Filed under: Big Bang, Fotorama, Huarong Home, India Be Trippin', Laos Be Trippin', Nepal Be Trekkin', Operation Engrish Prease, Razorcake Columns
From Razorcake #57, the one with Noam Chomsky on the cover!
The eyes are restless from the fatigue of resting them upon an unmoving landscape. The legs itch, muscles twitching in between the tibia and the upholstered surface it leans against. Its wanderlust simmering and the only cure is to give in, to strap that pack to your back, put one foot in front of the other and let your eyes drink in every dashed yellow line in the middle of the road.
I blame my legs. These non-proportionate stumps that move me around. They loathe when I sit around too much and love it when I push them too hard. Wanderlust is insatiable, and my legs gobble it up. One in front of the other, marching forward because they know no other way. In all my travels, there has been some epic adventuring but I’ve also faced my share of tribulations. Since sharing is caring, I would like to tell ya’lls about some of my low-lights so can you can learn from my own misadventures with these travel tippies.
There’s the obvious:
Pack a pair of flip-flops, as un-punk rock as they may be, will save you from cooties in shared showers and cool your toes when you wanna relax. Don’t worry about bringing a pillowcase for hostel beds, resting your head on one of your t-shirts will save you room in your pack. I always bring issues of Razorcake to read on the road and leave them in hostel lobbies or music shops in places where I know they’ve never seen it. And I never leave without a passport pouch that I tuck into my jeans next to my sweaty crotch cash.
If you’re traveling the People’s Republic of China, don’t buy souveniours that you can buy at your local Chinatown USA (which is most everything). Bargain at every chance, most shop-keepers will give you an opening price that is at least twice of much as it worth, if not more. But know that there’s a fine line between being fair and being brutal, because chances are that if you’re reading this magazine you’re better off than a street vendor in Mui Ne, Vietnam and you spend $3 for a pint of beer all the time so what’s it worth arguing about it with a shop keeper. (Though, hypocritically, some of my proudest shopping moments have been when a shop owner has angrily begrudgingly agreed to sell something to me. [Though, in my defense, living on volunteer salaries in developing countries will drive you batty and make you feel entitled.]) And speaking of monies, always check the big bills you get in return to make sure they’re not counterfeit.
Street food will make you sick, but it’s worth it. Check bottled water caps to be sure it wasn’t shoddily soldered back on after being refilled with dirty tap water. A small squeeze tube of hand sanitizer will ease your mind and you’ll get used to that medicinal smell and start to think it makes your food taste better.
And there are the travel scars that have left me wiser and with a couple good stories to tell:
Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia and is usually forgotten on itineraries. It’s tourism industry is still growing its legs and learning to stand on them and the easiest way to make money is to give the kids what they want, and that’s usually stuff that’ll fuck them up.
Ironically, even though Laos is landlocked, it’s the only country I’ve traveled to where I’ve gone tubin’ down a slow moving river. It’s a lot like basking in the sun with my limbs draped over an inner tube floating along the Sandy River in Portland, except in Vang Vieng there are middle-aged Laotian women squatted on makeshift mini-docks hawking Beer Laos at your lazy drifting body. Naturally, Vang Vieng needs to offer a hearty post-tubing recreational substance abuse.
Every restaurant had a not-so-hidden ‘Special Menu’ that had three mainstays:
Happy Shake with whiskey and fruit
Magic Mushroom Shake or Tea
Then further down the same sheet, scrawled in loose handwriting it offers:
Magic Mushroom Pizza
I especially love how the menu devolves and gets straight to the point at the bottom where it reads:
A bag of weed
A bag of mushrooms
A bag of opium
There’s something beyond sketchy about buying a bag of illegal substances off a menu, so I opted for Magic Mushroom Shake. I could taste the small flecks of mushrooms that had been blended into my banana shake and sat back into the loungey restaurant stall and waited.
The high was weak and gave me a headache. I crawled into my hostel bed and hoped to sleep it away. I felt fine the next morning when I boarded a bus to the capitol city, Vientianne, but was soon burping up a rotten egg smell and knew immediately that traveler’s diarrhea was about to commence.
