Saturday, December 15, 2007

December 10 - Delhi, India

We’re in Delhi for 9 days, waiting to catch our flight to Singapore, which connects to our flight to Los Angeles, which will connect to our flight back to San Antonio. The days and nights feel interminably long.

If we could blink ourselves to the tropics and beaches of South India, we would. Blink away the $700 airfare or the 50+ hour train ride. There is nowhere in India we want to go that we can afford financially or physically, so we are waiting in Delhi for our flight. Waiting in purgatory.

Our guesthouse room has no windows, no natural light. Fluorescent white bulbs highlight our pallor. When the lights are turned off or the electricity goes out, our room is pitch black and we know it’s morning only because Willa’s internal clock wakes her and, in turn, us.

Our guesthouse is like a college student lounge with activity around the clock. There is always someone yelling at someone, someone murmuring intimately with someone, someone talking, an alarm going off, a cell phone ringing a ring or a song and we hear it all echoing through the concrete building walls like a gymnasium.

Smoke from the hundreds of cigarettes smoked in the downstairs restaurant wafts up the stairs and fills every cranny of air that isn’t already taken by incense and diesel fumes. We cough at night, in our sleep, and our snot is black. We no longer crack a smile when the other says, “Has Willa been smoking again?”

We all three play with Willa’s plastic animal figures and draw spirals and flowers, animals and cubes with her crayons. I catch myself trying to teach Willa how to write her name. She’s not even two-years old yet and still sometimes likes the taste of colored wax.

We are irritable and have been around each other with no breaks for too long. Johnny and I argue over everything about nothing. I am not being a good mother to Willa or a good wife to Johnny and I feel sorry for myself.

Willa is restless and crying to go outside, having long ago grown bored with our dodge ball game with the blow-up Fanta ball. We must brave the noise and pollution and crowds outside and get this child to a park where she can run around before she forgets how to. It’s bad enough that we are not encouraging her efforts to toilet train herself, but there have been just too many unsavory squat toilets and long bus and train rides in our lives for this to be a realistic endeavor at this point.

We step out of the guesthouse and into the fray of Delhi. The cacophony of motorcycles, touts, beggars, horns, dogs fighting, men yelling, horns and more horns envelops us. Added to the aural melee is the scratchy music played at top volume from the loudspeakers hung on telephone poles.

Touts are relentless - pushing incense, henna, bindis, jewelry, bags, saris, shoes, CDs, hippie clothes and designer knock offs, restaurants, auto rickshaw rides, cycle rickshaw rides, guided tours, postcards and maps, jewelry and pashminas - viewing tourists as dollar signs, cows to be milked.

Indian and Israeli tourists ignore them completely, or brush them off with a flick of the wrist, as though they are mosquitoes.

Non-Indian tourists’ are mocked for their seemingly excessive use of “Please,” “Thank you,” and, finally, the passive-aggressive, “No, thank you!”, accompanied by tight, insincere smiles.

Women in burkas hold my attention and I envy their anonymity. Their screens that keep people and pollution out and their private selves in.

We sidestep people, trash and food, giant cows larger than horses, puddles of mud and urine, piles of poo - dog, cow and human, and try to keep elbows in from the passing motorcycles, cars and auto-rickshaws. I’m not quick enough and a motorcycle runs up on my heel. When I turn around, the driver looks at me blankly before turning and driving off.

Beggars, children holding babies, mothers holding babies, old and handicapped tug on sleeves and arms. “Hallo, pleeeazzze! Madam, Madam, pleeeazzze!” Pitifully holding out empty cupped palms, gesturing to their mouths for food, pleading for money.

There is a man whose legs are both broken and grotesquely bent. And another with an open sore so deep I could fit my fist into it. I give both of them money and hope they will spend it on alcohol or drugs to escape.

The streets are filthy and a street sweeper sweeps black water and trash onto my feet and those of others I’m fighting for space with on the side of the road. Willa is coughing from the pollution and anonymous hands grab at her feet and hands and cheeks. A car goes by and blares its horn for so long that I feel it blast my soul. It’s all I can do not to cry.

We give up on our ‘walk’ and hop into an auto-rickshaw. We are going to the India Gate war memorial, where there is a large playground, and the ride takes us from roundabout to roundabout, out of the congested city and to the wide, tree-lined streets of the suburbs. There are no crowds here, but it is still impossible to see more than three city blocks ahead through the haze of pollution.

At the park, Willa climbs the ladders and slides down the slides, sits on the seesaw, runs around, and studies the mongooses (mongeese?) and chipmunks with long tails. We muster as much enthusiasm as we can, but we’re tired and the park guard wags his baton at us every time Johnny or I sit on a swing or the other end of the seesaw. The equipment is for children only. No exceptions.

Several buses pull up and uniform-clad children spill out, shrieking and laughing, taking over the playground with their bodies and their energy. Seizing the moment, a little boy and girl in worn, dirty clothes, bare feet, dirty hair and dirty faces, slip through the park gates. (The park guard has also chased out several urchins. No ragamuffins. No grown ups.)

The girl runs over and scoops Willa up in her arms with a “Whee!” Willa has finally recovered from her stomach bug and I’m hesitant about this, but she is so happy in this girl’s cheerful presence, so grateful for the company of someone besides her parents that I relent.

The girl and the boy take turns picking Willa up, swinging her on the swings, helping her through the monkey bars. They work their way through every single piece of playground equipment, shooing away the schoolchildren when they don’t vacate a ride quickly enough or play too roughly too close. They are protective of Willa, fussing over her and encouraging her. Willa chortles and readily lets herself be carried around by these children who are barely twice her size.

We finally say our goodbyes over an hour later and they hug and kiss Willa, asking us to please bring her back.

We are walking away when I hear little feet running behind us.

“Hallo! Hallo, pleeeazze!”

We turn around and the little boy runs up and hands us a metallic green yo-yo. We are speechless. He gestures with his hands, up and down, to show us how to play with it. Johnny tells him that we know how. And thank you. Thank you very much.

