Tuesday, April 25, 2017

GE 2017: Stunning Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, an island off the Southeast tip of India, is a stunning country filled with history and archaeological treasures and best of all... some of the nicest, kindest, sweetest people in the world. Put it on your "must visit" list.

Fun fact:  There are 8 Unesco World Heritage sites in this small country (America has only 23 in its vasts lands).  So there are a lot of wonders to see in Sri Lanka.  Second fun fact: Almost all of those sites are on the TOP of a hill or mountain.  There is some unwritten rule here that everything gets more sacred if you put it really high up, where it's totally exhausting to visit it. But, I will admit, the views from some of these places were amazing. 

Bill opened the leg at noon on Saturday. By 1:45pm, Rainey and I had packed day packs and were on a 7+ hour, non-air conditioned train to Anuradhapura in the North. We did not get seats for the first 4 hours.  

So, imagine multiple hours where the people standing pressed right up against you are all rubbing their sweat right onto you with every shake and rock of the train.  I was doing lots of slow yoga breathing. The things you will endure on this trip for scavenge points...!!!

Plus the train moves only slightly faster than the villagers walking along the tracks. But it did give me lots of time to ask questions of our fellow riders and get some strategy advice on how to tackle this country.

Warning: you also have to stay sharp to side-step the cockroaches on the floor (what do you expect when people consistently walk up and down selling boiled corn, cotton candy, samosas.. you name it... and food crumbles litter the floor?) Finally getting a seat next to a window - many hours in - so the damp humid wind hit my face was like manna from heaven.

We passed through stretches of remote villages followed by fields and jungle brush and finally got off the train ... hours later -  very shaken but not stirred. As we left the station, we found that another scavenger hunt team had been on the train as well:  Team Ying, one of the father-daughter teams. We decide to share a taxi to a nearby hotel and on the way - very nicely - asked our taxi driver if he would invite us home to his house for dinner. Crazy, I know. But the competition awards big points for orchestrating just such an "invitation." Plus our thought was that being with another team probably reduced the chances of random cannibalism or a "Taken" experience. Our driver, Chachim, was either too polite or too shocked to tell us to get lost. So, instead, he took us to a locals-only part of town where we bought kottu roti - for all of us - from a street vendor to take to his house for a feast.

Less than an hour later we were sitting in Chachim's garden eating dinner. Much of his house is still being built (likely everything but the kitchen area) and has only dirt floor and open holes in the walls awaiting windows. But he has a garden with some palm trees and fruit trees and we hauled every chair he owned out to the yard. Such an interesting experience.

Dawn the next morning found us climbing to the top of the Minhitale. And, of course, we had to get to the TOP.

At one of the temples, we ran into a parade involving a beating drum band, a very long stream of orange cloth as well as much chanting and slow marching around the stupa.  Not sure the significance of any of that, but there was true devotion attached to the pilgrimage.

And my favorite shot from that temple complex...Aptly titled: "Monk resting below elephant statue."

We then moved on to another city, Polonnaruwa, which is chock full of ancient ruins. My favorite: the giant headless statue, mainly because the ground was so hot and you had to take off your shoes and the statue's black toes felt like my toes (burned all the way through).

Plus the fact that you are not allowed to take any photos while backing the statue (so you don't show the decapitated deity any disrespect) is a true repudiation of "the selfie."

Driving through town in a Tuk Tuk, we found lots of kids frolicking in the brackish water of the river to avoid the stifling heat. And whole families washing their clothes and themselves on the river bank

And how about this for unusual? There are tons of wild elephants in this part of the country.  As we drove alone, we saw one hanging out by the river ... and one just waiting for the cars to pass so he could cross the road.

Last scavenge of the day ... climb to the top of the Lion Rock. Because, if you were a king and there was one geological oddity (i.e a giant rock in the middle of a flat plain) wouldn't you also decide to build a palace ON TOP of the rock? Again, back to my theme of "atop is best and most sacred." Imagine hauling every piece of stone up there? 

Much of the palace has been washed away over the 1,600 years, but the entrance to the palace was originally through a giant lion's mouth. Only the lion's paws remain which lets you at least imagine how incredible the whole original structure must have been. 

There are frescoes drawn into the side of the rock in a small cave about half way up. If not actually drawn by a 12 year old boy, they were clearly created by an artist with a 12 year old boy's unrealistic imaginings of the perkiness and roundness of the female breast. Or breast implants were all the rage back then. 

