Thursday, August 30, 2007

I would have written yesterday, but I was out sick with a cold all day. I'm going back home to bed as soon as I finish this!

So it's been 2 years since Hurricane Katrina, and things are still not OK. It's funny how many people we meet here think that everything has gone back to normal. They always say "but it's fine now, right?"

Ummm, no. I haven't been in a year, but from friends and family I can report to you that all is not well in the beautiful Crescent City. It's amazing how the progress just stalled after a few months. People just ran out of money. Most people that I know that rebuilt did it with their own savings or on credit, counting on the insurance companies to come through at some point. (And we all know just how eager insurance companies are to pay up to their loyal customers). I'm going back to the U.S. on vacation in three weeks, and we were able to squeeze in a few days in New Orleans. I fully expect to see plenty of trailers in my neighborhood when I get there.

Jorge and I recently watched the Spike Lee documentary "When the Levees Broke". It was really very good - I recommend you invest the 4 hours to see it, because it touches so much on what we were all feeling after the storm: the horror at seeing the city flooded, the expectation that help would come soon, the shock on realizing that there was nothing to go home to, and then the anger at realizing it was all preventable. The only thing that was missing was the shocking reaction from much of the rest of the U.S. While most Americans were very giving and helpful (except in Florida, where we evacuated to. Punks.), I couldn't believe some of the venomous, accusatory remarks that came from a small minority who chose to blame the victims.

I'm sure none of this is news to my enlightened readers, of course. But I just wanted to remind you to keep New Orleans in your hearts this year, especially as elections loom.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Got a boogie in your butt

Does anyone even remember that old Eddie Murphy song? Anyway, this is an old story, but I asked and Jorge says it's OK to write.

When Jorge got home from Tanzania, he said “Hey baby, look at my butt. What are these?” I looked and saw that he had several red welts on his backside. We figured it was bug bites, and waited a couple days to see if they cleared up. Instead, the bumps just grew, and became painful and itchy. I urged Jorge to go to the doctor. He stubbornly refused.

A week later I went to the doctor myself for a checkup. Jorge asked me to ask about the bumps. I told him that any doctor worth his salt would need to physically examine the bumps to make a diagnosis, and that I couldn’t just waltz in to the doctor’s office and ask for medicine for an undiagnosed problem for an invisible patient. Jorge just got mad at me.

So we go off to Thailand, Jorge scratching his booty in agony at all the temples, museums, and shops. Every 30 minutes or so I would repeat: “I really think you need to see a doctor about that,” which usually sent him off on a tirade about how it was all my fault anyway. Jorge tried several painful home remedies involving poking, squeezing, and burning. One morning after a particular vigorous attempt to dislodge the little buggers, I took a look and saw that the bumps were very clearly moving. You could see a little raised line along the path they had taken.

Finally, tired of the whining, I went into a pharmacist’s and, sure that it was worms, asked what medicine we could give. Of course, she insisted on taking a look at the bumps. So there was poor little Jorgy, standing in the middle of the pharmacist’s office with 4 little Thai women bending over and looking at his butt very closely, giving an occasional prod. The pharmacist stood up and told Jorge “I think you have Herpes.”

Exasperated, we bought some Cortisone cream and went on with our trip.

When Jorge got back to Malawi he finally went to the doctor, where the diagnosis was Subcutaneous Larva Mobilus. I’m not much good at Latin, but even I can figure out what that means. Little Worms Moving Around Under Your Skin.

We like to joke what a good caretaker Jorge is. Not only did he provide his little pets with shelter and food, he even took them on vacation with him! As for the creatures, Jorge got medicine to kill them, but his butt looks pretty bad still. I think he waited too long to get treatment and they went ahead and laid eggs in his tush. So let that be a cautionary tale to all of you. When your wife tells you to go the doctor, GO. Before you go all Alien and things start bursting out of your body.

Friday, August 17, 2007

So, nearing the end of the Thailand trip posts. Unless I get around to taking photos of all the beautiful things I bought. Anyone interested in seeing those?

If you were reading while we were away, you’ll know that the Ko Samui leg of our trip did not go so smoothly. I was just told off by my brother-in-law last night for keeping all of Jorge’s friends and family on edge wondering if he had ever gotten out of Cambodia. Sorry ‘bout that.

Before I go sounding like a nasty old curmudgeon again, let me just say that we loved Thailand. It was beautiful, interesting, and fun. And the people were really lovely, no matter what I said in my spiteful loneliness.

