Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Potty break

I have a million travel memories in my head. They float in and out at random, distracting me for a split second from whatever it is I'm doing. I'll smile and think, "I really need to write this down,"... but never do.  Motivation evades me. Time continues to move on and the memories start to fade.

Twenty-two months have gone by since my time in 'Nam.  Nearly two years. Two years of new memories pushing my Vietnamese experiences further back into the dark crevices of my mind. Followed closely by all the other countries I visited after it.

What once were images full of vibrant colors are slowly becoming bullet points:
  • Wasted money on Easy Rider tour - minus the great food we had along the way.
  • Spent two days in Nha Trang, aka. Little Russia. 
    • Note to self: never visit a town that has a direct flight from the Motherland.
Yet, there are still some moments that have held strong, where the ink hasn't faded as quickly. One such is my evening get-away from Nha Trang.

It was a bus not unlike all the other buses in Vietnam. Sleeper-bed style. Except this one was old. And crowded.

Refresher: Vietnamese buses have three rows of bunk bed seats, for your sleeping comfort, allowing two aisles that nearly reach the back of the bus. At the tail end of the bus are bunked, cushioned, pallets accommodating up to five people.

The top bunk at the end of the bus looked enticing, minus the duct tape holding the entire thing together. There I joined three other female travelers. That made four of us on a five person bed, allowing a bit of space to move around. It was idyllic.

We were just getting comfortable when the driver's assistant commanded a little Vietnamese man to share the back bunk with us. The selfish side of me begrudgingly allowed my compassionate side to move over so the little man wouldn't have to spend the entire 11 hour trip laying in the aisle. Noting his size as he positioned himself between me and the wall of the bus, I imagined still having plenty of space to be comfortable. Little did I know, he would sprawl himself on top of me throughout the duration of the ride regardless of his stature.

In the midst of swatting away his arm or leg, I'd routinely have to brace myself from sliding off the leather cushions every time the breaks were applied. It was a near rhythmic dance routine.

But if that wasn't torture enough, a few hours in, I had to pee. But the half way point would be coming up soon enough, I reasoned, and we'd definitely have a potty break.

As 12:30 came and went, I realized my calculations were incorrect. I watched as people slept around me. We'll stop by 1:30, I told myself. But that came and went as well. Still no break. At least not for us. The driver did stop long enough for his assistant to hop out and grab a soda from a night-time street vendor.

Two O'clock, I concluded. It had to be 2:00 when we were going to stop. I was in such pain I mentally willed the driver to stop by then.

It didn't work.

Two became 2:30. I had enough. I had to ask. But I had no clue how I was going to move myself off the top bunk, all the way to the front of the bus without leaving a trail of urine down the aisle.

Miraculously I managed.  There I stood at the front of the bus nearly doubled over in discomfort and asked the driver's assistant when we were going to have a bathroom break.

He looked at me blankly and waved me away.

"Oh, nuh-uh!" I exclaimed.  In my head.

I repeated my question a second time. Clarifying it with the words: toilet, WC, potty, pee.

He stuck his miserable little hand up. Five.

"Five what?!" I demanded. "Five minutes? Five o'clock? Five hours?"

The driver looked over and asked me what I wanted.

"When are we stopping for the bathroom?" I repeated myself once more.

"Uh... soon," he responded.

I heaved a sigh. Of pacification? Of annoyance? Of being overwhelmed with the thought of having to waddle all the way back to the end of the bus without bursting at the seams?


Fifteen minutes later the bus stopped at the side of the road.

I somehow managed to run off the bus, being one of the first on solid ground.

"Where's the bathroom?" I asked.

The driver... or was it the assistant... shrugged his shoulders and indicated to the left and right with his head.

It was nearly 3:00 in the morning on a two way, moderately trafficked street. We hadn't stopped at a typical rest area. On either side of the road were sidewalks lined with evening street vendors. Behind them, row houses as far as the eye could see.

Anywhere, he was motioning. Pick a spot. Give the night vendors a show.

I probably grumbled something. I can't really remember. It has nearly been two years after all. But knowing myself, I most likely didn't bite my tongue.

I went across the street, on the other side of the bus, in search of somewhere with even the tiniest bit of privacy. That came in the form of two white maintenance vans parked next to each other. It was in between them that I found my make-shift toilet, which was subsequently used by all the other female passengers in dire need to relieve themselves.

