Categories
South Africa

Where The Wild Things Really Are

In the midst of tourist crammed V& A Waterfront in downtown Cape Town, South Africa, we felt the first pulls of Africa calling. Swaying before us were fourteen men chanting and singing the most heartfelt  music-in-your-veins songs. We sat mesmerized for almost an hour as the Thokozani Brothers harmonized to the beat of their own internal drums, occasionally snapping or kicking in unison to emphasize a certain chorus. It mattered little that we could not understand a word they sung, we emphatically thanked them and purchased a CD before moving along to a white table-cloth lunch overlooking the bay.

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Having seen the bustling, but a little too plastic V&A Waterfront (McDonald’s was among the purveyors), we found ourselves amongst the city-dwellers in the expansive parks lining the waterfront. Families were out on afternoon strolls, dog owners were playing fetch, and young couples were wrapped in each others’ arms watching the tide roll in and out. Lee and I took advantage of an empty playground to see-saw and play on the merry-go-round. When challenged to climb the twisting, ascending monkey bars, Lee garnered a crowd consisting of myself and one very enthusiastic cheerleader of a homeless man who danced and sung, “Go Long Legs, You Can Do It, Go long Legs!”

The beauty of these stretches of parks was enhanced by the beaches that abutt them and the everpresent Table Mountain that creates a striking backdrop for the active city. With a nearly completely flat plateau on the top of the mounrain, at 3,558 feet, many claim the view from atop to be one of the best in all of Africa.

soil and threadWe waited patiently for a crystal clear day and ascended the mountain in a 360° rotating gondola. Once at the top of Table Mountain, we seperated from the crowds and were able to appreciate the stillness and overwhelming sense of nature that comes with viewing the human world humming minutely below all while clouds streaked the sky before our eyes.

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In our small sack we carried with us a big bottle of water, trail mix, two apples, a bit of peanut butter, and our compass to aid in our four hour hike down the backside of the mountain. We planned to take the Skeleton Gorge trail but quickly realized we would need a map since no trails were marked clearly, and none were named Skeleton Gorge. After a quick stop in the mountaintop gift shop to purchase a map, we were back on track.

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For the next four hours we hardly saw another soul. The semi-arid atmosphere produced a surprising amount of vibrant and various flaura. There were several underground springs that trickled water to a few very happy plants along the way, and two or three miniature ponds that sprung orchids in glowing shades of pink and purple from their banks.

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After three hours of hiking with no sign of shade in the beating heat, we reached the legened Skeleton Gorge and its heavenly canopy of lush trees. Reinvigorated, we continued our march downwards across sheer rock cliffs and further into the maze of misted ferns. When our knees were just about to give out from the stress, we stopped for an apple picnic and enjoyed the trickling sound of water dripping from the rocks above. After a few more tricky passages down steep drops, aided by strategically placed ladders and exposed roots, we made it to flay ground.

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We were so exhausted and our knees were protesting so loudly that somehow the only sensible option was to run, not walk, through the botanical gardens we landed inside. We then hopped on the local bus to make our eventual return to our hostel. Gleefully seated on the bus, a friendly Cape Towner took on the role of our private tour guide and pointed out all of his favorite spots, along with culturally and historically relevant ones along our route.

The next day we set out for the District Six Museum, which our friend on the bus recommended highly. It is dedicated to telling the history of more than 60,000 people who were forcibly removed from their homes for “city restructuring” because of their race, color, and/or beliefs. Their homes were bulldozed and they were shipped to outlying barren lands.  Hundreds of photographs and newspaper articles bring to life the immense trouble and sorrows of this community. Many of these shanty towns can still be seen on the outskirts of cities throughout South Africa today, and while some people are working towards a more unified nation, there is clearly a lot more to do.

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From Cape Town we set out in a rental car (that only set us back $20 a day) to drive the Garden Route along the most southern highway in Africa. Since we started in Cape Town, and the official Garden Route does not start until Mossel Bay, we saw an extra 215 miles of incredible countryside. Driving on the left side, the dramatic shrubbery-laden mountainsides morphed into the skies directly outside of the driver side window, while a thin strip of a lane seperated the passenger’s side from jagged cliffs dropping into the uproarious ocean below. Each twist in the road provided another magnificient landscape and it didn’t take long for us to wonder if this wasn’t the most naturally beautiful place we’d been yet.

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At Betty’s Bay we turned off and drove along gravel roads until reaching a parking lot with two wooden penguins carved and painted welcoming us to their penguin colony. We put on several layers to face the damp cold outside and headed towards a wooden boardwalk that signified the protected area of the Betty’s Bay Penguin Colony. Just before reaching the crest of the hill we were greeted by a live African Jackass penguin, waddling towards us with the most jolly of expressions. Further down the boardwalk the colony blossomed and the two-foot-tall tuxedo-clad creatures were everywhere we looked. Some relished in the icy waters, while others took refuge in their underground houses, and a few industrious types collected branches and greenery to fortify their dwellings. One thing was unanimous, they all looked as comfortable as can be, happy to live next to the sounds of the ocean in their protected cove with food and shelter aplenty.

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Hopping back in the car, we headed to Hermanus and ate lunch in a cave that opened onto the ocean. During whale season in November and December, the cave cafe is a famous lookout for Southern Right Whales, but since it was off season we just enjoyed watching the choppy waters and sea birds mingle on the horizon.

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A few art galleries and a trip to a terrific old bookstore later and we were back in the car headed to our final stop of the day. We reached Onrus Camping Ground with enough light to pick a distant campsite under two sprawling trees with views to the ocean. We dug out the supper provisions we bought at the store, including two yogurts, a box of granola, a bottle of wine, and a chocolate bar, and skimmed through the South African Garden and Home magazine we purchased as a splurge entertainment item after not having read a magazine in over six months. Since we sent our tent home from India with my brother (to save precious backpack weight and space while not camping in Asia), we spent the night curled in the seats of our rental car under the sheets and blanket we always carry. We awoke to the same beautiful scene that had dusted our eyes with sleep, cleaned up in the communal bathrooms, and hit the road.

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The landscape was now even more rugged and extreme. Boulders peppered the land for miles and cacti grew intermittenly amongst the hills. The small country highway was practically empty of other cars which allowed us to easily stop and observe the different groups of animals along the route. We saw elephants, gazelles, zebras, ostriches, cows, and sheep.

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soil and thread When we arrived to Mossel Bay we had just enough time to see the house-lined beach and make friends with several of our 75+ year old car park neighbors who were grilling on the grass “sidewalks” before settling into another night of car camping by the ocean.

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In true road trip fashion, we had only very loose plans and stopped at any spot that looked interesting. Our next whimsy brought us to Dolphin Point Lookout in Wilderness. From high above, we watched paragliders make their descent to the beaches and decided to follow their lead, heading down the windy road to the smooth toasted sands below. We picknicked and soaked up the rays, only daring to dip a few toes in the bitingly cold waters.

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After a few good tracks from the Thokozani Brothers played while we rolled down the road, we spotted a lot of antique cars for sale and had to turn off. We oggled over the shiny metallic bodies proudly displaying their rotund curves and dreamy pasts. The friendly dealership owner encouraged our day dreaming with reasonable Africa-to-U.S. shipping costs. Alas, we knew it wasn’t in the budget, but I’d already fallen for one that may be on my Christmas list for years to come!

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Further on we stopped for coffee and crafts in Kynsna before moving on to a tiny town known as Nature’s Valley. Down a dirt path with pine trees leading us further into the forest, we passed through an arched stone entranceway and were greeted by three shining horses. Each was a caramel color with white fawn spots and a blonde mane thay lended them an ocean-tossed surfer’s look.

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We had arrived to Wild Spirit, our resting spot for the next few days that was much more of a whimsical farm than a generic hostel. The grounds spread across several acres and besides the human and horse inhabitants, there were also dogs, cats, chickens, and baboons roaming around. Every artistically bent traveler seemed to have left their mark as hidden gems were scattered around the place. Teapots growing herbs hung from tree limbs, twisted wood was sculpted into intricate archways, carefully severed wine bottles hung from above in cascading patterns, and ancient candelabras were lit for al fresco supper each night.

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We were there for a celebratory birthday dinner which included 20+ guests dressed up in outrageous costumes that we all selected from an entire costume room on the property. As we sat around one long table painted with scenes from Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are,” outfitted in a hodge podge of tiaras and furs, listening to the drum circle which played below, I wondered if Africa, even in its simplest moments, wasn’t more wild than the rest of the world.

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We slept in a converted “Eco Love Barn” and awoke each morning to the sound of horses munching on grass outside of our windows before setting off on the day’s adventure.

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Just beyond the thick of the forest was a charming farm stand in an old one-room house where we went each day for fresh picnic snacks and a peek at their homemade pies, cakes, and ice cream which we of course tested with the proper dedication of true sweets enthusiasts.

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A short hike from Wild Spirit brought us to a tucked away waterfall, and an aimless drive brought us by happenstance to one of the most incredible places I’d ever seen. Down the undulating mountainside was a strip of land surrounded by water on either side that was neither singularly an ocean beach or a lakeside retreat, but rather both, one and the same. Standing in a single spot in the sand and looking left was a scene of picturesque mountains rising from from a tea stained lake and covered in the pleasing dense green one might expect of Swiss hillsides. Looking right from that very same spot transported you to the tropics with roaring waves curling into the beach and bringing with them the unmistakable sound of the ocean in motion. It was as if we were in two completely seperate places at once, the best of both worlds amplified by their intimate and yet disparate connectedness. Another Eden found.

