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.

Crazy Shit
The Spectacle of Life and Death

The Spectacle of Life and Death

It’s appropriate that we finish our trip in the one city that most embodies the beauty, the history and the insanity that is India –  Varanasi.

Alleys of Varanasi

Oh my God, Varanasi.

It’s impossible to translate the utter shock, dismay and overwhelming fascination that you feel when confronted with this place that’s “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” (Thanks Mark Twain!)

Shiva the Destroyer!

This is the famed city where the faithful come to die so their spirit can be released from the cycle of birth and death. Where male family members cremate their loved ones in open funeral pyres and scattered their ashes into the Ganga. The very same water where thousands of people dip to cleanse their souls and wash their laundry. Where toxic runoff from local factories mix with cow excrement and untreated human sewage to form a potent brown liquid with 120 times the level of fecal bacteria permitted by international safety standards.

Bathers in the Ganga

We woke up early to visit the flooded ghats. Stairs leading down to the bathing area were covered with water and lonely traffic signs in the river marked the height of the monsoon rains.  We gazed at the current for a few minutes before spotting a large tree trunk floating our way, hitting into boats and getting caught in the fishing wire. The tree moved closer, it’s flexible branches spread in a distinctly familiar position, wrapped in what looked like gauze… What is that? Could is be? Is it possible?

This is exactly what it looks like

The tree rushed closer to the bathing ghats where several people were washing and drinking the water. The tree slowly came into focus. We blinked. Nooooo…. It was not a tree. IT WAS A BODY. An uncremated, decaying, human body floated down the water, brushing against the pier where we stood, staring slack jawed in shock.

It was at this moment that we decided that we would NOT be joining the bathers as they dipped in the most polluted river in the world.

The next few days were no less interesting. We wandered around ancient alleys, maneuvering around massive cows and into crowds of colorfully dressed pilgrams carrying bottles of dirty brown river water. Skinny sadhus and gregarious holy men approached, asking for food or money, dabbing your forehead with color or shoving a basket of hissing cobras in your direction. Images of Lord Shiva were painted on every surface, flower offerings and remnants of milk colored the narrow walkways. People stood with their heads bowed, lighting candles at small shrines or smoked charras in front of the tall temples that line the river.

Crazy Baba!

The monsoon rains poured down and the Ganges rose to meet the flood water on the street. We walked through the knee deep brown rapids trying not to think about the potential for water borne illness.

Flood!

In this crush of humanity, with cows, traffic jams and millions of people, it was impossible to forget the reason why we were all here: the spectacle of life and death.

Cremation Ghat

The sandalwood smoke from the funeral pyres drifted over the city, through the ancient walkways and temples. The alleyways spread between two burning ghats, a walk in either direction would eventually pass by the very open display of life passing from it’s physical form into ashes. Beside the burning ghats, children climbed the massive trees that were soon going to be sold for fire wood. At the water men carried their dead loved ones for their final bath in the Ganges. And in the street, right in front of your eyes, fire envelopes what used to be a living person. A foot turns brown, curling backwards as it’s reduced to charred bone. The untouchable man whose family has been burning bodies for centuries pokes at a wayward arm, returning it into the flames.

Wood at the cremation ghat

Varanasi marks the end of our time in India, it’s truly the culmination of everything that we’ve witnessed in this country. A place where striking poverty blends with unparalleled color and beauty. Where life screams past you in a rickshaw and death is just a part of the journey. No matter what God you believe in, he’s waiting for you in a temple, at a shrine or under a Bodhi tree in India.

And let’s not forget those Holy Cows.

The glamourous life of a backpacker

The glamourous life of a backpacker

Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.

One lane road high in the sky - without a guardrail

Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?

Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.

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Traffic JAM!

Rishikesh to Manali –  19.5 hours of public bus battering
One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.

Public bus. Yes, I'm serious.

It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.

Our happy face

Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.

The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.

Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours

Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.

We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)

One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…

Stunningly terrifying

But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain.  The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days.  Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh.  This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.

Waterlogged!

So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.

Home for the night!

That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.

Good morning!

Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours

Leh to Srinagar: OMG! It’s love!

One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.

Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!

Stunning scenery.

Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.

Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.

Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.

Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!

OMG, FML!

Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror

Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the  back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.

