For the Love of Taipei

My plane technically left on Thursday morning albeit at 12:05 AM but as I woke up on Wednesday I was high as a kite. Or a plane.  I couldn't wait to get out! As I approached security at LAX I was in this other worldly mind space.  Nothing seemed real.  I actually thought for a moment that this was just a really realistic dream, I couldn't possibly be getting on a plane at this moment.  But the SSSS on my ticket brought me back to reality as I got a little pat down on the other side of the X-ray machine.

And then I was off.

Arriving in another country is always super interesting.  I'm in a state of nowhere but everywhere.  Nothing looks familiar, no one looks like me, and the signs are all indecipherable. It's got the best qualities of being in a dream but I remember it long after I wake up.  

Taipei is big. Really big.  And tall.  I followed the hostel's instructions and took the airport bus to the main station.  After that I was baffled. The directions were great but I wasn't about to get lost in a place so unfamiliar.  I grabbed a taxi for about 5 minutes, got out, went down a back alley, a man who didn't speak english saw my confused expression and pointed me in the right direction, I pushed on an unmarked door and found paradise.  City Home became my base for the next two weeks.  I would venture out and away but Taipei being the hub it is, I always found my way back Home.  

My first day was spent figuring out where the hell I was, local landmarks so I wouldn't get lost, and deciphering the subway system.  Luckily the latter was super easy and I was jetting about like a local by nightfall.  There is so much to see and experience in Taipei alone. From museums to markets, temples to shopping malls (not like the ones in the US) this town has it.  I walked pretty much everywhere and clocked in an average of 8 miles a day.  Like I said, the metro is fantastic but the busses, well, they're a bit more challenging.  And walking is how you really feel the heartbeat of a place so that was my modus operandi here.

Being Chinese New Year, the tourists were out in full force. The national museum was packed to the gills and the markets were packed tight too. For the next ten days most Chinese and Taiwanese will be off from work.  The government office, the banks are all closed. Changing my US dollars into New Taiwan dollars would be an exercise in futility.  ATMs it was, then. Taiwan has scads of Chinese tourists during this time. The weather is milder than the mainland everyone flocks here for the holiday.  

CNY Eve is a time for family.  The locals cook massive meals consisting of about 12 dishes.  Fish, pork, veggies, and fruit are in abundance.  Luckily my old buddy Charlie from LA was in town to spend the holiday with her family. She invited me for the meal at her granny's and I got to sample some seriously delicious food. But most importantly, she introduced me to pork floss.

Pork floss might be the stuff that the hair of angels is made from. It might be the very thing that the clouds in heaven consist of. God probably creates pork floss like humans used to spin cotton. Immediately I feel incredible sadness for my Muslim and Jewish friends, as they will never know what delicious magic this pork product is. It is a bit sweet and a bit salty. It's denser than cotton candy but has that dry fibrous quality. It seems to be finely shredded dried pork marinated in some kind of god juice,  I don't ask. I just eat. And everywhere I found it, I ate it.

Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world. It's big, there's a shit ton to do, and once you figure out the food situation, it's delicious.  I'm realizing that I'm a picky eater. I don't eat beef (haven't for 30 years) and I'm not a fan of the weird stuff like offal or whelks.  Even squid is iffy for me, it needs to be completely camouflaged into something else for me to eat it. Tentacles? Feet? Tongues? Skin? I'm out. It was challenging to eat at times and if I was in an area that looked like tourists were not so common, then I would walk to a place that had english or I knew what I was ordering.  By and large the street food stalls were all in chinese. I know the food was good by the lines but the chance that I might get a mouthful of tripe was real and I wasn't about to offend by dumping a full plate of food in the trash. If you are adventurous in your culinary choices, then you will no doubt fall deeply in love with Taiwan. When I just shut up and tried something new I was always pleased. But it helps to have a local friend who will steer you in the right direction too. And I have Nick to thank for that one!

Decision: Taiwan

Oh, Taiwan.  Where have you been all my life? Right here, waiting for me to just show up.  So glad I finally did.

I hadn't heard back from the producer for an upcoming job that I was on hold for.  I checked in on Monday morning and was told it had pushed at least a week.  January had been slammed and I was letting go of the remnants of a nasty cough thing I had.  I had been house bound as soon as my jobs wrapped so I could heal in private.  But now my blood was flowing again and I was ready for action.

Hmmm, at least a week.  That meant I had 2 weeks that were free and clear.  The town had slowed down and I would have gotten a call already if there was something in the works.  I jumped.

I had turned in my passport to get my Chinese visa and it was coming back on Wednesday (I hoped), so that meant Wednesday night I could hop on a plane.  I looked at my porn map (big one that I plot my adventures on, mu version of porn), where on Earth could I go? Sri Lanka? Tickets too pricey.  Europe? Too cold.  Ecuador? Not enough time.  I had 2 weeks to travel and 2 days til I left.  What country was manageable in 2 weeks? BAM! Taiwan!

I had always wanted to go and had booked a ticket last year which I had to trash because I got hit with a ton of gigs.  I had the guidebook, the weather didn't look particularly heinous, and it was $613 RT (see? Last minute isn't as crazy as you thought!).  DONE! Oh! And it's Chinese New Year too boot! This monkey was gonna make the most of it, let's hit the road!

I booked a highly rated hostel online, Taipei City home, and packed more "civilized" clothing.  I haven't packed a pair of jeans in God only knows how long but Taiwan is cosmopolitan and the girls are dangerously cute so I couldn't go in looking like a slob.  Packing cute but comfortable is actually pretty hard. I only like to carry 20 lbs (10 kilos) in my backpack so I couldn't go crazy.  I also had to pack a jacket or two so there's a couple more inches gone.  I packed mostly black and grey so A. Dirt won't show and B. I look rocker cool. Done.

Now, wheels up, bitches!!

It's All Relative

Driving in India is not for the faint of stomach. It always makes me smile a bit when India newbies look into renting a car for themselves because they want the freedom of being able to hit the road when they want and they don't want the hassle of a driver. To them I say, get thee to India and see for yourself!

The traffic in India defies all logic or even laws of nature. It is chaos at its finest and host horrifying. There are no lanes for either direction, to start. Indeed when I saw a stretch of highway with lanes marked, I thought, "How quaint! Lanes! I wonder if people know what they mean!" Overtaking another driver is an art here. There are no turn signals to warn others of your intentions so you honk your horn, a more persistent honk than is used to move stray cattle out of the way or to just notify others of your place in the world at that very instant. This honk has vigor, "I am man, watch me pass you!!" The fact that there may be oncoming traffic at that moment is no deterrent, especially if that traffic is a mere motorbike with a family of 5 on it. If the oncoming vehicle is a truck then more care is made. More care meaning to overtake as fast as possible! Gun it! So what if the guy you're passing is still only right next to you, he's got brakes right? He needs to learn how to use them!

Yes, Indian driving is a class unto its own. 

When the inevitable happens, an accident, then insurance information is calmly exchanged, hands shook, and chai sipped. Ha! On another planet maybe! Let me tell you what I witnessed. A driver with a small white sedan marked "tourist vehicle" brushed up against an illegal local bus. The bus was already beaten down and would be considered for the scrap heap in America. The white sedan had visible bumps and bruises but you could tell it was cared for as it was probably the man's only livelihood. When we arrived on the scene there was a commotion. The man who was obviously the bus driver had a lathi (equivalent of a baseball bat) and was violently beating the cowering driver of the sedan. When the bus driver took a breath the sedan driver would run around to the other side of the car. Meanwhile the occupant of the sedan (indeed there was a man in the back) was yelling at the bus driver, obviously trying to calm him down. This is how traffic disputes are solved in India. No one got out to help, no one tried to restrain the bus driver, the bus passengers watched the whole thing happen. Was it barbaric that no one intervened? Let me tell you a story...

