasing Amy". In the movie, Amy states that becoming a lesbian was in part to not limit her chances of finding her one great love. Limiting her options to only men halves her chances. Well, by trying to maintain our heritage and breeding within our own (yes, I am simplifying greatly. I haven't ranted in a long while so leave me alone. It'll let me pretend that I am thinking) aren't we doing the same? And furthermore....splunge.
That died quickly. Almost before it began, you might say. Moving on....
While discussing our feelings on tourists, traveling, stuff like that, we all came to an agreement that the less touristy the better and that the tourists we were running across in Lao were much more like-minded with us than the ones found in say, Thailand. (Although it is hard to complain about the presence of tourists, because in essence you are then complaining about yourself. Catch that 22 if you can) So of course I mentioned my boat idea. Now, this wasn't exactly a bar, but I was on my second Beerlao (big bottles, 5%) and I'd just met these girls. Seemingly devoid of a 'sane' person's common sense they asked if they could come along on the trip. My response? "I love Beerloa!! Oh, um, yeah, why not. You can paddle." (I AM the consummate gentleman)
You might say that it was my overwhelming charm and strikingly good looks that wowed these female types into wanting to spend an unknown number of days on a still unprocured boat with me. But I don't quite see it that way (though feel free to assume that was the case). I was still unshaven and filthy from the long bus ride, and I was making a pig of myself-2 big beers and 2 full meals for my dinner. Not to mention my lack of clean clothes and hairy armpits. And chasing a damn rooster down the road hell-bent on destruction may not have enhanced my peace-loving side.
A mystery, it was/is.
The next morning I woke up and ran into J on the bridge (literally. I was bopping away with my MP3, hat pulled way low [still have no sunglasses. Lost them in China running for a bus and still haven't recovered]), where he was taking pics and looking disconcerted. Seems during the night a rat had fallen into bed with he and C, and she didn't appreciate the visit. This was the case almost all over; rats were being heard, seen, and felt. I heard them in the wall at my head, but reserved my feelings of rancour for all the bloody chickens!! J told me that they were moving guesthouses, and I wished him luck and continued across to the west side of the river to the 'docks' (place of mud where boats were pulled up) to talk with people. It went well. Got offers and my confidence buoyed. I cruised passed the girls' (the Js) place to check on their seriousness. They were full in. Still. Amazing I tell you. My only guess is that they planned to either drag me behind the boat to clean/unstench me, or conduct a mutiny and use my as buffalo boat. I am still afraid to ask.
More background on my amazement. In all the discussions on the subject, I could provide no map, no detailed knowledge of the river or use of Lao boats, no idea of how far we would be going or how long it would take. All I knew was that I could find a boat, there was water, and people in Lao are nice so finding a place to stay might work.
And that according to my self-proclaimed brilliant water-god friend, "water flows downhill" so how could we get lost? Knowing how to say: "Nybon mi"/"take me to your chief" and lugging along a machete, bike pump and bike lock, further reinforced our goldenness in my mind.
Feeling luck, I decided to hold off on further shopping until the evening when more boats were off the water. To fill my day, I hiked a couple kms out to some caves that were used by the Lao people when the US military was not bombing Lao, leaving behind large craters and dead people and all that. Yes, that is sarcasm. Amazing how even those high up can close their eyes and pretend something didn't happen simply because most of their constituency can't see the evidence first hand.
Talking to members of the 'bombsquad' at the caves I learned: they find on average 2 mines a day. And I've heard that on average 2 people a day die from mines in Lao. I had no idea.
At the caves I hooked up with 4 girls from...all over, and hung out with them at a nearby village and school, snapping pics of the kids and trading traveling tales. And hearing all about 'women's problems'. Love that.
Returning to town, I took leave of my new new friends (until dinner that night) to check out boats. J was down at river's edge sunning and talking to a Lao guy (Pons). I ran down and ended up talking to the Lao cat and finding out that he had boats for sale. We chatted, then walked into his village to talk with his dad. I waited on the outskirts of the village, making faces at little kids who threw confused looks and amazement back at me, while Pons talked to daddy. A bit later he returned with a decent price. I grabbed the Quebecers and we jaunted upon the river on a test ride. My excitement almost precipitated a Tolliver-like accident, but I restrained. Ashore we struck a deal! We had a boat!
PA was arriving the next day, so one more day of waiting and we'd be on the river (PA would have one night to rest up and prepare). The large group of us had dinner and reveled in the actuality of my dream coming to fruition (I reveled, they looked at me funny).
Can you believe with no real effort I conned 3 people into joining me? And the best part is that all 3 had anxiety and worries both before and all throughout the journey. But I didn't have any such concerns. What does that mean? Maybe it is bad that it wasn't until after we reached our destination that I remembered a passage in the LP about medical care in Lao? Something to the effect of: "Don't get hurt. Medical care is almost non-existent, and the chances of getting care quickly is impossible." Ah, worrywarts.
Maybe to give you a better idea of why their worries may not have been allayed....the boat. A 34-foot long by maybe 2-foot wide wooden boat, closely resembling a coffin. Leaking (as all good Lao boats seem to do) only slightly, with 2 included oars that more closely resembled twigs than paddles for a 34-foot behemoth of a boat, it's visage was more of dogged resistance to being made into firewood than of power. A beautiful craft, in my eyes. I'll download the pics later.
The morning in Muang Sing found my 2 travel mates ready to 'trek' for a couple hours thru some of the hill tribe villages in the area. I decided to visit the first one, then ride back solo to take my time and all that jazz.
