Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 9 – Malaysia

After two months in wonderful Thailand, our visas threaten to run out, and it is time to move south. Our next destination is Malaysia, and this is going to be an experience of culture and nature, the peninsular part with its history and traditions, the cities along the strait of Malacca tempting with their stories of trade, pirates and sailors, an echo of the enchanting past still resounding in the modern world of today. Then there is the eastern part, a slice of wild and untamed Borneo, where primeval forests are reaching their green arms towards the tropical sky, the layer of civilization thin, and only on the surface, the ecosystem is inherited virtually unchanged from thousands and thousands of years of human presence, however there is a snake in this paradise from the beginnings of time, corruption and  greedy men that practice money logging, and trees are mysteriously disappearing from the pristine jungle.

Langkawi

We arrive by ferry from Satun, having a pleasant conversation with my neighbour in english, realizing with an even greater pleasure, that in this country we would actually be able to communicate with the local people, and this will be recomfirmed, again and again, even in the tiniest of villages. Our first impression is of a rich country, with an excellent infrastructure, malls and malls, and even more shopping malls. Things are more civilized, people are actually using the seatbelts in their cars, and my 16 year old daughter feels offended, that the scooter rentals require an actual driving licence, thus ruling her out from the drivers seat. Then there is the heat, it is an immense wall, the air you are moving trough feels solid, your brain is sending warning signals, as it is melting slowly, and as you walk by the inviting automatic doors, that belong to any of the enormous selection of shopping malls, the freezing blast of subarctic cold aircondition becomes irresistible, you are drawn inside, and see that it is the place, where the village life is revolving, as the streets are empty, and the malls brimming full. If you resist the siren call of the shopping mall, then a hammock under a ventilator is the next-best place to be during the day. We are staying in a very sweet spot,  Soluna Guest House,  surrounded by coconut palms, equipped with the essential hammocks, full of travellers staying for an indefinite amount of time, time is slowed down to revevolve around essential questions only, like what are we having for lunch.  After having completed a circle of the island in both directions on our scooters, beach hopping and stopping for lunch at small road side stalls, there is really not much more to do, and we start packing our bags. We meet a canadian family, traveling longterm with their 9 year old daughter, and we agree over a lunch, that travel tastes best when you have time to sample each destination, but they express genuine surprise that we want to move on after merely a week, while their own optimal time is a minimumt a month at each place. Well, they have been on the road for seven years… As we are packing our bags to leave the friendly guest house, nomads getting ready to hit the road again, my daughter shows signs of being travel weary, and partially inspired by the others family’s one-month-in-each-place paradigm, we start looking for a place on workaway, where she can spend some time sipping a destination at a leisurely pace, working and contributing, while my son and I are drawn towards a more hardcore road adventure, splitting up seems to be the way forward, to let each family member follow their heart.

The Strait settlements – Penang and Malacca

The sea route from China to Europe led trough the straits around the malaysian peninsula, and three ports were the melting pot of east and west, a meeting point for seafarers and merchants, a place to trade goods from India, China, Europe and the Ottoman empire. The melting pot has left a charming colonial architecture, and an amazing cuisine. A wild creativity slumbers underneath.  We arrive to Penang’s Georgetown, the northernmost of the strait settlements, where we have rented an appartment for a few days to ease the travel weary family.

There are so many food choices – as a result of the fusion and mixing of some of the worlds greatest cusines – indian, chinese, thai and arabic, that arrived here with the sailors, traders and settlers. Happy, that we can read the signs, and communicate, our days in Penang are spent exploring all kind of dishes, from chinese jiozi dumplings, indian roti, the fabulous laksa soup to slowly cooked, spicy nasi kandar, and cendol for dessert. Drinks are served sweet and chilled, and as the heat is immense and unbearable in the city, breakfasts, lunch and dinners turn into half day affairs under the fan of the friendly hawker center, or the wonder of aircondition in the mall.  I feel that my brain is melting away, together with the will to move, and only after sunset does the wanderlust and explorer spirit return.  Is it a wonder, that the perenthians are not petit, thin and willowy as their neigbours from other South East Asian countries, but rather show signs of gravitating towards obese?

