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Archive for February, 2008

We’re in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia but off to Siem Reap tomorrow

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

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Brief Update:

We’ve had an excellent week resting in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia after 2 months of SE Asia biking.  While here, we’ve visited my Maryknoll friend, Celina, other Maryknollers, and several of the Maryknoll projects here.  This is a great community and we are so thankful for the hospitality they have showered on us.  We are especially thankful to Jean-Francoise and Myriam (Maryknoll affiliates) who have generously opened up their home to host us for the entire week.  THANK YOU!!!

Jim, Drew, and I pedal off tomorrow, heading west to Siem Reap, famous for the ancient temple complex, Ankor Wat.  Nakia and Yuske are taking a bus down south to volunteer for a week as they’ve both already visited Ankor Wat.  We’ll meet up in Siem Reap, the Thai border, or Bangkok. 

We are now coping with major decisions about how we are going to get to India - plane or boat - and if we can afford the extra luggage fees for even “cheap” flights, which currently have us worried.  With added stress from Nakia’s passport needing more pages but no Bahama’s embassy in Asia who can do it, our relaxing week has stayed…balanced.

More specifics on Phnom Pehn and our unfolding adventure to come!



Drew: Feb 22, “Dragonflies”

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

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I am struck by two different wonders.  The first is the wonder of a new place, which is expected.  A foreign tourist sees ordinary things with interest, snapping pictures of houses, farmers, traffic—even squirrels—with an excited fervor that at times alarms normal people.  But of course to the tourist these “normal” things are actually very new and different.  We see large houses built three meters in the air on posts like stilts. We wonder.  We watch a man in dress clothes riding a skid around a plowed field by holding on to an ox’s tail.  We wonder.  We take a picture.  We try to capture the sensation of walking through the streets of Hanoi, dodging the torrential din of motorcycles driving through a maze of uncontrolled intersections.  We wonder how to get the best picture without being flattened.  This is all very wonderful—noticeable because of its contrast to the foreigner’s lifestyle and environment.

            The second wonder that strikes me is not one of contrast but rather ordinary beauty.  A long strand of tissue caught up in a breeze gracefully spirals toward me through sunlight.  I catch my breath.  I wonder.  Through a dark tunnel of trees one of my teammates is silhouetted against clouds of dust backlit by sunlight.  It is beautiful.  Events like these happen all the time, anywhere, and one certainly doesn’t have to be in a foreign place to see wonderful things.  But being a traveler is being an observer with the permission to spend your time observing, which does offer many opportunities to notice.

            Just a few afternoons ago we were stopped at a Cambodian Buddhist monastery with plans to spend the night.  Often the monks are very hospitable and will insist you sleep in the prayer hall rather than on the grounds, even if you have a tent.  After assuring them the grounds would be fine, we began setting up camp.  We were in no hurry since it was still before five o’clock.  Jim’s tent was laid out and we were just fitting the poles when I began to notice small dragonflies lighting on the folds.  I looked closer at one.  It had a fly clutched in its front legs—still trying to buzz—and was steadily chewing off its head.  As I watched in wonder, the fly came open like a tin can, as if the head were on a hinge, and the lucky dragonfly supped (or whatever they do).

            I had never seen anything like this.  I was amazed.  We stopped our intentions for the tent to watch a while.  There were many dragonflies, none longer than a toothpick, hovering and alighting, suddenly still with folded wings.  The flies were also buzzing about, and when a fly would land near a silent dragonfly, it would take to the air, aim, rear back, and dive like destruction bent on a bear hug.  It happened quickly.  Sometimes the fly would escape, sometimes it wouldn’t.

            We sat and watched at least three flies pinned by dragonflies and then clutched away to where they could calmly chew off their heads.  The spectacle was both wonderful and terrible, and I was reminded of my gratitude for not being a part of the terrifying insect world—and that most insects I’ve encountered so far are smaller than my hand!  Not only that, but I was also reminded of what an amazing and fascinating world exists literally under our feet; all around us we are free to discover small wonders every day.  I have seen many dragonflies in my twenty-odd years of memory, but this was the first time I had ever seen a dragonfly catching its supper.

            Soon the crowd that was watching us watch dragonflies had grown considerably, and we realized it was time to start making our own movements toward supper.  We finished pitching the tent and dug out the Frisbee for an effort at non-verbal interaction to engage our curious friends before we crouched over our boiled rice and bananas.  But of course, that wasn’t meant to be…


Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

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As I reclined along the shore of the Mekong in the Cambodian town of Stung Treng, a young man of about 20 walked along the beach and strode right towards me.  He carried a 7-Up and claimed “I speak English little.”  He wasn’t kidding.  He asked me where I was from and promptly ran out of questions.  I tried to speak with him to help him practice his English, but he couldn’t understand anything.  Instead he flipped nervously through  a book called “Travel”, which had dialogues in English.

Determined to show him even more patience than had been shown me over the past few months while I tried using Vietnamese or Lao or Khmer, I reached for my phrasebook.  I flipped through it until I could construct the question: “Do you have a brother?” which I hoped would provide my young friend with a very useful groundwork for practicing English.  After posing a few more questions this way and helping him translate them into English, he picked up his book and read sentences from the chapter entitles “Love”.  I helped him with his pronunciation in English.  Then he read the sentences in Khmer and I repeated them, usually to the accompaniment of his guffaws and smothered chuckles, so able was my pronunciation able to send him on transports of hilarity.

