31 October 2007

Happy Halloween

For the record, yes! The Thais do celebrate Halloween...in fact, I tried to go to the gym on Monday, and after spending the 50 baht I don't have on a taxi ride there, I arrived to find the gym shutdown in honor of a huge Halloween bash there, which even featured one of the trainers, Ice, as DJ Iceman. Oh yeah!

Today was the first day back to school after a wondrous three weeks in Laos and China. The little kiddies arrive tomorrow, and actually, I am a bit excited to get back in a routine - teaching, going to the gym, doing nothing but reading at night. After eating all those Laos French baguettes and Chinese baba, it's probably a good thing! Although, I did receive a nice surprise in the mail, full of Halloween candy, so naturally one has to indulge on Hallow's Eve. If you can't scarf your face full of 20 Rolos, a handful of York Peppermint Patties and a quarter of a Hershey's chocolate bar on Halloween, when can you really do it?

So, I am back to the craziness that is Saimai, getting ready for semester two to start tomorrow. I am already armed with bribing material - candy & stickers - for the children, which I will need as my whole schedule got changed around, which means the lessons I had planned for the week won't work, and I am going to be winging it! This should be interesting!

Hope you all have a shove-your-face-full-of-candy Happy Halloween!

27 October 2007

Tiger Leapin' Gorge-ous!

Ladies and gentlemen, I just got back from the best two-day hike ever! Tiger Leaping Gorge was of course, gorge-ous! (Come on! You saw that one coming!) One of the largest gorges in the world at 16km long, it is tucked right under the monstrous peaks of Haba Shan (a.k.a. Haba Mountain) to the west and Yulong Xueshan (a.k.a. Jade Dragon Mountain) to the east. The scenery is perfection my friends, absolute perfection! Now, I know I have a tendency to gush about everywhere I've traveled (shocker, I know!), but this was honestly one of the most naturally beautiful places I have had the good fortune to see with my own two eyes.

Yesterday morning, I rose bright and early at 7am to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge as fast as I could! Courtesy of Mama, I devoured a delicious breakfast of a ginormous banana pancake (only 3 yuan = 40 cents!) then took the local bus to Qiaotao, where this magnificent gorge begins! I hiked the gorge solo (Lauren headed off to Beijing for a couple of days - yours truly has been looking forward to the gorge for weeks!), starting at about 1pm.

Now, I consider myself to be relatively in shape, but can I tell you, this gorge is a butt-kicker! You may be able to tell that fact by the oh so lovely photo of me profusely sweating and using what energy I had left to smile for it :) There is a tough section of the trek called 28 Bends - well, for the record, there are definitely more than 28 of them, and they are really bendy! The hike takes you on a 900 meter ascent through rocky trails, local villages and wildlife. I even saw a wild boar chilling out on the hillside and chomping away on grass!

The day before I left for the hike however, I met three young, physically fit men who, on the first day, hiked from the beginning of the gorge to the Halfway House (where you stay overnight) in 5 hours. Just for the record, I made in in 4 1/2 hours! Well, I would have made it in 4 1/2 if I hadn't had problems finding the trail twice. So, technically, I guess I made it in five too. Not going to lie, I fully enjoyed hiking solo on the trail - I went my own pace and really became one with nature. And, I only almost fell on my face like four times!

Later on the trail, I met up with a most delightful Australian couple - Greg & Emma - with whom I hiked the last 1 1/2 to the Halfway House. After hanging out alone most of the afternoon, I think I chatted their ears off because they were the first people I talked to all day! So, after the 4 1/2 hours, we stopped to stay overnight at the Halfway, which has the most amazing view of the the mountains and gorge! The hillsides were a deep, lush green up the mountainsides then the vegetation slowly ceased until the peaks turned white, their crevaces and peaks covered in snow! The morning sunrise wasn't so bad either!

After staying the night at Halfway and meeting a new cast of travel characters (including Richard, a native Oregoner who works at the NIH; Tim, an airline pilot from Chicago who flies for the U.S. military; Christian & Petra, a quiet couple from Dusseldorf, Germany and of course, Greg & Emma, who happen to be working and living in Ho Chi Minh City!), we headed out again at 8:30am. Today's hike was far shorter and only a descent...thank you Lord!

After 1 1/2 hours, we arrived at the end of the gorge, which is also known as the middle rapids. Here lies the infamous Tiger Leaping Stone! Legend has it, a tiger once leapt across the Yangtze River, giving the gorge its name! Well, of course this was a must see, so we hiked the 40 minutes straight down to the beautiful (and treacherous!) rapids, which are located at one of the narrowest and most harrowing parts of the gorge!

Now, I am back at good ol' Mama Naxi's Guesthouse, and as soon as I get done with this post, I am taking the longest hot shower of my life. No joke. I have to say Lijiang is fast rising on my list of favorite places I have been. Unfortunately, I am leaving tomorrow to head back to Bangkok - I think I have teaching job there to get back to or something :)

Before the gorge, Lauren and I dawdled about town and have had quite a few enjoyable cross-cultural Lijiang experiences. (1) I must look like a stranger in a strange land because two people have asked to take their picture with me, three people have made comments about my hair and an unlimited number have pointed and gawked at me. The curly hair gets them every time!

