A Sudden End to Travelling

It was a sunny afternoon and I was blissfully taking in the lush balinese scenery from the back of the moped that Finn was driving. We were riding from Amed, a small diving and fishing town on the east coast of Bali, to Denpasar, the southern capital. The road was windy and hilly and our rental bike had seen better days. The breaks seemed to be wearing down from all the hills.

The view from the road.

We slowed down to follow the road around a harmless looking curve and our wheels suddenly slipped out from under us, throwing us to the ground. Our fall happened about an hour into our three hour trip. We had all our stuff with us (two small backpacks) because we were going to stay in the south for a while. We were going to find a nice beach and hang out for a few days or a week before going to Lombok to hike the second biggest volcano in Indonesia. First we had an appointment at the Immigration office to take our pictures for our Indonesian visa extensions.

But then we were on the ground. I had some scrapes, but they were shallow. I expected Finn to be in similar shape and that we would get back on the bike and drive to somewhere to clean our wounds and keep going. I jumped up before I knew what I was doing and took a look at Finn. He was still on the ground. The scrape on his knee was shockingly bright white when I expected to see red. His bone was visible.

He asked me to help him up and I considered that in an accident you’re supposed to leave an injured person on the ground and wait for an ambulance to avoid making the injuries worse by jostling them. I doubted there would be an ambulance service where we were in the middle of nowhere Bali, so I grabbed Finn’s right hand and pulled him to his feet. He was unsteady. Some local people had rushed over and asked if we wanted to go to the hospital. I knew Finn was badly hurt when he said yes. I looked in his eyes and he seemed far away, his gaze unfocused. He was in shock.

The local people kindly helped us into the back of their car with all our things. We left the motorbike in their yard and a man drove us the 10 minutes to a tiny local hospital. He said he would wait with the car and our bags while we were treated. I took his name, phone number and address just in case we needed to find him to get our motorbike back. There were dozens of people waiting in rows of chairs outside the hospital, but Finn and I were rushed past them into a tiny treatment room right away. A team of three or four doctors and nurses superficially cleaned and wrapped our wounds, but quickly deemed Finn’s injuries too complicated for their facility. We asked for pain killers for Finn, but they ignored our requests. I retrieved our possessions and we were sent in an ambulance to a bigger hospital.

 The siren was loud and the ride was bumpy, shifting Finn’s injuries painfully. I hoped we weren’t going to far from where we had left our rental bike. After fifteen long minutes we arrived at the hospital. Finn was transferred from a stretcher onto a hospital bed in a big room with curtains separating patients. We appeared to be the only foreigners in the building and few of the staff spoke English. The ambulance driver came to collect $20 in local currency for the ride. I kept asking for painkillers for Finn, but my requests were deflected. The building was run down and noisy, with the familiar bright florescent lights of a hospital. The ceiling had water stains and was missing panels. Everything seemed ad hoc, makeshift. I was wearing small shorts and a crop top, making me feel exposed compared to the conservatively dressed people, so I put my sweater on even though it was hot.

Finn was finally injected with a painkiller and felt a little bit better. The doctor, a young-looking Indonesian man with wavy hair and a reassuring smile assessed Finn and sent him to another part of the building for x-rays on his shoulder and knee. I followed Finn’s stretcher, carrying all our things, my knee bleeding down my shins. People loitering in the halls stared at us as we passed and asked what happened. Seeing foreigners in the hospital was exciting for them.

Despite the low budget hospital, we received relatively quick service. Finn was x-rayed and brought back to the big room and the doctor came over to discuss the results with us. Finn had a broken collar bone, but his knee was only scraped. Finn and I realized we would probably go back to Canada since Finn couldn’t have any fun traveling with all his injuries. He wouldn’t be able to swim, hike or surf, so what would be the point of staying in Indonesia? All our plans changed the moment we fell off the bike.

We pointed out Finn’s elbow to the doctor, which had become freakishly swollen, so Finn was sent up for another x-ray.

 In the meantime I was offered treatment for my abrasions. I laid down and rocks were removed from my knee and the scrapes on my arm, belly and hands were treated with disinfectant. It was extremely painful, but I didn’t feel worthy of complaining because of what Finn was going through.

Finn came back down and we learned that his elbow was badly broken and needed surgery. The x-ray showed that a small piece of his elbow was floating off on it’s own like a rebellious teenager. A screw was needed to attach the pieces again, but it would have to be done in the hospital in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, or in Canada.

We weighed the benefits and drawbacks of having Finn’s surgery in Bali or Canada. It would have been better to have the surgery sooner, rather than wait until we could get back to Canada, but Canada might have better medical treatments. Finn would go home to recover anyway, so we doing the surgery there would be more comfortable. Finn wanted to ask his mom for advice, so our doctor graciously offered his iPhone which had a data plan and that worked just well enough for Finn to be comforted by the sight of his mom on Skype, who encouraged him to go home for the surgery.

 On our way out of the hospital.

