26 Apr

Enchanted In Bali

Bali is turning out to be everything I expected from a lush, tropical paradise. The weather is hot, there are periodical monsoon rainstorms, and beauty abounds everywhere I look.

P1100299 All around me is green. The terraced rice paddies in the country-side are a green so  vibrant and fresh that they exude hope for a successful crop. The dark P1100788 green of the frangipani trees contrasts with its pale, creamy, white and pink flowers that have a scent of tropical heaven. They are my favorite flower in the world and when I look at them I am reminded of the incredible beauty and grace of Asian women. The place we are staying in Ubud is typical of a Balinese guesthouse…the bamboo bungalows are set in a lush garden of lilies, palm trees, hibiscus and a thousand other tropical plants I can’t name. It really is like a tropical paradise.

P1100786 The people of Bali are very friendly. The owner of the guesthouse, the chef/cook of the restaurant, the tour guide on the bike tour all took the time to chat with us and to tell us about their piece of this great island. Bali is an easy place to get lost on as we discovered as we took a three day road trip on a scooter. There are roads and lanes criss-crossing the entire island and the maps are not very reliable. We spent a good amount of time in the middle of nowhere wondering where we were and, without fail, every time we stopped to try to figure out the map someone would stop and cheerfully ask us where we were going and help us figure it out. We scootered up some pretty remote roads and everywhere we went people smiled huge smiles at us and children shouted hello. We certainly felt welcome.

P1100182 There are temples everywhere on Bali…they lend an ethereal feel to the island. Every village has at least three temples, every family compound has one and even the rice paddies have temples to appease the gods. Religion is a large part of life with offerings given twice daily to both gods and demons and various ceremonies throughout the year to celebrate milestones or to ward off evilness. The graceful movements of the women as they give the daily offerings is enchanting…placing the offering of rice and flowers, sprinkling the holy water, and wafting the incense upwards to call the gods…all scripted movements that can’t help but to appease the gods.

P1100238 And then there is the music. In the evenings as we sit on the veranda the faint sound of Gamelan music wafts over the rice paddies providing the perfect accompaniment to the fading daylight. A few nights ago we saw a Kecak performance with its chorus of 50 men chanting and providing the backdrop for the amazing dance depicting the Hindu story of Ramayana. The sound of the men chanting and the sight of the exacting movements of the women dancing was so stunning that it brought tears to my eyes.


There are a couple of things about Bali that are not so enchanting.

.There is garbage everywhere. Beside the streets, in the paths through the rice paddies, on the beaches…everywhere. I think leaving garbage everywhere comes from a time when all packaging really was disposable and degradable. The advent of plastic packaging now means that the garbage just stays around forever and the behavior has not changed perhaps because the infrastructure for change is not here yet. This is certainly not the first country where we have noticed garbage everywhere (other than Germany I think every country we have visited has this same problem) but here it is so noticeable when contrasted with the inherent beauty of the place.

The vendors are unrelenting. In Ubud it’s the taxi drivers, in Lovina it was the souvenir hawkers and massage girls on the beach and at the cremation ceremony we attended it was the sarong sellers. They ask over and over and over again and will not take no for an answer…and then they’ll ask again just in case we have changed our mind. They are very aggressive and will swamp any person showing even the slightest bit of interest. In fact anything other than a direct, and repeated, ‘no’ indicates interest and then they will descend. Again, we have seen hawkers, souvenir sellers and street vendors everywhere but here it seems predatory

The beauty of Bali, and its people, overcome these downsides though and, even though it has rained everyday since we’ve arrived, we still feel very lucky to be here enjoying such a lush, tropical island paradise.

20 Apr

Scooter Mania

There is a dull roar that hangs over Vietnam. From north to south, in the highlands and in the delta, in small towns and especially in big cities the inescapable sound of a million scooters fills the air.

Scooter Traffic, Saigon-1 Scooters are everywhere. People don’t walk anywhere, they just jump on their scooter and ride to where ever they want to go even if it’s just a few doors down. It’s like the scooter is an extension of their body, an extra set of legs that gets them where they want to go more efficiently. The roads are filled with them and rush hour is an indescribable chaos of buzzing and honking that I have been unable to capture in any photograph. People can drive scooters into places that I would have thought impossible…while walking through a narrow, winding lane, or through a packed morning market, there is every chance that the unmistakable sound of a scooter will come up from behind and a polite ‘beep-beep’ will request passage.

Scooter Parking, Hanoi Parked scooters take up every available space that isn’t used for driving…sidewalks are un-passable, lanes are choked and even the smallest of establishments has a young fellow acting as a parking valet to manage the ‘parking lot’. They are parked anywhere and everywhere and at night are tucked into their home parking spot in the main room of the house right next to the TV and the sleeping mat just like a member of the family.

