Turkey: The final episode

I did exactly what I swore I wouldn’t do!!  This post should’ve been written in Turkey, amidst the moments as they happened, but now I’m back.  I’m learning that it’s easy to just jump right back into your life, making all the adventures seem like a bizarre dream… I’ve been trying to think about them and look at photos often, and hopefully haven’t been too obnoxious about it when chatting with friends (old and new… more on that later). Here are a few stories from Turkey, glad to have a reason to tell them again, after over a month since coming back!

I spent the last 3 weeks of the whole 8 month trip in Western Turkey, and took the time to squeeze out all the excitement I could. I split the time roughly in to two parts:  I took the first 10 days or so to ride a motorbike out of Istanbul and around the Troad coast, passing along the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and the ancient city of Troy.  After returning to Istanbul, I was so lucky to have a visit from Cora who was just starting her own solo travel adventure through Europe.  We had an awesome time, and she left just in time to miss a stroll through some tear gas on Istiklal street during a demonstration.

Here is a giant album from the motorbike tour… decided to ditch the bicycle at a hotel for awhile and try out a slightly faster set of wheels.  So. Fun.  I’m glad I did too, because I wouldn’t’ve had been able to make the whole loop had I gone on a bike (and the wind was crazy at times!).  For the route, I used this for inspiration, and ended up passing through the following places: Istanbul to Bandirma (by ferry), Bandirma to Gönen, Gönen to Biga, Biga to Çanakkale (via an out-and-back visit to Gallipoli), Çanakkale to Bozcaada Island (by ferry, after a visit to Troy), Bozcaada to Babakale (westernmost point in Turkey!), Babakale to Asos, Asos to Akçay, Akçay back to Bandirma, and then back to Istanbul by ferry. You can see the route here, just zoom in to Turkey.  I took about 10 days to do this, and along the way I had cherries by the roadside, made a 75-year old friend on a nearly-deserted island, helped someone reconnect with an old friend via Skype, and ate as much baklava and turkish delight as I could take.

 

Back in Istanbul, I returned the scooter to Mehmet, and found my way on the Tram to the airport to pick up Cora!!! So excited to see her and have a Seattle pal to explore the city with.  I didn’t see much of Istanbul before she arrived, so it was new for both of us.  She was just starting a month-long trip around Europe, and it was amazing to travel a few days with someone who had fresh eyes and a less road-weary perspective.  It made the end of my trip new again and I am really grateful to her for that. We had a blast shopping, sightseeing, wandering, eating, and learning our way around.  The day she left was the one-year anniversary of last year’s Istiklal square protest, where police killed 7 people.  A memorial had been planned, and the entire city seemed to be in shutdown mode. It was exciting in a slightly scary “what’s about to happen??” kind of way, to experience something like what we’ve seen in the news over here, and to talk with people about the whole thing in person. Finally, I spent the last few days visiting other places in the city, including the 600-year old Cemberlitas Hamam… a Turkish spa where you basically go to take a bath in public.  Rather, people bathe you.  Fun, but a little weird. Here’s an album from Istanbul, minus the Turkish Hamam.  No photos allowed in there!

 

And… that’s it…?! I packed my bags, picked up my bike from Hotel Torun and got on a plane. I would love to go back to Turkey, to see more of Istanbul and more of the country… I didn’t make it to the east or south coast at all, which I’ve heard are amazing and more than worth the trip out of the city.

As a closing to the entire trip, I have an epilogue that I want to write, to give some final thoughts and reflections on the trip as a whole.  Once I got back to Seattle, it was so good to see Ed and my friends, but we had to pack up our entire lives in less than three weeks in order to move to yet another new place (Atlanta) for an amazing job (that I’m really grateful to have). I definitely felt like I wasn’t quite my old self when I got back, and had a hard time adjusting to making group decisions and living with another person. Poor Ed, he’s a saint for putting up with this “readjustment”!

Even though I’m back, and we’ve moved into a new place in Atlanta, I still feel like I’m on the move, and not really in a permanent home just yet.  Because of all the chaos with moving, I haven’t been able to devote much time and space to thinking, talking and reflecting on the trip, and I’m getting a little worried that that chance will slip away the more time that goes by.  It really helped to talk with another recently-returned fellow back in Seattle… nice to share the “What the hell just happened to me?!” sentiment with someone who’s been there.

More later, hopefully with a better answer to that question, and any others I come up with in the meantime!  Until then, I want to end this post with a lot of thanks, to a lot of people.

I want to thank David Bonderman, Helene Obradovich and Marilyn Gray at UW for the idea, funding and operations that have made this amazing opportunity a reality for so many of us. I still can hardly believe it even exists, and I just lived it.  I’m so, so grateful to Ed for holding down the fort, caring for all the animals, Skying with me and visiting me over the last 8 months… there’s a lot back home I didn’t have to worry about, and that made this journey even more of dream-come-true.  Thanks to my family who were excited for me, kept in touch, and didn’t let on too much how scared they were that I’d get kidnapped.  Thanks to friends who would check in every so often… it was really nice to know I wasn’t totally forgotten back home!  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my colleagues at ISB too… Nitin, Elisabeth, and Nic, who took the lead on resubmitting our manuscript after I left and couldn’t lead the effort myself.  I’m lucky to have worked with such an amazing team… it’s pretty rare to have a paper gone so quickly, and it’s all thanks to these guys.  Finally, I want to thank all of the people I’ve met, many of whom were introduced in this blog… the people who welcomed me into their homes, into their hotels and restaurants (even with my bike!), and everybody who took the time to chat or answer probably-stupid questions in a bad rendition of their language.  Throughout the trip, I’ve had the sense that the world opened up and gave me a big hug, and it’s thanks to the collective of new friends and acquaintances I had the privilege of meeting, for giving me that.  I have a brand new sense of what it means to be a host and friend to someone far from home, and I look forward to paying the gift forward.

 

Tales from the land of perpetual Mo’vember

Feeling left out of the mustache club.  The third guy, taking the picture, also had a mustache for the record.

