Visiting North Korea

Seoul to Kaesong, North Korea – Up at the crack of dawn, being 5:00 am, to meet Megan my Korean-national friend, resident of Seoul, to make the trek across the DMZ to go to the ancient city of Kaesong, North Korea for the day. Kaesong was the old capital of the unified Korean peninsula and only nine months ago did a goodwill accord get established between the North and the South to allow day trips to this historical city commence. Trips are limited to 500 people per day and run on a very strict time schedule with stops negotiaged between both countries with specific restrictions on how the southern foreigners, the “galwei” would be able to view the historical sites and interact with the locals in the North.

Got on our bus in downtown Seoul and headed off to the DMZ where there is the South Korean immigration and customs checkpoint about an hour away. The drive up the motorway was intriguing in that when we were still within a few miles of the North Korean border a tall fence with circular rings of barbed wire running the length of the top began to barricade any water approach to the country from the river behind. The fence ran literally for miles with camouflaged watch towers every few hundred yards and sodium lights to be illuminated the moment there was any sort of advance by unwelcome contacts.

On this stretch of road to connect to the North the DMZ consists of a South Korean military barricade, seven kilometers of the DMZ no man’s land, then the North Korean military barricade on the other side. About 2km before the South Korean barricade the bus came upon the ECO bridge where there was a military checkpoint which we cleared and started across the bridge, littered with bright yellow and black striped barricades, circular spiked wheels that would put out a car tire, and other one-sided spiked barriers, all pointed toward the North. The bus began the salom through these items and Megan explained that it’s to slow down an advance from the North if it were ever to happen.

Once across the bridge we arrived at a brand new steel and glass immigration building (called the INSERT NAME HERE) where we disembarked and went inside to pick up our North Korean immigration documents. We were handed clear plastic pouch to wear around our necks, inside a large colored card outlining the bearers name, nationality, and all personal details along with a full color photo of the visa photo submitted with the application. Megan’s was green since she is a Korean national but mine was bright purple to indicate I am a real non-Korean foreigner making the trek North. Since I’m a dual national I decided to go in on my Irish passport as not to raise any eyebrows since Ireland’s officially netural and would be less-confrontational than a U.S. national heading on in. Back downstairs where we officially exited South Korea and were stamped out of the country on our regular passports, then told to put them away and to always wear our North Korean immigration documents in full view for the duration of the trip until we were back. It was almost like wearing a scarlet letter (or a violet badge in my case).

We boarded the buses and drove to the actual South Korean military barrier which looked like a raspberry bramble of barbed wire 12-15ft high with multiple large fences, watch towers and staffed by both South Korean and American military officials as we passed through the black and white retractable barricade the width of the road. Now officially in the DMZ no man’s land the bus cruised along and I was expecting to see a large yellow line painted across the highway demarking the North and the South, but unfortunately no markings were in view. Since all of the commentary from the guide was in Hangul (Korean), Megan explained that the DMZ is marked by short one metre high concrete markers with a yellow painted point at the top. They’re spaced every 200 metres along the actual frontier but they are not visible from the road as not to stoke any tensions between the two countries – both who see the other’s territory as part of their own. As a parallel think of China’s policy toward Taiwan.

We came up to yet another steel and glass immigration building which was the official North Korean immigration and customs post – clearly funded by the South as part of the goodwill of allowing these trips. We disembarked and went into our immigration lanes to be admitted, and while the building was brand new the North Koreans wanted to make it have a cultural flavor of their own so before the metal detectors of customs and immigration, in the area where you wait in line, they’d pulled out two large full-length wood framed mirrors and placed them on each side of the hall just in case you needed to check yourself before inspection. Honestly it looked like a mirror my 90 year old grandmother might have had in her house at one time. And, just in case you didn’t know the time there was a matching grandfather clock next to the mirror that chimed on the hour. I’m guessing these came from some official’s house to make the immigration and customs inspection more welcoming.

Customs first, so we lined up to pass through the metal detector and have bags x-rayed. I stepped up and as Megan noted my customs inspector was a two star military officer. I locked eyes with him when walking through and he would not break our long stare – I finally shifted my eyes after a few seconds due to the uncomfortable feeling I was getting from him. He was a tough one and let’s say I would’t want to have to spend a bunch of time with him in an interrogation room. He immediately asked me where I was from. “Ireland,” I responded. “Give me your papers,” which I handed over. Another long stare right in my eyes then he made the motion for me to pass and retrieve my bag. My camera which was a larger SLR with a 30-300mm lens had been check back at South Korean customs because lenses longer than 160mm are not permitted in North Korea due to “security reasons”. No camera an really nothing in my bag so I grabbed it and went over to the immigration officer who took my paperwork stamped my entry stamp on my purple card and sent me on my way to the waiting bus outside.

Now that we were in North Korea there would be three North Korean “guides” who would board the bus with us and accompany us throughout the day. On the bus our South Korean driver announced over the on-board microphone to please applaude when the North Korean guides arrived to “make them feel welcome”. They boarded, and on a bus where I was the only “galwei” they all clapped as instructed when the three arrived. Two sat up front and one sat in the back to monitor us and insure we didn’t take any photos out the windows while the bus was moving.

Since the North Koreans allow only 500 people a day they manage it tightly by chartering thirteen busses and move the entire group as a unit so no one gets lost (or no one gets into one of the luggage compartments to go South). When we departed, we departed as a convoy. First was the black 4×4 with four military officers inside, then a second military vehicle, our thirteen tourist busses, then a second black 4×4 bringing up the rear.

Our destination was the INSERT NAME waterfall INSERT DISTANCE from the immigration post, which would take us about an hour to get to. Once on the bus one of the communist North Korean “guides” took control of the microphone and started telling us about the virtues of the North and the major accomplishments and landmarks along the journey. We would need to pass on a road high above the city of Kaesong (not a small place) where we’d be visiting later, and what I found interesting is that since I couldn’t understand Hangul I had a very different perspective than Megan who could understand our Northern guide’s commentary.

At one point we were coming up to a turn in the road where a tall building stood, a view of the city of Kaesong below in the valley clearly visible past the turn. On the left was a grassy field with a small hill where a large antenna was mounted, but not particularly interesting. Clearly our guide had gone through ‘Communism 101′ tour guide training, because at the point where the bus would have a very clear view of the city and a children’s school nearby he got on the microphone and said something to the effect of, “If you look to the left you will see the largest radio transmission tower in the southern part of our country.” Immediately all Korean eyes looked to the left, away from the city view at the antenna, but I couldn’t understand him so I looked to the right and was looking right down with a clear view of the city, the broken tile roofs of the houses, the children playing in the school across the road, all dressed in identical school uniforms, playing on rusty playground equipment, the only spectator of this view.

