Category Archives: Wander

My Buddha

BuddhaSometimes travel is also a search. As I made my way through Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, I was also looking for my Buddha— and not just any one— I was looking for the earth-witness mudra. This is where, challenged by the demonic force of Mara, Siddhartha touches the ground. This is the moment of enlightenment— we are the earth and the earth is us, woven together in the fabric of everything in the here and now. Cool. Just looking at the Buddha is calming for me. I had some aesthetic requirements as well: the Buddha had to be wood, not too big and not too small, no nipples, and no giant puffy lips or weird eyes—or bling. I would know when I saw the one.

Bangkok
We arrived in the middle of the night. The road into Bangkok looks just like the New Jersey Turnpike and, by night, Bangkok looks like some other city back home— there’s a McDonald’s, there’s a Starbucks, there’s a 7-11, we turn at the Toyota dealer sign. By morning, it was definitely someplace I’d never been before: a modern city with all the usual suspects— Au Bon Pain, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut— but every bit of sidewalk continuously lined with street vendors selling everything that can be sold. But mostly food laying out, which is why I was originally going to title this piece ‘food not held at proper temperature.’ And in a way, this would reveal the theme of the trip: all three countries are set in their old ways and relentlessly modern, not as separate lifestyles like say a New York fashionista here and a Pennsylvania Amish person over there, but as if those two were the same person at the same time.

We slept through most of our first day, so I’ll call this Day Zero. When we do get up, we decide to wander the area around the hotel. Our travel planner steered us to a suite hotel in the Sathorn area near Lumpini Park, the only green spot I could find on the Bangkok map. There actually be dragons in this park and the bars in the fence look wide enough for them to saunter through. But everybody’s cool, so we cool too. Some folks are exercising and running in the park. As I watch the runners, with their mouths gaping, their legs wheeling around, and their outfits— terry sweat-bands, knee-high socks, worn-out t-shirts, tennis sneakers— not a Lululemon or Nike among them. These are my people. Back home everyone looks like an Olympic athlete with their perfect outfits and their amazing form, gliding gazelle-like across the landscape. Along the way, we start to notice all these shrines that look like little dollhouses: some have bottles of soda, Barbie dolls, half-burnt cigarettes, loose change, candy… We go back to the hotel and pass out— until suddenly we are all wide awake and ready to go at 3am. So we eat everything from the fruit platter in the room. And go back to sleep. And wake up at 4:30am. This isn’t jet lag, this is a time warp.

DragonShrine

Because this was our first time in Bangkok, we had a guide to take us to all the main sites. And I’m glad we did because, for me, Bangkok is super confusing. We board a boat because our guide says we’ll never get there by taxi. Wow, the boat is crowded. Even on the most packed subway car in New York we still manage to have some personal space, but here? I am so squeezed that I can lift my feet off the floor and still be standing. We speed along the Chao Phraya catching the mearest whiff of a cooling breeze. Everyone is sweating. In late December.

We disembark and almost run through a flower market after our guide. She picks up a bunch of lotus flowers and then we are whisked away in a tuk tuk to Wat Pho. No seat belts. We live. Here, our guide shows us how to fold the petals of the flowers so we can leave them as offerings at temples on the grounds. Today is also when I begin to learn that while back at home Buddhism is more of a philosophical movement, here it is a full-blown religion. Our first stop, Wat Pho, is the home of the giant reclining Buddha. Before I started to travel, I often wondered with all the photos and videos, if seeing all these iconic places in person was worthwhile. It is. The reclining Buddha is a study in contrast: an enormous, glowing gold figure set in a jewel box— everything finely detailed: the doors, the walls, every inch of every surface embellished. After placing our 108 coins in the bronze bowls that line the wat— because we never pass up a chance for good fortune— we explore the grounds of this former, and once again, center for traditional medicine and massage. It is dizzying to take it all in, every surface is embellished with meaning, with story. It is only after we leave that I realize we forgot to see the Bodhi tree! The one propagated from the Bodhi of all Bodhis, the one that witnessed the enlightenment. Shit. Not a very Buddhist thought. We also ran out of time to experience Thai massage at the highly-regarded school on the grounds. We’ll just have to come back one day.

Tuk Tuk

LotusBuddha Eye

Medical

We headed for lunch; on our way we passed though street vendors selling amulets — this was not the amulet market referred to in most guidebooks— stopping to buy some sort of wildly printed, harem style, pants. Our guide has told us we would need something like this for the Grand Palace; although our arms and legs were covered, my kids are wearing leggings and our guide says are too fitted for respectful entrance to the shrine. The guidebooks need to update their advice from ‘covered’ to ‘loosely covered.’ The amulet market was another thing we didn’t have time for, so I don’t know if we missed anything, but we would see amulets everywhere: on boats, in tuk tuks, on people. Sort of like the evil eye in Turkey. Another one for the next visit list.

The Royal Navy 77 Club had decent reviews and the river view was nice and cooling— because even in December it is hot here, but the restaurant was dirty, the service was non-existent, and the food was cold and wilted looking. A lot of reviewers love this place. What do I know? My daughter orders fish. It comes cold and whole with its sad, cataract-clouded eye staring straight at her; she doesn’t know whether to eat it or hold a funeral. Our boat meets us here for the klong tour; for some strange reason, many travel sites refer to the klongs as the ‘Venice of the East.’ Having been to Venice, I can tell you this is a stretch too far. Venice is a decaying architectural splendor, the homes along the klongs are decaying woodpiles replete with satellite dishes and drying laundry and floating garbage.

Klong

We go from the klongs to the almost dipped in gold splendor of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, the home of the very diminutive emerald Buddha. You can’t get close to him, actually you have to look at him through the door, but amazingly you can appreciate the luminous emerald from the distance. He is wearing a golden shawl. I make a joke that it’s to keep him warm and darned if that doesn’t turn out to be the reason; he also has an outfit for the summer and the rainy seasons, changed by the King of Thailand no less.

Mirror Tiles

On this day we were supposed to do a sort of street food crawl starting in Lumpinee Park and heading toward the Lalai Sap morning market and then head to Chinatown later in the day. Our guide says we would have to meet at 5:30am for this. Because we are still really jet-lagged we decided to skip it; we had already walked through the park and the tried congee at the hotel— a very gelatinous cream of wheat type thing. So we opted for just going to Chinatown. Afterwards, I find out we could have gone a little later, maybe 7:30am, for the morning market Pad Thai at Lumpini Park and even later for Lalai Sap, which is open until 3:00pm. But I’m not sure if we missed something here since the whole city is basically a big market and we would try a lot of different foods from street vendors. Some tasted really good, like these sort of stuffed tuile cookies, and some like this one dim sum looking thing, was super pungent— the Thai answer to Limburger cheese. How do you get vegetables to taste like rotting cheese?

CookiesPuke Food

Because it was noonish when we got started, we headed for lunch at The Canton House. If you’ve had dim sum or Cantonese dishes in New York or San Francisco, you’ll probably rate this place as ‘just ok’; the pork buns were blandish, stir-fried bok choy was ok. Walking around we see a number of restaurants with shark fins on their signs. Our guide confirms that shark fin is served at these places as a kind of luxury dish, like caviar. Thanks to National Geographic, even my kids are aware of the consequences of the killing of sharks for their fins. But what can we do? We decide to not give any business to restaurants that serve shark fin. As we walk around, I begin to notice how all the cabs are day-glo colors: pink, yellow, green, a rare orange. We make our way around and into what was referred to as the ‘Old Market’ and see what appear to be historic buildings being demolished. I told our guide I was looking for a Buddha; this resulted in a wild chase through several markets, some with loads of Buddhas, but none were my Buddha.

Pink CabAlley

Onwards: Chaing Mai

The street our hotel is on is really quiet compared to most of Bangkok. Still, there are a handful of street vendors, including a tailor with an old manual sewing machine, and someone selling parts for bikes; at the end of our street we find a bubble tea place. I am told the ice here is ordered from factories that use safe water, so we take a chance because the place appears tidy and clean, and, since the heat is getting to us, we need something cool. It is awesome. We live. And we have to leave. Today we head to Chaing Mai; our first stop is Wat Doi Suthep. You head up a long staircase protected by a fierce creature that resembles a T-Rex more than any dragon I’ve ever seen. Once at the summit, this turns out to be a kind of Buddhist Disneyland with a shining, gleaming, blindingly golden chedi; we find out what Buddha we are based on our birth day— me and my younger daughter are a bowl holding Buddha— my older daughter and her dad exchange string bracelets, and both my kids get their (thankfully good) fortune. But our guide seemed to caution me not to get mine because sometimes they are not good. Hmm. And then there is Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu god. Further on there is the statue of the white elephant that played a major role in the founding of the wat. It’s a salad of deities. We take in the view and notice a stand selling beautiful wooden prayer beads for the benefit of the wat. After we buy them, the monk begins blessing them (we hope); in the distance, we see our guide motioning for us to come along. But you cannot hurry a monk and we don’t want half-blessed beads.

T Rex

We spend a little time learning about jade in one of the shops across from the wat (and getting a little charm for my daughter’s bracelet) before we press on and stop for lunch at some riverside joint. I have some sort of spicy tuna salad on a banana leaf that was super good. Do I take a picture of it? No! I’m too hungry. I have to say, I think it’s really cool the way banana leaves are used all over; I would guess banana leaves could be a good eco-friendly alternative to paper plates. After this, we visit Home Industries, a sort of special zone for craftsman; we see woodworking, paper, lacquerware, and silver. It’s hard to know what to say, I want to be positive, not critical, because what do I know— one person’s soup can is another person’s art. Our guide refers to Home Industries as the ‘Masterpiece of Thailand’ and if I weren’t very familiar with craft work, have an art degree, and hadn’t yet traveled very much, I might have been impressed. There were a few pieces here and there that showed artisan level skills, but most pieces were very expensive and not very well done. Still, my kids enjoyed it, and my older daughter, who is into crafts, got a basic idea of how some things are made. In Laos, we would see some extraordinary work.

Woodworking

Our next day would would probably win the vote for the best experience during our travels: mahouts for a day at Patara Elephant Farm. I really thought this was going to be something contrived that would make me feel I was contributing to the degradation of these amazing animals. But I was wrong. Or at least, I think I’m wrong. We are told the elephants here are rescued because they were abused or unwanted. The elephants seem calm and content and the babies will run up and head-butt you. They have a lot of beautiful countryside to roam— unlike the ones in zoos. Now I can hardly look at an elephant in a zoo. They emphasize natural mating because they think artificial insemination confuses the mother; they want them to breed because babies give the elephant community, or herd, a purpose. We feed the elephants, learn how to care for them, examine their dung— not bad at all, smells like fermented grass— feed them, ride them, and give them a bath in a stream. Wow. Really incredible animals, and to be this close to them in beautiful rural setting was truly amazing. We end the day with way too much lunch laid out on the floor on giant banana leaves overlooking the stream.

Today is our cooking lesson with Smart Cook somewhere in the countryside. Our first stop is a market not far from our hotel. Our guide shows us the different kinds of herbs and vegetables. There are three kinds of basil used in Thai cooking, so what we have back at home sold as ‘Thai basil’ could be what? The most interesting stop is the rice stall— not just different types and qualities rice, but rice that has been aged— some for years. Then we headed out on a quaint old train and picked up bikes at the station to ride to the school. My older daughter is excited when she sees we will be making her favorite dish: mangoes with sticky rice. This class was really well organized and clean. At one point we made a soup which we could finish with chili sauce to our taste. I like food somewhat spicy; I could have sworn he said one spoon (and these were those little demitasse spoons) for a little spicy and two or more for medium spicy. I put one scant spoonful in. Did I mishear him? Moments later my lips start burning, then my nostrils, then, oh, it’s going down. My daughter asks me if I’m alright. “Sure, why?” “Well, you have a red ring around your lips.” Damn that was spicy. We head back to the train station where we are loaded into the backs of pick-up trucks. No seat belts. We are followed part of the way by a young woman wearing a hajib on a motorbike with a guy hanging on.

