Grounded in In Binh: North Vietnam

I was thumbing through a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel when our bus flew off the road and into the lime-green mountain. We heard metal scrape metal, then – for a second – the bus was weightless and drifting. Bushes smashed up against the windows before we ground to a halt, tipped at a 45-degree angle against a wall of rock. Someone screamed.

The book's title was One Hundred Years of Solitude – an inauspicious omen given that we had just crashed in Vietnam's remote highlands. But this was just the latest omen: We had suspected we were in for trouble soon after boarding in Hanoi

“I want to introduce you to an important man,” our guide had said when we reached the city’s outskirts. “This is Mr. Khanh – K-H-A-N-H.” He pointed to the excitable man behind the steering wheel who was stacking packs of cigarettes on the dashboard. “He will be our driver to Sapa, 12 hours north through steep mountains – a very dangerous route. So be nice to him.”

Mr. Khanh flattened his palm against the horn. The sea of bicycles in front of us parted slightly.

As we moved farther into Vietnam’s northern region, the bikes had thinned and been replaced by smoke-belching trucks, but Mr. Khanh had been undeterred. A graduate of the “honk-first, look-later” school of driving, he approached hairpin curves on the single-lane road with gusto. His method -- lay on the horn and charge ahead at full speed – had proved effective for the first six hours of our journey, until he rounded a curve straight into a van filled with drunk soldiers.

“Are you OK?” we looked around and asked each other after the crash. There were 24 on board – 19 foreigners and 5 locals. The bus door was flush against the embankment we’d slammed into after Mr. Khanh had swerved from the van. So we all squeezed out the back windows, jumped over the rear tire, and landed on the road five feet below.

Families trickled from a scattering of houses at the road’s side. They stared at us and pointed at our bags, but we weren’t center stage. Yet.

That honor belonged to Mr. Khanh and the soldiers, who shouted at each other, fists raised, faces an inch apart, fighting over blame for the wreck. High-pitched cries and cigarette butts volleyed back and forth. An hour later, the soldiers passed a wad of money to Mr. Khanh. The dispute had been settled. The soldiers packed up their still-mobile van and clunked away.

Our guide was the next to go. Without a phone, he had no way of communicating our broken-down situation. He flagged down a truck headed back to town, and promised to send a new bus to take us onward.

We were now alone in the middle of nowhere. Waiting.

A man in our group asked the name of the village. In Binh. No phone. No shops. Nothing except terraced rice paddies and eight tidy wood houses.

We smiled at the villagers; they stared back.

Finally, an old woman with black-and-red, betel nut-stained teeth stepped forward and shepherded us away from the roadside, where trucks whizzed by with alarming velocity. She laughed and laughed about how the males in our group wore earrings and many of the females didn’t.

Then the kids loosened up. Twenty of them crowded around us, eager to look at our cameras and guidebooks. They were whip-smart and tried to teach us to say “hello” and “thank you” and to count to 10 in Vietnamese, an act we reciprocated in English. One little boy rode his water buffalo to the gathering.

When it started to rain the families who owned the two houses closest to the crash site invited us in. Another family farther down the road prepared a noodle dinner for everyone. Their homes were humble – one big room with a bed or two and a table, and no indoor plumbing, though they each had a large working television tuned to Vietnamese variety shows.

Seven hours went by. Darkness fell like an anvil, and knee-high wisps of mist rolled in. We shared fiery home-brewed whiskey with our hosts and laughed at discussions we couldn't understand. A gentleman from Saigon translated a local proverb to make us feel better: “You learn by looking and listening as opposed to talking. That's why you have two ears, two eyes, and only one mouth.”

Since the whiskey was making speech difficult even in English, the new bus pulled up at an opportune time. The driver said he’d be taking us two hours north to Bao Yen, the closest place with accommodation for the night.

“A hotel?” we asked.

“Sort of,” he said.

We shook our new friends’ hands and thanked them for their hospitality. “Kom ern,” we said, using our recently honed language skills for "thank you." We boarded the new bus, and the villagers lined up beside it, waving and shouting goodbye. Everyone was jovial except Mr. Khanh, who hung back, keeping a protective hand on his sideways bus.

Truck stops are squalid by nature, but the truck stop at Bao Yen was in a class by itself. The rooms featured three twin-size wooden platforms, where six people were expected to sleep. The mosquito netting seemed to do more to keep the swarms of insects in rather than out. And a raucous poker game serenaded us deep into the night from the courtyard outside.

Still, we must have fallen asleep somehow, because it was suddenly morning when men on motorcycles knocked on the door, their faces hidden beneath thick helmets. They pointed to us, then to the motorcycles, then back to us, chattering with great insistence. What were they saying?

There was only one way to find out.

We climbed on behind, and held on tight. They zipped past women carrying chickens and morning glory vines, skirted potholes the size of meteor craters, and deposited us with a wave at a little restaurant with plastic tables.

Over a breakfast of rice and eggs, we heard a horn honk, and Mr. Khanh drove up in our original bus. The bus from last night had to go back to Hanoi, he said, but the original bus was just fine. OK, so it was making some odd noises, but it was fine enough to make it to Sapa. A truck driver had helped him pull it upright and onto the road, and it barely had a scratch. All it needed was a good squirt with a hose to wash off the mud and bushes, a feat that the restaurant manager helped Mr. Khanh accomplish.

We boarded, and spent the next four hours winding through fat mountains cultivated with tea, corn, and rice. Banana and cinnamon trees lined the road, along with bamboo groves cloaked in cloud. Even Mr. Khanh seemed to be enjoying the scenery, evidenced by his reduced speed and honks.

The Black Hmong and Red Dzao hill tribes populate this area that borders China. The former wear indigo clothes that stain their skin blue; the latter add a poppy-red headscarf to the mix. Most able-bodied people work in the fields, so it falls to the old women and little girls to sell opium and souvenirs to the tourists.

We could hear the females coming from far away – they wore jangley silver jewelry, and so many hoop earrings that their earlobes were elongated – but we could not escape them; they chased us down the street, then surrounded us. We spent the next two days buying useless trinkets like jaw harps and woven bracelets, and then it was time to return to Hanoi.

