Goal: 1,380 miles - Miles to go: ZERO!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bali in a week. Part 4: Templing, beaching, bintanging

(Part 3 is here. Parts 1 and 2 are linked from there. This is a blog, not a maze, I'm sure you can find them on your own)

Pura Besakih, the biggest and most important temple in Bali.

On Thursday we visited Pura Besakih. It's the biggest temple in Bali and built way up on a mountain. Like way way up. It's astonishing that people were able to build stuff like this a bazillion years ago without the help of trucks or backhoes or safety regulations. That's how you can tell they were really into their Gods. Or that the internet just wasn't invented yet so they didn't have much else to do.

The temple itself is actually still in use. And since we happened to be there roughly the same time as a full moon, there were a bunch of people worshiping. In order to walk around, we had to rent sarongs. It was some religious thing. Since we were white tourists the rental fee was something crazy like $3 for one or $10 for two. I don't remember specially how much, but I do remember that it was more expensive, per sarong, to rent two instead of one. Either something was lost in translation or the rental lady was bad at math. Or like I said, we were white tourists and she knew we'd pay whatever she asked. Probably that last one. I mean, what were we going to do, drive two hours to the temple and then scoff at the $10 sarong rental, turnaround and head home?

Jenny and I in our stylish sarongs. I think they match my bright green Sounders sunglasses pretty well. Oh geez, I'm also wearing a Sounders shirt and an ECS hat. And Sounders colored shoes. This is getting a little ridiculous, someone stage an intervention or something.

Dressed to the nines in our over-priced rental sarongs, we headed to the temple. We hired a guide, which wasn't necessarily required but you sort of seemed like a jerk if you didn't. Our guide didn't really speak English and was pretty bad at taking pictures, but in an endearing sort of way. He had a super ineffective original technique where he grabbed the front of the camera with one hand and wrapped his fingers around it to reach the shutter button, using his other hand to shield the sun from his eyes. It resulted in mediocre pictures but was highly entertaining. I wish we'd thought to get a picture of him taking a picture.

The temple itself was amazing. Being high up on a mountain, it had some of the best views that we saw in Bali. Like I'd mentioned earlier, there were also locals who were actively worshiping while we were there. It was cool to see some of their culture. But while we were doing that, there were also vendors trying to sell us stuff. Fruit, snacks, souvenirs, post cards, beer. You name it, they had it. It sort of felt like we were watching people go to church while those guys from baseball games walked up and down the aisles hawking hot dogs and cotton candy. It was a weird juxtaposition of a (at least what appeared to be) traditional authentic ceremony next to a glaringly obvious consequence of the tourism industry. I probably can't complain about the vendors since we were exactly the thing that resulted in them being there. But it was definitely weird to have six-year-olds trying to sell us postcards in a place where we were told we had to wear sarongs out of respect for the religiousness stuff that was going on. But hey, it gave me an excuse to use "juxtaposition" in my Bali blog, so there's that!

Some of the full moon ceremony stuff.

When our tour of the temple was over, we drove to get lunch.

We ended up at a restaurant on a cliff with a spectacular panoramic view of mountains, and lakes, and countryside. We laughed at how in the US, any restaurant with this multi-million dollar view would be $60 a plate easy. Instead, this place as an all-you-can-eat buffet where you don't really want to eat all that much.

Pictures can never quite due views like this justice.

On the way home we stopped at the White Sand Beach. That was the name of it. White Sand Beach. Every beach with white sand was named White Sand Beach, which seems like would become confusing.

Getting to the beach was actually a bit of an adventure. It was pretty secluded with no real way to drive your car all that close. So we attempted to find a back way in, following a windy narrow road around to what we expected to be a nice short path to the beach. Instead, we ended up at a dead end where it would be impossible to turn the car around and had to nearly bushwhack our way down a cliff to the beach. We made it though. And despite being so secluded, the beach had Bintang. Awesome.

Beach. Bintang. To be continued...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bali in a week. Part 3: Searching for turtles, finding sharks, and getting bit by invisible piranhas

(Part 1 & Part 2 in case you need a refresher after the month of anticipation for part 3)

Apologies to my three or four readers for the extended delay between parts two and three. The excuse I'll use is that I've started writing a post-apocalyptic dystopian young adult novel. That's actually true, I have started doing that. My New Year Resolution is to finish it this year and I'm like 33% for resolutions the past few years so there's a better than zero chance it'll happen. It's part parody, part self-indulgence, and hopefully part entertaining as well.

As for the Bali vacation, where did we leave off? Snorkeling? We actually snorkeled two different days while in Bali because snorkeling is the best. Here's the first trip.

