Monday, December 25, 2006

Old blog posts from Asia and Middle East (2004-2006)

This is trial for blog site number 2. I'm moving from (now wiped out) because it is too hard to use and photos are too hard to download.
Here are Thai friends and I in Vientiane, Laos.

My previous travel blog got wiped out. Here are the older posts:

Travels through the desert countries and beyond...
December 25, 2006
Changing blog sites
OK everyone. I'm moving blogs sites. This one doesn't let me download photos on it! Unbelievable. Too bad I just figured this out now-- after I get back from Asia. It is pretty much the same. When I have some more time for creativity I'll make it a bit more original from this one. Anyway, life should be more boring from now on. I'm back in Florida and moving to Gainesville to start a Ph.D program at UF (School of Natural Resources and Environment with a major in Interdisciplinary Ecology). Next big trip should be Latin America this year, and probably for the next few years following. I'll check in if I go someplace more interesting than Gainesville.
Posted by Arika at 19:03

December 21, 2006
Back in the USA
God, its wierd being surrounded by Americans. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I'm treating it like a new country. So far, I find them to be: very nice to dogs, quite casual and friendly, against smoking in public, bit of a cheesy sense of humor, and very helpful and non-discriminate. Also, not as expensive as I remember-- although I've only been from the airport to my house. My two dogs survived their journey in one piece, although neither peed nor shat in over 24 hours! They ran crazy races up and down my driveway when they arrived and Hengjia went swimming in our creepy grassy pond almost immediately. Needless to say, they are both cured.
Posted by Arika at 05:05

December 10, 2006
Diving in Krabi
I am in Krabi. Went on a diving trip today that was partly a disaster. Bad diving company-- AVOID Ao Nang Dive center at Ao Nang beach in Krabi province, Thailand. Not well organized. I have now learned how to (attempt) to avoid it in the future-- before deciding to go with a company check the equipment first, meet the dive master, talk with the dive manager to see if s/he can explain things properly and put you at ease-- ask the right questions, and get recs from other divers. The three of us planned to do 2 dives each (morn and afternoon) and I was the only one who managed to do one! Bad equipment and organization. The owner was not a good man. We explained all our greviances with the company and he returned us a total of 500B!
However, the second dive was very nice. We did 2 swim throughs, which are tunnels that run through the limestone rock islands in the middle of the torquoise ocean. There were loads of fish. Coral not so good. Visibility not so good. Not a terribly exciting dive, but it was a dive nonetheless. I enjoyed it.
Posted by Arika at 14:42

December 03, 2006
Min gala ba
This means hello in Myanmar.
I'm back in Thailand now, but thought Id try to pu in a few words about Myanmar. We are headed down to the infamous Full Moon Party for a few days and then to dive in Koh Phi Phi. Yes-- I will be careful about the mosquitoes this time around in S. Thailand. But we'll be in bungalows in tourist areas (not camping on a lonely beach) so we should be fine.
The tourist areas of Myanmar are impressively clean, convenient, and accessible. Guesthouses are cheap (around 5$ for a single). Many restaurants serving continental food, for example, for less than 2$. A clean streetside dish of Myanmar food is about 50 cents. Their food is very nice. A curry and about 4 different types of little salads and soup. Maybe nuts and fruit, and always hot tea afterwards. Myanmar people are gentle, playful, bright and speak English very well. When you joke with them, they are quick to respond.
Yangon: A conjested city where I was continuously looking for something that I could never find. Like the internet. I was glad to leave and left for the first place I could-- the golden rock. Overnight bus ride of about 8 hours for a distance of about 150 km.
Golden rock (Sorry don't remember the Myanmar name). It was under renovation (new gold I guess), so we didnt exactly see it. It should be a precariously perched boulder on top of a mountain with a golden pagoda balanced on top. We rode from the town to the base of the mountain in the back of a large truck. It was packed with young monks. Like a roller coaster ride the monks put their hands in the air and whee! as we went up and around the sharp curves. All forest. We (me and a Swedish guy-- 45 yrs old) made a nice walk up the mountain out of it. Super hot and humid in Myanmar. I was having a hard time acclimatizing. Literally dripping constantly-- it was an embarrassment. Lots of pagodas scattered on the mountains. Also temples on the top. We didn't want to pay the 6 $ to get into to see the golden rock-- which was covered with bamboo and cloth anyway for this week. So we just enjoyed the beautiful view from a restaurant. Coming down, we decided to visit a waterfall. We made a mistake of asking the direction from too many people and unwittingly took on two 'guides'. Ridiculous because the way was obvious, once we found it. We told them repeatedly 'No money. No money.' They were OK with this. But of course, when we came back to the trucks they wanted money. I gave them some, and then more when they asked for more. What could we do? Buddhist dharma says to give money when you are asked and more, if they ask for more. So that is what I did. Its hard to refuse someone 50 cents anyway. But the principle of the entire experience (you really feel like an atm machine sometimes in these countries) irritated us anyway. When the bus tried to force us to pay too much money for the trip down to the town, we decided to walk back. It turned out to be a 20 km walk of 2 hours. Much too long after climbing and descending the mountain twice already (up to the golden rock, down to the waterfall and then up to the buses). Interestingly, and sadly, we didn't see a single animal out there on that desolate forest road-- maybe a few birds and only one squashed snake. We can only assume that they have all been eaten.
Posted by Arika at 08:06
November 30, 2006
Ahhhh... Back in Thailand-- the land of freedom, good food, and lovely Thai language that I can use to actually talk to people!
Connection speed in Myanmar was absolutely intolerable. Not a good place for keeping up with a blog. I am going to have to add to this blog later. I'm super tired from arriving this morning from Myanmar. Party on the beach for the next week. Wait till I get back to Khon Kaen to write.
Posted by Arika at 07:50

Email from Tibetan monk in Nepal
Hi! arika,
Hope my mail will get you in good spirit and lots of happiness in your life.
Its me, Tenzin from Pema Ts'al. How are you? We all are fine and living peacefully here in the wonderful atmosphere of our buddist spot. Tomorrow we all are going to Lumbini for the great Sakya Monlam for ten days. Monks from different part of the world of sakya sect will join there including his holiness and other high lamas. This puja is for world peace.
ok this much for today,
buddha's putra,
my abbot told me once that what we try to have stars from the sky instead of accepting the beautifull flowers nears you. thats why we suffer and always wonder.
pleasure of sharing is the greatest of all pleasure.
View of the Annapurnas in front of the monastery.
View of the monastery from behind. I spent alot of time exploring and enjoying the river and nearby hills.
Posted by Arika at 07:22

November 18, 2006
I'm over by Inley lake -- close to Mandalay. It took us about 20 hours to get here by bus-- a distance of about 300 kms. Unbelievably slow. A bicycle might be faster. Buses here like to travel at night and arrive in the early early morning. So today is shot (second day of travelling all night). I slept through the afternoon. Its much cooler here than over by Yangon anyway. Thank goodness for that. I've lost my ability to cope with the heat. I guess I belong in the Himalayas now.
The Myanmar people are very very nice. They like me. I guess bc I look like them. They are always talking to me in Burmese and are surprised when I answer in English: I'm sorry, I don't speak Burmese. Prices are very low here. 50 cents gets you a good meal of rice and curry, vegetables and chili paste and soup. I like it. The only expensive part are the hotel rooms (about 4$ each person)-- the hotels are taxed heavily in dollars by the gov't. But the rooms and bathroom are cleaner than in China and Nepal. This is also the first place that I've been here where I find myself buying things from the locals just to give them some of my wealth. Its like being in the middle ages where money is so scarce.
More later in Mandalay. We are lucky to have internet out here, but it is slow and expensive.
OK. This is an addition to the prior log. I found Mandalay more interesting than Yangon. I was on my own again once I arrived. Disorientated after yet another overnight trip. Got a very nice and comfortable room (own bathroom and big windows). Later found out that the generator was outside of my window and I hardly got any sleep. Breakfast is always included with the rooms in Myanmar and this hotel had a nice dining area set up on the roof. Breakfast is nice in Myanmar bc everyone in the hotel takes it and this is the time that you get to meet other travellers.
I met up with Marielle (spent some time together in Inley Lake) and a couple more French people who I met on the bus to Mandalay. We spent the next 4 days together, along with another French guy-- Matthew-- who they had met, doing EVERYTHING that you are supposed to do in Mandalay. We rented a taxi and took trips to all the ancient cities surrounding Mandalay and did little tours within the city. We were all very happy bc none of us really get the chance to do these things bc it is usually too expensive for just 1 or 2 people. They travelled my style too. I like the French. They take it nice and slow and enjoy the finer things in life. Like a nice breakfast. Coffee and cigarette. Sunset in the evening. None of this rushing about, that I dislike.
Well-- that is the four of us, except this cropped the photo. Having a very nice meal at a local food stand. The best food I had in Bagan.
Now this is Bagan. Stunning place. Thousands of pagodas. The 4 of us rented bicycles for three days and biked all over the place, exploring these pagodas, stupas and temples. When the sun was setting we'd find the tallest one and climb it and watch the sun set. Then race back to town for a nice dinner. Exactly my style.
Posted by Arika at 10:25

November 14, 2006
So the Thai's call this place Yang-goong, which is confusing bc no one else (even the Burmese) call it that.
There is internet here! Hurray! I can't live without internet. Then I might forget all about being Thai-American and become a Burmese fisherman, and we don't want that. They just really got internet last year and the cyber cafes that they do have are kind of low key.
This place reminds me of Thailand and India culture mixed together (even though I don't know what India is like, but I imagine that is a bit like Nepal), although the feeling here slightly (and nightmarishly) reminds me of Vietnam (but I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best, maybe only the colonial architecture?. People are quite friendly. Easy going. Few tourists so there are few touts. Lots of concrete. I've got the most ugly room for 5 $-- no windows, just a concrete block-- but at least it has AC bc it is HOT! I think that it is the rain coming. In any case, it gives me another motivation to move on out of Rangoon (Yangon). There are a few big temples around. Lots of vendors with interesting delicious food. Markets. The city is next to a river, but you see nothing bc it is a shipping dock. This is a practical city- a center of trade. It is very obvious with all of their Chinese and Indian goods and very few extraneous things. I find it quite likely that this is the most (and maybe only) cosmopolitan town in Myanmar. There are no high buildings. Some colonial architecture, but mostly looks like a typical Thai town of white plaster and concrete and few decorations. It is very quiet. There are some cars, but not many. And fewer motorbikes and bicycles.
Today I am on a mission to get anti-malarial drugs or doxycycline (check!) and a mosquito net (still on the way there). Later I may spend the late afternoon at this temple complex that is the highlight of Rangoon and maybe on par with Bangkok's Wat Prakaew. I am super tired. I haven't slept more than 5 hours a night in the past 5 days. In another day or two I will head to the west-- I want to spend some time on the coast. I figure if I spent about 2 days everywhere, that will pretty much be all the time that I have here. I feel very confident and safe here. The locals don't try to cheat you, are very helpful and easy going. Myanmar has a good reputation among the independent travellers of Asia for being a safe, easy, friendly, culturally well-reserved and beautiful place. It is also supposed to be one of the best places to travel as a single woman. So here I am.
Posted by Arika at 07:54

