Monday, October 30, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 30, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Sorry all! I had intended to post my blog on the security situation here yesterday, but just as I was starting to write it, someone came into my office and told me that I should leave right away because it looked like the rioting might start again. Fortunately, as it turns out, there were no riots yesterday after all. Perhaps now is a good time for a brief summary of Bangladeshi politics...

Bangladesh has elections every five years. Apparently, at each election, the entire government turns over - the positions are not staggered like they are in the U.S. All 330 seats of Parliment and the Prime Minister position are re-elected (although technically the prime minister is appointed by Parliment...) Bangladesh is also very unique in that there is a three month interim period between when the old government leaves and the new government is elected. During this election period, a caretaker is sworn in to run the government. Conceptually, this is to prevent election fraud. Logistically, it seems to be a bit of a nightmare for the Bangladeshi people...

There are two main parties in Bangladesh - the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). There is also a third party of Islamic fundamentalists called Jamaat-e-Islami and last week a new political party called the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was also formed. The LDP was created by several members of BNP who were dissatisfied with how BNP was being run; in particular they cited several examples of corruption by Khadela Zia's (the ex-prime minister's) son. Until yesterday when the interim government was installed, the BNP was the ruling party and the AL was the opposition. Five years prior, the Awami League was the ruling party.

The current trouble in Bangladesh stems from the choice of the leader of the interim government. Bangladesh's constitution says that the leader should be the last chief justice to retire. This person was Hassan. The BNP-led government, however, had recently extended the retirement age from 65 to 67, which led several people in the Awami League to wonder if it was just to make sure that Hassan would be the caretaker; this then naturally led to thoughts of corruption. Consequently, the AL put strong political pressure on Hassan to reject the position, which he finally did the day before he was supposed to take office. This led to more political turmoil because the parties could not decide who would be the caretaker.

The President volunteered for the job, but the Awami League rejected him. Yesterday, however, after the negotiations between the two parties were unsuccessful, Khadela Zia handed the government over to the President anyway. Thankfully, the Awami League did not riot, but instead said that they would be watching Iajuddin (the President) carefully to ensure that he remained neutral. If he shows bias, the AL says that they will oppose the election in January.

Practically, what all of this has meant for the residents of Dhaka (and other towns in Bangladesh) is that several neighborhoods have been unsafe in the late afternoon and evening because there is rioting on the streets. The first night of riots was on Friday night, the night before the caretaker government was supposed to come in. The rioters were targeting four wheeled vehicles such as taxis and buses, either bombing them or setting them on fire. Consequently, the next day most of the taxis and buses stayed off of the road.

The traffic here has been very light for the past week due to the Eid holiday, but after the riots there was hardly anyone on the street. I had to walk 20 minutes to find a cab on Sunday to get to my Bangla class. I didn't fare much better today. Plus, the only vehicles which are running (predominantly rickshaws and CNGs) are charging at least double what their normal fares would be. Thankfully, the riots have not been in my neighborhood or the neighborhood where my Bangla classes are, but I have to drive through an unstable neighborhood to get from one place to another. There has also been rioting in the neighborhood just south of mine. Consequently, I am trying not to travel anymore than I have to. In fact, today I decided to have a private tutor come to my office to teach me Bangla so that I would not have to commute up to Banani. I did the math and it is actually cheaper for me to do so as well since I am paying such high rates for transport right now! The principal of the school was not in today, but hopefully I can finalize the arrangements next week so that I no longer have to commute...

My two roommates who were traveling (one to Nepal and the other to the Sundarbans) were supposed to have returned by yesterday, but they have not shown up yet. The Awami League has shut down several of the highways that lead in to Dhaka. I have heard that they are not letting anybody in or out of the city... While I have enjoyed the extra time to myself, I feel a bit bad for them as they are undoubtably trapped wherever they are!

Hopefully things will calm down a bit in the next few days. I would not be surprised if there is more political turmoil in January during the elections though...

For those of you who would like to read the Bangladesh news from a Bengali perspective, you can go to The Daily Star, an English Dhaka newspaper, online at:

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 27, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Today was a very exciting day for me for two reasons. First, both of my roommates are out of town so I have the entire apartment to myself... Ahhhhh... My roommates are both very nice, but I have lived alone for 12 years and I really need time to myself.

Second, since both of my roommates are gone, I did not have anyone to translate to my boua for me, so I had to figure out the Bangla on my own. Since today is market (bajar) day, I needed to tell her what to go buy. Using an English-Bangla dictionary, I was able to discover the words for "chicken", "pineapple", "yogurt", etc. I also made my first shopping list in Bangla and Fatima (my boua) could understand it! (I am very proud of myself...)

I also figured out how to ask her to sweep and mop under the furniture (it was pretty gross under there...)

Some other things that I have learned to do since I have been in Bangladesh are:
  1. Take a rickshaw (this is not as easy as it sounds, since none of the drivers speak English and you need to negotiate the price before you start.)
  2. Find my house. You laugh, but the first couple of times it took the taxis an hour to locate my house! There are a few main streets here, but most of the streets, like the one I live on, are smaller backstreets, so you depend on the knowledge of locals to guide you to the right spot. I had to learn pretty quickly how to get home and what to say to drivers to guide them to the right general location. Now, once I am on Ring Road (the main street near my house), I can locate my street and give the driver basic directions (like "go straight", "turn right", "it's here", etc) to get to it (thanks to my friend Jason who gave me a Bangla directions cheat sheet...)
  3. Say "I don't speak Bangla"
  4. Tie a sari
  5. Say "mosquito" (I am being eaten alive by the little buggers!!! It doesn't help that we have a very small pond of stagnant water in front of my house...)
  6. Eat with my hands - I even do it at home now!
  7. Hold hands with a woman while walking down the street. I will admit that this felt very strange at first, but it is quite normal here for members of the same sex - both men and women - to hold each other's hand as they walk down the street. A man holding a woman's hand is strictly taboo, however, as are other public displays of affection between men and women
  8. Count to ten in Bangla

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 26, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Yesterday was Eid ul-Fitr. It was pushed back from Tuesday October 24 to Wednesday October 25 because you couldn't see the moon on Monday night (apparently it was cloudy and the new moon marks the beginning of the month after Ramadan...)

