Week Thirty One - Touch Down! 03/01/2011
“The Eagle has landed.”
Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969 from Apollo 11 on the moon.
Day Two Hundred and Eleven January 15th
Vince: “Yes, but not as…”
This is his new response to just about everything. He just leaves it hanging out there: but not as what? It doesn’t matter. Is it raining? Yes, but not as.
Sunny? Yes, but not as. What to go to the park? Yes, but not as. The beach? Yes, but not as. Can you put your Legos away? Yes, but not as….
How much fun it is to watch the mind stretch and expand.
We are off to a surf beach today. It is about an hour or so but well worth the drive. We are the only ones there when we arrive and one of maybe ten families when we leave in early afternoon. No one is here, in NZ, I mean. The country feels really empty.
The beach is tucked away past a set of sand dunes and opens on to a big harbor anchored on either side by rocks jetting out into the sea. The waves spill up the beach on a gentle slope perfect for body surfing. The Surf Guard corps is training and doing lifesaving exercises. We swim, build a few castles, Teri and Adele take a long hike, we all get freaked out by the jellies, lounge around for a few hours and eventually had back to the house on the hill. It feels very much like we are just passing time until we get to Nelson. Everyone is tired and a bit weary.
Day Two Hundred and Twelve January 16th
Finally. When we booked this day back in April it felt so far away. We had so many miles to cross, things to see and do, places to go. Everything was wide open with this single day as our only real anchor. Today is that day. The day we move to our new home (though temporary) in Nelson.
The morning is a blur. We pack one last time. Our rule has always been that our stroller, the Maclaren, the one that has seen us through thick and thin, over hill and dale, cobblestones and down the roads and pathways of history, the one worn thin, covered in dirt, sweat and tears, Dad’s third arm for luggage, Vince’s chariot and Adele’s rest spot, that one, would stay behind and not make the finally trip into Nelson. That upon arrival we are all going to be big people: ones that walk everywhere and carry all of own bags.
However, now that the time is upon us, we can’t let it go. It feels wrong to leave the stroller behind here on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. It needs completion as much as we do and we need to find a way to give it a proper send off. We do try. We gather around and pose for one last set of pictures and say our goodbyes. But it feels wrong. So in the end we decide to break the rule and take it with us: one for all, all for one.
Flying domestic here is a pleasure. Since we are way out of the way from pretty much everything and no one really cares what happens down here as it relates to the global economy and the rest of the world, the airline security is almost nil. You pretty much show up and get on the plane. No need for screeners and scanners.
Our flight is about an hour and we follow a route down the coast of the north island visible off the right hand side of the plane. There are few roads, no people for the most part, an occasional boat here and there, a lot of sunshine, beaches and mountains. It looks untouched from up here, accessible only by boat.
By 2p we have landed in Nelson. It feels like flying into Mammoth Lakes with one runway, a warehouse for the terminal, baggage claim around front, parking curbside. Our plane is the only one on the ground and it feels like everyone, including those that work here, have shown up just to meet our plane before going back to business somewhere else.
Mason, our rental car connection is waiting for us with a sign and our car for the next week or two. Mason is a connection via the folks who own the house we are renting. It turns out he is a skier and that he has spent five or six winters in Mammoth. He met his wife there and moved back home a few years back. It is such a small world.
I read somewhere that 35% of the cars on the road in NZ are from 1996-1999. We have a 1999, four door brown car with manual locks and windows. It has spider webs on the side mirrors and plenty of bumps and bruises. It takes some getting used to as this is considered a newer car. It doesn’t really matter to us after all we have been through, as long as it runs and has enough room for the bags we are set to go. Renting the car is the same as getting on a plane. They need it back at some point and I should call when I figure out how long we want it to let them know when we are going to return it. Paperwork is vague at best and with the Visa card on file and our address two doors down from Mason’s parents we are good to go. He knows where to find us if need be.
22 Richardson Street, Britannia Heights, Nelson. It is as great as the pictures online and more. We are up a driveway carved into the side of a hill and shared by three homes. Our house sits at the end of a private drive just off the first turn. We are all alone with no houses on three sides, a B&B below us and our neighbor, Lee, an elderly lady living alone, just off to the right.
The views are amazing: full on ocean from every room. Plus, we overlook an island and the main shipping channel leading into Nelson port. A lighthouse sits on a spit of sand that runs the entire length of the bay. Boats are everywhere.
We wander around trying to get our bearings. The downstairs has a large guest room/office a bath with shower and a garage/storage area. Upstairs is the main living room that is connected to a kitchen. The kid’s room is off to the side in the back and our room is on the other side at the front of the house. It is perfect for the four of us. Everyone is very excited.
We spend the rest of the day unpacking, shuffling furniture a bit, setting up the bedrooms and relaxing. At one point we drive into town to get food and do a drive by Adele’s school. This is a small town by our standards: a grid of four or five main streets each a block or two long, two big shopping stores and a few other necessities. Again it feels like a really good fit. After a long day and a roller coaster of emotion we finally trail off to sleep in our own beds for the first time in seven months.
Days 213-217, January 17-21
Welcome. We have a format for the blog going forward. I am switching to a weekly entry now that we have arrived in Nelson. I knew going into the tip the daily experiences of constant travel would be very much worthy of recording as they unfolded. I also knew that once we hit our destination, or our mid-point in this case, that the experiences would pace differently and they would need to be addressed in a slightly different format. I am not sure if weekly is the answer and may move on to event based notations but in any event the notes and observations will be clustered more around the experience verse the timeline.
The first few days in Nelson have been very exciting on all fronts. We have settled into the house, adjusted things to our liking. We have figured out schooling for both Adele and Vince. Adele has been by her Nelson Central School, the main public school in town built back in the 1870s, and we have her signed up for a summer program that will get her on campus and with other kids the week before the official start. Vince is in a Montessori program at Founders Park set in a 1880s historic village in the original schoolhouse at the base of a huge white windmill.
I found the Nelson Striders, a running club that welcomes all with open arms every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sundays for group trail runs around town. There are a core group of ten people of so that walk or run together.
Teri and Adele went off to Auckland to pick up her mom and her mom’s friend for a ten-day stay. Vince and I had a boy’s weekend to our selves. Went to the beach, ran errands, eat mac and cheese, played Legos and occasionally worked the word “poo” into the conversation (and not in the bathroom much to the delight and hysterics of Vince:)
We actually got mail! Nothing makes you feel more at home than finding letters in the mailbox. One of the packages contained a Knight Suit for Vince that he has not taken off since it arrived. Vincent the Brave and I have great fun fight dragons in the isles of the local market.
The Kiwis seem serious at first and then very warm and friendly once you get to know them a bit. The town feels very safe. I get the feeling it is like a small town in the States twenty or thirty years ago.
We seem to be way off the grid down here. New Zealand is out of the way. The south island only has 1M people total and that is spread out over a fairly large space. Things that happen out side of the country don’t seem to impact the day to day.
It is going to take some getting used to.
Week Thirty - AUS to NZ 03/01/2011
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize,
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.
Greg & Duane Allman, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, One Way Out (Live from the Beacon), way back when
Day Two Hundred and Four January 8th
It’s raining again. I am sure the Blue Mountain’s have much to offer but in the rain and cold it is hard to recognize the appeal. The place should be rocking with summer in full swing but honestly it feels more like a shoulder season back home. Kind of like a mountain town in the off-season, no snow or sunshine.
We press on and head to the Jenolan Caves. This is an entire network of limestone caves with a bunch of different tours ranging in degree of difficulty and time spent underground. We opt for an easy hour.
Our tour is a favorite with families so all of the kids end up in a big pack up front leading the way around dark corners and passageways. Water drips from overhead and the place is damp and cold. Luckily we remembered our jackets.
There is an underground river flowing beside us. Hearing the sound of running water while you are hiking along underground is freaky. It helps shape the feeling of being hemmed in and adds another layer to the claustrophobia. I cannot image being lost or trapped down here. It is a good feeling to come back to the surface.
Adele and Vince bond with the kids of another family and we all end up hiking down stream together after we emerge back into daylight.
“SNAKE! SNAKE!” comes a shout from the group of kids standing by the waters edge.
A flash of red and black slithers by. The kids scatter.
“SNAKE! RUN AWAY! SNAKE!”
The kids we are with are from a sheep farm a few hours away and are well trained in snake spotting. They immediately alert everyone and run in the other direction of the snake. It is amazing to see their composure under pressure.
The snake slithers right beside Vinny’s feet. I flash back to his discussion about Bear Grills from Man vs. Wild hitting snakes with sticks. Adele is by our side in a flash.
“COLOR?” shouts the dad.
“RED AND BLACK, VERY LONG!” shouts the nine year old.
“MOVE AWAY! EVERYONE BACK AWAY! KEEP CLEAR!” shouts the dad as he looks for a stick. “NO WORRIES! THEY ARE AGGRESSIVE THOUGH, BEST TO MOVE AWAY!” Sorry, did he say they are aggressive?
It was poisonous but apparently not strong enough to kill us. Thankfully it slithered off without interest.
“So, do you do a lot of bull riding then in California?”
“Bull riding? Ah no, not much bull riding in our neck of the woods.”
“Oh, too bad that, what do the cowboys do then?”
He looks concerned. “Your kids are well trained dealing with snakes.”
“Have them on the farm, need to be, don’t want to lose anyone.”
This is a very different world.
After an hour or so we head back to town to pick up our clean laundry (always a treat) and go for a short hike around the grounds. Thoughts of the snake loom in the background and everyone stays on the trail.
We are perched high atop a rock cliff face overlooking a beautiful valley below. We try and make echoes for a while and watch the birds circling overhead. The trail runs along the ridge for a bit before heading back towards the house, dropping us at the bocce court.
Actually it is just a muddy, sandy square. The kids and I play a few rounds in the rain before heading back to the cabin. Once there we settle in for a hot meal, the evening fire and books before bed.
A thought: it is best to stay in places for travelers not tourists. It’s a much better learning experience. Travelers look forward to experiencing a cabin in the woods powered by solar panels with energy input/output monitors and a wood burning stove. They don’t feel the need to wash linens everyday in places like this and are content that cleaning services are minimal. We found this place in the Greenwood Guide, an excellent resource for home stays and other interesting places to hang your hat. After seven months on the road we are travelers. Now if they can just figure out the Internet connection and stop the rain we may never leave. Adele is already designing her one room dream house in Jackson Hole using solar panels and indoor non-flush (read pit) toilets.
Day Two Hundred and Five January 9th
Can it rain any harder? It sounds like someone is throwing gravel on the roof. Corrugated steal panels are not the quietest in rough weather. No worries though, tonight we will be in Heavenly Beds at the Westin in Auckland.
It’s a travel day with a quick stop in Leura, one of the many small towns here in the “Blues” for lunch, a walk around in the rain and the discovery of a great little art gallery. We try and go to see a famous overlook but it is so foggy and raining so hard that it is pointless. We shoot a quick blog video for fun and move on.
Our late afternoon flight has us landing in Auckland around midnight. The airport is empty for the most part and coming through immigration is a breeze. It feels good to be here. I only wish it was earlier so we could all celebrate. This is the transition to and the first night of the second leg of our journey.
Welcome to New Zealand.
Day Two Hundred and Six January 10th
So where is everyone? The hotel feels like some strange foreign movie. It is beautiful: kind of an Asia meets the ocean style, very sleek with wood, stones and water everywhere. But not one else is here. Granted it is after 10a when we all finally get moving but you would think someone else would be kicking around. Not a soul. It takes some getting used to.
Stepping outside into the sunshine onto a wooden dock that wraps a harbor you begin to get a sense of the openness here in NZ. There are four million people TOTAL, that is about half of LA. Over 1M are here in Auckland though I cannot for the life of me figure out where they are all hiding. Roughly 3M people are on the north island, 1M on the south. Nelson is going to be a trip.
We spend the day in the “city” taking care of logistics. The visas we got last night are good for three months. We still need to go to immigration to file for our nine-month family visitor visa and Adele’s student visa. It takes a while to get our photos, make copies of the paper work and find the immigration office.
Most of the afternoon is spent “back to school” shopping for kids stuff. There are two main streets here and the wharf front. You can walk the enter area in twenty minutes. The people appear to be mostly local with a few tourists here and there. The first impression is that there is plenty of room. The streets are wide, buildings just a few stories high for the most part, and the skyline feels open and inviting. You want to slow down, there appears to be no reason to hurry.
We catch dinner at a good Thai restaurant on the way back to the hotel. We are all weary from traveling and the rush that comes with arrivals in new countries.
When we get back to the hotel and get the kids to bed I check the Google headlines to learn that they are sending “more venom to Queensland.” Why? Because the floods are so high and the damage so widespread that the snakes have been driven out of their homes and out into the open where they are swimming around searching for dry land (and food). The issue? So are all of the people. And with just a few small pieces of dry land available the mix of highly poisonous snakes and shell-shocked people is making for a very bad combination. They need more venom to use as for the antidote shot to keep people from dying from snakebites.
On top of that, the second part of the headline lets us all know to watch out for the “Salties.” These are the massive saltwater crocs that can survive in both fresh and salt water. Apparently they too are homeless and hungry. With water everywhere their dining options have improved significantly and they are on the prowl.
Can you even imagine?
Day Two Hundred and Eleven January 11th
Vince is unbelievable loud. He has been for a while now to the point where we are a bit concerned that he may have a hearing problem. So now that we are in a big town for a few days we tracked down a hearing clinic to get him checked out. He heads out with Teri to take the bus (very exciting when you are four) to go to the doctor (even more exciting that the bus).
Adele and I grab breakfast across the street. We get into a conversation with the people working at the café and it turns out that we have hit a down week with the New Years holiday. Apparently they have been slow since mid-December and will be until the end of January because “it takes a while for people to gear up to come back to work.” It takes a while? Don’t they have to come back? “Eventually,” she explains, “things are pretty mellow here, no one is in a real hurry.” But don’t the companies expect them to show up? “Yeah they have to at some point, but there’s a lot going on in, I mean the beach has been great this year.” Unbelievable.
Adele and I go to the hotel pool so swim a few laps and hang in the hot tub. We don’t even see another guest. Its sort of sad and kind of creepy, like they built the place for a big party and no one showed, so much effort wasted.
Adele is very focused on Hobbits. Apparently they are going to start filming the Hobbit here in NZ in the next few months and she is convinced that we may be able to get walk on parts. You never know.
We all meet up for lunch. According to the clinic Vince has perfect hearing: he’s just loud and four years old and a boy. It must be the Green Day.
We all manage to reconnect and grab a bit before Adele and I head over to the Sailing Museum on the pier and Vince and Teri head off for a pool swim. The museum is great fun, though a bit odd in that it is tucked away off the main drag and accessed through a 2011 Rugby World Cup souvenir shop.
They are very serious about this rugby world cup thing. Apparently teams from all over the world had to qualify to get an invite to the big dance held here in NZ this September. The literature and signage says that USA has a team but I can’t find any of our jerseys for sale. Thought I would get one and wear the colors. The States are funny that way. We have so many people that we can produce a world-class team in a sport that no one in America cares about or will ever see. I am sure it all comes back to ESPN and the world broadcast rights. Sure, we will broadcast the thing around the world as long as our boys have a seat at the table, or something like that.
When we do finally find the entrance the sailing museum turns out to be a nice surprise. The Kiwi’s live to sail and be on the water. The ocean is so much a part of life that the museum is a great introduction to the people and places and the ways in which the islands were settled.
Two things stand out. The first is we get to go into a huge floating crane that is used at ports to load and unload ships. Very cool. The second is an exhibit on the famous NZ sailor, Peter Blake. This guy knew how to sail. He was an early pioneer in long-range racing and the America’s Cup races. From the looks of the exhibit he is a true national hero. They have one of the AC boats, a bunch of smaller boats and even a few “bachs” (pronounced batch) or beach shacks that the NZ coastline is famous for. It seems everyone here has two things: a boat and a bach, all other material possession appears to be secondary.
Day Two Hundred and Eight January 12th
Up to another day of travel. With the end in sight and the wind-down in full swing it is harder and harder to get motivated to move. We are adjusting to the snails pace.
Before we leave the “big” city we stop by the post office to mail off a package and then the rental car place to hitch a ride for the next few days. Our next destination in further up the north island at Ara Roa outside the town of Whangarei Heads. The Maori language is going to take some getting used to. Unlike the Australia’s who seem to have discounted the Aborigines and their culture, the New Zealanders embrace the Maori and have fully integrated their language and customs. No need to rename everything here, they just go with the flow.
The drive turns out to be a bit longer than we expected so after a not so quick stop at Subway we make our way to the beach for a picnic. The wind is blowing a bit but we manage. We end up in two different places: the first for the picnic and the second for a swim.
The swim beach is clean and open and empty by our standards. Sure there are a few people frolicking in the waves but nothing like home. The water is rough, warm and salty. I manage to get beyond the break only to realize the waves are stronger than they look. It takes some time to get back in.
The kids find a large natural block of chalk that they can climb and play on. It’s great fun and we end up full of chalk dust. Eventually we motive and move on.
The place we are staying in is spectacular. It is a large property atop a high hill overlooking both valley and ocean. There are sheep in the pastures, horses walking about, rabbits and chickens. The family that runs the place are sailors from Denmark that stopped by New Zealand mid-journey some years back and never left. They have been working on the property for almost a decade and have done almost all of the work themselves. Not only that but they are cooks and have prepped a lasagna dinner complete with salad and a cobbler dessert!
Day Two Hundred and Nine January 13th
The family we are staying with has volunteered to take the kids today so Teri and I actually have a free day. It is the first one in a very long time. Believe it or not we need to use it to catch up on logistics. Oh, the glamour of travel. Most of the time passes trying to stay on top of bills, travel planes, journals and blogs. Time flies by and before we know it we are all having dinner and taking about the kids adventures on the sea kayaks and horses.
Day Two Hundred and Ten January 14th
Teri and Adele are riding horses today. This place is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, like a farm in our Midwest back home, so people here own and ride horses. They spend most of the day on single track high above the ridges, on the shoreline and in the ocean. Yes, that’s right on the beach and in the water! When they return Adele is absolutely exhausted but looks happier than she has been in ages. The girl does love horses.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Vince and I head to the beach. We find a small cove down the road a bit and spend the day searching for seashells, climbing on rocks and playing our rendition of Dr. Suess’ “Ring the Gack” from One Fish Two Fish. It is great fun.
To close out the day we all had back to our cove so we can teach Adele the Gack game and collect more black sea snail shells to make bracelets. With the tide coming in, the waves crashing on the rocky shore, the sun going down and a slight chill in the air, it is picture perfect. The sights, sounds and smells reveal the sea as ever present. To me it feels like the home I knew as a child.
We have arrived.
Week Twenty Nine - Sydney 02/13/2011
I don't know where I'm gonna live
Don't know if I'll find a place
I'd have to think about it some
And that I do not wish to face
I guess I'm counting on his
Matthew Sweet – Divine Intervention, Girlfriend 1991
Day One Hundred and Ninety Seven January 1st
1.1.11 – Many people believe that the number 1111 is some kind of wake up call. A kind of cellular trigger that is imprinted on humanity. A code that points to a higher level of consciousness: an on ramp to another, very positive, dimension. Phew. Well, OK, some people believe it, seriously, give it a Google.
