Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Time's up, headin' south

It's been a busy few weeks since I returned from Thailand and I haven't stayed in one place for too long. As soon as I got back to Tucson, I had to fly out the next day to Denver for the psychological exam required for wintering in Antarctica. Depending on your point of view, I passed...or failed. In either case, I'm going back down... a reward or punishment?

Then another weekend I found myself in Minnesota visiting a dear friend post-op and the temps there were about the same as what South Pole was experiencing. I must say that tunnels and sky walkways are fabulous urban assets.

And as San Francisco was beset with cold, wet, grey weather and Tucson was having a cold snap with freezing nights and not-nearly-warm-enough days, Michael and I decided we didn't want to be bothered with more winter during our austral summer off.

So we went to Jamaica. It was back to sandals, shorts and sunscreen for another week of pure relaxation and most importantly, warmth. The most energy we expended was in trying to decide which jerk chicken stand to try but then we just tried them all and didn't have to make any hard decisions afterall.

There's not much to write about. My major accomplishment was reading back through all of the issues of Outside magazine for 2007, which my sister saved up for me throughout the year, while sitting on a lounge chair on the beach. Now that was work, reading about the Everest base camp circus or how to survive a cougar attack or one of the writers little experiment of working as a sherpa for a few days (hilarious).

Even though we did have access to the internet, I wasn't much in the mood for blogging.

And now like a student on the night before the start of school in the fall, I'm grimly accepting the fact that the summer vacation is finally over. I leave for Denver tomorrow to begin the deployment to South Pole for winter 2008. The journey will take us from Denver to LAX to Sydney, arriving in Christchurch on Feb 3. We're already planning on watching the Super Bowl at the Holy Grail, a huge sports bar near Cathedral Square. Then if the weather is good on Feb 5, we'll board the C-17 for McMurdo and Pole whenever we make it in.

I can't resist another sunset photo. As we watched the sun sink into the ocean on our last night in Jamaica, Michael melodramatically announced that it was our last sunset to enjoy, ever. I reminded him that we're soon going to have a month-long sunset starting in late March. Then he amended his statement saying this was the last sunset he would watch outside without a shirt on for a long time. True.

Actually we're both excited about going down for one more winter but the last three months of vacation have been so enjoyable, it's taking a little more psyching up this time. It will be interesting to see all of the changes that have happened around the station while we've been gone. It will also be fun to see some old friends again and it looks like we'll have a really good crew of vets and newbies.

Time to hit the road once again but I'll update when I can...

Monday, January 07, 2008

End of the trip

Luang Prabang is known as the Jewel of the Mekong. Once the royal capital of Laos, it has a dense concentration of temples, some dating back to the 16th century, and of course plenty of monks.

Every morning at around 6am, streams of silent saffron robes file out of the monasteries as the monks make their daily rounds to receive alms. The monks are not allowed to cook for themselves and instead rely on food offerings from the locals, who receive blessings and merits in return. The typical offering is sticky rice, which the givers scoop up from their common basket with their hands and drop into the monks' bowls. Others are giving them bananas and other fruits and everything goes into the same bowl so I'm not sure if it becomes a big sticky mixed-up mess by the time they go back to the monastary to eat.

Most males will go through a monk period and there were reminders that these people with shaved heads and shaved eyebrows were still young men and boys with the same interests they had before.

A bamboo bridge over the river Khan was manned with monks at a toll booth. Yes, their young friend is wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.

Originally a monarchy, Laos fell under Siamese (Thai) control in the late 1800s then became part of the French Indochine colonial empire in the early 1900s until independence in 1953. During the Vietnam war, Laos was allied with North Vietnam which led to the US trying to bomb the country into oblivion. We dropped nearly as many bombs on this small country as were dropped on all of Europe in WWII. With the fall of Saigon, Laos came under Communist control and today the Lao People's Democratic Republic remains Communist.

It doesn't seem too hardcore from a tourist's point of view. They've relaxed some requirements like having to register your whereabouts with the government at all times but then make other decrees seemingly at will. For example, in Luang Prabang, it became illegal within the last couple of months for tourists to rent bicycles or motorbikes. We couldn't get a straight answer for the reason why but were alternately told that the tuk tuk drivers were behind the move so that tourists would have to hire them to get around or that a tourist was involved in an accident that was somehow problematic. I'm not sure what the real story is but the town itself is small enough to easily walk around to see just about everything.

Capitalism is alive and well especially in the areas that tourists are flocking to. Apparently efforts to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site will prevent the weed-like spread of fast food joints, billboards and some new construction. Nevertheless, existing buildings are being converted to more and more hotels, guesthouses, shops, tour companies and restaurants but thankfully no Starbucks or Burger King.

