Monday, January 28, 2008

Love Where You're At

Regina is a great little city in the southern half of Saskatchewan. A place where when people from other countries and continents ask you where you're from, you mostly just say Canada. Truthfully, now remember I'm speaking in global terms, most people world-wide know where Canada is - we took geography for heaven's sakes! But mention Saskatchewan and you get a blank stare. It's a revelation to not get a blank stare!

Most of the world knows there is a Vancouver, Canada and of course there is a Toronto, they might even get a Montreal but Saskatchewan. In all my travels I've lost track of the blank stares, there have been so many. I try - I haven't given up on saying Saskatchewan and waiting hopefully. But you know at the oddest moments it does happen - the cab driver in Hong Kong who knew exactly where Regina was, the man walking down the sidewalk in Marrakesh, Morocco who just decided to strike up a conversation with the obvious foreigners and kept up the questions, forcing us to narrow the field of where we came from until he had to reveal that his brother was currently in Moose Jaw (40 miles from Regina).

Yes there are the exceptions, amazing, intriguing people you meet across the globe. But mostly, people at a certain distance from Saskatchewan have no idea where it is. We are a vague land mass somewhere in Canada if we register at all. But even though we're sparsely populated, just under a million people, we are part of the bread basket of the country with hidden treasures of minerals and ores that the rest of the country is just beginning to wake up to. Saskatchewan might just be Canada's hidden gem. But for now it still sleeps with a hiccup every now and then a small shout that is noticed, noted by the media and forgotten for the moment as we begin to slowly wake up - more on that later.

On to Regina, the capital. A small prairie city, under 200,000 people. Minimal pollution and wide open prairie. It's a little chilly from about mid October until the end of March. But we still bundle up and go for walks, cross-country ski and in the case of my neighbour, walk everywhere across town - rain, snow, sleet. And there's lots of snow but no ski hills. On the upside, kids make due, sledding down hills that those of us with more hill knowledge would call ditches. The Caraganas sleep through the winter hibernation, the prairie grass is silent. The prairies rests under a blanket of snow. There's a stark beauty in a white covered world.

When there's a wind in winter -40 celius with the wind chill is not unusual. Left your block heater unplugged, well your car might not start in the morning. Googling the term block heater - not sure we want to talk to you - climate envy warning...alerting now! Seriously, welcome to our world - it's not so bad - just different.

The Canadian prairies - mid winter,
where even the dogs may wear boots - it ain't for sissies!

Enjoy and love where you're at - it might be all you ever have!


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Journeys End

The plane only takes me so far. There is still a dog to pick up and a seven hour car ride before it is home to Saskatchewan. Wide open spaces with nothing but snowy fields is not what I've been used to seeing. A lone coyote trots down the meridian dividing the two highways, a herd of antelope graze contently. Yes, this is home. Cold and snowy it is wildly beautiful in it's own way. But the difference from where I've so recently been is overwhelming, especially - the

Today I look outside to a snow covered garden. But it's still good to be home.

Rourke thinks so to as the stuffed cow moos for the millionth time and he lays happily back and chomps down trying to dismantle its head.

It might be cold but snow can be a beautiful thing.


Monday, January 21, 2008

The End is in Sight

Today was a rough start. 4:30 a.m. is never an easy time to begin the day. On an early morning Saturday, the traffic is lighter and it is only 45 minutes to the airport through Bangkok's dark streets. And like airports everywhere, there is no down time, as crowds enter and depart in a continuous stream under bright lights that make your sleep deprived eyes burn.

I'm not ready to leave or for the adventure to end but like every journey there's a beginning and an ending.

The plane takes off over the glow of Bangkok's night lights. Five hours later we arrive in Tokyo's Narita airport where a group of us from the flight are efficiently gathered by Japanese ground crew, checked off and hustled to our transfer plane. Unfortunately, hustling takes on a new meaning as long lines at security take precious minutes and soon there are few minutes left before the next flight leaves.