We have met a wonderful couple of polish-canadian nomads in Chiang Mai, and felt that our few encounters with Magda and Brian were far to short for the immense potential of discussion with these interesting people, and we are excited when they invite us to stay with them in their rented appartment in Malacca, a temporary home. It is a pleasure to follow Magda’s lead, as she has an obvious talent for finding these small quirky places, that

We decide to split up again – Pawel and I go to Borneo for 2 weeks of combined jungle adventures and diving, Magdalena will volunteer building mud houses north of kuala lumpur Couchsurfing with friends, we met in Chiang Mai   hot, hot, hot wet from sweat, my energy has left me the trees are cut down, the streets are shade less, intolerable walking under the sun, i dream of broad banana leafs, and their juicy green shade

Parting ways in KL

KL – Kuala Lumpur, the high rise, fast paced capital of Malaysia, is green between the skyscrapers, and thus surprisingly pleasant after Penang and Melacca. Green trees, a central location, and a wonderful couchsurfing meeting, after a week in this country, we finally have a chance to talk with locals

Behind us, we have eight months of travel. Each night, sharing a tent, or a dorm, or double bed, or floor space, or a hammock, together day and night. Answering the same basic backpacker questions, and hearing each other give the worn out answers back to all the hundreds and hundreds of people encountered on the way:

– What’s your name – usually this is volunteered, and immediately forgotten.

– Where are you from – here we alternate between Poland and Denmark.

– How long are you traveling for – the standard answer is a year, how about yourself?

– Where do you go next? Where did you come from? – a quick exchange of plans, what was good or bad, how was the hotel, the sight, worth or not worth going to, avoid at all costs anything featured in Lonely Planet, and maybe once more retell how we slept next to a bear in Russia, and how there was a fire in the neighbor’s tent.

I start skipping the questions, replacing “Where are your from” with “What is your favorite color”, or “Which book has inspired you most”, thus breaking up the protocol, and sometimes managing to get a confused look, other times a blink, and a conspiratory look back.

Moving, and meeting new people, and sampling new experiences start to wear us down – as individuals, and as a family unit.

We realize, that we need space, and decide to split up. My daughter gets a positive reply on Workaway from a funny, anarchistic farm in Kuala Selangor, about 80 kilometers north of KL, and she decides to stay there a few weeks, thus replacing organic gardening for the pristine jungles of Borneo.  We take the bus to Kuala Selangor together, and are met by a  farm full of volunteers, happy, freewheeling, they are making sugar cane-ginger juice as a group, from local ingredients, with immense concentration, a few cats work around, shanty barracks filled with art and poems.

When you are a volunteer, don’t think efficiency. Don’t think, that your time is a valuable commodity. Volunteering is only successful, if you acknowledge, that it is a gift to you, to be here and now, at this particular location, working with these particular people, on this particular project. I leave my daughter Magda with the funky people, and the immensely intriguing group dynamics, while Pawel and myself  will fly next day to Borneo – jungle survival and diving adventures are waiting.

I kiss my daughter goodbye:

– See you in two weeks, have fun!

I look at her retreating back, knowing this will do her good. On the bus back, I find myself thinking whether this travel is contributing to my children’s education as citizens of this planet, as that was my original purpose and motivation for exchanging a yellow brick house with backpacks and a nomadic lifestyle, or is this to much sheltering, am I missing to give them valuable lessons in independency?

Together, and sometimes apart seems to be a good recipe.

Borneo and Bear Grylls

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We kindle fire, so we can cook a soup of the local plants and a few bugs.

We board a plane to KK – Kota Kinabalu –  on Borneo from KL, thus breaking our resolve to travel solely overland. It seems that the days of the ferries are gone, replaced by budget flights on Air Asia for a few euro. A certain charm is gone, but we can move over the blue water, and reach Borneo, a destination veiled in a family myth.

