Monday, May 30, 2005

Vietnam in Pictures

After meeting in Saigon, Elise and I took a tour of the Mekong Delta.

This is the famous, somewhat disappointing floating market near Cantho. "There's not enough commerce," Elise complained. "No one is buying anything from these poor people, it makes me sad."

There are no traffic lights in Vietnam and you're constantly faced with crossing intersections like this. Somehow if you just walk blindly across the street (and closing your eyes is pretty tempting) you make it across safely.

Elise wanted a nice night out so I worked for a few hours as a fruit vendor.

The rice terraces of Sapa were a highlight of the trip. I saw a 10 year old Lonely Planet in a bookstore today and turned to the Sapa section. It was a paragraph long and warned that there wasn't even reliable transportation into Sapa. Things have changed greatly in the last decade and it is now a serious tourist destination.

Kids everywhere love watching footage of themselves. Often I turn the screen around so they can see themselves in the monitor as I record. From New Zealand to Nepal every kid in the world seems to see this as an invitation to go berzerk.

Halong Bay is a massive collection of limestone cliffs. It's really quite impressive. Elise and I took a day long cruise around the Bay as the last stop on our trip.

Leaving on Jet Plane

I think when I wake up tomorrow the trip will start again. I’ll fly to Vientiane, Laos and say goodbye to Vietnam and three weeks of air-conditioned rooms shared with New York travel companions. It’s been nice having Jason and Elise riding shotgun for most of May but there isn’t much point in worrying about whether I prefer traveling with friends from home or not because I don’t have much choice anyway. They just sort of showed up. And then they left. Elise’s departure tonight was hard but, as she often reminds me, I don’t need to reveal the details of my personal life on the internet, so I’ll leave it at that.

While Jason and Elise were here I didn’t do much writing or work on the documentary. I didn’t meet many new people. I never felt lonely and rarely felt stressed. It was like a vacation from the vacation and now I’m ready to get back to business. I can feel my head turning back on; a constant dialogue is replaced by an internal monologue. In a way it feels more natural or at least familiar.

On the way back from leaving Elise at the airport I met up with a Japanese backpacker just getting into Hanoi. I helped her find an area in the city with a lot of guesthouses (with the help of her Lonely Planet). It was late and everything was closed up and I had to bang on the closed metal gate to get let into my place. The groggy receptionist lied to the Japanese girl, saying there were no vacancies. I headed up to room 304 and she went down the street looking for another place to stay. It was the quintessential backpacker relationship; we met, traded stories, helped each other pass some time and find our way, then parted.

It occurred to me that there might be some lesson in my trip to the airport, in the idea that I had once again left someone I cared about but was satisfied to pass the time with someone I knew I’d never have to care about and could painlessly leave. But there’s no need to delve into the details of my personal life, Elise would remind me. And anyway, I’m heading back to the airport in six hours so maybe it will be clear then.

How I Spent $8200

I’m keeping detailed records of where the money is going and I thought some of you might be interested to see how the expenses have broken down so far.

On average I’ve spent $58/day but the expenses have varied quite a bit from country to country. These are the averages for each county (excluding international flights and medical bills which I don’t count towards specific countries but have cost about $10/day over the course of the trip and are figured into the $58/day number):

Australia (44 days) $70/day
New Zealand (21 days) $67
Thailand (29 days) $31
India (10 days) $18
Nepal (14 days) $39
Cambodia (10 days) $29
Vietnam (13 days) $31

Those totals are the product of the specifics of my trip, not simply a reflection of the costs of those countries. For instance, India and Nepal are equally cheap but in India I had very low lodging costs because I stayed with families and split rooms with Christian while in Nepal I took an expensive trek and two domestic flights.