Family Scooter Scooters are a multi purpose vehicle here. They are family vehicles ferrying mom, dad and kids around…the school near where we are staying is surrounded by parents on scooters picking up their kids after school…a little different than the family sedans and  SUV’s in the parking lots at home and yet it all looked the same once the kiddies came out, greeted their parents and siblings and jumped on for the ride home.

Moto Taxi, Saigon-2They are moto-taxis, which we used and loved…it was exhilarating being on the back of a bike driving through the crazy traffic. With an experienced driver at the wheel it wasn’t scary at all and we could really get a good sense of how close it all is. Sometimes we even use them with our big packs…the driver holds the pack in front of him and we hop on the back with our smaller packs…after what I’ve seen scooters capable of carrying I had no trouble feeling safe!

Scooter Delivery, Mui Ne They are delivery vehicles for all manner of things…construction materials, beer, ice, large mirrors, propane  tanks, ladders, you-Ice Delivery Scooter, Saigonname-it. They are farm tractors, school buses, and moving vans…I did not get a picture but the best I’ve seen was a full sized, heavy, carved wood sofa with a set of stools and table atop it on  the back of a scooter driven by an old man….amazing!!

Sleeping Scooter And when not being driven they are a perfect place to take a nap, or sit and chat with friends.

Riding is instinctive, set into a person at a very young age as they ride up front on the scooter in front of mom or dad on specially adapted seats…there is nothing cuter than seeing a toddler looking out over the handlebars holding onto the mirrors with a huge grin on his face. Unlike at home where a youngster slowly graduates from riding in the backseat to riding in the front seat of the car, here a youngster graduates to being able to stand in front of the driver to, eventually being big enough to ride behind the driver.

Driving here makes sense despite the initial look of mayhem. It’s a cooperative environment (rather than the competitive environment we have at home) and everyone takes responsibility for looking out for everyone else. People look ahead and deal with each obstacle as it comes…dodging and weaving expertly around other scooters, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and whatever else may come up. It appears to be like walking through a large crowd…sure everyone is close but we generally don’t run into other people…it all just flows.

Crossing The Road in Hanoi Crossing the road in that mayhem may sound like an exercise in stupidity as there are no crosswalks and few traffic lights but, actually, it is simpler to cross the road here than at home…just step out and keep moving. That’s right, don’t wait for a break in traffic, certainly don’t wait for anyone to stop (because no one will), and don’t do it half-heartedly…just slowly step out and join the flow…watch the first driver change course, focus on the next one and watch him change course, then the next one and the next one…slowly, slowly the other side of the street is safely reached even through the craziest traffic in the biggest traffic circles in the city. While I certainly wouldn’t want to say that playing in traffic like this is fun, I will say that it is highly amusing.

I love scooters, and I love how much they are a part of life here. I love how even driving here is a public event…people are out in the open instead of hidden behind metal and glass, people have conversations among bikes, and there is a personal nature to the traffic. I’ve talked to people who have been in Vietnam before and say that as recently as 5 or 6 years ago the streets were filled with bicycles instead of scooters. I can see now that cars are encroaching more and more and I wonder if in 5 or 6 more years that cars will be more prevalent than scooters. In my book that will be a shame.

13 Apr

The American War

In The Berlin Subway It’s been a while, but when I was younger I had a somewhat re-occurring dream. I grew up in the 80’s during the time of the so-called ‘cold war’ but must have been influenced by war accounts from the second world war. I had an impending sense of doom but it was, strangely, coupled with images of a bygone era. The dream was of a sky filled with bomber planes…wave upon wave…dropping bombs relentlessly…and I was on the ground dodging them…quite successfully actually. Interestingly a scene from a Berlin metro station reminded me of that dream and now, being in Vietnam, I wonder about the dreams of those involved in the war that took place here.

History here is so much more tangible than say Europe where events took place in some distant past and have been tempered by time. The American War (as it is rightly called here) happened during my lifetime and, although I don’t directly remember it, I know that as I look at the people here that they do remember it…vividly. And I know that the people who came here to fight in the war also have memories of their time here.

DMZ Tour, Vietnam-2 As we rode the bus from the north to the south I tried to imagine what it must have been like during that time. During a tour of the Demilitarized Zone our guide told stories of what his 14 year old life was like at the time. Stories of soldiers with guns, of helicopters flying lowly overhead, of trying to convince security patrols that he wasn’t Viet Cong. Not stories that a 14 year old should have. He showed us areas that once were covered in jungle but that now are flat wastelands contaminated by napalm and Agent Orange – what must it have been like to watch the jungle fade away and be taken over by battlefields? What is it like now trying to farm that same land and seeing the effect of all those chemicals on family and friends over time?

