This is what I said to my sister back in mid-April. I’d just returned from backpacking for nearly three months in South America, and after only two weeks at home in Dallas, it was time to go somewhere again.
It took a lot of convincing. Can you imagine? It’s the GRAND CANYON, right? But I found her weakness. We had to go to Disneyland once we got to California. Ok, done.
Growing up, we drove across the U.S. about six times due to military orders. Not once in all those treks of 3,000 plus miles did my parents ever say, “Hey, want to stop at the Grand Canyon?” I have no idea why. But my sister and I piled into the car at 5am and set off to visit one of the world’s seven natural wonders on May 1st this year. I’m so glad she indulged me and played co-pilot.
As a kid, we always whined in the back seat wanting to stop to use the rest room or stretch our legs or eat lunch. As adults, we still whined, but it was mostly about boys, relationships, the meaning of life and family drama and who would play each character if they ever remake the movie Clue.
Of course I took charge because I’m the bossy one. I researched the trip in advance, determining where we should stay that we could afford and opting for the South Rim rather than the north. We got to the park entrance around noon on the second day of driving through the desert. Actually, we got to what I’d call the “mini-Grand Canyon” which is a little “scenic view” spot on the way to the main entrance. It was COLD. Bitterly cold. Which is weird because it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit that morning. And we realized we only packed summer clothes. I was wearing flip flops. My sister at least had the sense to wear tennis shoes.
There is nothing like the feeling you get when you see the 125 mile long canyon for the first time. The sheer size alone is mind boggling. I had the overwhelming urge to scream “HELLO?” at the top of my lungs to see if it would echo back to me. There is a beautiful turquoise green river flowing at the bottom of the canyon, seen perfectly from the top of the Desert View Watchtower where we first saw the enormity of this natural beauty. I think my sister was pleasantly surprised at how cool this thing was, even if I dragged her thousands of miles to see it.
We checked in to the Yavapai Lodge at the heart of the South Rim and spent the day driving and walking along the perimeter of the canyon, capturing all of the different angles, views, colors and scenery for as long as possible until sunset. We sat down at one look out point next to an Aussie guy and just admired in silence. We’d also bulked up our wardrobe with jeans and windbreakers and a hoodie sweatshirt at the gift shop. At one point I found a cool little “off the path” viewing spot with a huge dead tree on it, covered in gum. My sister told me she wouldn’t climb down there at all and neither should I. If our mother were there she’d have a heart attack. I went anyway. Because that’s what I do. And I still think my best photographs were from this lookout point, even now.
At the end of the day, we found a spot on the back porch of the El Tovar hotel and I ordered a glass of wine. Watching the sun fade over the west rim, I captured a few shots of the colors against the thousand year old layers of rock and wished we had more time. Seeing the mules along the fence made us want to journey down on their backs and spend two days at Phantom Ranch. But apparently you have to book that kind of trip 13 months in advance!
The Grand Canyon is one of those places that as a kid, you whine when your parents try to drag you there. But as an adult, you appreciate its sheer beauty for what it is. You take your time and explore feeling like everything is brand new again. And if you’re lucky, you have a sarcastic, witty, beautiful human being like my little sister to share the experience with!
It happened SO FAST. We were walking back from dinner, me and another friend named Lisa in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was Avenida 18 de Julio, the main boulevard in downtown Montevideo. I remember that it was well lit and tons of people were around. It was probably around 11:30 at night. We were one block from our hostel. She took out her camera to take a photo… (wrong move) and then we cross the street and next thing I know someone pulls my bag so hard that I hit the ground elbow first, then my hip and leg. I was tangled in the bag because it was a small leather one you wear with the strap across your body. My first instinct was to fight and pull back hard on the bag, not wanting to let it go. I think I yelled or screamed but the sound wouldn’t come out of my mouth. Sort of when you have that terrifying dream where you keep yelling for help and no sound comes out, as if you are drowning in air. Things became hazy at this point. I think adrenaline kicked in and took over and this kid was dragging me down the sidewalk for a good 5 feet on my back as I yelled and tried to kick or stop or something. There is a burning sensation on my back. The pavement feels hot and rough. All of a sudden my ears unclogged from the adrenaline haze and I heard Lisa yelling “Let it go!” “Leave it, just let it go!” Suddenly I stopped fighting and let go. I finally got untangled from the leather strap and got free and he ran off with his little friend. Apparently it was two teenage punks. Lisa had to describe them to the cops… I think I blacked out or something. Maybe they were 17 years old. Maybe they were younger. He didn’t confront me. He didn’t ask for my money. He just took it. Like he was entitled to it, no questions asked.
After they ran off I was laying on the sidewalk. I sat up slowly but I couldn’t stand up yet. About ten people gathered around me asking in Spanish if I was okay. Esta herido? I said no. Necesita ayuda? I asked them to call the police. A woman asked, “Esta embarazada?” (Are you pregnant?) I hate that dress I was wearing. Shock set in. Lisa went after the two punk teenagers down the street to see if they ditched my bag somewhere. After I stood up, tears came first, then my breathing sped up, then the pain. My elbow was throbbing and scraped up badly. My back hurt. My hip was starting to swell. Everything was unpleasant at once. I felt like I was standing naked on a street corner and people were pointing and laughing at me, in a foreign language. They weren’t. They were actually trying to help, but it didn’t feel that way.
