Monday, October 29, 2007

Saigon: Traffic, Hookers, War Propaganda

Traffic Like You've Never Seen

First thing any visitor notices about Saigon is the traffic. It takes a little getting used to. To put it in perspective:

Imagine New York City.
- During rush hour.
- With no subways and everyone on motorbikes/scooters.
- With no stop lights and no stop signs.
- Traffic is 6 motorbikes across in each direction.
- People ride on any side of the street they want; like mixing drivers from Great Britain with drivers from the US on the same road.
- People ride on the sidewalks, inside outdoor cafes.
- A few cars and buses thrown to make it interesting.
- The traffic goes 24-hours.


Now try walking across the street.
A tourist map I have includes instructions for crossing the street. I used them and they worked. Basically, you just walk. Slowly, steadily. But you don't runor change direction suddenly. People will avoid you. I've been here three days and walked all over and have yet to see an accident. And I have yet to be hit or even have a close call.

One time, I stood on the curb, looking at the traffic, paralyzed with fear. A stranger walked up behind me, took my hand like I was a 5 year old and walked me across the street. Seventy-year-old women just walk across the street without a care.

Oh, and no one wears a helmet, including babies that are sitting in the laps of their parents who are zipping along in traffic.

How Much For That Hooker On The Moped?

The motorbikes are also used by mobile madames who will pull up with a girl on the back of her bike. (This has happened to me three times. Either the fact that I'm afraid to cross the street means I'm an easy mark or these professionals can just tell who's getting action and who, like me, isn't.)

Madame on motorbike pulls up in front of me while I'm standing on the curb.
"You like boom-boom with young Vietnamese girl? 20 U.S. dollars for one hour." (Madame points to cute 20-something girl on the back of her motorbike.)
"I'm 48-years-old, I'll never last an hour."
"Ok, Ok. $10 for one hour."
"That's really very generous, but I have to run."

Another Madame pulls up. She looks about 60 years old and is wearing lots of make-up, like she's ready for her close-up.
"You like boom-boom with young girl?" (She points to cute girl on the back of her bike.)
"Actually, I like older women. What about you?"
"Me? Same price."
"Thanks, but there's a break in the traffic, I've got to go. Let's talk again soon."

My Digs

Once again I've chosen the "backpacker," or budget part of town. My hotel costs $12 with breakfast and Internet access. The room includes a European shower with no shower stall, no shower curtain, just a spray handle and a drain on the floor. I've finally figured these out, so this isn't a problem.

My only concern about the room are these small flying insects. There are few on the floor and a few on the pillow. They're either fleas or fruit flies, but I guess I'll find out tomorrow morning. I've already had the manager up and he assures me they don't bite.

On the wall of the hotel was a note with the hotels regulations. It included the usual nonsense, but at the very end had this ditty:

"VN Police Regulation
Foreigner and Vietnamese woman must not stay in room without marriage certificate. You can rent another room for her. (If she has ID card or driving license)"

Next Morning, no sleep. Not happy. I don't know if it was my imagination or not, but I felt things crawling on me. I tried wrapping my head turban style with a bandana I have that allegedly has permanent bug repellent. Didn't work. Plus, I had to get up 7:00 to catch the bus for a tour of tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the war. I'm going to a decent hotel -- even if I have to go bust the bank and spend $50 a night! (Actually, I feel bad because the staff at the cheap place has been so nice.)

The Tunnel Tour

Around Saigon, in an area called Cu Chi, the Vietnamese built tunnels that were used to fight, first the French and later the Americans. During the war with the U.S., the tunnels held 16,000 Viet Cong. By the end of the war, only 6,000 were still alive. The U.S. bombed the area and used defoliating chemicals to rid the area of leaves and trees to make it easier to move in tanks and artilery.

The tour was decent but kind of disturbing. I was the only American. Here were the key components:

1) Tour of Folk Art Facility with Art Created by People with Deformities Resulting from Agent Orange, a defoliant reportedly used by US in the War.
- The art was beautiful. I checked, most of the people had visible and real deformities. Whether these were from US actions, I couldn't tell.

2) Vietnames propaganda film about the war.
A narrator talks about how the peaceful villagers were attacked and bombed by aggressive Americans whose home was thousands of miles away. The brave villagers went into the tunnels and used a variety of techniques to kill Americans. There was a Rosie the Riveter type woman who received recognition for killing large numbers of US soldiers.

3) Tour of Booby Traps Used Against US Soldiers
Our tourguide described with glee each of these Medieval-looking devices, including
- trap door with poison laced bamboo pungee sticks on the bottom. You step on the camouflaged door and land on sharped sticks poisoned with cobra venom.
- assorted other traps with metal spikes that impale you in the head, chest, internal organs, legs, and, of course, the genitals.

4) Bombed Out US Tank
On our tour through the woods, there was the shell of an M-41 tank that supposedly had been destroyed by a an anti-tank mine. The mine was made from an unexploded bomb from a B-52 by the peaceful Cu Chi villagers.

5) Lady Making Wrappers for Spring Rolls
Our guide's best quip of the day. "A peasant can make up to 1,500 rice papers a day. This lady here only makes 200 to 300. Know why? Because she works for the government."

6) The Firing Range
For about $10 for a clip of 10 bullets, visitors were allowed to shoot several US weapons from the war, including an M30 or M16, or an AK47. I passed

7) Cobra Wine
Instead of buying a bottle of Tequila with a worm on the bottom, the gift shop had wine that included a cobra with a scorpion in its mouth. These would have made great stocking stuffers, but I don't know how I'd get them across the various borders I need to cross.

8) 90-Foot Tunnel Tour
You go underground and walk/crawl. It's worth doing.

A Trip To The Gym

I found a decent gym that was a 40-minute walk from my hotel. Getting to the gym involved navigating three traffic circles. I am still here to write about it. The gym was like any gym in Boston, except for a few differences:
- Many people work out in designer flip flops instead of sneakers
- I was one of 3 white people
- The people were friendly (actually, locals have been friendly throughout Asia) I spoke to more people there than I have in 5 years at my current gym in Boston.
- The few overweight people I've seen belonged in Vietnam belonged to the gym.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reader Mail: Am I Cheap ? Nha Trang, Seaside Dump

Reader Inquiries

Several folks have asked about my choices in accommodations and travel. Am I just trying to save a few Dong or trying to inflict the maximum amount pain on myself. Actually both and then some. Here are my thoughts:

1) Traveling for 4 months is a lot different than vacationing for a week or two. I wouldn't think twice about spending $3,000 for a week in Corsica or the Alps. But multiply $3,000 by 16 weeks and you have almost $50,000. That's more than I can afford.

2) The popular travel guide books for budget/adventure travelers (Lonely Planet and Rough Guides) recommend trying as many modes of transportation as possible. On this trip, I've traveled by big plane, small plane, overnight ferry, and now overnight bus. Bus is by far the cheapest and most brutal and it's also how the locals travel. On my last bus trip, there was a little guy sitting in the seat usually reserved for the drivers when they want to sleep. I asked if he was a driver. No, he said. I'm a doctor. I guess doctors in Vietnam don't paid what they do in the U.S.

3) Once you realize that you're being charged much more than the locals for everything, it becomes kind of game to haggle and shop for prices. (I don't spend too much time on this, but just asking your hotel what, say, a cab ride should cost, puts you in a better bargaining position.