I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that one of the first major things I noticed about south India is that the vast majority of men have mustaches. I flew into Bangalore from Bangkok, and during my usual first-day-errands, I hardly saw a shorn upper lip. The guys at my hotel, the guys who drive the auto rickshaws, the guys working at the street food stalls and restaurants…. nearly all of em, uniformly mustachioed with the same fuzzy caterpillar. Although it was April, it looked like Seattle in November, where lots of dudes grow the Mo’vember ‘stache to raise awareness for prostate cancer and other men’s health issues http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movember.

The younger guys at the Airtel store were an exception, I noticed, while selling my soul for a couple of SIM cards. After a month in big cities and small towns across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, mustaches seemed to be positively associated with age and rural-ness, and negatively associated with socioeconomic status. Note though that variables like profession, religion, caste and access to shaving materials were not properly controlled for.

But anyhow! Facial hair style commentary aside, the plan after arriving was to spend two or three days in Bangalore, bus to Mysore, and then start biking. I planned to go from Mysore (3 hrs west of Bangalore, by bus) to the Coorg and Nilgiris regions of the Western Ghat mountains. (You can see the actual route here… move the map over to south India and zoom in: https://share.delorme.com/beeronabike) In other words, Operation: heat escape! Before heading out of the city, I did my usual bike assembly, SIM card and cash acquisition, and I bought a few cotton t-shirts. My synthetic biking shirts are just too hot for this climate, and I learned quickly that the sleeves were a bit too short and the necklines a bit too low!  Harsha, a nice guy I met on warmshowers.org, stored my bike box in Bangalore while I was out riding.

Before leaving for Mysore, I got a great intro to Bangalore and Karnataka state from Vijay, who is a colleague of my friend and my dad’s SO, Diana. Vijay is a project manager and developer for a number of web apps made for American companies, and It was great to meet him along with his wife Ajita and their two daughters. They gave me some good recommendations for places to visit along my ride, and Vijay even let me stay at his vacation flat in Mysore.

I spent two days exploring Mysore on my bike, including a bird sanctuary (with crocodiles!), the grand Mysore palace (Mysore used to be the capital of Karnataka, before it moved to Bangalore), and the big Devaraja food and flower market. I also had my second flat tire of the trip, but this time I wasn’t alone on the side of an Amazon highway. Turns out flat tires are a good way to make friends. Here’s an album from the first few days in India.

The first part of the bike route took me 3 days to reach the hill town of Madikeri in the Coorg region, a low-mountain area (600-1000 m) famous for coffee and pork curries. Coorg women also have a unique way of wrapping their sarees, and a different flavor of Hinduism is practiced here (a larger emphasis on worship of nature and animals as I understand it).

Some broad comments on my first week in India…
India has definitely been the most culture-shocking place for me, of the whole trip so far. It took me awhile to begin to explain it, and I’m not sure I can even articulate it very well now. People interacted with me differently than anywhere else, and the traffic and noise were especially jarring as I got going on my bike. I had to be really assertive, sometimes bordering aggressive, to get questions answered or protest an obvious attempt to price gouge me. And it always wigged me out when I’d smile at someone and they wouldn’t smile back, especially kids. When you don’t speak the same language, your face and hands are about all you’ve got left…. and it was hard finding a lot of apparently unhappy faces! After about a week though, I was finally used to this and realized that it’s just the way they roll here, and isn’t personal in the least. I started making especially goofy grins, just to try to get a rise out of the people I’d see along the road while cycling.

A few words and a story about price hikes for foreigners…
This is done a bit differently in India as well. In the other places I’ve been, either I didn’t realize I was being gouged (because I felt the price was fair from the start and I don’t like haggling for sport), or people would appeal to my sense of pity and compassion. In Cambodia for example, I was bartering for a shirt, and a woman said sadly, “Less than $3.50, no profit.” How can you take the woman’s profit?!! So I’m used to a certain set of sales techniques.

In India though, there were few appeals to pity, compassion or other feelings that make you more likely to open your wallet. Maybe I just look like I have a black heart or something, but I always knew, immediately, that I would be paying a higher price. And I would be bullied into it if I weren’t ready to stick up for myself. For example, the guy who tried to bully me into paying $10 instead of the usual $5 to put myself and my bike on a bus. I’ll tell the detailed story sometime over beers, but suffice it to say a small scene was made.

So I got used to being on guard…. ready to defend myself when paying for things, ready to assert myself when I got ignored by the bus conductors, and ready to slap the hotel porter who tried to sneak a handful of spandex.

I felt safer and saved a little money this way, but I didn’t like this guarded person very much. I especially didn’t like this asshole one day when I had to pee at the bus station. Big sign above the bathroom door said “Pay Toilet: 2 Rupees.” I gave the attendant 10 Rupees, but she said “5 Rupees” and handed me only 5 in change when I expected 8. Was there a math confusion here? I asked for the other 3 Rupees change, and she says “No, 5 Rupees.” Wow, that’s balls…. Charging me over 200% of what the sign clearly said.

This of course infuriated my battle-ready self, and I couldn’t see through to the fact that her balls-out sales technique was just trying to meet the same end as the “no profit” lady in Cambodia. She just wanted a little extra money, like you, me and 8 billion of our friends. But I got frustrated, pointed to the sign, and asked again in exasperation for my 3 Rupees. Ultimately, she gave me my change. I walked away feeling relieved to have peed for the correct price, and victorious in the Karlyn vs. India arena of self-preservation.

So I “won” my 3 Rupees (less than 10 cents) in a “battle” against a poor, old woman whose job was to collect money in front of the pay toilet at the bus station. WHO AM I?! If that’s not a black heart, I don’t know what is.

I didn’t like this battle-hardened version of myself at all, and I was shocked that I did not see this for what it was, in the moment. Although it felt like yet another extortionist attack, this was clearly CLEARLY not a battle worth fighting, and there should have been no question about walking away having paid 5 Rupees and not 2.

So, for the rest of my time in India, I tried to keep the Wolverine claws under wraps a little better. And I carried a little more small change, for cripe sake.

