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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back to Reality

A month in Sydney under my belt and I am settling into life back in the "real world" With a new job underway life has gone from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye and this first month - gone by in a blur. But it feels great to be back to work and I'm definitely enjoying the new challenges! The next hurdle is on the home front. I've decided to live at Bondi Beach, About a 30 minute commute into the city and 10 minute walk to picture-perfect beach and the eastern beaches footpath.
I've got my sights set on a fantastic apartment, the rent is a great deal, perfectly located and it will by far be the best room I've lived in...well, ever in my adult life! Furnished, huge window overlooking a garden in a vintage/eclectically decorated apartment with two late 20's gals and a less that 10 minute hop to the water. Keep your fingers crossed for me out there. It will be a week of agony until they make their decision next weekend!!
Right now its 6pm and I am sitting in my favorite cafe on Oxford street soaking in the last of this spectacular spring day after a chilly mid-day swim at Icebergs (the swimming pool on Bondi pictured in my previous post) and a stroll around Bondi's Sunday Market packed with clothes, jewelry, a farmers market with to-die for baked goods. Each day this week the weather has edged a few ticks closer to Spring with the best day yet today. You know that spring energy that hits the air on days like that? Everyone is suddenly happier and friendlier on the streets. And even though its not quite hot enough for shorts, open-toed shoes and a tank top people do it anyway. AND the great thing is it will only get better from here on out.

I've decided to make a point of recording new Aussie-isms here as I learn them. Sometimes with all the slang and shortened words its like listening to a foreign language and I really have no idea what people are talking about, except of course to say that it sounds great with the accent :) OK, Favorites thus far:

Onya Mate! - Short for Good On Ya, and its pretty much applicable at all times when someone is recognizing something someone did well or will do and sometimes as a farewell.

The second is the truncating of EVERY word or name that can possibly end in an "ie" For example, whether I like it or not I am Lizzie here and there is just no two ways about it. So I guess I'm accepting that. I have not had BBQ shrimp yet, but I can say that if I did you would certainly hear the BBQ reffered to as the Barbie, just as breakfast is always Breakie.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sydney: Weel 1 Photos

Just a few pics from the glorious tease-of-summer day we had here in Sydney on Sunday. I have arrived here in the throes of winter - but even still, if July is the worst it gets then its not so bad. Just your average day EVERYDAY in San Francisco. These were all taken along the coastal walkway that connects the Eastern beaches, Bondi down to Coogee with tons of little coves and beaches in between. On a nice day all the beautiful people of Sydney are out in the Eastern Suburbs either jogging the coastal walk or heading for the water board in hand. I for one can't wait for snorkeling season!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

G'Day from Aussie Land

I have completely fallen in love. It has been 7 days now and I am in a full blown love affair with this city. I realize that may seem a bit precipitant, but sometime you just know. The vibe here is great. Sydney is a combination of things that I love about all my favorite U.S. cities. The city and greater Sydney is massive with tons of cool neighborhoods surrounded by either bay or ocean - which is a bit like San Francisco. In the central city, or CBD, you get a real big city vibe like being in Manhattan and people are dressed to the nines all the time. It is a very fashionable and chic place! But then, to top it off and best of all - the beaches. OH the beaches! How I cannot wait for summer. July is Sydney's coldest month (yes, my I am used to 100 degree heat and 90% humidity body has been freeeezing since I arrived. I need my SF uniform of boots and leather jacket STAT!!) But even in the cold the trip out to Bondi beach and the ferry over to Manly beach were both spectacular. The water is turquoise blue in the sun and the beaches stretch on forever. I am afraid once summer comes I will have to be dragged out of this country kicking and screaming by immigration because there is no way I will want to leave.
This week I was fortunate to land on a futon in the apartment of a friend of friends in the hip hood of Paddington while I pound the pavement on the hunt for a flat (yes, I am picking up the lingo) I have been to a a few apartments both in the city and at the beach but I am leaning toward beach life here. Some of my favorites are the beaches just south of Bondi, called Clovelly and Coogee beach. Woolloomooloo (don't you just love the Aussie words? I still can't get that one out right) is a nice bay side beach where I am headed this afternoon to see a furnished room in a flat share. The great thing is I am under no pressure to move out of the futon room so I can take my time getting my feel for the city and where I'd like to live. Plus, all the flatmates here are big surfers and I have already been forced onto a board twice this week at 6am. Not that I am complaining, of course!
On top of that, one of the roommates in the Paddington house is pretty high up in the photography world. This week has been doing fashion photography shoots for Vogue Australia, Rush and other big name magazines. On my second night here I was whisked off to a photo gallery opening at which I was invited to a magazine launch party a few nights later. In Vietnam I took advantage of the tailor-made clothing and had a to-die for Balmain skirt replicated from a photo I tore out of Vanity Fair which I have not been able to wear until now. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I actually made the "society pages" for best dressed at the party! Me! It was pretty cool, my 4th day here and my flatmate comes home and plops down the daily tabloid page of the paper and says for a girl that been here less than a week and with no more than a backpack I'd have to say I'm impressed! And if only they knew that skirt cost me a whopping $6.
There is more to add, but I'll stop here for now. I can't wait for friends and family to come visit so I can share the love. Start saving for those plane tickets y'all!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