I wish I'd skipped the tribe.
Trekking in Thailand seemed a very sterile experience to me. Cleaned up looking villages, cleaned up (comparatively) people, tourist-prepped. Not this one. Half clothed people (not just kids), a run-down looking place, a more unprepped look than Thailand. That was fine, I prefer that. However, all the kids were begging for money, pens, or candy. Alternatively, they were attempting to sell bracelets; one kid tried to sell me a rubber band. The adults were all offering to sell us pot or opium. A very depressing feel to the place. As though the enticement of tourist dollars only increased the dependence on foreigner money and production of the drugs as an added sellable item. I didn't like it at all. Actually felt as though I were suffocating. After 10 minutes I quickly left. Though not quickly enough to avoid one man beckoning to me from under the roof of his raised house. And I don't think he was inviting me in for tea.
Happier stuff. The scooter ride back was great. I stopped a few times to take in the view; I rode slower and enjoyed myself even more. And, I took a couple pics!
Scootching into town I found my grin permanently affixed to my face and my heart lighter than it's been in ages. Corny sounding, I know. But when off on the adventure of a lifetime (a misnomer. The first of many such trips), heaviness of heart weighs even heavier than at home as its presence is even more unwelcome and uncalled for. Time has passed with me wondering when the pressure would ease, and what would loosen the strings of the burden. It's been happening. And I am relieved and overjoyed about it.
Lao. Magic. Thanks again for pushing me to stave off sloth, my little sister.
That was the Luang Namtha area. I left the next morning for Nong Khiaw to scout out a boat for the river trip I'd 'planned'. PA was staying behind 2 more days for a trek, and entrusted me with making a solid selection. I tell ya, I Pallas Athene musta pulled some smoke trick with his senses for him to so solidly believe in someone he just met, who had no actual plan.
Another beautiful drive thru the countryside and mountains. Though the drivers are slower than the Chinese bus drivers, the roads more closely follow the winding contours of the land and thus constantly throw you from side to side. Many people make use of the vomit bags. Me? Nah. I toss on my tunes and gaze enraptured out the window at the beautiful scenery.
Furthermore, as opposed to many of these long trips, there was no constant flow of story creation or visualization of future events per the usual. Instead, my music coursed thru my head and my brain stayed focused on the scenery and the people passing by and the sun making me sweat and the smiles and chatter of the Lao around me. And on the Lao sized seats on the bus (they are not a large race). It was great.
I'm telling you, something's been stripped away and now....
After the calm of Lao, the chaosity of Bangkok my kill me. Khao San Rd is filled with....not my ideal mates. And there're too many of them. I'd be much happier back on the "Apocalypse Brown" (stay tuned) paddling down some rapids than sitting here.
So it goes
Monday, March 28, 2005
By noonish we were no the road. Yes, we had helmets and even wore them most of the time. But it was a scooter! So light and nimble (though on the curvy mountain roads I did need to reign myself in with a reminder that I was not on a cycle built for leaning over. And gravel and tree bits rampantly scattered themselves in the road) and a lot of fun! The road was in fairly good shape and there was very little traffic. Little villages were everywhere, and the people were always running out to say hello. Briefly we stopped at one to chat with the kids (which entailed all of us saying "Sa bai di" [hello in Lao] over and over). Very cute. Half clothed, snot covered faces, bright smiles, and when they saw the pic I took of them on my digital their din echoed off the huts. Very very cute. Mists (smoke) covered the hills and distant villages, small streams reflected the mountains, and all was quiet except for the buzz of our engines. About half way along we stopped for a rest and to enjoy....life. The mountains were beautiful and as we neared our destination we descended down into and thru a large gorgey canyon.
As we rode along, I found a grin creeping onto my mug. The air rushing past seemed to be stripping away at me and leaving me exposed. Finally. For the first time in way too long I found myself completely in the moment and enjoying and noticing all the fineties as they cruised past (which also made me a poor leader, as my riding speed became more than a little erratic). Instead of looking for things to take pics of, I enjoyed everything I was seeing. Instead of looking ahead to our destination or my planned boat trip or heading to Fiji or Hawaii or anything, my head was concerned only with what I was seeing and doing. And since that hasn't been the case for I don't know how long, I felt more than a little relieved and it made me grin even wider.
The town of Muang Sing saw us only for a brief stop for lunch and a wall hanging purchase for me. Then we pushed on to check out the Lao/China border (not where I crossed) and a guest house out of town. The guest house was amazing-small bamboo huts off the road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and fields. Beautiful-and cheaper lodging than in town. We droppde our bags then headed down the road to the border. Fields aflame, small villages with people heading home from the fields, and water buffalos led the way. At the border we shut the engines off and PA and I ended up getting into a 2 on 2 volleyball game with a couple of the Lao border guards! It was a riot! No one won or lost (not EVERYthing is a contest), but we all laughed a lot.
The sun was setting so after washing a bit in the large water basin (there aer pics, but I need to get them from the girl who accompanied us) we headed back. My head was in the clouds and I was perfectly at ease and happy. Dinner was good and we were joined by a great guy from France who works in one of the local villages for an NGO. A few BeerLaos went down, and the night was concluded with one hell of a thunderstorm! A shock (and problem) to all since it's still the dry season. Bad for the mango crops, I believe. But for me, not having seen a real thunderstorm in months, it was great.
I crawled into my mosquito net covered bed very contentedly. And eventually slept.