We covered such useful phrases as “Please release me for I don’t love you any more” and “I have fallen in love with you”.  Having gotten enough English for one day, Mouse, which is how my friend gave his name to me, took his leave and climbed back up the bank.

Even though this was the biggest Cambodian town we had seen in nearly 100 kilometers, it was tiny.  I ran into Mouse several times over the course of the evening, but lacking a way to communicate, we usually just smiled and went on our merry ways.   A large part of his future will depend on learning English.  Everyone reading this in their native language should be thankful our futures are not so decidedly tied to a single factor.

Mouse and I

Trickling stories

Monday, February 18th, 2008

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I woke up this morning in a wooden hut with mammoth legs that stood firm as the giant bulls that cart straw and people around the dirt road that snuggles up to the Mekong. The horses here are small, like the houses. The stilts and the cows are epic. The house in which I wake up this morning, pairing through the green gauze of my treated mosquito net, is bigger than it appears on the outside.

We heard about this road from two other cyclists, Gael and Elena, a French man and Russian woman biking for three years to photograph and document the world’s monuments. We camped with them the night we met them. Traveling this way strips a person of their modesty. Meeting people, especially other cyclists, is like tapping a lifeline, and we hasten to milk then for information.

That night, around a garish campfire reignited by some concerned villagers, they gushed about their travels through Pakistan where they met tribal people who practiced animism in the mountains. We listened like eager children because they told stories like grandmothers, tall tales with colorful characters and narrow escapes – a woman disguised as a man to get into Afghanistan, Americans pretending to be Mexicans biking into northern Pakistan– tales that for all their fantastical flare, we took in gullibly as if they were life lessons. Elena showed us pictures of a heavily wrinkled woman with black liner smoldering her intense gaze into the camera lens. She said that her pictures are to remember the interpersonal exchange of the people she meets, not just the view.

Their journalist friends, whom “it’s great to know because they know everything,” informed them of the Red Mosque riots that occurred on the street paralleled to the one on which they stayed in Islamabad. This is the same street that news networks like CNN and BBC would broadcast worldwide to the cozy living rooms of families gathered around the TV after their evening meal. I saw the same street whose dust shrouded the fistclenching outstretched arms and the caramel skin and the shalwar kamiz, traditional Pakistani long shirt draped over long pants, from the living room of Peter’s Beijing apartment while performing my daily routine of watching the morning news over oatmeal before catching the 7:10am subway to my elementary school in Beijing. Our new friends, who were two streets away, had to be told by journalists as well.

Anxiety, as must be the point of action packed news briefs that repeat themselves around the clock, set in back then. But now, after being invited into that world by people who have experienced it, the anxiety is being replaced by curiosity. Cycling daily next to dumb trucks that darken the air with their black exhaust and unpredictable motorbikes zipping so close to our limbs that we can feel the breeze on our arm hairs, the danger of the road seems much more imminent than the danger of people.

So now we are here on our dirt road that rides along the Mekong because of Gael and Elena and two more Dutch cyclists we met later. They give us more detailed instructions on how to find the road that slides between the long legs of the houses on stilts, trickling from backyard to backyard where cows sleep and munch on grass, up and around banana trees and bamboo cloisters down paths to the river where young men take the cows to bathe, and young husbands drive their motorcycles to wash.

We follow their examples and wash the dry red earth from our sunburned skin that is slowly taking the identity of the dust. Our impression of Cambodia has matured extensively from being on this road. Slowly the perceiving self is merging with the perceived.

Highway 7, the shiny new road that at various points shows signs of being sponsored by the Chinese and at other points the Japanese, kept us at a distance from the villages the way it runs through newly deforested land cut back from the international road. The old trees look white with age as they seethed above their own carbonized flakes and beneath the quivering rays of the sun. We hear that there is a rush on property here by citizens and the government. Sometimes accidental fires happen, and the land is claimed.

Glimpses of orchards among the decapitated barks and branches hint at the possibility of slash and burn clearings for rice fields. But so much of the land is arid, we wonder how sustainable it is to cut old forest for crops planted in non-arable soil. The flavorless apples we ate in Stung Treng city, insipid like the highway we ride on, make us wonder even more.

But this red rock-strewn road for which we have traded the smooth and speedy highway 7, is lush with growing things: lime-green rice paddies that stand up straight like electrified hair, banana groves that hide houses behind their ample leaves like elephants hiding behind their ears, cabbages and tomatoes and pumpkins harvested and sold on the side of the roads. Little children with dirt-smeared cheeks and blond hair perhaps sun-bleached perhaps malnourished, kick up dust clouds behind us as they chase our bikes down the road. Women and men coo “hello” from the hammocks strung between the stilts that loft their houses above water during the monsoon. In this dry season, the heat forces them beneath where they recline against the breeze.

It seems that suddenly we have been sucked into the life of Cambodia. When we stop and wait for our friends to catch up or to ask for directions, people gather. We have a chance to practice our Khmer or our non- verbal gestures. Some days before when we were asking where we could camp, a feisty middle aged woman pointed us to a monastery. We took her advice and biked in nervously, incredulous that we would be able to sleep in such a respected place that, like most Buddhist monasteries in SE Asia, seemed so extravagantly designed with golden Buddha’s and intricately tiled roofs. But it was much easier than we expected. The young monks who were sitting beneath a straw roof hut with a small bamboo bed, ushered us towards the outdoor temple where they do their morning prayer. They told us to put out bikes next to our tents on the platform where we were even afraid to put our shoes.

