Summer 2003: Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part 6: The Finale

The final installment of my eight-week incongruous journey to three very different places. 

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The obligatory photo of the Little Mermaid

From the northern tip of Jutland I then turned back south to Denmark’s second largest town of Aarhus.  On the way there I stopped at a small town to see a Viking fortress located a few kilometers out of town.  I walked the four kilometers out to the ring fortress, stopping at a very interesting recreated Viking village and then back to town.  I would not be visiting the largest Viking ring fortress at Trelleborg, so I was glad to see this one, though it was a little hard to imagine it as a fortress.  Later seeing the layout in museums made it seem more real, but at the time looking at a raised ring of grass with a young man riding a rather loud lawn mower, without a Viking to be seen, it was hard to imagine.

Aarhus is a big college town, students make up approximately 10% of the population.  This makes it really young and lively.  Yet I wasn’t feeling very young or lively when I rolled into town, and I spent my first day locating accommodation, doing email, visiting the tourist office, finding food, and enjoying the main shopping street.  On the second day I joined a bus tour taking in the main sites, such as the Cathedral (the longest in Denmark) and Den Gamle By (the Old Town) for a really good price.  Den Gamle By is a man-made town recreated from a number of old historical buildings from around Denmark moved and restored in Aarhus.  Unfortunately, we had only 40 minutes there, but it was really lovely and reminded me of Colonial Williamsburg with people walking around in historical costumes, including the shoemaker’s wife making pudding for visitors.

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Frederiksborg Castle

I traveled out to the Moesgard Museum, which is full of information about the Iron Age in Denmark, before the Middle Ages and the Vikings.  The center piece of this exhibit is Grauballe Man, a “bog man” recovered from somewhere in Jutland.  The bogs, swampy misty areas, were places of worship and many riches were sacrificed to the bogs to bring good luck.  In addition, it seems people were often sacrificed to the bogs, though they did not go willingly, as they are found with their throats cut or strangled or beaten.  The interesting part is that all of this can be determined easily as the composition of the bogs almost perfectly preserved the people thrown in them.  The skin is tanned to leather and the skin is oxidized to red, but you can see the hair on their heads, and their beards perfectly intact.  Even the pores of their skin are still visible.  While it sounds rather macabre, it was still fascinating.  Only Grauballe Man was on display at the museum, but there were pictures of other bog people who had been found around Denmark.  Amazing that the man died 1700 years ago, and they can tell he was about 30 years old, had fractured a bone in his youth, and his last meal!  Really cool.

From Aarhus I hatched a plan to visit yet another Aquarium.  I learned there was one with a Shark center in Grenaa, in the same county as Aarhus.  I also found out there might be bus from Grenaa to Copenhagen.  Of course, this was the bus the tourist office insisted did not exist.  The Kattegatcentret was really cool, the shark center was amazing.  Unfortunately, I had to leave at 2 PM to catch the last bus back from the Aquarium to meet the possibly non-existent bus to Copenhagen.

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Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle

The bus did exist!  Interestingly the bus was loaded onto a boat, which then crossed the Kattegat from Jutland to Zealand for 75 minutes.  This was so more interesting than taking the train again.  I arrived in Copenhagen at 7 PM, and headed in search of a place to stay.  I found the loud, noisy, crowded City Public Hostel located in the perfect spot and surprisingly a great place to stay for four nights.

Copenhagen at last!  I had only a few days left and so much to see.  After gorgeous sunny weather for 10 days, it turned cold with on again off again rain.  The wind was very strong.  I bought a Copenhagen card, which gives free entry into a number of museums, and discounted entry on others, plus free transport on buses, trains, metro and harbor buses in North Zealand for three days.  In order to get the most of this it meant I had to run around like crazy, riding buses for fun, but it turned out pretty well.

On my first day I headed north to Rosenborg Castle.  Built over three small islands in a lake, the site is simply impressive.  Lucky for me it rained only when I was inside and then became sunny again when I came out.  I took a boat around the lake to get more views of the castle (and because it was free with my Copenhagen Card) and then sprinted to the train station so that I could get to Helsingør.  The tourist office told me there was another train.  Why I continued to believe the Danish tourist offices…the train only went halfway, and then I had a 30-minute wait for the next train out on a cold and windy platform, all by my lonesome.  The whole time muttering under my breath about how I was never going to trust the tourist office again.  Then to Helsingør, the famous Elsinore of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Kronborg Castle, where Shakespeare set his dramatic play, is built on a promontory, the closest piece of land between Denmark and Sweden.  The castle was built with defense purposes in mind, and for the collection of the unpopular government “Sound Dues,” a toll paid by all ships passing from the Baltic to the North Sea.  The weather was just rainy and cool enough to imagine how on a dark night Hamlet’s father’s ghost would have haunted the ramparts.

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View of Copenhagen from the spiral staircase atop the Church of Our Savior

The following day I visited Roskilde, the Viking capital of Denmark, where the Cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site, contains the sarcophagi of 39 Danish Kings and Queens.  From Harold Bluetooth to the parents of the current queen Magarethe II.  Rather awe inspiring.  It was the Viking Ship museum that really interested me though.  Five Viking ships were raised after hundreds of years sunk in the waters of Roskilde Fjord.  Over the course of 10 years the wooden ships were restored and put on display in this amazing museum.  They are also in the process of building one of the war ships using Viking tools with plans to sail it to Dublin.

On my final full day in Copenhagen I ran around to more museums and more castles; the sun was back out again, no more rain clouds in sight.  I also met my friends from Singapore on their first day in Denmark.  Though I was to leave the following day we agreed to meet just one more time before I headed to the airport.  We decided to visit the Carlsberg Brewery for a tour.

This is where I should break in and preface this particular part of the story. First of all, I rarely drink. I am not a complete teetotaler, but I probably average two drinks a year.  Yet, I really enjoy factory tours and, for some reason, especially those associated with alcoholic beverages.  This also happened before I became a diplomat.  Actually, I just cannot bring myself to reveal the full story to all in this forum.  At any rate, it involved a rare drink of alcohol just before heading to the airport, a pocket knife, which I used solely to cut bread, cheese, and vegetables to make sandwiches while staying in hostels, a mistake placing said knife into my carry on instead of checked bag, a burly airport security officer, and a police report.  Every few years I get to discuss it again during my security clearance review.  Sigh.  I have not returned to Denmark since and I would love to do so with my daughter, so I hope enough time has passed so I do not have to spend some extra time explaining this particular tale at immigration. 

This is the end of the account of my Summer of 2003 travel extravaganza.  I really enjoyed re-reading my trip notes, though I regret that I do not have more pictures.  I did more and saw more than I remembered.  I could have seen more had I not been willing to take the slow route, less direct route to and from many places.  I am thoroughly impressed with the dedication I showed to the journey.   I used so many types of transport-planes, buses, trains, boats; I did a fair amount of walking.  This is not how I travel these days.  Not a value judgement, not better or worse, just different.  Always an adventure.