The police showed up 5 minutes later. The only English speaking policeman in Montevideo apparently, and his new partner. “Tienes suerte chica.” (You’re lucky) How is that exactly? He asked what happened and Lisa came over to help me with the details. It was still blurry at that point. He asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I said yes. It occured to me that I also needed a police report, since you can’t file an insurance claim without one. Lisa asked him, “I mean, do we look like tourists to you?” He shook his head, looking down and half smiled, “Chica. You smell like tourists.”
On the way to the hospital we saw some kids that resembled the punks who stole from me. They stopped the car and got out to track them down. Yelled at them, pushed them around and made them drop their pants for a search procedure against the hood of the car. It wasn’t them. These poor kids were violated just as I had been for no reason. I wondered why the police officer was so upset and enraged by these punk kids. He used the F word a lot. In English.
Turns out the night before, he and his partner were out patrolling and the partner got held up by a punk kid with a knife. Only the kid stabbed him in the back. And he’s now paralyzed from the waist down. Juan Pablo (the police officer) kept telling me how unlucky I was. I think I was pretty lucky compared to his partner. I am still walking and alive.
We went to the closest hospital, which they told me wasn’t the nicest, it was just the closest. We waited outside for a good 30 minutes or more. Apparently they had to clean up this hospital for the American tourist who was coming in for an x-ray. The hospital smelled like vomit and formaldehyde. There were people with stab wounds, and gunshot wounds. And really sick, old people with wheel chairs and IV drips and yellow wrinkled skin. I tried not to look at anyone. I just focused on not touching anything. Me in my silk dress, flip flops and make-up smeared down my face. Eyes red, face puffy, holding on to my elbow.
The x-ray machine looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. It was old and used metal plates with wooden boards. The woman said “Poner el codo sobre la mesa.” (Put your elbow on the table). I couldn’t make it straight. It hurt too much. I sat on a little stool and awkwardly waited for her to photograph my bones. It wasn’t broken. Just badly bruised. Like my hip, my back and my sense of humanity in the world.
We finished at the hospital and they let us go. No payment, no paperwork. No record of me ever being there. I made the police officers write up a report and sign it with the details of what happened. It was written entirely in Spanish. I read it to make sure it had most of the essentials. We took a photograph and made a photocopy after they drove us back to the hostel. I thanked him for everything he did for me. And we parted ways. I called my parents within a few minutes after that. I had to breathe deeply to keep myself from crying again. I drank hot tea. I told them the story… In as steady of a voice as I could, but it wasn’t enough.
My mom and sister wanted me to come home the next day. Get on a plane, and get out of there now. My father reacted as I would have expected. Practical advice, “go wash out your cuts and bruises and bandage them up immediately” and then he was supportive of me and let me make my own decision. “If you want to come home tomorrow, I understand, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I know you, and if you want to stick with it… then I understand that too…”
“Dad, you told me when I wrecked the car for the first time that I had to get back on the horse again… (Deep breath) I’m gonna get back on the horse again. I can’t let them ruin this experience, so I have to get back up again.”
“That’s my girl,” he said.
I’m really lucky it wasn’t worse. Ella tiene suerte after all. I spent two months in South America on my own. Up until that point, I’d been so careful. My guard was up, I was paying attention to every detail, scanning the crowd like a CIA agent for potential threats. That night I was tired. I was run down and vulnerable. I was a target. Something I never hoped to become.
The next day I flew to Santiago, Chile. I checked into a Four Seasons hotel and I slept for two days straight and ordered room service. It took a while to stop flinching every time someone moved suddenly. It took a while to look people in the eye and trust them again.
Now, two months later after I have had time to reflect on this, I know that it has made me stronger. Ella tiene fuerza. Not only do I have eyes in the back of my head like a ninja, but I realized that bad things happen to people all the time, no matter which country or city you are in. It is unfortunate that we all have had to go through a traumatic experience in order to come out on the other end unscathed. The important thing is what you do when you get back up. I have amazingly supportive friends and family who are always there to help you through the tough stuff. To all of you, I say thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
To the teenage punks and others like them out there in the world, I say “Good luck to you. Karma is a b*tch.”
On my last day in Petropolis, Brazil, I went with the couple I was staying with down into the main center of town near the supermarket at the bottom of the mountain where they lived behind closed gates and lavish gardens. We entered a little deli restaurant and said hello to a bunch of local people working and living there. Two girls were brought over to us, both in wheel chairs, both paralyzed from the waist down. Both smiling incredibly huge smiles that over took their faces and lit up the entire room. The couple introduced me in Portuguese and told them I was an American and a friend of their daughter, who knows the girls well. I hugged and kissed each on the cheek hello as is customary. We sat down to have lunch with them and the couple told me their story.
Lily and Elisabeth aren’t biologically related, but they are true sisters. When they were born, their mothers decided they couldn’t afford to have another baby as they already had too many or maybe they had an abusive spouse, or maybe they just didn’t want the little girl in the first place. Reasons are unclear but the girls were both disposed of in plastic bags into the garbage right after birth. They were found in the garbage truck just before they were about to be crushed because the man operating the machine heard them crying. Both became paralyzed from the waist down due to the garbage truck. Elisabeth suffered oxygen loss and cannot communicate verbally but she understands completely. Lily did not suffer oxygen loss as much and communicates openly in Portuguese. She was able to communicate when one of their caretakers was not treating her sister right, and was able to get him removed from the hospital. Lily is now 27 and Elisabeth is 25.
