In the Outback

July 9, 2010

I study the brown termite mounds in the passing fields, delighted by the entertainment in the otherwise dull, barren landscape. Some of the statues take the form of small wallabies standing stiffly like deer in headlights; others resemble primitive sculptures of men hunting with spears. We pass one enormous formation the size of a cow, then they dwindle out. I turn my attention to a lone hawk circling the sky above us. It swoops down to investigate a dead kangaroo deposited by the side of the road, a casualty of late-night truck drivers. The smell of decaying flesh has become familiar, but my stomach still clenches in disgust as the sickly-sweet scent enters my nostrils and chokes my throat. A sharp wind through the car windows mercifully clears the smell, as well as chasing out the flies that otherwise nag us incessantly. A small sign zips past on the left, announcing the arrival of a station called “Soudan.” Soon after a bigger sign proclaims in loud red letters “Sorry no fuel.” A dirt track appears, leading to a dusty building and a fenced-in patty containing no apparent animals. In fact, the whole station seems devoid of life. I glance at the map: eighty-five kilometers to the next station. Until then, nothing but bushes and road kill will mark the passing distance. The landscape disintegrates again to flat plains of red dirt and dry yellow grass.

“Cows!” Excitement flares as we pass the rare sign of life. Even rarer is the water hole around which they gather. A few of them turn their heads lazily to gaze at us. A long road train passes us heading the other way and the air currents nearly push us off the narrow road. The driver is hauling four huge tanks of petrol bearing the “Shell” logo. So much energy spent to carry petrol out to the middle of nowhere, so we can fill up and drive it back towards civilization. But such is the cost of traveling. The fields around us are becoming distinctively greener, and small bushes with bright yellow flowers indicate the presence of water underground. A tiny green road marker says “QLD 60” – sixty kilometers to the border of Queensland. We pull over at a deserted rest stop to stretch our legs.

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Finally we reached the border. The first town in the state, Camoorweel, came soon after and we pulled into the petrol station for supplies. Hot, stiff, and bored after the long drive, I jumped out of the car and ran into the store in search of an ice-cold can of Coke. A bottle wouldn’t do; I craved the cold crisp feel of aluminum. I searched the refrigerator, but no luck. Disappointed, I settled for a ginger beer and joined the queue at the cash register. Two people ahead of me tapped their feet impatiently as the woman standing at the front slurred out questions about the takeaway food. The cashier, a young girl with a German accent, struggled to understand and answer her, but eventually jotted down an order. The customer, drunk or high, slowly and clumsily counted out coins, then changed her mind and asked for a pack of cigarettes. Frustrated, I decided I didn’t want a drink and slammed the door on my way out. I walked over to the signposted “Museum and Information Centre” next door, hoping for some advice about attractions in the area. It appeared closed, though the rusted sign on the door stated business hours from nine to four. I peered into the barred window. Spiderwebs adorned the wooden walls and camoflauged a stack of rotting furniture in the corner. I sighed and wandered to the next bulding. It looked about the same. I returned to the car, now re-fueled, and announced “What a shithole. The station’s full of drunks and everything else is closed down.” My friend agreed, “Yeah I get a bad vibe from this place. Let’s go.”

We drove out of town and followed a sign to Camoorweel Caves National Park, not knowing what was there but hoping for something interesting. A dirt road took us through more dry, sparse fields and terminated in an unmarked parking roundabout. The road went no further but there was no sign of a cave, or even a hill or cliff in which you might find one. The only landmark was a narrow dirt walking path that led through a flat, unremarkable field decorated with the ubiquitous yellow grass.

After following it for a few hundred meters, we stumbled on a pile of square-ish rocks and suddenly the ground opened beneath us. We had come to a huge underground cave, made of stones that had the sharp, violent texture of volcanic formations. Standing at the edge of the hole, the dark gaping mouth of the cave far below beckoned us to come and explore. We scrambled around the rocks in excitement, but in the end the steep walls proved impassable. We stood back and admired our discovery, took a few pictures, then returned to the parking lot and prepared to leave. Turning the key in the ignition, we chattered about where to go next, but fell silent as we realised the car wouldn’t start.

The key clicked again and again, producing only a soft electrical whirring sound. We looked under the hood, but had no idea what we were looking at. Frustrated fists beat against metal in a futile gesture. We debated walking the twenty-three kilometers back to town, but with the hot midday sun beating down on our backs, the shimmering, shifting road sloping away into the distance looked uninviting. “Of all the places we could break down, of course it has to be in the middle of fucking nowhere in this shitty little town!”

We assessed the food and water and argued whether it was better for one person to start walking immediately or to stay the night and walk together in the cool of the early morning. Suddenly a phone was triumphantly thrust into the air: “I’ve got signal! Emergency only – what’s the emergency number?” After some trepidation, we connected through to the local police station, who sent out a car to pick us up. Giddy relief was tempered by a sense of dissappointment at the anticlimactic ease with which we had escaped our first disaster. We sat down at the shaded picnic table, playing cards and discussing what to say if the police officer asked about the car’s long-expired registration.

The sound of tires on dirt woke us from a heat-induced daze. We rushed to gather our things and greeted the officer somewhat nervously. He was friendly and unsuspicious, accepting our thin cover story about the registration. As he drove us back in a comfortable, air-conditioned four wheel drive, we chatted amicably and discovered that he was half-Dutch, like my travel mates. He spoke with the easy openness of small-town inhabitants, telling us about his family and the area around us. Finally, he decided he would take us sight-seeing.