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Summer 2003: Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part 5: To Be or Not to Be

After a month in Turkey and ten days on Borneo, I headed next to Denmark of all places.  Friends of mine from Singapore would be starting a semester-long program as part of their MBA and I arranged to be there around the time of their arrival so we might have a few days in Copenhagen together.  The changes were dramatic – in travel style, costs, the quality of public transport, and local reactions. 

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Egeskov Castle

It turns out that spending two entire weeks only traveling around Denmark is unusual.  Most people I have met are in transit between various European countries and Scandinavia and Denmark is a convenient little country to travel through.  When people ask me, “Where else have you been in Europe?” and I answer “Just Denmark” (it’s difficult to explain the Turkey trip), I get some strange looks.  “JUST DENMARK?” they ask incredulously.  And when they ask “How long?” and I reply “two weeks,” the response is even more shocked.  “TWO WEEKS JUST IN DENMARK???  But it’s so…. small.”

Denmark is a lovely little country.  Until the final few days, when the weather turned a bit arctic, I had perfect weather.  Sunny, warm, beautiful blue skies.  I lucked out to be there during a European heatwave, ensuring I did not have to wear the same sweater and pants the entire two weeks.  Denmark is full of historical sites from the Stone Age to the Viking Age, from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance.  City and town centers are full of beautiful architecture and cobble stone streets.  There are bicycle lanes in the cities and all over the country.  There is also a lot of recycling and the use of alternative-natural means of electricity, evidenced by the many windmills in the countryside.  Also, the handicapped are out and about.  With ramps everywhere, it is one of the best countries I have seen with so much care for the physically handicapped in public places.

It is also very orderly and clean.  The public transport is good, clean, and efficient.  The standard train car made my Indonesian Super Deluxe Executive Coach look like it was some kind of battle ravaged vehicle.  People form lines and stay in them!!  There is no queue jumping or the kind of pushing and shoving I have seen so much of in Asia.  I enjoy seeing the Danes out with their dogs, taking them to the museum, on walking tours, to the supermarket and so on.

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A curved house on a curved cobblestone road, Ribe

Denmark certainly does not pose the same kind of travel challenges as other countries I have been.  For instance, I have not had to run the gauntlet of tea-wooing would-be Lotharios.  Not even a single pass!  There are also no gigantic insects that instill fear in me like the particularly large cockroach, which ensured my last night in Malaysia was a sleepless one.  There are no long overnight bus trips, or bus trips that have me praying to a higher power.  I am not even immediately identifiable as a foreigner.  I have had most people address me in Danish, even come up to me on the street to ask me for directions, thinking I am a local.  I even managed to help somebody!  Denmark is not all that hard to travel around, but it is not without its challenges. The greatest challenge is of course trying to survive on a budget.

But not all is perfect; there are some things rotten in the State of Denmark.  For one I had expected the trains and buses to run on time.  I have only had one train arrive on time.  Then as soon as I got on and got comfortable, it underwent “technical difficulties.”  We waited just long enough so that I missed my connecting train by six minutes.  Tourist offices have seemed to me a little bit inept.  They are helpful, but then give INCOMPLETE information.  Thank you very much for the train and boat schedule to get to the island, but it would have been nice if you noticed the schedule was not good until SEPTEMBER.  Also, thanks for telling me the canal boat stopped at the tourist village so I would walk all the way down there, only to find out it DID NOT.

There are also the store hours.  Kind of drives me crazy that stores shut shop in the middle of Copenhagen at 5:30 in the evening.  Only a few supermarkets might stay open until the wee hour of 8 pm!  For someone from the States where we have 24-hour stores and restaurants, or even from Singapore where shopping reigns supreme, this is extremely hard to become accustomed to.

At any rate I arrived in Denmark at 2:30 PM, seven hours after originally scheduled to arrive.  The flight from Bangkok had been cancelled due to “mechanical failure” and rescheduled for the following morning.  So much for getting to Denmark bright and early.  I managed to get out of immigration relatively quickly and headed directly to the transportation counter.  As I would be meeting friends in Copenhagen at the tail end of the trip, I wanted to head out of the city as soon as possible.  I picked a nice spot on the island of Zealand, Sørø, and headed to the train.

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A Medieval church being swallowed by sand dunes

Sørø is supposed to be a lovely little historical town on the banks of a lake.  I say supposed because although I did indeed go to Sørø, I saw almost nothing of the place.  I arrived at 5:05 PM, just after the tourist office closed.  That did not really matter as I was not in town but at the train station two kilometers away.  I stop to ask a woman for directions so I can walk to town, but she points at a bus and tells me to run for it.  And although I have never met this woman before in my life, when she tells me to run, I do.  The bus took me to town, nowhere near the hostel.  Not sure what to do, I went to the public library.  I checked the hostel contact info and then asked the librarian if there were a public phone nearby.  There wasn’t, but a man at the counter with his daughter said I could borrow his cell phone. Someone at the hostel answers and tells me they have beds available but the buses have stopped running and a taxi costs as much as a bed.  The man asks me what happened, then offers to drive me.

Except the hostel is nearly deserted.  There are a few guests in the kitchen, but no staff to be found.  I leave my bag at the desk and search the place, but nope, nobody.  I have no food and the hostel is in the middle of nowhere.  No restaurants, no gas stations, no market.  A young couple let me use THEIR cell phone to call some B&Bs; they are all full but one.  It turns out to be eight kilometers north of town, while I am now at the deserted hostel eight kilometers south of town.  The couple says they will drive me and even stop off at a petrol station on the way so I can buy some food.  I arrive at the B&B and pay 250 kroner for a very nice room, just out of my budget but I am happy to have a place to stay.  I must have looked hungry because an Italian family also staying there took one look at me and asked if I would like to join them for a homecooked meal.  They shared their pasta, fruit, bread, cake, and ice cream.  For my first day in Denmark I saw nothing my first day but with the kindness of some really amazing strangers managed to have a really wonderful day!

The following day the owner of the B&B dropped me off at the train station on the way to taking her daughter to daycare.  From there I headed to Odense, Denmark’s third largest city.  This time the hostel was located right next to the train station and was staffed!  It was a good hostel and a really nice town, where I spent three days.  First, I explored the town, through the historic center on a guidebook walking tour and then visited the Hans Christian Anderson Museum.  The museum was fabulous, full of information about his life and times.  H.C. Anderson was born in Odense and was told by a fortune teller at a young age that one day the city would light up the streets in his honor.  At the age of 14 he went off to Copenhagen to seek his fortune and ended up writing some of the world’s most famous children’s tales.

On the second day I took a bus south to Egeskov Castle, where I spent nearly four hours.  Had I children I could have spent longer as there are so many things to do there on the grounds.  The castle interior is just a small part of the whole experience.  There is also a maze to get lost and walkways through the trees some 15 meters off the ground.  There was a cool museum full of antique cars and even a bizarre place called Dracula’s crypt, which seemed merely a dark tunnel where people walked through expecting any moment for something to jump out, but nothing does.  It was a fun day.

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Standing where the Baltic and North Seas meet

On the third day I meant to go to the island of Ærø, but due to the incorrect train information from the tourist office that did not happen.  Instead I spent another day in Odense.