November 13, 2006
Boudha Stupa
I went to visit the owner (Mort) of Tales and Tongues bar at his apartment yesterday. Tales and Tongues is a pub I like to hang out at in Kathmandu. Mort has been really good to me: walking back in the dark to my guesthouse after closing time, helping me run some of my more difficult errands like buying thankas and most importantly, making me feel like part of the community in Kat. An Italian guy even told me the other day: 'Its quite strange, but you feel like one of the locals here. I wonder why.' I told him it was probably bc I live in Thailand; its all the same anway.
Back to the apartment: It was quite amazing. He lives at Boudha Stupa, which is that white giant stupa with the eyes that are always in the photos advertising Nepal. It is a Tibetan community so they are constantly doing their kora-- around and around the stupa. The only difference with kora in Tibet, is that they are all residents-- rather than the pilgrims you find in Tibet-- here so it is like a morning and afternoon social hour everyday for all the old people. Mort lives right next to the stupa, in a lovely community of old shops and apartments. It is a solid circle of lovely wooden buildings surrounding the stupa. Very friendly and safe neighborhood. He has this sitting room that overlooks the kora and is level with the eyes of the stupa! At the same time the Tibetan trumpets, chanting and horns are playing over the square as the sunset is setting and the pilgrims are circling. Its unreal. I loved it.
Posted by Arika at 10:23

November 11, 2006
After i left the Tibetan monastery (I was so sad I cried), I went to Bandipur -- about 1 hr from Pokhara. It is a small village on top of a ridge. Quite traditional with cobblestone streets and tradesman representing every neccessity in the village. Got adopted by this older Nepalese man on the bus-- he had very good English and was a jeweler by trade. I spent the next 4 days with him and his family. Had a lovely time with the family and especially the children. I left there looking like a Nepalese. They like to dress me up-- give me jewelry to wear, big red tikas, and braid my hair. I have a 'metini' now. Two of them, I think. They are my 'true friends.' Like sisters. Both my age, but with almost adult children. They live in this lovely mud house that is painted yellow and blue. Like a miniature dollhouse. One day Baba (grandfather) took us (me and a tourist who I met from Ireland) on a little trek to a nearby Groom village. We drank Roxy or Loca' Liqa' all along the way. It is made out of boiling millet and distilling the alcohol. Very smart traditional set-up. The Groom people like to raise bees alongside their houses in hollowed out pieces of tree trunk. They were very kind and easy to visit with.
Me with one of the families that I was close to in Bandipur. I hung out with the kids alot and the woman in pink was one of metinis.
Then I visited Gorkha (on the way) for a night --sketchy place, but with a beautiful mountain and temple on the mountain top. Nice place for walking around. Here I met another older man and had lovely chai at his house (while his wife busted constantly-- cleaning, cooking, etc. The Nepalese women work so hard!)
Now, here I am back at the Shang-rila Guest house. Home sweet home. The guys downstairs all remember me. The white rabbit who lives in the lobby no longer has a red tika. Went to the reggae bar last night. I met the owner (American) and a few people there the last time-- expats. They remember me. Also, the baker and the T-shirt seller down the street! Tonight big party at 1905 restaurant (reggae).
Today is the big errand day. Got many things to do to prepare for my trip to Myanmar (!!)
Posted by Arika at 07:43

November 01, 2006
I listened to a puja (suwut mon) for 2 hours yesterday. My knees couldn't take it (sitting cross legged on pillows) so I didn't join the remaining 2 hours after dinner. I sat outside under the stars and listened there instead. They play all these amazing brass wind instruments, and a couple of conch shells, gongs, drums, cymbals. At the end of the puja, while the others are inside chanting with these very decorative tall red hats on--- the musicians came outside and played the horns, trumpets, and recorders out into the air. The recorders were amazing. I have never heard anything like it before. The sounds were perfect (2 played at the same time) and filled the air. Some notes are held so long, you start feeling like they will never end. Then one musician wavers, and like static on the TV it falls into another note, which is held out again. Those 15 minutes changed my world. I can see why music would be considered sacred. The instruments are decorated in silver and gold. Some have precious stones fixed onto them. You should see the horns. They are almost 3 meters long and produce these deep vibrating notes.
Posted by Arika at 03:57

October 28, 2006
I came into town to get my plane ticket to Bangkok. Took ages ( 3 different trips). Its very funny over here, bc everything takes a very long time to do (they were playing chess) but the Nepalese are so friendly and make you feel good, so you never mind.

I took a bus over here to this marketplace. My next bus is the bus home-- the monastery. Its strange bc going back to the monastery feels like going home, and I've only been there for 4 days. Last night I hung around on the balconey next to my room and chatted with one of the monks. He's probably hardly 18 but I had a really nice talk with him. He told me about a celebration that they have every year in Lumpini (birthplace of Buddha). Tibetan monks from all over India and Nepal gather together around a special temple. They sleep in tents and chant together for 10 days. 2000+ monks and nuns. Can you imagine that? The whole place must resonate. He told me the last three days were the hardest because you are sad to leave your family and friends who are there. I think its like a party. After chanting all day I bet they all have a great time together.

Its never boring at the monastery. You would think it would be right? The kids are so funny. Always playing. Something always happening. Today a boy fell through the glass door to the kitchen. I came just after it happened and he was holding very still-- afraid to get up, and all his friends around him, staring. I picked him up by the arms and lifted him out slowly and his friends pulled the big shards of glass out of his clothes. It was amazing. He didn't have a scratch on him. One of the teachers stood over him angry and upset. He was worried about him and examined the boy thoroughly for any injuries. Then, lunch went on. Beautiful meal of Dahl baht every day (rice, lentils, curry, pickle). You get to eat as much as you want, and afterwards I'll sit outside with Kathleen (Swiss volunteer) and the older students in the sun (overlooking the mountains) and eat apples and joke. [The food is so nice. The man in the kitchen prepares and plans things for you to enjoy. Today we got a nice surprise of peanut butter with the chapati. I was thrilled. Sometimes he'll make us little tasty snacks at tea time (like popped rice or fried momos, and you know that he does it because he wants us to be happy).
Their robes are really nice. Rich colors of red, burgandy, yellow, orange. I've asked them about the colors, bc it seems like a random selection. They tell me that the Lord Buddha said that monks should wear only red, yellow and blue and they chose red bc Tibet is very cold, you see. (I asked him, Who wears blue? The Shaolin. Oh, right.) But their red clothes are a mixture of traditional Tibetan monk robes and commercial clothes. So you get a monk in a yellow ski cap, yellow Adidas football shirt, magenta fleece vest, and magenta thick robe (I hesitate to call it a 'sarong' but that is basically what it is)-- worn down low like a street kid. They even act a bit like street kids-- but are absolutely kind and well-meaning. They love football and play it too, in the afternoon (they are allowed to watch the world cup here. Tibetan monks share a common wish that the world cup would be scheduled to a different time of the year, bc that time is when monks aren't allowed to leave the monastery and monks get in trouble all the time sneaking around the village peeking in the windows during World Cup.) They love movies too. And know more international films than I do. (they demonstrate the martial arts they learn from the movies-- Yeah! Thai kick boxing, they said). They get to watch TV on the weekends.

Class is really fun. They like to be there and try their best to learn. I'm teaching the eldest group (fourth level) the scientific method. I told them that it would give them the skills to criticize facts and information, and help them to think systematically and find answers. I said this to them with a bent on 'spiritual paths.' It was really fun, because that is actually how I think and I have the most perfect and unique audience for it. My next class is the second level class. I'm teaching them about plants (we are pressing plants and next class we are going to label the parts). I asked four boys to go out and get little herbs with the roots and all. I got a small mango tree seedling and a small shrub! After examining the parts of the shrub, they declared that it was poisonous (one fruit burst-- he said it was a tomato, we said, Noooo. And it squirted him in the eye). Then they chucked it. (I said, Where's the plant?)

And around all of this, they are chanting, reciting, practicing gongs, drums, bells, and singing bowls. It is hardly quiet. They are all preparing for the big exam. Today they did a Puja (a chant) for two hours. It is to cure a man who is very sick in the US. They all do it together. I missed it because of my three mission plane ticket. But I imagine there will be more. Everyday, you never know what they have planned each day. Tomorrow I know that they are preparing the sand for the sand mandala and I want to get in on it.

Ok. Back to the Nepalese. Today on the bus, it was very funny. These three young men got on the bus and one sat next to me. It wasn't possible that they weren't going to try and talk to me. The guy next to me confers with his friend across the aisle. I can hear him say. Where? From? you from? Where are you from? I'm laughing. Then he turns to me, with a hand covering his mouth and half his face: Where are you from?-- confidently and clearly . I answer. And this repeats. Each time, he covers his face to talk to me because he is so shy and his friend pretends that he isn't helping at all. And I am laughing. They tell me that they are punk metal. The only 3 in Pokara. Their band's name is Get out. And they demonstrate, who plays what musical instrument. It was very funny. Then it was their stop. They shook my hand. Goodbye! What? (whispered) you again? See you again! Until next time!

Another good day in Nepal.
Posted by Arika at 11:51

October 26, 2006
The chanting after dinner is one of my most favorite parts of the day. When the meal is over, one monk starts the chant-- dissonant and like grumbling. Then the remaining 50 odd monks join in. Some of the children close their eyes tight and chant singsong as loud as they can. The sound rises and falls, sometimes one voice stands out, then suddenly they all join together perfectly. There are some hand gestures and a few times of clapping, as well as a chime from a singing bowl towards the end, when the have a moment of silence to finish it off. Its quite amazing, resonating off the concrete walls of the dining hall.

I am staying at this Tibetan monastary. Pema-tso Sakya Monastary just outside of the town. It is a very peaceful and comfortable place. I teach basic Science for 1.10 hours a day (Two 35 min classes-- very easy-- I taught them the Scientific method today.). And (if they ask) pay them 30$ a week for room and borad. They give me a very comfortable and clean room (actually one of the cleanest rooms I've stayed in this trip. With the most amazing view of the Annapurna mountain range hovering over the hills outside my window. That's what I wake up to each morning.), three good meals a day, 2 tea breaks, as well as all the boiled water I want to drink. There is a beautiful clean river outside behind the hill (I spent the afternoon there today). Its like a postcard. Clean and sparkling, with yellow rice terraces along the banks, mossy cliff in the back (with the monastery on top), hills in the background, and of course, the white capped Annapurna mountain range.
I just got over a cold, and the monastary was a great place to recuperate. I spent the entire day yesterday reading the many books they have in English (its Paulo Coehlo again). The old man in the kitchen brings me up hot water to drink every few hours and a monk gave me medicine for my cold yesterday. The monks are mostly young boys (about 55 of them, aged 6 to 18) and they are playful, friendly, bright and eager to learn. They are mostly Tibetan refugees without citizenship. Today a young monk taught me the first of the 6 perfections. The perfection of giving. I learned that teaching is the highest act of giving, bc it can last forever and continue spreading.
Every evening and morning (sometimes well before daybreak) they practice their chanting and music playing (mostly drums). Its fills the whole monastery. Not loud, just echoing. I like it in the morning. They are preparing for one of the biggest festivals that they have each year. They will build a sand mandala and have debates to see which students can move on to higher degrees of education.
I will spend about a week here. If it is very nice, I may just stay here until I have to be back in Kathmandu.
Posted by Arika at 13:12

