Monday, October 31, 2011

The Thai Art of Being (Carolann's Story)

(This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

We were in Thailand only briefly, just long enough to breathe it in, bathe in its humidity, and be touched by the Thai art of being.

 At the brilliantly designed Suvarnabhumi arrival hall, we walk through light-drenched hallways lined with intertwining metal spears as if we were migrating birds caught in a tubular bird-cage. Architecturally, more World Fair than airport, the building impresses with its balance of form and function. We move effortlessly through each station, customs, baggage, and money exchange.

Seeking the hotel pickup zone, we ask directions from a smiling, smartly dressed attendant. We receive a meaningless, confusing, if not a contradictory response to what our guidebook says. The attendant smiles, pleased to be of service, and closes her palms together is a soft bow.

 "Did you get any of that?"

"Haven't a clue."

 Based on our experience of a month roaming around the country some years ago, we understand Thailand to the extent that we know we will never understand the Thais. It doesn't matter and we don't get rattled about it. Thais want to please and will not say no, nor will they own up to not knowing an answer to a question you ask. Face saving is almost everything, and presentation is the rest.

 Still, if you gravitate to beauty in any form, singing language, sensuous movement, arresting aroma, artfully appointed hotels, someday you will find yourself in Thailand.

 At this point in time, we are merely transiting over 24 hours and have enough time in Bangkok to admire the precise arrangement of slippers beside our bed, down a welcoming glass of lemongrass water, enjoy dinner out, and make some necessary purchases in a shopping mall. The mall is so dazzling, we are drawn to this 21st century arena where consumption is boldly celebrated; we take it in like a spectator sport. Still, we need to remember we're looking for a pharmacy. Dan is under the traveler's curse and I'm coming down with a cold.

Transitions are tiring and I'm looking forward to reaching our next destination. And it's just as well we are leaving quickly. They are piling up sandbags on our street. Flood waters are rising in other parts of the city. Our hotel is about half way between the city centre and the new airport which itself is about thirty kilometres east of the centre (the old airport has already been closed by the floods). As other neighbourhoods prepare for the worst, the Suvarnabhumi airport is opening up its parking lots and roadway shoulders to people who want to protect their car from the floods.

It's classic Thai that the staff assemble to wish us a good journey, smile, and bow. I admire their jai yen, literally meaning 'cool heart'. The culture avoids raised voices, visible signs of irritation and confrontation of any kind. On this early morning, almost five years after their last natural disaster, the boxing day tsumani, it's as if these people are saying, "what me, worry?"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dance of the Masks

Valley of the Black Necked Cranes

With swirling, bright yellow skirts, wild gyrations and lurid, grotesque masks, the barefoot dancers prance and leap onto the field in front of the monastery.

We’re in Phobjikha at 10,000 feet, the highest we’ve been yet in the Himalayas in Bhutan. We’re here to see the rare and elegant black-necked cranes. Every year at this time they swoop down from Tibet and wait on the north side of the snow-covered mountains to catch a rising thermal and a southerly wind. Then if the weather is right, the winds favourable, they soar higher than any human could go without oxygen. Sometimes they might make it on the first attempt, usually they don’t. It’s perilous, chancy and absolutely incredible.

Then they settle on the wetlands in the middle of the valley to breed, safely sheltered from the harsh winter elements by the same mountains that imperiled them on their journey south.

Winding Road
To witness this miracle of nature, we have suffered through a perilous journey ourselves – four hours of bone-jarring, gut-wrenching mountain roads. Describing this as a road would be too kind, most of it is a single-lane track that follows a river initially, then hugs the side of the mountains as it climbs higher and higher until I’m expecting an oxygen mask to drop from the ceiling of the car.

We dodge rockslides, wade through deep, water-filled potholes, and peer anxiously over the steep cliff side as massive trucks filled with gravel and stone bear down upon us. They force us to the very edge of the roadway, squeeze by inches away from our car then rumble on down the road.

Rock Slide
We snake our way up and up and at one point stop to take pictures of a rock slide. As I guard Carolann’s washroom break, I hear a bird call and answer it. More calls follow and then suddenly the branches in a large tree start to sway and a large troupe of golden “monkeys” erupts from the forest and swings away to safety. They turn out to be Assamese Macaques. I had no idea “monkeys” existed in the Himalayas.

Large Trucks Take over Roadway
We continue winding our way up until we crest at a pass and begin the downward descent. We drive by a herd of large, shaggy Yaks. These are domesticated, but roam freely all over the mountainside. I can't get too close because they are quite aggressive and have sharp horns. The locals use their milk for cheese, butter and the Bhutanese favourite drink, butter tea, which I detest because of its salty, rancid taste. Carolann says to pretend its chicken broth. I’ll stick to Earl Grey, thank you.
Yaks Roaming Freely (very aggressive)
On the downward slope, I am astonished to see wild Cotoneaster draping over the rocks on one side of the roadway. Then I notice that on both sides, the slopes are covered with a blanket of wild rhododendrons. These tricky plants we struggle to grow back home are growing wild under the trees and even in the open, lining the roadway like weeds. Bhutan is, in fact, blessed with 48 different species of rhododendron and I see at least five different varieties right alongside the car. Rhododendron wood is used locally for cups, the handles of daggers, saddles, and incense. The leaves are used to wrap butter and to line buckets.

At this altitude, magnolias, daphne, weeping cypress, fir, larix, pieris, kalmia and the famous Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis) also grow.  The inner bark of the daphne is used to make traditional Buddhist writing paper. 

Logging is strictly controlled in Bhutan and it is forbidden to cut down the towering weeping cypress (Bhutan's national tree) except for use in monasteries and dzongs. It is a sacred tree and we often see incredibly large specimens (45 m) growing around temples and monasteries.

Blue Primula

It's fall and the blue gentians are in bloom. I spy a blue primula that is also in bloom on the side of the road. Locals rub the leaves on their faces to protect from dry skin at high altitudes. In all there are 71 species of primula in Bhutan. At lower altitudes, I was surprised to see a pink flowering tree that our driver says is a peach tree. I know they have two crops of rice in some areas of Bhutan, but a peach tree blooming in October is unusual.

