Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I know I have some "techie" friends out there who may be able to help me out. Here's what's happening. I browse for photos to upload on Facebook's photo album page and select the folder where my photos are being stored. Instead of going to the subfolder and then to all of my photos, it attempts to upload the DCIM.exe folder. The last few computers have given me a warning about a threat being found (Object - C:\WINDOWS\system32\dllcache\autorun.inf; Threat - Win32/Autorun.NAE virus). I can still see all my photos on the computer when I open the folder and on my camera in the review setting, I just can't do anything else with them. Any thoughts and help would be much appreciated!!
Saturday, December 20, 2008
David and I took a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh on December 13 on a bus that went straight through the border. I'd heard all sorts of stories about scams you encounter where you buy a bus with continual service only to find out that you either have to change buses at the border and continue on with a new carrier or that the ticket you bought does not, in fact, go all the way through and instead leaves you at the border to fend for yourself. I was nervous about either scenario but we found a place the guaranteed the same bus throughout the trip so I felt pretty good about shelling out $10 each for a ticket. We had been unable to arrange a Cambodian visa before crossing the border so we were relying on our bus driver to make the necessary arrangements for us at the border, a prospect that made me nervous since we'd priced visa services around town and they were charging anywhere between $25 - $50 a pop for what should have been a $20 visa.
The border crossing issue was a completely foreign concept to me. Normally we walk through an orderly line and clear customs one at a time, like in the rest of Asia. But Vietnam and Cambodia are not necessarily the "rest of Asia." To leave Vietnam required handing over our departure cards long before we got our passport stamps. Before we got off the bus, the driver rounded up all the local's passports and handed them in one big bunch to the official stamping passports. Other bus drivers from other groups were doing the same. Which left enormous stacks of passports to be processed for the locals and which also left the foreigners to fend for themselves.
There was no such thing as a line, although it looked like it. What was actually happening was that people were standing around waiting for their names to be called because they had already handed over their passports. David and I figured this out after standing there, passports in hand, watching the whole process for several minutes. He had to find a bathroom and there were none in the immediate vicinity, which meant we had to get through that line somehow. I pushed my way past the 6 or 7 people in front of me (its Asia, that's what people do) and plopped both of our passports on the desk in front of the official. He looked at them and then pushed them off to the side and continued stamping local passports. Eventually, after several minutes, ours were processed too. From there, we got back on the bus and drove 100 yards to the Cambodian side of the border where we had to fork over our passports and pay our driver to handle our visas.
From there we got back on the bus and headed around the corner for lunch while we waited for the officials to process the stack of passports for everyone on the bus. This made me a little nervous--to be out of sight of my passport, the one thing that ensures I can continue my trip, for any real length of time. Sure, we've had to hand over our passports to hotels when we've checked in before, but they keep them locked away. But in this case, we were at the border, where it seems anything can happen. Thirty minutes later we were back on the bus, passports in hand. Things were fine.
We made it Phnom Penh and walked to our hostel. David let me navigate, which may not have been the wisest decision. I have terrific sense of direction most of the time but have left all the fine tuning of figuring out which streets to turn on to him. I got distracted and insisted that we had not made the correct turn, while David stood on the corner beckoning me to follow him because he knew where we were. Turns out he was right. Oops. Then I over-navigated us past the part of town we wanted to be in. Guess I'll leave that stuff to him in the future. One of the perks of dating a Boy Scout!
We only had one night in PP before heading to Sihanoukville, where we spent 3 blissful off-the-grid days at Otres Beach. We stayed in a place called La Casa, owned by a dude from Barcelona. Electricity only worked off solar power during the day (the only time you could charge camera, cell phone or computer batteries) and off generators at night. We stayed in a little grass thatched bungalow about 20 feet from the water, which had no fan and no toilet (there was a shared toilet behind our bungalow). We shared our bathroom (sink & cold water shower) with a family of the biggest cockroaches I've ever seen! And since the roof was ventilated where it joined with the walls, we also shared our digs with some loud croaking lizards, a jumping spider and a huge colony of ants (once they figured out where our food was). And even though David had to rig a system to keep our backpacks off the floor because I originally thought those squeaks I was hearing were rats, and even though we had to share space with so many creatures, this was one of my favorite places we've stayed!
We were fortunate enough to connect buses from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap through PP in one single day. Resulted in an early morning and LOTS of bus time. We were subjected to the horror of a karaoke bus. These things really exist--they have multiple television screens showing videos, a speaker system throughout the bus which is always turned to an unreasonable volume so that no amount of ear plugs or volume on the iPod will tune them out, and to make matters worse, there's a microphone that has a wire long enough to reach around the bus should anyone feel inspired enough to sing. Truly awful!! Luckily, no one sang, because I might have had to kill them.
