Monday, 27 August 2012

Monsoons and Motor Scooters

The color of the Andaman Sea in Thailand

There is a reason we respect safety signs: "Dangerous Curve Ahead", "Biohazard Area, Stay Out” or "Hard Helmet Area" are signs posted for a purpose. So why did my sister, Lori and I not heed the "Monsoon Season, Dangerous Riptides" advice generously displayed everywhere in Phuket, Thailand? Perhaps because we were there for action and excitement; it was our first vacation together and we were in a place that cried decadence and adventure.

It was my mission to provide "THE Beach Experience" for my sister and I wanted more than the overcrowded Karon beach outside of our rustic hotel. We decided to snorkel and see what all the fuss about Thailand's heavenly beaches was about.  We found a southern tour that would take you to Raya Island for one thousand Baht. At this secluded island, we were promised we could snorkel from the boat, look for tiny sharks and rays and then chill on the other side, enjoying the aquamarine water, white sand and sea breeze. What I didn't take into account was the dangerous, rough water we would have to navigate to get to the destination. All of this, led by a sun-baked man named Tiger, and a boat full of Russians, Mainland Chinese and two hick town women from Canada.

Packed like Sardines on the boat
We were shuttled to the ferries early in the morning and herded into a canopied shack to wait for our turn to board the rickety speed boat. While waiting we were told by Tiger that under no circumstance should we take off our lifejackets onboard, and that on every boat he commandeers, someone throws up their noodle breakfast. He handed out anti nausea pills like candy and I wondered what I had got us into as I popped pill after pill. No way were my eggs coming up with a boat load of people that didn't speak English.

We were ushered to the boat and due to high tide and rough water we had to board from the beach, through  the murky sea. We were handed life jackets that were either too large or too small and told to make sure they were secure. They loaded the boat so tight, we were stuck together from our sweat. Body odor was starting to emanate. "Move it people, let's get a breeze going."

I should have kept that thought pushed further down because within minutes, we were on the way to Raya, through monsoon waves. As Tiger explained, "During monsoon season, we get waves all day, we get waves all night, we get waves every day." Why didn't we listen to him before we boarded, why, why?

The trip to the island is usually 30 minutes but with the three meter swells pummeling the packed boat, it was over 45 minutes. We were completely drenched as the water tried to overcome the craft.

Kitesurfing on Karon Beach
What I learned on this trip is that Mandarin, Russian and English speakers all scream "Wooo" the same way.  The woman beside me must have had bruises from me clutching her leg when the boat became airborne. I am not sure she understood, "Sorry" but she just smiled and patted my hand. My sister was the only person on the boat not nervous.  She sang Bob Marley songs to keep me from pitching a fit, as I prayed to Buddha, Allah and did Hail Marys until the ocean subsided.

Finally we got past the bucking waves to calm, crystalline water and all was forgotten.  I couldn't get on my "cheap, Made in Taiwan" snorkel gear fast enough.  Hey, those were Tiger's words, not mine, as I exited the boat. Tiger also insisted on giving us more racial stereotyping before we all jumped. "Chinese are not allowed to drown on my watch, because Chinese can't swim." This old bugger was less than politically correct.

He was kind enough to snorkel with me and help me locate a Sting Ray hiding amongst the colorful coral; the highlight of the trip for me. Swimming with Tiger was not. All of his spitting and hacking from his strong Thai cigarettes into the pristine water, was less than appealing.

Soon it was time to venture to the other side of the island for relaxation and lunch. We were chauffeured by an incredibly classy tractor pulling a flatbed, but only if you were female.  All the men had to hike in the blazing sun to the other side, past the meandering Water Buffalo, just in time to lay down for a late morning siesta.

What a sight to behold, monsoon or not, on the other side of the island. Finally I got to see the white sand and dazzling water I had read so much about. Keeping to a tight schedule we scampered over to a large shack on the beach that was disguised as a restaurant. We literally had to scramble over rocks and sand bags to get to the entrance.  Safety, be damned in Thailand.

