Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I was not ready.

Well. I knew that my room was really dirty, but I got a big slap in the face the other day. I had cooked rice the night before, and I left it in the rice cooker to cool down (so it didn't heat up the inside of the fridge). Anyway, I forgot to put it away before I went to bed, and what is worse, I also forgot to put the lid on, so it sat open all night long. In the morning after I woke up, I went to get some rice for breakfast and as I spooned out the first I a cockroach scampered out from under the pot, and headed for underneath the TV. I had only been awake for moments, and I was really not ready to see a mouse sized cockroach (it wasn't that big but the only 'vermin' I've had experience living with before have been mice, so I thought this was a mouse at first too) run out from underneath what would soon be my breakfast. Because he was under the TV, I didn't feel like I had much hope of a successful attack, so I finished making breakfast, and retreated to my couch. I had been eating for a few minutes when I saw him slowly, maybe even casually, making his away across the floor. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, Freedom of the Hills (700 page fatty 'bible' on how to climb) and tossed. It was a beautiful high arching rainbow shot, that landed squarely. Actually, as I threw it, I thought I might have missed, but then I realized that I hadn't seen it make any last minute sprints for cover, and that the book was propped up on something. So I went and stepped on the book for good measure, and heard the poor fellar crunch. I wasn't ready for the crunch either, but I probably should have expected it. I think it sort of comes with the territory. It wasn't until a few hours later (while I was in class) that I realized the cockroach had probably been running all over my rice, pooping or peeing or eating or whatever it is cockroaches do. It made my stomach turn, but I experienced no real stomach aches or troubles of any kind. Later I talked to my one-on-one teacher about it, and apparently cockroaches are fairly common here. I asked her if cockroaches carried diseases like ticks and mosquitoes, and she said that some did. Apparently when she was a kid, her parents told her, whenever she killed a cockroach, to always be sure to close her mouth, to be sure none of the guts sprayed into her mouth. So I went home and sanitized the cover of Freedom of the Hills. Just for good measure.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I made it back to Taiwan without any troubles, and it was really good to be back. I think partly because it is my home now, and partly because I can function here. Going to places where I can't speak any of the language made me realize that, while my Chinese isn't fantastic, I can function. Right after I got into the airport I asked someone for directions to the bus station right away, just so I Chinese to someone. And on the bus ride to Taipei I talked to the woman who was sitting beside me for about 45 min. After I got home and cleaned up, I went out and got some food. The food was delicious and incredibly satisfying because I ordered it all in Chinese, and there was no pointing or sub-par communication. And I got a steaming bowl of soy milk, which was amazing because it was cool outside.

The first week after getting back I was swamped with homework, partly because my classes are a lot more intense this semester, but also because I skipped the first three days of school, so I was having to make up for that. I'm taking 'Talks on Chinese Culture', 'New Radio Plays', and a news class. The news class is the favorite because although the articles are short and in a textbook, they were all written by a journalist for regular Chinese people to read, not by a teacher for students to read. 'Talks on Chinese Culture' is really interesting too though, because the texts are all about more substantive topics (last semester they were all crappy short dialog's just designed to use the vocab for the lesson). And I'm getting to learn all kinds of fun new words like 'feudalistic' and 'UV rays' and 'consciousness'. And some words we don't have in English like 'universalality'. So thats cool.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Climbing in Laos ... Yeaahhh.