That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.

Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day

Public bus unrination

Hello machine guns!

Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable

Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!

On the road again.

76 hours later: Denoument

Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”

No this bridge did not scare me. It should have though..


The case of accidental pilgrimage

The case of accidental pilgrimage

That damn Beatles ashram was difficult to find. Instead of spending a lazy afternoon exploring the abandoned grounds where the White Album was written, we followed thousands of charras-smoking Shiva pilgrims on a 12km hike to the Neelkanth Temple.

Avoid the babas!

The road immediately turned into a dirt path heading straight uphill. At each turn we were convinced that the destination lay just a few steps ahead. We had a vague idea that the orange devotees were heading to a holy waterfall but had no idea where that waterfall was located or what else we would find.

Hiking up the endless hill

After an hour of walking straight uphill, dripping with sweat, barely able to breathe, we halting asked someone where they were headed: how far is this damn walk? For the first time in India, no one spoke English.

“Twenty kilometers!” someone shouted at us as they walked past.

Now we’ve been in Asia a long time and we have learned that no one willingly walks 20 kilometers in 100 degree heat at 2,005m above sea level.  We were fairly certain he meant two. Two kilometers.

Rain and sweat equally as unbecoming

So we continued to climb. And climb. And CLIMB.  By the time we had climbed 8km, we had lost our will to live. So when a posse of stoned Shaivas called for Vinnie to join them for a rest in the shade, he willingly acquiesced.

The group of guys had traveled from Goa and Delhi to make the holy trek together. This was the Indian version of a Cancun spring break with a religious twist. All the pilgrims carried two things: a bottle of water from the Ganges and a black fanny pack filled with charras, papers and matches. The water is poured over a stone at a temple at the top of the hill. The charras was to help make the climb a little easier.

Tents along the path

The men sat under a tent, buying individual cigarettes from the vendor and roll a joint. Not just one joint. The men rolled one after another sharing the hash between each other and dozens of other men walking up the hill. Who knew that pot played such an important role in spiritual enlightenment!

They excitedly chattered away about their quest and the charras. The leader of the group turned to Vinnie, repeatedly asking, “How do you feel, are you happy?” “Be Happy!” demanded.

Vin and his newfound friends

Together with the men we continued up the hill, albeit very, very slowly. The steep winding path was lined with garbage bag tents on one side and a sharp drop on the other. We may have been in the middle of the wilderness but it was never silent. Exuberant boys who had already reached the top ran downhill blowing on whistles and shouting “Bum! Bum! BOULE!”

We passed babas playing drums and asking for money, “Hurry, do not stop!” the group warned.  Serious pilgrims slowly climbed the hill performing arduous  prostrations – kneeling to stretch their body against the ground, then standing up to repeat the action until they reach the top.

A difficult climb

Every few steps another joint would circle around; when it’s effects were felt, we would take a break to buy water or food for the monkeys.

Nice monkeys!

Depending on the level of stonedness, the men would either marvel at their environment (“Oh my God. Oh my GOD. Look! Look my friend! Amazing!”), or discuss God (“You know God? God is great. GREAT!”).

Bum Bum Boule!

It took us over four hours to reach our destination and like most things the best part was getting there.  Hundreds of pilgrims had carried water and offerings for miles just to lay them at the temple. At the temple’s entrance we took off our shoes only to walk across wet garbage, bottle caps and discarded offerings. Every step produced a wet squish as your weight crushed the remains beneath your feet.

The walk to the temple

We followed the line of people into the temple where two men watched as pilgrims poured their Ganges water onto a stone. After only a few seconds we were ushered out of the main temple into the outdoor courtyard where incense filled the air.

Dozens of people stood at the base of the temple emptying their water bottles and throwing the plastic into a pile. Behind the temple people were preparing to take a dip in the small pool.

Holy disposal of water bottles

Bathing in the spring behind the Neelkanth Temple

I looked around, did I miss something? Was that IT!?I had expected something more.

Yes, that was it. Thousands of men walk for hours, chanting and smoking copious amounts of ganja, only to stand in line and pour water on a stone.  I can’t claim to understand this particular religious rite.

The Neelkanth Temple

Dusk was approaching, Vin’s high was wearing off and my feet were killing me. The men had fulfilled their spiritual quest and now, much calmer, were preparing for the walk down by rolling yet another joint.

