Saturday, April 30, 2011

India: Lessons in inspiration, poverty and death

India- as always - was incredible: incredibly heart-wrenching, incredibly impactful, incredibly “India.” Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is a far more cosmopolitan, up-to-date city that some of the other parts of India that I’ve visited. And it has fantastic architecture left over from the British rule. But that is just the prettier backdrop for the same unbelievable poverty that is India. What a mass of humanity... everywhere you look there are people – and more people – and more people. It seems impossible to real impact any meaningful changes in this country in the face of that many people. Our three days in India brought powerful lesson on poverty and dying....Just a few of the scavenges we did:
#1: High Court: We went to watch court proceedings in the High Court. The lawyers still wear the English-style black gowns (like graduation gowns) over their suits but no longer wear the funny white wigs like the barristers in England still do. All legal proceedings are conducted in English and we watch a series of docket calls and argument on various motions. Very interesting. # 2: Inspiration: We also went to the house where Gandhi lived and where he was living when he was shot. His room is still exactly as it was when he lived there… his sleeping pallet, his spinning wheel, his books. All over the walls are photos from his life and some of his most inspiring quotes. There is also a copy of the letters that he wrote to Hitler and to President Roosevelt during World War II, begging both men to help avoid war and suffering. It was so inspiring to be right there: where Gandhi walked and slept and ate.
# 3: Dying ceremony No. 1: Cremation: We were supposed to observe a Hindu cremation ceremony. And.. unbelievably.. we did!! There is something miraculous about any event being listed as a potential scavenge in the book – because suddenly it becomes not only possible but actually do-able. Normally it would never occur to me to try and attend a perfect stranger’s funeral. But then Bill prints it as a scavenge and off we set for the largest crematorium in Mumbai. In the Hindu religion, once you die you are reincarnated. So a dead body is not very important as the soul has already moved on. The preferred method of burial is cremation and you can choose either an open air wooden pit or a furnace-like cremation. This crematorium offered both options. When we arrived, no-one spoke English and I have no idea who they thought we were, but they treated us like arriving royalty. We first got a tour of the open-air fire pits and then the owner of the facility took us into the furnace area. A funeral was in full swing. We were led right up to the front and told to stand right next to the body (the family members all smiled at us and made room for us to stand right at the front). It was very unnerving as suddenly we were an intimate part of this elderly lady’s funeral. Her body was laid out on a bamboo stretcher and two “priests” pressed what looked like un-leaven dough on her forehead and into her mouth, put flowers in her nose and between each of her toes and then poured thick cream on her face. Then her sons came forward and kissed her feet and a large clay pot of water was smashed on the ground. The pot breaking was the end of the ceremony and suddenly a door opened in the wall and her body was pushed into an open fire and burned. As a Westerner, I have to admit to being fairly freaked out… but it was also mesmerizingly interesting to watch a Hindu funeral up close.
# 4: Dying Ceremony No 2: Another scavenger was to visit the Tower of Silence which is an area in Mumbai where a certain sect of Hindus take their dead and leave the bodies for the crows to eat the flesh. You cannot actually go into that part but I took a photo of one of the circling crows because it seemed so odd to know that this bird had just been feeding on human bodies.
#5: Lessons in Poverty: The scavenge was to take a tour of the largest slum in Mumbai. Once again, since it was a scavenge, what would normally seem to be impossible, became a valid option. Natasha and David tracked down a very nice man who did walking tours of the slums and we hired him to take us the following day. We met Tessy at Café Leopold (which is a hip café in the center of Mumbai that still has bullet holes in the wall from where it was shot up during the terrorist attack in 2008) and he started the tour by taking us on the local train out to the slum. The train station alone was an experience. The slum houses 1.2 million people in an area that is the size of a large park. Each home is like a 10X 10 space in which 6-8 people live. They own nothing: no beds, no blankets, no pillows, nothing. We got to actually go into the homes, meet the people, walk through the streets (if you can call mud alleyways a “street”) and see exactly how the people live. There is one large garbage pile area and - since it is the only open area in the slums - it is filled with kids playing cricket and running around. Yes, you read that right… the kids’ playground is the garbage pit. And they play there without any shoes (as they don’t own any) and limited clothes. The average daily wage for the slum dwellers is less than $2 per day. It was an amazing and humbling experience.
We are now off to Instabul for two days... I have been to Instanbul before and really liked it. Also really looking forward to being in a more Western and modern city for change...and one with cooler weather than the sweltering heat of India.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Singapore fling