The boy turns and runs back to his sister. He twists around once and gives us a thumbs up and a brilliant smile. His face is full of light and largesse of spirit. My eyes prick with tears and I turn away.

November 23 - The Train to Varanasi, India

The train from Siliguri to Varanasi travels west across central India. It’s a beautiful route, crossing wide rivers with equally wide dark sand beaches, fields of crops and tilled soil, undeveloped plains and small towns with whitewashed mud houses and home-made tile roofs. Clusters of women in bright saris of marigold yellow, turquoise blue, hot pink and emerald green blur by. Cows and water buffaloes sift through piles of smoking trash for food.

Pakorrrraaa! Chai-iiiii! Men selling fried, spiced potato fritters, roasted peanuts, fresh bean sprouts coated in sliced green chilis, lime juice and masala, and pouring mini cups of chai from large kettles walk up and down the aisle. Beggars board at every stop, singing for money, sweeping the floor for money, or simply tugging on sleeves and staring you down for money.

The windows are open and the wind blows through the train. We befriend and talk with a young Nepali woman traveling with her mother and uncle to visit more family in Jaipur. Willa loves the train and she climbs on and off the berth in our compartment, watching the country rush by through the bars of the window, waving and calling out, “Bye!,” to the children, cows and water buffalo we pass. She naps for a solid two hours, lulled by the rocking of the train car.

We had braced ourselves for the train ride, but it’s a pleasure.

Night falls and brings surprisingly cold air. We shiver and contort our bodies horizontally on our narrow berths and try to sleep, starting every time a passing train screams by. A large family boards the train at about 2AM, talking and bickering with each other in loud voices, arranging and rearranging luggage, as they settle into the berths directly above us.

I’ve fallen back to sleep when my leg is grabbed and roughly shaken. I sit up alarmed. We’ve been cautioned about ‘bandits’ on the trains, but the hand belongs to a transvestite standing over me. He’s attired in a fancy sari and a thick layer of full face make up. In a gruff, deep voice, he orders me to give him money His friend behind him, also in drag, sings and harasses other passengers for money. He persists with this shake down until Johnny jumps up and chases him off.

I later learn that transvestites and eunuchs are thought to bring bad luck. They prey on wedding parties, baby births and the masses stuck on public transportation, threatening to touch you and show their penises (or remnants from their removal) if you don’t give them money.

In the morning, men and women line up to use the sink at the end of the car, each holding their toiletries of a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and tongue scraper. Morning ablutions are lengthy and vigorous. The toilet I couldn’t will myself to use last night for the dark, stink and liquid on the floor now empties out women immaculate in unwrinkled saris, beautiful make-up and thick, black hair neatly pulled back.

All of the filth in this country seems to be relegated to the public, common areas. People’s houses and yards are swept daily, potted plants lining the roofs and balconies. Motorcycles and cars are kept shiny. Bodies and faces scrubbed forcefully in public sinks and in the rivers.

Back in our berth, the Nepali family generously buys chai for everyone and shares with us the food they’ve brought in a metal tiffin carrier. The noisy family that boarded late shares potato chips and we share Marie biscuits and oranges.

(Johnny has identified our most American trait as ‘the last-minute purchase panic’ that takes over just before boarding buses and trains. We buy snacks and supplies that we don’t normally eat or use as though we’ll never see land again. Despite the fact that there is no public transportation in Asia that travels more than 20 kilometers without stopping for food, restroom, new passengers, tire change, talk on cell phone, checkpoint or because we’ve gone too long without a stop.)

Willa and the noisy family’s two children play together, climbing on and off the berth, laughing themselves silly spinning and slapping the wall of the train.

Now 21 hours into our 17-hour train ride, we have consumed an inordinate amount of deep fried snacks and cups of chai. Willa is beyond manic, whining into my chest with intermittent unintelligible yells. Johnny is staring out the window without seeing. I’m mentally walking through the produce section of Whole Foods, back in Austin, filling my cart with clean, crisp lettuce, plump, ripe tomatoes beaded with water and other fresh vegetables.

We have still not arrived in Varanasi, what is to be the first of many stops on our travels through India. Worse, we are still in the same region. We have not even progressed beyond the state of West Bengal.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November 19 - Sikkim, India

One reason we saved India for our last stop in Asia was to give ourselves the option of taking a boat from Southern India to Africa and winding our way south. We fantasized about finishing our trip in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

We didn’t then know how much the value of the dollar would decrease, how difficult it would be to find simple stretches of trash-free grass to play on, how much Johnny would miss skateboarding, how dreadful the pollution would be and how much we would miss our friends and family.

We also saved India for last because, though excited, I was a bit anxious about visiting this country. I’d heard tales about how overwhelming India could be - the poverty, crowds, pollution, mechanics of travel and society - and figured that our introduction would be easier after having traveled through Southeast Asia.

We arrived in Kolkata on November 1st, with a connecting flight to northern India. So, our first, brief glimpse of India, as we transferred from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, was rows of yellow, vintage taxi cabs and clusters of frangipani trees. The mingled scent of incense, spices and urine in the air. The snack counters at the airport selling samosas, fried flat breads and Coke and Fanta in glass bottles.

It faintly reminds me of Africa - the scents and sounds, British accents and large Indian population. It’s exactly as I hoped it would be.


We are in North India, in the state of Sikkim, bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet and in the foothills of the Himalayas. Early in the mornings, when the air is coldest and clearest, Johnny goes up on the roof and stares longingly at the snow-covered mountains. Unfortunately, they will have to wait for another trip. The altitude, cold and arduousness of the trek would just be too much for Willa.

No trains or planes run up here, so unless one can afford to charter a helicopter, transportation is by landrover taxis called ‘share jeeps’ that depart when full. On average, it takes about one hour to cover 30 kilometers, as the roads are dreadful, filled with gaping potholes (we can sometimes see the ravine hundreds of feet below) and the single lanes are shared with military jeeps and trucks, tarted up with colorfully painted flowers and heavily made up eyes. Golden tassels and tinsel fringe hang above the windshields.