That night, we played music for them and spoke to their English teacher, a young recent college graduate who had been stationed by the government to teach in this small town. We grill him about life at the monastery, and he in turns grills us about life on a bike. Camping at monasteries has since become another camping option to consider when the sun is close to setting and the smoldering forest discourages us from rummaging through for leveled ground.

The next day, we wake to synopses of Buddha and his monks gathered at the houses of village people to collect their morning meal painted on the ceiling of the monastery. The monks, the real ones who listened to us play the night before, are preparing the platform for their morning meditation. We hurry to pack up our tents and bikes, and play music on our way out at the school that shares a yard with the temple.

By the end of the day, we have found another temple to camp at, but fate does not allow us to exploit this resource. The crowd that watches us play Frisbee close in on a fair skin girl on a motorcycle. We stop our game and she begins speaking English to us. She invites us, rather pressingly, to her house because it is much safer than sleeping outside. Used to this oddity of concern that villagers and policemen we’ve encountered in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia seem to have for foriegners above their own citizens, we shrug, consider it futile fight to pick, and pack up our tents to follow the outspoken teenager to safety, a mere 200m from the temple. We park our bikes in the basement against the log shanks that hide discreetly behind the concrete walls. This feature, the closed in ground floor that covers the stilts is rare in the villages along this road, and it hints of this family’s reasonable well-off status.

A modest living room leads in through heavy wooden doors to the vast belly of the house where there is a bed, a table with stools, a glassware cabinet, and hammocks strung between the logs that climb up from beneath the rectangular house and beyond the ample crossbeams past the wooden rafters to the apex of the roof. The stilts are high and raise the living area high off the ground, protecting the people inside of it from the inevitable rainy season floods and animals, while putting i the path of a lazy breeze that coaxes my head to a sleepy dance.

We are prepared to cook, but they do not let us, taking the meager vegetables we have left, and multiplying them with a quick trip to the market, turning them into a feast of four dishes and a huge pot of rice. They have already eaten so they simply sit in the modestly lit room and watch us chew on the floor.

When we are full, we play music for the other villagers that have slowly crept in from outside to shine flashlights into our faces. We are tired and are excused after we’ve exhausted our favorite tunes. Our visitors seep smoothly out of the room like seasons fade slowly into each other. The perceiver becomes the perceived. We watch them leave and set up our nets, the boys on the living room floor where a carpet has been rolled out, and me on a wooden bed in the big belly of the house. I feel like a princess with the net draped around me on this carefully carved sandalwood bed.

The morning air is fresh and balloons around me like a quilt of feathers, smothering me sweetly, tugging me like a child pulling her parents out of sleep, like a Cambodian village woman, her sleeveless skirt pulled up to her bosom, milking the earth with a bucket dipped into the stygian well, like a village woman pulling out my dreadlocks to examine the kinks, letting them spring back to my roots where they inspect for evidence of natural growth. They are miffed by my hair and how it does not grow like theirs. They coo and make a fuss about it. I used to find this intrusive, like a non-person regarded only for my body, not for my feelings. But now, I find the hands that tug and finger and touch all of my nerve endings cathartic, invigorating. I’ve learned to read through it. Right now as I write, our host sits next to me completely engrossed. I let her have her fun, and let the effects of her curiosity work their magic on my memory, on my creative juices. I let go of the need to be comfortable. Of the need to control destiny.

I am convinced that life changes at little moments of insight. Little moments of touch. A moment is a vision is a possibility. Imagery takes over. It is what I am building on. A reservoir of experience begotten from the experiences of other people like Gael and Elena who have shared. I am greatful for their memories as they are a break in the monotony of my own perspective, my own prejudices. And upon these shameless revelations i build. A curriculum vitae of stories to lead other people along their fateful rocky roads.

A world of contrasts

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

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Separating from the group in southern Laos meant I would be biking across Thailand and into Bangkok alone. A somewhat daunting thought yet I was looking forward to it immensely. For some time I had been planning my return, commitments I left behind, and new ones that had arisen were calling me home. So be it that my bicycle trip would end in the metropolis of Bangkok.

Five days and over 800 k later I found myself in another tourist mecca. Thousands of foreigners who had come to see the streets of Bangkok wandered around aimlessly trying to make it look as if they had someplace to go. I found myself, like all the rest of the tourists, ignoring the presence of other foreigners trying to become absorbed in what are the areas that funnel people into shopping districts, bars and restaurants that simulate what people left behind in their own countries, and street merchants who view me as a walking dollar sign instead of a person.

It is difficult to gain perspective on something until it is complete. As I sit in Minneapolis, with a 100 degree temperature swing tightening it’s grip around me, I have time to reflect. My flight from Tokyo to Chicago was just under 8,000 kilometers, just about the same distance I biked in five months from Beijing to Bangkok, but it took only 11.5 hours. The time I was not dozing off in my window seat was spent listening to the elderly woman sitting next to me from nashville tell me her life story, I was genuinely interested yet extremely tired. What I did hear from her confirmed my forever developing thoughts on how The United States truly is a unique country.

Surprisingly however I find it difficult to reflect, it is almost as if I am forcing myself to sit and write this not for my own sake but for those who are wondering what became of the fifth spoke in the photos of the FBR team. I have been back for four days and it seems the bicycle trip were in a different lifetime, I now fall back into the routine that drones out our differences in my all too much plebeian lifestyle here in America. I must force myself to think beyond the activities of next weekend and where I will find a job.

