Thursday, April 30, 2009

India to Turkey

Day 3 of India finds us in the middle of nowhere in Ranthambore National Park: a national park between Agra and Jaipur in Rajasthan.

Scavenge: Take a safari at Ranthambore National park.
We got up at 5:30 AM (as I am absolutely NOT a morning person – this trip is killing me with these early mornings after early mornings). But today it was actually pleasant to be up early because it was still cool outside and it felt great to be driving in a jeep in a national park at sunrise instead of cramped into a Tuk Tuk stuck in traffic in 100 degree weather. The national park has a lot of expected wildlife (deer, wild boar, peacocks) as well as some tigers. In fact, the advertised big draw of the safari is to see a tiger in the wild. We were not that lucky. But we did see hundreds and hundreds of monkeys that played all around us. And today was a special day where the villagers are allowed to enter the national park to pray at a small, very old shrine by the riverbank. So the dirt paths we were on were very crowded with playing monkeys as well as bare-foot villagers (the park is considered sacred)– with the women dressed in beautifully colored saris - hustling with their food offerings to the shrine.

As soon as we finished up the safari, we jumped on a train to Jaipur. We had a 4 hour lay-over in Jaipur – just enough time to hit some of the highlights – before a long, 5 hour train ride back to Delhi. My favorite spot in Jaipur is this century old tomb area where the monkeys are just calmly sitting on top of marble cenatophs – just hanging out!!!

Day 4: Delhi Scavenges
We spent our last day running around Delhi. We started at dawn (AGAIN – God I am sick of these early days – but there is 500 points on the line… so once again I see dawn break)….

Scavenge #1: Practice morning yoga with a yogi master in Lodi Gardens
We started the day with having to find a yoga instructor in a specific park and take a lesson from him. Rainey was laughing too much at me to participate so he was designated as the official photographer instead.

Scavenge # 2: Contact the folks at Salaam Baalak Trust and take a working tour of Paharganj with one of their special guides.
This non-profit group feeds and educates more than 5,000 “slumdogs” (ie street children) each year. One of the ways that they raise money is to have former slum kids (who have learned English) take tourists into the slums and show them – first hand – how these kids live. It is heartbreaking. You make a small donation to the trust in exchange for the tour. The poverty and living conditions are beyond appalling. These kids often have chosen to live without anything – on the streets – instead of with their families because their family life was so awful or abusive. Ben was totally shocked when he watched (before his very eyes) a kid pull down their pants, squat down and poop right there on the side of the alley. The Trust offers schooling for four hours each day to the slum kids. We were there for snack time at the school - and watched as the kids were given snack of a pinch of chickpea dust - no juice, no biscuits, no fruit - just a smidgen of dust.

Scavenge # 3: Enjoy the twin specialties of old and famous Jalebiwala in Chandi Chowk
This is a booth-type restaurant in the heart of the Old City of Delhi that sells only two things: potato samosas and chickpea samosas. Nothing else. They then put some VERY spicy sauce on the top which blew out our taste buds for hours.

Scavenge # 3: Do some good. Contact a charity and help.
We chose to volunteer our time for a group called Joining Hands – which is a charity that matches volunteers (based upon their skills or wants) to dozens of non-profit organizations. We volunteered to buy and take supplies to a slum school and then taught the kids there for an hour. We bought coloring books and picture story books as well as –pencils, paper, pens etc. When we arrived, we were amazed to find that the school (which is a word that I am using loosely since this place was merely a room with a teacher) had literally nothing – no desks or chairs (the kids just sit on the floor in rows); no books of any kind, no paper or notebooks or supplies – just a teacher and a chalk board and some chalk. The children come out of the slums and stay in school for a few hours a day before they leave to go to work (picking up bottles to take to the recycling place for money; digging through the trash dump sites for half-eaten food etc.). Even worse – these kids are all under the age of 9. This is a photo of me teaching the kids from one of the English ABC books that we bought for them.

Observations #1: The poverty is overwhelming. People live with literally NOTHING. This is ALL of the worldly possessions of this woman (and she has more than most). The thing above her head (which is making her roof and shade during the day) is her bed.

Observations #2: The colors of India touch your heart. Dusty, dirty fields with women in jewel-colored saris bent over tending to crops. At work, in the markets, walking by the streets - old or young, pretty or unattractive – the women sparkle with color. Even their trucks are decorated and colorful.

Observations # 3: India trains are disgustingly dirty. I had to just go to sleep or else my paranoia about germs and communicable diseases would have gone into over-drive.

SCORE BOARD: Without the results from the India leg (which could shake things up if we do not win as the 500 point bonus will make a big difference), the scores are: “Lawyers without borders” (which is us) in first place and Nanny and Ben (“Something Old, Something New”) in second place. It has been HARD work to be in those spots so I hope that we do not lose our ranking.

