Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Motorcycle Blogs III
Oct 13-17

Though these are not sorted or organized in any way, I've uploaded some photos to the following album. A much cleaner version will come once I'm back home.

Also note the movies throughout this entry.

Internet in Developing Countries - Audition

Stuart asked how I maintain this blog and whether I carry a laptop with me.
My bag is heavy enough as it is and the equipment I carry is expensive enough that a laptop would just have been a burden.The tools of the trade:

- One Nikon D200 SLR digital camera with an 18-200 lens and a few accessories. (this is the first long trip I haven't carried a tripod with me though)

- One Nikon Coolpix S9 pocket digital camera - I bought this as a backup camera after the painful lesson of having my previous lens stolen, though it turned out great for shooting movies and for carrying with me unobtrusively at night when walking around town.

- One iPod with a digicam connector attachment - great for music but even better as a storage device for the digital photos. At night, I hook the cameras up to it, copy everything over and reformat the cards.

As for Internet access - I've found that a lot of the developing countries are creating a new model for it. In countries as poor as Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bolivia, you'd find Internet stores (not cafes) sprinkled all over the place. At first you might imagine they are for tourists to use for email and cheap internet phone calls, but that's only part of the story. People here are too poor to have an Internet connection, let alone buy their own PC.The solution: Internet stores. A small store having multiple PCs, all connected to the net (hopefully through DSL though not always).

The uses: the young generation uses it the most. Kids play networked games against each other. On a weekend, these places are packed with barely a room to move - this is the new hangout.In most places I've seen the boys were playing war games, killing each other over the net, while the girls were either using chat or else playing a game called Audition, a networked version of Dance Dance Revolution. Girls sitting at different computers would compete at typing in the right sequence of key presses to make their avatar, usually hip US-style kids, dance and twirl on the screen. But then in Playcu I came into the store and saw the boys playing that too. I guess it crosses gender boundaries well enough.

Internet stores are available almost anywhere. On the last night of the motorcycle trip, we stopped in a little town that barely had a small hotel. I asked my guide if there was an Internet store around and he said no. I convinced him to ask the locals and of course there was. We went in and, this being a small town, I became an even bigger celebrity than usual. Though they could not speak with me, they surrounded me and discussed me to death. At a certain point I got so fed up I turned on the camera and twisted it over my head to catch them all around me.

Day 3 - Boun Ma Thuot to Playcu– 185 km

A Small Step for Man, A Large Step for his Aching Behind

Riding a motorcycle is the closest I've come to experience free flight. The only things that interfere with your field of vision are the handle bars. The road passes by you and you can easily select how quickly. To move left or right you need only apply a bit of pressure and the bike accommodates you. It's an amazing feeling when you see the road passing under you. The only thing you can't do is go up :)

Riding a motorcycle is like, well..., riding a bike. You never forget. But there are things you need to bring up from long term memory's vault. One is the proper time to switch gears. Yes - it's a manual bike. The other is the proper way of doing it. Gears in motorcycles are switched with the foot while the clutch is hand-operated.

The Honda I drove for a day had a cyclical gear mechanism - you nudge the gear lever with your foot down and progress through 1st -> 2nd -> 3rd -> 4th -> neutral -> back to 1st. You can also kick up but why bother. The Daelim I was riding for the long 5 day trip had a linear gear mechanism - kick up to progress 1 -> 2 -> 3 -> 4, and down to go back. Neutral is somewhere between 1st and 2nd if you have a sensitive enough foot.

Once you realize how your motorcycle behaves, you can get more out of it - you learn how fast you can go with 2nd and when the right time to switch to 3rd is. 4th is not really that useful in this area - you rarely get up to those speeds. I also learned that my guide was going slowly on purpose. He was saying "we have time, ride slow, enjoy the day" at the same time as he was telling me he rides the full 5 days' trail back in 1 day. He was not really catching on to the fact that my ass was taking a beating.

So I finally just passed him and set the speed. I quickly realized that once I do that, he just follows at my own speed and passes me when he wants me to stop or if I go too slowly. We've reached speeds of 50kmh (30mph) on day 3! I know it's not the sound barrier but I was very happy.

Kid Magnet

Our goal for day 3 was a city called Playcu. There's nothing really to see in Playcu, but my guide's mother was sick and in the hospital and that's his home town, so I agreed to stop there, about 20 km before our originally planned destination. From time to time I'd stop to take a picture or just to get off the bike and stretch my legs. One such unplanned stop was at a nowhere village along the road. Calling it a village is overstating it. We're talking about a handful of shacks along the main road.

