Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Karst caves and fresh air

Unlike most, more energetic and inspired, travelers, expats and what-have-you, I am pretty useless at actually going out on adventures once I have a comfortable nest to curl up in and can begin the arduous task of establishing daily routines. Learning how to order my favourite kind of noodles is enough of an adventure for my Tuesday, thank you very much. 

Despite this, I was thankfully jilted out of my stupor by a visit from one my dearest friends, who has a near-phobia of online existence and who, therefore, does not appear in any photos or commentary. I will call her 'Activated Nut' (A.N.), since she introduced me to the incredibly bourgeois nonsense that is 'activated' nuts (which, unfortunately, are wonderful).

We spent most of her week motorbiking around Hanoi, eating (a lot) and drinking every cocktail with gin in it, but the highlight was our overnight trip to the area of Tam Coc, accessible via the train station at Ninh Binh (2 hours from Hanoi). Ninh Binh itself is a shady town, with the atmosphere and personality of a border town (that is to say: sleazy, untrustworthy and desperate). We met one unsavory woman who roped us both in, despite our smarter instincts, and so we began our trip with A.N. firmly telling another lady involved in the scam "No! Go away" and slamming a car door. Tensions high, we arrived at our hotel and, upon realising we had arrived at paradise, dropped our bags (and baggage), took advantage of the free bikes and went on an entirely unresearched roam. 

Well, I don't know if I've ever been in a place which rewards random exploration with the same intensity as Tam Coc. For example, I was cycling past the little pond (?) below, saw that cave and stood staring at it until an old woman came over and offered to take us into the cave in her boat. Well. Well well well. 

About 15 minutes later we come out in the inside of the mountain. Dusk.

Our staunch guide, who would point her torch at cave formations and say "Madam, look - beautiful"

Can you see the face on a winged body? In the blue. 

Hyperventilating and generally astonished and shaky (it was dark when we finally came out of the cave again. It had been light when we went in), we cycled back on the roads between the rice fields, in the dark, and called out little exclamations to each other. At one moment in the cave our torch had failed, and we had sat, in the pitch black, holding hands and saying "it's ok, it's ok, don't worry

It was ok. Staunch guide lady fixed the torch, in the dark, and we returned to the incredible sight below (our mind-blowing hotel), swam in the dark and knocked back gins. 

For our nerves. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rinse, Home

After my hideous previous post, I thought I should write something else, something that sounds promising, like a lemon cleanse for my blog. I live on an almost-island on the largest lake in Hanoi city. The lake is called Tay Ho, which means 'West Lake', because it is in the West. Ironically, it is also the centre of expat (Westerner, also called: Tays) life. My little island is predominantly Vietnamese, excepting one fantastic bar (passionfruit mojitos!) and the fact I can bike for ten minutes and hit what I refer to as 'expat street' (xuan dieu), where I can buy all the baked goods and imported marmalade my heart desires. 

Meanwhile Yen Phu road (not on the island) is purely Vietnamese madness, and I barely recognize the street depending which time of day I bike down it. Sometimes, it seems to be all clothes shops, then, hours later, there are nothing but noodle stands as far as my less-than-20/20 eyes can see. The shops and stalls seem to open in mutually exclusive shifts, and the street is always packed with more traffic than it was built for and a dizzying array of delightful and absurd temptations. 

Despite this close proximity to nonsense, 'Yen Phu village' itself (the little island) is a blissfully sleepy and quiet reprieve from the horns and dust of Hanoi. When I bike in from a long day teaching, or running errands in Hanoi traffic, I actually feel lighter as I cross over from the Mainland. Especially at night, with the trees full of lights. 

My dreamy, light-swamped and almost eerily quiet apartment is in the inside of this island. If the island was a swimming dugong, I would be sitting near his little smile. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Story time: Jerks in India

Noted jerk: Django, my host's dog

Sometimes when I am traveling (or living in general) something very extraordinary or hilarious and awful happens to me and I have no one to tell, so I just mull over it for ages and stew it like so much fine chutney. I often think I can't blog about something because so much time has passed and a blog should be like a some kind of current events show. This is nonsense. Actually a blog is a highly self-indulgent piece of loveliness and I can do what the hell I want, so, without further ado - 
A TRUE STORY: I was boarding my plane in Kolkata, India and I couldn't help but notice three very loud, obnoxious other tourists. There were two guys and one girl. One guy was wearing ali baba pants (urgh), the girl was wearing an incredibly skimpy singlet top and a bandana combo (fine, but not fine in India) and the other guy was wearing A FEDORA. It was like the holy trinity.
Anyway, they had been yelling around and generally making a scene, as western tourists in developing countries are wont to do. I had been trying to avoid them, in the time honoured tradition of white people everywhere (avoiding other white people), but my plane was boarding right beside them so there I was. Pretty much everyone else on my flight was Indian, and noticeably uncomfortable in the presence of such openly hostile, badly dressed westerners. We were lining up and Fedora guy yells out : "HEY, nice shoes!" indicating a young Indian man in front of me in pointy, shiny business shoes. The Indian man smiled and shuffled awkwardly. As he turned away, Fedora guy mouthed the words "NOT!" to the group, and winked at me, and then the all three of them fell into loud, bullying laughter. The Indian guy shrank into the floor.
I gave them all my strongest, meanest look, but I couldn't bring myself to say anything because I wasn't 100% sure the young Indian man had noticed and I didn't want to draw the bullying to his attention if he hadn't. 

