Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part IV: "The Fifteen Funniest Moments Traveling With Mama Chihuahua"
June 1, 2006
Bangkok, Thailand

In an effort to condense the raucous and most unexpected moments of our trip, here's a list of our top fifteen funniest moments:
*Warning: Obscenities, Catholic references, and sexual allusions are plentiful in the following text.

1) Most back-handed compliment: Our Thai B&B hostess tells mother one afternoon, "My auntie wants to tell you that she thinks you must have been really beautiful...when you were young. And I told her that you probably look much better when you dress up."

2) Most sacrilegious t-shirt on an Asian: A young Thai woman wearing a lime green t-shirt and a drawing of the Virgin Mary with a finger held to her lips as if to "Shhh." The text above her reads..."Mary Was Only A Virgin." The text below her..."If You Don't Count Anal." I don't think the woman had a clue what the English words meant.

3) Most OCD moment for Rachel: Watching the gloveless Thai salon woman scraping under Mom's fingernails until they bled with metal instruments she had just used on a previous customer.

4) Worst possible occupation: Women stand downstream of elephants bathing in the river and collect their warm, green dung in giant plastic baskets as it floats by. (I'll complain about a story deadline again. At least for a week or so.)

5) Funniest use of English by an Asian: The young H'mong children in the mountains of Vietnam swarming me as they thrust tiny little hands filled with charms and embroidered cloths...."BUY ME! BUY ME! BUY ME!"

6) Angriest Mama Chihuahua moment: Nice Vietnamese lady who shares tea with us along the lake in Hanoi transforms immediately into angry, Vietnamese Hulk Lady who gets in Mom's face (BIG MISTAKE), demands that Mama Chihuahua buy her postcards and her fans, and then says, "Me have NO MONEY! Must buy!" (BIGGEST MISTAKE.)
I pull Mama Chihuahua away from the crazy (and stupid) woman before she lets loose. She's pissed about it for at least ten blocks. Meaningful Mother-Daughter Conversation follows:

Mama: "You know what really pissed me off is when she said she doesn't have any money. I wanted to punch her."

Rachel (as diplomatically as possible--even though I hated the lady, too): "Well, compared to us, she doesn't."

Mama: "Well, too bad. She can't have mine."

7) Dumbest Thurston Tourist Moment: When we arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a Saturday, we can't figure out why the Sunday Market has already started and we spend the rest of the night questioning every Thai person we meet about the logic of having a Sunday market start on a Saturday. We secretly make fun of them for the rest of the night...what kind of idiotic people have a Sunday Market on a Saturday night? It's 11:30 p.m. when we catch sight of a calendar and realize that it IS Sunday.

8) Grossest Food Moment: Watching a man carry an upside down skinned carcass of a dog...deep-fried chicken feet...and gelatinized intestines.

9) Greatest # of old, pot-bellied, balding, white guys seen with pubescent Thai girls in one night of walking through Chiang Rait: 18+.

10) Most Naive Mama Chihuahua Moment: After passing the MILLIONTH! "LadyBoy" (the transvestites and transexual men who are cultural accepted and ubiquitous throughout the cities in Thailand) in a night market, Mom stops suddenly, pivots back towards an obvious example of a LadyBoy, her eyes the size of half dollars, and says with total shock: "Rachel, I think that WOMAN WAS A MAN. "
No?! You don't say.

11) Most Embarrassing Moment for Rachel: Discovering during dinner that my backside was completely slathered in baby elephant schmegma that had crusted over on all my black clothes...and it had been there for six hours of shopping, walking past temples, through stores, markets, and public transportation. I can only imagine what people thought it was.

12) Most Egregious Fashion Faux Pas: On a rainy day in the mountains of North Vietnam, Mama Chihuahua struts through town wearing...old-school velcro purple teva sandals WITH green and grey striped wool socks PULLED UP to just below her blue crop pants, a lime green shirt tucked beneath a bright orange fleece (mine), a deep purple raincoat, a red bandana tied around her neck, and a hot pink umbrella to ward off the rain and stares.
And no, this wasn't a dare.
We went shopping together (to find her clothes that would match) shortly thereafter.