I spent Eid day with Shefali and her family. In the morning both Shefali and her sister-in-law, Lily, invited me to have breakfast with them. So, I first went up to Shefali's house where I had a very yummy breakfast comprised of very sweet, greasy fried things. "Mishti" is apparently the Bangla word for sweet and I certainly had a lot of that! It was great though, since I LOVE sweets - like dessert for breakfast! Then, I went down to Lily's house and had tea. They tried to get me to eat more sweets, but I just couldn't manage to eat more.

The Eid tradition is to exchange gifts before the Eid feast (several days before usually), but I brought a gift for Shefali (a blue silk sari) and a gift for her family (a basket of fruit) when I went for breakfast. I also gave small toys to children all throughout the day.

After the second breakfast, I went back to my apartment to rest, which was a good thing since my stomach was not happy with me for eating all of the sweets that morning! Then, lunch came around and I went back upstairs to Shefali's for the main Eid feast. The entire family was present this time. The children, younger family members, and servants ate on a mat on the floor while the older members and the men ate at the table. The food was delicious! There were all kinds of chicken and beef curries, shobji (mixed vegetables) and of course, sweets again for dessert. I made the mistake of taking larger portions initially. I found out that it is better to take smaller portions and then have several helpings than to take one larger portion. This way, your host/hostess gets the satisfaction of repeatedly serving you! If you only take one serving, they think that you do not like the food!

After the feast, I went back to my apartment to rest again. Later, Shefali came down and took me out with her to visit a friend. Apparently, the morning of Eid is for family, but the afternoon is for visiting friends. The one friend that we visited told us that she was booked for the next three days with visits to friends! Eid day some of her friends were coming to her and the two days after she was travelling to visit friends. Many Bangladeshis also travel to see family during this period. I was fed more food at Shefali's friend's house. Her friend was a great cook (and preferred to cook herself, rather than having a boua cook it.) She gave me some of desert to take home. (It tasted a bit like a very soft, chewy peanut brittle without the large peanuts in it...)

It was a great experience! I am very grateful to Shefali for letting me spend it with her family. I missed out on Iftar this year, because I arrived too late, but hopefully I will get to experience that next year. Iftar is the daily meal of fried foods that the family eats after sunset. At the start of Ramadan, Muslims have a large feast. Then, during the holy month of Ramadan, they eat a large breakfast before the sun rises. (A guy comes around all of the streets at 4am with a loud horn yelling at people to get up - I don't miss that!!) Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink (even water) during the day. Pregnant women and the infirm are exempt from fasting. Then, after the sun goes down, they have Iftar which is the traditional fried meal. I believe the foods are fried for the additional calories...

Eid is the beginning of the month after the month of Ramadan; this is when the fasting ends. The end of the fast is celebrated with the large feast which I described above...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 22, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Yesterday I decided to go to the New Market to buy some household items (towels, hangars, etc.) that I needed. I knew that it would be busy because Eid, the end of Ramadan, is on October 24th. Eid seems to be the Islamic equivalent of Christmas. Everybody goes home to their families in the villages outside of Dhaka. They prepare a very large feast and gifts are exchanged. The typical Eid gift is an item of clothing - saris, shirts, shoes, jewelry, etc. These gifts are usually given on the week leading up to Eid so that the recipient can wear the new clothes on the holiday. Consequently, this past week has been like last-minute Christmas shopping at Macy's in New York. There are so many people that you can hardly get in the stores. The traffic is also terrible (although it did let up a little after Thursday because most people left town.) Bengalis typically get Eid and the days after (up to the weekend) off. As around the American holidays, most people also take a couple of days before and after off as well. I am one of the few people who came into the office today... (The Bengali work week is also different. Because Friday is the Islamic holy day, the weekend is Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.)

Anyway, I took my first rickshaw by myself to get to the New Market. (The New Market is a large open air shopping center where bargaining is expected.) Because I don't really speak Bangla yet, that posed a bit of a problem. The driver understood "New Market" alright, because Bengalis use the English name, but when I bargained for the price, I understood myself to be paying 30 taka, the driver understood 80 taka. He said "pac" which I thought was three, so I held up three fingers, and said "pac" and he nodded at that. Well, about halfway to the market I seemed to be thinking that "pac" was really 8.... Anyway, I grossly overpaid, but arrived safe and sound.

The market, as I said, was packed to the brim with shoppers. Because I am a white woman, I was attracting a lot of attention and everyone tried to get me to visit their stores. I was able to locate many of the items that I wanted, and then utilized my bargaining skills to get what I felt was the local price. I am sure that I still overpaid by a bit, but I was able to significantly reduce the initial offering price. For example, I wanted to buy three bath towels. The original price the owner quoted me was 250 taka (about $4) per towel and I wanted to pay around 70 taka ($1) per towel. I ended up buying three for 227 taka.

A few bargaining tips:
  1. Assume that the real price is about 1/3 to 1/2 of what they initially say.
  2. Do not smile or look overly interested in an item.
  3. If the vendor says it is "high quality" (which they all will), point out all of the item's flaws - i.e. it is very thin, I am not sure about the color, etc.
  4. Be prepared to walk away. Especially in a place like the New Market you will most likely find the same item elsewhere, so you can always start your bargaining over again somewhere else.
  5. Let them make the first offer.
  6. Make your counter offer about 1/4 to 1/3 of what they offer. (In some of the larger high end stores, the price is marked, so you might be able to get a 10 - 25% discount, but not much more)
  7. When you get close to what you want, they will probably stop bargaining down, so it helps if you start slowly walking away, or walk to the next table so that they have an opportunity to stop you. You are making a point of saying, "my final price IS my final price and I will not go over it." You should be prepared to go up by 5 or 10 taka at that point though to get the deal done if they do call you back.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 19, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Yesterday was such a great day! After breakfast, Shefali and I went to the office together. She put me in a room with three other women and then started talking rapidly in Bangla so I didn't understand what she was saying. I had asked her if there was a place where I could check my e-mail, and she took me to that room where there were three computers. I thought that I was supposed to use one of them, but there were three women in the room using those three computers. One of the women let me borrow her computer to send off a quick e-mail to everyone to let them know that I arrived in Dhaka safe and sound. After that though she had to go back to work, so I just sat there a bit confused.