The town took the girls in as their own and they have lived most of their life at the local hospital. They now have a guardian, who is also the gardener at the couple’s home where I stayed. The couple comes to see them every Sunday at 12pm to feed them lunch, bring them gifts and talk to them about their week. Lily wants to go to school and study more, but they don’t have a wheelchair ramp at the school and it is too far away without a bus that can transport her.
Lily had her nails painted red. Elisabeth’s were pink, and she had several unique bracelets on her arms, which is popular fashion these days. Elisabeth has a crush on the cute waiter who works there. I told her I agree! He was very cute. No words can capture their spirit. It glowed brighter than anything in that small diner and touched the people around them. There are amazing people in this world that remind you on a daily basis how short life is, how valuable it is and how we spend too much time worrying about trivial elements that will never matter. I am blessed to have met these girls, and will remember them always.
It’s been three weeks since the start of my adventure in South America. I arrived on February 2 in Sao Paulo, Brazil and spent one week there with a good friend I used to work with back in Washington D.C. She’d recently relocated to Sao Paulo from New York and was eagerly learning Portuguese. There were grammar books and dictionaries spread across her dining room table and in my down time, I started reading them. Did it help?
Let’s just say I have learned the basic “survival skills” to get by in Portuguese: 1) Getting a taxi, 2) ordering food and drinks and 3) negotiating prices when shopping or paying for something. That’s pretty much all you need. Or local people from Brazil to translate for you! I spent three days up in Petropolis, a gorgeous small mountain town about an hour north of Rio de Janiero with another friend’s parents. Then I took a nice bus for only BR 17 (10 USD) down to Rio for one week plus Carnival. Amazing experience!! More details on that to come, but in the meantime, here are a few things I have learned from traveling about these so called “language barriers” that prevent a lot of people from getting out there and exploring the world.
1) Sometimes no words are needed. Pointing at things is perfectly acceptable. The intonation in your voice or theirs, gestures, numbers and a nice friendly smile can really go a long way in getting what you need. Start with a basic introduction, “Hi. Good afternoon. I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Portuguese” and then use gesturing. One word of advice – don’t ever show the “OK” hand symbol in Brazil. The thumbs- up or down signs are the only one you ever need. The “OK” symbol is the worst insult you can give someone.
2) A “Gringo” is a foreigner. You meet lots of people traveling around the world. I’ve found that Aussies and Brits are the most travelled bunch no matter the region. In Brazil they have a tour group with t-shirts saying “Don’t be a Gringo. Be a Local.” My new Aussie friend commented as we were getting ready for the big parade, “Oh, haha, you’re a Gringo and I’m not because you’re American, haha!” Actually – a “Gringo” is a foreigner. Anyone who isn’t from the place you are in would be called a Gringo, even in Asia or Australia or Europe. But the term is used more frequently in South America. Also, don’t say you are from “America” here – it’s South America. Say “Estados Unidos” or your state.
3) Culture transcends geography. Even though I speak a little Spanish (which I’m practicing now and came in handy for Portuguese, minus pronunciation) I’ve noticed a few things about different regions of the world. Not speaking a language fluently doesn’t mean you can’t understand what’s going on. Body language, tone of voice, a few words here and there will tell you a lot. In Asia, I’ve notice that people in general usually do what they are told. There is no such thing as questioning authority. People usually go with the flow and it is an incredibly efficient social system, for the most part. In the U.S. people do follow the rules but not without complaint. Americans seem to always have something to complain about, either publicly (politics or that guy at the grocery store) or passive aggressively (Facebook and Twitter posters) but in the end, they tend to follow the rules and back down when they can’t get their way. Brazilians will negotiate EVERYTHING. Every conversation is a debate or a negotiation. There are rules, but they only sometimes apply. And if they don’t apply to a situation, they’ll talk their way around it until it works to benefit them. Inefficiency at its peak! My new phrase now is “Eh, we’re on Brazilian time.” Nothing happens when it is supposed to and it all takes forever, but it’s an easy going place and everyone is genuinely happy to help you get around and welcome you to the lifestyle. Just know that “instant gratification” is not part of the vocabulary!
A merlion is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. The fish body represents Singapore’s origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name — Singapura — meaning “lion city” or “kota singa.”
Singapore is something of an anomaly. It is one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of economy, finance, technology and government. Yet, as a foreigner, it appears to be a bubble. A non-reality separate “mythical” world where thinking out side of the box just isn’t taught in school, ordering off menu is more pain than it is worth, an alcoholic lifestyle will set you back a small fortune and as an ex-pat, money is just colored paper you can’t spend fast enough. For the past two years, this was my lifestyle.
When my company offered me an assignment in Southeast Asia, I was overwhelmed, scared, excited and curious at the same time. But, having one of my best friends in the world there already made it easier to pick up and move across the world. So does being single and near the end of your rope with big city life in the U.S.
The absolute BEST parts of Singapore are the people you meet. It’s a transient international metropolitan hub, centered in the middle of 15 of the most thriving emerging markets in the world. Everyone wants to be in Asia these days. The friends I’ve made the past two years are friends for life. Perhaps because we’ve bonded over being displaced or because we are like minded people who are driven to try something new – be it picking up your life and moving abroad or going on a tuk-tuk adventure in Thailand or cooking local fare in India or diving in the Philippines or surfing in Bali. Singapore enables you to do all of this and more, with a price tag.