Incredible India

We arrived in India three days ago and were told that this was an open rally leg – which means that we have a total amount of time to do as many scavenges (in various cities) as we can cram in. The last few legs have been timed events (meaning that we got a day’s worth of scavenges and had to check in by a certain time each night). In a timed rally leg, you are literally forced to rest and sleep (between like 10 AM and 6AM) because you cannot scavenge at night. Not true for India. We could work as hard as we wanted – and – very important –the winner of this leg will get a bonus of 500 points (which is HUGE). This was a huge incentive to really work hard in India and it has been an exhausting – but fantastic – few days.

Bill’s concept in India was to make us leave the city and travel between the triangle-located cities of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. But, in order to force us to interact with locals, we were not allowed to just hire big, expensive, comfortable cars with drivers to take us there (as that would have been too easy). Instead we had to use the local trains (VERY unclean) and moped rickshaws (VERY hot). We also are not allowed to get ANY help from the hotel concierge or any employee of the hotel. So we literally had to just head out of the hotel (with no idea where you were going), walk into the street and start asking people how to find things.

Day 1:
As soon as we got our scavenge books, we discovered that this leg involved travel between various cities by train so we packed up 2 nights of clothes in our back packs and headed out to the train station to try and figure out schedules and options – what an eye opening experience. The Delhi train station is like a scene from Slumdog Millionare but with 2 million extra people. We finally got directed to a tourist bureau where we bought night train tickets to Agra. When we got back to the station, we hired a porter to get us to the right platform and train (thank God, because we would still be lost wandering around that place – stepping over sleeping and disabled children and pushing through crowds – if he had not helped). The porter was 115 years old and he immediately wound a piece of cloth on his head, picked up Nanny’s carry-on bag, plunked it on his head and took off at a trot. We were left to run along behind him all the way to the train. Luckily, we got a sleeper car – with air conditioning - and even though it was very low on the clean and sanitary scale, we all tried to get some sleep. We did not arrive in Agra until almost midnight. The train station tourist bureau had booked us a hotel in Agra that looked fine in the pamphlet that they showed us but was AWFUL in real life – no hot water, little or no air conditioning (it made noise but did not produce any actual cool air), spiders in the bathroom… GROSS. I actually contemplated sleeping in a shower cap to stop the infestation of crawling bugs that were obviously hiding in the pillow, but ended up just falling into a coma on the very much less-than-clean bed instead. (Have you noticed a recurring theme already – most of India is so filthy and dirty that it has an almost repulsive charm).

Day 2:
Scavenge # 1: Visit one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages and have your fortune told by a soothsayer. What does your future hold? Take a classic Team photo from the VIP bench.
We got up at 5 AM on Monday so that we could be at the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It was stunningly beautiful – and so few people were there at that hour that we got awesome photos without throngs of tourists in each frame – including the VIP shot (from the bench before the Taj). Since it was not yet blisteringly hot, we could really linger and enjoy the Taj. The downside: there were no fortune tellers out that early, so we had to go to a nearby shop to get our palms read. It cracked me up because the palm reader had to use a magnifying glass to see our palms – getting old & poor-sighted is clearly a real career downer for fortune-tellers.

Scavenge # 2: Find a craftsman specializing in the exquisite pietra dura of Taj Mahal-fame.
There are still a few families left in Agra who have passed on (from generation to generation) the craft of inlaying marble with thin slices of semi-precious stone to make beautiful intricate patterns (exactly how the Taj Mahal was done). We went to one of those places and watched the entire process in action. They still use hand-turned lathes (the men pull a stick back and forth to make the stone wheel turn) to slice, shape and polish the semi-precious stones and then glue them into hand-grooved spaces that they have chiseled out of the marble. 1,000 year old technology that produces beautiful results.

We ended Day 2 by going to Bharatapur to visit a bird sanctuary (dry, hot and not many animals to see – I would not recommend this excursion) and then on to Ranthambore National park to spend the night. Ranthambore is 6 hours from Agra – through the countryside – in and out of small villages – so we arrived late at night – very tired and worn out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thailand to India

We have been in a very tiring rally in India for the past 2 days - and without any access to the internet. I will write up our India adventures (which are AMAZING) as soon as this leg ends tomorrow night but here is info on our second day in Thailand (which now feels like a year ago because we have done so much since then).

Thailand - Day 2 - In a nutshell: "WOW, WOW, WOW"

Bill, the producer of this competition, always talks about trying to give us “wow” moments but I was definitely NOT seeing the wow-factor of Thailand yesterday. Then today came. I had slept well, was no longer heat stroked, felt great and – best of all - our travel karma got righted and things started to work. Today we did not miss every bus, train or Tuk Tuk or get to every site right after it was closed. Today – was a WOW.

