The Lows

Getting off a train in Delhi’s Nizamuddin rail station is like stepping into a pressure cooker. The crush of passengers leaving the station. Beggars asking for alms. Hawkers clamouring for attention. Taxi drivers and touts, thousands of them, intent on taking travellers to their destinations. And it’s hot.

We have sunny and optimistic dispositions. There’s a lot of room on a trip like ours for something to go wrong and we have a tendency not to dwell on the low points for too long. But that doesn’t mean our journey hasn’t had its challenges.

This morning at breakfast we talked about the most difficult moments of our trip. It’s good to discuss these things. We learn from them. We also learn a lot about each other. The challenges make the good aspects of our trip seem even more positive.

HEALTH

I called a friend yesterday and one of the first things he asked was: “have you had any health issues on your trip?” This is often one of the first things people think about.

Our medical dispatch documents Saga’s case of Shigella (diarrhoea with blood and mucous), acute dehydration and time in the local hospital. While sick she was tethered to the toilet; she literally didn’t leave it for more than five minutes at a time over a 48-hour period. And Louise and I were mostly tethered to her, keeping her company.

The combination of sleeplessness and anxiety is likely the reason why I came down with shingles a week later. Here is shingles: pain across the left side of my face along my facial nerve. The nerve would fire and throb into my neck. My face swelled up and my head felt like it was in a vice. Open sores broke out on my face, ear and forehead. The acute phase of this lasted a week. It was incredibly intense.

We’ve also had the more regular travelers’ illnesses. A weird itchy arm rash sent us to the pharmacy to get antihistamines. Variants of Delhi Belhi have struck from time to time.

When sick, once we’ve figured out what’s wrong, we come up with plans a, b and c to recover. If a plan isn’t working, we escalate to the next. Uncertainty amplifies the distress but we’ve had the great good fortune to have medical consultations with our favourite pediatrician (my father). He diagnosed Shigella and Shingles from 12 time zones away and has guided our treatments. After that, it’s mostly a waiting game.

THE ELEMENTS

The girls thought it was scary when the Kampot River jumped its banks. The water levels were higher than the girls are tall. They were worried about the animals. They didn’t know if the flood would last forever.

TIME

This trip is largely about time. In Toronto, once work, school, extra-curricular activities, chores, and everything else were accounted for, we were time poor. We didn’t spend enough of it together. We reclaimed our time when we bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia and set out on this adventure.

But once we were time rich, we needed to figure out what to do with it all. It was shocking, in a way, to wake up and realize that we had no office to go to, no school to attend, no play dates. The whole day stretched before us like a blank slate, waiting for us to fill it in new and different and exciting ways. Our daily routine eventually settled into doing three things: we read/learn, we play and we explore (in addition to taking care of the admin of life). Before we got into that routine, however, boredom would sometimes set in. We made it clear that each of us is responsible for our own contentedness. We’re truly happy when we are engrossed in an activity; a book, a game, a sport. Each of us needs to find something that engrosses us. Confronting and embracing boredom in this way has been an important learning experience for us.

RITUALS

We miss aspects of living in Toronto. Our family. Friends and neighbours. Sigurd, our dog. Holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Playing the piano and violin. Baking. Running. Sidewalks.

SAFETY

Back at home, we’re careful about a lot of safety issues. Take driving; we buy cars based on safety records, wear our seatbelts, change our tires with the seasons. Here, we mostly ride in rickshaws. Often there are no seatbelts in cars. So far we’ve been fine, although we are aware that, an accident here would impose challenges of a higher order than in Toronto, all things being equal. We try not to think about it too much.

When we stepped into the pressure cooker of Delhi’s rail station two days ago, we had come from Agra and had a flight to catch to Goa. Our train was late and we needed a taxi to take us to the airport. I asked an official where the pre-paid taxi stand is and he made a vague, unhelpful gesture to his right. A swarm of taxi drivers insisted the prepaid desk was closed. We didn’t believe them but couldn’t find the prepaid desk. Exasperated, we agreed on a price with a taxi driver, got into the cab and set out for the airport.

We careened out of the airport, speeding, barely missing pedestrians and other cars. The driver began speaking incoherently. The driving was erratic. More close calls with pedestrians. Faster driving. The driver started taking his eyes off the road to talk to us. The girls cowered in the backseat, terrified. Our driver was drunk.

