Salamat, Sooasday, Sawadi Ka, Sabai Dee, Xin Cao, Namaste, Hello
Bali was ocean, rain, friends, incense, temples, garbage, and stairs. Lombok was motorbikes, shells, beaches, Christmas, New Years, call to prayer, and Rupiah. Malaysia was friends, fun, love, Ringgit, and home. Cambodia was temples, Riel, silk screening, school, beautiful, and people. Thailand was family, friends, food, Baht, elephants, dogs, shopping, pancakes, and iced tea. Laos was zip lining, tree houses, movies, bookstore, Kip, waterfall, rest. Vietnam was cold, crazy, traffic, big, small, Dong, caves, markets, beach, bikes, fun. Nepal was beautiful, kind, lovely, kids, hiking, teahouses, Dal Baht, sick, hail, orphanage, henna, Rupee, loss.
I feel blessed for the privilege of taking this trip. South East Asia was more than I ever imagined. I learned and experienced diverse cultures, food, and animals. I got blessed by a Buddhist monk in Cambodia, I learned how to make Som Tam from a Thai grandmother, I walked through the jungle to find three old lady elephants, I zip lined to tree houses, I crossed a street in Hanoi, and I trekked in Nepal. I have seen and done incredible things. I am forever grateful.
Bali, Lombok, Cambodia, Thailand, and Nepal taught me to be kind and loving to all people, no matter your beliefs. Malaysia, Bali, Laos, and Vietnam taught me that friends are a treasure, and they make an experience one hundred times better than it already is. Seven countries in South East Asia taught me that language is important, and is so much fun to learn. My trip to South East Asia changed the way I see the world around me.
Terima Kasih, Akun, Kop Kun Ka, Kop Jai, Cam On, Dhanyabad, Thank You
Our home away from home deserves a quick post. The Mangelsdorfs have taken us in 4 times, always with love, laughter, generosity and comfort.
Max Lisa Lucas Ethan and Ana (M5) are friends from our time in South Africa. The first year we were there, Lisa was pregnant with Ethan, the second year I was pregnant with Mia and wore all of Lisa’s maternity clothes. They held Mia the day she was born. They were like family then and they are absolutely family now.
Since South Africa they have lived and worked in Sumatra Indonesia and now Malaysia for the past 8 years. M5 took a year off last school year and traveled the states visiting family and friends. We were lucky to be one of their stops. We talked long about traveling in Asia and through those discussions our four 4 four destination was decided.
We originally intended to spend only 1 week with M5 in Kuala Lumpur in January. As it turns out KL is the little known center of the universe and all cheap flights go through KL. So, we spent a week at the house in January, a few days in February, a week at spring break and a final night before we left this morning to fly home.
Lisa said that she thinks we could probably live together long term (in a bigger house) because we really understand each other’s crazy. I agree and it will be hard not to pop in for a visit very soon.
We are so grateful for our time together, our time in a family home and so many laughs.
During our time together:
We had 3 adult nights out including roof top drinks with views of the towers and a secret entry speak easy for drinks.
We had Food Food and more Food – Nasi Kandar, chicken rice, Dumplings, Indian, Tapas and of course home cooking. We had chicken fish and Durian challenge in a down pour
I went to book club, the boys played basketball and soccer at the school, we saw Rogue One, visited the SPCA and children’s hospital.
We hiked in the jungle and were attacked by leeches (I’m not kidding and they are the most vile creature). We visited a bamboo eco resort for water play.
We saw Lukas’s school performance of Hamilton (AMAZING)
We played many rounds of The Game (a version of charades) and were introduced to the fun group phone game Drawful.
Thank you Mangelsdorfs. We love you and will miss you.
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.
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.
Driving in a cloud
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.
Bajendra always has a smile
Paths are roads, donkeys are trucks
The village of Ulleri
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.
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.
