May 30, 2004

Coming Home!!!

So here we are again, three months later at the free Internet cafe in the Narita airport. (Same lousy keyboard, but I'm a little more adept at it now.) Anyway, we'll be boarding our flight for Chicago (and then Austin) in about an hour and be on our way home! It's been an interesting trip, to say the least, and even on this last day, Toli and I ran into a few snags figuring out the train system to get to the airport on time. But we're here, and we'll be home soon. (And yes, we will be posting backlogs of our time here in the land of the rising sun, as well as some well-overdue entries from our trip down Vietnam.)

Posted by Christine at 08:19 PM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2004

Konnichiwa Neko...

We're back in Japan now, and I'm slowly typing away on this Japanese keyboard and trying desperately NOT to hit the button that switches to kanji/hiragana/katakana/whatever that pictographic language is. Not an easy thing to do since the button is right next to the spacebar!

Anyway, we've been here for a week now, and as soon as we get ourselves to an Internet cafe with a wireless connection, Toli will upload yet another gigantic batch of log entries. This is the kind of place where there is SOOOOOO much to share that is weird/funny/touching/interesting that he has been up late nearly every night trying to get it all down. I, on the other hand, have been a lazy bum, letting him do all the work and sleeping instead. Since you will all be deluged with data from him on everything we've been up to, I thought I'd spend my 300 yen sharing some imponderables about this country that have been occuring to me throughout our travels. Such as:

* Hello Kitty is a Japanese creation, so why is she given an English name instead of being called "Konnichiwa Neko"? And on that note, why is it that I run into Sanrio stores everywhere in the States and Hong Kong but have not yet found one in which to pay homage to her and her friends in the half dozen cities in Japan I have already visited? (By the way, there is plenty of Hello Kitty merchandise here in all the shops, just no Sanrio shopping paradise. Maybe they have concentrated it all on Puroland, the Hello Kitty version of Disneyland in Tokyo.

* Japanese people live in these tiny little apartments with barely any room for a bed, as many families have to roll up their futons for the day. Yet, how is it that they can shop so much - both here in Japan (the department stores are monstrous, rivalling KaDeWe in Germany) and when they travel abroad. So where do they have the space to put all their stuff?

* I read in my tour book that the Japanese find it terribly rude of you to blow your nose in public, especially at the dinner table. This is fine, and I can respect that, but what a funny thing to come from the country who invented wasabi. I find it impossible NOT to want to blow my nose while eating sushi here. How do you deal with that?

That's not the last of it, but because I can't type any faster and continue to hit this dang kanji button, I've quickly used up all my internet time. If I can wrest the laptop away from Tolstoy, I mean Toli, I'll share some more of my observations about being here, but no doubt you will find a lot of humor in what Toli will share as soon as we have a chance to put it up.

Anyway, despite my constant puzzlement, I really do love being here and exploring what Japan has to offer. If it weren't so darn expensive here, I could actually see myself planted here for a little while to live and experience as much as possible. I finally can see why so many people I know are so crazy about this country and its culture. All countries, cultures and people are unique of course, but Japan in such an extreme way. Maybe because it is so modern (the subways, the highways, the cars, the malls) so it seems familiar to a Westerner, but then there is that highly bizarre Japanese element injected into everything that skews the picture. Even though we have so many funny stories and observations, there is a lot about Japan that is impossible to describe in words and can only be experienced in the country itself. We'll do our best to share, though!

Posted by Christine at 09:03 AM | Comments (1)

May 15, 2004

Well, at least I haven't fallen off yet...

[This is an extra log entry by Christine. There are seven more log entries after it from Toli covering our last two weeks. Find his first entry and start your reading there.]

I really suck at this elephant driving thing. Combine my short and weakly physical stature with my fear of heights and you have the makings of one lousy mahout. I have no idea why in the world the people here thought to pair me up with Cho Cho - maybe they took one look at Toli and thought, well, if she's married to this cowboy, she'll be able to handle this enormous, greedy (he steals food from the other elephants), troublemaking, but very sweet and intelligent male elephant. (The similarities to Toli don't end there - I soon found out that Cho Cho is a bit of a pervert, using his trunk to feel up the girl elephants.) Or maybe they thought it would be one big joke to pair up the littlest girl in the group with the biggest elephant they could get their hands on. I'm not kidding - Cho Cho's probably the 2nd or 3rd biggest elephant out of the fifty or so pachyderms at the place, and I have yet to see a tourist-mahout ride one bigger than mine.

Anyway, if it *was* a big joke, I certainly proved them right the first afternoon of training. The very first thing they do is teach you is how to climb onto the animal - you're supposed to grab an ear, a flap of skin, command the elephant to stick out its knee to use as a stepladder, and hoist yourself up. Well, I got the ear, the flap of skin, stepped on the knee, saw that his back was still as high as my head, and then flailed around wildly until Cho Cho's mahout gave me one big shove on my heinie to finally get me on the boy. Not graceful in the least. Similar elephant moves were also out of my reach. I couldn't properly dismount the elephant - had to slide off like his leg is a fireman's pole, and I couldn't even clear his ears when I straddle-jumped over his head (while he's bending down) to climb on from the front. Even normal things like walking through the jungle on my own two legs became difficult - I fell a few times in the mud and then lost a shoe walking in a mud puddle! Clumsy comic relief at best.

It was not an auspicious beginning, but fortunately, today was much much better. I managed to climb onto Cho Cho once during the morning session without any help (though the next two times, I still flailed so much I needed help), and by the afternoon session I climbed on every time on my own, though with much grunting and groaning. Toli's got it all on tape - it's pretty funny. Then, on my last attempt at straddle-jumping from the front, I managed to clear Cho Cho's ears, which was a big relief since I'm sure he wasn't pleased with how I smashed into them every time previous. Let's just hope that I can get my act together enough to pull these moves off in front of an audience at tomorrow's elephant show so that I don't embarass my hardworking elephant and mahout.

So now that I've learned a little better, and in case you should ever decide to try mahout school yourself, here are some elephant-riding tips:

A few words on mahout attire

The nice thing about the TECC program is that they provide you with a mahout suit - basically large and loose fitting pajamas with the elephant logo emblazoned on the shirt. I didn't realize how important it is to wear loose clothing because as you are climbing/riding on the elephant, you move around a lot, and anything restrictive makes it difficult to adjust yourself comfortably. However, I had made the wrong choice in shoes, wearing my thick buttery Reef sandals which are great for just about everything outdoorsy *except* for elephant training. They are way too thick with not enough traction, so I constantly slip on the elephant's knee while climbing to ride it. Plus, the animal jostles so much while riding that they don't stay very well on my feet. I found it a lot better to take off my shoes when climbing and riding. I just leave them on the ground, and if ever I need them, I just command Cho Cho to pick them up with his trunk and hand them to me, which he does quite nicely. So anyway, if you plan on being a mahout, stick with thin-soled shoes with decent traction (I imagine rock climbing shoes would work pretty well) or a good pair of Tevas, which worked just fine for Toli. Or, you can go au naturel and give your elephant a little extra work like I did.

Climbing on the elephant song-soong style

My biggest mistake was in trying to do this in one swift move - grab ear and flap, step on the knee, and swing your other leg up over the elephant. In the elephant show, all the mahouts in front demonstrate on slightly smaller elephants, so I thought you were supposed to be able to do it in one go. Not quite - in the next elephant show, I watched all the taller elephants in the back and saw that for them, you need to add something extra. You grab the ear and flap and step on the knee, but then you add a second move. You use your time on the knee to stabilize yourself as you put both hands on the elephant's back, then push your body up before swinging your leg over. It's fairly exhausting, but it works. You also have to remember to grip very tightly on the elephants ear and side as you are going up - I was constantly worried that I would hurt the animal, so I didn't hold on as tightly those first few times.

Climbing on the elephant via the front tag-long style

Again, the mahouts can do this in one swift move - jump, straddle your legs, and land on the elephant's neck while it's kneeling down. It can be broken down in two moves if you step on the elephants head first and then use your hands to help hoist you over. However, I didn't really like doing this and find that if I jump with all my might while splitting my legs as far as they will go (ow, I know - I'm not that bendy), I can clear the ears without having to step on the elephant.

Riding the elephant in general

Here's the best way to describe riding an elephant. Imagine if you strapped a waterbed mattress to a really tall horse, climbed on to the waterbed mattress, and started riding it. It's really hard at first to find a way to balance yourself so that you don't feel like you're going to plunge along headfirst over the elephant's head. One novice mistake is to sit too far back on the elephant - this isn't good, because it's wider the further back you sit, and the shoulders and rib cage move around a bit more. Sit up as close as you dare - for one thing, it's easier to grip your legs around the elephant's neck, and you can kind of jam your knees up against the elephant's ears. The elephant relies on various types of kicks to its ears (gently, please) to know when to go and where to turn, so this will be helpful once you're comfortable enough to steer the elephant. Plus, if your elephant is thoughtful, it will hold its ears back close to its head and sandwich your legs in, especially if it's about to dip or turn in a way that will throw you off balance. Also, remember that an elephant's physique allows you to lean all the way over until your foreheads touch, which for some reason makes it feel less scary.

Also while I'm at it, here are some random elephant facts:

  • Elephants sleep only about three hours a day - can you imagine that? It's amazing when you consider that cats sleep about six times as much even though they are much, much smaller (and less, less active according to Toli).
  • Elephant gestation periods are 22 months, from conception to birth. I'll try to remember that when I am pregnant and be patient.
  • Female Asian elephants don't have long tusks like the males, but female African elephants do. There are also male elephants that don't have tusks, like my very own Cho Cho. (I've wondered if that makes him feel like he's got something to prove, hence his troublemaking behavior.)
  • Elephants do not mate for life. The mom who just had a newborn was already on a second boyfriend after the father of the baby calf. And Cho Cho is also known for being a bit of a ladies' man - again, tusk envy?
  • Elephants average about two mahouts in a lifetime since they can live 60 - 80 years. And the bond is extremely strong - should its mahout die or disappear, the elephant does become very agitated and traumatized. Today, we saw the elephant who lost part of her trunk get fed by a person who wasn't her mahout, and the poor thing cowered every time he tried to feed her sugarcane.
  • Elephants are afraid of cows and mice, and they don't particularly like dogs or cats. In fact, like Toli said, the group of elephants we drove to the jungle nearly panicked and started stampeding at the smell of cow dung. It's kind of funny, but I guess it's no different from me shrieking whenever I see a scary insect or rodent myself.
  • Elephants exert less force on a forest floor than a deer a twelfth of their size. This is due to the size and the padding on their feet, which makes them ideal workers for the logging industry.
And last but not least, here's a song I made up today about elephants, dedicated to Cho Cho and his mahout Su Wang.

(Sung to the tune of Monty Python's I'm a Lumberjack Song)

I'm an elephant and I'm okay,
I sleep all night
(Yes, we know this isn't true from the above facts, but it sounds good, okay?)
And I work all day!

I carry tourists, I perform in shows
And I know how to paint.
My favorite times are eating bananas and sugarcane.

I'm an elephant and I'm okay,
I sleep all night and I work all day!
Posted by Christine at 06:37 AM | Comments (0)

Hong Kong City: Wow

[This is the last of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

We are now in Hong Kong City, trying to take it all in and failing miserably. Too big, too foreign, too multi-faceted to digest it all. A true metropolis of the future, strongly reminding me of the mega-cities in the 2000 AD comic books I read as a child (you might know them under the name of the main character, Judge Dredd --- the movie sucked, by the way).

Our last day at Lantau, we went to our usual bus stop quite early --- before the gift shops in the shadow of the gigantic Buddha opened. We noticed that the bus stop for buses arriving from Tai O was filled with six or seven dogs grooming themselves. Maybe they were waiting for their owners, who are also the shop owners, to arrive from a night at home, in Tai O! How sweet! On our part, we boarded the bus and then the metro (called MTR: clean, fast, with excellent signage) and headed for our next hostel. That was another bargain deal, at a wonderful natural location up on a hill (but somewhat out of the way). And it made me wonder why I'd ever want to stay in an expensive hotel... maybe when I'm older, but, right now, cheapness comes first. And until an expensive hotel adds to its list of features the mosquito-free room, all other features are not worth the extra buck to me. In fact, hostels are better mosquito-wise because, once I eliminate them, no maid will come in next morning in my room, leaving the door wide open for a new pest brigade to fly in while she cleans.