By the time we cleared customs and checked our bags into Left Luggage, we had a total of five hours to conquer Singapore during our lay-over to India. We rushed out of the airport, figured out the subway system (with some solid assistance from several very nice strangers) and ran around Singapore at top speed, picking up points as we went. One scavenge was to ride the G-Max which is like a space capsule on a bungy cord. You get strapped in and then flung up in the air like a rocket ship. The pod bounces and spins in all directions on a bungy system. Being afraid of heights, this was one scavenge that Rainey had to do alone.. as there was NO WAY that I was getting on that thing. Emily and Elizabeth went with Rainey and I was the photographer.
Nasty food scavenge for Singapore: noodles with squid. You see a little one lurking in the front of the bowl… squidy legs afloat. I ate around it and the noodles were pretty good. Off to India.. stay tuned

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beautiful Bali

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on this part of one's own earth. -- Gilbert K. Chesterton

Bali.. even the name is exotic.. and the place is even better. We got two whole days in heaven. There are no words to describe how GREAT it is to be in Bali after the train-ride, no-sleep trek across Java. The first morning we slept in late (which, on this trip, means we did not get out of bed until 8 AM….WOW). It was delicious. Then we set off to explore Bali. A few highlights from our adventures:
A. Sanur: a small seaside town with lots of westerners. We rented bikes and rode around the city. It felt great to be mobile even if the bikes did not have working gears or great brakes (and stopping meant putting down your feet and grinding your shoes on the pavement). We rode to a beach for lunch and then took a boat out to the reef and went snorkeling. There were so many fish that it was like swimming through a crowded Indian train station of fish. The fish were actually touching you because there were so many of them. Last stop was to a spa for a “fish pedicure” where we put our feet into an aquarium and little fish ate all of the dried skin off our toes and heels and sucked on the skin to bring blood into our feet. It is the oddest experience – part tickly, part sucking feeling, mainly bizarre. But it does make your feet feel better once it is over.
B. Katu: Another seaside city where we had to find the memorial for the 2002 bombing. You might remember than in October of 2002, terrorists bombed a popular tourist night club in Bali and killed over 300 people (almost a third of which were Australians). In that spot, they built a memorial which lists all of the names of the dead and people bring flowers and small mementos to the shrine. The day before, family of an Australian couple who died in the fire, had left photos and flowers in memory of this couple. It was very sobering.

C. Elephant Camp: We visited the elephant camp where a couple (husband from Australia and wife from Bali) went out and rescued almost a dozen sick and diseased elephants from the logging camps of Sumatra and brought then to Bali. They created a beautiful reserve for the elephants and you can visit to feed the elephants, ride them, take them into the pond for a swim… interact with them. It was fun.

D. Monkey Temple: We visited an Indiana Jones style temple in the middle of the rain forest in Ubud that is literally covered with monkeys. You buy fruit and bananas on your way into the forest and the monkeys clamber all over you to take (or steal) the food. In fact you have to put everything into your bag and zip it up of the naughty monkeys will steal your hat or sunglasses or anything in our hands. There were tons of baby monkeys playing and scampering about and they would come right up to you and hold your hand and take the bananas right from you.

