Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive April, 2011
The "Women in Asia are nuts" video series

The “Women in Asia are nuts” video series

You would never know that Vietnam and China were are Communist countries. Judging from the aggressive sales techniques and huge variety of commerce, you would assume that ‘Communism’ is merely a euphemism for “bend you over and take your dollar-dollar bills.”

This was the long con. Tsunami Technique.

Sales Techniques

One way of getting your money is the tsunami technique. A large group of hearty women will bodily surround you, trapping you in a sea of loud chatter consisting of only three words, “Buy from meeeee!”

You plan your escape to higher ground, only to watch as the wave swells and consumes the very path in front of your feet.  These women are unyielding, there will be no peace until you have purchased a $5 handicraft from each and every one of them.

Don’t believe me?

Here is an innocent tour group of sexagenarian baby boomers who fell victim to a tsunami wave of Red Zdao women in the Ta Phin village in Sapa. The lesson? Tour vans precipitate tsunami’s – avoid them at all costs. Be vigilant. When you sea a wave form, take action. Start to walk away, say no while shaking your head and your hands.

Interesting Variety of Commerce

Drugs are fairly illegal in Asia, though some countries take things more seriously than others. In China drugs seem more socially abhorrent than illegal. We asked our college-aged Chinese friend if she ever smoked weed, and she stared at us in shock. “You do this!” she quietly exclaimed, slowly bringing her hand to her arm, giving us the international sign to ‘shoot up heroin’.

Nancy Reagan should have looked East when forming her “Just say no” campaign.

Measuring out the good stuff.

That’s not to say China doesn’t have any weed.  They do.  It’s terrible – but the sales process is priceless.

Dali, in the Yunnan province, is a backpacker mecca.  It’s a land of blue skies (very rare anywhere is polluted China), lazy afternoons and gorgeous views.  It’s also the land of the Ganja Grannie.

You enter Dali’s centuries-old city walls and step into Middle Kingdom’s paradise. Ramshackle blue-and-white buildings with traditional pointed tile roofs house storefront after storefront. Bai women in traditional pink costumes work in the stores, or walk around town selling fruit, and you guessed it, ganja.

Dali city gates

Dali city gates

The Bai women sales technique is called the drive by.  A fifty year old woman wearing the traditional Bai headscarf will run up to you on the street. “Hello!” she shouts loudly and sidling closer, whispers, “You smoke-ah the ganja?”

This happens every 5 feet.  You can’t walk down Dali’s small cobblestone streets without meeting a ganja women.  And if you say yes, things get even odder. This December, after a few days of hiking and turbulent bus rides, we decided that, yes, we would like a little ganja.  So with our new Italian friend Davide, we set off to look for the ganja women.

We didn’t go far before an old woman walked up the street, “HELLO!… Smoke-ah the ganja?” We all ambled after the ganja women to her little home, wondering what kind of ganja this old women could possibly grow. She furtively reached under her bed and pulled out a shoebox full of shake and stems – the weed that grows naturally on the side of every road in Yunnan. This was not the ganja we were looking for.  But we were in too deep.

“Good ganja! My husband smoke-ah the ganja everyday.”  Her husband was sitting, shirtless, watching the transaction with little curiosity. He obviously hadn’t moved in at least five years. “You try! Smoke-ah the ganja!”

The ganga was terrible. Didn’t even do the job.  But with a little crappy ganja, some new friends and dozens of bottles of plum wine, we had a great night.

The drive by ganga woman is hard to catch on video.  But here you are! Ganja lady #1 approaches Vin after 12 seconds and another comes running up with 4 seconds remaining on the video. Notice that she’s running away from a cop.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say the women in Asia are nuts. And I can’t honestly claim that Vietnam or China have a state controlled economy.  The women are persistent and the economy is just plain out of control. Both the women and the economic forces are looking to make as much as they can, as quickly as they can.  And it’s working.

Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Life is full of endless possibilities, one possibility that I have firmly ruled out is shaving my head and becoming a Monk. After nearly two weeks spent living in the woods, eating veg and sleeping with the mice, I can assure you that the monastic life style in not for me.

But you know what is for me? KUNG FU!

I know Kung Fu!

Vinnie and I joined the Wu Wei Si monastery ready to learn how to kick ass and take names. Instead we spent almost two weeks completely crippled by the early and endless workouts. It turns out that learning Kung Fu is difficult. And painful. And that we were sorely out of shape.

Each morning we woke before dawn, jolted out of bed by the sound of drumming, chanting and the ringing of a 1,000 pound gong. A gong that massive will reverberate for several minutes, repeatedly reminding your beat up body that it’s time to get out of bed. The next hour is spent in a battle between the forces of sleep and the power of Aaaa-mi-ii-to-o-o-o-fuuu chanting from Buddhist Monks. The Monks always win.