(2) Black Dragon Pool Park is the most serene place in Lijiang, I am positive. Populated with ornate, ancient temples and signs mandating both "No smoking!" and "No spitting!" it is the most lovely place to sit, relax and enjoy a scenic panorama view of Lijiang's mountainous surroundings. (Look for me in the purple!)

(3) The Naxi women here definitely run the show! Today was the first time my bargaining skills failed me when I was unable to negotiate a deal for three colorful scarves. The selling price was 6 yuan each, so of course I offered her 12 yuan for three, but she wouldn't budge. I admired her refusal to budge (since everybody else does!), so of course she got her 18 yuan! Here is a picture of four Naxi women - dressed in their traditional garb - hanging out in Sifang Square, the center of Old Lijiang.

Alright, hope this post wasn't too long for you all! I promise I am wrapping it up now as that hot shower just sounds all too tempting. Sorry if I gushed too long about the gorge (it was seriously, hands-down the best thing I have done so far!), and take care everyone! Off to make the voyage back to Bangkok! Sawatdee kah, once again!

24 October 2007

I Heart Lijiang

After another three hour bus ride from Dali, I really thought our bus luck had turned around. Well, Lauren sat in the back row, scrunched between five people, with a drooling man falling asleep right on her shoulder. Right in front of her, I was squished in my seat because the seat in front of me was broken and only reclined all the way back, right into my lap. Luckily, three hours was nothing (compared with 40!), and once we arrived in Lijiang, it was completely worth it. The old town of Lijiang is the most adorable town ever, I am sure of it!

In 1996, a massive earthquake heavily destroyed the city, killing more than 300 people. The government then invested millions of yuan back into the city, repairing its buildings in the original Naxi style and the roads back in cobblestone. They spent years returning the city to its former glory, and in 1999, Lijiang was rewarded and put on the list for World Heritage sites. Yeah for them!

We started off the day ready and rarin' to go explore this ancient city - which is considered the center of Naxi culture. One of the most fascinating things I learned is the Naxis are a matrilineal society, meaning that - yes, girls! - it's the women who make all the decisions around these parts! They are the ones having torrid love affairs, men court them home at night - they rule this roost! There are about 330,000 Naxi people, including my new friend, Dr. Ho.

As we were about to leave to go explore, we met three lovely men from Israel, who asked us if we wanted to go see Dr. Ho with them. Dr. Ho? Who is this fellow you may ask? Well, sit down my friends and get ready to meet the "World's Most Admired Man." At 85 years young, Dr. Ho is a Naxi physician specializing in treating complicated and chronic ailments, all with Chinese herbs! He has a fully documented case of curing leukemia, all with medicinal herbs. Dr. Ho actually works with the Mayo Clinic in researching herbal treatments for leukemia!

At the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic - located in Baisha, a village just outside Lijiang - Dr. Ho treats everyone who comes in, free of charge. He only takes donations, which go straight to helping the poor who cannot afford treatment. He is an absolute inspiration. His advice for a healthy life? "Be happy," which I think is the best medical advice there is.

His office is a jumble of press clippings, photographs of him with famous people (i.e. Princess Diana, Mao Zedong...) and herbs, of course! His wife served us herbal tea, and he did medical exams on all of us! Unfortunately, everyone had ailments (coughs, stomach problems, etc.), so Dr. Ho concocted mixtures of Chinese herbs to cure them. After asking me if I had a cough (no), PMS (no...I don't think so :) and other symptoms (no), with booming voice, he proclaimed in broken English, "You are healthy!" Which was kind of a disappointment, I wanted special Chinese medicinal herbs from Dr. Ho too!

After our wonderful visit with the famous Dr. Ho, we set about exploring this town, which much to my enjoyment is full of shopping! Yes, I am really getting in trouble here with the shopping habit - my bargaining skills are too good! The rickety cobblestoned streets of Lijiang are filled with tourist shops and cafes, but the best part is that despite the tourists here, you get the feeling that many Naxis and Chinese people actually live here. They populate the fruit and vegetable markets, wander about town picking up their daily food, then head home to the houses which are sprinkled in all tiny alleyways and back streets.

Near the entry to Old Lijiang (which is situated right next to New Lijiang - which looks like any other city), there are two beautiful, large windmills. They propel the hundreds of creeks and streams which also run throughout the city. The best part? If you are lost, all you have to do is find a stream because they all run into Sifang Square, the center of the old city! At the windmills, they also have this lovely collection of wind chimes - which all have positive affirmations and wishes written by visitors on them. Supposedly if you walk under these, putting your arm up to ring the bells, you are blessed with the well wishes written on them! I love it!

