September 27, 2007

Under African Skies

... but not for much longer. I'm back in Lusaka now, after hitching down for three sun-and-wind-beaten hours in a battered old Japanese pick-up with wooden floorboards and the little voice chirping a warning announcement whenever the truck turns left. Hitching is definitely the way to go in Zambia, although all successes in that department are owed to Laura's skills. Since leaving Livingstone (we took a river cruise on the "African Princess", which was ok, but didn't get us nearly as close to the wildlife as the safari boat we were supposed to have taken -- the bus brought us there late so we took the free drinks as consolation prize), I've been spending the past several days out in the village in Zambia's Mkushi district, Central Province, where I spent a relaxing time laying about, straining to keep up with Laura on the dirt biking trails, tagging along for fish pond inspections, and playing with her dog, Winston. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer out in the bush is a much more challenging one than that of a JET teacher in Japan, but Laura has made a pretty nice home there, and it was good to be able to visit. (Oh, and I did get my bag back.)

Now I'm off to London, for a five-hour layover, and then Boston, where I hope to run into a few former professors at BU and enjoy some New England fall weather. I may or may not make a detour down the coast to New York City on the Chinatown bus, not sure at this point, but I am about out of money by now so I don't think I will be delaying the return home to Indiana for too much longer.

I hope everybody's been taking good care of America in my absence.

September 17, 2007

Dr. Livingstone, I presume

I have made it to Zambia, alive and intact. The trip from Bangkok was, to put it mildly, a hellish nightmare of epic proportions. The minibus from my Bangkok guesthouse to the airport got stuck in traffic, of course, but I made it there with over two hours to spare, so I had a leisurely check-in and even had time to buy a barbecue chicken nikuman from the Family Mart (!) there in the departure terminal. My bag, I was told, was going to be checked straight on to Lusaka, so I said goodbye to it, and then went through security. I used some of my last Thai baht on a scoop of gelato and some Thai cooking spices for Laura (my friend here in Zambia). Then I sat around at the departure gate with a huge hoard of Thai university students on a tour and a bunch of Brits for a bit before getting on around 9:30 in the evening.

Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, is pretty fancy flying, with soothing sand-colored carpeting and something like 500 channels of movies and tv programs and video games in the seatbacks. The flight was fairly full but I ended up with a row to myself, although two people later moved to join me when their handsets weren't working. I didn't sleep, but ended up watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (all three were on offer, but I'd only seen the second one once before, and felt I needed a refresher; it made more sense the second time around) and an incredibly strange German movie, "Deepfrozen", which started out as what could've been a quirky romantic comedy about a very socially awkward man living in a nowhere village delivering frozen pizzas, who falls for an exotic young girl who's a rock groupie whose van breaks down outside of town ... but then people start dying, and maybe she killed them, but in the end maybe he did it, except he probably couldn't have? And she rides off in a limo with James Brown. Very bizarre, and not quite what I was expecting going into it. Anyhow, I didn't sleep, so when we touched down in Abu Dhabi it was around 3:00 AM Bangkok time -- I had been up for about 20 hours at this point. I staggered into the waiting lounge, where I bought a cherry danish that tasted exactly like America, and also some water. I sat around for about an hour and a half waiting to board the plane, which I eventually did; it was 2:00 in the morning local time and my flight was scheduled to be leaving at 2:30.

At this point I did get a chance to stretch out on two seats against the side and fall asleep -- I think it was at least a half hour, but couldn't have been more than an hour, because at around 3:00 (six AM in Bangkok, or almost 24 hours since I had woken up there the previous morning) I was awakened by the captain announcing that there was mechanical trouble with one of the engines, and they were de-boarding the plane on account of repairs that would take at least four hours. So me and the other passengers dragged ourselves off and back into the terminal, where four beleaguered Etihad employees were rebooking the entire flight. The lucky ones heading to Johannesburg, they put up in a hotel there in Abu Dhabi and onto a flight the next morning; but since South Africa wasn't my final destination, and since that delay would mean missing my morning flight to Lusaka, they told me they were going to put me a taxi for Dubai, have me take an Emirates Air flight to Johannesburg at 10:00 AM, and then have South African Airways put me on an evening flight for Lusaka that should have gotten me in around 8:00 PM on the evening of the 14th. Ok. They gave me a voucher for the taxi and a white sheet of paper with my FIM ("Flight Interrupt Manifest") details on it that would get me on the necessary flights, and sent me on my way. So I passed through United Arab Emirates customs at 4:00 in the morning and stepped into the cab that arrived shortly after for the drive to Dubai.