About a half an hour later, another woman came in and told me that my office was ready. I had no idea that I was even getting an office, so I was pleasantly surprised to not only get an office to myself, but to get a corner office with air conditioning (which is rare here)! So I now have easy access to a computer and the internet...

I spent the first half of the afternoon getting settled in, and then a woman came by and told me that lunch was ready. Apparently, for about 50 cents a day I get a nice, home cooked lunch by the office cook! The food was fantastic! Initially when they took me downstairs, there were only about 6 or 7 men there eating. I was surprised that anyone was eating since it is Ramadan and Muslims are fasting. Perhaps the men were Hindu... As I was finishing my lunch, two women came down to eat too. One, Yasmin, is Muslim, but pregnant, so she is allowed to break the fast. The other, Teresa, is Catholic, so she doesn't observe Ramadan. They both spoke English, so I chatted with them for awhile. They both said that they loved my sari. In fact, my saris have been getting quite a bit of attention. Apparently a sari is a more formal outfit here and is worn mainly by older and professional women - it is the Bangladesh equivalent of a suit in the business world. Most of the younger people wear shalwar kameez...

After lunch, I went upstairs to work for another hour, and then Shefali stopped by and she took me shopping! I only brought three saris with me (thank you Thevaki for helping me buy them!) and only one of my blouse pieces was wearable (one other still needed to be sewn and the other one was too small in the arms...) I intended to also buy a few shalwar kameez too, but I was just really drawn to the saris. The fabrics were so beatiful. It is funny, because I said that I really was looking forward to wearing bright colors, but when I look at the saris (6!) that I brought home, they are all still kind of neutral colors. The store that we stopped at did not have a very large selection of brighter saris. All of the saris that I bought were cotton, which is very practical for daytime wear. This weekend I think that I will buy more saris and a few shalwar kameez...

The lifestyle here is actually fantastic! Having servants will take a bit getting used to though. The doorbell rang yesterday and I went to answer it when my boua (maid) rushed in front of me to get it. Shefali asked me if I wanted a ride to work yesterday. When we went downstairs to her car, she got in the back and her driver opened the door for me! When I arrived at work, a woman was waiting there to get me some tea. Another one took my order for lunch, and a third person went upstairs to clean my office. It is actually really nice to have help with all of the little stuff. Not only has it helped ease my transition, but I can see how it would make me much more productive. I think I could get used to this VERY easily!!

Some cultural observations for the day:

  1. Everybody here eats with their right hand (not the left, because that is used for washing in the toilet).
  2. Talking with your mouth full seems to be culturally acceptable
  3. There are THOUSANDS of people here!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 18, 2006
Place: Dhaka

After a few more Biman delays, I did eventually get on the plane to Dhaka. Here are a few interesting observations about my flight:
  1. On the plane, before the safety instructions, they played a prayer to Alla in Bangla (with English subtitles).
  2. On the Disembarkation Card, I had to enter either my husband's or my father's name.
  3. The girl sitting in front of me vomited everywhere. Why do I keep sitting next to vomiting people?
  4. They played a video at the end of the flight with very explicit instructions of what to do after landing - how to fill out the forms, where to go in the airport, what transportation is available into the city, where you can shop, etc.
  5. 90% of the passengers on the plane were male; 85% percent of the people in the airport were male. In a country with 140 million people, there have got to be more women somewhere! I am making it my mission to find out where they are hiding!
  6. People kept bringing their children up to me and asking me if I would look after them for a couple of minutes while they went to get a cart, etc.
When I arrived in Dhaka, Sajal, a representative from the US Embassy, met me. He expedited my passage through immigration and customs, which meant that I did not have to wait an hour in line to get my passport stamped nor did I have to pay a large duty to bring all of my electronic equipment into the country. (Thank goodness for Sajal!)

The traffic on the way to Shefali's house was really bad - like New York at rush hour - because it is still Ramadan and everybody leaves work between 3:30pm and 4:30pm to be home for the 5:40pm meal. (I arrived at 3:30pm.) During Ramadan, Muslims eat breakfast around 4:30am and then fast until sunset. At 5:30-6pm they then eat fried foods (apparently for the calories.) The big feast that ends Ramadan is in a week on October 24th...

After having to ask a few people for directions, we were finally able to find Shefali's house. Apparently, she owns the whole building, and lives on the top floor. Her family leaves on the 3rd and 4th floors, and she rents out the second floor to students. She was still at work when I arrived, but I met the two other women who live in the apartment that I will be living in (until I can find my own place) - Emily and Hanako. Hanako is Japanese and she is simultaneously learning English and Bangla. I spoke a few words of Japanese to her and she said that she would help me with my Japanese and Bangla.

Emily's friend Kaylie also stopped by for a visit. Emily and Hanako made us dinner and then they shared some tips and tricks with me on how to get around in Bangladesh and where to find things. As they were preparing dinner, the lights went out. Apparently, the electricity goes out 4-5 times a day here. (It went out again this morning too...) It came back about 20 minutes later though. We ate dinner by candlelight. I joked that it was very nice of Emily and Hanako to provide a candlelight dinner for my arrival!

Around 8:30pm Shefali came downstairs to meet me. We were both very happy to finally meet in person! As I was very tired, we only talked briefly, but she invited me to have breakfast with her this morning.

At 8am, I went upstairs to her apartment and we had a lovely talk about our goals and living in Bangladesh. She took me to her office with her. I initially thought that there might be some difficulty getting me access to the internet, but I just misunderstood as they were speaking in Bangla instead of English. I was actually just waiting for my office to be cleaned! Shefali has kindly given me my own airconditioned office with a computer! I am quite happy!

I just downloaded Skype onto this computer, but I need to get another headset, because my old one was damaged in transit. (Actually the guy at the airport hotel that I stayed at dropped the suitcase with all of my electronics that I had very carefully carried with me all over southeastern Asia! I was very upset. I am hoping that the only thing that was damaged was the headset...)

Anyway, this afternoon I am just getting settled in. Then Shefali is taking me shopping! I got to wear one of my saris today. Airport security confiscated all of my safety pins, however, so when I went up to Shefali's for breakfast, she gave me some pins and helped correct the fit of the sari. I really like wearing saris! I feel so pretty!