We spent the afternoon browsing the endless rows of shops, climbing up and down cobblestone stairs, getting lost in the maze of alleyways and streets, desperately trying to find a toilet (several times) and enjoying more beautiful weather in Lijiang. We climbed up to the Wenjang Temple, where you can get a spectacular view of the city, which is where I am right here!

Today, we are going to venture back out into Lijiang and see more sights (less shopping - funds are running low!) before tomorrow's venture into the great Tiger Leaping Gorge - one of the largest gorges in the world! Back to the streets of Lijiang and Mama Naxi's Guesthouse (where we are staying) - let's just say Mama is quite the character, which means good stories to come for you all! She's a hoot! Take care everyone and have a wonderful day!

P.S. Turns out, the Chinese government caught onto my blog, and I have been blacklisted by the Communists! I am not kidding. Only a few days ago, I could view my blog just fine, but now, I can only post to it but can't see it! I am on President Hu Jintao's watchlist - I am sure of it!

23 October 2007

Delightful Dali

Between the old cobblestone roads, the Naxi women offering you "smoke" and the oodles and oodles of cheap shopping, how can one not love Dali? Lauren and I spent the most gorgeous day lollygagging about Dali's old town, which ruled the Yunnan province for over five centuries and is walled off, with only four entry gates! The skies were bright blue, the temps were mild and the Chinese yuan were burning a hold in our pockets.

Since I was feeling oh so good, what is a girl to do but indulge...in white carbs that is! For breakfast I had the most delicious Chinese sticky bun thing - which was pretty much steamed white bread (I think!). Here is me chowing the thing down...dee-lish! For lunch, I had Gongbao chicken with peanuts and white rice, which was also very enjoyable. Then I just scarfed down a bit piece of white, chewy pita-like bread, made by an old Naxi elder, who thankfully didn't offer me "smoke" with the bread.

Dali is known for its beautiful batiks, so I spent the afternoon browsing gorgeous batik fabrics in classic navy blue, green, red, purple, orange - they are stunning! If you peer close enough, you can even see women hand-dying these fabrics in the back of alleyways and shops. They also have lots of jewelry (much of it hand pounded silver), cheap knick knacks and lots of food stands - selling local delicacies like "er kuai" - flattened, toasted rice cakes!

These Naxi women are vicious though I tell you. After looking at a cool turquiose necklace, this lady - complete with her multi-colored headdress and skirt - chased after me down the street after I refused her offer of 25 yuan. She cornered me in the alleyway, playing a game of "Which way are you gonna go?", and I had to shuffle from one side to the other before finally pulling a 360 degree turn on her and ran away! Haha!

Although I am becoming quite the bargainer. The trick is to look completely disinterested and walk away even if you are not getting the right price. Then they will usher you back, ask you to write down your price and voila! Deal made. Today I talked a lady down from 25 yuan (about 4$) for a red beaded necklace to 6 yuan (less than 1$!) using these exact tactics. She even called me a "clever girl!"

So, now we are calling it a day in Dali and heading out for yet another bus ride (this one is only three hours - a breeze!) to get to Lijiang. It should be another fun town as its on the list of World Heritage sights. Not much more time left in China...off to make the most of it!

22 October 2007

The Casio is Back, Back Again!

If you haven't noticed yet, my dearest friend on the trip - my little black Casio digicam - is back in action! After an excruciating three days without her, I have her back and feel like I can properly blog again. I posted a couple of random shots from around Kunming, including a Chinese Wal-Mart because it's good to know you can still find the ol' smiley face halfway across the world!

After rejoicing to the Lord after I got my camera back this morning at 10am, we rushed Amazing Race style again to catch the 10:30am bus to Dali. Unfortunately, Phil Keoghan would have ended our race today because by the time we arrived, we missed the bus and caught the 1pm to delightful Dali. Here is a rarity I found at the bus station in Kunming...

The ride to Dali through the Yunnan province was spectacular! The rolling hills and mountains stretched far into the distance and looked as if they were all covered by a layer of moss - gleaming bright green, alive with foliage. The 5 hour drive was quintessentially what you think China would be. Seriously. People were busy wading in the rice fields, tilling the soil and pulling plants while others were tending cattle and goats - all in their wide-brimmed straw hats. It was a great glimpse into rural Chinese life.

The best part is that I am already being treated like a queen by the locals here. On the way to find our guesthouse, I was offered weed by a 60-ish local Naxi (hill tribe) woman. How sweet! Then at dinner, another Naxi elder woman showed me a hideous silver hair ornament (which I would clearly never wear!) to buy, and when I refused, hushed under her breath asked, "Smoke? You want smoke?" So, in the first 30 minutes in Dali, I was offered marijuana twice by two old Chinese women. If that's not an arms wide open, warm welcome to a new town, I don't know what is.

Ahhhh...now I can rest easy tonight knowing pictures are once again! Tomorrow I will snap lots of shots of Dali (it's absolutely adorable!) and make another post before we head off to Lijiang - a World Heritage sight - tomorrow evening! Here's a shout-out to China for making all of the world's goods and in turn, knowing how to fix them! Shout out!