It was time to take the easy way out – we called a cab!

That night as we returned to our room, we could easily hear the shouts of “Bum Bum Boule!” from the street outside. Pilgrims were just returning from their epic hike and clearly had enjoyed every moment. We did too.

The BREAKDOWN

The BREAKDOWN

The breakdown was bound to happen, it was just a matter of time. What could not have been expected was the side trip to the slum, the instant fame that we would undeservedly receive or the insane ride through Pune rush hour traffic pushing the ‘Shaw to it’s final resting place.

For this we lost the race, but earned the “Bonkers” Award.

The blessing that went awry

Here’s how it went down.

We just happened to breakdown directly in front of a tuk-tuk taxi stand. Instead of calling our mechanics we chose to hire the most sane looking Taxi driver to help repair the Shaw. It just so happened that the man spoke absolutely no english and communicated all day in Hindi and twisty headbobs. It took 10 hours to understand just how badly we’d fucked the Shaw.

Mr. Taxi driver knelt down next to Vinnie – pointing and bobbing and chatting away. After some initial language difficulties Vin finally understood that new parts were needed, but that someone must stay with the Shaw.   That left me, a white woman in a sari, alone in a rickshaw that wouldn’t move, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers with camera phones. INDIA INSANITY!

A crowd forms and grows to become a MOB

White people in India are always stared at and if you don’t respond properly, the attention can grow until there is a mob of people surrounding you. During the race we quickly learned the best way to mitigate the fame is to smile and then pretend that people aren’t blatently undressing you with their eyes. Being a single woman in India can be slightly terrifying especially when a large group of men surround your vehicle, wanting to touch you, get your autograph or pinch you.

Luckily just seconds after Vinnie left there was a massive, near-fatal motorcycle accident. Watching a man fly head first into the pavement provided more excitement than a white woman in a rickshaw.  I would consider this a mixed blessing, but it was only the first death of the day.

First near-death experience of the day

Shaw repairs continued but the crowd refused to dissapate. Mr. Rickshaw driver had Vinnie drive his taxi while he coaxed the Shaw one block down the road into a small wooded alley. We spent the next 3 hours in the rain, trying to figure out just what could have gone so terribly wrong.

The problem with the Shaw went from having muffler issues to having no muffler.  From spark plugs not firing to a complete meltdown of the alternator. Basically we needed to buy a new Rickshaw, simple repairs were not going to fix the beast.

Here comes the Monsoon!

We also needed more help. Mr. Taxi driver convinced his friend Mr. Repairman to enter the fray. (Mr. Repairman also spoke no English). Together they needed to drive the stalled Rickshaw three miles to Mr. Repairman’s shop.

Just how do you drive a stalled rickshaw?

It turns out that you can’t drive a stalled rickshaw, you must push it.  And since no one wanted to push a rickshaw for three miles, the men came up with an alternate solution.

Pushing the shaw through traffic with his FOOT

That’s right. He pushed it WITH HIS FOOT for THREE MILES! Along the way he also stopped to pick up a fare!

Vinnie, me, Mr. Repairman and a random woman crammed into the Taxi Rickshaw. Mr Repairman floored the gas, driving straight towards our Shaw where the Mr. Taxi driver sat waiting. Within inches of hitting the Shaw, Mr. Repairman stuck out his foot and began driving while pushing our stalled rickshaw through traffic. WITH HIS FOOT.

Needless to say this was exhausting. The traffic surrounded us, blowing their horns, cursing and shouting at us. We stopped twice. Once to drop off our passenger and second time to grab a quick chai.

Offered to help. Repairman did not find this funny.

As we finally approached the shop, Mr. Repairman changed his mind.  Instead of driving us to the repair shop, he drove us to his home, where he felt that I would be more comfortable hanging out with his wife and mother.

Walking though Repairman's 'neighborhood'

Specifically, Mr. Repairman drove me to his slum, where we walked through goat shit and dirty laundry to find his very small, dirt floor single room abode. Outside the room was a metal bed of springs, where an old woman lay, mouth open, trying to breathe her last breath. A younger woman appeared from the room wearing Lycra gloves covered in puss, clearly in the middle of caring for this dying woman.