With a lot of difficulty we walked a block to a restaurant to eat and figure out our steps towards getting home as soon as possible for Finn’s surgery. Before leaving the country we had to finish our Indonesian visa extensions. We had handed in our passports to start the process to stay in Indonesia for another month and missed our appointment at the immigration office when we crashed. We were in the middle of nowhere, a few hours drive from the airport and immigration office in Denpasar. Our bike was left at someone’s house on a country road and needed to be collected and returned to Ubud, a town an hour away from Denpasar. We wanted to be on a flight the next night.

The staff at the hospital said there were no taxis in town. Some of the ambulance drivers who were loitering around the outside of the hospital asked how much we would pay to do the trip in an ambulance. We made a few offers, but then they said they wouldn’t do it for any price. I went to the store across the street and asked if they knew where we could get a taxi and ended up negotiating a $60 ride to pick up our motorbike and then to Denpasar with a local guy in his mom’s car.

We collected the bike where we left it and I drove it behind the car all the way to a hotel in Denpasar. It was a relief to have managed the first step towards getting home. By this time it was after 9pm and we were tired. We ordered a mediocre pizza from Pizza Hut to our hotel room and went to sleep.

Early the next morning I drove the motorbike to Ubud to return it and took a taxi back to Denpasar. The taxi driver spent the entire hour trip telling me how amazing I am and what a great husband he would be for me. I was so not in the mood. I rescheduled our visa appointment at the immigration office, so when I got back to Denpasar I helped Finn out of bed, which was covered in his blood, and into a taxi. Finn’s bandages had bled through and he looked in bad shape. Because of the scrapes on his knee and foot he had trouble walking and any nudge on his left arm caused him serious pain.

We met up with the representative of the travel agency assigned to help us with our visa extensions, Dionne, and had our pictures and finger prints taken. First Dionne said we could have our passports returned to us in two days, but we needed to leave the country right away, so he said he could have our passports delivered to our hotel that evening at 5pm. We went online and booked flights for 9:40pm, but I was worried that our passports wouldn’t be returned to us in time. In Southeast Asia things are often delayed.

Finn rested while I packed our things and cleaned up the hotel room. We had to leave in about an hour and a half and we hadn’t received our passports. I was getting anxious and tried calling the travel agency and our contact from the immigration office, but they weren’t answering. I drank the contents of the extra water bottles that were lying around the room, but when I finished the last one it tasted a little off.

Weeks earlier, some hippies on Gili Air had given us a bit of water with acid in it, but we hadn’t tried any of it. I totally forgot about it until I accidentally drank it all in one gulp. I looked at Finn and said, “oh no!” in my most concerned voice, “I drank the acid!” He responded, “puke!” I induced vomiting in the toilet and emptied my stomach as best I could. I didn’t want to be high, I had to carry all our stuff and help Finn. There wasn’t anything else I could do but stay relaxed, try my best to follow directions and not attract attention to myself. Thankfully, our passports were delivered directly to our hotel room and Finn and I took a cab to the airport. Our trip would take over 30 hours and three planes before we would land in Vancouver.

I handled tripping on acid in the airport and on the plane pretty well. Everyone was looking at us because of Finn’s serious injuries. His knee was wrapped in a bandage that had soaked through, leaving huge red blood stains with yellow around the edges. Everything looked wacky to me, but Finn said I seemed relatively normal except that I found his jokes more funny than usual. The drab airport looked technicolour to me. The posters and signs looked like video screens blinking and shifting. The words “Gate B” were probably drawn with plain black or blue letters, but to me they looked like a metallic rainbow.

I managed to go into an office and get a wheelchair for Finn. The wheelchair came with it’s own attendant to push Finn to our gate. I filled out a form for the wheelchair, but I misspelled Fnn’s name, and struggled with Cananada as well.

Finn didn’t have adequate painkillers for the flights. I could tell he was in an extreme amount of pain, especially during take off and landing. He was traveling with an untreated broken bone and massive abrasions all over his body. He looked like a bloody mess and could barely walk. Thankfully there were wheelchairs for him in the airports.

When we got off our plane for our second layover in Manila, Philippines, Finn’s wheelchair attendant took him through a door and told me to follow everyone else and that I would end up in the same place as Finn eventually. I was concerned because Finn wasn’t able to do anything by himself. He couldn’t push his wheelchair because of his broken elbow, so he was quite helpless. I was brought to a waiting room and told to sit there for a while. I asked several times where I could find Finn and was told not to worry and just to wait. I sat in the waiting room for over an hour and asked again about Finn, so one of the staff brought me down the hall, into a big, empty room where and asked if it was my boyfriend sitting in his wheelchair alone, pathetically facing a wall. A staff had wheeled him there and left without saying a word.

It gave me a taste of what it must be like for people who live in wheelchairs. The staff would ask me things about Finn, even though Finn was right there. They didn’t treat him like a normal person even though his mind was fine, only his body was injured.

 The row of people in wheelchairs waiting to board the plane.

We made it Vancouver safely and Finn’s mom picked us up at the airport. Finn was taken straight to the hospital where he spent twelve hours waiting, having his abrasions treated, getting x-rays and making appointment for his surgery. It was good for him to be home for treatment and recovery.

 Finn before surgery.

It’s taken me a couple weeks to find time to write this post because I’ve been occupied with apartment hunting and the surprise of suddenly being back in Vancouver. Finn has already had his cast removed and is doing physiotherapy. He will regain full range of motion in his arm and shoulder within four weeks.