It was nice to spend two days in Madikeri with the Bheemaiah family at Anamiiva homestay. The homestay system in India is really cool, and unique among the places I’ve been so far. You’re in someone’s house, but it’s more structured than, say, couchsurfing.com. There’s a set price, so you don’t have that awkward “How do I say thank you for this….” discussion in your head.

From Madikeri, I took a bus to the mountain town of Ooty (Short for “Ootacamund,” which is the anglicized version of “Udhagamandalam”). After so many hot, highway miles in SE Asia, I had no qualms about skipping over the potentially crummy places in between the areas I wanted to ride. And it was so worth it….the Nilgiris mountains with their tea estates and purple flowering trees made some of the best cycling in this entire trip. It was chilly but sunny, the roads were good, and traffic seemed a little less intense. I biked 25 km out from Ooty to the Pallaniappa tea plantation and stayed for two days…. I was the only guest at the time, and $20/night paid for the room, all meals, and some good company on a hike around the plantation. I also visited a factory where the young tea leaves are made into black tea…. picture captions describe the process.

After leaving the Pallaniappa tea estate, I biked a few more days to the city of Coimbatore, and then decided to return to Ooty and then Mysore by bike. This route gave me a few more days of cool mountain air, and the chance to bike through two national tiger reserve parks. In Mysore, I had a place to stay (thanks to Vijay) where I could cook for myself, do laundry, and visit parts of the city I missed the first time around.

 

There are a million awesome places to go in India, but I decided to spend all of my last two weeks in India in an apartment in Bangalore. I didn’t take a trip out to the Goa beaches, and I didn’t bike along the southern coast like I had considered. “Why?” and “Why not??” are good questions! Sometimes I wondered myself….

But, the truth is I got tired of traveling and spending time on logistics. It had been awhile since I stayed put in any one place for more than a couple days…. the last time was late February, when I was getting ready to leave the Philippines. And, traveling with a combination of bike, bus and train in India requires much, much more advanced planning than I have had to do so far. Trains are booked solid months in advance, so these were not really an option for me. Only two types of busses had space for a bicycle, so my usual fail-safe strategy of “show up, get on bus” wasn’t so great anymore. Advanced research was also needed for hotel-finding, if only to avoid parading around in my bike shorts looking for a place to stay.

And guys, it turns out Bangalore is Awesome! Before my trip, my impression of Bangalore was “that place where the people who answer tech support phonecalls work.” And while there are lots of call centers in B’lore, the rest of the city is pretty cool and I had a good time “living” there for a couple weeks. The city has tons of trees and shade, and I stayed in a part of town where I could walk to several microbreweries. So for two weeks, I explored the city, tried out new restaurants and street food every day, and went out with new friends like it was one big perpetual weekend.

More stories from Bangalore are in the photo captions, but I want to thank some really kind, generous and fun people here in the main text for spending time with me and showing me their city. Cheers to Harsha Majety, Vijay and Ajita Prabhakar, Keerthi Rao, Maija Pilkkonen, Veena Raghunandan, Manoj Payardha, Vijay Varma and his cousins Ramesh and Rama, Uma Shankar, and Venky Shivarama from WheelSports.

Now, I’m rested and ready for some adventure in Turkey, which is my last stop before this whole shenanigan comes to an end. I have mixed feelings about the end of Bonderman, but right now I’m psyched to be in Istanbul, about to take a 125cc scooter down to the coast. It’s not over til it’s over!

 

 

 

 

Elephants, sticky rice and tent cities, oh my!

My route through Thailand from the Cambodian border to Bangkok took me through the eastern part of the country. And, if you look at a map, it probably seems like I was trying hard to avoid all the usual destinations! (Phuket, Ko samui, Chiang Mai….). I saw some amazing things though, especially at Khao Yai National Park (Elephants and Gibbons!! read on!). I made some great new friends, and got to reconnect with a friend from Cornell who I hadn’t seen in almost 10 years.

Here are a few photo sets from the ride…. I came through the Poipet-Aranyaprathet border crossing and went east to Sa Kaeo, north through Khao Yai national park, up to Lopburi, and then back down the main corridor through Ayutthaya to Bangkok.

My first night in Thailand was set up to be another round of the usual routine…. arrive early afternoon, look for a hotel and some food, shower, wash stinky bike clothes in the sink, wander around town to find dinner, and go to bed…. ready to wake up at 5am to do the same thing again the next day. I nearly completed this sequence in Aranyaprathet, when during the “wander around” phase, someone noticed I was struggling to figure out what was cooking in a pot at a street stall. She spoke English, and helped me order, and then invited me to sit with her and her mom to eat. Her name is Suteera, but she goes by Sushi (which happens to be her favorite food :). I ended up staying two nights in Aran since I wasn’t feeling very well, so that meant I got to hang out with these fine ladies a second time.

I left Aran feeling better, and ready for the ride to Khao Yai park, which would take about 4 days. Some of that time was nice, some of it was boring highway. I spent my 30th birthday at a random highway hotel, alone on a day when the government banned alcohol sales for an upcoming election. Major fail, Thailand!! But, I found a nice restaurant and had some chocolate cake and a diet coke! Road stories are in the picture captions, including a nearly-abandoned set of cottages that saved my ass when I was looking for a place to stay near the park entrance.

The road through Khao Yai is 60 km long, and after leaving Moon River, I biked 40 km into the mountains to the lodge I had booked inside the park. It was so nice to escape the heat, even though it was a hard climb to get there! I had booked a room in a hostel-like lodge in the park, and it was great because my neighbors at the lodge were bike people too. They were a Thai family, and the dad Jacky works for the largest Trek distributor in Thailand. It’s called Probike, located in Bangkok. We exchanged info, and I planned to visit him again for a tuneup and to buy a cardboard bike box in Bangkok. I stayed in the park one night, and then rode down out of the park and stayed at a lodge about 20km outside, which offered guided park tours and visits to a nearby bat cave. THE BAT CAVE. I am so glad I took the tour…. I would’ve left the park without seeing much of the wildlife at all if I’d skipped it!

