Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh

We've ridden buses all over Southeast Asia for many years now – a lot of good trips, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes a little long, but always good, always good...

Notes taken on the bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, staring out the window, in a dream... On the road again, through the streets of Saigon where there are more trees in some (older) neighborhoods than one might expect. The streets aren't nearly as full today as on days before – Tet! Drummers and dancers coming through the neighborhood yesterday. The dancers wear silk robes – one dancer has a jolly, but kind of menacing mask and the other has a bearded sage face; both carry fans and one of them fanned bad winds or spirits out of Leslie. Photo: Sunset over the Mekong

Endless streets thinning out...semi-rural now with gardens and some padi (what people call rice paddy)...different varieties of palm trees...tile roofs, tin roofs...banana trees, bigger gardens, mango trees...small river, padi, bamboo...many businesses closed, many yellow-flowered trees in pots (for Tet)...big market open...Catholic church with a large statue of the virgin dressed in blue and pink.

My iPod playing Loser by the Grateful Dead. It's live and Jerry is playing one of the hottest solos I've ever heard him play. Chinese cemetery, people burning paper money, padi, water buffalo – yeah! Only a few people working the fields today.

Now the Stones from the ancient Got Live! Album. I know I've told this story before, but here I go again. Through a series of events I ended up my time in Vietnam 1966-67 in an Army “psyops” unit because they needed a few Marines to go on Marine operations. That's how I ended up in the Hill Fights – bad shit. One of the things we did on operations was at night to haul some pretty big speakers up into trees and broadcast stuff to the enemy, like Buddhist funeral music and how hopeless their situation was so far from home, and so on. It wasn't part of the plan, but we also had some rock & roll tapes, including the Got Live! album. We liked to play stuff for the Marines, like, Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows.

But right now it's, I've Been Loving You Too Long, and despite all the blood and darkness, yeah, Vietnam, I've been loving you too long, “I can't stop now, too late, I can't stop loving you now, no no no...” A school – pale yellow stucco, like schools all over Southeast Asia, one story, in a U, with a veranda all the way around the inside dirt playground. Goats...trees with clusters of white flowers.

It's time for lunch – egg, cheese, cucumber, cilantro, and tomato baguette sandwich from the woman who sets up at the end of our alley for a few hours every morning. Each of our sandwiches is wrapped in half a page from a phone book and each cost 15,000VND ($.75). Tabasco completes the picture. This last morning the woman came out from behind her cart and hugged Leslie.

Cao Dai temple...guy across the aisle takes his shirt off. Fortunately he's young and don't smell bad. Visions of Johanna – “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles.” Huge padi and one person out there – white conical hat in the green, IN THE GREEN. Some kind of orchard...bougainvillea cascading over a gate...red lanterns, yellow flowers – Tet!

We're rolling through a small town, over a big river empty of everything but brown water and water hyacinths, no boats, no people...huge padi, empty empty, stretching far away – who ever saw an empty padi in Vietnam! Now I see two people standing together in the green and Robert Earl Keen is singing Feeling Good Again – “I looked across the room and saw you standing on the stairs” - this trip is intense. Photo below: Children begging at door of bus

Here we are at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Everybody off the bus. Back on. Off. On, and five minutes after clearing the border pull into a bus stop cafe for 20 minutes, now on the road again, past the casinos, hotels, and brothels. Cambodia dustier than Vietnam...fields mostly

fallow, dry...more palms, houses different than in Vietnam, most set above the ground on pilings or stilts, smaller, most are wood, painted blue or ochre or gray or unpainted and weathered, shutters, not a pane of glass anywhere, tin roofs, some tile. And these days, only the countless little roadside stands have thatch roofs...big shallow lake and the water shone like diamonds in the dew...stucco school...more new houses every year...ox cart...motorcycles – motos”...Angker Beer sign (many of these)...water buffalo...blue and white Cambodian People's Party sign...

Huge sere fields dotted with the single tall palms that are so perfectly Cambodian...massive fall of bougainvillea...houses, all with dirt yards. Black Angels, a psychedelic neo-hippie rock & roll band...bus swerves..shoot-em-up on monitor at front of bus...turn it up Black Angels.

Now the Mekong, rolling on through Asia and the ages...bus straight on to the ferry with beggar children running along beside the bus and on to the ferry to beg through the ride...children being given the (incredibly sweet) canned drinks and the crackers that had been given to each passenger by the bus company and the children clutching desperately at the cans and cracker boxes, fighting for them at times and the sun setting over the Mekong and the Dead doing Dylan's It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun, he's crying like a fire in the sun … The vagabond who's rapping at your door, is standing in the clothes that you once wore...strike another match, go start anew, and it's all over now, Baby Blue.” Photo: Sunset over the Mekong

A trance trip on the bus, into the Cambodian night...