To navigate your way around Singapore, here’s a little list of my favorite “cannot live without” places.
Happy Hour: Club Street. Beaujolais Wine Bar (ask for Adrian), Ying Yang roof top, Screening Room (roof top or movie theatre for dinner), Le Carillon, Jerry’s BBQ and B28. Other bar favorites are Blu Jazz, Bar Stories, Wine Connection, Verre Wine Bar and the most recent, 28HK.
Brunch: PS Café, Choupinette, Wild Honey (at Scotts Square), Hyatt, Fullerton, Sentosa
Dinner: Les Bouchons, Sabio, Osteria Mozza, Absinthe, Pasha, La Salsa, Kilo, Picotin
Best Burger: Bar Bar on 6th Avenue (Bukit Timah)
Local: Dim Sum in Paragon, Roti Prata at hawker centre on South Bridge Road at Mosque street, Long Beach Seafood Company for Chili Crab in Dempsey (black pepper crab is better) and Newton Hawker centre for chicken rice
Massage: Feetness, Thai Balinese Massage, Adept reflexology and Spa Botanica on Sentosa
Dessert: Chocolate molten lava cake in Cluny Court, second level. 2am Dessert Bar in Holland Village (ask for Robert)
Groceries: Cold Storage, 360 Market at Ion and Gastronomia
Wine: Straits Wine Company, Wine Connection
Movies: Gold Class in Vivo City is by far the best place to watch any movie but a cool experience for older flicks awaits at Screening Room.
Tourist Stuff that’s not overrated: Botanic Gardens, Singapore Zoo and Chinatown
Cheap Airlines to getaway: Tiger, Jet Star and take Qatar to Bali (awesome)
Web sites to book mark: Honeycombers, Ex-pat Living, AngMo List and City Nomads; Need a flat mate? Easyroomate.com and Craig’s List
One day I will return to the mythical land of Singapore for a visit I am sure. The 2013 reunion plans are in the works! Until then, enjoy the list and embrace the bubble. It’s a good life.
Traveling alone is something you get used to in the corporate world. Hotel food, airport lounges and business meetings nine to five. But traveling alone to a foreign country in rural Southeast Asia because you want to a new adventure? That’s crazy. Or is it?
My last “hurrah” while living in Singapore was adding Cambodia as the 22nd country in the world I’ve now been to. Turns out traveling solo isn’t so scary, if you plan ahead, are open to meeting new people and just go with the flow.
Round trip tickets from Singapore are much cheaper to Phnom Penh than they are Siem Reap. So I arrived in Phnom Penh Friday evening of a long three-day weekend to find that a work colleague and two other friends are on the same flight (bonus!) We get settled in our respective hotels and meet up at the FCC, Foreign Correspondent’s Club for drinks, appetizers and a good laugh. We get some local food, Amok Chicken (national Khmer dish is Amok Fish) and Angkor Beer at a local spot on the river. Then we’re off to Gary’s Irish Pub, or was it called Guest House? Then we check out the local gay bar, Blue Chili. And my my, let the entertainment portion of the evening begin! Drag queens are dancing on the bar when we arrive and we meet an Irish guy from Bangkok who’s displaced temporarily because the floods have taken over his house. He shows us to the Heart of Darkness a straight/gay club where we dance the night away until 3am.
Saturday morning, at sunrise mind you, I make my way to the 7am Mekong Express bus station to buy a ticket for $11 USD. Yes, this will guarantee you one seat on a semi-decent bus with a questionable toilet on board, sitting next to a random stranger who will try to sleep on your shoulder for the next SIX hours. Note to self, don’t drink the night before you take this bus. Good scenery, and a stop for lunch in a small rural town where you can buy fresh mango on the side of the road. No, no bags of fried or live crickets this time.
Arriving in Siem Reap I meet my new buddy for the weekend, Tom. My tuk-tuk driver. For a mere $15 USD per day, Tom will take me anywhere I want to go, at anytime and is my personal tour guide to the temples of Angkor Wat. He rocks.
Checking in at Angkor Riviera Hotel is painless and it’s a rather large Hyatt type establishment just a 5 minute walk from the Night Market. Tom and I head down to the temples so I can grab some lunch and take in my first sight of Angkor Wat before heading to the gates of Angkor Thom to roam around the Bayon Temple first. It smells like ambers burning from a campfire that is still warm in the morning. More than 500 smiling Buddha faces peer down from above in all nooks and crannies with the sun casting shadows through the hollow doorways, which, at the right angles, you can’t tell if they are actual door ways or a perfectly spotless glass mirror reflection of some other doorway. It reminds me of “Return to Oz” in a way that is both fascinating and creepy at the same time.
We head up to “the mountain” where Phnom Bakheng sits and there is supposedly a spectacular view of Angkor Wat at sunset. Climbing this mountain is not for the faint of heart. I realize quickly that I’m out of shape when the Auntie with a walking cane is moving up the incline faster than me. Reaching the top you find about a zillion tourists clamoring to climb the top and pushing their sweaty bodies to inch up to the front of the line. People like this can make anyone feel claustrophobic, so I head down the path less taken where a couple of guys from Spain have found a serene place to snap a pic without all the humanity.
