Saturday, January 31

Day 156-Kakadu

Braving equatorial heat and monsoon rains, this National Park, Australia's largest, is host to a vast number of plant and animal species. This time of year, heavy rains are a daily occurence, and massive sheets of water pour off the rocky plateau forming the southern boundary. The ensuing waterfalls are spectacular and dangerous, the rivers downstream bisect the woodlands of white barked eucalyptus, where emerald green grass grows higher than a man head, and scattered about are the mounds of cathedral building termits, more than 3 meter high. The rivers overflow, flooding roadways (most are impassable this time of year) and vast plains and forest of pandamus and paperbark trees, they now become home to wading storks, cranes and herons, yellow bellied pythons and water rats. Signs warning of saltwater crocodiles, migrating up the seasonal waterways are common place. As the Wet passes, some low lying areas will retain there water level and become billabongs, and the wildlife will become more concentrated, some will seek shelter in the drying mud until next year. Along river banks and hilltop ridges monsoonal rainforest of ghost gum are scattered about, home to the cockatoo and every other type of raucous bird.

But this huge park, Unesco listed, is also home to a 50,000 year old, still-living human culture. Among the marshes, forest and billabongs, wander the Bininj people, one among the many clans of Aboriginal people that this country is famous for. Still they hunt for possum, snake, wallaroo and forage for pandamus fruits, palm hearts, and medicines. They appear aloof and unconcerned and in fact are rarely seen off of their settlements out in the bush. Along the rocky escarpment, in hidden overhangs and folds, they have left traces of their past. Stories of creation and hunting tales are inscribed in paints of yellow, black, and red ocher. They tell of a time long ago when the earth was perfect, the Dreamtime. I spend the day wandering among these rocks, admiring the ancient paintings and gazing out over the broad and timeless landscape. I stop to have a brief conversation with a shy black wallaby, I feel as if still, the world is a perfect place.

Thursday, January 29

Day 160-Darwin

At the top end of down under, heavy-set, lily white, dimpled women walk to work in the sweltering humidity. They seem none the worse for the clowing heat, eager to put in their days toil so as to earn a soon coming night at the pub. At ever government building or park stand small crowds of Aborigines, shoeless and unsmiling, they scarcely notice my passing.

I have been scurrying about, collecting supplies and a rent a car, preparing to go "into the bush".
It is the hot, wet season (in fact the south of the country is under record breaking heat, at around 45 degrees centigrade (I don't even want to know what that is on our scale)) and so I don't expect to get far, as every surface not under asphalt will be unpassable. Still I hope to find opporunities to walk about the billabongs and marsh parks, seeking birds and plants yet unknown, hoping to avoid snakes and skeeters. I will be camping, cramped in my tiny new tent, every moment out of the car will be a festival of sweltering and fly driven annoyance.

To enjoy this mini-adventure I will and already have laid down some serious cash. Coming from Vietnam, the shock of price escalation for everything from transport to lodging, has only been asssuaged by the ready availability of donuts, peaches and other familiar treats. If I sound uncertain as to whether this next phase of my travels will be fun or will go well, it is because I most certainly am!

Tuesday, January 27

Day 158-In the Air

Time for a report on my travels through Indochina:

Countries visited: 2 Distance traveled: 2662 miles
Day out: 33 Dollars per day: 44
Unesco Sites visited: 5 Other cool sites: 10
Birds counted(non-captive): <100 Scooters counted: 2.737,569

But these numbers are empty, they say nothing of the color and clamor of the capital cities at this time of the New Year, fail to paint a picture of family togetherness so prevalent in these countries, or of the atrocities of the wars that have ravaged this land. Had I witnessed earlier the collection of photographs presented in the War Remembrance Museum here in Saigon, I might have not completed my trip, unable to look these people in the face. Before such images, my words are empty.

Tonight, after 3 months, I will leave Asia. Three months of strange foods, each day becoming more familiar. Three months of the blare and rumble of traffic, unrelenting, always shocking. A season walking among the smells of frangipani and frankincense, urine and durian fruit, now oddly comforting. Three months of pacing the streets teeming with faces, old women squatting on the sidewalk, chopping and boiling the midday meal, beggars with innumerable afflictions, slowly or rapidly diminishing, fathers in love with their sons, bold schoolgirls waving hello to this tall, stern stranger.

I have walked beneath the cold shoulders of the worlds highest mountains, crawled through hot musty tunnels no larger than my shoulders, ridden rickety trains under giant trees, paddled muddy waters through spiny palm groves. I have learned that the world loves me, it protects and emboldens me. The powers that be have opened the roads and portals, that I might pass freely to where my desire leads. The skies have opened before me, revealing vistas of emerald fields, shining mountain peaks, grey sentinels guarding a moonlit bay. The faces before me are open, the most radiant smiles given by those most destitute. All that has been required of me is to open my mind to the promise of the path ahead...and of course to open my wallet. But in these times of such enormous prosperity and possibility, how can one be reluctant to do so.

