Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Roadtrip: Chiang Mai > Pai > Mae Hong Son

There's nothing quite like a road trip: the open highway - windows down - music up. It might seem surprising that we wanted to hit the road, having traveled all over Asia by land for the last 9 months... but it's one of the things we miss from home: road trips to Nevada's deserts and California's mountains and forests... So we rented a car and headed north. The only things we were missing on this road trip were beef jerky and speed limits (well, we weren't really 'missing' the speed limits).

The thing about driving in Thailand is that they drive on the opposite side of the road -- some would call this the 'wrong side of the road', but who am I to make judgments? Once I got used to it, it didn't really feel 'wrong' anyway -- disagreeable, awkward, and unsound are better words to describe the feeling. There's a constant nagging in the back of your head telling you that something isn't quite right. It's a bit like showing up to work with your shirt on backwards by accident -- on your way there, something feels odd, but you can't put your finger on it until a kind soul points out that the tag on your shirt makes a nice pendant (and cheap, too, without the chain).

The strangest part is sitting behind a steering wheel in what I've always known to be the passenger seat. Inside the car, everything is reversed -- even the volume knob on the stereo was in a different place. And every time I tried to signal a turn, I did so with the windshield wipers -- none of the other drivers really understood I wanted to go left when they were on 'intermittent' and that I wanted to go right when they were on 'fast'. I haven't even mentioned the fact that we rented a manual transmission. This decision was reached after a few glasses of wine the previous night. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as most ideas after wine do.

The trick is to ignore it and not let your mind dwell on what you're doing. Once you get going for a while, and assuming there are few right hand turns at busy intersections with lots of motorbikes, it becomes almost familiar. Almost. I think it's worse for the passenger who sees everything from a new perspective as well. The trees, for example, appear to be scraping the window because the driver cannot correctly assess her position on the road. A few times Benjamin yelled, "Jesus, woman!" or more to the point, "AAAaaayyyiiiaaa!" followed by "Stay on the road, will you?" and, "You almost took the mirror off on the side of that truck!"

These kinds of outbursts are always unwelcome whilst operating heavy machinery in busy traffic. I had at least one heart attack and several other times I literally jumped out of my skin in fright -- the part of me that jumped was curled up and whimpering in the foot well of the back seat. My only concern was hitting a human being and luckily, that didn't happen. For his part, Benjamin was an excellent driver, both back seat and actual, and I kept my outbursts to a quiet mutter or gasp when he was behind the wheel -- there's only so much room in the back seat where out of body experiences are concerned.

The purpose of our trip was to do 'the loop' -- a drive through forested, mountainous terrain from Chiang Mai to a little town in the northeast called Pai. We stayed there for a few days before continuing east to Mae Hong Son and then back to Chiang Mai. The roads are not for the squeamish -- they rise and dive and twist and turn like a Slinky on a spiral staircase, but with better views. They are outstanding.

At first glance, Pai looked to be one of the last hippy hang-outs on the face of the earth. There appeared to be enough dreadlocks and armpit hair to keep a whole village of plumbers busy unclogging drains. Yoga and reflexology and meditation flyers hang alongside elephant ride and trekking posters. The town is nestled in the rolling hills of a valley, amidst forest, jungle, fields, and paddies. There are waterfalls and hot springs, temples and villages nearby. A ride around town on a motorbike is like driving through a garden -- flowering trees of yellow and hot pink, dusky cattails, and ornamented reeds.

Pai is one of those places that has atmosphere -- in fact, some of the hippies say it's one of those few, special places in the world that vibrates or some such thing. I agree it is has a special vibe; sitting at a cafe one day with a good view of the road, nearly everyone who passed by had a smile on their face. It's mellow, relaxed, and living is simple.

We left Pai hesitantly, but we had to move on. The drive to Mae Hong Son was long and arduous -- the steep mountain road was recently destroyed in heavy rains and resulting mud slides. Deforestation is to blame. The forests around Pai used to be full of Teak but nowadays, there is none left. I don't think we hit one patch of straight asphalt the entire four hours to Mae Hong Son and again, the views were outstanding. With time constraints, we spent only one night in Mae Hong Son and were again back on the road to Chiang Mai and -- you guessed it -- along crazy twisty roads with beautiful scenery.

We are safe and sound back in Chiang Mai and happy to put the car keys away. Our eyes are somewhat crossed from all of the twists and turns -- hopefully they won't 'stick that way' as our mothers warned us when we were tots.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving in Chiang Mai

The other day I was reminded of a message spray painted on a concrete pillar that used to support an old bridge over the Maumee River in Ohio. It said, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In this case, 'country' referred to sticks-ville rather than a nation (there are lots o hicks in that part of Ohio). Nontheless, it seems an appropriate sentiment in our cases this time of year -- Thanksgiving -- an 'All American' holiday. Perhaps that's why I thought of this old pillar and the spray painted message: it is my duty, as an American, to spend the last Thursday of November eating turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce until the buttons on my pants pop off. That's not to say I have forgotten the provenance of this holiday: it's a day to celebrate and give thanks for a good harvest. That's probably irrelevant to many Americans these days, those not in the business of agriculture at least, but still... it's a day to give thanks. And eat.

Benjamin and I spent the better part of an afternoon seeking out a bountiful Thanksgiving buffet -- we toured the city of Chiang Mai, visiting all the 'fancy' hotels and selected one of them for our Thanksgiving feast, which (incidentally) occured one day ahead of everyone in America -- that was yesterday. Technically speaking, we should -- again -- celebrate today although in order to 'celebrate' along with everyone else back home, we'd have had to dine on turkey for breakfast and I don't think the flavor goes well with morning coffee.

I would like to say our Thanksgiving dinner was out of this world. It was stupendous. It was delicious. But it wasn't -- Americans definitely know what they're doing when it comes to a Thanksgiving dinner and no-one in Asia can compete. Our turkey wasn't dry (the usual problem)... it actually seemed to be slightly raw. The stuffing and mashed potatoes -- they weren't quite right. That's understandable, though... most Western food in non-Western countries is that way: a good effort, but always slightly off. And, the worst part of it all: there was no pumpkin pie.

The staff of the restaurant did make an effort to create an 'American vibe' for the occasion, though. 'American' being cowboy hats and boots, tight jeans, and gingham shirts. Even though they had informational signage about the history of Thanksgiving posted outside the entrance of the restaurant that pictured European pilgrims in funny hats and uncomfortable, puritan clothing, no-one thought to dress that way. No-one chose to dress like an American Indian, either, and they also had pictures of them on the signage. It was the Indians who taught the European immigrants how to plant crops in their new environment and according to lore, Thanksgiving was a banquet to thank the Indians for their part in keeping the pilgrims from starving. Ah, if only they knew their fate... one year it's all, 'come and eat with us,' and the next it's, 'here... snuggle up with this smallpox-infested blanket'.