E. Massage: And highlight of the trip… I got a massage at our hotel which was the most luxurious, elegant, unbelievable experience. Each massage table is in a private bungalow on the river where you hear the
waterfall and babbling water as the background to the massage. When I arrived they gave me sugar tea and a sweet cookie and then a beautiful and gentle woman poured warm oil all over me and gently rub out all of my aches and pains. It ends – 90 minutes later- with her putting me into a Jacuzzi, feeding me chilled fresh fruit and putting a cool clothe on my head… while I watched the river stream by in my own private piece of heaven. And the bill: $61. I am sooooo coming back to this island. It is wonderful.
Our next stop is Singapore for a 7 hour lay-over on our way to Mumbai, India. We are going to get the book of Singapore scavenges when we land and will have only limited time to get as much done as we can. Then off to India. I’ve never been to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) so really looking forward to it.
Observations from Indonesia
#1: On top of the volcano
(Mount Bromo), it is cold in the morning so we had to pile on the clothes. Nice change from the heat of Yogyakarta. While
the trip to get there is beyond awful (and actually
the worse travel experience I’ve ever had), the actual climb is very doable (nothing like Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka
which we had to climb last year) and the sunrise is memorable.
#2: Squat toilets are horrific and are the most likely cause of chronic voluntary constipation in South East Asia. Why does Korea have great toilets with heated seats and
a short flight away in Indonesia you still have to squat down over a hole in the ground?

#3: Unless you are Indonesian
it is hard to look anything but goofy in the temple sarongs that you must wear to enter any temple. Western men just cannot seem to get the hang of walking in a

#4: The Balinese people are kind
and gentle. They truly welcome you to their island and they take the concept of service to a new level.#5: In every square inch – literally – of Bali is a sacred statue, shrine, temple or some piece of wood or stone that has been carved within an inch of its life into something creative, scary or beautiful.
It makes the whole island an adventure in sensory overload as everywhere you look, there is something incredible to see . Each year one country grabs my heart and this year, it is Bali.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Indonesia: Heaven and Hell

Countries, like people, are loved for their failings.
--F. Yeats Brown

Indonesia: Love it.. Hate it.. in Equal parts. We flew into Yogyakarta on the island of Java and found out that the major points - in this leg - would go to the teams that travelled all across Java to Bali - using ONLY local modes of transportation (trains, buses, ferries, tuk-tuks)…by ourselves … hauling our body-bags of luggage with us... URGGHHH!!! Flying woudl cost a huge penalty. And just in case you are wondering, Indonesian local transport is NOT set up for Americans travelling with large suitcases and backpacks. It was 46 hours straight of nightmare and without sleep or real food.
The very first morning in Java we had to do a mandatory challenge (i.e. a challenge that you have to do or you lose all points for the entire leg) that involved us getting up at 3 AM to drive to an amazing monument (which we then climbed up in the pitch black) and watched the sun rise from the top. It was neat to be in the dark and feeling your way and then the sun starts to rise and you realize what an amazing ancient structure you are actuallyt sitting on. But a bitch of a wake-up call.
What made it even worse is that we then had to keep going.. from 3 AM .. for over 41 hours straight. If traveling by train, bus and bicycle tuk-tuk across Indonesia is not hell, it’s pretty close to it. Three teams went together: Rainey and I, his daughters (Elizabeth and Emily) and Natasha and David. We had the wildest experiences on this leg. At our first stop, we confronted abject corruption as we got stopped at the scavenge site and forced to pay a bribe for “parking fees.” Really pissed me off as the guy just extorted money from us. He would not let us go through until we paid him. The second train (or “the meat locker”) was FREEZING to the point that I put on layers of clothes and wrapped my head in a T-shirt and was still chilled to the bone. Rainey wrapped his legs in a rain poncho to try and curb the frostbite. The third train (or the “roach mobile) had no air conditioning and was overrun with cockroaches that desperately wanted to crawl on your legs. I was beyond grossed-out. I had to do yoga breathing to stop my sheer panic at the vermin. But, by then, we had been traveling for 11 hours straight in the heat so we all fell asleep and woke up - with a start - at a train station that we thought was the right one. We threw our luggage off the train and jumped out– only to discover that we had got it wrong and we were now stuck in the middle of NOWHERE. And clearly Americans are not a common sight at this village. Every single person at the train station was staring at us like we were the animals in a National Geographic After-School TV special. Emily had a mild panic attack and I honestly cannot blame her. Talk about being under a microscope. We had to wait for the next train which cost us time so we ended up getting into Probolingo late at night. When the train pulled away, we were the ONLY people in sight. No-one anywhere. No taxis. Nothing. So there we were… no idea what to do next.. except we knew that we had to try and get a few hours sleep before we started this big climb up a volcanic mountain to see sunrise from the top. But the power of the American Dollar won out. The word obviously got out in town that Americans were at the train station and the bicycle rickshaws started arriving from every corner. We had to take one rickshaw per person so we could fit luggage and the rickshaw gang leader told us that he could take us to “his friend’s house” who could arrange for a mini-van to get us to the foot of the volcano in time. With no other choice, we had to “trust strangers in strange lands” and off we set. Fifteen minutes of hard pedaling later, we arrived deep in a neighborhood at someone’s house. A lot of loud knocking and yelling and a sleepy woman and 2 children came to the door to say that the mini-van driver was out drinking (always a good sign) but she would call him. Thirty minutes of us waiting in a back alley of Probolingo with 6 rickshaws and drivers and luggage and the sweetest sight I ever saw showed up.. a man with a van who spoke English (even if he was a little drunk). He piled us all in the van, made some calls, took us to a flea-bag hotel for a shower and 2 hours of sleep (the shower was gross and mainly cold water but still fantastic after the cockroach train but the bed was overrun with little black bugs that scurried across the pillows), came back for us at 2:30 AM (which is the time you have to leave in order to get to the summit by sunrise) and we started our trek to the top of Mount Bromo. By this time we had been awake for almost 24 hours and had not eaten a meal in almost that long. And then… we made it... and stood at the top of Mount Brumo for sunrise and it suddenly all seemed worthwhile. I wish that I could upload some photos of the experience but for some reason by computer as decided to stop recognizing my camera chip. I am going to work on that.., but for now.. let me say that it was an awe-inspiring sight (even through the blurry vision of no sleep) to watch the sun rise over the volcanic cloud of ash from the active volcano.
After the climb down, it was another 11 hours by bus and ferry to Bali…. Where we finally found heaven at the end of the road through hell. Our hotel in Bali is THE NICEST hotel that I have ever stayed in. It gives 5 stars a new meaning. Double WOW. Can’t wait to get out and about in Bali as this place seems amazing. But first.. some sleep.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thrilla in Manilla