IMG_0016Finn’s arm right after the splint was taken off.

Advertisements

Losing my Surfing Virginity in Seminyak

IMG_0756Seminyak is a busy beach town with lots of hotels, restaurants and surf shops. It reminded me of Sihanoukville, the seedy beach town in Cambodia. It was slightly dirty and lots of people were aggressively selling things. The prices were high, but I negotiated some deep discounts at the local shops. We found a hotel with a pool called Seminyak Point not too far from the beach. This was where Finn and I would try surfing for the first time.

When we talked about trying surfing, people warned that it’s difficult and frustrating. I was prepared to hate it at first. I remember struggling to learn to snowboard. My teenage self fell in the snow and cried in my boots while my dad patiently waited for me to pull myself together and keep going. After putting the hours in I learned to love snowboarding, so I hoped surfing would be the same.

Finn and I walked around the beach and checked out some different options for surfing lessons. Many glossy companies offered lessons, but we had a good feeling about a group of young local guys relaxing under umbrellas with a handmade sign. They joked with us and seemed good natured. We negotiated a cheap price for two guys to help us for an hour.

First we were shown on land how to lay on the board. Not too far forward or too far back. He demonstrated how to jump up to catch a wave; counterintuitively, back leg up first, and then the front leg. We practiced jumping on the board on land. Our feet had to be parallel to each other, perpendicular to the board with our knees bent. Then we were ready to try it on the sea.

We waded out to deeper water with the boards and the guys showed us how to keep our boards from being tossed out of our hands when the waves came. I was a bit jealous that the more funny and charismatic guy was helping Finn and his boring brother was helping me. We got to the right position and laid on the board, facing towards the shore and waited for a wave. I focused on what I had just learned on land, how I would jump up and place my feet. After a moment the guys chose a wave and pushed us into it. I felt the rush of adrenaline as I was propelled forward and heard my teacher yell, ‘Now!’ I placed my back foot on the board and then my front foot. I was almost up, but unsteady because my feet were angled slightly towards the front of my board. I wobbled and fell into the water.

We tried again and again and I managed to get to balance on the board sometimes, other times I fell right away. Some of the waves were pretty strong and hit me in the face while I was trying to get into the right position. We were all pushed over by the salty, foamy walls of water. The afternoon sun was beating down from the sky and reflecting up from the water. A few times I rode all the way to the shore. Those times when I didn’t fall were extremely satisfying. When I focused on getting my feet in the right position and keeping my knees bent I could catch the wave. If I lost concentration I toppled into the water. This sport was challenging, but satisfying. I had made progress already and had an idea of how it works.

By the time the lesson was over I was ready to stop. Finn and I were waterlogged and exhausted. Surfing was as hard as it seemed, but I enjoyed it. I had fun and didn’t feel too frustrated. We ordered a couple coconuts and relaxed under the umbrella with our surf teachers and their friends for a while to recuperate.

The next day we drove to nearby Canggu Beach with a hula hooper friend. There were lots of surfers there, so after relaxing on the sand for a little while I rented a board to try surfing on my own. I spent a long time paddling out, trying to get into the right position and figuring out which waves to take. While trying to position myself sometimes a big wave came and I tried, with varying success, to brace myself against it to keep from being pushed over and churned like a dirty sock in a washing machine. I paddled to where most surfers were and observed which waves they were taking. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette and didn’t want to step on anyone’s wave.

It was much more difficult on my own, without someone getting me into position, telling me which wave to take and pushing me into it. I tried to learn from the other surfers to see how long they paddle into the wave before popping up. After a half an hour I had made a few pathetic attempts at standing up, but fell instantly. I was too focused on choosing the wave and getting into position to remember my footing. I almost gave up after 40 minutes because I was tired, but I was just starting to get a feel for the waves, so I gave it a few more tries.

I paddled into position, watched the waves and concentrated on my task. I planned to paddle hard, really hard, and then quickly and precisely place my feet perfectly perpendicular to the board. I would keep my knees bent and balance my body on this wild ocean carefully and gracefully. A wave came and I was ready. I almost jumped up, but the wave turned out to be too small, so I didn’t take it. Another wave came and it looked nice. It was big enough, nice and frothy. I started paddling as fast as I could. The wave was quickly upon me and I felt it push my board forward. I was placed my front foot and then my back foot. I was balancing! For a second, maybe three, and then I fell and twisted in the ocean current, happy to have lasted that long. I was surfing!

Pai New Favourite Place in SE Asia

Finn and I boarded a minibus from Chiang Mai in the morning. The driver handed each passenger a bag as we got in and I wondered why, but it was a short lived mystery. The 762 curves along mountain roads made me more ill than any other ride on this trip. At least the scenery was nice, and after a few hours of testing my intestinal fortitude we arrived in the centre of Pai, nothern Thailand.