Mr. Khanh pulled up in – yes – the same bus. Only now, the starter wasn’t working, and we had to get out and push the bus to kick the engine into gear. As a consequence, stops would be few and far between on the way back, Mr. Khanh said.

So we were surprised when, six hours later, he pulled up next to a shuttered house and cut the motor. He must have to pee, we thought.

It took us several minutes to realize we had arrived at In Binh. Little by little, people trickled out of the fields and drifted down the road. The red-toothed old lady was back, as was the boy on the buffalo and all the other kids. We greeted each other like long-lost relatives – waving turned to handshakes turned to hugs all around. We tied bracelets (a practical gift from Sapa, after all) onto each other's wrists, the Vietnamese laughing at how much string they needed to encircle our bones. We exchanged addresses to send photos.

Mr. Khanh tooted the horn for us to re-board. "Goodbye! Good luck!" we called to our friends, then assumed our position behind the bus, and grunted and groaned as we coaxed it into motion. Hopping on, we headed back toward Hanoi's golden dragons and perfumed pagodas, water puppets and grand boulevards.

But it was an unexpected bend in the road, and eight tiny houses, that branded our memory the deepest.

May 2000 (published in Tales from Nowhere, Lonely Planet Publications 2006)

Ups and Downs in Thailand: Part 1

Travel is volatile. One minute we're on top of the world, chatting with Chinese astrologers under a 1,000-year-old banyan tree, the next we're sweating out 20% of our body weight (despite full bladders) on a 7-hour, second-class bus ride.

The pendulum keeps swinging. Here are our ups and downs during the past week:

Took a 14-hour overnight bus from Thailand's southern islands back to Bangkok. We arrived at 6 am, which didn't leave loads of hotel options. That's how we found ourselves staying in a concrete bunker with peeling pale-blue paint and mosquito carcasses splatted on the wall. We went out later for some food, and once again the cute-but-violent street kids came up to us. One little girl punched Eric, then tweaked his nose.

Feeling down.

Decided to get the hell out of Bangkok, heading northeast to Khorat. Caught a dreamy first-class bus that had TV, air-conditioning, and a stewardess who served free Coke, cookies, and wet towels to wash up with afterward.

Feeling up.

Three hours later the stewardess pointed to us, then pointed to the door. The bus pulled over to the side of the road. Two other passengers queued up to disembark.

"This is Khorat?" we asked our friendly stewardess.

"Khorat," she said, and pushed us out the door.

"Khorat?" we asked the baggage man as he chucked our bags into a cloud of dust.

"Khorat," he said, and slammed shut the door.

The bus sped away.

The row of seven dilapidated shacks at the side of the road didn't seem like Thailand's second-largest city. Maybe we were at the edge of town.

Just then a man in fatigues with tattoos on his neck came up to us.

"Khorat?" he asked.

"Khorat," we said.

"Get in my truck. I take you there."

He proceeded to drive us 25 MILES into town (though it only took a few minutes, since he was driving at breakneck speed). Swell guy that he was, he only charged us twice that of our first-class bus, which we passed en route to town.

Feeling down.

Sidebar on vehicular operation: Inside each bus or car, above the rearview mirror, is a shrine to Buddha. The driver offers a fresh jasmine-and-marigold necklace, or a lotus bud, or maybe a cold drink. Then we're off.

A quick glance at the dashboard reveals that the fuel gage isn't working, nor the speedometer, and two red warning lights are glowing. But who needs dashboard instruments when you've got Buddha on your side?

Buddha protects you during all high-speed maneuvers, including U-turns across multiple racing rows of traffic, driving in the lane of oncoming traffic until squeezed out at the last possible second, and - our favorite - taking both hands off the wheel to bow your head and pray to Buddha each time you pass a roadside temple at 80 miles per hour.

But back to our arrival in Khorat: stayed at the Sima Thani, a swanky 5-star hotel with a.c., cable TV, swimming pool, marble shower, and carved rosewood furniture. Giant buffet breakfast each morning. All this for $25 per night.

Feeling up.

Needed to have laundry done. Couldn't find a price list at the hotel, nor could we communicate well enough with the staff to obtain costs. Figured since the room was cheap, laundry would be cheap.

Three hours later a maid returned with our 8 grungy T-shirts and underwear now immaculately cleaned, pressed, folded, and individually wrapped in cellophane bags. Never has our underwear looked so fresh! Price: more than the room.

Feeling up and down (because we're clean, but poor).

Speaking of up and down (you'll see that we mean this in the literal, bodily sense), our first night in Khorat we went to redeem our complimentary beverage tickets at the Sha Sha Music and Karaoke House in the hotel. A Thai cover band was playing Hotel California. The dance floor was filled with young, short-haired American men groping the butts of scantily clad Thai women.

We'll provide more details on our encounter at the Sha Sha in the next installment.

Apr 28 - May 5, 2000

Ups and Downs in Thailand: Part 2

Where did we leave off last time? Ah, yes - the Sha Sha Karaoke House.

One of the brawny young lads stopped groping his lady friend long enough to come up to the bar and order a drink. We started chatting.

He introduced himself as Dave, age 27 and a member of the US Marine Corps. Dave and 50 other Marines were in town for the advance mission of Cobra Gold 2000, a joint US-Thai military training exercise. Four hundred and fifty more soldiers were scheduled to arrive later in the week.

"It's great being on the advance team," Dave confided. "We go in to the base for an hour, then the rest of the time is ours for fun."

"Fun" translated into hookers and booze. Dave's buddy PJ, a 40-year-old drill instructor, introduced us to his pick for the night - a sweet-looking 18-year-old with long hair and a plaid school-girl skirt.

"Look at her," PJ pounded Eric on the shoulder. "Is she a teenage wet dream, or what?" The girl smiled broadly. "In America she'd be the prom queen. . . . And for $55, I'm the prom king."

When a Marine decided on his escort for the evening, he went over and paid a Thai woman in a navy blue power suit with her hair in a bun. She had an office set up at the corner of the bar, and she entered each transaction into a ledger.