Toilets of the world - one day I will write about that but for now let me share this. A trip to a Japanese bathroom found this gem. A toilet with an arm that offered more options than I had time to read. Yes, I know, reading in a public washroom, a fairly unattractive thought but this toilet was one of a kind. It offered everything from industrial flush and/or bidet to a flush sound to add to the actual or a musical flush if you preferred. So, having never seen the like - I have to share at least the armrest of this interesting contraption.

I haven't seen television in almost a month but nine hours on a plane with a television screen planted in the back of the seat behind you is too tempting to ignore. Too tired to do anything that involves much thinking I eat and watch television as the plane roars through the night and into the sunrise of a new day over Vancouver, a new day that dawned yesterday over Asia.

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything."
Charles Kuralt


One Night in Bangkok

It's a marathon of transportation to leave Koh Phanagan. First the back of a truck taxi shakes both luggage and passengers as the driver seems to hit every of the many potholes on the road. Next it's a wait by the docks and a thirty minute ride on a ferry that is more rough than calm this morning. One of many vans waiting at the Koh Samui docks, squeezes nine strangers and their luggage into it's well orestrated interior for a ride to the airport. In the only truly beautiful airport I have ever seen people are loaded into tram cars for a ride to the departure gate. From there it is another plane ride to Bangkok and then only one long taxi ride to a hotel. It is with a sigh that I drop my luggage in the hotel room on a muggy late afternoon day. I try not to think about the 4:30 a.m. wake up call that will begin another transportation marathon. That's tomorrow. Tonight it's Bangkok.

Bangkok feels more like a living entity than any city I've ever been in. It's beautiful, fascinating and, for a girl from the Canadian prairie, it's size alone is overwhelming. This isn't my first trip here but my fourth or fifth. I'm not doing an exact count but many of my trips here have been short jumping off points to other destinations.

Some say it's the traffic in Bangkok that is overwhelming, I find it's the diversity. From the woman sewing with her peddle sewing machine on a street corner to the sleek luxury limos, wealth and poverty and all of those in the middle jostle for the same space. Commerce is untamed and vendors take full advantage as within blocks you can buy anything from a Dior or D&G knock off on a crowded street corner to the real thing in air conditioned luxury.

After hours of travel a street corner cafe with a cold drink is the perfect place to watch as wide-eyed tourists are accosted by astute vendors and well-heeled locals glide artfully around the familiar chaos. And that is life in one small area of Bangkok. And for me, it's time for one more Singha - a Thai beer - before heading back to the hotel and a much to early wakeup call.

"Travelers never think that they are the foreigners."

Mason Cooley


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Koh Phangan Tattoo - Ouch!

Wipe outs on motor scooters are so common on Koh Phangan that the resulting gashes are called the Koh Phangan Tatoo. Just the other day I saw a girl lounging by the pool with a four inch gash in her bikini clad side - the Koh Phangan Tattoo.

Still, motor scooter is such an enjoyable way to see some of these islands. They're easy to park anywhere and take a picture or explore a site more closely.

Renting motor scooters is easy - every little shop seems to have them. And the island is small - easy to explore on these small vehicles. But the tattoo does echo in my head especially when you can see why - the roads are mostly paved but there are dips and unexpected craters where whole pieces of concrete or pavement are missing. Combine erratic road repair and beach wear with an island known for partying, this is the island where the full moon party has become infamous, and voila - the tattoo.

Made it back in one piece. No cuts or bruises, just a deeper tan and an appreciation of an island that goes from sea to mountain in minutes.

The last day on this idylic little island calls for fireworks. But one problem - the resident dog, who spends her days assisting random children to find rocks and shells in the water and her evening looking for whatever doggie treasure she thinks might lurk in the gently lapping surf - also has no real liking for fireworks. In fact she is in search and destroy mode. With rockets firing off in tandem it is difficult to hold one smelly, wet lab by her rather chubby haunches. But in the end, the dog survived unscathed but frustrated that no one would let her get at those fireworks.