This diversion tactic happened three different times, and I mentioned it to Megan so she became aware of what the communists were, in what we believe, was an attempt to shield us from seeing certain windows into local Kaesong life. Megan’s really mentally sharp and the two of us began to analyze every action our commie “guides” did from that point forward. Good thing it was first thing in the morning when we talked about this because she picked up on something very intriguing later that day.

Our guide prattled on for the entire hour en route to the waterfall (thankfully I couldn’t understand anything, let alone the North Korean folk song he decided to sing for the bus), but what was strange outside was the appearance of a North Korean soldier standing in the middle of a field or on a path every couple of miles. It was almost as if the military had been alerted to our bus route and they were there to make sure we were passing our checkpoints to our destination. What I noticed later, after seeing a solder standing on a dirt track in the middle of a wheat field, was that they were only stationed at any access points that directly connected a village or housing development to the highway. If there were paths running under the elevated road in places you would see locals riding their bicycles or walking, but if the path or road connected to the highway there was always a solitary soldier standing watching the road. It was almost as if they were keeping the people in to insure no contact with the foreigners’ busses versus insuring we didn’t stop to interact with anyone. We also got to see large concrete slabs in the middle of agricultural fields with murals of Kim Jong Il standing amid a bountiful harvest to incent those living nearby that “our great leader” will provide spiritual guideance for you (even if your crops fail).

We finally arrived at the parking lot for the waterfalls which consisted of a small wooden building, a “shop” (free use of the word), with the entire inventory of the snacks for sale on display on the single shelf attached to the outside of the building. We figured that if it wasn’t outside it wasn’t in stock any more. It was almost comical how the workers went running behind the building when the busses arrived to find that single power plug to connect the CD player to blare Korean pop songs at high volume into the parking lot. Half of the tour of 500 had passed the shop by the time they got the music going – I could almost see them running out back to scream to the one sleeping electrician, “Turn on the power – the galwei are here!” We bought an instant coffee and discovered the pricing system of “one dollar” as the base price for everything in the country.

The waterfalls are set in a lush forested setting with hills and a concrete path and staircases cutting through the foliage. The waterfall was nice great setting with a lagoon, and there were a couple of small temples higher up above the falls that we visited. Each of the stone markers describing the falls or the temples were engraved in Hangul and after reading the third one Megan giggled when I asked her what it said because each started out with the same words of, “Our dear great and beloved leader . . .”

After our temple visit we were sitting near the falls on a bench by ourselves when one of the North Korean male guides came over and asked if we were a couple. Megan responded we weren’t but ex-work colleagues, then tried to politely finish the conversation with him. Since we were off away from the other tourists the guide now had the opportunity to talk to Westerners so he continued to ask questions of Megan across a variety of topics from if the new Windows Vista really had a bunch of bugs to who won the latest “INSERT WORD” Korean chess tournament. Megan was actually pretty surprised that he was aware of many of the items he had questions about which indicated information is getting into the country, more, it appears than we were led to believe.

One topic of particular interest was the fact that I was from Ireland. He asked about me, where Ireland was specifically, then asked about whether British English was better than American English since American English mangled the use of proper grammar. (Megan to verify if I got the concept correct on this.) Megan just explained that they’re both the same language with a differential of word usage between the two.

It was time to head down to the busses and in the parking lot there were a good couple hundred people of the 500 on our tour all sitting around and waiting for the call to board the busses. Megan and I were speaking in English to each other when another of the North Korean guides came over and asked Megan if I was realy from Ireland. It must have been strange to them to see a South Korean woman together with a Western galwei, the two of us speaking English together. Megan joked I was probably on the communist watch list since we were getting so many questions from the different guides, and clearly they were talking about this among themselves because another two times with different guides did my nationality come up – in one case where the question was worded, “You are from Ireland, right?”

Headed away from the falls and back through the country to the city proper of Kaseong, passing the lone military guards standing in the fields watching our convoy go past. Arrived in town and were taken a circuituous route to our lunch destination in a building on the corner of an intersection where five major four-lane roads converged, a lone traffic guard standing in the middle. What immediately struck me was that there were no cars – anywhere – coming or going through this town of 300,000 residents. The odd bicycle, a handful of men and women crossing the main street on foot a couple of blocks down, but literally no traffic of any kind. Honestly it was like one of those post apocalyptic horror films where something happened and there are no longer residents of this once largely populated city.

Our guide pointed out the three things were were allowed to take pictures of: the crappy concrete building the lunch restaurant was being held in, the large bronze statue of Kim Jong Il at the top of the hill at the end of the road above us (but we weren’t allowed to walk up there), and the stone spire across the street, a monument to one of the Kim Jong wives, but crossing the street was not permitted, nor was going any farther than the corner outside the restaurant and down the block about 25 metres. On the diagonal corner the construction site with the crane and the big pile of dirt on the sidewalk was forbidden to be photographed. Whatever.

Inside for lunch which consisted of twelve small gold bowls, each with a different item. Korean food generally isn’t my thing since you can never really identify the food in the first place, and this particular spread was questionable at best. The entire meal was a facade the government put on for us to show us that there’s no food crisis in their country. We had a chicken soup, a bowl of some kind of spiced meat, another of fish, various vegetable dishes, a sticky rice dessert with fruit, and alcohol you could have stripped the paint off your house with – all items that none of the local women serving the food could possibly afford. Megan also ordered this local cold noodle dish which looked a bit like purple dishwater with glass noodles, all for the outrageous price of only two US dollars. Ate pretty much nothing but a bowl of warm rice then headed to the “gift shop” at the entrance to the building.

I was hoping for communist propaganda items, but this shop only held organic goods from the region, dried vegetables and the like, and three or four bottles of local spirits. The shop looked well stocked, had items in glass cases as well as along all of the walls, but as I browsed I realized that the bottles on one side of the shop were the same kind as the ones at the entry. Ditto for the vegetables and honey across the way as well. Looks like they had a very limited selection and just put more and more out to give the appearance of a stocked store.

Headed outside to take some photos before the communists ushered us into the bus again so Megan and I walked out and were able to walk into the middle of the four lane main thoroughfare outside. The North Korean minders had created a cordon standing spaced apart down the middle of the road which was the farthest we were permitted to walk. Stood in the street without fear of traffic since there wasn’t any and took photos of each other with the Kim Il Jong statue in the background and the empty intersection down the hill from us (construction site, crane, and all). The lone traffic cop was still standing in the empty intersection when a blue colored local bus, absolutely packed to the rafters with locals, turned onto the road a few blocks up, headed our direction. The bus hit the intersection and the cop got to do his duty and direct it off to the right, away from the Westerners and down the road we weren’t allowed to visit.

