Saturday, 16 July 2005

Another Irishman...this time with verbal diarrhoea!

The Chinese used to tie you up and drip water on your forehead to torture you. I have unfortunately stumbled across something far more torturous; a guarantee that you will go mad in less than an hour. An Irish man. Not any Irish man, but a particular festering, dirty, greasy-haired, stinking Irish man who had the verbal runs. He had arrived in Vientiane after a 17hour bus trip from Bangkok, so he smelt. He wasn't just stale, but oozing BO to the extreme. He had decided to head straight to Vang Vieng to my misfortune.

Prior to getting on the bus, he had started chatting to me and I had responded pleasantly, whilst trying to hide my disgust as I observed blackened fingernails and toenails; a nail brush but a distant memory. By the time we had to get on the bus, I was secretly begging for him not to sit next to me. Thankfully, in case this were to occur I had strategically placed myself next to an open window in the hope it would waft away unsavoury aromas once we got going.

Well of course he sat next to me. And then he started. He was the epitome of awful backpackers. For nearly two hours he spoke at me whilst I tried to look as uninterested as possible. It began...'i've been here, I've been there, I've done this, I've done, myself and I...' and so it went on. He even showed me all 500 photos of his two years worth of travelling. In the end, I had to tell him that I had to do some dissertation work...and when he continued to interrupt me, I pretended to fall asleep. And so, instead of admiring all the little villages and the beautiful scenery as we headed into the hills, I had my eyes tightly closed whilst trying not to breathe too deeply in case I was consumed by the stench.

I am now in Vang Vieng, or as my boss appropriately calls it 'Ibiza in Laos'. I wouldn't say it is quite Ibiza just yet, but give it a few years and it will be. I'd call it 'the town of 1000 pizzerias'. That's all they seem to have here. Manky western food for manky, smelly, backpackers. All the pizzerias have different episodes of 'Friends' blaring out from loud TVs, in an attempt to lure the falangs in.

The town itself is however, in a stunning setting with giant limestone karsts surrounding it. Accommodation is stupidly priced. I'm paying $3 for a double, ensuite with a fan...thats about 1.75 quid (no pound sign on this keyboard). It is also ridiculously hot. It must be at least 40C today.

Vang vieng is the town for all things active. You can go caving, tubing, kayaking, hiking, name it. I've decided, rather than risk the bus again, to spend the day kayaking back to Vientiane. I've been assured that despite the river being up due to it being wet season and the fact that there are a number of rapids, I will be in safe hands. Well, we'll see. They'll be a group of 5-6 of us and we share the kayak with an 'instructor', so at least if anything happens I won't be stuck on a boat on my own. $15 for the day and I get breakfast and lunch. We arrive in Vientiane around 5pm. I'm looking forward to it...although the rapids sound a little scary!

Thursday, 14 July 2005

some 'customs' are just beyond me!

Imagine the situation. You've just spent thirteen hours in front of a computer and you decide enough is enough and it is time to head home. You are starving; it has been 9 hours since you last ate. Opening the front door of the office, you realise a) that torrential rains are busy turning the road, once again, into the red sea, b) that you are wearing freshly laundered, cream combats and c) that flip-flops and red mud are not the best of pals.

Deciding which way to go to find food, you choose to head towards your hotel and begin the Olympic assault course around vast puddles, in the hope you can still find somewhere selling food.

Your luck is in. A small ramshackle restaurant has a light on, and someone is sat eating. You duck in, out of the rain and attempt a conversation with a lady in sign language, which you hope suggests that you are looking for a place to eat.

In response, you are shown where to sit and are given a menu. As your stomach grumbles, you quickly scan down the list and point something out. A discussion between the two ladies ensues. One lady returns to the table and reports, in broken English, that they don't have the particular item you chose. Ok then, so you choose something else. They don't have that either. So you ask what they do have. Running a finger down both sides of the menu, the girl points out a single item; Spare ribs. Well you're starving so it'll have to do. You nod enthusiastically and say yes please.

The two ladies sit down. Nothing happens. There is no clattering of pots and pans in the kitchen, just the sound of torrential rain on the corrugated iron roof. You look at your watch. It's been 10 minutes and nothing's happened. Nevermind, you think, it must just be cooking.