The taxi wasn't actually marked as such, and the car was quite nice; a luxury model of some sort, with video headrests a dashboard covered in displays. The effect was marred by the seatbelts, though; as I fastened in, it felt like they had cut roughly through the seat fabric to put in the buckle. We pulled out onto four lanes of smooth, perfectly unblemished, perfectly empty tarmac laid down by legions of sweating South Asian migrant workers, the driver gradually bringing up the speed as we cut through the desert on an orange-lit ribbon of highway. Wide awake from the frigid air conditioning and my brain having reached the point where dead tiredness turns over into vivid wakefulness, we passed palm trees lining the highway, unseen lights out in the desert, two large mosques lit with neon green, and a Dunkin Donuts. The rear window had some sort of glaze on the glass that caused the sodium-burning h ighway floodlights to twist into writhing tendrils as we passed beneath, the car beeping politely as we cross the 120 kilometer speed limit threshold. After a hundred kilometers or more, we entered the shelter of the high glass skyscraper towers of Dubai, many under construction and topped with cranes perched like birds greeting the dawn.

Just before six in the morning we pulled into the loading zone at the airport, where I attempted to explain my situation at the Emirates counter. They were confused, of course, as was I, but the guy took my piece of paper and told me to wait there until nine, when he'd let me know if there was room on the standby waiting list for me to get on this flight to Johannesburg. I didn't dare lie down on the couches, for fear I wouldn't wake up -- so I sat there, freezing in the air conditioning as my body functions started shutting down. After an interminable wait, I went back to get a ticket and my magic piece of paper again and sprinted my way to the flight, where I boarded with a legion of South Africans returning from holidays in the UK. By this point, my brief hour of rest aside, I had been awake for close to 30 hours, and in transit for about 16.

But -- I got stuck in a center seat next to a large woman and a German backpacker and didn't sleep any on the eight hours down to Johannesburg. I watched movies, I played video games, I ate snacks, I listened to the Swiss flight attendant flirting with the South African girl in the seat in front of me, I tried to sleep as hard as I could, but when we touched down in South Africa I was still awake. Unbelievable.

Now, when I got my ticket from the Emirates guy, he gave me back my special piece of white paper from the Etihad people and said, "They're going to try and take this from you at the gate, but don't give it to them, you need it in Johannesburg". He was right -- the people at the gate in Dubai insisted, and even though I was skeptical when they said that Etihad should've put me in the system and I shouldn't need it in Joburg and that they needed to keep this copy, I was exhausted and just wanted to get on the plane, so I wrote down my FIM number and gave up the sheet. This was of course a mistake, since when I got to the international transfer desk in Joburg the rather unfriendly South African Airways people -- who were supposed to be putting me on an evening flight to Lusaka at Etihad's expense, since I had missed the one I was scheduled for that morning -- said that I wasn't in the system and without the paper they couldn't do anything, and that Etihad should've given me two FIM papers for the two flights. Oh, and the Etihad people there had already left for the day, so I needed to come back at 7:00 in the morning. Exhausted, defeated, and at this point about ready to just go to sleep there in the queue, I gave up and checked myself into a very posh airport hotel at $185 a night and crawled into the softest bed ever. It was seven thirty in South Africa, past midnight in Bangkok, and I had been in transit for 26 hours and awake for the better part of 40 -- a new personal record, as my previous best was only 27.

I still woke up at the crack of dawn though -- I'm more jetlagged in Africa than I've been on the rest of the trip, since it's actually seven hours time difference from Japan. I went back to the airport and found the Etihad offices and talked to the guy there, who was pretty helpful, and who got me on the morning flight to Lusaka. I'm still confused as to who exactly I should be blaming for all this -- Etihad for not giving me enough FIMs, Emirates for taking the one I had, South African for being no help at all? -- but whatever, I made it on the flight and to meet Laura, albeit a full 24 hours later than I should've. And I got a UAE and South Africa stamp in the passport out of it too. My bag, of course, did not make it -- I have no clear idea where it is at the moment; either somewhere in Abu Dhabi floating in the aether, or otherwise in Johannesburg with the pallet of other peoples' luggage from my flight who also were missing bags when we disembarked. So right now I've got one pair of clothes, my camera, and my iPod to my name; but I imagine the bag will show up eventually. I gave them Laura's cell phone number here and with luck it will turn up, but Lusaka is not an especially happening town so we decided not to sit around and wait for it after the first day; yesterday we hitchhiked 472 kilometers south to the town of Livingstone on the border with Zimbabwe, home of Victoria Falls and a museum dedicated to the famous explorer.

