Sunday, July 14, 2013

The End (Sort of)

Here I am, back at the Rainbow Guest House at Khao San Road, Bangkok. I had meant to spend these last couple days catching up on stories from China and everything I missed in Vietnam, but I instead spent it wandering and reflecting on where I had been and how I had changed in these past two months.

Mostly, I was just plain tired. Two months living out of a backpack and crashing in hostel dorms and air mattresses just about bled my energy and comfort levels dry and right around the end of my time in Beijing I was very ready to go home. This was partially the result of the physical stress of traveling, but mostly I had reached a point where I was tired of traveling being the only thing that I did. I began to feel uncharacteristically unproductive and longing just to DO something. Anything.

I realize that this will be the only time in my life where my only responsibility is finding the next cool tourist site to visit, but despite how much I've loved it, it grew thin near the end. One important thing I've learned about myself in these past few months has been that I could never be one of those people who simply does nothing. It's nothing against those people; it's just not me. I missed my desk and computer and cup of coffee in the morning. I missed afternoon runs. I missed studying or working on something. And I think that's a very good thing.

Over the next couple weeks I'm going to work on telling all the stories that I have missed and I'm excited (because there are some really good ones). But to sum it all up in an irresponsibly similar format...

Things I've eaten: pad thai, all kinds of curries, Burmese noodles, the freshest fruit and juices I've ever had, scorpions, crickets, chicken hearts, chicken heads, pho, chao, com, stingray, squid, dumplings in the best restaurant in Asia, and all kinds of authentic Chinese food that absolutely destroyed my stomach

Things I've ridden: planes, trains (regular and insanely high-speed), buses, vans (with maniac drivers), tuk-tuks, my motorbike (miss you, Nixon), elephants (miss you too, Lotus Flower)

Things I wish I saw more of: southern Vietnam, Shanghai, soccer, the Angkor temples

Things I saw too much of: Bangkok

I maybe could have done a bit more but I definitely could have done a hell of a lot less, and the fact that I'm ready to go home is an indication that I made the most of my time. I may return some day. I may not. Either way, this place will always be a part of me. And I'm glad for that.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A few thank yous

As I am planning my last few weeks in Asia and taking a look at where I've been and where I'm going, I feel the need to thank all those who have helped make this trip possible, either through financial assistance, advice, emotional support, what have you. This definitely would not have been possible without the help of many of you, and I am forever grateful. I will certainly be in touch with all of you to thank you in person in the near future, but special thanks in advance to SS, JM, EB, RC, CL, MK, and TK for all your help.

The Beijing Tea Party

"Tea?! Did you say tea?! Demian, get out of there right now! You have to get out!"

"Stu, what? What are you talking about? I'm just sitting having tea."

"Just get out! Now!"

Tarantino rewind. I'm in Beijing now. I have a lot of catching up to do with regards to this blog, including most of our southern travels in Vietnam, the journey to Beijing, some midnight debauchery on the Great Wall, a football (soccer) game, and lots and lots of food poisoning. But first, there was the Beijing Tea Party.

I'm staying with one of my best friends from college who lives in a cool little expat neighborhood right down the street from Worker's Stadium (home of the not-so-legendary Guo An Football Club, of which I am now a fan). He works at a nonprofit here and although he was able to take a few days from work to show me around the Great Wall and Xi'An, he returned to work on Wednesday leaving me to explore the city on my own.

Yesterday was a sick day for most of the morning. I rolled around in my intermittent intestinal misery and sipped Gatorade and ginger ale until my energy began to return. At around 2:30, I decided to go for a run to Tiananmen Square, about 4.5 miles away.

The smog had cleared but the sun was beating down at between 4 and 5 kajillion degrees, leaving me dizzy, dehydrated, and slightly delirious by the time I reached the Square. But I had made it, and I took some time to walk around the outskirts of what I later learned was the Forbidden City across from the Square.

It was here where I met Cah'Li (best guess on the spelling, but it sounded like "Colleen" without the "n"). Cah'Li was a friendly, near middle-aged traveler from a town just north of Xi'An. She was in Beijing for five days, seeing a few sights before she headed back home to work. We walked for a while, she practiced her English and asked questions about America. I asked questions about her home and Beijing. It was refreshing to meet someone who was completely friendly but not trying to sell me anything.

Then she suggested that we stop for a cup of tea.

She led me to a small cafe on a side street near the subway station and we sat down in a private room. I ordered an orange juice and a water and she ordered a pot of tea and some snacks. We kept talking. I guzzled down the juice and had a few polite sips of tea here and there. About ten minutes pass before I decide to call my friend, Stu, to get directions on the subway back to his apartment.

"Hey, what's going on? How was the run?"

