Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hunting the Baby Snatcher and PD'ing my Princess (Laos)

Lindsey's amigos!
South Dakota’s former resident (singular), baby crazed Lindsey Pooka (crazy), repeatedly claimed to have friends in high places (Mount Rushmore.) Believing that this gave her diplomatic immunity (as anyone would), she decided to walk out into the jungle carrying a Laotian baby from our host village, loudly proclaiming it as her own. 

This being Laos, none of the men moved (or even really noticed.) until our guide translated Lindsey's declaration to mom.
The ensuing motherly cry of anguish sparked the paternal instinct of the male villagers to such a high degree that instantly, and with the precision of a formation of military jets changing course, they all rolled over in their hammocks and covered their ears. (To be fair, given the day's humidity, it would have been hard to spark anything.)
Lindsey "Rushmore" Pooka making her getaway
When mom finally gave up yelling and started crying incoherently, it donned on a wise elder that the odds being made dinner by any of the village women in the next century would decrease dramatically if their inaction became known  (and who wants to risk that) and worried she might tattle on them (she's the type who would), he did what any red blooded male would in his situation- he shot her. No just kidding, he quietly ordered the men to hunt down Lindsey.
Beautiful emerald green jungle scenery
The Hunt
Fearing for Rushmore's safety, I joined the men, knowing I would likely have the unenviable role of acting as a buffer between her and death. This thought crosses my mind as I narrowly dodge a striking king cobra I came far too close to stepping on. The irony is not lost on me.
The jungle requires your whole focus be your next step.
Laotian villagers use this gun to illegally hunt animals and baby snatchers
"We have her scent!" shouted one of the trackers, referring to Lindsey's ultra-cheap Laotian made perfume commonly sprayed in rings around crops to ward off feral pigs.
We caught up to Lindsey at the edge of a beautiful waterfall.
"I have diplomatic immunity!!" yells Lindsey to the semi-circle of Laotian men, as they raised their guns. She looks scared, like a cornered animal.
"I'll jump!" she threatens.
"That would make it easier," respond the men, dropping their guns momentarily to wipe their brows.
"I'll take the baby with me!"
"Rabble, rabble, rabble, rabble," the men discuss the predicament amongst themselves in Laotian, while Lindsey edges closer to the ledge.
Here comes the buffer.
Laotian waterfall
"Lindsey you don't want to do this!" I shout.
"Yes I do," she answers.
"No, you don't," I counter in a simplistic logic, understandable to the female mind.
"But I want a baby!"
"But that baby belongs to someone else."
"I tell you what, give me that baby, and I'll share my baby with you."
Lindsey bows her head slightly, as if accepting. I slowly approach, she gently hands off the baby into my arms, I take it back to the Laotians, who promptly disperse, eager to return the child to the mother, hoping that they'll be rewarded with dinner.
I watch them leave, then walk back over to Lindsey, who has tears streaming down her face.
"I miss my baby," she sobs. I wipe a tear off her face. Despite being Looney-Tunes, she really is a sweet girl.
"Let me tell you about my Goddaughter Dannika," I tell her, my heart aching for the small child I've helped raise since she was a tiny-tot. "She is so cute, and so sweet, and mischievous, I miss her so much. One of the worst things about travelling for so long is--
"I miss my baby," we both coo in unison. We pause and look at each other, then look back over the falls.
"Sometimes when I'm thousands and thousands of miles away, I think of her doing something funny, and I smile. Sometimes I just miss her soooo much, and wish she was in my arms so I could give her a big hug and kiss. The worst thing of being gone so long is that I don't get to see her grow up."
Me and my favorite miscreant a couple years ago
"You don't even have her here?! You lied to me! How can you share her?!" complains Lindsey.
I calm her down.
"When she was small, she always wanted to be a Princess when ever we played, so I called her Princess Dannika, or 'PD' for short. Whenever I see her, I get very excited, and I often throw my arms over my head and yell out 'PPPPPPPDDDDDDD' at the top of my lungs. She secretly loves it, cause she knows it means I love her and how important she is to me, she just gets embarrassed when I do it in public."
"Who wouldn't? Duh."
"Well listen Linds, if you want to make a small child feel loved and cared then PD her with me right now. I'll show you how."
"Ummm. No thanks."
"Didn't I just save your life?"
So Lindsey, being a good sport, decides to go along with it. You'll see the evidence in the below video.

--PD'ing my princess in Laos--

"You look so bashful," I tell her after watching the video.
"I find you so embarrassing."
Yeah, just imagine how my Goddaughter must feel.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Distant, Tiny Villages of Laos

The easiest and quickest way to reach the distant villages of Laos from the United States is simply to burrow through the center of the earth.
Or you can take the nausea producing twenty-four hour bus rides around serpentine mountain switchbacks and then trek through steep and slick highlands fiercely guarded by malaria mosquitoes to reach them. Trust me, just buy the digging equipment.

Village #1: Midevil
Deep in Laos’s mountainous terrain, isolated, nearly inaccessible, with barely a walking path leading to them, are villages straight out of the Middle Ages, places that time has left behind. There is no running water, no electricity, their most valuable possessions are the few farm animals they subsist on.