We arrived in Manilla in the afternoon and Bill did not open the leg until almost 3 PM. We decided straight off to do a bonus challenge of working with a charity called Hospicio de San Jose. The traffic in Manilla is AWFUL so it took us over an hour to find the place – which turned out to be a home for orphaned or abandoned children (they call them “surrendered” children) as well as a wing for old women and a wing of severely disabled children. What a humbling experience!! Working with a skeleton staff and a crew of volunteers, this group takes care of almost 300 babies, children and elderly who have nowhere else to go. They literally have babies left on their doorstep at night. The facility operates on a shoestring budget and are constantly begging for supplies, volunteers etc. Here is us with the head nun who runs the place. On the table is the powdered milk that we went to the market and bought as a donation (formula is very expensive and they are always running out of it ). We played with the kids and hung with out with them for almost two hours. It was heartbreaking. These kids have less than nothing. They do not have a single wordly possession and not even a family to share their misery This little boy got left by my mom at the home just a few days ago. When we came in, he was sitting in the corner by himself … his eyes say it all. He had an aura of sadness and abandonment that was palpable. The best hope for him is that he is lucky enough to get adopted out. Even so, that would take about 18 months of red tape.
Pansangjan Falls
The next morning we did a WOWWWW (or A+ + scavenge). First, we had to drive about 3 hours outside of Manilla in a cramped car with limited air conditioning… not great. But then we got to a small rainforest village by a river where we did this amazing rafting trip… very great. We were loaded into narrow, wooden canoes and taken up-river to an incredible waterfall. The canoes are just a few inches out of the water and VERY tippy. The movie “Apocalypse Now” was filmed here so you can just imagine the scenery: a beautiful ravine (with waterfalls and lush rainforest vegetation all along it ). But the real highlight of the trip were the boat men… They literally drag these canoes upriver and over rapids by pushing off from the sharp stones that line the river and half-running, half-climbing – like monkeys - on the sides of the ravines and then jumping back into the boat. It is ballet and gymnastics all rolled into one. The boatmen fit the canoes into narrow channels in the rocks, over rapids, through narrow spaces in the rocks and all without bumping the boats or scratching the pain. At the top of the river, you reach a blue lagoon swimming hole with a fabulous waterfall. You then get onto a bamboo raft and the boatmen take you UNDER the waterfall and into Devil's Cave. As you pass under the waterfall, the water is so strong and powerful that you feel like you cannot breathe and that your ears will rip out of your head.