The next day we set out for Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness and Rehabilitation Center. The center is home to cheetahs, leopards, servals, caracals, meerkats, cranes and storks, as well as the African wild cat. Over 300 injured and abandoned animals are admitted to Tenikwa each year and they work to rehabilitate and set free as many of their animals as possible.

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As part of their awareness and conservation efforts, they also have captive-bred felines that live in large natural environments which are enclosed. We spent the day learning about the animals in the most enthralling, heart-pounding way possible: face-to-face.

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We entered the cheetahs’ enclosure and watched as the two strong males were fed raw meat from metallic bowls that our guide barely placed on the ground before the feasting began. When the cheetahs were finished eating, the taller, younger, and more playful one began walking circles around Lee and I and the two other couples on our tour. We could tell this made the guide a little uneasy as he quickened his pace to stay between the cheetah and us guests. No sooner had the cheetah gotten ahead of our guide than he pounced on a woman in the group. She stiffened and the cheetah let go, assuming his position on the grass once again while the guide nonchalantly shook it off. The cheetah hadn’t intended to hurt the woman, he had just caused several tears in her shirt and leggings, but having his face in hers, claws in her legs, standing upright and looking into her eyes, put a good bit of fear in her and the day was only beginning. We had only gone in the enclosure for introductions, to get acquainted with the cheetahs, next we were going to walk with them in the open wild through the Tsitsikamma Indigenous Forest and Cape Floral Fynbos.

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The cheetahs wore harnesses that had two clips where leashes were attached. We were instructed to walk them as you would a dog, with the leash completely slack between you and the animal, just there if need be. Next we were told that as long as we stayed colse to the cheetah’s body and next to their shoulder blades, there should be no problem. Just don’t move up next to their head as that would take away their peripheral vision, and don’t look into their eyes as they might see it as a challenge. We were also told it was okay to pet them as we walked along, but not too lightly or they may mistake your hand for a fly or some other pest. And of course, if the cheetah decided to run, their top speed being about 65 MPH, do NOT try to keep up, drop the leash immediately. Thus trained, we set out into the vast wilderness with a cheetah as our guide, Lee holding onto one leash and me the other.

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Having witnessed what a possibly antsy attitude can do in the cheetah-pounce incident, I channeled Caesar Milan’s teachings and tried my best at being calm, comfortable, and ever-so-vaguely assertive. It worked. We walked for over an hour with the cheetah leading our way, stopping to sniff a tree here or take a break there.

soil and thread 21At every downhill section we came to we were warned that the cheetahs like to run down hill and at one point I found myself jogging down an incline next to the cheetah who happily kept me in tow. Their fur was soft and warm and they behaved like ambivalent house cats receiving our devotion. It was a truly incredible experience with truly incredible animals.

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Taking the advice of a South African friend abroad in San Francisco, we headed to Storms River Mouth and hiked to several suspension bridges from there. The views to the Indian Ocean were spectacular throughout the entire walk and standing on the swaying bridge as white caps bombarded the rocky shores and a team of kayakers passed beneath us, we once again thanked our lucky stars for the oportunity to see a small part of Africa.

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On our way back to Cape Town we stopped in Outdshoorn where the world’s largest population of ostrich live. Interestingly, ostrich feathers were worth more than gold during the height of their boom from approximately 1902 – 1914. For this reason, thousands of crops were pulled up in the Outdshoorn area and replaced with lucerne which was used to feed the precious ostriches. Men struck it so rich through their ostrich farming that they built lavish houses furnished extravagantly on their farms. Some of these “feather palaces” are still running today, even though it is said that the widespread use of the car beginning in 1914 brought the downfall of ostrich feather use and worth because the fast speeds of the car blew off ladies large hats decorated in the plumes. Nonetheless, we wanted to see one of these feather palaces for ourselves.

Upon arriving to Cango Ostrich Farm we were greeted with a cup of hot tea and encouraged to enjoy the main hall while waiting for our tour to begin. We sipped and reveled in the framed photos of eras gone by that were punctuated by the crowned jewels of ostrich feathers. Afterwards we walked the farm grounds, saw eggs in incubation, and fed the ostriches by hand. Lee rode one for a brief few seconds and I got a “neck massage” as I held a bucket of feed and the ostriches swarmed behind me for the extra treats.

soil and thread 30Just down the road awaited Cango Caves, a series of limestone creations over 20 million years old, where we walked through cavernous chambers as large as a football field and dripping with stalagtites and stalagmites.

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A pit stop for a taste of the region’s heralded port in Calitzdorp saw us tasting five different wines before selecting the Boplass Tinta Chocolat, a deep red with strong hints of mocha and dark chocolate, which we brought back to Cape Town.

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The remaining drive was just as strikingly beautiful as the rest of our road trip. Animals from usually far off places grazed outside our windows, mountains erupted from the pastures, rocks created scenes from distant planets, and the setting sun kissed all the land, making it blush with gratitude. This was a blessed place.

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Categories
Thailand Vietnam

High-rises and Holidays

Back from our whir of newly engaged bliss in Koh Mook, we threw ourselves into celebrations in Bangkok.

From the open air rooftop deck of one of the tallest buildings in the city, we ordered love inspired cocktails and toasted to our life ahead and to always living as though we were on top of the world. The brilliant setting sun joined us directly across the sky, glistening off the buildings and dancing among the clouds.

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After watching the sun light up the sky, we took a boat to Calypso Cabaret and watched showgirls (and boys) light up the stage. They put on a fabulous performance, and if we didn’t know beforehand that the starletts were actually men dressed in drag, we may have never known. The costumes were fit for Broadway and the classic showtunes, modern hits, and traditional songs were all executed with pop and pizazz. The red velvet theatre curtains and table lamps added to the allure of the night. In addition to the show being thoroughly entertaining, I was proud to see the performers accepted so heartily, both at the show and as every day people on the streets.

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The real zaniness of the city came alive for us in the stalls of the Chatuchack Weekend Market. The largest weekend market in all of the world, Chatuchak inundated over 35 acres with baubles of all kinds and each curio had its own section. Trendy clothing shops ruled one domain, while artists selling original paintings commanded another. Food and drink stalls permeated every block, with some being much more entertaining than others. The vendor of one coconut stand violently chopped flying coconuts and turned them into drinking vessels for thirsty onlookers, all while yelping like a banshee. Another man perfected the art of gravity-enhanced pouring techniques, twirling and swirling along with your coffee while it flung mid-air and landed smoothly into its container.

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soil and threadsoil and threadAt one point we were stuck in a maze of exotic animals for sale and saw sugar gliders, marmoset monkeys, flying squirrels, turtles, rabbits, snakes, fish, and puppies. It was quite sad seeing the conditions they lived under and we escaped as soon as we found a way out.

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The Siam Square district had block after block of high-end malls to rival the extravagance of Las Vegas. Art installations from fashion moguls like Vogue lined the glitzy hallways and swishy modern relaxation zones graced each nook and cranny. One of the largest aquariums in Asia was housed on the basement floor of one mall, karaoke and bowling occupied the top floor of another, and each mall had its own set of 3D movie theatres decked out with lay-z-boy chairs and optional foot massages. Interactive displays competed for shoppers attention amongst the Guccis and Cartiers. We stopped in one corridor where a tablet was displayed for people to create their own drawing which was then broadcast across a huge balloon in the mall. We scripted, “We got engaged!”, stood in front of the balloon for a picture, and everyone began cheering and congratulating us.

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After running full speed  through Bangkok, we settled into a slower paced Saigon. We arrived just in time for Tet Lunar New Year, and the usual fast-paced city life of Saigon was replaced by customary preparations to properly welcome the new year. The city was made yellow by all of the blooming hoa mai trees for sale in the streets and journeying home atop motorcycles.

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Houses and streets were thoroughly cleaned to enter the new year with a fresh start. Paper was burned as an offering to ancestors past. Special cookies and candied fruits were bought for the new year, and we were fortunate enough to be asked to join in the candy fest with our hotel owner. It was a real treat. From our room in the center of all the celebrations we could hear the drumming of dragon parades and ran out to the streets to catch each performance.

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soil and threadWe also walked through the national floral displays that spanned four city blocks and were filled with flower arrangements depicting scenes from across the nation. Rice paddies, shoreline scenes, highland depictions, native animals, and more were all standing tall to represent their country in an abundance of flowers.

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The year of the snake looked to be another grand one. With everyone around us looking forward to the blessings of a new lunar year, we recounted our highest highlights and lowest lowlights of four and half months in Asia, and prepared for the new year on a new continent.

Categories
Thailand

Took My Breath Away: A His & Hers Tale of Engagement

His:

Well it all started in the attic on Woodstock Road.  I said that I didn’t know when, where, or how, but I was certain that somewhere along this trip I was going to propose, and I wouldn’t do it without Dominique’s father’s permission.  With Dominique rarely far from my side, blessings were given in a whisper.

Now the hard parts began. The next day we were leaving for a ten month trip in which we would be together virtually every moment, and somehow I needed to find and purchase the perfect ring on the other side of the world, without getting caught in the act or ripped off in the process.  On top of that, I had to plan and execute a proposal worthy of Dominique’s hand within the same constraints (admittedly this trip did provide for more options than available to the average Joe).

