Born to be Wild

Get your motor runnin’… Head out on the highway… Lookin’ for adventure and whatever comes our way!…Yeah darlin’ go make it happen, take the world in a love embrace…Fire all of your guns…

By gun I mean the one I had loaded and cocked against my temple while horrible Cambodian karaoke music played at over a 100 decibels from a speaker just above my head.  By adventure I mean any moving vehicle you are in, driven by a sadist in South East Asia. By highway I mean a semi-paved dirt road with tailing pond sized pot holes and absolutely no rules.  By love embrace I mean the absolute insanity of handing over your life to the driver of an overnight bus who is chugging red bulls to stay awake on the worst road ever in Northern Laos. By motor I mean…

THE BUS.

I love the bus.  I really do.  You hear all sorts of travellers talking about the “real” Cambodia and the “real” Thailand or the opposite of that, where is the “real” Laos or the “real” Vietnam?  I for one will tell you that the “real” everything can be found and seen on the bus.  There is no better place to get a good sense of a country than taking a bus that locals can afford to be on.  I love looking out the window at the always amazing scenery and people watching as the bus passes by.  Small makeshift huts, shacks, stilted houses, 3 story mansions and bamboo food stalls riddle the roads of this part of the world.  Kids playing, women tending their crops, men heading into town with a truckload of cabbage, cows mingling by the busy roadways and as many motorbikes as you can count weaving in and out of traffic without any fear.  Most bus companies in this part of the world think you want to hear music.  More specifically karaoke style love ballads and really bad local pop.  Now I have nothing against local music, but some of this stuff is pretty bad, and when it’s played for hours on end in an uncomfortable bus at thunderously loud levels, well let’s just say that gun almost saved my life.  We were lucky a few times on the night bus to have along with the music,  disco style lights clicking on and off to the beat.  To top things off, after several hours of music, they would switch it and play local comedy shows just as loud.  Not many of the locals were laughing, I certainly wasn’t.  If we were really lucky the air conditioning wouldn’t be working. That always makes for a wonderful trip as the sun beats down on the giant metal frame, heating up the vessel into a stinky sweat box of smells that you don’t want to know.  Or the night bus that doesn’t turn down the air con and everybody on board turns into frozen sardines.  But hey at least it gets you from A to B right?  Sitting in the back of a mini bus (glorified minivan) 12 people on board, along with a roof top full of gear makes for a suspension that feels like a punch to your kidneys every time you hit a pot hole.  The ac was blowing cool air that never made it to the hot back seat where a tiny local woman with a newborn, F. and I were sitting.  The road was a sidewinder through the glorious mountain range leading into Northern Laos.  F. was standing strong trying not to let the roller coaster ride get to her somewhat tired stomach.  We thought the locals would be comfortable with the road conditions, but about 30 minutes into the trip the young local women awoke from her sleep and started throwing up all over the inside of the van next to the window.  She did manage to find a plastic bag and finished off her heaving without making too much of a mess.  Her husband sitting in front of us turned to see what was going on, than quickly fell back asleep offering no help or sympathy.  A guy from South Africa hollered at the driver to stop so we could let the young lady out to catch her breath.  Her husband stood in shock wondering why we were doing this; I also sat wondering how long he would have been willing to sit in the van with a stinking bag of puke in it.  We did finally get her out with some directing by the South African.  The locals were seemingly bewildered as to why we wanted to help.  It happened one more time about an hour later, I’m just glad that F. didn’t return the favour!  One thing that is a common theme to all of the countries in South East Asia is the lack of communication with the foreigners who do not know the bus routes.  Busses have started driving off with our bags still in them, me jumping fearlessly back into a moving bus yelling at the driver to stop so that I could get our last bag off.  We left two brand new fleeces in Indonesia because the bus all of the sudden stopped and said we needed to get out to catch another bus that was already leaving.  In our confusion at what was going on (no one told us we were going to be switching busses) we forgot $150 of fleece in the upper shelf.  A very nice present for some lucky SOB!  We have seen people fall down and almost get run over by the bus as they were getting out because time is money and the bus never comes to a complete stop to let anyone on or off.  You literally have to jump out of a moving bus.  Locals getting on the bus with instruments, usually guitars, playing a few self-written ditties then demand that you give them money.  I just wanted mostly to tell them to stop.  Tiny seats made for local bottoms not four European blooded cheeks.  Most of the bus trips have been uncomfortable, long, tiring, some with no bathroom breaks, some with way too many.  It of course wasn’t all bad, many people helped us get off at the right stop, and many more told us not to get off at the wrong one.  We were in China and nobody spoke any English, we knew the bus trip was around 4 to 5 hours.  I think we were over 5 hours in and we hadn’t stopped for quite some time.  We pulled into a huge empty gravel parking lot just off the road we had been driving on.  The locals got out of the bus to stretch their legs or have a smoke.  Was it our stop?  We were the only foreigners on board.  I got out and showed our ticket to the driver.  He grunted and turned his head.  I showed him again, and he slightly nodded and walked off.  Was it our stop?  I asked one of the taxi drivers if it was in fact our destination, he looked at me blindly and shook his head, “yes”.  Was it our stop?  We managed to get all of our stuff off the bus before it left, I was still unsure if we were even in the right place.  Then our knight in shining armor appeared out of nowhere, a taxi driver that could speak a few words of English.  I asked him about five times if it was the right city before I finally believed him.  The language barrier is a scary and beautiful thing, and being dropped off on the side of the road in nowhere China is one of the most amazing and scary things I have ever done.  The bus, it can’t get any more “real” than that.