Gah! Anyway. FEDORAS!* 

* Some people who wear fedoras are nice. Sometimes they look good. However, 90% of the time it's this (and I challenge anyone to make the deadly combo of cargo shorts and a fedora work). 

Wasn't that story disgusting? Allow me to cleanse your palate with these pictures of a walk Django took me on through the betelnut orchard. He led me to a house where the people made me tea and we all sat around smiling at each other (since we did not have a shared language). 

Also, here are some supremely non-jerky people I hung out with in Gorubathan. I miss them. The first girl, pictured, is Puja and she was probably my favourite person in the whole village. She wasn't one of my students, but her family ran the only cyber cafe, so naturally they saw me pretty much everyday. I even had to sleep at their house one time due to storms. 

When I came to say good-bye she cried and, then, so did I. 

Puja with her siblings

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Four dresses and a skirt in PRACHUAP

Promenade and monkey temple hill

So, I went op-shopping in Chumphon and had one of those miraculous days where almost everything I tried on fit me perfectly. This is especially weird given I am size XXXXXXL (or something) in Thailand, and old stuff is usually even smaller. Maybe the Gods were hangin. 

Anyway, here is your tour of the beautiful sea-side town of Prachuap Khiri Khan, featuring me and my new clothes in my most self-absorbed post to date. 

The promenade

At the weekend night market, on the shore front

At this little limestone mountain by Ao Manao where spectacled langurs live and love

This mom let us pat her

The famous temple on the hill
- we went at dusk so the resident troop of horrible monkeys were too tired to follow

To me, a dress becomes ten times cooler once it has pockets

In CIAO PIZZA - an adorable Italian restaurant 

Finally - that Chris - knocking back wine and soda and watching RUSSIA TODAY.
p.s. Chris took all the photos and is the most lovely.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Trang weekend food market

Trang is the epitome of a 'station town', in the best possible way. In the South of Thailand, Trang is a stop-over point for many western backpackers on their way to somewhere else (islands, like Koh Muk where I had just spent a glorious week) and a refueling point for locals who live in rural areas or islands and need to buy more supplies. In any case, all this conglomerating of people makes for one rightly famous and vibrant food market; a place where dreams are made for a food dork like me. 

Here's a small sampling of the delights centred around the pretty old train station on your average Friday or Saturday night in Trang. 

Dragon-fruit (pink skin, white flesh with black seeds) has the best aesthetic

Tiny eggs

Fluro sweets

Angry birds sushi

Western fare: burgers like your dad makes them (if your dad isn't very good at it...)

Self-shaken ice pops (15 minutes of shaking by hand)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Suburban India: Vizag

Ram watching cricket. As usual. 

After four months in a village of about one thousand people (according to the locals - I still think it must have been more), I took a train down to Vizag (Vishakapatnam) to visit my dear old friend and room-mate Ram. One of the first witty comments Ram made to me, after we picked our way through the hordes of homeless people living at Vizag station, was that foreigners seem to like to come to India to take photos of poor people. I said 'yeah, pornography of poverty' and then proceeded to take lots of photos of him and his life. Middle-class India says hi.

Beetroot rice. One of the best ideas ever. 

One of the best things about staying at Ram's house was the food, and that was one of the best things because Ram's mom is a genius. Just look at that rice above! It was so good I could have eaten that alone and called it a meal, but no, it came with all the stuff below (not to mention a fridge stocked full of treats). Apart from being a culinary genius, Usha (his mom) is one of the kindest and most generous hosts I've ever stayed with. Ram said "Indian generosity" and she replied, quickly, that she thinks she'd be like this even if she wasn't Indian.

With malai kofta, anchovies (deepfried) and cucumber salad.

Drinks in 'the Park'

Ram himself was the perfect host - taking me on long drives (I love being a passenger in a car), taking me to beautiful local beaches and then leaving me alone on the days where I simply wanted to play on the internet in a quiet place. All of this was bliss, peppered with the aforementioned meal interruptions and cold beers. One morning I went to yoga with Usha and nearly died - it wasn't 'hot yoga' per se, but it was in India, so it basically was. And it was 'power yoga', so very fast and repetitive. On the way back we stopped at a British supermarket and bought treats and I felt my suburban retreat was complete.

More incredible food - curry with a side of mango/ coriander salad. Swoon.

One day I found the little guy pictured below and caught him for Ram. We hung out with him for a while, but then put him back in Ram's room - hoping he grows up big and hungry for mosquitos.

One of the main/ only conventional touristy 'sights' of Vizag is this submarine, which functions as a museum of life inside the sub during the war for East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Ram and I chose a suitably storming, monsooning evening to go there and were well soaked by the time we dripped our way through the cramped, spooky intestines of this old beast. My heart leapt nearly every time I turned a corner to come face to face with one of the mannequins engaged in some 'typical' marine activity.

On the day I was supposed to take my train to Kolkata, I was still recovering from another bout of 'Delhi belly' and Usha insisted I cancel my train ticket and fly up a few days later. She also insisted on buying me the flight. It was one of the kindest, most ridiculously generous events in my life ever. I can't wait to be settled in Ha Noi and able to send her a package full of gratitude.