The concrete block guesthouses we stay in are so cold we sleep with all of our clothes on. We have no hot water and sometimes no cold water and our first bath comes after a week when we get a bucket of hot water from our guesthouse manager. Electricity frequently goes out and every town has at least one dog that barks non-stop through the night. The towns are built on steep mountainsides, meaning every venture outside holds a challenge, either coming or going.

We take hikes every day, starting out early in the morning bundled up against the cold and returning hours later in the heat of the afternoon sun, hats and jackets removed and down to our T-shirts. The air is free from pollution, clear and thin. Puffy, cotton ball clouds drift in the startlingly blue sky. I wish we could lift the roof from our guesthouse during the day and let the warm sun shine in.

We walk along mountain ridges and through tall forests. Follow barely there dirt paths through dense thickets of plant overgrowth and emerge in villages. Willa calls out, “Moo,” to the cows and hairy yaks, “Bok, bok,” to the chickens and, “Daw!,” whenever she sees one of the many mangy dogs that roam the streets.

In a large field of grass, a man in uniform sits in a chair at a large wooden desk. The desk is bare save for what looks like a large stamp and a stack of papers that the man is rifling through.

Men walk on the muddy roads in cream slacks, somehow managing to keep them clean and free of splatters from passing vehicles. Women wear saris of rich colors - pink, green, yellow, orange - vibrant and beautiful in the setting of dusty roads and woods.

A procession of about twenty men walk down the road, singing and carrying a dead man above their heads, headed for his cremation. The dead man is dark skinned and dressed in white with yellow flower petals scattered on his head and chest.
We squeeze through the crowded market where stalls display tin boxes and gunny sacks filled with colorful spices, fresh produce, soaps and incense, sari cloths and plastic shoes. ‘Fast Food’ shops offering samosas, meat patties, chow mein and momos, steamed dumplings filled with vegetables or meat. Sweet shops with bright orange, yellow, pink and green confections made from sweetened condensed milk, almonds and cardamom.

Mountaintop monasteries are restful with their smooth, worn wooden floors and lit candles. Buddhist prayer flags flap in the wind and we spin the prayer wheels when we leave. Though a different form of Buddhism is practiced here from that throughout Southeast Asia, I am happy to see that the same offerings are made to the figures of Buddha: packages of cookies and chocolates, bottles of Fanta (thoughtfully opened with a straw inserted), cigarettes, plates with donuts and bread rolls. Items that would certainly make me feel benevolent.

There is always music in the air. The garbage man banging the side of his truck to announce his arrival every morning at 5AM. The propane man singing. Cell phones are everywhere and songs played on them like transistor radios (Linkin Park and Avril Lavigne are especially popular.)

One afternoon, we run into a group of Nigerian men wearing jackets with ‘Nigerian Eagles’ printed across the back. They are the Nigerian soccer team, here for the 29th All India Governor’s Gold Cup Football Tournament.

The next day, the stadium is full and the decks of the surrounding tall buildings crowded with people. These are the Semi-Finals and the Eagles are playing against N.R.T. Nepal. It is so wonderfully bizarre to be in India watching a soccer match between Nigeria and Nepal and I can’t believe our luck. We cheer like crazy for Nigeria and Johnny teases me about my continental patriotism for Africa. Unfortunately, it is not enough to carry the team and Nigeria loses.

We’re back the following day for the championship, N.R.T. Nepal vs. Three Stars Nepal. Local students have been given the afternoon off to attend and they sit together according to school, rows of red uniforms, pale blue uniforms and rows of dark blue. Clusters of monks are easily spotted in in their dark burgundy robes.

At half time, young boys and girls run up and down the stands carrying trays of sweet, milky masala tea in Dixie cups and banana leaf bowls of fried spicy potatoes. Indian pop music blares from the sound system and Willa wiggles her body and head, clapping her hands and dancing to the music. She is a charmer and everyone wants to pat her head, pinch her cheeks, touch her.

A young girl, about 11, and her younger brother sit with us and take turns holding Willa on their laps. They share roasted peanuts with us and we share tangerines with them. Like many Indians we talk with here, the young girl’s English is so formal it sounds almost foreign. Offering us more peanuts, “Don’t you find them pleasing?” Indeed.

The sky is clear and blue and the bright sun warms us. Willa is happy and laughing with her new friends. The crowd is in high-spirits, cheering, yelling and singing. N.R.T. Nepal takes home the cup, again winning 2:1.

I can’t imagine the Word Cup being any sweeter.

Friday, October 5, 2007

October 1 - Laos

“Love is... Two souls inhabiting the same body.”

This is one of the more interesting messages we’ve seen stenciled on T-shirts. I love what is sometimes gained in translation. Like multiple-personality disorders.


Willa’s just fallen asleep and Johnny calls me out to the deck of our bungalow. We’re in the small, quiet riverside town of Nong Khiaw in Northern Laos and, with the exception of a few lights from houses on the other side of the bridge, the only light outside comes from the millions of stars and galaxies above us. Looking across the river, the silhouette of the giant, craggy mountains delineates where the sky begins and the Milky Way - something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before - shines brightly, following, or perhaps directing the path of the river. It’s idyllic here.

Actually, it’s idyllic almost everywhere in Laos. It’s a beautiful country of mountains, jungles, fields of rice, fruit orchards, wetlands, waterfalls and sprawling rivers. Beautiful people who smile and greet you. Children in school uniforms of white blouses and dark blue sarongs or pants who wave as we pass by in buses. They race their bicycles down the road, steering with one hand while holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun in the other. Even in the cities, people are relaxed and friendly. Except for the literature and occasional posted warnings about UXOs (unexploded ordnances), there are no indications that Laos is famous for being “one of the most bombed nations on earth,” as Lonely Planet guidebook states.

We arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on September 28th, by bus, crossing the Mekong River on the Thai-Australian Friendship Bridge. It’s a short ride from Nong Khai, a border town on the Mekong River in Northeast Thailand, about an hour, even with two stops at immigration. The distance and time seem too short to be leaving one country and entering another, but almost instantly we feel and see differences in the two countries.