We had a reservation at Pai Circus School Resort, so we walked along the main road and out of the town centre to find it. Along the way I was excited to see restaurants were selling avocado, brown rice and creative smoothies. We stopped to get some delicious ice cream in waffle cones and after following signs and walking along a path for about 10 minutes found the circus school across the river on a hill.
IMG_0437.JPG

The view from the circus school was spectacular. Beyond the infinity pool you could see the hilly landscape far into the distance. There was a pool table and a gazebo with hammocks and a wide open space for playing with hula hoops, poi, or whatever toy you prefer. Young people were lounging everywhere, soaking up the sun. Our $15 triangular hut was tiny and contained only the minimum furnishings: a mattress on the ground, a lamp and a mosquito net. The blankets were flimsy and thin so we were freezing at night. There were big holes in the floor, which made be worry I would clumsily fall through one or accidentally drop my valuables out. We wanted to stay there anyway because the circus school and pool were fantastic.
IMG_0430.JPG

Most of the people who stayed at the circus school weren’t interested in circus, but stayed at the school because of the beautiful view and chilled out atmosphere. Most days there was a beginner poi lesson from 3pm – 6pm for $20, but I didn’t take one because I’m not particularly interested in poi. The best thing about the circus school was making friends over the course of the week. A small group of us who were passionate about hula hooping, poi, other hippy props and circus found each other and become good friends quickly. Three new Americans friends told me about a flow toy festival called Pacific Fire that happens in Oregon in September. I definitely want to go to that. It was great to be around passionate people because it reawakened my and Finn’s interest in hula hooping. I also learned to juggle a bit and Finn learned some contact staff.
IMG_0433.JPG
IMG_0428.JPG

Every morning in Pai I went for a run and then to breakfast with Finn and our new circus friends. A place called The Good Life served delicious, healthy, natural foods, so we ate there every morning until we found a place that was even better called Om Café. All the food was healthy, affordable and unbelievably delicious. They had lots of vegetarian options like quesadillas, hummus, poached eggs, avocado and grain salad. They had a smoothie that was nothing but blended avocado and coconut milk for $2. It was hard to choose between getting a cappuccino or a smoothie, so sometimes I got both. It felt indulgent, but necessary, to top the meal off with fresh carrot cake with perfect cream cheese icing.

In the evenings we usually walked into town and strolled through the night market. The stores stayed open after dark and stands selling food, jewellery or clothing popped up. A stand called Juice Queen had fantastic healthy smoothies with generous helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, real cocoa, avocado, homemade peanut butter and no added sugar. I was floored by the healthy deliciousness. All of it was amazingly cheap too. A high protein vegetable smoothie cost $2 and a strawberry banana smoothie cost $1.

After a few days we forgot to extend our room reservation at the circus school so it was sold to someone else. Initially we were disappointed to move out, but then we found a place called Family Huts that was nearby, which was half the price of circus school and the bungalows were a lot nicer, so it turned out that our eviction from the circus school was actually a good thing. We still spent a lot of time hanging out at the circus school and they were happy to have us because we contributed to the circus atmosphere.

Pai is surrounded by lovely wilderness, but aside from my morning runs I only went out to visit it once. Finn, our new friend Melissa and I rented motorbikes for a few dollars for the day and went to relax by a waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing when I jumped in for a short swim. We met a few people at the waterfall and chatted a while before moving on to another tourist attraction called the Land Split, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tourist attraction created around a split in the ground that I would barely have noted if I walked by it on a nature hike. I was glad we went anyway because at the entrance is a little stand with snacks and drinks by donation. We sat down on hammocks and juice, wine, peanuts, chips and fruit, all made on the property, were brought over to us. We relaxed and then dropped a few dollars in the donation bin on our way out.

After that we rode the windy road up to a huge canyon. I walked and climbed along the dusty, narrow path that would never be open to people walking in Canada. It was extremely high and looked dangerous, but it provided a beautiful view and fun negotiating the way along the uneven terrain. I ventured out on my own and met some lovely Americans who invited me to hang out with them along the path. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another afternoon Finn and I went to a fermentation and kombucha making workshop that was advertised all over town by the Good Life restaurant, which is also the primary kombucha producer and distributer in Pai. The workshop was a short walk out of town on a small farm. We were offered bottles of kombucha to drink as soon as we got there and were told to help ourselves to more whenever we wanted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of kombucha but I wanted to give it a chance because it supposedly has wonderful health benefits. Also, I can’t resist things that are free. I drank a bottle and didn’t mind it. Throughout the workshop I drank more and more of it, largely because it was something to entertain myself with.
IMG_0849
A man named Lance, a large aging hippy from northern Saskatchewan, ran the first part of the workshop about fermentation. “The only things that don’t ferment are our spirits, our souls,” he said. He went on about the magic of fermentation for over half an hour before getting into the process of it. He talked about people’s misguided fear of bacteria, “If you step into the flow of nature at the appropriate point, you have nothing to fear. Fermentation is observing that part of nature.” Lance told us that processed food is ‘dead’ because all the bacteria is killed, so it doesn’t give our digestive systems necessary bacteria, which is why we should eat fermented foods, yoghurts and foods with active bacteria.
IMG_0858
Lance pickles and ferments anything and everything. He showed us the freezer bags of random vegetables that he threw together to ferment the night before. He had also packed a bag of kimchi vegetables and fermented it for a day for our class to work with. We wrapped the freshly fermented, spiced kimchi in bok choi and into freezer bags to ferment further and kept some fresh for our class to eat at the end of the day.

