Sunday, 30 December 2007

things I'll miss (in other words, goodbye Phoenix)

Family. (who else can you call to come pick you up at the Salt River in freaking Mesa?! thank you Fridad. & thank you for getting us the 'Best of Phoenix' two years in a row! I devoured it.)

Fry Bread House. Fry Bread House, why didn't I just eat at your place once a week and tack on an extra workout to make up for being such a piggy? Really, why didn't I? I'll never be able to have the fair food crap version of fry bread again.

Being able to say that I live in the same city as Chris Bianco & yes, his pizzas Fing ROCK and are worth every second spent in line, or at the bar next door, or wherever. (& goodbye homemade mozzarella--y'hear, he makes his own mozzarella--& basil sandwiches from pane bianco. I have loved you many a Saturday.) Chris Bianco is a genius for what he does with pizza dough & a wood-fired oven.

The intersection of E. Cholla and N. Tatum. If you turn your head east at the stoplight as you're heading towards Cactus it looks like a scene out of a Super Mario Bros. video game, what with the rolling green golf course hills against the blue sky. It almost looks fake it's so purdy.

...Because there is nearly always a blue sky here. Monsoons? What monsoons? You mean the heavy rain that happened, like, three times in the year we were here? Puh-leaze. Come to Florida and we'll show you what severe thunderstorms look like.

Phoenix Ranch Market. Oh how I'll miss being able to go to Mexico for 30 minutes whenever I feel like it! I was just telling Steve tonight, how can you not be happy when shopping or eating in that place?

The way the cacti wake up come springtime and bloom their little thorny hearts out, but only in the morning. Made the drive to work so much nicer.

My old job--not the one in Sun City, hells no, but my second assignment in Scottsdale. So it's true, looking forward to work is not an urban legend but actually does happen from time to time. Huh. Unfortch I'm sure my next assignment will be hideous.

We leave our hearts at the sight of our first-ever
geocaching spot, Stovie's Trip to the Mall...and since then we've geocached in Laos and Cambodia and -- and it all started in the parking lot at Paradise Valley mall. Weird.

There's more but I have to dismantle our computer now -- Arizona, you are so much more than just the Grand Canyon and Phoenix, you are not a character-less city with "absolutely nothing to do"--silly, silly people on boards. You just have to look a little harder to find all the great things.



The Saturday morning farmer's market at Vincent's on Camelback, what with the crepes and lobster burgers made to order by the chefs there. & getting to feel all grown up saying "yes, chef" and "thank you, chef" to kind Vincent and the rest of his staff. Saturdays when Steve worked meant I was either at Vincent's or at Pane Bianco.

Driving up to Dobbins Lookout on top of South Mountain to watch the sunset, then lingering to see the gazillion lights of the valley "turn on" below us.

Squinting up while driving south on Tatum to try and make out the Praying Monk rock formation on Camelback Mountain. I never could see it until the very last second before veering off--but when I did I'd always giggle/squeal/combo of the two like a happy degenerate.

Steve mentioned this one and I wholeheartedly agree: the triumvirate of the bestest Mexican food in the valley: Barrio Cafe, Asi es la Vida and Los Sombreros. We've been so spoiled with rocking Mexican food here. Not to mention his co-worker's incredible homemade tamales, second to none. A new tradition for us, tamales for the 12 days of Christmas.

Matt's Big Breakfast in downtown Phoenix. One word: bacon. No, two more words: honey lemonade.

Another of Steve's-- Richardson's, for New Mexican food. But we wouldn't even consider getting anything but the carne adovada. Oh what a wonderful thing is their carne adovada.

Listening to John Jay & Rich on 104.7. They're hilarious all by themselves, but between 7:00-7:20 in the am they feature a segment called "Remember the Time" and play this montage of song/movie/tv clips, all released in the same year at which point the caller attempts to guess which one. I bloody loved this game! How satisfying is it to dig up subconscious associations with songs & movies & the like in order to establish a time frame? For a totally random, wacky example--the song No More Drama by Mary J. Blige was playing in the car on the way home from my friend Janel's graduation from college. I remember she started being silly and belting it out at the top of her lungs, windows down, so giddy to be done with exams, stress and bullshizz that goes with those last few weeks. And Janel graduated a semester after me, so 2002. Brilliant! Is there some kind of board game out there like this? Must google to find out.

& I've veered way off track by now, but one last thing--being able to take off to Sedona at a moment's notice and recharge with an incredible hike and all that amazing scenery . I'll miss Sedona too. Sigh.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Let's be joyful

Yes, let's.