And on the second bus from PP, the volume was low enough I could think. However, the A/C didn't seem to be working and I quickly overheated. We stopped at a rest area and I made David move out of the way so I could "Go dunk my head in a sink," which can often be a scary thought since there aren't always sinks. The toilets in Cambodia are often force-flush toilets and you're given a small bowl or cup inside a bucket or tub to pour water into the toilet to flush it. At this particular rest stop, there was no sink but I was fortunate enough to find a faucet in the tub instead of having to use the toilet bucket to pour on my head (although I was hot enough, I may have done it). We arrived in Siem Reap around sundown. We'd hoped to be able to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat, as we were supposed to arrive at 5:30 and didn't arrive until 7:00. Having been cooped up on a bus all day, we walked the 6k to our hostel to stretch our legs.
Siem Reap will have to be its own post, since this is getting out of control with length. Suffice to say, we're now in another new country (Thailand) and headed to the beach for the next 10 days, where I have no idea what the Internet situation will be like. Looks like I'm going to end up doing a lot of back-posting to try to do things justice. Sorry to keep you waiting! If I don't post again soon, Merry Christmas!
Friday, December 12, 2008
Of course, my sugary breakfast obviously had a lot to do with my mid-morning crash and I became more capable of handling this tendency through diet as I got older. Hypoglycemia hasn't been an issue for me since I was in high school (an only occasionally then), as I've had availability of snacks and drinks to keep me going. That is until I came to Asia.
David and I have been carrying a bevy of snacks with us whenever we travel between cities because we never know how long we'll be in transit and because buses are notorious for making infrequent stops and sometimes the local food is too scary to consider edible. Not to mention there's always a scam in place to part Westerners from their cash by overcharging for food. So up until I got food poisoning, I would have considered myself pretty set food-wise. But the problem with snacking in Asia is that almost everything "Western" is super salty or is chocolate. I wore myself out on chips while in China and have outdone myself on chocolate recently due to my sensitivity to caffeine. That severely limited my food choices so I attempted to stop snacking.
Sticking only to meals wouldn't necessarily be a problem in and of itself, except that everything we eat is essentially rice. Rice noodles, a little bit of pork, rice, a few vegetables, a banana or tangerine here and there, and oh yeah, more rice. Tastes great. Doesn't sustain me for more than a few hours.
I thought that skipping snacks was going rather well until I had a catastrophic melt-down in Hoi An several days ago. The weather was rainy and hot, I was disappointed at how a pair of jeans I'd had made turned out, David and I had a miscommunication over morning plans and I hadn't eaten anything in the 3.5 hours since I'd woken up. I had not set myself up for a good day. And it was VERY apparent.
I got UBER cranky. Everything annoyed me. I didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to be touched or looked at (which is next to impossible as a red-head in Asia). I felt like the sun would never shine again and even if it did, I'm not sure I would have cared. I had totally shut down. To the point that, if I were David, I would have walked off and left me alone. But he's a total trooper and even though I'd set a horrible tone for the day and soured both our moods, he took it in stride and stuck by my side.
We ate lunch and I felt remarkable! Not well enough that the daily annoyances like being harassed by street vendors and motorbike taxis didn't still frustrate me (apparently the "Fuck Off!" face doesn't translate), but well enough that I could leave Hoi An and trek back to Danang to attempt to catch a train. Before we left town, we had a brief chat about ways we'd both try to be better at recognizing and dealing with my impending hypoglycemic melt-downs. Like eating FIRST THING in the morning, rather that dawdling and running errands before seeking sustenance. We're quick to make sure that when we sit down to restaurants and I'm already starting to show signs of strain that I order a soda to get my blood sugar back up. This is not an issue I'm used to dealing with back home (or for that matter, in several years) and David is great at helping me recognize and thwart oncoming disaster. Things have been going much smoother during the last few days as a result and I feel so lucky to have him as a partner!
Monday, December 8, 2008
We've been taking the bus more lately that we have done at any other point on the trip thus far. I get terrible motion sickness, something I've had since I was a kid, and David's been kind enough to forgo a few more remote destinations in consideration of my impending nausea. But since the round of food poisoning, my stomach has been able to withstand more bus rides. A little rocking back and forth seems so minor in comparison to what we both endured for the better part of a week. Its given us opportunities to see parts of the country we probably wouldn't have seen (i.e. from the border at Lao Cai to Hanoi). There were a lot of farm animals in China but there are WAAAAY more here in Vietnam. I've seen several pigs, lots of water buffalo, a few cattle, donkeys, cats, dogs, and more chickens that I can possibly count. The title of this blog is in all seriousness. Pork is apparently one of the most common dishes in a country where there is little grazing land for cattle, but oh my lord!! There are A LOT OF CHICKENS!! They're EVERYWHERE! From what I've seen in the last week you could tell me that they outnumber the population of Vietnam 10 to 1 and I'd believe you, no questions.
The animal culture in Asia is so much different than I've ever experienced. Lots of businesses keep their doors open at all times during the day and there are animals running all over the place, regardless of whether you're in a city or not. In the countryside, chickens wander around all over the place. In the city, its dogs and cats that have free run. There are tons of little dogs that run around busy cities, cross major streets with no fear and wander from shop to shop making their rounds. They're quite proud of themselves and know their place in society--off leash and running free. There's an abundance of female dogs with saggy nipples from nursing puppies for several months. NO ONE SPAYS OR NEUTERS! Think about what this does to the animal population. Of course, the dogs here are on the menu and they seem to know it. They're often very skittish around people. I guess you've got to control the population somehow, although I do not and will not support this practice.