Phu (my guide) took my camera and crossed the road in order to take a photo of Eran, the great explorer, with the bike. Within 20 seconds I was surrounded by girls who came out of nowhere to stand next to me and be in the photo. The boys, apparently more shy, took a bit more time to come out.

Bubble Gum Does Grow on Trees

Leaving Buon Ma Thuot, the the view changes. We were traveling through a more sparsely populated section of the road. Few villages were sprinkled along it, but most of the vegetation is either forests or rubber plantations. We stopped by one of these to see what it looks like. The people were very friendly and let us go into the forest where you can see endless rows of rubber trees. The rubber is harvested by slashing the trunk of the tree and hanging a little bowl to collect the rubber that flows out.

Then the rubber is put into buckets and left to condense a bit to get a less foamy, more rubbery texture. This is then sent out to factories to actually use the rubber in manufacturing.

Day 4 - Playcu to Phuoc Son – 220 km


We went to see a lake near Playcu, then continued on to Kon Tum where our stop was a local orphanage located behind a large wooden church. We arrived in the middle of the day when most kids were at school or out working. The first thing we saw was a room full of beds. Here sleep the 3-7 year olds. The room for babies and toddlers had an even smaller set of beds.

The manager of the orphanage could not speak a word of English, but showed me their visitor book and also their pictures of adopted kids with their happy parents. The orphanage hosts 220 kids of ages 0-20 - you can see the breakdown in the table below.

Here's how to read it:
Kids: 220, 80 boys, 140 girls
The columns from left to right are: number of kids in age group, number of kids in each grade of school, reason for being orphaned ( I can't read it), and I don't remember the last one.

We then went around and saw the toddlers (who we brought some candy for) and some of the kids getting additional classes at the orphanage. Most of them were actually out at the local school. The kids were amazingly well behaved, taking care of each other and very quiet when we interrupted their class.

I spoke to one of the teachers, a man who himself grew up in an orphanage and is now helping out in this one. During the Vietnam war (they call it the American war) he was a translator for the Americans. Now he teaches English and bible and knows places in Israel from his bible studies.

Wisos for Lunch

We then continued on our journey to our next stop, the site of a bloody battle between the Americans and the VC. The sites in Vietnam are, naturally, geared towards the victory of the Vietnamese. This site showed a (quite typical) war memorial showing a soldier, farmer and other shapes all pulling together to defeat the enemy. It also had two American tanks that were captured and then used by the VC. There was nothing much else to see and I know very little of the history of this war, so the whole thing was kind of lost on me. I was more intrigued by the cluster of bees that made their temporary home in the armpit of the farmer.

Our next stop was to be the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh trail. But in order to get to that point, we had to drive through 10km of dirt-and-gravel road. It's fine if you're in a car, but if you're on a motorcycle it just makes you hurt more, plus you really have to go really slow and try to follow the paths created by people who passed there before you. From time to time, in completely unexpected areas, the asphalt road would reappear giving you false hope, only to disappear again within a couple of hundred meters.

We reached our destination, the beginning of the trail, a small city along the way. We stopped for lunch there. All through the day my guide has been promising me that they have Wisos there. I'd no idea what Wisos was but I figured it's some kind of local dish. We sat down in the restaurant and when I got up for a second to check my motorcycle, all the local workers who just finished eating came by to take my picture with them.

Then the meal arrived. There was the obligatory rice bowl, some vegetables, some small fish done in a bowl, and a plate of what looked like beef. I asked Phu again what this was and he said "Wisos". I said Beef? Pork? He looked disappointedly at me and said "Wisos". "Wisos?" I asked. "Yes, Wisos," he said, "you know, like the one used to make coffee".

It is interesting to note that Weasels are not cooked with coffee for flavor.

Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a narrow, hidden road hugging the mountains to be hidden from American choppers. It was used by the North Vietnamese to smuggle soldiers and supplies to the south. The Vietnamese government has been building up the trail, now a two lane highway (not really used except for a few villagers along the way) and extending it to mark the trail the northern army took going south to unify Vietnam. The path we traversed, marked with a yellow divider line, spanned 120km. It is probably the best road in Vietnam, both because it's rather new and only a couple of patches needed repair, and because it's virtually empty.

For the finale of the fourth day of this trip, we took off on the trail to reach our destination of Phuoc Son by nighttime. Once we passed the villages and hills, we entered the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking, with streams cascading down the mountain in places, forests and mist-shrouded peaks.

The trail climbs up into the mountains then goes back down. At its last stretch, it has 10% incline in places. While I could easily go down the 10% areas, going up 10% proved more of a challenge. While Phu bypassed me and zoomed up, I sat on my trusty 125cc bike and slowly chugged my way up in an I-think-I can-I-think-I-can kind of way.

