Sunday, 25 November 2012

Colors of Kathmandu: An Intro to Nepal

I'm feeling a little nostalgic.

Our trip is winding down- only two more weeks left before we fly back to France- and I'm thinking about how things used to be. Back at the beginning. Back when it was all fresh and new.

Back when I was taking this blog thing seriously.

You don't have to tell me (although some of you already have), lately, I've been a worthless blogger. Back in the good old days, it was a blog post a week- sometimes more. These days? Well, let's just say that, even after a decade with the same person, I'm having sex more often than I'm blogging.

And what's my excuse? I have the time: I was on a tropical island for an entire month doing absolutely nothing except making a few drinks. I have the motivation: many of you have been following this blog for nearly two years (for those of you who have- THANK YOU!). I have the material: these last few months have been some of the most interesting and eye-opening of the entire trip.

No, it seems that, as the trip slowly comes to a close, there's a part of me that is finding it harder and harder to share this part of my life. Like I don't want it to end so much that I'm kidding myself into believing that keeping my experiences to myself will make the trip last longer. Like taking the time to document it is taking away from the experience itself.

The thing is, I like blogging. I love sharing this with people who are interested in something that is so important to me. I'm doing this for myself as much as anyone else. It's just that lately, I've been wanting to savor every second living these last few weeks, not writing about it.

But that's not fair. You, who have followed me throughout this adventure, deserve more. So, once again, I owe you an apology. And, more importantly, I owe you a timely blog post.

So let's get to it.

We have just finished a two week whirlwind tour of Nepal, which included a 10-day trek, a two day rafting trip and one day exploring Kathmandu. I'll get to the outdoorsy stuff in a later post (but hopefully not too much later!), so for now, I want to give you a little taste of a country that we adored, by way of a photographic love letter to it's capital city, Kathmandu.

This post is going to be picture-heavy, as Nepal was seriously a feast for the eyes. The incredible natural beauty of the mountains was breathtaking, and I'll give it the gushing review it deserves in due time, but it was Kathmandu that really gave us a feel for the colorful, multi-cultural assault on the mind and senses that is Nepal.

The very first thing we said to each other upon arriving in the city was, "It looks like India."

We had always thought of Nepal as nothing but the Himalayas, Sherpas and Buddhist prayer flags, but here, in the lowland city, we could have been in Delhi.

Granted, neither of us have ever actually been to India, but, you know, we've seen Slumdog Millionaire- that has to count for something, right? (Kinda like how Forrest Gump gave me a feel for Vietnam. I'm so internationally aware...) But lame cultural assumptions aside, Kathmandu really did look like what I imagine India to be: a riotous explosion of colors, religion, smells and sounds, albeit with a fraction of the people. Women in flowing saris of warm reds, oranges, purples and pinks, men in sweater vests that would make even the oldest, whitest golfer jealous; spicy curries, sacred cows roaming the city streets, speeding buses and trucks decorated like Christmas trees, complete with blinking lights and garland. The dusty, polluted streets, the cacophony of horns and street vendors, the Hindu temples tucked away down hidden streets and sidewalk stalls selling everything under the sun.

We f-cking loved it.

It was La Paz all over again: crazy, colorful, chaotic. Only this time, the food was better.

As much as I want to, I can't possibly do it justice in words, so here are the pictures.

Typically colorful Nepalese architecture outside of Kathmandu
Sacred or not, cows are not supposed to eat plastic bags...

A toddler playing with the prayer wheels at a temple
Rickshaw parking

So, after all my explanation and ass-kissing about how I owe my audience more, I'm leaving you with that: a half-written post and a bunch of pictures that do the hard work for me. 

I'm a blogging legend.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

From One Island to Another

"Ten dollars on number six," I slur, smacking a bill on the bookie's counter. Weaving back through the crowd with a beer in hand, I have finally, for the first time in three days, forgotten about The Beach.

