January 16, 2015

Field Report: Port Lincoln, Australia

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Cost per day?

We camped at the Big 4 campsite which was a fantastic campsite, but you can pay through the nose in peak season. We paid $40 a night but were reasonably central. There are various other sites but if you want to enjoy a drink or just a short stroll into town then you could find yourself too far out to walk. The campsite also had great kitchen and BBQ facilities, so cooking was cheap, however part of the appeal of Port Lincoln is its various bars and restaurants, as well as its entertainment. I would say $100 a day would get you a great day out.

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Describe a typical day?

Port Lincoln is beautiful and needs to be explored, so I put on my running boots and ventured out. The local council seem to have invested a lot of money in taking care of its water front. The agriculture is well maintained from the great pines to the grassy lawns, everything feels fresh and alive. The great weather gave a fantastic glow to the area and the aroma of fresh sea air allowed you to grasp what makes this town truly fantastic. Rolling hills stretch up to the skies and made for a good run which gave astonishing views of the town. Unintentionally I found myself lost, however that was half the joy. I didn’t need an excuse to explore further and found myself running the beach track back to the campsite.

Catching up with my better half, we decided to make our way out to the various viewpoints that look over Port Lincoln. The walking trail was quiet, which was a great opportunity to take in the beauty of the town below. It’s not a long walk but is worth it for a romantic stroll. We took many pictures to capture these beautiful moments.

Time to undo all my hard work, we strolled into town for afternoon lunch. A pub on the local green served chicken parmagana with unlimited salad bar which we washed down with a beer. We sat out on the terrace looking out on the green. The lawns of the town centre were busy with various families, tourists, and locals gathered eating picnics and ice creams. The mood was joyous as we sat and watched the world go by. A small funfair was in town so rides lined the waterfront, the sounds of laughter and excited screams filled the air.

Well fed, we took a look round the various shops. Like most Australian seaside towns the shops would sell merchandise that would let you know just how great they thought their town was. Every other shop would sell various t-shirts, fridge magnets, bumper stickers etc. tagged with Port Lincoln insignia – we bought a sticker for the camper and strolled back to the lawns. Treating ourselves to an ice cream we sat on the grass and lapped up the sun.

Stopping by the local butchers it was time to grab some burgers and sausages and head back to the campsite. We watched the sun go down by the pool. The Big 4 put on a film each night through its outside cinema. We sat back and enjoyed a BBQ and a film. The night was mild and various holiday makers sat around the pool and BBQ area eating and drinking. So we night capped with a glass of wine before retiring to bed.

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What did you like? Dislike?

I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like, if anything there is little in the way of tours but this wasn’t an issue, the appeal is the town itself. However, there are various activities to enjoy. I loved the great atmosphere and the friendly service we came to find. The great couple that ran the campsite were lovely and had a lot of time for guests. It was obvious they had invested a lot of time in bringing up the standard of the site. The town was beautiful.

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Describe an interesting conversation?

The couple that ran the campsite had settled some years ago after leaving England in order to tour Australia. A spontaneous decision had led them to turn their whole life around and eventually to run this campsite. He had been a lorry driver that was struck off and out of work, with little else to lose they had decided they would to take the risk to move to the southern hemisphere and neither have ever looked back. It was inspiring as you could clearly see their happiness shine through and above all you could see they were a truly happy couple. It just goes to show you can find happiness if your willing to take a risk for it.

Where next?

Sydney for New Year!!!!

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Category: Oceania, Vagabonding Field Reports

January 13, 2015

What the frugal foodie eats in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.

Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it. 

Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.

For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.

The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.

Chiang Mai Food

Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.

In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try. 

A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.

Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.

The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.

 

Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!

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Category: Asia, Food and Drink, General

January 8, 2015

New Years Eve vs. St. Stephen’s Day for fireworks in Budapest

If you’re like my husband and I, you can’t help but do a little bit of research or at least some Google-Image searching when you’re about to embark on a trip you’re particularly excited about.

For instance we spent New Years Eve in Budapest, Hungary this year and made sure to get a hotel right on the river (using our IHG rewards points for a free room with an incredible view.) This was, we believed, where the New Years Eve fireworks would go off.

Why did we think this?

Because that’s where the St. Stephen’s Day fireworks had been the year before on August 20th.

That fireworks show had been so impressive, so long, and so extravagant that we expected to be in for a treat. What we saw instead was an entirely different experience, yet not without its own…explosive qualities.

 

First let me share a bit about St. Stephen’s Day.

St. Stephen’s Day is essentially Hungary’s independence day, celebrating not only the foundation of the Hungarian state, but also Stephen, the first king of the kingdom of Hungary.

Much like the United States’ independence day, Hungary celebrates this day with a huge fireworks display in the capital city. Unlike any fireworks show I’ve seen in the States however, this show is a 45 minute explosion of non-stop fireworks, bursting forth from the famous Chain Bridge and casting vibrant reflections on the surface of the Danube.

When my husband and I accidentally happened upon this holiday and thus, the fireworks show last year, we could not believe the extravagance. It is still on my list of 5 most serendipitous travel moments we’ve ever had.

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Now I’ll spend just a moment detailing New Years Eve in Budapest

When the concierge at the InterContinental Budapest told us that there were no official events to speak of in Budapest New Years Eve, we were quite skeptical. Our skepticism was enhanced by the fact that tourists were beginning to crowd along the river, as if to catch a glimpse of another huge fireworks show.