Day 5 - Phuoc Son to Hoi An– 120 km

As anticlimax, our last day was rather short. We started early on, riding out bikes down the mountains from Phuoc Son to our final destination, Hoi An. The way down the mountain is infinitely easier, except you have to watch your speed going around curves for all the regular surprises. It was interesting to note that the main type of surprise along the road was cow dung. The highway is the only road that links villages along it to their pasture grounds and so cow herds are moved along it, leaving gifts for the unsuspecting motorist. At the 80 km mark, we got off the highway that is the Ho Chi Minh trail and made a turn into what looked like a side village road. It shows what driving for two days on the trail did to my perception - I did not recognize this as the main road to Hoi An until a few kilometers passed us by. We were driving once more along store fronts, rice paddies and fields, dodging traffic and bypassing swarms of kids on bicycles going to or returning from school. We reached Hoi An around noon where I found me a hotel and Phu went to rent a small truck to carry the two motorcycles back to Dalat.

Driving Lesson #3 - Cutting Across Traffic? Whatever for?

I'll share one more piece of wisdom with you, in case you ever find yourself driving a motorcycle here. If you ever need to enter the road and make a left turn, cutting across the traffic going to the right, your basic instinct would be to wait until the lane is clear, then cut across. But you'd be waiting forever for that traffic to clear. There are places where the motorcycles just go on and on and on. If you were to cut across, you'd be blocking a substantial part of the lane, causing a lot of havoc and not really getting where you wanted to.

The solution? Drive against traffic. Start your engine and drive left, against everyone that's coming up against you. Start on the left side of the road and slowly edge towards the middle of the road. You're small enough facing traffic head-on that everyone can just move around you. Within 100m or so you'll be on the divider line of the two lanes. From here on, you already know how to join traffic going your way and I won't repeat it. Remember the joke about the drunk driver going against traffic saying everyone else is wrong? Here it's a fact of life.

To finish off this motorcycle blog, here's speed limited sign I picked up on one of the roads. Find your vehicle, read your speed, ignore where possible :)

This concludes the Motorcycle blogs. Next wekk more stories from Vietnam.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

The Motorcycle Blogs II

Day 1 Continues - Dalat to Lak Lake – 160 km

Note: Some of the pictures in this blog are actually videos. They should have a play button at the bottom of the picture. Try it out.

First the Worm Turns into a Cocoon, Then You Kill It

We next stopped in a silk factory. Mulberry trees are abundant in the area and the farmers grow silk worms on them and bring them in for processing once they turn into cocoons. For those who've not seen silk worms in the past, the cycle is roughly like this. Start with an egg, the size of a poppy seed (you'll never look at a bun the same again, will you?). The egg hatches and a small worm starts eating its way through mulberry tree leaves. As the worm grows, it reaches 1.5-2 inches (5 cm) in length. Once done growing, the worm weaves a cocoons around itself and goes into a stage of metamorphosis. When I was young, I had a few wilk worms at home in a cardboard box on the refrigerator. Since we did not process the silk, we got to see what happens next. The cocoon hatches when the butterfly inside eats its way through the cocoon's end, destroying the thread in the process. It's a white, flightless butterfly that lays eggs and dies and the cycle begins again.

At the factory, they don't wait for the cocoons to hatch. Cocoons are brought from all over the area and collected in these big baskets.

Then they are put into boiling water and "cooked" until the butterworm inside dies. The cocoons then float in the water while one of these factory workers tries to find the thread and feed it into the machine to unravel and put on a spool.

The ones that can't be automatically unraveled are processed manually to produce stronger but less fine silk. What's left, dead butterworms, is collected in these baskets.

Since nothing goes to waste, maybe they feed it to the drunk pigs?
The thread is then collected in bigger spools. Some of it is sold as thread and some woven into fabric in a loom inside the factory.

Driving Lesson #1 - The Horn The Horn, it Sounds So Forlorn

There are a number of switches you've got to make in your mind before successfully surviving driving in Vietnam. The first one is the use of the horn. In most western countries, the horn is used for 1) notifying of extreme danger, making you react quickly or 2) marking the end of a new-york second, the light has changed to green and why haven't you already started moving?

Its use in Vietnam (and as far as I recall in India too) is very different. First of all, it's not used as an emergency tool. The horn is used to notify someone of your presence. If you're driving behind them, you're responsible to move and accommodate them whatever they do. If you decide to pass them, you're likely to sound the horn to let them know you're coming. This is more common in the cities since there's less traffic to worry about when passing someone in the country side. A similar use is for cars and trucks to notify everyone that they're coming through and everyone had better MOVE or else bad things will happen. Again - this is not a sign of "emergency". More like "danger, danger Will Robinson" you'd better do something to accommodate it.