My next stop was the small town of Ribe, located in the southern part of Jutland.  Founded around 700 A.D., Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark.  First a Viking town, then a medieval one, Ribe was an important port and market center between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.  The old medieval houses are indicative of Ribe’s prime, when it was one of the largest and most important cities in Denmark.  The town boasts the country’s oldest Cathedral and Scandinavia’s oldest school.  On a fantastic free walking tour with a night watchman dressed in period clothes, I could stop in front of the house of the last woman in the town burned at the stake for witchcraft and also see the town’s smallest house.  In the Middle Ages it was important to build one’s house close to the road and people wanted to maximize their house size as much as possible, and therefore if the road curved, so then did the house.  Thus, there are lovely cobble stone streets closely hugged by crooked little half-timber houses.  Though not very many of these old houses remain, the homes built around 1580 are not all that new either, and the town is full of those too.  A number of disasters, a great fire in 1580 which wiped out 11 blocks or one third of the town, fifty-four years later a massive flood raises water six meters above normal levels, 25 years later the bubonic plague wipes out a third of the population, and the building of another port and the growing importance of the capital at Copenhagen, ended Ribe’s days as a major center of commerce, preserving it as it was at the end of the middle ages.

Then I headed north, to the Northern most part of Denmark, to the unpronounceable  Hjorring.  I stayed there two nights, heading one day to Hirtschalls and another to Skagen.  In Hirtshalls the main thing I wanted to see was an aquarium.  I am really keen on aquariums and had heard this one was good, and I was not disappointed.  The second day I took a bus to Skagen, the northernmost point of Denmark and stood on a promontory where two seas crash together, the Kattegat and the Skagerrak.  It was rather calm that day, but still standing just where they meet, in what was at first very cold water, I could feel the power of the water as they met and mixed at my feet.  And it was such a lovely day, due to the heat wave everyone and their families and dogs were out enjoying the beach and the sun.  I walked along the beach for hours back to the town, stopping at a lighthouse, and then cycling out to a buried church, buried by the shifting sands.  The town too was lovely and historical, and a famous place for artists because of the “light.”  Being the northern most point of Denmark, at 10 in the evening in August it was still light outside and this light reflecting off the sea and the sand has apparently drawn artists to the location for hundreds of years.  All I know is that it was a beautiful little town and I immediately regretted staying only one day.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Four: Borneo Unplanned

My continuing summer 2003 journey found me next flying from Turkey back to Southeast Asia, landing in Brunei to spend 12 days on the island of Borneo.  I honestly cannot remember at all why I opted for this particularly itinerary.  Even by my sometimes strange travel patterns, this one strikes me as odd.  I wrote that I did not know where I would be going or what I would see.  I had a few ideas in my head, but no reservations other than the flights in and out of Brunei.  But lack of plans often leads to the best of travel.  My big regret on this trip is not taking any pictures in that cat museum…

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Happy Birthday to the Bruneian Sultan

Brunei. I arrived first in Brunei, incredibly my second trip to the sultanate.  There was actually a surprising amount going on as it was the Sultan’s birthday and celebrations were in full swing.  There was traffic!  On my previous visit I felt like I could walk down the street of the main road of the capital city and not be concerned for my safety.  This time it seemed people actually live in Brunei.

I only stayed in Brunei a single day so I could visit Jerudong Playground.  The amusement park is the largest and most expensive in Southeast Asia, a gift from the Sultan to the people of Brunei on his 48th birthday.  For many years the park charged no admission fee, but now for the price of 15 Brunei dollars (about US$9) one can go on all the rides unlimited times.  Due to the heat of the day, the park is only open in the late afternoon to evening, from 4 PM to 11 PM.  And it was nearly deserted. There was myself, two other guys from the hostel, and perhaps 10 other people.  We seemed to be the only ones riding the rides.  Two Indian guys just seemed to be taking pictures of themselves in various poses. The few people with children seemed confined to the playground portion. We basically had the park to ourselves. Rather like a childhood dream come true.

Except that one always has in the back of one’s head “Be careful what you wish for.” There were no lines in this amusement park. In fact, the rides were not even running until we stepped up with our tickets and then the ride operator would start it up, and then turn it off as we went away. We went on every ride that we could, sometimes two or three times.  We did the log ride three times so we could each have a chance to sit in the front, the back, and the middle! On a mini rollercoaster, which was not so much scary as a bit rickety, we did not even stop when we came to the loading area, we just rode right through for a second time around.  I said I sincerely hoped that they would not do that on the big scary loop de loop roller coaster on the other side of the park, because I would seriously need a breather between rides there. At least that guy gave us a few minutes before firing it up again. I had to get off while the other guys went for the third time. Two times in a row was plenty fine for me. By the end we were quite bored having done everything in the park in two hours, except the children’s rides, which although we begged to ride, they would not let us.

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Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

The following morning, I woke up at 6:30 AM so I could be packed up and at the bus station for a 7:30 AM bus to Miri in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  Good thing I was there early as the bus left at 7:15. And thus began the crazy bus circus to Miri and the whole day of travel to get to Kuching, because for some reason there was not enough demand for a direct flight between Brunei and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak….Someone suggested I take the bus gauntlet from Brunei to Miri and fly to Kuching. Or to take a bus to a boat to a flight to a flight. Or a flight from Brunei to Sabah to Sarawak. It all sounded incredibly complicated for a place a little over an hour flight away.

I opted for the bus trip to Miri. This bus went for two hours to the town of Seria, where I waited ten minutes before boarding another bus to Kuala Beliat.  From Kuala Beliat I waited 40 minutes before boarding a bus which took us literally five minutes away to a ferry crossing; we took the ferry and boarded another bus on the other side. That bus took us to the Malaysian/Brunei border where we all disembarked and went through immigration, then boarded yet another bus to town.

In Miri, I needed to take a bus to the airport. Some taxi drivers tried to convince me there was no bus coming for HOURS, but upon inspection of the bus schedule I found one arriving in ten minutes.  I arrived at the airport at 2 PM, just 40 minutes before the flight I wanted was to take off.  That plane was to fly from Miri to Bintulu to Sibu to Kuching (my final destination), but it was full.  I then had to take the 5:30 flight. There was very little to do in the brand spanking new Miri International Airport as the restaurant and ATM and coffee shop had yet to open…But luckily the plush chairs for the opening ceremony were still sitting out front in what would be the drop off area for taxis someday, and these chairs had no arm rests, so I could lay out and take a nap….in time to take my flight to Kuching, where I arrived at 6:30 pm. Only to find that now there were no more buses running and I had to take a taxi to town. By the time I got settled in my new hostel, it had taken more than 12 hours to get from Brunei to Kuching, what could have been just over an hour flight…

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This is one very large flower