A video of the midevil Laotian village

We arrive in the afternoon, having lunch by a large, stagnant pond, accumulated rain water with no outlet. The water is muddy-brown, and I’m surprised an animal would drink from it. The village consists of five families, the men are gone, either hunting or logging, leaving the women behind to care for the babies. They try to sell us some trinkets they have made for passing tourists. They’ll take any amount of cash you offer.
Florence Nightangale offerred trinkets
Rushmore decides whether to buy or not
 They are miles and miles away from town, or medical care. Should a baby get sick, our guide informs us the most likely treatment will be the sacrifice of an animal to the spirits.
In one year this village will no longer exist, as the government will be moving the families into town to provide the children schooling and access to some medicine, though in Laos this is spotty at best. Before you think the government benevolent, it is likely their acreage will be turned into a plantation of some kind. Such is progress here in SE Asia.

Village #2: They Have A Generator
A large clearing in the middle of the jungle, a few hours walk from the river, we get there in the evening as the sun is going down.

--Gain an appreciation for village life via this video--

Though they have few lights, and no running water, just a well and huge trash cans full of collected rainfall one throws over themselves with a small bucket (called a shower here,) they do have one diesel powered generator which supplies electricity, enabling the children to watch the rare movie, as well as a refrigerator to keep food from spoiling quickly in the jungle humidity. (at least the few hours a day the generator is on)
Amidst the kids
baby crazed Lindsey "Rushmore" Pooka pauses for an incriminating photo before making her getaway
Thatched village house and residents
Village #3: Wealthy!
Well, wealthy by Laotian standards I mean. The village is near a road, a couple of the households have cars, and several have TV's and lights. They earn money from tourists who stay with them who are trekking through the national park which they border. We were provided dinner and a beer before falling asleep on a hardwood floor covered with a blanket and a mosquito net above us.
water buffalo
 The village had last year built its first schoolhouse ever. These will be the first village children with any sort of education. The school teacher works for less than $100 a month.
The kids were very excited when we walked in, especially when I sat with them and started to play. The girls were so cute. I had a wonderful time, getting a huge roar from the crowd when I moon-walked out the door.
The thought crossed my mind to stay there and teach English, before realizing I would have to stay for years to really make a difference, as the only times the children would be using the language was when I was present. Not the best way to learn.
so cute- Laotian children
Who's the dutiful student on the right?
I'm pretending to study, but I'm really trying to hear the gossip
Look at the joy, not only on the face of my little girl, but the others around her
We had fun! Hope she's not scared of heights
Certainly I don't envy their lifestyle of living conditions, but as we tide of our species rises with our technological know-how, I hope the boat of my new friends' lifts with it.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Trekking Through Rice and Steep Mountains in Northern Laos

A Japanese nurse unable to identify a prominent leg infection, a woman from South Dakota (where??!) who grew up speaking to the U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore (literally), and a tiny, nearly deaf Laotian guide who couldn’t hear thunder if he was struck by lightning, were lucky enough to have me as a last second addition to their trekking group to anchor down the crazy.
Florence Nightagale, Rushmore, and Bellview on the hillside
If you were to choose a crack team to head out into the jungle with, we would not be that team.

 The Rice Fields of Asia
A twenty minute boat ride down the river takes us to a trail head. We meander through some trees and enter into a large clearing, a rice paddy that has displaced acres of what was once forested land.
We remove our shoes and begin walking through the muddy water which rises to just below my knees, my feet sinking deep into the sediment at the bottom. I am unable to see below the surface, so I pray there are no water snakes, aqua-spiders, or evil spirits who might become aggravated if stepped on.

Check out the rice paddy, and the big $$ you make working them

We start back through the jungle. Forested land outside the national parks (and sometimes in) are often cultivated, and not just via rice paddies. Blending into the forest are often small teak plantations, generally owned by the country’s wealthier citizens. Teak reaches harvesting maturity at fifteen, the current going price for a tree of this age is an entire $24. Obviously it costs less to transport the trees by car than carrying them out of the forests, which is why the “progress“ of roads will be the death of the few remaining wild lands left on earth.
Lindsey "Rushmore" Pooka amidst the emerald foliage. note the huge leaves
The forest re-grows as the incline of the surrounding mountains steepens; removing the hardwoods  becoming unprofitable. Appreciating the surrounding beauty becomes a dicey affair as your entire focus must be your next step, lest you slip and fall on the slick rocks. I’m carrying a heavy backpack, our team’s mule, and my climb becomes especially arduous. I stop and wipe the sweat off my brow in the humidity, gaining a new appreciation for US Marines climbing for days with seventy pound packs.

My shoes offer little grip, the lowlands are no easier as I slip and slide through the mud, my concentration solely on keeping my balance. We come to an impenetrable bamboo forest, thicker only in mosquitoes. There is no choice but to keep moving, as offering them a sedentary target is an invitation for malaria.

Check out the difficult and muddy trek we had!