Despite having one (or more?) extremely unwanted visitors the last few days, there's still that wonderful Christmas feeling 'round here. We put a Vietnamese conical hat at the tippity top of our beautiful, albeit Charlie Brown-ish, tree. On Christmas Eve we picnicked underneath said tree on Alaskan king crab legs with lots of melted butter to slurp up. Slurp slurp slurp. We went to midnight mass, got seats, and I sang my arse off. I took my first stab at making homemade trofie pasta and they tasted a-ma-zing (actually I can't take all the credit; Steve helped to make their adorable twists). I finally got around to making no-knead bread (2nd loaf is rising right now). Tonight we're going to a restaurant which I've been dying to go to since, oh I don't know, two weeks after moving to Phoenix last year. I finally got to show Steve what all the fuss over the movie The Namesake is about. And late at night when our dear old biddy neighbors are safely tucked in, we sneak downstairs and get in the jacuzzi to warm up. We have to. I don't think they have hot tubs where we're going.

There's still the tiny little baby hiccup of my getting a job (but we have a place to live! let me not jinx it just yet though), but I'm still taking the official 'not panicking' stance. After all, it's a tough week for getting a job, right? Just nod your head 'yes' for my sake. Thank you.

Happy new year beautiful ones!

Friday, 21 December 2007

(just a few) Faces of China

It's the end of an era

*originally posted 10 December 2007

So so sad. And to top it all off, we’re both sick again–we never get sick!–maybe it’s our bodies’ way of saying go home to your Ikea bed and your three boys–enough wandering…at any rate, I think we got sick from our bare-bones bungalow in Ko Phi Phi, an island in southern Thailand. You know you’re running out of money when you forego taking a $12 longtail boat ride to your bungalow and instead decide to hike over a mountain–at 9 pm–to get there. What should have been a 45-minute hike took us nearly 2 1/2 hours that had us tripping over tree roots, walking on rocks halfway submerged in the water (some Thai guy said to us, “Not now, wait until low tide”–as if we’re going to wait around until midnight! dumbass…). When we finally found the place the only lights glowing on the beach were at the bar, where we found the acting manager, an American expat–he couldn’t stop saying in disbelief, “fuck…you’re the latest arrivals we’ve ever had. fuck, man. couldn’t you have gotten a boat? fuck, man.”

But we really, really loved this place. The whole next day we did absolutely nothing. A whole lotta nothing–I had a scrumptious banana pancake with nutella slathered on for breakfast, we laid on the gorgeous beach (our beach in our minds since there was just one other couple there)….some smoothies throughout the day, a teeny bit of snorkeling offshore as the sun was setting, blah blah blah drool drool drool. I couldn’t have cared less that the bathrooms had no hot water (okay maybe I cared a little) or that the toilet flushing involved dumping a bucket of water in. It was our heaven.

I still think the previous occupants of our bungalow had been sick though, since Steve and I literally started sniffling within 5 minutes of each other the next day. It was almost comical.

Anyhoo. Goodbye Thailand (pound for pound, one of the best countries you could ever travel to), & hello Luang Prabang, Laos, which is–& this is agreed on by Steve so no I’m not being all lovey-dovey without good reason–the most enchanting city we’ve been in on this trip. It’s the city that time forgot–or rather, the French came & ”protected” it, and now luckily it’s the city that time forgot with all the preservation do-goodedness from Unesco. We’ve been staying in a bungalow on the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the Mekong, which is–again, this is echoed by my hubby (!!) lest I constantly speak in exaggeration–now on our top 5 list of favorite places we’ve stayed at. ever. Each night we’ll write our breakfast orders on a whitewash board at the reception desk, and what time we’d like it at…the next morning some gentle soul appears on our bungalow’s veranda at the arranged time with our tray of food. I love that! And in the afternoons we love to sit outside and watch the kids play in the river down below. The way they’re shrieking and laughing and carrying on with each other, you’d think there was nothing better than having the Nam Khan in your backyard. Right now I’d have to agree.

At sunrise each morning a procession–hundreds–of barefoot monks come down the main street from north to south for Tak Bat. Each carries a basket and townspeople (& inevitably tourists) kneeling up and down the street place offerings of sticky rice, tangerines, candy, etc. for them as alms in thanksgiving and respect.

Now it’s probably incredibly childlike of me to say this but I adore monks. I do, I can’t help it! I see their saffron-colored robes and start squealing. My right hand is now trained to reach down for the camera so fast whenever I spot one that we’ve got umpteen-thousand pictures of them: monk on a scooter! monk on a cell phone! monk holding an umbrella! monk buying spices at the market! monks on a water taxi! monk with sunglasses! monk with a cane! and on and on. So now here we are in Luang Prabang, and not only do monks go with LP like peanut butter goes with jelly, but I get to, in a tiny (and probably incredibly insignificant to them) way interact with them? I was so nervous about doing it the ‘right’ way (I very nearly chickened out and Steve talked me off the ledge so to speak)…women can’t make eye contact with the monks when doing this (heaven forbid you touch them–I read they’ll wash for days to get rid of the impurity otherwise), your feet cannot be pointing towards them, shoulders and knees covered, head bowed…but I managed it without an international incident.

