Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The post you've all been waiting for - All About Thai Food!!

One of the reasons we wanted to come to Thailand was for the food. Sure, the beaches are epic, the wats are beautiful, the people never stop smiling, and you never have to wear more than a cute skirt and tank top, even at night. But let's be honest, food makes the world go round for Steve and I. Sampling the food in another country is an easy way to get to know the local people, the local language, and the local customs. We were excited to eat our way around the country, especially when we learned that the whole country basically eats on the street, at markets open day and night cooking up fresh, flavorful, and exotic dishes. We couldn't wait. It became even more exciting once we decided to explore the country on our bikes, which not only would give us faster access to those street vendors, but also appetites that would allow us to sample multiple dishes and desserts at each meal.

Abby: We began our journey in Bangkok, at Dan and Kim's place in Pleasantville. Pleasantville, is, well, pleasant, but the best part is that Thailand lies just outside its gates. With the much appreciated help of Bea, Dan and Kim's nanny, we were pointed toward the best street stalls and enjoyed perhaps the best Pad Thai and grilled fish I've ever eaten. It came with a spicy red sauce (akin to pico de gallo), fresh herbs, and leafs of lettuce. Bea taught us to take a leaf, fill it with the herbs, sauce and a bit of fish, roll it, and eat in one bite. Amazing! We bought a kilo of fresh mangos, a hand of baby bananas, and a whole watermelon home with us to complete our food victory. It was a good day.

Steve: A few days later, on our first day biking north from Bangkok, we had gotten a couple of hours from Pleasantville when I saw it for the first time: Rotisserie meat. My biggest weakness, dripping with glorious saucy juiciness on the side of the road. I slammed on my breaks, pranced up to the smiling Thai vendor, and asked her "how much for one?". Not that I cared how much it cost; there was no way I was going to pass up this slice of heaven, especially since I'd spent the last two months in Nepal, trying to be satisfied by the measly portions of meat that only seldom appeared on my plate. I sat down at the picnic table under her tarp as the sweat from my face began to make a puddle on the tablecloth in front of me. She followed with a huge chunk of roasted chicken, a delicious spicy red sauce, and a pile of rice. With a big smile on my face, I shoveled the perfectly cooked meat into my mouth, and swallowed it down with a Coke. Abby sat patiently, watching me devour my meal - she was still full from the fruit and yogurt gorge we'd had at Dan and Kim's before we left. I contemplated a second plate, but decided I should probably save myself for what might be around the next corner.

Abby: Eating has been a little more of a challenge for non-meaty tastes than I ever would have thought before arriving. In fact, I have to admit that after the first few days on the road I was more than a little bit crestfallen. Where were all of the delicious foods so prevalent at all the places at home? Where was the spicy eggplant, and steamed tofu, and brown rice? Of course I wasn't expecting the menu off my favorite vegan-friendly menu from home, but I wasn't prepared for meat in everything. I ordered a green papaya salad, it came with crumbled pork on top. I ordered a tofu stir-fry, it came with half a pig on the plate. I ordered a lemon soda, it arrived with a chicken-foot swizzle stick. It was becoming rather ridiculous. Steve was a happy and full tablemate. Finally, I couldn't handle it any longer and took matters into my own hands. Eschewing the menu completely, I walked directly up to the cook at one of our lunch spots, and began pointing to what I wanted and how I wanted it cooked. Lo and behold, it worked - gloriously! A plate of rice with a big pile of lightly fried veggies beside, all topped with an egg over easy. We were in business!

Steve: One word - fruit. Glorious, sweet, fresh fruit. It's available everywhere, and we've been indulging. Mangoes, bananas, watermelon, grapes, water apples, strawberries, pomelo, oranges, dragon fruit, plus a couple new ones. We tried mangosteen for the first time, based on a tip from a friend. It's smallish, purple-brown in color, and the inside is segmented and creamy white. It melts in your mouth, much like a ripe mango does, and has a wonderful sweet flavor to it. I've heard of it as a new hip additive to hippy supplements and health drinks at home, so we loaded up on them. Abby also tried dried longan berries, which she said tasted a bit like lychee or rambutan.

We also discovered fruit smoothies. You choose a mix of any fruit you like, and it's blended with crushed ice, and condensed milk and palm syrup if you'd like. The simpler ones are a bit more healthy, but the creamy, sugary ones are like thick milkshakes. Regardless of your choice, they are cold, cheap (20 baht, or about 75 cents), and amazing. At one night market, Abby ordered a strawberry smoothie. It was so good that she refused to share it, so I got my own. As I slurped up the final straw full, my eyes caught Abby's, and her nod affirmed my own thinking. We got a third to share as we wandered through the market, and tried for a fourth on our way home. Sadly, their stock of fresh berries had run dry, and I had to settle for a meat-on-a-stick snack instead.