There is little if any wildlife here, most of it having been hunted out out of existence, just a few birds and a whole lot of bugs. My dream of seeing a wild tiger has worse odds than winning the lottery. Suddenly, a large rustling in the underbrush. We all freeze except for our deaf guide who plods ahead. "Dude, what was that? A tiger?" I shout hopefully after him, but he walks on, the sound waves not recognized by his ear drums.
"So much for seeing a tiger," I lament to my team as the animal hurries away.

Air Rich crosses a stream
The sun is starting to go down, our guide implores us to hurry so we make it to the village before nightfall. My leg above my knee is becoming swollen and hard, an open cut in the jungle having invited in bacteria, my body the host. Florence Nightangale of Japan assures me it’s not an infection. Either she's horrible at her job or she's doing triage, and considers Crazy Lindsey the bigger threat, who's mumbling something about missing her Presidential friends back on Mount Rushmore.
Our guide. This is how we traversed some parts of the jungle
Tired and haggard, we eventually we make it to the village where we’re spending the night. Seventeen and a half kilometers through mountainous jungle, with me carrying a thirty pound pack. I’m exhausted, the only thing I need to sleep comfortably is a mosquito net; fortunately that’s the one thing they have. Darkness falls quickly, there are no lights, and the sounds of the jungle slowly melt together as I drift off into a heavy, and much needed sleep …

Tiger Trails if you want a guide through Northern Laos these guys were ours.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Money Cons + Romance Scams in Prague- (Czech Republic)

Prague, the world's most beautiful city, has a numerous thieves ready to unleash their tactics on unsuspecting and sometimes even willing tourists. 
Money Exchanges/ Pitfalls of Changing Money
A lot of exchanges advertise VIP rates when you convert $1,200 at a time, but when you slide like $300 over, as it is not “VIP,” and you can see a whopping 40% of your money disappear. Like if the real rate is 18, they’ll give you 12, which is listed in a hard to see place. It happens, believe me. Once they hand you the money, there is no going back.
The best and most fair exchanges are run by Arabs, outside of the main tourist zones. There are some close to the train station that give very competitive rates. 
Money exchange- good prices, but look below for real ones
Money Changers on the Street
“Psst, buddy, want to change some money?”
“No thanks.”
“I’ll give you a really good rate. Come on!”
Don’t even think about it You’ll end up with one real bill on top and bottom, and a bunch of worthless paper/ possibly fake bills in the center. Wave and smile at the camera as they run off with your cash.

Targeting Romance
In Los Angeles we have posers who drive a leased Ferrari and wear Armani, while they live in a shack on borrowed money. If they wanted to cultivate an image of being wealthy, all they would have to do is go to to a former Eastern Bloc country, and start speaking English.
In most any less developed, or Eastern European country, you'll automatically be seen as a rich man, and thus a possible target. Go to a restaurant with a date, and ask for your table in English, the owner will be doing a happy dance while he paints a bulls-eye on you.
The service will be normal, which in the Czech Republic is generally without a smile, but when you get the bill, it will be hand written, in hieroglyphics, and contain several items you never purchased.
Now, being on a date, most guys just go ahead and pay the bill because even if they recognize they’re being overcharged, because they don’t ruin the flow/ cause a potential ruckus that would make them look bad, and if they do catch on, the owner apologizes and says he made a mistake, and corrects your bill.
When it happened to me, I very nicely approached the owner and explained that we didn’t order as many items as we were being charged for. They corrected it once, still overcharging me, then the second time they might have gotten it right.
The waitress approached my date and via body language I could tell she was embarrassed as she apologized. I thought she was just ashamed that she had made such an error, only later did my date explain to me that it is a regular scam here, and that by Czech Law, a printed receipt must given to all patrons, listing exactly what charges are being made. So if you get a hand written bill, look over it carefully, and make sure it is correct.

Dating Agencies in Czech Republic
Want to meet a beautiful Czech girl who has old school manners, sick of Czech men who treat her badly, likes older men, and doesn’t really care what you look like?
Ahhh, promises promises. I have a friend here in Prague, who signed up to meet some good men, and when one old, fat guy was so desperate to meet her, and she insisted she didn’t want to, the agency offered her money to go out to dinner with him. “Just smile and nod, have a nice meal on him, and we’ll pay you,” coaxed the voice on the other end of the line. She hung-up and asked them never to call her again.
And that’s not the worst story I have heard. Some agencies just hire strippers and escorts to accompany the guy out and pocket big money from him. That doesn’t mean they are all like that, or that a lot of girls might not sign-up for the agency with good intentions, but really, how is a pretty 24 year old girl going to feel about dating a fat, fifty-five year old man?
Fatso thinks that plunking down a thousand dollars entitles him to a super-model young wife and insists on his unrealistic expectations? If the agency is anything less than 100% congruent and honest (which is rare in ANY business) what choice do they really have besides hiring an escort for the guy? Eventually it might become a habit.

Could she do better?

Such is life here in Prague: Buyer beware.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hostel- Horror Movie, Prague Edition

Prague- Early Winter
I arrived in Prague, Good Will Hunting style- "I had go see about a girl." 