On Wednesday we got picked up from our villa and taken to Padang Bai, a super small town on the water. Well really more like a handful of buildings along a road next to the water. Candidasa is a small town, Pandang Bai was more like an extravagant fort. Mike was going scuba diving and the rest of the us were snorkeling.

Padang Bai. Almost all of it.

The dive shop was owned by a German couple who realized that living in paradise where the cost of living is almost free seemed like a better life decision than living in Germany, where it's probably a lot more expensive and there are very few houses where you can scuba from your front yard. Probably almost no houses like that.

We all went out on the same boat, the divers dove and the snorkelers snorkeled.

Riding the boat out to snorkel. My eyes don't work in the sun.

Snorkeling is super cool. Just generally speaking, it's a cool thing. But it was also really cool in Bali. We were told there was a chance we'd see turtles, small sharks (not big enough to eat us), and asshole fish (big fish that will sometimes ram you if they think you're threatening their nest).

Turtles are my favorite. So after admiring the hundreds of colorful fishies for a few minutes, I went into full "find a turtle mode". The tough thing about finding a turtle in an ocean is that oceans are really really big and turtles are only big relative to little fish. But compared to an ocean, turtles are super tiny. I had my work cut out for me.

I started thinking, "if I were a turtle, where would I be?" I figured they wouldn't be swimming around the coral as much as the little fish so I focused more on areas where the ground was sandy. This separated me from the group by a bit but I realized I was also probably the slowest swimmer so if a shark did attack us, I was a going to be lunch even if I was in the group.

Then I saw a shark.

At least I'm 60-70% sure I saw a shark. It was five or six feet long, which sounds pretty big and looks really big. But beforehand, we were told that it's not actually that big for a shark. Like not big enough to eat people. I got a surge of adrenaline either way and called for the rest of the crew to come see. By the time anyone else got to me though the shark was gone. Either that or I hallucinated the entire thing. It's a mystery that plagues me to this day.

Relieved that I wasn't eaten, but also disheartened that I hadn't found a turtle, I decided to stay closer to the group and admire the pretty fish. It'd been maybe 35 minutes of snorkeling and we were about ready to head to the boat when we all started getting what felt like little bites. At first none of us were sure whether we actually felt anything but after asking around whether anyone else was feeling sharp little pinches all over their body, we knew we couldn't all be imagining it.

It escalated from there. As we swam back to our boat, it felt like we were being attacked by hundreds of invisible piranhas. It was totally something out of the start of a bad horror movie. Some unsuspecting tourist starts feeling tiny bites all over their body and the camera pans away for a moment. When it pans back, all that's left is a bloody pool and maybe a finger floating in the middle. Luckily, we were in Bali and not Piranha 4: Attack of the tiny ghost fish. We swam through the pain -- or mild discomfort -- and climbed back into the boat.

We learned later that what we were likely feeling was minced jellyfish. What happens is a jellyfish will be floating along minding its own business and a boat will cruise right over the top of it, chopping it into tiny jellyfish bits with the motor. Then snorkelers like us end up unknowingly swimming through the jellyfish bits and getting stung by the remains. Unpleasant, but at least explainable. And way better than invisible baby piranhas.

After giving the divers a little time at regular pressure, we went out for another round of snorkeling and diving. No turtles. No sharks. But some really warm hot springs in the bay where we were swimming. The springs were much more pleasant to swim through than jellyfish puree.

For lunch ate at a pizza place. Good food and tall towers of beer. What more could you ask for?

Tower of Bintang. It was probably like $3.

To be continued. Hopefully in less than a month.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bali in a week. Part 2: Ubud and dancing

(Here's part one if you "missed" it)
I may have scared some of the locals with my guns. Or maybe just blinded them.

On Tuesday, we headed to Ubud. on our way there, or maybe after we got there (geographically, I was never completely sure where we were), we stopped to watch some sort of play/dance/tourist attraction. They provided us with a translation of what was supposedly going on, but it did little to help clarify things. Here's my understanding of what went down:

There once was a tiger. Let's call him DeMarcus, because who wouldn't want a tiger named DeMarcus? DeMarcus liked to dance, but he was also terribly afflicted by fleas. Lucky for him, he met a goofy monkey probably named Mr. Wellington, who liked to eat fleas. Mr. Wellington ate all of DeMarcus's fleas in exchange for DeMarcus not eating him. Quid pro quo. Then DeMarcus exited stage right to pursue a career as a dancer. Meanwhile an unnamed bad guy attacked Mr. Wellington. Mr. Wellington fought off the unnamed bad guy and cut off his nose. Seriously, that part totally happened, the monkey cut off some dude's nose. 