Another cultural phenomenon I couldn't quite understand is the constant squatting that people do. People will sit like this for hours on end--street vendors, boat drivers, those waiting for the bus. While it took me a while to understand it at first, there are a few cultural cues that put it into context. First, if you recall from that demonstration photo in an earlier post I did about bathrooms, this is the normal stance for using the toilet. Second, the streets are DIRTY. As I said, you've got animals running around pooing and peeing all over the place. People litter and David and I are constantly stepping over leftover orange peels or charcoal from street vendor's stoves. Its really gross--I wouldn't want to put my bottom on that either!
One difference that I love about Vietnam that drove me nuts in China is the lack of spitting. The constant hacking and spitting about drove me bonkers. That phlegmy, guttural sound in the back of some else's throat is almost enough to make me lose my lunch (don't believe me? Ask David.). And it was EVERYWHERE! Even women and little old grannies would spit! As we were sitting in a bus station in China early one morning, I watched a 3-year-old hack and spit into a trash can. They teach 'em young! It offended my Southern sensibilities!! But Vietnam has a distinct absence of that godforsaken sound! The sound of silence (in that regard, at least) makes me love this country all the more!
I haven't been blogging like I would like but that is not a reflection on my appreciation for Vietnam. If anything, it should tell you that I'm enjoying it so thoroughly that I'm not looking for an escape in front of the computer! We'll be here for a few more days, stopping at a beach town in the south for a few days (maybe trying surfing lessons!) before heading to Saigon and then crossing the border into Cambodia. The pace should be quick and steady for the next week or so, especially if we can't confirm a flight change, so I don't know that I'll be able to promise any more frequent posting. I know you all understand. Cheers!
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
I cannot begin to explain what a relief it is to be in Vietnam right now. Primarily because it means that I am no longer sick and am able to get on the move again. But also because, while China is nice, I never found a connection with the country that I was hoping I would. Its a bit like seeing a movie that everyone tells you is SO AWESOME! Like, OMG, go there right now and see it! You'll love it! And then you go see it and are all like, this is it? What's all the hype about?
Vietnam is much more like what I pictured Asia to be like. Its more rustic and gritty and just feels more real. The people here super friendly in a way that I would never equate with China. Maybe its just my personal experience. I know I have friends who would argue this very point, but its my blog, so my view is the one that's getting heard.
My first experience in the country was a bus ride from the border to Hanoi. Had I not seen and experienced it, I'd have thought it was one of those obscure travel stories. I assure you, this is common over here! We decided to take the bus from Lao Cai because the train station is closed from 11:00am - 4:00pm and we arrived at the train station 30 minutes too late to buy a ticket without having to wait or buying a train ticket from a travel agent for an inflated price. I thought I read somewhere that the bus took 9 hours to get to Hanoi while the train would take 12 hours. Not sure where I got those numbers as they turned out to be far from correct. We figured that leaving Lao Cai at 1:00 would put us into town at a reasonable hour. Had I known what we were getting into, I would have undoubtedly made a different decision. But since we were already on the bus, we were committed.
The long distance bus terminal appeared to me more for goods transportation rather than passengers. None of the buses are clearly marked and we had to double check to make sure we were on the right bus because the drivers were busy loading the bus full of all kinds of crap we couldn't identify and strapping more stuff to the roof. This is what the back of the bus looked like when we left:
We started with 5 passengers and about 1 ton of crap both inside and on top of the bus. Over the next few hours we'd stop and pick up random things like boxes, tires, letters and occasionally more passengers. The driver's assistant paid off the police at least 4 times throughout the trip. Eventually, we had so many people on board that there were no more seats and people started sitting in the aisles. And on one stop, we were apparently the moving van for a family along the way. What should have been a 30 second stop (these buses don't stop while you climb aboard--they keep moving with or without you!) turned into a 20 minute stop while they loaded everything from armoires, beds and chairs to boxes and a few passengers. Once it became apparent it was going to take a while, David volunteered to help load things and climbed up on the side of the bus to assist. The fact that it was dark and they were handing heavy furniture over a 3 foot deep trench to load the bus made things much more interesting and precarious. The biggest difference between Asia and the States is that nobody on the bus seemed to mind the delay. Just part of travel!
So, we thought the bus ride was going to be shorter than the train. But at 8:00, when we stopped for dinner, we were still out in the middle of nowhere. We were served last at the roadside restaurant and figured out we were about to get scammed when the locals at the next table started talking about how much the Dollar was worth in comparison to the Dong. Of course we were overcharged and of course we fought the bill. To the point that David threw down money and started walking back to the bus (which they'd started and were backing up--another tactic to get us to pay without questioning things), leaving me there surprised! The locals blocked my way out, insisting that I pay the difference in the bill. I went out the other way and got back on the bus. They chased us onto the bus and stopped the engine until the bill was settled (we got them down a whole dollar!). Its more the principle of the matter rather than the amount. Everyone is trying to get a cut and we're so familiar with scams and overinflated pricing that its almost become a non-issue. Just an every day annoyance.
