Trekking, gritty and grand

Ten people – weary and cheery, some sick, some wet – crowded around the 55-gallon drum barrel stove.  The sad little fire inside was wet wood and fizzle; it kicked out a nearly useless combination of soot and meager heat.  Smoke billowed from unsealed cracks around the stovepipe.  I watched it collide with the ceiling to form an acrid upper layer to the room’s atmosphere,  Slowly, some seeped into the rafters above and an unseen exit.   Outside, nature was providing a cataclysmic concert – rat-a-tat hail like a snaredrum, deep rumbling base of thunder, an incessant applause of rain on tin roof. Every few moments the stage was lit up by a great flash of lighting.

Regardless, we huddled low and near to the stove, for physical comfort and companionship.  Our Nepalese hosts, Didi (sister) and her daughter bundled in thick sweaters of wool, spoke in soft, gentle voices of their lives in the mountains.  A couple wet, but cheery Germans sipped tea and debated carrying on in the storm.   Our guides, Bajendra, Rammesh and Uumesh, played cards, seemingly unfazed by our predicament – “take it as it comes” seems much the mentality of Himalayan trekking.

My arms were a little achy from carrying Mia the last kilometer or so due to increasing stomach pain.  I looked over at her, squeezed small under a thick blanket.  She was staring blankly into the space before the fire, looking a little better.  A good vomit will often help.  I was shivering, mostly from laziness at not putting on another layer, or was it my belly?  Uh oh.

“How are you doing?”  My question was not only for her, but also me, as my own stomach gurgled with anxiety, foreshadowing my evening entertainment.

“Um, a little better I think.”  She responded, with an admirably cheery tone.  I hoped my own was faking it at least as well.

Porter sat at a stool across from us, both knees drawn tightly to his chest, and a look of empathy in his eyes.  His gut was finally settling down, two days after his own vomit episode, though he still wasn’t eating.  Regardless, he had toughed out the day’s hike without complaint.  We were a little worried about Porter, he had no appetite, not even for snickers or trail bars.

BAM!  A strong flash of light in the corner of the room popped from the outlets.  We all leaped to our feet.

“Oh my god!” Bajendra exclaimed, hands to heart. He had felt the electric arc course through his body.  He checked if we were ok, then retreated deeper into the kitchen to give thanks for life.

Welcome to our low point at our high point in the Himalaya, in the village of Deurali, at nearly 3000 m elevation.  We were halfway through our six-day, 55-km trek.  At that moment, as I felt my own belly protest stirring, as I watched both my kids sick in a world where they could not (would not?) eat, as I knew we still needed to walk about 25 km out, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so far from home.

Yet, that is exactly part of the reason we went traveling.  To encounter difficulty and challenge. To be affected.  To come out the other side.  Oh yeah, also, to be wowed by people and places.  We were, we did.

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With our guides (Uumesh in back, Bajendra with Adidas shirt, Rammesh seated)

Day 1 – Pokhara to Ulleri (1,960 m)

On our first day, we awoke to the bane of the fair-weather hiker:  a low-slung cloud cover with a persistent drizzle that would bring joy only to a walrus.  We boarded the jeep, and stopped a few times to look for good old giant plastic bags.  Yet, in this part of the world where plastic is an apparently limitless resource, we could find only one decently strong bag.  The boy scouts would be unimpressed.

Off we drove into the clouds, literally.  At the top of the pass outside of Pokhara, we could not see fifteen feet in front of the truck.  Rammesh told us that he had once walked through this blind mist for four days straight.  No one was complaining yet, but faces showed concern.

As we descended into the village of Nayapul, where we were to start, the weather let up to just overcast skies.  We started our trek at 1,070 m (about 3,500 ft).  The beginning of the trail was a steady march upwards on roads, with only an occasional local truck passing us.  After several hours, we turned off the road onto a trekking only path and the pretty little village of Tikhedhungga.  Bajendra asked if we wanted to stay for the night, or push on up another 500 m climb (about 1,500 feet) to the village of Ulleri, which could offer mountain views if the weather broke.  The kids led the charge, “Let’s climb!”

Up we went.  Each wide step was paved by thick slate slabs, no doubt carved, carried and set by hand.  The sturdy path made the steps easy, but altitude can’t be paved away.  One step, two, five, ten, one-hundred, five-hundred, one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand….  3,781 steps up to Ulleri!

Bajendra suggested we take some breaks along the way, “take it easy, no rush.”  But Porter and Mia were on a mission.   Bajendra, rubbing his belly and slightly out of breath, told the kids that we had climbed the stairs in record time.

We stayed at a nice little tea house, with a simple two-bed room, plywood walls, real slate roof.  We took cold showers, as the electricity had been out for the last week.  Amy and I ate Dahl Bat, the Nepalese staple food.  A simple, but hearty dish of lentils, rice, a vegetable curry and some type of sour pickled relish.  It was good, filling and hot.  “Hots and Lots” as our friend Ant describes his favorite trail food.  Bajendra surprised us with a beautiful fresh fruit and nut plate, yum!

A thunderstorm moved in, but we were dry, warm, with full stomachs.  We played cards with headlamps, enjoying a good-sprited game of bullsh*t with the guides.  BS is a great game for learning numbers so we alternated Engish and Nepali.  (Tashi?) We went to bed around 9, tired and content.

Day 2 – Unintended layover in Ulleri (1,960 m).

04:00:00 am.  Porter woke me up, “Dad, I don’t feel good.”

4:00:10 AM – I searched frantically for my headlight in the dark.  No luck.

4:01:00 AM – Bleah!  Bleah!  Bleah!

4:05 until 4:30 AM – clean-up, and more stomach violence.

5:45 AM – a new day dawned bright and clear.  Annapurna sheared upwards through the blue sky.  We all gasped in wonder.

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Our view from the deck in Ulleri

We waited around in the morning, letting Porter finally sleep.  By 11, he still was in no condition to hike, so we decided to stay put.  We took turns wandering the steps through the village.  Even though the trek receives thousands of visitors each year, the locals were still engaging and cheery.  Especially if I started out greetings with a quick Nepalese pleasantry – “Namaste kati!”  (Greetings auntie!), peoples faces cracked open in smile and warmth.  I love cultures where people refer to each other by familial pronouns – sister, brother, uncle or auntie.  It just seems kind, embracing, respectful.

 

On day 2 we enjoyed a few new friends at the teahouse.  Michelle from Hong Kong and a young Nepalese doctor who strongly advised that we make Porter eat and then assess next steps for treatment.  I followed his advice and forced Porter to eat some rice and apples before bed then again later in the night.  The night ended with a foreboding ripper of a thunderstorm.  Our teahouse shook.

Day 3 – Ulleri up to Ghorepani (2,860 m)

We woke up again to blue skies, and Porter seemed much better.  He hadn’t eaten much, and still was not hungry, but he thought he could hike.  Fortunately after only a mile or so, we ran into a British family with two boys Porter’s age – Ollie (age 11) and Ben (age 10), and an older daughter, Emily (age 13).  Porter quickly found that these boys were good fun, and a bit “cheeky” (in a good way).  The family spent most of their school holidays traveling somewhere, usually in Asia, and their list of countries was impressive.  The boys hiked together, sharing stories of life.    At one point, Amy overheard Porter asking Ben what Tibet was like, if the Chinese rule could be felt, and if the people seemed free or not.  Ben had answers from experience.  Is our son gaining some world perspective?  Check that yes.

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We hiked quickly through beautiful forests and streams.  The trees were Oak and Rhodedendron.  The Rhodies were trees, not bushes, many over two hundred years old, and in the bloom of Spring.  Beautiful walking.  We arrived at our destination, Ghorepani, before noon.  We ate Dal Baht (well, Porter only pushed around his rice), then met up with the family (dad Mark and mom Sam), to look for some afternoon sport.  We found a basketball court, but no ball.  We found a store, and Mark asked about a ball, no chance up here.  So, he bought the next best thing – a plastic-wrapped roll of toilet paper.