B.

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“Bizzare Foods” B & F Style!

So you think your stomach can handle it? I’ll be the first to admit that we watched a lot of “Bizarre Foods” with Andrew Zimmern during the buildup to this trip. All of them in fact and the episodes of countries where we knew we would be going, several times over. I think secretly or not so secretly now, we both wish that we had his job. Travelling the world, eating exotic and sometimes not so wonderful foods from every corner of the globe. We are proud to say that we have eaten some of the juicy, tender goodies he chomps down on during his show.

In Indonesia we ate snake fruit with a hard outer shell that, well, looks like snakeskin. On the show a lady says it smells like a white man’s armpit, we luckily never experienced that. We found that it was similar to the middle piece of the pineapple and tasted somewhat the same. We tried the spiny durian fruit on the island of Lombok. I was hesitant but equally excited to try it. They say you either love it or hate it. Many public buildings and hotels have signs up saying, “No durian allowed” due to the long lingering smell that is left behind after eating the fruit. The fruit itself has the consistency of custard and tastes like dessert with a long after burn of rotten green onions. That being said it was good, really. In Singapore we ate fish head soup. A dish fit for a king on a peasant’s salary. Don’t forget that cheek meat. Most of the bizarre foods we ate however were in China. We tried scorpion in Beijing, and it does taste like soft shelled crab. Delicious. Donkey meat dumplings with the meat’s distinct taste were equally as good. Silkworm larvae off of sticks which I disliked, with a texture of warm cottage cheese and a taste much the same. Yuck. Whole frog barbeque off a street vendor covered in a mouth numbing spice is a wonderful late night snack. We had it several times as an appetizer, mm mm good. F. was eating a lot of turtle jelly and bird’s nest concentrate in Hong Kong as she already mentioned in a previous post. We’ve eaten all kinds of skewered organ meats of every color and texture grilled right before your eyes. Organ soup with a smell you will never forget and a taste you would like to. Gross. Duck organs covered in hot chillies, tiny chewy bites that set your mouth ablaze. Duck tongues would be a huge hit at home, you could munch on them all night while watching the game. We ended up trying chicken feet in a fancy dim sum restaurant; they were really good because of the wonderful sauce. Chicken feet in their own right will not become a household dish once this trip is over. Last on the list so far is sparrow, little deep fried crunchy morsels flavoured with chillies, salt and pepper. Beak and all crunch, crunch, crunch.

Stay tuned for part two…

B.

Manhood?