We made a short detour through a cattle field and came to a beautiful lagoon. The near side of the water hole was dotted with caravans, and smiling “grey nomads” – retired travellers – waving as they set up their camps for the night. “This is the best spot in the area for camping,” the officer informed us. We drove on to rejoin the main road, and he honked and waved at a passing tow truck. “That’s Frank. He’s going out to an accident up the road, but he should be back in an hour to get your car. Just wait here,” he instructed as he dropped us off at the petrol station.

The station that had seemed so uninviting before was now cool, quiet and calming. We sat inside, had some food, and played cards again to pass the time. Eventually the tow truck returned and took one of us back to get the car. After about half an hour he returned, smiling triumphantly, and told us the tow driver would take us out to the lagoon to sleep for the night, then pick us up again in the morning. We piled into the front of the truck and drove back out to the lagoon. Feeling a bit ridiculous as our dysfunctional car was lowered off the tow truck, we waved at the neighbouring campers, then thanked Frank profusely for his kindness. He promised to return first thing in the morning to tow our car back to town and get it fixed.

The lagoon was beautiful. In the middle of the dry, desolate fields that dominated the landscape, the meandering water hole created an oasis of green trees and life. Hundreds of bird species gathered in the lake, flew overhead, sat in the trees or walked by the shore. Wallabies approached shyly to quench their thirst. White and blue water lilies floated on the still surface. The reflection of the moon sparkled in the water as the sun’s light faded away, leaving a quiet peace hanging over us. Stirred by the unexpected calm and beauty after days of hot, dead land, I felt that this was the most beautiful place I had seen in Australia. I thanked the fates for getting us stuck in this town that we hated at first, but which held secret treasures that only needed time to uncover. “Isn’t it funny that the only town we didn’t like and wanted to rush through, is where we broke down, and now that we’ve been here for a while we all love it?”


Alex of Darwin

July 9, 2010

I was travelling in Australia, visiting the quiet town of Darwin in the far north, and living in a small community of backpackers on the local beach. Most lived out of their cars; some, like myself, slept in a clearing in the woods nest to the parking lot. The public facilities at the beach made it a convenient home base to gather around.

There was another community that called this beach and the surrounding woods home – a large extended family of Aboriginals. There were about twenty of them that lived as a tribe in another clearing. For us, there was a constant threat that the police might come and evict us in the middle of the night, but the authorities mostly left the Aboriginal community alone, through some legal or cultural understanding.

Aboriginals were the traditional masters of the bush, and generally had a strong connection to the land. Living in the open was natural for them, although living in a settled urban area was a relatively new thing. The clash with Western culture had brought alcoholism, drug problems and economic poverty to them, and most that lived in urban areas were homeless and unemployed by our standards – and usually suffered from serious alcohol abuse problems. Australia even had separate alcohol regulations for states with a large Aboriginal community, in a misguided effort to combat these issues.

We interacted with the Aboriginal community pretty regularly, although we kept a respectful distance from their settlement. When we spent our evenings drinking around the BBQ pits, some of the kids would wander over for someone new to play with. They were outgoing and loved to play ball games or peekaboo. Most of them hardly spoke English but could easily communicate through gestures. They probably didn’t go to school; but hopefully were taught traditional knowledge by their elders.

A few adults also liked to sit and talk with us, but these encounters usually ended with them asking for alcohol, which was a line we were hesitant to cross. One older man in particular would come over to us, borrow a guitar, and regale us with the same song every night, a song about fishing and the beauty of the land. Alex was always a hit in the group. We enjoyed his entertainment, but usually refused to feed his hunger for whisky – nonetheless he kept coming back. One night after his performance he told me an interesting story.

“Out there is my land,” he said, gesturing vaguely out to sea. My people, they come from the island out there. I am the chief, I am the eldest. The whole island belongs to me. I make the decisions and everyone listens to me.

Right now the government wants my island. They wanna buy my land cuz they say there’s diamonds under the land. They gonna pay me fifteen million dollars so they can take the diamonds. Right now I gotta make the decision. They just waitin for my signature. You look in the newspaper tomorrow, you’ll see the story. You’ll see if I sell it.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, after making sure I understood the gist of his story.

I’m gonna sign it. I don’t care about the land, I’m gonna get the money. Fifteen million dollars!

“What will you do with the money?” I asked.

Send my granddaughter to school. She gotta get an education.

He told me the same story the next night.


CENSORED

December 13, 2008

in China

 

 

You always hear about censorship in China, but you can never really understand what it means until you live there. I lived in Hong Kong for years and never noticed anything. My dad, who works in Shenzhen (a “special economic zone” just within the border of China – yes you have to pass immigration to go from Hong Kong to “real” China) would occasionally mention that a news story on TV was censored, but I never really got what he meant. However, for the past few weeks I’ve been working with him and living in Shenzhen during the week, returning to Hong Kong on the weekends. Suddenly I understand the phenomenon of censorship.