Lak Lake

On the first night, we stayed in a town on the shores of Lak Lake. The lake itself is very serene, still water with islands, fish traps and fisherman paddling around in dug out canoes.

Once we checked into the hotel, we drove on to the Jun village, a minority village where the M'Nong people live. M'Nong houses are long houses built on stilts. The extended family and all possesions live inside. Animals and livestock live under the house. The original houses were made of wood, though you could see a television set through the open doorway. The M'Nong grow rice, like most other people near large bodies of water. They also fish the lake extensively.

Cock Fighting

Another part of village life is animals in the street. On our way to the Jun village we came upon these two roosters fighting it out. In case you have never seen it, here's a short clip:

DAY 2- Lak Lake to Buon Ma Thuot – 105 km

Jimmy my Ride

We returned to the village the next morning. We had breakfast at the same “restaurant” as we had dinner. I asked for Pho, the vietnamese noodle soup that is part of the breakfat ritual. Apparently I surprised the propietor, who was expecting me to ask for an omelet. They only had instant-noodle. I was very disappointed. Instant noodles with powdered taste as part of ethnic food in Vietnam?

Then Jimmy gave me a ride. Allow me to introduce Jimmy. Jimmy is not his real name but I couldn’t pronounce, much less spell, his real name so Jimmy it’ll have to be.

The M’Nong are famous for catching and rearing elephants. Jimmy was busy with breakfast too when we arrived, eating corn husks. Once he finished, I used the platform to climb up onto the box on Jimmy’s back. We started with a slow amble around the village. Jimmy’s driver was sitting on his neck, between the head and the body. He was driving Jimmy by pushing on his big ears with his feet. Anyone who’s ever held a child on their shoulders will probably know how that works :)

An elephant is not a smooth ride. With every step I was shifted a few inches left or right with my whole world tilting this way or that depending which foot Jimmy had in the air at the time. But apparently Jimmy is good for much more than walking on land. As we approached the water’s edge, Jimmy’s driver did not slow down. He kept us moving onwards. Jimmy approached the water, and step by slow step while checking the firmness of the ground with his snout, walked right in. He was up to his stomach in water, but we were safe and dry on his back, walking in the lake.

As we circumnavigated the village, we saw the local lake traffic go by, mostly fishermen in dugout canoes.

The ride was more than 30 mintes long and my legs were getting cramped from the sitting position. We eventually climbed back up onto land, and walked back to the village from its other side. From time to time Jimmy would stop walking and start turning aside and the driver would have to intervene. It took me a while to figure out he was smelling food – there was a fire burning dried-out corn husks on the side of the road – and Jimmy simply wanted a taste.

That Classic Vietnam Picture

We then jumped on our motorcycles and left the area, on to our second day of travel. Leaving Lak Lake, we saw a lot fo rice fields. I had an opportunity to take one of those classic photos you see on postcards and in books.

Our trip that day was relatively short, only 45km. On the second day of travel, my ass was really letting me know it feels the pain. In Buon Ma Thuot, we checked into a hotel, then went to have lunch. The food, called “Fried Pork” is really a roll-your-own-egroll. Rice paper (that really looks like paper – thin and brittle) is used for the outside. We added everything travelers should be worried about eating in foreign countries where the water is not to be trusted – lettuce leaves, green onion, etc, then some fried pork and fried rice paper. Once you roll the eggrol, you dip it into a special bowl of dipping sauce. As Phu (my guide) explained, all restaurants have pork and lettuce and rice paper. It’s the sauce that makes the place.

The thing I didn’t touch was a piece of raw pork meat that wrapped in a leave and left there for customers. Somehow, I don’t think the weather is all that suitable for natural preservation. It’s not like there’s snow on the window seals. My stomach is not that brave.

Driving Lesson #2 – Look left? Look right? Look?

We then proceeded to take a round trip to the Smoky Falls, picture below. Nothing special to tell about the trip except it was another 70km though the road was ok.

I used the time to observe some more of the unwritten driving laws of Vietnam. So you’re a motorcycle entering the endless stream of motorcycles driving down the stream of life that’s Vietnamese traffic. How do you do so?

