Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tubing Spring Break Style

I thought about skipping Vang Vieng altogether, but so many people told me how much fun it was and I didn't want to miss out. It's sole tourist attraction, at least that I saw, is tubing down a river, albiet with very beautiful scenery. But it isn't like any tubing I've done before. I imagined a scene much like it was in my college town, everyone floats down the river with a six pack of beer, actually quite relaxing. Definitely not the same!

There wasn't really much tubing. More just attempting to get from one side of the very strong river to the other quickly to get to the next bar. In order to do this you had to be pulled into the next bar by a rope that had a plastic bottle attached to the end they threw to you. This seemed like a great idea until they hit you in the head with that full plastic bottle.  Once in the bar they hand you a free shot of whiskey, one especially dangerous bar had a bottle of whiskey sitting on a table in the middle of a bar of which you could take as many shot of as you wished. It was like spring break multiplied. Don't get me wrong, tons of fun, but getting into a raging river on a tube after a few too many drinks doesn't sound like the safest option.

I hooked up with a group of girls and we all agreed to watch out for each other on the way down the river. All went according to plan until it got dark. We all agreed to get out of the river and get a tuk tuk back rather than risking it. It was dark and crowded, three of us found each other, but we couldn't find the last girl. After much searching with no luck we decided the girl must have gotten out further down and we would find her back in town. It took a couple hours but thankfully she did make it back. She was pretty scratched up from fighting her way up the bank of the river, but she had found another person and they were able to pull themselves in together.

I'd heard statistics from people about deaths on the river, but I didn't know what to believe. Three days after I left Vang Vieng I met a tour guide who received his statics directly from the embassies. Turned out there had been six deaths in the four days prior to me tubing down the river. In the end it turns out I'm either too old or I think too much to really enjoy the tubing in Vang Vieng. I am happy I did it so that I don't regret having not done it, but I would never do it again.

The Mini Bus From Hell

The trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is well known for its crazy bus ride and my experience was no different. The mini bus capacity is said to be 12, but this is definitely pushing it. Because of this I thought I was lucky to be sitting in the front seat, yes, between the driver and another passenger, but still the front seat. I changed my mind quickly five miles down the road when I realized I was sitting on top of a very hot engine, in a bus with no air conditioning in 100 degree heat. Not my best decision.

I received a reprieve from the oven an hour later when traffic came to a stand still. Turns out those landslides everyone had been talking about were real and even bigger than they described. They had a couple machines working, but it took a few hours before we were able to pass. And when I say pass I mean still drive over a massive pile and watch it start to slide again. The driver had to hit the gas to avoid us being covered by it.

Next I realized yet another reason I never should have sat up front. The driver decided that he needed to make up for lost time so he drove like he was playing a race car video game barely missing innumerable vehicles, animals and children along the way. At least the rest of the passengers got quite a kick out of my gasps and sighs.At one point I leaned over to check his speed as we drove through a town at what I thought was was three times reasonable. It said we were going ten kilometers per hour as it said for entire 12 hour trip.

I have no idea how, but we arrived in Vang Vieng alive.

Luang Prabang

My next two days were spent on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. It was definitely a long time on a boat, but I got plenty of reading done, met some very interesting people, and it was fantastically beautiful. My favorite part was a three hour conversation I had with an older Italian gentleman who had been a journalist. He'd written about social and political issues all over the world and had some quite amazing stories as you can imagine. He'd somehow managed to visit Laos in the early eighties before it was reopened to tourists and journalists and talked about how he hadn't seen another foreigner on his entire trip.

Once in Luang Prabang I found a cute little guesthouse on a side street that was owned by a Belgian man and his Laotian wife. One of my favorite parts of this portion of the trip was speaking to both of them about what it was like to live in Laos. The woman actually had an American father whom she never met  Her mother was pregnant with her in 1975 when all of the foreigners had to leave the country. She has spent countless hours trying to find him, but with little more than a common name she hadn't had much luck.

After walking around the city I fell in love and stayed four nights, but definitely could have stayed longer. It is a quiet town with a river on each side of the city, so there are endless riverside cafes. The night market is fantastic with great street food.

