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Two shooting locations in one day. Must be Texas

America is a unique being. It is a single united country with a single President, however it has 50 individual states, each with their own laws, governors, courts, and general ways of doing things. In order to understand, you have to think of each state in the USA as if it is own individual country, only bound to each other through national (federal) laws and regulations. The people in each state have their own values, foods and even their own accents. Many people who have been to LA, New York or other main tourist destinations may not find this the case, because big cities around the world are all very similar. However if you have been to Texas, you notice right away that it is very different. In my opinion and experience, Texas is so unlike any other state in the USA. It really is just different. And this past weekend, I definitely felt that difference.

I lived in Texas until I was almost 5 years old, and my family returned during the following summers to visit friends and family. I grew up in the countryside, near a tiny town called Poetry, and my childhood involved a sheepdog called Shellie, toasting marshmallows outside in our forest, playing outside and very little of the prevalent fast food that plagues the nation now. I grew up knowing Texas and all the wonderful things it had to offer, including pulled pork, Tex Mex, the Arlington Six Flags theme park, hot 100 degree summers and welcoming Southern hospitality. However, growing up overseas, I realized how lucky I was not to live there – schools in Texas, and in lots of other states now, have metal detectors at school entrances. Because kids carry knives to school. College students can even carry guns to their classes (at certain colleges only). And the American flag is always at half mast to mourn victims of a recent shooting. Will it ever be raised fully?

Although I always wanted to return to Texas and continue to grow up there, we had a much safer upbringing in New Zealand, and even in Indonesia. In New Zealand, the police do not carry guns. They recently were allowed to carry tasers, which many people opposed. However in Texas, you don’t need a license to buy a handgun or a rifle. This is the general population, not police. You need a license to carry a concealed weapon, but anyone is allowed to buy a long gun from a dealer or private seller provided that they are over 18 years of age and have no felony convictions. You can buy a hand gun at 21. You can also use deadly force to protect your property. Even if you ignore the fact that Texas is different because “everything is bigger in Texas”, Texas really is completely and totally different.

And this past Sunday, I really experienced Texas. We attended a morning service at the local Baptist Church with my Grandad and Aunt. My Grandad has attended that church for almost half a century. And in 1999, it was the location of a massacre where a lone gunman (17 years old) came in and shot at a 150 person congregation on a Wednesday night. 7 people died (luckily only 7) and the gunman turned his gun on himself at the end. It is just crazy that this happens. Although most Texans would say that this is why more people need to be able to carry guns. Criminals will always get guns, no matter what the law is, and therefore if someone starts shooting at a church, a mall or a restaurant, you want people to take the gunman out. If law-abiding citizens can carry guns, they may be able to take the gunman out and save lives.

I have always been anti-guns, but Texans present a convincing argument. And after we attended Church, we went to Luby’s, a chain restaurant which had its own massacre in 1991. 23 people died and 20 people were injured. It was the deadliest shooting massacre until the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. And this was in an ordinary restaurant, with ordinary people. Unlike the Church, where the gunman may have had anti-Baptist feelings, there was nothing that made Luby’s any more of a target than your typical fast food joint.

So even knowing that people previously died at this Church, I still wanted to attend the service. I wanted to see what a Southern Baptist church really was like. If it was as restrictive and conservative as I thought. And honestly, no words can even describe the experience. It was so different to what I expected. Firstly, it is incredibly progressive. My Mom, who attended the Church whilst growing up in Fort Worth, could not believe how progressive and modern it had become. And personally, I could not believe the entire service.

Clear your mind and visualize 2 guitarists, a drummer, a pianist and keyboard player, 5 performers with microphones on stage, with a choir behind them. People moving with the music, yelling out, clapping, and raising their hands fist pumping in the air. It sounds like a rock concert of sorts doesn’t it? This was no rock concert, this was the Sunday morning church service. It was like those televised Church services on Sunday mornings. So superficial and put on, a performance of sorts. People actually said “Hallelujah” or would speak out and agree, “Oh Lord” during the service. And during the songs, people would close their eyes, sway, and raise their hands (to the Lord) up high and keep them there. That would get tiring after a while…must be good exercise I guess for their arm muscles!

Now I am not a complete foreigner to religion. I attended an Anglican high school, where I attended church services and sang in the choir for several years. I love choral music and although I do not practice religion, I am not an atheist. I just have not found a religion that I can fully identify with. I understand the attraction of religion and at school services have considered religion. Even in my more adult years I have attended services and find them really peaceful and beautiful. I enjoy the hymns, the spirituality and the values taught in such services. But I disagree with how religion can be so black and white, and I prefer to take what I like from religion and live life my way with my own values, regardless of what a preacher or what a text says on how I should live my life. But attending that service, all I could think was “Get me out of here!!”. There ain’t no way I am going to be a Southern Baptist I am sorry but firstly, where are the beautiful hymns. What was that they were singing! It was horrific. It was like modern music to brainwash youngsters into attending church, but with really black and white messages, and very man made with prominent messages portrayed through the songs. What happened to Ave Maria, The Lord is my Shepard and even the Lord’s prayer??