That evening, I head to the FCC in Siem Reap – same chain as the one in Phnom Penh, but the colonial house style of the building is cooler and the vibe is older. Then I head to the Angkor Night Market for some cheap shopping. Everything from silk linens to airbrushed photos to spices and jewelry – and fairly priced. Christmas shopping done in November? Check.
The next day we hit up Ta Prohm, a.k.a. “The Tomb Raider Temple” famous after Angelina Jolie’s movie (which all the group tour guides are saying over an over again as you walk by). Nature has truly taken hold of these ruins in a way that cannot be explained until you see it up close and personal. The tree roots are enormous and overwhelm what little is left of the historical site. I find a local more than willing to show me around – off the beaten path of the Chinese tour group moving through in droves of 20 people deep and we climb up through doorways in the back to the very top of Ta Prohm for a bird’s eye view, and some pretty cool photo opps. I pay him a small donation of $3 USD after he brings me back to the masses.
Before lunch it’s Baphuon which looks very impressive from the road, and very tall. Until you get to the entrance and they tell me I can’t go in because my shorts don’t come down to my knee. Woops. Guidebooks should tell you these things! (Same with climbing to the very top of Angkor Wat by the way)
Lunch is back in town at Siem Reap at a place called The Butterfly Garden. A small garden serving local food, enclosed with more than 1,000 butterflies floating around you in the greenery! Very cool experience, highly recommend. Top it off with an hour long foot massage ($6 USD) and Coconut sorbet from The Blue Pumpkin in a waffle cone. Heaven is having ice cream that isn’t really ice cream!
Saving the best for last, I head to Angkor Wat for sunset. Comparatively, it is massive. This is not just a temple, it’s a compound. The grounds go on for miles, and the “moat” surrounding the entire place should be called a small lake. Most of the front of the center building is under repair and covered in tarps now. But you can still capture some spectacular shots. It’s peaceful here. Monks wander by occasionally and if it weren’t for the overcrowding of tourists and the echo of loud voices bouncing off the walls, you’d think you traveled back in time. There are some quiet corners, but it would be nice if they limited entries to 20 at a time tops. My favorite moment was coming out of the main gate to see the sunset setting the sky and the water on fire at the same time. It’s the best photo I took all weekend too.
A quiet dinner at Le Malraux, a little French restaurant around the corner from Pub Street. A three course dinner of red wine, goat cheese salad, salmon Carpaccio & tar tare duo and chocolate mousse will set you back $15 USD.
Monday I returned to Phnom Penh after wishing Tom farewell, where his friend David was my driver for the day. First some lunch of Amok Chicken (my fave) by the river and then on to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The grounds are huge, sprawling with perfectly manicured gardens and flowers that remind you of the entrance to Disney World, if only they were in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Silver Pagoda? Not so impressive. But the monks wandering through stopping to smile for the camera and the lone cat who slinks up the stairs to the top of a large silver gray pagoda? Well worth a quiet moment of reflection in the middle of quite possibly, the coolest country on my list of 22 so far.
Growing up, my sisters and I each had our favorite animal. This meant that in fantasy world, we’d actually own this exotic creature and take care of it, feed it and love it, similar to any domesticated pet you might own. In reality, since you can’t really “own” these creatures, we collected them. Stuffed animals, paintings, figurines, posters, key chains – you name it, we had it. My baby sister loved horses, my middle sister loved elephants, and I loved wolves. This story is for Adrienne, may you always remember your childhood fantasy pet.
During Singapore’s National Day this year (9 August 2011) I traveled to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, with three girlfriends for the first time. There are a lot of elephant farms in Thailand, each promising wild adventures, entertainment and an up close and personal experience. We found a highly reputable place called Patara Elephant Farm that works every day to raise elephants and prevent extinction. They have 14 elephants here, 6 of them are currently pregnant, and they have had zero deaths in the last 12 years.
Each of us were paired with our very own elephant, and a Thai trainer, and were responsible for its care for the entire day. Trust me, this is not easy work.
Before you engage an Asian elephant, you have to check their mood. Ears flapping and tail wagging means they are in a good mood and it is okay to approach. If you do not see these signs, back away and beware. You then need to make friends with the elephant. My elephant, Ploy, is a 12 year old female and seemingly in good spirits today. But I’m pretty sure that’s because I have a basket roughly the size of three basketballs worth of fresh fruit to give to her. This is part of the friend making process. Elephants respond well to food. Ploy has one small tusk on her right side, no left one. She has a birthmark between her eyes. Her eyes are kind. You always approach an elephant from the front, or sides, never behind.
Feeding Ploy is extremely intimidating at first. She must be at least 8 or 9 feet tall and weigh several tons, compared to my short 5’4” frame. I give her the Thai command to raise her trunk and she does, opening her huge mouth and sticking out her tongue where I place two or three bananas at a time. She slobbers them up, licking my hand and asks for more. I feed her the bananas, sugar cane and plums while she pauses in between to grab a few bamboo stems and leaves off the ground with her trunk and pack those in her mouth too. Watching her crush a 4 foot stem of bamboo as if it were a tiny twig is both fascinating and frightening at the same time.