When I was in Ethiopia we were caught up in a traffic jam. Our driver went out to see what the problem was and came back with a report. A child was playing on the side of the road, I guess he didn't notice the truck coming and went out in the road at the last minute. The truck hit the child and killed him. The truck kept going. As me and my traveling companion expressed our horror at the barbarity of the driver, our own driver said that he did the right thing. If the driver had stopped he would have been torn from the vehicle and brutally murdered by the village on the spot. This is justice out here. The driver had called the police and they arrived on the scene to help the family. 

Another example, this time with our driver in India. We were driving on piste roads in the middle of nowhere in Rajasthan when we see a boy who had obviously just fallen off his bike and had a nasty gash on his arm. Our valiant driver, Deepak, stopped the car and brought out his meagre first aid kit from the glove box. He quickly bandaged the boy while a man from the village walked up and started asking questions. Was the boy hit by the car? Thankfully, the boy told the truth. If the boy had said that we hit him, it could have turned nasty. The common protocol would be what the man would ask for a large sum of money from Deepak. And us. Tourists are virtual ATMs here as we are "obviously" rich. The amount he would have asked for could have been as little as $100 or as much as $1000. And this in a place where $100 a month is a common salary. 

Deepak was a good man in many ways, and the fact that he stopped to help the boy, risking not just his livelihood but ours, speaks volumes. In my home country of America you stop if you are in an accident or you hit someone. The consequences are great if you don't. Here, the consequences are great if you DO stop. It breaks my heart that in a country that protects cows and feeds stray dogs can be so brutal to its human occupants. The concepts of karma and caste are strong but isn't karma also about doing good deeds? It's not just about karma being the shitty things that happen to us, but it's also the good that we actively do. We are subject to karma, yes, but can't we also accumulate karma by our actions? I hope so. I think I'm going to go do something good for someone.


Expectations Meet Reality

Jaisalmer. The Golden City. Bastion of safety in the Thar Desert. Home of a thousand touts and shifty characters. 

It was hot when we arrived. Bloody hot. Like 110 in the shade kind of hot. This was the beginning of the low season in Jaisalmer and for good reason. The only thing besides the glorious fort in the old city that held any interest for tourists was camel safaris in the desert. And when even the night was blistering hot, camels couldn't even lure the human ATMs to this side of India. Nothing could. So we were one of the few foreign faces to be seen outdoors when the sun was low enough to cast a sliver of shadow on the narrow cobbled streets . This solitude was, by all means, what every traveler/tourist is in search of. The feeling of discovery, the feeling of being a pioneer! Oh wait, let's go in that shop!

As every traveler knows (ones that have traveled in the low season at least) when there are few tourists, shopkeepers are more desperate. These people rely on tourist dollars and Euros to keep their families fed. Times are lean in the low season and this means cunning is a good way to lure in the bucks. When shopping in this atmosphere one has to remain constantly on guard. Is this pashmina a good deal or am I being fleeced?

And it's not just shopkeepers that try and steer you into their lairs. Their trusty cohorts are the tour guide. They work hand in hand. The guide or tout gets a healthy cut of every transaction, usually 10-20%. For some reason the guide/tout thinks that we aren't aware of this. This is why he steers us to the most expensive stores, usually called "co-operatives" that play on our love of fair trade. I could be wrong but I believe the only co-operative thing about this kind of store is that they are owned by several people (usually men). I do not think for one minute that the women and children that are ruining their eyesight and backs doing the actual stitching are getting a fair cut of the money. Call me a cynic but until I see proof, I will believe otherwise. 

Jaisalmer was, by and large, a nice place to visit even with the touts. The camel safari, however, was quite another thing. This being low season and the desert being hotter than the hottest of fucks, the camel ordeal was slightly more comfortable than being fired on a spit, just south of Hades. First off, the desert was not what is pictured in brochures. That desert has dunes that stretch far into the horizon, a treeless expanse of golden tumbling splendor. The Thar Desert, at least the one that you are taken to, has trees, scrub, and rocky swathes of road. There is one area that you stop in where if you position the camera exactly right and possibly do some cropping, you can achieve that deep sandy desert of your dreams. Even though I'm bitching like a jaded backpacker, it still is lovely. Just don't have any expectations whatsoever about this excursion and your experience will be the better for it. Like my expectation of staying the night nestled in the dunes with only camel hair blankets to keep me warm. This was suggested by the pictures in the brochure, BTW. The reality is that you are in an airless concrete room in an emcampment. There are dozens of these encampments surrounding you so you will have no illusions about being a desert nomad unless you close your eyes and put in earplugs and fantasize really, really hard. The option to sleep outside on a charpoy was tempting until you realize that you will be a woman sleeping alone surrounded by men and the blackest of nights. Nope, thank you very much. I'll sweat my balls off indoors, if you please. 

The one real highlight of Jaisalmer was unexpected (See? No expectations!). We were barreling along with our tour guide as he's showing us his lovely city when we hear a bell ringing sharply, insistently. I step quickly toward the sound, I know instinctively what it is. It's a puja and it's strictly locals only. We enter the temple and are welcomed by the close humid crush of people. A Shiva lingam takes center stage and milk is being poured over it. Flowers litter the yoni part and adorn the embodiment of the feminine and masculine. It was beautiful, serene yet fevered, and transporting. I was witnessing a ceremony centuries, no millennia, old. It was fast, passed all too quickly, then ushered back into the bliding light of midday. No pictures taken, none needed. I will have the imprint for the rest of my life. If you want to see a picture of the ceremony, I suggest you take your own pilgrimage to India. Be prepared though, nothing at all is what you expect. Leave your expectations by your bedside at home, you don't need them here. Just be open and ready to receive. Your darshan awaits.

A Spiritual Journey, Part Three

Leaving Delhi was like an elephant getting off my chest, I didn't realize how big and stifling it was until I left it behind. 

First stop: Bikaner, home of God knows what. I was just happy to get off the bumpy crap roads and get out of the car. It was for the most part a rest stop, an overnight break from the excruciating journey from Delhi to Jaisalmer. In kilometers it's not that far to Bikaner, the reality of the roads make what should be a 5 to 6 hour ride into a 10 hour ordeal. The roads, for the most part, are pitted and potholed so deeply that we had to idle over them lest we lose a muffler. When I arrived I just needed a damn shower.

The next morning, refreshed, we hopped in a tuk tuk with our local guide and made our way to the old city which seems littered with cow shit and stately havelis. My first impression of an elaborate haveli was wonder. An haveli is an old private mansion that housed large rich families in Rajasthan. Most of them are now converted into hotels or museums. The exteriors are incredibly ornate, you know they dropped some serious rupees in the building of these things. The carvings on the outside are so delicate they are like lace made in stone. Back in the day (not too long ago really) there was the purdah system where women could not be seen outside of the walls of the Haveli. To satisfy the women's curiosity (or to spur it) the walls were made so that the women could see through the screen of carved patterns onto the city streets below. The trick was that the holes in the walls were so fine that the public could not see to the inside where the women watched. A gilded cage indeed. 

This being my first exposure to an haveli, I thought this example was stunning. As I was later to find, this one was a bit mediocre. A bit middle class. 