Anyhoo. I should write more but we’ve only got a few more hours in this heaven of a town before our evening flight to Vientiane. So we’ve got to get out there and in the thick of it before it’s too late.

In just 36 hours–no, I can’t bring myself to say it! So I won’t.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

7 elements to a beautiful afternoon and evening

*originally posted 1 December 2007

1. Narrow water caves so claustrophobic you have to lay flat down in your sea canoe (I’m a human hot dog!)to get through.

2. Stunning little coves and lagoons with blue blue water directly on the other side of these caves.

3. Drifting quietly in the water on your boat until you spot the monkeys scampering on the tall rocks surrounding the lagoons.

4. Seeing (& smelling) hundreds of insect bats hanging upside down, all sound asleep, inside one of the caves as you float through.

5. Learning how to make a krathong–see last entry–and setting it afloat in the water of the bat cave. (I have no excuse not to continue this yearly tradition now!)

6. Seeing bioluminescent plankton for the first time. Like fireflies trapped in the water.

7. Sitting on the starlit boat deck and talking to my hubby during the trip back to shore. About this trip, about the year to come.

All is well with the world….

Night night!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

There are new loves in our lives

*originally posted 30 November 2007

And their names are Sri Siam and Prachuab. But I’ll get to that.

Our time in Thailand has been wonderful! The Thai–”such a playful people”–just kidding, I’m only repeating a joke I heard an Aussie say yesterday at how some travelers/guidebooks manage to sum up an entire population. Nah–some are crooked (Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers), some are kind and kinder–like in any country. Besides, what kind of guidebook would describe a country as having jerks for citizens? Of course they’re gonna say it’s lovely & beautiful and yadda yadda yadda.

(but really, Thailand rocks the casbah!)

Happy belated Loi Krathong…it’s a Thai holiday which we were damn lucky to find ourselves in Bangkok for, held every year on a full moon in November. This year it was on November 24th. On this day walking down any street you’ll see makeshift sidewalk stands set up with these little…boats, the krathongs. They’re made of banana leaves in the shape of a lotus flower, are filled with flowers (marigolds, orchids), and perched upright in it is a candle and several sticks of incense. And variations of such–some get truly elaborate with teeny white flowertips on each banana leaf, some have meringue cookies in them (good luck?); I saw one in the shape of a turtle (again, good luck??) made of bread.

You buy your krathong. Then come nightfall you’ll head down to the river with everyone else, light your candle and incense–mentally put all the negativity and sadness you’ve been holding in your heart the last year (since last loi krathong) into your powerful little boat and set it afloat (we set ours in the Chao Praya River and some of its quieter canals) with a prayer and new hope for the coming one. We went a little overboard (I know, as always marmousch) and bought 6 krathongs–setting some off in honor of our families, our cats (what, you didn’t see that coming?), us, and other sappy stuff. I think I got a little carried away from all the candlelight and reverence. Another new tradition started.

Back to Sri Siam and Prachuab. For the last three days we’ve been in Lampang, northern Thailand, at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center enrolled in a mahout training course with 7 other people– Aussies, Americans and one Japanese feller. Mahout = elephant caretaker. Our days went something like this: wake up at 6 am–hike into the jungle with the real mahouts, your mahout guru, if you will, to retrieve your elephant where it’s spent the night–ride your elephant out of the jungle–bathe your elephant. And by bathing I mean you’re on the elephant’s back the entire time, up by the neck with your knees straddling their floppy adorable ears, and are therefore getting in the water with them, sometimes submerged to your chest. Bathing time for the elephants means lots of water fights for us using their trunks as our own personal & very powerful watergun, and since Steve has that wonderful way of taking everything to a whole different level, dung fights initiated by–guess who. Then breakfast–more bathing, this time for an audience–then a “parade” to the showgrounds. This was led by Steve’s elephant, Prachuab, holding a flag, then a trio of which my elephant, Sri Siam, stood on the left holding one end of a long pole on which hung a drum. Another elephant’s job was to bang the drum holding the stick in her trunk. Then a slew of other elephants–maybe 12 or 13 holding up the rear. It was cute at first but by this morning it felt half funeral procession, half royalty event (as in, here comes the queen!) since the whole time we’re still perched atop our elephants, the proud mahouts. After the parade we’d jump right into a show where we demonstrated to the audience (trust me, we’re not talking sold-out crowds here) our good–in some cases–or shitty (in my case) mahout skills. Jumping on the elephant (always needed a good shove on me bum to get up that last little bit), sliding down their trunk, having them pick up a stick, having them kneel, lie down, etc. etc. Two elephants would always do a painting during each show, paintbrush in trunk (their trunks are amazing! like wormy alien limbs with a mind of their own). After the show–lunch–then another training session to work on my crappy inability to master the Thai commands–another bath, another show–hike ‘em back into the jungle and hike back out without the poor little (big) dears. Tough life, two parades and shows a day…

My elephant, Sri Siam, was the tiniest of the bunch. The center will accept mahout trainees as young as 4 years old–he’s the one they put the 4 year-olds on. Or the 28 year-olds, I guess. He was just 6 years old himself, had the most heartbreakingly big light-brown eyes, was the only one of the elephants who needed a Hansel-&-Gretel trail of sugarcane as incentives during the jungle treks (so not a hiker), would give off a long, throaty squeal every so often just to remind you that someday he’d be much, much bigger. I love this little (big) guy.