Kuching.  The capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak means “cat” in Malay, so little wonder that one of the first things I thought to do in Kuching was to go to the Cat Museum a little way out of town.  This has got to be one of the most bizarre collections of cat paraphernalia in the world and not a place for people who do not like cats.  Besides displays of kitschy cat posters and books, displays of Garfield and Hello Kitty, and information on the wild cats of Sarawak, there were also some REALLY interesting exhibits.  Such as the display for veterinary equipment or cat food. (was it really necessary to put cat food into class cases and label it?) There was also an interesting display on “famous” movies about cats such as Disney’s 1979 movie “The Cat from Outer Space.”  What interested me more were the cat horror films such as the movie “Eye of the Cat” (year not given) which had a poster describing the movie as “if you have ailurophobia (the fear of cats) this picture could send you beyond the point of normal fear.” Then there was the 1982 classic “The Cat People.”  My favorite just might have been the 1974 “Night of a Thousand Cats” which had the fascinating plot described as “Alone only a harmless pet…one thousand strong they become a man-eating machine! When the cats are hungry…Run for your lives!”  I cannot figure out why I have not seen that amazing movie! There were displays of cats in history, such as ancient Egypt and different kinds of cat products like the Black Cat cigarette – the 1920s bestselling cigarette in the UK!  Finally, there was a display of famous people who owned and loved cats such as Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Victor Hugo (who had a special armchair made for his cat), Henri Matisse, and Isaac Newton (supposedly the inventor of the cat door!). Ah, the Kuching Cat Museum, a real treat!

I also visited the Sarawak museum, considered one of the best museums in Southeast Asia.  Although half of it was closed, it had some good displays on indigenous tribes.  The downstairs though was full of the flora and fauna to be found in the jungles, which means lots of stuffed animals staring out at me.  It was a bit scary, even the cute animals were scary.  Since they were all stuffed at the turn of the last century (i.e. about 1900) I didn’t know if it was the wear and tear of the stuffed beasts or some kind of technique of early 20th century taxidermists to make even the tamest of jungle animals seem terrifying.  The Chinese Heritage Museum too was equally interesting.  Though neither were quite equal to the Cat Museum.

I really wanted to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center as it is, as far as I know, only one of three in the world.  To get there I decided not to take a tour, but to get there on my own steam.  Good thing too because I did not see a single orangutan!  The others paid 35 Ringgit for their tour, while I paid 2 Ringgit for the bus there, 3 Ringgit back, and 3 Ringgit to get into the park.  What a bargain since I did not see what I went there to see.  Instead I was treated to some very obnoxious children with their more obnoxious parents.  They made so much noise that no orangutan in his/her right mind would appear before our mob.

The next day, though exhausted and a bit deflated from the failed orangutan outing and unsure I wanted to risk a two-hour one-way bus trip to be disappointed again, I headed to Gunung Gading National Park.  The rare Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, was in bloom.  It has a gestation period of nine or ten months, blooms for only five days, then dies.  It smells of rotten meat to attract flies, which transport its pollen.  Sounds delightful, right? Again, I decided to go it on my own rather than take the 80 Ringgit tour.  It cost ½ Ringgit to get to the bus station and then eight Ringgit to take the bus, plus another two Ringgit to get to the park, 20 Ringgit for the guide shared with two people, and five Ringgit to get into the park.  And I saw it!  As it was the last day in bloom, it didn’t smell (probably a good thing).  It felt more like a mushroom than a flower, almost like it wasn’t real, like plastic.  It was very cool.

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Hanging with the kids at the resettlement camp school

Pontianak. From Kuching I took a ten-hour bus to Pontianak, Indonesia to visit some Internally Displaced Persons resettlement villages.  I slept almost the entire bus ride.  Arriving in Pontianak around 7 PM, I first looked for a place to stay.  My first cheapie choice was full, but I found a lovely two star across the street that was having a special promotion.  I had a whole room, tv, air-con, in-suite bath with HOT water, all for US$10!  But I made the mistake of going out.  A guy on motorbike offered to give me a ride for no charge.  Less than a minute later we were stopped by a policeman because I was sans helmet.  The police took the guy’s license.  For some reason the resolution involved us riding out to his Kampung (village) outside of Pontianak to his house (the whole 30-minute ride I had no helmet, the irony). I met his wife, his child, his neighbors.  They offered for me to stay there that evening, but I declined.  I borrowed his wife’s helmet, we rode back to the police station where I paid a fine (10,000 rupiah, a little more than US$1), then he drove me to my original destination two minutes from the police station, by then closed for the night!

I spent much of the next day in Pontianak enjoying my hotel, walking across town to the museum, and checking in at the Internet cafe.  The walk to the museum took longer than expected, especially in the heat, and I was disappointed to find it closed but swarming with junior high school children.  A guard was enticed to open the museum for me while some random guy volunteered to be my guide.  Although some exhibits had English signs, he still insisted on trying to explain them to me in broken English.  The following day I visited one of the resettlement villages outside of Pontianak.  Over the course of my graduate degree I had researched this issue several times and with a contact working with the International Organization for Migration, I was able to organize a visit.  This is a village where internally displaced people from ethnic conflicts in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have been placed, though some of the people have been “displaced” in the village for as long as four years.

Another long bus ride back to Sarawak then a flight found me in Miri wondering about how I spent more time on different forms of transport than any particular place.  I meant to go on a longhouse tour, maybe go to Bako National Park and the Niah Caves, but I didn’t do those things.  And I didn’t see the orangutans.  But I once heard something to the effect that it is good to have in mind an end to a journey, but it is the journey itself that matters in the end.  So much journeying here in Borneo…

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Three: The Turkish Riviera and Ruins

The third installment of my travelogue from the past. 

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In my “treehouse” room at Olympos

I had one day in Olympos.  I took a short trip to the beach.  I had also planned to see the chimera, the eternal flame of legend, but the overnight bus trip did me in.  I was too exhausted and missed the nightly tour.  The following day I departed with a group on a cruise from Olympos to Fethiye along the Turkish Riviera.

The cruise was on a boat with 19 people, 15 guests and 4 crewmembers. Maybe taking a 3 night/4 day cruise doesn’t sound that crazy, but for me, trapped on a boat with a bunch of strangers, potentially extremely annoying strangers, was enough to make me think quite hard about signing up for this adventure.  In addition to my own skittish nature about swimming in large bodies of open water.

From Olympos the tour operators picked us up and drove us some hours away to Myra where we were able to do some shopping and banking before boarding the boat at Adriake harbor.  We then sailed to Pirate Cave where there is a large grotto in the water.  We jumped off the boat and swam to the cave. This was my first real test, swimming in open water in a dark cave without my glasses.  I figured there was safety in numbers and always stayed close to someone else just in case there were a shark, maybe it would bite them first…. The cave was pretty cool and we swam there perhaps 20 minutes.

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The view from Simena Castle

Later we sailed by a sunken city.  It was certainly sunken as we could make very little of it.  And we could not swim there because it is against government rules, so we just slowed down as we passed it.  It was not nearly as impressive as I thought it would be, but I did enjoy the stop at Simena Castle, though I was the only person from the boat with the exception of the Turkish couple to go up the castle. What a shame because there was a fantastic view from the top of the castle ruins.

We sailed on to another cove where we dropped anchor for the evening.  There was expected to be a multi-boat nightclub on the water, but we were the only boat in the area.  I was grateful.  As an introvert, older than most of the other passengers, the thought of a nightclub I could not escape filled me with dread.  When we ended up having our own party on board with CDs that other travelers had brought, much more my speed.