My first task after feeding Ploy and making friends is to give her a health inspection. If she is dirty on both sides, it means she slept through the night. Elephants tend to sleep only 5-6 hours per evening. They sleep on one side for an hour, get up to stand for 10 minutes and then sleep on the other side. Next we check her cuticles at her feet. This is where they sweat from. If the toe nails are moist, this means they are healthy. Next we check her dung. There should be 5, 6 or 7 lumps of it and it should only smell like hay. Elephants are vegetarians so their dung takes on a wet hay like quality. If it smells bad, they are sick. The length of the fibers tell you their age, shorter fibers, younger, longer fibers means older. We also check the musk glands near her eyes. No musk or oil should come from these glands, if there is, then they are not well.
There are three major causes that elephants die prematurely. One is overfeeding, one is loneliness, and the last is infection from their feet. Skin care is also very important and they must bathe three times per day. This is my next task, bathing Ploy.
First I learn the command to make her walk or come, which is “mah” in Thai. I grab her by her ear and pull her along while saying mah. The next command, a bit more complex, gets her to lie down in front of me on her side. I’m given a bunch of basil leaves to brush all the dirt off of her sides and her head and back. Then she turns so I can get the other side. Then she eats the basil leaves out of my hand. We then walk down to the river where she and all her friends get in the water. I follow with my basket and proceed to throw water all over her and brush her with a course wooden and acrylic bristle brush. She seems to like this but I also guess it is probably routine. After we all wash our elephants they line up behind us and play a nice little trick by squirting water all over us with their trunks. It’s freezing cold but feels good.
Now we are ready for the exercise portion of the day. We learn to climb up on top of and ride our elephants to the water fall, which is about a 45-50 minute walk from the farm, through the most narrow, steep, muddy, treacherous hillside jungle I have ever seen in Asia.
Climbing up onto an elephant is probably the least graceful thing I have done in my life, well, at least recently. You can either climb up on the side, using their foot as a ladder, or by the front, using their trunk. I chose the side method and failed a few times, resulting in my Thai trainer pushing me up by my bum. That was fantastic. Once you are up there, you must slide down all the way to their neck, pull your legs up so your knees are bent firmly and resting against the back of their ears. Apparently white people don’t do enough yoga to ever make this comfortable for very long. Combined with the fact that you are now nearly 10 feet off the ground, sitting on an elephant’s head, holding a small rope behind you for support. Professionals just chill with both hands on their head. Ploy’s skin is tough, weathered. Her hair is sparse but extremely course and sharp, like hard plastic black wires. She flaps her ears and I give her the command for “good, good girl” several times.
Riding an elephant bare back takes a little bit of skill. Especially when you try to take photos while doing it. When going up a steep hill, you lean forward, while going down you lean backward. Elephants always have three feet firmly on the ground. If they try to walk on two they lose balance. Their trunk serves as a depth tester. While taking one foot off the ground, they search with their trunk to check the depth of the next step. Especially in deep mud or water where they are not familiar. To say the the ride to the water fall and back was tense, is a mild understatement.
Once we reached the water fall, Ploy stayed with the other elephants while we had lunch. Then two of the elephants joined us in the river and we were able to go swimming with them. They submerged up to their head and we sat on their back, playing and rinsing off and having photos taken. I’m not sure which two elephants were in the water with us, but they seemed to love being there.
After lunch, I took all the leftover rice and bananas we had up to Ploy as a little treat, which made the 6-month old baby, called “No Name” quite jealous. He came up and stole one or two bananas from me after stepping on my feet a few times.
When it was time to go, I climbed up on Ploy once again and we started the journey back to the farm. She got muddy again all over her feet and I thought how exhausting it would be to take her to the river and wash her again, but luckily, her trainer got to take over after we reached her place on the farm.
The experience was something I will never forget. It is hard work to look after an elephant for a day. Hard work that likely goes unnoticed and unappreciated by so many people who take creatures like this for granted. Life is short, and God’s gifts are special. Being able to get to know Ploy, share this experience with my sister (though vicariously) and overcome a fear of the unknown all at once, is a true treasure that will stick with me for many years to come.
My first trip to Vietnam (and later Laos) was filled with a series of unexpected twists and turns. Some good and some not so good but all lessons in how we “roll with the punches” no matter what life throws your way. In order to give you a little taste of my experience and what I will remember most, check out the Top Ten List. These are in no particular order by the way.
1. Nosh. Vietnamese food, like their architecture, is an artistic expression of taste, style and presence. The vegetables are cut into intricate little floral designs. A carrot takes the shape of a maple leaf and a cucumber has raised grooves like a grill plate. The fresh spring rolls are full of flavor and the fried ones put all the egg rolls I’ve ever had to shame. Garlic beef sauté in a mushroom sauce with fresh steamed jasmine rice. While rice noodles with fresh veggies and BBQ pork. The best part is the French influence. So not only do you get local Vietnamese fare, you can dine on exquisite French bread, escargot and beef tenderloin too. There is shady stuff too, like “false meat” on the menu and you just hope it’s a bad English translation and not some domestic animal. We didn’t try that one out. I’m not that adventurous!
