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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Festina Lanta

I know I am the only person who enjoys that title, but hey, I'm the only person who reads this blog anyway. Festina lente, Latin for "make haste slowly." And that's what I've been doing here on Ko Lanta ... going nowhere fast, cramming my days to the gills with nothing in particular.

Yesterday I went snorkeling. Good stuff. Not the most professional setup, the word shitshow was tossed around a few times as our boat's captain hopelessly maneuvered the boat like he was parallel parking on the ocean, and the boat vomited oil and smoke, but it got us to where we needed to be. We snorkeled around giant stone atolls, hilltops jutting out of the water, and the coral and the sea life was superb.

Atolls like this.

We then went on to an atoll that had an underwater cave that, during low tide, you could swim through to a hidden ravine in the middle of the island. Inside was your own private paradise, beach and water and green wild jungle. The underwater cave was used, supposedly, to hide pirate treasure, and then for the movie The Beach. Truly an illustrious heritage.

Ate lunch on the shore, and found some starfish in the water around the boat. Then it was one more stop and then a long "sightseeing" ride home.

During the course of the day I met an American couple, Emily and Marc. You don't meet many Americans traveling in Southeast Asia, which is a shame. Anyway, we ended up having drinks, which turned into a superb Thai dinner, which ended in beers and a hookah/shisha/water pipe. Smoking and drinking, a world-weary Frenchman who has been "traveling" for over four years came into the bar, and proceeded to give us an impromptu fire baton show. We talked about traveling and life in Ko Lanta with long cool hits of apple tobacco. It was a mellow end to a great day.

And let me assure you at home, yes, that's tobacco, and only tobacco.

And now I am sunburned like crispy bacon. And I'm thinking, enough with the beach. I'm going off to the interior of Thailand, to hike around Khao Sok National Park, and hopefully see a blooming Rafflesia, also known as the corpse flower.

Cheers, Ko Lanta. I'm outta here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ko Lanta, Baby

Enjoying the sun in Ko Lanta. Rented a motor scooter, spent the whole day driving, sight seeing, getting sunburned. Arrived yesterday evening, Saturday, everything was booked. A family-run beach-suite outfit said I could sleep on an extra mattress tonight (for free) and then get a room in the morning. I said, yes please.

Any time I take a photo of that backpack, I feel like it's a self-portrait.

Sunset. About a hundred yards from where I sleep.

Climbing to the top of the lighthouse ...

It's a bridge, what more can I say? A very islandy bridge, though.

This is how they advertise bars.

Full album here ... more pics tomorrow.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thailand 到了!

For those playing along at home: Thailand dao le! I've arrived in Thailand! Welcome to the Land of Smiles.

Last night I realized how a few weeks away from language study can retard your progress. It's only been about ten days since I arrived in Singapore, maybe three weeks since the crush of finals, grades, and end-of-semester goings-on (like trips to Harbin) took over my schedule, and so it's been a while since I've practiced my Chinese, and I feel my tenuous grip on the language slipping. I tried to use it in Malaysia when I could, enough Chinese and Mandarin speakers there, but they use a whole different body of words, asking questions using different verbs and tweaked grammar, and I just felt helpless. But then I just took control of the conversation, telling them about me fast enough that they had no time for questions, and that left them mutely awed.

I just hopped the border into Hat Yai, Thailand. Know what they say about first impressions? I gott admit, at first, it was pretty daunting, really. Singapore, Malaysia, they've all been using roman alphabets, and if not just outright English, so even if I can't understand the word on the sign or above the shop, I can read the word and recognize patterns. ("Kedia," for example, is store, which I learned because every damn shop had "kedai" in it's name; "salemat datang" is welcome.)

Thailand is like walking into a warped China, in that there is no English ANYWHERE, everything is in the strange squizzle-loop Thai characters, and even on road signs I look down and see a tiny few roman letters and think "that pinyin is all wrong!" and of course it's wrong because pinyin is China and this is Thailand and hey, let's get lingua-fied and crazy and have 5 tones and gender-specific words (I'm not kidding, men and women have different ways to say the same things ... that's a language first for me, and takes Spanish's genders to a whole new level). But there's just something about studying all that Chinese and learning all those characters, only to come here and see a whole other language's worth of pictograms and symbols that for the life of me I can't read ... it's all very disorienting at first.

But I have my Thai phrasebook, which is good. And to my not-so-big surprise, the people at the bank, the hostel, and the little restuarant where I just ate a plate of fried rice, all spoke enough English for me to get by. Guess they get enough foreigners here, which is good, but strange. Met a couple going more north than I am at the moment, two of the only other Americans I have seen here in SE Asia, and they told me they've been through Thailand once before, and can't speak a lick of Thai, and have had no trouble, because everyone more or less speaks English or understands you're just a poor foreign backpacker trying to get somewhere, probably a beach.