We ended up doing tons of different things: but here are some highlights:

Scavenge: Pay an early morning visit (and give tribute) to the folks at the Marble Wat.
We woke up early to see the sunrise over a specific temple by the river so we arrived at the Marble Wat (Temple) about 6:30AM to try and figure out what this scavenge meant. When we arrived, it was immediately clear: this is a temple where every morning scores of Buddhist monks arrive– carrying gourd-shaped begging bowls – for the town to pay honor them by giving them food. Whatever people put into their bowls, is the monks’ food for the day. We bought some cooked dim-sum-like steamed dumplings from a street vendor and gave them as offerings to the monks. One monk stood out above the crowd: he was quite tall and clearly English. So we stopped him and talked for a while. He came to visit Thailand 23 years ago, got the Buddhist bug, became a monk and has never left. We had to figure out some scavenge clues that dealt with Buddhism - and the basic tenets of that religion – and he helped us out.

Scavenge: Employ those plying their trade at the back of Wat Po after passing through Marco Polo Gate.
We got to Wat Po about 7:30 AM to find that the temple (with its amazing reclining gold Buddha) does not open until 8 AM. So we started wandering around trying to find what happens at the back of the temple. In the temple complex is a series of low-roofed buildings which turned out to be the dormitory styled homes of the monks. A monk came out, saw that we were very lost and invited us into his home (that he shares with 8 other monks). He sat us down on the floor of his living room and served us breakfast (biscuits and sweet fig-like bananas) with water and tea while he chatted away (in very poor English) about visiting San Francisco once in the 1980s. As soon as 8 AM came, he blessed us and sent us on our way to visit the Buddha and to find that past the Marco Polo gate is a school that teaches Thai massage and the students have a training program where they give massages at a reduced rate to temple visitors. So Rainey and I spent half an hour getting stretched and rubbed and manipulated (a Thai massage is a stretching, kneading massage done with all of your clothes on – and without any oils). After the Ayutthaya Tuk Tuk experience yesterday, this was fantastic. I really wanted an hour long massage – but there were points to be made… so time cannot be wasted.

After the massage, we went to see the actual reclining Buddha – Although it was all impressive, I really liked his toes….

Scavenge #2: Bridge over River Kwai
One of the bonus scavenges was to go out to Kanchanaburi (west of Bangkok) and see the Death Railway (including the bridge over the River Kwai) that was built by English and Allied POWs during WWII. Like in the movie, the bridge was blown up by the British to stop the Japanese from easily being able to transport weapons and bombs down the railway – but it was quickly rebuilt. We also visited the War Museum which showed how terribly the POWs were treated.

Scavenge # 3- AND AN A++++++ WOW EVENT: Tiger Temple
In the middle of nowhere, 2 ½ hours from Bangkok is a Buddhist monastery that started taking in orphaned tiger cubs. Fast forward a decade and they have 19 pet tigers that you can come and visit, pet and play with…. And yes, I said TIGERS… not pussycats. So there we were: walking among the tigers, petting them, hanging out with them. The superstition is that the monks’ peaceful nature and unconditional love has worked “monk magic” on these wild animals (who have very large, sharp teeth and even sharper claws). I was convinced that the magic was going to wear off at the exact moment that I walked up and that one of these Kings of the Jungle was going to just munch off my arm. But instead (once you remembered to breath and forgot how terrifying it was), it was an amazing experience. Then Ben and I went into a caged area and got to play with 4 tiger cubs. I would call them baby tigers – but they were as big as my knee, strong and very playful. As we walked up they were biting the heck out of each other… and growling… and ripping apart a rope toy (leaving no doubt that they could also easily take off my foot). If Ben had not wanted to do it so badly, I would definitely have chickened out – but I did not want to disappoint him – so in we went. I was putting on the brave face until – right as we entered – the tiger trainer said “remember, never turn your back on a tiger, that makes it want to pounce on your back” – words which kept my butt firmly stuck to a wall at all times just so no tiger would have a chance to snack on my neck. Ben and I even got to feed the babies milk from bottles (which made me move away from my spot on the wall) but then a naughty tiger came up behind me and bit me on the back of my leg and that was the end for me - my heart skipped 17 beats and I high-tailed it out of the cage. Unfortunately it was only a little nip and not bad enough to even bruise because a small scar would have made a great story of: “Yes, I got this playing with tigers in Thailand”. Jordan would have LOVED this scavenge and would have been much braver than I was.