That was a seemingly long and unnecessary preamble to what then turned into a play about some lady (we'll call her Wonder Woman) who was un-killable and could make other people un-killable too. A bunch of bad guys, who were almost definitely Stormtroopers lead by Darth Vader tried to kill Wonder Woman and a bunch of her friends, but they couldn't. They stabbed Wonder Woman, slit her throat, and stabbed her some more but she wouldn't die.

Eventually Wonder Woman prevailed and slayed the bad guys. At some point DeMarcus and Mr. Wellington appeared again and everyone probably lived happily ever after.

The tiger, who I've named DeMarcus. Pretty elaborate costumes.

That might sound like a totally absurd analysis of the play, but if you watched it, it's absolutely a believable explanation for what happened. I mean, there weren't literally Stormtroopers, Wonder Woman, and Darth Vader but metaphorically speaking, that's literally what happened. It was endearingly silly, complete with bumbling comic relief and yet some hints of authenticity. They had music playing throughout the entire thing and incredibly elaborate costumes. Thoroughly entertaining.

Then we went shopping through some of the markets of Ubud. They had everything from penis shaped bottle openers to beautiful original artwork. They even had a Starbucks. Mandy and Josh got a few really awesome wood carvings made out of what we think was maybe mahogany. We had a running joke while we were there that anytime you asked someone what type of wood something was, they'd say "mahogany" and anytime you asked what type of fish something was, they'd say "mahi mahi". Unsure whether they were always telling the truth. Also, all the beer was Bin Tang. Bin Tang is everywhere in Bali and for $2-$4 a liter bottle, it was a screaming deal (unless you're on a secluded beach, then they'll gouge you for $10 a bottle). As someone who has won 576 free beer this year and attended WSU, I consider myself a connoisseur of both good beer and cheap beer. Bin Tang obviously falls into the latter category, but it's honestly some of the best cheap beer I've had. We drank a lot of it in Bali and I actually miss it a little.

One of the markets in Ubud.

When we were done shopping we drove to a restaurant that overlooked some rice terraces for lunch. It was beautiful. I have a really unfair view of what constitutes beautiful rice terraces thanks to our trip to Vietnam, but it was a great view. And the open air provided a much needed cross breeze.

After a full day, we headed back for a well-deserved happy hour by the pool. The only downside of having the super since private pool and patio overlooking the beach is that it probably tempted us away from getting an extra massage or two while we were there. 60 minute full body massages are about $20 in Bali. Jenny and I could both get an hour long massage and she could tack on a pedicure for less than just a single hour long massage would typically run you in the states. We didn't take advantage of that enough and I blame way-too-convenient private pool and beautiful beach front villa.

That night we had dinner at Le Zat, which was right next door to our villa. It was delicious and home to the best spring rolls in all of Bali. Lynn made a point of personally comparing the spring roles of every restaurant we went to and after careful deliberation, was able to confirm that Le Zat's are the best. I'm sure they'll be receiving their award in the mail any day. On Tuesdays, the restaurant has dancers perform traditional Balinese dances. These include some crazy hand movements that seem like you'd have to dislocate your fingers to be able to pull off. We had a preview of some similar moves during the performance we saw in Ubud, but for this one we were just feet from the stage and could appreciate it more up close.

One of the dancers as Le Zat.

After dinner we headed to bed. Snorkeling was planned for the morning and we needed a good night's sleep!

To be continued...

Bali in a week. Part 1: Flying, driving, paradise, eating, sleeping, adventuring.

Jenny and me at a water temple.

I've already chronicled in detail what flying to Southeast Asia is like in part one of my Vietnam Anthology. Bali is a little bit farther away than Vietnam but it's not Austalia-far. So no big difference. Our route was essentially the same too: Seattle to Taipei, Taipei to Bali, sketchy car ride from the airport to where we were staying. Bali is slightly more organized when it comes to traffic than Vietnam, but not much.

Our ride from the airport to our villa included several stop lights, an invention I'm not sure has yet made it to the Vietnam. And instead of there being about infinity motor-bikes, there were just lots and lots. What the drive to our villa did make me realize (and then later drives around the island further emphasized) was that the interstate freeway system that we have in the United States is the greatest, most underrated invention ever. From now on, instead of saying something is "the greatest thing since sliced bread" I'm going to say it's "the greatest thing since the interstate freeway system". Which makes way more sense. Sliced bread is ridiculously overrated. If you have un-sliced bread and want to make sliced bread, all you need is a knife and 45-50 seconds of free time. If you have the cluster-eff of Southeast Asian roads from city to city and want to make an interstate freeway system, you need divine intervention. If you replaced I-5 with whatever three dozen set of roads you need to get a similar distance in Bali or Vietnam, it would take you a day and a half. And that's if you miraculously avoid a head-on collision because the roads are only a lane and a half wide. Seriously.