Once we settled into our new room, which means after I killed the first four or so mosquitoes, we went back to town for a walk. In fact, we followed one of the walk routes proposed in the Hong Kong Tourism Board publication; all others we had done were great, and if you ignore the occasional sales pitches ("The shops can help you arrange shipping of large items back home."), there is loads of good, free information in the Board's publications. Hong Kong city reminded us strongly of an enlarged version of San Francisco's Chinatown:

  • It's built on the bottom of a hill so there's lots of up-and-down walking.

  • It's packed with Chinese people and tall buildings.

  • Signs are in Chinese and sometimes English.

  • There is even a tram that looks like a cable car, though, following English tradition, people drive on the left, and double-decker buses and trolley cars are dominant.

  • There are stores that sell all kinds of oriental goods. Dried goods stores dominated in the section we visited: seafood (incl. a guy packing a huge canvas bag with shark fins strewn on the dirty sidewalk), herbs, mushrooms, ginseng, bird's nest. You get the impression that the motto of those shops is "If we don't sell it, it must have water".
We had lunch at a dim-sum place. Or rather, we tried and partially succeeded. We got in, were directed to a table in the non-smoking section, got tea, and then nothing. People all around the big room were eating, and we were totally transparent to all waiting staff. At some point, I just stopped a staff member who thankfully spoke English, and asked what we were supposed to do to get food. He kindly brought us the dim-sum menu. In Chinese only. Luckily, Christine knew the Chinese names of her favorites, so we got those, but everything else on the menu was indecipherable --- I tried to make sense out of the Chinese names by cross-checking with a Hong Kong Dining Guide listing the English and Chinese names of a handful of dishes. I figured out the characters for shrimp, pork, roll, and dumpling, but that was as far as I could go. I never expected I'd be analyzing the Rosetta Stone in the middle of Hong Kong. The waiter wasn't much help either as he didn't understand anything Christine tried to order without using the Chinese name. Pity... the place was packed, food was original (so original that English names or English-speaking staff wasn't available), and what we got tasted delicious. I just find it quite ironic that it was much easier to find English speakers in Belgian restaurants than in an ex-British colony. No wonder the government has created a program (advertised on the MTR) to offer free English lessons to locals.

Our walk ended at The Landmark, one of the Hong Kong City skyscrapers. We were looking for the offices of Japan Airlines, based on the address listed on their web site last month; turns out, they moved 18 months ago to the mainland side of the town (Kowloon). Man, somebody did some major budget cuts in their web team! That flop aside, The Landmark itself was a sight worth seeing: so many luxury stores in so little space! The Landmark, like many other developments in Hong Kong has a vast footprint, and so it has a presence on Hong Kong maps. Similarly with the other developments. In fact, when we asked the concierge of The Landmark (who spoke perfect English and had graduated from the University of Hawaii) for the new location of Japan Airlines, he simply replied "The Gateway" --- street names take second place to building names since, in effect, they are small villages in themselves. In postcards, you get to see the latest, fanciest ones, but when you walk around town, you also see the older, delapidated residential skyscrapers, with broken windows, rusty air-conditioning window units, discolored concrete, and clothes hanging out of the windows to dry.

We also passed by a Jockey Club outlet. Jockey Club is an organization for organized betting on horse racing. Like the vice tax in the US, it collects money from people who lose their bets, pays out the winners, and the commission goes to fund charities or other projects helping the community, such as hospitals, schools, even our hostel. I sure hope the US sees the light some day and treats narcotics just like other drugs (alcohol, tobacco), ends its present crime-sustaining prohibition-like policies, and instead legalizes all drugs but taxes the hell out of them... that way, junkies can effectively pay for their own healthcare costs. But I digress...

You see, my mind veered off into politics because I saw George Bush today at the Hong Kong Madame Tussaud's. Actually, I didn't pay to go in, but he was on one of the advertising billboards reading "A Perfect Experience With Your Favorite Superstars". Dubya was a marginal guy, relegated to the side, with other superstars in the center... none of whom looked like my "Favorite Superstars". In fact, besides Pierce Brosnan, I didn't recognize anybody else... I guessed they must be local celebrities, and Christine confirmed this guess when she recognized a good chunk of them from the Hong Kong flicks she watched in her childhood: Andy Lau, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan. I also failed to recognize Yao Ming and David Beckham, being the sports ignoramus that I now am; when I grow old I'll tell my grandkids "When I was young, I lived in a country where people played soccer all the time. And I played too. I used to be 7 feet tall and kick the ball so hard it would deflate. David Beckam and I were good friends and rivals on the team, but he became famous when I quit my soccer career to to marry that old witch in the kitchen you call grandma." Yes, well, anyway, seeing that cultural adaptation of the Madame Tussaud's made me wonder what Disney will do at the Hong Kong Disneyland currently under construction... have the Emperor Palace from Mulan replace Sleeping Beauty's castle? That'd be cool... And talking about cultural differences, here is part of the summary of the movie My Sassy Girl from a pirated VCD we saw in one of the stores here:

One night, Kyon-Woo meets a terribly drunken girl. He is ashamed to help her, but once he does, a deep sense of responsibility has been developed within him: he decides to heal her pain.
In the US, you'd probably read something like
One night, Kyon-Woo meets a terribly drunken girl. Despite being shy, he decides to help her. Can his deepening affection heal her pain?
The bottom-line is fairly similar, but the emphasis on personal feelings of shame and responsibility is miles apart. A final experience demonstrating our cultural gap: we walked into a building called The Western Market which houses a German bakery and other stores; that's where Western ends. There was an exhibit going on presenting clothes, other personal items, and vinyl record covers of a lady named Teresa Teng. There were large posters reading "Teresa you are the best" and "Teresa love you forever", a projector showing her sing, and an explatanory sign... in Chinese. We also saw her face on the Madame Tussaud's billboard above. Clearly she is a local superstar, but neither Christine nor I have any clue who that revered celebrity is. I bet somebody is reading this and thinking we are uncultured jungle baboons for not knowing who she is.

Returning to our day's activities, I saw the Madame Tussaud's billboard at the lower Peak Tram station. This tram takes people (mostly tourists) from sea level to (near) the top of Victoria Hill at 552m. The view was fabulous, and the 3km walk around the peak (another walk route suggested by the Tourism Board) was quite wonderful --- excepting the perennial mosquitos, which are as prevalent as in Southeast Asia, but I was too stupid to drop my guard assuming otherwise, so I got bitten. We got there before sunset and left after nightfall, so we saw both day and night views of the city; interestingly, the night views are dynamic because some building have time-varying lights (changing colors or forming changing patterns). There are a few villas on the peak, so, as expected, we saw a lady walking her dogs, and a few nannies walking kids or dogs. There is also a small mall where we visited a toy store with the unfortunate name Kiss My Kids, whose front entrance has the even less appealing sight of two bears humping each other. Or maybe I have a dirty mind. Finally, another interesting billboard by the Tourism Board featured a Welcome to Hong Kong message; there was also a photo of typical locals where all 20 people were Asian except for one white man who looked like a cook; I somehow doubt that cooks in Hong Kong can afford homes on Discovery Bay.

We finished our day with an expensive dinner ($60) at the Mövenpick restaurant on The Peak Tower (where the tram ends): the food was a spectacular all-you-cat-eat buffet, and, being the regular cheapskate that I am, I got the buffet and Christine got a single item from the a-la-carte menu (and munched salad and dessert off my plate). The sashimi and the lamb kebabs were enough to make the buffet a good deal, but where I really took advantage of it was in the ice cream... I've missed Austin's Amy's Ice Cream a lot, and so Mövenpick's excellent tiramisu flavor hit the spot. By the way, the justification for the high price is probably the view, not the food quality: Hong Kong is spread under you from the restaurant's big windows. Except that the windows are filthy and so the view is blurry; and you are so busy getting stuffed, you don't even care to look outside. I guess the view is there to entertain the wife, while the man pigs his heart out. Honk, honk. Yet I'm still mean and lean, and I've gotten to the ridiculous point of having to wrap my belt around two belt loops to shorten it enough to keep my pants up (yes, I'm using the last hole too).

The day ended with a mad dash from the lower tram station to the hostel's shuttle bus pickup spot. We made it, got home, and rested. The next morning was damp, but thankfully there was no rain. We headed for Kowloon, which is on the mainland-China side of Victoria harbour (but still part of Hong Kong, of course), via the Star Ferry line; I was impressed when I noticed that the specific boat has been in service since 1958. After visiting Japan Airlines to purchase our Japan rail tickets (available only to tourists, and only outside Japan), we headed for The Peninsula, a hotel with plenty of old-world elegance, including a Cartier store in the lobby for our shopping convenience. It is famous for its afternoon high-tea, served in the lobby, and featuring miniature sandwitches, pastries, crumpets, and tea for $30; I did not see a Cartier diamond and tea combo meal. If you want to playfully fantasize you are a British couple of The Empire for an hour, listen to a (live, of course) quartet play classical music, receive superb service, enjoy the atmosphere, and gawk at those who are actually staying at the hotel (unlike you cheapskates), then it's by far the best place to do this; one piece of advice: bring your own microscope to find the assorted solid food. Christine enjoys this sort of short fantasy escape, and she looks way more European than me when she sits in cafes. So I encouraged her to do this --- after all, I have my own expensive quirks (see above for my Mövenpick indulgence). But she knew that this wouldn't be my cup of tea (har, har), and I'm pretty sure that it takes two to role-play British Royalty, not one plus a sarcastic baboon... so we didn't stay. Instead, we then started following another walk route suggested by the Tourism Board.

We first visited a garden where exotic birds are sold, along with food and cages; it was strange seeing wild sparrows (or should I say "feral"?) come visit their caged counterparts --- or, rather, come by to eat the seeds that the prisoners threw on the ground. The birds' song was cacophonous, but plentiful. Next to the birds was the flower market, where all sorts of beautiful flowers were on sale --- including some airbrushed ones, with human artists "improving" upon nature by adding a fluorescent touch. Fuuuugly!

We then went to a street market for the locals (as evidenced by the lack of tourists) --- the same items were on sale again and again... purses, soccer jerseys, video CDs, sexy lingerie (and a few more):

  • The purses were all obvious knockoffs, with logos clearly misspelled to avoid legal problems... but once a client showed interest, as Christine did, and pointed out that the logo was incorrect, she was escorted to the back where a big garbage bag was opened to reveal high-quality knockoffs. Some sellers were in fact so pushy that, when Christine showed interest by asking the price (she just wanted to compare against Vietnam), the lady grabbed her and pulled her back in the stall!

  • As for the soccer jerseys, you could order one with your name and number on it on the spot. Talking about soccer, Hong Kong seems to be obsessed with this David Beckham dude (England's best soccer player, I'm told); must be a remnant of the colonial days. Heck, even Pepsi has launched a very weird campaign with posters showing Beckham and some other (presumably) big names of soccer in gladiator outfits (much like the Pepsi Britney-Pink-Beyoncé posters throughout Southeast Asia). Was I that stupid as a teenager to fall for such ludicrous advertising? Probably. In fact, yes, I was. Sigh... I sure look forward to having kids...

  • Most of the video CDs were legal copies (gasp!), though only available in Chinese. That was a real pity since we found a couple of complete series that we've been downloading piecemeal off the Internet with amateur subtitles (fansubs). We also found the occasional odd title, such as a cartoon version of the Titanic that included (as the back cover touted) "many cute and sweet animals"; those animals, oddly enough, resembled other famous cartoon animals such as two mice that look just like the rescuers (Bernard and Bianca), two dalmatians, and Speedy Gonzales and his fat cousin.

