Trudgestan

He slipped his arms around my waist and pulled me into his body, the movement woke me and as I wriggled free and over to my side of the bed I silently chastised myself for being so stingy. I should have got my own room, I should have got my own bed at least. Being economical was a trait that had let me down before yet this tendency towards keeping my purse strings tied tight would prove in the near future to be the lesser of the shortcomings, taking a back seat and completely dwarfed by the supreme ruler: Absolute Stupidity. In my thick-headed mind I had placed Dick in the position of bufferer of sex advances and an entity to replace book at the dinner table. While he basically fulfilled his given posts he was a dull lad, lacking spark and personality but I was happy to continue to bare his blandness and live a life of no colour in return for the shield from male advances he unintentionally provided. Unsurprisingly Dick’s shield had some major holes in it, although it kept most of the general public outside my precinct of personal space it did little to keep out the con artists in the region. This was demonstrated by the two separate and unpleasant interactions in jewellery stores with shady men asking us to do dodgy deals. And as my plan caved in on itself I continued to persist in carrying it out.

Taj Mahal - I should've paid to go inside. (Wikipedia)

Taj Mahal – I should’ve paid to go inside. (Wikipedia)

Rajasthan was over-touristy, hot, dusty and full of Indians trying to sell me stuff I didn’t want. Gone were the Himalayan mountains and lush valleys, gone was fun friends and days filled with excitement, gone was any form of an upbeat attitude. My birthday passed in a whirl of shitty dust, the forts, temples and my tight fisted visit to the arse end of the Taj Mahal did little to catch my imagination. Why I made no move to change my social circumstances at this point I will always wonder. It was about this time I received the unwelcome news that Buzz’s cancer had grown back. I tried to believe that the anxiety caused by me abandoning my puppy had nothing to do with the regrowth of the growth although the timing told me it did. I pushed the guilt to the back of my mind and pushed on with my travels.

Camel Trekking in the Thar desert (Wikipedia)

Camel Trekking in the Thar desert (Wikipedia)

It was in the last few days of my Rajasthan experience that I discovered joy. I had finally found a friend and it broke my heart to watch the bright red blood ooze from my new pals nose plug hole, the injury was a result of the punishment he took after he decided to go on a exhilarating sprint across the Thar desert plains leaving the rest of the party eating dust. Through the rough disciplinary actions of our tour guide my camel winked at me and I hoped he detected my gratitude. We snacked on the fruits of monsoonal rains: green peas, berries and watermelons and I amazed at the dung beetle efficiency, so magnetised by camel poo that they had rolled it up and shipped it out within seconds of the digested grass hitting the sandy desert floor. At night I bathed in the pristine skies awash with glitter and by day lost myself in the daydream and gentle sway of my camel’s plod. The quiet hum of the desert heat led me to slip into a fairy tale trance until I was jolted by frenzied shouts. “Kick it madam, kick it!!!” I smiled and braced myself for another intoxicating dash through the dunes but as the camel suddenly slumped to the ground I leapt from saddle to narrowly miss a crushed leg while the hooligan rolled over in the sand. I ignored Dick’s roaring laughter behind me and thanked the endearing rascal with a kind pat for providing me with more entertainment than Dick was able to provide in a lifetime. As the trek came to an end and my heart eventually began to warm to the “land of kings” I was sad to be rushing off on the bus to Ahmedabad. But also I felt good times ahead and I was looking forward to the unceremonious ditching of Dick and some healing ocean swims off the west coast of the country.

A bus similar to the one I was on when Dick got my bags stolen (Wikipedia)

A bus similar to the one I was on when my bag was stolen (Wikipedia)

I was famished, we hadn’t eaten since the gritty curry in the desert at lunchtime and as the bus pulled up I offered to seek out sustenance. Now listen closely here folks  because this is the part where the Absolute Stupidity fits in. It was here that I left all my important possessions in the hands of a slow witted, insipid, con artist magnet. The four words that came out of Dick’s mouth next still ring in my ears today. “I’ll mind the bags”. Returning laden with peanuts and overripe bananas I find Dick sitting next to a great big, fat, hollow, empty space.

Beige had just left the building. Life had just became un-dull.

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Death defying freedom

Ladakh , Kashmir

Ladakh , Kashmir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emotionally I had moved on quickly. As soon as Morgan saw me onto the bus I had made a new friend and then I threw myself headfirst into adventure. Again, I luxuriated in independence.

White knuckled I glanced down the loose rock and dirt cliff face. Spine-chilling, cliff hanging hairpin bends led me to ponder if we about to join the unnerving number of burnt out truck carcasses that dotted the hillside. While my mind was caught somewhere amid the taste of adventure and the horrors of death my body was wedged sideways between a young French girl and a thigh bruising gearstick. And springing up through the middle were the fresh sprouts of freedom. Surreal and spectacular lunar-scape views ran across the windscreen, ice blue rivers, green grassed plateaus and a backseat full of carsick grown men. I was on my way to the 14 day Ladakhi festival in the Himalayan town of Leh but a few hours into the 22 hour ultimate endurance jeep ride we hit a road block. A truck had fallen into a hole. Surprisingly it only took 2 hours and some true Indian initiative for the cavity to be filled. Rocks, chipped out of the adjacent and unsteady mountainside were haphazardly thrown in the hole and eventually the truck was able to joggle off. This was the first of a string of delays including a landslide, multiple police check points and periodic spew bag emptying stops. Arriving at Leh in the middle of the night our driver had to comb the town for open guest houses, this added an extra couple of hours to his driving time, his stamina was phenomenal, my new head cold was not.

Me (left) in Leh with my jeep mates.