I’ve written and then immediately deleted three different introductions to a post about our month working at The Beach. But I'm done. I give up. I simply can’t find a way to explain our time there and how the experience affected us without sounding cheesy and cliché. To give you an idea in as few words as possible: I cried when we said goodbye to the people we worked with on the island, and cried a second time when we reached the mainland.

And now, on another island, the completely- and I do mean completely- different island of Hong Kong, I'm drowning my sorrows about leaving our beautiful, tranquil, intimate paradise with a combination of German beer and gambling.

Only a three hour flight from The Beach, yet a world away: Hong Kong was a blast. A luxurious, expensive blast, which we loved for the exact opposite reasons we loved the beach. We adored its craziness, its anonymity, its worldliness. Adored its cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, the way it was at once totally international, yet undeniably Asian.

In order to be able to afford a couple of days in the notoriously expensive city, we used a hotel voucher that my ex-coworkers generously gave me when I left my job in Switzerland. As a result, we were able to stay, for nearly free, at a very nice hotel, complete with complimentary slippers. Fancy stuff indeed.

We were so proud to be living the high life while staying within our backpackers’ budget. That is, until we celebrated our cleverness by going to Happy Valley, Hong Kong’s famous horse racing track, and blowing two days-worth of expenses on beer and betting.

You know, because we are such responsible adults.

But you can’t blame us. We were enjoying our first day in Hong Kong when we saw an advertisement for “Oktoberfest at the Races.” How could we resist? Within a few hours, we were eating German sausages, drinking ridiculous amounts of Hefeweizen and betting on "lucky" horses. 

Of course we didn’t win anything. Of course we spent way too much money. Of course we got drunk and celebrated our losses with complete strangers, staggering home at 2:00am, a grease-soaked bag of McDonald's in hand. 

But we had fun. And really, isn’t that the point of this whole trip?

We definitely don't know these people

When we weren’t drinking and gambling, we were exploring Hong Kong’s diverse neighborhoods, mostly by way of their restaurants. To get a taste of the local flavor- literally- we stopped into one of the city’s typical old-school dim sum restaurants, where customers squeeze around communal tables and order mystery dumplings and buns from women pushing carts of steaming bamboo baskets through the crowded room.

It was chaos. When a cart with a more popular item- like BBQ pork buns or shrimp dumplings- would emerge from the kitchen, people would jump up from their seats and run across the dining room, pushing each other aside to be first in line to order from the cart. We had no idea what was going on, no idea what we were ordering and even less of an idea of whether or not we were doing any of it correctly. But did we care? Hell no. A little confusion is a small price to pay for a plateful of pork products. 

Confused and amused at dim sum

We also made sure to indulge in Hong Kong’s famous international dining scene. One day, we had an incredible pizza in the neighborhood of SoHo, which wouldn’t have been out of place in any big Western city, and that night, we ate a mind-blowing bowl of Japanese ramen noodles with pork neck, the broth thick and glistening with fat from the meat. Hong Kong is one of the most international cities in the world, and we took full advantage of that fact with our stomachs.

This is Asia?
On our last day in the city, before an evening flight to Nepal, we took a cable car up to The Peak, one of the steep hills that overlooks the city and the rest of Hong Kong Island. From high up, we could see the expansive cityscape on one side of the hill, and, even more impressively, the undeveloped, forested hills and sandy beaches of the south side of the island. We had always thought of HK as just a city when in fact, a vast part of it is wooded countryside and long stretches of peaceful beach. We were only fifteen minutes from the center of one of the world’s most populous cities, but up here on the peak, we were able to stroll along a wooded path in complete solitude, with nothing but the sound of the birds for company.

To top off our afternoon high above the craziness of the city, we had a romantic little picnic of paté, French cheese, fresh bread and red wine- products that we hadn’t been able to easily find for the four months we had been in Asia, but that were readily available in the local grocery store next to our hotel.

Dim sum one day, cheese and wine the next- all within a three-hour flight of our favorite place in the world?

This might just be our new city.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Rock and Roll in Hoi An

“F-ck you, take it easy.”