Not that I believe it or anything. After all I am sure it is just coincidence that the all four of us are born on a 1st: me the 31st, Teri 31st, Adele 1st, Vince 31st. The last four numbers put together? 1111. Or, that three different people claiming to be “in the know” on these kind of thing have all suggested to me, at different times in my life, spread across a number of years, in different locations and completely independent of one another, that I need to watch out for 1111. Or, that sometimes I do, and that I take notice of it, frequently.
Not one to question Divine Intervention, this have been my launch date for VinniVooms since I started forming the company. Today we go live online with the photos of images that are inspiring the creative process we are undergoing to launch our patterns and designs. These images are the essence of the brand on which we will build out our eco-friendly, family centric swimwear. 1111 makes sense to me on many levels: positive, constant, current, search, transcend, blend, peace.
The tooth fairy found us! Somehow she managed to track us down and leave Adele a shinny Australia dollar. She is beaming when she come up stairs. Vince’s eyes are wide with wonder.
Flights are cheaper on New Years day and hotels easier to find in big cities so we are finally leaving Western Australia and heading East to New South Wales and Sydney. We were going to head up to Queensland to see the beaches and the Great Barrier Reef but its box jellyfish season so we nixed it. Just as well as the rains is causing all kinds of havoc.
Perth to Sydney equals LA to NYC. Who knew Australia is so big? It’s a four plus hour flight with a three-hour time change. And like LA and NYC the cities are worlds apart. We replace the bright and sunny Perth with a dark cool Sydney. We are staying on points at the Westin downtown in the center of the action. It is crowded, much more so than Perth. There are high-rise buildings here and a central business district filled with banks and insurance companies. It feels very much like any major city in the States. We even have an Apple store, Gap and Starbucks around the corner. Our dollars are even at parity so the only real difference is the pictures on the bills.
I guess its good to be here. At least we are one step closer to New Zealand: one step closer to home. It’s been a long travel day.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Eight January 2nd.
First day in a new territory means a new territory museum. Territories here are like mega states back home. Sort of like our New England, South, Central and West. Over here there are five of them in all and this is our third. If you come this way check out these out as they are a point of pride for the residents and are chock full of all kinds of great exhibits and information. As a bonus this one covers New South Wales as well as all of Australia.
After a few hours of learning about the Aborigines, mining, sheep farming, Captain Cook, kangaroos, venomous snakes, great white sharks, space debris, the Olympics and Oprah its time to wander over to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Why do they insist on calling these parks “Botanic” gardens? What happened to “Botanical” gardens? It’s always been botanical gardens in my book: like the ones off the Van Wyck by Flushing Meadows in Queens. I’ve never even heard of “botanic” gardens until we came here. Nutty Aussies.
The kids and I spend a great afternoon wandering around checking things out and following blue and pink elephant footprints. They are outlined in chalk along the route to the Opera House and seem to be related in some way to the massive fireworks and New Years celebration they had a few nights ago. Try explaining that to a four year old running wildly from tree to tree in search the pink elephant. I have been known to see a few in my day but they remain elusive to all of us this afternoon.
When we round the corner and the Opera House comes into view I get a sudden rush, a feeling of having arrived. It maybe the Pixar influence from watching Nemo countless times but it really does feel like we have achieved a certain milestone. We celebrate with a shout and cheer.
The Sydney Opera house has been a target of ours since we started the trip. At first it was the to mark Adele’s ninth birthday with family but that changed mid-stream. Then it morphed into a symbol of the end of our first chapter in this wacky journey.
Once we get to New Zealand we know we are staying put for a while and that the flurry of constant movement and travels will have ended, at least the first stage of it anyway. The Opera House has always been a bookend or pivot point from the beginning at LAX all those months ago to the next phase in NZ in the not to distant future. And now here we are, standing in the park, checking the place out.
We have arrived safe and sound, on so many levels.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Nine January 3rd.
Why go all the way to Beijing to see the famed warriors when they are out touring with a stop here in Sydney? Sounds like a good way to spend a rainy morning, checking out a few warriors at the Art Gallery of NSW across the park.
When we arrive the ticket line is around the corner and growing by the minute. It seems everyone else has the same idea. The kids are in no mood to stand in line so we decide to pass for today and to tour the rest of the museum instead. It has an assortment of Australia landscape artists, a few works by famous people, a floor devoted to more modern stuff and a great collection of Aboriginal artists.
Downstairs, tucked into a far corner, is the “members only” private area. Adele and I stop in to see if they will print tickets for the exhibit upstairs if we buy them online. The lady takes one look at the two of us and immediately serves up a family pass. It turns out she is from New Zealand and one of her family members lives in the town we are headed to! It always pays to strike up a conversation: you never know what will come of it.
Armed with our pass we march off to see the warriors. Actually they should call it the “warrior” tour, singular not plural. Ok, there might be two of three but it’s a lot of hype for a few stone guys. The movie about the excavation is very interesting and really makes us want to head to China to see the real deal before we come back to the States.
I had no idea that the main mountain that the warriors are there to protect is man-made. It is an ancient burial city built for this lunatic Chinese ruler way back when and one that China has elected NOT to disturb. The entire mountain is a tomb and no one knows what lies beneath the big mound of earth. If what they have uncovered thus far is any indication it must be incredible. Hats off to management to have the will power to restrain from plundering the site. It must be hard, knowing so much is there.
The crowds here in NSW are so thick that we can’t actually see any of the exhibits. It must be five or six people deep at every display. Teri and Vince leave immediately. Adele and I slug it out with the rest of the foreigners trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything, but it is just too much so we bail as well. Someone needs to tell the Australians how to do crowd control. It’s a free for all here. I can only imagine what sporting events or big outdoor festivals are like. It must be bedlam.
Day Two Hundred January 4th
I spend a frustrating morning dealing with our CallMeCuffs start up. The frustration has been building for a while with the web developer back in the States. What is supposed to be a fun, turnkey operation is turning out to be a logistical nightmare. Dealing with folks we don’t really know and have not built up a level of trust with is proving to be far more challenging than I want or need it to be.
So, following our initial test we are bringing the project back in house and putting it on hold until we can get to a place where I can spend some time reviewing the work done to date and finding a more efficient way to approach the market on a large scale. In retrospect, the effort needed to manage a start up while traveling is too much to juggle with our touring schedule and the lack of down time. Next time the key pieces will be in place before we leave port. No need to stress though, NZ is right around the corner and the feedback thus far indicates that it CMC will be as successful as we want it to be.
The rest of the morning is spent with Fidelity trying to get the NZ house payment wired overseas. Sounds easy enough right? Not so fast. You need access to a broadband connection to Skype them to set things up, a secure machine to download forms, a printer, a fax machine to return signature copies for the transfer, a phone line on file that they can call you at or you can access via voice mail so they can leave a secret code that you can then pick up and call them back to verify that you are truly the one making the transfer, a fairly solid understanding of the Forex market and the fees they charge to convert to NZ dollars, enough money, some kind of intermediary bank on the receiving side, at least a week to move the money, and on and on and on.
Now I have been a fan of Fidelity Investments for twenty some odd years. In fact, we have tried other houses over the years and always found our way back to Fidelity. However, this experience and the level of frustration they have caused for no good reason is beyond acceptable. The account manager even acknowledged that the transfer system is set up to take full advantage of the client and to charge as much as possible. That is client, as in customer, or maybe former customer, after all of this. No joke, Fidelity took full advantage of the situation and we paid accordingly.
To liven up the afternoon we head to the Powerhouse Museum of Science and Design. It’s a short train ride way and we get a new, elevated view of Sydney en route. What strikes me is how small the harbor is. For some reason I pictured a big wide harbor with miles of docks and slips filled with fancy yachts, maybe a row of high-rise buildings lining a promenade and the Opera House gleaming in the center. Not the case. Instead it is a small little inlet with a few tour boats and a bunch of tourist seafood restaurants. Oprah must have been in shock, though she probably never left the Four Seasons.
If you remember back in Sweden we blew off Stockholm because the Abba museum wasn’t ready. That is real dedication Fernando. Well, it turns out that the traveling Abba exhibit is here, at the Powerhouse, on the fourth floor, Waterloo hoo, hoo! Adele almost faints, Vince starts singing Take a Chance On Me at the top of his lungs, Teri stands below the big screen in awe of the sparkling one piece jump suits and I deny ever wearing corduroy bellbottoms. Knowing me, knowing you, baby!
If that’s not enough, Adele finds a Top Secret Spy Exhibit with all kinds of spy stuff, interactive games and learning tools for kids her age. She spends an hour or so totally enjoying the moment. Vince and I head down stairs to see trains, cars, space ships, airplanes and the like. Plus, we sneak in some time on the outside playground to try and burn off some energy.
To top it all off they have a ‘80s exhibit. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. My generation is on exhibit! In a museum! These are my people! It all feels so natural. From the tribute wall of record album covers, most of which I still have and play repeatedly, what, you mean The Flock of Seagulls stopped recording after “I Ran”? There’s ABC, Madness, Ian Dury and Blockheads, the Talking Heads, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Billy Idol just to name a few. To Reagan, big hair, ripped jeans, and exercise videos. They had a dance tank with music videos, big TVs with footage running of major news stories of the decade. The exhibit has an Australian slant that makes it all the more interesting and fun.
This is a business waiting to happen. The place was packed with parents telling kids about “life way back when.” It crosses generations. You could put this in any major US city and make a fortune. Plus, think of the fun it would be to put the thing together. People would probably pay and lobby to have their stuff on display! You could hold concerts and do live meet and greets with ‘80s icons. I am not kidding, this would make a fortune in Vegas, Times Square or at Hollywood and Vine. If I had anymore bandwidth I would launch it. Since I don’t I’ll offer it up for a small cut on the backend and promise to buy the first ticket.
Still humming Abba we wander over to the waterfront to watch a street juggler and grab a Starbucks. It’s Australia after all and as you would expect they have great bars here. We belly up to an outside, dockside table and order up fish and chips and a pint or two. The kids run wild and we kick back and relax. Our guard is up since it’s a big city but we give them enough rope to run and play. Vince is now used to posing for photos for Asian tourists and he plays the part to the hilt. Pretty soon we are going to start passing the hat. Adele chases seagulls and runs laps.
By 9p we are back at the hotel, I try and get the kids down and Teri heads to the lobby to find a WiFi signal so she can connect back home.
Day Two Hundred and One January 5th
Another morning with a broadband connection, another morning huddled in the hotel lobby and another morning working on the start up: only to find more hurdles and frustration. Sometimes the less you know the better. After six hours of back and forth its time to throw in the towel, patch what needs to be patched to get through the next few weeks and move on.
The Royal Botanic Gardens really are a treat. They are lush and deep green with all kinds of trees and plants. They wrap around a point that jets out in to the harbor and seep out into the central business district as if they are trying to take back a part of the city. With Subway sandwiches in hand we settle in under a shady tree for lunch.
You can judge a city by its gardens and parks and the people that use them. They offer a relief from the chaos that has grown up around them, a kind of relaxed freedom where you can run and hide for a while. Many of the people picnicking around us are on lunch hour. Other mid-day runners and walkers scurry about. This is a usable space that serves a need.
The large black things hanging from the trees look like pinecones from a distance. As you lie in the grass looking up at them you start to wonder why Oak and Palm trees have pinecones. This is Australia after all so it all seems natural enough, more of a curiosity than anything else, a “we should Google that” moment. It’s only when they start to flap and fly that you get the willies and do a double take.
Bats. Really, really big bats! As big a Vince, an observation not lost on the big man, and there are more of them hanging around than you think possible. Its like there has been some mistake: it’s mid-day, sunny and warm. Did someone forget to tell them they are supposed to come out at night? They freak us out.
Post lunch we take Teri over to the opera house. Vince leads the way carrying a large branch searching once again for pink elephants. Adele is close behind doing her best to stay ten steps ahead of mom and dad. She is nine going on fifteen.
As I watch her walking off ahead of us I realize that this trip is timed perfectly. It is happening at a time when we can still get away with it. Our Adele that left home is long gone: left in bits and pieces around the world. Those bits and pieces have been replaced by other ones creating our new Adele, a young woman: loving, independent, intelligent, engaged, and evolving. It has been an incredible transformation and a privilege to observe.
We snap a few photos and head back to the hotel.
Teri has found the latest “hot spot” in Sydney for dinner. It is a Thai restaurant, Longrain, a short cab ride way. They open at six, perfect for nine and four year olds, and don’t take reservations. When we arrive, five minutes after the hour, we get the last four seats at one of the long community tables. The place rocks. It is by far the best meal we have had in months. Maybe since Istanbul.
As we leave, at about 7p, I overhear that the wait for a table is over two hours. And that is for someone that claims to know the chef.
Day Two Hundred and Two January 6th
Another morning with a broadband connection, another morning huddled in the hotel lobby and another morning working on the Fidelity house payment. It takes all morning to wire the money. I am so unhappy with Fidelity that I am fit to be tied. Transferring funds directly from BOA back home would have been essentially free and much easier to deal with. But I had to be there in person. Again, think twice before using Fidelity.
I grab a cab over to the rental car place to pick up transportation for our drive to the Blue Mountains. When I tell the guy where we are going he looks at me like I am out of my mind. “It’s raining a bit.” He says watching me in the rearview mirror, offering it up not so much as advice but more of a warning. “In Queenstown.” I shoot back trying to seem in the know. “And the Blues, mate, and the Blues.”
He lives outside the city in a neighborhood for working people (his description, not mine). I learn that tourist traffic is off because of the strength of the dollar: those overseas can’t afford to come here and those here can afford to go there. So no one is in Sydney. At least not by taxi driving standards. Apparently Oprah didn’t do much for the locals. He complains about the escalating cost of living: that simple things like the cost of housing and feeding the family are making life more difficult. If I close my eyes I could be in the BQE heading for JFK.
I am sure that the drive to the Blue Mountains is everything the guidebooks say it is, when the sun is shining. When’s its not, the drive is like any other on wet, windy roads. We are heading to an eco-lodge in the middle of the woods some three hours outside of Sydney.
“Eco-lodge”, not to be confused with “econo-lodge”, is code for solar power, a wood burning stove, some kind of advanced indoor pit toilets, mud covered cinder block walls, rustic furniture and National Geographic magazines from the mid-80s. The one with a twenty seven year old Steve Jobs talking about the new found power of the microchip is a collector’s item for sure. I think I graduated from college the year it was published: wish I had the foresight to buy Apple shares.
We need food so I head up to the town center to shop. Walmart has not made it to this neck of the woods. Here, everything has its place. There is a grocer, butcher, baker, wine shop, vegetable and fruit stands. There are a few cafes, a small movie theater, a book store and some “antique” dealers. Several places are offering up “homemade” crafts. It looks like small town America in some Hollywood rendition of the 1950s.
By early evening we have a fire going, food cooking on the stove and a house of cards made from four decks combined that is three stories high. Per our power meters our output is low and our reserves should get us though the night. Now, lets hope for a sunny day tomorrow.
Day Two Hundred and Three January 7th
Today we are off to the Zig Zag railway in Lithgow. A bunch of railway people have created a cooperative that runs and maintains a non-profit steam train that “zigs” and “zags” its way up and down a mountainside. Even better, sometimes they dress the train up as Thomas and pretend to be on the island of Sodar! They drink a lot there in Australia. Did I mention it’s raining?
We arrive at the station with time to spare and stand around the platform, peering around the corner, looking for Sir Topem Hat. At long last the train pulls in and we climb aboard. It is great fun: old wooden seats, the smell of coal burning, hot steam and ash flying by. To the kids delight we get to stick out heads out the windows, sit in the pitch black as we go through tunnels and get on and off several times as we “zig” and “zag” our way down the line. The entire trip takes about an hour.
Did I mention its still raining? The Blue Mountains are not much fun in the rain. Everything is wet and soggy and damp. We try and make the best of it but it does feels like it will never end.
It’s time to head back to the “eco-lodge.” All is not lost. We get a fire going to warn the place up and set off to play some tennis in the rain. Yes, even the eco-lodge has a tennis court (put in by the previous owners).
Digging around for rackets and balls in an old tin shed with spiders lurking about is an adventure. The spiders here are big and brown and poisonous so it makes it all that more challenging. It would be easier to play “do-not-get-bit-by-the–giant-poisonous-spiders” but that does not have the same rings as “tennis-anyone?” Plus, ever since we stood courtside at Wimbledon Adele has been very focused on her tennis career.
We play in the rain for a while, hitting balls over the fence and jumping around to avoid the puddles. When it starts getting dark we retreat to the cabin to end another rainy day settled in around a fire.
It feels like we are winding down somehow. Slowly coming into port like one of those really big ships. It is time for us to move on from Australia, we seem to be done.
In only a few more days we land in New Zealand!
Week Twenty Eight - Perth 02/13/2011
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know,
- Irving Berlin, via Bing Crosby 1942
Day One Hundred Ninety December 25th
Santa found us! He ate our cookies, drank some milk, answered our letters and left all kinds of gifts! Adele got her cross on a silver chain and a wolf plush. Vince got his remote control motorcycle, mom her wallet and dad his surf shirt. We made it until 7a before Vince bounded in to our room: he was beyond excited, wide-eyed and full of wonder. Adele was a close second right behind him.
It seems the thing to do here on Christmas Day is to go swimming and hang out at the beach. With opposite seasons from home and record snow falling on the high Sierras, it all takes some getting used to. Mammoth is getting more snow than we can imagine yet the temp here is bordering on one hundred.
The beach is great fun. We spend the morning playing in the waves, eat fish and chips “take away” at the main food stand for lunch, head back for more wave time in the afternoon and then finally head home for burgers and corn on the cob as our Christmas feast.
Late in the day the winds pick up and the kite sailors and wind surfers come out in full force. We watch another sunset and head off to bed, exhausted from the sand and surf. Unfortunately the kids are having all sorts of issues going to sleep lately and the eight o’clock bedtime slips to well past eleven. All this change and excitement does take its toll.
Day One Hundred and Ninety One December 26th
Another day, another city, another aquarium. We are aquarium experts. As a family I would wager to say that we have been to more aquariums than any other. Name a city and chances are really good we have seen the marine life they have to offer.
The best ones have a unique local perspective. With proximity to key whale migration routes, great white sharks up and down the coast, uber dangerous jellies, all kinds stingrays, deadly sea creatures, salt crocs, and the like, this one has to be seen. It is small but packed with fun stuff.
The highlight is a moving glass tube that you stand in and it runs in a circle though a giant saltwater tank filled with all kinds of sea life. It is great fun standing under sharks and rays.
We learn not to pickup seashells since they may contain crabs that will inject venom into your finger and do serious damage. Apparently the box jellies can come close to killing you if you end up like Dore in the Nemo movie and “go messing with the jellies”. Thrill issues, dude, some serious thrill issues.
Vince is sick on the way back so he stays home with Teri while Adele and I spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach catching waves. It’s just another lazy day in Perth.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Tow December 27th
Each territory here in Australia has its own museum. The one up in Darwin was excellent so we head to downtown Perth with high expectations.
Downtown Perth is empty. I can’t tell if it is just because we are here during the holiday season or if it is always this way but the place is really, really empty. It is kind of weird, like they built all these building and no one came. Back home cities like New York or Chicago might empty out a bit in the summer but there are still plenty of people left behind. Here you can walk right down the middle of the streets and no one would notice.