At a red light in the middle of Delhi’s streets, I took the key out of the ignition. Louise and I got the girls onto the sidewalk, unloaded the car. Incredibly, Delhi traffic waited patiently and respectfully while this unfolded. A woman in the back of a Toyota graciously asked if she could take us somewhere. Into her car we piled, grateful. None of us has ever been so relieved to arrive at an airport.

We arrived on time in Goa and are staying near the beach in the north. Gorgeous Goa is the right place to decompress from our Agra trip and this is where we wrap up the India leg of our journey. On Sunday we fly from Mumbai to Cape Town to continue our adventure in South Africa and Botswana.

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Luang Prabang Wrap-Up: Storytelling, Music, Museums, Temples and Cobras

As our visit in Luang Prabang wraps up we’re enjoying some final attractions here.

Just around the corner from our guest house is the Traditional Storytelling Theatre.

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Everybody loves a good story and here, the audience is treated to many of Luang Prabang’s myths. We learned how Phousi Hill was created when the monkey god Hanuman (who was searching for mushrooms) carried a mountain back from Sri Lanka and deposited it in the center of Luang Prabang. Or about the Naga (water serpent) that lived where the Nam Khan river drains into the Mekong at the north east end of town. The girls were +riveted+ and hoped that the stories changed every night so they could come listen to more of them.

The stories were accompanied by music played on a traditional instrument called the kan. We were interested in learning more about music here and found a small local music school called Music for Everyone. It’s an impressive resource for the community; local kids love the place. Saga strummed one of the ukuleles. We admired (in addition to the music) the clever use of egg cartons on the ceiling to improve the acoustics.

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The Vipassana Temple and Park is located just outside of the old city center. It’s visible from afar (the picture of the temple below is not mine) and is probably the most beautiful temple in a town that seems to be built of beautiful temples.


In 1975 the Pathet Lao took control of country, abolished the monarchy and sent the King and Queen to a remote reeducation camp. The royals are believed to have died there but there has been no public discussion of their deaths. The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang has since been converted into a national museum. It is replete with artifacts from the royal family including decorative walls, coronation regalia, and royal clothes. It didn’t take long to see it all and was worth the visit.

No visit to Laos  would be complete without a mention of Laotian cobra-and scorpion-whiskey. This white rice whiskey is fermented in clay pots for more than a year along with scorpions and cobras, pictured here:

  
The animal spirits are said to infuse the whiskey and their strength confers to the drinker. One wonders about the cobra population but the whiskey merchant we spoke with assures us that the snakes are fine.

We leave for Vietnam on Friday and will spend a month in Da Nang, close to Hue and Hoi An.

Letter from Laos

We’ve come to realise that water is a bigger feature of our trip than we’d expected. We stayed along the Kampot River with its soundscape and temperaments; then the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh; the central lake in Hanoi; sailed through Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin; all along experiencing the rain that, when it falls, feels like it will crush everything beneath it; and now the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

Staying this close to the Mekong feels like being with a celebrity. The Mekong  influences all aspects of life in South East Asia- economic, cultural, political and has been in the media forever. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Here, the Mekong forms the northern boundary of Luang Prabang and the road running alongside it is replete with guest houses boasting “riverside view”. The Mekong makes a good landmark to orient oneself in Luang Prabang. It’s also great eyecandy for those of us that like to watch the river from the shore and see whatever takes place in and on it.

Yesterday we hired a boat-taxi to take us for a 90-minute ride on the river. As mentioned in the last post, the boats are 40 foot long and 5 foot wide. The captain sits up at the front controlling the boat with a steering wheel and a throttle that is simply a wire running the length of the boat, connected to the motor. Not easy to steer but our captain controlled his ship effortlessly.

Our captain also provided excellent commentary during the journey. We saw many fishing nets. When we asked what the fisherfolk catch, we learned: “big fish, small fish, no shark, no crocodile”.

The Mekong has a ton of traffic on it. These large cargo ships can move 200 tons of goods. They run mostly between Laos and China. Apparently there are no big storms on the Mekong, all the better because the “house” part of the cargo ship looks like it would get ripped away by a stong gust.

There are also larger sized taxi-boats that are used to take travellers to China or Thailand. This kind of boat is shown in the next two shots:



The trip takes two days and passengers are put up in guest houses along the way.