Passing thru the Lao side was seamless and I walked on until I reached a dusty parking lot filled (filled meaning there were vehicles in the lot) with 2 buses and a couple pick-up type transports (pick-ups with a cover and all that. They have a name but I can't say it and don't have my book so I can't spell it either). I yelled out: "Luang Namtha!" One of the saganthaws (maybe that's what the PUs are called? Something like that) yelled back so I mounted up and sat down. And waited. 2 hours later we had enough people to set out. And over the next couple/few hours (I forget how long I rode. 4 hours maybe?) we dropped a couple people but picked up many. Enough so that there were 4 people standing up on the back rack hanging on thru the cascading dust. And it was a dusty ride. The road was construction broken almost the entire way, and being the dry season the dust was high. It's also the slash/burn time of year so the air is further filled with smoke. But a beautiful drive. Green mountains stretching out across the horizon until we made it down into the plains. There the bright green fields stretched out, dotted with raised platformed huts and criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. The plants along the side of the road were a nice brown color thanks to the dust, but otherwise it was lush scenery the entire way.
You couldn'ta wire-brushed the smile off my face. It was warm, I was moving again, and was happy.
Luang Namtha is not a bad little town. A main road and a couple smaller roads make up the town. Slow, quiet, a very nice change from the chaos that is China. After jumping down off the saginthaw I found a guest house and checked in then walked around town in the intense heat to see what there was to see (not much).
Walking back up to my guest house, I was greeted with a "Holy shit! He's alive!". Two friends I made while in Kunming, China (J and C) also made the trip down with me. Since they didn't insert a bicycle trip into the mix they were a day ahead of me. Seems while they trucked down the road I biked, they got worried that I wouldn't survive because of the hills and length. Ha! They don't know how determined (stubborn) I am! We chatted a while, them in awe and me laughing at their surprise. Nice kids. (yes, I can call them kids since they are only 24ish and I am not anymore).
Parting ways, I headed for a nap but instead came back down 30 minutes later to have some curry, spring rolls and my first BeerLao (in Lao). As I sat there on the main street, I allowed the quiet and tranquility of the town wash over me. Very little traffic, not too many people. BUT, check this out. Lao is 'known' for producing opium and marijuana. And the LP mentions that you get offered some in the bigger cities. Well, Luang Namtha, though it is the capital of the region, is not a large city. But it was overrun with women from the local tribes selling their handicrafts. And pot and opium. An almost constant stream of these women passed by and they ALL pulled out baggies of pot or little plugs of opium. It was crazy!
Later I met J and C for dinner (only 2 hours later) and another beer. Since my guesthouse decided that they need to lock the doors at 10PM I headed back. And ended up sitting in the common area talking to other backpackers for a while. However, we did get cussed out. Some dude came out of his room and told us to stop talking because it was after hours and even pointed at the sign that said: "No talking after 10pm". It was 10:15 when he popped his nappy head out. The guesthouse and the people running it were not all that impressive. Talking with others (many people stay there), we've decided that they are running off the positive review they got in the Lonely Planet and aren't really trying anymore. Ah well.
The strange thing was, there were 4 Americans in town that I knew of. Four! I hadn't seen so many in one place in a long time! Isn't that thrilling?
So that was day one. Not all too exciting, but a nice start.
Round 1; Biking from Mengla to the Lao border
In an act of outrageous audacity, I began to mimic my better prepared sister's past endeavors. I decided to bike from Mengla, China down into Lao and around the north part of the country for a couple of weeks. To simplify matters, I waited until reaching Mengla to buy a bicycle. Mistake #1. Mengla is not a large town so the choices open to me were, shall we say, less than copious. There were dual suspension mountain bikes upon which it is impossible to mount any sort of luggage rack. The single gear 200lb bikes were also not very appealing (though one in particular had a great luggage system). My final option was a semi-mountain bike. Had the tires and look, many gears, no suspension, and a luggage rack on the back. Not very quality, but a very short practice ride convinced me that it would work. And it was only $20 or so. Money changed hands and I rode back to my hotel to prepare for the morning's departure.
Silently the sun glided into the sky and I roused from my slumber, excited to begin my journey. Instead of eating breakfast, I rode back to the bike shop so that the wheels could be trued and the gears and brakes adjusted. Without question the deeds were completed. Satisfied, I returned to the hotel and loaded up. Lashing the large backpack sideways across the rear luggage bar I mounted my small backpack on my back, adjusted my new wide sunhat and set off.
Mistake #2 (a multi-tiered mistake):
a) No exercise had tainted my body for 2 months.
b) My dietary plan was horrendous for over a month (combined with a bout of giardia) and for one month I relegated myself to almost undereating.
c) My buttocks had not rested upon a bike seat since the previous November
d) No true map rested in my hands, and the actual distance I needed to cover was more than a little murky to me.
Not one to let little things like 'foresight' get in my way, I pedaled off, enjoying the cool morning air and beautiful countryside.
In the beginning, it was great. A little hilly, but nothing serious. Fields of rice and other crops stretched out between the hills. Little villages dotted the valleys and hillsides. People flourished...everywhere (it is China, there's something like 800 trillion people in the country). "Hello"s greeted me from all sides. Kids waved, old men smoked opium from large pipes as I cruised past, strange looks followed me from behind.