We have the museum to ourselves. It’s a nice one with a bunch of stuff on the Aborigines, a great gem and rock section, a few dinosaurs and some space objects. Apparently Australia gets hit by a lot of space debris. Luckily it falls into the middle and no one notices. With so few people and so much space chances are good it will land with out incident.
For lunch we end up in a hamburger place, one of the few things open, sitting in the heat and trying to figure out where everyone is. Since this is the only place open, everyone I there so it takes some time to get our burgers and fries. The kids are increasing picky eaters and feeding Vince has become a chore. We struggle for a while then give up and head back home. On the way we stop by blockbuster for a movie.
Adele and I planned to go to the beach until we hear on the radio that they have closed the beach due to the sighting three sharks about thirty meters off shore. How crazy is that? The beach is closed. You would think that everyone would go home and consider them selves lucky but the ones they interview on the radio say they are all going to wait around until the ban is lifted. These Australians are very tough people. “Ok, mate, just wait a pinch till the shaaaak, swims away then, it’s a big ocean mate, no worries, back in the swim in no time.” Falling for this logic I suggest we head down and wait it out. The family looks at me like I have lost my mind, which may be true, in this unrelenting one hundred and five degree heat.
I have started training again and this afternoon Vince and I get into our running gear and “run” to the local park and do our push ups and sit ups together. He may the most enthusiastic training partner I have ever had. It’s not lost on me that in a flash I will be struggling to keep up with him.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Three December 28th
The shark thing is bumming us out so we head back in to Perth to spend the day at Kings Park away from the sharks and safe on land or as safe as you can be here with all of the spiders, snakes and the lot.
It is a nice city park. There is a ring road around the outside and an incredible play area for families with kids. They have all sorts of climbing things, great lawns, trees to lounge under, fountains, barbeques, all of it in full use with folks out enjoying the day. Again I don’t know why this sort of thing isn’t available in the States. I think it is that we are nowhere near as sociable as the Aussies. There seems to be more time spent here hanging out with larger groups. It seems more communal on some level. That and the place is spotless, back home it would be littered with McDonalds wrappers and Big Gulp cups.
We wind our way all the way to the end for an over look of the city and the harbor. The area at the point is a large grassy knoll shaded by big old growth trees. The grass is like a golf coarse fairway and we end up napping on the ground for an hour or so enjoying the sea breeze.
When we re-group from our naps we head back to the house to change and try the beach. The winds are blowing unbelievably hard. To my dismay the kids want to try and swim so we leave Teri and head to the waters edge next to the only other people on the entire stretch of beach. It is much too rough.
In retreat we find a playground and spend sometime on the swings and climbing ropes to try and burn off some energy before bedtime.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Four December 29th
“One of the highlights of a visit to Perth.”
“A must do experience!”
“Beautiful and Amazing!”
A total waste of time and money!!
A huge disappointment!!!
Do not go to Rottsnest Island. Everything about it was a waste of time and energy. The ferry ride from Fremantle was over crowded, the town over run with people, the prices outrageous (two Subway veggie delights and four drinks for $50US), I had to carry Vince almost 2K to the beach, the one that was tiny and crammed with people, the water park for Adele for half and hour cost $25US, it was over a hundred degrees and the place has this weird vibe to it. I am not kidding, don’t go, you will be disappointed no matter where you’re from or what your perspective.
When we get home after a long day I get to go for a run. Finally after a few weeks back in the saddle my legs and lungs have returned and I can go for an hour or so without keeling over. It goes fast I tell you. After running the LA Marathon in March and going long through June it is shocking how fast the distance goes out from under you. Six months of travel takes its toll. After dinner we wind down the day watching Notting Hill, probably my favorite Julia Roberts movie of all time. Luckily Teri bought it for me so I can have Julia sign a copy next time I see her.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Five December 30th
Today we return to the city we sailed from yesterday to explore an area called Fremantle. We are in search of the Little Creatures Brewery for lunch and an Aboriginal art gallery that comes highly recommended. Both are worth the time it takes to find parking.
Little Creatures is rocking. There must be two hundred tables set in a huge warehouse right on the water. It bet there are five or six hundred people here. The place is a working brewery so it smells of hops and grains. Big aluminum vats hover over everyone.
It feels like one big party. Kids are running around, they have a big sandbox set up with digging toys to keep them busy while the parents belly up for a few pints. Table competition is fierce and Teri manages to muscle out some others but it costs us a round to suggest they hold “no worries”.
As you would expect the food is marginal at best, but the beer is cold and fresh and the atmosphere begs you to sit around and stay a while. Many of the people seem to be regulars and the tourist trade seems to be minimal.
From there we walk across the park to find the gallery. It has incredible works by artists from all over Australia. We spend a bit of time looking through the enormous volume of works but end up empty handed. It is hard to find a piece that we both agree on. It’s also tough with the kids who are rapidly losing control so we end up moving on earlier than we would like.
Looking at all of the work reminds me that there really aren’t “original” people in many other places. The American Indians are probably the closest thing I know of. Europe and Asia seems to have been conquered and then settled by people from other places. Maybe Africa and the Middle East have initial starting points. I make a note to check on the migration patterns of early man. I ask you, would that be something that would have even occurred to me six months ago? I think not.
Day One Hundred and Ninety Six New Years eve
Adele: Where’s Mom.
Dad: She’s on the phone.
Adele: With her sidekick?
Dad with raised eyebrows: Err, yes, with her sidekick, she needs to check in for the New Year.
Apparently 2011 is to be excellent. Teri’s sidekick (also know as a clairvoyant I believe) has only positive things to stay about our journey and the pending stay in NZ. How she can tell over phone lines and across how ever many thousands of miles is not for me to question. After all she is the one that predicted much of what has happen this past year. If even half of the stuff comes through it will be another incredible time.
Teri takes the kids to the zoo and I spend the day writing up notes for the past few weeks. It’s funny. Even though we feel we have moved into slow motion and are generally rested and relaxed compared to the last few months, the journal notes show that we still manage to do something almost every day. Under “normal” circumstances we would be burnt out from all of the activity.
Somewhere along the line Adele loses a tooth. It’s been on the cusp for a few days: I am glad that it finally decided to come out on its own. We were close to tying a string around it and giving a good pull. Actually I think Vince was the one pulling for that, the rest of us showed more restraint.
There is much discussion on the ability of the tooth fairy to find us here in Australia. The kids are concerned that she may not know where we are or how to find us. Always willing to give it a try we seal the tooth in an envelope and hide it under Adele’s pillow. Now only time will tell.
New Years eve comes early over here. We are in one of the first time zones that welcomes in the New Year. At home we usually spend the evening watching the balls drop around the world then waiting first for Times Square and finally for LA. Here they don’t have any coverage because we are so early in the cycle. We all make it to 9p hoping they will cover the fireworks in Sydney on one of the national channels but they don’t and it comes and goes with out much fanfare.
Shortly thereafter we all head off to bed hoping the tooth fairy can find her way.
Happy New Year from the other side of the world…
Week Twenty Seven - SWA 02/13/2011
Well, it’s one for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go!
Blue Suede Shoes – Carl Perkins via Elvis, 1960
Day One Hundred and Eight Three December 18th
Today is glorious with a touch of clouds. Perhaps they don’t want us to forget about them. It is almost as if they just want to show up for an hour or so to make an appearance.
Vince and I head to the beach for a morning of sand castles, trucks and jumping in the waves.
This is really the first day we notice the flies. The guidebooks leave this part out with good reason. Apparently the black flies are particularly bad this year because there is a problem with dung beetles in this part of the woods. Fly larvae live in dung. In good years dung beetles happily eat the fly larvae and everything stays in check. However, we are at the tail end of a drought that has somehow impacted the beetles so, fewer beetles means more of flies.
To give some perspective, Vince and I walk from the car to the beach covered head to toe with blankets, t-shirts, hats and anything else we can patch together. We have our heads completely covered and leave just enough room around our eyes to peer out at the path in front of us.
Flies cloud around as we walk. It is like some kind of Australian torture technique. Here we are on one of the most beautiful beach on earth and you almost break down walking from the parking area to the shoreline. The bussing is enough to push you over the edge. Once you get there all is well, as long as you stay in the water. If you sit in the sand you suffer. Insanity lurks close by.
We spend the morning building sand castles, playing trucks and swimming in the “big ones”. Vince runs up and down as the waves come and go, squealing with delight and excitement. It is fun to watch his comfort zone increase day-by-day, the more time we spend in the ocean, the more he loves it.
In the afternoon we switch it up and Adele and I had beach side for some boogie boarding. The waves here are big. They are like a good day at Jones Beach except the break is much closer to shore: here the ride in is short, steep and very fast. We manage. Adele is swimming so well that she can run down, dive in, dive under the break and pop up on the other side. The small stuff in Malaysia was great prep for the real McCoy.
The only issues here are the undertow (always think of “under toad” from the World According to Garp) and riptide. Once we get out beyond the break it is hard to get back in. The ocean is funny that way, it lulls you into thinking everything is going your way and then you slowly begin to realize just where you are and what you are doing. The waves are very strong, rolling in sets of threes and fours and they are clearly in control, not us. It is hard sometimes to teach a nine year old that you need to surrender to nature and go with the grain not against it. Their instinct is to mold the world around them, not be molded by it. Wait maybe that’s mine, so hard to un-learn all those years of schooling.
That’s how we find ourselves on the front end of a double set with legs being pulled hard left, a wave breaking right, Adele clutching her board with a flash of real fear in her eyes and me pushing her up so her head stays above water. The moment the second wave crashes into my back on an angle that somehow pushes my mid section towards shore while my upper body goes right and my legs move out towards sea I can feel the full force of the oceans fury. It is there in an instant and then gone just as fast. The impact however, will be felt for some time.
Adele takes no notice as somehow we manage to keep her head above water and she keeps her hands on her boogie board. I know that something is tweaked out immediately. Each step confirms that the bones got rattled at bit.
It’s a small price to pay for swimming with your daughter beyond the break. She doesn’t miss a beat.
Day One Hundred and Eighty Four December 19th
It is cloudy this morning. I must say it is a welcome relief from the endless sunshine. Clouds bring cooler temperatures and a gentle breeze changing the look and feel of the coastline. Today the water looks darker and cold giving us a glimpse of another side, the one responsible for the shipwrecks that line the coast.
We decide to go inland and check out a play area / coffee shop designed for families. They do this kind of thing over hear. Land is plentiful and they can build out big open spaces. This one has a hedge maze designated “kids only” as well as a large warehouse type structure with tables and educational toys set out and organized by age group. The patio looks over a giant climbing tree and a play set big enough for hoards of kids. The “coffee” shop sells beer and has nice tables and umbrellas for the parents to hang and waste away an afternoon. We should do more of this back home.
The interesting thing is that it is a totally safe environment. Parents can actually look at each other and converse instead the usual half focus, one eye on the conversation, the other on the kids. Here the environment is comfortable and safe for kids and you know others will watch out for them if need be. People let their guard down, though I am not sure it was ever up to begin with. The comparison to South Africa, where you never take an eye off your kids, ever, is striking.
The fly issue has us searching for an alternative beach venue so we head off to the other side of our peninsula to see if the winds are more favorable and strong enough to keep them at bay. The area we drive through all looks very “beach” with low lying scrub trees and a sandy base. The drive covers twisting two lane roads with sparse traffic. We are still getting used to the lack of people here compared to the rest of world.
The other beach is full of flies as well. The water is beautiful and the beach perfect for the kids but the flies drive us all crazy and we need to leave. I have no idea how or why these people sit there all day long swatting at flies. Perhaps it’s the endless flow of beer.
The son of a local winery owner owns the house we are staying at so we head over to Wise wines to check out his dad’s vineyard. The place is something. It is set on a small hilltop. The property spills out in all directions with rolling hills filled with vines, huge ancient oak trees and fields of grass. The main building houses a restaurant and shop selling wine and local items from the region. There are sculptures on the main lawn and small places to sit and sip tucked about here and there.
You get the sense that this is a fine life that folks are living here in SWA. It almost seems like a well-kept secret that they have no interest in sharing with the rest of the world. They have excellent beaches, incredible surfing and fishing, great wines, olives and fruits, blistering sunny days, a moderate climate and a safe family oriented environment.
Now if they can just import some more dung beetles to take care of the flies.
Day One Hundred and Eight Five December 20th
Can it be raining? Believe it or not after all of the sunny days a rest day comes at just the right time. The rain sounds nice on the roof as it wakes us up to start the day. It is a glorious rainy day!
Sheep. Not just one or two, here and there, but zillions of them pretty much everywhere. Today we are going to see how they shear them and process the raw wool at a real sheep-shearing shed just down the road.
Typical of this neck of the woods we pull into a dirt parking lot and wander in to buy tickets at a little shop selling stuff made from authentic “Australian” wool. Naturally, they claim this to be the best wool in the world. Not sure I can agree until we get to New Zealand (where they have 30 sheep for each person) but we can confirm that it is certainly some of the most expensive!
An old guy welcomes us into the “back room”. There are probably seventy-five of us all in, mostly families with little kids. There is a mix of local Aussies a few Asians and a token European traveler. We seem to be the only Americans.
The crusty old guy in charge of the shearing looks like he walked off a movie set. He is leathery and tan, nicked and cut, quick with subtle inside jokes for the parents, patient with the kids and full of information on running a sheep farm.
We learn all about sheep and farming. When we lose power for a bit, a common experience out here, he improvises with a “field trip” out to the herding pen where the sheep dogs put on a show. They have one dog to bring the sheep into the pen and another to walk on top of them to keep them moving through the gates. No joke, one of the dogs walks on the backs of the sheep to keep them in line. It is amazing to see how well trained the dogs are and how responsive the sheep seem to be.
We learn about herd management, who they are tagged and identified by age and sex, when they are “retired” to the table and why, how often they are sheared, etc. It’s so different from home. This is a network of small farmers feeding in to cooperatives. The concept of corporate mega farms has not yet taken hold and the family run business is still alive and well.
Eventually we get around to the main event where he actually shears a sheep. They have a machine they use that has not changed in almost a hundred years. In fact it seems not much at all has changed here in the past hundred years. The barn is well worn and full of history. Years of “fixes” are evident everywhere, old signs hang here and there.
The sheep is incredible docile and sits there without any fuss as the shearer shaves the wool off in one piece.
We learn about sorting and bailing. How the different parts of the wool are used for different things and worth different amounts at market. This farm sells to middlemen who then sell to production houses for processing. Adele gets to push a button and start the bailing machine!
Our lunch stop is a German brewery stuck right dab in the middle of wine country. A prime example of counter programming: the Aussies love beer so the place is crowded. We sit inside and let the kids play outside in the rain. It is strange to be eating sausages and sauerkraut after the real deal in Germany. It can’t compare and disappoints, though we should have known better.
Later afternoon finds Teri out Christmas shopping in town and the rest of us home watching a Stuart Little movie marathon. No better way to spend a rainy day at the beach.
Day One Hundred and Eight Six December 21st
More rain. It is a slow, lazy day around the house while we get ready to transition up to Perth tomorrow. Adele is under the weather again and she spends pretty much the entire day on the couch. I try and catch up on the journal and pay bills while Teri and Vince head out to Christmas shop.
In mid-afternoon, Ron the owner of the winery and Tim the brother of Daniel the one who owns the house, stop by for a visit. They do things like that here. People stop by and hang out. I have no idea why we don’t do more of this at home. Maybe some do some where but not in Malibu.
They come strolling up the steps in board shorts, bare feet and tee shirts. We have a great few hours hanging out, popping a few tops and chatting about life and travels. It turns out they are an old Perth family with strong ties to the US. One of the kids is an actress living in West Hollywood. The wine business gets them out and about and Tim is starting several online ventures, some based back in the states. It is nice to visit with such positive and upbeat people. They have a dry sense of humor and appear interested and fully engaged in life.
Maybe it reflects the upswing that this area is experiencing overall with the explosive growth in minerals and mining. All the money flowing from the record growth of the past few decades is spilling into all corners of everyday live and everyone appears to be profiting. Housing is up, unemployment is nearly nil and you sense that there is generally an opportunistic outlook here. The future is bright and the landscape wide open.
I know it is not that easy but if you could figure out something to bring to market it feels like the money is here to support it. A good pretzel comes to mind. Since they don’t have pretzels I may become the first “Pretzel King” of Australia. With twenty million beer drinkers, how hard could it be?
Day One Hundred and Eight Seven December 22nd
This is a transition day. We are moving from the beach house in Yallingup to the beach house in Cottesloe, Perth. In Australia something like ninety percent of the people live by the water. Beaches and beach neighborhoods are life here. The ocean is warm, the waves big, the winds are calm in the morning and whip up to small gale in late afternoon and the sun always shines.
We drive mid-day and arrive at another beautiful modern home in late afternoon. We could be in Manhattan Beach, twenty years ago. Settling in is easy as it all feels familiar, very much like home.
A few random thoughts/observations that I missed earlier and that I keep coming back to and churning over:
In Laos we saw a crazy game that they should import to the States. It is played on a badminton court (people play badminton everywhere in Vietnam and Laos) only with three people per side and they use a small soccer ball. The same rules as soccer apply: no hands, feet and head only. The serve is an overhead or sideways scissors kick and returns can be chest trapped but must not touch the ground. We saw a group of young guys playing late into the night by our hotel in Luang Prabang, the pace is really fast and it is exciting to watch.
Uluru, the most sacred of all Aboriginal sites is one hundred and seventy kilometers from the exact middle of Australia. That’s nutty when you think about it, one hundred and seventy eight kilometers is a rounding error out here. In the forty thousand years that folks have been here the rounding error is probably due to natural movement of the land. How did they know that the center of their belief system stems from a rock in the very center of the land they are one with? It’s beyond my realm of understanding. Something is happening at the rock.
The river system that flows through the town of Alice Springs is part of the oldest uninterrupted river system in the world. It is part of a broader natural, symbiotic relationship between the elements. I would say it is between man and nature but I am coming to understand that is a misrepresentation of what is going on out here. In this world man is nature so it simply is, with out division or separation. Everything learned and known stems directly from the greater whole. I have no idea what any of this means but I do have strong desire to become a Park Ranger.
Day One Hundred and Eighty Eight December 23rd
Elvis’s car is parked in our garage. It’s a convertible, probably late 1960s, dark bluish black with a tan interior, a gift from Elis to Pricilla. It is one of those times in life when you wonder how and why thing happen to you the way they do. I have the keys but don’t dare to drive it. Instead the kids pose for a few pics and I sit in The Kings seat and hum a few bars of Blue Suede Shoes.
Perth is a pleasure. It reminds us of Southern California down San Diego way. BRUCE! Our little town could easily be Carlsbad or Encinitas. It’s the same kind of vibe. Very beach: with flip-flops and board shorts as the uniform.
With Christmas two days away we head to the mall. Everyone is there and it feels like we are in the Valley. This year we drew names out of a hat and we each get to buy one present for our person. I have Teri and Adele has Vince so the two of us head off in search of gifts. We settle on pajamas and a hat for mom and a Lego RV for Vin.
The place is hot and crowded with last minute shoppers. Turns out we are not alone in waiting until the last minute. After an hour or two we are exhausted and decide to head back home to recoup: its all too much interaction with the masses for one day. Best to go to the beach.