Abby tried a banana coffee smoothie one morning after second breakfast, and was hooked. In fact, I was hooked as well. Yep, me, the coffee-hater, slurped down a coffee banana smoothie religiously every morning for the four days we were in Chiang Mai. I'm under Thailand's magical spell.

Abby: A magical spell, indeed! That shit's like crack!

As a respite from all of the water fighting in Chiang Mai over the Thai New Year, we took a cooking class. I really wanted Steve to go, seeing how he cooks 90% of my meals for me, but I was eager to tag along as well and see how many noodles I could burn. It turns out, you use as much oil as the instructor tells you and things come out great! We cooked pad thai, green curry, red curry, papaya salad, spring rolls, pad see we, tom yam soup, cashew chicken curry, and it was all shockingly easy. In fact, it was so easy that I really don't know why I don't cook more. Anyway, the entrees were spectacular, but the dessert is where it's really at. And in particular, mango sticky rice. If iced coffee smoothies are like crack, then mango sticky rice is like high-grade cocaine. I think.

Sticky rice is really common here, usually eaten with dinner. It's cooked plain, and tastes fine - like rice except sticky. However, pour some coconut milk and sugar onto it, reduce it to a gluey mess, and add some fresh sliced mango on top and you have arrived in heaven without any of the dying nonsense. I'm in love!

Steve: For good reason baby. My only complaint about Thai food is the portion sizes. The night stalls and sit down restaurants serve up cook-to-order cuisine for $1-2 a plate, but a plate doesn't fill me up. In fact, it doesn't even come close. It's partially due to the biking we've been doing, but as you all know, my appetite and willingness to eat large portions of food are legendary. At lunch, I need at minimum two dishes, usually a rice/meat concoction, and a noodle meat soup. Dinner requires three to four plates of food; sometimes the same dish from the same vendor, but often a sampling from several places. I like to think that I'm a grassroots investor in Thai street food, and I'm doing a pretty good job at it.

Abby: I disagree with my better half's erroneous assessment. One of the best things about Thai food is that they serve it in perfect portion sizes. You get a plate full of food, not too much, not too little. I'm always perfectly full after finishing my pad see ew or rice-egg-veggie or noodle veggie soup, never bloated. Occasionally I can squeeze in a smoothie or ice cream for dessert (ok, maybe a bit more often than occasionally), but that makes it even more perfect.

Steve: Perfection or not, too big or too small, what it really comes down to is that I'm hungry. Now. Let's go eat!

Abby: Gladly!

Note: It's probably obvious from the writing styles, but Abby's comments were written by Steve and vice versa. It's more fun that way.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Photos from Nepal

Here's a sampling of photos from our Nepal adventures, in no particular chronological order.  Enjoy!

Abby and Mary seeking out the sun during the January cold in Kathmandu.

Abby and Mary giving a lesson on head-to-toe assessments to an attentive Nepali nursing audience.
Maybe this bottle will help...
A monk walking past the prayer wheels at Swayumbunath Temple in Kathmandu.  The dragon's got his back.
Manaslu Valley traffic jam.

Heading over the Zatra La on our way to Mera Peak.  Our guide KB spent most of the 2 weeks with his hands in his pockets.  "You want to borrow a trekking pole?", we asked repeatedly.  "No," he'd answer every time, "it makes you reliant on them."  A 2-time Everest summiter, he doesn't want to get soft.
Noodle soup for dinner at Mera High Camp (5,800 m).
Football in the midst of the ruins in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur.
Finishing our Mera Peak expedition in style, with a foot of new snow.

Rhododendrons in bloom on the walk out from Lukla to Jiri.
The list of ailments was long and sordid.
Who loves goats?  Abby!  Abby!  Baby goats get additional love.
Mary spinning the prayer wheels on our way back down from Sama in Manaslu.

Andy with the snow-capped Manaslu Himal firmly behind us.
Andy preparing for a shave.  "Wow, that dude's about to put a razor to my neck."
A sunset view of the Annapurna range from Sarangkot, above Pokhara.
Walking through a rhododendron forest in the Annapurna foothills.  It really is as spectacular as advertised.
Sunrise over Macchapuchere (Fishtail Peak) in the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Abby going spoon shopping.  Her beloved Light My Fire brand spork broke in the middle of dinner.

"I just don't understand how any of us ever gets sick."  "Me neither, it's just weird."  "Moo..slurp..moo."

Morning puja by the teahouse staff in Sama, Manaslu.

Sunrise in Lho, festooned for Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

Fresh tomatoes and greens with dinner?  Certainly.

Annapurna Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary.

The owner of a snack shop taking a short break during the madness of Shivaratri at Pashuputinath, Kathmandu.  