Scavenge # 4: Enjoy a meal at Cabbages and Condoms: a restaurant with a purpose
This is a fascinating – but very nice - restaurant (that is down a back alley that you would never find unless you knew what were looking for) run by an AIDS awareness organization. All proceeds go to sexually transmitted disease education programs. Every decoration in the restaurant is made from condoms (including lamp shades and full art statues) and every wall is covered with AIDS awareness and education posters. Very clever. The food was excellent (or maybe it just taste great because we had not eaten since breakfast).

Observations: The Children of Thailand
All over the world little people like to swing. This little girl was in a smelly, gross, dirty dark alley off a food market… smiling and swinging away in her home-made hammock.

These young monks are begging at dawn for food

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bangkok Blues

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand to find that it is 1,000 degrees, the Tuk Tuks are so uncomfortable that your bottom is bruised after the first ride and …did I mention that it is hotter than the surface of the sun? Our first day here was as disaster in every sense of the word. We decided to start with a set of scavenges in Ayutthaya (a town north of Bangkok) and ended up blowing our whole first day in Thailand there. Everything that could go wrong, did. We made good points but every point was hard to come by.

Problem # 1: Bad transportation:
The competition required that we take a train at least one way –either to or from – Ayutthaya. We quickly learned that the right option was to take the express, air conditioned train up there and get a taxi back. Poor planning on our part had us in a taxi on the way up which meant that we had to train it back. But then we missed the mid-afternoon train and had to take the 6:05PM train – which did not arrive until almost 7 PM. That train had no air conditioning or open seats (it was standing room only – and by that I mean that every part of you was touching someone else), a strong smell of urine and it stopped at approximately 79 towns on the way back. It took almost 3 hours to get to Bangkok - by which time I had a raging case of heat stroke. I came very close to throwing up on the train but we were jammed in so tight that I would have up-chucked down some unsuspecting Thai person’s back (a thought too gross to permit).

Then in Ayutthaya – in a stroke of real stupidity – they developed a type of Tuk Tuk that is built for short 7 year olds: a low ceiling which makes you hunch over the whole time and you ride sideways (not facing forward) which really limits how much air you get. They are HOT and incredibly uncomfortable. Riding in these torture chambers for hours left me literally crippled up.

But there were some highlights

Scavenge # 1: Sam Po visited Ayutthaya in 1407. He has another famous name, what was it? And visit something that is associated with him here.
The Wat Phanan Choeng temple has a HUGE Buddha dedicated to Zheng He (a big time, Marco-Polo-type Chinese explorer). It sort of takes your breath away because you turn a corner and there it is – huge and gold.

Scavenge # 2: Take an elephant ride around Wat Phra Si Sanphet
You have to get on the back of an elephant (under a very colorful umbrella) and lumber through the temple grounds. Ben was tickled by the whole ride-an-elephant thing.

Scavenge # 3: Buy something interesting from Bang Sai Royal Folk Arts & Crafts Center for under $10.
While looks like it is around the block from Ayutthaya, this place is actually a VERY LONG 45 minutes bone-crunching Tuk Tuk ride away (did I bitch about the Thai Tuk Tuks already???). I was hot, sweaty and very bad-tempered by the time we got there. It is a government sponsored trade school center that trains poor and disabled people in various craft fields. This guy makes stain glass windows with no right arm at all (and his prosthesis is literally falling apart at the seams) and only a single finger along with a mangled hand on the left. OK, that alone put my heat exhaustion misery into perspective and made me feel petty for complaining. A clear reality check.

Observation #1: The Thai people are kind and sweet – with big, warm smiles. When Nanny and Ben got stuck at a temple at closing time – and could not find any transportation back to the train station – the woman who ran the ticket booth took care of them and got her brother to give them a ride. Amusingly, his only mode of transportation was a motorcycle. So Nanny, Ben and the unknown Thai boy (with a ruby in his front tooth) raced through town crammed together on a motorbike – quite a spectacle.

Observation #2: There were no benches on one side of the train station so everyone waits for the train by sitting on the train tracks with trains going by literally within feet of you….Definitely in violation of every safety regulation.

I am hoping for a better day tomorrow… our first day here was largely a bust – and I feel sick and grumpy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dawn over Angkor Wat

We arrived in Siem Reap (very hot from a long non-air conditioned bus ride) yesterday afternoon and went straight out to do scavenges. Our hotel here (the Heritage Suites) is amazing…bungalow styled rooms with private gardens and an interesting mix of oriental and hip architecture. One of the nicest places I have ever stayed.