Mia with Kaki
Front porch art
Sick boy, with weird baby poster
teahouse host family
view from the porch
Ulleri teahouse and annapurna south
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I could see my ugliness reflected in the faces of my distraught and sinking children. I was in danger of souring the day with no chance of recovery. I could see it all happening and yet I could not stop myself. Fueled by thriftiness, justice and the desire to be right, I picked a fight at the dark cave.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam is home to massive wet and dry cave systems, one being the largest in the world. Most of the caves are closed to the public and/or require a guide to enter, we opted to visit only the ones that allow self-touring. It turns out that only one of two visited actually allowed self-touring. It also turns out that we wish we had paid to do a more extensive tour, because the caves and jungle were amazing.
The first cave we decided to visit was the dark cave, because it advertised ziplining into the cave, cave exploration and a mud bath. Believe it or not, this aspect of the adventure was what caught Mia’s eye. She has a new found appreciation for mud after making mud sculptures and mucking waist deep in a lagoon at Railay beach in Thailand).
We arrived at the dark cave on motorbikes. Motorbiking into the National park was an activity in itself. Beautiful primary jungle, very little traffic, freedom of the road. Mia and I always ride together because she doesn’t like to go fast and I have a comfort speed zone that is just too safe and slow for Porter. We make a good team. She navigates and waves at little kids, I drive and try not to get hit by a bus. Mia and I kept losing our engine on the steep down hills but would just coast to the bottom and fire it up again. The road through the national park was spectacular. I thought that I had been in the jungle before, but this was pristine, dense, lush jungle. It feels as though you drink it in like a thick green smoothie. I hoped that Mia and Porter might absorb some good green nutrients that have been so lacking from their white rice diet.
After arriving at the dark cave, the sign up woman at the entrance informed us that the kids would not be able to zipline due to being under 40kg and therefore we would have to kayak to the entrance instead. This was the first annoyance. I mildly argued that we had just done the world’s most extensive network of ziplines; we know how to do it, and pull ourselves across if needed. Porter was especially chuffed not only because he likes to zip but he considers himself a bit of an expert post Gibbon Experience. Porter has also been feeling generally ignored in Asia. We call it “adored but ignored.” Patted, pinched and pet but not really heard. As I write this, I realize that the Gibbon Experience and Bees were two places that allowed Porter the freedom to learn and discover on his own, he was trusted with responsibility and his needs were heard. They were also his two favorite experiences of the trip.
I got a little worked up about the no ziplinng and asked if there was a family discount since their rule precluded us all from ziplining. She said no discount but the kids are half price. I let it go, felt good about the kid price and knew that a safety rule is a safety rule and not likely to bend. The sign up woman then waved Mia over to a measuring stick and informed us that she is too tall to get the kid price. Too light for zipping, but too tall to be a kid. WHAT?!?!?!?!
I boiled at the injustice. I let every bit of Vietnam frustration rush to the surface. I was going to punish this ticket person for my travel fatigue, my disappointment in the food, our encounters with Mr. Angry Pants, the difficult language, the cold weather, my untethered, homesick, and purposeless angst.
“How can she be treated like a child and not get child prices, that makes no sense!” We went back and forth several rounds, I was getting uglier by the minute, she was keeping her composure and a plastered smile, hoping that I would just go away.
Meanwhile, the kids were sinking as deeply into their negative moods as they were into their chairs. Porter was verbalizing his dislike of this place and “what a rip off.” We have been trying to limit how much we talk about bigger costs of things as Porter has developed a bit of a money worry while traveling. His interest in the good deal has morphed into genuine concern that we are going to run out of money. Even with this knowledge, I could not stop. I told the kids that I was aware of how I was ruining the experience but it would be over soon and we would be a happy family once again and the cave would be GREAT! (clenched teeth), BUCK UP everyone! (forced smile).
It is in my nature to be both a rule follower and a rule breaker. John is always taken off guard when one or the other instinct pops up. I may not want to jump the fence and face getting in “trouble” but I certainly don’t think that excessive entrance fees apply to me. Needless to say, this was a rule worth breaking, destroying, obliterating and most definitely not worth following. I was certain I could break this rule.
And so, I called in the Manager. A short athletic type with the typical endearing outdoor-rec chummy humor. His charms worked, I let up and he agreed to ask the “big boss.”
“I ask big boss,” he said, pointing upstairs, “I just little boss, little boss loose my job if I don’t follow rules.”