The French colonial influence is pervasive in Vientiane and throughout Laos. There are two-story buildings with balconies on each floor, wooden shutters and overgrown plants and trees neighboring manicured gardens, both rich and green. The paint on the outside walls has faded to pale and chipped yellow, green and white. Glowing golden wats (temples), ancient, crumbling stupas growing grass and flowers and an arc de triomphe with a giant fountain decorate the boulevards.

From Vientiane we head north by bus to Vang Vieng, a small, flat town just off of the highway. In the center of town is an enclave of tourist-geared outfits offering tubing and kayaking, backpacker cafes and guesthouses with TVs blaring episodes of “Friends” and “The Simpsons.”

Our guesthouse sits on the Song River with an incredible view of the rushing, rising water. It rains heavily every night and sometimes during the day, flooding the grass and gardens of the guesthouse where Willa plays with the owner’s four kids, wrestling, chasing and taking turns trying to pick each other up.

On the far side of the river, men and women cast fishing nets from boats and from the shore, laughing and shouting to one another as they fish and exclaiming over catches. Beyond them, bright green rice fields stretch out and beyond those, karsts reach up to the sky, their peaks concealed by clouds.

One morning we bicycle across the river and down the red dirt road in search of one of several caves housing Buddha statues Vang Vieng is known for. The air is clear and cool from the rains and herds of small, brown cows share the road with us, the wooden bells around their necks resonating.

We walk our bikes across several small, rushing rivers. When the water rises too high, we park our bikes and follow a woman who, like a guardian angel, spotted us on the road and motorbiked to meet us. We trek up river, against the strong current, making paths through tall grabbing weeds, over rocks and muddy paths. Stopping to catch our breaths at a lean-to, the woman walks behind it and comes back with a handmade sign, “10,000 kip for guide.” Ahhh.

While we usually prefer to make our on way and really prefer to know in advance if someone’s expecting a fee, there is no way we would have found our way to the hidden cave with the giant seated Buddha and, more importantly, back to our bikes without this woman.

We head north for Luang Prabang by bus, departing from the pot-holed tarmac airfield strip that serves as Vang Vieng’s bus station, a meeting ground for the town dogs and a driving course for would-be licensed motorcyclists.

The mountains our bus slowly climbs around are stunning, awesome, breathtaking. We compare them to Hawaii, New Zealand, Montana, and finally concede that they can be found only here, in Laos. Though we do see some evidence of deforestation - and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax springs to mind - the beautiful, mostly undeveloped country seems to go on forever.

Small mountain villages sit right on the highway’s edge and children, ducks, pigs and dogs amble cheerfully in the road. One cow lies on the median line, traffic swerving around it. Drivers use their horns sparingly, if at all, and defer to animals and people.

Most of the houses and shacks have satellite dishes. Everyone seems to have access to transportation - bicycles and motorcycles, if not cars. We do not see people hitchhiking or walking long distances. There seems to be plenty of fresh food available - rice, fruits and vegetables, fish and healthy, if small cows.

There must be extreme poverty in this country, but we don’t see much evidence of it. There are few beggars and they look more in need of a shower and clean clothes (and, in some cases, psychiatric help) than they do food. I can count on two hands the number of children I’ve seen obviously suffering from malnutrition.

The smooth road now descends, and our bus gains speed as it winds down the mountains. The bus driver’s assistant hands out plastic bags to those who need. Willa gets sick once, but we’re prepared and the mess is contained and cleaned up in seconds (sticky rice goes down in clumps and comes back up in clumps.) Johnny and I are almost manic in our attempts to entertain Willa, joined in our unspoken and irrational belief that if we can keep her mind distracted by good cheer, her stomach will forget it’s doing somersaults. Somehow it works.

Six and a half hours later we arrive in Luang Prabang and it is even more charming than the guidebook photos convey. Luang Prabang is a growing tourist destination and while there’s development, it complements the surrounding temples, trees and rivers. Teak wood homes line brick paths behind short, tidy wooden fences and courtyards are filled with bouganvillea, various palms and potted plants. There are none of the cement-block high rises popping up all over the rest of South East Asia’s towns.

“I could summer in Laos.” I’m joking, knowing this comment will make Johnny roll his eyes. He’s already heard me remark countless times how this hall of trees and flowers over the sandy dirt path remind me of Martha’s Vineyard or those cottages remind me of Cape Cod, but it’s true. This country is absolutely beautiful. It’s taken the best of rural life and city life and magically, seemingly successfully, combined them.

All over Laos, even in the cities, it’s silent by 9PM. Save for the lights emanating from homes and restaurants, streets are dark, stars and moon clearly visible in the night sky. The few street lights are a dim yellow. There are no horns blowing, no fluorescent shop signs or karaoke blaring from bars. Delicious fancy restaurants with chic decor and flattering lighting share sidewalks with small noodle soup cafes and food stalls grilling whole fish stuffed with lemongrass. Wide, tree-lined avenues and dirt paths for biking and walking follow the river. The cities and large towns provide all amenities and comforts like great bakeries and internet, disposable diapers and French wines.

There is more wrong than right with colonialism, but I am completely beguiled by the charms of French colonial architecture in Asia. And baguettes.

Pakam Guesthouse has only six rooms, all immaculate with private bathrooms, dark hardwood floors and a balcony with a sitting area just outside our room. My mom takes the room next to ours and I think we’re the only guests here. We keep our doors open and Willa has her run of the upstairs. In the evenings, we have picnic dinners on the balcony of grilled fish, barbecued pork sausage, sticky rice, and spicy green papaya salad.

A week later, we take a songthaw, a pick-up truck with two long covered benches down the length of the bed, north to Nong Khiaw. The songthaw is packed with people, all Laotians save for us and a British guy, and bags, both inside and tied on the roof. We pick up other passengers along the way and they somehow squeeze in, or stand on the back bumper and hang on to the rail. If the driver brakes short of someone’s stop, the passengers rally and call out good-naturedly until he relents and drops each person right at their door.