For many of the locals, shopping hasn't changed much. Seasonal crops result in a bounty of the produce and when we were there, oranges were the hot item. This little market of nothing but oranges went on for quite a way.

Rice remains a staple and is separated out by color and grade. The most expensive kind is a purple grain of sticky, or glutinous rice which has a beautiful color but tastes pretty much like the white grains.

These arrangements of marigolds and banana leaves are used for the Baci ceremony which invokes the spirit world for blessings and good luck.

One of the highlights was taking a cooking class with Michael at the Three Elephants Cafe Cooking School. We started out the morning learning about the local ingredients at an outdoor market that had everything from chili spices to betel nuts.

Then we cooked, and ate, lunch and dinner, recreating some of the most popular Lao specialties.

After much tasting and snacking, by the time we sat down to enjoy our dinner of chicken larb, green papaya salad, pork/eggplant stirfry with lots of sticky rice, we were rather full and couldn't finish everything.

Now we have less than 24 hours remaining in the vacation. We're back in Bangkok trying to sort through purchases and pack up our bags for the long overnight flight back to San Francisco.
I know I'll be back to this area of the world sometime, maybe again after this upcoming winter at South Pole. Laos is a gem of a country that deserves a long, leisurely visit to really get to know its charms. Like the slowly flowing Mekong, the pace of life goes along at "Lao speed"...unrushed, unencumbered by the hectic outside world yet welcoming to those who want to slow down to discover its beauty.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The road to Laos

In my first visit to the country of Laos, I'm finding a rich culture and land that are like stepping back in time yet are on the cusp of discovering the full bounty of modern day technology and living through greater access to the outside world.

Laos opened its borders to tourists in the early 1990s and in the past few years has seen an explosion in visitors. In just this past year, a record 1.4 million tourists descended upon this country of 5 million. The effect of having so many foreigners visit this land of mountains and rivers has been to introduce not just dollars and euros to their economy, but to also bring imported goods that did not exist before for the Lao people. Six years ago, the shops in Luang Prabang sold only local produce and foods, regional textiles and traditionally used items. Now the shops all have displays with Lays potato chips, Nivea lotion, Toblerone chocolate and Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch. A local resident bemoaned the fact that parents now feed their children cookies and other junks foods instead of fresh foods to the extent that youngsters are developing scurvy.

So many experiences and thoughts to write about after just a few days here. I'll try to narrow the focus of this entry to the journey here and various forms of transportation.

The capital of Vientiane has an international airport that is connecting the city to more and more countries throughout Asia. It was a quick hour and 20 minute flight from Bangkok, a better option for us than an overnight train since we have only 6 days to explore.

We rented bicycles once again to see the sights of the city. It was all fun and good until the back wheel fell off of Michael's bike and we had to hire a tuk tuk to drive him back to the bike shop. At 20,000 kip (a little more than 2 dollars), the tuk tuk ride cost more than the bike rental.

It took us a few minutes to flag down a tuk tuk that wasn't loaded down with people or goods.

Tuk tuks are the workhorse vehicle of much of southeast Asia and they come in all different shapes and sizes. They have unmuffled two stroke engines and spew out stinky exhaust but they don't seem to use much diesel.

The capital city was really only interesting for a day or so and we moved on to Luang Prabang, a colorful temple city declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The domestic terminal is a little less flashy than the international...

...but it does has a great little gift shop and restaurant.

Like many cities around the world, the ones in Laos are also becoming smoke-free environments although you can buy a pack of cigarettes for about 40 cents.

We didn't have a problem fighting for overhead luggage space on our flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

There aren't many options of airlines to choose from and Lao Airlines dominates all of the routes. They've had 5 plane crashes since 1990 and the US State Department has a travel warning about using them to fly in mountainous areas (most of the country). We had good luck with fairly new planes and even got decent in-flight meals, even on the 40 minute flight to Luang Prabang.

The mighty Mekong river flows through much of the country and has always been a major route for trade. There are many rivers though like this one that we took a short boat ride on to see some waterfalls.

The Khan river joins the Mekong at Luang Prabang and together they form a beautiful landscape where a rustic culture prevails despite wi-fi cafes like the one that I'm sitting in. It's a tenuous comfort zone for me...I love discovering the third world for the first time but at the same time, I'm quite happy to have a sweet Lao coffee or ice-cold BeerLao while I write my blog entry. I'll keep supporting the local economy with my kip while I work on another entry with more images from Laos.