An hour in I stopped atop a hill with a beautiful view and ate my breakfast (banana, raisins and peanuts). Tarrying only a brief time I set off quickly. Maybe an hour later, 'issues' began. My legs, unused to doing anything more vigorous than sitting, began to protest at the larger hills. Walking commenced on the steeps; easier, though my load was not light so even this took some work. A Belgian man pulled up behind me laughing as I walked up one hill. He told me that because of my bike, hat and luggage arrangement he thought I was Chinese! Haha, ya know? Him and his tight biking shorts and fancy bike and stuff. 2 Belgians coming from the other direction (all fancied out, of course) joined in the conversation and they left wishing me luck with my bike. A nice guy, however. It was nice to ride with him and chat for a little while. But when my chain made a leap for safety (sceond time that day) on an uphill, I convinced him to dally with me no longer. Off he went; I dirtied my hands again.
I stopped in one small town to buy beverages and was greeted all around with smiles. For a couple kilometers 2 Chinese lads rode along with me, talking with me all the while (effortlessly keeping up on their single gear bikes, of course). Folks working the fields and roads waved or paused long enough to gawk. I took a short nap on the side of the road, enjoying the cool breeze penetrating the shade to dry my sweaty pits. Another short almost nap took me over a couple hours later. The people all along the way were very nice and I've decided that I am tired of buses and the like; a bicycle is an incredible way to see a place and gives a much better insight into a place. It is much more fun to cruise thru at less than breakneck pace and let things soak in more.
Knowledge I gleaned (and will probably forget) from the experience:
Be in shape. Otherwise it hurts. Near the end, there were several moments at which I almost tossed my bike into a ditch (mabe not 'throw' so much as 'drop', due to my state of exhaustion) and hitched a ride. Fortunately, incredible fortitude (thick-headed stubbornness) is innate in my family so I kept at it. Near the end I was walking the bike up anything steeper than an even grade. Headrush, headrush, stagger, giggle, push on.
Food more substantial than peanuts and raisins would be ideal for a long ride. That energy thing helps.
Research your ride. Going from months of inactivity and bad food directly into a 56 km ride is not an easy transition.
Padded shorts are a good idea. My undercarriage hurt for days.
Don't buy a Chinese bike (like the one I bought, anyway).
That night I ate dinner with the Belgian guy who passed me as well as with an American and 2 other Belgians I met at the border (all bikers, heading up from Lao). Beer and real food tasted excellent. We chatted biking and whatnot, and for sure that is a mode of travel I will adopt someday. Anyone want to give me a bike?
The next morn I rose early, intending to find a bike shop and see if my ride was salvagable. I mounted up and 3 turns of the pedals later I gave up. Grabbing my packs, I left the bike in the room and walked to and across the Lao border.
At least this time no real tsunami followed (only a 10-incher).
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Oatmeal and rice
A pot and lid, and a wok-type lid
15 meters of rope
an oar (not for much longer)
Is that it? I thought I had a longer list of cool things. Hm. Since I need to cram everything back into my pack tonight I'll try and see what I missed and update this list.
Kilo of uncooked rice
1/2 kilo (more or less) of Lao coffee
bag of cardamon seeds
bag of Uzbek tea
coffee drip maker
No more oar
Lao wall hanging thing
I packed really well for my last bus trip. My big pack and a 1/2 filled smaller pack. And the big guy weighs a lot. So it goes. My last mission before getting on the plane in 2 days is to find a way to get the machete into the big pack without it slashing anything up. No, I won't leave it behind even though it only cost me $1. Silly people
The days here have been....lazy. Watched some movies, polished off many BeerLaos (a great beer, really), eaten a lot, and been deemed a hero of sorts in the eyes of at least one lad. (thanks, J!). Me and the 'posse' (2 Quebecians, another American, and a British ex-gossip columnist) wandered down to meet a couple other friends at the one true (foreigner) bar in town. Crazy busy place but fun for a short time. I met J and his fiancee C in Kunming China and our travel paths have been pretty similar over the last 3 weeks. J is amazed that I am still alive and thinks my methods of travel are not only a bit suspect, but riotously funny (you'll understand what's so funny when I get the pics downloaded). He's basically telling everyone around town about this crazy guy with a death wish who miraculously keeps appearing where (and more or less when) he says he will. My bike trip and boat trip (don't worry, details will come in a few days. They aren't very short posts) are his examples of my 'gutsiness'. So I show up and say hi and a few randoms look at me and say: "Oh! So you're THAT guy!" What a riot! I didn't do anything that daring or outrageous (I don't think) but with the right spin it sounds pretty good. So thanks, J. It's also balling me up to find a new venture to embark upon. I'd feel remiss in my duties as a story source if I parted ways with those 2 without another scheme in mind. Unfortunately, working on a coffee farm in Hawaii may not offer such exotic ideas.
And I'm actually worried about that. What if I get bored in Hawaii? Then what? I'll worry about that later. For now I should get to buying a bus ticket for tomorrow. Or get another BeerLao. Priorities, man!
For those who've heard the Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett duet "It's 5 o'clock somewhere", let me just say that that song has an entirely different meaning for me now than it did when it came out and I was locked in a cubicle. How crazy is that? I used to sit in a cubicle dressed nicely (nicely for me, anyway) doing work.
Now I sit here in Laos; my underwear is dirty; my shirt (a 5 time hand-me-down to me from my sis from her ex from....) has a large hole under the right armpit and a small one under the left (gotta get out the needle and thread); my sandles are almost over and my feet filthy; my hair is, well, entirely out of control.
Went swimming in a waterfall yesterday. Or for you anal types, I went swimming in the pool at the base of a waterfall.
And I seem to have protracted another bug to keep Tolliver (giardia) company. Unless it's ole' T getting restless. Not sure.