There are reminders however, I found myself driving an automobile yesterday for the first time in over 5 months. Not necessarily depressing but disheartening all the same. I look at the way our world compares to the one I was only just in. Different, or is it? I believe human nature is similar no matter where you are, opportunities, resources, and money however ultimately determine the fate of our culture.

I feel as if I hardly have the heart to write about it all, as if the daily routine of biking became just that, a routine that faltered little and began to lack surprises. People are coming to me and telling me that what I did was amazing, telling me their speculations on the incredible things I encountered, and even giving me some idyllic or heroic status I feel I am undeserving of. To sum it up we were simply observing at all times and trying to become involved whenever possible. But what we generally were observing was the slow-paced rural life of the countryside in third world countries. What seems crazy, amazing, and unique was really the lifestyle of millions upon millions of individuals everyday, their ability to live these lives day in and day out with no choice but to continue in this manner is much more amazing than my simple observing of it for a few months with the aid of a bicycle and gear that cost more than what many of these people make in a year.

We became comfortable with our travels, it was easy to experience incredibly different culture than my own, so much so that I began to take it for granted.

I am extremely happy to be home, to be with family, friends, and be an actual cog in a society instead of just watching from the outside. But even more so I am happy I was part of this trip. It is an incredible sense of accomplishment to have not only physically bicycled across the far east but to have self navigated it in other languages, to have encountered so many incredibly interesting people, and to have a more holistic view of our world.

Overall I believe this trip has changed not my view of the world as a whole as much as my view on my own home. I live, grew up, and am now sitting in one of the most unique cultures the world has ever known. Midwest America will never look ordinary or boring to me again, it provides something that no other place in the world can offer. It has it’s share of problems, like anywhere else, but it is unique, and I think this is important for me to remember.

So will I do another bicycle trip? I hope so. I genuinely feel it is the most intimate way to travel and provides you with opportunity to not only test your own limitations but see and experience parts of the world that no other form of transportation can offer.

I hope to continue updating and working on this website, adding blogs when I think fitting and now that I am home with reliable access to a computer I will be adding many more photos and videos that I was unable to add on the road.

I wish the best for the others biking and hope that they get as far as their interest in the trip carries them, be that India, Europe, or beyond.


Siestas in Lao & Cambodia

Monday, February 11th, 2008

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Since crossing the Lao-Vietnam border on Jan 19, the drastic change in climate has forced us to change our daily routine.  In China and Vietnam we would start at 8am, take a morning break around 10am for about 20min, a lunch break around 12-12:30 for about 1 hour, and try to be done biking our 70-75km by 3 or 4pm, and when we were lucky, before a late lunch at 1pm.  We liked arriving early at the day’s final destination so we would have time to explore the small city or town we were staying in, in addition to having time to talk with people and work on our individual projects (i.e. writing, photography, and video). 

Now, the mid-day sun is so intense and hot that we simply can’t bike comfortably between 11:30am and 3pm .  Moreover, as the morning heats up, doing 70km before 11:30am (or even in a whole day) would only be possible if we started biking before sunrise at 6am – something we’ve often mentioned but as of yet haven’t been motivated to actually do.  So now that we loose 3.5 hrs of daytime biking and we’re not on as tight of a schedule to make it to a friend’s wedding on the other side of China as we were the first 2 months, we’ve reduced our average daily distance to 60km (maybe 40 miles), and occasionally just 50km. 

In Lao, as soon as 11:15am or so came, we kept our eyes open for restaurants, which were small wooden structures with plenty of locals just hanging around to get out of the sun, usually located at dirt road intersections with paved Hwy 13, which we were riding on.  The best restaurants would have a raised wooden platform in the shade for guests to take naps on after eating, which has quickly become our habit.  After beginning to ride again at 3pm , we planned and still plan in Cambodia , to stop at the first “inviting” river after 5km to swim and bathe.  Lao and Cambodia are relatively dry this time of year, but we usually find some kind of stream to cool us off within 20km after lunch.  Swimming in rivers has been an added blessing in Lao and Cambodia as nearly all rivers we saw in China were too polluted to even consider swimming in.

In northern Cambodia, restaurants have given way to very few small huts selling nothing more than snack food, ramen noodles, water, sugary fruit drinks, beer, and cigarettes – so in Cambodia we’ve been hauling our own baguettes (first appearing in Vietnam thanks to the French colonial influence), sweet bananas, rice, and beans bought in larger market towns 60-140km apart from each other (Stung Treng and now Kratie) and cooking dinners while camping.

Our diet in Lao also had drastically changed since China and Vietnam .  In Lao, gone was our familiar staple of standard steamed white rice and in was sticky rice.  Sticky rice comes in a woven basket-cup and is eaten with hands instead of chopsticks, rolling it into a ball and dipping it into the accompanying vegetable (often difficult to find) or meat dishes, quite similar to Kenya’s and other African countries’ staple, ugali (made from boiled corn meal).  Also gone was the wide array of vegetable dishes we enjoyed in China , especially eggplant and pumpkin, which we had come to relish.  In their place entered small sweet bananas. 

Lao lunch

The good thing about the Lao diet of sticky rice and sweet bananas is that it is easily portable.  Since people and restaurants are sparse in Lao, we often bought our dinner’s sticky rice and bananas at lunch, giving us the freedom to stop and camp where ever we were around 5pm when the sun would be getting low.  Currently in northern Cambodia , Lao’s sticky rice seems to have disappeared so we’re back to normal white rice, though we now have to cook it ourselves when camping since there are no real restaurants outside of Stung Treng and Kratie towns.