October 23, 2006
Annapurna was the first over 8000 meter peak that was ever climbed-- by a frenchman.
Eight day trek. The minimum is supposed to be 10 days. I disliked the pace at first, but after a while it became very meditative. Walking every day. Climbing half a dozen impossible-to-go-on hills. We brought a tent at first and food too. We expected to camp and be self-sufficient. The first day we climbed the last hill and found a guest house that offered decent rooms for 100 ruppees each (1.25$). We decided the dump the tents and camping gear from then on and kept the food. The landscape was like Sapa, Vietnam-- green and lush, terraced fields of grain, small villages. The only difference was-- On the second day. After walking a very hard day and arriving in a grey and cold place, we saw the huge craggy snow capped towering mountains floating among the white clouds above the green lush hills. It was stunning. I had been having second thoughts about following through with the 8 days super trek but: Those are the mountains we are headed too? From then on, it became my goal as well. The walking got easier everyday. I found my pace on the third day and then got better from then on. Even after all my muscles stiffened and ached on the 6 day, the next day they were more elastic and strong. Its nice to have your days simplified. One goal: one hill. Next goal: next hill. And eventually you made it to the top. By the end of the trek, I could walk up those 200+ rock stairs without stopping. And run down the downhills. We ended up climbing about 2000 m by the time we got to the Annapurna base camp, but that doesn't included all the up and down, up and down the hills. I don't know how many kms. I'll figure it out. Trekking in Nepal is a fine example of Eco-tourism. I think that the locals are the one who actually benefit the most economically. Their communities are very well organized-- all the prices are fixed and pre determined by the community. They have alot of rules (like no use of firewood for financial gain etc).
The boys left me today. They headed off to Kathmandu so that they could move on the India. Maybe I'll see them in Thailand or the US. We had a great group dynamic. I will miss them. My good friends. I thought that today I would be more of a mess-- being suddenly alone and independent. But maybe I missed the time that I had alone. I am very happy today and feel confident.
Posted by Arika at 05:35

October 10, 2006
In a word: party. Almost everyday so far. Let's sum it up (bc this keyboard is the worst): 'dance club'-- meaning girly club with no nudity, dance club, bottle of whisky (sneak in the mixers bc they are way over priced inside), Nepalese pub-- something like a wedding reception with the singers and musicians in traditional clothes, drunk guys on the dance floor, and the audience members singing duets with the on-stage singers, techno club, techno club, rasta bar and stumble on home. Thank god for Florian, who was blessed with the most amazing built in radar for any destination, including the chocolate donut place.
Posted by Arika at 14:16

Thats the magic number out here. The height of Mt. Everest in meters. In Tibet it is always about altitude. How high are we? How high are we going? Is that why I feel like shit? We camped at 5100 meters as base camp Everest. Jesus-- from Spain- got very ill and found a jeep heading back down to Rongphu monastery at about 4900 meters. Florian, Stephen, and I stuck it out. I was pretty dizzy and useless once we arrived, after a stunning 2 hour hike up the mountain. Florian and Stephen took over and were great. Put up the tent, got dinner and boiled water together. We slept at 8 pm-- me bc of the illness-- and probably all of us bc of the cold and gusting wind (it reached less than 0 degrees C at night). Thankfully, Stephen and Florian also got the gear packed up in the morning as well. Bc I was certainly most useless and couldn't wait to get down the mountain.
This trip was part of our overland down from Lhasa. I must say I didn't enjoy it too much. Not my style of travel-- I felt stuck and trapped. Always the driver controlling the situation. In hindsight, I should have found someone to hitch down to the border with me. The only saving grace was the trip to base camp. I couldn't have made it there hitching, and it was not to be missed. The scenary was amazing.
However....the drive itself was also amazing. I've really never seen as magnificent scenary as there exists in Tibet. Everything is on a grand scale. Big towering mountains, deep blue huge lakes, rolling colorful hills and valleys, ancient monasteries, freezing gusty weather and high altitudes and add the chanting monks and devoted pilgrims with extravagant jewelry and gleeful smiles and you've got Tibet.
Approaching Nepal was like closing a book. We approached a canyon and everything began to take on color and fresh smells. Flowers and grass, big trees; suddenly tropical. The road was literally cut into the mountain face. The clear river fell down below us and the green lush mountains towered over us, with blue sky in the background. The people were splashes of color now in bright saris and red tikas. Our Tibetan driver of 5 days left us without backward glance (damn tourists) and the Nepali border welcomed us with smiles. I crossed the border and felt like a different person. Nepal hits all your senses. I'ver read a sentence like that before, but I've never experienced it. Suddenly music, incense, curries, bright colors, big smiles, ancient temples and chaos. I love the chaos. 'Aye-yi-yi' came from Stephan and Florian (French) and Jesus (Spain). Squeezed in the back of an old noisy bus over a treacherous road with treacherous bumps, and half the bus on the roof-- till it started raining and they crowded inside. After a few hours of this, Jesus called out to a bus guy to ask the time we'd arrive. A boy ran by singing, Relax! Relax! (Don't do it...) Which is really funny, bc Jesus is nothing but relaxed-- most of the time. Our theme song for this segment of the trip. The bus dropped us off as some little town (green and lovely with a sparkling mountain river below). Then, we caught a ride with some Christian missionaries from India and Sri Lanka to a little town 30 kms from Kathmandu. Here we were finished, and we found a cozy little guest house and feasted on non-Tibetan and Chinese food!
Posted by Arika at 13:59

September 29, 2006
Mountains and Monasteries
I'm back in Lhasa. Something has happened to me. I can't stand the smell of yak anymore. Especially yak meat and yak butter. Even to breathe the name 'yak' makes me feel ill. I'm going on a fruit and vegetable fast for today. Maybe sell out and eat at the Western restaurants for once. I can't wait to get to Nepal and eat dahl and rice three times a day.
All the boys have left me. I am now German-less-- after travelling for almost a month with Fabian and Martin. Martin left today on the highest train in the world to Beijing. Larry (Canada) and Steve (Scot) left for a 6 day journey to the Nepal border. I will be following them tomorrow-- hooked up with 2 French and 1 Spanish guy. Physical therapists who just finished over a year of work someplace close to Mauritius. They all speak French and their English isn't so good, so this should be an interesting 6 days.
Here's a summary of our (Martin, Larry, Steve and I) trip to Lake Nam Tso and Reting Monastery:
Lake Nam Tso: 4700 m. Drove over a pass that was 5000 m tall. Taking photos of yak horns and skull, this young boy started getting aggressive-- he wanted money for the photo (!). I erased them to suit him, but it didn't appease him-- he wouldn't let me go by. A look from Steve-- the big Scot-- served to placate him. Amidst amazing mountain scenary, we arrived at the Lake. A huge dark blue salty sacred lake with a setting of snow capped mountains in the back. The camp site (with semi-permanent tents for nightly rent) was a mud pit, full of Chinese day tourists. But once they cleared out, all was well. We climbed up the hill next to the camp site-- it was hard work, let me tell you. Even for Larry, the Canadian mountain man. Got a great view of the 'highest lake in the world' and the prayer flags were soaring above the rocks like a thousand kites. They were mesmerizing. I've got like 30 photos of these flying flags-- like a cyclone. The wind was really kicking up-- it was no wonder that the cord tying the flags was heavy duty. As the sun fell, the water became a clear turquoise. The sunset would have been wonderful to watch, but the wind and the dropping temperature chased us back down. The next morning, me and Larry climbed the hill on the other side of the camp. A storm was coming in (I had already gotten hailed on when I went out to watch the sun set. Never been in hail before. It was interesting, until one got me good on the eye.) It was a startling contrast, the fresh bright morning sunlight and blue sky versus the approaching dark billowing storm clouds.
Reting monastery: This was established by the first Dalai Lama and it is said that if the present Dalai Lama were ever to return to Tibet, he would come here. This was surprising news to me. Considering that it took a good 2 hours with a 4WD thru the most spectacular mountain valley I have ever seen to get there (Even Larry agreed- and he's been to some beautiful places in Canada). The monastery was small-- nothing elaborate about it. It had been destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt. That may have had something to do with its humbleness. We were able to get a room at the monastery. Basic, simple and with character-- just the way I like it. It was the only hill with trees-- junipers. Lovely. Down below us was a clear, shallow, crashing river. Like in Sapa. Around the valley were high green hills. Larry and I took a walk in the evening down towards the village. The villagers were very friendly. We took some photos of them and their yaks-- they were using the yaks to till the earth. We couldn't work out what in the world they would be planting with the approach of winter and of course, we couldn't ask either. What a shame! Not to speak the local language. I would have loved to spend a night in a Tibetan household. I am sure that they would have been happy to have us as well. Lots of birds. I counted about 10 different species in this valley.
On the way back, Dawa, our driver stopped at his Momma's house. Our first entry into a Tibetan household. They were very friendly. Fed us very rich yak butter tea (best I've had in Tibet, probably the real thing. They take green tea and pour it into a blender. Chuck some yak butter in it, blend and Voila! Rich and salty and filling yak butter tea), very light and fruity local beer, steamed and fried bread, boiled yak meat, sliced boiled dicot (?) tubers, and yak sausages. Let me tell you about the sausages: Martin couldn't get it down. He said, 'I swear I will throw up.' And held it in his hand. We told him to eat it. And he said, 'I can't. My grandmother makes these things and I really just can't eat them.' I think it was intestines stuffed with blood, spices and grains. Not so bad really. Then, Martin wanted a cigarette. He said, 'What shall I do with the sausage?' We told him to stick it in his pocket, and he put it on the table instead. There it sat. We told him, that he should take it with him when we left. So, take it with him he did. Into the car. 5 minutes later, I asked him, What did you do with the sausage? He said, What do you think? I laughed. I said, Oh. I thought that you just liked to hold it. However, it has not been the end of the sausage. Here I am back in Lhasa, and even the thought of that sausage makes me nauseated. Hence the first paragraph if this entry. I don't know what has happened to me-- the curse of the sausage. I should have never eaten it. Now who's laughing?
Posted by Arika at 04:31

September 24, 2006
Not exactly sure what it stands for, but translates as Chinese Police. They make travel quite difficult, under the guise that they are responsible for our safety. Safety? The PSB is the only threatening force out here.
Monica and I decided to visit the Samye Monastery-- the headliner for the U province. We were told that we needed a special permit and a tour group. We decided No and No. Off we went on the bus. I was nervous. She didn't mind. The bus dropped off us in the middle of no where (150 km outside of Lhasa). All of the pilgrims on our bus looked at us expectantly to get off the bus. The ferry had 2 other tourists-- Chinese. Luckily they spoke English. The ferry boat driver didn't seem to think that there were any police. The bus driver on the other side didn't seem to think so either. Arrived at the monastery no problem. Set in a circle. Monica said that it was unique to other monasteries that she had seen, bc it was on a low lying valley floor. The decoration and images of the deities are the same as all the other ones that I have seen (once you have seen one, you have seen them all). But the atmosphere was very local and Tibetan. Friendly and laid back. Nice little local restaurant with a variety of local foods. Very basic guesthouse. I was happy with it. But we wouldn't dare sleep on the mattress without a sleeping bag. We watched a healing ceremony for a couple of hours. They make all of their symbolic items with yak butter (very useful stuff, yak butter). Actually they use yak for everything: yak milk, yak meat, yak butter, yak hide, yak fur-- you name it, they use it. Explored the extensive monastery, enjoyed the amzing view, gawked at the awkward China town that they are building outside of the monastery.
The next day we hiked up to the top of a nearby hill. The little building at the top was yet another room with Buddha images and, of course, was complete with a lone chanting monk beating on a drum in the smokey room. There were pilgrims up there too, burning sage (?) and hanging up prayer flags.
Leaving the monastery was yet another mission. The locals are helpful and told us how to avoid the PSB (not that bus, the other one). Getting back to Lhasa involved a tour bus full of Dutch, a ferry boat that broke down half way across the river, walking around the dock area to avoid any PSB who might be there waiting for tourists, walking 2 kms down the road in the direction of Lhasa, hitching a ride with a Chinese dad and son, fancy bus to Lhasa, local bus to the area of our guesthouse, and then 15 minute walk to our hotel. Mission. And we were deadass tired when we arrived. But feeling fulfilled.
Posted by Arika at 07:36