It's always difficult leaving a place. The time there is always too short. As the time on this island dwindles away there is another adventure to anticipate. Soon it's off to Bangkok. One night in Bangkok before it's off again for a marathon plane ride that will end one day backwards and a continent away as this journey comes to an end. But it's not over yet...

til next time


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Out of the Comfort Zone - And Over the Edge

Yesterday was a scuba diving adventure. The first time in scuba gear since certification four years ago. Although it seemed like I had forgotten everything, it all came back. Let me say that scuba diving was not on the top of my list of things to do. With only four dives under my belt I may be certified but still a beginner. But I'm so glad I didn't listen to that little voice that screeched something about remaining comfortable, dry and on shore. Instead, I stepped off that boat and dived into another world that I thought I had long forgotten. But how could you forget such sights.

Sting rays scurry for cover. Jelly fish float with delicate tentacles that bob in an undersea exotic dance. Sea urchins waft in silent currents. Cliffs of red and orange and blue hued coral undulate in hills across the sands. Brightly coloured anemone harmonize with the urchins and scho0ls of fish flit here and there. A sucker fish follows, biting one of the divers as he cleans off anything that may have lodged on our equipment. An hour and a half under water will be part of this trip that I'll long remember.

Life is a risk. Take a chance today.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Where there's smoke - grab your pack!

Yesterday was a travel day. Stocked with tylenol cold (yes, even in the tropics) I emerge from the hotel to see our airport transport with the hood up. Worse - there's smoke beginning to waft - and then billow from the engine. "Grab the packs!" is the call to arms. With your life in a canvas bag you can only grab what's important and stand back. Unfortunately, for the car, it wouldn't be going anywhere today. Left to stand on the street corner amidst Pattaya's endless rush, there's no guarantee we're going anywhere in a hurry.

But fifteen minutes later another car is on the road and the airport is in sight. Koh Samui, the only airport where even the airport bathroom is appealing with a room size aquarium dividing men from women's. Open air terminals with lush foliage spill into the waiting areas. And then it's time to be off again - on to the ferry, across narrow gangplanks and off to Koh Pha Ngan.

After landing it is a grueling run across hot pavement and through anxious hotel peddlers for one of many small pickups where a ride in the back means being jounced across rough roads,and being careful to keep your head bent or crack it on the roof as the truck pitches and rolls at a quick clip down the road. Right now there is nothing to see but iron bars, dust and heat and the occasional glimpse of what might be paradise. An hour later and a few misturns before a final deposit in a place so beautiful it is surreal. An aqua cove shimmers in the heat as it snuggles up against the restaurant and the tiny bungalows melt into the emerald green lushness of Thailand. It is a place where you could stay indefinitely, languishing under the hot sun, lounging by the pool and immersing yourself in a good book. And that's exactly what I'm going to do at least for today and maybe tomorrow.

Today my blog is going right to left - but in English - go figure. And the mouse, another issue - it has an e-brain of it's own. Even in paradise there is the occasional fly.

Stay warm. And hello to my fave girls - T-bit, Mikkray, M&M


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sunset Over the Plains of Bagan

In the village far below, the children jostle you as they practice their English and try to sell you their wares. Many of the children here sell postcards after their school day has ended. Today I am far away from all that. It's nine stories up on steep steps that only get steeper and narrower as you climb. It is one of the higher stupas from the thousands on the plains. At seven stories self preservation takes over and I stop where the view is still panoramic but less dizzying.

As the sun drops and illuminates the ancient brick stupas, their shadows gleaming across the dull clay soil -weathered spires dotting the plains. Stupas -monuments built over artifacts of loved ones, temples to royalty and memories of ancient man, a thousand years of history. The sunset is a scene that has repeated day after day, year after year.

It is lovely and peaceful - but my peace is soon shattered as a smiling eight year old face peeks around a time-worn column. His face lights up as he rushes over to try to sell postcards. Although I don't buy, he's satisfied with a conversation and a gift of a pen for his start in school tomorrow. Then he runs off and to my horror leaps onto the edge of the worn smooth stone archway, six inches from a seven story drop and hurries off, balancing on bare dirty feet, his string of postcards bouncing across the rock behind him. He jumps to the other side, gives me a parting grin and leaves me alone with the view and a sigh of relief.