RiceSticky RiceGirl on Bike

Today is kind of an odd day. Or maybe just not what I was expecting. There are a handful of what are referred to as ‘hill tribes’ north of Chaing Mai; the people have come from different places, like Myanmar or Tibet, and have maintained many of their cultural traditions. We see signs all over for tours to their ‘villages,’ but these are, Disneyfied is not quite the right word, but many of these villages are set up for tourists and geared to selling trinkets and some dodgy, possibly handmade stuff. Our planner was trying to give us, I think, a more genuine experience, but I’ve learned from my travels how difficult it can be to have something that feels like a real cultural connection when economic inequality is so vast: we are looking for an experience, they are trying to survive. And yet that is what we hope for in our travels— to feel a connection to the places we visit and to learn first-hand about their cultures, along the way we’ve managed to have a few really enlightening experiences, but also many that felt exploitative or awkward for everyone involved.

With our very knowledgeable guide, we trekked through the villages of Lahu, Karen, Lisu, Akha, and Palong. A few people waved to us from their porches, but mostly everyone was gone— working somewhere I was told. We climbed over a few hills, some rather steep and rutted with motorbike tracks and infested with mosquitoes. There were a few mangy dogs, peanuts drying out on tarps, empty schools. It felt invasive and odd— what would I think if a group of Asians carrying cameras came walking through my neighborhood with a guide? At the end we came to a shop run by Palong women, some with their teeth colored black and what looks like regular bath towels wrapped around their heads; they are selling scarves colored with natural dyes. A very enterprising young woman runs up to us with a rolled up rug; she unfurls it to reveal the village version of a pop-up shop. Genius. She has the same not handmade trinkets you see everywhere, but we are so captivated by her entrepreneurial zeal we end up buying a few sling shots. I see there are villages offering homestays; I don’t know if this would be better or not.

Bathroom SignWild GingerBlack Teeth

I would have liked more time to explore Chaing Mai; it’s much more walkable than Bangkok. We did get a little time to wander around: my daughter got a fish pedicure, we explored the night market, which to me was just like the markets at home: t-shirts, shoes, strange wall art, trinkets. Nothing really special. We had some amazing noodle soup from a street vendor outside our hotel and we found a little place called Crema Cafe that had awesome smoothies made with fresh mango and passion fruit— on a street full of dive bars with scantily clad women and massage parlors. We found the market from the cooking class day and bought a backpack full of rice to take home, but there was a lot more to explore both inside and out of the old city walls. Oh, we did manage to get our McDonald’s fix here. Although we don’t go there often at home, we discovered back when we were in Venice and desperate for a quick, cheap meal, that McDonald’s doesn’t have the same menu outside the US. They actually have, I think, more interesting food. I had McKao Yum Crispy Chicken with rice. Wow! Spicy! They had some other things: what looked like corn pies, bubble tea, maybe a pork burger. I should have taken more pictures of the menu. The other thing we noticed around town were a lot of nicely dressed young women, not underage, but young, early twenties or late teens, with much, much older white men. When you see something a lot, you start to notice.

Beauty HeadFishSmoothie

Chrismukkah

Wires

Luang Prabrang:

The sun is setting as our guide gives us a short orientation of the town. Set on a peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, it has the feel of a small town with nothing higher than a few stories. It was almost dark by the time we checked into the Lotus Villa and getting very chilly. We set out to find something for dinner; at first we couldn’t figure out why it seemed so dark and strange— then we realized there were no streetlights, just a few houses with floodlights. And there really isn’t anyone walking around either. We came across a bustling barbecue place along the Nam Kham river: Khem Khan Sin Dad. I can describe what we had, but I can’t tell you what it was. After pointing at a picture menu for the waiter, a lady came by and put hot coals in the round grill built into the table, then she came back and put a piece of fat on the grill— which immediately started to spin and sizzle— then she brought raw beef and chicken on a plate putting a few pieces on the grill to give us novices the idea. This was accompanied by bowls with noodles, a kettle of broth, and a plastic basket of veggies and greens. This is the kind of simple food I love. Suddenly, a woman at the table across from us jumps up— the grill spit some hot fire pops out and burned her Patagonia jacket all over. Yikes. We find our way back to the hotel somehow, the room is freezing though. It was wilting in Bangkok and cooler in Chiang Mai, but here it is cold in late December. At least at night. The hotel has no heat and only a screen on the bathroom window. A space heater saves us all.

Our guide picks us up before dawn with blankets, white sashes, and small lidded baskets stuffed with sticky rice; we are going to give alms to the monks. Our guide, Nout, whom I have to say was one of the best guides we’ve ever had, tells us about the monks and nuns and how they go about their daily lives. Taking alms is the way they get their food, which can be rice or whatever the alms giver chooses— even candy bars; the monks then give a portion of their alms to other poor people who put out boxes or baskets. Nout gives us our instructions on how to properly give alms and tells me I can take pictures from across the (very small) street, but no flash. By now quite a few people have lined up; it appears to be a mix of locals and tourists. The monks are starting to come down the street, their saffron robes almost glow in the dark. And then the street lights up like the Fourth of July. Oh no! All the tourists are using their flashes like paparazzi. No, no, no! Stop! Our guide says this always happens. Even though I didn’t use my flash, I feel awful; we’re going to ruin one of the few real experiences that you can have as a traveler. How could everyone not feel the solemnity of the alms giving?

After breakfast we head out to explore the town on bike. This is my second favorite way to get around (the ‘shoe leather express’ is my first). And with very little traffic, it is fun and I don’t have to worry so much about my kids being killed like I did when we were coming down the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge and we had massive tour buses speeding by within inches of us. We take in the Royal Palace Museum before heading out to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. This little museum gave us a good overview of the arts, foods, and traditions of local area tribes— very beautiful craftsmanship. I end up buying a rice basket that can be worn as a backpack. Then we bike over to the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre. This is some seriously beautiful fiber work, at least to me. After learning about how they dye the silk and watching a few weavers at work, we end up spending most of our souvenir money here; I spot runner sized weaving that I cannot leave without and I can’t believe I can afford — a lot of times when I really admire something, it is out of even my most optimistic budget range. Later that week I would find a sterling silver cuff at their shop in town; I would have loved to meet the silversmith of this exquisite piece. The beauty has worn me out. Luckily, the centre has a beautiful riverside cafe. I need to find more ways to say beautiful. All the food is super good: chicken noodle soup with sliced garlic, fresh spring rolls…— even the rice is is more flavorful than what I get at home.

Chicken Soup

We explore some of the temples around town. These are not like the blinged out ones from Bangkok, these are solemn and shopworn. I prefer temples like this, but for the people here it isn’t a choice— they don’t have the money to fix them up. Everything in Luang Prabang looks a little shabby, just like where I grew up, but for tourists, that’s part of the charm. We finish the day climbing Mount Phousi to catch the sunset; on the way up we pass women selling trinkets and little birds in bamboo cages that you can release at the top. They’re gonna give themselves a bird problem. And then a shock: after feeling like we had the town all to ourselves, we find ourselves in a super dense crowd. It’s a good view, you can see for miles, but being short, I have to jump up and down to see it.

Lao Buddhas

This morning we have some time on our own, so we headed for the street markets. The day before we saw skinny, bright purple potatoes being grilled and today we tried them. We knew instantly that these would be our favorite food from the trip; every time we saw them we would get a few, even it we weren’t hungry. The market here was mostly food and a few housewares. Everything is laid out on cloths or banana leaves on the ground. A little kid comes by making squeaking noises, then another one; we finally figure out it’s coming from their super-cute little shoes. Cool. Today is our Mekong day. We board a long, very long boat. The captain and his wife live on the boat, as many families with boats do; we see boats that almost have houses built onto them. The owners of our boat have replaced their aging wood seating with repurposed car seats. Brilliant. We head for a village on the other side of the river. Visiting their temple and walking through the village, we see little shrines, just as we did in Thailand, but here they look much more ‘homemade’— no Barbies or sodas. This village specializes in pottery. We visit the potters at work and watch some pretty high-speed multi-tasking: making large planters and vessels in less than ten minutes while smoking, talking on the phone, and disciplining toddlers.

Fish MarketLao Market

Village Market

Village ShrinePottersPotters 2

We head upriver to visit a fishing village, but by now it is almost noon and the fisherman, who start at the crack of dawn, are done. Even the fish are done; they take us out to show us their technique of hand throwing their nets like a pizza maker throws dough and we catch one tiny little fish. We’ll starve. This morning they filled their boat in no time. Further on, we visit another village for their Baci ceremony. A few folks at our hotel had enormous amounts of white string around their wrists and now I know why. Plus, I get a shot of whiskey? I hope that’s what it was. Then some sort of blessing is said and all these really spry elderly women begin tying strings around our wrists and blessing them. One the way back, I was thinking about how much I have appreciated the use of real plates and utensils at all of our picnics here, this is much more friendly to the environment and perhaps the people here will never get into as much throw-away stuff as we do at home. But then I see the trees and bushes along the banks of the Mekong are strewn with plastic bags. We finish the day with dinner at what became ‘our restaurant,’ Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene. I can recommend the perch with carrots and rice, Pho with beef, Hmong stir fried green beans; everything was good here.

FishingNetNet FishBaci

Today we set off in a roundabout way for Kuang Si waterfall. We trekked through a few villages while our guide talked about some of the different cultures. We picked up our required ‘local guide’— a boy, of maybe fifteen, wearing flip-flops and a giant knife. The forest is full of huge, wild poinsettias in full bloom. Wow. We approach the waterfalls from behind and climb down some rather slippery rocks and steps. Then double wow. This is the most beautiful waterfall ever— and I’ve seen a lot of them. It’s like a movie set waterfall with turquoise water flowing gently over rolling terraced steps. Some folks take dips in the pools at the bottom, but it’s a little too chilly for us. There’s a cramped bear preserve at the end of the park and food and trinket stalls at the entrance. Seeing this makes me really glad we hiked in through the back way.

Chicks with TrashTreesPoinsettiaGuide with Knife

WaterfallWaterfall 2

This morning, we have a few free hours so we decide to brave the seasonal bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river. The bridge is only open during the river’s low season. In the summer, the river is too high and swift for a bridge like this to hold on. We pay our toll, get our round-trip ticket, and cross over. One of the first things we see are spring roll wrappers laid out to dry on bamboo screens. We see homes made of beautifully woven bamboo. I remember visiting Thomas Edison’s house in Florida as a kid and the guide told us Edison built the supports for his pool from bamboo because it’s so strong. I find some beautiful rice steamers in a little outdoor shop. There are a lot a really big, new houses in this part of town, and although they are on postage sized lots, most have high walls and massive entry gates; some have razor wire along the tops of the walls.

BridgeRice WrappersHouse WovenHouse

In the afternoon, we head out to the Little Pepper school to bring supplies and help the kids with a New Year’s craft: wildly decorated paper hats. This school is supported by Journeys Within, the company we planned our trip with. This was fun— it didn’t feel invasive or awkward since we had a reason to be there. But it was clear the school didn’t have anywhere near the resources even the poorest school back home would have.

Kids

Siem Reap:

Economic hardship was even more visible to us in Cambodia. Here, even our modest hotel had razor wire along high walls and a gate. Our first day we headed for the famous Angkor Wat. We come around the back way early to avoid the crowds; this would probably be the most crowded site we see on our trip. It’s hard to believe just twenty years ago, almost no one came here. Still, even coming around the back way, we are accosted by a gang of little girls selling souvenirs. Is it better to buy stuff from them or not? Our guide advises us not to, but my husband makes the mistake of asking them why they are not in school, and although I don’t think they understood a thing he said, just acknowledging them sent them into a frenzy and they practically glued themselves to him. Our guide tells us about his family’s experience with the Khmer Rouge; this is the first time we get a sense of how recent these events happened. How did people, who built something so beautiful, commit such atrocious acts? We climb up the main temple in the center for a view over the sprawling complex. On the way out, we take in the view while my kids sample some sort of palm sugar drink poured from bamboo tubes with some little bugs floating around the edges. If I tried to serve them something with bugs in it at home they’d call CPS.