We had only been at our guesthouse on the beach outside of Hoi An for an hour, but there we were, sitting at a beer bottle-littered lunch table with our host, Hoa, who was regaling us with stories from the years he fought in the war with the Marines and imploring us to “take it easy”. In the North of Vietnam, the US was the enemy, but here, in the South, it was different. Hoa had joined the Marines when he was not much older than a child and had grown up surrounded by war and soldiers, as evidenced by his deep love of four-lettered words.

“In the Marines, we were f-cking rock and roll,” explains Hoa, as he nods to me to refill his beer glass.

“People ask me: Hoa, what does it mean, Rock and Roll? I say, ‘Rock and Roll, it means f-cking take it easy.’ We didn’t give a shit- we just wanted to have a good time.  What does it mean, the Marines? It means rock and roll.”

I'll admit that before coming to Vietnam, I didn’t know anything about what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War.” It was an important event in cultural history that defined my parents’ generation, but the only stuff I knew about it was what I had learned from watching Forrest Gump. Not Apocalypse Now, not Platoon. Forrest Gump. Now that’s rock and roll.

Sitting with Hoa, hearing him talk about his “brothers” from the Marines, some of which have come back to Vietnam to visit him, drove home not only how pervasive the war was in this country, but also how much has been forgiven. I asked Hoa the same question I had asked a moto driver that morning: Are you angry? Are the Vietnamese still angry at us?

And the answer was no. Maybe I would have received a different answer in the North, but here, the popular opinion seemed to be that what’s done is done. It’s the past. Let’s move on. Which, for someone who comes from a country where a good portion of the population still thinks that France “owes us for saving their asses in World War Two,” this willingness to forgive and forget is refreshing.
I’d be lying if I let you believe that our stay in Hoi An, which is on the coast in the center of Vietnam, was all cultural understanding and appreciation for history. It wasn’t. The vast majority of our time was spent on an endeavor that was decidedly less politically charged: Shopping.

You see, while Hoi An is a mandatory tourist stop for its lovely colonial architecture and charming old town, it is also renowned for its tailoring industry. There are literally thousands of tailors and dressmakers in the city, offering a relapsed anti-consumerist unlimited opportunities to have clothes custom made on the cheap.

I was a woman possessed. It had been such a long time- 10 months to be exact- that I hadn’t shopped or thought about shopping, that once I was confronted with this abundance of fabrics and patterns providing countless combinations to create exactly what I wanted, I just couldn’t get enough. I went from stopping my clothes addiction cold turkey to what was essentially a four-day shopping bender.

Vincent looking like a homeless guy in a stolen suit (and a technical t-shirt)
That look on my face? Thinkin' about ALL THE DRESSES!

We did do some other activities while in Hoi An: we rented motorbikes, took a cooking class, ate a bunch of street food, explored the winding little streets of the old town that were lined with colorful stucco houses, got our ears cleaned at a local barber shop (huh?). 

Attacking banh xeo- crispy filled pancakes wrapped with greens, chili and rice paper- at the market
Elodie and I found the perfect appetizer on the sidewalk

But all of these escapades were basically just time fillers between fittings at the tailor. I won’t go into the details of our purchases, but I’ll just say that when we left the shop for the last time with our new goodies, the tailor actually gave us each a free gift to thank us for our substantial business.

Beyond the frenzied consumerism, Hoi An was a wonderful place to end our time in Vietnam. Its colorful historic quarter was truly lovely, providing a tranquil, aesthetically pleasing place to wander around and get lost. 

The town has one of the best culinary scenes in a country known worldwide for its cuisine, so we indulged as much as we could (keeping in mind that we still had to fit into the clothes we were having made for us). We ate some incredible street and market food and learned to make some of those same dishes during a private evening cooking class we took at one of Hoi An’s restaurants.