Me (left) in Leh with my jeep mates.

Resting after our first day of hiking.

Resting after our first day of hiking (me in the foreground).

I spent the first few days in Leh choking on the thin 3500m altitude and watching the slow and unusual traditional dancing, polo matches and music concerts. Acclimatisation never properly took hold before I brainlessly joined a group of seven, much fitter than me men on a climb up to the summit of the Stock Kangri (6100m), a really high mountain. Unearthly moonscapes made me feel like I was in a documentary in a land far away. I gasped, trudged and struggled up that mountain and at around 5000m the clouds parted and a message reached me loud and clear. I wasn’t going to make it. Moving my legs had become a really hard task and any type of minor exertion caused my chest to heave and my heart to beat wildly. I was completely ill equipped in equipment and physicality and turned back 1000m severely short of the mark. Heading back to my tent in the dark, I was alone, freezing and felt on top of the world.

To contrast the endless grey dirt of Ladakh I followed up my Himalayan adventure with a dousing of fresh oxygen and lush greenery in the Parvati valley. Although I’d only travelled a few hours down the road, one would have been forgiven for thinking I had entered Israel. The land was awash with Israeli backpackers and boy did I feel out of place. Mustering through the herds of Israelis I caught wind of a nearby ancient and remote village whose occupants were either the descendants of Aryans or Alexander the Great’s army, either way strict traditions and unchanged customs stood strongly in place. Rating supremely high on the interesting scale, I was supremely interested and wasted no time to bound my way up the 3 hour hill hike from a taxi drop off point which I made with my Israeli friend, Noa who I had been traveling with since Leh.

Malana (photo credit Indostan)

Malana (photo credit: Indostan)

Entering the outskirts of this mysterious and misty mountain village a peculiar energy hung in the air. The village itself was quaint but eerie and harboured large old wooden barn houses dispersed amongst the dense, green marijuana forest. There were signs everywhere not to touch anything or else face a fine which would cover the cost of the sacrificial goat needed to cleanse the object that had been contaminated with primitive energy. Steering close to any sacred site (which seemed to be most of the village and the surrounding forest) was met with wide eyed panic and yelling: “don’t touch, don’t touch”. After dumping our packs in the only accomodation available we set out for closer inspection of this bizarre place and walked straight into the middle of a full-blown funeral. A few moments of dumfounded shock was followed by an appointed detour-er who led us swiftly around and away from the ceremony. This unfortunate death left us with an empty village open for the exploring and what a magical place it was, mainly untouched by the modern world we kicked ourselves stupid for not carrying a camera. Purchasing from the town’s shop proved a novelty as goods were not allowed to be passed directly between us. Our shopkeeper therefore left our products on the ground for retrieval and payment was made in the same way. Groups of adults would part for us as we passed. Kids would squeal and run away, the older ones made daring leaps across our path, the youngest yelled obsenities. This place was undoubtably intriguing but it was obvious we were not welcome and thus opted to hot foot it out of there as soon as there was a break in the thunderous rain storm that took hold of the mountain the following morning. We weren’t the only ones waiting for a break in the weather, making our way back down the mountain we encountered truck loads of police on their way up. They made periodic trips up there to slash the naturally growing marijuana forest and conduct raids aiming at nabbing anybody caught making, buying or selling Malana Cream (hashish). Every few minutes we were stopped and interrogated by each troop but each time were allowed to continue on our way after we politely answered their questions.

Manali (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manali (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seeking a rest from the exhausting adventures I parted ways with Noa to relax in the peaceful town of Manali. Entering a cafe I saw him sitting there, alone, eating his lunch. I had first spotted him in a packed yoga class in Rishikesh, then at the Dalai Lama’s teachings, across the polo pitch in Leh and now five towns later in that cafe. I felt since we kept “running into each other” it was fitting to strike up a conversation and after discovering we were both heading to Rajasthan we decided to unite in travel. I’ll name him Dick, I don’t actually remember his real name and I’m not surprised I wiped it from my memory. What I do know is I should have never approached him in the cafe that day.

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The right path

I awoke to my second day of India and waited. I waited for infection to present itself. I waited for the outcome of contamination. Watching the peeling paint on the stained ceiling of my hotel room for several minutes I waited. I was finally led to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen. India was not going to eat me up like a flesh eating parasite, I was not going to die from ingesting the food. I would survive.

of Lord Shiva in Bangalore, India, performing yogic meditation in the Padmasana posture. (Wikipedia)

Statue of Lord Shiva in Bangalore, India, performing yogic meditation. (Wikipedia)

Survival, tick. Prosperity, not so tick. Sloshing about in the throngs of Delhi ignoring the weighty baggage I’d accumulated since birth wasn’t exactly going to get me that tick either. I had been lazying about long enough and it was time to find a way to offload my internal cargo. I couldn’t think of a better place to do this than exactly where I was, in the land of spirituality. There, I could stretch out my mind, body and soul with a splash of Indian inspired yoga, meditation and whatever other unknown obstacles or paths this country could throw at me. I pledged to keep an open mind and try anything new that hinted at a promise of internal peace or development. But it wasn’t only internal baggage I had been gathering I had collected a husband along the way too and I wasn’t sure how this development was faring in the whole scheme of my journey. I was stuck somewhere between a loss of freedom and a love of sharing. I had already escaped the partnered life to build up my strength, independence and confidence but had this new circumstance brought with it a new idea about what was most beneficial to my objective. It was nice to have someone by my side to share half of the travel burdens but nice was never going to lead me to greatness. I loved traveling with Morgan but I had to consider the underlying purpose of my journey. I was starting to feel like I’d lost sight of my aim and control of my destiny. Or maybe I was being silly fiercely adhering to my original plan, I had after all found someone whom I loved being around.