We found the bus station by chance. Well not by chance I guess, we went right instead of left and there it was somewhere through the smog. We sometimes forget that the guide book is in fact that, a guide, and the directions it provides sometimes aren’t as holy as we would like them to be. “The bus stop is towards a piece of the old city wall, once you get out of the subway.” But where the hell is the old city wall? Why didn’t they say, “Turn right when you get out of the subway?” They also never mentioned that you would have to cross a major highway in order to get there. We figured it out though. We always do. As we made our way out of the sprawling mass that is Beijing, we started to see some remnants of the mighty wall crumbling behind the cliff tops and rocky enclaves of the mountainous terrain. “How the hell did they build the wall there?” I said under my breath. My heart started beating a little faster in anticipation of getting my first look, signs littered the highway for the main attraction that was to come and I wondered how long it would be before we got to see our piece.

We got off the bus and followed the English signs directing us to the entrance. We still couldn’t see it and walked with a little more pepper to each step. I had my camera in hand, ready to capture my first glimpse of this wonder of the world. After making our way through the ticket booth, scampering up the stairway onto the spine of the great beast, our eyes finally feasted on what is, “The Great Wall of China”. I never did take that picture as I had planned; we just stood in awe as the giant serpent slowly slithered off into the distance. The Great Wall is an amazing structure; it sticks seamlessly on top of whatever terrain that is set underneath it. Parts that we climbed were almost at what seemed a ninety degree angle straight up, and then inevitably straight down. Obviously The Wall wasn’t built to be the tourist attraction that it is today. Although it never really did what it was supposed to do on the grand scale of which it was built, the idea alone of building a wall that is some five hundred kilometers long is an amazing achievement, and I would say a little bit crazy. Climbing The Great Wall was a slow tedious process and maybe even a little bit dangerous. Its steep staircase over somewhat impossible terrain was relentless. We finally reached the peak of the less travelled side and from the lookout point you could really see for the first time the enormity of the structure. It seemingly went on forever. At this point we finally stopped to take that picture but as always it never does a wonder like this justice, you really just have to see it with your own two eyes. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “You’re not a man until you’ve walked The Great Wall.” Finally my time had come.

B.

China’s Forbidden Menu

The tiniest little star made a sparkling appearance in the smog filled Beijing sky tonight, and I made a wish…Most nights the thick cloud that envelops this city makes it near impossible to see any kind of cosmic activity. Beijing shines however in its own way. Standing on many of the streets and curved tiny alleyways you instantly time travel to a mysterious era filled with elaborate artwork, intricately designed architecture and regal costumes. In a fleeting moment, your eyes seem to catch a glimpse of the bravest warrior or the most powerful emperor whose spirits still rest in this marvellously complex place, you blink and the image evaporates into the smog. What has China been like? This last month described in one word would be, overwhelming.  Moments of complete opposition, feeling like a celebrity to nonexistent in a single day. Celebrity status is not something I have ever wanted to attain, and now I have confirmed this. On various occasions when people have asked to have their picture taken with us I wanted to crawl into the nearest hole. It felt beyond weird. At times I have been B.’s accessory, treated with not that much more importance than the wristwatch he was wearing. After fighting so hard for my strength and independence, having to take a step back in the name of a different culture was a little bit difficult, but I did it. China can be as abrasive as a rough piece of sandpaper on baby soft skin. Hoards and hoards of people make for a whole lotta noise, noise, NOISE! Take all of the manners that your parents taught you and throw them swiftly out the closest window. Are we too uptight? Do we spend our time concerned with offending everyone around us? Do we supress just being ourselves for the sake of not stepping on someone else’s toes? No one seems to EVER use their inside voice here. Every laugh, yawn, cough and sigh is the loudest it can possibly be.  At all hours on the train or bus people are singing, chatting on the phone, & playing music all at the highest volume. There are no rules when it comes to food, absolutely none. Any kind of consumption is a slurping, crunching and sucking fest that you could probably hear from a few blocks away. I have even started slurping my noodles, 1) to feel like I fit in a little bit and 2) because my chopstick skills are not that great, and it’s just easier to eat them that way. It does feel quite liberating. Are we uptight? I would have to say a definite maybe. For the Beijing Olympics, a lot of restaurants got their menus translated into English. The following are examples that the restaurant owners should have checked the translators c.v’s a little more carefully. See if you can figure out what these menu items are because we sure weren’t able to, but we got a really good laugh out of trying! “Let clothes plain boiled pork cool”, “Drunk fish of grandma does”, “Dish of sesame oil connected through one’s female relatives”, “Fry ball with no result”, “Big bowls grow a kidney bean”, “Pair of private taste bean curds”, “All rough blood of frog is flourishing”, “Blow up hairtail with no result”, “Field three are fresh”, “Burn the mustard orchid vainly”, and last but not least, what would any Asian meal be without a generous portion of “Stir-fry kid for a short time”. This trip is changing me. I am becoming a more tolerant human being. I can tolerate more noise, filth, discomfort, physical pain, foul smells, and insecurity than ever before. I am becoming a more tolerant human being and the world could definitely use a bit more tolerance. What type of footprint is my ratty flip-flop leaving behind I wonder? I am hopeful that I am leaving a positive mark behind on our trails. I want to help break down some of the negative assumptions the rest of the world has about “white” people, simply by doing what isn’t necessarily expected of me. China permeates honesty, something I have been craving for a very long time. It seemed like my life back home reeked of fancy fake frills for way too long. What you see is what you get here and there is something unbelievably fresh and true about that. The customer service is to the point and not riddled with people pretending to care or like you to make a quick buck. My fear is that the old China is disappearing. In a quest for modernization I could see all of the old history slowly crumbling away. Only in Beijing did we find the ancient image of China that we all have in our heads. What does that mean? Will China one day just become a maze of modern skyscrapers? This thought deeply saddens me. I make another wish….