Our Vientianne hostel felt like a three story building that had been haphazardly converted into a five-storied guesthouse with narrow and steep stairways and wobbly landings. There were only two toilets in the entire building and our room was nearest to the first floor bathroom that housed a toilet without a toilet seat. I had never wished for a squatty toilet so much in my life.
Lesson learned: If you’re going to order off the ‘Special Menu’ make sure a) you don’t have a five-hour un-air conditioned bus ride the next day and b) book a room with its own toilet (and toilet seat).
I am a moderately fit person with very sensitive joints. I was reminded of this on a 45-mile trek through the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal when I wanted to rip out my left knee at the end of the four-day hike. Every step I took during that last morning was painful, it felt something akin to being stabbed in my knee every time I took a step. I started to lag behind and teared up at the thought that I would have to endure it until the sun set again.
Even though all I wanted to do was to curl up into a ball right on that trail, I refrained from collapsing and asked everyone around me if they had Ibuprofen. I must have had about a dozen to get through the day before collapsing in a van and ingesting more sleeping pills to numb all the other parts of my body.
Lesson learned: If I were a smarter person, I’d say that the lesson learned from this trip was to know and understand your physical limitations. But fuck that, because if I let my own physicality limit my movement, I’d go nowhere (have you seen my stumpy legs lately? Instead my lesson learned from this trip was: Pack painkillers. If you neglected to do so, ask everyone you encounter if they have any. Ask directions to the nearest pharmacy, because even if it’s a hole in the wall and looks like a shoddy American swap meet stall—they will have some generic Ibuprofen to numb your pain away.
Hong Kong during peak season is nowhere to be if you don’t have money. Every cheap hostel was booked up and short of sleeping at bus terminals or in neighborhood parks, we had no idea what to do. That’s when desperation went into overdrive and we found ourselves haggling for rooms at places that I’ve lovingly dubbed as ‘hooker hotels.’ These are small rooms that are rented out by the hour, but might sometimes offer a nightly rate with check-in at 10 PM and check-out is sharply at 8:00 AM. It may not seem so bad in hindsight, but when you’re exhausted from working to find a room all day, and when you finally do find one, all you wanna do is to lay in it. Instead, you have to busy yourself and think of all the people who are fucking in it before you can even check in to sleep in it.
When you’re finally laying in your heart-shaped bed, try to ignore the condoms on the counters, the mirror on the ceiling, the stream of 80’s porn on every other television channel and the moaning and hollerin’ of the other patrons. You may also be awakened throughout the night from the ring of the doorbell as, you know, the other rooms are being rented by the hour.
Lesson learned: Even establishments that rent rooms by the hour might offer nightly rates, you should inquire with the management.
I’ve got a few more low-lights that might help ya’ll out, but it’ll have to wait for another time. And to be honest, even the down time during trips can be awesome stories in and of themselves if you handle it right.
And by “handling it right” I mean: always bring a small package of tissue paper, it’ll save you ass literally and metaphorically.
Besides the clear lush nature of Nepal, another reason for traveling there was that we got to meet many of the family of our Nepalese students. After our arduous 45-mile trek through the Annapurna circuit, we headed back to the capitol city of Kathmandu where I nursed a knee injury and anxiously awaited the parent-teacher meeting. A day before we were to leave Nepal, we walked into a dusty, small school auditorium and sat in a neat row before all the curious eyes of the family members.
Naturally, I lost it.
I scanned the room, looking for reminders of my students in the faces of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of our ten Nepali students. There were Anuj’s eyes behind her sister’s eyeglasses. Gishay’s mom was a mature duplicate of Gishay, wrapped up in a sari with a broad and gentle face. Stoyi’s smile appeared her father’s face as he beamed at us from a wooden bench.
Zoya’s father walked up to us, “How is my daughter doing? Is she a good student? How is she getting along”? Zoya’s younger sister peeked at us from behind her father, “How is my sister? Does she miss us?”