"Good, I'm heading back in a few minutes. Just finishing up some tea with a new friend I made."

"Tea?! Did you say tea?! Demian, get out of there right now! You have to get out!"

So here's what I didn't know. Apparently a common scam around the Tiananmen area is to invite a tourist in for some tea and then charge them exorbitant prices for it. Usually it's about $100 for a pot of tea. Sometimes it can be a couple thousand. If the person resists, there are often large thugs who implement a more physical form of persuasion.

I didn't know any of this. All Stu told me was that it was a scam and I needed to get out. I hung up the phone and all of a sudden the room looked and felt very different. Cah'Li wasn't speaking, just looking at me and smiling. I calmly explained that something had happened to my friend and I needed to leave. Cah'Li called for the check.

Sure enough. 600 RNB (about $100). This included a $50 pot of tea and a $20 room charge. Then the yelling started.

I explained that I was not going to pay anything close to this and that I didn't even have that much on me (I had about 100 RNB with me). They insisted that I use a credit card or get my friend to bring money. We argued back and forth for a few minutes. I shook my head and handed them what I owed for the water and juice, which was about 70 RNB.

"I'm keeping this last 25 for a cab ride home. That is all that you're getting."

"You not going to pay?! You American man make woman pay?!"

"Sorry, but yes. That's what's happening."

Cah'Li and the waitress began shouting with each other in Chinese and I rose from my chair. "I'm leaving," I said, and made my way to the door. The waitress moved to block it and I was forced to lower my shoulder and shove my way through, running for the front door and into the street. I ran the couple of blocks to the subway station and disappeared into the crowds.

China has been an adventure so far. It's an entirely different world from southeast Asia, an almost polar opposite culture, and it's all very very strange but completely fascinating. I'm glad that I was able to make it up here and see a completely different face of Asia, and I'm incredibly happy to be able to spend some time with my friend and see the world he has lived in for two years. The journey continues.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Southbound Day Six: The Descent into Chaos

We started the day in a motorcycle dealership. We were rested and well, but Ruby had a hole in her gas tank which needed to be repaired and on Vietnam time that took until noon. But we got it done, paid the bill and we were off, blazing down the highway once again headed for Phong Nha.

Everything was going so smoothly. We rode fast, weaving past rice fields and through valleys making great time on our way until we reached the mountains. The last time my bike broke down was on a hill, and these hills just outside Phong Nha proved to be just as difficult. I sputtered along as well as I could for a while before Richard Nixon (which is the name of my bike if I haven't mentioned that already) coughed out its last breath on the side of the ridge in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight.

I pumped at the kick start to no avail and resigned myself to wheeling it as far as I could while Ruby rode ahead to find help or gasoline or whatever it was that I needed to make the last 30 kilometers to Phong Nha. That was the last I saw of her for a few hours. I rode down the hills in neutral when I could, but spent most of the time pushing that hunk of metal up the scorching hills of the Vietnam countryside.

After about an hour, a group of locals pulled up on motorbikes and began shouting in Vietnamese. They tried their best to get it started but nothing seemed to work. They shouted and laughed and pointed at the stars and stripes on one of my bags, trying desperately to cross the language barrier that would prove to be the ultimate challenge of our brief relationship.

Finally, they tied my bike to the back of a scooter and began towing me to the next town. We arrived in a dusty street lined with huts under the shadow of mountains where Ruby was waiting. They pulled me to a garage and by the time I stepped off my bike there were at least ten Vietnamese locals shouting at me, pointing at different parts of the bike, and trying their best to figure out what had happened. They unstrapped my bags and pulled my bike into the garage before I could resist and I quickly called our friends in Hanoi to try to scrap together some semblance of guidance. Fleur and Hop told us to get out of that garage and head to a garage in Phong Nha, which was a mere 15 kilometers away. They gave the locals directions to the garage and we got a tow into town for a scammer's price of 300,000 dong (about $15).

When we arrived in Phong Nha, the tower (and his friends who followed him) stopped short of the destination and demanded an additional 700,000 dong (about $40) which was a ludicrous demand given the eight kilometers we had to travel. A waitress at a nearby restaurant joined the commotion. Two kids playing "Gangnam Style" on a cell phone ran circles around us. Another Vietnamese girl approached us and tried to help us make sense of the situation. I was on the phone with the Australian who owned the hotel we were trying to reach trying desperately to figure out where we were and where we were supposed to go while chaos escalated around me.

In the end, we found a local point of interest, a small dive called "Jungle Bar" and waited for the Australian to pick us up while the scammers waited for their extra payment, which I had no intention of delivering. When they positioned their bikes around us, blocking us to the curb, I made a fake phone call to the tourist police and they scattered, leaving Ruby and I alone at the bar to try to make sense of what the hell had just happened to us.