On the ground again the vendors crowd the base of the stairs but a short distance away a man begins a conversation wanting to know where I'm from. When I say from Canada there is the inevitable "Ah, Canada." With a clear pronounciation of each consonant and a nod of his head. I've had this conversation many times and often there is a smile and a hopeful question, "maple leaf?" Unfortunately, like the lip gloss I didn't come prepared with either small pins or lip gloss. Maybe there will be a next time. I hope so.

In the meantime - cheers - to a meeting of cultures.


A Lesson in Modesty and Lip Gloss

We've learned many things from our guide, Han, who showed us around Bagan, Myanmar for a few days. He took us through the history of the stupas that dot the Bagan plains and the basics of Buddhism. At first it is difficult to catch all his words as he speaks seriously and enthusiastically about his culture and beliefs. He is only twenty-three but already an accomplished businessman who guides tourists, owns a van and car for taxi service and helps to support his parents. He speaks English and Japanese and teaches children Japanese for free, one or two hours per day, which fulfills some of his obligations to his belief that one must learn and/or teach at least two hours per day. He says that he learned Japanese from an English/Japanese book and that Japanese is easy. I can only, as a true monolinguist, roll my eyes. I'm sure my smattering of French is not worth mentioning.

Meanwhile, on Mount Popa, with monkeys and stray dogs roaming everywhere, we meet children who may also have been versed in the middle way, or modesty and giving back, but who have only one thing on their mind today - lip gloss!

"You are very beautiful Madam. Do you have lip gloss?" It's a chant I hear everywhere and get a grin when I tell them that they too are beautiful. Unfortunately, I did not foresee the demand for lip gloss and instead hand them a pen from my rapidly depleting supply. Fortunately, that is also their second request. "Stiletto Madam, pen?"

C'est la vie


Let's Play Catch up

It is so great to hear voices from home. Thanks for the comments!

We're in Pattaya, Thailand now. Just got here from Yangon, Myanmar this morning. It's been a long day with delays for fog keeping us in the airport in Myanmar for almost two hours. An ultra modern airport with even auto flush on their squat toilet - whoo hooo! But no coffee to be found anywhere. With our wake up call at the Yangon hotel being 4:30 a.m., a morning without coffee was not top on my list. Still, I love Myanmar, love the atmosphere, the people, the food. Despite politics the people are awesome. So on the next few posts - let's play catch up.

The pictures in this post are all from Inle Lake where whole villages live on stilt houses that appear to float amidst the mist and pampas grass.

Two days ago we had our much needed R & R. Lounged around the pool, got travel arrangements underway and relaxed. The hotel we stayed at in Bagan is a splurge, an oasis that straddles the Ayerarwaddy River and houses at least two original ancient stupas which mostly date a mix of the 11th through 13th century.

It's not easy blogging out of Myanmar. On that day I was alone in a dining room area in the back of the hotel. No computer guru to help out and without the time and/or the software you're hooped. On a dial up modem you're guaranteed no time to get through all the lockouts. So a half hour on the internet ends with no results - no mail, no blog, no successful searchs. I can't even access my website. On our last day we learn that the government has recently imposed a $10,000 US dollar charge per year on anyone wanting satellite TV and a $700 US dollar charge on anyone wanting internet. That shuts down most of Myanmar as the outside world just became unaffordable. People have two weeks before they pay or are shut down. Yet amazingly despite the obvious heavy hand of government, except in Yangon, the military presence has been subtle.

But those thoughts are far away as breakfast is served in a garden overlooking one of the earth's mighty rivers. An ancient stupa towers in the background and an attentive waiter hovers in te background dedicated solely to our table. Yes, life is good.

Until next time.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Forgot Gas

"Forgot Gas" is not something you want to hear when you've been driving by wooden longboat across a huge lake for the last three hours. But there we were as our driver says those fateful words. Fortunately, forgot gas turned out to not mean out of gas but rather he forgot to refill the tank from the gas tank beside him. So within five minutes we're off again. Here we are at Inle Lake. What an incredible journey. Marsh land and huge fields of floating gardens. Fields and fields of floating tomatoes. Floating villages dot the lake. Their industry uses primitive tools to produce beautiful silver, lotus robes for the monks, silk and soft paper from mulberry bark. Mountains hover in a silent shrouded mist around us and the pampas grass towers a lonely backdrop to it all.