My father’s mother, my beloved granny Henia, was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. She survived two years of unhuman conditions and grave hunger, and returned to find her beloved brother – Marian Szylski – is missing from the family home. Nobody has heard from him, since he was taken as forced labor, to a camp in Germany, announcements trough Red Cross don’t bring any news. Fast forward ten years, and Henia, widowed mother of two toddlers, hears on the radio from the polish sailor Teliga, that stopped on Borneo during his circumnavigation of the Earth:

– A man came out of the jungle. Introduced himself in polish, as Mariusz Szylski.

Henia, my granny, on hearing this, jumps into action. Who else could this man from the jungle be, than her beloved brother?She tries to contact the radio station, but does not get trough, she writes them a letter, but the correspondence is one sided only, a few months later the great sailor is dead. This was the age before easy searching, skype and internet, merely making a phone call between cities was an immense effort, and being behind the communist curtain, she never managed to reach Borneo, and pick up the trail of her lost brother. But she told the story to us, the grand children, and thus I was brought up with a taste for Borneo, to go there, explore, search the jungle.

And this family story winds and rewinds in my head, as I look out of the plane window, on the emerald green island underneath, Borneo.

We head for the mountain Kinabalu, and Lupa Masa, a few huts in the jungle, where you can forget about the river of time, surrounded by the jungle, the deafening noise of the cicadas, sun filtered trough the leaves, such a luxury . The shopping malls with their aircondition are not necessary anymore, we are sheltered by the green, living roof, life is pleasant here, the cooling water from the river an expected luxury. We are treated to a survival course by the people from Lupa Masa, we start by kindling fire and cooking a soup of bugs, and proceed . Bear Grylls alter ego lives here, his name is Michael, and he has a friend from the local Dayak tribe, a good hunter from a great hunter family, and together we head deeper into the jungle. Our hunter friend is hyperactive, runs from trap to trap, catches a bug, uses the bug to catch a frog, and with the frog he catches a small fish, that is the bait for a tasty catfish, that we grill over our small campfire.

We leave the village by bus, a journey of eight hours that grow into twelve, a long and windy road trough the mountains, accompanied by locals, that are busy vomiting into the efficiently distributed plastic bags, shaken and beaten we emerge in Semporna, the port to Sipadan.

Learning to dive in Sipadan

I have been warned, that to learn diving in Sipadan, leaves you spoiled for a lifetime. Our diving company, Big John Scuba, is a small, locally operated business. Kids hang around, jump from the rafts, hungry for attention, displaying their best tricks. Our teacher, Dan, an old master of this craft, is unveiling for us the secrets of the under water world, the scuba gear, breathing under water. Being a diver for over forty years, every word is weighed with experience, he is strict, we are learning. The color of the water has an egsshell blue hue, we are staying in a house on stilts, directly over the water,  then we jump into the water, swim by, slowly, blowing bubbles, watching, watching, watching, amazed by all the colors of the rainbow, and those foreign forms of life, so different from us, living on here.

In the afternoons, I wander among the villagers, thinking of the bubbles of air that I am blowing when I breathe under water, in that other, under water world, where I am merely a visitor, and I see how everyone is inside a bubble, our worlds are bubbles, that gently meet, touch softly, exchange a color, a feeling, an emotion, a thought, an inspiration, from bubble to bubble, from my world to your world. Leaving a trace among the bubbles, that is what travel is about, being in another world, a guest, an observer, passing trough the under water world and the world above the water, just as foreign, for how much can we have in common, me, a seemingly rich tourist from the western world, and a toddler, the mother of 8 that is breastfeeding her youngest, while looking curiously at me, from the doorstep of her house, in the fishing village?

Together again

We meet in the airport in KL, hug, and board the same flight to Bali, a few days of layover, and a dirty cheap connection to New Zealand. Being apart has brought fresh air and space to each member of the family, lots of impressions to swap, and we are happy to be traveling together again.