And now, for our listening pleasure, Dengue Fever - Uku (the Mekong) in case we needed some more trance

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saigon - taking it easy in the tropics

Mostly I photograph what I see as we walk around vs. "the sights." Photo: the food court area at Binh Thanh Market - Action! Saigon photos are here

We had an inauspicious start to Saigon (and a sweet ending): At the airport, long a notorious den of taxi cheats (notorious even for SE Asia), we were caught up in the new dispatch system. Still a cheat, but only for a few dollars; even so, there's an ill taste to being cheated. Through the rain and insanely crowded streets to the “backpacker alley” where our hotel (Kim Hotel - $20/night) is – too narrow for cars, so we got out at the entrance to the alley. I waited with our luggage under an awning and Leslie went down the alley and pretty soon here came the two young women who've helped us before and down the alley to the hotel we went, splashing through the water.

Checked in, bought water, went looking for something

to eat. We met a promoter and d-j who recommended a place. It was okay, but a little over-priced like a lot of places on this alley, which is on a steady march to mid-prices in food and lodging.

Photo: al fresco dining on Bui Vien Street

The next day we went to the alley where the people sell stellar pork chop and egg on rice with some vegetables. A great breakfast with more and more powerful coffee – WooHoo! From there to a bus place to get tickets to Phnom Penh. The buses are so full that we couldn't get seats together, so took what we could get. Lots of foreigners headed out of town as most of Saigon closes down for Tet.

One of the things that's happened with both of us in aging is that we remember less and less of our night dreams. More often than not all either of us can remember is that there were dreams. Now, in Vietnam, both of us are dreaming more and remembering more. Last night Leslie dreamed this (from an email she sent to David and copied to me): “I had a wonderful dream about you last night. When it began, you were your current age/appearance, but after a nap, you were a beautiful baby boy again (wasn't a surprise at all in the dream). I wrapped you in a soft blanket and took you for a walk in your stroller, held you, etc. and it was incredibly happy and serene. I sat and watched your sweet

little face, especially your mouth, while you slept - just wonderful.

It was a rare gift to have the dream and to be able to remember it in great detail; both of us are so happy you're our son.”

That was a nice one to hear about!

Photo: pork chop and egg on rice, with vegetable and coffee for breakfast

Back to the Kim for a lazy hazy tropical afternoon. This from email to Jessica from Atrium Obscurum: Back out to the streets, Leslie and I walking around – going a way we hadn't gone before, through labyrinth alleys and passageways, just digging being there, stopping in at the "bauty shop" to get my beard trimmed (everyone having a good time with that). Stopped at a street vendor for noodles with vegetables, chillies, and garlic +

cha gio and cooold Saigon beer for dinner (little blue stools and metal table on the sidewalk of course). The Vietnamese variation on chilli oil is knocking me out! It's hot here, after Hanoi and Hue - Ahh, Hue. Now back in the room listening to Solar Fields, feeling good. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJKB6knW4FY

Photo above: flower vendors and customers in the rain - talk about sweet!

On to Binh Thanh Market. To get there you walk through a big park which is currently filled with flower and bonsai vendors in the most amazing display I've ever seen – and I've seen a few flower shows. We wandered through the flowers for awhile, then to the market where we got pretty much over-heated. Binh Thanh is the main tourist market in Saigon, so in addition to areas set up for locals, there are many stalls selling the same old stuff for tourists. Since this is Tet season, there are quite a few Viet Khieu (overseas Vietnamese) in town and the joint was jumping. I had decent Bun bo Hue, but Leslie was so over-heated she didn't eat.

Photo below: Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area of Saigon

The next morning it was more pork chop and egg on rice, more coffee, more coffee, talking with the old lady who's always sitting in the alley – not that we could understand much of what either of us could say. She walks (assisted) up from wherever she lives down the alley, sits in one of the three chairs

with a back, the coffee lady brings her a glass of coffee, she has a cigarette, someone sits with her, talking, drinking coffee, smoking together. The good life.

Photo: flower delivery

More flower market, more food court, this time for bun thit nuong, banh cuon, and fried bread with whole shrimp in it (I gave a pass to the heads). Back to the room for a nap and later for a walk, this time to a different part of the park, where we watched guys playing an amazing fast hacky-sack kind of kick game with a shuttlecock.