Benjamin and I traded 'best and worst' Thanksgiving stories over dinner. Benjamin wistfully recounted a beautiful 'Italian' Thanksgiving and upon further thought decided it was not Thanksgiving after all. Just a big dinner party. His worst Thanksgiving was, again, another dinner on an ordinary day -- not Thanksgiving. Finally, he settled on a story that was neither 'best' nor 'worst' but 'funny' instead -- funny for him, but not for the sweet old lady from the old-folks home who pissed her pants at dinner.

I had difficulty thinking of my 'best Thanksgiving' as well and decided that... well, it's because nothing really happens on Thanksgiving -- it's not like Christmas with all its excitement of parties, heavy drinking, and shiny new toys. Thanksgiving is rather dull in comparison... unless you're a Flanagan, that is, and Thanksgiving is an accident-prone time of year with upside down cars in ditches (my brother wrecked the car 1/2 hour before dinner one year) and burnt down houses (a faulty outlet in the basement and poof! almost everything lost).

This year certainly won't constitute anything of significance in our memory either: we both agreed that it didn't feel like a Thanksgiving and decided it was not the Old West costumes, the empty restaurant, or the lackluster fare but the lack of friends and family to celebrate with. That's really what Thanksgiving is about : getting together with your favorite people and making a day of it. The food is really secondary come to think of it... but a pumkin pie is always nice.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Pointless Story About a Vietnam Vet, Twisted Horse Guts, and Travel

Scene: A plane
Characters: Me and a chatty neighbor (you know how they are)

He looked like an 'Anchor Out'. They're people who live in battered-looking shacks built on floating rafts and anchored in the waters off the Sausalito shore. The Sausalitans don't like the anchor outs. Sausalitans are an affluent bunch with nice cars, million dollar homes, and housekeepers named Rosalita. 'Anchor Outs' are like the sea itself: salty and crusty and possessing the faint smell of fish. In appearance, 'Anchor Outs' are the human equivalent of wet cigarette butts in an ashtray. When I worked in Sausalito, I'd see the 'Anchor Outs' in town; they would come occasionally to replenish supplies, arriving by small motor or row boat. Seeing them in their long coats and rubber boots, unkempt clothing and unwashed hair always provided me with a pleasant distraction from the everyday Sausalito: tidy, flawless, dear, stale...

So Anyway. This guy was really nervous about flying and before all of the passengers were even on the plane, he'd removed his glasses from his shirt pocket, placed them on his nose, his head, and then back to the pocket a dozen times. He inspected his seat belt and shifted one knee onto the other with every breath. I had my nose buried in a book. I wasn't reading, but I didn't want to nurse him through the take off. He popped about 10 pieces of gum in his mouth and while masticating on a huge gob of Juicy Fruit, he finally leaned over and asked me if I was also afraid of dying this day. When the plane's engines finally whirred to life, I got the feeling he wanted to hold my hand. But he didn't. Probably becuase I'd just picked my nose for the sake of preventing it. Acutally, that's not true -- I'm just joking. I don't pick my nose in public.

Fearful people have a way of running their mouths to take their minds off the thing they're afraid of. This guy was no exception. He talked my ear off most of the flight, stopping only for brief intervals to focus on looking terrified and control his breathing with any hint of turbulence. In this way, I learned all about his prized posession, a horse, and the rigors of dealing with colic. I don't know much in the way of horses; I've only ridden a horse on several occasions in my life, so naturally I had no idea what colic was. I'd only ever heard the term used in regards to human babies. "He's colicky," an apologetic mother might say to anyone nearby who is concerned or irritated by her infant's screams.

My chatty neighbor explained that colic is when a horses's guts get twisted up. It can die if the problem is not remedied and from what I remember, it's a touch and go situation and very stressful. This conversation seemed to take his mind off his fears for a while, but really it only served to shift his fear from one place to another. Apparently, he'd just left his colicky horse in the hands of a veterinarian and was concerned about the health of his animal.

Our conversation drifted to the more immediate. "Where are you going?" he wanted to know. I explained that I was headed to Ohio to visit my parents. He, on the other hand, was headed to Moscow to visit his girlfriend. I consequently learned all about the trials and tribulations of dating and marrying a Russian woman in excrutiating detail... but at least we were no longer talking about equine intestines. Anyhow... after this flight, he had several more long hauls and I was ever so thankful that I was not to be his neighbor on one of those prolonged flights.

He then asked where else I've been, in terms of travel. World travel. What's the longest flight I've ever taken? I talked about my trip to SE Asia several years prior. I noticed he'd stopped fidgeting -- his ongoing fear temporarily abandoned in favor of revulsion. He was a Vietnam vet. Of course, I should have known -- his appearnace was quintessential 'Vietnam Vet' -- all that was missing was a fraying camouflage jacket and the jingle of dog tags.

"Why in hell did you want to go there for?" he asked in his eloquent way. My answer: 'Why do people go anywhere? To see it. To be there. That's all."

He looked at me in silence for a few minutes and then said archly, "Girl, you're about as twisted as my horse's guts."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Americans Abroad, Pt. IV

...a continuing series on people, perceptions, and stereotypes discovered on the road

Once in a while I'll write something about America or Americans and I'll either get email of support or contention. The supportive emails go something like this, "Yeah... when I was traveling, people said that to me, too." The contentious emails are more along these lines: "Hey... why are you so negative about America, the greatest country in the world?"

Like many people, I too grew up thinking that America's the best country in the world. Our parents and teachers teach us this as children. We are a nationalistic people, Americans. We are proud people, right down to the bumper stickers you see on some cars that proclaim, "My kids are 'straight A' students at Pioneer High School." I've seen others that say (and these give me a chuckle), "My kids at Bully High kick the butts of your geeks at Pioneer High." I'm sure you've seen them -- they may read differently, I'm not quoting... but this is the general gist. My point is that we are a people focused on 'being the best'... maybe we are also just a tad competitive as well, and failing to 'be the best' doesn't have much of a place in society. In fact, competition has defined America in conversations I've had with Europeans. And they site this American trait as a reason for the technological innovations that come from the U.S., the fact that we are a leading economy and power in the world. There you go: something positive...

I have come to realize just how nationalistic we are when I receive the contentious variety of email from people who are a bit annoyed that I have something negative to report on our great country. And that's just it -- for the most part, I am reporting, not editorializing my own opinions (although this is my journal so there is bound to be some opinion). Basically, I write about (and respond to) things people say or historical events that are relevant to my travels. I have not set out, in this blog, to 'diss' the U.S. for the fun of doing so. I have a whole other blog for doing that (just kidding).

Anyways, c'mon folks... nobody's perfect, including the USA. There's always a little room for criticism. Especially in the US; it's one of our inalienable rights. Also, if some of you are wondering why I am focused on America in these posts and not other countries, the answer is because I am American traveling through this world and for that reason, this is where my focus lies. If I were French or English or Dutch, I wouldn't be talking about America but France or England or the Netherlands, and so on. In fact, you be reading something like this, 'Des félicitations sauterelle, vous avez maîtrisé de niveau un. Vous vous êtes avéré être très futé. Très futé en effet. Mais, mon peu le vert un, pouvez-vous également maître niveler deux?" or this, 'De sprinkhaan van gelukwensen, heeft u niveau beheerst. U hebt zich zeer slim om bewezen te zijn. Zeer slim inderdaad. Maar mijn weinig groene, kunt u niveau twee ook beheersen?'