Really?

Back to the court.  We created a game – NepaBall, kind of a cross between netball, basketball and ultimate frisbee, with some elements of rugby when the boys got a little fired up.  Basically, the game was to pass the ball (toilet paper roll) player to player, then try to score a basket.  If the ball was dropped, turnover.  It was, of course, absurd, and so by definition enthralling to boys age 9 to 11.  After falling behind 4-1, the three boys staged an amazing comeback under darkening skies and forced a “penalty free-throw shootoff.”  They won 4-3.  The victors went wild.  Christiano Ronaldo has not put on a greater display of braggadaccio victory dance than the one put on that afternoon.

After NepaBall, we all played some cards, the Brits suggested “Cheat,” of course a much more properly named game than Bullsh*t even though the rules are identical.  Good fun.

For dinner, we had the pizza, Porter gummed a bite or two of cheese-bread-sauce.  Amy ate Dal Bhat.  Dal Bhat Power – 24 hour as they say.  She claimed to enjoy it each time, savoring each variation – slightly different curry, pickle or even the traditional metal plate that it was served on.  I, on the other hand, craved a bit of variation.

The evening was beautiful with dynamic clouds and peakaboo mountain views.

 

Day 4 – Up to Poonhill (3210 m), down to Deurali (2990 m)

 

On day 4, we awoke early (4:30 AM), for an early one-hour hike up to Poonhill and a view of the sun rising over the Dhauligiri and Annapurna ranges.  We snaked up the 200 m climb in about 45 minutes, and experienced the joy of needing a down coat.  Delicious frosty air!  However, so did another 150 people or so.  Solo wilderness experience, this trek was not.  But no matter, we knew that coming in.  Plus, there’s something nice about being able to buy a cup of hot, masala tea in the mountains!

We enjoyed the views of sunrise, with Dhaulagiri (8,167 m) and Annapurna South (7,219m) dominating the horizons.  We lingered long up there, and eventually saw a side hill to hike out to and have some quiet solo time and hear the birds.

We hiked down, had breakfast, and got going towards our next destination of Tadopani around 9:30 AM.antonio,

Along the trail, we ran into a lovely man from Brazil, Antonio, on his way up to Annapurna base camp.  His face was filled with smile lines, and warm blacks-in-brown.  He was strong, powerfully built, but he walked with a slow, deliberate trail pace.  “I’ll get there, no hurry!”  He had no guide, no porter to carry his things.  Turns out he is 70 years old, a retired banker from Brazil.  His secret?  “vegetarian for twenty years, and two liters of home brew every day!”  Good idea I think.

By 10:30 AM, Mia’s stomach was tied in knots, and she couldn’t walk any further.  I carried her to Deurali, and laid her down on a bench while we ordered lunch.  I decided not to eat, as I felt something brewing down deep.

The thunderstorm hit an hour later.  My own journey of exodus began just after trying to stomach a spoonful or two of garlic soup around 7 PM.  Amy and Bajendra put us all to bed, Good night.

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Day 5 – Deurali to Ghandruk (1,940 m)

The morning dawned bright and blue, despite a tumultuous night.  I hadn’t slept a minute, neither had Amy.  Despite removing the upper 80% of my stomach fillings, I still felt an uneasy mass stuck lower in my system.  It protested its predicament, and I tried to give it freedom several times (“Never trust a fart!” was some advice I’ve heard about aging, that also applied to GI distress in a developing country).  Amy packed us up before 7, while I migrated back-and-forth between the outhouse and our room.  No exodus until later that morning though (and luckily while I was ready for it).

Despite the fact that Porter still hadn’t eaten, and Mia was empty bellied as well, we made the five hour hike in reasonable time, stopping for some enjoyable rock-stacking in a creek, and mountain gawking from the village of Tadopani.  From there, we could see Machapuchare, or Fishtail.  It has beautiful vertical relief, sweeping up to 6,947 m (22,793 ft) from the “low” surrounding foothills.  It’s summit is twin peaked, so the mountain appears like the end of a fish diving down towards the innards of the Earth.  It is considered a sacred mountain (where Shiva resides), and climbers are not allowed up.  Allegedly, it has never been climbed.  I hope that is true.

We hiked well, under blue skies all day.  We arrived in the charming mountain village of Ghandruk around mid-afternoon.  Ghandruk is beautiful – with homes, teahouses, temples, a school and a hospital all spilling across a terraced hillside.  The town is etched by a few stone pathways that wind between buildings and across slopes.  Despite being one of the most popular trekking stop-offs in the Himalaya, the people were gracious, friendly and inquisitive.  We loved it there.

The evening brought another kicker of a thunderstorm.  I still couldn’t eat, and neither could Mia and Porter.  But now at least, we were within an hours walk of a road, and only 4-5 hours from the end of our trek.

Day 6 – The hike back to Nayapul

Blue skies again, and what a view from Ghandruk!  Porter and I woke early, and decided to go explore the village.  We walked around and found a “German bakery” with french press coffee.  Halleluja, and bad stomach be damned!  We ordered a cinammon roll and a doughnut.  Both were a bit bready, but a welcome change in flavor.  We were both able to stash away a few Calories.  Plus, the views from our perch were tremendous.

An “Amma” waddled over to share our breakfast time with us.  “Namaste Amma!” I said.  That’s as much Nepali as I know, but it was enough.  She seemed appreciative and sat down at our table.  The owner brought her some tea and porridge.  She could not speak any English, but it didn’t matter.   She smiled, said a few things which I repeated poorly, and we hooted with laughter together.  Have I mentioned that I really grew to love the Nepalese people?

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We hiked up, and were back in Nayapul by mid-afternoon.  A lovely trip.  Since we’ve been back, I’ve had the chance to see several people’s photos of longer trips – the Annapurna Circuit, smaller peaks, and base camps.  I am already dreaming of seeing more of this place.

 

 

Nepal: an unexpected welcome

Four months ago, when we landed in Asia, people started talking to us about Nepal.  Whoa, Nepal you say?  That place-name carries a hint of the dreamy to my northwest Washington mountain-yearning ears.  We started looking into it.  

We had some some issues:  
Our bags were full of snorkeling masks, flip-flops and surf shorts, not sleeping bags, wool hats and gloves.  No matter, a few great people from the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) sorted us out with long underwear, down coats, gloves and hats.  Thanks Max, Lisa, Jasmine, Kevin, chad and Heidi!  

Unfortunately, we had waited too long to book flights, so prices were double what they were two months ago. Oops.  Oh well, thanks VISA!

We hadn’t researched where to go, but throughout SE Asia, we kept running into other travelers with Nepal connections.  Ant and Keri trekked in March, and gave us great on-the-ground reports.  We met Cailey and Rob, a wonderful US couple we met in the back of a taxi in Chiangmai, then again on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.  They are currently on the Everest base camp route for three months doing research on health effects at altitude.  They were inspirational in giving ideas about trekking regions.  

Several ISKL teachers had trekked with a company, Api Himal, that also does some good social work in Kathmandu.  I emailed Rajendra, the founder/owner/boss man, and together we settled on a plan – a seven day trek to Annapurna region (actually the “Poonhill trek”).  Since we were going to be in Nepal for 13 days, Rajendra also arranged some other activities for us, including an invitation to stay at his home/orphanage for two days before heading out on the trek.  Little did we know how amazing this would be.  

The flight in was stunning with wide views of the Himalaya, with Everest nearly at level with our plane. 

Himalayas in the clouds (from the plane

 

At the airport, Rajendra met us with a warm namaste, and deep smiles.  We drove the colorful streets of Kathmandu back towards his home, and second business, OCEAN Nepal, a non-profit orphanage.  His brief story is that he was working as a trekking guide, and decided (along with his wife, who is an incredibly vivacious, funny and beautiful woman), to do something for kids who come from difficult circumstances.  He started an orphanage, and used his trekking company to help support the orphanage – that is some smart eco-tourism/social work!       