Pink Flowering Peach

The roadway turns into a muddy, rutted, stony farm track.  As it winds its way down through the trees, we catch our first glimpse of the valley below all lit up golden in the sunlight.

This area is protected for the benefit of the annual migrating guests the black-necked cranes. No hydro lines, telephone poles or cell phone towers mar the landscape. It’s kept pristine and development is strictly controlled. The hydro wires are buried to keep them out of sight, but most houses still only use solar power. There are no toasters in our hotel; toast is made on top of a barrel stove in the centre of the dining room.

I ask our guide if he sees any black-necked cranes. My heart sinks as Sonam replies, “No, it’s too early for them.” We pass Tibetan-style farmhouses and get a closer look at the fields below. “Any cranes yet,” I plead. “No, it’s too early,” he says again with no further explanation, and I’m beginning to fear that even though it’s bright and sunny out, we have not come at the right time. I spy a flock of black birds below and am about to ask the question again when I realize they are just large ravens, the national bird of Bhutan. Could this be an omen?

We reach the valley floor, a large wide plateau with fields and marsh in the middle. This is the feeding and breeding area of the black-necked cranes, but there are no birds. This is a major disappointment for me. The cranes are the main reason why we ventured so far into the mountains on such horrible roads.

We follow the track up into the woods and pull up to a nice looking hotel. But this isn’t ours, the driver is lost and the guide is just going in to ask for directions. Somehow we have driven right past our hotel and have to backtrack down the dirt path.

Facade of Hotel
Our hotel has a beautiful façade, with all the typical Bhutan architectural elements of rough-hewn pine beams, brightly decorated and painted posts and trim around the doors and windows. It’s three stories high and looks promising. At the entrance we face a narrow, steep staircase that we have come to call a “duck-walk” stair. As steep as a ladder, with treads half the normal depth, it is very tricky to climb without turning your feet sideways like a duck. This is not a good sign.

At the top of the dark stairs is a rough wooden door leading into a darkened, low-ceilinged dining area. It is freezing cold inside and there is no light. Another bad sign.

We turn right and step over a foot-high threshold and into our dark bedroom. It is cold and dreary with no lights and two small shabby single beds. The washroom is two steps down onto a cold stone floor and again there are no lights. “Solar power,” our guide explains and leaves us to get settled while lunch is prepared. I contemplate navigating those two steps down in the middle of the night.

Carolann has a cold, probably because all the Bhutanese have colds these days, and partly because she always suffers in high altitude. She doesn’t say anything about the room and just wants to lie down for a while until lunch. But I know the signs. She won’t tell anyone else, but she’s depressed about the room. She’s on the verge of tears and I know from experience that I have to do something.

Back of Hotel and Outdoor Dining Area
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve stayed in far worse places, as many of you know from our previous travels. We’ve slept in tents in the Amazon, frozen in a cold hut at 13,000 feet on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, and sweated in a non-airconditioned concrete block shed on a beach in Thailand. But we paid only $25 per night for the privilege and loved it. This hotel is the pits and we’re paying 10 times that amount – per person!

More importantly, Carolann needs warmth, light, and a comfortable bed to recover from her cold. I find the guide outside sipping tea, explain the situation and ask him politely if he could check with the first hotel we saw to see if they have a room for us. “We can’t stay here and I’ll pay the difference if there is any,” I tell him.

But I know there shouldn’t be any difference. All tourists pay the same daily fee regardless of the type of accommodation assigned to them, although there is a secondary "luxury" class at premiums of $200 to $1,000 per night. Some tourists come to experience the rustic, old-fashioned style of living and that is available to them if they want it. We noted some tourists turning off the road to go to a “Farm House.” I’m all for authentic and rustic, but we’ve done that before and not at these prices, especially when better alternatives are readily available.

Wetlands for Black-Necked Crane
Sonam calls head office and all I can make out is the repeated words “Boss,” which he uses all the time and “Ah, ah, ah,” which I know means “right,” or basically nothing at all. In his laid-back Bhutanese style, he shows no sign of success or failure. When his call is over, he looks concerned, but then explains that they have a room and we can change hotels. His worried look is because he has to explain this to the hotel manager after we’ve finished lunch and he’s not looking forward to the confrontation. I tell him I would gladly do it, “I’ve done it many times in China and South America.” But I can’t speak Bhutanese.

Carolann is relieved and, sitting outdoors in the warm sun, we have lunch, or what passes for lunch in these parts – the ever-present rice, a topping of stewed onions, some fried potatoes, and two small bowls of chopped cabbage and mashed vegetables. No meat, chicken or fish. Actually, however, the onions are delicious and so are the potatoes that are like giant French fries with the skin on.

At lunch we meet two American women, one from Georgia and one from Connecticut. We’ve encountered several groups of women travelling on their own and I surmise that with a male guide and male driver they probably feel safe in this country. At any rate, they tell us they attended a festival that morning at the monastery in the middle of the plain.

Dance of the Masks
The festival is the secondary reason why we came to this area. Our guide knows nothing about the festival and has no idea of what takes place when, but if it started this morning I’m anxious to go see it before the dancing ends.

As soon as lunch is over we skip down the “duck stairs” guiding our hands down the polished pine stair railing and head for the car hoping to catch some of the festival.

We cross the plain on a bumpy, dirt track and head towards the two gold roofs of the small monastery in the distance. I can still see people clustered around a field in front of the building. At the monastery, we have to cross a ditch on two wooden planks and then dodge the cow patties on the way.

Only a few years ago, this festival was only open to Bhutanese, no foreigners were allowed. Festivals or Tshechu (“tenth day”) are held every year in various temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortresses) across the country. The Tshechu is mainly a religious event celebrated on the tenth day of a month of the Bhutanese lunar calendar.

Singers in front of Monastery
Locals Crowd Yama, Lord of Death Mask for Blessings
As I watch a circle of women in traditional garb, I pray that the best has not already passed. They start singing while swinging their arms, spinning and dancing around.