13) Most dreaded Lonely Planet phrase read on trip (after returning from two-day trek through the mud and water buffalo sh%t wearing sandals): "Beware of hiking through rural areas and ALWAYS wear covered shoes. Rural Vietnam provides ample opportunities to contract hookworm and multiple parasites."

14) Funniest linguistic faux pas: Vietnamese has six tones, which means that an incorrect pronunciation can shift the meaning of a word completely. After incorrectly calling our guide ("Khang") a "cave" instead of "prosperous" which is what his name really means when said properly, he spends an entire dinner trying to correct our mispronunciations to worse effect, this time, our pronunciation is more blunderous and we end the night calling him a "cavernous prostitute."
He gives up shortly thereafter.

15) Funniest Guided Tour: When guide picks us up at B&B to take us to elephant camp, the truck doesn't start so he has to jump start the truck. When we go to the gas station, he keeps the truck running while he fills up on gas. Mom and I hop out of back of truck and walk a hundred feet away while he fills up. During drive into mountains, we catch a glimpse of him reading the brochure directions to the elephant farm. On our return trip, it begins to rain and we find that all the windows in the back of the truck are broken so we ride with our umbrellas deployed INSIDE of the truck.
Good deal.

Here's hoping you all have adventures of your own!

Rach and Mama Chihuahua

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part III: Mango Sticky Rice and Baby Elephant Slobber

"Waking up as a "shopaholic" is much like it is for alcoholics and sexaholics, you don't really know the damage you've done until you check the bags at the foot of your bed...and your wallet."
RST, the "Morning After" in Chiang Mai

May 30, 2006
Chiang Mai, Thailand
10:00 p.m.

A warm breeze drifts in carrying the sweet smell of rain....
After doing lots of cultural shit the past couple of days and sweating like Ukrainians in the tropics, Mom and I spent this gloriously precious day in an air-conditioned mall shopping for clothes that I think will look better than the ones she brought, eating hot pretzels with fake cheese dip, and watching the X-Men III for two bucks.

Thailand, I've decided, is like the Hawaii of Southeast Asia. It's hot, it's humid, it's comfortable, economically strong, and it's filled with all sorts of tropical fruits and prostitution. Okay then, it's mostly like Hawaii.

For the first day or two, we stuffed ourselves with bowls of sticky rice, freshly cut ripe mango in coconut milk with toasted yellow rice, juicy chicken satay with peanut sauce, and pad thai made with flat rice noodles and sprinkled with chili pepper, lime juice, and crushed peanuts. On the street, each of these dishes costs around a buck.

We've had absolutely no agenda here which is exactly why this part of our trip has been so good. I've taken a break from all the photos and the drive to see all the tourist sites. We're nearly over-shopped, over-"watted" ("wat" means "temple" in Thai) out, and over-saturated with cultural stuff. I've put my camera away for a day or two just to relax and enjoy each moment we have together before our trip comes to an end. Mom and I have come to amuse ourselves with the most urbane things...making fun of each other's fashion choices (mostly I make fun of hers) or of our tireless drive to buy every possible piece of silk in plain view (mostly, that would be me). We've even invented our own language and jokes. After all our travels together, it's scary how closely alike we think. Often, we only have to say a word to the other and we both start cracking up.

Our newest game is to count the number of balding, pot-bellied, old white guys we see traipsing around town with their peri-pubescent Thai "girlfriends," a long-term version of prostitution. We lost count last night after the eighteenth "couple" we spotted before we realized we were walking through the Red Light District of Chiang Mai and past a bunch of prosititutes and "lady-boys."

