Saturday, 16 December 2017

Chasing Waterfalls in Laos

Sabaidee (meaning greetings to your heart) from Laos!

Luang Prabang wasn’t exactly at the top of my travel list – until I started planning this trip, I had never heard of it. But I figured since I’d be so close to Laos in Vietnam and Cambodia, I might as well work it into the itinerary. While Luang Prabang may not have the name recognition of other cities in the region, it is definitely worth a visit. Here are my favorite things about it:

The town itself
European cafes and bakeries line the streets, and the architecture is a wonderful combination of French and Laotian, making it easy to see why the entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site. Dotted throughout are gorgeous Buddhist temples, gilded in gold with intricate artistic details. My hotel room keychain was even a local coin dated 1900 – about the size of a silver dollar. The entire town feels like you’ve gone back in time to colonial French Indochina (if you ignore the multitude of hammer and sickle flags flying on the main street. Fun fact: did you know that Laos is one of 5 remaining socialist countries?). The town sits nestled in a curve of the Mekong River, and is surrounded by the river on both sides so that it almost feels like a peninsula. The river views are unsurprisingly gorgeous and undeveloped.
River views of the Mekong

Vintage present day main street
The Kuang Si waterfalls
Outside of town – about a 45 minute tuk tuk ride away – are the Kuang Si waterfalls, which are without a doubt the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The water is naturally an icy blue, and the sunlight coming through the jungle makes it sparkle. There is one main waterfall, but the real treat are a series of smaller waterfalls that empty into large pools in which you can swim. The area is clearly marked with where is safe to swim and where should be avoided. Despite the muggy weather, the water was pretty cold – to the point where a Polish woman upon entering just started screaming expletives until her body settled into the temperature (much to the amusement of the rest of us who were already in the pool and had shared a similar reaction). I would come back to Laos just to see these waterfalls again.
No swimming in this pool, unfortunately

Jungle paradise
The moon bears
Adjacent to the waterfalls is a moon bear conservancy facility, which you can visit and see the bears. Moon bears are small (for bears) – the second smallest bear species in the world (larger only than sun bears, and no, koalas aren’t actually bears). On the extinction scale, they’re listed as vulnerable, since they are poached for various body parts, or trapped and kept in horrible conditions at a farm that harvests their bile for use  in traditional medicine. These particular bears have all been rescued and don’t have the skills to live in the wild – one of them even has only 3 legs. They seem to have a pretty nice life here though – with plenty of companionship, treats, and toys. What made this such a cool experience to see is how active the bears were! Normally if you’re observing an animal in captivity, you’re lucky if they move around at all – usually they just sit there. But these bears were downright feisty – climbing all over the trees and the structures in their enclosures, looking for food, playing with each other, sniffing, eating, drinking, scratching. I stood there and watched them for close to an hour.
Unsurprising that the three legged one was my favorite
The temples
I love how different architectures for Buddhist temples have evolved around the world and over time, so each country has its own twist on what a temple should look like. Luang Prabang has one temple in particular that was stunning – Vat Xieng Thong, which apparently translates to Temple of the Golden City and served as the place for the coronation of Laotian kings back in the day. It’s a temple complex, with multiple buildings and stupas in the same area, with many of them are decorated with cut colored glass or semi-precious stones that makes everything sparkle, arranged in mosiacs depicting scenes from the sixteenth century. One of the buildings – the royal funerary carriage house - houses the most badass boat I think I’ve ever seen, which was the funeral barge for the monarchs of Laos, replete with multiple dragons with bared fangs at the bow.
Funerary barge bow
Royal funerary carriage house
Bejeweled temple mosiacs
Interior buddhas
The night market
Every night, the main street in town is closed off, and vendors set up tents with various local street food, handicrafts and souvenirs. I loved that so many of the goods being sold were clearly locally made rather than mass manufactured in China (though there were some of those things too). It’s also great how they do this every night of the year – not just on weekends. I spent all three of my nights in town wandering around the market, having a different fresh fruit smoothie (pineapple, ginger, lemon & mint was my favorite) and buying Christmas gifts for family and friends.  As for street food, the coconut “pancakes” (more like dough balls) are a favorite.

The massages
This isn’t specific to Luang Prabang – you can get cheap massages in any city throughout the region. In fact, I’ve treated myself to a massage almost every day of this trip. What I liked about the massages here, though, was that I didn’t see the evidence of the sex tourism industry that permeates the massage spas in Vietnam and Cambodia. A massage appeared to just be a massage. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that sex tourism doesn’t exist here, but it’s certainly less “in your face” than in those other places, where massages are advertised as $1 (where do the profits come from exactly?), and the women stand on the street whispering “I love you” and offering happy endings to any foreign-looking man who walks by.  I did my best to avoid these establishments and find (relatively) pricier, nicer places to patronize – it’s not that I’m concerned about being solicited, but I’d rather give my money to people who don’t offer those services rather than take advantage of the dirt cheap prices that their side line of work enables. Still, one of my massages in Cambodia ended with the woman kneeling between my legs, facing me and massaging my uppermost thighs for a good 3-5 minutes. I can only imagine that she doesn’t vary the sequence of her massage based on the gender of the recipient.

The butterflies
Next to the waterfalls is a butterfly park with thousands of local butterflies housed in an enclosure filled with flowers. Founded by some transplants from the Netherlands, they use the profits from tourist visits to fund programs for local schoolchildren – bring them to the park and teach them about biology, environmental conservation, and how to care for nature. In one corner of the butterfly enclosure, they have a shallow pond with chairs placed in the middle. The fish in the pond are very fond of eating indiscriminate organic matter, so if you sit on the chair and put your feet in the pond, the fish will nibble on the dead skin on your feet! I stayed in there for probably 10 minutes and couldn’t stop giggling – the nibbles tickled!

The foodThe French influence on food is very present here – even more so than in Vietnam. Croissants are everywhere. For lunch on my day in LP, I had a great local twist on French cuisine – buffalo fondue.  They brought over a red hot bucket of coals, placed a circular metal plate on top that was raised in the center and depressed around the rim, and poured soup broth into the dip in the rim. They gave me a piece of fat to place on top of the hump in the middle, which ran down and lubricated the metal below it. They also gave me a basket of ingredients for soup – glass noodles, carrots, mushrooms, leafy green herbs, green onions, cauliflower, tomatoes, and fresh garlic and chilis to season it. The idea for the fondue was that I would grill the meat on the metal hub in the middle, then put the soup ingredients on the side to cook and enjoy at my leisure. Combine that with a great view of the Mekong River, and it was one of my favorite meals of the trip so far.
Buffalo fondue
The hotel
This is the only city on my trip that doesn’t have an SPG property, so I was forced to look elsewhere for lodging. I stayed at a wonderful boutique hotel called Villa Maly and would recommend it for anyone who’s traveling to the region. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful – upon arrival, a very nice French woman (possibly the owner?) walked me through a map of the town and explained my options for common activities or day trips. The building is old – I’m guessing it’s from the colonial era, but has been well cared for.  It’s within walking distance from the main shopping area and night market, though far enough away to be quiet (except for the occasionally ambitious rooster who needs his voice to be heard). The beds were European style, but included mosquito nets, which I very much appreciated. I will admit I had a vivid dream my second night that I was being chased and almost captured by a man with a human-sized butterfly net, and awoke to find I had thrown my pillow across the room in the “struggle” with the mosquito net that must have prompted the dream (not to mention my visit to the butterfly park). Anyway, crazy dreams aside, the hotel was lovely.
Villa Maly Boutique Hotel

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Wat's Up, Angkor?

Many don’t realize that Angkor Wat is more than just a single temple in Cambodia (and apparently the largest religious monument in the world!). While the namesake temple is probably the most famous, it’s surrounded by miles of land containing many many more temples that make up the Angkor complex. The entire area was built up by various rulers of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to the 13th century. The temples served important religious purposes but were also political in the sense that the presence of such a large complex added to the grandeur of the area as being the capital of the empire. 