I thought it would be easier.  Dominique has never been one to turn down window shopping, and “Point out your favorite in this case” has always been one of her top Royal Street pastimes.  It should have been easy to find the right one without raising any suspicion, but her genetic disposition for good taste clashed with every jeweler in 7 consecutive countries. A whole hemisphere of rare metals and stones, and not one piqued her interest.  I couldn’t nail down any pattern; not a single color, cut, style, gem, or setting.  It was obvious I was going to need some help.

With a welcome sign and theme song, we received that help at the airport in Cambodia.  Alexis to the rescue.  I enlisted Alexis in my campaign to scout out the best ring.  Surely two sisters comparing favorite rings in window displays would produce a winner.  Well Southeast Asia loves its jade (which comes in two main styles, Buddha and bulbous), and jade does not make for swooning Donoghoes.  Two more countries down and no takers.

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We had made it all the way to Hanoi (Alexis’ last city before departing), and I had to get a ring while Alexis was with us to run diversion.  After several fleeting hushed conversations in Dominique’s brief absences, Alexis and I decided it was going to take some footwork to get the job done.  Under the half-false pretence of picking up Alexis’s commissioned painting, we set out alone to find the ring.  First we decided what we should look for in an engagement ring for vagabonds: beautiful of course, but subtle enough to not invite attention from street entrepreneurs, with the option of being transformed/incorporated into a more flashy ring when the time came.  So unorthodox gold band it was, no stone, easily melted and molded, and lacking the necessity of theft insurance.

We spent several hours walking from jewelry store to jewelry store, and visited every open establishment Hanoi had to offer, reputable and less than. It was already dark and many jewelers were closed. Few spoke English but all thought I was in a rush to marry Alexis. Before giving up on trying to clarify the situation, we tried explaining that the ring was to be for Alexis’s sister.  With the waters sufficiently muddied, I think they interpreted that I was going to marry my sister.

Finally we found the perfect ring.  I liked it, Alexis liked it, it was the right size and fit all the requirements.  We tried it on, looked it over, and decided.

“I would like that one please”.

“That one is not for sale. You have to order it and that will take two weeks.”

They wouldn’t budge.  We searched some more and then came back to the hotel empty-handed and full of excuses for our tardiness.

The next day was Alexis’s last in Vietnam.  As a last-ditch effort and in the interest of good quality sister time, we devised a plan for Alexis to request time alone with Dominique. During these two hours I ran from store to store to every jeweler that had been closed the night before.  Apparently Alexis’s presence (even if I was going to marry my sister) had lended me some credibility that I did not possess on my own.  As a traveler with uncut hair, dirty sunbleached clothes, and a five month beard, I did not warrant much attention or approval from the high dollar vendors I was visiting. Most mildly ignored me and a couple refused to talk to me.

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Pretty discouraged but still determined, I decided to head back to the store from the night before and beg that they let me buy that ring, even if I had to pay double.  I walked in, looked at the ring, and asked if I could buy it.  A different saleswoman said that of course I could, and shot me a questioning look. There isn’t much in Vietnam that isn’t for sale.

So I proceeded to lift my shirt and remove every bill I had in my waist belt that holds my passport and money around my stomach, and then to the surprise of the security guard and saleswoman, I began to remove the belt that secured my shorts.  It was my reserve moneybelt, of which I too had to empty completely.  I paid the saleswoman with a mixture of Vietnamese and US currency.  Then as she handed me the bag full of receipts and the ring, I removed everything from it, stuffed it all into my pocket and handed the bag back to her.  

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I peaked up and down the street before leaving and then bolted out, rushing down the sidewalk so I could get to the hotel and hide the ring before meeting the sisters at our scheduled cafe.  As to ensure the ring could not be found, I sewed it inside a bag once used for my travel silk sheet and then sewed that bag into the dark, seldom visited regions of my backpack.

Now to plan the main event. We had been trying to decide whether to visit Thailand’s mountainous North or beautiful beaches down South. Since I am not the biggest fan of lazy beach life, I was originally in the northern camp, but after putting up a big enough fight to look sincere, I conceded to the sandy South with proposal in mind.

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When we arrived to Koh Mook, I knew I’d found the perfect spot.  The only problem was that too many days and nights of train travel too close together had caused my jaw to lock up so badly I could hardly chew.  The first three days on the island I could only eat soup and swallow rice whole.  My knee could certainly support my weight on the sand, but talking was a chore and my voice was muffled and lips barely moved; no condition to propose.  Thanks to a pharmacist in the last inland town, I had obtained some medicine to relieve the pain and relax my jaw.  By the third day it was loosening up enough that I knew soon I would be in tip-top proposal shape.

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So I began to plan.  One day as Dominique lounged on the beach I decided to explore, as I usually do when I can no longer stand to lie still all day in the sun.  I walked along slippery boulders and beautiful pebble beaches for two hours before finding the perfect spot.  It was far enough away from the resort and too treacherous a walk for anyone else to show up on the special night, it had a beautiful view of Dominique’s favorite cliff side, it faced west for some sunset action, and had a driftwood tree trunk lying in the perfect spot for lounging.

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Now to practice my stealth and reconnaissance skills.  I noted the time it took to walk back to the resort for later reference, and for the next three nights as we watched the sun fade away from our table on the beach, I noted the timing of each sunset.  One night while Dominique was in our hut, I faked wanting a beer and walked to the reception building to request some candles, which needed to be brought in from the mainland and would take two days.  Then I spent three days using every excuse I could think of at every meal to convince Dominique not to order a ham and cheese sandwich (the only portable item on the menu).

After all the planning, I had to figure out a way to get enough time alone to set it up.  This is where Nicholas came in handy.  He had given me an excellent piece of advise in Goa; that if I ever needed an hour or so alone, a massage could come in handy. Obviously he knows his little sister very well because, if window shopping is a pastime, massages are a hobby. So I secretly set up a massage for Dominique the next day.

Under the disguise of taking a stroll, the next day I walked Dominique along the beach and as we came upon the beachside spa I checked her in for her surprise massage.  Then I had to hustle.  I ran back to our hut, filled a bag with everything I had marked down on my top secret proposal night checklist (including the candles and lighter I had hidden underneath the hut the day before), and then ran off to the restaurant to obtain our grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.  After getting the sandwiches I tipped the waitress and with a promise of their safe return secured a bottle of wine, a champagne bucket full of ice, a wine opener, and two glasses.  Twenty minutes of my one hour eaten away by Thai speed, I set off to the spot.

It was a 15 minute walk along the rocks each way meaning that once I got there I only had ten minutes to set up before needing to start back to the spa to pick her up. Carrying all of my proposal gear across slippery rocks during a falling high tide wasn’t easy but I managed to make it there without breaking anything.  I spread out my scarf, hid the chilled wine and glasses in the crook of the driftwood log and the rest of my supplies in the bushes, buried six candles a few inches in the sand, and stashed the ring in the jungle under a log. Then I ran back and forth along the beach picking up flat rocks to stack around the candles.

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A few minutes over schedule, I scrambled back over the rocks as fast as possible and rushed to the spa out of breath (and a little more sweaty than I had planned) to find Dominique sitting with tranquility sipping a cup of tea.

Hers:

We swept off to the Andaman Coast in the south of Thailand to a small island called Koh Mook. Arriving to the island on a slow wooden boat, we saw the waters fade into a glistening clear aqua and knew we were in for an incredible 8 days.

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After a short ride on a bumpy crate attached to the side of a motorcycle, we landed at our resort. On this west side of the island, the water was even more crystalline and the sand a sparking soft white. We were upgraded to a beach-front bungalow and as soon as we dropped our bags in the room, we headed to the sea.

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Dramatic cliffs rimmed the coastline and studded the open waters with sheer drops of black rock underneath wild green forests. The water was a balmy 80 degrees and the breeze carried a salty scented reminder that we were in island paradise.

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We sipped tropical concoctions. We sunbathed. We kayaked to another beach. We daydreamed. We snorkelled amongst craggy rocks and coral, swimming with schools of techni-colored fish in brilliant shades of blue, orange, yellow, purple, and green. We saw striped fish and polka-dotted fish. We even saw a happy shrimp and fish couple living together in the same hole. We dined under twinkling lights in the sand, and awoke to expansive views of the beach.

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After a full day of sunshine and lounging, we decided to take an early shower and head out for drinks. However, when we were crossing the resort we stopped short at the open air spa and Lee said, with a glint in his eyes, that I had arrived for my massage. So happily surprised, I settled into a relaxing massage. There was even a blooming arrangement of tropical flowers underneath the massage table to lull me into beautiful reveries.

An hour later I was sipping a cup of complimentary herbal tea and saw Lee walking up the beach, quite sweaty, to retrieve me. He was a bit out of breath and said we had somewhere to go, so I thought he had been off adventuring and wanted to show me his discoveries. He had my shoes and camera, and said that he wanted to show me the beach he found on the other side of the point, but since we were walking a bit far across rocks he didn’t want to bring much. It all sounded great to me and it was just 5 o’clock so I figured we would be in a nice new spot for the sunset.

The trek across the rocks was a bit treacherous, but exhilarating nonetheless. By the time we reached his discovered beach, I was giddy with having made it there in one piece. I lifted my eyes to see Lee standing behind the camera and telling me to look around. I thought about how I knew how gorgeous it was on our deserted pebble beach with my favorite cliff rising from the sea so close to us and the sun beginning to set. With my feet now planted on sturdy ground, I opened my eyes further and saw his scarf surrounded by a set of candles, each with their own rock tower insulating them from the wind. A large bleached piece of drift wood created a back rest and behind that I spotted a chilled bottle of my favorite wine in an ice bucket. It was the most romantic setting I had ever been in, and it all came as a complete surprise.