It does prove that Americans are terrible drivers though. We're spoiled by lanes wide enough for our cars and unique guiding principles known as "traffic laws". Bali doesn't have these things. It's like the Wild West. At one point we passed a car with a twelve year-old driving. When I was twelve, I could barely be trusted to tie my own shoes let alone drive an automobile.

Despite the lack of a sophisticated highway infrastructure, we did eventual arrive safe and sound at our villa to meet up with Mike, Lynn, Mandy, and Josh. The place was amazing. A spacious kitchen and living room, opening up to a private pool and patio that overlooked the beach. Truly the stuff of paradise. Oh, and showers. Those are pretty critical after a billion hour plane ride.

View from our villa. Not fake.

We showered off, enjoyed a nice happy hour in our paradise villa and then had dinner in town. Candidasa, where we were staying, is a small, relatively quite town and there were plenty of restaurants within walking distance of our villa. We'd learn later that they could be a bit hit or miss, but the first night was a hit. Either that, or we were so sick of airplane food that anything else would've tasted delicious.

After dinner we crashed. I may have even fallen asleep during the walk home. Flying economy class on international flights makes you appreciate beds. Not that I have any experience with the rich-and-the-famous-classes, but economy sucks for trying to sleep. So after dinner we were ready to lie flat and truly sleep for the first time in a whole bunch of hours that I don't really want to add up because it will hurt my soul.

We had a relaxing start to the day the next morning. Breakfast was made fresh for us whenever we got up and we enjoyed in on the super awesome patio overlooking the water as waves crashed on the beach. Paradise, right?

Fueled up and ready to go, we called our driver and headed out to tour some water temples and try some poop-coffee.

I'll explain poop-coffee first. Luaks are a cute-ish mix between a minx, a rat, and a kuala. They eat coffee beans, which I think might actually be called berries at the time that they eat them, and then poop them out. Their digestive juices do something that allegedly improves the coffee beans. Low man on the poop-coffee-operation totem pole then digs through the Luak poop to find the magic beans. They clean them off and then roast them like any non-previously digested coffee beans. We decided to see what all the fuss was about and go to a coffee-tasting.

The poop-coffee staff strategically pairs the poop-coffee with what they call "bali coffee". Bali coffee is super crappy instant coffee that doesn't ever dissolve all the way and kind of tastes like brown water with mud in the bottom. It's terrible. By comparison, the Luak coffee was spectacular. I think it really was good on it's own too. The tasting also included an assortment of sweetened coffee and teas that were pretty meh. I'm maybe a bad judge for that though because I generally don't like anything sweet. Or fun. Or Christmas.

Coffee tasting

After the coffee tasting we headed to a couple water temples. The water temples are exactly what they sound like. Temples surrounded by water, sort of like in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Pretty pretty, Vishnu would be pleased. I'll save most of my temple talk until a later entry when we visited the biggest one in Bali, but here's a picture Jenny took at one of the water temples. It's even more impressive if you know how typically blurry and unfocused her camera usually is.

A water temple

To be continued...

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reinhart Reunion Ropes Course: It just got real

Your chances of being struck by lightning are exceedingly low. So low that most of us never really think about it. But they go up dramatically when you’re in the middle of a lightning storm. And go up even more still when you’re 65 feet up in a tree in the middle of a lightning storm. Then up even more when you’re strapped to a bunch of metal obstacles in that tree, 65 feet in the air, in the middle of a lightning storm. You still probably won’t be struck by lightning but headlines like “family reunion ruined when set of cousins get killed by lightning while attempting to complete a ropes course in the middle of a thunderstorm” start running through your head. Why the hell were they doing a high ropes course in the middle of thunder and lightning?

Of the many memorable moments of our Reinhart family reunion, none will leave me with quite the same symptoms of PTSD as when we were caught on the highest hardest part of a high ropes course when a freak thunderstorm changed course and went right over top of us. Literally. And not even “figuratively” literally like people tend to use “literally” these days. But literally literally it was terrifying.

The day started out innocently enough. It was my Cousin Charlie’s 11th birthday and he managed to talk a bunch of us into going to the Flagstaff Xtreme ropes course. It’s basically a series of five obstacle courses, starting 20 feet high through the trees and getting higher and harder as your progress through.

The skateboard obstacle on the 4th course, approximately 40-45 feet high.