Abby devising a plan to foil the monsters under her bed from the warmth of her sleeping bag at a teahouse in Tagnag.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cycling Journal #1 - Bangkok to Chang Mai

April 7
We're ready to start, finally.  Our bikes are ready, our bellies are full, and the loose ends are tied-up enough to let them be.  We hop on our bikes and pedal away from the comfort of Pleasantville and into the unknown.  Yesterday was supposed to be the start of our 2-month bike odyssey through the wilds of Southeast Asia, but we didn't end up getting around to it. There was breakfast to eat, and then the internet to surf, and then a swim in the pool, and then lunch, and then we were tired so we took a nap, and then we had to start thinking about dinner... exhausting all around, so we were much too busy to start biking. In reality, after 4 days straight of running around Bangkok trying to get outfitted for bike touring, it was nice to have a day just to hang around the house and not have to go anywhere.

So instead we leave this morning. After a 1 km swim in Dan's school's new pool, that is. He and two teacher friends are training for a triathlon in a few months, so he invites us along to take a plunge in the yet-to-be-opened Olympic-size swimming pool. It sure seems far swimming from one end to the other, but I make it, 20 times in all. I spend the 20 lengths trying not to be lapped too many times by my wife, but enjoy it nonetheless (she only beats me by three lengths, or slightly less than 7 percent). "I wasn't really trying to push it," she tells me after I struggle out of the pool and we're discussing how it went. "It's okay that you're not that fast," she adds thoughtfully.

While Dan and his training partners hit their bikes to blast out a long ride to the west, we tackle the Sunday morning suburban Bangkok traffic and slowly head north, to Ayutthaya. Google Maps promises it's only 58 km away, but after some differences of opinion with the computer's suggested route, a few wrong turns, and some cruising around to find a place to stay, we end up making it an 80 km bike ride.

Ayutthaya is the city of temples, an ancient Thai capital that's been reclaimed from centuries of neglect and sacking. It's also the city of stray dogs. And heat. Everywhere we wander, dozens of stray dogs are splayed out motionless on any scrap of ground that might offer the least bit of respite from the oppressive heat. Judging by their complete lack of motion, chests barely moving, they aren't achieving much success. In Nepal, Andy commented on the street dogs' inactivity during the day. There was lots of sleeping going on, but we chalked it up to their incessant nocturnal prowling and barking. Those dogs looked sad. These dogs look pathetic. Their misery is tangible as they slowly melt into limpid pools of canine ambivalence.

Our misery depends on who you ask. I think it's hot, but nice. I grew up in a place where it got obnoxiously hot for at least a couple of weeks each summer, and learned how to deal with it. Abby grew up Alaska, where it usually snows every month of the year. She thinks it's sweltering, and that her brain is frying inside her skull. I think she's exaggerating, but when I tell her that it doesn't help (?). I buy her ice cream, instead, and that seems to work much better than logic (?). I briefly consider buying ice cream for some of the dogs, but end up just giving the one nearest to me the dregs of my ice once all my coke is gone. He likes it, I think - I can't really read him through his impressive ambivalence mask.

We decide to go with budget accommodation and pick the cheap room with just a fan. It's ridiculously hot when we first walk into our room, but spread-eagled naked on top of the sheets with the fan on high, it's not so bad. For the first day of our adventure, through the middle of the day when the heat is at it's worst, we both agree that we did very well. Spirits are high. The heat has not evaporated our excitement. I think this is going to work. Sleep comes easily.

April 8
We wake up before the sun in order to go explore some of the temples around town with some pretty morning light. I neglected to bring my camera on our evening tour yesterday, on purpose, but then regretted it when the sun got all colourful and started dazzling us when it hit the ruins just perfectly. I'm determined to catch it on the flip side, but of course there are clouds on the horizon this morning so we have to enjoy the ruins on our own, without the advantage of seeing them through an eyepiece. On our way back, we hit the market for some mandatory fruit, then the 7/11 for some yogourt, and have a nice breakfast in our guesthouse courtyard. The number of 7/11s in this country is simply astonishing - one on every corner, it seems. And I'm really not exaggerating. It's worse than Tim Horton's in Barrie, or Starbucks in Seattle, or coffee huts in Anchorage. In fact, it's likely worse than those three things all multiplied together, based on my back-of-the-napkin math:


Regardless, whoever decided to introduce the chain to this country had better have himself (herself?) a nice little compensation cheque for that idea.

We decide to skip biking the 300 km between Ayutthaya and Sukothai in favour of the train. It's flat, and straight, and apparently boring, while trains are flat, and straight, and apparently exciting. Our main motivation, however, is a desire to be in Chang Mai for Songkram, the Thai water festival. It starts this coming weekend leaving us 5 days to cover 900 kms. that's considerably more aggressive than we want so we're going to have to cheat somewhere and this seems like the best spot to do that. Plus, we both really like train rides, and it's easy to bring your bikes along.