Bathroom

That afternoon, we returned to see Angkor Thom; this would be my favorite. The murals depicting everyday life were fascinating and the ginormous Buddha faces were stunning. Some folks stay to watch the sun set here, but today it was very hazy. Given the humidity even in January, I can’t imagine they have many clear days. On the way out we find a field covered in four-leaf clovers.

Thom 1Thom 2Thom 3Thom 4Thom 5Thom 6Clover

After an awkward but interesting breakfast meeting with two young monks who are also scholarship students supported by Journeys Within, we head for Tonle Sap, a huge lake that feeds the Mekong from November through May, and, in return, is flooded by the Mekong the rest of the year. All of the people living in these stilted houses or houseboats make their living from the water somehow. Cruising along the lake is like a scene from Waterworld; everything is conducted on the water: fisherman sell their fish to merchants on boats, boats go around selling every conceivable food or houseware, we pass a school on a boat, laundry is drying, garbage is floating. Every home, no matter how small or decrepit, has a satellite dish. Women in hats beat little fish out of fishnets. We have to pay for toilet paper to use toilet on a dock that empties out into the lake. I considered holding it, but we are more than an hour away.

TonleTonle 3Tonle 4Tonle 5Tonle 6Tonle 7Tonle 9Tonle 8

We finally get a little time to poke around the town of Siem Reap. We have some pretty good wood-fired pizza at the Red Tomato before heading over the the central market. They have some really cool, unusual stuff here. And then we see it: tucked away in a small stall on the uppermost shelf in the corner: my Buddha. I wasn’t sure, but my daughter had the merchant get it down. I still wasn’t sure, so I looked at all the other Buddhas in his shop. He said eighty-five dollars and I thought that was a little high considering the dust accumulation on him. My daughter decided to bargain by offering seventy-five and the shop owner countered with eighty. It was her first time bargaining. Five bucks is five bucks. Then we had to find something to carry him in. We headed back to a stall with all sorts of purses and totes made from rice bags and other packaging and we found a well-made rice bag tote with a big cobra on it for the Buddha’s trip home. In truth, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure he was the one until I got him home; now that he’s settled in, he changes the whole mood of the room.

Pig

The heat was getting to us. In January! We headed back to the hotel to get ready; we were going to a traditional Khmer dance show at La Residence d’Angkor. It is interesting to see different styles of dance, but sometimes, just like with the Hawaiian luaus, traditional dance takes on a show biz glossing. When we saw real hula dancing in Hilo, which is really storytelling, and very fierce, it was completely different and much more interesting. The hotel was very elegant but the show was on a tiny little stage covered in fraying red carpet. The dancers really had to be careful not to fall off the stage. It would have been more interesting with a little information about the dances themselves and their place in Cambodian culture.

Dance

Another day of more temples! We take in two smaller but very different ones this morning: Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei. And actually, for these sites, we should have been there even earlier. Although I haven’t seen Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, some of the scenes were filmed here and I can see why this would make a good film location: snake-like tree roots are taking over, giving the whole complex a ‘lost civilizations’ vibe. We go from the mysterious Ta Phrom to the pink-gold exuberance of Banteay Srei. The carvings here are so intricate— almost like needle point. My kids like this temple because of all the elephant and monkey carvings. When we started to travel, I would try to etch everything I saw into memory, but sites like this are so packed with imagery and symbolism, it felt like my head was going to explode. So I’ve learned from experience to take pictures or buy books on the site, carefully examine maybe one or two murals or scenes and then just really spend most of my time taking in the atmosphere of the site: how does it feel to walk over the stones or roots, how does the light change perception of the space, how does the scale of the place feel, and I try to imagine for a minute what it was like when it was first built. These are the things travel experience has taught me to focus on.

FacePink CarvingColumns

On the way back, we stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. This a a very small museum, more of an exhibition really, that appears put together on a shoestring. It was started by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier named Aki Ra, who took it upon himself to find and dispose of as many mines as he could. To this day, people in Cambodia are still injured and killed by land mines. The museum also has a lot of other ordnance and bombs— an amazing array of ways to kill and maim. And you can also purchase surprisingly beautiful jewelry made from shell casings.

Mine

There is a school next to our hotel; this is also another project funded by Journeys Within. Kids come here for after school activities and adults to learn English. We play some games with the kids; they are the same as kids everywhere— they just want to run around like crazy. For the adults however, we were an opportunity to hone their English skills and they were very, very serious. I was assigned to converse with two young adults who looked at me like I was going to spring a pop quiz on them. I know from homeschooling my kids what an idiosyncratic language English is, but they did very well. I hope learning English helps their dreams come true.

Our last day in Cambodia we spend touring the home village of one of Journey Within’s guides. This was a good counterpoint to the land mine museum— showing us the incredible resilience and resourcefulness of the Cambodian people. And it also cleared up a lot of strange things we saw during our week. Everywhere I saw car batteries sitting by the side of the road— this is because most people don’t have electricity, so they use car batteries, putting them out to be swapped for freshly charged ones. There were also these stands with glass liter bottles stacked up. I thought it was some kind of drink, but these are Cambodian ‘gas stations’; most folks get around on motorbike, so a liter can get you somewhere. We stopped by the village ‘market’; everything is in single serving packets— shampoo, laundry detergent; they carry cigarette packs, vegetables, eggs, and a bunch of stuff I don’t recognize. No one is minding the store; if you want something you get it and leave the money. There’s a pig pen with an enormous pig;— apparently they can make a whole year’s salary selling it. Our guide built his house himself. As with most homes here, it is built up on stilts, but he showed us the concrete footers and how they are made to hold a little puddle of water. This keeps termites and other bugs from climbing up. Genius! His father is making a kind of rice porridge that his mom will turn into rice noodles to sell. They are lucky to have a well he tells us as his brother comes out to take a shower by pumping water all over himself. Brrrr. They have also just harvested rice from their plot. A really enterprising family. We meet his grandmother; he tells me his grandfather was shot by the Khmer Rouge leaving her to raise the family by herself.

GasSupermarketRiceRice 2Rice 3

We head out over a lake to see some Khmer ruins on our way to a silk farm, but we are told by the boat owner the site is closed. We do see Angkor Wat in the distance and then the boat stops— we’ve run out of gas. My mind quickly calculates how long we could be out here and I kind of have to pee. Swim? Hand paddle? Alligators? Our ever innovative guide realizes there is a tiny bit of gas in the plastic tank and if he holds it up over his head at the right angle and cranks the engine. It starts! Even the boat owner looks impressed. But why didn’t he have enough gas in the first place? We put-put over to the Artisans de Angkor Silk Farm. We’ve seen silk being spun all over the world now, but I never cease to wonder how someone figured out how to take a moth’s cocoon and spin it into lustrous silk. Beautiful, vibrant work, but I spent all my money in Laos.

SilkNap

Bangkok

Back to Bangkok to complete the circuit. Today’s plan is Chatuchak Weekend Market. I was pretty excited reading all the reviews for this place. There are some areas specializing in antiques and handicrafts, but a lot of it looks like the big flea markets we have back home: clothes, shoes, cheap plastic kitchenware, lots of knockoffs. And the heat. I’m used to hot, humid summers where I live— why is it getting to me here? We decide to head over to Siam Paragon, a huge mall around the main Skytrain hub. On the way in we spy a Bubble (Boba) Tea place called Ochaya just outside the mall entrance. Oh, thank God! They have a lot of stuff on their menu I’ve never seen, even at boba places in New York: different flavors, jelly toppings, pudding toppings. A lot of options. Too many for us so we end up with milk tea and boba. Ahhh. We wander into the mall to find a life size wax? plastic? realistic model of Leonardo DiCaprio. This is a super luxury mall, but fun to wander around in. We score some good dumplings in the very extensive food court and decide to check out the small, but surprisingly interesting aquarium. They have some unusual fish and a tank with those Alaskan King crabs you see in the Deadliest Catch show. Damn those things are big. We get more bubble tea on the way out.

Weird BuddhasCrab

Today I wanted to see the Damnoen Nam Saduak Floating Market. I’ve been staring at a poster for this place in our local Thai restaurant for ages. I love markets and I’ve never been to one on water. Lucky for me, most of this day would be biking through local villages and banana and coconut plantations, because the famous floating market is, well, I’ll let the picture tell the story.

Floating MarketBathroom toiletFlowerModelFightersCoconutsCoconuts 2Banana

Our last day. Our flight leaves at almost midnight. My older daughter spotted a description for the Siriraj Medical Museum. Apparently they have a lot of bizarre specimens and anatomical cross-sections. Although it’s quite a ways north and on the other side of the Chao Phraya, we feel confident enough now to take on the transportation system without a guide. We take the Skytrain to the boat and then the boat to where we need to get off. Success! All this takes about an hour and a half. We wind our way around streets which don’t look exactly like they do on the map. We stumble upon the hospital. We ask someone, but this is not like Europe, no one really speaks English around here. We see a sign that says museum. We follow it. We lose the trail. Then we see it. This is another hour. We go in the entrance, two security guards are sitting behind an old desk. There is a little sign. It says: museum open Monday, Wednesday, Friday. What? You’re kidding me! The guidebook said Monday to Saturday. We try to explain to the guards that the guidebook says they are open and this is our only chance to see the museum since we are leaving that night. They appear to not understand. I imitate a plane flying. The guards are not amused, they just point to the sign. We spend an hour and a half heading back to Siam Paragon Mall where we comfort ourselves with dumplings and bubble tea. The end.

7-11

Travel writing seems to always wax poetic about even the worst places. The point may be to overlook these things, accentuate the positive. After all, things are not perfect where I live either. But sometimes I feel heartbroken when I see garbage strewn beaches and towns, neglected animals, dead animals, children working and smoking on school days, women washing clothes on the banks of polluted rivers, really emaciated beggars, razor wire armed houses. Are my tourist dollars helping at all?

Copyright © 2015 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

And if You Come to San Francisco

…be sure to wear a heavy jacket, scarf, and major sunscreen because the idea that California is perennial sunshine on your shoulders does not apply to San Francisco which has its own little weather system. I got a burnt face on a foggy, chilly day and almost frozen on bright, sunny one.

This was our second visit, so we didn’t need to repeat some of the classic experiences: visiting Alcatraz and riding bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. This trip was about spending time in some of the city’s neighborhoods and, for my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, good seats with garlic fries and fireworks at a Giants game. Which means this essentially turned into a food trip with walking in between.

Arrival We take the BART into town. Maybe not the best arrival experience. There seems to be one incredibly stinky homeless person per car. I lived in NYC and I never, ever encountered a homeless person that smelled this bad. Maybe it was the upholstery seating. Who puts upholstery seating on mass transit? Yuk. Then I thought it would be cool to take the cable car down to our hotel— arrive in style. Why did I think this? The cable car is probably not the the way to go with luggage and it was also a chilly, windy, foggy day so we were almost popsicles by the time we got off; oh, and when we finally got to the front of the line, the next three cable cars that came along weren’t going where we needed to go, so it was like watching all those fast-pass people jump in front of you even though you’re there at the front and it’s your turn. At least we had some entertainment: a guy with a lot of craft jewelry singing a cappella. I wonder how much he makes doing this? He really has a captive audience just grateful for any sort of diversion and he’s pretty good, I think. Maybe not a bad way to make a living. I could do origami.