Saturday, January 24

Day 149-Saigon

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy Chinese New Year, occuring on Monday, the first new moon of the calendar year. All around me people are preparing for the years biggest festival, and I for one, securely esconced in my downtown hotel room, am ready! The last few days, and those to follow, have been, and promise to be, action packed.

Leaving the seaside a couple of days back, I jumped a rather empty minibus for the central highland city of Dalat. But for myself, there was just one other woman with her infant, and as we negotiated the steep and windy road, I had to marvel at the facility with which she held her seat, her baby and the bag she was puking in. Clearly she had traveled this road before, and for good resason. Dalat is a delightful resort town amidst pine-clad hills, with lakes, streams and waterfalls strewn all about, filled with honeymooners from the lowland cities, but most interesting, quite lacking in an English based tourism. This did not deter me from taking a half day mountain bike tour with a local guide, enjoying the quiet of the hills, the temples, and a speechless companion.

The quiet now forgotten as I pace the streets of Saigon, teeming with scooters and scammers and throngs of common folk gearing up for the big week ahead. With a fresh two beer buzz, I explore the extraordinary flower market, a block wide by four long. Chrysanthemum, daisy, sunflower and mum provide the predominant yellow tone of New Years, accented by the scarlet of rose, amaranth, and gladiola. Artful bonsai of pine, laurel, and fig are displayed for sale, as are superb carvings of sandalwood, teak and marble. Incense fills the air, children dance to an unvoiced music, lovers pose among the flowers for if this scene could be forgotten!

Tomorrow I seek a less urban scene as I tour out to the Mekong Delta to visit the simple riverside villages that provide this nation with fruits and honey and coconut. Later I will travel out to the Cu Chi tunnels to learn something about the American War of the '60's, a subject thus far avoided by me. There I hope to gain some perspective on American-Viet relations, and more to my interest, shoot some really big guns! It seems a completely appropriate way to help celebrate the New Year.

Wednesday, January 21

Day 146-Nha Trang

Although the beach is not empty of people, at 6 kilometers, it is long enough to lend a feeling of peace and solitude. Scarce are the hawkers and trickster found on so many tourist beaches, and surprisingly, I have to chase someone down to find the cold beers that are proper to this moment. The air is warm, the sun hot, but not to excess. It is altogether a soothing way to spend an afternoon of girl watching.

As I reflect on my time in Vietnam, I find, in general, things have gone very smoothly. I have experienced none of the ripoffs and misquoted prices that I had been warned about. Perhaps I am possessing some degree of travel skill, perhaps I am lucky. I have met a few lately that are neither. Just a few days back, it was thrust upon me to usher a small herd of lost tourist to their hotels. They had been abandoned riverside in the middle of Hue at the end of their day tour, and for having been picked up that morning by van, they knew not the route back. The first four were easy, I knew this part of town. The next two didnt even know the name of their hotel and that was a much greater challenge, but together we deduced the location. Though it took two hours and cost me a few bucks, I considered it my birthday present to the world that day.

Since then I have continued on, to the extraordinary and charming town of Hoi An, where centuries old tradition meet the modern world in a fascinating spread of artisans shops, out to the remote hillside temples of My Son (the most disappointing of all Unesco Sites) and finally by long day train through the rolling hills and rice paddies to this sprawling but quiet beach town. Arriving late at night, I walked from the train station to the center, marvelling at what felt like a warm summer breeze, seemingly out of place under the sky filled with winter stars.

Saturday, January 17

Day 142-Hue

Here in the Imperial City of Hue, along the clean, green Perfume River, the centuries-old Citadel squats and crumbles in the gray drizzle of the early morning. Only the local market is alive with bright colors and strong odors. It is my birthday, my fiftieth, a day for reflection. Years back a friend of mine enjoyed her 50th amidst fanfare, friends and family. Knowing that my destiny had given me a different path, I began then to make plans for this round the world trip, vowing that I would be far away and alone when that day arrived for me. I am. And in a host of other instances of coordination and cooperation I have suceeded, but in days past I have also had some notable failures.

Trekking the hill country last week, I was fortunate to have as part of my group two very lovely ladies from Croatia, and one in particular really captured my interest. In our brief conversations we connected deeply and I was reminded that I once believed in love at first sight. On the train back to Hanoi our paths crossed, and we arranged to share a cab and breakfast before they left for the airport and home. As we made our way to exit the station, we learned that we needed our ticket, and I had left mine crumpled on the floor of the car. Amidst the hustle and crush of the moment, in a hurry to run back before the train left, I was unable to think, and lacking the practice to ask them to wait, I simply said goodbye. The Bhuddists say it takes 10,000 lifetimes for two people to meet, this encounter now lost forever, "like tears in the rain".