I was looking forward to the Jain temple in town as I have no knowledge of the Jain religion. At first glance it looks like a Hindu temple. Upon further explanation I was able to pick out the very obvious Jain examples of design. The tirthankaras of which there are 24, are in simplification, a type of prophet that is unique to the Jain religion. They are always pictured sitting in the lotus position, eyes open, hands in their laps in mediation. They are vegetarians and practice non violence in all forms, with the notable exception of bilking tourists for rupees. Most every act of the "priest" requires a "donation". This is not necessary, as our guide informed us, as the temples are provided for in trust. They are a persistent lot and are always coming at you with a platter with a hundred rupee note on it as a not so subtle hint that that would be a normal token of appreciation. One hundred rupees being around $1.50 this is a significant sum for them, and a good catch from a passing tourist.

Ignoring this fact, the temples are beautiful and peaceful places, the history is rich as Jainism precedes Christianity by 500 years. The monks practice such non violence that they are known to wear masks and sweep the floor of unseen bugs before each step so they don't inadvertently breathe in or step on an insect and kill it. One part of the sect even goes about skyclad, meaning butt naked. I saw no skyclad monks but I did peek around a bit in search of one! 

A Spiritual Journey, Part Two

On our second day in India we found another driver who we liked much, much better. He had a turban on and was dead stylish which, at least to me, marked him as a Sikh. I have a ton of Sikh friends and I know first hand what incredibly good and honest people they are, so when I saw we had a cool young guide I knew we were set!

When he saw that I was interested in going to a Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship) he took us to a stunning one in the new city. With glowing white walls and gold domes that sparkled under the searing sun, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib was a beacon of cleanliness emerging from the brown rubble of Delhi. We removed our shoes and walked across the white marble courtyard towards the entrance. Before we crossed the threshold, music could be heard from within. It was a beautiful anticipation.

Upon entering there is a wall of wrought gold spanning from the floor to the high ceiling. Intricately carved patterns in shimmering gold provided the backdrop for a trio of musicians playing devotional songs. The centerpiece of this spectacle was a bearded man waving a type of fly swatter called a chauri over their sacred living book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Even with the music and all of the people there was a deep peacefulness here. I could have just sat down for hours and just breathed in the solemnity of this place. 

Walking outside there was a very large body of water surrounded by a colonnaded square. This was holy water and we were encouraged to stoop down and brush it over our heads and to sip from it. As I cupped my hands and brought a few drops of the water to my mouth the guide said that people come and bathe here to wash away thier sins or bad karma. That even people with skin diseases come and bathe in the water in hopes of a healing. I immediately sealed my lips and let the holy water dribble down my chin. I wiped the water away as quickly as I could lest it sneak into my mouth, trying to be inconspicuous and thinking of all the horrid afflictions that have troubled these waters. As much as I want the blessing, leper flakes floating in the water make me think twice. 

We walked slowly around the basin, just taking in the beauty of the place. It was a real respite for the senses, much needed in the bastion of sensory overload of Delhi. 

Our next stop was the magnificent new Akshardham Temple. A Hindu temple built only about ten years ago, it has been compared to Disneyland. I only got that impression because of the cleanliness and symmetry of the structure. No pictures are allowed and indeed cameras and phones need to be checked upon admission just in case you get tempted. To call this temple grandiose would be somewhat of an understatement. The temple is surrounded by water and colonnaded pathways. Inside of the temple was a shrine that looked like the inside of a Faberge egg. All pastels and gold, it was intricately done. Every second that passed I would see something new. When I first laid eyes on it I didn't even see that it was in pastels, the ornamentation was so distracting. As I delved deeper I saw the various shades of pinks and lilacs, light blues and mints hidden in the gold. 

Around the outer circle of the temple were beautiful statues of Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati, and many other gods of Hinduism. The ceilings were domes carved within an inch of their lives. I personally felt like the center of the dome was the point of the third eye when I meditate and the geometric patterns repeated around the circumference were the beautiful shapes that emerge when I am in deep meditation, "in the zone". Each dome was a different expression of this feeling I get. It was lovely to see this with eyes wide open, not with eyes closed trying desperately to cling on to that fleeting feeling that lasts too short. 

India is a country of many religions, not just the obvious one, Hinduism. There is much more to explore here, I cannot wait to delve deeper.

A Spiritual Journey, Part One

Three days have passed since me and my friend E arrived in India. Her and I have been friends for about 20 years and are in the same industry. She's one of the very few people I would ever travel with, so when the opportunity to hit the road together presented itself, we jumped on it.

Upon arrival at the butt crack of 4am in Delhi we made our way to the hotel and into a short, two hour slumber. At 7am we both woke up ready to conquer Delhi. The driver we hired spoke very little English and what English he did speak was an indecipherable curry of vowels and head wobbles. We went to a few obligatory ancient sights but I was really looking forward to the Baha'i Lotus Temple. I have always loved the Baha'i faith, maybe because each practitioner I have met are such cool, grounded and open-minded people. The building is a work of sublime art, it is in the shape of a massive lotus rising from a clear blue pool of water. Made of white marble with clean sharp edges, it is one of the most stunning buidlings I've ever seen in my life. We filed in and sat down and I sat in prayer for many minutes, tears spilling down my face, my prayer is just "Thank you".

The last place he took us was by far our favorite, Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah, a Sufi shrine. Our car stopped. The driver led us down a congested narrow lane whereby I had to part a heavy curtain of flies and keep my lips pressed together so I don't have an appetizer of insect. The lane was lined with food vendors and the sharp burn of smoking oil made it very hard to breathe. We walked fast.

We get to an old man who demanded our shoes and handed us a plate of flowers. We guessed it was an offering but no explanation was ever made. Of course, in our country we must do this every day! We were shoved down a cramped alley and told to cover our heads, then motioned down the stairs into a damp tunnel. All this was done in a rush and there was no one to ask questions to. Quiet, just go. Walking briskly we are met with a line of humans sprawled about the floor, some begging, some sleeping. Keep moving. Labyrinthine twists, more bodies, more flowers. Surfacing briefly. There is a riot of pink flowers to my left, then more bodies. Popping out of the tunnel we are met by music and healthy people in a swirl of saris. 

A man who is obviously in charge of foreigners approaches us, takes our styrofoam plate of flowers and has us wait by the sign that says "No women allowed" as he enters the shrine on our behalf. He re-emerges with a book, sign it. We need to donate, "Whatever you feel". Sit down, quickly quickly! The three piece band is playing in front of us. We sit amongst the others, there are no other tourists, only us. The music is enchanting and I am swept up in the experience until I see a woman drop some of her petals on the ground. An accident, nothing more. The man singing berates her, she quickly drops to the ground, scrounging up the rogue pink petals from the white marble floor. She is obviously not doing a good job as the man continues to harangue her in a language not my own. The meaning is clear though. Get them the fuck up. 

Our guide spots us and waves his hand for us to leave. The man who is in charge of us in the shrine sees this and shows us to the next shrine, very small, must see. We are rushed around the outer perimeter of the shrine but we can see through the stone lattice work a line of men performing prayers or the like, moving in a circle around the green cloth that is in the middle. We sit and watch. The process is beautiful. Again, we have the only foreign faces. It feels like a telescope into a world I will only really know in another life. The music is still playing and people are milling around but in this enclosed perimeter we are protected in a bubble of false safety. There is a sign right before you enter this shrine that says "Beware of pickpockets". After sitting and watching this display of devotion for several minutes, sitting indian style on the floor, we get up to leave and our handler approaches us for more money. Donations for this, for that, and then more for this, oh and sign here. 