4) I'm frugal by nature. I always pay my way, give to charity, etc. But I'm just not a big spender and don't think we as U.S. consumers can keep spendig and wasting the way we have in the past. (anyone who is interested can check out Web site some friends and I started: www.consciousconsuming.org)

Another friend was interest in my French friend "Joe." Here are some more specifics.
- Appearance: full head of long gray hair. He wore traditional trendy European evening wear: black everything. Black polo shirt (no logo), open at the showing grey chest hair, long black pants, nice black dress shoes. He was dressed at least two clicks above the average tourist. (I would expect nothing less from someone who once lived in Paris). He looked older than 49. I would have guessed mid 50's.
- He said he didn't quite fit-in in France but wouldn't live anywhere else. Man after my own heart. (By not fitting in, he was referring to the fact that he never married, though he had two grown kids, he thought both politics and the media were a waste of time. He wasn't really into acquiring money and possessions.) He seemed to be pretty comfortable in his "skin" and with who he is.
- At one of the bars we went to he was very flirty with the teenaged boys who were the waiters. He tried to tickle them. He performed make-believe Kung Fu on them.
- He had "faire l'amour" with about 5 prostitutes since being in Vietnam. (Question for all the experts out there: does one "make love" to a prostitute? I guess if you're French you do.)

Nha Trang is the Last Straw

Vietnam is starting to get to me. Maybe it's the bus rides or this dumpy seaside town I'm holed up in. Or may be it's the water. Here are my current gripes:
- Weather
Naturally, I picked the rainy season to come visit. Though it didn't rain at all in Hanoi, it has poured in the two seaside towns I've visited. (Monsoon season in these areas is Sept - January)
- Bus
I'm done with overnight bus rides. I've done two in the last week. The second was even grosser than the first. The smell of sweat, lack of a/c...
- Smell
The town I'm in now (Nha Trang) smells like a mixture of wood smoke, incense, gas fumes, and putrifying squid.
- Street Hawkers
I understand that I'm rich and locals are poor (relatively speaking), but here in Nha Trang it is a little out of control. You walk down the street and one after another they will hit on you to buy books, post cards, art, scooter rides, food, and boom-boom. I was eating lunch in an outdoor cafe and hawkers would come up to me while I was eating. I'm always polite and say "No, thank you."
- This is the first town where I've seen rats eating street garbage in broad daylight.


Glossary: Vietnames hotel with 24-hour security
Usually this means the gates and doors are all locked by 1:00 am. The night manager is sleeping on the floor in the lobby on a cot or small mattress. To get in or out, you have to wake him up.
Last night, I wasn't feeling well, went to bed at 9:00 and slept till 1:30 am. At 1:30, I wanted some bottled water (you don't drink from the tap). The elevator had been shut off, so I walked the 6 floors to the lobby. (I usually walk instead of taking the elevator). I couldn't get out and I felt bad about waking the manager who was sleeping on the floor with his pregnant wife. (I had also pissed him off earlier by complaining about the bed pillows, broken bedside lamp, and missing top bed sheet)I watched them sleep and tried to decide what to do. First, I went into the kitchen to look in the fridge. No bottled water. I went to the cooler with drinks for sale. Locked. I tried to see if I could climb the gate. No luck. Finally, a white guy with a Vietnamese girl friend came downstairs and wanted to leave. The manager gladly woke up and let them out. I bought a bottle of water and now the elevator was working.

Vietnamese Submarine Sandwich
- take a sub roll; smear cheese (Laughing Cow fake cheese is fine); add slivers of something white (egg?) and something grey (pork?); finish with slices of cucumber, scallion, tomato. Add hot sauce. I ate two in one sitting, quite excellent.

Hotel room gross out
In Nha Trang I'm staying at a hotel called the Dong Phuong. It was recommended by a fellow traveler. She seemed to know her stuff. What was she thinking? I wasn't feeling well when I got off the bus, declined the first hotel the bus took us to, and just wanted a clean quiet room. Instead here's what I got for $10 a night.
- toilet paper was all wet
- pillow cases stuffed with concrete
- bedside light didn't work. (eventually, the manager came up and screwed the bulb in all the way and it worked. Honest, I tried fiddling with it before calling him. I tried to explain that Jewish men are genetically unable to repair things, but he didn't understand and just stomped off.)
- Neighbor blasting TV at 3:30 am. (I knocked several times on his door to no avail. He must have fallen asleep. I knocked harder. He partially opened the door, he was naked; it wasn't a pretty sight. He apologized and turned the TV off.
- When I awoke the next morning, my place had been invaded by black beetles about the size of Japanese beetles. They scuttled around on the floor and I killed them one at a time. I left for a few hours, came back and an army of ants was eating the dead beetle carcasses. I cleaned up the whole mess and flushed it down the toilet.
- I'm done with Vietnamese seaside towns and fly to Saigon tomorrow.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Prostitution for Dummies; Eat at a Street Stall

Prostitution for Dummies

 On this page:
1) One night in Hoi An (blog entry about meeting a guy who knew about bar girls)
2) Tips for finding naughty girls in Southeast Asia
3) Links to other sites and pages with info on finding party girls around the world.
4) Original short stories about bad girls (from my novel)
5) Sign up box for my e-mail newsletter for men looking for naughtiness overseas.
6) Tips on eating at a food stall. (You will have munchies, later on)

 

1) One Night in Hoi An



On Thursday night, I found a seedy little noodle stall with a bunch of Westerners eating.

I grabbed a seat and started talking to the guy at the next table. He was French and spoke no English. We'll call him Joe. Over the next hour, we spoke in French and I learned the following:


- Joe is 49 years old and has had about five careers. He recently went back to school and got a degree in social work and now works at a home for troubled kids.
- He has two grown children but never married.
- His life philosophy: he doesn't like to read or watch TV because these are all someone else's interpretation of life. He likes to experience things first hand with his mind (points to his head), his heart (points to his heart), with his passions (points to his crotch.) He also considered himself an anarchist because he hated politics.
- He periodically gives elderly street peddlers 1 million Vietnames Dong, about $63, about a month's salary for many in Vietnam.

After eating, we hopped on his moped to check out some bars. At our first stop, we drank and the conversation turned to every guy's favorite topic in South East Asia: prostitutes. He was generous with his advice and I found it worth sharing.

2) Tip of the Day: How to Find a Prostitute in Hoi An, Vietnam


1) A lot of the hair salons offer massage. (I had noticed this and thought it was a strange combination of offerings. But I'm just a bumpkin from Boston, what do I know). Often the masseuse will rub more than your back.

2) If you are getting a massage and want more, attempt to massage the masseuse. If she starts talking money, you're in. If she slaps your face or calls the police, you're probably out of luck.

3) Don't hire several girls at a time because one of them may grab your wallet while you're occupied with another one.

Related Tip: Talking Vietnamese, Lesson #1


When approached by a friendly moped driver at 2:00 am you may hear the phrase:
"Laddie, Laddie, boom-boom?"

Translation: "Excuse me Mr. Filthy Rich Caucasion, would you like to meet a girl who makes friends easily?"

If you are not interested, here is the proper response:
"No boom-boom suc-suc."

Translation: "Thank you for your generous offer Mr. Ho' Man. I'm sure your sister is a very nice girl, but I already have venereal disease."

 

3) Info about prostitution in Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Phnom Penh.

- Profiles of Western Sex Tourists in Asia
- Phnom Penh Nightlife
- One Day at the Massage Parlor
- Saigon: Traffic, Hookers, War Propaganda
- Useful information on sex tourism

 

4) Naughty Short Stories/Videos about Wild Girls


- An online date in the U.S. that went a little too right.

-  My first time with a Phnom Penh hooker.

- Preparing for a trip to Asia and the Curious Finger Body Spa.

 

5) Click to read more naughty stuff for free, including the first 10 pages of my upcoming comedy novel: "God Bless Cambodia.

comedy novel from Randy Ross "God Bless Cambodia."
My novel, available now, offers an unflinching look at how many really feel about sex, love, marriage, and paying for a hand job. Content warnings for adult situations, adult language, and more adult situations.

 

 

6) More Night-Time Tips: How To Eat At A Seedy Street Stall


1) Ask the price before sitting down. Once you sit down, you are committed. The price should be between 10,000 and 15,000 Dong for food and about the same for a beer. (15,000 Dong = a little less than $1)

2) Remember: those squares of scrap paper impaled on a long nail in the middle of the table are not Post-It notes, they are napkins.

3) Take a napkin and wipe your chopsticks and spoon thoroughly.