After a quick “how to not get killed” safety briefing, we embarked on the first set of ropes. It wasn't particularly difficult and not even really that scary. While I was up in one of the trees, one of the guides asked me if I was afraid of heights. I replied, “no, but I’m afraid of falling from heights”; which is not only incredibly witty, but also describes the emotion pretty well. When you’re going through the courses, you’re strapped into a harness and have a pair of carabiners that you use to attach yourself to safety lines on each obstacle. It’s designed so that at least one of the carabiners is hooked in at all times. So you can’t really fall. Unfortunately your body doesn't necessarily know that. Occasionally I’d look at the ground 40 feet below and get a little surge of fear mixed with adrenaline. Logically I’d be able to tell myself that it was totally safe, but there was a part of my body that was definitely questioning my sanity. Which I think is a good thing. No matter what our brains tell our bodies, a part of us will always react purely by instincts. And our instincts say that riding around on skateboards 50 feet in the air is batshit crazy. I probably learned that from watching Cosmos. Hashtag evolution.

Uncle Dave on one of the early obstacles.

We banged out the first four courses easy peazy. The last obstacle was maybe a little tough but more than anything we were all just tired from having been climbing between trees for a couple hours. So we decided to take a short rest, refuel and tackle the hardest and highest course – the BLACK course – after lunch. This would also allow my Cousin Tom, Charlie’s dad, to catch up. He’d spent the first half of the morning taking pictures from below since he’d already done the three of the courses earlier in the week. Unfortunately the guides decided to arbitrarily be sticklers about the “you have to complete the courses in order” rule and so Tom had to start from the very beginning before he could join us for the black course.

We climbed down, chowed down, drank some Gatorade and were ready to take on the black course. My mom decided to hold back and just watch us do it. She claimed her arms were tired and that she knew her limits, but I’m pretty sure she just didn't want the rest of us to feel bad when she smoked us on the hardest obstacles. Earlier in the day, whenever I warned her that one of the courses was pretty tough she’d always cruise right through it and say, “that wasn't too bad”. Badass. The rest of us (quick head count, partially to confirm that we all did in fact survive), Gharrett, Jenny, Tom, Charlie, and Uncle Dave began climbing the 60 feet to the start of the black course just as a couple rain drops started to fall. Foreshadow.

My mom on one of the many zip lines throughout the courses.

The black course starts with a super long rope bridge, similar to stuff we’d crossed a handful of times already, but this was easily four times longer than anything we’d tackled before. Gharrett went first, then Charlie, then Tom, then me, Jenny and finally Uncle Dave. One of the challenging things about the black course was that there’s a rule of “only two people on any one obstacle at the same time. For some of the obstacles, you only want to go one at a time so that you don’t mess each other up. Since we all started as a group, this meant a lot more time waiting and contemplating our predicament before beginning each obstacle. And as a rule of thumb, don’t hang out in a tree 60 feet high and contemplate your predicament. Especially when you start noticing really dark storm clouds in the not too distant distance.

We all made it across the rope bridge just fine. Then rope burned the crap out of our ankles on the next leg of the course. At the time we thought our rope burns would be our biggest war story of the day. They were serious business, even a week later I have three inch scabs on each ankle. But it was while we were comparing injuries and getting up the courage for the second to last obstacle that things started to go wrong.

Jenny and I were standing behind Charlie, helping him get up the courage to embark on what looked like the hardest part of the entire ropes course. It was a series of rings hanging from ropes that you had to step into and then swing to the next one all the way form one tree to another. Difficult because it relied on balance, strength, and not panicking. Oh, and because it started raining making everything slippery. While we were telling him what a badass he was and how we was going to dominate the last couple hurdles in this course, I saw a bolt of lightning in the distance. It was still a couple miles away but it was definitely lightning followed shortly by the distinctive roar of thunder.

“Okay Charlie, you have to go NOW”.

Charlie (closely followed by me) on one of the hardest parts of the black course.

For all of us, the vague fear of heights was dwarfed by the immediate fear of being struck by lightning. It wasn't on top of us yet, but it felt like it could be at any minute. The guides said it was still far enough away that we didn't need to worry. And apparently it wasn't supposed to come any closer. Because thunderstorms are notorious for doing what they're "supposed to do".

Then it started hailing. Hard.

I didn't bother waiting for Charlie to finish the rings. I was swinging through them as soon as I had a few feet of space. There's a great series of pictures of me right behind Charlie on the rights and then way off in the distance, totally abandoning my entire family in order to save myself. In my defense, how am I supposed to protect them from lightning?

It was while I was in fleeing the group that things got real. The storm that was a few miles away all of a sudden was a few hundred feet away. Lightning flashed overhead and was immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder. If you were counting Mississippis to see how far away it was, you would've gotten about a third of the way through the M. It was on top of us.

Jenny, right after the first lightning strike. As Tom said, "This just got real".

Another flash. Another clap. Hail pelted our hands and faces. The guides were yelling at everyone, "get down NOW!" "You, jump onto the cargo net now, go go go."