3 months, 20 days, 7 countries and one nasty looking backpack!

I am sitting in the Singapore airport waiting for my 8 hour red-eye to Sydney. I feel like I am in this strage moment at the conclusion of one big adventure and the beginning of a totally different kind of adventure. I feel extremely excited and nervous all at once.

Leaving San Francisco to go backapacking in South East Asia never seemed so daunting to me. That was the easy part. Just hit the trail. But Sydney will be setting up a "real life" Which in some ways is so much more daunting but ALSO so much more exciting. I am so looking forward to having a place to call home. And in a totally new city! For at least a whole year! I don't actually know anyone there but already through various friends of friends I've got a network of people I've been in contact with who have all been so incredibly responsive in helping me get settled in and whom I can't wait to meet when I get there! Already have such good vibes about the city and the people.

Looking back over the three months there is a lot from the trip that didn't really surprise me and a lot that was totally unexpected. The first 2 months loop was almost SO easy looking back that, while it was fun and beautiful and still quite eye-opening it wasn't as personally rewarding as the last month and half. The Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam backbacker loop is so cemeted into the culture there that you kind of just feel like another toursit being hearded along and you have to work hard to experience life outside of that. I exclude Laos from that because it didn't have the same vibe. Laos was quiet and beautiful and you could strike such a nice balance there of doing your own thing, travel to smaller local villages etc but you can also have a lot (maybe too much) fun doing the backpacker thing (Vang Vieng anyone?)

If I had to put it into scale I would say Laos was my favorite of mainland South East Asia, then Cambodia, then Northern Thailand and laslty Vietnam. I found the Islands and Indonesia to be the most rewarding. I think there are a couple reasons for this but one was the decision to extend my time in each place rather than the 3/4days schedule I was doing in the beginning to see as much as possible - and because I never found a place i really was dying to stay in longer than that. That is, until the extended stay on Perentian Islands, working a bit, teaching swimming lessons to Chinese tourists, and just getting more of a taste of what everyday life in a place like that would be like. It was great. AND i got to see a familiar face from home when Fatima came to visit me there from where she has been living and working in Karachi, Pakistan! A very brave girl, you rock lady. And then of course indonesia makes the top of my list for just what a great ADVENTURE it was. Funny too that it is the one place that I never researched, it was totally a last minute decision. Sumatra was the hardest travel and you had so much less peace of mind than anywhere else; but man, it was so freeing. Danua Toba Sumatra without a doubt is on my top 5 places I've ever been in the world list. And in the end, I think its the people you end up meeting and traveling with that make all the difference on the impression you take away from a certain leg of travel and I was fortuante to make some great friends along the way. There is something to be said for traveling alone because you are forced to meet more people and you forge these really intesen friendships quickly because you are thrown into this unknown adventure 24/7 even if its just for a few days. In the future though, I would also like travel with old best friends. When I met girls traveling with their best friends it looks like so muich fun. Harder in some ways I'm sure and a very different experience than doing it alone but great too I am sure. Fatima and I discussed a girls trip to India and Nepal for sometime in the next 3 years and I'm determined to make it happen!

Singapore has been a good last stop. It was actually a bit of culture shock being thrust back into the first world after the grit of 3 1/2 months in the 3rd world. But Singapore is a really interesting place. I think I was fortuante to be here in July where the cities meuseums and universities have all kinds of great things going on. Spent two nights at the Sing Art Museums and Art University night festival watching some amazing dance performances, street art and music. And people watching! Fashion in Singapore is a big, BIG deal with something like 500 malls and it's really fun to see.