1. If you’re approaching from another road, no problem. Simply start turning as you approach the new road. By the time you’ll reach it you’ll be almost parallel with traffic and people will swerve to give you some space. No need to check if the road is busy – after all, it always is.
2. You’re coming down from a sidewalk and there’s no space for you to align your motorcycle with the traffic? No problem! Just exit directly into the street perpendicular to traffic. You then have a second or so to realign yourself. Looking left and right? What for? There’s ALWAYS someone there so what’s the point? If you’ve been here long enough you know that a) cars travel in the middle of the road and honk when they arrive so you won’t hit one of those and b) motorcycles will swerve to give you space.

It was absolutely amazing to see how the Vietnamese pack their kids on the bike, then enter the road without checking for traffic first. I also almost hit one of these guys on the next-to-last day of the trip. This was an empty stretch of road so I was driving faster than usual when he just walked his motorcycle onto the road and blocked half the lane. I breaked in time, but was actually supposed to go around him had I been following the rules of the road.

Plop Goes the Weasel

Buon Ma Thuot is the center of coffee production in the Vietnam. Coffee is grown all over the mountains and brought to BMT for selling. The first stages of processing actually happens at the villages, in individual homes.

There are multiple coffee plantations like this coffee mountain.

Once the coffee is ready (when the beans are red), they are picked and dried up on mats outside the homes. The beans are then sifted for quality. There are three types of coffee beans grown in Vietnam and mixing them up is the art of creating good coffee.

The Vietnamese drink their coffee very strong, by taking ground beans and putting them onto a drip basket on top of the cup. Hot water is added and slowly drips through the coffee into the cup. Vietnam also export a lot of the coffee and is the 4th largest coffee exporter in the world.

What’s that weasel got to do with it you ask? Well, now we come to the most bizarre form of coffee making I’ve ever heard of. The priciest coffee (we’re talking 4x the cost of regular high quality coffee) is called weasel coffee. The process of making it is very similar to regular coffee, with one main difference. Instead of the beans being collected by people, weasels (yes, real weasels) are set loose among the beans to eat to their heart’s content. The beans travel through the weasel’s intenstines with the soft outer shell fruit being digested while the hard beans at the core are infused with a stronger, better aroma. Nature then takes it course and the weasel goes plop, at which point the villagers collect the beans and proceed with regular processing.

I shudder to think how this process was invented or why someone experimented with it. In any case, the coffee is highly prized and sold only in specialized stores. I couldn’t find a restaurant that serves it as a drink so I can’t tell you what the taste is like, but I did manage to buy some ground coffee. We’ll see how brave you are when I get back.

And with plop goes the weasel I’ll conclude day 2 of, The Motorcycle Blogs.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Motorcycle Blogs
Oct 13-17

It seems oddly appropriate to reference The Motorcycle Diaries since I'm riding in a communist country. Regardless of Che's politics, the movie is a great travel story.

It seems that the "blogger in beta" site I was using is inaccessible from most of Vietnam. Since I can't login, I can't post the entry I had waiting. Using this temporary blog then, fast forward to.... The Motorcycle Blogs

Dalat is a center for internal tourism in Vietnam. The tour guides tout it as "the most beautiful city in Asia". Personally I saw nothing much to justify this. It's considered a romantic city and many honeymooners come here. The main attraction seems to be the cool weather since it's 1000 meters (3000 feet) above sea level. The French had fancy houses here when they were in Vietnam and there's a small scale Eiffel tower (though I'm not sure how old it is). Now it's a growing university town since the climate makes it easy to study, and also a center for fruit and vegetable production in Vietnam.

My main reason for coming here was the small note in the Hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy, eh, the Lonely Planet guide about the Easy Riders of Dalat. Researching it for this blog, I noticed the number of meaning the term had over the years. I'm using it strictly in the motorcycle-riding meaning.

Easy Riders is the term a group of motorcycle riders in Dalat give themselves, though the motorcycles they ride are not Harley-Davidsons and none is more than 125cc. Apparently the law has strict guidelines on who can ride a motorcycle bigger than 150cc. The riders give tours of Dalat and the area to tourists, taking the tourists on the back of the motorcycle. Given my weight and the tiny tiny engine of the motorcycle, I quickly dissuaded the guide I found from this notion, getting him instead to let me drive his bike while he accompanied me on a smaller one. The bike, an old Honda, spit and sputtered its way through the hills of Dalat and the area carrying us to a number of Pagodas, some coffee plantations and vegetable fields and to the historical train station showing the very old coal-run engine and the still-working-for-tourists Russian engine.

The first of two interesting attractions was Crazy House. Crazy House is a hotel built by an architect who's the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's successor's to the presidency of Vietnam. The place is a bizarre, tacky, concrete construction of Alice in Wonderland style yard and rooms. Tourists can come by and see the rooms unless someone is sleeping in them at the time. Here's the yard.

And a few of the rooms.