The Australian was drunk when he pulled his roofless Jeep to the curb, but the mere sight of him almost made me cry. He spoke English. He was here to help us. He was taking us to a bed.

He ordered a beer which he hid under his hat next to the stickshift as he drove us to the Phong Nha Farm Stay. And here I am, sitting at a table, surrounded by Westerners for the first time since I left Hanoi. I ate a cheeseburger for dinner and it was simultaneously the worst and best burger I have ever had in my life.

All is well in the jungle. I'm fucking going to sleep.

Southbound Day Three, Four, and Five: Into the Wild

Day Three

Mai Chau marks one of the beginning points of the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the northern end. It is, however, far from a highway. Our first day on the trail and our third day traveling was a scrappy winding ride through dirt paths, jungles, and villages. We stopped for directions frequently from the start to make sure we were on the proper path and it was one of these stops that introduced us to Nu. 

Nu was about fifteen years old, spoke English very well, and was insistent on showing us her house down the street. She led us across a bridge to a small village where her home sat overlooking a river. She poured us tea, told us to sit down, and began telling us about her life, her school, and asking us questions about America and our travels. She was energetic, pleasant, and one of the nicest people I've met on the trip thus far. Our brief visit with Nu was one of many little glimpses into the lives of the people we pass on the road. Wherever we go, children see us and smile, wave, and shout "Hellooooooo!" It was an odd feeling at first, but I've come to love the small insights into people's worlds that we've been able to experience on this trip.

We found one more that day although under slightly worse circumstances. Around mid-day, Ruby hit a corner too hard, braked on some loose dirt, and took a rough spill, the first (and luckily only) crash of the trip so far. We managed to get her up and going and we soon found a gas station where she was able to get patched up.

At the station, two men about my age brought me into a small room with a bed, a television, and a few windows overlooking the backyard. They served me chicken, soup, peanuts, and beer (which I had to refuse many many times). They showed me pictures on their phone of similar-looking pale-faced tourists that had passed by and it quickly became clear that they wanted to party with me the way these bearded tank-topped travelers had. But we ventured on. 

We stayed in a small town called Ngoc Lac that night, got mended properly by an actual doctor, and fell asleep almost instantly. 

Day Four

The following day was a day of highs and lows. We rode out of Ngoc Lac early in the morning and found straight, open highway for the first time on our trip. No more twisting jungle roads and devilish patches of gravel. There were road signs and guard rails and divider lines painted in the middle of the road and it was glorious. 

As we pressed on, however, Ruby began to feel sick. The weather was darkening and although we only faced a light drizzle, it appeared that a storm was ahead. We took a gamble and blared forward, set on reaching Pho Chau, the next large town on the map, by nightfall. When the rain began to pound, we took refuge in the roadside home of a small family, had some tea, and waited for it to fade. It lightened a bit, but after about an hour, we were once again in the midst of a full-fledged storm. We rode on, edging the turns carefully and flying through the mists as quickly as we could. 

We made it to Pho Chau just as the sun was setting, settled into a hotel, and called a doctor. Ruby was developing a fever and was feeling worse by the minute. The doctor arrived on a motorbike and we began the frustrating back-and-forth of Google Translate messages, explaining what had happened, asking questions, and contemplating sending Ruby back to Hanoi on a bus. 

In the end, we got some medications, checked them out online to be safe, and went to bed. 

Day Five

We both felt better in the morning but took the day to rest and recover in Pho Chau. Nothing eventful happened. I went for a run and ate some Pho. Bye. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Southbound Day Two: The Mountain Pass

"Well my only idea is to crawl into that bush over there and die in this tiny Vietnamese town. Got anything better?"

These words exited my mouth as Ruby and I sat dejected on the edge of a sidewalk, 20-30 kilometers from our destination. My clothes were drenched in sweat and I continued to drip more. My skin was burned and I was so dehydrated I could barely see a few feet in front of me. My broken motorbike stood a few feet away, I had no idea where I was, I didn't speak the language, and I had absolutely no idea what to do.

The day had started out pleasantly enough. We rode from one small town to the next on the dusty Vietnamese roads skirted by jungles. We were on our way to Mai Chau, the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail where we were to meet Manh, a friend of Fleurr, who promised us a nice stay at his guesthouse resort.

We made it about twenty kilometers before my bike sputtered and stalled out for the first time. We found refuge in the shade of an old garage where I drained the carburetor and made a few little tweaks to get going. When it broke down a few minutes later, we were at the foot of a small garage in a little roadside town that seemed to consist of just a few houses and restaurants.