2. International Hotels. I’ve learned a thing or two in my travels around the world. One fail proof thing, no matter where you are around the world, if you’re lost, delayed, having language issues or simply want to not feel bad about being a tourist – find the closest international hotel. We unexpectedly had a 6 hour layover in Ho Chi Minh City on the way to Hanoi. Which was pretty cool because this way we got to see both the North and South part of Vietnam. What do you do with 6 hours? Jump in a taxi, find an international hotel. In this case, the Intercontinental in the city center. Find the concierge, ask for a map and a recommendation for lunch. Done. They always speak English, and they usually give you some great tips for food, shopping and local sites near the hotel. Our first meal was fantastic and we hit up an amazing place called Ben Thanh Market for some great deals on watches, clothes, back packs, shoes and jewelry. Tip: Avoid the raw fish market. Especially if you feel queasy.
3. Coffee Shops. These are everywhere. Literally. Coffee and coffee shops are more prevalent in Vietnam than bars. Trust me, I prefer bars and booze. I was travelling with a coffee “connoisseur” of sorts and he didn’t think the coffee was anything to write home about, but I was into it. My favorite place was in Ho Chi Minh City. Tucked away upstairs in a divine little place with water falls, dark wooden floors, comfy couches and beautiful coffee drinks in layers with funky designs in the foam. It was nice to put your feet up, enjoy the air con and have an intimate conversation.
4. Poetry in Motion. Before my trip I researched a few sites and my favorite line “Tips: Traffic in Hanoi is overcrowed, so be “slowly” and watch out when you cross the street” is from the Guide Vietnam web site. That’s exactly how it’s written as well. This is an understatement. The first day we arrived, I literally walked into a motorbike. Or maybe it hit me. I can’t remember who was at fault, we didn’t exchange insurance cards. But the longer you stay, the more you learn: just keep moving. If you hesitate or freeze or go against the flow, you will disrupt the flow of the universe. Just move in and out and you start to notice the ease of it all. Things just move naturally. People are aware of each other and courteous and take turns and among the chaos, you start to see the poetry of it all.
5. Shoe Repair Man. Some people will tell you that the Vietnamese people aren’t particularly fond of tourists. Especially American tourists. They will tell you they try to rip them off and scam you out of money or give you false directions out of spite. I think the opposite is true. Most everyone we met was friendly and helpful and is just trying to do what everyone in Southeast Asia tourist places are – trying to make a buck and earn a living. One man in particular was extremely persistent in his approach. He spotted my friend’s flip flop from what must have been 25 yards away and came up to offer to fix his shoe while we were walking down the street. His flip flop was barely coming apart at the seam but he’d spotted it and flagged us down. “Shoe fix, shoe fix. I give good price. 5 minutes, shoe fix.” My friend politely declined a few times over and over and the man tried another tact – he looks at me and says “Cheap man!” pointing at my friend. Over and over again, he accused him of being a “cheap man” in the street because he wouldn’t let him fix his flip flop. It was hilarious. We finally managed to get away and then avoided that street.
6. Jewelry. I love to shop. The amount of things you can buy in Asia is incredible. Some cheap, junky clutter yes, but some really exquisite unique items that will always remind you of a place. I tried on a few silk dresses, as this is what Vietnam is known for. However, they don’t make dresses to fit women with curves in the chest area so no dice there. But I managed to find the most amazing necklace and earrings in the window of a shop near our hotel… walking along, drinking a Tiger Beer on the street in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a set of five gorgeous massive blackish silver shimmering stones on a silver chain with the same stones as earrings. I felt amazing when I tried it on and now every time I wear it, I think of my trip there.
7. Rocket Fuel. There is a saying, “When in Rome.” I tend to allow this excuse more often than I ought to. We managed to find a bar called Le Pub in the Old Quarter after dinner to spend some time in. It was mostly ex-pats or foreigners but the bartenders were local. On the drink menu they listed “Rocket Fuel” with a little caption that said, “When in Vietnam – Must Try.” Ok then, we’ll try it. The bartenders are laughing at us, showing us the unlabeled bottle, clear glass with something strangely resembling fruit at the bottom of it and a clear liquid above. He pours two shots. My friend and I smell them. No smell. First warning sign. But like troopers we take them down in one gulp. My throat and mouth were immediately convulsing! It’s like I just drank liquid fire and all I want to do is vomit. I gulped down an entire bottle of water just as the room started spinning a little bit. Then I ordered another vodka soda. Done.
8. Sense of Direction. Our little home for the weekend was called The Cinnamon Hotel in Hanoi, part of the Old Quarter and just across from an amazing church called the Hanoi Catholic Church on Nha Tho Street. The main touristy buzz places with shopping and restaurants and the Water Puppet Theatre was down the road by Hoan Kiem Lake. I like to brag about my sense of direction. Something I inherited from my mother, my internal compass if you will. On this trip though, we spent two days walking the long way, all the way down the main street to get to this lake. When exploring another route one time, we came upon another body of water. Thinking, cool, maybe it’s a river or something. A few hours later we realize we were on the same Hoan Kiem Lake, just at the bottom of it, not the top and that we could have been walking here a MUCH quicker and shorter route than we had done. So much for my sense of direction!
9. Golden Cow. Another tip when traveling: Try the local stuff. You can get McDonald’s and Starbucks anywhere nowadays. So when I travel I like to try the local beer, the local coffee and the local food. Sitting in the Ho Chi Minh City airport, we were of course delayed and got some local beers. Saigon was pretty good, 333 or Bia Hoi is also tasty. But my favorite thing to try in other countries is the equivalent of “Red Bull” or in this case “Golden Cow.” In Vietnam, it comes in a short 8 oz. can that is gold and looks like the cheapest can of beer you might find. It’s also flat, no carbonation. And it tastes like cough syrup. But hey, when in Vietnam.