Zambia is more expensive to travel in than Southeast Asia, because most travellers here are rich Anglos on safari, but this morning I went to the falls and had breakfast on an island looking over the plunge, which was quite cool; this evening we're taking a riverboat and going looking for big game. We've actually already seen zebras and giraffes, wandering through the grounds of the hotel that hosted the breakfast (which is actually within a national park, and which was full of rich old tourists). After two more days of activities here -- horseback riding, bungee jumping, and canoeing are all possibilities I think, although I'm not sure what we'll end up doing -- we're going to hitch back north to Laura's village, where things will be considerably more sedate; there's an agro-forestry workshop and some fish farming she's doing, and otherwise we will probably be taking it easy for the week there.

It was immensely stressful getting here but I am here now and, missing bag aside, things are going well. Africa!

September 12, 2007

Out of Asia

Angkor: wow.

Also, bicycling around Angkor: wow. I went through four and a half liters of water and I'm pretty sure I sweated it all out again.

The road from Siem Reap to Bangkok did not take 14 hours as I had feared, but the six it took to get to the Thai border were some of the worst roads I've crossed over; possibly even worse than Mongolia, since you can't just drive off onto the side on account of the fact that it's all surrounded by rice fields. Still, I made it here to Bangkok in about 10 hours, and this evening head to airport for to begin what will probably be about 24 hours of flights. The only good thing to say about this route is it will give me what will probably be my life's only stopover in Abu Dhabi, for about two hours anyhow.

On to Africa!

September 10, 2007

Cambodian Crossing

Well, the suit turned out pretty good.

From Hoi An I took a trip down to see the memorial at My Lai, which was as you might expect something of an emotionally draining visit. I was the only visitor so I got a personal guided tour from an earnest young woman who took me around the reconstructed house foundations where the hamlet once stood, and I stood by the ditch where Lieutenant Calley's soldiers cut down 107 civilians. (Its banks have been reinforced with some molded concrete now, which I think maybe detracts -- slightly -- from the impact... but, still.) Probably the most emotional part was watching a short documentary they showed which featured the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who stopped to rescue 10 civilians and who returned 30 years later to meet two of the survivors. On an otherwise very dark day, his courage and humanity were inspiring, and it was very moving watching these (now quite old) women thank him for an act that was at once amazingly brave and also very simply the right thing to do. I can only hope the United States continues to be able to produce men (and women) of his heroism.

I came back to Hoi An to catch a bus south to the small beachside port of Quy Nhon, once home to a large US and South Vietnamese military base, where my father was stationed. Today the city is one of Vietnam's quieter beachfronts, with few foreign tourists (who mostly go further south, to Nha Trang) and many fishing boats plying the bay. It appears there's nothing left of the old base -- not only have things been stripped away and recycled, but the area where it once stood has actually undergone some major redevelopment, with hotels and a supermarket / shopping mall and a wide flat boulevard lined with trees where the airstrip once ran. After an evening shower, I took another walk along the beach in search of a seafood restaurant this evening and passed a large segment of Quy Nhon's young male population out playing soccer or volleyball in the sand; many young kids were out with there parents as well and I was fairly bombarded with "hello!"s until it got too dark for them to notice I was a foreigner.

It's been planes, cars, boats, motorcycles, and many, many buses thus far this trip so for a change of pace I took the train from Quy Nhon to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City -- which made for a very slow pace, as it turns out. I was in a narrow berth with six bunks with about an inch slab of padding on each; I was on the top bunk which meant I had about two feet of head clearance, so I spent most of the trip lying around, dozing, reading, listening to the iPod, and eating Oreos. We arrived in at around 9:00 in the evening and I took a taxi to a place that actually ended up being the most expensive place I've stayed at in Vietnam, $17 for a double. It wasn't as nice as the place I stayed at in Quy Nhon, either, which was a nice beachside backpacker place run by a friendly Kiwi expat; but still, I can't complain all that much.


Although I'm sure Saigon has some hidden charms, I got the hell out of dodge the next day, with yet another bus ride, this time over the border into Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. My first evening I took a short walk and had a dinner of delicious hot and sour soup before returning to my (very budget) guesthouse by the lakeside. Then the next morning I took a motorcycle out to the Killing Fields, which are maybe 15 minutes ride outside of Phnom Penh.