Monday, March 21, 2005
BUT, we made it. We being me, a guy from Wisconsin and two females from Quebec (semi-Canadia). Fun times. The girls wussed out and caught a bus at the beginning of day 3, but so be it. Me and WI paddled our 33 foot wooden rectangle the rest of the way.
5 more days in Laos for me-sucks, because I am loving this country. Then I'll sit in Bangkok for a couple of days (my head swirling and threatening to explode) before catching my flight to Fiji to meet R. While there I'll recount a couple/few things. It's been a hell of a ride since I left my sis's place a couple weeks ago.
Time for coffee. At least 2 cups. Gotta hydrate, ya know?
Sunday, March 20, 2005
I am alive after the rafting trips and will post the many stories when I get the chance (not sure when).
Thanx Brenda for the ideas.
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Today I am whiling away the hours. Picked my Laos visa up this morning, found an ATM willing to give up some cash to me and now all i need to do is find some food and convert some Chinese currency to US currency (easier to exchange US bills in other countries) and wait around. Hopefully, I will cruise into Laos on the 12th. If all goes according to plan...which it sometimes does?
Don't cry for me, Argentina!
Warm weather is much more pleasant than cold, ya know? Though I may change my mind as I'm sweating the last of my skin off in Laos.
Saturday, March 05, 2005
I sat next to an old boss, and the guy cracked me up. Nice guy, good english and I had a good time talking to him despite my knowledge of his slight stalkerish past. He kicked off the toasts and insisted that I need to drink a lot because I am "a big strong American". I laughed at him until he insisted on Baijiu (liquid lobotomy). A quick wrasslin' match convinced him that none was needed.
Toasts are ways of showing respect and all that jazz, and at dinners like this (or any dinner, really) toasts are an almost constant distraction from the food. Thank god, they got red wine instead of Baijiu. Every man at the table not only toasted me (5 of them), but insisted on 'bottom's up'. Which means you drink the entire glass. A very high compliment and insulting if you don't finish your drink. A couple women also toasted, but none of that BU crap. Don't worry, I got them all back later. Sis and I started stopping the ever-present waitress from completely refilling our glasses, and when I saw that all but the 2 of us had full glasses, I made another toast. And yes, bottom's up. Good fun
Then of course the karaoke got fired up, and no one could fathom how I could not want to sing! And not dance either. I had to explain that I almost never dance, which is a source of great consternation with my girlfriend. No one believed me, and they literally grabbed my arms and tried to drag me. Didn't work of course because even in my emaciated state I still outweight the lot of them.
The Chinese version of dance is a riot. For once the music was good-a lot of Russian tunes (they have the best music!), and everyone (but me) was out on the dance floor. The thing is, their upper bodies flail all over (especially their heads) but their feet don't move, at all! Prevents collisions and fights, I suppose. I watched the proceedings enjoying myself except the 437 times one of the guys grabbed my arm to pull me out to dance. Even invited me to dance, and was saddened that I said no. Apparently my sis didn't fill them in on how amazingly stubborn I am.
Had green pea ice cream yesterday; the fave flavor in these parts. Was pretty good, actually.
Yesterday I bought a plane ticket for Monday morning. That'll get me from Urumqi (Xinjiang Province; NW China) to Kunming (in the Yunnan Province; southern China). I am planning to stay in a hotel that doubles as the Laos Embassy (iteresting arrangement) and get to their office first thing Tuesday morning and submit my passport for a visa.
What this all leads up to, is that if all goes well I should be in Laos by the end of next week. My travel schedule and destinations are still up in the air, but I have ideas. MAYBE I'll cross the border on a bike, eventually cruising downriver in a boat. But it depends on a lot of things. Like finding a cheap but decent bike. Same with a boat, though this phase also depends on the amount of water flowing in the river (if the river is dry, it'll be tough paddling). Yeah, I'm pretty excited to get down there and spend at least 2 weeks checking the place out. And ya know what makes it better? Cheap as hell. And since I am toting a bunch of food with me and will hopefully provide my own transport, even cheaper!
Tomorrow morning we are heading to Urumqi. We'll spend the night there and then sis will see me off in the morning. She promises to cry, so that'll make it sadder. Good thing I got my ticket, or she mighta been able to convince me to stay here longer. It's been great fun, though we (I) have done very little.
In summary, I am off. Internet is hard to come by (and expensive) in Laos, so don't expect to hear much from me between mid-week next week and the end of the month. Any last words, be sure to get them out to me ASAP. Hehe
Oh yeah-here it's still below freezing. Where I am going? Warm....yeah! My plan is to sell or trade my jacket and long underwear down in Kunming (big backpacker's hotel). Wish me luck. I could use the cash....
Clarity chose this time to break through. Shocked into a rare silence my mouth stopped running and I stood stunned.. "My god," I gasped, "I’ve spent my life hearing garbage similar to what I’m now condemning!"
The school system in China leaves much to be desired. Teaching materials are lacking and old; teachers are paid poorly; often times (especially in rural areas) kids have to quit school and go to work at an early age. The government recognizes and is trying to rectify these problems. However, the teachings themselves are not up for discussion. Teachings, or propaganda, begin in school at an early age (as it should for maximum effectiveness).School books teach of the superiority of Mother China and the Chinese people over the rest of the world. Historical facts are mangled, fabricated and omitted as necessary to support these claims (These historical claims can be hard to swallow if you’re a minority and your school books teach that before being ‘freed’ and incorporated into the fold of Mother China your people [Tibetan, Uyger, Kazak, etc] were suffering and lived worthless lives, and are dirty and ignorant and dangerous. Easier for the Chinese to accept [especially when there is little intermingling], but not pleasant to read if you happen to be one of these minorities). Chairman Mao, a dastardly figure to the rest of the world, is revered and all but proclaimed the second coming (minus the fire and brimstone. Though maybe there is ‘proof’ of that…). Text books are infallible, therefore anything in them is accepted questioningly. Hence my friend’s frustration when dealing with Chinese English teachers ignoring his correction of their grammar, because they choose to believe their faulty texts rather than his lifelong experience.