For those who do not know the details of this competition, a bit of catch-up information: each team has two members and we have 10 teams this year; during this trip we will visit 10-12 countries on 4 continents and we will stay in each country for 1-3 days; we do not know where we are going next until 4 hours before we leave; when we arrive at a new country we get a book of scavenges to do in that place and a check-in time. The trick is to amass as many points as you can during the set time frame that the particular rally is open. The book of scavenges that we receive always has way more challenges than you can get done in the time that we are in that country – and each thing is worth different points (easy stuff is 10-15 points; hard challenges that take a lot of time and efforts can be worth up to 300 points)– so part of the competition is strategizing what to do and in what order to best use the time that you have. In every country we have mandatory challenges that you have to do or you get no points for that leg. Most of the mandatory challenges are eating or food scavenges (sometimes lots of yucky stuff) but you don’t have to eat it all: just try it. I obviously cannot describe every scavenge that we do in each country, so I am trying to pick a few of my favorites each time to just give you all a flavor of what we are doing. You are only allowed to scavenge with another team for a maximum of 5 scavenges in a day – so we are spending only part of each day with Nanny and Ben.

Scavenge # 1: Obviously we had to visit the various Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and Ta Prohm – and there were bonus points if we started at 5 AM and watched the sunrise on the temples – so we were up in the dark. They were all amazing. Truly a wonder of the world. My favorite was Ta Prohm where the trees have grown all through the temple walls. I got a great photo of where the trees have grown all over a sculpture – with only the face (miraculously) still visible. Sooooo cool.
Scavenge #2: Do some good: Either visit the Kantha Boptha Hospital and give blood or visit the Angkor Hospital for children and make a donation of some blankets, children and adult clothing, coloring books, crayons, pens and pencils or mosquito nets you bought in town.
I’ll be honest – despite my absolute fear of needles – I strongly considered the blood donation because, after all, it was for 100 points and it involved only one trip to the hospital (without having to first go and buy stuff) – that’s an economical use of time. But Rainey made sensible arguments about possible side effects of fainting from the needle prick (a real possibility with me), hitting my head and then having to actually be treated at a Siem Reap hospital. Rainey cannot donate because he had Hepatitis years ago. Good sense prevailed and we did the shopping trek instead. We arrived at the children’s hospital at dark with our supplies and the children were already asleep – sleeping in an open concrete-floored patio area. No beds, no blankets, no walls, no wards – just sick children all over the floor sleeping. They were all covered up with pink mosquito nets that were draped over benches - like a tent city of ill kids. (Not a great photo - but I did not want to do another as the flash could wake them up). I was sure that Ben would freak out and start talking about contracting leprosy and antibiotic resistant TB but he was so moved that he could not even speak. Heart wrenching.

Scavenge #2: Locate and visit Beng Mealea
Beng Melea is a sprawling jungle temple that has only barely been rescued from the thick foliage. It is almost 2 hours from Siem Reap and - after driving up here without air conditioning yesterday (did I tell you yet that it is 150 degrees here – in the shade), it seemed like nothing short of torture to decide to go out there yesterday afternoon. In fact, I cussed Bill’s (the producer of this competition) name for every kilometer. But then we got there… and it took my breath away. It was just like you stepped into an Indiana Jones movie, went on a jungle trek and discovered a hidden world all by yourself. There were no other tourists there because it is so remote so we had the place all to yourself. The jungle is all around you and it is a quiet world of tumbled down rocks and 1,000 year old carvings. The trees grow thick all around – and through - the fallen in temple walls. Ben climbed all over the rocks (yes, they actually allow you to climb up and walk on the roof of the old temple) like a monkey. It would violate every government inspection law in the US for us to just climb in - and on- every part of this fallen wonder - but it was great fun.

Scavenge #4: Visit the Land Mine museum, meet the owner/curator Mr. Aki Rai and listen to his story.
During the various wars here, land mines were heavily used. Aki Rai was orphaned at 5 (when rebels killed his parents) and he was taken from an orphanage by the army at the age of 14. His job for the Khmer Rouge was to plant land mines all over the countryside. When the war was over, and he was married with kids in his 20s, he decided to dedicate his life to de-activating land mines here and to helping children maimed by land mines (his karmic pay-back). He has taken in, and educated, dozens of land mine amputee children and spends a chunk of every month in the jungle finding and doing controlled explosions of land mines. His museum is simple but very moving…with even a short video about his work. And his "adopted" children work at the museum .. taking tickets, running the video. So amazing to see how one kind-hearted man can make a difference to so many.

And just a few observations about Cambodia.

Observation #1: People really can live with very little. Driving out to Angkor Wat yesterday, we passed through village after village: no electricity, water dragged home in a bucket from the communal hand pumped well, dirt floor wooden shacks… yet in front of every house there was a hammock hung up between two trees in the shade with a mother and some number of children - or an old man - swinging away in the 100 degree heat. In every market, there were groups of men sitting around talking and laughing. They clearly have no concern for the Dow Jones or the collapse of the subprime market. Ignorance truly can be bliss. Above all else, this trip makes you feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fortune of your own life.