As soon as this is over, a large drum sounds, off-key clarinets squeal and a monk dressed in red leads out two huge masks on platforms. Musicians playing traditional “Tibetan-style” music on round vertical drums, cymbals, horns and conch shells follow the monks. They seat themselves in the middle of the field facing a large blue tent under which are seated the higher-ranking “lamas” or monks. Locals rush forward to receive blessings from the large “masks” and to have their sins forgiven.

Ngha Drum and Cymbals

Jhali Horn

Ngha Drum
Then to my great delight, out come the mask dancers, the stars of Bhutanese festivals. Wearing grotesque, frightening masks depicting demons in animal form, such as a deer, snow lion, snake, leopard, and dragon, the dancers leap into the air, spin around and arch their bodies in unison and in time to the music.

The masks are carved from wood and painted in garish colours. The dancers are barefoot and wearing bright yellow pleated skirts that swirl around as they dance. On top of their heads are bright red ribbons that twist and dance around as well. It’s fascinating to watch and the music is hypnotic.

The dancers are all monks specially trained in the traditional dances. It takes many years to perfect the rhythmic swaying, leaps and swirls while wearing frightening carved masks representing demons.

Drgaon Mask

Pig Mask

Deer Mask
The dances are supposed to destroy evil spirits and the drums drive them away. Witnessing the dance is believed to remove sins and take one closer to attaining nirvana or enlightenment.

When the dancing ends, two even more grotesquely masked “clowns” come out and perform for the crowd, approaching people and begging for donations for the monastery. The clowns, or atsaras, mimic the religious dancers.  They are the only ones who are allowed to mock religion in a society that treats religion with respect. We give each of them a donation as thanks for a great experience.

Clown Mask (note fertility symbol)

Second Clown
I’m excited and greatly pleased to have witnessed this spectacular event.

We leave to check in at our new hotel. This time the façade is backed by reality and our room is nicely decked out with old pine floors, a large bed and large windows on two sides overlooking the valley. Perhaps we’ve reached nirvana – at least temporarily.

Earlier, as the festival ended, I had turned to photograph a grouping of white prayer flags fluttering in the wind on tall bamboo poles.  As I did, a lone, large black raven glided in and perched on top of the highest pole. Apparently the ravens I had seen earlier were good omens after all.

In Bhutan, success is measured not by GDP, but by GNH (Gross National Happiness). Even though we missed the cranes, we experienced an incredible spectacle, we have a comfortable hotel, and Carolann is happy. My GNH is high!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

From the South China Sea to the Himalayas

Dzong in Bhutan
We woke up in Bangkok at 3 a.m. for the drive from our hotel to the Bangkok airport, allowing extra time for traffic and the potential of flooding on the roads. Photos in the Manila newspapers the day before showed extensive flooding on all sides of the city of Bangkok because of unprecedented rains.  Our hotel, which we had selected for its proximity to the airport, had sandbags around the perimeter and, curiously, around the wine bar on the lower level. Priorities!

But the reports of flooding at the airport proved false; the flooded airport was actually the old one, not the new one built in 2006 on drained marsh. Back in 2007 when we landed there, the runway had started sinking under the weight of the planes so we were naturally concerned about our flight to Bhutan given that the runways were built on lowlands.

Sandbags in wine bar
Fortunately millions of dollars had been spent building drainage canals, large runoff reservoirs and supplemental pumping stations, and our airport was dry. More importantly our hotel was outside of the flooded areas and we had no problems there either. The trip to the airport was fast and dry, especially at that time of the morning.

Our original itinerary had us flying into Bangkok for one night and then going north to visit the ruins in Ayuthaya. We had missed the ruins on our previous two visits to Thailand. But fate was good to us this trip and our difficulties in getting a flight out of Hawaii forced us to take a flight via Manila. So we figured we might as well spend some time on Boracay Island instead of spending those five days visiting ruins. We ended up loving the beach time on Boracay and we thus avoided the flooding which hit Ayuthaya. Sometimes a problem turns out for the better.

Our departure from Bangkok went off as scheduled and as we circled over the city to head north, all I could see for miles was water. Everything was flooded. It looked like northern Ontario with its thousands of lakes and rivers. Looks like we got out just in time.

Our luck continued at check-in as we were able to snag the last two seats on the left side of the plane. These, we had been told, would give us the best views of Mt. Everest as we flew north to Bhutan.

Sure enough, the pilot announced the peaks were coming up and there it was, the highest mountain in the world in all its snow-covered glory. Flying above the clouds we had a perfect view of the majestic Mt. Everest for at least five minutes. What a sight!

Downtown Paro
Landing in Paro, Bhutan, was even more exciting. Paro is located in a flat, fertile valley between ranges of the Himalayas. The airport is right in the middle of the valley surrounded by tall mountains. As we neared Paro, the plane suddenly dropped down into a narrow valley and began a terrifying series of zig-zag banks and turns as the pilot carefully navigated his way between and around the tree-covered mountains. On one of his turns, the pilot dipped his wing so sharply to the left that I thought for sure he was going to clip the treetops. He came so close to the hillside that I swear I could count the needles on the pine trees. You hear tales of the flying skills of the pilots in the Yukon guiding small planes through the mountain ranges, but try doing that with a giant Airbus 330!

The daring manoeuvres continued for roughly five minutes at an excruciatingly slow speed and then the plane bounced down hard onto a very short single runway. It was one of the hardest landings I’ve ever experienced. But then I realized the pilot didn’t really have a lot of runway to work with. The rice fields at the end of the runway came up awfully fast. Apparently, they have plans to build a new airport in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, but for now this is the only runway in the country.

What a gorgeous site for an airport, however, with dark, green tree-covered mountains on either side, towering snowcapped peaks to the north and a classic Tibetan-style “dzong” or fortress on the hillside right in front of the runway. When everyone disembarked, we all just stood in the middle of the runway and stared at the incredible scenery. I’ve never seen anyone do that before at any airport and I was surprised that no one stopped us. It turned out to be our first experience with the laid-back approach of the Bhutanese.

Paro airport
The terminal itself was done up like a Tibetan house with intricate wood carvings on columns, pastel plastered walls, and multi-hued paintings on window trims and the ends of the beams supporting the roof.