“My wife!” Mr. Repairman smiled and motioning to the dying woman on the bed, “My mother.”

The old woman was covered in flies and stared at the ceiling gargling. His wife stared at me in horror, saying something to the effect of  “your mother is dying on our only chair. This white girl can not stay here, and besides there is there is no place for her to sit.”

Thank God in heaven that Indians strongly respect marriage. “My husband!” I cried. “I can’t leave my husband! We’re married! We stay together!”

I was pleading in English and the Repairman only spoke Marathi but somehow this seemed to translate. With a huge measure of relief, we were once again off to repair the Shaw.

Repairing the Shaw

The repair shop was more of a street corner. A street corner where a man stood all day pressing clothes, and an old woman sold spices. The corner had never seen such a sight! Women in burkas would slow down to stare, others gathered on balconies to point and shout. At once point school let out and crowds of children gathered around just to witness the reality of white people dressed like Indians. I have never received so many compliments in my life, “You look like beautiful woman!” or “You’re a proper lady!”

The ironing man on the corner

With the day coming to a close, there was only one problem. None of the electric worked and the Shaw was essentially hotwired. We set off once more to find the right pieces, ending up at a temple where goats, cows and hundreds of little kids spent their day.

Dozens and dozens of kids

This proved to be the ne plus utlra of fame. We gave stickers to the little boys who surrounded us. They put the stickers on every available surface, including the side of a goat and cows ass. One the stickers were gone, they ran back asking for more! and more! Each movement was tracked by hundreds of curious adult men who motioned for us to give them a sticker and take their picture. Soon everyone from the street was crowded around our rickshaw, shaking our hands, asking for autographs and blocking all other traffic.

Bulls-eye!

We also witnessed some type of funeral procession.

Street Procession

We drove off with children running alongside the still-hotwired Shaw. That’s right, it was never fully repaired.  It was the end of the day and had begin to rain. We were too exhausted to care that the Shaw was still broken and after 10 hours called it a day.

This proved to be the most fantastic part of our journey and the ‘real’ part of India. The part where strangers spend 10 hours repairing your vehicle and invite you into their homes. Where women are treated like little ladies who must be protected and shouldn’t help the men with their mechanics. And where kids and agricultural animals roam around the streets with stickers on their head.

It’s crazy and we love it!

Vinnie and Mr. Taxi Driver

 

 

 

The Urban Hikers play Ping Pong in Bangkok

The Urban Hikers play Ping Pong in Bangkok

Warning: This post is sexually explicit, morally questionable and potentially offensive. If you are my parents or my parent’s friends, please don’t read this. Thanks -K

Welcome to Bangkok!

When I was a child I thought that ‘Bangkok’ was a dirty word.  At the time I didn’t know that the real name for the city Bangkok is:

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

In English this translates to:

The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam

None of this matters at all because what you really want to know is:  While in Bangkok were you involved in the degrading, demoralizing, dehumanizing, misogynist, anti-femenist sexploitation of women?

Did you see a Ping-pong show?

To which I will say, yes. And it was a sight to behold.

A trip to Bangkok is not complete without a visit to the ne plus ultra of tourist ghettos, Khao San Road. The famed street of hostels and whores where you can not walk for 5 meters without hearing a man smacking his lips together, ostensibly the sound that ping pong ball makes when exiting a vagina. Who can resist wheezy little men who sidle up to you with an overpriced drink list and a promise of sexual depravity?

Not us, apparently.

Cheap! Cheap! Sexy Lady! Cheap!

We soon found ourselves exiting a tuk-tuk and walking down the tiny, raucous Patpong alley where you could pursue the market for a handbag, purchase some fashionable Ray Bans or pop into one of the dozens of strip clubs that line the street.

I chose to look at the handbags. That’s right.  We went all the way to Patpong, walked along the street and turned right around and went home. I just couldn’t manage to walk into a club full of bored bikini-clad women, and watch them place foreign objects into their hoo-ha.

Round one winner: Moral Compass.

Patpong, Bangkok taken by bridgeandtunnelclub.com

Round two went a little differently. Notably, I was drunk so it was much easier to walk into a dark club, order a 200 baht beer and watch a 75 year old woman shoot a pellet gun with her kegel muscles.