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 6, Laos – a pretty laid back land

Sabei sabei

One of the first expressions you learn as a visitor in Laos, is  “Sabei, sabei“, meaning don’t worry, no problem.

– Bus is 6 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– Bus is 10 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– You don’t have the stamp in your passport? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed again? Sabei, sabei!

With such a heavy use of sabei, sabei, you feel that Laos is the backwater of South East Asia. Traffic is sparse, the population is more often sighted in a hammock, than rushing around, and it is part of the hospitality that you have to wait a few minutes or quarters of an hour, before the waiter, or receptionist, or clerk rises from the hammock, or couch, or chair, and is ready to face you. Some people accidentally mistake this ability to be laid back as rude, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time is an abundant luxury in this otherwise poor country, that doesn’t need to be watched, or accounted for. People seem immune to efficiency, the contagious disease of western culture. I remember Momo, and how she dealt with the time thieves, and am lead to believe that there must be a laotian connection.

Ziplines! Jungle fun!

We left Vietnam in a very comfortable sleeper bus from Dong Ha, and arrived hassle-free in Pakse, southern Laos. The mighty Mekong river flows slowly, the city hugs the river shores, and the pace of the city follows the same rhytm. We are here in order to try an eco adventure in the jungle, called the Tree Top Explorer, lots of fun on zip-lines of several hundreds of meters, canopy walks and swimming in a waterfall, all embedded in the green jungle of the misty Bolaevan plateau, famous for aromatic coffee.IMG_9654

The famous coffee is served every morning and dinner, cooked in a filter over a cook fire, strong and aromatic indeed. Accommodation is in small huts built in the crowns of huge trees, access true to the camp style, by zip line only. There is a shared kitchen and platform, overlooking the valley, the focal point of which is a majestic waterfall.

– Namtok – our guide Bun repeats patiently.

“Nam” is water, “tok” is falling, and all our activities are concentrated around the waterfall, we zipline above, below, bathe in the water, and gaze at the spectacle when sipping our coffees. After sunset, as the tropical night descends quickly, accompanied by a choir of cicadae, we zip into our tree top hut with a cat under one arm, a preemptive measure towards another inhabitant of the jungle trees, the rat.

We were thrilled, this trip is pure, destilled fun. Things are well organized, we eat picnic lunch off banana leaves, and can follow the enjoyable program, a mixture of zipping along the lines, trekking, swimming, and relaxing in the beautiful jungle camp, taking in the amazing view.

Climbing paradise

Next destination is Green Climbers Home, a climbing camp in Thakhek.

We look around for bus tickets, and pick the one that promises a 6 hours trip as opposed to the 10 hours, the other vendors are selling, only to arrive in Thakhek … 10 hours later. It is dark, and we have to bike to the climbing camp under the starlit sky, and the feeble light of the head lamps. After an hours bike ride trough the darkness, the climbing camp appears, a flood of light, we can hear the laughter.

When we arrive, I see friendly faces, that we have met in China, climbing bags skattered around, the talk the same at all climbing destinations in the world, this is my tribe.

We stay for two weeks, I enjoy the rush of climbing, while Pawel and Magdalena are reasonably bored. It is hard to climb again after so many weeks of abstinence, luckily I can team up with Marcel, a familiar face from Yangshuo in China, and he is patient while I freak out on the low grades, and the power slowly returns, I redpoint a 6a+, with shaking Elvis legs, and feel as a climber again.

We spend rest days going to the city of Thakhek, there is a single shop with ice creams, and wifi, a massage joint, salt baked fish at the stall next to the river, where one can sit and look across at the Thailand side.

I enjoyed the stay at Green Climbers Home so much, I didnt even wish for Christmas presents, but Christmas is only two days away, and we have to go to Vientiane, and pick up Solvej, a friend of Magdalena’s, that has decided to join us for the Christmas holidays. When we are leaving, I wish I could have stayed in this paradise.