Scrambling over the rocks to the restaurant
I was warning my sister that in Asia, queues mean nothing, when three women tried to bypass her in line. Her piano teaching instincts took over and she informed these rogues "budders" she was next.  The chastised women slunk to the back of the line, HA! We were rewarded with Tom Yum Soup, and unidentifiable deep fried veg, plantains and pineapple.

We still had to return to Phuket, and I would like to say the waves had subsided, but that would be wrong. If nothing else, the boat was more jam-packed and the waves were higher.  I am not certain how we managed to bring more people onboard, or where they came from, but this time, there were not enough life jackets for everyone.  Tiger tried to tell me I would be fine, to which I told him, "Not bloody likely."  He miraculously found one for me and then tried to entertain the green passengers with brain twisting puzzles.

Ladyboys are everywhere in Phuket
The rest of the trip was a whirlwind of Ladyboys, dancing, cheap booze and hot, hotter, and hottest days. Nothing out of the extraordinary happened if you don't take into account that women that once used to be men proposition you every two steps, and you see nasty, old Western men with "Younger Than Their Grandchildren" girlfriends.  While this may seem strange to some, it is perfectly normal in Thailand. It is Vegas, but 95 per cent more insane, naughty, wild and raunchy all rolled into one.

On the day we were to leave, I had organized a taxi to pick us up for our early flight on Tiger Airlines (Yes, everything in Thailand is named Tiger). Of course, the taxi didn't show, and the thousands of taxis you see during the night were all sleeping at this ungodly hour. 

I had security, and workers all running up and down the street trying to flag down a taxi, when a man on a motor scooter flew by, jammed on his brake and yelled, "Taxi?" I told him to hurry because we needed to get to the airport.  He looked at the luggage, then Lori, and told me to hop on.  I roared off, leaving her with the bags on the side of the road, while we located his taxi. In just a few short minutes we zoomed back to pick her up and blaze through every red light in Phuket. I ended up paying him almost double what I would have paid the airport taxi, but at this point, I would have paid him anything.

Selling crepes on the street - yummy
When safely ensconced in Singy I spilled the adventure beans to R2, who challenged me with, “Darling, you will not know travel until you go to Phuket with me, so brace yourself. We will take in Ping-Pong Shows, serpent entertainment, and Hunt for The Red October.” He is probably right, traveling with the Mexican whirling dervish will provide stories that are highly censored in the puritan society of Singapore. I guess I will have to wait until October when we make another visit to Thailand: The Land of Smiles.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

From No-tell Motels to Putting on the Ritz

Former Sisal Plantation - now a resort
It occurred to me that I have stayed in some unique lodgings since I began this travelling journey called, "My Life”.  I have stayed in unmentionables to forgettables to memorables and everything in-between throughout dozens of countries. Often they meld into one, however there are times they are extraordinary and not always in a positive way.

On a recent trip to Thailand I booked a budget hotel. Not expecting much, except a white sand beach across the road, I got what I paid for. What I didn't pay for, was frequent visits from wretched rats in the pool area. We tried to explain the rat situation to the neighboring Russian tourists with charades and hand gestures. It wasn't until we said, "Mickey Mouse" did they understand and started to scream on our decibel level.

The best resorts - always Mexico
When I travel with R2, I am usually in for a treat. His entire life has been hotel rooms and suitcases so he makes certain a king-sized bed (not always an easy find in Asia) with a decent mattress and plush bedding is in the room.  Me, I prefer wifi. When I can't connect, my head starts to spin, my eyes roll back in my head and I begin to froth at the mouth. Not being connected to friends and family is not in the realm of my techno-world. Heaven help the On-Duty Manager if I can’t find wifi in the hotel.