4) When you're bowl of food arrives, let your utensils soak in the hot food. The heat should help disinfect them.

5) Add every ingredient on the table to your food: hot peppers, garlic in oil, etc. Squeeze in the juice of a lime section, if they served you one. Stir and eat.

Lifestyle of the Vietnamese:
The researchers at RandysTravel have conducted informal interviews with locals in Hoi An. Here's more or less how things work:

1) Average monthly salary: $80 to $500.
2) Some people work multiple jobs (It is not uncommon to have night watchmen at a hotel sleeping in a small bed. I'm guessing they also work a day job)
3) People count on their families to take care of them in old age. If an elderly person has no family, they are out of luck.
4) Women live at home until they get married. She is not allowed to sleep over at a boyfriend's house until they are married. When she marries she moves out and in with the man, who continues living under his parents' roof. Most women are married in their early twenties.
5) You don't marry one person, you marry the entire family.
6) In Hoi An, many people have never left the town because it is too expensive for them to travel.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cheapest Town; Marriage Offer; How the Other Half Vacations

Our bus pulled into a beachside town call Hoi An at around 12:30 pm. The bus is run by company called An Phu. The first hotel we pulled into was called the An Phu. Coincidence? Seems like good business: Wear people down with 18-hour bus ride and no sleep and then bring them to your hotel for the hard sell.

I got off the bus and a hotel sales person showed me a room.
The price: $12.
What am I made of money?
Do you think I just got off the boat or something?

I told her it was too much, I was going to look around town. I started to walk out and the price dropped to $10. I asked if they had a better room. Something bigger with a balcony. Just so happens... I took the new room and agreed to pay $12. The room was almost identical to what I had in Hanoi for $20, except this hotel was new and had a pool.

Questions I should have asked before taking the room:
- The map says the hotel is only 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) to the beach. Is that a friggin lie?
- Is the distance to the beach more like 5 kilometers (3 miles)?
- Does it rain in this town every day or just every day in October when I'm here?
- Is that really your idea of a gym?

Still, to date, Hoi An is the least expensive place and it was fun as well.

Costs:
- nice hotel room (Had both a queen bed and single bed, a/c, nice new bathroom, free Internet): $12
- Huge dinner: less than $3, including a local noodle dish with beef called Cao Lo $.70 (squeeze lime and add hot peppers), excellent hot and sour fish soup with rice $1, 16 ounce beer $1
- ride to the beach $1
- workout in marginal gym at five-star beach hotel: $10 (seems to be a theme in Southeast Asia: a visit to the gym costs the same as a night in a hotel)

The town is worth a visit. (I'm staying 4 days)
- There is a river that empties into the sea. (I've decided to name the river the Typhus because a local white guy told me not to go in it.) Bars and restaurants line the riverside.
- There is a Bangkok/China Tow -style market with food and clothes, etc. It's like a trip to the zoo. Lots of strange creatures being washed in the Typhus that no doubt end up in my hot and sour fish soup.
- Ocean and beach are great but a local cautioned me about the undertow. I would have gone in anyway but it has rained every day.

Marriage Offer

My first day I walked to the beach. The walk took about an hour. The second day I wanted to work out. After seeing my hotel gym, which had 3 pieces of equipment probably left over from the French occupation, I asked the hotel staff if there was a better place. They said a hotel on the beach had a real gym.

I wasn't going to walk both ways to the beach. I walked out of the hotel and a woman renting bikes and mopeds called out asking if I wanted to rent a bike. I said no, it was raining. She ask if I wanted a ride somewhere. I said maybe. We haggled about price and settled on 15,000 dong. She closed up her rental stand and we hopped on her moped.

The woman started talking:
"where you from?"
"Canada," I said
"How old are you?"
" 25, I said. "How old are you?"
"Me 25, too." (She didn't look a day over 45)
"You married?"
"Nope," I said.
"Me neither."
"You like Hoi An?"
"Yeah, it's a very nice town."
"You should get married and buy a house here."

Somehow the conversation got turned around to us getting married.
Here was her offer:
- we get married
- I buy her a big house (she said a big house would cost $30k. I pointed to a small triple decker on the river. She said that one would cost $60k. If I bought her that house she would rent out the other floors.)
- I leave Hoi An and visit periodically

If I had been more attracted to her, I might have started dickering for better terms.

Glossary:

Food stall:

Food sold off a cart, from in front of a house, or from a store that sells other stuff during the day. It's almost like your neighbor opening his garage at night, putting out a few chairs, and serving mystery stew and beer to anyone who wants to pay. Some stalls are open till 2:00 am.
Most food stalls sell some type of stew. The base is a watery brew simmering in a huge pot large enough to boil a queen-sized sham pillow. When the liquid gets low, the cook adds water tap water, a dead kitten, and a few rusty soup cans.


How the Other Half Vacations

On the beach in Hoi An is a 5-star hotel called the Swiss-Belhotel Golden Sand Resort & Spa. The place is one of the most spectacular hotels I've seen but still cheap by US standards.

Here's what it has:
- beautiful pool, steps from beach with a bar that has seats that are in the water. The pool has two small bridges that go across it.
- small gym and full spa (you pay extra for spa)
- several nice bars. A beer in the bar costs $2.50 (and the staff expects tips -- the nerve. I was told not to tip in either Thailand or Vietnam, as people don't expect it and can be confused. I think it is sadistic to confuse someone intentionally, so I've abided by the local customs) The bar I went to had chess boards, dominoes, and a free pool table. The bar staff was confounded when I first asked the price and then wanted to pay with Vietnames dong -- they are used to US dollars and people who don't do boorish things like ask the price of everything. (I've gotten used to asking the price before buying anything. You may be embarrassed by me if we go out when I get home...)

- The cheapest room cost $105 (these were all sold out, so I couldn't see one)

- The nicest room cost $245 (equivalent to about 3 weeks in my hotel)

The nicest room had the following:
- 1.5 baths
- master bath suite had separate shower stall and a seperate bath tub.
- livingroom
- foyer
- huge balcony
- it faces the beach (you're basically on the beach.)
- bedroom that had a bed that was probably the size of two king beds.

Crime watch:
I was at the post office mailing something and a woman I was talking to was doing the same. She put her purse on the counter, filled out some forms, and then her purse was gone.

More Mosquito Bites of the World:
1) Bangkok
- itch minor
- welt: minor
- vector: small, quiet mosquito (I'd just assume let bit me and get it over with)

2) Hanoi, Hoi An
-itch: minor
- welt: minor
- vector: small, quiet mosquito

Overnight Cruise; Rough Bus Ride

Cheap Cruise: $60

In Hanoi I took at 2-day, 1-night boat cruise.

Here's what I got:
- transportation to and from my hotel to cruise boat
- 1.5 days cruise to view national landmark called Ha Long bay, which is dotted with island cliffs.
- 1 breakfast, 2 lunches, 1 dinner (food was great. drinks were a rip off)
- nice room with bathroom (but had a roomate, so not much sleep)
- 2-hour cave tour with guide
- 1-hour kayaking

Next day, I left Hanoi to head down the coast. For $25, I bought a bus ticket that went all the way down to Saigon (a 40-hour drive, 930 miles on rough roads. In college, friends and I drove from Vermont to Fort Lauderdale in 27 hours.) My guide books warned that this ride was a little rough.

The bus allows you to get off and on again at 5 stops on the way to Saigon. The first leg of the bus ride was a 18-hours. Once again, I failed to ask enough questions about the bus ride, such as:
- why the was it so cheap? (if you're concerned enough to ask, take the train or fly)
- did the bus have a bathroom? (no)
- when was the last time the shock absorbers were changed? (what shock absorbers?)
- what is the Vietnamese word for giant, concussion-inducing pothole? (there probably isn't one)
- did it have sleeper seats (hah! There are buses with beds but they cost considerably more)
- is there a legal limit on how many Red Bull energy drinks the bus driver can consume while driving? (probably not)

So, I got on the bus at 6:30 pm. It was due to arrive at 12:30 pm the next day in a beach side town called Hoi An.

