The Yucatan, March 2010


Pinatas in the old market in Cancun
Waking at 3 am, dehydrated with a headache, in need of a bathroom, in a cabana in a fishing village so remote it lacks electricity for much of the day and most of the night, has one benefit: the bathroom is outside, where the sky is lit with a net of stars, unhindered by man-made light . I returned to the cabana and made suitable noise to wake Susan, who joined me for a viewing. There’s Orion—ok, no big deal, he’s so bright we can see him in Pittsburgh—but there’s the Big Dipper-- long time no see.

A few days before the magic of Punta Allen we landed in Cancun, picked up our rental car, and found our hotel in “old” Cancun by 9 pm.

Cancun is an easy, inexpensive excursion from the US, filled with resorts in the Hotel Zone, a thin stretch of land that extends from the coast which offers cheap holidays in the sun. No muss, no fuss. As Cancun was essentially a layover for us, we sought more local lodgings, and the Xmbalanque (Maya for “female jaguar”) fit the bill well enough. It was a large, tiled room with a cramped shower and persnickety toilet. We learned that, as in other parts of Mexico, the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper. Once used, it all it goes into a bin, not the commode.

We ventured out that evening, mistakenly turning left instead of right (which would have offered us more dining options, it turned out). We enjoyed a beer and the first half of the Mexico-North Korea football match on a patio of a popular bar a block from the hotel, the North Korean’s no doubt playing for their lives. A walk around another block yielded slim dining options, so we settled on the small taco joint near the hotel, which had a gyro-like contraption on the street. Expecting lamb, as the cooking style suggested, I was surprised to discover they were grilling pork for tacos al pastor. The pork was cooked by chunks of burning charcoal suspended on small shelves behind the meat which the cook turned manually with his spatula each minute as the leading edge cooked. He’d take a long, thin knife to carve the charred edges off the meat, which he then piled onto small corn tortillas, topped with fresh cheese and a little raw onion. I found them smoky and delicious, particularly with a couple of cold lagers into which we squeezed pieces of lime.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel (scrambled eggs with tomato salsa) and walked to the nearby market. It was just opening when we arrived and we quickly saw it catered to tourists. Susan found a second, smaller market in our guidebook so we drove there and enjoyed exploring the real thing for an hour: locals shopping the butcher shops, with haunches of beef and pork swaying in the breeze (though thankfully shaded from the aggressive sun); trays of plucked chickens; whole fish; groceries with bins filled with beans, lentils, pasta; lots of little cafes and restaurants… We had an early lunch at a taco counter whose sign offered BBQ sheep—until one looked closer and saw this was only on weekends (it was Thursday). As the locals were clearly enjoying the food, we sat down and pointed to a neighbor’s plate and raised two fingers. Lunch was grilled turkey torta (sandwich) with green chili salsa and mayonnaise (seemingly beloved the world over), and a refreshing papaya water. It was $2. For both of us, not each.

After lunch we drove north from Cancun, turning west to pick up the toll road to Valladolid, about a fast hour’s drive to the center of the peninsula. Most locals took the alternative, slower road through some no doubt interesting towns as the toll road was an expensive $20. The toll road extends to the Yucatan state capital, Merida, a city roughly on par with Cancun, a further hour beyond Vallodolid.

My former colleague and friend Tey has wisely decided to retire early and selected this charming colonial town as the place to do it. We ended up spending three terrific days with Tey, who proved a generous, indefatigable and knowledgeable host and guide. (She’s also a terrific cook.) Her house is new construction but located a short walk to the town plaza, a grand, tree-filled park in front of the main church. Tile floors and tall ceilings kept her house cool. A hammock swung gently on the second floor. She had much of her furniture made locally. It was spacious and comfortable. We were entertained by music from the local cantina half a block behind us, bird calls, barking dogs, and roosters—not just here, but everywhere we went in the Yucatan and no doubt all over the region. It didn’t keep us from sleeping.

We enjoyed a pleasant walk to the plaza, stopping for an espresso, and after touring the town’s cultural center, where we saw good-bad portraits of the town’s fathers,we witnessed a parade of colorfully dressed children being driven around the park, the kids perched in the back of pick-up trucks or in the open trunks of cars. Music blared from speakers mounted on top of the lead car; there was even a police escort. As we were near the vernal equinox Tey guessed that this announced the onset of spring. Following delicious margaritas in the open courtyard of a local hotel, we dined at a “gringo” restaurant. The delicious three-course meal, in a beautiful setting, pleasantly served, with beers to start and a bottle of Bordeaux, was about $120. As you might imagine, this is steep by local standards, where most meals rarely exceed $10 for the entire table; but we wanted to treat our hostess to a memorable meal in a pretty setting. We also paid a quick visit to a monastery next door, the oldest in the region. Undergoing some repair, it was still beautiful. A service was in progress. We admired the devotional retablo, the splendid, colorful artwork behind the altar.