Our room at the Argonaut wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours so I suggested we head for some hot chowder and sourdough bread at nearby Boudin (where they put the hot chowder in the sourdough bread). A lot of reviews sneer at this as a tourist trap, but over the course of the week, we will try several other hand-crafted, artisanal sourdoughs at different bakeries and none will have the same distinctive sharp sourdough flavor and shatter-crisp crust. Well-fed and warmed up, we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Now this is a tourist trap— it is almost a replica of every other waterfront development I’ve been to with the exception of the very noisy and very stinky sea lions. The Ferry Building would prove to be a more ‘unique to San Francisco’ experience. We end our day with Ghiradelli ice cream, thinking if the chocolate is good, the chocolate in ice cream will be even better, but it’s just ok.

Chinatown We skip breakfast and take the streetcar to an early lunch at Yank Sing. I am a little leery since the last dozen or so highly-rated Yelp eateries have been huge disappointments, because obviously I have no taste and would probably order toast for my last meal. But Yank Sing turns out to be the best dim sum (they call it deem sum) place I’ve ever been to— and the cleanest. We stuffed ourselves with steamed pork buns, Shanghai soup dumplings, stuffed lotus leaf, and a plate of something they call Chinese broccoli (I later find a source for this at home and it has become a staple vegetable). We finished it off with still-warm egg custard tarts. Stuffed beyond reason, we headed for the Dragon Gate and up Grant Avenue to look for a maneki-neko or lucky waving cat, stopping by the Red Blossom Tea Company to sniff some really interesting teas. When we found a few teas we liked, we were given a demonstration and tasting. I loved watching the whole process— no teabag in a mug on the go here: adding the water from the small teapot, gently moving the tea leaves around as they unfolded, seeing how it tastes at different steeping times in little, almost thimble sized cups— a ceremony to tea. It would be lovely to think I could recreate this at home, but in reality it probably wouldn’t happen very often— like bubble baths. But I did learn something: the water I was using for my green tea at home was way too hot, killing off the delicate flavor of the tea. I have been savoring my Pi Lo Chun green tea that I keep in my red tea canister ever since.

Tea New Better (1 of 1)

What could be better after tea than some fresh fortune cookies? Nothing. So we headed up to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. We were here the last time we were in San Francisco and just had to come back. You get to watch them being made and they taste nothing like the yellowish ones that come with our Chinese take-out back home— these are worthy of cookie status on their own. Since the sampling of fortune cookies made us thirsty again, we set off to wander the area around Grant Avenue. Here you see more of the local markets and a lot of interesting things: live turtles, dried sea cucumbers, durian; I remember the durian because there was a sign at the front desk of our hotel in Chiang Mai that forbid even having it on the premises. But a lot of the fruits and vegetables looked really interesting and I wish I could find them at home to break up my vegetable monotony— things like huge bunches of beautiful chives that I can only guess become a dish in themselves but I’ve never had a chive dish at any of the Chinese restaurants I’ve been to. We finally found some awesome bubble tea at Cool Tea Bar in the Miriwa Shopping Center. Oh, and we did find our lucky cat and a solar powered one at that!

Laundry (1 of 1)Chinese Broccoli (1 of 1)Black Chickens (1 of 1)Cat Better (1 of 1)

That night we head to Tacolicious in the Marina and we learn something about the limits of 2D maps in San Francisco: we pick the shortest route by far, but it involved a major quadriceps burn on the almost vertical Hyde Street. After our ascent, we are barely able to hold our tacos together; I order a Margarita and it was gone in two sips because it was 93% ice. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about Tacolicious. The chips were really greasy— I can see the take-out area from my seat and I watch a woman use two fingers to hand the waiter back chips that have completely saturated the bag they’re in with the expression ‘yuck’ on her face, the waiter shrugs like ‘so what’ and takes them back— the fish on my fish taco was really greasy too and by the time I pulled the coating off I had a piece of fish smaller than a chicken nugget. I know street-style tacos are not super stuffed, but they usually have a nice sized chunk of fish and they usually have the oil hot enough to keep everything from absorbing it’s weight in grease. I thought maybe we hit them on a rare bad night but everything was the same when we stopped by their Mission outlet a few days later. I know, it’s just me; everyone else loves it; I have no taste, no sense of humor, no intellectual discernment: ‘What? You don’t know the story of the two-sip Margarita and the greasy chips? Everybody knows this one!’

Alamo Square & Japantown Today we head out to Alamo Square with a plan to make our way through Japantown and then down to the Marina. Today’s map challenge is that these places looked much closer than they are in reality. By a lot. On the way to Alamo Square we pass the San Francisco Schools Administration Building and I remark on how older buildings had all these elaborate architectural flourishes and now we have all these boring boxes. That is until I take a closer look:

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Public School 3 (1 of 1)

Public School 2 (1 of 1)

Public School 4 (1 of 1)

Public School 5 (1 of 1)

Good grief! Is it just me again? Did I miss some tale about the founders of education and their journey from Middle-earth? These education icons are super weird, no? We make our way towards Alamo Square amazed at the paint schemes the busyness of Victorian architecture makes possible. We head to the top of the square, looking for the classic Full House view and find: a construction site!

Alamo Houses Better (1 of 1)

Alamo Houses Better 1 (1 of 1)

So that’s that; we head towards Japantown. My daughter thinks she knows where the Full House house was, but all the Victorian homes start to look alike. Then they blur together because we’re getting hungry. Oh, whatever, it’s some Victorian house in San Francisco. This is called tourist daze: it’s something that happens when you can no longer process all the awesomeness of every single little detail pointed out to you in your guidebook.

Unless I missed something, Japantown is not quite the Japanese equivalent of Chinatown. It is basically a shopping center and a few surrounding places. It doesn’t appear to be a Japanese neighborhood. We look around the mall a bit. I love all the little tea sets, chopsticks, stationary, rice cookers and stuff, but I don’t see anything that I really have to have or can’t get back home except Green Tea Kit Kats. These are part of an evil candy plot. And there is a whole store of just mochi. We look at some of the sushi places. Many of them don’t open until dinnertime. One has a water moat with little sushi boats going around. It’s really cute but since there are only two people there during lunch hour, our sanitation sensors go off. We have candy for lunch.

We eventually made it back to Chestnut Street in the Marina area after meandering through a super expensive shopping area around Pacific Heights. By then, we’re hungry, of course. I don’t want to eat at Tacoliscious again; luckily we score seats facing the kitchen at A16. It’s really fun to watch the food being prepared— the chef’s are super serious like they’re on Chopped! or something; the diversion makes up for decibel level in the restaurant. The server mistakes me for a sophisticated wine person— she suggests a split between two wines so I can try them both. I can barely hear her except that one of the grapes is grown on a volcano. Artisanal provenance, yes, of course. I’ve never been able to get a taste for wine or any other drinks save for Margaritas, and even then I don’t like them strong— although it seems some of the more expensive tequilas are so smooth that they can trick you into thinking you’re not drinking very much. But the wines just make me wish I had a Coke instead. Someday I will take a wine course and gain appreciation through the wonders of knowledge. But the real reason we’re here is because they have pizza marinara. Once I discovered this in Italy, it was basically all I ate for the rest of our month there. We order this and our server wants to make sure we know there is no cheese on this pizza. Yes, we do. There is a place near DC that has this pizza too and the server there also felt the need to forewarn us about the cheese. Is pizza without cheese that scandalous? If you don’t already know, pizza marinara is tomato sauce, garlic (sometimes minced, sometimes sliced), basil leaves (sometimes whole, sometimes chiffonade), and olive oil. And it is delicious.

We stop by Super Duper Burgers on our way back to the hotel because they have a sign out with an enticing drawing and description of their Straus organic chocolate dipped soft-serve ice-cream cone. This was beyond. I don’t usually go in for dessert or even really ice cream but this was, I can’t even describe it, except to say it was rich, creamy vanilla ice cream dipped in what tasted like real chocolate, not the usual kind of wax tasting stuff. We went back to the hotel and died.

Game Day Today is my daughter’s birthday. I let her sleep in a little before we head out for her first treat: a facial. I talk her into trying a different taco place in Cow Hollow. Tacko was much less pretentious and they have horchata— a very tasty Mexican rice drink that I sought out in almost every plaza and mercado throughout the Yucatán. It became the only Spanish word I could say clearly. Then we celebrated her birthday with cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes. I’m always dubious about these places since so, so many have had such bad cupcakes— dry, off-flavors, icing that tastes like a stick of butter or a straight sugar pour— and you wonder who encouraged them to open up a shop— someone was untruthful with them. But what we had at Kara’s was obviously pretty good since we made an excuse to stop there again a few days later. We concentrated on the mini cupcakes so we could try different ones. In a feat of delusional math, we estimated that three mini cupcakes were equal to one regular size cupcake. I had fleur de sel, vanilla, and chocolate velvet; my daughter had red velvet, vanilla, and chocolate coconut. Yum. Much better than that volcanic wine.

Now we had to save our appetites and rest up for the Giants game. My daughter’s favorite pitcher Tim Lincecum would be pitching and we caught a lucky break walking around before the game and found ourselves only a few feet away as he practiced. She froze, I took photos. That was the end of my 32mb memory card. Although I’m not really a baseball fan, I do have to admit that the Giants stadium really has an intimate feel to it compared to other major league stadiums I’ve been to. And then the food— it goes way beyond hot dogs and beer but unfortunately I only have room for one order of garlic fries. If these ever get out, no one will need drugs or alcohol. The game ended with some pretty cool fireworks which got us jazzed up for the hour-long walk back to the hotel along the deserted waterfront; you San Francisco people sure go to bed early (or maybe the waterfront is a place you shouldn’t go to at night?). But this was after we stood at the bus stop for a half-hour waiting for a bus that never came— reading and rereading the cryptic schedule sign which seemed to indicate that, yes, the buses were still running; some folks gave up and got pedicabs, but we decided to walk. Maybe that’s how they do it in San Francisco: if you eat a lot of garlic fries, they make you walk home. Cause your breath stinks. Who wants to drive a bus full of people loaded with garlic? I thought the exercise would do us good but it only made things worse: when we got back to the room, we inhaled the remains of our sourdough crocodile.

Better Tim 2 (1 of 1)

Better Tim (1 of 1)

Fries (1 of 1)

Better Giants Moon (1 of 1)

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Ferry Building Farmers Market and the Haight Today we headed for the Ferry Building for the Saturday morning farmer’s market. We filled ourselves up on samples and blackberries while we gazed longingly at all the beautiful, perishable foods we can’t take with us; bright purple artichoke flowers were everywhere. We try to get some lunch and ice cream inside, but it’s solid people; we make a plan to come back Tuesday morning before we leave. Heading out to catch the streetcar up Market Street and we see something that I think is exclusive to San Francisco: it was either naked people day or naked people biking day. I take pictures. These are my first nude scenes:

Naked (1 of 1)Naked 1 (1 of 1)

We set out for the Haight taking the streetcar to Castro Street where we watch a small food truck open up at the gas station on the corner— but it’s not a food truck, it’s a creme brûlée truck! We order two vanilla beans; we decide this qualifies as lunch. We head down Castro Street to Haight. I’m not sure what we’re hoping to see; we had watched a documentary about the Summer of Love and this was the epicenter. Maybe I thought I would see a lot of aging and would-be hippies trying to keep the candle burning. I don’t know. There are some murals, a few mystical shops, a head shop, a second-hand store, the Grateful Dead house (which is a really beautiful Victorian), a cavernous music store, and a Whole Foods at the end. Oh, and some grungy dude tucked between two shops offers my daughter some weed. Whatever it was that happened here, the scene has moved on. And that’s probably a good thing. But why didn’t he offer me any weed? I’m bummed.