Day One Hundred and Eighty Nine December 24th
Our new routine is to head to the beach mid-morning while the wind is still calm and the waves manageable. The kids and I head over for a few hours of boogie boarding and sand castle building. It is very hot here in Perth.
Teri heads back to town once again for last minute shopping and supplies. Christmas is difficult when travelling. Getting time to pull it all together is not easy when you are together twenty-four-seven.
When we return from the beach we wrap gifts and put out our stockings. The air is festive and we are all in the holiday spirit.
As tradition holds in our family we each open one gift on Christmas Eve. We have a little party and snack on crackers and cheese. NORAD is tracking Santa online again and it is fun to see that we are one of the first stops he makes instead of being one on the last back home. Apparently he is stopped in Fiji for a while, and why not?
Adele has asked for a silver cross on a chain from Santa which gets us thinking about going to a church service which is how we ended up in the WSA cathedral in downtown Perth at 7p.
The place rocks. It is like the larger cathedrals we saw in Europe only filled to the brim and with a choir that makes the place reverb with sound. It is a classic Christmas service with ten lessons and hymns, all read by prominent members of the city: the Governor, ambassadors in residence (including one from the US), the Rugby team manager, a TV news caster. We sit by a side door so we can escape with Vince when he starts to melt down: Adele sits fascinated with it all the entire time.
Full of the Christmas spirit we say our prayers, head home to set out cookies and milk and try and sleep some which is very difficult to do when you are nine and four and wondering if Santa knows where you are.
Week Twenty Six - Uluru 12/30/2010
I was watching
with one eye on the other side
I had fifteen people telling me to move
I got moving on my mind
I found shelter
In some thoughts turning wheels around
I said 39 times that I love you
to the beauty I had found
- White Strips, Hotel Yorba, White Blood Cells, 2001
Day One Hundred and Seventy Six December 11th
There’s not a lot to do in Darwin. You can walk all of downtown in about twenty minutes. The main site is the Museum we saw yesterday, a Woolworths were they sell food and all the rest is just filler. That’s OK though since we are leaving today to fly to the middle of the Red Centre. We are all glad to be moving on and hopefully out of the rain and humidity. It is still really hot.
We are flying to Alice Springs, The Middle of Nowhere Australia. It is hard to believe the airlines have flight service in and out of here, but then again the drive is over 1,400K so they need an alternative for the tourist trade. And the tourist trade needs to get to Alice Springs as it is the only springboard to Ayers Rock or Uluru.
We get up fairly early for us these days to re-pack our clean laundry and head to the airport for our flight. It’s pouring rain on and off: good to be leaving with the storms threatening the way they are. At check out we learn the Internet service is based on the amount of data we use as well as the amount of time we are logged on. Surprise! So a $1.99 episode on iTunes actually costs another $30 to download. Someone is making a fortune on this Internet access thing.
We have another box that we need to send back home so we stop by the post office thinking Australia is a solid option for mail and that it is probably a good bet that a box will make the trip in one piece. $80 to mail the box. It’s a small box mind you and we don’t care when it actually arrives (as long as it does) and the cheapest option is still $80. $80! For a box (small). Someone out there needs to create a company that can disintermediate the shipping value chain. A fortune is sitting there for a reliable, low-cost provider. This is a global problem, I mean opportunity, and ripe for the picking.
At the airport a nice couple takes one look at us and promptly hands us a $30 travel voucher that they are not using so we can feed the kids. We are a bit thin these days. Excellent, play it forward, naturally we load up on coffee and water pre-flight. This is all a good thing since we are cash strapped at the moment waiting for accounts to clear. Moving money electronically has been great but you need to remember to top off the tank now and again. Already Australia is much more expensive than we thought it would be.
We are flying Qantas, so I keep snickering since all I can think of is Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. The flight is very nice and surprisingly full. Must be the Oprah effect. It is amazing to look out the plane window for an hour and see no signs of life below. And to think some nutty people make the drive just for the experience of all that nothingness. It looks insane from 30,000 feet.
When we land it is well over a thousand degrees. The walk from the plane to the terminal all but zaps the life out of us. It is a slog to get our bags and find the rental car counter.
The guidebooks said that the “Red Centre” is hot but nothing really prepares you for this. With all the red dirt, blue sky and intense sunshine it all looks so inviting but as soon as you step foot outside the heat just overpowers you. For the first time I have a real sense of how people can die out here from the heat. It’s beyond Africa and Jordan. Actually, this is way beyond anything we have ever experienced.
The people are very friendly. Our rental car lady checks us in for half and hour chatting away about this and that, suggesting places to go and things to do in town. One of “the guys” comes back after leaving for the day to track down a booster seat for Vince and then hand delivers it to us in the parking lot. That’s not happening in LA I assure you. Her last piece of advice and a rule of the rental car companies actually is not driving after dusk. “That’s when the really big stuff comes out to lie on the roads seeking warmth” Big stuff? “Oh, mostly roos and lizards, that kind of thing, no worries though.” Lizards? “Bigger than the car. Do all kinds of damage. Best to wrap up by sundown.” No worries.
Our apartment is in town and part of a complex that appears to be a mix of short term and long-term rentals. It is perfect for us with two big bedrooms, a nice kitchen and sitting area all with glorious air conditioning. It is a self-cater set up so we grab some food at the local Woolworth, dine in and call it a night.
In the evening it cools down to nine hundred and ninety nine degrees before bedtime.
Day One Hundred and Seventy Seven December 12th
Alice Springs is a stop over point between everywhere else and Uluru so you don’t really expect much of the place. We have a day here to see what there is to see and check out life in the Red Centre. It is hotter than yesterday to add some perspective.
There is a living desert museum here, The Alice Springs Desert Park, with an outdoor exhibit of three climate zones common out in the middle of nowhere. How exciting does that sound? We pretty much have the place to ourselves.
It turns out to be a great stop. It is a living museum in the sense that each region has plants and animals found in the given zone. Some are just growing wild while others are set in large enclosed areas. It is amazing to see how everything adapts to the two things you must have out here (1) water and (2) a way to deal with the heat.
The highlight is a Ranger talk by a local guide descended from the Aboriginal tribes that live in the area. He discusses tribal life and the differences between “men’s” and “women’s” business. There are spears and shields and cooking items and food sources. The items are passed around to give you a sense of weight and feel. This hour spent and the understanding we get about the area and the people make all of the travel to Alice Springs worthwhile.
The Aboriginal people have been here for 30-40,000 years. It is the oldest continual line of people/culture in the world. We learn all sorts of things about the way they pass down information between generations. That the young never ask why of an Elder: because the Elders speak for all that have come before them. That marriages are set up between distant clans to preserve bloodlines and make sure the gene pool is solid. That the maximum number of people per living section of land is known and strictly adhered to in order to preserve food and water sources. It is all fascinating.
Today, the Aborigines are having a tough go of things. The parallels to the American Indians are uncanny. Pushed off the native land, corralled into cramped, unnatural space. They are lost and feeling the effects in every way. Interestingly, our guide is very hopeful and he firmly believes that in two or three generation they will figure out how to be survive in the new world and once again thrive in the new environment. The fact that he is taking a “two of three generation” view of it all speaks volumes.
One of best exhibits in the Museum is a big building they have out in the middle of the park with a night exhibit. As you walk in from the blaring sun and oppressive heat, the areas gets gradually darker and cooler until you are under the night sky. All of the animals are exhibited in darkness so that the night creatures are comfortable being active. It’s wild. All kinds of things are wandering around after dark. Trust me if you come to the Red Centre stay inside when the sun goes down. Here, what you don’t know can definitely kill you.
A quick note about the people that live here: they all look hung over. Pretty much everyone is a bit bleary. I can only imagine how bad the drinking problem is here. When Teri bought a bottle of wine she noticed that there are restrictions on how much alcohol you can by in a 24-hour period and it seem it’s with good reason.
The Aborigines look completely lost and out of place. There is no connection between people what so ever and no attempt is made to interact. There is no eye contact. No one is smiling. And they all look hung over too.
There is a really sense of survival about the place but its mixed with enough creature comfort to deaden the senses. Here is seems the modern world is not necessarily a good thing.
Day One Hundred and Seventy Eight December 13th
Uluru is three hundred miles from Alice Springs. This is a “short” drive here in Australia. We would agree except that Teri kept telling us all it was three hundred kilometers and we are all geared up for a two hour drive that turns into four and change. Plus, the heat is just ridicules.
Over three hundred miles we pass: ten trucks (all train trucks three cars long), twenty-four cars, one bike and twenty-seven hawks circling above. That is over three hundred miles and includes coming out of Alice Springs and coming into Uluru. The place is empty and fascinating.
At one point we stop for gas and the guy in the store tells me this is a cool day. That a hot day is in the low fifties and flies cover you head to toe. The “fifties” are anywhere from 122 to 140 degrees in our world. This could be one of the most intense environments on the planet. Thank goodness they have cold Diet Coke!
The drive is odd in that it is unremarkable in most ways but the solitude is hard to grasp and shake. You begin to get just a small taste of what life beyond the small towns is really like out here. A lot of it is still uncharted, undiscovered. They keep finding new things here: animals, plants, stuff from space, all kinds of things. Imagine finding anything new in the States; probably not going to happen. Here it seems that something like eighty percent of the place is uninhabited and still open for discovery and interpretation. It is appealing in an add sort of way.
The town, I use town loosely here, of Uluru is set up for tourists coming to see the rock. There are five hotels ranging from camping on the low end to a plush hotel on the very high end, all built around a circular drive with the rest of the infrastructure tucked in between them. There is a gas station, a guide shop, and the small square where you can buy stuff, a grocery store, a few restaurants and a manageable number of cars and people.
We are staying mid-range at the Lost Camel Resort. It is very nice and has a pool so all is well. We drop our bags. Grab a quick bite and then head over to the Visitors Center to get our bearings for our less than twenty-four hour stay.
As soon as you see the rock it sort of pulls you in. Nothing else matters: it dominates the horizon. The thing is huge. I thought it would be smooth for some reason but its not. It has pockmarks and indentations and stains down the sides from rainfall. It definitely has an impact.
There is not much at the Cultural Center. We use it as a background check and a warm up for tomorrow. There are a few exhibitions and some information about the management board made up of both natives and Australians. You get the impression all is working well between them but it is hard to tell. The best news is that they have a suitable Ranger walk at 8a that we can aim for.
The kids are cranked up so on the way back to the hotel we stop and have them run around the parking lot at one of the sunset overlooks. When I suggest they do laps Vince dutifully takes off with Adele on his heels. It is a crazy and hilarious scene. If only the heat and sun would wear them down!
When we get back to the hotel everyone is tense from the long travel day in the heat. Since the energy levels are still running high we opt for our last hope to cool down and relax. When all else fails, go for a swim. This turns out to be a good fit. We spend and hour or so after dinner at the pool regrouping from the long day. The sun sets and leaves a burnt orange glow over everything. From the pool you can float on your back and watch the colors change on the trees.
Vince and I are in the Chico room and Teri and Adele share one for the Chicas. As soon as heads hit pillows we are all out like lights.
Lost Camel Resort room note left on the bed: “Due to unseasonal rain and flooding which appears to have dramatically altered the lifecycle of much of the desert flora and fauna, insects are in plague proportions. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
They actually say “plague”…
Day One Hundred and Seventy Nine December 14th
We start the day with an 8a hike from the base of the rock with one of the guides from the Park Ranger Service. Once again we get someone that truly loves their job. I overhear him telling some young kids with the group that he has been training to do this all his life and can think of nothing else he would rather be doing. It shows in his work. The two-hour walk is one of the best we have had in a National Park.
He is full of stories and information about the rock and the Aboriginal tribes that have lived here. The big take away for me is just how interconnected everything is here and how in tune the people are with the land. Clearly there is something going on and it is happening on more levels than I can understand. It makes you feel completely out of touch with what ever it is yet at some base level very much at home and a part of something all around you. I have no idea how to describe it: I am not sure what it is exactly. But it is something and it is meaningful. Maybe it’s the heat.
By noon we are checked out of the hotel and are bound for the airport. We decided to fly out of here instead of driving back to Alice Springs (a great decision in retrospect) so we are due to drop off the car and catch a 1:30p flight to Perth. Logistics are easy and the flight painless. As we climb off the desert floor, seeing Uluru from the air, it standing there all alone, in the vast emptiness, is really something.
Landing in Perth is like coming back to the real world. The airport is big and bustling. People are moving to and fro and moving in all directions. It feels odd to be with so many people again after being so isolated in Darwin and Uluru.
I will say again that I feel totally comfortable here in Australia. I like everything about it. The people seem positive and upbeat and there is a palpable energy in the air. It feels alive.
For the next two weeks we have arranged for a home exchange with our house in Malibu. This means we stay here and the family we are exchanging with stays in our place, though in this case they are not coming until the summer or 2012. Fortunately they have a few homes and we get to do one week down on the beach in a small town in the southwest corner and another up in the city of Perth. Unfortunately, we still have a 300K drive to Yallingup.
So, about Yallingup. It is a tiny town (not really, its more like a community) on the ocean about three hours south of Perth. It easily has one of the best beaches in the world. It must be one of the best surf spots on the coast with breaks coming in left, right and center. The reef stretches along the beach to break the really big waves though they are still on the high side by our standards.
It feels like the Hamptons when I was a kid. At night everyone goes to sleep and you can’t see any lights. During the day you notice when people drive by. We walk down to the water. There is a small playground and a place to shower up after a swim. At the base by the parking lot is a camping spot for a dozen of so luck campers.
Our house sits just up the hill, set back a bit from the road and high enough for full on ocean views from the decks. There is one big room downstairs, bedrooms up top and an office out back. The family has small kids so there are three big toy chests and a bunch of kids stuff. It is perfect for a week of rest and relaxation.
We arrive late. On the way into the house we stop by for take out Thai food and some basic supplies. Then we find our way and begin to settle in. All in all today was a long travel day but the bookends of the early morning hike and the late night arrival at the beach make it all worthwhile.
Day One Hundred and Eighty December 15th
Up to a glorious day. The sun is shining and the beach is calling. We spend the entire day there, in the morning I head down with Vince to play in the surf and sand. Then we head back to the house for lunch and then return with Adele for more of the same all afternoon. It is fantastic.
Day One Hundred and Eighty One December 16th
Up to a glorious day, again! You can get used to this kind of lifestyle. The sky is a deep blue and the sun is shining, the salt air crisp and clean.
Today we decide to journey down to Margaret River. This is the central town on the wine circuit and billed as the place to be in this neck of the woods. I guess it is if you like that kind of thing. To us it seems like any other small town. It is a bit odd to see a Target here on the other side of the world but other than that is a sleepy, somewhat downscale version of the Cape.
Vince isn’t feeling well today. He has been off lately and today it seems to finally be taking its toll on him. Since the temperature is really high in the sun and the main street doesn’t really have that much to offer we do one quick loop, stop by a pharmacy for some meds and call it an afternoon.
Though not before buying two boogie boards and checking out the surf shops for my eco-friendly board short project. It seems the big surf wear houses are offering some form of RPET poly shorts but not up to par with what we intend to do with VinniVooms. To further test the concept and pick up Vin’s spirits we get matching board shorts to celebrate the pending launch of the new company. The world needs eco-friendly board shorts for fathers and sons! At least this world does.
We need gas so we pull into a BP station. One of the things about the Australians is that they love to tell jokes and they don’t seem to care what they say in front of children. The gas station guy leans into the car and says, “This guy walks into a psychiatrist stark naked, wrapped in plastic wrap and asks, Doc what’s wrong with me? And the psychiatrist says, well sir I can see you nuts!” Ok, so it’s funny. Which prompts Adele to say, “What’s so funny?” And Vince so start yelling, “Nuts, that guy said nuts!” in his Tylenol induced delirium. Ah, what happened to the chicken crossing the road? Got to love these Australians.
Day One Hundred and Eighty Two December 17th
Yet another glorious day. These skies have possibly the most beautiful and bluest hue we have seen to date. They look fake. Actually, it is hard not to be shocked each time you walk out the door into the sunshine. And it’s hot. Really, really hot. Again.
It is Adele’s turn to be under the weather today. She wakes up with the same thing Vince has been fighting for the past few days. It was a tough night with both kids down for the count. Not a lot of sleep for the parents.
We decide to lay low and recoup as we celebrate our halfway point in our years long journey. This is day one hundred and eighty two, the mid-year point in terms of days. If you had asked me a year ago where I would be today I would have been hard pressed to say Perth Australia. It has been one incredible ride.
And to think we are only half way there…
Week Twenty Five - Good day, mate! 12/22/2010
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"
-Banjo Paterson, 1895
Day One Hundred and Sixty Nine to Seventy Two December 4-7th
These four days are at the tail end of our week in Langkawi, Malaysia. As I said in the last post these days pretty much blended together into one long glorious week of rest and relaxation. The setting was so amazing that we did not leave the hotel grounds except for a short trip by Teri into town for supplies and a bit of a break.
We are at the Andaman hotel. The property is set in the jungle, cascading down a hillside, looking out onto a beautiful protected cove. The white sand beach is filled with shells and coral and gentle rolling waves.
We are just down from the big resorts in Thailand and sitting off the coast of Malaysia. It feels like we are in some undiscovered paradise: like we somehow stumbled upon a well-kept secret known only in this part of the world. Forget Phuket: come to Langkawi.
A few highlights from the week:
Monkeys. There are two types of monkeys here: (1) the black tailed ones that are harmless and go about their business of chasing each other around the three tops, and (2) the brown tailed ones that cause trouble. What kinds of monkey business can they get into?
When I arrive back at the room from an afternoon swim Teri is next door yelling and screaming with our neighbor. I can hear them as I come down the hallway and approach the room. When I arrive our door is door ajar and the kids are huddled on the bed, wide eyed and talking non-stop. Excitement and fear are thick in the air.
There is a sign on the doors leading out to our balcony that says you should always, that means ALWAYS, lock both the top, bottom and side locks to keep out unwanted visitors. You never really take these things seriously, I mean how much damage can a monkey do anyway? Plenty.
The room next door is trashed. Apparently the monkeys found a way in even though two of the three locks were fastened. They raided the mini bar, went through all of the suitcases, closets and draws, general trashed everything and escaped with a big can of Pringles and perhaps some jewelry though it is hard to tell with all of the drama and hysterics (understandable of coarse). They could teach a rock star a few lessons on room trashing.
This is Vincent’s worst fear come true. He has been dreaming about “bad monkeys” now of weeks. He wakes up in cold sweats from nightmares talking about them: we have no idea why or where it is coming from but this turn of events certainly does not sit well with the big guy. He is down right terrified; you can see it in his eyes.
For the rest of our time here Vince hides all of the food and anything he considers valuable under the bed so the monkeys don’t see it. He also stays within half a step of us at all times: any rustling trees sends him into a tizzy.
Sand dollars and seashells. When was the last time you saw real sand dollars washed up on the beach? They have them here if you look carefully. We found several whole ones, washed up at the tide line with perfect five point patterns. And seashells? There is a perfect collection here for making bracelets and necklaces. We spend an hour or so each day walking the tide line and scouting around for the perfect shells.
Jingle Bells. There are three guys with guitars that roam around the dinner tables down at the beach taking requests. When they come our way we get “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the first day. Why do they call him puff Adele wants to know? All I can think of is Robert Di Nero’s character in Meet the Parents.
