Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 3 - Giant Cave Spiders and a Flat Tire

On the south-west Thai island of Koh Lanta, in a stroke of perfect timing, we were able to meet up with some friends from back home who were on a one week vacation from their own year away, teaching in Taiwan. Koh Lanta is one of Thailand's more popular islands, but as was the case with most of our trip, it was relatively quiet, so we were able to experience some really fun activities without any crowds. Taking a break from lying on the long beach (backpacking sure is rough), we thought it would be nice to rent a couple of motorbikes and explore the island for the day. $5/bike for the day and luckily our gas tank was already filled. We heard about the small National Park on the island that was occupied by rubber tree forest. In addition, according to the Muslim family who live on the park, one of their cousins discovered a really big cave on the property. So, that sounded like fun.

EZ drove us south down the golden dirt road. The main road was quiet enough that we were able to relax and take in the sights without worrying too much about the traffic. The back of the bike was definitely dragging a bit, and we noticed it most on the stops and starts. I held her hips, and together we looked like Boo Boo driving with Yogi Bear in tow. Eventually we made a left inland and went from off-road to off-road, asking locals along the way if this was indeed the way to the cave. They nodded and pointed us along toward our first embarkation, Khao Mai Kaew Cave.

We waited patiently at the park entrance for the guide (the landowner) to finish his lunch. Eventually he approached us, asked for a 50 Baht guide fee, handed us some headlamps for the cave, and we began to follow him on foot into the jungle.

As of the time of our visit, safety wasn't the first precaution taken inside the cave and we would be in for a very raw and adventurous experience. Adventurous, that is, compared to my lifestyle back home in Toronto. The jungle hike was quite pleasant. We saw how rubber is born; very similar to our Canadian maple syrup. A couple of vine and hill-climbs later, we reached a small, indistinct hole inside a rocky outcrop. Our guide disappeared like an OG (or for those not familiar with the reference, Alice's White Rabbit) into the cavern. We followed.

Our lamps flickered on to reveal the dank interior. The first 'room' was not too impressive, but, as we slowly made our way along the slick and uneven surfaces and over a tight bridge into the next chamber, the beams extended further. Each open space preceding was the size of a cathedral Basilica. Not St. Peter's of course, but big enough.

After some very physical hiking, here came the sticky bit. In between the jaw-drooping interiors, we were making our way from one cavern into the next. Some clever footing was involved as we negotiated our way down a tunnel. Up ahead I heard EZ start into one of her nervous whistles and our friend Ben said "Uh Oh". I was shining my headlamp onto where I wanted to put my hands and feet next. One extremity at a time. The vibe was getting weird as I got closer to my friends. I came through the tunnel and saw Erin and Ben staring at something out of my view, but still adjacent to me. I shone my my light to the right, put my foot down, then shone it to the left to pull myself out, and, what do I see but the devil, in all his majesty.

If you have ever known me, you know that even a little spider in the bathtub will send me out of the house. However, in the words of Martha and the Vandellas, there was 'no where to run to' here. There it was, a male spider that was almost the size of my hand. Definitely the biggest bug I have seen.

I've always put myself in this type of situation in my minds eye and wondered how I would react. In my head, this situation never turned out well. But, here, strangely enough, confronted by my single greatest fear, I really didn't do anything. Albeit, in that environment there was nothing I could do, but, I 'hmfed' and just kept on walking. I didn't stop to gawk like EZ as the big fella slowly moved up the wall of the cave. I didn't take a photo like Ben did. Just kept my head down, watched my step even closer and kept moving. Who knows how I would be in the car... sun in my eyes... pull the sunscreen down and a giant woodsman spider falls on my lap. Probably different. I heard this is the number one cause of traffic accidents in Australia. I am never going to Australia.

I digress, earlier in the cave trek we did spot a couple female eight-legged-freaks, but, they were far enough away and stationary in the giant caverns that I remained relatively sane. To be honest, they were kind of pretty, their jade-green surface shining in the light. I wouldn't feel to good about finding one under my bed sheets or in my shoe, but, it still appeared peaceful. The big male on the other hand, was big, brown, black, and hairy. I can barely write this without shivering (shudder).