Arriving at his home, Rajendra invited us to tea (I love masala tea!), and introduced us to several of the kids.  I was blown away by this group of confident, intelligent, funny young people.  The home has 8 boys and 8 girls, aged 6 to 19.  They seem to behave like one big family.  Older kids tutor the younger.  They kid around with each other and seem to generally love each other.  We ended up spending most of our Kathmandu time hanging out at the home.  The Nepalese kids spoke excellent English, and were eager to make new friends. I played guitar and chess, and was humbled in both accounts by teenagers. Porter jumped into lego-play with some of the younger boys.  Amy and our kids joined a bracelet-making group.  

We ate dinner with Rajendra and his family, where we were introduced to eating with one’s hands.  We had delicious rice-Dahl-cauliflower-and-potatos.  Even mia got into the spirit of hand eating.  This is for you Ana z!  



We had one down day in Kathmandu before leaving for our trek.  Luckliy for us, it coincided with the visit of a group from the American Community school of Abu Dabai.  Four teens and their parents were on a service trip to the orphanage.  We were able to join in the end-of-visit banquet, complete with a full dance party to a mix of western, Nepalese and Indian pop music.  So fun!


In one very short day, we’ve been moved by the big hearts of Nepalese people.  On to trekking!

Vietnam – sliding into love with a place

“Dad, check this out, it’s an underwater walkway!” called Porter.

His voice emerged from the darkness ahead, probing the mystery.  My thin headlamp beam could not find his body, but I could hear his eager sloshing.  At my feet, a few ripples lapped at the dirt floor, suggesting Porter’s movement.  I turned back towards Mia, and saw that she would need some coaxing.

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Porter, ahead, on the water walk way
“Come on!” I beckoned, “Just imagine you are Harry following Dumbledore to look for a Horcrux!”

“I know!  That’s why I don’t want to go!” she retorted, using explanation points to her own effect.

Amy and I removed our shoes, leaving Mia with an option to sit alone in a dark, wet cave or follow along.  In a huff, she began to peel off her socks.

We slid our toes and feet into the water, and onto the stone path six inches below the surface.  Eerily, the path was only a few feet wide, and the sides dropped off into dark depths.  The ceiling was uneven, and close to our skulls.  Porter was in the lead; we had no guide.  Perfect. We were finding our own adventures, exploring an alien world.  The cave didn’t go far, and wasn’t even that spectacular, but the day turned out to be a turning point in my attitude about Vietnam.  Discovering new places, encountering discomfort, pushing through are some of the reasons we love traveling.

For about two weeks up to this point, travel fatigue had been ruling our days – leaving us a grumpy troupe.  Our senses had been dulled, our enthusiasm muted by a crust of cynicism.  We were in a funk.  But we fought it – owned it, talked about it, wallowed in it, made fun of it.  Gradually, little adventures and, (especially) encounters with wonderful people, scrubbed away my malaise.  I found myself laughing more, and seeing further.  I found myself falling for Vietnam.

This post a sketch of a few of our encounters and experiences, and an excuse to post a bunch of photos.

Ninh Binh – climbing past industrial tourism.

After Hanoi, we traveled to Ninh Binh, a rural area of Northern Vietnam characterized by towering limestone karsts and rice paddies.  Also, we hoped, a place less touristy than the more famous Halong Bay.

We arrived to gray skies, and a town getting choked by tourism.  Resorts and hotels lined the river, and the air was filled with construction noises – new resorts and hotels.  On the streets, tourists walked and lingered in long trails and packs.  Groups of thirty and forty cyclists at a time pedaled by our guesthouse, waiting for a guide to tell them to turn left or right.  The main tourist attraction was a river boat ride, rowed by a (usually female) guide, often with her feet.  We had seen brochure images in Hanoi: a little wooden boat with a triangle-hatted captain, sliding along a peaceful ribbon of stream, cutting through green fields, backdropped by limestone karst.  Beautiful.

But, when we stood at the boat launch, with the tranquil river slipping away, the picture had been copy-and-pasted ad nauseam.  Boats streamed in and out non-stop, the nose of one boatload of tourists within smelling distance of the tail of the next.Big money was pushing the postcard Ninh Binh boat ride to the masses.   This was not our style.  Porter and I called it “industrial tourism.”

Our family didn’t stay in one of the fancy hotels, and we skipped out on the boat ride.  Instead, we rented motorbikes and scooted to a nearby cave system where we found the underwater pathway.  We hiked up a trail to a nice viewpoint where we could watch the ant-like stream of boats.  We stayed in a lovely homestay that looked about as appealing as a concrete block.  But the family running the place were anything but industrial – they were like bright red farmers market tomatoes in August.  The smiles of the grandma and grandpa who couldn’t speak any English but always found a snack or an extra glass to share tea made us feel welcome in Ninh Binh, a perfect antidote to industrial tourism.

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The Knight bus to Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park

After Ninh Binh, we wanted to go about 500 km South to the huge cave systems of Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park.  Most travelers in Vietnam (who didn’t have their own motorbikes), were taking “night busses.” Every good travel adventure must have a crazy bus story, just like every country musician must have a song about a dog and a truck.  This journey turned out to be ours.  Although we rode the night bus, we’ve since been calling it our Knight bus, after the wild purple vehicle from Harry Potter.  Our ride felt about as crazy, but real Knight busses are rarely driven by people as charming as Stan.

This bus system is intented for tourists, although many Vietnamese also choose night busses.  The busses are tall, with room to hold bunkbeds, three across.  Each “bed” is actually just a reclining seat, ergonomically designed to accommodate a 5’6″ person with size 8 feet perfectly.

At 9 pm, our bus pulled up.  There were two employees on the bus – a driver and assistant.  Their barking, stoccato commands quickly let us know told us these were a couple Mr. Angry Pants.

“You, over here!”  directing me to a bunk that was already occupied by a passenger’s bag.

“Kid, you go there!” telling Porter to go to the front while Amy and I were moving to the back.

Fortunately, there was also a Vietnamese tour guide who knew how to deal with the situation diplomatically.  He respectfully engaged the assistant like a matador dealing with an angry bull – a patient head nod, a few kind words back, a smile, and actions opposite the commands.  Along with the helpfulness of a few other travelers, we re-arranged the seats and were able to get beds near each other.  The bus lurched forward before anyone had settled in.

I levered myself into the small foot box, and laid my head back just beyond the headrest, and prepared for a night of no sleep.  Our ride was supposed to take 8 hours, but our driver must have been getting paid by the mile.  Because, he drove that bus like he was trying out for Fast and Furious.  We felt like we were strapped to the end of a windshield wiper in a proper Northwest downpour.   For the entire journey the bus swerved back-and-forth, sloshing us to either side of our seats.  Nobody slept until about 2 am, when our bodies finally grew sea legs.

We were supposed to arrive at Phong-Nha at 5 am, so when the interior lights switched on full blast at 3:30 am, we were a bit confused.  I checked my map.  Sure enough, we were in Phong Nha.  It was dark and misty outside.  The assistant ushered us off, leaving a small group of travelers befuddled, traumatized and huddled together, in a small mountain town, with nothing but a cool drizzle for shelter.

We stumbled down to our hotel, and around the back looking for a place to just rest out the remainder of the darkness.  We found some deck chairs around a pool area that were not totally wet.  So, we all curled up under cotton sarongs and waited for the light.  It took us the rest of the day to recover, and we barely mustered the energy to go for a 2 km run and moto ride to the river for drinks.

The next day, we got to explore the park, and the caves there.  WOW!  Amy and Porter have already described the Dark Cave well, so I won’t say much about that.  But the next day we went to Paradise Cave.  It was astounding.  I’ve included a few pictures.