Camping with the Sre’s

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

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The Cambodian roadside views continue to imitate a war zone. Blackened tree stumps and fallen trunks litter the wasteland that leads up to the edge of the forest. Often no crops or trees or anything else take the place of the forest. Why go to the trouble of hacking and burning? We hear some of the wood is sold to Vietnam. We speculate the burning has some religious significance. In the evenings locals often come to us and stoke our campfire, clasping their hands together and kowtowing in the Buddhist style of prayer.

In the soft afternoon light we stop at a plain hut raised several feet above the ground. Mr. Sre, a man in short blue sports shorts and a loose-fitting shirt climbs down the ladder to greet us. He bemusedly rolls a cigarette as Nakia and I, by motions and phrasebook phrases try to ask his permission to camp in his field.

He unconcernedly lights his thick stogy and speaks softly in Cambodian. As the strong smell of tobacco drifts over us, we think we’ve obtained his permission. “Thanks,”we say, being glad say something in Cambodian the pronunciation of which we are certain.

Later, as we set up camp in the field, the whole village comes to watch. A shirtless man speculates to his friend in the red-checkered head scarf as to the nature of my tent. A naked child jumps up and down excitedly as Nakia unloads her bike. The white flash of smiles illuminates the crowd. Laughter filters through the dry air.

Cambodia - family Sre's welcome

Drew takes out the instruments. To the beat of “Steal My Kisses” he raised puffs of dust from the bone dry paddy . Pete bows out a quick melody on the Er-hu, then sets it down in favor of the drum. Mr. Sre, our landlord for the night, picks it up. Everyone wants to try to play the er-hu. But he actually does play it. With fingers positioned expertly on the strings, he slides out a fast, haunting Cambodian melody. How does a Cambodian peasant know how to play the er-hu? Unfortunately, we can’t ask.

In back of Sre's - Er hu player

After the crowd has retreated in the face of our cooking preparations, and after we’ve eaten our food and sip contentedly on Pete’s birthday beer, Mr. and Mrs. Sre come back. The proceed with a blaring radio and a headlamp. They let us toy with their radio. We are amazed. None of us have controlled a radio in months. We fondle it the way villagers often do our bikes and cameras and tools.

The Sre’s communicate with us intermittently. We try the phrase-book, but it takes us only so far. Mr. Sre lights another sulfurous cigarette, Mrs. Sre asks Nakia questions that evoke peals of laughter in the asking. We assure her none of us are dating, that Nakia has no kids, that she is not married. What other kinds of questions might generate such mirth?

All the excitement generates exhaustion in us. After the Sre’s take their wailing radio back to their home on stilts, we lie down to sleep, grateful for our hosts and the fact that you don’t always need language to communicate.

Drew, Feb 11: “Sam”

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

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When we first arrived at the park info center that morning we were looking for breakfast.  We were skeptical because we knew it was a tourist area and so we expected things might be more expensive.  I asked about a bowl of noodles in broth—a typical SE Asian breakfast—and the young proprietor said they were 12,000 Kip a bowl.  He asked how many we wanted, but I told him we were used to paying 4,000 or 6,000 for noodles–I’d just have some tea.  A few moments later he approached me and said, “For you, 6000 is OK.”  I said we’d have four bowls and thanked him. 

We ended up staying the day; some of us hiked in the old growth forest of the national park and some explored the area on bikes.  The young manager, who turned out to be Sam, let us leave our luggage at his place so we could more freely bike and hike around.  I don’t think Sam was his real name – at least not the same name as my cousin Sam, but that’s what it sounded like.  At least, that’s what everyone else called him too.  Saam maybe.

Sam was very friendly and the only one speaking English at the information shelter.  His was actually the restaurant next door, but he was useful for translation, so he was often running around explaining reasons to Tourists’ questions and acting as middle-man for negotiations, as well as taking orders.  At 21 he was renting the space from the village and running food and drinks for tourists and locals with his 19-year-old wife.  This was now his fourth month in business and about the same month of marriage.  We’d been biking longer.

As a member of Kiet Ngong village in southern Laos, Sam grew up to see his home become part of Xe Pian National Protected Area.  In exchange for stricter regulations for cutting trees and hunting, the villagers were provided with a means for harnessing the cash-flow of the increasingly popular Ecotourism industry, and were allowed to use natural resources as needed for personal and village use—as long as they weren’t taken outside the park and sold for profit.  Within the boundary of the park the sign said there were tigers, but rarely if ever seen.  Several other endangered species could be found in Xe Pian, as well as some old-growth forests, which, if left unprotected, could be attractive lumber sources to fast-developing nations like

Vietnam.  Most likely the park protection had come just in time.


One of the main attractions at Sam’s place was the elephant rides.  As Peter and I  sat in the shade and sipped our Pepsis, we watched about a half dozen owners guide their elephants into position for the day’s business—some with small rods and cords, others by pressing feet behind the elephants’ ears and coaxing with a few words.  Then they waited for a tourist van.  Peter and I marveled at how deftly the elephants used their trunks to grab and lift branches as big around as a half-dollar, crunching them like celery somewhere in their floppy, unhurried mouths.