I'm in an internet cafe right now. It is a dial up modem and for a time I didn't think I'd be able to post anything. The equipment is old, the keyboard full of dust but there's always an expert around. My friendly computer guru got me onto blogger through a back door and here I am. Well almost here, I can't read or post comments. I might have to wait until Thailand but post anyway.

Safe Travels


Saturday, January 5, 2008

It's Not Always Easy

Life isn't easy when you have to hawk your wares to tourists who become more jaded with every seller's hit. I don't think about that as the boy follows me through the market place lugging his stack of water colours and asking again and again if I'll buy. I only think about how I wish he'd leave me alone. It's not like I don't want to buy but he's the tenth seller to ask me, in Yangon's lively and colourful market today. But he's the most persistent and sometimes persistence wins especially when you can put a human face to it. Don't get me wrong, I would have bought in a second, helped him out with a coin or two without thought but I can't feed an entire city and today it feels like the entire city followed me.

What an incredible experience. The market in Yangon is crowded, loud and vibrant. There are jewels; ruby, emerald, sapphire; lacquerware and oil and water colour paintings. After following me relentlessly the boy finally began to talk to me and that was what caused me to buy that water colour from him. He became my temporary buddy, friend in a foreign place.

Today we have spent hours in the market, made more travel arrangements, and traipsed through Shwedagon Paya, a stupa that towers over everything. It is plated gold and surrounding it are numerous smaller temples with statues of Buddha everywhere. Barefoot, no shoes allowed in a Buddhist temple, an hour of walking immersed in a belief that I only partially understand when an elder appeared from nowhere. And with a smile and a request for one American dollar - he took charge, explained the ritual of water and the Buddha, of prayers for luck and happiness and family. Then he showed us the exit and where to find another treasure - this one of nature not of man. Over 10 million bats live in the Shewedagon Paya golden tower and at exactly 5:50 p.m. they come out in a wreath of living gray that goes on for about thirty minutes. An amazing sight. But there have been so many amazing sights on this journey.

Until next time.


p.s. The internet is slowing down noticeably and the equipment is older. Not sure when the next post will be. Off to Inlet Lake tomorrow. Get out my woolies because the cab driver said the temperature is only 4 degrees. To think I gave away all my extra winter clothes before I left Beijing!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Do You have to Touch Base to Count?

Three countries today - if a silent transfer through Thailand counts. Yes, that was today, flew from Cambodia to Bangkok and transferred for a flight to Yangon. I'm counting that as three countries. It sure feels like three countries.

Burma. Already feeling the language barrier. Headed off to find a strip of cafes in the heart of Yangon. Not so easy to find especially without a map. Yangon has over 5 million people so it sprawls over a considerable area. Asking directions, not easy. One cab driver tried to help, he enlisted his friend, who motioned to another friend, who brought in a woman who could speak very elementary English. After a few minutes of polite smiles, hand waving, garbled directions on every side, it was time to head back to the hotel and collect outside reinforcements. Someone who could write directions on a piece of paper and a taxi driver to lead the way. And we were off. Again, not so easy. Were dropped off in a very interesting area of the city, with restaurants and shops. A rather poor section of town as dusk gathered. Across broken concrete and open sewer lines, it was a long walk until a friendly cab driver gave us a ride down to what he thought we were looking for - a Karoke bar. Stepping out of the stripped down to the metal floorboards, seventy era car, was to again face a walk. Fortunately, another cab showed up and one cab later - back at the hotel and supper at the buffet.

Tomorrow is another day.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Angkor Wat

Four years after my first journey to Cambodia, the illusive t-shirt has been bought. Angkor - no not the I saw Angkor Wat t-shirt but Angkor beer the national beer of Cambodia. It's been tested, it's good and we have the t-shirt.