After the park, I made up a route to Bangkok that took me through Lopburi and Ayutthaya, both former Thai capitals. Navigation was fun because Thai roads are so awesome… even the small ones are well paved. I’d play a game where I had to reach the next town on the smallest roads possible, without getting stuck in mud pits or non-existant roads (GPSs are good for this). Super fun, and it made the hot kilometers tick by really fast compared to the slog through Cambodia.

Lopburi is a small town known for the monkeys that run around the streets. I didn’t spend much time here, but it had a few nice wats and Angkor-style temple ruins. And there were monkeys, all over. Sadly, the most salient memory I have from this town is witnessing a horrible display of domestic violence, in broad daylight. A lesbian couple was arguing across the street, and one (very large) woman stood over her partner and was beating her on the head and face repeatedly, and yelling really loudly. A little boy was with them.

There were people all around, but no one seemed to pay any attention. I stood and watched with bystander paralysis, incredulous that this was actually happening right next to me. I didn’t know what to do (How do you call the cops in Thailand?!!), and I don’t speak Thai, but this needed to stop. I just walked closer to them and stared at the big lady, with all the firey eye-daggers I could muster…. I pointed at her face (still 6 feet away or more) and said “Go”…. she looked at me and started yelling something in Thai, but stopped beating her girlfriend for a moment so that was ok. They had been traveling together on a motorbike pulling a flat trailer, and eventually the big lady got on the bike and they left together, the smaller woman and little boy in the trailer.

I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, for a number of reasons, but at that moment nothing mattered except that a person was getting punched in the head. I didn’t know them or their story, but there’s no justification in the world for what I saw to continue. So that’s why I got all up in their business. After they left, I walked into a park and couldn’t help but start to cry. A few street vendors who had seen the episode came over and gave me a bottle of water, and they called over a lady who speaks English to talk with me about it.

I don’t know what was worse, seeing the woman get beaten, or what this “interpreter” told me. Basically she said, “Oh, they’re lesbians and they do this every day. It wasn’t a guy beating her, don’t worry. They’ll go home and make love and everything will be fine. She was yelling at you to mind your own business.”

This made me feel ill, and it was all I could do to keep from crying more, or opening a very large can of human-rights-flavored worms in limited English. I thanked her for talking with me about it, bought a consolation bubble tea, and walked back to my hotel.

I spent about 4 days in Bangkok and had a great time. I wish I had been able to stay a bit longer. I binged on street food. I got to reconnect with Soraya, a friend from my lab at Cornell, who is now a professor at Mahidol University in BKK. So good catch up! I visited Jacky at Probike and got my bike box, and got to have dinner with him and his family. His wife made some amazing Thai food, and Jacky kindly put me in touch with some bike shop friends in India, where I am now.

I also went walking through Lumphini park, which I didn’t realize had just become the headquarters of the famous Bangkok protesters who want to see the prime minister step down so that a fair election can take place.

The Lumphini park protester camp was like a mini city…. 300,000 people camped in tents. It was the most highly organized tent city I have ever seen, and from a public health standpoint was pretty impressive. The city actually set up temporary showers and toilets, and took care of trash services for the park. There were free water and food stations, and volunteer medical services. The park was split up into sub-neighborhoods according to where in Thailand you are from. If you want to move your tent to another area, you have to register with a new sub-group.

As I was walking through the park taking pictures, I met a woman named Sophia who is Thai, but lives in San Francisco. Her brother is involved in the protest, and she was there visiting their family. She took me on a tour of the park, showed me her tent, and introduced me to a few of her friends who were working security for the protest movement. It was awesome to be able to talk with her in English and ask all sorts of questions about what’s going on there. At the time I visited, the place was really calm, not much going on. I got a bit worried at one point, when I learned that four protesters had been shot as they were driving toward the capital (far from Lumphini park, but still I didn’t know if there would be a response). Everything was fine…. it felt like a big lazy block party.

The more time I spent talking with Sophia, the more complicated her personal story got about why she was back in Thailand, why she was camped in a tent here, and when she would go back to her family in San Francisco. The short version is that her brother had stolen her passport, making her cancel her flight back to the US, and effectively grounding her in Bangkok. A few times I was walking with her around the park, she would go find her brother and try to convince him to give it back to her. He wouldn’t do it. I even went with her to visit the Buddhist monk whom she asked for advice on the whole situation. He was a smiley old guy, but I don’t think he told her what she wanted to hear. I still don’t think I know half the whole story or if what I do know is true, but I felt awful for her and wished there was something I could do. She hadn’t seen her husband or her kids since November.

So there are my two weeks in Thailand…. hugely intense moments that punctuated the mostly-dull cycling, which I’ve begun to view simply as a way to support my bad habit of street food overeating. I had a great time and I realize that my experiences are unique to a wandering bike-tour mode of travel that I won’t soon be able to repeat. But, I would love to go back to catch the iconic spots I missed. I resolved that I could always go back and visit Chiang Mai, or go diving in the southern islands as a “regular tourist,” and this made me feel better as I got tired and bored of the biking routine and the highway hotels.

Next post from Bangalore!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gotta get out of here, but I just can’t leave….

I did eventually leave Cambodia. But while I was in the country, I felt like Cambodia was trying to both fry me out of existence and wrap me in a big dusty hug.

It was the most difficult country to bike in by far…. 100 degree heat, lots of dust, endless flat landscape, and only a handful of stick-straight roads to choose from. The national highways were recently paved (the major ones were finished in about 2009, and there are still gravel stretches on those), and most other roads are a pretty red sand that’s great for fishtailing. Long days on the bike (6-7 hours, at my lowly 12-14 mph clip…) are necessary, because there are huge stretches without places to stay the night, and I ruled out camping because I’m not hardcore enough to go without a shower out here!

I also have to admit that I pretty much knew all of this going in…. the few bike blogs out there about Cambodia are either written by crazies who write things like “puking over my handlebars” and “after 150 km, I passed out”, or people with good intentions who “put our bikes on the bus, again!” I didn’t really want to be either of these, but I think I ended up a little of both.