Then Vince puts in a request for Jingle Bells. They pause at Jingle Bells, suggesting that they may need some help with the words. I am standing off to the side with Adele and mention to her that I thought everyone knows the words to Jingle Bells. Adele, always thinking and every insightful, rolls her eyes and says, “Dad, this is a Muslim country!” Lot’s of brainpower under those blond curls. I can’t tell you have great it feels as a parent to hear all of the travel lessons coming back to you at the most unexpected times.
Swimming beyond the break. Anyone can wade at the shoreline. The real fun starts out beyond the break. For the first time Adele is able to swim in the ocean, and I mean really swim. She can do the crawl with bilateral breathing! She will run down the beach, dive into the surf, come up on the other side of the waves and then swim out beyond the chop. It’s fun to watch her confidence and comfort levels soar.
Vince, the ever-watchful little brother, follows her every move. He runs down the beach after Adele and jumps in belly first, splashing and rolling in the waves. His face is in the water and he will come out and float some if we promise to catch him and hold him tight. I give him another few weeks of beach time and then expect he will be out here with the rest of us.
Bugs. The bugs are very loud here in the jungle. Not “Oh, listen to those nice bugs” loud, but more like a “CAN SOMEONE TURN OFF THE BUGS!” loud. They are DEAFENING. My ears HURT. What? Then all of a sudden you stop noticing them. They seem to be gone! It is odd but after a few hours they blend in to the blur of background noise. In fact, you notice when they are not there. It is a constant buzzing sound; like the engines are gearing up to lift off and you are all about to fly away.
Beachfront. When you wake up from a “short” nap by rolling off your beach chair as it slopes to one side due to the waves eroding the sand beneath, you know you are in paradise. You can sit for hours under the shade of enormous trees and have the waves wash up around you feet. The bay is picture perfect: like living in some sort of surf movie. Plus, they will bring you Diet Cokes whenever you raise your hand.
Storms. It rained last night. Hard. I mean very hard. So hard it woke me up. With the rain pounding into the windows and the surf crashing onto the shoreline it felt like the end of the world. When you are staying a few yards, essentially sleeping right next to the ocean, on an island that has a history with big waves, and it is very late at night or maybe very early in the morning, and it is raining, pouring, your thoughts naturally go where they should not, to a tsunami.
Lying in the darkness you can get a bit freaked if you dwell on it. Are the warning buoys in place? How much time do we have? Can we scramble to the stairs fast enough? Is the top floor high enough? The rain rages on and the waves sound bigger and bigger with each set. They crash with thunderous booms. Maybe best to stay awake for a while to make sure everything is OK. I get up and peer out the window into total darkness and a driving down pour. All right then, no choice but to stay awake for a while, at least until the waves stop, just in case.
The Spa. Teri goes for a “treatment.” Apparently it must be quite something. She comes back totally relaxed, mellow as can be, mumbling something about the “treatment” rooms perched on the mountainside with outdoor showers and sitting areas and bathrobes worth buying and flowers and incense and fresh juice and herbal teas. Phew, and to think all she had was a facial.
Langkawi. Come here for a while when you need a break. Stay at the Andaman; don’t bother to leave the property. Be careful or ten years may slip away before you know it.
Day One Hundred and Seventy Three December 8th
Boy it is hard to leave this place. We celebrate with our last buffet breakfast and grab a cab back to the airport for our 9:30a flight to KL. This is a big travel day, not so much in terms of distance but in terms of time. We leave the hotel in Langkawi at 8a and get into the hotel in Darwin and 4a. That is a lot of travel time, even by our standards.
Not much happens along the way. At least not much to us, our bags however seem to have their own separate adventure. You can’t trust those bags to fly solo. Give them and inch and they will hop off in Singapore for a night of revelry. At least that is their last known whereabouts.
We get stamped out of Malaysia by passport control and stop down in Singapore to pick up another flight to Darwin Australia. When we checked in they tagged the bags to Singapore and mumbled something about getting them between flights and transferring them ourselves or then again maybe it was checking in with someone else that may say don’t worry them, blah, blah, blah. It was all a bit confusing. It’s a five-hour lay over so we have plenty of time to sort it all out.
When we do stop by a JetStar desk in Singapore the lady tells us not to worry, no need to fret that they bags are only tagged to here, JetStar will pick them up and send them on our flight to Darwin. She looked legit and was wearing a uniform, standing behind a little JetStar desk. Mind you this JetStar think is sketchy at best. It is some kind of low cost charter and they use other airlines counters and put paper JetStar signs up so you know it is them.
Are we going to Darwin? Not with out Visas. Visas? We need Visas for Australia? Did I mention that we are Americans! How much? Book and pay online? Really, are you sure? Bags? What bags? Oh, no need to worry about the bags? Excellent.
When we get off the plane in Darwin at 3a security is tight. They search us with sniffing dogs. They almost take the kids away because Vince had a banana and the smell is driving the sniffing beagle nuts and they think maybe we have another one somewhere, and the kids are fruit smugglers or something. They would have searched our bags but it seems that they forgot to get on the plane. Easy enough to forget with all the distractions, just like I forgot to enter my middle name on the Visa application. Apparently they want to know why I forgot my middle name so now I get held back while the rest of the family clears through. Explain that to two exhausted children, why daddy needs to stay behind with the policewomen and he cannot come into Australia just yet. This is all happening at 3a mind you, now it’s almost 4a.
Eventually we hail a cab. They drive on the wrong side of the road here. When I point that out to our Indian cab driver he looks a bit nervous and eyes me like I am certifiably insane, which I may be at this point, after almost twenty hours of travel, sans luggage. I did not mean to upset the man: he seems to be having enough trouble driving without being nervous about some crazy American with family in his cab. He must be new, maybe a bit of small talk will calm him down, “Sorry, we drive on the right side back home in the States, so, where are all the kangaroos?” No answer, he laughs nervously. “I thought they would be hopping all over the place. You know, boing, boing, boing, so, do they sleep at night?” He is totally confused, “Five minutes Mister, five minutes to the Novotel, very fast!” He speeds up. That’s five minutes Australian time: a half hour later we arrive at our hotel.
Day One Hundred and Seventy Four December 9th
Why bother to get out of bed when your bags are MIA and it is about a thousand degrees outside? Because we are finally in Australia! At long last we are actually here, finally on what may be, at least we hope it to be, more seemingly familiar soil. Darwin is on the Northern tip of this great land and today is the start of our months long journey to explore some nooks and crannies.
First up is breakfast/lunch, food of some sort, any sort, preferable from a place called Duck Nuts. I like is here already. They call “one of the best places to eat” in all of Darwin, Duck Nuts. I have no idea what it all means but sign me up. It’s a dark bar playing bad 80s music, somehow I seem to know every word, much to the amazement of the kids, Hey Mickey, He’s so fine, Go Go’s circa 1980 something, Hey Mickey, Hey Mickey!
One of the first things you notice when you leave the air-conditioned hotel is just how hot and oppressive it is here. The temp reading says 33 degrees and beyond humid. Not that 33 means much to us. All we know is that it is hot. And we just came from the jungle so we know hot.
The humidity does break on occasion with short bursts of torrential downpours that no one seems to notice. In fact we are the only ones sitting inside for lunch, the locals seem to think it is down right balmy and they are all sitting outside enjoying the “fine day”. They are all giddy with the “cool” front. The funny thing about the rain is that they just seem to ignore it and walk around wet and soggy. Probably with good reason since you dry out in no time and it is way to hot to ever get a chill. It is a good life lesson.
We are all pretty excited to be here, after all Adele has been planning every detail of this part of the trip for months and at long last we have touched down. Our first stop after lunch is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Before we head in we make a quick fly by the bay to check out the Indian Ocean in this neck of the woods.
The tide is out. Way, way, way out. There is a paved boat launch that runs down towards the sea but never reaches the water. We walk down a good long ways before we get anywhere close to the waterline. At the end we meet a guy and I think maybe his daughter, hard to tell, with cameras mounted and pointed at a storm a brewing out over the bay. The cameras click automatically wherever there are lightening flashes.
These guys are real storm chasers, like the ones on the Weather Channel. To be honest I am not sure what to think. Is the brewing storm really going to become a cyclone? The rumors are everywhere in town and a warning is posted starting the day we fly out to Alice Springs. Sure, that will be a nice smooth take off. If these people are passing an afternoon at the off chance of snapping the perfect storm photo shouldn’t we be nervous? Talking to them doesn’t really calm the fears. They seem genuinely excited at the prospect of another big one.
We end up talking with them for twenty minutes or so and they are the nicest people you will ever meet. Turns out they come out here a lot to stand around and take pictures. Not a lot to do here in Darwin. The constant camera clicks are driven by a high tech light sensor that is attached to the tripod that automatically trips the shutter whenever there is any sign of change in light. Very cool. They tell us the tide is always this extreme, that the salty crocs are around but not to worry since they have twenty eight traps set out around the bay, that the box jellies really are something to fear and generally give the impression that there is not reason whatsoever to go anywhere near the water. Not that we are nervous mind you.
We retreat to the museum and it is excellent. They have an interesting display by contemporary Aboriginal artists, lots of history on the wildlife both land and sea and an unbelievable exhibit on Cyclone Tracy. The timing is good: we are in the midst of a cyclone warning as we speak.
In 1974 Cyclone Tracy hit land on Christmas Eve and literally destroyed Darwin. I had no idea. When I say destroyed I mean it wiped out an entire city of forty five thousand people. The damage was so bad that only a quarter of them stayed on, the rest fled never to return. That would be like total and utter destruction of a city the size of Annapolis back home. Can you imagine?
The winds were so strong that they broke the measurement instruments. Lots of people died and almost every house and building was blown away. The photos of the devastation are hard to take in.
In the back of the exhibit they have a little room sealed behind a heavy door. On it hangs a sign that lets you know it is raw audio of the storm recorded first hand by one of the survivors. The sign warns people that may have lived through the event that going in and listening may be too much for them to handle. Heed the warning. It is so loud and disturbing that I cannot get fully inside.
I am afraid to enter. The recorded winds were overwhelming, so incredibly loud and sound so powerful. You could here pieces of buildings flying by and scraping the ground around you. The room is totally black so you cannot see anything, just like the night the storm hit. My thoughts ran back to the clean up efforts I did in New Orleans after Katrina. I was the same sort of feeling, the same kind of devastation. It is a lesson well taken, never, ever underestimate the powerful force of nature.
On the way back to the hotel we do a quick shop so we can dine in. The hotel has a kitchenette and we are way too tired to sit out and eat. I pull the short stick and do the shop. There is a guy in the beer store that is a typical outgoing Aussie:
Guy in the beer store: Where you from mate?
Guy in the beer store: Aw excellent mate, been to Seattle and Virginia once in the early 80s.
Me: Next time come to Cali.
Guy in the beer store: Love to mate, but I can’t, bit of a record now you know, minor thing, nobody was hurt, well not really, anyway mate, they want me to stay in country, its been years and all, you know how it is.
Me: OK, so, well, cheers then.
Guy in the beer store: Right at you mate, cheers, good on ya!
Still recovering from that conversation I head into the pharmacy to pick up some saline solution.
Women behind the counter: American then?
Me: Yes, California
Women behind the counter, in a hushed whisper, leaning across so no one else can hear: ARE YOU WITH OPRAH?
Everyone in the place sneaks a glance in my direction and leans into listen.
Women behind the counter: OPRAH, RUMOR HAS IT SHE IS HERE IN DARWIN!
Me (hysterical): You have got to be kidding me.
No joke. Oprah. You miss something when you don’t watch the news. Apparently Oprah is in Australia tapping her last shows and she is travelling around the country to take in the sights with three hundred fans. Can the world get any stranger?
After dinner we decide that I need to go discuss the bag situation with the JetStar people in person so I trek back up to the airport to interview the seventeen-year old baggage clerk on the whereabouts of all of our worldly possessions. He has no idea and takes no responsibility. Excuse me? I move on to the nineteen-year old supervisor. She is even worse as she adds in a twinge of sarcasm to our discussion. I leave before I get arrested.
Sans bags for another day.
Day One Hundred and Seventy Five December 10th
New day, same clothes, no bags. This bag thing may become an issue if they do not arrive in the next few hours. Luckily we get word that they are in the house and ready for pick up at the airport anytime. We stop by on the way out of town to change in the parking lot.
Today we are off to a wildlife park to look for kangaroos. You never really think about it back home but Australia has pretty much been an island unto itself forever. The result is an astonishing range of wildlife, much of it deadly, and almost all of it unique to the territories they live in. The same goes for the trees and plants.
This wildlife park is a great way to get introduced to it all. It’s raining again, pouring actually and we are the only ones here. Thus far Australia is empty. It is supposed to be high season but we seem to be the only ones out and about. If this is crowded I can’t imagine what empty is like. They only have something like 20 million people total, about the size of Cairo, in a country the size of the States. For comparison, we have almost 300 million people.
I guess that is how you can end up being the only ones at the wildlife park. For some perspective, Darwin is a major city, something like fourth in size so this is like showing up and being all alone at the LA Zoo.
They have a really big sign warning you about crocs. Basically it says stay VERY far away at all times, they will kill you. Nice welcome note. We stick to the paths.
At one stop they have a simulated rainstorm with thunder and lightening and a spider that may be real or may not be, doesn’t matter, it freaks out the kids (and the parents as well to be honest about it). We run in the other direction. All the spiders here can kill you and this one is huge.
Wallabies look like giant rats. While we sit inside eating a snack one comes hopping into the building only to be picked up by the tail and removed by a ranger. They are nutty. We get a chance to see them up close and feed them carrots and veggies. They are like hopping dogs and a strange site to the uninitiated.
The heavy rains are kicking in so we lay low for the afternoon, do some laundry and call it an early night. It is so nice to have our bags back!
And to be in a land where everything seems familiar but is actually different than what you perceive it to be…
Week Twenty Four - Happy Birthday Adele 12/12/2010
Happy birthday Adele,
Happy birthday Adele,
Happy birthday Adele Rose,
Happy birthday to you!
Day One Hundred and Sixty Two November 27th
Ha Long bay is on everyone’s Vietnam hit list for good reason. When you wake up on an old wooden boat anchored in a beautiful calm bay, surrounded by the rest of the fleet and in the shadows of limestone spires you understand the fascination with the place. It is stunning to the senses and really, really beautiful.
Top deck has Tia Chi at 7a for those so inclined, like Adele, though she is an observer not a participant. I cannot get by the deck one floor below serving coffee. Today we are off to visit a cave before breakfast that they locals call “Beautiful and Amazing!” Our cruise director has promised an explanation of this unique name when we arrive. We can hardly wait.
Once again we board the small launches for the short trip, this time over to the cave. This is nutty. The cruise director gets us all together dockside and then has our boat passengers fall in line with all of the other boat people to march up a cliff to see these big caves in the side of the mountain. The caves have been wired with electricity and are lit up like a Christmas tree so tourists can snap photos of stalagmites and stalactites that may or may not look like dragons, Buddha, fish and assorted other things. The Vietnam Ministry of Tourism is responsible. No doubt.
When our director gets us all hovered around him to announce why the locals have named the cave “Beautiful and Amazing” he pauses and encourages us all to guess. People throw out various things. He just smiles and nods, “No!” He finally declares, “It is because this cave IS beautiful and amazing!” Really? Did he just say that with a straight face?
We can’t get back on the big boat soon enough. As we sail back to port we enjoy a nice buffet breakfast, it is all so civilized this cruising thing. Not that I would ever do it again mind you. Well, maybe if they had sitters for the kids. By 11a we are back on the road to Ha Noi and headed for a 6:15p flight to Laos.
The drive is equally brutal this time around only it goes by much faster. It figures when we have time to burn the traffic is light and roads clear. We just can’t get a break and end up at the airport four hours before our flight. This is very poor party planning on the part of Ann Tours.
There is nothing in the Ha Noi airport. Nothing. The food is really bad, the waiting areas uncomfortable, our check in gate is closed until two hours pre-flight and we are all feeling a bit ill from the van ride. Somehow we make it through.
I spend a good bit of time trying to find dollars. It is weird, they want us to use dollars but seem to be hoarding them at the same time. I can get pretty much any other currency except dollars. I toy with the idea of trying to pass off Euros, they are easy to come by, but the Euro is in a downward spiral and no one wants them. I need good old USDs to get our visas in Laos.
At 6:30p, after four long hours of down time, we leave Vietnam, lift off from Ha Noi and head over the mountains to Laos. This country has been on our wish list for years.
When you get out of the plane in Laung Prabang it feels a lot like the really small airports in Hawaii. The ones with a single runway, a small building for logistics and a couple of people standing around to make sure everything goes OK. The ones that refuse to take the $40 dollars we need to enter the country in Vietnam Dong, New Zealand dollars, a few spare Euros or a handful of Swiss Francs.
We hold up the line for a while as they sort things out. In the end they send me off to the cash machine to pick up Laos Kips. This sounds easy enough except that I may have reached our limit taking out money in Han Noi thinking the would take Vietnamese currency in the country next door. No such luck, I get the sense the two countries are not on good terms. It’s like bowling for dollars with these ATMs. With some luck I bowl a strike and somehow it spits out another million. We are on our way.
Sa Bai Dee! Excuse me? Sa Bai Dee, Carcano fam-i-ly! It is Joy, our guide here in Laos, greeting us with a big warm smile and a welcoming “hello” in Laotian. Laung Prabang is a small city compared to where we have been and most of the people live out side the city center in the surrounding villages. The city itself feels very small as we wind our way from the airport to the hotel. It is dark outside and we are all half asleep. The streetlights take on that hazy glow that comes with fatigue. It is so different than the world we just left.
We are staying at the Villa Maly, a small boutique hotel close to the town center. It is comfortable but the room is very small and we are all one top of each other. Not exactly what we expected but it’s workable for a few days. The kids get to sleep under the mosquito net in the bed with mom and I pull the straw for the floor. I trust the malaria pills will be effective.
Day One Hundred and Sixty Three November 28th
Laung Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage city of twenty four thousand people and is listed as “one of the best preserved cities in South East Asia.” I am not sure it deserves such accolades but it is a nice place to hang around for a few days, especially after the insanity of Ha Noi.
The buildings are low, the streets tree lined and the place feels very open and manageable. There is a heavy French influence and much of the architecture reflects the days of Colonial rule. Our first stop is at one of the large converted government building that now houses the Laos Cultural museum.
Vince is cranked up so we need to stay outside while Teri and Adele check the place out. Apparently it is filled with Buddha statues. Not surprising. It also houses some stuff from the last king. It’s all kind of weird. I have no idea what happened to the last king but apparently it has something to do with the war and it happened in the mid-70s. Everything in this region happened in the mid-70s.
For some reason the king is no longer and all of his king stuff went in to the museum. It feels like its all just sitting there, waiting for him to return: there’s a Lincoln Continental from the mid-60s, a couple of crowns, some jewels. Overall it is kind of bleak and a bit depressing.
The Lincoln Continental sparks a conversation about the relationship with America and how the people here feel about us. Joy pauses for a second and then explains, “During the war they dropped a lot of bombs, 1.7 tons of bombs for every single person in Laos.” He pauses again, “and many of them are still lying around.” It’s an awkward moment: enough has been said.