  • The lingerie was quite creative, esp. my personal favorite men's underwear that looked like an elephant whose trunk is designed to accomodate Mr. Willie Wanker. And talking about shlongs, Christine noticed that a newstand offered a special promotion: a free package of tissue with every porn magazine... should come in handy (disclaimer: Christine made the connection before I did).
To bear through the day-long window shopping, Christine assigned me the task of locating a Hello Kitty purse that is a parody of a famous Louis Vuitton purse... "Hello Kitty, goodbye money", I thought, until I realized we were looking for an unofficial product, not one sanctioned (and priced by) Sanrio. We found all sorts of unauthorized Hello Kitty purses (as well as a toilet seat cover next to another one with Winnie the Pooh reading, quite appropriately, "Just Pooh"), but not that particular one. While searching, we stumbled upon the usual array of T-shirts with nonsensical text such as
Not too sweet be cool
An interesting sight was the occasional seller that sported a P.A. system and gave live demonstrations of their wares, such as cable ties or towels (I still can't figure out why a towel needs a demonstration). Finally, my personal favorite stall: on the one side, jewelry for the women; on the other, porn Video CDs for the men... fun for the whole family!

Next was the pet market, starting with fishes (including a very peculiar goldfish that is virtually spherical), and moving on to turtles, lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, and the usual bunnies, hamsters, cats, and dogs (none of which appeared old enough to be rescues, unfortunately). The shops were clean, smelled fairly well, and some had very strict rules about the handling of animals to prevent disease transfer (to, as well as from, humans). The oddest sights in this market were a happy, well-fed cat sleeping on the sidewalk next to a display full of hamsters... like me in a fresh sashimi bar! And also a store further down that sold fur, with the stuffed head of a dog on one end... how Cruella De Vil!

We then went by a regular indoor food market that was virtually identical to those we had seen in Southeast Asia... except that it was spottlessly clean, without a single fly on the premises. Our market trips ended with a walk through the Temple Street night market (because it's open late) which is just a tourist trap: I saw very few non-Asian people, and the items for sale were mostly tourist kitsch. By the way, to clarify, the bird market is in shops inside a garden, the flower market is again a bunch of flower shops on the same street, and so is the pet market. The food market is indoors, and all other markets were stalls on the street. As a result, we were outdoors most of the time, taking in the pace of the city... crowded but clean, with more neon signs that Vegas. People were handing out flyers, but nobody was pushy; except for a group of Indians touting a tailor shop, who asked me twice -- because we went through their street corner twice --- "Are you Mexican?". Huh?! Si, Señor? But, as usual, those pushy folks were the exception (and even those guys were harmless); in fact, I was very impressed with the MTR staff when Christine wanted to use the restroom: there was no public facility, so they let her in the MTR station control room!

The day ended on the harbor. On the way there, we passed by the electronics stores: it is a myth that prices in Hong Kong are cheaper than in the US. These days, if you buy something off the Internet from a reputable (e.g. somebody with a good rating on Yahoo Shopping), out-of-state (to avoid the sales tax) US merchant, you get just as good a deal or even better (and you get warranty support). What is definitely true is that the average street price is somewhat lower; but for consumers that are willing to spend even a little bit more effort looking, bargains are just as good in the US.

The day ended on the Avenue of the Stars, a recently opened tourist attraction imitating the Hollywood area where sidewalk plaques are dedicated to film industry icons. I recognized pretty much nobody, Christine got some easy ones, and the other "stars" were treated by all tourists as just another pavement tile --- nobody stopped to look down.

By that point, Christine was exhausted. You see, she got yet another sore throat/allergy thing going. I think she has tried cough drops from every single country we've visited this year. Maybe she is allergic to me.

Posted by Toli at 06:36 AM | Comments (0)

King Kong does Hong Kong

[This is the sixth of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

There must have been a movie with this title. No, not a porn movie, but a regular one. That's because Hong Kong has so many skyscrapers that King Kong would have a hard time choosing one. Some are offices, some are residences, but in either case they are the dominant element of the landscape. We landed on a clear day, so our first view of Hong Kong was from the air... and it totally blew us away! It's not just the larger-than-life high-tech architecture, it is also the backdrop of the sea, and beautiful green hills. While I detest the thought of living in a skyscraper, I definitely appreciate the fact that it is their very presence which enabled the conservation of so much greenery by packing the people tightly and preventing sprawl.

We got to Hong Kong after another marathon transporation session. Our last day at the TECC had started at 6a and ended at 4p. From the TECC's homestay area, an employee took us on his pickup to the entrance area (just 2km or so), from where another employee at 5p took us on his covered pickup to the Lampang bus stop (about 60km); neither asked for money, and both refused payment when we offered... they took great pride in being officers of the camp who "provide high-quality service". I think I will convert my Ford Ranger to a private bus when I return to Texas... Anyway, at Lampang we got to be present at the (very loud) evening broadcast of the national anthem, at which point all waiting passengers stood up (we did too). At 7:20p our bus took off and we arrived at Bangkok at 4a. A local bus took us to the hostel (oh what fun it is to be looking out for the right stop to get off the bus at 5a) where we got our stored luggage and off to another local bus (now fully loaded) to go to the airport. In-between, there was plenty of walking with 50lb of stuff (from cross-city to local bus stops, etc.). We celebrated the end of the ordeal with a pizza and ice cream cones at the Bangkok airport. When all was said and done, we were left with $0.10 in local currency... we were very pleased with ourselves! Why? You see, in Hanoi, we could give leftover Vietnamese dong to Christine's mom; in Cambodia, we used US dollars anyway; it is only in Thailand (so far) where we had to convert to local money, and therefore --- to avoid getting double-docked in the exchange process --- we needed to estimate our expenses before converting. So having a leftover of $0.10 is excellent estimation!

It was Gulf Air that took us to Hong Kong in 3 hours. Gulf Air is the airline of the Kingdom of Bahrain (in the Persian Gulf) but, strangely, most stewardesses were blondes and non-Arab. We got into the Hong Kong airport around 3p local time. The Hong Kong airport itself was top-notch, with countless tourist information booklets, helpful people, nobody touting tours, hotels, etc. The one cab driver who asked us if we needed a taxi kindly told us where to get the bus when we (politely) responded with our preference to use public transportation. We also bumped onto a Hawaian who started talking to Christine while she was waiting on a line to buy a debit-like card (called the Octopus card) used for public transportation here. As soon as she said she was married, he said how he was hoping she would be single (who wouldn't!), and then gave her a parting gift: a pin with the Hawaii flag on it.

Then we took the bus to our hostel, which is in the middle of nowhere: under a gigantic Buddha on the top of a hill (on Lantau island, where the airport is). The last bus leaves from town at 6:10p, and it was already 6p by the time we had settled in and ready for dinner. Well, being in no-man's-land, all local activity (including restaurants) stops when the Buddha gates close at 5:30p. So we went into town for food: we had a yummy meal at Cat's Street Cafe, but at shockingly high prices given our Southeast Asia meals over the last two months (a whopping $20 for both of us). But in order to get back, we had to shell out $17 for a cab instead of the usual $4 for the bus. Oh well! It was actually worth it because the trip is 20km long and goes through a narrow, winding road. So the bus takes a long time and, due to its higher center of gravity, it can make your stomach less than excited after a good meal.

But that winding road offers gorgeous views from a bus. Lantau's development is recent, and it started when the airport was built on it. Immediately, two nearby towns started growing towards the sky. And then Disney started building Hong Kong Disneyland on the island too. Nevertheless, most of its surface is beautiful parkland, and the narrow streets are virtually indetectable from a distance. By the way, when I say narrow, I mean wide enough for a single car. If you see another one coming, you better figure out which car moves forward/backwards until it finds a passing "lane" (which is just a very short widening of the road). Things get more interesting when wider sections with regular two-lane traffic (one in each direction) are under repair, a very common sight it seems: one lane closes up, and portable traffic lights on each end of the remaining lane allow the two directions to share it. As you might have guessed, our cab driver couldn't care less whether there were lights or not... plow ahead and if another car shows up, we'll deal with it later. The bus drivers obey the lights, but also drive at light speed. And to top it off, there are cows on a particular section of the road, along with the occasional wandering dog. Those peculiarities aside, the roads are all civil engineering masterpieces: they blend with the landscape, there is almost always a sidewalk despite their narrow width, and the hillside has drainage systems to prevent landslides (usually the soil is covered with a blanket of concrete, with openings for some trees and plants).

Maybe the fast driving and violations of the traffic lights are part of the Chinese influence on Hong Kong, maybe it's always been that way (after all, cab drivers everywhere consider themselves above the law). It's my first time here, so I have no basis for comparison. I was just a bit surprised to find many people who spoke very little English: the cab driver, a security officer at the airport, bus drivers, a "host" at McDonalds (these are uniformed ladies who direct you to the cashier when you walk in... I have no idea why that's necessary; incidentally, I went in to ask for directions to an ATM, not to eat). Maybe it's in the low-paying jobs where English speakers are rare.

Our second day started with a late breakfast/early lunch at a vegetarian restaurant under the Buddha statue --- $17 for more food than both of us could handle. But we needed the energy as we were about to embark on an ambitious hike to the island's tallest peak (Lantau peak) at 934m (we started at the Buddha, at 520m, for a vertical gain of over 1000ft). The hike offered us some wonderful views of the island, esp. the Buddha on the way up and the town of Tung Chung and the nearby airport on the way down. In between, and at the peak, we were lost in fog and the rolling clouds and could see nothing; so instead we filmed Gorillas In The Mist starring me as the gorilla and Christine as Dian Fossey. We also enjoyed a hike without the sun beating down on us as in Southeast Asia. Finally, throughout our hike we followed the laws as requested by the plentiful signs: no spitting, and definitely Don't feed feral pigeons (I still don't understand how one can tell the difference between a feral and a non-feral (domesticated?) pigeon...)

We then took the bus to Tai O, a Chinese fishing village. It is charming, lacking skyscrapers (and English speakers) and instead having a few small government housing projects (think nice, clean houses, not ghettos) and plenty of traditional houses on stilts. At one of the projects, we saw a seesaw, and Christine and I jumped at the opportunity to play, and ignoring the restriction that nobody over 12 can use the playground. As for the traditional houses, they are mostly wooden huts, but there are many an odd structure made of sheets of metal bound tightly by rope (Hong Kong gets typhoons). As an example of Chinese enterpreneurship, when we got lost and found ourselves on a pier with a fisherman's boat, he immediately offered to sell us a ride up and down the canals; of course, he did so by speaking Chinese to Christine as many other locals tend to do.

Here are some other notable impressions from Tai O:

  • I didn't see any roaches. But I saw plenty of small crabs. I wonder whether they are a pest.

  • Some fish are sold Chinatown-style (live, from buckets filled with water), some are sold after they are dried. The funny thing is that for some fish, the fishermen bind their heads in a towel why they are hanging to dry in the sun (head down); no clue why. The sight of many fish out to dry looks more like mafia victims ready for execution (to sleep with the other fishes).

  • As in most fishing villages I've visited, cats were everywhere. One house had 7 cats hanging around at its entrance.

  • The only beach of the village is filthy with trash despite strict laws and stiff fines for littering (the fine for spitting is $180). And it's next to the pier and the police station! That aside, the village was very clean; while it looked like Vietnam a bit (narrow streets, short houses, small family-owned shops at the front of the house), its cleanliness was completely unlike Hanoi's permanent stench.

  • The Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial College is at Tai O. I wonder if the admissions office congratulates the freshman class with: "We know you look forward to being a Fat Ho".
Our last activity at Tai O was dinner --- a baked crab for Christine and yummy fried noodles with vegetables for me, all for $13. On the way in, I noticed an interesting sign on the door that looked like a legally required one: No-smoking seating unavailable (all other restaurants have it too, reading either unavailable or available as appropriate). Nice touch! And on the way out, I noticed that the 5 dollar Hong Kong coin looks like an Oreo cookie, with two larger-radius discs with serrated perimeters sandwiching a smaller-radius disc whose perimeter contains letters. Funky!