Creme 1 (1 of 1)Creme (1 of 1)Red Flower (1 of 1)

Mission and Castro Sunday was probably not a good day for this since a lot of things were closed. We walked through the Mission area first, spending time in different markets. We have a large Hispanic community where I live, so this wasn’t quite as strange as some of the Asian markets. Almost every market had these really cute little palm-size avocados. Wildly creative murals pop up in the area around Balmy Alley. We sample some Concha Pan Dulce at La Victoria Bakery— it isn’t reminiscent of Challah like the card says but just as good in its own way with a crunchy, almost caramel tasting crust and a cake bread center. We headed over to Mission Dolores and debated about whether to go in since we were pretty tired by then, but we’re glad we did. The church feels very low-key despite the painted ceiling and the ornate carvings. They have a small museum and a scene of the mission in its early days that shows this was an unbelievably rural area with livestock running around and everything. The tree-root twisted graveyard reveals that life back then was indeed short— many of the grave stones are for children and teenagers. We finished up our walk heading through the Castro area on our way back to Market Street. It was getting late and all the shops in the area had closed. This is not like New York at all. I was hoping to score a rainbow flag— that would really liven things up in my neighborhood. Of course everyone would probably think I just like rainbows and unicorns and glitter.

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Land’s End and Coastal Trail Because we had biked over the Golden Gate Bridge the last time we were here, I thought this would be an interesting and less crowded perspective— and we did pretty much have the trail to ourselves (biking over the bridge last time was like going through a massive obstacle course with moving targets). We started out taking the bus to the end of Geary where it becomes Point Lobos and having an early lunch at the Cliff House. The view is spectacular but the food is just ok. With all the talent in San Francisco, this should be a standout. The popovers were okish, but my salmon looked like a previously frozen farm-raised portion— tasted like it too. We start out on the Land’s End Trail, taking in the ruins of the Sutro Baths and hoping to get out of the fierce wind that is whipping the water into an almost solid whitecap. A commercial ship heading against the wind into San Francisco appears to have barely moved since we spotted it before lunch. The signs show the Land’s End Trail meeting up with the Coastal Trail, but when the Land’s End Trail ends, we suddenly find ourselves in a neighborhood of incredibly lavish homes with insanely overflowing gardens and no signs for the trail. We had almost given up; we were sticking close to the water— where could it be? And then we spotted a trail below the road. This was one of those Tantalus trails— shortly after we started on the Land’s End part, we had the Golden Gate Bridge in our sites and here, some two hours later, it appeared no closer. We went out for the view points along the way but skipped the beaches. We have to save something for next time.

Lands End 1 (1 of 1)Rose (1 of 1)Coastal Trail 1 (1 of 1)Coastal Trail 2 (1 of 1)Bird (1 of 1)Pruning (1 of 1)Potty (1 of 1)

In San Francisco, there is one where you need it. Construction site potties are everywhere.

The plan was to roll into the Marina area by dinner time for a farewell tour of marinara pizza at A16 and chocolate-dipped ice cream at Super Duper. They recognize us at A16 (because my daughter has blue hair) and gift us with a tomato and burrata salad— I guess they wanted us to get cheese somehow. It was good. I probably would never have ordered it because of the way the word burrata sounds. They could call it creama mozzarella. Or I could be a little more adventurous when it comes to food. Pass me the basket of fried spiders!

Departure We head out for the Ferry Building early in the morning. I do score a very good cappuccino at Blue Bottle with a beautiful leaf embroidered in the foam, but pretty much everything else here will open too late for us. My daughter tries some strange concoction from Pressed Juicery while we watch the staff assist a reed-thin woman with the accoutrements for a juice cleanse. Sounds like fun. In a non-fun kind of way. Something we say we should do, but why? There is no scientific proof that juice fasts are in any way beneficial. But we have to press on for our final farewell stop: one last meal at Yank Sing.

Latte (1 of 1)

Now all we we had to do was get two bags of fortune cookies home without having them  searched by security, crushed on the plane, or accidentally eaten en route. One bag made it.

Copyright © 2014 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Brutally Beautiful

Sunrise Brighter

I never really wanted to go to Hawai’i. Sure it has Hula dancers and volcanoes, but in all the magazines and friend’s photos, Hawai’i looked pretty much just like Florida or some other place in the Caribbean I could get to on a much shorter flight. It’s not. Step outside the resort areas and Hawai’i is a rural, wild, and brutally beautiful place. Even the chickens are wild. Later we find out they were set free, or rather blown free, by hurricane Iniki and have since thrived on their own.

We visited the four main islands— Kaua’i, Maui, Hawai’i (or Big Island) and Oahu. We had 22 days from late October to the middle of November to explore and this wasn’t nearly enough time. But that’s just a good excuse to go back. And live there forever.

Kaua’i

Nearly all the reviews of our hotel gushed about the lei greeting; somehow these special touches always elude me. We made it all the way to the reception desk when I was asked “did you get a lei?” “No.” “How many people?” “Four.” The receptionist hiked four beautiful flower leis over the counter. It was only later that we realized my husband should have had a kuki nut lei (he was getting our bags out of the car). He looked pretty though and the breeze from the ocean and the scent of the leis made it impossible to complain. We were officially hypnotized.

The one thing I like about traveling west is that I get the right kind of jet lag— my night owl turns into an early bird. We had an ocean front room facing east; we left the curtains and the lanai doors open overnight so we could fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. When I opened my eyes, the sun was just beginning to rise; at first it was the slightest tinge of pink on the clouds behind a silhouette of palm trees, then the blues began to lighten and some tangerine joined in. All this while I’m lying in bed.

On our first day we took a boat trip to see the Na Pali coast— the scene stealer in movies requiring a lush but forbidding landscape. One thing I learned about Hawai’i is that, while the islands may not really have seasons, the water does. If you want to kayak, snorkel, or just swim, the water is calmer in the summer months. In the winter, particularly in the north and west (windward), the water can be brutal— good for surfing though. When we went, it was between seasons; we happened to get lucky and the water was calm enough to go all the way up the coast and even enter a sea cave but we had to go in the morning. On the way back, we stopped at a spot to snorkel; the water here is so clear it’s like a giant aquarium, you don’t even need to snorkel to see the fish— we saw flying fish, turtles, dolphins, and all sorts of colorful fishies. One thing I will say is that if you have the option to do this trip in the afternoon (which would be more likely in the calmer water summer months), the sun will be shining on the cliffs rather than coming from behind, as it is in the morning. This would make the scenery easier on the eyes and much, much better for photos.

Na Pali Bad

Na Pali coast washed out in the morning sun.

Cave

Inside a sea cave.

The next day, we tried snorkeling at Lawai Beach. We went with SeaFun Kauai as I wasn’t really comfortable taking my kids out in the real ocean by myself. Up until this, the only snorkeling we had done was in the highly controlled environment at Discovery Cove in Florida. It’s amazing what you see just putting your face in the water: we saw a whole aquarium’s worth of tropical fish and got hugged by a little octopus— they feel like velvet but they stick like glue— I was afraid one of it’s legs would rip off. We were also supposed to snorkel in an area with sea turtles, but the water was getting a little too rough— in Hawai’i, the water is always in charge. We were lucky that SeaFun had us in wet suits: the water gets pretty chilly when you’re just floating around and you can get a pretty nasty sunburn on your backside without realizing it. While we were snacking afterward, we saw another group go in without wetsuits and mostly everyone came out shivering after about twenty minutes. We were in for a whole hour. That afternoon we hiked the first of many stunning trails. The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is not difficult —we were able to pick it up at the end of the beach from our hotel— but trying to take in the dramatic lithified sand cliffs, sapphire water, tide pools, and rainbows really slows you down. I half expected a unicorn to run past us.

Cliff

Rainbow 2

Having done a balloon ride in Arizona, this seemed the place for a helicopter ride. We saw Waimea Canyon, which we would hike through later in the week, the Na Pali coast (again with sun behind since it was morning), and a really dramatic up-close of Manawaiopuna Falls which were featured in Jurassic Park. Some trips briefly land there a la the movie scene, but only on certain days— because the falls are on someone’s private property. You get a really good and close view from the air though. This was also the day we discovered Savage Shrimp. They were mentioned a few times as a food truck in travel blogs I read before the trip. Now they are tucked in the side alley of a shopping center not far from our hotel. They are all about shrimp: not too big, not too small shrimp, deveined with shells on in a garlicky finger-licking sauce, a lightly dressed mixed cabbage salad (I’m calling it cabbage salad because where I live ‘cole slaw’ is the tribal word for ‘one who swims in mayo’) and a scoop of rice. This and Hawaiian Sun Passion Orange was pretty much all we ate for dinner the rest of the week. I wish I could figure out how they got the garlic flavor to pop like that— it wasn’t raw, but it was GARLIC in all caps.

Falls

Trips like this are always a good excuse to try new things, to be the adventurer, to boldly go where, well, lots of folks go, so I booked the Kipu Zipline Safari through Outfitters Kauai. This is not really an exclusively Hawaiian thing to do, but it seemed like a good place to do it and my kids were both the right age. The trip involved a short kayak, which unfortunately was in a tandem kayak—unfortunate because I wanted to see how far my younger daughter could paddle so I could take her on trips back home. However, she saw no reason to paddle if her sister was in the boat with her. And she didn’t just not paddle, she let her oar drag in the water and complained about how slow they were going. Her sister tried to smack her with the paddle, but she couldn’t get enough leverage. Then it was over Kipu Ranch in a ‘farm wagon’. The ranch, we were told, was used in Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but all the voodoo natives and dinosaurs must have run away because it looks like a a regular farm now. And finally the zipline. You never realize how strong your survival instinct is until you have to jump off a ledge, but we all did it. Before the day was up, we visited some swimming holes that you could swing into, one of which involved my older daughter getting a bunch of little fish stuck in her swimsuit.

I thought the Na Pali coast trail (Kakalau Trail) would be too much for us this time and we did see the coast by both boat and helicopter; still, I wanted us to do some hiking on Kauai. The more research I did, the more I realized there are a lot of unique environments on Kauai. We decided to go with Chuck Blay and his company Kaua’i Nature Tours on a hike into Waimea Canyon. Although Chuck has a PhD. in geology, he was able to explain the native plant life and the formation of the islands and canyon so that we could make sense of what we were seeing. You could read a book about Hawaii’s geology and fauna, but when you learn about something as you’re looking and touching, it creates a much more memorable experience. We have learned about basalt several times and even have a little geology kit with samples, but my kids didn’t really understand the processes that created it until they got to see it, to feel really massive pieces of it and see how the forces of nature had shaped it in situ. In some ways the canyon looks like the Grand Canyon and it is often called the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ However, it was created by a completely different process and has a different color scheme. We hiked to the top of a waterfall and ate our lunch to the majestic view of the canyon out to the ocean. You can’t get that in a restaurant.

Canyon

Our last day on Kaua’i, we visited Allerton Gardens. Wow. The tropical profusion was both beautiful and strange. The year round growing season gives plants the opportunity to get creative. We saw breadfruit trees while our guide explained some of the research the institute was doing to bring breadfruit, which is a good staple food, to regions with food shortages through their hunger initiative, we smelled the very stinky fruit of the skunk tree, learned how vanilla is grown (it kind of looks like it’s being tortured)… My kids thought the best part was sitting in the big ficus tree roots where there were some fake raptor eggs. This was of course where the scene from Jurassic Park was filmed. Life finds a way.

Allerton

Allerton Tree

Maui

House plants

The next island was Maui. Kaua’i is often called the garden island and, while Maui looks drier from the western side, if you head out to Hana you’ll probably think Maui is the jungle island; I saw several of the tropical plants I have in my home— only here their leaves were platter size or bigger. Now I feel like I’m keeping my houseplants from reaching their full potential. We decided to stay in Hana to enjoy some of the different beaches, waterfalls, and hiking out that way. To get there you have to take the ‘road to Hana’; many guide books describe it as a winding road. We have winding roads where I live; this was not a winding road, this was a very long series of left and right turns. My older daughter threw up on us in the car— the first time since she was a baby.

Hana Waterfall

Hana waterfall after rain.