Aside from our intense cultural experience at the mall shopping this afternoon and all the meals of sticky rice and mangos, our most magical moment was visiting an elephant "camp" yesterday. We mostly expected it to be a circus-like event in which the elephants are living in these awful cramped quarters, being fed scraps, and paraded about in tutus (okay, really big tutus), and mocked in classic and bastardly anthropomorphic style
We were shocked at what a lovely place it was...we stood just feet away from a rushing river where the elephants bathed themselves (the "mahouts" or trainer/drivers) scrubbing behind their ears) and watched a show in which the elephants played soccer (blocking the ball at the goal post from another elephant), threw darts at water balloons, played harmonicas, and most amazingly, PAINTED on easels. (and yes, this is "anthromorphizing" but the entire place and the tone were respectful, more so than any other I have experienced and sadly, this is a way that elephants can be "protected" as their natural habitat continues to be wiped out throughout Asia).

The painting was fascinating. The "mahout" dipped the brush in different colors and the elephants began to paint, gingerly holding the paint brushes with their trunks and running the brush along the "canvas." We thought the art would just be scribble marks but were astounded when we saw one elephant painting a bonzai tree and another painting a vivid purple inflorescence of wisteria blooms perfectly proportioned and more graceful and evocative than anything I've painted in my life (not that I'm Georgia O'Keefe but you know what I mean).

Afterwards, the elephants came up to us and "bowed" to us all. One young elephant wrapped its trunk around me like a giant, prickly-haired but affectionate boa constrictor. Another young elephant placed a hat on my head, took it off, and put it back on again with three taps.

When the show was over, Mom and I walked freely through the camp past the village where the "mahouts" live with their families and on to a grassy field where the nursery resides. Aside from two young German girls, no other tourists had ventured this far and we had the place to ourselves.
In the last enclosure (really only a wooden fence about four feet tall) was a mother elephant and a two-month old newborn elephant that stood only about 3.5 feet tall. We couldn't believe our luck.

The baby elephant wandered about between its mother's legs and would then amble over to check us out...sniffing my toes and tickling them with its trunk. It was the most divine sensation to be rubbing the ears of this baby elephant as it tickled my feel its warmth and curiosity and to be so close! We couldn't believe our fortune. Mom and I had a very special moment with elephants in South Nepal many years ago and I continue to be amazed by their energy, intelligence, and sentience whenever I'm around them. When we left, I felt this ecstatic high and blissful happiness to have been around them...

Last night as we ate chicken skewers with peanut sauce at the night market, Mom stopped eating and looked at me funny. "Don't get upset or anything but I think you should know..." she pointed to the back of my black shirt and skirt which had been crusted over in elephant slobber for the whole afternoon and evening. It looked as if I'd just rolled in a bunch of oatmeal and the clumps had dried and crusted over in big globs of spit and mucilaginous stuff.

"That's so damn cool," I thought. "I'm covered in baby elephant slobber."

I cleaned most of it off right away but, just for sentimental sake, I did leave a little bit of it on my backpack.

Hope you're all living your to a Thai cooking course in the next day and then headed home this weekend...

my love to you all-



Friday, May 26, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part II: "Wading Through Rice Paddies and Buffalo Sh%#"

May 26th
5:30 a.m.
North Vietnam Two Day Mountain Trek

Apparently, trekking during the beginning of the monsoons through rice paddies in North Nam is a slippery deal...

The adventure aency guy was certain I'd fall at least "five times!"when we arrived on Tuesday morning wearing our teva sandals instead of proper hiking boots. "This is mountains! You will fall many times...must have better shoes!" He tried offering me some cheap sneakers to wear which were missing the toe section on the right foot and I declined his offer.

"Don't worry," I told him with unflappable confidence, "I'm a guide in the U.S. I'll be fine."

He didn't look convinced.

"Oh well," he laughed. "Trekking more fun when you fall! Then it's really an adventure.

"How bad can it be?" Mom and I laughed as we set off down the road with our guide, Binh.

Apparently worse than we thought. It never stopped raining from the moment we began. We covered ourselves and our backpacks with giant, shapeless ponchos, rolled our pant legs up to our knees, and carried umbrellas. Any time we wanted to take a photo, I'd pull my Canon out from the humid depths of my poncho, tucked the handle of my umbrella under my chin, put the lens cap between my teeth, and took a photo as fast as possible with the least amount of rain damage possible.