21 October 2007

Lazy Kunming Days

Ever since the infamous 40 hour bus ride - which you will be hearing about for years to come - we have been taking it easy in Kunming these past couple days. Between busting my camera, Lauren's sickness and the damp, rainy weather, we have been forced to take a bit of a breather - even though every fiber in me wants to go, go, go! I mean, there is shopping to do!

After Lauren dropped my camera, it kind of sucked the air out of day 1. I did not realize how much I absolutely relied on and adored my little black Casio friend. A girl cannot fully blog without pictorials and snapshots to share - it just doesn't work! We did end the day at the most precious teahouse (I didn't think these actually existed!), where everything on the menu is of course, tea! I had a delectable glass of chrysanthemum tea - complete with actual chrysanthemum flowers and buds in my glass!

Day 2 definitely improved, even though when I went back to get my camera, they said it wouldn't be ready for another 2 days since they needed to send out for a part. So, after checking out of our hostel, we had to recheck-in, which I think really confused the staff here. They had the most peculiar look on their face as if we had returned from the dead or something! We rearranged our itinerary to stay for an extra couple of days, so I am praying profusely to the Lord that my camera is in fact ready tomorrow morning at 9am like they said!

For lunch, we went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I had pineapple sticky rice cooked in an actual pineapple! Ah-mazing! Then, it was time for the Chinese outlets - oh my, where do I begin? The Chinese are bloody mad! Not only are there people everywhere (no wonder they instigated the 1 child rule), but they LOVE their outlets. Scarves flying, clerks scanning, women grabbing, women shouting (as always), registers beeping - it's madness! Then Lauren almost got pickpocketed, we met more international friends (Ben from Israel & John from Australia) and I drank more Yunnan black coffee. It's all in a day's traveling people.

Now that we are upon day 3, I have a confession to make. I'm not proud of what I did, but it had to be done. I didn't want to have to do it - every part of me was saying no, no, no but my stomach was saying yes, yes and YES! I, Holly Anne Whittlef, ate lunch at Pizza Hut today. I know what you're thinking - Pizza Hut? in China? To which I respond, a girl can only subsist on rice and noodles for so long before she needs a hearty meal, a 9-inch hearty meal at that! I have never been so satisfied, sitting in a Chinese Pizza Hut, listening to LeAnn Rimes, "How Do I Live?" over the sound system and finishing all of my veggie pizza. Nothin' better, except there is. I devoured a McDonalds vanilla ice cream cone after!

After my midday splurge, I browsed the Bird & Flower Market, which does have more than just birds and flowers, fortunately. I haggled a bit but being budget conscious, didn't buy anything because I have come back to Kunming to fly out to Bangkok in a week. So, I am going to survey my options before I make any commitments. Look - I am growing up before my very eyes!

After the market, Lauren and I headed to "Old Kunming," which is known as Guandu. It's about 8 kilometers outside Kunming, and I actually don't think any of them have seen a foreigner because instead of seeing the sights, we were the sight! They had some cute temples, some authentic backroad markets and a nice little town square. It was good to see a city where they people around you seem to live an actual life there. They also use donkey carts to get around. I was so tempted to take a ride...

Then we headed back to Kunming for dinner, where we had Yunnan's famous dish - across the bridge noodles! Here's how to do it...the waitress brings you a steaming hot bowl of broth, to which you add an egg, vegetables, meat and an assortment of goodies. You stir that around and let the exceptionally hot broth cook everything through. Then, you slide in a bowl of rice noodles to go along with it, give it another stir, and you have a most delicious soup!

Now, we are back at the hostel, reading a current issue of People magazine - which Lauren found in the bathroom and to which I screamed when she gave it to me. Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, I should get my camera back at 9am, then we are headed off to Dali - another of Yunnan's charming cities. When I get the Casio back, I will be sure to go back and post lots of photos in these blogs as well. So, please say a prayer for my camera and I, and take care everyone!

P.S. I need to take back what I said about Chinese men spitting - today I saw a 70 year-old Chinese woman hawk the biggest loogie ever. Let's just say, you didn't want to mess with her.

P.P.S. If you thought legwarmers were bad, maybe I shouldn't tell you that the Chinese women (especially those who work at shops and in the market) love their armwarmers! I do not kid people - they come in cotton, fleece, silk, name your fabric!

19 October 2007

An Infamous 40 Hours

Finally...and I mean finally! After a 40 hour bus ride (count that, it's three days and two nights my friends), I have finally arrived in Kunming - the capital of China's most southern Yunnan province! Although we did manage to become best friends with our 6'6 bus driver (he was the most enormous man I have ever seen in real life), it was not easy. However, I feel that I really took that 40 hours to learn some things, which I will share with you right now...

(1.) Chinese men like to spit. I shouldn't say spit actually, I should say they like to hawk huge loogies and spit them out wherever they please.