We pop in and out of a few more temples. They are familiar to us from our prior travels, the incense burning, an occasional bell or chime, the giant golden statues of Buddha. It all feels very comforting in a way. The monks run about in orange robes attending to what ever it is they do all day long. A few tourists look on them with curiosity, snapping photos all the while.
Joy was one of them once. He studied to become a monk for eight years in a temple here in Laung Prabang. It is odd to think someone can study to become a monk then sort of drop out of the program and go on to become a tour guide. You think of them as being like priest or ministers, part of a higher calling, dedicated for life. I don’t get that sense here. It sounds more like a safe harbor of sorts, a place to hang for a while to work on character development.
This city has been thriving for all of these centuries because it sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Khan and the Me Kong. The Khan is much smaller and is flanked by steep walls terraced with gardens. Bamboo bridges crisscross shore to shore.
This afternoon we have four hour boat ride up and down the larger one, the Me Kong, to see what life is like down by the riverside. We should have read the description of the day a bit better before boarding, four hours is a long time with one bottle of water, no toys and two very tired children. Plus, it’s a thousand degrees here in the jungle.
I feel like I am in a Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Yes, I know that’s the Congo but this has the same feel to it. The river gets narrower and closes in the higher/deeper in we go. The people on the riverside are living in intense poverty. It is so poor that I am not even sure “poverty” comes into the equation or calculus as a way to describe the life they live. There’s no running water or electricity, no real infrastructure. People just live day by day on the river. Riding by in the boat and looking on as a casual observer is uncomfortable.
We get a bit more of Joy’s story. He grew up in this town; his uncle was a bodyguard for the king so they lived next to the king and just around the corner from our hotel. (it turns out our hotel was once the kings house) As a child he used to play in the hotel garden. He went to school to study English, tried the monk thing, went to Vientiane for ten years, got married and returned to the hometown to carve out a life for his young and growing family.
To get by they have two incomes: Joy’s wife is a doctor in town and clears $80 US a month. That’s right $80 US working full time as a doctor. Unbelievable. Joy is taking advantage of the explosive growth in tourism to stake his claim. He speaks English and it’s the universal currency in the guiding industry. If you have the skill set you can make a killing off the tourist trade.
Coming in from the outside we have no context for doctors making $80 a month. Salaries and standards of living are not comprehensible here when you come in from a first world economy. I mean the average tourist will drop $80 on a Sa Bai Dee tee shirt and a few scarves. The imbalance in the world is downright scary.
I notice a few plastic bottles floating in the current tucked in behind rocks and riffles. The river is so clean that anything remotely resembling trash stands out. The water is thick with brown mud but other wise clean of pollution. It turns out they use the plastic bottles as buoys for fishing line. The closer you look the more you see that they are perfectly placed to catch fish. Reading rivers becomes second nature after twenty years of fly-fishing: it is impossible to turn off when you are on a river. It seems fish hide in the same places the world over, and there are always fishermen trying to catch them.
The lunch stop is the only restaurant for miles around and is set just off the river and back up the hill a few yards. As we walk up from the dock in the blazing sun, kids, Adele and Vin’s ages, try and sell us birds in tiny cages and turtles in the smallest of boxes. It’s a hard sight.
We eat for less than $20 US. And this is in a place tourists must dine at as there are no other options. The fried rice is excellent. Across from the restaurant is our destination, the Pak Po Caves. This fascination with caves is a mystery to me. In this one they keep thousands of Buddha statues and for some reason consider it blessed. I have no idea why. It’s a small dingy old cave with dusty statues in the middle of nowhere.
The only saving grace is the fortune telling box. First you draw a stick from a big pile and it has your number on it. Then you go and pull your fortune from a box with the corresponding number. It is all very low tech. We are pleased to learn that Teri, Adele and Vince are all in for very good fortune.
Joy happens to mention that Vince’s reading also says, “You can have anything you want in life.” Now some may hear this as good news for the long term. Vince hears it exactly as it comes out, “I can have anything I want, the number 21 in the cave said so.” This will haunt us going forward. Maybe forever.
After a long day on the river we end up back at our hotel pool, swatting mosquitoes and trying to cool off. It is very hot here, even after the sun goes down. Dinner is in town and bed follows shortly there after.
Day One Hundred and Sixty Four November 29th
I am done with poverty. Today’s morning tour of another tiny roadside village on the tourist circuit seals the deal. This one is billed as a place to see “Lao ethnic minority groups making crafts.” It is a collection of huts made from sticks set on dried mud with a walking path down the middle for tourists.
Chickens and dogs roam about. All of the people are sitting out in the dirt trying to sell things made in China. Old ladies are competing with small children to sell things you need to wash before touching. You step back when they forcefully approach you. There’s a sense of desperation about it all.
I reluctantly buy a bracelet from a small barefoot child, ridden with lice and absolutely filthy. It’s just too much. We move through quickly and get back to the van as fast as possible. They should not exploit poverty for tourism: it doesn’t play well. Enough with the poverty. Enough.
From this insanity we move on to a waterfall in the middle of nowhere. This is a land of extremes. The waterfall looks like something out of a movie, a beautiful oasis in the middle of the jungle. The pools are emerald green and sky blue. Thick jungle vegetation hangs down and touches the water; big rocks create a series of waterfalls cascading down into deep plunge pools. People (all tourists) are swinging from vines and diving from rocks. The seen is surreal.
The kids jump right in. Adele is the only one brave enough to actually swim. Vince wades on the shoreline and Teri and I stand watch to make sure all is well. A better part of an hour passes by.
We are getting used to lunches in far off places with very sketchy sanitation and really hot peppers. If you ask for anything with a kick it may kill you. Better a little heat to kill the germs though, best safe than sorry. We sweat through another fifteen-dollar lunch, most of the expense going towards mom’s beers.
After lunch we cancel the rest of whatever else we are supposed to see and head back to the hotel to re-group. We have hit some kind of limit, some wall. From here on out we will deal with Laos on our own terms, we’ll manage to get a better sense of things out side of the tour guide staging.
Vince: There’s a monkey. (Pointing at an orange robed monk walking next to us.)
Mom: A monk Vince, he’s a monk.
Vince: No, the monkey, the orange one over there.
Makes you pray the monks can’t speak English…
We descend on the night market. They have all kinds of thing for sale, all of it for the tourist trade. I would guess that half of the vendors may be local the rest imported. Joy told us earlier that the Laos people rent out storefronts and night stalls to the Vietnamese, take the rental money for the term of the lease and head out the countryside to get away from the growth and development. They then return to re-rent at higher amounts in a year and then leave again. The UNESCO designation has done wonders for Luang Prabang, or so they say. We should have come ten years ago.
I buy a cup of Laos’s coffee. It has a pretty solid reputation in these parts so I want to see if it stacks up to Café Bustelo. Now I can handle pretty much anything in the coffee world, the stronger the better, but this is in a new league. To those that know me well, it is enough to let you know that I could not finish this cup. I actually put it down about half way through and I was forced to surrender. It’s a humbling experience.
The kids are having all kinds of trouble going down at night. Teri and I are actually falling asleep before they do and it is weighing heavily on all of us. Without down time to re-group and get stuff done the adults are starting to crack.
There is only one thing to do, head for the beach.
Day One Hundred and Sixty Five November 30th
The family sleeps in while I head out with Joy for one last tour of the local temples. We see Wat’s Visoun and Aham: they are both clustered in one large compound. The most interesting part of the sights is a wall depicting the afterlife in some form of hell for people that are unfaithful in marriage. Clearly something is lost in translation. I thought the Buddhist’s don’t believe in Heaven and Hell.
Apparently these ones do, or maybe the French influence has something to do with the frescos. These Wat’s were all built in the mid-1800s under French rule and we all know the French have a flare for the dramatic. Joy tells me these are instructional messages to teach people how to behave. Nothing like a healthy dose of the fear of the afterlife to keep everyone in line.
Adele’s birthday is tomorrow and we want to add in a few “cultural” items to her gift list per her request. I’ve got to hand it to her she knows how to make the best of a situation. I ask Joy to swing by a shop or two. The first one is run by a Vietnamese women: I know this because when I try and buy a dragon doll billed as a ‘hill tribe” item she asks for 110 Kip and Joy gets into an argument with her about the price.
There is something going on between these two countries. They clearly don’t like each other at lest not here in Laos. I can’t tell if the Vietnamese are coming in with cheap labor and goods and undercutting the Laos folks or if it’s got something to do the past discretions. Either way the dislike for each other is palpable.
We move on. Down the road at a night market stand we find a local Laos connection that sells me the same doll for 35 Kip. Plus, she throws in a necklace for a few more because it’s my daughter’s birthday. Such a world of difference.
Pre-flight we have time for one last meal that ends up being one of our best in Laos. That is until Adele eats the pepper. No, not one of those long green peppers, it’s one of the short skinny red ones. They look harmless, unless you are almost nine, and mistakenly not just bite but chew one hidden in your salad.
She cries and sobs uncontrollably. It must have been a real zinger. The only thing that can sooth the pain is a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. Vince gets a “sympathy” bowl as well because he is feeling the pain. So do I just to be sure she is OK.
So about that week in the tropics: Langkawi Malaysia here we come.
We bid a fond farewell to Joy at the airport and wish him all the best. He has been a great guide here in Laos, if you come, call us and we will get you in touch.
Airport security is non-existent. It they have any concerns about terrorism at all you would never know it. People drive on the runway here. They pull up and board. It’s a bit of a free for all. They do have an x-ray machine but I don’t thinks it’s actually turned on, if it is, no one is watching. We waltz in with water bottles, computers and electronics unchecked. When we transfer in Vientiane they do stamp our passports so there’s some record of our coming and going but its ceremonial at best and no one seems to care.
I am glad we went to Laos. Next time I would avoid the UNCESCO sites, stay off the tourist routes and stay in smaller hotels. We could not do this with kids and I think we got enough of a taste of what it could be this time around. We may be back, not sure, but if we do return it would be on a mountain bike or hiking tour. That’s really the way to see the country. Just stay on the path and watch out for the UXBs.
In Kuala Lumpur we have thirty minutes between flights so we sprint to McDonalds. Yes, that’s right, the Carcanos are eating Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets. Unbelievable! Wake the kids, phone the neighbors. A large Diet Coke with ice never tasted so good.
Gate side we sit next to a nice couple from Langkawi. The guy is French Canadian and hails originally from Vancouver. It seems ten years ago he left on a thirty some odd foot sail boat on a solo trip to Japan. Forty-two days later he arrived safe and sound. Then he decided to keep on going and eventually, a few years later, he ended up in a harbor on Langwaki and never left. It is that kind of place.
When I ask him what he likes best about the island he lists off the usual: beaches, water, people, food, and lifestyle. Then he adds one more: they don’t care where you’re from or how long you stay. Visas are a non-issue. Once he realized no one cared if he left and returned every six-month to renew the Visa he never looked back. Ten years have slipped away, now there’s a family and business and the like. He suggests we stay as long as we like. He knows a guy with a place if we need one, its on the beach and may have running water. I thank him and tell him we will let him know. If I ever get lost on purpose you should look here.
The flight is a late arrival into Langkawi. We land just after 10p on what has turned out to be a three flight, ten-hour travel day. Our drive to the hotel is another forty minutes down very dark windy roads. It is hard to see anything. We are definitely on and island: it is wet and humid and there are plenty of palm trees. The vibe is very beach.
Our hotel comes recommended by a friend as a good place to lay low for a few days. We have booked in for eight. When we arrive just after 11p our check-in takes forever and the kids end up asleep on lobby chairs. We push them to check us in as quickly as possible and then head down to our room on the first floor. Yes, down to our room on the first floor, it is one of those hotels, where you check in on the top floor and descend down the hill towards the ocean. I like it already.
Turn out the lights - is that the sound of the ocean?
Day One Hundred and Sixty Six December 1st ADELES BIRTHDAY!
Happy birthday Adele Rose! Today is your day, you off to great places, your off and away!
When we wake up and things begin to come into focus we realize just where we are. Our room is on the first floor, in walking distance to the pool and ocean. We are on the ocean, on one of the most perfect harbors I have seen, on a fine white sand beach, with gentle waves and crystal clear warm water. It is hot and humid, the bugs are so loud it hurts initially, then they just blend in and become part of the cadence of the jungle. There is a kids club with games and activities, a game room with the same things for adults, wifi works everywhere, a business center, a top rated spa, several restaurants and no people. It’s off-season so we pretty much have the run of the place.
Adele wanted to be somewhere special for this day and by all means this is one of those places.
We have a family “surprise” party with balloons and a chocolate cake in the room. All of her friends and family have emailed and she is beyond excited. We read through them as we open gifts. Her gifts are the “cultural” items she wanted so much: the dress from Vietnam, the dragon and elephant necklace from Laos. We have our scarves from the night market and a few other small things. It is a special family time. Nowhere near what we usually do for birthdays back home but just a special in its own way. One we will always talk about and remember.
Adele is a strong, independent, beautiful nine years old. I would say little girl but she’s beyond that now: maybe young lady? I don’t know, it is all so hard to get used to. Yesterday she was sleeping next to Archie and Beau, painting with Hannah on the back deck, starting the Yellow room, getting on the bus for the first time, performing at gymnastics, giving the first piano recital. Tomorrow she will be downloading videos on her iPad, taking class field trips, graduating from Webster, going out with friends, dating, driving, picking a school and a major.
Today we spend together, in the moment, thankful for the past and looking forward the future. Today we swim way out in the ocean, hang out with Vince, mom and dad, Skype friends and family back home and smile the beautiful, innocent smile of a nine year old. Today we celebrate. Today we are nine.
We love you Adele Rose, we love you…
Days One Hundred and Sixty Seven and Eight December 1-2
I am combining the next two days because that’s how things work around here. The days blend together. After the first few hours you stop worrying about time, then you stop worrying about the outside world, eventually you just stop worrying. Your bathing suit is the only piece of worn clothing, bathing actually becomes an option since a dip in the sea and a brisk sand scrub is probably good enough, you wake with the day light and go to sleep when it gets dark. You get used to a buffet breakfast with strong coffee and a photocopy sheet of the days world news, lunch at the pool and eating dinner with your feet in the sand. Naps are a required activity. So is shell collecting hen the tide is out.
On the first night here we get invited to a cocktail party on the beach. The General Manager invites us all down for a get together so we can meet our fellow guests. I assume we made the cut since there are so few of us here.
We end up talking to a nice couple from Lebanon and Cypress. I assume it’s the Republic of Cypress part no the Turkish part but it is hard to tell. The guy runs some kind of music event business for six months of the year. The woman is a practicing lawyer, with a MBA, another Masters in Political Science, and she is working on her third in International Relations. Perhaps they are spies? But why here in Langkawi?
They cannot believe we skipped Beirut. These are the kids of conversation you get into standing on the beach, sipping cocktails in foreign lands. We are Americans. Last time I checked Beirut was not on the State Departments list of preferred vacation spots. When we mention that perhaps it’s not safe for us to travel there they insist that the violence and potential threats to Americans are way over emphasized and exaggerated in the press. Beirut is a happening city they say, one we should not miss. Crazy these conversations, just crazy. Can we get a quick flight form here?
Our friends from Singapore cannot make the trip in for the weekend. Good friends of ours left for Singapore from LA ten years ago and never looked back. They have been living there ever since. We have been trying to work out a few days together here at the Amandan but the plans have fallen through. It would have been such fun and we are all a bit disappointed. Hopefully they can join us for Borneo to see the orangutans over Spring Break in April.
Friday is coral cleaning day. No joke. Everyone is invited to meet at low tide to head out into the water to collect pieces of dead coral. There is a tremendous amount of dead coral washed up on the beach here. We head down to do our part and find out why.
Langkawi is just off Thailand. It sits in the Andaman Sea on about the same line as Banda Aceh, a name that will ring a bell for those that remember the tsunami back in December 2004. This area was the epicenter. The coral is part of the aftermath and debris.
Apparently the reefs we devastated in the earthquake and the tsunami’s waves moved entire sections into bays and coves all along the shoreline. Debris was literally picked up and dumped into harbors, including this one, and they are still trying to recover. There are several feet of dead coral and debris in this harbor that are covering other coral reefs fighting to survive under the rubble. The Malaysian government is trying to clean up parts to give the reefs a fighting chance of survival. It’s a daunting task. I can tell you a bunch of hotel guests picking up pieces by hand at low tide is a nice start but they really need to put some more firepower behind the program if they want to effect change. Then again when you get right down to it, controlling nature is impossible.
The guy running the program tells me the water was up to a kilometer inland here on Langkawi. Nothing like Phuket he says shaking his head, nothing like Thailand. Even with five years passed you can still feel the pain. Over three hundred thousand people died in these waters. And those are ones that they know of: who knows how many more are unknown. It is an odd feeling standing looking out at the calm clear sea. I guess you never know in life.
We have a blast picking up coral and floating it back to shore in big black plastic buckets. Vince has his digging spoons and Adele gets to wear special gloves and her Keens in the water. It’s a good lesson for them and it breads much discussion on coral reefs and healthy oceans. Hats off to the Amandan for putting on the program.
Now, where did we put the suntan lotion?
Week Twenty Three 12/12/2010
There’s a rat in mi kitchen, what I’m I gonna do? – UB 40, 1986
Day One Hundred and Fifty Five November 20th
Luckily we have two rooms at the Victoria, one for the sick, the other for the caretakers. Late last evening Adele came down with the bug. She is barely moving under the covers.
Vince on the other hand bounces up at 6a with his usual banter and pitter-patter. We try breakfast to see if the food stays down. It does and we determine that Vince and I are OK, so we head out with Hai to see the Cia Rang floating market, one of the “highlights of the Delta.” (Per the guidebooks.) We have all been talking about the market for some time and Adele has been planning on spending her allowance here so missing the experience magnifies the impact of the “bug” even further. Adele is weeping openly was we leave.
It turns out the market is just a forty-five minute boat ride upstream from the hotel and we can board a boat at the dock right in front of the Victoria. We set out around 9a.
The river is crowded. There are all kinds of boats, coming in many shapes and sizes, shuttling all kinds of things up and down the river. We see big barges filled with sand so loaded down they just clear the waterline. Fishing boats large and small spreading and hauling nets. Cranes dredging up big scoops of mud and debris. Little single person canoe type things piled high with vegetables. There are wooden house boats, shacks lining the shoreline, bridges overhead, people bathing, swimming, peeing, eating, cleaning, washing clothes.
The river is the lifeblood of the region. Everything is happening on the river.
For all of the activity and use it is surprising clean and free of garbage. This is a minor miracle in this landscape filled with trash. It is almost as if the people know their lives depend on the water and therefore they are willing to respect it with cleanliness. I have no idea if that’s true but Hai seems to confirm it.
Vince is thrilled to be out and about with Dad, riding on a boat, in the middle of a river. How incredibly cool. He takes it all in stride but nearly jumps out of the boat when he sees the pineapples piled higher than we are. We pullover and board the pineapple boat for one of the tastiest treats to date. We sit on the roof eating fresh cut pineapple on a stick!
The market is all about fruits and vegetables. We thought is was going to be one big floating bizarre with all kids of good and services but in reality it is a shopping center for the locals to exchange food items. They have a system so you know what each boat is selling or trading. Whatever they have on board, they simply attach to a big bamboo pole and wave it in the air: so if a boat is trading onions, potatoes and carrots then one of each will be on the pole. It is great fun to see all of the fruits and veggies waving about.