I’ve broken down my expenses into a few categories. Travel, food, and accommodation are the main culprits. On a day-to-day basis they’re equal burdens but the cumulative travel total is significantly higher than the others because of a few major flight expenses.
Travel $3087($22/day)
Food & drink $1594 ($11)
Accommodation $1487 ($11)
Other $686 ($5)
Medical $522 ($4)
Business $459 ($4)
Internet/phone $380 ($3)

With Europe on the way things are bound to get pricier but if I can maintain my current spending for the rest of the trip I’ll need another $12,250 (which thanks to my late generously compensated job I thankfully have). Europe on $60/day is ambitious, but I’m becoming a more efficient traveler and if there’s a better place to sleep on the street than Paris in July I’m not sure where.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Picture of Gandhi in the Trash or Hiding Somewhere in My Bag

May 8, Delhi International Airpot
You may have seen me a few minutes ago digging through the trash in the international departure area here at the Delhi airport. I suppose I should explain.

I had been in the check-in line for my flight to Bangkok on the way to Cambodia when I checked all my pockets thrice and realized all my money was missing. There wasn’t much money to miss, just one 500 rupee note actually, but given what I’d gone through to end up with one 500 rupee note I decided it was worth a slightly soggy rummage through the bin where I had tossed an empty envelope that may have been less empty than I had hoped.

I shared an autorickshaw to the airport with a nice nineteen year old English girl who was on the way to the airport to take the second flight of her life. Her first flight, the first time she’d ever left home, had been to come to India three months ago. There’s a distinction between incredible bravery and blind stupidity but there’s no sense teasing it out here. Anyway on her way to the airport she was carrying 160 rupees, which is the equivalent of $3 and constituted her entire net worth. “Actually if I had to I could transfer eight pounds from my savings account to my checking account and withdraw it if I had to,” she said. “I tried withdrawing 100 rupees today but it said I had insufficient funds.”

After paying her half of the 200-rupee fare she would be left with 60 Indian rupees for her flight to Kuwait, the five-hour layover there and then the trip to Heathrow where her sister will be waiting, hopefully. She told me she had budgeted her expenses so that her money would just barely last to the end of her trip. She is apparently a precise young woman.

So when we paid the autorickshaw driver he of course didn’t have change. I owed 100 rupees but only had 70 rupees in small currency and the 500 rupee note. He couldn’t make change for the 500 so eventually the English girl contributed an extra 30 rupees to go with my 70. These 30 rupees made up half of her money.

When she got held up entering the terminal (because her flight is still hours away) we were split up before I could pay her the 30 rupees I owed her. Part of me thought I should just give her my 500 rupees but I was rather fixated on the money myself because I’m trying to take one crisp bill from each country I visit and when you’re paying for those last few things on the way out of a place it can be hard to budget correctly.

Five-hundred rupees (about $22) is a big note to put in a scrap book so I was thinking I’d buy a souvenir and a drink at the airport and pocket a 100 or 50. I was thinking about this when I rummaged through my pockets for the 500 rupee bill which wasn’t there. Having lost and found countless things in the last four months I have a clear theory on finding them: You need to stop looking and then they’ll appear. So I’ve stopped digging through my bag and re-checking my pockets. I even resisted the urge to go back to the trashcan and have another dig. I’m just sitting here outside Gate 9 waiting for them to announce boarding so all the Indians can give me one more Indian show and scrum around the entrance to the gate as if the terminal were on fire.

In Bangkok I won’t have any baht and when I get to Phnom Phen I’m unsure if there will be any ATMs or even if they’ll let me into the country without an onward ticket. These things are concerns. But that damn 500 rupee note with the etching of Ghandi and the little pieces of silver foil woven into it is what I’d really like to find. Not that I’m looking.

Moving On Up

May 8
Jason, my very gainfully employed friend from New York met me in Cambodia for ten days of Southeast Asian fun. He’s the first person I’ve met during the four months of my trip who I knew before the trip. I’d warned Jason—and everyone else—that I’d need to maintain my Spartan budget when he visited and that he should be ready for the backpacking lifestyle upon arrival. So I was a bit concerned when he e-mailed saying he’d booked a room at the top hotel in Cambodia. “When else will I be able to stay in the best hotel in a country?” he asked, ignoring both the clear fact he could likely afford the top hotel in any country and that it might not be absolutely necessary to stay in the top hotel in a country.