As we drove from the airport to our hotel, we happened to pass by an archery competition and stopped to admire the skill of the archers. Using high-powered, very expensive compound bows, probably bought in the U.S., the archers were hitting a target about the size of a dinner plate from over 100 meters.

Olympic archery team
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and they take it very seriously. They dress up in the traditional flowing costume called a “gho” and chant and stomp their feet in encouragement in a ritualistic dance before each archer performs. With incredible strength, they strain to pull back the drawstring on the pulleys, aim high and let loose with a loud twang. All of the archers then shout and yell praise when someone hits the target. In turned out that we were witnessing Bhutan’s national team prepare for the Olympics.

The “gho” is a traditional robe that wraps around like a housecoat but only down to the knees. Everyone wears them, even businessmen. In fact, it’s the equivalent of a uniform or a suit back home and it is considered necessary attire for business meetings. A coloured sash called a “Kira” wraps around the waist and black knee-high stockings complete the outfit. It’s worn in all seasons and must be cold in winter.

Women wear the same robe, but it goes right down to the ankles. On top, a silk jacket is usually worn.

So here we are high in the Himalayas only 24 hours after leaving hot, steamy Manila. Overnight we've gone from sea level to 2,200 meters, from soft yellow sand to hard black rock hiking trails, from 30 C to 15 C (actually 4C at night).

The cold isn’t a problem; it’s actually a bit of a relief. And we have the right clothes. That’s one of the reasons our suitcases weigh so much. We’ve had to pack for all four seasons on this extended trip.

No, the problem is we’re downright exhausted. At first we thought we were just tired from our 3 a.m. rising and all of the travel over the last two days. But when we started sucking air climbing up the steep hill to our villa above the hotel, we started to worry. Then Carolann pointed out that we were now at 2,200 meters above sea level. Whoa, slow down, this isn’t the beach anymore!

It’s all quite a shock to the system, but Bhutan is a country you can only visit on their schedule so we had to take one of the few dates that they offered us. Access to this country is almost by invitation and is very limited. They are trying to avoid the mistakes of overdevelopment that other countries like Thailand have experienced.

They charge a premium to allow you to come in and only started to allow foreign tourists to visit back in 1974 with a daily fee of $40. Their objectives are to protect their culture and the environment. Now the fee is $250 per person per day and that does limit the number of tourists who can visit.

The fee seems high, but it includes the flight in from Bangkok, the exit flight, all accommodation, all meals, admissions to all sites, a car and driver, and a guide. Itineraries are custom designed to suit your interests and can be modified as you go along.

This policy of limited access seems to work. There are no backpackers, no campers, and no crowds. As someone put it to us, “no riff raff.”  In fact, most of the tourists we are seeing are older, mostly retired and well-heeled. Tourist sites are more likely to be crowded with local Bhutanese visiting the temples and chewing Beetlenut, or paying homage to a local relic in a shrine.

Here are some of the pleasant surprises about Bhutan. Upon arrival we noticed that the signs were in English and Bhutanese. We assumed this was just for passengers arriving at the airport, but it has been that way all over the country. The signs are in English, but the people don’t speak it.

Second, the temperature is actually quite mild all year long. While there is snow on the mountain peaks, they rarely get snow in the valleys these days. Our guide Sonam tells us that they used to get snow when he was a child but now climate change is even affecting this remote part of the world.

Third, there is little or no pollution and the air smells like sweet mountain fresh forests. The reason is partly that there is no industry here in Bhutan. Everything is imported, usually from India, its big neighbour to the south. Because the Bhutanese are Buddhist, they don’t even have any slaughterhouses. They let others do that for them and then import it.

Rice harvest
This is basically an agrarian society still. Rice fields are everywhere, even right beside the airport, in downtown Paro and beside the royal palace.

Fourth, there are dogs everywhere. They lie in the middle of the road and run around in friendly packs. The Bhutanese respect all life and make the effort to avoid them in the roadway. The packs are all over town, but are extremely docile and rarely even bark. They seem to be fed on restaurant leftovers and look quite content.

Fifth – although this wasn’t that big a surprise – the roads are terrible. Most are one and half lane at best, many are single lane and all of them are full of potholes. It makes for a bumpy ride and slow going, but that allows us to enjoy the incredible scenery all the better. I quickly learned the word for stop is “Du” so that I can jump out and take another picture of a snow-capped mountain or “dzong.”

Sharing the road
The other surprise connected to this is that they drive on the left side of the road, a custom imported from India, where they get most of their cars. This makes for some exciting encounters on the winding, single-lane mountain roads when two cars traveling in opposite directions are both trying to avoid a large pothole on a blind corner. Then, of course, there are the donkeys, dogs and cows wandering down the road. Yikes!

Sixth, while archery is the national sport, hunting is frowned upon. It’s partly the Buddhist thing and partly about conservation. They have wild pigs, deer and this weird animal called a Tarkin, their national animal, but they don’t hunt them. They also have rainbow trout in their mountain streams, but fishing is also tightly controlled and a special permit is required.

The bottom line is that the Bhutanese take conservation and preservation very seriously and this, combined with the lack of pollution, is making for a very pleasant introduction to this incredible country. Even though we’re still struggling to climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain trail, actual mountain climbing starts tomorrow.
Ta Dzong overlooking Paro valley

Friday, October 21, 2011

Philippine Sweet and Tangy (Carolann's Story)

Carolann's Thoughts on Boracay

It's early morning on the island of Boracay. The  paraw cuts across the ocean breeze. Snorkel and fins beside me, I like the mood I'm in. Schools of  translucent dilis are breaking the surface ahead like handfuls of diamonds shooting out from the sea. We've been feasting on these anchovies in adobo sauce, something sweet and tangy at once. Such as been my experience in the Philippines.

First the tangy.

Manila looks to me like most any over-populated, southeast Asian metropolis from the air. As we enter Philippine air space, our plane flies over countless islands, carpeted in green. The first clue we are approaching our destination is the scarred landscape, a mountain has been clawed open for its marble heart. Half a mountain is left, wounded. Then we fly into a yellow haze. There's no more green and blue, only cement, the evidence of industry, and then an endless mat of shantytown roofs. Orange, blue, yellow, red, brown roofs. Poverty is colour. Affluence is white.