As on the first day, we had little transportation options to return to the hostel. Instead of getting a taxi (couldn't find one), we took the bus half-way, and then walked 4km uphill to the hostel. The walk was nice, quiet, and peaceful except for the occasional mooing sounds coming from the sewers. I have no clue what animal makes them, but the theory of cows living in sewers is somewhat unlikely. Anyway, add the morning hike to this walk, and we arrived totally wiped.

The third day started with a trip to the nearby Tan Tien Buddha, which was built by the Po Lin monastery (not by the monks themselves --- they hired a Chinese contractor) in the late 80s. It's a 26m-tall bronze statue, and a very pretty one --- his expression is serene, the green hill is a perfect setting, and the clouds that occasionally go by reinforce a sense of heavenly detachment. Of course, the same clouds also prevented us from seeing the wonderful views one is expecting to see from the Buddha. The base of the Buddha is an exhibition hall that contains few interesting items: some murals with the story of the Buddha, and some information and photos from the construction of the statue. There was also the text of the speeches given during the inauguration of the statue, including a very nationalistic one by the Hong Kong bureau chief of the Chinese News Agency --- with such inspiring observations as how the Buddha faces to the north, towards the capital of the motherland. The centerpiece of the exhibit was two Buddha relics, which are rice-grain-sized crystals (legend has it that, when Buddha died, some 9000 crystals were created during his cremation, and monks then spread them around the world) --- since the closest you can get to them is 4 yards away, the relics are invisible to the visitors... go figure. The majority of the hall's walls were covered with photos of people and Chinese written under each photo; I have no clue what they were, though I'm guessing it's some sort of offering for the deceased.

After the Buddha, we went for a vegetarian meal at the monastery's restaurant --- good food, and lots of it! Our energy level was running low due to lack of sleep (relative to the level of activity), and so we slept on the bus to Discovery Bay, which was the last spot on our list for Lantau island. It has nothing that fits the typical description of a tourist destination --- but it was absolutely fascinating, much in the same way that a country bumpkin enjoys a tour through a gated Southern California community. In fact, that's pretty much what Discover Bay is: a residential neighborhood, catering almost exclusively to foreigners. There are no gates, but several areas are off-limits to "unauthorized persons", though the beach is public, and very clean. There are tennis court fields, and today's equivalent, the golf course. People go around in golf carts; all the ones I saw had white women driving them. Children are taken to their beach/gymnastics/skating class (as evidenced by the kid wearing a swim suit, leotard, or skating safety gear) by their nannies, which are non-white (according to Christine, they are from the Phillipines). The dogs were being walked by the nannies too. Of course, there is the Discovery Bay International School (which probably offers an excellent education, if it is like many international schools around the world). And we also bumped into skating class, conducted by a white teacher, with all white kids in the class, and all but one non-white lady waiting in the benches. Residences are almost invariably flats in gigantic skyscrapers, the few exceptions being small seaside condos. It all felt so sterile, even I felt like a dirty intruder.

An oddity of almost all residential building is that there is no central air-conditioning; instead, each flat (or possibly each room) has its own unit. I doubt that's due to the age of the buildings; maybe it's a public health concern (to prevent contaminated air from an apartment where a person has the flu to infect everybody else in the building). Talk about public health warnings, the Hong Kong government sure takes prevention seriously: in the buses, there is a sign that says "Passengers using public transport should: [...] Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth", and parks have signs reading "Allow your dog fouling in public place will risk prosecution". There are many other public service announcements on billboards and notice boards for littering or other reminders of the law, such as "Waiting will be prosecuted" (which translates into "No Parking, No Stopping" for cars), or "Naked light prohibited" (which translates into "No open flames" at gas stations).

Our day ended with a trip to a grocery store --- one that is like any similar store in the US (HEB, SafeWay, and the like) except for the choice of goods... the cheese section in tiny, while fish is sold Chinatown-style, caught from a pool of water, banged on the head with a mallet a few times, scaled, and nicely packaged for the customer on the spot. Heck, that way, you have no doubts where your food came from. On our part, we got some fixins for a picnic at our hostel, and called it a night after watching Terminator 3. That was a rip from a Thailand DVD, which --- you guessed it --- was a pirated copy. How do I know? Three easy clues:

  1. The bottom edge of the film was not perfectly horizontal, as if the copy was made by filming a movie theater screen with a camera that was slightly tilted.

  2. During the opening titles, a couple of names were cut off, because the camera's field of view wasn't wide enough to capture the full movie screen.

  3. As soon as the end-titles started rolling, you could see a person get up from the front row, and his shadow obscure the text.

  4. Subtitles were in English, Thai, Malay, and "Indonesia". But the English subtitles were clearly the result of a non-native speaker writing up whatever he understood --- the text was not at all true to the spoken dialogue.
Anyway, we also bought a Hong Kong international phone card since our pre-paid AT&T calling card doesn't work here either; as usual, when people speak English, they are extremely courteous and helpful as was the 7-Eleven clerk that helped me figure out the local calling card system. And we made our hotel reservations for Japan.

Tomorrow, we are leaving nature island and head for Hong Kong city. King Kong will hit Hong Kong after all, with Dian Fossey following his tracks. <Insert loud baboon growl and chest pounding.>

Posted by Toli at 06:36 AM | Comments (0)

Mahout Camp Day 3: Can I keep my elephant, please?

[This is the fifth of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

Our last day started like the second one, with a 6:15a wake-up call. (Christine was nice enough to get up at 6a, in order to go next door and wake up the British couple who had no alarm clock.) We headed for the jungle, and this time I was determined not the miss the opportunity to take photos in the morning light --- so I brought my camera along. On the way, we came across a big blotch of a road kill visible from 50ft away... upon closer examination, it was a black jungle scorpion, quite unlike the little brown ones at home. Ew!

When Nuk and I reached Pat Chuop, she had already put on her morning makeup: thick layers of mud all over her back. More ew! But what can you do? Nuk used his mahout tool (a 25-in wooden stick with a metal hook in the end) to remove the dry mud, and I plowed ahead with my hands to wipe off the wet stuff. I just made a dent to Pat Chuop, really, but I got quite messy. I tried to wipe my hands off on a tree trunk, but to no avail... until Nuk suggested I use some broad non-toxic leaves that elephants don't eat. Partially clean, we untied Pat Chuop's chain from a nearby tree, and she pulled it in a neat pile by her side using her trunk. I folded it over her neck, neatly arranged it, and climbed on. Now my butt was on the chain, which had rolled in mud, and so my butt was muddy. Then I bent over the elephant's head to scratch and pat her, and my shirt and hands got muddy. My camera strap was the next mud victim, and I tied my camera around my neck (with the camera body like a bow tie facing backwards) --- that was to protect it from the obvious next activity: to bathe the elephant and her stinky fake mahout.

Boy was that fun! Pat Chuop didn't want to put her head in the water, so cleaning her took so long that I had no time for myself. But the lengthy bath gave me time to realize how tiny I am relative to her: I was standing on her (to move around easily and clean her all around) as a lice on somebody's head, I ran my hands through her hair to remove the mud (individual strands are much thicker than human hair, but the density of hair is fairly low reinforcing the impression of being lice-sized), and my two-handed splashes of water caused barely a trickle down her back.

During this trip to fetch the elephant, Pat Chuop also demonstrated an interesting elephant instinct: sometimes, when they pull a branch of a bush to eat the leaves, the whole bush comes off the ground. Instead of sticking the whole plant into their mouth immediately, elephants first shake it or bang it against other bushes to shake off the soil attached to the roots. There are other interesting feeding-related instinct like the fact that, when the audience gives sugarcane to elephants faster than they can eat it, elephants still reach out for more sugarcane, and hold on to the excess either on their lips, or their trunks, or give it to their mahout (in which case they remember on their own to ask back for it when they are ready to eat it by raising their trunks).

After breakfast, we went through our last training session. That went stellar! We went through the show's routine twice, and did quite a few extra commands. It was perfect, and I gave Pat Chuop plenty of sugarcane (which I stashed in my shirt pockets and gave her as reward treats)!

Then, it was showtime! The first tourist performance is actually a public bathing at 9:45a. Fake mahouts usually don't participate in this, but I was already messy and I love playing in the water (and Pat Chuop enjoys the attention of two men, i.e. the additional water in such hot weather) --- so Nuk let me be part of it. I then rode and led Pat Chuop up to the area where the tourists could pet her and feed her. Nuk was always nearby, just in case, but luckily there was little need for him to intervene. Most of the tourists that day were French, and they were quite pleased that there was one mahout (albeit a fake one) who could answer some very basic questions for them; most mahouts don't speak English, and nobody in the staff speaks French (and the French themselves speak English about as well as the mahouts). Happy tourists bring food to the elephant whose name and age they get to know, so Pat Chuop got a royal treatment that day. Christine picked up on the pattern, so she came over with Cho Cho and spoke some basic French she knows to get some treats for him too!

It was so funny seeing all this from the mahout's viewpoint... The little kids who are delighted to feed the elephant. And the little kids who start crying, or run away, as the gigantic trunk comes close to the sugarcane they are holding, while their parents try to help them overcome their fear. The curosity of adults, but also their cautiousness and fairness (trying to split the sugarcane equally between the different elephants). And the elephant politics, of course, like Cho Cho sticking his trunk inside Pat Chuop's mouth to get the sugarcane she is holding on her lips... I'd either shoo his trunk with my hat or grab the sugarcane and hold it for Pat Chuop, and give it to her when she could eat it without delay or risk of theft. After this feeding session, Pat Chuop also taught me a command: being a hungry girl (she is only 21, after all), she raised her trunk to reach some low-hanging leaves on the tree overhead. She couldn't, so I got them for her, and gave them to her. She got the idea quickly, and a few more times she lifted her trunk, put it down to keep her head stable while I steadied myself and got her leaves, then bring her trunk up again to receive the leaves from me.

The elephants were then lined up, and we went in procession onto the show grounds where the tourists were waiting. The performance was flawless, and when it was over, I climbed down and received my amateur mahout certificate. It was the saddest moment because I knew that I would not ride Pat Chuop again...

Then Supat took all fake mahouts to the elephant dung factory, and Christine and I kneaded shit for a while and made paper. Of course, the dung had been boiled and processed with hydrogen peroxide by the time we got to knead it, so it didn't smell at all. Or was I still so muddy and dirty that I covered up the smell? Hm. Anyway, Christine filmed a short "Martha Stewart" clip showing how to make elephant dung paper, which we'll try to sell to PBS when we return to the US.

Our official stay was then over: we've finished our training, and seen all the public TECC facilities; TECC also houses the royal elephant stables, but they are not open to the public. We just went back to our hut and packed. Then the goodbyes started, and there was one too many... first, the orange lap kitty that meowed for attention; thankfully, Thilo has five cats and was already giving her plenty of loving, so we knew she'd be properly spoiled after we left. Then Funny Face, who came running to us (breaking our hearts to even smaller pieces), and who we treated to some easy-to-chew sweets; her looks are so unique and her personality so loving that she will make many more friends. And finally, our elephants.

Officially, we had already said goodbye. But we had nothing to do until 4p, so we stayed for the afternoon show, after which the new fake mahouts do their training. Cho Cho and Pat Chuop had been assigned two new recruits, and I admit I felt jealous. And maybe it's my impression but Nuk wasn't enjoying his new student as much --- a nice, older gentleman, who was nowhere near as primitive as me, or as much in love with Pat Chuop (and who wasn't spoiling her with stratching and patting her cheeks every available moment by leaning forward and over her head). It must be hard for mahouts to have so many different types of students, which made me admire Nuk quite a bit.

Christine and I helped Supat film the new batch of fake mahouts: each trainee had their own camera, so I took 2, Christine took 1, and Supat took the rest. There is a short break in the training, at which point I went on the audience benches to sit down... Pat Chuop was on the dirt area, where elephants are supposed to stay and get fed --- by their real mahouts during training, and by the audience at the end of a performance. Nuk gave Pat Chuop some sugarcane, and I couldn't resist so I gave her some too (and some to her new fake mahout to use as reward treats). Then I just sat down with the cameras, and Nuk with the other mahouts. Well, Pat Chuop went around the dirt area, and into the audience area (where she wasn't supposed to go, and had never gone since I met her). Her fake mahout commanded her to backtrack, but she ignored him; Nuk repeated the command, but she kept moving. She came in front of me and stopped. I had no food to give her and she knew that (elephants can smell water 9km away in the forest). I have no idea why she came, but she stood there. So I petted her a bit, then got up and walked towards the dirt holding her trunk --- she came along effortlessly! Yes, I know, she wanted food, and she knew who was the softie around who would get it for her. Nevertheless, I felt such an affinity towards her when she came over that I melted inside...