The other attraction, for lack of a better name, is amusement waterfall. The waterfall itself is nothing to blog home about. Access to it required a long climb down, which of course meant a lot of steps coming back up. The local tourist industry put a stop to that with the construction of a brand new amusement ride - a cart you can take to go down the all the way to the waterfall.

On the way down, you control your speed using breaks on the side of the cart. This is completely gravity powered. Once you're done seeing the waterfall, you can take the cart back up - it gets pulled by a motorized cable.

These two guys wanted to get my picture with them. I insisted to get their picture with me right back.

But the day trip around Dalat was not what I came for. What I wanted was a longer trip through the central mountains of Vietnam. I changed my tour guide for the following day (or rather I changed bikes to a more comfortable one and the guide came with the bike) and we set out on a 5 day tour through the western highlands of Vietnam, from Dalat to Hoi An.

Day 1 - Dalat to Lak Lake

The bike, a 10-year-old 125cc Daelim, seems oddly similar to the 500cc Kawasaki I used to ride. The only difference is, alas, the engine. But this bike seems to manage well enough. The roads are generally good, though from time to time the asphalt disappears and you're left with mud you should carefully navigate or find a place where you should skirt the road to bypass some obstruction.

Riding a motorcycle here is like playing a video game. The road twist and turns, meandering through the mountains. Behind every turn is a potential road hazard - another motorcycle, a person walking in the street, or a cow herd coming up the road disregarding any traffic lane conventions. All of these will try to move aside if you see them in time and honk, or at least will let you pass by. More interesting are the surprise hazards - that piglet running into the road being chased by a dog or the chicken trying to cross it. I don't know why but many chickens do.

From time to time you'll get the big one - that oblivious oncoming truck. You'd better move quickly to the side of the road since trucks travel in the center... Points are awarded for safe passage. You only get one life :)

On the other hand, the speed is not great. On that first day, we averaged 30 km/hr (20 mph). About 40 kmh when going downhill or horizontally outside villages, and about 20 kmh when going uphill despite the bike's valiant effort to go faster.

We're driving through the mountains, a land of minorities (the Montagnards) intermixed with the Vietnamese majority. This is also a place where a (relatively) small number of foreigners travel. Since I'm still somewhat of a novelty to the locals even if they've seen foreigners before, I'm creating a sensation as I pass through the country side. In my wake I keep hearing the sound of laughing and yelling children and the sounds of surprised adults, mixed in with the "hello"s of the kids who see me early enough to wave before I pass. If this was a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, this would be known as the year when the giant rode through town bringing laughter to all the kids.

As we progressed into the mountains, my ass was reminded more and more that it's been years since I seriously rode a motorcycle and that you need to develop an immunity in certain parts of your behind to sustain a long ride. We did 150 km that first days, about 5-6 hours of riding and even with the stops I was getting seriously soar. We stopped and bought a pillow to make the motorcycle feel more like a throne but still, there's only so much I could take.

A couple of hours before we reached our final destination for that day, the sky opened up and rain fell down on us. For those of you who've not experienced riding a motorcycle through the rain let me note that you're essentially a rain collector. It matters not how much rain is falling down. You drive through it at a speed that's usually faster than the speed it's falling at. Your become very wet very fast and the only remedy is to stop somewhere until it passes, an unknown amount of time, or to cover yourself up. I had a rain parka with me, though it didn't cover my hands and only covered the upper half of my body. The predictable results were two very wet feet, though I dried up very quickly once the rain let up.

As you travel, you breeze through the air, getting a very cool feeling regardless of the temperature. It was pretty cool when we started and due to the wind stayed relatively cool until our final stop. What you don't notice is that the Sun is baking your arms as you go. By the time we got to the hotel, my arms were red and starting to ache. From the 2nd day on, I used heavy portions of sunscreen since I didn't have any long sleeved shirts with me.

Take Some Rice, Add Some Bacteria, Let Rot

We stopped along the way to see a number of things, the first of which was how to make rice wine. We descended into the basement of one of the houses along the road. In it were covered jars which my guide opened up to show me the steamed rice and yoghurt being fermented.

After 3 weeks of fermentation, the contents is moved to a distillery and boiled to capture the alcoholic beverage. What's left is fed to the pigs, slumbering drunkenly in the pens right nearby. You can see the back of one in the photo.

Enough forone blog entry.Tune in next week for the continuation of - The Motorcycle Blogs.

As a side note, to see the video from the previous post, try:

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Starting out in Vietnam.
Oct 9-10

In the beginning...