Surprisingly, the rain added a certain mystical quality to all of the photos and scenery. The mist moved across the mountains like wispy plumes of smoke, rising and falling, and twisting into new shapes and and beings. The drizzle gave a softness to the landscape of terraced rice fields and farming villages...great stands of wet bamboo thrust up through the ground, their slender leaves as green as scallion stalks. We weaved between rice paddy fields where the Black H'mong (named for how they use indigo plants to dye their clothes a deep blue black) were busy tending to their rice crops...the women wearing traditional dress and conical woven hats, pulling bunches of rice plants from the water...the men hand-packing the edges of each rice paddy along steep terraces and pulling simple wooden "rakes" to till new terraces and break up the soil.

The terraces cascaded down the hillside for an infinity and disappeared into the great vast whiteness...where we could hear the roaring of a river coming down from the top of the mountains. The heavy rainfall has created numerous waterfalls along the mountain sides which tumble along textured granite and limestone faces.

Young H'mong children sold bamboo walking sticks to trekkers passing through at the price of 50 cents each. I fell in love with a little black puppy at the first rest stop in a little farming house, jokingly calling the puppy, "Soup." I later asked Binh how the Vietnamese decided which dogs to keep as pets and which ones would be stir-fried.

"In the countryside, we do not have pets." he told me with characteristic Vietnamese nonchalance.

It turns out, the puppy would be someone's soup one day. I couldn't shake the thought that every adorable puppy that wagged its tail when we approached and played with a long cord I'd brought along was blissfully ignorant of its true destiny: the main centerpiece for dinner. The second day, we passed a guy carrying an upside down skinned carcas that looked peculiarly familiar. Binh confirmed by suspicions..."Yes, that is dog," he said, knowing fully that westerners have never warmed to the idea of "Stir Fry Benji."

By lunch I had given up trying to avoid the mud and simply walked squished right through it....trying hard not to imagine millions of microscopic parasites wriggling their way into my skin between my toes. (It turns out that there's a whole section in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam about the numerous types of hookworm and parasites ever-present in farming communities and how trekkers should ALWAYS wear covered shoes....).

For our "homestay" that night, we stayed with a Zay (pronounced "Zai") family after after spending thirty minutes of dumping water over our legs to wash off the mud and buffalo manure caked on our legs. From our porch that night, we watched a few trekkers wading through the mud past our house...amused ourselves watching a five-year old boy riding on the back of a water buffalo while he held a little blue umbrella. Men and women continued to work in the fields even through the rain...a few stray chickens harassed a water buffalo across the "road"...our family's small pack of puppies and dogs tumbled with one another playfully on the porch...and we spoke with two young Black H'mong girls who wandered on to the porch to practice their English with us.

After about eight young boys, H'mong woman, and two young girls invaded the house to watch a horrible Chinese movie about a couple of fourteenth century guys with shellacked hair fighting over a Ziyi Zhang look-alike on one of the town's few t.v. sets...we sat down to a huge spread of food that Binh had made for us from a tiny kerosene-burning stove. Bowls of rice, seafood spring rolls, stir-fried tofu, ginger beef (he swore it wasn't dog), sprouts with tomatoes, and a traditional plate of fruit to finish the meal magically appeared from the humble kitchen.

At dinner there were five of us, Binh (our guide), mom, me, Leung (a young Math teacher who lived there), and Lekh (a cousin or some relation to him who also lived there). We never did figure out their relation. After we stuffed ourselves, Leung said something to Binh in Vietnamese. Binh turned towards me and said, "He would like to invite you to have some rice wine with him."

I gave him the thumbs up and shook my head eagerly. I have read about the peer pressure surrounding who can hold copious amounts of rice wine the best and I was certain it wouldn't be any problem to tell him that I'd only drink one shot, maybe two.

I mean, how hard can it be to say 'no' to a Vietnamese math teacher with a teapot full of rice wine?

After we all did a shot (I had already had two upon arrival in the afternoon and had convinced Mom that she do one, too), he poured another shot.

By then, Binh had declared he wouldn't be drinking ANYMORE rice wine that night. Leung began to focus all his imbibing efforts on me...which I think was the original plan anyway.