Perhaps they too had done a quick Google-Image search of “new year’s eve Budapest” as we had.

Besides…since when has the internet been an infallible resource for FACTS? :)

Instead of the glorious and extravagant display of impeccably choreographed fireworks, we found the streets littered with spontaneous explosions. Venders paced along open courtyards, store-fronts, and sidewalks selling fireworks to tourists and locals alike. And once purchased, for this night alone, the fireworks could be detonated just about anywhere.

We watched fireworks shoot off with lopsided angles, sometimes straight into the crowd that circled the open square. We watched debris cast off from the firework’s cartridge fall down into the crowds. The haphazard explosions of amateur fireworks exploded literally right in front of our faces and I wondered to myself why I wasn’t hearing a constant noise of ambulances.

It was thrilling. But also, in a way, quite harrowing. The videos I snapped on my phone look just like scenes from a war film.

We spent most of the last hour of 2014 standing observing these sporadic explosions from a safe distance back where we could see both the fits and spurts of the courtyard and the subdued anticipation of the tourists along the river.

Nothing much happened over the river that night. Just a few explosions could be seen of other amateur fireworks displays in other open courtyards across the river. Just as sporadic. Just as haphazard. And from the distance across the river, quite small.

 

I suppose the moral of this story in my mind, is to remember that Google-Image search is indeed fallible.

 

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Category: Europe

December 21, 2014

What adults can learn when traveling with their parents

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60's.

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60’s.

While not everyone grew up in a traditional family structure, this article can apply to anyone who has a loving relationship with a family member who was part of your upbringing. For me, that was my parents, but I recognize that some people were raised by foster families, the parents of your childhood friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or siblings. This article still applies no matter who was an integral part of your childhood or who you consider a parent or family.

Growing up, my family took a lot of camping trips. We could never afford to take trips outside of North America, so we stuck close to home in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Traveling together as a family was such an important part of my upbringing since it taught me a lot about living simply and enjoying each other’s company as well as the world around me.

As adults, we carry these memories and values with us, shaping us as travelers, friends, spouses, and lovers. We have our own travel stories that range from road trips with friends, camping trips with spouses, and solo long-term trips abroad that redefine travel for the rest of our lives. However, there is something to be said about coming home and re-experiencing time with our loved ones. Traveling with our families, as adults, kicks this up a notch in a really special way.

Your parents can still pass on travel wisdom

You may be well-traveled by now, having taken your own adventures, maybe even becoming an expert in the art of travel. You may have surpassed anything your parents may have done when they were younger. You’re the travel expert in your family. This doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn from your parents. Taking a trip with a parent as an adult allows your parent to get back into their own travel groove. They’re not tasked with caring for you like they were when you were a kid and this lets them shine in an area they may know well.

This last summer, my cousin was coming back to California and I hadn’t seen her in twenty-one years. A family reunion was organized, so my dad and I decided to make it into a camping road trip and stop at many of the national parks on the round-trip trek from Vancouver. I was reminded how good at camping my dad really is. He had packed things that I never would have thought to pack, and those things ended up being small comforts and luxuries that I really appreciated. He even brought small pieces of sample carpet to put in front of our tent doors to help us brush our feet off when getting in and out of the tent. They were all particularly useful things that I’d incorporate into my next car-camping trip.

Exiting your context

You likely know your parents in a particular context. You see them in their home for holiday meals, you go out for dinner at your favorite Mexican place, or they come over to help you with your taxes. These places and situations have become so familiar that each interaction is usually quite similar to the one before it. The familiarity is comforting and your relationship can become strengthened by this. One thing that may surprise you is that once you exit this context by traveling, you may not recognize your parent or you may see sides of them that have been tucked away for years. Traveling with my dad reminded me that once upon a time, he was a young man who did exciting things. He shared memories of camping with his uncle in the 60’s, setting off firecrackers from the roof, and encountering bears in the woods. These stories didn’t always have a context at home, but in Yosemite Valley, memories came flooding back and I was there to hear about them.

Creating new memories

If you have had the chance as an adult to travel with your parents, the memories you share will be held dear to you. The snapshots and stories from those experiences stand out in your mind from the rest you had as a child, and your parents will feel the same way. They have an opportunity to spend time with their children in a new and exciting way and they’ll cherish that as well. I not only have the memories of the familiarity and the usual but the memories of an incredible two-week road trip through three states and six state and national parks. I have the wonderful memory of my dad and my husband trying to see who could keep their feet in a freezing river the longest, contorting their faces in pain as I watched and laughed.

 

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

My dad was capable of camping, hiking, and driving for days on end, but not all parents are. Travel can still happen in many different ways. For example, a week in Hawaii at a resort, a cruise through Europe along the winding Danube, or, for the more adventurous, even a camel trek through the deserts of India. The possibilities are endless and the memories are waiting to be made!

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

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Category: Family Travel, North America

December 19, 2014

Korea’s no-man’s land

Korean DMZ

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive) via Compfight cc

Just behind the video-projection screen in the basement of the Cass ‘N’ Rock sports bar in Pusan, Korea, there hangs a large red flag that reads: “If the South Would’ve Won, We Would’ve Had it Made.”