It’s hard to argue the case for Mia being small when she is nearly the height of most grown men – including the manager. He was quite literally “the little boss.” I’m not sure the call actually happened, but he did go through the motions. No discount. It’s over, I lost, we move on right? No. My classic next move when I know I’m losing the battle is to seek validation that although I have lost, “I AM RIGHT!” A few more rounds, manager has lost his charm, I am utterly defeated.
In the end, I accomplished nothing but souring the mood, accosting a woman and feeling ashamed of my misguided conviction. I apologized to the family for my behavior and turned on my uber-chipper-make the best of it-attitude. My family is resilient and forgiving. Every step away from the check in, moods started to lift.
Kudos to Mia. Her 28kg skin and bones frame jumped into a cold river, walked into a dark cool cave wearing only a swim suit and headlamp helmet. Shivering along the muddy passage ways, hands bracing on the muddy walls, entering a cold muddy pool with no shore and no shallow end– not a peep. When John pointed out that she was really a four-4-four trooper on this day, she responded calmly but firmly, “oh I know, I know….and you owe me some painful shopping days.”
The highlight of the cave was a chamber filled with mud. Waist high, latte-colored swimming pool with the texture of gritty thick water instantly covered our bodies in a thin layer of creamy brown. Kinda cool? Kinda grosss? Kinda mysterious? Yes, yes and yes.
Porter was of course leading the pack with the guide and entered the pool first. We had heard that the mud was more buoyant than water but we were all still on our feet and it just seemed like muddy water. Suddenly, Porter was floating on his back with most of his body out of the muddy water. He was laughing and shouting with disbelief and delight. We all tentatively lifted our legs and boing, up to the surface we bobbed, most of our bodies pushed out of the slurry. It became a giggle fest in the echoey chamber. Once floating, it was hard to get my legs back under me and my body just kept rolling around on the surface. Mia and I experimented with the balance point curled up in a ball and paddled ourselves across the pool in this position.
We were the last of the large group to leave the mud chamber. With the rest of the group out of site down a skinny corridor, six of us paused in the adjacent dry chamber. We turned off our headlamps and stood in silence in absolute, complete darkness. For me it was at first exhilarating, timeless, and vast. In the next moment, just before turning on our lamps, a glimpse of crushing panic, thick air, hard to breathe. John and I looked at each other wide eyed, “did you feel that?” “I felt it.”
The day ended with John and Porter playing on a series of ropes and small zip lines over the river. Mia and I shivered our way through a cold shower and dressed in every layer we brought. Pringles have never tasted sooo good. We motored home with the setting sun, leaving behind my dark mood. I could feel a shift happening in my psyche that often comes with unrelenting nature and good old fashioned giggles.
I have included pictures from the national park and Paradise cave, which we visited the next day. Paradise was discovered in 2005 by a local farmer. A small opening only a few meters wide, opens into a vast cavern reaching dimensions of 72m high and 150m wide. It measures 31km in length. We walked the boardwalk 1 km in. Although the cave was built up with boardwalks and flood lights and attracted many tourists, it was a wondrous site to behold.
Mone means pillow in Lao language. We met our friend Mone, who is not in fact a pillow, but a twenty-eightish year old woman from southern Laos. She is only four-foot eight, and can sit with her legs flat-out in front of her for hours.
The day started when dad got us up early to rent bicycles and bike to the other side of the river and through villages and that kind of thing. However, after four different unsuccessful bike shops, and the bright, hot sun on our shoulders (which had not been sun screened that morning) we admitted defeat and sat in the shade with a sandwich and a smoothie. Mom suggested that we split up: Porter and dad go do whatever, and she and I go check out a weaving class she had looked up. To get there, we had to cross the bamboo bridge. A really scary bridge over the river made out of bamboo that creaked and popped, and pretty much made us feel like we would fall through at any moment.