This week I will work on putting the rest of my photos from my vacation together...

Trip: Thailand - Part Deux
Date: October 16, 2006
Place: Champhon to Bangkok

My journey to Bangladesh began on a trash boat. The boat is also known as the "Night Boat" to Champhon. In fairness, the trash was on the other side of the boat and they did put mats on the floor so that we could lay down... The night boat left Koh Tao at 10pm and arrived on a dark, deserted pier at 3:30am. I was told that the bus to Bangkok would pick me up at the pier, but the ticket they gave me said the bus left at 7am! I decided to take the night bus so that I could get one more day of snorkeling and relaxing on the lovely, quiet beach, but had I known that I would have had to fend for myself in the dark for 3 and a half hours, I might have made a different (and more comfortable!) decision.

Thankfully for me, a young British gentleman also took the night boat. (There were only two westerners, a handful of Thai crew, and of course, the garbage on the boat.) The Brit waited with me on the dark, abandoned pier for his visa run bus. (Foreigners who work in Thailand often do it on a tourist visa. Consequently, they need to make a "visa run" to the Burmese border every 30 days to leave the country and renew their Thai tourist visa.) Around 5:30am his visa run bus came and the driver (after a bit of negotiation) of his bus took me to the place where I was really supposed to catch the bus to Bangkok. As I was chatting with the British gent, he told me that after he bought his ticket he found out that there was another night bus that had beds that left at the same time as ours. Sure enough, the visa run bus picked them up at 6am from a different (and not so dark nor so deserted pier). If we had taken that boat we would have gotten beds and two and half more hours of sleep!

Anyway, I got on the local bus to Bangkok. I tried to sleep most of the way there, but unfortunately, unlike when I was a child, I now have difficulty sleeping in moving vessels-especially if I am sitting up (or lying on the rock hard floor!) My bus finally arrived in Bangkok at 3:30pm and then it was the usual hassle with the taxi drivers. I did eventually find a guy who was willing to give me meter rates though (which were about 1/5 the price of what the guys whose “meters were broken” tried to charge me…) We went to the Grand Hyatt to pick up my bags and then off to Bangkok’s new airport.

I repacked my bags at the airport, took a sponge bath in the ladies’ toilet and changed into a clean shirt. I then waited to check in. After several hours of waiting, I found out that my flight was delayed until tomorrow morning! I am not terribly upset about this particular turn of events, however, as it means that I will have a chance to sleep and shower before I meet the woman that I will be working with for the next year. Also, the airline has kindly put me up in a nice hotel with meals and transportation back to the airport included.

So tomorrow, hopefully my attempts to get to Bangladesh will go a bit more smoothly…

Monday, October 16, 2006

Trip: Thailand - Part Deux
Date: October 12, 2006
Place: Koh Tao

Today is my third day on Koh Tao. I was a bit disillusioned at first, because the plan was to spend a week on the beach relaxing before I head off to Dhaka, but there was no beach at my resort! (Well, technically there is, but it is only 1-5 feet deep depending on whether it is low or high tide…). Also, EVERYONE here smokes! Yuck! I haven't had a breath of fresh air in two days! I chose Scuba Shack because the diving is supposed to be very good here and a guy that I met on the way to Phnom Penh recommended it. He was right about the good diving and cheap rooms, but he neglected to mention the drunks who party in front of your door until 4:30am. I think that he may have been a "vomiting drunk" himself, so perhaps drunken brawls are his thing… As for me, I was hoping for some peace and quiet, and I definitely haven't found it here!

Consequently, today I rented a scooter so that I could look for a beach. Unfortunately, the roads here are about as bad as the other places that I have traveled. They have one decent paved road on the island, but all of the other rods are dirt, sand, and gravel (or boulders, depending on the road!) Like many tropical islands, this one has a big hill in the center. Thankfully, the rain didn't start until later today so the roads were still fairly dry (apparently the rainy season in the south starts in October! In the north, the rainy season ends in October…) Anyway, I was driving along and the road became more and more treacherous (photos to come). Sadly, I had another wipeout, again damaging my poor right leg which had just healed from my Sukhothai wipe out and the second degree sunburn I got on my way to Siem Reap. I was determined to find a beach though, so when the road became so treacherous that I wasn't sure that I could even walk it in flip flops, I parked the bike on the side of the road and started to walk down. A few meters down I saw a large, bright green snake in the middle of the road! It wasn't very fat (only about ½" diameter), but it was a good 4- 5 feet long. I carefully circumnavigated the snake and continued down the hill. Once at the bottom, I realized that I left my key in the scooter! So I climbed back up (dodging the snake again), grabbed the key and then went again to the bottom of the hill.

To my dismay, the road did not lead to the beach! It did lead to some very steep stone stairs, however, so I went down those, going through what looked like someone's house, until I got to the bottom where there was a real beach! Plus, it was REALLY quiet! (Probably because it is next to impossible to get to!) I then rinsed out my wounds and applied Band-Aids while resting in the shade (I was DRENCHED in sweat when I arrived.) I spoke with a guy who was staying there and asked him if there were any drunken brawls. He laughed and said, "no," and told me that there were only 4-5 people on the beach. This resort, New Heaven Huts, has bungalows with beach views for very reasonable prices ($10 a night). So I spoke to the manager and he said that he had a room. I was going to spend a couple of more days at my place for the diving, but then I found out that New Heaven also has a dive shop just a couple of doors down from where I am staying. I then asked the manager if he had hammocks. When he said "yes", I was totally sold. I would have checked in today, but I had already missed the checkout time for Scuba Shack. Tomorrow, however, all I need to do is take my bags down to their dive shop and they will pick me up by boat. (Much better than the treacherous hill…)

After that was settled, I unfortunately had to climb back up the treacherous hill, and then I had to get my motorbike up it which was almost impossible. Suffice it to say, I will definitely not be scooting on anymore dirt roads anytime soon!!

My next task was to find a plane ticket to Dhaka. This also proved to be quite a challenge. The fifth travel agent that I spoke to was willing to book the ticket. The next obstacle was the fact that Bangladesh Airlines only flies a couple of days a week, so I could either leave on October 16 th (2 days before I wanted) or on October 20th (2 days after). I chose the 16th because it had an evening flight.