Now the sweet.

We've hopped off the big island of Luzon to Boracay, a popular beach destination just an hour's flight from Manila. As we check into Willy's Beach Resort, an institution here since the 1970s, I'm beside myself with joy.

Catching Dan testing the iced mango juice I've been handed at the desk, an attendant rushes up to him.

"Sir you need your own juice, please take this. You don't have to share the juice with your mum."

I look behind me. No one is there. Tangy.

"Mum, I'll take your glass if you're finished. Let me show you to your room."

Willy's Beach Club Resort is highly recommended on Trip Advisor and we've not been disappointed. The staff are invariably attentive. Dan mentioned to Rick, our server, that he was surprised lechon was not on the menu. This is a slow-cooked piglet on a spit and something Dan had been eager to try. In an instant Rick offered to go to the market for us, and if it were available, he would have the cook prepare it for us at dinner that night. It was delightful. Sweet.

Boracay's four-mile long beach is divided into what's called stations. Willy's is on station 1, directly in front of a large coral rock. This geographic formation draws in the photographers. Years ago, Willy had a shrine to the Virgin built into the rock, a curious mix of inspired marketing and religious zeal.

The beach has drawn our attention from the start. The sand is powder white but so firmly packed that a wheelchair could zip along without getting stuck.  Lots of small fishing and touring boats hover offshore, but with inboard motors they are quiet. It's unfortunate that by comparison many, Andaman Sea beaches of Thailand suffer from the incessant blasts of dozens of long-tail boat single stroke engines. In my mind, success is ruining Koh Phi Phi more enduringly than the tsunami of 2006.

Here in the Philippines, it's different. In the late afternoon, all the quiet blue-sailed boats anchor off the sandbar of Station 2. I call these bangkas my butterfly boats. They cluster on the water's edge like Morpho butterflies on nectar. Tomorrow I will ride in one of these.  You are seated in a hammock-like netting suspended between the bamboo float and the main haul while you slip over the waves.


The Philippines was a change of plan for us, a quick decision to fill a week before entering the Himalaya. I'm feeling as loose and easy as a bangka. Boracay is our first entry to Asia but our last tropical beach experience until Christmas. Oh, that's sour!

(This and other travel stories by Carolann can be found at Mature Traveler).

Crossing the Road on Boracay

Carolann's thoughts on the other side of Boracay

"Butterfly" Boats
I start work early this morning.  At 6 a.m. I take my coffee to a shaded table overlooking the beach. The touts on the beach also start early. A young man waves sunglasses on a string. Another man who wears sixteen cowboy hats walks by, head high, calling out buyers. A few devotees are climbing the shrine on Willy's Rock. It's Sunday and the butterfly boats are moored, resting. Our restaurant is separated from the beach by a veil of fine netting that filters the sun but permits the view.

Another cycle has passed; it's become high tide. The beach sellers are squeezed, their activities confined to a slim corridor of sand.

I open my laptop and enter my password, the usual routine. Today however I'm more conscious of my password, a symbol of entry. I stare at the veil and think back to yesterday evening when we crossed the road.

All of the beach resorts have a back door or laneway that gives out to the busy village. A hornet's next of motor-tricycles converge on the tiny street, each stuffed with people or cargo and some threatening to topple over. There's a tiny sidewalk. You check your feet to avoid the chipped cement and keep guard overhead for low awnings, dangling wires. We walk single file, cough on the dust, and shout instructions to each other over the din of the street.

I didn't want to cross the street, but Dan was on the hunt for photos. Dan hates it when I whine.

"Why do you need real life today? I'm on vacation. It's hot. There's sand in my shoes."

Dan is not listening. More real life.

Dan's goal is to cross the street and find the laneway that will take us to the opposite side of the island. It's not far geographically, but a million miles away economically. I take a deep breath and accept this excursion as practice for India.

We stumble onto the laneway thankfully with less traffic. There's a few mangy dogs and Dan asserts himself as pack leader to clear our way. (He's a keen student of Cesar Milan).  We pick our way along the edge of muddy pools, collected from heavy rain the night before. I'm careful to avoid touching rusty barbed wire lining the stone wall I hold for support.

Families live along the laneway, partly outdoors and partly indoors. Children spill out these rough dwellings, some with sticks to herd escaping chicken. Homes look unfinished, building materials scattered, it's unclear whether the work is in progress of creation or demolition. Time will tell.
A sign over a well ventilated shack reads "Boraclay Chess Club" and four men are intensely laying down bets and turning over cards. In another hut, a twenty-something man has built a "hot wheels" racetrack and invites people to pay to put a race car through the loop-d-loop. A toddler squats at the side of the lane grasping a spoon which he bangs into the puddle. Occasionally, a motor-tricycle negotiates the muddy center. Someone is grilling chicken satays under one of the corrugated tin roofs.  Situated at the heart of small, winding paths is a church where people assemble to give thanks. Go figure.

We arrive on the other side. It faces east and there are no glorious sunsets like on our side. The surf pushes sea debris on shore, coconut tree branches, bamboo pieces torn from the outriggers, carelessly dropped packaging. There are "room to rent" signs nailed to wooden building flanking the seaside road. On the balcony of one such guesthouse there's a party of Australians. Bearded, tanned, and thin, they throw back their beer and laugh and share war stories. This is the serious back-backer zone of Boracay.

Funny that some things have not changed over a generation. There are still youthful travelers who pay for $10 guesthouses. You find them on the edge of real life.

Farewell to Boracay

We're leaving Boracay today. Closing my computer it's time to pay our bill and distribute tips. With mixed feelings, I put on my hiking boots for the journey onwards, first to Manila and then to Bangkok for our connection into Bhutan. I pack my bag differently now. The fleece goes on top, the bathing suit at the bottom. The vacation's over.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How do you spell Philippines? GORGEOUS!

White Beach, Boracay Island
Day 1, Manila
Our flight from Honolulu left at 12:30 on a bright sunny afternoon and as we circled west over the island we passed over Pearl Harbour where we could see the memorial to the crewmen of the Arizona below us in the bay.

Aloha Hawaii, we really enjoyed our short nine days in paradise.  Next stop, the Philippines.