And speaking of the black and white, they “dedicated” two children to the church during the service. The Minister asked the parents to pledge to bring the children up in the Baptist faith, because ‘if you are not brought up a Baptist from day one you are doomed to fail’. It was basically ‘us’ versus ‘the enemy’. Jesus Christ. No wonder cults pop up like the one in Waco Texas years ago. People truly believe that you have to follow that faith in order to be saved, and to live a wholesome life you must dedicate yourself truly and completely to their God and their values. And during one part of the service, the elderly and disabled went up to have the Minister pray with them, as if to heal them!?! As I said earlier…words cannot begin to describe…

The one thing that made it all bearable was that up front, there was a woman interpreting the service in American Sign Language (“ASL”)! It was incredible! I really enjoyed watching and trying to learn ASL during the service. Many of the words I will never use in day to day signing, such as Lord, Jesus, sacrifice and worship, but it was interesting. In New Zealand, interpreters are scarce and costly. Many people do not know anything about Deaf people, Deaf culture or sign language itself, despite New Zealand Sign Language being an official language of New Zealand. So I just thought it was great that there was an interpreter for the Deaf at a Church, as I have never come across that in New Zealand. Although then again I haven’t attended too many churches there to really say.

And another progressive thing that made me think of the services you see on TV is that it is filmed and put on the Internet! So if you want to watch the 36 minute sermon I endured, where the Minister discussed a passage of the Bible, and also compared church goers to Indian beggars wanting 1 rupee on the streets of India, this Church uploads all their sermons online!! So, due to the wonderful creation of the Internet, you no longer have to take notes of the sermon (although most of the congregation was)! Or, even if you have taken notes, you can revise and take more notes once you are home!!

And even better, if you want to listen to the music, the announcements and hear the random outbursts of “Hallelujah” throughout, the Church streams if live! So really, Mom and I could have stayed in Garland, rather than woken at 6:30 in the morning to get ready and drive over an hour to Fort Worth for Church. Or, if I ever feel compelled to convert, I can watch the services online after I return to San Diego. Personally I don’t think I will…but you never know, pigs might fly.

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Motorbiking to Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou

The Kuang Si waterfall and Pak Ou Buddha caves are two of the main tourist attractions around Luang Prabang. The waterfall is about 32 km south-west of the city, and the falls are about 25 km north-east. Both take about an hour to reach by road, the most popular option being to share a tuktuk (to share the cost) or go on an organized trip. To visit the caves, you can also go on a boat ride, 1 hour there and 2 hours return.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that there is a secret transport option C: navigate the winding jungle roads by motorbike. And it is this option that Andy and I chose. Our first hurdle was obtaining an automatic motorbike. Neither of us can drive manual, and although I have in the past (manual motorbike and dirt bike) it has been at least 4 years. Plus I don’t have a NZ motorbike license so wouldn’t be covered by my travel insurance if we crashed. Everywhere rents out manual bikes for around 120,000 kip (15 USD) and there seemed to be only one place in town that all travel agencies got automatic bikes from, which were apparently booked out and then no one answered their phone. However walking around, we found one place that would give us an automatic bike and 2 helmets for 200,000 kip (25 USD) for 24 hours (Lao Siri Ticketing Co Ltd, 023 Ban Xiengmuane Sisavang Vatthana Road (map here), (856) 71 254885, laosiri.ticketing@gmail.com). As we finally found a bike at noon, we split up our travels and did the waterfalls that afternoon followed by caves the next morning. But this decision was actually made for us by the weather…read on.

I drove, and Andy seemed skeptical and somewhat scared saying “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, but once I gained my balance with him on the back, adjusted my helmet and got used to driving on the right side of the road, we were off!! No map, just a general “that a way” indication of our destination. Out of all the countries I have been in Asia, Laos was the most relaxed in terms of driving. No honking, no crazy over passing, one way roads are actually one way, and I felt totally normal driving. Wind in my hair, sun on my back, the only bad thing was the beautiful scenery that wanted to distract me along the way. I had to tell Andy to take photos as we went so that I could concentrate on the road.

Going by motorbike was also great because you encounter lots of beautiful butterflies along the way. Regrettably, one or two drove into me, but there were many more that weren’t suicidal. It took about an hour to get to the falls, on windy well paved roads, through lots of wonderful small villages, picturesque rice paddies and children playing games on the sides of the road. It really was an adventure.