Konstantin, who goes by Kay or Mr K, a small, good-natured Ukrainian man with a goatee, ran the second part of the workshop. Before getting into kombucha, he showed us that you can put certain little mushrooms in milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or any kind of milk-like product and turn it into yoghurt or kefir overnight. He told us about bacteria with a long winded metaphor about good people stopping bad people in human communities. I was amazed to learn that the process of making yoghurt is so simple. I found the prospect of making my own granola and yoghurt once I have a stable living situation again exciting.

Kay taught us about the history, health benefits and process of kombucha in long-winded, if passionate, explanations. I could hardly believe these men ran this workshop daily with this much enthusiasm. I was drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha the whole time and developing a taste for it.

Kay brought us into the cellar and showed us big jars of kombucha at various stages of fermentation and had us taste some. Along the wall were shelves of mysterious looking-jars with liquids of different dark colours. We were told that one jar contacted a pickled tiger penis. Kay passed around a bottle for us to smell, but Finn and I weren’t listening when he told us what it was. I thought it was for tasting, but I didn’t want any. Finn put a little in his glass and drank it, but it tasted terrible. He asked what it was and Kay said it was fermented beaver kidney. We weren’t supposed to drink it.

I was getting really hungry by 430, but the workshop was supposed to end at 5 with a communal meal. Kay wasn’t finished at 5 and kept up the tangential ramblings and silly jokes for what felt to my rumbling stomach like forever. I had enjoyed the workshop, but had completely lost my ability to concentrate. Kay slowly handed out starter mushrooms to participants who wanted to make kombucha at home or on the road and made them name each one. “I’ll call mine Clementine,” said one participant. When it was my turn to receive my mushroom I almost wanted to refuse to name the silly little thing, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood with my hunger-induced grumpiness, so I said it’s name was Comet. I don’t know why I would name it Comet, but it’s all that came to mind.

At 5:30 Kay asked if we had discussed everything and I couldn’t resist but answer, “yep!” which I hoped didn’t come off as rude. Still he talked for another fifteen minutes and then we were free to go to the table where a spread of kimchi, bagels, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, all produced on the property, was laid out for us. I impatiently waited for others to sit down at the table before I started hungrily shovelling lots of food in my mouth.

After the workshop, Finn and I went to the circus school where we could watch and participate in a fire show most nights. Finn had tried the fire hoop for the first time that week and was hooked on it. The circus school had already asked him to perform for one of their parties.

That night after the workshop I was trying to have fun, but my stomach started to turn and I was nauseated. That afternoon I had drank about five bottles of fermented tea and then ate a huge spread of pickled vegetables for dinner. It was far too much for my bacteria-unaccustomed stomach to handle, so it suddenly emptied itself onto the grass of the circus school before I could make it to the toilet. I read later that you’re supposed to introduce kombucha to your diet slowly, starting with half a bottle. It was unfortunate, because I had finally developed a taste for the healthy, hippy drink, but now just the thought of it makes my stomach turn.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia Finn and hadn’t met many people who we really connected with. The party scene in most tourist areas attracts a lot of superficial people, but in Pai there was a community of people who were into having fun, but not only getting wasted and shopping. Pai isn’t very exotic since it’s built for tourism and full of westerners, but it was great to be around open-minded people who enjoy the same things as us.

Chiang Mai Favourite Place in Southeast Asia So Far

The trip from Luang Probang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand took a lot longer than it should have. When Finn and I crossed the border into Thailand our connecting bus had already left without us, so we had to spend the day in a tiny border town. I was pretty annoyed at first, but couldn’t complain too much because the travel company that sold us the bus tickets took us to a little resort to spend the day by the pool to wait for the next bus in the evening. We ate lunch in town at a little vegetarian restaurant that had fantastic Thai curry.
IMG_0593.JPG

We arrived in Chiang Mai at 11pm and since it was high season for tourism in Thailand most of the hotels were completely full. We walked all around the centre of town and eventually found a little guesthouse called Baan Na Na in the old city which had a single dorm bed available. Thankfully they let Finn and I share it for $8 and I fell asleep right away. It had been days since I’d slept in a bed and I was still recovering from being sick, so that tiny dorm bed felt like the most comfortable place in the world.

The best thing about Chiang Mai was the food. I had been craving healthy food for months so it was fantastic to find delicious fresh food, brown rice, avocados, all kinds of tasty, nutritious meals. There were vegetarian restaurants everywhere. The food in Laos was really oily and bland so the Thai food tasted spectacular in comparison. Finn and I spent hours sampling different food. The night market was cheap and offered dozens of stalls selling fresh fruit, pad thai, curries and a variety of other food.
IMG_0425.JPG

We decided to splurge on a Thai cooking class, which cost about $40 each. There were lots of cooking classes offered in Chiang Mai and they all look similar so it was hard to choose. I looked through the half a dozen brochures at our guesthouse and picked one called The Best Thai Cooking Class. I sent them an email to sign up and they and responded right away that they would pick us up for the class in the morning.