Tey filled us in on the blanks over dinner. Her son now in college, she wanted to work less and experience living in the land of her ancestors—she is now officially a Mexican, the result of her Mexican mother. Of an age where she can legally draw down from her retirement account, she’s realized that Yankee dollars go much further in Mexico than the U.S.

She has braved driving to the Yucatan from western Pennsylvania (and as I write, is driving back). If you know your geography, you’ll see that this is an impressive drive, first west across the United States to Texas, south to Mexico, then south east to the peninsula. She’ll return to Pittsburgh for contract work on occasion to supplement her savings—it’ll be another few years until she’s eligible for social security—but she’ll keep her wonderful house in Valladolid while she’s away; an affordable $250 per month in rent, she doesn’t wish to risk losing it. Eventually she’ll sell her house in Pittsburgh, and possibly buy, or have built, a house in Valladolid.

Los Tomateys


While there she keeps busy with perfecting her Spanish and learning Maya, and also studies painting and Tai chi. She has local and expat friends and never seems at a shortage of things to do. In fact, she and friends Tom and Matt have formed an impressive musical trio, Los Tomateys—the name an amalgam of their three names. They performed, all in bright red shirts, the day after we arrived at a local restaurant, an engaging mix of standards, country and Tey’s beautiful version of Besame Mucho. She has a lovely singing voice.

Unfortunately, I was in some pain; earlier my back had seized up—a recurring problem that I’d hoped was behind me (heh) due to all the yoga I’d been doing over the previous year. It may have been caused by a brief visit to Tey’s hammock. It was very comfortable, but as it offered no support I wondered if this new position somehow influenced my back’s re-alignment. After I dismounted (?), I walked into the bedroom and bent slightly to pick up my backpack, immediately feeling a familiar sharp pain in my lower back and knew right away. For the remainder of the trip we walked slowly, me grimacing whenever my foot came down on an uneven surface (of which, it turned out, there are many). Fortunately driving was not a problem, as the car seat offered good support. I was able to snorkel as well, a gravity-reducing activity that gave additional relief.

Saturday turned out to be one of the best days ever, involving numerous tastes, sights, and activities.

That morning Tey and I walked (I shuffled) around the corner to the local butcher shop, where the butcher retrieved a plucked (though not headless) bird from a cooler and weighed it on a scale whose pan had hosted other chickens that morning, and which in fact had collected a small pool of “chicken juice.” He then transferred it to a cutting board, again the site of much morning butchering, and cut the bird up with a large pair of metal sheers (which had no doubt performed similar tasks all morning long).

I had to pause and think about purchasing food in the west. I feel pretty sure our Valladolid chicken led a good life—certainly better than the chickens that are bred in U.S. poultry factories. His ending was probably pretty quick. I had no qualms about eating the chicken, and felt fairly certain that I would not contract E. coli from it. I understand the need for a culture to enact laws governing proper, sanitary handling of foods, especially raw proteins. But I have to admit, watching the chicken being dismembered in front of me, and having seen this scene play out over and over again, in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, I couldn’t help think to myself how over-protective we are of ourselves in the United States. Of course in the US we are no stranger to food-born diseases, the result of industrializing the food chain in search of cheap, plentiful calories. The Mexican chicken was delicious, and no one got ill.

Makin' tacos

We picked up some conchita pibil for breakfast—slow roasted, seasoned pork that becomes fork tender. We piled this mildly spicy meat on fresh tortillas and dressed them with a little chopped onion that had rested and softened in vinegar. The tortillas were purchased at the tortilla-ia a few doors from Tey’s house. There is one of these every few blocks. The tortilla dough is made by hand; a machine shapes and bakes them. They are purchased by the kilo or half kilo. I can’t recall the pricing, but it was absurdly inexpensive.

We departed for the famous Maya ruins of Chichen Itza after lunch.

We stopped en route to visit two cenotes, large sink holes that form when the porous limestone collapses. They fill with cool, clear water and are popular with locals and visitors alike. We swam in two located close enough to each other to walk to. Both deep underground—we had to watch our heads as we descended to them—one was somewhat open to the sky above and was lit by a dramatic shaft of sunlight. Long tree roots dropped from the cave roof into the pool below. The second was more cave-like, darker, with only a small opening in the cave’s roof. Dramatic stalactites descended from the cave roof, and bats flittered around. The water was still and cool, very deep, and it was very serene and a perfect antidote to a hot, dusty day. Sacred to the Mayans, virgins were often sacrificed to the rain god by dropping them into the cave—a great honor for the virgins’ families (no word on what the young ladies thought).

Chichen Itza is the most popular of the Mayan remains that dot the Yucatan landscape. It is well maintained and organized. The number of tourist busses in its parking lot attest to its popularity. It is an easy day-trip from the resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the second largest resort town on the Mayan Riviera.