Rishikesh

Luxman Jula bridge in Rishikesh

I decided to ponder my predicament in the world’s capital of yoga, Rishikesh. Perched on the banks of the holy river Ganges it was the perfect town to host the beginning of my spiritual excursion. Opening with an icy dunking in the rivers waters to wash away my sins, I then sought out some yoga. My first class took place in a stuffy, damp and space deficient room and exhibited a lack of safety and yoga mats. It was a far cry from the Westernised version held in spacious digs on polished wooden floorboards and abundant with props and cautions of bodily harm. The unfamiliar breathing exercises had me clinging to the words “keep an open mind, keep an open mind”. My first meditation lesson didn’t fare any better, the short, long haired guru led the class, made up of Morgan and myself, by pressing play on an old VCR machine, the static crackly voice of an American guy did nothing for my ever wandering mind. I expected more from the birthplace of yoga and superpower of spirituality and I was fairly disheartened by my initial experiences. I decided to move on from Rishikesh and see if the Dalai Lama could give me some baggage relief.

McLeod Ganj main street

McLeod Ganj main street (Wikipedia)

After missing our train stop and traveling several hours through native marijuana forests in the wrong direction and back we hit the Dalai Lama’s residence. A peaceful mountain town called McLeod Ganj. It was was occupied by Tibetan refugees, tourists and a gentle Buddhist energy. I braved, numb bummed, through 5 days of His Holiness’ Bhuddist teachings, translated through a cheap radio and while the wise words of the Tibetan leader rung true it was difficult to integrate these ideas into real life. I played with the stray but healthy puppies, taken care of by the monks and did some early morning speed walking exercise to tone down the ever expanding ‘stop smoking’ mid drift flab. I also continued my daily yoga with classes that were a little more akin to the style I was used to (ie. we used yoga mats) but that I followed by sight as the teachers thick Indian accent had me searching for the goat I was supposed to be connecting with.

McLeod Ganj (Wikipedia)

McLeod Ganj (Wikipedia)

The tranquil atmosphere and fresh mountain air provided tonnes of deliberation time and after looking at my situation from every possible angle I finally came to a spousal conclusion. I had decided to divorce my husband for the life of solo travel. I was devastated. I was scared. But I knew I was following the right path. 

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First impressions of India

India is awesome in the true sense of the word: awesome |ôsəm|adjective Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear (or both!)

Paharganj

Paharganj

Exploding in my face it saturated my senses. Rapid and flashing movement, rackets of shifting colour, the air reeked of disorder. Hustle bustle rattle. Pungent oxygen bulking under humidity, it pasted to my skin turning my pores into craters gathering India’s sooty madness, my tee-shirted armpits drowned in greasy sweat. Horns clanged, bells clattered and plumes of spicy curries crammed into any spare breathing space. People occupied every inch of ground, they were lodged in every nook and cranny, the population had outgrown the land, there was no empty space. The Indians, they stared at me, chatted to me, squashed up against me, bumped into me, they wanted to shake my hand, sell me something, take my photo, touch me, they wanted my attention and they didn’t let up. The hounds were drawn to my fresh green blood, they sensed my newcomer discomfort, they were better at this than me, I couldn’t see outside my twitchy fear and they could read my mind. Friendly folk loomed as dark shady characters. Women, adorned in sari gracefulness glided over the dirt, sludge and slush that decorated the streets, they were immune, I was not. The filthy wetness crept into my shoes and up my bare legs, my feet merged with pavement. Splattered cow hides draped over protruding bones swayed to the beat of their own tranquil death drum they nuzzled the rotting garbage abandoned in the corners, their bloated stomachs filled with twisted plastic. Soiled shopfront windows concealed gastro inducing eateries, spots of black flies flashed through line of sight before placing their infected feet on every sticky table top. Colourful incense danced from doorways and drifted over the filth of carelessly discarded human waste. The horrific clamour of daunting roads shoved me to the bottom of the food chain, the thunder of a deafening truck tinkled by, sinewy muscles pumped the peddles of the next meal, black exhaust pollution spewed from homemade vehicles, buses filled to the brim weaved dangerously through the clogged traffic. A sick cow stood unperturbed in the centre of it all, it’s head slightly cocked to one side as though it detected a lone scent. Mange crusted street dogs timidly stalked the skinny laneways. Peeling paint flaked from crumbling walls. A flash of the rickshaw driver’s gleaming white teeth. How can he smile when he lives in this hell? I watched fidgety cockroaches scatter across the floor as my dinner was slopped down in front of me on a metal cafeteria plate. I can feel the stale urinals outside contaminate my food as the dead weight of the heavy meal lines my fragile colon, how sick will I be tomorrow? Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch overflow and burst at the seams with clutter. India exuded from every atom, even within myself. It battered my innards as it trickled inside me invading my cell walls. It seeped under my doorways and through my brick wall defences, it made my skin crawl and rocked me to the core.

Street in Delhi

Street in Delhi

One could never invent a place like India in the imagination. It had been explained to me many times and as hard as I tried to get some sort of grasp of what I was in for my mind only allowed for small unimaginative alternatives to what it already knew. After the first day spent in Paharganj (Delhi’s backpacker district) all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and wake up two weeks later after I’d had a chance to become accustomed to the chaotic commotion. I was utterly flabbergasted by this place, it was so old and dirty and completely rubbed up against my anal retentive ordered practicality. Still, I could see the plus side, as distant as it felt right then, I knew it was there expanding my mind and adjusting the barriers of my comfort zone. The pain of acclimatisation wasn’t going to last long, it was time to let go of my fears and open my heart and let the world flood in.