I’ll let Steve love up on Prachuab in his own words:
She’s 27 years old, one of the oldest elephants there; is one of the sweetest and happiest elephants around…always happy…ears always flopping…with a great big smile. She’s not the most talented of the elephants, but what she lacks in talent she makes up for in her great big heart. She loves to eat and is quite a large lady as a result–first in line, last to leave, and she knows where the food is: she smells it, feels it if someone places sugarcane in the groove above her head and will furiously shake her head from side to side until it falls down within reach of her trunk. She’s a very independent lady and does what she likes but occasionally she’d let me feel like I was in control. Imposing at first, but we warmed to each other and I knew she wouldn’t hurt me. We love each other.

Wooooooooooooo, so Steve’s gone off the deep end a little bit. Hopefully soon he’ll recover from his heartache at having to say goodbye to her this morning. But seriously, it was just a joy, one of those times that I’ll have to draw upon when I’m having an especially shitty day at work in order to remind myself why it is that I work. To do amazing stuff like this.

The lead mahout at the center has put some photos he’s taken of us and our group having the time of our lives on the center’s website, – look under 28-30 November and as usual my name is misspelled Tanya. But I’d gladly be Tanya if I could do this all day!

& more Vietnam

I'll finish where I left off....

Three days of kayaking in Ha Long bay and Cat Ba Nat’l Park

…ended up being not so much about kayaking as about relaxing on the deck of our junk (finally! this is a vacation after all)), meeting some cool peeps (as our Vietnamese guide sweetly put it, “learning new culturals”) and the highlight–our 3-hour karaoke bender the second night with our new buds. The adorable duo of Pook and Bean collaborated on ‘Manic Monday’, ‘Hotel California’, and ‘Octopus's Garden’ to name a few…then it was as if my husband discovered (or re-discovered? we all know he’s a ham.) his inner performance artist taking songs like ‘Shebop’, the Laverne & Shirley theme (we’re gonna make your dreams come true…doin’ it our way) and ‘Sledgehammer’ (God I hate that song) to new levels.

Ha Long bay–in the running for being added to the Natural Wonders of the World list–was beautiful, but honestly? I wasn’t as blown away by it as I thought I’d be. Maybe because I’d seen pictures and advertisements galore for tours all over the place in Hanoi. So when finally laying eyes on it for real, it was like, oh….nice. Just like the picture. Steve says we’re jaded by other wonderful stuff we’ve seen over the last few years; I hope not and like to think the best is yet to come. And enjoy the here and now, of course. Sometimes it goes against every fiber in my body to not attempt comparisons but to see things in their own right.

Ninh Binh

Here we took a wonderful boat ride through the Tam Coc (translated as three caves) in this small town southeast of Hanoi. The scenery was spectacular and here I was floored: huge limestone karsts rising up through rice paddies (I told you, there’s something about rice paddies with me), the occasional pagoda high up on a cliff, white billy goats even higher.

And our pseudo-paddler. You see, all the boats with non-whities (please don't be offended, it's a joke between Steve & I--if you are offended, then duh, stop reading!) had one solitary paddler rowing them through the 2-hour trip. But we had 2 rowers, as did other…westerners. Why? Were we that heavy compared to Asians? On the return boat trip, though, we discovered that our pseudo-paddler was really peddling in her hideaway trunk gazillions of embroidered…everything: tablecloths, pillowcases, drawstring bags, embroidery to end all embroidery. More than both my nonnas combined have ever owned in their life (and that is a bloody lot), all “hidden” in this little canoe. Polite refusal to a non-English speaking person only gets you so far–when she continued hawking we just started having fun with it, “So you’re not a yankees fan? How come you only smile when you want something, grandma?” She boldly asked us for a tip at the end, on the docks, where good cop-bad cop came into play--I helplessly pointed at Steve and the fact that he carried the money (he was already halfway towards to moto drivers). I’m sure karma will rear its ugly head for that one. But why should we tip the pseudo-paddler?!

Oh but there’s so much more. Our hideous Hell on Wheels I and Hell on Wheels II sleeper bus trips with disgustingtons. Just foul. And our homestay. But now we’ve got a looming plane to catch for Bangkok and Steve has to use the bawngkohn–betcha don’t need 3 guesses for that one!