F.

Professional Bluffer

My poker face. Along with my camera and sunglasses I won’t leave the hotel without these important travel essentials. Exploring this part of the world, every single day we behold images that if I was reacting truthfully would make my jaw drop to the floor and my eyeballs pop right out of my head. In the name of respect, instead I put on my poker face. There is a saying that “Cantonese will eat anything with wings, except an airplane, anything with legs, except a table.” If it has legs, wings, fins, or scales it’s sitting in a tank or cage outside the restaurant waiting to be killed at your request bringing new meaning to the word, “Fresh”. Poker face. Baskets full of dead rats, restaurants advertising dog meat for dinner, and can I just say that what everyone says about spitting in China is absolutely 100% true. Poker face. I will probably go back to being a vegetarian when we get to Montreal. It’s the easiest way for me to do something for the animals that I love so much every single day. One of my major life goals is to help the cause in a bigger way somehow. In the last three cities that we have been to in China, basically no one has spoken any English so eating vegetarian is a little difficult. We eat in the restaurants that have photos in the menus or on the walls, and point to whatever it is we think we can recognize. I repeat, WHATEVER WE THINK WE RECOGNIZE. When we order or buy a whole chicken at home we are getting ripped off and we don’t seem to care.  Around here ordering a chicken means feathers removed, chopped up and plated. Whole chicken. I’m actually quite happy when I see the head on my plate because at least then I’m sure of what it is. Pointing to things that you hope you know is not the most reliable ordering method. I just say a silent little prayer every time we sit down for a meal that Fluffy and Fido don’t end up on my plate by mistake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I feel like my cats would never come near me again, because they WOULD KNOW. The bottom line is, China has made me feel welcome. The stares are unavoidable but the reactions feel more positive now, or maybe I’m just getting used to it. Especially in the less touristy places we’ve been to, it seems like people are thinking,” Oh my, is that a very tall, very very white person?” These moments are always followed by a big bright smile. On more occasions than I can count, complete strangers have come out of the woodwork and bailed our asses out of what could have easily turned into extremely scary situations. To these special angels who have read signs we couldn’t read, stopped us from getting on buses to god knows where and hailed cabs in areas when it was impossible for a non-local to get one, I am unbelievably grateful. Xiexie! Communicating without language has reminded me of the simple connection that exists between each and every human being in the world. No matter which part of this great earth we are from our basic needs are exactly the same. This is why we can still understand each other when we are trying to communicate even without words. A humble smile is still the most powerful tool anyone can use on any part of the planet. I wish we could come back to that idea. Simplicity, acceptance with a facial expression, connection through race. The HUMAN race. So many of the most complicated problems can be solved quite effortlessly.