September 21, 2006
On the roof of the world
Did you know that the average altitude in Tibet is 4000 m? Altitude has been figuring into my life alot lately. I'm at 3500 m here in Lhasa and I'm not allowed to go anywhere for a few days (Dr. Martin's orders). I escaped today to a monastery about an hour out of town, and then found out I was at 4500 m without any ill effects.
Gundan monastery is perched high on the moutains. Rectangular buildings clustered together and overlooking a flat, plain with a shallow sprawling blue river and mountains, some snow capped, in the background. We went with a bus load of pilgrims. Tibetans-- Tibetan style-- men look native American with long braided hair often wrapped around their head with red silk thread. Both men and women wear smock-ish dress. The women often have many braids with turquouise and coral beads across their hair. They are lovely happy people. Smile and laugh alot. I wish that I could talk with them, bc they seem to want to talk to me.
Monica (Austrian, 31 YO) and I followed the pilgrims as they walked around the moutain. They were looking for auspicious things: collecting sand from the rock and in holes, touching special rocks. I followed them through their little obstacle course: under the rocks and thru a hole, slide down the flat slanting rock (they whoop and laugh as they go), squeeze in the narrow crack between the rocks, walk under the sweeping prayer flags across the path, climb over the rock, pull on the cord tied on the rocks, tap small rocks on bigger rocks, add pebbles to dips in the rock etc. I figured, I may as well-- it seemed to be doing them alot of good. Then, of course, paying respects to the various buddha images, gods, spirits, and deceased holy monks. I'm a bit confused most of the time, but I try to do everything Thai style-- grahp in what I think is the main image, wai at all the rest, light incense at some random spot (they don't seem to use incense here), don't touch the monks, give money to the poor people outside the temple etc. Then we entered the prayer room. About 100 Tibetan monks. One head monk was chanting 'Om' with that special echoing sound of many voices-- deep and unearthly. We sat and listened for about an hour-- meditating a bit (later I thought, I was probably supposed to have my hands in a wai, but as I said, I am confused most of the time). The prayer room was huge, cavernous, full of Thankas, religious paintings, and prayer flags.
Monica and I are planning on staying at a monastery that is supposed to stunning. We couldn't get the special permit required bc we need to be part of a tour group. So we are going to wing it. I'll be back in a couple of days. Everything in Tibet must be well planned bc there are so many restrictions against foreigners. More plans coming up....
Posted by Arika at 11:03

September 18, 2006
Goodbye Yunnan
I'm sitting in the bar of my little guesthouse. Sort of surreal: listening to tribal style electronic music, lit candles, the design of the bar is rustic complete with a woodstove and a yak skull over the fireplace. Its cold outside and raining, so I'm wrapped in a shawl and wearing boots and a hat, sitting at a low rough wooden table. We got our tickets to Tibet today. So we are off! China is so huge that I felt like we travelled as much as we were still. Some stories to finish off Yunnan:
Martin, Fabian and I took a sleeper bus from Kunming to Lijiang. They gave us the back-- a huge bed all to ourselves! Very cozy. We made ourselves comfortable and made fun of all the people in front of us with the tiny beds. Apple cheeked children played peek a boo with us from the bed below. The bus started up and a man comes back to tell us to move over. We squeeze over to one side and the man makes himself at home. Next to Martin. Poor Martin gagged-- who says Asians don't smell? As Martin demonstrated, the man slept like a rock the whole night with one hand down his pants. The TV with Chinese music videos started and the only speaker was directly above Fabian's head. True to character: he says, I like. But after an hour trying to sleep, no one could like it. How could we sleep? We found out that our cozy little den was the bumpiest place on the bus! The worst. I tried to sit up at one point and my head narrowly brushed the ceiling after one surprise bump (That could have been bad! I told them. Very bad). Everytime the bus stopped, I got out. Nothing is worse than having to lay down for 10 hours without sleeping. Once we stopped and I used to bathroom-- an outhouse on top of a freezing windy building, pitch black (why the roof?). We arrived in Lijiang. Lovely old town of cobblestone streets. I was in good spirits and Martin in the worst. It didn't help that we got lost immediately and wandered around endlessly in the labyrinth of streets. But I always love the early morning.
Kunming: the food was terrible. It was my first place in China. I found that I couldn't eat anything. So oily! Everything. I even used the remainder of one of Fabian's meal to oil my boots-- and I must say my boots are in great shape still. I was so sad. I said, I can't eat. I'm so sad. What will I do? I have rarely found myself in the position to say such a thing. Thankfully, after Kunming, the food was wonderful. We like the tiny local restaurants the best. The smaller the better. I found soy milk (hu jung) and fried bread pretty quick, and it is my favorite. Actually, just the other day, I enjoyed a bowl of noodles and Martin and Fabian found the oil hard to get through. One more hurdle overcome!
Bathrooms: I have overcome my disgust and intolerance for dirty bathrooms. No longer, must I hold a tissue over my nose while I am in the bathroom. It is gearing me up for India. No problem.
High altitude: Zhongdian is at 3000 meters. And I feel fine! Martin, the German with the Alps, actually suffered a bit. And I have been having a wonderful time wandering around everywhere. We are ready for Lhasa-- it is at 3500m. We are told in the guidebook (Martin is the reader and the medical student, so he keeps me informed), that we must ascend at 200 meters at a time.
I bought a sleeping bag today. Mountain Hardware for 40$. Now my pack is too full. Will be overflowing. Still got to gear up for the Tibetan weather: rain gear.
Posted by Arika at 13:16

ZhongDian, Shang Ri-la
Fabian left us and it has left Martin and I disoriented and sad-- me anyway-- Martin will see him again soon in Germany. Fabian is one of the best. I have been lucky to have met some really special people on this trip. I would count Noi (Xieng Khuang, Laos), Sa and Ku (Sapa, Vietnam), and now this one. People with clear eyes and heart, who make you truly sorry to part with them when it is time to go.
Zhongdian has become a crossroads. What to do? Should I go on up north to the Tibetan regions and visit the villages and trek the glaciers? But I am alone. Or fly into Tibet? Tibet is looking more like the best option. It would give me a way into Nepal and help me to avoid this one week Chinese holiday (first week of Oct). As Meni, a very nice Israeli guy I met here the other day, put it-- Are you prepared to compete with 3.6 billion Chinese for a bus/train/plane ticket? Easy answer: Not me! So Tibet may be the best option. If all goes well, I'll be writing from Tibet next.
Posted by Arika at 01:45

September 16, 2006
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Lijiang: Big town with a fantastic old city of cobblestones and tiny stone shops. Many craftsmen/women. Something similar to Aleppo in Syria. Hordes of Chinese tourists. Sort of like Disney world. I hear that the old city was rebuilt after it was destroyed in the war. Just wandered around lost all the time (but not really lost). I like the early morning best. And spent 2 mornings wandering about. Once, on my own. I watched some local women at a traditional spring: the top spring is for collecting drinking water, the middle is for washing veggies, and the last is for washing clothes. Its cold and rainy here. Foggy. But just makes it all the more mysterious.
Chinese people can't be bothered with you too much. I sort of like it that way. If we could speak Chinese, I am sure that they would be very inviting. Even though they over price things alot, they don't really cheat you. I thought about it a bit and realized that the difference between overpricing and cheating is how you feel in the end.
I convinced Fabian and Martin that 1 day in Lijiang was quite enough and we headed off for Daju-- a tiny Naxi village set in the mountains.
Daju: Beautiful drive through the mountains. The driver was kind enough to stop briefly at a tourist spot along the way-- after I exclaimed delightedly (and loudly): Yaks! My first yaks and they were picture perfect. Standing in a very cold water fall made up of small limestone pools (like in Yellowstone NP). Just why they submitted themselves to standing in the freezing water, I don't know. The local people put them there I guess to wait for tourists to sit on them and take photos. (This was funny, these very 'traditional' people had a whole set up of high tech digital camera, computer, and printer out there next to the waterfall!)
We arrived in a tiny little Naxi village. Woman of the guesthouse spoke very good English. She made us a lovely meal too. She had only two rooms and we were the only tourists.
We set off for the Gorge the next day. Got lost immediately. But no problem. Hardly any trees. Just agriculture fields and grazing lands. Crossed the river with a ferry. Walked on the road for ages trying the find the hiking trail. We walked 20 km and didn't reach it that day. Went with a man to a little hotel on the edge of the gorge. 2$ a person. Gorge is spectacular. Postcard perfect, once again. Towering craggy and green mountains-- blocking out the sun. The gorge is one of the deepest in the world. The Yangtze River runs below us-- muddy brown and furiously fast. You wouldn't have 2 seconds of a chance if you fell in there. The next day we found the trail and walked a marvelous route along the cliff face, high above the road.
We are in a hurry to reach Zhongdian bc Fabian must leave to return to Germany soon.
Posted by Arika at 11:21

September 11, 2006
Kunming, China
Here I am. New country, new city. Chinese people are very quiet and subdued, although very polite and helpful. It is quite cold here and rainy, a bit. I'm still travelling with Fabian and now his friend, Martin, as well-- both from Germany and very good guys. We are heading out today for Dali. Kunming is not very nice. Just a typical modern developed city. But very clean and quiet. The motorbikes are electric.
Funny incident yesterday. We left our bags with the 'manager' of the bus station for 20 minutes while we got some breakfast. When we returned, the man demanded 40 Yuan! (the cost of a room at a hotel). We said, no way. And he threatened us. Telling us that we wouldn't be allowed to get on the bus. We went to put our bags on the bus anyway. He got really angry and started yelling and then pushing Fabian around. Now he was just a little 5 foot skinny Chinese man, Fabian is an over 6 foot tall German. Fabian was really good, and just asked the man to stop. Till another Chinese man interferred and yelled at the man to stop. We got on the bus no problem (and laughed and laughed about it-- so crazy)-- all the passengers had been watching our little drama. Maybe the man was crazy. Possibly the janitor. Just made an empty room into his office. It should have tipped us off that he wrote: 'VIP person' in permanent marker on the sign over the door and pointed it out to us.
Posted by Arika at 04:16

September 09, 2006
I just spent 3 nights in a H'mong village in the most beautiful place I've ever seen. We had the best time! I am travelling with a German guy (25 yo), Fabian. He's good. Travels my style, so we are having a good time. He speaks some Vietnamese-- so makes it much easier for me.