The temples are laid out over a couple of square miles, the main pyramid more or less central. Our visit coincided with the vernal equinox, and as a result the complex was more crowded than usual, as people timed their visit to observe the shadow that forms the shape of a god/serpent on the side of the pyramid, caused by the pyramid’s steps. This shadow becomes the body of the Maya god Quetzocoatl, eventually aligning perfectly with its huge stone serpent head at the foot of the corner of the pyramid. It is impressive, doubly so as the buildings date from the 14th century. We walked through one building that served as a sporting arena, where teams vied to push a ball through a stone hoop—the winners were, apparently, sacrificed (another honor). We also saw the grand observatory. This civilization had a clear understanding of astronomy; their understanding of chemistry was perhaps more limited than that of the Spaniards who began exploring this land in the early 16th century, bringing gunpowder and shot with them, quickly overrunning the natives.

Mayan vendor: beautiful embroidery


From there the plan was to dine at Chez Tey on Pollo Pibil, marinated chicken steamed between banana leaves (which Tey “retrieved” from her neighbor’s tree).




Susan's new boyfriend on the right
 One of the guests had called though, informing us that Lucha Libre was in town that night! Dinner was postponed as a result, as we leapt at the opportunity to see this uniquely Mexican event.

Lucha Libre translates as “free fighting.” It is essentially wrestling, but the wrestlers wear colorful masks. It was dramatic, emotional, choreographed, over-the-top, and completely entertaining.

We were lucky to catch it, as it only comes to Valladolid a couple of times per year. It took place in a large warehouse, where a ring had been set up and fold-up chairs about ten rows deep on 3 sides. We showed up on time, foolishly, and though we were the first to arrive the music inside was so loud we repaired to the loading dock to drink our beers (about $.80 each. I recently paid $8 for one beer at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). We were lucky; the wrestlers began arriving in vans. They masked themselves before getting out—their true identities can never be revealed—and posed for pictures before going inside to prepare. They must travel the country, like a carnival, or barnstormers. Entrance was about $4. By the time they began around 8:30, the place was more or less full.

We stayed to watch the first fight—complete with many body slams, head punches and kicks, rebounds off the ropes—and though greatly entertained, we were getting hungry, so Tey, Susan and I left her friends and the roaring crowd and returned to her house to prepare dinner, which we served that night around 11:30. Matt brought his guitar along and he and I played a selection of country, swing and standards before and after dinner. We were told the next fights were better than the opening match, involving things like hitting each other with chairs. I’m sorry to have missed this, but really glad I got to experience the cultural phenomenon of Lucha Libre.

On Sunday we took our leave of Tey and Vallodolid. It was raining—who knew it also rained outside of the rainy season?—but not terribly so. Our final destination was Punta Allen, but we had a stop en route, across the border from the state of Yucatan in the next state of Quintana Roo: Coba, isolated Mayan ruins in an area that forest had partially reclaimed.

Unfortunately I could only penetrate a small distance into Coba (the accent is on the last syllable). It started to rain more steadily so we took shelter in a 14th century tunnel. Twenty minutes later we began the mile-long hike to the main pyramid, but my back pain peaked that day, so Susan went on while I walked slowly back to the car. Less restored than Chichen Itza, visitors were nonetheless free to pull themselves up the pyramid, assisted by ropes. Even if healthy I’m not sure I’d have tried. Coming down the long, steep wall would have been challenging.

To get to Punta Allen one drives through Tulum, another holiday paradise and home to impressive cliff-top Maya ruins (which we visited on our way back from Punta Allen). Tulum features smaller boutique hotels rather than resorts, and we initially thought it might make a good final two nights on our trip, being about an hour’s drive south of Cancun Airport. There was no shortage of shopping and entertainment lining the 5-mile main street of the tourist area. But that area ends suddenly, and soon we were bouncing along on a badly pot-holed dirt track with the sea to our left and a gulf on our right, heading about 30 miles to Punta Allen.

This is where the rain did not help. The ground was hard and there was nowhere for the water to go. This was fine for most of the holes, but there were big ponds too, 30 or 40 feet across and up to a foot deep, hiding God knows what. However, I felt prepared for these as a driver from our time in the Middle East. The trick is to stop before the big holes, rev the engine high in first gear, and fire on through, hoping you don’t hit anything submerged; to hesitate is to stall and lose. Though harrowing, and very bumpy, it was certainly an adventure and this added to the experience—Susan said that for the first time since we arrived she truly felt like she was on vacation. We passed only a few other cars. Our little Dodge economy car performed admirably. (It got so filthy I actually paid to have it washed prior to returning it.)

Punta Allen was suggested by a friend and colleague, who’d been there a couple of months previously. He made it sound so perfect that we couldn’t resist the visit, and he did not have to worry about “overselling” it. We loved it.
 