At 9am the next morning we clambered into a 15-seater van full of other tourists. The man running the cooking class, named Permpoon, was gregarious, middle aged and Thai. He spoke great English and was always smiling. The first stop was the fresh food market, where we each chose 6 dishes that we wanted to make from 20 options. I felt silly standing around in a big group of tourists while Thai people did their shopping. Cooking class helpers bought the ingredients for all the food we would make while Permpoon walked us around the market and taught us about the food. I learned that morning glory is called that because the flowers only bloom in the morning.

After the market visit we went to the a farm outside of town where the cooking class was held. We picked a few hot peppers and eggplants from the garden and walked through the picturesque grounds to the instruction area. The large building had high ceilings and no walls and twelve cooking stations with stoves, cutting areas, pots and woks for each of us were set up in a semi circle around Permpoon’s station. We helped ourselves to coffee, tea and water before getting started.

The other people in the class were from all over the world and most of them were under 30 years old. Everyone was in a great mood, which helped Permpoon’s jokes land exceptionally well, even when repeated. He asked someone to help him cook, but give him a massage first. Everyone laughed, even me. He asked someone to keep their eye on the time and let him know when the food is ready in 10 minutes. If the food burns it’s their fault! The crowd was in hysterics. The laughs were just as big or maybe even bigger the second time.

Permpoon led us through how to make curries, pad thai, coconut milk soup, tom yam soup and stir fried vegetables and we made papaya salad, mango sticky rice and spring rolls as a group.

At the end of the class we ate the food together and everything tasted amazing. We were given the ingredients measured out in advance and told precisely when and how to cook everything, so making the food didn’t give me a huge sense of accomplishment, but we were all given a certification for having completed the course.
IMG_0424.JPG

Other than the cooking course, Finn and I spent lots of time walking around the city. There were cute little shops, great cafés and art spaces everywhere. We had foot and Thai massages for $6 per hour and they were fantastic. Chiang Mai was great because it’s a real city, not like the phoney tourist towns we had been visiting. There were lots of tourists, but the place wasn’t built only to service tourism like Vang Vieng and 4,000 Islands in Laos seemed to be. Many people told me before this trip that I would love Chiang Mai and they were right.
IMG_0423-0.JPG

Vang Vieng: I Watched Too Much Friends

Vang Vieng is a gorgeous mountainous town on a river. It was hot when Finn and I arrived in the afternoon, so we went to enjoy the outdoors right away after finding a $10 room at Milany Villa 2, in the centre of the tourist area. We walked to the river and sat on a platform on the shore below the small, jagged mountains. The geography was similar to northern Vietnam. Colourful hot air balloons were floating high over the rickety, wooden bridges.

Everyone travelling Laos knows Vang Vieng is the place for tubing (floating down the river on tubes). The river used to be lined with bars and filled with drunk tourists all day, but now almost all of the riverside bars have been shut down by the government. They didn’t want Laos to be associated drunkenness and dangerous activities anymore. Every year, drunk people used to die in the river. You can still go tubing, but it’s not as popular without dozens of bars. That may have been why the town didn’t feel very full of people, despite it being peak season. There were huge, empty restaurants everywhere and available rooms in most of the hotels and guesthouses.

IMG_0404.JPG

The day after we arrived it rained for two days. It was too bad, because all I wanted to do was swim, hike, ride bikes and explore the outdoors. A popular rainy day activity in Vang Vieng was watching Friends at one of the many restaurants that play it. They set up their seating theatre-style so people could eat their food and try to figure out what season is playing based on the status of Ross and Rachel’s relationship. Friends isn’t a great show, but we watched it for hours when it was raining.

There was a big party scene in Vang Vieng, so western promoters were everywhere handing out flyers for this or that bar. Some of them weren’t shy about listing off the wide varieties of drugs available at the bar, including opium. Instead of happy hours, most of the bars had free drinks hours. The free drinks hours at different bars were staggered throughout the night so you could go from place to place and get free drinks. Unfortunately, most of the bars played painfully loud, bad pop music from five years ago and I haven’t been drinking much lately, so I didn’t really appreciate it.

Once the rain stopped the weather was beautiful, but I couldn’t enjoy it because I got sick. It was my first time getting ill on this trip and it was horrible. I had a fever and digestion issues on and off for three days. Every day I thought I was better, but by night time I was sick again. For the first time I felt homesick too. I missed being able to make any food I want and having the familiarities of home. All the food in Laos was either fried and sugary or completely tasteless. I wanted tasty, healthy food.

IMG_0769

One day when I was feeling better, Finn and I went on a big hike to a cave an Irish and Hungarian couple. I liked learning about their life in Ireland about how they make their livings creating visual art. The Hungarian is going to Germany to be an artist in resident this year. We hiked for hours and found a cave that was narrow and scary to climb into. We used the flashlight from Finn’s phone to see where we were going, but it was hard to share one light between four people. When we were all inside we turned off the light to see how dark it was after our eyes adjusted and we couldn’t see a thing. The silence was eery.

IMG_0774

Because of the rain and my sickness, we ended up spending way more time in Vang Vieng than we planned. The food was expensive for Southeast Asia and not very good, except the pancakes from street vendors which were cheap and delicious. In the week that we spent there we didn’t do all the nature stuff we planned on doing, but it had been too long, so we moved on to Luang Probang.