Our Christmas Miracle

Our Christmas Miracle was to find Jungle house, an amazing guest house run by amazing people, Mike and Xoukiet. I am short listing this guest house as a candidate for the title “Best in all the world”. It is a very special place, mainly due to the personalities of the two people, that run it. Their home is a beautiful house, with a junglelike garden, and from the moment you arrive, you feel like a dearly missed friend. We enjoyed really roal breakfasts in the mornings, and the pleasure of sipping Mike’s gin & tonic, sitting above the water pond while listening to the frogs chatting at sunset, and the highlight of each evening, meeting other guests at the dinner table, engaging in fierce philosophical/political/cultural/../ discussions.

Our Christmas Miracle was to meet Mike and Xoukiet. This couple, both deeply engaged in making the world a better place to leave, fundamental humanitarians, was a huge inspiration. Xoukiet battles human traffiking, Mike has founded the COPE center, to help victims of land mines, cluster bombs, and other effects of the Secret War, bringing more bombs to this quiet backwater country, than any other place in the world.

– We should not aim for what is possible to do, but for what is right to do. – recounted Mike, of his stance at the discussion of the UN committee for cleaning up the country from bombs.

– How many casualties should we accept? 0!

Things become very simple, when you hold such a fundamental view, when you hold a plastic molded leg in your hand, looking into eyes of the crippled human, whose life you want to improve, then war, bombs, the war rhetoric is meaningless, we are humans, and should treasure our lives, as a superior value, not something that we have the right to take away from others, diminish, or end.

Our Christmas Miracle was a dozen of strangers, meeting around a table to celebrate a special day, far away from our homes, determined to launch a new friendship, and our miracle was a beautiful fusion of traditions.

So we went from sharing the polish “oplatek”, sent by my mom, dancing around the christmas three danish style, complete with running around the house, and singing “12 days of Christmas” in unison, with Mikes powerfull bass voice delivering “fiiiiive gooooolden rings“, enjoying listening to a story read alout, that was published over a century ago, and has been cherished by generations of Boddingtons since, trough sharing the warmth and joy of being human, and together.

The house was quiet and asleep, when we managed to connect with my family trough Skype, the time difference such, that they were just beginning to gather around the food. When my mothers voice came crackling trough the static, I felt a lump in the throat, felt the enormous distance, so far away from home 119, 17, as opposed to 10, 55

Elephants!

Next stage in our journey is a bumby ride along the Mekong river to Sayabouli, where we have signed up as volunteers on a paid program in the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Rattle is the only word I can find to describe the progress of a bus in Laos, and our bus rattles north, together with the suffering passengers, the helper boy distributes vomit bags, grabbed by eager hands. A mommy, daddy and a toddler are seated next to me, the little family takes turns vomiting, the plastic bag wobbles between our seats, brimming full with a “road soup” of undefinable color.

After too many miserable hours, we stand with two legs on the red ground again, the bus station being a raised platform in the woods, excited to see the elephants of the center, to learn about our duties as volunteers. Soon a beaten up truck arrives, and after more bumbing around, we arrive at the camp, a collection of simple bamboo huts, the location incredibly beautiful, surrounded by a magical lake, that mirrors the sky, the clouds, the sunrise and sunset. IMG_2969

I remembered the buddist story about a nun, that saw the mirror image of the moon in her bucket, while carrying water, and understood the nature of things, showing thus, that enlightenment can be achieved doing mundane chores, and meditation is not anymore or less fancy, than carrying water in a bucket.

Or looking at a magical lake.

We meet the other two volunteers, a polish couple living in Scotland, and the six of us hang out together, sharing the same fate.

There isn’t really any work for us to do, and this being Laos, the staff seems worried about us not to over exert ourselves. The days pass with hanging around the elephants, or swinging in hammocks, every night has a camp fire, music and lao lessons.