Photo: who wouldn't love a Vietnamese girl on a moto, with her mask, her gloves

Then an exercise class led by a compact, muscular woman and then a different exercise class that was pretty sexy. Then along a street past the “open tour” buses, and on to the same place as last night for more noodle, cha gio, and beer. This place, by the way, was where last year when we were walking to catch the early morning bus to Phnom Penh, there was a huge dead rat about six feet from where we were eating this trip.

But that was then, this is now.

Photo: lots of women and girls posing for photos at the flower show.

Really, once again, it's just being here. I don't think there many of the “sights” we've missed over the past seven years. Here's a big event for us: Today the woman who makes the banh cuon at Binh Thanh market came out from her stand and cuddled Leslie. Saigon travelers will know what an unbelievable thing this is like anyone

ever got affection from one of the food women here. Sweet. So that was the high point of the day in our exciting life.

Tomorrow we catch the bus to Phnom Penh. On the road again. Just can't wait to get on the road again.

Photo: this is the woman who came around the counter to snuggle Leslie - uninvited, unexpected, such a beautiful thing to happen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hue (it's raining)

Someone on a travel forum said that this journal is boring. My response: "Thanks for the comment. It's what happens when you get old, if you're lucky: just happy to be alive, happy to be with your wife, happy to be in Vietnam again ... simple needs, simple pleasures, laying up treasures where moth and rust don't corrupt." Here are the Hue photos. Photo below: Street of dreams (speaking of simple needs)

In the Hanoi airport we talked with a pleasant couple from Germany. At some point the man said he hoped it wouldn't be raining in Hue. I didn't say so, but I thought that I hoped it would be raining in Hue. It's winter and it's Hue and I love the rain in Hue. And of course it was raining when we landed – ahhhh, Hue.

The ride into town from Phu Bai Airport was as always, a panorama of mossy temples, shrines, and other religious structures interspersed

among the usual open-fronted stores selling pretty much the same old stuff, then a few markets, then bigger and bigger buildings, modern ones and the smaller stores and the motos, bicycles and cyclos (more than in Hanoi or Saigon), cars, trucks, but nowhere near the congestion of Hanoi or Saigon. It feels so good being in this place. Then turning left from Hung Vuong on to Nguyen Tri Phuong and pulling up to the alley where the Binh Duong and other budget hotels and cafes are. We're here! Get a room ($18 for triple – none of the doubles working for us). Drop our bags, step across the way to

Cafe on Thu Wheels for some soup, noodles, garlic bread, and beer with U2 on the sound system – a backpacker cafe – banana pancakes for me soon. Photo: An Cuu Market

Back in the room, listening to a live recording of the Wave Farmers album, a psychedelic trio (electronic drums, synth, violincello) playing at Soul Rise. Perfect for Hue. Going to see them, be danced by them again in March at Mannafest.

Email to Jim: Yes, the journey continues well. I was lying on the bed yesterday (a rainy day) with moderate abdominal pain and maybe a little fever, in kind of a daze, staring at the art deco-ish light fixtures and the detailing on the ceiling and windows – happy me (except for the tail end of a sinus infection, a broken off crown, abdominal pain & fever - and

also that I seem to be talking more and more about physical ailments - at least it's not bowel-related – give me a few years). Hue is waaay slower than Hanoi. I love it here. Feeling good today ...

Photo: Our alley - Binh Duong Hotel on right, Thu's on left

We took cyclos to Cho An Cuu, a big market by a small river. This market is very different than the heavily-touristed Dong Ba Market (on the Perfume River) with its aggressive over-charging vendors. Leslie bought some more peppercorns and we furnished some comic relief for several vendors. From there we walked to the Big C department store, checking it out (getting jiggy again), had lunch at a little cafe inside: Banh cuon, salad, nem, and peanuts. I was starting to feel pretty bad by now, so we left, cyclo back to hotel where I lay on the bed for a few hours. Had some yogurt for dinner, feeling better, slept hard that night. Photo: Leslie buying pepper

I fixed coffee in the room (Trung Nguyen #4) and we had our usual leisurely morning, then walked to Nina's Cafe for an excellent omelet and cafe sua da (35,000 dong – about $1.70USD) and comfortable chairs. http://ninascafe.jimdo.com/ Then to the Family Home Cafe for Leslie to try their egg sandwich – another good one, but the chairs are uncomfortable (Asia, the land of uncomfortable chairs).