Hana is a small town with just a couple of ‘eat places,’ Hasegawa General Store, a luxe adults only hotel, a few condos, and some other small shops and places to stay. And it is unbelievably lush. On our first day, we headed for the Kipahulu side of Haleakala National Park. On this side of the park, you have a rainforest with waterfalls that run out to the sea after a series of pools called ‘Ohe’o Gulch. The pools are also referred to by their tourist attraction name: ‘Seven Sacred Pools’— although since it had rained on the mountain the night before, they looked more liked the seven stages of the great muddy deluge. No swimming in sacred water for us, so we headed up the Pipiwai Trail. This is a stunning trail leading over waterfalls, past a huge Banyan tree, through a zen grove of bamboo, and finally to the base of 400 foot Waimoku Falls. I usually try to avoid writing too much advice about what to do, but here I think it’s warranted. This part of the park is a rainforest, which means it rains a lot. A few other hikers actually hiked in their bathing suits, so that’s an option, but the main thing is not to wear hiking boots. Sturdy water shoes, like Tevas, are the best footwear for this trail and especially the stream crossing near the falls (a group in flip flops did pass us, but gee I would feel like an idiot if I wiped out— and I wouldn’t be able to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion). We didn’t go right up to the falls or swim in the pool below it because there was a flash flood warning in effect that day and the ranger had emphasized to us that you never know when a glut of debris and water or a large log will come over the falls when they’ve had a lot of rain. Still, that couldn’t take away from the fantasy of walking through the jungle and coming to a magnificent waterfall. I’m beginning to think Hawaii was born under a water sign as the ocean and the waterfalls make all the rules here.

Bamboo

The next day we drove to the other side of Haleakala National Park, taking the road that goes along the southern part of the island. I had read some nerve-wracking descriptions of the road and some folks we asked in Hana said not to take it, but Google had driven it and other Hana natives said it would be fine. It winds for awhile just like Hana Highway (we did pass what looked like a dinosaur-sized air plant on the road that had fallen off a cliff and, if it had fallen on the car, would have done serious damage— yes, I told you the plants out here are really big, that’s how big— insurance claim size). It was graded gravel and dirt for a bit and then we came onto a part of the road appeared to be ‘hand-paved’ by dumping small buckets of asphalt until it looked like a road. There were also some cows— cows have waterfront here. Then we came to a modern, paved section around the back of the volcano. Suddenly all the green was gone— replaced by reds, browns, and yellows. Then the road opened up to a spectacular view of the island and the ocean, passing a sea arch along the way. Just when we thought we were there, we had almost as far to go— you have to zig zag your way up above the cloud line on a guardrail-free road to get to the ranger station at the summit. Some folks even gather up here to watch the sunrise; we were here to hike on the Sliding Sands Trail. WOW! The scenery on this trail is like something from a science fiction movie and a surrealist painting: the landscape sweeps down, dotted with smaller cinder cones and dappled in red, brown, orange, yellow, and purple. It looks exactly like the photos you see on the web— you could not saturate it any more. Hawai’i is a place where you can put your camera on automatic exposure and get a mind-blowing photo. On our way back, we passed several tour buses coming from Hana, so I guess the road is fine— in daylight, with a full tank of gas, and a good spare tire.

Mars

Mars 3

We decided to explore some sites closer to Hana before it was time to move on; thus began our quest to see all the different colored sands of Hawai’i. Hana has a red sand beach called Kaihalulu Beach tucked away behind a headland. There are plenty of websites with directions for the trail and all warn that it is a very short but narrow, eroded, cliff hugging trail that should only be done at low tide. I agree. We went at low tide and found the cliff hugging part to be dry and not slippery on that day, so we managed to get there without feeling that we were taking undue risks— but as we all know, anything can happen. As usual, a woman in flip flops with her dog passed us on our way out (I say ‘as usual’ because I seem to encounter people wearing what is considered very inappropriate footwear on everywhere we hike). The red sand is more rust colored but it punches out the turquoise in the water creating the most striking natural color sensation I’ve ever seen. Our next stop was a nearby black sand beach at Waianapanapa (I’d like to buy a vowel, please) State Park. The thing about the black sand it that it’s glittery; you can’t really photograph it unless you use a star filter. For about ten minutes we had all this glittery beauty to ourselves and then Scotty beamed down an entire tour bus of people. As soon as they hit the beach, they were all on their cell phones— except one guy who was taking pictures of everything with his ipad. There was supposed to be a trail along the shore that we could have taken back to Hana, but I couldn’t pick it out. Darn. I love ocean trails.

Red Sand

This was just at the mid-point of the trip, when it starts to feel like it’s going by fast. Next, we headed to the Big Island and getting there was half the fun— security at the airport was a phone with a note on the counter to call for check-in and the pilot was both the ticket taker and baggage handler. A reminder of air travel’s simpler days.

Hawai’i (Big Island)

Staying in Hilo put us closer to Volcanoes National Park and away from the beach resorts. Hilo looks a lot like where I grew up— a once thriving place that has fallen on hard times. Bits and pieces of Hilo’s former glory days poke out here and there. And just like my town, there are a few green shoots sprouting up: a couple of quirky boutiques and a few trendy cafes. We stayed at the Hilo Honu Inn owned by Bill and Gay. Their top floor Samurai Suite is a Japanese tea room that was brought from Japan and reassembled in situ. I couldn’t believe how soft and warm the tatami mats felt underfoot. It would be here, courtesy of Gay (she dances with a local halau), that we would learn about real Hula dancing— not the sequined hip sashaying from the tourist aimed luaus. She showed us a few traditional dances and then how each move expresses a part of the story. All the fierce beauty of Hula came out and all the coconut bra cheesiness disappeared. Hilo is also where the Merrie Monarch Festival for Hula takes place each year attracting the best halaus (hula schools) and performers. I don’t know what my chances are, but the festival is on my wish list.

But we were here from some volcanic action and volcanoes we would see. With volcanoes, there is as much going on underneath the ground as there is above it. Harry Shick, who runs Kazumura Cave Tours, just happens to have the longest lava tube known in the world in his backyard. This lava tube was bizarre: huge and almost perfectly round, like it was created by a giant worm, and with a semi-gloss coating of black on the walls, it made for one very dark cave. Harry was another stoke of luck for us: a very knowledgeable guide who can explain things in terms that make sense to the rest of us. The lava creates a surprising number of structures depending on its temperature, flow rate, and mineral composition.

Turtles

Today was our day to head south to seek out Papakolea, the green sand beach. On our way we stopped at Punalu’u, a black sand beach to see some more black sand and hopefully some sea turtles. There were a lot of turtles on the beach, but also quite a few  tourists and, despite signs asking that we give the turtles a wide berth, many people felt the need to have a picture of themselves touching a turtle. We found a few away from from everyone and watched them from afar. It seems like such a struggle for them on the beach; they even appear to take a nap after every few feet. After a bit of a drive and one wrong turn, we somehow found the parking area for the green sand beach. There are a bunch of islanders with four-wheel drives willing to wisk you there for a fee, I think one said $35. They seemed like good guys and I haven’t read  anything warning folks to beware, but if you do that, you’ll miss the natural exfoliating facial you’ll get by walking— wind defines the southern tip of Hawai’i as much as rain defines Hilo. We walked for a little over an hour before we could see some green poking up from the far side of the cove. You enter from the back and climb down; it looks steep and scary from the top, be you’re never on an exposed ledge, so even a scaredy cat like myself was able to do it. And it is totally worth it. The color of the sand is more of a khaki green, but once you pick it up, you can see it is make of finely crushed olivine crystals. I need a star filter for my camera. There were maybe a dozen people, some swam— not something I would chance. When we got back to the car we scared ourselves— the sweat and the wind had given everyone giant sand mustaches.

Green Sand

Wind Tree

Wind sculpted tree on the southern tip of Hawai’i.

We were definitely tired heading back, but as we approached Volcanoes National Park at dusk, we saw quite a few cars going in and decided to see what was going on. This is the home of Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. When we stopped by after the lava tube hike, we didn’t see anything but steam rising from the crater— you can’t get very close. At dusk though, the show begins: the crater was glowing and changing with the light from purple to orange and finally vermillion. I love vacation days like this— beautiful turtles, sand made of gems, glowing volcanoes.

Dusk Volcano

There was still one more volcano related thing we wanted to do: hike across the still steaming crater of Kilauea Iki. The trail begins along the rim giving you an almost birds-eye view before you descend into the crater. If you see any hikers at the bottom, they’ll look like ants. Once you get to the crater floor and scramble over the massive pieces of upturned and ripped lava, the effect will flip— now you feel like an ant. The floor is warm; light rain dries on it instantly. Some of the vents have steam coming out; we have lunch sitting next to one of these. Wow.

Crater

We spend our last day on the Big Island around Hilo. We take in Rainbow and Akaka Falls, which are unfortunately not very pretty due to the intense rain the night before. On the other hand, Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Garden seems to have benefited from the rain— the garden was like a B-12 shot of flora and fauna. Back in town, we have our first ‘plate lunch’ at Blane’s: roast pork with white rice and macaroni salad— the last two I would never think to put together. Around town, I score some signed posters from the artist who creates them for the Merrie Monarch Festival as my souvenir before we head out to Puna to see some of the more recent lava flows and visit some trees that were flocked with lava at Lava Tree State Park. Eventually, we come to where the road stops because lava flowed over it. There are a few ‘new age’ vendors selling crystals and hats woven from palm fronds. We walk out over the black lava to the ocean. I don’t know if people are planting them or they’ve landed here, but the lava is studded with sprouting coconuts. In twenty years this will be a beautiful beach with swaying palm trees and someone will clear out the crystal people and build an exclusive luxury resort.

Leaf

Oahu

Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach seemed like a fun place to end our vacation. We stayed in the penthouse apartment at the Aqua Bamboo Waikiki and, while not the luxury accommodation that most of us think of when when we hear ‘penthouse’, it was spacious, offered sweeping views of the city, and the all-important kitchen.

Wandering a few blocks from the hotel we spy a line. It’s for Marukame Udon Tempura Musubi. There is a chef in the window wielding and enormous piece of dough into fresh udon noodles. The line moves quickly, almost too quickly for us since we can’t decide what— or figure out how— to order. We end up with a bowl of steaming udon with several toppings and tempura. After one bite, we decide to spend the rest of our time in Waikiki mastering the art of ordering food here. Everything we have there is the food equivalent of cashmere.

In the lobby of our hotel, my younger daughter plucks out a brochure for Sea Life Park with dolphins all over it. This was supposed to be our day for going to Chinatown and exploring Honolulu, but she was on a mission and loaded with missionary zeal— otherwise known a begging. A few year ago we visited Discovery Cove in Florida, and although she swam and played with the dolphins, she needed the trainer to hold on to her. Never in my life did I imagine she would be afraid of a dolphin, but she was— and very much so. Now she wanted a chance to put that behind her and I have some very expensive pictures to prove it. The park was cute and my kids enjoyed themselves. We also finally tried the sushi made with Spam — called musubi— that we had seen on practically every food store countertop. It might be something you have to work up to, but always good to try new things. Spam has a long history in Hawai’i, having come over with the GI’s and somehow infusing into the local cuisine.

The next day, my older daughter and I did a kayak tour with Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks. I thought it would be a nice paddle over crystal clear waters in a protected reef area— and it was supposed to be except on this particular day they were having ‘unusual weather’ and high winds. Of course. One wave was so big it took the kayak my daughter and I were in and pointed it torpedo style at the couple in the other kayak on our trip. We also did something that in hindsight, and knowing how unpredictable the ocean can be, was dangerous: my daughter got in what looked like a calm tide pool— called the Queen’s Bath on Mokulua Island— but almost immediately a wave rushed over it. She looked like she was in a washing machine and I almost had a heart attack. Luckily she had just a few small cuts from the very sharp lava that lined the pool. Brutally beautiful.

We didn’t want to leave Oahu without a visit to Pearl Harbor. We’ve all seen the film: the planes flying low, the ships laying on their sides burning. The site does a good job paying homage to a really bad day. At the memorial for the USS Arizona, where 1,102 sailors and Marines remain entombed, we watched oil droplets slowly make their way to the surface and disperse into an iridescent sheen— the effect made it feel connected to the present, as if in a small way it was still happening. We took the extra battle stations tour on the USS Missouri, or Mighty Mo, which gave us a close up look at the turrets and controls for the big guns and the engine rooms— everything on a battleship is super-sized except where the people go— the people spaces are tight. This is the ship where, in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered and ended World War II; a plaque that seems almost too small for such a momentous event, marks the place on deck where the agreement was signed.