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Hoi An

After the magic of Phong Nha, we caught an early morning bus ride to Hoi An, a small city in central Vietnam.  We arrived mid-morning, and were immediately surrounded by guesthouse owners and taxi drivers.  We typically don’t go with the first wave of service providers, preferring a little time and space before making any decisions.  But, one woman had a kind style.  She would give us a little sales pitch, then step back to let us think about it.  She spoke very good English, didn’t seem too pushy, and agreed to pay for half of our transport back to her homestay.  We decided to go have a look.

Once we agreed, we needed some transport.  No taxis around, just a few pushy motor scooter drivers, and the nice lady (also on her scooter).  We needed at least three.  I vaguely agreed to a price (how do you negotiate when you don’t know how far you have to go??!!), and off we went.  Here is a really great dad moment:  I jumped on the back of a scooter first, leading the charge, as men do.  Before I knew it, Amy and the kids were who-knows-where and “my guy” was flying through the traffic of Hoi An.  Nice work John, I had my bags and wallet, and had just left my wife and kids behind in somewhere, Vietnam, to ride with someone, to somewhere.  A bit unnerving.  Luckily, years ago I married well, and Amy sensibly made sure that the kids were tucked in behind the woman, and she had her driver stay in sight of the kids.

 

We arrived at the homestay, and found it to be simple and clean. The lady, named Dung (pronounced Yuom) ended up being one of our favorite people in Vietnam.  She let me know that I way over-paid to scooter drivers, but she paid half anyways.  Then she called them and gave them the what-for.  Yeah!

Dung was an incredibly lovely, hard-working and helpful host.  We loved her and her family.  Her kids, Mickey and Sophie, were outgoing darlings.  One day, Porter was doing homeschool, and Mickey showed interest in his work.  I gave her a couple math problems, which she enthusiastically got after.  She and Porter ended up in math races.  I told Porter that I wouldn’t share who won.

We loved Hoi An.  It is a medium-sized city, with small streets and quieter traffic.  It is a town of artisan and craftspeople – we visited tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers and of course, chefs.  Pretty much every day, Dung would give us a good tip on a place to visit or a food to try.  We grabbed bicycles (free to use from our homestay) and rode around town or the surrounding countryside.  We ate delicious Bahn Mi.  Porter and I carved a wood bowl by hand.  We had clothing tailored, and shoes cobbled.  We spent nearly a week, and on the last night Yuom made us a big dinner, to celebrate our friendship.

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A farewell to Vietnam

Our last stop in Vietnam was Jungle Beach, a quiet beach resort in South-central Vietnam.  It was a beautiful place – bamboo huts, a deserted beach, a jungle background and communal meals.  We met great people, who were traveling off the beaten path, no wonder we liked them:

Wendy, ziggy and Renault – a mom, son, and friend from France traveling for 3 months.  Ziggy and Porter had a good time playing in waves and sand together.  

Rico and Sophie – traveling partners from germany and Jamaica.  They were a blast and rico helped us for up a hemos ultimate on the. 

Mark and Nadia – traveling the length of Vietnam  by motorbike, from the north to the south.  Mark told great travel stories.  We enjoyed hiking up to a waterfall with them.  Then, at marks suggestion, porter he and I did some “boy stuff,” clamboring down the stream es instead of the trail.  Porter caught the spirit and suggested we go back via rock scrambling on the beach.  It look us one hour (rather than 10 minures on a road,  long, but awesome.

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We had arrived in Vietnam in a funk.  But gradually, our explorations, and encounters with wonderful people won us over.  It is a land with many faces, and with deep mystery.  Many parts seemed undecipherable to us: stories and images with clear purpose, but unknown meanings.  The traffic moved deliberately, but where?  Why is Mr. Angry Pants acting so angry?  What are all of those extra little accents and question marks on top of and below each letter in the language?  How do you say “beautiful?” or “delicious?”  Huh?  Again?  How far does this cave go back?  How do you eat this?  What do you think of Americans?

Every corner of Vietnam had a new, surprising view and voice.  It’s a vast, diverse country, filled with a sometimes intense, always vibrant, people.  A people eager to show off their beautiful landscape, a people eager to engage with a weary family, a people eager to make their mark on the world.  Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people, crept into our hearts.

 

 

Vietnam: Hanoi to Ninh Binh and Mr. Angry Pants

We arrived in Hanoi, in a travel slump.  Vietnam was our sixth new country in three months.  We weren’t excited to learn a new “hello-thank you-good bye-delicious-beautiful-I am ten years old” vocabulary, or eat a new food.  Our tongues and stomachs have been tickled by Southeast Asian cuisine, but the food we find the most nourishing is shared with other people (or elephants).  Since the intimacy of the Gibbon Experience and BEEs (elephants), we have met many people, but haven’t really connected with anyone.  We missed home, friends and pets.

But, we were landing in Hanoi, so we psyched ourselves up for a big Asian city.  The drive away from the airport seemed promising – interesting buildings, old French-colonial style, narrow and tall, with colorful fronts and decorated balconies.  The traffic was exotic, with a flow that seemed to follow the laws of fluid dynamics rather than engineering.  Motorbikes, pedestrians, cyclos, cars, bicyclists slid past one another, like dense tropical fish over a coral reef.  Every player was purposeful, perhaps a feeling we were searching for.

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Hanoi streets

 

Our taxi driver, though, cast a cloud over our initial enthusiasm.  He was a pushy, impatient man, unlike most people we’ve met (both in Vietnam and elsewhere).  Once we were safely in his car, he told us the fare would be higher than what we had agreed on originally.  He and I argued, but in the end I submitted, as I dislike conflict and sometimes doubt my membership in the subphylum vertebrata.  Amy’s instinct for thriftiness is quickly becoming a family trait, so once I agreed to the higher price I had to look straight ahead to avoid six piercing eyes and three furrowed brows.

We reached the street of our guest house, which was too narrow for the taxi to drive down, so the driver stopped the car in the middle of the road, impounding a long stream of hooting scooters and cars.  He turned to my and said,

“You pay!”

I had only large denomination bills from the ATM in the airport.  Mistake.  ALWAYS carry small change – as soon as you get big bills, break them down at the nearest convenience store.

“Do you have change?” I asked the driver.

“No!” he barked back, like a slap.

“Small change?” I asked again, wondering if we were having a communication breakdown.  This time I showed a large bill from my wallet.

“No!” he staccato berated me again.

Next, he totally shocked me by reaching into my wallet (which I held in my left hand) and literally shuffling through my cash looking for what he wanted!  I was momentarily stunned.  I pushed away his hand (yes, I actually had to physically remove his hand), closed my wallet, got out of the car, made sure all luggage and family members were accounted for, then ran across the street (remembering to not get hit by a bus in my slightly frazzled mind) into a nearby store to get change through buying a bag of tortilla chips.  I returned to the driver and paid him.  He sped off in a huff.  Not even a “Thank you,” or “Good bye.”

I’d become so used to the kind, open hearted people of Southeast Asia, that it was a bit of a shock to meet a jerk.  We’ve realized that “angry, demanding and pushy” is certain archetype of person in Vietnam.  We’ve only met a few, but they leave an impression, I now refer to his tribe as “Mr. Angry Pants.”  On the flipside, the tortilla chips I quickly bought were some of the best we’ve had – crisp, thick and salty!

Most people we met in Hanoi were friendly.  Despite Mr. Angry Pants, we were quite taken with the city.  The traffic, as I said, is fascinating. There is purpose and structure behind it, but it is an organic structure.  The streets of the old quarter are tight, grimey, overhung by a canopy of electrical wires and business signs – “photocopies,” “Pho,” “Bun chien,” “massage,” “guesthouse.”  Every sidewalk is cluttered by parked motorbikes and people squatting on little red, plastic stools (always red!), eating some sort of street noodle dish, or drinking green tea and spitting sunflower seeds.  The place feels like a messy child’s closet after he tidies it using the “stuff and slam the door” method.