There were probably 50 or 60 people spread throughout the five courses. We were the highest. There was no escape route down, the fastest way to safety was to complete the course. I don't even remember flying down the last zip-line. It should have been the coolest part of the entire day, a rewarding ride through the trees after completing the hardest obstacle course. Instead I was in survival mode. The series of steps to clip and un-clip from the zip-line became automatic.

When I finally got to the ground I turned to see the rest of the family making their way through the course to safety. It was probably five minutes but felt like 45 before everyone was out of the trees. We all had our war stories. Dave's hands had stopped working due to a combination of fatigue and numbness. He'd completed the cargo net by grabbing on with his elbows.

On the car ride home, we were all in a bit of shock. Even now, it feels a little surreal to think about how the events unfolded. It makes for a good story, but I think I'll probably retire from ropes courses. At least ropes courses in areas that get daily thunderstorms. That sort of seems like a recipe for disaster.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vietnam in a Week. Part 6: Sa Pa to Seattle via Hanoi and Taipei

It's sort of ironic that final chapter in our whirlwind week long trip to Vietnam has taken me three months to finally finish and post. And odds are it'll be a bit of a let down. Much like Rocky V or the three Star Wars prequels, sometimes it's better to just quit when you're ahead. Nonetheless, I feel like I might as well put a bow on this trip. Part five of our Vietnam Odyssey is here if you missed it, and it has links to all the other parts. I don't really feel like re-posting links to all of them here.

If you don't remember (because I sure as heck didn't), last episode was about our super awesome bazillion mile trek through a bunch of villages around Sa Pa. We met a puppy who would grow up to become dinner, a bunch of friendly LOWs (little old women) who walked virtually the entire way with us, saw endless beautiful views of rice terraces, and finished the day with a great Italian dinner.

The next morning was the our final day in Vietnam. Really it was the second to last day but the impending overnight train ride made it feel like the start of a single 48 hour day. Actually more like 72 hours when you add in the flights back to Seattle. I haven't done the exact math to see how many full days the entire ordeal took because it would blow up my brain.

We started the day with a short trip to Sung's village. There were some sweet deals on knock-off Northface stuff there. Jenny bought a purple jacket because... well it was purple, what do you expect? We probably bought some other souvenirs too that are now sitting in bags in our basement along with the souvenirs from Singapore two years ago. Actually, I guess they aren't sitting there anymore because our basement flooded a couple days ago (foreshadowing to a future blog post?).
The entrance to Sung's village

After walking around the village for a couple hours it was time to head to the hotel, take a quick shower and prepare for the journey home.
Some (man made) waterfalls in Sung's village

First up was conquering the overnight train ride. If you remember, the train to Sa Pa wasn't terrible, it was just a few hours late. Well, the train ride back to Hanoi was terrible. No, it was worse than that. In the future when I'm trying to find something terrible to use as an analogy I'll use, "it was almost as bad as an overnight train from Sa Pa to Hanoi when the air conditioning breaks halfway through and the nearest window is jammed shut and you end up having to stand by the bathroom for the majority of the trip to avoid sweating out all the moisture in your body and turning into a human raisin." Because that's what happened.

In the middle of the night I woke up because our tiny little cabin was sweltering and stuffy except a more extreme version of those words. I got up to try to find some train attendant to see if they could turn on the air conditioning. A couple things made this difficult though. First, it was the middle of the night and and there isn't exactly a "flight attendant call button". Second, I don't speak Vietnamese and most Vietnamese people don't speak English. I was feeling adventurous though so I set out to find myself some AC.

As I said before, these train rides are not smooth. If it was an airplane, we would have been experiencing extreme turbulence for the vast majority of the trip. That, compounded with my half asleep overheated delirium made simply walking down the train aisle a bit of a challenge. But because I'm a hero, I eventually tracked down someone who looked official.

Through a series of hand gestures and sweat running down my face, I successfully communicated that it was too hot and that he should turn on the AC. He messed with some controls and gave me a thumbs up. Feeling pretty proud of myself, I staggered back to our cabin and climbed into bed, ready to be revel in the cool air. Except it was still twelve bajillion degrees. After a couple minutes it was clear that there was no change in the AC situation and I set out again to seek help.

The same dude tried to help me again. He fiddled with some more buttons and knobs and eventually got up and left. At the time I hoped he had gone to get more help, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure he realized there was no fixing the AC and just wanted to get away from the sweaty American who was going to continue pestering him.

When it became obvious that he wasn't coming back, I switched into survival mode. Until then, my survival skills mostly consisted of insuring that my seat and tray table were their full upright and locked positions. So figuring out how to survive another few hours on a train that was a little warmer than I would have liked it was going to be a challenge. Good thing I excel under pressure.