Observation #2: Yes, it is scary when this is the sign outside of one of the restaurants that we had to eat in…. I guess that it actually says more about the other restaurants than this one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Phonm Penh, Cambodia

Yesterday we flew from Taipei to Phom Penh in Cambodia. I have never been to Cambodia so I was thrilled that we were coming here. We are staying for one day in Phom Penh and then one day in Angkor Wat (Siem Reap) and moving on to somewhere new on the third day.

Favorite Scavenges:

#1: Find the glass stupa at Choeung Ek
This is the memorial at the “Killing Fields” just south of town. In the traffic it took us only slightly less than forever - in the searing heat and dust in a moped Tuk Tuk - to get there. But it was so worth the effort. This field was the execution area for the Khmer Rouge. From 1975-1979, Pol Pot ordered that politicians, doctors, professors and really anyone who did not agree with him or his politics be rounded up, imprisoned and often killed. Prisoners were brought by the truck load to the Killing Fields to be executed and thrown into mass graves. The glass stupa horrifyingly holds hundreds and hundreds of human skulls that were dug out of the mass graves. It is one thing to hear about atrocities. It is another – far more sobering thing – to actually come face to face with skulls piled one on top of each other: nameless, faceless reminders of a terrible time in this gentle country.

# 2: Visit S-21 Tuoi Sieng prison for a reality check
While in power, the Khmer Rouge took a high school and turned it into a prison. The prison has been left pretty much the way it was when Pol Pot was overthrown and you can actually walk through the old classrooms that were used as cells and torture chambers. There is also a large exhibit of photographs of some of the people who were imprisoned or killed there as well as some very graphic photos of tortured and very badly beaten political activists. We got there just before closing time so the place was pretty empty and downright creepy. It is like the whole prison is soaked with sorrow and suffering. In the 3 years that the Khmer Rouge took over, they killed 1.7 million people - more than 20% of the entire population of Cambodia at the time. The S21 prison is a scary reminder of what can happen – literally overnight – when cruel people seize power.

#3: Enjoy a foot massage at Seeing Hands Massage
OK – here’s a good idea – take a group of blind children and teach them to do massages. We had to find a Seeing Hands Massage parlor – where all of the employees are blind – and get a foot massage. To be honest, it was not the cleanest place (maybe because they cannot see the condition of the place) and the whole set-up scared Ben to death that he could contract some skin eating disease – but Nanny and I volunteered for the foot massages. Thank god that the scavenge was only for a foot massage because there was really little chance that I was getting undressed and laying down anywhere in that place. Although – on second thought – there is very little I would not do for points. In the end, my massage was odd, different and yet very touching. They do not soak your feet (maybe water is scarce) and my feet were caked with dust from walking so I was little grossed out to start. But they did do a rapid wipe down with a cloth before they started which helped a little. My masseuse was a young man who was both blind and facially deformed and he touched, squeezed and caressed my feet with such a soft and earnest concentration that he really touched my heart.

# 4: Buy a dozen bottles of shampoo, 20 tubes of toothpaste and large tins of cookies at Lucky’s Supermarket. Deliver them to a specific children’s home.
We had to find and shop at a particular local supermarket, load up a Tuk Tuk and head out to the orphanage. We got lost along the way, so by the time we got there, everyone was firmly asleep. We were considering throwing our goodies over the wall but the Tuk Tuk driver rang the bell and knocked and hollered out until two sleepy children came to the door and let us in. They seemed totally overwhelmed with our bags of supplies and cookies but the little girl woke up enough to hug us as we left. The Children’s Village houses 54 children and there is only a dozen or so shoes for them all to share (all piled up by the front door so that the kids just put on whichever pair are on the top of the pile when they head out). Heartbreaking.

And a few thoughts and observations so far about Cambodia.

Observation # 1: The poverty in Cambodia is some times gut-wrenching. I know that it will be worse in India but this is our first real confrontation with it on this trip. Whole families sleeping on the side of the road at night: mother, father and an assortment of little children lying on cardboard right on the pavement with no belongings or shelter. Most children are barefoot – even when walking to school in their school uniform. Our biggest fights this leg have been that Rainey absolutely refuses to bargain with the Tuk-Tuk drivers. Despite the unwavering Cambodian custom to negotiate every ride ahead of time, Rainey has decided that paying a Tuk Tuk driver $4 for a $2 ride will somehow right the karmic fates that gave him his life instead of these people’s. So yes, we have consistently and horribly overpaid for every ride. We are now down a whole $11 in overpaid fares.