Riding on the neck of the elephants is fun, but even more enjoyable is just being around these magnificient animals, sensing them. IMG_2951The mahouts are so gentle and caring, the look of concern and love on their face, when they speak to their elephant, the mighty animals are controlled using the voice and body language only, no metal hooks or other malicious inventions. Every day, there is a boat trip to visit the nursery, where a 23 months pregnant elephant lady is awaiting the birth, her belly huge, we are hoping to see the newborn, but the baby will arrive after we have left the center. The staff explains, how the elephant, the very national symbol of Laos is threatened, the species on the border of extinction, as natural reproduction is hindered by economical considerations, and 10 elephants die for every baby that is born. The purpose of the center is to provide veterinary services, and support mahouts with pregnant females, so that they do not loose their income for the two years of pregnancy and three years of nursing, that a baby elephant requires.

Being volunteers, we feel an urge to contribute to both the cause and the paradise, and we settle on a bit of gardening, doing a yoga class, and organizing a treasure hunt for the kids in the camp, which is well received by the target group.

The owners invite us volunteers to stay for the New Years Eve, and we say goodbye to the old year with a barbecue party, complete with a roasted calf, foie grass and lots of Beer Lao.

When we leave, it is with a feeling, that we leave a paradise.

Luang Prabang and north

Next stop, after the mandatory bus rattle, is Luang Prabang, surprisingly touristy, supplied by a steady stream of farang’s, meandering around the colourful markets, and the majestic temples. Not being a family of temple explorers, really, we want to see more of the simple life, and rent scooters, to ride 70 km north to Ban Na Ham. That is where we meet friends of the family that runs our guest house in Luang Prabang, and we are treated to a self-organized home stay.

The whole village is suddenly there, curious about us, we about them. Life is simple, belongings few, the house is clean, the people generous. We go with the boys to set the fishing nets in the river, a local school teacher helps with translating. We are treated to a royal dinner, and even more royal breakfast, with sweet rice cooked in bamboo over the fire, and a fish, and chicken soup, made from a chicken, that was walking proudly around a few moments ago.

We visit the village, walk among the houses where women are weaving, and give an english lesson at our teachers school, teaching the students to clap their hands to “If you are happy and you know it”. When we are leaving, we are leaving another paradise.IMG_3861

Birthday girl

It is Magdalenas 16 years birthday, when we wake up before sunset, as our night bus from Luang Prabang has sped trough the potholes of the mountain road, and has arrived in Vientiane hours ahead of schedule.IMG_3895

– Happy Birthday! – we hug the sleepy eyed main person of the day, and share a jar of cookies, as we wait on the bus platform, atop of our luggage, for  Mike to bring us to our beloved Jungle House.

The night is a hardly a surprise,  the Jungle House style elegant dinner, with stimulating converstation, champaign to celebrate the birthday girl, and a wonderful chocolate cake!

Having been on the road for a while, travelling, sleeping, eating, being together 24 hours a day, it is really hard to keep a surprise, and the birthday girl does not sound very surprised when the surprise is revealed.

I have found Backstreet Academy,  a company that connects travellers with local people, that have something to teach, the experience is thus authentic, and not to reproduce on mass scale, a platform worth supporting. The surprise we picked, is a lao style cooking class, in the garden of a family, the father and mother in law look at us, as we are instructed by the pregnant wife, the husband tends the fire, and a young student handles the translation, everybody enthusiastic  about teaching us how to cook the food. We relaxed while grilling the vegetables on the cooking fire, washed, peeled, and pounded at the ingredients, and the result was a delicous lunch with 5 dishes, that we could consume with our new Lao friends. IMG_3920

Goodbye Laos

Time passes fast, visas, even when prolonged, run eventually out, and we have to say goodbye, leave the cosy nest we have in Jungle House, and hug Mike and Xoukiet goodbye. We continue the adventure on our bikes, as we approach the border bridge to Thailand. After a half year of travelling, we have discovered how time flows in a different, slow, pace, and that small pieces of Paradise can be found on our planet, and Laos has an amazingly high density of these small Paradises …

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.