We knew the last day would come as it always does. Our late night flight gave us time for a very fitting ending: a hike up to the ridge of Diamond Head, the tuff cone volcano you see from Waikiki beach. I thought it was the perfect ending.

Moon

Moon over Waikiki.

Food: As with every place we go, we find food and drinks we wish we could get at home. Not fancy stuff, but simple comfort food like hibiscus juice in Egypt, açma in Turkey, or star shaped ravioli in Italy. In Hawaii, it was produce. We saw at least five different kinds of avocado, dragon fruit, rambutans, purple sweet potatoes, carrots in different colors, mangosteen, different varieties of papaya, little eggplants, all different shapes and sizes of mangoes, white pineapple, different kinds of bananas, giant bunches of chives. We saw unique fruits and vegetables everywhere we went and we tried as much as we could. But the best thing was POG; I avoided it at first because it sounded yucky. Big mistake. POG (pinapple, orange, guava) is the juice of gods.

Trip: Hawai’ian islands (Kauai, Maui, Big Island, Oahu) October 26- November 16 2011

Family of four, kids 11 & 15

Guide Books: The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, Maui Revealed, Hawaii the Big Island Revealed, Oahu Revealed.

Accommodations: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, Hana Kai Maui, Hilo Honu Inn, Aqua Bamboo Waikiki.

Copyright © 2013 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Yucatán Colure

We arrived in Cancún after the end of the world, so why they had to look through all our luggage was beyond me. The only thing that caught their attention was a bag of Peppermint Patties. Never pack Peppermint Patties, if they go soft, and ours did, you could attract the attention of airport security and end up a cautionary tale: stupid Americans shut down resort airport for hours with mint scented explosives. Luckily, after much serious deliberation and lots of fierce body language, they decided to simply dispose of the bomb in an ordinary trash can. And by the way, when airport security empties your bags, they don’t repack them for you. They stare at you while you do it.

We headed straight out of Cancún with our guide, Fausto Lugo, who will be with us for most of the next two weeks. No one can believe we’re going to miss Cancún, but I’ve seen the pictures and, to me, it looks a lot like Vegas with sand— all everyone is doing is drinking and buying Louis Vuitton— or they are in one of those hermetically sealed all-inclusives. Maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t look good in swimwear and I can’t hold my liquor, but I hope to at least attempt to experience México. I’m not known as an intrepid traveler and sometimes I really get confused, but I really try to put my toe in the stream of local culture and, as I travel more, I get a tiny bit better at it. The area we are traveling through, known as the Yucatán Peninsula, is rich in both Mayan and Spanish Colonial history and, over the next two weeks, we will make a big circle that encompasses Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Campeche, Calakmul, Soliman Bay and back out through Cancún. We do this during the ‘cool’ season in January which feels to me exactly like the ‘hot’ season here in the South. Our guide, who carries a towel tucked into his belt to wipe the sweat off and makes a beeline for shade trees at every site, confirms that, yes, this is the cool season.

It is just a two hour drive to Chichén Iztá where we spend our first night at the Hacienda Chichén. And where we are greeted with a glass of bright green chaya juice— every place we go we encounter food and drink that is so good we can’t believe we can’t get it at home. Chaya juice, which is usually mixed with a little pineapple juice, is green in all the right ways— refreshing without feeling like you may have had some lawn clippings. The main part of the hotel was part of an old hacienda, but our rooms were in newer bungalows with brightly colored hammocks on their little front porch. These weren’t the rough rope things from home that like to flip you onto the ground, these were softly woven cocoons. We got in them, and they were pretty nice, but we couldn’t quite see how how people would sleep in them all night (as we would see in our travels, many of the people in this area do sleep in hammocks, you can see them hanging in their homes, especially in the older thatched roof adobe ones). It wasn’t until later in the trip, when we visited the home of Don Hernán Perera Novero, that we realized why we weren’t blissed out laying in one: we were using them all wrong— you don’t lay in them end-to-end, but more like if the top of the hammock is 12 and the bottom 6, you put your head at like 10 and your feet at 4. You get into it by putting the far side over your left shoulder while standing up, pulling the rest underneath so you are sitting in the middle of it and then pivot to bring your feet in; you can even make it rock gently. Once we learned this, you couldn’t get us out (my daughter sees this and says “are you working for Ikea? Just say ‘lay in it at a diagonal.”)

Mexico Church-Watermark 3

Well-fed Iguana on the grounds of Hacienda Chichén

One of the best things about Hacienda Chichén is that you can walk over to Chichén Itzá early in the morning and have the place almost to yourself until the buses from Cancún begin to arrive around ten. When you get there, you don’t really see the main pyramid from all the iconic pictures until you’re almost right up to it because the site is surrounded by forest, but it’s still pretty exciting as you start to see the bottom of it through the trees. I won’t go into all of the history of the site, you can easily get that, but it is, as many ancient sites are, planned to make use of astronomical events: the shadow of the corner of the main temple become the body of the serpent head you see at the bottom of the steps during the fall and spring equinoxes. Further on you see the famous ball court (this was the biggest and best-preserved ball court of all the sites we saw), the iconic Chac Mool at the Temple of the Warriors, and a strikingly modern-looking observatory. Other buildings featured serpents and skulls— all designed to inspire fear and awe (my kids though they looked more funny-scary— something that probably would have gotten their fool heads chopped off back then). The whole Chichén Itzá complex is well-preserved, making it a good first site to give context to some of the later, more ‘ruined’ sites we would see. If I ever come back, I’d visit the site at Ek-Balam and spend a night or two in colonial Valladolid.

Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá

Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá

I could have stayed at the Hacienda Chichén one more day to relax and explore the grounds a bit more, but our plan was to head for Mérida. On the way, we stopped at one of the famed cenotes that dot the limestone shelf the Yucatán sits on. The one hundred-thirty plus foot deep Cenote Ik Kil looks just as exotic as it does in pictures and I was really looking forward to swimming is such amazing scenery until I put my foot in and it froze and fell off; my kids got in and swam to the middle, waited for their lips to turn blue and swam back. We’re such babies. It wasn’t crowded, but the scene was a study in stereotypes— there were a few vigorous Germans swimming laps and a small group of life-jacket clad Asian tourists floating around taking pictures of themselves with their iPhones. The cold water didn’t seem to bother anyone else. From there we stopped in Tixkokob to see hammocks being made but we were out of luck. Apparently the Christmas holiday is so overwhelming here that everyone takes all of January to recover— I even see a Christmas tree in a hammock on someone’s porch. We did learn from one weaver about the the different qualities of hammocks and we did buy a ‘Mexican place’ of our own. You could also try Izamal for traditional hammocks and crafts. We didn’t have time, but Izamal is on my list for future trips.

Mérida is a classic Spanish colonial town laid out in a very easy to navigate grid set around the Plaza Grande (on a scale of 1 to 10 with New York City a 1 and Venice a 10, Mérida is a 2). Over the next few days, we would see very few tourists— here we really stick out. Our hotel, the very charming if somewhat street noisy Casa del Balam, is just three short blocks from the plaza. It is here in Mérida where we realize there is no such thing as ‘Méxican’ food. México has regional food just like we do. And just as you wouldn’t order Maryland crab cakes in Wisconsin, you don’t order fajitas in the Yucatán. The next night we found La Chaya which served traditional foods like salbutes, poc-chuc, and pollo pibil. All the flavors were so alien to me I can’t even form an opinion. Bright magenta pickled onions, something we would see on top of many things in the area, were a big hit from the start. Coming back from dinner at La Chaya, we come across the coolest gift shop ever— Miniaturas at No. 507 on Calle 59. They have all these strange, small handmade dioramas with skeletons playing different roles— my daughter chose one depicting a skeleton teacher with little skeleton students for her Spanish professor. They have all sorts of miniatures, folk art, tin work, ‘trees of life’ and much, much more in a densely packed and endless visual assault.

Miniaturas in Mérida

Miniaturas in Mérida

From our base in Mérida, we were able to explore a number of places. We spent a day watching the masses of pink flamingos in Celestún with their bright pink coral color set off perfectly by the aquamarine water. Another day we visited Uxmal, Kabah, and the caves at Loltun. Although the caves, called Grutas de Lol-Tun, are large and contain some hints of long-ago civilization, anyone who has visited the caves around Luray, Virginia is not likely to be impressed. Add to this that the guides, and you must use their guides, make endless references to all the special things they do for you and how little they get paid to do it (we heard the same from the guide of the group behind us— sound travels well in caves). Uxmal and Kabah, however, are completely unique sites. Where Chichén Itzá was all angles, the main pyramid at Uxmal is all curves and, according to myth, it was built overnight by the magician on a challenge from the king; the fanciful shape only lends credence to the story. To get a awe-inspiring view of the top of the Pyramid of the Magician (sometimes called the Pyramid of the Soothsayer or Dwarf) and a panorama of the whole of the complex, you can climb La Gran Pirámide at the back of the complex. Next, we visited Kabah. Although a small site, it is famous for the Codz Poop, a building wallpapered with mask of the rain god Chaac; a visualization that not only honors the god but expresses the desperation for rain in an area where rain is the only source of fresh water. We also see about a million iguanas.

Celestün

Celestün

It is on a side trip from Mérida that our guide takes us to meet Don Hernán Perera Novero and Doña Felicita Huchin Itzá somewhere near Santa Elena. They have dedicated their home to the preservation of Mayan culture. It’s hard to convey how special this place is: there are no signs, no gift shop, no release forms— nothing but a simple educational setting. You step into the traditional palapa roof adobe house —one of many we see still in use throughout the area— and with open doorways front and back, you immediately feel the cool air; this house was designed to have natural air conditioning. Señor Novero (through our guide) told us about how the roof is constructed to keep out rain and then demonstrated for us the proper was to use a hammock, which is completely different than anything you see in travel pictures. In the corner of the house, there is an alter mixing Catholic icons with Mayan deities, a visually hypnotic sight, which is traditional in the Yucatán. Man, I really wish this were my house; with the smooth adobe floor and the hammock for a bed, cleaning would be done in five minutes. In an almost identical hut behind the house Señora Itzá grinds corn and makes tortillas on a convex steel griddle set over a wood fire. We tried some of these fresh, soft tortillas as a snack with ground pumpkin seeds and some scorching green salsa. I had bragged that I like really spicy stuff so I had to stand there and pretend didn’t bother me at all while it cleaned out all my pores.

Traditional palapa roof adobe house

Traditional palapa roof adobe house.

An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures

An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures.

Traditional tortilla making

Traditional tortilla making.

As we walk around the property, Señor Novero shared some of his extensive knowledge on regional and medicinal plants. He has tobacco, which he says keeps insects away, cotton, annatto, peppers, and many others that defy translation from Mayan; I would have to come back with a field guide. We were shown how the fiber from the henequen (a type of agave) is extracted to make rope; this was the primary industry in the Yucatán, and the reason for which the haciendas (think plantation) were built during the 1800’s. He then gave a us the highlights of the very complex religious ritual Ch’a Chaak, still used today, to ask the gods for rain. If I got this right, they ask the Mayan gods, Christian saints, and even their ancestors for help; every single step of the ritual, from the orientation of the alter to plants used, has meaning and purpose. If I were one of their gods, and they did this for me, they’d have all the rain they want. The area is also known for it’s pottery; on our way back to Mérida, we visit a pottery studio specializing in reproductions of traditional Mayan designs. It is here that I see the weirdest thing ever: a statuette of what appears to be a deranged woman/god/creature giving birth.

Annatto

Annatto.

Henequen leaf being prepared for rope

Henequen leaf being prepared for rope.