If I have only one recommendation to make about Angkor Wat, it’s that you should go see it at sunrise. Yes, getting up before 5 am is never pleasant, but in this case, it’s worth it. The only downside is that you have to deal with other tired tourists who get (more than) a little cranky if you are perceived as encroaching on the turf they staked out from which to view the sunrise. You’d think that viewing such a beautiful spectacle in such a peaceful place would mean everyone would chill out a bit, but apparently not. Oh well. 
Angkor Wat at sunrise
The rest of the temples of Angkor Wat may not be as famous as the namesake, but they are all beautiful and interesting. I spent close to 3 full days exploring the complex and still feel like there was plenty more to see. Some of my favorites were: 

1. Bayon Temple
At the center of Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, this temple is distinctive for its many towers (~54 of them), each with 4 faces of the Buddha aligned in the cardinal directions. According to my tour guide, the 4 faces represent compassion, equality, sympathy, and charity. The temple was built by king Jayavarman VII, who was responsible for or contributed to an enormous amount of the temples built in the complex. He was Buddhist, so the temple was originally built to honor Buddha, but a later king was Hindu and converted all of the Buddha statues to statues of Shiva or Vishnu. Later Buddhist kings didn’t change them back, so you can still see the Long ears of Buddha and the third eye of Hindu gods on the same stone. The name of the temple comes from a mispronunciation of the banyan tree, under which Buddha reached enlightenment. 
Banyon Temple

Relief carvings at Banyon Temple - showing troops marching off to war with the Mongols
2. Ta Prohm
Otherwise known as the “tomb raider temple” because of the scenes filmed here for the 2003 movie, this temple inspires even the dullest imagination. Ancient trees and vines are interspersed throughout the ruins, making it seem like the temple grew from the jungle itself. 
Ta Prohm 
3. Banteay Srei
One of the cool things about the temples around Angkor Wat is the mixture between Hinduism and Buddhism. This particular temple was built in the 10th century to honor Shiva, and its red sandstone exterior shows a surprising amount of detail in the carvings, given how old they are. It's farther away than most of the other temples - about 45 minutes away from Angkor Wat by tuk tuk - which means I got to see some beautiful Cambodian countryside.  They've also developed the site around the temple to include some other things - a local musical group, shopping, and an incredibly scenic boat ride with the option for fishing.
Banteay Srei

Pop quiz: Cambodian countryside or Microsoft Windows stock background photo?

Just think of me flapping in the breeze..

Side note: I started the day wearing these new comfy pants that I bought at a market the day before - they're basically these light cotton pajama pants with an elastic waist, elastic ankles, and vibrant colorful prints. All was well...until I maneuvered myself onto the boat, and heard a loud 'RIPPPP.'  Turns out the seams in the $3 pants weren't built for a lot of movement, so the entire crotch ripped, leaving my ass hanging out for all to see. So when you look at the photos from that halcyon boat ride, I hope you can share a giggle with me that those were taken amidst an inner monologue that was freaking out about how on earth I was going to exit the boat gracefully (note: I didn't). In that moment, I was extremely grateful that 1) I always carry a scarf in my bag when I travel, and 2) the aforementioned shops next to the temple carried an abundance of unripped $3 pants.

As for Siem Reap, it was clearly a city that runs on tourism. The night market area was a lot of fun to explore and reminded me a bit of Thailand. It even had the weird critters roasted on sticks for tourists' consumption. I decided I would be adventurous and try something new, so I ate snake (!!), but decided I'd rather eat one that was prepared by an actual restaurant rather than sold on a stick on the street. The snake wasn't bad, but it also didn't have a lot of flavor itself - it just absorbed the flavor of the sauce. The unpleasant thing about eating snake was that they didn't (perhaps couldn't?) remove the spine, so you had to pick around vertebrae to get the meat, and the meat was scarce nonetheless.  We ran into another group of Germans later that evening who bought and ate one each of the critters on sticks - apparently the crickets were the tastiest. Probably the only competition a cricket will win against a scorpion, right?
Sauteed sssssssssssssnake

Spiders and scorpions and snakes, oh my

Monday, 11 December 2017

The Arrogance of Victory

Ho Chi Minh City's tourism activities focus around the Vietnam War and not much else. I remember studying the causes and progression of the war in high school and during my political science studies in undergrad, so was excited to be on the ground and see with my own eyes the current day perspective and remaining artifacts of such a formative conflict for our country and theirs.

First, I signed up for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. I opted to take a speedboat there on the river rather than a bus on the roads since the hotel concierge assured me it was worth the extra cost. The cruise was indeed quite scenic - it took ~90 minutes for us to get from downtown HCMC to the tunnels, and in that span of time the banks of the river went from densely populated industrial sites and city dwellings to lush greenery and the occasional home made of tin sitting on stilts. We passed by plenty of other boats - some carrying tourists like us, other larger ones carrying grains or metals piled high on top of their long flat hulls, and small fishing boats carrying one or two men each, sometimes with a motor, sometimes not, and often with a rope strung across the bow with laundry hanging to dry.   Indeed the concierge was right - the boat trip is the way to go.
View from the boat
The Cu Chi tunnels are one part of a sprawling network of underground tunnels dug by the Vietcong during the war, many of with precede the American war and were built during the war with the French in the 1940's. The tunnels were a way to hide from the GI soldiers, but they were so much more than that too. There were underground kitchens, medical facilities, and space for munitions production. The tunnels were also used as a way to ambush or escape pursuit from the Americans in the middle of a firefight - with tiny openings only known to the Vietcong that they could slip into a disappear.  Some other tunnels were built as decoys to trap US soldiers, or booby trapped to kill them. The entire woods system had been booby trapped, actually.

Demonstration of the small, hidden tunnels

Diagram of a typical tunnel system
I'm not sure what I had been expecting from the tunnel tour - something about the ingenuity of engineering and the resilience of the Vietnamese people, but the experience was much more upsetting than I had anticipated. First, the entire area is laid out like a tourist site, but the remnants of war are clearly still present, which feels...incongruous. The landscape is littered with holes - some large, some small, from bombs that were dropped here (some are even labeled).
Crater from a bomb dropped by an American B52 plane
Secondly, while the guide's narrative did indeed center around the impressive ingenuity of the Vietnamese people during the war, it came across not as "look at how smart we are to survive and win" but instead "look at how smart we were to kill so many GIs." It's an important distinction in my mind because the latter lacks the solemnity and respect due to the people who died fighting on these grounds.

At one point in the tour, the guide showed us a fake tunnel that had been built to lure in American soldiers, with booby traps promising a slow and painful death awaiting anyone who entered, regardless of which direction you turned. The guide smiles as he explains this to us, and invites us to jump in the hole and pose for photos. 

A few minutes later, we come across a US tank that has remained in the same spot in these woods since it was destroyed by the Vietcong in 1970. The tank is riddled with bullet holes, and I try to imagine who was inside when it was destroyed, and what may have happened to them. Then I turn around and to my horror, the guide is taking a family photo of some English people, instructing them to give the thumbs up sign as he snaps away. Do they not realize that a great tragedy took place here?
American tank, in situ
Later in the tour, the guide brings us to a place where they have set up examples of all of the different kinds of booby traps that were deployed across the woods and in the tunnels. As he triggers each trap with a bamboo pole, he squeaks in glee and says things like "whoops - that one would really hurt!" After that, he brings us to a shooting range within the grounds where you can pay to shoot various machine guns and rifles at a ridiculous mark-up. No, thank you, but my countrymen shot enough bullets here - I don't need to pay tourist prices to simulate the adrenaline rush for myself.
A long line of different deadly jungle traps
I was thankful to see that the other Americans on the tour weren't engaging with the guide on these activities either, and none of them posed for the cheesy photos at the upsetting points of the tour. In chatting with a few of them on the boat ride back to HCMC, I found out that they found it similarly surreal and upsetting.  At least I wasn't alone in my reaction.

I'm sure that at various points in American history - probably even today - we have institutionalized a tone-deaf, callous narratives about various wars that don't properly honor the sacrifices of the people who fought on the other side. History is written by the winners of conflicts, after all, and it's rare that America has found itself to not be the one holding the pen. How much of my reaction is fueled by unfamiliarity? Am I being a sore loser? 

I don't think so, despite the complicated nature of the war's causes, political motivations, and execution. While I wasn't alive at any point during the war in Vietnam, I've grown up in a world shaped by it. The war looms large even to this day in the minds of veterans, our military, our government, and the immigrant and refugee populations who remain in our cities. The political scientist in me understands at a high level why we engaged in conflict here, but I doubt many people would disagree that a lot seems to have gone wrong in the process. 

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City took a similarly myopic view on the war. Unlike the tunnels which highlighted the "winning" strategies of the VC, this museum focused on the victimization of the Vietnamese people by American forces. Exhibits had titles like "Historical Truths" "Agent Orange Effects" and "War Crimes." The courtyard had a "tiger cage" on display, where Vietnamese soldiers were apparently kept in confinement as punishment. I could have sworn that I had learned in high school that American POWs were forced to spend time in these too. Photos displayed horrible birth defects caused by exposure to Agent Orange, and a handicapped man was sitting at the entrance to the exhibit like a living reminder, begging for money. Other exhibits named the specific American officers who led attacks on civilians. The wall would display their military portraits side by side with the faces of the civilians killed in the attack as a way of permanently shaming these officers or holding them accountable. I have no idea if these names and accounts have been independently substantiated, but the effect is sobering regardless.
Tiger cages
One of many exhibit captions with a similar tone

One interesting exhibit focused on the American anti-war movement. The overall message was something to the effect of "even people in your own country agree that you were a war-mongering, imperialistic force who attacked us unjustly." It showed photos of American men burning their draft cards, and called people like Roger LaPorte and others heroes for self-immolating in protest of the war. The entire exhibit reeked of self-satisfaction and failed to take into account the complexity and nuance behind the anti-war movement. It also ironically failed to acknowledge the beauty of the American system - that our citizens can freely express their views on a war their government is fighting. There's no way that the northern Vietnamese citizens could have enjoyed anything close to the freedom of speech that Americans did and do today. Nonetheless, I can only imagine how powerful these images of protest were to the Vietcong during the war itself.