When I walked back to my spot on the bus, I heaved another sigh. But this time it was of relief.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Easy rider

It was still early in the morning when I arrived in Da Lat. The air was crisp and had a chill to it I hadn't experienced in months. Although only a few hours away from Saigon, the altitude's effect on the climate was widely apparent. The primary reason most tourists make the jaunt inland to the hillside town instead of continuing north along the coast was the same as my own: an Easy Rider tour.

In a country boasting three-times the amount of motorbikes than people*, it's easy to get caught up in the thought that 'no real trip to Vietnam would be complete without journeying on the back of a bike from city to city'. Having never driven one myself up to that point, I jumped on the bandwagon.

I met Peter (his Vietnamese name being Tran) moments after stepping off the bus. The older gentleman with a thick head of silver hair greeted me with a smile. He was a taxi driver, he said. He could drive me to my hotel if I already had one, or around to a few he knew of, he continued.

I complied.

Parked in front of my hostel, (the hostel I booked ahead of time that ended up being full and unable to accommodate me, that is) Peter began his spiel. He was one of the few original Easy Riders, he claimed, while pulling out a massive, black, zip-up binder filled with photos he kept in the under-seat compartment of his bike.

He wasn't satisfied until I flipped through every last page. And then he shoved an iPad in my face.

"See? This is my TripAdvisor page," he informed me. "Right here at the top, do you see? It says Original Easy Rider."

"Uh, huh" I mumbled.

I was cold. I was tired. I was mildly uninterested in what he had to say. But the hostel hadn't yet opened for the morning, so I was essentially cornered.

"And here," he pointed "five stars, do you see?"

Each comment had no less than a perfect rating. He went on, pointing out five-star comment after five-star comment, despite my many acknowledgments of "I see", until he was, again, completely satisfied.

I don't like making hasty decisions when I have plenty of time to explore my options. Especially when I'm tired. Or cold. Or ornery, which is what was beginning to happen. But it appeared as though he would never leave me alone.

And... he did have perfect reviews.

So when he said he'd give me a good deal - after few minutes of negotiations and my hesitancy, I again complied.

Peter, the bike and a river we crossed during our three day journey together

(Spoiler alert: definitely not a five-star experience. And from what I discovered at the end of our 3 day journey together as he forced me to sit down with him - before taking me to my final destination - to write a review on his TripAdvisor page was that he set the rating at 5 stars. He fed me what I had to type. And I was beyond grateful that for the miraculously divine intervention that caused my review to never end up online.)

* Not necessarily a statistically accurate statement, but close enough.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"It's strange to think that you have to come to a communist country in order to feel free." - expat living in Vietnam

It was on the long bus ride to Saigon, where we reclined in seats that lay like incredibly narrow bunk beds - two high and three rows across, the entire length of the bus (except for the back which is a large platform bunk bed that holds 5 people crammed together on each the bottom and the top )- that I met Anthony, a British expat returning home early from a trip away.

And if there was one thing I've learned from my travels, it is this: a locale is best explored with a local. Anthony, luckily, was well enough versed with Ho Chi Minh City to be one.

Due to his early return, and continued time off work, he offered to take me out of the tourist district for a few hours each day and show me the local hot-spots.

Hopping on the back of his motorbike, we traversed the city, weaving in and around the thousands of other motorbike drivers congesting the roads. Some bikes holding entire families. Mom's with babies in their arms. The adults wearing helmets, children only wearing mesh nets to prevent them from swallowing bugs. While others taking more preventative measures by creating make-shift bike seats.

Amidst all the great eateries, and enjoying the sites of local neighborhoods, what left the most lasting impression was Acoustic.

A bar who's name explains itself, Acoustic is an evening affair of local bands and individuals who play each night according to the theme of the day. The venue is large enough to hold about 100 people, but small enough to provide a cozy yet energetic environment. And aside from the small handful of Westerners, the entire audience is Vietnamese.

Monday, January 26, 2015

In with the new

Unlike a large majority of entrance visas in the world, Vietnam requires an entry date.  One in which you will only enter on or after.  However, just like the large majority of the world's entry visas, the country only allows up to a 30 day permit.

With the ability and desire to use every allotted day, selecting a date while unsure of your plans becomes a game of Russian Roulette.

As a shot in the dark, January 7, 2014 became mine. I didn't know how long I would want to remain in Cambodia. Not until I was spending my days biding time for the moment I could cross the border.