Not to offend, I did another shot swearing that it would be my last.

Leung poured another one. After my second or third, the room still wasn't spinning but I did feel a pleasant warmth spreading from my throat down into my chest. Maybe I COULD take these skinny Vietnamese guys down. Maybe all these years of tequila adoration would be paying off for me out here in the mountains of North Nam.

"Rice wine isn't really that strong, you know?" I said to Mom, feeling pretty damn good and proud of myself.

"Yes!" Binh interrupted immediately, his head buried in the rice but paying attention to every one of our drinks, "Yes, IT IS."

I waved off the third drink and we went back to our conversation about the local school where all the Zay and H'mong children attended. All the time, however, Leung kept an eye on the shot glasses which he had already armed again, ready for his next attack.

Now, it was just him and I. When there was a lull in the conversation, Leung again said something to Binh in Vietnamese.

Binh turned to me, "He would like to invite you to have some more rice wine with him."

I looked over at my non-drinking Mamacita who was beginning to get that disturbed look that says, "What the hell kind of evil things are going to happen to my daughter if I leave her down her with three Vietnamese guys and a pot full of rice wine?"

I patted my stomach and tried to explain that I couldn't drink anymore.

Leung nodded with the immediate understanding that I obviously needed to have more "padding" in my stomach for the coming shots and started piling eggs and rice into my bowl, urging me to eat, if merely to ward off the effects of the liquor.

"Do women in Viet Nam drink a lot?" I asked Binh, watching Leung's anxious advancements.

All three of the guys immediately said, "No!" and started laughing. It was amusing to them to see how well, if at all, a gal could hold her liquor.

Leung continued to pour drinks and I continued to first plead 'no,' and then to drink them. He'd fill my glass, I'd pour it back into his and then we'd compromise on sharing whatever amount he'd pour. At some point, Binh drank one of my shots in a heroic and gentlemanly gesture.

After six or so shots, I got Leung to back down and we got caught up in a battle over the correct pronunciation of the Vietnamese word, "Ngon" which to us sounded like a completely meaningful conversation but, to mother, sounded as sophomoric as:

"Ngon." I said.

"NO!" they all laughed. "N-G-O-N!"


"Ngon!" back and forth until we sounded like dying sparrows clucking away. I was convinced that MY pronunciation was just like theirs but they kept laughing until I conceded defeat and mom and I retreated to our lofts where we heard strange skittering about like the little feet of rodents or a stray chicken who had figured out a way through the roof.

That night Mom and I slept in the loft beneath mosquito netting to the soft sound of rain hitting the roof. Late in the night, I awoke to her disturbed cries for help. She was convinced that there was a giant snake slithering beneath her mattress. I wasn't sure if it was a nightmare (it was) or it there was something beneath her so I crammed my earplugs in even deeper, pulled the sheet over my head and went back to sleep again, trying hard to ignore the sour smell of the damp polyester sheets I was sleeping on.

The next morning it was raining even harder. We armed ourselves with wet ponchos, muddy sandals, and we sludged our way up and down miniature mudslides trying to brace ourselves against our bamboo poles as we slid down steep inclines. I've never been on a more slippery f&*^ing trail in my was like hiking on slopes of butter covered in buffalo sh%t. We saw trekkers covered in mud who had taken face plants in buffalo pies or who had merely opted to slide down on their butts instead of brave the steep, muddy trails anymore. I slipped into a rice paddy, covered up to my right knee in muck for a moment before Binh pulled me up again onto the six-inch narrow mud ridge separating the terraces.

The last part of the trail was gloriously beautiful, straight out of a movie...through giant stands of glistening bamboo...thousands of giant pale orange butterflies flittered between us and the bamboo like bits of confetti raining down on us. The air smelled sweet like a mixture of crushed mint leaves, wet earth, and eucalyptus. Two H'mong girls carrying umbrellas walked with us patiently helping us down the slopes.

When we made it into town later that afternoon, we ran into an Australian guy covered head to toe in caked, dried mud, his hair still wet from the rain. I teased him about having "rolled" through the stuff and he looked at me somberly in response.

