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Monthly Archives: February 2011

My trip is a failure!

I’m convinced my trip is a failure. None of the plans I make ever comes to fruition and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.


Hmm, maybe it’s because the circumstances change all the time. Which makes deviating from the original plan more sense.

And maybe because I wasn’t looking for something when I left it’s unlikely that I find something.

Failure is not an option has become ‘failure is good’.


A story of monks and cougars

It had already been a strange morning. My passport was still missing (see: https://gijsbos.com/bad-news-at-a-bad-moment ). I was at Lak Lake and had some time to kill while waiting/praying for it to arrive. I saw many boats on the lake and decided to rent one. As usual I didn’t want to take a tour and got a boat on my own. It was a freaking disaster. I thought that during my year in Oxford I had amassed some punting skills, but the opposite proved to be the case. I got stuck in somebody’s fishing nets, gave up on the poling and used the pole as a paddle. In the end, the owner, hugely upset, pulled me off the water as I had gone for a nap on the boat in the middle of the lake. Embarrassed, I left the village.

I was driving the motorbike along some paddy fields when I saw a little pagoda on a small hill. I decided to walk up there and was greeted by an elderly lady. She showed me around as an important looking monk was talking with a couple. Later we were joined by a younger monk. None of us spoke a word of each other’s language and still we had a great time. After an hour I hardly dares to look anywhere as everywhere I laid my eyes on was immediately offered to me.

I had to leave for a couple of hours to solve the passport issue and when I returned the pagoda was completely deserted. Except for one young Vietnamese girl who was chanting in the pagoda and regularly hitted a massive bell like there was no tomorrow (ear damage guaranteed). When the other monks returned and we had finished a delicious dinner, they indicated that I should wash my face. When I returned a group of about 30 elderly people had gathered, all dressed in grey monk-like-habit clothes. They were delighted to see me. I got a habit dress as well (fortunately no pictures) and we all went for chanting in the pagoda. Obviously I didn’t know any of the lyrics and the book I was given didn’t help much either. My contribution there was limited to reducing the average age by 4 years and increasing the average hight by 4 centimeter. When the cross-legged sitting had been giving me cramps for longer than I wish to remember, the impressive ceremony came to close.

At least, that’s what I thought. The ceremony was over, but the spectacle for the elderly people had just begun. I was seated at a long table, given some fresh fruit and the second ceremony had could begun. Every movement, part of my body or uttering from my mouth was discussed at length in Vietnamese by the whole group of oldtimers. Especially my nose, received the warm attention of everybody. After a marriage proposal (at least that’s how I interpreted them) or two by ladies twice my age, the pleasant torture came to an end. 

Even the early hour (20.30) and the cold floor as a bed couldn’t prevent me from falling asleep quickly and happily. The End.

Bad news at a bad moment

It’s one of those ‘honey, did you check the gas?’ moments. You’ve been riding your scooter for 8,5 hours through terrain where it was not intended for when you suddenly realize you forgot your passport in the hotel. Surely, I can blame the hotel for not giving it back, but in the end it’s my passport and I should have brought it along. Especially in communist Vietnam, especially when you’re 10 minutes away from your new hotel.

Going back the next day would mean 17 hours of hellish ride over a road I had already covered. It would be easier if the passport would come to me. But who could I trust with my passport? And how could I find it back if I didn’t remember the name of the hotel?

I’ll spare you the details, especially of the many conversations that were entirely lost in translation. I thank the kind lady of the ‘Dreams’ hotel in Dalat who arranged everything without me even spending the night there (the hotel was around the corner from where I stayed). The anonymous Indian girl who took the passport of a total stranger when it only could mean trouble (you’ll probably never read this, but only let me pay you dinner for you and your driver. I truly hope you enjoyed it!).

In the end, it was bound to happen one day during this voyage. I’m glad it did and even gladder it ended this way.


Declaring an end to declaring an end of language education

The future is now. It’s surprising that the earth didn’t stop turning when Google released its Google Translate app for the iPhone. Please let me explain what it’s all about.