I breathed in deeply and tried desperately to keep my tears behind my eyes. But they came anyway. I turned and cried as I let myself be overwhelmed. I could hear Zoya’s sister asking why I was crying. I wanted to explain myself. That, yes, your sister misses all of you, but she doesn’t tell you because she doesn’t want you to worry. Yes, your daughter is an inspiring student and she is the reason I remain in Bangladesh. Yes, she has adjusted, but not without hardships and many sleepless nights of weeping and aching from homesickness.
But words did not emerge from me, just shallow gasps for air as I cried.
“She’s a great student. She studies very hard and is one of my best,” I told Gishay’s father.
His wife turned to him, pointed at me and said something in Nepali, and he turned to repeat it to his son who translated it to me. “My parents say that you look a lot like Gishay. They said that it is like she is here with us now.”
Later that day we were at Stoyi’s parents’ home when I was speaking with her sisters. I lamented how I only had brothers. “Well,” they pointed at themselves, “now you have two sisters.”
My favorite shot from Kathmandu. It’s a convergence of so much energy and I’m surprised my point-and-shoot captured it at the right moment.
More: Nepal photo set.
Here’s round two of photos from Nepal. There’s one more set of photos that feature the capitol city, Kathmandu. Stories to come soon.
More: Nepal photo set.
We’ll walk, I thought. I’m good at walking.
It was supposed to be a leisurely affair, a comfortable four-day hike in the southern section of the Annapurna circuit. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project is in central Nepal and a destination for most folks traveling through the country who trek through the hills to take in the beauty of the varied natural environments ensconced within the Annapurna mountains.
Instead, there was a strike. Something vague about the dissatisfaction with the latest government.
Until recently Nepal was lead, in part, by a monarchy (239 years of it). But within the past year, the country made a move to strip the king of his power and install a republic. It worked. Months ago they elected their first president and vice president. Things seemed peachy, except that in mid-August the leader of the Maoists (a Nepali rebellion group who is still on the US’s banned terrorist organization list), Prachanda, was elected as the Prime Minister. Even though he received the majority vote from representatives, the peoples of Nepal might not be completely satisfied- hence the strike.
We were told that we had to leave our guesthouse at 4AM on Saturday morning, so that we could load into our van and drive to our trekking departure point. The early wake-up call was given to avoid closed roads in case of a strike. We wound through dark empty streets of Pokhara and slowly ascended to roads outside of the city. As we approached a long stretch, a small sedan heading the opposite direction slowed next to our van. The driver exchanged terse words with our guides and we were summarily told that the road ahead was blocked and we wouldn’t be able to get to our departure site.
Still groggy from sleep in the middle of the stillness of night, we crawled out of the van to revise our itinerary.
“It will be more work. Nine-hour trek days,” Deepak our guide described the alternative. “We will go a different route. It will be a little harder. Is this okay?” The combination of adrenaline and lack of sleep clouded our collective judgment and we enthusiastically agreed to the new plans. The new Nepali government made it so that we were about to squeeze in an 8-day, 45-mile trek into four days.
Headlamps were snapped onto foreheads and our group of nine trekkers, three porters and two guides walked down a long stretch of highway in predawn darkness. Before we reached anything that remotely resembled a hill, we had to walk the length of the road because our driver refused to risk it. We passed the roadblocks, which consisted of a few neatly lined rows of watermelon-sized rocks. There were no rowdy, disgruntled citizens jostling with picket signs at the roadside- just rocks. We cursed those lumps of heavy stone as the sun rose behind us and the road seemed like it would never end.
It looked like we got up at 4AM to hike on a paved highway. Little did I know that days later, I’d remember that smooth, paved ribbon of cement so fondly.
After breakfast, we eventually snaked our way up through steep improvised rock/stairs for a couple hours until we reached great heights with views across the valley and of the Annapurna mountain range. At first sight of the snow capped peaks, we decided that we needed a group shot to commemorate it.
More photos and little stories of the trek to come!