And now, I will move on to the main point of this edition of 'Americans Abroad', and lucky for me and those worried about my loyalty to the U.S., I have positive things to say... There have been many times that I've left a country we visited thinking, "Thank God I come from the States." Much of the time, it's, "Thank God I come from the States, especially being the female that I am."

Women in America enjoy much more freedom and equality than their counterparts in Asia and for this, I would have chosen America as my homeland over any of the countries I've visited all those years ago when I was just an idea in someone's head (actually, my conception was accidental so I never really was an idea in someone's head until after a missed period and a visit to the doctor, but I digress...).

In the male dominated society in India, for example, I moved around the country feeling like an invisible person. I was largely ignored -- all greetings were, "Good morning, Sir," addressed to Benjamin. He was the point of contact in almost all interactions -- I would pay the bill, he would get the change. I would finish my drink, he would be asked if I'd like another. This kind of thing became frustrating and it didn't take long before I felt the toll. It's amazing how in such a short period of time, I came to feel inadequate and unimportant. I can only imagine the mindset of girls and women born in similar places: inferiority is bred and women are defined by their relationships to men. For example, in newspapers the stories about women always started off saying something like, "Aamani Kumar, the wife of Rajish Kumar and the daughter of So-and-So..." before even getting on to the story. That kind of long winded introduction in America is reserved for people who are defined by celebrity parents because otherwise, their story wouldn't interest us. We need to know why this nobody who has wrecked his car is important enough for national news.

Also in the newspaper, there are ads that read, "Save the Girl Child." This is because male children are more desirable. One reason is due to the practice of dowry, which make daughters financial burdens. A family must pay to get its daughter married off and the better the dowry, the better the husband, and a good husband is one from a family with social and economic standing. Arranged marriages, which most are in India, are more like contracts that result in a better social circle, network, and wealth. Selective abortions and cases of female infanticide are not unknown... aparently the lives of enough girls are still at risk to warrant ads in the paper to protect them.

Although I have much more to say about India, this topic is a good bridge to the next country I want to talk about, China. I had a conversation with a pleasant Chinese man about male/female roles in his country, which stemmed from discussion about China's one-child policy and the desire for male children. If people can only have one child, they want a boy. The pleasant Chinese man explained to me that boys are 'better' than girls because they carry on the family line. It's not hard to understand the general principle because in the West, male children carry on a family's name and that is important to many people. They want at least one son... but they are not devastated to have daughters. Daughters are welcomed into families with joy regardless of how many sons have or have not been born.

But as I talked with Mr. Pleasant, I was surprised to hear that it's not only the carrying on of the family name, but it's that male genes are more potent or pure or superior to those of females. This I couldn't understand. "But a girl or a boy coming from the same parents will have the same 'quality' of genes, despite their gender," I argued. But he was having none of it.

In regards to passing on the family name, it is possible for daughters to keep their surname even after marriage and, perhaps, pass it onto her children. The thing is, no-one does that and it would be a horrible fight, even in America, between a wife and her husband to name the children after the woman's lineage instead of the man's. This I could make no argument against because I could understand it, even though I don't necessarily agree with it -- it's a practice based on tradition. There is no biological or other reason children are named for their father's family today, other than that's the way it's always been done. Maybe there was some organization of society back in the old days that started this tradition and it made 'sense', but as I write this, I have to wonder: why are our family names (females) less important?

I spoke to many women in China about marriage and work and equality. Whereas in India, women don't work but remain in the realm of the household, women in China were at work everywhere. This doesn't mean they are 'equal' to men... it just means that in addition to the household chores, they also work. Women are expected to marry young, have children, run a tight household, and make money for the family. If a woman doesn't marry or have children (of if she has a child out of wedlock), she is an embarassment to her family. If she is an 'old' woman, say over 27, and not married, she is the joke and object of ridicule in town: obviously there is something wrong with her. I met young women who want to have a life of their own before the requirements of marriage and children and work take up all the hours of her day. These women described the life I have had... one in which I have the ability to make my own decisions with the support of my family. One in which I have been able to pursue my own interests... all the way to the age of 33... as a single, childless, independent person. The gravity of this was not lost on me and it's because in America, I have the option. Thank God for America.

One last thing to say about China and gender (in)balance -- in the Yunnan Province there are Naxi people, a matrilineral society -- meaning, women occupy traditional roles of men. In other words, they run the show. Even still, the men I talked to about this laughed that while the women work and make decisions, the men have time to play cards, paint, practice music, and just hang around, lazing about. Ultimately, they had a good thing going. It was as if the unusual role reversal of 'power' the women hold is a big inside joke. These men cited an old Chinese saying that explains the bent, humped backs of old ladies, "The cheek is to the ground and the back is to the sun." Look at any of China's countryside and this makes sense: there are lots of women doing the farming. So, even in a community where women are more 'equal', they are not really equal, as long as their male counterparts take advantage of the situation.

I lied... there is actually one more thing I'd like to relay about women in China. Because of the one-child policy, there are more men than women. Not only will this present a problem in China's future populance, but it means that in some places, women are 'sold' by poor families to be wives for men who cannot find one. Sometimes the women are even kidnapped. In Vietnam, we were told by one young man that they ship the ugly Vietnamese girls off to China to be wives. I'm sure someone makes a profit in that, too. Human traffiking of women (and children) in Asia happens with more frequency than I'd like to even imagine, whether it's migrant labor, prostitution, or for marriage. Countries with acute poverty have desperate people and profiting from the sale of a daughter, family friend, or stranger is the way some survive (but don't get me wrong, the traffikers are rich). Lucky me that I never had to worry about this in America. I can't imagine even the poorest of families resorting to this -- but having said that, I shouldn't presume it could not or does not happen.

Cambodia has a saying that goes something like, "men are gold and women are cloth." What this essentially means is that if, say, you dropped a piece of gold in the mud, it can be cleaned. If you dropped a piece of cloth in mud, it would be stained (this must have been written before stain repellents and washing machines). I learned about this saying in the context of the Asian view on sexuality. Men are free to sow their oats and women are not, lest they 'ruin' themselves. This isn't all that surprising -- in America, too, fathers wink at their sons for shagging a hot girl but look upon sexually active daughters with disappointment. That's generalizing, I know, but it is true that men who sleep around are 'studs' and women who do are 'whores'. Of course, there are whores and there are girls you date/shag/marry and in America, you can be the latter and it's OK, unlike many parts of Asia. In Asia, the divide is more extreme -- women who play around before marriage probably won't find a husband who'll want them. American values have changed and it wasn't long ago that only virgins could wear white to their weddings and now, when women do, people secretly smirk amongst themselves because they know she ain't no virgin and that's as far as it goes, it's pretty much acceptable (unless you're a die-hard Christian and will spend eternity in hell for pre-marital sex). In any event, women in America aren't stigmatized the way women in Asia are in regards to sexuality -- and much of this comes from having a society where girls and boys grow up as individuals, worthy of their own merit, with a greater degree of equality.