We reached the dirt, and after a short time there I went and got her a treat. It was tamarind paste, which is quite tasty for humans too --- it's sticky, so you need to wipe off your hands, and the easiest way is to wipe them on the elephant's tongue. So I did, and then realized that we had to go or I knew I was interfering with the new fake mahout's enjoyment of his experience. We did, and as we walked away I felt heavy inside. Even now, as I recalled that moment, my eyes water. Sigh.

Supat had a very nice parting gift for us: a CD where he put all his photos from our training, as well as some photos from the birth of the baby elephant. With sore muscles, a muddy camera strap, very heavy hearts, and wonderful memories, we left. We hope we left behind more than our tips (for the mahouts, which is standard, but also for Supat). Because it'd be nice to be remembered when we return next year for the 10-day training program :-)

Posted by Toli at 06:35 AM | Comments (0)

Mahout Camp Day 2: Melephants

[This is the fourth of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

"Melephant" is to "elephant" as "kitty" is to "cat". That's a new word Christine and I coined, and it comes from "My Elephant". Clearly, we got attached to our elephants already.

The second day started at 6:15a when I crawled out of bed. At 6:30a, real and fake mahouts headed for the jungle to pick up our elephants. The light was gorgeous in the morning, but I had left my camera at the homestay hut (you'll find out soon why I carried no camera --- I was about to get very wet); thankfully, Supat walked along with us and took some photos. Which reminds me that the service we have received here has been spectacular --- Supat's English is more than adequate, he always has water bottles ready at the right moment, he took some excellent photos with my camera later in the day, and is happy to translate whenever we need to talk to a local who doesn't speak English. Our mahouts are equally nice, helpful, and patient. The whole experience is like staying at a large nature resort, except that the cost is $33 a day (per person) and includes full-day elephant riding lessons.

On the walk back, we crossed the same stream we had crossed the day before, only this time the mahouts told the elephants to sit down while we were in the water. Which meant we went in too. We gave our elephants a bath, which was a lot of fun despite the muddy water and the occasional floating elephant dung. Of course we got drenched in the process. Once the elephants were back in the main TECC area, the mahouts took over while us fakes waited outside our hut for Supat to bring us a simple yet yummy breakfast: toast, butter, eggs, and mango. After a short nap, we were off again for more training. Training takes place right before or after the elephant show, since the elephants are already in the mood to handle pesky tourists. We go through a subset of the commands that our elephant performs on each show, with the end goal being for us to be the elephant's mahouts during the final day of our stay (with the real mahout next to the elephant on the ground, otherwise, God help us and the audience). In this session, we learned how to use our body alongside our voice to instruct the elephant, and I made good progress. When the session was over, the elephants got another bath by their real mahouts, while us fakes went to visit the elephant hospital...

... what a jarring experience that was! One elephant has a severed trunk --- a log fell on it and cut it in half. The wound has healed, but given how critical the trunk is (to smell and identify food or other elephants, to pick up stuff, to push things, to guide babies to the teats, etc.), the loss is major. Another patient was a baby who fell down a hill and whose rear legs are now paralyzed; it was hanging from an overhead crane (like a baby swing) with the mother next to it. The saddest patient though was a big elephant that was caught in a forest fire. A crew of four people spray it daily with antiseptic, cut off the dead skin, apply some protective cream, and nurse its blisters. Its coloration is no longer gray, but instead fresh pink covers most of its body. The total recovery period is three months, and the poor guy is only one month into treatment. By the way, all Thai elephants can receive treatment for free at this facility.

We next took a ride on an elephant, meaning that we went on a regular seat, strapped onto the elephant's back, right behind the mahout. I honestly think it's far, far easier to ride like a mahout: you are closer to the ground (which reduces the wobbling), you can sense the elephant under your butt (which helps you predict its movements), and you have no restrains like pillows, armrests, or a safety chain (which makes it much easier to move without bumping onto things in order to compensate for the movements you sense on your butt).

Then it was time for another training session. This time we had company --- one of whom was a German tourist named Tilo. For those who do not know, Brigitte (Christine's sister) calls me Tilo, which she thought was a made-up name. Turns out, it's a rare, but quite old German name (though it's spelled Thilo). Hm. Anyway, this training session went very well. I think my elephant understood a couple of commands when coupled with the right body movements; her mahout, Nuk, also taught me a few commands that are not part of the standard training and the elephant show. One of them was getting the elephant to drink; Christine and her elephant Cho Cho joined us on the lake bank too, and then Christine ordered Cho Cho to spray water from his trunk onto me... he obeyed! My elephant, Pat Chuop, was too much of a lady to respond in kind (i.e. she hasn't learned that command)! Though, to be fair, it was a hot enough day that the spraying was thoroughly welcome and Christine would have been delighted if Pat Chuop could return the favour.

Throughout my training, it was amazing for me to be able to learn so much from Nuk --- somebody with whom I share the love for the same elephant but no common language... Impromptu sign language got us quite far as we discovered when we next took our elephants to the jungle for the night: the elephants suddenly started getting agitated (trumpetting and making other noises) for no apparent reason; with sign language and cross-language sounds (like "moo"), Nuk explained to me that the elephants smelled some cow shit on the road, elephants are afraid of cows, and thus start running when they see them, throwing off their fake mahouts in the process, and hence we had to change course... pretty elaborate communication there.

The trip back also included another bathing stop. Supat was carrying all the cameras (including mine) and took some very good photos. This stop was special because the elephants put their heads in the water, and so we got completely drenched ourselves. And with six elephants present, dung was aplenty too.

Talking of shit, they make paper out of elephant dung at the TECC, which is an employment opportunity for the mahouts' families (along with maid services for the homestay). They must be making lots of it given how much dung an elephant produces: they eat 300 pounds of food a day, and it quickly comes out the other end. Next time I am bathing my elephant and get surrounded by dung balls (whose size is between a baseball and a volleyball), I will think "raw paper" and keep bathing her. To end the shit-talk, when they pee, it's like turning on a high-flow bath tap... and it lasts about 10 seconds too! I wish I had a bladder that big. Tip: in case you are behind an elephant that needs to relieve itself, you thankfully get a short warning since the elephant spreads its back legs (which takes a few moments as they move slowly) before the torrent begins.

The second day ended with dinner, as usual. The other fake mahouts joined us, and so we had a Swiss, a German, and two Brits join us around the dinner table; sadly, the locals' family ate on a separate mat with Supat. The rest of us had a good time eating ants. Yes, fried ants, like the ones that swarmed the first day's dinner. Actually, that was just the appetizer --- a very rare treat indeed because, you see, that food is only served once a year when the rains bring them out; the number of live ants was minimal today as it hadn't rained, so our timing was just perfect to taste this rare specialty. Christine had one, I had two (the second one just to take a photo of me eating it), and, well, it was yummy --- tasted like potato chips, as Thilo observed, because all you really taste is the oil. Crunchy!

Have I mentioned that my wife is a linguistic chameleon? Wherever we travel, she absorbs like a sponge expressions, accents, and other language features she encounters. In Germany, she picked up the fact that Germans love to start a sentence with an emphatic "So". And when the British couple joined the ranks of us fake mahouts, Christine picked up their sentence intonation (not the accent)! It all goes away after a day, but it's amazing to see how adaptable she is... heck, I still have a Greek accent after 15 years in the States!

Oh yes, I also dropped my pants at dinner. They were so wet from elephant bathing, and since I was wearing my swimsuit (shorts) underneath, I just removed my mahout pants to wring them. It was only when I heard the roaring laughter of the others that I realized how ridiculous I looked in my cowboy hat, mahout shirt, what looked like boxer shorts, and cowboy boots. Sigh... But this reminds me: the mahout clothes were given to us from the TECC as part of the program. The fabric is like jeans, the button-shirt is airy and comfy, and the pants are one-size-fits-all-including-Oprah-on-her-big-girl-days with a drawstring. Quite a nice souvenir; I'll wear it next time I sit on my cat.

Posted by Toli at 06:34 AM | Comments (0)

Mahout Camp Day 1: Pai Lo, Pai Lo, Off to work we go

[This is the third of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

"Pai Lo" is the command a mahout uses to direct his elephant to go forward ("his" because I have yet to see a female mahout --- besides tourist mahouts like us). This was one of a few commands we learned at Mahout Camp at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). And probably the only command our elephants seemed to understand as we uttered it after they were already moving forward (a-la Bart Simpson and Santa's Little Helper... "Good boy, sniff that dog's butt."). My theory is that Thai elephants do not understand Thai pronounced with a Greek accent (Thai is a tonal language, and as humans cannot deduce what I try to say, I don't expect elephants to fare any better). Although the real explanation is probably that the bond between mahout and elephant takes a long time to forge --- mahout camp is much more about appreciating that bond than about preparing for elephant rodeo or a circus career. Despite what commands I bark, if his mahout is walking on the ground, the elephant will follow him; it's quite a wonderful bond to observe, no matter how helpless you feel on top of an animal that treats you like a non-entity (elephants could be excellent civil servants, come to think of it).

We arrived at the TECC around 9a on a night bus from Bangkok. Getting on that bus was a nightmare. We left our hostel at 7:30p, and spent 1.5 hours on a local bus moving through the snail-paced Bangkok traffic to get to the end of the line, which was the bus terminal. We arrived at 9p, and a bit panicky since we had no tickets yet for the 9:30p bus to Chiang Mai (the TECC is on that route, but way before Chiang Mai). We got lost in the chaotic, gigantic terminal, because it turns out to be two terminals combined (for the north and north-eastern bus lines out of the city). Sigh! We find the ticket booth at 9:15p, and buy our tickets, at which point we breathe a sigh of relief as we are told that the bus will depart at 10p --- a delay was no problem as we had to be at TECC by noon and 10p departure would get us in around 7a. So we buy some donuts at the Dunkin' Donuts (yes, they are fairly popular in Thailand, but each donut costs a whopping $0.50) and relax, keeping an eye out for our bus... 10p... 10:15p... 10:30p... Where the heck is it? ... 10:45p... 11p... Are we waiting at the right place?... 11:30p. Ah, here it is finally! Ah, Thais may drive on the left side of the road like the Brits, but their timeliness is not very British. Worse, the bus driver seemed to have forgotten his brain: at our refueling stop, he left behind two passengers, and we wasted another 30 minutes driving back to pick them up. To top it off, Thai bus drivers (like Greeks) consider themselves exempt from the No Smoking rule enforced for all passengers on public bus lines --- as if smoke knows to stay at the front of the bus.

In the end, though, this delay was all for the better: Christine chatted up an older Thai who lives in New York, and who was waiting for the same bus. Thanks to him, we knew we were at the right terminal platform; moreover, he got the bus to drop us off at the TECC entrance, instead of having to get off at a proper stop in a nearby town and take a local line. And we got to see Tomb Raider 2, albeit in Thai (though it's the kind of movie where missing out on the dialogue probably improves it). Which reminds me... media piracy is absolutely rampant in South East Asia. It's completely ridiculous for the RIAA to go after p2p sharing in the US when even government buses play pirated, low-quality VCD copies of movies (hilariously, those VCDs start off with the regular copyright & public broadcast warning)... you can buy those VCDs for pennies everywhere and all long-distance transport we used played movies (private/public buses, boats, etc.).

Once we got off at the TECC, we headed for the guard's hut. Nice chap, but didn't speak a lot of English. We showed him a printout of the directions to the TECC we had printed off the Internet, and to our surprise he started copying it down --- we just let him keep our copy to save him some time. Anyway, he arranged for a staff person to come pick us up on a pickup truck and we were on our way --- his parting words were "I provide high-quality service". What a strange thing to say, but quite true after all!