Sadly, when we get to the train depot we learn that all the trains are full for the next 2 days, so we spend the next 2 hours trying to find the northern bus terminal (there are different terminals for different destinations). We're looking for an actual building, which explains why we cycle past it several times before realizing that it's simply a covered shelter with a counter at the back that looks like any one of the dozens of roadside restaurants dotting the landscape. The building just down the street that looks exactly like a bus terminal turns out to be a giant covered market.

I come up with an explanation for this apparent mix-up, how they anticipated the demand for buses to the north to be much greater than it turned out to be, so they couldn't afford to pay the mortgage, sold the building for a song to a group of local street vendors, and moved down the street to an open space between adjacent 7/11s. I try to share this theory with the bus ticket vendor, but he ignores my gibberish and instead just points at our bikes and yells, "Fold! Fold!" We buy our tickets, and ignore the dirty look from the bus driver when he discovers he has to figure out how to pack two bikes into the luggage storage. "Fold? Fold?", he asks. We shake our heads no. We take the front tires off, he grimaces, and an entire empty luggage compartment is found which makes the entire issue of folding bikes entirely irrelevant. Now I'm curious, are folding bikes really that common in Thailand?

We enjoy the air-conditioned bus ride presumably less than an air-conditioned train ride, but it's quite pleasant, and non-sweaty, and we arrive at our destination in time for some night market snacks and a trip to the nearest 7/11 for a cold beverage. Luckily, there are two in the immediate vicinity - one adjacent to the hotel (they share a wall) and another directly across the street. We visit both to share the love, then fall asleep to some incomprehensible Thai tv. Sleep comes easily.

April 9
Our plan is to visit the ruins at Sukothai today, 57 km away. We spent the night in Phitsanulok, a major train and bus town, so start the day cycling west, away from the sun along the side of a very nice highway. It’s essentially dead flat, and dead straight. We do have one moment of drama where the road makes a 5 degree bend to the left, which is exciting in that we didn't know what would be around the corner until we actually made it around the corner. We could have made a really, really educated guess, based on the previous 50 kms, but we didn’t know. Turns out, it's more of the same, but the anticipation is good for a few minutes, anyway. The 57 kms turn out to be just as advertised - my bike computer and Google are in complete agreement.

Sukothai is fabulous - way better than anticipated, in fact. We read that it was "a miniature version of Angkor Wat", which didn't mean much since we haven't been there yet, but it sounds impressive, so we're excited to begin with. We arrive and wear big smiles all day as we cruise around the expansive site on our bikes. Abby likes the temple with all the elephants emerging from it, while I like the one with the big Buddha trapped behind a wall. For some reason it reminds me of the setting for the final scene in Return of the Jedi, where everyone gets their medals. Until I watch the scene again, and decide it's not really like that at all. Although it is big, and old, and ruined, and kind if like Tikal (the ruins in the jungle that are shown at the start of the scene) if you squint and added Buddhas to all the temples. I want to take some really awesome photos of it which I would post here, except my camera is broken when I pull it out of my bag, so I steal these ones from the internet:

The Elephant temple in Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand. Stock Photo - 3048935
Elephants emerging from the temple.  How did they get them to stand so still while they turned them to stone and then built a temple around them?
ancient buddha image statue at  Wat Sri Chum  Sukhothai historical park Sukhothai province Thailand  Stock Photo - 15035329
Big Buddha hiding behind a wall, Wat Si Chum, Sukothai Historical Park.

After seeing all the ruins, we decide to take a tuk-tuk the 12 km back to town, because we’re both really tired. We're told to catch one on the main drag, across from the 7/11. I get a Big Gulp for the ride home - the original Road Pop. The tuk-tuk driver straps the bikes onto the side of his rig with a well-practiced ease, then puts on some sunglasses to make the drive into the darkening night. I'm confused until I swallow a fly between big gulps of my Coke. Smart man, our driver. He drops us off far enough away from our guesthouse that we are able to pedal into the yard as if we cycled the whole way home. It turns out that no one's watching, but I feel good about our accomplishment regardless. Sleep comes easily.

April 10
We’re eager to get an early start this morning, so are loaded up and in our saddles by 7:30 am. It’s delightfully cool as we pedal north along a secondary road that’s bordered by rice paddies, banana plantations, and corn fields. At times I almost feel like I’m riding through the back roads of Southern Ontario. At one point we pass through a long corridor of mango trees, the leaves spreading shade across the road from each side, forming a cool green tunnel. Their branches are fat with big clusters of fruit, which are sadly still green. Thais eat a lot of their mangoes that way, but we much prefer the sweet ripe ones, so I refrain from thieving.

