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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Now I long for no surprises, please

A trip of this style and duration is full of surprises. ‘Normal’ life isn’t predictable either, but due to an decreased familiarity with places, people and events, life ‘on the road’ takes ‘surprise’ to a different level.

The last 24 hrs had it all: from Nepal to (surprise!) Malaysia, saying goodbye to people you love and situations that are to unlikely to be true if you would read them in a book or see them in a film.

Typically Tom Yorke gets it right, but longing for ‘no surprises’ is longing for the end of your trip. Don’t get me wrong: to much surprise at once can be overwhelming. But when that happens, just turn the dial: meet fewer new people, stay longer in the same place and stop looking for ‘trouble’. Once you’re a master of your ‘surprise universe’, you can extend your trip as long as your finances allow you.

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Rotting away in a Delhi prison cell

If this is the last you ever hear from me, I’m probably rotting away in a prison somewhere in the ‘picturesque’ outskirts of Delhi.

Why?
Because I want to go to Nepal.

Why would you end up in a prison in Delhi?
Because I change airlines there.

Surely that’s no reason to throw you in prison. Explain?
I fly from Bangkok to Delhi and a couple of hours later I fly from Delhi to Kathmandu. As I change carriers and they don’t have a luggage transfer agreement, I need to go through immigration to pick up my luggage. And I don’t have an Indian visa.

Oops. That doesn’t look good. Why can’t you pickup your luggage at the airplane? Or a transferdesk?
The ways of AirAsia are not to be understood by mere mortals.

Why didn’t you gena visa?
It takes 3 days and I only discovered this after I bought the tickets.

What’s the plan?
I’ll try to make it to Delhi (AirAsia might refuse to take me on board if they notice that I don’t have the visa, but fortunately I already have a boarding pass). Once I’m in Delhi I’ll try to get access to my luggage. Try to send me a card for my birthday, I’d love to get mail in prison.

This is what I thought when waiting at the airport. Despite the help of a friendly Swiss guy, I made the wrong choice. AirAsia spotted the absence of a valid visa and no amount of trying could convince them to let me on board. The drama continued: the only airline that had a reasonable price didn’t do ticketing at the airport and their website didn’t allow for booking tickets at such short notice.

However, AirIndia came to the rescue. They had an early morning flight to Delhi and allowed me to change my Delhi-Kathmandu to later that day to allow for sufficient connection time.

A hotel was quickly found. Cancellation of the original flight from Delhi-India too. With a flight between my least favorite cities (a stopover in Hannover would have made it perfect), this was bound to happen.

Let’s hope for an uneventful flight tomorrow.

Quite an experience

The Gibbon Experience is something truly truly special. Situated close to the border with Thailand, the place is definitely isolated. It takes a good hour to hike up there. And when you finally arrive at your destination, the amazement starts. You can see the 3 (!) floor treehouse where you’ll be sleeping, but the only way to enter is by a “zipline”, which is nothing more than a long steel cable, a harnass and a security line to the steel cable. The inside of the treehouse is amazing: fully equipped with a kitchen, toillet and shower, You’d almost forget that you’re more than 50 meters above the ground, in a tree! Needless to say that the view from the treehouse over the protected forest / national parc is spectacular.
Our group had the full treatment: ziplines of up to 600 meters (trust me: that’s means very far and very high). We saw Gibbons monkeys both mornings and afternoon, and I was lucky to do a trek with a guide that brought me closer to the Gibbon than I had ever hoped for (especially noteworthy was that the Gibbons changed sound completely and started “talking” to eachother when they had spotted us).
A spectacular finish was the thunder storm. They are extra violent these days as the season shifts from dry to wet. And sitting in a treehouse only adds to the fun.
Highly recommended!
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Let it rain!

The water festival in Laos and specifically Luang Prabang is not to be missed. The shy and cautious Laotian people shift personalities and turn into outgoing afraid-of-nothing killers. 

Let’s see how I got to this knowledge. Towards the end of my longest one-day motorbike trip trip ever (268 km) a big thunderstorm developed above my head. It looked really nasty and I just wanted to get ‘home’ to Luang Prabang. It all started then: kids coming out of nowhere and throwing full buckets of water at me. The last thing I needed, as I was racing my motorbike desperately trying to remain ahead of the lightening strikes. Despite having put on my rain gear I avoided those kids like the plague, as I wasn’t really looking forward to the additional shower. 

Over the next couple of days I understood how wrong I had been. For Laotians take great pride in showering you as it washes last years sins away and there are many things you can do when somebody runs at you with a bucket with ice-cube-filled water, but escaping it altogether isn’t one of them. 