PJ confirmed the process. "She's already bought and paid for," and he gave his date a squeeze for emphasis. "Fifty-five dollars for the whole night. Hell, I've spent more than that on dinner with a woman in the US - without a result. Here I'll get laid, AND she'll fold my clothes in the morning."

Ah, the defenders of our country, putting our tax dollars to good use. Lots of up-and-down action for these fellas.

Our next stop was Nong Khai, a city on the Thai-Lao border. We floated over to the bus terminal to buy a ticket. The Chinese astrologer had told us this was our "travel day," so we were surprised to find that the first-class bus was sold out. Still buoyed with travel day confidence, we boarded the second-class bus.

Our confidence wilted within seconds. We had embarked to hard, tiny seats barely wide enough for the ass of an infant, four people packed in each of these seats, sweltering heat, no air conditioning, and no bathroom for the entire seven-hour duration. Instead of stopping, the bus would slow, and vendors would jump on and walk down the aisle plying their goods, such as pink drinks in plastic bags, sprawled, flattened chickens on a stick, and green sponge cakes.

Once again, the bus driver booted us off in the middle of nowhere. We had to take a series of three-wheeled scooters and beat-up buses to reach our final destination.

Feeling down upon arrival.

Consoled ourselves with good food and drink in Nong Khai. Visited a Lao mystic's sculpture park, a gold-and-ruby-covered Buddha, and the mighty Mekong River, which we cruised in a boat at sunset.

Feeling up, and ready to enter Laos on a high note.

Apr 28 - May 5, 2000

Contemplating Laos

Should you kill an ant that’s crawling up a monk?

Can 10 folding chairs under a shade tree be an airport?

Are 14 karate chops to the face a massage?

Laos was a land for contemplation.

We took our cue from the many monks who roamed Vientiane's wide, dusty boulevards. They were regal in their billowing saffron robes, stately under their shade umbrellas, and clearly deep in thought.

Were they pondering how Laos became the most bombed country on Earth (the U.S. dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, from 1964 to 1973)? Or were they thinking about their tally of deeds that Yama, the 12-armed guardian of hell, writes on tablets of gold if good and rotted dog-skin if bad? Maybe they were wondering why the government keeps an albino elephant in town as a symbol of its power, as all rulers have done since the mid 1300s.

Our first day in Vientiane, while visiting the golden stupa Pha That Luang, we met Monk Gath, age 20, and his novice Bounlour, 15. They wanted to practice their English, and offered to act as our tour guides for the next few days. They were sweet and kind, a mix of innocence about worldly and Western ways, and knowledge about otherworldly life and rebirth. They also giggled a lot.

The more time we spent with Gath and Bounlour, the more dilemmas we encountered. For instance, how do you thank monks for their hospitality? We thought we'd take them out to dinner, but they told us monks eat only once a day, at sunrise, when they go out to seek alms. Then there was the question of would we endanger our karma if we refused the tap water they offered us. When we visited their temple, Gath poured us each a glassful out of a silver pitcher and waited expectantly for us to drink. Should we (to be hospitable), or shouldn't we (parasites)? Lastly, there was the problem of the large red ant crawling up Gath's robe. Was he unaware of its presence, or aware but unable to squash a fellow living creature? Would it be OK if we killed it when it crawled toward us?

It was an awful lot to think about.

After three days in Vientiane, we moved north to Luang Prabang. This town of 16,000 at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers has been called the "refuge of the last dreamers" due to its 30 gleaming temples and secluded mountain setting.

We could travel 10 hours by bus or 30 minutes by air to reach it. We chose the latter, and boarded a shiny Lao Aviation propeller plane. A flight attendant walked down the aisle and offered us a moist towelette and a Hall's cough drop. A man with a badge that read "Flight Instructor" left the cockpit. And was that smoke seeping in from the ceiling?

At this point we decided to suspend our contemplations, because there are times when it's best not to think.

A half hour later the plane dove out of the clouds and pulled up on the runway next to 10 folding chairs under a shade tree. The airport, we assumed, until a bus arrived and took us a mile over to the terminal, a nice new building with a radar tower (one of two in the country).

Luang Prabang is a lovely place, slow-paced and temple-dotted, and set up around a mini-mountain named Phu Si. We strolled around for a few days, and thought and dreamed and hung out in air-conditioned discoteques.

Then the electricity went out. Boom. Just like that, all over town. No one seemed to mind, though, and they all had a ready supply of candles on hand, which added to the air of timelessness. The power still wasn't on when our flight left 24 hours later.

Back in Vientiane, what better way to boost our meditative efforts than through a steam bath and massage? Sure, every day's as hot as a steam bath in Southeast Asia, but what would happen if we took a steam bath within a steam bath? Could we get any hotter? Would we implode? We tuk-tukked over to Wat Sok Pa Luang to find out.

A scrawny old man in an undershirt and wrap-around skirt stoked a stone furnace underneath a house on stilts. He had the strength of 10 elephants, and heaved wood and assorted herbs onto the fire. A pipe ran up into the steam room, a six-foot by three-foot box filled with 10 sweating Laotians of both sexes.

After we had gone in and out a few times, dripping until our hearts were content, we lolled over to get a massage. The masseuse, a compact bruiser in his late 40s, had set up a wooden table right outside the sauna. For two bucks for 40 minutes, he worked us over like a wrestler. He twisted and cracked our necks, punched us in the stomach, karate-chopped our face, pulled our hair, and contorted us into a position resembling a Figure Four Leg-Lock. Somehow, this felt wonderful.

We left Laos restored, refreshed, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more wise. Though, we found, serenity and wisdom don’t last long when faced with 6-inch, flying Vietnamese cockroaches.

May 6 - 12, 2000

Words of Wisdom: Yunnan Province, China

In the Jade Green Mountains near Lijiang live the Naxi, a group of people descended from Tibetan nomads. Women rule the roost among the Naxi, for they are matriarchal and have been that way for 1000 years.