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Cambodge, Cambodian for Cambodia

I called Jules this morning, “I’m stuck on Cambodia” I told her. She provided a helpful list of possibilities of how to get my memory working but the problem is I did very little there. After a discussion of establishing my inability to spin a fabricated travel account we decided that a short post was the best course of action.

Ta Prom Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm Angkor Wat

I wish I could tap out a fantastic tale and tell you something amazing happened in Cambodia but in reality I would rate it as a low point in my travels. I wanted to blame Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge for my woes and although they can take credit for a small part of my missing mojo, blaming them outright wouldn’t be a completely truthful act. Immediately after crossing the border from Thailand my cheery state of mind haemorrhaged. Flocks of smudgy children and amputeed beggars surrounded Morgan and I while passing through the passport checks, dirty hands motioning to hungry mouths. The bus trip in a rattly shitbox of metal and tape (the windscreen and roof were held together with sticky tape) and the potholed road conditions from the border to Siem Reap were punishing. The clattering of my window was so disturbingly loud I ripped off the cover of my book and wedged it into silence. I became seriously templed out after only one day touring Angkor Wat, a temple complex where most people spend a week and while the sites were spectacularly magnificent something inside me had withered. In the capital city of Phnom Penh I was confronted with forlorn and pleading children who would conceal themselves behind the restaurant flower pots and whimper while I ate my hot nourishing meals. The city streets echoed with the calls of “killing fields” as tours were promoted to the location where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge. Local newspapers listed felonies far beyond the average city crime calibre. Present day reports were made up of victims being strung up, raped and tortured. These were the fruits from authorities murdering around a quarter of a population or causing them to die from disease and starvation. The aftermath of Cambodia’s horrific war torn history hung in the air.

Skulls of those killed by The Khmer Rouge

Skulls of those killed by The Khmer Rouge

I didn’t believe I was really being so deeply affected by history, it was significantly upsetting but not a reason for my gloom. In fact I think my gloom had made it all the more upsetting. I could have been feeling a lull after accomplishing so much good. Or possibly I lost my inner drive because I had Morgan beside me, to protect me and buffer me from beggars and touts and to make decisions. Maybe I was just prone to depression and this was likely to happen sooner or later.

Whatever the reason I had lost my appetite for adventure and growth and felt like resting. So I hit the south coast town of Sihanoukville and scored perfect weather for two weeks of lazying on the beach. This seaside break bore only one small tale worthy highlight. This was provided by the wiggly skin trails that carved their way through the soles of my feet. With an itchiness more intense than anything I had ever felt in my life I searched for a cure. It took two badly educated local doctors, anti fungal cream and another useless prescription before I decided to seek out an expensive Western doctor and get the correct diagnosis. Foot worms. Luckily I was restored to perfect health with a simple course of tablets.

Sinoukville beach

Sihanoukville beach

While I wallowed in the sun’s bliss, ate everything on the menu and played Scrabble I reflected on my trip so far and contemplated the next step. Bearing the armour of the sick, ripped off and hardened traveller I’d broken through my rookie jitters and accomplished some major achievements in myself. I was proud of my personal gains but really they were only skin deep and I had so much work to do on my flailing personality. I had slid into a comfort zone, I was bored and I wanted more. Unable to continue to rely on my glorious moments of sheer stupidity to keep me entertained I needed to douse myself in that place that frightened me most. To put my inner growth back in action I decided to go where many a traveller returned from with tales of powerful overwhelming and incredible sickness. The place that wore the shitting in my pants crown. I’d been informed I’d love it, I’d been warned I’d hate it and most of all I’d been told I wouldn’t cope. India, the epitome of culture shock. This was a place me and my needy character had to visit.

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Bangkok, no smoking please

440px-No_Smoking.svgIt was inevitable what was to come next. A smoking vegetarian was a contradictory statement of a person. It would have been senseless of me to tweak myself into improvement and ignore the main issue. It was time to face the big guns. Lodged next to my vegetarian mind niggle (deceased) lived a very loud and abusive heckler. For 15 years straight this individual spewed obnoxious insults at me all day long yet still somehow I managed to ignore it. This vile and lethal addiction which has inspired millions of intelligent people across all nations to purposely inhale poisonous fumes on a regular basis and providing them with not one positive element, had me in it’s convincing embrace and I felt powerless to know how to stop doing it. The incident that shot my stop-smoking decision into action took place on a sweltering day on a street corner in Savanahket, a town in the South of Lao. Flicking my smouldering butt into a gutter and exhaling a plume of noxious gases I looked up and noticed the innocent bright eyes of two young boys contemplating me. I felt a wave of influential impact surge out of myself and into the lads and I saw my cool, rich foreigner actions generate the dirty smoking disease in these poor young boys. I was OK with slowly suffocating myself to death but now I had been sucked into a vortex of responsibility and become aware of how I was influencing others I felt very uncomfortable. A feeling that forced me to consider change in something that up until this point I was unwilling to even try. That very afternoon as I sat writing in my diary I made a vow that I would never ever smoke another cigarette ever again. I screwed up my cigarette packet making sure I crushed the cigarettes inside and hurled it into the bin. Seven hours later I found my desperate self scrummaging through that bin looking for any part of a salvageable cigi. Seven hours! Shit!