I arrived in Phnom Penh some hours before him and took a moto to the Raffles Hotel Royale. “Very expensive,” my moto driver noted after I disclosed our destination. (My residence the day before had been a $3 flophouse in Delhi with a room just big enough to fit a twin bed and my bag. The communal , outdoor shower was little more than a pipe hung above a slab of concrete with ample space in the crack of the ill-hinged door to see what was happening outside).

The moto dropped me at the base of a tall iron gate and I slung my packs on and marched through the large, circular driveway towards the towering hotel. I was out of place with my backpack, but it felt better to look a little poorer than everyone else than to be a lot richer than everyone. I shuffled up the red-carpeted steps and two smiling attendants opened the front doors for me. I was told to sit in the lounge and sip a complementary drink while my room was sorted out.

There was some confusion with the reservation—and by confusion I guess I mean they had no record of it but were willing to ask me to write down my name and reservation number on a piece of paper about five times over the course of 90 minutes, perhaps in the hope that either my name or reservation number had changed since the last time they’d asked.

An interesting thing happened. I quickly slipped into old-corporate-Brook. I was annoyed and unforgiving for their poor service. This was a high-end hotel, I was paying (okay Jason was paying) top dollar for the room and I wanted it all sorted our by the time I finished my fruity drink. I’ve endured every manner of traveling inconvenience in the last few months and it’s made me immune to them all. No number of canceled trains or delayed buses can tweak my pulse. But when the five star hotel provided three star service I was ready to demand to speak to the manager. And then I did ask to speak to him. After telling him how it was and how it was going to be I checked into room 139, tipped the bellhop for carrying my bag (the sight of a bellhop carrying my bag was well worth the full dollar) and sat down on the first real mattress I’d seen in a month. The room had a TV. With cable. It had an enclosed shower (as opposed to the traditional showerhead jutting out of a wall in the middle of the bathroom). It had a bathtub. It was the four-month anniversary of my departure and this was the first time I’d had any of these amenities in my room. It was fantastic.

After my shower I laid on the bed and watched BBC and CNBC. Then I took a bath. Then I went in the pool. Then I took another shower. I felt kind of bad enjoying it, like I was betraying myself somehow. But before my fingers even started to prune the feeling had been loofahed away.

The Right Price

May 10
The problem with staying at the best hotel in Cambodia is all the moto drivers outside the gates know you’re staying at the best hotel in Cambodia. So when Jason and I walked out and asked for a lift to the Killing Fields they initially demanded $15. This price was too ridiculously excessive to merit negotiation. This called for a walk away.

Jason and I started walking west and the gaggle of drivers followed as I knew they would. They shouted out competing, decreasing prices as we walked but were still in the $8-10 range. I knew we could get a better price in the backpacker area across the main road and I knew the drivers knew that too. So we paused at the edge of the on-rushing traffic not only because crossing 12 “lanes” of motorbikes calls for a moment of quiet reflection but also to allow the drivers who had followed us down the street from the fancy hotel to give us the right price.

“Okay, five dollars,” an autorickshaw driver offered.

Jason, to whom the difference between $15 and $5 matters little, was impressed (or at least pretended to be impressed). “You definitely know how to work the system,” he said. It was the greatest gift of Jason’s visit to have a fresh set of eyes on an experience that’s no longer fresh.

So when we made friends with the girls at the café, or loaded wood into the van, or ran into the same girls from New York at dinner that we had met at Angkor Wat earlier that day it all felt fresher. It wasn’t just that I could see Jason discovering the fundamental though indefinable elements of backpacking, it was that I was somehow able to re-discover them myself.

Once we escaped the gravitational pull of the Hotel Royale it was indeed a backpacking week. Jason, who as a Wall Street trader makes a career of finding the right price spent his time in Cambodia making a game of finding the right price. I couldn’t completely believe him when he conveyed shock or disgust at a $4 entrée or a $2 taxi but his performance was still convincing and welcomed.