 

            Yesterday evening after work, I was watching the English news on a TV station broadcast from Hong Kong. The reporter started a new story with “Around the world, celebrations were held to mark Human Rights Day. In Beijing –” Suddenly the program cut to an infomercial with a beaming housewife demonstrating the use of a fancy rice cooker in Mandarin. I stared blankly for a minute before I realized what happened – we had just been CENSORED! I started laughing hysterically as I witnessed my first example of real Chinese censorship. In the middle of the next commercial they cut back into the news, mid-sports report.

 

            Yes, they really do pay people to sit in a tower somewhere in the city and manually censor television. Somewhere out there, looking over us – or perhaps looking up at us from a basement, who knows – a guy is sitting in a dark room, watching your TV, hand poised over the red button to censor seditious or creative broadcasting. All the stations that come in from Hong Kong are under heavy monitoring. Whenever the commercial break starts, they quickly switch it to their own government-approved string of commercials (oddly enough, they are all Hong Kong public service announcements from three years ago). Then they cut back in when the show starts again, always an infuriating two seconds into the show.

 

            About half of the internet is blocked. But not the things you think – I can find dozens of articles criticizing the Chinese government, but random websites for travel magazines or English learning materials are inaccessible. It’s frustrating since I am here teaching English, and I can’t access half of the websites I usually use for worksheets or listening samples. And my own blog is censored – not because it contains blasphemous material, simply because it’s on some list that’s automatically blocked. It seems like every new website created goes into a huge processing list, waiting to be checked by a massive machine or a really bored public servant. Small websites must spend years waiting for approval, if they ever get it at all. I would be interested to find out the method behind the seeming madness of the web-blocking. For now I can only imagine something out of a Kafka novel.

 

For me the censorship is merely annoying and sometimes amusing. I just have to wait until the weekend when I can access it from Hong Kong. (I do all my blog updates here.) But for Chinese citizens, for whom it is very difficult to leave the country, the concept of uncensored news and internet must be as unimaginable as censorship was to me before I saw it with my own eyes.


Laos, Take Two

November 28, 2008

          I had been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for almost a year. Unfortunately, planning ahead is not my forte, so I didn’t think of getting a year-long visa from my home country before I went. So that meant my only option (aside from miraculously convincing the school where I worked to obtain proper working papers for me) was to undertake a visa run to another country every three months. Since I couldn’t afford to fly regularly on my English teachers’ salary, my only choice for a quick trip was the grueling overnight bus to neighboring Laos. That also meant hanging out in Vientiane for three days, which I had already done once and didn’t plan to ever do again. So this time I planned my trip over a weekend so I would have enough extra time to take a bus to Vang Vien.

River in Vang VienGoing to Vang Vien

I’ll spare you the nasty details of the long trip and the longer visa application line. Suffice to say, I dropped off my application on Friday morning, and would pick it up on Monday afternoon. So I headed to the bus station to board the four-hour tourist bus to Vang Vien. (By now I’d discovered that busses are incredibly cheap while tuk-tuks are incredibly expensive in Vientiane – so my tuk-tuk from the embassy to the bus station was almost the same price as the bus itself!) The bus ride was not as bad as I had read online, aside from the Canadian guys in front of me who kept singing the Canadian version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and the scenery was breathtaking in places. When we arrived, I found a guesthouse with small cheap rooms and dropped off my stuff so I could wander around the town. After almost two days of sitting on busses, I was desperate to do something physical, and wanted to fill my short time here with as much adventure as possible. Most of the people from my bus were heading straight for the river tubing that gives Vang Vien its fame among young backpackers, but sitting in a rubber tube getting drunk just wasn’t enough for me today. So I asked around at several tour agencies for something I could do for the rest of the afternoon, and came up with a half-day rock climbing trip. Half my afternoon was already gone, so I overpaid a bit, but they were happy to send a personal guide with me for the extra money. My guide was really friendly and interesting, and when I said I lived in Thailand we were mutually delighted that we could practice our Thai language skills. It turned out that he had been a rock-climbing guide in Krabi, Thailand a few years ago, but had to return to Laos due to family problems. He actually used to work at the same climbing company that I had used when I last visited Krabi, and knew the guy who had been my guide there!

            By the time we finished this conversation, we had left the tiny tourist town behind and were now in the “real” village. We veered off the dirt road into someone’s rice paddy, for a half-hour walk through the field and the jungle beyond. Eventually, the landscape turned to rocks. By now I was out of breath and struggling through the rough terrain, almost twisting my ankle several times. My small but wiry guide, loaded with a backpack full of climbing gear, was bounding ahead and calling back impatiently, “Are you ok?” When I finally arrived at the base of the climbing wall, the guide had already pulled out the equipment and was waiting for me. We tied our rope and he started up the wall first. There was already another group there, with about eight young travelers from various European countries. I started chatting with some of them, and before I knew it the guide had finished the route. After belaying him back to the ground, I tied in and started up the wall. This first two routes were quite easy, and I was proud to impress the less-experienced climbers in the other group with my (rudimentary) skills. So we moved to a harder one on the other side. I watched the guide climb up the jagged rock face and up under a long stalactite thing that draped gracefully off the overhanging rock above. I couldn’t see the top of the route, but he shouted that he was finished. Next it was my turn. This one was significantly more difficult, and I was a bit worried. Sure enough, within a few meters my fingers were scraped and bleeding from the sharp rocks on this face, which was protected from the eroding wind that had smoothed the stone on the other side. Wincing, I carried on through a few difficult moves and reached the hanging stalactite. Wedged between the wall and the stalactite, I shimmied my way desperately upward. Unable to move my head to look up, I was glad that the guide had made me wear a helmet. The space was rapidly narrowing and I frequently bumped my head as I awkwardly contorted my body to push myself up to the anchor. I breathed a sigh of relief when I suddenly came to the top. With bleeding knees, elbows and hands, I returned to earth, trembling from the exertion. The guide told me we could squeeze in one more climb before dark, but I was shaken from the last one and didn’t think my swollen fingers would stand another go at the sharp rock.