Our guide spies us and walks briskly for the exit, we follow as best we can with the press of people and the overloaded senses. Through the maze of illness and twisted limbs we emerge into the sun and blanket of flies. Quickly quickly to the car, in awe of what we just witnessed. It was disorienting and disconcerting but it was also incredibly raw and beautiful. Humbling and eye opening. The descriptions would be endless, a virtual thesaurus of words akin to spectacular. It was also shockingly peaceful. When I left I felt whole. 

The journey begins.

Traveling for Sport

My big goal in life is going to every country and territory in the world. This involves going to places that are disputed territories like Western Sahara. Western Sahara has a long and controversial past. It is like a lover being fought over by several burly men but she just seems to want to do her own thing. I think they all want her because they have to fight for her, because truly, she isn't that pretty.

Spain had her, Morocco mostly controls her now but Algeria claims a bit of her too. No western country recognizes Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara and on every map that I have seen the area is called Western Sahara, not Morocco. But all of this is really just politics and I don't give a damn about politics, I care about people. Having the desire to go absolutely everywhere can get a little sticky and political at times but really, that's the fun of it all: to see our differences and to see our similarities. 

To get to Dakhla I had to fly because of time constraints. Actually it was less the constraint of time and more of the constraint of my ass on a shady bus flying through the flat monochromatic desert for 23 full hours from Marrakech. I had heard stories of crashes and breakdowns and I wasn't about to take the bus just for "the love of adventure". I would be on a plane thank you very much and get there in just under 6 hours including a layover. I had also heard rumors of trouble by Laayoune and I'm not about to get jacked up (again).

I did not know what I would do once I was in Dakhla but I had heard it was a kitesurfing mecca and if anything, maybe I could learn to do that for a few days. It was Ramadan but I was assured by several people that this wouldn't pose a problem to me because there were tourists there and things would be open. "No Problems" famous last words. I had only 4 nights there and so I would split it between the windsurfing camp and the town of Dakhla. I hadn't been able to find that there was anything to really DO in Dakhla but I was sure I'd find SOMETHING to do. 

I didn't book in to a kitesurfing camp so when I flew in I walked into town from the airport and wandered for a bit. I thought I'd check into a hotel for my first night and then make my way to a camp the next day. I found 3 different hotels, all of which cost over $100 a night. These were not $100 a night hotels in a great vibrant city. This place was a bloody ghost town and the vibe was shady. I found a taxi to take me to the camp that minute. The taxi dropped me at a cop shack in the desert and the cop said he'd find me a ride in a private car to the camp because all taxis had to stop there. Bloody hell. The cop was super nice and strangely well dressed. Like, fancy leather shoes and an Armani Exchange shirt kind of dressed. And cute. He was definitely cute.

He hailed me a ride with a couple of men with fishing gear in their beat up little car. I hopped in the back and these rough looking men struck up a chat. I found out that they are professors who go fishing when they're not teaching. They had a great hold of English and kept the conversation going through the 30 minute ride. My fear of this town disappeared and I was very sorry when they dropped me at a sand dune. Wait. Whaaaaat??? Oh, go BEHIND the dune and I'll see the camp. More cops materialized who grilled the men and I think may have given them a ticket for whatever reason. 

I followed the path and as I rounded the corner was whipped in the face by a lash of fierce wind and sand. I found someone to help me, checked in, and set my bag in my room. Hmmm, there was nothing really here. A fantastic view of the beach, a fire pit and a smattering of travelers but no other amenities. At least the beach is great! I'll hit the beach! I step outside (thinking the wind had died down) and was lashed again. WTF?!?! The wind never died down. Silly girl, that's why Dakhla is famous for kitesurfing! You need lots of wind for that. Shit. I never got to swim in that water, it was too painful.

I had one kitesurfing lesson and nearly killed myself. While I liked the power of it I knew I would never be able to kitesurf on this trip as it takes about 2 weeks to actually figure it out enough to be able to go out on the water and properly do it. And at this camp, kitesurfing is all there is. And honey, I mean ALL there is. Let's just say that in the next 3 days I read a lot and occasionally found sand in areas of my body that I was sincerely puzzled by its presence. One day I hitched a ride with one of the kitesurfers back into town. I found a nice little B and B to stay in for my last night but I found absolutely nothing open in town. No restaurants open, just a couple of sad produce stores where I stocked up on fresh olive oil, bread, and a few bananas.

When I made my way back to Dakhla town to stay I wandered around the desolate center and along the boardwalk. I was glad I came to Western Sahara but at the same time, my money would have been better spent elsewhere. If you are not a kitesurfer or not out to see absolutely everywhere I wouldn't recommend it. It's out of the way, not much here and it's very conservative. On the other hand, I was exposed to the kindness of rough men, the marvelous flavor of real olive oil, and the beautiful flowing dress of women who dress in Mauritanian style. You truly do learn something new every single day.

Friendship and the Pause Button

One of my favorite and least favorite things about traveling is meeting new people. When you travel alone it is inevitable that you meet new friends on a consistent basis. People open their doors and hearts to you, tell you their fears and secrets, in your constant movement their secrets are safe with you as they leave when you do. It's an interesting thing about solo travel. You form tight bonds and love unconditionally and days later they depart, or you depart, and the memory of that place is tied tightly with that person who you may or may not see again outside of Facebook.

There are people that you know, you just KNOW you will see again. For me, it's usually those who live in a country that I haven't been to yet or those who live in a place with a popular airport hub. Some I know I will never see again and no matter how much they assure me that we will meet again, I somehow know that it's not true. Those dear souls are the ones that rip me apart when I have to leave. Those are the ones that I cry about when I'm gone, the ones whose presence I mourn. The leaving never gets easier no matter how often I do it, no matter how I try to steel my heart. It always hurts.

But even though I have the tendency at home not to trust or bare my soul to new people, on the road it's a compulsion of mine to not just open up, but open up so wide that I am near to bursting with trust. This is one thing that I need to work on desperately at home. At home I'm so guarded that my heart is basically Lady Gaga, surrounded by a mass of large bodyguards with Uzis. This is not an exaggeration. 

Some that I know I'll see again, it's never really a goodbye. It's just hitting the pause button on a friendship to be released at an unknown point in the future. Those people I don't mourn, instead I anxiously await our future rendezvous, certain that it will come sooner or later, inshallah.

When at last I meet up with a friend from halfway around the globe again, it seems like no time has passed. We parted only last week in Indonesia and have picked right up again in Morocco. It's comfortable, with shared memories of a distant land that has somehow morphed into a closer here and now. Punchlines are picked up where they were dropped and new jokes are made for next time. It's a continuum. Life lived exclusively in the present but with the whisper of the past in our ears. New memories are made and will be continued when we meet again. And we will, I just know it.

The Adventures of Tin Tin in the Sahara

I've never much liked deserts. Californian, Jordanian, Emirati. Doesn't matter, I'm not keen on them. Sandy and dirty and hot is not my idea of a good time. So when I decided to go into the Sahara, it was something that was obligatory. "One can't go to Morocco and not visit the Sahara" was the traveler's mandate and not having a violent aversion to deserts (just a mere dislike) I decided to do as the masses do and travel into the border regions near Algeria.