This is my second trip to Siem Reap. It's just a brief jaunt, an interlude in the midst of our trip as we juggle arrival times into Myanmar. At Angkor Wat there are changes, long awaited restoration has begun on major portions of the structure leaving portions off limits. There are signs now that map out a logical viewing strategy with the usual arrows and signs. Somehow I'm disappointed. The mystery is disappearing with each new sign and regulation. The temple in the inner courtyard where the treacherous three story high, ancient, uneven, worn staircase - terrifying for us height challenged individuals - is now off limits. Apparently it was as dangerous as my overactive imagination had anticipated. Still, despite the changes, when I stand in the centre of Angkor Wat beside a Buddhist shrine with incense wafting around me and a man begins a chant that echoes through the ancient chamber I'm transported back in time when this place was alive with another people. People who built something fabulous not just for the Gods they worshipped but for themselves and for the people that served them. It is all rather overwhelming.

In this picture to the right a little boy is climbing an ancient relic like it was his own set of monkey bars.

Went to Tonle Sap lake. This lake is unusual in that every year during the rainy season it floods a major portion of Cambodia as the Mekong river floods into it. The villages that lie near the lake are on stilts and during the floods they resemble floating villages as the water rises right up to road level. Children, dogs and livestock all roam the roads and make it nerve wracking to negotiate the narrow dirt strip that separates one row of roughly built stilt houses from another.

Tomorrow we are heading to Myanmar - a repeat of three countries one day - news flash - we're doing it again. January 4 - Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar. I don't know what internet access will be like. I'm assuming for sure no more pictures. I may be going under for the next week but if I can I'll post to the blog. In the meantime should I have to abdicate my role as trip journalist for a week or so standby - at some point I'll be back.


p.s. I'm reading, enjoying and appreciating every one of your posts and look forward to more. My lack of response is only do to limited internet resources.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Three Countries - One Day

China is not the tropics but Beijing is a fantastic place. Big thanks to our guide, Monica!

Tuk tuk driver who took us through the Hutong in Beijing.

China without the Great Wall - Not!

The title was tough tonight, I debated calling it finally pictures - Yahoo! Today was a short jaunt but long in paperwork. We went through two immigration points and two departure gates. I have cramped fingers from filling out form after form after form. China, Thailand, Cambodia - and now here I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia the home of Angkor Wat. In the four years since I was last here Siem Reap has changed from a sleepy little town to one where tour buses rumble through the streets and mega hotels are edging the perimeter. Within its core it is still small but the traffic is noticeably heavier and things are definitely changing. I haven't seen Angkor Wat yet - that's for tomorrow. I can hardly wait after four years and many more months following my characters in "Tall, Dark and Exotic" through Cambodia.

In a day and a half we are off to Myanmar - I think. The transfers at the airline look a little tight but we'll see - travel is always an adventure and it's more fun if you freelance.

Until next time.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

Internet abroad does have its challenges. I'm not sure if any of these posts are going through as I can't view from this end - so have my fingers crossed. All sorts of good pictures but the internet isn't cooperating and I can't post any pictures - so you'll get to enjoy those later. On the up up side - the luggage arrived last night - Happy New Year!!

Beijing is beautiful, gearing up for the Olympics - which means everything will be tip top and shining for the visitors or so I have been told numerous times. There is so much energy here from the ancient bicycle hauling recyling to the lamborghini gliding by in an elegant blurl. The rickshaw drivers are getting new bicycles on January 1 in anticipation of the games. We saw the bird's nest olympic stadium today. It's an incredible feat of steel and amazingly it does like a large metal bird's nest. Beside the stadium is the aquatic centre which looks like giant bubble paper and somehow suits its intended purpose.

New Years Day - the Great Wall of China - can it get any better? But that's where we were today and despite cold and chilling winds that threatened to dislodge the cable car we made it safely to the top where we spent a few hours walking the wall, tasting history and admiring an incredible engineering feat. Although walking the wall can be slightly trecherous especially with high winds and crowds. On New Years Day the Chinese chose the Great Wall to launch their Olympic teams to the Olympics. That meant athletes and non-athletes were all sharing the wall today. It isn't often that you see a traffic jam made solely of people and I never expected one on the Great Wall. Fortunately that was only in one section and it was all part of the experience.

Tomorrow is an early day - Siem Reap by afternoon - we're taking off from Beijing at 8:30 a.m.. Yes, Ratri I'll be waving as we fly over Bangkok. Take care everyone until the next post - be brave - venture far.