Never mind that this is a Confederate battle flag. Never mind that this slogan is written in English. Never mind that the flag also bears the visage of Hank Williams Jr.

At the Cass ‘N’ Rock — where Korean university students gather to drink beer, eat dried squid and watch soccer games on the big-screen TV — the South in question has nothing to do with Robert E. Lee, King Cotton or the Heart of Dixie. At this South Korean sports bar, the Stars and Bars banner is a quirky, sorrowful symbol of a different war — one that began 48 years ago, killed more than 2 million Koreans and resolved nothing.

For those keeping score at home, this war is technically not over: 250 miles north of the Cass ‘N’ Rock, upwards of a million troops are locked in a 45-year-old standoff between North Korean and United Nations Command forces along the most militarized border in the world.

Holding true to the absurdities of Cold War-era nomenclature, this border is called the Demilitarized Zone.

It’s just after 8 in the morning, and I am taking a USO bus north from Seoul to the DMZ. This trip is not as sensitive and dangerous as it sounds: Approximately 70,000 people took the trip last year, including President Clinton. In the seat next to me, a 50ish woman from Virginia is entranced by the empty yellow countryside that surrounds us. She’s been staying in the urban madness of Seoul for four days, and she says she never knew that the Korean landscape could look so quiet.

But the landscape is not as empty as it appears at first glance. Gaze long at these roadside foothills and you can just make out trenches and camouflage netting, infantry soldiers and artillery. A mere 40 road miles separate Seoul from the entrenched front rank of a million-man North Korean army, and every inch of the space in between has been groomed to defending South Korea’s capital from attack. As we near the DMZ, the military presence becomes more obvious: razor-wire fences on the Imjin River, anti-tank barricades framing the highway, medieval-looking iron-spiked barrels gracing the asphalt.

The Virginian asks me if I’ve ever been scared, living and working in Korea for the past two years. I tell her that Korea is a strange place where gruesome traffic deaths are an hourly occurrence, rival sects of Buddhist monks get into public fistfights and department store buildings collapse because the local building inspectors live off bribes. If anything, I tell her, I am scared of getting run over by a delivery truck or smashed by a poorly installed I-beam. The threat of war is a forgettable annoyance that I think about only when a civil defense drill halts my bus when I am late for work, or when my middle-age landlady tells me how she learned to throw hand grenades in her high school gym class.

What I don’t tell her is this: If the North were to launch an all-out surprise attack on Seoul this evening, we’d stand about a 50-50 chance of living through the first hour. That’s a statistic I don’t dwell on much.

The paper I have just signed my name to reads:

“The visit to the Joint

Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the

possibility of death as a direct result of enemy action.”

The 50 or so other people in the Camp Bonifas briefing room have all signed the same disclaimer, and a gangly, bespectacled U.S. Army specialist is handing out the green U.N. Command visitor’s badges that will allow us to proceed a few hundred meters farther up the road and enter the DMZ.

Despite the grim warning, no tourist has ever died while visiting the Joint Security Area. The U.N. Command troops haven’t always been so lucky. Since 1953, more than 50 American and 500 South Korean soldiers have died as a result of North Korean hostilities along the DMZ. Camp Bonifas itself is named for a U.S. Army captain who was summarily axed to death by North Korean soldiers while leading a tree trimming detail in the JSA in 1976.

The lights go down in the briefing hall, and Spc. Vance begins showing us slides. The DMZ is 2,000 meters wide, he tells us, and stretches the entire length of the Korean peninsula. Minefields, anti-tank barriers and razor-wire fences installed by U.N. Command troops stretch from coast to coast to defend from a North Korean attack. Our tour group will soon enter the truce village of Panmunjom, the only official crossing point along the DMZ. Over the years, Panmunjom has gained notoriety as an exchange zone for prisoners, a meeting place for the Military Armistice Commission and — most recently — a crossing-point for 1,001 head of cattle donated to North Korea by a wealthy South Korean businessman.

Spc. Vance’s lecture touches on the history of the Korean War, but sidesteps the more embarrassing American details. For instance, we don’t learn that in 1945 a Europe-based U.S. Army colonel studied a National Geographic wall map for just 30 minutes before choosing to divide Korea into Soviet and American occupation zones along the 38th Parallel. We don’t learn that right-wing thugs appointed by the U.S.

Army Military Government in Korea slaughtered as many as 30,000 people during a leftist insurrection on Cheju Island in 1948. We don’t learn how the June 1950 North Korean invasion of the South was inadvertently green-lighted when U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson forgot to include South Korea within the U.S. defense perimeter during a speech to the National Press Club six months earlier. We do learn, however, that there are no toilets for tourists in the DMZ. Once the lights come back on, we all take our turn in the Camp Bonifas facilities before loading onto the bus and entering no man’s land.

I am now standing in North Korea, and the industrial-strength disinfectant odor reminds me of a similarly brief visit I made to the porn-theater peep booths in Times Square several years ago. Across a conference table from me, the rest of my tour group stands in South Korea. They will all eventually get their chance to rotate into North Korean territory and take a few pictures. Spc. Vance explains how this Military Armistice Commission conference room precisely straddles the demarcation line that separates the two Koreas. The Virginia woman and I swap cameras and take each other’s picture standing next to the tough-looking South Korean guards at the far end of the room. This is probably as far as any of us will ever venture into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The North Korea that stretches beyond this conference room has long been the weirdest, most isolated country in the world. Press releases from the official DPRK news agency often come off sounding like bad vaudeville jokes:

Question: How does North Korea solve its famine problems?