First, I tried to find an open window. The window by our cabin was jammed shut so I walked another few feet down the hall. That ingenuity proved valuable because there was an open window a little farther down the hall by the bathroom. I set up camp there for the next few hours until Jenny came looking for me. We discussed the uncomfortably warmness of the train and decided that if we really wanted to get any kind of airflow, we were going to have to find a way to open the jammed window by our cabin.

Any day now I expect Obama to award me a congressional medal of honor for my heroics in getting that window open.

There were several problems. First, it was locked. And I'd already scared away the attendant in our car by asking him to fix the air conditioning. Time was of the essence so I quickly searched for something that could be used to pick the lock. A toothbrush. Bingo. Taking advantage of my exceptional finger dexterity, honed by years of video games, I used the toothbrush to pick the lock on the window. But it still wouldn't open. Some metal latch was still jamming it shut. To tackle that problem, I grabbed my earplugs that were tied together with a piece of string. Or as I like to call it, a window un-jammer. Using the string to get some leverage on the latch, I was able to free the window, push it open and get a face full of still-pretty-uncomfortably-warm-Vietnamese-air. But it was better than nothing. Probably.

Our adventure home didn't end there though. We survived the rest of the barely bearable train ride, killed a couple hours in Hanoi and went back to the hotel to catch a taxi to the airport. Since any automobile bigger than a motorbike is a novelty in Vietnam, it shouldn't have surprised us when our taxi driver showed up a small sedan expecting to fit four adults with a weeks worth of luggage each. Spoiler alert, we didn't fit. He called for a bigger car but who knows how long it would take to get there. We waited for a while but eventually had to split up and go. Since Jenny and my flight was first, we jumped in the car that was ready and sped off to the airport. Sped off in Vietnam is relative though since it's impossible to go much faster than 15 mph anywhere due to the amoeba of motorbikes that take up every square inch of roadway.

But we ended up being fine. We caught our flight. It was long. Made it to Taipei. The layover was really long. Got on our next flight to Seattle. It was longer still.
Jenny, during our painfully long layover in Taipei.

Travelling halfway around the world takes a while. Especially when you're starting in a super rural town in the remote mountains of Vietnam. But looking back it's actually kind of amazing that through half a dozen different modes of transportation over the course of a few days the biggest impediment was broken air conditioning. First world problems indeed.

The trip was a blast. The world is a big freaking place. On to the next adventure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 5: Sa Pa (Part 2)

(Holy guacamole this is getting out of control. If you haven't read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, I'd just skip them and wait for the movie, that's what I did with the middle few Harry Potter books.)

When we last left our heroes, we had finished our first eventful day in Sa Pa and PTFO'd in our massive hotel beds (they were literally two queen beds pushed together) in preparation for our first full day of Sa Pa partying the next morning -- or Sa Pa-rtying if you prefer. Fair warning, that's not even close to the worst joke of today's blog.

Surprisingly, we'd only been in Sa Pa for about 12 hours when we met Sung at 9am to begin our long day. Three villages, 15km, infinity views, and probably a bunch of LOWs (Little Old Women who try to sell you stuff, if you missed episode 4).

We left on foot directly from our hotel and walked through town to a small path that would wind down into one of the villages. It only took about 45 seconds before a couple LOWs spotted us. It's not like we were that hard to find, a group of super white tourists carrying cameras and backpacks and towering over the 4'8" natives stick out like a Romney at a pride parade.

After the mandatory introductions "What's your name? How old are you? You buy from me?", they actually relaxed and tucked into the pack, apparently realizing this was going to be a long-sell. And honestly, they were pretty nice. One was named Mong Mai, and the other was her sister-in-law. I can't remember the sister-in-law's name so I'll just call her LaShawnda. That's almost definitely not her actual name though.

During the hike down to the first village we stopped every few minutes to take pictures of the incredible views. This posed a similar problem to what we had in Ha Long Bay: the views were gorgeous but when you go back and look at the pictures, they all basically look the same. Endless terraced hillsides, beautiful mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, yada yada yada. You'll just have to take my word that we weren't simply taking pictures of the same hillside from a bunch of different angles. These views were everywhere and absolutely impossible to do justice with a camera -- let alone an iPhone, which does double duty as my camera.
We entered the first village by way of a family's backyard. Or the equivalent of their backyard. Things are obviously more sprawling and property lines don't exactly exist around there, but this would have been like walking down the Burke-Gilman trail and then hopping a fence into someone's tomato plants. All of a sudden we were hiking past a couple small huts, a family of piglets, and a sleeping dog. And then we were tiptoeing through rice paddies, careful not to fall into the swampy not-yet-planted rice. This wasn't exactly difficult or anything, but Sung had told us that when they're planting the rice, they have to be careful because the fields are infested with leeches. So even though it was easy enough to walk on the 12" stone wall between terraces, I was 90% sure a pack of leeches were licking their leech lips, waiting for me to stumble.
Trekking through the middle of hundreds of acres of rice terraces gives you a new appreciation for what it takes to grow food. And really what it takes to survive in much of the world. When it's growing season there, it's an all-hands-on-deck operation. From before dawn until whatever needs to get done is done, the entire village is working. We talk about how Americans are workaholics. Yeah right. Try going to a rural village outside Sa Pa. I'm pretty sure Mong Mai and LaShawnda don't accrue any PTO.