Even to this day, the Vietnamese don't have the rights that I as an American take for granted.  I encountered one example of this during my day trip to Halong Bay outside Hanoi. I had paid a higher price (about double) to be placed in a small group tour, which the tour company defined as 12 people or fewer. The tour itself turned out be 17 people - I'm guessing that the tour company didn't have enough bookings to fill up the "small group" tour, and they didn't want to pay for an additional boat for just me so they could satisfy their promise to me, so they just put me with a slightly larger group (aka everyone who had booked that day) and hoped that I wouldn't notice. By the end of the day, I had figured out that everyone else on the tour had paid the lower price, and I felt like it was only fair that I email the tour company and ask them to refund the difference between the lower price and the price that I paid, since I didn't actually get what was promised. I tell the tour guide of my plan as I'm getting off the bus, and he pulls me aside - very concerned.  He tells me that he is a freelance tour guide, and if anyone complains about anything, this tour company will stop hiring him. I assure him I will make it clear that he did a great job, and I'm just frustrated about the size of the group, which was clearly the fault of the company, not him. He tells me that the company is run by "important people" and that they don't care what the cause for complaint was, or who was at fault - that they will always hold the tour guide accountable. He repeated several times "Things are different here than where you come from - you have to understand they don't listen to reason." He told me his total salary for the day had been $20, and he begged for me to take his salary instead of asking for a refund, so that he could at least retain the right to future jobs with this tour company. Of course I didn't take his salary, and I assured him that I wouldn't complain if it meant him losing his job.  We parted with him telling me he applies for a US lottery green card every year, and hopes one year he will actually win. The whole interaction left me feeling frustrated and sad for him, and served as a good reminder to me that I need to be more flexible with my expectations about things like customer service when I'm traveling in other countries.

As another reminder of Vietnam's socialist past and present, I visited Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi. Fun fact: according to my tour guide, Ho Chi Minh didn't actually want to be embalmed but specifically requested that he be cremated. After his death, the Soviet Union made a casual suggestion (read: instruction) to the Vietnamese government that it might be good for worker morale to have a mausoleum to visit, and since they're so adept at embalming (read: Lenin), they'd be happy to do the honors. So Ho Chi Minh is embalmed - against his wishes - and his body makes an annual trip to Russia even to this day from September 5 to December 5 for maintenance.
It's surprisingly difficult to find an appropriate facial expression for a selfie in front of a socialist dictator's mausoleum
All in all, I would highly recommend Vietnam as a place for Americans to visit. It's full of amazing food, gorgeous scenery, and friendly people. But it's also full of relatively recent and sometimes painful reminders of the role America plays in shaping world politics, and illustrates the hefty price that we pay for our freedoms. To me, these reminders only enriched my visit further, despite surprising and upsetting me along the way. I'd prefer to see history for what it really was, rather than what we'd like it to be, and seeing the other side of the story is necessary to gain that kind of perspective.

Halong Bay views

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Ups and Downs of Globalization

I'm in Vietnam! My bag, on the other hand, is not.  So while I've spent today - Monday - exploring Ho Chi Minh City, I'm doing so in the same trusty leggings and t-shirt that I was wearing Saturday morning when I got dressed to go to O'Hare. Oh well - such is life. As my sister lovingly pointed out over text today, one benefit to traveling alone is that there isn't anyone to tell you how bad you smell. 

The Flights:
There's nothing like a 14-hour flight to make you lose faith in humanity's ability to pee accurately into a toilet. Aside from the stick floor situation on the flight thankfully I had everything else I needed to get through a long haul trip: an aisle seat, a decent movie selection, about a gallon of potable water, and my natural born ability to sleep in most circumstances.

I'm still unclear as to the rationale behind why you have to unplug your personally owned headphones from their entertainment system as part of preparation for landing, though the entertainment system is free to continue playing the movie for you.  You can still hear the announcements because the movie pauses for those. Maybe they're worried you're going to trip over the headphones if you had to evacuate? Hm. Either way, the choice that China Eastern Airlines made to not deliver my baggage because "there was too much luggage for the flight" is the most frustrating part of the entire experience - everything else is about par for the course.

The Layover:
This was my first time flying through Shanghai, and I admit I had a moment of "uh oh was I supposed to get a transfer visa" panic when it appeared that the directions for transfers were the same as people heading through immigration (turns out I was fine). 

Two of my items were pulled from my bag during the security scan - nail scissors from my makeup bag and my small Deloitte pocket USB charger. Apparently they won't let a lithium battery on the plane unless it is clearly market with its power capacity, and since this one was privately branded, it didn't make the cut. Ironically, the scissors did.

For those who are interested, you can purchase what appear to be recently deceased crabs from a glass case in the Shanghai airport. I'm still unclear on which countries have customs policies that would allow you to bring them with you, so maybe they're intended to be a mid-flight snack?

The Shopping:
I wasn't able to get to sleep until ~5 am, so I slept in as much as possible, then signed up for an afternoon tour.  I had just enough time before the pick-up to grab a coffee and then walk to the nearest lingerie store to buy some fresh underwear.  I google "lingerie store," see that one is 0.2 miles away and walk there. The building is a skyscraper with a few chain restaurants in the first level, so I look at the directory for a minute or so, probably looking confused about where to go. The security guard approaches me and asks if I need help, so I show her the name of the store I'm looking for on my phone. This confuses her a bit, so she brings over another security guard. Trying to be helpful, I say "shopping" and point to the name of the store again. This helps it "click" for them, so they then bring me to the security desk and ask me to sign in and get a visitor's badge, all the while giggling. I'm assuming that maybe lingerie is taboo, or perhaps the store I've selected carries a more risque type of product, but I remain hopeful I can find something that will suit my needs, since I don't have time to go to another store.

Fast forward to me being buzzed up to the 21st floor, where I exit and find myself in what appears to be the headquarters of a lingerie company, apologizing to the receptionist for wasting her time. Keep in mind I haven't seen a hairbrush or a fresh change of clothes in about 36 hours. Oh Google Maps, you rarely fail me, but when you do, at least it's entertaining.

A later shopping excursion in the afternoon to finally get a change of underwear reinforced my support of globalization, as I was able to find the same brands I buy back home. The Vietnamese people at the mall oddly didn't seem to be buying anything, but instead had a fascination with taking selfies in front of the Christmas decorations. It's been a while since I've been to a mall in the US, so perhaps this isn't just a local phenomenon?

The Food:
Vietnamese food in the US is usually represented by some combination of pho (for all of you wondering - it's pronounced "fuh") and bahn mi. As my first day here has confirmed, and my travels to other regions of the world have similarly illustrated, the American version of foreign foods are usually a watered down, selective perspective on the real thing. It's like we play culinary horseshoes where the stake in the ground is whatever appeals to the broadest possible American palette. 

We're not alone in this transgression - my instructor at my Vietnamese cooking class today told me that in her previous job at a local restaurant branded as a Canadian steakhouse (that's a thing?!), they would prepare the steaks in a marinade comprised of Vietnamese spices rather than traditional North American ingredients (presumably butter and cheese).

Anyway, the food here is wonderful! Between a giant hybrid Eastern/Western hotel buffet breakfast, lunch served as a family style smorgasbord shared with my tour-mates, and a private Vietnamese cooking class - I haven't had the same dish twice, and all of them have been amazing. What's more - none of them have been pho or banh mi.

Breakfast seemed to be catered to more Chinese tastes than Vietnamese, though they did have a custom noodle station (similar to an omlette station), along with dim sum, fried glass noodles, wontons, and more. I couldn't name the dishes I had during lunch, but they were some sort of fried fish, stir fried vegetables, a peanut chicken dish, some chicken wrapped around vegetables and served on top of a sweet sesame rice cake, and veggie spring rolls.

Dinner was a lot of fun - my instructor learned everything she knows about Vietnamese cooking from her mother, and was quick to keep me in line when I didn't follow her instructions to the tee. I learned that southern Vietnam (where I am now) tends to use more sugar in their cooking, the center of the country tends toward spicier, chili-based dishes, and the northern part of the country cooks things with more salty flavors. Tonight I learned how to cook three different dishes - a morning glory salad, crab/chicken/pork/sweet potato/mushroom spring rolls, and a caramelized pork in a clay pot. Everything was absolutely delicious, and I'm now trying to figure out which ingredients I need to bring home with me to recreate it accurately. Any suggestions on where I can buy morning glory (a vegetable) in Chicago would be much appreciated.