Awful eating challenge for Manilla

And yes, this one is GROSS. We had to find a local "delicacy" which is a boiled egg that contains a 1-2 day old chicken inside. It is even more disgusting in real life than it sounds as I write this teally is an embryo bird cooked into the egg and you are supposed to crack it open and eat it. Just putting the one bite (that we have to eat) into my mouth may have scarred me for life.

We are NOW IN INDONESIA (Yeah - another country that I have never been to). Can't wait to see it all. I got sick today - some weird lump came up on my jaw line which is painful and makes it difficult for me to talk. It feels like a pocket of infection. I started an antibiotics regimen and am taking Advil but it has me feeling quite poorly. I'm hoping to feel better tomorrow because this is going to be a TOUGH leg with lots of over-country travel. And I can't imagine traveling through Indonesia using only "local modes of transportation" is going to be very efficient. But it will be BE GREAT fun.

Komments from Korea

Some observations from Korea:
1. The Ritz Carlton Seoul (where we were staying) has the “fancy toilet” thing down. The bathrooms have toilets with heated seats and buttons that make warm water shoot up to wash everything and then another button makes hot air dry you all up. An odd feeling the first time - but definitely a keeper. The #1 question at our first breakfast when we saw everyone was: “Did you try the toilet?”

2. Under the rules of the competition, you have to have a photograph – with both team members - at every place you go to prove that you were actually there. You end up asking a lot of strangers to take your photo and - when no-one is around - you end up with lots of photos of your nose hairs, half of one ear, the top of your head, or an odd angle as you try to hold the camera as far away as possible to get the location in the background…
3. We learned that Koreans do not like to tell you “NO.” They are too polite and think that No is rude. So instead, when they cannot give you an affirmative answer, they just cross their hands to symbolize “no way.” We saw this a lot.

4. At the fortress on top of the hill, there was a fierce looking gargoyle spitting out water- about half way up. It's the Korean version of a water fountain. Next to it was a hanging cup for climbers to use to get a drink of water. I was too afraid of flesh-eating parasites to try it, but I liked the concept.

5. Everyone is doing well and is energized. Emily and Elizabeth have been great at plotting, planning, mapping… really taking on the challenge of the event. And there has only been one meltdown.. which was quickly overcome. Natasha and David are doing great. Only one major fight so far to report but there are several weeks left….

6. We had to go into various convenience stores and find the weirdest thing in there. My favorite was seaweed juice sold at 7-Eleven.

7. We had to do a Taekwondo demonstration - at this special park area - Elizabeth and I are particularly graceful at it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Seoul: Second Day