For those in more of a rush, however, this boat will take you to the border in eight hours.

Eight hours

Interestingly, the river has also provided something of a social pressure relief valve for Laotians. The Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975 and has ruled the country through the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) ever since. Laos is thus a single party socialist republic and the only legal party is the LPRP. One of the explanations for the relative lack of civil unrest during the LPRP rule is that people can simply cross the Mekong into Thailand if they get fed up with Laos. Culturally the two countries are very close. Linguistically, someone speaking Thai can make herself understood in Laos and vice versa.

At the moment, it’s the dry season and the water level is low. We were struck by the number of gardens that are planted on land that’s reclaimed during the dry season. People grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables on land that is otherwise submerged during the rainier months.

This morning we climbed Phousi Hill to visit the Chomsi pagoda. “Phou Si” means sacred hill and rises about 100 meters above the center of Luang Prabang. It offers 360 degree views of the Mekong and the town. Chomsi is a golden pagoda that was built in 1804. The pagoda glitters on a sunny day for all in Luang Prabang to see. Here’s Chomsi from the inside and the view:

  

Getting to Chomsi was a nice climb. There are lots of steps (more than 350!) and partway up it started to rain (Ida caught some raindrops).

Catching raindrops

Luang Prabang has about 36 pagodas and is not a very big town. A lot of pagodas and a lot of monks.

These monks were on their way to school, next to another golden pagoda. That pagoda was tucked away around the corner from a stretch of the main street that we have walked by countless times, never realising that such a  beautiful building was hidden away.

Off to school
At School

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a city of about 50,000 people in Northern Laos, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is roughly 100 miles from the Thai border and 150 miles from the Chinese and Vietnamese borders. Luang Prabang is known for its many temples, or wats, and every morning hundreds of monks walk through the streets collecting alms. The old centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As we planned our trip, everyone we spoke to suggested that we would want to spend more time there than expected. So we set aside two weeks to enjoy the location.

Luang Prabang does not disappoint. It is truly a beautiful place. Our guest house is squeezed between  three wats; all magnificent, the oldest of which is from the 16th century. The wats occupy both the landscape and the soundscape. At 4 in the morning and at 4 in the afternoon, the monastery next door sounds its drums.

The drums sound like this:

Listen to Luang Prabang drums.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

Chanting follows the drumming, like this:

Listen to LP chant.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

The drumming is recorded literally outside our bedroom window. The chants are from a wat a few blocks away.

Yesterday afternoon, Ida and I went for an evening stroll in our neighbourhood to catch the sunset. We walked down some steps to the Mekong river and met a group of boat-taxi pilots. They single-handedly maneuvre these 40-foot boats up and down the river. Not an easy task. The stairs bear the scars of numerous taxi-boat encounters.


  

Our daily routine consists of excursions in Luang Prabang, schooling and daily tasks- exercise, food and everything else. We’ve learned that encouraging Saga and Ida to plan our schedules has been really helpful for getting their buy-in. (It’s interesting… after learning participatory mehodologies in grad school for international development, we’re finding that the same participatory methodologies work for managing a household).

Here’s a copy of Sunday’s schedule (any guesses for what is the favorite book these days?):


Luang Prabang has a beautiful butterfly conservatory, waterfall and bear rescue sanctuary nearby. We went there today  with a friendly retired British couple. At the conservatory we learned about local butterfly species, their predators, and some of the survival techniques that the butterflies have developed over the years.

Here’s a picture of a butterfly chrysalis that is perfectly camouflaged (look at the slightly darker green  “leaf” at the top left that has some light brown marks on its surface; it’s a chrysalis):


The conservatory also had some little fish that eat the dry skin off our feet. In fact, these fish are all over SE Asia; we saw them in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Here’s a picture of the fish at work on Ida’s feet and the look on Ida’s face as the fish toiled away.


The conservatory is run by a Dutch couple.  They have built a remarkable public education/ conservation space. They are not without a good sense of humor (probably required to be successful). See below for their explanation of how the local water’s copper nitrate would affect a person’s shoe:


Uphill from the butterflies is a bear sanctuary. The girls learned about the forest ecosystem and the role that animals big and small play in it. And of course the moon bears, rescued from Vietnam, where they had been used to provide bile for herbal medicine.


Further uphill from the bears is the waterfall. A great place to cool off in the turquoise waters or just enjoy the natural beauty.