I was so hot by the time we climbed down that I jumped into the hotel pool with all my clothes on.  I got in a 2 minute soak - and reduced my core temperature from health-damaged levels - before the nice security guard asked me to please get out.

Next morning we set out for Nuwara Eliya, a British-styled tea plantation town. A Tuk Tuk ride and 2 buses later... with 6+ hours of inhaling exhaust fumes ... we finally arrived and did a tour of a tea factory.  Guess what?  Automation has reduced the number of workers in the factory from 64 to 5.  Even in Sri Lanka... the robot-reducing-labor phenomena is alive and well. 

We learned that to buy a package of the tea would cost the tea pickers two full day's wages... just wow.

Last scavenge of Nuwara Elijah, to eat "high tea" in the British-styled gardens of the Hill Club (very posh).

Then on to the base of the mountain, Adam's Peak, where we got 4 hours of sleep before getting up at 1:30AM to start climbing.  The scavenge points were for being at the top by dawn. And we were...

We hurried back from Adam's Peak for check-in and found out that our next stop is Cairo, Egypt.  We were there 10 years ago. I wonder how it's changed in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Let's see...

GE 2017: Bangkok with a Bang

When we left Vietnam for Sri Lanka, we had to change flights in Bangkok.  And we ended up with a 9 hour lay-over, So Bill (the event organizer) made us leave the nice, pleasant air conditioned airport and spend a few hours rushing around Bangkok - in the traffic and heat - for points. We got just a "taste" of the city. But what a great idea to not just waste the layover time.

All the teams went running out of the airport in different directions as soon as we landed. Rainey and I started off with Greg and Catherine (The Traveling Bohemians) but - as often happens in crowded cities with Tuk Tuks - we immediately lost them.  Their Tuk Tuk went one way to the temple and ours went another way and we never saw them again for the rest of the day. So annoying.

We started where we had been just last moth on the way to Buthan (we also had just a few hours in Bangkok then): Wat Pho.  We came back for a second blessing.  The Karma shot at the reclining buddha.

Then we jumped into a crowded water taxi to cross the river since at least there was a little breeze on the river and far less traffic.

to the colorful Wat Arun

Bangkok was surface-of-the-sun-hot and by then we had sweated through all of our clothes. Even my toe nails were dripping. So we stopped for a food scavenge and found another team (Jenny and Mark: Thunderstorm) already at the designated cafe.  Gave us a chance to visit with them for a bit in a lovely restaurant right by the river (and we got points doing it... Double Yay). 

Observation:  What do you think the monk on the left has in his briefcase?  Buddha's contracts?

Rankings:  Taking one entire day off the competition - during the Vietnam leg - to visit Ha Long Bay (which was not a scavenge) hurt us badly in the rankings.  We have now dropped to 4th place... but are not yet out of the running.  There are many legs still to come. Stay tuned

Thursday, April 20, 2017

GE 2017: Hello Hanoi and Good Morning Vietnam

We are staying at a beautiful hotel in Hanoi right by the town lake.  Vietnam is busy, busy, busy and crossing a street feels a lot like gambling with your life as the cars and mopeds and bicycles whizz by you - and around you - without even tapping their brakes. I am shocked that I made it through this leg with all toes intact. 

Under the theory that “he who wins the war gets to write the history books” we visited the "Hanoi Hilton," the legendary POW prison where John McCain and scores of other Americans were kept and tortured during the Vietnam War.  It is now a super creepy museum.  The cells and prison barracks are still intact (and mighty unsettling) with statues replicating the prisoners.

There is also two rooms dedicated to the American prisoners with photographs of John McCain “receiving life-saving medical treatment” (which seems to be code for “getting patched up after a particularly brutal interrogation session”) 

And staged propaganda shots of the Americans “celebrating Christmas” and “playing soccer.”  

There is also a completely uncomfortable government public awareness video – made in 1973 right after the American prisoners were released – that proudly explains how the Americans received such great and humane treatment at the prison that they repented, condemned the war and America’s evil actions, and begged the Vietnamese people for forgiveness.  Obviously there were true atrocities on both sides in that war (as in every war) and we were not saints, but the victor’s spin is remarkably disconcerting.

We also went to the Water Puppets show: a stunningly awful theatrical experience with unique cultural flair.  