Surprisingly our flight to Manila was almost 11 hours long. Who knew Hawaii was so friggin’ far away – from everything. It’s way out in the middle of nowhere: 4650 miles (9 hours flying time) from Toronto to Hawaii and another 5,330 miles (10 hours 40 min flying time) from Hawaii to Manila. Manila to Bangkok, the next stop on our itinerary, is an additional1,374 miles (3 hours). So Hawaii to Bangkok is a whopping 6,704 miles.

Thank goodness we opted to stop over in the Philippines, a country we have never visited, to break up the trip.

As we gradually descended through the clouds into Manila we caught our first glimpses of small green islands surrounded by yellow beaches and the azure Pacific Ocean. Gradually large jagged mountains appeared covered with a shag carpet of lush green forest. Then, like a scene from a fairy tale, three dark green volcanic cones spiked through the wisps of cottony white clouds. The clouds reflected the golden rays of the sun and the dark silhouettes of the volcanoes jumped out against the bright blue background of the sky. The effect was mesmerizing.

The islands showed almost no signs of habitation or development. Only the thin trails of smoke rising from a few fields of sugar cane gave any indication of life until we reached the outskirts of Manila where rice paddies and the rectangles of fish farms in the bay patterned our view.

Then we were engulfed by a shroud of smog as we dropped down towards Manila proper. But even here, colours still jumped out at us as brightly painted houses in shades of yellow, orange, blue and red dotted the ground like a Georges Serat pointillist painting.

Although for us it was now 10:30 p.m. Hawaii time, the sun was still shining because the local time in Manila was only 4:30 p.m. – but on the next day. We had crossed the date line and lost a whole day!

So, in effect, it was the exact same time as back in Toronto, but 12 hours earlier. Confused? Join the club, so are we. It took us two days to adjust our internal clock to Hawaii time and now we have to start all over again. In fact, I’m writing this at 3 a.m., which is 9 a.m. Hawaii time, 3 p.m. Toronto time. Can’t sleep!

In the Manila airport terminal, we were immediately hit by several surprises. Everyone speaks English here and even the signs are all in English. They also speak Tagalog, influenced by Spanish from their colonial days, and they used to study Spanish in school. Now, however, they are taught English in the schools. The two major dailies in Manila are in English, but, interestingly, half of the comics are in Tagalog. They’re not quite as funny as the English ones – humour doesn’t translate well. :;

The second surprise was the presence of several separate customs lines for “Returning Overseas Workers.” Because of low pay and high unemployment in the Philippines, over a million Filipinos work overseas or on cruise ships to send money back home. We noticed in Hawaii that almost all of the workers in the service industry (restaurants, hotels, bus drivers, shop clerks) were Filipino. Literally billions of pesos are sent back to the Philippines every month from OFW's (Overseas Filipino workers). Without their influx of dollars the economy would sink.

Our initial impression is that Manila, while English speaking, is still exotic, with just a whiff of danger. Every store and restaurant has an armed security guard acting as a doorman, a Walmart greeter with a gun!

The streets are clogged with cars, trucks and small brightly coloured, gaudy buses called Jeepnees. You risk your life just crossing the street where four lanes of cars crowd into three lanes and cars dart through the red lights with impunity. The sidewalks are uneven and broken forcing you out onto the street and into the path of motorbikes, pedicabs and handcarts all racing along and weaving in and out of lanes and even onto the sidewalk to get around the stalled traffic. You need to keep one eye on the sidewalk and one eye on the motorbikes.  

Young Filipinos push the handcarts along the street in flip flops. Each cart carries bamboo trays loaded with homemade rice cakes, food wrapped in banana leaves and Spam cooked in a variety of ways. Spam is a popular dish here and you see it in many restaurants.  As on many islands, Spam is a legacy of the US troops during WWII.

In sharp contrast to the handcarts, are the Starbucks on many street corners. The world is shrinking, and not necessarily in a good way.

Pollution is a big problem here. A lot of Filipinos wear cloths over their mouths and noses. The smog is so thick in Manila that you can chew on it. But unlike in China where they spit it out onto the sidewalk, here they just swallow it in chunks.

Breakfast was an adventure, but not too risky. Living in Toronto, we were quite familiar with Filipino dinner foods, like lechon (roast suckling pig), Adobo chicken, and sticky rice. The Philippino breakfast menu, however, was totally foreign to us. We ended up with two dishes that we shared, a hot rice noodle with a gloopy orange/brown sauce, shrimp and a slice of boiled egg on top, and a salty hot rice dish, like Chinese congee, called, appropriately enough, “Arroz caldo.” It came with another slice of boiled egg and some crispy fried garlic. Both actually tasted better than it sounds.

Initially we were concerned about coming to the Philippines because of the kidnappings in the past and a report that violence might break out over proposed changes to the current electoral rules. In fact, today a firefight broke out between a Muslim terrorist group and the military and 19 people were killed. But that is only in the far south island of Mindanao and we will be staying further north where the majority of the population is Catholic.

Then there are the monsoons and the typhoons. We’re past Monsoon season, but just learned that three typhoons ripped through here in the last couple of weeks and they are expecting possibly one more soon. Hmmm!

All and all, the Philippines have already been a pleasant surprise. The people are exceedingly friendly, which one would expect given the fact that they export “service.” Everyone from airport security, people on the street and even the armed greeters at the stores has been polite, smiling and helpful. And one can easily accept the contrast between the verdant green hills we saw from the air and the reality on the streets of Manila, after all there is pollution in all big cities.

Day 2, Boracay Island
But we didn’t come here for Manila and, in fact, we’re only staying here for one night. Now we’re off to Boracay Island where we hope the initial impressions of the lush, green Philippines we saw from the air will be confirmed.

Boracay is famed for its beaches and has the second best beach in the world according to TripAdvisor.  It ranks fourth of 25 on Travel + Leisure’s Top Ten island’s list.