We got into Vang Vieng at about 2 in the morning. We walked across a gravel field (which later turned out to be the airfield) and found someone awake in the back of a guesthouse. He turned out to be the owner, and put Alonzo and I in his room, and Jessy and some Australian guy who we met 2 minutes before at the bus stop, in another room. (This picture is from the multi-pitch I talk about later.) The roosters started going at about 5:30 or 6:00, and I slept through it for a while, but between that, feeling weird sleeping in the hotel owners bed, and having to pee, I got up at about 7:30. Alonzo got up to, so we went out to look around. We knew there was climbing here, and had some idea of the topography from the bus ride down the day before, but the reality was stunning. The scenery was gorgeous with big steep hills of land everywhere, many of which had sheer rock faces on the sides. We finally made it out climbing a little before noon. Everyone here is out to make a buck (which I can't really hold against them), but I try to avoid getting taken in by every little scam. So we walked through the river to keep from having to pay the toll over the bridge. Then we just kept walking towards the mountain, through some rice paddies. Along in here we picked up some kids. They couldn't have been more than 3-4 years old, and just kept running up behind us, slapping as high as they could reach (usually butt or backpack) and then falling over in hysterics. They asked for money too, but mostly they fell over and laughed. Except for one kid. I didn't see it happen, but I had hung back to take some pictures, and the flock of kids followed Alonzo and Jessy. When I caught up there was one kid crying his eyes out, and Alonzo trying to comfort him. Apparently he was just running full out, and took a digger. Right onto his face. As we got closer to the mountain the kids headed back home, or wherever it is they hang out. Then we found the 'guide' (aka, last scam before we get to the rock). It was $1 each, and he took us to the climbing. It wasn't actually terrible, because it probably would have taken us a long time to find it, but then again, they could use signs.

The rock was great though. There were only about 8 climbs at this one spot, and we did most of them. And the view from the top of some of the climbs was really spectacular. We climbed until just before dark and timed it just right, so that we caught the sunset from the rice patties. It was one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen. It started really beautiful, and just kept getting more and more so. Then Alonzo noticed some bats coming from a hill on the right and streaming over the setting sun. They kept streaming out for 2-3 more minutes, while the sunset peaked. It was unbelievable.

With the sunset, the moon rise, the scenery here, and from the bus last night ... I pretty much fell in love with Laos right away. Because we had climbed most of the routes there, we had to go to a new place the next day. There were quite a few in the guidebook, and we decided that the 'Sleeping Wall' looked like a good place to go. We were in the mood for some adventure, so we decided to walk out and try to find it.

The guidebook said it was 2 km north of town, which didn't seem that bad, because we assumed that we knew where the end of town was. But after we'd been walking for a while, we began to realize that there wasn't a very distinct edge to the town, so we weren't really sure where we should begin estimating the 2 km before our left turn. After a while, we found a dirt road that seemed like it might be right. There was a very bleached old sign that seemed like it said something like the guidebook said it should, so we turned off there. I don't think we really believed it was the correct road, but we knew we would have to cross the river eventually, and walking along (or possibly through) the river seemed a lot more pleasant than walking beside the road, so we headed off. We passed a couple houses, and one playing loud (and in my opinion sub-par) Asian music. After passing a couple forks we finally made it to the banks of the river. We could see some rocks on the other side, so we dropped down the shore. We stumbled upon a bamboo platform with a man selling beer. We decided to stop and enjoy a Beer Lao and the scenery. The beer was warm, but the scenery was nice, and after we had been sitting talking for a while the guy gave us a delicious orange. After we finished our beers, we asked the guy for directions, and he pointed down the river, back towards town. We waded out into the creek, and down stream, looking for a place to stop. After a couple hundred yards we came to another stream side bar, and they had a little ferry service, so we got a shuttle across. We were looking for the 'Sleeping Wall', and we ended up finding the 'Sleeping Cave'. It was absurdly overhanging, and there were some bolted routes but most of them looked really dirty. We climbed one, but there was a stream flowing through the bottom of the cave, so it was hard to find a good place to belay. And the climbing was just as dirty as it looked. We decided to head back to the bar to relax. After all, it had been a hard day. I mean, we must have walked at least a mile and a half. And then did one and a half climbs. Definitely time for another beer. We walked back, and past the first bar we came to. Our goal was a second one, about 100 yards farther down stream, that looked like it had a pretty sweet rope swing. Right as we got to the second bar, we stumbled upon the 'Sleeping Wall'. There was one canyon, and another face, both tucked right behind the second bar. After we saw the climbing, we got excited again, and decided to climb more. Climbing here was certainly a different experience from the climbing yesterday. Not only was it harder and shorter, but there was mediocre European techno blasting from the bar (there were a few French climbers there to, and they got there first, so I guess they got to choose the music). There was even a campfire, and a slackline (tight-rope made from webbing). It was just a lot more of a social scene. The rope swing turned out to be as cool as it looked. It was fun, and there was really no room for hesitation. The bamboo platform they had built up to swing from, was really rickety, so it was scarier to stand there than it was to jump. This bar had a free shuttle, so after cooling off in the river, we headed home. It turned out that the road we had chosen was actually the right road, we had just turned off too soon.