On the second day we had some swimming in the morning at Fishing Bay and then headed to Kas where we had a few hours on land.  It was quite good to be off the boat, but I could swear the internet cafee was rocking back and forth.  Before returning to the boat I hired a guy on a motorbike take me to the Roman theatre ruins.   I bought myself a package of potato chips and a Bounty candy bar to enjoy on the boat, but came to regret that later as the next few hours reminded me of “The Perfect Storm” and I lost my chips and candy bar over the side of the boat…  I was doing real good gulping air and watching the waves till I saw another guy lose his lunch and then well, it was only a matter of seconds.

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The boat anchored at Butterfly Valley

The crew warned us there might be a similar bumpy ride the next morning, but they passed out motion sickness tablets like candy and I had mine all ready for when the engines started the next morning at 5 am.  Popped it in and slept like a baby the entire journey to Butterfly Valley.  We had a bit of a swim before some of us headed into the valley for some hiking. There were only a few butterflies but some amazing views as the narrow valley walls soared above our heads.  I enjoyed the walking, but once we reached an approximately ten-foot-high wall with some dodgy footholds, slick with trickling water, and a really shredded rope, I called it quits.  Everyone else made it up, but for some reason this wall filled me with fear.  I could only imagine being stuck half way up with all these strangers.  So, I stayed down and ate fresh sunflower seeds from a flower the Turkish couple had picked till the others came back.

Next, we arrived in Oludeniz, dropping anchor by a large rock that separates the sea from the lagoon, making quite pleasant swimming waters.  One of the crew scampered up the rock, and jumped off what seemed a really high perch.  Of course, this only spurred Mr. I-Must-Do-Everything-First-and-Best-from-New Zealand to try his luck. I bet he was sorry he did not think of the jump first.  Then the captain of our boat dove off the rock, then another passenger from the boat.  I was starting to itch to go up there too and I dove off the boat and swam over to the rock.  Making my way up the rock without glasses and without shoes (ouch) I found myself up on the rock with what seemed an incredible distance between myself and the water.  I felt really scared; however, it seemed even more difficult to turn around and climb back down.  I jumped off the 12-meter perch screaming the whole way, landing bottom first.  Ouch.  But I was redeemed for not doing the climb earlier that day.

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Gearing up for the jump

Then came the paragliding.  I had planning to do it for some time, and since I had told everyone on the boat I was going to do it, I had to follow through on it.  Oludeniz is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to do this as gliders launch from a huge mountain just by the beach; There is great wind and fantastic views of the beach, the lagoon, islands and mountains and sea beyond.  It is one of the highest jumps in the world.  The jump starts at 6,500 feet high, but after jumping one is literally lifted more, higher and higher until even the jump site seems very far below.  It was terrifying and exhilarating.  Yet, it was the drive up the mountain that was even more frightening.  All the paragliders sat in a covered flatbed truck, with benches on each side.  I sat in the very back, facing the gaping opening.  Initially as we speed up the snaky road up the mountain, it seems alright.  But then there is no tree line, no guard rail, hardly any road wider than the truck to maneuver, and it is dusty and rocky and they are still driving way too fast, and as one looks ahead to the next curve it appears that if we went straight we would just fly off the mountain. I spent the last ten minutes of the truck ride with a white-knuckle grip on the bar of the back of the truck muttering small prayers to any god that might hear me. The woman across from me refused to open her eyes.  I noticed similar praying and death grips around the vehicle. Jumping off the mountain seems like the easiest way down.

The launch pad is a rocky gravel slant ending in nothingness.  We were paired with our jump partner (this is a tandem flight), given gear to dress in, then someone barks some instructions at us:  “When I say run, you run.  Just run as fast as you can.  Do not sit or stop running until I say sit.  Then sit and stop running.  Okay ready?”  Wait, I ask, let me confirm this, I run when you say run, and sit when you say sit? Yes.  Ok.  Then my partner beckons me down the rocky slope to get hooked into the chute.  I beckon him to come further up the slope, I mean, come on, it looks dangerous going so far down the slope, I don’t want to slip down the slope and die before I get my paragliding opportunity!  He beckons to me again.   Ok, I will go down the dangerous slope to get hooked up to my gliding partner, then he yells RUN! and I run as fast as my little legs strapped to a seat and a man can and off we go lifted into the air….

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Oludeniz as viewed from my paragliding adventure

And all I could think was Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  Oh my god it is beautiful.  Oh my god, why am I up here?  Maybe I should go down.  No, it is great.  And for 45 minutes we were airborne and the scenery was amazing and I was ever so glad that I decided to do this.  Although in total, including the terrifying drive, the adventure was but 1 1/2 hours, it was so amazing.  Scary, crazy, and amazing. Then once we all touched down we were taken by boat back to our yacht to have banana and chocolate pancakes delivered by a pancake making boat.  Sweet rewards. More swimming, a nice dinner, and a quiet last evening on the boat.

The final day was uneventful.  More swimming in the morning and a trip to Tarzan Bay where we could swing on a rope to jump in the water, but I only got rope burn after one pathetic Tarzan jump. It was just fun watching Mr. I-Must-Do-Everything-First-and-Best-from-New Zealand try to come up with new Tarzan swing combinations to impress us all.  He failed miserably and it made me rather gleeful.  At 2:30 pm we arrived in Fethiye Harbor and I ran off the boat as fast as I could.  I was glad to leave my companions behind me.

I spent the afternoon and evening in Fethiye, all by myself.  The town is nice enough, though very touristy.  There seemed to be plenty of excursions from the town and it might have been nice to stay a few days, but I had an overnight bus to Selcuk departing at 11 pm.

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At Ephesus

My overnight bus deposited me at the Selcuk bus terminal at 4:45 am.   I went straight to a pension someone had recommended and fell asleep for several hours.  Later I caught a ride to the ruins at Ephesus.  The ancient Greek city is truly amazing, most especially the library and coliseum.  There were probably some other treasures to be seen there, but with the heat and the crowds, I mostly followed the herd, still spending almost two hours there.  I then walked the three kilometers back to Selcuk.

I also went to see the smaller historical sites of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma.  They were in a more ruinous state, but perhaps more romantic for that, still the temple of Apollo at Didyma is amazing. It was never finished, so in a way, one can imagine that one is still in the past, as it was, back in the Greek heyday. The columns were massive and part of the ceiling still exists, though a very small part.  But it was worth the tour, even if just to see that temple.  Kind of sad that I just wrote this brief little part about a major historical site, perhaps one of the best in the world. I have no excuse. They were incredible to see.

I returned to Istanbul for a few more days and then returned to Southeast Asia for the next incongruent part of my summer travel.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Two: Central and Southeast Anatolia

The second installment of my travelogue from the past. 

