Saturday, October 29, 2011

So long, farewell…

Our last day on the road was a great – but bittersweet – day. It seemed unbelievable at the start of this event that we could actually make it across such remote areas and difficult roads driving on a lawnmower engine. But here we are!!

About an hour out of Trang this morning we stopped by a beautiful waterfall to take some photos and stretch our legs. I would have loved to dive into the pool and swim up to the waterfall… but I still have a strong fear of weird water dragons hiding in murky waters in this area of the world.

Southern Thailand is particularly pretty with rolling hills and odd shaped rock formations.It means that we have to go slow to get up the hills but the scenery is worth the struggle.

Today was our last day to have every car that passes roll down the window and try to talk with us or wave at us or take our photo.

Being a westerner in a weird configuration of Tuk Tuk makes us as unique as a blue alien and everybody wants to interact with us. It’s like being a minor celebrity.

We made it to Krabi (the nearest town to the resort where the finishing line is) by early afternoon and were ready for some drinks and lunch when– right as we were turning onto the last road of the trip – Kady blew her front tire.

Rainey man-handled her to the side of the road, we all groaned loudly and then looked up and saw that we had stopped right in front of a tire store. If nothing else… Kady has a great sense of humor. A young teenager came

out and within 30 minutes (and for $3) we were sorted out and on our way. It would have been sooner but the spare they gave us did not fit the front tire so the kid had to swap all the tires around and jerry-rig some stuff.

We made it to the finish line on our own steam and with Kady chugging along. I drove Kady in to the end and we were so sad to see the end of her. We have had a great adventure with her.

Last night was the farewell party and it was so

great to hear everyone’s stories and adventures from the roa

d. There was entertainment of a children’s band with traditional Thai instruments and Thai dancing girls and

Mai Thai boxers doing a demonstration.

There were even some Thai fire dancers (which were actually amazing). Everyone was so sad to say goodbye and head home.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Misery in Malaysia

We got to the port in Butterworth early, to be ready for Kady’s dis-embarkation.

What a bad decision!!! Nothing ran on time and everything took 10 times longer than anticipated. We ended up spending hours and hours in the hot sun (I thoroughly sun-burned my face)

on the pier while this wooden row boat (not really, but the shipping boat was not far removed from an over-sized row boat) unloaded each Tuk Tuk - one-by-one - in a cargo net.

It took 15-20 minutes PER TUK-TUK and no-one even showed up to start the process until after 10 AM.We were all

standing around nervously waiting to see if any of the vehicles would even drive. Kady came through like a trooper … we reconnected the battery and she started straight up (which is real bragging rights because almost every other Tuk Tuk had to get a pushing start after the boat ride)

So we were feeling GREAT as all of the Tuk Tuks headed out of the port about 2:30 PM for the start of the trip up through Malaysia to the Thai border. We had a police escort for the first 30 KMs to get us out of the city.

About 19 of the 24 Tuk Tuks left (4 died - completely - in Indonesia and were left by the roadside) made it out of the port on their own steam (5 got left on the dock in various stages of mechanical failure). Then…. Less than 2 miles later as we were heading down a busy highway …. Disaster struck!!! All of a sudden, Kady would not go into gear. Since this was the first time Chris was driving we decided immediately to blame him (just kidding). We pushed Kady to the side of the road and Chris climbed underneath and discovered that the clutch cable had broken apart. He tried to jerry-rig it back together using some wire, duct tape and a keychain clip… but we still could not get her into gear. Chris and Rainey started pushing Kady down the highway (with me steering) to the next exit, which was over a mile away … sweating and cussing with every step.

We rolled into a rest stop and no-one had any idea how to find a Tuk Tuk mechanic. Malaysia outlawed Tuk-Tuks years ago and no such vehicle exists in this country. We had a nice stranger call a car mechanic, but he refused to come out and work on Kady. We were starting to feel desperate. We also realized that we did not have very much Malaysian cash to pay a mechanic so Rainey and I walked to the nearest gas station (while Chris stayed with Kady and continued to see if he could fix her). The woman attendant at the gas station got her father to take Rainey to the nearest bank with an ATM and then begged a man buying gas to drive me to the nearest garage. The first two body shop places refused to help. The poor man kept driving me on to new places as I got turned away. At the third place, I literally begged the man who ran the bike shop to come with me and at least look at Kady. I must have been very pitiful because he agreed …. And ended up working on Kady until after 9 PM to get her fixed. We had to tow her to his garage as the new clutch cable needed to be welded on. And then .. right as the work was done and we were finally about to get on the road….

