Cat Island (Also known as Gili T)

They say that there are more cats than people on Gili Trawangan. I definitely believe that. But the strange part is that none of them have full tails. In fact, they either have no tails whatsoever or it looks like half of the tail was chopped off.

After encountering an entire half-tailed family while walking down the road, I asked a man at a local diving shop why all the cats had stubby tails. He said that the locals chop off the tails to make a special soup.

I responded, “yum” and decided to ask another source.

Unfortunately, the guy that I asked at my hotel the following morning gave me the same response. So I brought out my pipe and magnifying glass and went out to do my own research (on Google). Apparently, all the cats on the island are inbred, which makes sense seeing as there are hundreds of them on a 2.5 kilometer island.

A few nights later, I was given the pleasure of an abrupt awakening by a tail-less cat as it jumped in my bed. I understand that it wanted to snuggle; but that was a little aggressive, especially for an inbred freak cat.

 

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Only 100 meters outside of Ubud

I met Megan as I was leaving my first hotel in Ubud, Bali and on my way to my second. I found the first room to be very dark and realized that I could get more for my money if I did a little face to face bargaining with other hotels.

About 3 minutes after meeting Megan, a guidance counselor from Toronto, we swapped email addresses and made plans to meet up later for a drink (typical mating ritual for solo travelers). When we met up later in the evening, we totally clicked. After a few cocktails, we made plans to rendezvous the following morning and explore the rice terraces right on the outskirts of Ubud. Megan’s guidebook outlined a leisurely 2.5 hour walk that circled around and brought us right back to the center of town.

We ventured into the rice terraces in the severe heat and intense sun. They were beautiful. About an hour into our walk, we saw two Australian gentlemen drinking straight out of coconuts at a stand along the side of the path. It looked splendid. So I asked the local man who was running the stand if I could also get a coconut. He said yes, walked around the back of his stand, and before I knew it, was half way up a coconut tree. He plucked off a coconut and quickly slid down the trunk of the tree. When he came back down, he took a machete to the coconut and handed me a delicious drink.

We all sat for a while in the shade, Megan and I shared the coconut and discussed how wonderful it would be to go swimming. The local man said that there was a swimming stream just 100 meters away that he crossed every morning to get from his home to his stand.

It sounded perfect. Megan and I confirmed that it was something that we both wanted to do and then gestured in the direction that the man was pointing to earlier and asked, “100 meters?”

The Australian men decided to join us as well. As the group started to walk, the local man insisted that he would escort us and show us how to get there. I thought it couldn’t be that difficult if it was 100 meters in one direction, but he insisted.

We walked across the rice fields and then into the forest. I could hear the water, but couldn’t see it. Climbing down the side of the hill in flip flops, we continued to trek. It literally felt like we were in the middle of nowhere and we were definitely at least a kilometer from where we started.

When we finally reached the stream, I apparently was the only person who actually wanted to get in, so I did. After wading around for a bit in the water and washing off all of the mud that I had accumulated during the adventure down to the stream, I got out.

The local man insisted that I rinse off in the “sacred temple water” sourced from a spout coming out of the side of the hill. I thought it was strange since earlier he had told us how clean the stream water was. Regardless, I got under the spout and rinsed off. Then, as if to help me, he started rubbing my head under the faucet. He claimed it was a “traditional head massage.” After finally escaping from the faucet and the grips of the local man, Megan and I turned to each other and agreed that the whole experience was, well, weird.

We decided it was time to go back. With simple directions from the local man, cross that (high) bridge (made with a few sticks), go right, go up the hill, go left and then cross the rice fields, we were on our way. Another kilometer plus of vertical climbing on wet, marshy jungle, we returned to the rice terraces; alive but a little weirded out.

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Crash and Burn in Hong Kong

I met up with a New York friend, who is known to embrace a good time, in Hong Kong. He was there for a few days to attend a global private equity conference.

The night of the conference’s big dinner, he finagled me a pass and a seat at his dinner table. I pieced an outfit together that could qualify as “business formal” and met him midway through the meal. During introductions, I elusively danced around the subject of where I work. As I became more comfortable at the table, the Indian gentleman sitting next to me (with a “vegetarian” place card in front of him) inquired whether I knew if the appetizer, a slice of brown something served with bok choy, was vegetarian. I took a bite and told him that i thought it was a mushroom. But apparently, according to the lady sitting on the other side of him, it wasn’t. He was outraged as if I had deliberately tried to trick him.

I picked up the menu that was laying in the center of the table in order to determine exactly what we were being served. The menu was inconclusive. After placing the menu back down, I whispered to him (it was in the middle of a speaker) that the menu provided nothing of value. So, I went back to finishing my appetizer, whatever it was, and turned to see that the menu had burst into flames. My friend just stared at it. I glanced between my water and wine, thought for a quick moment, grabbed the water and threw it at the menu. The flame was extinguished and I had earned my place at the table.