Upon arriving at the waterfalls, the parking lot attendants laughed at my attempt to park the bike due to my sudden braking and the slippery muddiness of the lot. But 2000 kip got us parking, and allowed us to leave behind our helmets. The waterfall and all its lower pools were really breathtaking. You walk up through the forest, surrounded by nature, past ice blue pools, until you finally reach the waterfall at the top. It is huge. I climbed over the fence for some photos, and was the only westerner amongst local Lao doing the same. Andy then finally followed me out, getting slightly closer to the waterfall, although he almost fell in at one point, due to the slippery rocks!

We then found a nice quiet pool to swim in. Because most crowds arrive after 3, we had a pool all to ourselves. The water was freezing, and you have no idea how deep it is or even what is on the bottom, but it was so refreshing. I found some rocks to stand on so I wasn’t constantly treading water, and then realized the little fish were giving me a fish manicure. Like all the places popping up in Siem Reap, where you have fish eat dead skin off your feet, I was having a fish manicure but for free, and much more authentic.

Luckily we left at 3, because about half way back to Luang Prabang it started POURING with rain. And I mean pouring. We had to stop, scramble through the backpack to find our ponchos, put them on and continue on, with Andy putting his hand over my eyes to shield them from the rain so I could see. It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my trip, turning up at the hotel soaking wet in ponchos off a motorbike. You would never get that on an organized tour of even from a tuk tuk ride.

The next morning we ventured off to the caves before we had to return our motorbike at noon. We had no map, and unlike our trip to the falls, we had no exact idea of how many lefts or rights we had to turn. We just knew how to get out of town in that direction. And the way out of town included a very long bridge, with the driving space the size of a motorbike. I held my breath, and zoomed on. Somewhat slow and swerving, we made it across, without falling off to the sidewalk area, which would have been a mission to get back on the driving portion.

We soon found our way, and after stopping to ask for directions, and receiving no legible English answer, we finally found a road sign that said ‘Pak Ou’. The road changed from paved to dirt, windy and bumpy, but we became fully immersed in the rainforest and rice paddies, having workers and children waving and yelling hello. We even had to stop for elephants crossing the road!!

Once we arrived, we had to pay for parking, and were allowed to wander into the town. It wasn’t clear where on earth the river was, so we walked and walked, and finally asked for directions. We found the river, saw boats, but no boatmen. So continuing, we walked down, looked around, and a man appeared over the horizon out of no where, and let us on his little boat.

Upon arriving at the caves on the other side, there are two caves you can visit, the lower and upper. The lower was a bit disappointing, as there are a lot of Buddhas but nothing overly impressive. Just lots of small to large Buddha statues haphazardly arranged. We then ventured up to the top cave – a total of 220 steps up. And it was a hike. It is much cooler up there, and you walk in a dark cave full of tourists. If you allow your eyes to adjust, you can actually see around without a flashlight, but most tourists are using flash on their cameras and flashlights so it took away from the magic of it. There were beautiful golden Buddha statues in the upper cave, but even those were not as beautiful as some of the Buddha statues we saw in temples in Luang Prabang. The caves themselves are not breathtaking or spectacular. It was still fun though, and definitely an adventure due to the motorbike.

Beautiful Barcelona

The last stop on my world trip pre-San Diego was Barcelona. I only had three nights there, so tried to pack in as much as humanly possible. A girl from Amsterdam in my hostel was so impressed with what I did in a day – it was apparently more than she had done in a week!! Barcelona in July is wonderful – it was hot and sunny every day, with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, people enjoying ice creams and granitas by the harbor, and going to the beach. It was full of tourists – both Spanish and international – which meant that I met so many interesting people in my hostel, from the States, the UK, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. The interesting thing was that everyone I met was on a short vacation – ranging from a weekend to three weeks. However in Asia, everyone was traveling for at least 3 months if not longer, so everyone in Barcelona could not believe that I was ‘traveling’ for the rest of the year. I just loved walking around the city, exploring and soaking in the culture.

There was a fabulous market in the middle of the old city off La Rambla, full of fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and even candy by the pound. There was a tapas bar where customers stood by the bar, ate tapas and drank wine. You could buy fresh fruit juices for 2 euro or different mixes of fruit for 1-3 euros. It was all pretty fabulous.

I just loved the historic buildings in Barcelona, they were so beautiful and so I took far too many photos of buildings and not nearly enough photos of people. On my first afternoon I did a free walking tour of the Old Town, where we saw the Placa Reial, Placa del Pi, the old Jewish quarter, government buildings, the Cathedral, the Roman City, Placa Sant Felip Neri (my favorite of the Placas, it was so hidden and secluded and quiet) and Santa Maria Del Mar. Our guide Katherine was very knowledgeable and I learnt so much about the city and saw so much that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I also attended two free concerts at the cathedral – both school groups, choral and orchestral, which were beautiful. Fantastic acoustics.