Ten minutes later one of the ladies puts on a helmet and jacket, jumps on her bike and heads of into the dark, rainy night. Ok, well you've heard about this. People have mentioned that in some countries, you go to a restaurant and they jump on a bike to go and buy what you order from another restaurant nearby. The other girl gets up and walks out of the back of the restaurant. You are on your own.

Another hungry 5 minutes goes by. The girl returns with shutters and starts shuttering up the windows. Ahh you think, she must just be keeping the bugs out of the restaurant. She continues to put the shutters up right next to your table, then when done, she once again disappears.

Your watch reads 9.45 pm. Another 5 mins pass and starvation is beginning to settle in. Suddenly, a woman with a young child appears. She looks at you and crossing and uncrossing her arms out front, repeats 'ish finish' 'ish finish'. You presume this means 'finished', as in 'chances of you getting food are slim to none matey'. Still starving, you pack up your bags and head out into the rain.

Stomping back towards your hotel, stomach pleading to be fed and in near useless flip flops, you then complete the day perfectly by tripping up, immersing your previously-laundered cream combats into a rather large pool of red mud.

Unbelievable? I'd have thought so, until last night. No idea what happened there. Why take an order, if your not serving food? Who knows! How very Lao.

I can only be ever grateful for the hotel staff who, on seeing me staggering in, covered from head to toe in bright red mud (literally), offered me a very welcome bowl of noodle soup!

Wednesday, 13 July 2005

culinary logisitcs and a minor risk of food poisoning

After what turned out to be a rather depressing end to a reasonable day yesterday, I am pleased to say that I made a remarkable discovery on the culinary front!

My day (apres run) consisted of staring at a computer screen whilst loading up dodgy Lao computer software; trying to master three new computer programmes with which i'll be developing the CD-ROM; and attempting to come up with some design ideas. Unfortunately, the rather vague brief of 'make the CD-ROM better' and the workload – now doubled from one CD-ROM to two – are slightly disconcerting. However, those of you who know me, will know that I like a good challenge. Fingers crossed i'll be able to come up with the goods!

Anyway, I digress. At the end of the day I spent three hours analysing the inspiring yet immensly depressing, Cancer Blog, for my dissertation. The blog is that of a 26 year old American guy suffering from stage IV metastatic melanoma. I noticed that he hadn't blogged for some time and reading the comments section confirmed my worst fears: the author had died. I had pretty much guessed it. As an avid blogger, his sudden departure from the blogosphere last year, at a time when he was particularly ill, suggested that that might be the case. The blog is definitely worth a read. His in-depth, extremely well articulated entries on American politics are interspersed with often humerous depictions of his progressively invasive disease.

Needless to say, I found out he had died and sat alone in my dark, overly air-conditioned office and sobbed. I don't even know the guy, but having read his blog from start to fateful end, it's hard not to become emotionionally attached to someone baring their soul.

Even more upsetting was the fact that i couldn't contact anyone. My phone doesn't work on the Laos network, no one was on msn and emails just take to long on the reply front. I gave up the analysis and stumbled out into the heat in search of an eatery where i could, once again, ask for a table for one.

Thankfully, I couldn't be bothered to go too far and fell into the restaurant next to the office, only to find that I was the only 'falang' there, that there were ominous-looking holes in the middle of all the tables and that there were very unusual culinary proceedings taking place. Feeling slightly out of my depth, I merely asked the waiter for whatever it was everyone else was eating.

Fortunately, I'd found myself the best english-speaking Lao waiter to date. He asked if i'd ever eaten in a place like this before. On my reply of no, he was very good to offer to show me the ropes.

I have yet to discover the name of this culinary delight but i shall pass it on when i do. Basically, a pot of hot coals is placed in the hole in the table and covering it, you place what resembles a giant metal lemon juicer. Hot water is placed in the base around the edge whilst a small piece of fat is placed on the top of the pointy bit. This stops the meat, that you then place on the top, from sticking. Veg, eggs, mushrooms, seafood ball things e.t.c go in the watery moat and you then attempt to turn the meat with chopsticks, whilst it cooks. This is no mean feat, especially for a chopstick amateur like myself. I provided great amusement to the staff who stood in a corner and watched my pitiful attempts.

Logistics, as a 'table for one' are actually quite difficult. Normally, a mate would turn the meat whilst you eat the bits that are cooked, but in my situation I had to simultaneously turn meat whilst attempting to eat. It was an interesting process, that definitely took my mind off Cancerblog. You keep replacing the meat and veg as they cook adding more water to the moat. The water becomes a soup which you can then eat. It is absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, the responsibility of food poisoning is left firmly in your hands as the cook- its been 24hrs and no dodgy stomach signs as yet!