Fabian (met him in Hanoi) and I decided that we wanted to get off the beaten track. He likes the wildlife and I like the villages (and the wildlife). Since guides are ridiculously priced-- not to mention, who wants to travel in a tour group-- we decided that we would just go for it. Rented a tent and off we went. Immediately met some Hmong people. A middle aged smiling woman, asked me 'Where are you going to stay?' I said, 'With you!' And she smiled more deeply and looked happy. I asked her where she lived and her village was very close to the forest that we were aiming for. Off we went, with her and her daughter. Down the road. Down the mountain. Stunning. Terraced rice patties and and green tall mountains. Clear river in the center. Big rocks. Hill tribes in their traditional dress, carrying baskets. Sa and Ku speak English very well. Lovely and smiling-- as they like to say: “Shiny and smiling. Fabian always crying.” Sa is 40 and Cu is her eldest daughter at 20 years old. Their little wooden house is set in a tiny little dip in the rice patties. All green and yellow rice plants. Clear clean air. Sparkling river and streams. Breathtakingly beautifull views. Everywhere you look is like a post card. Sa's family is wonderful. Very happy. We laugh alot.

I've come away feeling half Hmong. Sa gave me huge hoop earrings and Cu, bracelets. I bought some hemp clothes from them in exchange. I'm climbing the hills like a mountain goat now-- just like them. They taught me to wind hemp together and strip them from the branches. I've brought along some raw hemp, to practice along the way.

We are heading for Kunming today. He's meeting a friend there. It is good that I have a travel partner into China. Bit nervous bc neither one of us know the language. But I hear some places they speak Thai.
Posted by Arika at 09:17

September 05, 2006
Fighting but holding my own
I must say quite plainly that Vietnam has been shit. The country is beautiful, the culture is interesting and unique, and the food is amazingly diverse, but the people are awful!!! I never thought that I could say that about anywhere.
Here is an example of just the past 2 days-- imagine everyday being this way: Yesterday, I lost my temper big time getting super ripped off over a train ticket. Dirty old man in the park started making moves, and I was just daring him to go for it-- I promise you I would've punched him in the head, I was planning on it. At 2 am after hanging out at a great club, a man in a pedicab tried to convince us to go the wrong way to our hotel, so that we would get lost and need his services. We ended up getting a cab just to escape the street people, and the cab went in a huge circle to drop us off like 50 m from where we began. Today, a woman was physically not allowing me to get off the mini-bus bc she wanted me to go to her hotel. I had to fight her off and push her out of the way!! And they wouldn't open the back for me, so I had to drag my bag out over the other passengers heads! Unbelievable. Just a minute ago I tried to ask for directions to a street and a man wouldn't tell me (or let his friend tell me), bc he wanted me to go to his hotel. Even the villagers try to rip you off (we got a motorcycle into the countryside in search of nice people). I am starting the get the hang of things though-- I'm becoming a hardened and seasoned traveller. Bottom line is: trust no one (who's local anyway).
The only reason I haven't left Vietnam yet is that I had doubts whether or not I was being a good traveller. I have concluded that its not me, its the country. This is the first place I'd say, stick with tours and the Westerners.
I am in a particularly beautiful place now. I am hoping that it will redeem my time in Vietnam. There are mostly ethnic hill tribe minorities here. And it is full of rice steppes and fog. It is in the mountains and the coldest place in Vietnam. I am hoping to make a little trek around the area, but will see what happens.
Tonight is the first day that I have been alone-- and its by choice. Been meeting really great travellers all along the way-- I guess that we are all in the same boat. Tomorrow I am meeting up with a German guy that I met in Hanoi. Hopefully we will be able to plan out an independent trek. He is also going to Kunming, China next so I may tag along with him, if Sapa doesn't appear to be looking up.
Posted by Arika at 15:04

September 03, 2006
Cat Ba National Park
Beautiful karst limestone hills everywhere! Green and lush. However, big tourist spot and it takes away from the magic of the place. Hard to make a move without a tout pestering you. Everything costs something. And the prices seem to change random and erratically. Tried to plan a homestay in the National Park, but we were quoted a crazy price (25$ a person-- not much in the US. But loads over here. I asked them why a village in the middle of the forest would ask so much and what we would get out of it and they said 'A chicken?' Tried to plan a hike, but same thing happened. Tried to go kayaking and camping around the islands, but the price of the guesthouse at the first island (where you rent the kayaks suddenly doubled in price and the island had an atmosphere like the YMCA. What we did manage to do: rent a motorcycle and cruise around the island. Stopped and talked with villagers. Visited a school with lots of happy children. Hung out with some workers who were building a road, then took a short walk into a stunningly beautiful valley with fruit trees. Had a wonderful local meal at a roadside restaurant in a village. Stopped at a bay with an amazing view of the karst limestone formations in the water and learned more Vietnamese from some motorcycle taxi drivers. Watched the sunset from the side of the road at the top of a mountain. The next day, took a boat trip into the islands and swam in the blue green water, explored some caves and took in the amazing view. I have to say it is prob the most beautiful island that I have ever been too. Yes, it is like a scene from Jurassic Park. We were only missing the dinosaurs (or any animals for that matter, the Vietnamese eat them all!)
In Hanoi and heading out towards the north soon.
Posted by Arika at 10:43

August 30, 2006
Laos to Vietnam
I'm in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. I'll summarize my trip from Laos to Vietnam just to let you know how crazy travelling is.
After being in Laos and seeing almost zero westerners for a week or so, my little 'song tew' to the border had 3 westerners and one Thai guy who was a researcher from Khon Kaen U and was good friends with a good friend of mine in KKU! It took us a few hours to get to the border (got stuck for a half hour or so bc they were re-doing a bridge). Arrived at the Viet border in the blinding sun. No prob with immigration although they thoroughly check your bags for something. Got on this huge bus that was full of bags of rice (or something). You had to climb over the mountain of bags to get to your seat. The bus filled up quickly (there are only buses into Viet on Sat and Sun, so we got lucky). Got ripped off immediately (they charge double for foreigners. The Thai guy told them that we were both Laos so that we could get a discount, but I couldn't pull off Laos very well). Then it was a horrendous 9 hour drive through the mountains in a packed bus with no AC. We didn't stop for food or drinks. Maybe got a couple of 15 minute breaks along the way. On the back of a seat in the front of the bus, someone had written ' THIS IS HELL' and that pretty much sums it up the trip.
The Thai guy (Chai), James (California, 20 YO) and I got off at Thanh Hua-- just for the hell of it. It was funny to all work together trying to talk to the Viet people. Chai was on his way back to KKU so that he could get back to work-- he left us shortly. Me and James starting wandering around at 10 pm at night trying to find a guesthouse and not able to speak a word in Viet. We had a guide book and tried to point out phrases to the Viet people but ended up in front of a 5 star hotel. Then a young guy on motocycle stops and offers to take us to a cheap guesthouse. He spoke English and was a student of Science. We said, why not? And got on 3 people. He took us to a couple of guesthouses till we found a 5 $ room at a really cozy place (hot water, TV, mosquito net, fans, hot tea etc). The owner was super nice and chatted with us in Vietnamese, even though we didn't know hardly 2 words.
The next day we walk out of out guest house and find ourselves in a bustling medicinal plant market place! Loads of people everywhere on bicycles and conical hats. It was unbelievable, but there were no cars! Only motos and bicycles. A lady called to us and had us eat breakfast-- kanom jean noodles, roasted little pork paddies, vinegar with ginger, ad piles of fresh veggies-- super good! The rest of the day we wandered around talking with Vietnamese people -- only speaking Vietnamese, let me tell you, you learn fast when you have to-- I got James to try some betel nut from an old lady, drank viet coffee at a dark and murky coffee shop, chatting with an old man with a long beard who spoke french and serenaded James with a Vietnamese theatre song. Later, James stopped to buy cigarettes and the seller was a Viet woman (24 YO) from Germany on vacation visiting her relatives! Hannah and her sister and a friend from Denmark went with us to look at a nearby church. Then a seriously beautifully old buddhist temple. Then, she arranged a taxi for all of us to go to the nearby beach-- we ate spring rolls and sour pork (Nam) on huge rocks overlooking the ocean. There was an antique buddhist temple on the mountain, which was prob the most beautiful temple I have ever seen. We finished our lovely day with a walk through the town and local ice cream at small tables on the street.
Posted by Arika at 15:00

August 25, 2006
Laos epilogue
This may be the last post I have on Laos, since I'll be making an attempt to cross over to Vietnam tomorrow. (I tried today at a different border crossing and plans went awry, which is why I am back here in Xam Neua on the internet).
Thanks to mom, I've got the Chinese gene that makes me all horribly red and puffy when I drink. Well suddenly, I don't have that problem anymore. I get pleasantly pink (the Laos people tell me 'gnam gnam'- very pretty-- I thought that they were making fun of me, and I'd make a joke about how attractive red and puffy is, until I realized that they really meant it.) I guess that gene is now either destroyed or just hung over.
I forgot to add the topper to all 'unfamiliar' Lao foods. Remember that green bottle of whisky? Well, after we finished it (Keo was so drunk she got sick and passed out, and she's a good drinker. I was still happily tripping around, but slightly ill.), we came home to a small welcoming dinner for Keo's boss who had just arrived from Vientiane. Keo's co-workers went out and got a 10 kg unborn cow fetus and boiled it all up. That's right. Chopped it all up and chucked it into a pot. The whole thing was in there. Except for the head, I think, bc I didn't see any eyeballs floating around, although I have to admit that I didn't look very hard. I did, however, notice a hoofed leg sticking out. But I didn't take that piece. I preferred to delicately munch on the unknown bits. After Keo recovered, I told her that there was an unborn cow fetus in the pot. She said, 'Really?' (brightly). So I brought her a bowl. She said, You're not eating? I told her that I was full. Then Noi walks in with a plate, saying, This is the best part. I can't tell you what it was but I'm sure that I once studied it in Biology Lab 101. I'll call it a spleen, bc that the sort of word it conjured up. I can only describe it as a flat-ish pink complete body organ made up of two lobes that filled the entire plate. Anyway, it jiggled momentarily when she put in on the table. And I considered sticking a spoon in it to see what it would do. But, thought, maybe today isn't the day for this.
[Noi told me that this dish is a delicacy in laos. It is very expensive at about 50B a kg (1.25$). You have to order it from the butcher ahead of time. I guess so the butcher has time to find a nice fat pregnant mom cow for you.]
Posted by Arika at 14:17

Why North Laos is mountainous
Yesterday night I had a beer with this Lao guy that I met at the guesthouse that we were staying at in Sup Bao (town at one of the local border crossings to Vietnam). He was from Xieng Khuong so I asked him about the Bigfoot. Here's what he told me (in Laotian, so I may have missed some of the details):
The 'Tha-Kuk' is a huge giant from many thousands of years ago. He was in the process of preparing the land to grow rice. So, he tilled what is now Northeast Thailand and Southern Laos. That is why they are flat. Just as he was getting started on Northern Laos a little bird (he forgot what kind of bird) came and asked the Tha-kuk to carry a huge bamboo stick for him (or her). The Tha-kuk, of course, said Sure. And put the bamboo on his (or her) shoulder. But the bamboo was so heavy that it cut into his shoulder and into his chest and killed him. That was the end of the Tha-kuk and that is why Northern Laos is so mountainous. Today, the Tha-kuk's footprints can still be seen in Vietnam in Northern Laos. Huge footprints that can be seen clearly from the sky.
Not exactly the story that I was looking for, but just as interesting.
I am leaving for Vietnam tomorrow.
Posted by Arika at 12:31