"No, I just tore my anterior cruciate ligament," he said before he limped out of the hotel with his friend and his guide towards a jeep ready to take him to the hospital.

Looks like we were lucky. Just a few parasites and a bit of mud. That shower and a fresh change of clothes was the best thing I've experienced all week. A little soap and a dry change of clothes goes a long, long way. I think I'd go nuts if I lived in a place where it rained every single dang day.

We're back in Hanoi...just off the night train and waiting for our room to take showers, do laundry, eat breakfast, and head out to explore our last days in Viet Nam before heading to Thailand.

As much as I consider myself an aspiring Buddhist, I have to say I'm a really sucky one this week. Mom and I are taking such joy out of having daily showers, clean clothes, and spending our days shopping in the markets and eating yummy spring rolls at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant down the street.

Vietnam has been incredible but has also made us appreciate the good fortune of all that the comforts we have in our lives...

Hope you all are well and parasite-free...heading for North Thailand in twenty-four hours...

Rachel and her beloved Mamacita

Monday, May 22, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part I: "Glowing Pineapples and Sea Urchins"

"Life is funny...One year we're bombing them and the next we're fighting to buy their t-shirts."
Carol Blacklaw, Canadian

May 22, 2006
North Vietnam

Ambition goes out the window in the tropics...flying into Hanoi, the air is misty with humidity. We drive past glistening fields of rice and farmers biking along the highway and wearing pointed woven hats. Aside from the occasional hammer and sickle communist flags, Vietnam appears industrious and firmly rooted in a private market economy, despite its communist title. We spend the first day just trying to acclimate to the heat and shaking off the jet lag...stumbling from cafe to cafe, umbrellas in hand to ward off the unrelenting equatorial sun and chugging on several liters of water each. I'm determined to come to terms with the heat.

Hanoi's streets bustle excitedly to the point of being overwhelming. We stay in the Old Quarter where Asian design meets French sensibility. Large shuttered windows and French doors with magnanimous balconies. Flourishes of ornate bannisters and hanging bird cages with singing canaries. Shops spill out into the street advertising their selections of unrivaled silks, lanterns, and smooth lacquerware. Women stoop on the sidewalks over charcoal fires stirring cauldrons of soups and stir-frying noodles, carrots, and greens. Barbers cut their clients' hair on chairs pulled out onto the sidewalks.

The streets--too narrow for cars and too busy for pedestrians to cross safely--are clogged with a constant stream of motorcyles, scooters, and bicycles. Large families straddle tiny motorcyles, their babies propped against the handlebars, as they come inches from the bumpers of the occasional taxi and hoards of other motorcyles going in the opposite direction. Many intersections have no traffic lights whatsoever and the scooters flow into one another like waves, ebbing and flowing brushing against one another and miraculously missing collisions more often than not.

We book a three day trip to Ha Long Bay with a reputable adventure company that's come highly recommended and buy two large loaves of fresh french bread and a large shiny apple from a street vendor. All for less than a dollar.
"My brain has melted into the sea and it's just wonderful."
Bobby Beal, Austin, Texas (Ha Long Bay)

Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site, is located along the northeastern coast of Vietnam, several hours away from the bustle of Hanoi. Mom and I always wonder at the beginning of a trip who it is that we'll be meeting on our journey, knowing that several fellow travelers from past trips have become our lifelong friends...this trip is no different and the individuals in our group are an extraordinary and an unlikely mix. The Blacklaws are a Canadian family from Vancouver who are traveling through Latin America and Asia with their fifteen-year old daughter for five months. Their aunt, Bobbie, is from Austin and is one of the classiest, funniest, most charming, AND well-dressed women I've met in a long, long time. Sandy is an actor from New York now living and teaching in Korea and Ludovic is a young and easy-going Belgian guy embarking on his last vacation before his first real job as an adult begins in Brussels.

