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…

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?
Me: California
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.
Me:  Who?
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…

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


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…