Until next time...AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On a Bali High

I have been neglecting my blogging since my split second decision to follow three friends I made in Lake Toba to Bali. I had not planned on cruising down to Bali at all but on July 5th Diego, from Argentina and Virginie and Fernando from Spain said I should forget my South Sumatra plans and go with them the next morning to Bali. I must say it feels so great to have the freedom to think for about 5 minutes over a plate of curry: Hmm, Bali tomorrow? Yeah sure, what the hell, why not?!
And so after a hellish day and a half by ferry-bus-plane-bus-ferry (complete with 3 breakdowns and a lovely 7 hours seated on the aisle floor of a top-notch Sumatran local bus)we landed in Kuta, Bali with dreams of paradise beaches and instead found the equivalent of Miami Beach. After a few much needed and I promise you well deserved beers I was starting to wonder if I was going to regret leaving Toba's tranquility for Vegas on the beach complete with Starbucks on every corner, hoardes of tourists and inflated prices.
But don't give up on Bali so easily! The next morning, as difficult as it was to imagine yet ANOTHER bus we made it about an hour north of Kuta to Padang Bai, a lovely little dive-oriented town with down to earth travelers and crystal clear water. After a day of much needed rest on the beach the four of decided to have a Motorcycle Diaries moment and rented 2 motorbikes for 5 days, left our big bags behind, grabbed a map and headed up the coast for probably the greatest 5 days I can ever imagine having. I can say with 100 percent certainty that we did Bali proud.
It's been five incredible days of zipping around the island, sleeping wherever we happened to be when it got dark in all kinds of places. One night in an AWESOME hotel after driving in total darkness longer than I was comfortable with and on some pretty precarious roads. We were able to bargain down to a ridiculously cheap price because it was so late and I think the lady took pity on us and just asked that we not share with other guests the price we were given.
After a morning lounging in the pool that flowed right into the ocean we continued on into the center of the island up to the spectacular rice terraces and a taste of more traditional Balinese culture. I don't know what it is about Bali, but the emerald green colors of the farms and rice paddies here are incredible. There aren't enough words to describe the shades of green. Same goes for my feelings riding on the back of a bike through the roads in central Bali. All I can say is, you know that feeling you get in the top of your chest when you are REALLY happy and just can't help but have a massive smile plastered across your face that you couldn't wipe off if you tried? Well, that was me. And on top of it, I was with friends that I know I will keep in touch with for a lifetime. I've never laughed so much as the last few days.
Everyone talks about how crowded and touristy Bali is but that was not our experience at all. Most people I think stick to their resort on the beach and the few places you can get a tourist shuttle to. All I can say is don't write Bali off - just do it on your own and have an adventure. Yes, you might end up with a sweet deal at a secluded hotel on the beach for a night or you might end up in a roach infested room with mental-institution lighting and a bathroom I won't even begin to describe because I'm still trying to mentally block it. But you will see it all and with the wind in your hair and 24/7 smile on your face.
The sunrise photos here were taken at the top of Batur Volcano looking across a lake to Mount Agung. We hiked up at 3am, made it to the top for 6:30am sunrise and back down to the bikes by 9am. By Noon we were the only 4 people swimming in the pools of a spectacular waterfall a local pointed us toward after feeding us the best meal ever that he somehow whipped up on his little portable kitchen attached to his bike. Yeah, that basically sums up my week :)
Yesterday we returned the bikes and turned a sleepy bar back in Padang Bai into a Spanish discotheque thanks to Virginie's ipod before the four of us parted ways this morning. Tomorrow I'll ferry to Singapore and in 5 days I will be in home sweet home Sydney! And I can't believe it. It has been the fasted 3 and a half months and I really don't know how I feel about rejoining "real life." least it will be real life in AUSTRALIA! I have never felt so grateful for the life I have right now. I miss my family more than ever before and the friends I love back home but I'm having the time of my life and feel pretty content not knowing what my life is going to be like a month from now.
Ok, I'll have to save the reflections for next time cuz I hear a grilled tuna calling my name for dinner.