The next challenge was to find transportation to Bangkok. I wanted to leave at night on the 15th so that I wouldn't have to forfeit another day of vacation. This left the Night Boat as my only option. I will take the boat to Champuthon and then a REALLY long local bus ride to Bangkok. I leave Koh Tao at 11pm on October 15 and arrive at 3:00pm on October 16th in Bangkok. After that, I will pick up my bags at the Hyatt Grand Erawan and beg the manager to let me take a shower in the health club. I will then repack by bags and head to the airport. My flight to Dhaka doesn't leave until 10pm on the 16th, so I should have time. Thankfully, I will have a State Department car waiting for me when I arrive!

Anyway, tomorrow I should be on my way to Zen…

Oh! Speaking of Zen, Scuba Shack does have two really nice things going for it. First, the food is excellent and cheap. Second, they have a massage parlor right on the water! My first day here I got a massage (for Heather!) and tonight I got another massage (for me! I figure I deserve it after today…) just as the sun was setting. It was fabulous!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Trip: Cambodia
Date: October 8, 2006
Place: Siem Reap

I just spent the past three days exploring the ruins at Angkor. They are really amazing, but interestingly, not as large as I thought they were. There are tons of ruins (over 300 temples), but none of the temples in itself is very large or expansive. I would compare it more to Tikal in Guatemala than to Macchu Pichu in Peru... That said, the carvings are absolutely amazing - much better than on any other ruins that I have seen. One temple in particular, Banteay Srei, has carvings that are so sharp and detailed they look like they were done by machine instead of by hand.

My favorite temples so far have been the ones that are still partially immersed in the jungle. If it weren't for all of the tourists, it would feel like you just stumbled upon them while hiking in the woods. At points I definitely felt like Indiana Jones, hopping from one stone to another in order to avoid the vast quantities of water that surround the ruins (the rainy season just ended...)

I think that perhaps I built Angkor up so much in my head, that reality could not live up to my expectations. I also think that I am starting to get a bit weary from traveling and that I have already seen tons of temples... Plus, my guide, who was a really nice guy, was not a fantastic guide. His English was mediocre and he only had basic knowledge of the temples. Consequently, he wasn't able to answer most of my questions. I was really hoping to learn more about the Khmer culture and what the buildings were used for, but I didn't really get that from him. Finding a guide in a foreign country is difficult unless you have a personal recommendation from someone I think. I asked for someone who was very fluent in English who had studied the ruins, but I would not say my guide fit that bill. He was a very positive, happy person, however, who was able to usually anticipate my needs for breaks and so on.

I was debating whether I should take the boat to Battenbang (Cambodia) tomorrow or just take the bus back to Bangkok and then the boat to Ko Tao as I originally planned. I heard very good things about the boat ride, but I am still quite sunburnt from my boat trip to Siem Reap. (I must have forgotten to put lotion on one of my legs, because I burned it so badly that I couldn't stand on it for the next two days. Thankfully - and bizarrely - walking was fine, it was just standing still that bothered me...) Plus, as I said, I am getting a bit travel weary. I don't know how those people who are on the move for an entire year do it! I met a lawyer who was traveling the world too, but she was doing it in two month chunks. She would travel for two months and then go home for three months. I think that is my preferred strategy! I am ready to relax for a week and then head on to Bangladesh where I can rebuild my home base...

Oh! And my camera broke!! I was so upset! It is less than a year and a half old, and my first day at Angkor the shutter button came off! Thankfully, there was a camera repair place in town who was able to fix it. Then, the next day, my camera gave me the message that there was no memory card installed even though there definitely WAS a memory card in the camera. We took it back to the camera place and they fixed it again. I was really annoyed though! This is definitely the last time that I am buying a Sony product. I have had so much trouble with their stuff and of course it breaks just after the warranty period ends! My laptop computer was the same way. Don't worry, I did get pictures of the Angkor temples, but I really had to work for them!

Sorry for the negative tone of the blog. I really am having a good time, I am just very tired today...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Trip: Cambodia
Date: October 5, 2006
Place: Siem Reap

I made it to Siem Reap today (by boat!) Going by boat was definitely the right decision! It was absolutely beautiful! I am now completely resolved to do a Mekong boat tour the next time that I am here, even if I have to charter all of the boats by myself!

The boat itself was a bit funny. It was a medium-sized covered boat with air conditioning. There was no outddoor seating, but the inside was so dingy (the windows were so old and dirty that you could hardly see out and it smelled like mold) that nobody wanted to sit inside, so we all sat on the roof of the boat! The breeze and view were lovely...

At first, I was afraid that it would rain again today (my plans to see the Killing Fileds were thwarted yesterday by another torrential downpour...), but it just sprinkled for about five minutes and then it cleared. We left at 7am, so I had the opportunity to see all of the little villages along the river in the golden early morning light. It was just beautiful!

When we finally got to the Tonle Sap lake, it felt like we were on an ocean, because the lake is so large (100 miles long by 30 miles wide during the rainy season) that I couldn't see land anywhere! Apparently the Tonle Sap is one of nature's more unusual attractions. Each year, the Mekong reverses its course due to excess water coming down from the melted snow in the Himalayas. The water backs up the river and it flows into Tonle Sap. When the Mekong flows normally, it is a rather small lake with lots of islands, but at the end of the rainy season (which is now), the lake completely floods, growing four times in size, and drowns acres of forests. The leaves from those trees then become food for the myriad fresh water fish who live in the lake. (I heard that it is the largest source of fresh water fish in the world!)

The residents here have adapted to the annual flooding by living in floating houses. Each year their house moves miles as the lake grows and shrinks. Everything floats! The schools, the houses, the grocery stores, the gas stations... It was very cool to see!

After we docked (a few kilometers from Siem Reap), we were swarmed with people offering us tuk tuk rides, guide services, and guesthouses. They jumped onto the boat and were ruthlessly pursuing our business! I just finished rereading The Celestine Prophecy, so I was trying to follow my intuition and coincidences in selecting a guesthouse... The coincidence for me was that I met a guy on the bus from Don Khon to Kompong Cham who has a friend who owns a guesthouse in Siem Reap. The guy lived in Siem Reap for several years and worked here as a guide. The price was right, so I decided to stay at his friend's guest house - Good Kind Guest House. It is run by a Cambodian family, and they are all simply charming!! The owner drove me to the post office in his tuk tuk when I said that I needed stamps, and the kids are just adorable! The guest house is clean and well situated too, so I think I definitely made the right choice!