If I'm honest, the entire trek really was just walking past endless hills of terraces similar to the first ones we hiked through. Which when you put it that way sounds kind of boring. But it was anything but boring. Like I eluded to before, it's impossible to capture the immensity of nature, no matter how many megapixels your camera has. But when you're walking through it and experiencing it in person, it's truly astonishing. And peaceful too. That's one of the things I do miss about running an obscene amount of miles every week: getting away from real life for a few hours everyday and just enjoying what's around you. Sa Pa would be an awesome place to train as a runner. As long as you had enough agility to evade a few LOWs here and there.

Obligatory panoramic shot. You can click it, but it still won't quite be cool enough, but it shows the enormity of what was around us a little better (cool drinking game idea I just had: take a drink for every synonym of the word "big" I use to describe the scenery around Sa Pa)
Trust me, we didn't just walk back and forth on this road. These terraces were everywhere.
About 10km into our hike we took a quick break to drink some Coke and play the "let's see where Woody forgot to put sunscreen" game. Spoiler alert, it was the back of my legs. Red as a Twilight book at a 7th grade girl's slumber party. 

At our little rest stop, I spotted this cute puppy and had to track it down for a picture. But as soon as I took this shot, our guide laughed and said, "when as he grows up, he'll be dinner". I had seen some puppies early and had intentionally not asked about what their future entailed because I was afraid to know answer.
I'm sure this little guy will escape that fate though. How could anyone eat something with a face like that?

A couple kilometers before the end of our trek through colossal spectacularness, we grabbed lunch at a homestead -- those are like hostels for tourists in the little villages. Mong Mai and LaShawnda were still with us, and since it's really hard to say no to a couple nice old ladies who just went on a four hour walk with you, Jenny bought some stuff. It was really pretty handmade stuff, but souvenir-type stuff all the same.

Lunch was really good and I'm almost certain it didn't include any puppy meat. But do you really think you could tell the difference between dog meat and pig meat?
After lunch, we walked the last few kilometers to meet up with our van and head back to our hotel. We said goodbye to Mong Mai and LaShawnda, who hung out while we ate lunch so that they could finish the walk with us. Which was of cool of them. They'd already made their sale so I don't think they were expecting any more money, but I like to think that we sort of made friends with them by the end of the day.

That night we had dinner at a little Italian restaurant in Sa Pa. Which might sound weird, but there were actually a lot of good non-Vietnamese restaurants everywhere we went in Vietnam. And there's only so much Pho you can eat before you want to mix it up with a pizza. For me that was after no Pho. I'm one of those weirdos who doesn't really get what all the hype is about with Pho. Isn't it just chicken noodle soup on steroids? And normally, the only time anyone eats chicken noodle soup is when they're sick. But give it a fancy name that allows for all sorts of inappropriate puns, toss in a handful of shrubbery and some comically long noodles and all of a sudden everyone goes crazy for the stuff. Maybe it's the fact that we make ourselves eat it with chopsticks and no one wants to admit how insane the idea of consuming soup with a pair of sticks is.

In ten years, I think we'll look back on this brief Pho frenzy the same way we do about Capri Sun packaging. The target demographic for Capri Suns is 8 year old boys at halftime of a soccer game. Has any 8 year old in the history of the world successfully punctured a Capri Sun without showering him and his entire team with sticky sugary liquid? Who's idea was it to effectively package that stuff as mini hand-grenades with a taped on straw-detonator? They don't still sell those things do they?

But anyway, pizza. We had pizza for dinner that night from an Italian restaurant in the middle of Vietnam that had Columbia Crest wines on their menu. Super exotic of us, but it was a nice quiet way to spend our last real night in Vietnam. The next day we had a quick visit to our Sung's village and then just a couple hours before we had to hop on an overnight train and begin the epic journey back to Seattle. Any hopes of getting to that part of the trip in this episode were dashed by my Pho and Capri Sun diatribe. I swear that wasn't planned, but I'm totally right. Right?

To be continued...