I’m thinking there aren't going to be a lot of low income students/ tourists around in the sub-zero temperatures, so if I stay in a hostel style dormitory, my powers of deduction lead me to conclude the following advantages.
1)     Ever the optimist, I imagine I’ll end up spending the night at her place very quickly, and paying the ultra-cheap hostel price, I’d avoid the stinging financial loss of purchasing a nice hotel room and not using it.
2)     I might pay for just the one dormitory bed, and get the whole room to myself.
3)     It’s even likely I’ll get the whole room to myself! After all, only an idiot would visit Prague this time of year.
Night #1- one other person in the big room. A quiet Danish girl. I’m a genius! There’s no other word for it.
hostel room- image twice as large as actual size

Night #2- I get back to the hostel- LOUD noise coming from every direction. There's a party downstairs, seven drunk Spaniards at 1 AM, their alcohol induced yells so loud emailing my family to tell them I'm "fine" becomes nearly impossible, as it would be, purely, a lie.
I pray they aren't staying in my dorm room. I go upstairs, backpacks are all over, but I'm the only one there. Fuck.
I climb into bed, just as I'm falling asleep a buzz cut Spaniard walks in remarking, "What a party," then proceeds to spend two minutes drunkenly jiggling his key in his locker, pulls his cell phone out, sits down on his bed, and begins to text; "beep bwoop beep," rather than take it outside like a considerate person, or just anyone looking to avoid death.
Just as I'm about to say something he puts his phone down. Okay, go to sleep dude.

Careful what you wish for. The moment his head hits his mattress he starts snoring like a chainsaw. It's cartoonishly loud. I pound my fist down into my bunk in frustration.
Moments later, a huge Galoot barges through the door drunk, tripping over his own suitcase, falling onto my lower bunk, using a combination of the mattress and my body to break his fall. Rolling off me he hits the floor with a thud. For a moment I'm actually elated-- the commotion might have woken Chainsaw.
No such luck. Come to think of it, I'm not sure the Big Bang could wake-up Chainsaw, because in all likelihood, no one could hear it over his snoring.
But Galoot is momentarily captivated by the snores, almost admiring the volume and dissonant nature before he breaks out into laughter, stating, "My God he's loud. Do you hear that?"
"Deaf people in Rio De Jainero can hear that," I retort, shaking my head.
"Sorry about falling on you," he states, as he turns on the light, forcing my head under the covers from the bright glare while he searches for something, then exits the room slamming the door, considerately leaving on the light.

Spaced an ideal twenty minutes apart, just enough time for me to doze off just slightly, the Spaniards file into the room, rousting about, looking for their toothbrushes and what-not in their drunken stupor. I don't know what to say, I signed up for this. 
The last person enters the room at 4:20 AM. Twenty minutes later I actually am so tired, Chainsaw becomes white noise in the background, and I drift away into a light sleep.

At that seeming exact moment, a hysterical girl bursts into the room and softly yells, with fear in her voice, "You have to help me!"
OH MY GOD, what could possibly be happening. Is someone after her? A burglar, a rapist? I jump up.
Me: "What’s the matter?!"
Her: "The bedding, it is so old. It's so uncomfortable, you have to help me!"
I take a beat to process what she said, making sure I didn't perhaps mishear her in my sleepless haze. I didn't.
Me: "We get what we pay for don’t we. Now close the door, and get out."

She does so without a word. It feels like I'm in some horror movie, with the ax murderer scripted to come in next. My forehead falls to the mattress as I await my fate. I sniff the sheets. She's right, this bedding really is old.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hollywood Horror Film- Layover at the Moscow Airport

After my first and only stay in Russia, I vowed to never return.
What, with my brother's fiancee being robbed and nearly kidnapped, myself getting scammed at the train station, the $3 oranges and $7 bottles Evian available, I was very leery about even setting foot in the country again.
My Russian friend, St. Peter Voychinsky, an up and coming real estate mogul from St. Petersburg (named after him, or so he claims) continually teases me about my apprehensions to Russia, so I relayed to him the following the experience that I had during a layover at the Moscow airport on my way to Prague. He might call it anti-Russian propaganda, I call it reality.

"A smile here is rarer than water in the desert, and rationed with greater caution.
Stepping foot in Moscow is a harrowing experience. If I were a Hollywood horror film producer, I would just shoot everyday life there, editing unneeded. Movie patrons would run screaming from the theaters just looking at the nasty scowls etched in Russian faces, their hearts beating quickly, trying to catch their breath. An elderly man might die of a heart attack right there in the cinema, and the live video feed of the incident would beam into Red Square and all the Ruskies would nod their head in a moment's satisfaction, and then go about their miserable way, drinking themselves into oblivion. I'm not saying they would smile at the old man's heart attack though, after all, smiling would be breaking the law."

Think I'm making this up? Here is a Russian/Siberian train station
to give you a sample of Russian faces

Monday, December 5, 2011

Poverty in China- Yangtze River Area

The old man stood no more than five feet tall, his skin was wrinkled by time, sun, and wind, and he was as thinner than the long stick onto which he had hoisted Drew’s two heavy suitcases, balancing it perfectly over his right shoulder all the way up a long set of stairs that even Drew acknowledged might be difficult to climb carrying only one of his cases.