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The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.

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George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.

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It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.

Aiki Travel to Japan

What is aiki travel?

We went to Japan for the first time. With our Sensei. Thats an entirely different way of travelling.

I have been practicing Aikido for 3 years. Not very goodyet, but eager to learn more.

With me was my son. He is really cool doing Aikido.

And our Sensei.

I learned a lot from our trip to the head quarters.

But the most important lessons was from my Sensei.

Always watch your feet.

Balance yourself, before you meet others.

In Aikido, we work with energy.

Lessons taught when playing cards with the boys in the long hotel corridor.

When my senses suffered total overload after 3 hours of shopping in Shibuya.

Japan is a total sensory overload, here exploring Shibuya

Practicing in Hombu Dojo

It is such an honor, to walk trough the doors to the Aikikai Headquarters. To change clothes in the dressing room, enter the big dojo with the white tatamis, sit quietly waiting as the rows fill up with people.

Its 0630 in the morning, and time for the traditional class with Doshu.

Together with Doshu, in Hombu Dojo, the world headquarter of Aikido

 

Returning is part of the journey

That is right.

The day you come home is still part of your trip.

Bring with you all your bags, souvenirs, unpack in the cozy, well known atmosphere. Relax. Land.

Close your eyes, and feel how the trip has changed you.

Indian rail travel – Worst case scenario

I am travelling around South India alone with my 2 kids. It is quite fun and intensive. I would like to tell you about my worst case scenario regarding booking tickets. From home, I tried to book rail tickets for the train from Chennai (MAS)-Mettupaliyam (MTP) on the Nilgiri Express – an overnight train, and then from Mettupaliyam (MTP) to Ooty (UAM) – which is 5 h beautifull ride up the mountains with a century old “toy train”. I attacked the reservation page several times, without great success. I gave up when I after making a credit card payment got an e-mail that “your transaction was unsuccessfull” The problem is probably due to the new verification of credit cards by my bank – but nobody wanted to aknowledge the problem. Anyway, departure date was approaching and I decided that I will book the train tickets once in India. The first hotel we stayed at was in Mamallapuram, 50 km outside Chennai. The travel desk told me, that “no problem”, they will book the ticket for me. I was happy. Next day, the told me “no problem” they will book the ticket. Next day, they told me, that there were only waiting list tickets left. I think the 3AC class had a figure saying W20/W18. I decided to purchase a waiting list ticket – the bought it in the Tatkal quota. They didnt buy the toytrain ticket to Ooty – it was not necessary they said, I could just get it in Mettupaliyam. And told me there is “no problem”, I can just change the wl ticet it into a real reservation once at the station. So far so good, we arrived at Chennai, checked the luggage into the cloak room, and started looking for where to get a real reservation. The very helpfull station master told us to go to another building. We went to the office, waited in line. Come back in 30 minutes. We went back in 30 minutes. Come back in 15 minutes. We went back in 15 minutes. Then we were told to go to another office. We went there. They told us to go back to the first office. I tried to play the helpless foreign woman with 2 kids, by invading the office of the Station Master once more. Got a lot compassion, but nothing could be done – we should wait for the Train Master to give us seatings. The train arrived on the platform one hour before departure. It was so looooong, going from one end to the other (in search of the Train Master) took about 20 minutes. No, the train master could not do anything – the train was fully booked, we were on the waiting list as #3, #4, #5 respecitevely. He said, if we want to go, we have to go in the unreserved compartment. At that point, we were VERY determined to get aboard that train! So, we went to the other end of the loooooong train where the unreserved coaches were. Tried to enter one – but people were hanging outside the door. Tried the womens compartment – full. 5 minutes to train departure we decided to just PUSH into the train, hoping to sort things out. So we mashed, and squeezed, and were inside a very crowded carriage. The seats are organized in compartments in the open carriage, with wooden seatings for 2*5 people in each compartment, and 2*1 next to the window. Above all the seats,there is a luggage shelf. Every single space was full, people sitting on the luggage rails, and about 10 on each of the 5 man seats. I was standing on one leg, the kids before me, nobody could move. The train rolled away from the station. People shuffled a bit, a man offered half a seat to my 9y old daughter. she was able to reach it, and put her pack on the knees. Somebody whistled from the next compartments, and people waved at my 12y old son to come. He climbed up the luggage shelf where they made room for him, and had a great time. I was able to put the packs on the floor, and sit on top of them. What an entertaining night! People were singning,humming, playing, talking… I had a great conversation about capitalism vs communism with a furniture fabricant. The guy next to me turned out to be working as software engineer in Chennai, going home to see his newborn daughter. Not everybody spoke english, but they sought translation of those who did. As the train stopped at different stations, people shuffled and moved, and I even made it to a wooden seat Once in MET, the same problem. No seats left for us. We turned up in the “unreserved part”, people moved and made room for us. We rode with a bag of rice and garlig, an elder tamil grandma, and a tea fabricant, and a bunch of engineering students going home for the weekend from Chennai.

