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A Taste of Pai

This is a tiny Shan town near the border of Burma. It is mainly a tourist place and here I missed the morning markets of other towns  in the fertile North of  Thailand.

The surrounding area is beautiful, as Pai is nestled in a valley with breath taking mountain views. On the bus, as we winded around the mountain, where I couldn’t take pictures, and we passed through dense forest and breath taking fertile fields.

In Pai they have a walking street at night and tons of people riding around on motor bikes.

I have used my visit here as down time, doing  laundry and catching up on correspondence, of course I ate well, as I always seem to do in Thailand. Do you get a feel of the local vibe from the photos?

 

Adventures in Northwest Thailand – Visit to a Karen School in the Mountains

Karen Hilltribes School

Karen Hilltribes School

My first trip to Thailand, perhaps 16 years or so ago, was one of those typical American run through holidays. I had a two week vacation and I flew up to Chiang Mai and then headed over to Laos. I had always regretted not having been able to spend time getting to see and know a little bit about the Northern Hill tribes.

When I planned this trip, and I use the word planned very loosely, I wanted to come up to Northern Thailand and  meet some tribe people and see their homes, travel to Cambodia south of Siem Reap (as I had been) and head over to Penang in Malaysia. As fate plays a heavy role in my adventures, a friend of mine, Gary in Houston told me I needed to meet a friend of his, Garvin in Bangkok.

I met up with Garvin on Facebook  (he was in a previous post) and he graciously decided to drive into Bangkok to meet me. I told him about wanting to see the Northern tribes and he introduced me to his friend Jim.

Jim invited me to come stay with him and his family and he would take me around to meet some of the Karen people he and his foundation Pakanyor work with. The Pakanyor Foundation that does clean water projects with the Karen hill tribes.

Nothing demystifies a people like visiting one of their schools. As luck would have it, Friday, the day I visited, the children were dressed in handmade native clothes. I got to watch the morning assembly, a Karen language lesson and meet with the headmaster. When my visit was over and they learned that I am a trained ESL teacher, they invited me to come back and teach at the school for a couple of weeks. I may just do that too.

Traveling To Thailand During a Coup

Bangkok

The week before I was supposed to leave for Thailand they had a coup. Had it been any other country but Thailand, I would have canceled my plans immediately.

I recently read that they have had frequent coups in Thailand. In fact it is something like every four and a half years. Really? Even though it was so commonplace, still, I had lots of angst about going.

But after consulting with local friends,  I decided I was safe enough. What a surprise to land and see very little military presence. I did have to take a cab to the guest house because, when I arrived last Tuesday night, because the curfew was in effect. At least they didn’t charge a premium for the ride.

I went back to Suk11  a guest house I have stayed in during my previous three trips to Thailand. It is a quirky little place that doesn’t have all the amenities of some of the newer ones, but I got a clean private room with a bathroom for a decent price, which was all I needed.

The one and only Garvin.

The one and only Garvin.

Thanks to my Houstonian friend Gary, I got to meet a local friend of his, Garvin, who hails from Alabama originally. As I had been in Bangkok before and I was headed out two days later to Chiang Rai, I opted to skip seeing any local sites.

Garvin came into town to spend Wednesday with me. He thoroughly entertained me with stories of his adventures, work odysseys and family.   During lunch, I discovered he once dined with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and I have no doubt that his story was real.

Garvin is now officially my first new friend this trip. Thanks, for joining my adventure, to you my readers and to Garvin.

Colombia: Santa Marta Trip to Bahia Concha

Day at Bahia Concha

Day at Bahia Concha

The first bay of Tayrona Park, located in the northern part of Colombia is Bahia Concha, which is rimed by the beautiful Caribbean ocean with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada visible and a bio-diverse forest.

It is not just picturesque, but on a busy holiday a feast for the eyes of Colombian culture.

As we sat under our cabana, we watched locals frolic in the ocean, children and their parents building sand castles and a potpourri of vendors, selling everything from sunglasses, to drinks, to ceviche, to fruit and of course fresh fish roasted a la plancha with coconut rice, plantains and salad, all delivered right to where you are sitting.

There is no doubt I am falling in love with this area, which is why I think I will be spending the week in this area instead of a few days.

Colombia: Santa Marta Flea Bites

Checking out the coffee beans drying

Checking out the coffee beans drying

 

If I am being tested, did I pass? I am finally getting over having my mobile pickpocketed when I discover flea bites all over my legs.

Yesterday I arrived in Santa Marta after a 12 ½ hour bus ride, checked into the Dreamer, washed up and went out on a day trip to Minca, to go to a coffee plantation and waterfall.

This was my first coffee finca and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I now have a much better idea on how a small finca, La Victoria, picks, process and dries the beans. After the delightful tour off we went to the waterfalls, Pozo Azul.

Pozo Azul

Pozo Azul

While wading through the icy water in the oxygen rich forest, I congratulated myself on the brilliance of choosing such a tour after the night bus. I was energized, not exhausted.