The guide hurriedly packed our gear and rushed down the path, saying that if we caught up with the other group we could get a ride back into town. This sounded good to me, so I ran to keep up with him. After my encounter with the rocks, I was unphased by the uneven path that had given me so much trouble on the way there. We managed to catch up and hop into a somewhat motorized vehicle that looked a bit like those things that they raced on in Star Wars. It was the Lao version of a tractor: a two-wheeled wooden platform attached by two long metal rods to a third wheel far in front. Between these rods was a loud motor that looked like it had been stripped from a lawnmower. It made a lot of noise, and the guide explained that it was called a “tak-tak” after the sound that it made (just as a tuk-tuk is named after its sound, apparently). My guide casually invited me to smoke opium with him later, but I declined graciously, explaining that I was already booked on a trek for the next day and wanted to get some sleep.

After a cold shower, I felt refreshed and headed out to dinner. I shied away from the row of “happy pizza” shops showing old episodes of Friends on projector screens, and opted for a place that looked like it served more authentic Lao food. With a book, a beer and a bowl of noodles, I settled in for a quiet but satisfying meal. As soon as I finished, though, the group I had been climbing with showed up. They invited me to join them, and soon my quiet meal turned into a night of barhopping and guzzling “rum”-and-cokes. In accordance with Lao law, however, the bars shut down at midnight, and drunken teenagers took to the streets looking for the after-party. Watching groups of loud college kids stumbling down the street, running into people they knew and instructing them to meet outside their guesthouse, I felt a sense of déjà-vue. This scene was strangely familiar, and suddenly I placed it – I had somehow been transported to a campus frat party at my university! A girl stumbled over the curb and threw up a few feet away from me, and I jumped up in disgust. The guy holding her up bragged to his friend that he was totally gonna bang her tonight, if she ever stopped puking. “Ugh!” I was unable to contain my horror at this unexpected reminder of the worst people I had known in university.

I looked around desperately and located someone from the group I’d been hanging out with. They were standing around with an old, tanned hippy who had the grizzled look of a guy hiding from something. He invited us to come to his bungalow for a few drinks, so we followed him down a precarious stairway and across a narrow walkway to a small group of bungalows that were literally sunk into the side of the tall riverbank. The faint light from a Lao-populated nightclub on the opposite bank, combined with the bright moon, created just enough reflection on the water to silhouette the bridge and the trees hanging over the slow but powerful river. The stars were breathtaking, and there was absolute silence apart from the sound of flowing water. In awe of this mighty yet peaceful display of nature, we huddled in hushed conversation around our bottles of Beer Lao. After a few hours, I was startled out of my reverie when I remembered that I was hiking early in the morning. I said my goodbyes and hurried back to my room, miraculously managing not to fall or get lost along the way.

 

Don’t Panic

The next morning I woke bright and early for my trek. After a few painkillers and a good breakfast I felt surprisingly fresh and ready for adventure. My guide, unfortunately, was not nearly as friendly as the one from the day before, and the only other people were a nice but quiet Danish couple, so our trek proceeded mostly in silence. We started with a short drive to an unremarkable spot in the road, where we got off the truck and walked through, you guessed it, a rice field. We passed a few farmers on the way, who greeted our guide but ignored us. Eventually we came to a hillside, which dropped dramatically to a wide river. The water was fast and deep, with small ripples and crests betraying logs or rocks below the surface. Across the wide expanse, high 0000261above the water, stretched a thin white string. This footbridge started directly in front of us, supported by the top of a tree a few meters in front of us, and beyond that flew unsupported across the water and into a clump of trees on the other side. Eight small pieces of bamboo made up the beginning of the bridge, but it narrowed in the middle, and the other end was too far away to see. It was supported by two long pieces of cable, along with one more as a handrail. This is when the Danish woman revealed that she was scared of heights.