August 22, 2006
Xam Nua
I just arrived today. Xam Nua province is about 2 hours from Vietnam. Drove in with Keo’s boss and another one of her co-workers. Crazy drive, but beautiful—through the mountains for 6 hours !! but only about 120 or so km. Now so we are hanging out in the organization's house and-- of course-- drinking more beer and rice whisky (I’ve escaped to use the internet—opportunities are far and few). There are about 8 of us here now.
The city is lovely. Tiny. Nestled in a small valley surrounded by loads of forests and mountains. I just remembered today, that I once watched a Discovery show on the Bigfoot of Laos, who lived in the wild jungles along the Vietnam border. And here I am! Where are you, Mr. Bigfoot?
Today I went to the fresh market. Nothing terribly exciting. Pretty much the same as Thailand, but we get more local wild veggies for sale. I was told the Lao people prefer to collect for personal consumption, rather then sell, bc the market isn’t developed. But a lovely market (within walking distance from our house) with lots of fresh local veggies.
I’ll leave with a few of the co-workers in a few days. They are going in the field to a village to stay the night (I'll go too) then they will drop me off at the border of Vietnam.
BTW—I forgot to mention the food. Yes, the food. I have never run into so many things that I was reluctant to eat (and I pray, pray, pray I never eat dog or cat. No more Salabows for me!). Here’s a list of all the ‘unfamiliar’ things that I have had an opportunity to eat: pre-shit of cow made into chili paste (very bitter, fairly good, once you forget that it is shit), huge fried crickets (I only just tried a thorax today, fatty tasting, like potato chips. They call them ‘underground singers’ in Laos), grilled eggs with a chicken embryo inside (I got to the embryo and gave up), boiled cattle intestine (I suggested that we purchase something else for our beer snack), smashed up frogs in chili paste (I’ve actually had this in Thailand and Laos before, but it seemed more appetizing then), and Mang Da—water cockroach—chili paste (I never get used to this, who wants to eat a cockroach??!).
They eat a lot of meat here too. I may be becoming vegetarian. It is really terrible to see the chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs squeezed into tiny cages and hyperventilating in dehydration and fear until someone grabs it by a wing or a leg and stuffs into a sack, to slit its throat later—if it has not already died from all the suffering. Horrible.
Also-- I've learned to meaning of Poverty. It is the lack of opportunities and choices. Contrary to popular belief, it has little to do with money, happiness, and material wealth.
Posted by Arika at 15:33

Phonsavahn, XiengKhoung (Plain of Jars)
I’m having to back track here, bc I haven’t had much access to the internet at all. The electricity and the internet has been out almost the entire time that I was in Phonsavahn (capital city of XiengKhoung province).
I’ve been hanging out with Keomany (good friend from Vientiane) and her co-workers of Consortium (US NGO). They are working on a project called LEAPSS, which facilitates and teaches villages to raise silk worms and spin and wave silk for an alternate source of income. Her co-workers are great people. Very few women. Me and Keo are just some of the guys. In the evenings, as part of the culture (they tell me), we sit around and drink! Lots! More than I ever have before. Its even worse when we go in the villages, bc after the work is done. Out comes the gigantic green bottle of rice whisky, and there we sit eating a lovely local meal of sticky rice and chili paste and everything else tastey they have to offer. To refuse the first shot is bad manners. But, you can’t just have one shot, bc how can you stand on one leg? So down goes the next. And wait, just one more before you leave. But, now you’ve only got 3 legs! So down goes number 4, and then I start sipping the rest, till we are all wasted (but the driver, and he really has to protest, and someone else has to drink it down for him) and stumble back into the truck to return to the office. No wonder, the field staff only do one village a day! I can’t imagine having to do 2 or 3.
We stay in the organization’s huge house, ranging from 5-10 people at one time. Nice cozy house with all the home conveniences (including washing machine!).
Did you know that Laos had 3 million tons of bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam war, by the US? That was the total population of Laos at that time..
I stayed in Phonsavahn for a week. Made some good friends. More notably, Cum Dee (guy, 20 YO) and Noi (girl, 22 YO). I learned a lot too. Considering doing my Doctorate’s research here, collaborating with Keo. But what am I going to do about all this whisky?
Tags: Laos
Posted by Arika at 15:00 | Permanent Link | Comments (0) |

August 13, 2006
Vengvieng, Laos
I've only made it 3 hours N of Vientiane (laos capital). Staying at an organic mulberry farm. Waiting for Keo to catch up with me. Its quiet and peaceful. We are part of the community. We teach English in the evenings and make lots of friends. The villagers are very friendly. Easy to sit and chat with them. By the river, there are two girls. They call me 'Ouoy! Ouoy!' and tell me that they will wait for me until I return to play with them (go swimming, eat wild sugarcane, walk around the village, paint my fingernails with crushed orange stones...) Sometimes I walk around and sit and chat with people. I am learning the meaning of silence. Just sitting together. I gave a woman 25,000 Kip yesterday. She needed to take her grandson to the hospital, and I was there. She asked me for it, so I asked to visit her house. Bamboo hut, with dogs tied inside-- source of food. TV and DVD player. Young kids and mothers, watching karaoke. Elderly man told me, they were chased down the mountain by 'enemies. 'Who?' Enemies. 18 years ago. So now they all live together: Hmong, Khamu and Lao Klang. They smile alot, with straight white teeth, and are beautiful people. Light brown eyes, sometimes slanted. Often porcelein skin, maybe freckles. They are poor-- they tell me-- but are very happy.
Teaching english.
Posted by Arika at 07:44
August 05, 2006
The times, they are a'changin'
Its time to go again. Off on a new adventure. I'm heading north. Laos: visit my good friend Keo, in Vientiane and meet her new baby. If she can, we'll travel together towards China. Yunnan, China: Head towards ZhongDian to meet up with Anthony, from University of Hawai'i, who is finishing up his research up there. Then we'll see how possible it is get to Tibet, Nepal and India. Khon Kaen-- I'll see you in 4 months!
Posted by Arika at 10:20 |

'The Zahir' by Paulo Coelho
‘… in order to live fully, it is necessary to be in constant movement; only then can each day be different from the last. When they (nomads) passed through cities, the nomads would think: The poor people who live here, for them everything is always the same. The people in the cities probably looked at the nomads and thought: Poor things, they have nowhere to live. The nomads had no past, only the present, and that is why they were always so happy, until the communist government made them stop traveling and forced them to live on collective farms. From then on, little by little, they came to believe that the story society told them was true. Consequently, they have lost all their strength.’
‘No one nowadays can spend their whole life traveling.’
‘Not physically, no, but they can on a spiritual plane. Going farther and farther, distancing yourself from your personal history, from what you were forced to become.’
‘How does one go about abandoning the story one was told?’
‘By repeating it out loud in meticulous detail. And as we tell our story, we say goodbye to what we were and…we create space for a new, unknown world. We repeat the old story over and over until it is no longer important to us….As those spaces grow, it is important to fill them up quickly, even if only provisionally, so as not to be left with a feeling of emptiness.’
‘ How?’
“With different stories, with experiences we never dared to have or didn’t want to have. That is how we change. That is how love grows. And when love grows, we grow with it.’
‘Does that mean we might lose things that are important?’
‘Never. The important things always stay; what we lose are the things we thought were important but which are, in fact, useless...’
‘If you tell a story, then that means you’re still not really free of it.’
‘I am free, but, as I’m sure you’ll understand, therein lies the secret; there are always some stories that are ‘interrupted,’ and they are the stories that remain nearest to the surface and so still occupy the present; only when we close that story or chapter can we begin the next one.’
Posted by Arika at 10:08

July 07, 2006
Tioman Island
I am now a proud PADI. I love diving! I hear that diving is the most affordable in this part of the world-- with some of the most beautiful spots! Loved Tioman Island. Great people, great energy, great scenary. I got a little seaside bungalow for 25 Ringgits (6$). I went with Eco-divers because it felt right. Instructor was Malaysian with very good English and seemed quite competant. Jeff turned out to be a great instructor, and I feel pretty well-educated even though the course was a bit too fast (my doing-- I only had 4 days on the island). The course pretty much took all my time, but I welcomed the pace. It was nice to be learning something so intensely. Alternating between reading on the porch overlooking torquiose water, diving from the shore and the boat and hanging out with great people. There were only 2 people in the class- -me and a girl from England, Annabelle, who was ethnically Phillipino.
I am sorry to leave Tioman so early, I was just getting to know people (last night went out for a grilled fish feast and had drinks at a beachfront pub). I could have used at least a few more days. Lots of hiking to be done and snorkling. The reefs are so beautiful! Very peaceful. Developed just the right amount. The Malaysians are super nice! It is a welcome change to meet nice and non-pushy people in the tourism business. When they say Hello to you, they actually mean it-- and don't just want to reel you in to extract every bit of loose change from you (hint hint-- the Thais). Malaysian food is also superb. Maybe its bc I have been in Thailand too long, but I think that I like the Malaysian food better. Sort of a mixture between Thai, Chinese, and Indian. Great curries!
I am back on the road again. Got a plane ticket out of KL tomorrow morning. See you back in Thailand!
Posted by Arika at 04:35

July 02, 2006
Did you know that Malaysians travel like crazy on sundays? And book all their tix in advance? Very un-Thai.
I've titled this entry Mersing, because it has been my goal for the past 4 days and I only just made it today.
After leaving Tamara Negara NP, I found myself stuck in Kuantan (a fairly large city)-- being told to wait 6 hours for an 11 pm bus. There was no way that I was going to arrive in a new town at 2 am in the morning. So I looked for other options. Thank goodness Nat and Julie left me with a Lonely Planet. I found the closest town on the map-- Cherating-- backpacker spot. Perfect for me. Unfortunately, a solitary female traveller needs backpacker company (really unfortunate, bc Malaysia is perfect for getting off the beaten track. Really missing Ivan at this point. One male companion would definitely help to immerse into the Malaysian culture.) I negotiated a bus (3 Ringgits-down from 10 R bc I didn't have any change) and got dropped off at a lonely intersection. Evening was approaching, so it wasn't the best situation. Malay woman at a little stall told me to walk towards the coast 2 km. 'Down that (dark and scary) road?' I said dubiously. "No taxis?' No taxis. Sketchy road-- forested. Didn't help that teenage motorcycle gangs were passing by and whooping at me (I got my mace out). Luckily, I turned the bend and found civilization. Certainly not 2 km. Little tourist mecca. Met a woman from Hawaii (married a muslim). Very friendly and we chatted for quite a while. Then, Canadian skater boy (who gave me a whole new perspective on travelling-- he meets up with other skater dudes in all the major cities that he goes to around the world and they show him around.) who rec a guest house with lots of other backpackers (I was truly worried about being in a guesthouse with only local Malay tourists (don't trust the men-- as i learned quickly in the Middle East, muslim men often get the wrong impression way too easily. Allow me some generalization here).
It quickly became quite apparent that 'lots of tourists' here in Malaysia is on a totally different scale from Thailand. 'Lots' meaning more than 5 people. I got a nice little cottage for 25 R (5$) from some very friendly Malaysian owners. Very peaceful. Lots of friendly locals around-- with great English. The next day, I planned to leave, and met a friendly and funny Malaysian guy (28 yo), Noah, who I had an interesting conversation with (or rather he said interesting things, bc I didn't get a word in edgewise). In any case, he reminded me that I was being too goal oriented and should allow for some diversions. He was a batik painter, so I decided what the hell-- it was already noon anyway-- and settled in to make a batik. All day batik with UK girl, Harriet (only 19 yo!). We had a great time, laughing and examining each others batik. That night Noah invited me to see a local band. Good thing I invited Harriet-- he thought it was a date! He started getting too close, so I put an end to that pretty quick-- and decided, Yes, it was time to leave tomorrow. Anyway, the pub was nice, good cover band, and everyone watching the England-Portugal game (my first viewed football match-- still boring). We all laughed alot and it was fun. I hadn't been out to a pub in a long while, so it was good for me (although beer was way too expensive).
Today, I left at 7.30 am for Mersing-- again. Found myself stuck in Kuantan-- Again! It was sunday-- all the buses (like 4 of them, you'd think they'd have increased the bus traffic on Sundays in anticipation) were full. What to do? In the bathroom, I had a brilliant idea-- what about the local buses? No one thinks for you -- just possibly one of the transportation people, who I kept returning to to present them with possible alternative travel scenarios for their approval, could have suggested it. When I mentioned the idea to one of them, he cocked his head and said, Yes. And told me the way. So I went to the local bus station and found my way out! Off I went on the local buses. More interesting too. I ended up in some nice little towns. Made a lovely female muslim friend who worked at the bus station. I treated her to lunch (this was funny, I forgot to pay for my b-fast this morning and this british guy I was talking to during bfast covered for me-- I saw him later. He said don't worry about paying him back. I said Thanx! and decided, that I should then, buy someone else a meal to make up for it. The opportunity came up immediately for lunch!). Later talked with my bus driver who finally brought me to Mersing-- he spoke Thai! He said he hadn't met a Thai speaker in over 10 years. He was happy to talk to me.
Tommorrow, I will finally get the Tioman Island. Planning on getting PADI certified. See what happens next.
Here's what I have realized on this trip to Malaysia: I like travelling alone! I didn't think that I had the guts or the stamina for it anymore. But I think that it is good for me. Lots of interesting things happen. And the longer I travel the more I can trust my instincts. It takes a few days to get into the flow of travelling. I just found it today. And now I have to leave on Saturday! Damn almost expired passport, Malasian immigration, and non-refundable, non-changeable, non-transferable, and expensive return Air Asia plane ticket.
Posted by Arika at 13:43