I went in with no grand expectations, just a desire to see an obscene amount of stars and to bond for a bit with a long lashed camel. It was an incredibly long road to get there with numerous pit stops that guides seem to think every tourist wants to see: carpet shops, argan oil cooperatives, and rose scented toiletries. On the way we stopped at the Dades Gorge, which was stunning and I wouldn't have minded hanging out there for longer and just relaxing, but we had a schedule to keep and the driver waited for no man. Except for his coffee and cigarettes, of course.

Upon arrival in Merzouga I was in awe of the merciless sea of golden dunes. This was infinitely cooler than I thought it would be. This desert...this one I could get used to. As the sun inched down the horizon our camels were awakened and I was the first one picked to hop aboard. The camel guy must have sensed that I've had previous experience with the humped variety and that I wasn't a squealer. As the camel righted itself, first backward, then lurching forward and then finally upright, I was proud of myself that I didn't freak out, I handled it like a baller. 

When the camels were loaded with human cargo, we set off under the fading sun. The wind was calm and for that, I was thankful. I had heard stories of sandstorms and burning suns and I was grateful that was not my lot. We climbed up dunes and down into the valleys, the camels plodding and rolling but sure footed. We traveled for almost two hours into the great expanse, with every foot I felt smaller and smaller. When I could no longer see the town behind me I settled into a calmness and a peace that I rarely get unless in meditation. 

When the stars started poking out their sparkling heads and the dunes turned a burnished russet, we came upon our camp for the night. Night fell quicker than a drunk assed Tin Tin and I dropped my bag in the main tent and set out away from our camp to get some star porn. The stars had come out in full force and for the first time I saw the Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere. Sitting upon my personal dune, flattered by the attention of the stars, I wept. I wept for the pain of the attack. I wept for the mortality of my parents. I wept for the fleetingness of the moment. I wept for the indescribable beauty of the landscape around me, sure I would never be able to put the feeling into words, trapped forever with an image that I cannot convey to any one else.

That night I kept going out into the dunes. The others in the camp were laughing and talking loudly. I just wanted the silence that I had traveled so far to find. I perched on a dune in sight of, but not in earshot of, the camp. The wind eventually began to rise and I noticed my footsteps had been erased. I ambled back to the camp and bedded down with some monstrous looking insects and noticed that the morning alarm (a man clapping before dawn) had come entirely too early. Time to board the camels and head back to town. My Saharan dream was over, at least for now. I'll never see deserts the same way again.

The Goat in the Hammam

This is why I pay attention to my intuition. You just never know where it's going to take you.

From Fes, I took the train to Meknes with the intention of staying the night in the old medina and maybe checking out the ancient pilgrimage site of Moulay Idriss. I took a taxi to the center of town but when I looked around, it looked like downtown Los Angeles in the 1990's: shady as hell. There were people in dirty clothing and grey buildings with trash strewn about the front. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt so I looked for a decent place to stay in a cleaner part of town. I wandered around with my backpack getting progressively heavier with every step for about 20 minutes. Every turn in the medina took me to a more desperate area. I had to reconsider this plan.

I decided to go to nearby Moulay Idriss but I had no idea how to get there. I hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the bus station. No, the train station. Shit, where was I going?? The driver asked me what I wanted to do as he was not going to drive in circles all day with a crazy white girl whose French was dreadful. I have no better hold of French than a 6 month old and that's the language they speak here. Well, that and Arabic but I'm still in the womb with Arabic. It's been challenging to say the least.

I said Moulay and he told me to take a grand taxi (a shared beaten up Mercedes that is packed with 7 people per trip). This should be fun, I hadn't taken a grand taxi yet! I hop in and off we go. 

Moulay Idriss is a small town built on a hill and there's a mausoleum of a famous Muslim saint there. It sees some tourism but not loads and I was ready for a little break after Fes. My intuition led me to a great hotel, Dar Zerhoune, that is owned by a beautiful Kiwi woman. I felt right at home there and settled in for just one night. There were 2 other American women staying there so it was like a feminine oasis in the middle of what had been mostly a masculine trip thus far.

Rose, the owner, asked us if we would care to go to the local hammam and I quickly said, "Hell yes!!" A girly field trip! We would be pampered and scrubbed within an inch of our lives, or so I thought.

It was a very local hammam (read: I would have never in a million years have found it on my own or even thought that it was indeed a hammam). While descending the steps it got hotter and more humid. But wait. Why is there a goat tied up on the steps?? Must be for Ramadan or a gift for someone. We stepped over the goat and proceeded down the stairs. 

Damn! We forgot the scrubbing mitts! We told the 2 American women to get undressed and wait for us to bring back the mitts. They were a bit uncomfortable and it would be good for them to slowly settle in. We got the mitts and hurried back. On the way back we heard some ululating and women yelping. When we descended the stairs there was no goat to step over, but taking the turn into the hammam we saw the goat. There was blood everywhere and the goat lay on the ground, its head separated from its body by about a meter. The women cowered in a corner fully dressed, heads down. When they noticed our arrival they looked at us with traumatized eyes. The goat had been beheaded in front of them. They are vegetarians. 

Let me just say that blood was still pumping out of the carcass profusely. I was engrossed in this whole scene, a very old hammam, ancient women ululating and me, utterly confused. We hightailed it out of there to another hammam, the old women protesting that the goat was no intrusion on our hammam experience. I begged to differ. Nothing like the smell of goat to kill a relaxing day. 

We went to another hammam and stripped down to our undies. Nothing like meeting someone and an hour later getting naked and scrubbed by a large woman with pendulous breasts. At least there was no goaty eyes staring at me this time. 

Surrendering to the Unknown: Fes

Ever since I heard about the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, I wanted to go. I love devotional music of all kinds, the less I understand the words, the better. I coincided my trip with the festival so I could experience it for a few days. I knew I couldn't hit up everything I wanted to see but even if I saw a few shows and was just in the atmosphere, I would be satisfied. 

I had heard many stories from other travelers about Fes: the hassles, hustles, and fake guides were legend. I arrived by bus from Chefchauen and promptly hopped in a taxi that cost about $2.50 to get to the hostel. That was reasonable and I found nothing at all nefarious about the driver. So far, so good. Arriving at the entrance I needed to get in the medina, I watched out for fake guides but found none. The twisting instructions to the hostel were dead on. Hmmm, this wasn't turning into a gauntlet of scams like I thought. 

The hostel was amazing, awesome staff and a guest roster that was practically curated. I shacked up with a guy from Long Beach (of all places! Instant friends) and a guy from Germany. We were in a dorm and as we met more people, our circle grew. That's one of the best things about traveling alone, you seem to have an instant circle of friends wherever you go! 

Wandering around the labyrinthine medina was my favorite. I never got hassled (although my Long Beach buddy got hustled) the whole time I was there. The concerts were mostly free and in abundance. You only had to wander a bit, pick up the faint trail of music, and follow it to its origin. I saw some crap (a young painter who threw paint on the canvas, yawnfest) and some great music (some local Fassi band with killer yellow shoes on). I missed Johnny Clegg and Youssou N'Dour as they were sold out. I had to pass on the Sufi Nights part too as the concerts started around 11pm and I had walked myself into a coma each day and was entirely too exhausted by that time to even contemplate leaving my bed.

The thing I miss most about Fes was the people I met. Really good people gather there and live there. The girls from Singapore, the American couple (the girl was from Va Beach!), and everyone that gathered around and shared their stories that I miss most. I thought the festival would be the main draw, that was the thing that I would remember for the next 10 years. But as the Universe constantly teaches me, it's the things that are subtle, the people that smile at me in passing, the exchange of cultures with strangers. Those are the experiences that stay with me. Islam means "surrender". The Sufis abandon themselves to the ecstasy of God. Travel is really about these things too. One has to surrender and abandon oneself to the Universe. If you do, you will see God in everyone and everything. Just open your eyes and surrender.