Anyways, a couple caverns later we came upon the bat cave. These bats were quite a sight to see in the wild. Definitely bigger and wilder than the ones at the zoo, with some of their bodies as big as a puppy dog. They didn't enjoy the camera flash and flew in our direction once or twice. This was not the place for infants. But, again, as was the case in so many places, my 'hedges' were being trimmed and fears assuaged. The bats, in all their numbers were more creepy than scary. The squeaking echoed through the cavern, and when they flew at us all you could really do was hide inside your shirt. Our guide got us a great shot directly under the colony, looking up toward the little buggers.

Act 3 of the cave trek featured a fine climax. After about 1 hour inside, we had reached the final room. I saw that the only way out was to crawl through a tunnel about 1.5 feet in circumference and a couple metres thick. This was a very tight spot and I could not see the light on the other side. The other option for an exit was to walk back through the way we came. That wasn't happening. So, I kneeled over and climbed inside. It was akin to The Great Escape, or, that tunnel in Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood that led to the Land of Make Believe. Very sweaty and completely filthy, I emerged to the other side and felt a shot of adrenaline, and accomplishment, as I saw the light of the jungle through the darkness.

We returned back to our guides home, and the missus fixed us a fine lunch of Pad Thai and 'Happy' Banana Shakes.

Back onto the bikes we continued to explore the island views. About a kilometre away from where we were to drop the bikes off, of course, the back tire blew. We swerved off to the side of the road, close to a crappy elephant farm that featured one really sad looking pachyderm. I got off and EZ took the bike back herself. Ben came back and ferried me home. The guy at the rental place didn't seem too upset. "Happens all the time", he said. Geez, are there any rules or regulations here?

We returned to the long beach for the sunset, and to watch the fishermen cast their nets off of the rocks and into the waning tides of the Indian Ocean.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Day 2 - Turkey v. Germany

It was day one of a three day felucca sail down the Nile. We were heading north out of Aswan, Egypt, toward Luxor with eight other travellers and a crew of three Nubian boatmen. Ahmed, our constantly-stoned-on-hashish 'driver', steered the boat slowly from one bank to the other as we were carried upriver by the surprisingly strong current. A persistent headwind slowed our efforts and we were not making very good time. Luckily, we were not in a hurry. I had my portable guitar along for the trip and serenaded the group for hours with some sweet little finger-picked melodies.

Once the hot afternoon sun got a little lower and the temperature started to decline, the group began to get some energy. We considered a jump into the river. Our fixer (the guy who had all the knowledge and took care of us in this territory) Mohammed tossed a one inch thick rope off the boat deck and tied one end to a hook on the gunnel. He said that if we wanted to jump in for a dip, we would have to hold onto the rope whilst in the water. He didn't want to lose any of us to the current. Rumors swirled abound on the dangers of swimming in the Nile. I started to lean back toward playing my guitar when I heard of the parasites that crawl up the hole in your penis. Undaunted, EZ (my wife-to-be and beloved) motivated me back into the fold by declaring that if we all jumped in at the same time, it would be fine. How I don't know, but it sounded good at the time. Six of us held hands and counted to three. Splash! It was freezing, believe it or not. We all navigated ourselves to the rope and got pulled through the water with relative ease. We whooped and hollered in the freezing cold water, arousing the attention of some cows on the river bank. We had one scary moment when two of the ladies lost hold of the rope, but we got them back and onto the boat safely. With one hand on the rope, I had the other swirling around my genitals so as to deter any penis-hole invaders. I only stayed in for about 10 minutes, as this was not a relaxing swim, rather, it was simply something to say I did. I swam in the Nile, so there. Second, a goal for me during this one-year away was to break down my "hedges" and hesitations. To take risks in the unfamiliar or daunting.