Spring rolls fresh out of the fryer

Salad in all its (morning) glory

The finished product

Update: My bag arrived early Tuesday morning, just in time for me to head to the airport to fly to Cambodia. 

Second post to come shortly about what I did during my stinky day in Ho Chi Minh City

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A history lesson from Latvia

I spent the last 3 days in the capital city of Latvia - Riga, and have enjoyed my time so much here that I thought it was a good excuse to start blogging again!

Aside from booking flights and hotels, I had done somewhere between f**k all and jack sh**'s worth of research prior to this trip, figuring I could just wing it.  And wing it, I did.  The past few days have been filled with some much needed R&R, some aimless wandering around the city, and a greatest hits tour of the city's tourist highlights.  Let me share with you some of the things I've learned during my trip to Riga (in list form, because apparently that's the only way my brain can communicate information now that I'm a consultant again):

First, before I get to the list, here's a history lesson: the Baltics have a fascinating mix of cultural history, never having been a true superpower themselves, but rather serving as a battleground and eventual prize to numerous empires who have held interests in the region.  Everyone from the Swedes, Russians (obviously), Germans, and even the Polish-Lithuanians have ruled over these lands (have to admit I didn't realize that they were ever a superpower - interesting, right?).  I visited the Museum of War yesterday, and the whole section of the museum dedicated to the 9th - 16th century read like a multi-player game of ping pong, with consolidation of various regions happening over time. The greatest periods of stability (and influence) in modern-day Latvia came from the German teutonic knights in the 12th-16th centuries, then the Polish-Lithuanians and Swedes took turns for a couple hundred years in the region they named Livonia, then finally the Russians kicked everyone else out with a "winner take all" attitude in a conflict called The Great Northern War.  If the *Russians* are calling something a Great Northern War, you better believe it was big, bloody, and bitingly cold. 

Latvia continued as part of the Russian Empire from the early 18th century until World War I, when the borders of Europe once again became suggestions rather than rules, and everybody went crazy with land grabbing.  On top of that, you had the collapse of the Russian monarchy with the Bolshevik revolution, plus the "red terror" that followed to cement the ideological revolution, and then the invading Germany army knocking on Latvia's door and the retaliatory "white terror" that they brought with them.  Interestingly enough, not perhaps not surprisingly, it was around this timee time that the Latvians decided they had had enough of being ruled by others, and that it was time to declare their independence.  So not only did they have to worry about participating in the greatest conflict the world had ever known, but they had to also figure out the whole "how to be a state" thing at the same time. 

They used support from the German military to fight off the Russians, then counted on the Allies to help them beat the Germans so they could officially become a country.  This took a while to get the Russians to agree to, but in 1920 it finally happened with a pinky promise from Russia to respect their borders forever and ever and ever.  They enjoyed two decades of peace and independence before WWII came around and the Russians used that as an excuse to take back their old lands (shock! Stalin?  never!) and punish their prodigal children for leaving by murdering them, conscripting them, or deporting them to the gulags and/or Siberia.  No seriously, a bunch of women and children were just sent to Siberia to die because they weren't considered strong enough to be good workers in a gulag, but they couldn't stay in Latvia because the Russians wanted ethnic Russians to take over their properties.  My guide in the Museum of Latvian Occupation told us the story of his grandmother, who at the age of 19, was packed up and shipped off to Siberia with her step-mother because a next-door neighbor had made up a lie about their family and told the Soviets as some sort of petty retribution for a neighborly dispute.  The lie?  That their family had kept a maid during the period of independence, which makes them upper class, which means that they automatically are enemies of the workers revolution.    Latvia lost 1/3 of its population during this period to either Stalin's machinations or to people fleeing the country as refugees.

It's no wonder in that case that, when the Nazis invaded in 1942, they were greeted as liberators!  The Latvians thought that the Nazis would restore their statehood and help undo the craziness of the Stalinists.  Sadly, their enthusiasm was quickly tempered when the Nazis started doing exactly what they did everywhere else. In one shocking statistic, only ~1,500 of >70,000 Jews living in Latvia when the Germans invaded survived their two year occupation.  Eventually, the Ruskies kicked the Nazis out, and Russia officially appropriated Latvia as part of the USSR shortly after.  The next 50 years were filled with a Russification of Latvia - they were encouraged to speak Russian and do Russian things like stand in bread lines and talk about how great Stalin is.  When the wall came down and the USSR disintegrated, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania all (finally) became their own countries again - hopefully this time it will stick.

Thanks for sticking with me through the history lesson - I find this stuff really interesting, but if you're more of a buzzfeed type of reader, then here's the promised list of other fun things I learned:
  • Riga is a hotspot for bachelor and bachelorette parties from the UK. A lot of hotels and airlines market toward this demographic, and I ran into quite a few groups stumbling down the cobblestone streets wearing matching flower headdresses or holding each other and singing Stand By Me and For He's A Jolly Good Fellow
  • Even though Latvia is on the Euro, things are pretty cheap here.  I had a 60 minute massage in my hotel that only cost 40 Euro!  In the states or Western Europe it would be 2x that price!
  • Speaking of spa treatments, there is a beer spa here in Riga.  You can take a bath in warm beer while drinking cold beer from a frosty glass.  After that, they put you on a "straw bed" to let your skin "breathe" and absorb all the minerals that apparently beer imparts on you.  You can also spring for additional treatments like a beer massage or a beer sauna, where apparently the wood in the sauna has been soaked in beer.  I was kind of curious to try this until I saw the 100 Euro price tag - if I'm going to pay that much to smell like a brewery, I'll do it the old fashioned way - by going out on Hubbard St in Chicago and ending the night at the Hangge Uppe, thank you very much
  • There are still quite a few ethnic Russians in Latvia today - approximately 25% of the population, actually.  This is a consequence of the USSR's policy of resettling Russian people in Latvian lands - a lot of them ended up staying.  The most interesting part of this is that many of these people refuse to fully integrate into Latvian society.  Mostly of the older generations, they hold Russian passports, speak the Russian language, and refuse to call themselves Latvian.  But there is still a movement for them to get the right to vote here, which I admit I find a tad hypocritical
  • Latvian women are gorgeous.  Don't take my word for it - the international modeling community agrees.  Apparently Latvia is among the top 5 countries in the world based on the number of models produced per capita
  • As this is Eastern Europe, there are some seedy things available to you here.  As a female, I am rarely to never exposed to such things, but two German guys I befriended told me about their taxi driver, who was offering to take them to the best brothels in all of Riga. The driver boasted about how beautiful the women are (model-like, apparently) and how they will make you feel like "a rocket to the moon" (a cringe-worthy expression if I ever heard one).  Plus, apparently sex is very reasonably priced here, according to the taxi driver.  When I asked the Germans if they knew what "cheap" was, they blushed and told me they've never actually visited such an establishment, but according to the driver, it costs 30 Euro for 15 minutes of rocket-worthy fun time.  No idea if this is actually inexpensive - perhaps I'll start asking this question when I travel so I can figure out what the going rates are in various places
  • There were a ton of Japanese and sushi restaurants throughout Riga - way more than you would expect for a city of its size.  It seems like 1 in every 3 or 4 restaurants is a sushi restaurant in fact .  I remember noticing this fascination with sushi in Russia when I was there too - maybe the sushi obsession here is driven by the same factors as it is there?
  • My taxi driver from the airport told me a story about this large bridge that goes over the main river in Riga (as we drove across it).  The bridge has suspension wires, and apparently 4-5 years ago, a guy climbed up all the way to the top and threatened to jump off the bridge unless someone brought him a donut.  Yes you read that right - a donut.  The authorities obliged this weird request and the guy came down, but later they put barbed wire on the suspension wires so that no one can repeat this performance and demand more baked goods.  Also, now the locals call it the donut bridge 
  • I would describe Latvian food as hearty peasant-like food.  Most of the dishes seem to involve one of the three P's: potatoes, porridge, or pork.  They also have quite a few legumes - with broad beans and 'grey peas' turning out to be surprisingly tasty.  To be fair, the tastiness factor benefits dramatically from serving everything with a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dollop of sour cream
That's it for now - onto Lithuania next!  I think I'll be able to skip the history lesson in the next post because the stories of all 3 Baltic countries seem to be quite similar...

Auschwitz-Birkenau: All of the feelings

Posting this today - September 25, 2016, but in actuality this visit took place in July of 2016.  I was hesitant at first to publish because of how strong my emotional reaction had been to this visit, and honestly I forgot about it.  Now that I am traveling again - in Eastern Europe especially - I feel it's time to finally post this piece, particularly because staying quiet about these atrocities is never the right answer.