On the other side of the river we passed a homemade jewelry shop, and followed signs to The Weaving Sisters weaving class. We walked into the workshop to see beautiful table runners and tapestries hanging on the walls. We called out “Hello? Hello?” and Mone walked in from the back. Upon seeing our sweaty faces, she offered us a glass of cold water. As mom and I admired her weaving, Mone talked to us about weaving, where she was from in the south of Lao, and her family. Almost immediately I knew I liked her. It certainly helped that I was a whole head taller than her too!!! Then mom started asking questions about the weaving class. How much it was, how long it took, if she had any openings. She told us all about it, and mom and I thought we might enjoy weaving, despite the slightly spendy price. We asked if we could do a class right then, and I could tell Mone was a little taken aback, but she agreed and said to come back in about forty-five minutes so she could set up. Mom however, told Mone that our guesthouse was not very close and it was hot outside, and asked if we could stay instead to help her set up. Mone obliged, and we picked the colors we wanted for the headbands she would teach us to weave. After that we watched as she strung hundreds of little threads on a big loom. Then she proceeded to show us how to weave on a back-strap loom.
Hard at work
Me with the back-strap loom
Mom and I
The loom is set up on your body like so: a strap across your back (obviously) that connects to the loom itself. The thread stretched out across the span of your legs, with your feet pressed up against a stick at the end. It looks incredibly complicated at first, there are so many bamboo sticks, and you have to move this one at a certain point, apply pressure with your feet here, relax them there, lift this up, slide that. Mone is a great teacher, though, and after a while, we got into the rhythm of weaving, and started enjoying it immensely. About halfway through, my lower back started to hurt from sitting up against the wall for two hours. When we were almost finished, Mone came out with a plate of fresh mango slices, which made me like her even more. By the end of the day, I could actually sit down with my legs out in front of me and touch my toes! I have never been able to do that before. When we were finished, the headbands looked amazing. I could not believe that I had made that. With the leftover tassels, Mone rolled them on her leg in a certain way, then tied a knot, so there were braid-like tassels on both ends of the headband.
This was an amazing experience, and I am so glad that we did it. Throughout the four or so hours of weaving, Mone was great company, and I loved talking to her. After we were finished, Mone’s friend came in. Her name was Nikki, and she was really nice. Apparently she worked at the jewelry shop we had passed earlier. Nikki said the something that made my day:
Mom asked her how old I looked. Nikki replied “Well, her face looks young, but because she is so tall, I would say about fourteen.” Mom and I cracked up.
I was so glad, that a boring day filled with hot sun and bike shops galore, had turned into the awesome day complete with weaving, shade and a short new friend.
Note from dad: When Amy and Mia returned, they were so enamored with their experience, and with Mone, that we all went back for a visit the next day. Also, Mone had conducted the entire class on faith that Amy would pay the next day. So, we returned to meet her, and to pay. Mia described her very well, I won’t add any more except a few more photos:
The dark cave is a cave that is awesome, but has a few annoying rules that have to do with kids and ziplines. It’s annoying that annoying rules can make me so annoyed. Know what I mean? We kayaked to a little beach under the zipline, which made me really annoyed, because I probably could have made it faster than everyone (you know what I mean if you read about my ziplining in the Gibbon post). But they didn’t let me do the zipline because I was too small, and they were mean. They treated me and Mia like babies, which was the annoyingness of annoying. Mom argued for a long, long, long time and then she lost. I was proud of her for arguing, I like that she does that stuff. But, the harder she went in, the worse it got.
After mom lost, we got in the stupid kayaks under the stupid ziplines, and had to paddle over to the beach while three other people zoomed above us. We got out of our kayaks, and waited for a long time until a different group started to come. Then I jumped into the water, swam to a little boardwalk that entered the mouth of the cave. It was a big entrance, as big as sixteen thousand wrecking balls stacked on top of each other. We walked on the boardwalk, I was in the front.
This other lady joked towards me, “Where are we going next guide?” We all had a good laugh. And then the real guide told me to stop, and I was like, “Oh, darn, I’m not the actual guide anymore!”
The cave started to get darker, as we went further in. By the end of the boardwalk we had to turn on our headlamps, and we were walking on pebbles. We got to a mudslide, two volunteers got to try it out, I was a little sad that I didn’t get to do it. But then, I realized that we would do it at the end, so I got a little happier.