Clearly, this is a wise and evolved society. Even their language is refined: adding the word "female" to a noun enlarges its meaning; adding "male" diminishes it. Thus, "stone" plus "female" equals boulder; "stone" plus "male" equals pebble.

The Naxi have many proverbs to guide them in their wisdom. The following have proved prophetic of our recent Chinese experiences:

1) Follow goats on fine days and sheep on wet days.

We disembarked from Lijiang airport on a fine day. We climbed into the back of a truck - all the taxis and buses had vanished - and rode out into the range of broad green mountains rippling before us. People in cone-shaped straw hats farmed terraced fields of rice, corn, beans and sunflowers. It was a beautiful, bucolic scene, as if painted in Chinese watercolors.

Then we arrived at Lijiang city, and realized we had followed the sheep.

Of the 1.26 billion people in China, 1.25 billion of them were holidaying along with us in town, where we competed for hotel rooms. This is how we found ourselves staying in The Honey Room, complete with packets of something called "Yirenbao - The Necessity for a Successful Person, to be applied on or around the private parts by scrubbing with the hands for two to three minutes."

It was a fine day and we did not follow the goat; we were not successful people.

2) Defeated by the snake, he vents his spite upon the frog.

One day we went into a restaurant situated in the courtyard of a small residence. A group of four middle-aged men and women played mahjong around one table, while family members stood by as spectators.

We ordered Naxi fried rice, a local specialty flavored with mung beans, then watched as a young girl brought out a bowl of water to wash the rice, picking it up in a circular motion with one hand and rubbing it against the rice in her other hand. We were intent on her graceful, hypnotic movements when we heard a loud


Her teenage brother slammed a string of three large frogs onto the ground beside us.


The frogs were still alive and tried to hop away. He stepped on their legs and hit them with a rock. He was having trouble getting the job done, and so called over one of the male mahjong players.

The man sighed, took off his suit coat, and - cigarette in mouth - asked for a cleaver. Then he went to work on the frogs, gutting and skinning them with delicate precision. The teenager was now relegated to the final act of the slaughter - using a large pair of scissors to cut the feet off the carcasses.

The cigarette never left the butcher's lips, and one of the bystanders slipped into his place at the mahjong table, for smoking and mahjong must continue under any circumstances.

When the frogs were fileted, the boy placed them into a plastic bag and put them on a shelf for later use. Both males then rinsed their hands under the tap – no soap - and returned to the mahjong game.

Our rice arrived, and we weren't all that hungry.

3) Hot going in means hot coming out.

Our appetites returned by the time we went to the hotpot restaurant, a type of eatery common in southern China.

We sat down at a table with a propane tank underneath and a burner on top. A waitress came over and fired up the propane and placed a deep wok on the burner. The wok was divided in two, with a fiery red, chili-pepper-laden liquid in one side, and a milky liquid with onions and ginger in the other.

While these boiled, we went over to the buffet line and picked out skewers loaded with spinach, garlic, sweet potatos, tofu, mushrooms, cauliflower, and other goodies. We dropped these into the hotpot, then waited for the most scorching meal of our lives to cook.

The items were three-alarm spicy when they came out of the wok, but just to make sure we got the point, the Chinese gave us a dipping sauce of chili peppers and seseame oil. We were sweating like pigs, our faces flushed crimson. The locals pointed and laughed at us, though they all were sweating too, with many of the guys peeling off their shirts to cool down. We ate and ate, dripped, and ate some more, a meal lasting about two hours in all.

Yes, we suffered for our gastric indiscretions the next day, wallowing in pain and munching rolaids. But when dinnertime rolled around, we were like lemmings and headed straight back.

The Naxi have more wise words, but we aren't really paying attention any more. Our sites are fixed on Cambodia now, a wild, renegade, jungle-y kind of place.

Jul 25 - Aug 1, 2002

Moto Madness in Cambodia

"Mister, where you go? You take moto? Lady, moto?"

We hear these words 30 to 40 times per day. There are no taxicabs or local buses in Cambodia, so if we want a ride somewhere we have to clamber onto the back of a small motorcycle with a baseball-capped driver. It is not difficult to find these guys. We are, in fact, stalked by them.

When we walk down the street, they pull up one after the other.

"Why you walking? You take moto!"

As soon as we step out of a hotel or restaurant, they drive up in a swarm, demanding to know our itinerary, then trying to convince us that our destination is unreachable without their help. Most of the time they are stretching the truth.

"You go to Silver Pagoda? Oh, very far. You take moto!"

The pagoda, on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, is not far, about a quarter mile. It supposedly is one of the few places where the "brilliance and richness of Cambodian civilization can still be viewed," according to our brochure. Its floor is covered with 5,000 pure silver tiles, its staircase chiseled from Italian marble, and its Buddha image studded with 9,854 diamonds. Yet most of the floor is hidden beneath cheap throw rugs; the few tiles that are visible appear to be scotch-taped together. And we'll have to take the brochure's word about the diamonds, because we sure didn't see any.

"What kind of splendour is this?" we thought. Just then, a huge gust of wind blew in, knocking over the lotus bud, whiskey, and cigarette offerings placed at the Buddha's feet. He must have heard us mocking him!

"Where you go? Wat Phnom? It's raining. You take moto!"

It's only sprinkling, and Wat (temple) Phnom is just up the road, so we walk, no moto. We must go to make amends to Buddha.

There is a particularly active shrine on site dedicated to the genie Preah Chau. Worshippers place slabs of meat and eggs into the statue's mouth and light red candles in front. A monkey sits nearby and tries to steal the offerings. A woman rolls up a newspaper and swats him. The offerings are safe. Buddha and his friends are happy.

"Sir, lady, where you go? Killing Fields? It's hot. You take moto!"

Yes, it is hot - and far - so we take a moto.

The radically Communist Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975. Their goal: to turn Cambodia into a peasant-run farming cooperative. They blew up the central bank and abolished money. They shut down all the schools and made everyone go out to the fields to work. The halted postal service and flights to other countries. And they killed at least 2 million people for crimes like having a high school or college education, speaking a foreign language, being a doctor or teacher, or having a relative charged with any of the above.