Overall, it's quite a phenomenon. Common sense and critical thought are overwhelmed by rote memorization and constant reinforcement. The result is a sorry state of affairs and an enormously effective set of blinders against reality.
While the xenophobia and brain washed antics are frustrating, it's hard to hold the individual completely accountable. It's all they've known, all they’ve been taught, so how can they know otherwise? It's sad, that people who drop out of school early are the ones who come across more intelligent. Who are capable of having interesting/intelligent conversations and are capable of critical thought. The rest are functioning automatons.
Now let’s return to the classroom, and me reeling about in a moment of clarity and horror.
A break formed in my fog of illusion, created by a breeze carrying on it the realization that despite all my condescending scorn, I have been subjected to similar treatment my entire life. By the “Greatest Country in the World”-the US of A.
Flashing back to 1982 a vision arose of me reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in first grade. How at 6 years old could I be expected to truly realize what I was saying? That isn’t the expectation. To me the expectation is to begin planting the seed of the country’s greatness. (“One nation, [under God], indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). Tv shows, cartoons, commercials, movies, news programs, fellow citizens, all voiced unwavering support of the superiority of the USA. The National Anthem is sung, with reverence (much like the song I scornfully listened to in the Chinese classroom) before any major sporting event.
Isn’t that the essence of brainwashing? Grab someone before they are capable of critical thought and pound the same idea into their head until simply out of repetition they believe it to be true?
From day 1 it’s drilled into our heads that ours is the Greatest Nation on Earth (a subjective conclusion as money and power are not everyone’s determinants of success. And this is by no means a permanent state of affairs); that our way of life is the best and only way to live; the rest of the world wants to-and should-live like us (not everyone does, actually); our government is the best; our people are the best; our land is the best; etc, etc, etc. We harangue other countries for their poor press, their unrepresentative governments, their teaching of hatred of the US or whoever, and their suppression of free speech. Often we hear people pontificate that countries of the world need to be just like us.
The result? Defensiveness and anger directed at a person daring to criticize; an inability to cast a truly critical gaze on all things American. But more importantly, it causes a stagnation in possible improvement.
These days it seems taboo to: admit that forcing our way of life on others contradicts condemnation of similar acts by other governments; speak critically or question anything American or god forbid the President; failing to hate the French (or others that don’t support us wholeheartedly) for keeping their noses out of our collective ass (‘Freedom Fries’? What the shit was that?); burn the flag or fail to condemn the action. Failing to avoid these actions earns scorn and anger, and possible threats of physical harm because of your insolence (ask the Dixie Chicks). Our freedoms are guaranteed, but exceptions apply.
I remember my history classes teaching us that Communists are terrible and evil people who tried to force their way of life on the rest of the world. Decades were spent in conflicts aimed to prevent the spread of this evil. Under the guise of stopping the spread of Communism and protecting our way of life we forced other countries to live as we dictated by financial or violent means. The Central American countries could tell many stories about US funded coups and governments we installed for their benefit. The Native Americas that haven’t been exterminated yet must have quite a bit to say about the “American Dream” and their ‘improved’ lot in life after giving up their ‘wrong’ way of life. These events are relegated to relative obscurity because they are past mistakes. Yet the luxury of this sort of dismissal we afford to no other country.
History should not be forgotten, suppressed or ignored; especially if it’s overlooked in embarrassment or because it will pre-empt the validity of our complaints against others. My parents taught me to learn from my mistakes. If mistakes are ignored, how is a lesson learned? No country’s history is unblemished. If other countries’ ‘cleaned up’ histories are condemned, shouldn’t this critical assessment be turned onto the US, the role model for the world? It is bad when defensiveness prevents accurate assessment of problems. Many times it’s hard to get a clear picture of something without stepping back and taking a more unbiased view of the situation. The issues other countries/people have with the US are all too often dismissed without consideration. The fog of superiority prevents introspection. Lately it's become much harder for me to dismiss problems and criticisms from others, especially now that I can see the truths in the comments. Distance has helped provide me with a better perspective.
A change in our government (president) will not fix the problem. The attitude of the nation needs a change. The planet is filled with people. What we do affects others whether we like it (or like to admit it) or not. And yes, we do need the other people on this planet. Our environment is important. Innovation will not always come thru to save us. Technology can not supplant Mother Nature. The planet is not ours to control and we can't control it (what devices have been constructed to ELIMINATE earthquakes, avalanches, floods, rock slides, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, etc?) no matter how effectively we delude ourselves into thinking that we can. An arrogant sense of self clouds our judgment. Analogy: think about that cocky sports figure taunting and thumbing his nose at management, fans, teammates; flaunting his superstar status while breaking the law. What eventually happens? Teammates shun him/her and they get held out of games. They get labeled as a troublemaker and are no longer desired by any team. Eventually skill fades and youth supplants. They are replaced. Or go to jail. Ask the Romans, the Greeks, the Huns, the Khans, etc.