The heavens opened and it started to pour. Not to be deterred, we put the luggage into black garbage bags, dragged on our rain jackets and headed out. Within 15 minutes Kady’s entire roof was leaking like a sieve with the water pouring in like a water spout. We were thoroughly drenched, the floor of Kady was 2 inches under water and the storm was only getting worse. I called “Uncle” and we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to a hotel. If we had been inquiring about how to build a space shuttle to Mars we might have had an easier time. It took 6 people (including all attendants and several customers) to even come up with the name of a hotel within a 30 mile radius. My sense was that not a single person we were talking to had ever spent the night in a hotel, far less ever had a need for one. With great trepidation we headed off to the only name we got and - when we arrived - there was only one room left in the whole place so we had few to no options. Luckily the room had one queen bed and one twin bed so we could all fit and it was really not awful. Humble but at least clean. We went to the Kentucky Fried Chicken that was next to the hotel (the only place still open by this time), picked up the first piece of food we had seen since breakfast, and fell dead asleep.

This morning (Friday morning) we were up by 5 AM to try and make up some of the time we lost yesterday with our break-down. By 9 AM, we were in Alon Setar and having breakfast (odd but quite delicious French toast) and we crossed into Thailand by noon.

The scenery in the North of Malaysia was really pretty: thick jungle and hills

We saw four other Tuk Tuk groups at the Thai border… one Tuk was working. One Tuk Tuk was towing another one. And the last was on the back of a truck. Suddenly we felt quite lucky that Kady was doing as well as she is.

Right over the border we even found a decent restaurant with a single item menu (it served only fried rice) but it was good. We are going to do a long driving day today and try to get within a few hours of the finish line in Krabi. The run ends tomorrow night with a big party in Krabi. The organizers moved the finish line a few days ago to South of Bangkok because of the flooding so we are ending a day early.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jerejak: A weirder island than the one in “Lost”

We FINALLY met up with Chris Hunte, our third team member, in Penang. He had spent the last two days in Singapore waiting for us to cross out of Indonesia since they denied him a visa to join us there.

We managed to time it so that we are here for Deepvali.

There are amazing elaborate decorations made from colored rice everywhere. We even watched a woman create one of them and it was incredible. Such detail work and one wrong breeze and the whole thing is messed up.

Yesterday we took a boat out to a private island off the coast called Jerejak and spent the night at the only resort out there. We were also the ONLY guests as if everyone else knew how haunted and odd the island was - except us.

To be honest, the resort was very nice and we

had a great chalet… but everything else about the island was WEIRD and CREEPY . We went for a bike ride and then a long hike in the thick jungle across a very shaky suspension bridge (that about did me in) and it was nice to be outside and being active. But the island just got weirder and weirder as we went along. Odd sounds. Odd sights. No-one around. Weird things that popped up.

This island has been used as a leper colony and then a prison so there are broken-down buildings all over the island. The old prison felt literally doomed by ghosts.

Each cell was so small and dark and dank... can't imagine what it must have been like to be locked up in there for years on end. We all stood in the cells (which have only 4 inch slits at the top of the wall for light) and felt so grateful for our own lives.

At the end of the long hike - and after we had literally been climbing up and down small mountains - we came upon a deserted beach where we found a recently killed dog. Odd part of it was that the only tracks leading to the body were hand prints.

It took us a while to realize that there

were drag marks between the hand prints and that the dog had been killed by some giant, carnivorous dragon or water lizard.

The dragon-lizard has hands as large as mine. Chris looked out to the water and there it was ... looking right back at it.. and then the creature ducked underwater. I slept all night with one eye open waiting for the man-eating dragon to rip me from my bed.

This afternoon, after we got back from Jerejak, we went and got our feet nibbled on by fish at a fish spa. Chris was very brave and even put his feed into the big-fish aquarium where the fish bites don't just tickle.. they feel like piranha on the attack. Tonight we also got to taste a strange kind of ice-cream called Ice Floss. It is a similar texture as candy floss but with ice-cream and it melts in your mouth sort of the same way.

Tomorrow we pick up Kady from the port and start heading for Thailand. I hope she survived the crossing in one piece!!!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Northern Sumatra: Where the Orangutans still roam free

We had our first WOW A+++++ moment today. We got up at

4 AM and drove almost 3 hours out to a huge national park / jungle where the

Orangutans still roam free. There are only 6,00 orangutans left in the wild and the largest population is here: in Northern Sumatra. We arrived in a village that is largely built on stilts on the banks of a river, hired a local guide and set out into the jungle

. At 8:30 AM every day the park rangers provide extra food and milk for wild orangutans. Mainly mothers with their babies show up as they need extra nutrition for breast-feeding. But the feeding platform is deep in the jungle. First we had to cross a pretty rapid current river in a flat-bottom boat that is dragged across the water by a series of pulleys and ropes. Then we climbed up-hill into deep forest until – after about 30 minutes – we got to a clearing where a wooden platform

is built into the trees. 2 rangers climbed up and hit the platform with a wooden stick several times (apparently the jungle symbol for “chow time”).