We had landed in the morning, so our first culinary experience would be lunch.  Woo-hoo, Vietnamese food!  We stopped at the first crowded collection of stools.  A gregarious man ushered us inside to a cramped room with three long tables surrounded by, you guessed it, little red stools.  The floor was tile, covered in used straws, a few bones and wet napkins plastered to the floor.  Every seat was taken by Vietnamese (I assume) young people chatting and chewing.  Vietnam seems a quick country, where movement is favored over lingering, so it was only a few moments before some stools became available.  We were invited to sit down around a pile of bones and dirty dishes.  The detritus was swept away to who knows where, with more than a bit falling to the ground.  We sat down, but no menus.  People were getting food, but we couldn’t figure out how.  Huh.  This is one of those uncomfortable traveling moments that was awesome before kids, but with mouths to feed, my criteria has shifted.  Amy and I looked at each other, smiled, and decided to stay put.

Fortunately for us, sitting right next to us were three Vietnamese girls who could speak English.  They actually suggested we go elsewhere for Pho, but also told us this place was famous for noodle bowls, or bún ngan.  We went for it, and had tasty, but very non-Western some-kind-of-meat and some-kind-of-thickish-noodle soup bowls.  Mia and Porter were paralyzed, and did not touch the food.  We didn’t even push for a “courtesy bite.”  On the way out, the cook noticed that our kids didn’t eat.  She waggled a duck head at them with a big smile.  Mia basically shrieked, giving the hoped-for reaction, and laugh.  Mia was a great sport about it.

We spent a couple days wandering Hanoi, marveling at the pace.  Amy started making Mia and Porter navigate us by paper map.  It took a long time, and they were a little annoyed, but Porter enjoyed the challenge while Mia put up with it.  Even though I have a map.me app (which is awesome for navigation), you just can’t beat old technology for learning new skills.

 

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Amy helping Mia and Poe learn to read and navigate maps

Story update March 13:  We were in Hanoi at the beginning of March, and I am actually posting this mid-March, two weeks later.  Mia has turned into an excellent map navigator. In Hoi An, she has grown to enjoy the role of navigator from the back of Amy’s bike.  Whenever we reach an intersection, say “the corner of Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van,” I would pull out my phone for assistance.  Mia would see me and scold,

“No, put that away!  I am navigating!” she commands.  Not nearly as angry as Mr. Angry Pants, but just as bossy.  Another family trait I love to see emerge.  Her routes tend to be wrong according to my app, but with much less traffic and more pleasant.  

Back in Hanoi, we enjoyed the “Women’s Museum” and water puppet theater.  I found real coffee (wow!) although the local brew, Bia Hanoi, did not crack my top five SE Asian beers.  Too bad.

Amy and I debated where to go after Hanoi.  As I said previously, we were travel fatigued, and choosing where to go next was getting more and more laborious.  Everywhere sounded beautiful but touristy.  Ha Long Bay and Sapa are beautiful places in the North, but they were supposed to be cold and drizzly, and very popular (touristy).  We opted for warmer climes, south to Ninh Binh.  To get us there, Amy eschewed the pricey, “we’ll book you ticket for you” English-language signs, and ran to the train station, where she bought us tickets directly.  Success!  The train was an enjoyable four hour journey, costing us each $2.75.  Yeah baby.

We arrived in Ninh Binh (actually we stayed in a little town nearby called Tom Cok), glad to be in a smaller town.  We were staying in a guest house run by Mr. Gia, but really we just called him grandpa.  He is married to, of course, grandma.  Both of them were absolutely lovely!  They could not speak our language, but yearned to communicate with us (fortunately, for practical reasons, their daughter could speak English).  Every time we saw either grandma or grandpa, they would chat earnestly at us in Vietnamese.  We both would gesture broadly and cast butchered bits of English and Vietnamese words into the air between us, our communication taking shape for a moment before disappearing into the void of senselessness, like soap bubbles floating to pop.  After a few rounds of zero understood communication, we would all burst into a fit of laughter and go about our business.  Of course, they loved our kids.

On the second day in Ninh Binh, we ran into Mr. Angry Pants #2.  We rented motorbikes to go check out some caves nearby.  As we approached the trailhead, a guy walks out into the road with a semi-official looking uniform, holds up his hand and commands us to “Stop!”

He waved us towards some parking on the side of the road.

“No thank you,” I said, staring straight ahead, “we are just looking.”

“No!”  (Does Mr. Angry Pants know any other words?)  “You are here!”  Pointing to his little parking lot.

I lightly turned the throttle to move past him, but he grasped my handle bar and started turning my bars towards his parking area.  “Here!  Free for you!”

Free?  No way.  Grab my handlebars?  No way.  Again, I was taken aback by this guy’s audacity.  I pulled my handle bars away from his fingers, and buzzed onwards.  Amy said as soon as he realized that his bullying wasn’t going to work, his eyes immediately left me and scanned for his next victim coming down the path.  We were relieved to enter a gate where a very nice ticket booth lady showed us where we could park for free, and how to buy a ticket to go to the cave.  After speaking to several other travelers, we realized that Mr. Angry Pants’s sales tactics, though distasteful, were not without success.  Many people had parked at his “parking lot,” and paid the one dollar or so “fee.”

We’ve now encountered three other Mr. Angry Pants in addition to these first two.  It seems to be a personality type, but I have no idea why or if it really is a thing.  But, we’ve spoken with other travelers who know exactly what we are talking about.  As is often the case when I talk with other people about my own challenging perspectives, my judgement of Angry Pants’ behavior has become less harsh.

In particular, I spent some time speaking with Etienne, a French-Canadian man who used to work for the “Fish Police” in Vancouver, BC.  He has been travelling for, get this, five straight years!!!!!!  He is very interesting, and seems intent to just understand different countries and cultures around the world.  Even after five years of travel (his longest stay is two months in Rome), he still woke up early to stroll the markets of Hoi An; diving into who the Vietnamese people are.

Etienne also had some stories about encounters with a few Mr. Angry Pants.  But on the whole, he told me that he was just surprised that there were not more.

“After what they’ve been through, and after what other people have done to them, I am shocked that they are not more angry, or that there are not more angry Vietnamese.”  He opined.

Interesting.  In my Pacific Northwest, nearly Canadian mental sensibility, I see no need for brash bullies in this world.  But, I have never lived through war, I’ve never had my homeland invaded by one country after another.  I’ve rarely had my freedom trampled upon.  Except when a bully reaches into my wallet or pushes my handlebars against my will.  It sucks, it feels bad.  It makes me angry, like my pants are too tight.  Point taken.

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Luang Prabang

“Tal lat Phosy sam yeck wi ta nya rai kaan eung un?” Amy read off her iPhone screen.  I looked at the Tuk-tuk driver’s face, hoping the sounds she just uttered would somehow render into meaning.  Somehow, this message we’d received from our Air BnB reservation was supposed to direct us to beds. No chance.  Then again, Amy’s ability to correctly pronunciate Laos is about as good as Josie’s ability to speak French.  So, we tried our best speaker – Mia.  Mia tried, and it sounded like Laos to me, but the driver still stared with incomprehension.

We tried to let the driver read the message, nothing.  He flagged down two other drivers to look at it.  Nope.  Google translate?  The app kept thinking the message was in arabic, WTF?  No phone number, no email address, just this cryptic sentence, and a vague blue location circle on the Air BnB map.  Arrgghh!