(2.) Apparently, 40 hour bus rides are not smoke-free. Chinese men are frequent smokers who are allowed to light up anywhere they want - even in the 50 foot vicinity of a supposedly air-conditioned charter bus from Vientiane to Kunming.

(3.) Even though a bus says it is a "sleeper bus," this means nothing in reality because traversing the winding, twisting, turning roads of Laos and China really do not permit sleep. Especially not when one is squished into a 1 foot x 4 foot bed area.

(4.) Never underestimate fellow travelers. After forgetting to bring extra spending money on the trip, Lauren and I met Ken - a fellow Thai - who not only bought us lunch but also preceded to give us each 50Y (yuan - the Chinese currency) to spend on food for the trip.

(5.) As much as I hate to admit it, my mother's impression of Asians is correct. Not only do they scream, yell and talk loudly, most of the time it is not because they are angry or anything. That is just the way they talk - forceful and to the point. My mother is never letting me live that one down.

(6.) A hot shower is one of life's simple pleasures. After a 40 hour bus ride, my half an hour long hot shower was probably one of the best moments of the trip so far. The relief and dirt that finally washed away was indescribable.

Now, I could really continue because one learns a plethora of things while confined in such a small space for such a long time, but I feel these are the most important points to make thus far. After arriving at 7am this morning, I set about to explore the town - which I got immediate good vibes from. However, Lauren accidentally dropped my camera today, so I spent the day finding someone, anyone who would fix it. Finally, after searching for what seemed like hours, I found a camera shop carrying Casio. It is currently sitting there and if all goes according to plan, should be ready to pick up tomorrow. So cross your fingers for me people and as soon as I can, I will post more goodies about Kunming - with photos! This was my home for 40 hours...and oh, the TV did not work, just in case you were wondering...

16 October 2007

The 2 V's: Vang Vieng & Vientiane

Ahhhh...still lovin' the Laos life! Not only are we meeting more (yes, more!) foreign traveler friends, but we are contentedly enjoying the laid back Laos lifestyle. I write to you now from Vientiane - the capital of Laos - where if all goes according to plan, we will actually leave tomorrow to head off to China! Being "fly by the seat of our pants" type gals, naturally we changed our itinerary the night before we left - that's the beauty of traveling :)

Back to the update...I had a lovely solo expedition in Luang Prabang, in which I walked from end of end of the city, taking oh roughly 30 minutes. I even happened to come upon this young boy training to become a monk, twirling his rich, thick orange robe in the air, right outside his wat, or temple. That night, we left for Vientiane on a night bus from (for lack of a better word), hell. Now, I pride myself on my strong, nothing can faze it stomach, but this bus ride was the most nauseating nine hours of my entire life. The one bright spot in an otherwise dismal trip was meeting Wei and Steve - our two new British friends!

Finally, after scaling the winding, turning, lurching Lao roads, we arrived in Vang Vieng at about 3am. Tired, crabby and with stomachs ready to revolt at any moment, we found the closest guesthouse and immediately crashed, despite the scratchy blankets and odd noises (including roosters, children yelling and clanging) all through the night. Then we awoke to finally see this hippie town in action - which, if you ever go, must include a tubing trip down the Mekong River!

However, we were crunched for time. After spending less than 12 hours in Vang Vieng, we embarked on our own mini Amazing Race. We woke up, ate breakfast at a cute cafe (thank the Lord for the French influence here - baguettes galore!), hit up a travel agent for bus times to Vientiane, found out the last bus left at 1:30pm, scheduled an hour tube ride down the river to begin at noon, lazily tubed about the river, raced out of the river, took a tuk-tuk back to our guesthouse, arrived at 1:20pm, grabbed our things, then took another tuk-tuk to the bus station, where we arrived promptly at 1:30pm, just in time to take off for Vientiane! If anybody ever wants to challenge me in the Amazing Race, all I have to say is bring it on!

Usually when I arrive in a country, I get an immediate vibe about the city and in the first half hour or so, can tell whether I like it. Unfortunately, I am not exactly feeling lots of love from Vientiane. However, after the yummiest Indian dinner of nan, channa masala and a baked eggplant dish (look at the mouthwatering spread below :), who happened to walk right past our restaurant, but Wei and Steve! Since our brush with fate, the four of us have been Vientiane buddies! They didn't even care that Lauren and I had not showered since our tubing excursion in the not-so-clean Mekong in Vang Vieng. If that isn't friendship, I don't know what is.

Now, if I only I had known before waking up on this glorious, bright day how much Vientiane was not feeling me either. The day started off with forking over 130$ for my visa for China - every other country in the world pays 60$, but if you carry a U.S. passport, the fee is markedly more. I'm convinced they are still upset about that whole communism thing (okay, that's a joke - I'm not serious!). Then, Lauren and I have been trying to figure out some logistics about our China trip and then, there is the motorbike incident. Cue dramatic music.