Thanks to this application from Google you can now speak to your phone and let Google translate it instantly and say the words in that language. The application is free and only requires Internet access. As Internet access rarely costs more than $1-$2 per month in developing countries, this means that you’ve basically got a great translator in your pocket for free.

Especially that the application says the translated words is truly amazing. The quality of the translations is great, which isn’t surprising when you realize that Google has the largest text database in the world to draw inspiration…. I use the previous unfinished sentence regularly to illustrate that language is a lot about the expectations in your brain. And quite simply, when you ‘read’ the enormous amounts of text that Google does, it comes as no surprise that they/it are very good in forecasting what somebody is going to say.

In any case, the need for learning another language is greatly diminished as our Google overlords have already done this for us. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the very near future you can call somebody and speak in your language and the other person hears it in their language. In addition, I wonder when we’ll think that ‘everybody had to learn a language’ (instead of making sure that 1 program knows it really well) will sound hopelessly outdated.

Singularity is near.

I’m a miserable failure

This was the first thought that went through my mind when I failed this all important test. Any Vietnamese can pack at least one fridge on the back of his/her bike and I was struggling to attach my backpack on my scooter. Driving a motorbike through Vietnam supposedly is one of the greatest trips in life. I’m going one way (south – north), so a rental bike wasn’t possible for me either. And buying is legally not possible as people on a tourist visa like me, can’t own things in Vietnam. However, a little bribe supposedly fixes a lot of problems here. Determined not to have this great trip taken from me, I started to look for a suitable motorbike. The russian designed and 30+ years old Minsk is the coolest option, but I’ve traveled a bit to long now to work with unreliable gear. As my legal situation is rather weak, buying an expensive bike is a risk from police repossession and resale perspective. I therefore aimed for the most common automatic bike: the Yamaha Nouvo

Looking for a place that sells motorbikes is actually quite difficult in Vietnam. The main cause is that there are so many motorbikes everywhere that each store/house/bar resembles a motorbike shop to the untrained eye. Mention once that you want to buy a bike and you’re sure to spend the rest of the day from one guy’s house to his cousin and then his brother and… who each got the perfect bike for you for sale.

I don’t know whether it is still bad sentiment from the war, but Vietnam’s national sport seems to be ripping of tourists. Asking triple the local price for a motorbike is done without remorse. My first attempt to buy a bike was interrupted by the new year celebrations and the following Ted holiday. When after two weeks the stores started opening again, my eyes were opened by the (relatively fixed) prices of new motorbikes.

Afterwards, things went relatively quickly (2 full days). Mini-drama’s with the paperwork were solved by a fixer that I found out of town, who didn’t have any family over here. So, now I’m ready for an epic trip of a lifetime. If I can only attach that damned backpack safely.


(from a trip with a rental bike)

Musical interlude: Shakira, MTV unplugged

After the eerie music of Olafnur Arnalds ( https://gijsbos.com/musical-interludes-olafur-arnalds ) and the abstract noise of Autechre ( https://gijsbos.com/musical-interlude-autechre-tri-repetae ), one could think I’m a robot. Please let me assure you this is not the case. The subject of this post probably made you shiver with fear. Shakira? Isn’t that the Latin version of Britney Spears, who’s lyrics don’t make sense and has been hanging on to her funny looking hip shaking for half a decade to long?


Once upon a time, a long long time ago, a different Shakira existed. She was a shy girl with brown hair. This Shakira looked shyly in the camera, seemingly afraid that people could look straight into her heart and see the suffering inside. Her Spanish lyrics made sense and she actually sang! I guess nobody misses this Shakira more than herself.


There is a terrible song on this album (Ciega, Sordomunda), but most of are of a rare beauty (Octavo dia, Si te vas) and the ‘goose bumps songs’ Inevitable and Tu.


Recommendation: are you a robot?




Freedom or ideals?