Sunset in Si Phan Don

Sunset over Si Phan Don

The south of Lao didn’t disappoint. Lao’s Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) formed by the Mekong River was magical. I stayed in a basic hut and spent a lot of time reading in my hammock sitting on my own private balcony and overlooking the river, watching sunsets and coughing up a mere fifty cents per night for the pleasure. It was so peaceful, there was no electricity, I washed and laundered in the river, went for walks and gave advice to my guest house proprietor Mr K, who, new to the backpacking game, needed it. Surrounded by the village life, farm animals and Lao Lao, the dog who slept under my bed and escorted me everywhere I went, I felt completely at home. Although the island food was like living on greasy cardboard the coffee was scrumptiously delicious and I sucked down that sweet brown liquid as often as possible. Apart from the very painful bite  from a centipede in my bed and the fright of bumping into a water buffalo in the pitch black of night it was mostly uneventful. Except for one night.

Two days before my visa was due to expire and I was to leave the island I was invited to a Lao party by the big chief, Mr Cum. Arriving at the party I spotted Morgan from the UK, a semi-local who used the islands as a second home, and sat down beside him. Morgan was extremely good looking and we’d been spending a fair bit of time together. I daydreamed through Mr Cum’s prayer utterances while the rest of the party sat in a circle and watched. Candles were lit, more words were uttered, the Lao’s waved pieces of white string up and down my arms, tied them around my wrists and wished me luck on my travels. Being the only falangs (foreigners) at the party I expected the extra attention and was served up a celebratory dinner of, you guessed it, greasy fried rice. I snuck out of the party early to avoid drinking Lao Lao (the potent local rice wine – also the dogs name) and went to bed. The following morning Lao Lao the dog and I stopped by Mr Cum’s shop to buy some cigarettes and a one use only lighter and learnt the meaning of the previous night’s ceremony. It was a marriage ceremony and it was revealed to me then that it was I who was now married. I discovered later the cheeky, lovable locals were apparently serial foreigner matchmakers. How ironic to escape married life in Australia only to find myself unsuspectingly married on a river island in the south of Lao. Following this news I went to check on my new husband, Morgan, who on this morning was crippled with an ear infection. Considering the almost non-existent medical facilities available in Lao I decided to be a good wife and escort him to Bangkok for proper medical attention.

Bangkok

Bangkok

My initial itinerary skipped Thailand. In my ignorance I imagined it as a holiday destination jam packed full of embarrassingly drunk Australians tainting the traveller name. Upon arrival in Bangkok I was surprisingly impressed. The locals were lovely and everything looked shiny and new and modern. I dropped my hubby off at the hospital and, putting a feeling of being slightly off colour down to coffee withdrawals, took off to indulge in civilisation: pizza, cheesecake and as much western food as I could fit in my belly. We went to the movies, saw the golden buddha, took a boat ride, shopped and enjoyed. On the third day I awoke to, covering every millimetre of my entire body, including the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet, a very uncomfortable prickly red rash. Morgan took me to the hospital. After registering I entered the doctors office and lifted my tee-shirt for her professional rash inspection. The doctor’s shocked gasp and horrified expression was far from comforting and so was her diagnosis of bird flu. After several tests and ruling out bird flu (phew!) it was discovered I had a highly contagious virus needing only some cream and a few days bed rest to let it run it’s course. The hospital was 5 star and so was my husband, he fetched me food and encouraged me to go to the park for fresh air each day. He even read me stories and although I felt horrible it was awesome lying there listening to his gorgeous accent. One day he turned up at the hotel with a new book, Allan Carr’s Easyway to stop smoking. Of course I was skeptical but was more than happy to lie there listening to his soothing voice while he read the entire book to me. I smoked my last cigarette after he finished that book, an amazing feat executed with ease.

As I began to heal and tire of the big city life eating into my savings I was ready to move on. Leaving Bangkok I was rather pleased with my personal progress and even though there was still so much to improve on I felt myself fall into a slipstream of human upgrading. With Morgan by my side the future was looking very bright and I was excited by the world of possibilities that Cambodia held. What fulfillment was I going to be struck down with next?

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Lao, the place to be

I had just entered a new world. Far from the relatively hard nosed, stony faced Vietnamese I was met with a small population of adorable souls so laid back they made Buddha seem highly strung. They occupied a land riddled with emerald jungles flaunting lush flowing rivers, aqua lagoons, cascading waterfalls and colourful butterflies. Understandably it surprised me to find this little piece of heaven had been the most heavily bombed country in the world. Apparently, during the Vietnam war the US dropped millions of tonnes of ordnance and herbicides (and deny doing so) which still sat undetonated in the country side, parking a perilous hazard in front of every unsuspecting countrysider. The locals, owning few assets, living in very basic housing, subsisting on tasteless, primitive food and sustaining themselves with poor quality or no education sat unfazed with smiles on their faces and warmth in their hearts. I love Lao!

Arriving in the capital, Ventianne after a very uncomfortable 20 hour bus trip which included a three hour, 2am stopover in a secluded, white fluorescent bug buzzing truck stop and 2 x vomiting seat mates, I stumbled on tranquility. The change in vibe relieved my body accordingly, shoulders slackened, brow unwound, I exhaled.  The first two weeks I spent in the major cities and towns and soaked in the serene atmosphere while visiting Wats (temples), chatting to monks, swimming in rivers and waterfalls, kayaking, caving, hiking.

