The High Cost of “Getting There”

As we walked past the cracked windshield and torn up grill and onto the ripped vinyl stairs of the bus, I just started laughing hysterically.

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The unicorn themed sticker display surrounding the driver’s seat and TV, combined with the hideously fabric used for the window and stowage coverings were just too much. I sat down in my seat, where the air was completely still and the outdoors were approaching 100 degrees. My ass immediately started sticking as if a whole bushel of chewed Bazooka was cleverly disguised as the ripped red leather seat that I would call home for the next 150 miles.

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The bus driver said 3 hours, which is Cambodian for 5. The seats did have the luxurious option to lay down to a wonderful 140 degree angle, fantastic for pinning your shoulders between the window and the seat next to you in a manner that would cause Houdini to feel claustrophobic.

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Fear not though gentle traveler, the person in front of you is a ¾ replica of the average Western man, so he can lay his seat right down into your lap with no issues at all.

I looked gratefully at my last minute decision to grab another 1.5 L bottle of water, and tucked in my headphones for what I knew was going to be a long bumpy ride down another wonderfully unpaved stretch of the Cambodian countryside.

You’ve got to laugh, otherwise you might cry. Otherwise I might have started thinking about the fact that I’ve spent the last 73 nights of my life in no fewer than 35 beds.

Maybe I’d remember that I haven’t been properly dry since landing in Hanoi 34 days ago. I’d probably think how great it’d be great to just have a nice simple hot dog on the grill, complete with MUSTARD and a soft bun. Or how I’d love to be bullshitting with my buddies at a fraternity brother’s wedding this weekend. I might remember the fact that there won’t be cars on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for another 345 days.

Here's your toilet

Here’s your toilet

Hell I’d give just about anything to have my own deodorant back, as opposed to the underarm Russian Roulette I’ve been playing to find a replacement in a series of pharmacies smaller than the standard supermarket aisle. Brushing my teeth with tap water is yet another luxury I’ve not had in months. Hell, having a shower curtain in Siem Riep was a cause for real joy of the non facetious variety.

I’ve had mornings where I woke up and said, “Hell I can get another job and go home. 71 days is more than enough. What’s a 1 way cost out of (fill in the blank) airport?

Then I get in a tuk tuk and drive straight up a mountain where I came to a view that afforded me the opportunity to see the horizon drop in the distance. I walked into massive caves and could still hear the spectral sounds of babies crying before they were dashed on the rocks and thrown into the pit.
I got the picture of a lifetime, a man praying for his family killed in this very cave 36 years ago in front of an altar full of skulls beside a full Buddhist temple in the middle of the caves where so many lives were lost.

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I wouldn’t have had a conversation for 2 hours the day before about the rise of autism in Canada or talked Roman history with a German named Marius while drinking beers and playing ping pong in a bamboo hut.

Wouldn’t have sat overlooking the river as the sun rose, working on writing when the familiar fingernails of a beautiful, honey skinned British girl started raking down my scalp and neck.

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Probably wouldn’t have discussed the EU Parliament elections and upcoming World Cup in a rooftop bar in Phnom Penh where the beers were $.75. And I certainly wouldn’t have had monkeys steal the cutlery off the dirty dishes next to me and drop them down the mountain.

I wouldn’t have drank weasel shit coffee or swam in isolated waterfalls without another person for a half mile. Certainly wouldn’t have gotten my Dorothy on while walking through acre after acre of pristine flower farms.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

I also wouldn’t have ridden on a bamboo platform at a breakneck 40 MPH over the most warped and winding rails the French ever laid.

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I wouldn’t have done all those things because the pile of reasons “I can’t” became bigger than the “Christ that’d be amazing.” I’d go back to everyday life and talk about what I’m going to do in that elusive “next year,” putting off for tomorrow what I was too (busy, lazy, broke, scared, etc) to do today.

The problem is, next year becomes today. Then it is 5 years down the line, and the responsibilities are too great to ever get this done. Then instead of “next year” it is “when I retire.”

It never gets done. Those dreams you said you had once, never got closer than the mountain of reasons ”why not” to reality.