From Istanbul I took the overnight bus to Cappadocia.  There is apparently a rule in Turkey that a man cannot sit next to a woman he does not know. Given my Istanbul tea and carpet experiences I certainly understood, but I imagine this rule often ends up creating some hilarity as it did with me.  On the bus a man sat down next to me.  When the bus captain noticed he went in search of a suitable candidate to switch with him.  I was the only foreigner on the bus. He found an old woman in the front of the bus, and convinced her, VERY reluctantly to switch with the guy.  As I watched the woman muttering her way towards me with a gait that suggested a walk to the electric chair, I was not feeling so enthusiastic either.  Especially as she reminded me of the witch from Hansel and Gretel and I expected her to want to put me in the cookie oven too, her obvious disgust at having to sit next to me plain as day on her pasty face. Then her daughter, who looked remarkably like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, came back and in a grumpy sort of passion drama dragged her poor mother back to the front of the bus, leaving the seat next to me empty and much confusion as the whole bus keenly observed the unfolding events. No one wanted to sit next to me.

5278870-R1-023-10After much discussion in the front of the bus a young woman with her child came to sit with me.  When I saw them coming, I thought oh good, oh wait, no, not TWO! But yes.  It seems quite common to save money by buying one seat for mother and child, even when the child is 10 years old, as was in this case.  But they turned out to be quiet seat mates. The problem instead were the two women seated behind me, with their two children, probably 5 or 6 years old, on their laps. They complained bitterly about me putting my seat back because they had children and they would be unable to sleep.  As if it is my fault they bought two seats for four people!  So, the kids kicked my chair, I think at the instigation of the mothers, while they pretended to scold them.  But I did not relent. I was boxed in, but no way was I going to sleep at 90 degrees on an overnight bus if I could put my seat back.

My favorite part of Turkey is Cappadocia.  One may find Greek ruins in a number of places, and beautiful beaches crowded with holiday goers are even more aplenty, but Cappadocia, is really a one of a kind place. In all the countries I have been, I have not been anywhere else quite like it.  Some places of the American Midwest might come close to it, but not quite. The Midwest in my mind has hues of red, but Cappadocia is all white and cream and dusty. The bizarre rock formations created over eons by water and wind are not to be found in the American midwest. Top that off with underground Christian cities and cave dwellings and churches and you are starting to realize the wonders of Cappadocia. Smack dab in the middle of Turkey, it seems to rise, or rather fall, from the Earth suddenly from the highway.  First you are looking out a bus window at flat plains and farmland, suddenly there is a volcano in the distance, snow covered, and then the Earth seems to fall into valleys and cliffs and fairy chimneys and desert brush. Then you have reached Cappadocia.

 

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Ballooning over Goreme

Strangely this is all I wrote about Cappadocia, this favorite location.  I stayed in a cave hotel, my room built into the rock face, the floor covered in thick Turkish carpets, a low table for tea.  For the first and last time, I had a small radio with me and I can remember catching BBC World broadcasts in my cozy cave room. I took a tour around the area.  I took my first hot air balloon ride and succumbed to the charms of my hot air balloon pilot, remaining in Cappadocia several extra days with him.  I took tours of the area during the day or walked the town and shopped and hung out with the pilot when his work day finished.  But he wanted to give up traveling, my upcoming return to graduate school, and move to Turkey.  That was not to my liking. 

 

From Cappadocia I joined a three-day tour further east.   We stopped at Maras where Turkey’s famous ice cream originates; it is a sticky hard concoction of heavy goat cream with the consistency of frozen cream cheese, hard enough that it had to be cut with a fork and knife, but soft enough to melt lazily in one’s mouth. And on top was sprinkled shaved green pistachio.  It was delicious and yet there was something I did not quite like about it. I think it might have been how very heavy it was.  Like a rock it lay in my stomach, its overly cold temperature gave me those chilly ice cream headaches down my spine.

We headed to the 7,000-foot-high Mount Nemrut, where the enigmatic stone heads of King Antiochus’ ruined temple dedicated to himself stands.  We stayed in Kahta for the night, waking up at 2:30 am to leave the hotel by 3 am, to arrive at the summit for sunrise.  The sunrise was a small disappointment as it just popped up suddenly from behind the mountains where it had been hiding.  At least the sun did pierce the bitter cold of a mountain morning.  There was little temple left, but its ruinous state made those pieces still relatively intact all the more amazing.  It is indeed a beautiful location, fuzzy brown grass covered hills rolling all around and not much civilization in sight, except for all us tourists crawling all over the mountain. King Antiochus, created a cult of personality around himself, claiming that he was both a descendant of King Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great of Macedonia, thus manufacturing himself a perfect lineage of East and West.  We were also able to see a fantastic stone relief of this king’s father shaking hands with Heracles, at Antiochus’ father’s tomb, over the entrance in beautiful Greek the inscription could still read almost as clear as day. It was amazing.

 

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Sunrise on Mt. Nemrut

It was a whirlwind day with Nemrut mountain and then Ataturk Dam, then on to Sanliurfa, a biblical town, perhaps one of the oldest towns in the world. Historical/ biblical sites are all around the town with the legendary pool of sacred fish perhaps the one with the most draw.  King Nimrod attempted to cast Abraham into a fire but the fire turned to water and the wood to fish. The fish remain, hundreds of them.  They are holy fish, it is said if someone eats them they will be blinded. So, they are fat and happy fish.  Sanliurfa is a place of pilgrimage for many people, especially from Syria and Iran.

Lastly, we visited the bee hive houses of Harran, an ancient commercial center just 16 kilometers north of the Syrian border.  The architectural style of these adobe homes has remained unchanged for about 3,000 years.  The dark brown clay houses with thin chimneys, which lend them the bee hive name, are cool inside, that was especially good since it was broiling outside. There was also a ruined fortress through which some local children guided me and two Turkish sisters. We were supposed to stay for the sunset there, but for some reason the guide made the decision to head back to Urfa early. This was actually only one of many, many changes the guide kept making, and it was actually starting to wear on my nerves.

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The sacred pool of Sanliurfa

My tour guide, old enough to be my father, maybe even a grandfather, took a “special” liking to me. Probably as I was a single woman traveling on my own, but that is a poor excuse for his behavior.   On the first evening when we arrived in Kahta he tells me it would be better if we would share a room. What? I mean, why?  He tells me that the three Turkish sisters and one daughter will have a room, as will the other two Turkish sisters and the Dutch couple, that leaves me, the driver, him, and the Japanese guy. Uh, yeah. So where does this lead me to think that Mr. Guide and I should be sharing a room? I ask him why he doesn’t share with the driver. He says the driver will not be coming with us to Nemrut in the early morning and he doesn’t want to wake him, so he needs his own room.  Uh, right. So why ask me and not the Japanese guy? I tell the guide I just don’t think it is a good idea, I really should have my own room (after all I did pay for it you jerk!). I was really upset by this lack of professionalism and the fact I had two more days with this guy. And no one else on the tour seemed to have noticed these advances.