The cause of my early waking, alluded to earlier
 
A few hotels or cabanas are available to rent. We stayed in the very basic Posada Sirena, run by an eccentric 67-year old Californian woman, who was adopted as the village mermaid (sirena). She and her husband were sailors, apparently, and arrived one day at Punta Allen 20-some years ago. After setting ashore, she met a local whose foot was badly rashed. Sirena applied some lotion to the foot which healed it. She was greeted as the protective Sirena of yore. Not sure what happened to the husband, but she’s been there ever since.

We’re glad she had a cabin available for us. The circular hut had low concrete block walls, about waist high, then screened walls, and was topped by a thatched roof. She had 3 similar properties on her compound and mostly catered to groups who came to Punta Allen to fish. We’d just missed the busy season so had the thing to ourselves. It even had electricity a few hours each morning and evening. The toilet/shower was in a separate building a few steps away. The price was $35 per night. It was very basic, and very perfect. We slept under a mosquito net (though at least one little bugger had found its way in; fortunately they favor Susan’s rich, delicious olive oil skin over my pale, dry Celtic covering). There was a couch in there, a bunk bed, a hammock (evil thing) and a coffee table. Not that we lingered inside, as there was too much to see and do outside.

Sirena pointed out the local eateries—a few restaurants on the beach, a couple of shops around the corner—and off we went. I found a bar, El Mariachi, an open cabana with a thatched roof on the beach, and popped myself onto the piece of tree trunk that passed for a barstool. Colorful locals, including a baseball team (God knew who else they played in this isolated spot; themselves?) were celebrating a win; Dolores, a rather large lady who I think was the local prostitute; and Penguini, a badly cross-eyed hermaphrodite wearing a pale blue straw Stetson. I enjoyed my beer and wrote a few lines in my journal and everyone was very pleasant, especially Dolores and Penguini who went out of their ways to introduce themselves. Later, an angry drunk man arrived and demanded tequila with a bang of his fist on the bar. It was served him with a plate of limes and salt. He was fine too, though I made a point to avoid eye contact.

I still berate myself for not immersing myself in Spanish before leaving. I studied it for three years in my early teens, and had I given it a few hours before the trip I might have had more opportunities to interact with the locals. You know, ask Dolores “How much,” and so on.

Dinner that night gave Susan a new favorite dish, ceviche. A method cooking fish without heat, the fish is marinated in acid (traditionally lime juice), which renders the flesh cooked. We enjoyed shrimp and especially octopus (pulpo, locally).

We strolled back through the town square, which featured a basketball court and some other park-like areas. A food cart offered churros, so we indulged in some of these for dessert: long fritters of fried dough, rolled in sugar. Ours were straight from the oil and hot so we blew on them but still burned our mouths as we ate them. We also enjoyed a fried banana covered in condensed milk and dried coconut. We skipped the fried slices of hot dogs, though later when I saw the fellow making a crepe filled with shredded gouda (very popular locally) I got a little jealous. Full, we returned to our cabins and passed out, just before the official “lights out” at 10 pm, when the generator stops and the village goes black.







Up early, we caught the sunrise, the clear sky promising a bright, hot day. (I began hoping that the ride back north would be drier, if not smoother, than the way down.) We walked along the beach; we were awake before the few restaurants and cafes. Eventually we settled for breakfast. Coffee, sadly, was instant, and I was reminded how popular Nescafe is in the rural world. My eggs scrambled with salsa with beans and tortillas got me through to dinner however.

A local tour operator offered a boat for a 3-hour tour with snorkeling for $120. We waited a while for the arrival of three “Europeans” with whom we could share it, splitting the cost. They never showed, so instead we decided to put the tour off for a few hours and head down a narrow dirt road to a lighthouse. We drove (I didn’t trust my back) but not without stopping to buy a six pack of beer, a couple of limes, and some ice. The path was narrow indeed—had we met another car there would have been some backing up—but after a slow mile and a half we stopped and claimed one of the small beaches that appear among the mangroves, this one no wider than 15 yards no deeper than five. We quickly set up shop and waded into the shallow water, the horizon bright and infinite before us. Susan saw a small ray. I retreated to dry land, popped open a couple of beers, sliced the lime, opened my book, and was quite happy for an hour. Interestingly, this hour was our only true “beach time” of the vacation. (I get bored after a couple of hours, but Susan claims she can stand it more.)

By about 2 pm we were in a long boat, being expertly propelled around the tip of the peninsula. We went briefly into mangrove, then out into more open water, where we saw rays, then, gloriously, a school of dolphin arcing through the calm, clear water, sometimes following the boat, at times diving under it. Then, the highlight of the vacation for Susan: our guide saw and followed a large turtle. I’d always assumed turtles would be slow, but this one swam rapidly through the water, just under the surface. He surfaced a couple of times—our guide seemed to sense when this was coming, and would shout “coming up, coming up”—about his only English, as far as I could tell—and sure enough the prehistoric head would come out, followed by the shell, then the tiny rear end as the “Tortuga” dove again.