I'm starting a long (5 weeks) in Vietnam and Cambodia. I'm still thinking about whether to post these blog entries in real time or whether to space them out. If stories start accumulating then I'll be hitting you with too much to read every couple of days - something no one has time for in this busy age.

I'm now in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. I'm still trying to figure out the place, a mix of Asian and modern though it seems modern is winning out in most places. I've spent the first day in jet lag daze, walking a bit around, but mostly napping.

A school of motorcyclists

The first thing to learn in Saigon is how traffic behaves and what part you play in it. Coming by taxi from the airport you get your first glimpse of Saigon moving around you. There are a lot of motorized vehicles, though the number of bicycles is not negligible. Some people are dressed in western clothes, while some wear the canonical hats (supposedly women's hats) on their heads.

Once you start walking around, you get a slightly changed view of the city. 90% of the traffic around you is made up of motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles. The cars are either trucks ferrying goods, or taxis. It's a bit misleading since a lot of the motorcycles are also taxis - they'll let you sit behind them and hug them while they take you where you want to go. They are called, not surprisingly, is "hug me" in Vietnamese.

See for yourself - this is an intersection right when the light turns green:

Now for a lesson in crossing the street. You saw all those motorcycles? In an intersection they sometimes behave themselves but often enough you need to cross elsewhere. I found the "how to cross the street" tip in Lonely Planet: Don't run! Start walking slowly across the street. Keep watching the cyclists to see if they are going behind or before you, but you'll notice that they shift to accommodate you!

The amazing thing is that this is true for any kind of vehicle. The taxi from the airport wanted to do a U turn. At first he went all the way to the right as if he was parking, letting all the traffic flow around him. Then he slowly started edging into the street, turning the wheel to reach the center divide. As he did this, traffic behind us shifted to move to the left of him. Since he was turning, the back of the car was still blocking most of the right-side lane, so traffic couldn't go there. That didn't stop them - they just kept going around him until they were traveling down the other side of the road. Eventually they managed to go on his right and he could complete the turn, doing the same to the traffic from the other side.

And here's when you find out drivers here do it differently than you do. As anyone edges into the street, western drivers would stop so as not to hit him, but not swerve since they might hit the person on their right or left. Here, they shift a bit and amazingly enough the entire block shifts with them. It's like watching a school of fish change direction without anyone formally coordinating the maneuver.

The curse of the Buddha

With my paranoia greatly enhanced from my lens disappearing in Saint Petersburg, I was very cautious walking around Saigon. I took it out carefully, locked the bag and kept my hand on the lens at all times, having it hanging in front so that I can see it.

And paranoia rewards itself - everywhere I went, people looked at me and talked amongst themselves. In Peru I once caught a guy pointing me out to his friend to steal something from my bag. This was much worse. Almost everywhere I looked someone was looking at me. There I was, the rich tourist with the expensive camera just waiting to be milked.

After a while, when nothing happened, I tuned my paranoia down a bit and started rethinking what I've been seeing. As it turns out, while I was walking around gawking at Vietnam, Vietnam was gawking at me. They've not seen anyone like me. It's not the skin color or facial features which they think is from America (I guess no Indians come here). It's my size! There don't seem to be any fat people around here and definitely not as big as me.

On the other hand, I do remind them of the happy Buddha. While Buddhism teaches to not want things (achieving nirvana when you've reached the level of not wanting anything in the world), there are other secondary Buddha figures. One of the more prevalent is the happy Buddha who's statue can be seen anywhere sitting down with his big stomach sticking out. Rubbing it is supposed to bring good luck. It seems the Vietnamese think the same about mine. Random people in the street reach out to touch it. This definitely doesn't fit with the American version of personal space. I wonder if it should be considered more of a sexual harassment or religious persecution :)

On the other hand, I've already had quite a number of pictures taking with me and have a great conversation starter!

To give you an example, this girl who barely spoke English brought this kid by to touch me (only my hand, thank god). She came back later to have him see me again but also touch me herself, just in case...

While there are a lot of internet cafes in Vietnam, finding ones that have a enough memory on the PC to allow some photo editing is not easy. I'll start a serious album next time I stop in a big city with the right PCs and network connection. Until then, you'll have to suffer with the photos and movie above.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Le Mont St. Michel
Sep 26-28

(From where I was sitting, a tree was hiding the bottom of the mount so you don't get to see the massive walls of Mont St. Michel)

The only thing worse then being stuck in the picturesque French country side without a camera is being stuck there with a camera but no lens. At least relatively speaking. I'm sure there are worse things but I can't think of any just now. As other so clearly commented on my previous entry, I had to find a solution.