Drew handed him twenty yuan.
“Thirty,” begged the old man, which Drew gave him without a flinch. Joy sprung up in the old man’s eyes. He had just earned $4, it was a good day. Poverty is the reality throughout the majority of China.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lindsey Pooka- Crazy Companion in Laos

Lindsey Pooka, once South Dakota’s resident, was evicted from her land by the Federal Government for “failure to upkeep her property,” paving the way for the Department of the Interior to finally annex the area, enabling them to sell it to the Chinese in adherence to the Republican “Excess State” program aimed at efficiency and reduction of the national debt. (The Feds originally wanted 100 billion dollars for the land, but the Chinese bargained them down to $7.89. I still think we got the better end of the deal)
“It’s about streamlining operations, making government smaller and more efficient,” proudly states the program’s mastermind, Rico Hanes, “We see great synergy in this sale.”
“Do you even know what synergy means?” I reply dubiously.
Rico pauses, looks at me, anger and disbelief in his voice, “You're bad mouthing synergy! What are you, Communist? I’m calling immigration and having your ass deported.”
Which is how I ended up here on the other side of the world here in Laos. I put the blame squarely on Lindsey.
Miss Lindsey Pooka
“Are you really so messy and filthy the government has to kick you out of your stupid state that simply exemplifies American excess?” I ask.
“You try cleaning and keeping rats out of 77,121 square miles and we’ll see how well you do,” she retorts. 
Lindsey, as nice as she is, is certifiably nuts. She claims there are were "other residents" in the state, all “super important people.” Their names George, Tom, Abe, and Teddy.
“Let me guess, they live on Mount Rushmore?”
“How’d you know?!" she asks shocked, then adds, "I really miss them. All such great conversationalists.”
Lindsey's good friends- George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe.
So this is whom I’m about to go on trek with through the mountains around Luang Prabang. Who I will have to trust with my life climbing these steep hills ... it's not an unfair question to ask: Which of us is crazier?
Unequivocally me, cause I should know better, but Lindsey is giving me a real run for my money.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Laotian Sun Bear Rescue Center- Kuang Si Falls (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Surrounding Kuang Si WaterFall in Laos is absolutely stunning emerald rain forest, and two of the jungle's native inhabitants are the Malaysian Sun Bear, and Asiatic Black Bear. Their sacred duty is helping spread the seeds of trees from digested fruit far and wide, helping keep the forest, alive, healthy, and strong.
Asian Sun Bear- long tongue

Sadly, idiots in China use bile from bears' liver for medicinal purposes, which creates demand for these poor creatures to be shot.
The Free The Bears rescue center is located by the falls in the protected forest, and has saved cubs from the wild, who otherwise would have little or no chance of survival, after their mothers had been poached. The small bears are then raised in captivity, underneath the forest canopy.

Let me make something clear China. Bear bile does nothing! It is a rumor that it has any medicinal value, and if you want, there are cheaper, and reproduce-able medicines that perform the same tasks bear bile proponents claim it has. STOP using bear bile dammit! Wise up!

Here is a quick video of the bears playing together. They have serious balance. feel free to make a donation to the rescue center, whose website I believe is here. I know I did when I visited.
Free The Bears

Keep biodiversity and the forests alive! PEACE- And enjoy Kuang Si Falls!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Don Quixote Tarzans Kuang Si Waterfall- (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Posse up! Don Quixote has convinced five hapless souls to join him on a 32 km bike ride to Kuang Si Waterfall. We rent our noble steeds in the early morning for, as we will discover, the too cheap price of a $1.25, and start pedaling through the city.
Whoops, the Portugese girl’s chain just fell off. The nobleman will help her fix it, okay, we’re good.
Oh no, my chain just fell off. Now my hands are dirty. These bikes are hoopties. One speed, rusted, barely move, par for the course here in Laos, but that’s okay. Portugal is in trouble again. It’s going to be a long ride isn’t it ... 
Trying to fix her bike
 Can’t work it, can’t manipulate the chain, it’s really stuck. Lyndsay from Montana stays behind, as the others, unaware of our recurring plight, continue onwards. A half hour later we’re no closer to fixing the bike, just a heck of a lot dirtier. The temptation of course is to say, “Sorry girl, ain’t my bike,” and pedal away. I guess it’s growth as a person that makes me want everyone I’ve come with to have a good time, and forces me to make sure she’s up and riding before I move on.
Well, that or stupidity.
Game theory, which takes a very dim view of humanity, predicts that people will always act in their best overall selfish interests, and only penalties and consequences keep people “honest."  … ‘I’d like to steal his Porsche, but I might get shot, or imprisoned, better not.’ I simply am too decent a person to succeed in an arena where game theory is the rule of the land. (Hollywood)
I need tools, that little shop 100 meters away might have some. We walk the bike over, and communicate with a small Laotian man. He instantly grabs a wrench, and starts at it. His hands dirty, oily, and within five minutes, Portugal’s chain is back on and functional. Wow, saved me some time and heartache there. I’m grateful.
I’m waiting for her to do something more than just verbally thanking him. Waiting … She’s getting back on the bike. I can’t hold back any longer. “Aren’t you going to tip him?” She pauses, and then purchases three small bottles of water for twenty cents apiece. She makes no additional move. When she turns around I pull out a dollar and hand it to the small man.
We’re way behind our cohorts, the hills becoming too steep to ride up, especially with our hoopties. Lindsay and Portugal start walking up. I’m too manly (see stupid) to admit defeat; persisting, pedaling hard, the slope seems to be swallowing me whole. To gain speed I change direction, moving almost sideways before careening off the path and into the bush for one-million negative style points … Then my chain falls off.
Me pedaling into the bush (caught by Lindsay)
We continue, riding the flats and downhills, most often walking up the inclines, passing small farms, dodging chickens and water buffalo attempting to block the roads, and young Laotian children at play.