June 29, 2006
Taman Negara National Park
Yesterday we made it to Kuala Lipis (little town) to spend the night. Woke up early and left for the National Park. Boat up the river. We made quick our plans-- since Nat and Julie are on a time schedule (flying out on Fri). Arranged to hike 8.5 km to Lata Borach camp site. Left late-- around 2 pm. Followed the river upstream. This NP is boasted as the oldest rainforest in the world at 150 million years old. Most of the tourists are western. Only two other tourists (Brits) at the campsite.
Campsite was rustic to say the least. Nat had a hammock, but me and Julie were limited to two skinny little benches, about a foot across. We pushed them together and slept foot to head. Amazingly, there were no mosquitoes, so no need for a mozzie net. Lots of leaches on the trail though. River was clean an beautiful (next to campsite).
Really well maintained NP. Lots of places for camping. Bridges well built. Signs on the trails. You could go trekking for at least a few days straight in this park.
The next day we made our way back down the river to make it to the the canopy walk-- left behind by some researchers. It was really good! High and at least 300 meters long. Broken up into about 50 m increments and tied to huge trees.
Tomorrow, Julie and Nat will begin their journey home, and return to Kuala Lumpur. I'll move on towards the east coast to an island called Pulau Tioman. Planning to get my PADI SCUBA certification.
List of animals seen: Malaysian sun bear (climbing down a tree), monkeys, monitor lizard, skinks, flying lizard, hornbills, squirrels, king fishers, and saw some footprints of a fairly big cat (feet as big as my hands)
Posted by Arika at 14:59

June 27, 2006
Malaka is the origin for the Malaysian Kingdom. Beautiful architecture...traditional wooden houses are on stilts with pointed tall roofs (like Thai). Entry ways have an interesting concrete staircase with bright colored and intricate tiles. The city are tall narrow buildings, brightly colored. Archways and pillars. There is a river in the center of the city. We took a little ferry cruise yesterday-- amphibious fish and monitor lizards. Lots of arts and crafts and museums. Food! So good! Malaysian food has many curries and some similarities to Thai food. Last night had Indian food on banana leaves with about 6 different small dishes ber person.

The religion here is Muslim, Hindi and Chinese buddhism. The different temples are pretty much right next to each other. Muslim is dominant. People are friendly and smiling.
Posted by Arika at 01:43

November 09, 2004
Remember-- check your bills!
At the airport. Difficult journey thru the city (damascus). Like always. Got fleeced by the taxi driver. He traded me some bills for a 1000 Syrian bill (about 20 dollars). All the syrian money I had left to buy some presents and get to the airport. Bastard gave me a lousy bill, and I spent an hour trying to get rid of it. Ended up at the Central syrian bank-- which of course was closed-- in front declaring 'Ma fee floos!, ' which means 'I have no money!' The employees were all going home, and said 'come back tomorrow in the morning.' 'Mis mooka!!' -- 'I cannot!' and made some signals about flying away to another country today. More gestures. More people. I had a small crowd. Sympathy. They understood. A man pushed 50 Syrian into my hand. I tried to give him my 1000 Syrian for it. He said no. Another man gave me 100. Then a couple more 50's came in from the crowd. An important man came out of the bank, and another man took my 1000 and pushed it into the man's pocket. The important man, shrugged, and pulled out 500 from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. Victory! Thank God for kind Syrian people.
Posted by Arika at 14:42

November 08, 2004
Desert walk
Left on the bus from Deis e'zeir to Palmyra. Played it by ear and thought to stop by a castle on the way. Got off the bus with another local man. Looked convenient bc there was a huge truck sitting there by the road, waiting to pick him up. Took a look around and noticed: nothing but desert, not road, just sand and bushes. Next obvious step was to get in the truck with the man. We took off into the desert. Some tents and concrete buildings around. Sheep. A few camels. Arrived at a couple of tents. Appears that they were once nomadic people. Probably asked to settle by the government. Concrete building. But probably not in use. They sleep and eat and spend time in the tents. Women thought that we were funny. What were we doing here? Good question. No sign of this castle. Man motioned off in to the desert: it was over there some where. Men all look like the quintessential Arabs-- long 'dress' and the red checkered cloth on his head. the women were colorful-- long skirts. Layers. Black hejab (head scarf). Older women with tattoos. They were private, no invitation to stay. So we said, thanks for the ride. We will take off for Palmyra now. They gave us a ride half way to the road. And we walked the remaining couple of Km. A rainstorm was coming. Strong breeze. Beautiful falling sun. Land went on and on-- flat sand and small bushes. Lovely.
Posted by Arika at 17:39

Deis e'zeir
I am in a little town called Deis e'zeir. It is in the desert. Actually about 200 km from Iraq. But no problems here. I saw a sign for the highway to Iraq. Someone gave me an Iraqi bill with Saddam's face on it. sure to be a collector's item. Sorry to hear that Bush made it into office. And sorry to hear that my absentee ballot never came to me in Khon Kaen. All is well .INternet is pretty bad and very slow. Town has lots of shops. Everyone is very friendly. They all want us to have tea with them. And are always urging us to get out of the hotel and stay with them at their house. Last night stayed at the house of a Kurdish family, close to the turkish border. THeyy were a family of 12 (!!!) children. THe father's sister had 13 children. All together their generation of 4 siblings had almost 50 children !!! It was raining and cold there so we came south to the desert. thinnking to visit a very ancient city in the desert called Palmyra-- where the queen Zenobia was buried.
Posted by Arika at 17:27

November 03, 2004
Lost in the ancient city of Aleppo
Leaving Aleppo. A seriously old and ancient city. Mazes and labyrinths of old city. I have been frustratingly lost countless times.
First night in the city, I separated from Ivan and decided to meet him at the hotel. Couldn't find the damn thing. ARound and around in circles. An old man noticed me and said something to me in Arabic which I translated as: I see you walking in circles, can I help you? Another man came to talk to me in English and before you know it I was surrounded by about 15 Arab men. All trying to help me. The only clue I had was the room key which was useless. There are like 60 hotels in the area and all the same! They walked me around, talking to people and hotels. Told me not to worry, that in the end I would be found and all would be well. Finally they said, don't you have anything? Papers? Passport? Yes! I have my passport. And I opened it and.... Bingo. Hotel card. They cheered and a man walked me back to the hotel to make sure that I got there OK.
Posted by Arika at 11:13

October 30, 2004
midnight castles
Headed towards the coast. Found the major towns a bit too big and busy. No problem. Found a nice looking castle in the guidebook. Thought that we could stay the night there. Castle on the mountinain was empty save for a drunk bum. We found a nice cathedral in the castle and decided that it would make a nice place for sleep. Our little dream was wrecked when the little bum came looking for us-- he told us that we could not stay there for the night. But instead took us on a night tour of the castle. Huge!! Like a labyrinth. He knew every nook and cranny. He was after some money, but he didn't get a dime from us-- we left him after he started trying to get a little honey from me.
Went down the mountain to a crappy hotel. Ivan went down to pay the room, and the boy who was showing us the place came in to the room-- which didn't have electricity, so we used candles. He was trying to communciate with me: put his hands in the air, snapped his fingers and shook his hips-- dancing. Then made the universal sign for money. OK. Think I got it. Absolutely not. I showed him my left hand: married. And I kicked him out. Ivan came up and said, funny. The boy took him to a room and asked it I would dance for them. They would give him 500 Syrian pounds: 10 $. Ivan said, sorry. Not enough.
I was glad to leave. And we took off for the Mediterranean coast.
Posted by Arika at 11:10

October 26, 2004
Castles, drums and Che Guevera
In a tiny town called Misyaf. Came here to see a castle (nice and old, no tourists. Just wandered around at our leisure). People are super nice. They stop us (with my friend Ivan-- who speaks enough Arabic to make things nice and easy) and give us food and such. One man told us to come visit his house across the road, so we went to take a look. To our surprise it was like a castle, complete with arches, rounded ceiling and courtyard. Nice carpets and couches. His family greeted us with some cold dessert in cups. In the middle of the room was a full-on drum set, and pictures of Che Guevera on the wall. The son came in and gave us a taste of his talents: wind chimes, various perscussion instruments. Then his old father joined in with an Indian-style drum. Turns out the son is in University as a musician, travels around Syria and to Lebanon etc -- you wouldn't think so in such a tiny town. Tonight we will stay with a nice family (who fixed Ivan's bag) and then take off for a big castle about an hour away. No worries about me. Everything is good. The syrian people are unbelieveable.
Posted by Arika at 18:10

October 18, 2004
fasting and the sexes
Just a few words.... Here at the airport and got plenty of time to hang around on the internet for a bit.
It is fasting month for Muslims. This means that no food from dawn till dusk for everyone. Even if you are not muslim, it is respectful to participate in the fast in front of other people. The only exception are people with health problems/reasons and travelers-- people who will not remain in the same place for more than 10 days. (Although I am at the airport with my bags and stole some bites of a sandwich I made and got dirty looks from an older couple sitting in front of me).
Separate areas on public transportation: Totally thankful for this. The first time Vladimira and I were on the underground metro, we got on the mens side. (She said, that's funny. There are only men using the metro). Luckily (or unluckily) we got seats, and sat down facing like 20 men, who were ALL staring at us. Scary. It was totally packed. At every station-- even though the car is full-- more men get on by pushing and shoving. super hot and hard to breathe. I thought that we were lucky to get off alive. The next time we got on, we discovered the womens' side. Peaceful, quiet, plenty of space. You could sit on the ground, no problem, if there weren't any seats. Lovely. So-- consider the separation of sexes a privilege. (and the women get the front of the train : )
Posted by Arika at 12:19