Friday, July 2, 2010

In love with Danua Toba, Sumatra

Lake Toba in the center of Sumatra has to hands-down be one of the most amazing places on earth and totally not what I has expected to find in Indonesia. I think it may be my personal favorite destination of them all - or at least it is running in a close tie with the Perentians, but for totally different reasons. (I had to post 2 Perentian sunsets at the top here as I haven't had the chance yet - the rest of the photos are from lake toba and Samosir Island)
Samosir Island is where I am staying right now. It's a fairly big island in the middle of Danua (lake) Toba which is in Northern-Central Sumatra high up on the mountains. The Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. I caught my first glimpse of the lake on an extremely precarious but beautiful road winding down to the lake (on the 3rd public bus of the day from Berestagi - still quite the experience :) - and I was actually shocked that I was still in Indonesia. I feel like i should be in the Swiss Alps, only the dizzying peaks surrounding the lake are tropical jungle instead.
The local people that live on the Island are the Batak people who call Samosir their spiritual or "healing" homeland. I have so many things I want to say all at once about why I love this place so much and am so SO glad I made it here. First of all it's kind of bizarre - because there is a small stretch of the island that seems to be set up for the backpacker crowd - there are many guesthouses (hostels) and even hotels with pools that looked like they were once pretty happening, but most of them are closed and have been for a while. Apparently, its kind of a has-been place. Older locals tell me that it used to be the home of the full moon parties before Thailand stole it away. Locals my age don't remember these times and outside the one stretch of guesthouses and the one resort that is still open people stare wide-eyed at the site of tourists.
Because of this, it is actually the perfect balance: I have a great room for $3 at a place with internet, motorbikes, bicycles, hammocks attached to each balcony, great food and the once place with a tv to catch the World Cup at night (Go Ghana!!) All the comforts of a proper holiday, but without the hoards of other people. There are just enough travelers to eat and chat and watch thegame with. But during the day you can cruise around the island and feel like you are the only one here.
The first day I got a tour from a really cool local that works at my guesthouse around the entire island by motorbike. The photos I have here don't even come close to showing the amazing views at every turn. There is a road at the very top of the island that is, somehow, impeccably paved (have not seen that since Malaysia) and it winds high above the shores of the lake in big wide turns that on the back of the motorbike just felt like I was flying. It was a pretty spectacular afternoon. I think I had a smile plastered to my face for the entire 5 hours.
Yesterday I decided to retrace a leg of the journey on my own by bicycle and ended up riding 80km on probably the most uncomfortable bike ever which might be the most ambitious physical day of my life! No joke.
But it was great. Passing through the little Batak villages, most people would stop and just stare. A few of the people that spoke some English would stop me and motion for me to come take a rest and have some tea or fried rice. There was one lady in particular whose English was great, she was about 55 and when tourism was bigger here she ran a western food restaurant, now closed. I think I talked to her for about 2 and a half hours. In the meantime, attracting kids and other ladies to come sit and ask her to translate their questions to me. It was especially funny when they heard I was American they would light up and say "Ohhh Obama!" an repeat 5 times that they loved Obama. I'm not sure what news they get in those little farming villages and I haven't really heard that anywhere else. It was so fun! Its the kind of day I had sort of pictured having when I was planning this trip. Of course, the circuit around south east asia was so heavily visited that you don't really get to see what life would be like if the economy didn't thrive on tourism. I am usually on guard now when a local strikes up a conversation with me because I assume that they are just trying to swindle me into something. But totally not so here. It has been so great to just talk to people. I had to insist that Saba (my friend with the motorbike) let me at least pay for the fuel and no, he never tried to take me to his uncle's jewelry shop or his cousin's restaurant etc. etc. He was happy to just have someone to practice some English with and ask questions about California.
I really had no expectations coming here at all. I hadn't originally planned to come to Indonesia and didn't really know what it would be like. I met a girl, Sophia, from the Netherlands on the Perentians and she had just come from here and she told me that it was quiet and I wouldn't see many tourists and that its hard to travel around but that for her Sumatra was the trip of a lifetime. I wish I had her contact info because I would send her a massive thank you. I was toying with where I would go in Indonesia with the time I had and my conversation with her solidified my plan. Having totally unexpected adventures and in such a serene and gorgeous place makes for a great place to explore, relax and just think. I can see why the Batak people say this is their 'healing island." I can't figure out why Sumatra kind of went of the backpacker radar, but I for one am pretty glad they are all in Bali and I am here :)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Indo Adventures Part 1

Landed in Sumatra, Indonesia for my last leg of this SEAsia journey before heading to Sydney via Singapore in just under three weeks. Looking back I can't believe how quickly the 3 months have gone by! Malaysia was hard to leave being surrounded by such paradise and making great friends. I still have so many photos to upload from the last 3 weeks in Malaysia, but those will have to wait.