All you can eat for 1 quid - not bad really, although quite expensive for Laos standards (i normally eat for 50p). I took a photo and shall attempt to upload it tomorrow, so you can get some idea of what i've been waffliing about. Tis nearly 9pm so i must head for food.

Monday, 11 July 2005

did you know...?

Geckos squeak, rather like a squeaky toy

who needs a sauna when you can go for a jog?

Yes today was my first attempt at running in the tropical heat. 5.30am I set off and managed a full 35mins (only a couple of stops to admire scenery whilst overheating). The town is really quiet at that time of the morning. Only a few other crazy joggers and the odd person doing, what I imagine is, Tai Chi. I even managed to stumble across a Lao aerobics class occurs daily so I may just have to give it a go!

If my brother is getting old, then I must be ancient!

Happy Birthday shout out to my younger brother. Makes me feel really old!! Just think, people will be expecting me to get all responsible and married with rugrats depressing! (don't panic Matt...not any time in the foreseeable future :) )

Having spent a night out with a few of Laos' expat community, I have come to realise just how awful life can be in London. Why stay in London when you can work out here in the sun, have sun downers each night by the river after work, then head to a fabulous house on the outskirts of town in an air conditioned 4x4? Sat by the river for three hours yesterday evening getting to know the local resident falangs and I am now seething with jealousy at their lifestyle. Give me a decent job with a reasonable wage and I most certainly won't be coming home! (Only downer are the rock concerts- Rock Sunday was dire)

I am slowly growing to love the city of Vientiane which is so down-rated in the Rough Guide. Rough Guide authors please keep slating it because that way the larger-lout, slightly smelly, dread-locked backpackers will stay away. As I have said previously, it is more town than city. The handful of modern high-tech buildings (MRC being one) are but islands amongst the local wooden houses. The dirt roads turn to bright red rivers of mud when the rains hit (always fun whilst wearing cream combats and flipflops) but the locals merely put up umbrellas and continue riding their motor bikes one handed.

The local people are really friendly. My only issue being the lack of comprehension when it comes to, what I previously considered was, the universal sign for food (finger tips together and hand moved back and front in front of mouth). I'm not sure how this sign relates to the notion 'Could you direct me to the river please' but that's where I tend to get sent when I ask if somewhere sells food. After, a full mime of food going in the mouth, chewing then rubbing of belly (to the great amusement of locals), I discovered that the word I word I was looking to use was 'ahan'. After serious starvation concerns, I can now eat to my heart's content.

Just a short blog this one. I begun my first day at work at the MRC today. I have A LOT of work that I'm expected to do i.e re-design an entire CDROM in four weeks using software I have never used before. It'll be a challenge to say the least. I'm also working late in the evenings on my dissertation...oh the fun of it!! :)

must dash...the stomach is rumbling....ahan here I come

Sunday, 10 July 2005

why travelling alone can be fun!

Chatting to a friend on MSN last night (who was voicing concerns about the mate he is due to travel with) got me thinking about travelling alone and what it is that I enjoy about it. I am always quite surprised by the reaction I get from people when I tell them I'm travelling alone as a single, white female. It is often a mixture of wide-eyed shock, crossed with a crumb of awe and mingled with the wrinkled frowning that denotes that they think I suffer from some sort of mental disposition.

Firstly, I imagine not everyone would enjoy an experience of travelling alone. It does take a personality with hermit tendencies. You have to be very comfortable with your own company. I have spent hours in the past sat on my own reading books or playing patience. It also requires an element of confidence. Because you are on your own you can't rely on anyone else to do the talking for you or to provide the moral support when it comes to walking into somewhere new and unexplored.

My philosophy if I am torn about whether or not to do something whilst travelling is 'this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, if you don't get some balls and do it now you will never get to do it'. I have had some of my most rewarding experiences whilst travelling when I have gone with my gut instinct, thrown aside my Rough Guide and just done it. And I am getting better at it. The more I travel, the more confident I get at straying from the path of the Rough Guide and trying out something new. I would go so far as to say that the only useful bits of the Rough Guides are the history of the country you're in, the section on culture and customs (important if you don't want to offend the local people) and the maps (although they are notoriously bad, it can sometimes be hard to find a map in some of the smaller towns so any map is better than none at all).