There are no words… just music with lots of clinking and screechy instruments.  And the puppets are manipulated by puppeteers who stand thigh deep in water behind a screen while they move the puppets on and through the water.  If there is a plot, it flew straight by me.  Although in one scene it did appear that the puppets were planting rice – which grew tall and thick. And there were several scenes with a smoke breathing dragon who seemed to like to dance.  Can’t say I got more than that.  But it is a truly one-of-a-kind cultural event and there were several scenes with dancing girl puppets who waved their arms a lot.

How about a dodgy massage story?  On this leg, we get scavenge points for getting a massage.  Sounds great.  So, when we were walking on a pretty nice street, we saw a lady standing by a sandwich board that announced spa options.  She was in front of an upscale boutique so I thought maybe the spa was in the back of the shop.  

We approached, bartered a price and then she grabs me by the hands and leads Rainey and I down a back alley – turning left at the dead, plucked rooster – and up 4 flights of stairs to a dingy apartment with 2 children in the living room and into a spare bedroom with 2 massage tables.

Granny shows up (who is either 101 or 945 years old) and the two of them proceed to pummel Rainey and me within an inch of our lives.  Actually was a pretty decent massage despite the totally sketchy surroundings.

Late dinner was at KOTO – a restaurant that “does good.”  The name comes from the phrase “Know One, Teach One” and it’s a program where local chefs and restaurant workers volunteer their time at this cafĂ© to train young, at-risk teens in cooking and waitressing etc.  The KOTO restaurant is their classroom and job, all rolled into one.

Day 2 in Hanoi started with sunrise Tai Chi with the old ladies in the park.  Nimble octogenarians and me.

Rainey and I decided today to put the competition on hold for the day and go off and do something that was NOT a scavenge but which has long been on my bucket list: Ha Long Bay. So – for no points – we spent 4 hours (each way) in a bus and then five hours on a boat cruising in the bay. But boy was it worth it. A true DOUBLE WOW.  Ha Long Bay is a series of oddly shaped and sharply pointed islands rising from the water.  It was the setting for one of the final scenes in the James Bond movie "Man with a Golden Gun."

There is a complicated mythology tale about the bay which involves dragons and demons and missing teeth, but in reality, the island were formed when tetonic shifts lifted what had been underwater to above water.  The result is stunning.

Called “The Kiss”, although without any of the gold fleck of Klimt's masterpiece, these two rocks actually don’t touch but, from this angle, do appear to be in an embrace.

Last stop on the cruise was to a huge and very beautiful cave.  Stalagtites and stalagmites and quartz swirls as well as an eerie visual of “sunlight” as the concentrated sun beam filters down to the cave depth.  This cave would give Carlsbad caverns a real run for their money.  It was a truly lovely day.

Last scavenge before check-in:  Taxi driver roulette.  You ask a taxi driver to take you to one of his favorite restaurants where only locals eat... and then you dine there.  Our driver chose a Pho place (thank goodness, as Pho is a noodle based soup where everything is boiled and theoretically can't hurt you). But bonus ... our Pho came with pork stomach.  Yikes !!!

Observation: When Hong Kong upgrades its infrastructure, they put in elevated side-walks where the pedestrians are high above the city so nobody has to cross a street or risk injury in the traffic. That's 21st century city living.

Meanwhile, in Hanoi, this is the power line system.  And, yes, it was a scavenge (worth 20 points) to document some of the more egregious electricity nightmares.  My personal favorite, because it is so clearly a fire waiting to happen:

Rankings: In case anyone cares about the actual competition rankings, at the end of the Hong Kong leg, Rainey and I are in first place. 

Second place is TSA Precheck, a couple from LA in the movie business. We did their peer review, which means we were the team who checked their photos and documentation from Hong Kong to prove they actually did what they claimed.  This is a strong team. They are up early, in bed late and are having a ton of fun along the way.

Third place is the father / daughter Ying team. Alan speaks Mandarin so he had a slight advantage on the Hong Kong leg but they stayed out doing challenges until 2:30AM the first night so they clearly have the stamina for the competition.  And the adventure spirit  ... as Sydney even took on the challenge of finding and riding a water buffalo.

Fourth is the Slo Folks (SLO standing for San Luis Obispo from whence they hail) who still have my bet for winning the whole event as they are steady, consistent competitors. 

And the Traveling Bohemians (Greg and Catherine Cervenka) clocked in at 7th place.

Next country:  We found out tonight – when the Vietnam leg closed - that we leave in the morning  for Sri Lanka with a 7 hour lay-over scavenge leg in a still-unknown country.  We will not learn our first destination until tomorrow morning but we know that we will end up in Sri Lanka late tomorrow night.  


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