Cambodia was a lovely country. One that has provided me with many great memories. But we never truly connected. I never gained an affinity towards it. So the morning of January 7th, 2014 I entered a minivan excited for the prospects of a new adventure.  In Vietnam.

Monday, December 22, 2014

the time I slept in a drug den

I ended up hopping from accommodation to accommodation (literally); my maimed foot forcing me to remain in one of the most touristed areas of Cambodia for the Christmas and New Year's holiday.

Sihanoukville is essentially divided into four separate beaches. Victory, a beach only Russians frequent. The resort area, with the nicest beaches although, consequently, 2 kilometers away from civilization... it is also where the outdoor stairs and I collided.  Serendipity, in the heart of all the action, wildly crowded and the least enticing of the beaches I visited. And Otres, a tiny hippy village on the water, 5 kilometers away from Serendipity with nice beaches and a relaxing atmosphere.

I left the resort area on Christmas day. With the inability to walk properly, I needed to be closer to amenities. I then moved accommodations three times in five days. Out of necessity rather than choice. Availability was limited in that area. So I made due. Until I had enough of Serendipity and its sub-par beach front.

Fortunately Sammy had enough of it too. We met our last night in Serendipity at the hostel we booked into at the same time.

I saw her in the lobby the following morning with all her belongings.

"You're checking out too?" I asked.

"Yeah, I've decided to try out Otres," she replied.

It was exactly where I was headed too. Since neither of us had a room lined up, we decided to grab a tuk-tuk together and see what our options were.

Going from one hotel to another along the beach, we were greeted with nothing but "no vacancies". Until we met an older man who was checking into a hotel we were told had no available rooms.

"I actually just checked out of a place further down the road," he said. "From what I gather, the room is available, but only for tonight. I'll have my boy give you the name of the hotel if you're interested."

We were. We walked over to the car where the man said his boy was, to find a young Cambodian man in the passenger's seat.

Sammy and I looked at each other. He wasn't a type of boy we were expecting. The filthiness of the older man had us second guessing if we even wanted to check out the hotel he suggested.

We went anyway. We were running out of options.

Thankfully, it was quite nice. But we only had it for a night.

Sammy decided to leave for Vietnam the following day.  Whereas, I had to stay.

But she joined me that evening in my quest for a place to rest my head for at least a few more days until my limp was less pronounced.

Again, it was proving difficult.

"You girls looking for a place to stay?"

We turned to see two Western guys mounting their motorbikes.

"I am. Not having much luck though."

"There's a hostel near where we're staying," one of the guys stated. "It's about a mile inland though. But I'm pretty sure they have availability."

"What's it called? I may as well check it out."

"I think it's called the Hacienda or something, but it's on our way, so we can give you girls a ride if you'd like," the other guy offered.

"Sure, okay," came my response before consulting with Sammy.

She gave me an incredulous look.

The grime of the hostel was less pronounced in the darkness. But they did have one bed available.

"It's $3 a night," the attendant said. "And it's available for as many nights as you'd like."

"Just $3 a night?," my eyes widened. Shrugging my shoulders I added, "well, may as well."

Funny thing about sunlight. It gives you a better view of your surroundings than what darkness offers.  I set my luggage down next to the bed I was directed to the following day with a strong hope that the sheets actually were clean. From the looks of the room, nothing else had been in years.

"This is actually the nicer dorm," a girl greeted me as she walked in and sat on her bed. "There's another dorm here that's free. Well, you pay $3 the first night, but all other nights are free as long as you keep a tab at the bar. It's crowded. Something like 18 beds. The snoring there is ridiculous. But, I mean, it is free. I was staying there for a while until this one guy was making it impossible for me to sleep."

From what I gathered, the Hacienda is home to the long term traveler. Ones down on their luck. With no more money for housing or food, not to mention enough money to return home. Somehow, though, they always had pocket change for drugs. Weed being the softest of the drugs floating around the compound.

I stepped out of the room and was greeted by an 40-something year old Polish man on the porch who looked at me, smiled and exclaimed, "I'm flying!" before passing out.

I gathered up my laptop, e-reader, ipod and any other necessity I thought I'd need, crammed it in my little backpack and decided from that moment onward I'd spend my every waking moment at the beach.

Upon checking out of the hostel a few days later, a guy who slept in a neighboring bed started up a conversation with me as I packed away all my belongings.