Yesterday I arrived in Poland for a few days of solo traveling.  I began today with the intention of writing a blog about all of today's activities - the fun exploring I've done, sites I've seen, and my own brand of cultural observations.  As the day is now over, I can't bring myself to write about anything except how I spent my afternoon - visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The experience was so moving and emotional that I need to write about it or else I'm worried I won't be able to sleep tonight.  So, here goes.

I've said many times that one of the reasons I love traveling is that it gives me the opportunity to put myself into the shoes of people completely different from myself: people who lived in different times with foreign norms and cultures.  I geek out at the idea of running down the secret staircase Vlad the Impaler used to escape from the Ottomons at his Romanian castle, swimming in the same alpine lake as did Wagner at Hohenschwangau, or watching a fire dance in Bali be performed the same way it has been done for generations. I feel a thrill of excitement from these experiences, and a connection with foreign people and cultures that cannot be simulated in any other way.  Frequently I find myself lost in daydreams about bygone eras and what my life would have been like if I had been born in a different place or a different time.  

I like to travel because it enables me to put myself into other people's shoes, but today at Auschwitz, none of the people whose memories dot the terrain had shoes I would ever want to walk in.  Still, I tried to walk through the museum with the same empathy as I usually approach travel, and as it usually does, the experience evoked many feelings.  Below is my attempt to categorize them.

Before I get to my commentary, let me first give a brief overview of the camps and the museums as they are today.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was divided into three different areas, each built as the needs of the camps expanded and the population imprisoned there grew.  I was able to visit the two main ones today: Auschwitz 1, which was originally a Polish military barracks before being repurposed by the Nazis, and Auschwitz 2/Birkenau, which operated on a much larger scale and showcases the machine-like efficiency with which the Nazis approached their "final solution."  The two camps are about 2 km apart, and a shuttle bus operates between the two.  Auschwitz 1 has been largely reconstructed and turned into a museum.  Inside the rows of brick houses which used to serve as housing, workplaces, or prisons for the unfortunate camp residents, now you can see curated exhibits that attempt to explain what happened here, to whom it happened, and the means with which it was done.  (The question that no museum can answer, but which is rattling around in my brain like an angry wasp, is WHY?  But I'll leave that for later.)  Auschwitz 2/Birkenau is left mostly as it was found when the Russians swept in and ousted the Nazis.  Some of the buildings are still standing, but most of what you see there is the sheer scale of the operation.  The ruins of the crematoria can be found here as well - the Nazis made sure to destroy them before the Russians came, but it doesn't take a very vivid imagination to mentally reconstruct the houses of horror as they once stood.  

And now, my feelings on the experience, in as close to chronological order as I can gather:

Walking in to the complex, I knew that I should expect it to be a downer.  How could it not be?  But still I was excited to see the museum and learn all that I could.  I've always loved WWII history and the stories of the people who lived through it.  The famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign confirmed my feelings - this is a historic place of momentous significance, and I'm excited to experience it.  

Since I was doing a self-guided tour, all of the information I got was from reading the signs posted and walking through the exhibits.  The first sign I read after entering through the camp's gates mentioned that "here" was where the bodies of prisoners who had been executed for misbehavior would be displayed as a warning to others.  Also some people would be executed here too.  My first thought was - "here as in at the camp?  Or here as in this innocuous spot next to a brick wall?"  The site wasn't marked by any gruesome evidence of the terror that took place here.  It's just a corner of a building.  How can such terrible things have happened here - right here - in this spot?  Without this sign present, I would have walked right past and not thought twice about the corner of that building, like I do with so many buildings every day of my life.

After walking past a few more identical brick buildings, I see one has an open door.  The sign above the door explains that what lies inside details the significance of the camp and the war in Polish history.  The exhibit inside details the invasion of Poland, the rapid deterioration of conditions within the state, and the horrific treatment of its people.  Photos lined the walls showing Polish soldiers off to face an enemy superior in size, resources, and weaponry.  Maps showed placement of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, extermination camps, and battle sites. Other photos showed  emaciated corpses and brutally beaten prisoners, soldiers holding guns to the heads of civilians who kneeled above a pit filled with bodies of those who had died only moments earlier.  Other walls displayed data around the Polish underground resistance movement and uprisings like the one in the Warsaw ghetto, boasting of the heroism of those who fought against their oppressors.  However, on the same wall, photos commemorate the lives lost in direct retaliation for the resistance activities.  Would those people have lived if the resistance movement had not been so active?  What was the point of symbolically rising up against an oppressor who exhibited such ruthless sadism?  Because there was no way that the Poles would actually would have kicked the Germans out themselves - they were outgunned at every turn, and starving to boot!  Of course I don't mean to diminish the significance of their heroism - and heroism indeed it is - but the practical side of me wonders how many more would have survived if they had been less resistant - like the Danish people were, for example.  

How could I ever think that??  I'm in no place to judge anyone for their decisions during that time.  The hardest challenges I've faced in my life are peanuts compared to what these people dealt with!  I'm sure some would prefer to die in a valiant but futile effort promoting freedom and democracy rather than live long enough to die of starvation while waiting for rescue that may not come.  Shame on me for presuming to impose my 20th century viewpoints on people who lived through more tragedy in 5 years than I will likely experience in my entire lifetime.

The next building I enter into displays what the barracks looked like for the prisoners.  I feel like I'm walking through a scene in a Spielberg movie.  The bunk beds look small and uncomfortable; the fabric scratchy and homespun.  But because this reminds me of a movie, it doesn't feel real to me.  Clearly this is just a movie set that I've stumbled upon.  Right?

The walls of the museum - in each cell block - are lined with mug shots of prisoners taken when they arrived at the camp.  Beneath each photo was the birth date of the prisoner (if known), their date of entry into the camp, and their date of death within the camp.  Of the 1.3M people who entered as prisoners, only 200K were alive when the Allies liberated the camp.  The rows upon rows of photos make me realize the enormity of what happened here.  Each person here had a life; they had a family, a job, problems and drama, dreams and aspirations.  They were like me - maybe not exactly, but in the most fundamental of ways they were.  And then one day their entire life was uprooted, and they were sent to Auschwitz to suffer and die. Why?  I can't answer that question.  No one can.  But their faces now line the halls of the walls that once imprisoned them.  The expression on each face is some combination of anger, sadness, and defiance.  The uniformity of the photos - with their freshly shorn hair and identical positioning within the frames, makes it seem like they weren't truly individuals.  Like they weren't truly people.  What a waste.  What a sad, tragic thing that can never be undone.

I peer into a room showing what the living conditions were for the SS officers who ran the camp, and it gets my blood boiling.  These men are living in luxury compared to their wards!  They have larger, higher quality beds, plenty of space to themselves, and personal luxuries like bathing facilities and reading materials which were denied to the prisoners.  Who were these men?  How could they possibly have slept at night, given the terror they inflicted on other human beings?  What monsters!

The next building houses artifacts that prove the crimes perpetrated here did indeed occur.  When the Allies liberated the camps, they found warehouses filled with the possessions of the people who had come to die here.  I see piles of spectacles, clothing, and a room filled with shoes.  The shoes are dirty and mistreated - many people had traveled a long way before their journey ended at Auschwitz.  I find myself trying to identify a shoe's mate in the pile, which is admittedly a weird way of attempting (and failing) to make sense of the disorder and loss.  In another case I see piles of empty suitcases with names and addresses painted onto them.  These people had been tricked into thinking that they were only being relocated, not exterminated.  The hopefulness with which these people must have written their details on this luggage, imagining that one day they might return to the addresses from whence they came, brings tears to my eyes.

Another visitor going through the museum in front of me keeps taking photos of these things when there are signs everywhere clearly showing that you're not supposed to do that.  Show some respect, punk! 

The final group of artifacts hits me the hardest: the children's belongings.  Tiny baby clothes - many too small for my 1 year old nephew to fit into, dolls with smashed ceramic faces, and discarded pacifiers are delicately arranged in a display.  Who were these children?  Who could they have grown up to be if they were given the chance?  Were they even allowed to have names?  I know that some children were born within the camp's walls - were they just assigned a prisoner number at birth?  Also - the fact that the Nazis saved the clothes of babies who entered into the camp is horrifying.  All of these goods were collected with the intention of being sent back to Germany for reuse.  Can you even imagine being a German mother receiving a used baby bonnet or sweater for your infant, knowing that it had been harvested from the corpse of a murdered infant?  I don't even have the words.  