The cooking class was excellent: we had a great time learning to make, and subsequently devour, several delicious regional dishes. Our teacher, a hilarious fast-talking Vietnamese lady, taught us the ins and outs of dishes like beef and papaya salad, shrimp spring rolls, and fish baked in banana leaf.  In addition to learning to make these dishes, we also learned that if something tastes good in Vietnam, you should say “yummy,” not “yumm,” as the latter apparently means that you are horny. I kept peering into the dish that our teacher was making and saying, “Yumm,” until the little woman finally turned to me and exclaimed, “Stop doing that- it’s makin’ me nervous!”

The course ended with a meal of the dishes we had learned to make, as well as others that were equally amazing. We left the class with full bellies and the recipes of the dishes we made so that we can recreate them when we get home. Wherever “home” is going to be…

Hoi An’s history-seeped architecture was stunning during the day, but it was at night that the old town really came alive. We were fortunate enough to be in the city during the annual moon festival- a celebration that I can’t even begin to explain simply because I never figured out what it was all about. Although the religious background of the fete is beyond me, I could easily appreciate the party aspect.

In the evenings during the festival, Hoi An’s streets were completely dark save for hundreds of colorful lanterns that hung from every doorway and balcony. Street lights were darkened, restaurants were lit by candle light, the narrow streets were closed off to traffic. But don’t think for a second that it was a peaceful scene: the streets were positively packed with people. The entire population seemed to be out enjoying the atmosphere. Along the river, bridges were lined with lanterns that reflected colorful light off the water, while children sold little paper boats with candles in them to float down the current. The scene was breath-taking, if slightly frenetic.

The lanterns weren’t the only indication of the celebration. Weaving through the crowded streets were gangs of young boys dressed in Chinese dragon costumes and beating drums. The dragons comprised of two guys: the head and front legs, and the backside, moving in synch to create a beast that jumped and danced to the beat of the percussion. It was very cool to see, so much so that we didn’t even mind when they came to ask us for money after their performance.

I’ve spent a good ten minutes trying to think of an appropriate segue to this next bit, but nothing I can think of can take me from lanterns and dragons to ear cleaning and Vincent’s beard. There really isn’t even that much to say about either, except that Vincent grew a pretty impressive beard over the span of two months and finally shaved it off, along with all of his hair, in Hoi An. The difference after he shaved was so shocking that when I first saw him I freaked out and wouldn’t touch him. Sounds harsh, but the dude went from Tom Hanks in Castaway to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia in one afternoon! As our cooking coach would say, he was “makin’ me nervous!”

I don’t have a good “after” picture of Vincent, but here’s one he took during his shave. 

That is one serious beard

The barber shop responsible for Vincent’s transformation also offered ear cleaning, which involved a (hopefully) trained professional who dug in our ears with various metal tools, poking and scraping out any offending wax. Think of a trip to the dentist, but for your ears. It was pretty uncomfortable and I felt a little jipped because there was hardly anything to pull out of my ears anyway. Vincent, on the other hand, was a veritable gold mine of ear gunk. The guy cleaning his ears would use long, pointed tweezers to pull out a hunk of something gross and would wave it around proudly to anyone willing to look. While seeing what lurks within my husband’s ears is quite possibly the last thing my marriage needs, I humored the man with appreciative “oohs” and “aahs” at every new discovery.

Pretty miserable during my ear cleaning

After Hoi An, it was time to say goodbye to Vietnam, and by extension, to Elodie. The three of us flew to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where Elodie took a plane on to Singapore and V and I stayed a night before heading back to The Beach in Cambodia to work for a month. We only spent one night in Saigon and didn’t take any pictures, so I really don’t have a lot to say about the city. The main highlight was that we celebrated our 10 year anniversary (over one third of my life! AUGH!) at a wonderful French restaurant where the chef, who was appropriately from a small town near where V and I met in France, makes his own cheese and serves unabashed French specialties like scallops in lobster cream sauce and wild venison with home-grown vanilla. The food was punch-yourself-in-the-face good and the chef had an awesome mustache, so it was a pretty great night.

How this blog went from traveling in Vietnam to all things facial hair, I will never know...