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Lee had even toted over our speakers and grilled ham and cheese baguettes for supper with the sunset. We ate and laughed and talked about how we would never forget our gorgeous surroundings.

soil and thread Thailand proposal

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As the sun set further I suggested we take a few photos to capture the moment. Since we used a tripod and timer, we took a handful of shots to get the settings correct before Lee declared that we had had our last practice shot. After asking me if I was ready, and me responding in the positive, he pressed the trigger, came rushing towards me declaring his love, dropped to one knee, and asked me to marry him.

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I was overjoyed! I told him yes of course, and kissed my kneeling prince. Shakily, with nerves abating, he slipped the ring on my finger. The radiating colors across the sky and picture-perfect cliffs took on new meaning. We danced and romanced late into the darkness. With the stars shining down upon us, we walked back to civilization hand in hand as fiancés.

soil and thread Thailand proposal sunset

soil and thread proposal

Categories
Laos

Speaking with Elephants

On our journey to discover elephants, we spent several days in Luang Prabang, Laos. Wedged between two rivers, the quaint town held towering temples and discreet courtyards where monks gathered to talk of the day’s activities. Bamboo bridges provided creaking pathways to the hill towns on the other side of the river and plenty of hikes kept our days filled.

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At night the slow-paced hum of the day was replaced by a bustling marketplace that stretched across the full width of the streets. Local handicrafts covered every inch of the ground and scarves hung from the tubing of every pop-up tent. Buffet tables layered with food lined the alleyways and for $1, we ate our fill of as many noodles and vegetables as we could fit on one plate.

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In homage to the city’s French heritage, we decided to have a full fledged “French Day”. I wore my most frenchie outfit and we of course had to start the day with a French kiss! We rented Parisian-chic bikes and peddled around the city admiring the beautiful French architecture that dots the city. While stopped along the Mekong, a legitimate French woman mistook me for a national and told me “Bonjour!” My elated smile noticeably broadened hers. We then headed to a French-owned cafe and ordered a French baguette with proper cheese and a glass of French wine. From our sidewalk seats we penned postcards and decided to forego the obligatory black coffee and cigarettes. At night we watched a film and ended the day just the way we started it.

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The next morning we left for the elephant populated district of Sayaboury because from my earliest childhood memories, there were always beloved elephants. African art in the form of elephants grazed my living room walls, Babar the French children’s story about an elephant ignited my imagination, and my dad’s own experience of reverence with elephants while on an African safari all instilled a love for the four ton creatures within me.

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I knew I wanted to meet an elephant in person, but it wasn’t until I started looking into my options in Asia that I became aware of how poorly elephants are treated at the hands of far too many humans. Even when used for what people think of as “light” work in the tourism industry, elephants are often abused and mistreated. Most are chained to trees with little to no range of movement when they are not working, are fed on a small portion of the food they need to thrive, forced to carry heavy bamboo tourist seats on the hump of their back, and are not well taken care of if/when they get sick.

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Disgusted and obviously not wanting to perpetuate this type of behavior, we sought out the Elephant Conservation Center in northwestern Laos, which acts as a sanctuary for these elephants. The elephants at the center follow a daily routine that emulates their natural life while including enrichment programs that strengthen their minds, bodies, and connections to their human counterparts, the mahouts.  The center even has a breeding program. Mahouts, or trainers, across the country are encouraged to bring their elephants to the breeding grounds, upon which the center will house the mahout, pay them a monthly salary to make up for lost wages they would be making elsewhere, and provide a hand tractor to the mahout’s family so they are able to have another source of work and income while their elephant is away. This is an important effort as it is estimated that there are only 1,000 elephants remaining in Laos; and the population is currently dwindling with four times more deaths per year than births. To care for the elephants, the center also has a hospital on site with two full time veterinarians.

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Lee and I decided that we would volunteer for 6 days at the Elephant Conservation Center for an even more meaningful experience. We arrived by boat via Nam Tien Lake and glimpsed our first elephant standing at the edge of the hillside, munching greenery amongst bamboo huts. It felt as though we were entering an idyllic version of Jurassic Park.soil and thread

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Just as soon as we arrived, we were acquainted with the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts did not speak English, but it was clear to us that the elephants understood their every request as they made introductions. After learning the basic rules of working with elephants (do not stand directly in front of one as they may not see you due to their wide spread eyes, do not stand too close behind one as they may hit you with their tail, and do not approach one quickly as they may run in fear), we learned how to climb on and off of the gentle giants. Seated on the elephants’ necks, we were swept through the surrounding jungle. The elephants’ ears overlapped and protected our bare legs from the tall brush while we pet their rough heads and took in the powerful views around us.

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The elephants’ slow pace was ideal for appreciating every moment. When they stopped at a particularly alluring tree for an impromptu snack, we watched in awe at their dexterity. With their trunk, the elephant would yank a branch free of its tree, and then with the help of its feet, would peel the plant into manageable pieces before selecting the juiciest bit to eat first.

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Because the elephants would eat all of the edible plants in any one area by morning, we dropped them off at a different resting spot each night. Morning time meant exercise and baths, so after the elephants’ hike back to the center each morning, they took a bath in the lake with their mahouts while we watched and scrubbed the elephants clean from the dock.

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soil and threadAfter several days of initiation, we started to recognize the unique personalities of each elephant and how he or she acted in different situations. We also learned the Laos commands and were able to communicate with the elephants directly.

Pie = Go

Meplong = Sit Down

Toi = Back

Saie = Right

Qua = Left

The elephant I worked with most, Mae Comeun, had golden eyes and a high arching back. The tallest of all of the elephants at the center, she also possessed a unique gracefulness. She loved bath time and would submerge herself completely, peaking above the water with just a sparkling eye and spray of her trunk. Lee’s elephant, Tonkun, had majestic, long tusks and was ever ready to learn and please, always following his mahout’s directions.

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We formed close bonds with the staff in the center too. Alongside them we cleaned the breeding grounds, shovelled elephant dung, and cleared around an electric fence with a machete. We made a garden fertilized with freshly collected elephant dung and then planted it with long beans, cucumbers, broccoli rabe, squash, and rocket.

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Lee was even invited to go on a bamboo rat hunt, the bounty of which is considered a delicacy by Laos city folk and a staple item by very rural communities. After several hours of digging holes in the ground through the bamboo rats’ tunnels, Lee and fellow hunter Ung came home blistered and empty handed. But several of the other mahouts had also gone into the jungle on a search and brought back two bamboo rats to share. The fuzzy guinea pig look-alikes arrived back to camp alive but were soon singed hairless, chopped to pieces, and tossed into a soup broth. We watched, drank homemade lao-lao rice whiskey, and had expressive translated conversations with the mahouts, thanks to Mr. Sac, our awesome guide.

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Thirty minutes later we sat down to a meal of bamboo rat stew around a single pot on the floor of the mahouts’ wooden porch with one spoon shared amongst the 12 of us. It was delicious, mainly due to the strong lemongrass flavouring, but I could have done without all of the bones and feet. Lee showed his usual hearty appreciation and from then on the mahouts regarded him with a noble warrior status.

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By the end of our six day stay, we had broken down language divisions with people whose intentions could only be felt, and formed bonds with animals seventy five times our size. This ability for humans and animals to connect across all cultures, borders, and barriers, is something we hope to carry with us for a long time.

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soil and thread

Categories
Cambodia

Reflections on the Mekong

I am excited to share a guest post from my sister, Alexis, who turned 30 while traveling with us. See her story below and enjoy!

A quick snapshot of my latest stats:
6 days of travel
5 street food samples
4 guest houses
3 traveling friends
2 public group exercise sessions
1 spectacular birthday

I found myself entranced with the whizzing and choking of the engine, the light spray of water, and the constant wake as our river boat broke through the seemingly calm surface of the Mekong.  It was as ideal a setting to reflect on thirty years and cast thoughts on what lies ahead as one could imagine. In this serene atmosphere, I was ready to recap the events of the day before, which was the Eve of Christmas Eve, also known to some as my birthday.

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We awoke to yet more glorious sunshine in Phnom Penh, sauntered up to our third floor deck and started flipping through The Word, the local events newspaper we picked up the day before.  We decided to start off with a little adventure to build up our appetite, and off we went in search of a hidden lunch spot in the arts district.

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Lee was at the helm with his map and compass, Dominique was armed with the camera, and I had the day bag and an eye open for ancillary adventures. Mind you, the maps from Lonely Planet are not true maps, as Lee taught me, as north does not always point towards the top of the page and not all the streets are named or even included.  Despite this, we found a winding alley that looked like it might lead us to our designated lunch spot. We turned down, past some open living rooms (indeed so open that it seemed as though the front exterior wall of the house had been left out of the building process), snaked by moto-bike parking and landed at our quaint oasis in the alleyway.  It looked like a Grecian cottage with turquoise shutters and white washed walls, not the typical Cambodian style we had grown to recognize.  Inside, the husband-wife duo had created an art gallery, clothing boutique and café with delicious juices and fresh sandwiches.