We walked down the block to the corner where another group of the North Korean guides had placed themselves to keep us from going any farther where we looked around the back of the restaurant to see a sad looking creek flowing with small pedestrial bridges crossing over about 30 yards down. There were people walking across, a couple of men on bikes, so I took a photo of the bridges with the people while pretending to be taking a photo of the ugly restaurant building. When we were driving in I noticed a nice looking temple visible just steps from the corner of the block, but it was invisible unless you stepped into the gutter. I mentioned to Megan that we should ask if we can take a photo of the temple, moreso so we could get a good look down the long wide boulevard just beyond where the temple sat.

She walked over to the communists and asked if we could step off the block to take a quick photo. “No,” came the response. Megan’s a very independent woman so she stepped off the sidewalk into the street and moved toward the guide and asked again. “No, No.” She pushed it to no avail and came back over to meet me and we headed back up the hill towards the busses. Megan turned to me and laughed a little as she said “There’s really nothing to take photos of” as we passed the stone monument to the dictator’s wife, a sad looking department store sitting behind it, closed, with no more than three children’s shirts in one of the multiple display windows, the rest empty for lack of product. By now the entire tour had finished eating and there were now five hundred people standing in the middle of the street taking photos and milling about, the walkie-talkie toting guides calling to those stragglers who crossed the invisible barrier keeping us from interacting with anyone from their country.

We were called to board the bus and we drove down the street a bit, one we’d come up prevoiusly, while out the window there were a handful of men and women walking without a glance at the passing bus convoy. The children would look and wave at the busses but nary a look from the adults at all. A short while later we pulled up outside a temple and a historical stone bridge and were told we had thirty minutes to look at both. Everything on the tour was precisely timed and literally when it was time to go they got all of these people back on their transport and moving along in under five minutes – they meant business.

The temple was simple and it took no more than five minutes to visit. The stone bridge was constructed in approximately 600 A.D. and has special significance to Megan since one of her ancestors from the Koryo dynasty stood up against the conquering Chosun dynasty and was killed on the bridge for standing up for what he believed in. This story is now a folk tale still told today, with variations depending on if the storyteller has allegiance to one dynasty or the other. That took another five minutes so we walked through the adjoining garden back to the long wall running the length of the garden and nearby road. There was a small staircase cut into the wall which if we climbed would allow a view of the people walking and biking on the path just across the creek behind. We were close to mounting the first step but one of those pesky communist guides standing next to a nearby tree did what he was told to do and forbade us from having a look. Our attempt was more another poke at them, just to see what they’d do since we both knew we weren’t supposed to climb to the top of the wall.

Back on the bus to the next stop at the Kaesong Institute which was a INSERT WHAT, but the bus journey was only about 150 yards from the stone bridge we’d just visited. By walking the galwei might come in contact with someone so the bus was necessary. The institute is basically another small, simple-looking temple complex of about three buildings set back from the street behind what looked like an auditorium of some kind. We had to walk around this auditorium to get to the temple and as we were walking Megan noticed the glass in the building didn’t look quite right. “It’s shiny,” she said. I then picked up on the fact that in the doors and tall windows, no more than six feet high, there were one or two horizontal lines across the glass panes on each panel. We worked out that the shine Megan spotted was because the glass wasn’t actually flat but imperfect and bumpy with bubbles in the glass, clear so you cound see through, but the waves from the uneven surface in the pane creating the gleam she saw. The lines I noticed on the larger glass panels were where the North Koreans had placed two pieces of glass together in the frame because they couldn’t produce a single pane six feet high by two feet wide.

The temple visit took ten minutes so we had twenty minutes to kill before the last stop of the day. We went out in front of the auditorium building which was on another of the main four-lane roads, devoid of cars as usual, and stood at the edge of the sidewalk. I looked to the left and spotted one of our military escort guards about two hundred yards away telling the pedestrians that passage was blocked until the foreigners leave. Their option was to go back to the corner and cross the street to pass on the other side. Our North Korean guides had established their cordon in the gutter and another military guard was down to the right completing our military barricade to keep us in. Straight across the street no more than ten yards away there were now a fair number of people walking to and fro passing by the growing number of Westerners lining the edge of the sidewalk. Since the institute didn’t take that long to visit more and more of my fellow tourists were just standing there in silence watching the people pass across in front of us. None of the North Korean locals turned to look at us, some barely glanced. It was almost as if they were wearing invisible horse blinders created by the fear of reprisals from their local communist party officials if they stopped and had a good hard look at us.

We had eight military officers with us, four in the lead convoy car and four in the rear, and one of them walked past us talking into a walkie talkie when we were standing watching the locals. It was one of those walkie talkies we used to have as children in the 70’s with the large black plastic rectangular shape that holds two ‘D’ size batteries and the long silver telescopic antenna. Usually broke after three weeks of pretending to be an army ranger. This is the 2008 North Korean military issue walkie talkie I’m talking about and it looked exactly the same.

One final stop ahead of us, no less than three hundred yards by bus from the last stop, which was the old Kaesong University site with adjacent stamp museum. This stop was actually pretty interesting and we immediately headed to the stamp museum which doubled as a stamp shop to have a look. I skipped the museum part and started looking at the single rack of propaganda postcards, exactly what I’d been looking for throughout the day. Cost for a postcard printed on what felt like parchment paper was USD 0.30 each, and the stamp depicting Kim Jong Il shaking hands with his dead father in some twisted power transition illustration was a cool two dollars. Ouch.

The site of the old Kaesong University was actually beautiful. We passed through a large wooden gate set in a tall whitewashed wall into an enormous courtyard shaded by two trees that were more than a thousand years old. As with most temple complexes there’s a series of gates


Asia: The Strangest Business Trip Ever

Gurgaon, India

Over a week on the road and I’ve finally gotten a chance to sit and gather some of my thoughts on what has got to be the strangest business trip I think I’ve ever been on. The weird feeling comes from the locale surrounding me when I’m in an Italian suit going to work in a Beijing taxi, the driver intent on trying to knock over the man on the bike alongside, balancing no less that 300 eggs in a plastic milk crate on the handlebars. I honestly can’t believe we sell supercomputers the size of a refrigerator to companies in some of the countries of this region but these are purportedly the new economic engines of the world. I am also baffled that I get paid to experience all of this.

Nothing can describe walking through Tiananmen Square on a rare, crystal clear night with the temperature hovering around 28*F, then three days later be standing in Old Delhi with what feels like most of the inhabitants of the city passing in both directions on a shop-lined street 20 feet wide – many screaming “Hello” or “How are you?” Mix in a few mopeds, bike rickshaws, cows, dogs (“Hi ‘Mange'”), and children carrying chai to the shop vendors and you’re getting somewhere close. Intense would be a word I would use pretty liberally here. I got a chance yesterday to return to the largest mosque in India – the exact location where I took the photo of the “Beggar Girl” on the steps facing Old Delhi. She wasn’t there, but another was, with a look just as striking.