Unlike the larger, air-conditioned buses used mostly by tourists, there are no signs of inward groans or rolled eyes from other passengers when they see us boarding with a baby. People hold Willa’s hand, offer her sweets and gesture for me to let her legs stretch out onto their laps when she’s sleeping. I don’t blame fellow tourists for not wanting their travels marred by a crying kid, but I welcome not feeling guilty when we board the bus.

It is hot, breezeless and the sun is relentless when we arrive in Nong Khiaw. Our legs are stiff and we move unsteadily in the heat under the weight of our bags which seem to grow heavier with each leg of our trip.

In the late afternoon, after reviving cold showers and colder Beer Lao, we walk across the bridge to the small town consisting of a tiny post office, some lackluster restaurants, guesthouses, and shops selling shampoo, toothpaste, candy, chips, etc. At the boat dock, cement stairs lead down to the river and young women and men bathe and wash dishes and clothes while little children play. Chickens run loose and Willa follows the chicks following their mother hen.

The next morning we walk to a cave where Laotians hid during the Indochina War. The paved road is shaded with overhanging trees, lush and green, and runs along a river. The air is loud with the buzz and whirring of insects. We could be on a country road in Virginia or North Carolina and I love that places and experiences can feel universal.

The boat back to Luang Prabang is five of the best hours we spend in Laos with the good company of three Australian women we befriend, children waving and yelling to us as they jump en masse into the river, bright yellow butterflies dancing above the water, limestone cliffs that reach straight up from the river and the breeze off of the river tempering the late afternoon sun.

Suddenly, time is passing too quickly. We have only two weeks left on our Laos visa and so much of the country that we still want to see.

We catch a flight south to Pakse, covering in one hour what would have taken about 30 hours by bus. In dusty, sprawling Pakse we go to the post office, bank, market, grocery store, health clinic, hospital and pharmacy (my mom’s had a terrible sinus infection which develops into the flu), and sporting goods store (to buy a badminton set which we play with while my mom recuperates) over the course of five days. I’ve spent years in cities and not been to all of these places.

When my mom’s sufficiently recovered, we continue south to Kingfisher Eco-Lodge, where elephants roam the mountain paths and giant, black water buffalo wade in the wetlands. They follow each other, a string of water buffalo, along a water path through the high reeds at dawn. White egrets alight upon their backs as they wallow in the marsh. In the early evening the young tenders glide out in shallow wooden boats and in singsong, call the herd home.

Further south still, we take a boat from the mainland to Si Phan Don, Four Thousand Islands. We play badminton on our guesthouse lawn, eat spring rolls, and look at trees. Take bike rides and look for dolphins in the river. Listen to monks chant in a temple lit by candle light. Read and sleep.

Willa has learned to wai, the prayer-like Buddhist greeting of placing palms together in front of your face. It’s delightful to behold, but even more wonderful is what she chooses to wai to. Temples and photographs of temples, the moon, early morning coming in through the curtains, water buffalo calves nursing and, as she lays in bed in the dark, to herself and the day’s end, waiting to fall asleep. All wai-worthy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

August 8 - Hanoi and Sa Pa, Vietnam

The bus has pulled up to the station in Hanoi and I’m the last one off, struggling down the narrow aisle with Willa and two bags, rushing to claim my backpack from the bus’ undercarriage before someone else does. I stumble on the last step and as I right myself, women surrounding the bus shove cheap jewelry and trinkets in my face, “You buy from me!”, “You buy something!” Moto drivers grab for my bags, trying to convince me to go with them, that they have a good, cheap guesthouse for me. I’m too tired to put Willa, myself and the bags onto the back of a motor bike in the middle of Hanoi traffic, so I pick a driver who has a car - there’s only one - and ask him to please take me to Camellia 3 guesthouse. He recommends a better, cheaper guesthouse, but I insist, telling him that my husband is going to meet me at Camellia 3. I hope this will be so.

We had just visited Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, renowned for its mythically beautiful limestone outcroppings in aqua waters. We arrived around noon on Monday and by Tuesday morning we were ready to leave.

Our bus from Ninh Binh dropped us off at the Haiphong ferry dock where we paid an exorbitant amount of money for an air-conditioned fast boat to Cat Ba Island leaving right then. (The alternative was waiting on the sweltering dock for three hours to take a slow, non-air-conditioned boat.) The boat was already packed with Vietnamese tourists and tons of luggage and we grabbed the last two seats in the back. We were the only Westerners and, undoubtedly, the only people to pay as much as we did for our tickets.

We twice offered to switch seats with the woman next to us, so that she could sit with her family, but she declined. We later figured she must be viewing the ride as a mini-vacation from her husband and four children, who talked loudly, ate messily and got seasick for the duration of the trip. Just about everyone on board was sick - save us, fortunately - and we were appalled when exiting to see bags and bags of vomit amidst the crumbs, spilled sodas and trash that people had left behind on their seats and the floor.

On Cat Ba Island, we checked into our guesthouse and the bed crashed beneath us when we sat on it. At lunch we were overcharged for warm water, shrimp that had gone bad and old steamed rice. The two small beaches were so crowded with people we only got glimpses of sand and the ocean’s surf so strong we never considered taking Willa in. We walked around the somewhat depressed town, had two more underwhelming, overpriced meals and were given the directive “You buy something!” every 3 feet. We finally did: our return ferry tickets.

Gazing out the window of the boat, watching the brown water that surrounds Cat Ba Island, a thought occurred to me. “Johnny, did you get our passports back from the front desk?”* Shit. We quickly made the plan that Willa and I would continue on, taking the bus to Haiphong and from there, another bus to Hanoi. Johnny would go back to Cat Ba on the next ferry, take the bus back to the guesthouse, get our passports, take the journey again and meet us in Hanoi tonight at Camellia 3, a guesthouse hurriedly selected from our guidebook.

Now, in Hanoi, the taxi drops Willa and me off at the hotel and it’s lovely. Friendly staff, buffet breakfast included with the room, WiFi and a large exchange library in the lobby. Unfortunately, the cheapest room is $22, beyond our budget. I figure we’ll indulge ourselves for one night after a hectic day of travel. Unfortunately, it’s not available. The hotel’s completely booked, as is just about every other hotel in Hanoi. It seems ‘high season’ has officially begun.