Secondly, I enjoy travelling alone because the decisions you make are yours and yours alone. There are no arguments over food or places to go or how much to spend on a hostel or what time you should or shouldn't get up in the morning....i could go on! You get up, you decide what you want to do and you get on with it. You also get to meet people and cut ties as and when you want. Some nights I want to chill out on my own, other nights I head out for a night out on the town (Khao San road for example). The trick I always use is to head out with a book at hand. Find what looks like a happening bar either with locals or with co-backpackers, buy a beer, find a table that has some friendly looking people on it and start reading. Inevitably, they start chatting to you and hey-ho you have friends for the evening. I've used this technique loads of times and it works every time. Often I spend a couple of days travelling with the people I meet before we head off in different directions. Then again, if they turn out not to be your kinda people then you owe them nothing and you can cut your ties at the end of the night.

Thirdly, travelling alone makes you more amenable to experiencing the local culture. In Peru for example, I ended up with a Peruvian in each town who befriended me and showed me round the town. Through this I often met their families, they would take me to the local Peruvian haunts and teach me about the local customs. I don't think I'd have experienced this to such a great extent if I had travelled with other people.

There is obviously a downside to travelling alone. The worst one being the logistical issues you encounter whilst trying to navigate yourself into very small toilet cubicle with a very large rucksack. If you don't have a mate to look out for your bags when you need a pee, it can be troublesome.

There are also safety issues to be concerned with. There are certain areas of town you wouldn't want to go to alone, Patpong in Bangkok being an example. It is always good to be on the lookout for potential friends to recruit if you plan to go to such areas.

You also end up paying more for rooms in hostels because you are not sharing...but then again, if your mates snore, not having to share could be a blessing!

I'm going to put together some top tips on travelling. I know some of my friends reading this are expert travellers, so feel free to add some more top tips that I miss out, in the comments section.

1. wet wipes - its an odd one to put at number 1 but their usefulness is consistently underestimated. If I can name one thing that I wouldn't travel without it would be wet wipes. They have solved so many issues in the past that I won't go into....just put it this way....when there is no loo roll around and you have a little 'tummy trouble' they can be a very refreshing necessity!

2. contact details for the folks- like the well organised Girl Guide that I am, I always prepare a set of documents that has all my emergency contact details, insurance details, embassy contact details (in the country I'm visiting), bank account details and photocopies of all my important documents...flight tickets, passport, yellow fever vaccination certificate e.t.c so that in case of emergency my parents can get easily into contact with the various authorities and organisations they need to. This is something I feel is extremely important and it is worrying that so many backpackers head off without providing adequate details. If you are stuck in a hospital abroad you are not likely to be in any fit state to be dealing with insurance companies, banks e.t.c. If something happens at home i.e recent terrorist attacks, the larger the network of contacts you have, having provided people with contact details i.e my mother having my boyfriend's phone number, the easier it is for people to get into contact with one another. I always carry an extra set of documents with me (minus bank account details) that i give to people I travel with so that if I get ill, they can contact my folks e.t.c. Another very important tip is HAVE YOUR BLOOD GROUP HIGHLY VISIBLE. In an emergency you don't want transfusions of the wrong blood group. I have a list of phone numbers and my blood group with me at all times. One copy in my passport, one in my wallet and one in my first aid kit -the obvious places people will look when they need to find out who you are in a medical emergency.

3. A Rough Guide- I mention this point with some misgivings. It does, as I have stated above, have some uses but I would say take what they say with a pinch of salt. I have read in Rough Guides that an area is safe, only to be informed by locals that it is the most dangerous area in town and certainly not a place where the likes of me should walk alone. Only use the hotels in it if you arrive after dark and don't want to spend time walking around. Find a road on the map where there are a few hotels and pick a hotel next to the one mentioned in the book. Chances are it will be far nicer and half the price.

4. A decent first aid kit goes without saying. Even if you never use it, having it there for piece of mind is certainly beneficial. I carry a tropical first aid kit, medication, a syringe kit and a dental kit. It sounds a lot but in places like Laos where healthcare doesn't exist I'd be happier carrying my own (clean and unused) needles e.t.c!

5.Always hide 50 dollars about your person in case of emergency. Under the insole of your shoe is a good place.....except in the jungle....notes get a tad mouldy if your boots accidently get wet....i say this from experience.

Well that's all I can think of right now...I shall add more tips as I think of them