My favorite moment today was when I was in our nice wood-lined offices outside of Delhi and after an hour the regional power grid went down plunging the office into darkness, the only light provided by the laptop screens, but no one batted an eye. Fifteen minutes later the power was back and all was well. Three total outages today and my greatest fear is getting stuck in the elevator so I stick to the five flights of stairs. During one of my tea breaks I watched the Untouchables dig through the garbage in the field across from the office tower (this sounds cold but I’m just reporting it exactly as I’m seeing it) then we were off to lunch where eating with your right hand sans utensils was expected regardless of the attire.

Eating in India has always been easy – and there’s nothing like this kind of cooking at its source. China and Korea on the other hand were always adventures in eating, and a ginger pick through the bowl of whatever with your chopsticks was a requirement before committing and pulling something out. My first day in China I fought the jet lag and chartered a car out to a remote section of the Great Wall two hours north of Beijing. After my morning four hour climb we stopped at a “farmers” restaurant which consisted of three four person tables in the living room of this family’s home. TV was on and the two teenage boys were watching some sort of Karaoke show. It was full of smoke from the kitchen, or was it the other two tables of Chinese men smoking Marlboro reds like they’d been banned, ashing and putting their butts out on the floor. My guide ordered us lunch then told me we had to go and pick out our fish.

Pick out our fish. Out to the front yard we went where a large grey concrete tank with one of the two TV-watching teenagers was now perched with a net. He pulled out an enormous two foot long catfish which he whacked on the head then weighed. Four kilograms (9 lbs) was the size, but my guide told him it was too big. He told her it was already dead so it was going to be our lunch. Done. Back inside, seated at the table when yet another teenage boy entered the room with three plastic burlap bags – all moving as though something were alive. “Mountain chickens”, my guide “Tina” says with wide eyes – she immediately ordered us one which the TV-teenager now needed to go outside to kill, gut and pluck for us. Needless to say we had food for about twelve at a table for three. When the food arrived the full fish tail was sticking out of the top of the bowl and hanging over the side; it looked like they’d killed a mermaid. The driver started fishing around the bowl for the fish cheeks (attached to the head) while Tina started to serve me some. A moment later I found out that the fish had been chopped into pieces with a cleaver, so de-boning needed to happen with your tongue and chopsticks. I learned to press the fish meat down into a pancake sort of circle to have all bones rise to the top before eating. I could go on for days about the various meals in China – ox bone marrow, chicken feet complete with talon, fish heads – but I’ll spare you the details.

Notice three days of Seoul not mentioned here. While Seoul is ultra-modern with the Koreans always mentally trying to out-do the Japanese, all of this has left the city without it’s own spirit and even in the most “energetic” parts of town it’s the reserved sense of their culture that permeates everything. There’s no excitement or power that comes from any part of the city – only the humble, bow at everyone as not to offend them attitude prevails. It also appears that the architects in some of the older parts of the city were taught by a corps of graduates from the Lenin-Brezhnev Institute.

Enough said. Further reports as news warrants.

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Going Standby in Mandalay

Three days ago we woke up in our Rangoon hotel at 5:30 a.m. and headed to the airport for our departure up country. We’d gotten a “special monsoon fare” from Air Mandalay to get us to a series of points around the country since it’s the rainy season and the roads and rail are all in disrepair at the moment.

We got to the Rangoon airport and had to go through immigration and customs again so they could track our internal movement. It took us a while but was pretty straightforward.

They called boarding for our flight and once we were on the plane they did a headcount and since everyone was present the plane actually left 15 min early! I suppose it’s more efficient since everyone was on board. One hour later we were landing at a simple airport in the Bagan Archaelogical Zone.

This region is absolutely unbelievable and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. In the historical Mon period in Burma from 800-1200 AD the Mon king had a series of Buddhist temples constructed in this are in the west of the country. In a 10 sq kilometer area there once stood over 4,000 temples averaging from ten to fifty metres high. Today about 2,500 remain tucked in the jungle, all scattered across the region.

When we exited the airport transportation choices were taxi or horse-drawn cart. We chose the cart, threw our backpacks up with the driver then sat backwards with our legs hanging off the back of the cart. We were heading to the opposite side of the region to a series of hotels that sit on the Irawaddy river at the center of the temple zone.

It was 7:30 a.m. and already getting warm, but it was dry, such a welcome change from the heavy heat of Rangoon. At this hour of the morning the sun is also casting a golden glow across the region.

Our cart left the airport and went down the paved road for five hundred metres but instead of following the road it turned onto a dirt track and headed out through the fields. We couldn’t see anything at first due to the high bushes surrounding the adjacent field, but where they ended the most magnificent view was afforded to us.

Twenty temple, all different sizes, lay before us – some right next to the cart and others off in the distance. The sunlight lit every on perfectly, some temples’ spires blocked by only a row of lazy palm trees which just added to the view. White spires, red brick spires, gold leaf, these were truly otherworldly. Many of these temples have a large square base with a tall circular spine rising up from there.

Entering Burma

As I try to distill three day’s worth of travel through Burma I get the calming privilege of sitting on a terrace facing the muddy brown waters of the Irawaddy River. I can see a line of foothills across the opposite bank, one hill with the white spire of a paya (stupa) temple atop.

We’re in our landscaped hotel, the Thante River Side, where Reynald and I have decided to kick it for a few days. The hotel management has figured out that we’re exceptional customers of the bar so have assigned a server to sit on terrace level behind us in the shade of a nearby tree, ready to be dispatched up to the main building for some rum and coke as required.

Thirty six countries I’ve veisited, and usually upon entering an entirely new territory there’s some flash back in my mind that creates a correlation to some previous experience. With Burma, or Myanmar as the military junta dictatorship prefer, the puzzling thing to me was that I didn’t get this feeling, even after the first day in Rangoon. That alone, that it can be such a different place, makes this country that much more magical. I finally worked it out last night – it’s a combination of all the best elements of our other favorite places.

We arrived in Rangoon one hot humid morning on June 16th, two days before the Thai prime minister was to make a milestone visit to Burma. There were workers sprucing up all areas of the airport to make it look more presentable for his imminent arrival. Bamboo scaffolding everywhere.

Our plane landed after cruising over lush green jungle, dotted with the white and gold Buddah payas, then the moment we landed and the doors opened we felt the 32*C (94*F) heat hit us at 7:00 a.m. This was the weather of British Burma that Rudyard Kipling so often commented on.

Reynald and I exited the plane and walked across the tarmac to the faux-wood paneled airport terminal and the circa 1940’s immigration posts. The way immigration and customs works is where one immigration agent types your details in the the computer then a second one rewrites any words on your entry documents that weren’t clear. Of course this is done after all of the data has been keyed into the computer. You work it out.

Step two is dealing with the exchange of U.S. dollars into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). The military junta’s way of extracting cash from tourists is to force out each visitor to convert US$200 to FECs at a one-t0-0ne ratio. You can use the FECs to pay for plane tickets and hotels but if you try to convert them to the local currency, the kyat, you’ll get a lower exchange rate. Moral of the story is to change as little cash into FECs so you can buy local currency on the black market and reduce your travel cost.