Lao - elephant at Xe Pian national park (Peter)

Sam’s father also owned an elephant.  He may have been the one wearing the Minnesota hat—Sam wasn’t clear when he pointed him out.  I wondered how a Laoatian man, resting in the shade of a 90 degree January day on his elephant, came to be wearing a Minnesota Vikings derby style hat; a funny coincidence to make the world a smaller and more familiar place.  Of course we took a picture.

Lao Xe Pian Viking

Sam’s younger brother was also there, helping with tasks around the restaurant and with the elephants.  During one of the quieter times of the afternoon, when there was no tour bus, I fished out of my bags the slingshot I’d made earlier for some friendly target competition.  Sam’s brother came over with a smile.  We set up an empty water bottle and took turns aiming our stone missiles.  I managed to hit the bottle twice with the same amount of stones it took my young friend to knock it down ten times.  Seeing that he needed a more challenging target, I found a bottle cap and hung it on a stiff blade of grass.  It didn’t take him long to send that flying with a square hit at twenty paces.  Somewhere in there I surrendered my competitive spirit for appreciation of his skill.  He was twelve, after all…


Maybe because we were just hanging out all day, we developed a connection with Sam.  He seemed genuinely interested in us, and when he saw our guitars he smiled with excitement and pointed to his own in the corner.  The situation looked promising.


I got the impression that he’d been trained on how to deal with tourists and the common questions in order to turn profit.  But with us he seemed more reluctant.  Throughout the day he asked us whether we’d be staying the night for 20,000 K per person, but we said we’d rather camp for free.  In the late afternoon, as we made ready to go he blurted that we could stay here, OK no money — just camp in the information center shelter after everyone had left, and we could use the pump to wash.  Perfect.

Lao Xe Pian info office camping

Later that night, after our tents were set up, we brought out the guitars and played music together, trading Lao and Thai songs for Blues and Euro/American songs with the occasional Japanese tune.  Sam was clearly enjoying it, as were we, and soon was requesting each person to perform a song from his or her particular region.  We went around the circle and each did a song as best we could.  Jim did “Ghost Riders” as a cowboy song from the West, Peter played Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, Yusuke did a Japanese song, Nakia did a song/chant she used to sing with her friends at school, and I cheated and played Cat Stevens.  It was a cultural musical exchange jam session, as it should be.

Lao - with Sam playing music

In the morning we ate again, after Sam’s wife returned with the day’s groceries on the handles of her motorbike, and we said our farewells.  I wished him well, and I really meant it.  He and his wife seemed happy and they had a good thing going.  As for us, we were back on the road; back toward Cambodia along the Mekong River; back toward our next surprise encounter, whatever it was going to be.

The ugly tourist

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

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Tourist is an ugly we word for us. It evokes images of pink, overweight Caucasians floating above the bony shoulders of spindly brown men wheezing above creaking rickshaws that splinter beneath the weight of exotic, unforgiving suns. These salmon spectacles look unhappy and are sweating. They only communicate with their drivers before when they bargain the price and after when they pay. This is strictly an exchange of services: you give me money, I push you up the hill.  

This is simple and just. 

 Since we’ve left China, our faraway Paradise in fatalistic retrospective tunnels of light, we’ve encountered a bonanza of tourists: small ones, big ones, tanned and sculpted backpacker couples you want to look like, middle-aged drifters disillusioned by the new globalized callousness that tourism has rained down on their precious alcoves, paranoid foreign residents that simply hang out for 13 years telling stories about murdered Japanese tourists and paid off cops,  worldly Frenchmen telling tall tales about young women doing yoga in the mountains of the Himalayas as they wave their cigarettes gracefully between middle and index finger, maneuvering the smoke like a curtain.  

Our encounters with the locals have minimized since we do not speak the language. We have taken to squeezing ourselves, limbs and instruments, into tiny wooden classrooms to play music and teach impromptu English lessons since high school teachers no longer eavesdrop on our lunch conversations, waiting to kidnap us for an afternoon visit to their schools. The small children fill in windows to see us, but they are shy, and we don’t speak their language, so perhaps we appear the same to them as other foreigners passing through their neighborhoods like specters swept away on bikes.

Or perhaps that we stopped and introduced ourselves and gave them something to listen to, songs that we love playing, some we wrote ourselves, perhaps this may show up in their childhood scrapbooks as another page, a sticker, a highlighter just light enough to become memory, which becomes fact, which begets possibility.  

Possibility possibly maybe.  

The farther away we move from China, the  more desensitized people are to foreigners. In Laos, a favorite of SE Asian tourists who describe it as Thailand 30 years ago when it was virginal, people keep to themselves. No one comes to our tables to shake our hands and invites us to drink rice wine with them. 

When we camp near paths in rice fields, people walk right through without stopping and acknowledging the rarity of our presence in their countryside crop. The walk away bargaining tactic evokes but a shrug and a chuckle that slaps us mockinglyon the back. In Cambodia, they greet us hospitably and ask us what is it we would like to buy.  We are tourists and there is no way around it.  

 We are tourists.  Like everyone else. But there is something soft-tongued and dimpled that has touched us in traveling this closely against the red earth that yawns and slumps beneath the squawking rays of a demanding sun. Something more intimate than the road out in front of us, the pepper-colored pebbles that roll out like pixels beneath our bikes, the breathing earth that in turn takes our breath as we pump pump blood through our thighs hammering down down whoosh whoosh galloping hills, beating back time, creating surface area beneath the skin of our experiences, that takes our breath away when all the climbing is done and suddenly we are at the top of a mountain with rivers and valleys beneath.

And we can feel the ticks of our hearts pounding time. 