Tin Tin in Chefchauen

Blue homes stacked like Legos on the rolling hills welcomed me to Chefchauen. It was a relief to leave behind the bad memories of Tangier. I felt I could actually breathe the moment I saw that crap city behind me and started seeing signs for Chefchauen before me. 

On the bus I met a super cool girl from Jordan and with me was a girl that I had met in the hostel in Tangier. We all made our pilgrimage together to the calmer hills to the east. It was good to have a built in support system because I wasn't quite sure how Chauen was going to be and if I would feel safe there. Tangier tripped up my confidence and I was trying hard to gain my footing back. Shoulders back: check. Head held high: check. Bitchface: check. 

We all checked into the same place and I went for a walk on my own. Best to test the waters sooner rather than later. I put my best bitchface on and sneered at the many guys who offered me hashsish. I cringed at the people walking fast down the hilly alleyways, sandals slapping the cobblestones, then pushing past me quickly. Each time my heart lept and the flashback of my attacker appeared in my mind. "Keep going, don't let him win" was my mantra. But I soon found that the reality was that these were good people here. They didn't need to see my bitchface, so I practiced being open as much as I could. Bitchface filed away for use at a future date.

In my quest to rekindle my badass-ery I did a long hike with the girls to a waterfall. It was utterly grueling. We only made it to the small waterfall because we also wanted to go and see God's Bridge. This proved to be a serrrrrous hike on a slippery,rocky path no wider than my hips, straight up, and on my left a straight cliff going down. This was going to test me. My fear of cliffs is for the most part gone but ghosts of it remain, and are still active. 

"Screw it" I thought, as I just did what I do best: shut up and just do it, already. The view at the top was breathtaking and I made my way out to the furthest point of the cliff that I could. There was a rock that jutted out over the edge of the cliff that I gently edged to. I want to get over this petty fear once and for all. I breathed in the fresh air and my quiet victory.

At last we were ready to go. Damnit! Now I had to go down.


The Incident

I'm finally ready to write about it. It's been a rough week for me, but a deeply learning experience. 

After getting in to Morocco and sleeping away the first half day and night, I woke up refreshed and ready to conquer this new country. I awoke in my hostel around 8am and washed the flight down the drain. I went downstairs and had some tea, chatted with a fellow traveler and at 8:45 I stepped out to get my first immersion in Tangier. The alleys of the old medina were quiet and there weren't that many people walking around. I went from the Grand Socco to the Petit Socco and passed the famous Cafe Tingis, where the writer Paul Bowles whiled away his days. The sun shone bright but the stores and cafes still had their doors locked tight. I thought it odd, but the thought passed. I wanted to see where the other big hostel in Tangier was, The Melting Pot. I walked past the Hotel Continental but missed the sign that pointed to the hostel. I walked to a platform with a view of the port, saw 2 men there and promptly turned around to go back the way I came.

The street/alley was still empty but I was feeling at peace. I was getting hungry and was going to walk back to the Tingis to see if they were open yet It had to be 9am by now, something had to have opened its doors by now. I heard maybe 5 quick steps behind me, turned to see WTF it was and glimpsed a clean cut man with strange hair, then an arm around my neck. A strong hairless arm that felt alien, what the fuck was it doing there? I can't breathe! My hand went down to his crotch and grabbed it. He lifted me higher off my feet and the arm wrapped tighter. I blacked out.

Blackness. Senses started coming back. Waking up, dream... still only half in my body. Eyes opened. Cobblestones on my face. Recollection. Was I raped? My pants are wet but I'm not sore. I pull myself to my feet. Bare feet, shoes 2 meters away, sunglasses over there. My purse. My purse?? It hits me, I scream. A woman peers around the corner, looks at my eyes and hugs me. Holds me tight. Others come out and she tells them to get the tourist police. More people look at me with sad eyes, shaking their heads. Another woman comes up and sits me down. She holds my hand, I look in her eyes and I burst out in tears, shaking, rabid tears. She's crying too. I realize that I must have pissed myself while I was out. I really don't care though. It's an outward symbol of my inner state.

The tourist police come but they are plain clothed officers. They want me to get in a van with 4 men to go to the police station. I say that I'll walk. The reality is that there is no way in hell that I am getting into a van with 4 men after all that happened to me. There's no way I would do it in a normal state of mind! One of the guys, a young officer, walks me to a cafe and we have tea. Tea cures everything here. We talk. He speaks good English and has a kind face. He buys me tissues and tells me to wash my face.

The rest of the day is spent at the police station giving them my statement. The found my purse but my iphone and about $100 is gone. My sunnies and Lonely Planet are still in there with all the other little bits of my life. The police chief is livid and says he'll find the guy and get my phone back. He's determined. I get the feeling that this kind of shit doesn't happen on his watch. The police are all so kind to me and always ask if I need to go to the hospital. My neck is sore but I'm more tramatized in my brain than anything else at that point. They drop me at the hostel so I can clean up.

They found the guy. They bring him to the hostel for me to see. I know it's him and I shake and cry and hit the floor. The people at the hostel are amazing. They comfort me, hold me, and care for me. I go back to the station, give my statement again and have tea with my new friends. 

Then his female family comes in. They wail for me to forgive him. I don't look at them. He doesn't get to have my forgiveness, HE hasn't asked for it. He sent his women to ask forgiveness. The women get my compassion, they live with a monster but they don't see it. 

But now they know what I look like.

The next day I don't leave the hostel. My throat has closed and I can't swallow. I'm not hungry and so I don't eat. I sleep like the dead all day. The next day I feel better. My throat is sore but I can eat and drink. I go out with a new friend for a meal. More sleep. The next day I go to Ceuta (a Spanish territory) and I realize that I'll be fine once I get the hell outta Tangier. It's Tangier and the family that I fear. The next day I'm on a bus traveling far, far away from my victimhood...

I really want to thank everyone who sent their love and prayers and good energy to me. I honestly feel like I've had a quick recovery because of you. The images and feelings of the incident still come back to me every so often (every hour or 2) but I don't meet them with terror. I understand that there is a lesson in this. I was not at fault, I did nothing wrong. It was simply wrong place, wrong time. I never understood how fast this happens. All my Krav Maga training never prepared my for how bloody fast this was. I estimate it took less than 5 seconds for him to choke me out. By the time it dawned on me that his arm was around my neck and I grabbed his balls, I was out cold. I stand by my belief that people are inherently good. The people and police that stood by me and helped me prove that. The world is not a scary place. I refuse to belive that. The abundance of love that I have been exposed to proves otherwise.


The Speed of Awesome

Easy rider. Yeeeeah. Eeeeasy rider, baby. Flying down the freeway with the wind in my hair. Lone wolf. That's me there on my hog. Watch me speed by at the speed of awesome. Well, maybe that's not the whole truth. But that's exactly how I saw it in my head.

The reality: ambling down muddy dirt roads and sliding on loose rocks, bugs flying into my hair, riding with my two new friends, and I'm on a scooter. But I AM going at the speed of awesome. Cuz that can be any speed at all as long as you're driving in Laos.