Once back on the boat, and after a light dinner, EZ and I went to the bow to dry by the setting sun. She was lamenting the fact that she was not able to watch HER beloved, Turkey, face off against Germany in the EURO 2008 football semi-final. We had been able to catch all of their matches in the tournament to date, Turkey had some very exciting results, and it was a touch too bad that we couldn't be there to witness the semis on TV. But whatever, look where we were, watching the sunset behind the green banks of the Nile.

However, word spread quickly around the boat that EZ was probably going to miss the match and Mohammed quickly made it his mission to see that didn't happen. An hour or so went by until Mohammed approached the group and asked us if we still wanted to see the match. His inquiry was met with a resounding, "YES!". Ahmed steered the felucca gently to a rest on the bank of the Nile. It was now pitch dark and the way ahead was completely deserted. We put on some head lamps, grabbed a couple cases of Sakara beer for the road, and followed Mohammed into the darkness.

We climbed up the river bank and came upon a field of sand and dried shit. I kept the headlamp pointed down so as not to step on anything controversial. The group stuck together. Suddenly, what sounded like about 2 dozen wild dogs, began to bark and howl in our direction. The sound was so deafening, they could have been right beside us, but, I couldn't see anything past the light. Just noise. We picked up the pace and gradually the wail of the dogs began to wane and the field of sand began to change into some irrigated farmland. We found a garden path that lead us to a dead end; a irrigation channel filled with ten millennia of feces and garbage, that eventually flowed into the Nile behind us. Not deterred, Mohammed led us about one hundred yards to the right, where there was a log that bridged across the channel. I hate crossing over water balancing on a log. My centre of gravity is too high, I have no balance or coordination, and this was my second hedge to overcome in one day. By the time I finished thinking (that's the problem. If I didn't think so much and just did it, I'd be fine), EZ was already across the 15-foot "bridge" and urging me on. I wasn't going to walk across. I just couldn't. Visions of falling in permeated my mind. Walking across a log would have to wait for another day. So, I straddled it. I put both my hands in front and "bum hopped" safely across the log. Though I became a momentary subject of ridicule, at least I made it across dry, which is more than I can say for some of us. One of the girls accidently dropped her flashlight as she was taking her final steps onto the other side. John, one of the guys, tried to lean out and catch it before it went in the water. Slip!! He caught the light, but tumbled into the drink. He held out his arm frantically and I dragged him back onto dry land. He instantly took off his shirt and tried to shake all the jeebies out. Who knows what got on him, but I do know that he is still alive and well in his homeland of Australia.

Once we were all across the channel we could make out a road in the distance. We trudged through the spiky bushes and powdery sand, and were met at the road by three 5-year old kids. There was no home, nothing in sight, so I don't know where they came from, but, there they were, ready to play. So, we played, and waited for about 10 minutes, until Mohammed hailed down the first truck he saw. The back cab was packed with Nubians. Mohammed talked to the driver, pointed at us, and almost instantly, the locals piled high onto the top of the covered truck and the 8 of us were ushered into the back. We all sat in disbelief as the truck sped up and slowed down along the dark dirt road, and the passengers hopped on and off the roof above us; each surprised at the payload of eight chubby westerners in the back. 15 minutes later, we pulled up to our stop and hopped out of the cab. We shook hands with our driver and Mohammed led us into the local hangout. This place, nestled on the outskirts of a tiny Nubian village held the TV that broadcasted the match.

Arriving late, we missed the first few minutes of the game, but still managed to find some seats in what could best be described as an open-air gentlemen's tea house. A twelve inch tube-television blasted the game. EZ and the three other ladies were the only women in the whole place. We were surrounded by old men smoking shisha pipes, guys my age, eyes glued to the game, and some old timers in the back playing Egyptian Tavla (kind of like backgammon). The place was packed and I had one of those "one world" moments. You know those IBM or Olympic commercials that show people from all over the world, from the sports bars in America to a Masai hut in the Serenghetti, coming together to enjoy the same thing on TV? That's what this felt like. It was a good feeling to see that even in the most remote parts of the planet people still, at the heart of it, are having the same party with their good friends. The party is always the same, all over the world, albeit it's a little quieter in America. These Nubians in a remote village in central Egypt, lived and died with every shot in a match between Turkey and Germany. Once a group of them found out that EZ was Turkish, they cheered even harder for an Anatolian victory. The match, which in the end was won by the Germans, became almost secondary. It was the journey there and the revelation of sameness that made the memory.