Happy Thanksgiving and blessings all around!


*originally posted 22 November 2007

Better late than never, right? Anyhoo, here it is, piecemeal fashion. I only got through Ninh Binh (part deux) because after that came our “homestay” in the Mekong delta which really deserves a post of its own. What a crock of dog doo! But I digress–starting with the northern city of…


I don’t know. For some reason we weren’t as enthralled with Hanoi as most westerners we met were. Maybe we’re missing the HaNoi gene. And it’s not for lack of being ‘city people’ because we loved Saigon in the south, which is far bigger. Trying to put a pulse on exactly why we didn’t care much for it–Hanoi has the feel that it was once a quaint, small city that has now gotten so overpopulated, so chaotic, so overwhelming for its own good. The streets are too narrow for motos, cars, cyclos and pedestrians–why pedestrians? because they’re forced onto the streets as the sidewalks typically overflow with food carts, heaps of child-sized tables and chairs, clothes racks, inevitable big-city garbage and people just generally milling around. (hello? you want moto? 1 hours moto? moto? moto?) One memorable obstacle we had to skirt around once was a Vietnamese woman, sitting directly on the sidewalk (note I did not say "on a chair on the sidewalk”) chopping raw beef for her pho, probably. I wonder what the FDA would think about that…

So always traffic. Always horn-honking. Oh, there’s wonderful things about Hanoi–beautiful Hoan Kiem lake, the cathedral, the Temple of Literature. And we had the best food of our entire time in Vietnam there: first at KOTO (Know One Teach One) a restaurant entirely staffed by disadvantaged youth employed to learn hospitality skills–eating for a cause. 2nd the scrumptious cha ca at Cha Ca La Vong. We sat down here and were greeted with the waiter tossing us a laminated piece of paper reading: “We only serve 1 thing here. Fried fish. 70,000 dong.” (about $4.50) Bring it on! They brought over a pan atop coals, and the little fish pieces are already cooking in there; stern Vietnamese grandma instructed us to add noodles, greens, and herbs–parsley, lemongrass…so yummy!

3rd our transcendental bowl of pho chin at 49 Bat Dan street–a little dive that looked like and probably was someone’s garage. You grab your steamy gingery and cardamom-brothy bowl of deliciousness and sit down at the aforementioned pint-sized plastic tables and chairs. Then slurp away. Smile at the locals, who are staring at you. After all, we were taking pictures of our food–that is pretty damn weird. (Oh, & the coffee! Vietnamese caphe sua da is like…my dream coffee. It’s made with sweetened condensed milk. Sweetened condensed milk! Why hadn’t I ever thought about that? But I digress again. Forgive me; it’s so easy to get tangential when the subject of food comes up. At any rate, we didn’t mourn leaving Hanoi, as we have with other cities & places on this trip.


We spent two fantastic (just absolutely fantastic to quote the Aussie couple we met on the train back to Hanoi) days in the mountain town of Sapa, northern Vietnam. I finally got to see, photograph, hike in and even fall into my beloved rice terraces–like step pyramids made of grass, the steep paddies have just been harvested last month. I can’t do the whole scene justice to describe how incredible (& how removed from anything seen in the U.S.) it all was to take in. We hiked wherever we could, down into the steep valley and returning to Sapa in the evening for yummy food (homemade pasta! no really, marmousch! but I’ll leave it at that.) The second morning we hired a guide to take us down into hilltribe villages where the Black H’mong and Red Dzao minorities live.

quick & dirty description of the hilltribes:

H’mong: are animists and worship spirits. Wear indigo-dyed linen clothing made from hemp (from which evolves a whole other story I don’t dare post). The women wear skirts, aprons, these cute footless leggings and cylindrical hats with the top of their head exposed, & heaps of silver jewelry. Heaps and heaps and heaps. They’re called black h’mong because of the predominant color of clothing.

Dzao: practice ancestor worship of spirits including sacrificing animals. They typically wear beautiful red dresses with these huge, red, puffy turban-like headpieces (more wide than long). Their long hair is shaved a bit above the forehead, as are their eyebrows, and the rest comes out of the turban’s top. Oh, we have the most beautiful picture of a gorgeous 23 years-old Dzao girl!
Onwards. We set off with our guide, name pronounced Hoom, & soon enough had two Black H’mong in tow, Mai and Cuu (later you buy from me? where you from? you buy from me? you buy from me?). We actually did buy from our little entourage–mostly because they end up guilting you into it with the rationale that they’ve dutifully followed you the entire hike so you’re absolutely a heartless bastard not to patronize them. At any rate, I figured karma had to come into play so we obliged. But honestly, I really didn’t mind having them with us. At one point after stopping to rest, I surprised myself by wondering, “Where’s Mai and Cuu? Are they still coming?” I should mention that the minute you do buy, not only do a flock of other hilltribe women come out of the woodwork (and now the ”you buy from me” line has turned into a repeated trancelike chant) but you’ll inevitably have at least two more women following as you resume walking. If you’re at all fazed by it you’ll want to throw yourself out of a window when it’s all said and done. But we took it in stride (the prices are still dirt cheap after all) and had a great time. Sapa is a gem in Vietnam.