October 17, 2004
good bye Iran!
Cleaned up all my loose ends-- mostly meaning getting the Syrian visa worked out. So all is well and I am off to Syria tomorrow. Must say that I am glad to be leaving Tehran-- which is much to crazy for me. But I will miss my Iranian friends-- Simin-- who has been so incredibly kind to us-- like an angel, really. Vladmira left tonight and I miss her already. She was a perfect travel friend for me-- I can only say great things about her and I hope that we meet again soon. We have a hundred funny stories between the two of us now. Iran was so enlightening to me. I completely see the Islamic world differently-- I understand it better and it is lovely-- like all religions are (or should be). The hospitality of the Middle East is akin to Asia-- they are overall kind, considerate and generous people. This desert country is unique indeed. It must be one of the last frontiers that can still be considered 'exotic.' I will definitely try to find more time (and money) to return again and explore the area a little bit better. Until then-- let's try Syria!!!!
Posted by Arika at 22:33

October 16, 2004
Apparently, men out here believe that women are like property. You know, you find a bit of money on the ground, so it is yours to take. A women without a man (more specifically an Iranian man) is a free for all. They cop a feel, and the best reaction appears to be: let them have it! Chase them down and give them a good wop, accompanied with some cursing and yelling in whatever language you can muster up. They never fight back, bc it is unbelievable that a woman would have the gall to be so agressive. We were walking on the edge of a park, four women. One of the other women (Agata, about 23 years old from Poland) has been here studying here for several months. A man brushed by and put his hand on her thigh in passing. She immediately turned around and ran after him with full speed, leaped in the air and pushed him hard with both hands, yelling in Farsi 'You can touch your mother, but you can't touch me!'-- he went spinning away. And another group of Iranian men, laughed and cheered and clapped. It was so great.
Posted by Arika at 05:56

October 12, 2004
Bus ride was nice. We sat in the front and watched the upcoming hills, desert landscape, old mud ruins, and sheep/goat herders pass us by.
Shiraz is a bit too big for me (like Tehran and Estaphan). But it is full to the brim with important historic places. The grandeur entrance into Shiraz is lined with ancient steps, maybe for an amphitheatre-- must be hundreds of years old. Found a good guesthouse (upon rec of Vladimira friends who were here last year) and haggled them down to 65,000 rials for the room-- about 7$ US.
Next day. Wandered down the street to a magnicent citadel. Jsut part of the landscape. Four towers on each corner. One is sinking into the ground and is crooked. Like the leaning tower of Pisa. Met a Uni student on a bench and he gave us some advice about visiting places. The president is in town for the day. So things are quite busy at the major mosque of the city. He took us to a mosque that was similar, and not in the guidebook: The entire interior is covered with tiny square mirrors! Magnificent! Like as room full of stars. We were given a sheet to cover ourselves. And curled up on the ground next to the wall to lean back and take it all in. Interesting discssuion with him about religion. He says that he is a lazy Muslim and does not pray 5 times a day like he ought to (and Muslims must pray 5 times a day, or not at all). Buddhism is mystifying for him, and monks must not be a good thing to be-- given all the rules for men (they can't touch a woman at all?! not at all?!)
He guided us to Hafiz's tomb-- with a lovely garden inside-- and left us there as he had another appointment. It was full of people. And it so happens that it is the annual festival for Hafiz's tomb today! So entry was free and it was very festive indeed. We discovered the tea house quite quickly. Inside a small courtyard there were little spaces along the wall just big enough for pillow, carpet and up to 4 people. Small trees for shade. Birds. Traditional Iranian music echoed. We got ice cream and tea and dreamed away for a couple hours. Really needed it after all the fast traveling.
Posted by Arika at 17:27

The bazaar in Estaphan is amazing. Over 400 years old and a maze of permanent shops and sellers. Lots of handicrafts. A visitors paradise. I managed to escape with a lovely metal painted plate, a bed cover (hand printed) and rug (had to get a rug, even if it is only 1 foot by 1 foot). The bazaar is at a square, which is the size of a foot ball field. On three sides are 2 mosques and one wooden palace. The bazaar is inside the wall of this square, I can't imagine what an overhead shot would look like. The mosques are unbelieveable. I can honestly say that one huge dome inside a mosque is the most incredible feat of human engineering and artistry that I have ever seen-- completely covered with hand painted tiles (a motiff of yellows and blues), and HUGE!
Teahouses are lovely. We found a little place inside of a bridge crossing the river. The ceiling was entirely covered with dangling antique lamps and carousels. Seats were in the windows which were lined with pillows and carpet. We ordered some tea and a water pipe and puffed on some flavored tobacco overlooking the river. Next teahouse was a place in the square of the bazaar and we spent the rest of the night drinking tea and puffing on a water pipe overlooking the mosques and palace of the square.
Posted by Arika at 17:08

October 10, 2004
After the conference I left with the 3 Iranian female students to the university. It turned out that the town that they took me to, Kashan (pronounced Ka-sha), is a fairly well know place for visiting. Relatively, that is, since there are very few visitors in Iran. The town is an oasis town-- there was running water everywhere. It was refreshing for the body and spirit to be around so much water in the middle of the desert. Iranian weekend is Thrus and Fri. Two of the students took me on a full-scale tour aroudn the town: 3 gigantic old houses. Really amazing. Huge Iranian mansions. Cannot really explain here--photos would help. Also, lovely garden with old bathhouse. Houses date back to about 200 years old. They are being restored. The rest of the town was quite small, with short square houses (to reflect the sun) mostly made of adobe (mud). In the distance were high mountains and all desert. The students were completely hospitable, I had to keep slipping money in their wallets to keep up my end of the share-- they kept saying, no problem, you are our guest. Iranian people love guests: Thailandia, Italia, American. We love all guests. In the evening (after one night) I got on the bus for a city 3 hours to the south (called Esphahan). Now this was no easy matter, bc Iranians hardly speak any english at all. The students worked it out by taking me to the bus. Getting my ticket. Leaving instructions in Farsi with the bus driver to get me meet Hamid (my contact, bc I was trying to meet up with the tour from the conference). The bus driver took this responsibility quite seriously, and even ordered the single man next to me on the bus to leave the seat and let me sit by myself. I felt obliged to let the driver know that I was safe and sound when I finally found Hamid.
Posted by Arika at 19:27

October 07, 2004
I just presented my paper today at the conference. It was 25 minutes long. I got really good feedback! Everyone was very interested. After wards, many people came up to me to congratulate me on my presentation and research. I am glad that there is so much interest in traditional medicine.Usually people seem to be more interested in how to apply results from studies of traditional medicine in Western medicine.
Today is the last day of the conference. Today I will leave with 3 Iranians female students (the ones mentioned in the last entry) to go to their university about 3 hours from here. Then I will meet a Czech female friend (a Ph.D student from the conference-- we get along great. Laughing all the time) in a famously beautiful city, Esfahan, about 3 hours from there on the next day. It has been so good here. An Iranian prof at the conference approached me and asked me about my plans-- when I told him that I would go to Esfahan, he insisted that I come to stay at the University guest house of Esfahan and allow him to take us on a tour of the facilities.
Iran people are incredibly kind hearted and very nice. It is easy to get around. Today I went to the city to run errands and the confernence organizers wrote on a piece of paper for me to give to the taxi driver. They are not like taxi drivers in Bnkk (shady). Tehran is very safe and clean and organized (besides the traffic). I think that the Tehran drivers could beat a Bangkok driver any day.
Last night an Iranian woman and her son took us (a couple of profs and grad students like me) on a tour around the city. We went to a very interesting gorge which wound up the mountain. It was a big place for entertainment (something I didn't expect in such a strongly adherent Islamic country)-- which consists of very lovely bohemian style teahouses (with carpets to sit) on-- I think also, alcohol and they have water pipes (tobacco). Apparently the gorge winds on and on-- if you keep walking you will reach the end in about 2 hours.
Amanda-- you would be interested to hear that the woman who took us up the mountain has a Master's in Midwifery. as well as in Medical education. People in the middle east really embrace traditional medicine and alternative ways of healing-- it is a nice contrast to most couontries.
The conference itself has been wonderful. The entire--I mean ENTIRE--community of registrants and organizers have all been of the same mentality: friendly, warm, sincere, and very kind. I am so glad that I came. I feel like I have started some good relationships with people (of academia) who share the same interests as I do, and that we will be able to continue our relationships in the future.
I have also purchased a ticket to Syria for the grand total of : 145$ US !!!! So I will be able to tell you about Syria and Jordan as well. Talking to a Jordanian yesterday (a prof who I feel will be a good friend) he explained the situation between Israel and Palestines (syria is bordered by them). It is quite sad, and seems to be unresolvable. If the US and Europe would just keep there hands out of the middle east-- all would be well. It is unbelieveablehow screwed up everything is here, bc of Europe and US designating new territories upon will and without the consent of the people who actually live there.
Posted by Arika at 10:34

October 06, 2004
beauty and God
While waiting for my room in the University guest house, I was approached by three young Iran female students. I was waiting with my new friends from the conference (it is as conference onTraditional medicine and materia medica) who were all Male and from various countries: Jordan, Germany and Britain. One of the girls did the talking-- she was wearing a black sheet that covered her, but required that she hold it around her body. She held it to her face: furtively. Like she was blocking out the men around us (and the men kept their distance). And invited me to visit them in their room in the guesthouse.
The room is like an appartment (mine is the same). Very nice. Kitchen. Living room, bedroom. They were eating bread and yoghurt and inivited me to join them. Their enlgish was quite good. They wanted to see my handwriting: English and Thai; as a fetish, they said (surely not the right word). They were delighted that I drew them a little bird as well. They told me about the Islam religion. I told them that I was Buddhist. They approached the subject of women and covering up. And their view on America ('It seems that President Bush hates us very much')
They have arranged marriages. They love their parents very much and believe them to be their best friends' in the world-- that they could never choose wrongly for them. The parents find a man who is like them and introduce to the two for marriage. Both the man and woman are kept away from the other sex until marriage-- so for both to meet, it is a new and fresh experience and of course love grows between the both of them. The family is very important bc it is the foundation of their lives and for the country. So, the family is alwas included in all important decisions. Of course, something as important as marriage should be a decision that is made by the elders-- who are wise and know and love you more than anything/one in the world. Possibly (my interpretation), the parents actions are directly influenced by god and they believe in the actions of the parents whole heartedly.
Covering up: No, it is not the idea of men. The women here and in Turkey (Suni Muslims) decided to do this on their own. Women are very beautiful and must be hidden.Why hide a man who is not beautiful.Yes, a man should be responsible for his actions, but what if he isn't (talking about rape/sexual assault)? It isn't like money and the thief-- money can always be found again. The women's beauty is for themselves-- they choose to keep it amongst themselves and for god. It is how they express their love for god. To keep themselves beautiful, pure and safe-- like a treasure. Only the husband is the man who they will allow to have a relationship with them, but besides that, they belong to god and themselves. They love their coverings (a big thin black sheet they warp around them) it makes them feel safe. They have no interest to interact with men. This is their wall to them.Why give men the opportunity to take their (women) beauty with their (men) eyes? It is not theirs to take.

Posted by Arika at 06:48