The hotel manager kindly lets us hang out and store our bags in the lobby, as I try to figure out what to do. A new manager comes on shift and tells me that he owns a hotel nearby and has a room available for $18. It’s still above our budget, but we need a room and I rightly figure that the manager’s connection will help guarantee that Johnny gets the note I leave for him at the front desk and that he’ll be able to find us.

Many hours later, after Willa and I have checked in and unpacked our bags, walked around our neighborhood, eaten dinner, after Willa’s had her bath and we’ve read and played 52-card pick-up, after she’s gone to sleep, Johnny walks in the door. Over the past five months, we have not been apart for more than a few hours at a time. It feels as though we haven’t seen each other in days and our words rush out, detailing what we’ve been doing since we last saw each other. I am so relieved to have him back with us. With our passports.

We take long walks every day. Around the lake in the center of town, along the wide, tree-lined streets of the wealthy French Quarter, to museums and galleries. The work on the first floor of the Fine Arts Museum is especially impressive and we play ‘picks,’ amassing quite a collection to decorate our future home with. We go to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body at the Mausoleum, but the line wraps around the block and we don’t feel like waiting. On our way back to our guesthouse, we come across Mondo Gelato and have the most delicious, creamy gelato, which becomes a diet staple.

Another day we take a cyclo to the massive Reunification Park where children ride go-carts, men and women play badminton, and a miniature train runs in loops. At one of the several playgrounds in the park, Willa climbs the steps and slides down the slide so many times I lose count. She shrieks with glee each time, as though it is her first.

A woman with a bundle of mylar balloons in the shapes of rabbits, fish and circles follows me, “You buy from me!” I decline several times and she then squats down to Willa’s height, holding the balloons out to her. “You buy for baby!” I pull a Linda Walker, calmly telling her, “Lady, if my daughter takes a balloon I won’t make her give it back and I won’t pay you for it, so unless you are prepared to give it to her for free, I recommend you move on.” Somehow this message is understood and she leaves us. Linda Walker is my mother-in-law and she similarly reproached a grocery store manager when Johnny, as a young boy, took candy from the shelves strategically placed at small child hand and eye-level.

We ride the merry-go-round again and again at Willa’s insistence until, beyond tired, she breaks down, staggering in tears from horse to sleigh, a character in her own melodrama. We go home.

We are staying in the Old Quarter, the ancient, merchant’s quarter. It’s packed with markets, cheap guesthouses, all manner of tourist-related shops - travel agencies, souvenir and guidebook shops, trekking outfits, etc. - food stalls and beer stands. In the afternoons, we sit at one of these popular beer stands, Bia Hoi, sipping cheap, pale beer and watching traffic.

Late one morning we stop around the corner from our guesthouse at one of the sidewalk cafes and feel like we’ve joined a kindergarden group for lunch. The brightly colored plastic chairs and stools are so small and the tables so short, we have to sit parallel to the table. I offend a woman by having my back to her, but we are squeezed for space and can’t figure out how else to sit at the table. We are amazons here.

A young woman in pajamas sets down a bowl of freshly washed greens - lettuce, bean sprouts, mint and basil - for the table and, for each of us, a plate of rice noodles, a small bowl of pork-broth based soup with grilled meatballs of ground pork and chopped scallions, slices of barbecued pork and slices of cucumber. As is the custom, we wipe our chopsticks down with small napkin squares. On the table are jars of chopped chilis, a garlic and chili-flavored vinegar and fish sauce to add to the soup to taste.

We take a bite of noodle with our chopsticks, dip it into the soup and then into our mouths. In between bites of noodles, we eat the meat and tear off more pieces of greens, adding them to the soup. A plate of cut up spring rolls is set down in front of us and we dip those in the soup before eating, as well. The soup gets drunk from the bowl last.

Garlic and Chili Vinegar: In a jar put sliced red chilis, sliced garlic and top with white vinegar. Let it sit for a few hours, days. This condiment is on every Vietnamese table and is fantastic on top of fried egg on rice, fried noodles, bowls of noodle soup.

Hanoi is infinitely more enjoyable and sophisticated (despite there seeming to be almost as many women with hickies on their necks as without) than Ho Chi Minh City, but we tire of the ceaseless traffic, heat and “You buy something from me!” cries that begin the moment we step outside our guesthouse.

We take the overnight train up north, to the town and mountains of Sa Pa where we will spend our remaining two weeks in Vietnam here. We know this from the moment we step off the train into the crisp, chilly air. From the dizzying, twisting drive up into the breathtakingly beautiful mountains. The decision is cemented the moment we see our room at Cat Cat guesthouse with a balcony that looks out to the mist-covered mountains above and valleys terraced with crops below. Our room with its fireplace and comfortable beds, plush with white cotton duvets.

It rains almost every morning and we huddle and cuddle together in our warm bed until the thought of the guesthouse restaurant’s rich coffee and crepes with lemon and sugar persuade me to get up. We walk through the market and around the small town, to the oval cement park where Willa runs from puddle to puddle, splashing with her new purple rubber boots. Around the park’s perimeter, women tend charcoal fires, roasting and selling ears of corn, sweet potatoes and whole eggs. Mobile carts selling baguettes circle the park blaring techno-ice-cream-truck versions of “Jingle Bells,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and “Happy Birthday.”

Women and girls from the ethnic minority hill tribes, mostly Black Hmong and Red Dao here, hover outside the guesthouse front door with baskets and hands full of souvenirs to sell: blankets and pillow cases made from embroidered and woven cloth, hats, woven and silver bracelets, necklaces. They comb the streets and the park for potential buyers, ambulance-chasing the buses and mini-vans bearing tourists from the train station. “You buy me!” and “You buy something!”

Some of the young girls walk and talk with you, often adept at both English and French, asking about your homeland, your baby and your travels, finally wrapping up conversation with, “So, maybe before you leave Sa Pa, you buy a small something from me?” They’ve grown up in a free market economy, as opposed to their mothers and grandmothers for whom it is still new. For whom “You buy from me!” is not just the only sales pitch they know, but often the only English they know.