While Cambodia was trying to kill me, it was also really beautiful, quirky and quiet, and it gave me some of the kindest friends I’ve met on my trip. As soon as I crossed the border from Vietnam, it was clear I was on my own in a totally new place. No more rice/noodle shacks every 50 feet or whizzing motorbikes…. it was literally just me on National Highway 2, for a long time. Sometimes there were nice trees lining the sides of the road with nice shade, but often not. When I saw people, they were on bikes or motorcycles or on strange home-built tractor things with big trailers of stuff. Sometimes I saw folks working in the rice fields, but most of the land looked pretty dry. The landscape was flat like Vietnam, but now the Mekong river crossings were gone and there were fewer houses and farm buildings.

It was nice to be so alone, but honestly it got really unnerving too! What if I got thirsty or hungry? Where are all the little roadside stands with cold drinks and funny snacks?? That first day I rode 80 km from Chau Doc, Vietnam to a small town called Takeo, Cambodia, and it was stressful getting there because I had no local money and I did get thirsty. I didn’t find any money changers at the border, and Takeo is the first town, 60 km later. In Cambodia they use US dollars and Khmer Riel, and all I had were Vietnamese Dong and a $20. I finally found a lady with an orange cooler box on the side of the road, and asked for a bottle of water…. but she couldn’t change my $20 and couldn’t use Vietnamese money. She smiled and just gave me the water…. what a saint. Looking back, I wish I had just given her the $20 and left. It bothered me for awhile after that, that I didn’t. Eventually I made it to Takeo, found an ATM, a SIM card and a shower.

The next day was another long one, all the way to Phnom Penh…. my 7th day in a row on the bike before a rest day or two in the city. I was tired and it was hot and gross, but that morning during breakfast I met Venny and his mom, and they completely made my day despite the tough ride. I was struggling to order coffee and breakfast at a roadside cafe, as usual, and they were sitting nearby and helped me with the Khmer (Pronounced “Kmy” like “Km-eye”) I was trying to learn. We got to talking, and I learned they were in Takeo for an eye Dr. appointment for Venny’s mom, but that they’d be heading back to Phnom Penh the same day. Venny speaks enough English that we could actually communicate, and helped me out a lot with some Khmer phrases. So we exchanged phone numbers and facebooks (everyone in the world has FB, btw), and they passed me a few times on the motorbike on the way to P.P. When I got there, they ended up inviting me to dinner at their house! The next set of photos is from Phnom Penh, including a harrowing visit to Cheung Ek, or one of the main Killing Fields sites near P.P. I’ll describe this better in the photo captions.

After taking a few days off in P.P., I felt better but wasn’t ready for another week of long, hot Cambodian biking. I bought a bus ticket to bypass the dust and traffic of the city, and start my way west toward Siem Reap and Thailand. This way, I still had a few days to bike, but they could be shorter days and I’d have some time to hang out at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, before biking another couple days to the Thai border.

The same day I bought the bus ticket, Venny called and said he was going south to the coast town of Kampot for the weekend with a couple of friends, and wanted me to go along. I said I’d just bought a bus ticket and that I didn’t think I could, but really appreciated the invite. He paused, and said “I really want you to go, you go to Siem Reap later?”

It was already 10pm, I was planning to wake up at 5 to catch my bus north, and follow the plan of moving a bit quicker through and out of the country. But I didn’t have a good reason to say no to the invitation…. who’s “schedule” am I on here?! In Bonder-land, there is no schedule! Much as I really just wanted to leave the heat and the dust, I said “of course I can go later. Seeya in Kampot in two days.”

It’s been so nice to have a good friend my age and to speak a little English, and I was tired of the grind of biking alone every day. So I stayed up another few hours, looking at maps and trying to figure out how to get down to Kampot for the weekend, and then back up to Siem Reap, without spending the ENTIRE time on a bus. I wanted to bike, just not insane distances every day. I woke up early, changed my bus ticket from going north to going south, and got off on the side of the road about 70 km from Kampot. It was hot and gross, but I set the Garmin route destination to “Kampot pie and ice cream palace” (I kid you not! ICE CREAM PALACE!!), and got my ride on.

So glad I changed my plans and went south for the weekend instead of north as planned! After an awesome weekend of Khmer music videos, riverside photo shoots and a crab boil, I bit the bullet and spent 12 awful hours on a bus back to P.P. and then all the way to Siem Reap. I splurged on a $25 hotel with a nice room, AC and a pool, and had fun biking all around the Angkor Archaeological site, looking at all the Wats. Found some bubble tea in town too… whew!!

Just a quick blurb here about Angkor and the Wats, for anyone else out there like me who’s heard of it but didn’t really know much else besides “It’s ancient.” This is mostly thanks to a visitor’s guidebook I picked up at my schwank hotel.

So the Khmer empire was really powerful (in military, economics and culture) between the 9-12th centuries AD across Cambodia, and much of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Angkor was the capital of the empire. During these centuries, a number of Kings reined (7 of them were named Jayavarman, with numbers I-VII to tell them apart!) and built huge temples with big moats and elaborate systems to carry water. The reasons for having temples varied…. to honor gods or the Buddha, to have a central point for a city, or a place to be buried and have your royal funeral.

There are over 45 temples (Wats) in the Angkor area, and they’re spread out over about 50km (Although the biggest and most famous dozen or so are concentrated in probably a 5 km radius). These were built at different times by different kings, and my favorite part was how the dominant religion changed a few times between Hinduism and Buddhism (early Indian influence brought Hinduism to the area). Early temples built to honor the Buddha were sometimes defaced a century later, when Hinduism made a brief comeback. You can see Buddhas that were “fixed” to look like Boddhisatvas or other Hindu figures, and in one place, they just put a big “stupa” that looks like a unicorn horn in the central shrine of the Wat. Just couldn’t agree on who should be sculpted there….?!

Anyhow, Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples and is considered the “best” architecturally (not sure by what measures…). It was built in the mid-12th century during the height of Angkorian influence. The other temples are cool too though, and sometimes I could really see the differences in styles among the kings who built them. For example, there was one king after the guy who built Angkor Wat who built a bunch of other wats, really quickly. His style includes large stone faces, and is generally more sloppy and less detailed than previous kings. It was cool to see those hallmarks of thoughts and preferences held by guys who have been dead for so long.