Once we got moving again, it became obvious that we were in it for the long haul when the locals started finding random nooks and crannies on the floor and on top of luggage to fall asleep. By 10pm, I'd had enough and was exhausted. I curled up on a space in the aisle on top of a bag of walnuts, squished in between some guy's briefcase and people's feet. Not exactly comfortable, but I managed to score a few hours of dozing before trading places with David, who had the seat we were sharing. He couldn't get comfortable there but, again, I had no problem dozing.
They dropped us off 3k from the borders of my map of Hanoi at 3:15am, waking us up yelling that we had to hurry and get off the bus. This is a common tactic they use when pickpocketing you in your sleep--to force you to hurry off the bus or train, only to realize after you've gotten off that you're missing something. We were hip to this scam and were careful to sleep on top of our bags so nothing was missing. We regrouped and caught a cab to a hostel in the old town and were in bed by 5am, dusty, dirty and exhausted. A couple came in like 20 minutes after us, having taken the overnight train from Lao Cai in a soft sleeper, which they said was quite nice. They paid 2.5x what we paid for our train ticket and didn't have near the cultural experience, but they were clean and well rested. The train may be the way to do things from now on....
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Last week, I detailed how beautiful the countryside of the Yunnan province in Southern China is. But I didn't get into the other side of the trek--the nitty-gritty. We were on a bus for 8 hours, which required several stopovers along the way for potty and food breaks. Our first one came about 2 hours into the trip and we parked along a stream that had a large outhouse building beside it. The building was divided in two: one side for men, the other for women. Though there was only one big room on each side. David had gone ahead of me and taken a peek inside while I was on the bus fumbling in my bag trying to locate my toilet paper and hand sanitizer (two ESSENTIAL items in Asia). He warned me about what to expect when I walked in, but it still wasn't enough to prepare me for what I saw:
Luckily, by the time I got in there the crowds had thinned out a bit and I was only required to share this disgusting space with one other woman. I waited until she left to snap the photo. Probably wouldn't have gone over so well if I had tried to take a picture with others present. This style toilet requires a sure foot and impeccable balance to ensure you don't fall through the cracks and wade through raw sewage. Not a place for bare feet (sorry, Brittney Spears!) or sandals. I couldn't help thinking that I would hate to live downstream from one of these, as the contamination obviously seeps into the creek that is less than 10 yards away. Gives you a new perspective on water quality in China, huh?
The next pit stop we made was for lunch and a bathroom break. David and I opted to skip the prepared cooked meal being served and chose a few tangerines instead. The roadside diner obviously had a deal worked out with our bus driver to stop there every time he came through. As a "thank you" for providing regular business, they gave him a free meal in a private dining area away from the other passengers. Another reason for skipping the food this time was that there were crops being grown in a small field directly downhill from the toilet. I don't want anything I put in my body to be contaminated by something that comes out of it, so I decided there was no amount of money you could pay me to eat those greens.
I'd seen this style of toilet before (at the train station in Chengdu). Essentially, its a trough that you squat over, which is divided into stalls with no door and only about a 3 foot high wall dividing each stall. The trough is continuous under each stall and is flushed every so often by a water source at one end that forces the waste to a drain at the other end. There's never enough water sitting in the bottom of these things and large waste tends to sit, fester and rot. Did I mention the humidity of these bathrooms before? Yeah, it really helps with the smell....
This was the same style of toilet at the hospital in Dali. I've learned the trick in all Eastern-style toilets is to take the toilet paper you intend to use out of your pocket before you walk in and use it to cover your nose until its time to wipe. Then you take one big breath, wipe, pull up your pants and make a run for the door before you have to breathe again. Not exactly foolproof, but its better than gagging!
I'm still not feeling well enough for travel after having my ass kicked by food poisoning (if you can call it that after 3 days of sickness). I'd have to be feeling pretty well to risk having to use toilets like these on the road. These holes don't inspire me to want to wander far from my Western toilet at the hostel...
Luckily, the onset of my food poisoning came around the time he started to feel a little bit better. Don't get me wrong, he's four days in and not back to 100% yet, but he sucked it up and took care of me when I needed it. My symptoms started at 10:00 pm two nights ago and by 11:30 I was shooting things out of both ends on a predictable half hour schedule. By 1:30am, I'd had enough and asked David to take me to the hospital. He woke up the hostel staff to ask for assistance (one of the owners of the hostel came with us as a translator, despite the fact that she's at least 6 months pregnant and stayed with us at the hospital through the night), helped me to the cab and stayed with me all night in the hospital while I received a shot in my butt to stop the nausea and vomiting (which didn't work immediately and I threw up 7 more times--once on David's sandaled foot as he was helping me to the bathroom), and received two IV drips. He was dehydrated and still suffering but he stayed by my side all night and returned to the hospital with me at 3:00 the next afternoon (as instructed by the doctors) to receive 3 more IV drips. All told, he was in the hospital with me for about 14 hours. I'm really lucky to have him!