As the chanting came to an end, we hurriedly struggled to get dressed in the complete darkness, using all of our strength just to place one foot into the dirty pants that were worn the day before. Putting on socks has never been so difficult – knees refused to bend, leg muscles couldn’t support your weight, and lifting your arms above your head caused minutes of searing pain. It took all of our mental and physical strength to limp down the stairs and begin the day.

Our new home

My monastic bed

Seconds before the sun rose, we began our workout: a run to a nearby river bed where we grab a small boulder and haul it back to the monastery. On the way down, each step on the cobblestone road felt like an electric shock. You could feel your body asking: “Why are we doing this again! We haven’t recovered from yesterday! Stop running! Go back to bed!”

And on the slow walk back up, carrying that huge stone on your head, your body realized that once again it is in for some serious punishment. You began to feel your sore muscles loosen, your back straightened and suddenly you were ready for early morning Kung Fu.

Another Gorgeous Sunrise

Running to the river

Pick your stone!

Better than sit ups!

Early Morning Kung Fu

Kung Fu is basically the art of squating. Squat-punch, squat-lunge, squat-block, and the worst, the squat-jump. On the first day our 12-year old teacher, a budding ShaoLin Monk and professional Sadist, had us squat jump, squat jump and then jump into the air to touch our feet. By breakfast at 8AM on the first day, we could not sucessfully walk up the stairs.

It only got worse.

Each morning we would stretch. Our teachers seemed to take great joy in our relative inflexibility but even Mary Lou Retton herself would be considered inflexible next to these men.  It was totally normal to see a monk stretch his ankles around his neck – and smile. The Monks would jump in the air, spreading their legs in split kick that went above their shoulders. They could bend backwards to touch the ground with the top of their head.

We needed help from two other people just to stretch our legs…

Stretch those legs!

More Stretching!

After our early morning workout we grabbed breakfast and because we were living in a Monastery, certain rules applied.

  • No talking!
  • No eating before the Kung Fu Master eats.
  • You must eat everything in your bowl and anything that doesn’t make to your bowl (so don’t spill your food because you’ll have to eat it off the ground.)
  • To leave you must wait until the master has left, and then you must bow and say Amnituofo to each table.

At first we were amazed at how delicious the food was, it almost didn’t matter that there was no meat!  We soon found out that the cooks has perfected exactly five dishes, and they were served for every lunch and every dinner. The exact same meal. Everyday.

The same meal every day

After breakfast we were back at it, squat-punching our way across a large courtyard.  The Monks didn’t speak much English, and what they did know had obviously been taught to them by other foreigners.  Everyday we heard the same commands:

“Qui-kuh-ley! Move your S!” (Quickly, move your ass)

“Prak-tees! You! Prak-tees!

“Change arm! Switch leg!”

“Bad. Very Bad.”

It was hard to react seriously when a 12 year old Monk is telling you that your deep knee bend isn’t low enough. You can’t help but think, ‘I can’t possible squat lower than this’.  And then the Monk walks right up and smacks you, “BEND LEG!” he shouts, forcing your beleaguered body into a lower squat, “BEND LEG!”

We prak-teesed for six hours a day, everyday.

Now you- go lower! Bend Leg!

Block!

Move your S!

At first we could barely make it through one workout. Each new move brought a wave of pain to muscles that we didn’t know existed. But after a week or so, our squats got lower, and punches got stronger. I found out that, at age 32, I can still do a front handspring!  Vinnie discovered a heretofore unknown aptitude for one legged squat punches.

We may not be the ass kicking KungFu masters that you see in the movies, but we cameout of Wu Wei Si with some serious moves. We managed to survive the monastic lifestyle, and dare I say, enjoyed it?

Squat Punch!

Squat block!

My friends are jealous of my low squat

 

Smile and say KUNG FU!

 

 

 

Learning to Straddle the Tiger

Learning to Straddle the Tiger

We’re back in China and instead touring the country, we’re heading up a mountain to get a good ass kicking from some Shao Lin Buddhist Monks.

Not your typical tourists...

For the next few weeks we’re going to once again wake up at 4:00am to meditate 5:30 to carry small boulders, and submit our bodies to several grueling Kung Fu workouts each day

The next time you hear from us, perhaps we’ll be able to show your our Smashing Claw and Double Flying Legs…

Hi-ya!

China part deux: What were we thinking!

China part deux: What were we thinking!