Reynald and I had heard stories about bribing the FEC exchange officer to get out of changing too much, so I thought I’d try. We passed immigration together and I pulled out two US$100 bills, the minimum we could change for one person, and placed that and both passports on the counter. I then played pantomime with the agent and motioned that this was for both of us. She finally said, in English, “If you can help me.” I topped off the passports with a US$20 bill, the smallest I had, and she handed over the $200 now converted to FECs and told us not to tell anyone.

We bundled ourselves into our taxi for the thirty minute ride into Rangoon and instantly we were mezmerized. Everything was so green. Green, green, green, green. England is green, Vermont is green, nothing like Rangoon though. It reminded us both of East Africa more than anywhere else.

There was dense jungle on both sides of the street, palm trees, banana trees, flowers blooming in colors I’d never seen in nature – this was all so incredibly striking. Then we passed through some of the old British areas of town. The old colonial buildings, now worn from fifty years of use since independence still hold theire Imperialist honour. We saw some mansions with absolutely perfectly manicured gardens surrounding a stark whitewashed colonial property. Kipling once again came to mind. God love the British man who was born in India and knew the British colonial holdings better than his motherland. And he got to write to tell us about it!

Both Reynald and I were silent in the car as we rode in. The driver told us some highlights as we drove, I think, but I’m pretty sure neither one of us heard what he was talking about as we were engrossed with our focus of watching the country unfold in front of us.

We took a room in th ehome of this sweet Burmese family, the Three Seasons Hotel, with was $20 a night including breakfast. Since we’re travelling during the rainy season all the prices are down a bit, but admittedly in this climate it rains every day in the morning and the late afternoon around four o’clock.

We had a walk down the main shopping street and I was getting India flashbacks: food being cooked out in the open, fruits and vegetables you can only get in this part of the world for sale on the street . . .

Being Watched By The Cuban Police

We’d spent a week living in Trinidad by this point, the locals knew us, we were hanging out in Cuban bars and clubs and staying away from the places that are usually frequented by the tourists. One night at the outdoor locals disco at the bus station, a couple of drinks in the local bar – we were immersing ourselves with the Trinidadian residents. We’d also made a few Cuban friends, Caesar, a light skinned man with Roman looks of our own early thirties age who’d taken a liking to Ashley, was our main guide throughout the week showing us a new paladaras (private restaurant in a Cuban family’s home), organizing us horse rentals, and other activities. There were a few other Cuban faces I remember, but each evening the cast changed with only our friend Caesar as the constant character.

It’s our last night here, and we wanted to go out with a bang, so we ate in a paladaras, and gorged ourselves on lobster, shrimp and chicken, then headed over to the half tourist-half Cuban Casa de la Musica which is basically an outdoor discotheque complete with flashing lights and an excellent sound system, but it’s always a live salsa band instead of recorded music. The band was incredible, and within minutes of our entry Marshall and Ashley were on the dance floor. I was hanging in the back with Melinda when a tall, black, basketball player sized Cuban man came over and asked me if Melinda could dance with him. I said no, but Melinda intervened and said it would be no problem.

Off they went dancing, so I moved closer to the dance floor, picking up a mojito cocktail on the way and watched my friends dancing away. I watched them move to this Latin rhythm that wasn’t completely comfortable to dance to for any of us, and once you’ve got the basic steps down it’s OK until the locals speed up the tempo making it very difficult for us to keep up. They all did pretty well and I was impressed since they were all dancing with the locals and keeping up. I went back to the bar for a cuba libre (yet another rum drink) where I was joined by Marshall, and an English woman we’d met on the diving trip we’d been on the same afternoon.

We talked a while next to the bar when Melinda walked over, now done dancing with the basketball player, and said to us “I think one of us just had sex on the dance floor with our clothes on, and it wasn’t me.” Melinda explained that inside of five seconds of dancing with her partner’s hands on her lower back, he decided to let them take a wander down to her toned butt to see what that was all about. Melinda then revoked his lower back permissions and put the Cuban’s hands on her upper back at shoulder blade level. Apparently he was dancing very, very close, which is hard to do dancing salsa since you need space for your hips to move. Apparently not for this dancer.

Melinda, Marshall, myself and the English woman, who’s name escapes me, stood and talked to each other, the Cubans around us, the bartender – anyone within chatting distance – the whole time just loading up on cuba libres and mojitos. The bar closed and we were still standing around talking when the place was emptying out. Ashley and Caesar came and found us and asked where we were going, so we agreed to meet at the local Cuban bar across the street from our casa particular. Ashley took off and we walked the English woman home, and along the way we found out she’d been a backup singer for Sting and Phil Collins. The English woman weaved her way down the cobblestoned streets, Melinda on one side and Marshall on the other. Apparently we were used to people drinking in the volume we’re used to and had accidentally broken this poor woman with liquor.

We headed over to the Cuban bar, which opens at about two in the morning, and instead of going inside we were sitting about two buildings down from the entrance. The reader needs some background about this bar and Cuba itself in order to understand how crazy this evening was.

This bar in particular had caught our eye mainly because it was open at all hours of the day and night. The bar itself is not too attractive – a rectangular green building front, very plain and boxy looking with an incongruous looking security guard stationed outside. Security guard? Why would they need one of those? Upon entering there are no walls, only a solid concrete roof covering a large open area with a low dividing wall separating the main dancing and pool table/pinball area from the rest of the seating. Along the back wall is the bar itself following the wall, with its sole teenage bar tender serving drinks to the locals.

The first time we visited this bar a few nights before at about 1:45am one morning it was totally empty, save us, and the girls thought it was boring so Marshall and I walked them home. We returned to the bar, got one drink and sat down at one of the small tables in the back. In no less than ten minutes the bar had filled with thirty to fifty young Cubans playing pool, dancing to the now playing salsa music, another group crowded around the air hockey table – this was a complete bar transformation. Marshall and I had a couple of Cuban women ask us to dance so we stood up and moved to the center of the room between the pool table and the bar, closer to the entrance. We were dancing with these women when the one dancing with Marshall looked over and spotted a PNR policeman in the bar. She tapped her friend, my dancing partner, on the shoulder and told her the police were in the bar, then both of them turned and walked away as if both Marshall and I had either insulted them or told them we both had communicable Yellow Fever. This was our first taste of the effect communism has on all the people living in Cuba – these women were not supposed to be seen with any tourists, and hence the reason they had walked away directly then the communist authority entered the bar.