One of the most amazing things is the police in Laos. You have to know that their uniforms rival the Italians for trying to impress. And this still is Laos: a communist country with very limited freedom nad policemen command respect from tourists and locals alike. Needless to say: the Laos policemen were soaked first,

The amazing thing is that it all happens in good spirit. People genuily pay attention to who and how they soak. At the same time: shouting NO!-NO!-NO! doesn’t guarantee a dry passage. Neither does holding a camera in front of you (you get soaked from behind). Special event and a unique occasion to see the spirit of a country change completely.

Worst deal ever

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My stay in Laos is nearing it's end, so I had been thinking about selling my beloved motorbike for some time already. I had no clue about the price, though. I had bought it for 360 euro and treated it very badly for weeks (typical spoiled western behavior). The front of the bike had been damaged significantly by getting on and off buses and boats, in addition my 2000+ km motorcross-like drives through mud, rivers and over mountains hadn't really helped for the state of the bike either.

I decided to ask a local for an offer to get an price indication what I could ask a couple of days later. He requested an asking price and I decided for 320 euro. Ridiculously high in my opinion. He countered with an offer of 250, which gave me a 'floor' price for later on. I refused and thanked him for the offer. He then countered with higher prices: 280, 300 and then 320 euro: my asking price. I hesitated, but despite that he didn't speak a word of English and my Laos is non-existent, he made it clear that he expected ownership of the bike….

Sure, I had cursed that bike to death. Especially that day when I visited 4 garages, or the other day where missed the boat due to a repair that took ages. to A really nice part of the motorbike trip lay ahead: the return to Luang Prabang. The longest day trip ever on a motorbike (268 km) and I had been really looking forward to it. In short: I wasn't mentally ready to say goodbye to my "travel companion".

In the end I payed the guy for not buying my bike. The concept of receiving money for not obtaining something seemed completely alien to him. So he was delighted (or maybe it was because he got two days' worth of salary?). A wise lesson for me to wait with selling something until I really want to sell it.

A kiss with a fist is better than none

I was alone in the village, no shops, no restaurants, night had fallen and I hadn’t eaten for a long time. I decided to leave my dark hut and look for somebody who could help me. 

I ran into a young man and indicated with my fingers to my mouth and while rubbing my belly that I was hungry. He joined me to the my hut and prepared a meal out of some rice and something that looked like a crossing between a carrot and  aspargus. Despite the ‘acquired taste’ I wolfed it down.

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After we sat down in silence and enjoyed each other’s company I decided to give them some money as a sign of gratitude for feeding me. They looked surprised, but happily accepted the gift.

Afterwards I regretted giving them money for something that they would have given me for free. It felt like I turned their friendship/hospitality into a transaction. Kind of like paying your partner for a kiss. The idea is good: rewarding somebody for appreciated behavior, but everybody feels instinctively that it is ‘wrong’. I wonder what I should have done differently. I thought about contributing to a ‘village fund’ or to the local school, but that wouldn’t have rewarded these specific persons. I didn’t have any objects on me to give to them. Difficult.

Any ideas?

NGO glamour

During the last couple of months I’ve been privileged to see some of the most beautiful locations of this planet. They happened to be some of the poorest as well.

I’ve also noticed how much of a difference a small contribution can make. A couple of local language books, for example. This can help a whole generation of kids to master their language better, an essential skill that no child should be deprived off.

I’ve then got difficulties containing my anger when I see the NGO (Non Governmental Organizations) driving around in top end 4 wheel drive cars. The cost of one of these is more than the cost of the books for hundreds of libraries.

I’ve heard all the counterarguments before: 
– The accident rate on the roads is very high. We need good quality cars to protect our staff.
And crush the locals because you drive twice as fast?

– We got a great deal with Toyota on these Landcruisers
Only on the 4 liter deluxe version and not on the ‘basic’ 3 liter version?

– I work on a research project. I’m not doing any of the practical stuff like helping children read.
If you’re sitting behind a desk all day, why does each of you need a four wheel drive?

I’ve seen a lot of villages and I specifically look for the poor ones. Where are you non-profit people? Why don’t I see you in the fields observing local work practices and enhancing them? Train people directly or train trainers? If I only think of all the billions a small country like The Netherlands spends and how much of lasting difference a ‘drop in the ocean’ would make for a country like Laos.

It makes me sick.

P.s. My apologies to all the hard working and committed NGO people who have a more ethical approach: this message is not for you