The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous documenters of their victims. They numbered each prisoner and photographed him or her upon arrival. Sometimes they photographed the prisoner after he'd been tortured or killed. These pictures now hang at Tuol Sleng, a school the KR converted to a detention center at the edge of Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge took the Tuol Sleng prisoners 10 miles outside the city, to a field in Choeung Ek, to dispose of them in mass graves. Killing Fields like this exist throughout Cambodia. At Choeung Ek, 17,000 men, women, and children lost their lives. The remains of more than 8,000 have been unearthed and their skulls placed in a memorial stupa in the midst of what are now lush green fields dotted with white cows.

The mass killings stopped in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was ousted, but by that time they had unleashed a nightmare than wiped out close to one-fifth of the country's population.

"Where you go? I'm poor. You take moto!"

We traveled south to Cambodia's only seaside town, Sihanoukville. We took a bus to there (remarkably smooth ride), but used motos locally, as the town is spread out.

Spent a day with LePine and Wheat Ball, two of the many children who roam the beach selling snacks from large round trays balanced on their head. We collected mussels from the shore for LePine's dinner, cut up straws to make squeak sounds, and laughed along as the kids sang out their new name for Eric - MonkeyChicken - over and over.

We visited nearby Ream National Park, where we hoped to see eagles, monkeys, and dolphins in the pristine jungle forest and its waters. Our trek to Meditation Mountain took us through thick jungle underbrush that the ranger hacked away with his hand. Our return from Meditation Mountain took us through water buffalo herds and rural villages that presented a different type of underbrush - frisbee-sized buffalo droppings.

Buffalo aren't the only ones using the great outdoors as their throne. We surprised a young boy with our arrival. He reached up for the nearest leaf, gave a swipe, pulled up his shorts, then dashed away. If we hadn't seen him, we wouldn't have believed a kid so small could have left something that large behind.

With that image, we'll leave you.

Aug 7 - 14, 2002

Having a Capital Time: Northern Turkey

In the north of Turkey, every town is billed as The Capital Of something, ie the chickpea capital, tea capital, Russian hooker capital (unofficial designation), and so on. After the guns and knives of eastern Turkey, our popularity has returned, enhancing our capital time.

Rize - Tea Capital of Turkey

Sip tea. Sip more tea. Fend off rampaging bulls.

Rize is close to the mountain town of
Ayder, home of the Hemsin people. The Hemsins have their own language and dress (the women wear colorful, coin-draped headscarves), and each year they celebrate their culture with a huge festival in the Kackar Mountains. In addition to holding hands and dancing in a circle around a bagpiper, festivities include bull fights, where the two animals lock horns until the winner pushes the loser out of the ring - and charging into the crowd.

This was not a problem until it started to pour rain, and it seemed likely that the muddy mountain road would wash out at any moment. We stood in an orderly line with 150 other people to catch a minibus down the mountain, but then a bull came galloping out of the ring straight at us, so we scrammed.

This scene repeats for the next cold, wet hour: we queue up to get on a bus, a bull comes lunging at us so we abandon our place in line, we miss the bus, and queue for the next.

Finally we get on, and begin a quintessential encounter with the Turkish public transport system: The minibus takes us to a car, which takes us to a big CTA-size bus, which takes us to a minibus, which takes us to another minibus, which takes us to our destination a mere 35 miles away. It may take four times as long to get anywhere, but the Turks love this system, as it leaves ample opportunity for cigarette and tea breaks.

Trabzon - Russian Hooker Capital of Turkey

Sip tea. Sip more tea (we're only an hour from Rize). Watch women in tight dresses lick french fries.

Trabzon is only a couple of hours from the Georgian border, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 brought an influx of traders from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in Russia. A group of industrious, peroxide-blonde women in halter tops followed - Natashas, as they have been dubbed by the Turks.

The area around the port is where most of the action takes place. There are cheap hotels on every corner, women sit seductively in the windows, and all signs are written in Russian as well as Turkish. We go into a bar and watch the women at work. From the look of things, a well-placed french fry can lead to big business.

On a more wholesome note,
Trabzon is also near Sumela Monastery, a famous Byzantine building spliced into a mountainside. Visitors have to climb a path 800 feet straight up, past rushing streams, through platoons of pine trees, and up to where clouds are rolling over the hilltops. It is beautiful, though we don't linger after reading the sign that says, "Please limit visit to 15 minutes due to rolling rocks."

Giresun - Hazlenut Capital of Turkey

Eat hazlenuts. Sip tea. Promenade with Salih the busman.

Not much happening in this town except hazlenuts drying in the sun.

We do make a new friend when we buy our bus tickets to depart the next day. Salih is typical of many of the people we meet. Even though he has just met us and we can barely communicate (he doesn't speak English; we don't speak Turkish), he takes us under his wing. He buys us tea, he buys us snacks, he escorts us up and down Giresun's seaside promenade where all the townspeople stroll. We know busmen are not rich, and we try to repay him, but Salih won't take a single lira. Finally he lets us buy him a beer. We all drink one in the park, then he slaps us on the back goodbye and walks off into the night, checking his cel phone for the hundredth time.

Amasya - Apple Capital of

Try to eat apples, but can't find any (false advertising?). Sip tea. Stare at decaying flesh of 700-year-old mummies.

Should governor Izzeddin Mehmed Pervane Bey and his concubine and children be commended for looking good, because they are 700 years old and at least have skin? Or should they be deplored because the skin is rotted and peeling? The mummies are on display in glass cases at the local museum in this otherwise pretty town of tree-lined boulevards beside the
Green River.

The other attraction in Amasya is a group of 4th-century-BC tombs hewn from the sheer rock faces looming over town. There is no clear path up to the tombs, and we are content to stand below and view them, until we see a family of five Muslim women - ranging in age from 15 to 65 and wearing the traditional Muslim long overcoat-dress plus high-heeled shoes - scale the cliff like mountain goats. They wave at us to come up, and we try to match their feat, but we slip and slide while they laugh from above.

