Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 5 - Valentines Day in Luang Prabang

Preface. Today begins 4 months earlier at the train station in Florence, Italy. EZ and I were waiting patiently in the main hall for our platform to be announced for the train that would take us to Venice. Our train was delayed and there was some confusion in the hall as to what was happening on the tracks beyond the station. There were a number of muffled messages, in Italian, over the stations public address system, but nothing we could decipher. Suddenly, after one such public address a mob of people started to charge the ticket booths. I thought it best I do the same, so I left EZ with the bags and went to line up. Rumors in line were that our train to Venice was now leaving from another station and we would have to board another train here, go to the other station and connect with the Venice train there. My line mates were an older English women and a younger couple who looked Swedish, but, I didn't ask. We were all in it together. I got to the window and the fellow behind the glass was very helpful and gave me very clear instructions on where I needed to go. The young couple was not having much luck with their customer service associate so they ended up leaning on me for help. We had to hurry as we got this information at the last minute. I ran as fast as I could through the crowed station and yelled to EZ to grab the bags, we had to run to make our connection. The young couple, the english lady, EZ and I charged to the train and got in just as the doors were closing. Whew! We settled our sweaty frames into some seats and we were on our way to Venice, hopefully.

Which brings me to Luang Prabang, Laos, 4 months later. A French colonial jewel smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos. Chalk full of Europeans, who appear to have never left since the 19th century when the town was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, Luang Prabang is a sleepy romantic town on the banks of the Mekong River. We arrived on Valentines Day and after we settled into our guesthouse, we ventured out to connect again with the mystical Mekong. We sat where the low tides met with the sand, and watched what was definitely a 'top five' sunset vanish behind the palm tree line. Fishermen balancing on their long boats confidently cast their nets into the water, while youngsters played Thai volleyball on the shoreline. We even got to speak to a couple monks who wanted to practice their English.

As dusk settled we left the shore and made our way to the town centre for a lovely Valentines Day dinner. At the time, having been on the road for 10 months, days of the week, and Western occasions for feast, were somewhat bypassed with a shrug, but, nevertheless it was a lovely meal.

Afterwards, we took a walk down the main drag which closed itself to cars at night and featured a night market full of gaudy Asian tourist artifacts and a cast of equally colorful characters. We chatted with locals and playfully bartered for a pair of flip-flop sandals. It took a couple hours to navigate up and down the street. Eventually, we were ready to head back to the guesthouse, when out of nowhere, a young couple, approached us. "Hello", said the young man. "Do we know you from somewhere?". Having been in Asia for a few months already, I was used to the locals taking my photo and declaring me everyone from Matt Damon to Michael Schumacher (neither of which I even remotely resemble), but, this was the first time a Western couple approached us out-of-the-blue. The four of us simply stared at each other for what must have been two minutes.

"Have you been to Moscow?"


"Have you been to Singapore"

"Not yet."

We stared a little longer and continued to name cities of the world. They did look familiar. Suddenly, it dawned on me, as I'm sure it already has on you; this was the young couple that we had a brief 'run-in' with in Florence 4 months earlier. What are the odds that we run into them again, in Northern Laos no less? We exchanged brief recounts of where we had been since Florence and where we were going. It turned out we were going in opposite directions, so we left it at that. Both parties going their separate ways. Nevertheless, I was flummoxed at such a chance encounter.

I suppose all of us travelers are on essentially the same route (no matter what your desire to reach the unexplored corners of the earth) and the odds of running into the same people twice in one year could be quite low if you're both doing extended travel, but, it's moment like this, that make this world seem so small, and all of us incredibly connected to the fates of each other. The train station in Florence, Italy and the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos will forever be intertwined in my mind. I know that we shared with them two very insignificant moments (I don't even remember their names), just an encounter and a revelation of that previous encounter, but I'll always remember it as an example of the fact that we are all a part of the same silly story.

They were from Iceland.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 4 - Boom Boom Pow in Aqaba

The roof top of The Petra Hotel in Aqaba, Jordan features a unique view. To the south, Saudi Arabia, to the west and across the Red Sea, the Egyptian Sinai region, and, to the north, Israel. In other words, a lot of news making geography. For CAD$2/night we mingled and slept on the roof of the old hotel, across the road from what was declared to be the best nuts in the Middle East. That is, there was a line up of bulk food stores that only featured nuts in baskets. Most famous were the BBQ'd cashew nuts. They were VERY good, and lived up to the reputation. The aroma of the stores wafted up to the roof, keeping us hungry through the night.

Being Jordan's only access to the Sea, a lot of industry flows through Aqaba's ports. To contradict that, just outside of town are a slew of beaches and One-Billion dollar resorts. We went down to the water in town and came upon a local beach. It definitely wasn't the type of place to be having a Beach Blanket Bango. Very traditional and sombre, and the gloom of the tankers didn't make the sea too appealing for swimming. It was hard to believe that just down the road was a community of world class resorts.

On this day in particular, we had some bad luck with our camera. This would be the first of three disasters involving our precious Canon G9. Our pride and joy accidentally got knocked of the truck and landed with a crack on the road. This was only one month into our journey. From that point on it refused to work, and it wasn't until weeks later when we were in Istanbul that we were able to get it back in working order. Fortunately, we did have a back-up 'old faithful' Canon Powershot, and, one of the travelers on tour with us had a Canon G8 as his back up. so we were covered for the rest of Egypt. This still didn't take away the sting of breaking the one thing we purchased with the donations from our engagement party. It was one of those times were we said, "Well, at least we are safe and have our health," when really, who could care less. OUR FUCKING CAMERA BROKE!!! "Well, there are people starving in Africa." Yeah, that's true. OUR FUCKING CAMERA BROKE!!

So we mopped about the roof drinking imitation Whiskey and Vodka as the sun set over the Red Sea and Sinai. As darkness fell, locals began to come outdoors in droves and piled into pick up trucks. They filled the street, cheering and celebrating. Driving up and down the main drag. What were they cheering about? No clue. Perhaps it was a soccer match that ended well for the Aqaba side. In any event, it was nice background noise. It would have been nice to join in, but, alas, our camera was broken, and our trip therefore ruined (sense sarcasm, but that was how we felt). We weren't going to move for much.

Except, just as the bottle of vodka was being replaced for another, and I sat comfy on my foam ground sheet, head against the wall; an explosion went off behind me! The girls screamed and the guys ducked down under their sleeping bags. Another went off. BOOM! BOOM! POW! Vision of BBC news headlines, "Canadians killed in Cross-border Crossfire" went through my head. The explosions continued. They were right beside us. It's almost as if they're being fired from the street below and up at us. I may be giving too much away in my post titles, but, suffice it to say, the locals were letting off fireworks from the tailgates of their trucks. This would surly not be tolerated by the Canadian Safety First Alliance. Embarrassed, the dozen or so foreigners that were packed onto the roof, composed themselves, gingerly stood and went over to the ledge. We watched as fireworks of gold, silver, green and red all went of before our eyes. It was incredibly, peaceful.

We found out the next day that the locals were celebrating a decision made by their Royal Family. They were proud of their leaders. What a concept.

This was also the beginning of the week where I took 48 shits in 7 days. Couldn't have anything to do with the BBQ cashews and old swill vodka mixers. Nah. Oh well, at least we're safe. OUR FUCKING CAMERA BROKE!!