Halfway to our destination, I look up and am baffled to see something on the horizon. It takes me a few minutes to realize that it's a hill - our first since leaving Kathmandu. It's a pretty big deal, and we high five on our bikes. It ends up being more of an awkward soft hand rub as we hit a big pothole at an in opportune time but no casualties occur, and the moment receives it's appropriate due.

The day passes quickly, and we make it to Uttaradit easily. We check into a hip local hotel where no one speaks English but they offer free breakfast and wifi. We work on our miming skills every time we need something from the front desk and by the end of the night we’re confident enough in our abilities that talk turns to going pro. The most challenging task proves to be getting plates so we can eat our take-out dinner we buy from the night market. It's fast become one of our favorite parts of each day, visiting the local open-air dinner market and sampling from the different stalls. It's cheap, and delicious, and it comes in plastic bags with no utensils, making consumption a real challenge.

I take a shower when we get up to our hotel room, and as I'm scrubbing the cakes of salt off my skin, I discover the start of a callous on each side of my ass, at the crease where it meets my thigh. It’s in the exact spot that grinds into the bike seat all day long. I was told that bike shorts would prevent this sort of thing, but then I realize that it might be worse without them. I decide I'd probably look like a baboon with a big round patch on each cheek. I tell Abby about my condition, and she says she has the same problem. She suggests asking the front desk for some lotion but I forego her advice and take some ibuprofen instead. Sleep comes easily.

April 11
It’s a long run of 140 kms to get to Lampang. We start early again, since it’s so nice to get a bunch of miles out of the way before the heat really kicks in. A website we found describes the ride as “flat, with three big hills”. The inherent contradiction of this description escapes me when I read it from the comfort of my bed, but as we wobble slowly up the second hill, somewhere around kilometer 5 of the 6 km ascent, it dawns on me that some part of that statement must be wrong. Since the hills continue to stretch on as far as the eye can see, I’m inclined to think that it was the “flat” description that the author sandbagged on, and resign myself to more agony down the road.

On the final hill, me and a transport truck take turns drafting off each other as we struggle painfully up the never-ending grade. It makes it go faster, having something to focus on, and the humour of the slow motion race appeals to me. When the climb finally eases, he changes gears and quickly leaves me behind, two quick toots of the horn the acknowledgement of our brief relationship. Abby later tells me that she got the same treatment when he passed her, and I curse him for being such a two-timing scoundrel. We reach the crest of the hill and take a well-deserved lunch break.

We’ve been drinking a lot of water to rehydrate, since sweat pours off our noses in sheets for most of the day. Yesterday, we calculated that we each drank more than 6 litres of water. To this I add my daily allotment of Coke, which has been averaging somewhere around 2 litres. I drink very little pop at home, but for some reason when I travel I turn into a soda-chugging machine. As I order another one at our lunch break, I think about a story our friend Troy once told me, about growing up in Arizona.

During the heat of summer, when the temperature would be hitting into the high 30s and low 40s, he would drink a lot of pop to keep cool. In fact, he used to go through two 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper every day, all summer long. He’d walk down to the local 7/11, buy one, and go home to drink it. When it was empty, he’d head back to the store for a second bottle, ensuring it stayed ice cold until he was ready to drink it. It seemed preposterous at the time (drinking that much pop, not making two trips - the two trips thing was brilliant), and I remember shaking my head in wonder and disbelief. Now, I find myself nodding in agreement and support as I relive the interaction in my head. I want two 2-liter bottles of Coke, except I’m pretty sure Abby would give me a long lecture about teeth brushing and diabetes, so I settle for four installments of 500 mils a pop. My hope is that it seems like less that way.

I down my Coke fast, and our supply of water we filtered in our room this morning runs out halfway through my spicy lunch so I start looking around for alternatives. Across the room, I catch sight of the big vat of ice water that all the locals are drinking from. My mouth is on fire, I can feel my capillaries collapsing from dehydration, and everyone around me is loudly slurping down water so cold the glasses turn instantly opaque with beautiful condensation the second the water hits them. After an affirmative nod from my noticeably wilted wife, I fill both our glasses and we greedily suck down our own liquid perfection. We’ve never tasted anything so good it’s like a unicorn dancing inside my mouth. The glasses are refilled numerous times, each one as good as the first. We are now officially on the local water train.

April 12
Abby has taken to collecting spare change from the side of the road, and today she really cleans up. After stopping suddenly along a mostly deserted stretch of highway, she leans over and fumbles in the dust for a brief moment before standing up triumphantly, a grimy coin held aloft. “That makes 11 baht I’ve found today,” she exclaims happily. 40 cents. She’s now made enough in found change to pay for half of my daily Coke habit. I take this to mean she’s had a turn of heart and is coming around to being supportive of my consumption.