We learned through Caesar that regular Cubans aren’t allowed to talk to the foreigners, and if you don’t have a good reason to be talking to the tourists then the PNR might ask you questions. The PNR is the Castro version of the KGB, the official police force of Cuba. As much as we forgot about it while we were there, Cuba is still a full communist state, and their law enforcement organization consists of the PNR (National Revolutionary Police) and local communist neighborhood watch groups called the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). CDR members are local neighborhood Cuban nationals who act as auxiliary eyes and ears of the police and report to the PNR any strange activity or local Cuban neighbors who are undertaking activities (like talking to foreigners) contrary to the ideals of the Revolution. Hence the reason Communism works – everyone’s always being watched and they live in a bit of fear of the state.

The Cuban girls left us and Marshall and I looked around at the crowd and noticed a few tough looking characters, but nothing that made us feel uncomfortable. Marshall bought the next round of drinks and I hit that “wall” where I knew that I was destined for a hang over if I put another one away so I exercised a veto and took the drink to go in case I might need it in fifteen minutes or so. As we exited I noticed the security guard at the door again, and it finally dawned on me that this is the only twenty four hour locals bar in town which pulls in all types of people, not all of who might be upstanding citizens. Cue security guard.

Back to our Saturday night with Caesar, we all regrouped at the Cuban bar and were sitting outside on the steps of a building ten meters away talking and drinking. It was Melinda & Ashley with Caesar next to Ashley, Marshall, and two other Cuban guys I’d not met before. Both were black as Africans, the younger one with dreadlocks, and the taller mid-twenties one was named Yuri (a nice Russian name for him). Everyone was just sitting and talking, so I went across the street to our casa particular to get something and when I returned Caesar and Ashley were missing, Yuri was sitting on the sidewalk and Melinda and Marshall recounted their run in with the local authorities.

All was well when I left, but a white van with three men in the front seat came driving up and stopped directly in front of my friends. The passenger door opened and a man in a PNR uniform pulled out a flashlight and shined it first in the faces of the two black Cubans. They heard the latch of the sliding door disengage and Ashley spotted the door opening a few inches and was sure the police were about to take away our friends. The PNR agent first questioned the younger black with the dreadlocks, then told him to get out of there so the boy ran. He then asked Yuri for his papers. asked him a few questions, then confiscated his papers. While Yuri was being questioned Caesar just turned his head away hoping, since his skin was light enough – more so than Marshall’s skin color – for him not to be noticed. The PNR agent shined his flashlight in Caesar and demanded his identity papers as well. He asked what they were doing with us (the Americans) and then told Caesar that he would have to report to the police station later to be questioned and retrieve his papers. With that the agent got back in the van, the sliding door closed and the van drove away.

When I returned Yuri was visibly disturbed and I tried to talk to him in my French-Spanish mix and he told me that he’d have to go to jail for three days or pay a fine of US$50.00 or 1,500 Cuban pesos. Knowing the value of the dollar by this point, this was a lot of money for a Cuban to come up with for an infringement like the supposed one committed. Yuri just told me this information but never actually asked me for the money. With that he left and stormed off down the street. Melinda, Marshall and I tried to put what had happened together, and they came to the conclusion that this was an elaborate scam and that they (Caesar and Yuri in conjunction with the police) were trying to get money from us. I was under the impression that they’d just seen a true Soviet style communist police state intimidation maneuver. But why hadn’t Yuri just asked me for the money instead of just telling me the price of the fine? And why did the police let the young Rastafarian go instead of confiscating his papers? I wasn’t convinced it was a scam but there were a couple of questions. When Ashley returned we tried to make more sense of this but didn’t make much progress, so we retired to bed and would try to ponder this again in the morning.

Ashley got up early and asked the patriarch of our house his take on why the police didn’t stop the Rastafarian and his response was that the police probably already knew that guy, where he lived, how to find him, but they needed information about the other two Cubans. Caesar stopped by our house that morning to tell me that Yuri had lied about the jail and the fine, but that he did have to go to the police to get his papers. Caesar explained to the police that he has a license to rent horses to foreigners, and that’s how he met us. All above board and on the up and up. Apparently it worked because I saw his identity card in his front shirt pocket during our conversation. He also said that because we were hanging out in the Cuban establishments and with the locals that we were being watched, not as a risk, but rather just to see what we were up to since we were much closer to the locals than most tourists.

As a political scientist I found the whole experience intriguing. It was like hearing stories of travellers to Moscow in the mid-eighties, not a real-life run in with a still operational communist regime. As much as Castro has created an environment for hard currency carrying travellers, we’d managed to slip under his fold and get a true feeling for what communist Cuban life is like for the locals. Even if Caesar had wanted to change his life, under the system he lives he does not have a permit to move out of his city. Saddening, intriguing, scary, incomprehensible, whatever the emotion that this experience evokes, we saw and felt something that not many foreigners get to see. Personally it just fuels my personal fire of hoping (and possibly trying to help lobby for) the US embargo to fall to help better the lives of the kind, warm and generous people we came in contact with in the city of Trinidad.

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World Weary?

Ashley and I have, over the past year, been through so much together – we shared our lives as though were in a serious relationship; which in looking back – we were very shortly there. We’ve grown together as a result of our professions and we’ve chosen a path together to live our lives close to one another – for now at least. We originally figured this out while walking along the beach in Deauville, a city on France’s Normandy coast we were visiting for business. The fact that we’d chosen this path together, that is.

Ashley was sharing with us some of her fondest memories of living in Europe and visiting Normandy as a girl. As we’ve chosen a path that intertwines our entire lives, I am privileged enough to be close to her to allow her to share with me and educate me to the ways she learned while living in Europe. We’ve been so many places together and experienced so many things in a variety of distinct cultures, we’ve made an unconscious change in our attitudes that makes us appear truly world weary.

Woe to the person who has to listen to Ashley and I banter along in a conversation about bouncing from one city to the next across South America. A discussion that to us was a conversation as natural as mentioning that I’d been to the store that afternoon.

“Salvador for New Year, zip down to Punta del Este for a few weeks and then take the weekend through Buenos Aries – B.A.- on the way home,” Bradley said.

“Perhaps we could stay in Brazil a bit longer and only go to Uruguay for a couple of days?” queried Ashley.

“Whatever you think we should do, I’m easy,” replied Bradley. “But we have to go to the house in Uruguay for at least three days to show interest if Jean Francois ever decides to give it to you for a good price.”

“That and we have to stop in Buenos Aries for a few days anyway to go to the Sybase office there, then on to the Sao Paulo office on the way home. Those channels people need us,” Ashley says with a grin.

“Of course they do. They’re absolutely dying to have you help them redesign their channels program for the region. Who other than a beautiful European woman from corporate headquarters, in to spend time in their office. They’ll need a web site as well, won’t they?”

“Now you know when we go into a foreign office together, you’re the internet guy. Yes,” she hesitates, sarcastically frustrated; “we will talk to them about setting up a web server for the partners. Do I have to tell you you’re wonderful at your job every time we go overseas? Or can you just live with the fact that you’re doing pretty damn well at your day job.”