The first thing I noticed at the TECC was the small stuff --- not the elephants, but the bugs. We arrived smack in the midst of ant migration, when aspiring queens fly off to start new nests. Many queens. Many, MANY queens, especially at night when they cluster around every lamp. I took a photo during our home stay dinner of a fluorescent lamp, and using some basic statistical sampling, I estimate the number of bugs manically hovering around that lamp to be around 7,000 (no joke, and --- trust me --- I know basic stats). The nearby lizards were having a giant buffet dinner party. But since my wonderful wife brought along a mosquito net, they were not that bothersome at night.

But let's move on to the big stuff: the elephants! Talk about big! The Asian elephant is smaller than the African one, but they are enormous creatures nevertheless. And lovely too. The strange thing about the TECC is that one gets to see many elephants in the same place (unlike a circus or a zoo), and without cages. There is an elephant show, but it's not circus-y either: it demonstrates what tasks the elephants used to carry out when they were an integral part of the logging industry; they also have a short segment where the elephants play music or paint, which demonstrates one of the ways they raise funds (selling the artists' works). The TECC also contains a (real) mahout school, as well as an elephant hospital where we experienced the most wonderful surprise... a baby elephant!

Baby means baby-baby. Just a day old -- the (partially severed) umbilical cord is still visible on the baby's underside! In fact, if we had not gone diving and had stayed with our original schedule, we would have seen her mother give birth. But, on the good side, we get to see mother and daughter after they have recovered a bit... for example, the mother's mahout can go up to her and pet the baby without either elephant getting upset. The baby nurses every 10 minutes or so, has a hard time walking straight on her wobbly legs, takes naps standing up quite often, it's only about waist-high, and has bright red eyes. We went to see her for a quick peek, and I stayed there mesmerized for over an hour. As this was the second birth ever at the TECC, we were amazingly lucky to get here when we did. I am already plotting how I'll fit her in my luggage on the way back to Austin.

If we hadn't seen the baby, the highlight of our day would have been our first mahout training day. The world looks very different when you are on an elephant: it looks blurry because you are constantly moving. First off, there is no comfy seat (like typical elephant rides or horse saddles) --- you get to sit on the elephant's neck, right behind its head, with your knees right behind the ears. Second, the ride ain't a breeze --- sure, it's not Texas rodeo, but I can assure you that it took a while for me to ride without holding on to dear life onto the elephant's ears or the hair on her head (I am riding a girl elephant, Pat Chuop, while Christine is riding a boy, Cho Cho, who is a foot taller than Pat Chuop). This is a gigantic beast but it can move swifty, which means lots of up and down movement and also plenty of right-left movement as its shoulder blades move your buttocks up and down in an alternating fashion while she walks; the taller the elephant, the more it bobs, and so Christine is having a harder time than I am. Depending on your elephant, this right-left movement can get worse when she flaps her ears: some elephants flap both ears at the same time, while others move the right ear forward and the left ear back, and then switch. Since your legs are right behind those monstrous flaps, this motion affects your balance: Christine's elephant is synchronized, but mine is not (damn my cowboy hat, I gave the impression I know more about riding animals than I do... heck, I've only sat on top of my cat more than once, and that was only to keep her steady while administering medication).

Complications do not stop there... Getting up and down is an ordeal by itself --- I can do it because I'm tall enough, but Christine has trouble going up (and she has a taller elephant). Then there are the verbal commands, which are supposed to be accompanied by tapping the elephant gently: e.g. you say "back up" and also tap his behind to get her to move backwards. Well, "gently" for such a pachyderm means wacking her pretty hard, so if you have trouble maintaining your balance in the first place, just imaging trying to add whacking. And then, you add the terrain: slippery mud, crossing streams, low tree branches... heck, the elephant has enough trouble keeping herself steady, just imagine yourself on top of her wobbling mass, far from its center of gravity and having to dodge branches! And we have more yet... the elephant may be walking straight and then stop suddenly as a juicy bush catches her attention, bending her head so that her trunk wraps around the branch and, when she pulls back, cuts off all the leaves, which she neatly then moves from her trunk to her mouth. Now, remember that you are on top of that head that suddenly stopped moving forward, bent down, bent up, and started chewing... madly you cry "Pai Lo" and she ignores you. Eventually you shut up because you don't want her to laugh too hard while she is eating, listening to your ridiculous accent.

Despite all this, or maybe because of all this, it is an exilirating experience. The day ended when we went to the jungle (with the real mahout, of course) to leave the elephant to graze and sleep (tied onto a tree with a 50 meter chain). We walked, and on the way back we stopped at the elephant cemetary. This is not an elephant cemetary of legends, as in Disney's Lion King (where all old elephants go to die and where giant skeletons make it look like a Natural History museum). Instead, each elephant is buried inside a mound surrounded by a small bamboo fence. There is a tree planted on top of the mound, and a plaque with the elephant's name, birth, and death date (no catchy epigram). The older the date of the death, the bigger the tree. One small grave was for a yearling... Even after a single day with those magnificent animals, that place stirred the same emotions as if I had visited a human cemetary. I didn't realize it until I was on my way out, but soon after going in I had taken off my hat out of respect for the dead.

Back to the TECC, we noticed a good number of other smaller animals roaming around: chickens, dogs, cats... the usual pets. One dog was special though: her face is crooked, meaning that her nuzzle is not perpendicular to the line joining her ears, her tongue comes out on the side, and she can't open her mouth much or chew properly (took her a long time to gulp down a tiny piece of pork). She's a sweetie, though, so we gave her lots of petting... and a name (Funny Face). Trouble is she is also quite a stinker so we smelled worse than elephant dung after petting her. Of course, needless to say that we also found a friendly, pettable, lap cat to worship during our stay.

The first day ended with dinner at a mahout's home. We helped in the preparation a little, the food was quite good, and there was a fairly fluent English speaker (Supat, the local who runs the homestay program) at the table to help us communicate... but we didn't have the chance as the TV was on and as soon as night fell, we were swarmed by the ants. In a way, I was glad that our presence did not interrupt their routine one bit, even though it felt like somewhat of a lost opportunity.

Posted by Toli at 06:34 AM | Comments (0)

Brigitte Wants Rice And Fish Sauce

[This is the second of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Find the first of the batch and start your reading there.]

This is Christine's mnemonic phrase for BWRAF: BCD (itself an acronym, which stands for Buoyancy Control Device), Weights, Releases, Air , Final OK. It's a checklist of items you need to check with your scuba-diving buddy before you go into the water, as we learned at Koh Tao. I personally prefer thinking of Calvin messing with his mushy green vegetables which first come alive, and then swallow him up, with the cartoon bubble reading "BWRAF!" Or, since buddies stand face-to-face while doing this check, it's easier for me to remember that Boobies Want Rubbing and Fondling. (Christine retorts: Boobies Want Respect and Freedom. My response: If freedom means no bra, I'm all for it.)

Scuba diving was, in fact, our second activity after landing on Thailand. The first was doing a one-day tour of Bangkok, starting with its airport. You see, we had a rough idea of what we were going to do in Thailand, but no firm plans or reservations, so we spent some time at the airport trying to figure it all out. We got a local calling card (because the pre-paid AT&T calling card from the US doesn't allow intra-Thailand phone calls... it worked that way in Europe but go figure) --- turned out to be a good way to save money since coin-operated pay phones ate up coins. Much like the innumerable scam artists hanging around the airport in official-looking suits aiming at one thing: booking unsuspecting tourists at hotels or tours that leave a lot to be desired; thankfully, the Lonely Planet warned us about all this. What is most ridiculous about the airport is that there are two exits from the customs area: left for tour groups, right for individuals. Of course, the pestering is concentrated on the individuals' side... so we went to the other side to finish our planning. Which included a personal commitment to give not one penny to those kinds of individuals --- we gave enough to Saigon Tourist in Vietnam, thank you very much.

And so our first experience outside the airport was finding the local bus that employees take to commute between the airport and town. Not the expensive taxis or the equally exploitative "airport bus" ($2.50 per person), but the true local line ($0.50 per person, also air-conditioned). We found it, and more importantly we found real, everyday Thais who are not in the tourism business. What nice people! Very few spoke English, but there was a sincere eagerness to help us find our destination (the youth hostel, where we stayed for $8.75/night, with air-conditioning and private bath); in fact, the conductors were the most helpful (and most likely to speak basic English) despite being civil servants. Also, we saw Bangkok traffic, which, in a sense, is the big equalizer --- taxi, expensive bus, or local bus take about the same amount of time to get wherever; there's a new metro system that's probably faster, but we didn't get to try it cause it didn't match our itineraries. Unlike cities in Cambodia or Vietnam, Bangkok is almost like any other Western city --- with jammed, modern, raised highways, packed wide streets, many more cars than motorbikes, and an elaborate, timely public transit system (beats Austin, I tell ya). They also drive on the left, which means we kept looking towards the wrong side of the street before crossing.

Our day took a turn for the weird (or, rather, Toli-and-Christine-normal) when we got off the bus and started walking to our hostel. We saw a kitten hiding behind an electrical pole --- it looked skinny and hungry, so naturally we stopped at the next market, bought some fried fish (not an ideal choice, but the best available), and Christine went back to feed it while I waited with the luggage. After getting to the hostel, we spent an hour looking up local animal shelters only to discover that there is virtually nothing for cats (but a decent number of options for dogs). Next time we walked by the pole, the kitten was no longer there, so we hope it had found a home.

We were actually on our way to Khao San Road, the backpacker headquarters of Bangkok --- the place stinks of tourism, and yet it's quite bearable, because it's low-end, alternative, hippie tourism. We got there in the evening and saw a street unlike any other we had passed: jam-packed with people, neon signs, currency exchange booths (the Thai Military Bank offered the best rate, by the way, but we opted for something more aligned with peacetime), and loud techno music from CD street vendors. Locals are a minority on Khao San Road, and the majority of shops are bead shops (they are called jewelry shops, but don't sell diamonds and the like --- they sell parts to make your own), while bridal gown shops dominate the side road (nope, I cannot see a connection to tourism either). The type of tourism (low-end) affects the nature of the items sold, but not the manner of selling, i.e. overpricing everything except food. On our last day in Bangkok, Christine asked me to buy a keychain, and I found a very nice one that is a locket too. The guy asked $2.50 for it (which is ludicrous by local standards) but eventually settled for $0.80 after I bargained (if it was up to me, I would not have bought a thing from such an exploitative seller, but I was on an errand and hence not-to-buy was not an option).

The best thing about Khao San Road was the food. You see, we don't speak Thai and hence local restaurants were a total hit-or-miss for me: we could not read the menu (Thai uses a writing system that is not based on Roman letters) so we couldn't rely on the phonetic similarity to dish names familiar from the US, looking at the dishes provided no clue regarding the contents or spice level (locals love spicy food), and English is rarely spoken to an adequate level. But on Khao San Road, food was good, cheap, comprehensible, and had a local touch as well (as local as you can get if you eliminate hot spices). Yum! With one exception, this is where I ate most of my Bangkok meals: pad thai, spring rolls, satay meats, and fruit... the main exception to Khao San Road was Lonely Planet's vegetarian pick, which was a bit of a disappointment for the reasons above, coupled with the fact that the prioprietor felt that, as we couldn't communicate, it was up to her to choose what she'd put on my plate from the many pre-cooked pots in front of her. Oh well, it was worth a shot. And it had a cat with two kittens, so that makes up for everything :-)

Other items for sale on Khao San Road were forged TOEFL certificates, youth hostel cards, and other fake IDs. There was also a street seller that attracted my wife's attention with her Nemo (the clown fish from Finding Nemo) handbags... she had to use every ounce of her willpower to resist the overpriced bags, but she made it. It was also on Khao San Road where we started realizing that the most popular, ever-present supermarket chain in Thailand is 7 Eleven. It is everywhere, even on the tiny island of Koh Tao where we learned diving.