For those of you who've ever wondered what hospitals overseas are like, they're everything you'd expect. The place was dirty and nowhere close to sterile. I'm not sure I could venture a guess as to when the sheets on my bed were last changed. I found at least one bug in my bed and saw other (smart!) patients bringing in their own sheets. There are grease stains on the walls behind each bed where people have rested their heads. The paint is chipping and peeling all over the hospital, the floors are dirty (there were cigarette butts on the floor in my room) and disposable items like used Q-tips, Kleenex and needle caps were thrown on the floor. The architecture of the building was not closed and the exterior doors were removed--kind of courtyard style. The room I was in had doors and due to our body heat, the temperature was bearable, but it was by no means a heated room. Also, the only bathroom for the building was an outside W.C., which was about a two minute walk from my room. And when you have diarrhea, that's never a good thing!
Here I am about 30 seconds from throwing up for the 10th time in 5 hours. I jacked a trash can from the hostel as a barf bucket (you never know if they'll have what you need ANYWHERE in China, so its best to go prepared). That's Song, the hostel owner, behind me. She was up all night with us and is a total champ!
I was concerned that I would be given used needles but David (who has had EMT training) assured me that he recognized the needle packaging and watched the nurse prep the tray. I got stuck 3 times on my first hospital visit (1 shot, and twice for my IV). They missed the vein the first time and were pumping fluid into my skin, which swelled up painfully over the course of a few hours and had to be moved to my other hand.
The doctor came in to check on me at 7:30am during my first visit and was concerned when I told him that I wasn't feeling any better than when I had arrived. I was discouraged by this too, since I thought that was the whole point of going to the doctor! We went back to the hostel and rested for a while and a few hours later I was feeling much better. But then I started to backslide by about 1:30pm and was glad I had been instructed to return around 2:00. They hooked me up to another round of IVs, with the same results (no immediate improvement, though I felt great hours later). But this time, things stayed positive. I was able to eat some solid food and I'm feeling almost back to normal now.
David didn't receive the same course of treatment as me, though I tried to get him to go to the hospital when he started feeling awful during that first day. He never felt bad enough to risk the hospital, so we never went and instead, he started a course of antibiotics that my mom had insisted we take with us. Not sure how much they helped over all though. He also ended up with a prescription for some pills to ease his stomach pains from the doctor while I was at the hospital. But he hasn't recovered nearly as quickly as I have.
If nothing else, our respective treatments were very inexpensive. David's pills were $2 and both of my hospital stays were $35 total. The difference in treatment though is that I'm almost symptom-free and David had a bit of a relapse last night. After some early morning texting with my mom, who contacted Dr. Luckmann, we were reassured that we were both on the mend and would expect to make a full recovery shortly. My experience has been very much like previous bouts with food poisoning, though David assures me he's never experienced something so severe or long-lasting.
With any luck, we'll be well enough to travel tomorrow and will be on our way to Vietnam. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! If you're ever in Dali, please stay at the Jade Emu. They really are fantastic!
Monday, November 24, 2008
Welcome to the Yunnan province in Southern China, where everything is lush and green! We entered the foothills of the Himalayas, where I was rewarded with some of the most amazing views of the trip. Its everything you'd think China would be--tiered fields full of crops, rice paddies, farmers working their fields in straw hats, people hauling things in baskets on their backs or using their mules. It was great to see firsthand that these things really do exist!
We arrived in Lijiang after dark and found a hostel in the Old Town (which we love!!). This section of town is more than 800 years old and is separated by streams and tributaries running from the Jade River. The streams run along side all of the streets and divide the neighborhood into hundreds of smaller streets and alleys. The streams also sometimes create a moat around restaurants and bars, which necessitates the use of planks to cross (not a good place for clumsy, stumbling drinkers...). The streets are paved with the original red breccia, which gives it a really rustic touch.
Everything is lit with red lanterns, which gives it a really cool look. There are vendors set up at all hours of the night hocking their handwoven pashminas, scarves and clothes. Jade and silver jewelry, tea houses and natural health providers are also everywhere. David and I popped into a store along the way and bought some yak meat! Yum!
We had only intended to be in Lijiang for one night before heading to the Tiger Leaping Gorge but plans changed and we stayed two nights instead and skipped the Gorge. When this is the view from your hotel, how can you not stick around??
Lijiang turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip! We're currently in Dali (which was said to be as good or better than Lijiang by people who obviously don't know what the hell they're talking about!). We decided immediately that we didn't like it as well as Lijiang and would only stay one night on our way to the Vietnamese border. But things never work out quite the way we plan them and David is nursing a nasty case of food poisoning that he thinks he got from a bum burrito at dinner last night. Note to self: burritos in China are not a wise move! If all goes well, we'll be on the road again tomorrow. Until then!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
For that reason, I 'll share some of our daily cuisine...
This is a picture of David eating Ox Tail in Beijing. Couldn't get me to touch it (I know what happens at that end of an ox!) but he thought it was pretty good.