We met an American couple at sunset at the end of a pier, where we’d repaired with a couple of beers. They mentioned Puerto Morales as their next destination, explaining that while touristy, it was less so than other stops on the Mayan Riviera. As we had one final night to kill, followed by a long day (and a 3 a.m. departure for the airport), we thought we’d spend it there too, instead of Tulum.

We took our leave of Punta Allen, and sure enough, the drive back was much drier than the drive down, as the sun had evaporated many of the pools that challenged us previously. However the drive was no less bumpy! We got to the edge of the Tulum hotel zone and stopped to pick up a beautiful young Brazilian hitchhiker for a lift to the intersection with the main road. She and some friends were supporting themselves for the summer baking and selling bread on the beaches. Her English was very good, and I taught her the word “proofing” (as regards to dough). We dropped her off and proceeded to the Maya ruins of Tulum.

Tulum is a small gem of a compound, beautifully maintained and landscaped. Dramatically situated on the edge of a cliff, its fires were first sighted by the Spanish in the 1517, and history suddenly changed hands. The buildings, including the main temple/pyramid, are in pretty good repair, though the colorful stucco exteriors are long gone. The sight is popular with day trippers from the resorts, and it was here that I saw (and heard) my first Americans in a week.

From Tulum we had a drive of about an hour north to Puerto Morales. Our guide book listed a few hotels, so we parked off the main square and walked around a little, then stopped for a beer. Another gringo couple, Joe and Stacy, sat nearby and I struck up a conversation; we asked where they were staying and they pointed to a nearby hotel. After a couple of beers we walked over and explored, then booked a room for one night. The room was large and had hot water—my second hot shower in Mexico—the others had been lukewarm at best.

We met Joe and Stacy, our new Canadian friends, for dinner that evening. Puerto Morales must see its share of Canadians, as one restaurant on the square featured poutine, which I ordered: French fries/chips in gravy with cheese curds. After a beer, we walked around and reviewed various menus. We ended up eating in a restaurant with a Lucho Libre theme. It was quite touristy—the staff spoke good English—but the food was good even if the breeze off the water was quite cool.

The next morning we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at the hotel, and Susan talked me into splurging for an additional night at the hotel, despite having to leave at 4 am to catch our 6 am flight; I would have opted to sleep in the car for a couple of hours at the airport, but in the end was glad of the room and the shower. We then arranged for a snorkeling boat with the hotel manager. Our pilot snorkeled with us, which was helpful as he pointed out some colorful fish we’d otherwise have missed. The snorkeling here was impressive, more colorful, and with more varied fish than in Punta Allen. He took us to two spots. By the end of our two hours, the ocean was getting crowded. We returned to our hotel and showered, then enjoyed a tasty seafood lunch overlooking the ocean.

Later we saw Joe and Stacy back at the hotel. They were slightly sunburned after a day exploring the region. They’d found some isolated Maya ruins and clambered around, running into only one other couple. They shared some odd beer with us—it was flavored with lime and salt—and we took our leave.

Finally, the night before our departure, I ate a whole fish, deep fried crispy, salty and hot, and served under a straw roof and over a packed-sand floor. Some local employees of regional spas enjoyed a couple of post-work drinks and the establishment’s jukebox. We walked slowly back to the hotel for a few hours sleep ahead of our 4 a.m. check in. We got to Miami by 9 a.m., then back to Pittsburgh by about 2 p.m. It was a Thursday. We probably should have burned another vacation day but both went to work Friday. It was hard, but we get so little vacation time here. We enjoyed our week in Mexico, going a little off the usual tourist path. I’m sorry I didn’t spend a couple of weeks practicing my old Spanish first, though it appears we managed to communicate with our usual pointing and raised eyebrows. It was a terrific journey, and we are certainly encouraged to investigate Tey’s version of early retirement in a place where our limited funds will go much further. I would explore other parts of the country. The people are friendly, the history rich, the food ample and fine, the scenery often breathtaking, and the living easy.



Maine

We recently visited friends Lisa and Howard in Bath, Maine.



Howard and Lisa with Susan and picnic of ripe cheese from the Bath Farmers' Market
Though we did not time our visit to coincide with New England's vibrant autumnal show of color, we were fortunate to land near its peak.



Bath

Bath

And some delicious food, like the famous lobter roll-- the meat from an entire lobster, chopped up, mixed with mayonnaise, and served on a griddled bun. We also ate at some great restaurants, including one which was as good as any I've ever experienced, Primo.


Stopping for a lobstah roll


But the real charm, outside of seeing our friends, is the country itself.

Near Rockland, Maine.