Most of the rest of the time in Laos was well spent. One of the main tourist things to do is tube down the river, stopping frequently at bars along the way to get drunk. When we rented the tubes the company wrote their initials on our hands, in big black water-proof letters, so no matter how drunk we got, we would still know where to return the tubes. They are clearly experienced with foreign tourists.

We followed some friend's advice, and waited until the early afternoon to get started. This turned out to be a mistake because we ended up coming back after the sun had gone down, and the water wasn't that warm. At the put in, there was an Organic Farm that supports fair trade, shade grown, local agriculture, and all sorts of dandy things like that, with much of the profits going back to the local community (westerner's also go there to volunteer, and feel good about themselves for being socially responsible, and helping indigenous communities). The Organic Farm wasn't above opening a bar at the put in, so people could start the day off right, and one of these clever foreigners had made a sign that said "Please, Drink for the Children". So we stopped and had a shot of some sort of banana liquor. For the children. Then we set off. The first bar we passed had a zip-line, which would have been neat to try, but we saw a couple other people try it, and when they got to the block on the wire (to keep them from zipping all the way to the end of the line) they hit the block with force, which swung their legs up and most of them ended up doing a flip into the water. It looked sort of fun, but it looked like you got flipped pretty forcefully into the water, which was more than we wanted. All of the bars had people standing on the banks with bamboo harpoons, to throw to the lazy foreign tubers, so the lazy foreign tubers could get dragged to shore. The next bar we passed was advertising free whiskey shots, so we flagged down the harpoon man, and he tossed out the piece of bamboo and pulled us in. The whiskey sign turned out to be false advertising, so we walked down to the next bar, where there seemed to be more people.

Indeed there were more people at the next bar. It really reminded me of crappy hip hop clubs in Taiwan. The music was absurd and too loud, there were the young drunk people dancing and making fools out of themselves, and the place was even complete with older people sitting in bamboo huts looking sullen and bored. There were a couple exceptions though. One was volley ball courts. The other was the huge rope swing. We decided to get some drinks and sit down, and the most well advertised drink is the so called "Bucket". Naturally, in the spirit of trying new things, I decided to get one. Sure enough, it was a bucket, first filled with ice, then half filled with whiskey, then a Pepsi and energy drink for taste. It really wasn't bad. Alonzo and Jessy both decided to try the rope swing, but I was starting to get sick, and was already wearing my long john shirt to stay warm, so I didn't think the rope swing would be a good idea. After they did the rope swing we headed down stream again. I think we stopped for one more beer, but mostly it was a long, cold, mildly buzzed float back to town. We got our tubes back to the right place (thanks to the engravings on our hands) and went to get warm and clean. There is a little island in the river, just near town, and coincidentally it is packed with bars, so we went there to ring in the New Year.

Midnight didn't take very long to arrive, and after the countdown was over, I realized I had a little fever, and my throat hurt so I left. In the end, it turns out that drinking a lot wasn't a sure fire cure, and actually probably negatively affected my throat. So I took a couple days off from climbing. At one point, we were eating, and Jessy asked how I was doing. "I've got a fever, my throat hurts, and my nose is completely stuffed up, but I know if I try to blow it, it will start bleeding." (I'm pretty sure I just had strep throat, but for some reason it was accompanied by nose bleeds every day for over a week. For a few days, they were like clockwork, coming within a few minutes of each other. Every morning, unprovoked, at about 8:30.) So, I slept a lot, and towards the end I got some throat lozenges, and it sorted itself out.