On my own, I explored Gaudi’s masterpieces, mainly the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Park Guell was huge, and quite a trek. It was very busy, so much so that people who didn’t know each other were posing together with the mosaic lizard so they could have a photo with it. The view of Barcelona was very nice from up there, and after much waiting I finally managed to push through to the front and have another tourist take my photo.

The Sagrada Familia had a line that roped three-quarters of the way around the block, so I found a free wifi spot outside Starbucks and purchased tickets online, and only stood in a queue of five people! The church itself is still under construction, so there are cranes working and so the photos of the outside are slightly tainted with cranes towering over it. The design of the building is…interesting. People either find it beautiful or ugly. I was not taken by the design, especially of the exterior, but the interior was very impressive. It is spectacular, although it requires a lot of reading and analysis to understand the symbolism and design itself.

The thing I loved the most was the stained glass in the church. The organ pipes were directly in front of stained glass panels, and the light shone through the glass and formed a rainbow on the pipes.

I also discovered amazing food – the tapas were fantastic. Especially the style of tapas where you choose your own from a huge display of different plates, each individual tapa having a toothpick in it. As you eat, you put your toothpicks in a little bowl, and at the end you pay per toothpick! This style is known as ‘pintxos’, and I discovered a very busy and popular restaurant specializing in pintxos right by the Cathedral, called Bilbao Berria. There were over 50 plates, with such amazing range. Each toothpick was 1.65 euro, and a glass of red Spanish wine was only 2.50.

And now, having had three beautiful days in Barcelona, it is time for San Diego. I don’t know what to expect when I get there, but I am looking forward to it anyways. It is a bit scary, a new experience, living in a new city where I don’t know anyone, but I am sure I will love it nonetheless.

Chasing Lions in Africa

The sky is breathtaking here. There are so many stars. There are the main stars you see back home. But beyond that there are so many faint  background stars that the sky seems continually lit up with no full darkness. You can even see the milky way! It is like previous generations are looking down and watching over us…just like Mufasa told Simba. The landscape reminds me exactly of the Lion King, with the tall acacia trees and  bare plains with grazing animals, and I may be singing “The Circle of Life” in my head as we drive through the wilderness. But I am sane. I am in Africa, in my own real life Lion King, so the connotations and comparisons with the Disney movie are allowed.

This morning I woke up to zebras and wildebeests grazing on my doorstep. We slept in a tented camp site, where the rooms were actually villas on stilts, with hardwood floors, permanent furniture and bathroom facilities, but the walls were completely canvas, like a tent. We were escorted to dinner last night in case we encountered any animals, which we did – a female impala on the footpath to the outdoor restaurant. So far after 2 full days and 3 nights, I am in love with this place. Tanzania is a wonderful country. The people are friendly and kind and very welcoming. “You are most welcome” or “Karibu” are the most common phrases you hear, whether you are arriving at a hotel, being shown your rooms, saying good night or arriving at a museum – they say it before you even have a chance to say “hello” or “thank you”. It is all rather formal but it does transport you back to the time when Hemingway and others came to this country to hunt.

And it is yet to set in that I am even here, in the middle of Africa, in a tent, on a safari trip. Transportation is so easy now, you don’t have time to prepare or transition into your new surroundings. I flew into England at 6am Friday, and left at 6:30pm Saturday. 5:30pm London time on Sunday, 23 hours later, I am in Africa. Even today and yesterday, driving around Manyara and Tarangite National Parks, I feel I will wake up soon and be in bed in New Zealand.

I am not complaining, it is just an odd feeling. Because it is such a different world here. It is fantastic. We have been to Tarangire National Park, my first safari experience, where we drove in a land cruiser with a pop up top, seeing zebras, giraffes and impalas. The first animal we saw were monkeys, which weren’t overly exciting, as they were in the entrance parking area for registration. Then we saw Zebras. Zebras, in the distance, hiding behind a bush. Zebra specks. But still, zebras! One of my favorite African animals. So off I went taking photo after photo. Little did I know, that we would see plenty more, including herds, both up close and in the distance, and little baby zebras. Even after day 2 I no longer squeal “zebra” when I see one due to seeing so many. I do squeal though when I see a baby zebra, because they are adorable. But I am trying to make a conscious decision to be as excited as I was the first time I saw an animal on safari, every time I see another one. Because it is easy to get complacent, and think “oh giraffe, I saw heaps yesterday…keep driving.” I don’t want to get like that.

All the animals, no matter how few or distant, are exquisite. They truly are. Interacting with one another, feeding, resting, fighting. Who knew that wildebeest and zebra always stick together, as zebras are good at spotting predators, and wildebeest can smell water more than 5km away. Further, baboons will eat leopard. Sneak up on them resting and tear them apart. Savage.