Taht said, So far I'm thinking Sumatra was a great choice for the final adventure because adventure is an overstatement and I've been here 3 days.
I arrived in Medan, which was by far the dirtiest, smelliest, saddest place I've been yet. The third-world quality of life has not been so apparent anywhere I've been on this trip. I was thinking back on Laos, which is one of the poorest countries - but you never really felt it there, being so rural and sparsely populated - but here, especially in Medan - its right in your face. Trash everywhere and groups of kids that couldn't have been older than 7 or 8 sitting around smoking cigarettes. At the end of Malaysia, I met some friends that were going back into Thailand now that the protests have calmed down and it crossed my mind that I could have been on a lovely beach instead. One afternoon and a night was plenty in Medan so I caught a vehicle (and I use the term vehicle loosely here) to head to the hilltop stopover toward to center of Sumatra called Berestagi.

The journey was both the most thrilling and terrifying yet. At this stage I felt like I had the bus journey's down - you know they are going to drive too fast for comfort and insist on passing at crazy speeds on blind corners, thats been the norm pretty much everywhere. Sumatra is not croweded with toursits like everywhere else, and ther are know tourists buses to get between points. For people traveling alone the local vans are it unless you are traveling with enough people to hire a car. Well, by local bus station in Medan they meant a tiny store front with a van parked in front on which every panel was a differnt color and I could see men hauling a pig, a few cages of birds and a motorbike onto the roof secured with ropes. I was also the only tourist in site and definitely the only girl getting on the van.
Going into this I knew that Northern Sumatra was less of a backpacker trail, but I have met enough people along the way that had done it and raved about how worthwhile it was that I didn't want to miss it even if it meant traveling more stretches alone than I have elesewhere in southeast asia where you always meet loads of other travellers heading the same way.
My feelings on the bus ride were moments of sharp fear that we were definitly going to collide with the masive truck with god knows what heaped on it heading straight at us as our driver attempts a harrowing pass, before somehow swooping into the smallest space betwee two cars on our side of the road at as close to the last minute as possilble. Then riding literally on the bumper of the car in front before doing it again! It was definitely hair-raising - but I was also laughing to myself thinking "well, you wanted adventure, you got it!" And as soon as we got out of Medan the spectacular natural beauty of the country was pretty breathtaking. And now that I am way up high looking over theland below from Berstagi - I think about 2,000 meters above sea level I am SO happy I made the decision to come here. The town has some old Dutch architecture and it is bookended by two big Volcanoes on each side - One of which, Sibayek, that you can climb to the top of in a day (that was my plan for today, but then I picked up Malcom Gladwell's latest book, What the Dog Saw, and like his othhr three books I haven't moved from one spot all day reading it)
The atmosphere up here is very headclearing and the air is nice and cool. Such a welome change.
From here I will brave the local vans once again and head to the giant lake called Danua Toba in the middle of Sumatra that sounds pretty spectacular.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Livin the dream on Perentian Island Kecil

Perentian Islands off the coast of Malaysia are FAR AND AWAY the most spectacular islands EVER!! Aside from the beach and the island looking like textbook tropical paradise - I mean the clearest most beautiful turquoise water and white sand you have ever seen. But on top of that the coral all around the island is INCREDIBLE. It looks like its from Mars or something. Bright blue and purple massive, brain-like gobs and loads of incredible fish. You can climb all over the island and snorkel around different spots or take a boat trip for a few Ringgit (dollars) and have a boat take you too 6 or 7 spots. I've made some cool friends - people who have been here diving for a while and they took me out to a place called shark point. Swam with about 7 or 8 3-4 foot sharks RIGHT next to us. I was KICKING myself for not springing for the underwater housing for the Flip camera. Also saw some huge turtles barracudas and stingrays! AMAZING. I feel like I've died and found my heaven. I can see why people get stuck here. I'll be spending the better part of this month here and I couldn't be happier about it.
And as an added bonus, I've sort of established a bit of a business here teaching swimming lessons. I was teaching a girl from Kuala Lumpur I met on the boat here and a big family on vacation from China came up and asked me how much I charge for my swim lessons. So I've set up a sign outside on of the snorkel rental shacks for lessons in the morning and have been getting a pretty steady stream of customers. Only a few Ringgit, but it pays for my accommodation :)
I have SO many awesome photos I am dying to post but it just takes wayyy to long to upload them here so those will have to come later.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bokeo, Laos: Ziplines, Hikes and LEECHES