That Thursday was my last day in Laos, and there was a multi-pitch I wanted to do before I left. The cliff was behind the 'Sleeping Wall', and was easily visible, so we didn't think it would be that hard to get to. This proved not to be the case, and the approach turned out to be one of the most intense one's I'd ever done. The main difficulty at first was finding out where the trail was, but after 3-4 false starts, we finally got the right one. Shortly thereafter, the trail truly got sketchy. It was through a jungle, but the sketchy part was the rocks we were walking on. The way they formed, it was basically like a bunch of knives laid down with the sharp edge facing the sky. Then we walked along these sharp edged rocks (they were sharp enough to make noticeable gashes and holes in the soles of my shoes, just from 40 min. of walking on them) balancing and hoping they didn't break (though you could see where previous pieces had broken off). Most of the time you could see down through the gaps between the slivers of rock, maybe 8 inches or a foot to the ground, so that if a sliver did break, you would actually fall a little. Mostly I think we were afraid of getting a knee-cap shorn clean off. All in all it still wasn't as terrifying as a couple of the moped rides. After we made it to the cliff, we ended up getting on the wrong climb, but the one we did was fun, and the view's were beautiful, so it was OK.

On Friday I departed Laos. The first bus ride was 4 hours, down to the capital of Vientienne (the capital of Laos). Then I got a tuk tuk down to the border, where I encountered some difficulties. After I made it through immigration, I was immediately targeted and a woman tried to sell me a bus ticket into Thailand. I figure the first person to try to sell you stuff is the most expensive, so I always say no right away. In hindsight I think the woman was running the only 'public' bus system, and was probably just trying to be helpful. After the tuk tuk ride, I only had about $2 left (in Laotian currency) and for some reason, I thought that I had to spend it all, or maybe it would be a good idea to spend it all before I got any Thai currency. So I shopped around, and found some interesting boxes of cookies and bought them. That was the point where I realized my mistake. I should have first bought transport away from the spot I was (no town really, just a border crossing with some stores), then gotten food. Border control was pretty loose, and I had seen an ATM in Laos before I crossed over, so I walked around the border checkpoint, and back into Laos. I was surprised how easy it was just to walk back in. Anywhoo, the ATM didn't take VISA cards, so I was faced with a real predicament. No money, and no way to get money. And I had to pee, but they charged for the bathroom, and I didn't think they would except cookies as payment. I walked back into Thailand, and found a taxi driver I had briefly haggled with before buying the cookies. I think this was the peak of my haggling success, especially since I didn't actually have any money. We bartered back and forth, with neither of us moving. I expected him to come down gradually, but after we chit chatted for a bit, he just yelled to some of his fellow cab drivers, and someone appeared who was willing to take me to the train station for my price. I'm pretty sure the guy who took me used his own personal truck. It certainly didn't seem like a regular cab. And he ended up having to loan me some money so I could make it through immigration on the Thai side. THEN, the other cab driver had lead me to believe there was an ATM at the train station, but there wasn't so the guy drove me to an Tesco where they had an ATM, so I could get money. I was really grateful to the guy, but at the same time, the train station turned out to be about 1/4 mile away from the border crossing. I think I could have walked there in 20 min, so I'm pretty sure the guy still came off with a big profit. And from the looks of his truck, it didn't seem like he was hurting for cash. I had been worried some about the travel, because of still being a little sick, but the train ride to Bangkok ended up being great. I was in the sleeper car, and I had previously been warned to try to get a lower bunk, because it minimized the rocking of the train. When I bought my ticket there were none left, so I got the top one. It was good though because it's been a long time since I was little enough for my momma to rock me to sleep, and I ended up really enjoying the rocking of the train. After the train got in, I had to catch a couple buses to get out to the airport. On the second one, just like clockwork, my nose started to bleed. Fortunately, I had come prepared, so I tilted my head back so the blood ran down my throat, the fumbled in my bag for some tissues, which I pressed to my nose, and waited for it to sort itself out. After I got to the airport, it was just a long wait for my plane to leave. Then a short flight back to Taiwan. I did see a bunch of Eastern Europeans, with a fetish for taping their baggage closed. Lord only knows why, but a few of them used a whole roll of tape just to make 2 really thick bands of tape around their bags. Whatever the reason, the did seem to enjoy taping their luggage closed, so I guess it was alright.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Laos ... Yeahhh.