So yes on day 1 we saw zebras, elephants, wildebeest, verval monkeys, waterbucks, impalas, cranes and other various birds. We even chased a lion and later on we chased a pumbaa. I saw the warthog in the distance and yelled to Dad, “pumbaa!” Our driver Abdul knew what I meant right away, and started calling out “here pumbaa” and made pumbaa grunting noises. When it started running, and we drove after it, Abdul couldn’t stop laughing, in a very Lion King Pumbaa laugh. Day 2 involved Manyara National Park, a completely different experience altogether. Where Tangire was very dry and open, Manyara began with a rainforest, lush and green.

We saw blue monkeys, baboons and various butterflies. It then suddenly changed to a harsh barren landscape, which was the pattern throughout in Manyara – varying ecosystems, with very rapid transitions. It was not as impressive a park, because so much wildlife was hidden in the forest, but also because it was more distant than our first day. We saw hippos in the hippo pool, bathing in the water then coming up to bake in the sun. Nearby were thousands of birds – pelicans, cranes, Egyptian ducks and others, coming to wash in the fresh water, then dry their wings in the sun. They would then take flight and circle overhead, testing their wings to see if they were dry enough to fly on.

Now we have 2 parks left, Ngorogoro and Serengeti. Then soon it will all come to an end, and I will leave as quickly as we arrived, with my time in San Diego looming ever closer. I will have to find an apartment and prepare for my classes. But until then, I have more animals to look forward to, including leopards cheetahs and rhinos. And of course many more zebras, wildebeests and elephants. Can’t wait!!

Leaving Laos for a few days of sunny island paradise

I apologize again for my lack of blog posts. Truth is I have been enjoying my trip so much I forgot about my blog!! That and I have so many amazing photos that I want to attach to my posts. But I thought it was time for a quick run down as I am currently sitting in KL low cost airport for a 5 hour layover. It was meant to be a 3 hour layover, but 2 days ago we received an email saying our flight was delayed by 2 hours. So here we sit in coffee bean nursing our ice blended coffees to retain these comfortable plush seats before having to brave the check in havoc. However it is most depressing because they are playing a wicked upbeat playlist very similar to my running playlist. It has been almost 3 months since my knee injury, and although my ruptures have repaired, my knee cap is still not properly aligned. So I have 2 more months of taking it easy according to a knee specialist in Jakarta. And 2 exercises to do every morning and night. They hurt and are difficult but at least make me feel like I am making progress. I may not be up for the San Diego marathon in August, but I am going to find another run to make my goal.

It is also nearing the end of Asia (round 2). Andy and I spent the last 12 days in the beautiful country of Laos. It was the place I most looked forward to going to this trip, because I know no one, except my dad, who has been there. It also seems slower than the rest of SE Asia and at least 10 years behind in terms of tourism and popularity than Cambodia and Vietnam. It did not disappoint. 12 days was too little, and to Andy’s horror I am already planning another trip, to see the entire country by motorbike.

It was such a gorgeous country with such wonderful friendly people. So many beautiful temples, great rural scenery, with mountains, rain forests, the might Mekong River, and so many nature activities such as Rick climbing, caving, kayaking, mountain biking, elephant riding and more. We sadly did not participate in any, due to either rain, my knee, or Andy being diagnosed with tonsillitis on day 2, at the Australian embassy medical clinic in Vientiane. This meant not only did it hurt to eat and drink, but prolonged periods outside or doing physical activity was out of the question. Which is why another trip is on the books!

Whilst in Laos, we spent 2 days in Vientiane, basically in order for Andrew to be well enough for a bus ride. It is just a big city that we didn’t really enjoy. The sights aren’t very spectacular and the river front is very commercialized. It was hard to find local food not in nice restaurants or westernized, but we did find a restaurant literally on the side of the road, where we had our first experience with sticky rice, which became a staple food throughout our trip.

It is soaked for hours and hours, then cleaned and rinsed 3 times, drained, and cooked in a bamboo basket. You pick up a lump in the left hand, take a small portion with your right, and roll it into a ball so it starts to stick to itself. You then use your thumb and two next fingers to dip it and pick up laap or other food. It is only for dips and dry stir fries though. Any curry or saucy dish has steamed rice. Of course we learnt this all throughout our trip, so with our first experience we just picked at it and ate it, not quite sure what to do!

After Vientiane, we took a 4 hour bus to Vang Vieng, the party town. It is basically a town in the middle of no where, with two main strips, full of places serving up hamburgers, pizzas, “happy” additions to your food, and playing family guy or friends on full blast. It is also popular for it’s caves and water sports, but the talk in our bus there and when we left was “are you going tubing?” or “did you go tubing?”. Still, better than Vientiane. It at least had something making it stand out from a normal city. A strange western influence that no one quite understands.