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We had our fill and started our hunt for live music.  We consulted The Word again, and picked out a few spots to stop by throughout the day. To our surprise, a wedding reception had gathered in the twisting alley, complete with banquet tables, centerpieces and Cambodian cuisine. We were greeted with big smiles as we delicately dodged the tables and families gathering; it was decided it was a good omen. soil and thread

Out on the main street, we didn’t make it too far until we found a chocolatier (the Donoghoes do love chocolate).  We stopped in for some birthday treats, and I was given a chocolate birthday lotus on the house, all of which was devoured immediately.

At this point, it was about time for a birthday toast, so we headed to the first spot for live music. Not only did the bar not have the band listed on the music bill, they didn’t even host live bands! We liked the spot regardless and made ourselves at home in the outdoor seating with a cold round of beers complete with a koozie!

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Dominique then presented me with the sweetest hand-made card, filled with thirty memories, one for each year. There were even illustrations for each one! We laughed and cried while going down memory lane, and toasted to another thirty.

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For dinner we went to a jazz club on the Mekong river front.  We continued the toasting revelry at dinner and moved inside right before the jazz band came on.  I had a chance to talk with the lead singer / saxophonist before they started and let him know that it was not only my birthday, but that I was born in 20 minutes (luckily my parents had sent me a reminder earlier that day). At 8:50pm, the band dedicated the next song to me, which was an off-the-cuff birthday melody. Mind you this wasn’t just another rendition of the birthday song, it was a ten minute jazzy serenade and made the birthday girl oh-so-happy! We continued dancing and enjoying the music for the next couple of hours, then made our way out to negotiate the tuktuk fare back to our room.

It was certainly a birthday for the books, and I owe it all to Dominique and Lee for so graciously taking me in and sharing their adventures.

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Categories
Vietnam

10° 45′ N, 106° 40′ E

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam delivered its promised big city vibe. Cars, tuk tuks, and motorcycles crowded the streets and neighborhoods sprawled across the map. Four and five people piled on a single motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic. Women sashayed down the streets with sunbrellas, hiding from the sun’s rays at all times. The 5th Ave of Saigon spilled out onto the streets designer names at designer prices.

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We initiated oursleves with streetside drinks where we sat in child size seats amongst rows and rows of other night owls. The chairs and crowds became so plentiful that we were six deep for five blocks on both sides and two rows were in the actual street, leaving just a small strip for cars and cart vendors selling dried squid and sausages to wheel past. We took in the scene and toasted to the holidays.

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Though we spent Christmas worlds away from home, we managed to continue several big holiday traditions. Lee, Alexis, and I skyped with my parents and brother back home in Connecticut and were virtually transported to their living room, glowing with heat from the fireplace, while my dad read Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, as he has every year since he received the book as a small boy. We opened presents thoughtfully selected by Santa’s helpers (aka Mom, Dad, and Nicholas), and decked ourselves out in the ribbons and decorations from the presents. For a bit of local culture, Lee surprised us with a taste of Vietnam’s most exotic fruits. We tried rombutons, languns, mangosteens, and custard apples. We all waivered between loving the mangosteen and the custard apple most and continued the debate by tasting them at every stop along Vietnam’s coast.

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While still in the frenetic capital we visited the War Remnants Musuem and paid tribute to the men and women in service across the globe. Wandering the street markets, we stumbled upon a concert in the making. A big star strutted up and down the stage intermittenly singing his heart out and giving cues to the light directors while onlookers snapped his photo. But the real show stoppers that night were the backup dancers who managed to be out of sync for every move and fell into several frustrated meltdowns on stage. With three days to go until the major production went live for New Year’s Eve, we wished them our best.

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We found a retreat from the busy streets in the heart of pulsating Saigon where several high design restobars shared a garden courtyard. From there we ordered a fancy evening meal and conducted a blind taste test of Saigon’s most favored beers, Saigon Green Label vs. Saigon Red Label. There was no clear victor, but we all agreed that the garden escape was a winner and the perfect place to bid Saigon farewell.

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Delightful Hoi An charmed us from the moment we stepped foot on her lantern lit streets. Softly decaying buildings lined each block with their matching butter-yellow facades and hanging wooden bird cages that swayed in the crisp warm breezes. Vietnamese women strolled the riverside markets in their traditional conical bamboo hats and artisans carved Buddha sculptures from locally grown bamboo roots.

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Keen to check out the booming industry of custom made clothes that makes Hoi An a favorite of many a sartorialist, we researched, scouted out, and settled upon our favorite tailor, Yaly Couture. The fun of deciding exactly what clothes in exactly what styles we wanted ensued. Inspired by many designer duds but wanting something original, I set out to sketch my own floor length ballgown. After several dozen iterations, I selected my absolute favorite, brought it to life with watercolors, marked my specific tailoring requests, and handed it over to our slighlty overwhelmed saleswoman. Alexis went through a similar process, selecting a sketch of mine and outlining her must haves. We then picked out our fabrics and patterns, perusing aisle after aisle of silks, chiffons, and cottons in every color and design imaginable. We finally found our perfect matches. After five days and seven fittings, the gowns fit like gloves. (Pictures to be posted as soon as the dresses are worn to a proper occassion!)

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Lee was by no means left out of this extravaganza. In fact, he approached it like a fastidious scientist. He had two suits and two dress shirts made. Sample images were provided for each, and every last detail was noted on a horizontally labeled diagram. Lined inner collar, notched lapel, hand stitching on lapel, double vent, working button cuffs, accent thread color, wild silk patterned liner, surgeon cuffs, embroidered initials, ticket pocket, lipstick pocket, and matching pocket squares. By the time Lee’s clothes were made, tailored, and completed, all the women in the store were swooning over him. He must have set a record for customizations requested. Not to let the fun and games of customwear end too soon, we also each had a pair of shoes made, and even got a few presents for family back home. It certainly wasn’t the typical backpackers’ splurge, but it sure was worth it!

We spent New Years Eve dazzling under the stars at The Secret Garden, a lovely lush hideaway. We listened to live music and discussed New Years resolutions before heading to Q Bar where we met up with new found Aussie friends and danced the night away. Complimentary champagne, chocolate, masks, and plastic instruments were handed out for a midnight toast to ring in the new year. By 4 a.m. when we started home, the streets were beginning to clear and we lit sparklers as a last hoorah before waking up in 2013. What a year it had been!

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We bid Hoi An goodbye with a scenic half-hour bike ride to the beach along the South China Sea. The sand was warm, the sea was cool, and the banana chocolate chip pancakes hit the spot.

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Fourteen hours and a night train ride later and we were in Hanoi, in northern Vietnam. A damp cold permeated the city and a constant drizzle kept us hopping from one indoor activity to the next. Art became our fuel, the gas that kept us going. Every few yards held a promising artist’s shop or high end gallery with hundreds of oil paintings at an eye-poppingly low price. Though many pieces were knock-offs or recreations of other work, for the keen eye, there were beautiful original gems to find; and we each found one.

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We also went to see the famous water puppet show at Thang Long Puppet Theatre. It depicted many aspects of traditional Vietnamese culture and life and was accompanied by live music. The show was very different from anything I’d seen before, originating from storytelling over the country’s flooded rice paddies in the 11th century as a way to entertain the spirits. Today’s versions of the puppet show use lacquered wooden dolls that move over a waist-deep pool controlled by pupeteers from long poles behind a curtain. Unfortunately, the less-than-coordinated choreography often made the scenes more humorous than serious, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless and one we wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

Serial cafe enthusiasts, we found several spots that warmed our hearts and our toes. From the top floor of one cafe we could see Hoen Kiem Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword, where it is legend that emporer Le Loi lost his magical sword to a turtle who was reclaiming it for the Golden Turtle God. People still look for large turtles and possible signs of the lost sword in the lake today. Nearby Radio Cafe was tucked behind an art stall and up a creaky sloping set of stairs that led to a closed wooden door. Through the door awaited a true locals’ scene with kids intermittenly starting impromptu acoustic jam sessions while others gossipped over their tea and coffee sweetened with condensed milk. We returned several times for their divine custard apple shakes and were happily surprised each time that the acoustic sessions were in full swing.

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Departing the city for a day, we went on an excursion through Halong Bay. The bay itself sits in the Tonkun Gulf of the South China Sea and consists of over 2,000 islands and karsts, along with several native floating communities. It is estimated that the karsts have evolved over 20 million years in the wet tropical climate. The day we visited, the air was chilled but we were fortunate to have clear skies. Karsts defiantly rose from the frigid waters and provided dramatic cliff views for miles.

soil and thread Halong Bay Vietnam

soil and thread Halong Bay

After lunch on the boat, we came upon a small floating village where children wore winter jackets and hats while learning in open floating classrooms. We hopped on a small row boat with one of the locals and ducked as we passed through a stalagtite tunnel into a milky green lagoon colored with eons of calcium carbonate dissolving into the sea from the limestone karsts. Halong Bay, or Bay of the Descending Dragons is said to have been formed with the help of a family of dragons who descended to protect the area from invaders. The dragons spit jewels and jade which then turned into all of the islands dotting the bay which kept warring ships from entering. Wrapped in the lore of it all, we certainly saw dragons formed in the surrounding stone. Walking through an immense set of caves further into the bay, we were asked to use our imagination to see turtles, jelly fish, rabbits, goats, Buddha, and even Romeo + Juliet in the stalagtites and stalagmites.

soil and thread Halong Bay

soil and thread Halong Bay

soil and thread Halong Bay

soil and thread Halong Bay

As a birthday present to Alexis on our last day in Hanoi, we took a cooking class at one of the most revered places in the city, Old Hanoi. Along with our chef teacher and two cooking class mates, we went to the chef’s favorite produce market and bought fresh herbs, vegetables, and rice paper. We were told the market was not government regulated and the quality of meat could not be guaranteed so we did not buy beef, chicken, or shrimp for our dishes there. I was quite glad too, because organs were splayed out in every direction dripping blood onto the floor and one woman was using a flat blade razor to shave the hair off her pig’s feet while flies swarmed above. Once back in the restaurant, we began making sauces and dips for our various dishes. After hand rolling our own shrimp spring rolls, we used small parafin burners to cook lime leaf chicken kebabs and caramel pork braised in clay pots. We finished off our meal with sweet potato pudding. The food was the best we had in all of Vietnam and we even got the recipes to bring home. It was a delicious end to a phenomenal journey with Alexis. I know so many memories will come flooding back once we make these dishes in our own kitchens.