One of the most sacred places in the museum is the killing wall between Blocks 10 and 11.  This is where the execution by shooting of thousands of prisoners - mostly the "troublemakers" - were carried out.  The wall now serves as a memorial to them, with flowers and candles laid at its base.  These people never had a chance.  They were the ones who tried to escape, who fomented rebellion, and kept ties with the outside world.  They were the ones who whispered of rescue and kept hope alive.  I approach the courtyard with solemnity and respect, but feel hollow with the realization that so many brave efforts to rebel were made in vain. Evil people inflicted evil deeds upon others here, and nothing I do or say will ever change that.  

Anger (again):
I walk past the room in Block 11 from where the "summary judgments" were issued by a kangaroo court of SS officers.  Almost always the sentence was death by shooting in the courtyard outside.  The room contains a simple rectangular table and a row of wooden chairs.  From these seats were so many atrocious and amoral decisions made, seemingly without conscience or consequence. Ugh how could those men do that to fellow human beings?!?!?!?

There are two rooms in which the prisoners about to be executed would disrobe (entirely) before being led outside to their fate - one room for men, and one for women.  I wonder why on earth the Nazis cared about giving them separate dressing rooms?  What were they trying to do - preserve the prisoners' dignity?  BAH.

I'm going downstairs to the lower level of Block 11, which served as the prison within a prison.  The walls are clearly thick, and the ceilings are low.  The narrow stairway and hallway are overcrowded with tourists, and I feel a lump of anxiety forming in my throat.  If this is how I'm feeling, I can only imagine how the prisoners felt when they entered.

I see the "standing room only" cells, which were purposely constructed to be so narrow that a prisoner could not comfortably lie down in them.  In fact, I'm not sure that a prisoner could even comfortably sit down in them.  They were completely walled in except for a small grate at the very bottom of the cell, through which the prisoner entered and the guards presumably provided food.  It must have felt like a cold, dark, vertical coffin.  How long did people survive in these?  I can't even imagine what that would have been like.

I walk past the cell of a pastor who voluntarily died by starvation so as to save the life of another prisoner.  

I'm out of Block 11 - that building was awful.  There are some other buildings in Auschwitz 1 that I haven't yet seen, but I'm running short on time and am frankly glad to have the excuse to leave to go to Auschwitz 2.

The buildings that I am skipping appear to mostly be dedicated to country-specific struggles of the Holocaust.  There's a building for the victims from the Netherlands, from Bohemia, and Hungary.  I wonder about the other countries whose citizens died at the hands of the Nazis - are they similarly represented (and I just haven't walked past their particular buildings)?  

Stepping off the bus at Auschwitz 2/Birkenau, I am amazed at the sheer size of this facility!  Rows upon rows upon rows of buildings (or the ruins of buildings) reveal the scale upon which this facility operated at its peak.  Auschwitz 1 felt cramped and small by comparison.

Sadness (again):
I undertake the long walk from the entrance of Auschwitz 2 to the back of the property where the crematoria were located.  Jews, fresh off the train, would walk along this same path.  First they would be sorted according to whether they were fit for the back-breaking work required by the camp (most weren't).  Those who were deemed unfit would be herded en masse along the same route I am following to be killed immediately upon arrival.  Wooden guard towers are positioned every 50 meters or so, serving as constant reminders of the loss of freedom that these people endured.  

After walking around the ruins of the crematoria for a few minutes, I realize that the camp is about to close so I should start heading back to the entrance.  As I start my return journey along the path through the center of the camp, I realize that so many people were never afforded the privilege of making the return journey.  Suddenly I'm flooded with feelings of gratefulness for being able to live the life that I have.  It's not something that I ever want to take for granted.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Girrrrrls in the Mist

I honestly can’t remember who first told me about this experience, that you can go to Rwanda and hike to meet the same mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey lived with during her “Gorillas in the Mist” period.  I certainly know I didn’t come up with this idea myself, so to whomever recommended the trip to me, thank you.  This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Gorilla time!!!

We woke up early – really early – to eat breakfast at 6 so that we would be ready for our 6:30 am pickup time.  It turns out that Sandra is a morning person, whereas I am definitely not, so she spent breakfast chatting with the guy who runs the guest house where we were staying (Onesmus), and I spent it grunting into a cup of coffee whenever they asked me a direct question.  It takes me a little while to get going in the morning :)

Rama picked us up at 6:30, and we drove out to the Volcanic National Park, where we would be hiking.  The park is home to 18 different gorilla families.  10 of those are acclimated to tourists and are visited daily by a group of no more than 8 people (plus staff).  The other 8 families are reserved for researchers to observe.  Before we could get going, first we had to get the administrative stuff out of the way.  While Rama went to meet with the park rangers, who would be assigning groups to the different gorilla families, we stayed behind and watched some local dancers.

We had heard from people at the hostel in Kigali that the Susa family is the best one to get because that was the family that Dian Fossey lived with, and some of the gorillas there were babies when she was living with them.  We ask Rama to request the Susa family for us, but if we can’t get them (they’re the most requested family for obvious reasons) then to prioritize assigning us to a large family with a wide range of ages included.  While we are waiting for the assignments to be handed out, we sit in a covered pavilion and are entertained by Rwandans who perform a series of traditional dances for us, complete with accompanying drums.  The show and the cold mountain air combine to finally wake me up, so after a few minutes there I am ready to go see some gorillas!  I start to form a plan for stealing one of the babies if we’re lucky enough to see one.  I decide I will name it TikiTwo and will bring it with me to Cape Town to fill in for the original Tiki.  Sandra looks at me like I’m crazy but laughs when I tell her my plan.  Apparently she thinks I’m joking.

Rama comes back to us with a frown on his face, which has us worried.  He tells us that we were assigned to the Amohoro family.   Sandra had heard that this was a “boring” family because the dominant silverback is so relaxed.  In fact, the family is named for his chill demeanor – Amahoro means “peace” in the local language.  Rama assures us that it actually is a good family to visit because it is big – with 19 members – and that there are a wide range of ages.  Plus Sandra had only heard that through the grapevine, so we decide to take Rama’s word for it and start to get excited about our hike.

Now that the assignments have been announced, we meet up with the rest of our 8-person group and our guide for the day – Eugene – for a briefing.  Our group has 2 older German ladies in their late 60’s, plus a South African family of 4, with ages ranging from mid-40’s to 18.  Eugene tells us about the Amohoro family and explains the process from here on out.  The gorillas are monitored all day every day, but are left alone at night to sleep.  The people who monitor them are called “trackers” (cool name, right?), and it’s their job to locate the family every morning and stay with them until sundown.  Because it is still early, Eugene tells us that the trackers haven’t yet found the gorillas today, but the trackers are out there looking for them, starting from where they left the gorillas last night.  He assures us that 99% of the time they are able to find them, and so we set off in what we think is their general direction.  First, we have to drive another 40 minutes along dirt roads to the place where the hike begins, which is basically in a small village near the edge of the Volcanic National Park.  The guides distribute walking sticks for everyone.  I find this kind of touristy since the terrain doesn’t look all that bad from where I’m standing, but Rama tells me I should take one anyway because “there’s mud in the jungle.”  Um, ok.  I take a stick and we head off.
The first segment of the hike was just from the parking spot to the edge of the park.  We are hiking through gigantic fields of wild daisies, followed by fields of wheat and sorghum, framed by the volcanoes in the distance.  It’s a pleasant enough hike, though the trail is rocky and I find myself wishing I had brought my proper hiking shoes rather than just my cross-trainers.  Oh well. 

Daisies everywhere!

Finally we reach the edge of the park, which is delineated by a large rock wall that runs along the entire perimeter.  On the other side of the wall is a large ditch, and both are in place to prevent the animals from leaving the safety of the park.  Apparently gorillas have no natural predators, but humans have a bad habit of poaching them and trying to sell their babies to private zoos.  When we get to the wall, we meet up with one of the trackers – a man who apparently worked directly with Dian Fossey while she was living here.  He is accompanied by two soldiers carrying rifles.  Eugene explains to us that these men are here for our protection against any animal attacks.  Apparently there are wild buffalo in the park who are not used to being around humans, and they have horns which can do some damage. 

Unless the scarecrow takes care of them first

We climb over the wall, cross the ditch on some bamboo poles, and are in the jungle.  Or is it a rainforest?  Sandra and I admit we don’t know the difference between the two.   The trail we are taking is pretty narrow and would be difficult to spot if we hadn’t climbed over the wall at exactly the right spot.  Eugene has instructed us to walk in a single file line and keep noise to a minimum to increase our chances of seeing other wildlife on the hike.  Apparently the trackers have located the Amahoro family, and they are about a 1-2 hour hike ahead of us, depending on our pace and how many breaks we have to take.  The day started out chilly, but we’ve already been hiking for close to an hour, and so I’m warmed up enough to shed my outermost layer. 