F.

Clooney, Cage and Chicken Feet?

China the enigma. From an old lady chomping on boiled chicken feet on the train while picking her nose, to the refined nightlife of Shanghai or Hong Kong, with Armani suited businessmen eating dinner  overlooking the skyline. You’ll find every possible fashion faux pas from the west here and at the same time you can find all your high end dreams at prices you just might be able to afford. Billboards with familiar Hollywood stars selling ugly handbags to the endless array of watch advertisements. Nick Cage, you’re really not that good looking, and that fancy watch on your wrist is somehow out of place. Or maybe it’s you. How dare you take that million dollars to have your face plastered all over every major city in China. Clooney is here too. Of course. White people selling a billion plus Chinese, shit they don’t need. I never would have imagined. I somehow thought it wasn’t allowed. But China surprised me so many times. The young couple helping without us asking when we got off the bus in Changsha, to the ancient walled city of Feng Huang and its bustling night market.  My programming from watching the news all my life made me think it was going to be a sea of sweat shops making Nike shoes and dollar stores filled with all the same crap. You know what? They don’t sell any of that junk here; all those little trinkets are for our shopping bags only.

We’ve spent most of our time in China in the four major cities, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. With a small stint into Hunan province for a piece of the countryside and mountains. Hunan reminded me of northern Quebec mixed with the prairies of Alberta. We passed through some rural communities along the way amidst the never-ending rice patties and small farms. Young and old out under the beating sun tending to their crops, and yes, most still wearing that little round cone hat that you see in the photos. Tradition steeped in a tea of constant construction and continual advancement in this powerhouse of a developing nation. Cranes are everywhere, road construction and bridges are being built as fast as the concrete can be poured. China is on fire, gaining momentum each day racing to what finish line I am not sure. I can say however with some confidence, that China in its entirety has a long way to go, but their major cities are miles ahead of any city I have been to in North America. Once the rest of the country catches up they will steamroll over everybody and everything that stands in their way. The disparity between wealthy and poor is enormous, with the majority of the billion plus population falling into the poor side of things. The Chinese are very resilient, and now that a more capitalistic lifestyle is opening up under the guise of the old communist rule, China’s doors are wide open and the people here are taking full advantage. I don’t know what the future holds but many have said that China could be the next superpower, and now that I’ve been here to see a small part of it with my own eyes, I would have to agree. We in the west need to start focusing on the things that we say really matter because if we don’t our world is going to change dramatically if this country takes the lead. Maybe that’s a good thing; we have a lot to gain by Chinese ideals. Family is so important here, respect for the elders which we have none of at home, education, health care (western or traditional), public transport which is inexpensive and efficient. All of the capitalist corporations are here but they don’t rule their world as they do at home. There is still this ever present sense of community, although the little girl getting run over and nobody helping her might make you think otherwise. There are fruit and vegetable stands on every corner, mom and pop shops down every street. People everywhere trying to make a living not corporations hiring people to make them money. I wish we had more of this at home, I was too young to understand what that meant before Walmart started to change our urban landscape forever.   I can only hope that as time passes they too don’t lose their humanity to the ever-pressing corporate dollar sign.

We are going to have to cut our China trip short due to some red tape around obtaining our visa extensions so we will be forced to flee to Vietnam faster than we thought. I am glad that we came to China, it has made me realise “again” that we have it all wrong at home. We work way too hard, we don’t get enough time off, we always live beyond our means, with credit cards destroying any way of coming to terms with that. Processed foods are killing us one burger at a time, with obesity running rampant. They pour oil onto every fresh dish that is made here, yet I have only seen a handful of overweight people. Our junk food nation, and TV filled existence doesn’t work. I don’t think the North American lifestyle is for me anymore, it might just be time to get out.

B.