Lots of people told me that Luang Probang is beautiful, one of their favourite places in Loas. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s well-preserved, French-influenced architecture. Finn and I bought tickets to go there on a sleeper bus, but at 9:30pm, right when our bus was supposed to leave, we were told that the sleeper bus was broken down and we would have to take a minibus. This was a big disappointment because I was still feeling sick and Finn was getting sick too, so laying down on the bus would have been great. The minivan was a lot faster than a sleeper bus, so we arrived in Luang Probang at 3:30am.

Nothing was open in sleepy Luang Probang at 3:30am. We fruitlessly wandered the tourist area and tried to find a place to stay, but found nothing. I was so tired and sick and it was a cold night, so it was brutal to not have a place to sleep. We found a small tourist bus without walls parked on the street, so we tried to sleep in it for a while. It was startling when cars drove by us and I was nervous that our bags could get stolen while we slept.

After a while I went to see if any accommodation had opened and left Finn sleeping in the van. I found a backpacker hostel, closed for the night. I went through the gate and tried the door and it happened to be unlocked. It was dark inside, but it seemed to be in some kind of common area of the hostel and there was a platform with two thin mats and pillows on it. It wasn’t that warm or comfortable, but it was far better than the van on the street. I went back to get Finn, and we slept there until morning. The hostel staff were really nice about it and one of them put a thick blanket on us when she came in at about 8:30am.

The hostel was completely full, so we went to try to find somewhere else, but most places were full and too expensive. My initial reaction to Luang Probang was confusion. Why was this place a highly rated tourist destination? It looked like any other small town in Southeast Asia, except it was way more expensive and had fancy hotels. The river was wide and brown, there wasn’t much natural beauty. We sat down in a café and had watery coffee and mushy waffles. It most expensive meals we had eaten in months. I was still a bit ill and I was sick of Laos.

We decided not to stay in Luang Probang and to get on a bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand, that night. It would mean another 24 hour bus ride and there were no sleeper buses, but we were ready to leave Laos.

Getting to Laos, Relaxing on Don Det

From Hanoi Finn and I wanted to go to Laos, so we had to take a 24 hour bus ride to the capital, Vientiane, the only place in Laos where buses from Hanoi go. We got to the border in the middle of the night, but slept on the bus until the crossing opened at 7am. Once we were stamped out of Vietnam, we had to pass about half a kilometre of nothingness to get to the Laos border. For some reason the five of us westerners were instructed to walk over to Laos, but the locals waited for a shuttle. It was nice to get a bit of exercise after spending so long on a bus anyway. Everyone got back on the bus on the Laos side of the border we continued the journey. I was excited to be in a new country. It was already a lot warmer than it was in northern Vietnam.

I probably should have changed a bit of money into Laos kip at the border because there was still a long way to go before Vientiane and there were no ATMs along the way. In the afternoon the bus stopped at a little restaurant where passengers got off to eat, but neither Finn, our two new British friends or I had a single kip to our names. We were so hungry. After listening to our tummies grumbling and feeling sorry for ourselves and dreading the remaining eight hours on the bus to Vientiane, Finn and I went in the restaurant and looked around for abandoned food. There turned out to be an abundance; a deep fried egg, some spring rolls, cabbage salad and rice was left behind. We brought the food over to share it with the Brits who were grateful for the food, but too proud to scavenge for themselves.

We arrived in Vientiane that night, and the town lived up to its reputation of being nothing special. Finn and I managed to find a hotel for around 10 bucks, where we gratefully slept after 24 hours on a bus, but we were eager to leave quickly. Vientiane was tiny, despite being the capital of Laos. The roads were too wide, considering the lack of traffic, which gave the impression of urban sprawl. There wasn’t much to do and the food was expensive and bland, at least in the tourist area.

We left Vientiane the next day headed to the Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands, on the southern tip of Laos. It’s the world’s largest river archipelago, a bunch of tiny islands in the Mekong Delta. After being in Northern Vietnam we couldn’t wait to go somewhere tropical on the water. After another 15 hours on a sleeper bus, 4 hours on a minibus and 20 minutes on a boat, we made it to a tropical island.
IMG_0389.JPG

The boat took us to Don Det, the most popular tourist island in 4000 islands. It’s small, you can walk the perimeter in about an hour. There is a mini downtown which divides the ‘sunset side’ and the ‘sunrise side’. Finn and I were dropped off on the sunrise side, where we ate at a little restaurant called ‘Mama and Papa’. The food was okay, the music was great, ‘mama’ was really friendly and there was free wifi. After we ate, we started walking around the island to find accommodation. It turned out that most of the restaurants and guesthouses were owned by couples who call themselves ‘mama’ and ‘papa.’ The bungalows, guesthouses, restaurants and bars which lined most of the perimeter of the island were so similar it was hard to tell them apart.
IMG_0414.JPG

We walked over to the sunset side and found a cute guesthouse called Mr. Man, owned by a ‘Mama and Papa,’ of course. It seemed weird to call people who are not my mom or dad by family names, but most people did. The guesthouse had gardens, a restaurant, a view of the river, hammocks, private bathrooms, wifi and it cost less than $5 per night. It was weird but awesome that there was free wifi everywhere, even in these tiny remote places. It was easy to spend a lot of time there.
IMG_0388-0.JPG

Days on Don Det consisted of lounging and reading, chatting, eating, and wandering around. Long walks past the shops, restaurants, local homes and farms were pleasant. I went swimming in the river every day. It was warm and refreshing, especially during the hottest part of the day.
IMG_0415.JPG

Every restaurant on Don Det had pillows to lay on while eating and it was important to order food well before I was hungry because it could take 45 minutes or longer before it was ready. Once I ordered a fruit shake and I was wondering why it was taking so long to make, then the ‘mama’ came back on her motorbike, with a fresh pineapple in her hand.