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Categories
Cambodia

Living Ruins

After a late night bus breakdown, Lee and I arrived to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and took a short night’s rest before awaking to greet my sister at the international airport. The festivities of having Alexis with us for the next three weeks while we traveled through Asia started from the moment we saw her. She arrived to much fanfare, a handmade welcome card, and the sounds of Wilson Phillips (a childhood classic), blasting from our speakers.

Walking the metropolitan streets, Alexis dove right into the street food culture with sundried grilled bananas and chicken liver.

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In the city’s central park we were whisked into a free public exercise group, but finding it not quite our speed, we opted for a small yoga session instead. Limbered up and ready to soak in more cultural experiences, we headed to Meta House where there was a small gallery supporting local artists, documentaries played nightly, and a good music scene. The film viewing that night was a documentary on the ex-Cambodian Head of State, Khieu Samphan, and his involvement with the Khmer Rouge. The devastating history of the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 when the nation was forced into backbreaking agrarian work, starved, tortured, and over 1.7 million people murdered is chilling. The Cambodian people are now marching towards a much brighter future while still honoring the victims with museums and monuments throughout the nation.

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An open country once again, people flood the region to see Angkor, the largest religious complex in the world. Just 20 minutes from Siem Reap in central Cambodia, the ruins are far stretching and include hundreds of temples and shrines. Seeing Angkor Wat was time warping. Five main towers rise triumphantly from their dark aged stone base and give even more weight to the sprawling complex. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman, Angkor Wat, meaning City of Temples, was built with sandstone in classical Khmer architectural style. Intricate carvings give dimension to the complex and even the windows support bulbous stone carved pillars. Religious imagery from Hindu epics is everywhere, as are depictions of sacred plants and animals. Before leaving we bought palm juice fresh from a palm tree growing on the temple grounds and sipped the sweet liquid from a straw in its plastic bag.

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Another five minutes down the road held Angkor Thom and the ancient ruins of Bayon. Bayon was built under the rule of another king in the late 12th century, King Jayavarman VII, and outfitted with over 200 faces depicting his likeness. Each enormous stone face seems heavenly serene and happily peaceful, making it one of my favorite temples.

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Perhaps most impressive of all was Ta Prohm, where tree roots draped the ancient structures, moss seeped from every crevice, and lichen breathed new life into crumbling walls. The jungle had clearly spoken and claimed its grounds; we were merely obliging visitors.

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Back in Siem Reap, we lunched in the lap of luxury on beds at an all-white restaurant that delivered scrumptious bites on angular white-washed trays. The cool airy space stood in sharp contrast to the enveloping heat of the jungle and we were happy for the repose. After lunch I spotted a pedicure parlor that specialized in fish pedicures and decided to surprise Lee with a visit to “Dr.Fish”. Telling him we had a surprise for him, we made him close his eyes while we guided him down the street. In front of the big tank of four-inch long fish he opened his eyes and was immediately excited to sit along the bench above the tank and have his feet eaten by hundreds of fish. Alexis and I were less sure as we sat down, hovered our feet over the tank, and the starving fish swarmed our direction. Thankfully, the $3 fish pedicure price included a complimentary beer to calm the nerves! The fish nibbles were much more forceful than I expected and it was nearly impossible to keep my feet in the water for longer than a few seconds as the fish slipped in between toes and the big ones tried to eat my whole toe. Since Lee easily stayed stone still, the fish loved him and ate his dead skin voraciously. Alexis and I went through laughing fits and tried to see who could keep their feet in longer. It was a surprisingly intense 30 minutes, after which we had the softest, cleanest feet of our adult lives.

Worn out from a full day of adventuring, we headed back to our hotel room, glanced out of the window, and discovered that there was a crocodile farm next door. Two pools surrounded by strips of concrete teemed with hundreds of adult crocodiles piled on top of each other lazing in the sun in the middle of the city.

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Cambodia held more surprises for us than we expected and we embraced each one with due serendipity.

Categories
Laos

Falling for Laos

Entering Laos was like entering the land of sunshine and Dok Champa flowers. The national flower can be seen everywhere growing in its natural state on trees, used as decoration in womens’ hair, painted on park benches, and used as offerings to the gods.

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Piercing the skyline like dogmatic swords, Laos’ Buddhist temples are intricate, bold, and colorful. Their dramatic Asian architecture with multiple sloping roofs, sharp repeating edges, and scaling dragons demands attention. Walking around the capital, Vientiane, we discovered over ten sprawling temples and thousands of miniature spirit houses, or “haw pii” as the Lao call them. No less impactful in their presence and emotional role played in Laos society, these animist spirit houses standing just five feet tall and two feet wide, are tightly woven into the daily lives of the people. They are intended to ward off mischevious spirits and bring continuos good luck. They also act as a shelter and shrine to keep the spirits happy, and we watched as daily each city inhabitant placed offerings of fruit (bananas, pineapples, dragon fruit, etc), burning incense, flowers and pyramidal oragami made from banana leaves and marigolds on and around their temple. Some spirit houses are even festooned with daily items the owner enjoys like Coca-Cola, Beer Lao, and even lit cigarettes. Before any construction can begin, Laos people erect a haw pii in a prominent spot on the land to ensure that permission is asked and granted by the spirits to utilize their land, and in hopes to secure positive spirits and luck in the future.

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The most visually stunning temple we visited was Wat Si Saket, a collection of over 2,000 Buddha statues, both large and small, arranged in an infinite pattern over four main rectangular rooms. The dripping age of the chipped walls juxtaposed against the shining gold Buddhas painted a surreal picture.

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Interestingly, the men in Laos are expected to enter a Buddhist monastery for at least a few months, and many choose to study and live as monks for much longer periods of time. The subtly varying shades of bright orange worn by monks draw your eye towards their seemingly simple activities as they congregate inside temples, water the grounds, wash clothes, and drift down the city streets. Women are not to talk to or touch monks, so I quietly observed from a distance and was most impressed with the way the elder monks took the younger novices under their wings and showed them the beautiful world before them.

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Throughout the capital we were hit with a mouthwatering collision of culinary firsts. Splayed out in front of us on streetside grills were an array of meat lovers’ choices: sun dried cow liver, pork and beef sausage, chicken on a stick, and lemongrass-stuffed salted fish. Lee sprung for chicken feet and later chicken heart, which he enjoyed so much he ate nine of them. To get a look at the flip side of Laos dining, we also tested out the cuisine at several higher end sit down restaurants. Makphet was a standout, the food presentation was impeccable and the restaurant supports a good cause, operating as a training center for underprivildged kids from the street to learn how to cook, wait tables, manage money, and practice English. However, our bellies kept bringing us back for noodle soup at Nam Phu Cafe, a hole in the wall spot that has an open cart acting as their kitchen on the side of the street and basic plastic tables set inside. Lining each table was a long row of spices in liquid, freshly cut, and pickled form, along with a plate of mung beans and sliced limes. Each soup had a unique flavor made personal by the greens and spices added tableside. In addition to these Laos staples, we had great french bread and sweets at a number of local bakeries thanks to the left over French influence, Laos having been colonized from 1893 to 1954.