I think biking is definitely a great way to visit the Wats….. the roads get a bit jammed with tuktuks and tour vans. Just be sure you go early in the morning or you’ll be way too hot to want to see another wat!!

After Siem Reap, I buckled down and rode 2 more days before crossing into Thailand. My legs were fresh, but the long stretches of unchanging scenery made me cave and plug my headphones in, first time since starting this whole trip. The music was nice, and I apologized in my head to all the kids whose roadside “Hello!”s I wouldn’t hear or shout back to.

The border crossing was no problem, and after waiting in a long line of tourists in a big building with AC, I was back in a place with busy streets, cars, buildings, and more human activity in general. It was something of a relief, but a little sad at the same time.  The first challenge was to realize that I would be biking on the left and not the right in Thailand…. been doing ok with that so far. More on the Thai transition in a few weeks!

 

 

 

 

Tour de (Mekong) Delta

After the gluttony and luxury in the Philippines, I arrived in Saigon with a mission.  No more fun and games, folks, time for some serious miles!  If I’m going to spend quality time in 5 countries in the next 4 months, it means I need to complete my route through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in aboout 5 weeks.  Definitely a different mindset than my first 3 months, dawdling around S. America, biking a few days then staying put for a week…. but I’m ready for a little routine and a little more exercise (read: I plan to eat everything that looks remotely delicious).

After a 2-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, I met up with Hanh, my good friend Phu’s aunt.  Hanh is a busy woman who runs several small businesses in Saigon, but took the time to pick me up with my giant bike box at the airport.  I speak zero Vietnamese and she speaks only slightly more English than that, so I got to put the Vietnamese flashcards I made to use right away. This is the first country where I don’t speak the language at all, so some hilarious adjustments have been required!  I learned I can get by almost exclusively with “Hello!”, “Thank you”, “Sorry/excuse me,” “Bathroom”, and “How much?”.  Useful secondary phrases include “What is this?”, “Yes I’m traveling alone”, “I’m 29″, and “No, I’m not marrried and I have no children.”  (I’ve learned that all around the world, people get right to the point when asking questions of foreign travelers.)

Hanh kindly put me up in her condo for the first 3 nights, so I could explore the city, reassemble my bike, and get ready to head out.  She was so kind and patient, despite a few cultural SNAFUs….!  For example, at one point I thought that shopping for and cooking breakfast for us both would be a nice “thank you” for hosting me.  Instead, I thoroughly terrorized the poor woman.

We couldn’t communicate except via google translate (see pic of completely useless-but-funny translations below….), so I just went and bought some veggies, eggs and tofu and tried my best to explain my plan (fail).  Later, I find out (via Skype translator session with Phu), that Hanh was terrified because she thought I wanted HER to cook for ME, using the food I had bought.  Further, broccoli and bell pepper are not standard vietnamese vegetables so Hanh neither likes them nor knows how she would cook them.  And even WORSE, she doesn’t like spicy food and was scared to even touch the bell pepper (she thought it was a hot pepper), let alone cook or eat it… all while being frustrated and nervous about communicating this to me or possibly offending me.

Oh god! The poor thing…. Let the “experiential cultural education” continue…. I have much to learn!

 

After 3 days in Saigon, I headed out early on the bike, westward across the Mekong delta. I knew it would be hot, but entirely flat so I went almost 100km the first day.  I biked every day for 7 days (crossed the Cambodian border on day 6), and spent the night in Ben Tre, Vinh Long, Can Tho, Long Xuyen and Chau Doc. You can see the route at https://share.delorme.com/beeronabike.  The tour is ON! Not messing around!  Haha it actually worked well to stay in a new place each night…. I’d bike 4-6 hours in the morning, and arrive to a new place in time for lunch, a shower, sink laundry, and some town exploration. This photo set gives a few highlights of the short but fun Tour de Delta.

And less than a week later, I rode into Cambodia where I still am now.  It was a short time in Vietnam, and I’d love to go back and see more of the country, especially the northern mountains and costal areas.   But, I’m looking forward to getting  similar glimpses of Cambodia and Thailand too.  Cambodia has been a completely different experience so far, despite being a nextdoor neighbor.  I’ll save that for the next post!!!

The Philippines: 3 weeks of family, fish and fear of death by jeep

Compared to over 2 months in Ecuador, three weeks in the Philippines felt lightning fast (I leave for Vietnam tomorrow).  It was fast, but Ed and I filled it with so much fun and variety of experiences that bang for buck was definitely had!

Yep, I said “Ed and I”…. Ed arrived a few days before I did, and we got to spend 11 days together, scuba diving, night-bus riding, and visiting the Filipino family he had never met before.  As y’all know, Ed is Filipino and first generation American.  His parents met in San Francisco after having moved from different parts of the Philippines (PIs for short; his mom’s family is from around Manila, and his dad’s is from the mountains, in the Ifugao province). But, his parents have siblings, nieces/nephews, cousins, and children from previous marriages who live here and who have never met their nephew/uncle/brother.  For Ed, this trip was a pilgrimage, and it was pretty stinkin special for me to be there for all of the first-time meetings (and there were tons…. Ed’s definitely related to the whole town of Banaue. More on that in pics!).

First thing after I arrived (Ed had already been here 2 days, hanging with family), we hit the ground running…. south to Batangas and Anilao where we spend 2 days Scuba diving.  Thanks to my dad for the gift of Scuba lessons, I finished my certification here, instead of in frigid Puget Sound.  This part of the Philippines is like the Amazon rainforest of coral reefs…. huge coral diversity along with all the big stuff!  Ed has an underwater camera but I don’t have all the goods as of this moment…. for underwater pics, either scroll down a bit to my second dive trip, or keep an eye on Ed’s facebook page for some sweet video footage and pics.