The heat is destroying Abby today, and she’s struggling up all the hills. 30 km in, we ride by an elephant sanctuary and make the easy decision to investigate, mostly to get out of the sun for an hour. We’re in luck! The show starts at 10 am, and we arrive at 9:45. It turns out to be well worth the time, and we are treated to (pay for the privilege of seeing) a troupe of pachyderms making music, playing soccer, and painting self-portraits. It’s pretty amazing to watch them show off their arsenal of circus tricks, and we head back to our bikes chattering like little kids about all the things that elephants can do that we never even suspected.

We finally roll into Chiang Mai in late afternoon, where relief arrives in the form of Songkram, the Thai new year festival that’s celebrated by dumping buckets of water on everyone passing by. In a place where the new year coincides with the hottest part of the year, this tradition is wonderfully appropriate, and we’re dripping and delightfully cool by the time we reach our hotel (right next to a 7/11). Our shoes squeak loudly against the glistening tile floor of the lobby, but no one blinks at our sopping appearance. A pool slowly starts forming under me while we check-in, and a towel is handed wordlessly across the counter. The check-in process continues uninterrupted.

Our first week of bike touring is officially in the books: 550 km in 5 days. It’s now time for a few days rest. It’s Songkram, and we’re in Chiang Mai. Let’s get wet!

Grabbing Technology by the Tail

The world has changed a lot since last we travelled, 5 years ago. The housing market crashed, Avatar revolutionized the movie theater experience,, the Arab Spring almost revolutionized the Middle East, Abby's become a nurse, I've become office adept...and Apple introduced the iPhone (actually it was introduced on June 29, 2007, but close enough).   Ever since that momentous occasion, we have been struggling to keep up.  When the initial cell phone revolution happened, it threatened to pass us by completely before we managed to grab a hold of it's tail at the very last moment, just as it was disappearing forever into the 21st century.  This was in 2009, almost a decade after the 21st century had officially started, but we had been busy with other things.  Abby had actually had a cellphone on and off over the years, but since we were never stationary for long, the 2-year commitment required of most plans seemed way too steep.  Besides, what we do with two cell phones?  One, fine, but two? No, thanks.  What we each do with a cell phone, text back and forth at the dinner table?

And it's not that we're anti-technology, not at all.  I think new gadgets are great, and wonderful.   In fact, I would even go so far as to claim that I was in the vanguard of those who discovered the wonders of MP3 players. But in general, I'd rather let other people pay a lot to learn all about a technology when it first comes out.  Later, when everyone has figured out how best to use it, and it's become dirt cheap, and it reaches a point where it's more annoying not to have one than to watch idly as all my friends play with them at dinner while I try to engage them in actual instead of virtual conversation, I give up and join in the fun.  It's an approach that's worked well.  And abroad, well, abroad has been a safe haven for us, where connectivity is blissfully hard to come by, and we can get lost in the days and weeks and months of the foreign world turning around and around and around, completely unconnected save for an occasional email at our discretion: "When we can find internet next, Mom, it's not like it's everywhere over here.  Don't worry about us, we'll be fine, we'll be in touch sometime in the next month."  It's been a glorious and reliable escape.

No more.  A couple of years ago, our friends Anne and Jeanette sought out our advice before they embarked on a 6-month trip to Africa. They had some general questions about packing for such a long trip, but mostly they wanted our opinions on what technology to bring.  "Easy," we exclaimed in unison. "Nothing!" They went on to explain that they were considering bringing a cellphone, a laptop, two Kindles, and a couple of cameras. We were flabbergasted. "Umm...maybe one of the cameras?", we conceded weakly. This was in 2010, 2 years after we got back from our long trip to Turkey and India and Nepal, and we still felt very much in touch with the travel zeitgeist. We explained that too much technology in the third world would just make you more of a target, another reason to attract already curious eyes in the land where your white skin would already ensure that you would never be anonymous. Why tempt fate? And why lug all that shit across the world just to stay in touch with what you left behind? Weren't you trying to escape this world for that one? It seemed excessive to our preferred lean and apparently antiquated approach. They ignored our advice, conceding its outdated wisdom but insisting that they'd be fine. They left with a gaggle of gadgets, used them all, and didn't regret bringing any of them along. Whatever, to each their own, we said.

Fast forward now to January of 2013.  We arrived in Kathmandu and discovered that the world outside our Alaskan bubble had changed much faster than we ever could have anticipated. Smartphones were ubiquitous, with both locals and travellers. In a country that can't even figure out how to build a decent road between the two most important cities, where the capital has power cuts more than 50% of the time, they had managed to build cell phone towers reaching halfway to the sky, deep into the heart of the Himalaya.  As a result of the smart phone revolution, wireless was also omnipresent.  Most guesthouses used to offer a computer or two for their patrons to use, but those were now gone, replaced by little signs advertising wireless and the associated password.