1st of all. Alonzo has posted more pictures. Go to use the email address and the password gonzo

Alonzo, Jessy, and I left Chiang Mai on Christmas Eve. The moped terror peaked for me the day before we left. We went to look for the bus station so we could get tickets for the next day. Alonzo was driving, and the traffic was kind of heavy, and there was more swerving than normal (because we didn't know where we were going) and the line between the shoulder and the road was much more distinct (which is important because the shoulder also serves as the moped lane). Merging from the shoulder over onto the main highway was the sketchiest part of it all. I've crashed on my bike more than once because I didn't take the turn sharp enough and my tires kept going forward while my body went sideways. I was thinking about every single time as Alonzo made the transition over. Every muscle in my body was tensed up, but Alonzo made it over smoothly and we made to the bus station and got tickets for the 8:00 am bus tomorrow.

We caught the bus up, and they played some really crappy American horror/sci-fi movie. It made me wonder whether or not the actors know that their movie is being played on a tiny TV on the bus from Chaing Mai to Chaing Khong. Anyway, Chaing Khong is right on the border with Laos, so as soon as we got there we took a ferry across (the Mekong) to the Laos side, and promptly got shafted by the Laos government officials. I knew we were going to have to pay 35 USD to get a visa, which is a little steep, but I though "Meh, What can ya do?". I was however, mistaken. Americans have to pay that much if they have US cash. If they are going to pay in Baht (the Thai currency), they have to pay 1500, which is about 50 USD. At first I honestly thought the man had made a mistake with the calculator (silly me) and so I did the conversion, and pointed to the new number on the calculator. He took the calculator back (On a side note, calculators are used really extensively here, for haggleing, to make sure everyone involved is sure of the numbers. They get some crazy huge calculators too, with 2" tall number displays.) and typed 1500 back in, then pointed to it. Then he smiled. His smile was the worst part of the whole thing. It said "I know you're getting shafted. And you know you're getting shafted. And your friends? They're going to get shafted too, because who carries around US cash in Thailand? So you can argue all you want, but you're going to pay the extra money, and I'm not going to loose any sleep over haven given you the shaft. Sucker." It was the most infuriating smile I've ever seen. And to make it worse, I didn't have enough cash on me, because I hadn't planned on needing much Baht in Laos (they use Kip there). So I fought a little more, and punched some more numbers into the calculator, and they told me that I could go back to Thailand if I wanted to, to get out more cash. What I really wanted to do was to spit on his little smile, then run back to Thailand where I would be out of reach (hopefully) of his retribution, but instead I borrowed a little money from Alonzo, gritted my teeth, and payed.