This failure of thinking has injured my heart, but another failure of emotion could have cost me dearly. The other night, fed up with a slow internet that keep crashing, I slapped down my payment and stormed out, cursing. Overzealous as I exited, I caused the door to swing wide, scratching the hood of a motorbike parked too close. As I continued mumbling down the street, the owner pursued me, and showed me the damage. I am practiced at accepting responsibility, so immediately offered to pay for the damage. But he was an honest man and did not wish to profit in this way, I think he only wanted to vent his anger and hear me admit my mistake. He generously waved me on, and I, gratefully, humbly, dashed for home.

I will continue to pass this day reflecting on the sucesses and failures of my past 50 years, and in particular the last 5 months. In doing, I hope to shape a vision of what I might achieve in my months and years remaining. And if I find that I have made too many errors on this grand trip, well then I shall just have to do it again!

Wednesday, January 14

Day 136-Cat Ba Town

After the success of my packaged tour to Sa Pa, I decided to continue the trend and book a 3 day 2 night visit to the UNESCO listed Halong Bay, a scattering of 3000 limestone islands jutting out of the still waters of the South China Sea, off the coast of Northeastern Vietnam. The tourist travel system here is an amazingly complex network of agencies, guides, transport and accommodations, and it seem to work flawlessly, as I am passed from one person to another, enjoying the assigned activities and merely doing what I am told. For a mere $30 or so a day, I am shuttled, entertained, fed and housed, and because I am sure I could not do better as an independent traveler, I accept my role as tourist.

After a morning of bus riding across the country, we arrived at the bay, and boarded a modified chinese junk, complete with kitchen, dining room and simple cabins. We enjoyed an afternoon of cruising among the 200 meter high limestone pillars, stopping once or twice to visit one of the many caves so common in the karst landscape, later boarding kayaks, to glide into the setting sun over the placid waters. The night was spent bobbing about a tranquil bay with a score of other boats, their running light reflecting off the still waters until the full moon rose to wash the entire scene in a pale glow.

The delicate beauty continued to unfold before us the next day as we landed on Cat Ba Island, drove into the interior and huffed and puffed our way 300 meters up a nearby peak. Our activities finished for the day, we settled in Cat Ba town, once a sleepy fishing village, now a burgeoning destination for summertime Vietnamese vacationers. The adjoining bay is abuzz with all manner of floating transports, from steel hulled cargo ships to the most humble tub of woven mat dressed with pine pitch. An entire village of multicolored floating houses, shops and holding tanks is moored in the shallows, and I spend the twilight watching the activity settle with the fading light. Once again I am made aware that the majority of this worlds people are living a life dramatically simpler than my own. I retire to my room at the 3 star hotel, enjoy a warm bath and a spot of telly before settling into my cozy bed. Life is Sweet.

Sunday, January 11

Day 136-Ta Van Village

It is quite easy to escape the madness of Old Quarter Ha Noi. Simply step into one of countless shops selling travel tours, and within minutes they will have you on a bus, brimming with like minded souls, on your way to the mountainous rice basket of the north, Sa Pa Valley. The overnight train, wood paneled and warm, whisk you throught the night, arriving so early that you still have not seen the glory of the steep green slopes that surround you. You are coddled and caressed as they bring you to your hotel and start you on your guided activities.

I had the good fortune to be part of a group of 10 or 12, mainly women from all quarters, young and willing to share some trail time with this old goat. Our guide, Lan, all of 4' tall, scampered the steep, slick trails with ease, giggling merrily as she explained the ways of the mountain tribes we would encounter. Here are found members of the Black Hmong people, the Red Doa, the Dzai, the Flower Hmong, each with their characteristic and colorful style of dress. As we walked we were accompanied by hordes of local women and children, patiently awaiting their turn to offer us a selection of hand made wares. When a women of thirty going on seventy walks for four hours in hopes of selling a trinket for 4 dollars, one realizes the simplicity of the lifestyle these people still embrace.

After a long day of wending our way along roads, paths, rice fields, and rickety bridges, we arrived at the small village of Ta Van, where, after enjoying a five course meal of rice, chicken, pork, and limitless vegetables, we bunked down with the family in a common room. It is the last full moon before the New Year, and it is winter, so we could not be surprised to find the temperature a bone chilling 40some degrees. Thanks to a heap of the heaviest blankets I have ever used, the night passed in great comfort, and we were greeted to a breakfast of rice pancakes and fruit. Setting off again into the sunny morning, we passed men and boys of all ages, dragging oversized logs down the slick slopes, not pausing to notice us, as we continued our search of new vistas of a timeless land and people.