Corum - Chickpea Capital of Turkey

Eat chickpeas. Sip tea. Look at rocks.

Candy-coated, sugar-coated, salted, peppered, waxed, laminated - you name it and Corum's imaginative sellers can roast it onto a chickpea.

We've come to this medium-sized agricultural town because it is near Hattusa, the City of the Thousand Gods. Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite Empire, a civilization that competed with the Egyptian pharoahs 3000 years ago. We were told we'd see temples with hieroglyphics dedicated to deities like Teshub, the storm god, and Hepatu, the sun goddess.

Sound romantic? It wasn't. If only we had the imagination of Corum's chickpea sellers, maybe we'd see something more than a big, random pile of rocks in the middle of a steaming field.

Jul 7 - 19, 2001

Eric, Man of Malatya: Southeast Turkey

At the end of our three days in Malatya in southeast Turkey, we hardly could walk down the street without being mobbed and some shouting "Eric!" Maybe it's due to his silly name, which translates to "plum" in Turkish.

Eric's fame began with the policemen on the bus up to Nemrut Mountain. They were tireless singers; we felt like we were at camp. Every few songs the chief would stop and call out, "Eric! Your turn." Eric would fumble through a set of bogus Turkish lyrics, which sent the police into wild applause.

"Ah ha ha - Eric! Yeah!"

Back in town, a band of shoeshine boys with blackened hands trails us wherever we go.

"Hello! What's your name? Eric? Hello Eric!"

We walk through the market and are swarmed. The cheese vendor leaps over the counter and grabs Eric by the arm, dragging him into his shop. He offers us samples, then asks me to take his photo with Eric.

The spice vendor insists we come into his shop for tea. The bread guys, the donut vendors, the cigarette sellers - all want Eric to sit , have a chat, and take a photo with them.

Hours pass before we make our way through the market. We're just about there when a female voice cuts through the air.

"Eric? Eric!"

It is the singing police chief's wife. She shows us her photos from Nemrut Mountain - many of which we're in - then she invites us to her house for tea. We must decline, as we're feeling queasy.

You see, one of the drawbacks of Eric's popularity is that people feed us all sorts of fruits, vegetables, sweets, cheese, bread and tea, and insist we eat the excessive quantities they provide. To cope, we've become adept at sliding apricots up our sleeves and stashing potatoes in our pockets. In all sincerity, we shook our clothes the other day, and out fell one and a half boiled potatoes, 5 apricots, one tomato, and a handful of seeds used to freshen breath.

But back to Eric - the real test of his popularity came on Nemrut Mountain, when he went head to head with the Turkish Regis Philbin, host of the local version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sure, the TV star was surrounded by admirers, and people thrust babies in his face and snapped photo after photo. But who drew the bigger crowd?

You know who.

We are about to leave Malatya now on a night bus bound for the Iranian border, and - can it be? yes, it is - the hotel desk clerk is giving Eric the Turkish double-cheek kiss and is helping him on with his backpack.

I struggle on with my own pack, unassisted.

Jun 30 - Jul 3, 2001

Guns and Knives on the Iranian and Armenian Borders: Eastern Turkey

We arrive at the Ararat Hotel at 8 am. A young man with an American passport is checking out ahead of us.

"How did you like Dogubayazit?" we ask.

"It's cool," Ben says. "Except there's sort of a military occupation here by the Turkish army. I was hanging out with this Kurdish resistance leader last night, and he said the PKK is biding its time, and soon this place is gonna blow up like a firecracker. Speaking of which - happy Fourth of July, guys." Ben gets in his car and speeds off.

We should have recognized the bad kismet earlier that morning, when our bus steward tried to stab us with a 12-inch kitchen knife.

Veysel was no longer busy with passengers, since most got off at
Erzurum, the last big city before the border. Only three people besides us remained by 4 am.

Veysel decided he wanted to sit by Karla, and Eric should move elsewhere. When we declined, he pulled out the knife and acted like he was stabbing himself in the stomach.

"What a comedian," we said.

Then he touched the knife to our arms and legs.

"Ah ha ha," we laughed, and pushed it away.

We began to fall back asleep, but felt the cold steel on our skin again. Veysel grinned, and told Eric to move.

What an opportune time to try out our new green-stone prayer beads! We rub and rub them, but Veysel and the knife remain steadfast until four hours later, when the bus finally arrives at Dogubayazit and we get off.

We re-christen the town Doggiebiscuit after 30 minutes of perusing. It is poor and run-down, the people sinister and sullen - a far cry from the sunny, apricot-happy people of
Malatya. We cut a deal with a cabbie to take us to the sites.

As dog-dreary as the town is, the environs are spectacular - big black mountains, wheat fields shimmering gold in the sunlight, horses galloping over the steppe, and snow-capped
Mt. Ararat lording over it all. We see the world's second-largest meteor crater, a big burnt hole in the ground filled with candy wrappers and soda cans. It's arm's reach from the Iranian border, where soldiers stare from watchtowers and oil trucks queue up for miles on the horizon.

Then up a steep dirt road to the
village of Uzengili, where Noah's Ark is reported to lie. Hassan, a trim old man in a tweed jacket and cap - known as the Guardian of the Ark - greets us. He points out a boat-shaped indentation on the hill below, and shows us scientific reports that say wooden boat parts have been found at the site and carbon-dated to Noah's time. He also has a clip from the Weekly World News verifying ark authenticity.

On the way back to Dogubayazit, our cabbie asks if we'd like to stop at his friend's house for tea. It is in a poor Kurdish village of low stone houses with earthen roofs.

Yakup, a Kurd, explains how Kurds hate Turks. He claps his hands together and brushes one away from the other, like he's squashing a bug. Then he introduces us to Gulay, his wife, who is Turkish. She is the only one who speaks English, so she translates all this for us. We sip tea and watch sunset trade off with moonrise through the mountains.

We leave Dogubayazit the next day and pass through five military checkpoints during the three-hour drive to
Kars. The Turks fumble for their identity cards to show the soldier with the machine gun slung over his back. He waves us off when we reach for our passports, because it is clear we are not Kurdish or Iranian or Armenian or any other sort of undesirable.