I am not saying the US is terrible. I am not saying that I hate the place. I am just saying that a critical assessment is long overdue. I make no claim to having an uncluttered view. It wasn't until I was out of the country for a while and talked to people from many other countries that my vision cleared a bit. I love the US. I love the life that has been afforded me by it. And I love many Americans. Which is why I am so damn frustrated at the way things are right now. Yes, it is a good country. But it can (should?) be better.
Criticisms of the country, its people and the government aren't anti-American. If they were, we'd still be a part of the United Kingdom. Many of the founding fathers were wealthy; but they were willing to risk their pampered lives to help make a greater country. That’s a good lesson to learn. Rather than constantly reinforcing how great a country the US is and ignoring comments contradictory to this tenet, we need instead to focus on the ideals of the founding fathers and their courage in making an effort to make changes and improve the quality of life for everyone. Thus, making a great country even greater.
My view of life has been rocked many times in the last 2 years. This latest realization, that we have this similarity with China, has once more tossed me about. And it’s helped me to lose some of my defensiveness when talking about the US and gain a better understanding that criticism and change aren’t necessarily bad. Improvement doesn’t come from stagnancy. When the US is defended with comments such as, “if it ain’t broke…,” or, “at least it’s better than (insert country name),” it worries me. Improvement is always possible, but not if problems are ignored and changes are shunted. Sure things may be good, but why not make our country better?
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"......whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness"
-DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Thursday, March 03, 2005
These are accepted and touted rights, yes? So how can there be any argument about the placement of the ten commandments on government property? The ten commandments come from where? The Bible. Courthouses and state capitals are what? Government property. So nary the two shall meet. Or so the law says.
This article is all about the tizzy being created by folks wanting the commandments posted in the Texas State Capital. Last I checked that’d be a government building, right? Seems clear-cut to me.
Clearly reluctant to adopt a blanket ban, the current justices wrestled with the role that religious symbols should play in public life — right down to the Ten Commandments
Isn’t there already a blanket ban, in the Constitution? They should play no role. Separation of Church and state. Pretty damn clear. If you want religious symbols, go to church, a mosque, a synagogue, etc.
If an atheist walks by, he can avert his eyes," Justice Anthony Kennedy said… Banning the Texas display might "show hostility to religion," he said.
You have got to be kidding me! A Supreme Court Justice is saying this? An atheist’s ability to avert their eyes is not the point. The point is that it’s against the law to bring the two together. What about all the other religions that don’t worship a faith whose basic principles are the 10 commandments? Wouldn’t such a display be seen as hostile and un-accepting of all these other faiths? Playing favorites, if you will?
Opponents of the displays, smaller in number, waved signs reading "Keep Government and Religion Separate" and "My God Does Not Need Government Help." According to an AP-Ipsos poll, 76 percent of Americans support such displays, a fact that was not lost on some of the justices during arguments.
"It's a profoundly religious message, but it's a profoundly religious message believed in by a vast majority of the American people," Scalia said.
I didn’t realize that faith decisions were up for a vote. I coulda sworn these decisions are Constitutionally protected. Scalia is correct. It is a religious message. Which is why it should not be entertained by the country’s court system, much less the Supreme Court! The intent of this ‘message’ is to ignore a Constitutionally accepted freedom.
This debate (debacle?) continues to frustrate me. If so many people want the US to become a Christian state, then put it to a damn vote and be done with it. Quit this ‘religious equality’ pandering bullshit.
How would these folks pushing the 10 commandments on everyone react if some other religion, say Islam, wanted to post sharia in a state capitol? Or if any other religion demanded some of their tenets be put on display? Maybe atheists want a plaque posted with the simple message: “There is no god”. My guess it that there would not be this furor and indecision; the request would be denied and greeted with a speech about religious freedoms.
For all this posturing to the rest of the world about supposed freedom to worship in the US, our attempts to push Christianity on our own people must make us look silly. Many people around the world feel that the US is trying to force Christianity on them, especially in the Muslim world (thank you, Dubya). If news from abroad is accessible, it can be seen that it’s a fight being waged at home as well as abroad.
Perspective. It’s about perspective. Take a gander at a situation from a personal point of view, then try and see it from a different point of view. This is difficult, especially when concerning a belief system and way of life. But people believe differently and basic life building blocks are not universal. When trying to force one message, try to imagine being the receiver instead of giver.
Not to mention equality. This is why the separation of church and state was put into our country’s founding documents. People believe and live differently. Remaining secular helps to maintain the freedom to choose your own way of life. And that is what makes our country great. Freedom.
If we begin to lose our freedom…..
Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Let me set the stage by describing my fellow diners:
An ex-pat American teaching English in the next town over. Bitter at…life, maybe. Thinks it’s a good idea to be diddling the wife of a high ranking Chinese policeman. The wife and her husband are both members of the Communist Party. He is very much in love (and embittered by) with my associate here.
Spiteful woman/cop’s wife. This woman is not pleasant. She likes to call people to meet them for dinner, dancing, whatever. Then doesn’t show up or call. Is two-faced and nasty-to your back. Seems to really like ex-pat.
Friend #1. This girl is recently married and has just learned the joys of the disco (which I have yet to learn). Giggles a lot, and is only too happy to point out physical flaws (both yours and her own)
Friend #2. Nice girl. Falls in love after one date with a boy. Obsesses.
DJ. A friend of my associate; he’s in love with her. Nice guy though
Me and my associate. I was along for the ride, expecting high amusement from the evening. My associate felt anger towards me for embroiling her in the tumult.