Directly from the Scuba vacation in Batangas, we hopped a bus back to Manila and then all the way up to Baguio city.  A full day of travel…. over 8 hours in total. At least the VictoryLiner bus we took had a cute-as-button conductor/stewardess and free wifi.  We arrived in Baguio where the Gano family first-time meetings got going in a hurry!

Tragically, we spent only one day with the Baguio Ganos before grabbing an overnight bus (terrible, but necessary!) to Banaue.  Banaue is in the mountains east of Baguio, but is a smaller village. Banaue is the largest town in Ifugao province and when Ed’s dad lived here (1940s-50s), he built one of the first and nicest houses in the area.  This is after he built another earlier house, in the tiny area of Gohang, before the age of, oh, 30.  Another of Ed’s neices, Mila, lives in the Baguio house with her family and kindly invited us to stay with them.

The next album is from 2 days hiking toward, on, through and out of the oldest and most spectacular feat of civil engineering and agriculture I’ve ever seen.  For the scenery haters, just give this a chance…. it’s incredible.  These terraces are estimated to have taken 2000 years to build, and are still maintained by farmers today even though they only support a fraction of the community’s rice needs. Tourism helps keep the Batad terraces maintained, but locals are worried the aging farmers won’t be able to keep it up, and the terraces will fade into disrepair like the ones right in Banaue have already done.  Glad we got to see them now…

Back in Banaue, meeting more family, watching an Ifugao dance and cultural show, shopping for g-strings, and stealing wooden bikes from children.

Back in Manila, Ed had just a couple days before his flight. We hung out with the Manila family, and they kindly set me up with a whole condo unit to call home base for my last 2 weeks in the Philippines. The day after Ed went back to Seattle, I headed south to the island of Mindoro for more diving off Sabang beach in Puerto Galera.

And now we’re up to date…. I just finished patching the holes in my cardboard bike box for the flight from here to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow. The flight is 2 hours, and cost $95… awesome!  When I get to HCM, our friend Phu’s aunt Hanh has graciously offered to pick me up and let me stay with her for a few days while I set up the bike and get my bearings.  The next phase will be a solid cycling trip…. I have until the first week in April to make it through south Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and fly to Bangalore. There is a hilarious website called mrpumpy.net that I’m using for route inspiration…. other ideas/advice/experience is always welcome!  I have about 5 weeks and I think I can do it…. I hear the Mekong delta is pretty flat!!?  Stay tuned….