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

Having heard about wonderfully inexpensive massages ($3 – $10 an hour), we decided we must seek one out. We read about a serene spa abutting a Buddhist temple just outside the main city and grabbed a tuk-tuk with high hopes of the hour of ultimate relaxation to come. The driver stopped directly in front of the Buddhist temple gates and since he did not speak English, shooed us into a small opening underneath overgrowing palm trees and bouganvillas to the left of the temple in hopes that we would find our way. There were no signs for any spa, or any commercial buildings at all, just a dirt road with glimpses of various temples through the brush. Looking at each other, we shrugged and laughed and carried on down the path to see where it would lead us. Before too long we started seeing long-legged chickens pecking at the road and then a few rudimentary houses with fires burning and men playing checkers outside, and then we came to a fork in the road. Pausing for just a moment, we heard “You wanna massage?!” floating down from the treetops. Without knowing who to respond to or even where to look, we responded in kind to the trees, “Sa Bai Dee” (hello in Laos) “…yes!”  Moving toward the voice, we saw an open air structure made of dark wood raised 10 feet in the air with low banisters encircling the space. We were told to come around the side and climb the stairs. Once we reached the platform we took quick stock of what we were getting ourselves into. Three heavyset men wearing just towels around their waists poured sweat from every inch of their exposed bodies. It was hot, but not that hot. One steaming tea pot and three small mismatched tea cups sat on the low table in front of them and they sipped in leisure. Three or four more men hung back in the next “room”, divided by the same low banister, with several raised mattreses taking up the majority of floor space. Some of the men were sleeping, one was clipping his toenails, and another was looking listfully into the trees. There was a swinging saloon door to our left and a full door to the only closed room next to that. The woman who called to us from the trees asked if we wanted sauna and massage, and with an even smaller idea of how the day was going to go than when we started our journey, we agreed. At least that explained the profuse perspiration from our fellow spa mates. We were then handed two towels and pointed to change through the saloon doors. Very little communication happened throughout, we mainly sat long enough in one place to determine the moves of those around us and would respond in a similar fashion. The three heavyset men opened the sauna door and steam rolled out like a cloud of smoke from a volcano. We followed suit and entered the sauna. Tight, dark, chokingly damp, and swelteringly hot, we lasted several minutes before retreating and basking in our own glistening heat. We took two more mismatched tea cups from a tottering stack and poured just enough tea to sip on. With no direction from the “hostess”, we continued the sauna-to-tea cycle several more times. It seemed that this cycle would never cease as no mention, impatience, or sense of a next step was ever portrayed by the hostess or our spa mates. Ready for my relaxing massage and worn from the extreme heat of the sauna, I finally inquired with the hostess if we could move on to the massage. After a few moments of misunderstanding, it was apparent that we were to take showers, get a new towel, and then receive our massages. More pointing ensued as they directed me to the shower down the stairs and behind some shrubery. Once on the dirt path with no shower in sight, I looked back and was encouraged with hand gestures to keep walking. I reached a large bucket of standing water that had a green film covering the surface; that would not be for me, no thank you. There was another bucket of water, less green, but not much more inviting than the first bucket. A hose was nearby but the faucet handles did not turn it on. The hostess must have noticed my struggles and sent a helper down who then flipped a master switch and intimated with the hose that I should shower. Great, but clearly the spa folks could see me through the sparse greenery so removing my towel and showering naked was not an option, nor did I want to soak the towel through in the frigid waters. I quickly washed my legs, arms, and hair, flipped off the master switch and was glad to have that portion of the spa visit over. To allow Lee the full experience, I didn’t relay my story but just sent him on his way. He used the bucket water, like everyone else! Alas, the massage. There were no options, no oil or aromatherapy, Swedish or Sports, just straight forward Laos. We laid down on two of the raised mattresses next to eachother, wrapped in our towels, and our masseuses climbed onto the beds, sat on our legs, and began the massage. It was a mix of pulling limbs, popping joints, twisting torsos, and knocking knuckles. Half of the time I was nervous the masseuse might pull or push or twist too hard and end my life. The hour ended with a yanking of the ears, tweeking of the nose, and bop on the head.

soil and thread

soil and thread

At night we soaked up live music by the city’s central fountain that was illuminated by a light show and made hip by all the local 20-somethings drinking and dining at the al fresco restaurants encircling the fountain. Each night a different three piece band would play American pop classics mixed with Laos favorites. After getting our fill of Beerlao and music, we would walk to the Mekong just steps away and join the bustling crowds of locals at the night market. Stall after stall sold food, clothes, artwork, and jewelry. People of all ages were strolling the market, seemingly looking for nothing more than a socializing night out. Every evening at the same locations along the Mekong, free public excercise classes began with booming techno music, enthusiastic instructors calling out the moves from tall black pedestals, and crowds of people following along in unison. I joined in and was quickly swept into the fervor of group exercise; kick left and right and up and down, again!

The Little House Artisan Crafts

Further down the Mekong stood a bronze King Anouvong, a large rigid statue of the last king of Vientiane extending a miltant hand to shake. Surrounding the statue were seated women selling lotus flowers as offerings to place on the statue. The lotus petals are a recurring motif in Laos architecture and can be seen throughout the country as a Buddhist symbol of divine purity and enlightenment.

To get a view of the city on high, we climbed the steps of Patuxai, or “Victory Gate”, and looked out over the pristine parks and sprawling streets radiating below. A small plaque at the entrance of Patuxai read, “Victory Gate of Vientiane…from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete”. We thought it was quite nice, but with an official sign like that, you have to wonder. Looking further into the history of this war monument, we found out that in fact the U.S. government gifted all of the cement used for Patuxai with the intention that the Laos government would use the materials to build an airport. For this reason, the monument was nicknamed the vertical runway. An explanation for the bizarre plaque still eludes us.

soil and thread

Branching out from the capital, we took a wobbling overnight bus to Pakse where we found one of the best guesthouse deals of our trip. The hotel was just opening and they spared no expense with tiled bathroom floors, endless hot water at all times of the day and night, fresh linens on a new mattress, and even a wooden bureau. We joked that our standards for “fancy” had noticably dropped some decibels and agreed that we had become much more thankful for even the smallest details (i.e. toilet paper included in the bathroom). The town itself was a bit lackluster, but we wandered around several temples and through well worn dirt passages past backyards full of tents and playing children before chowing down on noodle dishes at an outdoor corner restaurant. Sunset drinks along the Mekong was the perfect way to end the evening.

soil and thread

soil and thread

The next day we decided to take the local bus from Pakse to Tad Lo, a small town on the Bolaven Plateau renowned for their coffee and waterfalls. Upon our arrival at the Pakse bus station we felt we had finally discovered the true spirit of the city. There were hundreds of merchant stalls and the Laos people ran in every direction calling out to all passersby. One motorcyclist arrived with a cartload of live chickens and ducks, all roped together and flung underneath a wired netting to keep them from escaping. A gloved woman then proceeded to unload all of the flapping animals and placed them directly next to an idling bus. She took stock of their health, feeding an opaque liquid to the least sturdy of the flock, and shared birdseed with the rest. Life rushed forward around the chickens and ducks as women sold hot soup in little plastic baggies twisted at the top to hold the broth and veggies and spoon inside. Other women sold fruits and juices and eggs and bread, walking by all the bus windows to see what the riders might buy for their journey onward. Still others gave manicures to passengers awaiting their buses. We were the only foreigners at the station and when we handed our bags over to be loaded underneath the bus we heard a thunderous, “Falang!” (meaning foreigner) as a boy came rushing towards his shouting father to take our bags. We had a great ride through the countryside and saw many coffee plants growing in small plantations. Every so often a village popped up along the road and all the people living there were dedicated to the production of coffee. Their front yards had gated patches to allow coffee beans to be placed flat without any dogs or pigs getting at them. The beans were then raked and turned to allow for optimal drying and to ensure no part of the bean rotted. The people worked at a calm and steady pace.

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As soon as we stepped off the bus and collected our bags we noticed a rancid fishy stink and then a wetness seaping through our bags to our clothes. The bags had been loaded in the bottom of the bus along with a handful of leaking packages full of half-melting fish guts, or so it smelled to us. We had no choice but to carry on, so we plugged our senses to the smell and trodded on down the road with no strong inclination of which direction to head since our maps were incorrect, there were no signs, and nobody spoke English. After a mile or two we were passed by a Laos teenager on his motorcycle with his younger brother and a white woman seated behind him. They were headed in the same direction as us and we hoped that meant good things. Another mile or two later and we found the town. We stopped in several guesthouses in search of a good price and a cozy room, and did not even try to explain why we stunk like last week’s rotten dinner. The last guesthouse we looked was perfect. It was full of smiling guests and had rustic prairie ranch feel to it, and to top it off, it was right at the base of the town’s main waterfalls.

soil and thread

After cleaning up, we spent the next three days exploring the area. For breakfast we posted up on the porch of our guesthouse and enjoyed the view of the roaring waterfalls above. We then hiked through deserted forest paths, stopping each time we heard running water to find a glimpse of a different view of the first falls. We passed two large hotels, fairly far apart, and beautiful in construction, but completely shuttered. So far off the beaten path, and closed to traffic, these oases were admired by too few people to keep them running. A few paces further and we saw the second set of beautiful waterfalls. To get closer we climbed over a few small boulders and across the most haggard bridge I’ve ever dared to cross. It was a simple bridge made of sticks hammered together, but half of the sticks were missing, and another half of those remaining either had rusty nails poking through to the air or were completely loose and could not support our weight. Several breaks in the side frame of the bridge also meant that portions were tilting steeply downwards. Though the structure was daunting, the bridge was only two feet high so falling through would not result in too much worse than a broken leg or ankle (but flowing water and slippery rock piles pretty well guaranteed injury so falling was not an option). Having made it successfully across the bridge, we crept towards the edge of the water and up several tree roots jutting out from the side of the hill. From our perch on top of a rock, we escaped the sun and appreciated our surroundings while savoring a bag of goldfish, a very rare American snack for us!

soil and thread

soil and thread

That afternoon when leaving the waterfall we saw two small brown terriers followed by a man with a stick. The dogs were running about, in what I thought was clear excitement to be out exercising, when Lee pointed out that they were probably hunting dogs in search of rats. We continued on our way through the woods and came upon at least 30 naked children bathing in the waters, splashing and squeeling and paying little attention to us. Just a bit further down the path and we ran into their village. Much deeper into nature thanTad Lo, this village was only accessible by foot paths, so had no vehicles and seemingly no running water. Wooden houses were raised on stilts to allow for drafts of air to cool the inside, while the shade underneath the houses provided escape from the beating sun. Men, women, and children lazed in these shady patches laughing and talking. Puppies and piglets romped and played together in every direction we looked. Peanuts lay drying on a tarp in the center of the village and the well trained animals stayed far from the food. One boy showed us his pet bird which was no bigger than my fist, colorful as can be, and as personable as they get. By now the bathers had finished washing up and were returning to their homes shouting “Sa Bai Dee” to us with big smiles illuminating their faces.