To take it one step further, women in America are not held accountable for the sexual desires of men, except by the type of simpleminded and cretinous person who places the blame for rape or sexual misconduct on the way a woman dresses: the old "she was asking for it" excuse. In India (and many other countries), the tradition of covering one's self from head to toe in fabric is to help men control their voracious sexual desires -- it, in some strange logic, is the woman's responsibility to hide herself so as not to tempt men because they cannot help themselves. It's a bit pathetic, if you ask me -- that men, the strong and macho and 'we know best' men, cannot control themselves in the presence of beauty. The role of 'temptress' carries with it negative conceptions of a 'bad girl', one with corrupt morals. It immediately places women a few rungs lower on the ladder.

In short, I am happy to be an American woman. I am so happy to be one, I jump up and down and click my heels in my head when I think about all of the things I have experienced and learned about the place of women in other societies. But that's not the only thing I'm happy to be an American for. I am happy for the freedom of speech. In China, information is controlled with a tight fist and access to even blogs on the internet is denied to its people. When we were there, I could access the site where I make entries to this blog, but I could not read the blog itself, like all of you could. It was blocked. In the next year, there will be a law in China requiring all bloggers to register themselves with the government. They want to keep tabs on what people are saying. I'm sure these people won't say what they really want to when they're being watched. In Myanmar, where we'll be traveling in the coming weeks, the oppressive military regime has even blocked hotmail and yahoo so citizens have no access to free email. Freedom of speech is one of the most important of American rights and for this, I love my country (because I am trying to only be positive in this entry, I will refrain from commenting on the erosions of this right under the current right wing Republican administration - hey, I know what you're thinking: there she goes again... but humor me, will ya? this is my blog, afterall...).

One last stroke for the ole' U.S. of A. We are wealthy. Even the poor are wealthy in comparison to the poor in the developing world. It's easy to take for granted because at home, it's normal... and in fact, at home I don't even feel wealthy -- I get by. But because of America's wealth, I have had more opportunity than many people in much of the rest of the world. One example is this trip I'm on -- many people cannot dream of travel and may have never even left their village or city. Of course it's hard to compare a first world nation with third world countries, but the point is that on the whole, life has been easy for me. People see America this way and that's why so many of them wait in long lines for days outside of our embassies in other countries. I've seen it first hand, years ago in Prague and recently in Bangkok. It is rather startling to see a line of people a mile long who all want a chance to come to America. It really makes you think. It really makes you feel lucky to live in the U.S., and to have gotten there so 'hassle-free' (although from what I hear, birth is the most traumatic experiences of a human life. I'm happy I can't remember mine).

As you can see, I have a lot to say -- positive things. I haven't been focusing on the negative about America all this time... I've only been saving all this good stuff up so I could make one huge, monumental blog. Not to take away from all the love, but I feel I should say this: I'm certain had I been from France, England, and the Netherlands (and others), I could say the same things that I have just recounted about America. Perhaps this blog is really about something 'bigger' than America: the West as opposed to the East, first world as opposed to third world... But I started this entry out by stating I am focused on America because that is who I am so I will leave this piece as it stands.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Plane And A Festival, We Are Back In Thailand

We left Laos one week early to make it to a festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. About a month ago, as Benjamin and I lay in the warm ocean waters of Koh Samui under the light of a nearly full moon, we wondered whether or not we could be in Chiang Mai by November 15 for the Loy Krathong festival. It's a celebration that revolves around the full moon and so, as we looked at the waxing moon in the sky, we calculated the festival's date -- November 15 or thereabouts (when you travel, you become an expert of impracticalities back home, like identifying farm crops, understanding modern (and ancient) methods for the rearing of livestock, and the identification of natural occurrences such as rain storms, moon cycles, and locust showers).

In my way, I offered that we probably wouldn't make it unless we rushed through Laos, and I didn't want to rush (neither of us like 'rushing' these days). In his way, Benjamin was certain we could make it without 'rushing'. But on this trip, he is the navigator and I am keeper of the calendar. We have migrated towards our natural abilities in our traveler 'responsibilities'. We make a good pair, he and I, because I get lost easily and his eyes glaze over at a glimpse of the calendar. Anyhow, we did make it here in time -- in time for the first night's celebrations in fact -- and we did not rush through Laos. We simply axed off the last week in Laos from the itinerary. Normally, that would upset us, for we dearly love Laos. But our plans include a second 'go' at the country when we plan to make visa runs in January (we'll be in Thailand for 2 months and visas are only good for 30 days). One of our travel philosophies is to play things by ear, to be free from schedules and deadlines (hence the name destinationTBD). And so, in this way... in this spontaneous change of plan (we only conceived of it a few days ago), we are here in Thailand for the festival.

We left Luang Prabang by plane. Oh, what a joy I have rediscovered in air travel. I felt like a child going on her first plane trip: full of excitement and tingling anticipation. That kind of exhilaration from air travel is long forgotten for me, so 'normal' it had become... In fact, air travel came to mean torturous waits in airports and confining, uncomfortable airplane seats... a huge pain in the ass (no put intended). But after traveling for 8 months by bus, boat, and train, flying became new again. Never mind that it was a small prop plane with an airline who won't publish their safety record. It had seatbelts and barf bags... what more could I want? Benjamin was disappointed that there were no inflight magazines, but I told him the plane had 2 wings so what was he complaining about? We reached Chiang Mai in one glorious hour -- and we were even served a snack. If we'd traveled the way we originally planned, we'd have been on a series of busses and boats anywhere from 3 days to 7, depending on the route we took.

We arrived in Chiang Mai to a festive atmosphere. It's strange, really, how a coming holiday seems to seep into the pores of a city: jubilation, excitement, good spirits. At home, there's that special magic in the air around Halloween, Tanksgiving, Xmas, New Years, the Fourth of July, and Mother's Day. Okay, Okay... I threw that last one in there to gain points with my mom (Christmas is coming you know). I'm not one that goes for the stuff of the 'New Age' set, but really, there does seem to be some phenomenon where the collective energy of people can be felt in the air and impact the environs. Come to think of it, I've experienced this before... but in the negative sense -- you know the way the DMV feels when you walk in there? Well, that's a lot of people who are angry and bored shitless and you can definitley feel that vibe with only a toe in the door. Acutally, you only really need to think 'DMV' to feel it, such is the power of collective anguish.