Unagi in Narita

Vietnam is a hell of a long way from Pittsburgh. On a positive note, with a 12-hour time difference, there's really no need to reset your watch.

An eight-hour layover in Japan's Narita Airport (which services Tokyo) allowed us the opportunity to explore the quaint town of Narita, a ten-minute train ride (on heated seats) from the airport. Long layovers are common in Japan; we were grateful for ours. In addition to allowing us to visit Japan, however breifly, it also broke up a very long trip. The layover followed a six-hour flight from Saigon, and preceded a 12-hour flight to Chicago (where another 8-hour layover, due to a blizzard, greeted us ahead of our flight to Pittsburgh).




I'd explored online and found an unofficial Narita layover page: http://www.mgnewman.com/narita/index.html This offered promising tidbits-- not least the opportunity to explore the beautiful, 1000-year old shinto temple and its serene gardens.



We arrived in time for the end of a Buddhist ceremony. After removing our shoes we squatted with about two hundred visiting Japanese-- the temple is really quite exquisite and a popular destination-- and listened to the chanting and drumming, as incense filled the room and the saffron-robed priests said prayers. We then explored the scenic garden. Though cool-- a bit of snow remained in the shadows-- it was sunny and clear and the garden offered an austere winter beauty. It wound down to a gurgling brook which we would have enjoyed exploring, if only we had had more time. But lunch-- specifically unagi, or grilled eel-- called.


We walked back up the pretty narrow main street. It was lined with restaurants and even shops that catered to visitors looking to flee the airport. Here's Susan in the main street:



After the bustle of Saigon, Narita was incredibly quiet and delicate. The main street was one-lane, and only rarely did a car come down. Classical music was piped into the town. It was spotless.


Our destination was a restaurant that sold only eel. It is a delicacy in Japan. I was introduced to it here in the U.S. in sushi form. It's usually served grilled with a sweet miso glaze atop sushi rice, secured with seaweed. I love it, and often save it for last on my sushi platter. It's like fish desert. We'd walked past the restaurant on our way to the temple earlier. A couple of chefs were sitting by this low, thick, butcher block table, quickly dispatching live eels with a knife, and deftly butterflying and cleaning them.




You can make out the silver pick stabbed into the table on the left; this secured the eels head during cleaning. The chef, who sat on a stool near the barrels, would reach in and grab a live eel. He'd then make an incision behind the head, killing it instantly (though it still wriggled a bit), then attach the eel to the table with the pick. He'd run his knife along the back bone and opened the eel like a book, then remove the small sack of stomach and other bits behind the skull and discard them. Running a knife down it's length he'd next remove the long spine-- these were kept and dried, though for what use I know not-- possibly stock. He'd then slice the eel into two six or seven inch pieces, remove the head, and pass the eel to an assistant, who'd weave bamboo skewers into them, so they'd stay flat during grilling. The whole thing took about :15 seconds.


Lunch was superb. We removed our shoes and sat cross-legged at low tables. We paid for our single order first ($13). We were brought green tea, and then a lacquered covered box, which revealed shiny, sweet, smoky, glazed eel on a bed of pristine white rice.






Of course we couldn't leave Japan without eating sushi either. So after this we trudged up the hill, back towards the train station, and ate this too:



Then we sat on a United flight for about a dozen hours. Joy.

Temples of Angkor

A very powerful and artistic people built the temples of Angkor.


The most famous of the two dozen or so temple complexes, Angkor Wat, is truly breathtaking-- though no more so than the smaller, gem-like temples in this sizeable area. The beauty is hard to describe.

We enjoyed visits over two days. At times it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

We hired a tuc-tuc driver to take us from the resort to the temples, approximately 15 minutes. A 3-day pass costs $40. There are basic restaurants and plenty of folks, some very young, eager to sell you bottled water and tee-shirts.





Late afternoon picnic, Angkor Wat







Chan Say Tavoda


This was very serene and largely desserted near the end of the day. The light was filtered through the leaves of the banyon trees.








Nature takes over


Abandoned temples have given way to nature, some more than others. It's reassuring to know that if we are all wiped out one day, nature will find a way to go on without our careful stewardship of the planet and its priceless, irreplaceable resources.








Watch out for elephants



A convincing salesgirl



Our tuc-tuc driver for two days, Jom Nam
Jom Nam was very friendly and reliable. His English was pretty good, however he didn't offer much in way of guideance to Angkor-- admittedly not his proper job, though some drivers are better than others.

He is married with two young daughters. His sister-in-law is also very good looking, and she runs a restaurant near Angkor Tom, the temple we visited after Angkor Wat. We had a very good Tom Yum soup with fish there.