Then you never drink your coffee and watch straw hatted Vietnamese pole down the river to cast their fishing nets or get escorted to a scuba dive site by gunboats because you’re mere miles away from an international conflict.

You have your coffee at Starbucks and head into work. Your last 72 days looked a lot like the 72 before those.

Mine were full of miserable bus rides, ineffective deodorant and toilets flushed with a bucket of water.

But Lord Almighty was there something to see once you arrived.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Weasel Shit Coffee and Waterfalls

The best thing about traveling alone is waking up. After a day fraught with a little altitude sickness, (Dalat is placed in the mountains roughly a mile above sea level which conspired with scuba to give me a godawful headache) I slept fitfully, waking up at 5AM. Realizing that I had absolutely nothing on the docket for the day, I figured I had to find something to do. I did a little research on the internet, then consulted my secondhand copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which strongly suggested taking a Dalat Easyrider trip to see the sites of the surrounding area.

Point to you Lonely Planet.

I went downstairs and He at the front desk called to schedule a driver within 5 minutes. I headed off to go have some breakfast around the corner (2 baguettes, 2 Vietnamese coffees and 3 pork meatballs in a broth. Grand total $1.65.)

Between eating and playing peek-a-boo with the owner’s toddler, I was inspired to sketch out some more of my next fiction project, jotting down my notes in my trusty pocket sized Moleskine (this gets important later.) After about a half hour, I wandered back to my hostel, where my trusty guide Hero Hung (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) was waiting at the front door for me.

We sat down for about 5 minutes, pouring over some maps and pictures, as well as his binder of handwritten recommendations in every language from Mandarin to Spanish. After agreeing upon a course of action and a price ($35 for the day.) We went and grabbed me another moped, this one being a manual…we’ll be generous and say 100CC Honda.

On a moped...again

On a moped…again

I was a little worried about getting up and down the surrounding mountains on this glorified gas powered rollerblade, but Hero assured me that it would move my “big American ass” just fine.

Thanks Hero, you’re a real gent!

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple on the way out of Dalat. Hero explained to me how poor people from all around the area will go without even basic necessities, while giving as much as humanly possible to the temple. His wife and mother were in this demographic, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he spoke. He told me that Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% atheist. Hero struck me as an atheist if anything, but he made it very obvious that atheism is quite frowned upon in Vietnam so he was a begrudging Buddhist in his own mind.

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

I thought about the massive cathedrals of both the US and Europe, mostly built from the tithes of the poor, especially St. Patrick’s in NYC. An awful lot of immigrants went without in order to build that house of worship as well.

Apparently that part of religion is quite universal, but as usual, the people with the least are the most likely to share.

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Leaving the temple, we headed out of town and into the mountains. As usual traffic was a barely navigable, schizophrenic mess, but soon we found ourselves going down a muddy dirt road around the side of a mountain. The road was once paved, but it was being widened…largely by hand. There were teams of Vietnamese workers with pickaxes working next to Soviet era excavators on a mountain that would’ve easily been a black diamond in Colorado given some snow.

Well there USED to be a road here

Well there USED to be a road here

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather dig ditches.”

We made it through the sloppy mess that was and found ourselves at a flower farm.

Rarely have I seen anything more surreal than these acres and acres of roses and lillies. There were just stacks of long stemmed red roses everywhere, and lilies separated by color for as far as the eye could see. It was truly something to behold, and I’m far from a flower guy.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

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Jumping back on the bikes, we headed up and down a few mountains before finally being deposited at a beautiful coffee plantation overlooking the surrounding valley. Hero quickly explained to me that this was no ordinary coffee plantation, this one had weasel coffee.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

From this

From this

After he showed me the different coffee plants; Arabica, Robusta and Moka. Hero took me to see the weasels.

Into this

Into this

They were penned into large enclosures, usually 3-4 in a shed sized cage.

Their only job was to eat coffee beans.

And shit them back out.

Resulting in this

Resulting in this

Best job in the animal kingdom.

Apparently these weasels can only partially digest coffee beans, which gives them a remarkably different flavor and consistency than standard roasted beans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

After defecation, the beans are triple washed and then roasted normally. Since “Weasel Shit Coffee” was available by the cup, I figured I owed it to the little buggers to try their handiwork, which the plantation was charging 4x compared to a normal cup (though still less than $3.)