Observation # 2: An interesting merge of cultures, Cambodia has fantastic, crusty baguette bread (left over from the French rule) alongside portions of skewered pigeon. On the bus ride out to Angkora Wat (where we are heading as I write this), the air conditioning on our bus stopped working so we had to stop at a small town / village to try and get it fixed (no luck). While there, we had a coke at a local restaurant which has beautiful, ornate ceilings with crown moulding and 200 year old chandeliers. On the table was half a cucumber turned over with 3 sticks covered in caramel stuck into it: a makeshift fly trap that had so many dead customers that you had to eat lunch watching the rotting carcasses of dozens of flies caught in the caramel. What a vision: dead flies on a caramel stick below crown moulding and chandeliers. Yes, we are in the Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Three Teas in Taipei

Day 2 in Taiwan started with a whole new set of scavenges. It rained on and off all day – which made the whole day even more challenging - because it was too windy for an umbrella but wearing a raincoat in topical heat turns every event into a full-fledged steam room experience. Nanny and Ben (being all stoked about their scavenge success from yesterday and with a little bit of smack talking) decided to scavenge without us. So Rainey and I choose to do one of the bonus challenges. So we did not even see them until check-in.

Favorite scavenges from today:

#1: High Speed Train: We had to take the High Speed Rail train from Taipei all the way down almost the entire island of Taiwan to Kaohsiung. The High Speech train is not just high speed – it is downright super-sonic. It goes like 298 KM/Hr – so fast that the world going by outside is out of focus. Yet, inside the train is quiet and a smooth ride. What amazing technology. In Kaohsiung, we had to find a specific set of pagodas on a lake: a tiger and dragon pagoda that you can walk into the mouth of the animals.

# 2: Teahouses: We had to visit two different tea houses and sample 6 different kinds of tea – using proper tea etiquette. We learned all about different teas: which ones have to be made with warm but not-boiling water (to not overpower the flavor), which ones have to steep longer etc. And we sat on little stools before a tea table and drank cup after cup of tea from little girl tea set cups on tiny saucers.

#3: Gross food scavenge of the day: We had to find a specific night market called “Snake Alley” and eat either barbequed rattlesnake, turtle soup or stir-fried mouse. I went with the turtle soup as it seemed, at first blush, to be the best option. What a mistake!! It comes on a combo-platter with a red glass of turtle tea (which looks just like a glass of turtle blood), a white shot glass of turtle egg drink, a green shot glass of who knows what and then, the granddaddy of all nasty food things, an entire bowl of cut up turtle in brown stew. The turtle comes in such big lumps that floating on the top of my bowl was a full foot (including flippers and toes) of a small turtle. Yuck!!!

And some quick observations from our time in Taiwan

Observations # 1: Ben’s first experience with a very fancy (5 star) hotel cracked me up. He wandered around for the first ½ hour dressed up in the white plush robe and slippers - like Hugh Hefner in miniature - trying out every free sample in the wooden box in the bathroom (he brushed his teeth twice with TWO free toothbrushes, used the free comb and even wiped down his face with the free cotton balls just to see what they felt like). But then the jackpot – the toilet had an entire console of add-ons: butt warmers, water that sloshes up (and you can choose any temperature for that water); dryers that then come in to finish up the job. Yes, luxury has a new meaning now…

Observations # 2: We had to sample some local ice-cream flavors at the Ice Monster shop. Not to be critical, but I have never been much of a fan of Mung Bean Grass Jelly Ice dessert (whatever that even is). And when its added to ice-cream, it looks downright stomach curdling.

Observations # 3: This is my first time in Taiwai – so first impression is: Taipei turned out to be a successful, efficient, surprisingly clean city filled with nice and gentle people. Despite the language barrier (have I already mentioned that NO-ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH here), they try very hard to help you at all times. And such polite and well-mannered people. You can be on the most crowded of subway platforms and no-one is pushing, or speaking rudely to the each other or being aggressive. Instead, everyone has a kind smile for you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lost in Translation

The flight over was OK but long. We crossed the date line and lost all of Saturday in the blink of an eye– arriving in Taipei on Sunday morning. We got off the plane in Taiwan expecting that it was just a layover – only to find that all references to us moving on had been red herrings – and we are staying here for 2 days. Yeah – I have never been here before…