Yes, so: Thailand. It was almost surreal, crossing the border: on one side of the gate was a clean, empty blacktop, the Malaysian side, and right across that imaginary line, the pavement cracked, the people multiplied, steam and foodsmells and noise thumping into the van ... Thailand. I can't wait to explore.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thaipusam Celebrations and Thoughts on Penang

I was afraid it would be impossible to surpass the simple high-altitude perfection of the Cameroon Highlands, but today I find myself here in Penang, tired and hungry from a day of walking in the heat and following self-mortifying Hindu penitents and exploring Georgetown's old British fort, and I'm very much surprised at just how great this city is.

Wait, what's this about self-mortifying Hindu penitents?

It's a festival called Thaipusam, and I know as much about it as this Wikipedia link. Fascinating bit of travel, to find yourself in a strange new city, and a gentle tip from a kind stranger results in stumbling upon something so interesting, people so ecstatic and joyful and welcoming, not just as witnesses but welcomed to come and pray together.

Removing your shoes and entering the temple, all were welcomed to pray or reflect. I was given a coconut laced with a banana leaf, a banana, and some incense. We entered the temple and were marked with a chalky white powder, making our way toward the deity at the heart of the temple.

Outside again, we followed the crowd further down the street, music blasting, people dancing, food and celebration everywhere.

Making our way up the holy mountain.

Climbing the hill, traditional music was blaring out of loudspeakers, but as we reached the top, the music faded and nothing but a giant bell could be heard, renewed with fresh strikes from worshipers. It was a powerful moment, climbing the hill, tired from the long walk and the heat, the bell pounding in your ear and setting the rhythm for the climb, and inside people were praying, laughing, happy that the celebration was over and those hooks and spears could be removed.

And ending the day with a leisurely stroll through Fort Cornwallis.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cameroon Highlights

The Cameroon Highlands. Specifically, the city of Tanah Rata, a tourist hub. Take the best parts of Vermont - cool temperatures, boundless green hills, friendly locals - and mix generously with a subtropical jungle, insects of sci-fi nightmares, and flowers that would make a botanist all hot and sweaty. A high plateau in the middle of the country, hairpin turns along a mountainside with neat green corduroy belts of tea snaking up the impossibly steep cool-breeze hills, all under a cartoon-blue sky. If this is Malaysia, I don't want to leave.

We started our day off at the "Butterfly Garden," but really it was a petting zoo of bugs, reptiles, and other less cuddly creatures.

Well hello there!

Who's got two thumbs and loves scorpions? This guy!

Not-so-wee turtles.

Their legs are so strange, like a hundred tiny hairs on your arm, like reverse goose bumps. Pretty creepy feeling though, when they move up your arm.

Hello little friend.

Bird of paradise flower.

Like something out of Willy Wonka or Dr. Seuss.

Sarah and I above the highest peak in the highlands.

Hiking in the mossy forest. Wonder why they call it that?

Tea plantations, "BOH." Best of (the) Highlands.

Sample some of the beautiful scenery.

I actually hit the target, twice.

Sarah and I went hiking down to a waterfall and quick as gravity a small brown-black snake reared up and "ran" through the grass, a snake moving the way you hope snakes never move, fast and precise. Our guide got scared and told us "to come dis way plees qweek-ly," and when the guide who does this all the time is scared, you know to be careful. We climbed down to the bottom of the waterfall, and then climbed through the green dense jungle-growth of plants and roots and mud to get to the rocks at the water's edge, and I asked the guide how he knew there were no snakes on those root-steps we climbed over.

Full album here. God I love traveling.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Notes from Melaka

Meleka, or Melacca, was my first port of call in Malaysia. An old colonial town that forged alliances with China way back when the Thais ("Siamese") were aggressive, it was subsequently raped by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and then the English, a long successive displacement of foreign conquerors, and yet somehow the city never seems to have been tamed, despite having a Dutch fountain in the middle of a Portuguese town square with and Anglican church off to the side.

I also know that "malaka" is the Greek word for asshole. I knew this because of my Greek room mate for that one month in Beijing in 2004. So I knew I had to go.

The cool breeze from the sea chased away the perpetual oven of so-damn-close-to-the-equator weather. Sarah and I spent two days there before making it to Kuala Lumpur this morning.

Kuala Lumpur is ... strange.

There's something about the name, something deeply ingrained in my brain from history class, seventh grade with Mrs. Irvin-Davis, eighth grade reading my history book alone during lunch at Skyline. The city was a mental bastion of Asia, of The Foreign, The Other, a place whose name conjures (conjured) images of a place and culture as far away from Wilmington and Delaware and America as you could get.