We walked to a narrow passage through the muddy rocks, walking on muddy mud. I got to a little opening, and swished my feet around because there was soft and squishy mud that felt really good. The guide stepped up onto a higher rock and told me to pass, letting me lead again. I kept on walking, with mom right behind me. The muddy mud got more watery and deeper. And even deeper. End even more deeper. I remembered reading about the dark cave, and that you could float in the mud. So I tried lifting my feet up.
I yelled up the passage, “I am floating!”
Mom and Mia said, “What?! No!”
The sensation was crazy, I could lie on my stomach and just soar like an airplane. I could sit like the Buddha for as long as I wanted, until I shifted my weight and fell on my back. Now do you want to hear the Physics of it? The thicker the substance gets, the floatier you can float. The fancy scientist name is Archimedes’ Principle. My dad made me say that.
This isn’t me, because we didn’t bring our cameras, but you should see what it looked like:
On the way out, in the little opening with soft squishy mud, Mom suggested a few of us wait behind the rest of the group and turn off our lights to have the “vision” of total darkness. It was really neat to not be able to see my hand six inches in front of my face, four inches in front of my face, two inches in front of my face, a centimeter in front of my face. Even right on my eye, I still couldn’t see my hand. It was also a little bit scary because if I moved my foot, I would probably fall.
We turned on our lights, and headed out. There was a fork in the trail, and I knew to go one way because the guide had told us it went to the top of the slide. Dad was a little bit nervous about going that way because he didn’t know where it went, but I did. Maybe he wasn’t listening to the guide on the way in. We got to the top of the slide. Mia and mom didn’t do the slide, but used a rope to walk down a steep spot next to the slide. I went down thinking it would be fun, because mud is slippery and muddy. But it kind of hurt, because there were rocks in the mud.
There was a spot to wash off our mud. Even though we were very cold, and the water was very, very cold, we still splashed in to clean up. Mom wasn’t very excited about more icy cold water, so she just let dad scoop up a tiny bit and drizzle it down her back. I was laughing, because mom was screaming the whole time. Once we got back into the light, she looked like a muddy, cold, mom monster.
Everyone got back into the kayaks this time, and paddled to a place to play in the water with a zipline to jump off of, a swing to jump off of, and an obstacle course, all above the water. They had floaty bikes too. This time they let me do everything, and everything but the obstacle course were fun. The floating bikes were the most fun.
After we played in the water for a bit, we took showers and changed into some dry clothes. I had started out the day annoyed, but in the end got happy. It is interesting how a natural, fun experience can fix my annoyance for people treating me and Mia like babies. Nature lets me be wild, and lets me be myself.
“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)
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.
I love that boy and he makes me laugh every day. Porter has quickly morphed into the quintessential Asia backpacker and has embraced every backpacker fashion trend. He really has a remarkable flair for fashion and he always knows exactly what he wants when we are at the market. I used to be doubtful and look at him sideways but now I know, you don’t get named Mr. Silky Pants for nothing. Here are some highlights:
Last week, several of our friends visited the Islamic Center of Bellingham as an effort to build community across faiths. Matt Dowling compiled reflections of those visiting the center. Their words were beautiful and inspiring. I was particularly struck by the following said by a congregant of the mosque:
“We may not be able to connect through our faith, but we can certainly connect through our humanity.”
– Josh, a member of Islamic Center of Bellingham
Simple, true, and deep. I call it “people are people.” Last week we experienced exactly that on a predominantly Muslim island in Southern Thailand.
The island of Sriboya
Picture a volleyball net strung between two sturdy metal poles. Poles are driven firmly into the ground. Solid, permanent, meant for game after game, season after season, maybe generation after generation. Lines of the court are nylon cord, stretched taut, the corners nailed square. The floor is a mix of gravel, dirt, and grass, ground up by countless barefoot lunges. The only ceiling is the sky.
The players are arranged in teams of six, twelve players in all. Nine are Thai women – mothers mostly, wearing a mix of hijabs, sarongs, flip-flops and crocs. There are two farangs (Keri Bean and I), a young boy, and a tall lanky gender ambiguous player.