The faces of the Black Hmong and Red Dao are brown from the sun and free of make-up, unlike the pale, covered faces of most Vietnamese women. Long, thick, black hair hangs loose or in a ponytail down the backs of young girls and swept up in ornate twists and buns held with silver combs on the women. Silver bracelets run up their arms and large, silver, hoop earrings hang from their ears. Their hand-embroidered and woven tunics, pants and jackets are dyed from indigo and their fingers and hands seem to be permanently stained. The women wrap black velvet cloth around their legs secured with ribbon and somehow pull off leg-warmers with panache. Probably because they are really worn to warm the legs.

We take walks, down winding roads, to waterfalls and up mountain paths. Passed Red Dao women with their bright red headdresses selling souvenirs laid out on blankets by the side of the road. An old man in a traditional indigo tunic and a young boy wearing a jacket with Dolce & Gabbana splashed across the back, both with pants rolled up to their thighs, herding their water buffalo up the mountain. An albino water buffalo and its baby grazing on the roadside. Motorcycles climbing the mountain, beeping their horns and revving their engines. Motorcycles descending the mountain, rolling silently with engines turned off. One man shouts out “Beep! Beep!,” as he rounds the bend. We laugh and call out that his is the best horn we’ve heard. He and his passenger laugh and “Beep!” in response.

Late at night, the teenage Black Hmong girls in their traditional clothes use the computers in the guesthouse lobby, chatting on-line with friends, watching videos and looking at photos of celebrities. Their fingers fly over the keys, simultaneously working and chatting in numerous windows. Their passwords are staggeringly long with hyphens in between letters and numbers. And yet, there’s no compunction about reading e-mails over someone’s shoulders. When checking e-mails, I’m not infrequently startled to hear, “What does _____ mean?” When Johnny asks around about the availability of WiFi in Sa Pa, he’s told there’s none in town, only in the mountain villages.

Our visa expires on August 10th, when we will fly back to Bangkok. We’ve frequently been perplexed and frustrated by the Vietnamese we've encountered. People’s social graces elude us with seemingly common courtesies coming few and far between. And yet I feel melancholy about leaving.

The people who have been kind have been exceptionally so. We’ve made fast and good friends with fellow travelers. And, of course, the country itself is stunning in its natural beauty and diversity - chilly mountain regions, beaches, sand dunes, lush rice paddies. For all of our complaints, it hasn’t escaped our notice that on this journey we have spent more time in this country than in any other.

* All guesthouses and hotels require that you leave your passports at the front desk as insurance against guests running out on their bill.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tam Coc, Vietnam

July 15 - Hue and Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Early in the morning, when it’s just starting to get light, I hear Willa wake up on the other side of the room. She scoots to the end of her bed, climbs down and pads over to my bed where I’m half-sleeping, half-feigning sleep. I can feel her eyes and hot baby breath on my face. She gently pokes at my eyelids and cheeks, “Ma?” I really dislike this name and don’t know how she came upon it for me. “Ma?” I open my eyes and she’s smiling, beaming at me. I lift her and roll over, laying her between myself and the wall.

Willa plays quietly, singing softly, making up signs with her hands and fingers. Sometimes she turns her head and watches me. Sometimes she leans over and kisses me. I’m tired, but I can’t pretend to sleep through such tenderness and love.

Our room in the Binh Duong III guesthouse has the luxuries of a bathtub, room service and hardwood floors. Most guesthouses, actually most buildings in Southeast Asia have shiny tiled floors that become lethally slick when wet and we’ve had more than our fair share of accidents stepping out of showers or on puddles formed under dripping rain jackets and condensation from water bottles.

We order french toast and when it arrives, Willa jumps from one foot to the other in excited anticipation, barely able to wait for me to cut it into squares. She holds her little plate with both hands and carefully walks it over to the table between the beds. She wiggles her butt and hums as she chews, loving her food. We realize that Willa thinks we’re saying “french toes” after the third or so time she squats down and touches our toes when asked if she’d like more.

We are in Hue, the former capital and third largest city in Vietnam. Despite its size, Hue is charming and reminds us of Austin. It is home to five universities and long parks with sculptures, trees and gardens. Several bridges cross the wide river that separates the citadel containing the old Imperial Palace from the rest of the city. Many women wear the traditional dress of ao dai, a long, silk, slit tunic over pants. Far more elegant and beautiful than the nylon pajamas so popular in the South.

Though we have decided to eschew tourist ‘sites’ - usually disappointing and entrance fees cost too much; even Johnny is templed out, tired of seeing where rich people used to live and where their dead bodies are kept - the citadel intrigues us with its high stone wall and the amount of space it takes up on the city map. Vines and shrubs grow out of the stone wall and the surrounding moat is filled with lily pads and flowers. Behind the walls, the Imperial Palace’s dark wood floors and walls are soothing and wonderfully uncluttered. (Other royal residences we’ve visited fill rooms with furniture and ornaments.) We walk from royal building to royal building until the heat and crowds of Vietnamese tourists with sun-protecting umbrellas at eye-gouging level force us back to our air-conditioned guesthouse.

We rent bicycles and ride the flat road along the city-side of the river. Out of town, beneath the highway underpass and around the large bend, to the rice paddies and villages that lie in the city’s outskirts. The road turns from pavement to dirt. We follow it, passing houses and waving hello to children who run out to the side of the road to watch us. “Hello! Hello! Hello!,” they shriek, trying to out-yell each other, not bothering to wait for a response from us.

We stop at a large watering hole where several water buffalo are cooling off, some almost completely submerged. They sputter as they come up for air and we’re enthralled by their beauty. Far apart eyes, dark charcoal grey hides, rippled horns arching back. They look like they belong in another time. Willa loves to watch them, especially the calves nursing and bonking their mothers’ teats with their heads. Though immense in size, with giant hoofed feet, they are gentle and graceful.

We ride on the elevated concrete paths through the rice fields, stopping to photograph the family cemetery plots. They rise out of the paddies, giant stone gardens surrounded by planted flowers.