The club was full of incredibly bored young women who stood on stage gazing soullessly at the crowd. Together we all watched as an old, skinny topless woman hopped on the stage and without  any fanfare whatsoever whipped down her panties.  She didn’t shimmy or shake or dance, she simply stepped on stage, grabbed both sides of her red underwear and pulled them down.

Grandma had the hooha of a teenager.

She enthusiastically placed a hollow stick inside herself, took aim at the floating balloons and with her legs spread wide, shot a bullet and burst the balloon. I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing. Is it even possible to shoot a pellet out of your va-ja-ja? We watched a young guy from the audience joined her on stage, placed a balloon in his mouth and closed his eyes. POP! Yes it is possible and the woman had perfect aim.

I learned that there are a lot of things that you can do with your vagina, like open coke bottles!

I watched a man pull eight feet of multi-colored neon ribbon from a woman’s vagina. He pulled and pulled and pulled until yards of ribbon stretched across the room and gathered at his feet. I saw a woman use a straw to suck up tiny rings and gently stack them in a row. But the highlight of the night and the real reason d’etre was the ping pong show.

It’s exactly like what you imagine, except you’re HOLDING THE PING PONG PADDLE.

This I did not expect.  I didn’t realize that this was a two-player game. It wasn’t until a bright orange ball was bouncing towards my chair that I realized that I could either hit the ball back or have it touch me.

Please god, don’t let the ping pong ball touch me.

Although by this point in the night I could barely focus (having indulged in several courage boosting belgian beers) and my hand-eye coordination was severely impaired, I managed to hit almost all of the ping pong balls. Mostly because they don’t move that quickly.  The balls sort of bounced towards me rather than fly.  I assume that’s because it’s really fucking difficult to shoot a fucking ball out of your hooha.

And now we’re seen it all and there is only one thing left to do.

Tonight we leave for India where we will drive a rickshaw from Goa to Mumbai. That’s right!  It’s time for the nine-day ass numbing, death defying Rickshaw Challenge.

 

 

 


 

The fast boat to hell

The fast boat to hell

Vinnie had escaped to Singapore. I was alone and needed to get out of Laos as fast as possible: everything I put in my mouth made me sick, the hotel was infested with little mice and the smell of goat had begun to permeate into the very fabric of my being.

There was only one choice: The Fast Boat.

Fast boat outta Laos

The Fast Boat in Laos has something of a reputation: it’s incredibly unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable.  The word ‘deadly’ is thrown around a lot. At this point, I was willing to take the physical challenge.  I would survive anything just to get out of Laos.

It turns out that this journey wasn’t about survival, it was about endurance. The fast boat isn’t even a proper boat, it’s a flimsy fiberglass canoe that’s outfit with a high speed industrial motor. I waited at the dock as an after-market special boat smoked into port. The men threw my bag into the shallow hull and pointed to an empty spot that measured exactly one foot wide by one foot tall.

Photographic evidence of our fast boat misery

I looked in at my fellow passengers: seven fully grown adults who had forced their aging bodies into unnatural, space-defying contortions. They sat in pairs with their backs against wooded planks, their feet awkwardly turned inwards and knees tucked under their chin. Half the people were given motocycle helmets and life jackets. The rest of us were left to deal with what comes.

It’s like a freaking dirty joke:  A girl gets in a boat with a Chinese couple, two 50-year-old Korean men and a German backpacker.  What can go wrong?

Answer: Everything!

Smiling as the boatman paddles away

#1 The boat broke down

#2 The driver pulled over to the side of the river.  He motioned for us to get off and began to take the engine apart. As our eclectic group of eight looked on, the boatman dismantled a wooden seat, and used it as a paddle to push the boat away from shore.  Without a single word he had abandoned us on the side of the freaking Mekong river.

Stranded on the rocks

#3 Half the group decide to hike to safety.  After several hours of waiting on rocks the Korean man began to get agitated. He stood on the rocks jumping, waving and calling to passing speedboats. The only thing that I  – as a native English speaker – could recognize was “Hey-uh! Need Boat-uh! BOAT-UH!”