At home this fall, when road-tripping around Western Canada and the US, we had run into the same problem.  Lots of wireless, but no devices to access it.  Without a smartphone, and with (gasp!) only one laptop to share between us, we had become adept at sniffing out public libraries in all the little towns we passed through.  It was kind of fun, poring over all the notice boards to gain some insight in to the communities, then buying trashy novels for a quarter a piece to support their library auxiliary funds.  We were resigned to our technological lag time there (and appreciative at the chance to get our hands on more Harlequin Romance novels) but we weren't prepared for it abroad, in Nepal of all places.  

Bikul, a Nepali friend we met at our guesthouse, didn't believe me when I tried to explain that neither Abby nor I had smart phones.  "So your iPhone is at home?", he asked incredulously one day when I whistled appreciatively at his shiny new iPhone. "I don't have an iPhone," I explained.  "So you left it at your home, in your country?"  His expression was confused, and concerned.  "No, Bikul, I just don't have one. But I do have a flip phone," I replied brightly.  I was trying to reassure him that I at least understood the technology, even if I didn't partake in it.  "It's my first phone, I just got it 2 years ago. It's great. I can even text with it!"  He shook his head to try and help that concept get into his head - either that or he was making sure such blasphemy didn't gain traction in his grey matter.

When we started asking around about permits and logistics for the GHT, it became apparent that we were fighting a losing battle. "Call me with any questions," they'd say. "I"ll call you with a price quote, what's your number?", they'd ask. We caved. We bought a cell phone.  We went to New Road, in the old city of Kathmandu, and went shopping.  For 1,200 rupees (about $15), we came away with a compact little number that even has an led flashlight built-in.  And getting it set up and working was a snap. Did you know that you can just pick up a SIM card at pretty much any local shop and start making calls immediately, for almost nothing?  In Nepal, we dropped into the Ncell office located right in Thamel, just down the street from our guesthouse.  Here in Thailand, we picked a 7/11 at random, and minutes later were making dinner plans via text.

When it rains, it pours.  phone calls were nice, but music, movies and more would be even better. We are also the proud new owners of an iPad mini - black, sleek, and amazingly useful.  Purchased at the MBK mall in Bangkok for the same price as at home, it's a truly magical device.  Just yesterday I used it to Skype with my brother in Vancouver, B.C. (the current home of our laptop), who then was able to upload our entire music library to the "cloud" (I assume it was threatening rain there at the time) so we could access it from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and put on some Sade while we got busy (I'd already hung up the call).  I'm still not entirely sure how that all works, since it was really sunny here at the time, but I'm certainly not complaining (wink, wink).

Despite having belatedly embraced the technological revolution of the past 5 years, and willing to admit its wonders, we still have very definite reservations about it. Mainly, I think it's a double-edged sword: although it makes life easier in some respects, it complicates it in others.  For example, it helped us book a room in busy Chiang Mai for one of the biggest festivals of the year, but it also took Abby some 6 hours to do so. There was so much choice, and a learning curve to figure out the local websites, that I'm pretty sure it would have been less of a hassle to have just shown up and gone door-to-door for an hour and come away with equivalent lodgings. It's wonderful to have the convenience of the Internet in your guesthouse common area, but it also means that instead of the chatter of conversation of new friends, you hear the tapping of smart phones.

I understand that these are old-man, crotchety complaints, but they're also legitimate ones.  It's an odd contradiction that all this connectivity allows us to remain closer with old friends but then limits the creation of new, relevant ones. And by that I don't mean that old or absent friends are irrelevant, I just mean that by keeping so in touch with everywhere else, you miss parts of where you are - of this I'm certain. I find it disturbing that I didn't know that a Tibetan refugee immolated himself in Kathmandu, less than a handful of kilometres from where I was surfing the internet, to protest Chinese occupation of his homeland. I was too busy looking at pictures of that grisly broken leg in the Final Four to take notice. This is my failing - I was the one surfing the internet, looking up basketball scores from across the world, but what relevance did an American basketball game have to my experience in Nepal? The lure of the Internet is too strong, and it's just become too damn easy. We are too weak to overcome it's inexorable gravitational pull.

I'm sure in time I'll get used to the omnipresent availability of information and communication, and stop whining and moaning about it. I'll get used to texting and talking to people across the world like they are just next door, and accept that the concept of here and there is less than it used to be. I will accept that I live in a world that is getting smaller and smaller. But I also hope that I'll always be a little bit sad that downtown Bangkok and downtown Toronto become more indistinguishable every day. Because a smaller world is also one with less adventure, less mystery, and less chance to get lost in the weeds. And I, for one, think that getting lost in the weeds is something that the world could do with more of, not less.