“Yes alright, but you know I just need that ego bump every once in a while. And I won’t say a word about that Swiss woman I know who helped design the channels marketing programs in Europe. For working for a billion dollar software company we’re doing pretty well for our mid-twenties, wouldn’t you say?”

“We can’t look for new jobs until we get back from South America in January,” said Ashley, ” but then there’s the Australian partner conference in March; that gets us through the spring.”

World-weary? Who can say when one is truly so educated that he has no need to travel and explore his own world. Those who are truly looking at their surroundings become curious about the rest of the unknown and will always be able to find something new to discover. True travellers never become world weary – they only sound like it while on their life adventure of exploring the planet. The never-ending quest for knowledge to satisfy their curiosity drives them ever onward.

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Two Mice, A Bird and a Thai Vagina

Phuket, ThailandHK-BKK flight attendant hit on me shamelessly, and asked me for coffee up in business class.

Arrive in BKK after 16 hours 45min of flying and needed a drink immediately. Ashley met me at the door and asked me if I’d like a bottle of champagne.

Day 2 – BKK – Chartered a boat through the canals of Bkk. Met a Doctor who said there’d be fireworks at this temple that night.

Rest in hotel and watched most amazing thunderstorm with lightnnig appearing to hit the tops of the buildings in BKK.

THat night we looked for the temple, but it turned out to be a funeral (or we’d gotten the wrong temple) so we got a tuk tuk to drive us to – somewhere – where we had a chinese dinner then got a cab to Patpong.

Went to bars on our “cultural training” mission to see the hookers, pea shooter, ping pong balls (in training as she kept fucking it up), razorblades, then Ashley had had enough.

Ash and I made it to Phuket and had to hide behind the forex booth for all the Sybase people to leave so we could rent a jeep. Drove across the island to the Sheraton, but it took us a few hours as we kept getting lost and we’d stop in these markets to have a wander.

Found this woman who made the best home made spring rolls. Made it to the Sheraton which was too damned expensive (given that the Bhat had fallen and the room was still expensive). We headed off to Phuket City where the conference was taking place wher Ash negotiated us an executive suite for 6000 – 40% off. We were led up to the 18th floor where they turned on the hall lights (as there was obviously no other guests on this floor) and opened up the floor for us for the week.

We wandered Phuket the first night and Ash saw an elephant walking down the street, but couldn’t seem to get a ride on it. We bought Buddah masks for 1000 and we so didn’t care about buying them that the seller kept dropping the price until she hit the one we’d been saying the entire time. Back to the hotel and Ashley ordered the first of what was to be many $50 bottle of champagne.

Monday I worked in the room, and made it over to the Sybase User group later in the afternoon – walking the 10 minutes on a dirt road past the banana trees wearing my linen pants and vest. There was a Sybase event that night but we took the jeep instead of the bus for independence sake. After dinner exit and walked down to beach of this private resort we were staying in. Ash and Barbara Burmaster walk away in the dark and a few minuted later we hear them swimming around in the ocean. I kew Ashley wasn’t about to swim in her silk suit, so I wandered down the beach with Pete DeGraff, took all my clothes off and went for a swim too. Pete followed, along with Darryl McKinnon and Harnaum followed.

Security guard with lighter calls out of water and holds in front of Ashley’s naked chest showing her a piece of paper. She stare him down and ask what he’s on about. We were sopping wet and driping our way through the lobby when see the exec of Asia who’d been keeping us out – all run downstairs to the local Grease cabaret they had on.

Drove to Patong Beach to drink which is three streets wall to wall bars. Drink Drink Drink. When one of the touts outside a sex show had a card that read “pussy open bottle” Pussy smoke, live bird. Darryl asked and the bird show was on next. Ash convinced Barbara to come inside and off they skipped arm and arm into the club.

Seats at barstools right on stage. Woman comes out on stage with a wire cage (presumably to catch the bird) and she faced us, reached up and pulled napkin out and immediately two little white mouse heads peered out of her vagina. I almost fell off my stool backwards laughing as she pulled them out and put them in the cage. She danced around a bit then wiggled her hips like something was stuck up there and ended up sticking her finger in her vagina to dislodge something that popped out and hit the stage. It was a canary all wet from being inside her uterus. She quickly grabbed it and added it to the cage with the mice then ran off the stage.

– Pete and Ashley go across island for the afternoon – forget credit cards

– I get credit card, book jeep across island and have lunch, then huge rainstorm.

– Drove home stopping for beer along the way and climbed up a waterfall in the dark barefooted as not to slip off the trail

– Stopped in pharmacies to buy something – not sure what it was but it was in the book

– Back to hotel snort half of them and took the rest with a bottle of champagne.

– Walked around while kicked in then ashley not feeling so she drove pete and I across island to bars. As we pulled up outside the bars ashley turned to Pete and said “Futh Thanns ks nnaaa.” “Stop the car! Pull over the car right now!!!” Luckily right outside bars.

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Istanbul to London

There I was standing in the middle of the Istanbul airport actually getting the smallest degree of pleasure from having just been transformed from a regular traveler to someone who was totally destitute – destitute as someone can be with a Chap Stick, an Istanbul city bus ticket and 90,000 lira (90c) in his pocket.  Thirty seconds before, one of my bags containing my Irish passport, plane ticket from London to the States, all my money and credit cards had been stolen from one of the airport x-ray machines leaving me with my U.S. passport and a plane ticket for a flight to London, leaving in 30 minutes, that I still hadn’t checked in for.  Good thing I pulled those two items out of my bag before sending it through the not so secure security checkpoint entering the airport.  Why is it every time there’s a massive crowd of people the ringleaders of the establishment (be it a stadium, passenger train or airport) always seem to make it as difficult and inefficient as possible.  The Istanbul airport was no exception.

I’d been in Istanbul for the past week enjoying my time in this city that straddles Europe and Asia.  The city is totally beautiful and very Western so I was at ease travelling around – the best parts of the trip were my journeys by bus up the Bosphorus to the suburbs.  It looked like the south of France or the Italian riveria with the cobblestoned streets lined with cafes facing the water.  There were small harbours where the locals docked their sailboats after a jaunt up to the Black Sea.  This was not what I’d expected from Istanbul at all.  This morning I boarded my bus to the airport and arrived there at seven thirty thinking I’d have pleanty of time for my 9:15 flight.  If I’d looked at my ticket I would have noticed the 9:15 flight was coming to Isatnbul not leaving – my flight was departing in one hour at 8:30 a.m.  There were masses of people trying to enter the airport but ALL travellers must have their bags x-rayed and pass through a metal detector before checking in for their flights.  I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t make my flight but I had an hour so I joined the rugby scrum to make my way towards the x-ray machines.  There were families of ten moving around like small gangs making it increasingly difficult for me to make any decent progress.  I had my large backpack and my daypack that held my camera, journal of the trip and all other important items, this daypack which rarely left my hands.