Finally, we just asked to get dropped off near the Phosy Market, hoping we could stumble into our place near the only decipherable landmark from the message.  So, we walked some side streets; Amy asked passerbys and a receptionist at a swanky river resort for help, strikes two and three.  But, the receptionist felt sorry for us and offered a room for $100 (normally like $140/night).  Amy was all in, and ready to override me if I hesitated over budget.  Apparently, I said “oh, okay,” which Amy thought meant we’ll take it.  I followed up with “that’s too much, no way.”  Amy hid it well but told me her heart sank at the denial.  The kids groaned.

After twenty minutes, mutiny was a real possibility, so we plopped down, defeated, on a crumbly concrete sidewalk.  Motorbikes and cars streamed purposefully by, the sun was bright but no longer hot, and we were hungry.  This is the kind of story that I expected when I was a single traveler.  But with kids getting hangrier, not so fun!  Welcome to Luang Prabang.

Our spirits were low, having just stepped off a surprisingly enjoyable two-day river journey down the Mekong River from Huay Xai, and the amazing Gibbon Experience.  We had traveled by “slow boat,” a long wooden vessel that could seat around 70 people, and stuff 30 or 40 in the back near the giant diesel engine.  The scenery was interesting – a river thick with silt, swift and turbulent.  The canyon walls were a fragmented mix of jungle, rocky outcrops, and villages, frequently interrupted by large equipment – cranes, bulldozers and backhoes readying this river for a Chinese and Thai-funded series of dams.  It reminded me a bit of what the Columbia might have been like before Bonneville and Grand Coulee.

In the boat we had time to read and play with new travel companions.  A young guy, Niels, from Netherlands, started several card games.  He took a liking to Porter, teaching him new games and discussing strategy.  The best was when he asked if we wanted to learn,

“Shithead, it’s a classic British drinking game.  Not too hard, so you can keep playing when you get really drunk.  There’s no winners, just one shithead!”

World exposure comes in many forms.  Very fun.  I was shithead once, so was Porter.

The boat dropped us off an annoying 10 km north of Luang Prabang at 4 pm, forcing us to pay for a tuk-tuk into town.  By 6pm, sitting on the curb, we were all feeling like the losers of the card game, but fortunately our luck was about to change.  In good macho style, I told them to wait steet-side while I went in search of our digs.  I ran down a small street, sniffing for a good spot to be a guesthouse.  I saw a beautiful large white house right on the river, and thought/hoped it might be it.

There were a couple kids toys and a soccer ball on the porch, good signs.  I entered the lobby, it was deserted, with a thin layer of construction dust on the floor.  There was a front desk, but no advertisements or order to the piles of papers.  A kid, maybe 6 years old in spider-man PJs, darted out of a hallway.  At the sight of me, he turned heel and scampered down a wide teak staircase.  “Hello, sa bai dee?” I called out after him in English and Laos (about the only word I say that is understood).

A Laos woman about my age walked up the stairs, “Can I help you?” in lovely English.  Her name was Noi.  I asked for directions to our place, but she didn’t know about it.  Although her hotel appeared vacant, I asked if she had a room for us.  She seemed momentarily puzzled, but then broke into a grin and said, “Yes, but will you eat?  Our kitchen is not ok,” she apologized.

Noi showed me the room; it was beautiful, with a private veranda overlooking the river and the dirt hole where a swimming pool will eventually be built.  It should have been expensive, but no pool or food made for a cheap offer, $36 and I talked her down to $30.  I think maybe the hotel was closed for construction, judging from no other guests, but the rooms were all done up and ready for visitors, weird.

I marched back and grabbed Amy and kids.  We flopped into the room after weathering many more apologies for no kitchen.  Mia was ecstatic about the place, especially when she saw it had a proper hot water shower (which turned out to be her “best in two months.”)  After settling in, everyone was too tired to go out for food.  But, I know my family, they would sooner wither of starvation than make the effort to find a proper meal, so I offered to go fetch food.  Back out on the streets the night market was already shut down, but there were a few vendors still open under weak fluorescent lights.  I bought baguettes, hun-bao rolls, instant noodles, sticks of some sort of charcoaled meat, and oh, look there, Beer Lao!  Things were looking up.

I brought my prizes back to our hotel.  Noi and her family were enjoying their own dinner, and Noi offered us a table.  I ran upstairs to get Amy and the kids.  Meanwhile Noi had put our food out for us and brought out some plates and cutlery.  Once the food was out, it became very clear that I had bought the dregs of the night market.  The meat was sinewy chunks of chicken skin and maybe some type of pork knuckle?  The hun-boa was ok, but too chewy, like it had been sitting under a heat lamp all night.  The baguettes were dry and crusty.  Noi couldn’t stand it, so she offered to make us a plate of fried rice.  She brought it out, beautifully done, and it was delicious.

While we ate, Mr. Chen Thome pulled up a chair.  He turned out to be the owner of the hotel, a wealthy man of Laos-Chinese descent.  He had a big smile, and was eager to sit with us.  He could not speak any English, but he had a friend, Kham Sang, with him who could, and so could Noi.  We hacked through some conversation, and soon discovered that Mr. Chen Thome was a businessman, he owned a couple factories in China. We saw a few pictures of giant pigs hanging from hooks, while we ate chicken or pork fried rice.  Never look in the sausage factory!  Mr. Chen Thome found out that he and I are the same age.  That’s when he started bringing out cans of cold Beer Lao.  “Cheers!” over and over and over.  It turns out that we were the first western guests at the hotel, and the reconstruction was to make the hotel more desirable for westerners.  Perhaps we all felt equally fortunate.

The following day, we thanked our hosts, took about a hundred pictures, then searched for a room closer to town with better food nearby.  We found a lovely guest house on the Nam Khan river, an old French-colonial teak house run by Mr. Sam, a nice man with three teenage kids.  We ended up spending a relaxing week in Luang Prabang, just enjoying leisurely strolls around town with a few other adventures like:

Eating delicious food

shopping at the night market

movie nights at L’estrange book store (Sully and Dr. Strange)

home school

swimming in the river and at Kuang Si waterfall

“A Quest for Pain” bike ride – Porter and I sought up some mountain biking with not enough water, no good directions, and bikes in need of some Chad Wertz attention.  Bad start, painful middle, a few laughs at the end, same story as our landing in Luang Prabang.

A class at the “Weaving Sisters” which will probably need its own post.

Good times.  I think we were trying to find a little peaceful hamlet to live our “regular life,” similar to Bellingham for a few days.  Bham is the “city of subdued excitement.”  Luang Prabang seemed like the city of subdued Asia.

Here is a video of swimming:

Photos:

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A LOT of Thai cooking school (re-post)

Note:  This is a re-post, somehow I deleted my original.

A great benefit to travelling with my kids is an open calendar.  There are no soccer practices to get to, lawns to mow, or meetings to attend.  We have time.  Bring that to boil with a little seasoning of a personally recommended Thai cooking school, and Mia and I found ourselves with a delicious day.

A friend of ours, Jessica, an amazing chef in Bellingham and owner of Ciao Time, suggested we look up her friend Yui at “A Lot of Thai cooking School.”  They weren’t the cheapest school, but Jessica’s recommendation carries some serious calories.  I emailed them,but they only had space for two of us.

So, who get to go?  Mia was a sure thing as one of her goals is to make Asian food for friends and family when we return.  Amy was feeling a bit sick, so I drew the other lucky card.  I asked Yui if they had “kids prices.”  Yui responded,

“No, she is twelve, she is old enough to cook her own food.”  Immediately I liked this woman.

