Unwritten Rules

December 14, 2006

I haven’t written about our overland trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu. I have barely written about Kathmandu or Chitwan in Nepal. I haven’t written about Hong Kong or Macau. Vietnam’s Ha Long bay and Sapa have befallen the same fate. I’d like to write about all of them, but actually experiencing them seems to have taken priority. Add to that that I was sick for 10 days and I am too far behind to catch up. Soyan has touched on some of these things so if you aren’t already reading her blog to keep tabs on me, check it out.

Here are some photos of some I have uploaded to flickr, but not yet linked here…

Hanoi, Vietnam Sapa, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Policy Architecture and America’s Defeat

Hanoi Narrow buildingsRarely has the architecture of policy, been so visible. Hanoi residents pay property taxes based on the linear street frontage of a building rather than its square footage. The predictable result is very narrow, very tall, very deep buildings.

Until 1986, farmland in Vietnam was allocated on a similarly ill-concieved and strictly per capita basis. Each family got 360 square meters of land to farm, per family member. If you wanted more land, you had more kids. It will surprise no one that this resulted in one of the highest birthrates in the world. Families with “only” seven children were considered small. The soaring birth rate just created more mouths to feed, and did nothing to encourage improved productivity on existing land.

Fortunately Vietnamese policy changed and the government instead began renting land to people based on their ability to produce crops and pay for the land. As a result, Vietnam’s production of rice has exploded. Vietnam has in fact become the world’s second largest rice producer. This status was obtained by “beating” the United States. Oddly, and in stark contrast to the US view of defeat, the Vietnamese rice victory seems to play a much more important role in national pride than the earlier military defeat of the US. I was worried that there might be some hostility or resentment about the US role in the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War). This, however, seemed to be water under the (Da Krong) bridge.

The rice victory is such a source of pride that three seperate people have told me about Vietnam’s victory in climbing toward the top of the rice heap. The people varied in the degree to which they emphasised this as a victory over the US, but all clearly saw it that way. I, however, did not feel even the slightest shame or disappointment in America’s “defeat” as the world’s second largest rice producer. To be honest, before learning of this loss to the Vietnamese, I had never given a moment’s thought to the source of the world’s rice.

I guess it doesn’t hurt so bad to lose when you don’t even know you are fighting…

Tailor Made

Thu Thuy Tailor shop Hoi An VietnamHoi An is a charming, but certainly not undiscovered coastal town in central Vietnam with a population of 70,000. It is well known for its tailors. The streets are lined with hundreds of tailor shops, many bearing large hand written testimonials on butcher paper. Each satisfied client is more fanatical in his praise than the next — at least of those that I can read. In addition to testimonials in English, I’ve seen testimonials in all the best backpacker languages like Dutch and Hebrew, but not one in Vietnamese.

This is hardly a surprise because every local woman not working in a hotel or a tailor shop, where a traditional ao dai seems to be obligatory, is wearing jeans that are 3 to 10 inches too long for her. The extra fabric is folded up on the outside of the jeans forming an enormous cuff. Unlike a 14 year old boy’s pants that might go from being two inches too long to two inches too short before they wear them out, these women are in their twenties so they have had any “growth spurt” they might expect. In general, the reason the pants are too long may be related to the fact that even after their growth spurt almost one third of them are still less than 5 feet tall.

Those not wearing jeans generally work in the hospitality, retail and government sectors. The local ao dais are made of beautiful fabrics and are very flattering, but the cut and construction, while tailored is quite simple. Against this backdrop, caution seemed prudent. My brother and online investigation yielded many cautionary tales, but some happy customers as well. Based on an excellent article by Deborah L. Jacobs I picked a local tailor, for an experiment in casual clothes, but I decided to hold off on any suits or dress shirts until Bangkok.

I brought a favorite Indigo Palms camp shirt as a model of the cut, style and workmanship I was seeking. I picked out a pair of fabrics while Soyan looked through the 4 inch thick book of catalogs. She picked selected a long white skirt similar to one she had been looking for and picked some red corduroy to use for copying a favorite pair of Lucky brand jeans.

When I came back for a fitting I liked the shirts enough to pick out a few more fabrics, but there were a few small tweaks that I asked to be fixed. On my third visit I tried on the second set of shirts which again needed small fixes. On my fourth visit most of the kinks had been worked out, but one shirt made of a light weight silk, just didn’t hang right. They pledged to try and fix it, but said that if it didn’t work out I didn’t have to take it. Finally on the fifth visit I took the shirts home (other than the silk one). They weren’t as perfect as I’d expect from custom tailored shirts, but I was pleased with them. My biggest complaint was a slight pucker just below the collar at the base of my neck. It was subtle enough that I would have let it go buying off the rack, but it was a disappointment for custom made.

Overall I was glad I had had the shirts made. I thought they looked nice and at $16 a piece they were a bargain compaired to Indigo Palms, but 5 visits is too many to have to make. Fortunately I had the time, but it was a bit of a bother to be always planning around our next appointment at the tailor especially for a few shirts.

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.