As we pulled down a dusty dirt road that led to the grounds, I heard the loud echoing of monks chanting broadcast over a PA system, mingled with jangly Cambodian music ... perhaps coming from a restaurant nearby, I'm not sure where exactly, but it made for a strangely appropriate soundtrack to wander around the place. The "fields" are actually dotted with copses of trees, and paths leading under them pass by many sunken depressions, their bottoms filled with small pools from the high water table (the land here is flat and low, formed from alluvial silt from the mighty Mekong River, whose bay once split Vietnam and Thailand into two separate peninsulas before filling in to form Cambodia) -- these were the mass graves, some of which have since been excavated. Along the paths there were still tattered scraps of clothing fallen from the many victims. A tall monument, maybe 30 feet in height, stands a short walk from the entrance gates, with arching spires and intricate carvings in the Cambodian temple style; the glass walls inside house a column of human skulls, victims who were brought here after being imprisoned in S-21 prison, interrogated, tortured, and finally disposed of.

The prison, which I visited that afternoon, was once a high school, with yellow paint still on the pitted concrete walls and rusting bars covering the windows. The rooms where they kept prisoners were mostly bare, with the occasional metal bedframe on which the interrogators worked. A torrential afternoon monsoon rain came down as I was passing between buildings and so I spent some time looking at pictures of the many men, women, and not a few children who passed through this place. I bought a book about the Khmer Rouge regime, and how Pol Pot's group effectively kidnapped and decimated Cambodian society after their overthrow of Gen. Lon Nol, which I'm reading now. I studied Cambodia a bit back in college but feel I need to refresh myself on the history some more. "Madness" is too simple of an explanation for what brought these things about but it's hard to think otherwise.


Now I'm in Siem Reap, home of the mighty temples of Angkor Wat, for what will hopefully be a big change of tone. After yet another very long bus ride from Phnom Penh this morning, I arrived around three o'clock and was immediately set upon by the most voracious crowd of tuk-tuk drivers I've had the misfortunte to encounter yet. I was the only single foreigner on the bus (there was one Brit couple who had thought to book a ride to their guesthouse ahead of time; the rest were all locals) and so I ended up literally pinned and surrounded by about twenty guys waving signs as soon as I got off the bus. I finally broke off with one of them, whose "free" ride to my choice of guesthouse turned into $1.25 when I passed on his offer to drive me around the temples tomorrow. Instead I'm going to rent a bike from the place where I'm staying and head out at the crack of dawn tomorrow to try and fit in as much as I can... I have to book it to Bangkok by the 13th for a flight out of Asia so unfortunately I don't have enough time to take a more leisurely survey of the area.

And here comes the monsoon rains again.

September 03, 2007

Hello from Hoi An

The van that came and picked me up for the tour of Halong Bay stopped at several, increasingly tonier-looking, hotels on the way out of town, with the last stop being for an Australian woman who was at the Hanoi Hilton (not the one John McCain stayed in). With the exception of me, three Australians, and one South African, our group of a dozen was entirely Asian; several were actually Vietnamese, one Korean couple, and one older Japanese couple. I appeared to be the only obvious backpacker amongst the group; most of the rest looked to be in their 30s at least. Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese lady named Han, which like the Han in Hanoi means River. We drove out of town, threading our way through the scooter-filled streets and coming out into the countryside. We passed through ricefields dotted with ancestral shrines and small villages with concrete walls moldering in the tropical climes and narrow colonial-style houses. Water buffalos crossed the road at a few points. After an hour or so we made a rest stop at a tourist trap / market -- gotta pay the gas bills, I guess. After about twenty minutes we got back on the bus and continued uninterrupted out to Halong Bay, which was another three hours or so drive.

All manner of tour boats crowd around the docks at the entrance Halong Bay and after our guide bought us tickets we boarded one, a spacious double-decked craft titled the Haiphong 2, and broke our way out of the clot of ships to head out into the bay. We had a lunch of spicy tofu, cucumber slices, tasty prawns, and ginger chicken with rice as the boat cruised through open water. Chatting with the other English-speakers about my travels in Southeast Asia, the Australian lady mentioned that she was "dying to see the Killing Fields", which I thought was a pretty strange choice of expressions, given the circumstances. Midway through lunch we were amongst the islands, which are large limestone protrusions rising out of the water. The name in Vietnamese means "dragon descending", which according to legend is what thrust the rocks upwards like they are today. We cruised amongst the islands at a leisurely chug, and around 3:00 came to a large one, where we disembarked and entered a fairly sizeable above-water limestone cave. It was cooler inside, but even then you couldn't escape the humidity; I was soaked by the time I made it back to where the boat had docked. After that we crossed over to where several floating platforms had been lashed together to construct farm cages for fish, prawns, and mussels; it was here that we got our chance to kayak. I ended up paired with one of the older Australian guys, and we paddled around a few of the nearby islands for about 40 minutes before coming back to the boat. We finished with a leisurely boat ride back to the dock and then three hours in the bus back to Hanoi, where I got in at 9:00 and had a dinner of pho noodles while watching a pair of Vietnamese brothers whack each other which chopsticks. A nice tour, though I personally would've taken more time in the kayaks and less on the boat.