The second night he asks if I would like to walk to Abraham’s pool with him. I tell him I am tired. He tells me it will take just 10 minutes to get there, maybe 30 minutes total round trip.  I again say I am tired; he insists it is something special to see at night.  I think, “Why should I not see this lovely place at night with the pool backlit and all the families strolling alongside it because of this guy? When will I be in Urfa again?”  I agree to go for a little while.  The pool is lovely in the evening.  The lit arches of the 800-year old Halilur Rahman Mosque reflect in the waters.  But on the way back to the hotel he tries to hold my hand.  Creep! I sort of freeze up and my hand goes limp and cold. He drops my hand, and continues showing me some special things about the city on the way back, a mosque, the special way the balconies are built, but now I don’t care, I only want to get back to the hotel. We should have had a half day to explore Urfa on our own, but we didn’t, because he changed the schedule.

No incidents on the way back to Istanbul, but now I am bristling.  It is a real shame that such a lovely trip had to be ruined because this guy.  Not only the harassment, but he did not stick to the original itinerary so he could rush back and meet another tour group.  Still, I wanted to get back.  I had a 10 pm night bus to Olympos to catch.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part One: The Istanbul Tea-Tour

In the summer of 2003, after completing my MA degree in Singapore and before returning to the second year of my other Master’s program in Monterey, CA, I took off on a seven-week adventure through Turkey and Denmark, with a side excursion to Borneo, because if you are visiting places that are nowhere near each other, why not just throw in another completely random destination? I had initially planned to travel for at least a month in China, but the SARS epidemic and the Singapore government response (required deposit to pay for 10-day quarantine after return from travel to a SARS-affected country), forced me to find another country or countries to visit.  

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View from Galata Tower

Immediately after arriving in Istanbul I was in for a surprise.  A visa on arrival for Americans cost $100.  I did not have that kind of US cash on me, so I had to take out money from an ATM.  The woman at the visa counter told me the charge in Turkish Lira would be 160 million.    In my rather jet-lagged blur state I was like, uh, what?  Did you say 160 million? At the ATM I counted the zeros multiple times as I did not want to take out $1000.  All around me other nationalities are paying $20 and the like.  The upside is I am an instant millionaire.

After this initial shock I have found Istanbul to be really wonderful.  I visited Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and family.  The Harem was perhaps the most interesting.  The location is spectacular, at the edge of the Golden Horn, part of the European side of Istanbul but also on the Bosphorus.  Simply breathtaking.  I also went to see Hagia Sofia; to say it is an architectural wonder does not do it justice.  The Blue Mosque was also on my list.  It stands just across a park from Hagia Sofia, the two buildings facing off against each other, both beautiful.  The Blue Mosque is perhaps most beautiful at night.  I also went across the Golden Horn to the other part of European Istanbul and visited the newer palace of the Sultans, where Kemal Ataturk died in 1937.  Also, a visit to the Galata Tower.  On my second day I did take a one-and-a-half-hour boat trip down the Bosphorus and stayed awake for most of it.  I was having such jet lag and it hit worst at 3 in the afternoon when the trip started. Then the lovely sunshine and I was fighting to keep my eyes open.  But I saw enough to be impressed.  Maybe someday I will move to Istanbul…

5278900-R1-055-26I meant to visit the Grand Bazaar and a hamman (Turkish bath) but I never got to either because each day I had to pass the Carpet Man Gauntlet. Seriously.  I have not met any Turkish women but I have made lots of Turkish male “friends.”

As I stepped out of the Basilica cistern I was approached by a man asking me to visit his travel agency, where I was served apple tea, flattered, and cajoled into looking at tour options.  After I made it out of the travel agency with promises to be back that night to pick up a sample itinerary, I made it only a few steps before being invited into a carpet shop. My first of many. So many.  Here they served me apple tea and then Turkish tea. After more half-hearted carpet sales, flattery, and inappropriate questions I headed out to the palace  As soon as I left the palace and on my way to the Blue Mosque though I was again waylaid. Tea in another shop. An offer for dinner. I hid in a nice place for dinner, but no sooner had left when a guy walking his dog stopped me.  He told me to come with him for some tea.  I said no. He said he just needed a friend and he would be heartbroken if I left on my own. Well, I left.  A second or two later another guy stops me by telling me I dropped some money.  Just kidding he says, but where are you from?  As I hurry away he is calling out something about having tea together…But of course my single status cannot remain for long and I am stopped by Murat (who also sells carpets) and he asks me to, you guessed it, tea, but I tell him I am going to the sound and light show.  Of course, he says he will join me.  I do not argue.  It seems futile.

5278900-R1-045-21The second day was about the same.  I have drunk more tea, seen more carpet shops, and been invited more places than ever before.  At one carpet shop two guys bought me a kebab lunch and a taxi driver gave me a free ride.  He kept driving alongside me as I walked up a hill toward my destination.  I said again and again I would walk.  He asked again and again to drive me.  Eventually I relent and sure enough he drove me to my destination.  I declined to join him for tea.

I would be remiss not to tell the story that I have regaled many of my friends.  The strangest of the carpet store adventures.  Perhaps one of the strangest of my travel tales. It started out normal enough, being asked in to “just look” at some carpets and to sit and have some tea.  I made myself clear – I had no interest in buying a carpet, could not afford one and did not have a home to put one in.  I had a cup of tea and made small talk.  I was invited to the second floor of the carpet shop, where there were even more carpets laid out in piles and on the walls, but there was also a sunlit corner sitting area.  There we sat for yet more tea.  And then, and I have no recollection exactly how this bizarre event came about, I found myself sitting with the store owner massaging a lotion on my face!  It makes me laugh every time I think about it.  I think he said he had some wonderful Turkish moisturizer and would I like to try it?  It smelled like lemon pledge.  I sat for a few seconds, my eyes closed, the sun streaming in, the slow rhythmic circles on my face…when my eyes flew open and I thought, what in the world?!… I stood and hurried down the stairs and out onto the street. 

I feel a little strange writing all of this now.  Two things come to mind – one is a tweet the State Department sent out about safety overseas.  It read: “Not a 10 in the U.S? Then not a 10 overseas.” They caught a lot of flack over it and quickly deleted it.  But it really is so true and something that people traveling overseas should really think about.  When I was traveling in Turkey I was still relatively young, in shape, attractive.  Yet the attention I received was really abnormal.  I was suspicious from the first but entertained some of it because it IS flattering, and also it became very obvious that the only way to avoid a barrage of unwanted attention was to accept the company of one person for a period of time.  The lesser of two evils.  The second thing that comes to mind is while this was perhaps an odd reversal of what may happen to men when traveling and hanging out in particular venues, it was also an extension of how many men feel they are perfectly free to insert themselves into women’s space.  I could not be left alone.  And I accepted at first out of politeness – a courtesy I certainly did not need to extend to any of these strange men – and then out of sheer exhaustion.  I genuinely loved the city of Istanbul.  The history, architecture, culture.  And yet these interactions took up my time and while I took them in stride and found both the humor and the story in it, I wonder how different my trip would have been had I been able to just sightsee without these interruptions? 

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Six: Bicycles in Bagan

My cheap backpacker self liked the idea of an overnight bus because I could make some distance and save on accommodation.  Unfortunately, as my sojourn in Burma continued the quality of the buses declined as did the quality of my sleep.  I arrived in Bagan, one of Southeast Asia’s great historic cities, yet my primary motivation was to take a nap.  To fight my desire for sleep I went in search of a bicycle for rent.

