Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Technical Glitch

Every computer I've managed to get ahold of in the last week has been used in an attempt to upload more photos to both Facebook and to my blog. I know there are plenty of people checking both sites to keep abreast of what's going on with my travels. I've been frustrated with Facebook being really "buggy" before and it taking multiple (I'm talking in the neighborhood of 100 tries in Beijing) attempts to upload all my photos. And I was trying to do the same in Siam Reap, although it seems the computer at our hotel had different plans for me. It seems to have added a virus to my camera's memory card. And while that has not stopped me from taking new photos, it has put the kibosh on me uploading ANYTHING. Which is exceedingly frustrating, as I took almost 300 photos of all the temples we visited around Angkor Wat. Not that I'd bore you with all of them, but its been a while since I was able to post anything. I managed a one-off post of me and David in front of Angkor Wat at sunset and it seems that will be the last photo I post until I get this issue resolved.

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

Fast Forward!

This is the part of the trip that feels like a blur and I'm tragically behind. We've seen two countries in 20 days and I'm having a hard time keeping up with things due to the pace and the lack of continual electricity in some of the places we've been staying. Don't get me wrong, its been relaxing to be off the grid, its just not helping my cause in trying to document what we've been up to. Mothers worry, so attempts must be made.

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

R-I-C-E is How You Spell Hypoglycemia

As a child, I've struggled with ways to maintain my blood sugar levels during long school days. I'd routinely eat a sugary cereal or Pop Tart for breakfast and by snack time at 10:30 a.m., I'd have lost all ability to concentrate and would get cranky until I'd devoured half my lunch instead of just the apple slices or chips my mom had packed for me. Teachers suggested to my parents at various points during elementary school that I pack extra snacks to keep my blood sugar up until snack time. It was never severe enough that I stashed a juice box and some crackers in my desk, but its something I've been aware that may become a necessity at some point or another.

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

Vietnam, Where I Swear There Are More Chickens Than People

We've been traveling a LOT lately. Haven't had nearly the same leisure to post as I would normally strive for. Something about not knowing for certain that we can push back our flight out of Bangkok from the 22nd to January 3rd. Until we're certain what we're doing for Christmas and New Years, we're kind of in a hurry to get on the move. I'm a bit concerned I won't have the leisure time in Thailand I was hoping for.

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

Good Morning Vietnam!

Oh, Vietnam! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways....

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:

Most of the seats in the back of the bus were removed to make room for storage. Obviously, there wasn't enough room. We had no leg room because of all the boxes and bags. Check out the front...

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....