Our time on earth is valuable. We know exactly how much energy it takes to move our bodies without the assistance of engines 70km across the earth.  We know how much time it takes to find a stone on top of a hill to view the sunset, to follow the arms of tall trees that reach into the sky so black that you can only see its teeth, blinging like gold, to find our notepad and precious pen that is so easily lost in transit and record our minds’ visions lest we forget them as the hours fill with visions of mountains and water buffaloes and encounters with locals selling snails at the market  on the dock , to follow a trail into old forests where vines are so old they become lumber themselves.  

But in these forests, in Laos and Cambodia, where furtive landmines dwell, waiting beneath dead leaves, there are too few people to till the land for rice.  Riding into

Cambodia day before yesterday, smoking trees laid on their sides in puddles of ash, stumps floated in heat waves, but there were no signs of animal grazing or slash and burn. 

That night, some of our neighbors tiptoed up to our campsite and restacked our campfire with twigs and branches, reviving it into something godlike. They pointed at the flames and put together their palms, trying to convey to us that we should be thankful for something. We were told by other biking tourists that camping in the dark angers the spirits. 

Something soft-tongued and dimpled has touched us. We move like ghosts. Sleeping in the woods, we leave behind fruit peels, but take our manmade plastics and our tissues with us. We never stay long enough to leave an impression on the earth. Our footsteps erase. Like our breath. Life is elusive. 

But slowness is our mantra. Biking makes us move slowly, see things slowly, village by village, kilometer by kilometer of bamboo forest and red dirt, hut by hut of hyperactive children hollering their “hello’s” and “sabaidee’s” as they run out to the road panting, take in little girls herding water buffaloes across the smooth roads and into the plowed fields. We camp between rest days, awakened by crowing cocks and cow bells that begin their slow daily move to nibble on the fields.  

 Traveling by bike has taken much of the dazzle out of organized travel for us. When we finally get to a guesthouse on a rest day, we are skeptical of instant boat trips to see “Dolphin on the Mekong” and treks to see tigers in the National Parks, the bungalow stays on the 4000 islands where you can bike around and see waterfalls.   

Last week, we sat a lodge in a small village in Laos watching van loads of khaki panted middle aged tourist climb onto the backs of elephants to be taken into the mountains. More interested in sipping coffee and jamming in a music session with the manager, the spectacle seemed more interesting to us than the actual act. The clumsy interaction of European tourists climbing down from air conditioned buses to be led by skinny men in Minnesota sun caps into wild jungles that pull and scratch you if you make the slightest deviation from the path. 

 The amazing waterfalls and the villagers bathing in the rivers that appear on posters at backpacker hostels are apart of our daily experience on bike. And they usually for free.All but the museums and the cultural heritage sights like Ankor Wat are accessible to us. And if we were to pay money for a tour set up for the benefit of antsy tourists with schedules and tender bellies, we might be let down.   We have all the time in the world on bike because we have learnt to appreciate the place we are at when we are there. We cannot rush anywhere on bike. It is impossible without engines. We feel our muscles. We cannot fall asleep, wake up, and suddenly be at our destination. Our destination is here now, on our bikes wherever we may be at lunch, waiting for a situation, an invitation into someone’s conversation, waiting on the whim of strangers.

We are present and reliant on our surroundings and the people around us to give us a good price on food, allow us to camp in their fields, and talk to us when we ourselves are unused to the customs of the place.  We must be patient in the market in order to play the cultural game of bargaining.

We could do things quickly: pay the asking price and walk away without any further communication, the way we do in the West, light, efficient unaffected transactions. Exchange of services: I give you money, you make me a fruit shake. We expect success to come in speedy packages. We want what we want when we want it. Now is more preferable than later.

 A Norwegian couple I met in Pakse dished out money to a beggar buzzing around their table at breakfast. Easy, cool. Frank. As if there is simply no other thing to do. We are foreigners. The income gap is inexorably large. We can afford to give to these poor people in these poor countries. I shuddered at the sight. Something seemed icky about it, self-righteous, as if it is too easy to make oneself feel justified and charitable by giving out a few notes in a currency that means little to a traveler with powerful euros to burn. 

  I am not quite sure if I myself have an alternative response to the Third World beggar, but something like an exchange of services say to clean shoes for the dollar one wants, or to share some of your food  or to try to communicate to people hoping to get at what it is they need, a meal or clothes, might handle the issue more delicately.  Perhaps even this idea of money for service is too Western in thought, perhaps giving to the poor is like giving alms in society. But   to know this takes slowness.  Thinking of better solutions takes brooding time. Takes interaction, something that Westerners accustomed to the convenience of monetary and service transactions don’t have much time for especially when we have scheduled trains and organized tours. 

So we are tourists, as much as we hate the word and the images of fly swatting, barbaric giants. On the ground, underneath the layer of tall tales and fantasies and casual conversations in hostel lobbies, the best we, or any other traveler can do is decide what kind of tourist we want to be. The same way one decides what kind of citizen he or she wants to be, we  must decide what kind of tourist we want to be, what we will do with our freedom to take part in a free society. 

Cycling has cost us the giddiness of discovering new ways of life on organized day treks and elephant jungle rides, we have gained the intimacy of spontaneity, the deep connection to the weather, the dependence on the hospitality of the people, the erratic pulse of the terrain that rises unforgivingly up 400km stretches or undulates annoyingly like light rain in winter that drills the cold into your bones like a machine gun, instead of just gushing once and stopping.