It was this first evening, near Khao San Road, that we stepped into Easy Divers and got ourselves thinking we should get our diving certification. We just got the info that evening, returned to the hostel, and made our plans: we'd leave the very next day, postpone our elephant camp for two days (turns out we missed the birth of a baby elephant as a result), and leave some of our luggage at the Bangkok hostel. A great plan in theory, but when executed, it resulted in a horrendous transportation schedule, with many a night sleeping on a bus, and a lot of luggage hauling. For example, the bus to Koh Tao left at 9p, arrived at the pier of Chumpon at 5a, where the boat left at 7a and arrived at Koh Tao at 8:30a. On the way back, we were booked on the same boat by the Easy Divers Bangkok office who did not realize our class ended at noon; so we missed it, but they kindly rescheduled us for another boat whose journey lasted two extra hours, and where we had to take a weird bus that was like a military bus for a short distance (it was like a truck with three long parallel benches in the cargo area, with travellers sitting along the inner walls and in the middle bench). And the long haul bus was a night one too, getting us in Bangkok at 5a, at Khao San Road, which meant a nice pre-sunrise walk through town. The upsides were that everything went smoothly in the end, it was nice to see Bangkok as it was waking up, we caught the sunrise on the Gulf of Thailand (it was absolutely divine)... and I got to spoil a Wiener dog at a bus station by petting him senseless for half an hour.

But I am jumping ahead. We decided to go with Easy Divers because the deal was too good to resist. The cost of the class is comparable to the US. What is far superior is everything else: learning in warm tropical waters that are teeming with fish, paying $7.50 a night for our own bungalow on the beach, incl. a yummy dinner all-you-can buffet, and spending the non-class time on a tropical island, on the beach, or petting the resort's puppy (a beautiful dog that looked like a tiny Husky). We had a choice between two places to stay: Nang Yuan island and Koh Tao. The first is a delightful grouping of three tiny islands connected by natural sand bars, a few hundred yards off Koh Tao, which is substantially bigger. The problem was that few boats did the trip between Nang Yuan and Koh Tao, the last one departing at 5:30p, and the whole of Nang Yuan has only one restaurant, owned by the resort itself; so we were afraid of becoming hostage to overpriced meals and few culinary options, and opted for Koh Tao instead. Our resort was very basic, nature-y, and tasteful, and catering to divers only. So it was quiet, locally owned, and without screaming kids or pointless luxuries. The bungalow was a small elevated thatched hut with a bedroom and an attached ground-level concrete bathroom --- there was only a fan, which was fine since air-conditioning is unnecessary during the mild weather at the beginning of the rainy season. It blended beautifully with its surroundings like the vast majority of the tourist accomodations on both islands. Overall, if we choose to pay to support development of the island (and we did), at least the money went to the locals and specifically locals who build in harmony with nature.

As for our activities on Koh Tao, it was like being at Stanford again: going to class, practicing, reading at nights, and taking tests. Scuba diving is a lot of fun, and much like driving: a bit complex and overwhelming at first, but it becomes second nature the more you practice. There is a social element to it, as you get to know your classmates too: in our case, we got to know (superficially, of course, given the time constraints) two Norwegians and a med student from New York. The test-taking part is pretty easy, and Christine got 50 out of 50 on her final exam (I missed a question cause I don't have the photographic memory of my wife). The hardest part is learning how to be a fish, esp. when you are in such a wonderful place that you get constantly distracted by looking around. You see, the diving class starts with some confined (shallow) water dives where you learn basic underwater skills (e.g. how to put back your breathing apparatus if it accidentally leaves your mouth): these are typically done in swimming pools, but in Koh Tao they are done in shallow beaches, so there is still the distraction of the beautiful fish. Some fish run away, but many are social and come up to you to observe you (or nip at you). So there are constant distractions, which multiply when you start the open water dives in water as deep as 18m (54ft). All our open water dives were impressive to us newbies, even though the last one was on a rainy, overcast day so visibility was bad: but even this dive included an encounter with a fish that follows diving groups and likes to be petted (thus dubbed "dog fish"). Not all distractions are good: there is also coral pieces that hide on sandy bottoms; they are sharp, and you really don't want to rest your knees on them while practicing your skills. And there are huge black sea urchins, which you want to avoid cause the wet suit ain't much protection. Anyway, the underwater experience was spectacular, and we look forward to more exploration in the future (in August while at Hawaii): we were already overwhelmed at Koh Tao, seeing many colorful tropical fish (such as parrot fish and a manta ray) and colorful corals and anemones, but other divers said Hawaii is still better! There's also more to scuba than watching fish: the sense of weightlessness, and effortless movement in all directions (including up and down) is very appealing in itself... sort of makes you feel detached from earth and (once the technique becomes second nature, which will still take some time for us) maybe encourage some spiritual experiences: I suggested to Christine that she teach underwater Yoga in Hawaii.

Underwater aside, Koh Tao was thoroughly enjoyable at all other times too. The rest of the diving experience was fun as Christine and I made fun of each other: she couldn't lift herself out of the water because the tank is so heavy. On my part, I missed one question on the final exam, and copied the right answer from Christine who thus earned herself a Hello Kitty item from Japan. Besides diving, it was nice learning something with Christine as a capable, smart partner, and totally enjoyed the evenings we spent reading side by side from our textbook. In addition, Koh Tao offered some fantastic sunsets, during which Christine and I swam (just stood in the water really) in warm, serene, welcoming tropical waters. We took many a photo, so you'll see for yourselves. An odd sight while swimming was the flying fish. Seriously. These are fish that swim in large groups --- you can tell where they are without looking underwater because they normally swim so close to the glass-like surface that they visibly agitate the water. And, quite often, they all jump a good foot upwards, as if there was an undersea explosion! The beaches were fairly clean and empty since most people at Koh Tao come for diving --- the majority of accomodations only accept divers ---, and so they have had enough of the sea while diving to spend time on the beach in the evening; instead, they enjoy the few foreigner-oriented restaurants in the one town of the island (where the port is). The food was good, there was some welcome variety in the available options, and the price was right... most irresistible were the $1 fruit smoothies during the class lunch break. Here are some other memorable items at Koh Tao:

  • There's a foot-long spotted lizard that hangs around huts and, at night, makes a loud croaking sound like a bird.

  • There are plenty of dogs, and they like sleeping on the sand. One evening, we went to a nearby beach to swim, and six dogs were resting on it. What a beach! (Har, har.)

  • The resort had a DVD collection --- all pirated copies, of course. So was saw 50 First Dates one evening: a fun movie.

  • There's a place called Porn Resort on the island. I bet they have a very popular DVD collection. Anyway, I wonder why somebody would choose a name like that (even though Porn is a Thai name)... I guess it's memorable.

  • The diving boat had pineapples, fresh water, cookies, and all sorts of other goodies waiting for us after each dive. I had no clue how much energy I'd spend just breathing and levitating underwater until I came up and wolfed down more than ten cookies.

  • One of the lessons we learned in scuba class was to refrain from feeding fish, so as not to disturb their natural feeding patterns. Well, our instructor didn't seem to mind throwing cookies in the water --- the faux-pas aside, it was impressive seeing the fish swarm to the food, esp. seeing it all underwater.

  • There are parts of the island with lots of trash. Ironically, it is the locals who produce most of it, and most trash heaps are around locals' houses. I guess it takes time to realize that plastic bottles do not decompose as quickly as coconuts.
Wait a sec! I got all wrapped into diving, and I forgot Bangkok altogether. Well, we did see a bit of Bangkok that first day, and a bit more between Koh Tao and the elephant camp. We visited the regular tourist staples such as the grand palace and the reclining Buddha; both are quite impressive. We also walked into a Buddhist monastery (mostly by accident), and enjoyed the serene oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis... with cats lying around the low houses where monks live. We visited a royal mansion, where we saw some of the porcelain and other stuff (mostly of European origin) that past Thai kings had collected to decorate their homes; most interesting were old personal family photos in sepia. At the same place, we saw a performance of traditional dances, which ended with an odd pop-sounding song, where the dancers invited the audience to join in: Christine was the only one gutsy enough to do so, and she looked delightful! On the way back, we passed by the royal palace, where we saw the king and queen. No, I'm not joking... we were just walking on the sidewalk around the palace, when a cop motioned us to move to the other side of the street and put away our cameras. We did, and shortly thereafter, a long motorcade passed, which included a car with two heavily decorated people inside... maybe they were the royals, maybe not.

Talking of royalty, Thais sure take their royal family very seriously. They are a symbol of their national identity, and since national pride ranks high, so does the reverance of the king and queen. Bangkok has plenty of large posters with the photos of the royals on them, and calendars with photos of the king are very popular. (Calendars with the supreme patriarch of the Thai Buddhists are also common... he is sort-of like the Pope in Italy.) And, of course, the king's image is on the Baht banknotes. In fact, the most popular calendar shot is the same as that on the banknotes: the king with his Nikon camera hanging from his neck and looking quite personable. Of course, I've never met them nor know anything about them, but my impression of the royal family is that they are very close to the people. The Thai Elephant Conservation Camp was founded by a princess, the king sports unofficial outfits in most occasions, and always has his camera with him, a popular photo of the king and queen is just like that of any young couple in the 50s ready for the prom, and so on... I was really hoping to see an exhibition of the king's photography, but we got there just as it was closing. It's quite ironic, by the way, that the cop stopped us from taking photos of him :-)

We only got to walk through a small part of Bangkok --- it's a huge and sprawling city. We also took a boat "bus", that runs along the river (where traffic is never an issue). Overall, it was a pretty interesting, modern city with nice people --- excluding those who annoy tourists (especially the tuk-tuk drivers who are renowned for ripping people off or luring them into scams while pretending to be helpful). Maybe next year we'll have a chance to see more of it.

Posted by Toli at 06:33 AM | Comments (0)

Cambodia --- odds and ends

[This is the first of seven log entries that cover our last two weeks. Start reading here.]

Christine's entry covered the main points of our stay in Cambodia. In this entry, I'll add my own weird observations.

Cambodian houses are usually built on stilts, and they are a single room. No interior plumbing, though electricity is fairly common to run the TV (with the exterior antenna on a long bamboo stick). The roof is usually dried palm leaves, but sometimes metal or ceramic shingles; the walls sometimes wood, sometimes bamboo with mud or thatched. The house is set back towards the far end of the small fenced property (30 by 30 meters or so). Sometimes, a separate structure (without stilts) is in front of the fenced section, and acts as a family shop. I'm not sure why the stilts are there for the house but not for the shop. At first I thought it was because of regular flooding during their rainy season, but that doesn't make much sense for hillside houses. Maybe it's to lift the house away from the ground, and allow the family to sleep without having the ferocious red ants (or other critters) bug them.

I saw red ants in Angkor. I accidentally stepped on one of their trails, and then I looked down to notice the others cut up the dead ones into smaller pieces and haul them away along with their food... creepy!

Public phone booths are virtually impossible to find in Cambodia. Yet, it's pretty easy to make a phone call anywhere you are in the country. You just look for the impromptu, portable 3-sided plexiglass booths with seemingly random numbers glued onto them. At first, they look like lottery ticket sales outlets, but eventually, you realize that the numbers are area codes and their corresponding per-minute rates. So how do you make a call? Simple... you go up to the lady who mans the booth, she hands you her cell phone, you make your call, and when you are done she looks at the call duration shown on the phone and you pay her! Sometimes, the phone is a regular phone, with a long overhead wire connecting it to the house in the back. Talk about business creativity!

Today I saw a buddhist monk smoking a cigarette. In Saigon, I saw a monastery by a pagoda, and three monks in a room were watching an action movie on TV. We also met the rich, data-crazy monk in Dalat who raised the money he needed for a 160GB drive by selling a handful of his paintings. Also, in front of another pagoda was a vendor of live sparrows: that's one of those --- pardon my un-PCness --- naive religious traditions of freeing a bird to send a blessing to a dead loved one (even though, of course, you are only paying the vendor to trap a bird so that you can release it --- never mind how many sparrows die in the trapping process). And beggars who kindly say "Fuck you" if you don't give them money. Add to these impressions the photo-crazy monks of Angkor that Christine covered... Seems to me that applied Buddhism is as far from the teachings as Christianity or any other religion. No surprise there... Organized religion and spirituality are not the same thing.