Six months ago we bought multiple entry visa’s for China. Four months ago I left China, cursing the craziness and swearing that I would never be back. This week we walked across the bridge from Vietnam back into China.

Leaving Vietnam in proper fashion - on the back of a scooter!

What a shock!

Six months ago we were comparing China to the places we’ve visited: to Europe, South Africa and Latin America. Today we’re comparing China to other countries in Asia. And with that small shift in expectations, our perspective on China has radically changed.

There are three lane highways and skyscrapers! The traffic that I once ranted about seems orderly and controlled, rather than chaotic. The restaurants and shopping centres are indoors, rather than strewn on the sidewalk. China suddenly appears clean, functional and tremendously modern.

Walking across the bridge to China

And the screaming, the smoking and the spitting that once drove me insane? Somehow in the last few months all of those things have become understandable. Suddenly the tonal Chinese language doesn’t sound like someone cursing at you to “eat shit and die, motherfucker.” Now the same sentence sounds more like, “Ahh, hi there! Welcome back, have you eaten yet?”

My favorite thing about China - DUMPLINGS!

We’ve come to understand that in China some people believe that spitting rids your body of it’s impurities. It’s still utterly foul to watch an old woman clear her throat, whip out a plastic bag and into it hawk a huge, flemmy loggie. But now at least we can accept why it happens and move on. (In typical Chinese fashion the government has gotten involved, punishing people for anti-social behavior like spitting, throwing trash out the window and drying laundry on fences.)

And the smoking? It’s totally normal. Asia is like New York City in 1956 before people started dying of emphysema and suing the tobacco companies.

Vinnie and our Chinese Taxi

It’s exciting to be back and to realize that China hasn’t changed at all – but we have. The past six months have given us a new understand of the world and our place in it. Surprisingly we’re pretty sure that Asia is going to play a key role in our life moving forward. We love the people, we love the food, and we even love the loud, smoggy, dense urban landscape.

In fact, the only thing that remains utterly crap about China is the internet. All US websites are throttled, the wireless connection never works and you’re forced to use internet cafes – all of which run IE6.

There is a special place in internet hell reserved for the Chinese government and the developers of IE6.

The hills are alive with the sound of....

The hills are alive with the sound of….

“Buy from me! No! Not the same as one you already have. Same-same but different!”

Sapa is a small town so high in the mountains that the streets are perpetually covered in a sheen of mist and cloud. The entire region, when you can see through the clouds, is simply stunning. Miles of soaring mountains surround small villages where local hill people tend to the scaffolded rice terraces that were created by their ancestors over 2,000 years ago. It’s magical.

Beautiful Sapa!

Rice terraces in Sapa

Sapa is also a huge tourist magnet and the local people have learned exactly how to rid you of your American dollar.

From the minute you step into town, local H’Mong and Red Zdao women try their best to coerce you to buy their handicrafts. They follow you down the street, escorting you to a restaurant as they pitch their story, “I get married at 15! I have three babies!” The ladies compete with each other, shoving earrings and bracelets towards you shouting, “Buy from meeeeee!” They run after tour buses and stand in doorways, waiting for unsuspecting visitors to exit before attacking them with embroidered pillowcases and purses. These gorgeous women are rapacious!

While many people take a tour bus to the villages, we headed off to explore the countryside on our own. Suddenly it wasn’t just the two of us – we had attracted the attention of three local woman and they began quietly following in our footsteps. The silence was broken when women began to talk, asking the same questions over and over and over.

“Where you from!? How old are you! You no look so old! How many babies you have!”

It was clear that the H’Mong women were going to stick with us for the entire day, hoping to sell some handicrafts at the end. Our own private sherpas…

Our Sherpas!

The women led us down the mountain, easily maneuvering the wet landscape in flimsy jelly shoes while carrying huge bamboo baskets of handicrafts. It was only slightly embarrassing to see local people nimbly run past us as we slipped and fell through into huge puddles of standing water. It became obvious that I was not in peak physical condition when tiny woman with a child on her back pushed me up a steep, rocky hill.

Don't Fall!

After several hours of hiking we reached the village where we introduced to relatives, visited wood homes and negotiated a fair price for the handmade goods that we were destined to purchase.

Our H'Mong guides

The same thing happened every day as we explored the surrounding villages. Each time we would set off on our own, and suddenly a flock of women would surround us, asking us the same questions, showing off the same handmade goods, inviting us into their homes. The local people may come from different tribes, but they all have the same sales method!

Grandma and her grandchildren

Warming up by the fire in Ta Phin Village

We came to Sapa hoping to visit the hill people and instead found ourselves on private tours – personally escorted by from village to village by entrepreneurial women whose beauty rivaled that of the Sapa hillside . We visited the homes of local people, met their children and petted their pigs. How could we not spend a little money in exchange for such an experience?