I spent my first night with a group of Germans from the guesthouse. We went out to dinner then to a bar for drinks where I ran into a pair of Dutch girls who had been on the Gibbons Experience with me. The following day I met up with the Dutch girls for some sightseeing. There was a festival with boat racing on the river, so we joined the crowd for a bit then visited one of the two waterfalls  It was a bumpy journey in the back of a truck but it was worth it because it was very different from any waterfall I'd seen before. It had trees all through the middle of it that had then been surrounded by limestone as the sediments settled. When we got back into town we hiked to the top of Phusi Hill for sunset where we met a group of Dutch guys that we spent the rest of the evening with. In Luang Prabang there is a curfew of 11:30 and everything closes, but there is one place to go out of town, so at 11:00 when everything is closing down there are truck drivers outside of the restaurants prepared to take you to “Bowling,” which they describe as a club. It is not a club, but an actual bowling alley in the middle of nowhere.

The next day I walked all around the city and met a sweet Australian couple at the guesthouse. I had dinner with them and enjoyed stories from the woman who was born in France, was an au piar in the US, traveled through the middle east, and took a boat to Australia that was free if she worked there for two years. They may have been some of the best people I met on my entire trip.

My last day was spent across the Mekong in a smaller village. I saw only one foreigner on my short journey, which made it feel infinitely more authentic, well if you took away the satellites dishes which were attached to every single house. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage sight so everything on the main side of the river is extremely well preserved, but when you cross over it is completely different. Many of the temples were falling apart and it seems you are stepping back many income levels.

Luang Prabang is definitely a place I would like to find myself again, and I think I will!

Gibbons, Tree houses, and Hiking in the Mud

(From my 2011 trip to Laos - just catching up!)

The Gibbons Experience was one of the must dos of my trip and the thing that excited me most about Laos. The program uses the money it generates to protect the surrounding jungle and the animals in it. When I say protect I actually mean bribe the government not to log the area. Participants hike into the jungle where tree houses and a network of zip-lines have been built.

When I checked in they gave me a list of things I needed to bring so I found a guesthouse and went shopping. First on the list were shoes. I knew there was going to be mud and I didn't want to ruin my running shoes, so I went in search of the plastic cleats that they recommended. I found the largest size in town, which was still too small, but it did the job. I also got some gloves for zip-lining and a heavy duty poncho.

The trip began the next morning with an hour ride in two pickup trucks. Two Dutch girls and I secured a spot inside one of the trucks, which was really nice once it started to rain. They dropped us off on the side of the highway and pointed for us to go. The first minor incident occurred when we left the highway and crossed the river on a footbridge that seemed to be older than all of us combined. We were told to cross four at a time and slowly. I think there were more boards missing then there were still on the bridge, and yes, someone did manage to put his foot though one of the boards, but he came out fine so we continued on.

As we went on it got muddier and muddier and I became happier and happier with my three dollar rubber cleat purchase. Within the first 15 minutes I was in mud up to my knees. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. They said that this road was too bad for a car, which it was, but that there would be one to pick us up a little bit further and take us part of the way. After a couple of hours we reached the car, one car!  There were 12 of us and five guides. I have no idea how we fit, but we did.

The car didn't last long. I've never seen so much mud. We got stuck, got out of the car, pushed, got back in the car, and got stuck again four or five times before something on the car broke and we had to walk again. We walked for another couple hours and came to a small village. I was the third one to walk into the village and the first girl, which must have felt safer to the kids because they all ran out when I walked through.

All of our water was gone from the five hours of hiking we had done so far and there was no water to be purchased. After much hemming and hawing we decided that we had no choice but to drink the water from the town spigot, and the guides assured us that it was safe. This village is where the real hiking began, but it was by far the most beautiful. We arrived at the first kitchen an hour later where we were fit for our harnesses. It took about an hour of hiking and five zip-lines for us to get to our tree house. The zip-lining was
different than what I have done in the past, in that you are all on your own. You attached it yourself and there isn't a guide there to double check that you did it correctly. We all checked each other's till we felt comfortable.

We zipped directly into our tree house which was some ridiculous height off the ground. The view was spectacular, nothing but jungle! The tree house had two levels, the first was where you zipped in and had the bathroom, the second housed the kitchen and living area. I make it general practice to read very little about the conditions of the places I go so that I have low expectations and I'm normally pleasantly surprised.  I had no idea there was even going to be a bathroom, I figured we were going showerless for the next couple days. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Once we settled in we started talking about showers. I was the first one to go. While we were cleaning the mud off ourselves so we could walk up to the second floor we used the hose next to the squaty toilet. I remember saying to someone that it was more of a shower than I expected, but that it was going to be a difficult shower, they didn't say anything. Now that I look back this was absolutely ridiculous, I'd been traveling for two weeks and I'd seen them in well over half of the places I'd stayed.  Somehow in my excitement that I got any type of shower it never hit me that this was not the shower, but the Southeast Asian answer to toilet paper. After I “showered” I walked upstairs and everyone asked how it was.  I said it was fine, but it was kind of a pain in the ass to have to bend over to wash your hair since the hose wasn't long enough. No one thought anything of it till the second shower taker emerged, “Amsbry, you didn't have
to bend over to wash your hair.  The shower was around the corner, you took a shower with the toilet hose.”  Everyone laughed hysterically. I was slightly grossed out, but it was the same water and I was happy to see everyone laughing.