Photo below: Coffee in the room

We walked across the Trang Tien Bridge over the wide Perfume River to

a supermarket to get some yogurt, then back across and southwest for a pretty long walk on Le Loi to Dien Bien Phu Street to a place named Quan Tai Phu that's well known for nem lui (grilled pork on lemon grass). When we got there I went to the toilet – through the kitchen and a short passageway that was (no kidding) 18” wide with loose tiles on the floor and into the squat toilet room about 3.5'x3.5' where all sorts of newly laundered clothes were hanging so that I was peeing with someone's damp clothing on my shoulders. When I got back to the eating area, they'd brought our unordered food (and no idea of the cost). The server showed us what/how to put the various vegetables on the rice paper and then the pork, and then some weird looking and very tasty dark viscous sauce. I think there were 12 pork things, all for 50,000 dong ($2.50USD). Wow! Sooner or later we're going to get over-charged (and needless to say, we bargain firmly with cyclo drivers) but so far, things are working out well for us in Vietnam. Here is the food blog that describes nem lui (page down a few times) http://theworldtastesgood.blogspot.com/2009/02/hue-part-3.html.

Sunday: After a banana pancake breakfast (with honey and yogurt - see Photo above) and

not forgetting a glass of very strong cafe sua and a few minutes later splitting an omelet/baguette sandwich, we took a riverboat cruise for 100,000VND (Leslie's bargaining acumen) to Thien Mu Pagoda, 45 minutes up the perfume river. This where the monk Thich Quang Duc lived before he went to Saigon in 1966 to immolate himself in protest against the VN government and the war. The pagoda and grounds were quietly beautiful – understated and mossy with just a few people around and a view from the grounds across the wide river, past the plains, to these mist-covered mountains where we fought and bled, where so many from every side fought and bled and died, aching for life – me for a beautiful dark-haired girl whose photo was so washed out from the water that only the shadow of her left eye was left and now, 45 years later, looking across the room from where I write she's sitting on the bed, the love of my life, beautiful, her hair white now and here we are in Hue and I look out through the glass-paned doors toward palm trees and mossy buildings - it's misting in Hue.

Photo above: Random lane; photo below: These mist-covered mountains beyond the Perfume River - photo taken from Thien Mu Pagoda

Aes Dana, Summerlands ... then Vibrasphere, Forest Fuel … Aes Dana, Les Grandes Fonds … Solar Fields, Summer … Hue, misting, humid, green Hue, perfect for psytrance.

We walked along a quiet section of the riverside, then along Le Loi Street and back to the nem lui place, and added a bowl of bun thit nuong – grilled pork with cool noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and nuoc cham with, what else, chillies. Every morning we've marveled at our lack of GI distress. We hope for the same thing tomorrow.

Monday: We had another late start, coffee in bed, talking, and finally to Nina's Cafe for an excellent backpacker's tradition – banana pancake (with honey and yogurt) and more stout

coffee, then we walked along the Perfume River again and over the new bridge to the Citadel side of the river and wandering down side streets through neighborhoods in the soft mist for a little over three hours – more overgrown green, more mossy walls, gates into houses, tin roofs, tile roofs, shrines, incense, women with conical hats, past a school with children playing in the street – “Hello! What your name! Yo-yo-yo!” Bicycles, motos, xyclos, fruit and vegetables for

sale, coffee/tea shops with stools at low tables, cafes, and finally through a gate in the huge wall, across a narrow bridge over the moat, into shops and to the old
bridge in the mist that's a light rain by now. It was really raining by the time we got to Nina's for banh khoai – kind of like a fried pancake folded over pork and shrimp – cut it into strips and wrap them into rice paper with steamed bean sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce and dipped into nuoc mam-based peanut sauce. Back to our room that's been damp the whole time we've been here, and damper now. We're pretty damp too. LOL, our clothes
are damp, our bodies are damp, our books are damp (the pages are kind of wavy, if you know what I mean), our bed is damp – it's damp … it couldn't be better.

Photo: Nina in front of Nina's Cafe

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hanoi 2012

Hanoi was a resting place for us this time around - taking it easy, walking around the Old Quarter ... "This is the Asia we dreamed of from afar. Steeped in history, pulsating with life, bubbling with commerce, buzzing with motorbikes, and rich in exotic scents, the Old Quarter is Hanoi's historic heart" (Lonely Planet). Just photos are here.