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Hans and Wolfgang in Halong Bay

I met Hans and Wolfgang when we first sat down to dinner aboard our ship bound for Halong Bay, Vietnam. Two middle-aged German men, each with a dry sense of humor and an air of familiarity that instantly made them feel like family.

Wolfgang had lived in Indonesia for over nine years in addition to living in parts of Malaysia and, of course, Germany. Hans, from what I understood, had lived in Germany, always. At breakfast on my last day on the boat, the topic of conversation turned to the next destinations on my travel itinerary. I explained that I would be flying directly from Hanoi that evening to Hong Kong, spend a few days in Hong Kong and fly from there to Australia then Indonesia, and would finish up in Singapore.

Wolfgang compared me to a Japanese tourist, “Europe, OK, I can see in 10 days” while he mimed taking pictures with an invisible camera. OK, I got the message, I was rushing it. So, I asked Wolfgang where he thought I should go instead. Without hesitation, he responded, “Bali.” Just Bali? I told him I’d think about it.

A few hours later, I brought a book with a map of Indonesia when I joined Hans and Wolfgang  for a mid-morning coffee on the top of the boat. I opened the book and pointed to the map, “I’ll spend 3 days in Bali, maybe climb a volcano, visit a few other islands, perhaps go to Jakarta.”

Wolfgang grabbed my pen and book. He pointed to the map of Bali and said, “you spend 4 weeks in Ubud, 2 to 3 weeks in the east, and another 2 to 3 weeks in the south.” I laughed and responded, “but I only have 10 days left.”

He said, “OK, 10 days in Ubud.” So I agreed (at least to an extended stay in Bali). It was as simple as that, I had completely rerouted my trip.

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Flashpackers

Prior to my departure from New York, numerous people asked me if I would be backpacking through Asia. My response: not quite. At the time, I really didn’t have a proper term to describe what I was doing as I wasn’t a budget backpacker nor was I luxury traveler.

At the Red Bridge Cooking school in Hoi An, Vietnam, I spent the day with four Aussies. We travelled to Tra Que Village to see where local herbs are grown, spent hours cooking, eating and swimming together and then shared a boat back to Hoi An. Along the way we swapped stories about traveling and interrupted each other to make culture comparisons. At one point, the two girls from Perth described their Asian journey so far as “Flashpackers.” Immediately, I asked for a definition. They explained that they were traveling/backpacking on a budget with a little flash (or luxury) here and there.

I found the term to be quite fitting. I indeed am a Flashpacker.

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Pussy Cat in Hanoi

I was sitting at a cafe in Hanoi, politely minding my own business when a nice western family came in to the cafe. The mother and father walked in first followed by their wobbling 2 year old daughter.

I gave her a big smile and a wave. Then she started pointing at me yelling, “pussy, pussy.” A little shocked at first, I quickly figured out that she was pointing to the cat that I did not realize was sitting on the chair next to me.

She then walked up to it, touched it and said, “I like cat, pussy.”

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Saigon Moonwalk

Two Irish girls who I met briefly in the Siem Reap airport insisted that, when in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), I must do the Vietnam Vespa Adventure tour at night. As I am currently in a place where when someone says, “jump off this bridge, it was awesome,” I say, “where,” I signed up.

Now describing what the roads look like in Saigon to someone who has never been is extremely challenging, as I have never before experienced something similar. Imagine walking down 5th Avenue near Rockefeller Center right before Christmas. Now imagine that all of the tourists and all of the New Yorkers are on motorbikes. Now imagine that all of the stoplights are broken and there are no crosswalks. That is Saigon.

So after making my first attempt to cross the street (you have to walk a few steps, stop, wait for cars and motorbikes to pass you, walk a few more steps, stop, wait for more cars and motorbikes to pass you, walk a few more steps, stop again and continue this pattern multiple times until you’ve reach the other side), I really re-evaluated my decision to get on the back of a motorbike. But when 6PM rolled around and I found myself at the tour’s meeting place, Zoom Cafe.

After a few drinks at Zoom, the group had bonded. Josh, our tour guide from Tampa Bay, Florida who came to Saigon 3.5 years ago on vacation and stayed, was my driver. When I first jumped on the back of his Vespa, I was terrified but also thankful that we had taken the time to have a cocktail or two (just the passengers) before departing. Once I got used to the fact that I wasn’t going to immediately die, it was awesome. Weaving in and out of traffic, we still felt like one big mass. The group’s first stop was a side of the road cafe/stall/dump/restaurant where we all sat down and one long table. While drinking local beers, we were presented with the “appetizer” course. Crabs in chili salt, clams, mussels and my favorite, “chicken” or so it was introduced to everyone at the table until after the first bite when it was clarified that we were actually eating frog. Delicious.

After departing from the location of the first course, Josh and I stumbled across a teenage Michael Jackson impersonator dancing, literally, in the middle of the street in front of dozens of locals. For some reason, this is where I thought I should say to Josh, “I want to have a dance-off.” To my surprise, he immediately pulls over. I clumsily hopped off the bike, removed my helmet and went to town. Although my skills were a little rusty, I still received a courtesy round of applause from the locals who had taken this opportunity to film “the crazy American” with their cell phones.