Answer: By publicly executing its Minister of Agriculture.

Don’t bother cueing the snare drum. This actually happened in 1997 — the same year that North Korea’s squatty, rotund “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il supposedly shot 38-under-par (including five holes-in-one) the first time he ever played golf.

North Korea’s propaganda is outdone only by its military provocations, which over the years have included two assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, four large-scale invasion tunnels burrowed under the DMZ and countless small border skirmishes, kidnappings and commando invasions.

The most publicized incursion of recent years came in 1996, when a spy submarine from the North ran aground on South Korea’s east coast, resulting in a massive manhunt and fierce gun battles in the mountains of Kangwon Province. After this incident, the North Korean government issued a rare apology, promising that such a thing would never happen again. Last June, it happened again, in nearly the same location.

On this particular day, the North’s provocation of choice concerns an enormous underground construction site near the North Korean area of Kumchang. Government officials in Pyongyang insist the facility will be used for purely civilian purposes, but American officials are convinced it’s a nuclear weapons plant. Pyongyang is demanding a $300 million payment before it will allow inspectors onto the site.

If North Korea is indeed developing nuclear weapons, it will be in violation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, when Pyongyang pledged to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors and interim fuel from the United States. But North Korea’s main bargaining chip has always been its seeming willingness to start a war that would kill tens of thousands of people and devastate the Korean peninsula. Amid tensions prior to the 1994 compromise, the U.S. nearly initiated the evacuation of 80,000 American civilians from South Korea. Whether the current impasse will require similar gestures remains to be seen.

At this moment, nuclear tensions are secondary to flashing cameras, as the last few members of my tour group pose for snapshots with the South Korean guards. After 10 minutes in the far end of the Military Armistice Commission building, this blue-walled slab of the communist North has begun to lose its novelty. I feel like the South Korean guards could just as well be wearing Donald Duck suits. Spc. Vance, I notice, is glancing at his watch.

U.N.C. Checkpoint Five offers us fresh air and a good view of the Bridge of No Return, where more than 12,000 prisoners of war were swapped in 1953. Despite its ominous name, the Bridge of No Return looks downright bucolic. Were it not for the huge white North Korean propaganda signs erected Hollywood-style on the hills across the demarcation line, one might readily mistake the entire Joint Security Area for a Lutheran Youth Fellowship summer camp in rural Missouri.

Large white birds preen in the tall grass down the hill from the Checkpoint Five observation deck. Recent wildlife surveys have confirmed the existence of 146 species of rare animals and plants in the DMZ, including Siberian herons, kestrels, white-naped cranes and black-faced spoonbills. The untouched two-kilometer swath that separates North from South is the most pristine piece of property in this entire land, where population pressure has endangered 18 percent of all native vertebrate species. Foxes, roe deer, black swans, quail and pheasant thrive in the dense foliage. All animals large enough to set off a land mine, on the other hand, haven’t lived in the DMZ in decades.

This day is so foggy you can just barely make out the location of Taesong-dong, South Korea’s “Freedom Village” in the DMZ. Here, a handful of farmers make their living under strict regulations to be home from the fields by nightfall. The North’s DMZ village, called Kijong-dong, is uninhabited, and used primarily to blast propaganda and patriotic music at the South. At this moment, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong are blaring what I assume are slogans praising Kim Jong-Il, but sound indistinguishable from the garbled entree clarifications one might hear at a Burger King drive-through window.

Spc. Vance tells us that the South Korean flag at Taesong-dong weighs 300 pounds and is hoisted on a 100-meter pole. Not to be outdone, the North Koreans have erected a 600-pound flag on a 160-meter pole at Kijong-dong. Someone makes the obligatory Freudian analogy and, as if on cue, the loudspeakers of Kijong-dong switch over to communist opera music so boisterous that it sounds like the score to a Monty Python movie.

For a moment, I slip into reverie at the absurdity of this grassy stretch of ground. The mood here seems downright extraterrestrial. Inspired, I ask Spc. Vance if we’re allowed to dance to the communist opera music. There is an awkward moment before he realizes that I’m joking. It’s the first time I’ve seen fear in his eyes since the tour began.

The tourist circuit of the Korean DMZ ends at the Monastery, a combination beer hall/gift shop at Camp Bonifas. In keeping with the rest of the DMZ, the Monastery is appropriately weird: One corner houses a shrine to the victims of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident, another houses a bar and a third corner sports a perfume counter. In the course of 20 paces, one can buy Amore skin cream, quaff a Budweiser and peruse grainy black-and-white surveillance photographs of Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and Lt. Mark T. Barrett getting hacked to death by a swarm of North Korean soldiers. T-shirts come in three colors. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Longing for one last look at the DMZ before we head back to Seoul, I duck out of the Monastery and walk out past the tour bus. I turn around and around in the road, but I have forgotten which way North Korea is. It’s so quiet here, the only sound is the scrape of my footsteps.

I stop for a moment and reach into my bag for the DMZ commemorative key chain I got at the Monastery. I bought it in a moment of impulse, thinking perhaps there will come a day when I can shake my head and chuckle at the idea that this place ever existed.