The guide slowly crossed the bridge to demonstrate that it was safe, but when it swayed back and forth and he nearly lost his footing, we were not very reassured. He shouted when he reached the other side and told us to come across. The Danish couple graciously allowed me to go first. I took a deep breath, gripped the side cable, and stepped onto the bamboo. It creaked and gave as I walked across, bouncing as my weight bent the tree branch it rested on. I made it to the branch, enjoying the stability of something solid beneath me, then reluctantly ventured out over the river. The bridge swayed slowly back and forth with my steps, throwing off my balance and making me cling tighter to the flimsy hand cable. The bamboo sticks supporting me narrowed to four, then three, then two, their less robust brothers having given out under the feet of previous crossers. I swallowed nervously every time I passed a broken stub of bamboo and my foot space shrank. When I got toward the middle of the bridge, I was on two uneven poles, and the two cables that stabilized the bridge had converged into one, meaning there was no stability. The poles twisted from side to side like a bottle bobbing in a stormy sea, and my feet could find no hold on the slippery near-vertical ramp. One foot slipped off and my right leg swung over nothingness. My heart stopped as I slid, and one thought flitted through my suddenly blank mind: I’m going to die. Then my left hand instinctively tightened on the hand cable and stopped me from falling off. I desperately gripped the lifeline with both hands and pulled myself to a semi-standing position. I switched to scooting sideways, balancing on the bamboo surfer-style with two hands on the cable. I rationalized that even if I slipped off, which I did a couple times, my firm grip on the cable would save me from a watery grave. With this dark thought I accidentally looked down to the river, a million miles below me, and my heart started pounding, sending blood rushing to my head. I looked back and saw that I was more than half-way across – but the half ahead might conceal unknown dangers, while the half behind was at least familiar territory. Refusing to turn back, I pushed away these thoughts and concentrated on inching my way sideways across the crevasse. I turned all my focus on delicately shifting pressure between my heels and my toes to keep the bamboo from flipping and throwing me off. After what felt like an hour, I saw salvation: a new bamboo stick appeared and the bridge widened from two to three. Emboldened, I shuffled faster, and soon the bridge was four sticks wide and the cables underneath separated to two sides, making the bridge stable enough to walk normally. When I approached the riverbank, a supporting tree trunk came up to meet the bridge, and another hand cable appeared to support my right side. I practically skipped the last few meters.

With a huge grin on my face, I jumped down to join the guide on solid ground. “I just survived a near-death experience!” I thought giddily. The guide shouted at the couple to come across, and I gave them a thumbs-up. But even from across the river, the woman’s fear was visible. With her husband’s encouragement, she started across, but she stopped at the tree and fled back to collapse into his arms. Unable to communicate across the river, the guide decided to head back across and see what was happening. After a few minutes of talking, he shouted something to me across the river, and motioned me to come back. Are you kidding me?! No way I’m going across the death bridge again! But the guide was insistent and kept shouting about kayaks. So I repeated the terrifying ordeal, at least armed with the experience of crossing once before.

“We walk down the river and find truck with kayaks,” the guide explained. Instead of doing the kayaking later like we planned, we would walk now to a part that was good for kayaking, then walk on a different route back to the finish point. But first he had to agree where to meet the truck. He pulled out his cellphone and wandered around looking for signal. When he was satisfied he pressed call and had a heated conversation with the person on the other end. Finally he hung up and announced that there was only one kayak available now, so someone would kayak downriver to us and we could use it to cross. We waited about twenty minutes, then saw a tiny yellow form swooshing down the river. The kayaker deftly maneuvered to the bank and stopped. It was a one-man kayak. It became unclear how we were going to all get across in it. There was an argument in Lao, then our guide asked if we were all good kayakers. “Uhhhh…” was the general reply. The Danish guy got in the boat to see if he could go across by himself, but the river was so swift that he couldn’t even get off the bank without losing control and being swept downstream.

“Ok,” announced the guide definitively. “He kayak, you hold boat,” he instructed the couple. “You walk,” he said to me, and pointed to the bridge. Great. Resigned to my fate, I started across the bridge. It was much easier the third time around, and this time I had the distracting entertainment of the strange scene unfolding below me. The kayaker got into his vessel and the couple waded into the water, clinging to the boat and each other. For a few meters the kayaker managed to steer across the river, but before long they hit a current and the kayak swung out of control. The couple lost hold of the boat and splashed frantically. The woman clung to her husband and he swam desperately for shore. They were swept a hundred meters downstream but managed to get to shore, where the kayaker, already beached, ran to meet them. Our guide came across the bridge to meet me, and said with conviction that everything was fine and we should wait for them to walk back to us.

Kids run across the bridgeWhile we waited, I heard laughter and conversation floating through the jungle. Out of the mass of trees emerged five young children, chattering happily, laden with baskets full of some nut or root. They looked at me and laughed, then pranced across the bamboo bridge as if they were skipping down the sidewalk. They even passed two other kids coming the other way across the bridge. I stared in astonishment and stopped mentally congratulating myself for having crossed three times. Shortly after, the Danish couple appeared with the kayaker, seemingly recovered from their river scare. The guide thanked the kayaker, who disappeared back into the jungle, and told us that since we had wasted so much time (glaring at the woman), we wouldn’t be able to go kayaking at all. I personally wasn’t sure if it was the time or the fact that there was only one kayak that was the problem. The woman was embarrassed and apologized repeatedly to me. I gave her a look of sympathy and told her not to worry – the bridge was really scary and dangerous (and their river crossing wasn’t any better!).

We walked the rest of the morning and arrived in a beautiful valley for lunch. The valley was quiet and peaceful; bees hovered over the flowers, water buffalo lay motionless in puddles of mud, a small creek bubbled by. We all forgot our morning woes as we lay under a straw roof, made as lazy as the buffalo by the mind-dulling heat. But there was no time for afternoon naps, so we threw cold water from the stream onto our faces to prepare for the hot trek ahead. After two hours of hiking through sunny fields and humid jungle, we were all drenched in sweat and ecstatic to reach a waterfall. We bathed in the cooling water for a while, then continued on, walking in the rocky stream at the mouth of the pool. We sloshed through the shallow water for some time before the stream converged with the main river. Swift dark waters blocked our path, possibly from the same river we had already crossed once. I had a feeling that this was where we were meant to be kayaking.