I must say that I am a little surprised that Mia wanted to go.  This was the day after “Temple Tired,” and Mia was in serious need of some downtime.  But, this young woman is mentally strong, my respect for her grows by the day (another benefit of traveling – I get to observe my kids more closely!).  When I suggested that she didn’t need to go, she ruminated on the choice:

“Well, I want to sleep in, but I also want to go to the cooking class.  I mean, I promised Auntie Amy that I would make her a meal.”  Yay, a day with my daughter, learning about one of my favorite pastimes, eating!

img_0071We were picked up by Yui and her husband Kwan in their charismatic Volkswagon bus.  I have yet to see another in Southeast Asia.  I asked her why they owned one.  She gave the typical bus owner’s answer:  A puzzled shrug of shoulders as if the answer was obvious, “We have a serious mental condition.”  She went on to tell me that there is only one mechanic in town who can work on busses, and he is 70 years old.  With a wink and a look over her shoulder at Kwan, she told us that she wants Kwan to buy the guy’s business (and tools).  He just shook his head, probably well aware of the life of a VW mechanic.

We arrived at the school with several other vagabonds from around Chiangmai.  The school is open-air, along a shaded side of their house.  Each student had their own cooking station, on a “proper Thai” cooking stove:  a dual-ring gas burner.  Pretty smart really, the outer ring allows rapid heating (for a boil say), while the inner provides a good low-heat flame to simmer.  Yui told us that successful Thai people who build their own “Western-style house” usually have a European kitchen with stove, microwave, inside.  But, they cook on a “Thai kitchen” outside.  Ha!  Yui’s observations often were seasoned with humor.

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Mia at her cooking station

When you learn from a chef, you learn a LOT.  Maybe that’s why the school is called “A LOT of Thai.”  Yui is a great teacher.  She not only instructed us on how to make a dish, but she talked about the molecular nature of food, how to properly heat up a wok, how to cut food correctly, and about her curiosity and experimentation with food.  For example, she told us how she consults with another restaurant.  First thing, she looks at their facilities – their stove and cutlery.  She tells them to make dishes that fit those.  She instructed us to cut our vegetables into “woman bites.”  She ranted about male chefs who implicitly cater to men by cutting their food too large.  Food should be the right size to fit into a woman’s mouth, AND to fit on the eating utensil – no longer than the width of the spoon.  So smart!  A simple little bit of thinking about geometry to make the final eating experience more pleasurable.  The entire day was filled with such little gems of wisdom and experience.

 

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Yui putting the finishing touches on pad-si-ew.

Yui began by showing us how to prepare Pad-si-ew, stir-fried noodles with vegetables.  This was a simple dish, and to be honest I wasn’t all that excited about learning it – stir-fried vegetables?  Sounds dull.  But as we all circled her wok, she tackled a problem I have wrestled with probably a thousand times:  sauteeing garlic without burning it.

“What we want,” she said, “is to get the flavors of the garlic into the oil, without burning it.  Why then, do we put the garlic into the oil and continue cooking?”  She suggested we get the wok and oil hot (two burners), then turn off for half a minute or so before dropping the garlic in.  Turn on low heat from there.  Genius!  My garlic never burned.  Good science:  Identify the problem, research the dynamics, hypothesize a solution, test!  I was so into this school and this teacher.

Yui explained the rest of the dish.  The key to a good stir-fry is timing, so it was important that we prepare all the foods and sauces first.  The actual cooking only took two minutes or so.  Mia was struck by the frenzy of the cooking.  Soy and oyster sauces into noodles to marinate, oil heats, garlic infuses, pork sizzles, noodles slide in, broccoli stems sear to translucent, greens heat to bright colors.   Turn off the heat, plate and eat!  Wow – stir-fry is too simple John?  Think again.

Our next dish was Som Tum, or green papaya salad.  Yui’s instruction focused on balancing flavors – she held up her two index fingers so the tips lined up.  She wiggled the left, “this is sour,” followed by wiggling the right, “this is salt, they are even.”  Then, in the air between, she drew a concave arc, like a little Asian style suspension bridge, “here is sweet.”  Next the drew a concave shape, like a stone arch, and shook her head at the bulge, “never too sweet.  You can always add sweet, but you can’t take it away.”  Whoa, life philosophy perhaps?

Another classic bit of Yui instruction:

“If you cut the tomatoes into the same size pieces, you will fail the class.  Make each bite interesting – different shape, different size, different amounts of flavor!” she instructed.  She went on to explain that by changing the size of pungent tomato pieces, every bite was different and interesting.  You add a different amount of flavor to every moment.

Since Mia and I had already made Som Tum a few times in Sriboya, we experimented.  To reduce the strong flavors that put Mia off most good food, she used only a nip of a chili pepper (instead of two or three whole ones) and she didn’t add any dried shrimp.  Hers was delicious.  Mine ended up a bit too sweet, as I free-styled how much cocunut sugar to add.  Yui was right, I couldn’t mask the sweet with lime or fish sauce.

The third, and last savory dish of the day was Khao Soy, sort of a red curry-like soup with soft and crispy egg noodles and chicken.  It is a specialty of northern Thailand and Laos, even though it is not traditional norther Thai cooking (coconuts generally don’t grow in the cooler North).  We started by deep frying a handful of egg noodles in oil to make an interesting crispy nest.  Next, we prepped and cooked the sauce:  Bring a couple tablespoons of red curry paste and coconut cream to a quick boil, or until the spicy-fragrance bites your nose.  Add the chicken until it is just seared, then add coconut milk and boil again.  Add curry powders, fish sauce, light soy sauce, sugar and a thick, dark, sweet soy sauce.  Check for a rich yellow-red color dotted by dark brown splotches of sauce.  Taste for all flavors but sour.  Simmer to be sure the meat is finished cooking.

Boil egg noodles and shake off the water to stop cooking.  Pour the sauce over, and add the crunchy nest to the top to make an appealing plate.  Serve with fermented vegetables, limes and thinly sliced shallot.  Wow, delicious.  I almost must stop writing this to run out and get a plate.  This dish must become a John-Mia Chesbrough signature.

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Mia’s Khao Soy

The final dish of the day was mango sticky rice, hands-down Mia’s favorite dish to eat.  Yui, in typical fashion started by talking about high quality fresh ingredients – the right rice, a good mango, and fresh coconut milk.  She told stories about how her father was one of the first people in her village to buy a grinder to make coconut milk.  Yui had already cooked the sticky rice – a mix of about two-thirds white grain and one-third dark grains.  We mixed the rice with coconut cream, sugar and salt.  Sliced mango, not too perky, not too floppy, on top.  Finally drizzle a sweetened coconut milk sauce over everything.  Whoa, eating it is a sensation not unlike sliding your washed body into 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

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Mmmmm, mango sticky rice

At the end of the day, Yui toured us through a local market, introducing us to the many foods and personalities of the aunties and uncles in there.  Lots of laughs and nibbles, although most of us were pretty food coma’d out by that time.  Finally, the bus dropped us off at our guest houses.  Most just had memories, but since Mia doesn’t actually like eating anything too spicy, we had a bagful of food.

We reunited with Porter and Amy.  Although Amy was not hungry, as we started re-telling our day, her interest perked up.  She devoured the stir-fry over Mia’s gesticulating story about a wild and hot wok.  Amy moved onto the Som Tum and finally the Khao Soy.  “MMmmm resonated through the concrete walls of our cramped little room.”  After eating all of the food, and listening to Mia, Amy basically asked us to tell her everything again.  She was so lost in the flavors, she had just let the words pour over her head like a massaging water fall.  A soundtrack to a lovely taste experience.

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A getting well Amy devouring Mia’s Som Tum.

At the end of the day, we could not wipe smiles off our faces – proud, satisfied.  As we shared stories and food with Amy and Porter, Mia she stated one of her favorite sayings, “One of the best feelings in the world is when something you do makes someone else happy.”  The next day Amy’s sickness was basically gone.  Coincidence?  Can good food made with love cure someone’s ills?  I think so.

More photos from the day:

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Temple tired

Amy and I have had this plan for mental health on our trip.  Every week or so (every seventh day?), we would plunk down somewhere happy and fun for recovery and rest.  Maybe find a place with a swimming pool.  But in Chiang Mai, our budget was limiting us to small rooms without much space to lounge.  With a need to slow down, but no appealing place to be slow in, we compromised to a short outing – just a small wander to the Chiang Mai University gift shop.  That was the plan.  But I think I was feeling claustrophobic, a little stir-crazy, like Josie two days after her last run.  That’s my excuse anyway for why I hijacked our family’s weekly Sabbath.