As it turned out the economizing was necessary because Cambodia is a country without a single ATM machine. I know there are blocks in Manhattan that don’t have ATMs (I’ve never seen one but they must exist). This is an entire country—and not some Vatican -sized thing—that doesn’t have one cash machine. I’ve been carrying an emergency stash to $200US and it came quite in handy, especially since US dollars are the unofficial currency of Cambodia. Jason had brought along $300 and this small bankroll got us through our trip. On our last night we gathered our remaining funds--$11—and wondered how we would afford 1) my bus ticket to Vietnam, 2) dinner and beers to celebrate Jason’s birthday, and 3) everything else. The answer came in the form of a Western Union, which was kind enough to hand over some Benjamins in exchange for an imprint of Jason’s Visa. We were flush and Jason was headed home and there was no more pretending about $2 taxis.

Nam Means Water and That's Good Enough for Me

May 18
My passport tells me there are six countries from which I cannot purchase or import goods. The list was established in 1993 and names Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam. In the last 12 years Libya has become something of a friend, North Korea something of a problem, and Iraq something of a colony or beacon or albatross depending on where you’re standing. Vietnam has become a tourist destination.

There’s the natural beauty of the Mekong delta and Halong Bay. There’s the sobering Abu Gharib foreshadowing of the War Remnants Museum. And just outside Ho Chi Minh city, at the end of a 40 minutes ride most tourists don’t even think to make is a piece of contemporary Vietnamese culture far less melancholy and much more refreshing than images of American servicemen smiling over Vietnamese body parts. It’s called the Saigon Water Park and it’s where Elise chose to spend her first afternoon on the Asian continent.

For adventure and economy the best mode of transportation is on the back of a motorbike. It was Elise’s first go on the death traps and she arrived at our destination white knuckled. I would like to describe the otherworldly nature of Saigon highways but I’m afraid I’m the boy who cried “traffic” after Thailand and India. Sparing you the details then, I’ll say India and Vietnam tie for craziest roads ahead of Thailand and Cambodia.

We thought the water park might be closed because there was no one there, but it turned out to be open for another two hours. We paid our $4 and bounced towards the slides, wavepool and lazy river. There were about 20 other patrons in the park and an equal number of employees who seemed notably unconcerned with safety procedure.

I’ve seen all the damn temples and markets I can possibly appreciate so watching a movie or going to a waterpark is a great thrill for me. I didn’t think Elise would be so inclined though and I wondered if she’d be willing to admit to folks back home that she’d chosen the twisty slide over the War Remnants Museum. “Yeah, why not?” she said before diving headlong on a watery luge.

Angkor Wat (Cambodia) in Pictures

Nepal in Pictures

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Safe in Saigon

An hour breakdown at the edge of Cambodia couldn't stop me and my bus from making it from Phnom Penh to Saigon today. (Celebrating Jason's birthday until 2am couldn't stop me from making the 6:30am bus either). First impressions of Vietnam are quite positive. Proper blog entries on Cambodia are forthcoming but computer time is harder to come by when you have company as I did in Cambodia with Jason and will in Vietnam once I pick up Elise from the airport in a couple hours.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

I Hear the Waves Crashing

The hip hop drowns the ocean a bit, but still you can hear the waves. Jason and I are down on the south shores of Cambodia after a marathon travel day from the temples of Angkor Wat. He was taken aback by the unusual transportation we were forced onto for the 12 hour trip here. When the connecting bus from Phenom Penh was full we had to take a mini-bus (read: beat-up van) that stopped periodically on the 200 mile trip to pick up whoever wanted a ride. Then it stopped in a village to load some logs into the back and we helped pack them in as the villagers laughed and pointed a bit. It's nice to have a fresh set of eyes to remind me how absurd/interesting it all is. I'm a bit numb to the novelty of loading mini-vans with lumber. We have a bungalow on the beach and it seems quite nice and we're having a lovely time and I don’t think Jason wants to fly back to his desk but he will in a few days.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Meeting Up with Angelina Jolie