Muang Ngoi Neua

Muang Ngoi Neua

I then headed up north to a village named Muang Ngoi Neua. Inaccessible by road, I long boated it upstream excited by my potential future yet oblivious to the fact that the next few days were about to change my life forever. Stepping from the boat I headed inland and found the sweetest hotelier in the world, knocking me up with a ginger, lemon and honey tea she showed me around her rudimentary accommodation. My bedroom consisted of a mosquito net and hard mattress on the floor, no electricity and no shower but there was a communal western style toilet (no auto flush) which was negotiated in the dark and a garbage bin filled with water for washing. I opted for the river instead (for the washing, not the toilet). On my second day I trekked through the rainforest, sticking strictly to the tracks as I was warned to avoid losing a limb from an unexploded bomb lurking in the undergrowth. Famished, my German companion and I reached a village and went in search of some food. Coming upon two wooden benches and a table (a ‘restaurant’) we sat down and ordered some chicken and began chatting in awkward half sign language half simple English to an old lady who was weaving on the porch next to us. A commotion of chook squawks shifted our attention to our waitress who, wielding a machete, was running down an almost featherless, fleeing bird. As my unperturbed mate made no move to raise an eyebrow my very distressed city slicker self leapt into action. Hurtling into the dirt patch posing as a kitchen I cancelled our chicken order and set free the frail chick to struggle through another day. As I tucked into my bowl of noodles in ditch water I felt an inner shift take place. I had just become a vegetarian. Far from a whim decision the birth of my vegetarian mind niggle took place in Germany several years earlier. Touring around Europe in a VW combie van my companions and I ate vegetarian for several months purely for monetary reasons. That was until we stayed at the house of Bavarians who, truly immersing their Aussie guests in customary fashion, decided to cook us traditional and very meaty nourishment for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’ve tried this, gone without meat for a while and then crammed it in in ridiculous amounts you will surely know the corporal trauma it ignites. My mind never let go of the pain of meat and ever since, a poking herbivorous entity set up shop in a fold of my grey matter and most probably drew me to this very experience. An experience that snapped me into no longer being able to distinguish between a cute furry animal and a piece of flesh perched on my dinner plate. From this day whenever I consider that maybe I could eat meat my mind switches to a moving picture of me wandering through a meadow on a sunny day. I walk over to a healthy cow and as it’s wet, long lashed, trusting eyes follow me I take a bite out of it’s live hindquarter and acknowledge that eating animals is just not plausible. I have no idea where this brain film sprang from but it plays out any time I threaten to enjoy the wafty scent of a tasty BBQ. It was a big relief to finally deactivate that unrelenting mind poker but I became a little lost as to what I should feast on now. It quickly became apparent that out of major cities or towns my choices for food were eggs, fried rice or noodles usually swimming in oil and salt and sometimes graced with a meagre carrot or onion. Yet even though the food was rotten, I managed to pack on a couple of kilos with the intensity of carbs.

492px-Laos_Regions_MapReturning back to Nong Khiaw I took advice from a fellow traveler and headed to Xam Neua (about 13 hours drive eastward near the Vietnam border) adding another notch on my bad trip belt. The tuk-tuk did a few laps of the town, filled up on fuel, the driver dropped in to check on his wife and kids and after 2 hours dumped me 10 minutes up the road where a waiting bus took me another 2 hours in the right direction. Again, I was told to exit the bus and wait for another one even though I’d just paid the full fare to go all the way. I sat by the side of that road on a piece of bamboo for 12 hours until 1am. I arrived in Xam Neua dog-tired but energised by the awesome description I’d received of this place and went wandering. Unbelievably I discovered…nothing! In fact being so close to Vietnam the town had absorbed their harsh character and there was none of that Lao ambiance that I so loved. Thoroughly dispirited and vowing to never take advice from another traveller ever again I headed back to my guest house. Passing a motorbike rental shop, a lightbulb appeared above my head the sexy Brrrrrrrrrrrm of the revving engine lapped at my ears. I didn’t know if falling over in front of the guy who hired me the bike was a dead give away that I’d never ridden one before but he made no attempt to check for scratches and so I wobbled off. Before I knew it I’d hooked up with a Kiwi couple and we were all heading to visit some caves in Vieng Xai. Pelting rain and dodging the array of people, farm animals and pot holes was absolutely awesome and I arrived back in town at the end of the day frozen stiff with a massive smile frost bitten into my face.

Going full circle I returned to Ventianne and after scouring a Lao map I realised I had another half of the country ripe for the exploring. I extended my visa for another 30 days, I was on a bucket list fulfilling roll and this country was way to cool to leave yet.

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Off the beaten track

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Vietnam has be the easiest country to travel through, half a big toe outside my bedroom door and offers of food, transport, tours and anything of need flood in. At first I found these continual proposals irritating but eventually I came around to the fact that they were entirely convenient. However it did bring with it the knowledge that I wasn’t exactly trail blazing my way around Asia. Millions of everyday people travelled like me and I couldn’t help but feel that all I was doing was contributing to the Vietnamese tourist revenue. There I was thinking I was making groundbreaking life decisions only to find myself in the wake of a trillion others on a well padded tourist trail. So after I had a suit made in Hoi An, saw religious sites in Da Nang, visited war memorials in Hue, watched water puppets in Hanoi and cruised Halong Bay I stepped off the beaten path in search of some adventure.

Landing in the less touristy town of Bac Ha, a dusty little place in northern Vietnam with a ghost town feel, I hired a young guide with bad English to take me on a 3 day hike up into the hills. My intention, which I relayed to him, was to go where no other tourist goes. The following morning we climbed the highest mountain in the district and by late afternoon we hit our first night’s lodgings. A rural village where the inhabitants were shy and the kids too scared to go near me. At dinner time the semi-circular brood of the entire village’s child population found my chopstick horseplay thigh slapping uproarious. It was endearing to see the little ones so amused by my hardships yet I couldn’t help but internally rectify my humiliation by picturing the shenanigans of them trying to handle a beef steak with a knife and fork. It was a pleasant village but something about it felt touristy. I questioned my guide about this the following day as we wandered through the lush community trails. He admitted that tourists go there for home stays but then swiftly proposed to take me to his friend’s village along with the promise that it was a place where no tourist had ever been.