Since it seems that half of Vientiane gets around on motorbike, the four of us thought, why not spend an afternoon cruising the streets of Laos' capital just like the locals? Motorbike rentals are everywhere so we stopped by PVO - a restaurant by the water that has some of the best bikes in town. PVO wanted to charge us 80,000 kip (roughly 8$) for one day of rental, which isn't much by Western standards, but in Laos, that's definitely a rip-off. So, I put my sweet-talking skills to the test and spent the next half hour striking a deal with PVO. Naturally, my powers of persuasion won out in the end, and they offered us motorbikes for the rest of the day for 40,000 kip (4$). Done deal.

Now the story gets good...Lauren had never ridden before and after persuading the PVO man time and time again to give her one more chance, he finally told her, "You are going to crash if you keep riding." Strike #1. Then, as I am practicing along the trail, I tried to make a tight turn. All would have been fine except it was really rocky, and my bike skidded to the ground. When I bent down to pick it up, I grabbed it by the accelerator and before I knew it, the bike lurched forward. There I was running with my bike across the grassy field, making several close calls with pedestrians and trees. Finally, I let go of the accelerator and my bike flew forward, landing a few feet from the busy main road. Strike #2. Then, after Lauren had hopped on Steve's bike, and I had re-convinced PVO I indeed had ridden before, and I was not a liability, Wei ran his bike into several bushes. Strike #3.

The PVO man came over to us, and I believe his exact words were, "None of you can go." So after a half an hour of negotiation, a half an hour of practice and another half an hour of re-negotiation, motorbiking in Laos was just not in our future. With that, he grabbed my bike, and I was left to break the news to Steve - who was the only one of us not to make a mistake that day. The best part: right after we left, I saw an 8-year-old (yes, I swear!) cruise right past me on a motorbike, acting like driving one was no big deal. Whatever.

We decided our only option left was to go old school style and rent...bicycles. Yes, bicycles. We spent the rest of the day biking our little hearts out around Vientiane on old, half-broken bikes - visiting Patuxai (the Lao version of Paris's Arc d'Triomphe) and grabbing dinner along the Mekong River. However, our bad luck followed us like our very own shadow that day, seriously! At dinner, Lauren lost the key to her bike lock, Steve started not feeling so good, the chain fell off my bike on the way home, and the night ended with Wei and I spending three hours at an Internet cafe next to our guesthouse. I don't think I have ever laughed so hard in one day as I did on October 16, 2007 in Vientiane, Laos!

13 October 2007

More Love for Laos

After a large bowl of fresh fruit (think mangoes, bananas, melon, watermelon, pineapple...), one fresh-out-of-the-oven long, crusty baguette with butter and a selection of homemade prune and melon/raisin jams and a large cup of Lao coffee, how can a girl not be in love with this place? Seriously. I probably just had the most enjoyable morning ever - lazily sipping coffee, eating my breakfast and reading an international English newspaper for over an hour at L'Elephant Restaurant, all in the middle of Laos. Life's simple pleasures :)

And to top that off, yesterday we ventured to Tad Sae Waterfalls - in one word, amazing! There are three tiers of falls, with limestone rocks serving as stairs which extend farther and farther up the lush, green mountainside. Located right off the Mekong River, we took a small boat there for about 1$. However, the motor didn't work and instead, the man and his small son paddled the short distance to the falls! At the falls, you can swim, jump, dive and sit lazily in these waterfalls. Clearly, the only way to really experience the falls is to jump right in!

Naturally, upon first entering the falls, I stepped right into a hole and banged my knee up on the rocks, but that didn't stop me or any of us from jumping in again and again! There was also an elephant camp right at the falls, so we also got up close and personal with the mammoth beasts. Their trunks are so powerful...one starting sniffing my shirt, and he almost sucked my t-shirt right in! Lauren, Or and Matuez were the perfect company to spend the day lounging in the water, eating local cuisine at the little restaurant and hiking up the mountainside to some caves and exploring the forest, which was crazy with mosquitos. I had literally six or seven bites in the span of about five minutes.

After our lovely day at the falls, our tuk-tuk brought us back to the city, dropping us at Phu Si - a Buddhist temple which sits perfectly on a hill overlooking the valley that is Luang Prabang. What a sight! It was completely worth the 470 steps to get up to the top - nothing like hiking up to a temple to realize still how out of shape you are! The views were spectacular with golden temples gleaming in the distance, green mountains all around, the city dangling at your feet and of course, the Mekong River winding its way through the valley! Even though Luang Prabang is quite touristy, I now know why that is - who wouldn't want to see this view?

Meeting all these people from around the world has been fabulous! One of the most interesting parts of the day was the tuk-tuk ride back, talking to Or about his experience spending three years in the Israeli army. He's only 23 years old and has seen more than his fair share of danger in his country. Yet, he is so humble and mature, saying what he has experienced is nothing like the violence going on in other parts of the world like Myanmar and Iraq. He is an absolute gem.