Not sure if Ms. Jolie will be trolling the Cambodian shores this week, but you can always hope. Heading on overnight flight from Delhi to Bangkok to Phnom Penh. When you've taken overnight buses and sleeper trains for the last few months a red eye flight sounds inviting, a coach seat luxurious. Will meet NYC Jason and hopefully not have awful clash between my cheapness and his un-cheapness. The killing fields, Angkor Wat and the beach should make a nice little week. If anyone has a message for Angie please e-mail me.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Talk to me

I'll be on Instant Messenger tomorrow (Friday) around 10am Eastern.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Trekking in Nepal

There’s really no descent when you fly from Pokhara to Jomsom, Nepal. You take off from 2500 feet, sail between peaks and through wind gusts up to 8500 feet and then find the runway beneath you.

Yuba and I made the flight early Thursday morning. They don’t fly into Jomson after noon because the wind is too strong. We set out on foot from the little airstrip and through the little town. I had changed from short sleeves to long because the temperature had fallen as we had climbed.

After registering with the military people carrying old guns and wearing blue fatigues we walked along the riverbed for a couple hours. When the monsoons come all the rivers flood and getting around is a hillier and more time consuming proposition.

It was always easy to choose when to have lunch because there were only settlements every hour or so. The average village would have a couple hundred residents living in brick, whitewashed houses. We found a village at the base of the mountain and Yuba directed us to a guest house/restaurant.

Yuba is 26 though he insists he is 27 because he was born in 1978. The fact that he was born in September of that year and it is currently May is irrelevant to him. If it is 2005 and you were born in 1978 then you’re 27. It’s worth pointing out that Yuba is a smart guy. He’s getting some sort of IT bachelors degree and it’s only because the school is on break that we was able to guide me for the week.

I’m paying—overpaying I’m pretty sure—$22/day for the guide, food, and accommodation. I can’t imagine Yuba is seeing more than $10/day but this seems like pretty good work. The average worker in Nepal makes about $350 a year, he told me.

Yuba is a Brahman which is one the top castes in Nepal. The caste system is quite entrenched here and though Yuba is more attracted to Mongolin girls (who look vaguely Japanese) than Brahmans he thinks it would be more trouble than it’s worth to marry one. He dated a Mongolin girl for a couple years before she decided it just wouldn’t work.

(Nepal courtship and public health aside: Unlike other developing countries Nepal doesn’t have an AIDS problem because there is virtually no pre-marital sex.)

I think of castes as class distinctions but really they’re ethnic groups, which makes it a harder system to break; you look at someone and know their place. It was interesting to see Yuba get on so well with all the people we encountered. He has friends from various castes, he told me, but he’s not able to bring people from the low castes home where his parents live. In a country where the average worker makes about 1% of the average American income they still have that level of economic/racial discrimination. I don’t know what the lesson is in that, but there is one I’m sure.

Anyway, after lunch the real work began. We would climb up to Muktinath (12,500 feet) for the best Himalayan views of our trek. As we trudged up hill we were joined by two women who had been on our flight. The only way to get around here is to walk so there were lots of people “commuting” between villages. The one in the flowing blue outfit was 18 and the one in red was 16, if you could believe anything they said, which was debatable. They were a cheeky pair, Yuba told me later. They talked dirty to him but he couldn’t translate exactly what they’d said because of his limited English and tendency to giggle when explaining the conversation. They asked me why I hadn’t come with my girlfriend.

When we reached their village the girls invited us in for some tea. I’ve drunk more tea in a week in Nepal than during the rest of my life. I probably have four cups a day on average. Yuba and I kept climbing after the tea and I was huffing and puffing a bit. It wasn’t any worse than a good hard run. I was carrying about 25 pounds of gear, which I think was the heaviest pack I saw shouldered by anyone who wasn’t being paid or fed an oat bag for their labor.