*& if any of you are seeing us in the next 6 months, I beg of you–take note of the girly bracelet (given to him by Cuu) now on Steve’s left wrist and tease him until the cows come home. I can’t get him to take it off–not to shower, not to sleep, nothing. Tease. BE MERCILESS.

Oh wow- 3 years of cheese!

*originally posted 19 November 2007

Happy 3-cheese-year anniversary to us! Happy anniversary, happy anniversary, happy anniversary, haaaaaaappppy anniversary….happy happy happy cheese happy…

We’re in Cambodia. I’ve got a long post in the making on Vietnam, but until then I’ll just fast forward to Cambodia. Although westernized (surprisingly, China so far was the least westernized of all the countries we visited), it’s a fantastic place. Walking in Phnom Penh the other day we spotted monkeys on the street corner, just minding their own business, picking at trash, hanging off tuk-tuks. La la la, we’re monkeys.

Steve was skeptical about getting a massage from a blind masseuse at Seeing Hands Massage in Phnom Penh. We were led upstairs into this…communal massage room where 6 tables are set up with all the blind masseuses working together (each with his/her own person), laughing and carrying on all the while. We were told to change into these…scrubs, but with puffy sleeves (you should’ve seen Steve in his puffed-sleeve scrubs!) with Steve whispering the entire time this is creepy this is creepy this is creepy. I honestly loved my massage, but Steve said his lady kicked the shit out of him with her vigorous…massaging.

Yesterday we visited Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, a high school-turned-prison which was the largest center of detention and torture during Cambodia’s genocide from 1975-1978 under Pol Pot’s regime. I won’t--I can't--do it justice in trying to convey how powerful it was to see photographs of tortured prisoners and realize that the very same orange-and-white checked floor in the background was the same one I was standing on. Very sombering. It very much put everything into perspective. You think you’re having a rough day? Here’s a place where, of 17,000 people imprisoned, 7 came out alive. Seven. The rest ended up at the extermination camp of Choeung Ek, some 15 km away. We visited the killing fields as well–shallow indentations in the ground where the mass graves are/were…bits of clothing still strewn about…it’s all very real and horrific.

Instead of buying an anniversary present for each other…and, well, this trip of course is an anniversary present (and Christmas, and birthday, and Valentine’s day…) we decided to donate money to a local school here in Siem Reap through With this, uniforms were bought for 30 kids and today at 2:00 they paraded into an assembly room where we passed them out. It was adorable. The child’s name would be read aloud from a list and he or she would come up to where we were standing, do this little bow with their little 6-year-old hands clasped together like in prayer and murmur “aw kohn” (thank you) before shyly running back to sit. Then we visited 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th grade cheese classrooms where we caused a raucus because the kids delighted in waving to us and shouting ‘hello!’ instead of listening to their teacher’s cheese lesson. I would love to start a tradition where every year on our anniversary we do something like this–whether for children, or Habitat for Humanity, or something for cheese…we shall see.

Tomorrow brings us our first glimpse of Angkor Wat!

p.s. why all the cheese? you see, the room we’re staying in for $15/night here in Siem Reap smells horribly of cheese. Tres romantique. we’ve got a game going to insert the word “cheese” wherever we can– in talking, in writing, in cheese…I’m now winning…

Our last week in China

*Note: this was originally e-mailed, not blogged ( doesn’t work from/in Vietnam) on 15 November 2007.


Okay, since wordpress has gone to the birds in Vietnam then I’ll start sending sweet nothings via email.

Here’s the cliff-notes version of our last week in China spent in Guilin and Yangshuo, southern cities: in Guilin the highlight (for me at least) was roller-skating one night with kids half our age. We’re talking roller skating on a wooden floor roughly the size of a basement, with old-fashioned skates–remember the big fat rubber stoppers on the tips meant to act as brakes? Yes, I did fall on my ass once–some kid decided to go flashdance on me and we collided. But adorable Steve (you would have agreed had you seen him adorably wobbling on these skates) managed to stay upright the entire time–although he did use a railing once as a crash landing pad (two innocent Chinese girls ran for safety). Little girls wanted me to hold hands and skate with them in a chain. Good, sweet times.