The hike begins simply enough, with dense brush on either side but relatively flat ground.  That terrain quickly disappears, replaced by pits of mud.  The jungle is so thick on either side of us that we can’t deviate from the trail, so we are forced to tiptoe around the muddy parts, hoping to not take a wrong step and suffer the icky consequences.  At this point, I remind myself to thank Rama for telling me to take the walking stick – it’s indispensable on this hike.  In parts where the mud is particularly impassable, I can use the walking stick as a third leg to balance myself as I try to shuffle on the outer edges of the trail, which tended to be less muddy but also very small and difficult to navigate.  In some parts of the trail, the only way to get through was to hop from slippery rock to slippery rock, and there the pole came in handy as well to keep me from slipping and getting a mouthful of African mud. 

Mmmmm tasty mud

We continue on in this fashion, hopping and shuffling our way around the muddy parts.  Keep in mind that this is all done at an altitude of ~2,500m and is entirely uphill.  Some parts are VERY steep and slippery, and the porters who are accompanying us have to help us up the hills because otherwise we would have found ourselves involuntarily going down a muddy version of a slip-and-slide.  The porters had nice rubber boots on that allowed them to slosh right through the muddy parts, and they seemed to know the trail very well so that they knew when we would need assistance and when we wouldn’t. 

Another thing about the jungle was that it is full of evil plants that inflict pain.  The path was lined with different types of stinger plants, just waiting for me to brush up against them so they could give me a rash.  Given my clearly graceful disposition in the jungle (bah!), I may or may not have tottered into a few of these bushes, resulting in my hands, arms and legs being decorated with a patchwork of itchy redness and hives.  I’m starting to itch again just thinking about it.

Try not to touch ANYTHING

And then, it happened.  We were about halfway up the volcano (did I mention the slope we are climbing is a volcano?) when I took one wrong step, and slipped into the mud.  Thankfully I didn’t fall completely, but both of my shoes were completely submerged in the ankle-deep mud.  I pull them out, and try hard to keep them on my feet as they make a weird slurpy sucking noise.  I’m able to pull my feet out without losing either shoe, but my feet and the bottom of my pants are absolutely covered in mud, and my shoes are filled with mud and water.  It was not a pleasant feeling.  I suppose it did have a silver lining – I no longer have to be as careful about avoiding the muddy parts.  Yes of course I will continue to avoid them as much as possible, since they posed a serious risk of sucking my shoes into the depths of the earth, but I didn’t care as much if I got dirty. 

About 2 hours after we entered the park, the trackers stop us and tell us that we are close to the gorillas.  We leave behind all of our gear except our cameras (including the walking sticks – yikes) and shuffle the last 50 meters to get to the family.  The family is hanging out in a very dense area of the jungle.  There are no trails there, so in order to make room for us, the trackers would use their machetes to bend down the taller plants so that we could stand on them.  However, if a gorilla decided to move from its position, sometimes it would walk toward us and we would have nowhere to go!  We moved around as much as we could to give them space, but a few times I was mere inches away from these creatures.
At first we could only see a couple gorillas’ heads poking out through the jungle.  Even though we could barely see them, our entire group got incredibly excited.  They’re here – in their natural habitat!  It’s so much different than seeing them in a zoo. This is where they’re meant to be, after all.  Plus apparently the gorillas you see in zoos are always lowland gorillas, who are a different species, because mountain gorillas can’t survive in captivity.
The first gorilla we saw in his entirety was the boss of the entire family – an enormous silverback, who has a local name that I can’t remember so I’ll call him Big Daddy.  He is an older gentleman – about 40 years old into his approximate 45 year lifespan.  He is the alpha of the group and the father of most of the family.  He greeted us first by ignoring us and walking toward an adult female, who we soon realized had a small baby with her.  Once he got close to her, he faced her, crouched on his haunches and beat his chest several times!  The guide assured us that this wasn’t an act of aggression on his part because he wasn’t facing us while he was doing it.  Instead it was more of a welcome.  The chest beating within the gorilla community has many meanings depending on context. 

All he wants is to be understood...and females with whom to procreate.

By comparison to the silverback, the female was small (though still a big animal).  The baby was probably 6 months old and tiny.  He kept climbing all over his mom, trying to get her to play with him.  His mom didn’t seem impressed, so she started walking away to go climb a tree, with him clinging to her back.  She moves surprisingly well for being such a big creature. 

Mom, mom - look at that!  Those gorillas have alopecia!

We spent the next hour moving from gorilla to gorilla, observing them and taking about a billion pictures.  It was fascinating to see the obvious differences in their personalities.  Some were only interested in eating.

Nom nom nom

Another was super lazy and chilled out with his belly bulging on a pile of leaves.

Letting it all hang out

Some were playful and joking around with each other.

Tee hee

A few were curious about us and would make sustained eye contact.
What are you lookin' at?

We ran into another mother and baby – this one was 3 months old and SO FREAKING CUTE.  As soon as I saw him, I knew he was TikiTwo.  His hair stood straight up on his head.  He kept doing somersaults and other acrobatics and making noises that I can only describe as giggling.  I can’t even describe how adorable he was.  


His mom was more engaged than the other mom with her baby – she was playing with him and swinging him around as he rolled around.  Occasionally she would cradle him just like I cradle Cooper and tenderly look at him while he stared at the weird hairless strangers who were nearby. Sadly, I realized pretty quickly that there was no way I could take TikiTwo home with me without Big Daddy ripping me to shreds.  I suppose he’s better off with his mom anyway, though I’m pretty sure I would make an amazing gorilla mom.  Then again, I wouldn’t want to make Tiki jealous, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t adopt him.

Stop, mom!  That tickles!

One thing I learned is that a silverback gorilla isn’t a specific type of gorilla but rather it means a fully developed adult male (12 years old and up).  A family can have multiple silverbacks, but only one of them will be the alpha male.  Most of the other silverbacks in a family will be the sons of the alpha male, so they are able to peacefully coexist.  If a silverback is bothered by the fact that he’s not allowed to mate with any of the lady gorillas, then he can go off and start his own group.  Or sometimes he will have affairs with the women behind Big Daddy’s back (!).  Once Big Daddy finds out, he will punish the other male by biting him, but he won’t do any serious damage.  It’s basically your typical family drama – only jungle style.  Apparently inbreeding isn’t really an issue because once a female reaches adulthood, she will switch to another family.  Families will occasionally run into each other in the wild. Sometimes a fight ensues, resulting in women being “stolen.”  Other times they go voluntarily so that they can breed with gorillas outside their bloodline.  Some families are related to each other (e.g. if a male separates to go start his own family), so they will meet and just hang out like extended relatives do. 

Eating, lounging, and passive aggressive chatting - just like most American Thanksgivings!

Our hour with the gorillas went by very quickly.  I understand that they have to restrict the time we have with them because it’s important for the gorillas to be able to live their lives normally without humans bothering them, but at the same time I wish we could have stayed for longer! 

The walk down the volcano was exponentially easier and faster than the climb up.  The sunshine had even dried up a lot of the mud (although that didn’t stop me from putting my foot in it multiple times again).  By the end of the hike, I decided that these shoes were a write-off. I’m sure Onesmus can find someone who would want them, so I feel ok leaving them behind.  I left the jungle bitten, bruised, and dirty, but so happy that I made the trip.  I wish I could go again tomorrow!

We got back to the car around 1:30 pm and drove back to the entry to the park, where Eugene wrote out some official certificates of completion for our gorilla trek.  In all honesty, it seemed like an excuse to get us to hang out for 10 minutes where they had a bunch of shops selling handicrafts.  Nothing really caught my eye though.

After driving back into town, we stopped at the tour company’s main office because there was a misunderstanding with our itinerary.  Sandra and I had been under the impression that we had booked a trek to go see the golden monkeys tomorrow, but Rama told us that his boss didn’t have that listed on our itinerary.  We go to the office and meet with Ann – the manager with whom we booked the trek.  The meeting did not go well.  After looking up the email chain, we saw that in our confirmation email to Ann, we had agreed to the stated price if it included the gorilla trek and the golden monkey trek.  However, Ann (or her employees) didn’t see the golden monkey part of our confirmation, and so they said “ok” even though the price didn’t actually include the golden monkeys.  After we had paid, they sent us an updated itinerary which didn’t include the golden monkeys, but neither Sandra nor I read the itinerary in all that much detail, so we didn’t notice until we arrived that it was not part of the plan.  It was purely a misunderstanding, but from Sandra’s and my perspective, it was their mistake because we had paid the fee in good faith, expecting that we were getting more than what they were actually providing.  If we had known the golden monkeys weren’t included, we would have gone with another company that would have been cheaper.  Anyway, during this meeting we find out that Ann’s team had messed up the dates of our itinerary as well, and they had accidentally bought a gorilla permit to the national park for the wrong date of our trip.  So they had already lost $750 on our trip, which made her hesitant to lose even more money by giving us the golden monkey tour for free (although it is much less expensive – only a $50 park entrance fee).  It was clear that if her team hadn’t already made an expensive mistake with us that she would have cared a lot less.  Instead, she sat there and tried to debate with us whose fault it was, saying that we should have read the final itinerary more carefully and told her about the issues with it.  We responded by saying that we had already paid, and while it was unfortunate we hadn’t caught the mistakes, it wasn’t our responsibility to QA the itinerary.  We made it clear to her that we’ve been very happy with our experience so far, and it would be a shame for this issue to ruin our positive experience with her company.  She still wasn’t willing to compromise, so we left the office with her telling us that she would “talk to someone and get back to us.”  Oh well.

