It’s not Goodbye, its just until we meet again.

November 16, 2006

How many times must I be called upon to deliver a heart felt goodbye to people I don’t really know and don’t expect ever to see again?

Apparently 6 is the answer.

I meet lots of people while I am travelling and I like most of them. I have travelled for days and weeks with some of them and I have made lots of friends. Sometimes I meet people for a day or two and we are polite, but we don’t become friends or exchange contact information. As we part, we generally wish each other well and say “Goodbye”. Occasionally I’ll bump into them again later and have to say “Goodbye” again, but really, there should be a limit.

I met a European couple I’ll call Olga and Sven, and spent 2 days with them in Sapa as a part of a group. We all returned to the tour office together and said our goodbyes Saturday afternoon, since we were headed to the Bac Ha market the next day. Sunday afternoon we ran in to Olga and Sven in a restaurant near the train station as we too were taking the same train back to Hanoi and said goodbye again, and already I was struggling to muster any emotion at our parting. Of course 2 hours later, I discover I am sharing an overnight sleeper train compartment with them. The next morning we bid them adieu again and head into Hanoi, to pass the day until our evening flight to Hue. They are headed to Hue as well, but not until the next day, so I figure our lives will finally drift apart.

I have reserved a room for the day to shower and nap after the train, but of course it is not ready at 6 AM so Soyan and I are forced to find the only cafe that is open that early where we once again run in to Olga and Sven. I see them in way in the back and take a table in front without making contact. Of course the WiFi signal is weak and the waiter moves us to the table next to Olga and Sven. Breakfasts finished, they come to say their goodbyes (again) while I am in the middle of a call on Skype. I wish them well with a wave and a quiet good luck, while I am still on the phone.

After spending the day in Hanoi we head to the Airport for our flight to Hue, but after 3 hours at the airport our flight is cancelled and Vietnam Airlines puts us (and some 120 other tourists) up for the night in Hanoi, promising a large tour group seats on the 6:25 AM flight and promising us seats on the 12:30 PM flight the next day. At the hotel we are treated to a sumptuous dinner buffet of anything the hotel could prepare to feed 120 people on a half hours notice without spending more than $2.00 a person. This includes fried rice, spaghetti, instant noodles, eggs, Chinese baos, pigs in a blanket, cookies and custard.

My frustration is abated slightly when I discovered that there was a WiFi signal available, so I stayed up past midnight selecting photos from Sapa, in anticipation of sleeping late. Five hours after I go to sleep, Soyan’s voice wakes me despite my ear plugs. It seems that we are late for our flight. Soyan has explained that our flight is not for hours, and the airline explains that they have changed everyone to the earlier flight and that the plane is scheduled to depart in 55 minutes, so we need to meet everyone in the lobby right away. Five minutes later as I charge into the empty lobby I am panicked and confused. It seems that everyone else has left for the airport some time ago. Only two other couples remain with us looking tired and confused. After checking out we are told to wait for a cab.

We finally make it to the airport at 6:22. We are hurried through check in, but Security, completely disinterested in us the night before, needs to open everyone’s hand luggage and x-ray it twice. When we finally board the plane at 6:50 we pass several dozing passengers, including of course, Olga and Sven. They don’t stir to welcome us, but an hour later they do find us at the baggage carousel. My God, I have had an easier time hiding from stalkers.

After saying goodbye yet again we finally make it to our hotel. We took a nap, watched “Good Morning Vietnam” and booked a tour of the DMZ for the next day. Unfortunately the DMZ is about a 3 hour drive from Hue so the bus leaves at 6AM. We’ll have gotten up early two days in a row, why not make it three?

A few minutes past 6 AM the bus picks us up at our hotel and begins to make the rounds to pick up people at the other hotels. 20 minutes later the bus is mostly full and stops at a gas station to fill up. But across the street I see four people headed towards the bus. Two girls with big packs, and, can it be…? Yes, Sven and Olga. They climb aboard and sit right behind us. 12 hours later we part, I can no longer muster a good bye, just “See you soon.”

It’s hard to be hard

November 14, 2006

Man living under a staircase in Kathmandu, NepalI am sitting on the roof top patio, above the trash and hassle of the Kathmandu streets. The constant honking below was still audible enough to make sure I didn’t think I was in the Italian hill country, but the normally abrasive staccato was softened to a mere city soundtrack.

Now, I’m walking out of Dolce Vita, a charming Italian restaurant and pizzeria in the heart of Thamel, the tourist center of the city. I have just enjoyed a lovely dinner of an insalta mista — all vegetables soaked for 30 minutes in an iodine solution, a thin crust Margarita Pizza and a Diet Coke with Arabic writing on the can priced at three times that of a regular Coke. The Diet Coke is expensive because it has to imported, since locals only spend money on beverages that provide nutrients and calories.

A sad looking mother of no more than twenty approaches me, and I see a flash of an tiny empty baby bottle. It is not the first time I have seen a tired looking woman in brightly colored, but dirty clothing, with a baby on her back. I know what’s coming, so I look past her to the busy street of rickshaws, touts and tourists as if I were seeing it for the first time. I keep walking, pretending not to hear her call of “Milk, for my baby. Baby milk.”

My guidebook has warned me that I’ll be taken to a special store where I’ll pay double the normal cost for milk. After I leave the milk will be returned to the store and the money divided between the “mother” and the store owner. A former peace corp volunteer who has lived in the city for a number of years tells me that the many women who practice this trade are employees of a local syndicate which provides new babies every three months.

I stride into the night as her calls are covered by the traffic. I feel smart and savvy. I wasn’t taken. But, then just as quickly as I passed the woman in the street, my feeling passes. I feel hard, like I have been taught to see right through undesirables. Even though I know I avoided a scam no local would fall for, I don’t like feeling smart for looking right past poverty. Is it worse to be taken, or too well trained not to be?

Land Cruiser vs Elephant

November 13, 2006

Elephant ATVWe spent a pleasant pair of days in Chitwan National Forest in Nepal where I saw my first live Rhinos. While Chitwan can’t compare with Africa, it was nice to get away from the constant honking and trash of Kathmandu. We also tried wildlife viewing from the “comfort” of an elephant. Previously I have always used a Land Cruiser. In case you should ever need to elect between the two I thought I’d offer a chart for easy comparison.

Elephant Land Cruiser
Speed With passengers generally 10 MPH or less. Comfortable up to 60 MPH or faster depending on the age of the car.
Comfort My arms and shoulders were sore for days afterwards. Excellent unless you get the middle seat in the back, but even then no bruising.
Handling An elephant is the clear winner in mud and high water, but if your ride is feeling playful you may get a quick shower. Despite what you may have seen on TV, these are not really designed for deep mud or water. Even with a snorkel attachment it is like comparing junior varsity to the NBA. See my previous post: Stick in the mud.
Fuel / Emissions Zero emissions, runs on eco-friendly bio mass and constantly tops itself off as you travel. Unleaded or diesel requires refuelling every 250 miles.
Lifetime Up to 50 years of service with little degradation in quality of service. At best a lifetime of 35 years and there in decreased reliability and comfort after the first 15 years.
Cool Factor Have you ever seen an Indian groom arrive atop a Toyota? I think not. Even when pimped out, this is a high function low style ride.
Notes Best for approaching rhinos and hippos even in water, but lousy for taking photos due to the rocking motion. Easier to handle without extensive training and much more stable as a photographic base.