Cant resist dinner at the Four Seasons Langkawi
His frequent traveling has garnered him status in many hotels so as the "tag-along" spouse, I have to admit I enjoy the Platinum Perks. I have come a long way from the wooden shacks on the beach I used to afford, to the Four Seasons Resort in Langkawi.  We have been upgraded to a suite so large in Sydney, Australia, I sent out an All Points Bulletin on R2 because I lost him in one of the rooms. Turns out he was in the gargantuan sunken tub, testing the bath salts and water temperature.

When we travel with guests we tend to pay, so the accommodations are not quite as swank.  When my son Lucas visited with his girlfriend, Sam, who could forget the "upgrade" in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia that looked like bullet holes had peppered the ceiling, towels so threadbare you could almost see through and a bathroom door that you could see through. Not much privacy for four people.

Bintan, Indonesia - cottages on the beach
There was the cabin on the beach in Tioman, Malaysia where the double beds were so small, R2 and I had to stay motionless all night for fear of landing on the sandy floor. We had R2's son in the bed next to us so the snoring between two men was in stereo for my listening enjoyment.

We took a three week holiday from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico a couple of years ago. We stayed in a lodge in Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo that was in the middle of the jungle with no phones, TV or...gasp...wifi. What it did have was a healthy herd of scorpions. I wondered why R2 told me to check my shoes before I put them on. What he didn't tell me was that he was pulverizing scorpions in the porch before I fainted dead away.

Also on this countrywide journey, he booked us into a five-star transformed Hacienda in Temozon that used to be a working Sisal plantation. The Hacienda was Colonial Mexico at its finest from the swinging hammocks in the room, to the outdoor private tub filled with hibiscus flowers. The only detraction at this locale was the swimming baby bat in the infinity pool. The drenched black vermin put a damper on my need to dip in the water, no matter how hot I was, in July, in Mexico.

Beverly Hills is THE place to people watch
Dinner for the Schmucks was a Rotten Tomato bomb but I didn't care when we stayed in the Beverly Hills Hilton. It was the Premier of the movie at this famous hotel and Steve Carell and Paul Rudd held the elevator for us.  I tried to play it cool until they left the elevator where the media and other celebrities were gathered. That is when I began my celebrity-spotting dance and shouted, "The 40-Year Old Virgin" just held the door for us and told us to “Have a nice day”.  So much for being calm, cool and collected.

I have stayed in rooms with canopied beds which always leave R2 with a bruise when he forgets, stands up, and bashes his head. I have lain awake at nights listening to crickets and geckos you know are in the room with you. I have luxuriated in bathtubs so large, a family of four could live in it, and I have sat on balconies to watch the most magnificent sunsets on over-the-top tropical properties. I have also killed spiders, mosquitoes and chased lizards from the “not so nice” resorts we manage to find ourselves, on occasion.

India was interesting for accommodations. We had a lovely suite in Bangalore however, right beside the hotel (one that had armed guards checking every vehicle that entered the facility for bombs) was a slum with  shoeless children begging and rummaging through the rubbish, next to the rats. 

Our private pool in Jaipur - amazing property
We went to several cities in India and luckily R2 made certain the accommodations were livable.  We stayed in the Tree of Life, outside of Jaipur that without a doubt was the most heavenly property I have stepped foot on. Sadly for me, in Agra the day before, I managed to eat something that gave me a two week stint of what the locals call Delhi Belly. I did appreciate the massive, marble bathroom because that is where I spent two days, lying on the floor, hoping someone could put me out of my misery.

Many people I talk to, think what R2 and I do, is strange, or exotic. People often tell me how lucky we are to be on this quest. After living in Asia for seven months, my life is not much different from the hundreds of thousands of expats in Singapore, and beyond. Twenty or thirty countries is nothing compared to many people I have met.  We are newbies at this life even though R2 has been at this game for over twenty years. 

How big of a bruise will I get?  Rothenburg, Germany
It really makes no difference if the accommodations are quaint and rustic or if they are grand and opulent. Either way, we manage to find an adventure. In the five years we have been together, three of those were spent apart while he worked afar and I got up each day for my government job, so if he puts us up at the Ritz Carleton or the Roach Motel, as long as we are together on this traveling expedition, we are contented and home. 