To the jungle and back

I made it into the rainforest, and back to tell about it!
Since New Year’s, I’ve been moving by bike (and a little bus, a little canoe….), slowly northeastward with the goal of visiting Parque Yasuni, the largest area of protected, primary rainforest in Ecuador (1.3 million hectares), with the highest recorded biodiversity in the world I’ve heard. I wanted to go far into the rainforest, preferrably with someone who knows it like their backyard, and see all I could in the span of a few days.  We all grow up with “The Amazon” in movies, books, Discovery Channel, and Tucans on cereal boxes, but I wanted the Full Monty.  All the amazing biology I’ve learned via professors, colleagues and powerpoint…. what does that look, sound and feel like? Did they actually do a good job making all those rainforest exhibits at all the natural history museums? Monkeys! Piranhas! A million kinds of ants!!!
So there was the goal…. the punchline is I camped in Yasuni, near the Peruvian border, for 4 days, with two of the lovliest and most knowledgeable local naturalists I could ever have asked for. And it was absolutely spectacular. Much more on that later, with pics of course…. you can see exactly where I was here, look for the eastern-most points, near the Peruvian border. The “how” of getting there was interesting in itself though too…. I did an experiment of sorts, and I’ll share some insights and tips that might be useful for anyone thinking of coming out to the Amazon with a little less time and flexibility than I’ve had. I’ve also had a lot of time to reflect and ask questions about the big petroleum industry presence I’ve seen along the way to Yasuni. More on that too.
The experiment was to see whether I could get to the rainforest as I wanted to, without making a reservation through an agency far in advance. I’m a really good planner and I could’ve had some kind of reservation in the bag over a month ago in Quito, where there are lots of agency offices, and you can sign up far in advance because “Groups are filling up! You can’t just show up and find someone!”  Not following this advice is counter to a number of my core personality traits, so that’s why this was experimental. :) But Ideally, I wanted to meet the person/guide I would go with, and I didn’t want to go with someone who spent a lot of time in Quito and not the jungle. I also wanted to avoid staying at one of the many lodges available, just because they tend to be expensive. Many are run by indigenous communities and provide income from ecotourism, so I’m all about the lodges if that had been of interest and in my price range.
As of New Year’s my plan was to bike east to the town of Puyo, on the western side of El Oriente, the Amazon region of Ecuador. From Puyo, I thought, I’ll find some information or a guide, and make some kind of plan. From Puyo, I would be less than a day by bus away from the major river ports where you can take canoes into Yasuni, so I would be mobile and could act on any new information.
Pics from the road to Puyo, some cool things I saw there,  and all the rain…. I learned it’s not called a RAINforest for nothing. After coming down to Puyo from Banos, you are officially in “El Oriente”, or the jungle.
At this point, I’m in Puyo, and all the planning I had done for the Amazon trip was that I had the phone number of a guide that I got from someone I met in an agency in Quito.  I had messaged him a few times, but communication was sparse… I was hoping to find another option.  And other options showed up, just from wandering around the town a few days.
For example, Chris from the Omaere center had built some urine-diverting dry toilets there, as a way to show that you can deal with human waste in a stink-free manner without dumping it directly into the river (Amazon tributary).  Sadly, this is what currently happens… human waste goes right in the river, toilet paper is kept separate and thrown in the trash. Chris had worked with a few communities out in Yasuni previously, and had built a few of these new toilets in hopes that they would catch on, at least with the ecotourists. We ended up talking for several hours, and founds lots of scientific interests in common, and I went back to learn more about how the dry toilets worked. Turns out Chris had been looking for a volunteer to follow up on the toilets out near Yasuni, and I said I’d be happy to do the poo recon if there was a place for me to stay and eat while I was there.  Also at Omaere, I met Taruka (also goes by Luis), who gives tours of the medicinal plants on site, but is also a guide in Yasuni and takes people out to visit the rainforest.
Huzzah! Two fantastic people, and two different opportunities to visit Yasuni!  All I had to do was… wait.  Chris needed to contact the communities to ask if they would be open to a volunteer visit, and Taruka needed to wait for a 3 more people to be interested in a visit to Yasuni, to bring the price down.  I had decided early on after doing some research and looking at a Rough Guide that I was ok paying $75/day or less for a trip.  This has to cover food, lodging, park fees and gas for the motor canoe for both me and the guide, and anyone else who goes along, in addition to the part that goes to the families to support further ecotourism activities.  In the meantime, the other guide (Jhon) who I had messaged earlier with mixed luck started writing, saying he could also take me out to Yasuni. Another thing I learned is that everyone and their uncle is a “guide”… anyone will take you out to the jungle, and it was easier than I thought to find people who would do it. It’s not so easy to decide who to go with, or why you would choose one person over another!
The point of all this text is to give you an idea of what happens when you don’t just reserve something in an office in Quito.  I decided I would wait another 4-5 days, and if the options with Chris and Taruka didn’t work out, I would meet Jhon and go to Yasuni with him.  I was going to just wait in Puyo, but there was too dang much rain so I got on my bike (in the rain) and left, heading north and east toward the port towns of Misahualli and Coca where I would need to take a motor canoe to Yasuni anyway.  I was in contact with everyone by email and phone, and the rain let up after I left.
I spent some time in Misahualli, still waiting to hear back from either Chris or Taruka about the visit to Yasuni, either to check on the dry toilets or visit communities living in Yasuni. The coolest thing I did in Misahualli was to visit a small forest reserve where you can learn about cacao trees and roast your own beans.  It ended up being an awesome walk through the jungle with a local guy named Claudio, who took me out all by myself on a curated jungle tour.  And the chocolate was delicious. :)
After Misahualli, I biked further north to Tena, another small town where you can grab tours to the jungle and find guides to take your rafting and whitewater Kayaking. I didn’t realize this, but this part of Ecuador has apparently the best whitewater kayaking in all of South America.  I spent a few days in Tena at a hostel with a kitchen so I could cook myself some vegetables… miss those things!! Still having fun, killing time waiting to figure out the Yasuni trip. In Tena, I biked out to some caves, and went on another bikeride with a Belgian woman I met at the hostel. Took lots of pics of what I call the “Petro-burbs.”
The oil-Amazon situation is a complicated one, and I’ve made an effort to talk with as many people as I can about what’s happening and how they feel about it. Essentially, petroleum companies bring money, schools, medical care and infrastructure to the Amazon and the indigenous communities who live there.  The communities in turn must choose… to accept these new resources and permit oil extraction and river pollution, or to refuse (which is often difficult politically).  By accepting all the help, the community can grow, people can live longer, and in time the need for resources to support this larger population will probably outweigh what the rainforest can provide. Things will not look the same here in 10, 20 or 50 years, but this sounds like the story of all humanity, right?
I talked to one indigenous man who said “hell yes, bring in the petrol!” Correa, the president of Ecuador, actually has helped to bring it much more money from Petroleum… only 5% of the value of the oil used to come back to Ecuador, and now it’s 50%. So, much more money than before is coming into the country in exchange for disrupting the most biodiverse primary ecosystems on earth. This sounds like fantastic, long overdue progress to me, but seems to miss the bigger picture.  Paraphrasing the guy further… Look what petrol has done for us… ecotourism and conservation can’t even touch that kind of influence. We live here, it’s our decision, you tourists and conservationists should stay out. What happens to the jungle and our culture is our business.
While this guy had a loud voice and a lot to say to me (kind of an aggressive rant, actually), others I spoke with had a more nuanced perspective. They seemed more  concerned about the loss of a culture that depends on the intact rainforest, and acknowledged the role of the rainforest for the rest of the earth, and not just the people who live there.  As a wealthy tourist myself, I can’t begin to understand what it must be like to suddenly have access to the modern, expensive, petrol-provided goods and services that you see others around you and in the media enjoying. I can’t imagine having to decide to deny my community the resources that could really improve their health and education, in order to refuse oil company influence.  I also can’t and won’t shake my ingrained systems-level, big picture mindset that sacrificing Yasuni for a finite amount of oil is short sighted and a bad decision. There have been a number of proposed solutions, including a less invasive way of extracting oil (I don’t know much about this, or if it’s even possible), and President Correa’s proposal a few years ago to stop all oil extraction if the rest of the world would collectively pay the value of half the oil in Yasuni. But, the rest of the world didn’t rally…
So these were the thoughts going through my head as I kept moving closer to Yasuni… no solutions, just more questions…
After I had been in Tena a few days, my self-imposed waiting time was over, and I had not heard from Chris or Taruka about going with either of them to Yasuni. So, I called Jhon, told him I was game, and that I’d be in Coca tomorrow, ready to take a motor canoe the next day. I met Jhon in Coca, the biggest port on the Napo river, and he was kind enough to let me store my bicycle and gear at his house while I spent 4 days in Yasuni.  The day I got there though, he wasn’t feeling well, so he said he would talk with a few other guide friends and see what he could do.  I got a little nervous at this point, but I had plenty of time if there was going to be another delay. I’ve also been here long enough to know that things were going to work out. When there’s work, people take it, and no one really plans much in advance. :)
The new plan was that I would take a canoe all the way to Nuevo Rocafuerte (8 hrs away by motor canoe, near the Peruvian border) and start a 4 day visit from there, with a guy named Fernando who lives out there. This would be a trip into Yasuni with a naturalist, not to any community because no one lives in that part of Yasuni I would bring a few chickens for us to eat, since there aren’t chickens out there apparently. This is when things got awesome, and I’m grateful for all the serendipity and whatever that had to happen for me to end up camping in Yasuni with Fernando and his wife. It was literally a private amazon tour, just for me… for the price I had originally decided I wanted to pay.  Felt more like camping with some good friends, and less like some kind of arranged tour, can’t say enough about it.