We took a Li River day cruise to get from Guilin to Yangshuo. Trust me, not as glamorous as it sounds. It was on a barge…the seats on the bottom deck were like ripped-out car seats…we came in after everyone had settled in and, being the only whities, as we entered I swear I thought I understood Mandarin for a split-second as the girl on the microphone announced that we were going to be the entertainment for the next 6 hours. Kind of like the scene in movies where the white boy walks into the club and suddenly the record that’s playing scratches and stops, and everyone stops what they’re doing in mid-air and stares? Yes. About 2 hours into the trip, when nearly everyone was on the top deck looking at the scenery (towering limestone karsts and other such loveliness), Steve whispers, no, hisses,

“They’re taking our picture.”

Sure enough, one couple was pretending to take a picture of the karsts but was clearly directing it at us, then they’d giggle as they looked our way. (Totally fine by me, as it’s a trick I know & use meself.) Then another guy approached us, “Excuse me. My wife is very nice woman. Can you take picture with her?” Sure! Then another. And another. There were people shyly looking on, like, I want to ask them to take a picture with me, but what if they have a limit? At one point Steve said something like, “everyone step right up!” and the floodgates opened. Our fleeting moment of celebritydom.

Then in Yangshuo–or as we called it, America East. It was backpacker heaven down there with more western than Chinese…everything. Food, speaking, shops…to give you an idea of the…vibe: one guesthouse had a sign in front of it reading No opium or heroin, but we have clean beds and hot water. Great. So needless to say, we were thrilled with our haven of a guesthouse which was a good 25 minute walk from the craziness of the town. Or a 5-minute bike ride with 10-speeds we rented from the farmer next door, who had a huge portrait of Mao hanging in his living room the way we’d hang up school pictures of our kids back home.

The high point in Yangshuo was a bike ride to end all bike rides–with winding, hilly country roads (take me home….to a place….I belong…West Virg–sorry!! can’t help myself) shared with water buffalo, a flock of ducks–duck shepherd in tow, pigs. People carrying the huge baskets with a huge pole across their weary shoulders, looking so damn authentic. A family huddled around an open doorway eating noodles and gaping at us at the same time (Steve paid them 1 yuan so I could take their picture). Of course we got lost and didn’t reach our intended destination, but we honestly couldn’t have cared less. Every once in a while, flying down a hill on the bike, I’d remember, “I’m in China!” It was a blessing, just being there.

Fast-forwarding again, through an exhausting China-VN border crossing via train involving 1) a shifty-eyed Chinese official appearing in the doorway of our cabin saying in a creepy and, oddly enough, German accent, “Zoo you have anyzing to zeclare?” –his voice getting higher and higher with each word; 2) being awoken at 3 am by another official–get off, now!–without time to put my contact lenses on so that the whole memory of it all really is a blur; 3) one hour (this is still 3 in the morning, mind you) to clear customs including a “health inspection” of a thermometer stuck in one ear. All very thorough and logical.

Next is Vietnam! But let me just say how much we loved, no adored, China! We cannot wait to go back. Next time to Tibet, and Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Guizakao (which I’m not spelling right). There were so many moments of wonderful encounters with wonderful people…I never felt unsafe, not for a second (grossed out and pissed off yes, threatened no). Anyone thinking about going, go! And take us with you.

Finally I get to write about Cyclops

*originally posted 31 October 2007

In honor of Halloween and all.

We’re finally out of Chengdu, the largest city in western China (I think so & Steve thinks so, so it’s so). Being there wasn’t exactly a slice of cake for us, and we think it all started with Cyclops, whom we had the pleasure of meeting during the overnight train from Xi’an to Chengdu. Here goes…oh, and Steve will add his commentary in the brackets [ ].

We caught the train a little after 8 pm– it didn’t originate in Xi’an, so we boarded knowing full well there was the likely possibility that our cabin-mates (four bunks/cabin) were already on and settled. When we got to our own cabin, the door was closed. Huh. Maybe they’re already sleeping? Okay, we’ll just go in quietly and try not to disturb them.

Enter Cyclops. A big, burly Chinese beast of a man [he was no man!] wearing nothing but tight long underwear, leaving nothing to the imagination–not that you’d want to imagine [I saw a mushroom head!], sprawled out on one of our bunks, and shoveling into his mouth–get this–fried pork rinds while dropping every third one onto the pillow. Our pillow [actually my pillow–and sheets. Also, the small table between the bunks was overflowing with spilled tea, more pork rinds, and the trash can overstuffed with assorted odds and ends from the beast, all within a few inches of where my head should lay].

Now, it’s an unspoken rule that if you arrive to the cabin before your other bunkmates that you leave any bed that’s not assigned to you the hell alone. You don’t sit on it (even if it’s a lower bunk), you don’t set your luggage on it, it doesn’t exist for ya. Because very soon someone’s going to be laying their weary self on it and like the Golden Rule says, you wouldn’t want to lay somewhere that some stranger’s put their crap on, or worse, themselves on.