Friday, April 5, 2013


"My GHT dream is officially over."  

Andy's proclamation came halfway through another long climb leading into the town of Sama, on the Manaslu Circuit.  It was only the second week of our trip, a second hard week of trekking uphill through sickness and snow, and morale was not high.  Andy had been troubled at both ends, so to speak, and clouds were shrouding the mountains again.  It had turned from too hot down low to too cold up high, and we mysteriously seemed to have missed the comfortable middle ground.  There had been plenty of good things, sure, but those were far from the forefront at the moment.  Instead, the immediacy of getting to Sama along a steep, narrow, uneven path through 2 feet of heavy, wet snow was setting the mood, and the tempo.

As previously chronicled we eventually retreated from the heights of Manaslu to the comfortable shores of Phewa Tal in Pokhara to lick our wounds and convalesce.  Despite our best efforts, we never got healthy, not really, and the snow kept falling up high.  Yes, we're from Alaska, and no, snow doesn't scare us, but postholing for miles on end along an unknown trail when you're sick is no one's idea of a good time.  It became painfully obvious that this was not to be our year.  Andy and Mary succumbed early on and made plans to leave Nepal for greener pastures, but Abby and I were still clinging, ever so tenuously, to our through-hiking dream.  Andy was heading to Iceland to do some skiing, Mary was off to Turkey to meet a friend, and our plan was to head out west once they left and trek through the high desert regions of Dolpo.  If nothing else, we'd have 2 months to hike the western half of the GHT by ourselves, leaving the eastern side for another time.

But before we all went our separate ways, we had a few weeks to redeem ourselves.  We decided to climb Mera Peak as a final group outing -  a chance to have a taste of success on a high peak that offers unparalleled views of the mountains in the Everest region.  The trip went well, but group health proved once again to be elusive.  Recurring GI issues materialized in waves, and a nasty chest infection knocked me flat at high camp.  Andy, Mary and Abby made the summit on a beautiful morning, and then helped me struggle back down to base camp.  Andy started wheezing a few days later.  On the final day of the trip, as we climbed over the last pass before dropping into Lukla, the skies erupted with thunder and lightening, and first hail, then heavy snow started falling.  Abby and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement.  We were officially throwing in the towel and accepting defeat.  We were going to leave Nepal.

Despite the rewards of another fantastic travel experience, ultimately a lingering disappointment prevails.  I want to make sure to properly explain this because I think it's easy to take that statement to mean that we're leaving Nepal with frowns on our faces, and grumbles in our throats.  Not at all.  It was a wonderful two months full of new places, new experiences, new friends, and a better understanding of the country.  However, it comes down to the fact that we didn't come to Nepal to travel, we came to hike the GHT.  We arrived with an agenda, and ambition.  Certainly, the foreign component was a large part of the appeal, but we didn't just want to wander around aimlessly, discovering things as they presented themselves.  We've done that, and loved it, but this time we wanted something more.  We wanted to push ourselves towards a discrete goal.  

Further, that we failed is not a problem.  We knew it was going to be hard, with many unknowns.  In fact, that's why we wanted to do it.  It was not supposed to be easy, and we were prepared to leave some miles unhiked.  However, that we failed so spectacularly is an embarrassment.  Of the 1,700+ km we came to hike, we covered about 40.  That is not a misprint.  In almost 40 days of walking through the hills and mountains of Nepal, we managed to average 1 km of GHT a day.  (To be fair, we saw those 40 kms from both directions, so we know them both backwards and front - quality over quantity.  So there's that, I guess, as far as moral (morale?) victories go.)  

So now we have 2 months left, and still want to push ourselves in some other exotic endeavour.  Originally, we were reserving a few weeks at the end of our trip for some Thailand beach hopping and food gorging.  However, present circumstances considered, that's just not going to cut it.  Instead, we're still heading to Thailand, but to spend our remaining time bike touring through Southeast Asia.  We flew into Bangkok 4 days ago, and have spent the intervening days trying to get our kit together.  Yesterday, we found a pair of battered but trusty stallions for only 3,000 baht (~$100) a piece, from a bike tour company that's replacing their equipment.  We rode the bikes home through the heart of Bangkok, and decided that helmets were also going to be necessary.  Today we went to the local bike shop and spent almost as much again on accessories - lights, locks, racks, helmets, bike shorts, bike jerseys, bike gloves, bar ends, handle grips, a pump, a patch kit, a bike computer, spare tubes, and a flowery bell that dings like the sound of a million angels laughing.  We left a happy shop owner in our wake, and we now look the part - who knew I looked so good in bike shorts?  Tomorrow, we bid adieu to the comforts of Pleasantville, and pedal off to start our adventure.  Excitement levels are high.

Abby paying for all the loot at Interbike, in Bangkok.