The guide instructed us to put all our valuables in his dry-pack, although he assured us that the water was no more than waist deep and we could wade across easily. Cameras, wallets and phones were piled into the plastic sack and sealed tightly. The couple, already experienced in dangerous river crossings, held hands and ventured in bravely. The guide started in and I followed close to him. The bottom was made of smooth, fist-size rocks like the stream we had been walking in. They gave way slightly when I stepped on them, and became more slippery as the water got deeper. It quickly rose above my knees, and I was having trouble keeping my footing while the powerful current pulled at my legs. When the water reached waist high, I started to panic, knowing I would lose my footing at any time. The guide continued ahead of me, still upright even though the water was up to his chest. My feet slipped and the ground was gone, and I was rushing downriver, spinning and tumbling through the turbulent water. I opened my eyes to see a huge rock sticking out of the water, coming straight for me. I dove into the water, struggling vainly to swim away from it, then the mighty river parted around it, carrying me safely past. But by now I was upside-down underwater, thrashing wildly, trying to impose my will against the water and regain control of my path. My lungs contracted and again my mind went completely blank, except for one thought: I’m drowning. My limbs stopped moving of their own accord, and suddenly the water broke and my head bobbed above the surface. I was still rushing downstream, but I was breathing and I wasn’t panicking. I saw my guide not far ahead of me, closer to the shore, doing a frantic doggy-paddle. I followed his example and suddenly the light clicked on – I don’t have to walk across, I can swim! I moved easily through the water, still going swiftly downstream but now moving diagonally toward shore. The current weakened as the water got shallower, and soon enough I could stand. The guide had already reached shore and walked down to meet me, giving me a hand up the muddy bank. “Ok?” he grinned. “Yeah, fine,” I said, not too enthusiastically. That was NOT the easy crossing that he told us it would be. “Rain a lot,” he said to explain the high water level. A few meters downstream the other couple had already scrambled up the riverbank to the path and were waiting for us.

Drenched from head to toe, we continued walking, picking up a light coating of dirt as we walked down the dusty trail. The sun was low in the sky and we were no longer hot. We came to a vast expanse of green riceSunlight on rice fields patties and started through them, following the narrow raised path between the swampy puddles of rice plants. Several farmers were visible in the distance, hunched over their crops with triangle hats shading their heads. A large shadow overtook us and I turned around to look for the sun. It was sinking behind some small mountains that I hadn’t even noticed before, its rays filtering through the thick summer air and illuminating the lush bright green of the rice. Smoke rose from a small bungalow in the distance, bringing with it the smell of someone’s dinner. This scene made the exhausting trek worth it. 

Later, at dinner, I was reviewing the day’s adventures in my head. At first I felt exhilarated that I had tried some dangerous things and overcome my fear, coming out unscathed on the other side. But then I remembered the woman and her fear of heights, and started to get a little angry – no one had warned us of the stuff we would face on this trek; there had been no mention of “strong swimming skills required” or “will include crossing a high bridge.” And our guide hadn’t been very concerned about our fears or our wellbeing during these experiences. What if someone less adventurous or less physically capable had come on the trek? Sure, I had been panicking in the heat of the moment when I thought I would die, but in reality someone could easily have died. Sipping a beer and reflecting on these thoughts, I looked out at the vast river that the restaurant overlooked. I now knew first-hand how the swift water felt. My attention was drawn to a silhouetted figure on a sandbar extending into the river. The man threw a fishing line into the river and waited patiently. Two young boys were playing at the water’s edge near him. How many kids learn to swim by falling into the rushing water? I wondered. I recalled the kids that went bounding across the terrifying bamboo bridge. No more than twelve years old, they were merely returning from the morning’s work, crossing the same bridge they took every day. Tourism in Laos is undeveloped and unregulated; how can tour guides anticipate all the trouble that Westerners will experience in completing the tasks that are commonplace for them? I decided to keep my negative judgments to myself, and cherish the beautiful photos and great stories that I had to show for my trip.


Memories from Laos

October 31, 2008

My first impression of Laos was, well, quite bad. I had travelled there from Thailand for a visa run by the cheapest available option: overnight bus. After twelve hours in a tiny upright seat on the swerving bus, occasionally nodding off only to smack my head on the window at the next turn, I was not in a good mood. (A little side note: people often praise those travel neck pillows, but those are no help on this kind of trip. Why haven’t they invented an inflatable head cocoon which insulates your entire skull from bumps and hard surfaces? Then I would be able to sleep anywhere…) I arrived in Nong Khai only to board another bus, and then a tuk-tuk, to reach the border. Two agonisingly slow lines, thirty-five US dollars, and a short shuttle ride later, I finally found myself crossing into Laos. One more overpriced tuk-tuk took me into the city of Vientiane.