A few nights later, we found where all the street cart vendors hang out so we tried some dumplings, noodles, ostrich, seaweed, and our favorite--snake. They had it in two different ways: whole or just the meat. We opted for meat only (white skewer), since the whole snake looks a little suspect.
We had some of our favorite finds in Xian. On our first day in town we found more street vendors and had squid for the first time. Looks a little odd, but tastes amazing! Not too chewy either!
And then last night Tzs ordered a "sampler platter" of various kinds of meat. It included things from beef, pork, beef liver (we'd had a plate of this on its own the night before and LOVED it!), some unidentifiable type of fish part and this:
And then there was what was (apparently) described on the menu as beef brisket with pumpkin and bread. But when it arrived, it became quickly apparent that it was actually pork belly (which was essentially all fat) mixed with some pumpkin-type stuffing with pumpkin slices underneath. Definitely the most unique thing I've had on the trip thus far, and once you got used to the taste (and past the fact that it was a plate full of fat), it was pretty good. Kind of sweet.
The plumbing systems here don't have the containment capabilities that American toilets have. There is no U-bend in the pipes to ensure that you're not smelling the waste directly under your feet. Also, the sanitation department doesn't seem to have a handle on how to process toilet paper so when you can use it, you're not allowed to flush it. Imagine walking into a bathroom where there is piss all over the floor, a big turd sitting in the bottom of a toilet with no water in it and a wastebasket full of poopy and bloody toilet paper. No imagine that its hot and humid in there and you'll start to get a sense of what I'm talking about.
There are lots of public toilets all over the place. I can tell because I walk face first into that distinctive raw sewage smell about every 50 feet or so. Its very distinctive as the diet here consists largely of processed, fried and fishy things. The human body does funny things with these components and its ALWAYS smells disgusting. David's nose doesn't work properly so he can't smell it, and for that he is lucky. But we both agree how bad the toilets are around here and do our best to contain things until we can get back to our hostels, which almost always have Western-style toilets. Next time you spend an extended time in the bathroom and can use toilet paper and then flush it so it doesn't stink, think of us and count your lucky stars that you're not dealing with Eastern plumbing!
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Thus far, I've had experiences as a pedestrian and as a passenger in cars and busses. Here are some of the things I've noticed:
1) Stop signs/lights mean NOTHING. Even police will run red lights by several seconds.
2) What looks like a 2 lane road is actually a 5-lane road (two lanes, two shoulders, and the middle) when passing is involved.
3) Changing lanes in intersections is highly encouraged.
4) The game "Chicken" played with oncoming traffic is practiced every few miles. You learn to watch for people passing slower vehicles in the oncoming lane and move to the shoulder to allow them room if they don't have time to shoot the gap. No horns necessary, its just a (scary!!) way of life.
5) That "bike lane" is not reserved for just motorcycles and bicycles. Busses will threaten to plow down anything in their path if they're in a hurry.
6) Right on red is a given (and often left on red).
7) EVERYONE honks at everyone else. If your car doesn't have a horn, chances are you will either hit someone or be hit yourself.
8) Cars move slowly and aggressively. Average speed of traffic is like 10-15 mph in town, 15-25 mph on major roads, 40-50 mph on highways.
9) The left lane is not the fast lane--its for cruising. The fastest way through traffic is often weaving.
10) When cars put on their blinker, they're not fooling around. Move over or be run over.
1) Pedestrians are aggressive about crossing the street. They step into oncoming traffic without a second thought to safety.
2) Just because you have a green "walk" light (animated!) does NOT mean you can expect to cross the street without fear of becoming road kill. It's merely a little less Frogger-style.
3) Just because you have a red "don't walk" light doesn't mean you can't cross the street. Most of the time you can cross halfway and watch for oncoming traffic for the other half.
4) Even if cars have a green light, pedestrians will play Frogger and move step by step across the street, often standing on stripped lines while cars pass. Move slowly and predictably and you won't get hit.
5) Just because there's a sidewalk present does NOT mean its reserved for pedestrians. This is often prime parking real estate. Sometimes its another driving lane for cars and bikes! (Pardon the blurry photo, I was on the move dodging traffic. You'll see traffic moving in the opposite direction and the silver & blue divider for a bike /motorbike lane. This Car is definitely on the sidewalk!)
6) People walk the way they drive--they don't move out of anybody's way. If you don't plan your path beforehand you will run directly into people.
7) Sidewalks and stairs are often granite or marble and are like skating rinks when wet.
8) Sidewalks are also divided by raised yellow rubber indicators (as part of navigation for the blind) and are equally as slick when wet.
9) Puddles may not have a foreseeable bottom and are always full of foulness I won't describe. David stopped wearing sandals in the rain, if this is any indication of how bad it gets....
10) Exposed dirt from sidewalk excavation always becomes a huge trash pile for pedestrians.
11) If there are no public toilets in sight and your 2-year-old has to pee, watch out because he's going to spread it on the street (or in the trash can at a restaurant) and take care of business.
There really is a method to the madness here, its certainly not the Western way of navigation and its taken some getting used to. I understand that the further south we move, the more adventures we're bound to have. Vietnam is supposed to be even more precarious. Stay tuned, more on this topic I'm sure!