By the time we go to the hotel, showered and ate, it was 9 AM before Bill opened the first Taipei day. Part of his new rules is that we are given daily scavenges (instead of one book of all the scavenges for the entire region) and you cannot do scavenges (at least on some legs) from 10PM to 6AM (to force people to sleep and to not allow people who do not need sleep to get an advantage). There are 4 returning teams from past events: Bart & Steve, the BeachBoys, are back to defend their championship title from last year. One member of a 2005 competition team is also back - but with a different team member. And Andi from Dallas who competed with Shannon last year is back as well. Apparently Andi and Shannon conceived a Great Escapes baby in the Kingdom of Bahrain last year and Shannon gave birth a few months ago. So he’s here with a guy friend this time. Because of this, Bill has changed up the rules a bunch so that having been in the competition before is less of an advantage. And he has also made the rules about proving exactly what you did each day even harder. You have to provide 100% iron-clad proof for every challenge and every piece of proof will be checked – every time. You can also only scavenge with another team for part of each day and for a maximum of 5 challenges in a day. PLUS - the hardest new rule of all… you cannot even talk to the concierge or hotel staff at ANY hotel. Not even to ask a single question or to get directions. You have to use ONLY strangers on the streets, buses, taxis etc – no professionals – to help you. Does not sound that hard until you realize that NO-ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH (and by that I mean that every 1 in 18,367 people that you talk to actually has a rudimentary understanding of the English language – all the rest, smile politely and nod a lot to every question).

We hit the ground running as soon as we got the Scavenge books. Rainey and I and Nanny and Ben had decided to scavenge together at the beginning of the day and to split apart after we reached 5 events. We quickly learned that having the four of us together is pretty much chaos – everyone yelling at the taxi driver at once (to where he understands nothing), each of us thinking we should be walking in a different direction and raw nerves as people constantly wander off to ask strangers questions and then it takes time to get us back together. We figured out the metro system (not easy since did I mention that NO-ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH) and started moving across the city in an organized way.

Things were going smoother by the time we split up about midday. Rainey and I went as hard as we could all day and collapsed back into the hotel about 8:45 PM for a 10 PM check-in. Nanny and Ben showed up right before 10 and had whipped our butts. They out-scavenged us, they out-strategized us and they just flat out beat us (I guess apples do not really fall far from the tree). And they are beating us by quite a bit (in this competition EVERY point is hard earned). So the gauntlet has been thrown down now. The war has started. We are upping our game and taking no prisoners.

Four best scavenges from yesterday:

Longshan Temple – We had to find the temple, buy incense, burn the incense to a specific goddess (not as easy as it seems as the temple has dozens of goddesses) and then get our fortune told.
It was Sunday so fortune tellers were in scarce supply and the word “fortune teller” is not easily translated or acted out. It took us over an hour to find one and Ben and Rainey got their fortunes told.

Beitou – The scavenge was to: “Take your bathing suit to Yangmingshan Park in the town of Beitou. Take a dip in the hot springs”. So Rainey and I took the train out to Beitou and set off in a taxi for the park. After driving for 45 minutes straight into a beautiful rainforest mountain, we found the park but no hot springs. Somebody there told us to go back down the mountain and that the public hot spring baths were on the outer edge of the park there. So down we go to find that the word “public hot springs” means 2 buildings (one for men and one for women) with spring fed pools that are filled to the brim with NAKED people. So forget the bathing suit red herring, you have to strip down, put your hair in a special bath cap (I have inspected for lice and other creatures but none so far), kneel before one pool and splash water over your head in a special way with a specific bucket (I messed that one up to the full out laughter of more than 100 naked Chinese women) and then move on to another pool where you wash your hands and feet and then the last pool where you get in totally. The last pool is so full that to submerge yourself you have to wiggle in between hundreds of naked women – touching them all as you do. And across the yard, Rainey was having the identical experience…. Only on Great Escape 2009 would you even consider doing some of this stuff

Eat at a taxi driver’s favorite restaurant: Another scavenge was to ask your cabbie to take you to his favorite restaurant where only locals eat. We ended up above a shady looking food store in a restaurant where no-one has ever heard English far less speaks it. We both ordered soup as it seemed safe enough to then find out that it is a “make your own soup” place. They plunk a bowl of water on a hot plate in front of you and a big bowl of vegetables and meat that you are supposed to put into the bowl to make the soup. The vegetables were (and here I am not even exaggerating): cow hoof patties, jelly fish intestines wrapped in pea pods, lumps of gelatinous goo, slices of mouldy mushrooms with tumors growing on them…. Need I go on. Then Rainey made the whole restaurant explode into laughter when he dumped all of the sauces that they bought us into his soup pot (as they are supposedly just for dipping – not for cooking).

Shilin night market: We had to go to the night market and see gross and horrific food and then put some of the most nasty stuff ever into our mouth, chew and swallow. The people at the market were eating bugs on skewers, cow eyeballs, intestines soaked in sewage…. And loving it… Standing in line to wait to be served it. These people need some fast food in their lives. The smell alone was enough to make you run. Since Rainey will do not the food scavenges I had to put into my mouth - and swallow - some truly awful stuff. Plus, to hide how bad it all is – they add some amazing spicy stuff to the top. Blows the roof off your mouth.
Sunset on a ferry in Danshuei

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