            Vientiane is a strange town. The main part of the city runs along the river, and it’s about four streets deep and ten long. There’s also a more commercial area behind, running up Avenue Lane Xang, where NGO’s, embassies and expat residents seem to cluster. The downtown area (the four-by-ten streets) is almost exclusively dominated by tourism, like a strange island inhabited only by bored-looking visitors and grudging tourism workers who commute in and out of the area each day. There is little evidence of local Laotian life. It’s hot, dirty, and not particularly attractive or interesting. Besides which, it’s very expensive compared to Thailand. The other foreigners I met were spectacularly uninteresting (maybe I was just unlucky?) – some exhausted and pissed-off backpackers who were too uptight to be any fun, a few bored businessmen, and several sexist, bitter old men who lived there with their young Laotian wives. Disdainful of tourists, they knew everything there was to know about Laos and were proud to tell you so. Not my kind of people.

            Unable to stand the thought of sitting around Vientiane for two more days, and having already exhausted the list of tourist attractions in the guidebook, I struggled to find some kind of activity or tour that would take me out of town. One tour agency after another told me that the only way to trek or see any nature was to take a four-hour bus to Vang Vien, or better yet a much longer one to Luang Prabang. (I visited Vang Vien on a later trip and can wholeheartedly recommend it for getting away from the droves of tourists. Mind you, the town isn’t much, although it’s way more friendly and laid-back than Vientiane; but from there I found a real into-the-wild trek, complete with scary bamboo bridge crossings and white-water river wading. You can also do rock climbing and tubing and rafting. I’ve never seen Luang Prabang personally, but I’ve been told it’s much the same as Vientiane, except you can escape the city on the beautiful but well-travelled trekking and adventure tours.) Since I didn’t have enough time for a long bus ride on this trip, I decided to go exploring by myself. So I grabbed a map, rented a scooter, ignored protests from tour agents that I would certainly get lost, and headed out of town.

            The star attraction of Laos, the thing that made it worth visiting and distinguished it from the rest of Southeast Asia, was the countryside. It seems most tourists stick to the beaten track and don’t really get outside the usual towns and treks, so travelling through the countryside felt like a real adventure. I saw no other foreigners on my trip, and lots of friendly locals who smiled and waved delightedly. And price scales dropped to normal as I got outside the tourist area. With little idea where I was going, just hoping to find the national park which I had been told by different people was three, six, or ten hours out of town, I followed the vague heading I was pointed on by the tour agent. My map bore no similarities to the roads in front of me, so I put it away and decided to go by instinct. Within twenty minutes I was well out of the city limits and on a rural one-lane highway. This part was still well-populated, and there was no shortage of stores, temples and villages along the road – and even a Shell gas station, which I was a bit shocked to see (but happy at the time because I needed to refill). I drove on for a few hours, realising that since I had started in the late afternoon, I probably wouldn’t find the park tonight and would need to find a place to stay. As the buildings started to get scarcer, I made a mental note of two guesthouses I noticed. Soon after, I came to a river with a big metal bridge. There was a guard post at the crossing, so I stopped my bike and read out the name of the park in what I’m sure was a gross mispronunciation. The guard seemed to get it though, because he laughed and pointed me across the bridge, nodding reassuringly. The sun would be setting soon, so I drove for half an hour on the other side of the river and, unable to find any indication of a place to stay, turned around and went back to the place I had noticed on the way in.

            As I drove back into the town at dusk, still wearing my sunglasses to protect from the dust, locals started to notice me. Adults stopped and stared in astonishment, sometimes waving or returning my smile, and kids shouted and waved frantically, and dogs ran alongside me. I felt a little like Elvis returning from the dead. With a self-conscious smile still plastered on my face, I pulled into the building marked “Guesthouse” and looked around for someone who worked there. It was a dirt courtyard full of chickens and puppies, but with no sign of people. I tentatively walked around saying “Hello?” to dark doorways, not wanting to accidentally walk into someone’s bedroom or toilet, and finally found the kitchen. A woman was busy inside, but emerged after a couple of minutes. She stopped and gave me a second look when she realised I was white. I pointed at a row of doors with numbers on them and asked for a room. She gave me a key and showed me to one. It was what can best be described as “basic” accommodation: four concrete walls, a hard mattress, and a small room with a hole in the floor and a bucket full of water. Fresh water seemed to run from the hose only in the morning, so a bucket of cold stagnant water over my head had to suffice for now. However, I got a good meal from the kitchen, a good night’s sleep, and only a few mosquito bites (all for the price of what would buy you a pretty decent room in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai…).

The next morning I headed off bright and early for breakfast by the river, delighted to finally discover that some of my Thai worked here – the woman at the restaurant understood the words for black coffee and fried egg. (I’ve been told that because Thai pop culture has spread extensively through Laos, most Lao people can understand some Thai.) After I crossed the bridge, the landscape became much more rural. I drove through some mountains, passing a few villages along the way. When the road turned to dirt I started to get a bit worried. I had no idea where I was, and was just hoping that by some miracle or Buddha’s goodwill I would stumble upon the park. I came to a fork in the road, with signs in Lao pointing in either direction. I pulled out my map and tried to match the Lao writing of the name of the park with the writing on the signs. I followed the one that looked more similar, and reasoned that even if I didn’t find the park I could just drive until I got tired, then follow the same road back to town. With my worries allayed and my spirits high, I zoomed down the red dusty road. I crossed a little canal full of children splashing in the water, and waved hello. They smiled and shouted, jumping up and down and waving their arms. Further on, a couple of guys in army outfits on a motorbike passed me, and I took a picture of the out-of-place looking pair in front of me. A few minutes later they stopped and turned around to stare at me. I wondered if I had done something wrong. But then they pulled out a digital camera and took a photo of me as I passed. After all, who was the stranger here?