"I need to get rid of these," he said midway through the conversation, throwing a package of pills on top of his bag.

"What is it? Why do you need to get rid of it?" I played along in his little conversation. If the tenants weren't taking drugs, they were talking about it.

"Vicodin. I've been taking too many."

"How many?"

"30 a day... plus 10 Xanex."

My eyes widened. "How is your stomach not bleeding?"

"I... I... I don't know. I'm just really depressed."

"Why don't you just throw them away then."

"Because they're drugs!" he stated as though my question was obviously a stupid one.

"How much did you pay for it?"

"$4 for 40 pills."

"And how many do you have left?"

"About 25."

"Look. I'll pay you $2.50 for the rest of those then."

"What are you going to do with them?"

"Throw them down the toilet."

He paused for a second. Looking down at the pills and then back at me. "Nah, that's okay. I'll just take the rest of them tomorrow." 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Memories of Christmas Past

It was mid December of last year when I entered Cambodia. Yet, it doesn't feel as though a year has passed. Certain memories seem as though they occurred just yesterday.  Like one revolving my foot, for example.

This poor foot is no amateur in the field of travel-related disasters. Rewind the clock to March of 2009.  Barcelona.  I sat on the back of a motorbike with a silly boy. The end result was less-than-pleasant. My foot being the one to face the brunt of it all, trapped under a pile of machinery as we lay sideways on the ground. The poor thing grew three sizes that day, and remained so for weeks. A long time passed before it finally forgave me.

Returning to present day (present day, last year, that is), I had been walking on a numb leg and foot since a week into touring Myanmar because of a lower back issue, which consequently, still isn't resolved today (the real present day).

Feeling melancholy after having visited the Killing Fields, and having no desire to stick around the streets of Phnom Penh, I traveled south to the coast the very next day. December 24th, to be exact.

The price of the hotel I booked was astronomical for the locale. Granted, the powdery white sandy beach was worth it.  And it was the the busy holiday season, after all, so I took what I got.

Although dark out when I returned in the evening after a day out, it was still relatively early. Instead of heading to my room, I decided to walk down to the outdoor lounge area and listen to the sounds of the waves lapping against the sand.

With the light of the moon as my only guide, I made my way down the outdoor stairs. But with no feeling in my foot and minimal visibility, I missed-stepped. My foot twisted and I followed it to the ground.

My gift to myself last Christmas season was a torn ligament, and a self-mandated 10 day stay at the beach.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the killing fields

At the time of the war, there were 15 million people in Cambodia. 85% were farmers, 10% office workers and 5% other.  The Khmer Rouge, the governmental leaders, were well educated teachers, most receiving their degree in Paris. When they took charge they condemned education, and then annihilated the educated. Poetically, they used a school to house their prisoners. 

They wanted to start the country afresh. Year zero. The educated, the prominent community figures, those who disobeyed rules were nothing but a hinderance to thwart their new ideals. So they got rid  of them. 

1 in 4 individuals ended up being killed. By their own people.  

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake,” said Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. 

Many were brought to the killing fields. 

Large speakers tied to trees blared propaganda music to cover the noise of death. But it could still be heard. 

Various methods were used to kill. Stems of sugar plan trees were used to slice necks, due to their teeth like jagged edges. 

Adults were hit in the back of the head, whether dead or knocked unconscious, it didn’t really matter. They’d be thrown into the pit in the ground anyway. Chemicals that were thrown on top of them would finish the job… and stop the stench. 

A giant tree stands tall in the middle of one of the fields, rope bracelets are tacked all over it. A sign of respect and remembrance. Infants were killed there. Soldiers would grab them by the legs, dangling the little one upside down.  They smashed their head against the tree and then threw them the opposite direction into the mass grave that lays beside it. 

When one member of a family was killed, the rest would be killed too - no matter their age - so on one would be left to seek revenge. 

“You feel so isolated - among your own people, even though you speak the same language. It’s the most frightening feeling of your life,” a survivor states. 

9000 remains were collected in 1980 alone. There are still fragments remaining in the ground. Bones continue to resurface even today. Every few months caretakers collect them and place them in a glass box - “it’s as if the spirits of those who died here do not lie still”. 

A woman survivor stated, “I’m almost 70 years old, and I understand many things. I understand about love. Love between a husband and a wife. Love between a mother and her child. Love of your neighbors. But I don't understand this. That is why I cannot talk about it."