We immediately started seeing the trees around shake and rustle as the mommy orangutans (with babies in tow) came to get extra food. It was one of the most amazing experiences.

The orangutans swung by right next to where we were sitting

on the ground and – in one circumstance – right overhead. I could have reached out and touched them. They climb onto the platform, take a tin cup filled with milk and drink from it, then return it to the ranger for more, give their babies the tin cup (who hold it in their two hands and drink like children with a cup of cocoa) and then start eating the bananas and fruit that the rangers have. Every orangutan had to dig into the ranger’s backpack to confirm – for themselves – that the rangers had shared out all of the food and had nothing else. And one even hugged the ranger as she came onto the platform. Even after the feeding was over, the orangutans hung around and watched at us - watch them - and made you feel like you were in the zoo. After all, we had hiked our happy butts into the jungle to look at them in the wild. And they were looking right back at us. The babies were adorable, swinging around, hanging by one hand and generally just showing off.

After the feeding, our guide took us for a 2

hour hike into the jungle. It was so beautiful and it felt great to be outside walking around. That is us below a 300 year old gum tree. They literally just bore a hole in the gum trees and let the glue / sap trickle out into a hollowed-out coconut shell and then collect all the sap and sell it.
We ended our trek with a late breakfast at a backpacker inn built right on top of the river and then crossed back over the river on a shaky, very scary (mainly because
I am afraid of heights and things that sway back and forth) wooden bridge that is literally built on ropes tied across the river.

Update on our Tuk-Tuk, Kady. Kady was supposed to arrive late, late the night before yesterday. We stayed up watching TV waiting for her. Nothing. We had the hotel call the driver and he said that he would be here by 7 AM. 7, 8, 9 AM came and went.. no sign of Kady. Then the ransom notes started. First the driver called the hotel and said that he was stopped by the police and did not have the right paperwork and needed money for a 300,000 rupee fine. Since Rainey had gone to the police station in Jambi to get the correct paperwork, we refused the first bribery attempt. At 11 AM, we got the second ransom demand. The driver called and said that he did not have enough money to buy gas and he was 5 hours from Medan and needed 300,000 rupees (Funny how the money was identical). This time we felt like we had no choice. The hotel arranged for us to wire the money to him. Even though we had given in and negotiated with terrorists, it still took until 11 PM last night for Kady to get here. And then – she was broken. Somewhere along the line – whether in the loading, unloading or traveling process, a bar underneath her got twisted and locked up one of the wheels. Kady could not drive.

The hotel staff in Medan were awesome. When we got back from the orangutans today, even though it was Sunday, one of the bell men got on his motorcycle, disappeared for over an hour, and returned with a mechanic on his back. Every man in the vicinity came to help / watch. Several hours later and Kady is back up and running and ready for the trip tomorrow to the port. Phew !!!! I was starting to panic. We are now back on schedule.

We meet up tomorrow with our third team member, Chris Hunte (my niece's boyfriend). He has bee trying patiently to get an Indonesian visa but the embassy in Houston has stubbornly refused. He thus spent the last two days in Singapore and is going to meet us in Penang, Malaysia tomorrow instead.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Implementing Plan B