Kris and the German

The Korean man became so agitated and his garbled english became so compelling that he convinced all the Asians in the group to abandon the space on the rocks and walk to the nearest village. There was no way that I was going hiking through the Laos jungle and lent my shoes to the Chinese man had left his on the boat. They were too big for him.

The closest "village"

Now it was only me and the German. Several hours passed. The sun began to set. It became clear that we were NOT going to make it to the Thai border on time, and we were going to be abandoned on this freaking rock over night. And just as the German and I began to build our shelter for the night, we heard a familiar roar. Our boat was back. In it were the Korean men and the Chinese couple.

Spot the Korean (Hint: it wasn't raining.)

#4 Of course we didn’t make it to Thailand. We didn’t even make it to port. Our boat driver pulled over at a random location close to the lights of a small downtown. He roped the boat to a steep, muddy embankment and pointed for us to get off.

View from the boat

The hill was covered with mud, thorny plants and waste by-product run off. It was a real life Japanese game show:  The Chinese girl slid down the hill and wiped me out, together we rolled  into the German who fell backwards into the Korean. After 40 minutes of sliding down a 30 foot hill, we finally got to the top, covered in mud and nowhere near any semblance of a town. And for the first time in Asia, there were no Tuk-tuks.

The Korean man found a store, walked in, pointed to his Korean guide book and began saying “ho-tel-uh! ho-tel-uh!”

People in Laos don’t generally speak English and they certainly can’t read Korean. Instead of a hotel, someone led us to a local Karaoke bar.

I nearly cried. At this point I had been traveling for 11 hours.

Somehow we made it to town. A town without an ATM and we were a group without cash. The German and I, who had already been through so much, decided to share a room. A small, dirty twin bed room where the German proceeded to strip off all his clothes and sleep in a pair of bright pink briefs. After a miserable 12 hours of traveling and now having seen him nearly naked, I finally asked his name.

Get me the eff outta Laos!

 

 

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

After an entire day of mud-surfing our way through the jungle we finally reached our destination: a large, remote Akha village deep in the middle of nowhere.  And we arrived just in time. The entire village was gearing up for a massive party. A party that could rival any full moon rage fest on any beach in South East Asia.  The village was just wired with electricty and this made everyone very, very excited. It was time to celebrate.

Birds eye view of the village

Very Excited!

The village was in a state of mass preparation. Pigs, chickens and naked children ran around unattended while men stood at large caludrons, stirring bubbling vats of fatty meat. The women, some topless, watched from the windows of their houses. Even the little girls were in on the excitement. They huddled around small huts watching an Akha village dance on the brand new TV and practiced for their upcoming performance.

I joined in.

Prepping for our dance

It seemed like the only people not getting ready were the village teenagers; they had something more important to prepare for – impressing each other. Akha people have a very progressive way of encouraging reproduction. Every night teenage boys and girls meet at the designated ‘flirting area’  to chat and get it on. The ‘get it on’ part is highly encouraged. Boys of  ‘getting it on’ age build love shacks where they can wisk away the girl (or boy) of their choice and enjoy a sexy evening full of pre-marital baby making.

If a baby is made, the couple marry.  If, after some time, there is no baby, the girl and boy break up and hit the loveshack with someone else.

In our Akha village there were dozens of love shacks, and the teenagers were clearly dressed to impress.

Love shack!

Akha ladies looking good for the men!

Looking sharp for the ladies - the local barber shop

The next morning Vinnie and I started out early. The rest of our group was hesitant to explore the town but we wanted to mingle. Within minutes Vinnie and I found ourselves at the village chief’s house right as he was sitting down for breakfast. He invited us in.

Breakfast was served on a long tarp on the ground. Small bowls were laid out with serving spoons. We weren’t sure exactly what the floating brown meat could be and honestly, it didn’t look that appetizing.

Chief saw us deliberating and took matters into his own hands. He spooned up a chunk of red meat, motioned for us to open our mouth and spooned it in.  We chewed slowly, trying to process the texture, the flavor, the temperature of the meat. It was RAW.

It was at that moment when I noticed the giant skinned buffalo head in the corner of the room. We were eating him. RAW.

Of course, the perfect accompaniment to raw meat is Lao-lao.  Moonshine. Laos rice whiskey. Poison. Chief was ready to celebrate and wanted us to feel welcome in his house; he began to pour shots.  Chief didn’t speak english and we don’t speak Akha but with a little moonshine you don’t need words. It was 8Am.  I was drunk. Vinnie was eating raw meat. Could the day get any better!?!