Tomorrow I am off to Angkor Wat!!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trip: Cambodia
Date: October 3, 2006
Place: Phnom Penh

It looked like it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day when I left the hotel this morning, so I decided to rent a motorcycle today and drive south to see Phnom Chisor (Khmer ruins) and Tonle Bati (lake with fishing villages). Unfortunately, about a half an hour out of Phnom Penh, it started to downpour. I pulled under a tree for a bit of shelter, but the tree was small and it was raining hard. Fortunately, the tree was in front of a small Cambodian house and the woman who lived there gestured that I could come inside out of the rain. As I was getting soaked, I took her up on her offer. Her whole family was there - husband, daughter, and three sons. She didn't speak English, but we both spoke a bit of French, so we could make rudimentary conversation. I told her where I was going and she explained to me that I was on the wrong road. I then figured out (with the help of her son who did speak some English) where the right road was. By that time the rain had subsided, so I started to go. I had a few pencils left so I gave one to each of her children. I really appreciated her generousity. She didn't have much (baiscally just a one room shack), but what she had she was willing to share with a complete stranger.

I finally got on the right road and drove for a half an hour through the rain. I stopped by the road to again ask directions only to find out that I passed my turnoff. (There are no street signs here! In Khmer or English!) I was then very wet, so I pulled over to the side of th road at a little street-side restaurant to dry off a bit and relax my legs and head. (The motorcycle rental place didn't have helmuts; I heard too many helmutless motorcycle driver horror stories growing up from my dad, the ER doc, though so I bought a helmut before heading out. Sadly, it was not very comfortable...) I managed to order lunch without my speaking a word of Khmer and without the owner of the restaurant speaking a word of English. I somehow managed to get rice (another guy was having it, so I pointed to what he was eating) and something else. I don't really know what the "something else" was, nor do I think that I want to know after examining the bits of "meat" that were in it... There was a teenage girl who worked at the restaurant and she found it hysterical that I ordered and was trying to eat the Khmer food. She kept giggling at me...

Thankfully, I did finally find Wat Chisor. Unfortunately, that expedition took me all day, so I did not have time to go to Tonle Bati. It also rained all day! So much for my brilliant idea of going today because it would be sunny!

Just a few notes on Cambodia...

First, the ATMs here dispense dollars instead of riel, the national currency. Most people here prefer to be paid in dollars. I have found that dollars are the preferred currency in several countries outside of the US! (The Lao people also prefer dollars to their native kip.)

Second, motorcycles are EVERYWHERE here. I would say that about 85% of people drive motorcycles, 10% ride bicycles, and the remaining 5% drive cars. I have seen some strange things on motorcycles as people use them to transport things as well as individuals. Here is my top ten list of bizarre things that I have seen on motorcycles:

10) Family of five (mother, father, and three small kids)
9) Family of four and their dog! (who balanced himself on the handlebars)
8) A truckload's worth of freshly harvested rice
7) About a month's worth of groceries
6) A huge pile of bamboo sticking quite far out the sides
5) A large stack of bamboo bookcases
4) A large, glass display case
3) A barrel of gasoline and a little boy (the boy's father was driving... :) )
2) Live pigs
1) About 100 live ducks tied by their ankles to the motorcycle

Yes, you read that last one right! As I was driving home tonight I heard quacking sounds. I turned my head left and saw a motorcycle (two of them actually!) with about 70-100 live ducks tied to it!! It was one of the craziest things that I have seen!! I pulled over to get my camera and then sped up to try to get a picture. I took about four photos and then it started to rain so I put my camera away so I wouldn't damage it. I think that two of the shots got in the ducks, but one was far away and the other was blurry and off-center (hey! I was driving a motorcycle and had to use my left hand to take the picture!) I will see what I can clean up in Photoshop though, and will post the pictures on my website...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Trip: Cambodia
Date: October 2, 2006
Place: Phnom Penh

Well I finally arrived in Phnom Penh (though not by boat as I hoped!) It is actually a very nice city! I am staying in a fabulous little hotel right by the river. There is an internet cafe and an ice cream store across the street and a bookstore next door! (Which as you know is a VERY dangerous thing! I bought four books already!!! Is there a pill for this do you think?)

After driving for several hours through the Cambodian countryside, I noticed a couple of things. First, they have more paved roads than Lao. Second, the quality of construction on the buildings seems better than Lao - more solid. They live in the same style of wooden house on stilts, but the Khmer houses are more plumb and level. The Lao houses look like they were constructed from whatever was available; the Khmer houses look like they were planned. There are not as many French chateau-type houses here, but many of the stilt houses are painted; blue seems to be the favorite color.

I have received word that my poor sister is now working six simultaneous jobs, so I felt that since she was not able to relax at all, I had to do the relaxing for her. Consequently, I have been getting massages in all of the countries that I visit. Here is a summary of the various types of massages for your vicarious enjoyment:

Thai Massage
My favorite. It is like a combination of yoga and acupuncture. The masseuse folds you into different pretzel shapes and then applies a kneading pressure to your various pressure points. It is very relaxing and relieves muscle pain. You are fully clothed for this massage (they will usually give you a loose shirt and pair of pants to put on) and your feet are washed before they start.

Lao Massage
The goal of Lao massage seems to be to make your client cry (and my masseuse almost did a couple of times!) They apply extreme pressure to your pressure points. Mine hurt so badly that I was not inclined to go back! My masseuse was a very nice woman, however. As you have heard, I have mangled my limbs pretty badly while traveling (hey, I always say if I don't come home bruised then it wasn't a good vacation!) Every time she would see another cut or bruise she would give a little yelp and then would run and get her jar of smelly, gooey ointment that she would rub on me. It made my skin feel like it was on ice! She noticed I was freezing (since I was covered in the stuff), and so she kept putting towels on me like blankets. It was very funny... Like the Thai massage you are clothed in loose clothing and you get a foot bath before they start.