I made it to the metal detector, threw my large pack through then stepped up to the detector, ready to literally throw my daypack onto the x-ray machine, walk through and retrieve the daypack on the other side before anyone could get to it.  The luggage was pouring out of the machine on the other side into a huge pile that everyone was crowded around like they were giving away free money.  I stepped up to the metal detector and the policeman patted me down and found my leather waist pouch.  “X-ray”, he said pointing to the machine.  “No.” was my response an I opened up my pouch and showed him there was nothing more dangerous than an Irish passport, et al inside.  “X-ray.”  “NO.”  “X-ray”  was the third response I received – this man wasn’t going to let me into the airport unless I conceded to put my leather waist pouch through the machine.  I now had 35 minutes to try to make my flight so in the interest of time I took off the waist pouch put it inside my daypack and put the daypack on the x-ray machine.

When I turned around to go through the detector one of those roaming families with eight members had moved in and were now crowding around the metal detector, giving me looks like there was no chance I was going to to get through until they were done.  It took more than a few minutes for them to clear the security checkpoint, mainly due to the approximately 70 bangles each of the women was wearing on their arms.  The sheer volume of silver kept setting the machine off and when instructed how to walk through the machine so it wouldn’t beep they never seem to get it right until the fifteenth try.  I finally stepped through the machine and joined the crowd to retrieve my luggage where I immediately

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Haranggaol to Samosir Island, Sumatra

Today was market day in Haranggaol and the bi-weekly boat to Samosir Island was going across the lake today when the market was finished. We walked down to the market – once again the only foreigners and the entire marketplace was teeming with people. We made our way through the masses of people – about half of them older Indonesian women with the red betel nut and tobacco chew hanging out of their mouths. People were selling huge volumes of produce, chickens, coy, and fresh meat from the butcher who was chopping up a pig on the spot.

We watched a charlatan doctor (complete with a microphone hooked up to a car battery) try to cure a man with a bum leg in front of the crowd of locals who’d gathered. They had this man who used one crutch to walk on drink what looked like a shot of orange juice, then the quack told the man to take a few steps forward. The man hesitated, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it, so noticing the fear on the man’s face the quack doctor had him sit down and take another shot of O.J.. I didn’t wait around for the main event – I felt bad for the man with the crutch. I had the flu so I headed back to the room to sleep for a few hours; this was the second time in seven months I’d been really sick. Slept a while then woke up, grabbed my pack and headed to the door to catch the boat to Samosir.

Got to the boat and no matter how loud we yelled and ranted on they wouldn’t give us the local price of Rs1000 across the lake; they screwed us for Rs2500 each – 800 of which goes to the tourist office wench’s pocket. This boat was like a Malawian local bus in that is stopped at each and every person’s house on the mainland side of the lake before actually crossing the thing to Samosir Island. We had some absolutely marvelous views of the lake, the island and surrounding countryside. We saw waterfalls coming down the side of the mountain above the three house village where we were stopping. Took loads of photos of village life on the lake. The boat finally stopped at Shangri-La, our stop, about four hours later and when it docked all it did was stick the bow of the boat into the sand and lower a chicken plank over the water for us to walk across. With my 14 kilo pack on I’d have probably gone into the drink so I went for a flying leap and made it.

Shangri-La is about seven kilometres north of the main settlements on the island and consists solely of a restaurant and ten large bungalows. The place is run by a man named Pome who greeted us and ushered us into the restaurant for our complimentary banana shake. He gave us this great welcoming, amps, etc., then took us to our Rs5000 bungalow. The thing was huge – two huge beds with nightstand, two chairs and table below the bay window facing the lake, a full closet, full bathroom and another table the size of a small dining room set with two chairs. Perfect.

We vegged out then went to dinner and met some of the other people staying there. We met yet two more Californians, Gayle and Jen (from Davis) who’d been living there for two weeks waiting for their friends. One celebratory beer for making it there then off to bed.

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Local Pool Tournament Against the Whiteys

We’d tried to leave Brastagi the day before but couldn’t muster the energy, so we’re really leaving today. We were up at 8:30 a.m. because the church next door believed in worshipping the lord very early and very loudly to music. I thought the organist and choir were downstairs in the lobby or our losmen. Put ourselves together and got the 11:30 a.m. (whoops!) bemo to the nearby city of Kabanjahe. Transferred to a bus which we were told was going to the small town of Haranggaol on the northern tip of Lake Toba. After a couple of hours the bus dropped us off in this po-dunk town one block long where we had to transfer to yet another minivan the rest of the way to Haranggaol.

Indonesian rubber time wins again, as we had to wait over an hour for there to be enough people to justify leaving for our destination. Off we went and thirty minutes later we crested the top of the crater which forms Lake Toba. Toba’s the largest lake in South East Asia, created from a massive volcanic eruption. A second eruption formed Samosir Island in the middle of the lake, where most of the losmen and towns are. We had spectacular views of the lake during our thirty minute descent – the thing is definitely larger than Lake Tahoe without any problem. Arrived in the small town of Haranggaol and got a room at a hotel on the water. When we arrived at the hotel the reminder of the rooms were being rented out by this family from Medan who were celebrating a birthday on the Lake for the day. They welcomed us and had us sit down at their table to chat. They gave us satay – roasted goat with peanut sauce, tea, and birthday cake. I found out it’s the Batak people’s custom to offer whatever food they’ve got around to anyone who joins them. We chatted with this family for a couple of hours and got invited to their home for dinner if we made it back to Medan. The family headed back to their city and Rich and I wandered through the town.

It was getting dark so we had food at one of the locals joints – the best coconut fish curry ever – then wandered down the street in the dark. We wandered by this pool hall with all the teens hanging around outside. One of them called us over and asked if we wanted to play pool. With nothing better to do we accepted and the locals took the cover off the single pool table for us. Two of the local dudes paired up and said they’d play doubles against us. We readily accepted the challenge and played five games against them.

Not much goes on in Haranggaol, so when two whiteys are playing the locals at pool, word travels fast. Mothers with children, old men and random people came into the pool hall to watch us play the Indonesians. The room got more and more crowded with each passing game and it got to the point where the crowd would emit noises based on the shot at hand. I remember it was my final shot on the eight ball and the crowd was rooting for us, so when I missed the shot there was an audible groan from some members of the crowd. Our competitors sank a couple of balls then Rich sank our final shot winning us the game. The crowd chatted among themselves while we were raking the balls for the next game, then just as in tennis they became quiet as the pool queue was put into play. At the end of it all Rich and I won 3-2 and when it was time to ante up for the Rs300 games, our competitors said we were to pay for the full five games. We said no, they’d challenged us and we’d pay for the two games we’d lost. The locals were behind us and when we exited I could hear the chattering and muffled laughter of the spectators giving our challengers a hard time about being beaten by the whiteys, and having to pay for the games they lost.

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