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Balloons over Bagan

I rode off jerkily.  Oh, it was slow going.  It had been ages since I had been on a bicycle.  Old Burmese men smoking cigarettes cycled speedily past me.  Yet after just a few minutes I began to happily enjoy the ride.  Over a small crest the first of the Bagan temples came into sight and it was breathtaking.  I went down a side road toward the temple.  The day was lovely and the sun was high, and against the blue sky the hundreds of brick temples stood out in the dry yellow grass fields.  At the first temple I bought a painting for myself.  Most of the paintings were copies of carvings in the temples or other Buddhist texts, but the one I bought was in the artist’s words “from his own mind.”  Let’s just say, I liked the way he thought.

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Bagan Temple Painting

I met one of the Korean students from the cargo bus – he and his friends are students at a Pusan language university studying Burmese.  He invited me to join them riding and sightseeing.  We rode and visited a few temples together until my lack of sleep catching up with me.  I went into a tourist office to ask for some information, though the men had no idea how to answer my question, they invited me to sit down and have tea with them.  We talked for a while and then I began to ride back Nyang Oo, where I was staying.  The cooling breeze, the mid-afternoon sun and the lovely ride invigorated me so decided to ride down to the ferry point and find out about the ferry to Pyay.  Since I had missed the opportunity to take the boat from Mandalay, I thought I could then take the boat down river to Pyay.  I learned the boat left in two days’ time but the journey would take three days, which sounded rather long.  I would need to buy food, but also a blanket.  I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, and worried about the chill sleeping on the deck. Yet it was December 30 and my intel told me there were no buses south from Bagan until January 6.  I went home to sleep on it. 

I did not sleep well–and thus the decision was made, I would leave Bagan by bus.  The night had been cold and though I had a blanket and wore a lot of clothes, it was not enough.  I had a lie in then spent half the day exploring Bagan on bicycle.  Many of the temples in Bagan cannot be climbed for preservation efforts, but I could climb the largest.  Towards the east there is a lovely view of the river, and to the west a stunning view of the plains filled with other temples, large and small.  I sat there for some time.  I ran into JJ, my friend from Mandalay.  We sat and talked for a while, then watched three hot air balloons float over the ancient city of Bagan. 

dsc_0831It was New Year’s Eve.  JJ and I had dinner and watched a Burmese traditional marionette show.  The puppets are wonderfully crafted and the puppeteer incredibly manipulates the marionettes to appear lifelike.  After dinner and the show, I returned to guesthouse and went to sleep.  I figured it was midnight somewhere in the world. 

The following day I sat out on the bench in front of the hotel waiting for JJ.  I was writing in my journal and watching life go by on the street.  There was a race with most of the runners barefoot.  Then nuns came to collect alms.  I had seen a nun here and there in Burma, but not more than one or two at a time.  There are many, many monks, but not as many nuns.  This time there were perhaps 20 walking single file.  I thought of the differences I had seen between the young monks and young nuns.  The nuns wear pink or orange robes, and shave their heads, but I am told mostly orphan girls become nuns.  Monks on the other hand are not without families.  Families receive lots of merit if their son becomes a novice monk, even if he does it for just a month or two during the school holidays.  I saw monks receiving alms on many occasions and often it was hot, cooked food.  Yet the nuns were receiving uncooked rice.

I spent a day just relaxing with medicine and a book.  Then another day JJ and I arranged a share taxi with two Japanese to visit Mount Popa, about 90 minutes from Bagan.  Mount Popa is something akin to the Mount Olympus of Burma, the supposed home of the country’s nats, the Burmese animist spirits.  Mount Popa reminded me of the monasteries perched on huge limestone rocks in northern Greece.  From afar the temple on Mount Popa seemed inaccessible; the rock stands out from the plains.  To climb one has to remove their shoes and walk up 777 steps.  Once up there I found the temple to be a bit ordinary, not what I would expect of the abode of gods, but the view was quite nice.  It was terribly windy at the top and my ears turned red and my hair blew about me like mad.  I stayed up there only about 30 minutes, though it turned out I was the last of our group to descend.

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Young nuns asking for alms

On the last half day in Bagan, JJ and I hired a horse cart to take us to some of the less accessible ruins.  Off we went to see the ruins.  In my opinion these were the most impressive in Bagan. Maybe because there were fewer tourists and they were off the beaten track, but the carvings on the outside and paintings on the inside of these stupas were more intact than in the others I had seen. They were also on a slight hill which gave a fabulous view of all the temples large and small down to the river.  There was even part of what was a city wall intact along the road, which I had not expected at all.  The last temple we visited was quite large and unlike any of the others as it had been renovated and the grounds landscaped.  It also had a large gold stupa on the top.  It afforded wonderful views of the surrounding temples as well. 

There I am in one of the most historical and cultural sites of Burma and Southeast Asia.   Yet, have only vague memories of the temples and atmosphere.  I know I loved my time in Bagan; riding a bicycle down dusty, dirt pathways, seeing stupas rising out of the plain; hot air balloons picturesquely floating across the sky.  I spent a lot of time thinking, sometimes sitting among the temples, other times in the guesthouse or in restaurants.  But my diary focused on the upcoming new year; my email stories focused on the tedious, though often hilarious (in retrospect) hiccups of traveling – such as the struggles to get a decent shower, a decent night sleep, or to change money.

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Mount Popa

Before setting off on our final Bagan adventure, JJ wanted to exchange traveler’s checks. He was down to only enough money to pay the driver of our horse cart, but without money to pay his hotel bill. There is only one bank in Bagan.  We asked the driver to stop on the way to the ruins, but the driver informed us the bank was closed because of the holiday.  Therefore, after the ruins we planned to head to the city of New Bagan, in hopes they would have an open bank.  In New Bagan we tried first with the employees at an airline office, who offered us no help.  Then to a tourist information center, who reluctantly agree, but at 20% commission.  We found another exchange shop, but they too were closed.  A man at the shop next door said his brother-in-law might exchange the check.  The first man closed up his shop and joined us in the horse cart to direct the driver to his brother-in-law’s shop.  Ten minutes later we arrive and observe a negotiation in Burmese.  The end result though is that they will exchange with only a “small commission” of 25%.  Back at JJ’s guesthouse he tells the manager he cannot pay the bill because the bank is closed.  She says, of course it is open, but only until 2 PM.  The clock reads 1:45 PM (our bus to Pyay is to pick us up at 3 PM).   The manager tells JJ her friend will drive us to the bank– we drive like maniacs through the crowded streets, horn blowing, to the bank.  But it IS closed.  The driver parks anyway and honks the horn.  Turns out the bank manager lives in the house behind the bank.  He comes out and there is much discussion, but the manager refuses the change the traveler’s checks.  JJ is still without money.  But there is still a happy ending to the story.  A friend of JJ’s guesthouse manager is a long-distance taxi driver from Rangoon.  He agrees to loan JJ 75 FECs to pay his hotel bill and other expenses until he arrives in Rangoon.  The taxi driver hangs on to the unsigned traveler checks.  JJ will meet him in Rangoon, exchange the checks, and pay the man back. Only in Burma.