Recall that I left my pack in the airport in Hong Kong and eventually got it back. The only time Leslie carries a purse traveling is when we fly. Now, Leslie left

her purse at the visa issuing area in the Hanoi airport and when I raced back to where she'd left it, there it was, sitting on the bench. Lucky twice! On to the Camellia 4 and into our room around 9pm. Really tired. We went across the street to the King Cafe for chicken with garlic and chillies, an order of french fries(!), and beer. Photo: Passages like this are everywhere

The next day we had the Camellia's outstanding breakfast buffet, including pho ga + massive amounts of Vietnamese coffee, then walked to the bank to change money. Last year while we were at that bank there was a baby shower going on. Leslie asked the woman who was helping us about the shower and after some puzzlement (Why is this foreigner asking about this and how does she know?) it turned out it was for her, so she and Leslie had a good time talking about the baby. Photo: Flower vendor - tons of goods are sold like this

We walked to the Intimex Store, walked around there looking at this and that food, kitchen wares, etc. (Leslie and Charles getting jiggy), and bought some yogurt and 250 grams of Trung Nguyen coffee. We walked to the well-known (and not highly recommended by me) bun cha place on Hang Bo Street. We had bun cha (grilled pork served in nuoc mam [fish sauce] with vegetables) and nem (fried spring rolls), which was very good, but expensive ($4.50USD) and way too much food for us, so we got almost a full order of bun cha to go and went back to the hotel.

By now I was feeling pretty bad with the onset of a sinus infection, so I started a course of azithromycin and took some ibuprofen and rested. The last thing I remember as I fell asleep was the maids outside our door, laughing, talking, carrying on – happy me.

Later, as Leslie was getting the bun cha out of

the refrigerator in our room, the shelf it was on collapsed and the plastic bag of pork and fish sauce burst, sending the smelly stuff everywhere. I roused myself from bed and we got a pretty big mess cleaned up pretty fast. Is this the Flub and Dub Asia tour? Photo: Well to do child near Hoan Kiem Lake

The next day we had the breakfast buffet, but were a little more restrained with our coffee intake. After breakfast we decided to walk straight up Pho Hang Giay from our hotel. After the first block there were no more women selling souvenirs or shoeshine guys wanting to fix my shoes and the street got more and more congested with vendors, stores, and tiny cafes along each side, pedestrians, people carrying cafes on a stick (little stove on one end, food, and a

few stools on the other), impossibly laden motorcycles, trucks, so on and so forth. Photo: Selling bread

Eventually we realized we were at Dong Xuan Market and went inside into narrow, crowded aisles with people pushing past us in that insistent, but somehow not very intrusive Vietnamese way. Even so, people who are easily irritated or who have personal space issues should never come to a place like this.

Leslie added to her pepper collection with 250 grams black pepper from a woman – a good deal for the woman and for Leslie. After 30 or so minutes we left and quickly found the narrow food alley near the market where we've been before. Straight away Leslie spotted a woman selling banh cuon so we squeezed into the bench and a stool and had some decent banh cuon with pork and very good nem for 20,000VND each (20,000 VND = $1USD). Photo below: We ate at this banh cuon place every day

The woman sitting next to Leslie got us squared away on how to fix it in a bowl of sweet nuoc mam with peppers and garlic and we tucked in for an outstanding and massively fun meal with people brushing past (lots of body contact), motorcycles scraping by, people reaching over our heads and between us and we're in the juice now! On the way out we spotted another western couple at another stand having a good time eating snails – of course they were Australians (the people, not the snails). I asked if they had a camera for a photo of them and took their picture. We're

all having a good time.

Oh man, how did Leslie and I find each other. From the halls of Thomas Jefferson High School more than 50 years ago to this narrow alley somewhere in Hanoi. Yes! Photo: Leslie buying pepper

The next day we visited Jim (an internet friend) at the school where he teaches. We visited his class and talked with the students, who were poised and articulate. Really a good time with these lovely young people and this man who has found a good home in Vietnam. Photo below: Impossibly jammed street that nevertheless manages to move

Our scene in Hanoi is much like anywhere else – walking around, enjoying the street action, checking out the little stores selling everything

imaginable, eating most meals on the street, visiting markets, finding the flow. Hanoi has astonishing traffic – people walking, people carrying huge loads suspended from each end of a split bamboo pole, countless motorcycles, fair number of cars and trucks – and zero traffic rules, except for the only rule, which is bigger has precedence (motos over people, cars over people and motos, trucks over everything). You have to really pay attention and never stop or flinch. It's the pedestrian's responsibility to choose a line of walk which doesn't challenge the vehicles and the motos and other vehicles then flow around the pedestrian. Also, when there are sidewalks, they're usually

completely filled with vendors, people working on this and that, and parked motos. It's a little dangerous and sometimes overwhelming, but still, a good or at least engaging time (what with so much to see and to keep track of). Today I somehow ran into a motorcycle, which fortunately wasn't moving, otherwise I'd have more than a sore knee. Photo: A brilliant selection of garlic goodness