The flea infested cab!

The flea infested cab!

Since there were four of us, I sat in the front of the cab. After the waterfalls I started to notice some bumps on my legs, which I dismissed as mosquito bites. I thought it strange because I had worn insect repellent. As the night worn on they festered a bit and more came out.

Needless to say by the morning I started to figure out they were flea bites, most likely from a cab whose front seat has a flea infestation.

Lucky me! I went to the pharmacy and they gave me some medicine to put on the bumps and I am happy to say they appear to clearing.

San Gil, Colombia: Starting Off 2014

The Garden at Macondo

The Garden at Macondo

This is my third year starting the New Year in another country, I guess that makes it a tradition? Last year I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, the year before I was in Panama City, Panama.

The vibe in San Gil is much more laid back than the other two places. I am thankful because after Bogotá, I needed a chill place. While I enjoyed the museums there, I don’t really want to spend any more time than necessary in that city. It just gave me the creeps and being pickpocketed sealed its fate with me.

Macondo is one of the most laid back hostels I have been to in a long time but it doesn’t mean it is not pretty. I am enjoying writing right now while sitting next to a fragrant garden, where I have seen lots of birds flying around.

New Year's Eve at Macondo Hostel

New Year’s Eve at Macondo Hostel

Last night, New Year’s Eve’s affair felt more like a family party than a bunch of travelers randomly thrown together. It was a pot luck dinner and there was lots of good food and sharing of stories with random fireworks shooting off into the air above the open courtyard.

Just before midnight we gathered outside and much to my surprise there was an effigy of a man, stuffed with fireworks ready to be burned at midnight.  We only learned about the stuffing later on.

The owner of the hostel, an Australian, named Shaun, shot off some random fireworks before the big one. At midnight he put the guy on fire and it was a pretty spectacular and a little bit frightening sight to see. Afterwards we had one more spectacular fireworks show of our own and people returned into the hostel to eat more and practice some of their other New Year’s rituals.

Just to clue you in some of Colombian New Year’s rituals include:

  • Walking around your house or block with a suitcase to ensure lots of travel in the coming year
  • Putting lentils in people’s pocket for prosperity
  • Eating 12 grapes at midnight telling each one your wish for the New Year
  • Wearing yellow underwear for good luck
  • Slamming a door to chase away evil spirits

Bogotá, Colombia: Pickpocketed!

In a blink of an eye I was pickpocketed. I could kick myself as I am always overly cautious.  I was taking a bus to visit another part of town. After the first bus, I left the bus platform thinking that is how I would change buses. I took out my phone to translate a question. After I found out I had to return to the platform I had left, I put the phone back in my pocket instead of the backpack.

To get back to the bus platform, I passed through a busy flea market and someone squirted me with water. Two women stopped after this happened, one started to “kindly” dry me off and other “kindly” opened my pocket and grabbed the phone. I realized seconds later, but they and the phone were gone.

I was tricked by a professional, but none the less I should have known better and that makes me feel angry, frustrated and stupid. On the positive side, I didn’t lose my passport, any credit cards or money and I am alright.

I immediately returned to the hostel, which I am quite surprised I found my way back by public transportation in the state I was in, but I did.  I called T-Mobile on the computer and reported the phone stolen and shut down the account. Then I changed all my computer passwords.

After that flurry of activity, I realized I hadn’t eaten but I was exhausted. So I tried to lie down, but couldn’t. It seems it was a better idea to start walking to the center of town. I picked up a Bogotá Beer Company: Chapinero Porter and an arepa stuffed with meat and cheese and came back to the hostel.

Things were looking up as the beer was really good and the arepa quite decent.  But back to the story.

While I was eating and drinking,  I started telling a few of my roommates who were in the kitchen about what happened, one of them, David offered me a burner phone of his that didn’t work as a phone, but  if I just needed a clock and alarm it was fine. But I wanted my own working burner phone, so I could make and receive calls and texts.  I asked David if he would go out with me to buy a phone and he said no problem.

Off we went to the store, only to discover since it was Saturday, that Claro, a local cell phone provider, closed at 4:30 pm and we arrived just after that. I was teetering on keeping it together, but I was.

Setting up my new mobile phone

Setting up my new mobile phone

I felt naked without a phone of some sort. David reassured me that he would loan me a phone tonight and we could go out looking for a cheap phone tomorrow.  But as luck would have it, we passed a Claro kiosk and I found a cheap burner phone, Avvio 292 that also had a camera, video recorder, an FM radio, Bluetooth and a flashlight for Pesos $54,500 about $28 with a Pesos $10,000 credit. It is 2G technology but that’s fine.

There is no way that this going to ruin my visit, although I have a bad taste in mouth about Bogotá, I am not going to judge everything by this one incident.  Plus when I needed help it was there.