They brought us dinner, which was really good considering we were in the middle of the jungle and they had to hike it all in. It got dark just before seven, we all played cards for a bit, set up up the mosquito nets and floor mattresses and went to bed early.

Many, including myself, woke up with wet beds. It rained half the night and all the way to lunch, which was no match for the thatch roof. We may have been unlucky with the rain, but we were super lucky with the Gibbons. Even though it is called the Gibbons Experience very few people get to see them, but we got to see them swinging from the trees for hours.

A couple of the group members spent the afternoon hiking and zipping to other tree houses, but most of us stuck around and zipped a couple of times from our tree house. When I came back from my short excursion I was taking my shoes off I discovered a leech on my ankle. I had only ventured a couple hundred feet from the tree house and hadn't walked through any water, but I managed to get a leech. I freaked out a bit because I couldn't seem to get a good enough grip to get it off, but eventually did.

We headed back early the next day knowing that the car was still broken down so we had seven hours ahead of us. About half way we heard a car. It was driving the new people. It took them in and ended up getting us for the last 15 minutes which saved us an hour, but I kind of wished I could have finished it myself after I had put in that much time.

It was an extreme three days. Seven hours in, zipping, sleeping in tree houses, gibbons, leeches, and six hours out. I would highly recommend it, but preferably in the dry season!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Mystery of Maria

Maria is a young girl who helps the family, not quite a maid, but something close. Today was her fourteenth birthday. When I arrived I had no idea who she was. They didn't introduce her as part of the family, but she was always there, actually I don't think I have ever been awake at the house when Maria wasn't there. She arrives before I wake up and leaves after I go to sleep seven days a week. When I asked the twelve year old daughter in the family to help me with a family tree so I could get to know a little bit about each person she described Maria as the house girl. Part of me has always thought she must have some relation to the family because they treat her as part of the family a lot of the time. When we all took a picture on Carnaval they made sure she was front and center, but she eats all of her meals in the kitchen. After a while I thought maybe she had worked for them for so long that she had become a part of the family, but I met a previous student who lived with my family a couple months ago and she said Maria wasn't a part of the household at that point.

When I have spoken to other Bolivians about the situation they think it is a little odd, but say that Maria is probably from a very poor family and the family needs the small salary she most likely brings in. I was frustrated she wasn't in school, but I understood and took that as the reason. Then one day there was another young girl over at the house talking to Maria. She was introduced as Maria's older sister. Maria is always in traditional dress with her hair in the traditional braids. I've never seen her in anything other than a skirt. Her sister had her hair down, big flashy earrings, and tight jeans and a t-shirt, clothing that would fit in perfectly in the US and was taking pictures with her cell phone. I was confused all over again. How are these two girls from the same family? Sure, one could be traditional and the other not, but they are only a year apart. Why is one working for a family all day?

More was explained to me today. I always thought it was odd what a big deal the son-in-law's parents made about Maria when they came to visit. Then today they brought her a cake and two of her sisters to celebrate. After I asked a few questions I figured out that Maria's older sister works for their family, but under very different circumstances. I would love to know more about Maria, but all of my questions are met with one word answers. I guess I thought there was a bigger secret behind Maria and maybe there is. But I do know today was the happiest I have ever seen Maria and it made me happy.

Update -

A couple of days ago when my Bolivian Grandparents were out of the house Maria sat down next to me and started talking. She spilled everything or at least it felt like it to me. It turns out that she is from a small town five hours away, where her parents, whom she hasn't seen since September, still live. When she finished eight years of school the family decided it was best that she move into the city for a better life. She lives with her two older sisters, her brother, and her brother's wife and baby. She said she loves the family she works for, but shares my dislike for the son-in-law, which makes her not want to stay after a year is up.