And now for our regular motor vehicle-related news:

  • When you cross the street in Southeast Asia, look at both sides. Always. No matter whether you are crossing a one-way street, or one of the sides of a divided highway. I have seen plenty a motorbike or regular bicycle go against traffic (without causing the Hollywood-style mayhem on the road) if that's the shortest way to get there.
  • Don't expect motorbikes or cars to have their headlights on at night. Ghost riders in the streets, not the sky.
  • Don't expect buses to have a working suspension... avoid seats on top of the wheels, or you are in for a very bumpy ride!
  • The maximum number of people/items on a motorbike is: however many can fit. I've seen up to five people (and, as for cargo, you won't believe your eyes when you see the photos). The point is that such motorbikes aren't easy to maneuver, so stay clear out of their way as a pedestrian.
  • Cambodia has many more cars than Vietnam. And big, new ones, too. And used to the max like motorcycles. A small minivan, for example, can accomodate 17 people: 12 inside (4 on each of three rows), and 5 people on the roof, sitting on top of the luggage tied on the roof. That's regular practice, not just a rare sight.
  • Safety at gas pumps is optional. You see people smoking, but also very odd sights like this one: the overhang of a gas station (the roof over the gas pumps) is a metal structure, and a crew was installing lights. Which meant soldering. Which meant sparks flying everywhere. The gas pumps were protected by a couple of metal roofing sheets placed on top of the pumps. Of course, the winds blew the burning sparks right onto the pumps, but nobody seemed to care.
Throughout Southeast Asia, but especially in Cambodia, there is a preoccupation with numbers. Not math, but rather astrology and other superstitions like recommended days to get married, etc. It is quite common to find businesses whose name is a number. For example, a popular beer in Vietnam is 333. In Cambodia, 555 is a brand of cigarettes. Along Ochheuteal beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, one can see side-by-side the beachside restaurants 888, 777, the most original 898, and the always popular with the Religious Right, 666. I wonder if anybody has named their child '5' (as in the Peanuts comic strip).

Ochheuteal beach in Sihanoukville is where we went to hang out and rest after Siem Reap (and a single day in Phnom Penh). It was a very relaxing stay --- we planted ourselves in an air-conditioned room of a beachside guesthouse for $10 a day and did nothing but swim, take leisurely walks, and eat. The water was so warm that we could get in and stay in the water for an hour or two without shivering; in fact, the rare cooler currents were most welcome. There was only one motorboat in the water (dragging behind it a floating tube on which at most 5 riders could sit at a time and do water-skiing for the balance-challenged) --- having enjoyed the wonderful music of jet skis on the Silkworm Island off Nha Trang (Vietnam), it was very nice to be on a quiet beach... I still wonder what the appeal is to go on such a water ride when you get to do this on land all the time (on the ever-present motorbikes). Oh well.

Other niceties of the beach were the scarcity of tourists, and availability of cheap seafood (for Christine). We went there after high season (which runs through winter) and right before all tourism goes away (when the summer rains start). But things weren't too dead yet, as evidenced by the trash on the beach (which we saw only one tourist walk along the beach to pick some up), and the substantial presence of food sellers. Those sellers walk up and down the beach with a big basket on their head or Vietnamese-style bamboo poles with a basket on either end. The baskets contain all sorts of fresh goodies for a ridiculously low price: Christine had 5 (smallish) lobsters for $1; and 3 crabs for another $1. There's also fruits, squids (cooked on the spot with a portable grill), potato chips (packaged, not fresh), fruits (including the smelly durians), and so on. Of course, the downside is that truly quiet time on the beach does not exist... If you answer "No" when an offer to buy lobster wakes you up from your beach-side nap, you get an answer of "Why not?", and by that point you are awake. And, if you say "Later", or make a promise to buy from one vendor but not another, you get involved into vendor politics (since many more than one vendor sells the same item).

The sellers are mostly children (under 18 years old). They should be in school, right? Well, according to one of them (whose English was decent), they are simply too poor. Going to school is a substantial expense for a family: on the one hand, there are the expenses such as the mandatory school uniform, books, etc; on the other, there is the lost income to the family from removing the child from the work force. The girl, aged 17, said she picked up English from tourists on the beach; her parents are 42 years old and too weak to work (whatever that means); she has four siblings, and works so that they can go to school. She wakes up a 7a, goes to market to buy fresh lobsters, cooks them, and sells them on the beach till 6:30p. Whether what she said was true or not, I don't know for sure, but it sounded plausible. Poverty sucks.

Yet the kid sellers are still kids --- we saw a few take a long rest from selling their wares. And they goofed around like all kids do. They were Vietnamese immigrants, so Christine understood what they said (and when the kids figured her out, they were embarassed and whispered instead). Part of their play involved a girl braiding her hair, while looking at her reflection on a small mirror, part of a Hello-Kitty-like plastic makeup-kit contraption. The girl wanted just the mirror, so the boys ripped the kit apart and removed it. The rest of it, shredded plastic, they tore into smaller pieces and just threw it out on the ground. It's their beach, and it's quite an irony that it is the locals that pollute it while some tourists pick up their trash.

The sellers were almost invariably girls; the boys seemed all to be motorbike drivers offering tourists a ride between beaches or into town. Their English was mostly horrible, and many were out for a fast buck charging $1 for a ride usually costing $0.25. The one time Christine took a moto, she tried to get the guy to turn right but he ignored her and dropped her off to a totally different spot. So we walked for the most part.

The walk into town was about 2km, and we did it twice to get dinner. The first evening, we went to a Sri-Lankan buffet restaurant and stuffed ourselves for $3.50 each. We also met Don there, an Australian expat who runs (with a partner) a scuba outfit. He used to be in high-tech, his latest project being an SAP deployment. No wonder he quit all that and went a few meters under the sea to escape the calls for bug fixes! Anyway, what drove Don to Sihanoukville is a sense of being a pioneer --- an early investor in a beach that is bound to grow. Ironically, most investors are foreigners, as the Khmer Rouge did a very good job of eliminating the Khmers who might have such capitalistic tendencies... Don mentioned that another Aussie was getting an airport going, a French had opened an excellent restaurant next door to his scuba place (we tried it the second night... very good food), etc.

On the good side, those outfits employ many locals. And so do the big, ugly hotels that are starting to show up on every beach. Also, some foreigners open non-profit businesses, like the Starfish Bakery, whose proceeds benefit poor locals. Hopefully, development will also bring education, reduced birth rates, and an appreciation of nature before it all disappears. On the other side, who says development has to work that way? More money and better health care means more mouths survive and need food, and spawn even more mouths to feed. And there is no real government in Cambodia --- everything is wheeling and dealing, and so no controls. As Don put it, it's pioneering, and look what pioneers did in the US and the natural environment. Well, money talks and shit walks, so in due time, Sihanoukville will turn into another high-class Hawaii-like resort. Unless another Khmer Rouge comes into the picture to reverse time. And here lies the big irony... the main reason Christine and I saw an undeveloped Sihanoukville is probably thanks to the Khmer Rouge. You see, Sihanoukville was a very popular resort back in the 70s, with many a villa and casinos. It is only because of the brutal elimination of all non-peasants that Sihanoukville reverted back in time. One can still see the skeletal ghosts of old villas here and there.

Anyway, our trek through Cambodia ended with a short overnight stay in Phnom Penh. We went to another charity-related restaurant after wandering the streets for a while (and also passing a Greek restaurant on the way... operated by an American). This dinner cost us about $20, but the food was great and the cause worthwhile: to take kids off the streets and teach them a trade, in an organization ran primarily by Cambodians themselves. Cambodia has had a major drug problem since 1997 (that's "development" for you), and it's always good advice never to give money to beggars on the streets as you are usually financing the drug trade. Service was spectacular, but sadly we noticed that most kids there were boys. Why? I don't know, but my guess is that girls can always get money from prostitution while there is a lesser demand for boys who turn to the streets. Maybe. What is surely true is that in Cambodia, unlike in Vietnam, the separation of the sexes in terms of their roles is very obvious; maybe communism or development lessened the gap in Vietnam. Anyway, after the restaurant, we went to another outfit ran by the same operation, an Internet cafe costing us $0.50 an hour.

Being with Christine, I didn't get to see much of the prostitution side of Cambodia. Sure, the heavily made-up ladies were easy to spot. And so were the ever-present massage parlours. But I didn't get the line "want a girl with your room?" upon hotel check-in (as warned by a Cambodian friend before our trip). On the massage front, if you really want a massage, get one from a blind person --- many hotels offer the service, the cost is peanuts ($3 an hour), the service is legitimate, and the quality is high (as Christine found out).

We're now off to Thailand to learn how to ride and bathe elephants. What the heck do I get myself into? The temperature has hit the high nineties regularly, and we'll be staying in a hut without air conditioning. We tried this once in Phnom Penh and we could hardly get any sleep. Maybe things will work out as this backpacker told us in the hospital I gave blood: you get used to the heat, and, in fact, nights without AC make it easier for your body to handle the heat on the following day. Being too competitive to be out-hippied, I will give it a shot... If I don't melt, I'll report on the results next time.

Posted by Toli at 06:32 AM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2004

Beach bumming it in SE Asia...

This will be a short entry, seeing that I only have about 20 minutes to write it up before leaving on our bus to Lampang/Chiang Mai. Hey - I'm sacrificing my evening shower to do this, so no complaining! I'm going to stink up the bus thanks to my dedication to my log readers. :)

Anyway, I know we've been out of touch, but now it's not because times have been crazy, but because we have been LAZY. After exploring Angkor Wat and getting up in the wee hours of morning to catch the beautiful sunrises over the temples, we made a beeline for Sihanoukville and lived on the beach for a few days in sun-filled hedonistic pleasure. There's not much to tell about because all we really did was sit under an umbrella-ed hut on the beach, play in the water, and occasionally patronize the snack sellers for freshly cooked seafood (not Toli, he would buy french fries from the restaurant behind us) and cut fruit. I averaged $1 for two-three average-sized crabs each day - it tasted heavenly!

After Sihanoukville, we went back to Phnom Penh to catch our flight to Bangkok, where the plan was to see the city and visit some other areas in Thailand with ancient ruins. That got tabled when we passed by the "Easy Divers" outlet near Khao San Road and decided to take a "peek" and see what scuba diving trips cost here in Thailand. Ever since Nha Trang, Toli and I have been lamenting our lack of scuba certification. We had actually made plans already with a friend to get it this summer, before our Kauai trip, but that was before we found out how dirt cheap it is to go diving in SE Asia. So, after moaning and groaning about not diving in both Nha Trang and Sihanoukville we decided to go for it and get our diving certification in 4 packed days at Koh Tao ("Turtle Island") off of Thailand's eastern coast.

It cost us about 8500 baht each for the diving program (about $215), which isn't that cheap compared to the states. BUT, we also got a beachside hut and a delicious Thai dinner every night for 300 baht (about $7.50) thrown into the package, which really made the whole thing seem like a nice mini-honeymoon on the beach. Koh Tao is a *beautiful* island, which is frequented mostly by scuab-diving tourists, so just about every little business there is geared toward diving. It does feel a wee bit Disneylandish in that way, but once you hit the water, you see immediately why all the divers flock to Thailand and its islands. Clear, warm tropical water with good visibility (except for our last dive which was a little murky) and an impressive variety of aquatic life. Couple the beauty of the islands with the low cost of living (and diving) and you see why a bunch of westerners (like our diving instructors, for example) have gone native and decided to settle down in the area for a while. Were it not for our additional travel plans, we could have easily extended our stay for another week...or year.

But a more important trip has come up for us, and now we're headed to Lampang, home of the "Thai Elephant Conservation Center." They host a 3-day mahout (the Thai word for "elepant keeper") homestay program there where you basically learn how to ride, feed, bathe, and otherwise care for a big beautiful pachyderm. I'm trying to convince Toli that taking one home with us will exceed our luggage limit on the airline, but let's see how I hold out once I set my own eyes on one of them myself.

Posted by Christine at 06:55 AM | Comments (0)