After 1 night we then endured a 7 hour ride to Luang Prabang. My favorite place in Laos. It was beautiful and magical. It had an old school French feel about it. We stayed in the old quarter on the river amongst French colonial style houses and cafes, with crepe shops on street corners and numerous pagodas and temples about. We saw monks live their daily lives, and after 5 days i can now say it is no novelty seeing a monk. They are everywhere in Luang Prabang. It is another reason the city has such charm. It is peaceful and calming, and it is wonderful seeing monks in action at the temples, walking down the road with a yellow umbrella sheltering them from the sun, or younger ones running around playing games like the boys they are. It was our favorite place, and I want to rerun, especially to go further north to Luang Namtha and other more rural areas.

After LP we had another stint in Vang Vieng, this time involving tubing, injuries, lost jandals and a broken camera, but we made it back to town after tubing down the river in the dark unsure of where we were. We only lost $2 of our $7 deposit for returning the tube after 6. And despite the blunders, we can now saw we have tubed down the Mekong in Vang Vieng. Our last day in Vientiane also involved a visit to the COPE visitor centre, which was my favorite museum/war exhibit on this trip. We met a 20 year old man who lost both his lower arms to unexplored ordinances dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war. He was also partially blind but full of life and joy. The only really sad moment was when he revealed he has never had a girlfriend, because “no one likes disabilities”.

The exhibits were neither political nor hateful, they presented statistics, photos, and information about what COPE does to help, through rehabilitation, rural visits and prostheses. It was a wonderful albeit heartbreaking visit, and really brings you back down to earth and makes you thankful for having all your limbs in tact. 40% of those injured are children, as they follow adults into the forest, searching for exploded bombs to sell as scrap metal, and picking up the unexplored ones set aside by the adults. Or they are discovered while farming or even cooking, by heating the earth and setting one off without knowledge of its existence. It is so sad, especially as 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode upon impact, with up to 90,000 estimated to still be hidden. Makes you thankful to live in a place where you don’t have to worry about stepping on a bomb.

And with that ending our Laos experience, we fly to Jakarta for 2 days to boat out to Kotok island in the thousand islands. Looking forward for more beach time, and time to read. Will be the perfect ending to my 2 months of Asia, and my 2 weeks with Andy before he returns to work.

My Alternative London Day Out

In the last 14 days, I have seen and done quite a lot. I stayed in Rochester, Essex and Cumbria, with day trips to London, Canterbury, Cambridge, the lakes and villages around Cumbria (Keswick, Cockermouth, Whitehaven and Penrith to name a few) and other towns in Essex. And today I had my last day in London. It was probably my favorite day, because I behaved less like a tourist and I wandered and discovered things to do and see with only slight direction. I wanted to go to Brick Lane and spitalfields market, maybe see a matinee of a musical, but just decided to see how I went.

After training to London, my day began with a visit to the British Library, near Kings Cross. It is not that beautiful a building, especially in comparison to the newly restored St Pancras Hotel next door, with gorgeous gothic brick architecture. However they had an exhibition on about English literature and the representation of English landscape throughout the years. It was actually one of the best things I have seen. The exhibition moved from rural dreams of the countryside to the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, then to wild moors an heaths to the city and London itself, with the last part covering the lakes, waterways and rivers of Britain. It looked at how writers have been inspired by the landscape and have in turn influenced it.

They had old 14th century books, and a 10th century book of Old English Poetry, one of four books of such poetry left in the world. They also had John Lennon’s original handwritten draft “In My Life” lyrics. Verses were crossed out, and upon listening to the recording I discovered only the first verse out of 6 made it in the final song! The 2nd verse was actually about Penny Lane, but funnily enough the verse doesn’t appear in that song either. They had the original manuscript for the first Harry Potter novel, alongside a painting done by JRR Tolkein himself of “The hill: Hobbiton across the water” done in 1937. I learnt that the first use of the word sarcasm was in a 1579 poem, “The Shepherds Calendar” by Edmund Spenser, and that “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was written after a dream, but the manuscript was burnt as his wife was disturbed and worried by it. He rewrote it twice over 6 weeks, and the original was much more sexual than the end product was.

Also on display was a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) to his mother, outlining his plans for a new house in Surrey. They had Pygmalion with handwritten revisions by George Bernard Shaw recommending the Cockney pronunciation for Eliza Doolittle. Close to my heart, due to having to study it in high school in intense detail, was an illustrated Wuthering Heights. Turns out that poems she wrote from 1844 to 1848 formed the basis for Wuthering Heights. They had the book of poems on display, but her handwriting was so small I couldn’t read any! And finally, they had a pictorial map of England and Wales as some form of boat game. Each county was a numbered spot, and players had to do certain things depending where they landed. If you landed on #41, a coal mine, you had to stop whole other players drew once, and “if he chooses to put on a dirty flannel frock, may descend in a bucket, an view the works”.