Friday, November 14, 2008
I'm not sure I've posted much on China, which is probably a good thing. My overwhelming first impression was not a super-positive one, though the place has grown on me over time. Beijing has a lot of really neat things to see (Olympic grounds, Tian anmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, etc.) but the pollution and the crowds made my time there relatively frustrating. Its also really expensive! David and I were having to pull money out of the ATM every other day and were "going through money like water." I was determined not to have a negative experience and was doing my best to relax and enjoy my time there but it was difficult because I started to feel run-down.
My diet over the course of our 6 days in Beijing consisted largely of chips, Snickers, beer and water. The restaurant scene there charges Western prices and the places we could afford were often kinda scary. We'd venture out in search of food and walk for an hour before we caved and went inside a restaurant we thought we could stomach. We often ate "safe" things like Subway and Pizza Hut. I'm strongly opposed to Western fall-backs like this, but I was starving and tired of living off junk food. My eating habits got so bad that I ended up with a severe headache.
I was really relieved when we left Beijing and arrived in Xian. We came here with the intent to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, but having been here 2 full days, we've yet to take the bus 45 minutes to see them. I got so distracted by the abundance of amazing food here that I all but forgot about anything else. We were recruited by one of those annoying solicitors at the train station to stay in her hostel. We held out for a while, hoping she'd leave us alone while we poured over our books, trying to figure out if we actually wanted to continue on to Shanghai, as was the original plan, or scrap that and start making our way south to Laos to kill time until our Vietnamese visas become valid on the 22nd.
The hostel ended up being around the corner from some amazing local fare and I've eaten handmade buckwheat noodles for 2 days now and am hoping for a 3rd! We've had really good luck with street food too, trying some grilled squid a few nights ago, which was awesome! Only had one bad meal, which we got by walking into a place that had no English-speakers, no one else in the restaurant eating (so we could point and ask for the same thing) and no real photos of anything. We pointed to a picture on the wall and, for what it was worth, should have just closed our eyes and picked something at random on the menu, because what we ended up with was a plate of pig fat and bones with celery. At least the side of rice and the celery were edible....
So I've been happy to spend a few extra days in Xian and take our time figuring out the next step. It seems we're skipping Shanghai entirely in favor of heading south to Chengdu on our way to Laos. There's a big Buddha statue in Chengdu to see and some trekking we may do in the Yunnan province for a few days before crossing the border into Northern Laos. We may have to try to rent some motorcycles for a day or two because the landscape is supposed to be amazing! Nothing is certain except we're on the move again! I'm behind on blogging, I know. When we get situated somewhere again with Internet access, I'll make a point to sit down and blog about several cultural observations and add photos, regardless of how frustrating it could be.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Its an odd mix of abandonment, deconstruction and immaculately kept gardens and common spaces all mixed and jumbled around some of the major landmarks like the Birds Nest and the Water Cube. The major tourist attractions are being maintained and continue to draw revenue through insane entrance fees (we figured it would cost us no less than $60 each to gain admittance inside the Water Cube and upwards of $125 for a VIP pass. No thanks.). Directly across the street from some of the lesser venues like the fencing building (which is directly next to the Water Cube), they're actively dismantling a slew of smaller buildings.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I've had lots of thoughts to myself on Japan's consumer culture but have kept mum on things until now. I think I was concerned that my observations would be judged, as they undoubtedly will, but I need to put things out there without worrying so much. That's the theme of this whole adventure--No Worries.
One of the things I noticed right away is that young Japanese women are crazy for fashion! Most of them would rather live in a dump, barely eat and have a closet full of the hottest designer labels. Its a trend in Japan for women to live extraordinarily out of their means in order to dress up. And my, how they rock it out! I wish I had pictures of some of the things that people wear in Japan but I felt awkward snapping incognito photos of strangers. Not that they would have said anything. They're all too polite. Instead, I tried to take photos in a department store and got this shot before I was asked to leave. At the top of the photo you can see the saleswoman's hand trying to block my shot. I pretended not to hear her. I couldn't pass this up! This is what we're dealing with, people!
Tennis shoes do not exist here. I swear in 9 days time I never saw a single young lady wearing anything besides heels or boots. Often a combination. I was floored by the (what Wes and I called) "hooker boots" these gals were wearing. I'm talking straight-out-of-Pretty-Woman up to, or past the knees, leather boots with 4" heels! They're EVERYWHERE! I even saw a little girl who couldn't have been more than 10 wearing a pair with a kitten heel! What parent in their right mind is going to let their daughter dress like that???
These girls appear so demure and overly feminine but they are rocking some sick shoes, walking miles at a time, and making it look easy. They might barely be 5 feet tall wearing 4 inch heels, but don't be fooled by their tiny voices or their outward appearance. These ladies are warriors!