The amazing scenery of Cat Tien national parc requires protection from the locals as otherwise it’s beautiful animals will be shot and the trees cut. Therefore, all the tribal people that once lived spread throughout the park are now moved together into a new tribal village. In return, they received a free stone house and support for starting up farming. I could witness myself that several tribal people refused to live in the stone houses (apperently to warm) and had rebuild their traditional bamboo huts next to the new ones and used the new ones as sheds. The discussion centered on balancing the rights of the tribal people and the park (which contains nearly extinct animals). Where does the freedom of the tribal people start and the ideals of the park end? Can they walk freely through the park (yes)? Can they shoot an animal when they are hungry (no)? The rules seemed fairly arbitrary to me.

Without noticing it at the moment, I had a very similar discussion the following day on a nearby island at the endangered primate species centre. How much is a monkey worth? Is it worth a very small chance of finding a cure for a human disease? And if that monkey specie is almost extinct? How can you explain the cost of 1 GPS tracker to visiting local schoolchildren if its 5 times the average annual salary in Vietnam? How much suffering for a monkey is justifiable? Anyway, it wasn’t all doom and gloom at the primate centre as the very friendly and knowledgeable manager and I talked about one of my favorite subjects: data.

The question at hand was: how can we optimize survival rates of monkeys that are released back into the wild? The answer is unknown and hidden in the data somewhere. However, the available data isn’t statistically significant, getting new data in is both time consuming and expensive. While we were looking at a monkey couple that were recently promoted from a cage to the ‘free range’ we thought of 10s of variables that could have an impact on the survival rates (even though the animals are solitary would it make sense to release a group at the same moment at the same location? etc.). What should be the testing sequence given resources, time an budget constraints?

Fortunately, there weren’t just questions, but also a path to an answer. And that was the data. Currently, the stored data is only what is tested (for example: does the survival rate depend on the time of the year where the animals are released?). That test is very important, but forgets to take into account other potentially explaining variables (age, time in captivity before the centre, performance of the monkey during the various stages in the center etc.). By storing all the data centrally a big jump forward could be made in the research.

However, the biggest idea was not storing the centre in a better way, it was opening the data up for everybody to see. Putting it on the Internet, inviting other centers around the world to store their data in a similar fashion and analyze the combined data together.

It was a fun (and heated) conversation, because our backgrounds were so different (evil businessman vs monkey saver). In the end we both thoroughly enjoyed finding ways to get more monkeys to survive in the forest.

Welcome to the jungle

Fortunatel,y I remembered to never make a Vietnamese lose face. The reason for my suppressed anger was that the receptionist at the Ranger HQ and I had agreed that I would do an excursion through the jungle. Now, a couple of hours later, she told me that there were no guides available except for doing the same jungle trek that I had done this morning. I tried again: “maybe other guide want to go?”. Suddenly she smiled and said: “You can go without guide. We bring you by car into jungle and you walk to hut”. I confidently replied that “I had already walked alone this morning, so that it wouldn’t be any problem”. When I looked up to the map I noticed what was written next to a hand drawn picture of my destination “crocodile swamp”. I comforted myself that this probably was a trick to attract tourists with an exotic animal name. When I was about to leave, the friendly lady at the ranger station spoke again (she would have made Steve Jobs proud): “One more thing, be careful with the monkeys. When they’re about to attack, you should look them straight in the eyes”. Little did she know that few animals scare me more than monkeys. The reason can be summarized by ‘once bitten, twice shy’. Shortly afterwards, I found myself alone at the start of the trail. I quickly ‘armed’ myself with a big wooden stick and started practicing a semi angry look while looking an imagined monkey straight in the eye.

As I progressed through the jungle and approached the hut, I noticed a steady increase in poo on the track, it resembled human poo, just slightly different… So, I was mentally preparing myself for battling legions of monkeys. Moreover, a wise man once said: “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”. And paranoid I was. It is slowly approaching the end of the dry season and (big) leaves were falling down the trees, often taking a couple of extra leaves along. Together they resulted in a noise that could be anything from a monkey to a tiger to four leaves. Other noises low on the ground triggered a memory from many a Vietnam movie: the two-step-snake. Or was it three step? Or could I make five? Needless to say that what should have been a relaxing walk through the jungle turned into a continuous spine shivering goose skin live horror movie. When I finally arrived in one piece (without seeing a single monkey) an stunning open jungle with a lake in the middle suddenly made it all worth it. 