soil and thread

On our walk back from the village we saw the man with his terriers again, only this time the man was holding two freshly killed rats. As unappealing as that may sound, it was incredible to see man and animal working so harmoniously together to reach an agreed upon result. We also saw more coffee trees and decided to take the long way home to try the fresh roasted coffee we saw advertised on a wooden sign in white paint outside a white picket fenced yard. Several tree stumps were strewn across the yard creating tables and chairs. Since I’m not a coffee drinker, Lee took the reins and selected Arabica typica grown in the surrounding hills. The shopkeeper then roasted and ground the beans before brewing the freshest cup of coffee Lee had ever had. Under the spell of the aromatic beans we dreamt of a life in Laos, so much had the people, culture, and landscape impressed us. Not knowing it at the time, we would be back before we knew it.

soil and thread

soil and thread

Categories
India

Steering Sleepy Waters

We spent our last few days in India discovering Kerala, a backwater haven for travelers looking to slow down and get a taste of life on the water. The southern state has over 560 miles of interwoven bayous, lakes, and lagoons appointed by tropical greenery and bustling waterways.

Out of boat-laden Alleppey, we chartered a houseboat and spent the next 72 hours on a private 50 foot rice barge turned scallopped teak and palm hideaway with our own personal chef and river captain. We were welcomed aboard with fresh pineapple juice and laid starboard making conversation with the captain.

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Venturing out into the dark, syrupy waters we began to see endless canals punctuated by rice fields and palm trees. The thin strips of land the palms inhabited were also single file villages where fisherman, rice workers, and small merchant shop owners lived. In one section no wider than a foot’s length, we docked the boat and scuttled down the trunk of a tree to reach the land. Each village drew a distinct line between the flowing canals and rice paddies beyond, and each one held a new experience. At one spot we bought prawns as big as lobsters, in another we got an impromptu tour of the land by a tody (coconut beer) shop owner, and at another Lee got a fishing lesson from a little boy using a homemade bow and arrow. Butterflies flitted across every pathway, women saught out shaded water in front of their homes to wash clothes, and school children shrieked as they ran to catch the dug out canoe that was their school “bus”.

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All along the waters, rice fields were in various stages of cultivation; some completely flooded, others drained with brand new sprouts, and yet others being harvested by tracked columbines. Interestingly, our captain pointed out that the different stages of cultivation are not dictated by season, but rather by the supply of labor available at any given time.

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On raised levees by one of the vibrantly green paddy fields local men and women carried bundles of greenery atop their heads, piling their harvest close to the river bank. Since all of the goods coming and leaving the villages have to be ferried by boats from the lorries back in the cities, large flat loads arrived periodically on wide wooden boats replenishing supplies.

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Thankfully, many of the boats use quiet engines or none at all so the tranquility remained intact with the occassional bird or duck singing into the lapping waters. Fishermen cooed as they paddled by villages in their canoes, bidding possible buyers to the water to purchase fresh from their nets the day’s catch.

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In one particularly open waterway, the captain abandoned his captain’s chair and let me take over the wheel. After a fast learning curve (slow moving 50 foot rice barges do not react quickly), I started to master steering and guided us through a lake into a narrow canal past several boats before handing the helm back over – both more impressed and thankful for our dedicated captain!

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Each day we ate five course meals cooked in the small kitchen at the back of the boat by our chef. Coconut, pineapple, and melon curries, fried fish, vegetable stews, fried bananas, fat white rice, and papads (crispy lentil puffs similar to tostadas) were just a few of the items that graced our table. In between, we snacked on chai and cookies from the top deck and waved to passerbys.

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At night we docked and visited sprawling Hindu temples that amplified recorded chants out over the rice fields. By the time the sun had set the bayous were lined with thousands of tiny burning candles, by now a familiar sight, illuminating the water as offerings to the gods and showing the way for the few boats still in motion.

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Making our way back to Alleppey past other houseboats our last morning, it seemed as if we were all part of a surreal choreographed dance of ancient hunch-backed armadillo pods floating through serene waters in search of some kind of Eden.

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Categories
India

GoAahhh

The moment we hit the roads of Goa we felt we had entered a new country. The landscape, the people, and the architecture were all different than northern India. Because the state used to be occupied by the Portuguese (from 1510 – 1961), the very traditions, religions, and even the laws vary greatly from the rest of India. About one quarter of the people are Christian (compared to just 2% in the other states) which meant among other things, that we saw lots of churches and crosses, and beef and beer were widely available. The weather was steamier and the land more lush, with dense tropical forests running as far as the eye could see.

Goa's Miracle Rock
We found a cheap palm thatched beach bungalow to call home in Palolem, right on a small crescent shaped beach fringed by coconut trees. In between lazily reading in our front porch hammock and wading in the Arabian Sea, we indulged in Goan dishes like xacuti, king fish, calamari, and sticky sweet bebinka cake. We kayaked in the ocean, saw langur monkeys on the appropriately named, “Monkey Island”, and took a pole-powered boat tour of tidal fed mangroves that are only accessible at high tide. I saw my first kingfisher bird and fell in love with their bright, bright colors and skill for catching fish, despite their diminutive size. To really embrace beach time, we took off our watches and lived only by the sun and tide. And each night as sunset approached we picked out the most welcoming spot for dinner on the sand and watched as the sun melted the sky , the clouds, the sea, and the sand into a dewy shade of champagne pink.

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A week later we were ecstatic to pick my brother up from the Goan airport and share the beach paradise we found with him. He was the first person from home we’d seen in almost 4 months and it was fabulous hearing all of his stories, and making many of our own! We explored beaches along the coastline, discovered whole families of starfish in the waves, watched crabs build patterns of sculpted sand, attempted epic games of kadema, and ate until our bellies almost popped. I was even so pampered as to receive a professional massage just about every day of our stay.

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The lure of spice plantations brought us 2.5 hours deep into the jungle where we toured a 200 year old organic intercropped plantation, where plants of various families live side by side in a more natural and healthy arrangement. We learned how a wide variety of spices grow and at each plant we were asked to touch, crumple leaves, taste seeds, or smell bark and guess the correlating spice. Some were obvious upon inspection (cinnamon); others were near impossible (turmeric). We saw black pepper, lemon grass, clove, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, vanilla, bird’s eye chili, curry leaves and more. We even swung Tarzan style on the aerial roots of a Banyan tree over a pit of growing ginger. That afternoon we ate a traditional Goan lunch prepared on the plantation using the food and spices grown there.

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In preparation for Thanksgiving, which was the very next day, we found a shop that sold black and white paper; and as the sun was beginning to set on Goa Thanksgiving day, we crafted three simple pilgrim outfits replete with buckled pilgrim hats, white cuffs, and puritanical collars to honor the day. Walking out of our beach hut onto the populated sands we got many a question, even more stares, and lots of laughter. After explaining the feastly holiday, we climbed to our own Plymouth Rock and no sooner had we arrived than a group of high-spirited Indians joined us, and as Pilgrims and Indians we completed the vision Christopher Columbus himself had had so many years ago before stumbling upon North America.

IMG_0483IMG_0488After bidding my brother farewell, we had a few more days on the beach and decided it was high time we look for our next books to read. We walked into town, checked out a few shops, and were then stopped dead in our tracks by a stranger stamped with a five o’clock shadow and artistic air. He said he was a freelance photographer/videographer working on a big advertising assignment and that he was looking to shoot a young couple – would we be interested? He continued that the photoshoot would require us to go canyoning through the Indian jungle and that of course, he would cover all of the expenses. Just days earlier, Lee and my brother Nicholas had actually gone canyoning with the same outdoor experience company the photographer was now proposing for the shoot. So with that coincidence and the excitement of an adventure too good to pass up just falling into our laps, we whole-heartedly agreed. By 7am the next morning we were squeezing into wetsuits and listening to precautionary tales of what to do and what not to do while in the wilderness. It took us an hour and a half of winding through the back roads of the jungle to reach our starting point. Gripping the limbs of outstretched trees we hustled in a hike to our final destination past sliding rock hills and overgrown trails. When we reached the 24 foot waterfall Lee and I were to jump off of, it was only the most intimidating precipice I’d ever seen. With no phone, no safety cable, and no fear (okay scratch the last one), we were to gingerly step out on the wet slime covered rock jutting over the waterfall so we could see exactly where we needed to jump.  Too far to the left and we’d hit sharp edged rocks, too far to the right and we’d hit sharper edged rocks and be pummeled by the forceful waterfall, too close to the jumping point and likewise, we’d hit rocks. And to make things just a little more exciting, if we did not swim to the left immediately after hitting the water, we risked being whisked away with the gushing water down the next waterfall just 10 feet away and 165 feet high. The butterflies in my stomach were soaring, but with starlet determination and unwavering trust, I jumped. We then jumped two more times, climbing back up to the heights of the ledge pulling ourselves up on harnesses over the monstrous waterfall.

When the ad campaign airs, there is no doubt in my mind that our thoughts and emotions will be written all over our faces: carpe diem!

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