The Drive

Several things make highway driving in Vietnam particularly interesting:
- mopeds are allowed on highways, so there is endless honking.
- the highway we took had two-lanes (one going one way, the other lane going the opposite direction. To pass you have to dart out into oncoming traffic. This is most fun on blind turns)
- tailgating is the norm and usually means you're within 5 feet of vehicle in front of you. It's actually more like drafting, a move bike riders use to ride in the air wake of the rider in front of them.

The bus personnel:
- Once we were on the highway, our tour guide pulled out a small hammock, strung it to the armrests of four seats and promptly went to sleep. At least someone got some sleep.
- the driver was probably 4 Red Bulls over the legal limit and weaved in out of traffic, bashed through pot holes rattling the bus to the point where the little buttons above our seats for air and lights fell out. I felt like a viction of shaken baby syndrome.

The rest stop:
After about 2 hours we pulled in for a bathroom break. The urinal was a 50-foot long concrete trough. It was a completely in the open. Using it was almost like getting caught pissing on a wall only you were with 20 other people. In other words, passers-by could see just about everything including the post-piss shake. The urinal was also about 20 feet from the kitchen. The woman cleaning dishes could see us all pissing into the trough and then zipping up. (At least she was attractive.) Also, your shoes were all covered in urine when you left. (I have extra long shoe laces that alo got wet.) When we got back on the bus we were all on an amonia high from the smell of the urinal.

Sleeping on the Bus

I didn't sleep at all on the bus, but some of those around me did. The trick is finding a comfortable position. Luckily most of us had double seats to ourselves.

How to position yourself for sleep:
- get the back row of the bus (ours didn't have a bathroom, so the back row had 5 seats across -- anyone lucky enough to claim those seats could recline completely back there.
- lie down on the aisle floor. (this became less attractive after we tracked in urine from the rest stop.)
- stretch across so your legs go onto the seat of person across the aisle. Hope they don't get angry.
- put your head on seat closest to the aisle, your butt on seat near windows, and rest your legs against the window.

The Morning After

I felt fine, but a lot of the women had developed angry zits on their cheeks and chins, probably from resting against dirty bus upolstery. (I guess that's one benefit of having skin that's over 22 years old -- no more pimples.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hanoi; Live Chickens; More Shysters

After spending my last night in Bangkok in a hostel dorm room with 3 other guys (I got no sleep), I hopped on a flight to Hanoi. The flight was about 2 hours. The flight attendent made her usual remarks:

"This is a non-smoking flight"

"Bringing live chickens on board is a serious offense."

Luckily, I had checked my bag full of wool suits and live chickens before getting on the plane.

I had asked my Hanoi hostel to arrange a cab. When I got off my plane at 10:30 pm, there was an Asian guy holding a sign with my name on it. I went with him out to the parking lot.

"You wait me here," he said in pefect, preposition-free Vietnamese English.

I waited. And waited. Eventually, an Asian guy pulled up in a car with no taxi sign on it. I didn't recognize him. I asked him how much the cab ride was going to cost. "Sorry, sorry," he said. He opened his trunk and put my bags in. Hmm. I got in. I asked again about the price. "Sorry, sorry."

I asked if he was going to the Hanoi hostel. "Sorry, sorry." I started to get a little nervous. I was trying to figure out what I'd do if this was a kidknapping. We kept driving. I asked if we were going to Hanoi. He said yes. I watched the street signs. They all said Hanoi. On the highway, there were moped riders darting across lanes, in and out of traffic, between trucks. Some of the mopeds had up to four people on them, men, women, children. No one was wearing a helmet. Eventually, we made it to the hostel. He took off, I didn't need to pay him. (The hostel billed me directly.)

Apparently, my paranoia was not without grounds. The next day a fellow hosteler told me the following story.

He was out looking for a specific bar late at night. He couldn't find it. A friendly moped rider offered to take him to the bar for 15,000 Vietnames dong (about $1). He hopped on the moped. They drove along. Then a prostitute jumped on the back of the moped and started feeling the guy up, reaching into his front pockets. He said he wasn't interested, get lost. She continued. He got pissed off. They pulled up in front of the bar. He reached in his back pocket for his wallet and it was half out of his pocket. He opened the wallet. The money was gone. He yelled at her to give him the money back. She did nothing. He grabbed the driver of the moped by the collar, looked at her, and told her he would beat the crap piss out of the driver if he didn't get his money. He got his money back.(The hosteler is a small Australian guy. The Vietnamese guy was even smaller. Violent crime here is pretty rare. He wouldn't have attempted anything like this outside of South East Asia.)

Facts About Hanoi/North Vietnam
- They drive on the right, like the U.S.
- More precisely, they drive on the left, right, on sidewalks.
- there are few cars but thousands of mopeds; few people wear helmets; they honk constantly using a stacatto-style series of 4 or more short honks as opposed to Americans, who honk with a couple of long, loud foghorn blasts.
- women generally cover their skin from the sun. You'll see a couple of variation of face coverings: the bandana worn Jesse James style but with a feminine flower pattern or the surgeons' mask also in feminine pattern.
- technically, bars close at around midnight. But some will close the doors, pull down their iron garage-like shutters and continue serving inside. If you knock on the shutter, some will let you in. Some hostelers said they were in a place where the police demanded the owners open it up and everyone ran out the back door.
- Prices here are even cheaper than in Thailand: a decent small hotel in town costs $20 a night (320,000 dong). Bowl of soup from a street stall a little less than $1, 15,000 dong.
- Weather has been in 80's, but dry and comfortable.

Sites, Smells of Bangkok; Streak Continues

I go down to the waterfront to take a tourist boat around Bangkok. I wasn't sure where to get off, so I asked an attractive Asian women if this boat went to Wat Pho. Her breasts are perfect. She is wearing a lot of make up. She answers me in a deep masculine voice. "Yes, it does." Ahh, my first encounter with a girlie boy, also know as a Katoey.

The water was muddy and the river had all kinds of exotic craft. My favorite was the Bangkok take on the romantic Venetian gondola boat ride.
- Instead of a dashing gondola paddler in swanky clothes, you get a beer drinking guy wearing flip flops.
- Instead of being propelled by a silent swishing paddle, the Bangkok gondola (called a long boat) is powered by a V-6 engine with no cover on it -- you can see the pistons and cams, and smell the gas. Perfect for setting the right romantic mood.

The docks along the water look like something out of a Charlie Chan movie. Dark warrens, stocked with boxes and produce and all kinds of dried stuff you'd typically feed to a cat. The place smelled like rotting fish. This would be a great spot for the opening scene of a drug movie.

I got off the boat and visited a temple called Wat Pho. The highlight was the giant reclining Budha. To see him, you had to take off your shoes and put them in a giant rack. Westerners' shoes went in one rack. Thais' shoes went in a separate rack next to a security guard. Hmmm. The Budha, who is resting on his side, was about the size of a blue whale. He had a blissful smirk like he had just enjoyed some pleasures of the flesh or a nice bowl of hashish.

I came out of exhibit and there was a white guy complaining that his shoes had been stolen. (His shoes were blue Crocs). The security guard told him to look again. He looked again. No shoes. The guard told him to look again. He looked again. No shoes. I left and came back. The guy found his shoes -- in another part of the rack. The guard told him to wait 10 minutes to make sure they were his shoes and not those of someone who just went in. They were his shoes. Either someone took them by accident and brought them back, or someone stole them and heard all the commotion and returned them, or someone moved them.

A Randystravels investigation on shoe thefts at this exhibit revealed the following:
- 20 percent of incidents involve Westerners' shoes
- 80 percent involve Thais' shoes
- the kleptos are generally Cambodians and Laotians.
Source: Thai tour guide who was watching this whole thing with me. (I actually don't believe a word of what he said.)

Tip of the day: to avoid shoe theft, carry your shoes in your daypack instead of leaving them on the ground where the Cambodians can get them.