 

Originally published on Feb. 3, 1999 by Salon.com

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Category: Asia, Destinations

December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Off-Peak Europe Travel

American Airlines has some great off-peak prices for award tickets to Europe. Rather than the usual price of 60,000 miles, during off-peak a roundtrip ticket would only cost 40,000 miles. And you can get that amount of miles simply by getting the AAdvantage credit card’s 50,000 mile bonus. (Learn more about these off-peak prices here.)

So when is “off-peak” for Europe?

According to American Airlines, off-peak for Europe is anytime between October 15 and May 15. Other airlines may have different off-peak dates. But basically off-peak exists during the colder, winter months. (US Airway’s off-peak dates for Europe are extremely narrow- only January 15-February 28.)

For this post, we’re going to consider the more generous off-peak dates and take a look at the pros and cons of traveling Europe during winter.

 

PROS:

1.) Christmas Markets

The month of December is an absolutely charming time to be in Europe because of the vast number of cities that set up “Christmas Markets” in their main squares. Imagine the quaint and decorative architecture of days gone by, set aglow with festive lights and market stalls selling baked goods, hot spiced wine and bratwurst.  It’s as if people are fighting back against the gloom of an early sunset.

Each Christmas Market is a little bit different. In Verona, Italy you may find dried meats. In Villach, Austria you’ll find plenty of bratwurst and glühwein; in Brussels, waffles and in Prague, traditional rolled pastries called Trdelnik.

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2.) Snow in the Alps

The Alps take on a different feel when covered in snow. Even if snow has not yet made it to the ground below, when the peaks are dusted and white, it feels like the Alps are all the more striking. Not to mention Ski enthusiasts can explore the Alps best when they’re covered in snow.

switzerland

3.) A (slight) decrease in tourism

“Local tourism” is still pretty big during the Christmas season when Christmas Markets decorate the city. But otherwise you may notice slightly cheaper hotel rates and slightly thinner crowds. Certainly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, you tend to at least see slightly cheaper airfare.

 

CONS:

1.) European winters produce gray and sometimes foggy skies

My first trip to Europe was during the summer years ago. But since then, most of my European travel has been during the winter time. This time around I finally decided that it is not just a coincidence that most days are sun-less. In beautiful Bled, Slovenia there was always either fog or clouds creating a thick veil over the steep mountains behind the lake. Rather than the striking photos of peaks reflected in the lake’s waters and towering above the local castle…I have some misty photos that barely even permit a sighting of the island on the lake.


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2.) Sometimes tourism is too slow

While reduced levels of tourism can be nice in hot-spots like Prague and Venice, for more off-the-beaten-path destinations like Bled, Slovenia or Bercthesgaden, Germany, you may find that half the town is closed down. This means half the number of choices for hotels and very few options for dining as well. And restaurants that DO stay open likely have sporadic hours.

3.) Extremely short days

Europe is Northerly enough that the hours of daylight are quite minimal during the winter months. In Prague in December for example, the sun sets at 4 pm and it’s pretty much totally dark by 4:30pm. According to timeanddate.com Prague has 8 hours and 11 minutes of daylight on this day, December 9th. Compare that to Boston’s 9 hours and 11 minutes.

We made the mistake of sleeping in today and by the time we squared away a bit of online work and lunch, we only had two hours of daylight in which to site-see.

 

Conclusion

Europe is beautiful. Just walking around ancient little cobble-stoned streets and soaking up the feeling of being somewhere timeless and historical is all I need for my Europe tours. And in that case, I really don’t mind doing this meandering whilst wrapped in coats and scarves. Especially when there’s an ample supply of hot spiced wine or hot cocoa to sip as I walk.

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But for lovers of photography, it can be quite frustrating. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, my husband and I sometimes wait until the sun sets to take our photos. We switch to a lens that works best in low-lighting and take advantage of all the golden lights of evening. We prefer this to giant opaquely gray skies that dull the photo.

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Category: Europe, Images from the road

December 14, 2014

Traditional Christmas in Europe

Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.

One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.

Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas in Munich

Christmas in Munich

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.

Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.

France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.

Notre Dame at Christmas

Notre Dame at Christmas

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.

While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

 

 

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Field Reports

December 6, 2014

In the Hall of the Baby Jesuses

SUMMER 07 PARIS PRAGUE 139The first time I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre and — like a million other tourists before me — headed straight for the Mona Lisa.

Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.

Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.

Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.

Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.

I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.

Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.

Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.

In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.

In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.

Tip sheet: How to get the most out of museums on the road.
1) Know how to approach big museums.

Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.

If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.

2) Make the most of small museums.

Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.

3) Let the world be your museum.

If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Nov. 6, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

December 4, 2014

Carpooling sites for travel in Europe

While frequent flyer miles can help alleviate the costs of flights to a destination in a game-changing way, the travel that happens once in a destination can really add up too. This is particularly true in an affluent place like Europe.

But, as a continent that has a fabulous infrastructure for public transit, it should come as no surprise that even those with their own personal cars find a way to contribute to the public’s transit needs.

Indeed, carpooling is yet another task that the internet is revolutionizing in some way. Europe has a number of websites that exist to connect passengers to carpooling hosts, much as Couchsurfing.com or Airbnb.com do for travelers’ accommodation needs or Uber and Lyft do for local transportation needs

Unlike the short, local jaunts that Uber and Lyft accommodate however, these carpooling sites help you connect with drivers going long distances. For instance we’ve gotten rides for 150 miles or more such as Salzburg to Vienna or Berlin to Hamburg. Or even London to Paris in one case.