After the library, I took the tube to east London, to walk around Brick Lane, Spitalfield Market and Shoreditch. I never made it to Spitalfields as I had too much else to do walking around exploring. East London reminds me so much of Wellington and Melbourne. I felt right at home, amongst vintage clothes stores, cute little cafes, guys in colored skinny jeans and girls wearing bowties. However, unlike Wellington where the key to being alternative also seems to be to snob those who aren’t, and be ‘too cool’, I felt so at home and met the most lovely people. People were friendly, chatty and warm. There are so many amazing shops around Brick Lane, including Blitz, the largest vintage clothes store in London. There are small galleries hidden down alleys, alongside beautiful street art. Some of it was just breathtaking, and I walked down lots of side streets hunting for street art. This girl I met told me about a famous artist, Pure Evil, whose signature is a bunny rabbit. I sought out his gallery but sadly it was closed. Next time.

I also did like the locals do, and stood in a 10 person line for a burger at this cafe off Brick Lane. It was the best burger I have had in ages, even though it was a vegetarian aubergine and halloumi burger! Even here, friendliness trumped alternative hipster snobbery, and I sat with a local called Steve who was modeling for a photography course that afternoon. He actually thought I was a teacher on the course, due to my DSLR on my shoulder. After lunch I stumbled upon the pop up mall, that provided the idea for the Christchurch city pop up mall after the earthquakes. There was a lawsuit over it, with the London mall developers claiming that two of the developers in Christchurch stole their intellectual property. I actually have to agree with the Glassons’ lawyer and admit it looks nothing like the Christchurch one, you wouldn’t even know it was made out of containers!

Round the corner from the mall, I was given a free beer and invited to an art gallery exhibition, more street art but in a gallery rather than on buildings. They were all these boxes and other containers, with an artist at work outside spray painting designs on a flattened box. Turns out he won a street art competition that year, and he is brilliant at it. They got him involved in the exhibition before he won, so are even more stoked now that he has won!

My east London stint ended when I found myself so far away from the Spitalfields market I tried to find my way there, only to get distracted by London bridge being raised for some official looking ships. That then led me to Soho, where I hunted down a cafe called “Flat White”, started by New Zealanders with an aim of introducing drinkable coffee to England. Sadly my trim flat white tastes bitter, but at least the fern on top was pretty. And then of course, because I was in the area, I finished my day off with window shopping on Carnaby Street and Oxford Street. A pretty non touristy day, and I loved it. I felt like I was just enjoying a day off work, going shopping, getting lunch, going to galleries and seeing (although today I was making) friends. One of the girls at the street art exhibition asked if I was considering moving to London, and today has actually made me consider it!

Today was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city, yet it still left me wanting more! It was also so beautiful and warm, and made me think of how Wellington is so great on a nice sunny day, England is the same, it just took 2 weeks to get a day like that! It also helped me get used to warmth again, as on Thursday it is back to Asia and 30+ degrees Celsius weather. Hopefully it isn’t too much a shock to the system!

Hoi An, the Tailor Capital of Vietnam

Before Hoi An, El and I were averaging 2 nights per destination, fitting as much in as humanly possible. Hoi An was meant to be 3 days, a relatively long period of time when you consider we only spent 1 day in Hue. I had then decided on an overnight bus (11 hours) to Mui Ne/Nha Trang, for 3 days, and then overnight train to Ho Chi Minh City. However, because Hoi An was such a nice peaceful place and we could lounge by the pool and beach, and because I didn’t fancy another two nights on public transport, I decided to extend our stay and booked a Jetstar flight direct from Danang (45 minutes away) to HCMC. In retrospect, I wish we had ventured to Danang for a night or two rather than spent the whole time in Hoi An, as it does look like quite a cool place. Next trip!

Tourists come to Hoi An mainly for the clothes. Hoi An has tailor shop after tailor shop, all with manikins out front wearing various outfits, trying to entice you inside. Tailor shops are everywhere, even in the markets by the riverfront. It is a rather overwhelming experience really. Far too many competing stores. How do you even begin to choose!? I decided against the well known Lonely Planet recommended stores, and decided on a shop at 48 Tran Hung Dao street called “SU”. The owner was really nice and lovely. The clothes on display were well done, they had double hems, invisible zippers and were all shaped quite well.

The process of getting clothes made in Hoi An goes somewhat like this: Presented with numerous catalogs. Look through catalogs. Stick post-it notes on pages you like. Decide that is enough. Show them the catalogs. Look at fabric. Choose fabric. Motorbike to another store to look at fabric. Choose more fabric. Return to tailor shop. Be measured. Be measured again. And again. Be measured for every individual piece of clothing, rather than just measurements in general. Sit down and negotiate a price. Pay a deposit. Come in 24 hours later for a fitting. (I know, 24 hours, to make my 8 items). Make adjustments. Another fitting. Hope that it all works well. Pay. Be happy (or so we hope. See my tips on getting clothes tailored).