Hopefully my loved ones won’t mind the matching blue purses and exact same “hand embroidered” pillowcases that I plan to offload on them.

Red Zdao woman in the Ta Phin Village

RANT: Planes, Trains and Sleeper Buses

RANT: Planes, Trains and Sleeper Buses

We’ve been traveling for over six months.  At this point we have slept in over 75 beds in 57 different cities and have taken 11 planes, 12 trains and 35 buses. We can now emphatically state that public transportation is gross.

Being cooped up with several hundred people for hours at a time is never a pleasant experience, but it’s particularly unpleasant when your social norms are at odds with those around you. Our most recent train ride proved too much to handle.  Now it is time for a rant.

Vinnie and our 24th bus ride (through Brunei)

Social Norm #1: Keep the stink to yourself

The 8+ hour train ride began with a stench worse than death. Our impeccably dressed seatmate had placed a 15 pound bag of human excrement above our heads – except instead of human stank, the bag was filled with a massive fruit called Durian that is disallowed in every hotel because of it’s long lasting, highly offensive odor.  The smell penetrates your every pore, leaving behind a stench fouler than rotten eggs and vomit even after it’s gone.

Every jolt of the train brought a fresh waif of creamy, nutty, baby shit in a bag. Puking in the bathroom wasn’t an option, given the predictable state of the train toilet.

No Durians. No live Chickens.

Social Norm #2: Headphones

And during that same odorous train ride a few old men decided to whip out their ancient cellphones to play each and every single ringtone at full volume. Adding to the cell phone cacophony, several teenagers decided to pump out Asia’s top ten from their shiny new Android phones. There is nothing worse than a 24 megahertz rendition of the Black Eyed Pea’s ‘Tonight’s gonna be a good night’ – now the most overplayed song in America AND Asia.

Cell phone nonsense

Social Norm #3: Throw your trash away

For some reason people in many places of Asia think it’s perfectly acceptable to chuck their trash right on the ground.  Not just out the window or onto the street or in the river but directly on the floor beneath their feet. The term “don’t shit where you sleep” doesn’t seem to resonate with people at all. Instead it’s perfectly normal to both throw shit and sleep in the same place – that place being a fucking train filled with a hundred other people.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to wake up to a train full of cigarette butts and banana leaves (but I was).

Floor of our train

Sleeping after throwing remains of meal on the ground

This doesn’t even come close to being our worst experience with public transportation, just the most recent. And none of this is really that bad on it’s own, but given a perfect storm of sensory overload, I lose my shit.

Asia can be one stinky, loud, dirty place, but somehow her charms get you in the end. As we got off the bus and wound up at our final destination, this was the view waiting for us –
totally worth an eight hour train from hell.

Foggy, Hazy, Gorgeous Sapa Vietnam

H'Mong people near the Lao Chai Village

Attack of the Commie Zombies

Attack of the Commie Zombies

A Mausoleum is not the same thing as a Museum, a fact that Vinnie didn’t know when he ventured into Mao’s final resting place last November.

A Commie-style tomb

Those commies keep Mao on lock down.  You can’t get into the Mausoleum if you have a phone, a camera or any method of recording what you see inside those four walls. Vinnie and I were running late for our visit with the Chairman, arriving just 30 minutes before he was due for his 12:00 nap.

After standing in line and being frisked by the police, we found out that only one of us could enter the Mausoleum, the other had to wait outside with all of our electronic devices (of which there were three).

That’s how I ended up waiting outside the exit, watching a maniacal Vinnie run past hundreds of Chinese patriots. From yards away he began shouting:

V: “Do you KNOW what’s IN THERE!”

K: “Mao?”

V: “YES!  There is a dead body in there!!”

K: “How’d he look?”

V: “I didn’t know that I was going to see a DEAD BODY! I thought you were saying MUSEUM. I walked in and thought, man, this feels like a funeral home and all at a sudden there was a dead body! Mao’s dead body is inside there!”

K: “MAUSOLEUM. Dead bodies. So! How’s he look?”

V: “Ummm…. He’s wearing a lot of make-up.”

And he is. But you know who’s not? Ho Chi Minh.

The Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum is decidedly less grand than the Chairman’s. It’s hard to compete with the Chinese when it comes to massive showings of Communist strength. Tiananmen Square is the king daddy in display of state power.  A sea of pavement stretches from the Forbidden City to the Zhengyangmen, the front gate of Beijing’s ancient city, and right in the center of it all sits Mao’s cavernous final resting place. Your every move is observed by the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao whose oversized painting looks over the plaza (along with the thousands of strategically placed video cameras).