The station’s rangers told me that it was possible to take the boat out onto the lake. I therefore decided to take a nap to be fit for the ‘greatest show on earth’. When I turned up to take the boatat 18.00 they told me that we would have dinner instead and that there were to many crocodiles in the lake anyway. I drew my conclusion quickly: my mini trip was cancelled because these guys didn’t want to move their dinner time! Despite my pleading they wouldn’t give in and I watched the sunset from the roof of the ranger station instead.

When the night started to fall a ranger brought a massive flashlight. He turned it on and quickly called for me. He pointed at the reflections in the water: a crocodile. Minutes later I had a try myself: as the torch over the swamp it lit up with at least a dozen pair of hungry eyes. I sighed of relief for not having taken the small canoe on my own. The ranger and I agreed that I would take out the canoe in the early morning, when “the crocodiles would be fast asleep”. Let’s hope that none of the has a sudden bout of insomnia like me now. A crocodile with insomnia is unlikely though, as a he/she probably wouldn’t be scared of finding a (poisonous?) frog in his toilet just before he goes to bed.

At a crossroad, always…

A couple of years ago 2 friends and I bought a camper. Our camper was a camper with attitude. It wasn’t one of those surfer / 60’s campers, it was built in a slightly larger, box shaped Volkswagen transport vehicles. It would have been dead ugly from the outside if it wouldn’t have had a sun screen on the outside that made it resemble a large hat.

We bought this camper with a specific goal in mind: a 3 weeks trip together with my friend. We had the most amazing holidays when we were teenagers, but once grown up we would spend large portions of our evenings together talking about those great holidays instead of having new experiences together. This had to change when we bought the camper.

And so it did. From the first moment in the camper we had a fantastic trip. The camper had been owned for almost 2 decades by the same family and we had bought it fully furnished. So every time we were looking for something we just stopped searching and thought “if it here, what would be the most logical place for this piece?”. Inevitably the part was in the camper and at the most logical place.

We drove the camper south to France, Spain (Extremadura!) and parts of Portugal. We made a sport of finding the best spot in the forest (we pretended it was a 4×4) for our BBQ’s. After several days we developed a very efficient decision making routine: at every crossroad, take the smallest of all roads at your disposal.

I remembered this routine this morning: the setting was different. Instead of together in southern Europe, I found myself alone and semi-lost in the jungle of south Vietnam. Instead of people driving like monkeys, I heard real ones in the trees high above me. It probably was my imagination, but i would swear that there were much bigger animals right beside me. In any case, I’m proud to report that the good old ‘camper technique’ for finding the best spots works here as well.


Steve is my hero

I’ve only known Steve for a couple of days. And I don’t know much about his personal life. Steve is 63, lives in Hawaii, and stays the winters in Vietnam because temperatures in Hawaii drop to 17 degrees celsius at night. Steve likes the sun.

Steve goes to bed at 20.00 every day and wakes up at 02.00. He then starts the day with an hour of yoga and then rides his bicycle for a couple of hours. Steve is fit.

Steve started (wind)surfing back in the 60s and has been kitesurfing for 13 years now. Steve is knows what he is doing.

Steve is my kitesurf instructor. And today I managed for the first time to do a waterstart and ride the board without falling. Thanks to Steve.

Like every good teacher Steve says that it is me who’s doing the kitesurfing and he’s just there to assist me. We both know that his role is bigger than that. When I kick my board off before the waves break at the beach I literally run to fetch it afterwards. I am hurt when I fail to execute Steve’s tips like he told me. Even in my most disastrous runs Steve finds something I did well.

I hugged Steve after my first successful run. Steve is good.