I decided upon a 3 piece suit, 2 work dresses, a skirt, and a more playful party dress. We had 3 fittings, because we had enough time, and because I make clothes myself so know what to look for in terms of hems, zippers, finishings and how the seams line up. Apart from one dress, where I hope the fabric will soften after washing in order for the neck to fall how I want it to, I am incredibly happy with my orders. I never wear pants – be jeans, trousers, leggings, whatever – and I loved my suit pants. I got two more pairs made, in navy and black! I loved the dresses, and the top actually turned out really well, despite being a last minute decision. The suit is beautiful, and some of my dresses look like they cost $200, when in fact I only paid $50.

Apart from having clothes made, we spent quite a lot of time at the beach and exploring the town. I find it sad when people go to Hoi An only for tailoring, spending just enough time there to order clothes and fit in a single fitting before moving on. The town is so beautiful and calm. It is quiet and is a great city to explore on foot or by bike. The old town area has beautiful lanterns at night along the river, a night market selling souvenirs, and so many restaurants and lounge bars. Our hotel had free bicycles so we biked to the beach in the morning, back for lunch, and all around. Luckily, bicycling was recommended by my doctor as therapy for patella-femoral syndrome, so I was able to bike and feel like it was helping my knee, instead of injuring it further.

Hoi An is very quiet compared to Hanoi and HCMC, and even compared to Hue. People are much more relaxed. However, it is still a big foreign city, which you tend to forget when you feel comfortable. Bags still get snatched, and you still don’t want to walk the streets by yourself late at night. I felt completely safe and secure in the city until one night when El disappeared and I was left in town at 2:30am by myself. At that point, biking back to the hotel, I realized how dark the streets were and how sketchy the situation was. Luckily I biked quickly and with purpose, and got back to the hotel safe and sound. But it did make me worry. You never want to be by yourself in a foreign city, especially as a Western tourist. Whether you have lots of money or not, you are viewed as being rich. Always have to be careful.

We had some fantastic food in Hoi An, partly due to our cooking class with Van, but also because of the abundance of local Vietnamese restaurants serving up Hoi An specialties. White rose, cau lau and mi quang are all local dishes. White rose is basically shrimp dumplings, but with more dumpling than shrimp. Cau lau is a noodle dish with pork, herbs and fried noodle chips on top, with a really delicious 5 spice sauce (which the pork is cooked in) on top. And mi quang, I sadly never had a chance to try, is a vegetarian noodle dish.

White Rose

Apart from the food, there are two gorgeous beaches, one to the north and one to the east. Out of the two beaches, An Bang was probably my favorite. It is the more local beach, north of Hoi An but closer to our hotel. It has only 5-6 restaurants on it and one morning we were the only tourists there. There is a bit of a scam to the lounge chairs on the beach though – they are free, as long as you buy a meal. If you don’t, they are 30,000. They don’t tell you this upfront though, they say ‘free free!’. So make sure it is actually free, and you don’t have to buy anything. Even if you spend all day drinking there, that doesn’t allow you to sit for free. So at An Bang, we refused to give in and set up our towels on the sand. On our second to last day though, we discovered La Plage, a French restaurant and bar, where we could lounge all day on their chairs, even if we only bought a 10,000 dong water (50 cents). I also discovered this little roadside stall selling fried goods, including donuts!!! It was this amazing greasy coconut filled donut, amongst other fried treats (whole fried crab as well!).

The best meal we had was at Bale Well, a restaurant similar to the one in Hue, where you are served a huge variety of plates, and you make your own rice paper rolls. Bale Well was busy with locals and tourists alike, and we got the last table available. We were presented with rice paper, herbs, a kim chi type dish, dipping sauce, pork satay skewers and sausage skewers. And shortly after, we were presented with fried spring rolls and omelets. Which, brilliantly, you put in the spring roll!! Our waitress was incredibly friendly, and in showing us exactly how to do everything, she wrapped up a spring roll, dipped it in the sauce, and fed me!! Only in Vietnam.

Sadly I write this post already having left Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh for 4 1/2 days, with the plan to meet Andy and venture into the Mekong Delta. However things don’t always go to plan, and this turn of events means I am in Changi Airport in Singapore, waiting for my 11pm flight to Frankfurt, and then to London. England will be incredibly different from my last 35 days. Instead of staying in hostels, I will be staying with family, and catching up with relatives I have not seen since I was younger. I am actually really looking forward to it, and so thankful that it was easy enough to change my round the world ticket and book new flights, to make sure I can still go visit everyone. I still have a few Vietnam posts to put up, so a few more Asia related posts will still come, however so will some photos of English countryside, and bustling London. Gotta mix it up a bit.