There are no rules here in Vietnam, at least none that anyone pays attention to. The boats are all so loaded down that one small wave will sink them. No kidding. They pile on so much stuff that the deck line is at the waterline (or below it). I have never seen anything quite like it. At times all you can see is a cabin floating towards you with a bunch of people sitting on deck, the rest of the boat is so heavy it is actually underwater.
By 11a we are dockside and ready to switch off with Teri. Adele is still sleeping so I volunteer to stay behind while Vince and Mom go out to see some bats at a pagoda. Within minutes I am sleeping. Three hours later Adele is starting to stir and I crawl out of bed. The time change, late hours back with BOA in the States and the “bug” are all taking their toll.
Meanwhile, out on the Delta, Teri and Vince are driving in the rain for hours to Soc Trang to see a bunch of bats in the Khmer Bat Pagoda. Apparently the bats are tres cool: the drive is not.
At days end we are all back together booking Malaysia flights, trying to download some new iTunes videos, posting to the blog and struggling to keep down dinner. We eat on the patio at the bar but the food here is just not working. Everything familiar tastes terrible: everything foreign doesn’t work with the bug. No one can sleep, and all of us are starting to look a bit thin…
Day One Hundred and Fifty Six November 21st
This is a travel day so perhaps it is good that all of the cars have flowers on them to celebrate some lunar holiday dedicated to honoring dead drivers. They seem to honor everyone around here. Any reason to place flowers on shrines is fair game.
On the way back to HCMC and our flight to Da Nang we continue our discussion with Hai and Tuck. It turns out the owner of Ann Tours, Tony, was separated from his mom after the war because his father was head of security for the South. When he was killed the Americans thought it best if they sent the children to the US out of concern for their safety. Our river Tuck was a security guard for the South and a friend of Tony’s father. That’s how he ended up driving for the family business started by Tony’s mom, but not before he ended up in a camp for ten years post reunification in 1975. He does not have much to say about the camp.
Our guide Hai has been studying English and guiding for a number of years. He works all the time, almost everyday he can, and is working to get a leg up in life. He seems genuinely excited to be able to work so hard to build a better life.
There is no government safety net here: no welfare checks or social security. Here the family takes care of their own. If you don’t have family the village steps in. It is all for one and one for all. You either support each other or starve to death. The poverty line is that close.
Capitalism is a very powerful tool. The people are industrious and support each other for the overall economic good of the country. It is an odd blend and mix: not to be underestimated.
When we land in Da Nang the difference is noticeable immediately: the airport is much smaller with a single run way and only two or three planes. Plus, there are far fewer people here. As we taxi in you can see concrete structures, sort of like covers, that must have been used in the war to protect planes and helicopters, most likely ours I suppose. The concrete appears old and slightly decaying. Helicopters stand idle, tucked under here and there.
It is also hot here, much more so than down south and we are sweating as we walk from plane to terminal. Our new guide, Newt, is there to meet us. It turns out we are his last tour as he has landed a job in real estate sales starting the day after we leave. Hopefully he wants to hang up the tour guide shoes with a big finale. Maybe not.
When we tell him we are hungry and looking for a good local place he promptly declines. We even wave the Frommer’s book at him and he still looks concerned. Apparently Tony from Ann Tours called him and told him we are all sick and to be careful where we go to eat. Big brother is always watching here. We take full responsibility and end up at a terrible tourist place despite repeatedly asking for our Frommer’s recommendation. Not fun and bad food.
Our first stop after lunch is at the Open Air Cham Museum. It is an odd collection of stone carvings and statues gathered from temples though out the country. Most of it comes from one of the temples we will see tomorrow, set back in the jungle, outside of Hoi An. It is a good introduction to the area and the Cham people: most of the works are of Buddhist and Hindu gods. It rounds out our experiences with Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures thus far.
China beach is here in DA Nang. Who knew? I keep looking over my shoulder for Dana Delany, no such luck. There’s not much here really, just coastline and waves, but we do a quick drive just to say we did. It’s beautiful but very windy so we don’t linger too much.
It has been a very long day by the time we arrive in Hoi An. This is our home base for a few days of shopping and down time by the Indian Ocean. The town is known for handmade clothing on a quick turn around and Adele’s birthday is right around the corner so shopping is definitely in order.
We head into one of the tailors and have a great time picking out fabrics and getting a fitting for her new, Ao Dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress. They can have it the next day with one fitting in the morning and the final by late afternoon. How great is that? Vince and I try to get suits made but it is too expensive. Of coarse we find this out after the fitting and he is crushed. All he wants are “work clothes” like Dad. It kills me to walk away but we do.
The Victoria in Hoi An is excellent. We are beachfront and poolside, one of our favorite combinations. It is tight with all of us in one room but it all works out.
Pool Guy: That iPhone?
Me: No it’s an iTouch. No phone.
Pool Guy: But you email? (He is looking at my screen) How much?
Me: Yes, I can email, but no phone, I have no idea how much is cost.
Pool Guy: Here very much.
Me: Home, not so much.
Pool Guy: When you go home?
Me: Maybe never.
Pool Guy: OK, I am pool guy, no money; you buy me one and ship?
Despite the 6a start, a four-hour drive, the one-hour flight, a few hours of airport down time, sightseeing, shopping and swimming, both Adele and Vince can’t sleep. They must be over tired. It’s hard when the kids are up later than the parents.
Day One Hundred and Fifty Seven November 22nd
People do wacky things. As we drive along small side roads, on a piece of road just wide and high enough to be above the waterline, surrounded by water and rice fields dotted with tiny clusters of houses passing as villages, we find ourselves in a traffic jam, caused by a monk.
His entourage is huge. People are lining the side of the road to get a glimpse of him. They are sweeping the path in front and closing in behind him to follow along. Apparently he is continually crisscrossing Vietnam, taking one step and then kneeling down in prayer, then taking another step followed by more kneeling. He does this every step, all day and night until he can go no more. Then he lies down, sleeps, gets up and continues. His only support for everything he needs in life is from the people on the side of the road. He never stops. They feed him, shelter him, fix him up if need be and take care of him so he can continue his journey. Our guide describes him as the Forest Gump of monks.
When we ask why the monk is doing this, our guide doesn’t really have an answer. I Google “monk walking across Vietnam and praying” but he’s nowhere to be found. Apparently the journey is drawing attention to a cause. This cause maybe controversial we are told and so the monk is “watched very carefully by the government.” The “official” people follow him as well keeping track of every move and word: by the monk as well as those that support him. Everyone is “very careful what they say.” It highlights the long hand of the Communist Party and the whole thing is very bizarre.
Vince is in rare form. He refused to eat breakfast and is now “starving to killing me” so we need to stop and look for crackers. The problem with stopping roadside is that we may be the only ones to stop in these parts, ever, and the supplies look like they are from the early 80s. When we don’t find crackers or Pringles he proceeds to lie down in the middle of the floor and through a fit. It’s an odd scene: three old Vietnamese guys looking down in disbelief not knowing what to think of the small blond child, Teri trying to coax him off the floor, the guide and driver fake laughing trying to get his attention and Vince in the middle of it all howling. Oh, to be four and the center of your world.
People ride bikes here instead of scooters or cars. They carry everything on them and stack them as high as you can possibly imagine. I have no idea how they balance it all.
The temple, My Son, is set way back in the jungle. It is billed as “one of the best preserved in all of Vietnam” and has UNESCO World Heritage status. It turns out we need to park a ways out and walk in a bit, not to far, but far enough in the heat. It is really hot out here in the jungle.
The temples date back to the early 15th century. There are four groups of buildings all in various stages of decay and all are overgrown and covered in grass, vines and trees. Its funny they seem out of place in a way and just sort of pop up out of nowhere. On one side of the main temple is a huge crater. Once you take notice of it and then start to look a little deeper, its apparent that the craters are everywhere.
The place was carpet bombed during the war, more than once it seems. Apparently it was an attempt to “hurt the moral of the troops,” or so the story goes. The largest temple used to be thirty one meters high but now its mostly rubble. In one of the interiors there are two large bombs propped up against the wall. It’s odd to be here with US artillery on display, and certainly not in a positive light.
This is our first real experience with the war. The kids don’t really notice so we can skirt the subject with them. But we notice and it brings up all kinds of questions and emotions. Honestly, it is hard to put two and two together. Our country then and now, this country then and now and all of the people we know that were then and still are involved in some way or another. The experience is hard to describe and impossible to accurately articulate. I won’t try, sufficed to say it’s a struggle and very much part of the experience.
Vince has decided that these “old ruins” are actually “old woodens” and he is trying to figure out why these are made of stone and not trees. Adele has picked today to start her new fear of ants and is busy hopping from stone to stone so she doesn’t touch the ground that seems to be crawling with them. Clearly this is not the best place to start this new phobia: in the heat of a steaming jungle, filled with all kinds of creepy crawlies. After an hour or so we call it quits and head for town.
Hoi An is on the tourist circuit. It does have an authentic town center but that has been converted to support the trade. The place looks the part. Canals hold beautiful boats; old warehouses have trendy restaurants and there is shopping everywhere. The open-air market seems to be more for those of us from out of town than for those living here. This is never a good sign in our book.
Our guide could care a less about us. He is retiring tomorrow and it is very much apparent that he has already moved on. He is interesting though: a degree in English, one in business, working on a third in engineering, a guide for five years to hone his English and people skills, moving into real estate to work on his sales and presentation skills and trying to get to a place where he can start his own company in five to ten years. Sounds very much like the American dream.
We make the best of town with a meal at the Mango Restaurant. It has excellent food by a chef trained in the States. The vibe is almost South Texas with a Mexican twist. The fish tacos are excellent!
After a short walk around town, another brief stop at a Chinese Temple and a trip across an historic bridge, we stop by for Adele’s final fitting. Vince and I wait outside. When Adele comes back out she is beaming! It will be ready tomorrow.
The day winds down with a nap, some pool time, dinner, the game room, and a new bedtime schedule that fails miserable. We need to get on this time zone and have the kids go down at a reasonable hour or we are all going to crack.
Day One Hundred and Fifty Eight November 23rd
We ditched our guide. Today is a day of rest and relaxation, time to hang out on the beach, body surf, build sandcastles and enjoy some sunshine. Luckily it is all right at our doorstep.
By early afternoon we are ready to head into town to pick up Adele’s dress. Since we know a good thing when we see one, we immediately head back to the Mango Restaurant for round two. Everyone is keeping food down and our appetites have finally returned!
We pick up Adele’s dress. Now I know all Dads will tell you their daughters are beautiful. And I am certainly no exception to this rule. Adele is by far the most beautiful nine year old I have ever seen, standing in her birthday Ao Dai with purple dragons and golden highlights. She actually glows and shines! And she is so big and grown up all of a sudden. Her birthday is next week. She’ll be nine going on nineteen.
Day One Hundred and Fifty Nine November 24th
It’s yet another travel day. We are headed further up the coast to Ha Noi for a few days to see the city and check out Ha Long bay. These short hoppers are taking their toll on all of us, the constant movement is more than we bargained for and it is making all of us a bit weary. I feel like I am commuting to a sight seeing job.
Teri and I were here about ten years ago on one of our Asia trips so we think we have some idea of what to expect. It turns out ten years is a very long time over here and we hardly recognize the place. The airport seems bigger and much more crowded. The roads are full of people in trucks, buses, cars, on scooters, bicycles, foot, carts, animals, each other. The air is thick and dense. It is beyond hazy, hot and humid.
On our drive into the city we discover that our guide’s father was in the war on the other side. When we ask what he thinks of Americans he says that the people his age look forward not back. How crazy is it that Teri’s dad and his dad were fighting each other while we are driving into the city talking about the future growth prospects for the country and the key differences between here and the States. Our guide seems fascinated with the US.
One of the key differences is that in the States we are spread out over a great area and we actually appreciate smaller city living, here everyone is pouring into Ha Noi. When we were here ten years ago there were about 2.5-3M people. Now there are 9M. They think they will be at 25M by 2025. He says this with pride, as if the explosive growth is a positive thing. Trust me, looking out the windows on the drive in to the city it is clear there are some issues they need to deal with.
Apparently there is no private land ownership. Houses can be passed down to the next generation but the government owns all the farmland and it’s reallocated every few decades. I can’t imagine how they do this, what good is a house in a village if you can’t farm there? It’s not like there are any other job opportunities in the rice fields.
You get the sense that change is happening so fast, driven from the ground up and a step or two ahead those in charge. Its like somehow, someone opened up a fire hose and now they can’t turn the thing off. They can thank Al Gore: it’s probably the Internet. If the drive towards a better life and the current migration patterns continue, 25M by 2025 will be a piece of cake. That is the size of Cairo. I can’t begin to imagine.
Typical of begin on tours we have few stops before the hotel. Our first is the Museum of Ethnology. Vietnam is made up of 54 different ethnic tribes/groups and this museum has examples of the lifestyles and contributions of each. Since we are not going up to the far north to see the hill tribes this is good way to get acquainted with them and see how rural life is up in the mountains. Apparently life remains unchanged for many of the tribe even to this day.
They have a very good lunch stop here run as a training school for under privileged kids trying to get into the tourist business. The kids have no idea what they are doing. It takes three people to seat us, one leading us the table and two others following the first watching his every move. Ordering is like a Saturday Night Live skit: one person is writing, two or three are standing around, another is correcting what the first writes down and several more are setting and re-setting the table. No less than five or six people, all greeters in training, stand and nod as you enter or leave, or get up for any reason. They clearly have way too many people here.
At long last we check into the Hanoi Hilton. We drop our bags and sit down for a few seconds only to be picked up again twenty minutes later for the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. This is totally surreal. We are in the very last row, the place is jammed, the building next door is under construction so you can hear hammering and electric saws through the walls, the seats are right on top of each other, everyone here is wearing a tour group name tag, the music is made by those ear piercing, whining, guitar-type things, someone is banging on big drums, the water is filthy, the puppets are old and the story line makes no sense. All of this and the kids absolutely love it!
We survive this lunacy only to be escorted out by our guide forty-five minutes later and whisked onto cyclo rides for an hour tour of the old quarter. We fear for our lives. And our guide decides its time to bail so he literally pushes the two cyclo guys forward and wishes us all the best. He mumbles something about the tour paying for the rides and that all we need to do is tip them and then he sort of fades into the crowd.
We are on our own in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of wall to wall traffic, in the middle of Hanoi, with two non-English speaking drivers, without any idea where we are, where we are going and how on earth we get back to the hotel. Sometimes you must just sit back, put your feet up, and relax. You do your best to try not to breath in the exhaust so thick your eyes water or catch fire from the street vendors torching anything that moves for the evening meal. You try not to notice the lice being plucked in doorways in what seems to be a national pass time or the non-stop parade of people trying to sell you any/everything for “one dollar, one dollar!” You turn away from the constant glare of neon and headlamps set against the falling darkness.
You sit back and watch with your soon to be nine year old daughter cautiously watching a girl her age working the crowd to sell a few postcards to tourists, a group of school kids kicking soccer balls on the sidewalks, the piles of trash, whole cows and chickens hanging in windows, laundry trying to dry in the dirty air, people eating, sleeping, cleaning and peeing all within a few feet of each other, wall to wall people with virtually no differentiation between street and sidewalk. You sit and watch her shift with excitement as she absorbs.
We are a long, long way from Webster Elementary School.
Day One Hundred and Sixty November 25th Thanksgiving
It is appropriate we are here for Thanksgiving. This city highlights just how much we have to be thankful for.
CNN is on in the hotel lounge and they are showing the Macy’s parade floats in real time, which is actually the night before our morning with the time change. I explain to Adele that we used to go see them get inflated the night before the parade when I lived in NYC way back when. She looks at me like I have two heads.
Teri comes up with Vince to get some cereal and he promptly vomits all over the lounge, clearing the room for the most part and scaring himself to death. He thought he was done with the throwing up thing and now he can’t keep down his favorite cereal. It’s tough to be the big guy sometimes. We do a holiday Skype to the States and the mood pick’s up a bit.
Teri is constantly asking the waiters if they use meat chicken. They all have the same reaction: a pause, they point to the menu, say “no chicken, its chicken,” over and over and nod feverishly. Like we have accused them of serving dog of something. “No, no, the chicken is it white meat.” Teri says louder so they can better understand her. They repeat the first steps again then leave.
They must just hack up chickens here with big cleavers. When you get chicken in any order, any style with any other compliment, it comes in big boney chunks, skin and veins and all. I wager they don’t even bother removing feathers in some parts.
Feeling a little bolder we decided to head into the old part of the city again for lunch. The Frommer’s restaurant is called White Rice, as in “like white on rice” so we should be all over it but we are not. First off, we are the only ones there, granted it is a bit early but it is very odd to be sitting all alone in a place on an unbelievably crowded street with plenty of packed food stalls, especially since they insisted we make a reservation. Second, the food is terrible except for my soup, which is mostly noodle and some kid of meat. Third, there’s a dead rat in the bathroom, what mi gonna do?
Do you casually mention this to the family when you return looking all freaked out? I think not. How about telling the waiter or all of the people standing around the restaurant with nothing to do but gawk at the foreigners? No way, for fear it will end up in the chicken fried rice. Ignore it? Not a chance, we get the bill and clear out as fast as possible. Only in Vietnam.
Vietnamese artists are excellent. We have two paintings from our last visit and we can not wait to go back to see what the galleries here have in store this time around. It turns out the two painters we picked up ten years ago have gone up ten fold so they are out of our price range. We do mange to find another up and comer that is a bit more affordable and we plunge for a third. We have learned over the years that when we see something we both like we no longer think twice about purchase. If it is meant to be, haggle a bit, pay up and move on. Your happy, the artist is happy and the art will be with you forever. If you don’t you will forever regret it.
Vince finds his own art in the Lego store that we bump into on the way home and he cannot be happier (save for the vomiting). Adele finds a new download of Man Verse Wild and is beyond thrilled (she loves Bear Grills). We find four loads of clean laundry for twenty bucks from an old lady around the corner to be a work of true art and are ecstatic. We are all thankful this day.
Out here on the road we settle for snacks from the hotel lounge for our Thanksgiving dinner and call it a day. Not a lot of turkey in this neck of the woods. Rat or dog maybe, but not turkey.
We very much miss this holiday with friends back home.
Day One Hundred and Sixty One November 26th
The tour guide says it is a three to four hour drive to Ha Long bay. They lie. It is the longest drive in the world.
When we finally arrive after almost five hours of driving we immediately board the Ha Long Jasmine boat and set sail. Now this is cool. It is a big junk (I think this is the term) made of wood that gleams and shines from years of polish. There are three floors, tiny cramped sleeping rooms, a big formal dining room with set tables, a small bar, two huge masts on the top deck, a loud clanking engine and a full crew. There are about twenty people on board and we are headed out to sea for an overnight. Yes, we get to sleep on a boat! The kids look like they may explode with excitement.
Lunch is served immediately. So refined this cruise thing. We eat while the boat gets underway and sets a course towards the bay. Unfortunately it is overcast and rainy. We can see the limestone spires all around us but to be honest the true majesty of it all is lost a bit with the rain. I am sure it must be really something to see in good weather. No worries though: there is plenty for four and nine year olds to explore. Not to mention the possibility of pirates, whales, seas monsters and the like.