We went back to the food alley near Dong Xuan for lunch: banh cuon (steamed rice flour crepes wrapped round a little seasoned ground pork), banh with egg and no meat, bun cha, nem (fried spring rolls) – all served with a bowls of sweetened fish sauce to eat out of and tarted up with

fresh garlic and chillies in vinegar, fried garlic, ground roasted chillies, and tiny limes to squeeze

onto it all. All of this for 70,000 dong (~$3.50USD). On the way out of the alley we stopped and got two fried dumplings, one stuffed with yellow bean and some coconut and the other a "salty mystery mix" that included meat of some kind. Photo: Hoan Kiem Lake

This vendor is described here on Sticky Rice: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/03/fried_cake_ball.html.0.....3. The next day I ordered two with bean paste and coconut, which I think is the better way to go.

Classic Leslie: We're having bun cha at another place in an alley and in addition to the usual grilled pork and pork patties, there is a third item. Leslie picks it up with her chopsticks and says, “I don't know what this is,” and takes a bite.

The night before we left I was finally well and walked to meet Jim at a cafe near the cathedral. I got there first and stood on the sidewalk, as I've done before, looking across the street as the

motorbikes, pedestrians, bicycles buzz in several directions across my consciousness until I'm in a trance of motos/people/Vietnam/alive/ good and the incessant voices talking, laughing, bargaining and the smells and dust and colors flashing. Photo: Little temple in the Old Quarter - crematorium door

That's pretty much what we're doing in Hanoi: walking around the full, noisy streets, seeing what there is to see (we've already seen most of the “tourist attractions”), eating fabulous street food, experiencing the intense street vibe, resting … Photo: St. Joseph's Cathedral - a far cry from our clinic site in St. Joseph's Catholic Mission (serving Vietnamese refugees)

Here is a weblog on food and the scene surrounding it in Hanoi: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/my_weblog/extreme_ch

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hong Kong2 - Into the Flow

We're into the magic of the Hong Kong trip now - the crowds, the harbor, the Star Ferry, the food, the people, the alleys and narrow passages ... ahhh.

A little background on Hong Kong: We've always stayed in Kowloon. Kowloon is a peninsula split by Nathan Road running north from the harbor
and the Star Ferry. The ferry runs back and forth between Kowloon and HK Island where the financial district (Central), Wanchai, Happy Valley, Victoria Peak, etc. are. The southern end of Kowloon is called Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) and is the main tourist area. TST is where the Chungking Mansions is - which nobody would call a tourist place – one newspaper called it “the most notorious flophouse in Asia” - I call it amazing. Here is something from Chungking Express: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCMkHm7HTBU&feature=fvst.

Photo above: Street performer, playing beautifully.

Going north from TST there is Yau Ma Tei where the Temple Street night market is, and then Mong Kok, which is where we're staying. Hong Kong is the most densely populated place on earth and Mong Kok is the second most densely populated district there – wow, people everywhere. No kidding, it's an art to move through the crowds and the people there are artists - no bumping, no jostling, just flowing through a true sea of humanity. To me, it's sometimes magical, sometimes a little crazy, and always intense.

Photo: The corner near the entrance to the Sincere House where we're staying. Can barely see the entrance between/above the man in the orange sweater and the woman in the pink top

Here is our trip. Up at whenever. The room we're in now has no window, so it might be 5 or 7 or later (but not much). I fix coffee in our little filter
holder and we have coffee and talk. I go for a fast walk with a little running and whenever there is a street to cross and the light is red, I do 25 inclined push-ups (total at least 100). On the way back to the room I pick up breakfast – usually dim sum, sometimes ham and egg sandwiches at Cherikoff Bakery or 7-11 (7-11 not the same as in U.S. - way smaller, cheap, and with some unique products such as rice with chicken feet). After breakfast I shower, get a leg-rub, and
we talk about the day. Then it's off to the races and back by around 4pm for Leslie to get a back-rub, take a nap, and figure out what's for dinner. I usually go for a walk after dinner.
ove through the crowds and the people there are artists, no bumping, no jostling, just flowing through a true sea of humanity. To me, sometimes it's magical, sometimes maddening, and always intense.
Photo above: On the street

The day after the last post we caught the bus to the Star Ferry and the ferry across the harbor to Central, then #15 bus up the Peak, going higher and higher past the office centers, TB hospital, past the graveyard, past the ultra-expensive apartments and homes
and then HK the skyscrapers, buildings, the harbor, the buildings spread out below in the haze that's always there at this time of year. The bus lets off near a shopping center-type place and we go up to Pacific Coffee where we always go, sitting at the glass wall overlooking all of HK, lingering over a double espresso, enjoying the view, reading the South China Morning Post, talking ...