The heat and humidity here is unrelenting, the jungle is thick and impossible to see through, the rivers are murky and full of unknown creatures and either the sun is shining its full intensity or the skies are opened and rain falls in buckets making everything a muddy maelstrom. I think of the foreign soldiers and wonder how they managed in this steamy, sweaty, soupy climate scrambling around in their combat gear with fear thick in their throats, knowing that the enemy has the advantage on their home turf.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon-1 The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City (former Saigon) told the story through graphic pictures, sending home the horror of war with intense reality and, although the story was told from a Vietnamese perspective, the pictures were of Vietnamese and American soldiers and it was clear that what everyone went through was horrific beyond belief.

DMZ Tour, Vietnam-8 Visiting the tunnels where villagers would spend day and weeks fleeing the fighting makes shows how horrid it must have been to try and go about daily life. The sophistication of those tunnels makes me realize the tenacity they had to continue that daily life, farming up top by day and living below ground by night. Whole villages managed in tunnels like these with families spending their time in small nooks carved into the sides of the tunnels. It is unbelievably tight and cramped and the air must have been hot and stale but they managed.

Two things really surprise me about Vietnam. The first is that this country that so recently was ravaged by a war involving westerners would now open their arms to those same westerners. The same people that fought in the war, or saw it through their childhood eyes, are now welcoming us in, making us comfortable, learning our language, and smiling at us around every corner. There is a genuine sentiment of pride and happiness that the world now wants to see their country.

The second was that American war vets would want to return to a place that, for them, must be full of bad memories that would take them back to a time they may have spent a long time trying to forget. But they are here – they come to see old battlefields, to revisit old friends for whose side they fought while here, and maybe to leave the past behind. It must be a difficult journey for them and as I see them I wonder what is going through their minds.

The story told here about the American War is a little different from that that we learn at home, but it is not told with malice or ego but with with pragmatism and nationalistic pride. Every country has its own story, told its own way, with its own ending…the truth always lies somewhere in between.

07 Apr

Living Closer To Home

Funny thing…traveling around the world for a year has made me think about living closer to home. No mum, I don’t mean that I’ll be moving back to my home town. I mean I should visit the market that’s just down the street instead of going to the supermarket. I should go see what the butcher has that’s local instead of buying meat pre-wrapped in styrofoam packages. I should have a veggie garden.

Everywhere we’ve been I’ve seen markets as a large part of everyone’s day. Why do we stock up with a weeks worth of groceries, eat meat that is factory produced, and buy vegetables that  are shipped from around the world?


market-produceHere, in Vietnam, people eat breakfast at the local Pho stand, go to the market to get lunch ingredients and then go to the market again to get dinner ingredients…now that’s fresh! And that’s what local markets can deliver – the produce likely came out of the ground that morning and the eggs laid within the past few days. Fish in South East Asia was kept in water-filled plastic bins complete with aerating hoses…pick the one you want and take it home. Food tastes better, and is better for us, when it hasn’t been hanging around for weeks.


some-of-the-3000-types-of-potato-in-peruThat’s why everything is so fresh…because it’s offered in the season that it is produced. No red peppers from Chile, no strawberries from California, and no pineapples from Thailand. Local markets  deliver what is available right now, where ever they are. In Peru it was potatoes  and carrots, in Germany it was radishes and lettuce and in India it was eggplant and cauliflower. When it comes to climate, some countries are certainly more fortunate that others and can produce a wide range of food all year round but seasonality provides a rotating variety of produce and lets us anticipate what the next season will bring.


market-chumphon-3In markets around the world I saw a dizzying variety of items. There was lots of different produce, many cuts of meat and plenty of fish, but there was also a plethora of other things that one may need. There is usually a stall or two selling spices, cooking oil, rice, flour, and other flavoring ingredients. Often times it was also possible to buy a knife, bowl, pan or rice cooker right there also. And always there is a booth, or two, or three selling ready made meals to enjoy on the low stools and tables nearby or to take home.


veggi-wallahMy favorite part of the markets I’ve seen is the personal nature of them. The lady behind that pile of greens may not have picked them herself this morning but she likely is related to the person that did. The eggs came from chickens that run around some ones’ yard all day. The people in the market are connected to the food they sell, and the people that buy from the market are connected to the people that produce the food they eat. It’s all personal.

Local Support

In far away markets ‘local support’ is meaningless…there is no other way of doing business other than locally, but at home going to the market means supporting local businesses, local families and a local economy. I can see the dwindling farmland near where I live – it is becoming impossible to earn a living running a small farm and yet there is a movement toward local products. The tide needs to turn faster before there is no more ‘local’ to enjoy.

Don’t worry, I’m not becoming a hemp-wearing, crunchy granola type who only eats organic produce and chickens that led a ‘happy’ life, but I am going to try to live more locally…support local farmers, find a local butcher, grow my own carrots.