That said, the beach was a little disappointing. I was expecting tropical paradise. Instead I got “hmm, that’s pretty.” I stayed at the Arayaburi Resort, which was probably the best choice for us, within our budget. There were only two other hotels in the area, and we pretty much had a beach all to ourselves. It was a great place for just relaxing. Most of the other beaches in Ko Samui tend to be packed, Waikiki style.

Jorge finally arrived two and a half days after me. The following day I had booked a snorkeling trip to Ko Tao, so I added him to the booking.

If Jorge had not gotten stuck in Phnom Penh, we would have stayed two nights in Ko Tao. When we went snorkeling there, we were kind of glad we hadn’t. There was very little sand beach at all, so it actually looked just like Lake Malawi, with big bouldery shores. The snorkeling was pretty sad. Too many people, and too few fish. It was a pretty disappointing day overall.

So we decided to wise up and spent the rest of our holiday there at the pool. Jorge and I love the pool. It’s like chlorine is some sort of magic potion that turns us into 10 year olds. Most of the other hotel residents just huddled at the other end, watching us nervously, as we played all of these fun pool games, and more:

  • Underwater breakdancing (my specialty is the worm)
  • Swing dancing (the Lindy Hop, naturally)
  • Surfing (Jorge swims underwater and I try to stand on his back. It's harder than it sounds)
  • Underwater streetfighting (You sink and let the other person kick you in the stomach. Then you pop right back to the surface! Fun for the kids!)
  • Wrestling
  • That move from Dirty Dancing where she runs through water and Patrick Swayze holds the chick over his head. This one did not go so well and resulted in me snorting a lot of water through my nose, then yelling "It burns! It burns! The chlorine burns!!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Angkor Wat

I have wanted to go to Angkor Wat for many years. I think just about everyone who loves to travel wants to go there at some point. It always struck my imagination as a place of mystery and solitude. I imagined it to be a huge, crumbling temple nestled into the jungle, with monks still praying and living there. I imagined you could spend all day just wandering amongst the ruins, finding yourself in unexpected quiet little nooks, marveling at the beauty of what man and nature can create.

The reality is not quite so romantic. Instead, you go first to a drive-up ticket window, much like at Disneyland, to buy your pass. Then you go to the big parking lot. There is nothing ancient and mystical about this parking lot. It is filled with big buses, vendors’ carts, and tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. And children trying to sell you junk you don’t need.

Then you walk up to the bridge leading to Angkor Wat, and finally get a sense of how amazing this place is. The towers, so far in the distance, loom ahead of you, and you have to cross a long bridge, over a wide, massive moat to get there. Then you enter a large gate – big enough for an elephant to pass through – and you’re inside. Normally with about 5,000 other people.

We were pretty lucky in our timing though. It turns out that most people follow a pretty standard schedule at Angkor Wat, as the large majority are on packaged tours. For example, they start the day with sunrise at Angkor Wat, then go back to their hotels for breakfast, before moving on to Angkor Thom, which was the administrative capital of the area. (Angkor Wat is actually just one of many temples in the area). So we skipped the sunrise, and spent the morning at Angkor Wat, almost completely on our own. Magical.

We hired a guide for our first day, and really took in as much as we could. The guide wasn’t too happy about it, which I thought funny. Here I was, a white-skinned, out-of-shape foreigner, and I was clambering around happily in the heat, while our guide, a Cambodian who does this 5 days a week, was sweating and tired, and kept having to take breaks to rest!

The town near Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, has grown incredible in the last 10 years, and everywhere you look there are new hotels popping up. Every night after we returned from the temples, we went for dinner then had an hour-long foot massage to prepare for the next day. The center of town has a lot of great little restaurants and, surprisingly, a pretty happening bar scene. My favorite meal was at a little French bistro, where I had a terrific Croque Monsieur, and a cheese plate with some hard-to-find cheeses imported from France.

It was hard to whittle down the photos, but here are some of my favorites:

On our first day we went straight to Angkor Wat. This is the second causeway, after you get over the moat and into the huge compound.

One of the central towers in Angkor Wat.

A photo from Bayon, my favorite temple. It has over 200 enormous, smiling carved faces which look down on you as if in benediction.

And a silly shot.

Ta Prohm, my next favorite. It has been so overrun by big fig trees that they can't be removed, as the trees are now what's holding the temple together. We went early in the morning and had the place to ourselves. We felt like discoverers and adventurers.

Jorge, the Explorer.

We climbed up to a temple that is very popular for sunsets. Unfortunately, it was crowded and hot, and the sunset was disappointing. I should learn to stick to African sunsets - there are none better.