After we left, our next task was to bater passage on a slow boat down the Mekong. We hoped to be able to get started that day but, apparently only one boat leaves every day, and we had missed it, so we got a hotel room. Then we went down to the pier and bartered passage on the slow boat the next day. Score. Our boat left at 11:00, and we showed up at about 10:20. The boat was already mostly filled, and most of the occupants were tourists. There were some chickens on the roof, and one or two Laotian families but the vast majority was European tourists. On that note, I have some good news. Europeans are assholes too. I always hear about what a bad reputation Americans have abroad, as being loud and rude and obnoxious. Well, 1st of all, because everyone was speaking English, I feel like a lot of the rude Europeans could easily be mistaken for Americans, and give us a bad name. Second of all, I kind of feel like Americans are made out to be the only assholes, but that is just not the case. Some of these Europeans were unbelievable. The Mekong was beautiful though. We were on it for two days, and I watched the scenery go past for most of the time. We stopped for one night in a very small town supported, as far as I could tell, entirely by the tourist boat stopping there every day. It was kind of sad because the people there have such a strong incentive to hawk and sell! sell! sell! That night was the first I've ever slept under a mosquito net and I was glad of it, but not because of mosquitoes. I heard something (I assume some sort of Asian rat) crawling around on the head of the bed, and I don't know if the mosquito net kept the rat from crawling on my face, but it certainly did make me feel better. At the end of the second day we passed a few cliffs, some in the distance, but some right on the river. It made me excited about climbing, because, while the climbing in Chiang Mai was good, it wasn't terribly scenic. This looked like it was going to be. One of the cliffs on the river had a cave, which had been turned into a temple. Sweet. We got into Luang Pra Bang at about 5:45, and we hoped to be able to get a bus down to Vang Vieng (where the climbing is). I had actually lost hope because we got in later than I thought we would, but there was one leaving at 7:00, so we got tickets, then grabbed some dinner, and some sort of little Lao bunny cookies that tasted a little like lemon. Alonzo and I sat in the next to last row, with Jessy sitting in the row behind us. I had the window. The sun had been down for a while by the time the bus started to move, and after a little I got to see the moon rise. It was a dark red at first, then gradually lightened in color going through orange, until it became its normal bright off-white. It wasn't quite full, but it was still bright and the moonlight scenery was incredible.

Since Alonzo and I have been traveling together I've wanted to climb on top of almost all of the different forms of transportation we've taken. On the train we had huge, 4' x 4' windows that it would have been easy to climb out of. I felt around above the window, and there was a sort of gutter going above the window, so I climbed part way out and found out it would have been easy to get on top. I scouted out a descent too. There was a ladder down in between the cars, though once you got down the ladder it might have been tricky to get back inside the train. I was also a little worried about low hanging electrical wires, or electrical wires which were some how connected to the train. I ended up falling asleep, so didn't climb on top.

Then I wanted to climb on top of the boat down the Mekong too. I could have gotten away from the European tourists drinking and smoking, and enjoyed the scenery more. Part of the time, floating down the river I did stand on the bumper going around the edge of the boat, so my shoulder was at the level of the roof, and my whole body was outside the boat. Getting onto the roof would have been easy from there, and I might have done it, but there was a sign clearly proclaiming that it wasn't allowed, and I got yelled at a couple of times, just for standing on the bumper. The bus was a different story though. The window I was sitting beside was huge, but only about half of it opened. I felt around above it and found another sort of gutter, and pulled my torso out. They used the roof for some baggage storage, so there was a railing going around the edge. I lowered myself back into the bus, and began amassing testicular fortitude. There were no technically difficult climbing moves. The lights were off in the bus. Alonzo was asleep, and most other people either were, or would be soon. I didn't feel like I would be missed, and after a while someone in the front of the bus started throwing up (the road was pretty windy), giving me another reason to get out of the bus. The bus had to slow down going up hills, and eventually had to stop to shift down to first gear, so I even had a good opportunity when the bus wasn't really moving. I could just slip out the window, and onto the roof. Then really enjoy the view, and the experience (I've discovered I'm a real slut for a unique experience). I egged myself on for a long time, and finally opened the window and got completely outside the bus, with my hands on the rail around the top. Then I realized, "What am I doing?". I climbed back inside the bus. Before, I had thought the most difficult part would be the beginning. Actually opening the window. I was very demoralized, and realized I must not have fully been committed. Naturally, in hindsight the whole thing seems stupid and rash, but I still kind of wish I'd made it on top. As it is, I've got a cool memory, but riding on top of a bus at night through Laos, during the full moon would have been an incredible experience.