The festival is called Loy Krathong, or Yee Peng up here in the north. It's roots are in the Hindu religion, but this festival in Thailand is to pay respects to Buddha. Offerings made of palm leaves, flowers, and incense, called Krathong, are floated in the river. Lanterns are sent into the sky and temples are decorated. Chiang Mai will be celebrating Yee Peng for the next 3 days with all kinds of events: parades, beauty contests, firework displays, water sports (including something called 'diving and exotic competition'), light and sound shows, art and culture exhibitions, and more... In fact, since we arrived at our guesthouse today, the women have been decorating the place with marigolds, orchid flowers, and lanterns... there is a party here tonight. We've been promised minimal 'Thai pop music' (maybe 5 minutes if there are lots of Thais at the party). Otherwise, there will be food, 'good' music, and dancing... I suspect some Laos dance moves might be resurrected -- but only if I can find a cactus to revolve around.

The Lovely Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a city you can fall in love with. Like all of the former French Indochina -- Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos -- the city of Luang Prabang is full of colonial romance. Laos became a French colony in 1887 when it accepted protection from the French on the heels of an attack by the Chinese Haw. In 1945 (or 1954 according to French history), Laos was again an independent nation, but not without a rich French heritage intermixed with its own.

In 1995, UNESCO declared the entire city a World Heritage Site, stating that Luang Prabang is, "the best preserved city in SE Asia." And it is. Until recently, the city was isolated due to poor roads. An American ex-pat living there told us that up until 5 years ago or so, the only way in or out was by plane or boat (on the Mekong River -- many tourists arrive in Luang Prabang this way). Unfortunately this isolation made the entire Luang Prabang Province poor for lack of trade, but on the positive side, it left an attractive city full of charm and antiquity and now, with the protection that comes with World Heritage status, Luang Prabang has become one of SE Asia's gems. Prosperity has followed, but a visit to Luang Prabang is still remarkably affordable (in fact, it's cheap, but using the word 'cheap' is sort of insulting for such a handsome place).

A walk through town reveals quiet lanes that lead to chocolate-colored rivers and French provincial architecture: shuddered doors and windows, pitched and tiled roofs, warm pastel colors with the occasional spark of blue and dash of green, balconies and picket fences. Villas and shop houses made of brick and stucco mix well with traditional Laos structures of wood and tin, bamboo lattice and natural mortar. The two styles, French and Laotian, are surprisingly harmonious.

Luang Prabang sits within the embrace of mountains and two rivers: the Mekong and the Nam Khan. There are 66 historic temples, of which there are 32 still operating -- there is always a splash of ochre and rusty red on the streets: there are Buddhist monks everywhere. At night there is a vibrant market full of hand made treasures: woven and embroidered silk scarves, decorative quilts, handbags and clothing, metal jewelry, and antiques. There are cafes and bakeries and spas, shops, river walks, and quiet neighborhoods where children play in the street and people chat with their neighbors. The streets are lined with trees and bouganvalia. There are farms on the banks of the rivers with cultivated plots that cascade down hills like a layered cake. In the center of town is a 100-meter mound of earth called Phousi Hill. On top, a 24-meter tall golden stupa shines like a beacon in the sunlight. There is also a war relic up there on Phousi, which is so common throughout Laos... we saw a number of monasteries using old bomb shells from the war days (1960s, 70s) as flower planters. On Phousi, though, there is an old Russian anti-aircraft cannon. I read that children use it as a makeshift merry-go-round.

We spent our days strolling through town; it's a pleasant place for walking. We visited monasteries and the royal palace, which is now a museum. It's unlike other palaces we've seen on this trip. Other palaces are huge and ornate and absurdly embellished. This palace was rather small and modest... almost simple, but still it was tasteful and regal -- like Luang Prabang itself. The locals believe the palace is haunted by the spirits of the royal family. They were exiled from Luang Prabang when the Pathet Laos took over in 1975. Many believed they were sent to a re-education camp, as happens when communists take over countries. But in truth, they were locked up in a cave in northeastern Laos and died between the years of 1978 and 1981 for lack of food and medical care.

Some days we did nothing at all, even though there are caves to explore and an impressive waterfall a short drive away. But Luang Prabang is the kind of city where one can linger over a lemon shake at an outdoor cafe and watch the world go by. It goes by without hurry, though, and so we found ourselves there for much longer than planned.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Rt. 13 to Luang Prabang

We left Vang Vieng in a mini van -- we've been traveling long enough to fork out a few extra bucks for comfort. We've had enough 'local bus' experiences to last a lifetime. Normally we like to go for the authentic transportation, the way the locals go... but after our rice sack bus ride to Vientiane, it was time for luxury. Not that the mini van was all that luxurious. There was hardly any leg room and we spent the 6 hours to Luang Prabang with our knees knocking against our ears from the bumpy road.

But the scenery was stunning. Laos is the least populated country in SE Asia and there is a lot of protected land. Our travels through Laos have taken us through amazing amounts of untouched nature and along Rt. 13, up into the mountains, it was no different: Black limestone outcroppings, some streaked with white and the palest shade of pink as if a giant bear clawed the darkness off the mountainside; villages snug against the road's asphalt and perched upon a precipice of rock high above a valley; textures and shades of green too numerous to name; clouds, like mountains in the sky, above us... and, as we climbed, below us like a fluffy rug; farms with fruit trees, vegetables, and scarecrows made of shirts on sticks or plastic bags tied to poles like flags. The views of the mountains - an expansive horizon of rippled rock, carpeted in trees, shrubs, and grass. Along the road, markers sign the kilometers... markers that look like tombstones.

That's one thing about Asian highways that has bothered me during this trip. The road markers look like tombstones -- not a fortuitous shape to adopt as signage on the roadway. They're a constant reminder of the peril in which you have put your life because Asian highways and drivers are not safety conscious. I read somewhere that drivers in Laos figure that whatever happens on the road is just part of life's divine plan. It's some kind of Buddhist driving philosophy. I don't know that this is such a great idea, though, to adapt Buddhist principles to the roadway. I mean, Buddhism teaches that life is all about suffering -- and suffering in a pile of twisted metal is not a necessary part of life if you ask me.

Our guidebook advises that one should look for an aisle seat in the middle of the bus to reduce the amount of damage (or death) incurred in one of these accidents. It also suggests we have the phone number of our embassy and the phone number of a hospital in Thailand should we survive the accident with enough sense and limbs left to make it to a phone. I don't think this advice is very sound, though. It's impossible to choose a seat on a Laos bus (you're lucky if you're not sitting on the floor of the aisle) and it's probably pretty difficult to find a phone in a rustic old village or in the valley of the mountain range the bus has plunged from.

Anyway. Accidents aren't the only danger. There are Hmong rebels in the hills, left over from the war against the Pathet Laos (communists who now run Laos). The war ended in 1975 -- these guys really know how to hold a grudge. Once in a while the Hmong insurgents stop busses speeding along Rt. 13, from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and kill people. After a period of quiet in the early 2000s, an attack in February of 2003 resulted in 13 dead Laos passengers and 2 Swiss cyclists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another attack in April 2004 resulted in 12 dead.

That's the problem with war (are you listening Mr. Bush?)... they don't just end nice and neat like a movie or TV program. They go on and on and on years after the war has 'officially' ended. You know how it is when you're in a fight with your S.O., he (or she) might say he's sorry, but you may not feel like smiling at him again for another few hours, if not the rest of the day... Well, after wars, people don't smile at each other again for decades.