Getting here is not easy however. As I said earlier, Manila is pretty far away from North America. Then you have to take a 72-seat puddle jumping turboprop from Manila to Caticlan with Cebu Pacific Airways. At first glance, the flights look inexpensive, but once you arrive at the airport you’re suddenly hit with extra baggage fees of 150 pesos per kilo (approximately $3.75/kilo). They even weighed us and our handbags. Of course, traveling for seven months doesn’t afford us the luxury of traveling light, so it was expensive. Then there’s a terminal usage fee, which is surprising given that the new terminal has recently been voted the worst in the world.

Outrigger Pumpboat
Once you arrive at Caticlan on Panay Island you have to pay more access fees, then a fee to board a small outrigger boat that takes you across to Boracay itself. The rickety outriggers are called “Pumpboats.” I’m not sure what that means because they’re motor driven, but on the way over I saw a guy at the back constantly pumping a lever. Fortunately, the ocean was calm.

Then normally you hire a motor-tricycle to take you to your hotel. These things are amazing for how much weight they can carry without tipping over or hitting bottom. We saw one that was piled so high with boxes that it looked like a moving pyramid. Others had so many people crowded into then with their luggage that the passengers’ feet were almost dragging on the road.

The trip on the narrow lane up the island to our hotel was hair raising as the hotel vans and motor-tricycles barely squeezed by each other and somehow avoided hitting pedestrians with their mirrors. We haven’t yet dared venture out onto the lane on foot.

But Boracay is gorgeous and well worth the effort and expense. It is tiny, only seven kilometers by one kilometer wide, and is almost entirely surrounded by lovely white sand beach. We’re staying at Willy’s Boracay Hotel right on White Beach, the best beach with four kilometers of packed white sand and a shallow, calm ocean in front. There is no surf as in Hawaii so it’s very safe.  Local children make tips carving an intricate design into the beach along with your name. These little urchins are actually quite artistic.

Although the beach is full of strollers, the island itself doesn’t feel overdeveloped or crowded. We haven’t seen any high-rise hotels although there are some modern ones tucked away somewhere. And so far it seems that most of the people here are Filipinos with a few Koreans and Chinese thrown in, but very few Westerners, so prices a very reasonable.

The waters are warm and gentle and clear, perfect for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. Dotting the azure and turquoise waters of our bay are brightly coloured outriggers, dugout canoes and sailboats that Carolann has started calling butterflies because they all have bright blue sails and dart about like a Morpho butterfly. The best part about them, apart from the colours, is that they’re not noisy at all, unlike the roaring long-tail boats of the Thai islands that kept us awake at night and woke us up at sunrise.

Last night we witnessed a phenomenal sunset with rays of light flashing into the sky and lighting up the palm trees, the bright outriggers and the blue sails of the butterfly boats. What a sight! We’re hoping to take a sunset cruise one night on one of the sailboats.

Meals at Willy’s are served on an outdoor patio with tables set into the white sand. Dinner was BBQ’d Marlin for me and for Carolann a large tureen of Thai hot and sour Tom Yam soup done Filipino style with lots of fish, shrimp, prawns, squid and octopus. Each of these dishes could easily have served two or three people. Both were excellent and very reasonably priced and we now know to order just one dish for the two of us.

As we sat watching the sunset, the boats flitting by and the strollers on the beach, the sky behind the mountains was suddenly lit up by a tremendous lightning display. But it never rained, the storm stayed on the mountain as it apparently does every night. Very curious. The evening was still, the night air was warm and we sat listening to the gentle waves lapping at the sand. It was all very, very pleasant.

Boracay doesn’t have that private, romantic feeling of Koh Lipe that we loved in Thailand (see my article “Island Hopping in the Andaman Sea” on the right). But then we’ve learned that even that special place has now been ruined by overdevelopment and paved roads. When we visited in 2004, there weren’t any cars and you could pick your fish for dinner right from a tub of ice on the beach.

Some people might think I’m complaining about the island, but the truth is that when you have visited as many places as we have, you can’t help but compare. It’s like being a movie critic.

For seven years we’ve been wondering if we could ever go back to that idyllic paradise of Koh Lipe in Thailand. Would it be the same? Our quest to discover the perfect island retreat continues, but in the meantime Boracay is doing quite nicely, thank you. Seriously, how could you not like a country that has different types of mango in season every month of the year. It’s Paradise 2.

Tomorrow we’re planning to take a snorkeling tour on one of the outriggers. On the itinerary is Crocodile Island. Hmmm, I wonder what that means?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Soft and Easy Kauai

Hawaii has been soft, comfortable and easy. Hawaii has English menus, great soft sand beaches and a gentle tropical climate. It doesn't have any bugs, but it does have food we can recognize, Starbucks and Mai Tais. What more could you ask for? Well, it’s been almost too easy.

Those of you who know us well, and, in particular the way we usually travel, will realize that this is not the norm for us.  We haven’t encountered any poisonous snakes, food that would make a Survivor winner blanch, dangerous hikes in the dead of night up a Chinese holy mountain, or any of the other hazards that normally make our journeys more “interesting.” If you don’t remember these, reread our blogs.

In fact, the only danger so far has been too much sun, surf and a surfeit of food.  Well, okay, the hula dancing on a moving cruise ship was a trifle dangerous and the photos were potentially damaging to my reputation, but, other than that, it has been a cakewalk. Why, I remember sliding from side to side in a plastic chair across the floor of our cruise ship in the Galapagos during a gale while trying to watch “Titanic.” Now that was no cakewalk! Staring down a poisonous green viper in Borneo. That was interesting!

Plumeria (Frangipani)
The reality is, however, that this sojourn in Hawaii was meant to be a slow and graceful transition into our arduous seven-month adventure in Asia and Africa.  It’s Carolann’s vacation after working hard to finish up her work assignment before starting her self-funded leave. We know that our upcoming hiking expeditions in Bhutan and Nepal, and our visit to India will test our stamina and stomachs as much as any of our previous trips.

In fact, I had two extra notches drilled into my belt in anticipation of the weight loss I usually experience on my travels to South America and Asia. So far, I’m still at the same hole I was when I left Canada. Which, I guess is a good thing given the amount of luau pork, “Shave Ice” stuffed with Macadamia Nut ice cream and Mai Tais that I have consumed over the last week. Not to mention the American-sized meal portions.