In the late afternoon we depart our big boat in smaller launches to experience the Van Chai fishing village. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site tucked away in a protected harbor deep within the bay. Everyone here, all 400 plus people, live on boats in the middle of the sea. There is no land, no place to dry dock. The rock walls and cliffs make climbing the limestone impossible.
This place is fascinating. It has been around for fifteen years or so and many of the children are returning to raise their families on the water so the population is actually growing. The “boats” are more like “house floats” with one big room, a small dock as a front porch, a generator for power (to watch TV) and the basic essentials. They have stores, a school and communal floats. No idea on sewage.
Everything here is tied to the ocean. They fish to survive and sell the catch at markets in towns along the coast. They harbor is protected so they can withstand storms and high seas though there must be more than a few unpleasant days and nights in monsoon/ typhoon season.
After a brief introduction at a floating museum we board very small boats rowed by people from the village for an up close tour of life on the sea. Both Adele and Vince get to row. The woman in our boat speaks no English, she just smiles and nods and points to things. We see dogs and cats, small children, grandparents, mother and fathers. People swing lazily in hammocks, clean fish, fix boats, play games and go to school. The deeper you look the more it is like any other small town except it floats in the middle of the sea.
That evening we return to the Jasmine where Adele learns how to make Spring Rolls with the chef and we all dine on a wonderful meal. By 9p we fall exhausted into bed and then quickly to sleep, all to the to the gentle sounds and movement of waves and sea.
Bodhisattva, I’m gonna sell my house in town,
Bodhisattva, I’m gonna sell my house in town,
And I'll be there,
To shine in your Japan,
To sparkle in your China,
Yes I'll be there, Bodhisattva
- Steely Dan, Bodhisattva from Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)
Day One Hundred and Forty Eight November 13th Felix Ungar Day
Today is Felix Unger day. The day Felix was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. I know this because it also marks my last day of work in the “real” world. The day I was asked to take a package and remove myself from the corporate workforce. One year ago today, after twenty-five years of service, I took my first real steps towards freedom.
It seems appropriate that we spend the day driving around under the hot African sun. It is a great animal day. We see everything except cats. It’s funny that we now find it total normal to see a giraffe looking back at us from behind a tree or an elephant walking down the middle of the road. You begin to fit in here. And the ebb and flow of the day to day is what the real experience is all about.
We never had a chance to do laundry at our last stop so we are in search of a place to scrub up. There is a rumor that one of the other camps has a machine. As it turns out they do, but when I lift the lid it is so full of bugs: even I freak. No laundry today.
But they do have a pool! And we have bathing suits! (Sort of, we forgot Vince’s and he is not to thrilled about going to swim in his big guy underpants.) It is amazing what an hour of pool time can do to burn off energy. We have another bad lunch at the camp restaurant, no surprise; we vow to eat our own food going forward. The cooler is probably the best investment we ever made.
On the way back to our camp in early evening we find the family of elephants that was down in our riverbed last night. The family must be twenty strong, maybe more. In the middle of the herd are two very young ones, probably no more than a week or two old - one of the regular visitors shared this with me yesterday at our camp. To see them is really something. They are so small and vulnerable, playful and eager. The herd stands guard in close rank. We sit and watch them for almost an hour.
When we get back to camp and wrap up dinner all of a sudden the lights go out. Trust me, not a good situation with two nervous kids, wild animals and lots of bugs. Is it just our hut? It must be our hut. When I look outside the place is pitch black.
We find a candle and dig through our stuff for the kid’s headlamp. Venturing out, I think it best to assess the camp situation, a get a handle on the issue. It’s the whole camp. Not a light to be seen. Not to worry, clearly they must have a back up generator. They do. It’s broken.
Was that an electric fence set around the perimeter?
A ranger comes by with two extra candles. So when will it be back up? “No telling”
But you have a back up out here in the bush. “Oh yes, but it’s broken” And the fence? “It’s down as well.” Should we worry? There is a long pause. Again, just for clarify, should we worry? “Oh, not really.” Not really? So the screen door will save us? “Watch for snakes in the morning” Did he say snakes? I never even thought about snakes. What snakes? “We called for guards from the other camp.” With guns to shoot the big ones? “Yes, they have the guns, they may be here tonight” May be here? I just wish he would go away. He does. And we are very alone.
That’s when the roars and the trumpets start again. They explode in the darkness over the deafening sound of the bugs.
I head down to the fence line to talk to some fellow bush campers. I am wearing Vincent’s kid sized headlamp with a beam that fades before it hits the ground. One of the guys is holding a massive spot beam he can shine all the way across the river to pick up the gleaming eyes in the darkness.
He starts. “Nice headlamp.” So the lights are out. “Yes, yes, happens all the time.” Oh phew, no need to worry then? “Well, I didn’t say that now did I.” True. “Where are you from?” California. “Good God, what are you doing here?” That’s a good question. “Are you hiding from the IRS?” What? “The IRS.” No, I’ve paid my bills. “Good place to hide from the IRS out here, do you know CSI on TV?” CSI the TV show? “That’s all I know of California. Not running from the detectives then?” No, the family and I are travelling. “The family is a great cover!” He must be kidding; well, all I can say is that I haven’t killed anyone, recently. This gives him pause. Then the four of them break out in howls of laughter and we have one of the funniest half hour conversations I have had in a long while.
Turns out these folks are all South African and come here, to this camp, every year. It’s kind of their Adirondacks. They claim this is by far the best camp in Kruger and are amazed we got a reservation. If you come, book early and remember to strike up a conversation with the regulars, they will calm your fears in times of crisis.
By 11p the lights are back on and my heart rate has subsided.
Day One Hundred and Forty Nine November 14th
The lights came back on by 11p. It was a nice feeling to know that the fence was up and running, no shots fired, and all of us were present and accounted for.
Today is another day of exploring. The morning moves along at it’s own pace. There is a rhythm here that takes over. There are start and stops, the anticipation during the search and the adrenaline rush of the discovery. It is usually a giraffe, eagles, buzzards circling or elephants marching along.
Then, just passed 10:30a, we spot our leopard. Leopards are big time. There are three hundred or so in the entire park and they are loners staying far away from others. Like lions they instill a sense of awe.
Ours is sitting in the grass about two hundred yards away, licking his paws and carefully watching a small herd of impalas. We can’t tell if they are down wind and do not notice him or if he is so close there is nothing they can do about it. They just stand and nervously much on grass trying to enjoy their last supper. He casually looks around and yawns.
His coat is striking. It is so beautiful that you skip a beat when he stands up and starts to move. He is big and long and powerful. He is intimidating in every way yet as gentle as can be in the fluidity of his movements. He slips quietly into the bush.
This one seems bigger than the lions we have seen. I don’t know how they usually stack up to the rest of the jungle kingdom but I would bet on the leopard. Its clear he can take down anything he wants to. Anything.
By 11:15a we have peaked for the day. Nothing can match a leopard sighting. It’s the one thing we have been looking for since we arrived. Exhausted and drained we head back to camp in a gentle rain.
We really need to do laundry so Adele, Vince and I roll up our sleeves, fill up the tub and start to do it the old fashion way. Three tubs later we have a clothesline up and stuff hanging in every conceivable nook and cranny. Now, if will just stop raining, maybe things will dry by morning.
Playtime ends around 4p and we head out for an hours drive to the end of our access road. We need to be back before the gates close at 6:30p.
Tonight’s treat is the elephant family. The males are sizing each other up ahead of mating season, which is just underway. They clash tusks and trunks and try to push each other backwards to establish a dominant position. It’s like a dance of two enormous giants with the clashing sound of the tusks banging together: there is much heavy breathing, grunts and groans. It is a great way to wrap up our Kruger experience.
VCC (watching the video from Green Day’s Bullet In a Bible on Teri’s Computer): That guy said fucking!
Mom: We don’t speak French
VCC: No mom, mom, he said fuck you politicians!
Mom: That’s still not a nice word, no matter who he says it to. Maybe we use another word.
VCC (after some thought): No mom, mom, I mean vacuum, he said vacuum the politicians!
Dad: Both versions work for me.
Day One Hundred and Fifty November 15th
We are headed back to Jo’berg by 7a. Luckily we have dirt roads on the way out of the park so we do one last drive by both Adele and Vince and some final animal spotting for all. We will miss Kruger. At first I was worried we would be bored in a day of so, now I wish we had another week.
It’s a long drive back, over 400K, but it goes by fast and we all have fun blasting the ipods and singing the Queen anthem, “We will rock you.” Along the route we pass three massive nuclear reactors. They each have six cones that dominate everything else on the horizon. You can see them rise from the plains from miles away with the steam pouring from the tops. All those electric fences need power I suppose.
ARC: Vince put that back in your pants it is not a toy!
VCC: I need to air it out
ARC: Your hands will smell
VCC: Mom, mom, Adele said smell
Clearly we need to limit those Green Day videos!
About half way through we stop for snacks. Out here on the plains the only places to refuel are rest areas that have been set up as central meeting points. It seems everyone stops here: the place is as much a social gathering and exchange as it is anything else. It looks like people come here as a destination.
A taxi pulls up next to us and people pour out of every door and window. There must be fifteen adults in a van the size of a Toyota Sienna, all carrying a bag or two. The van is crumbling but still moving, and to think back home we all struggle with upgrading to the leather and chrome package.
I notice that the people are dressed up, wearing jackets and pressed shirts, probably for the big trip into the city. Somehow, in all the heat, they seem unaffected, pressed and clean, smiling and laughing as they travel.
After they unload, all of them stand curbside and wipe the dust and dirt from their shoes. When they do so the last evidence of rural village life goes away. You cannot tell they are coming in from the poor towns and villages we have passed all along the way. It is as if they are trying to dust off their current situation in anticipation of creating/starting a new one when they arrive: they are making a new impression, a new start with a clean slate, without the dirt and dust of the past. It speaks volumes about life here.
Out hotel is at the airport. They have a nice lawn to fly paper airplanes on and a great buffet for dinner. We drop off the car, print out the Vietnam Visas, surf the Internet and head to bed as early as we can to be ready for the big travel day in the morning.
Day One Hundred and Fifty One/Two November 16/17th
Before we leave the hotel Teri stops by the store for travel supplies:
Lady in store: You need change for tipping? Don’t tip them more than 5 Rand
TLC: But that’s less than a dollar
Lady in store: They don’t get more than 5 Rand, it is very generous to them, no more than 5 Rand, they are used to it, no need to have them expect more
She says “they and them” like it pains her. It is disturbing to witness such blind and naked discrimination.
We promptly tip everyone that helps us 20 Rand.
As a rule, we always think we need less time than we really do when we fly. It is a legacy issue from years of corporate travel where you arrive as close to take off as possible to avoid spending half your life in airports. Today is no exception. We could have used another half hour or so.
We need to return the Sim Card we had to rent because ATT failed us on the blackberry. Finding the place is a challenge and returning anything here is never easy. On top of that, we have no cash. Usually no big deal with ATMS but apparently we need cash, as in American dollars, going into Vietnam. They prefer dollars to there own currency and we must pay for the Visas in USD. No one is selling dollars. All I can do is cash out more ZA Rand and hope for the best on the other side.
Our flight boards late, which helps ease the time crunch. We are on Malaysia Air to Kuala Lumpur for 10 hours in the back of the plane. This is our longest travel day yet. When we land we have a three-hour lay over and then another two-hour flight to HCMC (Saigon). To be honest it is not so bad, we have five seats across the middle and plenty of room to spread out if you sit at just the right angle. The people are all very friendly and the time passes quickly.
As we cruise at thirty five thousand feet I cannot help but think about the tipping conversation back at the hotel and how twisted it was. There we were buying over priced things that we wanted but did not need while we could have been giving the money to those that needed it much more than the lady behind the counter wanted it. It must be the altitude and lack of sleep because I cannot get it all straight in my head but trust me there is a lesson here.
The thoughts expand to try and figure out why we all have a willingness to pay alot for things and an unwillingness to pay anything to support people. Not as in paying for people’s things, though that may work if it’s needed, but more about a focus on helping to support people in the daily struggles to just get by.
We don’t really need all the stuff. We have been living out of four bags for five months and to be honest I don’t miss any of the things we gave away or put in storage.
It’s confusing. Maybe we are better off tipping based on how much they helped you out and what good it will do for to support the recipients instead of what is considered the norm. How much was your situation improved because someone lent you a helping hand with a cheerful smile? Coming full circle it seems we should pay more to the people than for the things.
I have not idea what this all means and nod off wrestling with the thoughts.
I do know that somewhere in the Kuala Lumpur airport between 6a and 9a local time on the morning of the 17th we all got sick as dogs.
Day One Hundred and Fifty Three November 18th
At some point on the 17th we left KL and landed in HCMC, struggled our way through customs, picked up and paid for our Visas, somehow in dollars, we found an ATM and took out one million Vietnamese Dong (no idea how much that is in real money), found our bags and the hotel driver, drove through the insanity of the city streets and checked in to our hotel.
After that we all went down for the count. One by one we faded. Teri was first up followed by me as a close second. Adele watched Vince in the hotel room all day and was grown up enough to put him to bed while Teri and I took turns vomiting and wandering aimlessly around trying to get medicine to stay down. Adele is growing up so fast.
We booked this part of the trip via Ann Tours and Tony, the guy that runs the place, was kind enough to send over some mystery medicine. It is one of those “don’t ask just do” moments and twenty-four hours later you feel as if nothing ever happened. That is until Vince and Adele go down as well.
In the midst of all this mayhem we try and email out an announcement to friends and family to ask for help testing the launch of our new company, CallMeCuffs, only to find out that the ordering process is down due to some mistake over at Bank Of America. Logistics will be the death of us all. With the time change I get no sleep for the next week trying to fix an issue that should not be happening and no one will claim responsibility for.
Never bank with BOA they have the worst customer service of any company I have dealt with. Move your accounts to another bank in protest.
At some point we try and get dinner in a torrential down pour that floods the streets and freaks out the kids. We end up with a really bad meal in a tourist trap. Don’t listen to the concierge at the Caravelle.
Back at the hotel we all feel sick again. This has been a rough start to the Asia leg of the journey. HCMC has been a blur and tomorrow we need to travel.
Day One Hundred and Fifty Four November 19th
One of the issues with booking a tour is that it will leave without you if you miss take off, so we are up and ready to go by 8a. We are not used to formal tours and even though it seems to be the best way to tackle this neck of the woods while traveling with two small kids it is definitely going to take some getting used to.
We are headed south of HCMC into the Mekong Delta to the town of Can Tho. Our guide Hai and driver Tuck are waiting in the lobby with big smiles and great enthusiasm. I can only image what they think when we round the corner, all of us on the verge of vomiting with moods to match. Oh the glamour of life on the road.
It turns out we have our own van so we can travel more of less at our own pace. Ann Tours is very accommodating and both Hai and Tuck do there best to make us all feel comfortable.
The drive is nuts. Like Cairo, this place is wall-to-wall people. Most of them are riding on motor scooters or walking in the middle of the street. They casually brush off the cars, vans and trucks. Actually there is little difference between street and sidewalk. Where ever you turn there are heads and helmets bobbing up and down.
Eventually we wind our way out of the city and get a bit of breathing room. Everything is new here. HCMC seems like so many other cities that we have been to recently and it is exploding both out and up. The suburban sprawl in encroaching on farmland and the skyline is getting more and more crowded. Here they just opened a new Financial Center that towers over everything around it. It seems totally out of place. Hai assures us it is the main attraction in town.
Looking out the window you can see rice fields covered in still water surrounded by ancient wooden shacks and our four-lane highway cuts right down the middle. Along either side of the road is a continuous line of houses, shops and restaurants offering everything imaginable. And just behind them sits water, farmland and water buffalo. It is a very strange mix: with no urban planning what so ever.
It looks like the ground is floating on water verses the water floating on the ground. Rice fields are everywhere: they roll out as far as the eye can see in all directions. It’s funny, for some reason I have this image that the fields will be terraced down hillsides, but not here. This is flat as can be in every direction. There is no contour what so ever.
The Vietnamese worship their ancestors and each rice field has a family gravesite set in some random place out in the middle of the fields. There are usually two or three stone monuments: they appear to float on the water and look strangely out of place in the middle of all the rice.
Our first stop is Vinh Trang, a Buddhist Pagoda, in a small village just off the highway. It is relatively new, mid-1800s or so, and they are still working on building two huge giant Buddha out of cement and plaster. They are really big, maybe a few stories tall, and creepy, with big fat bellies and weird smiles. It almost looks comical in some way. We don’t stay long.
A few villages down the road we turn down a narrow side street and park in a driveway along a river. Everything is by a river here. Hai gives a nod for us to follow him back along a little path, past the nasty looking mudfish in the stream, the piles of garbage, a few pigs, some chickens and people peering back at us from huts.
Several huts back they are making rice noodles. It may be best not to come to these out of the way places because when you do you realize that you may never eat again. The process is fascinating and the family that is cooking them is friendly enough but you feel like an intruder none-the-less and the conditions are third world. You know that the three little pigs don’t have too many days left before they end up in the soup. Maybe Fido as well.
Back on the road we get in to a discussion on the progressive nature of Vietnam and its people. Everyone seems to want growth and better conditions. They have a self-imposed two child rule that most families adhere to, not because of over population but because of the expense and resource consumption. They realize there will be more for all if there are not as many.
People are coming into the city from the farmlands in droves, all seeking more money and a higher standard of living. There seems to be a sense of the collective here, as if they know that they must all pitch in to help each other out to break into the twenty first century. The country has the bones to be very successful: a hard working labor force, the desire to succeed, natural resources, a thousand miles of coast line. It will be interesting to see where they are in twenty years. They have certainly come along way since reunification in 1975.
They are officially a Communist State but its clear economic development is the driving force behind pretty much everything. They build roads to have better infrastructure to move more goods and attract more overseas money. They speak English and use dollars. It’s a wacky place with ninety million people under a Socialist Republic, over half Buddhist and pretty intense poverty. It’s war torn and heavily influenced by the recent past with both France and America. It will take some time to figure out the lay of the land and get my head around it all. It is such fun, this travel thing.
We leave the van and board a boat to explore the waterways. This is an incredible experience. It is one of those long boats you see in the movies with a driver up front, a few seats in the middle and a hammock in the back. This is the way everyone travels here in the Delta. Roads are relatively new.
For lunch we find ourselves canal side, in a garden with an entire fish staring at us from the centerpiece and a python in a cage resting in the middle of the patio. Can it get any stranger? We pick at the fish, try to eat the rice noodles without thinking about of earlier stop, sip cold Diet Cokes and keep one eye on the snake at all times.
Back on the boat for an hour ride to our town for the night we lounge in the hammock and watch a completely foreign world pass on by. We should all relax in hammocks more. Life it much more enjoyable lived horizontally swinging in a hot jungle breeze.
When I ask Hai what I should tip our boat driver, the one piloting our boat for the past four or five hours while we relaxed and enjoyed the ride, I come to find out he makes at most two dollars a day. Hai tells me anything at all will be so much appreciated and that the driver’s wife and family will be so happy he brings home anything extra.
The “two dollars a day” comment is hard to shake as we check into the Victoria Hotel in Can Tho. And driving a tour boat is a good paying job serving the tourist industry. I believe the average per capita income is around $1,000: such a completely different world than ours.
We are all exhausted and on sensory overload. By early evening we have two vomiting children and another round of the intestinal bug. It is going to be another long night…