And inevitably, it's a disappointment. Clear away the romantic fantasies of the naive traveler and you get just another huge city; Asian no doubt, with mosques and Chinese temples and seemingly impromptu markets and too many people and the smells that you can never really describe, the smells you wish you could capture in the moment with your camera that mix with sound and vision to create indescribable memories that aren't easily forgotten. But beyond that, it is just another city. There are giant buildings, there are homeless, there is litter, there are malls and shops like Kenny Rogers Roasters and Starbucks, Gucci and The Gap. Somewhere in the long lost forgotten, when the world was still growing and not as bloated as it is today, everyone decided that a giant gleaming mall full of pointless expensive shit you won't ever need was the pinnacle of whatever it is we're trying to do on this planet.

It's hard to find anything exotic and new and bizarre, it's hard to really marvel as a traveler at the brilliant diversity of language and culture that humanity has to offer, when there's a Kenny Roger's Fucking Roasters next door.

And one final thought: I don't believe in the spiritual loan you get from just entering a temple, for just walking around a mosque and seeing the incense in a shrine. It's backpacker-traveler bullshit, because your spiritual pool should not be so shallow that rejuvenation comes from such empty religious voyeurism. I'm guilty of it, I not only hit all the churches I come across, I hit the mosques (when I'm allowed in), I hit the temples. But they're all the same: a fallible man-made incarnation of the ineffable. I don't need an ancient crumbling whatever to think about that. But then, maybe some do.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Singapore to Malaysia

Singapore was great. Very diverse. Photos here. In Malaysia now. Riding in on the bus, that giddy little-boy grin of coming in to a wildly new place and culture and country. More later.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Harbin's Ice Festival (哈尔滨冰雪大世界)

So the tiger video, did ya like it? Well, screw you, I liked it. Anyway, for those of you playing along at home, that tiger park was in Harbin, a "quaint" town of four million people in China's most northern of northern provinces, 黑龙江 (Heilongjiang province, "Black Dragon River" province), and the biggest Chinese town near the Russian border. One of the benefits of being this cold (and trust me, it was cold), is that ice and snow tend to stick around for a while. So what better way to while away those frigid sub-Siberian days than to have a big crazy ice festival? I know, that's what I said! So, as is my wont, pictures! More wine, madder music, and pictures!

If getting there is half the journey, then the journey in China is cramped with oversold seating.

Our first taste of the ice world that awaited: a wall of ice, complete with advertisements and lights buried within.

The BeiHua Boys in Harbin.

Some girls played Chinese chess on a life-size chessboard ... a chessboard MADE OF ICE!

The Russian church of St. Sophia.

An ice bar. It's a bar, made of ice. The walls are ice, the bar is ice, you drink out of cups that are made of ice, and even the ashtrays were ice. It was a little drafty.

Like something out of Norse mythology, Harbin had a miniature ice forest.

哈尔滨冰雪大世界欢迎您! "Harbin's Big Ice World Welcomes You!"

Lotta lights, lotta ice!

Jim goes snow-golfing.

In addition to a lot of ice sculpture, there was a lot of snow sculpture on display as well.

Told ya.

An unrivaled combination of fire and ice! Robert Frost, eat your heart out. (And I think that "pillar" looks like a giant beer.)

The Songhua River frozen this far north, you can skate on the ice, or ride the giant ice slide down to the ... ice ... below. The strange thing is that this river is the same river that reaches down to Jilin ... amazing that the cities are linked like that.

Truly an ice ... world.

Well, those are the highlights. My full album is here. James was able to arrive in Harbin early, and has some fantastic photos on his Picasa of some amazing snow sculpture.

Hong Kong Balm

Do you hear that? The soothing sounds of the fish-filled fountain raining water down upon the stones in rock-crusted basin, the palm trees rustling with the languid ease of a dog kicking in his sleep, the muted sounds of waves and air gently swirling around the knoll ... this is Hong Kong, my friends, this is Maryknoll, an oasis of peace and warmth away from the frigid emptiness of Jilin.

Man, is it nice to be back in the south.

Hong Kong is a huge city, a bustling, expensive, gaudy, brilliant city, and I love it in so many ways, but to me, Hong Kong will always be the Maryknoll house, it will be Stanly, it will be this quiet old house on the top of a monstrous hill, a place with good feng shui and a glorious view of the bright blue sea, a place that makes you forget the towering skyline and eye-gouging pricetags and furious pace of the city just a few miles away.

I am in Maryknoll now, after a taxing bit of travel: a long, tedious car ride from Jilin to Changchun, finally taking off four hours late from Changchun to Dalian, re-boarding the plane for the five-hour flight to Shenzhen, border hopping from Shenzhen into Hong Kong, and then a frantic race between Hong Kong's subways and buses before finally arriving at the Maryknoll door at one in the morning. And then a lazy day of good food and strolling around a city that I've known and enjoyed like no city before. It's great to be back in Hong Kong, to enjoy warmth and familiar faces after what at times seemed like an exile in Jilin.

But it won't last long. Monday morning, I head to Singapore, for a seven-week tour of southeast Asia, a colossal trip unlike anything I've done before.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Friday, January 04, 2008