Arriving the next stop, dinner, Josh politely explained to the group why we were late: I was moonwalking in the street.

 

 

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Stuck in No Man’s Land

Leaving Thailand can be surprisingly difficult, so can getting in.

Most of my trip so far has been planned at the last minute. I’ve learned that prices don’t change much if you buy a flight the day before and, if they do, you can easily go into a booking agency (they are everywhere) and you can get a “special price.”

Originally I had planned to go straight from Koh Samui, Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. However, when flying from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Koh Samui, I had a layover in Bangkok. When our flight landed, I noticed that downtown Bangkok was not impassable due to flooding and activity/traffic looked functional. So, at the advice of some other travelers, I re-rerouted itinerary and purchased a ticket directly from Koh Samui to Bangkok. Then, after a few days in Bangkok wore me out, I purchased a ticket to leave for Ho Chin Minh City the following day.

When I got to the airport to leave for Vietnam, I checked in at the ticket machine and then got in the Document Check line where I presented all of my documents (or so I thought). The conversation went a little like this:

“Where’s your visa?”

“Um, I need a visa?”

Luckily, I had arrived at the airport about three hours before my flight was scheduled to depart. The lady at the document check counter suggested that I quickly find a computer, go online and see if I could get an expedited confirmation letter for a visa on arrival. I bolted to a computer, did some googling and paid an agency (a stupid amount of money) to get a visa ASAP (they said online 1 to 12 hours). With the letter that the agency gave me as a receipt of payment, I went through immigration and then to my gate. Sitting by the gate, I continuously checked my email waiting for the official confirmation letter. But when boarding time arrived, I had nothing.

I decided to cut my losses and head to the airline counter to reschedule my flight. Unfortunately, AirAsia happens to be the one airline in the entire Bangkok international airport that doesn’t have a desk inside security.

Frustrated after this discovery, I tried to head back to the check-in counter area. This maneuver required me to go through customs where, well, they had no idea what I was trying to do except for enter the country illegally. So, I was sent back to gate area to find the elusive AirAsia counter inside security. After walking another 20 minutes back across the airport (mind you, Bangkok airport is freakin huge), I was immediately sent all the way back again to customs.

After making my voice heard to the customs official after he attempted to send me back to the gate, I was “removed” from the area by a supervisor and escorted to another “special” area. There, I explained my situation another four to six times and the supervisor finally called over a representative from AirAsia who arrived a leisurely 45 minutes later. I explained my situation another three to five times to the  representative and she escorted me back through the entire airport to immigration where I went out through the “officials only” door, my name was written down in some official book and a big fat cancelled (in Thai) stamp was imprinted in my passport. I was free!

After some smooth New York talking at the ticket counter, my ticket was changed to the first flight the next morning, no charge.

A few hours later, my official confirmation notice arrived and by 8:15 AM the next morning, I was in Vietnam.

The lesson learned: You need a visa to get into Vietnam and don’t be dumb.

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Cooking with Poo

Taking a cooking class in Bangkok came highly recommended. And, since I already feel like I’m gorging my way through Asia, I thought a cooking class would be very fitting for when I return to New York  and feel like eating Asian food again (8-12 months).

With a little research, I came across, cookingwithpoo.com. I was sold. At 8:30am the following morning, after housing an omelet over rice that I bought on the street (a local insisted that I put ketchup on it), I waited under an awning of a hotel in central Bangkok. Also waiting there was an Australian woman and her 2 year old son with a head of spastic blond curls. Due to the flooding in Bangkok, it turned out that although 12 people had registered and paid for the class, it was only us three. We hopped in a van with Poo (our lead chef who had adopted her very fitting nickname). The first stop was the market; there Poo made sure to pick up and show us every possible thing that people in either northern or southern Thailand could conceive to eat (buffalo skin, chicken feet, an assortment of insects, etc.). It was pretty awesome/disgusting.

After the market, we drove to Poo’s home/kitchen where we cooked four amazing dishes (Tom Yum Gai, Pad Thai, Larb Pet and Mango sticky rice).  One course in, I regretted my omelet. Two courses in, I thought I may not need to eat for another day or so. When we reached the third and fourth course, I had to place all my focus into politely finishing each dish while silently cursing myself and vowing never to eat again. But despite the sensation of feeling like I was going to burst, I will admit, as the apron says, “I cooked with Poo and I liked it.”

 

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Anticlimactic Koh Samui

Sunday morning I woke up before dawn, suffocated and sweating in my down comforter (remember, I’m in a tropical paradise). I decided to go for a walk on the beach to watch the sunrise and perhaps visit what was described on my map as “the most popular tourist attraction in Koh Samui.”  This: http://www.kosamui.com/lamai-beach/hinta-hinyai.htm

Yes, really.

On my map, it appeared just a little ways down the shore. Thirteen stray dogs and 3 miles later, I arrived at my destination where I discovered, well, nothing. Just a bunch of rocks.

 

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