Getting Carried Away

October 21, 2006

We have been taking it easy in Nepal, enjoying the delights of Kathmandu. While it has not been as visually stunning as Lhasa, Kathmandu is different and interesting. There is much more Indian influence than Chinese. The very crowded and chaotic streets teem with taxis, rickshaws, bikes, motorcycles, vendors and pedestrians. One thing that stands out is the amazing array of large things people are carrying on their heads. Of course all over the world people carry things on their heads, but the frequency and variety of items here is quite impressive. Here are a few samples…

Stepping in deep Kathmandu-du

October 16, 2006

Trucks blocking the road in NepalThe long and winding road trip details will follow after I get some sleep, but here is a quick summary of today.

After five days of riding in a Land Cruiser sandwiched between visits to monastaries and Everest base camp, we woke up 50 feet from the Chinese border this morning. We spent three hours clearing Chinese immigration, getting across the 10km of no-man’s land between it and the Nepali border, and finally through Nepali immigration. By then we were we were ready to grab a ride into Kathmandu and relax.

But, what should have been a cheap, easy 4 hour cab ride from the Tibet / Nepal border turned in to an NINE+ hour ordeal involving a pick up truck trip of 7 km, some walking past 50 heavy trucks blocking the road, another pickup truck ride of 30 km to Barhabise, walking past another roadblock, taking a bus 5 km to another town to avoid yet another roadblock, hiring a third pickup that dumped us 35 km from Kathmandu, where we caught a crowded local bus in to the city. There we finally caught a cab to our hotel.

Here is a story from the The Himalayan Times that I would certainly have ignored on any day other than today:

Transport Enterprenuers Disrupt Traffic on Arniko Highway

THT Online
Sindhupalchowk, October 16

Transport enterprenuers of Sindhupalchowk today organised a Chakkajam on Araniko Highway against extortions.
According to the organisers, they were compelled to halt traffic on the road after spate of donation sprees. According to them there has been an increase in donation demands from Maoists and other local youth groups.24
“Nepal Transport Free Workers’ Union, Araniko Route, Truck Unit Committee called strike on the Highway as forceful donation collection activities increased on the Highway,” said Arjun Sapkota, chairman of the Committee adding that the concerned authorities should act immediately to end extortions and intimidation.
Following the Chakkajam, business transaction at Tatopani custom office was affected. Transport workers obstructed the highway placing vehicles on different road sections at Barhabise, Khadichaur, Dolalghat, among other places, locals said. Workers also accused the youths of Miteri Youth Club, Liping of intimidating Bhakta Bahadur Gurung, driver of a cargo container van on Sunday, said Sapkota.

Tibet? You bet!

October 10, 2006

Mother and Child in Lhasa, Tibet in front of the Jokang templeWe have been in Lhasa, Tibet for a few days and I am having trouble sleeping. Perhaps it is the altitude, but I think it is because I just don’t want to close my eyes. Lhasa is a visual feast and I am gorging. We are staying just off the Barkhor, the main prayer circuit surrounding the Jokang temple, and every time I leave the hotel or look out the window I am captivated. The city is filled with pilgrims and nomads coming to visit the Potala Palace and the Jokang Temple. I am captivated by them. There are fantastic faces, and the clothing colorful and the backgrounds of prayer flags and ceremonial fires warm my heart.

I feel lucky to have seen Tibet now, because Tibet is in a time of transition. There is a new railway that connects Beijing to Lhasa and travel restrictions are easing. As a result, there are an enormous number of Han Chinese coming to visit Tibet. From the looks of the long lenses and trendy dress, today it is primarily the very affluent Chinese, but the trend is clear. Potala Palace, a generation ago the object of attempted destruction, is now overflowing with Chinese tourists.

We have befriended a Chinese born Canadian named Tina, that speaks fluent English and Mandarin. When we were at dinner last night I asked why she spoke to the waiter in English rather than Chinese, and she explained that his English, while somewhat limited, was better than his Chinese. The local language is Tibetan and the city’s second language had been English, not Chinese. That too is changing. At the Drepung Monastery we visited this morning the old signs are in Tibetan and English, while the new ones have added Chinese before the English.

Tomorrow Soyan, Tina and I are all headed on a six day overland trip through Tibet to see the more rural side of the region. We arrive in Kathmandu, Nepal on Oct 16th. I’ll likely be out of touch until then, but I have left you with some photos of Lhasa, Tibet.

I hope you enjoy them. It think it is my best work to date.

No need to be polite

October 9, 2006

Bank of China customer service feedback systemThe Chinese are not a verbally polite people. You’ll effectively never hear them say “Please” or “Thank You”. In fact, a typical Chinese response from a waiter or other service personnel to a customer’s “Thank You” is translated as “There is no need to be polite.”

Some Chinese even refer to Americans as “The Thank You People,” because of our constant use of the phrase. Maya, a friend in Beijing, suggested that this is also because Americans generally don’t know any other words in Chinese. It is, however, hard to deny the American “Have a nice day” culture.

Customer service in China outside of large western style hotels and restaurants is generally competent, but certainly not effusive. It seems, however, that at least one organization in China has decided to focus on customer service, taking to heart the need for visible measurement and constant feedback. I was changing money in the Bank of China in Xian, and there was a small electronic box on the counter in front of every teller. It showed the tellers current rating from 1 to 5 stars and asked you to rate your transaction with a push of a button.

I got excellent service and rated my teller accordingly, but beyond that, I was delighted to feel like I had any easy instant feedback channel.

On the other hand, I am not sure how my employees would have reacted if I had suggested putting boxes like these on their desks.

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