We board our boat, which by American standards, is up to four-star standards...made of polished teakwood and hosting as many staff as there are guests in our group. The crisply-dressed staff meet us with trays of fresh orange juice and wet tea towels for washing our hands. Mom and I struggle with our ever present mammoth-size backpacks and nearly fall into the sea crossing the plank.

There's nothing that can prepare you for Ha Long Bay....its muted colors, the phantasmagoric shapes of the islands, or the constant chirring of cicadas and the pirate-like look of the old junks sailing between the vertical limestone cliffs. I've never seen anything like it and the smell of the warm saltwater, the cool breezes that come across the water in the early evening, the burnt color of the sun as it melts into the horizon takes a hold of you like a magic spell.

I'm convinced now that the only way that mom and I ever truly relax is to be taken away from the city either by trekking or on a boat. We were spoiled to death and will never fully recover from the luxuries of this trip.

On our first evening, we jump from the top of the boat at sunset. The water just salty enough to make our skin tingle. Women from the fishing village row up to us trying to sell us boxes of Ritz crackers and Oreos. Dinner is a staggering orchestration of dishes...plates with giant prawns, grilled fish, steamed morning glory stems, stir-fried squid with onions and cabbage, heaping bowls of rice, omelettes, and a bowl of water with freshly cut limes for washing our fingers of all the juices.

Suddenly the lights go out on the boat and from the kitchen emerges a glowing pineapple "floating" towards us. The wait staff has carved the inside of a pineapple and lit it from within by a candle. Circling the glowing pineapple are battered, deep-fried pork with sesame seeds. We eat by the glow of the pineapple until the candle flickers out and the staff turn the lights back on.

The next day we kayak between several of the islands beneath archways which have eroded from the sea and changing tides. Although the islets are vertical and severe, thick patches of vegetation cling to the rock with admirable fecundity. We can't help but think of the latest "King Kong" movie and the lush mysteries held around each corner. In one lagoon, the water is so shallow we can see soft red coral beneath our boats, waving in the current like small arms. Schools of fish, black sea urchins, and sea anemone populate the water beneath us.

We kayak through a floating fishing village of 1,000 people near Cat Ba Island where small families live in even smaller wooden homes perched on floating docks. Women crouch down breaking open mussels for meat, men clean nets, and dogs run along the floating platform barking protectively. Small boats bring home young children from their school on the islands. All of the people are either ambivalent or welcoming to our small group of kayaks passing just yards from their " front doors." Just a few short hours among the fishermen and women is enough to make me admire their tenacious work habits and graciousness and thank god that it's not the life I was born into. Especially since I hate eating fish. :)

After a few days exploring Ha Long Bay, we return to Hanoi and take a night train to the inland mountains around Sapa (near the Chinese border). From here, we'll be doing a two-day trek through the hill tribe villages of the H'mong, Zay, and Red Zao people....

Sapa, North Vietnam

It's drizzling outside and the mountains are obscured in the mist. Dozens of H'mong women, tiny as dolls, are lined across the street with their woven clothes for sale, persistent in their aggressive sales to hapless trekkers who walk by. Mom thinks they have instant radar for "fresh meat" and they zero in on us as soon as we step outside.

One thing is for sure, Vietnam is more than the sum of its wars. The "American War," as they call it, seems a distant memory here. Over the past thousand years, the Vietnamese have successfully fought off the Chinese, the French, and the Americans from claiming their land. It's a rich, diverse, and beautifully complicated country that has only heightened our curiosity and we can't wait to see more...


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Two HUGE pieces of exciting news:

1) I'm officially launching my website TONITE at 10 p.m. Pacific Coast Time.... I've got tendonitis and have lost a few pounds from all the computer time I've put in over the past six months. This was like giving birth multiple times...and the baby will continue to grow and develop with time!
Check it out at: (just click on the link bar to the right)
(Don't forget the "s" in the middle)

2) My Mamacita and I are headed to North Vietnam for trekking, exploration of the islands around Cat Ba, reveling in the French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine, and then a short foray to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Stay tuned for our adventures later this month...

Have a great'll hear from me next from Hanoi, Vietnam...

(You can also access my latest L.A. Times Travel Article on the website)