The videos and photos say it better, but the Gibbon Experience definitely lived up to expectations. Which is saying a lot since I have been thinking and dreaming about doing it ever since Mike showed me the link well over a year ago (thanks Mike, my South East Asia mentor ;) I suppose I should explain the title of this post. This last adventure in Laos before saying goodbye to this amazing country was 3 days in the Bokeo Rainforest consisting of 2-3 hours of hiking each day, sleeping in a treehouse about 150 feet up that you reach via zipline. The rainy season is starting to move in here, so there have been heavy rains most nights, but clear and still SWLERTING during the day and on our inital hike in. But I was feeling good - and cocky about my awesome 100% waterproof half sandle, half hiking shoes that I reallllly didn't want to buy at REI back in March. The hike was muddy and we had to cross countless rivers and streams. Some of which had two-bamboo-planks-wide bridges to use for crossing; which I really am not a fan of. Anyone who knows me, knows that balance and grace are not exaclty my strong suites. Plus, I've already had one embarassing fall from one of those in Vietnam - much to the joy of my hiking buddies, one of whom thankfully was carrying my camera at the time! SO anyway, I just went trapsing right through all the water and sludge thinking how glad I was I wasn't wearing big old hiking boots. About 3 hours in we reach a waterfall with a swimming hole at which point I take off my left shoe to reveal not 1 BUT 3 leeches on my feet, one of which had obviously been there for some time as it was HUGE. After, I am embarrased to say, a frantic swatting at my feet with a stick and the girliest shrieks ever, I managed to clear them off and calm down. Of course only long enough to find 2 more on my OTHER foot. This time I paused long enough to get a photo of it - not as big as the first, but still GROSS, not mention annoying because the small bites DO NOT stop bleeding! Thanks to my Weird True and Freaky trivia I remembered that leeches anesthetize you once they bite with their saliva so you don't feel them at ALL. Needless to say, the next three days of hikes were spent with an eagle-eye out for approaching leeches which turned out to be EVERYWHERE. If you stopped for a minute on the trail you'd spot at least 5 if not more inching their way over, reaching up just waiting for some poor innocent flesh to walk by. And now I've gone on for two paraghraphs about a few leech bites. I'm choosing to hike in the forest in Laos, so what did I expect I guess, right? And I haven't even explained about the Ziplines...Once the major days hike was through with the rest of the day was spent Zipling around the jungle canopy and across stunning valleys. Zip-walk a little way to the next-Zip-Walk-Zip. By the third day of zipping you start to feel pretty confident with it and can kick your feel out, lay back and let your hands free and really get going fast. Its got to be the closest feeling to flying. If only it wasn't over so quickly! Eventually you zip back into the AWESOME treehouse you are sharing with just three other people - which was really nice because you never had to wait long at the ziplines. Then for dinner, you'd hear the zipline singing and look over to find one of the guides crusing in with your meal on his shoulder. It was so funny. The first time I hooked up to the zipline on that first day and looked over the ledge it hit me that I was actually THERE. It felt surreal because I have been dreaming about the Gibbon Experience for so long and talking about it to just about anyone who would listen back in San Fran while planning this trip . It feels a bit weird that it's over now! But, I came back to civilization to find that my insurance void in Thailand was lifted to only Bangkok; so I am spending a few days in the VERY laid-back Pai in Northern Thailand, soaking in some Yoga and lots of live jazz and reggae music before flying down to Malaysia at the end of the week. Up here, you'd never know there was any turmoil gooing on in the country whatsoever.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last stop Laos

Now having said farewell to the elephant conservatory, I've made my way back toward the Lao/Thai border on a 3 day boat journey down the Mekong. Each night graced with the most intense lighting and rain storms I have EVER seen. It was beautiful...but I am glad to not be on a boat for 9 hours a day! Today, a day of relaxation before the last adventure in Laos, the Gibbons Experience - check it out: Ziplining around the Bokeo forest and living in tree houses for 3 days.
The plan originaly had been to then work my way into Northern Thailand and overland to the Thai islands. Now due to the unfortuante political situation in Thailand my travel insurance is void there, curfews are in effect in the country and the situation seems to be worsening. Very sad.
So, after some deliberation about whether to take a jaunt over to Burma with the additional time or to fly down to Malaysia and then cruise over to Sumatra and Bali in Indo before my final stop in Singapore - I've decided on Malaysia and Indonesia as it fits better into my loop and timeframe. And to be honest, I am SO ready for some paraside beach time. After all the trekking and Jungle terrain and countless temples some white sand beaches couldn't sound better. I think I'll save Myanmar for the next big trip...perhaps on the way home from Australia. Burma-Nepal-India. I think I can safely say the most profound affect this trip has had on me is the intensity with which I wish to see so much more! And seeing how most of the world lives certainly makes you grateful for all that you were so lucky to be born into.
I've uploaded here a collection of photos I wanted to post from Laos now that I have an actaul high speed connection. And as a total aside, I am listening to the newly released Black Keys album 'Brothers' proeduced by Danger Mouse again and it is EXECELLENT. Do check it out. Tighten Up and Everlasting Light are such a great songs! Now, if I can just figure out how to get it on my ipod here without itunes and without deleting the rest of my music, hmmm...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mahout training in Laos: land of a thousand elephants