Tourists in tuk-tuks drive-by smiling, shaking their heads, wondering at our choice of transport. Well, the choice of a charismatic, but not so bright Don Quixote, who convinced the others to join his quest.
By the time we get to kilometer thirty, the girls are complaining of hallucinations, completely spent. They’re out of water, almost unable to move. The Don pours some of his own water down their throats, re-hydrating them, urging them onward.
Eventually we arrive, and enter into the protected forest area, walking by a rescue center for Malaysian sun bears whose mothers have been poached in the wild, and onto Kuang Si Waterfall, the rainy season having upped the usual torrential volume of water cascading over the rocks.

Kuang Si Waterfall- the hard journey was worth it! So beautiful!

The area consists of several pools, the water collecting and then quickly dropping to the next. The current is voracious. Let it grab a hold of you’ll end tumbling down onto the jagged rocks below.
I carefully wade into the water. The surroundings are ethereal, the tall trees and emerald jungle accented by the roar of the falls. Only Mother Nature’s bellows could sound so peaceful.
Kuang Si Falls (lower pool with Tarzan rope)
A Laotian man climbs onto a tree whose trunk curves and hangs over the pool near the junction of the falls. There is a rope hanging off an upper branch, but only after he pulls out a hidden hook do I realize how people manage to grab onto it. He pulls the line to him, swings over the water, lets go, and plunges in.
Slowly, I make way there, noting where my feet are in relation to the slippery rocks, wading barefoot through a fast moving feeder stream, treading carefully. I climb the tree, hook the rope, and swing Tarzan-like over the water, releasing at maximum elevation. SPLASH. The current has me. I feel myself pulled quickly downstream. I look up for a second and realize I’m much closer to the next waterfall than I thought. I swim like a mad man towards the riverbank, racing sideways against the swift current. With fear coursing through me, I reach my feet down, the rocky riverbed sediment stopping my momentum; I’m able to stand. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Rich, then Jeremy and Paul swing off the rope. Check out how the current carries me as I swim
towards the riverbank
Rich emerges from falls (highest pool)
A minute apart, my friends Paul and Jeremy plunge from the rope and into the waters below. I yell for them to swim hard towards me, as if they needed my direction. Elated at having survived unscathed we play in the waters.
Paul, Rich, and Jeremy 
“Ouch!” What was that, “Did I just get bit?”
“Fish,” replies one of the locals.
The bites keep coming in the murky water, it's frightening. Suddenly I feel sorry for the worms.
I am told they are “doctor fish,” often found in the massage parlors of SE Asia, used to nibble away the dead skin on patrons' feet.
Another bite, this one hurts. I don’t know what they’re doing in this fast moving pool of water, but their getting a free lunch. We exit stage left, and up the riverbank.
We hang out in the beauty of the forest for an hour, chatting with other travelers, listening to the gushing water. I feel both elated and peaceful at the same time, a tendency I have when being in the midst of stunning nature. If darkness weren't set to fall, I feel like I could stay here forever.
Lindsay Houska and Karin at play
The sun begins to disappear behind the mountains. No one besides me is even considering the possibility of cycling home. The girls negotiate with an eager Laotian who piles our bikes atop his Tuk-Tuk and drives us back into town.
Load up bikes, our way home
We arrive exhausted, having enjoyed our day at the magical waterfall, playing Tarzan, swimming, and in a reversal of usual circumstances, being served as lunch for the fish. Tonight Don Quixote will be back chasing windmills in his dreams. He's tired. It will be well deserved.