On our ride back to town we pass baguette carts and stands selling steamed dumpling buns filled with minced pork, steamed and roasted ears of corn. Near our guesthouse is Minh & Coco, a cafe run by two sisters. Minh is bawdy and Coco all about business. They are rather irreverent toward their customers and we love their familiar, hands-on treatment that makes us not feel like foreigners. We also love their french fries with mayonnaise.

The sleeper bus to Hanoi (we’re only riding it as far as Ninh Binh) is a mobile dormitory, outfitted with about 25 bunk beds. It’s surprisingly comfortable. I should sleep, and I’ll pay for this later, but the night sky and the rice fields lit by moonlight are so quiet and beautiful that I stay awake, watching the country rush by. Having Johnny and Willa so close to me and this peaceful, starry night outside my window makes my eyes tear up. As though sensing my emotion, Johnny, lying down in the bed in front of mine, reaches his hand back and clasps my foot, “I love you, My-My.”

Hours later, the bus jerks to a stop and the bus driver yells out. It’s not quite pitch black outside, but close, and everyone around us is asleep. We’re disoriented, not sure what’s going on. “Is this our stop?” It can’t be. We’re not supposed to arrive in Ninh Binh, just south of Hanoi, until 7AM. Johnny gets up and goes to ask the bus driver. He races back, “This is our stop!” The bus driver rushes us and we scramble to put our shoes on and get our things together, grab Willa and run off the bus before it takes off, praying we haven’t forgotten anything crucial.

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and we’re standing on the side of a highway, watching the tail lights and breathing in the exhaust of our receding bus. We’re a bit stunned, not sure what to do or where to go. This is, of course, the one time in all of our travels that there isn’t a throng of moto drivers shouting for our business. In fact, the road is deserted and the only light provided by the moon and a dim yellow lamp post.

“Hallo! Hallo!” A flashlight’s spotlight bounces, approaching us. “You come to my hotel!” We don’t bother consulting our guidebook marked with the names of guesthouses to consider. We follow the man and he leads us down a side street, into a building and up the stairs. Outside of a room, he knocks on the door. Receiving no response, he calls out something in Vietnamese and bangs on the door. A girl with sleep-filled eyes opens the door, mutters something and turns back to quickly straighten the room and bed. Minutes later, she pads out, followed by three other young women. Our room is ready. We stagger in, drop our bags, climb into bed and are asleep in seconds.

Ninh Binh doesn’t make much of a first impression with it’s dusty brown highway that runs through town’s center, paltry market with wilted fruits and vegetables, and a surprising amount of traffic and pollution given its small size. When we awaken for the second time that morning, we borrow bicycles to ride around town and are back within the half hour. We eat lunch and go back to sleep.

We came to Ninh Binh to see Tam Coc, “three caves”, the limestone outcroppings made popular by the film Indochine and described in our guidebook as “a miniature landlocked version of Halong Bay.” Determined to accomplish this and not linger in Ninh Binh, we rent a motorbike that afternoon and head out to the caves. Just a couple hundred meters down the road and a turn to the right and we are in the most beautiful land of Vietnam we’ve seen yet.

Brilliant green rice fields stretch out for miles, interrupted by giant limestone rocks jutting up and the mountains beyond them. Young boys languidly herd their cows and water buffalo with sticks and wave to us as we pass. The motorcycle creates a fantastic breeze, cooling us.

We park our bike at the river and take out a sampan, slowly drifting along the river. Gliding through the caves (where Johnny gives me a refresher course on stalagtites and stalagmites), the only sound is that of the oars paddling through the water. The ceilings are low and the caves are long and so dark that our eyes squint against the sunlight as we come out. In between the caves, weeds, rice shoots and water lilies surround the bases of tall cliffs bordering the river. Up on the ridges we spot mountain goats watching us. One of the two sampan rowers speaks French and we converse about our children. The late afternoon sun glimmers off of the water and mellows us.

Back at the guesthouse for dinner we are asked if we are 30,000 dong hungry, 40,000 dong hungry or 50,000 dong hungry. We haven’t ordered this way before, but we’re pretty hungry, so we go for the 50. What follows is a culinary feast. Large bowl of steaming white rice. Platter of shredded sauteed vegetables, plate stacked with crispy spring rolls, and two bowls of chicken curry. It’s fantastic and we can barely finish it. Willa eats everything on her plate and grabs food off of our plates when we’re too slow at refilling hers.

Later, as we’re hanging out on the front steps talking with other guests, Willa runs back into the kitchen. She reappears minutes later in the arms of the owner’s wife who’s feeding her rice and chopped chicken from a bowl. The woman looks at me disapprovingly, “She hungry! Baby very hungry!” I try to tell her that we fed her two platefuls of food, but I can see that she doesn’t believe me. Willa hums and wiggles in her seat, wolfing down each bite that’s offered to her. I foresee future family roadtrips with Willa’s handwritten sign, “Help! I’ve been kidnapped!” held up against the rear window.

The next morning we head out on our motorbike and ride along dirt roads through rice paddies, mountain ranges, passed cemetery gardens and water tanks. A zig-zagging stairway has been built into a mountain, leading up to a dragon-guarded pagoda at the top. We make the long climb, stopping to catch our breath on the landings. At each one, the view spread out below is even more incredible than the last. It seems we can see across the entire country.

On our way back we crash our motorbike, swerving to miss a man coming around the corner. Fortunately, Willa’s wearing her brand new shiny red helmet. Even more fortunately, she and I are completely untouched and she doesn’t even cry. Johnny and the bike have a few minor scrapes, but we’re all well and hope that we’ve gotten our bike accident out of the way.

The guesthouse owner couldn’t be kinder, telling us to never mind about the bike, just wanting to be sure that we are okay. Willa is taken into the kitchen and fed a warm baguette with honey. We go upstairs to our room to clean up and come back down for another delicious dinner. One of the guests we’ve befriended has bought a large carton of chocolate ice cream to share and we join him with our spoons on the front stoop, talking and watching Willa and the kids from next door play as the sun sets.

Ninh Binh and our guesthouse have turned out to be one of the brightest spots on this trip.