As seductive as the footwear is, there's hardly any skin showing. They'll wear the tiniest little micro-mini or daisy duke shorts but always over a pair of tights or with a pair of knee-high socks. And the tops are never revealing or low-cut. Many of them are downright baggy. Especially by American standards. These girls are crazy about some make-up, too! Every morning on the train I see young school girls in their uniforms digging through their huge slouch purses for a mirror and some eye shadow. I don't think I started wearing what most people would consider make-up until I was in college. Maybe grad school. These girls are like 13 years old!
I guess what it ultimately comes down to is that Japan has a thriving economy and a young population with an expendable income. The Yen is far stronger than the Dollar and if I had that kind of money and lived in a big city, I might be tempted to dress just like these gals. Ladies, I salute you!
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I came across one of the fabled toilets with a heated seat and built-in bidet--truly a throne if ever there were! Stephen had mentioned them to me before I left DC, but having been in Japan for over a week, I was sure I wasn't going to find one. Then 'lo and behold! This magical creation was in my hostel in Osaka, and at first I was stumped.
What I also found is that some models have a timed bidet feature (uncomfortably long for the normal person--like 15 to 30 seconds, but in the name of research I had to try it out), where some have a freaking free flow with no end in sight! There's a stop button on that bad boy for a reason! Nobody trying to freshen up needs a jet like that! No, that takes a far more twisted mind to enjoy the endless spray. Its not my thing, for sure!
Since my first experience in Osaka, I've seen these awesome toilets a few more times in Tokyo. But then I was reminded of the other awful piss-holes that are out there when I stumbled across this sign in a (disgusting!) public bathroom outside the Osaka Castle.
I've learned how to find the Western-style toilets wherever I go. The trick is to find the handicapped stall. They're not going to make Granny squat over a hole! She might break a hip! And I, for one, fully support that initiative!
The thing about Western-style toilets here is that people actually respect them! I have NEVER walked into one and seen someone else's pee all over the seat! They are usually immaculate and cleaned regularly. It always makes me chuckle when I walk into a stall in a public place like a train station and they've folded over the first sheets of toilet paper on each roll the way they do in hotels. Even the Eastern-style bathrooms are at least clean. Americans, take a lesson and respect what could easily be such a rare gem--a place to SIT and do your business!
Monday, November 3, 2008
I had done only a little reading about Miyajima before visiting (pretty much par for the course) and had seen a little blurb about the deer on the island. Wes had also mentioned them and I was prepared to see a few but I had no idea they'd be so prevalent. Or so bold! They flock to the touristy spots, especially near food stands, to try to score a snack right out of your hands (or out of your bag).
Wes has been to the island three time before our trip and told me about his friend attempting to "share" his french fries with a deer, only to have the thing try to stand in his lap and steal the bag right out of his hands. They're not scared of people and will often allow you to pet them. Food cart owners spend a lot of time shooing them away lest they sneak a sample their wares. Though most of the deer have their antlers removed, its no wonder you see signs like this scattered across the island. Duh!
The deer are allowed to roam free (though their population is regulated). They are considered sacred in the native Shinto religion because they are considered messengers of the gods. Try telling that to someone who just got their lunch forcibly stolen!
Wes and I headed toward the Itsukushim Shrine and scored a better photo with the Torii Gate. It was built in 1168 of camphor wood and is about 48 feet high. At high tide the gate appears to float, but visitors can walk down to it in the mornings before the tide comes in. It is common for visitors to place coins in the cracks of the legs of the gate and make a wish.
The Itsukushima Shrine, which dates back to the 6th century, is one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions--no mystery there. It's really cool! It juts out onto the sea on stilts!
The temples and shrines on the island are part of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which is known as esoteric Buddhism in Japan. The sect teaches that humans can attain enlightenment through rituals combining physical, spoken and mental disciplines. Their deities are noticeably different from other Buddhist sects I've yet seen (some are downright frightening). This Kona looks like a watchdog from Hell!
This Fudo Myo-o deity inside the nearby Daiganji Temple isn't much better. His fierce facial expression shows his strong determination to make humans follow Buddhist teachings. Or else....
The island is very scenic and there are nature hikes all over the place. There are also several really large trees, as evidenced here:
We found a little hike off to the side of a few shops (it wasn't clearly marked) and found a small two story Pagoda at the top. It was cool, but the view from the top of the hike was more what I was interested in. The large building in the back with the sloped roof is the Komyoin Temple. Its also a good shot of the 5 story Pagoda and the Itsukushima Shrine.
This was the direction Wes and I were intending on heading, but cut through a side street and discovered a part of the island that Wes had not been to before. We ended up hitting the mother load when we found the Daisho-in Temple! The Niomon Gate serves as the official gateway into the temple. A pair of guardian king statues guard the gate and are said to ward off evil.
Wes has a thing for small Japanese statues and we discovered a little treasure trove of 500 Rakan Statues. They are representative of Shaka Nyorai's disciples and each one has a unique face and expression. There are several women among the bunch too. This is one of my favorite shots:
Throughout the complex there are prayer wheels. It is believed that spinning these Mani wheels invites blessings equivalent to reading one volume of the Hannya-shinkyo, or Heart Sutra. Spinning other wheels around the temple grounds are thought to bring you enormous fortune. I spun as many as I could!