Wednesday, January 7

Day 132-Ha Noi

I looked deep into the old guys rheumy eyes, asking myself if it was his day to die, because if it was, he was taking me with him. I had just enjoyed a visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography, a splendid collection of artifacts from all over this country of scores of distinct ethnic tribes. On display were the tools of home and garden, musical instruments of every bizarre construction, funereal implements, and outside, a courtyard filled with the very houses these tribesmen might have lived in.

I had arrived by taxi from the bustling city center some 7 kilometers away, and had bargained hard for a reasonable price. The return trip, of course, is always an extortionist dream. So when the old man held up 4 fingers and pointed to his moto, I was left with the choice, bleed through the wallet, or if unlucky, in the street. Feeling confident, I joined him on the mad scramble back into center, each intersection an interwoven flow of hundreds of bikes, a few taxis, and scores of intrepid pedestrians. The bikes especially carry a stunning array of passengers. I have seen up to four people on a single bike, a driver carrying two potted plans in his arms, a woman hauling at least 100 baskets, another was guided by a dozen laden shopping bags dangling from the handlebars, and it seems everyone is on the cell phone. I have also witnessed a partying threesome take a tumble, an old man pick himself up and limp off the interstate, and one young guy quite motionless in the highway.

My fears then, I thought were well founded. But fate is on my side today and we arrived safe and sound at my destination. As I extracted my wallet to pay, however, I learned that his four fingers meant 4 dollars, not 40000 dong (2 dollars). Curses and drats, I could have taken the taxi after all for that price, but then I would have missed out on the thrills!

Sunday, January 4

Day 129-Vang Vien

Rounding yet another bend on this tortuous mountain road, the girl next to me assuredme she would not vomit, only that she feel quite bad. Just minutes earlier we were chatting away, she was excitedly filling me in on various nuances of the Laos culture, and for my part I was delighted to have finally made a personal connection with a local. We were southbound out of Luang Prabang, passing through settlements so rustic, barely a stitch of metal or concrete could be seen, the material of choice for the construction of their village-bamboo, thatch and woven slats, all easily found in the mountain jungle surrounding. As we topped out on the pass, we were greeted with the sight of Bu Khun, Equal Mountain, more a citadel or tower, which in more temperate climes would have been a dramatic crag of sheer rock, here even the vertical faces were carpeted in foliage. It was a preview of what was to follow down the road.

Arriving in Vang Vien, I immediately elected it as one of the most desirable places I had ever visited. The air temperature a perfect 72 degrees, a bit of breeze, a bright warming sun bathing a dramatic karst limestone scenery. A cool, clear and inviting river flowed through the valley of rice fields now in stubble, groups of crude houses sheltering young vegetable gardens. The town itself was a backpackers paradise, loads of internet shops, bars and restaurants that offered beds rather than seats, the easier to enjoy the endless reruns of American sitcoms. The outlying caves, cliffs, trails and rivers attract a young and active crowd, often scantily clad as they emerge from their tube bourne booze cruise down the Nam Song. It is all incredibly scenic, the Lao must find it obscene, a bit, and I am happy to have seen it.

Thursday, January 1

Day 126-Luang Prabang

In a village where the generators are hushed at 10pm, the lights go out, and all that might be expected in the way of a New Years celebration is the splash of bright stars against the dark jungle sky. So it was in Pakbeng, a remote village along the Mekong river, 160 kilometers upriver from where I sit today. For two days, I and a host of international travelers have motored down the muddy waters, now in the dry season, placid and tame. We gaze upon the green hills that slope gently away from the sandy banks, where ever more remote settlements, surrounded by their newly planted corn fields, are separated by patches of broken boulders.

It is a pleasant and interesting float trip, but a rather long 8 hours each day, and so, after a time of introspectively watching the world go by, one turns ones attention to ones fellows. And that has proved to be the more interesting feature of the last couple of day. I have had the privledge of swapping travel tales with a cadre of very well seasoned wanderers indeed, from the single Dutch lady who made her way solo from Kunming to Shanghai, China, back in the mid 90s, when she was the only white face on the train, to the Ubermensch Tyler, family man, business man, smoker!, who has summitted and skied the worlds sixth highest peak, to an unnamed Kiwi couple who have slept in graveyards in India, ride motorcycles like they stole them, and read Heradotus in their spare time. A truly fascinating crew.

But alone again here in Luang Prabang, I have my work cut out for me. The Lao people are new to tourism, and one gets the sense that they are uncertain about our being here, very unlike Bali or Thailand. And lets face it, I do not have the friendliest of mugs, so they look at me much as do dogs and small children, unsure whether to cry, bark, or run away. So, besides the formidable task of arranging food, lodging and transport in a country that scarcly speaks English, removing my shoes each time I enter a dwelling, placing my head below the level of passing monks-a short people they are-I must remember to be the first to put a smile on my face.