A Breakfast of Champions

Buffalo head in the house

Shots and a cigarette for breakfast
After breakfasting with the Chief we wandered around to see what was going on. And with our inhibitions at a drunken low, we were able to easily chat with everyone and anyone. Vinnie headed off to play cards with the men while I made friends with women. Both of us soon had our own posse of kids who followed us around town, clamering to look at a little picture book or laugh at us when we tried to communicate.

One styling Akha baby.

Grandma!

Vinnie charming the ladies

Kris and the kids

Akha Village

It was NOT a good idea to befriend the villagers.  Just as the Lao-lao was wearing off, the party was starting to begin; our new friends wanted to make sure that we had an amazing time.

The men who had spent the morning cooking buffalo and setting up for the party were now seated and ready to be served. Bowls of meat were placed in the middle of every table, alongside them sat a huge bottles of Lao-lao.  We knew the party began when dozens of colorfully clad young women entered the tent.  Everyone applauded and the drinking began.

The girls each carried their own bottle of Lao-lao and a small plastic cup.  They began at the head of the table, filling the cup with clear whiskey and handing it to someone, encouraging him to quickly drink the shot. At first we all took the glass, shot it back and smiled. But the shots continued and the girls woudn’t take no for an answer.  The only revenge was have each girl take a reciropcal shot, which she would spit onto the ground.

The world started to spin. Chief fed us more meat. We drank more lao-lao.

The Akha party spread

You will drink this lao-lao

Drinking with the styling teenage boys

No more Lao-Lao for Kristine!

We clearly were not in any shape to manage a jungle trek back to Luang Namta. When we were sober it took us ove six hours through difficult, slippery terrain to reach the village. Happily (because he was also drunk), our guide confessed there was a shortcut – a bumpy, unpaved dirt road that would take just four hours to hike down.

By the time we reached town the lao-lao had worn off, but the hangover from hell was just beginning. It was 4:00pm.

Drunk and happy

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!

Monkey v. Chicken

Monkey v. Chicken

Some days are stranger than others. The strangest days usually involve some form of public transportation and/or farm animal.

I thought having a rooster for a seatmate on a public bus was the height of absurdity. It wasn’t. Yesterday in MuiNe, we reached new levels of the bizarre and unusual.

This chicken didn't need to cross the road, he took the bus

We rode an Ostrich.

Ride 'em cowboy!

We watched a monkey get his ass handed to him by a grown chicken.

We surfed giant sand dunes.

Surfing the dunes

White dunes

We discovered why they’re called ‘gas pumps’ and were embroiled in a nasty traffic jam.

Our gas station

Traffic Jam

And finally made it back to enjoy some $0.75 Beer Saigon

I love beer

It was a good day.

 

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

Where is that damn spoon? 10 days of silent meditation.

After 10 days of silent meditation, I am now a lot more sympathetic to what Neo must have been going through when he discovered the Matrix.  That is to say, a shit ton of PAIN.

Seriously folks, we are not hippies.  We are not new age, crystal-and-gem-stone healing freaks. We’re not that deep either, we don’t often sit around questioning the meaning of life or debating our conscious existence. But for some reason when a local Malaysian girl told us how calm and focused she felt after her 10-day meditation course, we thought, without much hesitation or research, “Sounds great!  Sign us up!” A week later we were in Indonesia taking a vow of silence and sitting cross legged for 11 hours a day.

Dirty Hippies - Not on their way to Vipassana Retreat.

The first four days

The course was full of normal looking, non-dreadlocked, fairly clean looking individuals – which eased my worries about joining a cult. But on the first night when the gong sounded and the Buddhist chanting began, I was ready to hit the door running.  My mind is open to new ideas but it hesitates when asked to zen out to a piped in recording of a man who sounds like Dracula growling in Pali. Chanting, among other things like animal sacrifice and praying with snakes, was just too wacky for me. And after one minute of sitting on the floor, my toes were already numb. I was ready to leave without the course even properly beginning.