Hmong (hill tribe) women in Bac Ha

Hill tribe women in Bac Ha

His friend lived in a barn, a large, seemingly unstable wooden structure with a dirt floor consisting of lounge, bedroom and kitchen all in the one and only room and housing six dirty, snotty but happy and well behaved kids and three adults. Dinner was served and a feast, cooked in my honour, was placed before me, I sort information from my guide as to what exactly we were eating. All he could say was: “I don’t know in English.” I check to see if he knows the word for dog and received a very unconvincing yes. I decide to produce my photo of Buzz for confirmation. Laughing hysterically my guide snatches the photo and parades it around the room which instills further fits of laughter and intense conversation from everyone else. From what I could gather, to them I was carrying around a picture of a steak sandwich. My guide assures me this was not the animal we were eating. Failing having a photo of a cat I decided not to ask, I hadn’t seen any around but wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. Gingerly I crunched through my gristle while making failed attempts at saving my bowl from sustaining any further incoming sinew. I wash it all down with 50% proof corn wine that could knock the wind back into a dead animal and fascinated at the reliable bush telegraph that drew crowds to the house all through the night. Fatigued of being the centre of attention with little means of decent conversation I relayed my sleepiness and was directed to a wooden slab. I awoke to cooking fire smoke saturating my lungs and an aching body plus countless villagers sitting in a make shift lounge which had been set up next to my bed for better viewing pleasure of the sleeping foreigner. My stirring triggered an outbreak of activity and before long breakfast was put before me. I was embarrassed to decline the cold and gut wrenching leftovers from the previous night but our absolutely lovely hosts who were peeing their pants with excitement for the privilege of having a foreigner in their house did not seem to mind. As we set off, the entire village gathered, they supplied us with banana leaf parcels containing colourful three tone sticky rice and I was brought to tears shaking every farewell committee member’s hand. I was deeply touched by their amazing hospitality. I adored the experience and even though the rain poured in buckets and the tracks became an orange, sticky, muddy mess I skipped along happily and basked in adventure fulfilling glory.

Sapa

Sapa

Departing Bac Ha I made a simple mistake, bolting to catch the bus and forgetting my passport at the hotel. I’d arrived in Sapa, passport deficient and cradling debilitating stomach spasms that had begun an hour previously, no doubt originating from the unidentified creature in my dinner bowl the previous night. I had only planned to stay two days but ended up being there five, exorcising evil digested meat and waiting for my passport to turn up. After four days of putting up with my hotel’s ploy of prolonging my departure I donned my best worried look and threatened embassy action and within a few minutes my passport was located and delivered to my hot little hand a few hours later. Immediately I booked a train ticket back to Hanoi to then make my way over to Laos. The train trip was character building, the train station employee sneakily switched my ticket from the luxury, air-conditioned soft seat into a carriage with the poor of Vietnam. As soon as I boarded the train I knew I’d been duped. Scouring the carriage it became apparent my ticket’s seat number didn’t exist. I found a ticket inspector who placed me in a seat which I was thrown out of by a drunk Vietnamese man minutes later. Eventually I was pushed out onto the plastic kiddy seat in between two carriages. When the train got underway I managed to locate a spare seat next to a miniature, old lady with black teeth who, throughout the 9 hour journey, spat out the window spraying my face with red betel nut fluid and continually kicked me in my side while a metal bar and smelly feet worked on my back. The carriage was freezing cold, filled with smoke and the trip left me completely exhausted.

I couldn’t rightfully begrudge the trials I had experienced in the previous few days, I had specifically wished for discomfort and adventure after all. But this experience got me thinking, was discomfort the same as being out of your comfort zone?  And had I really been wishing for the thing that was going to benefit me most?

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Warm fuzzy blanket territory

Just to let you know the previous blog was 3 years packed into a couple of paragraphs, I’m not in the habit of breaking up with wealthy men and making massive life decisions every week. So let’s shift down a gear now as I release my finger from fast forward and hit the play button.

I’d always wanted to chuck on a pack and go wandering. Some people say travel is a good way to find yourself but I knew who I was, I was quite aware that somehow I’d gone through life avoiding any sort of emotional maturity. What I really wanted out of this adventure was to grow, this travel was aimed at pushing myself outside my comfort zone and as a result I was determined to become independent and confident and generally a better person overall. Traveling alone through S.E. Asia was undoubtably out of warm, fuzzy blanket territory and to ensure I plummeted head first into discomfort I disregarded a Lonely Planet travel guide and skipped booking a hotel or airport transfer and left it all to be organised upon arrival.

Buzz

I was devastated at leaving behind Jules, Buzz and my other friends and family but if this is what it took to follow my dreams, I was willing to do it. I told them I’d be approximately six months and left man’s best friend with a friend in need of companionship and my best friend all alone.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City it was 35 degrees and sweat dripping off your earlobes humid. In my mind I’d planned to catch a bus into the city from the airport but the steadfast taxi committee greeted me at the airport exit doors. After announcing I was only willing to fork out $5 for the fare one taxi continued his persistence. I expected the traffic madness and nervously laughed my way through the ride especially when we crashed into a road works sign and dragged it 100 metres with us up the street.

HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City

The first hotel was too expensive so I motioned for my driver to continue on, this resulted in an eruptive flurry of price re-negotiation and I agreed on a room for $10 Aussie dollars. It was surprisingly plush, aircon, cable TV, mini bar and nowhere near the backpacking standard I had expected. While the room was getting cleaned I dumped my pack and took to wandering the streets. Overcome with noise, smells and the overwhelming tout attention I eventually flopped down on a park bench, my first day of my momentous trip and I felt so anxious in this alien land that I had to wonder why I had come. I was approached by yet another motorcycle driver “Miss, miss, motor bike, where you go, I take you”,  I let him sit next to me and talk. He introduced himself as a tour guide and asked if I lived there as I wasn’t dressed like a tourist. I looked down at my wintery Melbourne clothes and told him I’d just arrived. I then burst into tears. As he saw dollar signs prop up above my head, I saw a sign saying “comfort zone” appear above his. I had just found someone to cling to and I was willing to pay for the benefit. In view of my discomposure he took me for a massage to a place where “they don’t look” (huh? they don’t look at what?) Oh the masseurs were blind. So there I was, almost butt naked, getting a massage by a blind Vietnamese girl in the first hour of my journey. I slept through most of it but at $1.80 it was a bargain nap and I did feel much better. Afterwards I asked to be dropped back at my hotel. “Which hotel miss?” Well strike me down as stupid, I had no idea. I was so submerged in fresh off the plane jitters that I’d altogether forgotten to take note of where I was staying. The next couple of hours was spent city street trawling. Looking for something familiar (it was all Vietnamese to me) and becoming very weary I was eventually and thankfully recognised by my hotel lady who was sitting out the front.

2400206a2568c1ad168e1c72f85e9382-Vietnam-Country-Map-2005Day two dawned and I packed up my stuff and got ready to meet my motorcycle tour guide for a 3 day jaunt around the Mekong Delta. While I waited to check out of my hotel it suddenly became clear why my room was so cheap. The taxi driver had told them I was staying for a month and had made off with a sweet commission, leaving me to deal with a couple of irate vietnamese women expecting me to make up the difference, which I didn’t. I was happy to get out of the hectic, polluted city and taken anywhere with less people and noise. My tour guide named me “Ook (Australian) who smokes” and was fantastic at showing me around and getting me settled in, teaching me some Vietnamese phrases and about the food and culture. After returning from the Mekong Delta I booked a bus ticket to Nha Trang, a beach spot 450kms up the coast, when I asked the guy how long the bus ride would take, he held up four fingers and said five hours. The trip took eleven.

Warming myself on the beach in Nha Trang I decided to ignore the tap tap tap on my forearm, the young child leading her blind mother was the third beggar I was approached by in the last hour and I was trialling a new method. Disregard. As the tapping continued I let my mind drift….clearly I had a great deal to learn but I was starting to enjoy this place that existed outside area easy. But does enjoying being out of my comfort zone mean I am therefore back inside it?

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The unconventional road.

One has to wonder that after making the decision over ten years ago to actively follow my heart and seek happiness in my life how I’ve ended up at the age of 38 living with my parents with an empty bank account, no career and a strapped up knee.

The decision to change my life came about when I found myself staring down the barrel of the conventional road: Marriage, kids, white picket fence. At the time I was living decadently in the tropics of FNQ* with my very wealthy boyfriend. We’d been together quite some years and as society would expect we were heading towards the next obvious step. But hell I was weary of what society expected (including my family and friends), it’s not what I wanted, I felt like I’d hardly lived and was barely grown up enough myself to have my own kids. I wanted independence, strength, confidence, I wanted to hold my head high and be proud of who I am.

It was then that I had found myself in the mind and body of an emotional wreck and needy person and I hungered for change. My mind swamped with possibilities. What if I took another road? What would happen if I threw caution to the wind and did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted? What if I quenched my bucket list thirst and abandoned the idea of marriage, kids, mortgage, career, etc for a life dedicated to fulfilling my dreams? This offer of freedom, adventure and exciting life experiences was unquestionably tempting and as I stood at this incredibly gigantic road fork, for better or worse, I made my decision. First I ended the 10-year relationship with the boyfriend (and did not pursue the $10,000 engagement ring angrily lobbed into crocodile infested waters). And secondly I moved back home to Melbourne to get a good paying job so I could stand back on my own two independent feet.

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Buzz dog

The next thing I know I’m on my parents doorstep with a backpack full of clothes (he took everything else), my emotional lifesaver of a companion, Buzz the blue heeler cross collie and a mountain of debt. It took me six weeks of gruelling interviews, tests and rejections to land a job in corporate CBD Melbourne. Not exactly dream fulfilling material but I had to start somewhere and I was on the right path. Eventually, I paid off my long standing debts, bought a shitbox car and a brand new bed (on the same day), found my soulmate best friend and new house mate, Jules and I could kiss any boy I liked on the Friday night dance floor. Life became a par-tay.

My feet began to itch about two years in. I had satisfied my immediate needs and just caught myself living the dreary 8:30-5:30 job life that I was desperately trying to avoid. So I told work I’m leaving and I’m off to Africa and I’ll announce my leaving date as soon as it’s all booked. I poured over every available African pamphlet, conjuring up visions of roaring lions, dusty safaris and mud-hut tribesmen and six months later found myself staring at the same old computer screen. As I toyed with tweaking ‘following dreams’ locations it wasn’t long until the universe made a shift to help me undertake this path I set myself on when the owner of my rental property decided to sell up. As my lazy old bones groaned under the idea of moving house, again, I impulsed my way to the travel agent and booked a ticket to Vietnam.

follow_your_heart__by_abiiii_x

Here is my journey, a journey of envy that you wish you’d done as I have, a journey of gratefulness that you are damn happy you didn’t, a journey of what happens when you take the unconventional road.

*FNQ = Far North Queensland but I prefer using the letters as it appropriately sounds like a dirty word.

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