How Monks keep fit: The temple grounds is home to Budhist monks and a school. There was a full length outdoor basketball court in the middle of the grounds.

Next it was time to inspect the public bathroom: This required a new level of bravery. The facility included:
- dirty squat toilet (hole in the ground)
- no flush
- no toilet paper
- faucet, cup, and trough of dirty water
- I'm guessing you pour water into hole when you're done with your business.
- unfortunately, the hole was overflowing; nothing was going down.
- I was in and out of facility in 30 seconds.

I went back down to the dock to catch my boat. Getting on the boat, I saw an attractive white woman. I went to spot next to her and started talking to her. Conversation was going well.
- She was about my age (check)
- she wore minimal make up, unpretentious hairdo. (check)
- she was a massage therapist (alternative career, check)
- she had moved to Maui from Colorado and did a lot of outdoor stuff (athletic, check)
- she was traveling on her own for 5 weeks and staying in cheap hotels. (apparently available and on a budget, check)

We talked for a while and there was just one last hurdle to get over and I would ask her out.
"So, do you have a job to go back to when you get back?" I asked.
"Yeah, job, husband, dog."
Bummer

Facts about Bangkok:
- They drive on left side, like British and South Africans.
- Weather when I was there: 80s, muggy, sooty. Take a shower, get out, you're already covered in sweat and grime.
- the place hops 24-hours a day.
- I felt totally safe walking around at 2:00 am (there were women walking alone at that hour without a care -- women other than the prostitutes.
- There are helpful, uniformed police all over the place, particularly the subway. (these guys look like they mean business, unlike South African "security guards" who man the streets and look barely old enough to shave.

Fleeced in Bangkok

Bangkok has the seedy hipness of New York without the pretension or high prices. Add some Asian flavor, people that party all night, and you've got a recipe for a great city. Still, like the cowboy in the movie "Midnight Cowboy," I had a lot to learn my first two days.

Separating tourists from their money is a favorite past time in South East Asia. From what I can tell, rip-off artists sharpen their skills in smaller places like Hanoi and when they're ready to play in the big leagues, they come to Bangkok. In fact, the economists at Randystravel estimate that tourist rip offs account for 40 percent of the city's revenue.

And it's not like the authorities aren't aware of it. The tourist maps you pick in the airport warn you about cab and tuk-tuk drivers.
(a tuk-tuk is a 3-wheeled, gas-powered rickshaw.)

Transportation scams:
- you get into their vehicle and tell them you want to go to hotel x or see monument y. They tell you the monument or hotel is closed and they take you to either a hotel or a sleezy store. The idea is that you'll buy a room or some junk and the driver gets a kick back from the proprietor. (For bringing you to a store, a driver may get $1. If you buy something, he may get $5)
- they will charge you an outrageous fee to go around the corner.

Cash Confusion:
The first day or so, dealing with a new currency is tricky. If there are 34 baht to a dollar, is a 100 baht a good deal for a beer? So far on my trip, I've had to deal with 4 different currencies. As a result, you encounter the following.

- miscounted change: merchants just give you the wrong change.
- inflated pricing $5 for a beer sounds reasonable until you realize that in Bangkok only idiots pay $5 for a beer. A beer costs $2 or less. (60 baht or less)

Tourist buses:
- The hostel in which I stayed warned about buses. They stow your belongings under the bus and then rifle through them and steal your valuables.

First Night in Bangkok

I took a public express bus to the hostel, which was on a main boulevard called Sukimvit Road. Sukimvit has streets running off it called Sois (pronounced "soys.) I was on Soi 38, two blocks from the skyway, or above-ground subway. I was also about 3 stops from some of the key red-light districts.

I started talking to some folks in the hostel lobby and we agreed to meet later for dinner and drinks. Unfortunately, we were going to the other part of town beyond the subway and we'd need to deal with a cab driver. We split into two groups and were advised to flag down a driver and insist on having him charge us according to the cab's meter. The first group got a metered cab right away. I was in the second group and the problems started. The first driver we flagged down refused to go by the meter. The second refused as well. We got desperate. Somehow we got the idea that 300 baht was a fair price. (about $10, split 3 ways.) We told him we'd pay 300 baht. He said ok. Our first victory against Bangkok's bad men, we snickered to ourselves. Upon arriving, we asked the folks who took a separate cab what they paid. "100 baht." Damn.

Fleeced Again

The next morning, I went out in search of breakfast. There was a series of soup and noodle stalls near the hostel. I went to the first one. Asked the price: 30 baht. ($1) I said "too much." The middle-aged proprietress didn't respond. I walked away. I came to another stall that was actually in a little store. I asked the price. The elderly woman said 40 baht. Bitch! But I was hungry so I sat down. A guy in his twenties was also working there. I ate my soup and fumed because I knew I was being overcharged. When I was done with my meal, I asked him how much. He said 30 baht I paid and left before she could see what went on.

Later that day, I wanted to find a health club. I had the address of two. The first one wanted 1000 baht (about $30) to work out for the day. That was more than my hostel room. I went to the health club across the street. They wanted 800 baht for the day. I tried to negotiate. "How about 800 baht for 24 hours, which means I can come in tomorrow morning?" This turned into a full-fledge negotiation, almost like buying a car. The sales manager (an attractive Thai woman in her 20's) called me into the deal-closing area, where other sales people were working perspective clients. We bantered back and forth. We agreed to something, but I wasn't sure what. I insisted on something in writing. She gave me a little card that said I could work out 2 days for 800 baht (about $13 a day). I went and worked out. I talked to another member. He said he paid 630 baht per month. "800 baht seems kind of expensive," he said. Damn.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

For dinner, I went in search of a noodle stall. I found a place manned by another old lady who didn't speak much English. (or didn't let on that she did.) I asked how much. She said 30 baht for a curried chicken and rice dish. I ordered and also asked for a bottle of water. She whipped up the food. It was cold. I may be an easy mark, but when it comes to food poisoning, I'm willing to take a stand. I told her I'd pay for the water but not for the food. I told her it was cold. She didn't understand. I gestured. She gestured. I was bigger than she was, but I didn't want to tangle with her. There was another guy eating who seemed to know his way around the food stall. Hopefully, it was her son. I explained to him. I couldn't tell if he understood. We just stood there. Stand off in Bangkok. He took away the food. I paid him 10 baht (the going rate) for the water. We parted company.

My last day, I asked the hostel to call me a cab for the airport. The hostel owner has a sign on the wall that says the cab will cost 300 to 350 baht, depending on traffic. I get in the cab and ask how much it will be. The driver says he will take the highway and run the meter. He says I will have to pay the toll. I start to get angry and ask him to stop the cab so we can go discuss this with the hostel owner. I realize that my bags are in his trunk. If I get out of the cab, he could split with my bags. (I've also done a bad thing in Thai culture: getting mad. You're supposed to show restraint, even in the middle of a fleecing. Smiling, laughing, and being firm are fine. Anger is not good.) I agree to the terms. I read the fine print on the window of the cab that has the terms drivers are supposed to abide by. It says passengers are supposed to pay tolls. We get to the airport: tolls plus meter: $340 baht. I pay him and he owes me $260. He hands me what looks like 160 baht. I ask angrily for the other 100 baht. He says it's there. I open wad of bills. It's all there. Damn.

I'm in the airport restaurant. I order the green curry, extra spicey. The dish comes in a bowl that is only a quarter full. I call over the waitress and with a smile I point to the green mixture and say "nit noy, nit noy. Where's the food?" (Nit noy means "a little.") The waitress looks confounded. I call over the manager. With a big smile, I give him the same routine. He grabs my bowl and hands it to the cook. When I get the bowl back it is three quarters full. It looks great. I spoon some into my mouth. I start to cough and suppress it. This is the spiciest dish I've ever tasted. I plough through it hacking, wheezing, eyes and nose running, and finish every drop. I refuse to give the restaurant staff any satisfaction. I have nasty burning sensation in my colon for the next two days. Damn.