We gave Jom Nam about $30 or $40 over two days. The average Cambodian salary is $20 a month. While I doubt Jom Nam is guaranteed $20/day 5, 6, or 7 days a week, I suspect he's doing well by locals standards. However, it also depends on whether he owns or rents his tuc-tuc. If he leases it (as is the way with Rikshaw pullers in Indai), he has to pay the greedy capitalist owner, but how much that would be, I don't know.





A detail of Angkor Tom



Siem Reap, Cambodia


Our tour broke up on the tenth day. It was difficult to say goodbye to our travel mates, with whom we’d formed a close bond over the previous week and a half. The night before, we’d all shared an exceptional meal together, and ended up visiting an “expat” bar for a couple of drinks. It had a US Western theme and a live band, probably from the Philipines, provided background to a young crowd eager to perform some live karaoke. I vaguely recognized most of the songs as contemporary American hits. A couple of good singers, and some interesting graphics on the wall. Other than that it was sort of boring. Did I mention the graphics? That's my kind of dude ranch.

Our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (the city nearest the ruins of Angkor) was on Vietnam Airlines. It was fine, with plenty of room. The flight from Hanoi was about $200 each.

After the last few days of gray drizzle in Vietnam, it was wonderful to step from the plane into the warm, hazy, humid heat of Cambodia. I felt myself start to dry immediately.

Siem Reap’s airport is really beautiful, airy, and even well manicured outside. Actually, all the airports we saw—Narita, Japan; Saigon/Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi in Vietnam, and now Cambodia—were beautiful, clean, and well-maintained, with helpful and accommodating staff. It was much more pleasant than our experiences anywhere in Europe or in the U.S.

We did not have a visa for Cambodia but they are easily obtained at the airport. They are $25 each. It took about 15 minutes to get the visa, clear immigration, and pick up our bags. (It costs a further $30 or $40 to leave Cambodia, a mandatory “departure tax.”) A driver met us and took us to our resort, the Borann, about a 20 minute drive.

Our first reaction was that Cambodia is poorer than Vietnam. Later, we realized that Siem Reap (with its pretty airport) caters to quick visiting tourists like us, who drop in, spend money, and then leave. I can’t really claim to have visited Cambodia as a result. I suspect its capital, Phnom Pen, is crowded and poverty stricken, probably much more so than Hanoi and Saigon, and the smaller towns throughout this tropical, war-ravaged land must be wanting. However, Siem Reap is not short of luxury hotels for those tourists eager to explore the ruins at Angkor.

Our resort was French owned, a couple of steps above backpacker hotels and quite a few steps below more luxurious lodgings. The manager was a local man who’d lost a leg to a land mine—the country is still well-mined. It offered a series of two-story cabins, all placed around a lush garden and a small, refreshing pool. We had a ground floor cabin. The room was simple and attractive, with a fan and Cambodian artwork on the walls. The bathroom had a cool tile floor a free-standing shower with no enclosure and also a 4-foot high clay pot filled with cool water—a Thai bath. Dip in a basin and dump over your head. It was fun, once.

It was a pleasant resort and I’d recommend it. It’s about a mile from Siem Reap’s touristy old town; a tuc-tuc will drive you down for $2 in a couple of minutes. (The average Cambodian salary is $20 a month. Some lucky Siem Reap denizens can make that in a day.) With taxes, the resort was about $50 per night. After a busy 10 days in VN, we were looking forward to staying in once space for a while, so we spent four nights there. It was pleasant to laze by the pool with an iced coffee or beer, watching the odd gecko dart around. They sprayed for mosquitoes in the late afternoon, so they weren’t really a problem. We did however take anti-malarial pills as a precaution.

We stopped at an ATM en route to town, and were surprised that it dispensed US dollars. Imagine going to an ATM in the US and getting yen, or Euros. As in VN, everyone in Cambodia takes dollars and will give you change in either dollars or Cambodian money.

Siem Reap was thriving and exciting. The old quarter is charming, filled with businesses that cater to us tourists. There’s no shortage of restaurants and shops, massage parlors ($5/hr) and tuc-tuc drivers eager to speed you on your way home, with the possibility of a full day hire the next day to whisk you around the ruins of Angkor, of course.

Winter is a good time to visit, before the rains and truly hot season, so it was busy with folks of all ages and races dispensing dollars to the grateful. In the evening a couple of streets are closed off and become pedestrian districts. I love sitting over a beer and watching people walk by.

We dined well. In general I preferred the food of VN. The food in Cambodia leans more to Thai and Indian. Again, it was good, but I felt the flavors were less well defined than the clean flavors we’d enjoyed in VN. The beer was good, and overall dining was inexpensive, as in VN.





Beer goggles? No, beer ears.

Halong Bay






Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We greatly enjoyed its unique beauty.


Our group spent half a day exploring the bay on our own boat.


Unfortunately, the day was cool and overcast, but that could not dull the magnificent scenery.


We moored and explored several islands. In one we climbed high, only to descend into a spectacular cave.