In the backpacker Mecca of Van Vieng, you either love it or hate it. It's packed to the gills with loaded frat boy and sorority girl wanna bes, all wasted on cheap liquor and potent mushroom milkshakes. Staggering around town in their skivvies carrying massive inner tubes, they are almost a cartoon character of the decadent backpacker. But there's another side of Vang Vieng. Just across the river it's another world. One of nights filled with the chirps of crickets and the random splash of a fisherman casting his net hoping to catch dinner. There are karsts in the close distance, sometimes shrouded in mists, other times clear as the river water. There are also spiders on the way to the outdoor bathroom that I try to catch with the glare of my flashlight. This is the Vang Vieng I love. This is where I'm staying. Paradise for $6 a night.

There are loads to do here on a sunny day: kayaking, tubing, rock climbing. And on a not-so-sunny day (of which I have been plagued): renting a motorbike and driving to the caves and lagoons (too numerous to count) and sampling massages from the plethora of bare bones "spas" that are here. Yesterday was a two massage kind of day. Today was a biking day. My friends and I met up and rented bikes again and set off on a different course today. There are many loops that you can do, all of which involve karsts, dirt roads and villages. The loop we took today was a more mountainous road with the red dirt ribbon twisting through vibrant green undulating hills. It was a challenge to ride the roads because they were muddy and slippery with loads of big loose rocks and potholes that come quick. The scenery was like a hot stripper, the road was like my wife. I had a hard time keeping my eyes on my wife. It seemed like every time she caught me gazing at the jungly hills for too long, I would slam into a pothole. 

The hills, at times, were literally breathtaking. We would stop on the side of the road (or even the middle, there were no cars and barely any other bikes on the road) and just take it all in. As I rode over the hills I was so happy I had my friends with me. It was great seeing them gaze back at me and grin wildly, snapping pictures and trying to capture the fleeting moment. There are times when traveling alone that I really wish I had someone to share a moment with. This was that moment and I was blessed to have two amazing women to share it with. 

One of our stops was a waterfall. This wasn't the most amazing waterfall that I've ever seen but it had its own charms. Water fell from a high platform in a narrow stream, the rock face gently breaking its power and forcing the drizzle to puddle in a shallow rock pool at the bottom. This is where you can wade in and stand directly under its natural shower. Bliss. Paradise was lost soon after when a pack of Lao adolescents came through smoking weed. We left shortly after.

Vang Vieng is definitely polarizing but I really think it has everything to do with where you stay and what you're after. The only time I go into "town" is when I want to eat or get a massage. I'd rather just chill at my bungalow or ride the roads away from it all. This is what it's like living at the speed of awesome. 


Big Dark Love

I could feel the supple strength of his muscles between my thighs. He was blindingly strong and tossed me around like a kitten. He was big too. Absolutely massive! I can't remember the last time I had felt something like this, it scared me. But I was eager for more. His skin was rough and dark and smelled of the jungle. His hair, black and prickly and scratched my hands when I grabbed on to him, as if for dear life. And then I rode him.

Ok, you pervy people! I'm talking about my elephant! Where's your mind? Can I help you retrieve it from the gutter? So yes, it does sound like a Harlequin romance but I swear to God, all the words written above are true. 

Just outside of Luang Prabang, Laos there are a plethora of elephant camps where you can ride them, bathe them, or learn how to become a mahout (elephant trainer). Some are reputable and some not so much, but whether you like it or not, they are one of the biggest tourist attractions in Laos. I chose just to ride one on this trip but I didn't choose to sit on the loveseat on the back of the beast, I chose to ride on his neck. 

Now, one may think that this is a simple and amusing way to ride but I can assure you, it's pretty difficult. With every step the animal takes you are twisted in the opposite direction. Every time the animal casually looks to the right, you are flung to the right along with him. His moves are not as graceful as when I saw him from the ground. Or maybe it's just me who lacks grace. 

To start, how you board an elephant is that you get on a platform which is about 3 meters off the ground. On this platform is food for the elephants and tourists snapping away with their cameras. As the elephant was munching away, I hopped on his neck and straddled him. I tucked my knees behind his ears and hung on for dear life. We hadn't even left the platform and I was already wondering what the hell I was trying to prove. There's no reins to hold on to, only his head which is prickly with stiff hair. If you bend down a bit you can grab on to the tops of his ears, but it's not a stable position to be in. On this day, I was working my core and inner thighs. I was feeling the burn after only five minutes. Oh, and you're high off the ground. Like, if you're afraid of heights this might not be for you. For me, it was more incentive to cling on to him ever harder; thighs don't fail me now!! And God help you if he decides to eat. Leaves and branches grazed my face as he chomped down on his "salad". I fed him a few bananas from the top of his sweet head and it was pretty daunting to see a large wet snout sniffing about, looking for the bananas in my hand. Giving them to him was pretty cool though, he gently took them from my hand and shoved them in his diamond shaped mouth and quickly flung his trunk back up to me looking for another. 

After about 15 grueling minutes I got used to his movements and stopped screaming like a little bitch. That was an accomplishment in itself. After the 45 minute ride I hobbled off of him, barely able to walk. I smelled of elephant stank but wore the biggest smile on my face. And I just can't wait to do it again!!


Backpacker Bitching

The tuk tuk from the bus station costs 20,000 kip each. It's dark, about 5 kilometers away from where we need to be, and we all have been on a bus for 2 days. We're all tired. The English hippie backpacker says, "No. 10,000 only." I'm ready to pay the damned driver 50,000 just get me to a place where I can put my backpack down and stop moving.

England is adamant. 10,000. Just to put it in perspective, 20,000 is $2.50. He wants it for half that because we are 8 people and he's afraid that we are getting ripped off. He's afraid the tuk tuk driver who is dressed in rags is going to make an extra dollar or two off of us. Jackass.

This is the kind of traveler that really pisses me off. The kind of backpacker that gives us all a bad name. I hate being ripped off as much as the next person but I'm not gonna quibble about a few cents. Especially when England has been downing beers all day. Seems like he has no qualms about "donating" to a corporation but is reluctant to give a dime to a person it can actually affect.

Independent drivers, street food vendors and locally owned hotels and guesthouses are ways that our tourist dollars can go directly into local people's wallets. To me, part of traveling is exchanging cultures and making a difference to the local economy. Waterfalls and natural wonders are definitely part of it but daily living (roof over your head, eating and getting from A to B) are the hourly realities of traveling. Just like at home, you need these things in order to survive, be it in Laos or Los Angeles. 

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand that people have budgets. I know that long term travelers can only do long term with an outline of how much to spend on a daily basis. I get it. I'm not talking about those travelers. I'm talking about those ones who buy drugs or copious amounts of alcohol, ones that spend dollar after dollar getting wasted or on cheap souvenirs or tattoos and then "bargain" the food vendor down to the least amount because that traveler is "on a budget". 

Be a positive ambassador for your country. Don't just go, "Oh, these people live in such poverty! I'm going to do some volunteer work to help the people" Give to the people that help you on a daily basis. Interact with them and they will give you more than a low price. They will give you an authentic experience that money cannot buy. Volunteering goes only so far. Contributing to local businesses helps them grow and prosper. It sends their children to school so they can have a better life than their parents. Bargaining is healthy and cultural but going to the lowest of the low does no good but to allow you to buy another beer. I'm talking to you, England!


Dodging A Bullet

I didn't hear of Haiyan in Saigon. I heard of it en route to Hoi An but only fleetingly. When I arrived in Hoi An I looked into typhoon Haiyan. It was a monster and it was headed straight for me. "Why is no one talking about this?!?", I thought. 