We are still in Jambi after several long hard days on the road. Each day we have to make a certain distance to even reach civilization as between cities there is really no option of stopping because there are no hotels, restaurants or even rest stops … just miles and miles of jungle interspersed with poor, poor villages. We have taken to stopping on our way out of town each morning at a market and buying crackers, Pringles potato chips (all well past their expiration date) and bottles of water and we eat and drink those as we go along. Plus when we stop – even for gas –we are treated like minor-celebrities / aliens who have dropped from another planet. We are immediately mobbed with people who want to touch us or take our photo. This young woman insisted that Rainey give her his phone number and pose for over a dozen photos with her and every one of her friends. The fascination with us is a little disconcerting!!
Arriving here was to hard (to say the least). After nine hours of driving – and with still an hour to go - it started raining and then pouring (with lots of thunder and lightning)…. And we learned that our Tuk Tuk canvas top leaks like a sieve. I piled our back packs into black plastic bags that I had bought with me - and put on a rain jacket - but we were both drenched and our Tuk Tuk kept filling up with water like a leaking boat. We pulled into the Andari hotel (“the nicest hotel in town” according to a passing policeman) looking like drowned rats.We soon
learned that “nicest hotel in town” has a variety of meanings and none of them – in this context – means ‘luxury.’ The room did have beds with clean sheets and air conditioning so that’s a plus. For dinner that night at the hotel restaurant we both ordered spaghetti bolagnaise (because it seemed harmless) and got served boiled spaghetti with a generous helping of spiky Bar-B-Q sauce on top. Yuck!!!
The next morning we did the math and figured out that we could not make the boat in Medan if we carried on. Our Tuk-Tuk (we call her “Katie” in honor of the Blues Brother’s song, or at least what Rainey remembers of the song ….‘She caught the Katy and left me a mule to ride’) is steady but VERY slow.
Seems like Katy’s gear ratio is wrong because we can literally start her in 4th gear and go up a hill in 5th and she tops out at about 25-30 Km per hour (whereas other Tuk Tuks are doing 50).
We calculated that we just cannot go fast enough to catch the boat and, since Katy’s lights are wired wrong, if you turn them on - within an hour – they go very dim and then kill the battery. Traveling any distance at night is thus dangerous. We had to drive after dark to get into Pelambang the other night and destroyed the battery which caused us to have to push-start Katy for most of the next day with Rainey running behind and me popping the clutch (we were quite a sight!!!)
This morning, we went to Plan B and started asking around about
shipping our Tuk Tuk to Medan on a truck. 5 million rupees later, seven men literally picked up our Tuk Tuk (no-one had thought to bring a ramp of any kind), strapped Katy to the back of a truck and took off. The trucker came with his very elderly father who was so enamored with Katy that he sat in the back inside the Tuk Tuk – moving the wheel from side to side – like a kid in a toy car as they drove away. I have wondered all day if he pretend-drove her all the way to Medan (a 23 hour trip by truck). Rainey had to spend an eventful morning at the police station getting official letters (with lots of embossing and signatures) that give the trucker permission to carry our vehicle. And then was returned to the hotel on the back of motorcycle – weaving in and out of the awful traffic!!!
The pressing question is whether we will ever see Katy again. We insisted on only paying half down in Jambi and the other half at delivery in Medan, which we are hoping ups the odds of a “Yes.” The Rickshaw Run is not really a race for time since every team has to be at the crossing in Medan at the same time and put the rickshaws on the same boat. It is more a test of nerves, adventurous spirit and ability to navigate your way through a part of the world that has seen very few Westerners in a piece of machinery that is guaranteed to break down at every turn. We have heard that other teams will be trucking their Tuk Tuks to Medan as well and several teams have already given up because their Tuk Tuks are no longer operational. So while we bitch about our Katy’s speed (which is not much above a fast jog), we cannot complain about her stamina. She has cranked out 10-13 hour days – day after day – without even getting hot or giving trouble (other than the full battery shut down).
After waving goodbye to Katy, we turned to the second puzzle: how to get ourselves to Medan. Again, not an easy feat. Jambi has an airport but there are no dire
ct flights to Medan and there were no flights available out of Jambi - at all - that whole day. We finally tracked down a travel agent who got us tickets for tomorrow morning where we can fly from Jambi back to Jakarta - and then literally fly over Jambi again on our way to Medan.
We spent the afternoon wandering around in the nearest market where the most popular item – by far - is various types, colors and kinds of head-dress.

also bought a pair of knock-off Converse High Tops which – with no real attempt to be as similar as possible to the original – actually zip up the side.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Somewhere in the middle of Sumatra

We are now in Jambi - just about half the way through Sumatra - but it has been long, tough days in a very cramped and uncomfortable Tuk-Tuk… I feel shaken,
rattled and rolled by the time we stop each night. My ears ring all night from how loud the rickshaw is and my hands keep shaking for hours after we stop.