We were given lunch, dinner and breakfast on the boat. Like everything else we ate in SE Asia, the food was great. Our room was fairly basic, but unlike some hotels, had a heater.

Two travelmates, Gavin and Tom, woke early and dove into the bay and swam around our boat.









After dinner that evening I spoke with our tour leader Hue about contemporary life in Vietnam, which proved most interesting; I wrote a little about this in a previous entry. She spoke about a natural tendency to prudence and sexual ignorance among the Vietnamese, which may or may not lead towards the high birth rate they’re currently experiencing. She also added that yes, they pay taxes; yes, they can vote for representatives to the national government (who then go on to pick a president); they don’t trust banks: her mother recently purchased a nice Japanese sedan with cash; they do not receive national healthcare, which I thought odd for a communist country. They’re also very superstitious. Hue herself was just finishing a year of very bad luck, and had high hopes for the new lunar new year, Tet, which was fast approaching. (The locals pronounce it as dut.) It is now the year of the rat. There was no shortage of rat- and mouse-themed New Year decorations available for purchase. And plants and beautiful flowers, which are very auspicious.

Hanoi







Taking a cyclo tour of Hanoi....







Hue’s train station was fairly calm. Our group leader got us our tickets and we were broken into groups of 4, and assigned our sleeping cabins. We shared with Alan and Cynthia. It was a small cabin with two berths on either side and a small table in the middle. It was very basic, quite a distance from the Orient Express-like fantasy I’d conjured in my mind. Alan said it was like stepping back in time a hundred years. We settled in and he told us some interesting tales of traveling across Australia, by train, as a jackeroo in the ‘70’s.

Fortunately, we’d packed a picnic of pizzas, chocolate, fruit, beer, as the food cart that visited had some unappetizing bits of grilled meat on it.

We settled in for a very nice evening with our cabin mates. Our younger travel-mates were having some laughs too, drinking and playing cards in their cabins next door. At one point, twenty-something Adrian walked by to say hello, saw our pile and of empty beer cans and said, “Bloody ‘ell, the oldies are doin’ orlright,” surprised by our beery abilities, apparently. Foolish young whippersnapper.

We settled in early, probably drifting off around 9:30. Slept mostly through the night. Woke sluggishly as we pulled into Hanoi at 5:00 AM, the area around the station already bustling. Our bags were piled on a cart and we walked the two blocks to our hotel, where we were able to rest for a couple of hours.
Unfortunately I did not catch the pricing of the overnight train, it being included in the price of our tour, but if I had to guess, I might say about $40 per person.

At 7 AM we were taken to KOTO for breakfast. This non-profit group (whose name stands for Know One Teach One) trains impoverished children to speak English and preps them for a life in the growing restaurant and hotel industries. It was pretty wonderful, and the young staff were eager, smiling, and efficient. Though a traditional western breakfast was on offer, I asked for and got a more local bowl of Pho, the national dish, a soup with noodles and small bits of meat.

The group broke up after breakfast. We went to see Ho Chi Minh lie in state in his mausoleum, a clunky, Stalinist-style grey block. Despite his wishes to be cremated, his ashes spread around a unified Vietnam, others thought their needs would be better served by having his corpse on view. He looked peaceful enough, in simple black pajamas, inside a clear coffin, surround by armed soldiers of the people’s revolutionary army. Very hushed, and definitely no pictures. All cameras had been handed over prior to the visit.

Within the grounds of the mausoleum is Ho’s very simple, spare, two-roomed house, on stilts, consisting of a bedroom and a study, both resting atop an open dining area. It was quite beautiful, made of wood, with shutters and blinds to raise or lower according to the light and weather. He had some books in many languages (he was a polyglot), a radio, and a phone. We also saw his Peugeot.

After looking at the lotus-like, tiny One Pillar Pagoda, we walked to the Temple of Literature, a peaceful complex of temples within Hanoi’s hustle, dating from the 11th century. Here the works of academics is recorded on artfully carved stone stelae.












Lunch was a gyro (or doner kebab, depending on your provenance), though the Vietnamese use pork instead of lamb. At 3:00 pm we gathered for a one-hour cyclo tour of the old city. Frankly, I’m not enamored of cyclos, which are slower than walking. Though it is neat to be in the midst of such traffic madness. At around 4 we again split up. Susan and finally did a bit of shopping, getting ourselves silk pajamas and elaborately embroidered silk robes. We stopped for a couple of beers, then had a pricy-by-local-standards but damn fine French dinner: foie gras, charcouterie, duck… and a glass or two of grape juice, mais oui.


At nine we met up with the group to watch one of Hanoi’s famous “water puppet” theatre shows, a popular stop on the tourist circuit. This dates back a couple of centuries. The puppets, which are in a pool of water, are operated from behind a curtain. It was technologically very good, and I liked the traditional music which was performed by a real band.