And finally, our transport - a tuk tuk. Personally, I'd recommend hiring a car. The experience is fun for about 15 minutes, until you can't see anymore because of all the dust and petrol fumes.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Goin' away

I don't have too much to write about, because I haven't finished going through my trip photos. Angkor Wat will be up soon, though, I promise.

Over the weekend Jorge and I drove out to Salima. Our friend Bethany is leaving Malawi in about a week, and as a nice way to send her off, her roommate Ann planned a weekend getaway for Bethany and her friends - there were about 20 of us in total, and we rented out a beach house by the lake.

Going-away parties are an ever-present thing in expat life. Every couple of weeks I'm invited to a barbecue, cocktail party, dinner, or other event to say goodbye to a friend. Most of these people I will never see, or even hear from, again. A small number become life-long friends, keeping in touch by sporadic e-mail over the years.

You get used to all the coming and going, but it's always a bit sad. Because everyone has been new at some point or another, people are friendlier to new arrivals, and you make friends fast. But most of the time those friends leave just when you're really starting to get to know eachother. I live with the sad knowledge that I have had so many "almost" friends - people I would have really built a bond with had we only had more time together.

So I say goodbye to another friend, and wish her a wonderful life wherever she may end up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chiang Mai

OK, time now for the "What I did on my summer vacation" blog posts. Bear with me. I'm sure something ridiculously bizarre will happen in Malawi for me to post about soon.
After we spent a few days in Bangkok, we flew up to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. I understand that a lot of people don't like Chiang Mai, as they think it is too touristy, and prefer to go to more isolated parts of the North. I, on the other hand, always figure that millions of other tourists can't be wrong (except in the case of Spring Break in Florida), so decided we would check out what the hoopla is all about.

We had a great time. Chiang Mai is a nice, relaxed little city with a burgeoning design scene - smaller and more slow-paced than Bangkok, but with a lot of the same amenities. And great shopping.

First of all, I can't recommend our hotel, the Baan Orapin, highly enough. There are only a handful of rooms in a couple of traditional Thai houses, and each room is spacious and comfortable. The service is very friendly and helpful, and breakfasts are held in a lovely patio looking out on the pool.

We spent 4 days total in Chiang Mai. Some of the highlights were:
  • Learning to cook Thai food at the "A Lot of Thai" cooking school.

  • Riding an elephant. They sucker you into buying bananas to give to the elephants (and who's going to say no to a hungry, cranky, 2000 pound beast?), but it was more fun (and not as scary) as I expected.

  • Floating down a river on a bamboo raft. Jorge got to be the "driver" in the back. at one point we hit a boulder and poor Jorge went flying off the back, bruising the bottom of his foot.

  • Hiking through scenic rice paddies.

  • Exploring Chiang Mai's many temples. We rented a motorcycle on our last day, which was a bit wobbly and frightening at first, but turned out to be a great way to see the city.

Eating traditional, spicy, Northern-style Thai food in our own little cubby, at Huen Phen restaurant.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Back home again

We’re back from Thailand, and I’m already back at work. In retrospect, even with the little glitch of having to spend some of it alone, it was a great trip (Jorge was able to join me in Koh Samui eventually, and he had one day at the beach). We really liked Thailand and Cambodia, especially Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I will try to get photos and highlights up over the next week, so keep an eye out.

Our flight back yesterday was interesting – it’s funny how quickly things change as soon as you start heading to Africa. The difference between the Thai way of doing things and the African way was pretty drastic.

When we checked in, everything was smooth – clear signs to tell you where to go, friendly, helpful airline staff, timely departure from Bangkok.

Then we got on Ethiopian Airlines, and it was a different world.

No one, of course, was sitting in their assigned seats when we got on, and there was a lot of shuffling, complaints, and excuses until we were able to get into our rightful places. The food was mediocre at best. And then when we landed, everyone around me sneaked the airline blanket into their bags, despite a broadcasted request not to do so.

Our next flight was even worse. We waited, and waited, and waited to board the plane. Jorge finally went to ask and was told that the plane had not actually arrived at the airport yet. After two hours we at last boarded the plane. When the airline staff said that people “with babies” could board first, several families with pre-teen children boarded (mostly Europieans, actually). Then we had to wait another 45 minutes while people tried to shove their 3 or 4 carry-on bags into the overhead compartments, arguing with the flight attendants when they didn’t fit.

Then we were told that the flight course had changed – the plane didn’t have enough fuel, so needed to stop in Lusaka first. Why Ethiopian Airlines could not refuel the plane in Addis Ababa, their hub city, is a complete mystery!

In the end, we made it home 5 hours late. But overall I will remember this as one of my easier, smoother vacations!

More details to come soon.