Seoul is a HUGE city with millions and millions of people. It is a little like an ant hill.... with busy ants moving in and out of buildings all the time. Here is Emily in profile sitting at the hotel window with Seoul all around her. Day 2 we headed out of town as soon as we got our scavenges. On a fast train to Busan. Korea put a new KTX express train system in about 7 years ago and it is awesome – comfortable, quiet, nice seats. We used the time to decipher all of today's challenges and to plot them on the map so we can be efficient at knocking stuff out when we get back into Seoul. We took a 3 hour ride down to a waterfront town where we had to visit the fish market. It is a huge, outdoor market with a smell that is beyond description. There is literally nothing that lives under the water that these people do not drag onto land and eat. Including squids and sea urchins and sea slugs and sting rays. URGGHHH!! It was quite a sight. Next stop was Lotte (a department store with a large food court in the basement). We had to buy random stuff to make a picnic. We bought all kinds of odd things and then two big orders of French fries to even out our food choices. Some was good, some was awful. We then took the train to Suwon (another town) where we had to climb to the top of a hill and visit a fortress. It was a steep climb up.. lots of groaning and sore legs.. but a fantastic view at the top. Back in Seoul, we found that the weather had not been great all day. Cold and rainy. We had to eat traditional Korean Bar-B-Q where you cook your food right at the table. A twist on fondue but the same general concept of communal eating. By the time we got back to the hotel last night, I was literally sleep-walking. I forget each year how tiring this trip is. WOW. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.. with all of my clothes on.

We are now at the airport… heading out to our next destination.. MANILA, PHILIPPINES. I’ve never been. Can’t wait to see what adventures await us there.

Hey Seoul Sista

Day 1 in Seoul: Our first day here was hard, hard, hard. We were all very tired after the trip – even though the flight was great. The weather went from cold to hot to cold in a minute’s notice so I was consistently dressed poorly and we made a number of planning blunders that cost us points. We got back to the hotel last night somewhat discouraged by our first day’s efforts. The key challenge to yesterday was a hike up a pretty large hill in the middle of Seoul. We left that until mid-afternoon, hoping for a cool, clear patch of weather, but when we went to start the hike, the path was closed. Apparently hiking in Seoul can only occur between the hours of 10 and 3 PM (who knew???).
Second frustrating Seoul fact… virtually every temple, shrine and national monument can be seen ONLY as a part of a tour group and the tours are divided up throughout the day based upon the language spoken on the tour. There is a strict policy against allowing any interlopers into a different language tour. So your ability to see anything – as part of the English tour – is limited to twice per day and you better time all of those perfectly or you are out of luck. Rainey and I talked our way into one Korean tour for the Secret Garden by telling the ticket seller that our plane was leaving and we desperately needed to see the Secret garden before we left. But that was our only lucky break., Besides that one nice lady, we were consistently turned away. This is us at the Secret Garden... a neat, ravine type garden hidden literally in the middle of Seoul. And the Cherry Blossoms are out at the moment, which are so beautiful. Weirdest experience: We had to go to a place called Dragon Hill, Spa which is a large building in the middle of the city that has been turned into part gym (with indoor pool and work-out facility),
part Dave & Buster’s (with video games and putt-putt golf), part spa with treatments and saunas. Sort of a Disneyland for Adults. Yesterday, an estimated 4,782 Korean people were there (talk about crowded). It is divided into women and men floors and not a single one of them had ANY nudity issues. They wander the halls naked, they sit on the couches and chat naked, they blow dry their hair naked… Emily was totally befuddled by the sight of that much female flesh in one small area. We had to stay there for an hour and try out some part of the facilities, so I opted for a massage. What an odd event. I was led into a room filled with beds and naked women… butts in the air.. no sheet or covering. I dutifully laid down and then got pulverized (like chicken getting ready to be made into a chicken fried steak) by a stocky – and very well-muscled - woman. At the end of the pummeling, she started wiping me down with warm clothes (which felt pretty good) until I realized that she was scrubbing out under my arm pits and between the crack in my butt… she left no spot un-shined. At that point, I broke into the giggles. We had a panic attack late in the day because we had left one of our mandatory eating challenges to do over dinner. Then, as we went from restaurant to restaurant asking for this specific dish, we were told repeatedly that no restaurant served that dish on Sundays. If you do not eat your mandatory challenges, you get ZERO points for the entire leg. I was freaking out. We finally left that area and took a taxi all across town to another, very busy restaurant section of town and started again. There, we finally found a place that would sell us the very-yucky boiled chicken in dishwater soup that we had to have. I almost cried with relief when they brought it to the table. That one was too close for comfort. My new mission is to finish our mandatory challenges earlier in the day from now on as my old heart cannot take that level of stress. This is exactly what you feel like after a day on Great Escape....

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