I have SO much to catch up on in my past 2 weeks in Laos! I am now all the way up in the North of Laos, outside of Luang Namtha, where I am spending the week as a volunteer at an elephant camp and learning the ways of the Mahouts (elephant keepers/trainers)
My 3rd day here I have discovered a few things - sitting on this wooden chair right now the most poignant discovery are muscles I never knew existed, screaming in agony after 3 days on the back slash neck of an elephant! Upon arrival I was given my Mahout uniform - a very uncute and totally unfashionable outfit, as you can see in my photos. I tried to get out of wearing it, though now, after experiencing being shat on and shoveling giant elephant crap and being sprayed at with a mixture of elephant snot and brown mekong river water, I'm rather grateful for it!
My elephants name is Tuomin. By today he finally seems to be responding to the commands I have been memorizing now that I am actually saying them in an accent that at least somewhat resembleds what it is I am supposed to be saying. Today I told him to kneel down "Toi" and he did it first time. I climbed up and directed him the 2km to the river without a hitch! Big step from the first two days, let me tell you. It all goes fine until the Mahout teaching me tells Tuomin to lay down, roll and "Buon-Buon" (spray) me everytime I take him for his bath in the river. All the the while I am yelling "yao-yao, Hoa!" (No, No, Stop)
Aside from the cleaning after the elephants (not cute)it is really great being so close to these really amazing animals! The afternoons and evenings are extremely peaceful. I either kayak or tube along the river, looking up at the specatacular mountains. Im learing to cooking Lao Lap a traditional dinner here and eating lots of Papaya Salads.
Laos has been a very welcome step back in time. Especially coming from the very fast pace of life in Vietnam. When I first arrived in the capital city of Vientiane I was amazed by how quiet it was. And that was in the capital city! People don't honk like crazy here and are very considerate in general.
I've also made stops in Vang Vieng - an insane backpacker party town, but which should not be missed soley for the AWESOME trapeze swings that are rigged up over the river that I was totally addicted to and could not lift my arms because of for a day after leaving. From there we took the picturesque bus ride through the Lao montains to Luang Prabang, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and you can easily see why with the French architecture and TONS of Wats (temples) set on the Mekong River.
Well, I am hoggin the one computer with a decent internet connection out here. So, more to come later...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Halong Bay and Trekking in the Northeast

This past week has been the most fun and eye-opening yet. I am truly in love with Vietnam and with 3 days left in the country I know I will be back! I signed up for one of the package tours out to Halong Bay - which is basically the only way to do it and it is a bit of a toursit trap. I was fortunate though and ended up with a great group of people all around my age and from all over the world.

The first day was exploring the "Amazing Cave" in one of the Islands. It was quite a cave, but the beauty was sort of lost with the blue and gree lighting they had set up and the hoardes of westerners being shuttling along the the roped off path. All it needed was the Indiana Jones theme song and I was at Disneyland. BUT from there we got on a boat and cruised around the bay which has thousands of islands of all sizes that rise straight up out of the water. Made for some realy great kayaking. I decided to take my sleeping bag up to the deck of the boat that night and sleep under the stars. Waking up to sunrise on Halong Bay and diving off the deck of the boat for a morning swim will be a hard one to beat. It only got better when we spent the second night in huts on a secluded beach on Monkey Island. And to top it off, our Vietnamese tour guide sounded EXACLTY like Borat everytime he said anything in English. Absolutely amazing! I've never laughed so much in 2 days in my life!

I am now sitting in a cafe in Sapa, a town in the North East region of Vietnam, near the border to China. I came up here via train with 2 friends I made on Halong Bay who were dying as much as I was to get into to the hills and do some hiking. We've been trekking along the valley of rice paddies from village to village sleeping in some VERY hunble homestays at night. The trekking has been great in the Valley, but a few of us are dying to climb up the the peaks above the valley and really get the panaoramic view. So tomorrow I'll be setting off to hike up to apparently the tallest mountain in Vietnam - a 2 day hike that we've hired a local guide from the Balck H'mong hilltribe for at $5 a day! I'v got my mozzy net and some rice and mangosteens(best fruit EVERR) and I'm ready to go!