The play was excellent, spirited, and competitive. It was mesmerizing to see these women crush serves, bump, set and spike, while their colorful scarves remained fixed in place, tighter than a French braid. It was less mesmerizing, more like panic-inducing, when one of their serves blasted into my outstretched arms, clamped together like I was in secular prayer, hoping for a good return of serve.
No need for translation here: Boom – Chesbrough receives the serve. A mini-calamity erupts as the ball ricochets wildly, my hands flail, and welts appear on my wrists. “Ouuuwwww! sorry, sorry.” Peels of subdued laughter. I am served at again and again. These women played for real.
And they played for fun. Big smiles, little verbal whoops, lots of chatter – like birdsong floating through the trees and across the net. But curiously, no high-fives. Physical touch seems less easy in this culture. The only western-style hand-slap I saw was when the tall, lanky Thai blocked my “spike.” Afterwards, she (he? and I mean this respectfully) smiled sheepishly at me. I immediately said “nice one,” and offered a congratulatory hand under the net. She understood the offering, and slapped my hand in return, in mutual appreciation for the universality of sport. We have been told, and have experienced, that Thailand has an admirable acceptance of gender fluidity.
We are staying on an island in the South of Thailand, called Sriboya. It is not a tourist destination, even though it is surrounded by the famous beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket. The island is mostly rubber tree farms and fishing villages, but there are other businesses – little shops, two table restaurants, and motor repair shops (where I tried to pay 20 Baht to pump up a tire, but the guy only accepted 5). Ant and I even stumbled into a boat-building yard, where a craftsman was using only a few tools to build three classic Thai “long-tail” wooden boats. His property was right on the water, his workshop shaded by old-growth (teak?) trees, his boats carried a look of pride.
The people of the island seem contented: there is food, fuel, activity, energy, and lots of family. They are curious, and inviting. They are hospitable. They are Muslim. Above all, they are human. People are people. Here are few of their stories:
We were on Sriboya because of our friends Ant and Keri. Keri’s brother, Kirby, met his wife, Da, several years ago while traveling Asia. He and Da were married on the island, and they have a son, Kaden. Da seems to be related to about 80% of the islanders. Every time we went somewhere, including off island, we met a new aunt, cousin, uncle or “son of my mother’s sister.” Da’s family embraced us, and showed us many of the sights around Sriboya. We traveled in the family boat, truck or tuk-tuk, with a gaggle of Da’s family on our every adventure. It was wonderful to be embraced by a family. We felt very fortunate.
Da is Muslim. She is a legal resident of the USA. She is delightful. But she and Kirby are a little bit nervous about her American status, both for no reason at all and for one big reason – the current administration’s policy on immigration and immigrants. History is littered with stories of countries and peoples sliding down slippery slopes of human rights abuses. They always seem to start with a few, small actions, that do not appear to affect the majority of people (like banning immigrants from seven countries does not directly affect most Americans). Just after Trump’s ban, I read several Facebook comments saying something like, “Why are you so angry, you and your kids are going to be fine!” I’ve spoken to many travelers who think Trump will be “good for America, but the rest of the world will suffer.” Seriously? Are we so self-centered? A “temporary ban on immigrants from only seven countries,” may not directly affect most Americans. But, history warns me that such a policy is only a first step.
My reading of history suggests that once the powerful taste the success of oppression, regardless of their culture, they thirst for more (Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Zuma, Idi Amin, the list goes on). It is as though they get the first rush of shoving a younger sibling down a muddy slope – it’s so funny to watch them flail their arms! Then, the ugly, acidic rains open up on the slope. When I heard news like the “temporary ban on immigrants,” I gasped for breath. I searched for cleaner air in a reputable journalistic source (NPR) to try to learn some facts. Unfortunately, my breath is still heavy. Hearing about Trump’s executive order to halt immigrants entering the US (including legal status immigrants!!) from certain countries while living with this wonderful family is like watching a TV commercial for Coca-cola while munching a delicious organic salad. Actually that understates it by a few orders of magnitude. Trump’s actions need no hyperbole or analogy to explain my outrage.