It's worth noting here that in this part of Vietnam, every home seems to be a store. Houses have open fronts with glass cases where you can buy water, energy drinks, and a few other things depending on the place. Some people have kitchens where you can eat a meal. Many have garages where they can change your oil or make repairs. But everywhere we stop seems to be a person's home rather than an establishment.

It took about three or four hours for them to fix my bike and about twenty minutes for it to break again, leading me to realize that they had no idea what I was talking about when I tried to pantomime the problem. While they had been making their repairs they would hold up spare parts and point to them, indicating that this was what they were fixing and in my naivete I let them do it, figuring they knew much better than I.

But I learned. When I broke down on that blindingly hot stretch of road I reached a point of helplessness I had never felt before. I didn't know whether I should try to get to where I was going or head back to Hanoi. I didn't know how I was going to get to either place. I didn't know if the next mechanic was going to rip me off or just misunderstand me. I was disoriented and fatigued from the heat and since I didn't know what to do or where to go, I just sat on the curb.

We finally found a mechanic and put them on the phone with our friends in Hanoi who were able to help the bike get fixed for good (at least for now) and we were back on our journey, despite the minor mental breakdown that preceded it.

It was sunset when we entered the mountain pass and about twenty minutes later it was completely dark. It was then that I realized my headlight didn't work. I followed close behind Ruby, keeping my turn signal on so she could see me as we wound through the twisted mountain roads. We went up and down hills, across dirt paths and alongside steep declines, all in total darkness. Sometimes there were guard rails, sometimes there were not. If my bike broke down again, I don't know what I would have done. If one of us was hit by any of the speeding trucks or motorbikes that passed us, I don't know what I would have done. It took about an hour, but it was one of the most terrifying hours of my life and certainly the most dangerous thing I have ever done.

But we made it. The sight of streetlights had never been as beautiful as they were when we rolled into Mai Chau.

We called Manh and he met us on the main road and escorted us through the rice fields to his quiet, secluded resort. He showed us the dorm-style bungalow where we would sleep and served us a feast that we scarfed down as quickly as we could. That night we followed the sound of music to a field outside Manh's resort to see a series of bonfires with Vietnamese children and adults dancing around the flames. There were deejays playing music, people playing games, and dancers performing rituals. They quickly grabbed us and we joined one of the circles, attempting to follow the steps and not appear as the delirious sunburned giants we were.

It was our first full day of the trip and it was a fine start.

Southbound Day One: Buying the bikes, breaking the bikes, and braving Hanoi

Greetings from the other side of the world! It's been a long time since I've written since I haven't had reliable internet since I left Cambodia. I still need to write about the Angkor temples (they were beautiful) and adventures in Hanoi (which could take up a book), but I'm going to jump forward a bit to the point where I bought a motorbike, found the highway, and drove south.

I met my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous so will henceforth be referred to as Ruby) in Hanoi and aside from exploring the town and all the wonderful things it had to offer, our chief concern was finding motorbikes, learning to ride them, and beginning our trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, her to Saigon, me to DaNang.

We met up with a spunky Kiwi girl named Fleur and her Vietnamese counterpart Hop, who showed us a few options and took us for some test drives, explaining the basic mechanics, how to make small repairs, and what to do in emergencies.

After buying two and filling out the necessary paperwork, we had to drive the bikes through downtown Hanoi, which is chaos in its purest form. The streets are a teeming sea of motorbikes, pedestrians, and automobiles, all going every which way at varying speeds, honking and sputtering along the way. Driving in that city reminded me of swimming into a school of fish in Koh Phi Phi in that everything seems to flow around you. You cross an intersection with bikes coming toward you from all directions, yet as long as you continue to go straight, everyone will weave around you.

After Fleur gave us a big hug and wished us safe travels, she paid a local moto driver to escort us out of the city and near the highway which would lead us to Mai Chau, the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. From there it was a long stretch of highways and roadside stands, small towns caked with red dust and dry heat, pulling out the map whenever we got lost (which was frequently), and pounding bottles of water under the brutal Vietnamese sun. After beginning our trip heading in the complete wrong direction, we finally got on course on a stretch of highway that weaved through the countryside. We rolled past green mountains and hills dotted with rice farms. We weave between small herds of cows that walked the streets. We made it as far as we could before Ruby experienced the first of three flat tires on day one of our trip. Luckily, as we soon found, just about everyone in small Vietnamese towns is a mechanic, or at least knows their way around the basics of a motorbike.

Ruby got another flat in the next town as the sun was beginning to set, so we got a quick meal, found a cheap homestay, and quickly fell asleep. This was the beginning of what would be a chaotic journey and it was easily the tamest day that we experienced on the road thus far.