We've come to
Kars to see the ruins of Ani, a medieval ghost town crumbling away on a plain of whispering yellow grass. Ani stands at the brink of the Arpa River, which cuts a deep gorge that forms the border between Turkey and Armenia.

These two countries have a feud-filled history and do not trust each other. To visit Ani, we must undergo a rigorous permission process. First we present our passports and fill out paperwork at the tourist office. We then take this to a government office a few blocks away to have it stamped. We take the stamped form to the local museum, where we buy entrance tickets for Ani. We then drive 30 miles out to the site itself, passing through one military checkpoint en route. The soldiers who guard the border at Ani inspect our papers, then let us in.

We have the place to ourselves, except for the birds and an Englishman named Neil. Neil is having the bored soldiers enact various scenes of carnage and photographing them. They point their loaded guns at each other and at Neil. They even point their guns at our heads, and we snap a few pix. When we leave, they resume their crouched positions, staring through binoculars at the Armenian watchtowers.

Jul 4 - 7, 2001

Bush and Ballpark Cuisine: Dakar, Senegal

Salaam aleikum from
Dakar, Senegal, not exactly a picture postcard kind of place, as it seems to be populated mostly by husters, hasslers, robbers, and shady businessmen. No wonder George W. chose it as his first stop in Africa - it's like Congress.

Speaking of Bush's visit, here's a little story that didn't get much airplay, a story of freedom American-style:

Bush was in
Senegal for a grand total of 6 hours (hey, it beats Uganda, which got about 3 hours). He landed in Dakar and met with West African leaders first; then he took a boat to nearby Goree Island. Goree was a big shipping center for the slave trade to the Americas (though just how big is debated by historians).

Anyway, it was here on Goree where Bush gave his eloquent anti-slavery speech. Slavery, he said, "was one of the greatest crimes in history.... Today we gather in respect and friendship, mindful of past wrongs and dedicated to the advancement of human liberty."

Meanwhile, Goree's 600 residents had been rounded up and removed from their homes early that morning, before Bush's plane had even set wheels in
Dakar. The families were cooped together on the island's dusty soccer field, in sweltering heat, under a tent set up for their convenience, with chairs and fresh water and cake available. Fishermen were not allowed to take their boats out and fish that morning. Shopkeepers were not allowed to sell their wares. Bakers were not allowed to bake their bread. Everyone had to remain at
the soccer field for 6 hours. Bush was there for barely one.

The "let'em eat cake" strategy backfired.

"It was the same - like slavery," one irate local told us.

"F__k George Bush," said another.

Ah - respect, friendship, and liberty indeed. Perhaps this is why we are hassled so hard when we walk down the street in
Senegal. A typical exchange goes like this:

"Hello, my brother. Hello my sister. [handshake] How do you like
Senegal? What are your names? Here is a picture of my good friend in California [insert photo of random white tourist] Do you want to visit my shop? Why you no want my shop? We are brothers! We are sisters! Different skin, same blood. My shop nice. Just come in for a look. No buy if you no want. My shop THIS way. Why you go THAT way? Hey, where you go?"

He then follows us for 20 minutes, muttering a string of Senegalese curses. So much for brotherhood.

It would be nice if we could bond with the locals over food. Alas, vegetarians are viewed with great disdain; only poor people don't eat meat. This leaves us with a style of Senegalese cuisine that is best described as "ballpark" - peanuts and beer. It is like being at a perpetual Cubs game, which really isn't such a bad thing. Groundnuts are a major crop for both
Senegal and Gambia. They account for 40% and 70% of the countries' GNPs, respectively, which gives you some indication as to the state of things. An economy based on peanuts is worth - well, peanuts.

Jul 21 - 26, 2003

What are the Chances? Senegal and Cape Verde

What is the chance of meeting a Catastrophe Analyst at our hotel who can tell us our chance of getting shot while visiting Casamance in southern

What are the odds of the most famous person in
Cape Verde inviting us to her house for a beer?

What is the probability of being puked upon by a complete stranger?

Mark, the Catastrophe Analyst, started us on our musings. His job at home in
Holland is to look at satellite photos of a place over several years and predict the area's chance of floods, windstorms, and general all-round disaster. The company he works for then decides how much to charge for building insurance.

So when a guy like Mark tell us it's OK to visit Casamance, where separatists have been waging a bloody if low-grade 20-year battle to form their own country (a battle that includes spearing off a few tourists in the mid 90s), well - we believe him. Surely he did the math before his own visit, and the odds came up in his favor.

So we ignore the US State Department warning to stay out of Casamance and take a bush taxi to
Senegal's most beautiful, lush region. We pass a Senegalese tank every 20 miles and endure several army checkpoints in which the troops go through our luggage and then ask for a bribe. But they just seem to be going through the motions in the afternoon heat.

Ziguinchor, Casamance's main town, is a sleepy, palm-lined place. Donkeys pull carts along dusty roads. Grazing goats meander the streets and have to be shooed off the runway before the daily plane from
Dakar lands. Shopkeepers sit in front of their corrugated tin stalls and swat flies.

We arrange a boat tour of the area - "boat" being a euphemism for the small wooden vessel that pulls up. When Samba - the skipper - and all 10 of us tourists get in, it lists to the left and dips low in the water. We try not to think about the water streaming in from two little holes on each side, and motor off through the mangrove swamp to the
Island of Birds.

Despite its Hitchcockian name, the island is a lovely place that burns bright with color. Pink flamingos, blue kingfishers, yellow-beaked pelicans, charcoal herons, white ibises, and many more species roost along the salty
Casamance River.

The next place we visit -
Sao Vicente - is hundreds of miles away and part of Cape Verde, a nation of sun-drenched islands off the West African coast. The ambience here is different from the mainland, and more like what you'd find in the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony until 1975.) The streets are cobbled, edged by buildings in faded shades like pistachio, coral, sea blue, and sandy yellow. Fishing boats bob in the bay, surrounded by jagged mountains. People sit in cafes and sip espresso or rum drinks made with crushed ice, lemon, and sugar.