We ended up staying on Don Det longer than expected because Finn came down with a terrible fever. I thought it was Dengue Fever based on his symptoms. I went into town to find some medication for him and found at the grocery store little grab bags of pills that a local doctor had out together for sick tourists. I don’t know what the pills were, but Finn took all 6 of them and then seemed to get better. Once he healed we left Don Det and started going north again.
IMG_0413.JPG

Selling Motorbikes in Hanoi

My passport was ready to be picked up when we returned to Hanoi. There was a Vietnamese visa inside, as promised, which expired the following day.

The day I spent in Hanoi wasn’t great because I had three conflicts with local shop owners. It was a perfect illustration of why I don’t like cities in Asia. A motorcycle shop owner accidentally sold or rented out my motorcycle helmet, the woman selling fruit salad wanted to overcharge me and worst of all was when I went back to the shop where I bought my jacket that broke within a couple days of purchase the owner claimed I didn’t buy it from her.

The jacket store owner, a small, middle-aged Vietnamese woman who wore a headband and her hair in a ponytail, was offended at the accusation that she a faulty product, but I was sure that I bought the jacket from there. I didn’t expect a refund for the jacket, I was just showing her what happened. I actually don’t know why I even brought it in. I just wanted the person responsible for me being even colder than necessary in northern Vietnam to know, and the shop was just down the ally from my hostel. Maybe that was petty of me, but her reaction was completely disproportional.

She reacted as if I spat in her face and started pulling jackets off the racks to demonstrate how her products are different than the one I bought. She called me a liar, practically frothing at the mouth. But I did buy it from that shop, there was no mistaking it. I told her that it was fine, she didn’t have to believe me. I gave her the jacket back and started to walk away. She took the jacket and threw it out of her shop and into the street and yelled that I was crazy.

It was time to get out of the city. The last loose strings in Vietnam were our motorbikes, which Finn and I had to sell before we left town. We posted an ad online and put signs on our bikes. The marketplace for motorbikes is very active online and in the streets of Hanoi. In the backpacker districts there are Honda Wins, motorbikes just like ours, with ‘for sale’ signs on them, littered everywhere. There are pages and pages of online ads and many motorbike shops.

We tried to make our online ad unique by including silly pictures of ourselves and offering free driving lessons with purchase. We received a bit of interest, but no sales. It was stressful because I had to leave the country before my visa expired, so if we didn’t sell the bikes quickly then Finn would stay behind and sell them alone.

We were in a hostel using the computers when I overheard some Canadians who I thought were talking about motorbikes. I went over, introduced myself and casually brought up selling the bikes. “Did you say you’re Canadian? I’m Canadian too!” Blah, blah… “Finn over there, and I, we’re selling our motorbikes…”

It turned out the people I approached were not in the market for motorbikes, but some clean cut college kids from Chicago who had just sat down to research motorbikes overheard me. They were on month-long break from school and planned to motorbike to Southern Vietnam.

Finn and I told the guys everything we knew about bikes. We told them about navigating, repairs, oil changes, manual vs automatic motorbikes, mistakes we made, anything that might be useful. The guys were excited like golden retrievers. We talked and talked, then brought them over to our bikes.

We offered to teach them how to drive the manual bikes since they didn’t know how. Finn bonded with them about some Chicago-based sports teams. I hoped that the more we built a relationship with them and gave them help and advice, the more likely they were to buy from us. I just hoped we weren’t laying it on too thick and making them suspicious. It was important to play it cool. I hoped we came off as helpful, eager Canadians, not used car salespeople.

The guys were laid-back and friendly, but nervous about riding motorbikes. They said they were going to do a bit more research and we arranged to meet up in a few hours, at 3pm, when they would possibly buy our bikes. As we said goodbye to them a local man approached them and offered to sell the same bikes for $30 less. Luckily the Americans found the attempted sales poach sleazy.

Finn and I were hopeful that they would buy our bikes. We didn’t get any more responses to our online ad, so they were our best and only shot at the moment. I was going to board a bus to Vientiane at 5pm that evening, with or without Finn. It would be harder for him to sell two bikes by himself.

After wandering around the city and constantly checking if we got any more responses to our ad (nope), we met up with the guys as scheduled. They came down and told us that one of them needed to go to the ATM. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked the remaining guy if that meant they wanted the bikes, and he said yes. Relief and sadness washed over me. The guys gave us cash, we have them the keys and we taught them how to ride. They thanked us profusely. Finn and I boarded the bus to Vientiane together an hour later.
2015/01/img_0606.jpgWe’ll miss you, our beautiful motorbikes!