And the next day I discovered that our teacher wasn’t even at the retreat center, instead we would be listening to audio recordings that were paused every fifth sentence and translated into Bahasa Indonesia so the entire class could understand. At night we were shown a lecture given by the teacher in 1993 and filmed by a novice who just learned how to pan and zoom. What are we doing here!?

I really felt that we were being filmed for a hidden camera tv show. I was prepared that at any moment someone with a camera would jump out and laugh.

A dip in the Ganges of Damma

But we stayed. Our video guru had a positive message and all he asked us to do was sit still and observe our breathing. The kitchen didn’t appear to serve kool aid.

We woke up at 4:00 am and meditated the entire day, sometimes for 4 hours at a time – always sitting still, just breathing, breathing, breathing.

Your mind has a lot to say when you’re asked to concentrate on your breathing. You drift off into a day dream. You think about the past, you plan the future, you scratch your itches and adjust your back.  Try it right now, sit still for just one minute, feel your breath and don’t allow your mind to wander – it’s hard! But our guru continued to tell us, “have a calm and patient mind. You’re bound to be successful.”

So after the first two days, about 20 hours of meditation, my mind began to calm down. Suddenly I could sit still for 3 minutes and breathe. Then 4 minutes. Then, maybe, 4 minutes 20 seconds. But the pain! The sheer and total agony of sitting still is almost overwhelming.  Your back aches, your legs go numb, your feet and hands tingle from lack of blood. And this is where Buddhism kicks in.

I am in PAIN! This is not CALMING!

Vipassana (the short-short version)

Each night our taped guru taught us a tiny bit more about why we were putting our bodies through this torture – namely experiential learning. All religions are meant to act as a moral guide and Buddhists believe that meditation is the best way to learn how to affect positive change in yourself and others. You learn to understand and accept that your body is in pain and that the pain you’re feeling is temporary, you learn not to react. You train your mind not to scratch your itchy nose or adjust your sore back. By not reacting, the physical pain goes away. You begin to understand everything is temporary.

In training your mind not to react to your physical pain, you learn not to react to emotional pain. When someone makes you angry, you are able to step back and understand that the anger (pain) you’re feeling is temporary.  You can choose to react or your can choose not to react.

Eventually, there is no anger.

When there is no angry reaction you have the space to feel compassion towards others. You can positively impact a situation by responding with kindness and compassion. When you can do this, you help yourself and you help the other person.

The last few days

If you can agree with the basic tenets of Buddhism, meditating becomes a lot easier. And so does accepting the odd nature of the course.

You master breathing and learn to concentrate on your body – how does your head feel? Is there pain?  What about your shoulders? Can you feel your clothes or the wind blowing on your back? Suddenly every part of your body is humming in utter misery. You feel everything. My hip joints ached, blood was pumping vigourously through my fingers, a single hair was brushing against my face.  I wanted to move, stretch, itch – react!

But slowly you discover Sabbe sankhara anicca (everything is temporary) and you don’t need to move. Somehow the pain subsides. Somehow you become calm.

There is no pain.

Freedom!

On day 10 we were released from our vow of silence and, surprisingly, it was totally unwelcome. This course was deeply introspective and physically intense. After paying such close attention to your body, all of your senses are physically heightened. During meditation when someone coughed, I could feel the sound hit and reverberate on my ears. When silence ended hearing all the voices of fellow mediators was absolutely jarring. After having all this time to understand my own mind, I was not yet ready to share that watershed of emotion with other people, not even Vinnie.

It took a while before the room filled with voices.  And then the voices became a little louder as people realized that we all went through the same experience. And then suddenly the room was filled with laughter, “I thought I was the only one in agony!” “Me too!” “On the second day I asked our teacher what kind of cult is this!?” “Me too!’

What’s next?

Now that we’re not meditating 11 hours a day, we can easily say that the course was wonderful. It was certainly deeply impactful.

And we’re happy. Calm. More compassionate. Plus, we have six more months of traveling ahead of us!

So with our new found knowledge of the world, Vinnie and I are setting off in different directions for a while. I am on my way to Vietnam where I will indulge in french baguettes and volunteer at a local orphanage.

And keeping with our Matrix theme, Vinnie is heading back to China to chill with Buddhist monks and learn Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery .I’ll join him in a few weeks.

I know Kung Fu!