We had the rest of the day free to do whatever we wanted, and I came up with what I thought was a great idea – let’s go to Uganda!  The Ugandan border is only 25 km away, and apparently the tourist activities in this part of Uganda are basically the same things as in Rwanda, so I can’t imagine myself planning a separate trip just to come to Uganda.  Plus I wanted to add another country to my list!  In order to fully count it, I have to actually *do* something there – I can’t cross the border for 5 minutes and say I’ve been to Uganda.  Sandra had already been there before, but she was up for anything, and Rama said he would drive us as long as we covered the gas expenses (because it wasn’t included in our itinerary – something we are all very sensitive to now).  We decided we would go across the border for a late lunch, and off we go! 

The drive itself is uneventful, but the border crossing turned out to be a pain in the neck.  Rama had told us that our visa for Rwanda should be valid for Uganda as well, so we didn’t expect to have much of an issue.  He had to deal with a bit more red tape to get the car across the border, and apparently the guards wouldn’t let us ride in the car to cross the border anyway, so he drops us on the Rwandan side and tells us to walk across the border and he will pick us up at the immigration office on the other side.  We get to the other side and go through a series of ridiculous border procedures. 

Only some of the ridiculousness was voluntary

First we show our passport to a soldier with an automatic weapon sitting by the side of the road.  Then we get to a small building and have to go into one office, where a Rwandan immigration official sits and gives us our exit stamps (with a heavy dose of flirting – inviting himself to dinner with us in Uganda).  Then we go into another office and get our Ugandan entry stamps.  The issue is that Rama’s information was wrong – our visa is not valid for Uganda as well, so we have to pay a $50 fee to get into the country.  Ugh – this dinner is turning out to be more expensive than we anticipated.  Oh well, we’re already here so we might as well pay it.  Sandra almost flirted her way out of paying the fee (or at least it seemed like the guy was wavering), but in the end we both had to pay it.  Afterward, we waited outside the office for Rama to come – he was taking a while on the Rwandan side because the paperwork for the car was a bit cumbersome.   We waited for about a half hour before he showed up, and then we accompanied him into the Ugandan office for him to complete the corollary paperwork there.  He asked us to come into the office with him because apparently the office workers are lazy and will make you wait for a long time for no reason, but if white people are there then they seem to be much more diligent.  Unfortunately, our presence there also meant that the office thought they could extract more money out of us.  They tried to tell Rama that because he was driving us, his car qualifies as a “touring vehicle” (e.g. something similar to a safari jeep), and so he would have to pay a $75 fee.  Thankfully Rama is able to talk his way out of that one – particularly because we only plan to stay for an hour or two – so we get through without having to pay any additional fees.

While the terrain is basically the same, it was immediately obvious that we were in a different country as soon as we crossed the border.  In Rwanda, all of the buildings are made out of local red brick, but in Uganda, all of the buildings we passed were made with wood!  It’s kind of weird, considering that I would expect the raw materials used to produce Rwandan bricks are available here in Uganda as well, but Rama explained that Uganda is much poorer of a country and so they can’t afford to use brick in as many buildings.  One benefit of Uganda being much poorer is that the prices here are much lower – so much so that Rwandan people will take day trips to Uganda to go shopping for basic necessities.  In fact, during our time waiting for Rama at the border we saw lots of people walking by with piles of clothing – even mattresses carried on their heads – bringing them from Uganda to Rwanda. Once in Uganda, we saw stores with piles of mattresses on the street, waiting for Rwandan and Congolese buyers to come get them.  Weird, right?

Bed bugs come free with purchase!

In addition to finding a place to eat (which is quickly becoming an early dinner rather than a late lunch), I also would like to find a handicrafts shop where I can buy a magnet.  I’ve been collecting magnets from all of my travels since 2008 or so, and pride myself a little bit on the eclectic collection of places represented on my fridge.  Magnets are small, cheap, and easy to transport – unlike lots of other handicrafts.  Unfortunately, the border town where we are looking is not exactly filled with touristy places.  We stop into a handful of different stores advertising handicrafts, but none of them have magnets.  Instead they have woodcrafts, woven baskets, and things like that.  After the fourth store or so, I’m sick of looking and decide that I will instead just make my own magnet. We agree that Sandra and I will order local beverages at dinner and I will save the bottle caps and make a magnet out of them later.  Problem solved.

Next we have to find somewhere to eat.  The guy at the immigration office gave us a recommendation to go eat at the “Tourland Hotel” restaurant.  Based on the name, we don’t think that this place is going to offer us authentic Ugandan food.  Rama confirms that it’s a very touristy place where white people go to eat, but they have things like hamburgers and other sandwiches.  No thank you.

Note: for official use only

Instead we ask Rama to take us to a local place for dinner.  He selects one that certainly looks local – it’s basically a small room with a few plastic tables and chairs, and one table outside on a patio.  As with the restaurant on Twin Lakes, there is no menu – instead the waitress just tells us what they have to offer and we say yes or no.  Our  only option for dinner is goat stew with some rice and mashed plantains on the side.  Sure, why not.  We sit outside at the table and chat with Rama – who is an awesome guy – talking about Uganda and the differences between it and Rwanda. 

Five star Ugandan dining

The food – when it finally comes – is absolutely delicious.  The rice and plantains are boiled without oil, so they don’t have much flavor, but instead we spoon the rich and flavorful stew onto them and eat them together.  Delicious!  Unfortunately the restaurant doesn’t serve any local beers, so instead I get a Fanta, and Rama gets a Coke, and I’m happy to see that the bottle caps say “made in Uganda” on them.  Score!  When we go to pay the bill, it costs about $7 in total – for 3 people.

We finish our dinner and decide that we’d like to make a stop to buy a gift for Onesmus, since he is from Uganda.  We want to buy him something that he can’t get in Rwanda, so we go to a local bar and buy him a bottle of local banana wine to take back with us.  We’re not actually sure if he drinks alcohol or not, so we also buy him a locally bottled “energy tea” – whatever that is.  The banana wine sounds interesting, and Sandra and I would like to try it, so we decide to stay at the bar for a little bit and each have our own.  I’m using the word “bar” here very liberally – it was basically a hole in the wall shop that sold beer out of a fridge.  There was a bar-like structure that the fridge rested behind, and some drunk guys standing next to it, so I guess it counts as a bar, but not what most westerners would think of when they heard the word “bar.”  Since the place is tiny, we step outside to enjoy our drinks, and someone pulls up a plastic table and some plastic chairs for us.

Banana wine makes us giggle

Right as we step outside, we notice a young child (probably 4 or 5 years old) who is near the doorway next to his mom.  He sees Sandra and me, and a look of terror comes over his face.  He starts screaming and crying and trying to hide behind his mom.  It turns out that he had never seen a white person before!  Even more, he was from a small village, and in the villages sometimes children are taught that white people are all cannibals, and will eat you if given the chance.  Poor kid – he was scared out of his wits at us because he thought we were going to eat him!  His mom thought it was hilarious, as did everyone else standing on the side of the road observing the interaction, so we were able to laugh it off pretty quickly. 
Another thing that’s different about Uganda is that there are a lot more people on the streets, just sitting around.  We walked past a group of moto taxi drivers, who yelled out something to Rama in the local language that made him say something back in a very curt and scolding tone.  Sandra and I didn’t need to use much of our imaginations to guess what they had said to him, and what his response was.  I suppose this crowd doesn’t see a local man like Rama walking around with two white girls very often.

Another random sight outside of the bar was a turkey!  He was just wandering around, pecking at stuff on the ground and gobbling as only turkeys can do.  Rama explained to us that turkey is a prized meat here, but the only way you can get it is by serving it at home – either by raising it yourself and then butchering it or buying it at a specialty meat place.  It’s too expensive to be served in restaurants or sold in regular stores. 

After we finished our drinks, it was time to get back to the border because the immigration office closes at 7:30 every night.  We didn’t want to get stuck in Uganda!  The border crossing was similarly frustrating as coming over.  We had to buy a new Rwandan visa, and the petty bureaucrats who staff the desk there seemed to take pleasure in making us wait longer than would be reasonable.  Regardless of their mind games, I’m really happy I made it to Uganda – the experience was a lot of fun!