Laos was used as a pawn in the Vietnam war. Both the US and Vietnam operated in opposition of the Geneva Convention, which forbade foreign military presence in Laos -- it was supposed to be neutral. The US got around this by posting CIA agents in foreign aid posts and temporarily turning airforce personnel into civilian pilots. Clever bastards. Dishonest, but clever. In this capacity, the US trained the Royal Laos Army and Hmong tribe guerillas to fight their evil commie enemy, the Pathet Laos. The US were not really interested in helping out the RLA and Hmong hilltribe people -- their aim was to take advantage of the conflict in Laos to establish a military presence so we could kick some major Vietnamese butt. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, on the Eastern border of the country, was really annoying President Johnson.

The sad part about all of this is that as a result, Laos got the shit bombed out of it. At the end of the war (1964 - 73), approximately 1.9 metric tonnes was dropped on Laos. I don't know what a metric tonne is, but it sounds like a lot. There was over 1/2 tonne of ordnance dropped for every man, woman, and child in Laos, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of warfare. Today, there's a lot of UXO (unexploded ordnance) in the Eastern countryside. Unexploded munitions, mortar shells, phosphorous canisters, land mines and cluster bombs from France, China, USA, Russia, and Vietnam litter the earth. People are deprived of land that could kill them, and accidental injuries and deaths occur each year -- 40% of the victims are children who find a friendly looking ball in a field that turns out to be live ordnance.

If you're not mad about all of this yet, especially the duplicitous actions of the US, think about this: the American people never even knew about this war. It's called the 'Secret War' (obviously it was secret because we weren't supposed to be there in the first place -- just like Cambodia, but there's another story). I've read that the bombing of Laos cost American taxpayers $2 million per day. $2 million per day! For something they didn't even know was happening.

Not mad yet? The thing that ticks me off the most is that American pilots used to drop bombs on Laos during missions from Thailand to North Vietnam just because they were ordered to return to Thailand without bombs. They used the countryside of Laos as a dumping ground for excess bombs -- killing innocent people, destroying homes and villages, and all because the didn't, for some reason, drop them on the intented target. And then there's the defoliants (agent orange) and herbicides that laid bare vegetation, poisoned civilian crops, and made water systems unusable -- even for irrigation. All this, to people in a 'neutral' country, fighting their own war that was cultivated and fanned by the US.

Sorry -- I got a little off track -- I was talking about the Hmong rebels with chips on their shoulders so heavy, they have turned to bus attacks for relief. It makes no sense to me why they attack busloads of innocent people, their fellow citizens. Perhaps it is just to show the Pathet Laos that they're still there. Rt. 13 is now paved, but it used to be that attacks happened with more frequency because government presence was restricted by mountains and bad roads.

Benjamin and I, of course, saw no action... and I wondered if we did, would the Hmong insurgents take pity on us and spare our lives, being Americans and all... people from the country who put weapons in their hands and trained them how to use them...

If you'd like to read more about 'The Secret War', Roger Warner wrote an excellent book called, "Shooting at the Moon."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Vang Vieng, Then & Now

Vang Vieng has changed some since we visited nearly four years ago. The open spaces have been filled in. There are more restaurants and taller guesthouses and all have their TVs on constantly so even sound waves have to jockey for space. They play music and movies and back-to-back episodes of 'Friends' -- sitting in a restaurant is a barrage on the ears with soundtracks and bass lines and laugh tracks from five different sources competing in your head. It took me 1/2 hour just to read the first line of the beverage menu one day because I couldn't concentrate. For this, Vang Vieng had gotten a rather boisterous reputation: people either Love it or Loathe it for not being 'very Laos'.

But I like Vang Vieng, even though it does have its drawbacks. I'll start with those.

For a country like Laos, whose charm lies in the rustic, quiet, slow, and even timeless way of life, the endless episodes of 'Friends' that play have the same effect as walking into a Sunday mass when everyone is praying and then, at the top of your lungs, screaming, "I want to rock and roll all night." I shouldn't blame it all on 'Friends', though (isn't it sad how our buddies are always the ones we blame?)...

'Friends' episodes are only part of the noise pollution -- everyone increases their volume to drown the others out and as much of the 'strip' (as it's called) is built with bamboo walls, there is little in the way of sound absorption. You get the noise of boat engines engaged in high speed chases, the sound of gun shots, screams, laugher and applause. The latter is not the sounds of zoned-out travelers responding to video entertainment that has seemed to suck them in and hypnotize them, but from the movie they're watching (the character in the movies, if they're not being shot, seem to be having more fun). And that's all mixed in with Jack Johnson and Bob Marley and house music.

I admit it. I watched a few movies -- there's nothing wrong with that. It's impossible to drink every night and sometimes, on the road, a little space-cadet time is nice. It's just that there's too much noise on the 'strip' to enjoy doing anything there. But, and here's the best part, it's easy to just WALK AWAY from it. Five minutes and the noise is gone... the flashing TV screens are but distant memories... and in five minutes, you are back in 'Laos' instead of 'LaLa land'.

The beauty of Vang Vieng cannot be drown out by the noise anyway. Nature dominates -- from every vantage point, there is a view of the mountains, all differing heights, all with unique silhouettes, all quiet in their majestic height and mass. The karst landscape and the swift moving Nom Song River, the wooden bridges, the clusters of trees on green fields... all of it is the way I remember it. Red dirt roads, banana trees and palms, brown rivers with children spear fishing, sparkling green paddies, bamboo fences that cast long shadows, tractors and pigs and wandering dogs, red and blue dragonflies, clouds of white butterflies, lush jungle forest. How can 'Friends' compete?

The beauty and the mellow vibe of Vang Vieng remain and that's why many people Love it. I almost didn't go because of all the chatter about the 'chatter', but I'm glad I did.

A Perfect Moment in Vang Vieng

Every now and then you have one of those 'perfect moments' -- it's the kind of moment that summons up a memory, like the smell of autumn when you were 10 years old and lived in that big white house on the tree-lined street. It's also the kind of moment when sights or sounds spark some romantic or idealized notion of the 'good life': a relaxed life, one full of enjoyment and pleasure taken from simple things.

For me, this perfect moment is, oddly enough, based on TV commercials for instant lemonade (it would be more 'perfect' if real lemonade were the product, but no-one advertises 'real stuff' on TV). It's the way they use scenes of childhood summers so cleverly: a tire swing hanging over a shaded, lazy river from the boughs of an ancient tree; a ribbon of gravel road that gently winds along the hips of rolling hills and disappears on the horizon line into fluffy white clouds; bicycles with wicker baskets, grassy meadows with bubbling brooks, dandelion fuzz floating on a breeze... Stuff like that.