 We give ourselves up completely to the rhythms of the earth and the whims of the people. Waving dollar bills will get you nowhere fast. Building relationships whether through learning the language or making gestures or playing music has replaced the power of the almighty dollar, which we have very little of in the first place.  

We crawl off the main arteries of the countries, slipping into the backstreets, sneaking close up views of water buffaloes with birds on their backs, taking brakes in the coolness of caves, waiting for a situation, as Drew would say, to come.

Jim Durfey’s Second Enterprise Article

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

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No, not the intergalactic spaceship, but rather the newspaper in Livingston, my hometown.  They’ve agreed to publish articles I write about the trip and I post them here so the blog readers get them as well.

(Published in The Livingston Enterprise Jan. 31, 2008)

A fever friends and a feast while biking throughVietnam

        EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Livingston resident Jim Durfey, a 2000 Park High School graduate, has been bicycling through Asia and Europe with a group of friends. Below is another update on their journey. The Enterprise is periodically posting his accounts of the trek.

By Jim Durfey
For The Enterprise

In the Vietnamese town of Thai Hoa, I awoke to a feverish heat. Sweat soaked my shirt and my skin burned. As I contemplated the prospect of a midnight visit to a hospital in the countryside of a developing nation, I took my temperature. Forty degrees Celsius: I knew it was above normal, but I don’t know the Celsius system to know just how high the fever was.
        A simple equation I used often at Park High converts Celsius to Fahrenheit. I tried to do the math. I even wrote it down, but my mind muddled the figures. Eventually, I decided to simply try to cool myself off. So long as I was conscIOUS and had friends close by, my situation wouldn’t be too dangerous.

‘Now we are all friends’
When my bike group arrived in Vietnam, we were immediately faced with many challenges. Aside from a few mispronounced phrases, we couldn’t speak Vietnamese. In China we knew prices for rooms and food. In Vietnam we were clueless. We also didn’t know what the Vietnamese would think of us. The Chinese unfailingly love foreigners, especially Americans. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, on the other hand, have been normalized for only a dozen years or so, and it was not so long ago we were at war with each other.
On our first night in Vietnam, we rented out the attic of a couple in their early 60s. Pictures of our male host decked the living room walls. Here he stood, chest gleaming with medals, shaking hands with an officer. There he stood in the battle dress uniform of the North Vietnamese Army. Most certainly, he had been in the army while the war ravaged his country. Yet he sat with Americans in his home, cordially serving us the strong tea he probably missed on the battle front.
Mr. Quan, a quiet young man who helped us find our attic that night, sat with us and drank tea. We discussed his job in a city far away, his effort to teach himself English, and his girlfriend. He made a passing reference to Vietnam’s history of conflict with France and the United States. He quickly laughed nervously, saying, “But it is no problem, now we are all friends. We don’t care so much about the past.” It seemed the Vietnamese didn’t want to dwell on the war any more than Americans did.
I wanted to focus only on accomplishing daily tasks. Ordering food, finding the bathroom, and getting directions at first all required creative gestures and much mental exertion. However, more difficult problems yield more fulfilling results, or sometimes more delicious ones. After a couple of days, I knew the price of a bowl of pho, or rice noodles, and how to flavor them with fresh mint and a squirt of lemon.
A friendly feast
Though still communist by name, the Vietnamese government began a policy of economic liberalization in the mid-80s. The following flurry of foreign investment and development significantly raised the Vietnamese standard of living. New houses, narrow but deep and tall with distinctly bright colors crop up everywhere. Motorbikes and scooters crowd the roads. Young Vietnamese clothe themselves stylishly in Western fashions. The development has also affected hostel standards and prices.
Eager to extend the financial life of our trip, we chose to camp more often. One afternoon we searched for a site in dreary weather under clouds that promised rain. A jovial woman in a raincoat rode up to us on her motorbike. We explained we were looking for a campsite. She shook her head and feigned a shiver. It’s too cold to camp, she seemed to be saying.

        As an alternative, she brought us to her house. We sat inside one of the cozy wooden buildings that composed her residence while she served us tea. Soon she began preparing a meal. I wound up in a boat with her husband, who trolled around his fish pond, laying nets and harvesting fish.
The Ngugom’s, as we learned the family was called, served us a feast of fish, soup, vegetables and rice. We ate sitting on the floor with them and their two children, communicating without language and laughing at our different eating styles. That night they put us up, and the next morning refused to take the money we offered.
I wondered afterwards how many Americans would do the same for foreign travelers in the U.S. Then I remembered the summer a couple dozen Latvians descended on Livingston. After the jobs they were promised fell through, the community came together to help them find host families and work. Perhaps the most significant differences between Vietnam and the U.S. are not the most important.
On the road again
With the help of a damp rag, I found that my fever came down nicely. I was out of danger. Due to other symptoms, I couldn’t begin biking immediately. About those other symptoms - well, let’s just say my toilet paper consumption increased by several hundred percent. Thankfully, I was back on the road and back to normal (in the most important sense of the word) after a short recovery period.
Biking or traveling isn’t always easy. Things break, people fall ill, and sometimes one simply cannot communicate. However, I find it’s always easier to fall into an outhouse than a rut. Every day I see the sun rise on a different horizon. The scenery, people and food all change. Perhaps the challenges make me tougher, but the sense of achievement suffices for satisfaction. If the accomplishment also results in successfully ordering some food or a smile, I’ll consider it icing on the cake.