10. My travel partner. Unexpected romances are some what of a theme in my life. Being single you meet a lot of people, some make an impression on you and some fade to the background. This person was like a breathe of fresh air in a chaotic situation, eager to learn, eager to listen, laid back and cool with an exciting sense of adventure, and an adorable smile. We were thrown together out of fate or timing or karma perhaps, but I’m grateful that we were. Spending time exploring a new country with someone you have an amazing connection with is rare, but magical at the same time. Who knows, maybe that same karma or fate will make our worlds collide again some day.
The rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore has been an ongoing debate for the last several years… At least among the inhabitants and the ex-pat lifestyle magazine tabloids anyway. While I live in Singapore, I’ve gone on a little holiday weekend to Hong Kong twice now… And I’m starting to think it should be the other way around. Perhaps not? Let’s see.
Hong Kong is not China. It’s as close as you can get but you’re still on an island, a beautiful island at that, reminiscent of Hawaii with sprawling mountains and blue ocean and lush greenery (in parts) which are best viewed on the short drive out to Stanley Market, opposite of Central. You’ve also got the thriving, gritty, fast paced grimy cultural clash of the city with the ridiculously steep streets, the luxury shops, the Jade Market, food stalls, foot massage parlors and crazy night life on Wyndham street.
The food is AMAZING. I fancy myself somewhat adventurous and will try anything once though I tend to avoid major spice here in Asia. “She don’t take spice like she does in Texas.” My rule on eating out is, if it’s crowded, it’s probably good. My friend Andrew’s rule is, live your life Anthony Bourdain style and go where he goes. And we did actually, to Kau Kee for beef noodle soup (nice hangover food), to Java Road Cooked Food Centre at Tung Po in North Point (Kowloon side) for hawker center style food with everything from “salad BBQ ribs” (salad is the Chinese translation of mayo) to squid ink spaghetti… Which is completely BLACK and creepy and I freaked out thinking the squids were going to crawl out of the bowl like that chick crawling out of the TV in The Ring. Shivers! But tasty anyway.
We also tried a private kitchen. This is all the rage in Hong Kong because rent and real estate is too expensive. Up and coming chefs rent small apartments, with maybe 4 or 5 tables per night and you get a 7 course meal. It’s BYOB which makes it affordable and the food we had at the Blue Duck Workshop was phenomenal (French Food). I could have licked the entire plate clean of the truffle sauce deviled eggs and my friend was quite sad when I didn’t finish the gourmet creamy asparagus soup as she wanted some more! The rib eye steak was terrible. But then again, I’m from Texas. Another pretty fantastic venue is Lily & Bloom on Wyndham Street. The restaurant in the basement has maybe the best bacon macaroni and cheese I have ever tried (read: inhaled). And the eye candy is nice at the upstairs bar.
For relaxation, my favorite spa is called Om Day Spa at the very top of Wyndham street. The women are Indian and Chinese and they spend hours on your hands and feet for the perfect mani pedi or just a nice foot massage after you’ve been shopping all day. My friend Sarah happened upon it after spending several HKD that day and I went back the second time. Two other British ex-pats were hanging out this time and we bonded over photos of Bradley Cooper in the gossip magazines. Yummy.
Shopping is also one of the main reasons to visit Hong Kong. It’s CHEAP for starters, if you head to the markets where you can barter. And even when it’s luxury, they still have H&M, which Singapore doesn’t and the prices at Tiffany are on par or less than the USD prices! Which is why I finally bought that chain link silver ring I’d wanted for the last 5 years but never gave in to. The Jade Market is kind of overrated, but if you want Jade, go take a look. My bracelet I bought broke (fake) and I got a new one from Shanghai. My favorite is still Stanley Market. Hands down the best flea market in all of Hong Kong and a beautiful view on the water to stop for cocktails and appetizers during happy hour.
Boys & Nightlife. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some guys out on the town in Singapore. You know, the banker-wanker, who doesn’t wear a ring but he’s married or the guy who only has an eye for the tiny Asian girls and wouldn’t check you out unless we were back in “fill in the blank____ London, Paris, New York, Frankfurt or Geneva.” Nightlife in Singapore = Boat Quay, Clarke Quay or Robertson Quay, and my personal fave, Club Street. And you will run into the SAME dude that made out with your friend last weekend in one of these bars.
Hong Kong has a SCENE. Yes, you can choose Lan Kwai Fong (ex pat/local bar scene) or Wan Chai (red light district) but the view is always good, the talent is on special and the night literally keeps going until 5am. Or later.
Roof top bars worth the view are Sevva and Ozone at The Ritz Carlton. The making out at Dragon-eye or Lily & Bloom or Azure is usually guaranteed and the guys are actually interested for once. Except for that short bald married guy/owner of the Australian rugby team who asked his wife if it was ok for me to be his mistress at that “private club.” YUCK. Maybe it’s just because I give off that “I’m on holiday” vibe when I’m in HK versus SG. Either way, it rocks!
Until next time my grimy, gritty, smog filled city. You’ve kicked Singapore’s tiny little “so clean and proper in a perfect little bubble’s” *ss. Thanks for playing.