Photo: The Star Ferry

Back down on what seems a crazy fast bus ride to where we get off to walk

to a famous wonton noodle shop for shrimp wonton noodle soup (the shrimp here have a wild taste, unlike the bland shrimp we get in the US) and vegetable with oyster sauce. We sat at a table and talked with a woman who came to HK from Vietnam in the early 80s. She's doing well now, but I know those were some grim early days. Bus to ferry and ferry back to Kowloon, riding that ferry so many times over the years and every time magical. This was our biggest day so far – Leslie is better and better every day.

Photo: On the ferry

And so the trip goes, no big events, few big attractions, just Being. Here. together.

The next day we went to Pat Kwan, the chilli sauce etc. place to buy some black peppercorns, then across the street to Fa Yuen Market to buy white peppercorns and walk around. The nice looking woman at one of the fruit stalls remembered us from last year (“You go to Vietnam.”), which was nice. I walked to the Chungking Mansions to change money, then back up the road a bit to meet Phil (an internet friend) and his son Henry. We had a good time - Phil is an easygoing person,
easy to be around and Henry is a great kid – like his other two children. I was running late, so made a sweaty dash to the ferry to meet Leslie, back to Tsim Chai Kee for more soup and vegetable. This time we shared a table with two students from Singapore and had a good time talking with them too.

Photo: Leslie waiting for the elevator in the Chungking Mansions

On our last full day we went to the Chungking Mansions for some Indian food and ended up at a Pakistani place having a good, cheap meal of chicken tikka masala, naan, pakoras, vegetable samosas, and milk tea. The place had one table, which we
shared first with two men from India, then with an intense guy from Pakistan, and of course there was the amazing parade of humanity from across the globe. Yeah! After we ate, Leslie wanted to take the elevator up to see if the floors had changed. The first one we saw was quite a bit nicer than in the old days, but the other two were the same as ever.

Photo: CK at entrance to the Mansions

That night I walked down to the Temple Street night market to see what was happening in the way of thangkas. Too bad, the place that sold quality Tibetan and Nepalese goods was gone.
Tsering, a Nepalese woman Leslie met before was still selling images, thangkas, etc., but the quality is not comparable to the other place. Sai Yeung Choi Street South was blocked to traffic and full of people, amazing crowded, buzzing with energy and conversation. There were some stre

et performers, including a young woman playing a Chinese violin beautifully. Hong Kong. What a place!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hong Kong1

It was good flight San Francisco to Hong Kong. Leslie is the Master of good seats - thanks to (1) her persistence - no surprise that to anyone who knows her! and (2) seatguru.com. On a 747 in economy there are a total of six rows of two seats. All the other rows in economy are 3-4-3 (total about 400 seats). The two seat rows are the bulkhead seats where the fuselage tapers at the back of the plane so between the seats and the bulkhead there is some extra space - we had about 14 extra inches. So there we were with our own little scene, just the two of us with all our airplane stuff - books, blankets, Tabasco.

Photo: from the window of one of our rooms at the Dragon Hostel

I added up the hours starting when we got up at 6am in SF the morning of departure to finally collapsing in bed in HK at 8pm - 46 hours on the go, except I slept ~5 hours on the plane and Leslie slept~3 hours. Leslie felt bad on the flight with the tiredness and aftermath of pneumonia, and she felt worse when we got to HK. We cleared immigration and went to the wrong luggage carousel, then to the right carousel, through security and then - disaster! I'd left my backpack somewhere in the luggage area and no way were they going to let me back in. So we ended up spending an anxious two hours at the airport with Leslie guarding the luggage and me hiking in the
bowels of the office areas from from one end of the airport to the other. We finally left, packless, with Leslie and I both pretty down.

Photo: One of our rooms (the incredibly noisy one). The rooms at the Dragon are less than 7x12 feet - including the bathroom.

We caught the A21 bus into town, walk a few blocks to the Sincere House in Mong Kok, to the 7th floor where the Dragon Hostel is, wait for room, I caught a bus to the Chungking Mansions to change some money, back to Dragon, got a room, Leslie to bed. I caught the A21 back to the airport and on the ride I'm worrying, realizing no way should I have left Leslie alone feeling so bad. At the airport I ran up the stairs to the lost & found office (I've learned my way around the back ways of the place) and there it was - my pack - sitting on the floor!!! Nothing was missing either. Lucky I didn't lose it in Dallas or Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Back to the A21, back to the Dragon, back to Leslie, who was still in bed, feeling "maybe a little better." I'll never leave you like this again.