Luang Prabang Night Market (Laos, SE Asia)

Luang Prabang night market
Each evening in South East Asia thousands upon thousands of vendors haul their wares from all over to a centrally designated locale, in hopes of making a few (and I do mean only a few) dollars selling their goods, mainly to foreigners eager to grind their asking prices into the ground.
For many tourists it’s almost a game to see how cheaply you can purchase something. Often for the seller, the small amounts of money make the difference between their children eating or not. In Luang Prabang, a debate over 5,000 Laotian Kip might seem to be a numerically big deal, but the translation in dollar terms is a mere sixty-three cents.
A night market negotiation
Each evening the vendors sit for hours upon hours courting customers, many of stands selling nearly identical goods, hoping you purchase from them. Maybe you like their smile, their energy, or maybe something really catches your eye. “Buy mister, buy! Give you good price.”
The street is long, and the number of stalls seems mind boggling as you browse. “Buy, buy, sit down. Buy from me.” It makes me dizzy.
If they go home with a $5 profit, it was time well spent. We all like low prices, don’t we?
Monks in Luang Prabang

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rocking Bus Ride on Stormy Seas to Luang Prabang

When you arrive in Hawaii, a beautiful woman welcomes you by adorning you with a flowered lei. Similarly here in gorgeous Vang Vieng, to punctuate what a pleasant ride the bus company promises you to Luang Prabang, upon boarding, they hand you a pink plastic barf-bag.

The Northerly trek through Laos is covered by one sole, beaten-up dirt road which winds its way serpentine-like through steep mountains. I get motion sickness relatively easily. If I’m aboard a 30 person boat on choppy water I’m usually the second or third person to heave-ho, so I know in advance I’m in trouble.
“Hey, does anyone want to make bets on who throws-up first?” I offer the four couples sitting around me, “I’m likely the favorite.”
We start talking. Two of the couples have been travelling for years, as if seeing the world was a profession. One of the guys had been travelling for--
-- “Eight years??”
“Eight years,” he affirms.
“How do you do that?” I ask, “At least I have some belief I have a home,” my mind flashing back to an already hazy Los Angeles, realizing I’ve been away for the better part of the last year.
“Well, I stop places and work to make money as a dive master.”
“Hey, we’re dive masters too,” chimes in a couple from Denmark.
“Us too,” states a surprised Canadian couple.
“Seriously?” I question, looking around for the hidden camera. “All of you are dive masters?”
Even the Swedish couple that by some miracle bucked the odds and weren’t dive masters, had lived on a boat for a year. The conversation naturally turns to the under-water world, including stories of their dumbest students who pay the hefty fee to SCUBA and promptly refuse to so as much wade into the practice pool.
For my benefit, they speak of rough seas and novice divers on small boats, unable to handle side-to-side sway of the ocean, regurgitating their lunch for the fish, laughing as my face turns a darker shade of blue. They're like bullies on the playground teasing the weak kid. I slump in my seat, realizing that in the “Puking Sweepstakes,” I’ve gone from merely favorite, to sure-fire lock.
A view from the bus
Meanwhile, the old bus plods ahead down the dirt road like a shoe-less drunk navigating a street littered with glass, slowing down to stall speeds while traversing the road's many pot-holes, and taking the serpentine mountain bends like a grandma in a wheel chair. The 100 mile trek is set to take 8 hours. Any MIT mathematician with the help of an advanced supercomputer could calculate our average speed as “slow.”
Our large vehicle continues to rock back and forth like a small ship on stormy seas, bad shock absorbers unable to handle any bump; each dip in the road creating the sensation of being nearly capsized by twenty foot waves. I start to feel nauseous, and attempt to meditate my way out of it. No dice, the body and brain's equilibrium seem to have a mind of their own.
I look out the window at the spectacular views of mountainous jungle and the valleys below, hoping the natural beauty helps me regain some semblance of balance, as I bravely battle the elements. My forehead falls back into my hands as I fight the losing battle.
Almost seven hours in, I’m somehow still afloat.
By some divine intervention we hit a stretch where we actually seem to moving straight ahead; perhaps the storm has passed.
Dark clouds quickly cover the sun, the wind howls. The serpentine passes start anew. A horrible mechanical burning like smell emanates from somewhere, something’s wrong, it actually gives me hope.
 It’s gotta be our bus! Please be our bus! We’ll stop, I can walk off the dizziness. Ten minutes later we’re still sailing, the putrid stench becoming stronger. We go around a sharp bend, hitting a bump, the bus leaps off the road, landing, rocking back side to side. I’m enveloped by a wave of nausea. I look around for the pink barf bag.
BLUUURGGHHHHHHHHH!!! My stomach evacuates itself. Then again. And one more time for good measure.
“Well you were prediction came true,” excitedly shouts the bald Danish dive master with mock encouragement.
Seven and a half hours of the eight hour ride I lasted. So close.