Khmer Massage
This massage is somewhere between a Lao massage and a Thai massage. There is no folding or stetching like there is in a Thai massage, but the pressure is much gentler than a Lao massage. It is medium pressure, sometimes with a bit of kneading, on your pressure points. You remove your clothes for this massage, but still get your foot bath. The removing of the clothes part was a bit unnerving, as your massage takes place in a large room with lots of mats where everyone else is getting a massage - i.e. no privacy! At least I kept my underpants on and the room was dark!

After my Khmer massage last night I had dinner at one of the little outdoor cafes that line the street next to the river. I really like Khmer food. It is similar to Lao and Thai food, but not as spicey. Most dishes are like a soup that is served with rice. Coconut milk is used liberally, and there does not seem to be much cilantro - thank goodness! For you other cilantro haters out there, the Thai word for cilantro is "pak ti", ("mai pak ti" to say "no cilantro"); the Lao word for cilantro is "ka pom tom"; and the Khmer word for cilantro is either "chi" or "won soy".

People come around here and sell books on the streets! At first it seemed like heaven, but then I realized they were all selling the same books - tour guides and books on Cambodia. Great if you don't already have a Lonely Planet guide though, as you can pick them up for just $4 here! There are also a lot of beggars here. I realized after dinner last night, that I did not really run in to beggars in Thailand or Lao... The children are the saddest. I gave out the last of my pencils today. I was really happy because after I repacked my bags before heading to Cambodia I noticed that I had two airplanes left!! One I gave to an orphan boy begging for food in Kompong Cham. He was so sad. I just wanted him to feel like a boy for awhile, and he really appreciated the airplane (others at the table gave him food.) The last airplane I gave to a little boy today. His mother was a beggar and he was playing with a can tied to a string! That was his toy! It was so sad to see and I was so grateful that I had one airplane left to give him. He was so happy and he and his mother kept throwing it back and forth to each other. I wish I had more airplanes!!! If anyone wants to send me some in Bangladesh, I will make sure they go to good homes!

This morning I went to the Royal Palace and the National Museum - both of which are right across the street from my hotel! After that I went to the Central Market to try to buy a new journal. I have my larger journal with me, but it is too big to put in my camera bag, so I also carry a small journal with me. My joural requirements are quite specific: it needs to be small (preferably 5"x7"x 1/2"although my other one was a bit smaller); it needs to have a plastic cover (otherwise it disolves when it rains) ; it needs to have unlined pages (I like to sketch and lines get in the way); and I prefer spiral bound books because they are easier to open. I visited the stationary stores at the market (which were small with limited stock). I did not find any journals that met all of my specifications, but I did buy one that is the right size with a plastic cover. Its pages are lined, but the lines are really light, so I am trying to ignore them... It isn't spiral bound either, but I didn't have any pages left in my other journal and desperately needed a new one, so I took it as it was the best that I could find. Oh, and yes, I broke down and bought some Khmer textiles. I didn't have them made into a skirt today, even though they told me they could do it in one hour, because the woman selling the cloth was being annoying about the price and I negotiated a better price without the sewing. I was thinking about having the fabric sewn into skirts in Bangladesh, as I know that I could get a good price there, but now I think that I may go back tomorrow and have the girl sew one skirt so it is done in the Khmer style and the people in Bangladesh then have one to copy...

I think that tonight I will get another massage (for Heather's sake...) and read one of my new books! I will probably be in Phnom Penh for two more days. (I am hoping to rent a scooter tomorrow). I did purchase a ticket to go to Siem Reap (Ankor Wat) on Thursday - by boat!!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Trip: Lao PDR
Date: September 28, 2006
Place: Don Khon

So far my attempts to take the Mekong down through Lao have been unsuccessful. If I had been willing to pay more, I could have done it. It would have cost me $30 to take the boat from Pakse to Champasak and $100 to take the baot from Champasak to Don Khon. By contrast, I paid (a heavily negotiated) $11 from the airport in Pakse to the ferry just across from Champasak; 5,000 kip (which sounds like a lot of money, but 10,000 kip = $1) to take the ferry to Champasak; and then 3,000 kip to my gueshouse.

The commute from Pakse to Champasak was actually a bit of an adventure. First, the tuk tuk picked me up at the Pakse airport (I have learned not to take taxis - especially the "official"taxis - because they cost much more.) He absolutely refused to negotiate down the $5 price from the airport to the wharf where I wanted to get the boat to Champasak. ($5 is actually VERY high for a short trip over here. It should have cost $1-$2...) He claimed there was a $2 airport fee. He did give some guy a ticket, but wheter or not there was an airport fee and whether or not it really was $2, who knows...

Anyway, we then proceeded to the wharf over the worst roads you can imagine. Picture a dirt road completely filled with potholdes ranging from 1.5 m to 10 cm in diameter and up to 20 cm deep. Now picture this same dirt road after a night of torrential rain. Yes, it was mud up to the middle of your calf in some places! The driver was going pretty fast too. I consider it a small miracle that we did not tip over! We finally got to the wharf and he went to talk to some of the men on the pier. I imagine that he was telling them that I was a rich American who could afford to FLY into Pakse, so they should charge me as much as possible... The guy from the boat came back and said that he wanted $30 to Champasak. (The guidebook said it should cost $6.) He wouldn't negotiate down, so I told the tuk tuk guy to take me to the bus station instead. He said he would drive me to Champasak. I asked how much and he said "$20" (this in addition to the $5 I had already paid.) I said "no, that I could get a bus for $5. He just refused to take me to the bus, so I spent the next 20-30 minutes (no exaggeration! I was really frustrated!) negotiating with him. I finally got him down to $11 including the $5 from the airport. (You know, it really isn't about the money - I obviously could have afforded a $25 ride - it was that I really didn't like being taken advantage of!)

So we drove back through the muck to a semi-paved road. Then, the motor died and the driver had to change the battery and tinker around with it a bit. At this point, however, I was just amused by the whole situation. The man's 5-6 year old son was riding in the back with me and the father (driver) kept yelling at him to hand him things like wrenches, etc. He finally got the tuk tuk fixed and we did make it to the ferry station in tact.