Now can someone please tell the rats, bats and creepy, crawly things they aren’t welcome?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Don't Boar Me

The bumboat that takes you to Ubin

It is hard for people to imagine that Singapore has over fifty natural islands, a handful of artificial ones and many more now lost to land reclamation. Many of the natural islands are not available to the public, used by the military or are uninhabited, Luckily, there are a couple of islands that you can still visit for a few hours to escape the maddening crowds of Singapore and catch a slight breeze to cool your senses.

I took my sister to such an island; Pulau Ubin is home of the wild boars and rouge monkeys. After seeing all the slick, high-end architecture in Singy, I wanted to show Lori what life was like before the fame and fortune hit The Tiny Red Dot.

Houses on stilts in Ubin
They say Ubin is what Singapore was in the 60s. Hard to imagine when you see the tiny homes on stilts, eateries that are mere shacks, one lane dirt roads and a small jetty where the bum boats dock. If there was a toilet on the island, I didn't see it and it was probably of the squat-and-dip variety.

Singapore of today is glitz, glamour and as high end as you can imagine. The country recently celebrated its 47th birthday so the transformation in this short time is nothing less than remarkable.

One of the many bike rentals shops

It wasn't my first trip to Ubin so I knew what to expect. Lori, however didn't know the only way around this hilly, granite isle was by bicycle. After looking at row upon row of rusted, decrepit bikes, she informed me she hadn't ridden in over ten years. Nothing like baptism by fire and I planned to baptize her on a ride with barely-there-brakes, one speed and steering that resembled a pulverized grocery cart.

I could see this brilliant plan of mine going south quickly but we managed to find her a "weecycle" because she is only five feet tall. Surprisingly, she looked like a pro after only a short time so we continued on our merry way, hunting for the wild animals I promised. Lori felt more confident when we happened upon some Japanese tourists that not only were newbie cyclists, the ladies all had training wheels on their grown up bikes. Not an easy feat when riding mountain bikes up rocky terrain. 

Lori was delighted in the Jackfruit trees, the Lotus ponds and all the tropical vegetation we passed. What she wasn't delighted with was the amount of sweat cascading out of every pore. Whoever was the one that said women "glow, not perspire" obviously grew up in a cold country; perhaps Canada?

Watermelon baby coming to check me out

As luck would have it, before my sister liquefied into a puddle, I found the shy mama and baby boars that hide in the trees, only showing themselves when they cross the road. We got lucky when we quietly rested under a gazebo watching and waiting. It wasn't long before many boars appeared. The babies were so curious they came right to us so Lori was able to see the unfamiliar, watermelon striping on their bristly bodies.

It wasn't much longer when I heard the unmistakable racket of the Long-tailed Macaques. She was in for a treat today. We saw dozens of monkeys in the bush, some carrying their infants, some scampering from tree to tree and many just running alongside of the boars, hoping to spot some unsuspecting tourist and grab their food. 

It was at this point where we had to park our bikes and hike the rest of the way on the coastal boardwalk. We saw outlandish mudskippers, fiddler crabs and kaleidoscopic butterflies. We sat on the boardwalk for a long time trying to determine how I happened to be living more than 14,000 km from home and if I would ever get back to Canada. We counted the planes that flew overhead landing at Changi Airport. We marveled at the amount of air and ship traffic coming to Singapore. 

Lori trying her first and only Ice Kacang
It was time to head back to the city so Lori could have her daily Kopi Ice (Iced Coffee) and her first taste of Ice Kacang. I knew the cold beans, corn, and attap chee nuts would cool her down or terrify her so much she would forget how tin-roof roasted she was.

What a big day for my big sister.  She got to observe some mystifying nature, conquer bike riding and experience up-close and personal time with a boar. Usually in Saskatchewan from where we hail, the only bristly boars we see are the kind at the small-town country bars on the weekend. For her sake, I hope this will be more memorable.