 

How it works:

Signing up for many of these sites requires registering a text number. If you do not have a phone that works internationally, we usually communicate with someone back home to use their text number and have them send us the code to complete registration.

Once registered, you have the ability to connect with drivers who have posted the routes they intend to do along with the payment required. Unlike Couchsurfing, the guest pays the “host”. It’s more like AirBnB in that way. However, we have always found the prices to be cheaper than the other public transit options, not to mention the trip is almost always quicker than these options as well.

 

Car-pooling sites you for Europe travel, by region:

UK carpooling sites:

1.) Liftshare.com/uk

2.) Carpooling.co.uk

German carpooling sites:

1.) Mitfahrgelegenheit.de -(the German version of carpooling.co.uk)

Non-region-specific carpooling sites:

1.) blablacar.com -(the site that seems to be most popular here in Europe.)

2.) Carpoolworld.com

3.) Carpooling.com

 

A few extra notes/challenges:

1.) As suggested above, some of these resources can be challenging without a phone. Even if you have a web-generated text number from apps like “TextMe” and “TextPlus”, sites like this do not seem to function properly with web-generated text numbers. (This is true for resources like Uber and Lyft too.) So even if you have a travel-friendly phone alternative like those mentioned here, not all of them will cooperate with these resources. Specifically ones relying on web-generated numbers.

2.) Even though Europe has a pretty decent coverage when it comes to these car-pooling sites, some regions of Europe are still lacking. For instance we’ve had trouble finding carpooling options to the Balkans.

3.) This car-sharing strategy is virtually impossible if you are a person who doesn’t like to pack light, because drivers often try to fill every seat in their car. Do not assume you are the only passenger taking advantage of any given car-share. If you have more than one or two pieces of luggage, include that in your correspondence with your driver ahead of time.

4.) Sometimes you can suggest the meet-up location and sometimes the driver will suggest a spot that works for them. You may have to do a little traditional public-transiting in order to catch your ride.

 

Conclusion

Of course, another reason I love using carpooling resources is because, like all the other people-to-people resources, it connects you with locals and other travelers.

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I mean, in some ways it gives me the thing I love about hitch-hiking without the exhaustion and uncertainty. When people connect with locals, and locals connect with travelers, there’s a host/guest mentality that’s naturally built in and it produces conversations you simply wouldn’t have in the service-provider/consumer environment of traditional public transit.

We’ve had so many fascinating conversations with drivers and most times the hours spent driving just fly by. Next time you are in Europe, remember this carpooling option for your semi-long-distance journeys.

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Travel Tech

November 22, 2014

Retch-22 Laos in the time of cholera

Don Khong Island

Ray, a bearded New Yorker who had recently dropped out of college to travel the world, was convinced that southern Laos was turning into a horrific cesspool of death and disease.

“I’m telling you,” he said to me as we stood outside the small ice-cream stand near the Phonsavanh Hotel in Pakse. “Cholera is completely out of control down here. A French guy I talked to in Savannakhet said the Pakse hospital was full of dead bodies.”

“Did the French guy see the dead bodies?” I asked.

“No, but he talked to a guy who saw the dead bodies.”

“And you’re sure he didn’t just talk to a guy who talked to another guy who saw the dead bodies?”

Ray looked at me with irritation. “Look, I have a sense for this kind of thing. I could tell he was serious.”

I decided to drop the big question. “So if you’re sure he was telling the truth about dead bodies in the Pakse hospital, what are you doing in Pakse right now?”

“Fuck it, man,” Ray said enthusiastically. “This is where the action is.”

By this point, I had been in Pakse for 24 hours and I was at my wits’ end. I’d been hearing the cholera rumors since coming overland from Vietnam, but I couldn’t get any hard facts. Nearly every traveler I’d met had heard there was a cholera epidemic on the Mekong flood plain south of Pakse, but not a single person had gotten this information from an official source. Many travelers were aborting their Laos travel plans and moving on, but others — like Ray — were embracing the cholera rumors with vicarious zeal. For these people, the very notion of the epidemic was enough to turn an otherwise normal trip into an adventure.

On the other hand, all the Laotian government offices and agencies in Pakse were categorically denying the existence of cholera. I visited two different government travel agencies in Pakse, and both insisted there was no problem with traveling south along the Mekong. The woman at the local health office laughed at the idea. “There are some people who have diarrhea,” she said, “but there is no cholera.” Even the officials I phoned at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane knew nothing of the cholera rumor.

Since there was no hard evidence of an epidemic — and knowing how travelers tend to exaggerate — I continued with my plans to head downriver. As I hiked down to the river pier on the morning of my second day in Pakse, I met a Lao man named Kumsing who was working on a rural electrification project in the area. He was uncommonly friendly, and he spoke great English.

“Where are you headed?” he asked me.

“South,” I said. “I’m going to visit the 4000 Islands on the Mekong.”

Kumsing clicked his tongue. “That’s a nice area, but you have to be careful these days. I was there last week, and many of my workers got sick.”

“Was it cholera?”

“Yes, cholera. You won’t catch it if you’re careful. Not all of my workers got sick, just the careless ones.”