Monday Oct 15: Cape Town to Bangkok

This is my third red-eye flight. (only two more)


Today's travel schedule
- 4:50 a.m. cab from Cape Town hostel to airport
- 7:00 am filght from Cape Town to Johannesburg (2-hour flight, plus 4 hour lay over)
- 12:55 pm flight from Jo'burg to Hong Kong (13 hour red-eye flight on Cathay Pacific)
- 8:00 am arrive in Hong Kong
- 1:00 flight to Bangkok (5 hour time change from Cape Town, about 12 hours ahead of Boston)

My strategy for this long overnight flight: remain awake for 5 hours on flight and then try to sleep using whatever means possible.

Side note: In the international terminal of Jo'burg airport, I saw my first modern squat toilet. It had the tradional hole in the ground, but the foot rests and floor were all shiney white porcelain. It even had toilet paper. I took a quick look inside the stall but despite the inviting decor, I didn't use it.

Luggage:
- Once again, I managed to bring all my luggage on the plane. I don't trust the airlines to move luggage from point a to point b without losing it, urinating on it, or stealing valuables from it. (After my last long flight my bag had a very familiar amonia-like smell.)
- Strategy: Take a third of my belongings out of my back pack and put them in a white plastic kitchen trash bag. (I brought a bunch of these.) I also wear my windsurfing harness instead of packing it. When I check in, the agent weighs my pack and it not only meets weight restrictions but it looks smaller it normally is. Having my stuff separated out into two bags also makes it easier to find places to stow it in overhead compartments on the plane. The kitchen trash bag also contains a small day pack with stuff I want with me for the flight: a book, sleeping pills, bottle of water, snack, notebook and pen.
- The Cathay agent started to make some noises about the size of my pack but I begged and pleaded and told her I had a tight connection in Hong Kong. She let me slide.
- On the Airbus 340 I was flying on, the overhead bins above the center aisle hold more (110 pounds) than those over the seats in the side aisle. (Though I was seated in a side aisle, I grabbed a spot in the overhead for the center aisle.)

Cathay Pacific: This is more like it
- even in economy, we received free newspapers. (I grabbed International Herald Tribune and Business Day)
- In economy, we all had our own private entertainment consoles (LCD with a selection of movies, TV shows, etc.)
- free head phones
- goody bag: socks, tooth brush with toothpaste
- food: I opted for fish with vegetables. It was a little bland but at least it was somewhat healthy and not buried in fat and salt. For breakfast, I had chicken with Asian noodles, fruit, and yogurt.

Sleep: None
- I tried drugs, alcohol, meditation, to no avail
- I ended up watching 3 movies: Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costener as a serial killer: decent), Die Hard 4 (crap), The Anchorman (Will Ferrell, marginal) and a series of TV comedies (Fraser)

I got in to Hong Kong at 8:00 am

I was slated to take a 2:00 flight to Bangkok, but there was a 9:00 am flight as well. I raced around the airport, found the ticket agent, changed my ticket and was on the plane. (If I had checked my bags, I never would have been able to do this.)

This plane was Boeing 747-400, an ancient piece of crap. Smaller seats, smaller overhead bins.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Luck Continues: I End Up In a Gay Bar

Friday night I got into Cape Town at around 9:00 and wanted to go out for a beer. I had been to all the places near my hostel on my last visit, so I walked further down the street. I'd go into a place, see a huge crowd, hear head-splitting music, and walk out. I finally found a quieter place with folks playing pool and watching rugby. I had my beer and left.

Saturday I went to work out and then went back to that bar at around 6:00. I started talking to a young black guy sitting at the bar. We were watching rugby and I was asking him questions about the game. He said he sold hand-carved figurines made of stone from his own store. His family carved the figurines from his home in Zimbabwe and then shipped them down here.

Eventually, the topic turned to women. He explained the finer points of marriage:

In Cape Town, it is common for a woman to have a baby before she is married to show that she is fertile and not fallow. If you marry her, you help support the existing baby.

In Zimbabwe, men want to marry a virgin. Arranged marriages are not uncommon.

My companion wasn't married and was a little confounded by the whole marriage situation -- being from Zimbabwe and living in Cape Town.

Oh, and by the way, he added, "this is a known gay hangout."

I looked around and the crowd had a good mix of men and women. But on closer inspection, there were a few sharply dressed older guys sitting alone at the bar. There were also some young guys who kept coming in and bumming cigarettes off the owner.

My friend finished his beer and got up to leave. "Be Careful," he said. Hmmm. Same advice I had gotten from a prostitute 2 weeks earlier.

Phone Nightmares

Ever notice on the back of your credit card there is a phone number that you can use to call them collect if you need to? Don't count on it. In Greece, the hotel owner I was staying with couldn't tell me how to make a collect call. In South Africa, it took 4 tries to get through to an international operator. When I got hold of Visa, they told me to call back during business hours.

Similarly frustrating. I purchased an international SIM card for my cell phone that has not worked. (The store that sold me the card will not refund any of the fee, so I'm going have my credit card company dispute it.)

(Most people I've spoken to have purchased SIM cards locally for South Africa. My problem was that I was going to a lot of different countries and didn't want to keep purchasing SIM cards. Live and learn.)

Next Moves

As I write this, I am preparing for my red eye flight to Bangkok tomorrow and I have not yet turned gay.

South African Recap; Is This Third World?

Recap

Weird Foods Eaten:
- Scrambled ostrich egg, ostrich bacon (takes like chicken)
- mystery meat pita from street vendor playing middle eastern music.

Popular South African beer that went out of style in U.S. in 1975:
Carling Black Label

Death-Defying Feat:
Using shower that delivered electric shock when you touched hot or cold water handles.

Gym workouts: 5

Pounds gained from drinking beer and eating junk food: 3

Daily expenditures:
about $60 (food, beer, accommodation -- I always had my own room)

Extra expenditures:
- bungee jump: about $80
- sea kayaking tour: about $30
- canoe rental. entrance fee for national forest: $16
- gym: $6 to $14, depending on gym
- ostrich farm (can't remember, but it was cheap)
- cave tour (can't remember, but it was cheap)
- aquarium, snake zoo, dolphin show (all in one complex, can't recall price)

Total Expenditures for 17 days: under $1200


Weather: cold, damp, rainy about half the time
- temps between 40 and 60 farenheit
- locals say this has been one of coldest South African springs in a while. (first iceberg ever spotted off the coast)

Crime:
It's an concern. None of travelers I met had a problem, but everyone was very careful and took cabs.

Towns visited:
- Cape Town (stayed in college party area of town)
- Oudtshorn (Nice remote area; visited ostrich farm and took cave tour)
- Storms River (Nice remote area in the middle of national forest; hostel was fun)
- Port Elizabeth (gritty little city; are I stayed in wasn't very nice. They had a poor excuse for an aquarium and an unimpressive snake zoo)
- Amakhala Game reserve (an hour from Port Elizabether; not sure of name of town.)
- Plettenberg Bay (nice, small beach town)
- Wilderness (that's the name of the town, very nice national forest on a small river, in the woods, near the ocean.

Dates: 3 (1 professional)

Mosquito bites: none

Colds caught: 1


Is This the Third World?

South African areas I visited had a lot of third world attributes, including:

1) Poverty
- children come up to you and beg for money. You can also see them rummaging through the public garbage cans. It's very disturbing.
- Many black people are very skinny
- "Townships" or shanty towns are visible on the side of major highways. These are the one-room, third-world shacks you see on TV featuring corrugated metal roofs and cinder block walls.

2) Crime
- Nicer neighborhoods, schools, public buildings, stores, all have barbed wire, electified fences, or some variation of a high wall topped with a flesh-gouging metal top.
- hostels, tourist offices, all warn you about crime. One hostel owner was telling me about a couple of British guys who got robbed in broad daylight in Cape Town last year. She said people don't report these crimes because the police are not that interested in pursuing crimes that can't be prosecuted. (by the time the case goes to trial, the traveler is out of the country.) She also said a popular hike in Cape Town, up Table Mountain, is best taken with a guide because local crooks have taken to holding people up on their way up the mountain.