For dinner we had sandwiches we'd kept from the flight. I couldn't stay awake, so went for a walk around the neighborhood scouting out a cheap place we could eat tomorrow - a place with seats with backs - nothing but the best! I found a place and as I was walking I thought about our last trip and how exhausted and bad Leslie felt then when we got to HK.
That was heartening and I worried less. Finally at 8pm, so many hours after we got out of bed in SF I laid down to sleep in HK.

Photo: On the street

We awakened at 5am and Leslie's first words were, "I'm better." Oh happy day! We laid about talking and in me an undercurrent of joy and gratitude that she's better and we're such good friends. I fixed some coffee and we hung out for another hour or so. I went for a fast walk, doing inclined push-ups at every corner where the light was red and along the way I saw some people eating at little folding tables set up on the sidewalk. That's usually a good sign - and it was this time too. I'd found a good, cheap dim sum place. So for breakfast in our room we had steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed BBQ pork buns, and fried curried chicken rolls.

The trip has gone from exhaustion, sick, anxious to feeling better/feeling good, decent dim sum, rested (but still tired). In short, Oh a happy day, a happy day.

Photo: The place where I get us dim sum for breakfast

We're settled in to the trip. Leslie is still fatigued from the pneumonia, so we're doing something we've talked about in the past: hanging out in a few blocks area, seeing and doing what there is to do right here. And there is plenty - at least there is for the easily amused like we are - digging the amaaazing crowds; enjoying discovering new places to eat like the dim sum for breakfast place, like new noodle soup places, renewing our Taipan Bakery trips, making the phone mall scene (oh wow, if you haven't been HK you've probably never seen anything like this place - 100s of little shops [4'x6' or as big as 8'x10'] crammed full of 4G phones and people packed in everywhere); hanging out in our tiny room, talking, having coffee, just being together, happy in this room. We're in our 3rd room! The first one had some men working very noisily nearby all day, so it was challenging to rest. The second was too close to a main street so it noisy all night until ~4:30am. This last one is quieter all the way around - ahhh.
Photo: The entrance to the Sincere House where the Dragon Hostel is is right past the stinky tofu place on the right of the photo.

This is the first Asia trip where I've had a laptop, which is nice given we're spending a fair amount of time in the room. I really am enjoying the music ... Pearl Jam playing Yellow Ledbetter, Aes Dana doing Summerlands, Vibrasphere doing Forest Fuel, Bob Dylan singing Not Dark Yet (at Jack Kerouac's grave), Brandi Carlile singing Downpour - David gave me this song and the refrain echoing in my mind for days now ...
And when you need someone to carry you through
I'm gonna be there for you
I'm gonna be there for you

Sometimes I can't even begin to believe this life, these times.

Photo: Breakfast in bed (like there's anywhere else to eat in our room. Steamed pork with black beans and chillis, har gow, stuffed fried dumplings

It's New Years Day. I went for the usual walk-run-walk-push-ups-walk. Dim sum again for breakfast - today steamed pork with black bean and chilli, har gow, stuffed dumpling - all for $45 HKD (a little less than$6USD). Leslie and I walked to the Taipan bakery, then she went back to the Dragon to take up ice, pay Stanley, etc. and I caught the #2 bus to Chungking Mansions ("a place like no other place in the world ... huge ramshackle dump of a place ... caters for virtually all needs ... undercurrent of sleaze ... peculiar odors ..." Lonely Planet]) to hang out and change money. Uh-oh, many of the shops closed and fewer people in the hallways.
Maybe it's the end of an era.

Photo: Star Ferry. the Twinkling Star

We rendezvoused at the Star Ferry of course - "I'll meet you at the Star Ferry." We rode the ferry to the Island and back - no destination other than the ride itself. In a beautiful stroke of good fortune, we rode the Twinkling Star both ways. Since 1978 this one has been my favorite (all the ferries are named something Star - Morning Star, Evening Star, Meridian Star, Twinkling Star, etc.). Caught the #6 bus back past our stop so we could go to Wellcome Grocery, where we bought beer and yogurt. Back to our room for awhile, then to the fish ball restaurant for shrimp and vegetable
wonton noodle soup and steamed vegetable. Back to the room for a nap. It's been a very good day. Leslie is stronger every day.

I forgot to say that after the Chungking Mansions I walked to Ka Ka Lok Fast Foods (where in 1978 we used to get nice little ham and egg sandwiches) to get Leslie - what else - a ham and egg sandwich. Good times.

Photo: Al fresco dining at Ka Ka Lok