Rope Making Better Copyright

Rope making.

Ch’a Chaak rain ritual

Ch’a Chaak rain ritual.

Traditional pottery

Traditional pottery.

Birth Better Copyright

It is interesting just to walk around Mérida— the colors, the people. One day, after filling up on horchata and people watching in the Plaza Grande, we headed for the massive Mercado Lucas de Gálvez just south of the Plaza Grande. We spent most of the day here visiting food stalls and looking at the odd collection of shops; you can get everything here: turkey jerky, life size statues of Jesus, sneakers, phones, everything. There are also tons of Disney characters and riffs on the Disney theme everywhere. If I had known the Disney theme was so big, I would have taken more pictures of all these handmade homages. If Disney ever builds a theme park in México, half the people would faint from excitement. Oh darn, my local market fantasy gets killed: we come to a shop selling puppies and it’s not good; they’re in small cages and they look sickly. I took a couple of photos but they didn’t come out well. There were other things too, such as really young kids selling stuff, but these puppies looked really bad. We headed back later to look again, but they had closed. What can you do? If I were home, I would have called animal control.

At night, the Centro Historico really comes to life. After getting some more horchata and some hot churros, all we had to do for entertainment was walk around: a man making music with a saw, a spray paint street artist who uses fire as a finishing touch (and amazingly doesn’t blow up the whole plaza), a remarkably realistic store mannequin, and a Catholic church so busy that one bride was just leaving in her calesa as the next one was entering the church. The second bride was actually sitting in her bridal car during most of the ceremony for the first bride.

Jesus Better Copyright

Disney fever

Disney fever.

Potbelly Better Copyright

Street artist in Mérida

Saw Music Better Copyright

The next day we were off to Campeche, but not before stopping in Becal to see Jippi (aka Panama) hats being created. The weavers work in small limestone caves because the humidity keeps the reeds pliable. The thickness of the reed determines how soft and pliable the hat will be; the more expensive ones are so fine they almost look like woven cloth and they feel like butter. The city of Campeche is a step up from Mérida in the Spanish Colonial theme: the gulf-side town is surrounded by a defensive wall, parts of which you can walk on, and anchored by two forts decked out in iron cannons. Our one night here is spent in the recently renovated, throughly charming, and again somewhat street noisy (the cobblestone streets seem to be the culprit) Hotel Castelmar located within the old city walls. At Puerta de Tierra (land gate) we were able to walk on the ramparts of part of the old city wall, see where the guards went potty, and take in a strange, yet brilliant sight: Campeche, having fallen on hard times, decided there was no need to look that way and decided to hide their urban decay behind beautiful facades. From on top of the wall, you can peek over the facades and see the dilapidated weed-infested ruins.

Cutting reeds for Jippi-Jappa hats

Hat2

Color

Campeche Fronts Better Copyright

The Fuerte de San Miguel, which also houses the Museo de Arqueología, was our chance to get our pictures taken with big cannons and take in the endless views of Campeche and the Gulfo de México. The real surprise though was the beautiful, but not overwhelming, collection of Mayan artifacts in the museum. The highlight was one particularly evocative and intricately created jade death mask from Calakmul— something I wanted to see since we would be heading there next. All this sightseeing made us very hungry. We headed to the locals-filled La Parroquia (we won’t see many tourists in Campeche either) where we immediately ruin our dinner by scarfing down a plate of Richaud charritos topped with pickled onions and huge goblets of fresh juice. And just as Mérida did, the main plaza in Campeche comes to life at night with church services, what looked like bingo played with glass beads, and tons of people. The city used to hide in tunnels during pirate raids, but now pirates are their calling card: an image of a one-eyed scallywag adorns all their tourist trinkets. My daughter scores a t-shirt proclaiming her pirate status. I end up with ice cream from a little hole-in-the-wall McDonald’s that only serves dessert on the main plaza because they have a never-before-seen Oreo cone. Yum. I always try to stop in McDonald’s when I travel and I always find something interesting  that I never see back home. The next morning it was time to leave Campeche. I wish I could have had at least one more day to just explore the small, almost traffic free, city and contemplate all of the interesting pieces of modern sculpture dotted throughout. I’m not sure if this was a temporary show or a permanent installation, but I’ve never seen so much public art. I also would have loved to go to the huge mercado just outside the city walls now that I had some market practice in Mérida.

Mask

From here, most folks head south to Palenque and perhaps the murals Bonampak. We headed east to Calakmul, a somewhat recently excavated and remote Mayan site set deep in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. En route we stopped for lunch at Restaurant y Hotel Calakmul where, despite the unpromising setting, I had my favorite meal of the trip: light and tender meatballs stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and smothered in a sort of smoky chipotle sauce with arroz (rice). Here we stayed at the comfortably rustic Hotel Puerta Calakmul; an eco-lodge just inside entrance to the reserve. We needed an got a wonderful dinner and a good night’s sleep so we could be ready to leave at six in the morning. Why? Because it is another hour and a half from here to the site and we wanted to see the monkeys and any other wildlife while they were still active. Only people waste their energy in the heat of the mid-day sun— animals nap. We did see a group of monkeys at the site and they were really swinging around but it was a little hard to see them up in the tall trees. The site is not as cleared as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, or Kabah, so it’s hard to get a sense of its enormity. Several structures have large trees growing out of them; their roots so deep that trying to remove them would cause further damage. The highlight is climbing the approximately 390 ft Gran Pirámide for a view of jungle as far as the eyes can see (and as far as the binoculars can too). I’ve never seen so much green. Some people say you can see the top of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala, but we weren’t able to pick it out. Climbing down these pyramids can be scary because they are so steep each step looks like the edge. Don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights, just crawl down backwards like a baby—that’s what I did. It’s the tree-root loaded flat ground around the pyramid that you need to watch out for. I tripped and nearly took our guide down with me. Many people talk about how incredible Palenque is; having not seen both, I can’t compare them. However, if you like an undiscovered jungle kind of vibe, then Calakmul, for the time being at least, is for you.

Tree Roots

While we could have used another day in Calakmul to explore some of the trails in the biosphere, we had already planned to head to the Laguna Bacalar near Chetumal. On the way we stopped at two smaller and somewhat more ruined but worthwhile sites: Becán and Chicanná. Becán has a small, but well-preserved section of original carving featuring the other-worldly image of the sun god Kinichná. The small traces of original paint make it seem as if it is trying to reach out across the eons. What a brilliant place this must have been. Our time may be preserved for the ages by our digital presence, but with our glass boxes and blacktop, will any sort of emotion travel into the future? What I wouldn’t give to see just one of these places in their heyday even for just fifteen minutes. At Chicanná, we see a really fierce looking structure called the House of the Serpent Mouth; with sharp teeth all around the entrance it looks as if you are literally walking into the serpent’s mouth— a great photo-op for the kids (there is a mouth door at Chichén Itzá, but it is not as ‘toothy’). Contrary to popular belief, It was not the Spanish who caused the downfall of the Mayan cities; they were already in ruin or on their last legs. Just as it did for the American Indians of the southwest, it is believed my many that prolonged drought and depletion of resources, which in turn would have exacerbated wars and disease, slowly ground down the great Mayan cities. Amazingly, the Spanish conquest seems to have mostly positive reviews from the folks I meet. They spoke of their reverence for the Catholic Church, which is clear at every turn: from packed church services, to crosses everywhere—even in our hotel rooms— and religious supplies and icons proudly displayed in every market. One person I spoke with pointed out that it was different here— the Mayans were not driven onto desolate reservations. Even now, most of the people here resemble the carvings I see at the ruins more than the Spaniards. If I came this way again, I would visit Kohunlich which appears to have some well-preserved stucco masks.

Monkey

Ceiba Tree Better Copyright

Sacred Ceiba Tree

Sweaty and tired, we headed for Akal-ki, a hotel that looks like something out of Tahiti on it’s website. They consider themselves an eco-lodge, which has come to mean no air conditioning. This was fine— I actually enjoy not having it unless it’s oppressively hot and humid. But they take it a step further: electricity, which is provided by eco-unfriendly and noisy generators, is shut off sometime around midnight and does not go back on until—I don’t know when since we left the next morning. I guess the idea seems very eco-edge, but as soon as the ceiling fans stopped, the poorly sealed hut was overrun with humidity, bugs, and mosquitos. I usually have nightmares about spiders, but that night I had to kill a real one by candlelight—actually a hotel provided tea light and a hot one at that. The LED flash light brick thing they provided only gave off an eerie glow that just made shadows of everything. I hate it when camping and staying in a hotel get smushed together. This was the difference between this place and the very comfortable eco-lodge in Calakmul which also had thatched roof huts: they paid careful attention to to sealing the screens to keep most bugs out and kept power use down using a mix of LEDs and compact fluorescents rather than cutting the power completely. Being able to have the fan on low overnight kept the bugs and humidity at bay. Although the almost bath temperature lagoon was very pretty, I wouldn’t stay at this hotel again. I can’t even remember what we had for dinner at the very romantic over-water restaurant because we were almost consumed by mosquitos as soon as the sun went down. I probably even ate a few. The next morning our guide looked at my welted legs and said “what happened to you?” If I had to do this again, I would probably give Hotel Rancho Encantado a chance.

I realized the trip was winding down when we had to confirm the times for our flight back home. Our last stop would be Bahía Soliman near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Bahía Soliman is one of those places you see on posters that have the word ‘relax’ written across the bottom and this time we had the hotel to match: Jashita. With the beautiful, calm, azure, reef-protected water, we fit in all our water fantasies here: kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding. We were glad we had our water shoes, though, as there is a lot of sharp coral both on the beach and in the water. We visited the very crowded ruins at Tulum, which, after everything we’ve seen, weren’t very impressive; the view from the site is no where near as dramatic as the one from the water often seen in photos. Damage from crowds has made it necessary to keep people a good distance from the structures. This was one place where our early morning strategy of avoiding crowds didn’t quite work. If I had to do this again, I would set out early for the Reserva de Monos Arañas de Punta Laguna for a chance to catch some wildlife and then onto Cobá where it says you can ride bikes around the ruins.

Board

We spent most of the next day visiting the super-ruined Muyil and the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an; a vast wildlife preserve on the Carribbean Coast that features a clear white sand bottom lagoon (similar to the one in Bacalar) and miles of coastline and coral reef. It is said that all five of the areas wild cats can be found there (Margay, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Jaguar, and the Puma) as well as some smaller mammals, turtles, dolphins, crocodiles, manatees, and numerous birds. The part of the preserve where we were, though, was strangely devoid of any wildlife given how few people were around. The preserve extends out to the sea past the clear bay and canals where we were, so maybe there is more wildlife in that area. Could also have just been an off day. My kids did like the lazy river where they floated wearing their life jackets upside down in a mangrove-lined canal that had been carved out by Mayans ages ago. Our last day was spent relaxing on the beach at Bahiá Soliman. I could see from the beach what looked like a shelf extending out from the north edge of the bay and I wanted to explore. We walked to the edge of the bay to find a coral-encrusted shelf teeming with tide pools. We saw sea urchins, lots of little fish, colorful snails, crabs, calcified corals, sea fans, and, in some spots, unfortunately, a lot of washed-up garbage.

Coral

Urchin

Garbage

All things must come to an end, good ones especially it seems. On the way through airport security, with no Peppermint Patties to confiscate, they throw out my half empty 3.6 once face mask. My fault. It seemed like they made sure they got something from everyone, although the guy ahead of me who had a liter of Jack Daniels confiscated when he couldn’t produce his duty-free receipt, really paid a big price. The trash can nearly tipped over when they threw it in. I wonder if the security folks get to take all this stuff home?

Traveling is like being a newborn baby. you see so many things for the first time, it’s hard to take it all in. I hope I get to go back, and I say this about all the places I’ve been to only once, so that I can make sense of everything.

Guide: Fausto Lugo

Guidebook: The Rough Guide to the Yucatán

Sunset

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