“How many workers were careless?”

Kumsing did some quick math. “Sixteen. But none of them died.”

“But everyone else stayed healthy — no cholera?”

“Yes, the other two are fine.”

“Other two?”

“Yes. Plus I didn’t get sick, either!”

On paper, my trip to the 4000 Islands of Laos should have been the easiest journey I’d taken all year. Not only was I returning to familiar territory (I’d traveled the Laotian Mekong in my own boat a few months previously), but I’d also come to write a story on the area for a well-paying glossy print magazine. Instead of randomly vagabonding my way down the Mekong, I would be visiting pre-selected places and interviewing people I already knew. Since southern Laos is a peaceful, enchanting region, my magazine assignment promised no hardships beyond the simple process of collecting story information.

With the objectives so clear-cut, my return to the 4000 Islands was supposed to be — as the pilots in “Catch-22″ said when referring to easy missions — a “milk run.”

In reality, it had been quite the opposite of a milk run. Before I’d ever heard rumors of cholera, the mere process of traveling overland to Laos from Vietnam had been a headache in itself. On a map it looked easy to cross into the south of Laos from the Vietnamese Central Highlands — but there were no legal customs stations along this border. So to get to Laos from the Central Highlands, I first had to take a day-long trip out of the highlands and up the coast to Danang, then wait for the next available bus to Laos via Lao Bao.

Since this road to Laos follows a treacherous route over the Annamite Mountains, I opted to take the smaller, safer, air-conditioned bus offered by a travel office in Danang. Unfortunately, the air-con bus existed only in the travel office photograph; after purchasing my ticket, I was unceremoniously dumped off at the local transit station and ushered into a huge, decrepit old DeSoto bus.

I spent 22 hours on the DeSoto, including a three-hour delay in rural Laos when the drivers stopped to unload a cache of smuggled items into two separate Nissan pickups. I arrived in Savannakhet just in time to eat, sleep and board a morning bus to Pakse, which (including a four-hour stop when the drivers dropped the transmission onto the road and had to reassemble it) took 11 hours.

I arrived in Pakse exhausted, and spent the next couple days trying to confirm the cholera rumors. When I heard Kumsing’s tale, I postponed my boat trip and went back to check with the health department.

“I just met a man from the electric company who says that 16 people got cholera last week,” I said to the woman in the office.

“That wasn’t cholera,” she told me. “Those men just had diarrhea.”

“All 16 men just happened to get diarrhea at the same time?”

“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it was food poisoning. There is no cholera in Laos.”

This sounded a tad suspicious to me, but I felt I had come too far to abandon my journey to the 4000 Islands. Grimly resolved, I returned to the pier and boarded a mid-morning freight boat bound for the island of Don Khong. Granted, I was no longer on my idealized milk-run vacation, but — whatever the facts were about cholera — I figured I’d be safe if I kept myself religiously clean and avoided the local food.

Furthermore, I was personally convinced — after six months on the road in Southeast Asia — that cholera couldn’t touch me. As with Yossarian in “Catch-22,” avoiding doom seemed a mere matter of will power, milk run or not.

Cholera couldn’t touch me, I reasoned, because I had a pure body and was as strong as an ox. Cholera couldn’t touch me because I was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. I was Bill Shakespeare. I was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; I was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of Sorrows, Sweeny in the nightingales among trees.

I, like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” was miracle ingredient Z-247.

My journey to the 4000 Islands of Laos started splendidly. After spending the first night on Don Khong, I continued downriver to Khone island on the Cambodian border — where freshwater dolphins haunt deep pools and the Mekong suddenly crashes down into the largest complex of waterfalls in Asia. As I hiked around collecting information for my article, I sustained myself on bottled water, peeled fruit and an enormous bag of roasted peanuts. After a couple of peaceful, slow-paced days in the 4000 Islands, the notion of cholera had ceased to be a concern for me.

Mekong, Laos

I probably would have forgotten about cholera entirely had I not suddenly vomited onto my shoes the morning after returning to Don Khong. I had come back to the island to tie up a few loose ends of my story, and at first it didn’t occur to me what was happening. When I vomited again a few minutes later, the gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. After I threw up for the third time, I took out my phrase book and started asking directions to the hospital.

I remember the next part only in bits and pieces. I know I kept asking people where the hospital was, and people kept pointing me up the road — but the hospital never materialized. It had rained the day before, and the humidity made the air quiver in the sunlight. As I walked, my brain rattled inside my skull like a sodden lump of clay; psychedelic fireworks burst behind my eyelids every time I doubled over with stomach cramps.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Don Khong hospital was nearly two kilometers outside of Khong Village. By the time a Lao motorcyclist found me squatting beneath a tree on the side of the road, I was still 200 meters away from my goal. The motorcyclist helped me to the concrete-floored hospital reception room, and I sat on a wooden bench while the staff debated what to do with me.

The hospital was constructed entirely of cinderblocks and had no window panes. Since there was no electricity on Don Khong during daylight hours, I sat in the half-light and waited. A nurse gave me a plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit. Each time I retched, a few more patients wandered in from adjoining rooms to watch me. Before long, about 20 people had gathered to watch me expectorate a clear, stringy gelatin from the bottom of my stomach. As I sat there clutching my plastic bag, I half-expected one of them to ask me for my autograph.