Yes, Kauai has been laid back and soft. It’s just like being back home, but with 85 F temperatures, gentle cooling breezes at night, and surfers on the waves at every beach we visit. Add a luau or two, Mai Tais and a verdant tropical Bali Hai scenery everywhere we look and it’s pretty much the same, right?
Pink Ginger (Alpinia purpurata) 

Spider Lily

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and it has everything, except night life and too much development. The north has rough, rugged surf and mountains, but it’s blessed with soft, golden sand beaches and lush, tropical rain forests. The east coast has sunshine, more beaches and a sedate bike trail along the Coconut Coast. The south shore is gentler and dotted with more beaches and historic sugar plantations and resorts (but not overly developed like Mexico).

The west coast is different again with a dry, arid climate, great hiking trails and a Jurassic Park landscape. In fact, parts of it were used for the films “Jurassic Park,” “King Kong” and the opening scene of M*A*S*H where the helicopter flies over the mountain top.

So, today we drove from Lihue down to the south coast and around the bottom of the island to the west coast to hike into Waimea Canyon. It’s touted in the guidebooks as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” But at 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep, it’s a fraction of the size of the real Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Waimea Canyon

The colours of the red volcanic soil contrasted dramatically with the black volcanic rock and the patches of green vegetation clinging desperately to the sides of the dusty, dry canyon walls. It was even more dramatic when the sun highlighted this colourful patchwork and several helicopters buzzed by so far below us that they looked like tiny mosquitos. They really did demonstrate how deep the canyon was.

But in all honesty, it compares poorly to Australia’s Rainbow Canyon for stunning colourful vistas or even Argentina’s Valle Fertil with its archaeological interest and cathedral-like spires. The views of Waimea Canyon from the few lookouts are limited and restricted.

In fact, the most exciting parts about our visit were when a hunting dog came dashing down the road looking lost, but safely wearing his radio tracking collar (they hunt wild pigs in the mountains) and the sinuous, winding, and quite dangerous 11-mile drive up into the mountains to the canyon.

My friend Gerry would love racing up there on his Harley. Carolann, on the other hand, kept cringing at every corner and begging me to slow down as the car edged closer to the cliff side and the oncoming cars crossed the centerline to try to clip my mirror. It was quite a roller-coaster ride, but the Subaru Impreza that we had rented was more than capable. Not fun for Carolann, though.

Last night, however, was fun for both of us. We did our first real Luau! The Luau Kalamaku at the Kilohana Plantation had pig roasted in an underground pit wrapped in banana leaves for almost 10 hours then unearthed in time for dinner. Later, an avant-garde stage performance told the story of the Polynesian journey across the oceans to Hawaii.
Pig Roasting in a Pit

Pig Wrapped in Banana Leaves
Hula dancers, Hawaiian singers and an incredible flaming baton artist put on a dazzling show. The young flame juggler was actually a Tahitian who taught himself the art of spinning and tossing the flaming sticks. It took him nine years and, as he told me afterwards, “hundreds of burns” to perfect his act. In the darkened open-air theatre, he had everyone cheering. Some of the dancers performed a skit right out of Cirque de Soleil twirling flaming poi balls on ropes. In fact, one of them was actually from Montreal.

The food at the luau was traditional – shredded pork, fish, purple yams and poi. Now, we had been warned about poi, a traditional and very typical Hawaiian treat.  Slightly mauve/purple in colour and with the consistency of gravy, it looked and tasted more like wallpaper paste than any treat I have ever had.

The hostess explained that they had never run out of it at any all-you-can eat buffet. Perhaps, she said, it would go down better with sugar or chili sauce. “What’s the point?” I asked. Well, it turns out that poi is made from Taro and is one of the most nutritious, well-balanced foods on the planet. So much so, that Gerber’s actually puts it into their baby foods. The good news is that the bartender at the open bar made a fantastic Mai Tai, and it almost removed the Elmer’s Glue taste from my mouth. Well, two did.

Part of the luau experience was a ride on the plantation’s authentic train pulled by an original 1948 GE locomotive. It was supposed to be a tour of the plantation’s 103-acre historic plantation’s fruit orchards featuring banana, papaya and other tropical fruit trees. I learned that the banana tree is actually not a tree at all, but rather the world’s largest herb. Hmmm! I also learned that papaya juice is great for counteracting jellyfish stings.

Unfortunately, the train got stuck about a quarter of the way around the track because the rails were too cold and wet from an earlier rain. After several unsuccessful attempts to back up and take a run at the slight incline that bested the 1948 relic, accompanied by all of us chanting “I think I can, I think I can…,” the train that could, couldn’t, and we had to back up to the station.

We didn’t quite make it all the way, however, and had to disembark and walk back to the plantation. Doug, the 25-year old engineer was very apologetic. The glib conductor who was the narrator for the tour, was equally apologetic, but then punished us by doing a terrible karaoke version of one of his favourite pub-crawling songs as we inched our way backwards. Ouch! That was worse than the walk back in the rain.

Oh, did I mention it rains a lot on Kauai. They call it “blessings” here – hence the tropical, lush forests that cover the mountains and line the highway on all but the west coast. Kauai is known as the “Wettest Spot on Earth” and we were told the north shore was the worst for rainfall.

But the winner of the title of "Wettest Spot on Earth" is Mt. Waialeale in the deep interior of Kauai, where the average annual rainfall is an incredible 486 inches (over 40 feet). That’s right near the spot we hiked to in Waimea Canyon today.

Wettest Spot on Earth
We, however, have been exceptionally lucky, because it has only rained heavily at night, and we have had only a few rain showers during the day, with the exception of the one day we took the ruined train ride.

Our own little blessings have been the constant trade winds and the surrounding ocean that keep the climate comfortable all year round and provide a natural cooling breeze in spite of the 85 F temperature. The yummy “Shave Ices” help too.

Slow down, you're movin' too fast
So all in all, it has been incredibly comfortable here in Kauai and we have quickly settled in to the slow, laid-back style of life that Hawaiians and the friendly people of Kauai are famous for.

Tomorrow we are heading back to Honolulu for our flight to Manila. It will be interesting to see how long our state of Hawaiian bliss lasts once we return to the big city.