What I have learned is that whatever money there is in this country is spent on Mosques and police. No matter how poor a village is, the mosque is beautiful and stands out in sharp contrast to the rest of the village. And there is police everywhere … lots of them. Must be the most popular job in Indonesia and clearly a large part of the government’s budget is to employ as many people as possible as policemen.
Despite the hardships, it has been a true adventure to see Indonesia this way. We go through the poorest and most economically depressed villages and yet everyone is sitting around with their friends… in the dust and grime ... telling jokes and laughing. Everywhere we go the people are so nice and friendly and genuinely astounded to see is rattling by in a Tuk-Tuk.
Rainey has done the lion’s share of the driving as he is masterful at dodging the giant potholes and avoiding the huge trucks which seem dead set on crushing us. Despite

Our Tuk Tuk has not yet broken down but we’ve been careful to take her in for service every other day and keep all fluids topped up. She is – however – VERY SLOW. We are averaging only 20-25 km per hour and it’s a LONG WAY to the top of Sumatra where we have to meet the boat to take us over to Malaysia. The boat that will take all of the Tuk Tuks across the Malacca straits leaves on October 24 so we have only a few days left to get to the port and over 1,200 KMs to go. Pretty soon here we are going to have to cut our losses and put our Tuk Tuk on a truck that can go twice as fast and get us there on time. It is really too dangerous to drive at night as our lights are barely functional and there is literally not enough daylight hours to drive the remaining distance.
Weird event: One the ferry from Java to Sumatra, they were
selling GUNS... Yes.. GUNS. Not sure how that is a safe idea but there you go. This guy was acting out Dirty Harry.. Indonesian Style as he tested the guns.
We have seen very few of the other teams but have heard some of the horror stories. A Dutch couple rolled their Tuk-Tuk (hit a huge pothole at the wrong angle and over it went – no serious injuries, just some bruises) and another couple’s entire engine blew out and they are stuck in a small town having it totally replace. We ended up leaving the British couple team that we had set out with because their Tuk Tuk kept overheating and could not go more than 10-15 Kms without breaking down and needing a cooling down period. They are now almost 2 days behind us.
And here is a new one for me .. selling in a gas station store yesterday... Seaweed Pringles !!!!
Clearly a taste that has not yet reached American shores.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On the road again..


We set off from Jakarta yesterday - on the South East Asia Rickshaw Run from Jakarta, Indonesia to Bangkok, Thailand - with great pomp and circumstances… a marching band, ribbon cutting ceremony, speeches from various dignitaries. Several teams came decked out in awesome costumes and really pimped out their rickshaws. The best was a 1- woman- 2 man team who had dressed in Chitty Chitt

y Bang Bang costumes and another team drapped their rickshaw in garlands of blessed flowers for luck. Rainey and I – on the other hand – were lame, lame, lame!!!! All of the rickshaws started and made it past the Starting Line following the police

escort out of Jakarta. Two street lights up, we lost the first one (the gear shifte

r broke off in their hand… and they were off pushing it back to the start line for some welding repairs). By mile 5, we had lost 6 ricksha

ws. By the edge of the city when the police left us, only 19 rickshaws were still running (out of 28). So we were feeling pretty cocky until an hour in, the other team that we are traveling with (an older couple from England) had a bad back-fire, black sm

oke flew out of their engine and the rickshaw died. We ended up spending 3 hours in the back yard of a village mechanic while he replaced all of the wiring (which had burned up because of over-heating). So rather than making the ferry for the crossing into Sumatra that night, we only got as far as the port town. Found a medium decent hotel (tepid hot water, grubby bathroom but what seemed to be fairly clean sheets) and ate some Nasi Goreng (fried rice) at a nearby local’s restaurant and went to bed.

Day 2

Day 2 had its own adventures. Rainey woke up in the middle of the night deathly ill. He got very dehydrated the first day and then added on to that some stomach issues and by the time we got on the ferry he was grey and sweaty and half dead. We met up with another rickshaw group on the ferry where both guys are doctors in England (one’s a psychiatrist and one’s an infectious diseases and kidney transplant physician). They did an exam and recommended that I get Rainey to a pharmacy as quick as possible to buy various things. Our Tuk Tuk is the slowest one in the group and we have a top speed of like 20 MPH so getting anywhere quickly is a joke. We managed to limp into Bandan Lampang (the nearest large town) with me driving and Rainey in a heap in the back. There is apparently no sight quite as hysterical to Indonesian villagers as a white woman driving a beat-up, half dead rickshaw. I was causing traffic jams and villagers were running out of the fields to check out the spectacle.

In Bandan Lampang I found a pharmacy - bought meds (not sure that I actually purchased what we needed as there was no English spoken and my skill at charades were being sorely tested) – checked into the fanciest hotel in town which is actually very nice and got Rainey into a clean, air conditioned bed with lots of fluids and mystery drugs. He went to sleep at 3 PM yesterday afternoon and by 5 AM today says he is feeling much better. We have to get on the road or we will miss the boat crossing in Medan in 6 days (a mandatory check-in spot) but I am giving him another hour of rest before we push on….


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