This area of the country is so lovely; the air is fresh and the village kids - while hounding you to buy their textiles and bracelets nonstop- are still so cute and their traditional attire is awesome! The most fun though is the conversations you have while trekking with other travelers from all over the world who work in all kind of different careers. Their stories have added to my endless list of places I want to see - there are just too many things to see in this world. I think Nepal/ India has definitely moved to the top of my list! Who's with me??!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reunification Celebration in Hanoi

Last night Viet Nam celebrated the Reunification of the country or Liberation of Saigon OR as my hotel receptionist eloquently put it "Tonight we celebrate the kick-out of the Americans war" I hadn't planned it out particularly to be here in Hanoi for it, but apparently this place has the biggest celebration and I believe it! I have NEVER in my life experienced such crowds and noise and firework shows all over the city that seriously made any 4th of July fireworks I've ever seen at home look really sad.

I met up with some foreigners who have been living here teaching English at the Bia Ha Noi Junction - a corner in the Old Quarter where you can sit on a stool on the sidewalk and sample a fresh brew of the local beer Bia Ha Noi. It was interesting to hear the perspective of people living in this mad city for 5 months and nice to hear that even after that long you don't get used to the traffic and the crazy motobikers honking at you.

We were lucky to find a balcony cafe to escape the street and wait out the mass exodus after the fireworks. on street level all the motos are just honking like crazy with a wall of people in front of them and you wonder - WHY are you honking?? You are not going to get anywhere! Total madness and quite the experience.

A life of leisure in Viet Nam

I have slacked on my posts on my trek from Southern to Northern Viet Nam and have so much to catch up on. First of all, I LOVE this country. Aside from how beautiful the landscape is, it never ceases to be interesting from one town to the next, each vastly different than the last.

I was lucky to catch really clean water and beautiful days on the beaches of Mui Ni and Nha Trang in central Vietnam- pictured here is the bizarre over-sea gondola from Nha Trang to VinPearl Island just off the coast where I spent a day of childlike leisure at the water-park. Warning: theme parks in Vietnam DO NOT have the same standards as home. At the end of the slide you may crash into the not so soft barrier!

Just of the coast, the green mountains climb perilously high making for spectacular views. Particularly from the train rides, with tracks wedged at the bottom of the mountains snaking up the coast. The inland hills in Da Lat were just as spectacular and with some of the best hiking I've ever experienced. And when the humidity becomes too much you rent a motorbike and see the country side that way. I'm looking very forward to more trekking in the Northern hill station of Sapa, perched on a steep slope it is know for its plunging views over the valley and rice terraces in the Northwest. But today I'm enjoying the bustling city life of Hanoi and planning a trip out to Halong Bay for the weekend.

I've definitely settled into life as a woman of leisure while here in Vietnam. Most days my schedule consists of an early wake up to see whatever sights are on the agenda in the early morning while the temperatures are cool and tourists are scarce. After the morning excursion an afternoon spa treatment is usually in order. Sounds extravagant, but at $6 for an hour back and foot massage or facial and some aroma therapy I reason I could spend the same kicking about town and on drinks and meal, right?!

Most of the photos here were taken in Ho Ain which I totally fell in love with. The shops and the custom tailoring that the town is known for is a major tourist trap (though, having a dress custom fitted to you for a few dollars was great fun) the streets and buildings were so quaint and romantic and the mood very mellow. I was lucky to be there on the night of the full moon when no lights are allowed and the whole town is lit up only by lanterns. That setting plus a delicious bowl of the Ho Ain specialty, Cau Lau, on the river after an afternoon at a great Vietnamese cooking class was hard to beat!

List of some random/fun travel points:
- I don't think I will EVER get the sounds and images of Vietnamese music videos that are BLARRING on every bus and/or train in this country out of my head. Think Vietnamese karaoke tunes coupled with the worst soap opera you can imagine. They are truly priceless.
- I still can't believe I don't see more motorbike accidents AND that I have not yet been run over by one. Try as I might not to, I know I still look like a deer in the headlights every time I cross any street.
- The sleeper buses are great, 3 rows across and 2 levels of beds squeezed onto a bus, which would actually be quite comfortable on a 12-hour overnight drive IF the only traffic rule of thumb here was NOT to just lay on the extremely loud horn ALL the way. Seriously. There are no rules of the road that I can see, its just honk like crazy as you drive on any and all sides of the road and the motos or pedestrians better move it!!