Postscript:  I just shared  this story with the  woman who owes the hostel. She told me her teacher in India teaches that when someone steals from you they also steal some of your bad karma.  I leave you with that as well.

Bogotá, Colombia: Buying a Bus Ticket to San Gil

My Bogotá Bus Station Adventure

My Bogotá Bus Station Adventure

I arrived in Bogotá the day after Christmas, a Thursday, my guidebook said that places would be full because the locals also travel at this time. But I acted a bit lackadaisical about getting a bus ticket right away to San Gil because I had four days and thought I could just get one that day.

But as I returned today, Friday,  from the Museo del Oro, I ran into a couple who told me they were stuck here an extra night here because they couldn’t get a ticket to San Gil tomorrow,  but luckily they got one of the last two on Sunday.  Since I am traveling on Monday, because I wanted to get there the day before New Year’s Eve, the reality of the scarcity of tickets made me slightly alarmed.

Therefore today, three days before I planned to leave seemed like the right day to buy a ticket.  You think?

At the hostel’s reception desk they told me I could use a ticket broker. But before I headed out there I called. Sure enough they, like many other businesses around here, were closed. This meant going to the bus station, which is far away, to buy the ticket.

Now getting to the bus station is not a trivial task, especially with my beginner’s Spanish and the ladies at reception told me it would be too difficult for me to get there by a colectivo, which is a type of bus. I opted to take a taxi, deciding I would figure out how to get back via a colectivo.

Trying to make the best of this, as I really didn’t want to pay for a taxi just to buy a ticket, I looked around me during the ride to the bus station and was treated to some interesting and colorful graffiti, beyond that the cityscape was boring.

I couldn’t really chat with the driver but I offered him a piece a candy and he smiled. Sometimes that all it takes to make a new friend. Of course the traffic was terrible and the driver explained it was because of the holiday weekend.  The cab ride cost me Pesos $20,000 or about $10.  To give you a perspective, today’s three course lunch, including a glass of juice was less than $4.50.

Once I got to the bus station the fun really began. The place was mobbed and there were multiple bus companies with no directory or information place to help me figure out where to purchase the ticket. I finally found a tourist office and went to the first bus company that the young lady told me to go to.

After waiting in line for a while, I discovered they didn’t sell tickets to San Gil and they sent me to another place. Mind you everyone is only speaking Spanish to me and I haven’t a clue beyond some basic words what they are telling me.

I got smarter at the second place, as I asked before I got in line if they sold bus tickets to San Gil. But after waiting in line they told me they had no tickets for Monday and no idea where I could find one.  Now getting to San Gil was starting to seem like an outside shot.

Columbia: How the Next Stop Gets Planned, San Gil “La Tierra de Adventura”

I am headed to San Gil  ”La Tierra de Adventura” after Bogotá.

Why?

  • My friend Ido, a fellow I met in Panama two years ago who lives in Israel,  suggested it (which is a good reason for me)
  • Lonely Planet agrees with him, bonus points for Ido
  • Rafting, caving and hiking seems like a good plan during a week when I don’t have any conference calls scheduled

Take a look at the  San Gil Wikipedia page for some info.

Next step was choosing a hostel, besides being recommended, Macondo gets the highest ratings.  I choose the four-bed dorm over the 10-bed one. It was a couple bucks more or $23,500 pesos versus $19,000 pesos a night, but I am a big spender.  Looks like my New Years’ plans are really shaping up.

Colombia: Now Where to Go

I don’t like the planning part of a holiday. Especially if I am going someplace I am unfamiliar. Instead I like to choose the first place I am visiting, start my research and then decide where I will go when. This trip is no different and with only a week to plan, there wasn’t much planning involved.

Of course I need to have some idea or I can’t pack. Despite being partially on the equator, Colombia is a bit problematic for those of us who like to pack light. I am going in the dry season but the temperature changes with the altitude and my first stop, Bogotá, appears damp and cold in the evenings (with no heat.) There is Cali, known as the Salsa Capital of Colombia, trips to the coasts and the Amazon jungle, all possibilities. So I have packed as lightly as I permitted myself but diversely, from layers of long sleeve shirts, a sweeter and windbreaker, to a summer dress/skirt, bathing suit and a dressy dress, two pairs of pants and few mix and match tops, pjs and underwear. I had to pack a pair of ballet flat type shows, because they had leather bottoms for dancing, a pair of day-hikers, sandals, Toms (do I really need these?) and flip flops.  (Too many shoes, but if I go to the jungle I really need the day hikers, don’t I? On the other hand I can wear my Chacos with socks? I may just remove them and be nerdy.)

My first hostel is Anandamayi Hostel & Hotel, which I choose after reading numerous reviews on Hostelworld and Hostelbrookers. In the end I booked directly with them, and they sent me directions in Spanish to give the cab driver and signed their email with a lovely salutation:

Peace and joy.
With love,

Once I saw that, I felt I had made a good choice.

 

 

 

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