A Holga is a cheap ($15) plastic camera favored by photographers and photography students for the "artistic" pictures it can create. Artistic here means under or over exposed, out of focus pictures. In fact, the camera is so bad that the first thing you have to do once you buy it is to use some opaque piece of tape to close the light-leaks the camera comes pre-configured with. If you don't, your pictures will have look like that drawing in the museum that's all black and everyone tries to understand what it stands for and why someone paid so much money for it. Except your pictures will be all white.

I don't have a Holga nor a way to process the 120mm film it shoots. But I did come up with the digital equivalent of a Holga. Introducing the Motorola V3 RAZR- the poor man's digital Holga camera, hereby dubbed HLGA. It does not need any leak-closing, no special film but the pictures are still guaranteed to be a bit out of focus, lacking in contrast and generally low resolution.

As the saying goes, it's the photographer, not the camera, right? RIGHT?

I joined a few colleagues at a conference in Le Mont St. Michel (mountain of archangel Michael). The mont is located on the French coast of the British Channel. We approached it by taxi from the train station, an excellent way to come face to face with this great place. I sat up front with my HLGA, hoping to get a good glimpse.

Imagine a plain. All around you are fields or grasslands with nothing rising higher then the trees. As the taxi approaches the nearest town, suddenly a tower looms up behind it. From far away, it just looks like another building or church tower. Then you pass the town and the full mount becomes visible.

Le Mont St. Michel is a rock sticking up out of the plain, right where a river flows into the sea. Archangel Michael showed himself to a local clergy man and told him to build a house for god on that spot. What emerged is a place that could easily fit into the next Lord of the Rings movie - The Other Tower We Forgot In The First 3 Movies. The top of the mount is dominated by the monastery, with a spire going up to heaven. At the top of the spire stands Archangel Michael. The bottom of the mount is covered by inns, hotels and restaurants, originally catering to pilgrims and now to the many tourists that come by. A wall with guard posts and cannons surrounds the mount.

This is the gate. Notice the portcullis that can easily be dropped to close the entrance. Notice also the open drawbridge. What you don't see is the iron gate behind the doorway that can be shut on an advancing army. Seems like a lot of wars were fought around this spot.

To add to the feeling of this medieval place, the tide rushes in twice a day and completely surrounds the mount, except for the higher-built access road. Even the parking lots next to the mount get flooded by the tide and are cleaned by a special road-washing machine.

There are very few horizontal areas on the mount. Since I registered late for the conference, I did not have a room at the conference hotel off the mount and had to stay on it. The entrance to the hotel is at ground level, but then I got my key and was told "go up two floors, make a left and exit the door, then go to the next building over and your room is there".

To translate:
  • "Go up two floors" means 2-3 floors worth of spiraling stairs.
  • "Make a left" means another half a floor up to the door.
  • "go to the next building" means a climb down of a few stairs, but don't worry, you'll pay for that when you get back.
  • "Your room is there" means two floors up in that building.
The view from the room was very nice. It faces back towards land and you can see the buildings of the mount and the road leading out. This is the view through the morning fog.

At night, we went looking for a place to eat. The main road climbs up around the mount and is littered with restaurants and stores. We debated between two restaurants, "the white lamb" and chef something-or-other's seafood bistro. The two stood next to one another, though at a different levels since the road kept climbing. After much debate, we entered the bottom one, the white lamb. We were told to go a floor up to the sitting area, then were told to go across to the other sitting area (at which point we found ourselves at the ground floor of the fish restaurant) and then were told to go one more floor up for the real sitting area. A very nice trick! You have two store fronts, one for meat lovers and one promising great fish. People can debate what they'd like to sit, but then end up in the exact same place. The power of "choice" :)

A lot of the restaurants and at least one hotel on the mount had the name "Poulard" in them. Mrs. Poulard opened a pilgrim's hotel on the mount in 1888 and went on to create a celebrated kitchen and many recipes. Her husband stocked a celebrated wine cellar. One of La Mere Poulard's (the chef Poulard) famous dishes was the Poulard omelet she created for hungry wayferers. While I'm not a fan of eggs, I inspected it when it was served to me in one of the formal dinners there. The omelet is fluffy, having been mixed by hand for a long time until it had a lot of air bubbles in it. I believe the main reason La Mere created this omelet was because she could sell it for more while using less eggs. I'm sure I've offended quite a few French people who worshipped Mrs. Poulard so just like to say that, once again, that's a genius marketing move!

Courtesy of Thierry, here's a better shot of the mont taken with a HLGA II - the swiss army knife of PDAs, the PDA come music player come game console come camera, the Palm Zire.

For more information on the mount, see the Wikipedia entry for Mont St. Michel.

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