Cape Verde's most famous resident is the singer Cesaria Evora, who has made her living crooning about her country and its beauty. Her deep, smooth voice and and romantic songs - called coldeiras - have vaulted her to international stardom, and she tours throughout the world.

So imagine our surprise when we walk down the street in Mindelo (
Sao Vicente's capital) and see Cesaria Evora sitting on her front porch. Imagine our greater surprise when she invites us in and offers us a beer (served by a pierced houseboy in an apron).

We couldn't say much to each other directly, since we don't speak Criolo or French and Cesaria doesn't speak English. Everything had to be translated by Peter, Cesaria's 87-year-old uncle, a dapper gentleman in white linen trousers, as sharp-dressed as they come, except for his unzipped fly.

Cesaria asked why we had come to
Cape Verde, and where else we had visited in the country. As Peter relayed our answers, she listened graciously puffing on Marlboro Reds held between fingers heavy with gold rings.

At the end of our visit, Cesaria let us take photos (after telling Peter to zip up first), and then she invited us back. We are starstruck! We feel love and warmth toward all
Cape Verdeans.

Our feeling evaporates the first time we ride on a ferry between
Cape Verde's islands. First we must stand in line to buy a ticket. Only the line is more like a rugby scrum, with 50 vacuum-packed people pushing and shoving to reach the one ticket agent at the front.

That accomplished with only minor bruising, we enter another scrum to board the ferry. This one is more violent, with heavy clobbering and people screaming at each other about jumping the queue.

But it soon becomes clear why one needs to board at the head of the pack. Whether we sit on the upper deck versus the lower deck, or on the perimeter benches versus the ones in the middle, will become of utmost importance during the next hour, especially once we see our fate coming in the form of yellow plastic bags, which our fellow passengers are now pulling out of their pockets and holding close to their mouths.

Wish we could report it was the sea that was heaving as we chugged out of port, but it remained glassy. The
Cape Verdeans, on the other hand, were heaving in alarming quantities. And alas - they often missed their bags.

The air is punctured by sounds of SPLAT, BURP, and GAG and by acidic smells. Though we have good seats, we receive a windbourne hit.

Later that afternoon, as we rinse our shorts and shirts in the hotel shower, we make plans to call Mark and recommend a new opportunity in the field of Catastrophe Analysis.

Aug 2 - 12, 2003

A Day in the Life: Kartong, Gambia

The following is a story of death, birth, and some of the things that happen in between. It is the story of a day in the life of the
village of Kartong, in southwestern Gambia.

We begin at the house of shy-smiling M'Bassy, whose baby has just died. We bring a traditional offering of kola nuts and money, but we don't give them to M'Bassy. Instead we give them to her uncle, the highest-ranking male in the house.

We are invited to sit down on the cushioned chairs arranged on one side of the room; a bed with mosquito net is on the other side. It is difficult to tell how many people live here, and how many people sleep in the bed. It must be several, given the number of faces now gathered in the room.

We chew the fat with Uncle, about how the baby's illness was a terrible thing, but how M'Bassy is lucky to have her 7-year-old daughter Niumi and a good job at a hotel. M'Bassy stands by her uncle, looks down, and doesn't say a word. She is near 22 years old.

Next we walk to the village's crocodile pool, a pond so green and slimy you can barely see the 20 beasts floating at the top. Crocodiles are a sacred animal here, prayed to mostly for fertility, but for other things too, like a good job. Beside the pool is a circle of stones, where the village elders meet on Mondays and Fridays. You tell them what you need, and they pray to the crocodiles on your behalf. Beyond the pool, in the woods, is where the female circumcisions take place.

From the pool we walk to the village outskirts, where immigrants from Guinea Bissau live. They are the palm tree climbers, who strap their body to the trees with a rope, and then shimmy up to collect palm tree nuts. These are heated and pressed to make orange-colored palm oil, the staple of West African cooking (and possibly the reason why lifespan here is only 50 years, since palm oil has the highest saturated fat content of the world's shortenings).

We pass by houses made of mud bricks and thatched roofs, adjoining bush-pig pens, and neat rows of rice fields and corn fields, each sectioned off by dried-palm-frond fences. Mango trees dot the yards, and girls stand underneath pounding rice with a mortar and pestle.

It is Friday, so the Muslim half of the village is dressed in their finest clothes. The men wear skullcaps and loose-fitting tunics in silky shades like peach and lime; the women wear bright print dresses and white headscarves. Their Koran readings carry through the air, powered by a battery-operated microphone. It will be a similar dress-up scene on Sunday, when the Christians have their day at the church across the street.

At the far end of the village the road splits. To the left is the border with
Senegal, from which Kartong is separated by the narrow Allahein River. To cross over you step to the water's edge and whistle. A man in a small dug-out canoe rows over to fetch you. You may not see him right away, but he is around. When he's not rowing he is drying out over a smoky fire the fish he and his friends have caught.

To the right of where the road splits is the
Atlantic Ocean, lined with pirogues and fishing huts. This is where the serious catches occur. The men run the wooden pirogues over the crashing surf and cast their nets. By the end of the day their ice chests are filled with hundreds of silvery fish.

It is getting toward evening, so we head back into town. As usual, people have begun to gather in the market square to discuss the day's events. In the middle of the square stands a baobab tree, whose giant roots thrust up from the ground and provide seats for everyone.

A truck pulls up and a man leaps out. Where is the midwife? he asks. The word goes out; minutes later a thick-waisted woman in a blue flowing scarf hobbles over. The man needs her to come to Gunjur, a village a few kilometers away. The midwife climbs in the front seat; about 20 villagers climb in the truck bed. (Hey- it's a free ride to Gunjur's market, and from the look of the anxious man, it will be a quick ride.)

For sunset we return to the sea. It has become cooler and windier. Waves lash at the shore, and palm trees creak and groan overhead. The sun drops like a ripe mango, pink-red and yellow, and another day in Kartong comes to an end.

Aug 1, 2003