Finally, a young Swedish doctor named Michael arrived. Michael was not really named Michael, and he wasn’t actually Swedish. But, since he was technically not supposed to be treating cholera cases in southern Laos, Michael will be Michael for the sake of this narrative.

“I see you’ve been vomiting,” Michael said, gesturing to my plastic bag. “Do you also have diarrhea?”

“Yeah, it’s killing me,” I said. “Does the hospital have anything that can stop it?”

“This hospital doesn’t have much by Western standards. Nor does this country, for that matter. Your ideal health option would be to get out of Laos as soon as possible.”

“Can the cholera kill me?”

“Technically, we can’t prove it’s cholera without doing a culture test, first. Whatever it is, it won’t kill you.”

“But we know it’s cholera,” I said. “There’s an epidemic going around, right?”

“I think the best thing for you to do right now is get out of this hospital. First we’ll find you a comfortable guest house, and there you can take oral rehydration salts until you get your strength back.”

“Has anyone died from the cholera this year? There’s lots of stories going around Pakse.”

Michael gave me a nervous look. “Like I said, we can’t call it cholera without a culture test. I know of 16 deaths so far. But those are mostly the very young and the very old. This is not something you should worry about.”

Michael got me some oral rehydration salts from the hospital storeroom and had an orderly motor me back to my room at the guest house. I stayed there and drank salt water for two days while the cholera bugs had their way with my intestines.

Though I could describe in colorful detail what cholera does to the inner workings of the human body, such exposition would be neither necessary nor tasteful. In a euphemistic nutshell, cholera renders everything that enters your body — water, bread, strawberry Pop-Tarts, etc. — into pond water. Furthermore, this pond water creation/expulsion process happens at such a terrifyingly rapid speed that I suspect Einstein himself must have suffered from cholera around the time he came up with his relativity theory. I went for hours at a time without leaving the bathroom.

When I wasn’t in the bathroom performing glorious acts of gastrointestinal alchemy, I spent my time stretched out on my bed, staring at the ceiling, which was mint green. The mint-green ceiling featured a brown metal ceiling fan — which didn’t move in the heat of the day, since the electricity didn’t come on until sunset. My bedspread was orange.

I pondered these things continuously for 48 hours.

Michael came to check on me each morning and evening. After two days, he concluded that I was strong enough to leave, and he arranged a ride to take me back to Pakse. I can’t recall ever having been so happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser.

Since my late-afternoon arrival in Pakse didn’t leave me enough time to make it to the Thai border station, I checked in to a hotel and set off to inform the local health department of my demise.

“I just caught cholera in the 4000 Islands,” I told the lady in the office. “Maybe you should warn people about going there.”

“It’s probably not cholera,” she said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should go to the hospital.”

“I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve been vomiting and I’ve had diarrhea for two days now. Trust me: I have cholera.”

“I don’t think you have cholera. Did the doctor do a culture test?”

“Look,” I cried, exasperated, “if what I have isn’t cholera, then what the hell is it?”

“Well,” she said diplomatically, “it’s probably just diarrhea, with some vomiting.”

Retreating from the health office in defeat, I walked to the Sedone restaurant and drowned my frustrations in a glass of lemonade. Keeping in mind my condition, I got a seat near the toilet. After a while, I got up and introduced myself to a guy named Doug, whom I’d overheard warning a table full of travelers about the epidemic. Doug, a Canadian on vacation from his job as an aid worker in Thailand, seemed almost pleased when I told him that I had cholera.

“I knew it would happen!” he said. “You’re the first tourist to catch it, but there’ll be more.”

“Why aren’t there official warnings?” I asked. “I tried to get some solid information before I left for the 4000 Islands, but all the government agencies were denying that cholera existed. They’re still denying it, for that matter.”

Doug smirked. “Of course they’re denying it. I have friends doing volunteer work in this part of Laos — cholera passed the culture tests a month ago. The government is keeping it quiet because this is Visit Laos Year. They don’t want to rain on the tourist parade.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a communist government lying to promote independent tourism.”

“In a way, it’s hard to blame the government for doing it. The West has encouraged Laos to go capitalist — and one of the principles of capitalism is supply and demand. In a poor country like Laos, tourism may very well be the number-one source of hard currency. Back when the epidemic started, some paper-pusher in Vientiane took one look at tourist revenues and decided right then and there that cholera did not and would not exist. Now people like you are getting exposed to cholera because the Laotian government is afraid to discourage you from coming to Laos.”

“Catch-22,” I said.

“Right. The same thing happened with AIDS in Thailand in the late 1980s. And just like in Thailand, the people who live here will bear the brunt of the problem. It’s the people living in the 4000 Islands — not you — who are going to suffer the most when doctors aren’t allowed to go down and treat them properly.”

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the quality of local health care when I can just go home.”

Doug grinned. “Well, technically, you can’t go home. Under international law, you aren’t allowed to cross the Thai border if you have cholera.”

“But technically,” I said, “cholera doesn’t exist in Laos.”

“Catch-22″ had finally done me a favor.

I crossed into Thailand at Chong Mek the following day. Continuing to Ubon Ratachani, I caught a night train to Bangkok. There, I checked into the modern confines of a medical clinic and began my slow recovery.

 

Originally published August 24, 1999 on Salon.com

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Travel Health
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