Coincidentally, the guy who took me from the ferry on the Champasak side to Anouxsa Guest House (on his samlo! See the pictures!) was the cousin of the owner! He was a very nice guy named Nom. I liked him as soon as he told me it was 3000 kip to the guesthouse. It was an honest price and he wasn't trying to "gouge the tourist" - a welcome change! His English was quite good and we visited for awhile at the guesthouse. Anouxa gets its name from the owner's only son. He had five daughters and then he finally got a son! The owner is a Lao native who lived in France for several years. The guesthouse is a charming little place set right off of the Mekong.

Champasak is a terrific little town. According to Nom, Champasak province, which is made up of 10 districts and 90 villages, has a population of 35,000. You would never know it was that big, however, as they only have one main (paved!) road in the town! The day that I was there I rented a bicycle and biked to Wat Phou which was about a half an hour bike ride and 12 villages (!) away. It was an absolutely gorgeous ride! I passed small wooden houses on stilts, rice paddies where people were harvesting rice, water buffalo cooling themselves in mud, and ponds filled with pink flowered lily pads. Small yellow and white butterflis flew across the road every 10-20 feet.

I happened to be biking just as school was letting out for lunch. (Lao children go to school from 8am-11am, then they are home for lunch, then back to school from 1:30pm-4pm.) There were hundreds of children on bicycles and they seemed delighted to have a foreigner peddling along with them. They would wave and say "hello"or "sa bai dee!" A couple of children practiced their English by asking me where I was from or what my name was. One little boy (who was maybe 3 or 4) ran out into the road as I was biking by. (I almost ran over the little guy!) He held his hand out and I thought that he was waving, then I realized tht he wanted me to give him "five". It was sooo cute!! Then his little sister ran out and she wanted "five" too! I gave them both "five"(a few times) and then I gave them pencils too. Lao children are ADORABLE!!

Mom kept teasing me about all of the presents that I bought for kids, but I have almost run out already of the things that I brought to Thailand with me. The biggest hit has been the tiny foam airplane gliders that I brought. (I REALLY hope that I did not bring them all with me on the road and that I still have more in my suitcases in Thailand...) When I went to the waterfall in Luang Prabang there was a small market in front of the entrance to the falls. There were several kids there and when I stopped to get a fruit shake, several of them came up to me and said "sa bai dee!"" I said "hello" back and then gave the girls some glitter pens and the boys the airplanes. It was clear the girls wanted airplanes too, however, so I assembled some more for them. Unfortunately, I ran out of airplanes and one of the older (maybe 7?) girls didn't get one! (I counted the airplanes before I handed them out to make sure there were enough, but another little girl came after I had counted them...) She was so sad! I felt terrible! I gave her another glitter pen and some colorful erasers, but it was clear that what she really wanted was an airplane... About half an hour later I saw the kids running through the market playing with their airplanes. Thankfully, the other kids were sharing their airplanes with the girl who didn't get one. They were so cute!! I took a little movie of them playing...

So Mom and Heather, I suggest bringing airplanes when you come to visit me in Bangladesh! They are light, small, and easy to pack. I think it only cost $5-$10 for a box of them and the kids LOVE them! Heather's idea of bring small stuffed animals is good too. The children here don't have many toys ( I have seen a couple of girls with dolls and one boy with a toy car, but if they have toys they may have 1 or 2, not an entire basement filled with them like American children) so they are really appreciative of them!

Anyway, this morning I left Champasak (there was no internet there, so I couldn't blog sooner) for Don Khon. I really wanted to go by boat, but as I said it was $100 to charter a boat. I tried REALLY hard to find other people to share the boat with (I shamlessly approached every foreigner) and I did find four other people who wanted to go, but they didn't want to pay $20. Nom did manage to find aother group of tourists who were going south by boat and I would have gladly paid the $25 (there were four of us), but they were going to Don Khong, not Don Khon. (Don Khong, whose name is annoyingly similar to Don Khon, is 15km north of Don Khon.) I backed out after Nom told me that it would probably cost me $30 from Don Khong to Don Khon. In hindsight, I probably could have found a cheaper boat, but it was definitely a risk. As a single traveler, you need to pay the price of the whole boat if there is nobody else traveling with you and I am on a strict budget!

I ended up taking the songthaew instead. On the songthaew I met four other travlers who wanted to go to Don Khong. We thought the songthaew would drop them off at the town across from Don khong and then continue on to Nakasang, the town across from Don Det and Don Khon. ("Don"means "island"in Lao by the way...) Unfortunately for them, the songthaew just went directly to Nakasang. We saw a sign for a ferry that said Don Det/ Don Khon. The four of them wanted to stay on Don Det and I wanted to go to Don Khon. The ticket guy said that the ferry would go to Don Det and then Don Khon. After we crossed the Mekong, however, the guy dropped us off at Don Det and then refused to take me to Don Khon! He said I should walk! (It was at least a 45 minute walk and I had my large backpack and small heavy carry-on with all of my computer equipment in it with me. Plus the path was incredibly muddy!) I was really angry! The boat guy on the island said he would take me for an additional $5 (the ferry cost $1.50). I was really mad because they were clearly tryng to take advantage of me, so I told them that I would walk. I then passed another guy who said he would take me for $10 which made me more angry! After 10 minutes of sloshing through the mud with two heavy bags, I met a guy who said that he would take me for $3. I agreed and he dropped me off at my guesthouse, Salaphae. Salaphae is actually right on the Mekong, so he pulled the boat up to my front (back?) porch and unloaded my bags.

Salaphae costs about four times as much as the other guesthouses around here, and I am still trying to decide if it's worth it. On the one hand, the fact that the bungalows are really rafts and are right on the water is great! On the other hand, I saw several other bungalows that were on stilts that still had a water view. Salaphae is an eco lodge, which is good in that I am not polluting the environmet, but the electricity does not come on until 6pm. The room is large and it does have a nice sitting area, but like most places around here the construction and maintenance is really at the same level as the backpacker level guesthouses. Regardless, I am a day ahead of schedule, so I think that I am going to stay here for two nights. Today I will just relax, tomorrow I will see the town, and then Saturday I will head on into Cambodia... (Hopefully by boat!)

One good thing about Salaphae is that they take credit cards! I am running out of cash and from what I hear the closest ATM is in Phnom Penh!