The ride home was easier, partly because we knew what to expect. Mohammed even managed to find a proper bridge over the irrigation channel, which delighted John to no end. But not really.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Day 1 - Is that a Rat In Your Pants?

Having finished watching the sunset behind the Royal Palace, and participating in some evening calisthenics with the locals in the main square overlooking the Tonle Sap River, we were ready to dine out in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Even on a budget, we never went hungry, as I'm sure you know, food comes quite cheap all over South East Asia. The best eats for us all over the region came at the neighborhood street stalls or make-shift dining patios that families would set up in front of their homes. Tonight we would find a typical stall close to the Independence Monument that served a heaping veggie-noodle plate for 5000 Riel ($1CAD).

We settled onto our two tiny stools and watched our chef at work. His massive wok clanged and rattled as he shook all the ingredients together on the propane stove. While everything we ate in Asia was essentially a variation of rice/noodle/vegetable/seafood/oil/sauce, amazingly each stall had it own unique dish of fresh and local ingredients, and no two meals were ever the same.

Beside us were a few other locals. Teenagers, very interested in our every move. We smiled at them. They laughed at us. Beside the teenagers was an older lady washing the dishes with water from who knows where.

At night, Central Phnom Penh is very dark for a capital city of almost two-million people. Not too many street lights. In fact, the only significant light at night came from the cars and motor bikes that crowded the streets. Sitting on the tiny stools, we could barley see past the circumference of the street stall.

Which brings us to the meal service. Our food is delivered proudly by the proprietor's teenage daughter. Oddly enough, she is wearing flannel pajamas, as is her mother, and the grand mother who was still washing the dishes. We unwrapped our chop sticks and dug in. After the first bite we give a 'thumbs-up' to the anxious chef who was probably hoping for some repeat business from these two chubby Canucks. It is an excellent meal. However, and this is the moment you've been waiting for. About a half-dozen bites in to my dinner, I feel a little tickle at the bottom of my tucked in shirt, around the tail bone. You know when you are squatting, or sitting in a very low chair like I was, the back of your pants creates a little triangle opening. Not a plumbers butt, but just a little opening. An opening big enough for something tiny to jump inside. That was where the tingle was happening.

This was an odd sensation, that does not normally accompany a meal, so I perked up a bit. I sat up a little more straight. With that gyration, the tickle became less playful and a touch more violent. I still did not react, rather, I simply stood up. And what you may ask fell out of my pants with a 'plop' onto my dining chair? A chubby little rat. Yikes. The rat didn't even give me time to react. In a flash, he leapt off his perch and into the grass. He instantly disappeared into the darkness of Phnom Penh.

I looked up to the family expecting some sort of sympathy for this incident that went down on their turf. This did not happen. They laughed at me. I finished the rest of my meal standing and nervously staring into the darkness, accompanied only by the cackles of my beloved and a half-dozen Cambodians.

After dinner, we picked up a 6 pack of Angkor beer and went back to our "hotel" to watch the Oscars on a four-day tape delay. We were woken up around 3am to the sound of a woman screaming hysterically, first in her suite, then in the hallway. I'll save that one for another day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Day 0 - Introduction

As declared in the Header Description, this travel blog will be a collection of reflections from my time spent on the road. My hope is that they will help you to put any hesitation aside and inspire you to experience an adventure of your own. At the very least, this will let me stay connected to the memories of what can only be described as a lifetime of adventure.

Or, if you are already out there, using your spare days, weeks, months and years to see everything the world has to offer, perhaps you can relate to what I an able to recollect.

So, lets get to it. Skip the health insurance, selling our condo, moving stuff into storage, vaccines, and goodbye after goodbye after goodbye. Here it comes, in no particular order...