The ex-pat showed up here, though we told him not to (Packing for a hasty departure has commenced and since it is still unknown around town, we didn’t want him to see the boxes. Not my departure). He proceeded to talk…..and talk. Not allowing gaps for us to contribute. When we attempted, he talked over us. Friend #2 lives next door so we grabbed her. And ran ahead of EP and F2 so that I could be cussed out again for the upcoming ‘show’.
At the restaurant the rest were waiting, minus the DJ. He arrived shortly thereafter. But he missed the fun. Sitting at the table, I began to mock my ass. For something. Karma bit me by way of my cup of tea which I knocked over, soaking the table, the floor and my pants. And a little of my shirt. Broke the monotony of EP’s droning in my ear. From the words bursting out of his mouth, it’s obvious he is more than a little interested in my ass., and is not too happy that the feelings are not reciprocated. In turn, he’s decided to make learning Chinese a competition with her. But he has decided to focus on learning to read and write as many of the 4,000 characters as he can in lieu of learning to speak. All night he spoke no Chinese, though he understood all. I noticed this after he proudly told me that his character comprehensions skills are SO much better though his talking is not as good as my ass.’s. Funny. And he seems to think that saying unflattering things to her will win him her love. Silly boy!
Dinner was ok. Ass. and I mainly shouted inside comments and jokes back and forth to each other across the table. The adulterers avoided eye contact. DJ focused on my ass. while continually piling food onto my plate (shared dishes style eating)(this is a sign of great respect. I think he is kissing up. As though I have any control in deciding my ass.’s choice of men.). Friends 1 and 2….giggled a lot.
Dinner ended. For the record, ass. spilled her tea all over as well. Must run in the family.
Since almost everyone (not me, not me!) wanted to go dancing at the disco we walked over; the ‘couple’ sticking close; DJ continuing to shower attention; I giggled a lot to myself and jumped around in the snow; Friend 2 began texting her manfriend; Friend 1…I really have no idea what she was doing.
Now the disco….more hilarity (for me). The ex-pat, sat facing away from us, towards the dance floor, but right behind my ass. This allowed him to act nonchalant and removed, though he had something to say about any comment she made. His woman sat next to him, but he continued to ignore her in favor of ‘the other’. Pretty mean, as I am sure she noticed where his attentions lay. She only got his attention when ‘the other’ was not around.
Not let me ask you this. If you were one of 2 people involved in an extra-marital affair in which one of you is married to a ranking cop and a member of the Communist Party, wouldn’t you want to keep it quiet? And maybe not go away for a long weekend together under the guise of ‘needing an interpreter’ and ‘free English speaking practice’? And sit cuddled up…anywhere in public? No, this affair is not a secret in this small, gossipy little town. To me, this guy couldn’t have picked a worse situation to get into. Well, at least that’s related to love stuff. I guess he could pretend to be a spy and walk around with a big Jesus banner (though religion is not illegal, you can get arrested and all sorts of bad stuff if you are caught talking church talk) and tape recorder. And to be shallow, she’s not attractive-physically or personality-wise.
Friend 2 spent all night in the corner with her cell phone, texting back and forth with her man. My associate danced the night away while Friend 1 kept telling us that she was too shy to dance when the lights were low, and could only head out when they were bright (?). DJ worked.
It seemed a lot funnier when it was happening. The ex-pat had all sorts of monologues to force upon me while the girls danced. I especially liked it when he was bitching about ex-pats and travelers and how they are all crazy and stuff. And then proceed to bitch about people doing the same things he does, or even more innocuous things. And then not even seeing the humor in it! No, I didn’t point it out. He’s very insecure. Though when he brinked the edge of actually bad mouthing my associate, it was close. Might have made his rancor worse.
That’s all. Obviously not a lot going on right now
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Some of my old, non-anecdotal posts may have contained more than a lacing of what could have appeared to be attacking vitriols and condescending lectures. While that was never my intent, it may have appeared so.
The problem is, this trip has taught me more than I ever would have imagined it would. My fervor to share and try and 'discuss' my new thoughts and ideas at times results in poorly presented ideas. And you, the poor reader, ends up reading a scattered and unclear rant that may sound accusatory.
No more! (I hope)
More thought is going to go into my 'work'. There are so many ideas that I do want to share, and in order to not waste my time or yours I am going dedicate more thought and effort so that at least my point will be discernible.
Note-I said I will try. That does not usurp my right to get on and blindly type something new and exciting (to me). I'll just try and come back later to re-word and be coherent.
But then again, how coherent am I in person?
Less so as time passes
Thank gods we gave the next Olympic Games to China! Bad behavior should be rewarded, right? Oh wait….maybe the IOC isn’t very concerned with human rights?
Reuters just tossed out an article about the US condemnation of human rights abuses in Myanmar (Burma), North Korea and China:
China used the global war against terrorism to crack down on peaceful opponents of its rule in Muslim Xinjiang and committed persistent human rights abuses in 2004, the State Department said Monday.
The report said China lacks an independent judiciary and courts there "attached higher priority to suppressing political opposition and maintaining public order than to enforcing legal norms or protecting individual rights."
Facing particularly harsh treatment were followers of religious groups not approved by the state, labor and political activists and Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs accused of seeking independence for the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The Xinjiang region is my home for a short period of time. There are very few Chinese here; the majority of the populace is comprised of ‘minority’ groups who are decidedly less enthusiastic about their ‘liberation’ at the hands of the Chinese than the history books here would lead a person to believe.
Check out the entire article.
Next great super power, eh?