3) Lots of undeveloped, unspoiled land
- drive on major highways and you'll see beautiful beaches, mountains and plains.

4) Low prices
- Food and accommodations less than half of a vacation in the US or Europe.

5) Limited Public transportation
- Buses are pretty much it

First World Attributes:

1) You can drink the water
2) you can eat pretty much anything you want.

Bathrooms That Kill; Is a Hostel for you?

So far, South Africa has offered the widest variety of bathrooms, ranging from Michelin-rated to confounding to painful.

Fourstar bathroom:
- Beacon Hotel in Plattenberg: It's a fourstar hotel, they have have fourstar bathrooms.
- Virgin Active health clubs: It's a nice health club with nice W.C.s

Confounding:
- in several places I have found sinks and showers in which the hot water handle is the right handle (instead of the left).
- in one Virgin Active club, there were four sinks, two of which had hot water handles on the left while the other two sinks had the hot water handle on the right.
- in one Virgin Active club, the toilet paper unrolled horizontally (you unrolled the paper by pulling it across) instead of vertically, where you unroll by pulling the paper down.

Painful:
- One place I stayed, when you touched the hot or cold handle you received an electric shock. (I used a bottle of shampoo to turn the water on and off) Adjusting the shower head also delivered a shock.

Like European toilets, most South African toilets have minimal amounts of water in the bowl. To put this in perspective, if a U.S. toilet bowl had a quart of water in the bowl between flushes, a European toilet probably has a mouthful, and a South African toilet, probably has two mouthfuls. (These are rough estimates.)

As much as everyone likes to get on the U.S. for being wasteful, the low-water toilets from South Africa and Europe, tend not to flush very thoroughly and can leave behind "crumbs" that can only be removed with a toilet brush.

Is a Hostel Right For You?

At this point, I've stayed in 8 different hostels (1 in Greece, and 7 in South Africa) and can offer a little perspective on this low-cost accommodation option. Basically, a hosel is a very inexpensive hotel -- about 1/3rd the cost of a hotel in the same area. Many of them are quite nice inside. If you can handle camping, shared bathrooms, and the occasional bug, this is worth considering.

Some thoughts:

- hostels in remote areas tend to be nice.
- hostels in the city, tend to be a little gritty.
- the only problems I had with noise were with the city hostels because they were in the middle of the action and didn't have expensive insulated windows.
- the beds have generally been workable, though I've yet to sleep on one with a box spring.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Rugby is for Girls; Speak British; Barbed Wire

After visiting my cousin at the Amakhala game reserve, I stayed in a gritty little city called Port Elizabeth. It is kind of the Somerville of the Western Cape, the section of South Africa in which I've been traveling. My first night I promptly caught a cold and stayed in the same hostel for 3 nights. I was forced to endure night after night of rugby on the livingroom TV.

Rugby Is A Girlie Game

After watching a number of rugby games, I've come to the conclusion that it is a sport for pansies.
Here's why:
1) The game is played mainly by white guys in collared shirts and expensive haircuts.
2) In American football, players tackle by throwing each other to the ground. In rugby, players tackle by trying to rip each others clothes off, almost like overexcited teenagers making out.
3)rugby players spend an unnatural amount of time hugging opposing players and with their hands between each others legs.
4) any contact sport where the French are leading contenders is highly suspect.

Speak British

After my cold went away, I moved on to a town called Plettenberg Bay. This is more like a nice beach town on Cape Cod. I spent two nights there drinking till 1:30 with a nice group of Brits and Germans. (oldest person besides me was 32 years old). I picked up some new vocabulary words from the Brits that are worth passing on.

Tosser: Another word for a "wanker," or a jerk off

Knackered: Tired

Winge: To kfetch or complain

Pissed: To be drunk

Jumper: Sweater

Brilliant: excellent

Wife-beater: any kind of men's vest


Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

In South Africa, the cliched white pickett fence has been replaced with 6-foot high stone walls topped with decorative concertina wire or an electrified fence. The walls also usually have an attractive sign that includes the name of their security company and the words "Armed Response." Unfortunately, what I've seen of the armed guards does not instill a lot of confidence. In Port Elizabeth, the hostel in which I stayed had an all night guard, who couldn't have been more than 18. I wonder if his mother knew he was out that late.

Weather Report: Cold, Rainy

For the last week or so, it has been rainy and in the 40's and 50's. I had envisioned South Africa a little differently: Hot, dusty, people running around in loin cloths. Most people I see are wearing down coats and ski hats.

I went sea kayaking yesterday in Plettenberg Bay and the guide made us turn back after the rain got so bad and the wind picked up. Landing the kayak on the beach, I got tossed in the water, which felt warm compared to the air temperature.

Price Comparison

In Plettenberg Bay I walked into a 4-star hotel that overlooked the ocean. The hotel was pretty nice. Actually, it was gorgeous. Two nights in the cheapest room at the hotel costs about 3800 Rand, or $540. That would be enough to get your own room at a hostel for almost 3 weeks. (hostel room would probably have a shared bathroom and access to a kitchen.)

Saturday, October 6, 2007

2-Day Safari; How To Be a Bad Houseguest

I'm adjusting well to living like a college student. Based on my most recent performance, I think being carefree and inconsiderate are starting to become second nature. I now feel qualified to offer the following advice:

Tip of the Day: How to Be a Bad Houseguest

1) Make vague plans to visit cousin who works as a guide at a game reserve in South Africa.

2) Ask him to drive 2 hours to pick you up late at night.

3) Forget to give him the address of where he should meet you.

4) Wait till an hour after agreed up on rendez-vous time to call him.

5) Make sure he and his driver don't get to bed till 1:30 (they have to get up at 7:00)

6) At breakfast the next morning, meet cousin's coworkers.

7) Sit at place set for game reserve owner's wife

8) Eat dish of food specially prepared for her.

The Safari

My cousin Matt is guide at Amakhala game reserve in South Africa. This is a small game reserve. The smaller size means you don't spend a lot of time driving around looking for animals -- you see them right away.

Day 1: Morning
After horrifying his coworkers with my breakfast performance, we get into a Land Rover driven by Matt. Ten minutes later, we are about 100 yards from a dozen or so giraffes.

We drive on for about 5 minutes and see at least a half dozen different types of antelope (wildebeast, hartebeast, sprinbok, kudu, impala, other deer like animals with crazy horns you wouldn't want to get impaled on.) (excuse spelling errors)

Day 1: Afternoon
Lions are in a special area of the reserve. We encounter a 400-pound male. His head is as large as a car tire. We are about 50 yards from him.

Day 2: Morning
After 15 minute drive, we see rhino, elephant, cape buffalo.

Day 2: Afternoon
We encounter male, female, and lion cubs. The are within 20 feet of LandRover. I start to get nervous. I wish I was bungee jumping.

Lions can be a little hard to find, expecially when they are feeding. (They hide in the brush with their kill.)

To make finding lions easier, the biologists at Randystravels have assembled this guide to sounds made by feeding lions:

"Hey, can you pass the salt?"

"Mom, is ok if I eat the watch?"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Another Close Encounter

After bungee jumping, I'm heading back to my room. There is an attractive German woman and her friend standing outside the room next to mine. We talk. She's cute and seems older than usual hostel chick. (turns out she's 27)

Later I'm going for a run. I run into them again. She gets out of her car to come over to talk to me. I'm wearing a tank top. She is checking out my arms. (or possibly my greying chest hair.) She says she likes to run. We part company.

After my run, I get into the shower. There is a knock at my door. "Who is it?" Someone mumbles. I say open the door. The German girl pops her head in and asks if I want to join her for a whirlpool in two hours. I say yes. Friendly, these German girls.

I'm eating my dinner at the hostel bar. She is making her dinner. She asks if she can sit down. I say I was saving the seat for her. We eat and joke around. She utters those other words every guy longs to hear: "Should I get a bottle of wine for the hot tub?"