My Facebook page was blowing up with apocalyptic posts yet when I stopped tourists on the street to ask them what their plans were for the storm (staying or going) either they weren't concerned about it and looked at me as if I was an alarmist or they thought it was minor and had already passed. Locals were very chill about the whole thing while sandbagging the roofs and chopping dead branches from the trees near their homes. I asked expats if I should stay or go and to a man, they all said to stay and relax for the storm day, it will pass. No one was overly concerned. 

Meanwhile, a few images from the Philippines were starting to emerge. It looked bad, 4 people dead (at the time, only later did I learn of the many thousands that died) and a swath of destruction in its wake. But no one in Vietnam was panicking or freaking out or leaving. Just stocking water and petrol and battening hatches. I couldn't reconcile the news reports to the actions of the tourists and locals in central Vietnam.

I bought a few liters of water, candles, crackers and noodles. I got as much money from the ATM as I could get out. I was on the second floor of my guest house in a windowless room and I let the embassy know where I was. I also bought a bus ticket to Saigon, a 24 hour bus ride south, just in case I changed my mind. Basically I had done everything I could do in the situation. I was utterly conflicted though because I ALWAYS trust the locals and other travelers about situations on the ground. But this time it tested my limits of what to believe and do. The old Clash song "Should I Stay or Should I Go" played on repeat in my head.

What was probably the hardest was that people not in Vietnam acted like I had 500 choices about what to do. Like I could somehow magically whisk myself away from the area in a couple hours time and that I was dumb to stay in Hoi An, directly in the path of where the storm was headed. Considering my options: there were no flights at all and I'm 1000 kms away from Saigon and the storm is 600 kms wide OR stay put in a safe concrete building alongside masses of other tourists from many different countries in a city that has stood for centuries through many other typhoons. 

As you know, the typhoon took a sharp turn north right before Hoi An and we got only rain and a bit of wind. The whole of the central coast dodged that bullet. I monitored that storm from every news source I could find and ones that my friends sent me links to. I posted on Facebook every couple of hours. What my friends might not have known was that I was scared. Very scared. I was alone and knew the power of that storm. I wasn't stupid. I had weighed my options carefully and knew what could potentially happen. But I always think positive. To hear any negative on FB made me even more scared and pissed off because there was literally nothing I could do. But there were loads of supportive messages. Thank you for that because I really needed it. I need people to know that my choice of staying was not based on a whim, or thought that I wasn't seeing what was happening from an international standpoint. I CHOSE to be positive and not freak out. Worrying and crying (I felt like it at one point) is in no way constructive. 

I am overjoyed I didn't take that hell bus to Saigon. I'm overjoyed I trusted my gut and stayed put. I am a traveler and I rely greatly on my instincts. They have yet to fail me.


Fast Friends

It seems I'm making friends very quickly on this trip. In the China Airlines line at LAX I see a young woman two people ahead of me. She's got a big backpack on her back and she looks ready for adventure. "Excuse me, where are you off to?" I ask. She replies that she's off to India then South East Asia traveling for just over 2 months. We get to chatting and I see her heart and jaw drop when she realizes she left her phone at home. I reassure her and let her use my phone to call her bestie. By the time we reach the front of the line, her bestie has delivered her phone and we have become friends. Funny how things work! We try to sit together but it doesn't work out, but we get to hang out and share stories until we are finally forced to board. This is her first trip to Asia and I feel like it's the start to a whole new travel world for her. i'm super happy I could be a part of her grand adventure. Oh, and did I mention she lives right down the street from me??

While flying I take many bathroom and stretch beaks. I've been called a yogini more times than I can count but I am very far from that. I do love a good stretch so I contort to my body's limit in the galley by the bathrooms. One of the times I get bendy I start talking to two women who are doing the same thing. I bond quickly with one of them. She wins my heart when she tells me that it's her goal to go to every continent. She's retired and she spends most of her time traveling now. She is my soul sister.

More chatting reveals that we are both flying to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (our initial flight was LAX to Taipei). Instantly we make plans to hook up, shop and go to the embassy to get our Vietnamese visas together. There's nothing like having plans with a friend when you're not even at your destination! 

It's funny, I knew this was going to be a great trip when I booked it. My heart is open wide and I am ready for adventure.


Tin Tin The Tour Guide

Recently I've been playing tour guide in my own town. The first guests in my home were my parents. They rarely come out to visit anymore as my father is elderly and can't deal with the long trip from small town east coast to west coast. There's always at least one plane change involved and that just adds to the brutal hours and cramped plane time. My mother, however, is still a firecracker but the trip is just tiring, even for me. 

Since money is tight (and let's face it, sleepovers are more fun) they stayed with me. I gave up my luxurious bed that I have perfected the art of and gave it to them. I took the bed in the spare room which is still nice, but not my memory foam, goose down duvet dream bed. Not that I'm bitter about giving it up, I'm just telling you I did. Selflessly. Can I tell you how freaking weird it is to sleep in another part of your home that you have never slept in before?!? 

And thus began my few weeks of being a tour guide. It's nice to see your city how a true tourist sees it. Most tourists who come to LA don't go to the Peace Labyrinth or the Arts and Crafts Museum. They don't hit my personal hotspots of Koreatown and Little Ethiopia, they tend to stick to the tried and true sights like tours of the stars homes and Hollywood. I've been to Hollywood gazillions of times but i've never done a proper tour of LA like visitors have. I mentioned doing the Dearly Departed tour (visiting famous death and scandal sites) to my parents as the more palatable tour to me and off we went.

Seeing the city through the eyes of a solo traveler from Turkey (I did the same thing in his home country) and a couple from Scotland that were on the mini bus made me appreciate what I had here. I saw a glimmer of the glamour of old Hollywood and I also didn't realize we had so many grizzly murders here! What a flashy fucked up place I live in! I was enthralled with the places where stars died under sad circumstances (Janice Joplin) and was brought back to nights that I actually witnessed happening (River Phoenix). Each day we did a little something new and I got to know my city better. 

And then my friend in Abu Dhabi said she was thinking of coming out to LA last minute and I couldn't have been more excited! We met in a restaurant in Beirut and I saw her a year ago when I went to the UAE. I've loved her since the moment I met her. She has a clear sense of adventure and always wants to try something new and different, to challenge herself. So two days after my parents leave, my friend and her friend fly in to LAX and so it begins again!

We do the usual tourist circuit but we also go up to Santa Barbara and even to my local Sunday farmers market. They are able to get a taste of real local life in LA. That is one of my favorite parts of traveling abroad, seeing what it's like to live there even if only for a few hours. Walking the neighborhood and shopping where the locals do bring a city to life for me and I was happy to share a slice of that with them. We even went to a comedy club, which I haven't done in about 20 years! My friend is an hijabi (meaning she is a muslim who wears the veil) and I will never forget how every time we saw another hijabi she would say, "Hijabis in da hooouse!" That might be my new favorite saying. Now every time I see an hijabi I just want to say that! They might think I'm a bit batshit though. But I never realized how many of them were around! It really opened my eyes to even more diversity in my already diverse city. 

Hosting guests is a great way to travel vicariously through someone else. Putting yourself in their shoes and taking them to the cheesiest of sights and just losing yourself in the silliness of it all. Become that tourist that you always mock! Not the one wearing the fanny pack and the denim on denim combo though. That would be going just too far. But maybe just be the one taking selfies in front of the Hollywood sign or the one having a pic snapped with the wax Brad Pitt. You have to be careful, you never know who you might run into! 

Oh! and this time I got to keep my bed!