It's funny because after meeting all these people, I have realized we all have two things in common. One, we are all in Luang Prabang (no surprise there). And two, every one of us is traveling the world in an attempt to - in some way, shape or form - try to find themselves. Some are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, others are traveling to get far away from home, while some need to do all of the above. In other words, we are all one big cliche :)

After the amazing views of the city, our little group of travelers were starving, to say the least! My stomach is on the road to recovery, so one would think I should still take it easy and eat simple foods. Instead, we went out for Indian. Probably the worst decision one should make in a situation like that, haha! However, my Channa Masala (chickpeas in a slightly spicy sauce) were delicious, and you simply cannot beat Indian Nan (flatbread)!

Today, the rest of the group headed off to another waterfall, but I have decided to bum around Luang Prabang since we are leaving tonight, and I feel like I haven't seen much of the actual city. Plus, I only have 90,000 kip (about 9$) left, and there are no ATMS in Luang Prabang, so I have to budget accordingly! So, it will be nice to have a solo expedition and explore this cute little town before we head off to Vang Vieng, another cute little town later tonight! Here I go!

12 October 2007

Lovin' Laos

For the record, just over a month ago, if you had asked me where Luang Prabang, Laos was, I probably would have laughed then come up with some ridiculous answer because the truth is, I had absolutely no idea. Now, after surviving (yes, surviving!) a two-day ferry trip up the mighty Mekong River, I can gladly say that (a.) I know where Luang Prabang is, and (b.) I love Luang Prabang!

Now, don't get confused by the term "ferry trip." Our ferry actually consisted of about 80 people from all over the world crammed into a wooden, colorful boat, sitting on wooden benches for more than 12 hours, over the stretch of two days. A multicultural can of sardines, if you will.

We spent one overnight in a little village called Pak Beng - the first actually slightly scary part of the trip. Upon landing, little children came onto our boat to what we thought, would be to unpack our luggage. Oh no no no! Within seconds, they attacked Lauren's bags of snacks and happily walked away with her apple and bag of crackers! However, we found a cute guesthouse (only 3$!) and stayed in the night in literally, the middle of nowheresville Laos. Here is my best, "Where the hell are we?" face.

However, Laos is one of the most relaxed, laid back countries in existence, I am sure of it. People are friendly, never bothersome (even at the markets) and the pace of life is not surprisingly, a lot slower. The Laos coastline along the Mekong is dotted with small, wooden houses where Laos hill tribes live, making their living off the lush, green landscape. It has been such a beautiful experience to see such a different way of life. It is so peaceful, with the exception of the roosters which have woken us up every morning around 6am!

What saved me on the boat trip (apart from lots of snacks and my best friend, Mr. Lonely Planet) is my favorite part of traveling - meeting people from all around the world. In two days, I now have friends from Argentina, Israel, Slovenia, Canada and the United States, which has been the most lovely experience! Adrian, my new Argentinian friend (who is an Argentinian man in every sense of the word - tall, dark, with a swoonworthy Spanishness to him), has helped me practice my Spanish while Alli, our new Canadian friend, told us all about how she swung from tree to tree in the jungles of Laos!

Lauren and I have plans to travel with Or (from Israel) to China, then meet up with Mateuz (from Slovenia) in Vietnam! I love it! Here is Lauren and I with our new friend Mateuz - who happens to be absolutely hilarious and has an obsession with chocolate and banana pancakes, coffee and talking. Needless to say, we make a good pair!

Now we are in Luang Prabang, and it is sooo cute! Nestled in Northern Laos along the Mekong River, it is a huge tourist destination ever since being put on the list of Unesco World Heritage sights. Lined with little shops, cafes and restaurants, it serves delicious food - thanks in part to being colonized by the French. Surrounded by forest, temples and the river, I see now why so many people travel here.

Tough talking, hard bargaining young girls roam the streets, selling bracelets, and I couldn't resist the charming persuasiveness of Noa , the 12 year-old ring leader . She found us at dinner, lavished us with complements of "You're so beautiful!" and naturally, I couldn't resist. I spent 70,000 kip (about 7$) on three bracelets, only to discover other girls selling two bracelets for 5,000 kip (less than 1$)! In other words, I was outsmarted by a 12 year-old! How adorable is she though, seriously?

Naturally, I have a nose for markets, and I found Luang Prabang's night market and immediately began spending money! Beautiful, colorful scarves, pots, jewelry, blankets - everything handmade by the Laos people. I could have bought the entire market! The market was so serene, gorgeously lit by sparkling, yellow light bulbs which reflect off the red canopies. Am I gushing enough yet?

Last night, we mingled with our new international group of friends, where I had a delectably chocolate banana pancake, made right by the night market at a little stand. Unfortunately, I overestimated the power of my stomach and before I knew it, wasn't feeling too hot again. So, now I am being forced to take it easy with food, even with all these tempting pastries, baguettes and delish Lao coffee surrounding me!

Today, we are off to explore some temples, more shopping and who knows what? Here is a lovely sunset from our boat tour on the Mekong River to part you with - take care everyone and talk to you all soon!