It's not like these things remind me my childhood summers. Not really. But that's the beauty of advertising: it's the ideal of a thing... and as far as romanticized images go, lemonade commercials hit the mark. They make me feel something -- not to mention encouraging an out-of-character desire to stop whatever it was I was doing and head into the countryside with a sweating pitcher of instant lemonade. I'm sure once I got there, I'd be let down -- the countryside is boring. And who would want to watch a film of themselves drinking lemonade there? Without a soundtrack and artful editing team, the whole experience would probably be quite boring... and hot... and just between you and me, too much lemonade gives me acid reflux. But the 'perfect moment' is based on sensations, mood, atmosphere... and so, for me, the lemonade commercial conveys an ideal state of being despite the drawbacks of the 'real' experience.

In Vang Vieng, as I rode a bicycle (with a basket!) in the countryside, I was overcome with the feelings beckoned by these adverts. The scenery is not quite the same -- there aren't rolling hills but jagged, lofty limestone mountains. And instead of the odd farmhouse so commonly seen in the background of a lemonade commercial, there are villages of wood and thatch homes with pigs snorting in dirt yards, women bathing at public wells, and naked children chasing chickens. But there are lazy rivers (with swings!), big sunny skies, and the daytime chatter of crickets and cicadas that always comes with lazy, hot weather and will forever remind me of childhood summers... when life is carefree, days are spent in the endless pursuit of nothing, and the simplest things can hold your fascination from dawn until dusk.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Motorbike Accident & A Laos Wedding Party

They say everything happens for a reason... and so it was that my motorbike accident the other day held more in store than teaching me one should not, under any circumstances, slam on the front brake of a motorbike whilst riding on a sandy dirt road.

In memory, the accident was quite spectacular. I see bits of plastic flying everywhere -- I leave the seat in the style of Olympian acrobatics, completing a perfect triple somersault before landing back on the seat (and eventually the ground) -- the bike skids along the road... and why not? A trail of sparks and flames erupt from the bike, which finally comes to a stop and emits one last shudder in the comical way a cartoon character dies. Oh yeah, and the 'Rocky' theme song is playing in the background up until the bit about the shudder, at which point the music halts abruptly, making that scratching sound (long forgotten nowadays) of a needle being yanked off a record.

It wasn't quite like that -- my wipe out was far less graceful and dramatic. It was more like: bump.crash.ouch. I hit a bump in the road that dislodged the front fender, sending it flying into the air. I lost my concentration, slammed on the brake (front only) and found myself cheek down in the dirt seconds later. There was no somersault -- in fact, the fall was more in line with a disgruntled baker throwing dough onto a board. There were no sparks and flames, there was not soundtrack except a string of curse words. Well, in addition to the noise the crash must have made, which was loud enough to get the attention of nearby locals who came running to see what happened.

I was surrounded by a family. A man helped me with the bike, although I was up and righting it as if nothing happened before he even arrived (funny how the ego gives one strength in times of embarrassment). His wife patted the dirt out of my clothes as I stood on the side of the road in disbelief that I crashed for no good reason (good reasons include: avoiding a dog, chicken, cow, child, oncoming vehicle, or cash prize from America's Funniest Home Videos). Several passersby stopped to gawk. One of them asked me where I'm from. "United States, USA, America," were all met with a blank stare. Surely he must have heard about one of those, I thought. We did, afterall, bomb the shit out of his country in the '60s.

To make a long story short (and this is only a setup for the real story), this young man understood enough English to go and fetch Benjamin who was farther up the road. Benjamin bent all the pieces back in place that were preventing the bike from running, and we were back on the road to Vientiane. The worst part of all of this is that we didn't make it to our destinations that day -- the Laos Beer factory, for one, where you can drink straight from the tap.

Don't worry about me, friends and family, I came out of the whole thing with few injuries: road rash on my elbow and a slightly bruised ego (and later, a slightly bruised left side).

I started off by saying everything happens for a reason and so... this is where the story really begins. We returned to the bike rental stand (operated through a hotel) and that's where we met Wat. He suggested we get the bike repaired ourselves at a mechanic's shop -- the hotel would probably overcharge us. He and Benjamin went on this errand and an hour + $27.00 later, the bike was fixed, I'd cleaned myself up, and we had an invitation to a wedding party later that night -- we were to meet Wat back at the bike rental stand/hotel at 7 pm. If I hadn't had my little wreck, we probably never would have been invited -- we would have dropped our motorbikes off and without a reason to 'interact' with Wat, that would have been that.

"We're invited to a wedding party tonight," Benjamin told me when he returned from the repair shop.

"A wedding party? What will we wear?" I started to have a fashion crisis.

"We'll wear our best clothes. Don't worry about it."

"What best clothes?" I guffawed. We don't have 'best clothes'. The closest thing to 'best clothes' that I have includes a pair of slightly stained pants with Frankenstein stitching on both legs (I'm not good a mending tears). Women in Laos all wear silk sarongs with intricate designs. I didn't want to show up looking like a slob, but there was no time to buy anything. At least the party will probably be outdoors, I thought... in the dark -- my pants will have to do.

Wat was late, apologizing, "Laos time..." Our group included his wife, her older sister, and several other couples. Wat, Benjamin, and I rode in a tuk tuk. "VIP tuk tuk," the driver joked. Everyone else followed on motorbikes. As we cruised down the dark, bumpy backroads of Vientiane -- with the wind in my hair, the headlights of the following motorbikes bouncing along, and the noise of the combined engines -- I felt like James Dean for the second time during this trip.

We stopped a number of times to ask directions. Benjamin and I felt like we were back in high school, looking for the big party. "I've only been here once before," Wat told us. Eventually we discovered that we were in the North end of the village and we were looking for the South. Soon after, the boom of a party surrounded us. The repetitive bass line and drum beat of Laos music at full blast is the unmistakable sign of a party. That, and the occasional (but lengthy) ramblings and intermittent 'ha, ha, has' of an affable MC.

This was a Friday night and for the groom, whose party we were crashing, it was the beginning of a long and drunk wedding weekend. In Laos, the wedding lasts three days. The first night (this night), the bride and groom have separate parties at their homes -- this gives them time to celebrate with their immediate circle of friends and family. On the second night, there is a party hosted by both the bride and groom and on the third day, they are finally 'officially' a married couple. A hung over couple, I am sure. By the middle of the first night, the groom could hardly stand up. We saw him stumbling and swaying on the dancefloor -- eyes barely open -- brain hardly functioning. He looked like a zombie in 'Night of the Living Dead'. The fact that this was only the beginning of a long 3 days for him assured me that he'll probably never remember his wedding in the first place.

The party itself, for us at least, got off to a slow start. We were seated at a long table (indeed, outdoors... under a canopy, in a dirt yard). Apparently, things don't 'happen' until the groom-to-be has come around and shared a drink with you. After that, food is served. We had Laap (minced beef with mint (and in this case, stomach and guts)), Tom Sam (papaya salad), and a sort of fishy tasting broth served over rice noodles. While there's plenty of alcohol, it's not like what we're used to back home: an open bar, help yourself... Here, people come around with a bottle or a pitcher of beer and pour a glass for each person (one at a time) -- when it's your turn, you must drink the whole thing as fast as possible so the bearer-of-beer may move onto the next person. It's definitely a communal affair, everyone sharing the same glass, and after chugging a few well-filled glasses, I was happy to wait a while for the next one. Getting drunk is a slow, drawn out process (except for the groom of course).