Even though the gun is not aimed at Da, she and Kirby can’t help but feel targeted and concerned. I share their worry. My “leader” is extra concerning because he is often referred to as the “leader of the free world.” The USA isn’t a small country without sway and leadership. Trump is acting in a narcissistic way – foolish, without compassion, foresight or wisdom, let alone common sense. His actions are just plain insane. And the number of travelers we’ve met who share a similar national history being written right now is shocking – in Poland, Britain, Turkey, Myanmar governments are turning shoulders to people who are from another tribe. It is human to be scared, to point, to laugh from fear, but it is also human to embrace, to communicate, to laugh from togetherness.
People are people
On our first day on the island, we visited Da’s mother and father’s house. Da’s mom, Leea, is one of those women that just demands your love, your attention, and your respect. She is strong, vibrant, and industrious. When we arrived, she was putting the finishing touches on a handwoven mat for Keri. It is beautiful, or Suay in Thai.
She showed us her craft – how she had harvested the fronds, dried and dyed them, peeled each across a metal blade to make it supple, then wove them strand by strand. She said it took her about three days. As we appreciated the art, admired the details, and complemented her skills, she pointed at Amy, and announced that Amy would get one as well. For real?! What a blessing.
Despite living in “island time,” Leea has only one gear in her transmission – full speed ahead. She rarely sits, even while we visited at her house she would put up with only a few minutes of small talk before busying herself with weaving, slicing up a pineapple or sweeping the front dirt. Her husband, on the other hand, spent most of his time chewing bettlenut, and cackling with a friend from his second-story porch like an old codger from the Muppets. (Why is it so rare to encounter a woman with sloth-like tendencies?)
On our second day on the island, the family took us to a deserted island for a family barbecue. As soon as we arrived, Leea was the first to start chopping chilies for lunch. We ate Som Tum, or spicy papaya salad. Each serving was prepared individually in a ceramic mortar and pestle – garlic, lime juice, chilies, fish sauce, peanuts, coconut sugar and green papaya were mashed together into South-east asian coleslaw. We grilled chicken skewers on hot coals. Fresh pineapple for dessert. Did I mention we were on a deserted island??!! Holy deliciousness.
After lunch, several people went out fishing for squid. Solet, Leea’s son, and Kirby taught Porter, Ant and me to fish without a rod. However, after an hour of plunking and a little trolling, we returned, empty handed. An hour later, Grandma Leea arrived back on shore in her own boat, with eleven squid in her basket. She jumped out of the boat, thrusting the bucket to Solet as if to say, “That’s how you do it.” Actually, since she only speaks Thai, that is probably exactly what she said. She quickly ate some lunch, packed up, then jumped into her boat, indicating “No time to waste, projects to complete!”
Leea also has a great sense of humor. She especially enjoys jabbering in Thai at Ant, who goes by the Thai word for Ant, “Muut.”
“Muut, something something, jiibity-jabbity, sun mai, jab jab” she says as she points to a piece of chicken.
Ant does not speak Thai, but he is always game for the game. He replies back, “Muut, som-sum, mak mak,” which means “Ant, jibberish-nothing, very much.” They both cackle.
At the end of our week, Leea invited us to her home for a send-off lunch. Leea and her sister, “Auntie” were there, as well as several of Da’s sisters and cousins. We ate Som Tum, Pad thai, shredded green mango with shrimp paste, gai pad krapow (chicken with basil), some veggie dishes, and of course fresh mango and pinneapple. Home-cooked dishes, shared family style, better than most restaurant food. And since it was a special occasion, we also had 2-Liter bottles of cherry-red Fanta and Coke. Ahh, western additions of finery.
Towards the end of the meal, Amy asked for Da to translate for her.
She said, “Leea and Da, thank you for taking our family in. We have felt blessed to be a part of your beautiful family for this entire week. We…” She hit the standard Amy Mckenney pouring love into the world two sentence mark before the flood gates opened. First Amy, then me of course (proud proud). Her words trailed off, no longer any need to translate. I looked around at ten smiling women in headscarves, little shining jewels spilling out of twenty dark brown eyes. Even Leea, the tough old cackling crow, was wiping her eyes on her skirt.
People are people. Whether we praise Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, Brahmin or the deep black spaces between the stars, we are a humanity. We all toil, we love, we play, we grieve and we wonder. People are people.