This way, Comrade!

Outside the gate of the Mao mausoleum a line of Chinese tourists sporting matching neon orange baseball caps wait impatiently, occasionally running, pushing and jumping the queue when space opens between people.  It’s highly controled chaos.

But the Vietnamese also know how to paint a grand post-mordem scene. The squat marble Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum overlooks the large square where the Vietnamese declared their independence. The grass and the nearby colonial-style Presidential palace gives the entire complex a genteel and inviting, rather than imposing, presence.

Vin and Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho’s mausoleum is smaller, more intimate.  The entire complex is approachable. The line is short. The guards quickly dispatch your camera without much hassle or confusion. Inside the Mausoleum there is no towering marble statue greeting you at the front door. The air is chilly. You walk up a short flight of stairs and suddenly a very pale, very dead Ho Chi Minh is lying just feet away.

Mao and Ho were embalmed by the same Soviet embalmers who first worked on Lenin. Along the way they learned some tips from Cher’s makeup team.

Everything in the Mao mausoleum is imposing, except Mao himself. Inside his crystal coffin, a halo of light beams down on Mao’s waxy, overy-rouged face. His hair is perfectly oiled in place, his fleshy pink cheeks are still plump and his body is shrouded under a wrinkle free blanket.  It’s entirely possible that Mao is just a head. A brightly lit floating head.

Mao and his security detail (a postcard)

Ho’s Mausoleum may be less grand but he certainly looks more dead.  The dim light does nothing to put Ho on display. Everything about the man is white – his face is devoid of any coloring, his white hair clings to his head and his colorless goatee flows down the front of his white outfit. Ho’s decrepit hands rest on top of his stomach and they’re clearly attached to decaying white arms.

Obviously, the Soviet’s hadn’t yet mastered Rouge 101 in 1969.

Someone took a sneaky shot! (Stolen from the interweb)

Mao and Ho are quietly resting inside elevated crystal tombs, their head’s positioned as if they’re staring down on the passing visitors. As you walk past the Chairman, you’re only able to peer in from one side before you’re hurried out the door. Mao gazes down at the four guards that are standing watch over his dead body, but Ho!

Ho lies there inviting his guests to view his body from every angle. As you circle around  the base of his coffin his elevated head lies facing you straight on, like he could wake up at any minute and declare, “American! Get out! The imperialist aggressors can never enslave the heroic Vietnamese people!”

And it’s creepy.

Kris and a lifesized Uncle Ho

The Chairman wins the prize for the most fake looking Commie – Madame Tussauds could do a better job! As for Uncle Ho, he simply looks dead.  Which is how a man whose last breath was more than 40 years ago should look (though you know that takes a lot of cash to keep them looking fresh-ish).

Now that we’ve visited Mao and Ho, we ‘re on a mission to meet the remaining two Commie Zombies.  It’s now a life goal to visit the the Eternal President of North Korean, Kim Il Sung and the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

We’re taking bets to see if Fidel will follow his fellow commies to a final resting place filled with glycerol and potassium acetate.

Our next dead Commie, Lenin!

 

 

 

 

If not Sriracha, then what?!? Also, I love beer.

If not Sriracha, then what?!? Also, I love beer.

Sriacha in Vietnam

In Vietnam every meal is accompanied with Chili sauce but it is certainly not the Chili sauce that so many of us have come to love. Though if you search hard enough, you can spot some Sriracha imitators!

Vinnie with his Pho and Chili Sauce

The chili sauce in Vietnam is mild with less garlic and heat. You can heap tablespoon upon tablespoon into your soup without burning off your remaining taste buds. That’s because each steaming dish of Pho comes with the real thing – super spicy chilis that make your eyes tear and your nose run.

I’m in heaven!

Pho and all it's delicious, spicy accompaniments

It’s absolutely sacrilegious to even consider mentioning mouth-wateringly delicious Pho without pairing it with that other Vietnamese liquid treat, Bia Hoi. Fresh Beer! Bia Hoi has no preservatives, no additives and no alcohol.  Or at least very little alcohol. And even less taste. We found this out the hard way – five hours of serious drinking rendered us completely sober.

Pouring out Bia Hoi

But we refused to give up! Hanoi is the tops for Bia Hoi and Vinnie tried his best to drink his way to sobriety. We sat at tiny children’s tables and drank fresh beer poured out by a middle aged momma with bare feet. I opted for the more delicious Bia Hanoi.

The night ended well.

Bia Hoi vs. Bia Hanoi

Urban Hikers in Urban Traffic