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

I must say, it definitely has a different taste than standard coffee, with a sweet rotting fruit aroma to it. There was a strong aftertaste, and while I’d never normally put sugar in my coffee, I was forced to with this.

I’m glad I drank a glass for the novelty, but I certainly wouldn’t pay the $30 a glass that some places in the US and Japan charge.

It was solidly worth the $3, nothing more.

While I was enjoying my coffee, Hero and I talked about his family. A native of the Dalat area, he initially drove cabs before realizing 7 years ago that there was much better money in Easyrider guiding. Being from the South, he had no problems of any kinds with Americans, in fact his father had fought and was killed along American GIs in the Vietnam War. Hero never knew his father, but he believed the cause that he died for, because from 1975 to 1989, when the country was reopened to the world, most Vietnamese people were incredibly poor.

As I looked out over the plantations of coffee, flowers and vegetables that the Dalat area had to offer, I was shocked to hear that Vietnam was a net importer of rice from the end of the war until the mid 1990s. Now Vietnam is either #1 or #2 in net coffee exports and has run an agricultural surplus for nearly a generation.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Hero talked about the rapid explosion of wealth happening in his country, with mixed emotions. While he was glad that people were no longer living on the meager poverty rations that the Communist government provided before opening the country, he was concerned that capitalism would create an inverted pyramid of wealth, with the poor, huddled masses going hungry once again.

Today, things are better than they’ve ever been and there is work available for nearly anyone in Vietnam. It might be digging ditches by hand, but there is the option of paying work for anyone willing to take it.

I wished that I could’ve been a proper cheerleader for capitalism, but the American system has eliminated much of the lowest skilled work, leaving people without the dignity that an earned paycheck brings. There’s no reason to be hungry in America, but that doesn’t by any means sanctify our breed of capitalism as a perfect system.

Getting back on the bike, all jacked up on Weasel Shit Coffee, we headed over to Elephant Falls for a few pictures. At this point, Hero left me to my own devices to climb down while he chainsmoked Marlboro Reds.

I decided to get real cheeky, climbing over the wet, muddy rocks to get better a better short of the falls. Getting to the shot I wanted was fine…

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

It was getting back that was the problem.

Getting a little cocky

Getting a little cocky

With one foot on a muddy rock and the other gently probing to see how deep an eddy was, I fell in, all the way over my head.

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Clothes, keys, notebook, cash and camera. Thankfully I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and managed to get myself back out of the water before I got into any real trouble, but there was a serious ding to my pride, and 6 weeks of jotted notes that I was quite concerned about. (Thank god Moleskine is made with good paper, an hour of drying in the sun, and it was more or less fine.)

Waterfalls 1, Conquest 0.

After I tried out, we grabbed some spring rolls, com ga (chicken and rice) and pho before getting back out on the road, next checking out a silk farm, which was fascinating to see. Still an awful lot of manual labor that goes into the manufacturing of silk goods as these ladies can attest.

Silk production

Silk production

Amazing how little the process has changed since Marco Polo reported on it some thousand years ago.

Our last stop of the day was, Chicken Village. Inhabited by a minority tribe that makes approximately no sense, Chicken Village was a place with strange customs and one giant stone cock.

Not a crude joke...well sorta

Not a crude joke…well sorta

Men are “bought” with a gift from the girl’s family of a cow and a water buffalo. The women then engage in backbreaking labor while the men do largely nothing. Children begin working with their mothers around the age of 7, until the boys turn 16 and get put on the auction block.

Like the weasels, great work if you can get it.

We headed back around the lake in Dalat and Hero dropped me off at home, all the while trying to convince me to let him guide me all the way to Saigon over the next 3 days. I’ve got to say, motorbiking around here is a ton of fun, and unequivocally the best way to see Vietnam, but I wanted to give my “big American ass” a shower and a few hours before I committed to anything.

As much fun as I had today though, 20 hours over 3 days on a moped is a long time.

I am seriously considering it. It would keep me off of another “sleeper bus.”

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper bus of DOOM!