She asked me a million questions about what the US is like and how much money things cost. She asked me how much I pay the family. I didn't want to answer because I knew she was going to compare it to how much she is paid, and she did. She makes 400 Bolivianos a month. I pay 490 each week to the family, which is a completely fair price from my point of view, but she was shocked. She talked and talked and said how happy she was to get to talk to me one on one and that from now on she wanted to come to my room at the end of the night to learn English and for me to practice my Spanish. She almost started to cry when I said I was leaving in three days. I noticed that she had her ears pierced three times, but had tiny pieces of wood in the top two holes of each ear. When I asked why she said she was going to get earrings soon, but had to wait a few more months.

I can't just give Maria money, and giving her things isn't going to help either. It isn't my place to feel bad for her, or to judge my Bolivian family or hers. I don't know what I'm supposed to do other than realize it is just a different life than I know. I'm not sure if the gift was more for my benefit or her's, but I bought her two pairs of silver earrings as a late birthday present.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dammit! Not again! (and pics of the food that put me there...not really!)

Turns out I don't have an iron stomach. Yep, the hospital, it happened all over again. I'd been a little sick on and off since I arrived in Bolivia, but nothing out of the ordinary considering how different the food was. Then I got really sick. The school insisted I go to the hospital to get checked out. They said I had amoebas, the same thing I had in Cambodia, and sent me home with some medication. I felt lucky, as I wasn't nearly as sick as in Cambodia. I felt better the next morning, that is until I felt worse, and when I say worse I mean the kind of sick that makes you wish you would stop living. After two days of not being able to keep a cracker or even a sip of water in my stomach the family insisted I go to the emergency room.

I had to check into the hospital so I could have IV fluids. The owner of the school made sure I was settled into my room before leaving and said they were just going to observe me and get me re-hydrated till the next day. The room was much the same as one in the US except I was sharing with a very old Bolivian woman. And the hospital was much the same also, well except that one one spoke English. Yes, I had learned quite a bit of Spanish since I'd been in Bolivia, but definitely nothing medical and I only met one person in the entire hospital who spoke English. This became a problem when they came into my room and wheeled me through the hospital into a basement where I saw a half a dozen other people passed out on beds. I couldn't understand what was going on and started to get quite upset. Finally, I met that one doctor who spoke
English. He informed me I was going to have an endoscopy, at which point I got even more upset. They had me sign some paperwork, but of course I had no idea what I was signing. Then they came at me with a couple syringes they said would put me to sleep. I have only been put under once before and it was not a pleasant experience, so I said a quick I love you to my family in my head and fell asleep. I woke up a couple hours later and after another day in the hospital everything turned out fine. I still have no idea what was wrong with me because the doctor changed his diagnosis every time he saw me, but I'm feeling much better.

For the week following the hospital I wasn't allowed to eat anything but chicken soup and crackers - I won't be eating either one of those for a very long time. I have since joked with my Bolivian family that something good had to have come from the lack of food, that I had to have lost five pounds. They all looked at me very matter of factly and informed me I did not. I am choosing to think I did.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Carnaval in Cochabamba

My Cochabamban Carnaval experience was kicked off on a Tuesday, which is when the National holiday is celebrated. The school held a fiesta for us and allowed us to take part in the Pachamama ceremony. This has been a tradition in Bolivia for a very long time and it is interesting to see how it has been mixed with Christian beliefs, as Pachamama is loosely translated to mother earth. When the school's party was over I joined my family's festivities. All of the uncles and their families were in attendance. After we ate I could see that everyone was gearing up for something, at least they were kind enough to let me change into some other clothes before they threw a giant bucket of water on me. The water fight was never ending, but probably the most fun I've had with my family thus far.

After I changed I told my family I was supposed to meet some friends. They warned me not to leave, that it wouldn't be pretty, and it wasn't. I thought for sure the people on the street would leave me alone, but no. In four blocks I had well over ten buckets of water thrown on me. I was not happy at the time, especially when a man said he wouldn't throw any on me only to have his 80 year old mother come up behind be and completely drench me.

Cochabamba's parade took place that weekend. I was expecting something quite similar to Oruro, but thankfully it was completely different. Everything seemed to be a bit of a joke. In the beginning each group was dressed up as a different superhero. Because of the altitude in Oruro I wasn't able to drink any beer the weekend before and I was looking forward to enjoying a couple, but it turns out the Cochabamba's Carnaval is alcohol free. This was more than a little shocking in Bolivia and to the dancers from Oruro who still carried their beers in the parade We left our seats in the early afternoon, and of course, promptly were covered with espuma and water!