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…