The train started to move, trough the lush country side. We went up, up, up, the mountains around grew taller. We had plenty of stops on the way for chai and water for the engine. The kids thought the steam engine was so cool! Like a caleidoscope, the landscape changed with emerald green tea plantations, high banana trees, steep cliffs. Our new tamil nadu friends didnt miss a single tunnel – each was greeted with loud whistles and cries.

The boys entertained my kids the whole way. Before leaving, this following conversation occured – I have been thinking about it since: – What do you think of the Tamil people? – They are so nice and friendly! – Well, if that is the case, what do you have to offer in exchange for their warmth and friendliness? So the worst case scenario for us was: not so much sleep, but a great experience, and so many new friends! And I promised the kids, that we will opt for a berth on the next trip.

The mighty steam engineNew friends on top row

Have landed

Well we have landed – everything went surprisingly smoothly at the airport in Chennai – where is the befamed Indian beaurecracy?
We were met at the airport at 2 am by Chandram, a taxi driver recommended by the owner of a coffe plantation in Coorg where we head next week –  even the megasized bag with used clothes for an orphanage got into his car …
I must defend myself: we have packed tried to pack “lightly” … hm … well it didnt quite work out, had to bring both mountainboots, sleepingbags, winterjackets for our nepal trek … anyway, we got into the car.

Checked into the hotel at 3am, got a very clean room, with a big double bed – I got to sleep in the middle. Woke up, eat a great breakfast buffet. Time confusion was the main topic of the day … London is GMT, Denmark is CET, Chennai is IMT, which means you have to either substract 1 hour, add 1 hour or 5,5 hours … When Magdalena wants to know the time, she asks for it in all 3 zones …

Pawel had the sole attention of the manager and about 3 waiters – everybody tried to make sure that he will not go hungry despite his gluten/lactose free diet … the little card with hindi translations just worked wonders!

We spend the day extremely relaxing – in the pool, jumping big waves at the beach … which is by the way bounty landish, soft sand, palms, and the indian addition: a couple of cows, some fighting dogs, a steady stream of villagers that use the beach as a major pathway from one village to the next, carrying loads on their heads and all smiles.

A local fisherman invited us into his house – a so called “restaurant” … clean, colourfull – but definitely not an restaurant. We promised to come back tomorrow – he will cook a meal for us.

In the evening, when the worst heat faded out we went with a tuk-tuk to nearby Mamallapuram – a little village, where all of  its inhabitants were walking the streets simultanously … bought local light clothing for the 3 of us, and retreated to spend the rest of the day relaxing.
I am struck by the extreme friendliness of people – they can be annoying yes, the traffic is chaotic, yes we use desinfectant wet wipes before each meal – but I really like where we are.

Lets see if I can successfully persuade my daughter to get out of the pool tomorrow?