But there was Cyclops, in his tight long johns [and exposed mushroom head] eating his greasy pork rinds in all his glory. We started furiously gesticulating that you, disgusting man, should give us your bunk since you’ve now ruined ours for further use-and certainly not somewhere that we’re going to sleep. And Cyclops–disgusting, gross Cyclops–nonchalantly gets up and in no uncertain terms lets us know that nope, you dumb foreigners can have this bed I just got done pooching up–look, I’ll even wipe the dropped pork rinds off yer pillow, there ya go–and I’ll be sleeping in my untouched bed [except for the shit stains that I saw, which is probably why he was on mine] up there.

Oh HELLS no.

So not only is Cyclops a disgusting shit, but he’s a mean one too.

Steve whirls around and heads for the end of the railcar, desperate to flag down someone, anyone, with authority to fix this. Meanwhile Cyclops puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it, defiantly staring at me the whole time as if to say whatcha gonna do, princess? (Smoking’s another no-no in the sleeper cabins–amazing for China.) Without taking my eyes off him I screamed, “Steve. STEVE! HE’S F—ING SMOKING!”

“Are you f—ing kidding me?”

I joined Steve, and soon after Cyclops joined us (long johns and all) to finish his cig at the end of the railcar where smoking is allowed. What happened next is almost comical. There we were, the three of us, in this tiny 2′ x 6′ space, Cyclops smoking and unabashedly staring at us, Steve and I (still with our huge packs on) just fuming, fuming and willing all sorts of horrible things. And it’s as if he thought, how many disgusting things can I do to REALLY piss them off? So in the next two minutes, he burped, farted (long trucker farts too), spat (in all fairness 95% of Chinese spit in public, grody nonetheless), picked his nose, gave his crotch a good tug, and capped each nostril while snorting all the snot out of the opposite. A real class act, this one.

Eventually we were able to locate someone who spoke English and in turn translated to one of the stewards; naturally the whole commotion drew quite a crowd. (The stoic, typically non-confrontational Chinese seem to get a kick out of us Americans when we get emotional.) No, you can’t be assigned to another cabin, no bunks are left. Yes, you can have a change of sheets for both beds. Cyclops, please don’t smoke in the room anymore

During all this, by the way, Cyclops had gotten naked and under the provided blanket up in his bunk. [Looking as innocent as a puppy does when they know they’ve done something wrong]. I know he was naked because I saw the long johns wadded up by his pillow and less than an hour later (time for another cig break!) I got the pleasure of seeing Cyclops throw off the blankie and put them back on to leave the cabin. Which is a memory I would never, ever care to revisit again.

So our Chengdu experience started off with that 16-hour train trip. It got better, but we still felt the Cyclops jinx/curse/what-have-you the entire time with all the various headaches and hassles encountered. There were highs…the Giant Panda Breeding Center, the teahouses, Remnin Park, the rickety haunted house just in time for Halloween, and I won’t even get into the beautiful 2-day side trip of Wolong–wonderful Wolong and the year-old panda cubs we got to play (play! as in hug and hold!) with [I have a new girlfriend who’s short, stubby, black and white, and kisses & hugs like a champ. Her name is Ginger.]. But we’d both be lying if we said we weren’t happy to feel our plane lifting off this morning as we finally left Chengdu behind. Hello, Guilin.


*originally posted 25 October 2007

We just got back to our hotel here in Xi’an to find a note slipped under our door:

Dear Mr Steven

My name is Xin, and I am the Guest Care Manager at the Hotel.

I apologize that our staff, for the time being, don’t speak well. In case there is a language. However I would like to help you whenever in need.

You can call me at —

Have a nice day.

…and then he proceeds to give us not only his work extension but also his cell number, “from 6:00 pm-after.” This guy has already bent over backwards for us. He booked us a driver to go see the terra-cotta soldiers tomorrow and also our train tickets for Chengdu. Now we feel a little guilty for making the comment this morning (amongst ourselves, of course) that “either this guy is really really really nice or he’s hustling us.”

It’s a striking comparison to what happened to us just minutes before. While we were walking home (I call everywhere home–even places I’m only staying one night at, like this one. Guess I adapt quickly!) this evening I felt the zipper of my camera case being undone–just in the nick of time. I whirled to my right and sure enough saw a woman’s arm out of the corner of my eye–and my bag was just about fully opened. I ran up to her and she would not look me in the eye. She was holding a baby, but in such an improper way that Steve swears it was a fake one. Close one! And not that it’s a huge deal in the grand scheme of things (actually I would temporarily flip out if the camera was stolen–all our pictures! Great Wall pictures!) but it was still…unsettling. And yes paps, I’ll be much more careful with the camera case from now on. Don’t worry.

On a happier note, I don’t think there were two goofier people on a tandem bike pedaling fast & furiously on Xi’an’s city walls than us this afternoon.