Wait, why are we pulling over, why are we stopping?
“Fixing the clutch,” answers a bus employee.
“Couldn’t you have stopped have stopped five minutes ago?!!” 
broken down
It's wasted breath. A half hour later we pull into the Luang Prabang bus depot, I'm still not feeling well. We disembark, and I grab my belongings and start slowly walking away.
The bald Danish guy throws his arm over my shoulder and teases me, "Hopefully your children have stronger stomachs." 
If I wasn't so dizzy I'd punch him.  
"Hopefully your children have hair," I retort back weakly as he walks away. He laughs. He knows he deserved it. Fucking bullies.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Battling the Vang Vieng Mud Monster with Hmong Help

Laotian village against mountainous back-drop near Vang Vieng 
Rent a bike- $2. Head out of the tiny tourist area and start cycling up the main drag. Contrasting the small bars, restaurants, and convenience stores that line the streets stands a Buddhist temple, lighting the road in its splendid colors, behind it the lush, rain forest covered mountains. I keep pedaling, not exactly sure what I am looking for or where I’m headed, but secure in the knowledge it’s impossible to get lost, this being the only road and all.
I stop at Vang Vieng high school, watching students ride in on their bicycles, all holding umbrellas, to shield them from the tropical sun this moment, and for their way home, the afternoon's guaranteed rain storm.
Vang Vieng children riding to school with umbrellas
Passing trucks and buses kick up dust from the dirt road. The drivers of SE Asia's ubiquitous motorbikes smile and wave friendly hellos to me as they slowly ride by. 
Seven km outside Vang Vieng, I pull off the road and onto a gravel path. Not far ahead a water buffalo sits lazily in a gigantic mud-hole. I try to impress him by riding through his domain, but instead of proudly passing by, my tire collapses into the foam-like softness of the terrain. If I was going more than 1 mph I would have flown over the handlebars, but without the necessary forward momentum to perform this feat, I instead fall off the bike to the side, my legs sinking close to a foot into the mud. 
I pull my right leg out with great difficulty, placing it back on more “solid mud” but my left leg is stuck. “Hey water buffalo, call for help! Use your bell!”
With enormous difficultly and strength, I remove my leg from the trap, well, most of it at least. The Mud Monster has swallowed my shoe. I had to pull so hard to get my leg out, my sneaker was the left over prize in the battle for survival. Warily I reach in, and attempt to pull it back to safety. The Mud Monster growls, but relents.
I continue, finally arriving at the river and the local Eco-Lodge. No one’s there, but looking around I find evidence of Laos’s Communist past.
Photo of Lenin on the wall in Vang Vieng at the Eco-Lodge
The bar is fully stocked and if someone were dastardly enough to wish to steal from these poor people, it would be all too easy. Instead I meditate for 15 minutes by the river before someone comes and offers to cook me lunch.

I keep going down the road, 14km later, I find signs pointing me towards the ”Great Caves of Vang Vieng.”  What choice do I have but turn-off and head in this direction. I stop by a canal with children playing, cannon-balling, diving into the water and cooling off on this hot day.
Hmong children at play in this distant canal
I finally arrive at cave headquarters, a simple stand renting “torches” (flashlights) for $1.25. A group of men lies on a wooden deck beneath a thatched roof. After briefly exploring the caves, which I was ill-equipped for, I ask if I can join them.
Their Hmong, a minority group in Laos who fought against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian Civil War, and were allies of the United States during the horrendous, turbulent times of the Vietnam War. Knowing that now, I shouldn't have been so surprised to find them able to speak some English
They tell me stories from when they were young children, of an American fighter jet being shot out of the sky, the pilot successfully crash landing close by to where we are. The Hmong found him first, alone, injured, and naturally frightened. “Come with us,” they implored him. He refused, behaving like a cornered animal.
“Come with us, we will protect you,” they tell him again, but he won't leave his downed plane which might be the only way the U.S. could locate him.
“Come with us before the Communists find you, they will kill you. We will hide you and contact your commanding officer.” Finally, he heads out with them. A few weeks later he is re-united later with his squadron.

They ask questions about America, amazed as I tell them the differences between their impoverished country and my own. Amazed at the possibilities, the resources, wealth, and ability to advance economically that America offers. It's as if I was describing Disneyland to a child who had never been. 
me and the local Hmong
I ask about the forests, and whether not there are tigers.
“Not here,” comes the response, “But over the mountains, yes.”
“Do you hunt tigers?”
“No, it is illegal. Plus when we have guests we like to show them the wild nature. We don’t see tigers, but occasionally, deep in the mountains, we hear them in the night. Their roars are very loud, but they are scared of man.”
“For good reason. So these forests are protected?”
“Oh yes, protected forests. The trees provide air conditioning, create rain, we like our forests. The government protects the forests.”
“The government protects the forests?” I ask a little surprised. ”Is the government in Laos good?”
I didn’t know it when when I asked, but this is a taboo question in Laos. It’s a one party system and there is no opposition. Speak badly of the government and you wind-up in prison, for how long no one knows. Only later did I realize that most people would refuse to respond honestly, but they answered me, and I believed them sincere.
“Government is good,” they nodded, “Protect forests, help us a little. Government okay.”
Later research corroborated that they were correct in telling me their forests were under protection, the reason for this however is not necessarily a forward thinking government, but rather how difficult it is to remove lumber from the very steep mountains, so why not go ahead and deem them “protected lands.”
fishing in the rice paddy
“It’s going to rain soon, you have long ways back to Vang Vieng,” they tell me. I nod my head, and thank them for their time. Before I leave, they ask me one favor. “Please tell all your American friends back home, that the Hmong people love them. That America is number one. We love America.”
“I can do that.”
“Tell them Hmong of Laos say America is number one. You promise?”
“I certainly do.”