I Google-found a blogpost about a trail leaving from near the university, called the Monk’s Trail.  The blogger suggested an hour-long walk up to one temple, followed by a second, steeper journey up to the “spectacular” mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep.  Perfect, I thought.  We’ll stretch our legs, get a tich of exercise, breath-in some nature, then return to the guest house to lounge the afternoon away.  I proposed the idea to the kids, “Come on, it’s just a one hour walk, it will feel good!”  They both responded with squinty eyes and raised hackles, sensing an intruder into their peaceful domain.

Mistake #1.  I bull-dogged my agenda.

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Mia at the meditation retreat, this picture is foreshadowing?

We got a late start, around noon, and we flagged a tuk-tuk from our guest house.  I insisted we eat a proper lunch to prevent hangry kids and mom.  Turns out that was about my only correct decision of the day.  We explored the university; it was open and green, filled with enthusiastic and chatty college students.  Mia asked a couple helpful Thai girls for directions, and we soon found her shopping spot.  The birds were chirping and the sun was shining, a lovely day.

Then, as the afternoon wore on, I veered us towards the Monk’s Trail.  After about 1 km walking in the afternoon heat, we were on a nearly deserted road, and I first realized my second mistake of the day.

Mistake #2.  We had no more water.

Porter, never a fan of a boring walk without bike, scooter or skis, started dragging.

He lamented, “Uh, it’s so hot.  I’m so tired.  I’m so thirsty.  How far do we have to go?  This is a terrible day…”

I retorted with a perky carrot, “Just think how delicious the ice cream will be after we’ve had a bit of exercise!”

Amy sensed the precariousness of our situation, and brandished the stick, “You always hate hiking at the outset, then you have fun.  If you walk the whole way without complaining, we will get ice cream.  If you complain, tomorrow you and I are going to tour museums all day long.”

Laughter from Mia.  Porter retreated, and marched on in silence.

Correct decision # -5,285.  I married Amy.

We reached the trailhead after nearly an hour walking, both kids moving well.  The trail was quite nice, in the shade.  We reached a trail junction: one route offered a few more points of interest than the other.  The kids did not waver in their campaign to recapture the day, “Which one is shorter??”

We pushed on, reached a false summit, kept going.

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Weary

 

Mistake #3.  I read every sign.  I explored the crumbled remains of an ancient temple. I lingered in jungle cricket noises.

We reached the first temple.  Actually, it was a meditation center, set on a hillside, in the forest.  It was lovely and serene.  The kids must have been relieved.  They had basically agreed to the hijacker’s terms.  We enjoyed the view over Chiangmai and found a stall selling thai ice tea and water.  Amy and I asked the vendor about further route options.  She suggested there no easy way to flag a taxi, the mountain-top temple was still 45 minutes to an hour further, the way was steep, but the view at the end was spectacular.  The blogpost I had read also suggested that the second part of the hike would be 70 to 80 minutes.

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Mistake #4.  I said to Amy something like, “Probably just Thai time, they don’t realize that we are hikers.  I’ll bet it’s fifteen minutes, tops.”

Mistake #5.  I repeated the thought to the kids, verbatim.

In the air between my mouth and their ears, my words took shape, hardening from malleable conjecture into the hard promise of parent to child.  Mia and Porter leaned in, recognizing the day for what it was – a coup.   Like good soldiers captured by General Sherman, they just plodded on.

After 15 minutes following steep stairs chopped into the hard soil, we admitted the meditation center lady’s route description was probably correct.  By this time, the afternoon Sun was low.  Maybe not quite as low as Mia’s attitude, but close.  To her credit, Mia doggedly climbed on, losing water through sweat and tears.  A sobbing, frustrated, tired kid.  I dared not say anything, but Amy hung back.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”  Usually those kind of words are the kiss of death, especially the sweetie part.  But, I think Mia was too worn out to be mad.

“I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, there’s a bug in my water, I miss Josie, this has not been a good Valentine’s Day.”  She sobbed.  But she kept walking, such a trooper.

Porter, was scampering up the hill, embodying his inner Josie.  He was tired, but mostly mad.  He just stared at me and said flat out, “You lied to us.”

Correct decision #2.  I kept my mouth shut.

We finally reached the top of the trail around the late afternoon, but unfortunately the end was just a bend in the very steep paved road.  The final half-kilometer of walking was on road.  A Thai traveler from Bangkok was taking a smoke break, and kindly offered our kids some fragrant oil to rejuvenate them.  After looking at their faces a bit closer, he just gave us the entire bottle.

We trudged up further, getting passed by fossil-fueled ease of modern transport – tuk-tuks and busses filled with sedated tourists.  Finally, we reached the parking lots and accompanying gawkers and hawkers.  I bought some water and offered to buy the kids any drink they wished.  Both kids refused to be bought off so easily; they would not allow me to buy forgiveness.  Finally, I just bought a couple Sprites and stuck them in their hands, this was survival now.  The final climb to the temple was a mockery – a steep, 100+ stairs of dragon staircase, crawling with tourists, like a ripe piece of mango made inedible by a swarm of ants.

 

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100+ stairs leading up to Doi Suthep.  Mia had charged up so fast the first time, I didn’t get a chance for a photo.

Porter tried to wrest some control back, “Ok, let’s catch a bus and go down.  They are probably going to charge us to go in, and there are like a million tourists.  I don’t want to go up there.”  Porter was using a subtle art of persuasion – appealing to Amy’s thriftiness, and our dislike of overly popular tourist destinations.  I must admit to feeling some solidarity, both kids by now recognize the difference between meaningful moments and touristy visits.  But, I was going to see the damn temple.

“Seriously?” I protested.  “After all that effort, with the end nearly in sight, you are just going to turn back?”

Unfortunately for Porter, at my words, Mia resigned any remaining protest, and she just charged up the steps, powered by huff.  Porter moaned, but followed.

The temple was nice, but we were templed out.  However, the sugar from the Sprite was kicking into our blood and the tourists crowds were thinning out.  We admired the many gold-enshrouded Buddhas and other spiritual symbols.  To me, the more ornate a temple is, the less interested I become.  I sort of like the old, crumbly structures more.  Doi Suthep  is elegant, but very gold.  Mia and Porter fell into a laughing fit about lighting some candles and trying to take pictures of the flame.

Then, at 6 pm, a row of monks appeared.  They asked all tourists to be silent, and to kneel with them before the great steeple in the center of the temple.  The sun was low, the light was soft and all grew quiet.  An older monk lit incense, then led the others in bowing and chanting.   Mia and Porter had transitioned into tired hysterical mode, and couldn’t stop cracking each other up.  They finally clamped hands over mouths and scampered out of the area to enjoy their chuckles in peace.  The monks rose and moved into another chamber for more chanting.  We were invited to participate.  We kneeled until my body’s perseverance ran out – foot cramps, the bane of my spirituality.  I’d make a lousy monk.

We reunited with Mia and Porter, it was nearly dark by this point.  They had somehow flipped their attitudes from revolt to reveling, and we caught a tuk-tuk back down the mountain.  We had a great shopping experience with a woman selling meditation bowls.  Despite being the physics teacher, I am the worst at producing a resonant sound in the metal dish.  We met a very interesting couple from the US, Rob and Cailey, traveling for a bit before heading to Nepal for a 3-month research project into high altitude sickness.  We ate expensive pizza for dinner, and Thai pancake for dessert.  Yum.

A second goal in our trip was to be challenged out of our comfort zones.  This day certainly accomplished that.  We will see if there are lasting effects over the next couple weeks.

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