“Where did those guys come from?” I wondered. I hadn’t seen anything around me that would lead me to expect army guys, or people who could afford digital cameras. Maybe they were tourists too. While I was thinking this, I realised the terrain had changed. Suddenly I was in a forest, with tall trees lining either side of the road. A gate blocked the road ahead, with a small booth at the side. The park! I thought excitedly. I paid a small fee to two confused-looking guys, also in army uniform. I guess they were the park rangers. They took my money reluctantly but gave me a look like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Soon I realised why. The road quickly transformed into a steep uphill rut, full of sand and large rocks. My little Honda Dream was no match for this. I parked it off the side of the road, being sure to lock everything up tightly, and continued on foot. But it wasn’t looking good. Half an hour of uphill trekking later, with no sign of the lush jungle trails and breathtaking waterfalls that I was optimistically hoping for, I decided to abandon my quest. The tour agency was right about one thing, I needed a guide to see anything of interest in the national park. Suddenly I heard a loud rustling in the trees behind me. I whirled around, panicked, realising that I was in the middle of nowhere, alone, with no one looking for me. Something was coming out of the jungle. A large monkey? An elephant? A tiger?! It was… a man. Three, in fact, carrying pieces of wood collected from the jungle. I was startled and caught off-guard, thinking I was alone for miles in every direction and suddenly confronted with a stranger. They were equally surprised. We stared warily at each other before slowly starting awkwardly down the hill in the same direction. I was walking in front, uncomfortably aware that they were watching me. I soon arrived at my motorbike, and now that the shock had worn off, I decided I should be friendly. I turned around to say hi, but they were already disappearing back into the jungle.

Emerging from the park unvictorious, about an hour after I had entered, and a little shaky from my descent down the dirt path, I gave a wry smile to the bemused guards as I exited. By now it was lunchtime and my paltry fried egg breakfast was not enough to get me through the day. I decided it was time to head back to civilization. I stopped at the first store I could find and found a dusty, suspicious-looking pastry thing (luckily it wasn’t filled with string pork or anything) and a bottle of soy milk (a lifesaver when you’re needing nutrition and can’t find anything familiar). After that, a gruelling five-hour non-stop drive brought me back to Vientiane, where I stumbled off my bike and checked back into my guesthouse, immediately indulging in a soothing hot shower to wash off the film of dust and relax my stiff muscles. One extremely expensive but delicious French meal later, I was feeling slightly more charitable about Vientiane. Luckily I was out of there the next afternoon before my good mood could wear off.


HK style

October 31, 2008

Everyone has style in Hong Kong. It’s rare to see someone not looking smart and fashionable – except for construction workers and old people… But even the elderly have a style. The older Chinese women are always dressed in these hideous floral-patterned silk blouses that seem to have been salvaged from the ‘80’s, perhaps found in a dusty corner of a flea market. Yet they are worn by every old lady in the city, so they must still be manufactured at some factory in China. Then there’s the Hong Kong business uniform – suit, tie, shoes, briefcase and Blackberry, always striding down the street with somewhere important to be. Chinese businessmen visiting from the mainland can be identified by their polo shirts and a slight leering swagger, which I’m not sure the meaning of, perhaps it’s an unconscious assertion that “I have money and power.” Then there are the peacocks of the Hong Kong flock, the young Westernised Chinese and expat teens, clad to the teeth in designer gear – heels, skirt, shirt, jacket, sunglasses, purse and cellphone all bearing the mark of a luxury brand name (but only the pros can tell which are real and which are fake). On the slightly edgier side of this are the young Chinese who sport a more Asian style, flaunting the complicated mismatched fashion of Hong Kong locals – big shirts covered in streamers, chains, or giant felt flowers, pushing the boundaries of fashion with what is undoubtedly a very difficult outfit to put on in the morning. Whenever I browse the shops of local designers in Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui, I always end up embarrassingly trying on outfits upside-down or backwards. I almost never buy because I find myself worrying that one of the offshoots from my dress will get caught in an escalator (that actually happened to me once). Sometimes odd but never boring, the Hong Konger’s fashion sense makes it an always entertaining city for people-watching and trend-spotting.


Hong Kong vs Thailand

October 30, 2008

Now that I’ve lived in two Asian cities, possibly the two most opposite cities in Asia, I keep being amazed at the huge differences between them. Here are some examples…

 

Hong Kong                             vs.                        Chiang Mai

 

PROS:

            really nice nightclubs                                                  really nice people

            any kind of food you want                                         lots of cheap Thai food

            cheap wine                                                                  cheap SangSom

            beautiful mountains                                                    beautiful mountains

            beautiful harbour                                                         beautiful countryside

            great fashion sense                                                      no fashion sense

            lots of stuff to do                                                        really relaxed attitude

            good public transport                                                  motorbike!

            good newspapers                                                        good soap operas

            entertaining politicians                                                entertaining politicians

            lots of rules which aren’t followed                             no rules about anything

           

CONS:

            disgruntled old expats                                                 disgruntled old farangs

            really hectic big-city lifestyle                                      boring small-town lifestyle

            expensive things                                                          low-quality things

 

So, you can see, some things are the same after all. The winner? Undecided…


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