Sunday morning I woke up early and spent a few hours on the hostel's computer attempting to figure out how to sign up for Skype service so that I can attempt to call come for cheap; it's pretty popular with the backpacker crowd here, and I've almost figured it out I think. My taxi out to the airport got me there with time to spare, as my flight on to Hue was actually delayed for an hour and a half -- though that did give me time to charge my iPod in the departure lounge and eat a lunch they provided for us (still just an inflight meal, though). I spent the flight reading the English language weekly paper, the main piece being an article on a woman who at the age of 15 had worked running supplies along the trail to Vietnamese fighters in the south. Most of it was devoted to her rapturous rememberances of the time she got to meet Ho Chi Minh. The flight was only about an hour and when we arrived at the small Hue airstrip and walked off the plane, a bus carried us fifty meters over to the terminal where we picked up our luggage. I took a taxi to the hotel I was planning on staying at, which worked out fine this time -- think that scam is mostly a big city thing, as this one was a fair metered ride.

I checked in and then took a walk across the river to see the old imperial citadel of Hue, which had crowds of Vietnamese families out and about, since I think they waived the admission fee in honor of Vietnam's Independence Day, which was Sunday -- Hanoi was festooned with flags all over during the few days I was there, but I didn't see any big celebrations. The citadel is crumbling and ruined thanks to fierce fighting between Vietnamese and US forces back in the 1960s, making it look much older than its 200-some years; large portions are open grassy fields, broken in place to place by old flagstones. Reconstruction is underway in some places, but I liked the ruined feel -- my timing was just right at the golden hour of sunset, and I got some good pictures that I'll be uploading when I get back.

I had dinner in a Hue restaurant, the Tropical Garden; wicker lampshades and candle light illuminated the open-air dining area, with a thatched roof and wooden lattice walls surrounded by plants and greenery. Waitresses in imperial purple ao dais brought me a succession of six courses, starting off with a souple of beef and noodles with a slight lemony tang, and finishing with some sort of fish pate wrapped in banana leaves (which you're not actually supposed to try and eat, I learned) and a plate of pineapple, watermelon, and dragonfruit. A quintet of traditional Vietnamese musicians played short pieces while I ate. It's the fanciest meal I've had in a while and the whole thing set me back maybe $15.


As nice as Hue was, I decided to carry on, so yesterday I woke up at 7:00 and caught a bus to Hoi An, which is about three hours drive south. We passed several muddy brown rivers with sampan boats anchored to the banks, and large nets strung out over the water to be lowered down for fishing when the tide rises. Arriving in Hoi An, we got the hotel hard sell, stopping at several places for commissions before I finally got a chance to break out on my own. The place I found is one of the best I've stayed in yet, with a nice little double room, with big ceiling fan and hot water, all to myself for only seven bucks.

I had a lunch of sweet and sour pork and mixed fruit smoothie and then walked around the historic Old Town, which is closed to car traffic and full of old sulfurous yellow buildings and preserved architecture that blends Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles. Formerly an important trading stopover for merchants from Hainan island and Japan, there are several clan assembly halls and old merchant houses open to the public for a small fee. The nicest home I visited was still being lived in after seven generations, despite regular river floods which, as you could see marked on the walls, had once come as high as the ceilings of the first floor -- must've been at least eight to ten feet. It was full of old furniture, including some wooden plaques with mother-of-pearl-inlaid Chinese characters, each "brushstroke" formed in the shape of a bird in flight.

For dinner I went to the Ba Le Well restaurant just as it was getting dark, setting myself down at a low red plastic table in an open white room as several other Vietnamese families dined around me. In the back room, past the small shrine lit with red Christmas bulbs holding three tiny cups of rice wine set atop cans of Heineken, several generations of extended family bustled back and forth at work in the kitchen. An old great grandmother wandered down the stairs at one point, watching me eat with idle curiosity but saying nothing. A middle-aged woman in purple top decorated with rhinestones spelling out the name 'Cindy' showed me how to eat the spread in front of me, which included a large plate of greens, skewers of satay pork, fried spring rolls, and rice paper wrapping with a peanut and chili dipping sauce. Delicious stuff, and one of the best meals I've eaten in Vietnam yet.

Hoi An's other attraction besides history is its legions of custom-fit tailor shops, and after a break for a cold drink, I browsed around yesterday before finding a place that is going to make me a fully tailored suit for $53 -- whether that's a great deal or a big rip-off I don't really know, but I'm off for the adjustments now, so we'll soon see!