I review the signs
- she was checking out my arms
- she got out of her car to talk
- she invites me to whirlpool.
- she wants to add alcohol to the equation.
This all looks promising. But with my luck, you never know.

I get up to the whirlpool and she's in there ... with a British guy. She asks me to get in. Over the next 3 hours, here's what transpires in our underwater game of cat and mouse:

- I touch her with my feet; she touches back.
- I move closer; she moves away.
- she sits on rim of whirlpool and invites me to sit next to her.
- I try to put arm around her, she moves it away.
- she offers other guy glass of wine
- she toasts him and says that he has to look into her eyes when toasting or he'll experience 7 years of bad sex.
- she starts using the 'f' word a lot.
- she moves to side of whirlpool next to him.
- he is either playing it real cool, or shy, or he's not interested. (he is 22 years old; she is 27)
- someones feet brush mine...and they're not hers.
- she says she's cold and we all get out of hot tub.
- she says she'll see us at breakfast.
- the guy invites me to watch soccer with him later(I remember that he's from the UK and that most guys over there are gay.)

Millipede; Bungee

The clique of 5 Americans and I left Oudtshoorn via Baz Bus for a town called Storms River. They reserved rooms in one hostel, I was in another (As I've done up to this point, I always get my own room. Average cost in South Africa so far about $35, not including breakfast.)

My room in Storms River was pretty nice and included my own shower. As I was preparing for bed, I saw a black, 6-inch bug, the width of my middle finger, rifling through my day pack. All my valuables were safely hidden, but the room wasn't going to be big enough for the two of us. He had to go. I wrestled him to the ground, applied a half-nelson, and, with extreme prejudice, threw him out the door.

66-Story Jump: Cost about $75

The next morning, I decided to skip breakfast. My stomach had no room for food; it was full of nerves. It was raining hard, so I was half hoping the bungee jumping would be cancelled. No such luck. A hostel staffer drove me to the Bloukrans bridge (www.faceadrenalin.com), which claims to be the highest bridge offering bungee jumping in the world. For a little perspective:

The bridge is 216 meters high above the ground, about 1/8 of a mile, 660 feet, or 66 stories.
The Hancock tower in Boston is (I believe) 50 stories.
Tallest buildings in the world are a little over 100 stories.

Note: You don't jump off the top of the bridge. You jump off a platform underneath the bridge.

The other jumpers:
- mostly 20 year olds (one german girl who kept waffling on whether she was going to do it or not)
- a 50-something guy.
- everyone was terrified. Some people got quiet, some people danced around, some people hyper-ventilated. (I got quiet)

The Process
- sign release forms, which are suprisingly free of legalize. Forms basically, said "If you get hurt, tough nuggies."
- get weighed
- get strapped into special harness that is used to retrieve you after you jump. (after you hang upside down, a staffer is lowered down. He attaches hooks to your harness and the two of you are pulled back onto the platform.)
- walk out onto the jumping platform via a metal walkway that provides a vertigo inducing view of the gorge below.
- on the platform, pounding techno music is playing. When your time comes, the staff wraps your ankles in pads, and ties them together. They hook a carabiner clamp onto the ankle pads.
- they hook a back up clamp to your harness in case the ankle rig doesn't hold.
- After being fully trussed up, you can barely walk. Now you wait.
- Then, the staff carries you to the edge of the platform and you try not to look down. You try to breath. You wish you had been nicer to that millipede.
- you bend your knees and, with a push from the staff, you jump.
- the first second, as you see the ground coming up at you, is a real diaper filler. But once the bungee cord tightens around your ankles, you are hanging upside down with a great view of the gorge and river below.

Note: The girl who was waffling eventually appeared on the platform in a harness and jumped.

The Baz Bus; Oudtshoorn

The Baz Bus; Oudtshoorn

A bus service called the Baz Bus drives up and down the eastern coast of South Africa, from Cape Town to Johannesburg. It stops in front of hostels and you can get on and off as much as you want. I bought a 2-week pass for a little over $200. The bus is like an airport shuttle and seats 19 people. Your bags go in a little trailer attached to the back of the bus. My destination was a town called Oudtshoorn for a cave tour and ostrich farm tour.

The Crowd:

On the bus there was a cliquish group of 5 Americans in their 20's, a guy in his 50's, a Canadian, a Brit, and the first Israeli I've encountered.

I made it to Oudtshoorn by 4:00, went for a run, and was in bed by 10:00.

The next day, I signed up for the cave tours and ostrich farm. I was to be accompanied by the clique of 5 Americans. (Eventually, they started talking to me and things were fine. At one point, they were discussing an old "45-year-old lady" they worked with. I'm guessing they couldn't tell that I'm 48.)

The Cango Cave tour exceeded expectations. I was expecting the equivalent of a petting zoo filled with rocks. Instead the tour included climbing some very narrow, slippery chutes. (one woman in our group couldn't fit. A tour guide explained that a woman got stuck the previous week for 6 hours. Eventually, they applied lube to her and tugged her out.)

The ostrich farm also exceeded expectations. First, some facts about ostriches.
- 1 ostrich egg is the equivalent of 2.5 dozen chicken eggs.
- the birds can live till 80 years old.
- the males have a large toenail that can evicerate you with one good kick.

To impress us with his bravery, the guide went into a pen with two breeding ostriches and grabbed a baby for us to hold. The ostriches didn't do anything to him. The birds hissed a little, but we didn't get to see any of the guide's internal organs get spilled onto the ground. I guess you have to pay extra to see that.

Tip of Week: How to Ride an Ostrich
- Mount the bird and lean back to where you feel like your about to fall off.
- put your feet under his wings
- grab the wings like a steering wheel.
- fall off
- As my father always says, if life gives you toss, you just have to get back on that ostrich.

Sanitation Alert; Call Them Coloreds

As I prepared to go to sleep last night I pulled back the comforter and noticed that there was no top sheet and a few suspicious looking long black hairs on the bottom sheet. I have yet to come face to face with a bed bug and I'm still relatively free of body chancres. So, I pulled out my trusty bed sheet and slept in it to avoid contact with the bed or mattress.

Note: A bedsheet is like a sleeping bag without the insulation. It is a sheet that is stiched all the way around to provide a pouch to sleep in.

Saturday morning I awoke somewhat refreshed at 10:00. My activity for the day was to find a gym. After a few misdirections and getting lost a few times, I found a gorgeous gym within walking distance. (about 30 minutes down some deserted streets)

It was dark after my workout and I contemplated walking home but found the bar downstairs and asked the bartender to call me a cab. I sat at the bar to wait. While sitting at the bar, a woman and her "colored" boyfriend starting talking to me. The gist of conversation: in South Africa, it is politically correct to refer to black people as black people, mixed race people as colored. (In the US, using the word colored is reserved for Klansmen and other residents of Alabama.)

We discussed my plans to go bungee jumping and I told her I reserved the right to chicken out. Both her and her boyfriend told me if I chickened out I'd probably regret it for the rest of my days. I explained to them that I'm terrified of heights and that I get vertigo from platform shoes.

Back At The Hostel

I got back to the hostel and started to talking to a woman who had also gone to a gym. She was American and in her 30's. She said the words every guy my age wants to hear: "I want to go someplace tonight where the crowd isn't too young. "

Even though I'm probably 15 years older than her, she was a lot more worldly I am. I asked her about the crime in Cape Town and was she nervous at all. She said "no." I told her about the crime stories the Nigerian woman told me the night before. She said, the woman was probably just trying to make me feel sorry for her and give her money. Ooops. That's exactly what happened; I'm a sucker for a pretty face covered in knife wounds.

Anyway, the American woman and I bar-hopped around town and took a cab called the Rikki, which drives around and picks up random people. You pay a lot less, but it can take a while to get to your destination.

We got back to the hostel at 3:00, wished each other well and parted ways. I went up to my room to pack for my 7:30 bus ride the next morning.