I was encouraged by Wat's sister-in-law, Kongmany, to do the rounds with a bottle. For every beer I poured, I was offered one by the recipient: a very large one... and I had to down it before they would drink theirs. I don't know if this is tradition or if they just wanted to get the falang drunk. They succeeded. By the time I made it around the whole table and back to my seat, I was in that giggly stage of inebriation, lubricated enough to let myself get dragged onto the dancefloor.

The dancefloor was unusual. Normally people clear things out of the way to make a dancefloor, but here, they put things onto it: large plants on plastic chairs in this case. This is to provide an object for people to dance around. Dancing is more like shuffling the feet while moving the hands and its done in a circular fashion: men form an inner circle and face out to an outer circle of women (their dance partners). The whole group move as one, slowly around the object (plants) in a counter clockwise motion.

Being the novelty we were (the only white people at the party), Benjamin and I were constantly revolving around the plants on the dancefloor -- watch out for that cactus. It was not by choice -- we were dragged up there for the fun and amusement of others. I noticed some people copying my dance moves when I broke free from the shuffle-your-feet-move-your-hands Laos style. I was doing some '60s thing with my arms over my head. When I saw this technique take off, I imagined everyone shouting out, "Do the Farang!" Bad dancer that I am, I am damn good in Laos, and some time during the course of the night I became the star of the dancefloor. I was handed off from one person to the next. Hesitant old women were pushed in front of me, and one woman named Thong (Tong) proclaimed that she loved me and danced with me while holding my hands for a few songs too many.

Using English-speaking guests as translators, she told me that she wanted to 'be my friend'. I wasn't exactly sure if this had some secondary meaning. People kept saying, "She wants to be your friend," after I'd nodded my head in agreement. It was the repetition of the statement and their tone of voice that made me wonder if there was something more, like they were saying, "No... she wants to be your FRIEND." Who knows what was going on... she's married, so most likely it was all innocent unless she wanted to be financially reciprocated for being friends. A few people suspected she saw me as a rich foreigner who could help her with money. She dragged me around much of the night as if I was her dolly and asked me to visit her home (she lives near the groom). It was strange, but nice to be idolized for a small bit of time.

Around midnight the party began to fizzle out -- the cops make sure things shut down. The giant 5 foot speakers were packed up and the ear-bleeding volume of the music was thankfully put to a stop. The music was so loud, my brain vibrated -- my eyes crossed -- my mouth watered. It was near impossible to have a conversation with Kongmany, but that didn't stop her from trying. Once, she asked if I wanted to go to Thailand. I told her I would go there in several weeks. It was a few minutes later that I realized she'd asked if I wanted to go to the toilet (she wanted to show me where it was). She must have thought I had amazing bladder control or a strange fear of bathrooms. Benjamin made the same mistake moments after that. He told Kongmany that he loves Thailand (her ears heard 'toilet'). She must have been the most confused by my outright avoidance of the toilet and Benjamin's love of it. Opposites attract, though, right?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Cargo Hold (aka - a Laos Bus)

We've already spent many hours traveling in Laos -- I don't know what it is about this country... the slow pace? the relative lack of modernity? I don't know why the clock seems to tick slower...and the tocks seems to take longer. It makes for a long journey, especially on a bus.

Here, the bus is more like a cargo ship, loaded up with all kinds of live animals and boxes and baskets and bags; goods moving from one town to another, one market to the next. A man shows us the contents of a cardboard box. Inside, there is a giant catfish. "Can live for 5 hours," he tells us as he slides the box down the aisle. Seconds later, another man appears to be stuffing a handful of live chickens into the luggage well.

The people on board the bus are more like a footnote to the excursion -- it's a lucky thing the busses are manufactured with seats or people might never actually get into the bus (it would be loaded from floor to ceiling).

On one trip, the entire aisle was filled with large, 50-pound sacks of rice. There must have been 24 of them stacked 3-deep, forcing people to walk the length of the bus in a stoop so as not to hit their head on the ceiling -- their feet were level with my knees and made a squishing sound as they passed by. Some people started to use the rice sack stack as a sort of coffee table, placing their snacks and drinks upon it -- but this ended quickly when the bus seats were full and new passengers were forced to sit upon the uncomfortable rice sack stack. No-one ever complained, though -- human comfort is something people don't seem to pay any attention to. We are just like rice sacks, being transported from one town to the next.

Americans Abroad, Pt. III

...a continuing series on people, perceptions, and stereotypes discovered on the road

Israelis have a bad reputation -- moreso than Americans -- they are known to be rude, argumentative, cheap, and all around difficult. But difficult is a gentle word.

In Bangkok, in the Khoa San Rd area, a few hotels have signs posted in the reception area that state, "No Israelis Allowed." In Cambodia, we were advised to say we were Israeli to ward off the unwanted advances of touts. It worked, too. The touts would clear away from us as if the ghost of Pol Pot had just appeared by our sides. In India and Vietnam, the locals screwed their faces up into grimaces at the mention of the "I" word. The Chinese might have if they could converse with us. The Indonesians (at least in Bali and Lombok) were too nice to say anything negative about anyone. It remains to be seen how the Laos and Myanmar people feel about them...

It may be a stereotype, but the thing about stereotypes is that they're based on some truth -- some characteristic or trait that is common enough to notice it. We all know that surfers and skateboarders really do say "dude" a lot, for instance.

We've seen plenty of argumentative and difficult Israelis in our travels. Often the scene looks like this: irate customer berating sales clerk -- names like liar or evil man may be thrown around -- voice is raised, fists clenched in determination -- the vision is like a pitbull with a child's arm clenched in its jaw: unrelenting and vicious. And this, all over the price of a cup of coffee.

We've traveled with Israelis -- a couple we met in China -- and so I must say that all Israelis are not alike. It's common sense, really. We (should) all know that we can't classify an entire group of people as being this way or that. It's not fair or accurate. The Israelis we traveled with were fun to be around, had interesting things to say, and were all around good people. They freely admitted to the Israeli tendency to be aggressive and yes, rude. In fact, they pointed out that Americans and English are too polite, we 'play be the rules'. In Israel, it's the way of things to be out for one's self, they told us. "Fuck them before they fuck you," is the attitude, they explained. Incidentally, this attitude must make travel in India a joy for our Israeli friends... next time I go to India, I'm going with Israelis.

So... while Americans may have a bad global image, Israelis have the worst reputation. It's something to take comfort in, in this world of stereotypes -- the same way it's comforting to know you are not the slowest runner in gym class, the least paid employee at your workplace, the ugliest girl or boy in town... or the world for that matter. And for this, I thank the Israelis: thank you for taking the heat off of me.