Around 11,000 feet we ran into some women washing dishes in a stream. They spoke to Yuba and next thing I knew we were heading into one of their huts. They were holding their annual “Mother’s Committee” event and they invited us in. There were 25 middle-aged and older women sitting along the walls of the small room. They offered us some oat brandy which they had clearly been sampling themselves for the better part of the day. Yuba brought out his flute and played a couple tunes and the women got up and danced and clapped and sang. I was invited to dance with them and in a rare moment of choosing self-respect over a good piece of video, I declined.

Some time when you’re out with my friend Katie, who used to live in Denver and now lives in New York, ask her about the varying effects of alcohol at different elevations. She’ll tell you about the great quantities a Coloradoan can drink at sea level and how easy it is to get drunk when you’re a mile high, etc etc. After she explains all this, you can tell her the story of how I drank two glasses of Nepalese moonshine at 11,000 feet and then endeavored to climb another 1500 vertical feet.

Yuba doesn’t generally drink and he was pretty well hammered when we left the hut. He’s a giggly drunk and was good company. What I felt as we marched upwards was a rhythmic throbbing in my temples, seemingly in time with my pulse. It was no use resting because the pain was worst when we started up again so I tried to fight through it and get to the damn guesthouse.

We made it there and I was quite sore and weary. I’ll go ahead and admit at this point that the Jomsom trail is known as one of the easier Himalayan treks. “It’s good for old people, not young people like you,” a friendly Pokharian told me when I returned.

It was too cold and my head hurt too much to do much sleeping and in the morning I staggered out of bed to watch the sun rise over the mountains. My head hurt a lot. Yuba dragged me up to some super-holy Buddhist/Hindu temple where a sign described the symptoms of altitude sickness. At least then I knew the cause of my intense headache and nausea.

We walked back down to Jomsom and my headache went away. Going from 2500 to 12,500 feet in one afternoon had been a poor idea. Doing it with a belly full of oat brandy hadn’t helped much.

On the second night, back in Jomsom, I tried to call home to wish my mom a happy birthday. The call was 190 rupees ($2.70) a minute. By comparison, one of the guesthouses we stayed at offered dorm beds for $.50 a night. If we’re really looking for perspective, I could point out that a two-hour call would cost an average worker a year’s pay. All these figures turned out to be irrelevant though because the woman with the phone couldn’t get through on any of her 50 or 60 attempts. I was able to get through the next morning and the four minutes were worth all $11, I’m sure.

Yuba and I spent the next four days walking back down to where we had started. It had taken 30 minutes to fly from Pokhara to Jomson and it took six days walking and five hours in a miserable bus to get back.

In New Zealand everyone loves to tell you how there are ten times as many sheep as people. I haven’t seen any statistics like that here, but we definitely saw a lot more donkeys than humans during our week. They carry food and supplies from place to place since that’s the only way to transport stuff. If you want to know how far our culture has permeated the world, consider this: On a hillside in Nepal where the only way to get anything anywhere is on the back of a donkey, they guy directing the donkeys is wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball hat. There is no escape from America.

There are no actual Americans here though. Since 2001 the number of American tourists has plummeted (actually since late ’01 the overall number of visitors to Nepal has been cut roughly in half). The main groups here now are English, Australian, German, French, Japanese, and Korean. Also—like Swedes in Thailand—there is a totally disproportionate number of Israelis here.

On the trail and in the guesthouses these last six days Yuba and I saw few of any of them. There were the donkeys and the girls in the brightly colored outfits, there were the women washing dishes in the river and the guards with their heavy wooden rifles, there was the man walking down from Muktinath barefoot. Yuba gave him his sandals. “I saw a list of the poorest countries of the world,” Yuba told me. “Nepal wasn’t at the bottom, but it was close to the bottom, just a few countries were below us. But that isn’t right. Nepal isn’t poor. The government is poor but the people aren’t. Everyone here has a home and has food to eat. We’re okay.”