08 October 2007

Thai Water Borne Illnesses

After living and eating my little heart out here in Thailand, it was only fate that the two-headed monster known as the Thai water borne illness would attack me. And attack me it has, arriving right in time for vacation. How nice of him! After I ran out of bottled water several days ago, I started brushing my teeth with sink water. Thai sink water. Now, many foreigners in the country do this with no problem but not me. I have never felt so sick in recent memory - I mean, this morning at breakfast, I didn't even feel like eating. Holly Anne Whittlef, not feeling like eating, that is a first ladies and gentleman.

So, I am trying to take it easy and let this Thai monster work it's way out of my system. Until then, me and my new best friend, "Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring," have been enjoying romantic evenings lounging in bed, sipping tea and learning all there is about Laos and Vietnam, since we do leave in 1 day! 1 day people!

We start our journey tomorrow on a night train from Bangkok, leaving at 6pm to Vientiane - the capital of Laos (actually pronounced "Lao"- the French, who colonized the country, added the "s" later). Then we are going to bum around Vientiane before heading north to some smaller villages. From there, we are going to head over the border to Vietnam, where we hope the flooding from the recent typhoons is improving (we have been checking The Weather Channel online quite frequently), starting in Hanoi then working our way down to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon), stopping at several cities in between.

Based on the advice of some fellow teachers, we have decided not to go to Phnom Penh. Pretty much the story is that there are no rules in the capital of Cambodia and fully grown, well-traveled men here felt unsafe. Therefore Lauren and I decided two girls from the West would probably benefit by skipping the capital and heading to Angkor Wat (the famous Khmer temples several hours from Phnom Penh) over a long weekend.

So...this girl is going to lay down and drink only bottled water, eat bananas, rice, apples and toast (Mama taught me that is always best for an upset stomach!) and get ready for an adventure! Hope all is well back at home and look for some interesting updates as I tear through Southeast Asia! I hope they realize what they are in for...

06 October 2007

A Good Week

There is simply no other way of putting it. After the Saimai Music and Poetry Festival of last weekend (check the last post for tales from the show in all their hilarity), today has been a week full of shopping, no children, massages, more shopping, getting ready for holiday, more shopping and more massages! Rough, I know. Tuesday we ventured into Bangkok...first stop, the Baiyoke Tower!

BYOT Tower (for short) is the tallest building in all of Thailand. Boasting 85 floors - from the ground all the way up to the tippity-top - it has glorious views of Bangkok, all seen from the 360 degree rotating platform on the 84th floor! However, the best part about this tower? Definitely the choice of 4 (yes, count em' 4!) buffets located between the 76th and 84th floor! Our choice was the oh so classy Sky Restaurant International Buffet

A trip to the top of the tallest building in any country is not complete without a photo shoot overlooking the city. ***Note: I will let you know in advance that Bangkok is not - I repeat not - the prettiest city in the world. And that could be the understatement of the year, I mind you.

After a little (or a lot) of food, what is a girl to do? Why, shop of course! Even though I am leaving for a long 3-week vacation in mere days, a girl can convince herself of anything when it comes to shopping. And that is exactly what I did - persuaded myself I absolutely needed the Bottega Veneta black woven tote bag, even though the purse I was carrying suited my needs just fine. Well, I mean it did have ink stains on it, and the black purse will be a great bag for teaching! Right? Yes, that's what I thought too.

Wednesday through Friday was back to school, but this time, no kids! We did a lot of prep work for next semester - setting up vocabulary words, making lesson plans and meeting with other teachers in our grade to make sure everyone is on the same page. It was pretty lazy - I would guess most people got all their prep work done on day 1, so we laid around, took naps, solved crossword puzzles, chatted and got paid. No complaints here.

Earlier this week (this may be a little out of order, but just follow me), I did get a pedicure which was - as always - delightful to say the least. I even fell asleep! As I drifted in and out of this lazy, dreamy sleep, I picked the color red (because People magazine told me it's the color for fall) for my toes. At the end of the pedicure, I awakened to find my cute little toes sparkling in the light! The pedicure lady who sports 2-inch turquiose nails must have thought I needed a little sparkle in my life because over the red polish, she put a thick coat of silver sparkle nail polish! I don't think my toes have sparkled like this since 7th grade.

Yesterday, it was off to more shopping! We headed back to Chatuchak Market - the best market in the world of course! We spent 5 hours browsing, eating, purchasing, looking and walking before deciding we needed to shop more and headed over the night markets in Silom! Silom also happens to be a nighttime hotspot, so inbetween bargaining for pashminas and fake designer bags, we also were treated to glimpses of go-go dancers and prostitutes on the street. Only in Bangkok people.

Well, to prove I do indeed have friends here, here is a picture of Lauren, Anna and Annabelle (the latter - 2 teachers from the Phillippines) enjoying a joy ride through the back of a tuk-tuk. Four people in a tuk-tuk is a bit much so yours truly is riding on the floor, but the sight was so funny, we had random people taking pictures of us as we cruised through Bangkok. Again, only in Thailand. Well, off to prepare for the big trip, but I will write again before I leave. As always, so much to say, so little time!